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No easy solutions for Mets

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The Mets have become "Jaws 2003," with the sharks circling the blood trailing Steve Phillips, Mo Vaughn, Roger Cedeno, Armando Benitez and all those deemed responsible for the unseemly $120-million mess on the other side of the tracks from Yankee Stadium.

Steve Phillips
Steve Phillips' contract with the Mets expires after this season.

Every New York paper has begun a Phillips watch, and while owner Fred Wilpon tried to break up the wake on Friday by going on the "Mike and The Mad Dog" radio program to deny any imminent firing, the messages from Wilpon's son, Jeff, have made it clear who will be made responsible if there is not a miraculous turnaround.

And Phillips knows it. He resolutely stayed on the road trip to St. Louis and Milwaukee, standing up to the questions, trying to work the phones to make a couple of deals that would shuffle the deck. He has told other general managers that the writing has been on the wall for months. Last winter, when the Wilpons wanted a projected salary list, they approached assistant general manager Jim Duquette to prepare such a study, and when Duquette went out on his normal duties to watch Triple-A Norfolk and Double-A Binghamton, each time Jeff Wilpon went in and joined him, which puts a loyal Phillips hiring in an uncomfortable position.

But changing the mix won't be easy. The only teams that thus far have expressed interest in Benitez have been the Red Sox and Cardinals. And not only does St. Louis not have the money, but Jason Isringhausen could be ready to return soon. That Benitez needs a change seems obvious; his unhappiness and need for appreciation boiled over in St. Louis when his insistence on an open locker next to his forced Tom Glavine -- a potential Hall of Famer -- to have to change his locker to accommodate the reliever. The booing is nonstop, and it's gotten so old that on the "Trade Benitez" T-shirts are marked down from $18 to $12. The problem is that Phillips would like a closer in return, something Boston doesn't exactly have to trade, and Red Sox GM Theo Epstein seems reluctant to move Shea Hillenbrand or Freddy Sanchez for a Tier II closer who can be a free agent at the end of the season.

Mo Vaughn
First baseman
New York Mets
27 79 .190 3 15 .323

In time, the Mets will see if there is trading deadline interest in Roberto Alomar and perhaps Jeromy Burnitz, but on the immediate horizon they must see what there is to be done about catcher and first base, where Mike Piazza and Vaughn have combined for 11 errors. Mo's 8-5-3 assist-to-error-to-homer ratio isn't exactly Snow-esque, and now he has taken his cranky knees to the disabled list. This weekend, the word was put out that if an American League team -- Baltimore, Tampa Bay, forget Mo's four teams to whom he can be traded (which doesn't include the Orioles or Rays) -- was interested in him as a DH, the Mets would be willing to pay his remaining $30 million. That would allow them to look at Piazza at first base and allow Vance Wilson and Jason Phillips to catch.

Phillips' greatest failure may have been to hire a Bill Lajoie, Gene Michael or Jerry Walker, a strong baseball voice to lean on, especially after Dave Wallace and Omar Minaya departed. There have been some poor judgments (Cedeno in center field?). He's been under a great deal of spin-doctor pressure, with the Yankees staring down at Shea Stadium, and he may not have had the internal support to ignore the talk show and back-page pressures and ignore the pressure to go get "names" like Vaughn, Burnitz and Alomar.

But while Phillips is hardly the only one deserving of all the blame, he is the easiest to put in the public stocks or offer as a human sacrifice. Shortstop Jose Reyes and pitchers Aaron Heilman and Pat Strange will play for the 2004 Mets, but even with cash freed, there are a lot of holes that need to be plugged. They may be able to move Benitez, Burnitz and Alomar, but the market is different than it was two years ago, and in almost every veteran-for-prospect deal last season the team getting a prospect had to pick up considerable chunks of the veteran's salary to fray the cost of minimum salary players.

