Thursday, March 29, 2007

Carlos Quentin Aggravates Labrum Injury in Tucson

Former 2003 first-round pick Carlos Quentin aggravated his partially torn labrum in a minor league game Thursday at the Diamondbacks complex in Tucson, Ariz., raising doubts as to whether he can return to action soon.

Quentin -- who failed to return to the game after grounding out in the third inning -- was scheduled for an urgent medical examination in Phoenix late last night. Depending on the findings of the Diamondbacks staff doctors, it appeared likely as not that Quentin would be headed for the minors, extended spring training or the disabled list, but his status was uncertain.

Doctors had warned the coaching staff that because of Quentin's typical, all-or-nothing output in game situations, he should be brought along slowly after experiencing shoulder pain in the third week of spring training. But Quentin had been swinging eagerly in the batting cage this week and was given a tryout in the minor league contest to make up for lost time.

Quentin was nearly at full strength, claiming he could still play by modifying his batting stance and swing. Before going down he had been hitting .357 with three homers and 10 RBI in 28 at-bats. His layoff appeared to have played a part in the announcement that Scott Hairston had made the squad as a reserve. Hairston stands to gain playing time if Quentin continues to sit out.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Martin Prado Does It All, But All Is Not Enough

Braves prospect Martin Prado this spring has batted .381 with a .426 on-base and .524 slugging percentage; has hit six doubles while striking out only four times in 42 at-bats and played spectacular defense. In other words, he has done everything necessary to win the starting second base job -- but win it.

Expect Prado to lose out to Kelly Johnson, the 38th overall pick in 2000 whose arm has been surgically repaired after it blew out in Johnson's attempt to convert to the outfield last year. Johnson will win the job because he long ago was envisioned as the player who would make it possible for the team to save $6 million a year by letting veteran pivot Marcus Giles depart to San Diego.

Johnson is hitting a more pedestrian .262 in spring play, but projects as a top middle infield power source, though his career thus far has been truncated.

All that remains now is to determine not whether Prado deserves to make the club, but whether room can be found for him as a reserve on a very crowded roster.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Brandon Morrow to Try Out for Closer Committee

Top pitching prospect Brandon Morrow -- a former No. 1 pick who closed for University of California -- will likely join a reserve committee of closers for the Mariners if he passes a key test Wednesday, when he will appear with only two days rest for the first time in camp.

Morrow, 22, initially had been slated for the minor leagues to develop as a starter, but continued forearm inflammation experienced by regular closer J.J. Putz has forced the team to consider Plan B.

Putz threw 15 pitches -- limited to fastballs -- in a minor league game Tuesday. But knowledgeable observers familiar with his strained pronator flexor muscle see a potential that Putz may have to remain behind in extended spring training when the club departs for an exhibition game at San Francisco on Saturday. Though Putz could remain with the club, don't be surprised if his duties are limited through the first few weeks of April, or perhaps even that he is moved to injured reserve status.

Until Putz's condition is clarified, Morrow's 99-mph fastball figures to be added to the Mariners roster to bolster not only the bullpen but a committee of potential emergency, mix-and-match closers including veteran Chris Reitsma, 29.

Reitzma has logged three Cactus League saves with a 4.50 ERA, but has given up five hits in six innings, including a pair of homers. Don't breathe a word of it, but with Morrow's upside far greater than Reitsma's, rampant camp speculation has Morrow potentially winning a significant number of closing assignments until Putz's return. Should Morrow continue to impress, he possibly could find an opportunity as a long shot to be named the primary setup man for the remainder of the season.

In the overall scheme, Putz's condition is not regarded as serious. Still, he is merely bone, muscle, sinew and flesh and has no guarantee his discomfort will not linger throughout the season, adding even greater possibilities for Morrow as a surprise Rookie of the Year candidate.

A non-roster invitee, Morrow began to loom large on the Mariners radar screen as he put up a 1.08 ERA with a strikeout per inning while surrendering just four hits in eight innings, with no homers. Morrow last year gave up just 10 hits with 13 strikeouts in 13 innings with a 2.27 ERA in four starts in the Arizona Fall League.

Morrow's diabetic condition is not expected to impact his ability to perform on the field as long as he monitors his insulin.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Ryan Braun to be Demoted Despite Leading Team

The good news is that 23-year-old prospect Ryan Braun is leading the Brewers in homers: five: and slugging, .912. The bad news is that Braun also has the most errors -- four -- of any of five players who have started at third base during more than five weeks at spring camp.

An announcement is forthcoming from the team's Cactus League headquarters in Maryvale, Ariz., that will disclose that despite his huge bat, Braun's defensive play has convinced the team that he must start the year in the minors. Coaches want Braun to work on throwing accuracy and footwork around the bag.

This means that the team will open the season at third base with a lefty-righty platoon of veterans Craig Counsell and Tony Graffanino.

It also means one more roster spot will remain open -- for now -- presumably to be used for one of a glut of outfielders, including: Geoff Jenkins, Kevin Mench, Cory Hart, and Billy Hall, all of whom are guaranteed a spot; and Brady Clark, Gabe Gross, Laynce Nix and Tony Gwynn Jr.; all still trying to make the team.

Barring a trade, look for Clark to win the fifth outfielder spot, Nix to open the season on the injured list and Gross and Gwynn to be sent down with Braun.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Billy Butler Probable to Return to Royals Soon

Billy Butler was welcomed to minor league camp by coach Terry Bradshaw over the weekend after Butler was cut by the Royals, with Bradshaw readying to turn the 20-year-old prospect into a defensively acceptable outfielder.

"He looks like he will become a real good hitter in the future," Bradshaw told "We're looking forward to working with him."

Bradshaw -- a former outfielder with the Cardinals -- said Butler's bat is good enough that he has "a good chance" to return to the major league club soon if opportunity presents itself, perhaps in the instance of injury.

Notably, starting designated hitter Mike Sweeney, 33, has missed more than 260 games over the past three years due to a variety of health woes, and would leave a gap on the roster should he go down again. However, manager Buddy Bell is concerned that Butler's development will be impeded if he used excessively as an emergency designated hitter.

Butler will roam left field for the AAA Omaha Royals when the team opens its 2007 Pacific Coast League season April 5 at Albuquerque, N.M.; and in the home opener at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha-Council Bluffs on April 13, again versus Albuquerque. He is projected to bat in the No. 3 or No. 4 hole.

Joining him will be former American League Rookie of the Year Angel Berroa, 28, who was demoted to rediscover himself after successive years of declining production. Berroa has been replaced at shortstop by light-hitting shortstop Tony Pena Jr., son of the former Royals manager, who was acquired from the Braves.

Butler, who has told coaches he is determined to develop his defensive game, must concentrate on reading flies off the bat and finding efficient routes to the ball. Butler's arm is not a problem, but to compensate for his being somewhat heavy-footed he will need to make snap judgements to get to balls quickly, according to the staff.

The Royals top pick in the 2004 draft, Butler owns a .344 minor league average. Butler hit .419 with five doubles, two home runs and 10 RBIs in 31 at-bats while assigned as a non-roster invitee at the major league camp this spring in Surprise, Ariz.

Veteran Ronnie Belliard Wins Spot with Nationals

With first baseman Travis Lee's sudden departure from the Nationals, a roster spot has opened for veteran middle infielder Ronnie Belliard, 32, and it will be interesting to see if and when he shakes his reserve status.

