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Nick Cafardo | Baseball Notes

Getting better all the time

Top pick only adds to Rays' young talent

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / June 1, 2008

The Tampa Bay Rays are already the most talented young organization in baseball, so this week baseball executives around the league will be hoping scouting director R.J. Harrison lays an egg when he makes the first overall pick in the draft.

Fat chance.

Adding another excellent young player is just going to make the Rays a little tougher in the years to come. General managers such as Theo Epstein and Brian Cashman have seen this coming for a while; with that many top choices in a short period of time, it can only mean top talent coming to the majors in a hurry.

"It's the reason I wanted to re-sign here," said Haverhill's Carlos Peña. "I wanted to be in on a ground floor of a bright future. Everyone can see the talent we have here and the talent that's coming. It's going to be fun here."

That's the reason executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman tied up Rocco Baldelli (another story altogether), James Shields, Scott Kazmir, and Evan Longoria with long-term deals. Next offseason, he will have to deal with pending free agent Carl Crawford, truly one of the most underappreciated players in baseball and a guy who has lived through the Rays' struggles since he was drafted in the second round in 1999, the same year they drafted Josh Hamilton No. 1.

By last Wednesday, they had been in first place for 16 days - one more day than in their previous 10 years of existence combined. Will they fade? Perhaps. But fade away, never to be heard from? Unlikely, unless the Rays are completely mismanaged, which they are not. They should be the team the rest of baseball is most jealous of for the next 10 seasons.

Baseball America, the bible of minor league baseball, already pegged them as having the top minor league organization at the beginning of 2008. They have firm plans to build a $450 million waterfront stadium in St. Petersburg and have the first pick in next week's draft.

While most baseball people figure they'll select Georgia high school shortstop Tim Beckham, they also have Florida State catcher Buster Posey, Vanderbilt third baseman Pedro Alvarez, San Diego lefty Brian Matusz, and California high school catcher Kyle Skipworth on their radar. Harrison wants this one to work out because it might be the last time in a long while they'll have such a high pick.

They also had the first pick last June, when they chose lefty David Price, who hasn't disappointed since his assignment to Single A Vero Beach, where he's 2-0 and outdueled a rehabbing Pedro Martínez last week. Martínez was so taken with Price, who throws 97 miles per hour, that he told mlb.com, "He's amazing, that kid. Amazing. God bless him, and keep him healthy."

There's also drooling over this year's phenom, Longoria, taken third overall in the 2006 draft, who is having a very impressive rookie season. The Rays took B.J. Upton with the second overall pick in 2002 and he looks to be an All-Star. Delmon Young was taken with the first overall pick in 2003, and after finishing runner-up to Dustin Pedroia for Rookie of the Year in 2007, he was traded to the Twins in a deal that netted the Rays righthander Matt Garza, who has been impressive.

If only more fans in Tampa/St. Pete cared.

The Rays are dead last in the AL in attendance; only the Marlins and Pirates are worse in the majors. Tropicana Field has always been a convenient excuse, but even though it lacks a traditional ballpark feel, it is a good place to watch a game, protecting fans from summer rains and heat.

The other bad vibe centers around Baldelli, who is suffering from fatigue. He has recently begun playing in extended spring training games as a DH, but if he could ever be added to the mix, the Rays would be even stronger offensively.

Last Wednesday the Rays placed Troy Percival on the 15-day disabled list with a minor hamstring injury. The 38-year-old reliever had been Mr. Automatic with 14 saves in 16 opportunities. Manager Joe Maddon gives Percival a lot of credit for making a difference.

"I'm a believer in intangibles," said Maddon. "I know it's true, and it does make a difference. You saw when we lacked the intangibles the last couple of years, what that looks like.

"All of a sudden we've got people that are actually difference-makers, and they make people around them better just by their presence. That's what he does. He gives people courage just by being himself."

For years the Red Sox had to worry about New York, and then Toronto rising, but now there's no doubt the Rays have arrived, and they aren't going away.

