Spring training lists to ponder

Spring training lists to ponder

Spring training is not just for tee times and suntans. It's a learning experience. This year, for example, who is Daisuke Matsuzaka, and how much does Red Sox Nation expect from him? Why are there two Barrys in San Francisco? And what is a Tulowitzki? USA TODAY's Peter Barzilai and Gabe Lacques preview spring training:

Five up and comers

Homer Bailey, Cincinnati Reds:  The 20-year-old right-hander could be this year's Justin Verlander. He throws in the high 90s with a big curveball that could earn him a spot in the rotation and make him the greatest player named Homer (there have been 10) in big-league history.

Gavin Floyd, Chicago White Sox:  The right-hander is the leading candidate to take over the rotation spot left vacant by the trade of Freddy Garcia. The fourth overall pick in 2001, Floyd is 7-5 with a 6.96 ERA in 24 career games with the Philadelphia Phillies and has struggled with his control.

Ryan Garko, Cleveland Indians:  A converted catcher, Garko had 45 RBI and a .292 average in 50 games to end last season. On most teams that would be enough to earn the 26-year-old a starting job this season, but the Indians have plenty of quality hitters, and Garko will have to win a job.

Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado Rockies:  The seventh overall pick in 2005, Tulowitzki is in line to be the Rockies shortstop this season after spending most of 2006 at Class AA. He hit .240 in 96 at-bats with the Rockies in August and September.

Chris Young, Arizona Diamondbacks: The center fielder was acquired in December 2005 from the White Sox for right-hander Javier Vazquez. He has hit at least 20 home runs each of the last three seasons at Class A, AA and AAA and will get a chance to do it in the majors this year.

Five who are coming back

Eric Gagne, Texas Rangers: The right-hander has pitched 15 1/3 innings with nine saves in the last two seasons but says he is recovered from elbow and back woes. Guess what? The Rangers believed him, signing Gagne to a one-year, $6 million deal and naming him the closer.

Mike Hampton, Atlanta Braves: He last pitched in August 2005 and is 18 months removed from Tommy John elbow surgery, but the left-hander started throwing this month and hopes to be ready to start the season.

Jason Isringhausen, St. Louis Cardinals: The 34-year-old blew 10 saves last year, had hip surgery in September and watched the Cards win it all without him. He started throwing this month and says he'll be ready for opening day.

Randy Johnson, Arizona Diamondbacks: Johnson returns to Arizona from New York a couple of years older (43) and with a few more runs on his ERA (2.60 in 2004 to 5.00 in 2006). He no longer needs to be a staff's ace, but he must show he has recovered from back surgery and is able to resemble the pitcher the Diamondbacks last saw.

Sammy Sosa, Texas Rangers: The last time Sammy showed his face in these parts, he was not very good — a .221 average with 14 home runs for the Baltimore Orioles in 2005. He comes to spring training on a minor league contract needing to earn a big-league job.

Five can't-miss moments

Catch ball, throw ball: For 29 teams, the early days of spring training are an exercise in drudgery, as pitchers feign tosses to the plate, hop off the mound, field a slowly rolled ball and toss it toward first, all the while wondering if they'll make their afternoon tee time. For the Detroit Tigers, Friday will be more like a nightmare revisited. Tigers pitchers committed a throwing error in all five World Series games last October, with gaffes in Games 4 and 5 by Fernando Rodney and Justin Verlander tipping the Series in the Cardinals' favor. So forgive the Tigers hurlers this spring if they soon tire of fielding questions about their, um, fielding.

Dice-K debut: Perhaps no start in Grapefruit League history will be as anticipated, or chronicled, as Daisuke Matsuzaka's Boston Red Sox debut. Take a Japanese pitching legend, mix in the intense expectations of Red Sox Nation and watch the flashbulbs pop.

Barry, meet Barry: He might be 22 home runs from passing Hank Aaron, but Barry Bonds is no longer the MCB (Most Compensated Barry) of his own clubhouse. That would be Barry Zito, who at $126 million for seven years is guaranteed a cool $111 million more than Bonds.

