Monday, February 27, 2006

Alfonso Soriano's 2B position is 'Secure'

Alfonso Soriano can take comfort that the Washington Nationals second base job is secure. The problem is that it's secure for Jose Vidro, not Soriano. If Soriano has any doubts about how manager Frank Robinson intends to use him, all he has to do is look around as he takes infield practice at the opening of camp. While Vidro, in his best health in more than two years, is strengthening his rapport with fellow defenders by fielding alongside starters Ryan Zimmerman, Nick Johnson and Cristian Guzman in one of the main fields closest to the clubhouse, Soriano is in an outlying field...taking grounders with the likes of rookie Larry Broadway and backups Kory Casto and Brendan Harris. Then they have Soriano shagging flies in the outfield and practicing hitting cutoff men. Soriano still insists he wants to play second, and the standoff has not been entirely played out. But at this point it looks like the Nats wouldn't put Soriano at second even if his mother embroidered his name on the bag.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Mark "The Truth" Prior Was His Name

When Mark Prior was coming up with the Iowa Cubs, his nickname was "Truth." Then he got caught in a lie, after making the Chicago club in '04 and trying to conceal an elbow problem as a minor difficulty with his lower extremities. Is it any wonder no one believes him now when he says his sore shoulder is OK? When pitchers and catchers reported last week Prior was limited to throwing on flat ground while other starters threw off the mound. The Cubs tried to slough it off as just trying "something different this year." But a firestorm of suspicion arose just as the team was preparing to sell season tickets and finally Prior admitted he was feeling sickly after a respiratory infection. Prior was limited to just 15 throws in his most recent test and was releasing the ball very tentatively, while Greg Maddux, Glendon Rusch, Bob Howry, Scott Eyre, Scott Williamson, Angel Guzman, Will Ohman and John Koronka each threw a snappy 30 pitches off the mound. Also being handled with kid gloves are Kerry Wood and Wade Miller.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Brian Fuentes: Man for All Seasons

So much for those schizophrenic Colorado splits. The Rockies at last have a pitcher who can perform about equally as well versus lefties and righties and at home and away. All-Star Brian Fuentes, who struck out 11 batters for every nine innings pitched to save 31 of 33 attempts after winning the closer's job in mid-May of '05, owns an approximate .290 opposition batting average both at home and away. The fireballing lefty also is about as effective against righties as he is against southpaws. Fuentes comes at right-handed batters with a peculiar, short-armed side motion that runs in at the plate at more than 90 mph and is complemented by a solid, hard slider. His stubby throwing motion has earned him the nickname T-Rex. Fuentes had a couple of rough outings late last year, which saw his ERA for September balloon to 27.00. Management is hoping the downturn was merely a result of Fuentes tiring a little rather than a sign of serious fatigue or of hitters figuring him out. Fuentes and teammate OF Matt Holliday have been chosen by U.S. team manager Buck Martinez to play for the Americans in the upcoming World Classic games.

Sullivan, Barmes Eyed as Leadoff Tandem

Watch spring training games to see whether the Rockies switch off CF Cory Sullivan and SS Clint Barmes in the No. 1 hole. Though both will play full time, right-hiting Barmes may lead off against lefties and left-hitting Sullivan may lead off against righties. Though Colorado will not be a running team in the classic sense, the pair might have 40 bags between them if they alternate, and Sullivan's speed will be enhanced as he takes his lead while looking at the pitcher's back.

Juan Gonzalez Desires Comeback

Juan Gonzalez's agent has been contacting major league teams to determine interest in the former slugger's services, but has found no takers. Gonzalez, 36, last year persuaded Cleveland to give him a shot, and was paid $600,000 for one plate appearance in which he failed to reach first base and went out for the rest of the year. Gonzalez was last productive in 2001, when he hit .289 with 35 homers in 532 ABs for the Tigers.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Bonds' Drug Regimen Precipitates Health Woes

