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Baseball 2000
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Cooperstown Confidential
by Bruce Markusen
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Around the Horn

With the major league season getting underway in full force this week, we thought it would be a good time to take you completely "around the horn"...major league style. So letís make stops in all 30 of the big league cities, starting with ports of call in the junior circuit.

American League

One of the biggest surprises among the final-week cut-downs was Anaheimís release of Todd Greene, who figured to be a DH and part-time catcher for the rebuilding Angels. The roster move certainly caught Greene by surprise; he was in tears when informed of the decision. Weíre a little surprised that the Angels couldnít have acquired at least a borderline prospect in exchange for Greene, who has not yet turned 29. Greene will never be the player that his minor league numbers once indicated, but could blossom in another setting if he develops a better sense of the strike zone... The bottom third of Anaheimís lineup (Scott Spiezio at DH, Ben Molina at catcher, and Gary DiSarcina) might be the worst in the American League. Spiezio didnít hit enough to justify everyday status as the Aís second baseman. Now heís being asked to handle a position where either a .300 average or 20-plus home runs is practically a pre-requisite; Spiezio wonít reach either of those plateaus... The Orioles donít figure to be much better, if only because theyíre now one year older...which is bad news for an aging team that stood pat during the off-season. Other than Charles Johnson and a healthy Delino DeShields, who among the Oriolesí position players can be expected to improve in 2000? This club has several problems, including a faulty bullpen and a defense that has too many fielders lacking in range. The outfield basically consists of three left fielders, which would be fine in some softball leagues, but becomes a problem when you need center fielders and right fielders who can track the ball down. This club could also use a healthy dose of character, rather than the current crop of "Donít blame me" performers... Although we like the Red Sox to win the American League East, we do have to wonder about some of their roster decisions of the final week spring training. They elected to keep Gary Gaetti, who was awful for the Cubs last season, over the more versatile Donnie Sadler and the more productive Marty Cordova. We know Gaetti is a leader and a veteran presence, but in a tightly-packed division, the Red Sox need as capable a bench as possible in their fight against the Yankees and Blue Jays... Speaking of the Red Soxí bench, it will be better now that Darren Lewis will be taking on the role of fourth outfielder, perhaps even platooning with Trot Nixon in right field. The Sox might also have the best backup catcher in the American League in Scott Hatteberg, a left-handed hitter with power and decent defensive skills... The White Sox decided to go with Craig Wilson as their Opening Day third baseman when Greg Norton suffered a hamstring injury. Wilson started the season by committing two errors on Opening Day, which could open the door for Paul Konerko to get some playing time on the infield. The White Sox are convinced that Konerko can hit at the major league level, but arenít sure that he can meet the defensive challenges of third base... One of the most pleasant developments of the Indiansí camp was the spring hitting of Matt Nokes, who hasnít played in the major leagues since a 10-game stint with Colorado in 1995. Nokes will start the season at Triple-A, but could get the call if Sandy Alomar, Jr. goes down with another injury... A number of Tiger fans spent the pre-season bemoaning the presence of Luis Polonia as an aging, past-his-prime player who enjoyed a fluke season in 1999. But Polonia is still the closest thing the Tigers have to an acceptable leadoff man, and