Sunday, March 07, 1999

BASEBALL INSIDER


Padres want health, production from Sanders

BY CHRIS HAFT
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        If anybody has upstaged Garth Brooks at the San Diego Padres' training camp, it's Reggie Sanders.

        The Padres are counting on Sanders' achy-breaky body to withstand multiple tasks and roles. It's natural that they'd expect a lot, because they gave up Greg Vaughn, a 50-home run hitter, for him.

        Manager Bruce Bochy envisions Sanders batting anywhere from first through fifth in San Diego's order, occupying the leadoff spot when Quilvio Veras (left shoulder) is pained but mostly hitting second.

        Sanders has scant experience at No. 2, hitting there three times last year and none in 1997. But, said Bochy, “Reggie would do pretty well in the No. 2 hole. It would put a lot of pressure on teams. With Veras on base, you'd have to be concerned about him, and with Reggie's power and speed it would put added pressure on the other team.”

        That's kind of what the Reds thought from 1991-98, when Sanders hit .271 with 125 homers and 158 steals while tantalizing them with his skill — when he wasn't injured.

        “The guy has bat speed up the ying-yang,” said eight-time NL batting champion Tony Gwynn.

        “He needs to develop a tension-free swing,” Padres hitting coach Merv Rettenmund said. “We just need to slow him down. If he does it right, wow.”

        For the Padres' sake, Sanders had better remain whole this year. Though he's slated to play left field, they want him in center when Ruben Rivera is slumping or resting, and they see him playing right when the 38-year-old Gwynn needs a break.

        “That's what this game is all about these days,” Sanders said. “It's about being able to do it all pretty much. That brings a lot to a team.”

        “Reggie,” said Bochy, “is going to be crucial.”

        PAIR OF ACES: Can Roberto Alomar and Omar Vizquel be the most acrobatic double-play combination ever? The Cleveland Indians want to find out soon by playing them together as much as possible early in the exhibition season.

        Alomar, who signed with Cleveland as a free agent, has won seven Gold Gloves at second base, meshing nicely with Vizquel's six at shortstop. Though injuries may have robbed Alomar of a step or two, he hasn't lost any of his dexterity. While filming a television commercial together, Alomar and Vizquel started clowning around with the balls on the set and amazed even each other with their hijinks — playing catch by flipping balls behind their backs and kicking them like soccer balls.

        “Usually when you do stuff like that, there are balls all over the place,” Vizquel said. “But we clicked right away. It was amazing.”

        RING THING: Florida Marlins manager John Boles, who prohibited facial hair and earrings among his minor-leaguers when he was a player development director, has mellowed.

        The Marlins' top pitching prospect is A.J. Burnett, 22, who finished 10-4 with a 1.97 ERA and 186 strikeouts in 119 innings last year at Single-A Kane County.

        By the way, Burnett wears a nipple ring in each nipple.

        Not that there's anything wrong with that, Boles affirmed. After all, they can't be seen.

        “I grew up in the '60s,” said Boles, 50. “We did things that were much more destructive than nipple rings.”

        NOT-SO-SLIM SAMMY: Everybody looks bigger on TV, but it wasn't just the distortion of your cathode-ray tube that made Sammy Sosa look a tad heavy when he checked into the Chicago Cubs' camp recently. He has gained 10-14 pounds.

        “All muscle, no fat,” insisted Sosa, whose waist size has in creased from 34 to 35.

        Sosa won't use that extra weight to fend for himself. He plans to use a bodyguard to help him wade through the general public.

        “People have to understand that you need someone to protect you,” he said. “I'm a pretty strong guy, but I can't hit anyone or they'll sue me.”

        LETTER MEN: The Texas Rangers are poised on the brink of history. They can become the first team ever to have four players with last names beginning in the letter “Z” on their Opening Day roster: catcher Gregg Zaun, third baseman Todd Zeile, right-hander Jeff Zimmerman and outfielder Mike Zywica.

        Seriously, this is truly rare. The Baseball Encyclopedia lists only 59 players in this century whose last names begin with Z.

        “I'd be surrounded by greatness,” Zaun said. “What more could a guy ask for? You grow up dreaming about something like that, but you never think it could materialize.”

        QUICK PITCHES: Former Philadelphia reliever Ricky Bottalico now shares a clubhouse with St. Louis outfielder J.D. Drew, whose refusal to sign with the Phillies after being drafted in 1997 aroused the ire of many major-leaguers. Though Botalico is civil to his teammate, he advised, “He better wear some heavy armor when (he goes) to Philly. Because they're going to bring batteries. I almost feel sorry for him.”

        • John Franco's long-running act as a bullpen ace may have ended. Even Franco, who has 397 career saves and a two-year con tract extension with the New York Mets as a security blanket, admitted that offseason acquisition Armando Benitez more closely fits the ninth-inning profile with his 100-mph fastball. “We've never had a guy here who could throw that hard,” Franco said.

        • We know who makes the rules, and it isn't the manager. Baltimore skipper Ray Miller wanted Albert Belle to hit third, enabling him to get more at-bats but Belle told acquaintences that he preferred to bat fourth. Guess where Belle's going to hit? Fourth, of course.

       



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