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Wells rumors run hot and cold

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  • The David Wells-to-the-Yankees rumors have become an HBO version of "48 Hours." It keeps running and re-running. Turn it on at 3 a.m. and it's on the verge. But Yankee folks don't seem to feel that it is about to happen. Just as when one more "it's happening in 48 hours" report came out this week, Red Sox GM Dan Duquette asked what was going on with the Yankees, because it wasn't going on with Boston unless Duquette was willing to part with Paxton Crawford, Tomo Ohka and a prospect.

    The White Sox have smartly marketed Wells-mania, but most of the powers within the Yankee organization feel that although, yes, they need some pitching, their first need is a power reliever and their long-term pressing need is a bat. They feel it would be folly to empty the drawer for Wells then find out that Jason Giambi, Moises Alou or the like eventually became available.

    The Yankees have been winning for a long time now, but the fact remains that when they won their first championship in this run Albert Pujols was in the 10th grade. Even Matt Damon will gray, someday. And the offensive needs are beginning to show, which they may have to fill as they did last year with the acquisition of David Justice.

    These are the facts: The Yankees are fifth in the American League in runs and runs allowed through the 60-game mark. They are seventh in OPS at .759 -- average. The team once noted for patience and using the whole field is fifth in strikeouts and eighth in walks.

    Now, granted, Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams are now hitting their norms after injury and family tragedy, and when Jorge Posada has been healthy, he has been fine. But in 1999 the on-base percentage out of the 1-2 holes in the order was .417; this year, it's .346.

    Paul O'Neill still gets big hits in crucial situations and will if he's playing in October. But the fact remains that O'Neill is more streaky, as evidenced by his May and by the fact that he is hitting under .214 when he starts counts 1-and-0 -- way, way below norm and an indication that he is confused at the plate. His .777 OPS is 56 points below the league right field average. Tino Martinez's .742 OPS is more than 100 points below the first base average.

    And then there's Chuck Knoblauch. The idea behind moving him to left field was to relax him and restore him to that .400 on-base leadoff hitter. Only his on-base percentage is .342, not good enough to carry, especially at a corner outfield position.

    Their total OPS for the four corner power positions (first, third, right, left) is so far below the league average. It is clear that come July, the Yankees have to address the power question. So, if they want to hold their chips in the event a Giambi, Alou or Jermaine Dye becomes available, then perhaps they have to gamble on assuming Ugueth Urbina's salary.

    In Wells' last start (before his back flared up again) last Sunday, the Yankees and Red Sox each had scouts in to watch him. Those scouts reported that Wells was "OK, 87-88 at times, not as good a curveball as in the past, but decent. Not as bad as he's been made out to be. He can still pitch. Whether he breaks down is another story." And those 11 quality starts in his last 29 outings going back to last season are scary.

    Getting back to the Knoblauch question, if he gets benched for a long stretch of time, what about the handshake agreement George Steinbrenner has with the Brothers Hendricks on 2002-2003 for $18 million? Stay tuned. And the essential conflict between patience with Alfonso Soriano's lack of plate discipline and a run at the pennant has begun to be worth watching, as well. Those of us who oogled Soriano in spring training believe that he still will be an extraordinary player because of all he brings, but while he has improved dramatically at second base, his lack of discipline catches up to him, as that 5/46 BB/K ratio indicates.

    The Yankees have a very good chance to win the division between the injuries to the Red Sox and the lack of any real power aside from Seattle. But how they get there remains to be seen.

    Around the majors

  • AL Central opponents certainly view the Indians as the team to beat. "They not only have very good players," says Tigers manager Phil Garner, "but those players understand how to play together defensively and what each position in the order requires. They have a lot of players who know what it takes to make an offense win in tough games." Adds Twins GM Terry Ryan, "They showed us (winning three of four in the BaggyDome) that they are really good. They've had some injuries, but now that they're healthy, they are one of the best teams in the game. I know this -- we respect the heck out of them, and that bullpen is really good."

  • The Phillies have an eye out for a veteran second baseman, catcher and some experienced pitching, but while they indicate that they have some fiscal wiggle room, they will not be hoodwinked. They say that a few teams, including the White Sox, are interested in Triple-A CF Reggie Taylor, who could be trade bait.

    Phillies players and coaches came out of their Mets series asking what's going on with Rey Ordonez and Edgardo Alfonzo. "They announced (Ordonez) had a shoulder problem and couldn't play one game," says one Phil, "and he was out there taking ground balls at short throwing seeds across the infield. What's up between him and the manager?"

    As for Alfonzo, one coach says, "When he swung and missed you could see him cringe. To his credit, he hangs in there and keeps playing."

  • With all the problems the Reds currently have, indications are that they will move Pokey Reese, Dmitri Young, Dennys Reyes and/or another veteran or two even before they have Junior Griffey, Barry Larkin and Aaron Boone back in the lineup.

