D-Backs need a recharged Big Unit

Baseball isn't really a game of inches. It's a game of "ifs."

Well, spring training is two weeks away, and there isn't one team that's not worried about its "ifs." Even the good teams.

But some "ifs" are bigger than others. So to help you focus on the stories that are looming just beyond Bill Belichick's play chart, Rumblings and Grumblings presents Five Players Who Can Change The Season -- if only because they might be the five most critical "ifs" in baseball:

Randy Johnson
Curt Schilling is into chowder now. Miguel Batista is a Blue Jay. And as great as Brandon Webb was last season, he's made just 28 big-league starts.

So it is no wonder that when the Unit's name came up recently, one Diamondbacks employee said: "He's the key to our season."

When was the last time any team said Johnson was its biggest worry, huh? When the Unit was still an Expo and Oscar Villarreal was in fourth grade? Could be.

There are legitimate reasons for those anxiety attacks. After Johnson came back from knee surgery in July, he allowed 95 hits in 90 2/3 innings. He had only four starts all season in which he had more strikeouts than hits allowed. And left-handed hitters -- a population group that used to prefer kidney-stone surgery to facing his dreaded Unitness -- batted a mind-boggling .303 against him (versus .195 before that).

That tells you all you need to know about how tough it was for Johnson to land on that balky right knee. He had to ditch his killer slider for a fastball-splitter repertoire. And that changed everything. As good as he's telling people he feels now, he has essentially zero cartilage left in that knee. So at 40, there's no assurance he'll ever be the same again.

Jason Giambi
That arthroscopic knee surgery last fall was supposed to be no big deal, of course. In fact, there's some skepticism about whether Giambi's troubles last season (like that 3-for-58 mess in August and September) were knee-related at all.

But every year is a must-win year for the Yankees. And the must-win part of that equation this year translates to a must-play scenario for Giambi.

Bet you didn't know that no Yankee spent more games DH-ing in either of the past two seasons than Giambi. But that can't happen anymore. Not with Nick Johnson north of the border. Not with Kenny Lofton on the payroll and Bernie Williams ticketed to be the regular DH. Not with Tony Clark as the first-base alternative instead of Johnson.

The last time Giambi played 140 games at first base was 1999. But the way the Yankees are now constructed, they work best if he plays close to that number at first this year. Suffice it to say, there is tangible skepticism around baseball about his ability to stay healthy enough to do that, no matter how much weight he has lost or how good he is said to look.

"If he has to play in the field full time, he's going to get hurt," says one AL scout. "You can take that to the bank."

And if he gets hurt, that causes a ripple effect that could impact the Yankees at several positions. So keep your dial tuned to that YES network, because this is a monstrous AL East story to watch.

Robb Nen
Giants trainer Stan Conte threw a flutter into a few Bay Area hearts the other day by suggesting it was no sure thing that Nen would pitch this year. But even though the Giants then convened an emergency let's-all-calm-down conference call, the truth is: They have no idea what to expect from their $9-million a year closer.

Since Nen struck out Adam Kennedy with his final pitch in the 2002 World Series, he's gotten more shoulder surgeries (three) than outs (zero). The good news is that he had the same "tightening" surgery last May, and from the same doctor (Craig Morgan), that Curt Schilling had in 1999. And Schilling is 64-34, with a 3.24 ERA, since that little tuneup.

The bad news is that this makes three shoulder surgeries and an elbow operation for Nen in the last four years. And the worse news is that the Giants no longer have Tim Worrell on the payroll to ride to the rescue if Nen isn't ready.

"He makes a huge difference on our club," says Giants assistant GM Ned Colletti. "If he comes back and pitches like he did in '02 or prior to that, he sets up our whole bullpen. If not, we'd have to go to a closer by committee, or we'll have to discover one."

The Giants have no other pitcher on their roster with more than 13 career saves. So while they could no doubt discover somebody who can close -- from a group that would include Felix Rodriguez, Matt Herges and Merkin Valdez -- Nen is a bigger X factor in this team's outlook than who hits behind Barry Bonds.

Jermaine Dye
First off, it's our journalistic duty to remind you just how good Dye used to be. Over the four seasons from 1999-2002, Dye had more homers (110) and RBI (429) than Edgar Martinez, Bobby Abreu, Frank Thomas or Carlos Beltran (among others).

And then came last year. First, Dye tore cartilage in his knee. Then he separated his shoulder in a collision at home plate. And he wound up having about the same impact on the A's season that Dennis Kucinich has had on the presidential race.

Dye had the lowest batting average (.172) and fourth-lowest on-base percentage (.261) of any player in the big leagues who got at least 200 plate appearances. He had fewer homers (four) and RBI (20) than Endy Chavez, Jolbert Cabrera or Robby Hammock. And the A's still won 96 games.

