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Baseball Notes

’08 Cinderellas hope the shoe fits better this time

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / February 28, 2010

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They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but if last season was the death of the Cinderella Tampa Bay Rays of 2008, then 2010 should be the season in which they will find their true level.

Lessons from 2009? Oh, Joe Maddon will tell you that you can’t start out slowly (11-16) in the AL East, your bullpen can’t blow games, and you have to play fundamentally sound in a division that shows no mercy on the faint of heart.

Tougher? More mature? Hungrier? Well, perhaps all of the above, but this is a franchise that still has much to overcome, including a somewhat uninterested fan base (the attendance of 1.87 million last season was 11th in the AL) and an ownership that is looking to reduce payroll because it simply can’t make ends meet.

Toward that end, many observers feel that veteran stars Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena are playing their last seasons in Tampa Bay.

But even with all of the obstacles, optimism seems to win out.

“We played pretty well, I thought, eventually,’’ said superstar third baseman Evan Longoria. “We got off to a bad start, but I thought our team really fought and battled. Nobody ever gave up.

“I think we’ve got a lot of the same guys in here and we’ve added some people who I think are going to be very good for us.’’

Crawford knows that, for the first time in his career, he probably has a decision to make on where he’ll play the remainder of his career.

“This is all I’ve ever known,’’ said the left fielder. “I’ve never been with another team, so I try not to think about the situation.

“I just want to play and enjoy this because I think we’re going to be a better team. Everyone in here wasn’t happy the way last year ended.’’

And then there’s the wisdom of Gabe Kapler, the former Sox outfielder who won a championship in ’04 and even managed some of Boston’s top prospects at Greenville for a season, only to return to the game and platoon in the outfield for the Rays last season.

Asked what lessons the Rays can carry into the new season, he said, “The most important lesson is probably randomness. Last year’s product was arguably a better product than 2008, and you can make a case that the 2010 product is the best product of them all.

“The addition of [righthander Rafael] Soriano, the maturation of some of the younger players, and I think just sheer experience.

“There’s a component of timing, poor performance at the wrong time. The poor start may have taken the life out of us. It wasn’t for lack of talent or preparation. I think we had the talent and I think we prepared properly.

“There’s a laundry list of lessons to be taken from last year. That’s probably the one that stands out the most.

“There’s the same energy and exuberation as there was last year. There’s a little bit more humility, and I don’t think last year’s team was a cocky team by any means, but I think there was this sense of ‘look at what we accomplished in ’08 - in ’09, we’re bound to be better.’

“And that’s just not the way it works because a team that’s improved on paper doesn’t necessarily translate to a team that’s improved in the win column.

“It happens all the time. You know where it happens the most? The AL East. I think the division is scary tough. If you took the NBA and you had the Celtics, the Lakers, and the Spurs in the same division and you sprinkled in some other great teams, that’s what you have in our division. There’s no division like it in any sport.’’

Tough division or not, this has to be the year when the Rays regain their mojo.

While Crawford said, “I’d love to be here for a long time,’’ and Pena indicated that he might take less money to stay, ownership nearly ordered Crawford to be traded this offseason before scraping together enough shekels to pick up his $10 million option. Pena is in the final year of a three-year, $24.1 million deal, earning $10.125 million.

The Rays are eyeing phenom Desmond Jennings as a replacement for Crawford, and as for Pena, there’s always the possibility Ben Zobrist, who can play any position well, winds up at first.

Starting pitchers James Shields, Matt Garza, and David Price have to turn things around after disappointing seasons. No reason to think righty Wade Davis can’t emerge or that 6-foot-9-inch Jeff Niemann, who won 13 games in ’09, can’t get better. No reason to believe Soriano, who was added as a closer, can’t solidify the end of the bullpen.

Longoria heads a lineup with Jason Bartlett, Crawford, Zobrist, and Pena, and the catching is improved with Kelly Shoppach. If B.J. Upton, one of the majors’ most athletically gifted players, can come close to what the baseball world feels he ought to be, and if Pat Burrell can find consistency with his power, the Rays will be ’08 tough.

This is make-or-break time for Upton, who must cut down his strikeouts, become more selective, and simply live up to his ability. The Rays made one coaching change, hiring Derek Shelton from the Indians organization to replace hitting coach Steve Henderson. The feeling is that a new perspective should help Upton.

