LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - It turns out that shortstop Rafael Furcal is 23 after all.
Furcal, who claimed to be 19 when he broke into the big leagues in 2000, was born in 1978, according to birth records in his native Dominican Republic. When the discrepancy was discovered and reported by HBO last summer, Furcal claimed the records were wrong.
Now, following a crackdown by immigration officials and major league baseball that's also uncovered a discrepancy in non-roster catcher Luis Taveras' age, the team has officially advanced Furcal's age by two years.
Furcal, who is expected to be on hand this morning when pitchers and catchers have their first workout, apparently isn't having visa problems, like Taveras and pitcher Jose Cabrera are experiencing in their native Dominican Republic, and catcher Steve Torrealba is having in Venezuela.
"With everything that's gone on, there's a lot more security on visas," assistant general manager Frank Wren said. "(Government officials) are being very cautious."
A birth date discrepancy is holding up Taveras' visa. Cabrera has apparently provided a legitimate birth certificate, but his visa is being held up because of a lack of inoculation records.
The team has discussed the problem with major league baseball officials and have written letters to the U.S. consulates in the Dominican and Venezuela.
JOB OPPORTUNITIES: The battle lines for bullpen jobs will be drawn this morning. There are two jobs open in a relief corps that lost Steve Karsay, Rudy Seanez and Steve Reed, and manager Bobby Cox expects a half-dozen relievers to fight for them.
"There's going to be some battling going on," Cox said.
The addition of veterans Darren Holmes and Rich Rodriguez has increased the pressure on youngsters Damian Moss and Tim Spooneybarger, and lessened Cabrera's chances of winning a job.
The battle for jobs would appear to extend to the bench and first base as well. Matt Franco and Keith Lockhart are left-handed hitters, and with the left-handed B.J. Surhoff already on the bench, it seems likely Cox will carry just one other left-handed hitter.
Cox has four players - Julio Franco, Wes Helms, Dave Martinez, and Surhoff - who can play first base, and how he divides the playing time will be a challenge.
"It will work out," Cox said. "I feel good about first base. We have a lot of guys who can help there."
SCIENTIFIC THEORY: Chipper Jones has been here for almost two weeks, though he's spent more time fishing and playing golf than hitting. He came by the park to get in some extra hitting Thursday morning, only to discover there were no baseballs in the batting cages.
Jones, who will shift from third base to left field this spring, has always maintained his hitting would improve if he ever became a full-time outfielder. He'll have a chance to test that theory, though it's hard to imagine how much better he can become considering he hit .330 last season.
"I'm not going to put pressure on myself that playing left is going to win me a batting title or an RBI title," he said. "But in the last few years it's taken a lot of mental preparation to play third base and sometimes I'd take a bad defensive play into the dugout. Now, all I've got to do is catch the ball and hit the cutoff man."
UNFINISHED BUSINESS: A dozen players remain unsigned, though the team has no arbitration cases to settle. With the exception of Furcal, all the unsigned players are first- or second-year players who will make the minimum or slightly more. Among the 12 are Mark DeRosa, Marcus Giles, George Lombard, Jason Marquis, Spooneybarger, and Moss.
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