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Some intriguing early storylines



Special to ESPN.com

May 3

Sure, it's just a month, but as Jayson Stark points in his column this week, April means a lot. And this April reminded us that even the most reliable of players -- in this case Garret Anderson -- can break down, especially when they are north of 30. Or that it is dangerous to try to get by with an entire team in their 30s and 40s, like the Mariners. Or how difficult it is to maintain a young lineup without a couple of veteran forces in the middle, which is why the Indians and Devil Rays have struggled, the Tigers have improved and the Orioles are so dangerous.

But this April taught or reminded us of a few other things:

  • That the game recreates itself, as it did with The Babe after the Black Sox Scandal. Or Cal Ripken, Joe Torre's Yankees, McGwire and Sosa after the unnecessary strike of 1994. For months, we have been told that baseball is in dire straits because of the doping scandals and the Yankees' payroll, yet April attendance was up more than 15 percent and all baseball programming at ESPN was up 16 percent.

    Pettitte
    Pettitte

    Clemens
    Clemens

    There is no question that last fall's runs by the Cubs and Red Sox fueled interest, the Houston signing of Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte made Houston a national baseball town and some of the dormant franchises like the Tigers, Orioles, Padres and Brewers have breathed new life. Now, if they could just find a way to get Toronto and Tampa Bay into another division, realistic competitive balance would be closer. Let's see. Put the Mets and Phillies in with the Yankees, Red Sox and Orioles ...

  • Speaking of performance-enhancing drugs, two highly respected scouts offer similar views from observing spring training and April games in this the first full year of drug testing. "The biggest storyline this season is the number of pitchers who have lost velocity, and I mean have huge drops," says one scout. "That designer stuff pitchers had took a bunch of guys out of the independent leagues throwing 85-87 (mph) and got them to the big leagues throwing 94," says the other. "I've seen it all over all spring." Hmmm. Home runs, slugging and doubles are up, velocity down.

    Barry Bonds
    Barry Bonds has received 27 intentional walks this season.

  • When Sam Huff and the New York Football Giants held Jim Brown to 10 yards, it was because they stopped him. Teams could try to deny Michael Jordan or Larry Bird the ball, but they could only do so to a limited extent. So come on, come on. The Barry Bonds intentional walk fiasco is not good for the game, especially if this turns out to be the first year since 1996 that the Giants are not in contention to the final days of the season. So revisit the notion from two years ago that opposing managers are limited to one intentional walk per player per game, to be used like the hockey timeout. Oh, pitchers are going to pitch around him, but not like this. They did pitch to Henry Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson and Ted Williams, occasionally.

  • The plight of the Cleveland Indians and, to a lesser degree the White Sox, Mariners and Blue Jays, is testament to the fact that with the exception of the elite few, relievers are the most unpredictable commodities in the game. Going into spring training, the Indians thought their bullpen was going to be OK, with Bob Wickman closing behind David Riske, Rafael Betancourt and Scott Stewart. Wickman got hurt. Riske has been a disaster, and this is a guy who in 68 games last year had a 2.29 ERA and held opposing hitters to a .196 average. This year, Riske is being hit at a .412 clip. But his year-by-year ERA defines the second tier of the bullpen profession: 8.36, 1.98, 5.26, 2.29, 12.27. That is enough to drive a GM to insanity.

    One year Felix Rodriguez is 1.68, the next 4.17. Mike Williams goes from 5.09 to 3.50 to 3.80 to 2.94 to 6.14. J.C. Romero was 1.89 in 2002, 5.00 in 2003, 4.97 this year. Jose Mesa was among Baseball Prospectus' list of the 10 worst relievers in 2000 and 2003, but saved 87 games in 2001-2002 for the Phillies and, as of Monday, trailed only Armando Benitez and Danny Graves among the NL saves leaders. Matt Herges was 11-for-33 for his career in save situations. Shigetoshi Hasegawa was 16-for-17 last year, had a 1.48 ERA and was an All-Star. This year his ERA is 6.55.

    If you go through Baseball Prospectus' top 30/worst 10 relievers at the end of the last five seasons, you'll find that Kyle Farnsworth was the 12th most-effective reliever in the majors in 2001 and the single worst in 2002. Alan Embree made the worst and best lists.

