Inside Baseball

July 23, 2000

No Team's Immune
Even the Braves suffer pitching woes, and Andy Ashby is the
latest cure

Before a game against the Orioles last Thursday, Braves
lefthander Tom Glavine, the longest-tenured member of Atlanta's
starting rotation, stood in the Camden Yards outfield talking
with righthander Andy Ashby, the newest pledge to pitching's
most august fraternity. It was a sort of freshman orientation
for Ashby, who the day before had been acquired from the
Phillies for two lefthanders, Bruce Chen and prospect Jimmy
Osting. "He just told me how some things are done here, what's
expected of me," says Ashby. "Everyone has made me feel welcome."

They should. The Braves had to do what they have seldom had to
in the past decade: Conduct a midseason hunt for a frontline
starter. "Usually our starting pitching is so strong and so
durable that we don't have to do this," says general manager
John Schuerholz. "This year has been different."

Most teams would love to have starters as shaky as Atlanta's
have been (their 4.30 ERA through Sunday was second best among
National League rotations), but, beyond Glavine (10-5, 3.50 ERA)
and Greg Maddux (11-3, 3.35), this has hardly looked like a
typically dominating Braves rotation. The spring-training loss
of righthander John Smoltz (an elbow injury led to Tommy John
surgery) opened a hole that veterans John Burkett and Terry
Mulholland have struggled to fill; they were a combined 15-12 at
week's end, but each had an ERA over 5.00. Righthander Kevin
Millwood, a Cy Young candidate a year ago, was 5-8 with a 5.34
ERA. As a whole the staff had an ERA of 4.23, which was nearly
two thirds of a run higher than last year's. The Braves haven't
finished with an ERA over 4.00 since 1990, the last time they
missed the postseason.

For most of the season Ashby, 33, who cost the Phillies two
former first-round draft picks in the trade that delivered him
from San Diego last November, hasn't looked like a pitcher who
could shore up a struggling rotation. He surrendered five runs
or more in eight of 16 starts for Philadelphia, and after losing
seven of his first nine decisions--and making it clear he would
test the free-agent market after the season and not sign a
contract extension--he heard constant abuse from fans at
Veterans Stadium. His Philly experience reached its nadir on
June 28, when he gave up six earned runs in six innings to the
Brewers and, while heading for the bench after the top of the
sixth, got into a shouting match with a fan seated behind the
Phillies' dugout. "Things didn't go well because I wasn't
pitching well," says Ashby. "I have a lot of respect for the
guys on that team, but I'm relieved that it's over and I can
concentrate on pitching here."

Schuerholz and the Phillies began talking trade more than a
month ago, even before Ashby showed signs of turning his season
around by winning his last two starts before the All-Star break.
As soon as Ashby arrived, Atlanta pitching coach Leo Mazzone
began tinkering with his arm angle, trying to get the
righthander to throw a bit more over the top than he had in
Philadelphia to get a better downward angle on his fastball.
Against the Orioles last Friday, Ashby, who usually makes
liberal use of his curveball, threw sinkers and cut fastballs
almost exclusively. The game plan worked: He shut down Baltimore
on seven hits in a 4-1 victory. It was Atlanta's first
complete-game win since May 29.

Sandwiched between victories by Maddux and Glavine in a sweep of
Baltimore, Ashby's gem helped give the Braves their first
three-game winning streak in two months. "I'm here to learn,"
says Ashby, who is noncommittal about whether he'd like to stay
in Atlanta beyond this season. "I'm excited to be around guys
like Glavine and Maddux, just to see how they go about their
business."

The Braves are excited that he's around, too.

When the Deal Comes Round
Trade Deadline History

The trading deadline--baseball's Christmas in July--approaches,
which means general managers are hitting the speed-dial button
to find players they hope will vault their teams into the
postseason. A total of 112 July trades were made in the five
seasons from 1995 through '99. Here's a review of the heavy
traffic during the last five Julys combined.

If you want to deal, don't call the Pirates. During the 1995-99
span Pittsburgh pulled the trigger on only three July deals, the
fewest among the period's nonexpansion teams. What deals did
Pittsburgh deem worthy? Last year it sent outfielder Jose
Guillen and righthander Jeff Sparks to Tampa Bay for catchers
Joe Oliver and Humberto Cota. Oliver is now with the Mariners,
and Cota plays for the Altoona Curve, Pittsburgh's Double A
affiliate. (Guillen is still with the Devil Rays; Sparks is in
Triple A.) In '98 the Pirates acquired second baseman Warren
Morris and righthander Todd Van Poppel from the Rangers, but it
cost them talented righthander Esteban Loaiza. Morris finished
third in the '99 National League Rookie of the Year vote but at
week's end was hitting .242 with two homers and 21 RBIs. Van
Poppel had a 2.04 ERA as a reliever for the Cubs. In 1996, the
Pirates sent veteran righthander Danny Darwin to the Astros for
righthander Rich Loiselle. Loiselle had 29 saves for Pittsburgh
in 1997 but underwent reconstructive elbow surgery last July and
had appeared in just 12 games this season before heading back to
the DL with right-shoulder bursitis three weeks ago.

