Gennaro Filice
Friday May 9th, 2008

1. Rafael Furcal's next contract: Generally one of baseball's slower starters, Rafael Furcal has been an absolute terror at the plate since opening day.

After a recent win, the Dodgers shortstop could barely contain his glee before the assembled media: "This is the best of my career. When you go up and it's going well, anything can happen. You look forward to every at-bat."

He looks forward to a huge payday, as well. Furcal is a free agent at season's end, and he's definitely making the most of his walk year. He ranks second in all of baseball in runs (34) and third in batting average (.366). But it's his .448 on-base percentage that's most impressive, especially when compared to last season's lowly .333 mark. Add that on-base percentage to a healthy .597 slugging percentage and we're looking at a 1.045 OPS. Don't mean to get too numerical, but that kind of OPS is usually reserved for the game's best middle-of-the-lineup sluggers, not a 5-foot-9 leadoff man.

The only thing that could curtail Furcal's cash haul is his recent injury history. Ankle and back ailments diminished his production in 2007, when he basically turned into a bona fide slap hitter. And the injury bug has already reared its ugly head this season. Furcal missed L.A.'s last two games with back tightness, but is expected to return Friday.

If Furcal can finish the season healthy, he should land a nice chunk of change, and nobody will be happier than his parents. Yes, they're proud of their son's success, but it goes much further than that. When Rafael cashes in, so do his parents. Just look at his profile on the Dodgers' team site. Raffy gave the 'rents a car in '96 and a house in '02. Ma and Pa Furcal are probably yacht shopping as I write this.

Furcal's not the only player making the most of his walk year. Here are three others:

Pat Burrell: He averaged 30 homers and 103 RBIs over his last three years, and he's well on his way to matching that this season with a .305 average, 9 HRs and 30 RBIs.

Brad Lidge: "Light's Out" Lidge is back. He has yet to allow an earned run in a Phillies uniform and is 8-for-8 in save opportunities. Although his strikeouts are down a bit, that slider is still a lethal weapon.

Ben Sheets: The oft-injured Sheets did miss a start due to triceps tightness, but he avoided the usual trip to the DL. Through six starts, he's 4-0 with a 2.29 ERA, 0.89 WHIP and 32-to-11 strikeout-to-walk differential.

2. Chipper's Hall of Fame candidacy: It's difficult to find a bigger bargain among established players than Chipper Jones. He restructured his contract after the '05 campaign to help Atlanta sign Tim Hudson. He'll bring in $12,333,333 in 2008. That's less money than 51 players -- and five third basemen -- will make this season. Kind of shocking considering Jones, 36, is well on his way to Cooperstown.

It may surprise some, but Chipper is pretty much a lock for the Hall of Fame. He owns gaudy career numbers (.309/.405/.549 with 396 homers and 1,328 RBIs in 1,926 games). He's the only switch-hitter in MLB history with a career average north of .300 and more than 300 homers. To boot, he was probably the single most important cog in Atlanta's 14-season playoff run (even though he only took part in 11).

And Chipper's not done -- far from it. He currently leads the majors with an eye-opening .419 batting average and ranks third with 10 homers.

Surprisingly, there isn't a single "Jones" in the Hall. Larry Wayne Jr. will change that one day.

3. Scott Olsen's maturity: Last season wasn't too much fun for Olsen. Following a promising rookie campaign in '06, the Marlins southpaw tumbled to a 10-15 mark with a 5.81 ERA. And his pitching woes were just the beginning. There was the fine for flipping off fans in Milwaukee. There was the two-game suspension for insubordination following fisticuffs with teammate Sergio Mitre. And of course, there was the tasing and subsequent arrest for allegedly driving under the influence, resisting arrest with violence and fleeing and eluding a police office. That last incident included photo documentation, courtesy of the Aventura (Fla.) Police Department:

On Tuesday, though, Olsen held the Brewers to just two hits over 8 2/3 innings and improved his record to 4-1 (with a 2.22 ERA). His most noticeable change on the hill is his pace; he's working must faster than in the past. This helps him maintain focus and definitely keeps his emotions in check. In the past, Olsen would huff and puff his way through tough stretches. Nowadays if he doesn't get a favorable result, he quickly moves onto the next pitch.

"His composure is a lot better than the past," Milwaukee second baseman Rickie Weeks told the Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Outside the lines, teammates are buzzing over Olsen's increased professionalism. Now, this could just be the warm, fuzzy feelings that surround a hot start. Or it could be actual growth.

1. Verlander's polish: In Year 1, Justin Verlander burst onto the scene with a 17-9 record and ran away with the AL Rookie of the Year award.

In Year 2, Verlander established himself as Detroit's ace, threw a no-hitter and collected 18 more wins.

This rapid rise led many of us to believe Verlander would firmly place himself among the game's best in Year 3. But after eight starts, he looks like another embarrassing example of our premature adulation.

At 1-6 with a 6.43 ERA, Verlander has baseball minds racing, trying to figure out what's wrong with him. Many folks point to a decrease in velocity as support for the convenient explanation: He's hurt. But Verlander and the Tigers enthusiastically deny this theory. And I believe them. It's hard to imagine Detroit allowing the future of its staff to rack up May innings on a balky arm. There's a much simpler explanation to his struggles: Verlander is nowhere near as polished as most of us were led to believe. This is especially evident when it comes to the mental side of pitching.

