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'Baseball heaven' awaits Edmonds
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
Mark McGwire knew what he was going to tell Jim Edmonds 20 hours before Edmonds was due to arrive in the Cardinals' clubhouse. "You're from California, I'm from California," McGwire began. "Now, you're going to find out what baseball really is, what it should be. Now you're playing in the best baseball town in America, and you're going to love the experience."McGwire knows how good Edmonds can be. The A's offered Big Mac to the Angels for Edmonds before trading him to the Cardinals in 1997 -- and were turned down, a symbolic definition for the Orange County franchise. McGwire, like most Cardinals players, understands that after their outfield finished 14th in homers, 15th in RBI and last in slugging among National League outfields in 1999, the team needed one more bat in that outfield. "Wait and see how he plays with our crowds," says McGwire.
Initially, Stoneman wanted prospects, including pitcher Chad Hutchinson. Jocketty said he could not do a prospect deal. Then Stoneman proposed a deal he'd rejected in December -- Kent Bottenfield and rookie infielder Adam Kennedy. Considering that Bottenfield and Edmonds are awash in $4 million salaries, each is a free agent at the end of this season and Kennedy not only was going to begin the season at Triple-A Memphis but didn't have a defined defensive position, Jocketty didn't think twice about the offer and made the deal.An additional factor is that RHP Garrett Stephenson hasn't been scored upon all spring and has earned a chance to start behind the three veterans and phenom lefty Rick Ankiel. More important, Matt Morris, the Kevin Brown clone considered the Cards' best pitcher if he's healthy, is throwing so well (in a two-inning simulated game Thursday, 10 percent of his pitches broke bats -- 30 pitches, three broken bats) that he could open the season in the rotation, but won't be allowed to join the club until June 1 because the Cardinals don't want to mess with what could be a superstar career.
On the one hand, Bottenfield is a very popular person in the clubhouse and among people around the team, but the cold facts are that Edmonds makes the Cardinals a much better team than Bottenfield does.Granted, Edmonds was considered an enigmatic figure in Anaheim, where he somehow got blamed for everything that went wrong with that star-crossed franchise. Maybe at times he did coast. Maybe at times he played to the cameras. But when he got hurt, he got hurt playing hard. In some ways, he's a victim of what Ken Brett once called "the curse of unlimited potential." Edmonds is this generation's Fred Lynn. "He's that good?" Tony La Russa asked Jim Leyland and a media person Friday morning. "That good," replied Leyland. In the four years before 1999, Edmonds hit .300 and averaged 27 homers, figures that he can exceed if, as expected, he bats in front of McGwire.
He can run. He is a magical center fielder with the best first step of any center fielder with the exception of Andruw Jones and Junior Griffey. At the GM meetings last November, an informal poll named him the player expected to have the best free agent year.Look at the way the Cardinals' lineup has been transformed from the end of last year. Vina is close to a .400 on-base leadoff man, something they've lacked for years, while Edmonds is La Russa's prototypical No. 2 hitter.
"I love extra-base power in that spot," says La Russa. "Handling the bat is all fine and good, but I love a guy that can drive the fastball through the alleys and score people from first base. I don't know yet how I'll set this thing, but it could be I'll hit Edmonds two."
Following Edmonds will be McGwire, then Ray Lankford, who is healthy after limping around for a season following knee surgery. Batting behind Lankford will be Fernando Tatis, who hit 34 homers last year. Either J.D. Drew or Eric Davis will be next in right field. Former All-Star Edgar Renteria will hit in the No. 7 hole. Catcher is still a question, but Jocketty is working on closing a deal for either Tampa Bay's defensive whiz Mike DiFelice or San Diego's Carlos Hernandez, although the money for Hernandez, who is signed through 2001 at $3.25 million per, makes that doubtful.Kile, meanwhile, has thrown great this spring. "We thought that getting him out of Colorado with the thin air and into the humidity of St. Louis would really help bring his curveball back," says Jocketty. And it has, although to his credit Kile has never blamed Coors Field for his two-year struggle in Colorado.
Hentgen struggled early in spring training, and when pitching coach Dave Duncan went back and checked old video, he found that Hentgen had altered his delivery to compensate for shoulder surgery.
"But I had a good second half," Hentgen protested. "It's because you got used to pitching in that slot, and you're so tough you didn't know it," said Duncan.
It's going to take three or four more outings to get where he needs to be, but Hentgen is on his way to a 200-inning comeback season."A couple of years ago," says Jocketty, "they were calling our division 'Comedy Central.' No more."
The focus around the division has been on the stars -- McGwire, Griffey, Sammy Sosa and Jeff Bagwell. But even if owners and TV people don't understand it, baseball isn't about stars. "It's about team and winning," says McGwire, who fortunately has never been comfortable as the center of attention for hitting a solo home run in an 11-2 defeat and assures, "I never will be."What's important is that this could be a very good four-team race. "You start with Houston because they've earned the respect of being favorites," says McGwire, "by the way they play and the way they win."
With the three-man rotation of Richard Hidalgo, Daryle Ward and Roger Cedeno in center and left and the return of the fiery Moises Alou, the biggest question around the Astros is the rotation. But if Scott Elarton comes back, as expected, and either Chris Holt or Octavio Dotel emerges, they'll be OK. There have been whispers about Billy Wagner's elbow, but he and Larry Dierker aren't worried, and he has thrown lights-out this week.The Reds are obviously a dynamite offensive team that will get jump-started on Opening Day, when Junior comes home to Cincinnati and hits two homers. "We know we have questions about our pitching," says GM Jim Bowden, always on the lookout for established starters. "But we may have some guys who are better than some people realize."
