MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL PREVIEW:

GLENDALE — Six current Major League Baseball players with local ties have waited all winter for opening day.

For each of them, opening day will come today after spending most of February and all of March going over basic fundamentals in spring training in Florida or Arizona.

New goals are eagerly waiting to be met by Freddy Sanchez, Mark Loretta, Gregg Zaun, Jason Hirsh, Doug Slaten and Jason Botts.

Sanchez will look to make a third consecutive All-Star Game appearance. Loretta will attempt to once again show his versatility in the infield. Zaun will aim to remain a starting catcher after an offseason that saw his name in the controversial Mitchell Report last December.

Slaten participated in the postseason last October for the Arizona Diamondbacks, while Hirsh watched his team advance to the World Series as he recovered from a leg injury suffered in early August. Botts will look to put together his first full season in the majors after shorts stints in each of the last two seasons.

Starting today, each will attempt to lead his respective team to successful seasons and other lofty goals.

SANCHEZ SEEKING FURTHER STAR STATUS

Sanchez, a former Burbank High and Glendale Community College standout, didn’t quite put up the numbers in 2007 that he did in 2006 when he won the National League batting title. Still, the 30-year-old Sanchez was the lone Pittsburgh Pirates player to compete in the All-Star Game in San Francisco.

He hasn’t been healthy throughout spring training, though, as he has been bothered by inflammation in his right shoulder after undergoing arthroscopic surgery in September. He had an MRI recently done, but sought a second opinion when he traveled to Birmingham, Ala. to meet with Dr. James Andrews on March 24.

Andrews ruled that Sanchez had no structural damage. However, Andrews confirmed that the pain Sanchez has been dealing with when throwing is simply a result of inflammation around Sanchez’s right shoulder rotator cuff.

Sanchez, who was acquired by Pittsburgh from the Boston Red Sox in 2003, signed a long-term deal in February. He signed a three-year pact reportedly worth $18.4 million that can keep him with the team through the 2010 season.

The infielder batted .304 (183 for 602) with a career-high 11 home runs and 81 runs batted in last season. He recorded 42 doubles and had 51 multiple-hit games despite missing most of April with an injury. His season came to a close during the final week when he opted to undergo surgery.

Pittsburgh finished in last place last season in the National League Central Division.

He spent the first half of spring training being the team’s designated hitter.

In 477 career games, Sanchez is batting .310 with 22 home runs, 123 doubles and 207 runs batted in.

ZAUN READY TO PATROL THE PLATE

The former St. Francis High standout catcher and Glendale native will likely be the starting catcher for the second consecutive season with the Toronto Blue Jays. The 36-year-old Zaun missed a portion of last season with an injury, but came back to rebuild a solid rapport with Toronto’s up-and-coming starting pitching rotation.

He also found his name on the George Mitchell Report. Zaun was one of more than 80 current and former Major League Baseball players named in The Mitchell Report on performance-enhancing drug use in the game.

Zaun was linked to former New York Mets clubhouse employee Kirk Radomski and subsequently denied the allegations.

Zaun, who helped the Florida Marlins win the 1997 World Series against the Cleveland Indians, and the Blue Jays will look to battle the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees for the American League East Division title after finishing third last season. He batted .242 (80 for 331) with 10 home runs and 52 runs batted in last year in 110 games played.

There’s reason for optimism for the Blue Jays, who suffered a rash of injuries late in the season to fall out of contention in the division and wild-card races.

“If we play .500 against Boston and New York and beat the teams we’re supposed to beat, we’ll be in pretty good shape,” Zaun recently told the Sporting News. “But beating those teams we’re supposed to beat means sweeps, streaks, not just 2-of-3.”

In 1,028 career games, Zaun is batting .252 with 72 home runs and 375 runs batted in. He’s also played for the Baltimore Orioles, Texas Rangers, Kansas City Royals, Houston Astros and Colorado Rockies.

HIRSH STARTING YEAR AS LAST ONE ENDED

While putting together a promising rookie season, Hirsh was sidelined on Aug. 7 after suffering a broken right fibula when he was a hit by a line drive.

The St. Francis High graduate was there to cheer his Colorado Rockies on as they marched to a first-ever World Series appearance, but was in a hurry to get back.