Murphy finding his range

A few questions for Texas (and former Red Sox) outfielder David Murphy:

You've gotten off to a very good start. Do you feel overshadowed in that lineup?

DM: "Josh Hamilton has carried us, there's no question about that. Milton [ Bradley] and Ian [Kinsler] are having great seasons. Josh deserves all of the accolades and attention. I've seen firsthand what an incredible season he's had. Josh and Ian Kinsler and Milton Bradley are all guys who have given me the chance to drive in runs hitting in that No. 5 hole."

Have you figured out what you're going to be as a hitter?

DM: "I'm still trying to establish myself as a hitter. I've hit a lot of doubles, which tells me I'm capable of hitting for power. I've never hit a lot of home runs, but I think have six now and I could probably hit 20 realistically, but drive in some runs. I've always thought I was capable of hitting .300 and I'm not far off it right now. I don't know, I always thought of myself as a 'Moneyball'-type hitter, but my walks are down and I think I've tried to hit for more power."

The trade that sent Kason Gabbard and you to Texas for Eric Gagné has seemed to work out for you. There didn't seem to be a role for you in Boston.

DM: "It's been perfect for me. It allowed me to get back to my home state and with some of the injuries we had the second half of last year, it allowed me to get some at-bats. I don't think anybody really knew who I was last year and I saw a lot of fastballs. That's changed a lot this year and I've had to make adjustments. I think they know me a lot better and I know them a lot better, but it's fun especially because our team is playing better."

Any thoughts about winning Rookie of the Year?

DM: "I can't lie and say I haven't thought about it. But I think as you're going along in a season, what you focus on is what you can do to help your team win that night. The great thing so far about our lineup is that it can be somebody different every night. Those types of individual things would be nice, but there are so many good rookies in the league this year that I know how tough it would be to win an honor like that."

THE GREAT DEBATE

Well-traveled managers try to home
in on Red Sox’ road problems

We asked five ex-managers if they had any theories or advice on the Red Sox' road woes.

Tommy Lasorda: "You've got to talk to your team and make them believe there's no difference between home and the road. Because, really, there isn't. One thing I'll say, when we struggled sometimes with our Dodger teams, I knew that every place we went, they wanted to beat the Dodgers because we were good. I'm sure it's the same way with the Red Sox. They won a couple of World Series and they're the top team and everyone wants to knock them off. You have to overcome that, and they will."

Joe Morgan: "I remember during Morgan's Magic we went down to Texas, and I had a meeting with the players and I told them, 'Boys, there's no reason that a team like ours can't play better on the road. That pitching staff over there isn't happy to see us with all of our good hitters.' I think it's about self-motivation. In all the years I've been watching this and been a part of it, I've come to the conclusion, you have to motivate yourself on the road. Self-motivation is what it's all about."

Jack McKeon: "Sometimes that's just a bunch of crap. I went down to Florida in '03 and all I heard was the Marlins couldn't win on the road and we started to play great on the road. Those things turn around. Sometimes the media harps on it so much that it starts to get into the players' heads. But in Boston's case, who knows? They've had a lot of coast-to-coast travel, they've run up against good pitching, maybe some of those balls that go off the Wall are caught in left field. There are a number of issues. But that's a good club. You watch, they'll turn that around."

Earl Weaver: "We never had a problem on the road. In fact, we always got to the park early because we had nothing else to do, so all we did was concentrate on baseball. I don't remember ever talking to my team about road vs. home. With Boston, it might be different because they've always had a team suited for Fenway, so the road's a lot different for them. Maybe that's it. I don't really have an answer."

Buck Martinez: "All of baseball is so impressed with the way the Red Sox play the game that beating them is a big thing for teams. It might be that little extra they have. I can tell you Fenway is the toughest place to play for an opposing player. They have a huge advantage there. Otherwise, Boston has a lot of veterans and the road problems don't make any sense."

Etc.

