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Nomar healthy, Manny ready
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Yes, Nomar Garciaparra looks like the Nomar Garciaparra before the wrist injury.
And if your frame of reference on Manny Ramirez is 2002, file that away.
"Manny has been the hardest worker in this camp," Red Sox manager Grady Little said. "He beats the coaches to the park to hit at 6:30. He is in great shape (after working a winter program designed by strength and conditioning coach Chris Correnti). He's playing the outfield well, and hard." With a shortened leg kick, Ramirez has looked so good this spring that some teammates have suggested that come August, we'll be asking if he can win the Triple Crown.
The Red Sox are a dangerous, deep offensive team. With Johnny Damon and Todd Walker in front of Garciaparra and Ramirez, they have a big front four, and with Kevin Millar, Jeremy Giambi, Shea Hillenbrand, Jason Varitek and Trot Nixon -- along with David Ortiz and a healthy Bill Mueller -- in the mix to the end of the order the Red Sox could conceivably lead the league in runs.
"What we also have here is an incredible group of gamers," Millar said. "If attitude were a problem in the past, it isn't now."
Little has to figure out how to play everyone, but last season he had no bench. The good news is that Millar has played better at first than anticipated, Hillenbrand has played what Little considers "outstanding first base," and many nights they will try to preserve a lead with Mueller at third and Hillenbrand at first.
As for Hillenbrand, among many trade rumors, he has had a big spring.
"I worked hard this winter (with Mark Verstagen at Athletes Performance) to build flexibility in my lower half and get stronger," says Hillenbrand. "Then this spring (hitting coach) Ron Jackson showed me a way to get much shorter in my approach. It just seems to come together, and I have much more confidence in my ability to recognize pitches."
Hillenbrand's bat speed has been noticeably quicker. "He can wait better now," says Jackson. "... Shea and Nomar, they are hitters who don't strike out on balls in the strike zone. They don't swing and miss at strikes. So you want them hitting."
Pedro Martinez, whose conditioning program brought him into camp at 193 pounds, has had a great spring. But where last year the starting pitching carried them, this year the pitching is a concern.
1. Casey Fossum -- who has struggled mightily this spring -- and John Burkett are at the end of the rotation.
"It's too bad there's been so much pressure on Casey because of the trade talks," Varitek said of the pressure of Theo Epstein turning down the deals (Fossum for Kevin Millwood, then Hillenbrand, Fossum and Anastacio Martinez for Bartolo Colon). "He needs to relax and throw normally."
But he hasn't. Fossum has overthrown, and when he tried to relax Saturday was hammered. One problem Fossum has is that he doesn't have a pitch he can throw that batters can hit softly; all his pitches are hard swing-and-miss pitches, and because he's pressed, he hasn't been able to develop a change-up (he threw one right by a hitter in his last start, and while most people thought it was a fastball, it was an 89 mph change).
"He's such a max-effort guy, he may have to go to the pen for a while, relax and get it back," says one teammate. If that happens, they may try Brandon Lyon -- claimed off waivers from Toronto and throwing up to 94 -- until Robert Person is ready in mid-April.
2. Their mix-and-match bullpen is OK, but as Billy Beane says, "if it doesn't work, it isn't because the idea is wrong, it's because they have the wrong people. They are very happy with Chad Fox (who Little believes may be the key to the pen), Alan Embree and Ramiro Mendoza, who is in terrific shape. But under this concept, they need at least three pitchers with an out/strikeout pitch, and right now Bobby Howry, Mike Timlin and rookie Matt White haven't demonstrated one. Pitching coach Tony Cloninger likes the 96-97 mph velocity of Hector Almonte, but while has thrown very hard, he hasn't consistently demonstrated a hit-and-miss pitch.
One more problem: Almost every one of their relievers is a one-inning pitcher, and they have no one to eat innings unless Fossum goes back to the pen or Frank Castillo makes the club.
There are some good relievers -- Felix Rodriguez and Jose Jimenez, for example --who are available, but they come with big contracts and Epstein doesn't want to dry up what he may need in June or July right now.
Epstein has been working the phones hard over the weekend trying to acquire both a starter and a reliever. Cubs GM Jim Hendry says he has "no intention of trading Juan Cruz or Carlos Zambrano right now. They've got great arms, they've had great springs and could be a big part of this team for years to come (not to mention that now that he can throw again, David Kelton had such a good spring at third base that he could be their answer come the All-Star break)."
The concerns about Fossum's 15-something ERA, Burkett's intensity and Howry's inflamed elbow necessitate a couple of deals. Problem is, what quality can they get for a package that would include Hillenbrand and Fossum? No Millwood or Colon jokes, please.