After a March 1 Spring Training outing, Hirsh felt soreness in his shoulder and will now start the season on the disabled list with a shoulder strain.

“It’s one of those injuries that’s gonna take a little time and a little rest — actually a lot of time and a lot of rest,” said Hirsh, who debuted in the majors in 2006 with the Astros, but was traded the following offseason to Colorado. “I thought I put all the injury woes behind me, I really thought I was on a good path. And then the injury comes along. It’s really something I’m gonna have to endure.”

Hirsh will begin his season in Tucson, Ariz. rehabbing. He’s still unable to throw, so there isn’t a target date yet for his return.

When he returns, the 26 year old will likely start for the triple-A Colorado Springs Sky Sox before returning to the big club.

“It’s gonna be a long, drawn out process,” said Hirsh, who went 5-7 with a 4.81 earned-run average a season ago.

Leading into the season, Hirsh was the front runner for the No. 4 starting spot.

“Right off the bat, that’s where they had me,” he said.

LORETTA TO SHOW HIS VALUE TO ASTROS

Loretta, a St. Francis High graduate, proved to be an invaluable member of the Houston Astros last season after signing a one-year free-agent contract. The 36-year-old Loretta, a two-time All-Star, played all four infield positions.

Loretta, who competed in the 2004 and 2006 All-Star Games, and the Astros reached agreement on a new one-year contract after going to arbitration in late February. He will be paid $2.75 million this season after batting .287 with four home runs and 41 runs batted in.

Loretta mostly played shortstop last season for Houston, but also showed he could handle playing around the infield. He’ll most likely platoon at third base with Ty Wigginton and Geoff Blum after the Astros acquired shortstop Miguel Tejada and second baseman Kazuo Matsui during the offseason.

“Initially, my role will be pretty similar to last year,” Loretta said. “I can move around since there’s usually something that happens with a trade or injury.

“I know that I’ll get a fair amount of at-bats, but I know that I’ve got to be ready. You evolve as a hitter and try to be smarter.”

The Astros will look to move up in the National League Central Division after placing fourth last season behind the Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals.

“I think that we are much improved,” Loretta said. “We had a frustrating year last year, but I think our offense will be a lot better. We’ll score some runs, but we have some questions marks right now [with the pitching staff] after Roy Oswalt.”

In 1,518 career contests, Loretta is batting .298 with 72 home runs and 566 runs batted in. He’s notched 1,598 career hits while also playing for the Brewers, San Diego Padres and Boston Red Sox.

SLATEN STRIVING TO SHORE UP BULLPEN ROLE

The Diamondbacks won the National League West Division championship last season, their first since 2002. Arizona turned to the 28-year-old Slaten, who attended Glendale Community College, to be a left-handed specialist out of the bullpen. Slaten handled the role well before helping the Diamondbacks advance to the National League championship Series for the first time in six years.

Slaten, who had micro-fracture surgery on his right knee after last season, took the mound in a Cactus League game for the first time March 24, working a scoreless inning. He remains on track to start the season on the roster. He got tested right off the bat when the first hitter he faced, Rajai Davis, dropped down a bunt. Slaten fielded the bunt and threw Davis out.

“I think he wanted to test me,” Slaten told mlb.com. “I kind of went after it slowly and took my time with it, but it was good that everything felt fine. I felt good.”

Slaten, a left-hander, went 3-2 with a 2.72 earned-run average in 61 appearances last season. He struck out 28 and walked 14 in 36 innings. He allowed 41 hits and 11 earned runs while mostly performing in the sixth and seventh innings.

In 70 career appearances, Slaten is 3-2 with a 2.36 ERA.

BOTTS LOOKING TO STAY ON WITH RANGERS

Jason Botts, a former Glendale Community College star, spent August and September with the Texas Rangers, looking to find a role. The 27-year-old outfielder/designated hitter came up from the minor leagues to bat .240 with two home runs and 14 runs batted in for the Rangers, who finished last in the American League West Division last season.

Botts, who spent parts of the 2005 and 2006 seasons with the Rangers, played mostly at the designated hitter position.

He officially made the opening-day roster and will be a backup first baseman and a right-handed hitting designated hitter.

— Grant Gordon contributed to this story


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