Six young players who popped a few eyeballs this spring:
B.J. Upton, Devil Rays shortstop: "Tremendous ability," said one scout. "He could be right up there with A-Rod and (Derek) Jeter and that group, in terms of talent. But is he going to want to step it up a notch and work like those guys to be that good? Does he want to take those extra 100 ground balls a day? What he's doing now, he's doing on pure talent."
David Wright, Mets third baseman: "I just got a one-game look at him," said one GM. "But he looked like a guy who's not intimidated. I know he's a young kid, but you could just see he's a kid with a feel for the game."
Cole Hamels, Phillies left-handed pitcher: "Tell me he's going out, right?" said Braves manager Bobby Cox after watching Hamels (who whiffed A-Rod twice this spring) pitch against his team. "Tell me he's going far out. I don't want to have to face him for a long time. He's way ahead of the ball game, the way he can mix his fastball and his changeup. Guys like that don't come around the pike too often."
Jose Capellan, Braves right-handed pitcher: One scout said he was minding his own business one day when Capellan marched into a game and threw 98-100 mph -- "and I went, 'Holy cow, where do they get these guys?' "
"He's really something special," said Cox, who seems closer and closer to allowing Capellan to try the jump from Class A to the big leagues. "It's not just velocity. This kid's got a good curve and real good mound presence. I'm not saying he's going to make the club. But we definitely have that option."
Delmon Young, Devil Rays outfielder: "He's got a long ways to go, but unbelievable power," said one scout. "He can really hit the ball a long ways. In batting practice, he hit balls over that center-field hitting background in center field (in St. Petersburg) like it was nothing."
John Van Benschoten, Pirates right-handed pitcher: "If you had to build a pitcher," said Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon, "he's it."
Laynce Nix, Rangers outfielder: "This guy's going to be a good player," said one NL scout. "Eventually, I think he'll be a better player than Rusty Greer, and he's that type of player. At his highest point, if he gets there, the maximum he could be is slightly below a Brian Giles."
Josh Hamilton Rumblings
The saddest stories in sports are the stories of players who waste their talents and lives. So how do we measure how sad the story is of Josh Hamilton, suspended for the season by Major League Baseball for a violation of its non-steroid drug policy?
Five years ago, when the Devil Rays held the No. 1 pick in the June draft, they had a nearly impossible choice -- Josh Hamilton or Josh Beckett. Now, even though Beckett has won a World Series MVP award and Hamilton has dropped off the planet, the man who made the decision to take Hamilton says: "I'd still do it again."
"It was a win-win situation," said Dan Jennings, then the scouting director of the Devil Rays, now (ironically) an assistant GM for the Marlins. "You had a No. 3-or-4 hole hitter or a No. 1 starter. You couldn't go wrong. It was just which you preferred, the pitcher or the hitter."
Obviously, that choice did go wrong. But we've never found anyone who saw Hamilton play in high school and foresaw a kid who would have two dozen tattoos and at least two drug suspensions five years later.
"That kid reeked of baseball," Jennings said. "He'd come out, kiss grandma and go play. I remember one game, he hit a home run and then came back and he was the bat boy. So I don't want him to become another Brien Taylor (No. 1 overall in 1991) or Mark Merchant (No. 2, after Junior Griffey, in '87), who never became what he should have been."
But that, of course, is where Hamilton is heading, unless he undergoes a miraculous transformation in the next 12 months. By next spring, it will have been 2½ years since he played a professional game.
"There was nothing he couldn't do," said Hal McRae, who has been a hitting coach, manager and special advisor for the Rays. "But once he comes back, it won't be ability that determines whether he makes it. It will be attitude. The two years he lost, he can still make up, because he's still young. But he'll have to bust his butt to get back.
"I've seen enough stories like this to know that when a guy like this comes back, he's not even the same person. He looks the same, but he's not. He won't even think you view what he does the same. You hope you get the same person back, but you don't. You've lost that guy. You just hope the guy who comes back still wants to play bad enough. If he wants it bad enough, he can still get it. But he's got to want it."
So in a year, will Josh Hamilton have enough awareness of how much he's lost to finally get back on the path to fulfilling his potential, as a player and a human being? That's a question no one can answer yet -- even him.
The Red Sox picked up the pace in negotiations with Pedro Martinez this week. But four scouts who have watched Martinez pitch this spring say they'd be hesitant to commit mega-dollars to a guy who hasn't made it past 90 mph on the gun all spring.
"I'd worry a little bit about Pedro if I were them," said one scout. "He's really dropped down with his arm slot, and it really makes you wonder about him. He's throwing 86-88, and he tops out at 90. They're going to have to baby him. He's not a horse anymore, not like the other guy (Curt Schilling)."
But no one knows if Martinez is just being careful. And he's so inventive, even scouts who have doubts about him are reluctant to draw any firm conclusions this early.
"You just don't know with Pedro," said an NL scout. "I wrote him off a couple of years ago, too. You see his arm slot getting lower and lower. But he keeps going out there and putting up dazzling innings."
A scout who has been following the A's this spring says he's seen nothing that has convinced him Arthur Rhodes is going to be able to close.
