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Baseball Notes

The most improved players

These seven teams made the right moves

By Nick Cafardo
January 4, 2009
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Here's the consensus from a half-dozen scouts, general managers, and other officials concerning which lucky seven teams could improve in 2009:

1. Yankees - Money doesn't buy them a championship, but it's almost always bought them the postseason. They might have ensured that with the signings of CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Teixeira, and I doubt they're through.

There's still room to do something about center field by dealing one of their outfielders, Xavier Nady, Johnny Damon, or Melky Cabrera. We doubt it will be Damon, who was instrumental in recruiting Burnett and Teixeira.

Their up-the-middle defense is suspect, so they certainly are not flawless.

2. Tigers - So many prognosticators selected them to win in '08 (I was one of them) and couldn't have been more wrong. But there's optimism, especially from manager Jim Leyland, who said, "I like our team a lot. I never saw last year coming because of the talent we have on the field. We have that talent still."

They have improved their defense with Brandon Inge returning to third and Adam Everett at shortstop, with Carlos Guillen moving to left.

Leyland feels Justin Verlander is a much better pitcher than he showed, as is Jeremy Bonderman. Armando Galarraga exceeded expectations with 13 wins. They will incorporate a power arm in Edwin Jackson, obtained from Tampa Bay, hope Nate Robertson bounces back, and Dontrelle Willis finds himself.

One guy to watch: Gary Sheffield.

"I'm healthy and ready to go," said Sheffield. "I'm looking forward to putting last year out of my mind."

"They need to find bullpen help," said one NL scout. "Fernando Rodney as a closer and depending on Joel Zumaya for a healthy season is sketchy at best, but this team is better than last place."

3. Indians. On paper, they addressed two huge needs in closer Kerry Wood and set-up man Joe Smith. Mark DeRosa should stabilize their third base situation.

Travis Hafner must rebound from a horrible season (.197, 5 homers, 24 RBIs in 57 games) and there are rotation issues. Cliff Lee had a great year, but is it reasonable to assume he'll have another? Look for GM Mark Shapiro to pluck a low-cost veteran starter (Carl Pavano?) off the free agent heap.

"I don't know if they're the Tampa Bay Rays of 2009," said a National League GM, "but if they can add another starting pitcher, this could be a team that rebounds in '09 and maybe gets back to what they were in 2007."

4. Athletics - In any given year or half-season they could be rebuilding, but now they're definitely building. The addition of Matt Holliday should bolster a weak lineup, and there looms the possibility that they'll add Bobby Abreu, Jason Giambi, or Garret Anderson.

"The A's were so smart grabbing Holliday even if they don't keep him," said an American League GM. "Look at free agent hitters for 2010 and Holliday is pretty much on an island by himself. The A's have positioned themselves well."

A healthy Eric Chavez is a huge factor. Starters Justin Duchscherer, Dana Eveland, and Sean Gallagher don't do much for you? The A's are likely to add a free agent pitcher or two, and they may force up promising youngsters Vincent Mazzaro, Brett Anderson, and Trevor Cahill.

5. Giants - They are quietly assembling a very good pitching staff, adding Randy Johnson to a mix that includes Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, and Barry Zito. Lefty Noah Lowry is still rehabbing.

They added lefty Jeremy Affeldt to the bullpen and signed shortstop Edgar Renteria, which is a questionable move, though Renteria is said to be rededicating himself to his conditioning. What they need is a bat, and we'll see if these swirling rumors about their interest in Manny Ramirez pan out, because it's a team in desperate need of a centerpiece offensive player. They are exploring free agent Joe Crede for third base.

6. Reds - "A dark horse in the NL Central," said an NL scout.

Oh, they've lost Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey, and they could use another offensive force; GM Walt Jocketty is trying to fill that void, discussing names such as the White Sox' Jermaine Dye and free agents Pat Burrell and Rocco Baldelli. But he's building around pitchers Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto and hitters Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, and Jay Bruce. He recently signed free agent Willy Taveras, who stole 68 bases last season in Colorado, plus veteran catcher Ramon Hernandez and lefty reliever Arthur Rhodes.

