Tigers a mess in many ways
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
DIAMOND NOTES: May 5
That Tigers president and CEO John McHale, Jr. would even consider leaving Detroit for Tampa Bay speaks volumes about the Tigers current situation. The team is a big disappointment for sure. Where last year they never drew a crowd under 20,000 in their first Comerica Park season, this year their last nine home dates haven't produced a crowd as large as 20,000.
There are rumblings around the game that the Ilitch family may sell the team. But you can be sure that GM Randy Smith won't quit, and hasn't appreciated calls asking if he's ready to dump Todd Jones, Damion Easley or other veterans. That will eventually change if the team keeps losing, but for now, they are in quicksand.
|Jason Giambi could get traded before the end of the season if the A's don't get back into the race.|
Devil Rays general manager Chuck LaMar is getting hammered in the Tampa Bay area, but if McHale, in fact lands in Tampa, he will come in and see this: LaMar went out and acquired expensive veterans before the 2000 season because he was ordered to. LaMar's first mandate was to produce a five-year plan, and at the end of that fifth season in 2002, the Devil Rays will have less than $20 million in committed salaries, several young players already in the majors and with outfielders Carl Crawford and Josh Hamilton, second baseman Brent Abernathy, first baseman Jared Sandberg and pitchers Jason Standridge, Matt White, Delvin James and Joe Kennedy breaking in will have one of the more interesting young teams in the game. It may be that LaMar's future will rest on what he gets for Albie Lopez, Fred McGriff, Greg Vaughn, Gerald Williams and a few others.
By Friday, one GM and two managers had bit the dust, and in Kansas City the wolves are howling for manager Tony Muser's flesh (GM Allard Baird went on the last road trip to show his support for Muser) and in Boston they are hard after Jimy Williams.
Muser's line that "chewing on cookies and drinking milk and praying isn't going to get it done" didn't help, especially since the worldwide headquarters of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes is across the highway from Kauffman Stadium. Some veteran players, many of whom are still in Boston because of huge, immovable contracts, are shooting at Williams' Picassoesque lineups -- i.e., hard to figure from a number of angles. His use of Craig Grebeck at shortstop as raised the ire of fans, although Grebeck's agents were calling around Friday saying he's about to get released.
The A's did start to win this week (they've won three in a row through Friday), which cools whatever heat there was on manager Art Howe and makes the Jason Giambi situation more tenable. If the A's do not get back into the race, it seems to increase the possibibility that Giambi will become a free agent because owner Steve Schott is less likely to spring to keep his star and Giambi's loyalties will have diminished, especially when he has a pretty good idea that the Red Sox (GM Dan Duquette figures he can take the $30M he's paring after this season, sign Giambi and extend Nomar Garciaparra), Mets and Dodgers could all be in the bidding for his services.
If the A's are not within hollering distance of the Mariners by the All-Star break, Beane may have to move Giambi, Jason Isringhausen, Johnny Damon and Gil Heredia rather than take draft choices in return. For now, Beane bristles at the notion that the Oakland problems are either the strike zone -- they went into the weekend second in the AL in walks -- or "veteran presence." Frank Menechino has far outplayed Randy Velarde and is leading all AL second basemen in OPS. Yes, they miss John Jaha hitting behind Giambi (see more on this in this week's Apolitical Blues) and going into Friday's game had .217 averages in both the four and five holes, with .317 and .321 slugging percentages.
"Our problem isn't veteran presence," says Beane, "it's that Damon, Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez haven't hit to their normal expectations."
If Schott and the A's are in a low-payroll whirlpool stuck out off Hegenberger Road in Oakland, a lot of people wonder why the Dodgers couldn't get permission to speak to Beane about the L.A. GM job. For now, the Dodgers are still leaning towards a young GM without a big name, the Dan Evans/Jim Duquette/Ned Colletti/Dave Stewart type. If they decide to go for a name, Boston will not give permission to speak with Dan Duquette, although he called and threw his name into the mix when the deal he had agreed upon with owner John Harrington got bogged down in lawyerland.
