Small moves could turn out to be steals
Under-the-radar acquisitions have potential to make an impact
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
Major League teams devote every offseason -- especially true for the past 30 years of the mobile free-agent era -- to making sure that they get all the pieces just right for another demanding campaign. Holes are filled and all contingencies accounted for through trades and signings, the very tinder that goes into the furnace of the Hot Stove.
Fans debate the headline moves, but those small-type transactions invariably influence the course of the summer months. For every Barry Zito, there's a Ramon Ortiz, who last year snuck into the nation's capital to lead the Nationals with 11 wins. For every Johnny Damon, there's a Jose Valentin, who entered Flushing, Queens, through a back door and became a keystone to the Mets' National League East division title.
This plot never changes, and every Spring Training camp now includes players who may have been afterthoughts, but have the potential to rush to the forefront. They are the under-the-radar acquisitions who can turn into over-the-top steals.
With one "Slammin'" exception, we aren't even talking about the non-roster overpopulation in camps, only now being thinned out a little by initial spring cuts. Homeless veterans who have grabbed at their last straws -- from Richard Hidalgo with the Astros to Jim Parque with the Mariners -- are still flying so low, they need to be tracked by sonar, not radar.
Who are the top candidates to emerge from the shadows into the spotlight? Consider the following list a prediction, in the order of impact potential.
1. Josh Hamilton, Reds
Intrigue and puzzlement, but mostly shrugs, answered his trade to the Reds from the Cubs, who selected him from the Tampa Bay organization during the December Rule 5 Draft. After all, beyond the drugs trail and injuries (eight surgeries since 1999) and tattoos (26 at last count), the one-time wonder boy had played a total of 98 Minor League games since 2000.
If anyone had to turn his life around, it was this 6-foot-4, 210-pound long-ago No. 1 draft pick. Only a couple of weeks of Spring Training have strongly testified to what Hamilton has been saying for three months -- that he's done that 180.
Hitting close to .500 in early Grapefruit League action, Hamilton has remarkably displayed no attrition of the skills that turned him into the nation's top draft choice in 1999. Seven years after he appeared in the 2000 Futures Game, the future may have finally arrived for Hamilton.
"I'm very, very happy for him. I know how hard he's worked," said Cincinnati manager Jerry Narron, a fellow North Carolinian, who will deserve all the credit for being a catalyst in the Reds-Hamilton union. "I know how hard he's worked. He's a big man and a tremendous athlete."
2. Brian Bannister, Royals
A right-hander who just turned 26, Bannister spent most of the 2006 season out of the sight of Mets fans, and he was also out of their minds by the time of his December deal to Kansas City. The son of former longtime Major League left-hander Floyd Bannister will soon be pitching himself into a lot of people's consciousness.
Bannister lit it up last April, with a 2.35 ERA in five starts in the Mets' rotation, and the rub is that nothing has happened to the arm that was putting up those numbers. As is apparently the case with so many pitchers, Bannister got hurt impersonating a position player -- he blew out his right hamstring while legging out a triple in a late April game against the Giants.
Bannister barely resurfaced last season, but regained his bearings, and he supplemented his repertoire with a two-seam fastball in the Mexican Winter League.
"He walks around like a big leaguer," Royals manager Buddy Bell said early in camp. "There's a presence about him, and I'm anxious to see him pitch in games that matter, which for him, is in Spring Training."
Nothing's been the matter thus far: Two outings, five innings, three hits and zero earned runs.
3. Mark Redman, Braves
You can't glide in any lower on the radar than hitting camp at 4 in the morning, then going three sharp innings nine hours later. That's the latest twist to Redman's mysterious trip from 11-game winner to holdout free agent.
Redman was essentially that until an injury to left-hander Mike Hampton created a perfect opportunity for him with the Braves. Redman's mind games ended, and he could finally go to work with possibly more motivation than anyone else anywhere.
"It stinks going into March 9 not knowing where you'll be, so that made me very motivated. But you learn from the experience," said Redman, who, in a hot market for pitchers, had been stunned to not get any solid offers after putting up a winning record (11-10) with the 100-loss Royals. "You can't change the perception scouting departments of different teams have of you -- except out on that mound."
Atlanta now gives him that chance. Redman may spend the season wowing the Braves as he did on that first day.
"This spring, I felt more ready for one of my better years than ever," said Redman, his confidence bolstered by a cut fastball he began throwing with great success last Aug. 16, "but had no team to go to."
4. Sammy Sosa, Rangers
Who is that guy in the Texas locker room? The guy seen thus far at the plate, we know. Attacking fastballs, opposite-fielding offspeed stuff, the hop and the skyward point ... the M.O. is unchanged.
But the warm smile greeting visitors to the nondescript corner locker, rivulets of work-induced sweat before others have had their morning beverage? Yes, it's the new, improved, hopefully-the-same Sosa, who promises to be huge again both in the batter's box and at the box office.
Right now, manager Ron Washington's biggest problem may be having a set outfield rotation, and perceiving Sosa as the regular DH. The 38-year-old is in terrific condition and appears to be more into the game when playing right between at-bats.
And what does the man himself think of the Rangers getting all this upside for a $500,000 guarantee?
"They are the ones who gave me an opportunity and stepped up to the plate," said Sosa, who was out of the game in 2006, "and they are the ones that look like geniuses now."
5. Horacio Ramirez, Mariners
In 2005, Ramirez went 11-9 in Atlanta while Zito was 14-13 in Oakland. A few months ago, while Zito was cashing in big, Ramirez was being shuttled to Seattle for a middle reliever, Rafael Soriano.
Other than the difference in service time, which made Zito eligible for free agency, durability diverged the two left-handers' career paths. While Zito made 34-plus starts in each of his seasons in the A's rotation, shoulder, hamstring and finger injuries limited Ramirez to a total of 23 in the seasons preceding and following 2005.
A healthy and hungry Ramirez, still only 27, will be quite a find for manager Mike Hargrove's rotation. He has the stuff to keep the best American League lineups off-balance.
Ramirez approaches the season with modest goals.
"There are just two things I want to accomplish this season: just staying healthy and going deep in ballgames," Ramirez said. "Those are the things I can control."
The early results have begun to raise expectations. Ramirez threw three hitless innings on Tuesday against the Rangers, after a similarly sharp "B" game outing.
6. Shannon Stewart, Athletics
7. Kirk Saarloos, Reds
8. Darin Erstad, White Sox
9. Kip Wells, Cardinals
10. John Thomson, Blue Jays
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com.
Good job Wayne time to give credit where credit is due.