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Astros, Phillies up to challenge?


Two National League teams have looked a lot better this spring than people imagined: the Astros and the Phillies. "We're going to see better three-team races in the National League East and Central than we've had in a long time," says one GM. "I've seen a lot of the Phillies, and right now I like them better than the Mets because of the upside of their pitching and the questions on the Mets."

Pat Burrell
Says Phillies manager Larry Bowa: 'The key may be Pat Burrell.'

In New York's defense, while there are bullpen issues, Shawn Estes and Pedro Astacio right now look fine. But the Phillies do, too. "They took us right to the end," says Braves manager Bobby Cox. "They catch the ball, they hit and they've got some great young arms. Don't count them out, by any means."

The everyday players are good, and have a year's more experience. Mike Lieberthal, who is very important, has worked his way back. Scott Rolen, Jimmy Rollins and Bobby Abreu are very good players. "The key may be Pat Burrell," says manager Larry Bowa. "That's a little unfair given his experience, but he's got the potential to be that huge bat in the middle. If it happens, we'll be all right."

How far Philadelphia goes will also depend on its young pitching after Robert Person and Terry Adams. But the Phils also have young pitching up and down the organization. Randy Wolf is ready to win. Brandon Duckworth and Dave Coggin showed a lot as rookies. "And," says Bowa, "the two best arms on the club are Brett Myers and Vicente Padilla. We'll see. But we haven't had anyone like Myers. He's got a chance to be special."

"I don't see any reason that these young pitchers won't take off," says Lieberthal. "They've got stuff, and they've got makeup. I have a very good feeling."

As do the Astros, but then Cox thinks they are one of the teams to beat in the National League. "That pitching is incredible. Carlos Hernandez is going to be really good, but for me, Roy Oswalt has Cy Young written all over him. They have the great bullpen. And while a lot's been made of (Moises) Alou leaving, I wouldn't be surprised if (Daryle) Ward had more homers and RBI than Alou. Ward's that good a hitter."

The 'Stros do expect a huge offensive output from Ward, Lance Berkman and Richard Hidalgo, and a lot of defensive innings from Brian Hunter. "The thing that people don't realize about Ward is that he hits lefties better than he hits righties, and he hits good pitchers," says coach Tony Pena, who had most of these young players in the minors. "Then throw in Jason Lane (.316, 38, 124 at Double-A Round Rock, followed by a big winter in Venezuela). He probably will start the season in the minors, but he's going to be busting down the door."

It remains to be seen how Morgan Ensberg and Geoff Blum fare at third, Adam Everett and Julio Lugo at short. But if Everett and Ensberg are consistent defensively, it will just protect the pitching. "I was with the Marlins in '97 and we had a great staff," says Gregg Zaun. "But I've never seen anything like this young staff. I am amazed by Oswalt, and then Wade Miller, Tim Redding, Hernandez right down to Octavio Dotel and Billy Wagner and you know what's great about Dotel and Wagner? They have a little swagger to them. This team can use that."

Talks of the spring

  • Mark Teixeira, 3B, Texas: Obviously most of the attention has gone to Hank Blalock, but Jerry Narron thinks Teixeira is going to be a superstar. "He was in the cage in Arlington working with Rudy (Jaramillo) all winter, and we found out how hard he works and how much he wants to be great," says Narron. "It's incredible how quick and strong he is to the ball from both sides of the plate. He also worked very hard on his conditioning, and what surprised me is that he is a much better defensive third baseman than I thought he'd be. I'd always heard that he was going to end up at first base, but he's going to be an excellent defensive third baseman." Veteran players so respect Teixeira and Blalock that the joke is that they have two to four veteran Hall of Famers, and two more on the way, both of whom happen to play third base.

    Nick Johnson
    First Base
    New York Yankees
    23 2 8 6 0 .194

  • Nick Johnson, 1B-DH, Yankees: "We all know what discipline and habits he has at the plate," says one National League scout. "But he's worked incredibly hard to get bigger and stronger. I've seen three games this spring where every one of his at-bats was a clinic."

  • Eric Hinske, 3B, Toronto: After some early struggles, this big (6-2, 220), agile (20 steals in Triple-A) power hitter is starting to drive the ball impressively.

  • Mark Prior, RHP, Cubs: The reports are astounding, and while he's going to probably open the season in Triple-A, Don Baylor has told friends that by the middle of the season he could be his second or third starter. With Kerry Wood, Jon Lieber and Juan Cruz, if Baylor is right, this is going to be another rotation to watch.

