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Sunday baseball notes

No lack of candidates for self-improvement

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / February 6, 2011

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There’s always a player or two on each team who has to step up his game for his team to be successful. Whether it’s someone who has simply underachieved or someone who had an injury, here are a few who need to step up in 2011:

B.J. Upton, OF, Rays — Five tools, but not all of them are always used, which has been a source of great frustration for the Rays and probably for Upton himself. With Carl Crawford gone, will something be triggered in Upton to help him emerge into the fine all-around player he should be? He hit .237 last season with 18 home runs, 62 RBIs, and 42 steals, but had a .322 on-base percentage. Since hitting .300 with 24 homers, 82 RBIs, and an .894 OPS as a 22-year-old in 2007, Upton hasn’t approached that output.

Josh Beckett, RHP, Red Sox — Nobody understands his importance to the Sox rotation more than Beckett himself. He battled back issues and arm fatigue last season, but now he begins the first season of a four-year, $68 million extension, and the expectation is that Beckett wants to perform to the level of the contract. As Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz emerge as the young aces of the staff, Beckett needs to be the captain, the leader of the rotation, and he appears to be taking that role seriously.

Justin Upton, OF, Diamondbacks — The younger Upton teased us in 2009 with a .300-26-86 (20 steals) season, which gave rise to thoughts that he would be a perennial 30-30 player. But last year he was .273-17-69 (18 steals), and spent a lot of time at the end of the season on the bench nursing an injury. When new general manager Kevin Towers took over, the first major move he tried to make was dealing Upton to the Red Sox. So Towers has made his point: He’s trying to light a fire under Upton, who like his brother should be a star.

Carlos Beltran, OF, Mets — Injuries have slowed Beltran, who didn’t live up to the seven-year, $119 million deal he signed with the Mets. They tried to deal the final year of the contract this offseason, and the Sox would have been a taker had they not pulled off the Crawford signing. Beltran will be 34 April 24, and if he wants a career beyond this contract, he’ll have to show he can be productive with two balky knees. He will likely be the Mets’ cleanup hitter.

Zack Greinke, RHP, Brewers — Greinke had the one outstanding season — 16-8, 2.16, to win the Cy Young in 2009 — but last season was considerably worse. His ERA was up more than two runs (4.17) and he went 10-14. Greinke lost his changeup and some of his confidence, though he did make 33 starts and pitch 220 innings. Going to the National League should help, but for the Brewers to be competitive in the NL Central, Greinke needs to be the ’09 version.

A.J. Burnett, RHP, Yankees — With Andy Pettitte retired, Burnett has to be the rock in that No. 3 spot, even as Nos. 4 and 5 get sorted out in spring training among youngster Ivan Nova and veterans Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, and Sergio Mitre, plus whatever other additions they make between now and the start of the season. Last year, Burnett went 10-15 with a 5.26 ERA, the worst season of his career. A repeat would be devastating to the Yankees.

Matt Kemp, CF, Dodgers — When two fine baseball men like Bob Schaefer and Larry Bowa get on your case for lack of effort, it’s time to look in the mirror. Kemp is a superb talent and played all 162 games last season. His numbers were decent — .249-28-89, though his .760 OPS was well below what a player of his ability should have. The Dodgers are waiting to see what Kemp, Andre Ethier, and James Loney become as finished products; they waited for Russell Martin before deciding to move on.

Pablo Sandoval, 3B, Giants — The Giants have been patient with Sandoval’s weight issues, which were related to the stress of family matters he dealt with last season. While progress has been made, the Giants want consistency out of a player they feel can be a special hitter on a team that needs offense. That “special’’ aspect of his game surfaced in 2009, when he hit .330 with 25 homers, 90 RBIs, and a .934 OPS. But last season, he dropped to .268 with 13 homers and 63 RBIs and a .732 OPS. He eventually lost his starting job but has a chance to regain it in spring training now that he is taking conditioning seriously and has dealt with his personal issues.

