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Indians, Cardinals plug away

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July 22

It has been an emotionally difficult year for the Cardinals and Indians. In St. Louis, it has been the drain of broadcaster Jack Buck's death followed by the shock of Darryl Kile. In Cleveland, as players dealt with a downsizing they would never understand, this past week they had to deal with the tragic death of one of the most popular men in their ranks, trainer Jim Warfield.

As Walt Jocketty has tried to right the Cardinals "in a period of time that I've never experienced before," this week Mark Shapiro had to address the team about Warfield "in a clubhouse with 40 grown men bawling their eyes out."

The Cardinals lead the NL Central by 3 games, and when Chuck Finley won in Pittsburgh Sunday, his trade paid immediate dividends. They have had a succession of misfortunes on a staff they considered deep in spring training: Kile's death, Garrett Stephenson's breakdown, Bud Smith's regression, Rick Ankiel's elbow. Jocketty had Jerry Walker and Bob Gebhard out looking at a number of starting pitchers -- Finley, Kenny Rogers, Brian Moehler, Paul Byrd, Jeff Suppan, Shawn Estes, Robert Person -- and made the first deal that came to him. "We can't let this slide too much further," said Jocketty. "Cincinnati clearly isn't going away, and the Astros aren't far behind us.

"This has been a long, difficult year," said the GM. "Sometimes it's been hard to focus on the job at hand, but Tony (La Russa) has done a great job keeping everyone on track, but doing it with sensitivity. Some players aren't going to recover from the Kile tragedy quickly, and we shouldn't ask them to be anything but human."

Jocketty had preferred dealing for Rogers but didn't have the same kind of minor-league talent to offer as the Reds (who agreed to infielder David Espinosa for Rogers; pitcher Josh Hall, who was Cincinnati's player going to Cleveland for Finley; and outfielder Alan Moye, who was part of a conditional cash deal with Boston that fell through Friday when Shapiro moved Finley to St. Louis). But Jocketty also knew he had to do something quickly. And by waiting, if Rogers agrees to go, the Rangers will have made themselves an outstanding trade while having to pick up Rogers' salary -- another example of "buying" prospects.

Shapiro has tried to be sensitive to his players, which is why he met individually with every veteran at the end of last season and in spring training to explain that the Indians could no longer operate in the top five or six payrolls in the game. In a season in which he has had to make roster move after roster move, Shapiro has again had to sit down with players and explain the Bartolo Colon trade, the Charlie Manuel resignation and, most recently, the passing of a friend.

"The Jim Warfield tragedy has hit me very hard, as it hit everyone very hard," says Shapiro. "But in the baseball sense, I actually feel better now than I have in a long time, because the worst is over. I can start to watch what we're trying to build and I feel pretty good."

If there is some way that the Indians can re-sign Jim Thome as a foundation, then by the end of next year they will have John McDonald, Brandon Phillips and 20-year-old Dominican shortstop John Peralta (whose age- and ballpark-adjusted OPS at Double-A Akron is 1.279) breaking in with Thome and Omar Vizquel. They will have Alex Escobar, Matt Lawton, Ben Broussard, Leo Garcia, Ryan Church and, in another year, Grady Sizemore in the outfield. And there are waves of pitching: C.C. Sabathia, Danys Baez and Ryan Drese are in the big leagues; lefties Cliff Lee (who won his first Buffalo start), Billy Traber and Brian Tallet are in Triple-A; soon Double-A will have Jason Davis, Fernando Cabrera and Jeremy Guthrie, when he signs. And down in the South Atlantic League, the Indians have one of the best rotations in the league, all high-school arms out of last year's draft.

Remaining focused in the wake of tragedies has been difficult for the Cardinals and Indians. "There are going to be days and moments that we all drift," says Jocketty. "But give the players on this team credit. They have held onto first place, and they have done it under difficult circumstances."