Whatever the Wilpons decide, they cannot be tied to records for home runs by a catcher or save records or incentives. Every move they make -- be it changing positions or looking at younger players -- should be made with 2004 in mind, whether the veteran players like it or not. Those veterans got a manager with whom they are happy, and they still can't win. So it's time for tough baseball and personnel decisions done for the right reasons, not for PR, because every move driven by public relations is a move inherently doomed to fail the organization.

Royals feed off Pena's energy
Royals GM Allard Baird already is coping with the reality that Raul Ibanez is a free agent at the end of this season. But Baird believes that Ibanez, who came into his own after manager Tony Pena took over last season, is a must-sign for the Kansas City franchise, especially since Carlos Beltran will not sign a long-term contract. Given the player-manager relationship and the reality that the Royals are back on the Kansas City radar screen, it's possible.

Tony Pena

And Pena says, "I think we're going to be in this thing all season. I really believe it. We can hit, and our pitching's going to hold us in."

Jeremy Affeldt, armed with the Stan's Rodeo Cream that Josh Beckett used to beat his blisters, is back. Runelvys Hernandez and Miguel Asencio (stolen with a Rule V pick from the Phillies) and Chris George have pitched very well.

But it is Pena and his enthusiasm that is the driving wheel, with the help of an experienced, working coaching staff. Have a simulated game to help Darrell May, who was struggling? Pena catches. "Tony got out there and caught him to help his confidence," Mike Sweeney said. "He was doing his full thing -- down on one knee, the works." Warm up a pitcher between innings? Out comes Pena. Blow a five-run lead in the ninth in Toronto? "We were all down," said Sweeney, "and he came into the clubhouse and turned up the music. He's unbelievable."

"No," said Pena, "I am me. Period. This is who I am."

Pena can give pep talks and have T-shirts made up because he is real, and the players know it. "The important thing is that the veterans bought into Tony from the beginning because he is so sincere," Baird said. "I think the fact that he was an All-Star caliber player, then accepted being a backup at the end of his career really helps him. He understands both perspectives."

Red Sox not desperate to deal
Reds GM Jim Bowden tried to jump in and take advantage of the storm damage to the Boston bullpen, making Scott Williamson available for Shea Hillenbrand, while letting it be known that the Reds love the Red Sox's Brandon Lyon.

Shea Hillenbrand
Third baseman
Boston Red Sox
29 109 .312 2 26 .358

Theo Epstein wouldn't budge, as Bill Lajoie, Craig Shipley and his advisors believe that to trade Hillenbrand for anyone less than an elite closer -- and the only elite closers right now are John Smoltz, Mariano Rivera, Billy Wagner and perhaps Eric Gagne -- would be a panic move. For one thing, Hillenbrand has made significant improvement in situational hitting in each of his three major-league seasons. For another, the fact that the Giants, Cubs, Mariners and Yankees each arrived at May Day with virtual bullpen committees (because of injuries) points out what Epstein already knew --that closing hasn't been the problem; getting to the ninth has, and other than the opening night meltdown against Tampa Bay, the Red Sox haven't lost a game they led heading into the ninth.

The problem has been that they counted on Ramiro Mendoza and Alan Embree, and they have been dreadful. Mendoza hasn't had any consistency keeping the ball down, and Embree is down 5 mph in velocity which leaves him at a hittable 91-92 straight over the top with nothing to get out lefties.

Robert Person, who reached as high as 93 mph on Friday for Triple-A Pawtucket, will be thrown into the mix, but other than a couple of raw arms at Double-A Portland (left-hander Jorge de la Rosa and right-hander Anastacio Martinez), the Red Sox don't have any swing-and-miss arms in the high minors; Hector Almonte hits 97 at Pawtucket, but he doesn't get swings and misses.

