Friday, June 29, 2007

Ex-Cubs Skipper Dusty Baker Waits for Opening

As nearly a dozen MLB managerial jobs hang in the balance, former Cubs manager and now broadcast analyst Dusty Baker will take advantage of a loophole in his two-year contract with ESPN to terminate his deal should any team choose him as its next skipper.

Baker had the clause woven into the pact expressly for this purpose when he signed with ESPN five months ago.

Baker is eager to return to field management as he feels his disappointing tenure in Chicago was more the result of bad circumstances than ineffective leadership. Baker was all but tarred, feathered and run out of town on a rail after his final two injury-plagued seasons in Chicago, but still has legion fans, apologists and defenders.

The 57-year-old Baker has a 1,162-1,041 career record with nine winning seasons in 14 years with the Giants and the Cubs.

Baker guided the Cubs to the National League Central Division title in 2003 and was named manager of the year three times.

Baker's resume makes him a top candidate for virtually any managerial vacancy, Cubs notwithstanding. In a game in which only some eight percent of players are black, he is a something of a rarity as an African American. Baker would be regarded as a prized icon of racial diversity by most major league GMs.

Astros Chad Qualls May Hold Key to AL Pennant

Look for Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein to compete to win the Chad Qualls sweepstakes, not because the hard-throwing Astros reliever is so desperately needed in Boston, but because he may be needed in Detroit.

Pressure continues to mount for the Tigers to find bullpen help, perhaps even replacing closer Todd Jones, who has allowed baserunners like fleas on a dog. Because the road to the pennant runs through the Motor City, it's critical not to find bullpen help but to block teams like the Tigers from acquiring it.

The more obvious it becomes that the Astros are going no place, look for Qualls to be traded for prospects or up-and-coming youngsters. Whomever loses out on Qualls will be under even greater pressure to acquire his teammate, Brad Lidge, or perhaps Rangers closer Eric Gagne.

Qualls is the cheapest of the three, and to get him the Tigers will not hesitate to flip one of several unnamed player possibilities recently acquired from St. Louis in the Mike Maroth deal. Established hitters such as Craig Monroe or Marcus Thames also are expendable in Detroit.

Craig Biggio: You've Come a Long Way, Baby

As Astros veteran Craig Biggio, 41, continues on his Hall of Fame trajectory -- now having crossed the 3,000-hit plataeu -- it seems hard to believe that it was 19 years ago when he arrived in Houston as a rookie catcher -- with his top priority to have his picture taken in uniform with staff ace Nolan Ryan.

Biggio, then 21, wanted irrefutable photographic evidence to prove to everyone he had actually been a major leaguer once he was sent back to Tucson -- in all probability never to return.

That said, it's no secret now that Biggio -- whose late season meltdown last year saw his season batting average fall to a near career low of .246 -- will morph more and more into a part-time reserve and pinch hitter. Chris Burke, 26, stands to pick up a lot of the slack if only he can get on base.

Meanwhile, Biggio is playing cagey as to when he will retire. The sooner he does, the more likely he will go to Cooperstown at the same time as career-long teammate Jeff Bagwell, 39.

Ex-Cubs Skipper Dusty Baker Waits for Opening

As nearly a dozen MLB managerial jobs hang in the balance, former Cubs manager and now broadcast analyst Dusty Baker will take advantage of a loophole in his two-year contract with ESPN to terminate his deal should any team choose him as its next skipper.

Baker had the clause woven into the pact expressly for this purpose when he signed with ESPN five months ago.

Baker is eager to return to field management as he feels his disappointing tenure in Chicago was more the result of bad circumstances than ineffective leadership. He was all but tarred, feathered and run out of town on a rail after his final two injury-plagued season with the Cubs.

Baker, 57, has a 1,162-1,041 record with nine winning seasons in 14 years with the Giants and the Cubs. Baker guided the Cubs to the National League Central Division title in 2003 and was named manager of the year three times, a resume that makes him a top candidate for virtually any managerial vacancy, Cubs notwithstanding.

In a game in which only some eight percent of players are black, he is a something of a rarity as an African American and a prized icon of racial diversity.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Justin Morneau's 'Lung Contusion' an Exaggeration

Forget most of what major news outlets have published recently about Twins first baseman Justin Morneau's chest injury. It appears its seriousness has been greatly exaggerated.

Morneau was carried off on a stretcher last Friday after a homeplate collision with Marlins catcher Miguel Olivo. But though he was spitting blood and was reported as having sustained a potentially serious lung contusion, the diagnosis now appears to have been either utterly mistaken or a result of doctors or trainers deliberately erring on the side of caution, though don't expect anyone to admit it.

