Neal Cotts' new team has made it a little more difficult to return home to the St. Louis area.

Cotts, who was acquired by the Cubs from the White Sox on Nov. 16, is a native of St. Louis. As a member of the White Sox, friends and family didn't seem to mind too much that Cotts was playing in Chicago. That consideration ended when he went from the South Side to the North Side of town.

Just after the trade, Cotts was to stand up for a friend's wedding in Belleville, which is in Southern Illinois just east of St. Louis.

"A high school buddy," Cotts told the Chicago Tribune. "[Belleville is] near where I was born and grew up, which is near St. Louis -- Cardinals country. Anyway, as soon as they found out down there I had become a Cub, they texted me: 'Don't bother coming to the wedding.' They were kidding -- sort of. I went, but I took some heat about my new team."

As a member of the 2005 World Champion White Sox, Cotts got a taste of victory -- and again experienced it to a lesser degree last year when the hometown Cardinals won it all. But just how would Cotts feel if he could play a role in the Cubs winning a World Series?

"Haven't got a clue what it would mean if the Cubs won," he said. "I know how exciting it was when we won with the Sox. And last year, I went with a few of my friends from home to World Series games in St. Louis. But if the Cubs won ..."

Torres steps into role of closer: Salomon Torres' career has taken him from a starting pitcher to an innings eater in the bullpen to a reliable setup man to the closer role for the 2007 Pirates.

"It's a new chapter in my career, something different, and it gives me a chance to reach new heights," Torres told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "I want to be one of the best closers this year."

Last season, Torres took over late in the year when closer Mike Gonzalez went out with a sore elbow. He knew coming into this year that it was possible that he or Gonzalez would be moved. Gonzalez has since been traded to Atlanta.

"I was getting ready mentally, just in case," Torres said. "I tried to get the feeling I had, the mind-set and aggressiveness. I imagine [Eric] Gagne pitching, [Mariano] Rivera, [Trevor] Hoffman -- the mentality and the intensity they have, that's what I want."

Manager Jim Tracy knew who his man would be the second Gonzalez was traded.

"I have every reason to believe Salomon Torres is going to be just fine," Tracy said. "I got an eyewitness sample of it last year."

In the past three seasons Torres has worked 280 innings over 256 outings, but realizes that there is no way he will see that much work this year.

"It's going to be an adjustment," Torres told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "I'm used to throwing a lot of games. It seems like the more I throw, the better I get. It's not so much the physical part. I need to tell my brain, 'OK, think of it as you're pitching every day.'"

Big shockers are a regular event for Kouzmanoff: Kevin Kouzmanoff hit a grand slam on the very first Major League pitch he saw for the Cleveland Indians. As he rounded third, he said he couldn't believe what he had done. But that moment doesn't compare to what happened to him this offseason, when the Indians traded him to San Diego for Josh Barfield.

"It was a complete shock," Kouzmanoff told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "I thought I was going to stay with Cleveland, come back to Spring Training and battle for a job. Then boom! I've seen guys I played with come and go and thought, 'Man, that would be weird, being traded and moving to a new environment, meeting all new people.' I thought it was never going to happen to me."

The Padres wanted Kouzmanoff because of the power potential he brings to the lineup from his third base position. In 94 games between Double-A and Triple-A, he hit .359 with 22 home runs and 75 RBIs.

He was then called up to Cleveland when Travis Hafner suffered a fractured finger. Because of travel delays, Kouzmanoff barely made it to Arlington in time for the game. But what a splash he made when he got to the plate in the first inning.

"I didn't think I'd get up the first inning," said Kouzmanoff, who batted seventh in the order. "Of course, being a rookie, I do come up in the first inning with two outs and the bases loaded. It's 1-0 at the time [on Grady Sizemore's leadoff homer].

"I don't know anything about [Rangers pitcher Edinson Volquez]. I don't know anything about anything. Going up there, I figure they're going to try to open with a strike, get ahead, me being the new guy. I just said if I get a pitch, I'm gonna hack at it."

Kouzmanoff got a high fastball that he liked and took a big swing, sending the ball to straightaway center.

"I'm like, did this really happen?" Kouzmanoff said. "The cool thing was that my family was there to see it. The thing I was thinking the most was, 'I've worked my whole life to get to that point, and I'm just so glad they're here to see this.' But I'm also like, 'No way I just hit a grand slam.'"

Swisher, Blanton tour military bases: Nick Swisher and Joe Blanton spent 10 days this offseason touring U.S. Naval bases in Europe. It was a morale-boosting trip for the troops, but the ballplayers were the ones most impacted by the tour.

"People kept thanking us for coming," Blanton told the San Francisco Chronicle, "and we had to tell them, 'No, we want to thank you for what you're doing for all of us.'"

The duo visited bases in Italy, Greece and Spain. They did not visit active combat zones like Iraq. Even so, the ballplayers ended up with newfound respect for their lives in the United States.

"I don't think I'd fit in the beds if I stretched out," said Blanton, who is 6-foot-3. "They're so small, I don't think anyone can roll over in the middle of the night. You'd have to sleep practically pinned against the wall."

But the respect went well past what the sailors had to experience with their living quarters.

"The sacrifice and dedication, the working together for something that's bigger than you are, it's amazing," Swisher said.

The trip was not based on any political ideology.

"Whether you believe in the war or not, you have to respect the people who put their lives on the line to protect the way we live in this country," Swisher said. "That's why we went, and it was an honor to be there."

The teammates spent about 10 hours on tour per day. Among the things they did on their visit was play softball with the troops.

"I got to see how bad a softball player I am," Swisher said. "Joe and I switched off. I'd pitch, and he'd hit. It was a lot of fun."

Duffy more relaxed, ready to enjoy the game: For the Pittsburgh Pirates to succeed and improve offensively in 2007, most people around the team agree that the key is going to be a healthy, productive Chris Duffy at the top of the batting order.

Last year, Duffy got off to a slow start but came back strong and hit for average, stole 26 bases and was a spark for the Pirates' offense.

"It's just a matter of not pressing, not trying to do too much," Duffy told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "Early last year, I was trying to do too much, trying to get on base, trying to get a hit. In the second half, I was just letting it happen.

"I was having fun. And you know what? That's how I'm going to do it for the rest of my career. Just have fun. It's a game, so play it like it's a game. I kept telling myself that I got to the big leagues for a reason. I could understand not doing well if I was, like, a .260 hitter in the Minors. But I wasn't."

As a career .301 hitter in the Minor Leagues, Duffy says he believes he should be able to hit at that rate for the Pirates, too.

"I expect myself to hit .300 wherever I am. And once you get over the doubts and you pick up some other pieces that make you a better player at this level, you can perform up to your expectations."

For the 2007 season, Duffy will sit atop a lineup that now includes Adam LaRoche and bigger expectations. Does Duffy believe he can handle the added pressure?

"You know what? I don't see it as more pressure," Duffy said. "The trade kind of put me more at ease, I think. You're going to have more guys able to drive in runs all through the order now, so I think it actually takes pressure off. I'm just going to go out there and not worry or press. I'm just going to have fun. And I'm excited to get started, to be honest with you."

-- Red Line Editorial