The Rockies bet big that Mike Hampton can tame hitters in
Give Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd this: The man knows how
to make a splash at the winter meetings. For the second straight
year O'Dowd, fast becoming baseball's Mr. December, made
Colorado the early talk of the annual off-season gathering. Last
year in Anaheim he was the mastermind of the four-team,
nine-player blockbuster trade that pried his current No. 3
hitter, third baseman Jeff Cirillo, from the Brewers. Last
Saturday in Dallas the Rockies' bombshell was the signing of
free-agent lefthander Mike Hampton to what was for two days
(until shortstop Alex Rodriguez signed with the Rangers for 10
years and $252 million) the richest contract in baseball
history--$121 million spread over eight seasons.
How unlikely was it that a top-drawer starter would volunteer for
duty at the hitters' haven, Coors Field? "Before our first
meeting," says O'Dowd, "[Hampton's agent] Mark Rodgers told us we
were 27th out of 30 teams."
That's roughly where Colorado ranked in team ERA last season,
when its 5.26 mark was 26th in the majors. O'Dowd, however,
expects his spending spree to dramatically improve the Rockies'
staff. Five days before landing Hampton he signed free-agent
lefthander Denny Neagle (15-9, 4.52 ERA with the Reds and the
Yankees in 2000) to a five-year contract worth $51.5 million.
Colorado has to overpay to lure good pitchers to its offensive
pleasure dome. In Hampton's case that surtax was an eighth year.
The three other teams in the bidding for Hampton's services--the
Cardinals, Cubs and Mets, for whom Hampton went 15-10 with a 3.14
ERA in 2000--each had seven-year offers on the table. "We realize
we have to approach things differently than other teams do," says
Hampton, 28, didn't consider the Rockies a viable option until
that first meeting between O'Dowd and Rodgers, at the gathering
of general managers in Amelia Island, Fla., last month. Rodgers
called the get-together a "courtesy." But Hampton, who originally
had leaned toward St. Louis or Atlanta (another early suitor),
didn't really warm to Colorado until last week, when O'Dowd made
the team's formal offer during a visit with the pitcher in
Houston. The lefthander was bowled over by Colorado's financial
package, by the prospect of moving his family to Denver and by
what he calls "the test" of proving that he can thrive in a
ballpark that has been a graveyard for pitchers.
O'Dowd had been clearing the payroll for a landmark signing
since taking his post in Sept. 1999. He has sent packing
veterans with hefty contracts such as third baseman Vinny
Castilla ($6.25 million salary in 2000), second baseman Mike
Lansing (also $6.25 million) and outfielder Dante Bichette ($7
million). Those moves plus creative contract construction
(Hampton, for example, deferred his $20 million signing bonus
and will make $8 million this season and $8.5 million in 2002)
should enable the Rockies to keep their 2001 payroll below $70
million, an increase of roughly $13 million over last season.
Still, committing to a pitcher for eight years is
risky--especially at Coors, where the memories of Darryl Kile's
recent flameout (combined 21-30 record and 5.84 ERA in 1998 and
'99) are fresh. At least Hampton's ability to induce batters to
hit ground balls off his sinkers and sliders gives him a fighting
chance in Denver. Last season, according to Stats, Inc., Hampton
was second in the National League only to Braves righthander Greg
Maddux in ground ball to fly ball ratio. (Maddux's figure was
2.66, Hampton's 2.51.) What's more, he allowed the fewest home
runs among those pitching at least 162 innings (10, or .41 per
nine innings) of any major league starter. On the other hand,
he's prone to giving up walks (200 in 456 2/3 innings over the
last two seasons) and has a lifetime 6.48 ERA in Colorado.
"But he's 4-1 [at Coors]," says O'Dowd. "You have to evaluate
things differently in that park. If he goes 20-11 and has a 6.50
ERA, I won't care. The winning is what's important."
