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National League Organization Reports

NL East
NL Central
NL West
Atlanta Braves
Florida Marlins
Montreal Expos
New York Mets
Philadelphia Phillies
Chicago Cubs
Cincinnati Reds
Houston Astros
Milwaukee Brewers
Pittsburgh Pirates
St. Louis Cardinals
Arizona Diamondbacks
Colorado Rockies
Los Angeles Dodgers
San Diego Padres
San Francisco Giants

February 14, 2004


Back From Oblivion

PHOENIX—Matt Chico took the back way into professional baseball. Through the alley, actually.

The Diamondbacks drafted Chico in the third round last summer after scouting director Mike Rizzo marked off 60-feet, 6-inches in an alley, set up a portable wooden mound, and put lefthander Chico through a 20-minute bullpen session behind the Southern California fitness facility where Chico was doing his conditioning program.

Chico could have come into the game through the front door. He pitched for USA Baseball’s junior national team in 2000-2001 and was one of the nation’s top high school players. A second-round pick of the Red Sox in 2001, he turned down a reported $950,000 offer to play for Southern California. He was the Trojans’ Opening Day starter in 2002 and went 6-4, 5.45.

However, Chico became academically ineligible in the fall of 2002 and was unable to acquire enough credits to pitch after transferring to Palomar (Calif.) Junior College. Chico was pitching in an adult league prior to the 2003 draft.

The Diamondbacks signed him for $365,000, and he turned in a solid debut at short-season Yakima, going 7-4, 3.53. He struck out 71 in 71 innings, using a fastball in the 92-93 mph range that touches the mid-90s, as well as a good, hard slurve.

“What sold me was when he talked about turning down that money out of high school,” Rizzo said. “He knows he messed up, but he doesn’t count the dollars he missed out on every day. He knows he has to put that behind him.”

The 5-foot-10, 185-pounder showed rust in his return, but the inactivity didn’t rob him of his talent or athleticism.

“When you don’t actively pitch for a year, it takes you awhile to get your strength and your arm strength back,” said Rizzo, who compares Chico to Mike Hampton. “He got it back, and his curve was really crackling. You put that kind of stuff with what this kid’s makeup is . . . We were really lucky he was there in the third round.”


• The Diamondbacks named Wally Backman as manager at high Class A Lancaster, replacing Eddie Rodriguez, who resigned. Backman spent the last two seasons at Double-A Birmingham in the White Sox organization, where his team won the Southern League title in 2002 and he was voted the manager of the year.

• The Diamondbacks extended their affiliation with low Class A South Bend through the 2006 season. The Silver Hawks have been an Arizona affiliate since 1997.


Bubba Starts Toward Atlanta

ATLANTA—After years of stability, particularly in the top three spots, the Braves rotation continues its rebuilding process. The Braves added veterans Russ Ortiz and Mike Hampton prior to the 2003 campaign and signed John Thomson this offseason. That trio is expected to combine with Paul Byrd, who missed all of last season due to elbow surgery, and second-year starter Horacio Ramirez to form the team’s starting five.

That scenario could change in spring training, especially if a rookie or two has his way. Heading that list is righthander Bubba Nelson, the Braves’ top pitching prospect, who hopes to earn the fifth starter’s job.

“I know I need to go down to spring training and throw strikes,” Nelson said. “I feel like I have a shot at being the fifth starter. I have the ability to do it. I just need to continue to take advantage of the chances I have.”

Nelson is coming off a strong season in 2003, ranking sixth in ERA in the Double-A Southern League during an 8-10, 3.18 season. Nelson also posted a 1.88 ERA in 11 relief outings with Triple-A Richmond. The shift served as an insurance policy for Atlanta, which wanted to make certain arms were available if needed for the pennant race.

“I definitely want to start,” Nelson said. “The goal is to get to the big leagues in some way, but I’d rather start at this point in my career.”

Nelson has thrived as a starter since signing as a second-round pick in 2000 out of Riverdale Baptist High in Fort Washington, Md. In 2002, his 1.66 ERA at Class A Myrtle Beach led the minors.

Nelson’s fastball has as much movement as any in the organization while sitting in the 89-93 mph range. He also throws a hard slider with a late, sharp break and a changeup. The Braves want him to refine his change and improve his fastball command.

