By Eric Neel
Page 2

We're pretty easily distracted. This is why three-card monte works, again and again. This is why lawmakers are able to attach porky legislative amendments to bills at will. And this is why, when a certain San Francisco left fielder squeezes into a halter top and dons a brassy wig, we confuse the show for the story.

Unless he's handling his business in the field, and is good for somewhere north of 400 at-bats (both of which seem exceedingly unlikely), the fate of the 2006 Giants doesn't really hinge on Barry Bonds. The season has a whole lot more to do with whether Matt Cain (2-1 with a 2.33 ERA in seven starts down the stretch in 2005) and Noah Lowry (8-4 with a 2.43 ERA after the All-Star break) can keep bringing it, and whether Ray Durham (.435 career slugging) has any business hitting third in the San Francisco batting order.

And it's not just the Giants. The same kind of thing is happening all around the league; the show distracts us from the story…

Round-the-clock updates on Pedro and his special new shoe are gripping, no doubt; not since the "phalanxious" days of Eric Dickerson-vs-the-Hoosier-Dome-turf have we been so enthralled. But the Mets' world revolves around David Wright now. If he avoids a sophomore slump, we're likely talking about the best third baseman in baseball not named Alex.

David Wright
AP Photo/Rick Silva
Is this the year David Wright becomes a superstar? (AP Photo/Rick Silva)

At 23, Wright posted a glowing .912 OPS and 28 Win Shares in 2005, and he was better in every major offensive category after the All-Star break. This year, Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projection sees still happier returns in the offing, figuring him for roughly 40 doubles, 30 home runs, nearly 20 stolen bases and a VORP (value over replacement player) score of 59.9 (fifth-best in the game).

The questions are these: Will he hold up under the weight of high expectations, on both him and the club? The NL East is New York's to win, so there ain't no flying beneath the radar this year (witness the most recent ESPN The Magazine cover). And, just as importantly, will Mets manager Willie Randolph give him the chance to carry the weight?

Willie's talked about not wanting to rush Wright (he hit him down in the order last year, even when it was clear the kid could mash), and he's toying with his batting order plans this spring like a repentant grandma working her rosary. This shouldn't be complicated: Wright should hit second or third, not fifth or sixth. If he doesn't, the Mets are selling him short and shooting themselves in the foot.

Lost in the Anna hubbub and the Tejada pouting is the heart of the Baltimore matter: The Mazzone Effect.

The Orioles had a 4.56 club ERA in 2005, 23rd in the bigs. But there is talent there. In addition to Kris Benson, there's Daniel Cabrera, who struck out 157 batters in 161 innings, and Bruce Chen (3.83 ERA) and Rodrigo Lopez (15 wins), who each showed flashes.

In a terrific bit of analysis done last spring, J.C. Bradbury found pitchers working under Mazzone historically lower their ERA by about 0.63 points.

Some say it's the off-day throwing rituals, some say it's the uniquely no-nonsense relationship he builds with his guys. I say it's the super-mojo magnetic pull generated by the dugout rocking; it draws balls down in the zone, like the moon working on the tides. But whatever it is, if it continues, the Orioles' staff might just be good enough to make Miggy shut his yap.

It would be great to have Roger back. It would be nice to resolve the Bagwell situation quickly and fairly. It would help to know whether Morgan Ensberg's '05 was an anomaly or the start of a beautiful trend.

But there is only one real issue, only one true question, in Astroland right now: How's Lidgey's head?

The early indications are good. Read Jayson Stark's terrific piece on him earlier this week and you see a stand-up guy ready to move past memories of Pujols and Podsednik. And his career numbers (2.71 ERA and a ridiculous 12.82 K/9) and wicked stuff suggest the Astros and their faithful have nothing to worry about.

But it's not as simple as wanting to move ahead, and it's not as simple as having succeeded in the past, either. There's a pitched (no pun intended) battle now, in Lidge's mind, in the mind of every hitter who faces him, between the preponderance of evidence that suggests he's unhittable and the high-profile isolated incidents that say otherwise. Has he lost his mystique? Can he get it back? Is he more vulnerable now, regardless of how he deals or what he brings, simply because guys, for the first time, think he's more vulnerable?

You hear a lot of talk about the health, or lack thereof, of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior.

But they aren't the big story in Chicago. The big story in Chicago is non-roster invitee Marquis Grissom. Why, you say? What could a 39-year-old outfielder who played in just 44 games last season in San Francisco possibly bring to the mix?

Just this: If he makes the club, and if, say, the young Matt Murton struggles early in the season, or strains a hammy or some such sadness, the Cubs could play Marquis alongside Juan Pierre and Jacque Jones giving them what I believe to be the major leagues' first-ever All Faux French Outfield, which would, you know, be pretty funny.

We're all caught up in the Sox losing Johnny, and Johnny losing his mane, and the Yankees getting their longed-for center fielder. But let's not forget maybe the most intriguing element of the whole shake-up: Coco's a steal.

He's younger (26 vs. 32), cheaper (2.75 mil vs. 13), better defensively (check out David Pinto's probabilistic model of range numbers at, roughly equivalent offensively right now (.810 OPS vs. .805 OPS), and, unlike Damon, he's making a move from a pitchers' park to a favorable hitters' park.

There's a chance Damon will have the better year. But I'd call it a push, at best, taking into account Damon's recent downward trend offensively (dips in slugging, walks, home runs and RBI) and Crisp's steady climb in hits, doubles, home runs and OPS the last three years.

