Rumblings and Grumblings

Jayson Stark

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Friday, April 25
 
All-Star Game may have new wrinkle this year

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

The All-Star Game debate is far from dead.

The union may still approve the plan to allow the All-Star Game to determine home-field advantage in the World Series -- on a two-year trial basis. But according to player reps who wish to remain anonymous, one thing the players are asking is that, if this game is suddenly going to be looked upon as something that significant, then it shouldn't be treated as "just an exhibition" in every other way.

For example, the players no longer want managers to be compelled to play their starters for at least three innings -- not if fan balloting continues and someone generally considered undeserving is elected to start. And they want limitations on announcers from Fox TV and ESPN radio roaming around the dugout, interviewing players during the game.

We still think that as long as the alternative is determining home-field advantage in the World Series purely based on whether it's an odd or even year, the All-Star Game proposal represents a better idea. But there are valid concerns about how much this could change the nature of the game. And players have every right to get as much as possible spelled out.

The players also consider this to be a reason to discuss the whole concept of home-field advantage in the World Series, and of the All-Star Game itself for that matter.

Players would like to see home-field advantage in the Series go to the team with the best regular-season record, as it does in the other sports. And if that change is made, there will be talk of changing the All-Star Game format to "North America" versus "The World," rather than AL versus NL.

If international marketing is going to be the key to baseball's future, there is some sentiment that a change in All-Star Game format would fit right in. But that would be tantamount to announcing to everyone that it's "only" an exhibition, and no more.

Since it's exactly that attitude that Bud Selig has been trying to dispel since his worst hometown All-Star nightmare last July, it's still possible none of this will fly. But at least that All-Star Game Tie Heard Round the World has produced a forum for discussing some larger and equally fascinating issues. So it's helpful to know that some good came of that mess.

Miscellaneous Draft Rumblings
If the NFL draft is here, it means the June baseball draft can't be too far behind. Here's one scouting director's review of five sure first-rounders:

Free-Agent Rumblings
With Rickey Henderson bound for the Atlantic League, we thought we'd check in with three other players who never did find a job this winter:

  • Chuck Knoblauch: According to a source, Knoblauch definitely hasn't retired at age 34. But he's "probably not" interested in heading for any teams in the Atlantic or Northern Leagues, even if they are conveniently located to his one-time stomping grounds in New York or Minnesota.

  • Delino DeShields: DeShields' agent, Adam Katz, says DeShields grew "disenchanted" with the baseball business after attracting zero interest from any big-league team over the winter. "Just the fact that he couldn't get an offer -- not even for the minimum," Katz reported. "He just said, 'That's it.' " But "that's it" doesn't mean DeShields has retired, either, at 34. He's "in great shape," Katz said. So if a big-league team wants to knock on his door, he'd answer. He did steal 10 bases in 11 tries for the Cubs last year.

  • Shawon Dunston: It wouldn't be the worst way to exit -- hitting a home run in a long-awaited trip to the World Series. So Dunston's agent, Jeff Moorad, reports that Dunston has decided he's content to sit this one out, unless his old team, the Cardinals, are interested. So far, no indications they are.
  • 2B Rickie Weeks, Southern University: "Reminds me of Marquis Grissom, only with more power. Live body. Can really run. Knows the strike zone. Takes a walk. And a real quick bat. He'll need to loosen up his hands and learn to use his feet to play second in the big leagues. But if he can play second base, or even center field, he can be a real, real good one. Top 3 pick."

  • OF Ryan Harvey, Dunedin (Fla.) H.S.: "Tremendous power. And we had him clocked at 94 mph off the mound last year. This guy's like Mark McGwire was in high school. The only negative is, he's got a knee injury and hasn't played."

  • RHP Marc Cornell, Ohio University: "Real good arm. We clocked him at 95-96 mph in the sixth inning, with a good breaking ball. Could be the first college pitcher picked. But I'm not sure he'll be more than a solid No. 3 starter on a real good team. With that type stuff, I'd like to see more dominance."

  • LHP Andrew Miller, Gainsville (Fla.) H.S.: "This guy's like a Randy Johnson-type. About 6-foot-6, 6-7. Command problems -- but big upside."

  • OF Lastings Milledge, Palmetto (Fla.) H.S.: "Man, lightning bat speed -- Gary Sheffield-level. And he can run. Of all the high school kids in the draft, this guy might have the best chance to be something special."

    Miscellaneous Rumblings

  • If Sammy Sosa picks up his player options and remains a Cub in 2004 and 2005, he's guaranteed $37.5 million. But no matter what the free-agent market might look like these days, it's not a safe bet to assume Sosa will automatically exercise his option and pass up his chance to explore free agency.