one of the few Tiger baserunners who can disrupt opposing baserunners. Donít be surprised if Polonia hits .300 with double-figure home runs this season, which is what he did last year... The Royals have quietly put together one of the leagueís most diverse and productive offensive lineups. They also have arguably the best all-around outfield in the American League, assuming that Jermaine Dye can repeat his 1999 performance. Carlos Beltranís play in spring training had Buck OíNeil calling him the second coming of Willie Mays. While thatís almost certainly an exaggeration, a season of 30 home runs, 30 stolen bases, and a .300 batting average is not... The Twins may not be baseballís worst team, as some have predicted. The spring performances of youngsters like Matt LeCroy and David Ortiz give the Twins hope of getting some productivity out of catcher and first base, which were offensive black holes last season. If LeCroyís defensive play behind the plate improves sufficiently, he could challenge for Rookie of the Year honors... The most intriguing Yankee this season may be Ricky Ledee, who will play every day in left field. Having led the Yankees in home runs with seven this spring, some scouts are predicting a breakout season for the talented native of Puerto Rico. He has a great swing, speed, and enough of a throwing arm to play center or right field... Oaklandís decision to designate Rule V draftee Bo Porter for assignment means that the Aís will open the season without a single African-American player on their 25-man roster. The Aís do have a half-dozen Latinos, however, including standout shortstop Miguel Tejada, who may be one terrific season away from joining the "Holy Trinity" of AL shortstops... The Aís made a good decision when they promoted Sal Fasano to the major league roster and demoted the disappointing A.J. Hinch, who batted just .171 in the pre-season. Fasanoís the better player right now, plain and simple, even if Hinch still has the higher ceiling... The Aís still have to find a long-term solution to their center field problem. Rich Becker is really no better than a fourth outfielder or platoon left fielder (which the Aís donít need), and Ryan Christenson gives no indication that heíll be able to hit right-handed pitching well enough to play every day. If Terrence Long starts out well at Triple-A Sacramento, heíll be flagging down fly balls at Network Associates Coliseum by May or June... With Brett Tomko starting the season at Triple-A, Mike Cameron is the only remaining player from the Ken Griffey, Jr. deal who will start the season in Seattle. As if Cameron isnít facing enough pressure already... How quickly things change in Tampa Bay, where the Devil Rays have designated once-promising infielder Bobby Smith for assignment. Just two years ago, the Devil Rays were touting Smith as their third baseman of the future, the heir to Wade Boggs at the hot corner. The off-season acquisition of Vinny Castilla, coupled with Smithís regression over the last year and a half, led to the Devil Raysí decision on Smith. Tampa Bay has 10 days to demote Smith to the minors, trade him, or give him his unconditional release... In Texas, the most interesting spring training battle came down to the battle for third base. Tom Evans, at one time a hot prospect with the Blue Jays, beat out rookie Mike Lamb. The Rangers like Evansí defensive play, even though they know he isnít as good a hitter long-term as Lamb... The Blue Jays are banking on youthful pitching in their effort to move up in the AL East. Roy Halladay, Kelvim Escobar, and Chris Carpenter are three of the best young arms in the division. The Jays may need contributions from all three, considering that their offense figures to take a downturn after the off-season departures of Shawn Green and Tony Fernandez. In essence, their places are being taken by Alex Gonzalez and Raul Mondesi, who are both fine players, but realistically canít be expected to duplicate the 1999 numbers of Fernandez and Green.

