Reds taking new direction after another losing seaason

Published 4:40 am Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Bigger-than-life banners greeted Cincinnati Reds fans entering the box seats behind home plate this season. The most prominent one showed Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn, running side-by-side with bemused smiles on their faces.

At midseason, both players were gone. A few weeks later, so were the banners.

Time to start over. Again.

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After their eighth straight losing season, the Reds find themselves at yet another one of those potential turning points. There have been several of those already during the eight-year slump, the third-longest in the history of baseball’s first professional team.

By trading Griffey and Dunn, their most prominent hitters during their lost decade, the Reds showed they’re ready for a makeover.

‘‘They were kind of the faces of this organization for a long time,’’ starter Aaron Harang said. ‘‘It’s going to happen. Teams change. They try to go in different directions when things aren’t going right. That’s what the Reds are trying to do right now, bring in the youth movement.’’

The new faces of the organization haven’t been shaving for all that many years. That alone is a significant difference.

When the Reds narrowly missed out on the playoffs in 1999, they went out and traded for Griffey, a hometown favorite who was about to start a run of debilitating injuries. They moved into Great American Ball Park in 2003 with a veteran team expected to win.

It flopped. And the flavor-of-the-month approach took hold. General manager Jim Bowden and manager Bob Boone were fired, and veterans were traded in an attempt to save money.

It’s been never-ending change since.

During their eight-year run of futility, the Reds have been through four general managers and five managers. They’ve changed philosophies for developing players and for assembling the major league club.

The result? Nothing but losing.

This time, there’s a chance to get it right — if they don’t get impatient and mess it up again, which is a possibility with owner Bob Castellini itching to win now. There’s a foundation for first-year general manager Walt Jocketty to build upon in the next few years.

‘‘There’s a lot of reasons for optimism,’’ said Dusty Baker, who led the Reds to a 74-88 finish in his first season as manager. ‘‘You want some light at the end of the tunnel. You want some hope. Hope is huge — real hope, not manufactured or fake hope.’’

They finally have some young players who appear to be the real deal.

First baseman Joey Votto (age 25) and outfielder Jay Bruce (21) gave the Reds their first set of 20-homer rookies. Right-handers Johnny Cueto (22) and Edinson Volquez (25) dramatically upgraded a rotation that already included Harang and Bronson Arroyo.

Votto (.297, 24 HR, 84 RBI) and Bruce (.254, 21, 52) were particularly impressive, getting better together as the season went along. They’re good friends and have the same self-effacing demeanor.

‘‘I think we push each other unconsciously,’’ Bruce said, before catching himself. ‘‘I mean, subconsciously. Unconsciously would mean you’re not awake. We play hard and just let our ability pick it up.’’

There are a lot of holes to fill before the Reds can think about ending that eight-year streak. Brandon Phillips is a given at second base, but there are questions at catcher, shortstop, two outfield spots and third base, where Edwin Encarnacion continued to struggle defensively. Encarnacion had 23 errors, more than twice as many as anyone else.

Nine players can become free agents, including catchers Paul Bako and Javier Valentin and relievers David Weathers, Jeremy Affeldt and Mike Lincoln. That gives Jocketty a lot of latitude in retooling the roster.

‘‘You don’t like too many free agents, because then it’s hard to replace everybody,’’ Baker said. ‘‘I’ve never been on a team that had as many free agents. We’ll be a different team, but we have a very good and young nucleus, which is what you need.’’

The question is how long it will take to fill in all those holes.

‘‘I don’t want to make any predictions,’’ said Arroyo, who had a career-high 15 wins. ‘‘I said after the ’06 season that I thought we’d have a much better team back in ’07, and we didn’t. We have a lot of young guys who are making a case to play here. They’ve done well. I really feel we need a couple (more) legitimate guys in the lineup to solidify the offense.’’

The young guys also are curious to see how many changes the front office makes in the offseason.

‘‘It depends on which guys hang around next year, but we’re getting things jelled,’’ Votto said.

It’s a start.