Thursday, February 28, 2008

Closer George Sherrill: All That Glitters Is Not Gold

The Orioles rush to name lefty relief pitcher George Sherrill closer seems to be based not only on his closing experience -- which is limited -- but his rather pristine stats. But all that glitters is not gold.

True, Sherrill's 3.65 lifetime major league ERA is more than decent, not to mention his sparkling 2.36 mark last year. Further, he has averaged better than a strikeout per inning since being called up by Seattle in 2004.

So what's wrong with this picture?

First, Sherrill has been used almost exclusively as a lefty specialist, as evidenced by his appearance in 195 major league games while throwing a mere 128 innings, hardly making him the type of pitcher managers rely upon for very long when a game is on the line. No wonder Sherill's near complete obscurity, even though he will be 31 on March 19 and has been in the majors for some time.

Sherrill's record is based on such a small sample that his glowing numbers are deceptive if not altogether meaningless, and subject to great fluctuation if he falters while facing greater numbers of righty batters for extended outings. For example, at the end of 2005 Sherrill's ERA ballooned from a nifty 3.32 to a mediocre 5.21 in just one game after he allowed three hits and four earned runs without retiring a batter.

If that weren't bad enough, Sherrill is being held out of action because of pain in his right hamstring, and has previously served time on the disabled list with a left shoulder strain.

Hopefully for the Orioles, Sherrill will work out as closer, but relievers Chad Bradford, Jamie Walker, Greg Aquino and Dennis Sarfate had better stay close to the phone in the bullpen.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

White Sox Staff Differs with Bobby Jenks' Approach

Despite closer Bobby Jenks' back-to-back 40-save seasons, the White Sox coaching staff continues to raise questions not only about the six-foot three, 280-pound round hurler's conditioning, but even his approach to the game.

At 27, Jenks is at an age that sets the stage for his best year yet. As an extra incentive, the possibility of arbitration looms after this season, when he looks to earn considerably more than the $550,000 per year he earns now.

But camp scuttlebutt in Tucson, Ariz., has the staff resisting Jenks' attempt to develop command of one or more offspeed varieties of his fastball, which normally tops out at 96-97 mph.

Jenks -- owner of a 3.26 ERA over the past three seasons -- remains determined to stick with his approach, especially after affirming the correctness of his pitch selection by reviewing video of each batter he faced last year when he retired 41 in a row, equal to the major league record.

Phillies Overly Optimistic on Brad Lidge's Return

To hear the Phillies tell it, closer Brad Lidge could be back from surgery in as little as three weeks. Don't believe it.

Barring a near miracle, Lidge can be expected to miss a full six weeks recuperating from arthroscopic knee surgery, then take at least another week or two regaining his form and confidence, based on historical comparisons with other patients, medical authorities told

Look for Lidge to be virtually ineffective through the first 10 days of May, and possibly another 10 days or more.

Hopefully for Lidge, that will be the end of it, but more problems could be in store.

With potential psychological difficulties lingering from his Houston Astros meltdowns over the past couple of seasons, a blow such as this is the last thing Lidge needed as he tries to rediscover himself in Philadelphia.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Rockies Manager Clint Hurdle Turns Up the Speed

Rockies manager Clint Hurdle is using spring training to focus on improved baserunning, as evidenced by his decision to experiment with first baseman Todd Helton batting third instead of fourth, with Matt Holliday batting cleanup.

On the surface, it looks like positioning to elevate Holliday's RBI opportunities. Instead, it's designed to create more chances for Holliday to run. Center fielder Willy Taveras has picked up on the increased emphasis on speed, pledging to double the 33 bags he stole last year to 60 or 70 this year, according to published reports.

Stage Set for Kevin Frandsen to Advance for Giants

Giants reserve Kevin Frandsen's long-overdue opportunity to advance to the status of full-time player at last has arrived with an injury to Gold Glove shortstop Omar Vizquel.

A former 12th round pick who batted only .269 with five homers in limited play last year, Frandsen doesn't look like much. But San Francisco fans seem to forget, this was the highly regarded prospect who just two years ago was thought to have nothing more to prove in the minors after hitting .387 in the Arizona Fall League.

As Frandsen comes into his prime at 26, look for the six-foot, 175-pound middle infielder to stake a claim to the second baseman's job while filling in for Vizquel in shortstop, likely outplaying veteran teammate Ray Durham who appears to be in decline at 36.

