Reds 2004 looks like sequel to last season

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 3, 2004

CINCINNATI - The team lost 93 games. The manager and general manager lost their jobs. The lineup lost its stars. The fans lost patience.

As inaugural seasons go, 2003 was horrific. The Cincinnati Reds moved into Great American Ball Park, crumpled their grand plans into a wad and tossed them in one of their brand new trash cans.

Don't empty it just yet. Year two at the new ballpark has the look of a low-budget sequel.

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The payroll has shrunk, the remaining stars expect trades and the front office is focused on finishing a rebuilding. Even if the team stays in contention until midseason, it could get disassembled in another round of deals for prospects.

Sound familiar?

''Are they done trading?'' closer Danny Graves wondered, touching on the overriding issue. ''I don't know.''

The Reds know one thing: A lot has to go right for them to make this season more than just another six-month preview of coming attractions.

If Ken Griffey Jr. can stay healthy …

If Barry Larkin can play close to a full season …

If Austin Kearns and Adam Dunn can come back from injuries …

If a rotation led by 15-game loser Cory Lidle can hold its own …

If all of those things happen, the Reds could be respectable in the NL Central, a division that includes small-market clones Pittsburgh and Milwaukee.

''I think we can definitely be competitive, and I think we can surprise a lot of people,'' said Larkin, entering his 19th season.

''I know some publications have picked us as finishing dead last, and I don't think that's going to happen.''

Even with all of the turmoil and trades last season, the Reds managed to finish a game ahead of the last-place Brewers. The more intriguing question isn't where they'll finish, but who they'll deal next.

The first indication that they're not done trading came during spring training, when general manager Dan O'Brien sent accomplished reliever Chris Reitsma to Atlanta for two pitching prospects.

There's probably more to come.

''We won 69 games last year,'' O'Brien said. ''We've got a lot of work to do and a lot of areas on our roster where we need improvement. I have made it known that we will at the very least listen to any (trade) ideas. The principle motivation is that any potential player transaction has to make us a better team, either now or in the future.''

Once again, Griffey leads the speculation list.

Former general manager Jim Bowden tried to trade him twice in the last two years. Griffey is entering the fifth season of a nine-year, $116.5 million deal that is weighing down the budget.

Injuries have steadily diminished his production and his appeal to other teams. At age 34, he's just hoping for health.

''If we can stay healthy, I think we can open some eyes,'' Griffey said. ''I just had a bad string of luck, and those things happen. It's nobody's fault.''

If Griffey gets off to a fast start, he might be finished in his hometown. Other teams will wait to see if he has fully recovered from shoulder and ankle surgeries before they make an offer.

Griffey's dad expects the Reds to look for a deal.

''They probably will, but at this point he's just worried about coming around and being healthy and having a good year for himself,'' Ken Griffey Sr. said.

Graves is another candidate. The Reds owe him more than $12 million for the final two years on his contract, and first-round draft pick Ryan Wagner is in line to take his job at some point anyway.

This season most likely will be Larkin's final one, but for an entirely different reason.

The shortstop who turns 40 on April 28 wanted one more opportunity to retire on an upbeat note. After a halfhearted initial offer last September, the club negotiated a one-year extension with its captain.

That's all he got - one year.

''I expect this to be my last year,'' Larkin said.

Even if it turns out to be a very good year and no young shortstop emerges, Larkin figures the Reds will be inclined to let him retire at the end of the season.

''Everything has to go right for them to ask me back,'' Larkin said. ''After what I went through the last couple of years, the stars definitely would have to be aligned.''

That's unlikely. In Cincinnati these days, the stars only line up when they're headed out the door.