“My mechanics were raw when I came out of high school, and the coaches have really straightened those things out in the last couple of years,” Nelson said. “I’ve refined all of my pitches. And while my changeup is not as good as it needs to be, that’s a pitch that has gotten a lot better.”

Wigwam Wisps

• The Braves announced their 2003 minor league award winners. Lefthander Macay McBride was tabbed the pitcher of the year, first baseman Adam LaRoche was named the hitter of the year, and low Class A Rome’s Rocket Wheeler was selected as manager of the year.

• Outfielder Ryan Langerhans was honored with the Bill Lucas award for outstanding character.

Chicago (NL)

Working His Way Up

CHICAGO—Felix Pie just turned 19.

It seems like he is a lot older. Since signing with the Cubs out of the Dominican Republic in 2001, the center fielder has made quite a name for himself.

Pie is still at least a year or two away from making it to the big leagues, however, and still has a lot to prove. He is honing his baseball skills, adding muscle and learning English. The Cubs say he has a lot of charisma and could be a fan favorite if he makes it to Chicago.

His 2003 numbers at low Class A Lansing (.285-4-47) were certainly not eye-popping, but the Cubs love his raw skills. He doesn’t have home run power yet, but he is more than capable of spraying doubles and triples around the park. His arm and speed (19 steals) have also drawn rave reviews.

Farm director Oneri Fleita was impressed with Pie’s showing in the Dominican League this winter, when he hit .302 in 29 games.

“He hit over .300, he’s in great shape and he’s done everything we’ve asked,” Fleita said. “He took his walks. His strikeouts were down. His defense improved. Any time you play against older players with experience, that’s a huge advantage.

“He put on 15 pounds since the end of the season and has really worked hard. He’s a great kid.”

Pie’s winter success pleased Fleita because of the competition in the Dominican. “It’s a high quality of baseball,” Fleita said. “It’s equivalent to Triple-A, and some nights it’s a major league game.”

It was just the latest eye-opener for Pie, who was named the top prospect in the Rookie-level Arizona League in 2002 after batting .321-4-37. Pie’s stock remained high in 2003, when he earned a spot in the Futures Game.

The Cubs will likely send Pie to high Class A Daytona this season. The momentum from his play in the Dominican could carry over, though.

“Nothing surprises me about this kid—he’s fearless,” Fleita said. “And that’s a great quality to have as a hitter.”


• General manager Jim Hendry had left knee surgery after falling down the stairs in his home. He was back at work in his office three days later.

• Righthander Juan Cruz went 3-0, 1.04 in five starts in the Dominican with 33 strikeouts in 26 innings.


Saving Arms

CINCINNATI—The Reds are trying to figure a way to cut down on the alarming number of injuries to their pitching prospects, by cutting down on the number of pitches they throw.

The club will limit pitchers at the Class A level and below to 75 pitches. The lower-level clubs will employ an eight-man rotation. Two pitchers will work in tandem, starting every other game. This is similar to the approach Rangers assistant general manager Grady Fuson originally implemented with the Athletics and now uses for the Rangers farm system.

“There’s two reasons for it,” said Dan O’Brien, who left the Rangers after seven years to become the Reds’ GM this offseason. “We’re trying to increase the internal productivity as far as pitching. Secondly, we want to address the unusually high number of injuries we’ve had with our young pitchers.”

The Reds have struggled to produce pitchers, particularly starters. The last long-term, homegrown starter was Tom Browning, who pitched for the club from 1984-94. Since the 1993 draft, just four pitchers drafted and signed by the Reds have pitched more than 100 major league innings: Scott Williamson (1997), Brett Tomko (1995), John Riedling (1994) and Scott Sullivan (1993). Tomko was the only starter of the bunch.

Part of the reason for that is a spate of injuries to top prospects. Chris Gruler, Ty Howington, Ricardo Aramboles, Chris Booker and Luke Hudson have all had operations, and Josh Hall will miss most of 2004 season after a shoulder surgery of his own.

The Reds hope to turn this tide with the new guidelines. By alternating starting and relieving, the Reds will also get an idea of which role suits a player better. Farm director Tim Naehring sees another benefit of the system.

“In high school and college, pitchers pitch away from contact because of the aluminum bat,” he said. “This will force them to throw strikes or they’re only going to be in there three or four innings.”

