Thursday, May 11, 2000

Strategy relies on bullpen

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Let's get real. Let's start with the premise that the Reds are not going to trade Deion Sanders for Pedro Martinez. Let's accept that front-line pitching is scarce, pricey and nowhere to be found in the Cincinnati farm system.

        Let's face facts and dispense with fantasy.

        If the home team is to contend for postseason play, it will probably be with the help already at hand. General manager Jim Bowden may have another blockbuster deal in him, but he will be hard-pressed to acquire a meaningful arm without plundering his still-shallow minor-league talent pool.

        Surplus pitching is an oxymoron, like spare change or rap music. It simply doesn't exist. Those who thought the Reds might pry Ramiro Mendoza loose from the New York Yankees neglected to examine the birth certificates of Roger Clemens and David Cone. Despite their record and their rings, the Yankees have no starters to spare.

        Those clubs with adequate pitching are inclined to hoard it. This doesn't mean Bowden should abandon hope that Mike Mussina or Brad Radke or David Wells will land in his lap around the trading deadline, but the Reds should probably proceed as if the cavalry isn't coming.

Not so bad
        The good news is that those charged with holding the fort are not yet reduced to panic, even in the absence of Pete Harnisch. Bowden, he of the hyperactive trigger finger, is not so impetuous that he has lost sight of the long-term plan. Manager Jack McKeon, he of the one-year contract, is not so threatened by Ken Griffey Sr. that he has lost his perspective on the big picture.

        Not that we haven't wondered about the commitment to 2003 from time to time. When news circulated that Ty Howington had thrown Tuesday at Cinergy Field, every eyebrow was arched. Howington is still just 19 years old, still only a Class A pitcher, and the Reds have too much invested in his left arm to rush him to the majors as a short-term fix.

        While Bowden has a weakness for the grandstand gesture, all parties insist Howington's appearance was designed more for the purposes of inspection than audition. His immediate future is with the Dayton Dragons. So help me, Rob Bell.

What a relief
        Speculation persists that the Reds may wind up robbing their relief corp to truss up their starting rotation — Scott Williamson and Dennys Reyes being the usual suspects — but Bowden and McKeon continue to see this scenario as short-sighted. They prefer to keep their bullpen intact.

        Their approach emphasizes late-inning proficiency over starting pitching. The secret to the modern game is exploiting the mediocrity that passes for middle relief. The secret of the Reds' success is seamless transitions among reliable relievers: Reyes, Williamson, Scott Sullivan and Danny Graves.

        Most teams attempt to bridge the gap between their starters and their closer with pontoon pitching — temporary major-leaguers prone to fits of wildness interspersed with straight fastballs. This is a formula for failure. McKeon, by contrast, can call on his bullpen with confidence, early and often.

        When Steve Parris and Ron Villone breeze through the early innings, as they have the last two nights, the Reds' strategy seems brilliant. Only when the starter gets strafed does bullpen depth become a wasted resource.

        A good start does not guarantee a strong finish. A strong finish, however, can make a mediocre start look pretty good.

        E-mail Tim Sullivan at