Fifteen years later, in 1990, the Nasty Boys took the Reds to the most surprising World Series sweep in the history of the Great Game, blasting the Bash Brother-led Oakland A's in four straight.
It's 2005 -- another fifteen years later. Baseball is starting its 136th professional year on the shores of the Ohio River. And it's about to happen again.
To be fair, the 1990 Reds were one of the inexplicable aberrations of the modern era, grabbing a wire-to-wire World Series title, coming off a 75-87 season in '89 and just before slipping back into the oblivion of a 73-89 season in 1991.
They got there in part by finally cutting ties with the last links to their Big Red Machine glory days of 15 years earlier, removing the just-under-suspicion native Cincinnatian Pete Rose as manager the previous year, and finally releasing an aging .205-hitting Ken Griffey Sr. in August of the championship season, so he could move on to briefly share the outfield with his son in Seattle.
These were the Reds of the oft-injured Eric Davis, of the erratic and mercurial Paul O' Neill, the Reds of solid citizens like Joe Oliver, Todd Benzinger, the young Barry Larkin and Chris Sabo. They didn't scare anyone, but damn if they didn't win 91 games (one less than their Pythagorean total projected) in order to hold off the Dodgers in a weak division, then blow past the Pirates and A's in winning eight of 10 post-season games to claim those 1990 rings.
What does this have to do with the 2005 Cincinnati Reds? Well, they're poised to do it again in 2005, and you're hearing about here first on Batter's Box.
Every 15 Years, Something Special Happens in the Queen City
The 2005 Reds finally cut the last ties with their '90 predecessors this offseason, just as that team did back then with the '75 Champs after 15 years, as team captain (and like Rose, native Cincinnatian) Larkin finally decided to retire and took a front office job with the new Washington Nationals.
The 2005 Reds are the Reds of the oft-injured Ken Griffey Jr., of the erratic but potentially great Adam Dunn and of solid citizens like Joe Randa, Sean "The Mayor" Casey and Austin Kearns -- the latter two of which, by the way, have more offensive talent than anyone on that '90 team except Davis. This offense actually will scare some people -- say, the pitching staffs in Chicago, St. Louis and other NL Central cities -- but can the Reds hold off the competition in a much stronger division than the one they faced during Papa Bush's presidency?
The answer, of course, lies with the pitching staff. And truth be told, that's where the 2005 Reds veer most wildly in comparison to their 1990 forebears. But the last two Reds championship runs have not been built on starting pitching -- Rijo, Browning, Armstrong and Jackson were nice, as were Gullett, Billingham, Nolan and Norman, but those rotations weren't exactly packed with Hall of Famers.
No, those earlier editions of Reds Octobers succeeded based on offensive success and bullpens that were so good they became stuff of legend and earned nicknames -- Captain Hook's squad of Eastwick, McEnaney, Carroll and Borbon, and the later Nasty Boys of Dibble, Charlton and Myers (and Birtsas and Layana, but nobody ever remembers the Tims).
So does the success of the current Medium Red Machine depend on the arms of Danny Graves, Ben Weber and Ryan Wagner? As good as those three are -- and they're better than you think -- Reds fans certainly hope that's not the case. Fortunately, the 2005 Reds offense will be better than the 1990 Reds offense -- though of course not as good as the Reds of 30 seasons ago, packed with Hall of Fame talent.
So let's break down the Reds of 2005 and see what needs to happen for them to face off with the Yankees -- yes, the Yankees, preview coming March 25 -- in the 2005 World Series:
Starting With the Starting Rotation
Oh, gosh, the 2004 Reds starting pitching was awful. Let's sum this up by pointing out that the team gave the ball 29 times to Jose Acevado, he of the 5-12 record and ERA+ of, gulp, 68. Acevado's still on the team, but headed back to the bullpen, where he was lights out in sporadic work in 2003.
And Acevado was the #3 guy for the Reds last year! Right behind the immortal Aaron Harang (10-9, ERA+ of 82). Like Acevado, Harang will return to Cincinnati in 2005, but his role will be that of long reliever and possible fifth starter. That kind of fall from grace by your #2 guy is usually bad news for a team, but it's quite the opposite for the Reds, who move Harang down the list because actual living, capable hurlers have joined the team.