The pitch count will be raised to 100 in Double-A and 110 in Triple-A, and the Reds will utilize a traditional five-man rotation at those levels while deploying relievers in more conventional roles.


• The Reds are changing their base in the Dominican Republic. The club had been using former Reds righthander Jose Rijo’s academy. “It’s a beautiful facility,” O’Brien said. “But it’s very remote. We wanted something closer to the airport.” Rijo’s camp is a three-hour drive from the capital of Santo Domingo.

• Shortstop Felipe Lopez, who suffered a gruesome ankle injury last July with Triple-A Louisville, is ahead of schedule in his rehab. The Reds expect him to be ready by March.

• Righthander Todd Van Poppel, signed as minor league free agent, was added to the 40-man roster.


Stewart Embraces Expectations

DENVER—Ian Stewart has heard the hype. And he enjoys it.

The Rockies’ first-round pick last June—just the second position player the franchise has ever taken in the first round—Stewart has been called a future star. He’s drawn comparisons to another Southern California prep third baseman, Eric Chavez, by those who watched him play in high school. He’s been called a lefthanded-hitting Scott Rolen by former big league shortstop Walt Weiss.

Stewart’s reaction? He expects to meet the expectations.

There is no question about his offensive potential. He hit .317-10-43 for Rookie-level Casper while drawing a team-high 29 walks.

What Stewart has to do is dispel the notion that he will have to move off third base. He enjoys the position and says he can make it to the big leagues there, which is what the Rockies are planning on.

“One thing the Rockies have seen is I can really work hard,” Stewart said. “What I did at Casper was get out there with (manager) P.J. Carey and (coach) Tony Diaz and work on my defense every day. I worked on my feet and hands. Any time there are doubters, I am committed to proving them wrong. I’m going to work. I can be an all-star and win a Gold Glove at third base.”

The first year in pro ball was an uplifting experience for Stewart. He called the summer in Capser wonderful and said he has been overwhelmed by Denver. He said he is considering moving there after this season.

Stewart got a taste of Denver in December. During instructional league, Weiss, a special assistant with the Rockies, befriended Stewart and invited him to visit his home for a few days during the winter.

Stewart didn’t hesitate.

“He has a field at his home, and we went down to Coors Field a couple of days and worked,” Stewart said. “We talked about baseball. It was a good experience for me.”


• Righthander Cam Esslinger slipped on ice and broke his ankle. He won’t report to spring training until his ankle is healed.

• Pete Rose Jr., who split 2003 season between the Mexican League and the independent Northern League, will go to minor league spring training with the Rockies. Rose, 34, is headed into his 16th professional season. He has appeared in 11 big league games and 83 Triple-A games.


Bump’s Back

FORT LAUDERDALE—During the six years he was out of baseball, Bump Wills didn’t necessarily pine for a rapid return.

He worked two years in sales for a Dallas-area freight business. He lived in Southern California for a few more years, not far from his famous father, Maury.

“When I got out, I didn’t anticipate getting back in the game right away or for some time,” Wills said.

In 2001, he spoke briefly with the Dodgers about employment opportunities, but that was the only such conversation.

Soon after moving back to Spokane, Wash., about 18 months ago, Wills started coaching the Spokane Heat, an amateur team for players 19 and under. It was that experience that got him thinking more about the game.

So when Marlins farm director Marc DelPiano called in January to discuss a position as roving infield instructor, Wills was plenty interested. He signed on to replace Randy Whisler, who joined Dave Miley’s coaching staff with the Reds.

“This seemed to be a good fit,” Wills said. “I was fortunate enough to get the job, and I’m looking forward to it.”

It helps that Wills already has a high degree of familiarity with several key Marlins figures, all of whom he knows from his decade in the Rangers system (1988-97).

DelPiano was a Rangers scout for part of that time. Bench coach Doug Davis and pitching coach Wayne Rosenthal were players in the Rangers system then.

What’s more, Marlins first-base coach Perry Hill, who handles the team’s big league infield instruction, held the same job with the Rangers that Wills will now handle for the Marlins.

When Hill was promoted to the Rangers big league staff in the mid-’90s, his recommendation helped Wills get the position as Rangers roving infield instructor.

