Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Mike Sweeney Hears Footsteps of Craig Brazell

Fortunately for veteran Royals first baseman Mike Sweeney, prospect Craig Brazell has cooled down a tad, going only 1 for his last 14 at Triple A Omaha to drop his batting average to a mere .341.

Still, with Sweeney hitting only .247 for the season and in a 4-25 slump -- and with the Royals having scored just two runs per game while losing the last six -- there may soon be one more former superstar among the missing in Kansas City.

Not only has Sweeney's bat gone cold, he is on a pace by the end of this season to miss more than 300 games due to injury since 2002, and patience is wearing thin. Don't be surprised if at long last manager Buddy Bell finds a spot for the 33-year-old slugger on the bench, especially after Brazell's big splash last week.

Incredibly, Brazell's recent 15-game hitting streak included two homers last Friday, eight in his previous five games, 12 in 12 games, and 13 in 14 games. And ironically, the 27-year-old former Mets farmhand did it against the Zephyrs, the Mets Triple A club in New Orleans.

Though Brazell has defensive limitations, he would pass muster as Sweeney's replacement because the defensively brilliant Sweeney is so brittle that he is being used primarily as a designated hitter.

White Sox Signing of Craig Wilson of Little Help

The White Sox signing of first baseman-outfielder Craig Wilson to a minor league contract will likely be of little help to the team.

Braves manager Bobby Cox gave Wilson his walking papers after using him as little more than a spot starter against lefties and a pinch hitter, as Wilson's propensity to strike out, his sluggishness in the outfield and poor footwork around the first base bag precluded him from regular play. Wilson hit just .172 in 58 at-bats for the Braves.

Wilson, 30, has been effective from time to time against left-handed pitching during his six-year major league career, but the fact that he was passed over this year by the Angels and other teams needing help at first base or designated hitter betrays his reputation as a defensive liability. When given an opportunity to prove himself in New York last year he hit just .212 in 40 games. No wonder the Yankees didn't want him back.

Wilson's career year was 2004, when he hit .264 with 29 homers in 561 at-bats for the Pirates, yet the Bucs benched him the following year.

Wilson now assumes new duty as a deep White Sox reserve while playing for Triple A Charlotte. Likely as not, and barring a rash of injuries at the major league level, this will be his assignment at least until the September roster expansion or beyond, and may turn out to be his role for the remainder of his professional career.

D'backs in No Hurry to Bring Back Chad Tracy

A week ago Diamondbacks first baseman Conor Jackson might have been targeted for the bench to make room for up-and-coming prospect Mark Reynolds' and his .435 batting average. But though Jackson is hitting only .217, he may have saved himself by going 14 for his last 31 at-bats.

Look for manager Bob Melvin to take his time bringing back injured third baseman Chad Tracy, allowing Tracy to continue to recuperate at least into next week while Reynolds holds down the hot corner. That gives Melvin another seven days or so to figure out how to find a permanent spot for Reynolds.

Melvin has already promised to stick with promising rookie Carlos Quentin, who is off to a slow start after coming back from injury. Melvin's patience is starting to pay off as Quentin is 6 for his last 14 with a homer. Still, Quentin -- hitting just .221 on the season -- will remain under the microscope, as will shortstop Stephen Drew, hitting .238; and outfielder Scott Hairston, hitting .228.

Anybody could lose time should Melvin decide to turn Reynolds into some sort of super reserve.

Few players can consider themselves safe as long as Reynolds keeps hitting, as Reynolds has experience not only at third base but shortstop, second, first and the outfield, having acquitted himself well everywhere but catcher.

The 6-foot-1, 200-pound Reynolds, having hit a combined 31 homers in stops at Double A Tennessee and Single A Lancaster last year, has been likened to Dodgers second baseman Jeff Kent. Reynolds has 62 homers since coming up with Single A South Bend three years ago.

