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Snakebit. Jinxed. Hoodooed. No matter what your phrase of choice, much of the blame for the Cincinnati Reds recent foibles can be laid at the feet of plain old bad luck.
Ken Griffey Jr. was perfectly healthy when he came to town, riding a streak of three consecutive seasons with 700 or more plate appearances. In the five years since then, he's broken 600 once, and 400 one other time. Snakebit.
The year before Griffey's arrival, 1999, saw the Reds with a one game lead over the Astros in the NL Central with four to play. They lost three of those four, dropping the division by a game. However, their victory on the last day of the season put them into a tie with the Mets for the wildcard spot, forcing a single game playoff. They lost 5-0. Jinxed.
Turn the clock back one more year, and witness the amateur draft, where an 18 year-old outfielder named Austin Kearns is picked by Cincinnati in the seventh round. He has everything you could want in a corner man - power, patience, and the ability to hit for average. When he makes his Major League debut in 2002 at the age of 22, he hits an impressive .315/.407/.500 in 372 at bats. He's spent the last two years playing below expectations while battling various injuries, almost entirely of a freak nature. Hoodooed.
These are just a few examples of the multiple misfortunes that have befallen this proud franchise in recent history. Not all of their ills have been of the unpreventable, cosmically ordained variety, but enough have been of that ilk to make their fans wonder who did what to a gypsy, and how they can make it right.
Will 2005 be the year the Reds lose the calamity and gain some kismet?
The Mayor. Anyone for whom that simple honorific functions as complete identity must be, at the very least, well known. Some are labeled as such because it is descriptive of their job (or if you live in Chicago, where "The" is replaced with "Da", their inheritance), and in those cases it's simply utilitarian. However, if the title is bestowed, not due to function, but rather on account of form, then you are dealing with a popular person, indeed.
Such is the case with Reds' first baseman, Sean "The Mayor" Casey, who is to Cincinnati what Mark Grace once was to Chicago - perhaps not the face of his organization, but certainly the man to whom the most unconditional love and loyalty flows - and in Casey's instance, perhaps more so.
Casey has drawn another, less flattering, comparison to Grace because of his relative lack of power at a power position, which made last season's explosion all the more surprising. Here's a look at what he's done since his first full season in 1999.
I was ready to call Casey's 2004 a fluke, but looking more closely at his career since 1999 makes me less comfortable with the assertion. Certainly his first two months were ridiculously hot as he went .394/.439/.642, and that was a lot of what colored my impression of his year. Yet, there are his 1999 and 2000 seasons staring me right in the face, looking an awful lot like what he did last year. Considering all the factors, would I expect the same sort of year in 2005?
Well, he's only 30, so it's not inconceivable, but I think it's a bit much to count on. In fact, last season is just enough out of character in relation to the last couple of years that, were I in a position of power within the Reds organization, I would have considered attempting to trade Casey for some much needed help in the rotation. After all, his value isn't likely to get any higher, and with too many bodies in the outfield, the move would allow Adam Dunn to switch to first, making room for both Austin Kearns and Wily Mo Pena in the pasture.
It would also cause the fans to hang me in effigy, since men nicknamed The Mayor don't earn the moniker by kicking children and cursing their mothers. Therein lies the difference between writing about the game and having to run a team in the real world - I don't have to worry about the impact of a popular player's departure on the fans' attitude toward the team, or it's subsequent reflection in attendance. Dan O'Brien does, however, so due to a contract extension, Casey's a Red through 2006. That's not a bad thing, just maybe not the ideal.
I wouldn't have known this without looking, but D'Angelo Jimenez hadn't played a full season in the same uniform during his Major League career before last season. The games he played in the Bigs in 1999 and 2001 were all with the same team, but the former saw only 23 PAs in Yankee pinstripes, while the latter saw him compile 349 PAs as a Padre. His next two years were split between the Padres and White Sox, then the White Sox and Reds, respectively, so playing 152 games in the same place in 2004 must have been a welcome respite from his traveling days.
He responded nicely to the stability, hitting .270/.364/.394 and showing a little pop, a little speed, and a lot of patience at the dish. It feels like he's been around for ages, but he'll only be 27 this year, and paying just under $3M for a respectable fielder at a prime defensive position, who also happens to be a good on-base threat solidly in his prime, strikes me as a fine deal.
Many teams reach to put an appropriate player in the leadoff spot, but Jimenez manages to get on enough to please stat-heads while having the speed and bat-handling skills to keep those who lean in a more traditional direction happy. He looks like a good "beer and tacos" player to me, and the Reds are the first team smart enough to keep him around.
