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Thursday, March 19, 2009
Spring rumblings: Astros, Pedro, a young Brave

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The strange spring of 2009 rumbles on …

HELLO, HOUSTON: Clubs that have spoken with the Astros say that in the wake of the loss of Aaron Boone, they'll give Chris Johnson every opportunity to win Boone's spot as a platoon third baseman and utility man. But here are a few names that could still show up on their shopping list in the next two weeks: Juan Uribe (Giants), Jose Bautista (Blue Jays) and Jeff Baker (Rockies).

USELESS SPRING TIDBIT OF THE CENTURY: Has any team ever piled up a crazier spring record than the Astros? Nineteen games into spring training, they have two more ties than wins. They're 1-15-3 through Wednesday, if you haven't been hanging on those Grapefruit League standings. "If that's not the ultimate spring training useless information, I don't know what is," laughed one NL exec.

GLOVE AFFAIR: The most-heard observation about the Yankees this spring: That team could have serious, and potentially fatal, defensive issues. They're range-challenged in left, in right and at shortstop. They have reliability issues at second. Alex Rodriguez is now a major question on every level. And nobody knows what kind of defensive catcher Jorge Posada is capable of being over the long haul. There are rumblings the Yankees are poking around again on Mike Cameron's availability.

PEDRO'S PRICE TAG: At last check, Pedro Martinez was still looking for (depending on whom you believe) $6 million to $8 million guaranteed. And if that's the price, he won't be a Dodger. Here's the big question teams have about Pedro, as enticing as he may have looked against those fearsome Dutchmen in the WBC: So he proved he can go through a lineup once -- in March. But does anyone have any clue whether he can go through a lineup three times and still look like the real Pedro? And even if he can in April, can he still do it in August and September? "You're not trying to sign a guy to make three starts," said one GM. "If you're a team with designs on going to the postseason, you're talking about 37 starts. That's a long way from pitching a few innings against the Netherlands."

IF NOT PEDRO THEN ...: Our spies in Arizona say that if the season started today, Eric Milton would be the Dodgers' fifth starter. For you triviologists, Milton's last win was waayyy back on Aug. 8, 2006, as a Red. He's working on a streak of 13 straight big league starts without a win. But he's throwing 90-91 miles per hour again, with command, presence and health. So he's a guy to watch.

WHERE THERE'S A WILL: Last I heard, the last of the free-agent left-handers, Will Ohman, was looking for a one-year deal in the neighborhood of $1.75 million, with easily reachable incentives that could add close to another $1 million on top of that. Also hearing Ohman wants to stay on the West Coast. So with the Dodgers not interested in approaching that price, the Padres and Giants would seem to be the teams at the front of this line. The Phillies and Marlins also remain interested, but not at those dollars.

GIANTS-PHILLIES RUMBLING: Another left-handed bullpen option I've heard connected with Philadelphia: the Giants' Jack Taschner, a guy the Phillies also pursued before the trading deadline last year. The Giants are asking for "young players" in return, according to another club that spoke with them.

THE FALL OF DONTRELLE: A scout who has seen a lot of the Tigers this spring says Dontrelle Willis has thrown so badly that "I don't think he's in their [rotation] mix at all." When Willis sacrifices stuff for command, he can still throw strikes. "But when he gets in favorable counts and has the leeway to add a little more stuff," the scout said, "it goes all over the place." This guy has $22 million coming the next two years ($10 million this year, $12 million next). So while the Tigers need his permission to send him to the minors, he'd have to say yes -- or forfeit that money.

BRAVE NEW WORLD: Scouts can't stop buzzing about the Braves' young talent, especially dazzling 19-year-old outfield stud Jason Heyward. Here's one typical review: "Looks like Darryl Strawberry -- only with more bat speed." And another: "Cross between Fred McGriff and Dave Parker." And another, less serious review: "I think he needs to work on his size." OK, maybe not. Heyward is 6-foot-4, 220 pounds worth of monstrosity.

HOW MIXED UP IS THE AL CENTRAL: You'd be amazed how many people think the Royals have a chance to steal the AL Central.

HOW MIXED UP IS THE NL CENTRAL: One more reason the Cubs had better win the NL Central: Their payroll (pushing $140 million) is more than $40 million higher than the next-closest team in their division (St. Louis, at $93 million).

ATTENTION SHOPPERS: A few extra parts who are being made available right now: Blue Jays reliever Shawn Camp, Astros reliever Geoff Geary, Royals catcher John Buck, Phillies outfielder Geoff Jenkins. Counting Jenkins' $1.25 million buyout of his 2010 option, he's still owed $8 million. The Phillies have offered to pay "almost all of it," according to one club, but still haven't found a taker.

IN THE CHASE: The art of self-preservation is one you'll never find on Chase Utley's radar screen. In the first inning of his second spring training game of the year, following hip surgery, he decided he absolutely, positively had to dive after a ground-ball single up the middle. The occupants of the Phillies' dugout are only now regaining consciousness. "He's amazing," said one scout. "He looks like he never had any surgery at all. He doesn't look restricted in any phase of the game."

HISTORIC SPRING BOX-SCORE TAG TEAM OF THE YEAR: Opening Day in Texas figures to feature a Kevin Millwood-Cliff Lee duel. So what do those two have in common? They've both given up 10 runs in a game this spring. Millwood did it first. Then Lee unfurled this messy line Tuesday versus (who else?) Texas: 2 2/3 IP, 11 H, 10 R, 9 ER, 1 BB, 2 K. So how rare is it for both opening-day starting pitchers to be guys who gave up at least 10 runs in a game that same spring? The Elias Sports Bureau has spring pitching lines in its database back through 1993 -- and there hasn't been a single opener like that in any of the past 16 seasons.

FINALLY ...: Aaron Boone is one of the great human beings in this sport. So I don't know anybody -- even Red Sox fans -- who don't wish him well when he meets up with his friendly neighborhood heart surgeon. Here's hoping this man has many more walk-off October home runs in him.