Blocking the path of the former Cardinals '06 World Series standout is Cristian Guzman, 29, whose quickness and arm seems to have won him the the starting shortstop position for now -- despite Guzman's sometimes erratic defensive play, mediocre bat and profile as a career reserve.

With former Reds middle infielder Felipe Lopez starting a second, don't be surprised if an opportunity arises for Lopez to replace Guzman at short, allowing Belliard to reclaim his former status as one of the game's superior second basemen.

Remember, it was only two years ago that Belliard hit .284 with 17 homers for Cleveland. Though a leg injury last year has prevented him from aggressive workouts and hindered his ability to lose weight, he'll likely shed some pounds in the opening weeks of the season and may yet impress the coaching staff.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Chien-Ming Wang Injury Intensifies Rotation Battle

With potential staff ace Chien-Ming Wang to miss at least three weeks with a hamstring strain, the competition intensifies for a potential opening at the No. 5 spot in the Yankees rotation.

Top pitching prospect Phil Hughes has been committed to AAA Scranton-Wilkes Barre, so manager Joe Torre must choose between Kei Igawa, the prohibitive favorite, and righty Jeff Karstens, the surprise of camp. The choice likely will come before the end of camp, though a fifth starter will not be needed until April 8.

While Igawa started out slowly, as has been his habit, his game is rounding out considerably, with his ERA leveling off at 3.00 with 15 strikeouts in 12 innings. But Karstens' numbers are impressive as well, with his 2.70 ERA and 11 strikeouts in 13 innings.

Under ordinary circumstances a youngster such as Karstens would not be expected to usurp a high-paid, Japanese import such as Igawa. But unlikely though it may be, Torre may be tempted to move Igawa into the bullpen not because he is any less a pitcher than Karstens, but because Igawa offers a left-handed, middle-innings option in long situations.

Complicating matters are considerations to trade No. 4 starter Carl Pavano, though rumors of those talks have been quiet since earlier in the month.

John Danks Expected to Win No. 5 Starter's Spot

As many have predicted, John Danks appears to have won the competition for the White Sox No. 5 starter's spot, according to a Saturday broadcast by Chicago-based Channel 7.

Danks, who was acquired from the Rangers in December in the Brandon McCarthy trade, has a 4.22 ERA for the spring, compared to McCarthy's 7.40 ERA. Many observers see Danks as a rookie of the year candidate. His last four innings of one-hit ball may have done the trick.

If the report is correct, it would mean that two remaining starts scheduled for Danks' rivals Charlie Haeger and Gavin Floyd would be largely perfunctory. Both have struggled in their final appearances, apparently turning over the last starter's position to Danks by default as much as merit.

Armando Benitez Warns Trading Him a Mistake

Nominal Giants closer Armando Benitez won't be surprised if he is traded, but warns that the team will regret it.

"I understand the situation. I (won't) be (ticked) off," Benitez said in remarks quoted by Medianews in Saturday's edition of the Times Standard in Eureka, Calif. "I've been in this business for 13 years. It wouldn't be the first time I've been traded. But it'd be a mistake."

Though he has struggled over the past two seasons, at least partly due to injuries, Benitez said is healthy and predicted he will return to form this year. The Giants are considering moving reliever Brian Wilson to the closer's role if Benitez can be moved, though Wilson has had a poor spring, leaving the team with few other options.

Still, Benitez remains on the block, as evidenced by scouts from the Marlins and Mariners closely monitoring his performances.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Billy Butler Headed for Omaha Despite Huge Spring

Top Royals hitting prospect Billy Butler can be expected to be sent down to the minor league camp any moment despite batting .419 with a .774 slugging average for spring, and coming off a 2006 season at Wichita where he hit .337 with 96 RBI with just 67 strikeouts in 447 at-bats.

Though the 20-year-old future phenom's bat is major league ready, the Royals want him to work on his defensive play in the Omaha outfield, particularly his reads off the bat and his routing to the ball. Butler, a former third baseman, has had such difficulty converting to the outfield that he would best be used as designated hitter, but the team is committed to veteran Mike Sweeney at that position.

Sweeney, 33, who not so long ago projected as an excellent defender at first base and probable for 30-35 homers and a .325 average, has been tagged by numerous experts as a player headed for trouble, and a virtual certainty to miss significant time in the coming season.

Writing in the 2007 Baseball Injury Report, published by Shandler Enterprises, athletic trainer Rick Wilton warns that Sweeney's career is in "sharp decline" due to multiple troubles with his back and a muriad of other injuries including a sprained wrist, sprained elbow and sore hip.

Wilton lists Sweeney as one of seven injury-prone players to avoid at all costs, the others being Alex Escobar, Christian Guzman, Chris Snelling, Dallas McPherson, Mike Matheny and Brian Jordan. The outlook has already proven particularly prescient in the case of Matheny, who recently announced his retirement, and McPherson, who is out for the year due to back surgery and whose return by 2008 is dicey at best.

When Sweeney goes down, it will be interesting to see how quickly the team turns to Butler. The problem is that Butler stands in line behind a number of players already on the roster, including Ross Gload and Reggie Sanders, likely to share time in left; Emil Brown, in line for the fourth or fifth outfield spot; and young Justin Huber, a backup first baseman with some upside.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Look for Gary Sheffield's Playing Time to Dwindle

Manager Joe Torre was more than aware that Gary Sheffield had been on the disabled list four times before being acquired by the Yankees in '03, but admired the veteran Atlanta Brave's ability to play through a multitude of nagging injuries while putting up big numbers.

Still, as Sheffield approached his 37th birthday last year, Torre openly acknowledged that he was going to have to frequently rest the hulking right fielder if Sheffield was to remain fresh through September. That was before Torre even dreamed that the Sheffield would go down for more than four months because of a wrist injury resulting from of a April 29 collision with Toronto's Shea Hildebrand.

Sheffield -- who returned over the weekend from taking a weekend off for personal reasons -- claims to have recovered. But he is another year older and even though he will be less taxed as designated hitter in Detroit, Tigers manager Jim Leyland has already recognized what Torre knew: Sheffield's advancing years will require that he be given time to rest.

Expect Leyland to split 30-year-old Marcus Thames' playing time with Sheffield from time to time in order to rest the elder and exploit the younger, who hit 26 homers in only 346 at-bats last year.

A PECOTA projection just released in the new edition of Baseball Prospectus -- published by Penguin Books "Plume" subsidiary -- shows Sheffield's plate appearances falling from 675 in his last fulltime season, 2005, to fewer than 400 this year. Edited by Christina Kahrl and Steven Goldman, the statistical computation formula has won high praise from Athletics General Manager Billy Beane and has been described by the publisher as "deadly accurate."

It foresees a 55 percent chance that Sheffield's game could collapse, and a 23 percent chance of decline through attrition. Sheffield is given a mere 12 percent chance of improving his annual statistical averages and virtually no chance of a breakout campaign.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Expect Shawn Green to Keep His Starting OF Job

All the big talk about veteran Shawn Green having to earn his spot as the opening day starter in the Mets right field is nothing more than that -- big talk. Even though youngster Lastings Milledge's spring numbers easily surpass Green's, manager Willie Randolph has made it clear that Green is his man.

Randolph was quoted in the Daily News as saying Milledge has a shot at making the team only if enough at-bats can be found for him, but then and only then. That would suggest Green will be the starter, though Green conceivably could lose time to Milledge if the upstart, 30-30 prospect makes the club as a backup.

