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Expectations high with Astros

Special to

March 28

In the East, there is the war between the Red Sox and the power they unwisely chose to dub "The Evil Empire." In the National League Central, the Cubs-Astros rivalry may take on its own life. "This rivalry could really be something," says Jeff Bagwell, cautioning to add the Cardinals to the mix. "We've never really had anything like this."

Roger Clemens
Learning from the master: Roger Clemens with Taylor Buchholz, and Tim Redding.

In Mesa, Ariz, the Cubs sell out every game, 12,000-something. In Kissimmee, Fla., where there is little but fast food and slow cars, the Astros have also been selling out. Their games back on Houston TV and the stir Drayton McLane created by signing Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte is building. "The other day Roger got a tremendous standing ovation when he started the game," says Bagwell, "and of course when he left and walked down the left-field line. But what was incredible is that when every one of us starters left and walked down the line towards the clubhouse, we got standing ovations as well. This is fun. This isn't what we're used to."

The Astros have been good for a while now. When Gerry Hunsicker acquired Randy Johnson in 1998, they had a team that could well have won the World Series but for someone named Kevin Brown. But this team has the most anticipation. There is age, but with Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Jeff Kent, Lance Berkman, Richard Hidalgo and Morgan Ensberg there is a lot of thunder. Biggio is far more comfortable in center field. He's now used to the longer runs and throws and more accustomed to turning back on balls.

But the strength of the team, like the Cubs, is pitching. Asked what had surprised him most this spring, Brad Ausmus said, "Clemens. I didn't realize how great he is until I caught him." Roy Oswalt is throwing 96. Wade Miller has had a strong spring, as has Tim Redding.

"What's so good about our situation is that we have seven or eight starters," says Ausmus. "So as the season wears on, we have a lot of protection. Brandon Duckworth has impressed me; he could start. Jeriome Robertson can start (after all, he did win 15 games). Carlos Hernandez is all the way back. And that kid we got from Philadelphia, Taylor Buchholtz, is outstanding. He could be in the rotation in midseason, easily."

The starters will take pressure off the depth of the bullpen, where Octavio Dotel and Brad Lidge have the last two innings. Brandon Backe, acquired from Tampa Bay in the Geoff Blum deal, pulled a hamstring the first day of camp, but now that he's healthy is throwing 94, and manager Jimy Williams loves the versatility of knuckleballer Jared Fernandez.

What the Astros needed after last season were starters and depth of young pitchers. With Clemens, Pettitte, Duckworth, Buchholtz and Backe, they filled their needs. The Cubs filled their needs with Derrek Lee, Michael Barrett (Jim Hendry's holy grail ---and the reason they never moved for Pudge Rodriguez), Greg Maddux, LaTroy Hawkins and Todd Walker as a left-handed bat at second, third, first and the outfield. The Astros now have a backlog of young power arms, the Cubs have six to eight pitchers (Angel Guzman to start with) in their system who would the No. 1 prospect in many other organizations.

Both teams have huge expectations, with more buzz around the Cubs than any time in their history, while the Astros open the season with three sellouts against the Giants and the possibility of record attendance and revenues.

"Just don't forget the Cardinals," says Ausmus. "None of us have, or will."

Major bullpen addition for Braves
In less than 24 hours, John Schuerholz changed the face of a Braves bullpen that was a major concern. "How he got the Reds' best pitcher (Chris Reitsma) for two fringy starters (Jung Bong and Bubba Nelson) is beyond belief," said one baseball executive. "Atlanta is a lot better now."

Chris Reitsma
Atlanta Braves
84.0 92 53 9-5 12 4.29

Reitsma is 27, and gives Bobby Cox a bridge to John Smoltz who throws 94 with one of the best changeups around, an athletic, reliable guy. Juan Cruz, 25, who came over from the Cubs in the Andy Pratt deal Thursday, is more of a project. "I know he has a great arm," says Leo Mazzone. "We will try to get him to locate his fastball down and away and work from there." For now, Cruz is headed for the bullpen, although in time he might get a look as a starter. "Arms like that are hard to overlook," says Cox. Another GM, however, thought the Cubs did very well. Pratt, 24, led the International League in strikeouts and has another option.

Many of us have pointed out that after leading the majors in starters' ERA for 11 consecutive seasons, the Braves dropped to seventh in the NL and 10th overall last season. This spring, the starters have looked good, especially John Thomson, Horacio Ramirez and Jaret Wright, who shut down the Indians on one hit for six innings Friday night, throwing 92-95 mph with impressive sink. "When we got him last season, he could throw 98, but it was still always up," says Mazzone. "He's finally got it. He tries to locate his sinker down in the zone on both sides of the plate and not throw uphill. He's tough, a great competitor, and could be pretty interesting."

Oh, by the way, C.J. Nitkowski, a longtime fave, has been the talk of scouts in Central Florida, throwing 94 and probably winning a job as a left-handed long man.

