March 2010

6 Divisions in 6 Days: AL Central

With this being the final week of Spring Training (crazy, right?), I figured it’d be justified to take a look at all 30 clubs and examine where they stand, what they need and where it looks like they’ll finish heading into the 2010 season. So, leading up to Opening Night between the Red Sox and Yankees, I’ll touch on one of the six divisions each day Monday-Saturday. Today, Day 3, we look at the American League Central …


Twins: I feel for this team. I really do. They’re some of the best group of guys I’ve ever dealt with, and — after a storybook division win last year and some nice offseason moves — they looked like strong contenders heading into Spring Training. But it won’t be easy recovering from the loss of one of the greatest — and, like most of the guys on this team, most underrated — closers in baseball, as Joe Nathan will miss the entire season with Tommy John surgery. Still, they’re a great defensive club, the bullpen is strong, and I love that offense. Orlando Hudson was a nice addition to the two-hole, and Jim Thome makes that a very formidable bench. And you already have Denard Span leading off, and Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel in the middle of the order. But Nathan or not, I’m not a big fan of that rotation composed of basically a bunch of No. 3 and 4 starters. There simply is no legitimate top-of-the-rotation guy among Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Carl Pavano or Nick Blackburn. Perhaps Francisco Liriano can capture some of that old magic, but that remains to be seen. So does this team. 
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Tigers: The Tigers waited until the start of Spring Training to acquire the services of Johnny Damon. But boy do they need him. I didn’t see any way they can go into the season with youngsters Austin Jackson and Scott Sizemore and still expect to compete in the division. But they’re right up there now, and they have as good a shot to win it as the Twins or White Sox do. Miguel Cabrera is always a force in the middle of the order, and the talk of camp has been how good Magglio Ordonez has looked thus far. The guy who needs to produce is Carlos Guillen, who went into Thursday batting just .236 this spring and hit just .242 with 11 homers in 81 games in 2009. Pitching wise, Justin Verlander is one of the top arms in the game, and Rick Porcello is close to being that, too. But they’ll feel the loss of Edwin Jackson, as three question marks, as Max Scherzer, Jeremy Bonderman and Dontrelle Willis bring their fair share of questions to the rest of that starting staff. In the bullpen, Jose Valverde was a nice addition, and there are some other nice pieces that make it a formidable bunch. All in all, I think the Tigers did pretty well this offseason considering they expected a fire sale with the economic climate Detroit currently faces. 

White Sox: I really don’t know what to make of this group, to be honest. I have no real read. I’m sure cooky manager Ozzie Guillen has something to do with that. But it has more to do with the uncertainty of some of their most important players. Guys like Alex Rios, Jake Peavy, J.J. Putz, Juan Pierre and Andruw Jones. With those guys, you could strike gold or come away with coal. That’s why I wouldn’t be surprised if this team loses 100 or wins 100. They’re that much of an enigma. That starting rotation has a chance to be great with Mark Buerhle and Peavy at the top. But Peavy was limited to 20 innings last year after Tommy John surgery. The lineup could be great, but Rios, Jones and Pierre will have to produce in order to complement Carlos Quentin, Paul Konerko and Alexei Ramirez. Who knows if that’s going to happen? And the bullpen could be solid, but that could hinge on a bounce-back year from Putz as the bridge to Bobby Jenks. South Siders = Big Mystery. 

Indians: Just like when he took over as the Nationals’ skipper in 2007, it’s going to be a trying first year in Cleveland for new manager Manny Acta. Frankly, the Indians are just not a contender yet. But Acta will at least have some nice pieces to work with. Keep your eyes on speedy left fielder Michael Brantley and power-hitting first baseman Matt LaPorta. (Not just because he’s a former Gator; though that’s reason enough, right?) Also, right fielder Shin-Soo Choo — he of a .300 batting average, .394 on-base percentage and 20 homers last year — is one of the more underrated players in baseball. And the big boys, Grady Sizemore, Jake Westbrook, Travis Hafner and Fausto Carmona have looked good this spring. Besides Westbrook and Carmona, though, there isn’t much else in that rotation, and Kerry Wood – probably out for the first two months of the season — can’t really be counted on to close games out. So, the Indians are still a ways away. But they’ll be exciting to see offensively. 

Royals: Reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke joins a team heading into the 2010 season with … well, not much else. That rotation is up in the air after Greinke, as Gil Meche, Kyle Davies and Brian Bannister were all shut down late last season with shoulder fatigue. One look at this roster, and you’d swear you’re gazing at the recycling bin sitting on the side of your house. Rick Ankiel, Scott Podsednik and Jason Kendall were the big offseason additions for the Royals, so we’re using the term “big” loosely here. Perhaps what’s most important, though, is for Alex Gordon — Kansas City’s No. 2 overall Draft pick in ’05 — to finally realize his potential. Since they won’t compete, watch for the Royals’ future in Gordon, right-hander Aaron Crow and lefty Noel Arguelles.  

