SARASOTA, Fla. - Seattle Mariners scouts have been lurking around Ed Smith Stadium the past couple of weeks, which can mean only one thing.
The Ken Griffey trade rumors might be more than just smoke.
The cost-conscious Cincinnati Reds were thrilled to have Griffey when he was one of the game's most coveted players, but - after two injury-marred seasons - they apparently would be willing to pawn off his big contract on a richer club.
They would get no argument from Griffey, who has done little to hide his desire to be sent to a competitive team. He hasn't publicly campaigned for a trade, but playing in his hometown clearly has not been as pleasant as he expected.
There are only a handful of teams that could afford to take on his contract, most notably the Mariners, who could use additional offensive firepower to compete with the heavily upgraded Anaheim Angels. It is a question of how much Griffey has left and how much of his contract the Reds are willing to eat to get rid of him.
That's why it seems unlikely that anything will happen before Opening Day.
Griffey is healthy, for the moment at least, but he entered the weekend batting just .194 in 12 exhibition games. He'll have to prove that he can still produce like the pre-2002 Ken Griffey to persuade anyone to take on the remaining five years of his contract, even at a discount.
If he gets off to a great start - something he is capable of doing if he remains healthy - the Reds will have to decide whether they are better off with his rekindled star power or the payroll flexibility they would gain by moving him.
"That's out of my hands," Griffey told reporters early last week. "If they want me off the books [financially], they'll get me off the books. My biggest thing is not to let the guys in this locker room down, whether I'm here one day or 162 days."
The Arizona Diamondbacks traded Curt Schilling for economic reasons, but they were banking on a little pitching help to offset the loss of one of baseball's most overpowering starters.
It hasn't worked out that way, at least over the short-term. Brandon Lyon has decided to have elbow surgery that probably will keep him out for most of the season, and Casey Fossum - who is coming back from shoulder surgery - has developed a sore elbow. He will not be ready to open the season.
If that isn't troublesome enough for the Diamondbacks, projected No. 4 starter Shane Reynolds has been getting hammered in exhibition play (16.36 ERA) and is expected to pitch just one more time in a major league exhibition game before the club opens the regular season.
The Diamondbacks are understandably concerned, since Reynolds' fastball is averaging just 82-84 mph and the team does not have a ready alternative. He'll have to have perfect location to get by with that kind of stuff.
Be like Barry
Soon after Barry Bonds went to San Francisco Giants manager Felipe Alou and asked to be moved from third in the batting order to the cleanup spot, Chicago White Sox designated hitter Frank Thomas approached new manager Ozzie Guillen with a similar request.
Lest anyone misunderstand, Thomas has much better career numbers in the No. 3 hole, but he made the request for the good of the club.
"I want to tell you something about Frank Thomas," Guillen said. "Frank Thomas is the best guy we've had in spring training. He's done everything we've asked him to do, all the drills, have fun, stay with the guys, talk to the young kids.
"I was thinking of switching Frank to No. 4, but I'm not going to do anything with Frank Thomas without his permission. Not because I'm afraid of him, but because I want to show him respect. This kid comes to us and wants to be batting fourth because he thinks it will be better for the team, and so do I."
Did he say "this kid"? Thomas will be 36 in May, but he must seem young to the 40-year-old Guillen.
The Chicago Cubs aren't going to take any chances with young pitching ace Mark Prior, who has been bothered by a sore Achilles' tendon this spring. The team already has announced that he will start the regular season on the disabled list and - if all goes well - make his first regular-season appearance during Chicago's first homestand.
He will be eligible to pitch April 12, the first day of a seven-game homestand, though his first start could come a few days later than that.
"It will be somewhere in there," general manager Jim Hendry said. "We are happy with the way he is coming along. He is progressing the way we hoped. We are always going to be cautious that he not go out there without his regular endurance. It would be foolish on our part to rush to get him a start in the first three games in Cincinnati. He won't be pitching on the first road trip."
Meanwhile, in Kissimmee ...