With a dismaying number of baseball's best players beginning the season on the disabled list, teams scramble to fill the gaps
In the Pirates' spring training clubhouse, reliever Scott Sauerbeck shared a row of lockers with fellow pitchers Kris Benson, Rich Loiselle and Jason Schmidt. So why was he the only one of the bunch who didn't start the season on the disabled list? "This guy right here," Sauerbeck said last Friday, pointing to a 10-inch-high wooden Buddha sitting on the top shelf of his locker, part of a collection belonging to his wife, Carry. "I rub his belly every day, and so far I've been fine."
Sauerbeck may have stumbled upon a cottage industry—several teams would have paid big bucks for Buddhas last month had the icons proved to keep stars healthy. This spring was a particularly sore one for big-name players. More than 20 former All-Stars were on the disabled list on Opening Day, and several others were to miss time in the season's first week with less serious bumps and bruises. Braves ace Greg Maddux skipped his scheduled Opening Day start against the Reds with a laceration on the big toe of his left foot and a cracked toenail, an injury inflicted by a line drive in his last spring outing, on March 28. Cincinnati centerfielder Ken Griffey Jr. sat out the game as well with a strained left hamstring.
Those injuries were minor compared to the carnage in the Pittsburgh clubhouse. The Pirates will be without right-handers Benson (elbow), Schmidt (shoulder and rib cage) and Francisco Cordova (elbow), their top three starters, until at least the beginning of May. Setup man Loiselle (neck and shoulder) was placed on the 60-day disabled list in the final days of camp. Last week general manager Cam Bonifay pried away righthanded starter Omar Olivares from the A's, veteran lefthander Terry Mulholland was shifted from the bullpen to help shore up the rotation, and inexperienced righthander Bronson Arroyo, who walked only two batters but allowed eight home runs in 26 spring innings, was handed the final starter's spot. "It didn't hit me how bad things were until Mac [manager Lloyd McClendon] said he wanted to carry 12 pitchers but only had 11 healthy guys in camp," says Sauerbeck.
Here are the four stars who were the most glaring absentees in the season's first week, and what their teams were doing to hold the fort until they get back.
Nomar Garciaparra, Red Sox. Garciaparra went on the 15-day disabled list last Saturday, retroactive to March 21, but is expected to miss at least 10 weeks after he has surgery to repair a split tendon in his right wrist. As of Sunday no date for the procedure had been set, though the injury, which forced Garciaparra to miss the entire exhibition schedule, had shown little improvement in recent weeks. Boston will fill the void at short-stop with Mike Lansing, who hasn't played the position since 1996, and Craig Grebeck, who has had more than 250 at bats only twice in his 11-year career. Neither comes close to filling Garciaparra's shoes as Boston's offensive and defensive centerpiece and emotional heart. "It's not just filling the hole at shortstop, you're filling the role of our team's offensive leader," says catcher Scott Hatteberg.
Derek Jeter, Yankees. Hampered by a sore right shoulder and a throat infection early in camp and more recently by a strained right quadriceps, Jeter played in only five spring games. Though his thigh injury had improved, the cautious Yankees put him on the disabled list late last week. "I know he probably could play, but you have to look at the big picture," manager Joe Torre said last Saturday. Jeter will be eligible to return on April 7. Until then Luis Sojo, an adequate short-term replacement, will play shortstop. Jeter's absence puts added pressure on rookie second baseman Alfonso Soriano, who began the season in the second spot in the order rather than in the less pressure-filled eighth slot, where Torre had planned to use him.
Kevin Brown, Dodgers. The Dodgers also chose to err on the side of caution with their scheduled Opening Day starter. Brown, who strained his right Achilles tendon on March 23, will likely miss two starts while on the DL. His rotation spot will be filled by 23-year-old righthander Luke Prokopec, who had been scheduled to begin the season in Triple A. "I don't know how long we'll be going without Kevin, but one player isn't going to make or break this team," first baseman Eric Karros says. "If guys are forced to miss a couple of games or a few starts, it's better than being out for an entire year."
Travis Fryman, Indians. A strained right-elbow ligament kept third baseman Fryman out of most of Cleveland's spring games and landed him on the DL last month; he'll be eligible to return to action on April 7 In the meantime Russell Branyan will play third. Offensively that's fine—Branyan, though not as skilled a hitter, has more power than Fryman—but the defensive dropoff is precipitous. Fryman won a Gold Glove last season, while Branyan made 23 errors in 108 games at third base in Triple A in 1999.
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