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Rust Belt coming back to life



Special to ESPN.com

April 14

They have all been down below the waterline since the two-time world champion Marlins were in diamonds. The last time the Pirates and Tigers were .500 was '93, Florida's initial season, while the Brewers' last winning season was the year before.

Littlefield
Littlefield

Dave Dombrowski, Dave Littlefield and Doug Melvin know that they have to build a future in the style of the Twins and the Indians, but they also appreciate that Little Leaguers in their cities have no recollection of winning baseball. "We can talk all we want about the future and the kids we have in our minor league system," says Littlefield. "But we can't expect the fans to come to the ballpark until we start to win. We have to win games now, then build."

Which is why Dombrowski, coming off a nightmare 119-loss season, went out and got Ivan Rodriguez, Rondell White, Fernando Vina, Carlos Guillen, Jason Johnson and Ugueth Urbina. "Did we overpay in certain cases? Probably," Dombrowski has admitted. "But we have to give our fans something that they can root for while we develop our organization." The signing of Rodriguez, it turned out, set off the single best day in ticket sales in club history.

So it is important for all the teams that have been down so long -- and that includes the Indians, whose fans are too close to remembering The Bombers of The Jake to quickly accept rebuilding -- to get off to decent starts. It happened in Detroit. It's happened in Pittsburgh, where Jose Mesa has closed out saves, the Pirates' front three of Kip Wells, Ryan Vogelsong and Kris Benson have looked very good and two important pieces named Jason Bay and Freddy Sanchez are due back soon.

Geoff Jenkins
Milwaukee plans to build around players like Geoff Jenkins.

And it's happened, at least until they met Barry Bonds and the Giants, for the Brewers. "What the Richie Sexson deal and a decent start does for us is to give our fans something and help us resist the temptation of rushing our best young players," says Doug Melvin. The Sexson deal filled out some depth -- two legitimate infielders in Junior Spivey and Craig Counsell, a young everyday first baseman in Lyle Overbay, a starting catcher in Chad Moeller, a starting left-hander in Chris Capuano and a top lefty prospect in Jorge de la Rosa. All for a lot less than they would have had to pay Sexson.

"We have a chance to rebuild this franchise," says Melvin. "But the fans don't want to see a team lose 100 games but constantly be given promises. So we've tried to get a little better, and we think we are."

The Brewers and Pirates are not going to finish the season ahead of the Cubs, Astros and Cardinals, so there is a chance that the Bucs will move Benson and his $6.2 million salary at the trading deadline; it's hard for a small revenue to offer free agents arbitration for fear that they will accept. Melvin can turn around and spin Spivey or Counsell (is he the perfect fit for the Yankees, or what?) at the deadline, and let Rickie Weeks get his major league baptism the last two months.

The Pirates have pitching coming. Sean Burnett is very close, and John Van Benschoten isn't far away.

But the Brewers have a bright future, thanks to what Baseball America rates the best farm system in the game. Melvin expects that de la Rosa and Ben Hendrickson will be in Milwaukee by the end of the season. In Indianapolis, they have shortstop J.J. Hardy, center fielder Dave Krynzel and left fielder Corey Hart. At Huntsville, they have first baseman Prince Fielder and Weeks, potential stars, as well as their two Rule 5 picks from a year ago, shortstop Enrique Cruz and left-hander Matt Ford.

All the general managers understand their inherent problems. Bullpens will always be a concern. They cannot afford to spend $6 million on Steve Karsay, $3.5 million on Ramiro Mendoza, et al. And, as Mark Shapiro says, "bullpens tend to be so unpredictable from ear to year." For instance, when the Brewers get good, will closer Danny Kolb be too expensive because of arbitration? "I have a problem investing a lot of payroll in a closer," says Melvin. "Of course, I said that in Texas and went out and signed John Wetteland."

Sabathia
Sabathia

Bullpens and the capability of winning games from the seventh inning on are tricky equations. Look at the Indians. Through Tuesday, their starters had a 2.36 ERA but had only two wins because the bullpen has been in flux. Of all of the small-market teams, the Indians seem to have the most solid foundation because of their starting pitching. C.C. Sabathia is already a premier starter at age 23 and is developing his changeup. Jason Davis may be an emerging star, throwing 25 pitches over 95 mph in his season debut, hitting 99 with his sinker in his second start and striking out Torii Hunter in his revenge matchup with three pitches at 97, 98 and 97. Cliff Lee may take a little more time to win, but he has All-Star written all over him.

The Royals have an extraordinary everyday team, and even when Carlos Beltran leaves they have David DeJesus to step in. But pitching is a problem. Their starters were 0-3, 7.07 in their first seven games, which may put a major strain on the bullpen come June and July. Sure, Zack Greinke threw six one-hit innings in his Triple-A debut this week, but he is young and hasn't thrown 200 innings. All these general managers are wary of young pitchers going past the 175-inning mark too quickly in their careers, which is why Sabathia was so closely monitored as a rookie, and Alan Trammell was so careful with Jeremy Bonderman last season.

