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Saturday, February 20, 2010


ASTROS WORK OUT FOR FIRST TIME UNDER MILLS (9:18 p.m. ET)
First-time Astros skipper Brad Mills ran his first workout Saturday, when Houston's pitchers and catchers reported to the club's spring training complex near Orlando.

The 53-year-old Mills is a major league manager for the first time after spending the last six seasons as Terry Francona's bench coach in Boston. Mills inherits a team with veteran talent in Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee, but also wants to incorporate young players into prominent roles this season.

Mills was hired in October to replace Cecil Cooper, who was fired with 13 games left in the season.

-- The Associated Press

GAGNE OPTIMISTIC ABOUT CHANCE WITH DODGERS (7:18 p.m. ET)
Eric Gagne is pretty sure this is his last shot at a major league comeback, and he's glad to be getting it with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The 2003 NL Cy Young Award winner, who rejoined the Dodgers when he agreed to a minor league contract Friday, thinks making the team this spring shouldn't be a problem as long as he's healthy.

On his first day back inside the Dodgers' clubhouse, Gagne pulled on a fresh, blue cap Saturday and tugged at the bill. He said it was perfect.

He could have been referring to more than just the fit. Gagne has pitched for three big league teams since leaving the Dodgers after the 2006 season. But it was in Los Angeles where he became a star closer, and he says the Dodgers never left his heart.

-- The Associated Press

ROCKIES' COOK FINDS STRENGTH THROUGH WEIGHT LOSS (7:04 p.m. ET)
Colorado Rockies right-hander Aaron Cook cut out fried foods and sodas. He stopped eating desserts and avoided late night snacks.

The result was startling.

Cook reported to spring training at 200 pounds, down from 220 at the end of the 2009 season. He expects to gain between five and 10 pounds during camp but should enter the upcoming season carrying less weight.

Colorado catcher Chris Iannetta and pitching coach Bob Apodaca noticed a difference right away when Cook threw his first bullpen session of the spring Saturday. Iannetta says he had a lot more extension on his pitches and Apodaca says Cook looked "really healthy and athletic."

Cook went 11-6 with a 4.16 ERA in 158 innings last year.

-- The Associated Press

SLIMMER STAIRS AIMS FOR SPOT ON PADRES' BENCH (6:27 p.m. ET)
Matt Stairs says he pushed himself hard during his offseason conditioning program just in case any teams had interest in his services.

At the same time, however, the veteran pinch-hitter put the thought in the back of his mind that he might have to retire.

But sometime after he secured a job as a hitting coach for the University of Maine, Stairs received an invitation to spring training from the San Diego Padres. Stairs, who signed a minor league deal in January after losing 32 pounds this offseason, officially checked into spring training on Saturday.

Stairs, who began his career with the Montreal Expos in 1992 and is playing for his 12th team, weighs 198 pounds. He finished the 2009 season with the NL champion Phillies weighing 230 pounds. Stairs attributed the weight loss to a diet and playing for two senior league hockey teams in Bangor, Maine. He also was a coach for the varsity hockey team at John Baptist Memorial High School in Bangor this winter.

"I feel great right now," Stairs said. "We'll see how it goes. If I can't hit any home runs, I'll start throwing some burgers in me."

-- The Associated Press

RED SOX CATCHER VARITEK IN ODD POSITION: BACKUP (4:14 p.m. ET)
For the first time in 12 years, Jason Varitek is starting spring training as a backup.

The Boston Red Sox catcher is the No. 2 man behind Victor Martinez.

"This isn't necessarily new for me," Varitek said after the first official workout for pitchers and catchers. "Is it different? Of course, it's different. But I think that in that role that it was last year toward the end that probably got me prepared for this.

"For the most part, I'm here to support Vic as much as possible and take the load off him when he needs it."

Varitek is starting his sixth season as the Red Sox captain and said he might be a better leader when he doesn't play and can devote more attention to communicating with teammates instead of the details of the game.

-- The Associated Press

ANGELS' SHIELDS SAYS REHAB ON TRACK (3:50 p.m. ET)
Angels' reliever Scot Shields says that his recovery from season-ending knee surgery last June is on track and that Los Angeles' bullpen has never been better.