Jimenez may be staying put, but for the first time in eighteen years, someone other than Barry Larkin will be the preferred "6" on the Reds' "6-4-3". But while Larkin's departure is likely traumatic for many a Reds fan, it will serve to answer an important question for the organization: Can Felipe Lopez play shortstop in the Majors? Or rather, the question should be answered, except that Cincinnati is preparing to punt the query again, this time by inviting Rich Aurilia to camp.
The real crime in this isn't just that Lopez might continue to be yanked around, it's that, despite not being any great shakes himself, Lopez is still a better option than Aurilia. True, Lopez can't look back on a golden season in 2001 where he was one of the best shortstops in baseball, but though Aurilia can, he needs binoculars to spot it and a program to peg it (You can't tell the players without a program!).
It boils down to a question of upside - that while Lopez doesn't have much, Aurilia has none - and if you're looking at probable .240/.315/.360 seasons from two guys, why not go with the one who has a shot at .260/.330/.400 rather than the one with the great chance to shake hands with Mendoza?
Once upon a time there was talk of Brandon Larson as the Reds' third baseman of the future, even at one time prompting a move to second base for then third sacker, Aaron Boone. But that fizzled out as a series of injuries beset Larson like locusts on a corn field. Then, for an acid-hazed moment this offseason, the Reds looked to solve this issue and their perceived glut of outfielders in one fell stroke by moving Austin Kearns to the hot corner. When that went over like Ashlee Simpson at the Orange Bowl, Cincinnati finally turned to one Mr. Joe Randa.
It seems fitting somehow that a team already employing The Mayor would be the new home of The Joker, and for a club like the Reds, who were merely looking for some degree of competence at the position for a reasonable price, Randa is a solid fit. He's never had the power that one craves on a corner, but he has generally handled the bat well and gotten decent OBPs while being a positive force defensively, and there's no doubt that's an upgrade over what folks like Juan Castro and (ugggh) Tim Hummel provided. He also serves as a buffer for Edwin Encarnacion, allowing him to spend his time this season in AAA, rather than being rushed to The Show through some combination of necessity and negligence.
As far as catchers go, one can do a lot worse on the offensive end than Jason LaRue. He's not someone you'd voluntarily put in the lineup on a regular basis if he wasn't willing to don the fabled Tools of Ignorance, but with such a relative dearth of production at the position throughout baseball, and in the NL in particular, he'll certainly do.
His best skill is hitting the ball hard, and it's manifested itself as a nifty 40.4% extra base hit rate for his career. It would be nice if he displayed a little more discipline at the plate, but he makes up for some of his inability to take the free pass by getting in the way of more than his share of little white missiles. His propensity for getting beaned has buoyed his OBPs, which along with his career best .251 batting average last year, was enough to get his on-base work into the range of the acceptable in 2004.
If there's a concern it's on the defensive end, where his once shiny reputation for throwing out would-be basestealers has been tarnished the last two years by caught stealing rates of 26.6% and 29.6% respectively. He's also always had trouble blocking balls in the dirt, having 15 or more passed balls in 3 of the last 4 seasons. As a point of contrast, Cub catcher Michael Barrett, whom many Cub fans excoriated for his defense, only saw 8 balls get by him through his own incompetence.
LaRue will be getting $3M in 2005, which isn't highway robbery when one considers the other available options, but neither is it cheap. He needs to continue to hit the ball hard and keep his OBPs above .330 in order to justify carrying his glove and paying his salary.
As pointed out in a recent piece by Keith Woolner at Baseball Prospectus (sorry, subscription only), Adam Dunn is the modern day poster child for the Three True Outcomes. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, the Three True Outcomes are the three possible results of an at bat that are entirely decided by the pitcher/batter confrontation - namely, walks, strikeouts, and home runs.
Mr. Dunn has apparently decided that he'd rather not involve something so pesky as the opponent's defense in the equation, preferring to take his pass, take his cuts, or take it on home. Admittedly, this isn't always the most aesthetically pleasing way to go about one's business, but if enough of your results see you trotting to first, either to take your place there or circle the bases, it can be awfully effective, and that was certainly the case in 2004.
It was a year of redemption for Dunn, who rebounded from two consecutive disappointing seasons to return to the form that so excited the baseball world in 2001, when he hit 51 homers over three levels of competition, finishing up the year with 19 in 244 Major League at bats. One might wonder what would cause such a hiatus from expectations, so let's see what we can see.
