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AROUND THE HORN ROSS NEWHAN

Deal Breaker Became Team Maker

April 28, 2002|ROSS NEWHAN

Although it is said in baseball that some of the best trades are those not made, it would have been hard to convince General Manager Ken Williams and his Chicago White Sox staff of that at the winter baseball meetings in December when they thought they had made a trade for Darin Erstad of the Angels only to have Disney executive Paul Pressler nullify it. That decision undermined Angel General Manager Bill Stoneman and left Williams and the White Sox steaming.

Now?

Well, Williams might send Pressler a thank-you card.

Although the White Sox general manager cautiously skirts tampering rules and says he still has "tremendous respect for the player you're talking about," it's hard to believe Erstad, still trying to regain his 2000 form with the Angels, would be doing more as the leadoff hitter for an explosive White Sox attack than center fielder Kenny Lofton has.

Lofton started a weekend series at Oakland leading the major leagues in batting average (.398), runs and stolen bases, proving to the Cleveland Indians and others that his falloff of the last two years--a career-low .278 in 2000 followed by an even lower .261 last year--was the result of injuries, that he wasn't through at 34.

"He's doing what we envisioned [Erstad] would have done," Williams said. "The concept [of a catalytic leadoff hitter] is what we were attempting to address. Which player we acquired to fill the concept was secondary. As I recall, I'm sure we had called Kenny [a free agent] early in the process, even before reaching out to the Angels. The price [for Lofton] was a little too high at the start, but as time passed it became more of a fit."

In a cold market, the White Sox signed Lofton to a one-year contract for the bargain price of $1.03 million, with $375,000 in performance bonuses. Now they are considering an extension.

Lofton has brought balance and creativity to the White Sox lineup--"This is the most unselfish, team-oriented group I've ever been around," Williams said--and Manager Jerry Manuel can't believe his good fortune or how Lofton could have been available for so long given the importance of a proven leadoff hitter and a player "who does all of the same things as [Ichiro Suzuki] in Seattle."

In addition, the White Sox didn't have to give up the unidentified prospect they were going to include in the deal for Erstad, or pitcher Jon Garland, who has won three of his first four decisions this season, or center fielder Chris Singleton, although they eventually traded Singleton to the Baltimore Orioles for minor league second baseman Willie Harris.

Singleton started the weekend hitting .132, so maybe the Angels also can say that some of the best trades are those that aren't made.

Notebook

It is hard to figure out what the Colorado Rockies expected of Buddy Bell during his two-plus years at the helm before firing him. One minute they're splurging on free agents, as typified by last year's $172-million investment in Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle (who are a combined 25-25 as Rockies) and the next they're slashing roster and payroll, as typified by this year's $15-million reduction and decision to play inexperienced Juan Uribe and Jose Ortiz in the middle of the infield.

The Rockies put 89 players in uniform during Bell's tenure, making it difficult to establish stability and continuity. Still, sources close to the Colorado situation say the firing of Bell and appointment of hitting coach Clint Hurdle as manager was a move that had to be made.

In the final year of a three-year contract, Bell's disappointment at not getting an off-season extension seemed to linger into the season, although a better start by Hampton, 0-3 with an 8.88 earned-run average, and Todd Helton and Larry Walker in the middle of the lineup might have saved his job.

Hurdle, meantime, never fulfilled the phenom expectations as a player that his early Sports Illustrated cover projected, but his baseball acumen is widely respected. He was General Manager Jerry Hunsicker's choice for the Houston Astros' managing job before ownership insisted on a manager with big league experience and Jimy Williams was hired, and he was among final candidates for the Arizona Diamondback job before Bob Brenly moved from the broadcasting booth to the dugout....

Pedro Martinez might not be back to his Cy Young Award best, but he's closing in, having yielded only two hits and striking out 22 in his last 181/3 innings, which includes Thursday's 7-0 victory over the Baltimore Orioles. It's now apparent that the only thing the Boston Red Sox ace had to fear in his recovery from shoulder tendinitis was fear itself, or as Manager Grady Little put it: "Once he got past some scared feelings of his own, he went to work on his command, and he just keeps getting better and better." ...

Speculation that Ken Griffey Jr., sidelined by a torn knee tendon, would be returning to the Cincinnati Reds' lineup during a three-game series at Dodger Stadium starting Tuesday is inaccurate. Griffey is still about 10 days away, although he does about 31/2 miles of bike work a day....

The Milwaukee Brewers are said to have narrowed their managerial search to interim Manager Jerry Royster, Arizona bench coach Bob Melvin and longtime Brewer Cecil Cooper, who came out of the front office to serve as Royster's bench coach....

It's no longer Enron Field, and the inconsistent Houston Astros are searching for an identity as well, or as first baseman Jeff Bagwell said: "This is starting out just like last year, where we were floundering around and not able to do anything. There just doesn't seem to be any feel to who we are. We don't have an identity, and we need one."

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