"I like the way Walt is building the team," said a rival NL GM. "He's not done yet. He could trade one of his veteran starters like Aaron Harang or Bronson Arroyo and get the offense he's looking for."

7. Mets - As they continue to ogle Derek Lowe - and they are likely to raise their three-year, $36 million introductory offer - the Mets have impressed their rivals by adding Frankie Rodriguez and J.J. Putz to the back end of the bullpen.

One scout said, "What a piece Manny Ramirez would be. It's shocking they haven't been involved."

For now they haven't been, though it would seem they would like to upgrade in left field and possibly behind the plate. But GM Omar Minaya's efforts now appear to be focused on the starting rotation.

Can they bond with Manny?

Has it finally dawned on teams that perhaps the best righthanded hitter in baseball is still unsigned?

Manny Ramirez and his agent, Scott Boras, are considering an offer of three years and an option from the Giants. That puts the pressure on San Francisco's NL West rivals, the Dodgers, to counter or lose him.

Teams we thought might get into the Ramirez hunt - the Mets, Nationals, Phillies, Angels, and Orioles - have gone in a different direction or decided Ramirez isn't worth the money at age 36.

"If Scott Boras came down on his outrageous demands, there'd be more of a market," said an American League general manager. "Everyone recognizes Manny's hitting ability, but everyone knows what happened in Boston, too."

Boras often talks about "iconic" players who pay for themselves. Sometimes it's hard to see what Boras is talking about, but in the case of Ramirez and Los Angeles, it was clear as day. The increase in attendance, up 5,000 per game. The excitement in the ballpark. The increase in merchandise sales. People watching more Dodger games.

Why wouldn't the Giants want some of that?

The Giants dropped from more than 3.2 million fans in '07 to about 2.86 million in '08. It was the first year since the ballpark opened in 2000 that the Giants didn't draw more than 3 million fans.

The other big thing you look at is how he responds to pressure. Ramirez is a career .329 hitter with runners in scoring position, with a .454 on-base percentage and an ungodly 1.061 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage). And in even tougher circumstances - two outs with runners in scoring position - Ramirez has hit .314 with a .463 on-base percentage and 1.067 OPS.

Those are the kinds of numbers Barry Bonds used to produce, and the kind the Giants have sorely missed.

This backstop would love to catch on with the Red Sox

A few questions for free agent catcher Gregg Zaun:

Must seem weird not to be going back to Toronto.

GZ: "It was a place I really felt comfortable at, and I thought I was going to retire there, but now I'm just looking forward to going to a new place and hope I can get back into the playoffs."

Where does Boston rank with you?

GZ: "I'd love it. My agent has had ongoing talks with Boston and I would love to see that happen. I feel one of the things I have going in my favor is being in Toronto for so long I have a deep knowledge of the AL East. I would also love the challenge of playing in Boston, where every day you go to the ballpark it's a meaningful game and you're fighting for something. That atmosphere, I'm telling you, there's nothing like it, and to be a part of that would be unbelievable. I played for Tito [Terry Francona] back in the Arizona Fall League on the same team as Michael Jordan. Unfortunately I got hurt, but Tito has been watching me a long time."

You're 37, and you often hear about age catching up to catchers.

GZ: "You have to understand, I spent the first eight years of my career on the bench. I'm not the kind of guy in my mid 30s who is coming off several years of catching 100 or more games a year. Don't have the wear and tear that other guys my age have. My only other hobby other than playing baseball is taking care of myself. I'm in great physical condition and I'm built to catch as much as any team wants me to."

So how did Rod Barajas overtake you as the starter last year?

GZ: "I've had my say on that and really don't want to go back into the past. It happened and there's nothing I can do about it now. It was a long year and frustrating year. It's over. I'm sad that it's over in Toronto because I loved it there, but going to a team like Boston would be amazing for me."

Have the Red Sox made you an offer?

GZ: "To my knowledge, we haven't received a formal offer from Boston. We have from a few other teams. I would think in the next week or two something would develop. It's been very slow."