    Look at last year's 30 most effective and you'll find Hasegawa at No. 5, Riske at No. 11 and Curt Leskanic, Joe Borowski, Brian Shouse and Ben Weber on the list. In the bottom 10 were the aforementioned Mesa, Jaret Wright, who has found life in Atlanta, and Jay Powell, who has a 1.80 ERA for this year's version of The Fighting Showalters. Incidentally, the only pitcher who made the top 30 list all five years -- and should be there again in 2004 -- is Keith Foulke.

    What has happened to the Indians has most affected C.C. Sabathia, who has a 1.61 ERA with four quality starts and one win. He has 43 wins before his 24th birthday, 19 more than runner-up Mark Prior, and two less than the active pitcher with the most wins before turning 24, Greg Maddux. Sabathia has allowed 16 hits in 28 innings, but the 'pen has blown three leads and allowed 16 runs in 14 innings of his relief. Going back to the end of the 2002 season, Sabathia has quality starts in 33 of his last 41 outings. Testament to the Indians, after blowing the 8-4 lead in the ninth inning Wednesday, they bounced back and beat the Orioles in the first two games this weekend, and after 11- and 15-inning losses against the Twins to open the season, they came back and won the final game of that series.

  • This first month has proven that when things don't go right, the manager is the first line of blame. Hence there are vultures circling around Carlos Tosca in Toronto, Bob Melvin in Seattle, Art Howe in New York and even, believe it or not, Bob Brenly in Arizona. (Larry Bowa has been fired more often than Charlton Heston's Winchester, but there is no evidence that he is in any danger). Not every Seattle fan has looked past the team on the field and blamed Melvin. One fan put owner Howard Lincoln up for sale on eBay, and drew a bid of $810. Lincoln has been perceived as the profiteer who refused to allow Pat Gillick to pick up veteran help at the trading deadline the last two years despite being in the top four teams in revenues, a perception that Lincoln has steadfastly denied as first Lou Piniella, then Gillick jumped ship.

  • It was 25 years ago that Steve Renko said, "some teams go everywhere together, we get off the plane and go to 25 separate cabs." Hence, the "25 Guys, 25 Cabs Red Sox" were named. This team is actually very close, and one that plays with an emotional sense of urgency. But this week when many wondered why Nomar Garciaparra was never in the Red Sox's dugout with his teammates after Opening Day and Pedro Martinez blasted the Red Sox ownership for not signing him, it brought this reality to the surface in Red Sox Nation: that with six significant players unsigned potential free agents, they will find out which players truly care only about winning. And right out there for the world to see is the Red Sox Nation Poster Boy Curt Schilling, who agreed to go to Boston with a two-year extension for much less than Mike Mussina, Randy Johnson or Kevin Brown because he wants a chance at a ring, to play before soldout crowds, share the area's passion and can better carry on the charitable work that he and his wife Shonda devote so much of their lives.

    Pedro Martinez
    Pedro Martinez will test the free agent market after this season.

    Martinez will have made $93 million with Boston by the end of this season. Do they want him back? Yes. But they cannot get insurance on his shoulder (by the way, while Pedro claims the club has leaked negative medical info about him, the fact is that John Henry, Larry Lucchino and Theo Epstein called the front office in and gave strict orders not to be anything but positive with the free agents). Now, Martinez has a legitimate gripe when he claims the Red Sox never made him an offer. The two sides understand the parameters, Pedro wants Kevin Brown money-plus because he sees himself where Brown was when he went to the Dodgers, something over $15 million for three or four years, and the Red Sox won't go beyond two years at something just north of Schilling's $12.5 million average annual value. They're in a difficult position. They were close on Garciaparra a year ago when they offered $60 million for four years; now they're offering less, and he can't respond because he's hurt. Scott Boras right now is shooting for a Pudge Rodriguez deal for Jason Varitek and $12 million a year for four or five years for Derek Lowe. The price now and the price in November may or may not be the same, but the Red Sox are hesitant to shell out $52-$55 million for four players in their 30s before dealing with the 28-year-old David Ortiz. That would leave them with more than $120 million tied up in half the team. That isn't going to happen. The $125 million payroll this year is expected to be a one-shot run.