In Frank Thomas's defense, his father was very ill this week and eventually passed away. But David Wells spoke for a few when he chided Thomas for not playing and not leading.
It is typical of the White Sox's luck that they had a 6-0 lead Friday night and got rained out in Texas. But with the worst record in the league and without a lot of hope for their pitching right now, it will be interesting to see if and when GM Ken Williams puts Wells and James Baldwin on the market.
"If you look at potential free-agent pitchers who could be on the market, the list isn't overwhelming," says a GM. "(Albie) Lopez is probably No. 1, or Wells, then Baldwin, Heredia, Ron Villone and Brian Bohanon, maybe Jason Schmidt and Francisco Cordova if they come back, maybe Pete Harnisch, although the Reds should be in the race. It will be a lot easier to get a quality reliever -- Todd Jones, (Ugueth) Urbina, maybe Isringhausen, Roberto Hernandez, perhaps even Antonio Alfonseca."
Sterling Hitchcock suffered a minor setback with a strained forearm in his first rehab start last week in Lake Elsinor, but the fact remains that it is doubtful that Hitchcock will be close to normal until the end of this season. The veteran is still only 11 months off Tommy John surgery.
"I saw Tommy John in Charlotte this spring and he said it still takes 18 months, no matter what," says Expos GM Jim Beattie. "We went through it with Guillermo Mota. People were frustrated last year when he came back from the operation and was throwing 90. Now he's throwing 95-96. It takes time."
The Braves have learned the hard way with John Smoltz, Kerry Ligtenberg and Odalis Perez as all have rushed back trying to beat history. Ditto Kerry Wood, who is approaching the kind of consistent stuff and delivery that could put him back on track to top-starter status.
The Cubs' pitching has been a nice story, and GM Andy MacPhail notes that Thursday closer Tom Gordon hit 97 twice, 96 twice and 95 three times, and Kyle Farnsworth has hit 100 a few times. Damon Buford's struggles have forced them to turn to Todd Dunwoody as the center-field bridge to Corey Patterson as Patterson and 1B Hee Seop Choi got off to slow starts in Double-A. But second baseman Bobby Hill, who one AL GM thinks "will be a premium leadoff hitter," is hitting .323 with 11 steals in his first 24 games and could see Wrigley before the season is over.
So why is what Julian Tavarez said in a locker room interview, on the record, in-season, so much less than what was uttered by John Rocker, off the record, out-of-season? H-y-p-o-c-r-i-s-y.
When John Valentin was in Boston in between rehab stints and was quoted as being skeptical about Shea Hillenbrand's long-term stint as his replacement, some players approached Valentin and told him that Hillenbrand is the third baseman and carries the support of the veterans. The 25-year-old rookie is tough, has had some big hits and made astounding improvement at third base for someone who's only experience at the position was a few games in the Arizona Fall League.
But one can't help but ask: can someone who has one walk (17 all last season in the Eastern League) continue to hit? "Unless he makes adjustments, eventually that lack of patience will catch up to him, as much as he centers the ball now," says one GM. "Major-league pitchers will wear him down the second and third times around the league. Maybe he'll adjust. Maybe not. But, remember, that .340 without any walks isn't as great as it looks. Sammy Sosa learned, so can Hillenbrand?"
The Mets have their eyes on Giambi, Tony Clark and other potential left-handed power bats. They know they've started slowly in the past -- they were 20-20 on May 16, 2000, 27-28 on June 5, 1999, 14-14 on May 4, 1998 -- and with no one in the division pulling away, they can be patient now that they have their regular lineup.
But they have made it clear to a couple of teams that Jay Payton could be available for a lefty, with Alex Escobar the replacement in center field.
Now the Indians are playing the Royals and Devil Rays for two weeks. "Bartolo Colon looks as if he's figuring it out," says an AL scout. "He's throwing a nasty two seamer when he gets behind in the count and gets ground balls, and he's come up with a Pedro kind of breaking ball. Their depth is tremendous."