  • The White Sox's resurgence has bred rumors that Frank Thomas will try to come back before the end of the season. It will be fun to watch rookie third baseman Joe Crede, a special favorite of Jerry Manuel and Gary Ward because of how hard he plays. "Joe has a chance to be a special player," says GM Ken Williams. "About 10 days ago, Gary said, 'I think Joe's time has come.' Now, we'll see."

  • Gene Lamont, who was a coach with the Pirates in Barry Bonds' early days and a nine-year manager before his current third base-coaching job in Boston, says, "Barry is the best outfielder I've ever seen. I don't mean now, because he's 36. But in his defensive prime, he was better in left field than any of this generation's center fielders were in center. The way he read hitters, moved on counts and attacked balls made him really special."

  • There is talk in Pittsburgh that Jason Kendall eventually will end up at second, like Craig Biggio. But there are those who wonder 1) if he has Biggio's feet, and 2) is he worth $10 million at that position? But Kendall is a heckuva presence anywhere on the field, and if moving to the outfield, then back behind the plate and sometime to second base doesn't mess him up, more power to how hard he plays.

  • Several teams have been going in to watch Tacoma because the Mariners are one of the only teams with young pitching to spare. The M's will reportedly move John Halama, and teams have been in to Triple-A to see Brett Tomko, Rob Ramsay and Joel Pineiro, and the club feels RHP Denny Stark is the best of the lot.

  • Montreal was dangling Fernando Tatis before he went back on the DL. Expos officials privately insist that they are "very happy" with GM Jim Beattie and that assistant GM Mike Berger will not get the job. Jeff Torborg has two of his sons now working for the club: Dale, who wrestled as "MVP," is working in strength and conditioning; and Greg is working in computers.

    Just a reminder

  • For those watching the trading deadline, here, again, are the major free agents come the end of the year:

    Starters: Chan Ho Park, Aaron Sele, Wells, Shawn Estes.
    Relievers: Jason Isringhausen, Steve Karsay, Bob Wickman, Mike Williams.
    Position players: Bonds, Jason Giambi, Juan Gonzalez, Bret Boone, Alou, Johnny Damon.

    News and notes

  • Twins GM Ryan is concerned about his club's power. "I'm looking around," says Ryan. "But it's better to have a good player than a so-called 'veteran presence.' John Barnes is healthy again, and he is a good player. Barnes and Bobby Kielty might be better than what we can get. And we should have David Ortiz back sometime in early July."

  • The Astros rotation continues to struggle. It brought a 5.55 ERA into the weekend. And things are worsened by the Billy Wagner injury. For now GM Gerry Hunsicker doesn't have any trade prospects.

    There were reports in Houston that the Mets were willing to discuss a multi-player deal involving Armando Benitez. The Mets have long lusted for one of those Houston outfielders but it isn't likely to go much further unless Wagner is determined to be hurt worse than currently thought.

  • Billy Koch is a constant source of conversation among opposing pitchers. "Why would he mess himself up trying to throw so many pitches?" asked one. "Because he gets bored," replied a teammate. "But he throws 98 with a cutter as good as Mariano Rivera's. That's all he needs, not a curveball and sidearm something. Look at Derek Lowe. His season turned around when he went back to throwing mostly sinkers and not getting beat on curveballs. Koch's problem is that he doesn't know what it's like to hit against him."

  • Some were surprised that Mike Hargrove took a few shots at Mike Mussina this week. But as it's explained by someone who knows and understands Mussina, what Hargrove and Davey Johnson never understood about Mussina is that, like Jim Palmer and unlike some other aces, Mussina psychologically pitches not to lose rather than to win.

    In 1996, after all the flack about not winning 20, he had a 2-1 lead after the eighth in his last start of the year and allowed the bullpen to try to close. Benitez gave up a home run to blow the save and Mussina has never won 20. That doesn't mean he isn't a great pitcher, he just doesn't think the way others think.

  • With concern all around New England about the loss of Jason Varitek and Pedro Martinez's muscle problem, there is no promise of Nomar Garciaparra's return. "This is something no baseball player has come back from, so there's no way of knowing when I will be ready to play and what level," says Garciaparra. "Until I swing the bat and throw I won't have any idea because it's never been done before in baseball." Remember, Garciaparra swings so hard and throws so hard from so many angles, the comeback is complicated.

  • Yes, for those Milwaukee Bucks fans, that left-handed pitcher John Killalea drafted by St. Louis in the sixth round out of Seminole, Fla., High School is the grandson of former Bucks assistant John Killalea, who was a legendary high school hoops coach in Massachusetts.

  • Ever wonder how to put a groundskeeper's work to good use? Fenway Park groundsman David Mellor has a new book titled, "Picture Perfect-Mowing Techniques for Lawns, Landscapes and Sports." So if you want your lawn to look like Kaufman Stadium or Pac Bell, get Mellor's book.

  • There are few more respected persons in baseball than Paul Ricciarini, the Astros' director of pro scouting. He is receiving condolensces from all around the game after his father Renoldo passed away this week in Pittsfield, Mass. Paul may have worked for Cincinnati, Atlanta, the Mets and Houston, but he buried his father in Pittsfield, as he wanted, with a Red Sox cap on his head.

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