Tom Verducci's View

May 23, 2004

SAN DIEGO STEAL

The Padres thought they were on the verge of signing infielder
Edgardo Alfonzo after the 2002 season, only to see San Francisco
snag him with a four-year, $26 million deal. San Diego then
settled for Mark Loretta, giving him an under-the-radar, one-year
deal worth just $1.25 million. The Padres wound up with the
better player--with surprisingly more pop--at a fraction of the
cost.

Loretta, 32, who had hit 31 homers in eight seasons before
joining San Diego, has emerged as one of the NL's top second
basemen while outplaying Alfonzo, 30, the third baseman the
Giants mistakenly thought could replace Jeff Kent as lineup
protection for Barry Bonds. Alfonzo has nosedived, first
reporting to the team last year out of shape and, according to a
team source, missing his New York-based family. He has homered
once in 117 at bats this year. Says an NL manager, "He has no
life in his body."

Here's how Alfonzo and Loretta have fared over the past two
seasons.

G AB R H HR RBI AVG
Alfonzo 176 631 66 166 14 93 .263
Loretta 192 743 97 230 17 93 .310

A HIT IS A HIT

Alex Sanchez played his way out of Milwaukee last year by
resisting the small-ball game, which cleared the way for Scott
Podsednik to take his centerfield and leadoff spots and earned
Podsednik a contract extension. Given another chance in Detroit,
Sanchez is reviving the lost art of bunting. Through Sunday he
was batting .356 and had 15 bunt hits--no one else in the majors
had more than five--including three in one game on May 11 that
prompted Oakland manager Ken Macha to call him "the best [bunter]
I've ever seen."

CLOSE CALL

Marlins manager Jack McKeon was bold enough to switch closers on
the fly last September, taking the job from Braden Looper and
giving it to Ugueth Urbina. Astros manager Jimy Williams may face
a similar decision. Reliever Brad Lidge has better stuff and
command than the closer he's setting up, Octavio Dotel, who blew
a win for Roger Clemens on Sunday. Righthanders have almost no
chance against Lidge's 91-mph slider and 97-mph fastball. They
were 4 for 37 with an astonishing 26 strikeouts at week's end.
Says Houston catcher Brad Ausmus, "People try to cheat on [the
fastball], and that slider just disappears on them. There's no
doubt he has closer's stuff. The only thing he lacks is
[ninth-inning] experience."

COMMISSIONER FOR A DAY

What would be atop his to-do list if Phillies closer Billy Wagner
had Bud Selig's job for 24 hours? "I'd get rid of QuesTec. The
umpire's job is hard enough that he shouldn't have to worry about
how a machine would call pitches. I wish every fan could get
behind the plate just once to see how hard it is to judge a ball
moving that fast. It's way harder than it looks on TV."

THREE STRIKES

1. The Marlins will be getting the kind of premier pitching help
next month that contenders shop for every midseason. Righthander
A.J. Burnett, once considered to have stuff equal to or better
than that of fellow righty Josh Beckett, is on track to return in
early June, 14 months after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

2. There is one place for instant replay in baseball: getting
calls right on home run balls. New parks, with fan-friendly
seating and irregular shaped walls, make such calls increasingly
difficult for umpires.

3. It's the end of the Braves as we know them. No National League
team had fewer wins from its starters at week's end than Atlanta,
which had just eight in 36 games.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BAZEMORE/AP Loretta COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Sanchez COLOR PHOTO: REX BROWN/WIREIMAGE.COM Lidge COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Wagner

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)