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Promising developments

Mets build a winner around Martínez

The focus this week will be on the return of Pedro Martínez, but take a long look at the rest of the New York Mets assembled by general manager Omar Minaya.

``The two best teams I've seen this year," a longtime scout said, ``are the White Sox and the Mets."

This is a vastly superior team to the one with which Martínez signed in December 2004, barely six weeks after the Red Sox won a World Series.

``They kept their promises," Martínez said. ``Right now I feel like I have exactly what they promised me. They have gone out there and gotten everything the team needed to be better.

``They said, `We're going to field a championship team around you.' That's what brought me."

There are the dos Carlos, Beltran and Delgado, who between them had 39 home runs entering yesterday. Center fielder Beltran, healthy and finally adjusted after a rough baptism last season in New York, has 19 home runs and is one of three Mets with 50 RBIs. Delgado, the first baseman plucked from the Marlins, has 20 home runs and also belongs to the 50-RBI club.

The left side of the infield has two of the most exciting young players in the game, third baseman David Wright and shortstop Jose Reyes, both home-grown. Wright, 23, was a first-round sandwich pick in 2001, the 38th player taken overall. He came into yesterday batting .337, with 19 doubles, 18 home runs, and 63 RBIs in 72 games.

``MVP," Martínez said.

When asked if Wright reminded him of a young Nomar Garciaparra, Martínez said: ``This one is a little more powerful than Nomar was. Nomar was a match, a lighted match. In some ways, yes, but at the same age, I think this guy is a little bit ahead of Nomar."

Reyes, 22, was signed after his 16th birthday in 1999. He came into the weekend fresh off a homestand in which he hit .500 (15 for 30), including a game in which he hit for the cycle. On Thursday, Eric Milton was on the mound for the Reds, a lefthander who had not had a base stolen against him this season. Reyes stole second and third on him. He leads the majors with 32 steals, and fields like a dream.

``We're seeing these kids blossom in front of our eyes," manager Willie Randolph said.

``For kids that are relatively inexperienced," said lefty Tom Glavine, ``they do a really good job of making adjustments, which to me is the remarkable thing about it. Especially David. He's unbelievable. He's constantly making adjustments up there. They're both extremely fun and exciting to watch in different ways."

The two kids have been joined by a third, hot outfield prospect Lastings Milledge, who has been playing regularly in the absence of Cliff Floyd and producing, batting .306 with three homers and 12 RBIs in his last 16 games. He's the kid the Sox were demanding in any deal for Manny Ramírez.

Want more? Veteran catcher Paul Lo Duca was imported from the Marlins. Closer Billy Wagner and his 100-m.p.h. heat were imported from Philadelphia. The 900-year-old man, Julio Franco, came from Atlanta and leads the majors in pinch hits with 11 (tied with Dave Dellucci).

``We have a ton of talent here, obviously," Lo Duca said, ``and we've stayed healthy on the pitching side so far. That's the key. I don't know if I'm surprised, but we jelled quickly, quicker than I thought, and we get along."

Future Hall of Famer Glavine, who will be trying to draw within 14 of 300 career wins when he faces Curt Schilling Thursday, at age 40 is enjoying the best of his four seasons with the Mets.

``The old guys are doing all right," the native of Billerica said. ``We're holding up our end of the bargain."

As great a matchup as Glavine-Schilling is, under the circumstances it takes second billing to Martínez-Josh Beckett Wednesday.

``He's fun to watch," Martínez said. ``I tell you what, I always watch him. When he's on, he's filthy. When he loses it, he loses it. He reminds me a lot of myself. That's how I was, throw 97 and nothing else. I was stubborn, too. Everybody has to go through that before they get where they have to get."

Meet the Mets, making their first visit to Fenway since 2000. You can plan on seeing them again someplace in October.

Sox go armed-force route

One of the more intriguing players taken by the Red Sox in the amateur draft is a player they know they can't sign until after he finishes his senior season in 2007. That would be 47th-round pick Nick Hill, a two-time All-American and three-time All-Patriot League pick out of Army.

Hill, a 6-foot-1-inch, 185-pound lefthander, had the second-lowest ERA in the nation in 2005 (1.21) and after a slow start this past season, he finished the year by going 4-0 with an 0.69 ERA.

Hill, a native of Bluff City, Tenn., is required to graduate from West Point before he can sign a pro contract, which he'll be allowed to do under the US Army's Alternative Service Option.

``Nick profiles as a legitimate mid-round selection," said Sox scouting director Jason McLeod. ``He's a three-pitch guy with a fastball touching 91. He has an out pitch with the slider and good feel for his changeup. He's a classic lefty that can pitch and has some power to his repertoire with the fastball/slider.

``He absolutely cannot sign until after his senior season. My understanding is that he will have to fulfill his military obligation at some point but he should be able to start his pro career soon after graduation.

``He's been invited to the Team USA trials, which are this weekend in Pittsfield. We will see him throw this weekend, and if he doesn't make the team, he is planning on pitching in the Cape [League].

``Although we won't be able to sign him, either, drafting him does give us some exclusivity to get to know him better and prevent other teams from pestering him all summer."

Will Fenway fans step right up and greet this Met?

Pedro Martínez said last week that if the Boston fans feel about him the way he does about them, he will be greeted warmly upon his return to Fenway Park. Johnny Damon was booed the way he was, Martínez opined, because he came back a Yankee.

Whether Martínez gets the JD treatment was a topic debated passionately on the Sons of Sam Horn website, among other places. The overwhelming sentiment among the SOSH chatters was that Martínez will be accorded a standing ovation, and deservedly so.

