Dealing Piazza not without a catch or two

Big-Name Trade Rumblings & Grumblings

  • Friends of Mike Piazza say that as the Mets scene gets increasingly messy, his willingness to think about going elsewhere is beginning to rise. But the Mets would have to tackle major complications before they could deal him.

    For one thing, Piazza has a limited no-trade clause in which he and the Mets can each designate four teams they can trade him to. But neither side has ever named the teams, even though that's supposed to be done every offseason.

    Second, that clause would seem to become irrelevant, anyway, on May 22 -- the date Piazza reaches his fifth anniversary as a Met -- because it makes him a 10-and-five-year man (10-year veteran, the last five with the same team). And the basic agreement gives 10-and-five men total veto rights over any deal.

    But dating back to when they negotiated the contract in 1998, the Mets have mysteriously claimed that the more limited no-trade should remain in effect even after Piazza gets his 10-and-five rights. Even more mysteriously, the commissioner's office has backed them, even though it means he would be negotiating away rights given him by the basic agreement. Which is illegal.

    So the upshot is this: If the Mets attempt to deal him at some point without getting his permission -- claiming he was being traded to one of the four teams the club could name -- this could turn into a major brouhaha.

    Piazza's friends say that if he ever were asked to name the teams he'd go to, they'd likely be the Angels, Yankees, Dodgers and Phillies. Since the Orioles are often mentioned as the club most actively expressing interest, it's easy to see how this could get sticky should it ever be more than just talk.

  • When the Phillies pulled into Arizona this week, Curt Schilling arrived at his locker and found a Phillies jersey hanging there -- a sign his teammates have noticed the barrage of rumors about Schilling eventually being traded back to the Phillies.

    But before they start fixing up his locker in Philadelphia, let's slowwwww down here. For all these reasons:

    1) Arizona general manager Joe Garagiola Jr. says his team is a long ways from even thinking about trading away Schilling or anybody else.

    2) While the Phillies say they aren't maxed out on payroll, they can't afford to trade for anybody in Schilling's price range ($10 million) in-season.

    3) And even if that's a topic that makes more sense in the offseason, the Phillies clearly will make re-signing Kevin Millwood their first pitching priority, unless Millwood is determined to get four or five years at $13 million-plus a year.

    4) But even if they can't re-sign Millwood, the Phillies figure to have other options. Bartolo Colon would likely be on their free-agent shopping list. And there's a definite possibility Javier Vasquez could turn into next winter's Millwood -- an arbitration-eligible fifth-year player bound for the $10-million price rage that his team can't afford. If the Expos are stuck in Montreal/San Juan limbo for another year, they would have almost no choice but to trade Vasquez. And the Phillies, with Millwood's money burning a hole in their checkbook, would no doubt get back in line.

    5) Finally, let's remember this, too: There's no assurance the Diamondbacks will want to trade Schilling in the first place, especially if he pitches them back into the race while Randy Johnson is out. And don't bet against that.

    So this Schilling-to-the-Phillies story has turned into a runaway train that doesn't seem to want to stop. And that's not fair to anybody.

  • Despite the denials coming out of Cincinnati, clubs that have spoken with the Reds say they are willing to move closer Scott Williamson in the right deal.

    Their big hangup with the Red Sox, in various permutations of the Shea Hillenbrand saga, is that the Reds have continued to ask for a pitcher back, plus Hillenbrand. But Boston views Williamson as a player whose salary will jump from $1.6 million to as much as $5 million next year through arbitration and wouldn't be available otherwise. So the Red Sox think they ought to get the extra player. Stay tuned.

  • Rumors have surfaced in both St. Louis and New York that the Mets and Cardinals discussed a Roberto Alomar-Fernando Vina swap. But one NL scout said he'd be careful on that one if he were the Cardinals.

    "I like Vina," the scout said. "I know he's banged up, and he's not playing as well as he has in the past (.227 average). But he's a big glove on their team, and he really fires them up offensively when he's going good."

    Alomar, on the other hand, would probably find St. Louis a perfect landing spot. One East Coast-based agent said: "Robbie just isn't wired the right way to play in New York. But whether he gets out this year or next winter, he'll be looking for big money, and it's hard to get that in the middle of the country. The places to get that kind of money, for the most part, are on the East and West Coast. But then you've got big expectations that come with that kind of money, and he doesn't seem like he likes that." So a place such as St. Louis, even for slightly lower dollars, is right up Alomar's alley.

    Closer Rumblings & Grumblings
    Robb Nen, Trevor Hoffman and Jason Isringhausen are on the disabled list. Mariano Rivera just came off it. So who's the best closer in baseball right now? Billy Wagner would win the Best Left-handed Closer award. But we found three baseball men divided on who's the best right-hander.

