Friday, February 26, 2010

Astros Catcher J.R. Towles To Try Doing It His Way

Having established himself in the minors as a .300 hitter with power, it had been a simple progression for former 20th round draft pick J.R. Towles to win the coveted "catcher of the future" mantle three years ago for the soon to be rebuilding Astros.

But somewhere along the line, Towles became overwhelmed, hitting only .149 over the past two seasons in what has become more and more limited playing time.

"I just listened what a lot of people said and I got overloaded," Towles told "I'm just going to go back to what got me here. Go back to the basics."

At 26, Towles can consider himself lucky, for most players with his track record would find themselves demoted to the minors again, perhaps permanently. But with the Astros still rebuilding, and super thin at the catcher position, Towles has been blessed with yet one more opportunity to impress.

Competition at the team's Grapefruit League camp at Osceola County Stadium in Kissimmee, Fla., has pitted him against fellow backstop Humberto Quintero, with whom he will share time either as the starter or the backup.

Barring injury or a total breakdown in performance, neither player appears to be destined for the minors just yet, which buys time for Towles. He must rediscover himself soon, for Stanford product Jason Castro, 22, is waiting in the wings.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Indians Rookies Losing Time to Russell Branyan

Just as quickly as 25-year-old rookie Matt LaPorta was penciled in as the starting first baseman for the 2010 Indians, he has been penciled out with the unexpected signing of free agent veteran Russell Branyan, 34.

Likewise, rising young outfielders Michael Brantley and Trevor Crowe stand to be benched or demoted to the minors as newly named manager Manny Acta likely can be expected to dole out the majority of playing time to such other veterans as Travis Hafner, Shin-Soo Choo and Grady Sizemore.

In anticipation of a game of musical chairs, LaPorta already has begun taking defensive drills in left field, the only position remaining for him, even though that is the position which had been expected to be claimed by Brantley, son of former major leaguer Mickey Brantley.

"At the end of the day, if everybody's healthy, it obviously is going to impact one of those young guys," Acta told reporters gathered at the team's Cactus League spring training camp at Goodyear, Ariz. "But I guarantee you, both of those guys are going to play every single day somewhere."

With Hafner and Sizemore both hampered last season by various injuries and ailments, the team was left without a great deal of depth should one or both be unable to play up to form, Acta said.
He hinted that some or all -- including Branyan -- will need downtime to stay healthy, thus creating opportunities for the bench.

Without Branyan, who hit 31 homers in 431 at-bats in an injury shortened effort for the Mariners last season, "we were an injury away from not feeling as comfortable," Acta said.

J.D. Drew Mindful of Red Sox Cancellation Clause?

It's not often remembered, but hidden in the fine print of J.D. Drew's $70 million, five-year contract is a stipulation that the Red Sox can release the 34-year-old outfielder if it is determined that his abilities have been significantly impaired as the result of shoulder injuries sustained before he came to Boston.

Having reached a personal, Red Sox high of 24 homers while batting .279 in 137 games last year, Drew so far has had little reason to fear that he will lose his job. Perhaps mindful, however, that baseball careers can end in an instant, Drew is taking no chances.

Drew began pre-season conditioning last month after being shut down for yet another shoulder surgery in October, this one to remove bone spurs so aggravating that he was unable to play last season without being treated with two cortisone injections.

"I had...days when it was a lot worse than others," Drew recently told The Boston Globe's Amalie Benjamin. "The worst part of it was the batting cage and...repetition of swinging the bat. (It) kind of got it aggravated."

Even though the condition worsened as the season wore on, he hit .355 with 12 homers and 30 RBI in the second half of the season, not counting an 0-22 streak immediately after the All-Star game. With that kind of potential, the Red Sox won't begrudge a little downtime for him, if that's what it takes to keep him healthy.

It's a much better alternative than voiding his contract.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Astros GM Ed Wade Warns No Player Untouchable

Astros General Manager Ed Wade has begun his newly extended, three-year tenure by straddling a fine line between the importance of competing for a 2010 playoff berth and the need to reduce costs by dealing players to build for the future.

With a more than $100 million annual payroll to trim and a near bankrupt farm system to replenish, Wade told in an exclusive interview that no player is safe from the trading block, whether a prospect or a star of the caliber of Lance Bergman, Roy Oswalt, Carlos Lee or even the future of the franchise Hunter Pence.

Not that the team is actively seeking out looking suitors, but all offers will at least be considered, especially if value is to be acquired, Wade told

"It's not so much that everybody's on the trading block," Wade explained. "But you can always say 'yes,' if sombody wants to do something stupid. The beauty is, you can always say 'no.' "

Wade, formerly general manager in Philadelphia, came to Houston in 2007, and has won the confidence of owner Drayton McLane despite a losing record. McLain opened Grapefruit League camp in Kissimmee, Fla., by announcing that that Wade's contract has been extended through 2002.

