Commentary

It's a changing of the guard with Reds

With Griffey and Dunn no longer around, Reds now filled with youthful energy

Originally Published: March 17, 2009
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Junior Griffey is at the other end of the baseball solar system now, playing the homecoming king in Seattle.

Adam Dunn is a brand new Washingtonian now, kinda like Albert Haynesworth … and that Obama guy.

[+] EnlargeJay Bruce
Rob Tringali/Getty ImagesJay Bruce, 21, had 52 RBIs in 108 games for the Reds last season.

But back in Cincinnati Reds country, back in the franchise Dunn and Junior left behind, life sure is different. Couldn't possibly be more different.

And, most importantly, needed to be different.

One minute, the face of this franchise was a man with 611 career home runs. The next minute, we find a team whose whole lineup doesn't own 611 career home runs.

One minute, the face of this franchise was The Greatest Player of His Generation. The next minute, we realize that Junior Griffey probably has toothbrushes older than the current faces of this franchise.

There's Jay Bruce, age 22. And Joey Votto, age 25. There's Edinson Volquez, age 25. And Johnny Cueto, age 23. And there's the old-timer in this group, Brandon Phillips, age 27.

We're not sure it's even fair to call these guys the new faces of the Reds franchise, not when almost nobody outside the 513 area code could pick their mugs out of a Facebook montage.

But let us be the first to warn you: There's something happening here in Reds Land. Something building. Something growing.

There's as much spring buzz about the Reds as there is about any team in Florida. And frankly, Griffey and Dunn needed to get out of the way for that buzz -- and this team -- to prosper.

"Not to take anything away from Griff and Dunn, because they're outstanding guys, and they were good guys on this team," manager Dusty Baker said. "But when you lose something, sometimes it permits you, or forces you, to grow."

It's not always a bad thing when life moves on. It's not always a good thing, either. But it is always a necessary thing.

No one plays forever. No one stays forever.

Even Junior.

So we come here not to bury Kenneth Griffey Jr. We come here not to dredge up all the disappointments associated with the eight straight losing seasons he spent in Cincinnati before getting traded to the White Sox in July 2008.

We come here just to say it was time. Time to go.

He needed to go. The Reds needed him to go. And they needed Dunn to move along right there with him.

To explain why, we just have to tell the story of the team that won the most recent World Series, and what has happened to it since July 30, 2006.

That was the day the Phillies traded their own veteran centerpiece player, Bobby Abreu, to the Yankees. They sure didn't trade him because they thought the most advanced prospects they got back -- C.J. Henry and Matt Smith -- were their tickets to a brighter tomorrow. Heck, neither one of them is even in the system anymore.

Nope, the Phillies traded Abreu for one basic reason: to get him out of the way. Out of Jimmy Rollins' way. Out of Chase Utley's way. Out of Ryan Howard's way.

They became a different team that day. A team with a whole different personality, a whole different chemistry, a whole different energy level, a whole different aura.

They've gone 51 games over .500 (219-168) since that trade and won a World Series. It's not all because Rollins, Utley and Howard took over that team after they no longer had to defer to their most visible veteran star. But it's a big part of their story.

And if you look closely, it's not hard to envision a very similar phenomenon erupting in Cincinnati.

Scouts who have followed the Reds this spring have talked nonstop about the energy that seems to jump off the field at you when you watch them. That'll happen when you build a team around a bunch of 20-something energizers, especially when those 20-something energizers look around and realize this is now their team.

"It is their team, to mold and develop into a championship-caliber team for the long run," GM Walt Jocketty said. "And that's basically what we're trying to do -- build this team for the long haul."

Jocketty took over in April 2008 from the previous GM, Wayne Krivsky, who was abruptly, and unjustly, fired by owner Bob Castellini despite putting much of this core in place.

[+] EnlargeJoey Votto
AP Photo/Tony DejakJoey Votto, 25, led the Reds with a .368 on-base percentage last year.

But it was Jocketty who traded away Griffey and Dunn last summer. It was Jocketty who tweaked this roster over the winter by upgrading at catcher (in ex-Oriole Ramon Hernandez) and adding a sprint champ in center field (ex-Rockie Willy Taveras). But mostly, Jocketty recognized it was time to empower this team's young stars to take charge.

That means building a rotation around Volquez and Cueto, who combined for 364 strikeouts in 370 innings last year. And it means slapping a photo of Phillips -- the only second baseman in baseball to average 20 homers and 25 steals a year over the past three seasons -- on the cover of the media guide.

But above all, it means opening the door for Votto and Bruce to flip that stardom switch the whole sport has been waiting for.

Votto and Bruce undoubtedly could have flipped that switch whether they were surrounded by Griffey and Dunn or not. But their departure seems to have created a whole new climate that makes the transition to that next generation easier on everyone.

"Those two guys [Griffey and Dunn] were great, but there's just a different feeling here now," Jocketty said. "Guys, I think, are able to express themselves without always having to be looking over their shoulder."

And that's exactly how this is supposed to work. Bruce and Votto continue to talk about both Griffey and Dunn in a tone that borders on reverence. Dunn, said Votto, was "a star." And Junior, he laughed, was "an uber-star." And "I looked up to both of them."

Bruce, meanwhile, spent much of his life idolizing Griffey … even tried, when he was 9 years old, to phone Junior in the Mariners' clubhouse. So that hero worship hasn't faded. It's only the clubhouse dynamic that revolved around Griffey's presence that Bruce refers to in the past tense.