    The contract Sosa signed in March, 2001 allows him to shop himself for 30 days before picking up his own option. And some GMs are speculating he'll do just that. But Sosa's agent, Adam Katz, said he'll be making no comments on any questions involving Sosa's contract.

  • There are rumblings everywhere that Reds manager Bob Boone has very little time to turn it around.

    "That team's a mess, and it's been a mess since spring training," says one NL scout. "Aaron Boone (who now has moved back to third, at least temporarily) has done OK at second, but he's still in the wrong spot over there. Felipe Lopez has had some difficulty showing up on time. Danny Graves belongs back in the bullpen. There are a lot of questionable things going on with that team."

    Kevin Brown
    Starting pitcher
    Los Angeles Dodgers
    Profile
    2003SEASON STATISTICS
    GM IP W-L BB SO ERA
    5 29.1 1-1 11 26 3.68

  • The Dodgers continue to be mystified by the nature of Kevin Brown's "flu-like" ailment. But whatever is going on, one front-office man says: "I heard a lot about this guy this spring, but his last two times out (prior to his start on Thursday against the Reds), he wasn't close to what he was. He was 90-91 mph on his fastball -- max -- with not even average command. That's not the Kevin Brown I remember."

  • After watching the Astros and Cardinals recently, one NL scout predicts: "The Cubs could run away with that division."

  • The Twins are 9-5 this year when they play anybody but the Yankees. On the other hand, they've been so up-and-down, they've joined the 1988 Orioles and 1960 Tigers as just the third team since 1900 to start a season by either sweeping or getting swept in their first seven seasons.

    Nevertheless, the bludgeoning they took from the Yankees last weekend sure inspired a lot of quick conclusions that the Twins don't play with the same fire as they used to. Well, hang on.

    "We certainly haven't gotten complacent," says Twins GM Terry Ryan. "We're not resting on anything we've accomplished. We just haven't gotten it going yet. That was not a good weekend. But before we start burying our club, let's get into the season a little deeper. It's too early to deduce anything yet."

    The Twins' pitching depth and defense will still carry them a long ways, especially in the AL central. Torrii Hunter won't hit .216 all year. And, as Ryan observed, the really good news is, "We don't have to see the Yankees again the rest of the year, unless we're fortunate enough to be still playing in October."

  • Then again, April ought to be known as Knee Jerk Reaction Month. Here's another one: Miguel Tejada is off to a slow start. Therefore, he's worrying about his contract. So what was the problem two years ago, when he hit .237 in April?

    "Miggy has played with a lot more adversity in his life than what's staring him in the face now," says A's assistant GM Paul DePodesta. "He's either going to be really rich or obscenely rich. So he's faced a lot worse than that."

  • Shane Reynolds' fastball was at 81-83 mph most of the spring. It was back up to 86-87 in his first two starts with the Braves.

    Shane Reynolds
    Starting pitcher
    Atlanta Braves
    Profile
    2003SEASON STATISTICS
    GM IP W-L BB SO ERA
    2 12.1 1-0 2 4 0.00

    "As good as his split is and as good as his feel for pitching is, as long as the fastball stays up in that 86-87 range, he'll be effective," says one NL scout. "That's why (his release) in Houston really raises questions. That's a team that's got real trouble in the back end of the rotation. I don't like what I've seen of (Brian) Moeller. I don't think he'll hold up physically. He hurt his forearm in spring training, and he's been pitching with it. But he hasn't had the ability to give them innings.

    "If he can't go, then they have to bump (Tim) Redding and (Jerome) Robertson up to the 3 and 4 spots. And those guys aren't ready to be No. 3 and 4 starters. If they're going to win, (Roy) Oswalt and (Wade) Miller had better win all their starts."

  • If the Braves go on to win the NL East, the turning point could be a players-only meeting they held after they'd dropped to 1-4 with a 17-1 pounding by Florida. John Smoltz, Chipper Jones and Gary Sheffield were the three main speakers. But Smoltz, from all accounts, was almost evangelistic.

    "I've never heard a player give a talk like that," says Robert Fick, whose only previous experience with player meetings, admittedly, came in Detroit. "The way he pumped this whole team up and took control of the situation, that's the kind of leadership this team is famous for."

    Even with Tom Glavine gone and the pitching staff still under construction, the Braves remain a team whose leadership starts with the pitchers. Of course, most teams don't have pitchers with the stature of Smoltz and Greg Maddux.

