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With this 10, you get change

Game-breakers are do-it-yourself guys

By Nick Cafardo
March 15, 2009
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The new buzzword around baseball to describe an outstanding player is "game-changer." There's no one definition, but it encompasses things such as the ability to change the complexion of a game, to win a game singlehandedly, or to carry a team on your shoulders.

Whatever it means, there are no shortage of opinions on who these players are. We asked 20 people - scouts, managers, coaches, personnel men, players, general managers, and writers - who were the "game-changers," and these were the top 10:

1. Albert Pujols, Cardinals - The first person mentioned by 19 of the 20. No surprise. "The most feared hitter in the game," said a GM. "That one's easy."

2. Manny Ramírez, Dodgers - Generally, he was mentioned in the top three, and one national writer named him first, ahead of Pujols. It's funny, but a few respondents used the preface, "When he wants to be . . ." Said an American League scout, "There's proof - some of his years with the Red Sox and definitely after August with the Dodgers - that he was a one-man show."

3. Johan Santana, Mets - The dominant lefty, who has been suffering from elbow soreness in spring training, was the pitcher most often mentioned. "If there was one guy I'd want pitching a big game, it would be Santana," said a National League manager.

4. Grady Sizemore, Indians - The number of people who included Sizemore was surprising. While many acknowledge that he might not be a finished product, an NL scout surmised, "He's a five-tool player who has the ability to beat you with all five tools." "I don't think we've seen his best yet, either," said an AL GM.

5. David Wright, Mets - Another surprising choice, in that he is a good player but has holes in his swing. But there was a lot of respect for Wright. A former AL GM who is now an adviser for an AL team said, "He's professional and accountable in a tough culture. He understands the moment as well as any hitter in the game."

6. Roy Halladay, Toronto - Talk about respect. Halladay gets as much as anyone. "When he takes the mound, he has the ability to dictate the pace of the game," said an AL manager. "He can shut you down and put you into a slump for weeks. What a competitor. There isn't a hitter in baseball who wants this guy on the mound."

7. Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox - "Defies logic, but maybe the toughest SOB in the game," said an AL assistant GM. "Watch some of the balls he hits and explain to me how he gets the barrel of the bat on the ball. Amazing. You can make the greatest pitch ever to this guy and he'll beat you." Pedroia also got rave reviews for his defense. "He has made individual plays at second base that have won ballgames," said an AL East infielder.

8. Jose Reyes, Mets - "He gets around each base in less than four seconds," said an AL East coach. "I've personally timed him. He impacts a game about as much as any player I've seen." Reyes has his detractors, but the term "game-changer" applies when he can create so much havoc around the bases."

9. Alex Rodriguez, Yankees - There were a few people who didn't have him on their lists. "Until he can rid himself of the fear he has in tough situations, he won't be a game-changer," said an AL special adviser. And those who did name him did so somewhat reluctantly. "He's got to be on the list," said an AL manager. "The numbers he puts up, the fact he can beat you with one swing. He's got to be in that group."

10. CC Sabathia, Yankees - The way he dominated for the Brewers last year and the Indians in '07, Sabathia is gaining the reputation as a game-changer. "Workhorse who can dominate," said an NL GM. "What a presence. When someone that huge with that kind of stuff steps to the mound, he's already won half the game."

Those who received honorable mention: Florida's Hanley Ramirez; Boston's Kevin Youkilis, David Ortiz (who would have been high on this list two years ago), and Jonathan Papelbon; Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki; Philadelphia's Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Cole Hamels; Minnesota's Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau; Houston's Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee; the Yankees' Mariano Rivera; Oakland's Matt Holliday; Detroit's Miguel Cabrera; San Francisco's Tim Lincecum; the Angels' Vlad Guerrero; and Atlanta's Chipper Jones. Conspicuous by their absences: Yankees Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter, and Mets five-tool star Carlos Beltran, who in the words of one scout "doesn't want to be great." Also unmentioned were Sox pitcher Josh Beckett and Washington's Adam Dunn.

Fredi getting Marlins ready

A few questions for Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez:

There has to be quite a balancing act between developing players and still trying to win the NL East.

