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What to watch for as spring arrives

By KEVIN KELLY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 10, 2002

Before spring training begins this week, here are some of the people, teams and issues to follow in the next six weeks:

HITTERS FOR HIRE: Among free agents still unsigned are Rickey Henderson, Jose Canseco and Harold Baines.

The 37-year-old Canseco is 38 home runs shy of 400 for his career. Henderson, 43, notched his 3,000th hit in his final at-bat for the Padres last season. The Red Sox might be interested in a one-year deal.

Baines is 134 hits short of 3,000 and 16 homers shy of 400.

ALL-STAR LINEUP: By signing veteran outfielder Kenny Lofton, the White Sox have six former All-Stars in their lineup: Lofton, Frank Thomas, Magglio Ordonez, Ray Durham, Sandy Alomar and Royce Clayton.

Thomas returns after missing all but 20 games last season with a ruptured triceps. In 2000, he hit .328 with 43 homers and 143 RBIs and finished second to Jason Giambi in AL MVP voting.

"I'm not nervous at all," Thomas said of his impending return. "Some people are born to hit. And I'm one of them."

NEW BLOOD: Replacements for retirees Tony Gwynn, Cal Ripken Jr. and Mark McGwire are in place.

Bubba Trammell was getting the bulk of playing time in rightfield for the Padres even before Gwynn retired. Tony Batista is expected to start at third for the Orioles. Tino Martinez should hit sixth and play first base for the Cardinals.

KEEPING UP: Nobody's predicting the Mariners will match their 116 wins from last season, but they could come close if reigning AL MVP Ichiro Suzuki and second baseman Bret Boone prove not to be one-year wonders and the pitching staff overachieves.

General manager Pat Gillick hopes right-hander James Baldwin can soften the blow of losing Aaron Sele and his 215 innings to Anaheim. Baldwin, projected as a possible No. 3 or No. 4 starter, went 10-11 with the Dodgers and White Sox last season. He started the 2000 season 10-1 before injuring his throwing arm.

COULD GO EITHER WAY: The Dodgers might boast one of the best, and most expensive, rotations after they signed left-hander Kazuhisa Ishii to a four-year, $12.3-million deal Friday.

But can they stay healthy?

Kevin Brown and Andy Ashby will be ready for opening day. Both had flexor-muscle surgery last season. Darren Dreifort, who had an elbow ligament reconstructed after 16 games last season, isn't expected back until after the All-Star break.

STILL TRYING: Now that the threat of contraction has subsided, the Twins can focus on trying to win the AL Central.

And owner Carl Pohlad can get busy selling the team to Donald Watkins, the Alabama businessman who initially had interest in buying the Rays.

"Acquiring a team is not the ultimate goal," Watkins said. "Dominating the sport is the ultimate goal."

MAINTAINING: The Braves maintained the core of a club that has won 10 consecutive NL East titles by re-signing closer John Smoltz and catcher Javy Lopez.

Gary Sheffield, acquired from Los Angeles, adds power to the middle of the lineup. Former Rays third baseman Vinny Castilla and pitcher Albie Lopez could prove beneficial.

The big question is the bullpen and who will play first base. Other than Smoltz, Kerry Ligtenberg and Mike Remlinger, there isn't much help for the starters.

NEW SEASON, NEW UNIFORM: The Rockies are the ninth team third baseman Todd Zeile will have played for in his eight-year career.

The complete list: Cardinals, Cubs, Dodgers, Marlins, Mets, Orioles, Phillies, Rangers and Rockies. And, still, he is three clubs shy of the major-league record held by Arizona reliever Mike Morgan.

ARMS APLENTY: The dynamics of a clubhouse that will include John Rocker, Carl Everett and Juan Gonzalez admittedly are interesting.

But the revamped Rangers plan to have 34 pitchers in camp, 29 of which have major-league experience. The only locks to make the staff are Chan Ho Park, Ismael Valdes, Kenny Rogers and relievers Jeff Zimmerman, Todd Van Poppel and Jay Powell.

FOOT IN THE DOOR: Now that the Yankees have signed Giambi to play first base, prospect Nick Johnson is looking for a spot.

Should he make the club out of spring training, Johnson could be the Yankees' designated hitter. It's not an ideal situation for the 23-year-old, but it would get him in the lineup.

"You just have to do what you can do," Johnson said. "You know (Giambi's) there. Now you just try to do anything to stay, help the team out. It's awesome that we got him. He's a great player. Now I just do what I can."

THE LAST WORD: It was a brutal offseason for the A's, who lost Giambi to the Yankees and leadoff hitter Johnny Damon to the Red Sox after winning 102 games last season. "Right now on paper you wonder if maybe we're not quite as good as we were," Oakland manager Art Howe said. "But I don't think it's fair to judge us at this point."

-- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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