Yadier Molina is thinking offense
Cards catcher came up big from the plate in 2006 playoffs
Already one of the top catchers in the National League, Yadier Molina is hoping to become known just as much for his hitting prowess as his defensive capabilities.
Molina took a step in that direction during the 2006 postseason, when he hit .358 for the Cardinals. First baseman Albert Pujols understands how hard it is to be a young player getting advice from so many people.
"Sometimes when you're in that position, it's real tough," Pujols told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "I'm saying something. Hal (McRae) is saying something. (Third base coach Jose) Oquendo is saying something. Jimmy (Edmonds) is saying something and somebody else is saying something. It's tough for a young kid to go through that."
Backup catcher Gary Bennett says that Molina, in his eyes, is the total package.
"Some guys throw well. Some guys have a feel for calling a game and handling pitchers. Some guys block pitches well. Yadi does all of that. It's rare to find that in one catcher, believe me," said Bennett. "To find it in somebody that young is incredibly rare.
"What's most impressive is he's still trying to get better. He works. He doesn't take his talent for granted. I'm not saying it because he's my teammate. If it wasn't true, I'd say nothing at all."
While St. Louis skipper Tony La Russa and third base coach Jose Oquendo say that they think Molina who picked off seven runners and caught 41 percent of would-be base stealers last year is the best catcher in the National League, someone very close to Yadier takes it a step further. Jose Molina said his little brother deserved to be the NL's Gold Glove winner in 2006.
"He's the best catcher in both leagues. I mean right now," insists his brother Jose. "He deserved the award last year. A lot of time voters get into one name. They just see a name and don't realize who really had the best numbers. They realize who already has Gold Gloves in his career. I think Yadier should have won it, no problem. But there's nothing he can do about it. He was the true Gold Glove winner last year and he will be in years to come. He's going to win a lot of them. I don't say that because I'm his brother. I look at his game. I feel like the managers and the coaches have to evaluate it a little more closely."
Pelfrey ready to make the jump: Mike Pelfrey may or may not begin the season as a member of the New York Mets' starting rotation. That is a decision the coaching staff will have to make.
However, the prize pitching prospect made a good case for himself during his first spring outing against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Pelfrey unleashed a 94-mph sinking fastball and threw in some sliders and changeups as well. Pelfrey allowed only one hit and faced six batters in two innings of work.
"He's got as good a stuff as I've ever caught," catcher Paul Lo Duca told Newsday.
Closer Billy Wagner has also been impressed by what he has seen from Pelfrey.
"Pelfrey's a special kid," Billy Wagner said. "He's really going to be able to dominate hitters when he gets comfortable out there.
"He doesn't have that deer-in-the-headlights look. Mentally, he was probably not ready for that opportunity [last season] but his talent is overwhelming. He knows why he's here. Not to pitch and get paid, but to pitch and win a championship."
For now, Pelfrey is just trying to show he is ready to take a spot in the rotation when the Mets break camp at the end of the month. All he can do is pitch well. The rest, he said, is out of his hands.
"In the end, I don't make that decision," Pelfrey said. "Guys like me, with four (career) starts, haven't done that much. I just go out there and try to be the best Mike Pelfrey I can be in trying to win a job."
Papelbon adjusts back to starter's job: After a breakout season in 2006 as the Boston Red Sox closer, Jonathan Papelbon is making the adjustment to being a starter for the 2007 season. The move, however, is fine with Papelbon, despite the success he had coming out of the bullpen last season.
"I just feel I'm better as a starter," he told the Boston Globe. "The reason why this team drafted me in '04 was to be a starter. I'm going to take this opportunity and run with it."
Papelbon was a full-time starter in 2004 and 2005. But he began the 2006 season in the pen for the Red Sox after showing he could perform well there when he threw four scoreless innings of relief in the 2005 Division Series against Chicago.
Papelbon stepped into the closer's role during the 2006 season. He believes he can be just as effective as a starter as he was as a reliever, just in a different way.
"Dominant as a starter is different than dominant as a closer," Papelbon said. "As a starter it means getting to the seventh and eighth inning every time. It means rolling through a lineup day after day, week after week."
Now that he is a starter again, Papelbon has to work on a variety of pitches as he prepares for the start of the season. However, he knows there is one pitch he has to be effective with first.
"For me, my fastball is first, my split is second, my slider is third, and my curve is fourth," he said.
Burnett looks for a change: Toronto pitcher A.J. Burnett can throw a fastball 96 mph. He also has a nasty curveball opposing hitters hate to see. But Burnett is using this spring as a chance to work on a third pitch -- a changeup.
During his first spring start against Tampa Bay, Burnett threw the changeup and appeared to have good control of the pitch.
"I think I threw five changeup, which is maybe more than I threw all of last season," Burnett told the Toronto Sun.
Manager John Gibbons was impressed with Burnett's changeup and thinks it can be an effective pitch for the right-hander.
"That could turn into a huge pitch for him," Gibbons said. "He's just got to buy into trusting it. Sometimes you get those guys with the big fastballs who are so afraid to get beat with (the change). But it can make him even more effective."
After two great seasons, Wheeler looks to three-peat: Only once in Dan Wheeler's career had he posted an ERA below 4.00 during a season. But in 2005, Wheeler had a breakout season for the Houston Astros, as the reliever went 2-3 with three saves and a career-best 2.21 ERA.
Wheeler entered last season with a chip on his shoulder, however, as he wanted to prove that 2005 was no fluke.
"It (2006) was kind of a big year for me," Wheeler, 29, told the Houston Chronicle. "Coming in, I had never done what I did the year before, ever. I wanted to come in and stay the same player to prove the year before wasn't a fluke. It's a drive for me as a player to show the team I'm a guy they can go to and for me to have confidence in myself."
