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'Value shopping' at its best

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Look out across from what appears to be the prospective pennant races. In the American League Central, the Indians have C.C. Sabathia and Tim Drew in their rotation and the White Sox have 22-year-old Mark Buehrle, who has one full season of professional experience and 51 1/3 major league innings, in their rotation. In the AL East, Christian Parker, Tomo Ohka and Paxton Crawford are all rookies and are being thrown into the New York-Boston shuttle wars, while the Rangers have youngsters Doug Davis and Ryan Glynn in their rotation.

Wade Miller will eventually be a major part of the Astros rotation and by midseason Roy Oswalt may be, as well. Cincinnati has youngster Chris Reitsma and Rob Bell in their rotation, St. Louis' power rating may depend on the success of Matt Morris and Rick Ankiel, Colorado is going to John Thomson sooner or later, the Braves may have to give the ball to both Odalis Perez and Jason Marquis and Florida's ability to get into the wild-card race may rest on how close Brad Penny, Jason Grilli and A.J. Burnett approximate the forward step Ryan Dempster took last season.

Cory Lidle
Cory Lidle was 4-0 with a 2.51 ERA this spring, earning him the No. 5 starter's job with the A's.

"Unless you can afford $35 or $40 million in your starting staff alone," says White Sox GM Ken Williams, "then you'd better be able to develop some of your own young pitchers and have them win. We did it, and will continue to do it. Look at the success Oakland had with Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder."

And, especially, look at the Giants -- they traded for Livan Hernandez, who is still only 26, and they have 28-year-old Shawn Estes and 26-year-old Russ Ortiz in their rotation, with Kurt Ainsworth a few starts away and Joe Nathan on the way back as soon as he regains confidence in his arm strength.

Sure, the Dodgers and Yankees are at or above $40 million with their starting staffs, with the Braves and Mets right behind. But the Mets wouldn't be where they are after losing Mike Hampton had they not traded for and developed Glendon Rusch. And one of the reasons the Mariners are in such a bind trying to trade for a third baseman and left fielder is that they lost Gil Meche and Ryan Anderson to injury and can't afford to trade off their starting pitching depth.

"We're not worried at all about running Ohka and Crawford out there in our rotation," says Boston pitching coach Joe Kerrigan. "They're ready. Both throw strikes, change speeds and in each case this spring came up with a breaking ball. If a pitcher can command his fastball and change speeds, he'll be fine."

Last winter, Rangers GM Doug Melvin took some heat for not going out and acquiring more veteran pitching to go with the signings of Alex Rodriguez, Andres Galarraga and Ken (Hannibal) Caminiti. "We looked around, and didn't see deals that made sense," says Melvin. "We really like Davis and Glynn and felt they deserved the opportunity, and some of the veterans we'd gone out and signed didn't work out for the money." Mark Clark, for one, and owner Tom Hicks was buffaloed into signing Darren Oliver, who won two games after signing a three-year, $18M contract. "I have a problem giving fourth and fifth starters or middle relievers $3, 4 and 5M deals," said Melvin. "Unless money is no object, those deals will kill you."

And Melvin has a payroll in the $85M range. The White Sox and Giants had the best records in their respective leagues last season and combined have a payroll only slightly higher than the Red Sox, Yankees or Dodgers. San Francisco's Brian Sabean, whose track record suggests he is one of the best general managers of this era, has always said, "you don't go wrong paying the great players. It's overpaying for the mediocrity."

"Five to 10 percent of major-league players are way better than the rest," says Oakland GM Billy Beane. "The key is when a player gets to a level where it's time for him to earn a lot more money, you have to be able to evaluate what he's worth. Where you can get killed is in those $4-7M players that just aren't that good. You have to do what Warren Buffett talks about -- value shop for stocks. You have to value shop for talent."

Beane appreciated that Kevin Appier pitched his heart out for the A's in the year and two months he was in Oakland and that he was instrumental in the development of their fine young starters, but as GM he had to look at it like this: is Appier at $9.9M better than Cory Lidle, the pitcher Beane got after value shopping? Of course not when his total payroll is $40M.

Beane found Gil Heredia through value shopping, and Heredia won 28 games in 1999 and 2000 combined. Sabean traded two prospects for the then 24-year-old Hernandez, one of the most reliable 1-2 starters around. Tampa Bay GM Chuck LaMar got Paul Wilson at precisely the time he was coming back, learned how to win at 88 mph and now is throwing 93 and about to become a top of the rotation starter.

If you wait long enough you can get quality -- Houston got Kent Bottenfield for less than $2 million while San Diego got Bobby Jones for $600,000. Take into account, however, that the Mets couldn't have re-signed Jones for $600,000, but other clubs got Bottenfield, Lidle, Jones and Hideo Nomo for much less than the Mets had to pay Steve Trachsel.

