Don't expect a lot of trades
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
Sterling Hitchcock is gone for more than a year after undergoing Tommy John surgery Tuesday to replace the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow. The Twins' new club president, meanwhile, says he will sign pitcher Brad Radke. So, while New York papers report multiple Yankee deals daily, the question that several GMs raised this week was: "Who's really going to be out there?" The answer is that in terms of starting pitching, there may be a lot less quality available than some dreamed in March, especially since it's unlikely the Orioles can get their act together to make a decision on whether to keep or deal Mussina and Scott Erickson.
|Brad Radke is 3-7 with a respectable 4.09 ERA in 13 starts.|
Some in the Tampa Bay camp have suggested assembling a package of a basket of relievers -- Roberto Hernandez, Rick White, Albie Lopez -- and convincing the Cardinals or Indians that the three innings Hernandez, White and Lopez would provide would win the pennant. That's unlikely to happen, at least until the end of July, that is.
The Yankees had dabbled in talks for a bat, but with David Cone struggling -- since last June 9, he's won just one game on the normal four days' rest -- their baseball people feel that they need to hold onto Alfonso Soriano in case there is a pitcher available at the All-Star break, and use Ramiro Mendoza (whose GB/FB ratio curiously has dropped from career numbers of 2.29 to this year's 1.17) along with Soriano to get a bat. Problem is, the Yankees don't have a lot to trade right now, especially since their Columbus pitching is struggling.
The Royals, realizing that they have to make some decision with Johnny Damon approaching free agency at the end of the season, went in to look at the Yankee system and came away unimpressed. "We just don't think Jake Westbrook, Ted Lilly or those guys will make a difference, not for a guy like Damon," said one Royals official.
Boston is looking for help now that John Valentin is down for the year. The Sox are looking at Ed Sprague, and an outside shot would be Todd Walker, who could spell Wilton Veras at third, fill in at other spots and might hit in Fenway Park. "Walker can hit right-handed pitching, he steals bases against right-handers and he could be very good in Fenway," says one scout, "but there are a lot of people wary of his attitude." That still would leave Boston shy a right-handed bat, but they feel they'll find one, somewhere, somehow.
The Mets are shopping Jay Payton now that his status with Bobby Valentine continues to sink, and are dabbling with the idea of bringing up Jason Tyner, who is hitting .344 at Triple-A Norfolk and is leading the International League in steals, and letting him lead off and play left. The Mets deserve a lot of credt for drafting Tyner. "People tend to dismiss smallish guys who could be leadoff hitters," says one GM, "but how much are real leadoff hitters worth? Where do you find these guys? That's why I love Bobby Hill."
Boston and Colorado keep wavering on a Tim Wakefield for Scott Karl deal, but the Red Sox may have to hold onto Wakefield until they know Pedro Martinez's rib cage problem isn't serious. Meanwhile, the Red Sox Rehab Society has produced a middle man in Hipolito Pichardo, Rod Beck is in Pawtucket and throwing far better than he did in the spring and pitching coach Joe Kerrigan reports that Mel Rojas is "throwing 91-92 (in extended spring) and every report says his split is unhittable. He can be a big factor here before it's over."
Speaking of rehabs, Mark Wohlers' first two outings in the Midwest League went so well (19 of 22 fastballs for strikes, he touched 96 with his fastball and 86 with his split) that after one weekend stint with Class-A Dayton, he is headed to Triple-A Louisville for a couple of weeks before reaching Cincinnati. "Wohlers, (Scott) Williamson and (Danny) Graves are the new Nasty Boys," says GM Jim Bowden.
For some reason, the media is always obsessed with firings, and in Pittsburgh owner Kevin McClatchy is poised to have any reason to dump manager Gene Lamont, which isn't fair. Gerry Hunsicker has stuck by Larry Dierker in Houston, which is exactly what Pittsburgh should do with Lamont.
And soon it will be GM firing season, and some of his comrades are concerned that Tampa's Chuck LaMar is stressed out. Hey, the ideas for signing veteran players for marketing purposes wasn't his doing. Check the talent level throughout the farm system, and one will see that the Devil Rays have the foundation of a strong organization for years to come.
While the AL West may not have a prospective 95-game winner, it still has an array of stars who probably deserve to start in the All-Star Game, like Pudge Rodriguez, Troy Glaus, Darin Erstad and Alex Rodriguez. And they all have a quality first baseman in Mo Vaughn (Angels), Rafael Palmeiro (Rangers), John Olerud (Mariners) and Jason Giambi (Athletics). What's intriguing is trying to figure just how good the best teams are. Seattle, for instance, may be a very different team with Jamie Moyer back and they eventually get Gil Meche and Freddy Garcia back. And then there are the A's. They haven't played well, yet, but they lead the AL in runs scored and are sixth in runs allowed. If run differential is indeed a measure of a team's ability, on the morning of June 3 the A's had the biggest differential (plus 73) other than Boston (plus 84), with the Mariners (plus 56) third. The Yankees? Well, they were just plus 17. But that may soon start to change.
