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Predictions and other spring flings

Special to

March 30

The season has begun, and another manager is already vexed at Bobby Valentine, even if Valentine did the right thing by checking to see if Jeff Huson was an eligible player in Wednesday's opener against the Cubs. Rickey Henderson has joined Ted Williams as the only players to steal bases in four decades, and since we don't have to worry about Shane Andrews or Benny Agbayani being in the MVP hunts, here are a few predictions, observations and opinions as we turn our backs on Yeehaw Junction and Sun City.

Some of this is my opinion -- but there are a lot of opinions gathered from players, managers, coaches, general managers, scouts and other writers.

Derek Jeter
Derek Jeter hit .349 and scored 134 runs last season.

American League
1. Derek Jeter
2. Robby Alomar
3. Nomar Garciaparra

National League
1. Junior Griffey
2. Vladimir Guerrero
3. Andruw Jones

If this were based on the players' opinions gathered during spring training, it would be Alex Rodriguez and Jeff Bagwell, the latter in a flat walk. The new Houston park prompted Yankees players to predict Bags will hit 80 homers thanks to left field. Rafael Palmeiro, Pedro Martinez (if he is eligible), Carlos Beltran and Raul Mondesi got AL mentions, while Mark McGwire, Robin Ventura, Bobby Abreu and Barry Bonds received support in the NL.

Cy Young Award
American League
1. Pedro Martinez
2. Orlando Hernandez
3. Roger Clemens

National League
1. Kris Benson
2. Greg Maddux
3. Darryl Kile

There wasn't one player vote for any other AL pitcher, although Bartolo Colon, Tim Hudson, Chris Carpenter and Mike Mussina got mention; Mussina's defense and ballpark always hurt him. In the NL, players went with Maddux, with Benson, Kile, Randy Johnson and Kevin Brown also receiving votes.

Rookie of the Year
American League
Ruben Mateo, Rangers

National League
Peter Bergeron, Expos

There is lot more competition in the NL, with Cardinals LHP Rick Ankiel, Florida RHP Brad Penny, Braves IF Rafael Furcal and Pirates CF Chad Hermansen receiving support. Phillies LF Pat Burrell, if he gets called up soon enough, also has a chance.

Most important to their team's success
1. Ramon Martinez, Boston. Because they need a No. 2 starter.
2. Bobby Higginson, Detroit. Teammates feel he can and must come back and lend stability.
3. Rickey Henderson, Mets. Because they don't have anyone else to fill his role.
4. Jason Isringhausen, A's. If he can be one of the AL's top five closers, then the A's can be very dangerous.

Most improved players
Observations from players, scouts and general managers:

Almost every voice out of Arizona raves about the impending stardom of Magglio Ordonez of the White Sox. Several players threw in Giants SS Rich Aurilia. Others of note: Kansas City 1B Mike Sweeney; Boston OF Trot Nixon; Yankees LF Ricky Ledee; Toronto leadoff star/LF Shannon Stewart (Junior Cruz got a player mention, which is encouraging); Toronto 2B Homer Bush; Tigers CF Juan Encarnacion; Montreal 3B Mike Barrett; Twins 3B Corey Koskie; Montreal 2B Jose Vidro (especially on defense); Padres CF Ruben Rivera; Rangers RF Gabe Kapler (all of his 18 home runs last season for Detroit were on breaking balls, but, like Jay Buhner in Seattle, he's making adjustments); Indians monster Richie Sexson; White Sox 1B-DH Paul Konerko; and Colorado SS Neifi Perez; one player voted for Rockies reliever David Lee; good front-office vote for White Sox 3B Greg Norton, who can hit; and Astros LF Daryle Ward, one of the best hitters going.

