Monday, February 26, 2007

Elijah Dukes' Pal Complains Cops Have Wrong Guy

A companion of Tampa Bay Devil Rays prospect Elijah Dukes has tried to take the blame for the troubled player's drug arrest in Tampa on Jan. 16, contending Dukes is innocent.

Willie Evans, 23, of Tampa -- who along with Dukes faces a potential year in jail if convicted of misdemeanor possession of marijuana -- has complained to authorities that the stash of drugs police allegedly found in the console of Dukes' 2006 Dodge Charger belonged not to Dukes, but to Evans.

Police have the wrong man, Evans contends. "I smoke marijuana all the time," Evans told police.

Dukes, 22, has reported to the Grapefruit League after shin splints forced him to leave Arizona Fall League last October. Despite his arrest -- the most recent in some half dozen marks on his record -- Dukes remains on the Rays 40-man roster, though the front office has refused to comment while the case is pending. Dukes remains under the guidance of personality coach Andre Norman of Project Footprint, who has not responded to MLBnewsonline inquiries.

Dukes and Evans were stopped by police last month after they were caught playing rap music so loud that it could be heard more than 100 feet away from the vehicle in which they were riding, a violation of a Tampa noise ordinance. Officers detected the odor of burned cannabis, searched the vehicle and found a paper bag containing more than two ounces of a dried, leafy substance. Evans was also charged with failure to secure his seatbelt.

While Evans contends the marijuana belonged to him, not Dukes,' both are charged with possession because the substance was in Dukes' vehicle and both men had access to it, according to sources familiar with the case. Defendants historically have challenged such arrests on grounds of undetermined ownership of a substance in question, but the courts have frequently held that possession can be established based on its proximity to multiple suspects.

Dukes was suspended by the AAA Durham Bulls for six days in June for a clubhouse disturbance he contended was overblown, then threatened to quit baseball after being suspended indefinitely in August. Subsequently for perhaps unrelated reasons the Bulls manager and staff -- including former Pittsburgh Pirates standout Richie Hebner -- were all fired. Dukes was restored to the team after missing 30 games and went on to play in the Arizona Fall League.

Dukes is expected to compete for either an outfield, first base or DH spot this spring. Though the 6-foot-two, 225 pound Tampa native comes from a troubled background and has frequently experienced anger issues with peers and authority figures, he is among the most gifted prospects in the minor leagues and has received high marks not only for his abilities but his competiveness, work ethic and devotion to the game.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Bat Speed an Issue in Sammy Sosa's Comeback

A suspicion has persisted for nearly three years now that the precipitous decline of former big-time slugger Sammy Sosa was linked to that fateful day three years ago when Pittsburgh's Solomon Torres beaned Sosa with a fastball, shattering his helmet and leaving the potential Hall-of-Famer helplessly gun-shy for the remainder of his career.

But after watching Rangers camera assistant Josh Frasier lob batting practice balls to him for 30 minutes Friday at Rangers camp in Surprise, Ariz., it became immediately apparent that Sosa's shortcomings are much more fundamental: his bat speed is gone.

Whether Sosa can rediscover himself remains an open question, as he showed a glimmer of the power that once enabled him to hit 588 career homers, hitting three deep balls to the outfield. But many of his swings went for meager liners or pops, an inauspicious beginning to the Rangers highly questionable effort to revive the 38-year-old's prospects after 16 months of relative inactivity.

Sosa hit just .221 with 14 homers in 380 at-bats for the Orioles before sitting out last year, having been spurned by every major league club except the lowly Nationals, who offered a mere $600,000 minor league contract and camp invitation, which Sosa declined.

This year was more of the same, with Sosa hawking his wares before a handful of scouts in Miami. Only the Rangers sniffed, extending him a non guaranteed $500,000 minor league offer payable if he makes the club, and then only on the condition that he will work cheaply thereafter.

Though Sosa claims he wants to hit another 100 homers or more before he retires, early indications are that he'll have trouble finding the at-bats to do so, as he'll be lucky to land a job as the Rangers part-time, right-handed designated hitter, an opportunity that likely will disinterest him.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Brewers Prospect Ryan Braun to 'Get a Long Look'

Brewers veterans Tony Graffanino and Craig Counsell looked every bit like a righty-lefty third base platoon as bench coach Dale Sveum threw them batting practice Friday morning, but it was prospect Ryan Braun who was getting all the attention.

