Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Pitching, pitching, pitching ...

Reds pitchers faced their first batters of spring training last week and the results appeared all too familiar.

Tigers catcher Pudge Rodriguez sent Ben Kozlowski’s second pitch of Thursday’s opener sailing into Lakeland’s deep blue sky. Later in the day, former Red Reggie Taylor went deep off Ryan Wagner.

Eyewitnesses believe Taylor’s home run ball might have struck the scoreboard. Others wondered if it had yet to settle onto its final destination.

Kozlowski took the mound in place of Eric Milton who was nursing a strained right calf muscle. Milton, who established a club record last season by allowing 40 home runs, quickly became the poster boy for a series of ill-fated offseason acquisitions made last winter by former general manager Dan O’Brien.

The Reds have new ownership, a new GM and new-found optimism. But the concerns for this season remain the same – pitching, pitching, pitching.

If the Reds’ starting rotation to begin spring training is any indication, Aaron Harang will start against the Cubs on Opening Day at Great American Ball Park.

Harang, who went 11-13 with a respectable 3.83 ERA last season in 32 starts, was scheduled to face the Yankees on Saturday in Tampa. This would put the burly right-hander on pace – with normal rest – to take the mound on April 2.

“Aaron Harang definitely deserves a chance (to start on Opening Day),” said manager Jerry Narron, “But, we’ll see what happens.”

Here’s how the rotation shaped up as of last week:

Harang followed by left-handers Brandon Claussen, Dave Williams and Milton and, if all goes well, the surgically-repaired right-hander Paul Wilson. Justin Germano and Mike Gosling are among those waiting in the wings in case Wilson suffers a setback.

But, Narron isn’t convinced. Not only is the Reds rotation not written in stone, he said it isn’t even set in “mud”.

Few big-league ballclubs are willing to put a stamp on their starting rotation in the first week of spring training.

But, who could blame Narron if he’s waiting for the reincarnation of Cy Young to fly into Bradenton/Sarasota Airport?

After last season, coaches Soto and Browning are as capable.

Reds pitchers ranked last in the National League with a 5.15 ERA. It was the first time since 1968 that the Reds achieved that dubious distinction. Aided by Milton, the Reds allowed 219 home runs - just 17 shy of the club record established the season before. They were the only staff in the major leagues in 2005 to allow more than 200 home runs.

Much to Narron’s chagrin, the Reds rotation probably is set. The news isn’t all bad, however.

Harang made significant strides in his development last season as did Claussen who went 10-11 with a 4.21 ERA. Claussen ended the season with two rocky starts, but he did go 4-1 with a 3.58 in August.

Williams entered spring training camp with a target placed squarely on his back. I don’t envy “The guy Sean Casey was traded for” but the best way to shed that tag is to perform well on the mound.

Williams, who turns 27 next week, appears quite capable of doing so after going 10-11 with a 4.41 ERA for the Pirates last season.

Wilson is the wild card in all of this. He went 11-6 in 29 starts in the 2004 before undergoing season-ending last June. His numbers in nine starts prior to being shut down were an atrocious 1-5, 7.77.

If Wilson returns at full strength, the Reds have a starting rotation stocked with guys capable of posting double-figures in victories. Even Milton has four seasons of 13 or more wins on his big-league resume.

Rarely is there a spring training in which a surprise performance or two doesn’t emerge. The Reds would love for that shocker to be a pitcher.

Wayne Krivsky was hired too late to delve into the free-agent market for pitching. The Reds bailed on a potential Pedro Astacio deal and young phenom Homer Bailey needs to simmer a bit more in the minors.

Unless a Gulf Coast gale blows the trade winds squarely in Krivsky’s direction, the Reds will most likely begin the season with the rotation as is.

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