Though the team sees the 40-year-old Vizquel returning to play in as little as four weeks, expect him to miss at least six or more weeks before even considering the arduous challenge of reconditioning himself in minor league play. That will give Frandsen plenty of time to prove that if he cannot outplay Durham at second, he can surpass Rich Aurelia at third.

Though Frandsen has yet to find a power stroke, expect him to spray all fields with singles and occasional gap shots, somewhat comparable to former batting champ Freddy Sanchez of the Pirates. Though Franden's range is not exceptional, he makes up for it with excellent anticipation, intelligence, energy and hands.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Mom at Heart of Phillies Ryan Howard's Troubles?

A rumor strained through the inner sanctum of the Phillies clubhouse lays first baseman Ryan Howard's performance difficulties last year at the doorstep of the affable giant's overly protective mother Cheryl Howard.

The retired business woman has taken control of her son's finances, putting him on a strict allowance, the amount of which can not be learned from month to month, but hopefully exceeds the 50 cents a week he was given as a boy. Will the 28-year-old slugger have to get a paper route?

It's not difficult to see Cheryl Howard and her husband -- computer company executive Ron Howard -- behind Ryan Howard's decision to seek an additional $3 million per year over the $7 million the Phillies offered him.

One or two million would be one thing, but the unprecedented 30-percent disparity pushed the arbitrator to the limit, especially in light of Howard's lack of service time, preponderant strikeouts, defensive liabilities and health issues.

Thankfully the arbitrator's affirmation will avoid sending Howard into another funk, such as he experienced last year when his family likely cluttered his head with distractions about him being underpaid, underappreciated and disrespected.

Don't let Howard's cheerful facade fool you. His firing of two of his agents demonstrates his frustration after he patiently waited two years for the Phillies to get rid of Jim Thome, then have the team insult him with a mere $900,000 paycheck even though Howard hit 80 homers in his first one and a half seasons.

Even more exasperating is the fact that something approaching half of his relatively meager earnings have been wiped out by his agents' fees and federal and state taxes, while teammate Chase Utley has been given an $85 million, seven year deal.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Reds Ease Pressure for Brandon Phillips

The Reds have refused to burden second basemen Brandon Phillips with any undue pressure to top last year's spectacular production, with Phillips being quoted by WLW Radio as saying at the signing of his new contract that he'll be satisfied to hit 20 homers and steal 20 bags in 2008.

Having committed to a four-year, $27 million pact, the 5-foot 11, 185-pound Phillips will be under control through his 30th birthday and a bargain even though probably he cannot be expected to reach 30 homers again.

For Dan Patrick, A Not-So-Funny Valentine

Among the prized items in radio talk show host Dan Patrick's collection is a genuine pink ladies baseball uniform worn in the movie "A League of Their Own" starring Madonna.

Being a romantic kind of guy, on Valentine's Day Patrick suggested to his wife that she don the "League of Their Own" uniform for a little role-playing hanky panky.

The role-playing was not successful as his wife apparently called foul. "I learned my role was to shut up and get lost," Patrick confessed to his listening audience.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Dodgers Jason Schmidt Suddenly Feels Pain Free

You can't exactly expect him to be in the Dodgers rotation by opening day, but former ace Jason Schmidt reports a significant breakthrough at camp in Vero Beach, Fla., a new sensation just two weeks ago of having escaped the soreness that dogged him all last year, and had been exacerbated following shoulder surgery.

Schmidt -- who went 1-4 with an uncharacteristic 6.31 ERA in his truncated 2007 season -- recently told that his soreness vanished "literally overnight."

"I'm starting to see a light at the end of the road where all the work is starting to pay off," Schmidt said. "It was nice leaving for Spring Training with a lot of the stuff resolved, physically and mentally."

The Dodgers have put no timetable on Schmidt's return, but expect the $15 million-a-year hurler to try to give the team its money's worth as soon as he once again can throw with velocity and control.

Sometime in May or June would be as good a guess as any, but there's potential Schmidt could come back earlier, considering his competitive nature. Should he win the No. 5 spot in the rotation, he would not be needed until April 18. Schmidt likely would be given a relatively light workload for some time, and is a long way from becoming a 200-inning pitcher again.