"He has as good a chance as anybody," said Sveum after watching the 6-foot-2, 210-pound righty spray deep flies to all fields at Brewers camp in Maryvale, Ariz. Though it's early, so far Braun is showing good offensive skill, Sveum said.

GM Doug Melvin agreed, discounting any thoughts that Braun was being disrespected by being given a lowly No. 75 jersey. "He's going to get a good long look," Melvin told

Just 23, Braun is a legitimate five-too threat who initially had been ticketed for 2008. But 33-year-old third base incumbent Corey Koskie is showing prolonged effects of post concussive syndrome, with knowledgable observers offering a grim prediction that the $3.5 million a year former Twin is finished. Though Koskie is in camp, he has been unable to take the field, and likely will miss opening day and beyond.

Braun is fresh off the Arizona Fall League, where he punished second tier pitching with a .326 batting average and six homers in 111 at-bats. He has the potential to be the surprise of Cactus League camps, and may have a shot a rookie of the year. Then again, he has the potential to be overhyped, too. Observers say he has a ways to go before the quality of his defense catches up to his bat.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Austin Kearns Troubled by Nick Johnson Mishap

With six weeks of Grapefruit League ahead, Nationals outfielder Austin Kearns reportedly remains troubled over having to face questions about last year's collision with first baseman Nick Johnson.

Kearns was coming in on a fly when he rammed Johnson, who had been backing up along the first base line, causing Johnson to break his leg. Johnson's recovery is going so poorly -- as he is slowed by weakness and discomfort -- that he may not be back until June.

But Johnson has assured Kearns not to feel guilty. He holds Kearns faultless, as well he should.

One needs only examine the record to know that Johnson has always been accident prone and brittle. If it hasn't been one thing it's been another, with five visits to the disabled list since he missed the entire season in 2000. Except for the last two years, Johnson has never had more than 400 at-bats in a season, and has yet to reach the 500-threshold in a 12-year professional career.

Johnson's lost time should have presented rookie Larry Broadway with a golden opportunity to demonstrate his talent, but Broadway's offensive production not only has leveled off as he approaches his 28th birthday, he has been injured almost as often as Johnson.

Look for troubled veteran Dmitri Young -- who was released by the Tigers after alcohol-related behavior issues last year -- to resurrect his career now that the Nationals have signed him to a minor league contract with a chance to compete to back up Johnson. Young has some miles on the odometer at 33, but hit .297 with 29 homers as recently as 2003.

Despite Fall, Kerry Wood Looking Good in Mesa

Athletic trainer Matt Johnson -- buttonholed in the Cubs clubhouse in Mesa, Ariz. -- would neither confirm nor deny backfence speculation that the cause of hurler Kerry Wood's bellyflop out of his hot tub was a loss of blood pressure to his head that made him faint. People have been known to pass out after rising rapidly, as Wood may have done getting out of the bath, but maybe he just stumbled.

Though Johnson and other club officials shrugged off the question, any notion that the incident means Wood already is destined to miss time this season is fodder for fan panic, and little else. True, Wood won't throw off a mound for up to five days, but he was participating in running and other activities. Wood's throwing was limited merely as a precaution as he comes back from shoulder and elbow injuries that have sidelined him since June 9.

If the mishap had happened to anyone else -- except rotation mate Mark Prior maybe -- Wood's little fall probably would have escaped notice. But in addition to a raft of serious setbacks, this is hardly the first occasion that ill-timed little occurances have happened to Wood, whose previous camps have been tarnished by bronchitis, an ear infection and dizziness.

The good news was that until now Wood had been throwing well, an excellent sign considering that the former No. 4 overall pick has an enormous upside, and is seen by the club as potentially working his way into the closer's role if he can stay healthy. Becoming a closer is asking a lot, considering his track record, but remember, Wood is only 29. There's still time for him to put his career on track.

Corey Koskie Likely Done; Ryan Braun Awaited

With Milwaukee Brewers third baseman Corey Koskie still struggling with discomfort related to post concussive syndrome, here's a little advice to third base prospect Ryan Braun: 'Rookie, strap yourself in.' Koskie may be through.

A position player or two began arriving early with pitchers and catchers at the Brewers Cactus League camp in Phoenix this week, but sadly the 33-year-old Koskie was nowhere in sight. Koskie continues to suffer from lingering queasiness and vertigo related to a freak fielding fall that took him out of action July 5. A slick glove man earning $3.5 million a year, Koskie was hitting .261 with a dozen homers when he went down.

