Saturday, February 19, 2000

Reds set pace in arms race




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        SARASOTA, Fla. — The Cincinnati Reds are not holding open auditions. It only looks that way.

        Not since David O. Selznick scoured the globe in search of Scarlett O'Hara has a casting call produced as much commotion as Jim Bowden's latest call to arms. Thirty-six pitchers showed up Friday for the first day of spring training at 12th Street and Tuttle Avenue, and No.37 is expected as soon as Willis Roberts resolves his visa problems.

        If there is strength in numbers, the Reds ought to win the World Series by acclamation. If there can be a point of diminishing returns with pitching, the Reds may have passed it.

        “I don't know if we'll be able to give everybody as much work as you'd like,” Reds manager Jack McKeon said. “It's going to be tough getting some guys three innings. Hopefully, we'll make an early cut.”

        McKeon is eager to trim his camp to a more manageable number to ensure that the experienced players he is counting on get the work they require. He has nine veteran pitchers returning, no more than two roster spots available for newcomers, and not much confidence in the idea of throwing things against the wall to see what sticks.

A legitimate shot
        When every Reds executive on the premises stopped to study Adrian Burnside Friday, McKeon wondered if the kid already had been elected to the Hall of Fame. Major-league managers generally regard Class-A pitchers with roughly the same enthusiasm as prostate exams.

        Because Burnside throws left-handed and has registered in the mid-90s on the radar guns, his shot at the big club is legitimate. Because he was obtained through the Rule Five draft, Burnside can be reclaimed by the Los Angeles Dodgers if the Reds do not keep him all season.

        “I thought he was trying to overthrow today,” pitching coach Don Gullett said. “I think he was trying to throw too hard to impress people.”

        Eight months ago, the Australian pitcher impressed no one. Reds reports dismissed him with the designation “NP,” meaning No Prospect. His fastball topped out in the mid-80s and tended to hang high in the strike zone. His career was teetering on the edge of oblivion.

        “I had to do something different,” Burnside said Friday. “Or I wouldn't be here.”

        Encouraged by Dodgers coaches to heed Kevin Brown's example, Burnside dropped his arm angle from over the top to semi-sidearm, gaining greater velocity and more movement and attracting scouts. He traded in an uncooperative curveball for a more manageable slider and became a commodity.

        “I got a call from (scout) Ross Sapp,” said Brad Kullman, the Reds' director of baseball administration. “He said he wanted to change his scouting report on Burnside. I told him, "Don't change it. Write a new one.'”

Didn't hurt he was lefty
        Armed with Sapp's upgraded opinion, the Reds studied Burnside in the California Fall League and came away intrigued. He was a fourth-year player who had not reached his team's 40-man roster and was therefore available for $50,000 through the Rule Five draft. Kullman's computer analysis of Rule Five prospects and the hand-written rankings of Reds scouting director DeJon Watson both identified Burnside as the top player.

        It didn't hurt that he was left-handed.

        “In the minor leagues, we tell our pitchers, "You need three pitches to pitch in the big leagues,'” said Doc Rodgers, the Reds' assistant general manager. “But a lefty only needs two pitches to be an effective starter, and a left-handed reliever has only got to do one thing — get left-handed hitters out. If you can do that, you'll have a job until your arm falls off.”

        The Reds have 14 left-handers in camp (not counting the left-handed personality of right-hander Pete Harnisch). Most of these men have no real shot to make the ballclub. Some of the 37 pitchers are simply in the way.

        “I've never seen so many left-handers,” said Eddie Taubensee, the Reds' regular catcher.

        Asked if anyone had caught his eye, Taubensee identified Adrian Burnside: “The kid from Australia. He has a live arm.”

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your e-mail at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

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