Sunday, April 02, 2000

Pitching-weak Reds won't win or place




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Reds are a rocket ship with faulty wiring. They are a bulldozer with bad brakes. They are a runaway locomotive on a steep, twisting grade.

        They are a big, red run-producing machine: an explosive offense and a combustible pitching staff. They figure to be lots of fun and loads of frustration — the most exciting third-place ballclub in baseball.

        Despite the general giddiness over Ken Griffey Jr., the home team has not improved a sub-standard starting rotation since New York's Al Leiter reiterated the primacy of pitching Oct. 4. Juan Guzman is gone, and his spot has been taken by a kid who has never pitched above Double-A.

        Jack McKeon's lineup is the envy of the National League. His starting staff is one bad elbow from oblivion.

        Pete Harnisch returns after rejecting doctors' advice to undergo shoulder surgery. Denny Neagle spent spring training getting pounded like a pinata. Ron Villone and Steve Parris are a couple of retreads coming off career years. Rob Bell is being rushed, because no one else is ready.

        Lesser teams have won titles. Bullpen depth mitigates some of the Reds' starting shortage, and Jim Bowden may yet acquire a reassuring arm. But if pitching is 80 percent of the game, and the Reds don't find more of it, the odds are against another Reds October.

Fun, with frustration
        It says here that the enhanced St. Louis Cardinals will win the National League's Central Division, with the defending champion Houston Astros in hot pursuit. Unless Bowden can find the dollars for another blockbuster deal — prying Mike Mussina away from Baltimore or David Wells from Toronto — the Reds figure to set franchise records for home runs, home attendance and 7-6 losses.

        Ken Griffey Jr. can cover only so much ground. Pokey Reese can catch only so many laser beams. Barry Larkin's knees will be 36 years old this month, which is 72 in AstroTurf years. The Reds' defense should be dazzling up the middle, but it is highly suspect at the corner positions and it is helpless against the home run. Flanked by Dante Bichette and Dmitri Young, Griffey is like a gazelle between goats. Happily, all of them can hit.

        The 1999 Reds scored more runs than any other team in club history — including the Big Red Machine — and the 2000 bunch should be better. Last year, Griffey and Bichette totaled 412 runs produced (runs scored, plus RBI, minus home runs), compared to 315 by Mike Cameron and Greg Vaughn. That's an extra run four nights a week. That's a quantum leap.

        If Bichette's numbers were inflated by Colorado's Coors Field, his ability to make contact is not a product of altitude. Bichette doesn't take as many called third strikes as either Cameron or Vaughn, and he'll drive in more runs with sacrifice flies. He doesn't have to hit the ball out of the park to be useful.

A heckuva 3rd-place team
        Griffey, meanwhile, is capable of anything. There's no home run record beyond his reach. There are few fly balls beyond his range. There's no telling how much his presence will transform this team. His glove can erase dozens of doubles. His bat speed is a gift from the gods. His being should imbue every Red with confidence and every Reds fan with faith.

        If only he could pitch.

        Slugging sells tickets, but it is pitching that wins pennants. The 1931 New York Yankees had six Hall of Famers among their eight every-day players, scored a record 1,067 runs and finished 131/2 games behind the Philadelphia A's. The 1956 Reds hit a then-unprecedented 221 homers and finished third. Great hitting can camouflage mediocre pitching against most teams, but it is poor compensation when it really counts.

        St.Louis has so much starting pitching this spring that the Cardinals came to see 18-game winner Kent Bottenfield as surplus. Houston traded Mike Hampton but remains relatively pitching-rich.

        The Reds are about offense. They should be exciting. They may be exasperating.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at tsullivan@enquirer.com

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