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Sunday Baseball Notes

Big 10 conference yields some early winners and losers

By Nick Cafardo
December 26, 2010

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We asked 10 baseball people — managers, coaches, general managers, and scouts — to select the 10 most significant offseason moves/non-moves that could shift the balance of power. Here’s what they came up with:

1. Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, Red Sox — A feared middle-of-the-order hitter who will protect the hitters around him, he could be a Triple Crown candidate if he’s healthy and takes advantage of a ballpark to which his swing is naturally suited. The one fear is that pitchers will bust him inside rather than pitch him away, but a National League GM said, “Don’t forget, he has power pulling the ball, too. There’s no easy solution to pitching him.’’

2. Zack Greinke, RHP, Brewers — The six-player deal that sent him to Milwaukee from Kansas City makes the Brew Crew legitimate NL Central contenders. They have Yovani Gallardo, Randy Wolf, and Shaun Marcum (whom they acquired from Toronto) to put with Greinke, so GM Doug Melvin’s goal of improving the starting rotation is accomplished. With that pitching and their offense, the Brewers should be good enough to compete with the Reds and Cardinals. In other words, they should be back to the CC Sabathia Brewers. You just have to feel badly for former pitching coach Rick Peterson and manager Ken Macha, who lost their jobs and won’t get a chance to experience the enhanced version of this team in a baseball-crazy town. The Brewers may still have to deal with a Prince Fielder trade, but for now he remains the centerpiece of their offense.

3. Carl Crawford, LF, Red Sox — His departure from Tampa Bay signifies the rebuilding process the 2010 AL East champions must embark on. At present, the Rays “are still a very good team that may surprise you,’’ according to one of our baseball people. Not a bad evaluation when you consider their starting rotation is intact, though they need major rebuilding in the bullpen. The Rays can emerge OK if they piece together some cheaper parts to go with what is still a talented team. The lament in Tampa Bay is more over the bullpen than the loss of Crawford. Of course, the Red Sox are better with Tampa Bay’s top offensive player.

4. Cliff Lee, LHP, Phillies — He will likely be overpaid, especially over a six- or seven-year span, in the opinion of the majority of our people. Yet on paper, this is a dream rotation with Lee, Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt, and Roy Halladay. The Phillies lost Jayson Werth, a big offensive piece, so we’ll see whether the addition of another top pitcher offsets that. The Phillies remain the team to beat in the NL East, but have they distanced themselves from the Braves?

5. Dan Uggla, 2B, Braves — The Braves needed a home run hitter/run producer, and Uggla seems perfect for their lineup and that ballpark. The Braves don’t have the sexy rotation that Philadelphia does, but they have five solid starters in Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe, Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens, and 22-year-old lefty Mike Minor. It should be an interesting race with the Phillies. By the way, since we first reported that Uggla was closing in on a five-year, $61 million deal, talks have slowed as he sought a few more dollars. But a deal should get done the first week of January.

6. Andy Pettitte, LHP, free agent — If Pettitte retires, it could be devastating to the Yankees. He is not only a very good pitcher, but a tremendous postseason pitcher. The Yankees haven’t done much this offseason outside of adding lefty specialist Pedro Feliciano to the bullpen and Russell Martin behind the plate, so the loss of Pettitte could be a big blow, simply because there is no lefthander of his caliber available in a trade or free agency. The Yankees may have trouble getting back to 95 wins if they have to rely on Ivan Nova and Sergio Mitre.

7. Jayson Werth, RF, Nationals — Even though our people were shocked at the seven-year, $126 million commitment Washington made, it’s an important signing for the organization because it signifies a willingness to spend money on major free agents. It may not have a major impact in 2011, but Werth will be a big piece once the Nationals get their top players (Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper) together in the next couple of years.

8. Adam Dunn, 1B/DH/OF, White Sox — The addition of Dunn, along with the re-signing of Paul Konerko, has positioned the White Sox as a force in the AL Central. They must find a closer to replace Bobby Jenks, but the panel feels lefty Matt Thornton or young Chris Sale can do the job.

9. Mark Reynolds, 3B, Orioles — Arizona GM Kevin Towers used the strikeout-prone slugger to begin rebuilding the bullpen (acquiring Dave Hernandez and Kam Mickolio from Baltimore) while at the same time breaking up the massive number of strikeouts in the middle of the D-Backs lineup. The Orioles get a hot corner power hitter who should flourish at Camden Yards.

