- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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No announcements are expected at next week's owners meetings on the future of the Expos. But it appears that the future of the franchise will be a topic of more extensive conversation than it has been at any time since baseball took on ownership of the team.
And more and more, according to several sources we've spoken with in the last week, signs point toward the relocation committee recommending that this club finally be allowed to move to the only city that makes sense in the short or long term -- Washington.
If baseball is as intent as it now seems on moving the team for next year, the fact is, there's no other destination on the short list that's even remotely logical.
Washington has an acceptable major-league ballpark in the short term (RFK Stadium) -- and it's believed that the relocation committee was told this month, by the mayor and two powerful city council members, that it can put a long-term ballpark deal together in 45 days if MLB just gives the thumbs up.
Las Vegas, on the other hand, has major short-term hang ups (namely, a Triple-A park with 9,500 seats). And the Las Vegas Sun's Rob Miech reported this week that in the long term, the financing for a new ballpark would be modeled after the heavily private funding of SBC Park in San Francisco -- a model commissioner Bud Selig often has told people is not acceptable.
Then there is Monterrey, Mexico, which has made impressive presentations. But the players' union is said to have doubts about its viability as a major-league market. And baseball doesn't appear to have any interest in a one-year experimental relocation that would be designed to prove otherwise.
So the only real obstacle to D.C. at this point is Orioles owner Peter Angelos. But keep in mind that since it would be a National League team moving down the beltway, Angelos has no legal right to block this move or ask for damages.
Selig undoubtedly would attempt to find a way to make Angelos happy -- or richer. But that's the commish's challenge -- not Washington's. And if you've observed Selig at all over the years, you know that any time he's determined to find a solution to a problem, he finds one.
And we're betting he'll find one here, too -- once he concludes Washington is not only his most logical option. It's really his only option.
It tells you all you need to know about the selflessness of Jose Vidro that he is on the verge of accepting a below-market deal to remain with the Expos. Not many people in this sport would use loyalty as a reason to sign with a team that figures to have a new owner, city, manager and roster before his extension even kicks in. But that's Vidro.
Orlando Cabrera, on the other hand, is less certain to sign on than Vidro or Livan Hernandez, whom the Expos signed to a three-year extension a few weeks ago. There have been no serious negotiations between the team and Cabrera's agent, Dan Lozano. And Cabrera may choose to wait a while to see if the fate of the franchise comes into better focus before making any decisions.
More Rumblings & Grumblings
The vibes in Florida suggest that the Marlins are increasingly likely to wind up staying in Miami and building their retractable-domed ballpark near the Orange Bowl.
The completion of local funding depends on the city being able to sell the old Miami Arena, but all sides appear confident of that. So the remaining financial piece would be the $30 million the team has been seeking from the state, through a sales-tax rebate.
It now seems probable the Marlins will attempt to go back to the legislature in the fall, once all the other dots have been connected, and try one last time. But at this point, it's harder than ever to envision the community letting the team bolt Florida over an amount that represents such a small percentage of a $325-million package -- or the team even wanting to bolt in the first place.
One big reason the Astros have looked so much better offensively (up almost a run a game) is the revival of Craig Biggio in the leadoff hole (.316 batting average, .372 on-base percentage, with a team-high seven home runs).
"His bat is so much quicker than last year," said one scout. "And his swing is shorter. He's hitting fastballs now he wasn't catching up to before. The reason, I think, is, he has better mechanics at the plate. He's gotten away from that squish-the-bug leg lift, and it's really helped him."
On the other hand, one NL executive thinks the Astros' biggest concern is Octavio Dotel, even though his first blown save this week was tainted by defensive issues.
"With that arm slot, he can't get the ball across his body and get it in on left-handed hitters," the executive said. "And that could be a major problem. Certain guys can't do that role. And I don't know if Dotel can do it."
The Marlins are getting good reports on Chad Fox's elbow. But they continue to hunt for set-up help. Teams that have spoken with them say they've inquired about Milwaukee's Luis Vizcaino, Kansas City's Mike MacDougal and Cincinnati's John Riedling. But none of those clubs is in selling mode yet.
