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Ryan Freel's versatility is, like that of all good utilitymen, a blessing and a curse. He plays second, third and every outfield position, making him the invaluable plaster filling the cracks among the Reds' injury-prone group of regulars. But it also ensures that Freel will never have a positional home and that, as happened this spring when newly acquired Tony Womack was handed the second base job--although Freel made the majority of his starts (48) there last year--he is doomed to itinerancy. Freel is diplomatic about his predicament. "I know I'll get my at bats," he says, "and that's the advantage of being a utility player."
Freel, 30, emerged as one of the game's better leadoff hitters in 2005, finishing with a .371 on-base percentage and 36 stolen bases from the one hole. He possesses all the attributes of a thinking leadoff man: He is willing to work the count, and he plays to his strength (speed) while minimizing his weakness (limited pop), hitting twice as many ground balls as fly balls. The 5'10", 180-pound Freel has a prototypical small man's game, regularly ripping his uniform on headfirst slides and sprawling catches. His aggressive style sent him to the disabled list twice last season.
Although Freel has sometimes carried his freewheeling to excess off the field--he was fined and had his license suspended after pleading guilty to driving under the influence in April 2005--the Reds prize his enthusiasm, so much so that on the morning of the team's first full-squad spring training workout, manager Jerry Narron told his players he was tired of hearing fans say they loved watching Freel play; he wanted the same cloud-of-dust style from everybody.
It will take more than effort, though, to lift this ragged team to respectability. Bob Castellini's bold claim upon buying the team along with two partners in January--"I'm making you a promise, one fan to another, we will bring championship baseball back to Cincinnati"--reflects blind optimism rather than a sober assessment of the club. The Reds mash, and last year they led the NL in runs per game (5.1), home runs (222) and slugging percentage (.446); as long as their power-hitting outfielders remain healthy, the team will come close to matching those totals. But the $7.5 million shaved from the payroll by trading first baseman Sean Casey to Pittsburgh wasn't applied to Cincinnati's most glaring weakness, a dreadful starting rotation that was last in the NL in ERA (5.38) in 2005. Lefthander Eric Milton, the worst of former general manager Dan O'Brien's many mistakes, came to symbolize the rotation's sorry mix of overcompensation and underperformance: In the first year of a three-year, $25.5 million deal, Milton was 8-15 with a 6.47 ERA and gave up a major-league-high 40 home runs.
Late in the spring, new general manager Wayne Krivsky dealt surplus outfielder Wily Mo Pe�a to Boston for righthander Bronson Arroyo, who immediately became the club's ace. "He's a proven starting pitcher," says Krivsky, who previously was the Twins' assistant G.M. "The last two years he's averaged close to 200 innings, he's taken the ball every fifth day, he's never been hurt." Arroyo showed some discouraging trends last year; his ERA rose half a run, and his strikeout rate plummeted, from 7.15 per nine in '04, to 4.38. But the deal was urgent because it puts reliable innings in the rotation while resolving a defensive logjam. Adam Dunn will now play left every day, rather than splitting time at first to create at bats for Pe�a, while free-agent pickup Scott Hatteberg becomes the regular at first.
The Reds appear
destined to play dozens of 10-9 games, and they won't be competitive until they
seriously upgrade their staff. Freel, who signed a two-year, $3 million
extension in December, is a fine building block, a scrappy, multipurpose piece
and a face for the franchise. But the talent gap between Cincinnati and the
class of the NL Central is too great to bridge on hustle alone.
The Reds will most likely start the season with veteran soft-tosser Dave Weathers as their closer, but this should be the year that 2003 first-round pick Ryan Wagner (right) takes over the job. A sore right shoulder ended Wagner's 2005 season just as he became part of a closer committee. The shoulder is better now, as are his mechanics after a trip to the instructional league and work with pitching coach Vern Ruhle. Wagner, 23, had a 6.11 ERA last year, but a better indicator of his talent is his strikeout rate (7.7 per nine innings) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.3 to 1). Those numbers make him a potentially dominant closer.