Reds looking for new leaders afer dealing Griffey, Dunn

Published 3:28 am Thursday, February 12, 2009

The fifth starter’s spot and the left fielder’s job aren’t the only things up in the air as the Cincinnati Reds get ready to start spring training. They’re also looking for leaders.

The trades that cut ties with outfielders Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn last season left the franchise at one of those pivotal moments. For the first time in a decade, there’s no acknowledged leader in the clubhouse.

A team brimming with youngsters — Jay Bruce, Joey Votto, Johnny Cueto — is going to have to figure out who’s willing to step up and try to lead the franchise out of its rut of eight straight losing seasons.

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‘‘We had guys like Griff and Dunn that had been leaders here for a long time,’’ manager Dusty Baker said Tuesday, in a phone interview from his home in California. ‘‘Somebody or somebodies are going to evolve into new leaders on this team. I’ve always said that leaders are anointed by their peers, not appointed by me or somebody in the organization.’’

Dunn and Griffey got the job by default as the years went along and the franchise discarded its other veterans. Griffey arrived before the 2000 season, but was never comfortable being put in a leader’s role. Dunn came up to the majors in 2001 and has an easygoing personality that made it awkward for him to step forward.

Both are in the group of 71 free agents still looking for jobs as teams prepare to open camps this week, but the Reds have shown no interest in bringing either of them back.

So, who might become the next face of the franchise?

The 21-year-old Bruce and the 25-year-old Votto could eventually grow into the role. Brandon Phillips is 27 and has the credentials as a Gold Glove second baseman, but hasn’t fully embraced the role of leader so far.

The rest of the starting lineup is either too quiet (third baseman Edwin Encarnacion, shortstop Alex Gonzalez) or too new (catcher Ramon Hernandez, center fielder Willy Taveras) to be front-and-center in the clubhouse.

‘‘We have to see who the guys gravitate toward,’’ Baker said. ‘‘Who can handle their own problems as well as everyone else’s problems?’’

Their collective problem will be trying to find enough offense to support a rotation that is the team’s strong point — quite a switch from the last few years of trying to win games with home runs.

Aaron Harang, Bronson Arroyo, Edinson Volquez and the rookie Cueto gave Cincinnati a dependable four-man rotation for the first time since the 1990s. They never settled on a fifth starter last season, and are still looking for one.

Homer Bailey had a chance to win a job during spring training last year, but walked too many batters and fell behind in the count too often. The right-hander then went 0-6 in eight starts during the season with a 7.93 earned run average. Batters hit .378 against him.

Bailey was the seventh overall pick in the 2004 draft. Though only 22 years old, he’s already lost much of his luster. He’s in a group of young pitchers who will get a chance to win that final spot when they report to Sarasota, Fla., on Saturday.

‘‘The thing I learned from (playing with) the Dodgers is to always leave a spot or two for a surprise person, a person who got it together over the winter a la Johnny Cueto last year,’’ Baker said. ‘‘We always had a guy who over the winter matured, found the strike zone. For whatever reason, the light came on.’’

Baker hasn’t settled on someone to take Dunn’s place in left field, either. He could platoon at that spot, depending upon how various candidates look in spring training.

The Reds opened last season with a payroll of $74 million that ranked in the middle of the pack, and haven’t splurged in the offseason. They seem content to wait and see how a young team — one looking for leaders — pans out before they become more of a spender.

‘‘I’m looking for progress,’’ Baker said. ‘‘I want to see what their learning skills and ability are, what they’ve picked up through trial and error last year. To see a young man progress — I think that’s one of the great things.’’