Braun ordinarily would be a long shot to make the club, especially with veteran Tony Graffanino already on the roster. But Graffanino, 34, who owns a .269 lifetime batting average, has never played full time in 12 major league seasons and was brought in last year strictly as a reserve.

Braun, meanwhile, projects as a potential five-tool player and 4-hole hitter, and recently batted .326 with six homers in the Arizona Fall League. A No. 5 overall pick two years ago, Braun, 23, immediately mastered double A pitching last season, hitting .303 with 15 homers in 231 at-bats at Huntsville.

Koskie likely would have held off Braun until 2008 while the young prospect developed his defense, but those familiar with Koskie's condition warn that preliminary indications are that the oft-injured veteran not only is unlikely to play during spring training, but will be hard pressed to show up by opening day. Koskie has been on the disabled list five times since 2002, and may yet have to sit out for months dealing not only with his acknowleged dizziness, but headaches, irritability, difficutly concentrating and other manifestations.

Such a dubious prognosis, once confirmed, would force Koskie to consider stepping aside -- and soon. With his everyday play in doubt, it becomes difficult to imagine his hanging around as a deep reserve or pinch hitter. Even if Koskie took a year's hiatus to recover, at his advanced age a comeback would not only be difficult, it could put his health at risk for the extended future.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Twins Peculiarly Cautious in Joe Mauer's Signing

While other superstars such as Houston's Carlos Lee, Philadelphia's Chase Utley or Toronto's Vernon Wells have been inked to long-term deals, Minnesota remains peculiarly cautious in refusing to commit to young Joe Mauer beyond 2010. The question is why?

The decision fits a familiar pattern at the tight-fisted Twins front office, which previously let walk such fan favorites as Chuck Knoblauch, David Ortiz, Corey Koskie, A.J. Pierzynski, Jacques Jones and Eddie Guadardo rather than commit limited funds for an uncertain future.

GM Terry Ryan chalks it up not so much to caution as a need for what he calls "flexibility," reasoning that volatile circumstances could dramatically alter value perameters in years to come. Sometimes, as in the case of Koskie and Guadardo, his reserve has paid off. Other times, as with Ortiz, it has blown up in his face.

In Mauer's case, Ryan's hesitance becomes especially puzzling, with the team balking at spending more than $33 million to hold onto the 2006 American League batting champ for any more than a mere four years. This means that the young catcher becomes eligible for a huge payday at 27, and very likely will depart for greener pastures, even though more than any other player -- even Johan Santana or Torii Hunter -- Mauer represents the face of the franchise.

Remember, Mauer is the kid who came out of Cretin-Durham Hall, the Catholic school in St. Paul that produced Hall of Famers Dave Winfield and Paul Molitor, and former Blue Jays prospect and Heisman Trophy winner Chris Wenke. Simply put, as a Cretin-Derham alumnus, Mauer's provincial recognition is immeasurable, as are the fan interests, endorsements and ticket sales he generates.

So why not sign Mauer to a longer deal, say six, seven, even eight years with options, as has been seen elsewhere. Why not let Mauer become the next Cal Ripken or Craig Biggio, finish his career in Minnesota? With so much at stake can it be that Ryan's motivation can be summed up as pure , small-market prudence, or are other more canny evaluations at work?

Ryan, a former scouting director and shrewd judge of talent, is no fool. One must keep in mind that Mauer missed 127 games after violently tearing the cartilage in his left knee in 2004. While successful surgery has resurrected Mauer's career, the unfortunate inevitablity is that anyone sustaining an invasive medical procedure such as Mauer's meniscectomy will sooner or later suffer progressive, degenerative, post-traumatic arthritis, especially a catcher. This is a condition that someday may force Barry Bonds, for instance, to undergo knee replacement.

Will Mauer yet have a long and successful career. In all probability yes, or reasonably so. But don't be surprised if that wealthy team that pays for productivity at catcher when Mauer is 27 winds up unexpectedly buying a first baseman, designated hitter or trainer's room haunt before the contract matures. Of this, Ryan may be only too aware.

Mark Teahen Will Prove to be Natural in Outfield

Just because Kansas City's Mark Teahan has never played anywhere but the infield in five years as a pro, four years in college and three in varsity high school, it doesn't mean he can't switch to the outfield. Not only can he do it, there's reason to think he can excel.

Teahan, 25, who resides in the Phoenix suburb of Peoria, returns to the Royals camp in nearby Surprise from Florida this week to resume chasing deep flies. He'll need the practice when top-rated rookie Alex Gordon takes over third base, and Teahan moves to right.

