A Chink In The Armor
For the better part of the last decade, picking the Braves’ eventual finish in the pennant race has been an easy task. "How about first place in the National League East?" Prior to expansion-created realignment and the days of three divisions in a league, the refrain for the Braves was the same, only it applied to the National League West. But now, for the first time since that surprising summer of 1991, when Atlanta zoomed from last to first to the World Series, the Braves may no longer be the fashionable pick. After all, this was a Braves’ team that already figured it would have to deal with a season full of distractions created by John Rocker. Now the Braves will have to face the day-to-day grind of a long season without one of their best big-game pitchers and most spirited leaders.
The season-ending elbow injury to John Smoltz means the Braves will go into a season with their thinnest starting rotation since 1990, when Smoltz and Tom Glavine were the only pitchers to win in double figures, and when guys like Marty Clary, Derek Lilliquist, and Pete Smith were still getting plenty of starts at the back end of the rotation. Of course, the Braves of the new millennium won’t finish in last place like the team of Jim Presley, Andres Thomas, and Charley Kerfeld did that forgettable summer. But the Braves of 1991 to the current day have always led with their strong jab, AKA starting pitching. They’ve usually had four proven starters to rely on: the ever-present backbone of Smoltz and Glavine, coupled with Steve Avery and Charlie Leibrandt in the early 1990s, and followed by Greg Maddux, Denny Neagle, and Kevin Millwood in the latter stages of the decade. Now, for the first time since the Braves were just taking up space as filler on TBS, they don’t have a quartet of certified surgeons who can carve up opposing hitters.
The Braves now have three proven starters in Maddux, Glavine, and Millwood, but they can’t even be certain that Millwood will match his phenomenal season of 1999, when his earned run average fell by nearly a run and a half. How will Millwood’s arm react to a workload that saw him pitch a career-high 228 innings, after never pitching more than 174 innings in a single season? After Millwood, things get stickier. Although the Braves have high hopes for Bruce Chen, they have to wonder if he will go through the rough indoctrination that Glavine and Avery encountered before finding success at the major league level. And speaking of Avery, he could be their No. 5 starter after coming to spring training as a non-roster player. Does Avery have anything left, considering how the Braves overworked him in his first few years and how brutal he has been in recent stops with Boston and Cincinnati? These are major questions for the Braves, who will need some positive responses if they’re to hold off the Mets and yes, the improving Phillies in the NL East...
Edmonds Coming To The Bronx
The Jim Edmonds-to-the-Yankees trade will probably happen sometime within the next two weeks. The early spring training loss of Darryl Strawberry, coupled with the drop in the stock of both Ricky Ledee and Alfonso Soriano (at least in the minds of the Yankee brass), has the majority of the Yankee front office convinced that trading for Edmonds is a smart thing. Look for the Yankees to either package Ledee with a Triple-A pitching prospect like Ryan Bradley or Jake Westbrook for Edmonds, or send Soriano to Anaheim in a straight up one-for-one deal. (The Angels would like Westbrook included in a deal involving Soriano, but the Yankees may balk at that demand.) Of course, the Yankees will ask the Angels and Major League Baseball for a window to negotiate a long-term deal with Edmonds. They certainly won’t give up a prospect like Soriano without some kind of assurance that Edmonds will stay in the Bronx past this season.
If the trade happens, where will Edmonds fit in? He’s clearly a better defensive center fielder than Bernie Williams, especially in terms of arm strength and the ability to go back on fly balls. Heck, we’ve been saying for two years that Williams is really much better suited for left field, where his sickly throwing arm becomes less of a liability. He also has the speed to cover "Death Valley" at Yankee Stadium, which was the major factor in the Yankees’ decision to switch Dave Winfield from right field to left field in the early eighties.
That said, Joe Torre will have to have some courage to move Bernie from center to left. He doesn’t want Williams to treat this as a demotion, and also knows how respected his switch-hitting star is in the Yankee clubhouse. Knowing Torre, he’ll probably talk out the situation with Williams, challenge him to become the best left fielder in the American League, and then give him as much time in his new position in the remaining days of spring training. The bottom line is this: an alignment of Edmonds in center and Williams in left will give the Yankees their optimum defensive outfield. And that, more than egos and hurt feelings, should matter the most in deciding who plays where.
Why have the Yankees soured on both Ledee and Soriano? Although Joe Torre feels that Ledee has the talent to be a Billy Williams-type player, he and the coaches wonder if he will ever gain the fire he currently seems to be lacking. Ledee is also a sensitive type who might never achieve his full potential in New York. As for Soriano, he’s still highly regarded, but an error-filled spring has the Yankees worried as to whether he has the hands to play the infield over the long haul. Plus, they seem confident that D’Angelo Jimenez can make a complete comeback from his car injuries by next season and eventually take over for Chuck Knoblauch at second base. As for switching Soriano to third base, the Yankees already have two excellent prospects at that position: Donny Leon, who will play at Columbus this season, and Drew Henson, who may be able to make the jump to Double-A after an impressive debut in Class A ball last summer...