There are a lot of myths about what Montreal wanted from Boston for Bartolo Colon, but this is what Expos GM Omar Minaya asked for: Hillenbrand, Freddy Sanchez, Casey Fossum, while the Red Sox kept insisting on Javier Vazquez. When Epstein offered to get Aaron Harang (5-1 at Triple-A Sacramento) from Oakland to include him with Hillenbrand and Sanchez, he was turned down. Sanchez is hitting close to .400 at Pawtucket and has so progressed and performed in his rapid rise through the organization that one Red Sox official said, "he has convinced all of us that he is an important part of this club's future. Minaya may have been right when he compared Sanchez to Edgardo Alfonzo. Right now, the only way we'd trade him is if it were a Vazquez deal."

Eventually, Boston will have to deal to bolster its pitching before the trading deadline, and eventually the Sox will have to make the hard decision on whether or not to trade Hillenbrand, Sanchez or Portland catcher Kelly Shoppach, their most marketable parts. They have precious little on the upper three teams in their system, and Hillenbrand is a key contributor to the current race, Sanchez is an important piece considering the impending free agency of Nomar Garciaparra and Shoppach is a piece for the same 2004 free agency of Jason Varitek.

Marlins' Gonzalez realizing potential
There are few, if any coaches in the business with more respect than Marlins infield instructor Perry Hill, and his crowning achievement may have been his help developing Alex Gonzalez. No one has ever questioned Gonzalez's ability, but he earned the nickname "Sea Bass" because he constantly looked so unhappy and often played with disinterest. But Gonzalez this season has played hard and played brilliantly, both offensively and defensively.

And where we used to talk about how the American League had the great shortstops, take a look at the top 10 players at that position in terms of OPS through Sunday:

Alex Gonzalez
Florida Marlins
29 110 .336 8 24 .381

1. Alex Rodriguez 1.093
2. Alex Gonzalez, Marlins 1.045
3. Edgar Renteria .980
4. Jose Valentin .885
5. Alex Gonzalez, Cubs .861
6. Rafael Furcal .851
7. Rey Ordonez .833
8. (tie) Ramon Vazquez .825
8. (tie) Royce Clayton .825
10. Nomar Garciaparra .800

Then look at the errors leaders: Three AL shortstops -- Miguel Tejada, Angel Berroa, Omar Infante -- lead with eight, Jose Valentin and Erick Almonte have seven and you have to get to six to find a National Leaguer -- Furcal and Felipe Lopez tied with Garciaparra.

Yankees looking to future with pitching
On the highest level, the Yankees are drawing comparisons to their 1998 and 1939 clubs. Yet, on every level, they are reloading their pitching.

"We have to be prepared, because Roger Clemens, David Wells and Andy Pettitte all can be free agents at the end of the season," Yankees GM Brian Cashman said. "We can't afford to have rebuilding periods. That was the thinking behind the (Jeff) Weaver deal last year, and the (Jose) Contreras signing. That's why we signed Jon Lieber, who is a bona fide major-league starter and should be completely healthy at this time next year. You win with pitching."

The Yanks took on long-term cash in the Rondell White-Bubba Trammell deal to get Mark Phillips, a former No. 1 left-handed starter with big-time ceiling. Hence, winning the bidding for Roberto Ramirez when he was posted in Japan, and the signing of Edwin Reynosa for $750,000 two years ago. With Brandon Claussen throwing 91-92 mph at Tampa (20 strikeouts, 17 IP) less than a year off Tommy John surgery as well as Triple-A pitchers Danny Borrell (2-0, 2.00), Alex Graman (3-1, 3.29) and Jorge DePaula, the Yankees also have a stockpile of tradeable arms to use before Aug. 1 for whatever they need.

Granted, the Yankees can afford to outbid other teams for Alfonso Soriano, Contreras, Hideki Matsui, Lieber, et al, but that sure is money better invested than in the likes of Vaughn, Cedeno and Burnitz.

The Yankees can pay, but so can the Mets, Mariners, Red Sox and the other big-revenue teams. The Yankees will, also pay to move the unproductive, yet what seems strange is that no one has taken Sterling Hitchcock when the Yankees are willing to pay his salary. Whether it's Anaheim, Florida, Texas, Houston or Cincinnati, someone can use Hitchcock and put him on George Steinbrenner's tab.