If you want to deal, do call the Red Sox. Over the past five
seasons Boston has made 15 midsummer trades, the most among
major league clubs. (The Mariners and the Mets are tied for
second, with 14.) Of course, not every move was a wise one. In
1996 the Red Sox gave the Mariners Jamie Moyer, who's still in
Seattle's rotation and since the trade has the fifth-most wins
(61) among big league lefthanders. In return they got outfielder
Darren Bragg, who hit .264 in three seasons with Boston. The Red
Sox returned the favor the next year with one of the steals of
the decade. Boston sent Seattle erratic closer Heathcliff
Slocumb and got Derek Lowe, an All-Star closer this season, plus
catcher Jason Varitek.

Speaking of steals, the Yankees pulled off perhaps the biggest
heist of recent seasons in '95, when they got righthander David
Cone from the Blue Jays for minor league pitchers Mike Gordon,
Marty Janzen and Jason Jarvis. Janzen, the only one of the three
to pitch in the majors, went 6-7 with a 6.39 ERA in 27 games
with Toronto. Through Sunday, Cone had won 61 games for New York
and had a 6-1 postseason record.

If you're dealt on deadline day, chances are you're a pitcher.
In the last five years 149 players were sent packing on July 31,
and 99 of them, or two thirds, have been pitchers. The best
pickups? Johnson, who went 10-1 for the Astros in '98, and
righthander Andy Benes, who won seven of nine decisions down the
stretch for the Mariners, who won the American League West in '95.

Playing by the Numbers
Economic Panel's Report

The report issued last week by the commissioner's blue-ribbon
panel on the state of baseball's economics, a document 18 months
in the making, spells out in 87 pages of charts, graphs and arid
prose what has been obvious to fans for years: The sport's
economic and competitive balance is out of whack. Still, as
commissioner Bud Selig would have us believe, acknowledging a
problem is the first step toward solving it. "I told the clubs
that we're done making believe this doesn't exist," Selig said
last Friday after the report had been presented to the owners.
"Disparity and baseball's whole economic order is our Number 1
priority."

The report is also a likely first step on the road to labor
Armageddon when baseball's basic agreement expires.
Traditionally management has closely guarded its books, but the
panel's report lists each team's revenues and operating profits
or losses over the past five years.

Although the numbers presented are far from complete, the
picture they paint isn't pretty. Teams' total revenue (from
local and national TV contracts to ticket sales and stadium
concessions) more than doubled, to $2.8 billion, from 1995
through '99, but only three teams, the Yankees, Indians and
Rockies, turned a profit over that span. With the majority of
teams hemorrhaging money, it seems likely that the panel's
recommendations--vastly increased revenue sharing, a luxury tax
of up to 50% on payrolls over $84 million and an annual
"competitive balance draft" that would allow the clubs with the
eight worst records to pluck talent from the systems of the
eight playoff teams--will receive support from most owners.

The report also advocated allowing teams to relocate if they've
exhausted all reasonable means of making ends meet in their
current homes. Contraction--the disbanding of two or more
teams--was said to be unnecessary if the panel's other
recommendations are adopted, but some owners remain intrigued by
the idea. Selig said last week that the issue of contraction
didn't come up at his meeting with the owners, but "the problems
[outlined in the report] are so significant that I wouldn't want
to close my mind to any options."

The contraction issue could become a significant hammer for
management when labor negotiations begin. According to one major
league executive, the owners have the right to disband teams
without the approval of the players' union, which would object
to the disappearance of 50 player jobs even more vehemently than
it would a stiffer luxury tax that might act as a drag on
salaries. "We'd have to bargain over the effects of the
consolidation--severance pay for jobs lost and things like
that," says the executive. "But if the decision to consolidate
is made, there isn't much the union can do about it."

Going Back to The Start
Williamson's Big Chance

You might say Reds fireballer Scott Williamson was a victim of
having done his job too well last season. A starter throughout
his college career at Tulane and Oklahoma State and also during
his meteoric rise through Cincinnati's system, Williamson was
placed in the Reds' bullpen early in 1999 because that's where
rookies with 36 games of minor league experience are supposed to
begin. Williamson and his 98-mph fastball tore through the
National League--he wound up 12-7 with 19 saves and 107
strikeouts in 93 1/3 innings and was named Rookie of the
Year--but working out of the bullpen wasn't his dream job. "When
they told me I was starting, [manager] Jack McKeon said, 'It's
the first time I've seen you with a smile on your face for a
long time," says the 24-year-old righthander, who was inserted
into the rotation two weeks ago. "When I was a little kid, I
dreamed about being a starting pitcher in the big leagues."

