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Rockies searching for answers

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The players said the right things, saying they blamed themselves and their lack of performance. But after enduring two five-game losing streaks and owning the worst record in the National League, the firing of Rockies manager Buddy Bell on Friday was hardly a surprise. GM Dan O'Dowd had wanted to give Bell at least a third of the season, but when the Rockies returned home Friday after being phlegmatically swept in Cincinnati, O'Dowd could wait no longer.

Coors And No Coors
How pitchers have performed (W-L, ERA) prior to pitching in Colorado, while they were in Colorado and after they left Colorado:
Pitchers Pre-Col. Col. Post-Col.
P.Astacio 48-47,
D.Kile 71-65,
J.Wright   25-33,
K.Jarvis 12-19,
M.Yoshii 18-16,
R.Villone 23-21,
M.DeJean   14-9,
D.Veres 16-10,
R.Arrojo 21-24,
M.Myers 6-12,
G.White 10-12,
G.Carrara 3-6,
Totals 228-232,
How hitters have performed (Avg., OPS) prior to playing in Colorado, while they were in Colorado and after they left Colorado:
Hitters Pre-Col. Col. Post-Col.
N.Perez   .282,
B.Mayne .265,
T.Walker .285,
J.Cirillo .307,
V.Castilla .238,
Ja.Cruz .251,
J.Hammonds .268,
A.Ochoa .285,
E.Burks .280,
Totals .282,

"Buddy was my choice to manage this team," said O'Dowd. "So this is a reflection on all of us. Clint Hurdle has seen more games in Coors Field than anybody in the organization. He understands the ups and downs of playing here."

Hurdle, who was a strong candidate for the Arizona job prior to the Diamondbacks hiring Bob Brenly and was strongly considered by Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker to replace Larry Dierker, fits several replacement criteria. But when O'Dowd underlined understanding the Eight Miles High games in Coors Lite, he turned to the logical question:

What now?

"We're still trying to figure out what plays in this park," says O'Dowd. "Believe me, we're trying. We've got some very good players here, some good young players, and we've got a legitimate prospects club in Double-A (Carolina). But it's not easy winning here. That's our job to figure out."

There are a number of circumstances that made Bell's tenure hazardous. After signing pitchers Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle to huge contracts prior to the 2001 season with the idea of closing in on an $80 million payroll, the team ran into financial concerns that prompted payroll cuts that have pared down the payroll into the mid-$50s. Their ERA was the worst in the NL, they were near the bottom in homers, on-base percentage, GIDPs and most errors and were 0-6 in games started by opposing left-handed pitchers.

And that's all in a 22-game stretch. What O'Dowd, Hurdle and the Rockies organization has to figure out is what flies in Denver, other than home runs. No one else has. Since coming into existence in 1993, the Rockies have never won 84 games in a season.

"That park beats everyone down," says one former Rockies manager. "You see pitchers beaten down by groundballs skipping through the infield, balls falling in that huge outfield, pop flies carrying out (of the park) and breaking balls not breaking. You see hitters hammer all those pitches that don't break in Coors then not be able to adjust and hit breaking balls on the road." Which is why O'Dowd and his staff are instituting a system that simulates breaking balls for special BP at home, before going on the road.

They'd tried winning with bashers, like Dante Bichette, and won no more than 83 games. O'Dowd has tried a transition towards speed and athleticism, and they still haven't won 84 games. And the home/road OPS splits the previous four years read .929/.688, .932/.700, .901/.772, .941/.730.

Just look at what's happened to Hampton. On June 1 last season, he was 7-2, 2.68 (which, going back to 1997, made him 70-33). Since June 1, Hampton is 7-16, 6.94, and this season is walking more than seven batters per nine innings, compared to his previous NL career average of 3.53.

Check the accompanying box (above) on active pitchers before and after their arrival in Colorado. How happy is Pedro Astactio to have his home park be Shea Stadium? Or Darryl Kile and Busch Stadium? Is it just a matter of finding groundball pitchers who change speeds backed by quick, athletic defenders?