Touching the bases
Apropos of nothing: 1. Mark Cuban will be fun for baseball if he buys the Cubs; 2. The pace of games could be enhanced by eliminating player theme songs. "There are a couple of players who won't even step into the batter's box until they hear their theme song," said a major league official; 3. Maybe I should have taken Drayton McLane more seriously when he told me in spring training that the Astros were going to win the championship; 4. July will mark the 20th anniversary of Morgan Magic; 5. Some major league team should trade for knuckleballer Charlie Zink (6-2 at Pawtucket).

The sign says, 'don't walk'
Padres general manager Kevin Towers is a major proponent of on-base percentage, yet his team hardly practices what he preaches. Until last Wednesday, third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff and shortstop Khalil Greene hadn't walked in the same game this year. They have combined to walk only 19 times in 472 plate appearances all season. Kouzmanoff went through a stretch of 19 games in which he had only one walk, while Greene went through a period when he had two in 18 games.

New hat for Hatteberg?
With an obvious need for hitting around the league, old friend Scott Hatteberg could find a job in Seattle or Toronto. Hatteberg, who was designated for assignment by the Reds last week, is only 1 for 17 as a pinch hitter this season, but scouts say he can still hit and could help a team.

Old reliables
Still baffling why David Wells, Kenny Lofton (41 today), and Reggie Sanders don't have jobs. Wells can still pitch at 45, Lofton can still run (remember, he stole four bases against the Red Sox just last year!), and Sanders, despite his recent injury history, is still one of the best-put-together athletes you'll see.

Compounding the error
Players have complained about scoring decisions since the beginning of time, but it's so unbecoming of a great shortstop like Orlando Cabrera to call the press box to get an error changed. Major League Baseball should protect official scorers more, rather than allow players to intimidate them into changing their minds. I'll never forget being in New York when Derek Jeter was given a tough error on a hard-hit ball that he couldn't handle. I asked him, "Won't you see if they'll change that one?" He said, "No, that's their judgment. They have a job to do. I should have made the play."

Mind games
Twins center fielder Carlos Gomez has become one of the most entertaining players in the game, not only for his exciting play but also his quotes. After the Twins beat Detroit's Justin Verlander, 6-1, he told Minnesota reporters, "This guy is a great pitcher, but his mind is not good." The 22-year-old outfielder said he told Alexi Casilla, "Me and you are going to work this guy and mess up the mind [with bunting or fake bunting]." After Gomez and Casilla were retired on back-to-back bunts, Verlander glared into the Twins dugout. "Why you look at me like that?" Gomez said. "You don't intimidate me. I'm not a player you look at. Hell no, I look at you!"

Coming attractions
Milton Bradley's season (.320, 8 homers, 31 RBIs) is not a surprise to Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel, who managed Bradley as a young player with the Indians. "He was one of the best young players I'd seen," said Manuel. "He could really hit and do it all. So anything extraordinary he does doesn't surprise me."

Short hops
The best Buchholz this season has been Taylor Buchholz, the Rockies' righthander who has held lefty batters to a .120 average with three walks and 15 strikeouts . . . From Bill Chuck, the "newstalgist" and author of "Walk Offs, Last Licks, and Final Outs": "The all-time series between the Cubs and Dodgers is tied, 1,010-1,010." "Does crime pay? The Astros and the Rays are 1-2 in the majors in stolen bases and also have baseball's best records since April 20." One more: "This past Sunday, Omar Vizquel set the record for most games played at shortstop, breaking the mark held by Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio [2,583 games]. One record of Aparicio's that Vizquel can't break is Aparicio remaining the only nonpitcher in the Hall of Fame to play all of his games at one position. Vizquel played one game at second base for Seattle in 1991 and one game in right for the Indians in 1999. At 39, Little Looie ended his career playing both ends of a Fenway doubleheader for the Red Sox on Sept. 28, 1973, going 2 for 6." . . . Happy 35th birthday, Derek Lowe.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com

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