Wills’ familiarity with Hill’s unique system of infield play should be a huge plus as he eases into his new role. In fact, Wills was using many of Hill’s principles and drills with the Heat.

Wills managed seven seasons in the Rangers system, winning three division titles and rising as high as the Class A Florida State League. He’ll also handle baserunning and bunting instruction for Marlins minor leaguers.


• Marlins minor league pitcher of the year Trevor Hutchinson and Class A outfielder Eric Reed, the organization’s minor league player of the year, lead the group of 23 nonroster players invited to major league spring training.

• Righthander Justin Wayne, who struggled to a 5.19 ERA in four starts for Santurce in the Puerto Rican League this winter, saw his chances of making the Marlins rotation harmed by the signing of veteran lefty Darren Oliver.


Burke Bides His Time

HOUSTON—Though Craig Biggio is toiling in the outfield as his Astros career winds down, Houston could see the return of a speedy on-base guy manning second base quite soon.

Chris Burke was named the Double-A Round Rock most valuable player last year, as he hit .301-3-41 while leading the Express in 12 offensive categories. He also swiped 34 bases and reached base at a .379 clip.

Burke was a Texas League all-star as well as the starting second baseman at the Futures Game. The 23-year-old former Tennessee All-American is projected to begin the 2004 season at Triple-A New Orleans but his track to Minute Maid appears on schedule, or maybe even ahead of schedule.

“He’s certainly the second baseman in our organization who’s closest to the big leagues,” assistant general manager Tim Purpura said. “His speed and his on-base percentage are big parts of his game. He’s working toward becoming your prototypical top-of-the-order player.”

The 5-foot-11, 190-pound Burke was selected in the first round of the 2001 draft as a shortstop. He can still play shortstop, but that’s not likely to become his major league position.

“We’ve talked to him about his primary position being second base,” Purpura said. “We’ve come to a consensus that his best path to the major leagues is at second base. You really start knowing about a player when you put him at Double-A.”

While his home run and RBI production was similar in each Double-A season, Burke raised his batting average 37 points from his 2002 Round Rock campaign, which followed a jump from low Class A the previous season.

“People got down on him after 2002 because his numbers weren’t very good, but it was his first exposure to Double-A,” Purpura said. “Then people called (2003) a breakout year, but he was just meeting expectations.”

Another factor in Burke’s progression to the majors is Jeff Kent. Kent turns 36 on March 7 and is under contract for 2004 with a $9 million club option or $700,000 buyout for 2005. Kent’s presence means Burke won’t be rushed, but another solid year by Burke could put him in Houston in 2005.


• This winter Astros first-base coach Jose Cruz managed the Ponce Lions, Puerto Rico’s Caribbean Series entry.

• Former Athletics prospect Chris Enochs, signed by the Astros in November, went 1-2, 4.83 in 41 innings in Puerto Rico. He missed a start with a foot injury, but was healthy in time to pitch for Ponce in the Caribbean Series.

Los Angeles

What Of Weeden?

LOS ANGELES—The once-gutted Dodgers farm system is now flourishing with pitching talent like Edwin Jackson, Greg Miller and Joel Hanrahan. Righthander Brandon Weeden could join the list.

For now, Weeden is the answer to a trivia question: Who was the player to be named in the Kevin Brown trade? The Dodgers hope he’ll be better known for his pitching someday.

Weeden was the Yankees’ first selection in the 2002 draft, although he was the 71st player picked overall. Dodgers scouting director Logan White was impressed by his makeup, and the Dodgers had him high on their draft board, too.

“Our amateur staff liked him,” general manager Dan Evans said. “He’s a good athlete with an upside. He’s a while away. The concern is how far away is he? He’s an athlete at the high school level who was very good. Our scouts saw him and liked him a lot. He was very high on our board. It just made a lot of sense. You can never have enough good, young pitching.”

Weeden, 20, also played shortstop in high school and is somewhat new to pitching. He has a curveball in his repertoire but it needs work. He was a combined 2-2, 2.58 last year between the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League and short-season Staten Island. He held opponents to a .188 average with 38 strikeouts and 22 walks in 45 innings.

His fastball has been clocked in the range of 89-92 mph. Weeden has yet to pitch a full season and was shut down prematurely his senior year in high school because of arm tenderness.