One front-office man said he'd heard rumblings of a three-way deal among the Marlins, Reds and Yankees in which Jose Contreras would have been the centerpiece. But there doesn't appear to be any substance to that one.
If you had Joe Mauer in the Rookie-of-the-Year derby or on your fantasy-league roster, hang in there. He's expected back in Minnesota in a couple of weeks.
"He's doing well in his rehab," said Twins GM Terry Ryan. "But I'm not going to do anything that could set him back in any way. We're looking at a potential major impact guy into the next decade. So I think we can get through two more weeks."
With the draft less than a month away, the Padres appear to be down to three options with the No. 1 overall pick -- Long Beach State ace right-hander Jered (Brother of Jeff) Weaver, Rice righty Jeff Niemann or Florida State shortstop Stephen (Brother of J.D.) Drew.
But Niemann has been set back by health issues. And Drew has turned off a bunch of teams by displaying, in one scout's words, "no energy at all." So Weaver -- who spun a 17-strikeout one-hitter with Padres GM Kevin Towers in attendance -- looks like a near lock.
The Padres would know they were setting themselves up for the usual hardballing by Weaver's agent, Scott Boras. But it's hard to believe Weaver would give up a chance to play in Southern California over an extra million bucks. And that's a bet the Padres figure to safely make.
Elsewhere on this site, Jerry Crasnick did a great job of profiling the defensive brilliance of Scott Rolen. Now here's Cardinals manager Tony La Russa on Rolen: "I always said, one thing I'd love to see some night would be to have 27 balls hit to him. Just to watch him catch them all and fire them to first. It would be just like watching a no-hitter. It would be just as entertaining."
The Mets are a long ways from writing off Kaz Matsui, based on his first month and a half in America. But scouts are seeing very little of the tools Matsui was billed as having.
"His defense is disappointing, and his range isn't as advertised," said one scout. "And his bat should be a concern. He doesn't get his lower body stabilized. He chases way too many pitches out of the strike zone. And he's going to get eaten up until he makes adjustments. He's not even as fast as advertised. We heard he was as fast as Ichiro, but Ichiro is way faster. I've seen him be out by a step and a half on plays I thought would be bang-bang."
If this keeps up, you wonder how much hoopla there will be to move Jose Reyes back to shortstop when he finally gets healthy.
One AL scout says the Angels' best free-agent outfield signee might be Jose Guillen -- not Vladimir Whatsisname.
"This guy hits balls in every zone in the strike zone," the scout said of Guillen. "I can't find a weakness in him right now. To me, he's like Sammy Sosa when Sosa was young and striking out all the time. Even back then with Sammy, the tools were evident. And that's what's happened with this kid. He's got the tools, and they're finally coming out."
A scout who has been following the Mariners expects them to start marketing Freddy Garcia soon -- unless they do a quick U-turn in the standings. But the chances of that seem to grow smaller every day.
"That's not a good club," he said. "They have so many holes to fill, I don't know where I'd start. They've got to get younger. They might have to suffer for a couple of years. But they've got good young pitching in abundance, so that's one way they can go."
"That Meche -- there's an arm I'd love to have," the scout said. "I don't know when the light is going to go on. But his stuff is so good, he's going to be a big winner."
Jim Thome has played more than a month this year with a sprained thumb -- and has still raised his batting average 55 points (from .266-.321), hiked his slugging percentage over 100 points (from .573-.679) and made enough contact that he's on a pace to cut his strikeouts by 20 (182-162) and raise his doubles from 30 to 40.
"I think, because of his thumb, he may have cut down his swing somewhat," said Phillies assistant GM Ruben Amaro. "But our overriding feeling was that Jim would make adjustments this year regardless. One thing about Jim: He really wants to live up to all his expectations, in every way. So I think last year, he probably tried to hit a lot more balls out of the ballpark, instead of just letting those home runs happen. I know (Phillies special assistant to the GM) Charlie Manuel truly believes this guy is going to hit .300. And he's well on his way to doing that."