Now Miguel Tejada is gone. The A's are desperate for a cleanup hitter who would allow them to bat Eric Chavez third. So that means a return of the real Jermaine Dye is just about vital to their hopes of piecing together enough offense to keep The Greatest Young Rotation on Earth from suing for non-support.

Dye spent the winter at Mark Verstagen's vaunted fitness emporium in Arizona. And he's supposed to be in the best shape of his life. Good thing, because the A's need him to be.

"The way we're looking at it," says Oakland assistant GM Paul DePodesta, "we believe the Jermaine Dye of 2004 will be so much better than the Jermaine Dye of 2003, he'll more than offset the difference between the Miguel Tejada of 2003 and (shortstop phenom) Bobby Crosby of 2004."

Good theory. Now it just needs to look as good in the Coliseum as it does on the spreadsheet.

Pat Burrell
A mere two years ago, there were only eight players in the whole darned sport who hit at least 30 homers and drove in at least 115 runs. Burrell was one of them. So it's safe to say that when the Phillies put their team together last year, they weren't exactly figuring on Burrell having a lower slugging percentage (.404) than D'Angelo Jimenez.

But that really happened. And unlike all the other people on this list, Burrell didn't get hurt. So it's the biggest mystery since the Bermuda Triangle how this guy could go out and put up the lowest batting average (.203) by a Phillie who got 500 plate appearances since 1907.

It was a year the Phillies have compared to Mark McGwire's bizarre 1991 season, when he hit .201 and slugged only .383, before trampolining right back to 42 homers the next year. So now the key to the Phillies' lineup parts finally fitting together as ordered could be whether Burrell can imitate McGwire this year in more ways than one.

If Burrell can bat fourth, between the left-handed-hitting Jim Thome and Bobby Abreu, "that lineup becomes a different animal," says one NL executive. "Where's the hole? Abreu? Thome? Then it's just a question of how you want to die."

But if Burrell can't undo all that .203 muscle memory, then the Phillies are back in the same mess -- trying to decide whether to bunch the two left-handed bats in the middle and invite every left-handed setup specialist on the planet to start getting loose for the last time through the order.

"Like any lineup, we'd like to go left-right-left," says assistant GM Ruben Amaro Jr. "But there have been teams that have gone left-left-left and right-right-right and had success. So Pat isn't the only deciding factor on whether we win. But it's important to have his production. If he can hit fourth, these guys can all protect each other that much better."

So the day after the Super Bowl, Burrell is scheduled to start meeting daily in Florida with manager Larry Bowa and special advisor Charlie Manuel, the former Indians hitting guru, to begin the long and vital road back.

"What Pat needs to do most," Manuel says, "is just relax, and get better balance at the plate. If he just does that, he'll have better plate coverage, and he'll be fine."

If he is, it's a good excuse for Philadelphians to stop grumbling about Todd Pinkston. If he isn't, eh ... when did you say Eagles training camp opens?

Free Agent Rumblings

  • Here's one All-Star team nobody wants to be on -- not this close to Ground Hog's Day, anyway. It's the latest edition of the all-unemployed team:

    1B: Fred McGriff
    2B: Keith Lockhart
    SS: Jeff Reboulet
    3B: Ron Coomer
    LF: Rickey Henderson
    CF: Eric Owens
    RF: Raul Mondesi
    C: Chad Krueter
    DH: Ellis Burks

    Starting rotation: Greg Maddux, Orlando Hernandez, John Burkett, Chuck Finley, Andy Ashby.

    Bullpen: Ugueth Urbina, Antonio Osuna, Mark Guthrie, Ron Villone, Graeme Lloyd, Rudy Seanez.

    Bats off the bench: Eric Karros, Andres Galarraga, Mark McLemore, Travis Lee, Wil Cordero, John Mabry, Orlando Merced, Chris Richard.

    Baseball America coverboy reunion: Ruben Rivera, Jackson Melian, Patrick Lennon, Mike Kelly, Todd Dunwoody.

    Manager: Jeff Torborg

    General manager: Steve Phillips

    Spring training stadium: Jack Russell Stadium (Clearwater, Fla.)

  • Turns out the guaranteed portion of the contract the Cubs offered Greg Maddux was for less than $12 million for two years. And Maddux and his agent, Scott Boras, rejected that one faster than you could say, "300th win."

    But we still haven't been able to verify serious interest from any other team -- at least not any that Maddux is believed to have a desire to play for. In the last week, though, the buzz has pictured Boras as waiting for the Dodgers sale to be approved, then convincing the Dodgers to sign Maddux so they could more easily afford to trade Odalis Perez for a bat. Hmmmm.

  • More free-agent rumblings: The Marlins have interest in Andres Galarraga or Wil Cordero as a backup first baseman and bat off the bench. ... The A's and Dodgers are talking to Eric Karros. ... The Giants could sign Antonio Osuna as closer/setup insurance. ... Mark Guthrie is mulling offers from the Mariners and Pirates. ... The Yankees and Braves have been talking with John Burkett, who has said he will retire if he doesn't get a major-league deal. ... The Mets and Indians appear to be the teams most interested in Scott Erickson. ... And even after having shoulder surgery -- at age 45 -- Rickey Henderson is still telling people that "retirement" isn't in his dictionary. So the Atlantic League needs to brace itself for another spring of Rickey-mania.