• Baseball owners unanimously approved Frank McCourt’s purchase of the Dodgers. Will there be a new philosophy for the farm system? Evans previously wasn’t willing to trade top prospects, but that could change. The decision could be out of Evans’ hands, as McCourt informed the current GM that he would be among a pool of candidates for the position.

• Joe Thurston was slated to be the Dodgers’ second baseman last season but didn’t make the club after a poor spring training. He should have a better shot after Alex Cora broke his right arm and was expected to miss part of spring training. Thurston hit .290-7-68 for Triple-A Las Vegas last season.


Once Again On The Move

MILWAUKEE—Given time, Corey Hart might have developed into a reliable major league third baseman.

But for an organization riding a string of 11 consecutive losing seasons in the majors, an abundance of time isn’t available.

With that in mind, the Brewers switched Hart from the hot corner to the outfield.

There were a number of reasons for the switch, not the least of which was Hart’s defensive struggles after moving from first base to third in 2003. In 119 games with Double-A Huntsville last season, he committed 32 errors at third. Third baseman Wes Helms signed a two-year, $4.5 million deal with the club this offseason. And the Brewers might lose left fielder Geoff Jenkins, who can become a free agent after the season.

Last but not least, the system is thin in run-producing corner outfielders, one reason Brad Nelson was shifted from first base to the outfield last year.

“We’re trying to find a way to get Corey’s bat in the (Brewers’) lineup,” assistant general manager Gord Ash said. “We think the fastest way to do that is to move him to the outfield. He had a ways to go at third base.”

Hart planned to work on his new poistion in Puerto Rico this winter, but strained his throwing shoulder after only one week and was shut down. Thus, he’ll have to do on-the-job training this spring.

An 11th-round draft pick out of high school in 2000, the 6-foot-6, 200-pound prospect was the MVP of the Double-A Southern League last year, hitting .302-13-94. He struck out 101 times in 493 at-bats and stole 25 bases.

“We think this can move up his timetable to get to the big leagues,” Ash said. “He’ll probably spend most of his time this year in right field, but I don’t see any reason why he couldn’t play left field.”


• Righthander Nick Neugebauer, the top pitching prospect in the organization entering 2002, was sidelined last year by shoulder surgery. He was throwing again and recently had a positive examination by orthopedist Dr. Lewis Yocum. Neugebauer is expected to pitch again in spring training.

• Righthander Jeff Bennett, selected from the Pirates in the major league Rule 5 draft, will be watched closely in spring training after suffering shoulder problems in the Arizona Fall League.


Catching Cache

MONTREAL—When the Expos dealt Michael Barrett to the Athletics for Class A lefty Brett Price, it left Brian Schneider as the starting catcher and little else behind the plate.

In an effort to bolster their thin catching corps, the Expos got 25-year-old backstop Brad Cresse from the Diamondbacks for a player to be named.

“We were in a position of need, and they were in a position of strength,” director of pro scouting Lee MacPhail said. “Cresse is somebody that offers us a bat/power combination and enhances our depth at catching. This also gives us some extra insurance in case there is an injury at the big league level.”

Cresse, a fifth-round selection out of Louisiana State in 2000, batted a mere .229-10-47 in 307 at-bats at Triple-A Tucson last year. Having once held a spot on the Diamondbacks’ 40-man roster, Cresse was removed and passed through waivers before the deal, enabling the Expos to place him on the Triple-A Edmonton roster.

“We’ve had a number of scouts that have seen Cresse the past couple of years, and all of them felt he had major league-caliber talent and could help us out at the big league level,” farm director Adam Wogan said. “He has average to above-average major league raw power with average arm strength.

“We felt like he was a young righthanded-hitting catcher who may benefit from a change in scenery.”

Cresse, 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, appeared to be the Diamondbacks’ catcher of the future after racking up robust numbers his first two professional seasons. He batted a combined .296-32-147 in 644 at-bats in 2000 and 2001 between Class A High Desert and Double-A El Paso. His prospect status slipped along with his production in 2002 and 2003, however.

“His receiving skills and footwork need improvement,” MacPhail said. “But we have a lot of confidence in his power potential and his bat, and think his defense can catch up.”


• Tommy John, who was slated to return as Triple-A Edmonton’s pitching coach, was hired by the Yankees to manage short-season Staten Island.

