Thursday, February 15, 2007

Stark Contrasts

NL West-centric highlights from "Hallelujah! Spring is finally here" by Jayson Stark at

So -- with the help of a dozen incisive baseball men who voted on all of these categories -- it's time to take a look at the people and story lines that will come pouring out of the offseason Mixmaster as spring training 2007 unfolds.

Most intriguing spring stories (National League)
1. Heeeere's Barry: Well, this is it. The countdown begins. Is there anything that can stop Barry Bonds now from finishing off his hostile takeover of Bud Selig's record book? George Mitchell? Those hard-working grand jurors? An exploding kneecap? Father Time? Pedro Gomez? You never know what's next on the Barry beat. But once again, there will be no escaping him this year, no matter how hard the commish might wish he could.

Most improved teams (NL)
1. Cubs
2. Diamondbacks
3. Dodgers

Team that spent $208 million and didn't get a vote: Giants.

Best Trades
1. Rockies get big-time arm Jason Hirsh, an intriguing starter in Taylor Buchholz and a starting center fielder (Willy Taveras) from Houston for a pitcher they had no hope of keeping beyond this year (Jason Jennings).

Checkbook champs
2. Giants: If Barry Bonds ever signs his contract, the total on that Giants cash register will come to $208.53 million. Nobody noticed, thanks to the Cubs, but that ranks No. 3 in history in the all-important Most Bucks Spent On Free Agents In One Offseason standings.

Best free-agent signings
1. Daisuke Matsuzaka, Red Sox (six years, $52 million)
2. Jason Schmidt, Dodgers (three years, $47 million)
3. Alfonso Soriano, Cubs (eight years, $136 million)

This was a tough call. Schmidt and Matsuzaka actually tied for the most votes in our survey. And at least Schmidt is a known quantity. But how many tourists from Seibu is Schmidt going to attract, huh? Of all the free agents signed this winter, Matsuzaka might pack more buzz factor than the rest of them combined. Below-the-radar signing that got the most votes: Randy Wolf, Dodgers (one year, $7.5 million).

Worst free-agent signings
1. Gil Meche, Royals (five years, $55 million)
2. Drew, Red Sox (five years, $70 million or three years, $42 million, depending on how you read the fine print)
3. Juan Pierre, Dodgers (five years, $44 million)

Other signings that got multiple votes: Carlos Lee (Astros), Barry Zito (Giants), Gary Matthews Jr. (Angels), Adam Eaton (Phillies), Ted Lilly (Cubs), Jason Marquis (Cubs), Jeff Suppan (Brewers) and Soriano (Cubs).

Best free agents signed to minor league contracts
1. Aaron Sele, Mets: It wouldn't be a shock if the back of the Mets' rotation turned into a revolving buffet line of arms. And if it does, they would probably take a dozen decent starts from Sele. Well, just to refresh your memory, he did go 6-2 with a 2.91 ERA, the first 12 times the Dodgers gave him the ball last year. After that, uh, don't ask.

3. Pick a reliever, any reliever: We can just about guarantee that some veteran reliever, scarfed up on a minor league deal, will have a big season. Happens every year. So try these three nominations: (A) Arthur Rhodes, Mariners (best 2006 K ratio of any left-handed free agent this winter), (B) Rudy Seanez, Dodgers (did whiff 9.17 per 9 IP last year -- and loves that Pacific Time Zone) or (C) Ray King, Nationals (clearly freaked last year by Coors, where opponents batted .385 with a 1.033 OPS against him).

Three most outrageous contracts
1. Giants throw $126 million, over seven years, at Barry Zito -- even though (we hate to break it to them) since his Cy Young season, he owns fewer wins than Jeff Suppan and a worse strikeout ratio than Casey Fossum.

Most important injury comebacks (AL)
1. Eric Gagne (Rangers)
2. Rich Harden (A's)
3. Bartolo Colon (Angels)

Most unlikely names on spring training rosters
3. Dave Veres (Rockies): It isn't every spring you see a 40-year-old guy volunteering to pitch in Denver, even though he has had more hip replacements (one) than saves (none) over the last three years. But the Rockies can't afford to turn anybody away who can throw a baseball 60 feet on the fly. So they're taking a shot on a pitcher whose last save was so long ago (Aug. 3, 2003) that Mariano Rivera has saved 158 games (including the postseason) since then.