10. Arte Moreno, owner, Angels — By all accounts, he is a wonderful owner and person, but compare his output to that of John Henry and the Red Sox this offseason. The Angels allowed the perfect player for their team — Crawford — to sign with Boston. “Moreno made a comment about the money the Red Sox paid for Crawford being outrageous,’’ said a member of our panel. “Of course it is, but to get the player, you have to do it. I think they messed this one up.’’ The Angels did sign reliever Scott Downs but are balking at extending their offer to Adrian Beltre, another player they need.

PITCHERS NOT PENNED IN YET

A lot of arms for sale in the reliever market

A lot of relievers tumbled to new teams the past two weeks, but there’s a still a market for them out there.

One of the most fascinating names is Rafael Soriano, the class of a long list. Soriano, a Scott Boras client, was the premier reliever in the American League last season for Tampa Bay. The Rays never thought they could keep him, though, since he will want a deal in the upper echelon, likely three years in the $30 million range.

Besides Tampa Bay, the Orioles and Blue Jays also do not have traditional closers at present.

The Orioles do have Koji Uehara, who has great stuff and projects as a closer. Lefty Mike Gonzalez has been a closer in Pittsburgh and Atlanta, but in a perfect world, he and Uehara would be set-up men to someone like Soriano.

The Jays currently project Jason Frasor, who has 36 career saves, as a closer, but again, he is probably better served as a set-up man.

Joel Peralta projects as the Rays’ closer right now.

For Soriano, the Angels appear to be an obvious destination, with a bullpen featuring set-up men Fernando Rodney, newly acquired Scott Downs, and Kevin Jepsen.

At some point, the Rangers will make a call on Neftali Feliz — whether his future is as a closer or a starter. If Feliz heads to the rotation, Soriano would likely become a possibility for Texas.

A team like the Cardinals could always upgrade, and who knows about Seattle?

Beyond Soriano, there is Kevin Gregg, whom the Orioles also have interest in, Brian Fuentes, whom the Red Sox are still casting an eye on, AL East battle-tested Grant Balfour, veteran Octavio Dotel, Jon Rauch, and Aaron Heilman.

Former Red Sox Manny Delcarmen and Hideki Okajima are also in free agent limbo.

IT STARTS WITH HIM

Beckett is still a key to Red Sox’ fortunes

There isn’t one baseball expert who doesn’t believe the key to the Red Sox’ success in 2011 is how well Josh Beckett pitches.

“Can they win the AL East without Beckett?’’ said an American League executive. “Sure they can. They won 89 games without the real Beckett last season. But if you want this staff to really click, Beckett needs to be Beckett.’’

A widespread opinion is that Beckett, who went 6-6 with a 5.78 ERA in 21 starts last season, is kind of the captain in the starting rotation and must take that role seriously. He is well-respected on the team, given what he’s accomplished in big moments (2-1 with a 1.16 ERA in three World Series games and 7-3 with a 3.07 ERA in the postseason).

But while he has shown stubbornness with his fastball and has had consistency issues with his breaking pitch, the real issue is health. Beckett battled back issues and a dead arm for parts of last season. He came off the disabled list and started to find a rhythm that worked at times, but to say Beckett was Beckett? Not really.

So spring training will be huge for Beckett, who starts the four-year, $68 million extension he signed at the beginning of the 2010 season. He will be 31 on May 15, so he is young enough to play up to the contract and turn his fortunes around.

Beckett certainly doesn’t lack competitiveness, and the Sox are hoping his pride overcomes whatever has ailed him.

As Jon Lester emerges as one of the top lefthanders in baseball, as Clay Buchholz continues an upward path, and as John Lackey does his part as a back-of-the-rotation starter, Beckett must provide the solid No. 3 role and step up in big games.

“Without Beckett at the top of his game, it makes it tough for the Red Sox,’’ said the executive, “even with all they’ve done with that offense with Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, to be considered the team that can win it all.

“If Beckett is Beckett, they stand out more than any team in the game right now.’’

Etc.
Apropos of nothing 1. Here’s hoping Lou Gorman can switch from a walker to a cane very soon; 2. A win for a good guy: Arnie Beyeler, Pawtucket’s new manager, gets moved up after four productive seasons at Double A Portland; 3. Joaquin Benoit was a great pick for the Tony C Award, which will be presented at the Boston Baseball Writers dinner Jan. 20 at the Westin Copley Place; 4. No joke: It looks like the Pirates are getting better; 5. Please, please, can we get rid of “defensive indifference’’ and just call it a stolen base?

Updates on nine 1. Carl Pavano, RHP, free agent — Pavano elected to go slowly in negotiations and let the market play out, so there was no deal before Christmas. Now what? Well, he remains the top free agent pitcher on the market and will hold out for three years. A lot of teams are interested, including Minnesota, Washington, Texas, and possibly Seattle if it can free up some money.