Or will anything work? Could they pull a Big Dig and depress Coors Field below the ground? Maybe then the Colorado Rockies will get over the 83-win hump.

Soriano a star in the making
When the Yankees were looking for some additional power two years ago, Oakland offered the Yanks outfielder Matt Stairs and a top pitching prospect (Jesus Colome) for a minor leaguer named Alfonso Soriano. At the time, it was a stunning offer, but A's assistant GM J.P. Ricciardi had told GM Billy Beane that Soriano could be put in right field immediately and compared his actions and talents to Vladimir Guerrero. That doesn't seem so funny any more.

"I'm not sure there's a limit to his talent," says Jason Giambi of Soriano. "He could hit 40 homers and steal 40 bases. He might even be able to do 50/50. It's scary."

"He brings enormous energy to this team," says Yankees manager Joe Torre, who admits that he was reluctant to put the 24-year-old Soriano into the leadoff spot based on his career .294 on-base percentage (.304 last season).

Alfonso Soriano
Alfonso Soriano is second in the AL with a .382 batting average.

"I said from the start of the season that our lineup might be a work in progress. After the first time around, if Nick Johnson is hitting ninth, he's the leadoff hitter. But Alfonso has a tremendous capacity to learn and adjust. He's smart about what he wants to do. He also has great hitting instincts."

Through Friday night's game in Seattle, Soriano's on-base percentage in the leadoff spot was .400. But, of course, he's also hitting .382, second in the league, and his 1.039 OPS ranked in the AL's top 10.

"With Alfonso, it's not a matter of worrying about walks," says Yankees hitting coach Rick Down. "It's a matter of his being patient enough to wait to get good pitches to hit and not chase balls out of the strike zone. He's improved a great deal in a year, and he's going to improve a lot more. He's got great hands and ability to generate tremendous batspeed through the hitting zone. He can hit the ball out to any part of the park." And, as Oakland pitching coach Rick Peterson observed, "he is a very good breaking ball hitter. He's just scary."

Ricciardi, now the Blue Jays GM andlike everyone from the Oakland organization a proponent of on-base percentage, nonetheless believes we can get too hung up on those particular numbers.

"There are special players like Soriano or Nomar Garciaparra and Shannon Stewart that are simply great talents," says Ricciardi. "The key is that they don't swing and miss often. If you try to change Nomar, you're crazy, because he's a great hitter. If players do make contact, they can improve just by learning the strike zone."

Shea Hillenbrand is a good example. If the Phillies would stop reminding the world of what Doug Glanville can't do and emphasize that he can make contact and use his speed, he could and would be a much better player.

Torre points to Soriano's postseason performance last season, with crucial homers against Seattle and Arizona, and believes he is a player with magical moments who will perform best against good pitchers. "In time," says Giambi, "Soriano will be regarded as one of the most exciting, talented stars in the game. Hey, he's already close. It's sure fun watching him every day."

Oh, Soriano is leading the league in errors and he sometimes is overaggressive, but Torre doesn't leash him. "With the players we have and the talented kids we have like Soriano and Johnson, we have to give them room to develop," Torre says. "By the end of the season, see what we have."

What we see is that with the Yankees, they play for October, and with what's developed between last April (.279 BA, .278 OBP, .672 OPS) and now makes one wonder just what Alfonso Soriano will be come this October -- not to mention October of 2004.

Around the majors

  • Tigers president and GM Dave Dombrowski has called around to other GMs asking them to make some creative offers.

    "He'll even talk about Jeff Weaver, but the price will be very, very high," says one AL GM. "And Weaver's not cheap, either." The Tigers ace's four-year deal doesn't buy out arbitration, and goes from $2.35 million this season to $6.25 million after his first four big-league seasons and $9.65 million through five years.

  • If the Angels do not stick close to Seattle and Oakland, it is expected they will once again market Darin Erstad, who will be a free agent at the end of the season. They may also deal one of their starters, most likely Scott Schoeneweis, who is losing manager Mike Scioscia's confidence. Former No. 1 pick Chris Bootcheck is 2-3, 4.05 in Double-A and could be jumped into the rotation in time.

