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Built on Pitching, This Reds Team Has the Ability to Contend

By Bill Peterson · April 8th, 2009 · Sports

The baseball season began April 6 to a less acidic chorus than the Reds usually deserve. Unlike the last several years, we don’t know what to expect, so we really can’t complain. That’s good news.

Now and then this spring, the Reds have been listed among “sleeper” teams that could jump up from the pack and cause a disturbance in the wild card race. At the very least, the Reds might be as good as “first division” material in the National League’s Central Division, which means they still don’t have to be near as good as the Chicago Cubs but they could nose past Houston, St. Louis and Milwaukee.

The Reds are a young, talented club with big upside in a couple years. They’re the envy of many clubs for their young pitching, which could become dominating. They have a couple of young, left-handed hitters to replace the old ones they let go. They’ve been getting younger for a while now, and if getting younger means getting better they might start getting better soon.

That could mean anything. The game is about adjustments for people like Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto. All are basically second-year guys coming off impressive rookie seasons. They might be better than last year because they have experience, or they might diminish some in the short term because they don’t have enough experience.

A baseball player starts in the low minor leagues, proves himself there, then goes up to the next level. Once he reaches the major leagues, there is no next level.

But the major leagues are always changing, so major leaguers always have to adjust to the game as it adjusts to them. That part of it begins now for the players on whom the Reds have staked their next contender.

Any combination of outcomes remains possible. If the kids all catch fire, the Reds could neck into the playoffs. If they all struggle, Pittsburgh might even be too much.

But there’s upside this year, and upside hasn’t been a frequent visitor to Great American Ball Park, the one that opened in 2003 to a mid-summer front office purge and player fire sale. That was the moment when this club was born, even if it was to be raised by two owners, three general managers and four managers: Dave Miley, Pete Mackanin, Jerry Narron and Dusty Baker.

Somehow or other, this jigsaw puzzle is supposed to end up looking like the Eiffel Tower, and it’s because those owners, general managers and managers all generally agreed that this organization needs to build from within, basing itself on speed, pitching and defense. Jim Bowden understood development to some degree, but his understanding ended with hitters and he whiffed on pitchers.

Making pitchers is harder than making hitters because pitchers are fickle and fragile. That means an organization has to put up with a lot of waste if it’s to develop pitchers.

The Reds have made their share of waste in pursuit of pitching, which is why they might finally have dug up enough to really test National League opposition. Reds general managers Dan O’Brien, Wayne Krivsky and even short-timing Brad Kuhlman took their losses for the sake of pitching, knowing that it’s worth the price.

And look at this staff now. Bronson Arroyo and Volquez came through Krivsky, Cueto’s signing and development go back to O’Brien and Aaron Harang goes all the way back to Kuhlman.

The Reds are a draft of a baseball club without a writer. Walt Jocketty is the man charged with editing this organization, which also, through all the general managers, has won some praise for stocking the farm system. So far, one can’t argue with his edits.

Dealing Junior Griffey and Adam Dunn, whatever their merits, really cleaned the slate. Willy Taveras doesn’t solve the needs for a leadoff man and center fielder, but he catches the ball. Ramon Hernandez isn’t at the top of the catchers in big league baseball, but if he’s your guy you’re not desperate to upgrade.

The Reds should be just a little tighter defensively, especially with Alex Gonzalez back to play shortstop. Between Gonzalez, Taveras and Hernandez, the Reds should be much more solid up the middle. Defense up the middle won’t win the pennant, but you can’t win the pennant without it.

Unlike Reds outfits of recent years, this year’s club doesn’t shape up as a bad club. It shapes up as a young club, which means it could lose as much as a bad club but not nearly with so little hope.

But we also can hope to see winning, and that’s what makes this different than any other year since, probably, 2000. The Reds hoped to win big in 2000, since they brought in Griffey to lift a team that barely missed a year earlier. But that club had too many of the wrong kind of veteran dynamics, and the organization started over again at the All-Star break.

The next target was the opening of Great American Ball Park in 2003, but Bowden couldn’t assemble a pitching staff. Once it became achingly clear that the Reds couldn’t grow pitchers, which is required for a small-market club, they changed direction and started their way around a long corner.

So it comes now to this, Version I of the latest rebuilding project, the Reds’ third in a dozen years, and the slate for this club hasn’t been this clean in at least 25 years. All the lightning rods are gone except Dusty Baker, and whoever manages is a lightning rod anyway.

Unlike any Reds club in generations, this one is built on its starting rotation. The Opening Day result signaled the difference, if all goes well.

The Reds lost 2-1 in a tightly played game dictated by the pitcher for each side. The Reds couldn’t solve New York Mets starter Johan Santana, and the Mets’ new bullpen back end of J.J. Putz and Francisco Rodriguez can shut down anyone.

But as well as the Mets pitched, the Reds were still in the game. They went to their last swing with a chance to win after they managed only three hits.

The Reds didn’t win, but they played that whole game with a chance to win. That’s the difference pitching makes. The Reds, plural, have cultivated that difference for more than five years.

This season, these new Reds truly make their debut. So far, no complaints. But it’s early, you know.

CONTACT BILL PETERSON: letters@citybeat.com



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