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Wednesday, November 20
 
Expect better times ahead for Hampton in Atlanta

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

Once upon a time, in another lifetime, Mike Hampton was one of the best left-handed pitchers of his day. Then the Rocky Mountains entered his life.

We don't need to get into what has happened to Hampton since. That's been better-documented this week than Michael Jackson's stupid baby tricks.

But now that Hampton has been airlifted out of Coors Field to a team where Cy Youngs grow like peach blossoms, only one question matters:

Mike Hampton
Mike Hampton was 3-12 with a 6.44 ERA in 19 starts away from Coors Field in 2002.

Can he ever be that pitcher he used to be again?

We know what the Atlanta Braves think. They've gambled $48.5 million over the next six years that there's nothing wrong with Hampton that Turner Field and 5,200 feet closer to sea level can't cure.

But are they right about that? We asked three veteran major-league scouts who have watched Hampton extensively, pre-Denver and post-Denver, what they thought. They voted unanimously ...

Yes. (Not without some reservations, we might add. But yes.)

"I would bet he does," said one member of our panel. "His work habits have always been tremendous. He's a big-time competitor. He's not going to be happy making that kind of money and pitching that lousy. And he's going to one of the best pitcher's parks in the game."

OK, if we're going to start listing all the reasons Hampton should be better, let's start there -- with ...

Turner Field
The difference between pitching in Atlanta or Denver is kind of like the difference between skiing at Aspen or Savannah. Just this past year alone, 54 percent more runs were scored at Coors (991) than at Turner (642). So if Hampton's ERA merely makes that mathematical drop, according to scale, he'd go from 6.15 to 3.98. And the Braves will look smarter that Alex Trebek.

"That's a big, big yard," said one scout of Turner Field. "You've got to cream the ball to get it out of there. Pitching in a yard like that, he can go back to the way he used to pitch."

But there's more to this than the ballpark. Let's take a look at some of the other factors our scouts pointed to:

Delivery: If you watched Hampton pitch in 2002 and tried to compare it with how he looked in 2000, about the only thing that looked the same was his mustache.

"He tried to do too many things with the baseball there," said one scout, "to try to make up for the loss of his natural movement. It wound up screwing him up at home and on the road. He got in bad habits and that got him into bad muscle memory."

The Braves are sure hoping it was just bad muscle memory that propelled him to baseball's worst road record (3-12, 6.44). Whatever it was, though, the issue now is: How tough will it be for him to pull his old delivery out of storage?

"That's not easy," said one scout. "It's like a golfer who gets the yips with the putter. It can be hard, once you've got that, to get it back. He needs to look at videos from when he was with the Mets and Houston and get his arm angle back to being more consistent. But that's the first thing they'll do. Leo (Mazzone) is big on that video work, anyway."

Mind games: One scout who has known Hampton for years said it wasn't so much all the bad habits and bad pitches that sank him to these depths in the first place. It was everything that happened inside Hampton's head once his problems began.

He tried to do too many things with the baseball (at Coors Field) to try to make up for the loss of his natural movement. It wound up screwing him up at home and on the road. He got in bad habits and that got him into bad muscle memory.
A scout on Mike Hampton

"The biggest thing with this guy is, you've got to keep his head together," the scout said. "He's a competitive guy, but he has a fragile psyche. When things are going good, he'll ride that and compete. When things are going bad, he'll jump off the bandwagon.

"But going to a place like Atlanta, he'll be a lot more comfortable just going back to his roots. I don't think he ever embraced the whole culture, the whole way of life in Colorado. Atlanta is more his kind of environment. And Bobby (Cox) is just the right kind of personality for him. He'll know when to stroke him and when to kick him in the butt. And Mike needs a guy like that."

Athleticism: This isn't Brian Bohanon or Hideki Irabu we're talking about here. Maybe the best thing Hampton has going for him is that he's such a great athlete. He doesn't just consider himself a pitcher. He's a baseball player.

"He's always been a guy who could make a lot of changes on his own," said the scout who has known Hampton longest. "If he had one bad game, he'd go look at himself in the mirror and try to figure out something new.

"He's such a good athlete, I'd bet it won't take him a lot of time to get it back. I would bet he'd be back into his old mechanics before he leaves spring training. He'll be the first to identify all the changes he made just because he was in Colorado. Now he can go back to being himself."

History: People often talk about how pitchers like Hampton "historically" do better after leaving Colorado. So we decided we'd look it up.

Four pitchers before Hampton made at least 35 starts for the Rockies, then left and made at least 35 more starts elsewhere. Here is how they did:

Pedro Astacio: As a Rockie: 129 starts, 53-48, 5.43 ERA. As an ex-Rockie: 35 starts, 14-12, 4.57 ERA.