Diamond Notes

  • One AL advance scout says the three quickest catchers' releases and times to second base right now are Brandon Inge of the Tigers, rookie Miguel Olivo of the White Sox and Jorge Posada of the Yankees. "Inge and Olivo still drop a lot of balls," the scout said. "For me, Posada is healthy, dramatically better and may be the best catcher in the league right now."

  • Interesting observation from a scout: "I used to look for catch-and-throw guys in the minors and project them as major-league backups. But now I'm not so sure. Teams don't run anywhere near as much. Look, Toronto doesn't have a stolen base. So the catch-and-throw guys are giving way to catchers who can swing the bat, especially left-handed hitters."

    Marquis not the same

    Jason Marquis' struggles continued to his first couple of starts at Triple-A Richmond. Marquis is not the same pitcher, having tried to become Greg Maddux rather than digest his wisdom.

    And Marquis has gone from being a power curve/high riding fastball pitcher to sinkers and sliders. Maddux once told him, "if I had your stuff, I wouldn't pitch the way I do."

  • Another baseball sage offers this: "Billy Koch had a terrific year in Oakland and now is struggling. Keith Foulke struggled last year and is having a terrific season in Oakland (despite Saturday's blown save at Yankee Stadium). Is this a tribute to A's pitching coach Rick Peterson, or what?"

  • While the Twins may well end up winning the AL Central, what their slow start may do is take away what is potentially a huge postseason advantage -- the home field and BaggyDome turf.

  • Buck Showalter says, "it's impossible to give enough credit to the way Einar Diaz handles our pitchers. He brings tremendous energy to them every day and it rubs off."

  • Showalter is extremely impressed with Toronto's young positional players -- Vernon Wells, Josh Phelps, Eric Hinske, Orlando Hudson, et al. "Phelps," Showalter said, "is one of the most impressive young hitters I've seen. He can crush the ball, and Wells is a terrific all-around player." Wells may not be as flashy as Torii Hunter or Mike Cameron, but he has a great first step, and he may be the best of the three offensively in terms of being difficult to pitch to. One comparison is that he's a right-handed Jim Edmonds, which is high praise, offensively and defensively.

  • As the Jays try to build a pitching staff, what could be a major step for them will be what they can get for potential free agents Shannon Stewart, Cory Lidle and Kelvim Escobar at the trading deadline. The problem with Escobar is that as he is moving to a spot in the rotation, his perception as a closer is just about washed out. So whoever trades for him at the deadline (Yankees?) will do so as a Felix Rodriguez/Octavio Dotel type.

  • Jays ownership is pushing for MLB to return to a balanced schedule, which evens out the playing field for small-market teams playing in divisions dominated by big-market clubs, a problem for the Jays, Devil Rays, Rockies, Padres, etc. Almost everyone wanted the unbalanced schedule, but it has its drawbacks, including making the schedule a major part of won-lost percentage and hence the wild-card races.

  • Once the story about Julio Lugo's alleged assault of his wife became public, there was no doubt in any minds throughout the Houston organization that owner Drayton McLane would have him removed as an Astros employee, much the way Jerry Colangelo has acted with the Suns and Diamondbacks. This gives Adam Everett his chance to show once and for all if he can hit, and now Kirk Saarloos -- who added to his controlled arsenal by occasionally elevating his fastball and giving hitters a look at something that's now down in the strike zone -- gets a chance to step into the rotation and get established.

  • Word seems to be out everywhere that the Marlins are compiling a list of managerial candidates should club president David Samson decide to fire Jeff Torborg, whose job is made a lot more difficult with the injury to A.J. Burnett. One sleeper name may be Tampa Bay coach Tom Foley, who is well known to Dan Jennings, the astute scouting director who moved from the Rays to the Phish this winter.

