If the Cincinnati Reds are finally on the road back to the perennial contender's role they enjoyed throughout most of the 1970s, a key factor will be the young outfield trio of Eric Davis, Kal Daniels, and Tracy Jones. The names may not be too familiar yet, but these three young stars have shown so much promise that the Reds seem ready to build a dynasty around them.
``We're not going to win anything with just three players,'' says manager Pete Rose, ``but they're three of the best young players in baseball. They could be the backbone of the team.''
A look at last year's statistics helps explain Rose's great expectations. Davis converted a mere 415 trips to the plate into 27 homers, 71 RBIs, 97 runs scored, and 80 stolen bases. Daniels and Jones played less than half the season each but hit .320 and .347 respectively.
Imagining such performances over an entire season is mind-boggling. But the way things are going this spring, it is hardly out of the question. Indeed, the Reds' early surge to the top of the National League West standings has been fueled to a significant degree by this trio.
With the veteran Dave Parker a fixture in right field for now, Rose has been playing Davis in center and platooning the left-handed hitting Daniels and the right-handed Jones in left field. The results have been spectacular, to say the least.
Davis, widely regarded as the game's next superstar, was leading the majors at this writing in batting (.411), RBIs (27), and home runs (12) - the latter figure reached when he smashed three in one game against Philadelphia Sunday. Daniels was also among the home run leaders with 8, while Jones, making the most of a part-time role, was batting close to .400, tearing up the basepaths, and needling Rose to invent a fourth outfield position.
A more likely alternative is the eventual switch of Parker to first base, a move that would also save Dave the wear and tear of playing the outfield and perhaps prolong his career. Parker prefers staying put right now, and is quick to defend his territory, but he is also quick to praise his heirs apparent. ``All of them have outstanding abilities and a very bright future,'' he says.
Meanwhile, the Reds don't really mind the overcrowded condition of their outfield. ``It's a problem that a lot of teams would like to have,'' says Davis.
And while the situation exists, adds Rose, the 35-year-old Parker serves as an excellent professor to his junior teammates. ``They all benefit from playing with him,'' Pete points out. ``He's like an on-the-field coach.''
As for Davis, Daniels, and Jones, the Reds are most impressed by the quantities of power and speed that all three youngsters possess. Belying the stereotype of slow-footed sluggers and light-hitting speedsters, this gang bedevils opposing teams by scoring as effectively via the stolen base as with the long ball.
This combination holds especially true for the 24-year-old Davis, who is in his fourth big-league season.
``Eric is one of the premier all-around players of all time,'' raves Parker. Rose seconds the motion, ``I can't imagine anyone with more raw talent. He's legitimately the only guy who could lead the league in home runs and stolen bases.''
Davis takes a more cautious view. Of last year's accomplishments he declares, ``I'm content but not satisfied.''
``This year will be tougher,'' he warns, `` because pitchers already have seen me and know what I can do.'' So far, though, it seems to have been Davis who has benefitted most from such familiarity.
The other two aren't far behind. General manager Bill Bergesch, the team's principal architect, projects the 23-year-old Daniels as a league batting champion. And for Jones, who just turned 26, he figures ``the sky is the limit.''
The emergence of three young stars when the Reds needed them most is no coincidence, for in an era when many teams go for ``quick fixes'' via trades or free agents, the Reds have depended on their farm system to recover from their mediocre seasons in the early 1980s.
The team hasn't rushed the process either. ``I started at 18,'' recalls Daniels, ``and they told me when I signed that they were going to work me up through the system even though I had good offensive numbers.''
The result has been worth waiting for, confirms Rose, ``These guys are bona fide big leaguers. I don't expect them to stumble through this year and make young players' mistakes. I know they're fundamentally sound.''
All that remains is for the Reds' outfield of the future to fulfill all those high hopes - a situation that makes Davis reply, ``We can't go out and try to live up to anyone's expectations.''
Rose has put the challenge in different terms. ``I told them they could be as good as they want to be. I'll just be writing their names in the lineup,'' he says. ``Some guys respond and some don't. I think they will.''