- The Washington Times - Monday, April 1, 2002

Unfathomable as it seems, there's more to baseball this season than Operation Shutdown.
Oh, you haven't heard of Operation Shutdown? Here's the scoop: Three weeks ago, Pittsburgh outfielder Derek Bell threatened to commence the above master plan - presumably involving himself, the Pirates' bench, a king-size bag of sunflower seeds and perhaps the 101st Airborne Division - if Pittsburgh forced him to compete for a starting job this spring.
Never mind that Bell hit just .173 last season (which leads us to wonder: Has Operation Shutdown already started?)
Still, the game promises to, in the words of Chicago slugger Sammy Sosa, "keepacontinue" - even if Bell doesn't. What's on tap? Read on:

Yes. No. Er, maybe. From the move-'em-or-lose-'em state of the Montreal Expos to commissioner Bud Selig's relocation rumblings to President Bush's potential political pull, things have never looked better for Washington-area baseball. Then again, we say that every year. Still, a local franchise could be in place by next season. At a January owners meeting, Selig said that relocation presumably of Les Expos is inevitable, and that Washington is the leading candidate. Two local groups are ready, willing and able to fork out the $300-some million for a club. District officials say that RFK could be made baseball-ready in just 40 days. And Mayor Anthony Williams has pledged $200 million toward a new ballpark if the city gets a team. On the other hand, there are some major hurdles to overcome: namely, the lack of a new labor agreement, the ongoing contraction debate and the objections of Baltimore owner and litigation ninja Peter Angelos.

The offseason just wouldn't be complete without headline-grabbing, tabloid-titillating player signings in Gotham. After finishing two outs shy of their fourth title in five years, the free-spending Yankees brought aboard gregarious slugger Jason Giambi, an MVP-caliber talent whose outsized personality should be a natural fit in the Big Apple spotlight. Joining him in freshly-pressed pinstripes are Robin Ventura, reliever Steve Karsay and newly svelte hurler David Wells, all of whom fill a need. Factor in the club's veteran core, top-notch pitching and shamelessly deep pockets, and it's no wonder that the Yanks are expected to return to the World Series. Again.
Not to be outdone well, maybe just a little the Mets overhauled a lineup that scored the fewest runs in the National League last season, importing Mo Vaughn, Roberto Alomar and Jeromy Burnitz to go with Mike Piazza and a healthy Edgardo Alfonzo. Is a second Subway Series in the making? Don't count on it. Outside of the always-game Al Leiter, the club's retread rotation of Pedro Astacio, Shawn Estes and Steve Trachsel is guilty until proven innocent.

Unlike the New York clubs, Arizona didn't make much noise over the winter. Then again, the defending champs didn't really need to. The Diamondbacks will make another run at the title with the same formula that worked for them last season: An old-but-gritty lineup, a clutch-hitting bench and the best 1-2 pitching punch in baseball, courtesy of mound maestros Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson. The offense might drop off a bit nice guy Luis Gonzalez probably won't hit 57 homers again, and spark plug Reggie Sanders (33 HR) is gone but so long as the Big Two are blowing away batters, it's nothing that can't be worked around. More worrisome is closer Byung-Hyun Kim, who is coming off a confidence-mauling World Series meltdown.

Now what? That's the question facing San Francisco's Barry Bonds, who belted a record 73 home runs last season. Seventy-four might be too much to ask for, but an improved Giants lineup courtesy of newcomers Sanders and Tsuyoshi Shinjo and a healthy J.T. Snow means that Bonds could see more pitches to hit (he drew 177 walks last year, also a major league record). Motivation won't be an issue: The Barry needs just 189 homers to pass Hank Aaron for the all-time career mark; perhaps more importantly, Bonds wants to stay in front of Sosa, his trash-talking adversary in a silly, ego-driven spring training spat.

Forced into retirement by chronic back pain, former home run king Mark McGwire won't be joining Bonds and Sosa in this season's long ball derby. Filling his ample cleats, however, will be former Yankees first baseman Tino Martinez, a good-hit, better-attitude type who should fit right in on a team that could win the pennant. St. Louis sports a solid line-up led by Jim Edmonds and second-year sensation Albert Pujols; better still, the Cardinals feature one of the game's top rotations: Darryl Kile, Woody Williams, Bud Smith, Rick Ankiel and Matt Morris, who won 22 games last season. New closer Jason Isringhausen fills the team's only major hole. Look for them in October.

