TUCSON, Ariz. – They played a spring baseball game here, the Colorado Rockies and Chicago White Sox, under a warm sun and a breeze that whipped the sleeves of their black jerseys to the left-field foul pole.
Troy Tulowitzki hit a John Danks pitch to the knoll in far-away left field with his first swing, and Jeff Francis concentrated on correcting the pace of his changeup, which generally worked out great for White Sox hitters and allowed Rockies outfielders to work on their pass routes.
The afternoon passed for what it was – a decent way to get a few hours closer to Opening Day and sell a few T-shirts while doing it.
When does Corey Patterson report?
And it is an odd spring when Juan Gonzalez is in camp (St. Louis) and Julio Franco is not.
For the most part, agents aren't returning phone calls these days, so we can assume they've given up even pretending there are offers and destinations to consider, leaving their clients to slog into early March while taking stock of the rest of their lives.
Presumably, this is a time of great concern for pitchers such as Lohse and Weaver, a pair of sub-.500, big-ERA guys who appear to have misjudged the market for sub-.500, big-ERA guys. They share an agent in Scott Boras, who has had better winters himself, even with the Manny Ramirez windfall.
Lohse reportedly went into the off-season seeking something in the five-year, $55-million range, which is what Gil Meche got from Kansas City last offseason. The Philadelphia Phillies passed and the New York Mets traded for Johan Santana instead, so Lohse, who has good stuff but doesn't get enough outs with it, is a 29-year-old ballplayer sitting home watching the season approach. You wonder what his next move is.
Weaver, you'll recall, had two other chances to be on a payroll this season, but has made a habit of chasing every dollar, potentially at the expense of longer-term security and the health of his career. The Los Angeles Dodgers wanted to sign him to a three-year contract after 2005, his best statistical season. But they believed Boras was finessing them with phantom offers, so never actually made theirs.
So, Weaver signed a one-year deal with the Los Angeles Angels, and in the more demanding American League was so bad the Angels dumped him on St. Louis. Back in the National League and coached by Dave Duncan, Weaver ironed out his mechanics, helped the Cardinals win the World Series, and subsequently was offered a two-year contract to return. But, the Seattle Mariners offered more in a one-year contract, so Weaver went back to the American League, changed coaches again, and pitched his way to a 6.20 ERA.
While they waited, and Garcia and Lopez healed, second-tier pitchers began jumping at anything that would get them into camp. Josh Fogg went to Cincinnati for one year and $1 million. Shawn Chacon signed for $2 million in Houston. Josh Towers got a year in Colorado, but for only $400,000 guaranteed. There was still money out there for some (Livan Hernandez took $5 million for a year in Minnesota, Brett Tomko $3 million for a year in Kansas City), but the trend was in minor-league contracts, eventually accepted by the likes of Bartolo Colon (Boston), Odalis Perez (Washington), Steve Trachsel (Baltimore), Mike Maroth (Kansas City), Tomo Ohka (White Sox), Tony Armas Jr. (Mets) and Kris Benson (Philadelphia).
General managers (and owners) appear less attached to the idea of filling their rotation with veteran arms than giving their young pitchers a shot, and at a tenth the cost.
"Fewer teams are paying for replaceable players," one assistant general manager said.
And it's not just about the pitching.
Piazza not only intended to hit at least another season, he'd hoped to rehab his shoulder and become a second or third catcher, opening up the National League in another winter of free agency. General managers, however, have arrived at the conclusion that Piazza no longer hits well enough to be a full-time DH, and will never catch again. That's a somewhat limiting scouting report.
Lofton will be 41 in May, but batted .296 last season and was good enough on both sides of the ball to be Cleveland's everyday left fielder down the stretch and into October. It seems likely he will surface somewhere late in camp, or early in the season, when somebody's spring stud flames out before Memorial Day.
In fact, there could be more than a few later-than-usual additions. Looking over the list of unsigned players, one baseball-operations man said there could be a rush of "Clemens-like deals," or contracts added early in the season, though not at near the cost.
"Either that," he said, "or the Atlantic League is going to be loaded in April. Loaded."