Williams' injury puts chill in Diamondbacks' spring

On Baseball

April 02, 2000|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

The Arizona Diamondbacks won 100 games last year and returned this spring with essentially the same team, but their status as the favorite in the National League West has been thrown into doubt.

Third baseman Matt Williams, the heart and soul of the offensive lineup in 1999, fouled a ball off his right foot on Tuesday and suffered a fracture that will keep him out of the lineup for the first six weeks of the regular season. The loss may not be fatal to the D-backs' playoff hopes, but it will make it harder to stay at the top of an improving division.

Williams was a legitimate MVP candidate last year. He batted .303 with 35 home runs and 142 RBIs. And, if manager Buck Showalter had gotten his way, he also would have won a Gold Glove at third base after committing 10 errors in 153 games.

Now, the Diamondbacks have to scramble to replace his offensive and defensive contribution and hope that this doesn't turn out to be another yearlong physical struggle for the injury-prone Williams. He has played only two injury-free seasons since 1993.

"You lose your No. 4 hitter who should have won the Gold Glove last year and was a top candidate for MVP, that's tough," Showalter said. "We're not looking for sympathy. It's part of the adversity you go through. That's why we were a good team last year, because we handled those things. We'll have to do it again."

If that wasn't bothersome enough, pitching ace Randy Johnson has been getting knocked around all spring, as evidenced by the 9.64 ERA he carried into his final appearance of the spring.

"It's probably been one of my more frustrating spring trainings in the sense that I've been getting hit a lot," Johnson said.

No doubt, he'll benefit from a fresh start when he opens the season against the Philadelphia Phillies on Tuesday at Bank One Ballpark, but he isn't one of those veteran players who dismisses the importance of performing well in the spring.

"I don't want to go out and pitch poorly in spring training because I don't want it to carry over into the regular season," Johnson said. "I'm a firm believer that you just don't turn it on and turn it off. Some athletes may be like that, but I feel there's got to be a gradual process."

This has to be music to the ears of Los Angeles Dodgers manager Davey Johnson, who's looking for an opening after last year's disappointing performance, but the Dodgers have their own problems. If anyone is positioned to take advantage of the Diamondbacks' early problems, it may be the San Francisco Giants.

Another candidate

The small-market Pittsburgh Pirates did something out of character the other day. They waived left-handed starting pitcher Pete Schourek and ate at least $1.8 million of the $2 million remaining on his contract.

Schourek was 2-1 with a 5.40 ERA in five spring appearances, which is nothing to write home about unless you're a team in dire need of pitching depth. Somebody will pick up Schourek in the next few days for the major-league minimum salary. Maybe even a team near you.

"Pete Schourek will be in the big leagues with somebody," Pirates general manager Cam Bonifay said. "For $2 million, a lot of clubs won't be willing to give him an opportunity. But for $200,000, I think a lot of clubs will be after him."

The Pirates would be responsible for all but the pro-rated major-league minimum salary ($200,000 for a full season) for the days that Schourek spends in the major leagues for another club this year.

No cakewalk, but

The Atlanta Braves have dominated the National League East since they were realigned into the division in 1994, but they know they can't take the division for granted this year. They'll be without rotation cornerstone John Smoltz, and the New York Mets have added pitching ace Mike Hampton.

"I think the fight for our division will be a lot harder than it has been in the past," said perennial Cy Young candidate Greg Maddux. "The teams around us are better. I don't think we're going to be thinking about the postseason the first week of September like we have in the past."

Maddux isn't the only one who thinks the Braves could be vulnerable, but he's still very high on the club's retooled offensive and defensive lineup, which will feature new leadoff hitter Quilvio Veres and benefit from the return of Andres Gallaraga and Javy Lopez.

"On paper, it's probably the best eight everyday players and bench guys we've had since I've been here," Maddux said. "Defensively, I think it's our best team. There's really not a hole defensively. That makes the pitchers feel better."

Rocker rumors

Speculation persists that the Braves will soon trade controversial reliever John Rocker to the Cleveland Indians or Montreal Expos, but club officials insist that they will keep him if he remains a "good teammate."

So far, so good.

"He's been a model teammate," pitcher Tom Glavine said recently. "No problems at all. Everything has been quiet and very normal."

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