As Giants slugger Barry Bonds contemplates whether he'll be able to play 100 games this year, more pressing long-term questions are appearing on the horizon. Bonds now deals with degenerative, post-traumatic arthritis as a result of his knee surgery. His need for non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory analgesics, augmented by mild narcotics when excessive pain arises, doesn't bode well for his health outlook over the short or long term. Bonds' pain at times is more than merely uncomfortable. It is perhaps almost unbearable given that he is taking sleep-inducing sedatives to get through the night. The '05 season and the persuit of Babe Ruth's and Hank Aaron's homerun marks may soon seem trivial to Bonds compared to the prospect of living with pain for the rest of his life. Worse, Bonds may one day be forced to confront the frightening, long-term possibility, however remote, of more surgery or potentially even a consideration of knee replacement sometime before his 60th birthday should the pain worsen significantly and simple ambulation become impeded.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Andruw Jones Sticks With New Batting Stance

Atlanta Braves OF Andruw Jones was told three years ago by some front-office official named Hank Aaron that Jones needed to change his batting stance. He needed to widen his feet at the plate if he ever expected to reach the lofty potential expected of him, Aaron told Jones. But Jones didn't listen. After all, what did the all-time homerun king know about hitting? It took more than 24 months, but finally, in a fit of epiphany last spring, Jones tried Aaron's suggestion and the results were instananeous. Not only did Jones have the best camp of his career with 10 spring homers, he went on to lead the major leagues for the season with 51 dingers and 141 RBI. Jones is back in camp again and he is healthy and sticking with his new stance, leaving no reason to think he won't reach the homerun stratosphere again. This year, however, Jones wants to continue hitting the homers, of course, but he will attempt to raise his batting average 30 or 40 points as well. He would be satisfied to reach the .290 range.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Giambi Will Get His Wish at First Base

New York Yankees slugger Jason Giambi has the inside track for a coveted RBI producer's role as the No. 5 hitter in the Bombers potent lineup, and his long-time contention that he needs to play the field to be at his best will finally face the acid test. Although GM Brian Cashman has more moves up his sleeve, Giambi stands as the obvious choice to play first base as OF Bernie Williams has won the DH role by default. Giambi says he's stumped to explain it. but he bats 150 points higher when he's in the field. Giambi, 34, recovered his stroke last year, hitting 27 of his 32 homers after July 3, and says he's completely healthy this spring after two consecutive years of intermittent injuries, aches and pains, and the distraction of the steroids controversy.

Hafner: The More You Look the More You Like

The most common observation about Cleveland's Travis Hafner is the valuation of the lefty slugger's ability to hit lefthanded pitchers as well as the righties, leading to a projected top ranking among big league designated hitters. Fine. But with Hafner's proven eye at the plate, his commonly forecast 30-35 homer homerun threshold may be a bit underestimated. Consider this: though Hafner has averaged only 25 homers over the past three years and hit only 33 last year, the '05 total would have been higher had a pitch not hit him in the face in July and caused him to miss two weeks due to injury. He then missed more time when he was held out of the lineup occasionally while coaches worked to stop him from shying away from the plate, a hesitation which caused a further reduction in Hafner's potential productivity. But by the last month of the season, Hafner was hitting homers again at a Babe Ruth like pace of one homer every 10 AB, a clear indication that the beaning did not stay with him and that Hafner should potentially reach the 40-50 homer plateau.

Peralta Moves to the Producer's Chair

Jhust don't stand there, Jhump on him! Indians shortstop Jhonny Peralta's move to the 3-hole in the power-packed Cleveland batting order makes him one of the best middle-infield picks in the majors. Can you say superstar? Just 23, he already burst onto the scene last year by hitting .292 with 24 HR. Now the Indians are only better and he'll be batting between Grady Sizemore and Jason Michaels at No. 1 and 2, and Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez at 4 and 5. Look for a significant uptick in average, RBI, runs scored and homers.

Ivan Rodriguez Apologists Look for Rebound

Detroit catcher Ivan Rodriguez's "off year" in '05, when his BA fell to .276 and he lost nearly 100 points in OBP, is seen by his apologists as a fluke attributable lapses in concentration attributable to Jose Canseco accusing Rodriguez of steroid abuse, Rodriguez's four-day suspension for arguing balls and strikes, conflicts with Tigers manager Allen Trammel, and Rodriguez's volatile emotional state because of a his divorce from his wife of 15 years. Though he is 34, the team still sees Rodriguez as a vital, everyday catcher and is predicting a rebound now that the controversy over Canseco's book has died down, Trammel has been fired and the divorce has been finalized.

