Jon Heyman
Friday March 6th, 2009

MESA, Ariz. -- Milton Bradley hasn't shown too much of his tremendous ability in Cubs camp yet, as he's been laid up with a tight thigh and flu-like symptoms for most of the early spring games. But Bradley is showing his trademark feistiness already.

Right off the bat he questioned my first question about whether he's ready to go back to playing the outfield full time. He didn't do it in a harsh way, but Bradley, who played only 20 games in the outfield last year in Texas as he was recovering from knee surgery, still isn't a guy who gives ground. "That's a funny question,'' he said earlier this week. "That question is weird to me.''

Soon though, Bradley was providing thoughtful answers to all my questions, both good and bad. And by next month he will begin to answer the biggest question: Can he stay in the outfield long enough to make the Cubs' gamble work? Perhaps it wasn't wise to start off with a question about his ability to remain healthy, but the facts are that he hasn't played 100 games in the outfield since 2004 and has only played 100 games at any spot in three of his nine big-league seasons.

Bradley, who went 1-for-3 in his return to the lineup on Wednesday, brings many questions to mind, and he has quick answers for many of them, such as the other big one, about whether he'll be able to keep his cool this year.

"I never had a fight in my life,'' he said at one point. "I just get [ticked] off.''

Does he ever. While Bradley may never have exchanged blows (and I can't dispute him there), he certainly seems to have gotten to the cusp of fisticuffs quite a few times. Good for him that he doesn't dispute that.

He said he changed, though, after suffering a torn ACL while being thrown to the ground by his Padres manager Bud Black late in the 2007 season after going wild following some harsh remarks to him by an umpire. He also appears to blame himself, certainly not Black or even the umpire whom he says incited that fit. And that's a positive sign.

"When I hurt my knee, that was the lowest point of my life,'' said Bradley, who turns 31 next month. "That's when I knew something had to change.''

After watching the Padres miss the playoff by one game following his serious knee injury, Bradley rebuilt his career and some of his rep in Texas last year. He behaved nearly impeccably with the Rangers all season, hitting .321 with 22 home runs and 77 RBIs and most impressively leading the American League with a .436 on-base percentage and a .999 OPS. The only near-incident came when he tried to confront a Royals broadcaster after hearing that he had criticized Bradley's character; again, there were no blows (Rangers GM Jon Daniels got up to the broadcast booth in time to calm Bradley).

Bradley explained why he goes wild sometimes, saying, "I can't hold a picket sign, and march and picket like Martin Luther King.''

He attributes some past blowups to being "young and dumb.'' He said, "I was never violent.'' Rather, he said, the rep came from a string of childish temper tantrums.

"If anyone was hurt by it, it was me,'' he said..

Physically, he's had a few hurts, too. Few have suffered as wide a variety of injuries as Bradley, and it can't be comforting to see him laid up by two separate, albeit slight, infirmities this early. Cubs GM Jim Hendry maintained he isn't going to worry so early in spring, not with so many games to go, and besides, Hendry said, "We're not expecting him to play 150 games. We have other good outfielders.'' (The Cubs can move Kosuke Fukudome to right field and employ Reed Johnson or Joey Gathright in center on days Bradley can't play.) For his part, Bradley, says, "I'm feeling fine, and taking the necessary steps to prepare myself for playing the season.''

The Cubs are the class of the National League, but absences by Bradley could hurt the team as well as Bradley himself (his $20 million, two-year contract only becomes a $30 million, three-year deal if he plays at least 75 games in 2009, according to the contract filing). However many games he plays, Bradley is the most interesting addition to a clubhouse that already contains some notably temperamental talents, such as star pitcher Carlos Zambrano and three-time Manager of the Year Lou Piniella, who just might be great for Bradley.

The Cubs have long loved Bradley's talent, and felt that with the offensively-oriented Alfonso Soriano in left field, they needed to target the best defensive player among the many great offensive outfield options, and Bradley blows away Adam Dunn, Raul Ibanez and even Bobby Abreu in terms of defensive ability. But the question always comes back to whether he can stay healthy enough to show it.

Bradley said he loved the Cubs because he wants to win ("my focus is on winning, and I'm looking to make a difference,'' he said), and also because many of his other opportunities involved being a DH in the American League. He did that last year. "Texas served a purpose,'' is the way Bradley put it. He is anxious to show that he can be a complete player.

"I don't understand why I'd be better-suited to do something else,'' Bradley said. "When I was an outfielder, I was always too valuable to DH. After hurting my knee, I came back pretty much instantly and became an All-Star. And now people are saying I'm better suited to DH. That's why I didn't consider American League teams. They all wanted me to DH.''

Hendry was eyeing Bradley from a distance for quite a while, and Bradley was impressed by the GM's forthrightness. Hendry told him right away that he was their guy, but that he had to clear up a couple questions related to the ownership change before making an offer. Just like Hendry said, once those questions were cleared up, he called Bradley.

"Jim Hendry's an honest, fair guy," Bradley said. "You don't meet too many like that in this business. He told me it would take some time with the ownership situation but that we'd get it done. I believed him.''

And thus maybe the most interesting marriage in baseball was made.

Alex Rodriguez stuck to his story in speaking to MLB bigwigs on Sunday, according to people familiar with his recent inquisition. He still only took steroids from 2001 through 2003, and he still dreamed up the bright idea with his cousin, he told them. While MLB officials couldn't have been all that impressed with that account, and surely wondered about some parts of his story, they are in no position to suspend or punish him for his transgression unless something more surfaces. The 2003 test he failed was only supposed to be a survey test, and he suffered more than the other 103 who failed by being ousted, thanks to his big name and the exceptional reporting of SI's Selena Roberts and David Epstein.