Total collapse. That was the story in Boston last summer, as injuries, infighting and the stunning in-season dismissal of manager Jimy Williams dropped the forever-cursed Red Sox from June contender to September also-ran. In response, the team's new owners dumped widely distrusted general manager Dan Duquette last month, the first step toward creating harmony in an otherwise-talented clubhouse. More importantly, stalwarts Pedro Martinez and Nomar Garciparra are healthy again, while newcomer Johnny Damon adds pop and speed to a lineup anchored by RBI machine Manny Ramirez. So is this Boston's year? Please. The Sox are moving up, but only because there's nowhere else to go.

Speaking of massive dysfunction, there's plenty to like about the Texas Rangers. One season after demolishing baseball's salary structure by signing shortstop Alex Rodriguez to a record contract, President Bush's former team seems committed to creating the game's most bipolar or is it manic depressive? clubhouse. There's former Red Sox outfielder Carl Everett, a crotch-grabbing malcontent who's put on about, oh, two dozen offseason pounds. There's star catcher Ivan Rodriguez, a pending free agent who's pining and pouting for a big new contract. There's new closer John Rocker, who plays a homicidal nut case in an upcoming film (go figure). Add it up, and it's enough to make the First Fan forget about Texas' incredible lineup Juan Gonzalez, Rafael Palmerio, the sluggers Rodriguez not to mention the club's horrid rotation.

What do Atlanta, Seattle and Oakland have in common? All three dominated last year's regular season, only to come up short in the playoffs. They could be in for more of the same. The Mariners bring back just about everyone from a team that won an American League-record 116 games last season, including a fearsome bullpen and reigning MVP Ichiro Suzuki; that said, the club failed to acquire a much-needed third ace to go with Freddy Garcia and Jamie Moyer. The A's, blessed with a trio of top-notch young starters in Mark Mulder, Barry Zito and Tim Hudson, will have to do without their team leader (Giambi), closer (Isringhausen) and leadoff hitter (Damon). And while the Braves have added Gary Sheffield to a powerful club that has won 10 straight division titles, the main source of their postseason misery a button-down, bland 'n' beige corporate attitude remains intact.

The Minnesota Twins are on a mission, one involving contraction, a baseball bat, Selig's bodily orifices and … well, this is a family newspaper. Suffice it to say that the small-market Twins could cap off their final year of existence with a division title. And maybe even more. Minnesota entered last season's All-Star break with the best record in the bigs, only to unravel following an injury to shortstop and team glue guy Cristian Guzman. This season, they should be in the thick of the wide open AL Central race. Corey Koskie and Doug Mientkiewicz lead a young, capable lineup, and pitchers Brad Radke, Eric Milton, Joe Mays and Rick Reed are all former All-Stars. The bullpen is a problem, however, as closer LaTroy Hawkins lost his job after posting a 14.54 ERA in his final 17 save chances.

These teams are on the rise:
1) Chicago White Sox. Actually, the White Sox were supposed to contend last season until they lost 1,197 man-games to injuries. Lead-off ace Kenny Lofton joins a deep, productive lineup anchored by Magglio Ordonez, Frank Thomas and Paul Konerko. If the pitching holds up and ace Jim Parque is healthy the postseason looms.
2) Florida. We said it last year, and we'll say it again: The Marlins could be very good. Young pitchers Ryan Dempster, A.J. Burnett, Brad Penny and Josh Beckett have the makings of a dominant staff, and any order with Cliff Floyd and Preston Wilson has potential. New owner Jeffrey Loria proved he could tear down a franchise in Montreal. Can he build one up in Miami?

These teams are slipping:
1) Cleveland. You can't slash $20 million worth of payroll without getting worse. Gonzalez, Lofton and Alomar are all gone, as is the fearsome, mash-happy Indians offense of the last decade. Under new general manager Mark Shapiro, the club will try to win with pitching a novel idea under former GM John Hart building around 17-game winner C.C. Sabathia. Bad sign: Former Baltimore outfielder Brady Anderson was the big free agent pickup.
2) Kansas City. OK, so the Royals already are down. Thing is, they're not getting up. Not now. Not ever. Not when tightwad owner David Glass continues to ship off young talent like Jermaine Dye and Damon as soon as it starts to, well, appreciate. Mark our words: Mike Sweeney, a nice ballplayer, is already gone.

Pity the poor Montreal Expos. Abandoned by their fans, strip-mined by their former owners, left for dead or Washington, or Northern Virginia by just about everyone, Les Miserables are more or less the wards of sport this season, owned and controlled by Major League Baseball. League-appointed caretaker-cum-manager Frank Robinson has a few decent players to work with, including Vladimir Guererro, Jose Vidro and Tony Armas Jr. Even though outfielder Jose Canseco was cut last week, the Expos still should be amusing to watch. Even if no one in Montreal does.

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