Five Questions: Cincinnati Reds

Heading into 2003, there were a lot of reasons for Reds fans to get excited. Ken Griffey Jr. was supposed to re-join the upper echelon of baseball stars. Junior’s two outfield-mates were Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns, both 23-year-old sluggers who had .400 or better OBPs in 2002. After an excellent cup of coffee in ’02, Brandon Larson was in line to take the third base job and emerge as a major contributor. And after watching ex-reliever Derek Lowe win 20 games the year before, Danny Graves was poised to make a similar transition to the starting rotation.

Unfortunately, not a single one of those players did as expected. Griffey’s season was again ruined by injuries, and injuries also limited Kearns to just 82 games. Dunn batted just .215, and after a horrific April, Brandon Larson was out of a job. Meanwhile, the Danny Graves project was a colossal failure, as he was one of the worst starters in baseball. Oh, some players did well (Aaron Boone, Scott Williamson, Jose Guillen), but they all got traded by August.

All that added up to a 69-93 record for Cincinnati, which employed three managers in 2003. They’re actually lucky to have won as many games as they did — based on their run differential, the Reds should have gone 63-99. Improvement is possible in 2004, but .500 would be a major achievement.

1) Will Ken Griffey Jr. ever be a superstar again?

It wasn’t that long ago that Ken Griffey Jr. was known as “the Kid.” Remember those days? The Mariners were playing in the Kingdome, and the backwards-cap-wearing Junior was one of the most energetic and beloved players in baseball.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

After being traded to his hometown Reds in 2000, Griffey had a somewhat disappointing season, batting .271 with 40 homers. He was just thirty years old, though, and was in the middle of his prime. Or so we thought… Since joining the Reds, Griffey has been a decent enough hitter – .271/.374/.530 – but in four years, he’s played in just 379 games. Take a look at his Games Played numbers since the trade:

2000 – 145
2001 – 111
2002 – 70
2003 – 53

That’s a disturbing trend. Yes, Ken Griffey can still hit well enough, but he’s appeared in only 123 games over the past two seasons, batting .256 with 21 home runs. His list of injuries since 2000 is ugly – ruptured ankle tendon, dislocated shoulder, strained hamstring, dislocated kneecap… it goes on and on. One of the best predictors of future injuries is past injuries – if a guy has spent a ton of time on the DL in the recent past, he’s likely to spend more time there in the future. Ken Griffey Jr. will probably keep hitting alright when he gets the chance, but I wouldn’t count on him for over 100 games this year. His days as a superstar are over.

2) Is Adam Dunn the next Rob Deer?

It’s starting to look like it. When Adam Dunn arrived on the major league scene in 2001, he had “star” written all over him. In 66 games as a 21-year-old, he hit .262/.371/.578 and looked like the second coming of Mark McGwire. The next year, he continued to impress – at the All-Star break, Dunn was batting .300/.452/.544.

Since the 2002 All-Star break, Dunn has gone from Big Mac to… well, Rob Deer. In the second half in 2002, Dunn hit just .190/.339/.353. In 2003, he batted .215 in 116 games. For his career, Dunn has averaged 176 strikeouts per 162 games.

Dunn is still young – he’ll be 24 in 2004 – and because of that he’s got a chance to rebound. But his most likely path looks like the Rob Deer road: low average, high strikeouts, and lots of walks and homers. That should keep him in the league for awhile, but I’ll be surprised if Dunn is a regular past his 32nd birthday.

3) Should Danny Graves be a starting pitcher?

Probably not. Heading into 2003, Graves had spent 5 years as a durable, quality relief pitcher with Cincinnati. He had started four games in September of 2002, and posted a 1.89 ERA in 19 innings. On the heels of Derek Lowe’s successful reliever-to-starter conversion, the Reds decided to make Graves a starting pitcher.

It didn’t work. Graves struggled mightily as a starter last year, going 4-15 with a 5.33 ERA and just 60 strikeouts in 169 innings. He also allowed 30 home runs.

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Graves had made just 3 professional starts before 2002, and those were with Buffalo back in 1997. As a contrast, Derek Lowe was almost exclusively a starting pitcher in the minor leagues, and had a decent 4.11 ERA in nearly 800 innings.

To me, Graves’ 2003 is somewhat reminiscent of Goose Gossage’s 1976 campaign, when manager Paul Richards tried to turn his ace reliever into a starter and was rewarded with 17 losses from the Goose. The next year, Gossage went back to the pen, and his performance rebounded. Danny Graves will return to the bullpen this season, where he can be expected to deliver a mid-threes ERA in about 90 innings of work.

4) Does D’Angelo Jimenez deserve a starting job?

Yes, he does. D’Angelo Jimenez has become a sort of infielding-version of Bruce Chen – young and full of talent, but with attitude issues that have bounced him from team to team – but with one exception: While Chen always seems just this close to being a good pitcher, Jimenez is already a fine second baseman.

Jimenez is only 26, and he’s got a career .346 OBP. Last year, he batted .273 with 14 homers, 66 walks, and average defense. Yes, he’s gained a reputation as something of a malcontent, but he’s no Carl Everett and he’s got a chance to become one of the better second baseman in the league.

5) Is Barry Larkin a Hall of Famer?

He’s got 336 Win Shares right now, putting him right on the edge. Larkin compares favorably to Joe Cronin (333 WS), but there are lots of guys with similar qualifications who aren’t in – Dick Allen, Andre Dawson, Bobby Grich, and Ron Santo, among others.

Personally, I think Larkin deserves to make it. He was baseball’s best shortstop between Ripken/Ozzie/Trammell and Alex Rodriguez, but not just in a Dave Concepcion, default kind of way. Larkin won an MVP award, played in 11 All-Star games. In the latest printing of the New Historical Abstract, Bill James rates Larkin the 7th-best shortstop of all time, between Ernie Banks and Ozzie Smith. And here’s something that surprised me – despite playing a huge chunk of his career before the offensive explosion of the mid-’90s, Larkin’s career rate stats aren’t all that far from Derek Jeter’s – .295/.371/.446 for Barry, .317/.389/.462 for Derek, and Jeter hasn’t yet entered his decline phase. Larkin has a career OPS+ of 116, while Jeter’s mid-career mark is 122.

While Larkin is plaque-worthy, I don’t think he’ll get one. Not with A-Rod, Nomar, and Jeter fresh in the memory of the voters.

One other thing – Larkin’s career batting average is .295. I wondered about his chances to bring it up to .300, since 2004 is supposed to be his farewell season. Well, it ain’t happening – to reach .300 for his career, Larkin would have to bat .376 in 500 at bats.

In Closing…

One can certainly envision a scenario in which the Reds emerge as contenders. They need something close to full seasons from Griffey and Kearns, and Adam Dunn has to hit at least .250. Sean Casey needs to break out of his two-year funk, and if he does, he could contend for the batting title (he’s still only 29). On the pitching side of things, the bullpen should be better, with Graves back in the pen and a full season from phenom Ryan Wagner. Manager Dave Miley recently said, “I’m a firm believer that it’s time for us to catch a break.” “A few breaks” would be more accurate. And preferably not any breaks involving Ken Griffey’s bones.

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