  • Across the NL East in Philadelphia, the addition of Jim Thome got most of the headlines. But Phillies players rave about the leadership provided by their two other prominent additions, David Bell and Kevin Millwood.

    David Bell
    Third baseman
    Philadelphia Phillies
    Profile
    2003SEASON STATISTICS
    GM R HR RBI OBP AVG
    19 17 1 8 .325 .236

    Twice in the last week, in the wake of Placido Polanco's injury, Bell went to manager Larry Bowa and volunteered to move from third base to second if it helped Bowa fill out his lineup card (by using Tyler Houston at third).

    "I had no interest in (shifting Bell to second)," Bowa said, "because you know, that's not easy for a guy who hasn't played there at all. But he just came up to me and said, 'I know you're in a bind. So if you want me to play second, that's no problem.' This guy is a professional. All he cares about is winning."

    Meanwhile, Bowa and pitching coach Joe Kerrigan are ecstatic over the newfound maturity they've seen in 22-year-old starter Brett Myers (who has a 2.88 ERA after four starts).

    "He's really into it mentally now," Kerrigan says. "He wants to have a game plan. He wants to know what to do with every hitter. He's growing every week."

    One reason for that is that when Millwood looked at Myers, he saw a lot of himself at the same age -- and immediately took Myers under his wing. "Brett is in Millwood's pocket every day," Bowa says. "And that has really paid off."

  • Is Hee Seop Choi as good as he's looked so far for the Cubs? One NL scout who has seen a lot of Choi in the minor leagues wouldn't be surprised if he puts up big power numbers.

    "That kid could be a huge addition," the scout says. "He's just a pure power guy. He can get too zoned in at times. But man, he's big and strong. Does he have holes? Yeah, he does. He's got more holes than he's showing right now. But he will hit some home runs."

  • Jorge Posada has traditionally been one of the worst AL catchers at throwing out base-stealers. He threw out just 60 for 238 (25 percent) in 2001-02, the second-lowest rate in the AL.

    But over the winter, the Yankees hired Gary Tuck away from the Indians as their catching instructor. And it could be a turning point in Posada's career. Tuck spent the spring working with Posada on his footwork. And Posada threw out five of the first 10 runners trying to steal on him -- second-best in the AL to the Royals' Brent Mayne (60 percent).

  • Another great story so far is the man who has saved the Giants' bullpen, Tim Worrell. This is a guy who came into the year with seven saves in 10 big-league seasons -- as many as his brother, Todd, had in the first 19 appearances of his career.

    Now, at age 35, Worrell has stepped in for the seemingly irreplaceable Robb Nen and ripped off seven saves in eight opportunities. The only NL closer with more saves so far is John Smoltz (eight).

    "Timmy is one of those players," says Giants assistant GM Ned Colletti, "who was going along having, by and large, a nondescript career. With San Diego. And Baltimore. And the Cubs. He was making a nice living, going from town to town. Then he got to our club, and without him there's no way we go as far as we went last season. And now he's become somebody we rely on to help us win, on a defending National League championship club. And that's a great compliment to him."

    Austin Kearns
    Right fielder
    Cincinnati Reds
    Profile
    2003SEASON STATISTICS
    GM R HR RBI OBP AVG
    22 15 9 19 .418 .284

  • A year ago, Adam Dunn was the most hyped young hitter in the big leagues. But he's been already passed by in Cincinnati by Austin Kearns -- who, let's remember, was taken a round ahead of Dunn (in fact, with the seventh overall pick) in the 1998 draft.

    "I always thought he'd be a better player than Dunn," says a scout who goes back to the amateur days with both. "Kearns has more baseball instincts. And he's got a shorter stroke, so less can go wrong.

    "Dunn has more power upside. I don't think there's any question he's capable of hitting 50 (home runs). But the other guy doesn't have a weakness. He has no holes in the strike zone. Dunn's been getting pitched up in the zone, down and away, and in tight, and I don't see any adjustments."

  • Everyone in baseball continues to debate whether the Royals are for real. But one GM thinks they could be this year's example of a team that gets off to a hot start and sees the light bulb go on.

    "The first two months," he says, "is when teams begin to define themselves and create their own identities. I'm a firm believer that two years ago, the Twins got off to a good start and finally decided they were good. They played well for a long time that year, and that feeling hasn't gone away. I see a lot of those Twins in these Royals."

  • Finally, loyal reader David Hallstrom has come upon the baseball promotion of the year.

    On July 30, in the Florida State League, the Daytona Cubs will honor Bud Selig's birthday. How? Just wear a "tie" to the ballpark -- and get two tickets for the price of one.

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.





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