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Big month for non-contenders

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Sept. 7

What so many people who administer the game fail to comprehend is that baseball regenerates itself, and no matter what its landscapers do to it, somehow it pops back up out of the ground, like lupine. After two years of billionaire and millionaire Jello-wrestling, a cease-fire is signed and, faster than you can say "Cal Ripken," the Oakland Athletics captured the American consciousness. And instead of Bud Selig and Don Fehr now on the evening news, we see Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez, Billy Beane and Barry Zito bridging us toward October.

For 18 to 20 teams, 2003 has arrived. For some of those clubs, like the Mets, Tigers and, in all likelihood, the Red Sox, the final three weeks will be used to dig their ways out of mining disasters. For several others, there is a sense of relief, both because there is an agreement, but because they now can move forward.

Joe Borchard
Joe Borchard is one of the bright spots as the White Sox look to the future.

"The deal is not the panacea for the small and middle markets that many hoped," said one small-market owner. The Twins will get an additional $4 million in revenue-sharing money next season, Detroit $2.4 million, Pittsburgh $6 million, Florida $2.5 million, Cincinnati $3 million, Philadelphia $3.3 million, San Diego $2.5 million, Toronto $2.5 million, Oakland $4.3 million, Tampa Bay $1.3 million, Kansas City $3 million ... as the Yankees will increase their pre-tax contribution from $28.1 million this season to $45.8 million next year and the Mariners go from $18.9 million to $27.9 million.

"But it's at least a deal," the small-market owner said. "Fans know there will be baseball, and can focus on the game. The success in Oakland and Minnesota helps, because fans in some of these small and middle markets can use the A's and Twins as their models of hope, and don't have to react to the 'if you care, you'll buy free agents,' which is what got Detroit and Pittsburgh in the holes they're in." As well as the Mets and Red Sox.

Of course, the Montreal hole is the deepest. The club has been allowed by Major League Baseball to recall only three young players for the final month.

One large-market owner insists that while the agreement isn't going to fix the industry, "it can begin to redevelop it. Our attendance has been flat for a decade; it's the same 72 million, but we have four more teams, so it is actually in decline. Getting some relief to the middle and small markets may regenerate hope and grow the audience in those cities. That's where baseball has declined. With 16 teams transferring money to 14, and lesser payments to the pot for clubs like Houston, the landscape can start to be repaired."

In Oakland and Anaheim, Los Angeles and Arizona, Minnesota and St. Louis the final three-week run toward October is what those cities' fans anticipated in March. However, in Toronto, they're looking at one of the best young teams in the game. Even in Cleveland and Texas, whose seasons have been vast disappointments, September puts the disappointments behind and allows fans to see the future: infielder Brandon Phillips, catchers Paul Bard and Victor Martinez, left-handed pitchers Carl Sadler and Brian Tallet in Cleveland, right-handed pitcher Colby Lewis and potential hitting stars Hank Blalock and Mark Teixeira in Texas joining pitchers Joaquin Benoit, Francisco Cordero and Danny Kolb. At Comiskey Park, the grumbling and the Big Hurt squabbles are forgotten by Joe Borchard, Joe Crede, Josh Paul, et al, while in Philadelphia Scott Rolen is in the past with Marlon Byrd and Brett Myers the future. And at Wrigley Field, the time has come for Bobby Hill, Hee Seop Choi and Carlos Zambrano.

"I looked out last night and saw Karim Garcia and Josh Bard homer and Ricardo Rodriguez pitch well again and I'm having fun," says Indians GM Mark Shapiro.

"If we can't be in the race, this is the fun part of my job, watching Hill and Choi and young players," says Cubs GM Jim Hendry. "From about May 25 on, this season hasn't been fun," added White Sox GM Ken Williams. "But Borchard, Paul and the young players have created a new air and spirit around the team. This game is about character, and all of them have it."

"We're starting to see what we have in terms of our pitching and our future," says Royals GM Allard Baird. "These fans in Kansas City are tremendous. All they want is hope and something to believe in. That's what we think we can give them, but we have to deliver."