Andy LaRoche has swung the bat well at the end of spring training, and is a very good defensive first baseman whose rifle arm make 3-6 plays events; a 3-6-3 with Rafael Furcal is even more special with two great arms. Johnny Estrada has looked good and Mark DeRosa is getting there. "Mark will hit, don't worry," says Cox.

The Braves are lying in the weeds, acknowledging that the Cubs, Astros and Phillies go into the season as the projected Big Three in the National League. But now, instead of rolling Antonio Alfonseca out there in front of Smoltz, they have Reitsma, a premier reliever. "He makes us a different team," says Cox. Very different.

Indians getting close
In the American League Central Division I-A, beware the Indians in the not-too-distant future. It has been a promising spring in Winter Haven, if there can be such a thing:

C.C. Sabathia
Cleveland Indians
197.2 190 141 66 13-9 3.60

  • As their young Big Three of C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee and Jason Davis develop, former Royals phenom Chad Durbin and 28-year-old veteran Jeff D'Amico have pitched well enough to fill out the rotation. Durbin, who once was an untouchable in K.C. before hurting his arm, is in the low-90s with a swing-and-miss changeup. D'Amico is what he is, but pitched more innings last season than any other non-roster invitee. They buy time for Jeremy Guthrie, Fernando Cabrera and their other young pitchers to develop, as well as Brian Tallet and Billy Traber to get healthy. By the way, Sabathia is still 23; with 43 career wins, he is 19 ahead of the next pitcher under 24 (Mark Prior). And among active pitchers, the only ones with more wins before their 24th birthday were Steve Avery (50) and Greg Maddux (45). Sabathia doesn't turn 24 until July 21. As for the bullpen, one NL scout says Rafael Betancourt "will be one of the best closers in the league by 2005."

  • While Grady Sizemore and Michael Aubrey previewed their huge upsides, the Indians have gotten good springs from Alex Escobar and Coco Crisp. Escobar is playing the way the Mets once though he would, and best of all, his hits have come on breaking balls, something he once seemed allergic to hitting. On the good news front, Matt Lawton has lost 25 pounds, his shoulder is healthy and he looks like the All-Star player who was topped the AL in leadoff on-base percentage when he was traded from Minnesota.

  • Perhaps the most improved player is switch-hitting catcher Victor Martinez. Last spring, when he was sent down at the end of spring training, Martinez was challenged by Eric Wedge to assume the leadership necessary in a catcher. This winter, Martinez stayed in Cleveland, redefined his body, and this spring has shown greatly improved mobility behind the plate as well as an impressive presentation for the pitchers.

    News and notes
  • Tony Pena may use an all-lefthanded rotation of Darrell May, Brian Anderson, Jeremy Affeldt, Jimmy Gobble and perhaps Chris George until Kevin Appier returns. "I feel good about them, what the heck?" says Pena. "They all can pitch, and they're a little different. If Affeldt stays healthy, and we think he will, he could really be something." Indeed, either a 15-18 game winner or the best left-handed reliever in the American League.

  • The Royals think their offense will carry them with the addition of Juan Gonzalez, but the concerns right now are in the bullpen, where Curtis Leskanic could end up the closer.


  • Mariners assistant GM Roger Jongewaard ventured to Bradenton this week to watch Jason Kendall, adding further fuel to the deal with the Pirates. One GM who called Bucs GM Dave Littlefield said he is distracted trying to move Kendall.

  • Omar Minaya made one deal to get John Patterson from Arizona, and is still working to move an outfielder or two for more pitching, especially with Tony Armas Jr. out for at least the first two months. Minaya wouldn't trade rookie outfielder Terrmel Sledge to the Dodgers for Jose Lima, but is still interested in Lima, and several pitchers. The Expos have a roster problem with several outfielders out of options as well as extraordinary depth at the position. Besides Carl Everett, Brad Wilkerson and Juan Rivera, they have Sledge, Peter Bergeron (who has had a big spring) and Ron Callaway who are out of options. The Expos also have Endy Chavez and Matt Cepicky, who has hit over .,400 and has had what hitting coach Tom McCraw says "isn't a good spring, but a great spring. Bergeron may make the team because he can lead off, Rivera might start in the minors because he has options. The Padres are one team rumored on Chavez, with Minaya interested in RHP Ben Howard. The Expos right now are passing on Scott Erickson.

  • Another leadoff-hitting center fielder who has had a great spring and has drawn considerable interest is Cleveland's Coco Crisp.

  • From Julio Franco, now 45 and still a terrific hitter: |My plan is to play five more years, retire, then go the low minors and work my way back to the majors as a manager. When I retire, I want to manage in the majors, but I want to do it the right way, starting at the bottom and earning my way to the big leagues." Don't bet against the amazing Mr. Franco. In Arizona, one scout compared 19-year-old White Sox phenom Ryan Sweeney to Von Hayes, and another scout couldn't remember Hayes. And he was traded for Franco.

