Baker, Cincinnati getting set for 2009 season

SARASOTA, Fla. – Two red baseball caps hang from hooks on the side of the wooden locker. Three bats and a black equipment bag are stashed on the top shelf. A padded folding chair rests against the side panel. This was Ken Griffey Jr.’s place. The locker that used to be the focal point in the Cincinnati Reds spring clubhouse is now a storage space. No name above it. No uniforms inside. The locker – the last one in a row interrupted by a hallway to the trainer’s room – was a magnet during the nine years Griffey spent with his hometown team, a reminder of what the Reds were all about. Then, power. Now, pitching. The Reds are trying to reinvent themselves without Griffey and slugger Adam Dunn, swapping long home runs for quality starts. They traded the prolific home run hitters last season and set a new course for a franchise that’s had eight straight losing seasons. ‘Oh, it’s a 180-degree flip from what it was,’ top starter Aaron Harang said. ‘Since I’ve been here, that’s how it’s been: ‘Let’s try to get Dunn, Junior, (Austin) Kearns when he was here, let’s try to get those guys up and let them hit the long ball.” Instead, they’re trying to win in 2009 with their best starting rotation in 15 years, an offense that’s trying to do more of the little things, and a lineup full of young players who could soon replace Griffey and Dunn as the face of the franchise. It’s a season of transition. ‘We don’t have the power, but the pitching’s going to keep us in games and the offense is going to have to produce and not sit back and wait for that long ball,’ Harang said. The rotation is a good start. The foursome of Harang, Edinson Volquez, Bronson Arroyo and rookie Johnny Cueto all made at least 25 starts and had ERAs below 5.00 last season. That hadn’t happened in Cincinnati since 1992, when the rotation included Jose Rijo, Tim Belcher, Greg Swindell and Chris Hammond. The Reds were contenders back then, winning the World Series in 1990 with a solid rotation and the Nasty Boys bullpen. They reached the NL championship series in 1995 before losing to Atlanta. Then, they fell off the map. They lost a one-game playoff for the NL wild card to the Mets in 1999, traded for Griffey before the 2000 season and made offense the overriding priority. And all they did was lose. For the first time since then, they’ve changed the emphasis. When teams talked about trades in the offseason, they tried to pry one of the starters away. This time, the Reds didn’t go along. ‘That’s big,’ manager Dusty Baker said. ‘The one thing that we did was we maintained our pitching. If we were going to make a deal, that’s what they wanted – our pitching. And we like our pitching a lot. So I’m just glad that we got to keep everybody.’ The rotation is the most dependable part of the team. Harang put on weight, hurt his arm and went 6-17 last season, but has lost 33 pounds and looks to be back in form. Volquez went 17-6 and made the All-Star team in his first season since arriving in the trade for Josh Hamilton. Arroyo went 15-11 despite a flare-up of the carpal tunnel syndrome that has bothered him this spring. Cueto showed flashes of promise during a 9-win rookie season. The offense is where it gets interesting. Instead of Dunn and Griffey, the Reds will be relying on Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, both of whom got rookie of the year votes last season. Votto led all NL rookies with a .297 batting average; Bruce led the Reds with 15 homers after the All-Star break. They became the first pair of Reds rookies to hit at least 13 homers in the same season. One of the main weaknesses last season was the lack of a consistent leadoff hitter. The Reds tried to fix that by signing center fielder Willy Taveras, who stole an NL-high 68 bases for Colorado last season but had only a .308 on-base percentage. When he got on base, he was dangerous. Trouble was, he didn’t get on all that often. Second baseman Brandon Phillips won his first Gold Glove last season, a year after he became the first Red at his position to hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases in a season. Third baseman Edwin Encarnacion hit a career-high 26 homers, but remained a streaky hitter and had a team-leading 23 errors, more than twice as many as anyone else. Shortstop Alex Gonzalez is back after missing a season due to a knee injury, but it’s not clear how much the Reds can expect from him. They went slow with him during spring training, and he strained a hamstring late in camp. The new offense knows what’s needed. ‘We don’t want to get our runs from hitting home runs and having that one big inning,’ Votto said. ‘We want to be a team that grinds and chips and produces runs on a consistent basis, that gets the big hit when it matters. ‘Being a tough team when it’s a close game – I think that’s the determining factor between the average team and the above-average team that gets to the playoffs.’ More than likely, that’s at least another year away.