A teen phenom, an emerging star from Cuba and a team entering its prime are among the buzz makers this spring
ROGER CLEMENS, who threw a few wild pitches to Congress before making a cameo in Astros camp, may be baseball's biggest newsmaker this year, but spring training has revealed many other story lines worth watching. Here are some notable spring snapshots.
Motown's latest hit
Baseball's amateur-draft slotting system, which assigns suggested dollar values according to draft order, has prompted a number of teams to pass up some big-time prospects. But the Tigers are building a winner by ignoring the pay guidelines and laying out big bonuses for players who should have been taken higher: pitcher Justin Verlander (who slipped to second overall in 2004), outfielder Cameron Maybin (10th in 2005) and pitcher Andrew Miller (6th in 2006). Their latest slot buster is 19-year-old pitcher Rick Porcello, a top-three-level talent who fell to 27th because, with Scott Boras as his agent, it was thought he'd be priced too high to sign. Detroit gave the 6'5" righthander from Seton Hall Prep in West Orange, N.J., a $7.28 million deal—the largest ever given to a high schooler—and are ecstatic with the early results. In his first appearance this spring, he retired six straight Blue Jays, including David Eckstein, Alex Rios, Vernon Wells and Frank Thomas. (He kept all four on the infield and struck out Thomas.) "He's not in awe of anything," says Tigers manager Jim Leyland. "He handles himself like a big leaguer." Already Porcello, who has a repertoire of a mid-90s fastball, curve, slider and changeup, is drawing comparisons to Josh Beckett (and even Jim Palmer) and stirring talk of a possible late-summer debut. Detroit isn't rushing Porcello, but third baseman Brandon Inge is ready for his teammate's major league debut. Says Inge, "I'm all for getting over your hard times in the minor leagues, but bring him here now."
Mending the Sox
Three weeks into spring training, Cuban infielder Alexei Ramirez (right), who signed a $4.75 million deal with the White Sox in December, is thrilling Chicago with his speed and strong arm and is emerging as a threat to win the job at second base. White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen has called the 26-year-old's second base play "a little rough," and one NL scout, who likened him to a young Alfonso Soriano, said he's "a bit wild'' with his swings, especially while tracking breaking balls. However, there's still a lot to like. Says one White Sox exec, "It looks like he can do anything he wants."
Rockies aim for new heights
After last year's surprise World Series appearance, the Rockies have continued to earn respect, including from Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti, who recognizes that Colorado's players are all either in their prime or still approaching it. Only six players on the 40-man roster have reached their 31st birthday: pitchers Brian Fuentes, Matt Herges, Mark Redman, Josh Towers and Luis Vizcaino and first baseman Todd Helton (left). If any team is built for the long term, it's Colorado. Still, Rockies G.M. Dan O'Dowd knows how easily those hopes can disappear into Denver's thin air. "It's hard in our industry to look too far down the road," he says. "But if [we can] hold on to [Matt] Holliday, we have a chance to be good for a long while."
Same old story
The Mets' acquisition of Johan Santana and the revival of 36-year-old Pedro Martinez has stirred excitement in New York. But one scout summarized the full roster as "geriatric. They'll get hurt more often, and stay out longer." The Mets, who had six fortysomethings on the team last spring, now have two. However, 13 players have been injured this spring, including five who play second base (Luis Castillo, Ruben Gotay, Jose Valentin, Damion Easley and Marlon Anderson), three in the outfield (Carlos Beltran, Endy Chavez and Ryan Church) and both over-40 players, (Moises Alou and Orlando Hernandez). Alou had hernia surgery, and Hernandez has foot problems and was showing his age—whatever that might be.
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CHUCK SOLOMON (PORCELLO)
UNFAZED In his first spring appearance Porcello, 19, threw two perfect innings.