Here is an abridged rundown of the non-contending teams for whom September is important in terms of player-watching, not scoreboard-watching:

Cleveland Indians
Think about this: the Indians' Triple-A Buffalo club is headed to the International League finals, their Double-A club in Akron not only led the minors in wins, but it headed to the Eastern League finals, Class A Kinston and Columbus are already in the Carolina and South Atlantic League finals respectively and their Dominican Summer League team won the championship of their league. It's a start for sure.

Veteran pitcher Terry Muholland gushed over the work of Bard behind the plate, and Martinez is a potential star. Phillips, Rodriguez, Billy Traber, Coco Crisp, Cliff Lee and several of the other players Shapiro acquired during the season are on the big-league doorstep. Danys Baez is also being worked into the closer role. Highly-touted outfielder Alex Escobar will also be back next year after suffering a season-ending knee injury in spring training.

The big offseason story will be whether or not they can re-sign Jim Thome, with rumors that the Phillies and Orioles may be in the hunt for the power-hitting lefty. But ownership is willing to rebuild and let attendance fall before moving back up; by 2004, the Indians' revenues will have been down enough on the three-year cycle so that they will be receiving revenue-sharing dollars.

What makes it realistic for Cleveland fans is that while they were treated to great teams from 1994 through 2001, they know that good management can make it seem like '94 all over again ... in a hurry. And it looks like it will happen.

Chicago White Sox
"One thing I have learned is that character really means something," says Williams. "Getting Borchard, Paul, (Aaron) Rowand, Crede and Willie Harris in there every day has not only been refreshing, but has given this team a lot of energy. I'm having a lot of fun watching it."

Williams is quick to praise Carlos Lee for his improvement, and realizes the 2003 season may rest on the ability to get pitchers Dan Wright and Jon Garland over the hump and get a competitive rotation behind Mark Buehrle. September will give the ChiSox an opportunity to see how far Jon Rauch has come back from his shoulder injury, and first indications is that he is regaining his velocity, life and angle.

Toronto Blue Jays
When the Jays played the Red Sox at Fenway Park on Saturday, not only were they over .500 since the All-Star Break (28-27), but they had a better record than Boston (26-27) in the second half. "This is the most athletic young team in the American League," said one visiting NL scout of the Blue Jays. "It's scary how good they can be if they can find any starting pitching after Roy Halladay."

The $2.5 million extra revenue-sharing cash won't impact Toronto, because GM J.P. Ricciardi has cleared enough payroll to be able to bring back this team next season, then perhaps look to move Shannon Srewart, Jose Cruz Jr. or Kelvim Escobar come July 31. The September callups are catcher Kevin Cash, who likely will be their everyday receiver next season, outfielder/catcher Jayson Werth, an athletic, fast, angular outfielder compared by some scouts to Dale Murphy and shortstop Felipe Lopez, who went back to Triple-A Syracuse and played very well and renewed hope that he will someday be a 30-homer middle infielder.

Getting (Joe) Borchard, (Josh) Paul, (Aaron) Rowand, (Joe) Crede and Willie Harris in there every day has not only been refreshing, but has given this team a lot of energy. I'm having a lot of fun watching it.
Ken Williams, White Sox GM, on the young players now on the White Sox roster

They join Josh Phelps, who looks like the second coming of Paul Konerko with his power and bat control. And what is a fascinating young infield of Rookie of the Year candidate Eric Hinske at third base, the surprising Chris Woodward at shortstop and Orlando Hudson at second base. Vernon Wells, who once he gets better plate discipline may be one of the league's monster players is in the Torii Hunter/Mike Cameron class of center fielders.

"Phelps, Hinske and Wells all could hit 30 to 45 homers," says the NL scout. "Werth is going to be a power hitter. Woodward could hit 15 to 20 (home runs), Hudson 15. And that's without even mentioning Carlos Delgado."