Morneau has now completed yet another round of tedious medical tests and examinations at University Medical Center in Minneapolis, where he is an outpatient. Knowledgable sources in Minnesota and elsewhere are openly scoffing at the original injury analysis, noting that lung contusions as a result of homeplate collisions are extremely unlikely.

Repeated tomographical examinations of Morneau's chest injury have shown almost beyond a doubt that Morneau was not seriously harmed, with his brief bleeding episode perhaps attributable to minor trauma to the tongue, mouth, throat or post-nasal passage.

Lung contusions can be very serious, resulting in various pulmonary complications and even death in rare instances. But they usually are associated with high-speed automobile collisions, air crashes or a falls from great heights. They are most often colateral to violent fractures, and X-Rays show conclusively that Morneau has no broken bones.

Normally lung contusions would require a month or more of rest and rehabilitation. If such injuries were so common as to result from everyday homeplate contact, half the skill position players in the NFL would likely finish each football season on the disabled list.

Morneau has been protesting for days that he is well and able to return to the field. He is right. Morneau will be in uniform well before the end of the week.

Pirates Top Prospect Bryan Bullington Hammered

Former top pick Bryan Bullington of Triple A Indianapolis -- passed over for a callup to the Pirates rotation in favor of fellow prospect John Van Benschoten -- confirmed the coaching staff's doubts about him in his most recent outing as he was hammered once again -- this time for six earned runs while giving up four hits and four walks in a 2.33-inning outing against Triple A Toledo.

Though the Pirates took the 6-foot-5 Bullington with the No. 1 overall pick in 2002 -- ahead of budding Tampa Bay star B.J. Upton -- he has failed to live up to expectations following shoulder surgery nearly two years ago. It seems doubtful whether the Pirates will ever realize a decent return after investing a $4 million signing bonus on Bullington, whose time for development begins to dwindle as he approaches his 27th birthday.

When pitching at nearby Ball State more than five years ago, Bullington had a lively mid-90s fastball. But these days Bullington has all he can do just to top the high 80s. He now must depend heavily on a variety of effective but often predictable off-speed pitches.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Twins Physicians Await Return of Justin Morneau

A team of four physicians headed by Dr. John A. Steubs are awaiting first baseman Justin Morneau's return flight to Minneapolis-St Paul, where the injured slugger's progress will continue to be monitored through the week to determine when he can retake the field.

Potentially inconclusive medical tests at Memorial Hospital in Miami so far point to Morneau's lung contusion as being minor -- at least in relative terms. However, doctors will take no chances with the budding slugger, who may be vulnerable to pulmonory complications as a result of his violent homeplate collision with Marlins catcher Miguel Olivo last week.

The doctors' charge has been complicated by Morneau's stubbornly positive attitude, which perhaps could be characterized as too much of a good thing. The scrappy former hockey player would want to play even if he had an arrow through his head, so doctors must do his thinking for him.

Though various examinations indicated unmistakable symptoms of a lung contusion -- including internal bleeding -- computerized tomographical scans indicated no severe trauma. Whether the findings tell the whole story likely will become clear in three or four days.

If Morneau is healthy he can be expected to return to action by the weekend. But if his condition is serious enough to warrant a trip to the disabled list, he will likely miss the better part of month or perhaps more, according to sources familiar with the nature of his injury.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Cardinals Biding Time Calling Up OF Rick Ankiel

Former pitcher Rick Ankiel appears to have successfully bridged his conversion to outfielder, demonstrating a powerful arm while hitting in the .270-.280 range with 20 homers at Triple A Memphis. However, due to practical considerations the Cardinals are biding time calling him to St. Louis.

It appears that the Cardinals are being cautious with Ankiel because he has no remaining options, meaning that once Ankiel is called up he must be called up to stay, lest another team claim him when he is sent down again, according to an opinion ventured by ESPN baseball radio analyst Dave "Soup" Campbell.

Until such time as the team clarifies its outfield situation, Ankiel's bidding for major league time is on hold. In the worst case, Ankiel will be activated for September roster expansion, though he is more than ready for St. Louis now, as a reserve if nothing else. Much will depend on the return of injured center fielder Jim Edmunds and the performances and health of outfielders Juan Encarnacion, Ryan Ludwick and Skip Shumaker.

Encarnacion has had injury issues all season and Ludwick and Shumaker appear to have less potential than Ankiel.