Reynolds, 23, was initially so highly regarded that he might have been among the higher draftees in 2004, but he fell to the Diamondbacks in the 16th round due to a debilitating wrist injury that now seems like something from a previous life.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Josh Hamilton's Lengthy Absence Raises Red Flag

He has come back from homelessness, the demons of crack cocaine, alcohol and virtually any street drug one can name. He has tried to commit suicide at least four times and had been out of baseball for five years. And now, after he miraculously appears out of nowhere to become player of the month in April, we are to believe that the Reds' Josh Hamilton has been waylaid by a simple tummy ache.

On injured reserve retroactively since May 19, Hamilton continues to miss time from what the team has described as gastroenteritis, a very big word for simple diarrhea exacerbated by intermittent vomiting. Even with attendant dehydration, a young, healthy professional athlete in a controlled environment should be sidelined for not a minute more than two or three days. Tops.

Unless there is more to the story.

It would be presumptuous to even speculate about recurring health repercussions lingering after the long, long nightmare he has lived through his 20s. But Hamilton's sudden and relatively lengthy trip to the disabled list has run up a red flag.

If Hamilton needs an enzyme -- for instance -- to overcome lactose intolerance, fluids will build in his colon and his illness will continue until brought under control. The number of other ramifications are myriad.

Hopefully the comeback story of the year will pick up where it left off as Hamilton will begin a rehabilitative assignment Tuesday with Triple-A Louisville. And for his sake, Hamilton's peculiarly long absence can be attributed to the team's need to create a roster spot to showcase third baseman Edwin Encarnacion for a trade -- or some such arcane maneuver front offices have been known to clandestinely manipulate. It seems as though details are being withheld.

But until Hamilton once again begins patrolling center field for the Reds and hitting for average and power, be afraid. Be very afraid.

Kevin Slowey Likely to Start for Twins on Friday

The Rochester Red Wings have withheld the identity of Tuesday's starting pitcher in a Triple A matchup against Richmond, adding to speculation that prospect Kevin Slowey will miss his turn so that he can be called to Minneapolis to replace struggling veteran Ramon Ortiz on Friday.

Ortiz was bombed again Saturday, surrendering six runs on 10 hits over six innings in a 9-8 loss to Toronto, giving him an ERA of nearly 11.00 over his last five starts. The outing was largely seen as his one last chance before he is likely released or sent to the bullpen.

The 23-year-old Slowey, meanwhile, has been nothing short of spectacular, leading the International League with a 6-2 record and 1.54 ERA in nine starts, three of which were complete games. Slowey has struck out nearly a batter per inning. while demonstrating supurb control with a 0.81 whip. He has been likened to former Twins ace Brad Radke, with a highly accurate, low-90s fastball with lots of action plus dependable off-speed pitches.

The Twins next rotation opening had initially been expected to go to Slowey's rival, fellow 23-year-old Matt Garza, who compiled a 3-6 record with a 5.76 ERA in a late callup last year. But despite Garza's 1.35 ERA during spring training, he allowed what the staff regarded as too many baserunners.

Garza -- the Twins 2005 No. 1 pick -- has been criticized as a one-pitch wonder, heavily relying on his 97-mph fastball without being able to throw off-speed pitches for strikes. Garza has pitched well at Rochester, striking out a batter per inning with a 3.49 ERA and 2-4 record. But he has handed out 18 free passes in 49 innings while chaffing under directives to develop his changeup.

Elijah Dukes Dodges a Bullet; Pray His Wife Does

Though he sent his wife an electronic picture of a pistol and threatened to kill her and their two children, outfielder Elijah Dukes will keep the devil in Devil Rays by being restored to the lineup at the expense of infielder Jorge Cantu.

Though the team will be forced to make a roster move Monday to make room for the return of third baseman Akinora Iwamura from the disabled list, preliminary indications are that Cantu will take the fall. Expect Cantu to be sent down to Triple A Durham while Dukes will continue to play despite his most recent in a lengthy list of transgressions including drug infractions and various acts of hostility with violent overtones.

Confronted by reporters after wife NiShea Gilbert swore out a protection order against him, Dukes declined to offer an apology, regrets or sorrows over the incident. To the contrary, he was described as upbeat and jovial, and hit his ninth homerun in his first game back after temporarily being benched. Though he has a batting average only Dave Kingman could admire, Dukes is on pace to hit 40 homers for the season.