FG: "At times, but it can be done. We did both last season and this season we'll continue that, but we've got guys now entering their third and fourth years, so it's a little bit beyond that in most cases. It's still a lot of fun for my coaches and myself to teach as well as manage. We enjoy the teaching aspect of it."

When you think of the Marlins, you think of the excellent raw talent in pitching and with positional players, but your defense left a lot to be desired. Do you see improvement?

FG: "I think we have improved. I think last year we made around 20 fewer errors than 2007 and we hope to get better with that again. We work very hard in this camp on fundamentals and defense. I can't say these players aren't out there trying to get better. We'll see how it looks in the field when the season starts, and I'm not saying we're going to be a top five defense, but I expect it to be better."

Do you have a sleeper in your mind as a guy who might emerge to have a great season?

FG: "Jeremy Hermida is a very good talent who I think is ready to put it all together and be the complete player we think we have. I think he's ready to bust out, but we have other players who could do the same."

Could this team be the '09 version of the Tampa Bay Rays?

FG: "We've got to get out there and play the games. We have a lot of players we're excited about. Josh Johnson is healthy again and we're anxious to see him out there every five days this season. We have some younger players who could make great improvement. A guy like Anibal Sanchez is coming back for a full healthy year, we hope, so let's get out there and see what we have before we start making comparisons."

As pitchman, Youkilis touts Peavy and Red Sox lineup

Two things Kevin Youkilis is passionate about: The strength of the Red Sox' lineup and how much he'd love to see Jake Peavy in a Boston uniform.

"Jake Peavy is a funny guy," said Youkilis, a teammate of Peavy's on the US team in the World Baseball Classic. "His attitude and personality is a lot of fun.

"I know there's been a lot of trade talks with him, so I don't know what the reports are on that, but I know he'd love to pitch in Boston. If we could get him, that would be great. It's not to say we don't have enough pitching as it is, but Jake Peavy is a heck of a pitcher."

Peavy is also expensive, making $11 million this season with salaries of $15 million, $16 million, and $17 million to come. But he fits Boston's profile of a young veteran (27 years old) who has won a Cy Young and has stuff that translates from National League to American League. He also has a tie-in to Theo Epstein, who was with the Padres when Peavy was drafted.

As for the Sox lineup, all winter David Ortiz has talked about adding another power hitter, making references to the fact that he's not as protected in the lineup. It has almost come off as a slap against Youkilis, the guy who hit behind Ortiz in the lineup most often after Manny Ramírez was traded to the Dodgers.

Asked whether he was worried about the offense, Youkilis said, "No. There's only one guy on the team who feels we need more. I don't know why he thinks that or whether he's brought that up again.

"I guess he feels that way and he's entitled to that. I like our team. I like every hitter in our lineup.

"Three through seven - and even Pedey [Dustin Pedroia] at two - can hit 20 [home runs]. To have 20 or more from 2-7? It's amazing that someone is going to hit seventh.

"You've got J.D. [Drew] and Jason Bay and me. Somebody is going to hit seventh. Tito [Terry Francona] might as well put the names in a bag every day and pick out 4-7.

"We all can hit fourth, we all can hit seventh, and we can all drive in runs. I hit seventh last year. Jason Bay hits 30 and drives in 100. I don't know what the complaint is there, but I love our team. I love our lineup."

Etc.

Touching the bases
Apropos of nothing: 1. Is Paul McAnulty the new Matt Stairs?; 2. Sweet-swinging Chris Carter - if he only had a glove; 3. I think Jacoby Ellsbury would win "Dancing With The Stars"; 4. Did David Ortiz really say, "I don't play catch too much"?; 5. Amazing how many dumb teams passed on signing Pudge Rodriguez.

Catching up with . . .
1. Matt Wieters, C, Orioles - Lots of comparisons to Joe Mauer, but the former Georgia Tech star will likely start the year at Triple A Norfolk (so as to delay the arbitration process), where he will be managed by former Sox catcher Gary Allenson, who loves what he sees of Wieters in spring training.