Rodriguez's latest issue, the labral tear in his right hip and accompanying cyst, is definitely unrelated to steroid use, doctors told Epstein. The tear caused the cyst, and the tear is caused by stress inflicted in the day-to-day pounding that a professional athlete takes.

If A-Rod has to miss a significant portion of the 2009 season because of the hip issue and likely surgery (Rodriguez and the Yankees have decided for the moment to try to get through it with rest and rehab, and hope that the draining of the "giant'' accompanying cyst alleviates the tightness he was feeling), the Yankees could do worse than Dodgers youngster Blake DeWitt. Free agent Mark Grudzielanek might work, too, at a low cost.

DeWitt proved to be a solid player with L.A., and he's now squeezed out of a starting spot with the bargain signing of Orlando Hudson by the Dodgers. Joel Sherman of the New York Post presented a long list of possibilities (including DeWitt plus many others such as Scott Rolen, Hank Blalock, Melvin Mora, Mark Teahen, Chad Tracy and Brandon Inge), after Rodriguez's condition came to light Thursday.

However, the chances to expand the $200 million payroll significantly for a player who may only be a few-week fill-in seem remote. So Adrian Beltre, Chone Figgins and their long-established ilk seem like long shots. Garret Atkins would require unloading the farm system.

Bill Hall, who has a calf injury and was inconsistent offensively last year (if not downright bad), isn't a great idea, either. Neither is Bobby Crosby, who is known for being two things: 1) a shortstop, and 2) injury plagued.

Here are three key factors to the biggest deal of 2009 spring training (and maybe any spring training) ...

1) Calming influences. Dodgers GM Ned Colletti, and to a lesser degree Joe Torre, spent hours calming down club owner Frank McCourt, who blew up after agent Scott Boras sent a counter proposal for $55 million (with deferred monies) after the Dodgers suggested their $45 million offer was their final bid. McCourt is "very emotional,'' according to another owner. So it's good that he is surrounded by calm guys in Colletti and Torre.

2) Manny ultimately wanted to be in L.A. He loves L.A., as he said in his press conference, and he sees it as the anti-Boston, as he suggested. "He lives in Pasadena, and he can walk around, and no one bothers him,'' one teammate says. "He loves that.''

3) The Giants bid wasn't exactly Giant. The Dodgers were acceding to the opt out, which was the key to the deal as far as Boras and Manny were concerned. The opt-out provision is what allowed Rodriguez to cash in for an extra $275 million (and maybe $305 million if he becomes the all-time home run king), J.D. Drew to cash in for $70 million and A.J. Burnett to cash in for $82.5 million. The rival Giants were in the bidding on Ramirez, but people familiar with their thinking say that they probably would have gotten into the "low 40s'' for two years and hadn't yet agreed to the opt-out provision. Giants president Larry Baer said, "We think we did the right thing.'' While the Dodgers' payroll is actually down from last year (from about $119 million to around $99 million), the Giants boosted theirs with moves designed to improve their pitching and defense.

• The Diamondbacks aren't worried in the least about Brandon Webb, who did nothing last spring and then started out the season like he would win the Cy Young (and almost did). GM Josh Byrnes said he believes that Webb "has a biological clock that tells him when it's April.''

• The Cubs are wisely taking it slow with talented. but fragile. right-hander Rich Harden, who said, "We've got a long spring. There's no sense in rushing things.''

• You've got to love resident baseball scholar Aaron Heilman, who told me he thought it was "serendipitous'' that he was traded to the Cubs, since he already made his winter home in a Chicago suburb. The Notre Dame alum is a candidate for the rotation but isn't campaigning for the role that the Mets didn't think he could fill. Sean Marshall is the favorite, but Heilman definitely is in the mix, especially after a strong first start.

• Hardly anyone has looked worse so far this spring than Joba Chamberlain, who isn't blowing anyone away with fastballs barely reaching 90 mph.

• I'll believe Luis Castillo is the Mets' leadoff hitter when I see it in April and beyond. For now I am considering manager Jerry Manuel's musings to be just that, and perhaps a way to pump up Castillo's confidence after hearing so many bad things in New York the last year. If that's what it was, that's not such a bad idea.

Freddy Garcia, a favorite for the No. 5 starter's job with the Mets, is off to a slow start (as in slow radar readings, in the low-to-mid 80s). Garcia's always been a guy who didn't need to throw 90 mph, but he needs to throw harder than this.

• Fired Nats exec Jose Rijo seemed like one of the nicest people on Earth, but you'll notice that no one is stepping forward to stick up for deposed GM Jim Bowden, who stepped down after recommending the ludicrous signing of a prospect who was four years older than advertised and who wasn't even really himself. MLB continues to investigate whether Bowden and his boys were just dumb or were complicit in the scout skimming scandal.

• Interim man Mike Rizzo isn't a bad pick if the Nats really want to build from within. He engineered some very successful D'backs drafts.

• The Nats have a long way to go. One competing GM said that if you were to combine the 20 best prospects of the Nats and Rangers (Texas, along with the Rays, is considered to have the most blue-chip prospects in baseball), about 19 of them would be Rangers.

• While it may not be Dodgertown, the new Dodgers facility at Camelback Ranch is extremely nice, and like Dodgertown, very open to the fans. It's the best place to interact with the players. You've got to hand it to the Dodgers: They do think of their fans.

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