Players who are back
Andy Pettitte got more mentions than anyone, with his delivery speeded up and his stuff as crisp as it was as a rookie. Next came Moises Alou, who looks completely recovered. Others: Roger Clemens, Albert Belle, Barry Bonds, Jason Kendall, Jim Edmonds, Fernando Vina, Ramon Martinez, Frank Thomas, Darryl Kile and Pat Hentgen. Two player voted for Hideo Nomo, who was actually good in Milwaukee last season.

Great spring stories
Giants right-hander Ben Weber, released in the mid-'90s by the Blue Jays, went to the independent leagues, pitched two years in Taiwan and now has made it to the majors. Reds LHP Hector Mercado, a minor-league free agent who came off two years of arm problems to throw 92-93 mph and provide more depth to the Cincinnati bullpen. Padres C/1B John Roskos, a minor-league free agent who hit like Albert Belle. Kevin Elster, named the starting SS for the Dodgers after sitting out last season. Red Sox DH-in-waiting Morgan Burkhardt, the poor man's Matt Stairs (and that is poor), close to making the majors after four years in the Frontier League. Gary Gaetti.

Biggest surprises
From players, GMs and scouts:

Kenny Lofton's rapid comeback. "Just how great Florida's young pitching is" (an assistant GM). Colorado's 18-year-old RHP Chin-Hu Tsao. Braves SS-2B Rafael Furcal. Future Reds OF superstar Adam Dunn. Mariners closer Kazuhiro Sasaki. Boston IF Donnie Sadler. Oakland RHP Luis Vizcaino and LHP Barry Zito. Mark Grudzielanek's adjustment to 2B for the Dodgers, which should be no surprise to anyone who knows his hoop skills. Pittsburgh 3B Aramis Ramirez, offensively and defensively. Royals rookie OF Dee Brown, who'll step in when Johnny Damon takes off for free agency at the end of the year. Padres SS Damian Jackson, who played like he can hit .270 and steal 70 bases. Deion Sanders, who's going to shock everyone by being a huge factor for the Reds with his speed, and his ability to stay back on the ball and drive it for power. Steve Avery, who may be the Braves' fifth starter by June 1. Tigers DH-C Robert Fick.

Chan Ho Park (where did his fastball and curveball go?). Jaret Wright. Boston LHPs Jeff Fassero and Sang Lee. Dodgers RHP Eric Gagne. Oakland LHP Doug Johns. Colorado CF Tom Goodwin. Octavio Dotel. Sidney Ponson, who has the potential to be a No. 2. Bruce Chen. Brewers RHPs John Snyder and Jamey Wright. Cleveland relievers Paul Shuey and Ricardo Rincon.

Players under the most pressure
Boston closer Derek Lowe. St. Louis closer Dave Veres (OK, he was 20-for-21, 2.52 outside of Coors last season). Yankees C Jorge Posada. Angels 1B Mo Vaughn. Reds SS Barry Larkin, to hold everything together. Indians relievers Steve Karsay and Paul Shuey; Toronto LHP David Wells, pitching in front of the three potential stars. A-Rod. Phillies RHP Andy Ashby. Mets closer Armando Benitez.

Division predictions
Then there are the predictions, which, of course, are silly. Here are mine:

Red Sox
Blue Jays
Devil Rays
White Sox


World Series: Cleveland over St. Louis

Consensus top five teams from players, scouts and general managers:

American League
1. Yankees
2. Indians
3. Blue Jays
4. Red Sox
5. Athletics

National League
1. Mets
2. Braves
3. Cardinals
4. Diamondbacks
5. Pirates

Most improved teams (from players, scouts, GMs)
1. St. Louis. "Does anyone realize how good this team looks when you see it?"
2. Montreal. "The talent is scary, and Dustin Hermanson, Carl Pavano and Javier Vazquez are all ready to win 12-17 games."
3. Kansas City. "One of the best lineups in the game, with a star in Carlos Beltran."

Most disappointing teams
1. Baltimore
2. Los Angeles
3. Milwaukee

But more GMs and players went with Tampa Bay. "What," asked a player, "were they thinking about?"

