- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Opening Day may have come and gone without him. But you haven't seen the last of Rickey Henderson.
He's expected to sign with an independent-league team any day now. The St. Paul Saints are believed to be the front-runners, but the Atlantic City Surf and Newark Bears are among his other suitors. Wherever he lands, Rickey will have more hits (3,040) than everyone else in the league combined.
Henderson's agent, Jeff Borris, will say only that "there are 50 independent teams, and I've got the opposite problem with them that I've got (with the big leagues). I can't get one (major-league) team interested. But over there, I've got all 50 teams interested. So he's pretty much got his choice."
The idea is for Rickey to use his, um, independence to propel himself back into the big leagues by the end of the summer, a la Jose Canseco's experience with the Newark Bears a couple of years ago. If that doesn't work, the clock on Henderson's Hall of Fame eligibility would keep running.
Which raises the following question: Has anyone ever been unavailable to make their Hall of Fame acceptance speech because they had to play a game in the Northern League?
It isn't such a bad thing sometimes to be an in-season free agent. Shane Reynolds, released by the Astros last month, threw Tuesday for scouts from eight teams -- the Rangers, Reds, Braves, Mariners, Mets, Red Sox, Dodgers and Cardinals. And he's expected to sign with one of those teams by the end of the week.
The Mets were once the favorite -- until two tentative deals with them were apparently squelched by the commissioner's office. But now they appear to have been passed by Texas, Seattle and Cincinnati. And the Braves are believed to have increased their level of interest in the wake of Paul Byrd's latest elbow flareup.
One observer at Tuesday's workout said Reynolds threw 110 pitches, and his fastball topped out at 87 mph. He also threw his splitter, changeup and cutter with reasonably good command.
He'll make just the $300,000 minimum this year, since the Astros already are on the hook to pay him $1 million. But the team that winds up signing him will probably be the club that presents the best option-buyout package for next year (including escalator clauses based on this year's performance).
When good teams make changes, you can look at them a lot of different ways. The Braves may have found their changes confusing. But the Giants -- who remade half their lineup and a chunk of their rotation -- appear to have found theirs invigorating.
"If you go back to 1996-97, the nucleus of that team went through six years together," says Giants assistant GM Ned Colletti. "Those guys played their butts off for six years. In six years, they played 11 games that didn't mean something. And we couldn't have done that without every one of them. We started with a bunch of good players who raised their game and became great players -- Jeff Kent, Rich Aurilia, J.T. Snow. Even Barry Bonds became a better player.
"But because that team had to play its butts off every day, there was no time for that group to get refreshed. So it might have been time for a change. In some ways, we were forced to do what we did this winter. But it might be the best thing for everybody. It's tough, because you tend to fall in love with your players, and you can convince yourselves to go with the guys you've got. But that's not always the best thing."
The Pirates aren't pretending they're the Yankees after their great start. But there's a big difference between their hot start this year and their hot start last year: This year, they're legit. Last year, even when they got out of the gates 5-1 and 12-5, they knew they didn't have the thump or pitching to sustain it.
Just the mere fact that two-thirds of their outfield (Reggie Sanders, Kenny Lofton) was last seen starting for the Giants in the World Series gives the club a different "presence," says Brian Giles. "And people feed off that."
Sanders, Lofton and Randall Simon also give them a much deeper lineup: "We've got more guys throughout our lineup who can drive a run in," says Giles, the hitter who figures to benefit most from that depth. "There's not just one or two or three of us."
But the biggest problem last year was starting pitching. Now Kris Benson has shown signs of true acehood. Josh Fogg and Kip Wells won 12 games apiece last year. And at least Jeff Suppan and Jeff D'Amico, the fourth and fifth starters, "are guys who have a track record," Giles says.
"We may not have five dominating starters," says manager Lloyd McClendon. "But this game is about matchups every day -- is my pitcher better than your pitcher. And there are a lot of days I like my chances."
It would have been impossible to look at a starting rotation that began the year with 21 career wins and predict that a week into the season, the Royals would have five fewer losses than the Diamondbacks. In fact, K.C. is the first 100-loss team in history to start the next season 5-0. But everyone in baseball knew the Royals' young arms were coming. The only question was when.