National League

The Diamondbacks will have to overcome some key injuries in the early weeks of the NL schedule. Matt Williams and Matt Mantei, two of the teamís most valuable players in 1999, start out the season on the disabled list. With utility infielder Andy Fox already injured, the D-backsí infield depth will be sorely tested. Yet, the biggest question may be Arizonaís ability to repeat with former second baseman and right fielder Tony Womack playing shortstop. Where have you gone, Tony Batista?... The Braves made a puzzling move last week when they released backup first baseman Randall Simon, who hit .317 in 200-plus at-bats in 1999. Simon is only 24 years old and still capable of developing the power and the patience that could make him an everyday player. In a sense, this move shouldnít have come as a huge surprise...not after the Braves kept Simon off their World Series roster last October...but one would have presumed that Simon had enough value to be traded, rather than released outright... Weíve heard that the Braves considered Simon a malcontent, but if THAT was their reasoning, then how does one explain their decision to keep Bobby Bonilla on the 25-man roster? Bonilla, by the way, doesnít look like heís regained his batting stroke, after batting .189 in exhibition games. Weíre still trying to figure out what the Braves see in "The Disgruntled One"... The Cubs are saying theyíll be improved, but one has to wonder if thatís nothing more than overblown optimism. With Joe Girardi at catcher, Ricky Gutierrez manning shortstop, and Damon Buford stationed in center field, Chicago will have three below-average offensive players in its everyday lineup. The Cubs may have to call on top prospects like Julio Zuleta and Corey Patterson by mid-season if they want to escape the cellar in the National League Central... The Redsí improved depth is already coming in handy. With Sean Casey disabled, Cincinnati can start Dmitri Young at first base and platoon Michael Tucker and Alex Ochoa in the outfield. Benito Santiago also provides an experienced backup catcher, allowing Jason LaRue more development time at Triple-A... The Rockies signed Brian Hunter as a backup outfielder and may end up using him in a platoon arrangement with Tom Goodwin in center field. If Buddy Bell can find ways to use Hunter without resorting to the temptation of playing him everyday, the Rockies will be much better off... There may not be a major league team with a more anonymous group of players than the Marlins, but there is some prized young talent in Florida. With Luis Castillo, Alex Gonzalez, Mike Lowell, and Preston Wilson playing everyday, and a pitching staff featuring Brad Penny, Braden Looper, and Antonio Alfonseca, the Marlins have the makings of a legitimate nucleus. They also have an owner who has far more long range vision than Wayne Huizenga... The Astros could be in for a letdown if they expect Roger Cedeno to play a capable center field for them. They want him to cover lots of ground (especially when Daryle Ward plays left, with Moises Alou situated in right) but his late breaks on fly balls and his occasional lapses in concentration frustrated the Mets throughout 1999... And what does Lance Berkman have to do to win a job with the ĎStros? After batting .323 at Triple-A New Orleans, Berkman clubbed seven home runs this spring. Yet, he was sent back to the minors...again. At some point, the Astros will either need to trade him or make room for him in their crowded outfield, perhaps by trading Alou for pitching help... The Dodgers are one of those teams that could go either way. If Todd Hundley returns to anywhere near his form of 1996 and í97 and the starting pitching lives up to its pre-1999 billing, they could contend with the D-backs and the Giants in the NL West. Then again, with aging players like Kevin Elster at shortstop and Devon White in center, they could be just plain awful again... The Brewers will challenge the Angels and the Marlins for the right to be called the worst team in baseball. Yes, there are some good unknown players here in Ron Belliard, Mark Loretta, and Geoff Jenkins, but thereís almost no starting pitching and practically no depth in the bullpen after Bob Wickman. Donít be surprised if the underrated Jeromy Burnitz (who looks so much like a young Rusty Staub, itís scary) is traded to a contender by the middle of June... The Expos wonít contend in the NL East--at least for a full season--but they could make life interesting through July or August. Hideki Irabu looks more relaxed now that heís out of New York. Scouts love the potential of their young pitching duo of Dustin Hermanson and Javier Vasquez. And then thereís the bullpen, which not only has Ugueth Urbina but also two quality left-handers in Steve Kline and Graeme Lloyd. Lloyd may miss some time, however, due to his wifeís death from Crohnís Disease... Two reasons why Metsí fans should be optimistic about their teamís chances in 2000? Armando Benitez is now closing games ahead of the overrated John Franco, and Derek Bell seems primed for a huge season as he tries to load ammunition for a large free agent contract... The Phillies seem to be the forgotten team in the NL East, but they have some of the gameís best overlooked talent: Mike Lieberthal, Scott Rolen, Doug Glanville, and Bobby Abreau. We think that Paul Byrdís 1999 season is an indication of more good things to come--and not a fluke--and that Mike Jackson will have a terrific season as their closer. Most National League hitters havenít seen his killer slider up close and personal... The Pirates have one of the leagueís most intriguing Rookie of the Year candidates in center fielder Chad Hermansen. If Gene Lamont keeps Hermansen out of the leadoff spot--where he clearly doesnít belong--his power and speed will give the Bucsí lineup some needed depth... One of the signs of just how dangerous the Cardinals could be lies in their reserve strength at Triple-A Memphis. Alan Benes and Matt Morris will both start the season in their continuing comebacks from arm injuries. No other team has two talents like that waiting in the wings, which gives us reason to champion the Cards in the NL Central... The Padres will hold onto Carlos Hernandez for the time being, but it shouldnít be too long before Ben Davis is promoted to the No. 1 catching spot. If Hernandez starts off well and builds his trade value, the Pods might still deal him to the Cardinals for prospect or two... Once again, the Giants donít have the most talent in the NL West, but they have just enough to let Dusty Bakerís magic take over and make them a winner over Arizona and Los Angeles in the NL West. If Bobby Estalella has a breakout season behind the plate, the Giants could feature double figures in home runs from all eight of their starting position players. For that and other reasons, Pac Bell Park will be one of the most enjoyable venues for baseball this summer and fall.

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