Sense of currency helps realign stars

Greg Maddux is the smartest pitcher in the major leagues, building a 305-win career as much with his brain as with his right arm. When he reached free agency after 11 seasons with the Braves, he barely acknowledged the interest he received from the Yankees.

That's because his first priority was to stay in the National League.

Unable to sign Maddux, the Yankees eventually traded for Montreal ace Javier Vazquez. But he got beat around during the regular season and spent the historic championship series against Boston working out of Joe Torre's bullpen. Vazquez's ERA soared from 3.24 in 2003 to 4.91.

Welcome to the AL.

While interleague play and a centralized pool of umpires have erased some of the lines separating the two branches of the Major League Baseball family, the one thing that hasn't changed is that pitchers still hit in the NL and don't in the AL, where hitting rules the day.

"It's not just that you've got a designated hitter, but look at the way that National League pitchers work the bottom of the order,'' White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper said. "It seems like they start thinking about the pitcher's spot when they get to the No. 6 hitter. They know they've got an out coming, and they don't have to challenge any of the guys hitting in front of him. It's almost like a National League pitcher gets two or three free innings a game.''

That may be a slight overstatement, but he captures the gist of the situation. It's a whole lot easier to pitch in the NL than the AL.

But money still talks. That's why so much pitching talent flowed upstream this season. The usual trend of pitchers fleeing the AL for greener pastures was reversed, with the AL becoming a deeper league in the process.

By our count, 49 significant players have changed leagues in the offseason. Twenty-six of those have gone from the NL to the AL, including 14 of the 23 pitchers and elite position players such as Edgar Renteria, Adrian Beltre and Jason Kendall.

Credit (or blame) the beasts of the AL East for the unusual flow of pitching movement. Both the Yankees and Red Sox reloaded their pitching staffs with NL talent – the Yankees landing Randy Johnson, Carl Pavano, Jaret Wright and Felix Rodriguez while the Red Sox countered with David Wells, Matt Clement and Wade Miller.

This is a curious phenomenon, especially given the Yankees' experience with Vazquez, who was practically begging for a return to the NL. Other than the warhorses, Johnson and Wells, aren't the Red Sox and Yankees rolling dice?

Consider Clement.

A supporting actor in a 2002 trade for Antonio Alfonseca, Clement emerged as a very valuable member of the Cubs' rotation. He has more wins and innings pitched than Kerry Wood, Mark Prior and Carlos Zambrano over the last three seasons.

"I felt like I held my own on a pitching staff with an awesome group of pitchers,'' Clement said. "Who knows how many Hall of Famers are in that group? I'm sure [Greg] Maddux will be, and Mark and Woody are going to pitch for a long time.''

Yet the Cubs did not make an effort to keep him when he filed for free agency. This was largely because they have so much money tied up in the other four pitchers but also because they believed Clement should have won a lot more than 35 games in the 94 he started for them.

But if a pitcher is "soft,'' does he sign with the Red Sox? Clement had no shortage of options before signing a three-year deal to pitch in Boston.

Having experienced playoff races the last two years, Clement says he wanted to go somewhere that he could be practically assured of having a good shot at the postseason. That's why he passed up offers from the White Sox, Cleveland, Toronto, Arizona and even Anaheim, among others.

"You don't know how often the ball will be in your court,'' Clement said. "You don't want to wake up after your career is over and say, 'Man, I wish I had taken that chance.' ''

Here are 10 others who figure to play big roles in new leagues:

1) Tim Hudson, Braves: In two of the last three seasons, Hudson had ERAs below 3.00 in the AL. His career winning percentage is .702 (92-39). That's the fourth-best ever among pitchers with at least 1,000 innings and 100 decisions. He's a Georgia native and Auburn University product who was thrilled to be traded to Atlanta and even happier to be signed to a contract extension. He could win a Cy Young and a World Series MVP this season.