So far this spring Milledge, 21, is hitting .361 with a .561 slugging percentage compared to Green's .179 average and .385 slugging. But Green, 34, recently hit a pair of homers and hitting coach Rick Down has suggested that Green's power decline is behind him.

Though Green hit a career high 49 homers in 2001, his totals fell to 19, 28, 22 and 15 over the past four years. But Down implied to the New York Post that the decline is not so much due to age-related loss of strength but rather various injuries from which Green has now recovered. Green said he feels strong now that he has modified his swing, and does not rule out a return to the 30-40 homer plateau.

"...He has the power than very few people have in this room," Down said in an interview from the Mets clubhouse in Port St. Lucie, Fla.

Red Sox Eye Diamondbacks Jorge Julio as Closer

Perhaps mindful of right-hander Jorge Julio's 12 strikeouts per nine innings ratio and 95-mph fastball, the Red Sox are among teams looking to pick up the Arizona Diamondbacks setup man and part-time closer.

Play-by-play announcer Ray Fosse made the disclosure during the radio broadcast of Oakland's 8-5 Cactus League loss to Arizona on Friday, when Julio struck out two while giving up two earned runs in 1.1 innings of middle relief. Fosse cited no sources, but if his report is true the Red Sox can be added to list of other teams interested in Julio, most notably the Giants and Marlins, both of which have unsettled bullpens.

It's unknown what any of the teams might offer to acquire Julio from Arizona.

The Red Sox have signed former Mariners starter Joel Piniero, who became a free agent in December, with the idea of his replacing closer Jonathan Papelbon, who has moved to the rotation. But Piniero has been given no promises about the closer's job.

The proposition of Piniero's conversion is so rocky that considerations persist that the team may have to fall back on veterans Mike Timlin and Julian Tavarez or youngsters Manny Delcarmen and Craig Hansen. Hansen is widely regarded as the favorite should Pineiro stumble.

The Red Sox are also believed to have been in discussions to acquire Chad Cordero from Washington, perhaps in exchange for outfielder Wily Mo Pena. Rumors of those talks, however, have been quiet for several weeks.

Pineiro, 28, was 30-18 in 2002-03, but since then his ERA has risen from 3.78 to 6.36 and strikeouts per nine innings have fallen from about seven to less than five. Piniero struggled with an 8-13 record in 25 starts last year, but held hitters to a .213 average during 15 relief appearances after being demoted to the bullpen.

Last year's relief performance has given rise to belief that Piniero may be able to convert to the closer's job, but questions linger as to his ability to endure the rigors of throwing on successive days as he has been a starter for almost his entire career.

Julio's ERA stands at 2.84 for the spring, and was 3.83 last year when he blew four of 19 save opportunities before giving way to Jose Valverde, who has been restored to the Arizona closer's role to start this season.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Brett Tomko Trumps Chad Billingsley as Starter

Dodgers GM Ned Colletti remembered that Brett Tomko went 11-7 with a 4.04 ERA when the two were with the Giants in 2005 -- promising if not spectacular -- and was only too happy to shell out what is now regarded as a paltry $2 million a year to bring Tomko to Los Angeles.

Colletti looked like genius when Tomko began the season at 5-1 with a 2.88 ERA. But an oblique injury sidelined him for a month beginning June 27, and when he came back he wasn't the same, finishing the year in the bullpen at 8-7 with a 4.73 ERA.

Now the 34-year-old veteran is healthy again in his contract year, and is determined once and for all to reclaim his rotation spot with a little help from his former Giants sponsor.

It's a bit of a surprise, but so far so good, with fellow Ohio native and potential ace Chad Billingsley, 22, already demoted to the bullpen and the primary remaining contenders reduced to Hong Chih-Kuo, 26, and Mark Hendrickson, 33.

Tomko has been the most effective of the three survivors in the race for the No. 5 spot, introducing a new, modified throwing motion that helps keep his often flat, 95-mph fastball from rising in the zone, a flaw that caused him to give up 57 homers over the past three years despite playing in pitchers' parks.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Hunter Pence, Leading Rivals, Faces Cut by Astros

The loudspeakers at Osceola County Stadium in Kissimmee, Fla., blared "This May Be the Last Time" by the Rolling Stones between innings of the Astros 9-8 loss to the Marlins Thursday. It was an especially poignant tune for upstart phenom Hunter Pence.

Pence -- hitting .667 with a homer every 10 at-bats -- leads not only the Astros but the rest of the league in a half dozen offensive categories, yet is virtually assured to be among the final cuts before camp breaks March 29, a clubhouse insider told

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the source said the decision to cut the former second round pick has yet to be made, but Pence will almost assuredly be named to the roster of Nolan Ryan's Double A Corpus Christi Hooks or Triple A Round Rock Express, both in South Texas. Only extraordinary circumstances such a series of injuries to the projected starters would save Pence from being cut, it was predicted.

If correct, that's good news for center fielder Chris Burke, who stands to lose playing time to Pence.

Though his bat has recently shown some life, Burke came into Thursday's game hitting .111 and has been the focus of critics considering him a possible candidate for demotion to the bench or the minors. But the team is committed to Burke, who is an outstanding bunter and showed decent leather while hitting a respectable .276 with a .347 OBP and nearly a dozen bags last year.

Meanwhile closer Brad Lidge continued to struggle in Thursday's loss. Lidge's ERA ballooned to 13.50 as he gave up two hits, two walks and three runs while facing just seven batters.

Pence, 23, was presented with his ring this week for his part in leading the Hooks to the Texas League championship last year. Pence is seen as a mid- or late-season callup, and is envisioned as an ultimate replacement for Burke in center field when Burke moves to second base. Second base will open up after veteran Craig Biggio, 40, reduces activity after reaching the 3,000-hit plateau, then ultimately retires.

Pence is regarded as a competent fielder with a strong arm and has little to prove with his bat, having hit .339 in the Arizona Fall League, plus .283 with 28 homers last year at Corpus Christi. Coaches, however, want him to work to stop chasing outside pitches out of the zone.

Gary Sheffield, Numbers in Decline, Leaves Camp

Tigers designated hitter Gary Sheffield -- with his spring hitting totals dramatically poorer than any season since at least 2002 -- has been given an excused but unexplained absence from camp after sitting out since Monday, according to the Detroit Free Press.

Beat reporter Jon Paul Morosi reported in Thursday's editions that Sheffield had departed from the Tigers spring facility in Lakeland, Fla., to attend to what was described as "personal business" and that, according to his lawyer, he will be back by next week at the latest. No further explanation was offered.

Though the absence was not attributed to health or fatigue, manager Jim Leyland was quoted as saying that in any event Sheffield was due for rest after taking several road trips. "He's been on about five in a row. He's 40 years old. He's had more at-bats than just about anybody (in camp)," Leyland said.

Sheffield, who actually will turn 39 next November, is tied for ninth with 23 at-bats for the exhibition season and his hitting .174 with one homer, as compared to .271 last spring; .368 in '05; .344 in '04; .386 in '03; and .342 in '02, according to ESPN statistics quoted by the newspaper.

Sheffield injured his wrist in a field collision last year and missed 123 games, but has been described in various accounts as being at full strength and completely recovered.

The New York Times has reported that an arbitrator was scheduled this week to convene a hearing concerning Sheffield's grievance against his former agent, Scott Boras, but the Free Press said it was indeterminate whether Sheffield was required to attend.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Cubs Have No Place to Put Struggling Mark Prior

If the last spot in the Cubs rotation comes down to a choice between veteran Wade Miller and youngster Angel Guzman, then fans will be forced to be patient with Mark Prior.

Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Jason Marquis and Rich Hill have nailed down the first four spots, but the No. 5 competition is still open, with Prior scheduled to test himself in a game situation by the end of the week. Don't be surprised, however, if Prior eventually must be ticketed for extended spring training in Mesa, maybe even a rehabilitative start in DesMoines.

Prior remains the sentimental favorite not only because of his popularity but because of his potential as a rotation ace. But so far this spring Prior has surrendered seven runs, eight hits and five walks in 3.33 innings, as he continues to search for his natural motion. Assorted injuries, most recently shoulder trouble, limited him to just seven starts last year, six of them losses.

The fifth starter's spot need not be determined until mid-April at the earliest, giving Prior time to work on his mechanics before facing a possible demotion. Wildcat speculation sees Prior potentially available for a rehabilitation appearance in the Iowa Cubs April 13 opening day game with Nolan Ryan's Triple A Round Rock team, but "it's nothing that I'm counting on," team spokesman Jeff Lantz said.

It appears that with second baseman Eric Patterson and third baseman Scott Moore being cut by Chicago this week, the Iowa Cubs leadoff and 2-hole batters are in place, but the opening day starter "could be any one of eight guys," Lantz said.

Should Prior fail to be ready by mid-April, his eventual return to Chicago would likely push Marquis or another member of the rotation to the bullpen.

Prior had a strong outing with Iowa in a no-decision against the Nationals Triple A affiliate last June at New Orleans. He recorded 10 strikeouts while giving up only four hits and an unearned run over seven innings before returning to Chicago. But he was back on the disabled list for a month beginning Aug. 11, and wound up with a 1-6 record and a 7.21 ERA, quite a comedown for a pitcher who posted an 18-6 record with a 2.43 ERA just four years ago.

Erubial Durazo a Poor Fielder, But Just How Poor?

At the expense of Dan Johnson, Erubial Durazo has won spring playing time at first base for the Athletics. It's not that manager Bob Geren has given up on Johnson, but he needs to know just exactly what Durazo can do after a year's layoff due to injury.

Durazo, 32, fighting for a reserve spot, is defensively challenged, but is outplaying Johnson, 27, at the plate, hitting .346 with a .538 slugging average. Johnson, meanwhile, is struggling to remain above the Mendoza Line.

A non-roster invitee, Durazo must continue his strong bid if he is to make the team. He cleared the first cuts, but still has a ways to go. Working in his favor is the fact that the team is somewhat shallow at first base, and the highly regarded Johnson has yet to prove he can hold down the job.

Prospect Kevin Frandsen Clears First Cut by Giants

As long as Todd Linden and Jason Ellison continue to battle for spots in the Giants outfield, opportunities will be limited for prospect Kevin Frandsen to find extra playing time in left. Frandsen has been given a look there as nothing more than a potential deep backup, but appears to have a reserve infield spot locked up as he has cleared the first cuts.

The 24-year-old former 12th-round pick has a sterling minor league hitting record, including finishing among the leaders in the Arizona Fall League. That shows he likely could avoid being sent down to Fresno as he doesn't necessarily need to play every day. He has nothing more to prove at the plate, although it would be a plus if he could find a power stroke.

Expect Frandsen to go north with the team, as he can back up not only his prime position at second, but shortstop and even third. He will play on days when veteran starters Ray Durham and Omar Vizquel need to rest, which will be relatively often. Should Durham or Vizquel be injured, Frandsen could excel.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Reports of Josh Phelps' Death Greatly Exaggerated

In an unprecidented act of empathy, generosity and compassion, Yankees manager Joe Torre assured youngster Andy Phillips not to worry about baseball, to go to Alabama to be at the bedside of his ailing mother, who had been seriously injured in an automobile accident.

"But, of course," Torre quickly added, "if you leave, you'll never make the team and probably will have to spend the rest of your career in the minors."

No, no, no, Torre didn't really say that. He might as well have, though, considering the headstart Phillips has given rival Josh Phelps, who is competing with him for the right-handed designated hitter's job.

In the 10 days since Phillips left, Phelps is hitting .421 with a .622 slugging percentage in 19 at-bats. Phillips, who just returned, has yet to appear in game, other than simulated action against teammate Andy Pettitte, in which Phillips was credited with a couple of singles. Big deal.

Phillips is doing well just to be in the running, considering his major league career batting average is just .220 in limited action, while Phelps hit .291 with 21 homers in 467 at-bats last year.

Okay, okay. Phelps did it at the Orioles Triple A affiliate at Ottawa. But it was only four years ago at Toronto that Phelps hit 20 homers in 396 at-bats off genuine major league pitching. That Phelps' star has been tarnished since then is obvious, but considering his minor league numbers last year, maybe he's just a late bloomer.

In any event, it seems surprising that the Orioles left Phelps unprotected. So far Yankees GM Brian Cashman looks wise to have snapped him up in the Rule 5 draft. If Phelps doesn't make the team, he will have to be sent back to Baltimore, so expect the Yankees to keep him, also allowing continued control of Phillips at Triple A Scranton-Wilkes Barre.

Cut by Yankees, Phil Hughes Stirs AAA Scranton

Pennsylvania baseball fans have been energized by the anticipated arrival of Yankees top prospect Phil Hughes, who will be added to the AAA Scranton-Wilkes Barre roster after his being cut at the major league camp in Tampa. Hughes is now scheduled for two more weeks of activity at the team's nearby minor league complex.

Hughes will be given more time to refine his technique, especially to polish a changeup to complement his 96-mph fastball and nose-to-toe curve. Then it's off to Scranton for an April 5 opening day start against AAA Norfolk, an Orioles affiliate.

"Ticket sales have been going through the roof," said team spokesman Mike Cummings. "It's unbelievable."

Fans have been motivated not only because of the 20-year-old Hughes but because this will be the franchise's maiden season as AAA affiliate of the Yankees, which moved from Columbus to Scranton after the Phillies vacated to move to a new stadium at nearby Allentown, Pa.

Advanced ticket sales have soared since the fans learned of Hughes' and the Yankees arrival, already exceeding last year's more than 376,000 total gate. At the current pace, another 250,000 tickets likely will be sold by the end of the season, a record.

Hughes projects as a top-of-the-rotation starter, likely to become the face of the Yankees over the coming decade. His promotion to New York could come as soon as June 1, when he will likely take the place of the No. 5 starter, who might be Jeff Karstens or Kei Igawa, either one of whom could be moved to the bullpen.

Karstens has been the surprise of camp in the early going as he is 2-0 with five strikeouts over five innings while giving up no runs, no walks and just four hits for an ERA of 0.00. Though his skills set is limited by a fastball topping no more than 90 mph, Karstens has outstanding control.

Igawa meanwhile -- who was initially signed as strictly a starter -- is being evaluated to fill a need for a lefty longman in the bullpen. Igawa has left a number of pitches up in the zone, causing his ERA to burgeon to 9.00, though he has seven strikeouts in just four innings.

Carl Pavano is also in the mix for the No. 5 rotation spot, but is the subject of confidential trade talks with the Colorado Rockies and perhaps other teams and is likely to be moved.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Components in Place for Phillies, Brewers Trade

With one too many light-hitting speedsters in the Philadelphia outfield, it looks like Shane Victorino is the odd man out.

The Phillies expected that with his ability to run, Victorino would have stolen more than a mere four bags in seven attempts last year, thus they see him as best suited to service as a fourth outfielder rather than as a starter.