Fortunately for Dukes, he plays for the Devil Rays, a team with a long tradition of playing thugs and goons. If Dukes played for class organizations like the Dodgers, Mets, Astros, Braves, Twins or other teams, he would have been shown the door long ago, and would face a very, very long road back to the majors.

Why the Devil Rays continue to handle Dukes with kid gloves remains mysterious, unless perhaps Dukes E-mailed a picture of his pistol to the team's front office as well.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Struggling Wilson Betemit Still Has His Admirers

After seeing the Braves acquire fine players such as Edgar Renteria and Danys Baez in trades for under-perfomers like Wilson Betemit and Andy Marte, one begins to wonder whether Betemint and Marte are not so much budding stars as mere products of empty Braves hyperbole.

Marte, now with the Indians, is on the disabled list with a .147 batting average and Betemit is hitting .132 for the Dodgers. But while Marte finds himself in danger of losing his starting third base job to Casey Blake, Betemit will be given every chance to continue to develop.

For one thing, Marte has never hit better than .226 in limited big-league play, while Betemit has hit .305 and .281 in parts of two seasons. Moreover, Marte has four errors on just 70 chances this year while Betemit has none in more than 130 chances.

Though Betemit would be the weakest link when the Dodgers look to make room for the return of reliever Yhency Brazoban from a Las Vegas rehabilitation assignment sometime over the next week, Betemit need not fear. He will stay right where he is.

The reason is obvious: any number of teams would step up to claim Betemit if the Dodgers attempted to send him down. Also, Betemit is the Dodgers prime power source with a projected 25-30 homers, difficult though it may be to imagine. Betemit is also virtually the Dodgers sole true option at third base.

Teams Lose Interest in Acquiring A's Rich Harden

Behind-the-scenes trade talks involving Athletics hurler Rich Harden not only have cooled, they have completely discontinued, according to an unnamed team source cited by the San Francisco Chronicle.

It's hardly a surprise considering that Harden is a time bomb set to explode and no one can be sure exactly how long is the fuse.

Though Harden was once described by then teammates Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder as the most gifted pitcher of the four, it becomes more and more clear that the young fireballer's skills -- outstanding though they may be -- far exceed the durability of his smallish, 180-pound frame.

Hardin, 25, had been red-flagged after missing close to two dozen starts last year due to his trick shoulder. He was pronounced well during spring, and when the season started looked 100 percent with his 1.42 ERA and strikeout per inning. But sadly Harden has returned to his all-too-familiar haunts on the disabled list after Dr. Lewis Yocum of Los Angeles concurred with findings from previous examinations showing that rest and rehabilitation are needed reduce discomfort and inflammation.

The findings indicate no serious structural failure, but so did repeated examinations of Cubs pitcher Mark Prior before doctors eventually relented to impose arthroscopic surgery and thus disable him for the season. No wonder Harden suspects that something more serious is afoot, so much so that he doubts his own doctors.

Here's the bottom line: Harden will try to come back within two weeks and may pitch again for awhile. But don't be surprised if he goes down again, requiring minimally that he subject himself to the scope and subsequently be placed on the 60-day disabled list at the very least.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Royals Being Patient With Young 1B Ryan Shealy

Expect the Royals to stick with Ryan Shealy at first base, even though newly promoted rookie Jeff Baker will be given a few turns at Shealy's position while Shealy is recovering from a hamstring injury.

Though Shealy has been a bust so far -- hitting a paltry .186 for the season -- he is in his prime at 28 and has proven to be major league ready with a .319, five-year minor league batting average with 103 homers.

The former 5th round pick hit .330 in 91 at-bats in his first call-up for Colorado two years ago, and hit .280 in 193 at-bats after being acquired by Kansas City last year, making an unforgettable impression on manager Buddy Bell and his coaching staff.

Baker, who hit .419 this spring and was hitting .337 at Omaha, will be used at first base, designated hitter and the outfield, hopefully punching up the team's sagging .242 batting average. But Shealy will return to first base by the middle of the month, as his slow start has been attributed to early season jitters, irregular weather and other anomalies that have impacted hitting throughout the league.