Verlander opened this season as the unquestioned No. 1 for an ultra-hyped World Series contender. That's a lot of responsibility for a 25-year-old, and it's getting to him. With his increase in walks and decrease in strikeouts, Verlander seems to be trying to be too perfect, instead of just airing it out like he did in the past.

"I think he's getting caught a little bit worrying too much about trying to become a pitcher, throwing 91 and 92 and saving [more velocity] if you get into a jam," Jim Leyland told the Detroit Free Press. "I think he needs to go back to what he did in his first year: 'I've got good stuff. I'll make my pitches. You hit it.' "

This fixation with flawlessness could stem from the fact that his run support has greatly decreased this season. In 2006( 6.77) and 2007 (7.32), Verlander received the second- and third-best run support in all of baseball. This year he's getting a measly 2.57 runs from the underachieving Tigers offense.

Verlander still boasts the raw nastiness to someday become a top-tier ace, but he's not there yet.

2. Eric Byrnes: With his endless hustle and frat guy persona, Byrnesy gets a lot of love here at Three Up, Three Down. But because we try to maintain a smidgen of professionalism, no punch can be pulled.

Last season Byrnes finished fourth in steals with 50. This year he's on track for 19. To be fair, Byrnes has battled hamstring problems since the beginning of spring training. The hammy is healed, though, and Byrnes recently told the Arizona Republic, "I'm ready to start running again."

But it's pretty hard to steal bases when you can't get on base. Byrnes is mired in a 5-for-46 slump over his last 11 games, dropping his average to .232. Diamondbacks faithful are begging him to bring back his mustache. (Byrnes attributed a 14-game hitting streak to the 'stache back in April.) Personally, I think he needs to abandon his current at-bat tuneage: The Outfield's Your Love. Tony Lewis' high-pitched holler has clearly run out of juice.

3. Howie's fragility: Howie Kendrick may be one of the purest young hitters in the game today. Unfortunately, he's also beginning to look like one of the most brittle.

Kendrick hit .322 last year, but he missed a total of 67 games on the disabled list with two separate finger fractures. The second basemen got off to a hot start this season (8-for-16 with a 1.221 OPS), but a strained left hamstring put him on the shelf after 10 games. On the 15-day DL since April 14, Kendrick's return has been delayed twice.

Kendrick's line-drive swing evokes memories of Tony Gwynn, but his DL frequency elicits comparisons to Nick Johnson.

• As of Friday morning, it has been 22 innings since a Mariner last crossed home plate. And these offensive frustrations seemed to boil over Thursday night when Kason Gabbard buzzed Richie Sexson's tower, setting off a bench-clearing skirmish at the mound. Rangers TV analyst Tom Grieve absolutely hammered Sexson for charging the mound, calling the Mariners first baseman "gutless" and "a joke."

• Did the Rockies forget that Rick Ankiel was a fire-balling pitcher in his first MLB life? Two Colorado baserunners tested Ankiel's arm on Tuesday, and the center fielder nailed them both with a pair of awe-inducing throws to third base.

• When the Yankees demoted pitcher Ian Kennedy to Class AAA Scranton on Sunday, the right-hander admitted the New York media had gotten to him. "If I pitch under a smaller microscope down there in Scranton then maybe it might put a little less pressure on me," Kennedy told the New York Daily News. "Analyzing every pitch doesn't help." In his return to the minors on Thursday, Kennedy pitched 7 1/3 innings of one-hit ball with eight strikeouts and zero walks.

• Does anyone in baseball constantly look more pissed off than Blue Jays hurler A.J. Burnett? Seriously, watching him makes me uncomfortable.

• The Mets finally had a starting pitcher reach the eighth inning, as John Maine went 8 1/3 on Wednesday. New York was the last team to have a starter accomplish this feat in 2008.

Dusty Baker earned a bad reputation for overworking young arms during his days as Cubs manager. He did nothing to dispel this rep on Wednesday, allowing 24-year-old phenom Edinson Volquez to throw 118 pitches in a 9-0 win

Joba Chamberlain's triumphant fist pumps are creating a bit of a stir. After giving up a back-breaking home run to David Dellucci Tuesday, Chamberlain struck out Dellucci Thursday. Even though there was nobody on base and the Yankees held a three-run lead at the time, Joba punctuated the punchout with a World Series-caliber pump. Dellucci wasn't too pleased and let the media know it: "If he wants to yell and scream after a strikeout and dance around the mound, that's what gets him going. My home run was in a much bigger situation, a much more key part of the game, but I didn't dance around and scream."

Jacoby Ellsbury is a perfect 22-for-22 in stolen bases in his major league career.

• One quick piece of fantasy advice (heed at your own peril ...): Pick up Rockies catcher Chris Iannetta. Now! Iannetta has started five straight games over light-hitting Yorvit Torrealba, accumulating eight RBIs. We all know how shallow this position is in the fantasy world. It's time to part ways with Kurt Suzuki and hop on the Iannetta train.

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