AL Central champion: White Sox

– Alden Gonzalez

6 Divisions in 6 Days: AL East

With this being the final week of Spring Training (crazy, right?), I figured it’d be justified to take a look at all 30 clubs and examine where they stand, what they need and where it looks like they’ll finish heading into the 2010 season. So, leading up to Opening Night between the Red Sox and Yankees, I’ll touch on one of the six divisions each day Monday-Saturday. Today, Day 2, we look at the American League East …


Yankees: They added Javier Vazquez to a starting rotation that was already one of the best; they still have the automatic Mariano Rivera in the back end of a bullpen that will only 

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benefit from one more year in the setup role for Joba Chamberlain (it seems inevitable that he’ll be the eighth-inning man); and despite not having Johnny Damon or Hideki Matsui, that offense is still one of the scariest. But that’s also the place that nurses my only real concern. The loss of Damon makes me question that top of the order. Derek Jeter did a great job at the leadoff spot last year, but I don’t like somebody his age being counted on to play the physically demanding position of shortstop and lead off. At the two-spot, Nick Johnson reminds me of Bobby Abreu because of his ability to take pitches and get on base. But he can break down any day. Plus, the loss of Matsui has them without a true No. 5 hitter to complement Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira and round out the middle of the order. (Are Curtis Granderson or Robinson Cano real forces there?) But let’s not complicate this: The Yankees have the pitching to shut down any lineup and the offense to light up any ace. Yeah, the defending champions are great again. 

Red Sox: With the addition of ace John Lackey, their rotation is up there with the Yankees as the best in baseball. And they’re now at the top of the league defensively, too, with Adrian Beltre and Mike Cameron in the mix. But the question among Boston fans is, Can they hit for power? My question is this: Do they even have to? They have power threats in Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia and Victor Martinez. But, yeah, they need David Ortiz to somewhat resemble the Big Papi of old. Maybe not the 54-homer guy, but definitely better than the .238-batting-average guy. Still, with a rotation that includes, Lackey, Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, a bullpen that’s still among the best in the league, premium defensive players at every position and several high-on-base guys in the lineup — add Marco Scutaro, Jacoby Ellsbury and J.D. Drew to that mix — the Red Sox are a force once again. 

Rays: It’s too bad the Rays don’t play in another division (I think they’re champs in the AL Central, AL West and National League West). I like this team — a lot. Kudos to the young Andrew Friedman for fielding a quality 25-man roster with that payroll. That starting rotation — with Matt Garza, James Shields, Jeff Niemann, David Price and Wade Davis — is legitimately five-deep. The lineup is nice with Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Evan Longoria and two very underrated guys — Jason Bartlett and Ben Zobrist. And Rafael Soriano is a significant upgrade over J.P. Howell in the ninth inning. They’ll need B.J. Upton to figure it out, and I think he will, making Tampa Bay solid in every aspect. Better than the Red Sox and Yankees? Unfortunately for fans of the underdog, probably not. 

Blue Jays: Alex Anthopoulos has made some progress in his first year as general manager, but there’s a whole lot that needs fixing if this team is going to be considered any kind of threat in the toughest division in baseball. Priority No. 1: Get rid of that horrible contract that belongs to Vernon Wells. He’s owed $98.5 million over the next five years and coming off a .260 batting average and 15 homers in 2009. They’ll need a solid season from Wells if they want to find somebody who would take on that contract without forcing the Jays to eat up almost all of
it. Anthopoulos did manage to move the salary of
Roy Halladay — though he’s still paying him $6 million this year — and got some nice prospects in return, like Kyle Drabek and, eventually, Brett Wallace. As for this year? Well, they have the same problems most rebuilding teams face. They don’t have an ace, there’s no legit closer in the back end of the bullpen — though there may be two or three nice options — and that lineup is less than formidable. (Jose Bautista as the leadoff hitter?) I don’t know that they’re the worst team in baseball, but considering the 25-man roster they sport and the division they play in, this may be the worst team record-wise when it’s all set and done. 

Orioles: They’ll be better, that’s for sure. After losing 98 games last year to sport the worst record in the AL, they may even improve to the .500 mark. But they won’t really compete yet, so let’s start with the future. It’s getting there. Corner infielders Josh Bell and Brandon Snyder, plus current young studs in center fielder Adam Jones, catcher Matt Wieters and right fielder Nick Markakis means that offense is not far away from being very legit (don’t forget Brian Roberts is locked up through 2013, too). Pitching-wise, guys like Chris Tillman, Brian Matusz and potential closer Jim Johnson (we’ll see) give the staff promise. In the mean time, GM Andy MacPhail did a nice job of getting some stopgap guys to make sure they don’t reside in the basement of the AL once again, with Kevin Millwood, Miguel Tejada and Mike Gonzalez. Yeah, things are getting better in Baltimore. Just be patient. 
AL East champion: Yankees
AL Wild Card: Red Sox

– Alden Gonzalez

6 Divisions in 6 Days: NL East

With this being the final week of Spring Training (crazy, right?), I figured it’d be justified to take a look at all 30 clubs and examine where they stand, what they need and where it looks like they’ll finish heading into the 2010 season. So, leading up to Opening Night between the Red Sox and Yankees, I’ll touch on one of the six divisions each day Monday-Saturday. Today, Day 1, we look at the National League East …

Phillies: I see no weaknesses in the back-to-back NL champions. They have arguably the best pitcher in baseball at the top of the rotation, a starting lineup that will scare the bejesus out of you, a great defensive group, options at the back end of their bullpen and incredible depth. Cole Hamels, of course, is the key. Since the Phillies didn’t keep Cliff Lee in the Roy Halladay deal (Phillies fans will debate that for decades), Hamels is the No. 2 starter again despite a rough year in 2009. If Hamels’ comeback is the most important, then that of closer Brad Lidge is 1A. Lidge and lefty J.C. Romero likely won’t be ready for the start of the season, but they’ll join the club soon thereafter. Still, the Phils signed Danys Baez, who also has experience closing out games, and Ryan Madson is there, too, of course. Offensively, uh, yeah, they’re good. I love the addition of Placido Polanco, who is a great No. 2 hitter and allows Shane Victorino to slide down in the order. J.A. Happ, Joe Blanton and possibly Jamie Moyer round out the rotation, which is good enough — at least. Their bench is solid with the addition of Juan Castro and Ross Gload. Defensively, Carlos Ruiz, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Victorino and Jayson Werth are some of the best in the business at their respective positions. So, again, no weaknesses, really. 

