Tom Verducci's View

June 08, 2003

HEADING SOUTH?

The most intriguing team to watch over the next six weeks will be
the White Sox. "If they continue to slide," one AL G.M. says,
"you have to expect Bartolo Colon will be on the market." Nothing
blows the trade winds like a No. 1 pitcher made available in
midseason. (See David Cone in 1995; Randy Johnson in '98; Curt
Schilling in 2000; and Colon last season, when he was dealt by
the Indians in late June.)

What are the chances that the White Sox can make the playoffs
after finishing May at 25-29? About 5%. Here's a history lesson
in the seven full seasons of the wild-card format.

--Only three of the 56 postseason teams began June with a losing
record: the 1996 Cardinals (24-29), the '97 Astros (26-28) and
the 2002 Athletics (25-28).

--Of the 43 teams that led their division at the start of June
(including one tie), 29 ended the season in first place.

--Only two teams led by four or more games at the start of June
and didn't make the playoffs: the 2000 Diamondbacks (four) and
the '01 Phillies (eight).

Those numbers suggest the Braves (four-game lead) and Mariners
(five) should feel secure. They also hint, however, that the
White Sox and defending world champion Angels (26-27 through May)
are more pretenders than contenders.

BIG DEAL

On May 26 the Orioles finally convinced their 2002 first-round
pick, 19-year-old lefthanded pitcher Adam Loewen, to sign--only
eight days before this year's draft. It took a major league
contract that will pay him $4 million over five years and
stipulates that Loewen must be in the big leagues by 2007 or be
put on waivers.

On the day after that deal the Rangers released righthander Todd
Van Poppel, one of Oakland's first-round picks in 1990 who, at
18, was given a deal similar to Loewen's. As a result, Van Poppel
went 7-10 with a 6.09 ERA with the A's in '94 when he should have
been honing his skills in the minors. He never did develop into a
polished pro and, at 31, is trying to hook up with his eighth
organization.

When Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie was asked if he
was concerned about giving Loewen a major league deal, he said,
"Absolutely. It's not something we considered lightly. Would Van
Poppel have been better [without it]? Who knows? We've been able
to watch Adam for two years [in high school and junior college].
He's very talented."

ASKING FOR TROUBLE?

Royals closer Mike MacDougal, 26, who opened the season firing
100-mph heaters, was clocked between 91 and 94 mph in a recent
outing against the Twins. When asked if Kansas City, which was
27-27 at week's end, could win 81 games this season, an American
League advance scout said, "Yeah, if MacDougal doesn't break down
before August. Between his [poor] mechanics and overuse, they'd
better be careful."

The righthander appeared in 25 of the Royals' first 54 games,
converting 12 of 16 save opportunities, but has blown four of his
last six chances. In addition to the workload, MacDougal puts
added strain on his arm with his herky-jerky delivery.

SHORT HOPS

On May 26 the Expos, already hampered by injuries to starting
pitchers Orlando Hernandez and Tony Armas, began a grueling
25-day, 22-game test that takes them from Florida to Philadelphia
to San Juan (against Anaheim and Texas) to Seattle to Oakland to
Pittsburgh.... The Cardinals expect to get closer Jason
Isringhausen (right shoulder surgery) back in about two weeks to
help beef up a depleted bullpen. Righthander Cal Eldred, signed
last December to a minor league deal on the advice of his buddy,
catcher Mike Matheny, is setting up and occasionally closing.
"Matheny probably deserves a finder's fee," joked G.M. Walt
Jocketty.... Braves rightfielder Gary Sheffield surprised Scott
Boras when he dropped the agent before Boras ever negotiated a
contract for him. A potential free agent after this season,
Sheffield, who was second in the league in hitting (.349) through
Sunday, plans to negotiate his own deal.

COLOR PHOTO: PAUL SANCYA/AP (COLON) Is Colon moving? COLOR PHOTO: JOE GIZA/REUTERS (LOEWEN) COLOR PHOTO: DAVID DUROCHIK/SPORTPICS (MACDOUGAL)

Read Tom Verducci's Inside Baseball column every week at
si.com/baseball.

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