Wheeler proved 2005 was not an aberration. Last season, the right-hander went 3-5 with a 2.52 ERA and recorded nine saves, stepping into the closer's role.
"Dan has a real good drive," Brad Lidge said. "The last thing he wanted people to think was that 2005 was an accident. So what does he do? He goes back about his business and does it again. Dan's the best at what he does in the Major Leagues right now.
"He's the best setup man in the majors, and he can also close. And you know what? That'll push me a little, too. I can't stand to listen to Dan when he's doing well and I'm not."
Catcher Brad Ausmus said Wheeler's secret is that he has a great amount of determination and focus on the mound.
"He's got some intensity on the mound. That's why he gets short with himself," Ausmus said. "He never shies away from or is intimidated by a situation, which is important when you're pitching at the back end of the bullpen or even closing."
Zambrano delivers big expections for 2007: Chicago Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano has high expectations for the 2007 season -- for both himself and the Cubs.
"I believe this year I will win the Cy Young (Award) and I will enjoy that," Zambrano told the Chicago Tribune. "And besides that, we will win the World Series. I guarantee you that. I have faith."
But does he have faith enough to make that a guarantee?
"Almost sure," he said. "I promise I will do the best I can. I feel very good this year, better than my last five years. And I will work on that."
Meanwhile, new Cubs manager Lou Piniella is looking forward to watching the emotional Zambrano work this year.
"You have an emotional manager, for God's sake," Piniella said. "Sure, I like an emotional pitcher. I like some emotional players on my team. Why not? You can't have 25 Stepford Wives. What you want is basically a combination of different personalities on a team, and that's what makes it a team."
Wilson's focus is performance: Cincinnati Reds pitcher Paul Wilson is glad to be able to spend this spring worrying about his performance on the mound, not how his arm feels.
"At this point I'm thinking about what I need to work on, fine-tuning things. Not, 'Oh my God, I need to get treatment on my arm because I can't pick it up,' " Wilson told the Cincinnati Post. "It's things that I'm supposed to be thinking about."
After his first outing last Thursday, Wilson could be content with just being healthy -- but he's not willing to do so.
"I can't be happy yet," Wilson said. "That's when the freakin' floor falls out. I can't let myself be happy. Happy to me is going to be 150-200 innings, 70 relief appearances, six months in the big leagues. Then I'm happy."
Manager Jerry Narron is glad to see Wilson out there competing again.
"First of all, I'm happy for him," said Narron. "He worked hard this winter. I thought he pitched well (Thursday). It'd really be awesome if he could come back and make the club. We all know what kind of person he is and how hard he competes. We all want competitors around here. We'll see."
Since the start of Spring Training, Wilson has been out there working as hard as anyone.
"Nobody works harder and he's as competitive as anybody. Those are two qualities you have to have," said Reds right-hander Matt Belisle, one of the other pitchers vying with Wilson for the fifth spot in the rotation. "He does it with class; it's a good thing to see. If you have trouble keeping yourself in check, you just look at him and see how you should be getting after it. It's great to be around the guy."
For Wilson, competing is better than quitting.
"I love (baseball) too much (to quit). I love it," Wilson said. "It's the only thing I know how to do well. It shouldn't define who we are as people, but it does. It shouldn't make me a winner or loser because I play baseball. I do play baseball, but deep down it does."
Crede stays underrated: With the likes of Jermaine Dye, Paul Konerko and Jim Thome in the Chicago White Sox lineup, third baseman Joe Crede can sometimes get lost in the shuffle. But after hitting .343 with runners in scoring position last year, people are beginning to take note -- even though he did only have five round-trippers in those situations.
"There are certain situations where you'll sacrifice power for getting a guy over," Crede told the Chicago Tribune. "But early in games, you want to drive the ball. Late in games you do what you have to get that guy over. You might see a guy take a hack to get a guy over."
Manager Ozzie Guillen has high praise for Crede.
"I think he's the best third baseman in baseball, and nobody cares about it," said Guillen. "That he's underrated is unbelievable. Maybe it's because he's surrounded by Thome, Konerko and Dye. But this kid, (general manager Ken) Williams knows how good he is and how good he's going to be.
"To watch this kid take batting practice is unreal. He takes that BP plan to the game. Little by little, I give credit to (computer scouting analyst) Mike Gellinger and (hitting coach Greg) Walker by working with him more mentally than physically to turn the corner."
Walker agrees with Guillen. "The way I look at Joe, he's one of our big guys," Walker said. "In the past, he was one of our young guys with a lot of potential, but what he has done over the past 1 1/2 years, he really could be in the middle of our lineup. Joe really could be a 3-4-5 hitter for a lot of teams in this league."
Adjustment to trade over, Kearns ready to produce: Armed with a new three-year contract, Austin Kearns is ready to put the past behind him. Last year's mid-season trade from the Reds to the Nationals caught Kearns off-guard. It was the first time in his professional career that Kearns, a native of Kentucky, played more than four hours from his hometown.
"You get so spoiled playing close to home," Kearns told the Washington Post. "You can go home whenever you want to. You're around the people you know. Your family can come visit you.
"But then you get farther away, and you realize what most guys go through."
However, there were some people in the front office who knew Kearns, including director of player development Bob Boone and general manager Jim Bowden, who both had ties with the Reds. Bowden, who drafted Kearns, still saw what could be if Kearns could stay healthy for an entire season.
"The sky's still the limit," Bowden said.
Kearns, who enters the season completely healthy after suffering through numerous injuries in his time in Cincinnati, shares the same view.
"I feel like what I'm supposed to do," Kearns said, "has just been postponed."
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.