My favorite post on the SOSH board: ``If that man doesn't get a standing ovation, Red Sox Nation is a lot dumber than I thought. Booing him would be like the French booing Napoleon -- sure, it all ended badly, but for a few years there, there was no one better." Perfect.

``I think it's going to be great for the fans," Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca said. ``I'm sure he'll have a lot of energy. He was part of a World Series team, he gave everything he had, he pitched great.

``To me, his situation is a little different than Johnny's. I don't think the Red Sox pursued him too much. I hope the fans celebrate him; I'm sure they will."

Martínez pitches Wednesday. Applause is guaranteed on Thursday, when Martínez and former teammates Manny Ramírez and David Ortiz will be honored by the United Nations Development Programme for their efforts in raising funds for disaster relief after catastrophic flooding nearly wiped out Jimani, a town of 5,800 in the mountainous southwest region of the Dominican Republic.

With Sox owner John W. Henry contributing $100,000, the players helped to raise nearly $200,000 for affected areas of the Dominican and Haiti.

Etc.

We're not in Kansas anymore
There will be no more silos exploding in Kansas, as my colleague Dan Shaughnessy likes to say, at least not for a while. Bill James, the one-of-a-kind statistical analyst who serves at John W. Henry's invitation as the senior baseball operations adviser for the Red Sox, is leaving his beloved state and moving our way. ``We're not actually abandoning Lawrence; we're just coming to Boston for a couple of years," James wrote in an e-mail. ``My wife [Susan McCarthy] is going to get a master's degree from BU, and we're going to be living in Brookline for a couple of years." McCarthy, an artist, intends to pursue a degree in art history. ``We're looking for volunteers to crate up the stuff," adds James, an inveterate collector. ``Positions available."

Home of this Brave may change
John Smoltz's declaration that he'd be open to a trade if it were best for the Braves undoubtedly caught the interest of those teams, including the Red Sox, in search of starting pitching. Smoltz later tempered his comments, saying he wants to finish his career with Atlanta, but with the Braves' losing streak reaching 10 before they won in extras Friday -- their longest skid since 1988 -- Smoltz's future is ripe for speculation. And he left Friday's game with a strained groin. ``I don't know how available he is," said Mets pitcher Tom Glavine, who remains a close friend. ``I think the only way they trade him is if he goes to them and says, `Look, trade me.' " Can Glavine envision that happening? ``I don't know," he said. ``I think he is so entrenched down there and so loyal to the organization, I think it would be tough for me to envision a circumstance where he would do that. But I think a lot depends on not only what they're trying to do the rest of this year, whether or not they try to get better, and if not, how he envisions them to be the next year or the year after, if he's going to play two more years. I know he's going to want to try to win one more time."

Wounded knee
Disturbing news for Bill Mueller's legion of fans: The former Red Sox third baseman, 35, is not responding well after the third operation on his right knee in three years. Mueller already has missed a month with the Dodgers and was scheduled to be evaluated again Friday. ``He gets to a certain point in treatment and starts getting sore," Dodgers trainer Stan Johnston told the Los Angeles Times. ``He's got degenerative, arthritic changes in his knee. There is cumulative damage from all the procedures."

It's always opining day with him
Bronson Arroyo, whose easygoing nature made him one of the most popular players in the Sox clubhouse, said he and Type A personality Curt Schilling got along quite well. ``It's not hard to get along with Schilling, unless you want to butt heads on opinions with him," Arroyo said. ``I never had a problem with Curt. I know he's the type of guy who's opinionated, who's got an opinion about everything from how long to cook rice to how to get hitters out with bases loaded. No big deal."

Albert in wondering land
While the Cardinals were relieved to have Albert Pujols back in the lineup sooner than expected after he strained an oblique muscle, it was disturbing to hear comments made by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Buzz Bissinger, who spent considerable time with Pujols while researching ``Three Nights in August," his terrific book on the Cardinals. ``One thing about Pujols that I remember is he was pudgy, a little bit pudgy, and a little bit overweight as a minor leaguer, and he came into camp the following spring looking like a million bucks," Bissinger said on XM Radio. ``Unfortunately, because the owners allowed drugs in the game, you just have to wonder, and it would be an absolute tragedy. I hate to say this, because I love Albert, and I've gotten to know him, and I think he has a work ethic unlike anyone in baseball, but no one is immune from this stuff, including Albert. It's an unfortunate aspect of the game, and it may take a generation of baseball, baseball players, a generation of testing to get rid of steroids, HGH, and everything else."

Some fight left in Marlins
Former Red Sox prospect Hanley Ramirez, having a terrific rookie season for the Marlins, was dropped from the leadoff spot after a recent 2-for-32 slump. The Marlins, left for dead when they were 11-31 on May 21 and they'd lost seven in a row, came into the weekend 20-7 since then, their pitchers posting a 2.88 ERA in that span. Wackiest win in that stretch came when Miguel Cabrera delivered a winning hit while Orioles reliever Todd Williams was attempting to walk him intentionally . . . Andy Marte, the hot prospect who went to Cleveland in the Coco Crisp deal, has eight home runs in the last two weeks in Triple A Buffalo, but the Indians have no immediate plans to call him up . . . Commissioner Bud Selig imposed the same penalty on White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen for using a homophobic slur to describe a Chicago columnist that he gave pitcher Julian Tavarez for using a similar slur toward San Francisco fans when he was with the Giants: a fine and an order to attend sensitivity-training classes. That's about right, in this view, though Guillen's tendency to recklessness when calling people names has to be reined in before he talks his way out of a job . . . The Rangers are on pace for 398 doubles, which would break the major league record of 373 set by the 1930 Cardinals and matched by the Red Sox in 1997 and 2004.

Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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