So with right fielder Pat Burrell bringing power and little else to the game, and center fielder Aaron Rowand primarily desired for his glove, the Phillies could use a hitter who could hit for power and average, someone of the caliber of Geoff Jenkins.

Jenkins and his $7 million contract have been on the market since last July, but there have been no takers. After his down year in '07, it seems no one can be sure exactly how much Jenkins has left at 32. Meanwhile mixed reports come out of the Philadelphia front office as to the team's willingness to deal starting pitcher Jon Lieber, a serviceable major league hurler, or hold him in reserve as a sixth starter.

In any event, if the Phillies are to acquire this starting outfielder they supposedly want so badly, someone must be sacrificed as trade barter and Lieber is regarded as the prize. The Brewers interest would be piqued should staff ace Ben Sheets begins revisiting the trainer's room with the regularity of last year.

New Rule Makes Vicente Padilla a Marked Man

Pitcher Vicente Padilla -- having signed a $34 million, three year contract to hold down the No. 2 spot in the Rangers rotation -- may be forced to scale back his game strategy due to a new rule: Begining this year, umpires no longer must issue a warning before ejecting a pitcher for throwing at a batter.

Taking a page from the book of late Dodgers pitcher Don Drysdale -- master of brushback -- Padilla has bonked 66 batters since 2001, more than any other pitcher in the majors. Because Padilla is notorious for throwing inside, the new rule may impact his effectiveness, for as far as the umpires are concerned, Padilla is a marked man.

Last year Padilla hit 17 batters to lead the American League, having been suspended for five games after being blamed for igniting a brawl with the Los Angeles Angels. It was one of several incidents leading to the creation of the new rule, which reflects a change in philosophy about the perameters of game conduct as compared to Drysdale's era.

Drysdale had so little compunction about throwing at batters that whenever he needed to walk a man he would just hit him instead. "Why waste four pitches when one will do?" Drysdale said. "...Sooner or later, you have to say: 'It's my ball and half the plate is mine."

A's Daric Barton Turning Heads in Cactus League

Leading first base candidate Dan Johnson -- hitting at an anemic .190 clip in a 4-21 slump -- continues to be outshined by upstart rival Daric Barton, who has gone 8-16, a .500 batting average in the early going.

Each has a homer.

Barton, 21, acquired from St. Louis in the Mark Mulder trade, is a student of the game, spending evenings reading books about Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and other greats. He has demonstrated a powerful yet easy, fluid swing since arriving in camp last month as a non-roster invitee.

Barton's chances of making the team remain slim, but he is winning many admirers.

Stat Analysis Shows Fenway Won't Help J.D. Drew

Sports agent Scott Boras exacted a $70 million contract from the Red Sox for client J.D. Drew in part by pointing out that a number of Drew's flies that were caught on the Dodger Stadium warning track last year would have gone for homers at Fenway Park.

If that were true, it might mean Drew's homer total -- a relatively anemic 20 last season -- would approach 30 or more. But the theory has been disputed by some, notably Frank Bundy, writing for Bundy contends a statistical comparison of the two parks drawn from the Bill James Handbook shows that Fenway, not Dodger Stadium, is the more difficult park in which to reach the stands.

With a score of 100 being neutral, park factors from 2004-2006 show Fenway had a home run factor of 86, while Dodger Stadium came in at 110, meaning it was 14 percent harder to hit a homer in Fenway over the last three seasons than at a neutral ballpark, while it was 10 percent easier to hit a homer in Dodger Stadium.

Based on those findings, here's Bundy' 2007 projection for Drew: 395 at-bats, .287/.394/.476 with 12 homers and 74 RBI.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

A's Still Have Confidence Issues with Dan Johnson

Athletics manager Bob Geren's decision to continue using outfielder Nick Swisher part-time at first base hardly reflects panic but indicates at least some uneasiness as to whether Dan Johnson will ever take possession of the position.

That Johnson is hitting only .133 in a handful of Cactus League at-bats is not especially meaningful unless one compares it with his performance last year, when Johnson hit only .234 to mystify scouts who project him to become a big-time hitter, especially now that he has reached what should be his prime at 27.

It's early, but so far Johnson continues to disappoint, even being overshadowed by up-and-coming Daric Barton, 21, a former catcher being converted to first baseman, who is hitting .400 in a handful of at-bats. If Johnson is on some sleeper lists that's fine, just as long as it's a sleep from which he will awaken, and soon.

With center fielder Bobby Kielty sidelined for six weeks or more with back trouble, Swisher more than ever will be needed in the outfield, leaving Johnson with no better opportunity to finally show his stuff.

Ghost of Corey Koskie Haunting Brewers Camp

That Brewers third baseman Corey Koskie still wants to play baseball despite his continuing struggle with post concussive syndrome is a credit to his competitiveness and love of the game. That the coaches are willing to work with him toward that goal is a credit to their devotion to him.

But the problem is even worse than Koskie being a shadow of his former self. The $3.5 million-a-year former infield standout is more like a ghost. Formerly a deft and accomplished all-around athlete, Koskie at 33 not only is unable to take the field; he has had trouble with even the simplest of tasks, having dealt with memory loss, fatigue, dizziness, nausea and impaired ability to concentrate after going down with a freak head injury last July 15 in a game that may turn out to have been his last.

With the entire team pulling for him, speculation about his future is spoken in whispers if at all. But the plain truth is that Koskie is months from recovery, and very likely must face the reality of forced retirement.

Meanwhile, prospective replacement Ryan Braun is about to undergo an intensive training course at third base in the hope that his glove can be ready for the field by opening day. Braun has a huge bat, but it's asking a lot for a 23-year-old with no major league experience to take over without many more weeks of preparation. Don't be surprised if veterans Tony Graffanino and Craig Counsell are the early favorites to platoon at the hot corner, and Braun is ticketed for the minors.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Giants Seemingly Ignore Tim Lincecum as Closer

With Giants closer Armando Benitez's spring debut in doubt after he took a hard liner off his troublesome knee Friday, pressure mounts to consider top prospect Tim Lincecum and his 98-mph fastball to finish games.

A 22-year-old non-roster invitee, Lincecum is a longshot to even make the team. But Benitez -- whose knee disorder abruptly ended his season last September -- likely won't be ready by opening day and his most probable substitute Brian Wilson has been shelled in the early days of camp.

Manager Bruce Bochy has been coy when asked whom he thinks will emerge as closer by opening day, seemingly ignoring Lincecum like the fabled pacaderm in the parlor. But the No. 10 overall 2006 draft pick is a conspicuously strong choice, even though the team has resisted rushing him and projects him strictly as a starter.

However, Lincecum is widely viewed as having classical closer's skill sets, characteristics and makeup, though he has a violent throwing motion and is smallish at 6-feet, 170 pounds. He is the only Giants prospect rated in Baseball America's Top 50, having been named Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year after dominating aluminum bats at Nebraska with a strikeout rate of 14.3 per nine innings.

In two innings so far in camp, Lincecum has struck out two but has given up three runs on four hits.

Nagging Leg Strain Troubles Brewers Prince Fielder

The more time goes by for young Prince Fielder, the more it seems like the handwriting may one day be on the wall, and it might be a four letter word: H-U-R-T.

Fielder -- the Brewers No. 7 overall pick in the 2002 draft -- finally appeared in a spring game on Friday, going 3-3 with two doubles after being sidelined for 10 days by a strained right thigh.

