Reds could surprise opponents, fans

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 30, 2003

CINCINNATI - Is this the best they can do?

Long before Cincinnati's old ballpark imploded into a pile of rubble, fans were grumbling about what the Reds were doing to the team that will open the new place.

They traded second baseman Todd Walker and No. 1 starter Elmer Dessens to save money. They tried to deal Ken Griffey Jr. A $10-$12 million payroll increase was quickly absorbed by the everyday lineup.

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With each move, the fans wondered: Is this the best they can do?

Finally, chief operating officer John Allen had heard enough.

''I think we've got a very good team,'' Allen told skeptical fans at a winter promotional event in Dayton, Ohio. ''I get very tired of people treating the 2002 team like it was terrible. They were in first or second place for 123 days last year, folks. One hundred twenty-three days!

''The nucleus of that team is back.''

So is its biggest shortcoming. The team that will open Great American Ball Park has a pitching rotation that's more retro than state-of-the-art. It's not what they'd planned.

The Reds have been building toward the ballpark's opening since the late 1990s, hoping to field a playoff contender from the very first game. They've assembled an impressive core of young players - Brandon Larson, Aaron Boone, Sean Casey, Adam Dunn, Austin Kearns.

''They probably will get better, but they're daggone good right now,'' shortstop Barry Larkin said. ''They'll be a nice backbone for this organization for many, many years.''

Unfortunately, none of them can pitch.

Most of the Reds' pitching prospects have fizzled or stalled, forcing them to get retreads for the rotation and lean too heavily on a deep bullpen that fades as the summer goes along.

Reds starters pitched the fewest innings of any NL rotation last season, the main reason they finished third in the NL Central, 19 games out. It was the second year in a row that the rotation was last in the league for innings pitched.

Things got so grim that the Reds moved closer Danny Graves into the rotation for this season. He joins Jimmy Haynes,