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Marlins: Ask anybody around the league, and they’ll tell you the Marlins will be a pain in the neck this year — just like they were in 2008, and just like they were in 2009. The Marlins’ brass, however, wants more. They wanted a playoff team with a $30 million payroll, as evidenced by Fredi Gonzalez being put on the hot seat early this offseason despite finishing above .500 and being in contention most of the way last year. Pretty much the same core group is back, with Josh Johnson — fresh off signing a four-year extension — at the top of the rotation and Hanley Ramirez in the middle of the lineup. That young rotation that was the talk of baseball a couple of years ago isn’t looking so good right now, though. While Johnson and Ricky Nolasco give the Marlins a nice one-two punch, there are questions in the other three spots. And their closer, Leo Nunez, has only been one for half a season. The rest of the bullpen is a bit shaky and inexperienced, too. Offensively, they’ll have reigning NL Rookie of the Year Chris Coghlan for a full season. But they need Cameron Maybin to produce as the No. 2 hitter, and I don’t think they have a big enough bat to protect Ramirez in the middle of the order (Jorge Cantu is the guy right now). With a new stadium, and Johnson and Ramirez locked up long-term, the future looks good for the Marlins. 2010? I think they’ll be in it in September, but it’ll be the same story as the last couple of years. This division is too good to win with that payroll. 

Braves: There may be no better starting rotation than the Braves’, and there may be no feel-good story better than the one playing out in Atlanta. Bobby Cox‘s last season. Jason Heyward‘s first. Veteran players making the Braves look legit for the first time in a while. Meant to be? Perhaps. Derek Lowe, Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Kenshin Kawakami and Jair Jurrjens is flat-out scary. And I like their bullpen. Here’s my problem: The Braves will rely on a cleanup hitter (Troy Glaus) and a closer (Billy Wagner) coming off major surgeries. But they’re deep in the ‘pen, and the offense is pretty good, with Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, Heyward (what a phenomenal player he is) and Yunel Escobar. Oh, and Wagner and Glaus have each looked good this spring. I have questions about Nate McLouth as the leadoff hiter (and Melky Cabrera seemingly being the No. 2 option), and their infield defense is shaky with Jones at third, Glaus at first, McCann behind the plate and Martin Prado at second base. But the more I see this team, the more I like it. 

Mets: Meet the Mess! Once again, the Amazin’s have a nice-looking squad on paper, but who knows what you’ll get out of them? They already know Carlos Beltran won’t start the season healthy, nor will expected setup man Kelvim Escobar, and Jose Reyes probably won’t, either. But they still have Johan Santana at the top of their rotation, they still have Jason Bay in the middle of their order, and neither Beltran nor Reyes are expected to miss much time. The Mets will of course be a much better offensive club than last year’s rag-tag group, but I’d worry about their rotation. After Santana, there are four solid question marks in Mike Pelfrey, John Maine, Oliver Perez and Jon Niese. Also, who will be the bridge to Francisco Rodriguez? There’s a flame-throwing prospect by the name of Jenrry Mejia who has drawn comparisons to Doc Gooden. He won’t start the season as the eighth-inning man, but that may be his role eventually. Once again, the Mets have the potential to be great and catastrophic, all at the same time. One thing that’s certain: It should be interesting. 

Nationals: Mike
Rizzo
has done a pretty descent job in his short time as the Nats’ general manager. He acquired pitching help in Jason Marquis (though he’s not an ace by any stretch), got a solid catcher who can mentor Jesus Flores in Ivan Rodriguez (I don’t know about giving him two years and $6 million, however), went hard after Orlando Hudson (but he had to settle for Adam Kennedy at second base), came to terms with top pitching prospects Stephen Strasburg and Drew Storen, and he made the bold — and surprising — move of releasing Elijah Dukes, getting rid of a supreme talent but a perceived clubhouse cancer. Think again, though, if you think the Nats can go from 103 losses to playoff contention in one season. They’re at least another year away. I really like their lineup, with Nyjer Morgan at the top, and Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn and a healthy Josh Willingham in the middle. And I like rookie Ian Desmond‘s defense at shortstop. But that starting rotation, led by John Lannan, is still shaky at best. And despite adding guys like Brian Bruney and Matt Capps, there’s no legit closer, and the bullpen should struggle as a unit. But expect progress. 
NL East champion: Phillies
NL Wild Card: Braves
– Alden Gonzalez

Got milk? Albert wants to know.

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JUPITER, Fla. — Minutes after Albert Pujols unveiled his giant “got milk?” advertisement, which has already hit magazines this week, he saw his new hitting coach, Mark McGwire, peaking his head through an open door facing his mini press conference.