The Angels longest-tenured player said on Saturday that the Angels' relief corps is among the best since he joined the team in 2001.

Shields has been a bullpen mainstay as the right-handed setup man, spanning the tenures of closers Troy Percival, Frankie Rodriguez and Brian Fuentes.

But he made a career-low 20 appearances last season before opting for left knee surgery in mid-June. He admitted to pitching in pain while compiling a career-worst 6.62 ERA over 17 2/3 innings.

The Angels are bringing Shields along slowly this spring, and he says that was the plan all along.

-- The Associated Press

MARLINS LOOKING AT PLAYOFF BERTH (3:48 p.m. ET)
As the first spring training workout begins, the Florida Marlins are already swinging for the fences by talking optimistically about making the playoffs.

Pitchers and catchers took the field for drills Saturday with high expectations, from team president David Samson on down.

The Marlins have climbed from 71 wins in 2007 to 84 in 2008 and 87 last year, when they finished six games behind league champion Philadelphia in the NL East. The core of the team returns intact, and payroll will top $40 million for the first time in five years.

More improvement likely will be needed to crack the postseason for the first time since the Marlins won the World Series in 2003.

-- The Associated Press

DEMPSTER DRAWS INSPIRATION FROM AILING DAUGHTER (3:43 p.m. ET)
Ryan Dempster has inspiration every time he gets in a tight situation on a baseball field with the Chicago Cubs. It comes from his 10-month-old daughter, Riley, who's been fighting DiGeorge syndrome all her young life.

Riley Dempster, who was born on April 1, 2009, has undergone numerous procedures, including the insertion of feeding and tracheal tubes as she fights the disorder caused by a defect in a chromosome.

Symptoms and conditions of DiGeorge syndrome vary in different patients and with different degrees of severity. In Riley's case, she's been unable to swallow. Early on, she underwent another procedure in which a portion of the stomach is wrapped around the esophagus to promote healing and reduce acid backup.

"She's doing well. She's still unable to swallow but she's doing well. She's a tough little fighter," Dempster said this week from the Chicago Cubs' spring training complex.

Dempster said his daughter must learn how to swallow on her own and it's a difficult process for someone so small and young.

"She inspires us," Dempster said. "You know, watching. If you're going through that, I can do anything. I really feel that way."

-- The Associated Press

CARDS GROOMING BACKUP OPTIONS FOR CLOSER FRANKLIN (3:23 p.m. ET)
Ryan Franklin was one of the National League's top closers last year, even with an awful final month, a first-time All-Star for St. Louis whose ERA hovered around one until early September.

The Cardinals have faith that a pitcher who'll be 37 next month and isn't a strikeout machine can do the job again, but not enough that they're not trying to develop a backup this spring.

"It doesn't matter to me," Franklin said Saturday. "I've got a couple of years, maybe three years left, and I want to win. Whatever that takes, whatever they think, is totally fine with me as long as I'm a part of it."

Among the potential fill-ins are Jason Motte, who began last year as the closer, and Mitchell Boggs. Both throw in the high 90s, more of a typical closer template than Franklin, who is a ground-ball pitcher.

"You always want a succession plan, and if something doesn't work you want to look for something internally first," general manager John Mozeliak said. "It's just natural."

-- The Associated Press

WAKAMATSU GIDDY ABOUT MARINERS' ROTATION (3:18 p.m. ET)
A starting rotation with Felix Hernandez and Cliff Lee at the top is giving the Seattle Mariners plenty of optimism for 2010.

Lee, who still has strips of athletic tape covering the area of the surgery, is scheduled to take part in pitchers' fielding practice Monday and is expected to toss a bullpen session on Wednesday. Heavy rain at the Mariners' spring training complex prevented Lee from taking part in fielding practice on Saturday.

"It would be good to get him back on the mound. That's our first step," Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu said. "Get him feeling comfortable with the club."

Yet little can douse the Mariners' excitement about having Lee, who came to Seattle in a December trade with the Phillies in exchange for three prospects.

