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Big Unit in top shape, minus 'tip'



Special to ESPN.com

March 15

PHOENIX -- Two of the first questions of the spring are 1) whither Randy Johnson at the age of 40 and 2) is Eric Chavez the next Athletic to go to free agency? "Yeah, yeah, yeah", as John, Paul, George and Ringo would say. Spring training is the Aquarian Age of being earnest, but the early returns are astoundingly optimistic.

Randy Johnson
The Angels could be the team that eventually acquires Randy Johnson.

Johnson, who was born before the Beatles performed on Ed Sullivan, has dazzled his teammates and manager Bob Brenly. "You cannot believe how great he looks, he is the talk of Arizona," says Brenly. "He's in the best shape I've ever seen. He's made some mechanical adjustments. He actually looks more agile, more athletic. He's a little off, which is great, because he has that edge. I think he's going to have another monster season."

Johnson had an off year in 2003 -- 6-8, 4.26 ERA, with 125 hits in 114 innings -- and to no one's surprise has come intensely focused. Oh yes, his teammates point to one more thing -- he's finally learned how not to tip his pitches, which they say has been a concern.

The 'Backs need Randy to again be what he is, one of the five best left-handers of all time. Brandon Webb is set in the two-hole, but unless John Patterson starts missing more bats, the rest of the rotation may be Elmer Dessens, Shane Reynolds and Steve Sparks, who hasn't won since August, 2002.

However, as Brenly points out, they had no idea who was going to step in last year when Johnson and Curt Schilling went down. Webb came out of nowhere to be the league's most effective rookie pitcher, helping Brenly to 38 wins from his rookies. "We have some great arms here right now," says the man who won a ring as a first-year manager. "And our organization may again be a big part of our season." Casey Daigle. Greg Aquino. "If the opportunity arises, they will get the opportunity," " says Brenly.

There has been concern that Oscar Villarreal has shoulder problems, and that Casey Fossum and Brandon Lyon will not be ready to open the season. But if the kids progress and they get Villarreal, Fossum and Lyon into the mix in front of Jose Valverde and Matt Mantei, they may be all right.

For now, Brenly is hitting Alex Cintron in the five-hole, in front of Shea Hillenbrand. Steve Finley, Roberto Alomar, Richie Sexson and Luis Gonzalez are the obvious front four.

As for the A's, Billy Beane and Chavez are quietly working with Dave Stewart (what terrific preparation for becoming a GM is being an agent?) on the player who at 26 is not only one of the best at his position, but arguably will be the top free agent on the market. "We're going to get it done," says Chavez. "We have a long way to go, but we'll get it done."

Eric Chavez
Eric Chavez has over 100 RBI in each of the last three seasons.

Chavez is an extremely important signing for Beane. Tim Hudson told Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle that "Chavvy" is a key to the pitchers' re-signing. There are issues, namely Beane has to reassure Chavez that if and when Jermaine Dye goes free agent at the end of the year, that Beane will go find someone to protect his superstar third baseman. Right now, it appears signing Chavez will happen, then Beane can turn to trying to keep Hudson.

The A's have had a very quiet spring. Rich Harden is trying to find his delivery. Hudson and Mark Mulder are apparently healthy. Bobby Kielty and Mark Kotsay are what they never were last season -- healthy -- and are far better players than some understand. Dye is running and swinging the bat better than he has since he broke his leg in the 2001 playoffs. Bobby Crosby, one of those rare rookies who walks in and earns veteran respect, has had a great spring.

One of the biggest questions revolves around the bullpen, beginning with Arthur Rhodes. The former Mariner has 27 blown saves in 44 opportunities for his career and is replacing Keith Foulke, who has 24 blown saves in 167 opportunities. "I think we're going to be very good there," says Ken Macha. "Jim Mecir is healthy. Chris Hammond is going to help us. Ricardo Rincon has come up with a changeup, so has Chad Harville. We could be really good there."

Hard-line negotiations
Attempts by the Red Sox to re-introduce contract discussions with potential free agents Nomar Garciaparra and Pedro Martinez essentially went nowhere. If anything, both players are further entrenched this spring than last.

Martinez
Martinez

Garciaparra
Garciaparra

Garciaparra feels that ownership unfairly characterized his rejection of the four-year, $60 million offer they extended last March. Nomar claims that he made a counteroffer and they never responded. Then because Larry Lucchino told Arn Tellem that their $12 million-a-year offer in December was based on the assumption that Miguel Tejada would get $9 million (Tejada subsequently signed for $12 million per season over six years), Garciaparra has done the math and insists on something in the $16 million range.

Martinez is far more confident of his ability to get Kevin Brown money on the open market than he was last spring. Martinez expects there is nothing that George Steinbrenner would consider more priceless than Pedro in pinstripes just because of what it would set off in Lucchino. It was conveyed to Martinez's agent, Fern Cuza, that they expected to sign Garciaparra. Hmm. Nomar and Pedro are both represented by SFX.