  • Cubs GM Jim Hendry says right now "we have no intention of trading Juan Cruz. There are a lot of people in our organization, including (pitching coach) Larry Rothschild, who believe that Juan can be either a 1-2 starter or a closer." Hendry is looking around for bats and continues to monitor Hillenbrand, but right now isn't willing to deal Cruz or Carlos Zambrano.

    Ankiel update

    The Rick Ankiel report is that his appearances in Double-A have been "Jekyll and Hyde, good and not-so-good."

    And for the first time people within the organization are willing to discuss the future possibility of the enormously talented Ankiel trying a move to the outfield.

  • The Cardinals still believe that Isringhausen will be back at the end of the bullpen in two weeks. He was scheduled to throw off the mound on Sunday, then get out for rehab appearances next weekend.

  • The Padres' staff was not happy with the way Oliver Perez reported to spring training, and with the exception of one start, was not pleased with what he showed. Hence the demotion to Triple-A Portland. "He can throw much better than he has," said GM Kevin Towers, who thinks Perez might eventually be Trevor Hoffman's successor as closer. Speaking of Portland, outfielder Jason Bay, whom they acquired from the Mets for Steve Reed, is going off: .364 BA, 1.209 OPS, 9 homers, 19/14 BB/K ratio through May 4.

  • Scouts at Seung Song's no-hitter in Harrisburg this week reported a comical sight. "Nook Logan (Erie's fleet center fielder) dragged a bunt in the ninth inning," said one scout, "and clearly had it beaten out. Song tried to throw him out, but the ball got away, which put runners at first and second with one out. (Harrisburg manager) Dave Machemer came out to the mound to take out Song, but had to stand on the mound waiting because the official scorer hadn't made a call on whether or not it was a hit, which it clearly was. The ump came out, and Machemer yelled, 'I can't do anything until the official scorer rules.' Finally, the PA announces it's an error, so Machemer left Song in the game and he got out of it and got his hometown no-hitter."

  • The Giants' attitude is that they do not expect to get Robb Nen back this season, although they hope they will. So Tim Worrell, Rodriguez, Joe Nathan and, eventually, Jason Christiansen become the bullpen. Nathan has been the story, getting back to 95-96 mph after two years of work following surgery. Jesse Foppert has also been a story. After he pitched so brilliantly in the 1-0 no-hit loss to Kevin Millwood, Giants manager Felipe Alou likened Foppert's performance to a Javier Vazquez performance in a loss in Montreal. "It was Vazquez's breakout game, and we just saw it again," Alou said. The Giants people say there's a lot more in Foppert's arm, and that in time he'll get back from his current 91-92 to 95-96 mph, which he threw last season.

  • The Marlins have seen Dontrelle Willis start 4-0 with a 1.49 ERA in Double-A and are talking about adding him to their rotation with Burnett hurt and Justin Wayne unable to get out of the first inning in his replacement start. Meanwhile, Ivan Rodriguez has taken ground balls at third base. With Miguel Cabrera on the horizon, he won't be moving, not in Florida.

  • Scouts who went to see Peabody (Mass.) RHP Jeff Allison reported that in one start he not only hit 96, but he threw 21-for-21 first-pitch strikes. Allison is an enormous talent, but one NL GM offers this warning label: "Kids who throw 95 at 18 usually throw 87 at 22. The great pitchers rise to the 90s, not get there at 18." Roger Clemens was the undrafted No. 3 starter off his high school team.

  • Jason Arnold, acquired in the four-way deal from Oakland, has a 1.53 ERA for Toronto's Double-A club in New Haven.

  • When Royals coach Tom Gamboa was in Boston, he could spend an off day with his son Bret, who after graduating No. 1 in his entire class at Cal-Berkeley is now doing graduate work in Shakespeare studies -- including directing Shakespearean plays -- at Harvard, which actively recruited the younger Gamboa. "I don't know where the brains came from," Gamboa said, "but I have to tell you that I was proud at his graduation last year when his Shakespeare professor called him, 'the smartest person I have ever known.' " Father Gamboa knows what it's like to be in "The Tempest."

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