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Monday, January 29, 2007
Ten thirtysomethings to watch


Here are 10 thirtysomething position players whose situations are intriguing because of what is needed from them by their respective teams, or because of the crossroads they have reached in their careers:

1. Vladimir Guerrero, Angels
Another offseason has passed and the Angels again have failed to add a player who can suitably complement Guerrero's production, or cover for him if the right fielder is hurt. And some executives and scouts who've watched Guerrero in recent years see signs of physical regression in his movement, if not his production -- he hit .329 last season, with 200 hits, 116 RBI, and 33 home runs.

"He's on the slide," said one scout. "He's turned into much more of a streak hitter than he used to be. It used to be that if you tried to pitch him inside and you didn't bury the ball inside, he'd hit it good. Now you can get away with a little more, and I think it's because there are days when his back doesn't feel so good. He seems to go through periods where any tweak in his back affects his swing."

He's a gifted athlete, but he doesn't have a great body, and he swings as hard as [Gary] Sheffield. When he's going good, he can be as dominant as always. But it's a matter of time now before he breaks down."

The Angels have a promising young hitter in Howie Kendrick, some production out of veteran Garret Anderson, and shortstop Orlando Cabrera is coming off a solid season. But they have question marks at first and third base, and catcher Mike Napoli hit .164 after the All-Star break. The Angels still desperately need Guerrero to hit; it'll be interesting to see whether he stays healthy.

2. Todd Helton, Rockies
Maybe the Rockies will decide that it's better, big picture, to shed his salary, or maybe they'll decide to wait for the kind of return they need for the best player in Colorado franchise history.

He could land in Boston and have a chance to play in the postseason for the first time in his career and redefine his legacy, as a Hall of Fame candidate. If he stays in Colorado and musters a 10th consecutive season of .300 or better, the Rockies will probably find a way to trade him.

But if he struggles, a poor season will reinforce the idea that he's a player in decline, and the Rockies wouldn't get even a nibble of trade interest for him.

The Red Sox and Rockies will hold a conference call this morning, writes Tracy Ringolsby, with the two sides still in an impasse as of Sunday.

The Rockies apparently will make this trade if Manny Delcarmen is included. If Boston wants Helton -- and it seems that the Red Sox do want him, because they would on the hook for about $50 million of the $90.1 million owed to him in salary over the next six seasons -- it's hard to imagine that they would let the inclusion of Delcarmen be the deal-breaker. Or maybe the Red Sox are reading the Rockies as being so desperate to get out from a lot of Helton's contract that they will eventually be willing to take anything for him. We'll see.

Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd will return to the office today after tending to a family matter, writes Troy Renck.

3. Gary Sheffield, Tigers
The Tigers needed a middle-of-the-order hitter who provides more power, more on-base percentage and fewer strikeouts, and Sheffield fits all of that, as he rejoins a manager he knows and respects. Sheffield is 38 years old and coming off an injury-plagued year, but he seems to reinvent himself every few years, depending on how angry he is at somebody. And it's clear, from his ugly departure after the trade from New York to the words that have leaked out from his book, that the chip on his shoulder can be blamed on the Yankees.

His vendettas sometimes seem a little ridiculous, but they do serve a purpose. "He gives the Tigers a fire in the clubhouse, in addition into his ability," said an NL talent evaluator. "That's a good deal if he stays healthy. He has to be wronged to be a real good player, whether it's actual or mythical, and that's the way it looks now."

4. Lance Berkman, Astros
Lacking depth in their lineup, the Astros ranked 25th in runs in the majors last year, and despite the lack of consistent production in front of or behind him in the batting order, Berkman had an incredible season, driving in 136 runs, with 74 extra-base hits and a .420 on-base percentage.

Now he has Carlos Lee swinging alongside him in the Houston lineup, and we'll see how much of a difference that makes. The talent evaluator is curious to see how Lee's conditioning is affected by the fact that he has his $100 million deal in place. "I want to see what he looks like in spring training," said the scout. "Late last season, I bet he weighed close to 280 -- real fat. He couldn't play the last game of the season, and his range in left field for the last six weeks of the season was about the size of a postage stamp.