After Pete Harnisch, who has had a good spring, and Denny Neagle, the Reds think Steve Parris and the competitive Ron Villone are underappreciated. It appears as if Osvaldo Fernandez will win the fifth spot unless it goes to spring surprise Hector Mercado -- a 25-year-old lefty signed as a minor-league free agent after throwing six innings in two years because of arm problems -- with Scott Winchester and Rob Bell behind the Triple-A curtain. The Reds can also go three deep from each side in the bullpen.Internally the Reds think they could have two huge surprises to help their outfield corner defense and pitching. The first is Deion Sanders. When Dante Bichette got hurt, he learned to stay back and became a different hitter. The same has been true of Sanders this spring. As he recovers from knee problems, he hasn't turned on the jets yet, but he is staying back and driving the ball harder and farther than ever before. Sanders could be up and back in mid-April, and 4-6 weeks after that, some feel we'll see the return of Mark Wohlers, who is throwing very hard again after last summer's Tommy John surgery.
"He hasn't had problems throwing strikes once all spring," says Bowden of Wohlers. "We think the problem was that he was hurt physically, and that's all."Then comes Pittsburgh. "They really scare me," says La Russa, echoing the words of Bagwell and Craig Biggio and paralleling those of Bowden, who says, "the Pirates are for real."
The players' consensus Cy Young pick is Kris Benson, who leads what could be the best starting pitching staff in the National League.
The Pirates' two biggest concerns, however, are their right-handed relief corps (unless Jose Silva takes off) and their lack of power in their batting order. "They could sneak in if no one wins much more than 90 games," says one baseball executive. "But 90 could be their ceiling. What Gene Lamont has done to build that team in three years is remarkable. He shouldn't be on the hot seat, he should be in the Pittsburgh Hall of Fame."In the National League, there probably isn't a 100-win team. One reason is that every team, including the Braves (starting pitching and the cloud of John Rocker) and the Mets (declining lineup, pitching depth), has questions. Just as important, there are fewer bad teams to beat up on. Montreal is much better. The Cubs can be better. Even Florida is improved because it's got outstanding, albeit very young, pitching. Really, the only team that may spend most of the year in hibernation is Milwaukee, which has been cursed by some bizarre plague of bad luck. One of the bigger questions now is, can the Cardinals get to the World Series? In a word, yes.
Now, in order to reach the Fall Classic, either Veres has to step forward -- and Padres GM Kevin Towers believes "it's hard to get to that third postseason series without a Trevor Hoffman or Robb Nen -- or eventually Jocketty will have to make a deal for a power reliever like Roberto Hernandez.If they'll need to do that, however, remains to be seen. What's going to be fun is to be in the best baseball town in America and see all those people dressed in red feeding off McGwire and a team with five positional All-Stars and a deep pitching staff that gets its No. 1 starter back in June.
"Jim Edmonds," says McGwire, "is entering baseball heaven."
Vlad on the cusp of greatness
Remember, this is a player -- who in the first week he was called up to Double-A Harrisburg, back in '96 -- was thrown a pitch by then-Trenton reliever Shayne Bennett that bounced on the plate.
Guerrero hit it over the center-field fence.It's not easy for Guerrero to self-promote, because he doesn't yet speak good English. But Expos manager Felipe Alou, as you would expect, thinks highly of Guerrero. "He's special, very special. I hear about the home runs and extra-base hits and RBIs, but what I'm talking about is his energy. I've never seen anyone ever have so much energy, nine innings a game, 162 games a year. The one thing I worry about is injury, because he plays with such passion, such reckless abandon. But he's learning to take it a bit easy. What a piece of machinery he is." Alou then talks about how he sees parts of his contemporary stars in Guerrero. "When I see the energy, I'm talking about Willie Mays. And then playing the outfield, you're talking Roberto Clemente. You're talking about being tough at the plate, you're talking Frank Robinson. And then using the top hand to hit and drive balls, you're talking Hank Aaron."
News, notes and rumors
This has been a spring of bad fortune for the Padres, except for the .600 average of John Roskos. All three pitchers they acquired for Andy Ashby -- reliever Steve Montgomery, prospect Adam Eaton and starter Carlton Loewer -- are temporarily sidelined.
Then there's the Al Martin situation. "He's been great, and there's a lot more here than we know right now," says Towers. But the fact remains that a third woman has popped up in Kansas, claiming that she is suing Martin for non-support for two illegitimate children he fathered. So Martin, always considered one the game's best teammates, has court dates on April 3 for the non-support and April 12 for the assault and potential bigamy charges. All of which begs two major questions: Will this cause the Padres to void Martin's contract, and will Bud Selig act?
Selig has established a precedent by suspending John Rocker for comments made in December in an automobile in Atlanta. So what does he do about players charged with domestic abuse and other anti-societal acts? This could turn into a mess.
"The first time I played one-on-one with him," says Sexson, "I knew my future was in baseball."
Around the majors
Don't be surprised if Bagwell forces the issue and tries to go back home to Boston.
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