3. Cincinnati Reds
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If the starting pitchers don't fade, you can color this team a contender
By Jeff Pearlman
"Hey, Wild Man!" screamed Danny Graves, Cincy's baby-faced, 27-year-old closer. "What do you know about sports? What do you know about anything?"
Last season, when Sean Casey was in the midst of a nightmarish first-half slump (he hit .256 before the All-Star break), Wild Man idiotically and publicly urged the Reds to ship the first baseman to Triple A. Graves has a long memory. "Have you ever played baseball?" he yelled. "Ever!?"
Wild Man, taken aback, responded quietly (and seriously), "Yeah, Little League."
"Little League? See, guys like you don't know s---," continued Graves. "You rip Casey, you rip Griffey, you rip me -- and you've never played the game, and you don't know anything about it! You have no clue!"
Although it's slightly out of character for the happy-go-lucky Graves to berate anyone, it's not surprising to see him serve as his teammates' prime protector. Last year, as Casey and Ken Griffey Jr. struggled, as manager Jack McKeon vainly battled to keep his players' support, as the Reds traded No. 1 starter Denny Neagle to the Yankees and lost No. 2 starter Pete Harnisch to a bum right shoulder, Graves and his bullpen mates were the seasonlong defenders of playoff expectations gone awry. "As long as our starters get us to the sixth inning, we'll be O.K.," says Griffey. "I feel confident saying we have the best bullpen in the National League."
Indeed, with Graves, rubber-armed righty Scott Sullivan, situational lefty Dennys Reyes and a back-to-normal Mark Wohlers, Cincinnati's bullpen is deep, diverse and -- most important -- effective. "If Sullivan isn't messing you up with his sidearm delivery, I'm in with my sinker," says Graves, who was second in the National League with 91 1/3 relief innings. "Or maybe it's Mark, throwing a 95-mph fastball at you. Or Reyes, a tough lefty with impossible breaking stuff."
For all of the criticism heaped on Casey and Griffey last season, the Reds swung their bats pretty well. Their .274 team batting average ranked fourth in the league, and their 825 runs ranked fifth. They reached 200 home runs for only the third time in Cincinnati history. "One thing we can always do well," says Casey, whose .367 average with runners in scoring position was fourth in the league, "is hit." That said, McKeon was a bit too old-school. Despite a lineup featuring above-average base runners in Griffey, Barry Larkin and Pokey Reese, he was loath to use the hit-and-run. In 2000 the Reds stole 100 bases, their second-lowest total in 20 years. "We will be an aggressive, hard-nosed baseball team," says new manager Bob Boone. "I can promise that." Boone will use Larkin and his .377 career on-base percentage in the leadoff slot, dropping Reese (.319 OBP last year) to seventh. Leftfielder Dimitri Young, who has batted .300 or better in each of the past three seasons, moves into the number 2 spot, followed by the daunting duo of Griffey and Casey.
Even though Cincinnati -- and, in Junior's case, the rest of the
nation -- focused on the offensive trials that Casey and Griffey endured in
This winter Casey, 26, went to work to ensure that he would pick up where he left off. He hired a personal trainer for daily workouts. He took regular three-plus-mile runs and lifted weights. And every Tuesday and Friday he drove from his Jupiter, Fla., house to a nearby fitness center, where he and 30 women took spinning classes. "I sort of hid in the back, trying to stay out of the way," he says, "but I really liked it. The music, the bikes, the intense exercise -- you really get a great workout." For these Reds, the hard work has just begun.
Issue date: March 26, 2001