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Primed for free agency

In the summer, is there a better city to visit and see the sites than Chicago? The lake and the parks. The museums. The shops. The pitchers. Oh, you can bet tourism will be up in Chicago this summer among the much-desired baseball scouts demographic.

In the summer, is there a better city to visit and see the sites than Chicago? The lake and the parks. The museums. The shops. The pitchers.

Oh, you can bet tourism will be up in Chicago this summer among the much-desired baseball scouts demographic. They might not spend a dollar on the Magnificent Mile, sprawl out by Lake Michigan or even give a whiff to the Shedd Aquarium, but they will be there.

That's where the free-agent pitching is.

Yes, it is barely three weeks into the season, but it's never too early to talk free-agent pitching. It's a cinch that teams will be chumming the waters to land the Cubs' Carlos Zambrano or the White Sox's Mark Buehrle. Both are almost certain to end relationships with their current teams, and they will head the free-agent class, Zambrano from the right side and Buehrle from the left.

Zambrano, who will turn 26 in July, has overpowering stuff and high strikeout totals, all the components of an ace. Buehrle is two years older and not nearly as imposing.


Zambrano has the higher ceiling, but to go with his electric stuff, he has a high-voltage personality. He can quickly become unsettled on the mound and veer away from the stuff that makes him so good. He is unpredictable.

While contract talks have gone poorly with the Cubs, he's gotten off to a miserable start. He has a jackpot of an ERA - triple 7s - through his first four starts. He's showing all the signs of a guy who doesn't handle impending free agency well, dwelling too much on the future and not enough on the present.

Lou Piniella said he had a "nice conversation" with Zambrano this week in an effort to get him straightened out.

Buehrle? All he does is make all his starts, eat up innings and get ground balls.

Buehrle's no-hitter against Texas on Wednesday should only remind the Rangers of the similarities to Kenny Rogers, the pitcher who provides the perfect blueprint for success at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. The no-hitter and Buehrle's hot start will only raise his profile after a subpar 2006 season. Buehrle made 32 starts and pitched only 204 innings in 2006. Prior to that, he'd pitched at least 220 in each of the five previous seasons. The innings pitched total was down, and the ERA (4.99) was up. The theory: All those innings in all those previous seasons was taking a toll on his arm. A second half that combined a 3-7 record and 6.44 ERA only gave those concerns more credence.

Certainly, with six months to go before anybody talks contract with anybody, it bears watching to see if it happens again. You can bet that every pitching-hungry club in baseball will be on hand to watch it up close.

Hamilton's life

back in order


The fans in Phoenix were getting on the opposing player, as fans are inclined to do.

"I had to laugh," Reds outfielder Josh Hamilton told reporters after the incident last week. "I thought, 'You have no idea what I've been through.'"

Well, not many people know what a trip to hell and back is like. Hamilton does. He was the first overall pick in the 1999 draft, taken by Tampa Bay and labeled a can't-miss prospect.

That was before the 28 tattoos and the drinking and the drugs and the three years spent suspended for violating baseball's substance abuse policy. By all rights, his career should have been over, another sad footnote, another tale of what might have been.

Except that, somehow, Hamilton turned himself around. He says it started one night in October 2005, when he showed up at the doorstep of his 75-year-old grandmother, dazed and emaciated.

"She knew and she started crying," he said. "She said she couldn't take it anymore. I was hurting the people I loved most. The day after that was the last time I used."

The Reds took a chance on Hamilton, still just 25, getting him through the Rule 5 draft last December.

And so far, he's been a sensation. After making the team by batting .403 in spring training, he started the year as a part-time outfielder. Now he's played his way into the lineup as the starting centerfielder.


"When you think about it, I shouldn't even be here," he admitted.

He is, though, and so far it's the best story in baseball this season. He is batting .333 with five home runs and 11 RBIs in just 30 at-bats.

On Opening Day, Hamilton's father turned to his son with tears in his eyes. "I never thought I'd see you play baseball again," he said.

He wasn't alone.

Blue Jays scout Mike Berger was watching from behind the plate Wednesday as Hamilton homered and could only marvel at what he was seeing.

"It's Hollywood, man," he said. "Pure Hollywood."