Morandini a Match In Montreal
It looks like Felipe Alou is serious about giving free agent refugee Mickey Morandini every opportunity to win the second base job. Morandini has been stinging the ball so well in the early spring that he appears better than a 50-50 chance to beat out incumbent Jose Vidro for the starting berth on the middle infield. There has been some speculation that the Expos might move Vidro to third base, but they already have the highly touted Michael Barrett playing most of his spring games there. As a result, Vidro and his live bat could become trade bait... Although we commend new Montreal owner Jeff Loria for spending money on his new investment, we do have to question the wisdom of some of the off-season moves he’s bankrolled. He allowed general manager Jim Beattie to give a large three-year contract to Graeme Lloyd, a situational reliever who is usually asked to get only one or two outs per appearance. Lloyd would have made more sense for a legitimate contender that needed one more lefty reliever to push its playoff fortunes over the top. The Expos aren’t at that stage just yet... Loria also agreed to take on the contract of Hideki Irabu, who is a decent pitcher (despite what some of his detractors say), but whose lack of conditioning makes him more susceptible to arm injuries. The cost of acquiring Irabu was also a high one: pitching prospect Jake Westbrook, plus two players to be named later, which could include highly touted right-hander Jeremy Powell or left-hander Ted Lilly... One other note on the Expos. They’re extremely pleased with the spring training performance of Peter Bergeron, who will likely be the team’s center fielder and leadoff man. Bergeron’s development will enable Felipe Alou to play Rondell White in left field, where he really belongs. Alou can also bat White in the middle of the lineup, as opposed to the leadoff spot, where he lacks the requisite plate discipline...
Spring Training Ballparks
Our visits to spring training over the years have given us a chance to assess the various ballparks in Florida. Here’s a listing of our five favorite parks in the Grapefruit League:
McKechnie Field in Bradenton (Pirates): It’s one of the oldest parks in Florida, but after some recent renovations and a fresh paint job, it’s still our favorite. From the beautiful façade that looks out onto 17th avenue, to the intimate view of the field from both the stands and the concourse, to the cozy capacity of just over 6,500, McKechnie Field just exudes old-time baseball. This ballpark, with its picturesque green color scheme, feels like spring training more than any other.
Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers (Twins): Part of the Lee County Sports Complex, this park is bright, clean and well-manicured. The waterfall located at the front of the stadium gives it a unique and attractive look. If there’s a flaw, it can be found in the mesh screen that protects the fans behind home plate. The screen is too low, uneven with the sight lines for the higher seats behind the plate.
City of Palms Park in Fort Myers (Red Sox): The other ballpark in Fort Myers, but still a terrific one. Like McKechnie, this ballpark has a terrific atmosphere for spring training baseball. It’s cheerful and well-maintained, but located in a less desirable part of the city than Hammond Stadium.
Legends Field in Tampa (Yankees): In many ways, it’s like a mini-Yankee Stadium, with the same blue seats and outfield dimensions as the ballpark in the Bronx. One of the new breed of spring training ballparks, Legends Field is bigger, more luxurious, and more high-tech than most of the older facilities. That’s also a drawback, since it lacks the intimacy and charm of the aforementioned spring parks.
Disney World of Sports Baseball Stadium in Kissimmee (Braves): Like Legends Field, the Braves’ ballpark (capacity of 9,100) is so big that it lacks that spring training feel. But if you like the Disney "look" and color scheme, you’ll like this park. The view of the field from the concourse and the concession stands is terrific...
Hall of Fame 2001
Now that the Veterans Committee has closed up shop for the spring, who might be the 15-member group be looking at in next year’s election? You can expect Bill Mazeroski to once again receive strong consideration, with Mel Harder, Gil Hodges, Dom DiMaggio, Tony Oliva, and perhaps even Ken Boyer in the running, as well. Sparky Anderson’s election should create a wide-open race in the manager/owner/ pioneer category, where skippers Whitey Herzog and Dick Williams and old-time Pirates’ owner Barney Dreyfuss will vie for the committee’s attention. In the Negro Leagues’ category, slugging Mule Suttles and catching standout Biz Mackey could face a challenge from one of black ball’s most versatile and intimidating power hitters, John Beckwith. And then there’s the 19th century category, where Bill Dahlen, Jimmy Ryan, and George Van Haltren continue to receive their share of support...
Battle In The Bay
As the A’s continue their search for a center fielder, some in the Bay Area (including his brother Jason) have suggested that Jeremy Giambi might provide a solution to the problem. Although Giambi can hit, and might provide an option in the leadoff spot because of his ability to reach base, he can’t realistically be expected to handle the defensive demands of center field. He’s already considered a liability at first base, left field, and right field, and that kind of player isn’t often asked to make the switch to a tougher defensive position. In all likelihood, Giambi will probably end up doing a lot of DHing for the A’s. John Jaha, who’s been bothered by a bad foot all spring, seems like he’s due for another injury-wracked season. Don’t be surprised if Jaha starts the season on the disabled list, revisiting what had become a trend during his days in Milwaukee.