Thursday night, Steve Karsay had his first bad outing, so Paul Shuey bailed him out with one 94-mph split followed by two at 92 mph, jam ended, game over. Manager Charlie Manuel effectively has three closers with Karsay, Shuey and Bob Wickman, and isn't this the way it should be? There are only a handful of closers in the Mariano Rivera (as it warms, he's lighting it up), Robb Nen class. The problem usually is that teams put all their stock in one guy. Why not let a bunch of pitchers close, and damn their agents.
It worked in Boston when Derek Lowe went haywire, and Rolando Arrojo isn't far from the Rivera/Troy Percival class with his 94-mph two seamer and slider, presuming his attention span holds for six months.
The Cardinals have been concerned about Dave Veres' circulation problem as he is a pitcher who relies on his splitter. But where for years manager Tony La Russa liked the Dennis Eckersley kind of relief setup, he now may close with Gene Stechschulte, Mike Timlin, Steve Kline and Jason Christiansen as well as Veres. GM Walt Jocketty also points out that Mike Matthews, whom he acquired from Boston for Kent Mercker, has done a good job in the long-relief role against lefties and righties.
Incidentally, Jocketty says he shopped for a first baseman, but either the contract (like Fred McGriff) or the asking price (Kevin Millar, Steve Cox) was too high. "We hope to have Mark McGwire back before July," says Jocketty, "so we hope we'll be all right as long as we get our pitching straightened out."
The scouting report on Jaret Wright's first rehab start for Triple-A Buffalo: "He hit 96 twice, 95 four times and showed the best curveball and changeup he's ever shown."
Here's another scouting report on Juan Gonzalez: "We all see how he's hitting, but his defense is a shock. He's quicker to balls than he's been since he first came up, he's getting rid of throws quickly and accurately with very strong velocity. He's a good defensive outfielder. Right now he's very good."
"I don't know why people don't listen to or believe Deion (Sanders)," says Reds GM Jim Bowden. "He's not going to play football as long as he doesn't fall on his face in baseball, and that's not going to happen. His football career is over."
Looking to the draftThe Twins' success and increased attendance may increase the possibility that they will take USC right-handed pitcher Mark Prior with the first pick in next June's draft. GM Terry Ryan says that the scouting staff hasn't decided, but while Prior may be expensive, there are a number of scouting directors who think he could be in the Minnesota rotation come September.
"Put Prior with that staff they already have, then add Matt Kinney, Adam Johnson and Brad Thomas and the Twins could have one of the best rotations and deepest staffs for years," says one GM.
It's doubtful the Twins would take Georgia Tech third baseman Mark Teixeira because of the cost uncertainty, and other scouting directors think St. Paul High School catcher Joe Maurer, who signed with Florida State to play quarterback (if this sounds familiar, Chris Wienke also went to Cretin High School in St. Paul), and Middle Tennesee State righty Dewon Brazleton are also in the Minnesota mix.
The Cubs pick second and will take either Prior or Teixeira, but if Minnesota went for Maurer or Brazleton, that would leave Texeira for Tampa Bay. But can Tampa pay Texeira? Who knows. And would Philadelphia take another Scott Boras client with the fourth pick? The Orioles, who pick fifth, would love Texeira as Cal Ripken's successor, especially since Texeira went to St. Joseph's High School in Baltimore. If Texeira isn't there, the O's will take right-hander Gavin Floyd, who is at St. Joe's right now.
"This is a high school pitching draft, and that means it's a dangerous draft," says one baseball executive. "Floyd, Michael Jones (Phoenix) and Colt Griffin (Marshall, Tex.) are in one group at the top, then Alan Horne (Marianna, Fla.), Dan Denham (California) and maybe Matt Harrington (Colorado's unsigned No. 1 last year, who's preparing to pitch in the Northern League) are in the next group. Harrington probably cost himself a lot of money."
