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Bowden makes big move at right time

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July 15

For a moment, Reds general manager Jim Bowden thought about playing Drew Henson in Detroit's Comerica Park, the Reds' second stop on their post-break schedule. "But then I looked at how close we are to the wild card," says Bowden, "and knew that it just wouldn't be fair to our players or to Drew." So Bowden hopped on a plane Saturday and headed to Chattanooga to watch his new Double-A third baseman.

Even the critics among his GM peers admit that what the Reds general manager pulled off with the Yankees was a stroke of genius. "I have to give Jim credit," says one GM. "He knew what, where and when he had in (Denny) Neagle and used him to get a deal most of us never thought possible." Wednesday morning, Bowden had to tell the other ardent suitors -- the Braves, Cardinals, Blue Jays and Mets -- that they simply couldn't match what the Yankees had on the table. Atlanta's John Schuerholz went back to Plan A(shby), the rest went back to the phones and Neagle went to New York.

Danny Graves
Danny Graves leads a long list of quality young players in the Reds system.

Bowden is sailing a treacherous course, tacking and jibing to keep his $45 million boat in competition with those twice his size and cost. His grand scheme is to have one of the best teams in baseball in 2003 when the Reds move into their new ballpark -- and with Ken Griffey Jr., seven of Baseball America's preseason top 72 prospects and the cash freed to sign some high-profile draft choices he may have done just that.

Was the Neagle deal that brought in Henson, Jackson Melian, Ed Yarnall and Brian Reith a white flag for 2000? No, it's more of a caution flag. The Reds realistically are not going to catch the Cardinals. Can they hang in the wild-card race with the Mets and the boys from the West? Maybe, maybe not.

But give Bowden credit. The Reds received much hype after the acquisition of Griffey and then underachieved in the first half and fell double digits behind St. Louis, the general manager did not pawn the blame off on the manager and fire Jack McKeon when it seemed expedient; Bowden fronted the heat. Then when he made the deal and even his son J.B. suggested he wanted to stay home as not to hear about trading Neagle from his friends, Bowden stepped front and center, made the announcement and answered any and all questions.

On July 6, Bowden called around to virtually every team in baseball. "He called and let us know that he'd talk about anyone on his 25-man roster except Griffey, (Pokey) Reese and (Danny) Graves," says another GM. "He got the jump, and got a lot of people that were drifting into the break moving. He may trigger some other deals with his energy."

Neagle was the prime chip because of the scarcity of pitching, and when the Yankees became certain they couldn't get Curt Schilling, they moved in ahead of the Braves and others. Bowden talked Pete Harnisch and Steve Parris with several teams. The A's flew their top talent evaluator into Cincinnati last weekend and got into the hunt for Scott Williamson, although Bowden's request for left-hander Barry Zito and right-hander Jesus Colome is pretty stiff.

He talked to the Dodgers and others about Barry Larkin; the morning after Melvin Mora muffed a ninth-inning ground ball as part of a tough 4-3 Mets loss in Boston, New York GM Steve Phillips was on the line throwing his hat into the Larkin sweepstakes. The Mariners talked about several players, including catcher Eddie Taubensee. The Red Sox, who had said they had "no interest" in Neagle, called and pursued Dmitri Young as Bowden aides de camp, Tim Naehring and Gary Hughes, tried to pick out a three-player combination from the Boston organization.

Meanwhile, the fans in Cincinnati weren't as outraged as Bowden expected. They knew that the club had offered Neagle, 82-40 the last six seasons, $18 million for three years and he had turned it down after Brad Radke got $36 million for four years. The fans understood Neagle was likely to explore the market an they think Bowden got a bargeload of talent.

First, Henson, who has been likened to Scott Rolen. There was a report Thursday that he was so upset at being traded out of the Yankees organization that he would refuse to report to Chattanooga and proceed early to Michigan, where he begins football practice on August 1. So, Friday morning Drew's father, Dan -- a former quarterback coach and IMG football representative -- called Bowden and assured him his son would play on the weekend. "Drew didn't sign to play for the Yankees, he signed to play baseball because he loves baseball," said the elder Henson.

Everyone knows there is a lot of leveraging going on. If, indeed, Drew Henson is a first-round quarterback, Dan Henson knows Chad Pennington just got a $4 million signing bonus and what that means to his son's leverage against baseball. But the family and agent Brian Peters were up front with Bowden and assured him that unlike John Elway and Deion Sanders, Drew is baseball player first and quarterback second and that this was a big gamble for a small-market franchise stuck right in the middle of Big Ten Country. And, hey, if the leverage gets too costly, Bowden could always ship Henson to the Yankees or Tigers.

Then there's 20-year-old outfielder Jackson Melian. "We think he's going to develop Mondesi power," says Bowden. "He's a legitimate right fielder who can throw and run. He hits, he steals bases and we see him developing big-time power because the ball jumps off his bat." Eddie Yarnall needed out of New York, where he was supposed to be in the Yankee rotation before back problems slowed him in spring training. Bowden kept asking the Yankees for left-hander Alex Graman, knowing he's their phenom de jour and that George Steinbrenner won't deal him (now), then accepted right-hander Brian Reith, who leads the Florida State league in ERA.

The money freed up should enable the Reds to sign the four players they took in the first two rounds of the June draft -- SS/OF David Espinoza, RHP Clint Mosely, C Dane Sardinha and LHP Ryan Snare. Espinoza and Sardinha are Scott Boras clients, but both are highly talented and were rated far better than they were selected. So, by 2003, Bowden could have moved in players like Henson, OF Adam Dunn, IF Gookie Dawkins, Melian, Sardinha and Espinoza and have them all with low-service time.

But in 2000? "We may not be as good as we played last year," says Bowden, "but we're not as bad as we've played in the first half of this season." He knows Sean Casey will hit. He knows that the .247 Griffey hit from All-Star break 1999 to All-Star break 2000 is an aberration, and that he could carry the team on his back the rest of the season. Pitching is a problem, unless someone like the Dodgers deal Darren Dreifort and Eric Gagne, which is unlikely because of the pitching market and the poor farm system Kevin Malone inherited.

In the race, out of the race, Bowden will tack or jibe as his instincts dictate. "It's exciting," he says. And no one knows where he'll go next.

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