“We really care for one another,’’ said Pena. “We’d love to take the same ride we did in ’08, but this time finish it off.’’

TRIBAL LOYALTIES
Breaking up was hard to do for Shoppach
There were rumblings that the relationship between Kelly Shoppach and Jason Varitek was strained when Shoppach was a young catcher with the Red Sox, but that wasn’t so in Cleveland with Victor Martinez, who relinquished part of his catching duties to Shoppach when Shoppach was acquired from Boston in 2005.

Reminded that he might have seen significant playing time or even been the starting catcher if the Sox had kept him, Shoppach said, “Not if Victor was there. I appreciate them giving me the opportunity to go play. They had opportunities to stick me back in Triple A. Varitek was still doing his thing and had signed a new contract. [Doug] Mirabelli was there for [Tim] Wakefield but that created a great opportunity for me to go to Cleveland. They needed a guy in the big leagues, and there’s no better place to learn than in the big leagues.’’

Even though Shoppach took some of Martinez’s catching duties and was Cliff Lee’s personal catcher, he spoke assuredly of Martinez’s ability to play full-time at the position.

“Oh, this guy can handle anything,’’ he said. “If you said, ‘You’re going to be the everyday center fielder,’ he’d figure out a way. He’s that kind of competitor. He’s that kind of player, and that kind of teammate.

“That separates him from a lot of people. We were very close. He was always The Guy and he always had the reason to be The Guy. The only reason I entered the picture was that he got hurt.’’

Shoppach, traded to Tampa Bay this winter, was one of the last Indians purged in the latest rebuilding program. Watching his teammates leave was tough.

“I had a lot of friends walking out that door,’’ he said. “First C.C. [Sabathia] and then Cliff, and when Victor left, it was very hard from a personal point of view. All I really knew in the big leagues was that staff and Victor.’’

But he understood the exodus.

“We had three years to win,’’ he said. “They put a team out there that could win, and we didn’t get it done. We have nobody to blame but ourselves.’’

ENERGIZED BATTERY
Twins Mauer, Pavano are putting it together
Joe Mauer will likely be signed to a whopping new contract - perhaps by Opening Day - but one thing that’s often overlooked about the three-time batting champion is how he handles a young pitching staff. Mauer, a two-time Gold Glove, said it’s helpful that veteran Carl Pavano is on the staff.

“What impressed me about Carl last year is how thorough he was in what he wanted to do every day,’’ Mauer said. “He has a plan and he tries to execute that plan. I think that’s great for the young guys to see, and that it’s not just throwing. You need to know what you want to do and have a plan for how you want to do it.’’

We all know of Pavano’s struggles with the Yankees, but to his credit, he has come back well and wants to be the go-to guy with the young pitchers. He accepted Minnesota’s offer of arbitration and negotiated a $7 million deal for one year.

“I ended up in a good situation,’’ Pavano said. “Last year was a blessing. I got through the whole year. I was the extra piece to the puzzle.

“I wanted to be here, so I’m really not worried about the next two or three years. After those four decimated years in New York, this is a breath of fresh air as far as I’m concerned.

“I’m excited about this team, from the rotation to the lineup to the defense. I think we can use falling short in the playoffs as motivation.’’

Pavano is also a big fan of his catcher.

“He’s great,’’ said Pavano. “He cares a lot about his pitching staff. He’s a guy capable of hitting .400. He showed that. He has a great balance there in wanting to help us in trying to be on the same page and communicating really well.

“When you’re dealing with starting pitchers, it’s tough because we all like to work a certain way. That’s a plus to him and obviously he gets the job done on the other side.’’

Pavano said one thing he wants to be better at is pitching deeper into games.

“I found last year my pitch counts were 85-95, so I’d like to improve on that,’’ he said. “I was able to average six innings a start with that. It would help me and help our staff if I can go seven.’’

ETC.
Apropos of nothing
1. Impressive stat of the week: Rays first base coach George Hendrick once consumed 17 Krispy Kreme doughnuts at one sitting; 2. Looks like outdoor hockey at Nationals Park next January; 3. It’s a shame the Fenway Park replica will be in Fort Myers and not Boston; 4. The Nationals are a possible fit at City of Palms Park when the Red Sox leave in two years; 5. The Zobrists are a pretty talented family. Ben Zobrist is one of the best players in baseball and his wife, Christian recording star Julianna, is out with her first CD, “The Tree.’’