Twins Joe Mauer, Trick Knee, Arrive With Bravado

The good news is that Twins catcher Joe Mauer has arrived in Fort Myers, Fl., reassuring friends and teammates that his knee is "100 percent" healthy and that he expects no setbacks for 2008.

The bad news is that Mauer said virtually the same thing last year, when -- just a month into the season -- he went on the disabled list for 32 days with a strained quadricep before having to be reassigned to Class A for a rehabilitation.

For the record, in addition to the quad strain, Joe Mauer's 2004 meniscus cleanup is well behind him, and technically meniscus surgery is the best kind of knee surgery to have. That is to say, if you must have knee surgery, maniscus repair offers a full chance of recovery in time, and Mauer has had more than enough time to feel confident about his durability.

And yet, anyone -- let alone a 6 foot five, 220-pound man who squats for a living -- remains highly vulnerable to arthritic repercussions as the result of any invasive trauma at the knee joint. So for Mauer, arthritis is more a question of when, rather than if.

Mauer's bravado and the Twins willingness to keep Mauer behind the plate instead of moving him to designated hitter, first base or third indicates that no such arthritic condition is on the horizon for now, and with any luck might not appear until after Mauer retires.

In the meantime, fans can enjoy watching one of the best young catchers in the game, and see that he still offers outstanding play behind the plate, can continue to his for average, and hopefully not only stay healthy but maybe even begin to hit with power.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Albert Pujols Contemplating Tommy John Surgery?

The hushed voice of KMOX sports reporter Kevin Wheeler has joined the whispers in St. Louis that Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols may be headed for a fall, not merely because Pujols has been playing with foot, leg and various other aches and pains in recent years but because far more serious trouble awaits him.

"Albert is the perfect hitter," says Wheeler, who hosts the weekly program "Rating the Cards" on the 50,000-watt voice of the midwest. "...The only concern about Albert's ability to put up big offensive numbers is his health.

"He was already voicing concern about his right elbow, which probably needs Tommy John surgery, and if that elbow (or the back or the hammies) give him significant trouble...he might not be able to battle through the pain again."

Speculation is growing that Dominican slugger may miss significant portions or perhaps even all of the season, though it doesn't seem to make sense that Pujols would have waited this late to make the decision to undergo invasive medical procedures had he not already committed to try to play in 2008.

Even Wheeler can't come to terms with the idea of Pujols going down, projecting him to hit .330 with 40 homers this year if all goes well.

"The scariest thing I've heard in a long time, relating to the Cards, was Albert saying he can't do what he did last year again. Just hope and pray the offseason of rest did him well," said Wheeler, whose broadcasts can be heard across more than 30 states at 1120 on the AM dial.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Hanley Ramirez Likely to Disregard Shoulder Risk

Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez -- having undergone shoulder surgery last fall -- is reported to be on course for doctors to release him for full baseball activities well before the conclusion of spring training, though he may be held back for awhile as a precaution as he faces a relapse potential of perhaps 10 percent, medical authorities told

The problem is that Ramirez -- not only because of his character and makeup but because of his love of the game -- cannot be expected to play with anything less than full enthusiasm, thus will soon place his surgically repaired torn labrum at greater exposure than doctors might ideally desire.

Still, the likelyhood of Ramirez sustaining a serious relapse is probably small based on recoveries and surgical failures experienced by other patients, about 90 percent of whom have returned to normal activity in about six months or less following the procedure, according to medical authorities.

Ramirez's surgery can be likened to that undergone by New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who dislocated his shoulder in 2005 but recently threw for more than 4,000 yards with 28 touchdowns with no lingering difficulties over the course of a 16-game season.

The Marlins have every reason to expect that Ramirez will have a normal and highly productive 2008, and continue to be regarded as one of the top three shortstops in baseball.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Brian McNamee Pays Price for Speaking Out

Athletic trainer Brian McNamee -- a former highly commended under cover police officer for the City of New York -- reportedly is paying a high price for his cooperation with the Mitchell investigation into improper use of performance enhancing drugs by MLB players.

McNamee's character has been recklessly trashed in various broadcast reports and not only has been suspended from his job in the athletic department at St. John's University but is being shunned by other potential employers in his field, according to writer Jon Hayman.

Hayman's account suggests McNamee has begun having difficulty supporting his family.