Astros Will Let Hunter Pence Be Hunter Pence

Any number of analysts, scouts and various other prognosticators have foreseen a potential big, big production spike coming for Astros outfielder Hunter Pence as he approaches the prime of his career, but will 2010 be the year?

Don't put it past him; any player of Pence's talent can have a career season not only any year but maybe even every year, says newly appointed Astros manager Brad Mills.

"With him you don't have to worry about peaks and valleys," said Mills during the first day of baseball activities at Astros spring camp at Osceola County Stadium in the Orlando Fla., suburb of Kissimmee.

"We just have to let him be Hunter Pence," Mills said.

And Pence, who in 12 days will observe his 27th birthday, is doing just that, establishing himself as the prototypical first player to arrive in the morning and the last to go home at the end of the day. With position players not expected to arrive until next week, Pence is on the job already, having shown up in camp even before pitchers and catchers to put in a full day of stretching, running and other drills, including some two hours of hitting in the cage.

Is he working on his swing?

"Right now I'm working on the World Series," Pence said lightheartedly yet hinting he thinks the sky's the limit.

Though Pence put up an arguably career best season last year with 25 homers and a .282 batting average, he seems to feel he can reach the next level by putting greater emphasis on his mental approach.

In addition to training all winter under the tutelage of strength and conditioning coach Gene Coleman at Minute Maid Park in Houston, Pence studied various baseball manuals, managers' memoirs, how-to books and even such philosophical essays as "The Art of War," by Sun Tzu, whose thoughts have influenced military leaders from Napoleon to Douglas MacArthur with an emphasis on conditioned responses in fluid situations.

"It's only 100 pages but a I read it twice," said Pence, a former honors student at University of Texas at Arlington.

The six-foot-four, 205-pound phenom, who added about five pounds of muscle during the offseason, wants to cultivate what some trainers have called "muscle memory," in which the body's response is not so much a consequence of the brain's premeditation as it is an automatic reaction, something achievable through repetition.

Pence hopes to counteract his propensity to tinker with his mechanics so that he may "build a foundation for my swing." Whether that means he is approaching a magical career year he won't predict.

"I do feel good about myself coming into this season." Pence told "...I'm coming into this year more prepared than I've ever been."

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Jose Reyes 'Comeback' Portends Trouble for Mets

Injured Mets shortstop Jose Reyes' recent workout demonstration may have been good enough for team vice president David Howard and a bevy of metropolitan reporters that showed up for the coverage at Professional Athletic Performance Center in Garden City, N.Y., but the ill-starred superstar still has a long, long way to go before he can be declared fully recovered.

Though Reyes pledged he would be back "100 percent" come opening day, and urged ticket buyers to, "come and see the show," consider a modest word to the wise: Don't believe the hype.

Yes, Reyes was clocked at 3.52 seconds running the distance between home and first base, and he easily darted and dashed left and right as he fielded a series of bouncing tennis balls. In the course of 90 minutes, he bounded and bounced and biked and stretched, all marks of significant progress for a player coming off a second of two surgeries that left him on crutches as recently as the end of October.

But if his was merely a hamstring injury -- plus the complications of a calf strain and inflammation -- that would be one thing. But this is no ordinary hamstring injury, it is a displacement of the hamstring tendon, a critical tear that fundamentally could leave him with a significant impairment of mobility for the remainder of his life, and about which medical experts must remain guarded even in the best of circumstances.

We are in fact ultimately talking about a breakdown -- a disconnection if you will -- of the sophisticated pully system that impacts rudimentary athlectic command over the lower extremities of both legs, both being equal parts of a working tandem. This is the last line between the bone and the hamstring, the disruption of which marks the type of injury one would more easily find in the rodeo bullring, beneath the horses' legs on the turf of a polo match, or in the back of a crashed automobile, having plunged off the escarpment of the Jersey Pallisades.

It can be fixed but with great difficulty, and only after much time, patience, wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Thus, the view from here is that Jose Reyes likely will not finish the 2010 season, certainly not without tiresome visits to the trainer's table. Every time he gets hurt -- and he will get hurt -- he will be out four to six weeks. If he injures himself the way he did before, he could be out permanently.

This is not rocket science. Any physician trained in trauma can foresee the potential for trouble because of the very nature of the injury, and because Reyes is not just some stationary lummox who stands at first base merely to take throws from across the diamond, or waits on the bench for a chance to pinch hit. We are talking about a finely tuned, high-powered little sports car of a man who trades on speed, hustle, daring and precision carburation and rack and pinion steering.

To be effective, he must have unfettered dominion over all his talents, tools and skills., particularly as he approaches the potential zenith of his prowess at his 27th birthday in June.

With hot-and-cold hitting Jason Bay's medical condition having been disparaged by Red Sox doctors, with Carlos Beltran set to miss the opening of the season with another knee problem, and David Wright having struggled to hit even a mere dozen home runs last year, it looks as though another long, long season may be in the offing for Jose Reyes and the Mets.