  • Then there is Cuban free-agent pitcher Maels Rodriguez. Is he on track to become the latest big-buck Cuban player to sail way under the altitude once predicted for him?

    When Rodriguez defected, he was ballyhooed as the Cuban Goose Gossage -- a smokeballer with a 100-mph fastball. But he apparently left it in Havana. Rodriguez had to schedule a second workout next week -- because his first workout for American scouts in mid-January was such a disaster.

    "I've seen this guy a lot," says one scout. "And I've seen him throw a legit 100 miles an hour. So I don't know what was going on. The guy was more like 85-88-89. His arm looked good. Just nothing was coming out of it."

    Rodriguez has been asking for $20 million over four years. It will be interesting to see if he gets it.

  • And speaking of Cuban free agents, "disaster" would be too upbeat a word to describe Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez's most recent workout for scouts.

    "He said he was 80 percent," says one scout. "I didn't see that. He didn't throw one ball over 78 miles an hour, and he looked very restricted."

    Still More Rumblings

  • Aaron Boone's injury is the latest dent in potentially the Yankees' most dangerous deficiency -- infield defense.

    "Ever since that injury," says one front-office man, "I've been thinking: 'I wonder what Kevin Brown is thinking about pitching in front of that infield.' You don't want to give up a lot of ground balls pitching in front of that group."

    In fact, Baseball Prospectus recently contemplated how Brown's trade to New York might affect him -- and calculated that about 10 percent more ground balls turned into singles against the Yankees than against the Dodgers last year. Which would translate, in Brown's case, to about 10 extra runs a year

    "The guy's stuff is still good," the front-office man says. "So it's not like those ground balls will be home runs. But you know he'll be thinking about it. And Jon Lieber's a ground-ball machine, too."

  • The Yankees can afford anybody's salary-dump nominee. But their real problem in trying to deal for a replacement for Boone is that other teams have virtually no interest in their prospects.

    USA Today's Sports Weekly just ranked their prospect pool as the worst in the big leagues -- because they've traded away so many minor leaguers in owner George Steinbrenner's never-ending quest to win every World Series through the end of the millennium.

    The two prospects one scouting director says he'd take: hard-throwing reliever Scott Proctor (whom the Yankees got from the Dodgers for Robin Ventura) and 19-year-old Dominican shortstop Joaquin Arias.

  • It's hard to gauge the impact the Dodgers' sale had on GM Dan Evans' inability to make a dramatic move this offseason. But a number of teams have said there were numerous deals he could have made (Nomar Garciaparra, Derrek Lee, Richie Sexson, Magglio Ordonez) had he been willing to give up hotshot pitching prospects Edwin Jackson and/or Greg Miller.

    Still, one front-office man thinks Evans made the right call on those two.

    "Miller will be a No. 1 starter, without question," he says. "And Jackson could be. His worst-case scenario is in the middle of the rotation."

  • People talk about all the money being spent in the American League East. How about the AL West? The only team in the division with a payroll under $95 million will be the A's (who will be at slightly more than half of that).

  • Not everyone is convinced that by the time the Angels finish putting all their pieces in place, they'll be better off.

    "I'm not so sure about moving (Darin) Erstad to first," says one executive. "A lot of his value was in what he did in center field. His offensive numbers aren't first-base type numbers. And Garret Anderson was an unbelievable left fielder. Now they're moving him to center. So you could argue they might be hurting themselves at both positions."

  • The Cardinals and Albert Pujols are still several time zones apart on Pujols' contract demands. And since Pujols' arbitration hearing date isn't until Feb. 20, this one figures to take a while.

    But it still appears Pujols is headed for an eight-year contract in the neighborhood of $100 million. And remember, no player has topped $100 million since Jason Giambi signed with the Yankees in December, 2001.

    Biggest contracts, in total dollars since then:

    Scott Rolen, Cardinals (eight years, $90 million)
    Jim Thome, Phillies (six years, $85 million)
    Miguel Tejada, Orioles (six years, $72 million)
    Barry Bonds, Giants (four years, $72 million)
    Vladimir Guerrero, Angels (five years, $70 million)
    Chan Ho Park, Rangers (five years, $65 million)
    Bobby Abreu, Phillies (five years, $64 million)

    Headliners of the Week
    Finally, here they come, the latest bursts of hilarious baseball headlines from the fabulous online parody site, ironictimes.com:

    Saddam admits to betting on his own wars
    Hopes confession will lead to entry into Dictators Hall of Fame.

    Everyone injured
    Should be back in three or four weeks.

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to send Jayson a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.