Early Indications Dubious for Twins Justin Morneau

Though initial X-Rays of injured Twins first baseman Justin Morneau's lungs came back normal, a decision to keep him hospitalized in Florida over the weekend raises a red flag.

That Morneau suffered a bruised lung in a homeplate collision Friday is of little doubt, considering he was raising blood and experiencing other symptoms when he was taken to the hospital on a stretcher. The question is, how serious is the bruise?

Tissue scans point to perhaps a mild injury relatively, as these injuries go. But normal test results and normal health are not necessarily the same thing, and further examinations seem to have indicated Morneau was unready to return to the dugout.

If he continues to improve, Morneau may miss as few as three or four days. The unfortunate thing for the team is that normally a bruised lung would be expected to keep him out three or four weeks. If Morneau goes on the disabled list, experts familiar with his type of injury warn that it's likely he won't return much before August.

Expect Yovani Gallardo to Join Brewers Rotation

Given the Brewers tendencies to favor up-and-coming players over those more established, it's hard to imagine manager Ned Yost keeping both Dave Bush and Jeff Suppan in the rotation at the expense of top prospect Yovani Gallardo. One or the other has got to go.

Expect Gallardo to advance from the bullpen soon after starter Chris Capuano returns from injury, as Bush and Suppan are struggling to keep their ERAs under 5.00.

Gallardo, 21, who has compared favorably with Cincinnati's Homer Bailey and other top minor league hurlers, made an indelible impression when he struck out 188 batters in 155 innings with a 1.86 ERA in two minor league stops last year.

Gallardo (pronounced Guy-yar-doh) throws consistently in the low 90s and can top 95-96 mph when needed, and keeps batters guessing with biting curves and changeups he throws anywhere in the count.

Yost has shown little hesitancy to play such eager younger players ahead of established veterans like Jeff Jenkins, Kevin Mench and Brady Clark to name a few, nor to throw rookies into the heart of the fray, as with young third baseman Ryan Braun moving immediately into the No. 3 hole in the batting order as soon as he was brought up.

Despite Gallardo's youth,, expect more of the same as soon as an opportunity arises, which will be soon.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Expect Derrek Lee to Begin Suspension July 2

Expect the Cubs to try to schedule first baseman Derrek Lee's five-game suspension appeal as the team nears the end of next week, allowing Lee to remain in action at least through the upcoming series with Colorado and Milwaukee before serving his five-game penalty beginning July 2.

With the Rockies and Brewers contending heavily for the pennant, Lee's big bat will be essential through next Sunday. But Lee will be much more expendable beginning the following Monday when lowly Washington and Pittsburgh are on the schedule.

Lee's hearing might not be set before Thursday's travel day if not later.

Lee will attempt to convince Major League Baseball that his suspension should be reduced from five days to three, based on precedents for penalties imposed for on-field violence.

Lots of luck. The league's New York brass has not looked forgivingly on Lee's throwing of hard punches at San Diego pitcher Chris Young, even though Young was not seriously hurt. The issue can hardly be considered a small matter.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Steinbrenner to Get Slap Happy with Jason Giambi

Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig has reached an agreement with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner to join the impending interrogation of first baseman Jason Giambi.

Under a plan outlined by Selig, Giambi will answer questions from former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell while seated under a hot lamp in a dark room at Major League Baseball's suite of offices in New York.

Utlizing the old "good-cop, bad cop" scenario, Steinbrenner will begin the inquiry with a series of tough, unrelenting questions about steroid use. From time to time "The Boss" will grab Giambi by his lapels and threaten to revoke his contract, shake him and perhaps even slap him, though leave no marks.

Mitchell will then enter, feign alarm and pull Steinbrenner away, then offer Giambi a cigarette and pour him a cup of coffee. Once Giambi calms down, Mitchell will act sympathetic, pretend to be Giambi's buddy, gain his confidence and elicit information while Giambi is off guard.

The grilling will go back and forth like that for three days or more, depending how long it takes for Giambi to -- as Selig describes it -- "crack." While Giambi sweats, Selig and Steinbrenner will watch comfortably through a two-way mirror.

If Giambi still won't spill his guts, expect the Guantanamo treatment.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Angels Hurler Joe Saunders Down to Last Option

Angels hurler Joe Saunders -- called up from Triple-A Salt Lake to temporarily replace injured Jered Weaver in the rotation -- has now used his next-to-last option, meaning that the team soon may be compelled to make him a permanent fixture.

Saunders, who has pitched well in major and minor league stops this season and last, is an improbable candidate to replace Angels ace Bartolo Colon.

