вторник, 10 июня 2008 г.

Top stories from spring training

The off-season is over, which means, of course, that you no longer have to read about Bud Selig's failed contraction plan or watch the baseball commissioner being verbally pinned by Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura and an arsenal of other politicians.

Now, you can actually go see the two teams run by baseball's bumbling leader: the Montreal (MLB) Expos and the Milwaukee Brewers. If you're lucky enough to be traveling to the warm-weather destinations of Florida and Arizona, you can also see a lot of other interesting stories unfold in spring training.

Here's a sampling of the top Grapefruit League and Cactus League stories for 2002.

Those damn Yankees. After winning three straight World Series and four of the previous five titles, the New York Yankees had the terrible misfortune of actually losing a World Series in a classic seven-game drama with the Arizona Diamondbacks last fall.

Then they lost Paul O'Neill and Scott Brosius to retirement and Tino Martinez to free agency.

Whatever will the Yankees do?

Get better, of course.

While they may miss the veteran savvy of O'Neill, Brosius and Martinez, they more than compensated by making free agent Jason Giambi an offer he could not refuse.

All Giambi has done the last four seasons is hit .321 with 141 home runs and 490 RBIs. He should fit in nicely with a lineup that still includes Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada.

The Yanks also brought back David Wells, the acerbic lefthander whom they traded to Toronto in order to obtain Roger Clemens.

It's in the Cards. The St. Louis Cardinals lost their icon-slugger Mark McGwire retired-and still emerged as the favorite to win the National League by making a series of outstanding off-season moves.

The Cardinals' most notable signing was Martinez, the veteran Yankee who is coming off a season in which he hit 34 homers and knocked in 113 runs. They also strengthened their bullpen by signing Oakland closer Jason Isringhausen, who grew up in the St. Louis suburb of Brighton, Ill.

Those two should nicely complement a team that already has reigning rookie of the year Albert Pujols, emerging star J.D. Drew, and a dominating staff ace in Matt Morris.

The Cardinals' best addition, however, could be lefthander Rick Ankiel, who showed signs of being a recovering walkaholic last season by striking out 158 batters and walking just 18 in 87 innings. Ankiel achieved those numbers at Johnson City, a rookie-league club where he did not have to endure any media glare.

Will his control problems return under the national spotlight this spring?

That's the best story in the St. Louis camp.

International house of nuts. Last year, the Texas Rangers made news by signing superstar shortstop Alex Rodriguez to a $252 million contract. A-Rod once again was sensational, but the pitching-poor Rangers were abysmal.

This winter, the Rangers made news by impersonating a squirrel and collecting nuts of all races and a variety of nationalities.

You have the combustible outfield combination of Carl Everett and Juan Gonzalez to go along with the world's most infuriating and immature closer, John Rocker. Hideki Irabu, the heavy drinking, underachieving, overweight pitcher from Japan, is also in the Rangers' camp.

If the Rangers struggle, former Phillies manager Terry Francona, now the Rangers' bench coach, could be in line to replace Jerry Narron.

Au revoir, Expos. Selig could not successfully eliminate the Expos, so baseball now owns them in what is almost certainly going to be the team's final season. Hall of Famer Frank Robinson was handpicked by Selig to manage the club. Robinson will be forced to relinquish his duties as baseball's disciplinarian.

"It will be interesting to see what happens to Frank if he is thrown out of a couple games," Phillies manager Larry Bowa said. "He was pretty good at handing out those fines and suspensions."

Neither the Expos nor the Florida Marlins did anything this off-season because their teams were in a perpetual state of uncertainty. The Marlins finally got a manager, a general manager, and an owner last week when Expos owner Jeffrey Loria bought the team and relocated his management team to Miami.

"I like for two teams to be in disarray, especially when they're in our division," Bowa said.

The NL beasts. The Braves have won seven straight National League East titles and believe they improved their offense by obtaining Gary Sheffield and Vinny Castilla.

The Mets underwent a major face-lift and have a real chance of leading the league in runs scored after finishing last in that department a year ago.

They are the teams the Phillies have to beat.

Encore, encore. The two best regular-season stories last year were the Seattle Mariners' run to a record 116 victories and Barry Bonds' record-breaking 73 home runs.

Logic says that neither one can do it again and that both records should stand for a while.

Of course, logic and baseball have not gone together in well over a decade.

Winning despite losing. You would think that after losing Jason Giambi and Isringhausen, the Oakland Athletics would have no chance of going to the playoffs for the third straight year.

Think again.

The A's have the best young pitching staff in the game with Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson and Barry Zito, and they still have a formidable lineup. They also replaced Isringhausen with the hard-throwing Billy Koch.

The defending champs. Few people expected the aging Arizona Diamondbacks to win the World Series last year, but the one-two, left-right pitching combination of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling made it possible by going a combined 43-12.

Can they do it again?

They are getting quite old, you know.

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