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02/10/09 1:14 PM EST

Left pondering: Decision time for Reds

No fewer than five names in mix for vacant corner outfield spot

CINCINNATI -- For many years, the Reds could have written Adam Dunn's name in the lineup for left field not just in ink, but in cement.

Once Dunn became established in the Majors in 2002, he was generally a lock to play 150-160 games, hit 40 home runs, drive in 100 runs and score 100 runs. But as he prepared to head off for free agency, the Reds traded the longtime No. 44 to the Diamondbacks in August for three players, including pitcher Micah Owings.

When manager Dusty Baker fills out his lineup card this season, he will be bypassing ink or cement. Baker will instead likely need a pencil and eraser as he decides among names like Jerry Hairston Jr., Chris Dickerson, Jonny Gomes and perhaps Jacque Jones or Norris Hopper.

"We'll see. Right now it's a situation where I will have to see," Baker said recently.

After the 2008 season ended, the Reds identified a right-handed-hitting run producer for left field as a top offseason priority. But for numerous reasons, they were never able to find the right fit. The club's prudence in not wanting to part with big dollars or promising players to get someone, didn't score points with frustrated fans. Realistically, however, none of the names rumored or linked to Cincinnati this winter appeared to be the dramatic difference-makers that would have assured contention.

So while Jay Bruce is a lock to man right field and free-agent acquisition Willy Taveras patrols center field, left field will be a more fluid situation in 2009. Heading into Spring Training, the job could be a three-way platoon among the right-handed Hairston and Gomes and left-handed-hitting Dickerson.

"Depending on who is pitching, it'd be one of those three guys probably," Reds general manager Walt Jocketty recently said.

While Dunn was essentially a mortal lock to hit 40 homers and drive in 100 runs per season, the Hairston-Gomes-Dickerson trio combined to hit exactly 20 homers last season. Only Gomes has ever hit at least 20 homers on his own or driven in 50 runs in a season.

Although each candidate will demonstrate more range and be a defensive improvement over Dunn in left field, they all bring pros and cons offensively.

After signing a Minor League deal during Spring Training last year following two poor seasons, Hairston emerged as a nice surprise. In 80 games at six different positions, the 32-year-old batted .326 with six home runs, 36 RBIs and 15 stolen bases. When he led off the lineup, the Reds had a 25-19 record. Hairston, who is also insurance at shortstop should Alex Gonzalez have a setback in his return from a season off, would probably bat second behind Taveras when he plays.

"I don't want to make predictions or judgments before going down there [to camp]. We have an open mind about this."
-- GM Walt Jocketty

The big knock on Hairston over the years has been durability, and the injury bug bit him often in 2008. He missed 44 games over three stints on the disabled list with a broken left thumb and twice had a strained right hamstring.

Dickerson, who was primarily a center fielder in the Minors, was called up the day after Dunn's trade and dazzled in the Majors. In 31 games, the speedy 26-year-old batted .304 with six homers, 15 RBIs and a .413 on-base percentage. But there are questions about whether Dickerson's numbers were an anomaly since they're superior to anything he had previously produced in the Minors.

Durability is also a question some have with Dickerson, who is coming off September surgery to remove a piece of bone from a stress fracture in his left ankle. He's also had several procedures performed on his way up the organization.

Gomes, who signed a Minor League contract with a big league camp invite, was non-tendered by the Rays after a 2008 season, during which he batted .182 with eight homers and 21 RBIs in 77 games. The rough year saw him left off Tampa Bay's postseason roster.

Yet there is upside that could be mined for a player that is still just 28 years old. Gomes, who would earn $600,000 if he makes the team out of camp, is still trying to match the production of his 2005 rookie season, when he batted .282 with 21 home runs and 54 RBIs in 101 games with the Rays. He has a history of being streaky and is prone to strikeouts.

The outfield situation got more interesting last week, when former Twins star Jacque Jones signed a Minor League deal that could be worth $600,000 if he makes the 25-man roster. Jones batted .300 with 27 homers and 85 RBIs for Minnesota in 2002, and had nearly identical totals with the Cubs in 2006, when he hit 27 homers and drove in 81 runs.

But it's been a steep offensive decline since. Last season, Jones batted .147 in a combined 42 games with the Tigers and Marlins and was out of baseball by mid-June.

Jocketty offered no speculation about Jones' chances to break into the left-field competition.

"I don't want to make predictions or judgments before going down there [to camp]," Jocketty said. "We have an open mind about this."

Hopper, a speedy, infield-single specialist much like Taveras, is coming off an essentially lost 2008, during which he batted .200 in 26 games and had only 50 at-bats. He was on the disabled list twice in the first three months and was shut down for good in July to have ulnar collateral ligament surgery on his right elbow.

In 2006 and 2007, Hopper played himself into the Majors, but he'll have to prove himself all over again.

"I hope Hop comes to camp healthy," Baker said. "I really haven't seen the true Hop."

Everyone will have a chance to show what they can do in left field once position players report to camp next week, on Feb. 17.

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.