Here's an interesting list: Of the starters in last year's All-Star Game, six were drafted in the first round, one in the second, one in the third, one in the seventh, one in the 17th, one in the 62nd, one taken in the now-defunct secondary phase draft, and six were signed as international free agents.
Around the majors
The Rockies are one of the best stories going in the majors today. Buddy Bell is the early leader for manager of the year, not only for his baseball and people skills, but because he and GM Dan O'Dowd were right in their approach to Coors Field. And that was that you don't need big sluggers in order to win. Rather, you need speed and line-drive hitters because everyone is a home run threat in that park and games are won and lost by running down balls in the miles of outfield space and pitchers and defenders not putting a lot of runners on base. Tom Goodwin and Jeffrey Hammonds have turned out to be Coors stars. Goodwin's OPS -- combined slugging and on-base percentages -- is 1.102 at Coors and .721 on the road going into the weekend. Hammonds is an incredible 1.347 at Coors.
On the other hand, it shouldn't be a total surprise that Dante Bichette and Vinny Castilla have struggled so badly. If you took their last five years with the Rockies and checked their road numbers, you'd have found that Bichette's .735 OPS was lower than seldom-used catcher Bill Haselman's five year numbers, while Castilla's .770 OPS was lower than utilityman Willie Greene's.
If you go to a site called "Baseball Prospectus" and click to the players ranked by position, you will find that Castilla is the lowest-ranked third baseman in baseball, while Bichette is the lowest-ranked right fielder.
Don't be surprised if some contender doesn't take the Dodgers up on their request for someone to give Orel Hershiser one more chance in the big leagues.
There have been a lot of eyes opened by the Cardinals' decision to bring perhaps their best pitcher -- Matt Morris -- back from Tommy John surgery and put him in the bullpen along with Alan Benes. "We'll essentially treat (Matt) like a starter out there," says GM Walt Jocketty. Pitching coach Dave Duncan thinks throwing 30 pitches every third day will help rebuild Morris' arm safely. The one flaw in the armor of this extraordinary Cardinals team is its bullpen, and come September we may see Morris out there in the ninth inning on several occasions. One NL GM says he thinks Morris, Kris Benson, Rick Ankiel and Kerry Wood are the four best young pitchers in the league.
Jocketty, meanwhile, has done a lot of shopping around for deals and has dangled Ray Lankford out there, with no luck however.
And then there's the Andy Ashby matter in Philly. "He's lost 4-5 miles an hour, and he has no split any more," says one scout, to which the Padres people will counter that it all goes back to the unsigned contract. Meanwhile, while San Diego has had abysmal luck this season, the pitchers acquired for Ashby may start paying dividends soon. Adam Eaton won his first start, and Carlton Loewer is up to 90-94 mph on rehab and could be in a Pads uniform before the All-Star break.
When the Players' Association gathered agents in L.A. this week, union chief Donald Fehr expressed concern that because the owners have failed to accept the olive branch he has extended concerning the labor agreement that's up in 2002, he is worried that there is another big showdown coming. Owners claim they have to wait until the Blue Ribbon Commission has finished its recommendations. But the verbal cold war is on the horizon. The Association also wants agents to stop trying to steal one another's clients, but that isn't going to stop as long as the New York office is afraid of agents. Oh, they may win the war with SFX -- which now includes The Brothers Hendricks, Speakers of Sports and Arn Tellum -- over Internet sites, but they will never regulate the open tampering. At issue right now is concern that at least one agent whispered in Juan Gonzalez's ear that the $140M deal that Jim Bronner had done with Detroit wasn't enough, a deal Gonzalez may not ever again get offered.
It will be interesting to see if this works against Pedro Martinez: Two managers think the way to approach him is to try to take away his changeup by sitting on it. Toronto did a good job trying that approach and erupted for three runs in eight innings against him. That's right, three runs is an explosion against Pedro. But one of Martinez's greatest assets is his ability to adjust, which he will do to any offensive game plan that is thrown at him.
No, Terry Francona is not in trouble, and one AL scout who followed the Phillies for a week insists "there is no one better in the game making double-switches and moves. His problem is that he has no bullpen or bench."
Another scout heaps praise on Dave Wallace's work with the Mets. "He has those pitchers using their fastballs more than they ever did, and those fastballs are getting better," says the scout. "Glendon Rusch threw 83 fastballs out of 119 pitches in a start, and he threw them harder (89 mph) and with better command that he ever did in Kansas City.
"Al Leiter is back to using his fastball a ton, and he was recently up to 94. Wallace has really helped those guys, without once sounding his own horn."
What excited the Indians' brass wasn't that Russell Branyan went deep twice Wednesday, but it's that he stayed back and rocketed a double off the fence in left-center. "If Branyan stays back and doesn't try to pull everything," says one Indians official, "there's no telling what he can do. I don't know of anyone who has easier power." Branyan also is a far better athlete than many realize, and if Manny Ramirez does hit the free-agent trail at the end of the season, don't be surprised if Branyan moves to right field.
Does Mike Piazza have the greatest opposite-field power of all-time? "Probably, although his balls don't carry majestically because they are hit so hard," says one scout. "Piazza hits the ball the hardest to the opposite field. (But) after seeing Pat Burrell, I'd say he may challenge Vladimir Guerrero for the prize of who hits the ball the farthest to the opposite field."
