Pitching, defense enhanced this spring

Pitching, defense enhanced as spring arrives

CINCINNATI -- For Reds fans spoiled on scoring and 12-11 slugfests since Great American Ball Park opened in 2003, last season might have seemed like one lengthy cold splash of water to the face.

From 2005 to 2006, Cincinnati drifted down from first to ninth in runs scored with 749, down from 820 runs. The Reds scored a Major League-low 91 runs in September.

"I think that kept us from getting into the postseason," said Reds manager Jerry Narron, whose club finished with an 80-82 third-place record in the National League Central Division after being in the race most of the way.

In response to the offensive shortfall, Reds general manager Wayne Krivsky didn't spend his winter making massive upgrades to the lineup. In fact, he went in the other direction and stayed true to his mission of trying to improve his team's pitching and defense.

"It's the fastest way to get competitive, I think," Krivsky said. "Good pitching and good defense."

The addition of starter Bronson Arroyo, the continued improvement of Aaron Harang and a bullpen near completely overhauled during the season helped the Reds improve their status from the NL's worst pitching staff in 2005 to a middle-of-the-pack seventh in 2006.

Unlike division rivals Houston and Chicago, which spent big on free agent stars, the Reds made no league-rattling maneuvers. Veteran Mike Stanton gave the bullpen another late-inning lefty. Right-hander Kirk Saarloos was brought in from Oakland in a trade to add competition to the fifth starter's spot.

Their biggest move was signing free agent shortstop Alex Gonzalez to a three-year deal. Gonzalez, who has one of the best gloves in baseball at his position, will undoubtedly improve the Majors' second-worst defense from a season ago when he teams up the middle with talented second baseman Brandon Phillips.

However, Gonzalez lacks much of a track record for hitting.

The only significant offensive player added was 40-year-old outfielder/first baseman Jeff Conine, and that was in response to the free agent departure of Rich Aurilia, who was the Reds' most consistent hitter last season. Conine, who had 10 homers and 66 RBIs combined with the Orioles and Phillies, will likely serve as a role player.

Judging by the types of moves he made, Krivsky wasn't concerned about a continued offensive deficit heading into the 2007 season.

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"Our pitching has improved. Our defense has improved," Krivsky said. "Theoretically, maybe it doesn't take scoring that many runs, but obviously you still have to score runs to win. But if you pitch better and catch the ball better, it won't take as many runs to win a game."

Just how will they score those runs?

Expect small ball to be one avenue.

Krivsky and Narron's philosophy of fundamental, team-oriented baseball was introduced last year with mixed results. While the Reds pitched better, the team was awful at situational hitting with an NL-worst .243 with runners in scoring position.

Reds Spring Training opens when pitchers and catchers report Feb. 17 in Sarasota, Fla. As workouts begin, look for Narron and his coaches to drive home the importance of doing the little things to win.

"That philosophy is there. It's what I believe in," Narron said. "We'll see if we can get it done and execute it."

In recent years, the Reds were scoring a lot but sure weren't winning a lot. In 2005, they only won 73 games while leading the NL in home runs and runs scored.

"Do the little things it takes to win ballgames, whether it's taking the extra base, being heads up on the bases to take advantage of a mistake, moving runners," Krivsky explained. "It's doing all those types of things that help win ballgames. You can't always depend on the three-run homer. We have to execute better than we did last year doing the little things."

Krivsky was quick to point out that there is still plenty to like about the Reds' offense. It boasts power hitters Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey Jr., still developing hitters like Phillips and Edwin Encarnacion and steady hitter Scott Hatteberg.

Will the offense and improved pitching and defense be enough to give the Reds their first winning record since 2000 and first playoff berth since 1995?

"We've got an offense if everybody stays healthy and avoids the injuries. I think we'll be fine," Krivsky said. "We need help just like everybody else. You need to keep regulars on the field and avoid injuries. That's always part of a successful season."

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