Thursday, August 24, 2000

Focus must stay building for future




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        John Allen doesn't want you to get the wrong idea. Just because the Cincinnati Reds have spent $27 million keeping a 36-year-old shortstop and so far have failed to sign their top three draft choices does not mean the future has been forsaken in favor of the feel-good.

        The two situations are unrelated, says the Reds' chief operating officer. The long-term plan, Allen contends, is still intact. Signing Barry Larkin, he says, does not preclude the Reds from fortifying their farm system. It only looks that way.

        “There's so much more to it than the three draft choices when we're talking player development,” Allen said. “You can't deviate from that game plan, and we haven't.”

        This was nice to know,
for some of us have been picking up nothing but mixed signals on the Reds' frequency this season. The grand design is supposed to be directed at a new stadium and 2003, but the changing composition of the clubhouse has variously suggested a big push, a sudden surrender, a youth movement and a nostalgia tour.
       

Mixed signals

               Individually, many of the moves make sense. Collectively, the pattern is sometimes incoherent. One day the Reds are dumping Denny Neagle to bolster the farm system. Another day, the Reds are trading a pitching prospect for Brian Hunter, a retread outfielder with no apparent role. One management source, reflecting on the Reds' direction Wednesday afternoon, wondered if the team will be any better in 2003 than it is now.

        “I thought last year we were headed in the right direction,” the source said. “But we got greedy.”

        Some of management's frustration owes to owner Carl Lindner's decision to keep Larkin at a high price over the objections of those charged with meeting his budget. If Larkin's salary does not prevent the Reds from signing their top draft choices, neither does it make it any easier to truss up the starting pitching this winter. Until Lindner embraces deficit spending, the Reds must beware of such pointless projects as Norm Charlton and Deion Sanders.
       

Money for system

               Still, fairness demands a full accounting, and the Reds are allocating their resources with much clearer vision now than they did during the myopic Marge Schott administration.

        Allen said the Reds will spend between $11.5 million and $12 million this year on player development. This is roughly three times as much as the club devoted to its talent infrastructure in 1996. Four years ago, the Reds' commitment to Latin America consisted largely of desperate pleas for an international draft. Today, the Reds have reestablished a presence in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.

        Ultimately, the modest amount the Reds invest in the Caribbean — perhaps $1 million annually — should produce many more players per dollar than the June draft. Given the length of Larkin's contract and baseball's changing demographics, the Reds' next shortstop is as likely to be some shoeless kid from San Pedro de Macoris as it is David Espinosa, the unsigned first-round selection.

        Does that make Espinosa expendable? Of course not. You can't build a first-rate ballclub with second-tier talent. You shouldn't skimp on potential superstars. The Reds need to get their top prospects signed to show us they're serious and prove their priorities are in the right order.

        Otherwise, we might get the wrong idea.

        Email Tim Sullivan at tsullivan@enquirer.com.