This and that
Beware that the official major league baseballs sold in stores are the ones that for one reason or another didn't meet Rawlings' and industry test standards. They don't tell you that on the box, but the balls that meet all standards go to Major League Baseball. "No one talks about how big pitchers are today and how hard they throw," says Nomar Garciaparra, echoing the thoughts of one executive who after years of scouting saw two firsts in one week this spring -- consecutive 96-mph sliders (thrown by Billy Koch) and consecutive 93-mph splits (thrown by Paul Shuey). "Look at these guys hitting 100 on guns," says Garciaparra. "And now often we see 95 mph fastballs hit and hit hard. Give batters some credit. And don't you think bats have changed?"
The commissioner's office is going to look into bats, as several small, independent, unregulated companies have sprung up in the last fews years. "They aren't illegal, they're just better today," says one player. "The handles are specially tapered, the barrels are custom-made, they've perfected the weight distribution and they've come up with good wood and special lacquers. Everyone can swing a 30- or 31-ounce bat today and generate unbelievable bat speed. Players twenty years ago didn't have bats like the ones we now have."
How far the Giants go in the NL West depends on their very talented young pitchers, and while Shawn Estes is returning to his '97 form, what Dusty Baker preaches to Russ Ortiz and Joe Nathan is "the idea is not to make the batters miss it, it's for them to mis-hit the ball." His best example is Livan Hernandez, who has earned the nickname of "the Cuban Rick Reuschel. He's a great athlete who doesn't look it, he throws strikes, gets ground balls, fields his position and can hit."
By now, anyone who has watched Mike Mussina pitch knows he's as good as ever, and that Sidney Ponson may have every bit the future of Bartolo Colon, in a different style. What Syd Thrift has to evaluate with his bosses is whether or not it isn't wise to get Mussina signed at any cost and stick with a rotation with two kids, a 30-year-old Mussina and 32-year-old Erickson, then try to build around them. The bullpen has been an obvious nightmare, but even more important with an all right-handed rotation, which necessarily faces a ton of left-handed batters, is that the defense on the right side of the infield and outfield has little-to-no range. What Thrift has wanted to do is utilize the fact that he has two superb left fielders in B.J. Surhoff and Brady Anderson, trade one and find a center fielder who can cover some ground.
How far the Royals have come in such a short time is a testament to their talent and the disciplining of that talent. Manager Tony Muser has had his young players feed off the character of Johnny Damon, Joe Randa and Mike Sweeney, and is getting Carlos Beltran through the first adversity of his career. They are indeed doing it the right way.
Dee Brown may be their next star in the making, but when he didn't run a couple of balls out at Triple-A Omaha earlier this season, they sent him back to Florida and the Royals' extended spring program to do one thing: runs balls out. In this era when teams are afraid of their high-ceiling talent and expensive No. 1 picks, that is refreshing to hear.
But no one around the Royals' organization can figure out how Herk Robinson could have been the team's GM for nearly a decade and never once did he ever go to one of the teams' minor league games.
Gary DiSarcina finally had his shoulder cleaned out after three years of problems. Now it will be interesting to see if the Angels pick up the 2001 option on their de facto captain. Best guess? They will. He's meant too much to that franchise to just let him go.
Here's an interesting dilemma: Last June, University of Richmond right-handed pitcher Mike Smith went undrafted because he is 5-11. Of course, he was also their best pitcher. Then he hit 92-94 mph in the Cape League and was one of the best pitchers. But the parents of the Brookline, Mass., pitcher wanted him to return to school, and thus the Red Sox backed off in an attempt to sign him. Oh yes, by the way, Smith's sister is married to Red Sox owner John Harrington's son. This spring, Smith was consistently in the mid-90s and now could be a third- or fourth-round pick.
Boston avoided losing another native son by signing Northeastern left-hander Greg Montalbano, their fifth-round pick last June. Montalbano, who was voted the best left-hander on the Cape last summer, was eligible to sign because he is a fifth-year senior due to time lost to four cancer operations. "The way kids work and improve," says one Boston scout, "you can't give up on seniors."
In fact, Boston gave $25,000 to N.C. State fifth-year senior catcher Dan Mooney. "He is one of the three or four best catch-and-throw guys in the country," says the scout. "He's as good as a fifth-round pick."
One of the interesting names to watch in Monday's draft is North Carolina outfielder Tyrell Godwin, who turned down $1.9 million out of high school as the Yankees' No. 1 pick to accept an academic Morehead Scholarship to UNC. Godwin may be no more than a sandwich or second-round pick at this point.
Sometimes money means little. Dallas high school slugger Jason Stokes may fall late into the first round, but he won't sign for less than top 10 money because he has no fear of going to the University of Texas and becoming the 2003 Burrell or Mark Texeira.
Here's a look at one scout's notebook: Piazza's 2.26 seconds throwing to second is the slowest he's timed in two years. The best? Pudge Rodriguez (1.78). Cleveland's Einar Diaz also threw an impressive 1.84 as did the Phillies' Tom Prince (1.88). And you wonder why Tom Prince is still playing?
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