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Interview: Barry Larkin Likes Pirates' Pitching, But Picks Brewers To Win N.L. Central

Last week, Pepsi MAX offered me the opportunity to talk to Reds great and Baseball Tonight analyst Barry Larkin for 10 minutes, and of course I accepted - it isn't often that I get the chance to talk to a future Hall-of-Famer. 10 minutes isn't a lot of time, obviously, and there were a lot more topics I wish we could have covered, like the Reds' World Series run in 1990, when they beat the Pirates in the NLCS. But I'm thrilled that I got to talk to him at all. Read on as Larkin discusses the Pirates' chances in 2011, his pick to win the N.L. Central, and the biggest difference between the game now and when he started playing in 1986. 

Tell me about what you're doing for Pepsi MAX.

It's called the Pepsi MAX Field of Dreams Campaign. We've got players on the ballot at each position. There's six outfielders and three position players at each position. People get a chance to vote for their team that they would like to compete against. Whoever wins that opportunity, from the fans' perspective, gets to play against a team of Hall-of-Famers and guys like myself, in their community. So [it's] a really fun program, and people can vote 25 times. There's guys like myself, Ozzie Smith and Cal Ripken at shortstop, and Ken Griffey Jr., and I don't know if there are any Bucs on that ballot, but certainly, an opportunity to play against the living legends.

My campaign - my mini-campaign against this huge campaign - is, vote for the young guys that can still actually play and beat your brains out. I was talking to some of the pitchers, and they were [saying], "There's no friendly game." Carlton Fisk told me, "There's no friendly game of baseball." You've seen some of the commercials. It's a fun deal, and [I'm] really looking forward to going out there and getting a chance to play somebody in their hometown.

Speaking of the Hall of Fame, what do you think of your chances of [being admitted] in 2012?

Well, hopefully they're good. [I've] been trending upward the past couple of years. You know, who's to say? I would love to be in the Hall of Fame, but I'm very honored to be on the ballot and in consideration. Hopefully it happens soon.

How was the transition from playing to be an analyst? What kind of training did you receive, and what were your biggest anxieties about it?

I think the best advice I got was just to be true to what I believe, and don't try to make anything up for TV. [The importance of] speaking from personal experience is probably the best bit of advice that I [received]. I try to make sure that I'm critical of the play, as opposed to being critical of the player. With those two things, I've been quite comfortable in the transition. Now, of course, execution is always the issue, and being able to condense my thoughts and be very pointed in my conversation is always a challenge, especially working at ESPN. Now, when I worked at [the MLB Network] we had much more time to talk about things, but at ESPN, because it's a much shorter timetable, we have to be much more focused and concise.

The Reds had nine straight losing seasons prior to 2011, including the last few years of your career, and the Pirates are in the midst of 18 straight losing seasons. What do you think of the outlook for major-league teams in smaller cities like Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, assuming that the Collective Bargaining Agreement doesn't change much?

You're going to have polarity within the game. You're going to have teams that spend a lot of money that have a chance to win. And you're going to have teams that don't spend the money that have a chance to win. It's about executing on the field. I think what Clint Hurdle has done in Pittsburgh is so impressive, because it's not about the payroll, it's about pitching. Certainly pitching and payroll are related. If you have pitching, you have a chance to win, [then] you're probably going to increase your payroll. But it's all about developing those pitchers, and Pittsburgh made some great trades and has got tremendous prospects. Hopefully they'll be able to keep them together, and in order to keep them together, they're probably going to have to increase the payroll. 

So the Collective Bargaining Agreement is what it is. It's about the money that you have, and being smart with the way that it's allocated. So when you don't have as much at your disposal, you just have to be a little smarter about how you allocate it. And it's all about pitching. So if you can build your teams around pitching, then you can have a chance to win every single year. That's what's happening with Pittsburgh right now. It's about Neil Walker, it's about Andrew McCutchen, it's about those guys playing well behind Kevin Correia, and Paul Maholm, and those types of pitchers - Jeff Karstens - that give you a chance to win every single day. 

It starts at the top. Once again, Clint has done a great job of saying, 'It's unacceptable for us to not play the way that we're capable.' I don't know if that has happened in the past, but you certainly see a difference. That's the case in Pittsburgh, and that's the case in Cincinnati.

So who's your pick in the N.L. Central this year?

If I have to go out on a limb, I'm going to say it's the Milwaukee Brewers. I think with their offense, the pitching they have - with Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, and Yovani Gallardo. I like Chris Narveson, I like Randy Wolf - I think he is a veteran presence [who] can give them a chance to win. I like them, especially with their offense. That's not to say that they're going to win it, but on paper, if you look at them, I think they're the team that's going to eventually put it together.

Now, I think St. Louis is going to be there. Chris Carpenter hasn't been Carpenter yet. Albert Pujols obviously was out, and when Albert was out, no one really ran away with it. I think Pittsburgh is going to be competitive throughout the year, although I don't know whether they're ready to win at this particular time. Cincinnati's going to be there, but they've been kind of treading water. I don't think the Cubs have a chance to win because there's too much turmoil there, and I don't think the Astros are going to win, because I don't think they have enough talent. But it's a four-team race, and I think it will go down to the end.

What have been the biggest changes in the game since you started playing?

I don't know if there's been too many changes. The game is still the game. One thing I've noticed is that there's more of a premium on getting younger players to the big leagues. I think guys haven't had the luxury of going to the minor leagues and failing in the minor leagues in order to increase their experience level. I think there's a rush to get players to the big leagues because of the investment in the players that's being made nowadays. Unfortunately for some of these players, I think there is less of a fundamental base, so I think you see a lot of guys crash much harder than [they] did in the past because they don't have as much experience, and they're competing as opposed to going to the minor leagues and failing and learning through their failures. 

Which current shortstops impress you the most, defensively?

Oh, wow. Defensively. I mean, Asdrubal Cabrera, the things that he's been able to do. Alex Gonzalez in the National League is one of my favorites to watch. Alcides Escobar. Troy Tulowitzki is impressive because of how big he is. 

There are great shortstops in the game ... Hanley Ramirez is having an off year, and hopefully he'll be able to get back to where he normally is. [There are] young shortstops that are coming, and Jose Reyes has been very impressive this year ever since David Wright went down. There are plenty of guys to watch, and the game is in good hands. Let's just put it that way.