The Rangers seem likely to win the First Club To Make A Deal award. "They're trying to get a jump on the market," says an official of one club that has talked to them. "There's no doubt about that."|
The Rangers are pushing Ugueth Urbina all over the map. But the clubs with various degrees of interest (Giants, Red Sox, Mariners, Yankees and Cardinals) don't seem to be in as big a hurry as the Rangers. One friend of Urbina on the Phillies says Urbina is lobbying to go to Philadelphia as a set-up man, because of his friendship with Bobby Abreu and Tomas Perez, and his Montreal connections with pitching coach Joe Kerrigan. Phillies sources are saying that hasn't been discussed -- but the Rangers are scouting their system anyway.
|Could Chan Ho Park be headed out of Texas? The Rangers can only hope so.|
With so many Rangers on the market, several clubs have made it a point to take another look at their system. And they're reporting that the next good pitching prospect they see will be the first.
"You can see why all they're asking for in these trades is pitching, pitching, pitching," says one scout. "They've got a bunch of soft-throwing guys in Double-A. And in Triple-A, all they've got are Ryan Drese, who has lost 2-3 mph off his fastball, and Mario Ramos, who is just a fifth starter on a bad club for me."
There also have been some reports lately that the Rangers are floating the idea of attaching Chan Ho Park -- who still has roughly $50 million left on his contract -- to some of their more desirable players as part of potential deals. But an official of one club that has been talking with Texas issues a flat, "No way," on that idea.
"Can't happen," he says. "Not during the season, anyway. That would have to be like the Mike Hampton deal, where you get three teams involved and everybody's dumping money. Plus, the guy has to prove he's healthy."
When the Rangers released ex-Rockie Jamey Wright last week, the official story was that Wright asked for his release because his contract gave him that right if he wasn't on the big-league roster by June 15. But two sources say Rangers officials were steamed that Wright had actually turned down a big-league call-up last weekend -- because he balked when the Rangers wanted him to waive his right to become a free agent if they needed to return him to Triple-A Oklahoma City.
Mets RumblingsJim Duquette has a lot of fans around baseball who don't understand why the Mets denied him permission to interview for four GM jobs, then only appointed him as their interim GM after they fired Steve Phillips.
The Expos have Vladimir Guerrero down and a bunch of pitcher injuries -- but still are being told they can't add 10 cents to their payroll. Nevertheless, the buzz this week is that GM Omar Minaya is out there trying to add a bat in some sort of creative deal in which he would deal one of his better prospects for somebody's salary dumpee, if the other club would also take back the salary of someone like Michael Barrett or Fernando Tatis.
The Expos would prefer that bat be left-handed, but one friend of Juan Gonzalez says: "He'd waive his no-trade for Omar. He loves Omar." It's tough to see how that one would work financially, though. Gonzalez makes $12 million this year, with $4.5 million deferred.
There may have been more rumors so far involving Ugueth Urbina than any other reliever on the market. But clubs fishing for bullpen help report that the other bullpen guys currently attracting the most interest are Tom Gordon (White Sox), Curtis Leskanic (Brewers), Jason Grimsley (Royals), Mike Williams (Pirates), Buddy Groom (Orioles) and the one veteran the Tigers might be able to trade in the next few weeks -- (surprise) Jamie Walker.
"Jamie Walker," says one scout, "is going to be a situational find for somebody."
The Red Sox continue to be interested in signing Chuck Finley, if they can get his price tag below $2 million. But while teams are being told Finley is willing to play for Boston or in the midwest, an official of one interested club says he's convinced that "this guy really doesn't want to leave California, no matter what he's saying."
Phillies scouts who have shown up at various minor-league outposts are telling people they're hunting for potential down-the-road closers -- but there's still no indication they're looking to depose Jose Mesa at any point in the foreseeable future. On the other hand, they are believed to have some short-term interest in Mike Williams as a set-up guy and an occasional closer alternative. Tom Gordon also is thought to be on their potential July shopping list.
As for those suggestions that manager Larry Bowa could be in trouble in Philadelphia if the Phillies don't turn it around in a hurry ... not happening. Bowa is still way too popular in Philadelphia for the Phillies to view firing him as anything more than a public-relations nightmare, even if they thought he was the problem.
