Changes abound for Reds

From Danny Graves becoming a starting pitcher to Aaron Boone moving to second base, change is the key word in Cincinnati.

Originally Published: March 12, 2003
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Junior Griffey still plays center field in Cincinnati. Sean Casey still wears a first baseman's mitt. And you can still hear the dulcet tones of Marty Brennaman and Joe Nuxhall wafting out of the broadcast booth.

So we've proven conclusively that since last you saw the Cincinnati Reds, they haven't changed everything. But ...

They do have their old third baseman (Aaron Boone) playing second base. And they do have their old closer (Danny Graves) in the rotation. And if you're wandering around Pete Rose Way looking for the late, great Cinergy Field/Riverfront Stadium, better bring along a dust pan -- seeing as how they just imploded it.

Danny Graves
Danny Graves has already notched a remarkable 21 saves.

So what's next for the Reds this year? Adam Dunn playing tight end?

"Nah," says Boone. "He's too big to play tight end."

"Hey, I'd like to play the outfield," says Graves. "For an inning."

Well, on a team this innovative, you shouldn't rule out anything. But at the moment, the Reds have other plans for their one-time closer. Like trying to outdo Byung-Hyun Kim to become the first pitcher in history to start at least 30 games, after saving at least 30, in back-to-back seasons. Which is cool with Danny Graves, as soon as he remembers how to pitch out of a windup.

"I haven't used a windup since high school, in 1991," says Graves, who did make four starts for the Reds last September --and threw every pitch out of the stretch.

So Graves has spent his spring working with pitching coach Don Gullett on trying to learn --or re-learn --how to wind up, a project his teammates seem to find more amusing than Conan O'Brien.

"I tell the position players I'm learning the windup, and they laugh," says Graves, whose cohorts weren't laughing when he was saving more games (129) the last five years than any right-ander in Reds history. "So I say, 'Hey, you go out and try it.' Your release point is different. Your balance is different. Everything about it is different. It's like night and day."

But even Graves didn't appreciate how different it was until he arrived in Florida and started trying to figure out what kind of windup to use.

He knew he was never going to be able to do the El Duque-Rockettes leg kick. Or the Hideo Nomo slow-mo pirouette. Or anything that involved raising his hands all the way over his head. So what did that leave? Even Danny Graves wasn't sure.

From closer to starter
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no pitcher in history has ever started 30 games or more in a season after he saved 30 or more. But the East Valley (Ari.) Tribune's Ed Price reports that in recent years, three pitchers have come close:

2001-02: Derek Lowe -- 24 saves, 32 starts
1995-96: Rick Aguilera -- 32 saves, 19 starts
1975-76: Goose Goosage -- 26 saves, 29 starts
-- Jayson Stark

"Gully finally told me, 'Don't worry about what it looks like. Just try to go on feel,' " Graves reports. "So that's what I did, and it's been going a lot better. It might look like crap. But at least it feels good."

And in some ways, that's kind of the Reds' current team motto. They don't care what it looks like, or what it takes, to try to win with a payroll that will top out somewhere south of $60 million. But if it works, who cares?

So with Scott Williamson finally healthy enough to close, 2 years removed from Tommy John surgery, Graves can break his changeup out of cryogenic storage and head for the rotation at age 29 -- after pitching more innings (381 1/3) the last four years than any closer in baseball.

Meanwhile, with human power plant Brandon Larson poised to move into the lineup at third base and launch a bunch of fly balls that come down in Kentucky, Boone is making a right turn toward second base. Which has its risks, considering he has played exactly two games there in the major leagues (the last one five years ago) and 16 in the minor leagues.

"I did this for unselfish reasons," says Boone, who could win a lot of bar bets from people who have no idea he was voted the Reds' team MVP last year. "Hopefully, the reward will be that this works -- and we're playing for something down the stretch."

So will it work? History tells us it's very possible. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, four players in the last quarter-century have gone from being regulars at third base one year to regulars at second base the next -- Edgardo Alfonzo in 1999, Ryne Sandberg in 1983, Bill Madlock in 1978 and Vance Law in 1985. We don't think of any of them as being disasters.

And the Reds are confident that if Boone was athletic enough to play shortstop for 16 games last year, there is no reason he wouldn't be athletic enough to handle second base this year.

