Tuesday, March 30, 1999

Nomo margin for error

Is Reds pitching dubious enough to chase Hideo?

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FORT MYERS, Fla. — Jack McKeon has a mean streak. Behind that guise of grandfatherly benevolence lurks a heart of darkness.

        The Cincinnati Reds' Manager de Sade set out to torture team publicist Rob Butcher Monday afternoon. He planted the rumor that the Reds were hot for Hideo Nomo, and encouraged reporters to press Butcher for details.

        The Japanese pitcher travels with his own media horde. He requires translators. Whether brilliant or bombed, he is a headache-and-a-half for a baseball public relations department.

        “I've already told Jim (Bowden), if we get Nomo, the PR department gets a raise,” Butcher said.

        Yet because Nomo is an available arm, cut loose by the New York Mets, he is a headache who can happen almost anywhere. Pitching is so lean in the big leagues these days that today's retread can be tomorrow's ace. What McKeon planted as a prank may not be entirely implausible.

        “He would be a useful guy if we could get him on our team,” said Reds pitching coach Don Gullett. “The Mets felt he was tipping his pitches. That's not what I saw. He's a guy who's had success in the big leagues. You don't have to teach him how to pitch or how to win. It's a matter of getting him back on track where he could be successful.”

        Nomo is scheduled to clear waivers at 2 p.m. today, and would then be a free agent. While the Reds may not be financially equipped to make a strong bid for his suspect services, their need for starting pitching is increasingly acute.

        Denny Neagle, acquired as a No.1 starter, will open the season on the disabled list and was strafed for four home runs by minor-league hitters in a simulated game on Sunday. Projections of a mid-April activation would seem overly optimistic.

        Pete Harnisch, the Reds' leading winner a year ago, was scratched from his last start because of back spasms, and did little to relieve organizational anxiety when he threw at the Reds' complex Monday morning.

        “Gully thought he was throwing better,” McKeon said. “I'll take his word for that. I saw him toward the end when he was tailing off a little.”

        Steve Avery, projected as the team's No.5 starter, allowed his eighth home run of the spring Monday afternoon against Boston, and walked five hitters in six innings. Though he won the game, control problems coupled with declining velocity is a recipe for early showers.

        A pitching rotation that inspired confidence only a few weeks ago is lately looked on with dread. McKeon's off-season optimism has been tempered by hard truths.

        “I'm not worried,” he said, standing on the dugout steps at City of Palms Park. “I'm concerned. I don't know if that means the same thing. If we get good pitching, we've got a chance to win. The health of the pitching is the big thing.”

        No team — not even the Atlanta Braves — has much margin for error where pitching is concerned. A single sore arm can be catastrophic if it means more innings for second-rate hurlers. With Neagle down and Harnisch dubious, Brett Tomko stands to inherit the Reds' Opening Day start. Tomko has a 6.23 ERA this spring.

        Hope springs eternal. So, however, does worry. Should the Reds stumble out of the starting gate, there may soon be pressure to slash payroll. What was anticipation a month ago could be apathy a month from now. McKeon's interest in Nomo may not be strictly needling.

        “A guy like that?” McKeon said. “I don't know. We don't need another reclamation project. We need someone who we can count on to go out there injury free.”

        Someone attempted to change the subject and brighten the mood, pointing out the production McKeon has ben getting from bench players like Jeffrey Hammonds and Chris Stynes.

        “All those options are great,” he said, “but not if you don't get anybody out. I need to have somebody on the mound.”

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail at tsullivan@enquirer.com.