2) Edgar Renteria, Red Sox: The best shortstop in the NL now works in the same league with the others who are the best in baseball -- Derek Jeter, Miguel Tejada, Carlos Guillen and Michael Young. He's a significant upgrade over Orlando Cabrera, who has moved to Anaheim, and figures to fit in perfectly on the world champions. His departure was a major blow to the Cardinals, who tried hard to keep him.

3) Adrian Beltre, Mariners: Quality third basemen are in short supply, and Seattle gets a guy who turns 26 in April and is coming off a monster season (.334-48-121) based at Dodger Stadium, which like Safeco Field is a tough place to hit. The only question with Beltre is his lack of consistency. If he continues to play the way he did in earning his new contract, Ichiro Suzuki could join Jeff Bagwell and Ted Williams as the only men to score 150-plus runs since 1936. The addition of Richie Sexson, another newcomer from the NL, also helps Seattle.

4) Randy Johnson, Yankees: The five-time Cy Young winner throws the first pitch of the major league season on Sunday night at Yankee Stadium, facing the Red Sox. Talk about instant gratification. Given his age and the move to the AL, the 41-year-old Johnson isn't as sure of a bet for success as most Yankee fans think. Look for his ERA to jump a full run from last year's 2.60 and perhaps to be even higher than what Vazquez will do with Arizona. The Yankees got him for October, overlooking his career 7-8 record in the postseason.

5) Steve Finley, Angels: At age 40 he's been an All-Star only twice in 16 seasons, but he seems the perfect addition for a very good Anaheim team. He still plays a quality center field, which allows Garret Anderson to move back to left field. Finley probably won't match the 36 homers he hit between Arizona and Los Angeles last year but could drive in 100 runs hitting behind Vladimir Guerrero and Anderson.

6) Mark Mulder, Cardinals: With Chris Carpenter sidelined last October, the Cardinals didn't have an ace to match up with Curt Schilling in the World Series. With Mulder coming from Oakland in a trade and Carpenter healthy, they now have two. Mulder, who worked alongside Hudson and Barry Zito in Oakland, brings questions about his durability but, like Hudson, figures to benefit greatly from changing leagues. An all-around athlete, he'll enjoy getting more of a chance to hit, although the thought of his risking injury on the bases is scary.

7) Carlos Delgado, Marlins: Often overlooked in Toronto, few hitters pile up numbers like this guy. He won't be as good defensively as was Derrek Lee during Florida's 2003 run but he provides thunder in a lineup that has major talents in Miguel Cabrera, Mike Lowell, Paul Lo Duca, Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo. The only question is whether he'll be frustrated by the move to the Marlins' pitcher-friendly stadium.

8) Carl Pavano, Yankees: Electrifying a year ago, he did his best work in the 2003 playoffs out of the bullpen. He began his career with the Red Sox organization, which adds additional spice to a rivalry that needs none, but would he have been better off signing in Detroit, where he would have been the Opening Day starter and where a 15-win season would have been fine.

9) Pedro Martinez, Mets: His run from 1997 through 2003 was as great as any pitcher ever, with his consistent domination when he wasn't on the disabled list. But the Red Sox were alarmed when his ERA jumped to 3.90 last season and didn't mind when he turned them down to sign with the Mets. His velocity has become an issue, giving him the look of a spent fighter on some days, but a move to the NL and a fresh start in New York should energize him. The Mets will probably regret giving him a four-year deal but along with Carlos Beltran and David Wright he could make them contenders the next two seasons.

10) Sammy Sosa, Orioles: The Cubs basically made Peter Angelos an offer he couldn't refuse, but Sosa must come out hitting to interest Baltimore in giving him a contract beyond 2005. Sosa is certainly trying to be on his best behavior, saying after his first workout that Lee Mazzilli is the best manager he's ever played for. He's in a good situation, hitting alongside Rafael Palmeiro and Tejada for a team with little hope, but scouts question whether his body will hold up.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.