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Intriguing early developments


Special to ESPN.com

April 7

This is not the way to start a season. Derek Jeter and Junior Griffey joining the man Griffey was nearly traded for, Phil Nevin, suffering unusual shoulder injuries. Paltry crowds in Detroit, Oakland, Baltimore, Florida ... and Greg Maddux with an 11.00 ERA after two starts.

But even in a week, there are trends worth noting. Including:

1.
Despite the absence of Mariano Rivera, the loss of Jeter and all the waste-management verbiage of the spring, the Yankees are playing very well. "They are better than they were last year," Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi said. "They're so deep. And (Jason) Giambi and Bernie Williams seem to get better every year. It's good for young teams like ours to play them because they are an example as to how to win."

Jason Giambi
Jason Giambi came out of the box with three home runs in Week 1.

Even with an unsettled bullpen and a nervous start of the season by Jose Contreras, the bats and the starting pitching carried the Yankees to four straight wins until the phrenetic Devil Rays rallied to beat them Saturday. Much was made of the way the starters fared in the Anaheim series last October, but not only was part of that due to defensive breakdowns, but it missed the point that makes them so good for the regular season -- that every one of their five starters have been a staff leader at one point in his career, but with these Yankees there is no pressure other than to win 13-18 games. In contrast, every time Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Tom Glavine or Maddux doesn't win, there are people in their cities breaking out in hives.

George Steinbrenner may have brought in some characters contrary to those Joe Torre nurtured from 1996 on, but Torre -- with the help of Jeter, Williams, Clemens, et al -- still does a remarkable job maintaining that Yankee dignity and respect. This is his toughest job and he has gotten the Yankees uncommonly focused entering the season.

2.
Boston's bullpen blew the opening game when Alan Embree and Chad Fox coughed up a 4-1 ninth-inning lead. The Red Sox lost the fifth game when Fox walked in the winning run and in between were twice saved by a throw to the plate to avoid another loss and blown save. In its first five games, the much-publicized Committee allowed 17 earned runs in 24 innings and was 0-for-3 in save opportunities. Yet had Nomar Garciaparra turned an Opening Day double play -- or the runner had been properly called out for leaving the baseline to distract Garciaparra -- Boston would have been 4-0 before Saturday's 2-1 loss at Camden Yards.

Urbina
Urbina

The Smiths' "Panic" may be playing on every FM station from Bangor to Block Island and supermarket register clerks know that there are eight active relievers with more career saves than the combined 187 career saves of The Committee. "Of course we'd love to have a Rivera, Hoffman or some great surefire closer," general manager Theo Epstein said. "But who was there to get? We wanted to keep (Ugueth) Urbina (who had 40 saves, but was 8-for-12 in one-run save opportunities), but at what he could have earned in arbitration ($8 million), we wouldn't have been able to sign Kevin Millar, David Ortiz and a couple of other players. It will work out. The idea isn't wrong, our relievers just aren't pitching very well right now."

A week before the season opener, Grady Little suggested "when we start the season, Fox might be our most important individual player." Fox might have been 2-for-7 closing games in his career, but Little thought he could finish. And still does. Embree has always been streaky. Mike Timlin has been fine setting up. Ramiro Mendoza had one bad outing.

Curiously, while Steve Woodard has been effective in the abused long role, Brandon Lyon -- claimed off the waiver wire from Toronto last October -- has been their best reliever with a win and a hold in two strong outings. As Epstein points out, Lyon has some closing tools -- hitting 95 mph in short stints with good command of his fastball, changeup and slider -- but he hasn't yet proven he can bounce back or shoulder a lead. Robert Person isn't far from being ready, but they haven't yet decided whether or not he can bounce back after elbow and shoulder surgery. Dickie Gonzalez's Mets bosses think he can be a very effective middle man if they choose to bring him in from Pawtucket. Hector Almonte was touching 96-97 mph in spring training and is an arm-strength guy.

For the time being, there is no closer available because teams don't start admitting they even have a white flag in the closet until June. Jose Jimenez, Armando Benitez, Kelvim Escobar or Mike DeJean cannot be had. And it doesn't help that Rivera, Robb Nen, Trevor Hoffman, Antonio Alfonseca and Jason Isringhausen are all sidelined, and that there are 12-15 teams currently surviving by "committees." What Little and Epstein hope is that in the next two weeks they get Fox and Embree straightened out, have the roles defined for Person and Lyon and have the bullpen in order.

3.
Kevin Brown and Darren Dreifort are healthy. It was apparent coming out of spring training that these two -- who totalled 10 starts for $28 million last season -- were back, but each pitched very well in his first start. Brown, in fact, had the flu and actually threw better in his final exhibition tuneup in Dodger Stadium the previous Friday. The Dodgers have struggled to score runs in the first week and have once again been beaten in San Diego, but with Hideo Nomo, Brown, Dreifort, Kaz Ishii and Odalis Perez, and the luxury of having Andy Ashby come out of the bullpen when they need to back off Dreifort or Ishii, the starting depth is outstanding.