“Hey, Mark,” Pujols shouted, “this looks better than yours, huh?”
“Sure, you’ve got a sledgehammer,” McGwire replied.
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I agree. You can’t top a sledgehammer.
McGwire’s was classy, but Pujols’ is just plain vicious.
On Wednesday, the greatest player in baseball continued to add to his ever-growing resume, when he became the new milk man.
It was just further proof of how valuable Pujols is; how badly baseball needs him to be genuine and true to the game — unlike what drug tests say about the man to the left — and how desperately the Cardinals need to keep him.
Pujols is the greatest hitter in the game, plays a Gold Glove-caliber first base, is a good baserunner, hits in the clutch, wins championships, is a great teammate by all accounts, works his butt off, speaks two languages fluently, gives back to the community like no other and could shatter almost every major offensive record by the time he hangs it up.
On Wednesday, he spent six solid minutes talking about milk.
“Growing up in the Dominican Republic, I knew how important it was to drink milk,” said Pujols, whose ad was shot in St. Louis in December. “My parents always told me, ‘You need a glass of milk.’ Pretty much, I was pretty excited when they came up to me, ‘got milk?’ with the campaign. I was really open to doing it because I know how important it was for your nutrition.”
That news conference near the Cardinals’ batting cages at the Roger Dean Stadium complex announced Pujols had been named part of the Milk Mustache “Dream Team” to inspire teens to “Drink Milk for a Change.” Pujols joined Utah Jazz point guard Deron
Williams and gold medal-winning gymnast Shawn Johnson. 
But what about his future in St. Louis?
Pujols will make $16 million this season, and the Cardinals have a $16 million option for the 2011 season they’re sure to pick up. 
After that — considering his incredible abilities, demeanor, charisma, and the fact no Latin-born player has ever had the global reach Pujols currently has — they should resign him for another 20.
– Alden Gonzalez

Heyward making Mom and Dad proud

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Jason Heyward’s father was never a
professional baseball player. But like a lot of them, he’s the superstitious
type. So he stressed he would not put on an Atlanta Braves baseball cap until
his son made the team.

But while sitting in the Braves’ dugout at ESPN’s Wide World
of Sports complex on Saturday morning, Eugene Heyward did what was the result
of one of his proudest moments as a father: He took off his Mississippi Braves
cap – representing one of the Minor League teams Jason starred for during an
eye-opening 2009 season – and swapped it for one of the Major League version of
the Braves – the one Jason will start for on Opening Day thanks to tremendous
talent and an excellent spring.

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After putting up a .366 batting average and .500 on-base
percentage in his first 16 Grapefruit League games, Heyward was called into
manager Bobby Cox’s office on Friday morning and told he was making the big
league club with just two full seasons of Minor League Baseball under his belt.

Heyward then shot a simple text message to his mother,
Laura, who called her husband, Eugene, who immediately left work.

“My brain went numb, I couldn’t do anything else at work,
and I just told them I’m leaving work for the day,” Eugene said. “[They said,]
‘We understand,’ And I walked out.”

“It’s almost like those tears of joy, but you don’t really
cry, but you can feel the emotion,” Laura added. “It was a lot of emotion
there. Very excited.”

After going back-and-forth on the issue, Laura, Eugene and
Jason’s 14-year-old brother Jacob – a freshman corner infielder at Eagle’s
Landing Christian Academy in McDonough, Ga. – woke up at 4 a.m. ET, then made
the 6 1/2-hour drive to Central Florida to watch Jason and meet some critical
members of the Braves.

“It’s cool that they came down,” said Jason, who went
0-for-4 with a strikeout and a stolen base in the Braves’ 4-0 win over the
Nationals. “They both had already seen me play, but it was my brother’s first
time seeing me play in big league camp here. He didn’t get to come last year,
so it’s just cool that they made it down for the day.”

The level-headed, too-mature-for-his-age Jason comes from a
solid upbringing.

Heyward’s parents are both Dartmouth graduates. His father,
a former collegiate basketball player whose first love was baseball, is an
engineering consultant for the Air Force, and his mother is a quality analyst
for Georgia Power.

While Jason was growing up in Henry County, Eugene and Laura
said they never pressured him into baseball – though they mandated he play
absolutely no tackle football – but always pushed him to be the best at any
venture he undertakes.

“Even when you make it, you’re working hard not to just get
there, but to be one of the best players that ever played the game. That’s the
idea,” Eugene said. “Enjoy that, but do something with it.”

On the day the Braves decided to make Jason’s ascension to
the Majors official, you couldn’t find anybody in the Braves’ clubhouse – not
even Jason himself – who was in any state of surprise over the call.

Eugene wasn’t one of them, either.

“I know my son, I watched him play,” Eugene said. “The stats
speak for themselves. It’s a numbers game. Minor League Player of the Year [in
2009 by Baseball America], no fluke. He played. And I know how hard he works. I
know the sacrifices he made. And he’s always, at every level he’s played, he’s
excelled. He loves baseball. He loves practice, and that’s weird. Weird kid.
And if you love practice, this is gravy.”

Despite that, Eugene checks to make sure every once in a
while.

“I ask him every year, ‘Are you still having fun?'” said Eugene, who has made
the trip to Lake Buena Vista, Fla., twice this spring and a countless amount of
times since Jason was a toddler.

“He’s having fun. I know he’s having fun.”