McNamee explained that he always had to have various sources off income when he was training Yankee pitchers Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, as neither superstar paid him more than a "living wage," and that he has always had to make his way by garning income from various sources, though never as a drug dealer, legally or illegally, according to the report.

Now numerous potential clients are telling him "don't call us, we'll call you," McNamee said.

Regarding an allegation that McNamee was questioned in an alleged Tampa sexual assault, the report hinted that McNamee refused to fully cooperate with investigators not to save himself but to avoid casting unsubstanciated aspersions in the direction of a certain player or players.

Athletics Seek Joey Votto to Replace Emil Brown

Oakland GM Billy Beane has set Cincinnati abuzz with his reported interest in Reds first base prospect Joey Votto, whom Beane would move to left field as a replacement for 33-year-old A's journeyman Emil Brown.

Brown can play a little -- having hit a combined .287 with 32 homers in '05 and '06 before missing much of last year with injuries. But Brown always gets a bit of a bad rap after being buried for the better part of a decade in Pittsburgh and Kansas City, and perhaps being better suited as a fourth or fifth outfielder as Brown faces inevitable health concerns toward end of his career.

Though Votto is cherished in Cincinnati, he is in some senses expendable because the Reds still control former Athletics first baseman/catcher Scott Hatteburg, who hit .310 last year as the left half of a first base platoon for the Reds. Moreover, Hatteburg, 38, might be preferred by new Reds manager Dusty Baker, who likes to play experienced players over rookies.

But the main thing is that Votto -- who projects as .300 hitter with 30-homer power -- would bring a major prize to Cincinnati in the person of Oakland No. 3 starting pitcher Joe Blanton, 27, whom Beane is committed to trade.

Though Votto is a first baseman by trade, he has outfield experience and relatively good speed for a corner infielder. He would fit nicely in Oakland's no-name outfield alongside Chris Denorfia and Travis Buck, becoming the cornerstone of a high potential, small market trio that potentially would play together for many years, and do so cheaply.

Cubs Must Break News to OF Alfonso Soriano

With potentially chronic quad and hamstring difficulties, Cubs outfielder Alfonso Soriano must face the reality that at 32 his days as a leadoff hitter are over. All that remains now is for the Cubs to find Soriano's replacement, and for GM Jim Hendry and manager Lou Piniella to flip a coin to see who breaks the news to him.

An ideal replacement -- allowing Soriano to move to the No. 5 spot in the batting order -- would be Orioles second base standout Brian Roberts, 30, a baserunning whiz who parlayed his .377 OBP into 50 stolen bases last year, as compared to Soriano's .337 OBP and 19 bags, most of which were stolen in the earlier part of the season before leg injuries slowed him down.

The problem seems to be that the Orioles have asked for outfielder Felix Pie in return, and Piniella is widely believed to have refused to give up Pie. Starting pitcher Rich Hill has been mentioned as an alternative, and the Orioles certainly ought to go for that. But would the Cubs really be that stupid?

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Expect Rebound from Indians Slugger Travis Hafner

First, forget those silly MLB rumors that Cleveland's Travis Hafner is over the hill at 30.

This notion stems from a popular misconception that Hafner was due for a predictable fall because he developed late, thus his lofty minor league production in effect was inflated against relatively raw opposition.


First of all, the younger Hafner showed plenty of advancement versus his peers when he played his first year of professional ball at age 20, hitting .286 against single A pitching. Within three years he hit .386 with a near .600 slugging percentage, rapidly advancing through the Texas Rangers farm system. Obviously, nothing was lacking, slow or late in Hafner's early development.

What was wrong, however, was a lengthy setback he endured because of an almost crippling weakness in not one but both of his wrists, which caused the Rangers to divert attention away from Hafner and toward youngsters Carlos Pena and Mark Teixeira, foolishly trading Hafner to the Indians for -- get this -- Einer Diaz and Ryan Drese!

By 2006 in Cleveland, Hafner had belted 42 homers while hitting .308 and no one worried about his wrists any longer, especially after Hafner spent the better part of three years rehabilitating and strengthening them.

No, Travis Hafner is no late bloomer destined for a truncated career.

Expect Hafner to return to form again in 2008, hitting for power and average and high run productivity off both left- and right-handed pitching, as he always has done when healthy.