Fielder's aching quadriceps was supposed to have been just a nagging little injury that was to keep him out for no more than a couple of days. But after being penciled in as cleanup hitter in the next to last of the week's games, Fielder felt another twinge and once again was scratched.

That the injury is minor is unquestionable. What's troubling is that it was so early in camp, and yet Fielder missed time while having barely exerted himself. Watching him take those tight, powerful swings in the batting cage in the lower practice field at the Brewers spring camp off 51st Street in Maryvale, Ariz., he had yet to break a sweat.

But here he was -- at the bulletproof age of 22 -- being restricted to upper body limbering at a time when he should have been tuning up with his bat.

At the risk of assigning too much importance to it, this type of thing might portend of a future in which Fielder's unique amalgamation of power, girth and grace might continue to be undercut by his challenge to comport himself in a body that is barely six feet tall yet 260 pounds wide. Wouldn't it have been prudent to avoid a few of those intense 60-yard sprints such as the one in which he was hurt?

How long must Fielder wait before manager Ned Yost comes to the conclusion that his workouts should be specifically modified to be sure not to over exert him beyond the limitations one might expect of a big, big man. After all, this is the son of 300-pound former big leaguer Cecil Fielder, not former Olympian runner Carl Lewis.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Jason Bay Withheld From Field as a Precaution

Pirates outfielder Jason Bay is being withheld from defensive play in early spring games after coming off knee surgery in November, but he remains a top 10 major league offensive force and should be absolutely 100 percent by opening day, if he is not already.

The 2004 Rookie of the Year hit .286 with 35 homers in 687 plate appearances last year, an astonishing number considering he was suffering from painful agitation behind the kneecap caused by excessive friction and tenderness between bone and cartilege.

Having diagnosed the condition as patella condromalicia, surgeons in a relatively unusual procedure entered the knee from behind to shave away the agitated material to promote regeneration with the objective of smoothing the buffer, according to knowlegeable observers familiar with Bay's condition.

Bay's incision has healed, but he is gradually restoring his durability after the post-op layoff. As a precaution he is being limited to playing designated hitter in the early days of camp.

Bay has been cleared to play and faces little or virtually no jeopardy of recurrence during the coming season. Should Bay suffer a relapse sometime in the more distant future, the procedure can be repeated.

Look for Bay to increase his statistical output in the coming season as he will be at full strength and will benefit from the addition of newly acquired first baseman Adam La Roche hitting behind him.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Wait-And-See Best Tactic in Evaluating Eric Gagne

True, Rangers reliever Eric Gagne has just had a decent outing, throwing 40 pitches from a mound with observers thinking he may have topped the 90-mph mark. But don't pop the cork on the champaign just yet.

With little more than three weeks left in camp, it's awfully late to still be trying to figure out just exactly what Gagne has left. Despite rosy reports, he has yet to throw with full velocity and has been unable even to throw batting practice, let alone appear in a game.

Though Gagne says his elbow feels strong, that's not news. It's his back that's the bigger question; the elbow being deemed to be game ready in Los Angeles last year when he went down due to acute, debilitating difficulties with his spine, requiring surgery. In relative terms, Gagne's spinal trouble makes his elbow incision look no more serious than a paper cut.

Even more troubling than Gagne's being held out of game action this late in camp is the fact that the Dodgers, Red Sox and Indians all passed on Gagne after studying his medical prognosis. Only the Rangers were willing to make a $6 million gamble.

Until Gagne rediscovers his 96-mph fastball, don't be surprised if Akinori Otsuka, who converted 32 saves last season, emerges as the Texas closer again for the short term, if not for the season.

Todd Helton Misses Time; Baker, Stewart to Benefit

Introducing the new Todd Helton, a stranger not only to Rockies fans but perhaps even to himself; not just because he has grown a beard, but because advancing age with its attendant demons -- injury, ill-health and fatigue -- is beginning to catch up to him, to the benefit of prospects Jeff Baker and Ian Stewart.

The first tipoff was at Christmas, when Helton, 33, failed to show at the Thunder Baseball School in Knoxville, Tenn., his customary stop when he returns to his boyhood home to visit his parents, and needs a place to train. Was his absence the result of a chronically tender right knee stubbornly lingering since a 2005 injury? The answer may be yes.

Helton has already missed time in camp, with the knee swollen and red. And he has limited his play to home games at Rockies camp in Tucson, avoiding hour-long bus rides to Phoenix, not only because of the knee but his history of painful compressed discs at the top of the spine.

Though he seems to have recovered the more than 30 pounds he lost last year due to an intestinal illness, the weight gain seems more of fleshiness than of muscle, leaving doubts as to whether he will ever recover the raw power to reach the 30-homer plateau again.

Though he has not yet gone the way of such players as Mickey Mantle, Dale Murphy, Robby Alomar and other gifted players who abruptly hit a wall in their 30s, look for him to miss more and more time, extending opportunities to players such as Baker, in line for a bench role, and Stewart, a third baseman who is blocked at the hot corner by budding star Garrett Atkins,

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

'Dissed' Two Years, Brad Eldred Back in Demand

Leading the major leagues with his fourth homerun of the spring, forgotten Pirates prospect Brad Eldred suddenly finds himself back in demand, according to widespread reports.

Pirates GM David Littlefield has been answering numerous inquiries about the availability of the 6-foot-5, 250-pound first baseman, 26, who spent the last two years on the Indianapolis Indians roster after first being sent down due to the acquistion of Sean Casey, then Adam La Roche.

Though Eldred's knowledge of the strike zone has been questioned, there's little doubt about his power. He reportedly has expressed to management his displeasure about being passed over once again.

Teams looking for help at first base since last season include the Red Sox, Orioles and Angels.

Twins SP Matt Garza Sloughs Off Injury as Minor

Twins starting pitcher Matt Garza has told trainers he is ready, willing and able to pitch, despite discomfort in his neck. But the team is taking no chances, holding him out of action to undergo examinations, tests, rest and mild rehabilitative excercises while awaiting results of an anti-inflammatory drug regimen.

With any luck, Garza likely will have recovered within 10 days as the strain is not considered serious enough to cause him to see consulting specialists off site. He is under the care of team physicians John Steubs and Dan Buss, plus the training staff.

"We're taking care of him here," a team spokesman at the Fort Myers clubhouse confirmed for

Garza, whose condition has been described as a common somatic disorder, is ticketed to be the No. 4 starter behind ace Johan Santana, Carlos Silva and Boof Bonser. He has felt discomfort at the neck at the base of the cranium, causing stress when he throws or looks toward the plate while straddling the mound.

While the injury in itself is relatively mild, it would lead to trouble if it caused colateral injuries by his altering of his normal throwing motion to avoid stress to the neck.

In his first outing last week, he threw two scoreless innings, but manager Ron Gardenhire suddenly removed him from a game five days later after Garza appeared to be uncomfortable as he faced Tampa Bay prospect Elijah Dukes.

In an unrelated development, center fielder Torii Hunter returned to action in the same game after taking the weekend off following a beaning by former teammate Kyle Lohse, now with the Reds. Hunter has a knot at the base of his skull, but otherwise remains unaffected. He told trainers a resulting headache has passed.

Nomar Garciaparra Poised to Cross the Diamond

Though Nomar Garciaparra is entrenched at first base after a successful transition there last year for the Dodgers, he continues to field liners and grounders at shortstop during infield practice at camp, leading to unconfirmed speculation over circumstances under which he might move back to the middle, or perhaps third base.

