VAN DYCK: Hampton has reached Rocky Mountain low

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What is wrong with Mike Hampton? "If I knew, I wouldn¿t be sitting here answering all your questions," Mike Hampton said Tuesday. However, there he was, the game's best-paid pitcher, sitting at his locker, without answers as to why he isn't the spring's best pitcher. Or the best pitcher on his own team. Something physical? "Definitely nothing physical," he said. "I feel pretty much strong." Something mental, like pressure from expectations? "This is the way things are," he said. "I'm going to be facing the No. 1 guys on other teams and they paid me well to do that. "There's pressure, but that's why I'm in that position, because I can do that." Something mechanical, like just not being in the right rhythm? Aha! "I've still got a ways to go mechanically," Hampton said. "The thing is, you can feel when it's right. As a pitcher or a hitter, you try to get to that spot where you don¿t think about it, because it's natural." So Hampton feels it's mechanical, perhaps for lack of any better explanation. Not everyone is convinced, however. One scout said he didn't know what was wrong with Hampton, but "his velocity isn't the same; his sinker doesn't have the bite." The scout hinted that Hampton knows this and no longer trusts his pitches, making him nibble instead of going after hitters as he used to do. Tuesday against the White Sox, Hampton allowed six hits, three walks and four (unearned) runs in four innings, which certainly was better than his five hits and five walks in 1 1/3 innings against San Diego last time out. Better, maybe, but far from what is expected from a pitcher making $15.1 million a year. Actually, this has been a tough off-season for Hampton, who underwent surgery on his groin, criticized management for slashing payroll, defended himself against criticism from former Met teammate Mike Piazza and was forced to read trade rumors. Trouble is, no other team can afford to take Hampton's remaining $93 million at his best, much less the way he's pitching now. "What I keep saying is that I'll figure it out and get back to where I should be — hopefully by April 1," he said. That might be a good time to start.

New strategy

Interesting, isn't it, that Bud Selig would appoint an "owner" to his negotiating team? While others have sat in on labor sessions in the past, Cubs president Andy MacPhail is believed to be the first from a team's management to be a "permanent" member. Sources say that commissioner Bud Selig will name one more management person to his team, and that he is considering six or seven names. A perfect fit would be Boston president (and Selig buddy) Larry Lucchino, although he may be too busy with his new duties to accept. So what does naming real management people mean? It means that union chief Donald Fehr will have to deal with people who have actually made decisions based on payroll, who can call his bluff on real baseball matters. And MacPhail is about as practical a voice as there is in baseball, soft-spoken, yet very firm in his beliefs that something needs to be done to correct the economic disparity in baseball. However, something tells me that Fehr isn't all that worried about it.

The waiting game

You might want to remember the names Mark Prior and Brett Myers. They are the phenom kid pitchers for the Cubs and Phillies who have been overpowering this spring but will most likely start their seasons in the minors. Their expected demotions answer an age-old baseball question: Who is actually the boss on a major league team? The general managers, of course. While managers would love to keep phenoms in the bigs, GMs are afraid of failure at too young an age. "You're asking the wrong person," Cubs manager Don Baylor said when asked if Prior could make his opening day roster. Of course, Baylor will comply with his bosses, but with this caveat: "I'll get my (assurances of his return) in writing. If they say 30 days, I'll get it in writing." Two scouts agreed with Baylor that the draft's second pick is more than ready for the majors now. "He's got a major league body and has a very strong mental makeup," one said. "If a guy is ready, why not let him pitch?" As for Myers, the Phillies' top pick in 1999, "if they've got five (pitchers) better than him, boy, they're in." Those are the words of St. Louis manager Tony La Russa after Myers struck out eight batters in four innings of a B game. Later, he wowed the Yankees with strikeouts of Jason Giambi and Jorge Posada and a pickoff of Derek Jeter. "Big league stuff," manager Larry Bowa said. "Big league attitude. He's gonna be something special." The key words? "Gonna be." But don¿t forget the names. Both will be pitching, perhaps in pennant races, well before season's end.

Different game

He may have broken his foot and will miss a month, but Joe Borchard wouldn't have broken camp with the White Sox anyhow. Borchard is the top-pick outfielder who gave up the Stanford quarterback job to sign with the Sox. And while he hit .375 this spring, his ticket to the minors was already stamped. Why? "Football takes different skills," Sox manager Jerry Manuel said. "Baseball is rhythm and poetry and prose. Baseball is a more fluid sport." In other words, Manuel believes Borchard needs more time to get football out of his body, time for his muscles to go from the short-span sport to the "fluidity" it takes to play baseball. "Brian Jordan, when he first came (to baseball) was tight," Manuel said. "We thought at the time this guy has a lot of intensity and he kept improving, improving. Kirk Gibson the same way."

Spring things

  • The Rangers may not be done spending money yet. They're reportedly interested in getting one more starting pitcher. Someone like Toronto's Chris Carpenter or Baltimore's Sidney Ponson, maybe? But teams thinking they might part with third base prospect Hank Blalock are most likely barking up the wrong tree.
  • From the it-must-be-nice-to-have-deep-pockets file: Not only has Tom Hicks thrown money around to players, he is now doing it for meddling as well. Word is that he paid $450,000 for tampering while hiring GM John Hart (Cleveland) and Grady Fuson (Oakland).
  • If the Giants aren't worried, maybe they should be. First the loss of Jeff Kent and now the possibility of beginning the season without starter Jason Schmidt? They might have to chase "El Duque" before it's all over.
  • Look for Arizona to correct Luis Gonzalez's status as the game's most underpaid player, although he may have to wait for a while. Gonzo makes $1.75 million each of the next two seasons, after deferments. The question is how Arizona gives him more money without upsetting its already fragile finances. Maybe just signing him to a so-called "lifetime" contract could get it done, meaning Gonzo would still be getting paid after he quits playing.
  • Wouldn't it make sense for the Cubs to call the Phillies about a trade for Rolen, what with third baseman Bill Mueller injured? Well, you might think so, but sources say MacPhail won¿t do it. He doesn't want to trade away players for a free agent whom he would have to sign. But the Cubs could be players in the Rolen sweepstakes later in the season, given that Rolen said he would happily sign long-term in Chicago or St. Louis.
  • Oh, and despite Jeff Shaw turning down their money, the Cubs aren't all that interested in Florida's Antonio Alfonseca to replace the injured Flash Gordon in the bullpen. His $3.35 million salary, questionable back and 260-or-so pounds have all but scared them off, as it has others.
  • With enough left-handers, the Dodgers are making Omar Daal available in trade. But scouting reports on his velocity are not all that good, so teams aren't lining up for his services.
  • With major league money behind them, the Expos will have an all-time franchise record payroll of $40 million.
  • Interesting that Oakland GM Billy Beane denied bench coach Ken Macha the opportunity to interview for the Boston job. Makes you wonder what Art Howe is thinking about his future, what with a manager-in-waiting right in his own dugout. Our advice: Don't start slow, Art.
  • And how about Texas' Jerry Narron, who was kept on after Hart took the GM job? How do you think he feels with Hart favorite Terry Francona being installed on the coaching staff? Our advice: Read the above, Jerry. Senior writer Dave van Dyck can be reached at his e-mail address,
  • Tagged: Orioles, White Sox, Yankees, Athletics, Rangers, Blue Jays, Cubs, Dodgers, Nationals, Mets, Phillies, Pirates, Giants, Rockies, Marlins, Diamondbacks, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Jason Giambi, Chris Carpenter

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