Paul Wilson went 11–6 in 29 starts last season, but that record could’ve been much better had the bullpen not blown saves in six of those starts.
On the flip side
By all accounts Adam Dunn had a career year in 2004. Not only did the powerful Reds left fielder set career highs with 46 home runs and 102 RBIs, but he also broke Bobby Bonds’ single-season strikeout record and joined Nick Esasky (1989) and Chili Davis (1993) as the only players to drive in 100 runs without a sacrifice fly.
Off the bench
Six Reds players — Austin Kearns, Juan Castro, Wily Mo Pena, Jacob Cruz, Brandon Larson and Barry Larkin — came off the bench and produced pinch-hit home runs last season. Only Pena did it more than once.
In his first spring training as Reds’ hitting coach, Chris Chambliss reintroduced pepper into players’ routines as a way to teach bat control and enhance reaction skills. The team’s batting averaged improved from .245 in 2003 to .250 in 2004.
Black and blue
As if catching weren’t punishing enough, Jason LaRue set a club record by being hit by a pitch 24 times last season. In 2003, he tied Frank Robinson’s record of 20 set in 1956.
Farewell to the ol’ lefthander
The Reds’ season-ending game against the Pirates on Oct. 3, 2004, concluded Joe Nuxhall’s 38-year run as one of the team’s primary radio announcers on flagship station WLW. Steve Stewart takes over on a full-time basis this season, joining Hall of Famer Marty Brennaman. Nuxhall will still work a handful of games this season.
Based on a Zagat Survey released in May 2004, Great American Ball Park rated as one of the best ballparks in America to visit, trailing only SBC Park in San Francisco and SAFECO Field in Seattle.
Cincinnati’s four consecutive losing seasons are the most for this franchise since the club posted consecutive losing campaigns from 1945-55.
Barry, Barry good
The last time the Reds opened a season without former captain Barry Larkin at shortstop was in 1998 (Pokey Reese) and before that, 1986 (Dave Concepcion).
The Reds enter the 2005 season with a noticeably different look and feel. Doubts about the organization’s commitment to winning in 2005 were squelched when GM Dan O’Brien took action in December. O’Brien and his front office associates addressed the team’s most pressing needs during a 26-day flurry of transactions that increased the payroll by approximately $17 million. The result is an improved starting rotation, a new-look veteran bullpen, a proven third baseman and a crowded outfield. All that talk about building for the future? It’s been replaced with a team that has many in Cincinnati contemplating more than simply whether or not Ken Griffey Jr. can make it through a season without getting hurt.
Calling it the “ultimate conclusion” to their offseason shopping spree, O’Brien signed lefthander Eric Milton to a three year, $25.5-million deal on Dec. 27. The addition of Milton, 29, gives the Reds three established and still relatively young starters at the top of the rotation. In a move that surprised many, but had been in the works for months, the Reds traded a minor league pitching prospect to the Angels for veteran Ramon Ortiz. The 31-year-old averaged 32 starts, a 4.40 ERA and 15 wins from 2001-2003, but he grew unhappy in Anaheim splitting time between starting and relieving last season. Milton, an All-Star in 2001, and Ortiz fill in behind No. 1 starter Paul Wilson, who was the best pitcher on a starting staff that finished with a franchise-worst 5.23 ERA. The sinkerballer led the team in starts (29), quality starts (16), innings pitched (183.2) and wins (11), earning him a two-year, $8.2-million contract. Aaron Harang should be the No. 4 starter after leading the team in strikeouts. Luke Hudson, Brandon Claussen and Josh Hancock, all of whom are out of options, could challenge for the fifth spot.
This was an area of considerable emphasis during the offseason. The signings of veterans David Weathers and Ben Weber, who are coming off mediocre seasons, and Kent Mercker, who is coming off a solid campaign with the Cubs, should help a bullpen that rated only slightly ahead of the mile-high Rockies as the worst in baseball. Reds relievers compiled a 5.72 ERA and allowed opposing hitters to bat .283 over the final 106 games last season. Closer Danny Graves had a career-high 41 saves but blew nine saves and pitched only seven times after Sept. 1.
