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Baseball Notes

Roping the ball in Texas

Rangers may round up some pitching, as well

By Nick Cafardo
April 12, 2009
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At some point, Rangers president Nolan Ryan would rather we say, "Boy, can that team pitch," rather than, "Boy, can that team hit."

But, boy, can that team hit.

The Rangers scored 29 runs and had 37 hits (18 for extra bases) in their first three games, a sweep of the Indians at Arlington.

They clobbered Cy Young winner Cliff Lee, Fausto Carmona, and Carl Pavano, looking like a team that could surpass the major league-high 901 runs they scored last season. And their pitching looked as if it might be better than the staff that posted a dead-last 5.37 ERA in 2008.

But after the Cleveland series, the next day in Detroit they were dismantled by the Tigers, 15-2, giving rise to the obvious question, "Which team are they?"

Ryan's hope is that Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla take their contract years seriously while Kris Benson can rebound from two years of inactivity and from the shellacking he got in Detroit (8 runs, 7 earned). Brandon McCarthy and Matt Harrison also need to have breakthrough seasons.

For the first time in a long time, however, the Rangers at least have the hope of good pitching with a pitching-rich farm system.

For now, though, if you love offense - and who doesn't? - this is your team.

The Ballpark at Arlington is suited for hitters. The ball flies to right field, and according to former Sox outfielder David Murphy, "It's the opposite of Fenway in that left field plays large for a righthanded hitter and right field plays short, even though it isn't."

Even the Rays are fans of the Rangers' offense. After a win over the Red Sox last week, Tampa Bay players watched in awe the monstrous second-deck homer hit by Nelson Cruz off the Indians' Rafael Perez.

The Rangers are so loaded on offense that they lost free agent Milton Bradley, who contended for the batting title last season, and it was no big deal.

Twenty-three-year-old Chris Davis hit .285 with 17 homers and 55 RBIs in 80 games last season and is now the full-time first baseman. They have committed to switch-hitting catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. They have Cruz for a full year, a healthy Hank Blalock to DH, .300 hitter Michael Young switching from shortstop to third, and young Elvis Andrus taking over at shortstop, with future Hall of Famer Omar Vizquel backing him up.

The Rangers were so deep with outfielders - Murphy, Cruz, Josh Hamilton, Marlon Byrd, and reclamation project Andruw Jones - they released veteran Frank Catalanotto. At some point, they'll probably move Hamilton to a corner spot because they have two terrific center-field prospects in former Sox farmhand Engel Beltre, who is only 18, and Julio Borbon, both of whom are in A ball.

"It's just so amazing to watch," said Murphy. "One through nine, we're pretty tough. When you have a 20-year-old shortstop like Elvis Andrus, who's not a home run hitter but he hits a 400-foot homer to the opposite field . . . when you have a team where a guy like Nelson Cruz could go out there and put up Josh Hamilton numbers because he has that kind of ability . . . when you have a team where we have 13 positional players and Omar Vizquel and Andruw Jones are on your bench . . . it's pretty impressive.

"We also have the best hitting coach in the game in Rudy Jaramillo. The other thing is, last year it took us a few weeks to get going offensively. It seems like we got right into it this year."

Under Ryan, things appear to be heading in the right direction. In the past, free agent pitchers feared the heat in Texas; the ballpark is not conducive to pitching, either, though you'll get plenty of run support.

Saltalamacchia has noticed a different vibe since spring training.

"We have a new pitching coach in Mike Maddux, who is very positive," he said. "We might have the same faces, but Mike has brought a new approach that I think is very positive.

"I think we're expecting better things. If we can reduce our errors, play better defense, we have an offense that's pretty special."

The Rangers had seven prospects in Baseball America's recent top 100, tying them with Oakland for the most, and theirs is now regarded as an elite minor league organization.

Ryan, who wants to emphasize pitching, is excited about the future, with lefty Derek Holland and righty Neftali Feliz both at Triple A and possibly on the verge of joining the Rangers' rotation. Holland went 13-1 with a 2.27 ERA at three levels last season while Feliz "throws the ball nice and easy and he gets it up to 98" according to Murphy.