Here's the Reds rotation heading into 2005, with some admittedly best-case scenario notes to accompany the list:
- Paul Wilson: Though 11-6 last year, Wilson posted a seasonal ERA+ of exactly 92 for the fourth consecutive season. He gets slotted as "#1" primarily out of respect for his role as the top returning winner on the team. In reality, he's a fine, fine #3 guy for this team.
- Eric Milton: Based on his track record since 2000, excepting 2003 (which was lost almost entirely due to injury), this lefty can be expected to post 200 IP and a record of about 14-7, better than anything the Reds ran out to the mound last year.
- Ramon Ortiz: "Little Pedro," an unfortunate nickname that's plagued Ortiz for years, struggled last season as he shuttled between the Anaheim rotation and bullpen. Prior to that, the 31-year-old (Milton is 29) had established himself as a consistent 15-game winner, something the Reds have only had one of since 1999 (Jimmy Haynes, of all people, was 15-10 in 2002).
- Luke Hudson: This is the key guy for the Reds' rotation in 2005; Sports Weekly says "Hudson's stuff is hot," and he did post a 2.42 ERA (4-2, 188 ERA+) in nine starts last season. He's a little wild, but in part that's what makes him the Reds wild card for the coming season.
- Harang/Claussen/Mercker: Really, Aaron Harang isn't a bad guy to have around as your fifth starter, but the Reds certainly hope Brandon Claussen, acquired from the Yankees for another Aaron (Boone, in that trade), will step up and win the role. ESPN says of the left-handed Claussen, "He is not ace material, but the ability and the heart is there for him to be a useful starting pitcher."
Actually, at one time, the Yanks believed Claussen was slated to be The Next Great Pinstriped Lefty, after the Chairman of the Board and Louisiana Lightning; Claussen may never be Ford or Guidry, but the Reds would be plenty satisfied if he turned into Fred Norman, and positively ecstatic if he ended up a Tom Browning type.
If that proves premature (read: wildly optimistic) and the Reds still want to go to a lefty in the rotation, Kent Mercker is back for his second tour of duty with the team, and though he has 150 career starts to his name, not to mention a no-hitter, he hasn't made a start since 2000, or 263 games and three teams ago.
Dave Miley is no Captain Hook, but his use of the bullpen in 2005 just might put Sparky Anderson to shame; the Reds are counting on big contributions from a sextet of pitchers who will thrill Cincy fans if they earn the nickname "The Reliable (if Not So Terribly Nasty) Boys."
For all the great relievers who have worn Cincinnati red -- and in addition to all those already named, John Franco, Jeff Brantley and Jeff Shaw have all taken a turn closing in the Queen City, while even Big Lee Smith passed through briefly -- the all-time franchise leader in saves is none other than current closer Danny Graves. Returning to that role in 2005 after a disastrous 4-15 trip into the 2003 rotation, Graves racked up a career-best 41 saves.
He'll need -- and be expected -- to match or surpass that in 2005 for the Reds to march on the Bronx in October. But who will get the ball from Ortiz and Milton to Graves? The look of the 2005 pen will be very different than last year's edition.
Mercker will be a lefty in the 'pen, though for the Reds' sake, he'd better be more than a LOOGY. Acevado returns, but Todd Jones doesn't, and the loss of John Riedling to the Marlins might be the most acutely-felt departure of the '05 season for the Reds. The key guy is Ryan Wagner, a former first-round pick, who according to Sports Weekly, "Struggled mightily last year [but hopes to] take baby steps toward the closer role that eventually could await him."
In addition to bringing back the lefty Mercker, the Reds acquired a couple of righties in Ben Weber, part of the Ortiz deal, who really stunk it up in Anaheim last season; and Dave Weathers, who came on board as a free agent. Weber and Weathers, some Box readers might recall, were both originally Blue Jay draft picks.
Weber had three excellent years with the 2001-03 Angels, while Weathers bounced around the NL last year in New York, Houston and Florida, but like Weber, was excellent in relief from 2001-03. If the Reds can slide Weber -- who at the very least will be the most entertaining reliever in Cincinnati since Brad "The Animal" Lesley was stomping around Riverfront in the mid-1980s -- into a short role ahead of Wagner and get some quality middle innings from Weathers, the two will bring more W's to the team than just their shared last initial.
