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Huge strides from Braves' infield

Special to

May 12

Every series, players and coaches sit on benches talking about players who have made quantum improvements or changes. This week several were asked who have made the most surprising substantial improvements and turned themselves into significant contributors for contending teams.

The reply list:

Rafael Furcal
Rafael Furcal is tied for third in the National League with 30 runs this season.

  • The Braves infield. Rafael Furcal is healthy and playing shortstop like a waterbug with a rocket launcher. Marcus Giles is the most improved defensive player in the league. And Robert Fick has worked very hard to improve. "I don't think there is any way I could have imagined what Giles has made himself," general manager John Schuerholz said. "He is quicker and makes spectacular defensive plays and turns impossible double plays."

  • Hank Blalock, Rangers. OK, maybe the Rangers are bona fide pennant contenders, but every team that has faced Texas has noticed how relaxed and improved Blalock is this season. "He looks hittery on every pitch," one AL coach said.

  • Joe Nathan and Junior Cruz, Giants. Nathan is a godsend, two years off surgery and throwing 95 mph to go with Tim Worrell, Felix Rodriguez (and eventually Jason Christiansen) in the bullpen that has to replace Robb Nen. Cruz was a great non-tender free-agent acquisition who has made adjustments that escaped him in Toronto. Hitting behind Barry Bonds might have something to do with that.

  • Rod Barajas, Diamondbacks. Bob Brenly knew more than people credited him for.

  • Gil Meche, Mariners. With Freddy Garcia still struggling for nearly a full calendar year, Meche has regained his No. 1 starter stuff and given the M's a critical front-of-the-rotation guy to go with Jamie Moyer and Joel Pineiro.

  • Zach Day, Expos. The top sinkerballer in the game. "He's been one of our brightest lights," GM Omar Minaya said.

    Brad Fullmer
    First baseman
    Anaheim Angels
    99 4 18 .343 .951 .416

  • Brad Fullmer, Angels. Not only is he among the league leaders in hitting, but he has worked diligently to learn to play first base in order to avoid the DH tag. Fullmer is a bright, energetic athlete who may soon be an adequate defensive player.

  • Nick Johnson, Yankees. "His approach is now that of a 10-year veteran," one AL scout said. "He's become a force in that lineup."

  • Ramon Hernandez and Eric Byrnes, Oakland. Hernandez has stopped trying to hit home runs, taken to going the other way and is showing how he won four minor and winter league batting titles. As for Byrnes, he's baseball's answer to the Tasmanian Devil, and he's hit and defended to the point where he's really helped the A's.

  • Guillermo Mota, Dodgers. He gets it up to 98 with a cliff changeup. With Paul Quantrill and Paul Shuey in front of Eric Gagne, he has helped make the L.A. pen the best in the league thus far.

  • Matthew LeCroy, Twins. Minnesota has so much depth that it's hard for LeCroy, Bobby Kielty, Dustan Mohr and Michael Cuddyer to get the appropriate at-bats, but this guy can really hit. This team's talent depth is astounding, in case you haven't seen Justin Morneau or Mike Restovich.

    Diamond Notes

  • The Mets mess got silly this week when Art Howe leaked word of his plans to work Mike Piazza at first before talking to Piazza. Look, he's not moving anytime soon. But in the future, it's an important option if he can play the position, but they won't know anything before he becomes a 10/5 man on May 22. Run down your list of American League teams and tell me who'd pay $13 million for a DH. Answer: None. New York would be interested in the Robby Alomar-Fernando Vina deal, which the Mets suggested upon hearing that Vina is not exactly in Tony LaRussa's favorite house. But right now the Cardinals don't have any extra cash and are holding whatever pennies they have for a pitcher should Jason Isringhausen not make it back. The Mets will hold on to Armando Benitez, who threw very well Saturday, until they see if the Cardinals, Mariners and Giants join the Red Sox in the closer market. But this isn't good: three baseball people who have seen Aaron Heilman this year feel he is good, but a No. 4 or 5 starter, not a savior. No more so than Ryan Rupe.

    Byung-Hyun Kim
    Starting pitcher
    Arizona Diamondbacks
    6 36.0 1-5 12 27 4.00

  • The Red Sox probably will bring up Robert Person this week, but know he isn't a closing answer. They made an offer to the Brewers for Curtis Leskanic, and turned down Todd Jones for Mike Timlin. Next question: since Byung-Hyun Kim is due to make more than $5 million next year, would the D-Backs deal him? There is backlash in Boston over the notion of trading Shea Hillenbrand, but he is soon 28 and .340 in April, .243 in all other months. With the rough financial decisions facing that team, to trade Freddy Sanchez or third baseman Kevin Youkilis -- two of their only potential low-salaried players the next couple of years -- for a quick fix could be a future disaster.

  • And who, you ask, is Nathan Bland? He was released by San Diego and Los Angeles, had two Tommy John surgeries because the first one didn't take, and while he was coming back, Astros scout Kimball Crossley pushed so hard they took him in the Triple-A draft. Now he's throwing 90-something.

  • Steve Bechler's family should take consolation in knowing that the company that makes so many of those gym drinks -- Ripped Fuel, Abb Blaster, etc. -- will no longer put ephedrine in the drinks.

  • Pirates GM Dave Littlefield gets several calls a week for Scott Sauerbeck, but puts him in a category right below Brian Giles when it comes to trades. Sauerbeck, one of the few lefties who dominates left-handed batters, has the fourth best strikeout-per-nine inning ratio of any lefty in history. The Yankees are very interested, but more likely they'll have to eat Gabe White's contract to bolster their bullpen.

  • The Pirates should have Ryan Vogelsong back by the end of the season, which will be a major boost.

  • In the past, drafting college relievers has not worked, but there are teams in the middle of the first round seriously considering Houston reliever Ryan Wagner, whose numbers include 29 hits, 10 walks and 109 strikeouts in 59 1/3 innings. "We'd start him," one GM said. "He's got a seven slider, a terrific gamble." Outfielder Pete Stonard, MVP on the Cape last summer only to be dismissed from Alabama and San Diego State, is going to several team workouts and is expected to be taken in the sandwich round. I am a huge Stonard guy, believe Matt Murton will prove the tools scouts wrong and believe Baylor RF David Murphy is a lot better than the tools police believe.

  • If you love the minors, subscribe to, as every organization in the majors does. A few notes from the minors: Rod Beck struck out five in 1 1/3 innings Saturday night, an indication that the man with one of the world's biggest hearts is regaining his stuff ... Indians CF Covelli Crisp is figuring out how to bat leadoff as he has a .447 OBP at Triple-A Buffalo ... Jeremy Guthrie is busting up the Double-A Eastern League (4-1), but the Indians will give him 10-12 starts at Akron to show that he can take pitching every fifth day ... Oakland's Aaron Harang is 5-1, 2.55 in Triple-A ... The Braves' extraordinary RHP prospect Adam Wainwright has a 1.44 ERA in his last four starts in Double-A ... From Kansas City's great draft of last year: Zack Greinke is a ridiculous, 5-0, 0.79 in the Class A Carolina League at the age of 19 after a brilliant winter in Puerto Rico ... Prince Fielder is now batting .352 with seven home runs in the Class A Midwest League in his first pro season.

  • Mark Mulder's average time of game is barely over two hours in his last five starts, and in his three complete games prior to Sunday's win over the Yankees, he'd thrown a total of 297 pitches. Every year, one of the A's Big Three has a legitimate shot at the Cy Young, and this seems to be Mulder's year.

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