Updates on nine
1. Larry Lucchino, CEO, Red Sox - Not too early to begin speculating on who will replace Bud Selig as commissioner after 2012. Lucchino has close ties with Selig, as does Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail. They appear to be at the top of the list, along with MLB second-in-command Bob DuPuy and possibly MLB vice president Rob Manfred. “The owners, in large part, will go along with Bud’s recommendation,’’ said one American League owner. “Larry is certainly qualified and has a lot of experience and has improved every situation he’s been involved with. He may have to mend a few fences.’’

2. Mike Lowell, 3B, Red Sox - We’ve banged the drum on a possible fit with the Twins, and it turns out Minnesota has had interest in Lowell in the past. If the Sox are willing to pay most of the $12 million salary, the Twins could be a major suitor. But it’s not just lip service when the Sox say they are serious about keeping his bat around.

3. Oliver Perez, LHP, Mets - He has been a human bull’s-eye, the butt of many Mets jokes, but there’s a feeling among team officials and players that he’s finally taking his job seriously. “I don’t know what will happen once the season starts,’’ said a Mets player, “but I know he’s made an impression with the guys here that he’s willing to do what it takes to be a better pitcher for us. He’s taking instruction. He worked with Sandy Koufax the other day, so he understands we need many people to step up besides Johan [Santana] and he’s got to be one of them.’’

4. Ron Mahay, LHP, free agent - The Red Sox offered Mahay a minor league deal with the chance to make the major league club, but he rejected it. Mahay, who pitched well and enjoyed his late-season stint with the Twins last year, had talked about a possible return to Boston.

5. Mike Yastrzemski, CF, Vanderbilt - Little Yaz was hitting .214 in his first four games for the Commodores as a freshman. The former St. John’s Prep player contributed a two-run double in a 9-0 win over Niagara in his college debut. He also had two steals early in the season.

6. Chris Capuano, LHP, Brewers - The Brewers would love it if the former 18-game winner from West Springfield can make it back after two Tommy John surgeries (he hasn’t thrown since March 8, 2008). “I’m more concerned with command, and just feeling free and easy,’’ said Capuano, who will try to work his way back through the minors. “My elbow feels fine. That’s the main thing.’’

7. Jeremy Bonderman, RHP, Tigers - After Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello, and Max Scherzer, the Tigers hope Bonderman can be No. 4 in the rotation. He has won only 14 games since signing a four-year, $38 million deal after winning 14 games in 2006. He’s throwing well again after right shoulder surgery, and if he makes it back, the retooling Tigers might sneak up on people. “Bonderman is only 27 years old and he’s got a lot of pride,’’ said an AL talent evaluator. “He hasn’t liked what’s happened the last couple of years, and he knows if he can give them quality starts, this is going to be a pretty good team.’’

8. Kevin Millar, 1B, Cubs - Fifteen years after players crossed the picket line, he remains the most notable replacement player among the remaining three under contracts (Pittsburgh’s Brendan Donnelly and Kansas City’s Matt Herges). Mahay and lefty reliever Jamie Walker are unsigned but could return somewhere. For many years, the replacement players’ petitions for reinstatement to the union were declined, and the players have since passed a motion to no longer hear petitions. While replacement players do not receive group licensing money and do not vote, they do receive a full pension and would be supported on grievances.

9. Hideki Matsui, OF, Angels - Yankees people don’t believe he can play the outfield, given his creaky knees, but manager Mike Scioscia is going to give it a try. After all, Scioscia’s outfield corps includes 36-year-old Bobby Abreu, 34-year-old Torii Hunter, and a less-mobile Juan Rivera, who busted a leg three years ago. Scioscia would rather give everyone playing time and some rest than tie Matsui down as the designated hitter. We’ll see.

Short hops
From the Bill Chuck Files: “Aaron Boone, who just announced his retirement, ended up with a .263 batting average and a .326 on-base percentage. His brother Bret Boone, who retired after the 2005 season, ended up with a .266 batting average and a .325 on-base percentage.’’ Also, “Stat to watch: DefEff (Defensive Efficiency), which measures the percentage of balls put into play that are converted into outs. The Dodgers led the majors last year with a .711 percentage, followed by the Mariners at .710 and the Giants at .704. At the bottom were the Royals at .673, the Astros at .676, and the Red Sox at .677.’’ . . . Happy 27th birthday, Tug Hulett, and happy 80th, Frank Malzone.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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