Stop worrying, Cleveland. Of how many other players can it be said that if they hit about .260, with 25-30 homers and at least 90 RBI that they will have had an off year?

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Milwaukee's Eric Gagne Has Help Waiting in Wings

The Brewers closer's job belongs exclusively to Eric Gagne, who has been reported by various sources to be in good shape despite some relatively minor health issues at the close of last year, and a bit of a stumble in Boston attributed to trying too hard.

Though Gagne may never again be the phenom he was in Los Angeles, the Milwaukee brain trust saw enough of him in Texas to believe he can still be effective now at age 32. But just in case, former Royals middle reliever David Riske has been brought in as insurance.

Though Riske failed previously as a closer in Cleveland, he continues to be envisioned as possible late inning specialist, as his three-year, $13 million Brewers contract contains a number of incentives for saves.

Riske -- also 32 -- has been shown to be surprisingly durable after several seasons of hard throwing, and his 2.45 ERA over nearly 70 innings last year in Kansas City shows he may finally have matured enough to discover what it takes to pitch under pressure.

Carlos Delgado Trying to Find Old Familiar Stroke

Mets first baseman Carlos Delgado is trying to stave off recent years of decline by training to be more selective at the plate, a trait for which he had been famous in his prime, when he walked well over 100 times a year.

Delgado walked only 52 times last year, with his swing marked by numerous misses outside the strike zone.

Delgado will show up at Spring Training next month in Port St. Lucie, Fla., with a new mindset, hoping that his homers will climb, his walks will increase and he will cut down on frequent strikeouts that have made him a much easier mark for National League pitching.

Watch closely to see whether his strategy is working, or whether his decline is more a matter of old age than lost technique.

David Dellucci Vies to Restore Status in Cleveland

A funny thing happened to the Indians David Dellucci on his way to becoming the near everyday outfielder for the Cleveland Indians -- Franklin Gutierrez.

The third outfielder's spot appears to be Gutierrez's to lose since taking over for Dellucci after Dellucci ripped his hamstring from the bone last year while trying to beat a double-play throw at first base.

When Dellucci tried to return from the injury late in the season, he suffered further setbacks and now will be lucky to win the fourth or fifth outfielder's spot, let alone claim the left-field platoon he shares with Jason Michaels.

Dellucci had only recently started a rehabilitation program at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, so it cannot be certain how soon he can run with complete confidence. Having previously failed when he tried to rush back to action last year, Delucci is proceeding with great caution while trying to run normally.

Always a threat from the left side of the plate, Dellucci has reached the 30-homer threshold before, but one wonders whether he can ever recover his previous form now that he is 35, and whether a fourth or fifth outfield spot might be more suitable for him.

Morgan Ensberg Enters Yankees Crowded Infield

A little competion in camp is always healthy, but this is rediculous.

New York GM Brian Cashman's signing of former Astros third baseman Morgan Ensberg to a potential $4 million contract brings to four the number of players expected to vie for playing time at first base for the Yankees in 2008, the others being Jason Giambi, Wilson Betemit, Shelly Duncan and maybe even Jason Lane.

Of the four, Ensberg is likely the weakest sister, as he has suffered from a loss of confidence and linger injuries since putting up big numbers for Houston three years ago. Still, there's nothing wrong with his fielding, so why not take a chance?

At 33 Ensberg will have to prove he has something left if he expects to come north with the team in April. It will be quite a comedown, but don't be surprised if Ensberg opens the season at Scranton.

SP Paul Byrd Will Step Out from Under HGH Cloud

Expect Indians hurler Paul Byrd to be cleared of wrongdoing in the steroids/HGH scandals, and be back on the mound before the first Spring Training game.

Though Byrd has admitted to using human growth hormone, he had a legitimate reason to do so and was under the care of a licensed physician at the time.

Surprisingly, not everyone is in agreement that HGH enables players to enhance their performances, with some schools of thought insisting that HGH is of no benefit to mature adults. They scoff -- for instance -- at claims that HGH has caused Barry Bonds' forehead and feet to enlarge, claims that have never been confirmed.

At any rate, HGH can be of great value, especially in combating dwarfism in adolescents and other conditions in grownups, a fact that MLB Commissioner Bud Selig will have taken into consideration when Byrd is cleared by March 1 or sooner.