"But he can still hit, and I think he's going to help Berkman put up huge numbers."

5. Andruw Jones, Braves
He'll get a lot of headlines this year, and be connected, through trade rumors, to just about every contender in baseball leading up to the July 31 deadline. Some things to keep in mind:

  1. He'll be eligible for free agency in the fall of '07.
  2. He's got 10-and-5 rights and can veto any proposed deal.
  3. His agent is Scott Boras, whose clients always try to play the market when they get this close to free agency.
  4. The last two years, Jones has 92 homers and 257 RBI.
  5. He's won Gold Gloves in nine consecutive seasons.
  6. If he has a big year, shows again that he is much more serious about his conditioning than he was three or four years ago, he could get a $100 million deal. Jones turns 30 on April 23.
6. Derrek Lee, Cubs
The Chicago first baseman was limited to just 175 at-bats last season because of a broken wrist, and despite all the money that the Cubs spent this winter, his success is no less important than it was last year to the club. Alfonso Soriano will create opportunity at the top of the lineup, but the Cubs still need somebody to generate hits and runs in the middle of the order. Aramis Ramirez can be erratic, Jacque Jones may or may not be with the team on Opening Day and Cliff Floyd has some injury issues. The Cubs need Lee to be a consistent offensive force, the way he was in his career year of 2005.

7. Ichiro Suzuki, Mariners
He is shifting to center field this season, which will only augment his already remarkable résumé of six consecutive seasons of .300 or better, six straight seasons of more than 200 hits, six consecutive seasons of more than 100 runs scored and more than 30 stolen bases, and six consecutive Gold Gloves. He's been a pretty good player since joining the big leagues, and Suzuki will be eligible for free agency after this season. The Mariners say signing Suzuki is a priority, and it remains to be seen what dollar figure they've attached to their most prominent star.

Seattle's best option may be to trade Ichiro, writes Phil Rogers.

8. Jermaine Dye, White Sox
He's another slugger eligible for free agency after this season, and as we've seen this winter, White Sox general manager Kenny Williams is making it a priority to make his team younger -- and, in turn, cheaper. Dye had his 33rd birthday on Sunday, and he's coming off an MVP-type season, the best year of his career, with 44 homers and 120 RBI in 146 games. There's no reason to think he can't have another great year, especially with Tadahito Iguchi, Paul Konerko and Jim Thome hitting around him, and that would create enormous pressure on the White Sox to re-sign Dye.

Dye has made about $46 million in salary in his career, and he could more than double that if he has a big season. Williams didn't want to talk about Dye's status on Sunday, writes Mark Gonzales.

9. Mike Lowell, Red Sox
Numerous scouts and executives thought the Red Sox third baseman was cooked as an effective player last spring training, and lo and behold, Lowell had an excellent season, hitting .280 with 47 doubles and 20 homers, while playing spectacular defense. He turns 33 in February, has some injury history, and has reached the stage of his career when the evaluators will wonder the same thing from year to year: Can he do it for another season?

"I'm not sure," said the scout. "A great kid, and he made a great adjustment, hitting the ball the other way; he's a smart guy. What Fenway Park does is disrupt pitching patterns, and when he started going to the other way, what pitchers should have done is pitch inside -- but they know that, in the past, he's hit with power. They may have been afraid to pitch inside, somewhat, because of The Wall."

But that's what they should do this year, pitch him inside. Will he be pitched the same way? Will he be able to adjust to that, if they do? I'm just not sure. He had something to prove last year."

The Red Sox must have their doubts, because they have shopped Lowell repeatedly since July, and if the Helton deal is completed with Colorado, he'll be included.

10. A-Rod, Yankees
Whether you think it's because he's got the biggest contract in history or because he seems destined to become the all-time home run leader, the man is a lightning rod, and his contract situation will hang over him the entire year.

He can opt out of his deal after the season, and even if he repeatedly insists that he has no intention of doing so, everybody will remember that another Scott Boras client, J.D. Drew, said the same thing last year. There are those within the Yankees' organization who are assuming that A-Rod will walk away at the end of the 2007 season, and everything he does -- or doesn't do -- will be viewed through that prism.