Runelvys Hernandez "has No. 1 starter stuff," says one NL executive. "He's got terrific poise, a lot of intangibles and above-average stuff across the board."
And now that Jeremy Affeldt has cured his blister problems, his stuff is so ferocious that "on a contender, he's a 15-to-18-game winner," says the same exec. "All he needs is experience -- and some pickle brine."
A scout who watched the Red Sox last week says the problem so far hasn't necessarily been the bullpen-by-committee concept. It's been the committee members. Here's his review of their bullpen crew:
Bobby Howry: "Not the same guy he was a few years ago. He's a middle guy now -- tops."
The Phillies got mildly panicky this spring over Jimmy Rollins' .206 batting average. But people outside the organization look at Rollins and see a guy who is only 24, who can run, who plays the heck out of shortstop and whose main "fault" is simply being asked to be something he's not -- a prototype leadoff man.
"He's always been one of my favorites," says one veteran scout. "I love the way he approaches the game, the way he prepares for a game and how much he loves to play. I just think sometimes, when expectations are as high as they are for that entire club, people can expect too much too quick.
"Look around. There are almost no prototype leadoff hitters anymore. If they're looking for one, hey, Rickey (Henderson) is still out of work. I just know I'd take my chances with Jimmy Rollins any day. Just pencil him in and let him play. You don't have to reinvent the wheel with that guy."
Mike Timlin: "His stuff is fine. But you still don't want him in there at the end of the game. He gets excited. Then he elevates the ball and makes mistakes."
Alan Embree: "Boy, his stuff just is not like it was last year. His fastball is 3 or 4 miles an hour softer. And he doesn't make left-handers give at all. He comes right over the top with his fastball. And he throws like one breaking ball every 25 pitches."
Ramiro Mendoza: "He's not the same guy, either. He used to pitch at 89-93 (mph). Now he's more like 87-90."
Chad Fox: "He still has great stuff. But he's coming off an injury. So he needs to be eased in."
Brandon Lyon: "He's got the best stuff out there. But he's a guy they claimed on waivers. So that tells you you need to go slow with him, too, until you see what you've got over time."
But if scouts see that bullpen crew as being shakier than the much-maligned bullpen philosophy, they also think the most underappreciated player on the whole Red Sox roster is Shea Hillenbrand.
"Am I missing something?" asks one NL executive. "Why would they want to trade this guy? He's one of the best hitters I saw all spring. I know he might not be as selective as they'd like. But you can teach a guy to be selective. You can't teach a guy to hit the ball as hard as this guy does. He can flat-out hit."
He was also flat-out leading the league in RBI after the first week, following a spring in which he was able to block out all the trade rumors and hit .448.
"I'll tell you what," says his manager, Grady Little. "Somebody with a little less character might not have been able to do that. But this guy is a hell of a kid. And as a hitter, he gets better and better."
"I've gone back and forth on him a lot," says one scout of Almonte. "But it's amazing how much he emulates Jeter -- his mannerisms, the way he carries himself. Even though he's bigger physically, he's even got the same gait. But Jeter is so quick and instinctive. This kid is long in everything he does. I've seen him get caught on in-between hops. His footwork can get tangled on him. He won't be as consistent as they'd like him to be. But I'll say this: He's as good as they'd get if they tried to trade for somebody. Nobody wants to do them any favors."
Scouts who have been watching the Reds, both this spring and early this season, say Danny Graves continues to look uncomfortable as a starter -- and it wouldn't surprise anyone if Graves eventually returns to the bullpen. The Reds have Chris Reitsma in Triple-A, and Pete Harnisch could be ready to pitch in the big leagues by the end of the month. So their need for a starter might not be as dire as it was early on.
More buzz from folks around the Reds: Barry Larkin has all but put up a billboard to get across his message that he has no interest in embarrassing himself by playing center field while Junior Griffey is out. But the Reds quietly prefer Felipe Lopez at short, so they're looking for ways to play him there as much as possible. And former Rangers phenom Ruben Mateo would seem to be the logical candidate to get the bulk of the playing time in center -- but manager Bob Boone isn't viewed as the president of Mateo's fan club.