Etc.

Apropos of nothing
1. Teams can sign as many as nine Type A or Type B free agents, according to Major League Baseball spokesman Pat Courtney; 2. Had a reader suggest a Pudge Rodriguez-Jason Varitek catching tandem, complicated by the Josh Bard signing; 3. It's amazingly quiet on Orlando Cabrera; 4. Alan Embree is still pitching; 5. Dennis Eckersley tells me he might be throwing some BP in spring training (for the Cardinals?).

Picking out names
1. Jim Rice: He's playing golf in South Carolina and trying not to think about Jan. 12, when the Hall of Fame voting is announced. "I know this is the big one, but, really, I don't spend too much time thinking about it either way," said Rice, who is in his 15th and last year of eligibility. "I don't talk about it too much, either. People ask me all the time, and I'd be thrilled to be inducted. It would be one of the greatest things that ever happened to me. People say I should get in this time because nobody who has reached that percentage [72.2 percent last year] hasn't gotten in. But I could always be the first."

2. Adam Dunn, OF-1B, free agent: The Dodgers are entertaining Dunn as an option if they don't re-sign Manny Ramirez. While he is considered an "elite" offensive player by some of the general managers we spoke to because of his power (40 or more homers five straight years) and on-base percentage (career .381), his defense at first base or a corner outfield spot is a major liability. He's best suited as a DH. As one American League GM pointed out, "He'd better not be The Guy because he has a lot of holes in his swing and he can be pitched to."

3. Hanley Ramirez, SS, Marlins: The Marlins made it very clear to the inquiring Red Sox that Ramirez was not available. According to a source familiar with the talks, the Sox were quickly rebuffed and word is there was never mention of players the Red Sox could offer to entice the Marlins.

4. Takashi Saito, reliever, free agent: The Red Sox made an offer to the former Dodgers closer earlier this winter. Saito has battled elbow issues, but the feeling of teams whose doctors have reviewed Saito's medical records is that he might be able to pitch, though not as a closer. While Saito, who will be 39 Feb. 14, won't be in demand, he might warrant a spring training invitation. Saito missed about two months for the Dodgers and was diagnosed with a partially torn tendon in his elbow, but he took an experimental injection instead of opting for Tommy John surgery and was able to make six appearances in September.

5. Michael Young, SS, Rangers: There was some talk that after being rebuffed by the Marlins on Ramirez, the Red Sox might have interest in Young, but according to major league sources, that's not the case. The five-time All-Star and eight-year veteran is a career .300 hitter, though last year he dipped to .284 with a .339 on base percentage. He did win the American League Gold Glove for the first time in his career.

6. Mark Mulder, LHP, free agent: Milwaukee and Oakland are big on the comebacking pitcher, and it appears the Sox will be watching him throw in Arizona in the next two weeks.

7. Milton Bradley, OF, free agent: He appears destined to join the Cubs, who want him to play right field. The Cubs have been very active lately but the ownership situation, according to one member of the baseball operations staff, has made it difficult for GM Jim Hendry to get his moves approved quickly. That should change in '09 once a new owner emerges.

8. Jeff Moorad, general partner, Diamondbacks: Funny how things work out. Two of the highest-profile baseball agents ever - Jeremy Kapstein and Moorad - both became CEOs of teams, Kapstein with the Padres. Now Moorad, who represented Manny Ramirez when the slugger signed his eight-year, $160 million deal with the Red Sox, is leaving Arizona to pursue ownership of the Padres. Kapstein remains a senior adviser with Boston.

9. Luis Gonzalez, OF, free agent: The 41-year-old corner outfielder is looking to play one more season. Gonzalez hit .261 with 8 homers and 47 RBIs for the Marlins last season in 136 games and 341 at-bats. His agent, Gregg Clifton, said Gonzalez is drawing interest from teams needing a lefthanded bat/fourth outfielder.

10. Andruw Jones, OF, Dodgers: OK, the team has reworked his deal. Now, who takes him in a trade?

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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