  • The Indians essentially had a deal worked out with Ugueth Urbina. Problem is, when it came to the physical, Ugie, ever honest, told Mark Shapiro that he hadn't picked up a ball or worked out since the sixth game of the World Series. So Shapiro, figuring Urbina couldn't be ready until May, didn't want to pay for six months. Ugie refused, called Pudge Rodriguez, and the Tigers got the deal done.

  • The Dodgers plan is to send Edwin Jackson to Triple-A to open the season since he's never started a game in Triple-A and has never thrown more than 148 innings in a season. At this point, Wilson Alvarez can slip into the rotation, which has not looked like the Dodger rotation of old. Hideo Nomo is coming off surgery throwing in the mid-80s. Jeff Weaver curiously is not missing bats and Kazuhisa Ishii has been horrible. On a good note, GM Paul DePodesta says the scope of LHP Greg Miller's shoulder shows that it is "pristine," and the phenom should be fine. DePodesta is working hard to find bats, and Toronto OF-C Jayson Werth is a possibility.

  • A few raves from scouts: Expos left-handed reliever Chad Bentz, born without a right hand and in the image of Jim Abbott, has had a very impressive spring; Pirates RHP Ryan Vogelsong appears back from his surgery two years ago, hitting 94 on the gun; and Mets rookie Tyler Yates, hitting 95 and drawing big-time praise from Astros players who faced him.

  • Cubs hitters were highly impressed with A's RHP Joe Blanton. "His command on both sides of the plate and his ability to get inside is incredible for a guy with one full professional year," said one Cub. Blanton has been sent down, but more than one Oakland official refers to Blanton as a playoff starter.

  • The Twins are still trying to figure the back end of their pitching, but along with the starry spring of Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau has appeared ready to take his spot in the middle of the lineup, likely as a DH since Doug Mienkiewicz is one of the defensive first basemen in the game after he gets some at-bats in Triple-A. "Morneau is as still as John Olerud," says one NL scout, "but with much more power. He could be a .300-hitting, 40 home run guy."

  • One well-respected veteran executive -- who has managed in the World Series -- after watching the Yankees all spring says, "no one in the American League is close to them. Their lineup is ridiculously strong. Kenny Lofton is running and playing his behind off. A-Rod, Giambi, Sheffield ... then you have Bernie Williams, Matsui and Posada 6-7-8? OK, they might need an other starting pitcher, but getting Paul Quantrill and Tom Gordon give them the best setup men in the league, and those guys are going to win a ton of games for them when the offense is scoring somewhere from six to 15 runs. For the regular season, they will be pretty hard to touch."


  • That Jose Contreras was 93-97 with what a bureau report called "plus plus command" of his fastball last Monday was very good news.

  • Unlike last spring, when he his knees were killing him, Jose Vidro is completely healthy, and swinging the bat very well. The good news is that the new turf in Montreal will help his knees. "On the other hand," says Vidro, "that old turf was great to hit on because the ball scooted through the alleys to the walls."

  • Which will be the first team to announce a Dream Job promotion for next spring? Pay $500, go to a tryout camp at the spring training facility for four days -- cutdowns each day -- and the best player in the end gets a non-roster invitation for the first two weeks of spring training. Look for about a dozen teams to try it, although Stuart Scott is not available to MC every one of the tryouts.

  • With all the talk of home run records and steroids, one veteran pitcher says, "there was a lot more steroid use with pitchers than people think. That's why you'd see such a wide range in velocity during the season. You'd see a guy throwing 95, then 88-90 a month later. It all runs according to cycling. Be careful with guys in spring training who suddenly are throwing much harder than they had in the past."

  • One report on Giants rookie reliever David Aardsma Friday, when he hit 98 on the gun:" The ball flies out of his hand. Electric. Tight, sharp breaking curveball. Definite closer stuff." ... From the same report what people have seen this spring, that Edgardo Alfonso is driving balls through the gaps with a lot more power than last season.

  • The Pirates can't afford to trade Craig Wilson right now, but he would make an outstanding American League player who could DH and play a little first and the outfield.

  • What's impressive about Zack Greinke is that he has the poise and feel of a 30 year old. He changes speeds from 87 to 92 -- getting it up in the 90s when needed -- and he throws his curveball at every speed from 62 to 74 mph. The Royals want him opening the season in Omaha, but he may be an important piece come August.

  • Oakland second baseman Mark Ellis is out for the season with a torn labrum in addition to the separated shoulder he suffered in a collision with Bobby Crosby. Frank Menechino is sidelined with a leg problem, but right now Billy Beane is prone to let Menechino have the job. However, the chances are good that Beane will try to find a second baseman who can hit lefties(Geoff Blum can, for instance) and use Menechino against lefties.

  • Hey, Chan Ho Park got it up to 94 this week.

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