When you have the tools of somebody like Jason – who hit
.323 with 17 homers, 63 RBIs and 10 stolen bases in 99 games while playing in
three levels in the Braves’ farm system last year – it’s pretty hard not to.

After that impressive showing, the Braves went into Spring
Training saying they’d give Heyward – the No. 1-rated prospect by MLB.com and
several other outlets – a realistic shot at cracking the 25-man roster, and
he’s done nothing this spring but impress (and smash car windshields beyond the
right-field fence at Champion Stadium).

The hype has surrounded Jason for a while now, and the
attention will only escalate if he keeps showing this much promise.

“It may be time to get caller ID,” Laura said.

But before any of the spotlight shun on Jason, life was one
long car ride.

Jason’s parents live about 30 miles away from Turner Field,
but they had to drive about 50 miles through traffic to take Jason to school and
baseball practice every day. Eugene said his 1999 GMC Suburban has accumulated
300,000 miles and, “You go in that car, it smells like baseball,” he said.

Back in those days, it was just the local Braves who really
played close attention to Jason. In fact, at 10 years old, Braves scout Al
Goetz was already watching him play.

Now, it’s funny to think 13 teams passed on him in the 2007
First-Year Player Draft.

“I was shocked in the beginning that he didn’t go top five because they picked
a couple of high school players in the top five,” Eugene said. “And I thought
that he was, I’m not saying a better player, but his stats were just as
comparable. I thought he had a higher ceiling point with his size and
athleticism.”

But none of that matters now.

What matters is that in nine days, Jason will be jogging out
to his position at Turner Field on Opening Day. At 20 years old, he’ll be
counted on to help get the Braves get back to the playoffs and give Cox – retiring
at the end of his 26th year with the club – a nice little parting gift.

Or something else?

“He’s trying to change Bobby’s mind,” Eugene said with a
laugh.

“Extremely emotional,” is how Eugene said he’d feel upon
watching his son on Opening Day. “I’m not going to lie about that. I’ve shed
tears watching movies nowadays – I don’t let anybody see me do it, but I do it.
But it has to be.”

Headlines

* Jurrjens leads Braves’ shutdown of Nats

* Braves option Acosta to Triple-A

* Escobar, Ross out as precaution

* Easy decision: Heyward makes Braves

* Chipper: Heyward’s ready for big time

– Alden Gonzalez

An inch of separation, a world of difference

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KISSIMMEE, Fla. — I was sitting up in the press box covering the Astros’ Spring Training game against the Blue jays on Friday, when Matt Lindstrom strolled to the hill for yet another Grapefruit League frame. Then, with a man on first, one out and a 1-2 count, he threw a pitch that made me jump out of my chair and go, Whoa!
It was a slider — a pitch Lindstrom has been throwing for pretty much his entire professional career — but this one had more bite than any I’ve ever seen from him before. So, I asked Lindstrom about it after his outing, and indeed, it was a different slider — his grip was different.
I asked him how, and he refused to show me on the ball (“You know how some players are superstitious?” he told me. “Well, I’m superstitious about that.”) I did get him to tell me, though, that the major difference is the fact that he’s putting his fingers together now instead of a bit apart.
“It’s feeling good,” Lindstrom (pictured, Associated Press) said about the slider. “It’s something I contribute to [new pitching coach] Brad Arnsberg showing me a different grip. We had a really good bullpen session about two weeks ago, and I’ve been using that grip ever since in these games, and it’s worked out for me so far. It’s still a work in progress for me, but it’s coming out of my fastball plenty good, and it’s sinking down, and it’s working well.”
Think that’s not really that big a deal? Well, Lindstrom is one of the rare pitchers who can crank his fastball up to the triple-digits on a semi-consistent basis. But in the big leagues, you have to be able to have command of a secondary pitch (the exception being Mariano Rivera’s cutter, of course). It doesn’t matter if you throw 120 mph. If that’s all you throw, these big league hitters will get your timing pretty quick and square it up. 
Lindstrom wants that secondary pitch of his to be the slider. But last year, it simply wasn’t there for him, and it was a big reason why he posted a 5.89 ERA in 54 games for the Marlins. He converted 15 of his 17 save chances, sure, but he became unreliable and lost his job to Leo Nunez down the stretch. 
Again, a big reason was the slider — the fact that Lindstrom couldn’t rely on it and became a one-pitch guy most of the time. But he said that slider is noticeably more effective now than last year.
“You can tell when the hitter swings, they’re not seeing that good out of my hand,” he said. “Before, it was popping up and they could see it, and they’d just lay off. So far, so good.”
Remember that pregame speech by Al Pacino in “Any Given Sunday”? (The inches we need are everywhere around us!) Well, one inch could mean all the difference for this Astros team. 
One inch can make Lindstrom’s slider go from shaky to deadly.
One inch can finally make the kid with the golden arm a reliable closer.
One inch can give the Astros a formidable back-end-of-the-bullpen option.
One inch can eventually make Houston a contender in the National League Central.
OK, let me stop before I keep getting carried away. 
Headlines
– Alden Gonzalez

Budding prospects testing Manuel’s patience

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Omar Minaya’s way of doing business may usually leave teams with scant high-round Draft picks. But lately, the Mets’ GM has done fairly well with the little he’s had left. 