*****

Josh Beckett loves the idea of having the Red Sox add first baseman Todd Helton, as Michael Silverman writes. "… But who do you give up for him, what's the price?" Beckett asked. "I don't envy the GMs at all on this one. Do you give up on Mike Lowell? [Julian] Tavarez was so good for us at the end of last year and do you give up on the young guys?"

The Rockies owe it to Helton to get this deal done, writes Bernie Lincicome.

• The Brothers Molina are getting ready for spring training, and Jack Curry went to the small town that generated such a disproportionate share of the major league catchers.

• Neil Best looks into MLB's DirecTV deal.

• Paul Hagen writes that some folks are speculating that Pat Burrell's problem might be as simple as this: His eyesight has regressed.

• The Pirates' new owner thinks everything is coming together for Pittsburgh, as Dejan Kovacevic writes, and the Pirates set a fanfest record over the weekend.

Sidney Ponson didn't participate in the Twins' fanfest, pulling out a day before the event began. This will raise questions, going into spring training, about what kind of condition Ponson is in. Glen Perkins is looking to rebound this year, writes Gordon Wittenmyer.

•The fanfest weekend of the White Sox was like reality television, writes Joe Cowley, given all the strange things that are swirling around the team. Mark Buehrle said it was not necessary for Kenny Williams to apologize. Where Josh Fields plays largely depends on the health of Scott Podsednik, writes Mark Gonzales.

• The Padres upgraded their training facility in the Dominican Republic, writes Bill Center.

Joe Girardi will miss being around players, as he tells Barry Rozner.

Todd Coffey would like to be a closer, as Hal McCoy writes.

Jeff Weaver walked away from the Cardinals' offer, but it wasn't as if the Cardinals went crazy trying to retain the pitcher, writes Bernie Miklasz.

• David O'Brien wonders what the Braves will do about left field.

Felix Hernandez has been eating a lot of chicken and salad, writes David Andriesen.

Ron Washington is talking about a possible turnaround in Texas, as Jan Hubbard writes.

Nolan Ryan is still expected to attend the camp that he and Jeff Bagwell are running for the Astros' top young players.

Bing Devine was a man of contrasts, writes Tom Wheatley.

• Colleague Willie Weinbaum filed these notes from the New York Baseball Writers dinner on Sunday night:

"The evening began with a moment of silence for Hall of Famer Jack Lang of the New York Daily News and Long Island Press, who died of liver disease on Thursday at age 85. Lang, who ran the annual event for more than 30 years, is credited with keeping the tradition going and for having MLB's top annual awards presented at the N.Y. Chapter BBWAA dinner.

"On a night when the dais featured the widows of Jackie Robinson and Elston Howard, Howard's daughter Cheryl sang the national anthem. It was a special moment, with the approaching 60th anniversary of Robinson's historic April 15, 1947, major-league debut and with Frank Robinson one of the evening's main honorees.

"A deposed manager was the evening's first award winner, as Joe Girardi collected National League Manager of the Year honors for his work with the Florida Marlins. Girardi, who is returning to the broadcast booth for the Yankees and Fox, gave an emotional tribute to his wife, Kim, whom he met when they were students at Northwestern. Girardi later presented the National League Cy Young Award to the Diamondbacks' Brandon Webb.

" In receiving the AL Manager of the Year award, the Tigers' Jim Leyland downplayed his role in the team's stunning turnaround. 'You're either the victim or the beneficiary of the players' performance. In 2006, I was the beneficiary.'

"The Cardinals' diminutive David Eckstein received the Babe Ruth World Series MVP Award from longtime St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Rick Hummel, a 2007 Hall of Fame selection, who noted that Ruth's arms probably weighed more than Eckstein's torso. The partisan crowd of more than 700 New Yorkers seemed uneasy when Eckstein, who said any of his teammates could have won the award, paid specific tribute to catcher Yadier Molina, who helped derail the Mets in the NLCS with a a ninth-inning home run in Game 7.