  • Jake Peavy, RHP, San Diego: "He's passed Ben Howard and Dennis Tankersley," says one Pads official. "He can really pitch, and he turns up his stuff whenever he has to. He's going to be special, and soon."

  • John Foster, LH reliever, Atlanta: Bobby Cox loves this 23-year-old son of a Navy Seal who was 8-7 with seven saves at Double-A Greenville. "He's got the guts of a burglar, he throws strikes, he's got a heckuva changeup," says Cox. "He could be a big surprise." One roadblock: Damian Moss, who has very good stuff but has had wild streaks in his development, is out of options.

  • Ramon Vazquez, SS, San Diego: "The more you watch him, the more you see how intelligent he is," says an AL scout. "He knows how to take pitches, set up pitchers and move the ball around. He doesn't have much speed, but he is a good player, better than tools guys think when they see him."

    Keep an eye on them
    Players who are out of options and bear watching:

  • Yankees LHP Ted Lilly. Joe Torre has already stated he's on the team.

  • Braves SS Mark DeRosa. No wonder he's played three infield and two outfield positions this spring.

  • Braves OF George Lombard. Injuries have set him back. May need to go somewhere and play without the pressure of playing in his hometown.

  • Braves LHP Damian Moss. Struggled with control, but seemed to find it last year: 106.2 IP, 85 H, 47/112 BB/K.

  • Dodgers CF McKay Christensen. Good defender in a battle with Dave Roberts, Marquis Grissom and Tom Goodwin for time.

  • Mets RH reliever Grant Roberts.

  • Pirates CF Chad Hermansen. He's been better this spring, so maybe he's coming back.

  • Phillies CFReggie Taylor.

  • Giants CF Calvin Murray. He can shag the ball.

  • White Sox 1B/3B/OF Jeff Liefer. Likely too important to the right-handed Chisox to move.

  • Athletics 1B Mario Valdez. Has yet to hit in big leagues, but may be one of those patient, pure hitters who needs some DH time somewhere.

  • Athletics RHP Luis Vizcaino. The A's might not be willing to carry a pure arm while trying to win what may be baseball's best division. Teams have been told that he's likely going to be available, and a nice risk for a non-contending team.

  • Red Sox 3B Wilton Veras. Once rushed, lost confidence and all sense of the strike zone, but showed renewed promise and confidence this spring. And he plays third.

  • Rangers RH reliever Danny Kolb.

  • Blue Jays INF Joe Lawrence (an athletic super-utility man with Kelly Gruber athleticism), LHP Scott Eyre (in the Jays rotation) and RHP Brian Cooper.

    Around the majors

  • Ken Griffey Jr. met with Pokey Reese Saturday and Reese denied criticizing Griffey. "He told me that he had other things to say, but not about me," says Griffey. "Look, Bob Boone has two rules -- be on time, play hard. It's not like I violated either. At times, I felt like a seventh or eighth grader where someone is pointing the finger at me. People have asked me why I haven't commented about this, but I don't think it's worthy of response."

  • Rangers 3B Herbert Perry says, "I guess I'm the only one of Steve Spurrier's former Florida quarterbacks who isn't going to Washington with him. I'm afraid that tells you about my quarterbacking."

  • Disc of the week: John Mayall's "Along for the Ride." Mayall is the Branch Rickey of the Blues, and here brings back old friends like Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Otis Rush and (the great) Steve Cropper, and new ones like Shannon (Teenage Nervous Breakdown) Curfman, Johnny Lang and Jeff Healey.

  • Dodger 3B Dave Hansen, a musician and man of taste, says his favorite disc of spring training is Pulley's 12th. Pulley is Scott Radinsky's band.

  • The Orioles' payroll has gone from $84 million to $41 million -- less than the Royals -- in two years.

  • Adam Johnson may have been the second pick in the nation in 2000, but shredding his assignment papers when sent out by the Twins Thursday will not exactly rush him back to Minneapolis. "Makeup has always been something people questioned," says one GM. "Now I'd say Ron Gardenhire is questioning it, as well."

    Eric Chavez
    Third Base
    Oakland Athletics
    151 32 114 91 8 .288

  • Billy Beane is always a stickler for plate discipline, and asked what would happen if Eric Chavez swung only at strikes for 500 plate appearances, Beane replied, "You'd have Barry Bonds. He's that good."

  • Braves people claim that after Gary Sheffield and Chipper Jones, their best natural hitter is actually Julio Franco. And what's amazing about Franco is that while he's 44, his body not only looks 25, but his face looks 30. "I figured out a long time ago that the thing I like to do best is play baseball, and play it forever," says Franco. "So I don't drink, I don't smoke, I don't go out. I go to my room and get my sleep and prepare to do what I like best."