I wrote recently about first baseman Ike Davis and how he may be the Amazin’s best option at the position right now. But there’s more. There’s outfielder Fernando Martinez, shortstop Ruben Tejada and hard-throwing right-hander Jenrry Mejia.
And, wouldn’t you know it, all three of them play positions of immediate need for the Mets.
With Carlos Beltran (knee) expected to be out for the start of the season, the Mets have a hole in center field. Sure, Angel Pagan is expected to fill it, and Gary Matthews Jr. was brought in on a Minor League deal, but Fernando Martinez — in a small sample size, sure — came into Saturday batting .500 (16-for-32) while leading his club in homers (3) and RBIs (11).
Jose Reyes’ thyroid condition may keep him out for the start of the year, and the Mets are expected to go with backup Alex Cora. But Tejada has opened some eyes, batting .378 (14-for-37) with a .425 on-base percentage, three doubles and five RBIs.
Then there’s the starting rotation and the back end of the bullpen. The Mets have an open competition for the fifth-starter’s spot, and neither Jon Niese nor Fernando Nieve really stand out to me. They also have a hole in the eighth-inning role, since the man expected to take it on, Kelvim Escobar, is likely to start the season on the DL. Mejia can fill both. And in the early part of camp, he’s already been compared to Doc Gooden and opened eyes with his Grapefruit League stats — 9 1/3 innings, two runs, eight strikeouts, one walk, a 1.93 ERA.
But Jerry Manuel hasn’t taken the bait. In all three of these situations, he has said the young players would need to be eased into roles like these, either with more time in the Minor Leagues or in less-demanding situations. Some of it (maybe a lot of it) may have to do with New York not wanting to start the clock on these guys and realizing it has a lot invested in the other candidates. But a lot also speaks to the patience Minaya and Manuel are taking in the wake of so much pressure.
With the way the media is in New York — not to mention the impatience of the fans and the miserable 2009 season the club is coming off — it’d be easy to jump the gun, put these guys in roles they’re not ready for and halt their progression.
Kudos to the Mets (unless they change their minds).
Now, here’s a look at those three prospects, courtesy of Baseball America …
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* Fernando Martinez (age: 21; B/T: L/R; HT: 6-1; WT: 200; POS: OF; BA rank: T100- 77, NYM- 3) – Baseball America calls him Minaya’s highest-profile Latin American signing in his five years as Mets GM. Martinez (pictured left, New York Daily News), signed to a $1.3 million bonus, is coming off season-ending right knee surgery in July and has dealt with hamstring injuries and a broken bone in his right hand. Martinez has power to all fields, but he’s been more of a pull hitter recently. “His bat speed and improved ability to make contact should allow him to hit for a solid average,” the publication wrote. Martinez is said to have “average” arm strength, “good” range and declining speed after putting on more weight. 

* Ruben Tejada (age: 20; B/T: R/R; HT: 6-0; WT: 160; POS: SS/2B; BA rank: T100- N/A NYM rank: 9) – Tejada had a solid year in Double-A Binghamton in 2009, batting .289 with a .351 on-base percentage, 46 RBIs and 19 stolen bases. The Mets considered calling him up during their injury-riddled season last year but decided against it. Baseball America calls him an “above-average” defender with good arm strength, adding that he has “above average” speed and a good contact hitter who could develop into having some gap power. Still, the publication says it’s his bat that could keep him from being an everyday player in the big leagues, since he needs to do a better job of drawing walks (he walked 37 times in ’09 while striking out 59 times). The Mets actual have an even higher-rated shortstop prospect — Wilmer Flores, ranked No. 88 in the Baseball America top 100 and second in the organization.  But he hasn’t played past low A ball.

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* Jenrry Mejia (age: 20; B/T: R/R; HT: 6-0; WT: 162; POS: P; BA rank: T100- 56, NYM- 9) – Meet the top-rated prospect in the Mets’ farm system. Mejia (pictured right, Newark Star Ledger) went 4-1 with a 1.97 ERA in high A, and though he struggled with his promotion in Double-A — going 0-5 with a 4.47 ERA — he has really electric stuff and has shown that among the big leaguers. His fastball ranges from 90-96 mph and has hit up to 98 mph on occasion. From Baseball America: “He’s able to maintain his velocity late into games, and his fastball has so much cutting and sinking action that it befuddles hitters.” He also induces a lot of groundballs and his changeup is said to be a “plus pitch,” as it resembles a splitter and is 81-84 mph. His slider, though, “needs a lot of work.” 
Headlines
– Alden Gonzalez

Family ties, and how baseball affects them

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Tuesday was a fun day to be a reporter, because you had a couple of really nice storylines unfolding right in front of you. There was Brad Mills and Terry Francona, two former college roommates, teammates and co-workers — and still best friends — managing against each other. And you had the father-son relationship that almost never was, but culminated on the baseball field