A lot of teams have issues with selecting high school right-handed pitchers because of the blowout factors. But there isn't much left-handed pitching for the first round; the top-rated lefty is Chris Smith of Cumberland College, a Florida State transfer who is compared to Mike Hampton because he's 5-foot-9. There are two very interesting college senior right-handers in Rice's Kenny Baugh and Notre Dame's Aaron Heilman, who are both good and attractive because they are seniors.
Around the majorsThe Astros are pondering shaking up their pitching, both because the starters other than Wade Miller have been inconsistent and with Doug Brocail gone the steps leading to Billy Wagner are struggling. Kent Bottenfield will start for the time being, which means they may have to use Octavio Dotel as a setup man. They have also asked anyone to take Jose Lima (the deferred part of the signing bonus makes his contract worth nearly $8.5 million next season) and may turn to Roy Oswalt and Tony McKnight, who are both pitching at Triple-A New Orleans.
There are other clubs whose reports on Double-A Round Rock right-handers Tim Redding and Brad Lidge are so good that they suggest that they could go to Houston with Redding starting and Lidge relieving -- right now.
The Astros have a lot of room to maneuver. Shortstop Adam Everett can be a gold-glover immediately, third baseman Morgan Ensberg at New Orleans and outfielder Jason Lane at Round Rock are the top two home-run hitters in all of the minor leagues.
Umpiring supervisor Ralph Nelson says he expected that there would still be inconsistencies in the upper and lower part of the strike zone at this point, and many umpires are still giving the outside strike call based on where the pitch is caught, not where it is when it goes by the plate.
"The inside pitch has been called consistently, and that's effected what we hoped," says Nelson. "The bottom line is that in the first month of the season, we didn't have one brawl." The closest came on Wednesday when Jay Payton was enraged after being plunked by Lima. Both benches and bullpens emptied, but Payton never got to the mound.
Twins right-hander Joe Mays hasn't allowed more than five hits in any of his first six starts. "Hats off to him, he learned from watching (Brad) Radke," says a scout. "He's learned to create Radke's angle, and mimicked his changeup. Mays has good stuff, and he's learning how to use it."
After the third game of the season, in which catcher Ben Davis dropped a popup and got picked off base, many in the Padres organization wanted him shipped out. Now, with an OPS over 1.000, such discipline that he has more walks than strikeouts and his exceptional receiving and throwing skills honed, the 24-year-old Davis is a key part of the San Diego future and makes Wiki Gonzalez available. The 6-foot-4 Davis is a reminder to be patient with catchers because of all they have to ingest as they learn to hit, especially big catchers.
"There's so much to try to put together for timing when you're big that it's much more difficult than it is for the classic catcher's body like a Pudge Rodriguez or Jason Kendall," says Bill Haselman, who himself is 6-3.
Colorado GM Dan O'Dowd and manager Buddy Bell have tried just about everything. They tried sports psychology, special batting practice pitchers, different routines. Still the Rockies can't hit on the road.
"It makes no sense that Todd Helton is hitting .179 on the road (as of Friday)," says O'Dowd. "Jeff Cirillo was a lifetime .275 road hitter before he got here, but with the Rockies he's hit .245 on the road. Todd Walker hit .290 on the road with the Twins, .210 here. It's crazy. And you really need two different rosters, seven quality relievers in Coors (where the Rockies' bullpen has thrown 57 innings), but the full 14 or 15 positional players on the road (where the relievers had worked 20 2/3 innings through Friday and the staff leads the majors with a 2.30 ERA) because we score so much less."
Beginning in 1993, the Rockies' OPS on the road has been .695. Now, that's Bournigalesque. The Rockies have been hit with injuries; the 13 games missed by Neifi Perez was more than the total he missed his first three years, and ironman Cirillo is now on the DL. But John Thomson's outing last Monday, in which he sat 91-to-96 and needed only 69 pitches for seven innings, gives the Rocks hope that they will have another viable arm in the near future.
Keith Bucktrot took a no-hitter into the ninth inning for Lakewood of the South Atlantic League this week. He was the Phillies' third-round pick last June, but that's not the point. The point is that Keith Bucktrot is a great name.
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