"Nomo was one of the best signings of the winter," says Melvin. "And not because he just threw a no-hitter. He had a lot of quality starts for Detroit last year (as many as the Yankees' Andy Pettitte), and I'm a believer in quality starts because unless you're an elite starter, if you keep your team in games with a chance to win a high percentage of the time you're doing your job."

Some teams talk about loading up for June and trading for potential free agents. But when you look at the potential free-agent list -- John Smoltz, Estes and Chan Ho Park are not going to be available -- and even if the White Sox do not pick up David Wells' option, it's unlikely they'll be out of it on July 31. None of the remaining names on the list conjur up thoughts of Randy Johnson in '98: Sterling Hitchcock, Juan Guzman, Francisco Cordova, Jason Schmidt, Aaron Sele, Pete Harnisch, Ron Villone, Joey Hamilton and Albie Lopez. Hitchcock may be traded as soon as he finishes his rehab, and the Yankees, Red Sox, Indians, Astros, Mets and others are closely monitoring him. Lopez seems to have blossomed into a No. 2 or 3 starter while Harnisch is a winner who brings tremendous energy and leadership to a team.

"It's not going to be easy, and the cost is so high that the value of good young pitchers is greater than it's ever been," says Red Sox GM Dan Duquette. Which is why he won't deal his best young minor-league pitcher Sun Woo Kim, who could end up in Boston's rotation or in a power middle relief role by midseason, for Rangers shortstop Kelly Dransfeldt, as much as Duquette would like a solid defensive shortstop to step in for the injured Nomar Garciaparra.

So how do you develop young pitchers? "It's not all about velocity," says Beane. Rick Helling is 49-31 over the last three years with Texas throwing an 85 mph fastball up in the strike zone. "We made a mistake on him once and we were fortunate to get him back," says Melvin. "We saw that high fastball, but we didn't judge results. Rick has great deception. Greg Zahn used to call it his "invisiball."

When Bob Schaefer took over the Boston farm system six years ago, he set out to try to establish one rule of pitching: if you can locate a fastball on both sides of the plate and change speeds, you can win.

"Some clubs like Toronto have always liked size and velocity," says one AL GM. "But we like Ohka and Crawford because they can pitch." Crawford learned in the Schaefer system, to throw 92 mph and have a great change before working on the breaking ball this spring training. "Tim Hudson didn't throw a slider until his first bullpen session in the big leagues," says Beane. "Mario Soto won 20 games in the big leagues with a fastball and a changeup," says Beane's assistant J.P. Ricciardi.

When Texas drafted Barry Zito out of Pierce Junior College in 1998 in the third round, he went to the Cape Cod League and dominated. But scouts kept suggesting that Zito didn't throw hard enough. As he was matched up in a late-season game and in the process of punching out 15, one smart alec media guy argued with the scout. Hitters swung and missed all the time at his fastball. He had three key elements in pitching: he messed up timing because he changed speeds, he made them uncomfortable because he located his fastball on both sides of the plate and he changed their plane of vision because of his curveball.

"He throws 88," argued one scout. "He can't get out big-league hitters." Since Zito got to the majors last summer, the only starting pitching with a lower batting average against is Pedro Martinez, who one manager once said was too short to be a major-league starter. The A's were willing to trade Jesus Colome because they were never sure his pitching would match his velocity. They will not trade left-hander Mario Ramos, who throws 87-88 but can pitch; in his one pro season last year, he was 14-5 with a 2.66 ERA at Modesto (Class A) and Midland (Double-A).

"Command in the majors and command in the minors are two different things, entirely," says Williams. "Pitchers with good arms can get by in the minors with what looks like command. But they have to move hitters off the plate and command the inside as well as the outside, and they have to change speeds. When we sent Jon Garland and Kip Wells back to the minors this spring, some people said the kids had disappointed us. Not at all. They learned what they can and cannot do, and what they have to do to get back here -- which they will, as very good, productive major-league pitchers. Jon Rauch, on the other hand, understands a lot more about pitching than most pitchers his age. It's all about being able to pitch, teaching it and evaluating it."

The White Sox and Indians appear to be loaded with young pitchers on the brink of the major leagues. So are the Braves and Marlins, as well. White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf is unlikely to return to one of the highest payrolls in baseball, as he once had. Cleveland, meanwhile, has tapped its revenue streams and may fall to the middle of the revenue pack in the next five years.

"No one can continue paying third and fourth starters what they were paying this winter," says one NL GM. "So," says Beane, "you have to develop and value shop to be competitive. That's tougher than paying some veteran guy $7M or $10M, but it's the difference between winning and losing when you don't have $100M to spend."

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