Todd Walker's Knees Still in Question

Chicago Cubs 2B Todd Walker has yet to test his knees, both of which were injured at different times last year, the right one as recently as September. Though he is a .290 career hitter and batted .290 with 12 HR last year despite being limited to 93 starts, his health remains a question at age 32. Until Walker can be observed running, it is difficult to imagine any team trading for him and his $2.5 million contract, though the Cubs have made it clear it is a distinct possiblity Walker will be moved because of dissatisfaction over his defensive limitations. Neifi Perez, who batted .274 with 9 HR in 154 games last year, and Jerry Hairston, who hit .261 with 4 HR in 114 games, would compete for the 2B job if Walker's knees continue to hold him back, or he plays elsewhere.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Consider Javier Vasquez a True Ace

Arizona Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin has confirmed an evaluation that crossed the Cooperstown Sports Desk many weeks ago: SP Javier Vasquez's inflated 4.42 ERA last year was not the result of diminished capabilities, but of his move to the thin air of Arizona and to a mediocre team with a poor bullpen and weak outfield defense. Vasquez will be the best No. 4 starter in the majors when he pitches for the White Sox this year. The Sox knew what they were doing when they gave up top OF prospect Chris Young to get him, as did the Yankees when they gave him a four-year $45 million contract to get him from Montreal. As good as Randy Johnson is, the Yankees were foolish to empty their pockets just to give up on Vasquez when they traded him to Arizona for the Big Unit. This will be the year when Vasquez begins to make New York regret the decision, as Vasquez will begin to excel and will continue to do so long after Johnson is retired. Mark the young pitcher's words to Yankees owner George Steinbrenner at the time: "If you trade me, you'll be sorry."

Waiting for Mark Prior

Winning or losing, the Chicago Cubs have never had much trouble selling tickets. Therefore, even though the loss of SP Mark Prior to injury once again could virtually end the team's season before it starts, the front office has no motivation to tell lies about him. Then again, perhaps its just a matter of staying in practice. The team has vehemently denied Prior is hurt, even though unconfirmed reports have him visiting therapists in December due to an allegedly sore shoulder. Moreover, Prior is the only pitcher on the staff that is being limited to throwing on flat ground, and to keeping a towel over his shoulder when he pitches to remind him not to vary from a rigid release trajectory. Is it any wonder then that 24-year-old Carlos Zambrano has already practically usurped Prior as the opening day starter?

Gathright to Benefit from Huff Trade

Tampa Bay OF Joey Gathright will be the most likely beneficiary once OF-IF Aubrey Huff is traded. Huff, in the last year of a $7.6 million annual contract, may as well keep his bags packed because he'll be gone before the All Star break, and could be shipped out at any time. The Rays are eager to see what Gathright can do once they give him the everyday center fielder's job, a platform from which he is expected to develop into one of baseball's top base stealers. On the same roster with OF Rocco Baldelli and OF Carl Crawford, the three will a catcher's worst nightmare. The idea that Huff might be moved to third base to replace newly acquired 3B Sean Burroughs appears absurd considering that the Rays want to see what Burroughs can do, and Huff is as good as gone anyway.

Bonds Taking Pain, Sleeping Pills

Too much has been made of Barry Bonds' anticipated retirement just because he is on the wrong side of 40. Remember, it was well after the age of 40 that George Blanda learned to eat his stewed prunes without dribbling down the front of his pajamas. Still, Bonds' peculiar focus on Babe Ruth's 714-homer total is a tipoff that Bonds sees Hank Aaron's 756 total as perhaps unreachable, given Bonds' latest physical limitations. His statements that he only want's Ruth's mark are intended to establish that threshold as an acceptable achievement if he is forced to retire at or before the end of the year, a distinct possibility once one condsiders his virtually secret regimen of pain-killing medication. Not only have doctors prescribed medicines to dull the pain in his surgically repaired right knee, they also have provided sleeping pills to stop the pain from keeping him awake at night.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Chris Duffy Leads 'Surprising' Pittsburgh

