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Little guys fighting back

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One thing has been evident this spring: The chasm between the big teams and the lesser teams is not as great as it's been the past few seasons. The very good teams aren't as good and the middle class is a growing group.

  • Take the Braves, who have won eight division titles in nine years. They have serious doubts about their fourth and fifth starters; if the season were to open today, Luis Rivera -- who did not win a game in Myrtle Beach last season (he was hurt, and proceeded to have a monster winter in Mexico) -- would be their fifth starter. Rafael Furcal, the waterbug middle infielder, will make the Opening Day roster and be brought along slowly behind Walt Weiss and Quilvio Veras. After all, Weiss and Veras have histories of breaking down and Weiss is a far better hitter right-handed, Furcal left-handed.

  • Take the Yankees. They may open the season with Todd Erdos and Darrell Einertson in their bullpen, Clay Bellinger and Wilson Delgado as their backup infielders and Jon Zuber coming off the bench as a left-handed bat.

    One NL general manager suggests that every team in that league except the Brewers and Marlins hopes it can be .500 or better, which means the days of the Braves and Mets running over hapless clubs are past. The result? It could be that 95-96 wins will mean a lot more in 2000 than it did in 1999, when the Reds won 96 and didn't make the playoffs.

    There are fewer potential 82-win teams in the American League, but even the Angels, with a potentially thunderous offense, believe they can finish .500 if their bullpen holds up and they get quality seasons out of Ken Hill and Kent Bottenfield.

    The Indians have huge concerns about many elements of their bullpen: Paul Shuey as closer, anyone left-handed and Steve Reed getting anyone but right-handers out. Boston has major concerns about the 3-4 spots in the rotation, their long relief and production from first base and designated hitter. So why wouldn't Toronto -- with a terrific positional team built for the turf, perhaps one of the two best closers in the league and three great young arms following David Wells in the rotation -- think it has a chance to oust the Red Sox or Yankees? The Blue Jays do.

    Oakland might be the team to beat in the AL West, but it has bullpen questions and a DH defense.

    In the NL West, Arizona is clearly the favorite, perhaps even to win the pennant, but must wait to see if Tony Womack can play short (or do they go get Mike Bordick on July 31?) and whether or not Todd Stottlemyre's arm holds up when he passes the 150 inning-mark, a must considering Omar Daal and Brian Anderson go 3-4. Also, the D-Backs will miss clubhouse leader Matt Williams, who is expected to be out six weeks to recover from the broken bone he suffered when he fouled a pitch off his foot Tuesday. Everyone knows how good the lineups in Cincinnati, St. Louis and Houston are going to be and the starting pitching in Pittsburgh is top-notch, but the former three have big rotation questions, while the Pirates' right-handed bullpen and power are question marks.

    But that might all make the season a lot better. Baseball needs a St. Louis Rams-Tennessee Titans World Series.

    Indians looking for a closer?
    There is a new John Rocker rumor every day, which sets the media off far more hysterically than if the Braves traded Greg Maddux or Chipper Jones. The Montreal rumor involving Ugueth Urbina was stabbed by Felipe Alou, who, while adding that it could happen if the Braves were to throw in a lot of other players, made it clear that he doesn't want Rocker.

    Then came the Cleveland rumor (Shuey, Jaret Wright, two minor leaguers for Rocker and Bruce Chen), which John Hart doesn't seem inclined to pursue. But take Montreal and Cleveland and there is smoke. One Cleveland official has been calling around soliciting opinions on this deal: Manny Ramirez and Shuey to the Expos for Rondell White, Urbina and Miguel Batista. Now, that makes sense.

    The Indians are going to lose Ramirez at the end of the season, they think Richie Sexson can hit 40-50 homers this season and that Russell Branyan can do the same next year. They'd hit Sexson, Jim Thome, White, David Justice, Travis Fryman and Sandy Alomar from 4 to 9. Urbina is one of the premier closers in the game, and teammates think the bigger the crowds, the better he'll pitch, while Batista is a good setup man.

    The Expos would get a star player to put in behind Vladimir Guerrero and try to sell tickets. Shuey has not had a good spring and it is clear that the Indians think more of Steve Karsay than Shuey. While trying to market the club, the Expos would also save $4 million in the deal.

    However, those savings may be what scares Cleveland, because the Indians would be adding $4 million in payroll. "It's not a problem," says another GM. "If they get the right pitching, they'll take on $4 millian."

    The Indians talked Wright for Sterling Hitchcock, but that would be a big salary take.

    News and notes
    The dreadful spring of the Baltimore Orioles worsens. Jason Johnson was such a flop that he may start the season at Rochester, with Jose Mercedes and Calvin Maduro in the rotation. Johnson was supposed to be their third starter after Scott Erickson got hurt. ... Look for Colorado to sign Brian Hunter, released by the Mariners, and deal OF Edgard Clemente to the Angels for a minor leaguer, likely C Jason Dewey. ... One of the financial flops of the spring has been Boston's Korean left-hander, Sang Lee. Dan Duquette, who signed Lee for $3.4 million for two years, has had to option him out and is thinking about signing the released Billy Taylor. ... Two surprises involving former Angels prospects: Anaheim might release slugging C Todd Greene, while the White Sox are shopping CF McKay Christensen, a former No. 1 of the Angels. ... The Padres sent Rodney Myers out for one outing and learned he has a torn labrum. So Cubs GM Ed Lynch either has to forfeit the deal, or send San Diego a new pitcher.

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