If the Dodgers were to enact a contingency plan, Garciaparra could move back to his prime position at shortstop should incumbent Rafael Furcal miss time due to continued discomfort to his throwing hand. Garciaparra's move would open first base, at least temporarily, for highly regarded youngster James Loney -- a first baseman who is training as an outfield backup in an effort to find playing time.

Another youngster, Wilson Betemint, is under scrutiny at third base, where Garciaparra could move if Betemint continues to fall short, or if prospect Andy La Roche is shown to be unready.

Another alternative would allow Furcal, who has experience playing second base, to move to the pivot should aging veteran Jeff Kent miss time, or finally acquiesce to move to first base, as has been suggested.

Like Furcal, Garciaparra has big-league experience at second base, but only briefly during his rookie year in Boston. The Dodgers prefer to keep him at first base to limit his exposure to injury, but Garciaparra has made it plain that shortstop continues to be his coveted position.

Third base would be 35 feet from short, but a lot closer than first base.

Astros Luke Scott Plays to Pick Up All the Marbles

Minor leaguer Luke Scott was supposed to be a mere stopgap when the Astros called him up for what was planned as limited action last July, but he immediately hit for the cycle with five RBI on the way to a .406 average in his first 11 games, forcing manager Phil Garner to keep him in the lineup.

Though Scott, 28, finished the year with a .336 average, hitting a homer every 20 at-bats, he apparently failed to make a believer of Garner, who now plans to limit him to platooning in right field with Jason Lane, 30.

As a lefthanded hitter, Scott stands to gain 65-70 percent of the playing time under Garner's plan. But if Scott continues to build on his impressive stats last year, look for him to take over full-time once Lane falls into another of his extended swoons. Lane, who hit only .201 with 15 homers in limited action last year, has been among the worst hot-and-cold hitters in the majors, with slumps lasting for six weeks or more throughout his major and minor league career.

Playing so infrequently, even a constant diet of lefthanded pitching likely won't help the righthanded Lane develop into anything remotely like a regular, let alone to transform into the star he had formerly been projected to become.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Geoff Jenkins Picks Up Where Left He Off In Sept.

Brewers slugger Geoff Jenkins appears to be on a mission, picking up where he left off late last year with a torrid pace for the early spring, hitting .625. After being benched last August, Jenkins reached back to hit at a .486 clip with five homers through the first three weeks of September, thus being restored to the lineup.

Though Jenkins throws right-handed, he bats left and must prove he can hit southpaws if he is to keep his status as an everyday player. But the problem seems to be that doubters persist, as the Brewers have been unable to trade the 33-year-old, $7 million-a-year veteran to make room for more youthful competitors, including Corey Hart, 25, who has been given the right field job, and Billy Hall, 27, who has moved from shortstop to center field.

That leaves Jenkins to be platooned with Kevin Mench, 29, in left, while Gabe Gross, 27, Laynce Nix, 26, and Tony Gwynn Jr., 24, scramble for the crumbs. All in all, it's an unhappy camp for most of the outfielders, with Jenkins, Mench and veteran Brady Clark, 33, openly grumbling about being limited to part-time play. No one is likely more frustrated that Gwynn, who is ticketed for the minors though he considers himself to be major-league ready,

Unless a trade can be consumated, look for manager Ned Yost to spread at-bats among all the rivals, as each cuts into one another's playing time and limits individual stat totals. Clark may have the most marketability on the trading block, as he is not saddled with an excessively costly contract as is Jenkins.

Sammy Sosa Still Has Far to Go at Rangers Camp

That dirt cheap, $500,000, non-guaranteed, minor league contract the Rangers doled out to ex-big leaguer Sammy Sosa to make a comeback attempt at 38 was more than merely a quaint gesture. With rookie Nelson Cruz trying to break into the majors at 26, former budding star Brad Wilkerson coming off two years of debilitating injuries at 30, and light-hitting leadoff man Kenny Lofton trying to squeeze out another year or two of service at 39, the Rangers need a big bat, a really big, big bat.

Whether Sosa's bat is the answer seems doubtful at best, with fans, coaches, media and various other camp followers still waiting to see that familiar swing that not so long ago generated the last of Sosa's 588 career homers.

"...We saw (not a big swing but) an old swing as Sammy made his spring debut..." writes Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Randy Galloway. "In other words, the very early first impression of a guy who was out of baseball last season, and a total stiff the year before with the Orioles, wasn't exactly pretty. In other words, (the preliminary indication is that) the Rangers got exactly what they paid for. Nothing for nothing. "

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Dustin Hermanson, Mike Stanton Bring Pedigrees to Problem of Who Will Be Cincinnati's Newest Closer

Veteran reliever Dustin Hermanson has arrived at Reds camp in Sarasota, Fla., looking to replace injured Eddie Guardado as closer, but he must outperform another old timer, Mike Stanton, to do so.

Hermanson, 34, and Stanton, 39, are the most accomplised of several relievers who will get a look as closer this spring while Guardado recovers from an injury that may keep him out until as late as August. David Weathers and Todd Coffey will get a look as well, along with highly regarded rookie Bill Bray, acquired from Washington in last year's Austin Kearns deal.

But Weathers, 37, and Coffey, 26, have fallen short in the closer's role before, and Bray, 23, would best be suited as a lefty specialist coming in during middle innings.

That leaves Hermanson, who had 34 saves and a 2.04 ERA with the White Sox just two years ago, and Stanton, who racked up eight saves with a 3.09 ERA after taking over as San Francisco's closer last year, with the best pedigrees for winning the closer's job, barring manager Jerry Narron using a committee approach.

The problem with Hermanson, a Springfield, Ohio, native, is a bad back that kept him from action for most of last year and resulted in a loss of speed off his fastball that discouraged most teams from seriously considering him. Hermanson has only an outside shot at making the team, with a non-guaranteed $500,000 minor league contract. It wasn't for nothing that he's been handed jersey No. 50.

That leaves the wily Stanton as the most likely, unlikely dark horse. He has a 3.81 career ERA mark with 84 saves.

Reds Ken Griffey Still Not 100 Percent After Injury

The biggest clue to the true condition of Reds slugger Ken Griffey Jr. is that 36-ounce bat he constantly carries, swinging it whenever he has the chance to help restore the strength to his broken left hand. Obviously, he's less than 100 percent.

Griffey, 37 -- whom knowlegeable observers believe has no intention of giving up his center field job to move to right -- has had a soft cast removed for more than four weeks and has been taking batting practice. But he still has not participated in defensive play, and though he has yet to fully recover from the injury he sustained on his boat in December, the break has healed and he has been cleared for game action.

Griffey seems to be swinging normally in the batting cage, but trainer Matt Krause has been shadowing him to see what happens when he throws. Any shortcomings in Griffey's ability to hit homeplate on the fly will cause additional pressure for him to step aside for Ryan Freel in center. Griffey believes he still represents the team's strongest defensive option in center, hence his determination to stay there.

Ryan Braun Starts Out With Bang, In Fact Several

Watching Craig Counsell, 36, and Tony Graffanino, 34, take turns in the batting cage at the Brewers spring camp in Maryvale, Ariz., one comes away with a vague impression of two grownups stepping aside from time to time to let their kid brother Ryan Braun, 22, take a couple of swings.

Not surprising, considering that Braun was only five years old when Graffanino turned professional, and just seven when Counsell came up. But the last few days have dispelled any notion as to just exactly whom of the three is really the big boy.