All you need to know about how much respect Thome commands is that he's the only player in baseball this year -- besides some guy in San Francisco -- to be intentionally walked with runners on first and second.
And when La Russa bestowed that honor in the ninth inning of a one-run game on May 4, he even moved the winning run into scoring position to avoid Thome. That also meant the Cardinals had to face Pat Burrell, who had hit an upper-deck homer earlier in the same game.
"I don't think I've ever done that before," La Russa told Rumblings. "But sometimes you have to think, 'How is this club going to take it if we lose?' We know Pat Burrell can do it, because we saw him do it. But if Thome beats you, I think guys walk by this office and they think, 'What the heck is he doing?'
"Our normal thinking is, we want to compete. Well, you want to compete. But you don't want to lose the competition."
Thome's reaction: "I was like, 'Wow.' You say, 'Is this really happening?' I got down to first base, and (Albert) Pujols said, 'Man, that's respect.' I just took it as a compliment."
Aside from their unsung bullpen heroes, Akinori Otsuka and Scott Linebrink (1.33 ERA after being claimed on waivers from Houston), the Padres' biggest surprise might be Trevor Hoffman's newfound velocity.
"He's got better velocity now than before the surgery," said Towers. "His velocity now is the best it's been in five years. He's at 88-89. He'd been more like 85-86 -- for years."
Royals GM Allard Baird has hinted to at least one friend that the team could bring up hot pitching prospect Zack Greinke in the next couple of weeks. If that happens, one AL scout says the Royals could solve their bullpen problems easily -- by moving Jeremy Affeldt into the closer's role.
"I think he's Dave Righetti," the scout said. "He should be a power closer. His fastball is terrific. His breaking ball is fine when it's good. But it's a real hanger when it's bad. I'd put him out there in the bullpen and let him fire."
You still see hitters react in shock when Randy Johnson gets them to wave at his rapidly improving splitter. And you can't blame them. How many weapons should one pitcher be allowed to have?
"That split has become a real weapon," said Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly. "Since his last couple of starts last season, and in spring training and this season, it's become a legitimate weapon. It's not just a novelty pitch anymore."
While we're on the subject of novelties, it doesn't get much more novel than the sight of one player getting three bunt hits in one game. But Tigers center fielder Alex Sanchez pulled off that trick Tuesday. And if you're wondering the last time that happened (we sure did), Retrosheet's Dave Smith reports that the last known instance before Sanchez came all the way back on July 30, 1978, when (believe it or not) Richie Hebner did it.
We don't recall Hebner doing much bunting afterward. But Sanchez came back the next day and laid down another bunt hit. Which gave him seven bunt hits at home this year -- versus only 13 non-bunt hits.
"We've got a good field to bunt, because the grass is thick," said GM Dave Dombrowski. "But the thing about Alex is, he's mastered it. Last year he laid down a lot of bunts along first base. But he kept working, and this year he's been laying them down toward third, too. He practices it often. And he's so precise with it that you can put him in situations where you have guys on first and third, and ordinarily you'd want a sacrifice fly. But he can lay a bunt down out toward second base to get the run in."
"God, what a bunter," A's manager Ken Macha told Booth Newspapers' Danny Knobler this week. "He's the best I've ever seen. I don't know what to do -- unless they let us play another fielder out there."
Stats of the Week
One final word
Five months from now, when the regularly scheduled complaining begins about the baseball playoffs running past midnight in the east, can someone remember to bring up the NBA?
If baseball had a marquee series remotely resembling Lakers-Spurs -- and Game 6 was scheduled to start at 10:30 p.m. Eastern time -- we'd be reading columns from every TV critic in America about baseball turning its back on its fans. Not to mention 100 letters to the editor from fans saying they would never watch another baseball game.
But the NBA gets its usual pass. Just more proof of the double standard relentlessly applied to baseball, versus all those other sports. Got an explanation for that? We'd love to hear it.
The Expos remain a team in limbo, but relocating the club to Washington D.C. seems more and more likely.