Hall of Fame Rumblings
This is only one media guy's opinion, but maybe it's time to change the whole philosophy behind the Hall of Fame's Veterans Committee.
It's just about clear now that this group, as currently constituted, is never going to elect ANY player who couldn't make it after 15 years on the writers' ballot. So why even bother to have the Veterans consider those kinds of players?
What we would like to see the Veterans Committee do is honor players who have made a contribution to baseball on multiple levels. Think about it.
Joe Torre and Ron Santo were great players who haven't been able to get elected based on their careers alone. But Torre's joint contribution, as a player AND manager, makes him a deserving Hall of Famer. As does Santo's contribution as a player AND broadcaster.
You can make similar cases for Gil Hodges (player-manager), Jim Kaat (player-broadcaster) and Curt Flood (player-pioneer) -- all of whom were on this year's Veterans ballot. And you can make that case for men who weren't on the ballot -- such as Lou Piniella, Dusty Baker and Tim McCarver.
Baseball is a sport with many levels. So why shouldn't the Hall of Fame be flexible enough to expand its definition of who deserves a plaque? And don't even get us started on the absence of a scouts' wing of the Hall. If it weren't for scouts, how did all those players get there, anyway?
Those Ugueth Urbina-to-the-Mets trade rumors continue to percolate. But don't bet your favorite copy of the Jesse Orosco Story on it. For one thing, clubs that have talked with the Mets say their preference is to trade for a left-handed reliever. Second, that Urbina deal only works for the Tigers if Mike Cameron is involved -- which appears highly dubious. Third, one scout says Urbina's early spring velocity had dipped to 84 mph and below -- which would scare off the Mets (or anyone else). But the Tigers say he was 87 to 90. So someone needs to change batteries in his gun.
The Astros continue to plug away in their search for a veteran center fielder. And GM Tim Purpura says he would prefer to make some kind of deal "sooner, rather than later."
For the moment, Houston and Detroit are the only teams shopping in the center-fielder mall. So the Astros would prefer to strike before injuries or lousy springs complicate the market.
But the uncertainty over Cameron's health (not to mention whether he is even still on the market) has delayed any serious discussion of that much-rumbled three-way deal with Pittsburgh and Oakland involving Cameron, Eric Byrnes and Chris Burke. And the other suspects on Houston's list (Byrnes, Endy Chavez, Lew Ford, Marlon Byrd) don't represent quite as perfect a fit.
The Byrnes-to-Pittsburgh talk also is stuck in limbo. But one scout who has been watching the Pirates says: "Eric Byrnes is NOT what they need. They desperately need a run-producing outfielder. They have to trade a left-handed reliever for a guy who can knock in a run or two."
But of course, the Pirates want to take on virtually no money. So they don't even match up with the Mets on someone like Cliff Floyd.
Still Rumbling And Grumbling
One fun game we've been playing this spring is asking GMs, managers and coaches to compare the Yankees lineup to the Red Sox lineup, position by position. The Yankees have the bigger names. But after a half-dozen surveys, we've only had one panelist rate the Yankees as good as even (4-4, with one spot even). Everyone else has given the Red Sox the edge at between five and seven positions. The only Yankees to win in every poll: A-Rod (over Bill Mueller) at third and Gary Sheffield (over Trot Nixon) in right.
A week into spring training, it appears that no team in baseball has taken a bigger offseason tumble than the Astros.
Four and a half months ago, they were 11 outs from heading for the World Series. Now, one scout who has been watching them says: "That's a team in trouble." And an executive of another club says: "They've got big problems. They're really fragile, and they have major issues" everywhere but at the top of their rotation.
The Astros know they need to trade for an outfield bat this spring -- "but that's a bad position to be in," said one GM, "when you HAVE to make a deal in spring training."
Houston also was hoping to deal Tim Redding for bullpen help or a fifth starter. But Redding hasn't looked real tradeable so far (7 hits, 5 runs, 0 strikeouts in his first 4 2/3 spring innings).