  • Ricciardi has been calling around and is willing to talk about almost anyone on the Blue Jays other than shortstop Felipe Lopez, third baseman Eric Hinske and outfielder Vernon Wells. With Joe Lawrence soon to be the everyday second baseman, the Jays will take offers on Orlando Hudson, who is playing at Triple-A Syracuse.

  • How fortunate are the Yankees that GM Brian Cashman refused to dump right-hander Orlando Hernandez? "Right now, he's pitching as well as anyone we have," says catcher Jorge Posada. Torre thinks El Duque is more relaxed (although, when asked, Hernandez said he is never "relaxed -- this is my job").

    Anyway, he is spotting and elevating his fastball up and in on left-handed batters, and has the soft screwball change he first threw when he burst onto the scene in New York in 1998. "That pitch is devastating," says Podada, "when he has the feel of it."


  • Several Yankee players assert that the most surprising pitcher they've faced has been Boston's Derek Lowe. "His sinker is unbelievable," says Rondell White. "You can't get on it, only on top of it. I had no idea he is that good."

  • The Brewers, whose management believes the club should and will finish over .500, will likely announce Sunday they are sticking with Jerry Royster as manager the rest of the year. Diamondbacks bench coach Bob Melvin was never going to take the job in midseason, if asked. For any outsider it would be difficult, as the coaching staff, which will remain in place, is Davey Loes' handpicked group and all friends of Lopes'. Not only that, but if Royster hadn't gotten the job, he was going to go back to being the bench coach.

  • The Devil Rays may look offensively impotent in the outfield, but prospect Carl Crawford is tearing it up in the Triple-A International League, showing far more power to go with his extraordinary speed after spending the winter working at the Athletes Performance Institute in Tempe. And in the California League, Rocco Baldelli is off to a .393 (.443 OBP) start in his first 14 games.

  • Mark Mulder is the first of the Oakland Big Three to go on the disabled list. He felt a strain in his forearm in one start, didn't say anything and felt it pull in his next start.


    "I'm told that Jamie Moyer had the same thing a couple of years ago and it just went away after a couple of weeks," says Mulder. "I'm being very cautious. Art Howe and Billy Beane have told me that they won't let me go out there until I have comlete confidence in every one of my pitches. I appreciate that. It's a long season."

    "We need Mark in September and, hopefully, October," says Beane.

  • Incidentally, the A's people have quite an admiration society when it comes to the Mariners.

    "They play the game so well it's awesome," says Scott Hatteberg.

    "They play great defense, they have speed and use it, they play the gaps offensively and defensively, they get great situational at-bats from every spot in the order from one to nine, Ichiro and Mark McLemore bring them unusal energy and they play the game perfectly from the seventh inning on," says one A's official. "They're a pleasure to watch."

  • Whoops. Coming out of spring training, Michael Coleman had seemingly earned a job with the Red Sox. Then came a hamstring injury. And when Triple-A Pawtucket had to bus to Ottawa, Coleman refused to travel with the team and flew back and forth on his own, getting one hit in the series. Placed on waivers and not claimed by any team, Coleman was still in Pawtucket, but is now off the roster and out of mind.

  • How important is the Giants' defense? Their pitchers may be No. 1 in ERA, but are also last in strikeouts.

  • On Tuesday night in Oakland, Yankees closer Mariano Rivera threw 24 pitches in the ninth inning. "Every one was the same," said Art Howe. "Fastball/cutter, whatever. Why change what's successful?"

    Kerrigan keeping his head up
    Joe Kerrigan was the first of four managers to be fired this season, and to his credit, he never complained, never badmouthed the new Red Sox bosses that axed him. "That is their right," says Kerrigan, who is working for Comcast doing postgame analysis of Phillies games. "It's been a good experience, and they've been great people to work for. It keeps me in the game and I enjoy breaking things down."