Brown
Brown

So is the depth in the bullpen. Paul Shuey and Paul Quantrill are veteran conduits to Eric Gagne, but they are stockpiling depth. Guillermo Mota has one of the most dominant arms in the National League. And then there's Tom Martin. Yes, the Tom Martin, who in 14 previous professional seasons pitched for eight organizations, won eight games, had a 5.22 ERA and a 5-2 shoulder operation-save ratio. Shuey, his former Indian teammate, talked the Dodgers into giving him a tryout five days into spring training. When they left to open the season at Arizona, Martin was not only on the team, but he was throwing 94 mph and hadn't been clocked throwing a fastball under 91 all spring.

"I remember when we used to play catch in Cleveland, he couldn't throw a ball to the equivalent of the inside part of the plate to a right-hander," Shuey said. "His shoulder always had some impingement. After he got released by Tampa Bay last season he had his fifth operation and they finally got it right."

Not only that, but rookie Steve Colyer was throwing in the 90s with a nasty curveball, and while he was sent down to start the season, he will be back as another left-handed alternative.

4.
With the exception of the Milwaukee Brewers, for whom every season has been a struggle since Jamie Navarro was a 17-game winner in 1992, the National League Central is wild.

Cruz
Cruz

The Cubs pitching looks that good. Even with Alfonseca out, the development of Juan Cruz as a potential Octavio Dotel is scary. And they think 21-year-old Angel Guzman, who is starting the season in Double-A, has the best arm of the lot. Don't underestimate the important of Moises Alou's good start. And now the silly Sammy Sosa home run thing is over. There were actually "Sammy failed ..." comments after the first three games at Shea Stadium, when, in fact, Sosa had great, key at-bats. Remember, when you hear talking heads babbling about home run totals, the only team with a player who hit as many as 35 home runs to win the World Series since 1985 (Kansas City, Steve Balboni) was Arizona in 2001.

Everyone knows that if and when the Cardinals get Isringhausen back along with Jim Edmonds and J.D. Drew that they will be formidable, as will the Astros as long as the Brian Moehler-Jeriome Robertson-Tim Redding contingent that is 60 percent of their rotation holds.

If the April winds were a fluke, the Reds have a home run park similar to Milwaukee. Despite the horrific loss of Griffey, they have the power to hit a ton of home runs and recreate the '95 Rockies. The first time through the rotation was cause for concern with Jimmy Haynes and Jimmy Anderson, but they got Paul Wilson back Sunday and Pete Harnisch makes his second rehab start Tuesday.

And the Pirates players think they can win 85 games. Kenny Lofton, Reggie Sanders and Randall Simon give them veteran presence with their two legit All-Stars (Brian Giles and Aramis Ramirez) and a healthy Jason Kendall, who after a .490 on-base percentage in spring training appears back. When they swept the first three games in Cincinnati, the Reds' folks offered three observations: the Buccos have the best bench in the division, Jack Wilson and Pokey Reese are the best defensive middle infield combination in the league and they have bullpen depth. The fact that Kris Benson -- not allowing an earned run in 13 1/3 innings over two starts -- has started the season like the No. 1 starter he was to be before his injury is a significant development.

5.
Jim Thome wasn't exactly intimidated by Philly. Saturday was the 60th consecutive game that he'd reached base, the best such run since Mark McGwire reached in 62 straight.

6.
If you heard anyone rail about the futility of the Royals pitching after spring training, then you know that that person wasn't following the game. "The Cubs and the Royals pitching was the talk of Arizona," one veteran scout said. "The Royals are going to make some good teams look bad at different times during the season, because they're loaded with young power arms and have two more in the minors who are second or third starters in the big leagues."

Affeldt
Affeldt

It is no surprise that Jeremy Affeldt and Runelvys Hernandez combined to start the season 3-0. They have extraordinary stuff and every team in baseball wants them. Miguel Asenscio throws in the 90s with a good changeup. Longtime prospect Chris George, on what may be his last stand in Kansas City, pitched well in his first outing. On the immediate horizon are former No. 1 pick Kyle Snyder and left-hander Jimmy Gobble, who most scouts project as a second or third starter in the big leagues.

Then there is the bullpen: Mike MacDougal hit 100 in spring training. Ryan Bukvich, Jeremy Hill and Rule V draftee D.J. Carrasco (out of the Pirates organization although he'd been released by two organizations) is a legit 93-95 with a boring sinker. Not only that, but early in spring training he caught GM Allard Baird's eye by going into the baseball office and asking to use a copier -- for the charts he keeps on every batter he faces.

"We knew that we had to get these pitchers to the big leagues and have them perform," said Baird, who with his staff worked very hard in the winter preparing and developing several of these arms. "At the end of last season, I told our staff that by speeding up the development process and pushing our young pitchers to the big leagues in September probably caused us to lose 100 games," Baird said. "But I told them there's no difference between losing 90 games and losing 100. We have opportunities here and we can't let skeptics and critics get us away from our plan. The fact that Tony Pena is the manager is a key as well because he loves the kids and there's never a day when he's not on. He is an unusual man. He has belief, he has passion and he has sincerity, and the players love it."