"They should have traded him last spring, but they thought they still had something there," the scout said. "Now, his velocity is down 5 mph, and I can't see anyone trading anything significant for him."
Speaking of the Astros, here's a spring project that ought to scare a few hundred National League hitters: Brad Lidge is trying to resurrect the circle changeup he used to throw as a starter in the minor leagues.
"I just want to add another element, so guys can't just look for fast stuff," Lidge said. "There were times last year when guys were speeding up their bats because everything was essentially the same speed. So I felt like, if I had a pitch that was 10 mph slower than my slider, I could slow up those bats."
If Lidge gets any more unhittable -- after a season in which he punched out 157 hitters in only 94 2/3 innings -- there wouldn't even be a point in having hitters take a bat to home plate. But if Lidge can't prove this spring he can throw the change with conviction, the Astros would prefer he put this project in storage -- at least for the time being.
The Astros' big concern about Andy Pettitte is whether he is mentally ready to fully extend his elbow, after an operation that repaired a tendon that was 40 percent torn. So the plan is to have Pettitte make his early spring starts in "B" games and minor-league games, with as few witnesses as possible.
But one scout who watched Pettitte throw a simulated game recently said: "I thought his arm action looked fine. The Yankees used to do the same thing with him -- send him out to those back fields for the first couple of starts. He'd throw 81-82 back there. Then, as soon as they'd get him in the main stadium, he'd be right back where he needed to be."
Another team that has looked overrated early, according to scouts following them, is the Reds.
"I don't see how they can possibly have enough pitching," one scout said. "I don't like the relievers they've brought in. And I don't like their starters a lot better. [Eric] Milton and [Ramon] Ortiz are home-run machines, pitching in a bad park to be a home-run machine. And Paul Wilson is a five-inning guy. With a really deep bullpen, that rotation might work. But I don't see it."
One of the big questions about the Twins was supposed to be the left side of their infield. But so far, rookie shortstop Jason Bartlett has played great. And Michael Cuddyer has been so shockingly good at third base, one scout said: "He's looked like Brooks Robinson so far."
With C.C. Sabathia hurting and Kevin Millwood off to a shaky start this spring, the Indians' best news so far is that Bob Wickman appears to be back to pre-Tommy John form: "He's been 90-92 [mph] on his fastball, with a real good slider," one scout said. "If they could put him in a glass vase right now and open the season with him throwing like that, they'll be fine."
It's been very fashionable to dump on Victor Zambrano, the guy the Mets traded much-ballyhooed Scott Kazmir for last July. But Zambrano's former manager, Lou Piniella, still casually refers to Zambrano as "our best pitcher" last year.
Obviously, being the Devil Rays' best pitcher isn't quite the same thing as being the Yankees' best pitcher. But Piniella says of Zambrano: "He can beat the good teams and he can beat the bad teams. The only thing that can hold him back is him."
Giants assistant GM Ned Colletti on new catcher Mike Matheny: "This guy might be the most impressive first-impression guy I've ever met in my life. We talked for an hour in my office one day, and he never even talked about grabbing a bat. It was all about pitching."
The first thing Matheny did this winter, after signing with the Giants, was ask for tapes of every pitcher on the staff. So by the time he'd arrived in spring training, he had a feel for more than a dozen pitchers he'd never caught.
"Mike Matheny," Colletti said, flatly, "will have a tremendous impact on our club."
Troy Percival on finding himself wearing a Tigers uniform in Lakeland, Fla. -- after 10 seasons as an Angel: "Basically, I didn't know one person in here, so it's like starting over. But as long as the mound in Detroit is still 60 feet, 6 inches, I think I'll be OK."
Here's a darkhorse pick for National League MVP: Jim Thome. If he could hit 42 homers and drive in 105 runs with three broken fingers in one hand, it's scary to think what he might do in a home-run-heaven kind of ballpark if he's healthy all year.