    There is no debating that Martinez went over the ledge in his comments Friday night, but there is his side of the story. First, he meant to say that he hopes the Red Sox will re-open talks in the exclusive 15-day period after the World Series. His frustration stemmed from the fact that the Red Sox had told him at the end of the season they wanted to get something done during the offseason, only to get wrapped up in the siren's song of Alex Rodriguez; the A-Rod deal broke off on Dec. 23, which was followed by the traditional dead period, so the Sox didn't get around to the free agents until two weeks before spring training. The Pudge Rodriguez contract, which allows the Tigers to jump out of the contract after two years for medical reasons, stalled things because Boston, like most clubs, hoped that it was a precedent. Then after he and agent Fern Cuza met with ownership and presented a proposal, they were told that a counter-proposal would be forthcoming, but never came -- as also happened in the Garciaparra negotiations last spring. There is a severe problem if the Sox sign all of their free agents, but the lack of back-and-forth negotiating in the Martinez, Garciaparra and Lowe negotiations begs the question of whether a brilliant lawyer like Lucchino, who all the agents say makes the call, is a litigator and not a negotiator. If Pedro comes in at Brown money and the Sox want him to take Schilling money, isn't there a way to work it out with give-and-take? That's a question asked by Martinez, Garciaparra and Lowe.

    The Red Sox may be second in revenues, but they are still $100 million behind the Yankees, and while they have $380 million in debt to pay off and the ballpark to maintain, George Steinbrenner has long paid off the $10 million he paid for the Yankees and has the city to maintain The Stadium. In most years, the Red Sox cannot play the signing game with the Yankees; they'll just have to cringe when Carlos Beltran gets eight years and $140 million from Steinbrenner and just realize that when Beltran signs, the Yankees will have more than $120 million committed for 2006 to Mussina, Jason Giambi, Jeter, Jose Contreras, Jorge Posada, Javier Vazquez, Gary Sheffield and Beltran, most of whom will be in the later stages of their careers.

    The Red Sox want to sign two or three of their free agents, but they do not want to be stuck with a team of late thirtysomethings, especially if they do not win again and are faced with the reality that this team hasn't won. If they do win the World Series, then they'll find out who wants to sign, like Anderson with the Angels, Schilling and Mariano Rivera. Martinez and Lowe will be difficult to replace, but there will be some free agents (Carl Pavano, Kevin Millwood, Odalis Perez, Matt Morris, Freddy Garcia) and there could be pitchers traded, from Barry Zito to Kip Wells to Jason Jennings; yes, sometime Billy Beane will have to break up The Big Three, and don't be surprised if he doesn't get Tim Hudson -- a 2005 free agent -- extended and trades Zito.

    The Red Sox were 15-6 when Martinez went off. Imagine if they were 10-11?

    News and notes
  • The Angels went on a nine game road trip and went 7-2 after stops in Oakland, Detroit and Minnesota. They began the trip with Garret Anderson and Brendan Donnelly on the disabled list and lost Tim Salmon and David Eckstein to injury during the trip. And the message from the Angels during the first month is clearly that they may have spent to the point where they're third in payroll behind the Yankees and Red Sox, but they're as tough and as hungry and they were two years ago when they ended up winning the World Series.

    Shea Hillenbrand
    Hillenbrand

  • The Diamondbacks had feelers out to trade Shea Hillenbrand for pitching when Richie Sexson went down. And that's because rookie third baseman Chad Tracy has hit so well (a .359 batting average in his first 10 games).

  • The Giants have floated out feelers on a number of players like Edgardo Alfonzo and Neifi Perez, but with Jason Schmidt now back and their hope for the return of a healthy Robb Nen, they haven't waved the white flag just yet. A week ago, Nen threw so well in a rehab stint they thought his return was imminent. Then Nen suffered from stiffness in his surgically-repaired right shoulder. The Giants are now hoping for Nen to return sometime before the All-Star break.

  • Some Royals veterans are so worried about their pitching -- the club started Eduardo Villacis, who hadn't thrown an inning with the Royals in spring training, on Saturday in Yankee Stadium -- they fear that ownership will mandate a trading deadline fire sale of veterans like Carlos Beltran, Mike Sweeney and Joe Randa.