"It's a tremendous disservice to him and the franchise," says one prominent New York baseball man. "This team needs a new plan and a new direction, and each day they don't start on that is a lost day. They denied him the right to talk to other teams, so they must have thought that this is a guy who was qualified for this job. So why place him in this position?
"Let's say they go out next winter and pursue Brian Sabean or Billy Beane or Gerry Hunsicker or Omar Minaya, and then they don't get those guys. Then they've told the world that Jim Duquette is their consolation prize, and that's extremely unfair."
And another NL executive, with New York ties, says: "It's tough on him, but to be honest, I don't think the Wilpons care. If they'd ask around, they'd find out that if they're looking for someone to revamp their scouting and development, he's the guy. He's got the personality and the communications skills to do it. And he's had enough experience dealing with free agents as the assistant (GM) to do it. If they were going to hold off naming a permanent guy, they might as well have kept Steve."
And if the Mets are holding off waiting for a big name to come running to Queens, the odds of that look longer than their odds of catching the Braves. Friends of Sabean, Beane and Hunsicker say they either have minimal (or no) interest, or would have to be blown away financially to take this job. Only Minaya could be categorized as being seriously intrigued, particularly if MLB sentences the Expos to another year in limbo without parole.
"Omar, to me, is the key player," says one hooked-in source.
Who's the only starting pitcher in either league to beat the two best teams in baseball so far, the Mariners and Braves? It's below-the-radar screen Mets rookie Jae Seo, a guy who hasn't lost since April, has given up two runs or fewer in six straight starts and has begun to inject himself into the Rookie of the Year discussion.
The Mets might have a dozen pieces to assemble before they can be a stable, legitimate contender again. But they have the find of the year in Seo, who has been a strike-throwing assembly line, four years after having Tommy John surgery. "He's for real," says one scout. "Great control."
It also comes as no surprise that shortstop prodigy Jose Reyes has stepped right into the big leagues and made a case for himself to stick around for about a decade. "He's always reminded me of a young Tony Fernandez," says one scout. "Tony, when he was young, had those real fluid actions, and that's what this guy has. Very fluid. Tremendous body control. Great instincts. He's almost like an Ozzie Smith who can hit. To me, he has no limitations."
Yankees RumblingsClubs that have been in contact with the Yankees continue to report that their only conversation over Ugueth Urbina was brief, came from Texas' end and consisted of an offer by the Rangers to deal Urbina for Nick Johnson. The Yankees said no, naturally, and they haven't spoken since.
The Yankees do have interest in Armando Benitez, as a set-up option. But he's only one item on their set-up menu. And nothing is close on that front, either.
Scouts who have seen the Yankees' most advanced pitching prospect, Brandon Claussen, in the last month have done nothing but rave about how spectacular he has been. Since arriving at Triple-A Columbus a month ago, Claussen has faced 120 hitters -- and allowed only 18 hits (a .158 average). The only concern is that he's less than a year removed from Tommy John surgery, and no one has ever come back this fast and not hit a wall somewhere.
"The question I have," says one scout, "is: Will he give them a reason to pick up David Wells' option (at $6 million)? The way he's pitching now, he's giving them a reason not to."
Teams that have inquired about Claussen report that the word they keep hearing back is "untouchable."
With Claussen all but off the market, one name you should look for the Yankees to start dangling is Jeff Weaver, who is creating serious doubts about his ability to pitch in New York. But one executive says he would be wary of Weaver just about anywhere.
"He's a slinging kind of guy," the executive says, "and when he tries to pitch up, the ball is flat. With that arm action, coming out of that slot, he can't pitch up and down -- only down. And that creates real problems."
Through Tuesday, Derek Jeter was 5 for his last 40, with 12 strikeouts. And scouts are convinced his still-healing left shoulder prevents him from getting to good fastballs up and in.
"But that's not surprising," says one scout. "He has a unique approach, with that inside-out swing. He leads with his front arm. So an injury like that would definitely affect him. Kenny Lofton had the same problem, if you remember, after he hurt his shoulder sliding into first. You're talking about the same type swing from the left side as Jeter has from the right side. He couldn't get his bat through the zone because of the shoulder. It took him half a season to really come back."
Miscellaneous RumblingsNow that Roger Clemens' cap caper has turned into the most controversial Hall of Fame plaque that's never been chiseled, let's report this historical fact one more time: There is no precedent for a starting pitcher entering the Hall of Fame wearing one team's cap (i.e., the Yankees) when he won nearly three times as many games while wearing another team's cap (i.e., the Red Sox).
