Hammond returns to solidify bullpen

Hammond returns to solidify Reds' bullpen

Chris Hammond returned to the Reds on Tuesday, but as a far different pitcher than the one that departed Cincinnati well over a decade ago.

Once a starter, now a successful reliever, the Reds hope they've strengthened their bullpen by signing Hammond to a one-year deal worth $800,000 with a $2 million mutual option for 2007. The option has an escalating buyout based on his number of appearances.

"I didn't think it'd be this long before I got back to Cincinnati," said Hammond, who broke in with the Reds during their 1990 world championship season and remained until 1992.

Hammond, who will turn 40 next month, posted a 5-1 record and 3.84 ERA in 55 games last season for the Padres before becoming a free agent. He proved challenging for left-handed hitters, who batted just .164 against him.

A 13-season veteran, Hammond left Cincinnati for stints with the Marlins (1993-96, '98) and Red Sox (1997). Florida switched him to a relief role in 1996, and it wasn't until 2002 with the Braves that his reputation as a middle reliever bloomed. During that season, he was 7-2 with a stingy 0.95 ERA and led all relievers in ERA.

Stops with the Yankees, A's and San Diego followed. Over the past four seasons, Hammond has posted a 2.47 ERA in 221 relief appearances while opposing lefty hitters hit .228.

"He's been one of the best left-handed relievers in all of baseball," Reds general manager Dan O'Brien said. "We hope he'll continue that tradition with our ballclub."

A specific bullpen role wasn't identified for Hammond. That was fine by him -- he told reporters he didn't want one.

"Just pitch when the phone rings and your name is called," Hammond said. "I'll be prepared to pitch, hopefully from the sixth inning on."

With its pitching staff in disarray in 2005, Cincinnati's bullpen posted a 4.75 ERA -- which ranked fourth worst in the National League. Hammond will join fellow lefty Kent Mercker and right-handed veteran David Weathers as established members of the relief corps. The Reds are still searching for someone to be their closer next season.

Hammond looks forward to assuming a leadership role with Weathers and Mercker.

"There will be three guys who will set a good example of teaching and bringing younger guys along," Hammond said. "I think we can have a steady bullpen this season."

How much have things changed for Hammond since he departed the Reds with a 14-19 record and 4.25 ERA?

"I think I just go out and pitch now instead of trying to get guys out," he said. "The first time I was here, I walked a lot of guys because I was afraid to throw strikes."

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.