Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Spring 2007 [Print without images]

Thursday, February 22, 2007
Around the Cactus League

Associated Press

San Francisco Giants: Russ Ortiz expects nothing less than to be in San Francisco's rotation as the fifth starter this season. That's why he returned to the comfort of his former club for 2007, and the Giants brought him back because they believe he can fill that void. Still, San Francisco isn't ready to name Ortiz a starter just yet -- and manager Bruce Bochy has said it still might be well into March before the Giants announce a decision.

The team is taking a serious look at rookie left-hander Jonathan Sanchez, who went 3-1 in four starts with a 4.95 ERA during his brief stint in the big leagues last year. He spent his time pitching in winter ball -- as did Ortiz -- working on developing a slider he is eager to try out this spring.

"I don't feel like I'm competing with anybody," Ortiz said Thursday before throwing a bullpen session at Scottsdale Stadium. "I'm coming in and doing my thing."

If the acquisition of Ortiz pans out, the Giants will have hardly spent a thing and made it well worth the risk. And the 24-year-old Sanchez would be another lefty in the bullpen. In January, Ortiz agreed to a $380,000, one-year contract five seasons after helping the Giants reach the 2002 World Series.

He struggled mightily last season, going winless in 26 outings, including 11 starts, for the Arizona Diamondbacks and Baltimore Orioles. Baltimore dropped him out of its rotation in July. Ortiz is ready for a fresh start and says returning to the Giants is a "blessing."

"I'm confident," he said. "But I've played long enough to know I don't have any control over situations. I believe I can offer a lot."

Elsewhere in the Cactus League:

Kansas City Royals: Mike Sweeney turned to yoga to solve his back problems, which limited the Royals' designated hitter to 60 games last year.

"It has paid big dividends," Sweeney said. "I've always been strong, but never flexible. I always thought yoga was for women and never applied to us macho men. It has been amazing. I can touch my toes, easily. I can touch my palms [to the floor]. I was doing things over the winter that I never dreamt of. I'm hoping that three years from now, I'll look back at three healthy years."

That would be a change for 33-year-old, who hasn't played in more than 126 games in a season since 2001 because of his chronically bad back. Last year, he hit .258 -- 44 points below his career average of .302 -- with eight homers and 33 RBIs.

"Last year was by far the worst of my career, both physically and emotionally," Sweeney said. "It was terrible. It didn't seem like I was part of the team, being out 100 games."

Los Angeles Angels: Versatile Chone Figgins is penciled in as the Angels' third baseman this season, but that doesn't mean he won't play in some other spots.

"I think the lion's share of third base, we're hoping Figgy is going to absorb," manager Mike Scioscia said. "It doesn't mean that we're going to just squash his versatility. We might need his versatility."

Scioscia said that Figgins could shift back into the outfield at times to get Maicer Izturis' bat into the lineup. Izturis hit .293 with 44 RBIs in 352 at-bats in 2006. Third base prospect Dallas McPherson could be out six months because of back surgery.

Scioscia also said that Figgins could remain a fixture at third base should a fourth outfielder emerge and get more playing time.

Oakland Athletics: Mike Piazza appears perfectly comfortable with his new gig, even if he's really not. He smiled Thursday as he made his way onto the field minus catching gear for the first time in his career, the last member of the A's to get outside for stretching as he embarked on becoming a full-time designated hitter.

At 38, Piazza is ready to begin a new baseball life. The A's don't want him to catch at all to ensure that he stays healthy -- and manager Bob Geren asked him to take it easy in drills.

After 15 seasons as a catcher, he will be playing in the American League and as a regular DH for the first time, hitting cleanup for the defending AL West champions. His arrival at Oakland's Papago Park complex drew a Barry Bonds-like media crowd along with a large group of fans.

"It was weird not blocking balls for the first time, but it's been fun so far," Piazza said. "I know what I'm here for but I know it's going to be very difficult for me to put the gear on the shelf and just hit. I'm an old catcher at heart."

Seattle Mariners: When Richie Sexson, Seattle's towering, powerful first baseman was asked about his critics who howl that he strikes out too much or hits for too low of an average for a $55 million man, Sexson hit back.

"They signed me here to hit 35 to 40 home runs and to drive in 100. And I've done that. Twice," Sexson said, with a bemused smile.

Sexson finished last season at .264, just below his career average of .269. He had 34 home runs and 107 RBIs. He is quick to remind those many critics that he did while playing home games in spacious Safeco Field, which has canyon-like dimensions in left-center and center fields that are especially tough on right-handed power hitters.

"I know a lot of people are down on the season I had. But find another right-handed hitter who can do that in that in that park, and I would say thank you very much," Sexson said defiantly.

Texas Rangers: Eric Gagne isn't worried about his mechanics or throwing hard. The closer threw 15 to 20 pitches in quick succession, and then took a short break and did it again.

"It was good, fluid. There were some good ones, some bad ones," Gagne said after the 10-minute bullpen session, his second this week. "It doesn't hurt, nothing. ... I'm probably going 50 to 60 percent. It went well, I'm encouraged again today."

Gagne's primary goal is to get used to being on the mound again and building his arm strength after two injury-plagued seasons. Since his dominating run for the Dodgers from 2002-04, when he converted 84 straight saves and won an NL Cy Young Award, Gagne has had three surgeries and pitched only 15 1/3 innings. The right-hander had as many appearances (two) as surgeries last year.

"I want to keep feeling good every day. I don't want to take any step back. That's why I'm going so slow. I want to build my arm strength, get all the scar tissues out of my surgeries," Gagne said. "I'm just trying to get back to all my pitching muscles which I didn't use for two years."