Tejada's turnaround

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Over the winter Orioles executives asked star shortstop Miguel Tejada for help in smoothing over problems concerning some of his teammates. And each time, Tejada's prompt response was: "I'm going to help you with everybody.''

Tejada started his Oriole aid the moment he arrived in camp early Monday, merely by pledging a new allegiance to the organization that's been slumping for close to a decade. Tejada said he rededicated himself to fitness this winter, and one scout who saw him play in the Caribbean World Series said he did indeed look quicker and thinner, just months after there were whispers he'd lost a step, or two. He also rededicated himself to his team.

"I'm happy to be here,'' Tejada declared. "I'm happy to be with the Orioles."

This has to be refreshing news to the Orioles, who spent $79 million on seven free agents in hopes of getting better (and also pleasing their best player, who wanted out a year ago). Tejada apparently is starting to see the light at the end of the Fort McHenry Tunnel. Not only that, but when quizzed whether he believes his team can make the playoffs, despite being stuck in the division with the powerful Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays, Tejada didn't hesitate.

"Yeah, we can,'' he said. "You don't have to have nine superstars. You have to have nine guys who believe. You have to have nine guys who have hunger."

The Orioles didn't make the headline-grabbing moves this winter, but they attacked their weaknesses as well as anyone, improving their bullpen and enhancing their outfield, lineup and depth, four big areas of need, for just a few dollars more than it took to sign Tejada alone three winters ago (his deal is for $72 million for six years). A year ago they were forced to use minor-league shortstop Brandon Fahey as their left fielder for stretches, but by adding Jay Payton and Aubrey Huff to their outfield-first base-DH mix, that shouldn't have to happen again. The bullpen has four new faces (Jamie Walker, Danys Baez, Chad Bradford and Scott Williamson) that cost a combined $42.4 million. Orioles VP Jim Duquette said, "If you're in that clubhouse and you don't think this team is vastly different and vastly improved, you're crazy."

The biggest improvement may be in Tejada himself. This time there wasn't a hint of the discontent that led him to ask the Orioles to trade him a year ago. It's uncertain whether Orioles owner Peter Angelos could bring himself to part with his biggest star, anyway, so at least it'll be something of a time saver now that they both appear to be on the same page. (Folks around baseball couldn't believe Angelos killed a superb and sensible deal that would have sent Tejada to the Angels for vaunted young pitcher Ervin Santana and shortstop prospect Erick Aybar. Astros owner Drayton McLane appears to be the one who nixed the trade that would have sent Tejada to Houston, star pitcher Roy Oswalt to the Mets, and a package of youngsters to Baltimore, including Lastings Milledge.)

As it turns out, the Orioles get to keep a new and improved Tejada. Upon arriving Monday, Tejada said he might not hit as many home runs this year but will steal more bases "because that's my game." In the past it's also been his game to lead and set a tone, and he started doing that from the moment he got here.

Perhaps hearing those whispers about a lost step -- one uniformed Oriole said Tejada's diminishing range contributed to the team's second-worst-in-baseball ERA (ahead of only the Royals) -- Tejada took action, hiring a personal trainer and spending the winter here before joining his Dominican team to aid their Caribbean World Series title.

Tejada appeared thinner to Orioles onlookers, and he surely talked happier. He said he's a "different Miguel." Not only that but he pledged to shore up his best-known weakness.

"I'm going to be more on time,'' Tejada declared.

The knock on Tejada is that while he has five tools, one of them isn't an alarm clock. "I don't want to say I wasn't on time," Tejada said. 'but I'm going to be one of first to the field."

Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter revealed themselves the past couple of days, when they showed why they are no longer great friends, as A-Rod finally and perhaps therapeutically admitted. While Rodriguez is an open book, Jeter won't show you what's on Page One.

Rodriguez offered a "contract" to the writers (it was no $252 million contract, but the writers will take what they can get), by saying he'd "stop lying to all you guys" if they stopped asking about his relationship with Jeter. Then Rodriguez poured it all out, talking about how close they once were and how that's no longer the case. That may be the best thing for Rodriguez, who tried hard to resurrect their friendship but may finally understand that it's not going to happen.

Responding to A-Rod's comments, Jeter showed again that he considers almost anything beyond the box score to be private. He sounded exasperated the next day while discussing Rodriguez's revelation, pointing out several times that it wasn't he who chose to go public with the rift talk. Jeter thinks A-Rod says and reveals much too much.