Calling Dr. No

Though Mark Buehrle has been one of the AL's top left-handers this decade, he was not considered no-hit material. That's because he's not a high-strikeout pitcher with overpowering stuff. Buehrle is like Greg Maddux in that his strength is command and ultimately getting batters to put the ball in play but weakly. Maddux, incidentally, has 334 wins but no career no-hitters.

Looking for guys who might end up joining the increasingly rare no-hit club? Think of these guys:

Johan Santana, Minnesota

Age: 28.

Career stats: 80-32, 3.20 ERA, .220 opponents BA, 9.50 K's per 9 IP.

Why he might: As one NL executive said: "He has overpowering stuff virtually every time out." Since 2004, Santana has allowed hitters a .206 average, lowest in the majors. He's struck out 9.75 batters per nine innings, the second-highest ratio in that time. Also has solid infield defense.

Why he might not: In the Metrodome, hard-hit balls can scoot through even an air-tight infield.

Odds: 6:1.

Felix Hernandez, Seattle

Age: 21.

Career stats: 18-19, 3.72 ERA, .238 opponents BA, 8.33 K's per 9 IP.

Why he might: One AL scout cited him as the favorite because his four-pitch mix "can devastate" hitters. His fastball can overpower hitters, but he also has a solid changeup, slider and curve to keep any lineup off balance. Averaging 8.33 strikeouts per nine innings for his career.

Why he might not: Health might be the one and only obstacle.

Odds: 7:1.

Rich Harden, Oakland

Age: 25.

Career stats: 31-17, 3.20 ERA, .220 opponents BA, 8.33 K's per 9 IP.

Why he might: When healthy, he has perhaps the best repertoire in the AL. Also, playing in Oakland means a lot of foul balls that would otherwise go into the stands become pop-fly outs. Has great infield defense at second, short and third. Took no-hitter against Rangers to the eighth in 2005.

Why he might not: See Hernandez, Felix. Only with bigger health issues.

Odds: 7:1.

Roy Oswalt, Houston

Age: 29.

Career stats: 101-47, 3.05 ERA, .253 opponents BA, 7.58 K's per 9 IP.

Why he might: With a 4-0 postseason record, Oswalt has already proven he is a big-game pitcher. His mid-90 mph sinker and an exceptionally slow curve have batters off balance before they ever get to the box. The NL exec said: "He's dominant and at the top of his game right now." Doesn't hurt to pitch in NL, either.

Why he might not: An extreme ground-ball pitcher who works in a hitter-friendly park.

Odds: 10:1.

Jake Peavy, San Diego

Age: 25.

Career stats: 59-45, 3.45 ERA, .236 opponents BA, 8.78 K's per 9 IP.

Why he might: The combination of dominant stuff, facing NL lineups and Petco Park's roomy dimensions are an intoxicating mix. He's already fired three shutouts and a pair of two-hitters in his career.

Why he might not: After two seasons of sub-3.00 ERAs, he took a step backward in 2006. Must show he has the makeup to go with the stuff.

Odds: 15:1.

The hot corner

-- The Dodgers spent a lot of time this winter trying to find a way to keep their corner outfielders from losing sight of white baseballs coming off the bat against a backdrop of pale yellow seats. The solution they came up with was to paint the back of the seats tan. Has it helped? "No," said first baseman Nomar Garciaparra.

-- Cardinals centerfielder Jim Edmonds thinks complacency might be a reason for the defending world champions' mediocre start. "Maybe everybody is too comfortable around here," he said. "Maybe we're digging ourselves a little too much with the world championship (stuff) going on every minute of the day. It's definitely noticeable."

-- The Devil Rays have been hit by a virus that has run through the clubhouse. So trainer Ron Porterfield briefed the players on washing their hands, gave out small bottles of hand sanitizer and suggested that they not share towels on the bench. Manager Joe Maddon even joked that the players would use the fist bump instead of handshakes after big plays as a more sanitary method of congratulations.

-- When the Mariners played Texas on Sunday on Jackie Robinson Day, the cameras at Safeco Field frequently showed the plaque honoring baseball's African-American pioneer. Oops. It has a large crack near the bottom from being hit by a batting practice blast off the bat of Edgar Martinez several years ago.

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