Williamson's sophomore season hasn't been nearly the joyride his
rookie year was. In his 38 appearances through July 4, his ERA
was a respectable 3.65, but in 56 2/3 innings he had walked
46--more than he walked all last season--and was tied for the
league lead with 13 wild pitches. Williamson had also blown two
saves and won just two of seven decisions. The slump, combined
with the emergence of righthander Danny Graves as a dominating
closer, lightened Williamson's workload; when he did pitch he
tended to overthrow, thus exacerbating his wildness.

On July 9 McKeon moved him into the rotation to replace
struggling lefthander Ron Villone. Williamson, who had pitched
only once in the previous 11 days, responded with a strong
performance against the Indians: He allowed two runs, three hits
and one walk in 5 2/3 innings in his first major league start.
Though he used four pitches in the minors, Williamson had all
but forgotten his changeup as a reliever, relying instead on his
fastball, slider and split-finger. In his two starts through
Sunday--he got his first win as a starter last Saturday, when he
held the Rockies to three runs in six innings--Williamson
changed speeds more often. "He's got everything it takes to be a
great starter," says Reds pitching coach Don Gullett.

Says Williamson, who's basking in what he sees as a
less-pressurized role on the staff, "There's a lot more pressure
in relieving than in starting. If you give up one or two runs
[when you start], your team still has a chance. If you give up a
run when you relieve, it's [usually] a blown save or a loss.
Relieving is not easy. I've learned that the last season and a
half."

In Good Hands
On Deck

July 25-26: Indians at Blue Jays

Don't expect many cheap hits in this series. Through Sunday,
Cleveland led the majors in fielding percentage (.986) and had
made only 47 errors, second fewest in the majors, after Seattle.
Toronto was .001 behind the Indians in fielding percentage and
had made 51 errors. Combined, the two have the American League
fielding-percentage leaders at four positions--Indians shortstop
Omar Vizquel and third baseman Travis Fryman, and Blue Jays
catcher Alberto Castillo and left fielder Shannon Stewart.

For the latest scores and stats, plus more news and analysis
from Tom Verducci, go to cnnsi.com/baseball.

COLOR PHOTO: JERRY WACHTER Ashby, an unhappy 4-7 with the Phillies, debuted for the Braves with a 4-1 win over the Orioles. COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND Williamson, wild as a closer this year, hopes to settle into a starter's role.

the HOT corner

Someone forgot to tell Tigers closer Todd Jones that baseball is
supposed to be a coldhearted business. Jones, 32, who pitched in
his first All-Star Game last week, says he won't seek an
exorbitant salary or a no-trade clause if Detroit offers him a
contract extension. What's more, Jones says, as long as he's a
Tiger, he'll help groom his likely successor, 23-year-old
righthander Matt Anderson. "It's my job, if I move on, to have a
seamless transition from me to him," says Jones, who has 24
saves in 25 opportunities this year and is signed through next
season at $3.65 million per year. "If he doesn't do his job,
then I've failed. I want to help the Tigers, and if I can help
the Tigers by being traded, that's fine."...

Astros manager Larry Dierker has apparently reached the fifth
stage of grief--acceptance--over his team's woeful performance.
"I think this is an aberration, but I also think last year was
an aberration, winning as many games as we did with all the
injuries we had," says Dierker, whose club was in the National
League Central cellar with a 32-59 record through Sunday. "If
you embrace the idea that things have a way of evening out, then
this could be an evening-out process for winning 97 games last
year with half a team."...

Could Randy Johnson, who doubled, driving in two runs, against
the Rangers last Saturday, play the outfield between starts? At
week's end Diamondbacks rightfielders were hitting a combined
.213, only seven points higher than the combined average of the
Arizona pitching staff.

in the BOX

July 14, 2000
Mariners 7, Padres 5

Trailing San Diego 2-1 on the road, Seattle had men on first and
second with one out in the sixth inning when John Olerud drilled
a double to left, scoring Stan Javier. Olerud was sent back to
the plate, however, by first base umpire Jim Wolf, who, after
seeing a ball on the rightfield grass that had bounced out of
the Mariners' bullpen, had called time out just before Padres
righthander Brian Meadows delivered the pitch. Wolf's call cost
the Mariners the tying run; it also sent Seattle manager Lou
Piniella into one of his patented tantrums.

After ranting at Wolf for several minutes, Piniella returned to
the dugout. Olerud returned to the batter's box and launched
Meadows's 1-0 pitch into the rightfield seats for a three-run
homer that put the Mariners ahead for good. "When you get a big
hit like that [double], it's not easy to get another one," said
Seattle reliever Jose Paniagua, whose errant bullpen throw had
cost Olerud his first clutch hit of the at bat. "After the home
run, I was the happiest guy."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)