Gennaro Filice
Friday April 18th, 2008

1. Figgy's metamorphosis: Chone Figgins' development over the years has been a beautiful progression, kind of like the transformation of a butterfly. In fact, that's exactly what it has been -- a complete metamorphosis ...

Egg stage: Figgins was drafted by the Rockies out of high school in 1997, but the Angels organization acquired him via trade in 2001. During his minor league, "embryo" stage, Figgins steadily developed. He was named Best Baserunner and Fastest Baserunner of the Pacific Coast League by Baseball America in 2002.

Larva stage: The egg hatched in late August 2002, when Figgins made his major league debut. Serving mostly as a pinch runner, Figgins electrified fans and earned a spot on the playoff roster. He appeared in six games during L.A.'s World Series run, hitting 1.000 (1-for-1) with four runs and a steal.

Pupa stage: The pupa is generally referred to as the transformation stage, and this definitely applied to Figgins. From 2004 to 2007, he established himself as baseball's premier utility man, shuffling around the diamond between seven positions: 2B, SS, 3B, LF, CF, RF and DH. Figgins stole 148 bases over this three-year span, including a major-league high 62 in 2005.

Adult stage: Last season Figgins emerged as a full-blown ballplayer. After breaking two fingers in spring training, Figgins missed all but one game in April and struggled through May. But from June 1 through the rest of the season, Figgins led the majors with a .376 batting average and swiped 36 bags. He also became a solid defensive third baseman.

Through Thursday, Figgy led the American League in batting average (.385) and ranked second with seven steals. And he continues to ripen with age, as evidenced by his newfound patience at the plate. Although Figgins has never eclipsed 65 walks in a season, he has the second-most free passes in the AL (13), giving him a the league's highest OBP (.487). Nowadays, it's tough to find a more disruptive, top-of-the-order bat in all of baseball.

2. St. Louis' five-headed monster: Always known as a masterful strategist, Tony La Russa cooked up a funky new scheme for the '08 campaign.

After trading Jim Edmonds to San Diego and losing Juan Encarnacion to a career-threatening eye injury, St. Louis entered the year with a green cast of characters in the outfield. Following a competitive spring training, La Russa approached the situation with the tactical brilliance of your local little league skipper: Everybody plays.

Thus far the five-man outfield has been fabulously successful; every player has made a notable contribution.

With the Cardinals off to a unexpected 11-5 start, most of the credit is going to the surprising pitching staff and one-armed wonder Albert Pujols. But this outfield quintet deserves equal praise. As does La Russa, who faces the daily task of selecting three starters from this party of five:

a. Rick Ankiel (15 starts): A premier pitching prospect before contracting Steve Blass Disease in the 2000 playoffs, Ankiel has recreated himself as a power-hitting center fielder and an integral piece in the Pujols Protection Plan. The sweet-swinging lefty is the only everyday player of this group.

b. Skip Schumaker (11): Since starting the season with an 0-for-16 skid, Schumaker has settled nicely into the leadoff role, hitting .441 with 13 runs over the past 9 games.

c. Ryan Ludwick (9): Ludwick gives you the most bang for you buck. Although he's started just over half the team's games, Ludwick is tied with Ankiel for the team lead in homers (4) and RBIs (11). He also possesses a crazy 1.322 OPS.

d. Chris Duncan (8): After recovering from a strained hammy, the son of Cards pitching coach Dave Duncan is mashing right-handed pitching at a .360 clip.

e. Brian Barton (5): He splits time with Duncan in left field. The Rule 5 draftee has carried over a hot spring into the regular season, hitting .364 thus far. Also, he has emerged as a challenger to Rams RB Steven Jackson for best dreads in the Gateway City.

Greg Maddux's consistency: Tonight, Greg Maddux will go for his 350th win, against Dan Haren and the D'backs. This mark is a tribute to Maddux's unbelievable reliability. Three starts into this season, Maddux is 2-0 with a 2.00 ERA. It's early, but he's on track to extend one of the most mindboggling streaks in the game: Twenty consecutive seasons with at least 13 wins. (He had at least 15 wins during the first 17 years of the stretch.) These awe-inspiring numbers beg the question, How does Maddux stack up to arguably the greatest right-handed pitcher ever, Roger Clemens? Well, let's take a look:

Mad Dog and The Rocket approached pitching differently, but their production is eerily similar. So who will be remembered as the best pitcher of the generation? Clemens used to be the no-brainer answer, but how will the public respond now that Clemens is caught up in the Mitchell Report and Maddux is still chugging away?

1. Last season's save kings: In 2007 Arizona's Jose Valverde (47) and Cleveland's Joe Borowski (45) led their respective leagues in saves. In 2008, they lead their respective leagues in boo birds.

Valverde (12.27 ERA) and Borowski (18.00) have each blown two saves and have generally looked awful on the hill.