The Tampa Bay Devil Rays aren't the only team with an impending name change. By the end of April the Pittsburgh will be called the "Scrappy Pirates." By the end of May they'll be called the "Upstart Pirates," and by June all will regard them as the "Surprising Pirates." Leading the way will be CF Chris Duffy, a 26-year-old rookie who doesn't need to bat .341 again as he did in a brief trial last year. He just has to bat well enough to keep his job, and at .270-.290 that will be plenty considering what will be his resulting year-end totals in bags and runs scored. The Buc's newest leadoff man, Duffy will be moving around the bases courtesty of No. 2 hitter Jack Wilson, then come home on the bat of No. 3 hitter Sean Casey, who easily may be expected to bat better than .300 against both lefties righties. Cleanup hitter Jason Bay, capable of putting up MVP numbers at any time, will be protected by Jeromy Burnitz and should put up plenty of RBI with Duffy's name on them. All will be playing solid defense, a boon to Pirates pitching.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Sosa's Decision Opens Door for Hidalgo

Future Hall-of-Famer Sammy Sosa's rejection of the National's $500,000 offer opens the door for free agent OF Richard Hidalgo, another right-handed power hitter most recently with Texas. Though Hidalgo is four years away from '03, when he batted .309 with 28 homers for the Astros, he is still only 30 and in some quarters is thought to have been held back in recent years by injuries which now may be behind him. Like Sosa, Hidalgo is seen by the Nats as a potential backup for the oft-troubled Jose Guillen. Sosa fans, meanwhile, are hopeful that a recent visitation to Sosa's Miami home by fellow Dominican Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees may indicate New York is looking at Sosa as a potential right-handed DH to complement switch-hitting DH Bernie Williams, who will bat left in a 7-hole platoon. Sosa has yet to announce his retirement.

Darren Dalton in Parallel Universe

Former Phillies catcher Darren Dalton has created a stir with his report that he had "out-of-body" experiences while playing in major league games, attributing the phenomenon to his visitation to parallel universes. Actually, his testimony is not entirely unusual for a professional player. It is well known, for instance, that Seattle's Carl Everett has claimed that he was abducted and mercilessly probed by space aliens, all of whom looked exactly like Don Zimmer in tights and shower caps.

Dusty Baker: A Laugh a Minute

Cubs manager Dusty Baker is often recogized for his dugout accomplishments, but all to often overlooked is his greatest talent as a standup comedian. For instance, in his opening statement to the press and players, Baker promises to have open competition in spring training to assure the Cubs have their most effective and competitive players on the field as they begin the 2006 pennant drive. Ha! Ha! Ha! Oh, that Dusty. What a riot! Everybody knows, of course, that this is one ex-Marine who has no more intention of promoting his best young players than any other drill sergeant has of granting recognition and privileges to younger members of the rank and file. Baker knows that all the pennants and titles in the world amount to nothing if you lose control of your clubhouse, and the best way to hold control -- and keep your job -- is to value seniority, not ability, because veterans have a way of bellyaching to their clubhouse buddies and rookies are humble and submissive, and don't have any clubhouse buddies. Therefore, rookie SS Ronny Cedeno, who batted .300 in an 80-AB trial last year, and OF Matt Murton, who batted .321 in 140 ABs, likely can be expected to ride the pine in favor of SS Neifi Perez, 32, and OF Marquis Grissom, 38, a Baker crony. It's no accident that the Cubs just handed Perez a two-year contract and signed Grissom as a free agent.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Aubrey Huff: Just a Matter of Time

With Aubrey Huff in the final year of a contract in which he will earn $6.75 million, it is not a question of whether but when the Tampa Bay Rays will trade him. He'll begun long before the All Star break. The outfielder-rich Rays would gladly offer Huff for a starting pitcher like the Angels Ervin "Magic" Santana, a deal now closer to fruition with the anticipated finalizing of owner Arturo Moreno's deal with ex-Dodger Jeff Weaver. Even with Santana gone, the Angels now would be left with a strong rotation of Bartolo Colon, John Lackey, Weaver, Kelvim Escobar and Hector Carrasco, with Jeff Weaver's brother, Jared, waiting in the wings. But the Rays are in no hurry. Huff's price will only improve as long as such teams as the Astros continue to look for help.

Mike Lowell Spirals Downward....

Even the great Mickey Mantle was washed up when he reached the ripe old age of 32. The circumstances are different, but as Boston's Mike Lowell reaches the Mick's retirement age the ex-Marlin prompts considerable concern as to whether he is on track to become one of those players like Mantle or say, Robbie Alomar, whose skills suddenly diminish like a baseball rolling off the edge of a table. It's spooky how observers keep using the same word to describe Lowell as they did to describe Alomar: "sluggish." Hopefully Boston's strong lineup and a much better park for hitters will help stave off Lowell's decline, but how much and for how long and will it be enough?