Darryl Kile: As a Rockie: 67 starts, 21-30, 5.84 ERA. As an ex-Rockie: 82 starts, 41-24, 3.54.

Jamey Wright: As a Rockie: 91 starts, 25-33, 5.57 ERA. As an ex-Rockie: 80 starts, 25-34, 4.73 ERA.

Armando Reynoso: As a Rockie: 87 starts, 30-31, 4.96 ERA. As an ex-Rockie: 93 starts, 35-30, 4.77 ERA.

So here is what history tells us: Three of those four had winning records after leaving Denver. All of them lowered their ERA. And Wright, who didn't improve his record, still dropped his ERA by more than three-quarters of a run.

What that means, exactly, for Hampton is hard to say. But one thing is sure: He can't be any worse in Atlanta than he was this year.

"Oh, he'll be better," said one National League GM, "because if you look at what he did this year, he was the worst pitcher in the league. So getting out of Colorado, you've got to think he'll be better. But for me, he'd have to make an awfully dramatic turnaround to be somebody you could project as going 15-10 for you. Maybe he can. But I couldn't make that gamble."

Miscellaneous Rumblings

  • When we think of Jim Thome, he seems like as much a part of the Cleveland landscape as the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame. But it's amazing how many baseball men are predicting he'll leave -- just because the money differential between the Indians' offer (four years, $45 million) and the Phillies' offer (five years, $75 million, with a chance to make $90-105 million) is so humongous.

    "I don't think he wants to leave," said one prominent front-office man who has known Thome for a decade. "But I think he'll be under an incredible amount of pressure to leave. It's so much money, and his agent (Pat Rooney) will be feeling so much attention from the industry, I think that when it's all said and done, he'll leave."

  • Sources say Thome's biggest concern about Philadelphia was -- what else? -- the fans. (You were expecting maybe the sanitation habits of the local soft-pretzel salesmen?)

    Many of his fears were allayed, according to one source, when all those construction workers lined up outside the Phillies' new ballpark in their "Philadelphia Wants Thome" caps. Even more were allayed when he got a long, impassioned standing ovation during a Flyers hockey game.

    Still, Thome has been calling around, looking for the real story on Phillies fans. So in Philadelphia, they might not consider it a very positive omen that one guy he called was Scott Rolen, who isn't exactly a candidate to be president of the Chamber of Commerce.

  • Thome stat of the week: Don't read anything into this, but after Thome attended that hockey game, the Flyers went winless in their next five games (0-2, 3 ties). In the 12 games before that, they'd lost once (9-1, 2 ties).

  • According to salary figures distributed to the general managers in Arizona last week, the Braves had six players who earned at least $7 million this season. The Marlins had one (Charles Johnson).

    So how surreal is it that next year, the Marlins will pay a player (i.e., Hampton) $7 million to play for the Braves? Then again, how surreal is it that the Marlins will pay Hampton as much money not to play for them next year as they paid anyone to play for them this year?

  • One upshot of all the Rockies' wheeling and dealing is this: You can forget those Jeff Kent-to-Colorado rumors.

    Although they get long-term savings out of the Hampton deal, the Rockies will actually be taking on more than $12 million in payroll over the next three years. They would get just a minimal short-term payroll break from the Larry Walker trade. And if they wind up trading Denny Neagle for Jeromy Burnitz and Rey Ordonez, that would add more than $8 million to the debit sheets for next year.

    In other words: They'll have no money left to do anything but bottom-feed in this free-agent market.

  • The other upshot of those Rockies' deals is that GM Dan O'Dowd has finally admitted his initial philosophy about how you win in Denver -- with speed and pitching -- was a good try, but incorrect.

    "That approach just doesn't work," O'Dowd said. "I understand that now. In Denver, pitching is neutralized and speed is no factor, except on defense. And defensively, it only helps you in the middle of the diamond. The rest of your lineup needs to be offense-based. You just can't build a team here the same way you build it anywhere else."

  • One question several baseball people had about the Colorado-Florida deal is how Vic Darensbourg was allowed to be included in it. Darensbourg was outrighted to Triple-A by the Marlins in August. And at the time of the trade, he was still included on a Major League Baseball list of six-year minor-league free agents.

    Turns out, though, he was incorrectly listed, because the Marlins owed him $1.1 million for next year, plus at least another $200,000 buyout on a 2004 option. So while Darensbourg had the option to become a free agent, he also would have voided the contract if he had taken it. Whereupon he opted for the guraranteed money. And that allowed the Marlins to trade him, even though he wasn't on their 40-man roster. Got all that?