"I really loved playing third base," says the manager's kid. "And I feel like I was getting pretty damn good at it. So in some ways, I miss doing something that felt more free and easy, where I knew what I was doing and I could just react out there.

"I want to get to that point at second. But right now, I've still got to remind myself of a million things before every play happens. ... What distance do I need to be at for this right-handed hitter to be at comfortable double-play depth? How hard do I have to charge this ball to turn a double play? At third, I didn't have to worry about that. I just played."

He hasn't quite been Robbie Alomar this spring. But he's been fine. And after a year and a half of watching balls whiz by the previous second baseman, Todd Walker, the Reds envision Boone as an actual defensive upgrade once he settles in.

From third to second
As Aaron Boone and the Phillies' Placido Polanco attempt to move from third base to second, the Elias Sports Bureau reports that over the last three decades, four other players have played two-thirds of their team's games at third base one season, then played two-thirds of their team's games at second the next:

1998-99: Edgardo Alonzo (144 G at 3B, 158 G at 2B)
1998-99: Edgardo Alonzo (144 G at 3B, 158 G at 2B)
1984-85: Vance Law (137 G at 3B, 126 G at 2B)
1982-83: Ryne Sandberg (133 G at 3B, 157 G at 2B)
1977-78: Bill Madlock (126 G at 3B, 114 G at 2B)
1972-73: Dave Nelson (119 G at 3B, 140 G at 2B)
-- Jayson Stark

At 6-2, 195 pounds, Boone would be only the second man his size to play 140 games in a season at second base in the last 30 years. (The other was Scott Spiezio, for the 1997 A's.) But besides his athletic gifts, Boone has one other little-known skill that should serve him well in this move:

In the ranks of the great mimics of our times, he's practically baseball's Dana Carvey.

From the time he was a kid, hanging out in the Phillies' and Angels' clubhouses in the 1980s, Boone has been renowned for his ability to imitate just about anyone and anything he sees. So after all these years of watching and mimicking, he figures he must have absorbed some great second-base moves somewhere along the line.

"Since I was a little kid, I've always watched people intently and tried to mimic them," he says. "It's fair to say that all of that has influenced who I am as a player and as an adult.

"I can't tell you how many times I've walked by a TV and looked at a guy and said, 'Hmmm.' I've done that many times. It's one of those little things that can help you be better, or even get you out of a slump."

Last year, in fact, he caught a quick glimpse of a super-hot Paul Konerko on a TV highlight, "and something in his swing made sense to me." He tried it, got almost as hot himself and turned around his whole season.

Bet you didn't know Boone wound up as one of only four players in baseball with more than 25 homers, 30 steals and 65 extra-base hits. The others were Alfonso Soriano, Vladimir Guerrero and Carlos Beltran.

Graves, on the other hand, is working on doing some imitations of his own. Starting with Derek Lowe.

"I'm not saying I'll do the same thing as he did last year," Graves says. "But we are similar-type pitchers."

Right now, I've still got to remind myself of a million things before every play happens. ... What distance do I need to be at for this right-handed hitter to be at comfortable double-play depth? How hard do I have to charge this ball to turn a double play? At third (base), I didn't have to worry about that. I just played.
Aaron Boone, on learning to play second base

And while he's working on that impression, Graves wouldn't mind doing a mean impersonation of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and the rest of the old Braves rotation, too -- if not on the mound, then at least on the golf course, where he's now free to spend a lot more time, in those four days between starts. He says that impression has even been authorized by the manager, Bob Boone.

"Yeah," Graves quips. "Bob told me, 'We're not concerned with you throwing 200 innings or winning 20 games. But we would like to see your handicap get down to single digits by the end of the year.' So that's what I'm shooting for. My goal is to go out there for four days and dominate -- the golf course.

"Hey," laughs Danny Graves, "it worked for the Braves."

And once upon a time, many years ago, another position switch also worked for another guy named Boone. That would be Bob Boone, who started his career as a third baseman, too. Then the Phillies moved him someplace way tougher than second base -- to catcher.

"If I ever have to go from third base to catcher," his son chuckles, "it might be time to pack it in. Catcher -- that's a really dumb position."

But six months from now, if Graves is working on 15 wins, Williamson has 30 saves, Boone is a 30-30 guy and Larson looks like the answer at third base, that word -- "dumb" -- is one nobody will be using to describe those ever-changeable Cincinnati Reds.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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