Prince Fielder: Pontoon Walking

When Prince Fielder fell to the Milwaukee Brewers as a 17-year-old first-round draft pick, the team was thrilled to capitalize on the resulting publicity as the team attempted to sell boxes and season tickets in a brand new, multimillion-dollar stadium. Fielder generated the ink not only because he was the son of former Tigers superstar Cecil Fielder, but because he projects as the potential first man to wade across Lake Michigan without getting his hair wet. Prince Fielder is huge. When players come down the runway to the dugout, they don't walk with him, they walk among him. That's not to say he's fat, but it should be noted that he occupies his own grid square on the Google satellite images. Though scouts say he has good hands, at his size he is hardly agile at first base and will tempt management to bench him frequently for late inning defensive replacement, with Billy Hall a likely beneficiary. Fielder has a high upside, but all things considered, it is possible that Fielder will get no more than 500 ABs, and might not have a whole lot more than 400, making him a significant risk to use as a key component of your infield.

Bartolo Colon at Full Strength

Even though Cy Young winner Bartolo Colon enjoyed a 21-8 season for the Los Angeles Angels last season, red flags went up when he missed time in the post season because of a strained shoulder and back. Trainers wondered whether he was paying the price for having thrown merciless fastballs for nearly 700 innings over the past three years. Not to worry. Colon recently pitched in an exhibition game in the Dominican Republic and showed no signs of wear, and next month is to pitch in the World Classic Games. Take him early if your league pays bonus points for complete games.

So-Long, Sammy Sosa

Future Hall-of-Famer Sammy Sosa's decision to turn down a $500,000 offer from the Washington Nationals possibly predicates the end of his career. If he does call it quits, it will not be so much that Sosa retired from baseball as baseball retired from him.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Felix Hernandez May Be Given No. 5 Slot

Starting pitcher Felix Hernandez, the 20-year-old Mariners "phenom," has been compared to a young Dwight Gooden and there's little reason to think Hernandez won't live up to the comparison. Rumors have it, however, that Hernandez will slide down to the fifth spot in the rotation, meaning that he'll miss starts every time there is a holiday, rainout, extra travel day or any other interruption in the schedule that will give the other four starters an additional day of rest. That limitation, plus a 120-pitch count, will temper his worth. Hernandez will still be very valuable, but watch spring training closely to see where he fits into the rotation and adjust your ranking accordingly.

Johnny Damon to Get Green Light

Johnny Damon, the Yankees new center fielder, should see a small but significant uptick in stolen bases now that he is being managed by Joe Torre. Damon always has been an effective thief, but Boston has never been big on steals. Torre, however, has never forgotten his National League origins and has no fear of giving Damon the green light.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Manny Ramirez Still on the Block

There seems to be some sort of vague consensus that because the Red Sox failed in an attempt to trade Manny Ramirez during the Hot Stove League that any such proposals are dead. Don't believe it. The Red Sox are still willing to trade Ramirez and Angels would love to have him, but the deal is hung up on how much of Ramirez's contract should be absorbed by Boston and how deep Los Angeles should dig into the team's raft of minor league prospects. Even the slightest capitulation by either side could break the log jam at any moment, and the deal may quietly remain on the table though spring training and even into the regular season.

You're Fired and You're Fired!

Kevin Wheeler of The Sporting News and Todd Wright of ESPN were so successful going head-to-head against each other in the dog-eat-dog battleground of overnight sports talk radio that each appears to have gotten the other fired.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Sammy Sosa: How the Mighty Have Fallen

That only one major league team has offered future Hall-of-Famer Sammy Sosa a job is perhaps the most telling indication of how far his stock has fallen. Last year Sosa earned $17 million playing for Baltimore in the last year of a five-year pact Sosa originally signed with the Cubs. Now he reportedly is being offered no more than $500,000, plus incentives, from the Nationals, none of it guaranteed. Sosa hit just .221 with 14 homers in 102 games in an injury-marred '05 campaign. Last month Sosa put on a brave front, agreeing to return to the bargaining table with Washington after the Nationals sobered him with a paltry minor league contract offer and an invitation to spring training. The Nats have finally come across with a major league pact, but is there any wonder why Sosa continues to contemplate sitting out the season in the comfort of his Miami home?