    Roger Clemens
    Starting pitcher
    Free agent
    Profile
    2002 SEASON STATISTICS
    GM IP W-L BB SO ERA
    29 180 13-6 63 192 4.35

  • The Yankees have told Roger Clemens they're only interested in offering him a one-year deal, although they would talk about including a possible vesting option. Clemens is out looking to see if some team -- preferably one that bears a striking resemblance to the Rangers -- is willing to guarantee him more than that. But the overwhelming sense of clubs we've surveyed is that Clemens is heading back to The Bronx.

    "He's made a lot of money with the Yankees," said an official of one club that is following this closely. "He only needs one year to get to 300 wins. So if it comes down to a few million bucks, leaving or staying, now let's see what's important to him. If he goes to someplace like Texas, winning those seven games (to reach 300) is no sure thing."

  • We're three weeks into the offseason and more than a week into the free-agent signing period -- without one major free agent signing. The reason: Most clubs, players and agents are waiting for the big names to define the market.

    Thome will set the hitters' market. Tom Glavine and/or Greg Maddux (depending on which leaves Atlanta) will set the starting pitchers' market. And Mike Remlinger and/or Mike Stanton will set the bullpen market, since the two closers out there -- Roberto Hernandez and Ugueth Urbina -- aren't considered marquee guys.

    But there has been no stampede to sign anybody because the waiting game is at the heart of the owners' free-agent strategy this year.

    "Owners are telling their general managers, 'Before you sign any free agents, you'd better get rid of your bad contracts,' " said one prominent baseball man.

    Hence, Hampton turns into Preston Wilson and Johnson -- with more deals just like that one to come.

  • According to salary figures distributed to GMs, the player who collected more money in performance bonuses this year than anyone in baseball was (ta-taaa) David Wells ($4 million). Once he got past five starts, Wells collected $135,000 a start through his 17th start, then kicked that up to $183,076 (and 92 cents) per outing through 30 starts.

    Next-most bonuses earned: $2.5 million, by Curt Schilling ($50,000 for making the All-Star team, plus bonuses for all starts past No. 25), and $2 million, by Rick Helling ($80,000 per start after his fifth start).

  • One of the most watched players in Puerto Rico this winter is Blue Jays shortstop Felipe Lopez, who figures to be an ex-Blue Jay by the time the winter meetings wrap up. Among the teams interested: the Orioles, who are in the market for a shortstop to replace Mike Bordick.

  • The Brewers are also looking for a shortstop. One trade rumor making the rounds had them turning down a deal for the Dodgers' Alex Cora (for pitchers Ben Diggins and Valerio De los Santo).

  • Spotted in the Santurce outfield this winter: Al Martin, who is trying to reincarnate his career. Due to show next week: John Rocker.

    Cory Lidle
    Starting pitcher
    Toronto Blue Jays
    Profile
    2002 SEASON STATISTICS
    GM IP W-L BB SO ERA
    31 192 8-10 39 111 3.89

  • To get Cory Lidle as its prospective No. 2 starter behind Roy Halladay, Toronto not only had to pick up all of Lidle's $4.8-million salary for next year, it had to kick in another $250,000 due Lidle if he got traded this winter.

  • Hideki Matsui looked awful in the Japan Series last week. But one scout who has seen him extensively says Matsui will hit in the big leagues -- especially if he winds up in a left-handed hitter's park like Yankee Stadium.

    Matsui might not hit the 50 homers in the States that he hit for Yomiuiri this year -- "but he'll be at least in the 30s," the scout said. "And anything above that wouldn't surprise me."

  • One scout who has spent a lot of time watching the Arizona Fall League thinks the Rangers would be making a mistake if they deal Hank Blalock and commit to Mark Teixeira as their third baseman of the future.

    "I don't like him at third," the scout said. "I don't think he can cut it there defensively, day in and day out. Blalock is a much better third baseman -- much quicker and more athletic. Teixeira looks good taking ground balls before the game. But once the bell rings, he's got no real rhythm. I don't see that good infield quickness you look for. But I'll say this: With the bat, he's a special guy -- from both sides."

  • Of all the contracts the Yankees are trying to unload, one baseball man's nomination for the easiest to move is Sterling Hitchcock's: "All they'd need to do is eat $1.5 million of it, and he becomes a $3-million gamble for somebody."

  • What does it say about Todd Hundley's future in Chicago that the Cubs continue to have interest in Pudge Rodriguez, even after trading for Damian Miller?

  • Teams continue to ask the Astros about Daryle Ward -- and are being told he isn't available, unless somebody has a big-time center fielder to trade.

  • Finally, if there's one thing we can conclude from the major-league All-Stars' tour of Japan, it's this: American playoff ratings in Japan must have been lower than Celebrity Sumo Wrestling. Even the managers must not have watched, if this stat is any indication:

    Barry Bonds in Japan: 30 at-bats, zero walks.

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.








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