"I joke. I said back in our winter meetings in October, I said 'Cliff Lee is the guy I'm targeting," Wakamatsu said. "That whole process was pretty amazing. At winter meetings his name got brought up and everybody got giddy in the room, and the second part is, 'Can we really do this?' and [general manager] Jack [Zduriencik] made it happen, which was pretty special."

-- The Associated Press

REDS' VOLQUEZ HAPPY IN CAMP DESPITE INACTION (3:08 p.m. ET)
Cincinnati Reds pitcher Edinson Volquez was home in the Dominican Republic when he went to a baseball game just to see teammate Francisco Cordero throw in the winter league.

Volquez couldn't throw after season-ending Tommy John surgery, but he said he missed his teammates more than pitching. So he caught up with Cordero after the game and the veteran told Volquez to keep his head up, that spring training was just around the corner.

While he still doesn't take part in all the same activities as his teammates, and rehab is expected to take a full year, Volquez said Saturday he's happy to be around his teammates at spring training in Arizona.

"I'm still here on the team, I feel like I'm part of the team," he said. "I'm with my teammates. You get time with guys in here, you say hello to everyone, they make you happy."

-- The Associated Press

COX CONFIDENT IN SAITO, WAGNER (3:04 p.m. ET)
After watching Takashi Saito's first throwing session of spring training, Braves manager Bobby Cox had one word to sum it all up:

"Wow."

The former Dodgers closer turned 40 last week. But the Braves expect him to serve as Billy Wagner's primary set-up man. That's health permitting, of course. But Cox said he has no health worries whatsoever about Saito, whose Dodgers career was cut short by a sprained elbow in 2008, or Wagner, who missed most of last season following Tommy John surgery.

"Saito was never in the trainer's room once last year in Boston," Cox said. "And Wags has a new arm. So right now, I don't have any thoughts about those guys breaking down."

-- Jayson Stark, ESPN.com

COX ON JURRJENS, PROCTOR (3:02 p.m. ET)
On the first day that pitchers and catchers worked out, the only Braves dealing with any sort of health issue were starter Jair Jurrjens, who has a sore shoulder, and former Yankees reliever Scott Proctor, who had Tommy John surgery 11 months ago.

An MRI this week on Jurrjens' shoulder showed nothing alarming. But the Braves want Jurrjens to take it slowly at first.

"According to the MRI, he's great," Cox said. "But let's see."

Cox said Proctor is "about two weeks" behind the other pitchers. But the 33-year-old right-hander threw 50 pitches off the mound in the bullpen Saturday and "looked really good," Cox said. "He's still on a rehab schedule, but you'd never know it."

Proctor is viewed as a long shot to make the club out of spring training. But Cox won't rule it out.

"He's going to have plenty of time," the manager said. "I think he'll be ready coming out of camp. But if not, it will be real close."

-- Jayson Stark, ESPN.com

PIRATES WANT TO LESSEN DUKE'S WORKLOAD (2:58 p.m. ET)
The Pittsburgh Pirates are looking to cut down on All-Star pitcher Zach Duke's workload this season.

Duke has made at least 30 starts in three of his first four full seasons in the majors. The exception was 2007, when shoulder problems limited him to 19 starts.

Duke didn't miss a start last season but faded over the final two months. On Saturday, pitching coach Joe Kerrigan said the amount of work Duke put in between starts might have been the culprit.

"We'll have to take a look at that," Kerrigan said. "Maybe that has something to do with the wear and tear in August and September."

Last season, Duke was injury-free and pitched 213 innings, tops on the team and 12th in the National League. The left-hander also was tied for third in the NL with three complete games, the most by a Pirates pitcher since Jeff Suppan had three in 2003.

-- The Associated Press

WILPON OPTIMISTIC FOR METS' 2010 SEASON (2:00 p.m. ET)
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Coming off a season he said was "torture" for him, New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon is optimistic about the 2010 season.

"[It is difficult] when you have all those injuries and a bad season, and the fans were disappointed -- but not anymore than I was because I am probably their biggest fan," Wilpon said. "Now that's last year. It's 2010, it's 70 degrees in Florida and the sun is shining, so I have a great feeling of optimism."

After an injury-filled, 92-loss season, Mets fans have higher demands this year. Wilpon has them in mind, especially as the organization tries to fill the stands at Citi Field.