Lou loses it: Sure, it's just spring training, but it's never too early to wonder when the First Great Meltdown will come from new Chicago Cubs manager Lou Piniella. No hat or base is safe.

Hope for Pedro: It would take a Ruthian feat for the third baseman in the Bronx to produce every screaming New York tabloid headline this spring. Fear not — the Mets' Pedro Martinez is rehabbing a torn rotator cuff in Port St. Lucie, Fla., a process that can be chronicled in painstaking fashion: PEDRO EATS WITH FORK! PEDRO PLAYS CATCH! PEDRO PAIN-FREE AFTER PS3 SESSION!

Five help wanted signs


Cardinals, Mets pitching: If these are the two best teams in the National League, why are there roughly five rotation spots available between them? Chalk it up to financial sanity, as St. Louis let Jeff Suppan go and New York passed on Barry Zito. The Mets (Pedro Martinez) and the Cardinals (Mark Mulder) are waiting for injured arms to return. But for the time being, isn't it unbecoming for a defending World Series champion to anoint Kip Wells its No. 2 starter?

Roger Clemens: If the season is a marathon, the first two months are a 60-day boat race for the services of the seven-time Cy Young Award winner. Boston? Bronx? Houston? The standings and the dollar signs will align for someone.

Red Sox closer: Talk about your throw-at-wall, see-what-sticks scenario. With Jonathan Papelbon moving back to the rotation, the Boston closer candidates each have strikes against them: Joel Pineiro (6.36 ERA in 2006, has never closed); Mike Timlin (turns 41 in March, better suited in setup role); Craig Hansen (6.63 ERA as a rookie).

Athletics' big bat: The Oakland Athletics took a $500,000 gamble on Frank Thomas, who pounded 38 home runs, racked up about $3 million in incentives and parlayed 2006 into a $20 million deal from the Toronto Blue Jays. The A's can only hope Nick Swisher (35 home runs) and others continue to flourish without Thomas around.

Nationals roster: In most camps, non-roster invitees hang around a few weeks, pick up big-league meal money and ship out to a Class AAA outpost. In the Nationals camp, they're favorites to crack the starting rotation, which consists of John Patterson and ...

Five who have to prove their worth

Carlos Lee, Houston Astros: The slugger signed with the Astros to be near his cattle ranch, and the $100 million didn't hurt either. He's expected to get the team's offense mooo-ving. (Sorry.)

Gary Matthews Jr., Los Angeles Angels: The Angels are wagering $50 million that Matthews' 2006 wasn't just a career year at age 31 but the start of something big.

Gil Meche, Kansas City Royals: The Royals are showing glimmers of hope, but they need the $55 million they spent on Meche to make the 28-year-old go from enigmatic to staff ace.

Alfonso Soriano, Chicago Cubs: The 31-year-old, who got $136 million, goes from no expectations in Washington to high expectations in Chicago and might be asked to change positions (from left field to center) for a second consecutive spring.

Barry Zito, San Francisco Giants: Being the highest-paid pitcher in baseball is not always a good thing — ask Kevin Brown and Mike Hampton. Zito needs a quick start to avoid the comparisons.

Five with something to prove

Mark Prior: Since 2003 he's 18-17 with six trips to the disabled list. He says he feels good; the Cubs' hopes this season could hinge on that.

Alex Rodriguez: An opt-out clause in his $252 million contract will be a talking point from now until next winter. He can't exorcise his postseason demons until October; for now, can A-Rod get through spring training without stepping on one of the many land mines the media will set for him?

Bud Black: One of baseball's bright minds gets his dream gig, managing the San Diego Padres close to his home. Will Black be allowed a honeymoon period, or will a slow start bring out those who say pitching coaches don't make great managers?

Matt Garza: No Brad Radke. No Francisco Liriano. The Minnesota Twins rotation is ripe for another young star to emerge, but is Garza (6.29 ERA in nine starts) the guy?

Ben Sheets: A true No. 1 starter is about all that separates the Milwaukee Brewers from contending. Sheets has the stuff to be that guy. But after he made only 39 starts in two seasons, can they count on him when the dog days roll around?

www.usatoday.com

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