Here's to wishing for simple answers. It's easy enough to see what was going on in 2002 - the higher walk rate and much higher ground-ball rate imply some big time passivity issues for Dunn. It's good to wait for your pitch, but in a case like this, it looks like the definition of "your pitch" was a bit too strict. No, I get that, but what isn't readily apparent to me is what could have been going on in 2003. The only real difference between '03 and '04 is his power, and while that explains the drop in numbers, I don't have a wherefore regarding the power itself.
That's when I know it's time to get some help, and who better to turn to when discussing the Reds than J.D. Arney of the fine, Red Reporter? I asked him what he thought happened between 2003 and 2004 to bring about the change in Dunn.
Chris Chambliss was the change. He's the Reds hitting coach, and was hired prior to the 2004 season. From what I read in 2003, the Reds were constantly screwing around with Dunn, telling him he needed to be more aggressive, etc. etc. And it wasn't just one person trying to "help him" it was Bob Boone, Tom Robson the old hitting coach, and just about everyone else. It seems like the Reds have moved to a more hands off approach with Dunn, and it paid off in 2004.
Personally I feel that Dunn's 2003 can be laid at the feet of Bob Boone, who I think is one of the poorer managers in the history of the game. Boone is supposedly a pretty smart guy, but he's too stubborn and unwilling to try new things for it to matter.
Sometimes the stats don't tell the whole story, as we've seen above, and we have to look at other factors to determine what's really going on. There's no way to quantify the impact of a coach, and that's why such elements are so often ignored in these type of analyses. But knowing what we know in this case, including what J.D. tells us, it seems like Mr. Chambliss did his job in spades.
Dunn got lucky that a hitting coach came along that spoke his language, but poor Ken Griffey Jr. can't catch any breaks. Although, he has caught a lot of pulls, tears, and dislocations. Anyone who finds this owie-go-round humorous, though, should really think about getting a sense of empathy. Despite what one may think of the sometimes petulant Kid, he was one of the game's great players before he came to the Queen City, and it's a crying shame to see a player of his ability enduring so much hardship, much of it out of his control.
Yet Griffey's saga has moved beyond pathos, the injuries becoming so commonplace that what was once disappointing and pitiable is now borne with the total acceptance of the inevitable. There are still people who half expect him to have that one last year where he plays well and plays all season, but that's a lot to presume from a man who turned 35 in November and hasn't broken 400 at bats since the 2000 season.
Still, he continues to have those flashes of brilliance that tease us into thinking the long wait could be over. Last year it was his month of May, where he hit .260/.368/.620, socking 10 homers and driving in 29 runs. In 2003 it was May again, and while it was only 49 at bats, I'll take a .286/.407/.673 line anytime. Any baseball fan should be rooting for one final return to yesteryear for Junior, and the Reds can certainly use his help. I just wish it were more likely than it actually is.
If Griffey is the King of Hard Luck, then Austin Kearns is the heir presumptive. Were he following the path that most had laid out for him after 2002, there would be no need to discuss who might be playing right field for the Reds. He would be firmly ensconced at his position, ripping hard hit balls over and into fences, and generally terrorizing National League pitchers.
But not only has he lost the path, he keeps tumbling into bear traps, getting mauled by the Grizzly that fell in first. Last season is a great example: he had already started off slowly, going .137/.290/.333 since play began, but that wasn't enough bad luck - he had to get his left arm broken by a Ryan Vogelsong pitch. He came back a few weeks later, only to develop a sore on his thumb. Not so bad, except that it eventually required surgery, landing him on the 60-day DL. If I were him, I'd be wondering what I did to torque off that witch doctor.
He was able to return at the end of August, and he played better to finish the year, but now he has the label of "fragile" whether deserved or not, and because of it, he'll be fighting for his starting job against man-child, Wily Mo Pena. Both players are young, and both have a load of potential, but given consistent good health Kearns is the easy choice, simply because he's farther along in his development.
It's not that Pena doesn't deserve a shot to do something in the Majors, rather that Kearns has a little too much talent and way too many skills to get Pipped by a kid this raw. Pena has more power than Kearns, but that's the only advantage he has at the moment beyond a bit more speed and the perceived glow of good health. It shouldn't be enough to win him the job, but stranger things have happened.
So much in this lineup rides on health - will Griffey stay healthy? will Kearns? - was Casey's fine season predicated in part on his full recovery from shoulder surgery, and does that make a repeat more likely? - or perhaps it's more appropriate to say that it's all riding on luck. The Reds have certainly had more than their share of the bad kind, and having shown how poor they are at making lemonade out of what's supplied them, the fate of their season will rest to a great degree on whether they can refuse their seasonal lemon delivery.
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