Marooned in Marlin Land
The Marlins players feel that their slide is partially the result of what they perceive to be a betrayal. They claim that a couple of weeks before Cliff Floyd and Ryan Dempster were traded, owner Jeffrey Loria went to the clubhouse and told them that he not only was proud of the way they were playing but that he would try to add to what they have. Soon thereafter, Marlins president David Samson explained how that was a financal impossibility, and Floyd and Dempster went.

Next, Graeme Lloyd. With his July 19 grievance pending, Lloyd was approached by Loria about working out the grievance (Lloyd wants to block his part in the trade). In earshot of teammates, Lloyd told Loria there was no way he wanted to play for Loria again, as he felt that the owner had betrayed him in Montreal in the past.

All that said, the fact is that Loria, Samson and GM Larry Beinfest have difficult decisions to make between now and Aug. 31 about trades. There is still enough remaining talent to take the payroll close to $60 million next season with the current roster; Samson has stated that cannot work in the Florida market unless, as he insists they will, they try to find a longterm solution to the franchise insolvency. Beinfest has told other GMs that he'd have to be blown away to trade a Brad Penny, and he backpeddled from Oakland and Boston's interest in Kevin Millar. But Derrek Lee, at $2.7 million and facing arbitration, seems a likely candidate to go to any one of a number of teams looking for a bat, such as Boston, Atlanta (eventually) or Oakland.

Meanwhile, the Floyd/Dempster deal didn't exactly create instant heaven on Montreal earth. Frank Robinson's unhappiness with his players and the support he felt he received led to a meeting until 3 a.m. with Omar Minaya, but they hashed things out and the Hall of Famer managed the next day, after another meeting.

On the ownership front
The delay in the checks sent by the Devil Rays to Gerald Williams and Steve Trachsel for deferred compensation was not about Vince Naimoli's inability to make payroll. To the contrary, two agents claim that the Rays are often late sending out checks because of internal procedural problems. The Tigers recently were unintentionally late with a similar check to Willie Blair. Since Aces, the agency representing both Trachsel and Williams, did not leak the story, and the Players Association, aware that Aces did not want to create a stir, didn't, the question arose: Who leaked this story that embarrassed the Tampa Bay franchise?

When Rob Manfred, MLB's VP of labor relations, greeted one union official at the subsequent negotiating session with "now do you believe Bud?," the suspicion is that the owners leaked it. The problem with that is that it unnecessarily further embarrassed Tampa, as Bud Selig's claim that two teams might not make payroll led to initial embarrassment for the E-Rays and Tigers.

Then there was Drayton McLane hinting he might sell the Astros, followed by John Moores stating the same thing in San Diego, leading Selig to reinstitute his gag order upon owners.

However, for all the PR spins both sides keep putting on the bargaining, there was widespread optimism last week. One player rep said that for all the peripheral posturing, the fact remains that there is revenue sharing in place, there is precedence for a luxury tax, the players recognize some changes have to come and the changes can be negotiated, as opposed to 1994 when they required finding a whole new framework.

There are currently four strike dates: Aug. 16, Sept. 1, Sept. 16, Sept. 28. The first has been dismissed for being too similar to 1994. The last is the desired date for the hawks who want to throw the postseason and baseball history onto Selig's back. Most likely, it will be one of the other two.

Incidentally, Selig this week insisted that when the labor deal is done, he has no intention of retiring and moving on to some of the projects he has long wanted to tackle. "I will be in this office until my extension expires," said Selig, "and that's 4 years from now. That's what I was contracted to do, and I will fufill my obligations to the other owners."

Part of the fun of being The Commissiner is settling disputes, like the one between Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon with the Mets. Doubleday claims that the $385 million value on the franchise set by mediator Bob Starkey -- who works for Selig and MLB -- was intentionally low, to set some statement in the negotiations. In Doubleday's eyes, he got double-crossed.

