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Sunday, January 11, 2004
Clubs with spring in their step

By Peter Gammons
Special to

Jan. 11

This is an eerie time in a red sky morning of an offseason. While most teams have begun humming along with Eddie Vedder ("no matter how cold the winter/there's a spring time ahead"), even after the Vladimir Guerrero bombshell, the oddities of having Greg Maddux and Pudge Rodriguez still out in the marketplace make this a unique January.

That two Hall of Famers are still looking around at this time of year leads to boundless speculation. This weekend, all of a sudden some GMs realized that the Orioles were out on Guerrero and in on Maddux, and that while the Mets were willing to go to three guaranteed years on Guerrero, it wasn't close to enough to getting him away from Anaheim.

Vladimir Guerrero
The addition of Vladimir Guerrero shows the Angels are serious about getting back to the Series.

Since the Angels were already between $90 million and $95 million before signing Guerrero, what they do to pare payroll -- trade Ramon Ortiz, Jarrod Washburn or Troy Percival or perhaps an everyday player -- will be fascinating. Rumors of a deal with San Diego have made the rounds, and the Padres have re-opened discussions with the Pirates about Jason Kendall.

There is no question that since Arte Moreno has taken over the Angels, they have become the poster boys of the West Coast. Moreno has taken what was already a team a year off a world championship and added Guerrero, Bartolo Colon, Kelvim Escobar and Jose Guillen, which not only makes them a strong contender, but attractive to Hispanic-American and Mexican cable interests. Not that Anaheim is a sure thing: Seattle is still very good, and the A's rotation of Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, Mark Redman and Rich Harden can win anything, anytime, anywhere.

The consensus of opinion among general managers is that the Cubs and the Phillies are approaching the Ides of January as the pre-spring training favorites in the National League, the (surprise, surprise!) Yankees and Red Sox in the American. Of course, considering that the Diamondbacks, Angels and Marlins have won the last three World Series, we all know the worth of pre-spring training power rankings means as much as Gary Hart's 1987 straw poll success.

With Frank McCourt trying to complete his purchase of the Dodgers, the Angels have made a bold strike at the Southern California market. But no matter who gets Maddux and Rodriguez, the Mets and Orioles are two of the teams below the Cubs/Phillies/Yankees/Red Sox radar screen that have at least turned back toward the light.

The group:

1. Mets
The Mets because Jim Duquette has taken over and convinced the Wilpons that they're not playing in the Back Pages League, they're in the NL East and that the PR worth of every Cedeno, Vaughn, Sheffield name acquisition gets three times the negative back-page space come August when they play like cement truckers. The Mets are returning to their championship roots, with defense surrounding pitching, which is the way to win in that sinkhole of a stadium which happens to be one of the worst hitters' parks this side of Pac Bell. "How did the Mets win in 1969 and 1986?" Duquette asks, then answers, "with pitching. Shea is a pitchers' park." Now with the start of adding arguably (and statistically) the best defensive center fielder in the game in Mike Cameron in back of the quickness of Kaz Matsui and Jose Reyes in the middle of the infield will make the performances and psyches of Tom Glavine, Al Leiter, Steve Trachsel and Jae Weong Seo a lot better. Guerrero would be a terrific addition, but if they don't get him, they have taken a brutal 95-loss team and significantly improved it by addressing its needs and long-term philosophy, as opposed to PR signings. Remember, this was a last-place team and while there are questions at the end of the rotation, in the pen and in right field, the hope is legitimate.

2. Orioles
If the Orioles were to sign Maddux, Pudge Rodriguez and/or Sidney Ponson in addition to Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez and Rafael Palmeiro they will be one of the most improved teams, albeit in a division so talented that they could well still end up in fourth place. Tejada gives them a building block -- reliable, energetic, productive -- and they have given their great fan base a reason to believe that there is reason to look forward to life after Maryland stops playing hoops. Now, there are a lot of people who believe that this is Peter Angelos' exit strategy -- signing star-quality players to backloaded contracts, get the fans back into Camden Yards, get the $150 million in reparations MLB will have to pay to get the Expos to Washington, then sell for a handsome profit. So what? If you're an Oriole fan and haven't had any reason to believe in anything since their last winning season (1997), then that scenario could begin a six-year run with Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan. Some owners look at Anaheim and Baltimore and see the new owner syndrome and the exit-strategy syndrome that slashed the changing market theories, but, hey, Orioles fans deserve better than they have received the last few years.