  • John Smoltz: "I don't know how you could get any better than Smoltz," one scout said. "He's throwing his split at 92, and it's totally unhittable. It's about the best pitch in the game. But his slider's 87-88 and his fastball is 95. That's three nearly unhittable pitches. It doesn't get much better than that."

  • Eric Gagne: Gagne's numbers the last two years (99 2/3 IP, 62 H, 20 BB, 144 K) are even more dominating than Smoltz's (98 IP, 75 H, 28 BB, 106 K), believe it or not.

    "I'm not sure there's anyone better," one NL executive said. "He's got three unbelievable pitches that he throws at 96, 86 and 76, and he throws all three for strikes. It's not like you can go up there looking for Pitch A or B. You've got to look for A and B and C. Unless he makes a mistake, the hitter has no shot."

  • Troy Percival: Finally, yet another scout argues for Percival because he's been so dependable for so long.

    "There are so few reliable closers anymore," the scout said. "And this guy's one of the most consistent closers, day-in and day-out, I've ever seen. The tipoff for me about closers is everyone's reaction when they come in the game. And when Percival comes in, it's like the conquering invader rolling into town."

    Miscellaneous Rumblings

  • A.J. Burnett's visit to his local Tommy John surgeon is a painful situation for the Marlins in more ways than one.

    It's undeniable that Burnett's pitch counts were higher than any young starter in the big leagues. As Will Carroll, of Baseball Prospectus, and Aaron Gleeman, of Aaron's Baseball Blog, have meticulously documented, Burnett threw 110 pitches or more in nearly two-thirds of his starts last year (63 percent) and 120 or more in over a third of them (37 percent).

    So was he probably over-pitched? No doubt. Still, it's hard to figure Burnett's suggestion that Jeffrey Loria and David Samson knew he had a bad elbow but didn't tell the coaching staff. No matter how conspiratorial Loria and Samson's critics think they are, it's hard to envision any scenario where a team would want its best pitcher to get hurt.

    In fact, this whole situation reopens the debate about whether all pitch counts are created equal.

    "When you look at pitchers, you can see when a guy is tired and when he isn't," said Dan Jennings, the Marlins' esteemed vice president for player personnel. "When a guy is tired, something changes mechanically. The ball starts to get up in the zone. With A.J., this guy was still throwing 95-96 mph after 108 pitches.

    "So where is the line between what (pitch count) is ideal, what's good and what is over-use? The fact is, there is no magical number. To me, it's all by the eye -- whether he looks tired, whether he's laboring, whether it's a hot day. I just don't think there's an easy answer."

  • Over Mike Hampton's last three starts, he has allowed only nine hits and three runs in 20 innings. But scouts who have watched him say it's too early to say he's "back."

    Alfonso Soriano is suddenly 4-for-his last 30. And there are signs teams are finally getting a feel for how to deal with him.

    "He went 0-for-the series in Oakland," one scout said. "What they did was bury him with fastballs in, with a lot of splits and changeups.

    "If you watch him, he's way up in the box now, and he's been torching sliders and average fastballs, because his hands are so fast and he's so far up, he's been catching breaking balls before they break. So the fewer breaking balls you throw him, the better off you are."

    "I'm not sold yet," one NL scout said. "I'm still not seeing a confident delivery. It was actually uncomfortable watching him throw. I felt like I didn't know where the next pitch was going, and he didn't know, either. But he got results because he's in a big stadium and he does have life on his fastball. If the hitters would be more patient and get in some deep counts, he could end up throwing a lot of walks. Right now, the hitters are getting themselves out."

    A second scout who saw Hampton a week later seconds that review.

    "He's better, but he's not what he was," the scout said. "He's still not consistent with his delivery. He's jumping at the hitter. His arm is trailing. He's not getting the good action on his sinker. And he won't challenge. He's nibbling, nibbling, nibbling. ... He's still fighting that muscle memory (from Colorado), trying to force the sinker to sink instead of letting it happen."

    One alarming stat on Hampton: His walk-strikeout ratio the last three starts is 10 BB-4 K. Which is why the first scout said, "For me, he's a fifth starter right now, and that's all. He just has to go five, and they get him out of there. Maybe they'll catch lightning in a bottle, but it's too soon to say that now."

  • Almost six weeks into the season, the White Sox are scuffling to score runs. One of the most amazing numbers on their stat sheet is this: Frank Thomas is hitting .183 against right-handed pitching, with more strikeouts (15) and walks (17) than hits (13).

    "His bat is so slow now," said one AL scout, "that he can't hit a good inside fastball if you tell him it's coming. He just can't handle that inside gas. The only balls he hits are breaking balls or, if he really cheats, some fastballs away. But that's it."