Now, let's be honest -- nobody is shocked by Borowski's blowups, especially not Indians fans. The closer got off to a similarly hideous start last season, posting a 13.50 ERA through his first seven outings. Even though he ended up leading the American League in saves, Borowski was never pretty. In fact, he became the first major league pitcher ever with over 35 saves and an ERA north of 5.00 (5.07 to be exact). On Tuesday the Indians placed Borowski on the disabled list with a strained triceps, and a large number of Tribe fans breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Valverde's collapse is much more of a surprise. True, the hulking hurler struggled with consistency from 2003 to '06, but he really turned the corner last year, posting rock-solid numbers: 2.66 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, .196 BAA. Though it did seem a bit curious when Arizona immediately dealt him (and his arbitration demands) to Houston in the offseason. Maybe the D'backs felt Valverde outperformed his ability in '07.

With Borowski on the shelf for a couple weeks, many expect fill-in closer Rafael Betancourt to snatch the job. On the other hand, Valverde still has a tight grip on the ninth inning, according to his skipper. "He's the man," Cecil Cooper told reporters on Wednesday, the day after Valverde's latest blown save. "That's all you can tell him. He's the guy. I have a lot of confidence in him."

2. Nats offensive offense: Even though we're only three weeks into the season, it's still embarrassing for any single player to be near the Mendoza Line. So you can imagine how the Nationals must feel, possessing a team average of .219 -- easily the lowest in baseball.

Since winning its first three games of the season, Washington has lost 12 of 13, thanks in large part to a stagnant offense. Entering Friday, Washington had one regular hitting over .300 (Cristian Guzman at .310). Ryan Zimmerman and Nick Johnson are tied for the team lead with a whopping seven RBIs. And Zimmerman, the franchise's star player, has a .545 OPS.

Couple this with the pitching staff's 4.63 ERA, and you're looking at some awesomely bad baseball.

3. ESPN's Tejada ambush: This year has been a nightmare for Miguel Tejada. On Jan. 15, Rep. Henry Waxman publicly announced that Congress had asked the Justice Department to investigate Tejada for possibly lying to committee staffers in 2005, when he said he had never taken performance-enhancing drugs. Later that same day word surfaced that Tejada's brother had died in a motorcycle accident.

On Tuesday ESPN delivered an over-the-top coup de grace. After discovering that Tejada was two years older than he claimed, the show E:60 set up a seemingly innocent interview with Tejada. Reporter Tom Farrey put on his Chris Hansen pants and ambushed Tejada with a copy of his birth certificate. (You can see the video here, but beware -- discomfort is sure to follow.) After an awkward minute or so, Tejada left the room.

Now, let me make one thing clear: I'm not defending Tejada's dishonesty. If he lied, that's wrong. And ESPN has every right to report it. But why couldn't it have reported the story with a bit of journalistic integrity? Why did ESPN have to dupe him into a seemingly innocent interview before completely flipping the script. Why? Because that's good TV. Not to mention that Farrey interacted with Tejada throughout the brief interview as if he were absolutely despicable. Yes, Tejada lied about his age, but let's not treat him like he firebombed a nursery.

• Kansas City starters Zack Greinke (0.75) and Brian Bannister (0.82) own the top two ERAs in the American League.

• Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera turns 25 today. That's a scary thought.

• Last Friday Justin Upton swung so hard at a Jeff Francis pitch that he fell over in embarrassing fashion. No worries. Upton dusted himself off, and on Francis' very next offering, he did this.

• Milwaukee hasn't had a Gold Glove winner since Robin Yount in 1982, by far the longest drought for any team. That's a sad, sad statistic.

Duaner Sanchez returned to the Mets this week, pitching in the majors for the first time since separating his shoulder in a July 2006 taxi accident. Can he produce like he did before the injury? Two and a third scoreless innings is a nice start.

• Is there a starting pitcher who gets out of jams better than Andy Pettitte? Pettitte may find life easier, though, if he stopped spotting opponents two baserunners to begin each inning.

• New to the outfield, Rays CF B.J. Upton loves to show off his cannon arm. But he needs to stop airmailing the cutoff man. Immediately.

Daisuke Matsuzaka's off to a hot start yet again (3-0), but his pitch count hasn't been too encouraging of late. In Sunday's win over the Yankees, Dice-K needed 117 pitches just to make it through five innings.

• Quite a week for Giants prospect John Bowker. Since being called up last Saturday, the 24-year-old outfielder has played spectacularly in four games, hitting .583 with two homers, a triple and seven RBI. Yes, the Giants actually do have a position player or two down on the farm.

Pudge Rodriguez is a walking machine! Well, not really, but with three free passes, he's already a third of the way to last year's season total.

• Experience be damned -- the youthful A's currently boast the MLB's best road record (6-2).

Frank Thomas made history Monday. His seventh-inning popout marked his 9,832nd plate appearance without a sacrifice bunt. He now holds the MLB record, passing Harmon Killebrew.

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