And beyond '06, while George is cutting fat check after fat check for an outdated Damon, my guess is the résumé of Coco Crisp and the legend of Theo Epstein will grow step-for-step.

Cards camp is pretty quiet. You get that when you're the prohibitive favorites -- when you have the defending NL Cy Young award winner, and the NL MVP, who, after a healthy Bonds, is the most terrifying offensive threat in the game. It's a confidence thing. No drama, just high expectations and a very reasonable feeling, both inside and out of St. Louis, that they'll be met.

Rick Ankiel
AP Photo/James A. Finley
Wouldn't it be something if Rick Ankiel made it, and not as a pitcher? (AP Photo/James A. Finley)

But beneath the surface there's some great theater brewing with St. Louis, as Rick Ankiel makes a bid to make the everyday roster as an outfielder. He's hurt right now (out two weeks with a tweaked patella tendon), but the buzz is he looked good in drills at the start of camp, and he showed some pop in the minors last year.

Think about this now. This would be amazing. The guy was a puddle, he was a slow-motion car crash, he was a weird Blassian tale told in hushed tones over stiff drinks. And now? Now he could rise like some crazy left-fielding phoenix, utterly transformed.

If he makes the club, if he replaces the memory of the wild-pitch meltdowns of days gone by with some graceful catches or timely hits for the big club, we'll be talking about a great story, about a story that trumps every other story this season, really … including the story of a Cardinals win in the Series.

Smoltz cedes the Opening Day slot to Huddy. That's nice. Renteria comes over from Boston looking for redemption. That's intriguing. Francoeur promises to continue his base-on-balls strike well into the new season. That's amusing.

But, um, somebody should really tell these guys, that, um, they still don't have a closer and, um, the season begins in, like, four weeks.

Steinbrenner stomps his feet about the World Baseball Classic and puffs his chest out about how the Yanks are going to win the World Series, and these are the headlines.

But shouldn't the headline instead be something like: THE YANKEES ROTATION? WHO THE %#!* KNOWS?!

Carl Pavano has pitched more than 201 innings exactly one time in his career (2004).

Randy Johnson is 42 years old and coming off his worst full-season strikeout total (211) since 1990.

Jaret Wright still does not have Leo Mazzone to call upon.

Mike Mussina is a stalwart, but he's a league-average (4.41 ERA) stalwart now.

Shawn Chacon is due for a monster regression to the mean.

And we're still wait-and-see on Chien-Ming Wang.

Pitching wins championships, George. Pitching wins championships. Check the game log on the White Sox run. Note that four-for-four march to the sea in the ALCS. Is this crew capable of something like that? Is this crew going to be intact come October?

We've discussed Piazza's homecoming, Bonds' "coming out," and Nomar's coming back from the dead until we're blue in the face. But have we touched upon the essential question? Have we asked ourselves whether anyone in this division is good enough to climb above .500 this year? Let's consider the true contenders …

The Giants added Matt Morris, and have Armando Benitez and (they hope) Bonds coming back from injury. But Morris gave up a bunch of home runs and lost speed on his fastball last year, Benitez looked very rough in his late-season return, and Bonds, fantastic as he is, is no lock to play a full season.

The Dodgers added a manager the Red Sox ran out of town on a rail, a shortstop the Red Sox ran out of town on a rail, a former Red Sox third baseman whose best days are probably behind him, and Rafael Furcal. Furcal better be real good. And Eric Gagne and J.D. Drew better be real healthy.

The Padres signed Vinny Castilla, apparently thinking they play in Denver, in 1998. And they signed Mike Piazza, somehow believing his knees are up for another season behind the plate. Ugh. But the pitching's pretty decent (Peavy's great; Hoffman's still a stud; Young's a nice pickup), and I like the Mike Cameron acquisition for center field roaming purposes and such.

Looks to me like the over/under on wins by the division winner has still got to be around 85.

I'm taking the over, but only because I'm a wide-eyed crazy dreamer.

Toronto was busy last winter. Very busy. We love this. We love teams looking to get better and giving us something to talk about in the offseason in the process. And so it is that you hear now a certain steady low-level buzz about the Jays maybe challenging the Yanks and Red Sox for the AL East crown.

B.J. Ryan
AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy
B.J. Ryan has high expectations to live up to in Toronto. (AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy)

But as John Wooden likes to say, "Don't mistake activity for achievement." The question, beneath the buzz, is this: Did they get that much better? Are they contenders?

Too early to know, of course, but here are a few chestnuts to consider:

Troy Glaus is a major upgrade offensively if he comes close to what he did last year (and Bill James, among others, thinks he can, projecting him for 33 home runs and an .872 OPS), but a significant problem defensively (sporting the major's worst 3B fielding percentage at .946 and costing the team Gold Glove second baseman Orlando Hudson in the trade), especially for a Jays staff full of ground-ball pitchers.

B.J. Ryan, the $47 million closer, looked spectacular at times last season, slinging in from the left like a jai alai player, and he struck out a vicious 12.8 per 9 innings over the course of the season. He's real good. But this is the first time he's going to be The Man in a situation where it really matters, with a team gunning for the title, and with the number $47 million trailing him to the hill each and every night. So he ain't a lock just yet.

And ditto A.J. Burnett, who's got a big price tag, some shaky numbers (never had a winning record and only twice pitched as many as 200 innings), and a late-season meltdown last year in Florida (when the team sent him home with six days left in the season because he pretty much trashed his manager, the organization and his teammates in the press) trailing him to SkyDome.

Are they better? Sure they are. And more interesting, too. Are they contenders?

See, now that's the question.

Eric Neel is a columnist for Page 2.