Boston is going to start the season projected into the next level after the Twins, Yankees and A's, grouped in with Anaheim and, in all probability, Chicago. "Pedro is going to have an even better season than last year, and Derek Lowe and Tim Wakefield will be fine," says Little. "We have plenty of ways to go."
Little remembers that Burkett, Darren Oliver and Castillo were in his April rotation in 2002. "We've really got something good here," says Damon. "There's a lot of media focus on what we might not have, but what we do have is one helluva team that will play as hard as anyone. The guys they brought in here are all tough gamers. And that will make a big difference come August and September," traditionally the months when the Red Sox fade to black.
Danger: Reds are solid
Junior Griffey is healthy for the first time in more than two years and looks great. So does Adam Dunn. Sean Casey, whose shoulder was so bad last year he "couldn't hit the ball the other way because I couldn't extend," is close to normal. Aaron Boone has worked very hard at second ("The most important thing is the position's internal clock, but I'm getting used to it, and for now I don't want positioning from the coaches because I want to figure it out myself"). Brandon Larson has been hurt, but they think he'll hit homers at third. And the bullpen is deep and set to close with Scott Williamson.
While the starting pitching has holes and Paul Wilson has been so sidetracked with a pulled groin that he's yet to pitch in a game, there have been three positive developments. The first is Ryan Dempster's changeup, which has given him the look of a 200-something inning, 15-plus game winner. "I fooled around with it this winter throwing," says Dempster. "And it just came. I can't explain it, but I threw seven in one game to Jacques Jones and he swung and missed at all seven."
The second is Jimmy Anderson. In Pittsburgh, Anderson had good ground ball stuff, but had a bad double-hitch in his delivery and got heavy. This spring, Don Gullett has smoothed the delivery. Anderson is in good shape and is getting the ball down consistently, so consistently that scouts think he can be a solid 3-4-5 starter. And third, Pete Harnisch is coming along so well he thinks he will "be ready by mid-April. I haven't felt this good in a long time." Not only that, but Harnisch's changeup is better than ever.
"We're going to fool people," says The Mayor, Casey. "We're going to score a lot of runs. Junior is going to go off. Watch."
Coco Crisp of the Indians is one young player who may be a legitimate leadoff man, as he gets it and brings tremendous energy to the position. But the Phillies are still concerned that Jimmy Rollins hits his 10-12 homers and thinks about power, while his value to his career and his team would be much greater if he could just get on base consistently.
Whether or not Alex Rodriguez is ready to open the season will be determined early this coming week.
"It's really important for a winning team to have veteran players who bring the young players along," says Showalter. "When we went to Maryvale to play the Brewers Friday, Alex grabbed Mench and said, 'let's drive to the game and root for our teammates.' " So the two went, sat through a four hour Cactus League game and cheered for their teammates.
Take another look at Griffey
And there's no better example than Griffey. Does he sometimes take things too personally? Yes. But anyone who knows him would offer this: Any man who cares about his children as much as Junior is all right.
He took a shot for leaving a spring training game after six innings. Well, most players take three at-bats and a powder, and Junior's been playing most every day. But on days when his 9-year-old son Trey is playing a Little League game or his daughter Tarin is playing basketball, he drives to Orlando for their 6 pm games, then drives back to Sarasota.
"Where I train in spring training is very important to me," says Griffey, "because that's two more months I can be there for them. That's the most important thing in my life."
Here is a typical Griffey story. He was on Trey during the Pop Warner season to tackle harder, and told him any time he slid off a tackle, he had to do 10 pushups, only any time he really hammered someone, Dad Junior would do 20. "One game Trey hammered this kid on one of the first plays of the game," says Griffey. "There was a timeout. He flashed 20 fingers up and me. Barry Larkin made me drop down on the sidelines and do 20 pushups, right there."
Plenty of social consciousness
"But I still love baseball," says the 29-year old. "So I went to a Reds tryout camp." And was signed by Jeff Barton on Jan. 29. He's throwing 91-92 MPH, and has piqued interest, as well as earned the nickname "Doc." Knowing how the Reds like to be frugal, if he makes it to the big leagues he can be a pitcher/team physician and save some money.
1. The Dodgers have talked to Scott Radinsky about returning to baseball, as long as he's done touring with Pulley.
2. Millar has asked the Red Sox to give a tryout to Josh Booty, who in his new life as Browns' third string quarterback, wants to try pitching. "He might be Trevor Hoffman," says Millar. "He throws gas and always had control."