Sunday, January 23, 2000

Deion not worth hype




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Deion Sanders is a leadoff hitter with a curious inability to get on base. He plays the outfield with superior speed and inferior instincts. His throwing arm rivals that of the Venus de Milo.

        He is much ado about not much.

        If Sanders makes the Cincinnati Reds this spring, two years after his last at-bat, it probably would be as a glorified pinch runner. Football's “Prime Time” cornerback is a “Pine Time” player on a contending baseball team.

        Which begs this question: What's the point?

        Does anyone believe Deion Sanders can be content as a spare outfielder, that his acute need for attention can be sated in a subordinate role? Does anyone believe this human hype machine can slip into Sarasota and the circus won't follow, or that he can be cost-efficient as a bench player?

        “Ask me those questions on Opening Day,” Reds General Manager Jim Bowden said.

        Bowden has a weakness for reclamation projects and a budget that forces him to take flyers on fringe players. He has always been enamored of Sanders' raw talent, and he is infatuated with the idea of stockpiling players who cost him nothing.

        If Sanders is finished as a baseball player, the Reds can cut him without incurring any salary obligations. If he still retains some spark, he's a bonus outfielder the Reds can use in trade or as depth in the event Bowden wants to deal someone else.

        BEST-CASE SCENARIO: Sanders so intrigues the Seattle Mariners that he enables the Reds to complete the Ken Griffey Jr. trade without sacrificing Sean Casey, Pokey Reese or common sense.

        SECOND BEST-CASE SCENARIO: Having Sanders as a fallback flychaser gives Bowden the flexibility to include an extra outfielder in the Griffey deal and thereby preserve more of his slender pitching resources. Sanders learns to work the count more carefully and to react more quickly to fly balls in flight. He makes himself useful.

        WORST-CASE SCENARIO: Sanders stinks up Sarasota, taking up space and depriving more deserving players of spring training plate appearances. He is gone by Opening Day. PROBABLE SCENARIO: There is no Griffey deal. There is no room for Sanders on the Reds' major-league roster. He starts the season at Triple-A Louisville, professes his long-term commitment to baseball and continues to negotiate with the Dallas Cowboys.

        Sanders signed a five-year, $51.5 million contract with the Cowboys last year, but that contract is not guaranteed and has less chance of being honored than a Get Out Of Jail Free card at San Quen tin. Dallas owner Jerry Jones has severe salary-cap problems and no inclination to pay Sanders' $10.5 million salary next season. The Cowboys have until June 3 to strike a new deal with their celebrated cornerback or release him.

        On the surface, the baseball option — or at least the appearance of a baseball option — would seem to give Sanders a little more leverage at the Cowboys' bargaining table. Yet at the age of 32, having lost time to injuries in five straight seasons, Sanders has to know his football future is finite and his baseball window of opportunity may soon slam shut.

        If he is to make his mark on baseball — other than infuriating Carlton Fisk — it probably needs to be now.

        BOTTOM LINE: This may be a risk worth running.

        Not everyone in the Reds' hierarchy is on board the Good Ship Deion. Not everyone in the front office believes “Pine Time” is worth the aggravation for a team that plans to compete for a pennant. At least one club executive dismisses the signing as a “publicity stunt.” Reds manager Jack McKeon, asked Friday where Sanders might fit on his ballclub, replied, “I don't know.”

        “He does have some tools,” McKeon said. “There's no question about it. If the guy had ever dedicated himself to baseball, he probably would be a hell of a player.

        “I like him because he does have good work habits and he's a lot of fun. He gives you speed. He can catch the ball. The question is how much has he lost by being out two years.”

        Sanders' baseball layoff will number nearly 900 days when he reports to spring training next month. Even if he has lost none of his skills, he wouldn't figure to reclaim center field from Mike Cameron (much less Griffey).

        He won't budge Dante Bichette from right field except, perhaps, for some late-inning defense. Since Dmitri Young and Michael Tucker form a productive platoon in left, Sanders will be hard-pressed to overcome Alex Ochoa for the fifth outfield spot.

        “I don't know if he can make our team,” Bowden said Friday. “We've got five pretty good outfielders.”

        Trader Jim was happy to report, however, that he already had received a call from a National League power in search of additional outfielders. If Sanders does nothing else, he gives Bowden another body with which to barter.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

       



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