Searching for some relief
Mike Scioscia, David Eckstein and Darin Erstad won't allow the Angels to feel sorry for themselves, but it seems as if a curse still hovers over the franchise. Two serious infections to two of their best players? First, Troy Percival got a cut near his Achilles tendon that turned into a serious staph infection, then Erstad got an infection on the top of his foot.

"We just have to try to make do until we get Percival back," says Scioscia, who already was without Al Levine and Dennis Cook in the bullpen. Scioscia and Bud Black have used Ben Weber and Scott Schoeneweis in late relief, but knowing that Percival could be disabled longer than the original 10-day prognostication, GM Bill Stoneman has worked hard to find a power reliever who can close until Percival returns and then be a force in the seventh and eighth innings. Stoneman has talked to other teams about Kelvim Escobar, Paul Shuey, Roberto Hernandez, Antonio Alfonseca and several other relievers. Within two weeks, the Angels might bring up Francisco Rodriguez, who has moved from Double-A to Triple-A and thrown very well. As he showed in the Futures Game, Rodriguez has a filthy slider.

There are at least seven teams in on Ricardo Rincon, including the A's, Cubs, Giants and Dodgers. Baltimore has been unwilling to trade Buddy Groom, so Dan Plesac (Yankees?), Rincon and Pittsburgh's Scott Sauerbeck may be the best left-handed setup men on the market right now. Rincon is making only $1.7 million next season, so the Indians don't have to move him. If Alan Embree returns, as expected, off the DL at the end of this week, he might turn out to be the most significant left-handed reliever traded during the season.

The Phillies would have liked to have re-signed Plesac, but meanwhile they have a number of serious issues to decide. Do they deal Mike Lieberthal rather than not pick up his $7.2 million option for 2003? What happens if he closes in on the 500 plate appearances that vest the option? Ditto Terry Adams and his 170-inning vesting of his $5.4 million option. While they want Adams back as a middle man, they're not paying a middle reliever $5.4 million. The disappointing seasons of Adams and Robert Person have thrown too much pressure onto the shoulders of their young pitchers, and as evidenced by Brandon Duckworth's poor 51 percent first-pitch strike ratio, they weren't ready to carry the team.

Optimistic in San Diego
It has been an injury-racked season for the Padres, who going into the weekend had scored one or no runs in 25 percent of their games. Plus, their Double-A and Triple-A teams are at the bottom of the Texas League and Pacific Coast League in runs scored. But with Phil Nevin coming back, Sean Burroughs in Portland learning to play second base and Xavier Nady on the horizon, Kevin Towers has reason to believe that the Pads are close to having a potent offensive team to take into their new park in 2004.

"We're optimistic that Sean can play second," says Towers. "We're leaving him there for six weeks. If it works, then with Ryan Klesko and Nevin at the corners, Burroughs at second and Mark Kotsay and Nady in the outfield, we have the makings of a pretty darned good offense." Burroughs would be the 11th regular second baseman in San Diego since Bret Boone was allowed to walk, but they had to move D'Angelo Jimenez for clubhouse purposes.

The Padres already have the makings of a strong 2004 pitching staff, with Brian Lawrence one of the league's most consistent starters, 20-year old Oliver Perez dazzling and Adam Eaton on the way back from arm surgery. Then there are right-handers Jake Peavy, Dennis Tankersley and Ben Howard and lefties Mark Phillips and Mike Bynum, who after a trip to trainer Mark Verstegen in Tempe, Ariz., discovered his knee and arm problems were the result of hip restrictions that limited his trunk rotation; Bynum is now healthy and on fire.

"Perez is The Natural," says one NL scout. "He was signed by Yucatan when he was 13. Ask the Dodgers. They thought he was a better prospect than Fernando (Valenzuela). How many pitchers have ever been so good they were professionals at 13?"

