Ga-ga over Griffey: A tale of idiocy

Once upon a time there was a magical baseball happy place called Cincinnati. That's how I'll start the story when telling it to my kids someday.

Cincinnati gave rise to storied legends such as the Big Red Machine, Marge Schott and the Hit King Autographed Hat catalog.

The Cincinnati Reds, though they have always been among the have-nots in the small-market shark pool, have always had this sense of magic attached to their playoff history (for further study, see "1990 World Series," when Jose Rijo's fabulous pitching performance highlighted Cincy's sweep of Oakland in the World Series. Yes, that Jose Rijo).

Back in 1970, Cincinnati's Ken Griffey begat Ken Griffey Jr., a legend waiting to happen.

The circle is now complete. Junior, now the brightest of baseball stars, has returned home to Cincinnati in a trade engineered with the Seattle Mariners. With him have come the bold, if not expected, predictions by the Cincinnati media of a Reds-Indians showdown in the World Series (better known as "Ohi-NO!" by the rest of us).

Still, the love-fest in Cincinnati seems a bit misguided, especially all those predictions about the Reds winning the National League Central division. There could be trouble in baseball's magic kingdom after all, because it seems the Reds mortgaged any real shot at the title to get Griffey.

Junior's tenure in Seattle was marked by the usual for a 1990s superstar - greatness, latent animosity, playoff euphoria and rift between The Talent and the evil front office.

After a long offseason, the Mariners shipped off Griffey to the Reds for pitcher Brett Tomko, and center fielder Mike Cameron, plus a couple of minor leaguers named two weeks before that we've already forgotten (Antonio Perez and Jake Meyer, just in case you ever get on Millionaire).

Now baseball's top three sluggers are all located in one division, with Griffey, Chicago's Sammy Sosa and some guy named Mark McGwire in St. Louis. But while that might make for a fun little home run race, it probably won't do much for the "other" race - you know, the one for the playoffs?

Cincinnati nearly made the playoffs last season, and most people figure that the addition of Griffey will make the difference. I figure he's worth an extra 6-8, wins, which is a definite upgrade. The Reds' lineup is largely intact from last season's squad, minus Cameron and Greg Vaughn.

While Griffey definitely is a step up from Cameron, Cincinnati dumped Vaughn for Dante Bichette. I'm not all that high on Vaughn, but Bichette might be the most overrated act since David Letterman.

Bichette's defense is horrid, and he had far less homers than Vaughn while playing 81 games at Coors field last season. With Dmitri Young in right field (the fact that he was projected to be a first baseman says it all), only Griffey keeps Cincy's outfield from having the worst defense in baseball.

But defense really isn't the major problem, because this team is solid up the middle. The real dilemma is pitching, or more specifically, a lack thereof.

Quick, name the Reds' opening-day starter. No lifelines allowed.

The correct answer is Pete Harnisch. Or Denny Neagle. Maybe even Steve Parris or Ron Villone.

Neagle is probably the ace of this staff when healthy, but he's battled injuries on and off for the past two years, and the condition of his shoulder is uncertain at best. Ditto for Harnisch, who nearly had rotator cuff surgery in the offseason.

Villone and Harnisch had good years for Cincinnati in 1999, but there isn't enough track record there to bet on them having similar years yet. And that fifth starter role is a tossup, with either Dennys Reyes or Scott Williamson, the Reds' top reliever last season, filling the spot. Another option is Osvaldo Fernandez, and all you Giants fans know that kind of desperation.

The thing is, Tomko would have been a nice complement for this staff. He's young, has a tremendous upside and he could've been a future No. 1 starter.

Keep in mind also that Cincinnati won lot of games because of a bullpen that posted a mind-blowing 3.36 ERA last season. The problem is that Jack McKeon also trotted out relievers 381 times to pitch 530.1 innings, by far a league high.

History, conventional wisdom, common sense - whatever you tap into - says that overworked bullpens don't post great numbers for two straight years. If the Reds are still counting on a strong bullpen to carry them into the playoffs (which they are), they'll have to beat the odds.

So let's sum up what we learned today: While the Reds got Junior, it comes at the expense of addressing other needs. There are some serious holes in this team, and before we etch "Cincinnati" on that World Series trophy, let's see 'em turn a trick and make the playoffs first, OK?

Jeremy Littau is the Nevada Appeal sports editor.


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