Return to St. Louis could be in cards for Finley
Need a lefty? Here's one that won more second-half games than Roger Clemens last year and is looking for work.
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.
"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.
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."
"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."
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."
"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."
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."
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."
"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.
"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."
|“||You can just see he's got it, whatever `it' is. He can deal with adversity. He's a unique kid. ”|
|— One scout on Devil Rays OF Rocco Baldelli|
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."
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.
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