Colon, who has failed to round out after coming off the injured list earlier this season, has thrown away the Yogi Berra handbook which stipulates that the game of baseball is 90-percent mental and the other half physical. Colon now says that despite the league hitting more than .300 against him that there is nothing physically wrong with him, leaving only his mental approach suspect.

How quickly will it be before the team sizes Colon for a padded room at the mental institution and gives Saunders his rightful spot in the rotation?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Curt Schilling to Miss Twelve to Sixteen Days

Red Sox hurler Curt Schilling's shoulder inflammation is serious enough that it is difficult to tell how much sinew is torn or stripped, but MRI results released by the team indicate little to challenge doctors' initial diagnosis of tendinitis.

With rest, rehabilitative exercise and an anti-inflammatory drug regimen, Schilling, with luck, will be back in twelve to sixteen days.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Huston Street Reacting Well to Drug Regimen

An intense regimen of anti-inflammatory drugs to ease Athletics closer Huston Street's ulnareuritis evidently is agreeable to the young hurler, as he reports little or no intestinal discomfort as a side effect. The treatment will greatly accelerate his recovery.

That's the good news. The bad news is that even though Street has begun some light throwing, he'll be lucky to return to unrestricted action by the middle of July, and may even need to rehabilitate into early August before being completely ready to retake the mound.

Until such time as Street returns, it remains uncertain how quickly he will round out to form.

Andy Phillips Poised for Comeback to Yankees

Former Yankees first base reserve Andy Phillips has been sharpening his defensive skills and batting eye while playing second base for Triple A Scranton-Wilkes Barre, so don't be surprised to see him again sooner rather than later.

Yankees manager Joe Torre has taken a shining to utility man Miguel Cairo at first base while incumbents Jason Giambi and Doug Meintkiewicz are sidelined with injuries, but it's a matter of time before Phillips' bat powers him back to New York. It doesn't hurt that in addition to first and second, Phillips can even play third.

Phillips -- a favorite of general manager Brian Cashman after hitting .321 with 30 homers in minor league stops in 2004 -- is hitting .306 with 10 homers in Scranton, solid enough to make Torre forget Phillips' slow start last spring, when he missed critical time while tending to his mother following her injuries in a car accident.

Reserve Josh Phelps, whose batting average has fallen to the .270 range, needs to keep hitting to keep from being replaced. Like Phillips, both Cairo and Phelps are right-handed hitters and both of them are struggling to hit right-handed pitching.

Former Manager Helps Daisuke Matsuzaka Reload

Whatever his former manager told Boston's Daisuke Matsuzaka before his last appearance, it evidently worked, with Matsuzaka having thrown a gem and predicting that his previous ups and downs are now behind him.

Matsuzaka now sets his sights on San Diego, where a huge park, no designated hitter and a somewhat suspect opposition offense sets the stage for another nice outing, something perhaps along the lines of the mere three hits he surrendered in seven shutout innings in Boston's 1-0 win over Barry Bonds and the Giants last week.

Matsuzaka's performance -- which included eight strikeouts -- reduced his ERA to 4.18 as he notched his eighth win, all under the watchful eye of former manager Osamu Higashio. Higashio, an ex-pitcher, sat in the stands behind homeplate after giving Matsuzaka a tip or two on how to return to the familiar form that had formerly made him perhaps Japan's best all-around starter.

Higashio -- Matsuzaka's skipper with the Seibu Lions from 1999-2001 -- knows his former player better than anyone else in baseball, here or abroad. Matsuzaka is too discreet to admit it, but Higashio's words of wisdom helped him cast off some newly acquired bad habits picked up from the Red Sox coaching staff. Check it out.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Larry Bigbee May Be Forced to Turn Japanese

With the Astros, Cardinals, Twins and Athletics among teams that may be in the market for outfield help, one-time leading prospect Larry Bigbee has little to lose in opting out of his contract with the Triple A Las Vegas 51s in the Dodgers organization, especially with James Loney, Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, Delwyn Young and others outranking him.

Yet so far Bigbee seems to be regarded as little more than chopped liver, quite a comedown indeed for the 6-foot-four, 210 pound lefty slugger who was taken with the 21st overall pick in the 1999 draft.

Bigbee, however, is hardly chopped liver. It's his career that's chopped liver, as he has been unable to remain healthy long enough to put together a productive string of appearances and make it plain that he can play with the big boys. Odd, considering that as recently as 2004 the former Ball State standout put together a .280, 15-homer, 68 RBI season in just 478 at-bats for the Orioles.