Another Minnesota Ambush

The San Francisco Giants thought they pulled off the robbery of the century in '04 when they traded a couple of unknown propects to the Minnesota Twins for established catcher A.J. Pierzynski. But the trade turned into the worst ambush in Minnesota since the James Gang dismounted in front of the Northfield Bank. One of the propects turned out to be Joe Nathan, one of baseball's top closers, and the other one (San) Francisco Liriano, a lefty version of Twins fireballing ace Johan Santana. Liriano will come into his own this year, and eventually become the third of the three Twins aces with Brad Radke. But don't expect Liriano to bound onto the scene instantly. Management has noticed one of his shoes was untied the other day, and he showed up for a team meeting chewing gum and did not bring enough for everybody. They'll keep nitpicking him to death like that for a while the same way they needlessly held back Santana for one silly reason or another when Santana first came up. Hopefully, he'll be entrenched no later than June 1, but you never know.

Molina Leaves in a Huff

It may be a harsh to say that Bengie Molina is bitter after the Angels let him depart via free agency. However, the fact remains that as he was leaving the parking lot in Anaheim, Molina doused the front seat of owner Arturo Moreno's Lexus with a liter of Jose Cuervo then tossed in a lighted cigar. Can you say "payback time?" What should be remembered now about Molina, who at 31 arrives at the proverbial prime of life, is that he'll be motivated to make the Angels regret that they didn't treat him right, and that he'll be batting in a punched up lineup in Toronto. The only downside is that former Blue Jays starting catcher Greg Zaun will be pressing for playing time at Molina's expense, but Zaun should be all right now that the firemen have talked him back in from the ledge.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Gagne's Health at 100%

Los Angeles Dodgers closer Eric Gagne was throwing off a mound late last week and is described as being a full strength and ready to report for spring training in Vero Beach. His decision to back out of the World Baseball Classic in March reflects not so much a lack of readiness as a precaution coming back from last year's injury. The main question remains how quickly Gagne can return to form after the lengthy lay-off.

Entrants Lining Up to Vie for $100,000 Prize

Remaining positions in the National Fantasy Baseball Championship may dwindle to 50 or fewer this week as contestants line up to compete for numerous cash prizes including a $100,000 award to the ultimate champion. Simultaneous drafts will be conducted at the Stardust Resort in Las Vegas, the Stephens Center in Chicago, New York Hilton in Manhattan and Hyatt Regency in Tampa March 17-19. Twenty-two 15-team leagues will vie for 15 league prizes of $5,000 each, plus $2,250 for second place and $750 for third place. The scoring will be 5x5 rotisserie style and options will be serpentine or auction style. The event is sponsored by FW Publications Inc., publishers of Fantansy Sports magazine. Further details are available at

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

John Buck a Choice for the End Game

Of all the obvious late-round desperation picks at catcher, Miguel Olivo, Yadier Molina, J.D. Closser etc., none is necessarily a better play than Kansas City Royals catcher John Buck. For whatever reason Buck might turn out to be a bust, it certainly won't be for lack of on-the-job training. Though Buck repeatedly demonstrated last year that he was severely overmatched by major league pitching, Kansas City's commitment to him was conspicuous as they gave the 25-year-old backstop appearances in 118 games, good for 401 AB. The strategy may have worked. Buck batted only .228 before the All-Star break, but then hit .258 the rest of the way largely on the strength of a more than .300 clip in September. Moreover, Buck put his 6-foot-3, 210-pound body behind his swing and came up with a neat 17 homers for the season. It's important to remember that when the Royals traded superstar Carlos Beltran to the Houston Astros in a three-team deal (with Oakland) in '04, the key component they wanted among the three prospects they received was Buck, the so-called Astros catcher of the future. Then 23, Buck was hitting .300 with a .507 slugging mark for the Astros farm club in New Orleans when the trade came down at the end of June. And it was none other than ex-All Star catcher Tony Pena, then Royals manager, who liked so much what he saw in Buck that he told the Royals front office that Buck was the player to grab.

