Developments and news from around the league…

  • Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Freddy Sanchez will be in the lineup for Monday’s home opener against St. Louis after missing the first week of the season with a sprained right knee ligament. Before the game, Sanchez will be awarded a silver bat for winning last year’s National League batting title with a .344 average. It was one of the more improbable batting titles ever, as Sanchez began the season as a utility infielder. He only became the starting third baseman after Joe Randa suffered a stress fracture in his right foot in early May. Sanchez prides himself on being a team player. That is why he did not complain when the Pirates signed Randa as a free agent after the 2005 season, even though Sanchez had finished the year on a 17-game hitting streak.

    One batting title later, the question now is whether the 29-year-old Sanchez can remain among the top hitters for average in the game, or if he just a one-year wonder. “There are only a handful of players in the history of the game in which a .344 batting average would be a realistic expectation,” Pirates manager Jim Tracy said. “Freddy is a great hitter, but also a great all-around player. He could hit .295 this year, .315 this year, and still be a valuable player because of his defense and his general approach to the game. I’d love to see Freddy hit .344 again but there is no way you can count on something like that.”

    Sanchez, who was shifted to second base at the start of spring training, certainly isn’t going to predict another .344 season. Yet if nothing else, he is secure in the fact that he will be an everyday player. “You have to have confidence to succeed in this game, and my confidence has never been higher,” Sanchez said. “My drive and work ethic haven’t changed. That’s always been there, but now I believe I can play in the major leagues. When you’re a utility guy, sometimes you think you’re the only person who believes in yourself. When you’re a bench guy, you put a lot of pressure on yourself to get a hit every time up because you don’t know when you’ll get another chance to play. Now, I can relax, just go out and play.”

    Rod Carew, who won seven American League batting titles during his Hall of Fame career, says a hitter needs to be a bit greedy to continually lead the league in hitting. “I never went into spring training saying I’m going to lead the league in hitting,” Carew said. “I just tried to get as many base hits as I could. When you get two, you want three. You get three, you want four. You get four, if you get that fifth at-bat, you want five.”

    PECOTA doesn’t forecast a batting title repeat for Sanchez, instead projecting him to hit .299/.345/.426 this season. It also sees his doubles output dropping from an NL-high 53 last season to 38 in 2007.

  • Since Blue Jays General Manager J.P. Ricciardi is a former top lieutenant for Billy Beane in Oakland, the Jays are often referred to as a “Moneyball team.” One of the commandments of Moneyball teams is “thou shalt not steal,” and Toronto didn’t in Ricciardi’s first five seasons since he took over as general manager prior to 2002, finishing 10th, 14th, 15th, ninth and ninth in the 14-team American League; they never amassed more than 72 stolen bases in a season.

    Therefore, it was rather stunning when the Blue Jays stole second base on Opening Day in Detroit. And it happened in the first inning, no less. Five batters into the 2006 season, Toronto had two steals. Last year, the Blue Jays didn’t record their second steal until the 299th plate appearance. Through four games, the Blue Jays had four steals, and there seem to be more stolen bases to come.

    John Gibbons had a talk with me during the spring, and he wanted to be more aggressive,” said center fielder and third-slot hitter Vernon Wells, recalling a chat with his manager. Wells came into the season with only 53 steals in eight seasons despite above-average speed. Wells stole second in the opener with No. 5 hitter Troy Glaus at bat. Left fielder Reed Johnson led off the game with a five-pitch walk, stole second, and eventually scored.

    So, have the Blue Jays suddenly decided to switch philosophies? And if so, why? Gibbons told the Toronto Sun it has to do with a change in personnel. “Before, we didn’t want to use Vernon’s speed because it would create an open base and a guy like Carlos Delgado or Glaus would be walked intentionally,” Gibbons said. “This year, we’ll take what they give us. If Vernon steals and they walk Frank Thomas, we have Glaus coming up. If Vernon steals and they walk Glaus, we have Alex Rios behind him.”

    Wells led the Blue Jays with 17 steals last season, which tied for 16th in the American League. While the Blue Jays are on a pace for 162 steals in the early days of the season-I know, early days-with four in the first four games, it still seems that the club record (193, set in 1984, with Dave Collins nabbing a team-leading 60 bags) seems safe.

  • The Colorado Rockies haven’t had a winning season since 2000, and have only been to the playoffs once in their 14-year history. Yet, ownership has enough faith in the tandem of General Manger Dan O’Dowd and manager Clint Hurdle that each had their contracts extended two years through 2009 on Opening Day.

    O’Dowd was hired late in the 1999 season, and has built the nucleus of a young club that the Rockies feel is ready to contend in the NL West this season. Among the players signed and developed since O’Dowd took over are third baseman Garret Atkins, right fielder Brad Hawpe, shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, catcher Chris Iannetta, third baseman/outfielder Jeff Baker, left-handed starter Jeff Francis, and right-handed reliever Manny Corpas. At 22 years, 174 days, Tulowitzki was the second-youngest player ever to start for the Rockies on Opening Day, behind only Roberto Mejia, who was 21 years, 355 days when he took the diamond at second base for the Rox in 1994. Iannetta, who turned 24 this past Thursday, was the sixth-youngest.

    O’Dowd also promoted Hurdle from hitting coach to manager early in the 2002 season. Though Hurdle has compiled only a 352-436 record, he has won the admiration of his bosses. “We were looking at the leadership in the organization as a whole (with O’Dowd),” Rockies President Keli McGregor told the Rocky Mountain News. “We felt strong about that. We talked to Dan in regards to Clint. Clint has done more for our organization (off the field) than most managers. We believe Clint has the ability to become a great major-league manager.”