• The Expos signed righthander Pascual Coco as a minor league free agent. Coco, a former Blue Jays farmhand, went 10-9, 4.80 for the Brewers’ Triple-A Indianapolis affiliate in 2003.

New York (NL)

Start Of Something New

NEW YORK—It was all about arm strength last spring when the Mets decided Tyler Yates would work as a starting pitcher.

The former closer—Yates had started only once in his first 200 professional appearances—sought to regain his arm strength and recover stamina lost as a result of 2002 Tommy John surgery.

Pitching more innings could accelerate his recovery as the 6-foot-4, 220-pound righthander attempted to rediscover the 100 mph velocity he flashed earlier in his career.

The new role yielded promising results as Yates went 3-6, 4.29 in 107 innings primarily as a starter between three stops—Class A St. Lucie, Double-A Binghamton and Triple-A Norfolk—last year. And it seems the new role may prove to be the start of something big.

The Athletics drafted Yates in the 23rd round in 1998 out of Hawaii-Hilo, then traded him along with Mark Guthrie to the Mets for David Justice in December 2001.

The Mets were encouraged enough about Yates’ 2003 season as a starter to consider him a contender for the final spot in their big league rotation.

Yates, 26, joins Aaron Heilman—a disappointment as a rookie last season—Grant Roberts, Jeremy Griffiths and veteran Scott Erickson among others in the mix for the final starting spot.

“We became intrigued by the combination of Tyler’s power arm and his secondary pitches (slider, changeup and curve),” farm director Kevin Morgan said. “He couldn’t use all his pitches in the relief role. We liked what he showed us.

“I don’t think he was sure at first, but then he got caught up in it and began enjoying himself.”


• Lefthanders Pedro Feliciano, Scott Kazmir and Royce Ring; righthanders Jeremy Hill, Matt Peterson, Jason Roach and Shawn Sedlacek; infielders Chris Basak, Victor Diaz and David Wright; catchers Joe Hietpas, Justin Huber, Jesse Levis and Danilo Reynoso; and outfielders Ron Acuna, Raul Gonzalez, Kenny Kelly, Esix Snead and Eric Valent received nonroster invitations to spring training.

• The Mets acquired Sedlacek from the Royals for lefthander Jaime Cerda. Sedlacek split his 2003 season between Triple-A Omaha (4-11, 6.45) and Double-A Wichita (1-2, 5.60).


Go Time

PHILADELPHIA—There was no frustration in Mike Arbuckle’s voice and he wasn’t issuing a threat. Still, when Jorge Padilla’s name came up recently, the club’s farm director made it clear it’s time for the 24-year-old outfielder to make a big step toward the major leagues.

“He’s getting to the point age-wise where he needs to put together a good full season,” Arbuckle said. “The clock is ticking. I’d like to see him turn his game up a level.”

Since the Phillies drafted Padilla in the third round in 1998 out of Florida Air Academy in Melbourne, Fla., the Puerto Rico native has been plagued by nagging injuries. He missed at least a month of action in each of his last three professional seasons.

Padilla got off to a blistering start last year at Double-A Reading, hitting .315 with an 11-game hitting streak, when the injury bug bit again. Padilla injured his left hand in late May, missing almost a month, and returned to play just eight more games before missing the balance of the season. He finished at .295-2-23 in 173 at-bats.

The injury was initially diagnosed as a strain but turned out to be a stress fracture. In an effort to prepare himself for a pivotal season, Padilla played in the Puerto Rican League this winter and batted .257-0-9 with Caguas.

Padilla, at 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, is ticketed to be the starting right fielder at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre this season, and the organization is looking for production. He homered 27 times between two Class A stops in 2000 and 2001 but has hit just nine in his last two seasons combined.

“The bat speed is there and I keep thinking the power will come,” Arbuckle said. “He drives the ball well, but he doesn’t lift it much. I still think he’ll have average major league power. But it’s getting to the point where he needs to start showing that.

“He’s got a great body and he’s a good outfielder. All the ingredients are there. It’s time to put it together.”


• Righthander Franklin Perez, who missed last season recovering from Tommy John surgery, is healthy and has been impressive in offseason workouts in Clearwater, Fla.

• Longtime Phillies outfielder Garry Maddox will attend spring training as a guest outfield instructor.