Texas Rangers
Everything that could go wrong did for the Rangers. But while GM John Hart has taken the heat, it was owner Tom Hicks' stupefying mistake of listening to agent Scott Boras and not appreciating former GM Doug Melvin's farm system that made 2002 such a disappointment. But while Hicks vows he will avoid the luxury tax (good luck) and there are some tough contracts to swallow, from Rusty Greer to Chan HoHoKam Park to Carl Everett, the young pitching has started to produce as Benoit, Kolb and Cordero are finishing strong and Colby Lewis may be the best of them all. Put Teixeira and Blalock in that lineup and find a center fielder and quite possibly A-Rod will someday soon play in another meaningful game.

The Rangers have 10 players signed for more than $80 million already for next season, and that's before dealing with the Pudge Rodriguez issue. Whether or not Hart can rid himself of a couple of questionable contracts, stay under the threshold and retain his star catcher remains to be seen, but he has a lot of young talent that can turn this franchise back around in a hurry.

Kansas City Royals
Baird says, "we're going to be considerably below the $47 million we're under this season." But before anyone accuses owner David Glass of sticking his revenue-sharing money in his pocket, his baseball folks want to strip down like the '97 A's, who after trading Mark McGwire were barely above $10 million in payroll, and build around Mike Sweeney, Carlos Beltran, et al. That may necessitate moving Joe Randa ($4.5 million) and Michael Tucker ($2.75 million), because they already have five players signed at $23 million with 10 potential arbitration cases, at least six of whom will entail seven figures.

On Wednesday, Baird and his staff assembled the September callups for a workout that was run by George Brett and Frank White, models for what Kansas City baseball should represent. They believe that outfielder Dee Brown is starting to figure it out as he's learning to take pitches and get himself into better hitters' counts. With Brown in the mix, the Royals could have a respectable outfield next season along with Beltran and Raul Ibanez. They will see how ready Angel Berroa is to play defense at shortstop; his .215 batting average and .275 on-base percentage at Triple-A Omaha was obviously a vast disappointment.

"The future of this organization is in its pitching, and that's what we are concentrating on right now," says Baird. Runelvys Hernandez and Jeremy Affeldt, who may become a reliever eventually, have already made strong impressions on the big-league level. They want to bring in Mike MacDougall and Jeremy Hill this month, and by this time next year hope that Miguel Asencio, Kyle Snyder, Ian Ferguson and Jimmy Gobble are in Kansas City.

"There are some young pitchers here that we believe can be pretty good," says Baird. "If we get them over the hump, we'll have something for our fans. They deserve it."

Philadelphia Phillies
Ever since Robert Person and Terry Adams went out of the starting rotation, things seem clear. Randy Wolf became one of the best left-handers in the league, and with Brett Myers and Brandon Duckworth the foundation is in place for a superb rotation. Keeping Dan Plesac and Mike Timlin around the current atmosphere may be a problem, so they may have to shop for relievers, but the starting pitching could be good for years.

Byrd should be the real deal in center field, and depending on what they do at third base -- Chase Utley may not be ready, although he's improved a great deal while playing at Triple-A Scranton -- they want one big bat to protect Pat Burrell. Jim Thome may be a stretch, but this organization is developing so much pitching up and down the ladder that they have quality inventory to deal.

Florida Marlins
Marlins team president David Samson says "getting an agreement was important to us because now people here know the Marlins are not going to be contracted. That's a cloud that's hovered over the franchise for nearly a year. Now we can go forward and begin selling for next season and move the franchise forward." Samson also points out that people in Florida believe what he and owner Jefferey Loria always claimed that if they had wanted to relocate the Expos, they would have stayed in Montreal and done what MLB is about to do, wherever. Management is pleased with GM Larry Beinfest's deals for right-handed pitchers Justin Wayne and Dan Levinsky and left-hander Ryan Snare. Outfielders Abraham Nunez and Pablo Ozuna are also getting their opportunity to win jobs in 2003.

But Loria and Samson insist they are in this for the long haul, and after losing $20 million this season will likely use their revenue-sharing windfall to develop the organization, rebuild the fan base through marketing and continue to find a way to finance a ballpark. With a dozen players eligible for arbitration and two unmoveable contracts (Preston Wilson and Charles Johnson), to keep this team together would cost more than $60 million. That isn't happening, which means that there will be several trades and non-tenders involving Eric Owens, Derrek Lee and perhaps even Luis Castillo.