Monday, February 06, 2006

The Clint Barmes Gold Standard

Clint Barmes of the Colorado Rockies should be able to tell you as well as anyone: "All that glitters is not gold." After a torrid pace early in the year, Barmes came back from injury and watched what would have been rookie-of-the-year stats trail off to a .282 BA for the season. So who exactly is this young shortstop? Consider this: playing for eight minor league teams since 2000, he batted over .300 only once, at .328 in hit-happy Colorado Springs in '04, before being called up to the parent club.

Placido Polanco: Professional Hitman

In case you missed it, if Placido Polanco had only seven more ABs for Detroit last year, he would have qualified for the Ameican League batting title and won it with a .338 average. Moreover, he had a .386 on-base and .461 slugging percentage. Not bad for a middle infielder. They don't pay him $4.6 million a year for nothing.

Jason Lane Blows Hot, Cold

There is a popularly and long held misconception that 29-year-old Houston Astros outfielder Jason Lane was unjustly relegated to the minor leagues year after year because, even though he was ready for the majors, there was no spot for him to play with the big club. In fact, a careful examination of Lane's record shows that he not only continues to struggle against lefty pitching, but that his makeup is such that his performance is marred by prolonged slumps of four, five and even six weeks or more. Pick him up and play him when he's hot, if you must, but don't be afraid to drop him like a cold potato as soon as it looks like he's icing over.

Jason Kubel Reported At Full Strength

For Minnesota Twins prospect Jason Kubel the good news is that the knee brace is off and he can play at full strength after missing '05 with a torn ACL. The bad news is the Twins continue to be committed to Michael Cuddyer, who just signed a $1.3 million contract and to whom manager Ron Gardenhire plans to replace Jacque Jones in right field. Kubel, 23, who hit .343 with 16 HR in just 350 AB for the AAA Rochester Red Wings two years ago, will be watched closely to see if he is the same player he was before blowing out his knee during the '04 Arizona Fall League. But Kubel likely will return to Rochester unless he destroys spring training pitching. Kubel's best shot might come if the oft-injured Rondell White, the Twins '06 DH, goes down, or the Twins trade outfielders Torii Hunter or Shannon Stewart. Still in the hunt is outfielder Lew Ford, who this year begins his third season with the Twins.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Taguchi Wins Nod to Play Left; So?

So Taguchi has won manager Tony LaRussa's nod to be the St. Louis Cardinals everyday left fielder next year. So? So a 37-year-old spare part will play every day and highly regarded prospects Johnny Rodriguez, 28, and Larry Bigbie, 29, will sit on the bench and practice spitting sunflower seeds. So? So Gerald Ford is coming out of retirement to seek the 2008 GOP presidential nomination, Richard Widmark is returning to the silver screen to play the lead in a remake of "Fall of the Alamo," and Sparky Anderson is coming back to manage the Cincinnati Reds. So? So wasn't it about this time last year that the Cardinals announced that Taguchi and Timo Perez would be their '05 left fielders, then wound up signing a couple of guys named Walker and Sanders? So what? So nothing.

Aaron Rowand Poised for Huge Rebound

When Aaron Rowand played for the '04 Chicago White Sox, a team built around such sluggers as Carlos Lee and relying on the homerun for most of its production, he responded with 24 dingers and a .310 BA in 487 AB. When the team altered its strategy to rely on speed, pitching and defense last year, Rowand's numbers declined significantly to only 13 homers while batting just .270 in 578 ABs. That dropoff has Rowand flying under the radar with the Phillies this year despite the fact that he'll likely return to his '04 form as he bats second behind speedster SS Jimmy Rollins and in front of sluggers Chase Utley, Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell and Ryan Howard in Citizens Bank Park. The Philadelphia park last year was the best homer stadium in the National League after Houston's Minute Maid Park and Cincinnati's Great American Ballpark. Rowand has historically done well in the No. 2 hole, batting a lifetime .310 in that spot. As a righty batter, his numbers will be slightly repressed by Philadelphia's decision to remove nearly 200 seats in left field, pushing the fence five feet back and raising it from eight to 10.5 feet. But Rowand's key position in a killer lineup again should more than compensate, especially now that he's coming into his prime at age 29.