Launching what the Milwaukee Journal called a "blast from the future," Braun, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound package of speed and power, drove in the final of his seven RBI Thursday with a spectacular grand slam, following his single, double, and three-run homer, making three homers for the spring campaign with another one Friday. He's batting .600.

Okay, okay, it's early. Braun won't bat .600 the rest of the way. Maybe only .500. But with whispers circulating through camp that incumbent third baseman Corey Koskie very likely will be unable to come back from post concussive syndrome, no wonder Braun finds himself listed ahead of the projected third base platoon of Counsell and Graffanino on the the team's official depth chart.

With only defensive limitations to stop him, don't be surprised if Braun continues to bound ahead to become what many are foreseeing not only as a potential top contender for Rookie of the Year, but maybe even as the next Mike Schmidt.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Twins OF Torii Hunter Will Take Weekend Off After Being Beaned by Friend, Ex-Teammate Kyle Lohse

Twins outfielder Torii Hunter was expected to be held out of action over the weekend after being struck in the head by a fastball thrown by former teammate Kyle Lohse in exhibition action with the Cincinnati Reds at Fort Myers, Fla.

Hunter, 31, was reported as uninjured, having sustained a glancing blow off the back of his skull at the base of his helmet.

Hunter went down hard on a one-ball, two-strike count, turned on his side and lay prone for several minutes before being escorted off the field by manager Ron Gardenhire and trainer Rick McWane.

Though Hunter appeared dazed, an examination indicated he was lucid and alert, with no indications of concussion or other serious injury. But it was expected Hunter would rest over the weekend, going home to his Fort Myers residence in his personal vehicle. His activities were not expected to be otherwise limited.

"He left on his own....He was driving," team spokesman Dustin Morse told .

Lohse, 28, also immediately came out of the game, struggling with control problems after giving up a hit and a run and three walks in two thirds of the opening inning before beaning Hunter.

Ironically, Hunter and Lohse, both of whom reside in Florida during the winter, have remained friends since Lohse was demoted from the Twins to the AAA Rochester (N.Y.) Red Wings last year before finally being acquired by the Reds.

Hunter and Lohse had played together for all or parts of six seasons during Lohse's association with the Twins, which came to an unexpected and rancorous conclusion after repeated performance questions at the beginning of last season.

No Ill Effects Evident in Gary Sheffield's Swing

The Tigers new designated hitter Gary Sheffield appears to be well past last year's wrist injury, showing no loss of power, bat speed or other lingering effects either on the field or in the batting cage, according to numerous news accounts.

"...To watch his swing up close on a practice field is a sight," notes writer Jason Beck, who is covering the Tigers Grapefruit League camp. "...When he unleashes that swing on a ball and pulls it over the left-field fence, you know why he can send a ball that far."

Sheffield, 38, who sustained his wrist injury in an on-field collision last year, is coming to terms with the fact that he won't be asked to play right field for his new team, though that's what he would prefer. He'll settle to serve the Tigers as the prime, middle-of-the-order hitman, the team's so-called missing puzzle piece: "That's the only thing that really matters to me; that and the numbers I leave behind..." Sheffield told the Toledo Blade.

Even if Sheffield continued to experience discomfort, it's not likely the staff would hear about it. Sheffield has earned a reputation as a player willing to play with pain, and play through injuries while maintaining his near .300 career batting average and march toward the 500-homer plateau.

The Yankees, for whom Sheffield played last year, offered him a chance to play first base for New York after Bobby Abreu, 33, acquired from the Phillies, was chosen to take Sheffield's place in the outfield. But Sheffield declined, even though he had infield experience, having played shortstop and third base earlier in his career. He has signed with Detroit for $40 million over three years after being acquired in a trade.

Despite advancing age and last year's setback, Sheffield is commonly being projected to bat .280-.290 and put up another 30-40 homers, his usual output. Sheffield believes he has another two or three good years left, maybe more.

Akinora Otsuka May Yet Collect Saves for Rangers

Rangers reliever Akinora Otsuka -- who rolled up 32 saves with a 2.11 ERA last year only to lose the closer's role to newly acquired Eric Gagne -- may still collect a save or three, or maybe a bunch.

Manager Ron Washington has decreed that Gagne will supplant the 35-year-old Otsuka as closer, but Gagne has yet to face live hitting and may not be ready to take the mound before opening day, according to unconfirmed speculation coming out of camp.

Though Gagne, 31, claims to feel strong, and has recovered from elbow surgery, the prognosis for recovery from back surgery remains questionable, with perhaps a 30-percent chance or greater that he could experience regression, according to knowledgeable sources familiar with his condition.

Until the Rangers signed Gagne on a $6 million, one-year gamble, numerous teams had studied his medical records and avoided the free-agent former superstar. Those passing included the Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians, not to mention his former team, the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Meanwhile, Gagne after a few mound sessions last month has been limited primarily to long tossing to build up his arm strength after his lengthy layoff, but lately he has been kept out of sight altogether due a reportedly unrelated illness.

Coaches have tentatively targeted Gagne's appearance target date at no later than the weekend of March 18, but even if he can ready himself before the exhibition season concludes, his effectiveness remains questionable over the short term, if not beyond.

Otsuka, however, not only is ready, willing and able, he prefers to keep the job in which he excelled last year by holding batters to a .241 average after taking over the closer's job in April. The next four weeks will be critical in determining whom of the two will turn out to be the team's real closer for the remainder of the year.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Staff Trying to Hold Back Angels SP Bartolo Colon

Former Los Angeles Angels staff ace Bartolo Colon -- trying to come back from a torn rotator cuff -- has told the team that he has good range of motion and can throw virtually without pain, and that he is almost ready to return to action.

But medical staff has warned: Not so fast.

Heeding cautionary advice from team medical director Dr. Lewis Yocum, pitching coach Mike Butcher has limited Colon primarily to a long-tossing excercise regimen to restore Colon's strength and durability, and stave off potential inflammation which could shut down the portly pitcher even before his season begins, according to sources familiar with Colon's status on injured reserve.

Colon, 33, believes he can withstand the rigors of throwing off a mound now and that he will be ready to rejoin the rotation by opening day. But Yocum wants Colon to proceed much more slowly, building up his strength until he can be cleared for a start perhaps as early as the end of April, or perhaps sometime in May. So far Colon is ahead of schedule, having built up his long tosses to 180 feet every five days.

Brewers Ace Ben Sheets Passed Over for Opener

Projected No. 1 starter Ben Sheets has been passed over for the spring opener at Maryvale, Ariz., and has yet to be scheduled to pitch through the end of the weekend, but it's not because he's unhealthy, according to the team.

"He's 100 percent," General Manager Doug Melvin told, noting that Sheets has been throwing off a mound. Sheets not only is expected to be fully ready by opening day, but is fully ready now, Melvin said. "He looks good; strong."

Still, head trainer Roger Caplinger is going easy with Sheets, who is coming back from an injury marred season in which he went down with shoulder problems after his second start, then came back only to go on the injured list for two months. It was reminiscent of 2005, when Sheets came off the previous year's 237-inning output and sparkling 2.70 ERA, signed a $38.5 million contract then went down with an ear infection, then came back only to miss the rest of the season with back problems at the end of August.

If Sheets can rediscover his 2004 form, the Brewers may turn out to be one of the biggest surprises of the new season with a punched up offense and new acquisition Jeff Suppan joining
Sheets and Chris Capuano at the top of the rotation.

For now Claudio Vargas, newly acquired from Arizona, will head the rotation as the team heavily weighs his chances to hold down the No. 5 rotation spot.