Pittsburgh Pirates
There isn't much GM Dave Littlefield can do right now. He inherited a mess of bad contracts with little upper minor-league talent, and September for him will be spent looking at Salomon Torres, who did get his first win since 1996 this week, beating Tom Glavine, and wondering how he rebuilds with nine players signed for next season at $41.9 million, including Kevin Young at $6.5 million and Pat Meares at $3.75 million. His best prospects, left-handed pitcher Sean Burnett and right-hander John Van Benschoten, don't have to be added to the 40-man roster and won't be called up.

"A lot of our focus is just playing the game right," says Littlefield, who will address his holes like center field and first base come the offseason. "We've got a good start with our rotation (Kris Benson, Josh Fogg and Kip Wells). We have work to do, but that's why we're here."

Chicago Cubs
Hendry is shutting down Mark Prior and Steve Smyth rather than risk fatigue, but as Zambrano works his way into the rotation and Hill and Choi work into the lineup, the team the other NL Central teams fear most (after Houston) over the next five years is falling into place. "Hill made a lot of adjustments and improvements when he went back to the minors," says Hendry, "especially (batting) left-handed. Choi made adjustments and came on. We're moving forward. This is an important time for us."

San Diego Padres
GM Kevin Towers is sorting through his pitching, with Brian Lawrence already established and Adam Eaton on the way back. It should be far better as Jake Peavy, Oliver Perez, Dennis Tankersley, et al, mature.

Sean Burroughs has been playing second base at Triple-A Portland, but it will be interesting to see how this team fits at this time next year. Towers thinks No. 1 pick Khalil Greene may be ready to play shortstop in the big leagues by 2004 and that Xavier Nady can be ready to play left field, so by then Burroughs may be back at third and Phil Nevin in right field. The 2002 season may have been a disappointment, but when they get into their new ballpark in 2004, if management allows Towers and manager Bruce Bochy to run things the right way, the Pads should be very dangerous.

Montreal Expos
No team has a stranger September, and the fact that they've begun announcing attendance by tickets sold -- not turnstile-count, which with all the freebies made it appear that the Expos led the Marlins for awhile -- speaks volumes about their desire to get out of Montreal.

But where? "There wasn't a lot said at the owners' meetings Thursday," says one owner. "Bud clearly is trying to figure out what to do."

Problem is, one owner suggests they have to stay one more year. Another suggests New Jersey. But if they think Yankees owner George Steinbrenner is dangerous now, try throwing a third team into his market. Some suggest Washington/Northern Virginia, but at least two owners insist that won't happen and if there is one owner who knows litigation, it's Orioles owner Peter Angelos. Charlotte? "They can barely support Triple-A," says one GM. Portland? "Don't be ridiculous," says another. Las Vegas? Mechanics Falls, Maine?

"We need to know something quickly," says Expos GM Omar Minaya. "This team can be a contender quickly, but we need to know where we're playing and what we have to work with." The squeeze is so tight they were not allowed to recall pitcher Sun-Woo Kim, who they acquired from the Red Sox for Cliff Floyd. Only three minor-league players were allowed to be called up in September in order to keep costs down.

When they pick up Bartolo Colon's option, the Expos will have five players signed for more than $30 million. Then Orlando Cabrera, Javier Vazquez, Tony Armas, Mike Barrett and seven other players are arbitration-eligible, which means they will need at least $55 million to operate the club in 2003. If MLB keeps them in Montreal, they likely won't be able to stay in operation. Oh yes, compounding problems, Vazquez is a fifth-year arbitration case, which means that he, Vladimir Guerrero and Colon are all free agents at the end of next season.

"We have," says Minaya, "some issues that need to be addressed." Issues that can't be contracted, and will not go away. There's even the worst scenario: that the lawsuit by former limited partners against MLB and Loria will force another season in The Big 0 (yes, zero).

Fuquay-Varina, N.C.? ... Cucumcare, N.M.? ... Princeton, Ill.? Might these towns be the next home for the Expos.

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