• All through the Hot Stove League, the Chicago Cubs took their share of heat for signing right hander Jason Marquis to a three-year, $21-million contract in the offseason. Of course, it did take a lot of faith to give that kind of money to a pitcher who had a 6.02 ERA last season, the worst among the 41 National League pitchers who logged the 162 innings necessary to be eligible for the league title.

    Nevertheless, Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild doesn’t think that represents too much concern. “I don’t know that (Marquis) is a special project,” he noted. “This is a guy that basically, for the better part of two, two and a half years, pitched pretty well. So it’s really getting him back to seeing what he was doing when he was pitching well. And if we can enhance anything off that, then great.”

    Marquis’ 2006 season went into the tank June 21, when he was hammered for 13 runs and 14 hits in a five-inning losing effort against the Chicago White Sox, inflating his season ERA from 4.55 to 5.53. Cardinals manager Tony La Russa needed Marquis to eat some innings after starter Mark Mulder had been injured the previous evening.

    Marquis admits the pounding may have knocked him off track for the entire year. “It may have,” he said. “Obviously it’s your free-agent year, and a lot of teams don’t always look at the full picture in terms of stats. They only (make decisions) based on numbers a lot of time. You try to head into the offseason with good numbers so you put yourself in a good position. I got to the point where I was trying to bottle up one inning of work and make into two or three games and get my ERA back to respectability.”

  • The Chicago White Sox have won more games that counted than any team in the major leagues over the past two years. Including regular-season and playoff games, the White Sox are 200-136, a .595 winning percentage. The St. Louis Cardinals are right behind the White Sox with 199 wins, and the New York Yankees have 195. Yet, the White Sox went just 12-18 in their last 30 games last season to finish third in the American League Central behind Minnesota and Detroit. Thus, they missed the playoffs and the chance to defend their World Series title of 2005, the franchise’s first in 88 years.

    “I’m glad last year is over so we don’t have to listen to stuff about the World Series, about repeating,” White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski said. “That was all you heard last year, all anybody wanted to talk about. I don’t know that it was a problem for us, except that it got old.”

    So, what does it mean to win 200 games in two years? “Absolutely nothing,” first baseman Paul Konerko said. “That’s like saying you had 200 hits last year. It doesn’t mean anything when the next season starts. Do you think anybody else cares? Do you think they’re going to make it easy for you to get hits? I think you feel the organization is putting a good product on the field and that’s great, but no one is going to lay down and give you your wins. That’s not the way it works.”

    In contrast, third baseman Joe Crede does think there should be a carryover effect from back-to-back seasons of at least 90 wins. “That definitely gets the expectations up there,” Crede said. “I think everybody expects us to do well. Nobody’s here to play for second place. It would be very disappointing for us if we didn’t get back in the playoffs. With the guys we’ve added, the guys who have been here, it’s a good mix. It’s going to be fun this year.”

  • The owner of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Stuart Sternberg, has set a rather unique goal for this season: he wants his team to win 50 games at home. “I think it’s a pretty reasonable goal,” Sternberg said. “Once you win 50 games at home, you have a chance now to more than just compete but to put yourself in position to succeed.”

    The Devil Rays went 41-40 at Tropicana Field last season, and only four major-league teams won 50 home games in 2006: Minnesota, the New York Mets, the New York Yankees, and Toronto. All but the Blue Jays made the playoffs, as they finished second to the Yankees in the AL East.

    The Devil Rays’ home field has also changed for 2007, as they have replaced their FieldTurf surface with an upgraded version that is expected to play considerably slower. That might help the pitching staff, but whether or not it will negate some of the Devil Rays’ above-average team speed remains to be seen.

  • Meanwhile, Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia is pondering who to bat leadoff this season. Will it be his new center fielder, Gary Matthews Jr., brought in on a five-year, $50-million contact as a free agent in the offseason, or third baseman Chone Figgins, the incumbent at the front of the order?

    “A lot will depend on how deep our lineup can get,” Scioscia said. “(Matthews) is a guy that can be part of the middle of the order in some lineups. He can protect some guys in some lineups. Leading off is something we’re going to look very closely at with Gary because I think he has the ability to be a terrific leadoff hitter. Where is he more valuable? That’s going to be (dependent) on how these cards are laid out on the table, where the needs are. If we need someone to hit in the middle of the order, then he’s more valuable to us there. If we’re sound there, he’s going to be more valuable as a leadoff guy.”

    The statistics are soomewhat in Matthews’ favor, as he hit 32 points higher (.299-.267) batting leadoff than anywhere else in the Rangers lineup last season while posting a .358 OBP and .487 SLG at the top of the order over the last three seasons. In contrast, over the last three years, Figgins has hit .276/.341/.375 as a leadoff hitter, slightly worse than his overall numbers over that time (.284/.346/.397).

  • Hitting prospects for the San Diego Padres drew more walks than any players in any of the other 29 major-league farm systems, perhaps not all that surprising with Grady Fuson in place as Vice President of Scouting and Development, formerly with those Moneyball A’s, overseeing the operation. Symptomatically, Padres minor-league hitters who saw at least 3.5 pitches per plate appearance rose from 54.6 percent in 2005 to 69.1 percent in 2006. One year after only 20 Padres minor-leaguers saw the major-league average of 3.79 pitches per plate appearance, 60 hit the mark in 2006.

    Even the new guys get with the program. After being selected in last June’s draft, left-handed hitting center fielder Cedric Hunter quickly got on board. In his debut in the rookie-level Arizona Summer League, the 18-year-old from Decatur, Georgia had 40 walks against just 22 strikeouts. He batted .371 to tot up a .467 on base percentage in 213 at-bats in the Padres’ instructional league program.

    “Hunter, officially, is a god in the organization now,” Fuson said.

  • From the Rumor Mill

    • Philadelphia General Manager Pat Gillick made the quick trip from Clearwater to Dunedin to scout Toronto’s Grapefruit League opener and was likely there to scout Blue Jay outfielders Alex Rios and Reid Johnson. Speculation persists that the Phillies will trade excess starting pitcher Jon Lieber to Toronto for an outfielder then deal center fielder Aaron Rowand to San Diego for set-up reliever Scott Linebrink.
    • While Cleveland General Manager Mark Shapiro has great respect and admiration for Eric Wedge, he does not plan to negotiate an extension with his manager during spring training. Wedge’s contract expires at the end of the season and the Indians will likely have to improve, perhaps significantly on last year’s 78-84 record, for him to be back in 2008.
    • Flamboyant Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has not made a bid to the Tribune Company in an attempt to buy the Chicago Cubs. The price tag is reportedly $650 million; Cuban is a Pittsburgh native, and the team he really wants to buy is the Pirates, but the ownership group there does not want to sell. It is also doubtful that Commissioner Bud Selig, who likes to build consensus among the owners, would welcome a loose cannon like Cuban in the baseball fraternity with open arms.
    • Colorado has an excess in center field after trading with Houston for Willy Taveras and signing Steve Finley as a minor-league free agent, leaving last year’s starter at that position, Cory Sullivan, as possible trade bait, perhaps for a pitcher. Florida is one possible destination for Sullivan.
    • Speaking of the Rockies, it would surprise few people if they did not make a second attempt to try trade first baseman Todd Helton to Boston in the next few weeks. The Rockies, though, won’t take right fielder Manny Ramirez back in any deal, regardless of speculation to the contrary.

    John Perrotto is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus, and covers Major League Baseball for the Beaver County Times. You can reach John by clicking here.

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