Reds surprising contenders in another losing season

CINCINNATI (AP) – At least they tried.

The knock on the Cincinnati Reds lately was that they weren’t giving their best effort – the owners and the front office, that is. The franchise’s value increased with the move to a new ballpark in 2003, but it didn’t show in the payroll or the planning.

A very strange season smashed that perception.

After moving to within a percentage point of first place Aug. 24, the Reds imploded down the stretch, leaving them with their sixth straight losing season. It’s their longest such streak of futility in 50 years.

But losing season No. 6 had an entirely different feel.

New owner Bob Castellini was true to his word, increasing payroll to try to bring the city a winner in his first year running the franchise. New general manager Wayne Krivsky remade the roster on the fly, acquiring 36 players after he got the job Feb. 8.

There was no sitting back and waiting this year.

“You can’t complain about it,” said right-hander Bronson Arroyo, brought over from Boston during spring training. “Those guys came in and said they wanted to win, and they proved they wanted to win.

“Wayne has done the best he could for us. It wasn’t quite good enough, but I think it gives him an idea of where we can go with the talent we have, and what we’re still lacking that we’re going to need to get us over the hump.”

First, they need to figure out what happened in five futile weeks.

The Reds led the wild card race for 46 consecutive days until Aug. 28, when a 2-8 trip to the West Coast marked the beginning of their miserable finish. They lost 21 of their last 34 games, dooming them in a weak division where teams with losing records were still in contention.

They were a season-high seven games out on Sept. 20 and started trying players in different roles for next year. Then, they found themselves back in the race when eventual division winner St. Louis collapsed.

Too late. They finished 80-82, slipping behind Houston into third place at the end.

“We’ve been so weird and inconsistent,” first baseman Scott Hatteberg said. “If we had played better when we thought we were kind of out of it, we could have been right in it.”

During most of their losing decade, the Reds have been done in by their pitching. They were last in the league in 2005 with a 5.15 earned run average, undercutting one of the NL’s top offenses.

In a surprising twist, the hitters let them down this time.

The Reds finished second-to-last in the NL with a .257 average. They were second with 217 homers, but only middle-of-the-pack in scoring runs. All too often, they were all-or-nothing.

Ken Griffey Jr. missed most of the last month with an injured toe. Adam Dunn, Edwin Encarnacion, Brandon Phillips, David Ross and Hatteberg – prime players in the early season surge – were among those who finished with a whimper.

“It was a letdown when we had a chance to separate ourselves on that West Coast trip and we didn’t,” said Dunn, who drove in only five runs in the last 37 games. “I personally struggled when it mattered most.”

So did the defense, a sore spot all season. When they were still marginally in contention, the Reds kicked one game away with six errors – their most in 35 years. They had 128 errors overall, second-most in the league.

They finally made inroads in pitching. Arroyo and Aaron Harang were reliable at the front of a rotation that led the league with nine complete games. The pitching staff finished seventh overall in the NL – a major improvement.

Krivsky completely remade the bullpen as the season went along, with mixed results. The bullpen improved dramatically when closer Eddie Guardado was acquired in July, but an elbow injury sidelined him a month later and led to surgery.

“Wayne’s doing everything he can to put a winning club on the field,” manager Jerry Narron said. “He got a late start. Basically we came to spring training with a club made up by four general managers. That’s unusual.”

The flurry of trades and signings at midseason turned the clubhouse into a rest stop for pitchers either coming or going.

“I’ve never seen that before,” Arroyo said. “It’s a tough thing to do, to pick and choose. You’re almost grabbing at straws to see if you can put something together that works. The starting rotation has been pretty steady; a couple of guys were hurt here and there, but the bullpen has been insane. That’s one facet of the game you can probably afford to do that with.”

Now, the new ownership and Krivsky get their first offseason together to map where they want to go with the payroll and the roster. Given their aggressiveness during the season, major changes could be on the way.

Given the state of the NL Central, they’re figuring they can contend again and break that six-year slump, too.

“If you had said at the beginning of the season that we’d have been in the running with two days remaining, it’s a huge improvement,” Hatteberg said. “We took big strides. Now we’ve got a lot of guys not expecting to be in the cellar.”

That’s an improvement right there.