It won't be official until sometime after camp, of course, but make no mistake about it. No later than June Teahen will move to right field and it's not because he's being punished. Teahen projects as a .300 hitter with 20-30 homer power, and the new, improved and soon-to-be dangerous Royals need him. Even though he has no experience in right, Teahen can be seen as the best man for the job because of his attitude, glove and arm.

"He's pretty much all baseball,'' says Jeff Stout, his former coach at Yucaipa High School on the fringe of the Los Angeles Basin. "You tell him to go out and play right field and he's not going to cry about it. He's going to go out and be the best right fielder you ever had."

Teahan was introduced to the left side of the infield as he led Yucaipa into the finals as shortstop in three successive years. Teahen more easily could have played the outfield, but as the most skilled defensive player on his high school team he was needed to play the most demanding position, shortstop, and subsequently he came up as an infielder, Stout said.

Not only will Teahen prove to be a versatile defensive player, he has the makings of being an outstanding offensive force. "I think he projects as a 3-hole hitter," Stout said.

He may never make it anywhere near Cooperstown, but it's not difficult to imagine Teahen following in the stellar footsteps of Hall of Fame shortstop-turned-outfielder Robin Yount.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Troubled Hank Blalock Still Model of Coachability

He might be a millionaire, might even be headed for stardom, but whatever else is Rangers third baseman Hank Blalock, above all he's humble, polite and respectful. Sure his star is tarnished after two successive disappointing seasons, but any thought that this 26-year-old ex-top prospect is uncoachable is rediculous. Let's put that rumor to rest right now.

Talking to the gifted red-head one comes away with an impression of a determined young athlete with an open face and honest, clear blue eyes, unfazed by fawning fans or other trappings of limelight. A throwback to protocol of the past, he often speaks only when spoken to and deferentially addresses strangers as "sir." If Blalock's ongoing shortcomings can be blamed on his refusal to listen to his elders, chalk it up to youthful overconfidence rather than obstinance. Blalock is one of the most agreeable players you'll ever know.

"I suppose you're going to ask me if I'm at a crossroads," said Blalock, as he and wife Misty met over lunch recently with Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News.

"Yes, I think I will," Grant recalled during a recent interview with XM Radio's Steve Wilson.

"I'm absolutely at a crossroads," Blalock answered without pretense.

After watching his season homerun totals fall from 32, to 25 to 16, Blalock finally has put himself in the hands of hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, who until the end of last year had given Blalock enough rope to hang himself. Like most players, Blalock couldn't be helped until he was ready to be helped, and now that he's hit rock bottom, he's more than ready.

Finally healthy after shoulder surgery, Blalock has vocalized his willingness rediscover what brought him to the big leagues: an ability to hit both left- and right-handed pitching, a keen eye for the strikezone and a willingness to hit balls to all fields, not waste at-bats by foolishly trying to pull outside offerings over the left field fence.

Without Blalock, cleanup hitter Mark Teixeira is in danger of being left naked in the batting order, especially if questionable acquisition Sammy Sosa, 38, has nothing left, rookie right fielder Nelson Cruz falters or if left fielder Brad Wilkerson continues to struggle. Look for Blalock to rise to the challenge. It's not just his potential, not just his talent that will prevail. It's more a matter of of maturity and a reassertion of unfaltering character.

OF Angel Pagan Remains Cubs Dark Horse Option

Switchhitting Cubs outfielder Angel Pagan should continue to be regarded as a viable option in what are likely ongoing talks to move veteran right fielder Jacque Jones. Jones has been openly shopped, and his name has never been withdrawn from trade talks.

An erroneous impression seems to have circulated that Pagan was something of a disappointment last season as he hit only .247. But what has been overlooked is that those numbers were put up almost entirely after Pagan was trying to find himself after an extensive stint on the injured list. Pagan was limited to only 170 at-bats after missing two and a half months.

What is more important is remembering that Pagan -- despite manager Dusty Baker's aversion to inexperienced help -- convincingly persuaded the former skipper to promote him by going 2-4 with a three-run homer to break up a shutout at the end of camp last year. This after the 24-year-old, 1999 Mets fourth round pick had had a sensational '06 camp, batting .367 with a .412 OBP, .700 slugging rate and 10 RBI. Healthy again as he arrives at camp in Mesa, Ariz., Pagan will look to pick up where he left off.