  • Another GM who is seemingly secure is the Chicago White SoxKen Williams, two years removed from helping deliver the franchise’s first World Series title in 87 years. Nevertheless, Williams continues to carry something of a persecution complex. He went on a harangue against Baseball Prospectus in spring training because of BP’s initial prediction of a 72-90 record for his team in 2007, and then he complained on Opening Day that he gets too much criticism from the Chicago media.

    “One day, hopefully, we will have had enough success around here that I will have earned the benefit of the doubt,” Williams told the Chicago Tribune. “Until that time comes, you just have to do what you think is right. … I can guarantee you this-there will be a time when maybe we’re not looking at a championship. It is tough to win at this level for long periods of time. Whenever that time comes that I don’t think we will be competing for a championship, I will let you guys know. I will be the first one to step up.”

    The White Sox have won quite a bit since Williams took over in 2001, compiling a 522-450 record, and without a single losing season. However, Williams makes it sound like he is foreshadowing a potential rebuilding of the White Sox, which could indeed be the case next year because left-handed starter Mark Buehrle, second baseman Tadahito Iguchi, and right fielder Jermaine Dye are all eligible for free agency at the end of this season, and third baseman Joe Crede will be a year away from it.

  • With the Grapefruit and Cactus League seasons becoming more distant in the rearview mirror by the hour, we’ll take one last look at why sometimes spring training statistics don’t mean a thing. First baseman James Loney and outfielder Larry Bigbie were the two hottest hitters in the Los Angeles Dodgers‘ camp this spring. Loney hit .414 with six doubles in 70 at-bats, and Bigbie batted .357 with three doubles, one triple, and two homers in 57 at-bats. Yet neither player survived the final cut. Loney was optioned back to Las Vegas, where he led the entire minor leagues with a .380 batting average in 98 games last season while slugging .546. Bigbie exercised the right in the minor-league contract he signed in the offseason to explore free agency, but reported to Las Vegas when he was unable to land a spot on a major league roster.

    Loney didn’t take the news of his demotion well. “(His reaction) wasn’t good, and understandably so,” Dodgers manager Grady Little said told the Los Angeles Daily News. “This kid did a great job for us around here this spring. But things happen. He will be ready when his time comes, there is no doubt in my mind.”

    Meanwhile, Cleveland Indians center fielder Grady Sizemore homered in each of the first three games of the regular season after hitting just .115 in 61 spring at-bats. “I felt good in spring training,” Sizemore told the Lake County News-Herald. “It was frustrating that I didn’t have the numbers I wanted. But I thought I was seeing the ball well and making good contact.”

    Finally, Salomon Torres‘ spring performance seemed to cast doubt on the Pirates’ plan to promote him from set-up reliever to closer after trading Mike Gonzalez to Atlanta in January. Torres allowed 10 runs in 8 1/3 innings in nine exhibition games for a 10.80 ERA. However, Torres converted save opportunities in each game as the Pirates swept a three-game series at Houston to open the season. “I know a lot of people were doubting me,” Torres said. “I don’t blame them. This might sound crazy, but it works to my advantage because it’s going to push me that much more to prove people wrong. That’s what I’ve done all my life. I’m going to use all the uncertainty, all the doubts, as fuel. The more people worry about me, the better I’m going to be.”

From the rumor mill:

  • The Los Angeles Angels have been mentioned as a prime destination for Alex Rodriguez if the New York Yankees third baseman opts out of the final three years and $81 million of his landmark 10-year, $252-million contract. However, Angels owner Arte Moreno has shot down that idea, saying it’s unwise to commit too large a percentage of the payroll to one player.
  • The Yankees could use some center field help with Johnny Damon suffering from calf problems, but they won’t call on Bernie Williams, who is sitting at home in Westchester County, and still hopeful of playing this season. The Yankees decided to cut bait with Williams after 16 seasons when he declined their February offer of a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training.
  • A few eyebrows were raised when Detroit signed shortstop Carlos Guillen to a four-year, $48-million contract extension this past week, particularly in light of his making a career-high 28 errors last season, though he did hit .320/.400/.519 in 153 games. However, Guillen is expected to move to first base sometime before the contract expires, perhaps as early as next season.
  • The Chicago Cubs are up for sale, and many analysts expect the price tag to exceed the record $660 million that John Henry and his group paid for the Boston Red Sox in 2002. A whole host of interesting names have been mentioned as potential buyers, including Oprah Winfrey, Bill Murray, Michael Jordan, George Will, Jerry Colangelo, and Mark Cuban. It would seem Cuban, the controversial owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, wouldn’t stand a chance of being approved; Commissioner Bud Selig likes his owners to fall in line, and isn’t looking to add a maverick. Colangelo, the original owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks, also might not gain approval-he spent that franchise into a huge amount of debt by backloading free-agent contracts. There are mixed reports about whether or not putting the club up for sale means the proposed five-year deal in the $80-85-million range that ace right-hander Carlos Zambrano was about to sign is in jeopardy; Zambrano can become a free agent at the end of the season.
  • Milwaukee reliever Jose Capellan and Tampa Bay second infielder Jorge Cantu have both asked to be traded after being optioned to Triple-A during the final days of spring training.

John covers Major League Baseball for the Beaver County Times.

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