For his sake, A-Rod should stop worrying about their relationship, and maybe he will. Rodriguez's unflattering remarks about Jeter in a 2001 Esquire article aren't something Jeter could ever understand -- or forgive. Rodriguez was quoted then saying, "You go into New York, you wanna stop Bernie [Williams] and [Paul] O'Neill, You never say, "Don't let Derek beat you.' He's never your concern.''

If A-Rod's honest remarks this week don't stop the stories (the contract offer to the writers was just to stop asking, not to stop writing), perhaps they can help him heal.

Perhaps the best thing about Yankees camp so far is all the vindication for the writers. Before Rodriguez admitted his relationship with Jeter isn't what it was, affirming what's been written for years, Carl Pavano's claim that the notion teammates had lost respect for him was a media fabrication went out the window when Mike Mussina publicly said Pavano had a lot to prove to them. With all the money Pavano's made, it's a wonder he doesn't own a mirror.

It's uncertain Mussina's talk did any good. Just a few days after Mussina made his public pronouncement, Pavano, who hasn't pitched in a game since June 2005, missed a throwing session due to what was described as "heavy legs."

But isn't that what spring training's for, to work and train not to have those heavy legs? After hearing of Pavano's "ailment," one pitcher pointed out, "Everyone has heavy legs the first couple weeks."

There was plenty of time to rest in the winter. And it's not like Pavano, in particular, should have had to catch up his rest. No one's done a better job of that than him.

Andruw Jones, who's finishing up a six-year, $75 million contract, presumably isn't going to let his dad do the negotiating this time, after declaring Tuesday that he was going to insist on "market value" and not going to give the Braves a hometown discount. That means that Jones, an underrated superstar (if that's possible), is going to insist on a contract that's at least along the lines of the $126 million, eight-year deal Vernon Wells recently got from Toronto. Judging by the Braves' tighter ways in recent years, you can't like their chances to keep him beyond this season.

The Cubs have a history of avoiding arbitration, and credit goes to GM Jim Hendry for doing it again when he got Carlos Zambrano to agree to a $12.4 million contract just as the sides were entering the hearing room. The agreement spared Zambrano from what can be a contentious day in his walk year.

The figure was below the midpoint of their proposed figures but represented a fair salary for perhaps baseball's most consistent No. 1 pitcher; his ERA has always been within a half-run of his career 3.29 mark. It represents a $5.75-million raise from the $6.65 million Zambrano made last year and is the highest-ever salary for a sixth-year pitcher.

Big agreements drive markets, and the player most affected by Z's deal is Dontrelle Willis, who'll make $6.45 million this year, his fifth big league season, and may be headed back to arbitration after 2007.

According to the contract, Zambrano also will receive $700,000 if he wins the Cy Young and between $500,000 and $100,000 for finishing second to fifth, $500,000 if he wins the MVP, $300,000 if he finishes second and $200,000 for third, $75,000 for making the All-Star team, $100,000 for the Silver Slugger (he won last year when six of his 11 hits were home runs), $500,000 for being the World Series MVP and $350,000 for being the LCS MVP (which aren't impossible now that the Cubs have invested $300 million in their product).

Congrats to Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins, a great gamer, who threw out the first meaningless quote of the spring when he declared that his Phillies are "the team to beat.'' My response: Let us be the judge of that.

The Phillies had a very nice winter, but they still have a decent amount of ground to make up before they start talking smack. That's what I think, but Mets manager Willie Randolph actually said he liked Rollins' big talk. Randolph grew up with those brash Yankees teams of the late '70s, and he doesn't mind a player making a boast or two.

Yet that doesn't mean Randolph has those type of players. When Carlos Delgado was asked for his response to Rollins' comments, he answered, "None ... he can say what he wants.'' And when David Wright was told Randolph liked Rollins' big talk and was invited to do the same, Wright, as polite as they come, said that before responding to Rollins' remarks, that he wanted to check with Randolph to be sure that's what Randolph said.

The Mets' youth movement continued with the signing of Sandy Alomar Jr. (No, not Alomar Sr., for those who are apt to make fun. Senior's already a Mets coach.) No kidding, Alomar's the sixth Met over 40. (There was a movement in Mets camp to claim Orlando Hernandez is not 40 -- maybe they're right, he's probably 50.) GM Omar Minaya, who looks younger than a couple of his players, said he believes there's nothing wrong with having 40-year-old players as long as they are the right 40-year-old players. Speaking for the over-40 set myself, and noting that Tom Glavine and Moises Alou are still excellent at what they do and 49-year-old Julio Franco is a Geritol miracle, I agree.