Nick Johnson to be Backed Up by Fick or Ward

If you are willing to go to war with a highly touted but oft-injured first baseman in one of the worst hitters' parks in MLB -- which is a very big if -- then the Washington Nationals Nick Johnson is your man, and you'd better get him cheap. And if you get Johnson, you might want to caugh up a buck, but not a penny more, for either Robert Fick, who made the Nats 40-man roster, or Daryle Ward, a Nats non-roster invitee. Johnson has never been able to play a full season in the majors and may be expected to miss significant time again this year. That leaves reclamation projects Fick and Ward, both lefties, to battle for Johnson's playing time when Johnson is hurt. Fick, 32, posted his best numbers for Detroit in 2001, when he hit 19 homers in 401 ABs with a .272 BA. Ward, 31, had his best year for Pittsburgh in '05 when he batted .260 with 12 homers in 407 ABs, and during a hot streak or two actually found himself on a few fantasy rosters. Ward can play first or outfield -- sort of -- and Fick can play first, outfield and catch, perhaps making him more valuable to the Nats than Ward. If the Nats keep both Fick and Ward and you don't know which to draft as your emergency backup, don't worry. If you took Johnson, your team is probably already in trouble anyway.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Morneau's Picture Cloudy In Minnesota

Anyone who has ever seen 1B Jason Morneau hit moonshots off the scoreboard clock at the Minnesota Twins minor league park in Rochester, N.Y., knows why many predicted the 23-year-old Canadian would be the first Twin to hit 30 homers since Kent Hrbek in 1987. At first it looked as though Morneau would live up to the hype when he was called up in '04 and pushed 1B Doug Mientkiewicz out the door. Morneau immediately claimed the cleanup spot and batted .271 with 19 HRs in only 280 ABs. Since then, however, Morneau's stock has plummeted after he was stricken with appendicitis, chicken pox, pleurisy, pneumonia and impacted wisdom teeth during his five-month sophomore off-season. And this from a player whose minor league career was marred by sprained knee ligaments, elbow surgery, a broken toe and an intestinal virus which caused him to lose 20 pounds. By the time '05 spring training rolled around, doctors had limited him to an excercise program of no more than easy walking and light lifting. If that wasn't enough, he was beaned by Seattle reliever Ron Villone, went down hard iand had to come out of the game with a concussion April. Suddenly the Twins supposed big-time cleanup hitter was relegated to a lot of bench time and batting in the six- and seven-hole, and finished his season batting just .239 with 22 HRs in 490 ABs. The prevailing sentiment seems to be that poor Justin was just unlucky and that with his potential he's a great, "under-the-radar" mid-round value pick. The opposite side of the coin, however, is that Morneau's potential is not up, but down, with a continued pattern of illness and injury. Morneau is reported to be working out and in good health in Arizona, but the most disturbing aspect of his outlook is that Twins manager Rod Gardenhire seems to be going into spring training with a bias against Morneau. Gardenhire plans to continue to bat Morneau in the sixth hole or lower, thus curtailing his RBI potential and undermining Morneau's protection in an already marginal batting order.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Aaron Heilman to Join Mets Rotation

Aaron Heilman, 27, who chalked up a 3.17 ERA and 5-3 record with 5 saves in 108 innings for the New York Mets last year, is readying to report to the Mets spring training camp in Port St. Lucie, Fla., and transform himself from a bullpen specialist to a full-time starter. With camp set to open Feb. 18, time grows short for him to prove he is up to the task. Heilman's opportunity came when Chris Benson's spot opened with his trade to the Baltimore Orioles. Heilman owns a perhaps undeserved reputation as a prospective "phenom," as he brings merely good, not exceptional, skills to the game. The Notre Dame grad throws a low 90s fastball complemented by an inconsistent change and slider. But Mets management regards him as strong enough to hold down a spot at the end of the rotation, thus diminishing the team's need to sign veteran help such as free agent SP Jeff Weaver.

Top 10 New Devil Rays Team Names

10: Tampa Bay Rays Without Stingers
9: Florida Retirees Without Portfolio
8: Sun Harbor Elderly Canadians
7: Deep South Blue Hairs
6: Confederate States Plug Nickels
5: Gulf Coast Beach Bums
4: Tropical Swamp Pests
3: Florida Lambs Going to Slaughter
2: Tampa Bay Deer in the Headlights
1: The St. Petersburg Devil Rays of Tampa