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You know the story about Mills and Francona (both pictured right), but I wanted to get into the latter a bit more. 
Fans sometimes don’t realize just how taxing it is to be in Major League Baseball — perhaps all those dollar signs on player contracts blurs their vision. The biggest obstacle is probably raising a family.
And this is especially the case with Ron and Chris Johnson (pictured below with that afternoon’s umpiring crew). 
Ron is the Red Sox’s new first-base coach — promoted from Triple-A Pawtucket after Mills took the managing job with the Astros and DeMarlo Hale became Francona’s new bench coach in Boston. His son, Chris, is an infield prospect for the Astros. On this afternoon, Mills and Francona worked it out so that Ron would coach third base and Chris would start, so basically they’d be about 10 feet away from each other for nine innings of a ballgame.
That was pretty much as close as they’ve ever been.
I was stunned when Ron told me prior to the game the amount of times he’s seen his son play baseball. Basically, he said it was once in high school — in nearby Fort Myers, Fla. — zero times at Stetson University and just one time since he was the Astros’ fourth-round Draft pick in ’06 — when Chris made his Major League debut with Houston last September (and that wouldn’t have happened if Francona hadn’t surprised him with a plane ticket and seats behind home plate). 
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Think that’s a one-of-a-kind journey? It isn’t. Not by a long shot. I would say the majority in this game experience those kinds of difficulties trying to maintain a family while maintaining an MLB schedule.
Just think about it: 
* From mid-February to early April, you’re at an entirely different city full-time for Spring Training.
* During the season, if you’re at home, you get to the ballpark at about 3 p.m. ET and don’t get home until close to midnight. So, players are pretty much only home during the day — when wives are at work and kids are at school.
* Oh, and not to mention the fact they’re on the road 80-some-odd nights out of the year.
* And the fact there’s a baseball game pretty much every day for six months during the regular season.
Mills also has a son in the game — Beau, a first-base prospect for the Indians. Mills was so excited about Monday night, when he was able to go online and watch his son play against the Brewers and hit a sharp single to left field. 
As for his boss, the office of Astros general manager Ed Wade is sprinkled with framed family photos. And he knows exactly what it’s like to be in the situation of Chris and Ron.
“Almost everybody in this game seems to sacrifice geographically in some fashion for being away from their families for extended periods of time,” he said. “I can attest to that, having spent 33-plus years in the game. You spend a lot of time away from your family.”
I told Wade that a day like Tuesday is a day when I pretty much don’t have to work, because the stories just write themselves. He quipped, “Just make sure you spell the words right.”
Tuesday’s story was heartwarming, to be honest. Ron and Chris met at home plate to exchange lineup cards. They yucked it up all game long down the third-base line (When Chris rolled over in his first at-bat against Jon Lester, Ron made sure he kept his son’s confidence up by saying, “He gets paid a lot of money to do that.“). And they felt great about the experience thereafter (It was awesome to see Ron excude so much pride when he looked back at the game and talked about how Chris “fits” with the other more-notable big leaguers.). 
But what about the burden of lost times?
Here’s what Ron had to say about it: It wasn’t [difficult to not be there while Chris was developing] because this is what I do for a living. It’s normal for us. What’s not normal for a person that works a different job and gets to be with their kids all through high school and that type of stuff, but this is normal. This is our normal. I’ve done professional baseball for 30 years, he’s always wanted to be a baseball player. Geography, logistics put you in different situations, so it’s been like that. But if you talk to most of the dads who are in the profession, who have sons, it’s the same thing. You don’t really look at it like you’re missing stuff, because it’s just normal for us.
And here’s Chris’ take: I probably felt that way before I got into pro ball. I didn’t really understand why he couldn’t come and stuff like that. But as soon as I got into pro ball, I started to mature a little bit and kind of realize what’s going on, and why I can’t go now and why he can’t go. It’s just, now I understand. 

Unfortunately for both, he really has no choice. 
(Other) Headlines … 
– Alden Gonzalez

From starter to reliever — it’s not for everyone

JUPITER, Fla. — The Twins looked like a contending team to me going into the spring, but they have a big problem now if closer Joe Nathan has to miss the entire year because of potential Tommy John surgery. For now, Nathan will give it a go and see if he can pitch through it. But if he can’t — the likely scenario, from what I’m hearing — the Twins will need a new ninth-inning man.

One of those could be Francisco Liriano, the one-time can’t-miss prospect who’s been ravaged by left arm issues but is starting to show signs of his old self. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire hasn’t really mentioned him specifically as an option, but he said anybody except the four guaranteed starters (Liriano is competing for the fifth spot right now) would be get consideration.
If closing is in the future for Liriano, he will be yet another starter who transitions into a short-inning reliever role. But that’s not what he wants. Liriano told me and several other reporters at Roger Dean Stadium on Monday (after giving up three runs in three innings to move his spring ERA to 3.86), “I want to be a starter,” though he also added that he’d do whatever the team needs.
Liriano is not alone at all in preferring to start. Most pitchers are creatures of habit — they love knowing their schedule is the same every five days, and they hate going into a game not knowing if and when they’ll get called to the mound. It’s also a lot more convenient to start a game clean and potentially see it through, as opposed to inheriting somebody else’s mess and stepping into the most crucial part of the game cold.
(Note: I had a quick chat with ex-manager Bobby Valentine, who was here doing research for his new gig at ESPN, and he pointed out that it would probably be best for Liriano’s arm — he battled “arm fatigue” last year — if he were to remain a starter. He said that although you don’t throw nearly as many innings as a closer than you do as a starter, there’s a greater wear and tear on your arm because you have to get up to throw so many times and you have to pitch a lot on back-to-back days. Liriano, by the way, has never once pitched in consecutive days in his Major League career.)
Some, like John Smoltz, made the transition from starter to reliever successfully. Others, like Joba Chamberlain, never really figured it out or are still struggling to. But not many of them actually preferred to be a reliever after always starting.
I found one that does.
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His name is Alex Burnett (pictured, left). He’s a 22-year-old right-hander out of California that the Twins took in the 12th round in 2005, and he’s in big-league camp this year. In 2007, he put up a 3.02 ERA in 27 starts for Class A. Then he finished with a 3.76 ERA in 25 starts for high A the following year. But after that season, he was converted to a reliever, and he excelled even greater in that role — finishing the ’09 season with a slim 1.85 ERA in 58 games for high A and Double-A.
Here’s a Q&A on my chat with him on the subject …
What’s the biggest difference between starting and relieving?