Fresh Start for Caminiti
Clear-eyed and Ready to Play
The Rangers spent much of last weekend trying to lock up Alex
Rodriguez as their long-term shortstop, but on Sunday they took
time to sign Ken Caminiti, a player who is living life one day at
a time. The erstwhile Padres and Astros third baseman, who was
also pursued by the Brewers and the Indians, signed a contract
with Texas for one year, plus two option years, that could be
worth as much as $20.9 million. The incentive-heavy pact (the
second year kicks in only if Caminiti is on the Rangers' 40-man
roster as of Aug. 15) reflects the team's concerns about the
37-year-old slugger's health on and off the field.
Limited to 59 games in 2000, Caminiti batted .303 with 15 homers
and 45 RBIs for Houston. He spent more than half the season on
the disabled list with a ruptured right wrist tendon sheath. Then
in September he was hospitalized for a month as part of an
alcohol abuse rehabilitation program. That all followed a '99
season in which, hampered by a strained right calf, Caminiti
appeared in only 78 games for the Astros. (After that season he
suffered three chipped vertebrae when he fell out of a tree stand
while hunting quail.) In fact, the 1996 season, when he was the
National League MVP for San Diego, was the last in which Caminiti
played at least 140 games.
On Sunday, Caminiti, who also went through a substance abuse
program in '93 for alcohol and painkillers, revealed that after
three years of sobriety, he resumed drinking again in the winter
following his MVP year. After his recent stint in rehab, he says,
he feels physically and emotionally healthier than he has in a
long time. "I don't have a nagging back, the nagging injuries; I
don't wake up stiff," he says. "Of course, my nightlife might
have had something to do with those things." Caminiti still
undergoes counseling in an aftercare program.
"We had a series of heart-to-hearts last week," says Rangers
manager Johnny Oates. "He seems like he's in great shape and a
good state of mind."
Caminiti is the fourth player age 35 or older that Texas has
acquired this off-season, joining first baseman Andres
Galarraga, 39; righthanded reliever Mark Petkovsek, 35; and
infielder Randy Velarde, 38. Mike Lamb, who hit .278 as a rookie
in 2000, is the incumbent third baseman, but the starting job
will be Caminiti's to lose. On Sunday he spoke of a desire to
play that had been missing for the last few years. Caminiti also
declared that he has a plan for dealing with the potential
pitfalls and temptations of the major league lifestyle.
"When you're on the road, it gets pretty boring," he said. "You
have to have something to do after the game--watch movies, play
cards, something. I'm already trying to hook up with some people
on the Rangers with good lifestyles."
Strike Zone Revisited
Umps Take the High Road
For three hours on Sunday morning 26 of the 30 major league
managers and all 17 umpire crew chiefs sat in a hotel conference
room in Dallas and discussed a range of topics. But one subject
was paramount: the strike zone. As part of their crusade to
bring consistency to the way balls and strikes are called, Major
League Baseball executive vice president of baseball operations
Sandy Alderson and Ralph Nelson, the MLB special assistant who
supervises umpires, made a multimedia presentation,
superimposing a diagram of the strike zone over game footage of
hitters of all sizes and shapes. "The bottom line is, the strike
zone will be higher next year," said Alderson, who (not for the
first time) instructed umpires to adhere to the rule-book
definition: roughly, from the bottom of the knees to the
midpoint of the uniform jersey.
This off-season Nelson has been conducting clinics in Phoenix for
small groups of umpires. In January all 68 major league umps will
convene in that city for a five-day retreat, during which they
will brush up on their positioning in the field and their
understanding of the rules and will have their ball and strike
calls evaluated by Nelson and his staff, using a new high-tech
Even veteran umps have been receptive to the schooling. "I'd
rather not leave home in the off-season, but it'll be
interesting," Ed Montague, a major league ump for 25 years, says
of the January minicamp. "I just hope when managers see a couple
of balls up in the eyes that are called strikes during spring
training, they remember we're adjusting."
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Even if he continues to keep the ball down, Hampton will likely see his ERA soar in Denver.
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Sober again, new Ranger Caminiti has rediscovered his zest for the game.