  • Contending teams have begun thinking of creative pitching deals. Freddy Garcia could be one name who could get traded, if the Mariners fall out of the race. Several teams think the Brewers might move Ben Sheets at the right price, but GM Doug Melvin doesn't seem like he'll even consider moving Sheets. Then there's Kip Wells. He could make $10M in salary arbitration in two years, so when the Pirates' impressive young pitchers get to Pittsburgh, they won't be able to afford him. Still, he's a tough guy to trade for the Pirates.

  • Someone will eventually take Kris Benson and his $6.2 million salary, but don't look for it to be the Yankees. Why? Ever heard of Page Six in the Post, everyone's first morning look? Then check out annabenson.net. Yes, Ms. Benson has her own website.

  • Last winter, when the Padres were looking at two Japanese relievers, they went through a second party to get Ichiro Suzuki's opinion. He strongly recommended Akinori Otsuka, and the Pads got the real deal as Otsuka has shown that his 8/110 walk/strikeout ratio his last two seasons in Japan were no fluke. Otsuka, who wears No. 16 in honor of Hideo Nomo, throws 92-93 mph with a Nen-like nasty slider.

  • Then there's the Tigers' Brandon Inge, who is hitting .322 and in one stretch started five games at four different positions -- catcher, center field, third base, left field. Believe it or not, he's the Tigers' best player at all of those positions except catcher.

  • OK, Albert Pujols says his goal this season is to strike out less than 30 times. He's struck out just six times thus far in 25 games.

    Matt Morris
    Morris

  • Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty says Matt Morris is healthy. "He's just been inconsistent with his velocity and breaking ball," Jocketty says. "Hopefully, it will get better as the season goes along." Jason Marquis, on the other hand, has pitched very well, and in Triple-A, Adam Wainwright is coming along to the point where he may contribute on the big-league level before long.

  • Yes, Hideo Nomo's fastball was in the 81-85 mph range this past Tuesday against the Mets.

  • The Expos may be struggling and the medical reports on Nick Johnson are not encouraging, but MLB has given GM Omar Minaya the green light to try to get Jose Vidro and Orlando Cabrera signed to long-term contract extensions. Problem is, will they sign when they don't know where they'll be playing and for whom. Meanwhile, John Patterson tore his right groin muscle while pitching in San Diego last Tuesday. He's expected to be for up to a month, typical of the Expos' luck. When the Expos left L.A. Sunday night, they'd spent three nights at home in Montreal all season.

  • The Marlins are trying to acquire reliever John Riedling from the Reds, especially after Chad Fox injured his right elbow. Fox, who has had two previous reconstructive elbow surgeries, hurt his arm when he threw 39 pitches in an outing on April 21 in what was his fourth appearance in five nights.

  • Have you noticed that Indians right-hander Rafael Betancourt's walk/strikeout ratio this season is 0/16?

  • Or that Triple-A Pawtucket's well-rounded 28-year-old catcher-first baseman Andy Dominique had a 1.200 OPS and knocked in 27 runs during the first month of the season? "There is a reason he was on our 40-man roster," says one Red Sox official. "He will be with us before the season is over, and I think he'll hit." Dominique has "Moneyball" written all over him.

  • One AL scout says "when the Twins go on the road, they'd better roll out that sponge of a turf. They never know how it's going to bounce, and sometimes the ball comes off at angles. It's terrible." It's hard to believe that Toronto has the last pure turf field in the majors. Thankfully.

  • From another scout: "My favorite player is Michael Young. He has made himself a great shortstop, lengthened his arm and hits everything."

  • Ismael Valdes 3-1? When he approached the Levinsons about representing him this winter, they agreed only on the conditions that Valdez see psychologist Harvey Dorfman, work with nutritionist Sari Mellman and undergo a vigorous training program. And all of a sudden, with Valdez, Jake Peavy, Adam Eaton and David Wells, the Padres may have a division-winning rotation in that pitchers' park.

    Bret Boone
    Boone

  • For teams like the Yankees and A's who could be looking for second basemen come July, this is a potential list: Bret Boone, Jerry Hairston, Orlando Hudson, Junior Spivey, Desi Relaford, Edgardo Alfonzo and Luis Rivas. If you've seen Nick Punto play for the Twins (a .419 on-base percentage through 18 games), you know why Rivas may become available.

  • On Thursday, April 29, all 10 starting pitchers in the five National League games threw quality starts.

  • If I were commissioner for a day, the first thing I'd do is ban "Centerfield" from all ballpark playlists.





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