- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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In case you'd forgotten, there's a left-handed starting pitcher out there who won more games in the second half last season (seven) than Roger Clemens, Al Leiter or Javier Vazquez -- and he's still unemployed.
That would be a fellow named Chuck Finley, who is currently taking care of family business but is interested in signing somewhere soon, according to a friend of Finley.
Finley isn't allowed to sign with his previous team, the Cardinals, before May 1, because they offered him arbitration last winter and he declined it. The question many people have been asking, though, is this: If Finley signs with a club other than the Cardinals after May 1, would that team have to give up a first-round draft pick to the Cardinals as compensation?
The answer -- according to Michael Weiner, associate general counsel of the Players Association -- is: It depends.
If Finley signs a MAJOR-LEAGUE contract with another team before the June draft, when that compensation pick would be awarded, then the new club would lose its pick. But if he signs a MINOR-LEAGUE contract with another club before the draft and isn't back in the big leagues before the draft, then there is no compensation. If he signs any kind of contract after the draft, compensation is no longer an issue.
Regardless, the Cardinals -- who still have no left-handers in the rotation -- remain interested. And while Finley would prefer to stay on the West Coast for the sake of his kids, he has told friends that returning to St. Louis is still "a possibility" if nothing more convenient develops.
Still nothing new on Rickey Henderson's journey to an independent league near you. A week ago, Henderson was believed to be leaning toward signing with the St. Paul Saints. Now he's apparently tilting more toward the Atlantic League because their season starts sooner (May 1) than the Northern League season does (May 23). So the latest speculation seems to center on the Camden River Sharks, just across the river from Philadelphia.
With Erick Almonte up to five errors already, the Yankees have quietly begun looking around for a shortstop upgrade, according to clubs that have spoken with them. They've been asking around about super-utility types who could still play a role after Jeter returns.
With Carlos Beltran returning to the Royals' lineup, you can look for a steady stream of Beltran trade rumors to keep filling up Rumor Central in the coming weeks. The Royals have made it clear they still intend to keep actively attempting to trade him. And while there are definite suitors, it's still tough to find clubs that match up with the Royals' asking price (which starts with a premier young third baseman).
"There's just a dearth of third basemen throughout the minor leagues right now," one National League executive said. "At a certain point, they may have to adjust and take something else, take the best young catcher out there or whatever."
The Royals can't afford to pay Mike Lowell or Adrian Beltre. They love Hank Blalock, but it looks less and less likely Texas will deal him. Sean Burroughs' name has popped up, but the jury is out on him, too. ("Way too much hype," one scout said. "I need to see him prove he's a run-producer.") So this could drag on a while.
Because the Yankees are 12-3, and because their starters are 10-0, the state of their bullpen hasn't gotten much attention. But that bullpen currently has a 5.63 ERA. So one scout who has been watching them laughs: "Now they know what the rest of us feel like."
For years, this has been the deepest and most dependable bullpen in the game. But now, with Mariano Rivera and Steve Karsay on the DL and Mike Stanton and Ramiro Mendoza deported, "they're struggling," the scout said. "And I think they're going to continue to struggle, even when Karsay gets back. I still think they miss Stanton. No matter how Chris Hammond does, you can't pitch him as much as they did Stanton." And not having that daily go-to guy has had a ripple effect on the whole bullpen.
The same scout's review of Jose Contreras: "Looks like he's scared to death."
Another scout who has followed the Yankees describes Roger Clemens as being "on a mission" this year, from Day 1.
"He came out of the gate in spring training throwing nails, and he's been the same way since the season started," the scout said. "They'll have to watch his innings. But he looks like he wants to get that 300th win out of the way as quick as possible. And at this rate, he will."
The rumblings won't stop that Mets general manager Steve Phillips might not survive the season -- or even the first half -- if the Mets don't turn it around. One baseball man who is closely hooked in on the Mets scene says Fred Wilpon's son, Jeff, has already begun "making waves" about changing GMs. And it's no secret he has his father's ear.
The more we survey baseball people about the Tigers, the more we wonder if they'll even win 50 games.
One AL scout's evaluation: "They've got a chance to threaten the '62 Mets (40-120). They really do. They can't catch the ball. They don't hit. They've got a couple of pitchers who are OK. But their kids have no energy and their veterans provide no leadership. They're in worse shape than Tampa Bay because at least Tampa Bay has the best manager in the league. Lou can only do so much over there, but at least they're all afraid not to play their tails off."
Speaking of managers of mediocre teams, Ned Yost can't turn the Brewers into the Atlanta of the midwest singlehandedly. But two different scouts this week said they thought he'd brought a new level of professionalism to a club that was previously only a model of chaos.
"They were in such a state of disarray for such a long time," one NL scout said. "But I saw them in spring training, and I've seen them this month. And at least he's brought them a program and gotten them organized. He used to run spring training with Atlanta, so when he got to Milwaukee, from Day 1, they knew exactly what they were going to do until the last day of spring training. It was all mapped out. And that's a big difference from what went on there in the past."
"They've obviously got a lot of work to do to be good," another scout said. "But I like the way he's handled that team. They look like a professional team now. They go out for BP, and they all wear the same BP tops. They go about their business the right way before the game. At least they're trying to be a professional team."