But this isn't this ownership's doing. It was the previous administration that lined it up so Garciaparra, Martinez, Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek all had their contracts up at the end of the same season, all in their 30s, all impossibly tough calls in terms of length and terms.

News and notes
  • Pokey Reese's former Reds teammates gave him ringing endorsements when they visited Fort Myers. "In my opinion, Pokey may be the best (defensive) shortstop in the game -- as well as the best second baseman," says Barry Larkin, who knows a thing or 20 about playing shortstop. "What are great plays for other infielders are routine for Pokey," says Sean Casey. "What are great plays for Pokey, no one else gets to." This is a long way down the line, but if the Red Sox were to lose Garciaparra and Edgar Renteria, as expected, re-signs with the Cardinals, it's not out of the realm of possibility that Boston could sign Jose Vidro -- who can hit third and might be a killer in Fenway -- and play Reese at short until Hanley Ramirez is ready. Incidentally, Ramirez is growing into a physical specimen. "If he grew up here in Florida," says one Sox official, "he'd be a running back at Miami, Florida or Florida State."

    Griffey
    Griffey

  • Junior Griffey is having a very good spring. "I feel as healthy as can be," he says. The swing is short and very quick. Attitude? He wasn't on the list to go to Fort Myers for a night game last week, but he asked to play "because Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns were playing," drove and arrived an hour before the bus. However, while Mariners ownership may not be willing to take on any of his salary, Junior says, "one way or another, I'm outta here. I'm going to be traded somewhere." At the end of last season, owner Carl Lindner told the front office he wanted to unload Griffey's contract, and would be willing to take back some of the money, which led to discussions with the Yankees.

  • The first returns on Shawn Chacon's move to the closer role have been outstanding. In fact, the Rockies have been pleased with their pitching at this juncture. Chin-hui Tsao has been clocked at 97 mph, Scott Elarton has battled back from shoulder problems into the 92-93 range and Shawn Estes has thrown the ball very well.

  • Two years ago, J.C. Romero was arguably the best left-handed reliever in the American League, but was getting the tough seventh and eighth inning outs for Eddie Guardado. Last year, Romero was not good. "I had a pulled groin all year and never threw right," says Romero. "But I'm healthy this season and hope I can close." There have been questions about Romero's makeup, but there always are about pitchers until they get the opportunity to close. If he could, with Joe Nathan, Juan Rincon and -- at some time -- rookie Jesse Crain, the Twins could restructure their bullpen for a strong second half. As of right now, Rick Helling and Carlos Silva have the inside tracks on the fourth and fifth starter spots. As well as J.D. Durbin has thrown, the Twins want him starting the season in the minors.

  • The Dodgers would like to do the same with Edwin Jackson, but may not be able to if they have to trade pitching to supplement their woeful offense; their .691 team OPS last season makes them an entire team of Chris Trubys.

  • The shoulder injury to phenom 19-year-old lefty Greg Miller would open another high school pitcher debate.

    Dreifort
    Dreifort

  • Good news for the Dodgers as far as replacing Paul Quantrill in the bullpen mix with Eric Gagne, Guillermo Mota, Steve Collyer and Tom Martin -- Darren Dreifort was clocked at 95 mph this week. But with Hideo Nomo throwing 82 and Kevin Brown gone, the L.A. rotation isn't what people think.

  • Gary Sheffield has been judged guilty by association many times in his career and thus wants to clarify his innocence, but one teammate says, "Gary's got to stop talking about all this. He's a great guy, but he's letting the New York media get to him." In contrast, Jason Giambi has finally learned that he cannot please everyone, and has shut off the distractions of questions.

  • The Red Sox brought 10 left-handers to camp trying to find a situational complement to Alan Embree. Former Mariners farmhand Tim Hamulack may have grabbed the early lead. He is funky, and he's shown signs of making his slider dart away from left-handed hitters. The David McCarty pitching experiment was noble, but it ended quickly, throwing 81-83 mph against the Phillies in Clearwater.

  • You know the Padres are a little worried when Brian Lawrence was clocked at 80-82 in consecutive appearances.

  • Look for a breakout season from Adam Dunn. "All last year they wanted me to be less patient and try to pull the ball," says Dunn, who had a .400 on-base percentage in 2002. "I just got all messed up (and hit .215). Chris Chambliss has been great. He's got me back to being selective and taking the ball the other way if I need to." Dunn is so strong that he can consistently hit the ball out to left.

  • Not only has Byung-Hyun Kim had back and shoulder problems and threw 79-83 in his last outing, but former D-Backs teammates worry about him in Boston. "I don't know if he got over what happened in New York when it comes to pitching in big games," says one ex-teammate. "Every game in Boston," said a teammate, " is a playoff game."

  • Mike Myers is still throwing sidearm to lefties, but has changed to being over the top to righties, and hit 89 on the gun. Righties hit .318 against Myers.





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