Don’t Count Burnett Out

PITTSBURGH—Lefthander Sean Burnett theoretically goes to spring training with an opportunity to win a spot in the Pirates rotation.

But while the 2000 first-round pick was the Double-A Eastern League’s pitcher of the year last season, his chances of making the major league club are long.

The Pirates have made a recent habit of not jumping players from Double-A to the majors, and they signed veteran righthander Rick Reed to a minor league contract. Burnett, 21, is the least experienced of the foursome competing for a job that also includes lefty Dave Williams and righthander Ryan Vogelsong.

Ask Burnett if he is capable of pitching in the major leagues, however, and he doesn’t hesitate with an answer.

“Absolutely,” he said. “People ask if I’m ready, and I don’t know if there is ever anyone who goes to the major leagues who is absolutely ready to be there. But I do know that I can go to that level and compete right now.”

Burnett, 6-foot-1 and 170 pounds, had an outstanding season at Altoona last year, going 14-6, 3.21. The only downside came when Burnett was held out of the Eastern League playoffs because of elbow soreness.

He participated in the Pirates’ minicamp in January without incident.

“The Pirates shut me down strictly as a precaution,” Burnett said. “I probably could have pitched, but they didn’t want to take a chance, which I understand. I don’t even think about the elbow now. It’s fine.”

While Burnett will be attending his first major league camp, he is not a stranger to major league competition. Burnett made a spot start during the final week of spring training last season and held the Reds, who played all of their starters except catcher Jason LaRue, to one run in five innings.

“That obviously gave me a nice shot of confidence going into the minor league season,” he said. “And I think it will help me this spring because I won’t be nervous facing big league hitters.”


• Vogelsong had been considered out of minor league options. But a recent review by Major League Baseball found he had one left, meaning he is likely to return to Triple-A Nashville for a second straight season.

• The Altoona Curve attracted 550 fans for their annual hot stove dinner and auction that benefited the American Cancer Society. Among the guests were ESPN’s Karl Ravech, Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield, Burnett and fellow Pirates pitching prospects Bryan Bullington and Mike Johnston.

St. Louis

Spring Sojourn

ST. LOUIS—Righthander Rhett Parrott planned to keep a low profile as he prepared for his first major league spring training.

“I’m a really quiet person,” Parrott said. “I don’t say that much. I sit back and keep quiet and try to learn from what’s going on around me. I think I’ll watch a lot and say very little.”

Parrott will be surrounded by accomplished pitchers including Matt Morris, Woody Williams and Jason Isringhausen.

“Right when I get there, I’ll probably be a little nervous,” Parrott said. “But I’m excited. It will be great to be around guys like that, good pitchers who are already established.”

Parrott, 25, was placed on the 40-man roster after a solid 2003. He went 8-9, 3.27 with 112 strikeouts in 124 innings at Double-A Tennessee before jumping to Triple-A Memphis and posting a 2-3, 3.54 mark.

Parrott heads to camp without much pressure. The big league rotation appears set with Morris, Williams, Chris Carpenter, Jeff Suppan and Jason Marquis. Parrott will likely be a phone call away from the majors and relishes his role.

“I’m just looking forward to going down there and working as hard as I can,” Parrott said. “From there, whatever happens, I’ll be happy . . . I want to be (in the majors) as quick as I can. But I trust the organization to do what’s best for me.”

Parrott, a ninth-round pick out of Georgia Tech in 2001, throws an 88-91 mph fastball, a curveball and a changeup. His control has steadily improved the last two years. Last season, he issued 59 walks in 165 innings between both stops.

“It’s gotten better,” Parrott said of his command. “That’s something I want to continue to work on, just the consistency with keeping walks downs, throwing pitches whenever I want and locating them better.”

Parrott will likely break camp with Memphis and continue towards the majors.


• The Cardinals claimed outfielder Colin Porter off waivers from the Astros and placed him on the 40-man roster. Porter batted .320-11-50 with 23 doubles and 22 steals at Triple-A New Orleans last year.

• Former Cardinals first baseman Will Clark will be a guest instructor in spring training. Clark, who retired after the 2000 season, batted .303 in 15 big league seasons.

San Diego

Insurance Policy

SAN DIEGO—Righthander Bart Miadich will have a second chance to wear a uniform with “SAN DIEGO” across the chest after signing a minor league contract with the Padres with an invitation to spring training.