  • But you sure don't hear anybody say the Rangers can't hit. Just the four guys in the middle of their order -- A-Rod, Juan Gonzalez, Rafael Palmeiro and Carl Everett -- have combined for 42 homers and 101 RBI. That's more homers than 27 teams and more RBI than the Tigers.

    "Who's got a better middle of the order than them?" wonders Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi, whose team gave up 33 runs to the Rangers in three days last week -- away from the Ballpark at Arlington.

  • As good as the Giants, Cardinals, Mariners and Twins are defensively, there might be more bad defense being played in the major leagues right now than in any year in recent memory. Four teams -- the Cubs, Blue Jays, Mets and Reds -- are on at least an error-a-game pace. And the last time four clubs did that over a full season was 1979.

    The Reds were on a 195-error pace through Wednesday. After watching them commit four errors the other day, one scout said: "I thought I was watching a high school game."

    But another veteran scout calls the Mets "the worst defensive team I think I've ever seen." There have been days when Roberto Alomar is the only above-average major-league defender they've put on the field, "and he sure doesn't look like a Hall of Famer these days," the same scout said.

  • The more scouting directors begin to focus in on the June draft, the more grumbling you hear about the lack of high-ceiling, almost-ready college players.

    "There are no Mark Priors in this draft," one scouting director said. "There's no guy in college who would make you say, `I'd put my life on this guy being a star.' "

    That crop took another hit last weekend, when Ohio University smokeballer Marc Cornell had to leave after two innings with a recurrence of the shoulder trouble that caused him to take last summer off. Cornell, who'd been clocked at 97 mph, might have been the first college pitcher taken.

  • When the Marlins traded Matt Clement and Antonio Alfonseca to the Cubs last year, the one guy they got with a chance to make this deal look good was left-hander Dontrelle Willis, who jumps from Double-A to the Marlins' rotation this weekend.

    Since becoming a full-time starting pitcher in 2001, Willis is 24-4 in 45 minor-league starts, allowing only 205 hits in 287 2/3 innings. So the Marlins are pushing him right into the big leagues, six starts beyond A-ball.

    "He throws strikes, he's deceptive, he's strong and he's durable," Jennings said. "He's got an `out' pitch with his breaking ball. And he works the bottom of the strike zone. But the most favorable thing about him is, he's a character with character."

    Willis is renowned for his mound antics, funky delivery and obvious love for simply being out there. When he saw Juan Pierre arriving for extra hitting at 6:45 a.m. in spring training, he showed up at dawn to join him. At one point later in the spring, Willis tried to score from first on a double and did a spectacular head-first slide into the plate -- but was told later that wasn't a real good idea for a pitcher.

    "He's no Pascual Perez," Jennings chuckles. "But this is a guy who's having fun on the job."

  • Speaking of characters, Turk Wendell (eight outings, 10 2/3 shutout innings) has made a huge impact on the Phillies' bullpen, a year after elbow surgery.

    "He's been awesome," Phillies assistant GM Ruben Amaro said. "For one thing, he brings great energy to the club. But he's pitching great and his slider's not even there yet. He's had good movement on his sinker and he's been able to mix in his changeup. He's going to be a very important part of this bullpen."

  • It's hard to think of anything positive for the Diamondbacks in not having Randy Johnson for six weeks. (Since the Unit arrived in the desert in 1999, the Diamondbacks are 53 games over .500 in games he starts, and only 47 over when anybody else starts.) But the emergence of Brandon Webb (1.64 ERA, 22 IP, 11 H, 21 K) has been at least one unforeseen bright spot.

    "The early tipoff was that in spring training, none of the catchers wanted to catch him," Garagiola said, "even on the pitchers' side days. They said it was like trying to catch a bowling ball."

  • Since Rey Sanchez made the headlines, literally, this week with his in-game haircut, we present the best New York newspaper headlines of the week on the Mets' amazing Barber-gate crisis:

    Fifth prize: "Sanchez Has A Bad Hair Day" (New York Times).

    Fourth prize: "Mets Get Snippy Over Hair-Gate" (New York Post).

    Third prize: "Barber of Shea-ville" (Post).

    Second prize: "Mets Clip L.A., Win By A Hair" (New York Daily News).

    First prize: "Hair Club For Mets" (New York Post).

    By the way, no truth to the rumor Sanchez was told, "Hey, go up to the clubhouse and check out this guy's cutter."

  • Promotion of the week:

    On Aug. 26, the Sioux Falls Canaries will present Toilet Paper Appreciation Night -- sponsored by Roto-Rooter.

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Be sure and submit your favorite baseball promotions of the year to uselessinfodept@yahoo.com.