  • The Rays thought Nick Bierbrodt was a shoo-in for their rotation. Now he appears the latest victim of Steve Blass Disease.

    Legendary advice
    Two of the most sought-after former players in Florida have been Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan. "It was unbelievable when we played the Dodgers and (Koufax) came over," says Tom Glavine. "There were players lined up for an hour getting his autograph. You don't see players like that."

    Glavine is working on his curveball to add in to his fastball/change repertoire, and received a remarkable lesson from Koufax. "He showed me his grip," says Glavine, "and he really talked me through the process of what he was trying to do with the pitch, some of the mechanics of how to throw it and he really gave me an insight from a left-handers' perspective.

    "The two things that were different were his grip, and the process the fingers played in the pitch. I think the mistake a lot of pitchers make is that they let the thumb be too big a part of the pitch and we try to roll the pitch rather than pulling it. He tried to take his thumb out of the out of play and have the middle finger play a bigger role. It was a perspective I really hadn't heard."

    When I was growing up in Korea, the first book I ever bought was Nolan Ryan's. I patterned everything after him - my delivery, my workout regimen, everything. Then when he came here, I couldn't believe it. I follow him everywhere.
    Chan Ho Park,
    Rangers pitcher

    Koufax has also had a huge impact with Shawn Estes of the Mets and Terry Mulholland of the Dodgers. "He teaches things I'd never heard before, and I think it's going to really help my curveball as well as my approach," says Estes. One of the things that fascinated Mulholland is Koufax's image of trying to drop a curveball into a box at home plate.

    Over with the Rangers, there are Nolan Ryan and Orel Hershiser. "It's amazing," says John Rocker, "to be able to work with and listen to them both."

    No one enjoys the time with Ryan more than Chan Ho Park. "When I was growing up in Korea, the first book I ever bought was Nolan Ryan's," says Park. "I patterned everything after him -- my delivery, my workout regimen, everything. Then when he came here, I couldn't believe it. I follow him everywhere."

    Ryan left Port Charlotte Saturday morning, but Friday night he took Park out to dinner. Late that evening, Park was calling around to friends telling them that he'd had dinner with his idol.

    As for Hershiser, a special assistant to GM John Hart, just being around will make that pitching staff better.

    Still a mess in Boston
    By the time they got the team, the new owners of the Red Sox realized they inherited an embarrassing fiscal mess. If one prorates contracts, they are at $112 million in payroll after throwing money around like spoiled millionaire's kids. Now those looking at coming in and trying to rebuild one of the game's worst farm systems is faced with this harsh reality: They may have to be close to $100 million-$105 million the next two years.

    "They are committed to $67 million for seven players (Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez, Jason Varitek, Nomar Garciaparra, Johnny Damon, Derek Lowe, John Burkett) for next season, with a lot of physical and other questions," says one baseball man who has studied their situation. "They have virtually nothing to trade, nothing on the top two minor-league levels. And if they're in the race this year, they cannot trade Juan Pena or any of their decent pitching prospects because they have to right the ship some time. This is one of the worst messes ever. Here they had Luis Garcia (compared by scouts to Richie Sexson), who murders left-handed pitching, can play right field and would have been an important future piece, and they gave him to St. Louis when all they wanted was to unload Dustin Hermanson's bad contract. Few teams in baseball are worse at second and third. And if Pedro, Varitek and any of these guys break down, they'll sink faster than expected."