After the Mariners' 13-inning game with Texas last weekend left their bullpen unpopulated, Ichiro Suzuki told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's John Hickey that he would love to pitch. He even said he was once brought into the 1996 All-Star Game in Japan to face Hideki Matsui. But Matsui's manager foiled that duel by sending up a pitcher to pinch-hit.
Seattle manager Bob Melvin says the only time he'll use Ichiro to pitch is "never." But supposed he did. Who wouldn't want to see this man take his bionic arm to the mound some night?
"I bet you'd he throw in the low 90s," one AL scout said. "But we all know some guys who throw in the high 90s and still get their butt kicked. So it would be interesting.
"But I know one thing," the scout said. "As an opponent, I'd love to see it -- for two reasons: It would get him out of right field. And they'd lose their DH, so it would also mean you'd get Edgar (Martinez) out of the lineup. So hell, I'd be all for it."
Tell us this really happened -- that Randy Johnson gave up 10 runs in 4 2/3 innings to the Brewers, a team he'd beaten 11 straight times. Well, it did, unless they're just making up these box scores nowadays.
But what one scout in attendance found particularly mind-boggling was the sight of two left-handed hitters -- Alex Sanchez and Geoff Jenkins -- going 5-for-6 in that game against the Unit. As recently as Johnson's first season in Arizona (1999), left-handed hitters got nine hits all SEASON against him (9-for-87).
"You could tell something was up the first hitter of the game, when his second fastball was only 92, and Sanchez ripped one down the right-field line," the scout said. "I've never seen left-handed hitters stay in there against him the way they did that day. He was opening up, and they got good looks at him. His arm slot was lower. And they weren't bailing out the way they usually do.
"I'm not sure if he was favoring his knee, or what. But he wasn't finishing his pitches. His slider had no bite. His front side opened up early. And his velocity wasn't what it's been in the past. He touched 96 once to strike out a hitter. But there were a lot of 92s and 93s."
But Johnson wasn't the only guy who boggled minds by giving up 10 runs in a game. Here's one scout's take on Roy Oswalt's 10-run disaster against the Cardinals last weekend: "He had unbelievable control -- right down the middle. I just think he got a quick five-run lead, and it looked like he was basically kind of cruising, instead of making good pitches."
Thirty home runs were hit in the first nine games at Cincinnati's new Great American Ballpark, the fourth-most of any park ever built. So the Surgeon General ought to post a warning to visitors that pitching in this park could be hazardous to their ERAs.
"People talk about that park in Houston," one scout said. "But at least there, if you keep the ball in the middle of the field, it's deep enough that you can pitch all day. But there's no safe place to go in Cincinnati, because the park plays so small all over. I saw Todd Pratt hit a ball last weekend that I thought was a pop fly. It hit the top of the wall."
The Reds in their first nine games at home: 17 home runs. In their first seven games on the road: 3 home runs.
One scout's nomination for the most improved hitter in the National League so far: Cardinals catcher Mike Matheny.
"He's really changed his approach," the scout said. "He's crouching up there. He's got a little routine, and he's staying on the ball a lot better. He's shooting the ball to right field a lot, but he's putting the ball in play hard every time up. If he can keep doing that, they've got themselves a hell of a player, because defensively, he's as good as it gets. He handles that staff great. He blocks the ball in the dirt. He's an All-Star if he hits."
One of the most amazing stories in baseball so far is Rocco Baldelli. At 21 years old -- with 166 at-bats above A-ball -- Baldelli started his career with a 13-game hitting streak. According to Devil Rays media-relations wiz Rick Vaughn, Baldelli was also the first rookie to get 24 hits in his team's first 14 games of any season since the legendary Coco Laboy did it for the 1969 expansion Expos.
But he did it despite drawing ZERO walks in his first 64 big-league plate appearances, and despite striking out once every 3.5 at-bats (18 times). And he has almost as many infield hits (four) as extra-base hits (six).
"I've always thought this kid could cut this mentally," said one scout who has watched Baldelli since high school. "With 90 percent of kids at this stage, there's no way you'd even think of rushing them. But I think he's the exception to the rule. I've just always liked the way he handled himself, the way he carried himself from level to level. You can just see he's got it, whatever `it' is. He can deal with adversity. He's a unique kid. There's no doubt in my mind -- he's special."
Finally, after watching the emotional aura that hung over Michael Jordan's last basketball game this week, we started wondering whether there was a similar atmosphere at Jordan's last baseball game. So, with the help of the folks at SportsTicker, we checked it out.
The date: Sept. 3, 1994 -- Jordan's Birmingham team at Huntsville. His Airness created plenty of air that day -- by going 0 for 4, with two strikeouts. He played left field and batted sixth that day, right ahead of DH Chris Tremie, right behind CF Kevin Coughlin. But unlike his basketball finale, his team won, 4-2, with two runs in the ninth.
We're sure the 7,897 folks in attendance would have gotten seriously misty-eyed, if they'd only known at the time that it was his final game. But they didn't.
"In fact," said his manager at the time, Terry Francona, "we were both heading for the Arizona Fall League about a week later. So instead of handing him a Mercedes and a Bentley, he got a Coors Lite on the bus -- and a `See ya next week.' "
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Need a lefty? This one won more second-half games than Roger Clemens last year and is available.