The preparation is a lot different because you don’t really know when you’re going to throw. You can just be sitting there in the bullpen, chilling with the guys, and then all of a sudden your name’s called, and you have to be ready in an instant. So, that’s one of the transitions that you have to make. The other one is you have to get the mentality to be a bullpen pitcher. It’s just a different style of pitching once you go out there and there’s runners on base. You don’t start every inning with nobody on. So, that’s a transition you have to make.

Why do you like it better?

I like the bullpen better because I like the adrenaline that you get when you’re down there. Coming in with runners on base, being the last line of defense. If you don’t do your job, the game’s over. So, I kind of like that. I kind of like going and being able to shut down the game and finish it up.

It seems like it takes a special type of personality to do the job of a reliever. 

I definitely like the pressure situation. Going in, runners on base and just being able to do that. 

How is it different with managing pitches?

You have to go into the game ready to throw a first-pitch slider or curveball, because you know they’re going to be like, ‘Oh, new guy is going to come in and throw a straight fastball.’ So, you have to be ready to throw your offspeed pitches right away. As opposed to when you’re a starter, you can work off your fastball mostly.

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Headlines …
Alden Gonzalez

The Rays and realignment

LAKELAND, Fla. — SI.com’s Tom Verducci threw a nasty curve to baseball fans early this week, when he wrote about how Bud Selig’s 14-person “special committee for on-field matters” has discussed the idea of a “floating realignment,” where teams wouldn’t be fixed to a certain division but instead be free to change from year-to-year based on geography, payroll and competitiveness. 

On Sunday, I visited the team that would most benefit from that radical idea: The Tampa Bay Rays.
The Rays are the perfect example of the little engine that, well, can’t right now. They almost did in 2008, when they were the Cinderalla story of the season before losing to the Phillies in the World Series. But last year, despite bringing back the core of that team, they couldn’t reach the playoffs. And this year — though I love their squad — they probably won’t again. 
The Rays — as well as the Orioles and especially the Blue Jays — have the terrible luck of playing in the American League East, a division dominated by two payroll giants, the Red Sox and Yankees. In the 15 years since the Wild Card system has been in place, Major League Baseball has never had a postseason without neither the Red Sox nor the Yankees. In ’09, both got in — with the $200-million Yankees winning it all — and the Rays, at 84-78 (.519), were left out. 
That record wasn’t good enough to make the playoffs in any division last year. But if they don’t have to play the Red Sox and Yankees 36 times each every year, I’m thinking they do a lot better and sneak in elswhere.
Heading into 2010, I believe Tampa Bay is better than any team in the AL Central, AL West and National League West. In the AL East, however, the Rays have no shot. And they continually won’t. While the payrolls of the Red Sox and Yankees will allow them to continue to add pieces to competitive, the Rays will gradually continue to lose them (by 2011, for example, you could pretty much guarantee Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena will be gone).
Realignment (note of caution: it’s pretty much just an idea being floated around at this point — nothing more, nothing less) benefits the Rays, as well as the nearby Marlins and several others. But does this subjective strategy really benefit baseball and its fans?
Surprisingly, the Rays manager doesn’t really want it. 
“I like the way it plays [now],” Rays manager Joe Maddon was quoted as saying by MLB.com’s Bill Chastain recently. “I’d be open to anything. But it’s not like I want to be in another division. I really like playing in the East. I like the fact, on an annual basis, whoever is representing this division in the postseason is a pretty good ballclub. I like the idea of playing in probably the best division in baseball.”
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The Rays are outresourced ten-fold in that division, but they’re not shying away from the competition. In fact, it seems like they embrace that underdog role.
Here’s what Pena told me when I brought up realignment after the Rays’ game against the Tigers at Joker Merchant Stadium: I kind of like this challenge. We’re here in this division, where the Red Sox and Yankees are the frontrunners, they are the only ones who have a shot at winning it, and we’re kind of at the back end. I kind of like that position, because it’s just perception, it’s just people’s opinions. God knows that the way I view the world, the way I view life, everything is possible. So, I’m sitting here with a little smirk on my face saying, ‘Imagine if this happens. Wouldn’t it be nice if we get up there and win this division?’ … That’d be kind of cool, wouldn’t it. Do we have what it takes? Yeah. But no one’s talking about us. Great position to be in.
So, there you have it, I guess.
You can read my colleague’s piece on this subject matter here
——-
Headlines …
Here’s where I’ll be this week …
* Monday: Twins-Marlins (Jupiter)
* Tuesday: Red Sox-Astros (Kissimmee)
* Wednesday: Nationals-Astros (Kissimmee)
* Thursday: Mets-Marlins (Jupiter)
* Friday: Blue Jays-Astros (Kissimmee)
* Saturday: Yankees-Astros (Kissimmee)
– Alden Gonzalez
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