The need to produce likely is putting some pressure on management and coaches, but Wilpon declined to talk about whether any jobs within the organization were on the line, saying, "Those are things of the future."

-- The Associated Press

FELIZ WANTS SPOT IN RANGERS' ROTATION (1:34 p.m. ET)
Right-hander Neftali Feliz was mainly a starter in the minors before being called up to the Texas Rangers' bullpen in August. He struck out four of his first six batters and finished with a 1-0 record, 1.74 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 31 innings.

"When he joined us we saw lightning in a bottle," Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux said. "What did we learn? That it wasn't an accident."

Should the Rangers have Perez start as he has done throughout his minor-league career or are they better off with his power fastball in the bullpen? Feliz, the team's top-rated prospect, is clear on his preference.

"I think I would be a better starter than reliever in the long run," Feliz said through an interpreter. "I'm confident. I feel like I can do better as a starter. I get a lot of questions about it and I tell them that it's up to the team to decide."

Washington said Feliz's future is as a starter. But consistent with the team's mantra this season of making decisions based on what the team needs most to win, a rotation spot isn't guaranteed.

"All the guy's done all his career is start and we want to make sure we use his assets," Washington said. "But he's not going to be given anything. By the middle of spring training we'll determine whether his spot is in the bullpen or in the rotation."

-- The Associated Press

RANGERS' LHP HOLLAND INJURES KNEE (12:56 p.m. ET)
Texas Rangers left-hander Derek Holland injured his right knee during agility drills in a light rain Saturday.

Holland walked off the field under his own power and was examined in the clubhouse by Rangers team doctor Keith Meister. An MRI was scheduled to be performed as soon as a machine becomes available.

The 23-year-old was 8-13 with a 6.02 ERA in 33 appearances and 21 starts as a rookie for the Rangers last season.

-- The Associated Press. For more on this story, go to ESPNDallas.com.

HAREN GETS OPENING DAY NOD FOR ARIZONA (12:49 p.m. ET)
Dan Haren was given the Opening Day start for the Arizona Diamondbacks over Brandon Webb, who is expected to return after shoulder surgery.

"I think it's a great reward for Dan Haren," Arizona manager A.J. Hinch told the Arizona Republic.

Hinch plans on starting new addition Edwin Jackson in the second game, and bringing Webb out for the third game.

The Diamondbacks open the season April 5 against the San Diego Padres at Chase Field.

-- ESPN.com news services

MARINERS PITCHER STILL IN VENEZUELA (11:36 a.m. ET)
Mariners pitcher Yusmeiro Petit is dealing with personal matters in his native Venezuela and is not expected to join the team until next week.

A team spokesman declined to discuss the issues Saturday, although he said they are not related to Petit obtaining a visa to work in the United States.

Petit is the only pitcher not present at Mariners spring training, where pitchers and catchers have arrived ahead of the rest of the team.

The 25-year-old Petit went 3-10 with a 5.82 ERA in 23 games -- including 17 starts -- for the Arizona Diamondbacks last season. He was claimed off waivers by Seattle in November.

-- The Associated Press

PETTITTE ON TIGER'S APOLOGY (9:19 a.m. ET)
Andy Pettitte, who had his own very public apology two years ago after admitting he used HGH, shared his opinions on Tiger Woods' statement.

"I think it will be good," Pettitte told 1050 New York's Andrew Marchand when asked what he thinks the apology will do for Woods' future. "Fans are very forgiving. People are very forgiving. For me, it was amazing. You know you have been following this team, I'm sure, and have been around this team. The fans, everywhere I went, have been unbelievable to me. I thank the Good Lord for that.

"I think my situation was a lot different. I stood and answered every question until you guys didn't have any more questions to ask and I think maybe, in my situation, made things a lot different, but I can't speak on Tiger's behalf or whatever he is going through."

In the end, an apology is only effective if it's sincere. Pettitte said that the public can detect insincerity.

"People know," Pettitte said. "People can tell if someone is sincere or not. I think people know me also. I've been around a long time. I've always been open to people and to being able to talk to people my whole career also. I think people know who I am and what I'm about."

-- ESPN.com