    As for his Red Sox, Kerrigan naturally watches every move by Pedro Martinez and is proud "of the way they're taking pitches and getting such good at-bats. Dwight Evans has done a tremendous job. Johnny Damon has brought a lot. But it's also an entirely different team with Nomar (Garciaparra) and (Jason) Varitek in there."

    Kerrigan is enjoying watching National League baseball, and, as usual, has fascinating observations. "Brandon Duckworth has (Greg) Maddux mechanics, he's something to see," says Kerrigan. After watching the Padres' Brian Lawrence beat Philadelphia, Kerrigan called Lawrence "the second coming of Rick Reuschel. Same delivery, same pitch selection."

    This and that

  • Sandy Alderson says that MLB's charting data indicates that umpires have been more consistent than last season.

    "The two things we're still working on," says Alderson, "are calling the low strike and not letting the strike zone move too far outside. But they're getting better on them, as well."

    In the end, the low strike is far more important to the majority of hitters than the high strike. Once the strike zone is called at its top and bottom, it further benefits a pitcher like Mike Mussina, a master of adjusting hitters' sightlines. Mussina might use either side of the plate for three straight pitchers, but he will do so to three different levels to keep the batter's eyes moving up and down.


  • Jason Marquis' shoulder injury is not believed to be serious, and after a second cortisone shot Friday it's believed he might get back into the rotation soon. It has been a stressful season for Marquis, whose father was seriously injured during Passover when he was hit by a New York taxicab. Marquis remains grounded thanks to Greg Maddux, who has adopted the young pitcher as his protégé, talking to him, taking him to dinner, sitting next to him on the bench, inviting him to play golf and always passing on his Maddux University knowledge.

  • Thursday night in Seattle, a woman was ejected from Safeco Field when she reached out and touched a batted ball that she didn't realize was in play. The woman was in tears as she was led out. Mariners GM Pat Gillick found out her identity, called her and invited her to another game as his guest in his box.

  • In 1999, Mike Smith, born in Brookline, Mass., three miles from Fenway Park and a prep school star at St. Sebastian's, had gone undrafted after his junior season at the University of Richmond because he was considered too short. But that summer he pitched very well in the Cape League, hit 93-95 mph on radar guns, and the Red Sox wanted to sign him. Problem was, Smith's sister is the daughter-in-law of then-Boston CEO John Harrington, and Smith's parents wanted Mike to graduate from Richmond. So the scouting department backed off, as ordered, and the next June Smith was drafted in the fifth round by Toronto. Less than two years later, Smith started Friday night in Anaheim in place of Chris Carpenter. Smith was 11-7, 2.32 in Class A and Double-A last season.

  • The current Red Sox development people have defended the state of the system to new owners by pointing to their Latin prospects. But when Baseball America started printing the adjusted ages of minor leaguers, first baseman Juan Diaz was suddenly 28, not 26, and pitchers Franklin Francisco, Anastacio Martinez and Rene Miniel all had gained a couple of years.

    You heard it here first

  • In his start prior to Friday's win, Randy Johnson had a six-run lead after eight innings, but told manager Bob Brenly "this is my game to finish." Brenly, who understands Johnson's warrior makeup and also understands that players -- not managers -- determine pennants, left him in.

    As the Diamonbacks watch Junior Spivey -- who, incidentally, was considered so little a part of Arizona's plans that he's on the cover of the Diamondbacks' Triple-A Tuscon team's schedule -- continue to play brilliantly, they now expect Erubiel Durazo back within two weeks and could have Matt Mantei back by early June. Not only that, but while they ponder dealing Brian Anderson to give him a fresh start (he was apparently offered to the Dodgers for Omar Daal), left-hander Chris Capuano is 3-1 at Tuscon and is becoming a closely watched prospect.

  • By the way, Indians manager Charlie Manuel is not in any trouble in Cleveland. If anything, his position right now is stronger than it's ever been.