    News and notes
    There were trade rumors floating all week about a five-player deal between Toronto and Texas (Hank Blalock, Gabe Kapler, Mario Ramos for Chris Carpenter and Vernon Wells) which was denied, and another between Florida and Montreal (Brad Penny and Vic Darensbourg for Carl Pavano and Brandon Phillips), which Omar Minaya says "has never been discussed" The Dodgers love Odalis Perez. "He's really good," says Paul Lo Duca. "He's got plenty of fastball, and he really buries it inside well. His slurve is one of those that he can drop on the back foot of a right-handed hitter or keep away from a lefty. And his best pitch is his changeup, but he uses it smartly, because it's a swing-and-miss strikeout pitch. He has been extremely impressive." Kevin Brown was pleased with Friday night's outing, and if he's satisfied, he was off the charts Jax Robertson, the highly respected scout Dave Littlefield brought in from Florida, turned down the Red Sox pro scouting director's job Let's see. The day they made so much out of C.C. Sabathia's weight, he threw four one-hit innings, averaging 94 mph with his fastball, 80 with his change. The good news is that he's trying to make dietary adjustments. The toughest thing to give up? "Cheeseburgers at Wendy's," says Sabathia The joke among Cardinals players is all the questions Tino Martinez gets about being the leader of the Cardinals. "This team has a lot of leaders," says Tino. "Leadership," says Jim Edmonds, "is a team thing" Garrett Stephenson is defying all odds in his quick comeback from Tommy John Surgery, testament to rehabbing all winter in Florida, away from his family, as much as it bothered him. And Andy Benes, his knee cleared up, "is throwing better now than at any time in the second half," says Dave Duncan. The Cards are talking about going six or seven deep in the rotation, and if they move a reliever like Dave Veres or Mike Timlin, don't be surprised if by mid-season Kevin Sheredy gets into the picture. "He's one of our biggest surprises," says Walt Jocketty. "He's really throwing the ball well."

    Significant 2002-03 free agents
    Names to remember because of trades, etc. (in no particular order):

    1. Pudge Rodriguez, Rangers.

    2. Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, Braves.

    3. Scott Rolen, Phillies. Climb on a back that's strong.

    4. Roger Clemens, Yankees. It's up to him if he chooses to market 300.

    5. Robb Nen, Giants. His option.

    6. Mike Sweeney, Royals. Mr. RBI. Integrity. Jermaine Dye, Johnny Damon and Sweeney with nothing to show?

    7. Edgardo Alfonzo, Mets.

    8. Jeff Kent, Giants. One of the most underappreciated great players of his time.

    9. Jim Thome, Indians.

    10. Darin Erstad, Angels.

    The list of potential major free agents
    Right-handed starters Left-handed starters Setup men
    Pedro Astacio, Mets*** Brian Anderson, D-Backs LaTroy Hawkins, Twins**
    Jason Bere, Cubs Omar Daal, Dodgers Felix Heredia, Blue Jays
    Roger Clemens, Yankees* Shawn Estes, Mets Ramiro Mendoza, Yankees
    D. Hermanson, Red Sox** Chuck Finley, Indians Mike Myers, D-Backs**
    Bobby J. Jones, Padres** Tom Glavine, Braves Ricardo Rincon, Indians**
    Jon Lieber, Cubs** Al Leiter, Mets Mike Stanton, Yankees
    Greg Maddux, Braves Jamie Moyer, Mariners Mike Timlin, Cardinals
    Robert Person, Phillies Kenny Rogers, Rangers Dave Veres, Cardinals**
    Julian Tavarez, Cubs

    Tim Wakefield, Red Sox**
    Jamey Wright, Brewers

    Closers Catchers First basemen
    Eddie Guardado, Brewers** Brad Ausmus, Astros*** Fred McGriff, Cubs**
    Roberto Hernandez, Royals John Flaherty, Devil Rays John Olerud, Mariners
    Jose Mesa, Phillies Ivan Rodriguez, Rangers Mike Sweeney, Royals
    Robb Nen, Giants* Dan Wilson, Mariners Jim Thome, Indians
    Ugueth Urbina, Red Sox

    Second basemen Third baseman Shortstops
    Roberto Alomar, Mets** Edgardo Alfonzo, Mets Mike Bordick, Orioles
    Ray Durham, White Sox Travis Fryman, Indians** Royce Clayton, White Sox
    Jeff Kent, Giants Scott Rolen, Phillies Jose Hernandez, Brewers

    Robin Ventura, Yankees


    Darin Erstad, Angels Doug Glanville, Phillies Ray Lankford, Padres***
    Steve Finley, Dbacks T.Hollandsworth, Rockies Kenny Lofton, White Sox
    Cliff Floyd, Marlins David Justice, Athletics** John Vander Wal, Yankees
    * Player option ** Club option *** Mutual Option

    Stat Watch
    Spring training stats are meaningless -- Arizona offensive stats more than any -- but a few of these jump out:

  • Kenny Lofton leading the AL in stolen bases.

  • Rangers rookie outfielder Kevin Mench leading in homers with four. The Mench can mash.

  • Chuck Knoblauch is third in the AL in on-base percentage.

  • Toronto's Scott Eyre and the Yanks' Ted Lilly are third and fifth in strikeouts.

  • Pat Burrell leads the NL in homers and RBI and is second in slugging.

  • Some things never change: Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling are 1-2 in the NL in punchados.

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  • Gammons: Rangers know the score

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