As is the case
every year, injuries, like those to Matsui and Sheffield, have created
opportunities for young players. Kemp, too, was summoned because outfielders
Lofton and J.D. Drew, though not placed on the disabled list, were banged up.
But according to general managers and other team executives, a diminished
inventory of available, desirable veteran players has created an environment
that encourages contenders to give young players their shots. That environment
has been driven by several factors:
Low-revenue teams no longer are forced to dump contracts as frequently as they
once were. The flow of money from large-revenue teams to low-revenue teams, for
instance, has helped facilitate contract extensions for Johan Santana in
Minnesota, Ben Sheets in Milwaukee, C.C. Sabathia in Cleveland and Roy Halladay
in Toronto, signings that restrict the market for the big spenders who in
recent years have picked off aces such as Curt Schilling, Tim Hudson, Mark
Mulder and Randy Johnson.
"You can make a
case that the most valuable commodity in the game today is the homegrown
ace," Boston G.M. Theo Epstein says. "They're just not getting on the
market." Adds Colletti, "I don't hear anybody calling and saying, 'We
can't afford this guy. We have to move him.' I don't hear that
Few stars were on the market last winter, and this year's crop may not be much
better, with Oakland lefthander Barry Zito perhaps the headliner. "With
older players you like having a better idea of what you're going to get,"
Colletti says, "but teams are asking why they should pay a premium for a
guy who may not be a premium player. You start to ask, What's wrong with giving
a young kid a chance?"
market has been thinned not only by revenue sharing, but also by a trend toward
longer contracts. Says Milwaukee G.M. Doug Melvin, "What were two- and
three-year deals have become four- and five-year deals, so you don't get the
free agents turning over as often."
?A weak trade
The Marlins are saying they will keep pitcher Dontrelle Willis; the Brewers
aren't ready to move leftfielder Carlos Lee; and the Nationals, capitalizing on
a sellers' market, can hold out for a high price for leftfielder Alfonso
Soriano. The pickings beyond that are slim. "The inventory of available
players is small," Colletti says.
?A down cycle in
the development of pitchers has finally turned upward
No starting pitcher has won the AL Rookie of the Year award since Dave Righetti
of the Yankees did in 1981, yet Verlander (9-4, 3.39) and the dazzling
Francisco Liriano of Minnesota (7-1, 2.17) should contend for the honor with
Papelbon. Meanwhile, Lester, Rheinecker, Casey Janssen of the Blue Jays (5-6,
4.76), Jamie Shields of the Devil Rays (4-0, 3.00), Jeremy Sowers of the
Indians (who lost his major league debut on Sunday after going 9-1 with a 1.39
ERA in Triple A) and Jered Weaver of the Angels (4-0, 1.37 before being sent
back to Triple A) make up the wave of top young pitchers to hit the league. And
don't forget 20-year-old Felix Hernandez of Seattle (7-7, 5.10), already in his
Verlander and Hernandez are a cut above everybody else," one AL G.M. says.
"They have special stuff."
The crop of NL
rookie starting pitchers, though not as impressive, still features the Dodgers'
Billingsley (no decisions in his first two starts), Matt Cain of San Francisco
(6-6, 5.20), Cole Hamels of Philadelphia (1-3, 4.41), Josh Johnson of Florida
(6-4, 2.01) and Anthony Reyes of St. Louis (1-1, 1.80).
How these young
pitchers hold up in the second half of the season figures to influence, if not
outright decide, the pennant races. One AL G.M., for instance, called
Verlander's health and effectiveness the key to the Tigers' chances. The
righthander threw 130 total innings last season, his first year in pro ball,
but is on pace to exceed 200 this year. Manager Jim Leyland said he
occasionally will give Verlander an extra day of rest between second-half