After his college days at the University of San Diego, Miadich signed as a nondrafted free agent with the Red Sox in 1997. He was traded to the Diamondbacks in 1998 and signed with the Angels in 2000 after Arizona released him.

Miadich, 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, appeared in 11 games for the Angels in 2001, all in relief, and had a 4.50 ERA in 10 innings. He made one appearance for the Angels last season, giving up four runs in two innings, but pitched well at Triple-A. He went 5-5, 3.68 with 16 saves in 51 innings at Salt Lake, where he had 57 saves in three seasons.

“He has a good arm, and we thought it was worth the risk to sign him and bring him to camp,” general manager Kevin Towers said. “If he doesn’t make our club, he’ll give us some insurance in Triple-A.

“You always like to have experienced, late-in-the-game guys in the organization. We thought we were set in the bullpen last year, then Trevor Hoffman got hurt, and we didn’t sign Rod Beck until late. You never want to have an injury, but at the same time you need to protect yourself. That’s why I like this signing.”

Miadich, 28, was a starter in college. He threw a no-hitter against Gonzaga in 1996 and led the Toreros with seven wins in ’96 and eight in ’97.

The Padres also signed righthander Brian Sweeney, who went 11-10, 4.28 at Triple-A Tacoma in the Mariners organization last year, to a minor league contract and invited him to camp.

“With Dennis Tankersley, Mike Bynum, Sweeney, Ben Howard—if (Miadich) doesn’t make the big club—and Matt Bruback (who was signed as a free agent), we have the potential of a pretty strong rotation in Portland,” Towers said.


• Towers watched lefthander Edgar Huerta pitch for Mexico in the Caribbean Series in the Dominican Republic. Huerta, who signed a minor league deal this winter with the Padres, was 3-2, 2.15 with 34 strikeouts in 29 relief innings with Culiacan this winter.

• Former Padres catcher Carlos Hernandez will manage the new Tijuana team in the Mexican League. Tim Flannery, another former Padre, will serve as a part-time coach. Team owner Martin Reyes moved the team from Nuevo Laredo to the San Diego border town of Tijuana.

San Francisco

Fourth Time The Charm?

SAN FRANCISCO—Following a third straight season at Triple-A Fresno, Cody Ransom’s chance at breaking training camp with the big league club has finally arrived. But even with Rich Aurilia’s departure to Seattle, Ransom isn’t being given the shortstop job.

“Right now, we are looking at Neifi Perez as the shortstop,” Giants manager Felipe Alou said on the eve of pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training. “But we’re seeing the progress of Ransom last year. At spring training, he was green.

“But we brought him up and I could see a more mature player. He really benefited from another year at Triple-A. I can’t wait to see him in spring training.”

Ransom, 28, would have been in the majors three years ago if this was the 1970s—when shortstop were just glove men.

Director of player personnel Dick Tidrow once said Ransom “can be an impact player in the majors with his glove alone.”

But these days, shortstops are expected to hit—or at least make consistent contact. Ransom hit .241-23-78 at Fresno in 2001, when the Grizzlies played in cozy Beiden Field. He regressed to .207-13-46 in 2002, then hit .253-12-50 in 2003.

When Aurilia went on the disabled list after an emergency surgery to remove his appendix, Ransom came up. A ninth-round pick in the 1998 draft out of Grand Canyon (Ariz.), Ransom hit his first major league home run on Aug. 9 against Vicente Padilla. Ransom went 6-for-27 (.222) with 11 strikeouts for the Giants.

“He needs to stay on the ball a little longer and hit more balls to the opposite field,” Alou said. “He needs to stay out of the air. He’s got some power, definitely, but needs to hit the ball on the ground more. He’s really close. He’s worked really hard.”

The shortstop job is Perez’ to lose, according to Alou, and the utility infielder job would be Ransom’s to lose. The Giants were reluctant in the past to move Ransom to other positions, but will have him work at second base in spring training.


• In an online chat, general manager Brian Sabean said that righthander Jesse Foppert could return to the mound in the minors late this season. Foppert is rehabbing after having Tommy John surgery last September.

• While Cody Ransom is expected to make the Giants big league roster, his brother Troy, a righthander who went 3-0, 5.40 with Class A Hagerstown last season, was released.

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