"Being with Adam and Ken, they're two of my favorite people ever," said Bruce, the Reds' first-round pick in the 2005 draft. "They're unbelievable guys, and extraordinary at what they do on a baseball field. But they kind of ran the show, even without running the show. They didn't really have to say anything. They still were like the leaders. Things were kind of just -- I don't know -- a little more, uhhh, veteran-y."

Officially, Merriam-Webster doesn't consider "veteran-y" to be an actual word, by the way. But in the dictionary of bats and balls, it just about says it all.

In baseball, teams can't help but take on the personality of their most talented, most visible and most dominant players. So without Griffey and Dunn to set that tone, it frees players like Votto and Bruce to put their own stamps on their team's persona.

"I haven't really seen that yet, because we haven't really spent a whole lot of time without Ken and Adam," Bruce said. "But I feel like that's the direction where we're going. I think people deferred to them, tried to make sure they were doing things right in those people's eyes."

Bruce's natural charisma and Votto's intense drive for greatness would fit any team's definition of leadership qualities. But that doesn't mean they're ready to take over the clubhouse right this minute, either. And it wouldn't make sense for anyone to force them to.

Dusty Baker Not to take anything away from [Ken Griffey Jr.] and [Adam Dunn], because they're outstanding guys, and they were good guys on this team. But when you lose something, sometimes it permits you, or forces you, to grow.

-- Reds manager Dusty Baker

One of Baker's favorite expressions is "I don't believe leadership is appointed. I think it's anointed." So for now, he's just letting this team's mix evolve, and letting the talents of his two middle-of-the-order prodigies emerge.

Bruce was Baseball America's 2007 Minor League Player of the Year. And for a while there, after the Reds airlifted him into Cincinnati in May 2008, he was making life in the big leagues look way too easy. But a funny thing happened to him after he hit .457 with three homers, four doubles and a 1.293 OPS in his first 12 games: Reality set in.

He batted only .229 -- with a .280 on-base percentage and .697 OPS -- the rest of the way. And even though he wound up hitting 21 homers and finishing fifth in rookie of the year voting, he says, flatly, those numbers were "not OK with me."

"Jay's a guy," Votto said, "who always wants to be the best player on the field. He's always wanted to be the best player at every level he's ever played at, and he has been."

But Votto hasn't exactly been a big fan of mediocrity himself. In Double-A in 2006, he won the Southern League MVP award. In Triple-A in 2007, he was the International League Rookie of the Year. And last year in the big leagues, he hit .297, bombed 24 homers and 32 doubles, slugged .506 and finished second to Geovany Soto in rookie of the year voting.

People around the Reds see players gravitating toward Votto, though he's far from the loudest voice in the room. And that's not just because he's really only "sneaky, fake quiet," Bruce quips.

"I look up to him," Bruce said of his pal Votto. "Before last year, I worked. I worked hard on hitting. But I didn't have a routine. I didn't really know how to consistently work at hitting. But he's taught me how to have a routine. And that's been good. He's young. He hits left-handed. We're good friends. So I look up to him. But don't think for a second we don't [rip] each other all the time."

It's all working out exactly how the Reds would have drawn it up: Two young impact talents, arriving together, feeding off each other and driving each other to reach for the stars.

"I talk to Jay all the time about this," Votto said. "Myself and Jay, we have a responsibility to become the type of players we expect to be, and [to reach] our potential. I'm sure a lot of people expect big things from Jay and me. But more importantly, Jay and myself think we're going to play well, and we are where we belong. Whether or not that's going to happen remains to be seen. But I think it is. And we both work very hard, and we both push each other because we know the competitiveness between us leads to good things on the field."

Where it will lead this year, though, who knows? This team is still far from a finished product.

It hasn't replaced the offense it got from Dunn and Griffey, and it scored 151 fewer runs than the Cubs last season, even with those two around for most of the year. But it figures to be vastly better defensively, especially in the outfield corners and at shortstop, to which Alex Gonzalez returns after missing all last year with a fractured kneecap.

And with a rotation fronted by Volquez, Cueto, Bronson Arroyo and a trimmed-down, healthier Aaron Harang, this figures to be no worse than the second-best rotation in the division. And a bullpen that finished third in the league in relief ERA returns practically intact. So this team should, at the very least, not have anywhere near the run-prevention issues that torpedoed its season last year.

But with all these young, star-caliber talents on the cusp of figuring it out, there's an upside here that reminds one of this team's new additions, outfielder Jonny Gomes, of the juggernaut he played for last year: the Rays.

"I keep saying how much this club reminds me of that club," Gomes said. "It really does. … I think we're under the radar right now, which is good. That's what we had on our side with the Rays: kind of sneaking up on people. In September we were 4½ games up and we were still sneaking up on people. No one believed it all the way, and I could see that happening here."

Baker, for his part, isn't making any of those grandiose predictions. But Jocketty says his manager is "re-energized" by the makeup of this club. And Baker says even his daughter, Natosha, told him recently, "I haven't heard you this excited in a long time."

"You know what it is?" the manager said, at his poet-laureate best. "It's the satisfaction of building something, whether it's a new house, or a science project, or planting some roses and then you see them blossom in the spring. You know that feeling?"

Well, whether you do or not, something feels like it's blossoming here, all because a new crop of Reds is ready to take over the whole blooming garden.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com