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Healthy arms might pull Cubs back up

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MESA, Ariz. -- The Chicago Cubs have two huge reasons to believe that they will get up off the mat in the National League Central after last year's disappointing sixth-place finish.

The Cubs were one of the few teams able to trade for a quality starting pitcher in the off-season (Ismael Valdes), and the club expects to have 1998 phenom Kerry Wood back in the rotation in early April. If all goes well, they'll have at least four solid starters (including veterans Kevin Tapani and Jon Lieber), with a chance to get better this spring.

Reason to believe. That's all long-suffering Cubs fans can ask for, but general manager Ed Lynch doesn't want to get their hopes up too high.

"I think if you ask any GM, they'll tell you they always want more pitching," said Lynch, as he watched his pitching staff begin to take shape at the club's training site. "If every pitcher we have stays healthy all season and has an average or above-average year, we'll be fine. But that's pretty hard to do."

No one knows that better than Lynch, who watched Wood go down with a serious elbow injury last spring and suffered along with his team as it went from the playoffs in 1998 to the NL Central cellar last year.

"We did not have a single day without a pitcher on the disabled list," Lynch said, "and that doesn't include Wood and [Jeremi] Gonzalez. We had something like 700 DL days for pitchers. You lose Kerry Wood and have a pitcher on the DL every day of the year and it's going to be tough.

"The depth of pitching being what it is in baseball, there are very few teams that can lose two pitchers and reach down to their system to replace them. The main thing for us is to stay healthy."

In a best-case scenario, the Cubs could be right in the hunt for a playoff berth, but they are not the most improved also-ran in the division. The Cincinnati Reds acquired power-hitting outfielders Ken Griffey and Dante Bichette. The St. Louis Cardinals added veteran starting pitchers Darryl Kile and Andy Benes to a staff with some untapped potential.

And, of course, there's the defending division champion Houston Astros, who remain the favorite to repeat again.

"Everybody has improved themselves, and it's going to be a dogfight," Lynch said. "I think it's going to be an exciting and unpredictable year. There will be teams that underachieve and teams that over-achieve. I think Houston has to be considered the favorite in the division because they've earned that right. Houston has been the one constant."

Wood update

Wood may hold the key to a respectable showing in the crowded NL Central race, but he still has some ground to cover in his comeback from the Tommy John elbow operation he underwent last spring.

He has thrown a couple of times during the first week of spring training, with promising results, but the Cubs are determined to tread lightly with their most valuable young player. Manager Don Baylor would like to see Wood pitch in a minor-league camp game in early March and make his first regular-season appearance the second week of April, but there is no hard timetable for his return.

"When he gets back to normal, we want him to stay there," Lynch said. "We don't want any setbacks. He's not going to remember a few years from now that he waited a few extra weeks to get back.

"The kid feels great. Medical technology is such that the latest guy to have that surgery has the best chance [to make a successful comeback]. Kerry is still very young, and the doctors say, the younger you are, the better chance you have."

Neon Deion update

Then-and-now Reds outfielder Deion Sanders told the Cincinnati Enquirer that he first pondered a return to baseball while sitting in the stands at The Ballpark in Arlington in June and watching his first major-league game as a spectator.

"I just sat out there looking and said, 'My God, this is what I used to do,' " Sanders said. "I started saying, 'This is something else.' That's when I started really considering it."

It has been more than two years since Sanders picked up a bat, so there is some concern that he won't hit much. No doubt, some cynical football fans might point out that he didn't hit much while he was playing for the Dallas Cowboys, either.

It's unanimous

Embattled Atlanta Braves reliever John Rocker got another vote of no confidence last week, this time from outspoken Toronto Blue Jays pitcher David Wells.

Wells, who isn't exactly known for saying the right things all the time, branded Rocker as "an idiot" and predicted that he would need bodyguards to get through the coming season.

"If I was a bodyguard, I wouldn't even want to be around him," Wells said. "He isn't the president. Nobody will take a bullet for him."

10-second opinion

Rocker indeed may be "an idiot," but what does it say about our society when a guy who makes a handful of mean-spirited, politically incorrect comments -- and subsequently apologizes for them -- is more widely vilified than either of the two NFL players currently charged with murder?

News about high-profile murder suspects Ray Lewis and Rae Carruth is routinely placed in the sports-wire roundups of the major newspapers outside the areas where it is being covered, while developments associated with Rocker continue to get prominent headlines.

What's wrong with this picture?

Realignment blues

The Arizona Diamondbacks can see the writing on the wall. Major-league baseball will undergo another modest realignment sometime in the next two years, and the D'backs are an obvious choice to change leagues.

There is a clause in their 1996 franchise agreement that allows Major League Baseball to shift them to the American League before the 2001 or 2002 season. Owner Jerry Colangelo would prefer to remain in the National League -- where the club has developed some interesting rivalries -- but it's really a no-lose situation for his club.

The pending move to the AL West could create an instant Diamondbacks divisional dynasty. The club, which won its first NL West title last year, would likely replace the Texas Rangers in the West and immediately assume a position of clear economic superiority in the division.

Still trying

San Diego Padres reliever Randy Myers apparently is serious about rebuilding his stature as a premier late-inning pitcher. He slimmed down over the off-season and hopes to re-establish the velocity that declined so significantly over the past two years.

People in Baltimore know what he's capable of. He had one of the best seasons ever by a closer when he converted 46 of 47 save opportunities for the Orioles in 1997. But the velocity of his fastball fell below 80 mph last spring -- from an optimum speed of about 90 mph -- and he fell out of favor in the Padres bullpen.

If he can recover some of that velocity, he might be a candidate for a deal to a team in need of a veteran closer. The Padres certainly would love to dump some or all of his $6.37 million salary.

Executive of the Year?

Cincinnati Reds general manager Jim Bowden looks like the early favorite to be named baseball's Executive of the Year next off-season, but if the Reds have a big year, the award ought to go to shadow GM Ken Griffey. After all, he engineered one of the biggest deals of the off-season.

That's more than can be said for about 25 real general managers.

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