New manager Lou Piniella has balked at the idea of newly acquired star Alfonso Soriano playing center field, leaving Pagan a candidate if Jones should be dealt.

Homer Bailey Unlikely to Escape Minors Just Yet

Expect Homer Bailey to be spending his 21st birthday in Louisville, if recent remarks by Cincinnati Reds Player Development Director Terry Reynolds are any indication.

Reynolds, interviewed on XM Radio, cautioned that Bailey could always win a spot in the Reds rotation during spring training at Sarasota, Fla., and that the decision would be up to the team's front office. But he said the general feeling is that Bailey will start the year at AAA Louisville, the team's International League farm club.

Bailey likely could pitch in the majors now. But Reynolds said coaches seem to think Bailey could use refinement of his changeup, and the club feels no complusion to rush him. If veteran Kyle Lohse continues to struggle to find the plate as he did iearly last season in Minnesota, or if youngster Elizardo Ramirez regresses, don't be surprised if one or the other finds himself replaced by Bailey before mid-season.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Familiar Face in KC Outfield? Yes, Mark Teahen's

Kansas City Royals third baseman Mark Teahen has departed for further winter workout activities in Florida after practicing catching flies in the outfield at the team's spring training complex in Surprise, Ariz. It's a likely prelude to Teahen's new job description.

Teahen will return to Surprise in about 10 days, setting the stage for a competition of sorts to see who will play third base this season, Teahen or minor leaguer Alex Gordon. You may as well pencil in Gordon now.

It's not that Teahen hasn't played well at third -- he most certainly has. What's not to like about his ability to hit for average and power, plus his more than respectable defense and likeable clubhouse presence. He's an up and comer who should have little difficulty prompting a trade of veterans Reggie Sanders, 39, or Emil Brown, 32, or their move to the No. 4 outfield spot. Teahen is a natural athlete, though he has never played the outfield during his professional career.

Teahen will be forced to give up his third base job simply because he will never outperform nor even remotely match the play of Gordon, who is regarded by many to be the single best prospect in all of baseball.

Gordon is prime Nebraska beef, hailing from Lincoln, the heart of the team's northern fan base. As a lad he made frequent visits to Kaufmann Stadium with his family to watch Hall of Famer George Brett, for whom his brother Brett is named. The No. 2 overall selection signed for a $4 million bonus, and hit .325 with 29 homers in 486 at-bats last year for Kansas City's AA Wichita farm club.

Barring a complete meltdown during spring training or during April and May, Gordon, who just turned 22, is a virtual lock to be called up not much later than June, a rendezvous point that will help the team push back his contract arbitration date. But Gordon may likely win the job by opening day, ushering a new era in Kansas City, when the names on the basepaths will be not only those of Gordon and Teahen, but can't-miss prospects Billy Butler, 22, in right, and Ryan Shealy, 27, at first.

Having too many good third basemen is a nice problem for manager Buddy Bell, who soon will have a convenient excuse to move Teahen to left field for a couple months of on-the-job training.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Confirmation Awaited on Todd Helton's Recovery

Officials at the Thunder Baseball School in Knoxville, Tenn., have denied certain MLB rumors attributed to them that Tennessee-Ex Todd Helton showed up there to practice looking like the Todd Helton of old.

Though Helton, 33, has been a frequent visitor at the school during his annual trips to his parents house over the holidays, school officials said Helton failed to show up this year. Rumors generated by those who evidently thought they saw Helton had the former Volunteer quarterback looking tanned and fit, and having recovered most or all of the more than 30 pounds he lost last year after his intense bout with an intestinal disorder.

With such information proving spurious, fans are left wondering whether the Rockies all-time team favorite has recovered or continues to struggle with health issues. But a close examination of Helton's performance in the waning weeks of the season last year may provide the answer.

Sure, much has been made of Helton's homer drought, his total falling to a career low 15 last year. But a truer indicator of Helton's condition might be manager Clint Hurdle's decison to restore Helton to his customary No. 3 spot in the batting order at the end of August. Though Helton had asked to be dropped to the No. 9 spot after struggling earlier -- and in fact was tried for awhile at No. 2 and No. 5 -- he regained the No. 3 spot after he hit .347 with a .440 OBP for an extended period at the time of Hurdle's decision.

Though the homers were gone, Helton showed tremendous gap power and no loss of strikezone judgement as his slugging percentage reached nearly .600 for that period. He also went on to hit three more homers, or something like one per week, as the season closed.