Best things seen this spring

  • Andres Galarraga's walk across the field the first day of spring training. "I never felt sorry for myself," he said. "I always knew this could be a good thing, because I could help someone else."

  • Junior Griffey saying, "It's easier for me here because I don't have to try to be the leader. Barry Larkin is the leader. I'm not a leader. I'm not vocal. I just want to play."

  • Rafael Palmeiro hitting in the same group every day with youngsters Ruben Mateo, Gabe Kapler and Mike Lamb.

  • Robby Alomar practicing bunting balls foul to move infielders. Smartest man in the game.

  • Three different Tigers on playing with Juan Gonzalez. "He has totally changed our club." "His presence in the clubhouse has helped (Juan) Encarnacion, (Deivi) Cruz, (Karim) Garcia and many others." Another: "Just watching Juan take BP is something that surprised me. I never knew how smooth and powerful his strike really was."

  • "Why can't Keith Foulke (White Sox) close?" asks one assistant GM. Check his stats last year. One scout says he "has the best changeup in the game -- another Trevor Hoffman."

  • Turk Wendell bringing into the clubhouse a 22-pound wild turkey he'd shot a mile from the park.

  • Edgardo Alfonzo and Rey Ordonez taking balls live off the bat during BP. Or Vladimir Guerrero taking balls in right, live, for the entire BP. Andruw Jones listening to Merv Rettenmund and Donnie Sadler to Tommy Harper.

    Worst things seen this spring

  • From one player: "When two of the Players Association (representatives) came to address us and spent five minutes ripping John Rocker. Just wonder if he does the same speech in the Atlanta locker room. Real bad taste."

  • The Mets wasting spring at-bats on a country singer.

    Players we root for
    Andres Galarraga, Sandy Alomar, Jason Kendall, Kerry Wood, Matt Morris, Steve Avery, Todd Stottlemyre, Curt Schilling, Jay Payton, Alan Benes, Paul Wilson, Bret Saberhagen, Todd Hundley, Northeastern U. pitcher Greg Montalbano (after nearly leading the NCAA in ERA and being named the outstanding LHP in the Cape Cod League despite four surgeries to fight eight forms of cancer, the Red Sox drafted him in the fifth round, told him he couldn't get average money for that round because he'd had cancer, and he fanned 17 in his first start this week in Florida).

    Most significant July trade acquisitions
    1. Brad Radke, Twins
    2. Roberto Hernandez, Devil Rays
    3. Mike Bordick, Orioles
    4. Troy Percival, Angels
    5. Jeromy Burnitz, Brewers
    6. Chan Ho Park, Dodgers
    7. Antonio Alfonseca, Marlins
    8. Bobby Howry, White Sox (because Foulke can close)
    9. Kevin Tapani, Cubs
    10. Bob Wickman, Brewers

    That is, unless the Mariners put Alex Rodriguez on the market.

    Final thoughts
    Teams who showed during the spring they could get a huge pitching boost from within their organizations:

    1. Oakland, with Zito, Vizcaino, RHP Bert Snow and LHP Mark Mulder.
    2. Cleveland, with RHP Danys Baez, RHP Tim Drew and LHP C.C. Sabathia. OK, the $15.7 million the Indians paid Baez seemed like a waste, but he got a private pitching tutor in Miami this winter and got messed up. He'll be back, big-time, and Sabathia could be their stretch lefty in the pen.

    Best baseball books of the spring:

    1. "Full Count -- Inside Cuban Baseball," by Milton Jamail
    2. "Levelling the Playing Field," by Harvard Law School professor Paul Weiler. Well, not all baseball, but a brilliant man's treatise.

    Media crisis
    On April 18, owners will vote on re-alignment and John Rocker returns to the Braves.

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  • Audio chat wrap: Peter Gammons's MLB 2000 Preview

    Gammons: Little guys fight back

    Gammons: Cards have a keeper in Edmonds

    Gammons: Loria brings enthusiasm back to Montreal
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