Not only do they have Saltalamacchia at the front of a deep catching unit, but the well-rounded Taylor Teagarden backs him up, and another offensive force, Max Ramirez, is in Triple A, ready to create another catching dilemma for Ryan and general manager Jon Daniels. The Rangers are so deep behind the plate they were able to deal Gerald Laird to the Tigers in the offseason.

"I don't think anyone here makes predictions," said Saltalamacchia. "We're just trying to be more consistent in everything we do - pitch, hit, you name it. We're just trying to be a good team all the time. If we can get ahead in games with our offense and have our pitching hold things, nobody can stop us."

A few Pat answers

A few questions for Rays DH Pat Burrell:

It was a long time ago, but did you ever come close to signing with the Red Sox when they drafted you (43d round, 1995, out of Bellarmine College Prep in San Jose)?

PB: "Well, that's funny, because I was going to go to [the University of] Miami, and they drafted me, but they couldn't make me any sizable offer. I remember the scout coming to me and saying, 'You're going to Miami, aren't you?' And I leveled with him, but I said, 'Aren't you going to make me an offer?' He finally told me the most he could offer was like $1,000 and I said, 'That's it?' So we moved on at that point. But I do remember that."

I know you've always spoken well of Boston and playing here. Did you ever regret not playing here? You could have been in the same town as your old high school football nemesis, Tom Brady?

PB: "Only in that this is such a great atmosphere to play in. If you're a player looking at where would it be neat to play, Boston would be one of the places. The way things turned out, I got to play in Philadelphia, where there's also great passion for the game, so I got to experience that. With the type of team we're building here, I think we're going to have that."

Wasn't there a point a couple of years ago where the Phillies were thinking of dealing you, but you had a no-trade contract, but you would OK a deal to Boston?

PB: "I vaguely remember that, but that's probably right. I had played for Terry [ Francona] in Philly so I think that would have been a comfortable situation."

Does it seem strange to play for the team you beat? And then did it seem strange to go back to Philly Tuesday to get your championship ring and then come back to this clubhouse?

PB: "I think I've separated the two pretty well. That was based on last year and I've turned the page. It's a part of my career I'll never forget. It's nothing but fond memories. And the guys here, Joe Maddon, they've understood perfectly the situation and had no problem with me going back to accept the ring. It's not something I'm going to wear around here or anything. In fact, I'm not sure if there's a good situation where you can wear it. But I'm proud of it. Something I always wanted. And I'd love to have one with my current team."

Opening with the ace of clubs was a tough play this season

Now that CC Sabathia and other Opening Day starters have the jitters and cobwebs out of their system, let's see whether they revert back to form.

While Sabathia got the most attention for his horrible start for the Yankees, Jim Ingraham of the Lorain (Ohio) Morning Journal also reports that Cliff Lee, Tim Lincecum, James Shields, Brandon Webb, Aaron Cook, Ricky Nolasco, Justin Verlander, Francisco Liriano, and Roy Halladay were fair to middling to downright bad in their Opening Day starts.

The aforementioned combined for a 2-4 mark and a 10.38 ERA.

Of course, there were also opening gems from Josh Beckett, Felix Hernandez, Joe Saunders, Carlos Zambrano, Derek Lowe, Johan Santana, Kevin Millwood, and Hiroki Kuroda.

There's also an interesting Cy Young component to struggling in your first start. Lee, last year's AL Cy Young winner, tied Halladay for the most hits allowed (10) in the first start the season after winning the award. Halladay had allowed 10 in 6 2/3 innings in his first 2004 start. He turned out OK.

Lee's seven earned runs were second-most by a Cy Young winner on Opening Day to Roger Clemens, who was bopped for eight runs in 4 1/3 innings for the Yankees in 2002.

Sabathia, the 2007 Cy Young winner in the AL, not only was horrible on Opening Day this season, but bad last season for the Indians. He allowed five runs on six hits in 5 1/3 innings in his first start after winning the award.

Since 1967, when the Cy Young Award was first split up by league, winners are 13-14 with a 4.10 ERA in their first starts the following season.

Etc.

Touching the bases
Apropos of nothing: 1. With all the modern science to aid them and the strict pitch counts, why do so many pitchers still get hurt, compared with the old days?; 2. Boy, the Marlins are exciting; 3. The Braves could surely use a reliever the quality of Manny Delcarmen; 4. Justin Masterson is quite a preacher; watch him on YouTube; 5. Julio Lugo will have the chance to create a shortstop controversy.

