By Albert Chen, SI.com
Player I Saw Whom I Really Liked Austin Kearns, RF. "I'm going to dominate this year," boasts the 24-year-old. But Kearns isn't talking about the upcoming season. He's trash-talking about the video game Madden NFL 2005 -- the pastime of choice in the Reds' clubhouse -- and how he expects to defend his title as the team's Madden king. ("It's pretty fun just embarrassing [Ken Griffey] Jr. when we play," he says. "He tries, though. At least he tries.") The gifted outfielder, however, very well could have been talking about baseball. Kearns made a big splash when he broke into the majors in 2002 and hit .313 with 13 homers in 372 at-bats, but he hasn't completed a full season since. Last year, Kearns was hurt in late April when an errant pitch broke his forearm and, after returning in May, thumb surgery sidelined him for most of June, July and August. This spring Kearns is at full health and looks terrific -- he ripped a Hideo Nomo pitch for his second homer of the spring last Saturday. "Last season was a true lost season for Austin," says Reds G.M. Dan O'Brien. "We were hoping for big things from him. He looks great right now, and we expect him to have a very productive year." Says first baseman Sean Casey: "Has everyone forgotten about him and how special of a player he is? He's going to be huge for us this year." Kearns' strength is tremendous bat speed and his ability to hit to all fields, but he's also got serious pop. "He's a .300 hitter but he's got 30-home run potential, no question," says Casey.
Team's biggest strengths
Middle of the order. If Griffey and Kearns stay healthy, with slugger Adam Dunn, few teams in the league have a more formidable lineup. "They can play with anyone," says St. Louis reliever Ray King. "Last year they were just hit with a lot of injuries, but they're a really dangerous team." Says Pirates skipper Lloyd McClendon, "They've got some real hitters over there. If their pitching catches up to their offense, watch out." New third baseman Joe Randa is a good addition because he's a contact hitter in a lineup full of big free swingers. "We needed someone like that in this kind of lineup," says O'Brien.
Team's biggest weakness
Bullpen. "It was a bit of a mess," O'Brien says. Closer Danny Graves was effective, but the relievers still ranked 15th in the NL with a 5.19 ERA. The team hopes that free-agent signees David Weathers (one year, $1.35 million) and Kent Mercker (two years, $2.6 million) will improve the bullpen. The starting rotation also was a mess in 2004, but the Reds think it's improved with the additions of Eric Milton and Ramon Ortiz. While the signing of Milton made the biggest splash this winter, Ortiz could have the most impact on the team: The righty was terrific for the Angels in their 2002 championship run, going 15-9 with a 3.77 ERA and 162 strikeouts in 217 1/3 innings. Since then he's been a wreck: He had a 5.20 ERA in 32 starts in 2003, and last year he posted a 5.47 ERA in 14 starts and was demoted to the bullpen. "He's going to be a key in our rotation," says O'Brien. "We just want him to go back to his normal self. And we certainly think that's possible."
O'Brien held a staff meeting last August as the Reds' season went from feel-good (they were in first place as late as mid-June) to clunker (20 games out by mid-August) faster than you can say Wily Mo Pena. The meeting lasted more than two hours and by the end of it the organization had drawn up a list of priorities for the offseason. They were: 1) Re-sign Paul Wilson; 2) completely overhaul the bullpen; 3) come to a conclusion on the third base situation; 4) add arms to the starting rotation. Just a few weeks into the offseason Casey met up for dinner with manager Dave Miley and O'Brien at Cincy's popular rib joint, the Montgomery Inn, and the three talked about the future of the Reds. "They told me that there was a good chance we'd have a lot of money to spend this winter on free agents," Casey says. "I didn't believe them." The Reds' winter was a success: Wilson re-signed; the team added Weathers and Mercker to the 'pen; Randa signed with Cincinnati, giving the team a steady presence at third base; and the additions of Ortiz and Milton anchor the rotation -- and the team's payroll is up $17 million. "This is the most excited I've ever been for this team," Casey says. ... Seen in the Reds parking lot: Griffey's new limited-edition black Porsche Carrera. A few parking spots down was Graves' red Ferrari. ... Hang out in the Reds clubhouse and one thing is clear: Griffey is one of the guys. There's nothing he enjoys more than joking with his teammates -- his closest pals are Kearns and Dunn -- and each morning upon arriving at the Reds clubhouse, he always shouts out: "Where are we going for dinner tonight?" Says Kearns, "He's really invested in his family, but he still is just one of the guys here. He just likes to have fun as much as anyone else."