Are there two faster guys at the top of any order than Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli in Tampa Bay? Baldelli was clocked from home to first in 3.8 seconds -- from the right side -- twice in the first week. Crawford was timed at 3.9 from the left side. And the two of them got an incomprehensible five infield hits in one game Wednesday. Of course, it lasted 16 innings.
"It's really fun watching those two guys," says one scout. "And it's really difficult watching the other guys on that team."
A week into the season, the once-omnipotent Francisco (K-Rod) Rodriguez had a 12.00 ERA, with five baserunners, four earned runs, a homer and a Sunday Night Baseball blown save in his first three innings of the season. Which doesn't necessarily mean the league has figured him out. But ...
"What the A's did against him was wait him out," says one AL scout. "That slider he throws isn't a strike very often. So if you swing at it, either you won't hit it or it's an easy out. So their philosophy was: Don't swing at that pitch. Be patient until you can get a fastball in your zone. And that worked."
If the Giants hadn't gone to the World Series, Robb Nen probably wouldn't be on the disabled list right now. Nen's postseason obligations postponed his arthroscopic shoulder surgery for a month -- and all the pitches he had to throw in the playoffs took their toll on his shoulder before the surgery.
So he wound up trying to rush back in spring training and wasn't quite ready by Opening Day. But he's expected back in the next few weeks -- with left-hander Jason Christiansen (out all last year after Tommy John surgery) not many weeks behind.
In the meantime, the current bullpen went into Tuesday night with a 2.01 ERA (0.50 if you subtract Felix Rodriguez). So Nen's trip to the DL could actually be a blessing in disguise for a team on which almost everything has gone right so far.
In Texas, Hank Blalock is off to a great start (.464, three home runs in his first seven games). But not everyone is ready to say Blalock has officially arrived.
"Every hit he got was in the same spot," says one scout. "Waist high. Middle of the plate. I'm anxious to see what happens when he's not getting all fastballs and hanging sliders right down the middle."
The same scout says of struggling rookie Mark Teixeira (0 for his first 15): "He's where Blalock was last year. He hit a lot of fastballs in spring training. Now he's getting all the slop, and he's not handling it. He really ought to be back in Triple-A. He's not ready yet."
OK, everybody who predicted Marlins shortstop Alex Gonzalez would have more home runs (four) in the first week than the Phillies (three), raise your hands. But as frustrating as Gonzalez may have been so far in his career, we keep hearing this might not be an apparition.
"That Gonzalez," says Braves manager Bobby Cox, "is playing his tail off right now."
And an NL scout says: "He's made some mechanical changes in his swing that have totally changed him. He's really shortened up his stroke. And he's much stronger looking. I wouldn't be shocked if he hits some home runs in bunches this year. I've really been impressed with how he's gone about his business."
On the other hand, scouts watching the Marlins have been struck by Pudge Rodriguez's defensive shortcomings. Josh Beckett said on Opening Day he should have shaken off more signs. In the second game of the season, Carl Pavano stepped off the mound repeatedly when he found himself out of sync with his catcher. And Pudge's three early passed balls had scouts shaking their heads.
"He was just flat missing high fastballs," says one scout. "I don't know whether he was getting crossed up or what. But he wasn't moving too hot back there."
A's pitching coach Rick Peterson shortened Lilly's stride this spring. This resulted in an excellent spring for Lilly, followed by a great opening start (7 1/3 IP, three hits allowed) last Friday against the Angels.
Wagner spent the spring working a sharp breaking ball into his repertoire because he felt he needed another pitch. And the results have been scary (12 IP, 6 H, 1 BB, 20 K in spring training -- and a 0.00 ERA after four regular-season outings). Add a breaking ball that good to Wagner's supersonic fastball, and he's Randy Johnson -- "except a foot shorter," chuckled one NL scout.
Finally, our bobblehead czar, loyal reader David Hallstrom, reports that despite the Royals' hot start, they failed to give away 20,000 Mike Sweeney bobblehead dolls Saturday -- because only 19,912 fans showed up.
That's the bad news. The goods news is: That beats last year, when they tried to hold Carlos Beltran bobblehead day twice -- and got rained out the first time, then drew 4,473 fewer fans than they had bobbleheads the second time.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
With no big-league takers, Rickey Henderson is expected to soon sign with an independent league team.