2. Kevin Millar, 1B, Blue Jays - He could have signed with the Yankees, but old buddy Johnny Damon told him he might only see 100 at-bats in pinstripes because of the talent there. Millar expects to see some action at first (splitting time with Lyle Overbay), the outfield, and DH. "What he's going to do is really add some sparkle to that clubhouse," said one baseball official. "There's nobody better at clubhouse management among players than Millar."

3. Bert Blyleven, pitching coach, Netherlands - The great publicity Blyleven got for making the Netherlands pitching staff the Cinderella story of the World Baseball Classic just may get him elected to the Hall of Fame. Blyleven, a 287-game winner who amassed 3,701 strikeouts, has had his vote percentage rise from 17 percent his first year of eligibility to 62.7 percent last year, with five years left.

4. Gordon Beckham, INF, White Sox - Could a kid who played 14 games at Kannapolis last season be the White Sox' Opening Day second baseman? The White Sox are seriously thinking about it. Manager Ozzie Guillen loves him. Drafted eighth overall out of Georgia, the righthanded-hitting shortstop led the NCAA with 28 homers last season for Georgia. The White Sox have moved Alexei Ramirez to short to replace Orlando Cabrera, and they've been looking at Chris Getz, Jayson Nix, and Brent Lillibridge as well, but Beckham, 22, stands out and has made the move to second smoothly. The reason he may not be there Opening Day? The arbitration clock would be ticking sooner than it has to.

5. Bobby Crosby, INF, A's - He has been playing some third after the A's signed Cabrera, auditioning for a job. So far, he looks very stiff at third, and according to one scout, "You can tell he's resisting this with every bone in his body. He wants to play short, and that shows in his body language." The Yankees and Cubs have been watching, but neither has bitten. The Cubs are giving veteran Corey Koskie, trying to make a comeback from vertigo, a chance in camp while the Yankees still insist Cody Ransom is Alex Rodriguez's replacement until further notice.

6. Pedro Martínez, RHP, free agent - In his WBC stint, he achieved his goal of convincing teams he can still pitch at the back end of a rotation. An assistant GM said, "The one thing he showed is that he can reach back for 92 and 93 when he needs it." Now the question is, where? The Dodgers have expressed interest, but Martínez could be tacked on to the end of several teams' rotations. "The one thing he has to do if he wants to pitch is come off big demands for money," said an NL GM. "Nobody has it."

7. Sidney Ponson, RHP, free agent - He has been a major league bad boy for a long time, but with the Netherlands, he hopes to show teams he can pitch effectively. "I'm a different person now," said Ponson. "I have a baby. I don't do that stuff like I did five years ago. I'm just going to have fun in the WBC, try to pitch for my country, and see what happens."

8. Miguel Montero, C, Arizona - The Diamondbacks would still move him for relief pitching, but there's no way they'll ever get Daniel Bard from Boston. In fact, nobody may get Bard, given his 100-m.p.h. velocity and drop-dead curve. The D-Backs still see Boston as a suitor for Montero, but their demands must come way down.

9. Hanley Ramirez, SS, Marlins - Marlins play-by-play man Glenn Geffner pointed this out: In three seasons, Ramirez has made 72 errors, precisely the number of errors made by Alex Gonzalez in his first three seasons. The point is, don't jump to conclusions on high error totals for young infielders. While Ramirez's body type may eventually take him off short and likely to a corner outfield spot, the Marlins, according to manager Fredi Gonzalez, are sticking with him at short. The big thing being worked on is the transfer of the ball from glove to hand.

Short hops
From the Bill Chuck files: "Here's what the Yanks will be missing: Lifetime, A-Rod is a career .311 hitter with 85 homers and 246 RBIs in April and a career .313 hitter, with 92 homers and 258 ribbies, in May." Also, "In 53 games with the Dodgers, Manny B. Manny hit .396 with 17 homers and 53 RBIs. In Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, the Yankee Clipper hit .409 with 15 homers and 55 RBIs." . . . Happy 30th birthday, Kevin Youkilis, and though he never played for the Red Sox, happy 49th to Medford's Mike Pagliarulo.

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

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