PHILADELPHIA - The Cincinnati Reds are finding out that great expectations aren't always so great. The arrival of superstar Ken Griffey Jr. was supposed to turn last year's 96-win wonder into a dominant playoff team, but instead has magnified disappointment over a .500 start.
Griffey has struggled to adjust to a new league. Fellow newcomer Dante Bichette is in a deep slump. The starting rotation needs a jump start. And all the while, the St. Louis Cardinals - the other greatly improved team in the National League Central - have been getting comfortable at the top of the standings.
The NL Central was supposed to be one of the deepest divisions in baseball, but it's more than a month into the 2000 season and the Cardinals are the only team playing well.
"I think you could probably look back at this time last year and say the same thing about the Houston Astros," said Reds manager Jack McKeon. "We were 9-14 in April last year."
If that is supposed to provide some consolation, it may only prove the point. The Astros went on to win the division. The Reds were 34 games over .500 from May1 until the end of the season and fell two games short of Houston - losing out on a wild-card postseason berth in a one-game playoff against the New York Mets.
Those games in April really do make a difference.
The Reds came within a few innings of the postseason and replaced cleanup hitter Greg Vaughn with two sluggers who combined for82 home runs and267 RBIs last year, but they still can't assume they will be better than the 1999 club.
"We can't think that way," McKeon said. "We won 96 games last year, and that was a team effort. It was a fantastic year, but that doesn't translate that you can do the same thing this year."
Still, when general manager Jim Bowden pulled off the February deal to add Griffey to an already improved lineup, there was no way to dial down the anticipation in Cincinnati. Now, the Reds - and their popular new leader - are having trouble living up to the hype.
Griffey enters tonight's game against the San Diego Padres with his batting average resting just above the Mendoza Line(.214). He has decent run-production numbers (nine home runs and28 RBIs), but it is clear he is not yet comfortable in his new surroundings.
Bichette has had even more trouble getting acclimated, even though he didn't have to change leagues when he was acquired from the Colorado Rockies. He merely changed altitude, and his offensive numbers have plummeted. He's batting.225 and has just three home runs in 111 at-bats.
If that hasn't been disappointing enough, budding offensive star Sean Casey returned from his breakthrough 1999 season to go the entire month of April without a home run or RBI.
The offensive inconsistency has been systemic. The Reds lineup is packed with good young hitters, but only second baseman Pokey Reese is off to a truly impressive start. The situation has been further complicated by the loss of veteran shortstop Barry Larkin, who is on the disabled list with a torn ligament in his left middle finger.
By the numbers
Still, it's hard to tell by the numbers whether the Reds are underachieving or playing over their heads. They are tied for11th in the National League in runs scored,12th in team ERA and ninthin fielding percentage, which would seem to indicate that they are fortunate to be a .500 club.
McKeon, the venerable baseball man who has seen it all during a half-century in the game, seems surprisingly unconcerned.
"We brought in 10 new players," McKeon said. "We did the same thing last year. It took about a month to get that camaraderie going and for things to fall into place.
"We're just starting to put it all together. You know it's just a matter of time before you get Casey hitting along with Griffey, Bichette and [Dmitri Young]. When that happens, look out."
Bichette, who had34 home runs and133 RBIs for the Rockies last year, said that time is about to arrive.
"There are some new faces here, myself included, but we're starting to play better," he said. "We're in second place with a .500 record, but I think we have a lot better club than that. It seems like everybody is off to a slow start, except Pokey, but that happens.
"The good thing is, if everybody is struggling together, we're probably all going to get hot at the same time. We're really expecting to get on a good run."
That might require a greater level of consistency from the starting rotation. Former Arundel High pitcher Denny Neagle has bounced back from an injury-marred 1999 season to win his first four decisions, and rookie Rob Bell has pitched well, but the rest of the starting staff has performed well below expectations.
Former Orioles pitcher Pete Harnisch hasyet to win a game and is on the disabled list with weakness in his shoulder, No.3 starter Steve Parris has lostfour of his first five decisions and left-hander Ron Villone is lucky to be 3-1, considering that opposing hitters are batting .323 against him.