Pressure is on several Reds this spring
Harang, Bruce, Dickerson, Owings, Burton out to prove
CINCINNATI -- Players going into Spring Training with something to prove is as long of a tradition as Spring Training itself.There is limited roster space and jobs are often on the line. And should a player's job not be in jeopardy during a particular camp, there are always a few prospects down below nipping at his heels to take it down the road. Then there are the players coming off of a rough year -- be it because of injuries, poor performance or both. As the Reds prepare to open camp in Goodyear, Ariz., in one week, there are a fair number of players seeking to make 2009 as forgettable as they want 2010 to be memorable. For these five Reds in particular, the heat is on and the pressure has been turned up another notch. Aaron Harang: For the Reds to have any hope at contending, they need their rotation ace to pitch like an ace again. In back-to-back years, Harang has produced six-win seasons and was tied for second in the National League with 14 losses last season. This was a pitcher who won 16 games in both 2007 and 2008 and had three straight 200-inning seasons. Not all of the setbacks were his fault, as Harang was the Reds' pitcher most victimized by his own lineup's lack of productivity last season. In his 26 starts, the lineup averaged only 3.42 runs per game. It scored two runs or fewer 12 times and was shut out twice. But there have also been mysterious dropoffs in performance after strong starts in each of the last two seasons. He wasn't the same after pitching in relief during an 18-inning game at San Diego in May 2008, and making his next start on schedule. Harang ended up pitching three times in an eight-day span and wound up on the disabled list later in the season with a strained forearm. Last season, also in late May, Harang waited out a two-hour rain delay with two outs in the fifth inning so he could get one more out and qualify for a victory. He was 5-4 with a 3.36 ERA through 10 starts after that game but went 1-10 with a 4.78 ERA over his final 16 starts before being shut down because of appendicitis on Aug. 22. Critics say he needs to be more aggressive and pitch inside more. The opposition batted .287 against him in 2009, and he has long been prone to allowing homers. Even if Harang has a bounceback season, this probably won't be one of his favorite years in the game. Due to make $12.5 million, he's in the final guaranteed season of his four-year, $36.5 million contract. There is a $12.75 million option for 2011 ($2 million buyout) but the 31-year-old could figure in Trade Deadline rumors if the Reds aren't playing well. He was already a fixture in offseason trade gossip that went nowhere. Jay Bruce: The 22-year-old right fielder, who turns 23 in April, batted just .223 with 22 home runs, 58 RBIs and a .303 on-base percentage in 101 games last season. Bruce's sophomore season was shortened when he missed two months with a fractured right wrist. He was already struggling around the .200 mark before that and frequently caused his own demise by swinging at bad pitches and striking out. Expectations remain high for Bruce, who will likely bat sixth again this season. But some of the pressure will be lessened with veterans like Scott Rolen and Orlando Cabrera in the lineup. If there is reason for optimism, it is due to Bruce's final 18 games of the 2009 season after he returned from the disabled list. He batted .326 (15-for-46) with four homers and 17 RBIs. Chris Dickerson: There is a wide open battle for the spot in left field, and Dickerson has a tenuous hold on the inside track. If there's a platoon situation, he could be the left-handed half at the least with a good camp. Dickerson, who turns 28 in April, is the best athlete on the team, and his numbers were solid last season after he batted .275 with a .370 on-base percentage. But manager Dusty Baker has been distrustful of his durability, for good reason. Limited to 97 games, Dickerson had two stints on the DL with a bruised rotator cuff and a torn ligament in his left ankle. Injuries have also nagged him throughout his rise up the system, and there have been multiple surgeries along the way. Dickerson batted .318 over 43 games before the ankle injury but still lacked the pop he displayed when he came on the scene in 2008. He had only two home runs in 2009. A natural in center field and a strong fielder there, Dickerson is less comfortable and confident in left field. He admitted to enduring a "learning experience" there last season. Center field shouldn't be totally out of the question, however. Should preseason favorite Drew Stubbs take a step backwards in camp, Dickerson could always move over and not miss a beat. Among the candidates in left field besides Dickerson are Chris Heisey, Wladimir Balentien, Laynce Nix, Josh Anderson, Todd Frazier and Juan Francisco. Jonny Gomes could be in the mix if he's re-signed before camp opens. Micah Owings: The right-hander claimed the fifth starter's spot with a terrific camp last year but didn't back it up in the regular season. Owings was 6-11 with a 5.74 ERA in 19 starts before he was demoted to the bullpen. His last seven appearances of 2009 came from the bullpen in middle/long relief. The fifth spot is wide open again this spring with Owings up against Justin Lehr, Matt Maloney, Travis Wood and Cuban phenom Aroldis Chapman among the candidates. Getting deep into games was something Owings rarely did. Only two of his starts lasted seven innings. He was 0-4 with a 10.90 ERA over his final four starts. One thing in Owings' favor is his hitting ability. He batted .259 (14-for-41) and slugged three home runs last season and is a .300 hitter over 116 games for his career. With him in the rotation, his bat can save the bench and he can pinch-hit between starts. If he ends up in the bullpen, he could pinch-hit before going out in relief. In part of three big league seasons, Owings is 21-29 with a 5.08 ERA. It's time for him to show his arm is as good or better than his bat. Jared Burton: In his rookie season in 2007, Burton posted a 2.51 ERA in 47 appearances and emerged as the primary setup man for the club by midseason. In 2008, Burton was 5-1 with a 3.22 ERA in 54 appearances despite missing several weeks with an injury. In 2009, Burton lost his footing in the back end of the bullpen as he posted a 4.40 ERA in 53 games with 14 of his 38 inherited runners scoring. Meanwhile, Nick Masset emerged and became the main right-hander in the late innings. Twice, Burton was optioned to Triple-A, and he also endured a stint on the DL with right shoulder fatigue and asthma issues. This season, Burton will have to show all over again that he can hold down late-inning leads so he's not relegated to a lesser role or mopup work. The end of last season was promising. He had a 1.20 ERA over his last 15 appearances and didn't allow a run over his final nine games.
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.