Dodgers organization sources told that unless Bigbee catches on soon with a major league team, he'll sign a contract in Japan and be lost to anyone looking for help for this year's pennant run.

Is anybody paying attention? Before Bigbee departed for free agent land he was a top hitter in the offensive-minded Pacific Coast League, hitting .349 with a .532 slugging percentage.

Matt Garza Expendable in Mark Teixeira Dealings

It's be a bit harsh to label hard-throwing Twins prospect Matt Garza uncoachable, but clearly his resistence to developing off-speed offerings has cost him not only a promotion to The Bigs but perhaps some friends in the Minnesota organization.

Garza -- who throws in the mid-90s -- has pitched reasonably well for the Triple A Rochester Red Wings, but has had moderate control problems, blaming them on the coaching staff' pestering him to improve his change-up and other off-speed pitches.

The 23-year-old Garza prefers to do things his way, an attitude that would make him a very expendable but still valuable in any potential dealings for a Twins upgrade at third base.

In one of the Twins versions of the myriad scenarios for the trade of slugging first baseman Mark Teixeira by the Texas Rangers, Teixeira is envisioned going to the Boston Red Sox, allowing Kevin Youkilis to move to third base, Mike Lowell and cash to be shipped to the Twins and a Garza and other top Twins prospects to go to Texas.

This is a tremendous upgrade at the corners for the Red Sox, while helping the team to get younger and acquire some value for Lowell in his last year of a $9 million contract. At the same time the Twins receive a major third base rental in the team's ongoing charge for a playoff spot.

On the surface the free-falling Rangers would appear to have the most to lose in the deal, as the team would kiss off "Big Tex," the guy they signed for a $10 million bonus and the one player who more than any other embodies the face and future of the franchise.

But then again, this is the same team that was foolish enough to trade away starting pitcher Chris Young and upcoming star first basemen Adrian Gonzalez and Travis Hafner -- just to name a few -- and now has virtually nothing to show for it.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Tigers Mike Maroth Making Room for Kenny Rogers

With injured starter Kenny Rogers ready to return to action, look for the Tigers to trade Mike Maroth to open a spot in the rotation.

Maroth will be traded for bullpen help, effectively easing the loss sustained by injuries to young fireballer Joel Zumaya, who is out for the season, according to Detroit News baseball beat reporter Rob Parker.

Maroth likely will be gone by the end of the week, Parker said Monday during a broadcast interview with XM Radio's Charlie Steiner.

Rogers, 17-8 last year with a 3.84 ERA, has been out since the beginning of the season with nerve bypass surgery. Rogers has been reported by multiple sources to be at or near 100 percent, and eager to return to the mound.

Rookie starter Andrew Miller, at least for the time being, will continue to see work while rotation cog Nate Robertson recuperates from a tired arm.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Jarrod Saltalamacchia Crowding Out Teammates

Hot-hitting rookie catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia took yet another start away from Brian McCann Wednesday, as McCann was reported to have sustained a sore leg while baserunning the night before. Yeah, and McCann had a hangnail and a tummyache, too.

Look for manager Bobby Cox to continue to find excuses to put Saltalamacchia, his cannon arm and big bat into game, especially if he continues to hit.

Too bad Saltalamacchia doesn't play third base, where he could start in place of injured Chipper Jones, who is expected to continue having trouble swinging a bat through most of the remainder of this month.

Why should Cox start Saltalamacchia at third base anyway, when he could be used to replace first baseman Scott Thorman, who is having difficulty keeping his batting average above .200?

Saltalamacchia will continue to take grounders at first base and soon will become more and more a regular player at that position.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Blue Jays Resisting Pressure to Trade Troy Glaus

Even with the team's most recent loss -- first baseman Lyle Overbay out six weeks with a hand injury -- the Blue Jays front office remains committed to compete for a playoff spot as long as Toronto remains at or near second place with a legitimate shot at a wild card berth.

Though the Blue Jays are more than 10 games back, look for management to resist mounting pressure to trade slugging third baseman Troy Glaus, at least for now.

With Overbay out and Glaus nursing a hamstring problem, an ideal opportunity for advancement has been provided for 6-foot-five, 240-pound slugging first base prospect Chip Cannon. Unfortunately, Cannon has been mired in Manchester with the Double A New Hampshire Fisher Cats, where he is hitting a mere .217.

Though Cannon has eight homers in 180 at-bats, his average has been held down by his propensity to strike out. Cannon batted seven times in double header on Sunday, and struck out seven times. Though some had seen him as being ready to compete for a big-league slot last year, clearly now he cannot even make the leap to Triple A Syracuse.