Sports

MONSTERS INC.

OK, Godzilla is coming. But will he make more of an impact than that flop remake? (Remember the Matthew Broderick action figure?) We know that Hideki Matsuihit 50 home runs for the Yomiuri Giants last year. But Alex Cabrera hit 51 (with a .335 average) and Tuffy Rhodes holds the Japanese League record of 55. Yankee fans shouldn't fear that Matsui is the second coming of Andy Morales. While it's optimistic, even with Yankee Stadium's short porch, to project 50 homers from God, keep in mind that he's Japan's answer to Barry Bonds, not Dave Kingman. Unlike Ichiro, he's remarkably patient, having led the league in walks, on-base percentage, and batting average, as well as homers and slugging percentage.

According to a formula devised by Jim Albright of BaseballGuru.com, Matsui's stats over the past three years translate into 30 homers and 100 RBIs in the majors. But the better news is that the rest of his stat line projects to a .305 average, a .530 slugging percentage, and .410 on-base percentage, with 102 walks. Those numbers wouldn't look so bad as part ofJason Giambi's résumé. And considering that the Yankees got Matsui for a very reasonable $7 million a year (and created a trans-Pacific revenue stream that will pay 'Zilla's salary, and Raul Mondesi's, too), don't expect the Yankees to shed too many tears over Shane Spencer's departure.

And speaking of departures, Albright's method projected 29 homers, 85 RBIs, a .275 average, a .367 on-base percentage, and a .481 slugging percentage for the Mets' almost-third-baseman Norihiro Nakamura, who bailed out of a U.S. deal late last week. While that's not quite as good as Edgardo Alfonzo at his best, it would have been way better than Lenny Randleand Jim Fregosi. —Allen St. John


. . . THIS IS YOUR HOT STOVE LEAGUE ON DRUGS

While it's too early to tell if this winter will go down in baseball history as the Mother of All Off-Seasons, we do think that some teams may not want to wait for spring training to begin implementing random drug testing—of their front-office employees, that is. How else to explain last week's bizarre move by Braves general manager John Schuerholz, wherein one of the sport's supposedly shrewdest executives shipped off 18-game winner Kevin Millwood to division rival Philadelphia in aone-up for six-year minor league catcher Johnny Estrada? The day of the trade, Schuerholz told ESPN that he was "forced" to jettison Millwood because of the luxury-tax guillotine hanging over his head, and that the trade was "a clear signal to the doubters and naysayers" that "the economics of baseball stink." We prefer to believe that, in an acid flashback, Schuerholz thought it was 1961 and that the Braves werepicking up Chuck Estrada, not Johnny.

Meanwhile, you gotta love the claim from Japanese all-star Norihiro Nakamura that the real reason he bailed out of a two-year deal with the Mets at the last minute was . . . the Internet? "I checked the Major League Baseball Web site and I was on the Mets' Web site," Nakamura told reporters at an Osaka press conference. "We asked the Mets, please don't issue the news from New York. They broke our agreement. . . . I can't sign with a team that broke a promise." As it turned out, Nakamura mistook an MLB.com report posted on the Mets' home page as an official team release. "We're not sure this [misunderstanding] wasn't used by them to whatever benefit they sought," an exasperated team rep told the Times. "It's the Mets' Web site, but it's not controlled by the Mets." Right. Word to Steve Phillips: Check the peanut butter. —Billy Altman


A MET REUNION IN THE BRONX

In the hullabaloo over the Yanks landing Hideki Matsui, another acquisition went almost unnoticed: the one-year signing of utility infielder/DH Todd Zeile for $1.5 million. The return of the Zeile (who, with Robin Ventura, manned the Mets' corners in 2000-01) astonished New Yorkers, who last saw him hit all of 10 home runs in one season; Steve Phillips had to pay Colorado $4 million just to take him. Yet Zeile rebounded in 2002 after elbow surgery (.273,18 HR, .355 OBP) and boasts solid post-season stats (.292 in 29 games, including .400 in the 2000 World Series). He can play first, third, and, in a pinch, catcher (his role before a manager in St. Louis, one Joe Torre, moved him to the hot corner a decade ago). In September he even tossed a shutout inning during a hopeless loss to the Dodgers. (Said skipper Clint Hurdle of Zeile's pitching debut, "It was like a cherry on a pile of crap.")

While he earned $18 million as a full-timer over the past three years, Zeile now seems content to play backup to his "best friend in baseball," Ventura, who joked in their Met days that Bobby Valentine couldn't tell them apart. Both are Californian, brunette, 6-1, and 200 pounds (though Zeile, at 37, is two years older). When reporters caught Ventura wearing his buddy's uniform pants—Zeile's name was on the waistband—Ventura cracked, "Only our DNA is different." Their career records, in fact, look nearly the same: .268, 233 HR, 1033 RBI for Zeile; .269, 275, 1099 for Ventura. Zeile's greatest claim to fame, however, stems from a seminal sabermetric study. To debunk the concept of the "hot hand," researchers crunched the numbers of the streakiest hitter they could think of—Zeile—and concluded that his slumps were due to chance. Somehow, when the newest Bomber goes one-for-36 next summer, we doubt the Boss will buy it. —J.Y. Yeh

 
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