So it's Mercker and Acevado in the middle (and Harang going long), with Weber, Weathers and Wagner (somebody is going to do something creative and nicknamey with all those W's if this works out) getting the ball to Graves. Ortiz and Milton have to like what they see down in the bullpen of their new team.
The Lineup: The Weak Links
The potential downfall of the 2005 Reds lies up the middle of the field -- and we're not talking about the pitching mound here.
The starting catcher is Jason LaRue, who hit .251 with 14 homers in 114 games last season; he's a fine defensive player, but Reds fans still compare every backstop in Red to a guy named Bench. LaRue can't win in that scenario, but he's actually a solid cog in a potential pennant run. Javier Valentin is, on his best day, a serviceable backup.
Now, around the keystone, there's plenty of leather to be flashed by shorstop Felipe Lopez and 2B D'Angelo Jiminez, but these guys also tend to put the "E" in "erratic." Offensively, Jiminez finally started to show a little of the promise the Yankees saw in him a few years back when he was deemed "untouchable," hitting .270 with a dozen dingers. F-Lop continued to struggle, hitting just .242 in 79 games. However, if Ray Olmedo or Anderson Machado see a lot of time on the field, the Reds will probably be in trouble.
Offensively, the Reds' best infield probably has Jiminez sliding over to short and Ryan Freel, a .277 hitter who stole 37 bases last season, at 2B, but Freel will continue to fill the Tony Phillips super-utility role and may just repeat his 500 at-bats of 2004.
The other guy up the middle in the Cincinnati defense, well, you all know about him, and we'll return to The Player of the 1990s shortly.
The Lineup: Corner-Stones
Let's face it, Joe Randa isn't the exciting offseason acquisition that an Adrian Beltre or Carlos Delgado would have been, but this "regular Joe" is a fine addition to a lineup -- nothing spectacular, as the OPS+ of 99 and 100 the past two years will attest, but as one preseason publication put it, he "at least gives them a legitimate third baseman." Randa and his .286 career average and 1-2 career homers are keeping the hot corner, uh, warm, until top prospect Edwin Encarnacion arrives on the scene to take over.
Across the diamond is The Mayor, Sean Casey. Here's a guy, a fine glove man, who hit .324 last season and neared or matched career high with 25 homers, 99 RBI and an OPS+ of 142. Casey turns 30 in 2005, so he probably won't get any better, but what's wrong with having a left-handed hitting All-Star playing first base for your team until 2011?
The Lineup: Roaming the GAP
The "GAP" of course, is the "Great American (Ballpark) Pasture," and the Reds have a chance to have the kind of outfield, offensively, that statisticians will talk about for years. A chance ... that's not to say they will. But they have a chance.
Let's start with the old University of Texas quarterback, Adam Dunn. Second in the NL in homers in 2004 with 46, Dunn also erased Bonds from the record books last year -- Bobby Bonds, that is. Barry's pop is now no longer the all-time single-season strikeout leader, as Dunn whiffed a stunning 195 times.
Dunn runs well and is a decent defender -- as you'd expect from an ex-QB, he has a fine arm -- and his career OPS of .894 with 118 homers at the tender age of 24 earns him comparables in the "similar players" list like Reggie Jackson, Troy Glaus and Darryl Strawberry ... but also Pete Incaviglia, Otto Velez and Bubba Trammell. Which way Dunn goes will impact the next decade of Reds success. He needs to hit .260+, as he did last season, rather than .215, as he did in 2003, and continue the power surge for Cincinnati to win big.
With Dunn in LF, the Reds are also counting on big things from another 24-year-old in RF, Austin Kearns. Like Dunn, a big, strong right-handed hitter, Kearns hit .315 and displayed excellent power with 13 homers and 24 doubles in just 372 at-bats during his rookie year of 2002; unfortunately for the Reds, he's battled injury since then and managed just 146 games combined over the past two seasons.
A powerful, talented, but injury-plagued righty; is it any wonder that one of Kearns' most comparable players is Ron-DL White? The Reds will need Kearns to match that 146 games of 2003-2004 in this coming season alone to succeed at the level made possible by their immense talent.