The small-market teams have to develop young pitchers because they cannot go into the market after Pedro Martinez, Matt Morris or Derek Lowe this winter. They also have other restrictions: roster depth and experienced role players, as well as the end of the batting order. Any American Leaguer knows that the depth of the lineup is far more important than the heart because of the easy outs thin teams give up (see the current Boston lineup compared to last year).

Dan O'Brien in Cincinnati knows that he needs a good start to keep his veterans into the race, because it will take years to rebuild the farm system. But the Reds do have one of the best outfields in the league when Junior Griffey is healthy, and they were left a strong bullpen.

A lot of April is illusion. But ask the Tigers about what happened when a club gets drowned in the first month.

News and notes
  • The Mets dearly wanted Milton Bradley, but told the Indians that they wouldn't give up either third baseman David Wright or left-hander Scott Kazmir, and the Indians wouldn't do the deal without Wright.

    AL West observations
    Some scouts observations on the American League West:

  • Acknowledging that the Angels have a terrific lineup, one caution: "The back end of their rotation with (John) Lackey and (Ramon) Ortiz isn't too good. They have a few pitchers whose velocity is down -- Lackey, Ortiz, Ben Weber is down to 87-88, Aaron Sele. Their depth was a strength."

  • "Seattle still doesn't have power (one homer in its first 5 games). They're just finding out how much Mike Cameron covered for everyone else. Defensively, they're nowhere near as good as they were last year."

  • Texas? "They're fun. Because they've got some young guys who can really hit, especially Hank Blalock and Mark Teixeira. They're also a lot better in center. Ramon Nivar can really play the position, and Laynce Nix looks like he can play there; and Nix is going to hit." Another scout predicts Chan Ho Park will win the Comeback of the Year award. Wait and see.

  • Oakland: Ken Macha used Billy McMillon instead of Bobby Kielty against Gil Meche on Saturday, as scouts feel Kielty is struggling left-handed. Carlos Tosca says Kielty wanted to give up batting left-handed and hit right-handed exclusively, although the numbers (2000-2002: .385 OBP/.485 slugging pct. right-handed and .374/.444 left-handed) don't show much difference.
  • With Tom Glavine and Al Leiter in the rotation, the Mets focus on the left side of the infield, which is why Ricky Gutierrez will play a lot of third base behind the veteran lefties when Jose Reyes is back at second base.

  • Dave O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted that the average age of the Braves' eight-man positional lineup on Opening Day was 27.7 years, the Marlins 28.1.

  • If you wondered whether Tony Pena's energy would carry over to 2004, they rallied from four and three runs down in the ninth inning in the first week to pull out dramatic wins.

  • One of them was against the White Sox, but one scout following them says, "they're still pretty good. Esteban Loaiza looks just good as he did last year, 89-91 (mph) with command of that great cutter with the ability to find a 94 when he needs it, despite an off outing in his second start. And Scott Schoeneweis looked like a different pitcher in his debut with that new cutter and a change." Schoeneweis learned the cutter this spring, and says for the first time in spring training he found a changeup grip that worked.

  • Curt Schilling's 164 career wins are two less than John Burkett, a reflection on the fact that Burkett had a better career than many realize.

  • The Red Sox are very high on left-hander Lenny DiNardo, whom they took in the Rule 5 draft from the Mets. DiNardo had some arm problems in the spring and opened the season on injury rehab with Sarasota, but they think his natural 86-88 mph cutter and curveball/change repertoire could make him a contributor to their bullpen this year and a starter down the line. In his last outing of spring training, one scout put down slider on every one of his fastballs, meaning that the ball cuts so much it looks like a slider.

  • Boston may have found a left reliever in Mark Malaska. Ironically, considering Mark Bellhorn's early on-base percentage (.424 through seven games), they had a deal the last week of spring training that would have sent Bellhorn to the White Sox for Kelly Wunsch but backed off when they got word that Wunsch had arm problems.

  • Paul DePodesta is trying to improve the Dodgers incrementally, and if the Cesar Izturis-Alex Cora combination struggles offensively, the Las Vegas middle infield combination of Antonio Perez and Joe Thurston may get a look.

  • It certainly looks as if this is the year Baltimore's B.J. Ryan emerges as one of the best left-handed relievers in the American League.

  • Cubs GM Jim Hendry was as angry as Dusty Baker about reports that Mark Prior needs Tommy John surgery and that the club has lied about Prior's condition. "There is no ligament damage, as diagnosed by two doctors," says Hendry. "Are we cautious? Darned right." Any suggestion that an organization with Andy MacPhail, Hendry, Baker and Larry Rothschild is anything less than honest is preposterous.

  • One scout who watched Randy Johnson's first two starts says, "he was good, but only 91-92. As of yet, he isn't the same, although he's such a great competitor he'll win."

  • For history's sake, the home run rate in Major League Baseball from 1954 through 1976 -- essentially the careers of Willie Mays and Henry Aaron -- was one homer per 44 at-bats. The rate from 1993, when Barry Bonds first hit 43 homers, through this week was one homer per 32 at-bats. Thank you, Elias Sports Bureau.





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