  • Reds GM Jim Bowden on young outfielder Austin Kearns: "He came up for a cup of coffee, but it turned out to be a pot and the way he's playing could turn into a Starbucks."

  • Biggest drops in attendance from last season: Texas and Milwaukee. Now the Rangers have further setbacks, with Chan Ho Park re-tweaking his hamstring and Jeff Zimmerman expected to have season-ending surgery. The Rangers' 40-man roster was such a mess that Mike Lamb, who hadn't caught since college, had to start behind the plate this week to give Bill Haselman a day off. Three wild pitches, a passed ball and a botched play at the plate later, poor Lamb had helped contribute to six runs.

    The clubhouse also was not thrilled with John Rocker being allowed to refuse a minor-league assignment and be called back after spending a couple of days with Tom House. Then after wallowing around in center field and twice falling down on Ichiro triples last Sunday, Carl Everett was moved to right field, and is not happy about it. "It's not my fault that we're losing," said Everett. What a surprise that Everett doesn't aknowledge any responsibility.

  • On Friday, Ft. Worth columnist Randy Galloway wrote, "I apologize to Doug Melvin, Tom Grieve, Danny O'Brien, Eddie Robinson and, going all the way back to the beginning in 1972 to the late Joe Burke, I apologize for anything I said or wrote. This is the worst." The column began: "In defense of John Hart. There is none."


  • Cubs GM Andy MacPhail expects Bill Mueller back by May 7, Kyle Farnsworth back to the Cubs bullpen by mid-May, Tom Gordon back by mid-June, and has confidence that Juan Cruz will get straightened out.

    "We haven't played particularly well behind (Juan)," says MacPhail. "But the fact that he's allowed 10 unrearned runs means we're trying to get him to calm down and stay focused when things don't go his way." MacPhail also says, "we've got some young players who may be able to come up in the next couple of months and help us."

    Mark Prior got hit hard this week, which the Cubs people wrote off as poor pitch selection, but MacPhail says, "that's part of the learning process." Third baseman David Kelton and first baseman Hee Seop Choi are starting to hit, and now that he's getting healthy, the Cubs expect the same from second baseman Bobby Hill.

  • The brilliance of the Pirates bullpen and defense have been a major reason for the club's fast start (they're 6-1 in one run games). But with the cupboard essentially bare in Triple-A and Double-A, it will be interesting to see if GM Dave Littlefield has to market one of his established everyday players to get some young talent and rebuild for the bigger picture. Which, despite his enormous heart, might eventually raise the spectre of trading catcher Jason Kendall, since the Bucs do have some catching depth -- Humberto Cota and J.R. House -- in the minor leagues.

  • Wil Cordero ended his second Cleveland career with seven hit by pitches and four home runs.

  • Jason Johnson broke a finger shadow throwing while working on his delivery, right after breaking an 0-9, 7.36 streak with a win last weekend. At that point, Johnson, Josh Towers and Sidney Ponson were a combined 0-16, 6.64 for the Orioles, going back to last season.

  • The more the Phillies lose, the more the split between Larry Bowa and the Phillies players gets worse. If it's always the players who lose and the manager who wins, what does this say about GM Ed Wade's talent? Meanwhile, Wade is looking for a left-handed reliever, but got turned down on Ricardo Rincon (Wade will not trade outfield prospect Marlon Byrd) and thus far has had no interest in any of Toronto's three lefty relievers. Trading a potential everyday player for a middle reliever has proved folly in the past; John Hart learned that when he refused to trade Brian Giles for Randy Johnson and then dealt Giles for Rincon back when he was with the Indians.

  • The Yankees can pay Steve Karsay $5 million per season, but most middle men are replaceable. For instance: there are 37 middle relievers who will head into the free-agent market this winter. If clubs would just let them walk, then non-tender most of their arbitration-eligible middle relievers, they would so flood the market the prices would be significantly depressed. It's called fiscal management, not union-busting.

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  • Rockies fire manager Bell after club's worst start

    Gammons: Giambi easing into life as a Yankee

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