3. Blue Jays
Problem is, the AL East is a lot more than New York and Boston. There's Toronto, which on a $50 million payroll has the makings of a 90-win team, which they hope will be enough to sneak into the tournament and then see what happens, a la Anaheim, Villanova and the Marlins. And the best thing for a Jays fan is that they have one of the best farm systems in the league. J.P. Ricciardi has filled in the rotation spots behind Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay with Ted Lilly, Pat Hentgen and Miguel Batista, and he got Hentgen and Batista before the Jason Johnsons got $3.5 million. He's added Kerry Ligtenberg, Terry Adams and Justin Speier to a tattered bullpen. Now Toronto has bought time for young pitchers like Dustin McGowan, Jason Arnold and David Bush, and they can wait to see when center fielder Alexis Rios (the star in Puerto Rico) and catcher Guillermo Quiroz are ready.

4. Astros
Sometime soon, Roger Clemens will decide whether or not to join Andy Pettitte, which would give the Astros -- whose starters threw the fewest innings in the National League -- a rotation with Roy Oswalt, Wade Miller and either Tim Redding, Jeriome Robertson, Carlos Hernandez and Brandon Duckworth. Are there concerns about Octavio Dotel replacing Billy Wagner, and Brad Lidge holding up in the setup role? Sure. Are there concerns about the consistency of the offense? Yes. But in a division where the Cubs have a rotation that could win the World Series any year, this is a huge upgrade. The additional innings provided by the starters will save strain on the bullpen.

5. Royals
The Royals are trying. Allard Baird and Tony Pena are indefatigable, personally visiting and recruiting players as if they're Bill Self's assistants. They turned the franchise mindset around last year, and by going out and surrounding Carlos Beltran, Mike Sweeney and Angel Berroa with Benito Santiago, Juan Gonzalez, Matt Stairs, Brian Anderson, Scott Sullivan, et al takes them into the season believing they can stay in the Midwest race with the Twins, White Sox and even the Indians, if their pitching comes as it might. There are still serious concerns about the pitching, but if Jeremy Affeldt were allowed to close, he might be the best left-handed reliever in the American League.

6. Brewers
And so are the Brewers. No more cosmetic trades and signings to dupe fans into Miller Park. Doug Melvin is an astute talent evaluator. He made a terrific deal for Richie Sexson that provides two left-handed starting pitchers, a first baseman (Lyle Overbay) and an offensive second baseman in Junior Spivey that come July can be spun for more young players. This team needed to strip down and re-grow, and with shortstop J.J. Hardy in this season and Richie Weeks, Prince Fielder, Corey Hart and Dave Krynzel on the immediate horizon, it would be fun again in a couple of years. Why there are two other teams within 90 minutes of Wrigley Field is another matter, entirely.

Diamond Notes
  • While the Angels clearly want to move Washburn or Ortiz before the start of the season, Boston may not have to move Scott Williamson, who looms as an invaluable setup man for Keith Foulke. The Red Sox are over $120 million presently and will have to pay some luxury tax, but the penalty is far smaller the first time, and with a half-dozen major players potentially gone for 2005, the tax will be a one-shot deal. Kevin Millar is still pushing for Theo Epstein to sign Ryan Dempster, while the club is also talking to left-handed reliever Nick Bierbrodt and Jeremy Giambi, the latter on a minor-league deal as insurance should David Ortiz get hurt.

  • The Giants signed Brett Tomko cheaply, needing another starter behind Jason Schmidt, Kirk Rueter, Jerome Williams and Dustin Hermanson. Schmidt and closer Robb Nen are scheduled to throw this week, so they will have some idea where they stand before spring training.

  • Turk Wendell is pondering a lucrative offer to go to Japan and pitch for his former manager, Bobby Valentine.

  • One name that emerged in Puerto Rico is Jays' minor-league outfielder Simon Pond. After being released by the Indians and Expos, Pond hit .338 at New Haven, then hit 10 homers in Puerto Rico. "He's got one of the best power swings I saw," said one scout who covered that island's winter league.

  • Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez has been throwing for clubs in Miami and is "about 80 percent" according to one GM. There's an interesting spring training invitation, while Cuban refugee Maels Rodriguez is about 10-to-14 days from being ready to air it out for clubs.