What Baird hopes is that the young pitching gives the positional players enough hope that Mike Sweeney wants to stay and declines his option to become a free agent at the end of the season. He hopes shortstop Angel Berroa develops with hitting coach Jeff Pentland, because Baird said he believes Berroa "has the most range and the second-best arm of any shortstop in the American League."

With pitching, there is hope. The Royals may have the former. "The fans in Kansas City," said Baird, "deserve hope." Winning their first five games breeds hope, however realistic.

7.
No one knows what the schedule and the budgetary lack of depth will mean to the Expos over the season, but they are a team that will scare a lot of people. Center fielder Endy Chavez, grabbed by Omar Minaya from the Mets last spring, may be a legitimate leadoff hitter, and with Orlando Cabrera healthy and flashing around shortstop, they are a lot of fun. But baseball officials cannot predict the future. "It is 50 percent certain that we will know their eventual destination," said one baseball official, citing fears that either the Washington or Virginia group actually has enough capital as yet. "But it is 40 percent certain that they can be moved for next year, so the odds are that we are looking at a scenario similar to this season."

Problem is, at the end of this season, Vladimir Guerrero is gone, and as 2004 rolls on, Javier Vazquez and Jose Vidro are staring at free agency. With Brandon Phillips, Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore, Wilken Ruan and Guillermo Mota gone from the organization, what will the buyer get for his money?

Benitez in elite company
One can make the argument that over the last four-plus seasons that Armando Benitez is one of the most under-appreciated pitchers in the game, noticed even more when he does blow a save as he did Sunday for the 13th time in four seasons.

Because he replaced John Franco at the end of Mets games, Benitez somehow wasn't accepted. He's had his nightmarish moments in the postseason -- all the way back to Baltimore -- and he's never been a media darling. But check this list of relievers from 1999 on and you'll see that he is in the top three in both save percentage and lowest percentage of inherited runners he's allowed to score:

CLOSERS WITH 20 SAVES, 1999-2002

Save Inhtd runner
Closer Saves pct. pct. scored
Armando Benitez 139 88.0 28.0
John Smoltz 55 93.2 20.0
Troy Percival 142 85.0 33.3
Trevor Hoffman 164 91.1 16.5
Roberto Hernandez 129 83.8 29.7
Danny Graves 111 80.7 34.5
Bob Wickman 119 85.6 29.5
Billy Wagner 113 91.1 28.9
Billy Koch 144 86.2 29.1
Mike Williams 115 87.1 33.3
Robb Nen 166 84.7 34.2
Mariano Rivera 159 88.8 30.2
Kazuhiro Sasaki 119 86.9 19.0
Jason Isringhausen 108 83.7 32.0

Benitez trailed only Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera in save percentage, and only Hoffman and Sasaki in lowest percentage of inherited runners scoring. Benitez and Hoffman are the only relievers to finish in the top three in both categories. Only Danny Graves (31-20) has a better winning percentage in the four-year period than Benitez (15-11).

Then there is the category of one-run save opportunities. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Benitez had more of those opportunities from 2000-02 than any other reliever in baseball:

ONE-RUN WARRIORS
Closer, team Saves Blown saves
Juan Acevedo, Tigers 14 10
Antonio Alfonseca, Marlins, Cubs 30 13
Armando Benitez, Mets 47 10
Mike DeJean, Brewers 12 9
Keith Foulke, White Sox 35 6
Eric Gagne, Dodgers 23 4
Danny Graves, Reds 27 8
Eddie Guardado, Twins 21 7
LaTroy Hawkins, Twins 15 9
Roberto Hernandez, D-Rays, Royals 23 15
Trevor Hoffman, Padres 38 8
Jason Isringhausen, A's, Cardinals 28 14
Jose Jimenez, Rockies 30 12
Todd Jones, Tigers, Twins, Rockies 15 7
Steve Karsay, Indians, Braves, Yankees 12 12
Byung-Hyun Kim, Diamondbacks 21 11
Billy Koch, Blue Jays, A's 32 15
Derek Lowe, Red Sox 20 9
Jose Mesa, Mariners, Phillies 20 12
Robb Nen, Giants 36 12
Troy Percival, Angels 45 6
Mariano Rivera, Yankees 43 9
Kazuhiro Sasaki, Mariners 37 15
Jeff Shaw, Dodgers 23 15
John Smoltz, Braves 20 4
Ugueth Urbina, Expos, Red Sox 15 8
Dave Veres, Cardinals 18 10
Billy Wagner, Astros 28 11
John Wetteland, Rangers 15 7
Bob Wickman, Brewers, Indians 20 6
Mike Williams, Pirates 29 7
Esteban Yan, Devil Rays 10 14

Troy Percival is the only closer in the majors who clearly had a better record in one-run save opportunities than Benitez.

If the Mets fall behind in the National League East come the All-Star break, they will have to make a decision: sign him to a long-term contract, or trade him and see if they can develop another closer. It will be interesting. Benitez, Kelvim Escobar, Keith Foulke, Ugueth Urbina, Antonio Alfonseca, Robb Nen, Eddie Guardardo, Latroy Hawkins, Matt Mantei, Jose Mesa and Mike DeJean are all free agents at the end of this season.

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