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VAN DYCK notes: Big bats drive small-market Reds

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Could another small-market team overcome the odds and play with the big boys for a few years, like Oakland and Minnesota have done? Could be, what with the young talent that Cincinnati has been producing from its farm system and a series of ultra-smart trades. Scouts say the Reds have some of the game's best hitting prospects, who are already being labeled as potential batting average and home-run leaders. If the Reds are lacking, it's in their pitching development, and that could hinder their rise to dominance. But right now we're talking hitters, so let's ride along with new hitting coach Jim Lefebvre as he describes them.
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  • Lefebvre — former manager of Sammy Sosa and hitting coach of Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco — is the lucky recipient of all this talent and, while he has been known to get over-excited about his own players, he has a right to over this group. Sean Casey, first base, age 27 (obtained from Cleveland for Dave Burba): "One of the better hitters in the league already, uses the whole field, hits for power, a legitimate candidate for leading the league in hitting. A fierce competitor, just his energy alone can pick a ballclub up." Adam Dunn, outfield, age 22 (drafted second, 1998): "All you hear about him is true. This guy is an athlete, he's 6-6 and 240 but he's a former quarterback and he can run the 40 (yard dash) in 4.5. For a young player, he has great strike-zone discipline, which is very unusual for a young player." Austin Kearns, outfield, age 21 (drafted first, 1998): "Oh, he has nice quiet actions. He reminds me of Kevin McReynolds. You know, it doesn't look like he's running very fast but you know he is. The ball explodes off his bat. We have a tendency to want to make guys do it so quick, but this guy is going to be one real special talent." Juan Encarnacion, outfield, age 26 (obtained from Detroit): "A five-tool guy, can hit the ball nine miles. He's in the Sammy Sosa mold. I know they said he was a disappointment (in Detroit) but everybody expected too much of him and we have to have patience, like (the White Sox) did with Sosa.

    The legend grows

    Of course, the Reds also have one-time five-tool potential star Ruben Mateo, who could still develop into a star. But watch out for Wily Pena, a 20-year-old (we think) Dominican whom they acquired from the Yankees in that Drew Henson deal. Supposedly, Wily Mo is 6-3 and 220 pounds of ultra-raw talent. "As much power as I've ever seen in my life," Lefebvre said. "He might be the fastest guy in the organization and I'm telling you he has more power than McGwire, Canseco and Sosa. Right now he strikes out too much, but he's further along than Sosa was at the same age." OK, maybe this is all Lefebvre hype? "He's got the most power I've ever seen," manager Bob Boone said. "And I'm including (Willie) Stargell, McGwire, (Greg) Luzinski and (Mike) Schmidt." Wow. So someone is going to have to go when that "very special" someone else, Junior Griffey, returns soon. Kearns could be sent down but may be hitting too well and GM Jim Bowden would like to get some more pitching. The odd-man out? Probably Encarnacion, if only because he makes $1.5 million.

    Manager mayhem

    How precarious has managing a big league team become? Well, Hal McRae is already ahead of 10 others on the seniority list — and he's had his job for exactly one entire calendar year. "I don¿t think you're going to see managers paid as much as they have been," said one former manager, who hopes to manage again someday. "Guys are getting fired so quick that it isn't worth it to teams to have to pay them off after a couple of years. "The exceptions, of course, are guys like Tom Kelly and Jim Leyland, who are proven. They'll get a lot more. "But if a guy was going to get hired and wanted $100,000 more than the team was offering, they'd tell him to get lost and go for someone cheaper. I really think $500,000 is going to be tops." The ex-manager may have a point. All five fired managers have been paid off and replaced — mostly by staff members — with "cheap" help. It is still a good bet that Buck Martinez will be the next to go, with Toronto drawing record-low crowds and management projecting losses as much as $50 million. Then Jerry Narron in Texas, which also has seen attendance plummet. The newest name on the doom list is the Indians' Charlie Manuel. Word is that new GM Mark Shapiro didn¿t want Manuel in the first place, but figured he would get less criticism if he were kept around. Don't forget, we've been seeing the smallest crowds in history at Jacobs Field lately.

    Leit-ing it up

    That was quite an accomplishment — beating all 30 teams — for Mets' pitcher Al Leiter the other day. Or was it? The good-natured Leiter poked fun at the "honor." "Most really good pitchers stay with one team, or at least in one league," he said. "To do this, you've got to be in both leagues and you have to be on a couple of teams in (each) league." Arizona's Randy Johnson is one team away from matching Leiter, but that team is Arizona. LA's Kevin Brown lacks only beating Tampa Bay to match Leiter — and the Dodgers do play the Rays in an interleague series this year. "Maybe we should contract right now," Leiter said with a smile. Actually, Leiter was happy about the feat because it says something about "longevity and perseverance."

    Running the bases

  • Baseball is really a small world. In the same game that Seattle's Mike Cameron hit his four home runs Thursday, the White Sox's Paul Konerko had his 18-game hitting streak stopped. The White Sox once traded Cameron to Cincinnati — for Konerko. One other Cameron-related note. Did you notice that both White Sox pitchers who allowed his homers (Jon Rauch, No. 1, and Jim Parquee, Nos. 2, 3 and 4) were sent to the minors after the game? And that the pitcher who hit him and got him out (Mike Porzio) stayed?
  • With the Pirates headed back where they came from (in or near last place) and with Kris Benson coming back from surgery, look for some pitching to become available. The rumor mill has Ron Villone, Brian Boehringer and Mike Fetters being used as trade bait by new GM Dave Littlefield. Littlefield has to figure out what to do with infielder Pat Meares, who is still owed $7.5 million but is on the DL. The Bucs want him to stay there and collect some insurance money, Meares is fighting it and claims he can play. Life gets complicated when money is involved, doesn't it?
  • The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran a poll asking if trading for Gary Sheffield was a mistake. Just less than half thought it was a bummer, even though Sheffield was stuck in a 0-for-28 injury-induced slump at the time.
  • Winning cures all? While almost all franchises have seen attendance declines, the world champion Diamondbacks have seen theirs increase by about 17 percent. Dave van Dyck can be reached at his e-mail address: dvandyck@foxsports.com.
  • Tagged: White Sox, Yankees, Mariners, Rangers, Braves, Cubs, Reds, Dodgers, Nationals, Mets, Pirates, Cardinals, Diamondbacks, Paul Konerko, Mike Cameron, Adam Dunn, Austin Kearns

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