2. Daisuke Matsuzaka, RHP, Red Sox — With Zack Greinke traded by the Royals, there’s still a buzz about whether Matsuzaka could be dealt. At the winter meetings, we were surprised to hear that the Sox didn’t want to compromise their pitching depth by dealing Matsuzaka. For now anyway, the Sox haven’t heard anything close to the value they would need in return for him. Here’s the other thing: Japanese media members who know Matsuzaka well say he really likes Boston. Don’t forget, he has a no-trade contract.

3. Jacoby Ellsbury, CF, Red Sox — A lot of teams, including the Angels, came after Ellsbury this offseason, but Theo Epstein never heard any offer resembling proper value for someone of Ellsbury’s talents. He’ll go into 2011 as Boston’s center fielder, a position more familiar than the one he started at last season. The feeling around the team is that Carl Crawford will have a profound effect on Ellsbury as a preeminent base stealer. It may be fun watching those two pick on opposing catchers.

4. Joe Blanton, RHP, Phillies — The Phillies’ fifth starter is expected to be traded in the new year (and they may have to kick in some money on the $17 million Blanton has remaining over two years). The same teams looking at Pavano may consider Blanton, who would come a bit cheaper but isn’t as good as Pavano.

5. Adrian Beltre, 3B, free agent — As the days and weeks go by, Beltre’s case is baffling. Remember the reports of a dozen teams being interested? What happened? There are obvious destinations, one of which is Anaheim, but we all thought Crawford was perfect for the Angels, too, and that didn’t pan out. Oakland is another, but Billy Beane feels Beltre snubbed the A’s twice — last season, when they offered a two-year deal and more money than Boston, and this year, when they offered a five-year, $64 million deal. Florida would be another, but the Marlins may go with 21-year-old rookie Matt Dominguez or move Chris Coghlan from the outfield. Toronto was another possibility, but it looks more and more as if Jose Bautista, a terrific right fielder, will have to play third. Seattle could be a spot (the Mariners could always move Chone Figgins somewhere else on the field), but it doesn’t appear he’d go back there. Texas could still be a destination, but the Rangers would have to make the tough decision to move Michael Young to first base or DH. Now the question becomes, is Beltre looking at a far smaller payday than he originally anticipated?

6. Derrek Lee, 1B, free agent — Lee is going to have a choice of where to go. The Diamondbacks, Padres, and Orioles could use him. Reports that the Orioles were closing in on Adam LaRoche were premature, so Lee remains in the mix.

7. Matt Lindstrom, RHP, Rockies — His name appeared in this space as possible trade bait with the Astros a couple of weeks ago. Sure enough, Lindstrom was dealt to the Rockies, who now have a pretty impressive bullpen with Huston Street closing, Rafael Betancourt and Matt Belisle setting up, and lefties Matt Reynolds and Franklin Morales plus Lindstrom in the middle.

8. Manny Ramirez, DH/LF, free agent — The talk about the Yankees was interesting, but exactly where he would fit with Brett Gardner in left and Jorge Posada as the DH is a head-scratcher. Ramirez is in a competitive environment; Vladimir Guerrero, Jim Thome, and Jason Giambi are also in DH neverland.

9. David Aardsma, RHP, Mariners — He remains trade bait for a team needing a setup man/closer. Aardsma has a pretty good arm, and one theory for why he didn’t have a good first half is that he had very little in the way of effective middle relievers other than Brandon League, who could supplant him as closer. The Mariners wouldn’t mind moving him to acquire starting pitching depth.

Short hops From the Bill Chuck files: “Bobby Jenks and Frank Francisco each walked 18 batters in 52 2/3 innings, which comes out to a not-great 3.1 per 9 innings. But what is stunning is that Cliff Lee walked 18 batters in 212 1/3 innings, an amazing 0.8 per nine innings.’’ Also, “New Yankees lefty Pedro Feliciano led the major leagues in games pitched with 86 in 2008, 88 in 2009, and a career-high 92 last season, holding lefthanded batters to a .211 average. The last lefthanded batter to homer off him was Garrett Jones on July 2, 2009.’’ And, “Since 1996, Johnny Damon is the only player with 15 consecutive seasons of 140 or more games played; Derek Jeter played only 119 in 2003.’’ . . . Happy birthday to Carlos Valdez (39), Esteban Beltre (43), Jeff Stone (50), Dave Rader (62), and Carlton Fisk (63).

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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