But not only is Thome healthy this spring, there's a serenity to him now, in his third season in Philadelphia, that wasn't present before. Part of it is having longtime friend and guru Charlie Manuel around. But part of it stems from a winter spent reflecting a lot on life after the death of his mother.
"One thing I think I've learned is: Don't have regrets," Thome said. "When you're with your wife, when you're with your kids, when you're with your dad, don't have regrets. You don't ever want to be looking back some day, saying: 'I wish I would have ...' "
Baseball's next great eighth-inning setup monster might just be the Dodgers' quasi-anonymous Yhency Brazoban. With Eric Gagne out for at least another week, the Dodgers have been running Brazoban out there in the ninth inning this spring. And let's just say manager Jim Tracy has enjoyed the view.
"With his fastball and his slider, it's a little too early in the spring for hitters to be dialing up on that," Tracy said. "And he handled himself extremely well."
As recently as last spring, after the Dodgers picked him up from the Yankees as an extra arm in the Kevin Brown-Jeff Weaver deal, Brazoban "wasn't even on our radar screen," Tracy said. But once the Dodgers traded away Guillermo Mota at the trading deadline, Brazoban just about saved their season.
"We would have liked to ease him in," Tracy said. "But we didn't have that luxury. So we had to speed the process up, and oh my gracious ... He pretty much became Mota for us by about the middle to latter part of August."
Can Raul Mondesi really help the Braves? Tigers coach Juan Samuel managed Mondesi this winter in the Dominican and says: "I think he realizes he's running out of time, running out of chances. And I think he's saying, 'Wait a minute, man. It's time to wake up.' He still runs well. He's very aggressive. And he enjoys the game, from what I've seen. I think he's ready to step it up, because he knows he's running out of time if he doesn't."
The unspoken story behind Oakland's trade of Tim Hudson was health -- not just money. But the Braves were so concerned about Hudson's history of oblique strains, they handed him a four-year, $47-million extension before he'd pitched a single inning as a Brave.
So why weren't they more worried? Because of their amazing track record for keeping pitchers healthy.
From Day One of Camp Leo last month, pitching coach Leo Mazzone has been working with Hudson to make his delivery a little less violent.
"Any type of injury, whether it's to your arm or your side, is caused by overexertion," Mazzone says. "So we're already saying [to Hudson]: 'Watch your effort.' To stay healthy for a full season, a pitcher has to trust what amount of effort he needs to exert to make a pitch do what he wants it to do. So we've been trying to find that balance."
Meanwhile, one of many things Hudson is looking forward to as a Brave is the chance to face his old pals, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito -- as a HITTER. The Braves host St. Louis in April and the A's in June, and you can tell Hudson has those dates circled on his pocket schedule.
"Yeah, I talked to Mulder," Hudson chuckles. "I told him I was going to turn his stuff around if he comes in there. I told him, 'If we ever face each other, whatever you give me, I'm giving you back. You start breaking out some nasty stuff, I'm going to return the favor. Obviously, if there are men on base, we've got to pitch like we normally do. But if nobody's on? I'm going to be expecting some heaters away. Don't try and bruise my hands up.' ...
"And I told Zito, 'If you throw that weak curve ball in there, I'm gonna whack it. I'll tell you that.' "
Spring Boxscore Lines of the Week
Cleveland's Kevin Millwood, Monday vs. Toronto:
1 IP, 7 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 0 BB, 0 K
"He did throw 86-91 [mph]," one scout said. "But they were all up. And they were all straight."
Houston's Dave Burba vs. Cleveland on Tuesday:
2 2/3 IP, 6 H, 8 R, 3 ER, 3 BB, 2 K
The good news for Minnesota's Boof Bonser on Tuesday was that he gave up just one hit in two innings against the Red Sox and struck out four. The bad news was, he still allowed four runs and took the loss. The weird-looking details:
2 IP, 1 H, 4 R, 2 ER, 3 BB, 4 K
And then there was this eye-popper, from Florida's Josh Beckett, Monday against the Dodgers:
4 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 7 K
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.