One of the reasons the Padres have become so adept at developing pitchers is Ted Simmons' insistence that every minor-league pitcher be used regularly. "The classic example," says Towers, "is Rusty Tucker." Tucker, a left-hander, was a 21st-round pick in 2001 out of Gloucester, Mass, and the University of Maine. In 2001, he pitched at Idaho Falls, where he was 0-2, 7.13 with 50 walks and 43 strikeouts in 35 innings. "He got to pitch, and he's developed," says Towers, and between the Midwest and California Leagues, Tucker this season is 6-1 with a 0.98 ERA with a 65/14/65 K/BB/ ratio in 46 innings.

News and notes

  • It appears Doug Melvin is the frontrunner for the Brewers GM job if it opens. Dan Duquette right now is inclined to pass on the opportunity, as he is spending the summer in various projects in New England, including the camp he opened with his brother in the Berkshires, and sailing in Buzzard's Bay. ... There are rumblings that Pudge Rodriguez's loyalty to the Rangers and his preference for the area might lead him to pursue a one-year deal for 2003, then enter the market. The question is whether or not the Rangers, who have 10 players under contract for next season at $84 million and expect Kenny Rogers to come home even if he accepts a trade this season, can afford Rodriguez, even if after all his hard work he returns to superstar form.

  • Don't think great pitching coaches don't make a difference. Check what Don Gullett has done in Cincinnati for Bruce Chen and his mechanics out of the bullpen. Next, Gullett believes he's got Dempster on the road to fixing his delivery. ... Is Oakland's Chad Bradford now the AL's best setup man? The numbers (47 IP, 5 BB, 1 HR with lefties hitting .168 with a .436 OPS) indicate that, at worst, he is the most underappreciated.

  • Anyone who saw parts of Runelvys Hernandez's debut for the Royals understands what GM Allard Baird means when he says, "He is the real deal." Kyle Snyder is about to be jumped to Double-A in his rehab, and with Shawn Sedlacek, Jimmy Gobble and the young pitching Baird is trying to develop, he says, "We hope to have the core of a young team with which we can move forward." Presently, Baird is concentrating on finding a second baseman and other young help in the trade market for Roberto Hernandez, Paul Byrd, Jeff Suppan, Neifi Perez, et al. But the 13-game winner Byrd won't come cheap. "He's hot, and that should mean something to a contender acquiring him," says Baird. Byrd also makes $850,000, has never made as much as $1.9 million in his career and would seemingly be a lynchpin for a young staff in 2003.

  • The gripe big markets have with David Glass and the Royals is that why should he be able to take in $20+ million in revenue sharing, slash an already low payroll and not have that revenue-sharing money slashed? ... One former major-leaguer recently went to watch an 18-and-under showcase game in California and found that one of the 50 players was a minority. That, friends, is a problem.

  • Drayton McLane's decision to stop Astros scouting director David Lakey from signing outstanding draft picks -- right now their 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 7th picks -- until and if there is a labor agreement sent shockwaves through the agent and player world, not to mention an organization built on scouting and development and shrewd use of Paul Ricciarini's eye for minor-league free-agent talent. Minnesota has also backed off its draft choices, no surprise considering Carl Pohlad's commitment. And Baltimore is offering low take-or-leave-it deals per order of Peter Angelos. With the virtual certainty that there will be a radically different draft system complete with slotting and limited bonues, players are faced with difficult decisions on whether or not to go back for senior years in college or choose college over pro ball in the cases of high school kids.

  • The White Sox are excited about Brooks Kieschnick's 17 scoreless innings at Charlotte. In Double-A, former first-round sandwich pick Jason Dellaero, who always had a rocket arm at shortstop, is trying pitching. His ERA and walk totals are high, but manager Wally Backman says, "Jason's turned it up to 96, he's got a natural breaking ball, and if he makes up his mind to pitch, he could be special." Just the opposite of Luis Garcia, the pitcher-turned-outfielder with Sexsoneque power acquired by the Indians in the Chuck Finley deal.

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