The Cincinnati Reds went down so hard in their three-game, season-opening series against the San Francisco Giants that it may not be too soon to start thinking about what they're going to do with big-money veterans Greg Vaughn and Denny Neagle if they're out of the playoff picture at midseason.
OK, it's way too soon, but somebody recently asked Reds general manager Jim Bowden about it, anyway.
"We'll deal with that at that time," Bowden said. "Right now, after what I've watched this spring, I think if our pitching staff and our team stay healthy, we have the capability of contending in our division. I think our division's wide-open. Houston is the team to beat, but I think the other clubs are evenly matched. I'll be surprised if we get to July and this club is not in a race."
The Reds are improved and have some great young talent, but they still have to be considered a long shot to win the wild-card race against big-payroll also-rans in the NL East and NL West.
Vaughn's contract runs out at the end of the season, and he should be in high demand if he comes close to replicating last year's 50-homer performance. Neagle, who grew up in Gambrills, has the option to demand a trade at the end of the year, but isn't willing to speculate on his possible whereabouts come August.
"You're not going to do anybody any good if you start thinking about those kind of things in April," Neagle said. "I've never been one to get so caught up in looking too far ahead."
No doubt, the Orioles will be interested if Neagle rebounds from a spring shoulder problem and is made available at midseason. So will a lot of teams, but Bowden hopes he is in a position to keep the team together all summer.
Former Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro made good on his word. He underwent knee surgery twice over the past two months, but he was in the Texas Rangers' lineup on Opening Day and he hit his first home run in the club's second game.
Palmeiro has long felt underappreciated by fans because he has been overshadowed by other big-swinging first basemen in the annual All-Star balloting, but Rangers fans showed their appreciation of his terrific career numbers by giving him the biggest ovation during the Opening Day introductions at The Ballpark in Arlington.
He has been one of the most productive hitters of the 1990s, even if his name recognition has not approached that of fellow premier first basemen Mark McGwire, Mo Vaughn and Frank Thomas. In fact, if he produces in Texas like he did in Baltimore, he'll be a strong candidate for the Hall of Fame.
"It's possible," Palmeiro said recently. "Some people have started to realize it. I don't think many people have noticed it but people who know baseball are starting to realize it."
Palmeiro has 314 career homers and should reach 2,000 hits in the next month. It should take him only a couple of years to match the career totals of 1999 Hall of Fame inductee Orlando Cepeda. He still has a lot of work to do, but 500 home runs and 3,000 hits are not out of the question.
Los Angeles Dodgers ace Kevin Brown may have cost Rupert Murdoch $105 million, but it is Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Bernard Gilkey who really owns him.
Gilkey homered twice against Brown on Opening Day and has eight hits (and four homers) in 15 career at-bats against the most expensive player in baseball history. His career slugging percentage against Brown is 1.400, but he knows that it's a statistical aberration.
"You can't get complacent in this game," Gilkey said. "If you do, it will jump up and bite you. I take the approach that I have to be on top of my game because if I am not, he will eat me up."
Former Milford Mill star Brian Jordan has added a wrinkle to his home run trot. He flapped his arms at home plate after each of his first two homers this year, performing his own, truncated version of the "Dirty Bird" in honor of the NFC-champion Atlanta Falcons.
Jordan, who used to play for the Falcons and now is flying high with the Atlanta Braves, says the new routine is not meant to show up opposing pitchers, but he apparently realizes that it could be taken the wrong way. He said the other day that he will go back to his regular home run trot this week.
City of not-so-big shoulders
Chicago Cubs general manager Ed Lynch has taken some criticism for failing to improve the club's pitching staff during the off-season, but he apparently recognizes that the club does not have enough pitching to get back to the playoffs and intends to rectify the situation soon.
"Maybe so," he said recently, "but understand we're not finished with our pitching staff. Take a Polaroid snapshot because you may not see the same faces by May 1."
Who's coming to Chicago in the next few weeks? Former Dodgers and Mets pitcher Hideo Nomo, for one. He's expected to join the major-league staff after making a handful of minor-league starts. And, just maybe, another front-line pitcher from outside the organization.