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Wednesday, March 30, 2005; Page H14

It has been nearly five years since Ken Griffey Jr. or the Cincinnati Reds mattered in any significant way. But there seems to be a chance that one or both of them can change that this season.

Griffey, on his way back from yet another injury rehabilitation -- this time surgery to repair a torn hamstring -- has looked both healthy and productive this spring. And the Reds, not completely coincidentally, are talking like contenders.

Well, which is less unlikely -- Griffey playing a full season and putting up numbers like the 1990s Griffey? Or the Reds returning to contention following four years in which they averaged nearly 90 losses?

The surprise signing of lefty Eric Milton this winter was an inspired move -- provided the fly-ball specialist isn't undone by the homer-happy tendencies of Great American Ballpark. Likewise, right-hander Paul Wilson and newcomer Ramon Ortiz are solid in the number two and three slots.

And there is little doubt the Reds will score lots of runs, especially if Griffey remains healthy. Big Adam Dunn seems capable of a 50-homer season at Cincy's little bandbox, and the Reds actually have enough productive outfielders to entertain trading away Wily Mo Peña.

In all likelihood, the NL Central is just a little too deep and the Reds just a little too shaky, pitching-wise, for them to leapfrog three teams and win the division this season. But don't be surprised if they're in the mix longer than you might have expected.

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