Speaking of immense talent and injury-proneness, Kearns and Dunn will flank a future Hall of Famer in Cincinnati this season, hometown hero Ken Griffey Jr. The player of the decade for the 1990s, Junior has managed to make it into just 317 of a possible 648 games over the past four seasons -- and hit just .266 with one homer every 16 at-bats over that timeframe. Still, Junior says he's healthy. The Reds say he's healthy. Even Peter Gammons says he's healthy, and when is Gammons ever wrong?
Given the various health concerns, the Reds are thrilled to have a youngster they think could be better than all three of the above around to fill in. Wily Mo Pena, who just turned 23 in January, has names like Willie Mays, Reggie Jackson and Barry Bonds on his "similar batters" list, though projections based on those names is probably getting a bit ahead of the game. Still, he hit 26 bombs -- and struck out 108 times -- in just 336 at-bats in 2004.
The Reds love Pena so much, they considered moving Kearns to 3B so Wily Mo could play CF, moving Griffey to LF and Dunn to RF. Though they are still considering this as an option for 2006, rather than having four different people change positions for the coming year, the team signed Randa and planned to get Pena 400+ at-bats in a utility role, or more when -- er, if -- someone gets hurt. Freel is also a fine defensive OF and can fill in for any of the three starters in a pinch.
Perhaps no team outside of Colorado has to worry about the vagaries of "park factor" as much as the Reds. The Great American Ballpark (taking over, with the naming rights to The Ballpark in Arlington being sold to Ameriquest, as the most generically named stadium in the game) is without a doubt a home run hitter's paradise, the kind that earned past ballparks nicknames like "The Launching Pad." This is great news for Dunn, Kearns, Griffey & Co.
This, however, is also very BAD news for the Reds pitchers, especially Eric Milton, who surrendured a Blyleven-esque 43 dingers for the Phillies last year, and has given up almost exactly one home run per start throughout his career. Ramon Ortiz threw 40 gopher balls back in 2002 and has also averaged about one per career start.
While Hudson has shown no such generous long-ball proclivities, Claussen gave up nine homers in 14 2004 starts, while Wilson tends to give up 25-30 each season.
The verdict? A lot of 8-6 and 7-5 games in southern Ohio, and a lot of work for -- highlighting the importance of -- the aforementioned bullpen.
So What's Gonna Happen?
It's pretty simple, really; in many ways, this comes down to the same gut feeling I had in March of 1990. I mean, who knew that Chris Sabo would pull it all together and be an All-Star that year? That Billy Hatcher would play well enough to relegate Rolando Roomes from 315 AB in 1989 to just 61 in 1990? That Barry Larkin would become a full-time .300 hiiter?
Who knew that former All-Star Billy Doran, another Cincinnati native, wouldn't work out at 2B, but Mariano Dncan, of all people, would? That Jack Armstrong would start the All-Star Game, or that Jose Rijo would stay healthy? That the trade of John Franco for Randy Myers would work so well and lead to the formation of The Nasty Boys?
A lot of things had to go right for the Reds in 1990 -- and not all of them did. No pitcher won more than 15 games, no regular position player drove in more than 86. Only Larkin was healthy enough to play in more than 145 gmes. But 1990 was their year and enough went right to make it a Reds October 15 years ago.
Now, 15 years later, it's poised to happen again. The Reds need, say, seven of the following nine things to happen for a shot at the post-season:
- Ortiz, Milton and Wilson combine to win 40 games.
- One of Claussen and Hudson steps up to nail down the fourth starter's role with 12 wins.
- Weber, Weathers and Wagner get the ball to Graves consistently.
- Graves repeats his 40-save season of 2004.
- At least one of Kearns and Griffey stay healthy.
- The four outfielders, Griffey, Dunn, Kearns and Pena, combine to hit 115 homers.
- Casey wins, or at least makes a run at the batting title.
- Randa bounces back to his 2003 levels offensively.
- Some combination of Freel, Jiminez and Lopez solidifies the Reds middle infield, if not to Concepcion/Morgan levels, at least to Duncan/Larkin levels.
And you read it here first.