But there is precedent for Clemens to solve this mess and avoid wearing that dreaded "B" on his plaque. He can just enter the Hall wearing no cap.
Not looking Rose-y for Pete
Back in spring training, there was speculation that June would be the month in which Pete Rose finally cut his deal to get back in baseball.
But a 1980s Phillies reunion will come and go this weekend in Philadelphia without Rose taking part. And one source says that if there was one gear on baseball's transmission that would describe where Rose's reinstatement now stands, it would be "in serious park."
In 1987, Catfish Hunter was facing a similar dilemna. He'd pitched the first 10 seasons of his career for the A's, then spent the last five pitching for the Yankees. Unlike Clemens, he didn't issue any Roger-esque ultimatums. But "he was torn," says Hall of Fame vice president Jeff Idelson. "So he asked if he could go in with no logo, and the Hall of Fame directors graciously complied."
There has been nothing gracious about the way Clemens has handled his own situation. But even though no player has gone in with a blank cap since Hunter, it's conceivable that that could be the way Clemens' problem is eventually solved.
Three years ago, the Hall of Fame would have allowed Carlton Fisk to wear a backward catcher's helmet on his plaque. But Fisk opted to wear a Red Sox cap.
Wow. Can we possibly wait until 2008 to find out how this all turns out?
Bobby Cox has been in baseball for 44 seasons. So when he returns from Seattle saying Ichiro Suzuki is "the best right fielder ever," it's time to pay attention. Besides his bionic throwing arm, Ichiro is also "the fastest right fielder I've ever seen," Cox says. "He's unreal out there." Asked if a team that had Ichiro and Andruw Jones could get by playing just two outfielders, Cox chuckled: "You could play some innings that way."
In the three seasons ending in 2001, Steve Kline, Scott Sullivan and Turk Wendell ranked 1-2-3 in most appearances by all big-league relievers. Wendell broke down that September and needed elbow surgery last year. Then Sullivan had to spend time on the disabled list last season with shoulder soreness. Now it's Kline who is showing the effects of all those games and innings. His ERA has gone from 1.89 to 3.39 to 4.18, and he allowed 42 baserunners this year in his first 28 innings. "This guy's stuff," says one NL scout, "has dropped off markedly."
Bobby Valentine speculated this week that Marlins phenom Dontrelle Willis could have trouble keeping his funky delivery in sync over the long haul. But a scout who has watched Willis rise through the minor leagues disagrees.
"Fifteen years ago, if you'd watched Sid Fernandez throw, you'd have said no way this guy lasts, either," the scout says. "But he did. And this kid is the same way, because he's an unbelievable athlete. He's got the arm speed and the wrist pop and the release point that makes me think he won't be a breakdown guy. He's just so funky, the hitters don't pick up the ball. What Sid Fernandez proved to me was that some guys can just do it differently, and this kid's one of them, because he's so flexible. And you have to love the way he loves being out there. We need guys like that. He could be one of baseball's all-time characters."
Are they starters, or are they relievers? In Minnesota, Johann Santana has made three spot starts this year -- and given up a grand total of nine hits and two runs in 18 innings. In Toronto, Kelvim Escobar has allowed one run in 17 1/3 innings over his last two starts, with a strikeout-walk ratio of (gulp) 18 to 1. So we asked a veteran scout how he would use these two if they were on his staff.
"I like Escobar better as a starter," he said, "because he's a little hyper. Starting allows him to get through the rough spots with his control. Santana, I also like as a starter, because he can get hyper, too. Some guys are better off when they start because they come in from the bullpen with too much adrenaline. I'd put both those guys in that category."
Finally, what turned Javy Lopez into Johnny Bench in the last few weeks? In part, he says, it was a simple experiment to see what happened if he lowered his hands.
"I should never have changed from the stance I had (when he hit 34 homers) in '98," Lopez tells Rumblings. "But I wasn't hitting the next year, so I tried to change, just for a couple of games. And ever since then, I've been lost."
But Lopez also says his problems were located as much in his head as in his hands.
"This game is like 75 percent mental," he says. "Once you get screwed up in your head, it doesn't matter how well-prepared physically you are. And I was just lost."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.