"In presenting the Mets' 48-year-old Julio Franco with the "Milton Richman 'You Gotta Have Heart' Award," general manager Omar Minaya recounted offering Franco's agent a two-year contract when he was only seeking a one-year deal. Minaya called the signing, and removal of Franco from rival Atlanta's clubhouse, one of his most important moves. Perhaps, said Minaya, the presentation to the ageless Franco could be the Satchel Paige award.

"Sparky Lyle was one of two Yankee honorees; Reggie Jackson was the other. Lyle, who received the chapter's "Casey Stengel You Could Look it Up Award," said of his role in the night's nearly four-hour program, 'it's the only time I've been around any sportswriter who said, 'please be brief.'

"The Red Sox's Jonathan Papelbon had something in common with Alex Rodriguez. Papelbon was booed when his presence in the crowd was noted, and A-Rod, who wasn't in attendance, was mildly booed when his image appeared in a video presentation.

"The Mets' Tom Glavine presented the American League Cy Young to Johan Santana of the Twins and said he had been a fan of his, 'until he told me he used to watch me growing up.' Glavine later received the "Ben Epstein Good Guy Award" for cooperating with the media and attributed his approach to lessons his parents taught and to the example of former teammate Dale Murphy. Glavine said, 'It's OK to be accountable.'

"Arline Howard, flanked by Rachel Robinson, recounted a conversation between Jackie Robinson and her late husband Elston, the first African-American player for the Yankees, one of the last teams to integrate. 'Jackie told him, I consider your job tougher than mine, because I had the front office behind me.'

"Rachel Robinson presented the Rookie of the Year awards, named for her late husband, to the Tigers' Justin Verlander and the Marlins' Hanley Ramirez. The evening's most emotional moment was when Ramirez turned toward and lauded his former manager Joe Girardi, and said, 'I love you Joe. God bless you.'

"Three hours into the evening and not a word at the lectern about steroids, until comedian Bill Scheft's politically incorrect performance. Not three minutes into his act, Scheft introduced the 's' word. He said that Mark McGwire didn't attend, because McGwire heard one of the dinner courses would be an Italian dish and he "didn't want to talk about the pasta." McGwire, Scheft said, took andro just to be able to lift 'that giant son of his.'

"Bud Selig wasn't at the dinner, but Scheft posed the question, 'When is Bud going to come down hard on Barry Bonds?' Bonds' reported blame of teammate Mark Sweeney for a positive amphetamines test was, said Scheft, 'the first time Bonds gave a teammate credit for anything.' Scheft went on to take shots at the size of Bonds's head.

"Scheft said that the achievements of the 5-foot-6 Eckstein are a lesson, 'this is what happens when you don't take human growth hormone.'

"Hall of Fame slugger Reggie Jackson and Dodgers knuckleballer Charlie Hough, whose paths crossed when the Yankees' Jackson took Hough deep for his third homer on three pitches in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series, were presented with the 'Willie, Mickey and the Duke Award' for players forever linked. Hough joked that the mammoth shot by Jackson was aided by the wind and that the Yankees had someone with binoculars notify Jackson that the pitch would be a knuckleball.

"The Twins' Justin Morneau rectified an omission he made when he was first announced as the AL MVP; on Sunday night he mentioned his girlfriend. Morneau, who beat out the Yankees' Derek Jeter for the honor, expressed surprise that he wasn't booed.

"Willie Randolph called Frank Robinson a mentor and a friend, in presenting him with the "William J. Slocum Award for long and meritorious service." He said Robinson was the first to call him when the Mets named Randolph their manager. Robinson, who was not retained as manager of the Washington Nationals, said, 'I'm not ready to leave [the game] - - a lot of people are trying to push me out the door.' An award winner at the 1967 festivities, Robinson said of the 40-year gap between dinners, "now that I'm unemployed, I can use a good meal.'

"Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr., the two newest Hall of Famers, were on hand. Gwynn presented two awards to the Phillies' Ryan Howard, including the NL MVP, and enthusiastically described a call he got from Howard before last season. Howard wanted to work out with Gwynn at San Diego State. Gwynn marveled, and so did his collegians, when the 2005 NL Rookie of the Year traveled across the country and worked and worked for two days, hitting off a tee."