Unlike when Barry Larkin inherited the spot from Concepcion, the Reds don’t have a clear successor to their former captain. Anderson Machado, acquired from the Phillies in late July, was supposed to battle Felipe Lopez for the spot in spring training. But a knee injury suffered while playing winter ball in Venezuela has put his season in doubt and all but handed the starting job to Lopez. The decision to re-sign D’Angelo Jimenez, who established career highs for RBIs and on-base percentage in 2004, to a one-year, $2.87-million contract solidifies second base for another year and helps the bench.
The offseason’s grand experiment of moving Austin Kearns from right field to third base ended with the signing of veteran third baseman Joe Randa, who signed a one year, $2.15-million deal. Randa, who spent the previous six seasons with Kansas City, lends stability to a position that hasn’t had much since the Reds traded Aaron Boone in 2003. The other corner spot belongs to Sean Casey. Confident the first baseman could become a cornerstone, the Reds picked up the All-Star’s 2006 team option in October. That means the ever-popular Casey, who led the Reds in seven different offensive categories in 2003, will remain at first base for the next two seasons barring a trade.
With Kearns back in the outfield mix, Reds manager Dave Miley now has the luxury of four qualified outfielders for three spots. Left fielder Adam Dunn and right fielder Wily Mo Pena blossomed under the tutelage of hitting coach Chris Chambliss last season. Dunn established career highs in hits, doubles, home runs and RBIs but broke Bobby Bonds’ record for strikeouts in a season. Presented an opportunity to play regularly, Pena had 25 home runs and 61 RBIs in his final 89 games and improved defensively. Kearns missed 84 games during two stints on the disabled list but is still only 24 years old and provides offensive power and solid defense. The question mark, again, is Griffey and his health. A season during which he reached 500 career home runs ended with surgery to repair a torn right hamstring. He suffered the injury while playing right field for the fourth time in his career.
What Jason LaRue wanted was a fair deal. By avoiding arbitration and re-signing with the Reds for one year at $3 million during the offseason, the starting catcher felt he achieved that goal. LaRue’s offense improved again last season, but his defense still needs work. He tied for the major league lead in passed balls with 15 and has seen his caught-stealing percentage go from 60.9 percent in 2001 to 29.6 percent last season. The Reds were 54–52 and pitchers had a 4.92 ERA in games LaRue started last season. Veteran backup Javier Valentin also re-signed with the club for another season.
The addition of Randa sends utilityman Ryan Freel back to the bench. Though he is the Reds’ only legitimate leadoff hitter and base-stealing threat, Freel’s true value is in his versatility and all-out hustle. He started 128 games at five different positions in 2004 — 61 in the infield and 67 in the outfield. Valentin provides the luxury of a switch-hitter while Luis Lopez is a veteran utility infielder. Jacob Cruz signed a minor league contract during the off-season and should make the team based on his success as a pinch-hitter last season. He led Reds pinch hitters in hits (14), at-bats (55) and RBIs (8).
With limited resources and hampered by numerous injuries to key players, Miley has compiled a 98–121 record since taking over for Bob Boone in July 2003. Well-liked by his players and respected by management for his loyalty to the organization, the 42-year-old uses his bench and pitchers wisely. All of the above contributed to the Reds’ decision in mid-October to sign Miley to a two-year deal with a club option for 2007. The methodical and detail-oriented O’Brien remains committed to the club’s emphasis on player development and scouting, but he won over many fans with his moves this offseason.
By increasing payroll to at least $63 million, which would be a franchise high, the Reds hope the spending leads to wins. Of the 14 teams that had payrolls above $63 million last season, 11 finished with winning records. The question that seems to accompany each season faces the Reds again: Can they stay healthy? The influx of new faces and holdovers will try to reverse that trend as well as the second-half fades that have defined recent seasons. The talent — particularly on Don Gullett’s new pitching staff — appears to be in place for an improvement. In a city starved for a winning franchise, the Reds appear set to follow the Bengals on the path back to respectability.