Updates on nine . . .
1. Frank McCourt, Dodgers owner. Commenting on our report last week that the Dodgers had the most African-Americans in baseball (7): "I think it's fitting for the team which introduced Jackie Robinson to major league baseball." In a related survey, according to MLB, the Mariners will field a team with the most foreign-born players, 15. The Mets, Yankees, and Red Sox are second with 12.

2. Carl Yastrzemski, Sox Hall of Famer. Florida's Emilio Bonifacio hit an Opening Day inside-the-park homer, the first since Yaz hit one on April 10, 1968, at Tiger Stadium. Bonifacio, who runs a 3.68 to first base lefthanded, according to Marlins vice president Dan Jennings, said he'd never heard of Yaz. Emilio, please learn that Yaz won the MVP and Triple Crown in 1967. In that '68 game, he homered in back-to-back at-bats. A seventh-inning smash against Pat Dobson was followed by the inside-the-park shot to center off Daryl Patterson with two outs in the ninth.

3. Matt Garza, RHP, Rays. The rising Garza has adopted backup Shawn Riggans as his personal catcher. In starts with Riggans, he has a 2.38 ERA. With Dioner Navarro, whom Garza had a contretemps with last season, he's 4.15. "We're both not the sharpest tools in the shed, so it works out well," said Riggans.

4. Ronny Paulino, C, Marlins. Looks like another astute pickup by the Marlins (in a minor deal with the Giants the final week of spring training). Paulino will back up John Baker and be used against some lefthanded pitching. Paulino has a .360 career average against lefties. "He's actually got very good skills - good arm, good receiver, raw power," said a National League scout. "But he's never put it all together."

5. Pedro Martinez, free agent pitcher. His name is being mentioned more frequently with the Angels after the death of Nick Adenhart and because Kelvim Escobar, John Lackey, and Ervin Santana won't be back until mid to late May. He could become an option if he would lower his salary demands. Even Martinez's former boss, Dan Duquette, text-messaged him to get back on the field soon because the game needs him.

6. Frank Catalanotto, free agent OF/1B. The fact that Catalanotto, a superb extra bat, is still looking for a job after being released by Texas is a head-scratcher. The Royals have lost Jose Guillen to the DL with a hip injury, so they might be a candidate. Milwaukee needs a lefthanded veteran bat off the bench and would seem to be a fit. Catalanotto may have to consider a minor league deal or an Independent League stint to keep his stroke sharp.

7. Delmon Young, OF, Twins. So far, he appears to be the fourth man in this deep, talented outfield. It appears manager Ron Gardenhire is going to go with the hot hand, and Young has been cold to start the season. One wonders how long it will be before the emotional Young says something about his playing time.

8. Derek Lowe, RHP, Braves. Lowe has never thrown Ryan Howard anything but breaking balls, including this Opening Day, when Howard seemed baffled. Howard is 2 for 19 (.105) against Lowe.

9. Dr. Howard Markman, University of Denver. He did a study on divorce rates in cities after they acquired baseball franchises. In 1990, Denver's divorce rate stood at 6 per 1,000. Seven years after the Rockies played their first game, the divorce rate had declined 20 percent to 4.2 per 1,000. The overall US divorce rate dropped only 15 percent. Markman found a 30 percent decline in divorces in Phoenix, a 30 percent drop in Miami, and a 17 percent drop in Tampa Bay after teams in those cities were born.

Short hops
From the Bill Chuck files: "Over the last two seasons, J.D. Drew has 128 RBIs and brother Stephen has 127 RBIs." Also, "In 2007, Zach Greinke threw 122 innings and gave up 122 hits; in 2008, he threw 202 1/3 innings and gave up 202 hits." . . . The Red Sox are the oldest team in the American League at 30.55 years, while the Astros are the oldest in the NL at 32.88. The Marlins are the youngest NL team, 27.21, while the Twins are the youngest AL team, 28.18. The oldest player in the AL is Tim Wakefield at 42, and the youngest is Detroit's Rick Porcello, 20. The oldest NL player is Jamie Moyer at 46, while Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers is the youngest at 21 . . . Happy 66th birthday, Vicente Romo, and happy 45th to you, Mike Macfarlane.

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

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