"For the A's to win that division, they're going to have to prove to people that Arthur Rhodes can close," the scout said. "His stock dropped last year because his velocity dropped, and it's still down. He's in the low 90s, but this is from somebody who was throwing 95. And Arthur doesn't pitch back-to-back games very often. As a closer, you have to be capable of going in back-to-back games.
"I have a feeling it's going to be a very interesting ninth inning for the Oakland A's this season."
If you're curious, only 28 of Rhodes' 133 appearances over the last two years came when he'd pitched the day before -- and his ERA in those games was nearly 4.00.
There have been rumblings that the Braves could opt to make a last-minute attempt to sign Fred McGriff, who was left home by the Devil Rays when they departed for Japan this week. But given the terrific spring by Adam LaRoche, that seemed unlikely.
McGriff knew he wasn't going to make the Rays this spring. It was just a stopping-off point on the way to his next destination -- the baseball version of changing planes at O'Hare. But people around the Devil Rays are confident he'll get a job.
"Fred is in as good shape, physically and mentally, as I've ever seen him," said Devil Rays GM Chuck LaMar. "Sure, he doesn't have the skills of the younger Fred McGriff. But he's not only going to get those nine home runs he needs (for 500). He can help a team that has a need for a veteran bat. If we hadn't had a surplus of people, he'd have made this club."
Earlier in the spring, McGriff quietly took a large group of young Devil Rays players to dinner, even though he knew he'd almost certainly never be their teammate. Which is an indication that he's grown into the job of a veteran role model.
"Fred has gotten to the point in his career where he wants to give back," LaMar said. "Like a lot of old-school players, he knows the game doesn't owe him anything. They owe the game everything. And that's something that's lost on many of today's players. But not this guy."
Nevertheless, scouts we've surveyed said they couldn't find a fit for McGriff anywhere they looked. One even predicted: "Right now, I'd say somebody would have to get hurt for him to get a regular job."
The Mets and Orioles were both looking hard for utility infielders in the last week. The Mets are a good bet to make a run at Deivi Cruz, who didn't fit the Devil Rays' mix. And the Orioles were believed to be among the teams interested in Toronto's Dave Berg.
The Blue Jays also would move outfielder Jayson Werth for pitching. And the Dodgers were thought to be interested in him. But given Shawn Green's reluctance to play first base, the Dodgers may need to find offense in center field, in the middle of the infield and/or at first. Which would make many of their spring rumors defunct.
Greg Maddux's absence in the Braves' camp is not just felt by players who knew him for years. Even Jaret Wright, a guy who spent only a few weeks with the Braves last season, is acutely conscious of it.
"I was only here for a month with Maddux," said Wright, who became a Brave last Aug. 29 after he was waived by the Padres and claimed by Atlanta. "But some of the stuff he'd talk about, I had to try to forget -- because I didn't understand what he was talking about. I thought he was talking about baseball, but I'm not sure. I guess I'm just a simple guy."
Best pitcher one scout says he has seen all spring: Yankees enigma Jose Contreras (22 strikeouts, only five hits allowed in his last 12 2/3 innings).
"He's thrown hard, he's thrown strikes, his slider's been good, and his split has been unhittable," the scout said. "I've seen more swings and misses against this guy than anybody I've seen all spring. One start, he struck out the side in the first inning, and there was only one ball touched. And it was a foul ball. So he could have been out there like (softball legend) Eddie Feigner with no fielders."
Speaking of New York pitchers who have looked a lot better this spring, one scout who has seen Tom Glavine pitch several times says it's obvious new Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson has helped rework Glavine's delivery.
"He's changed the way he positions his feet, and it's really helped him," the scout said. "His control has been impeccable."
Scariest defensive team this spring: The Tigers -- who committed 44 errors in their first 20 games. "And that doesn't even count their outfield mistakes," said one scout. "You can't believe the balls that drop out there."
But an official of one club at least offered this kudo: "Of all the teams I've seen down here, they've worked the hardest. They take balls off the bat in batting practice. They take crisp BP and crisp infield. So at least the approach is right."
Spring Box-Score Lines of the Week
Arizona's Shane Reynolds, March 20 vs. San Diego:
2 IP 10 H 11 R, 11 ER, 0 BB, 1 K, 2 HR, 1 HBP, as many extra-base hits as outs (6)
Quote of the day: "Just a horrible day. Everything I threw up there they hit, no matter what it was."
Colorado's Denny Stark, March 21 vs. Arizona:
3 1/3 IP, 12 H, 10 R, 9 ER, 2 BB, 1 K, 2 HR, 1 HBP
Quote of the day: "Way too many balls found the wall," said Rockies manager Clint Hurdle, "or found their way to the backside of the wall."
White Sox's Jason Grilli, March 22 vs. Seattle:
3 IP, 14 H, 9 R, 9 ER, 1 BB, 0 K, 1 WP
Quotes of the day (tie): "I could have thrown the kitchen sink up there and they would have hit it," said Grilli.
And from his manager, Ozzie Guillen: "Those are the types of games you just want to get over with -- and make sure your players get a nice suntan."
Spring Training Freeze Frame of the Week
The scene: Expos manager Frank Robinson's office.
The sporting event on the office television: Sumo wrestling.
Uh, sumo wrestling?
"Hey, I've gotta be well-rounded," Robinson told Rumblings inquisitors. "Now I can go in and talk to (Tomo) Ohka, and I can talk to him about this."