Phil Coke, LHP, Tigers — Jim Leyland is convinced Coke can be a solid starting pitcher, even though he has made just one major league start in 158 appearances. That came in the last game of the 2010 season vs. Baltimore, when Coke started a “bullpen game’’ for the Tigers, going 1 2/3 innings and allowing five hits and two runs. He was a very good reliever for the Yankees in 2009 and did well for the Tigers in that role last season. But Leyland feels Coke, 28, can make the transition because he was predominantly a starter in the Yankees system and has three quality pitches. With Rick Porcello recovering nicely after a poor start to his sophomore season, the Tigers seem set with good young arms in Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Porcello. With veteran Brad Penny in the fifth spot, there’s a lot riding on Coke, the only lefty in the rotation.

Joe Nathan, closer, Twins — The Twins lost Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, and Jon Rauch from their bullpen but still have Matt Capps, who can close if Nathan doesn’t come all the way back or is slow out of the gate. Nathan, 10 months removed from Tommy John surgery, is a huge piece of the Twins puzzle and in early workouts seems to be ahead of schedule. He could be ready by the time pitchers and catchers report.

Brandon Webb, RHP, Rangers — Simply because the Rangers couldn’t sign Cliff Lee, Webb becomes a huge player for them. Webb hasn’t pitched a full season since 2008, when he won the National League Cy Young with a 22-7 record. Spring training is huge for Webb, because if it looks as if he can make it back, Neftali Feliz likely stays put as the closer.

SAFELY OUT?
Pettitte leaves, doubts linger Observations from Andy Pettitte’s retirement press conference:

Said a scout, “I get the feeling his career isn’t over. For one, he can still pitch at a high level. Secondly, he didn’t retire with any conviction. The stuff about going back and forth on whether or not to pitch leads me to believe he’ll decide to pitch again.’’

Hall of Fame? He’s in the discussion. While his 240 wins hardly make him a lock, his .635 regular-season winning percentage and record 19 postseason victories (.655 winning percentage) are pretty impressive. Most voters I’ve asked say Pettitte (above) needs to pitch another year or two.

But it’s hard to ignore his winning percentage, his postseason success, and the fact that he played most of his career in the AL East. At his press conference, Pettitte said he never thought of himself as a Hall of Famer, but it’s funny how he’s always asked the question.

Giants general manager Brian Sabean was a Yankees executive when they signed Pettitte. One thing that impressed Sabean was “how quickly he changed his body. He was a chunky kid and he learned right away that being in top physical shape was going to be beneficial to his career. He picked things up very quickly and at a young age he was very good. He’s had a great career.’’

Asked whether he thought Pettitte would stay retired, Sabean said, “I haven’t been around Andy in a long time, so it wouldn’t be proper of me to comment on something like that. I heard he had retired, and you have to respect that decision.’’

Of the Yankees’ “Core Four,’’ Pettitte seemed unlikely to be the first to go. He has been considering this for some time, because he was missing out on his kids’ activities, but his skills haven’t diminished significantly. Nor have Mariano Rivera’s, for that matter.

You can make the case that Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter have fallen off more, though Jeter could easily rebound, especially offensively.

HOPING FOR ENCORE
Giants know it won’t be easy “Have I done enough? “Have I tinkered too much?’’

Those are the questions that keep general managers who have won World Series up at night as they approach the next season. The Giants’ Brian Sabean is no exception.

“Obviously a unique position for me,’’ said Sabean (above). “You never know if you’ve done enough or tinkered too much until you actually get going with things. But I think we made some changes where we hope to avoid complacency and bring a fresh look to our team.

“I think we’ve done that with [Miguel] Tejada at shortstop, and we’ll have Mark DeRosa back to compete for playing time and we’ll have Cody Ross for a full season and Buster Posey is with us from the start.

“But none of this is going to be easy. It’s not going to be easy to win the West, which we won on the last day of the season, and it won’t be easy to defend any of this.’’

Weak links? Barry Zito is the No. 5 starter and was left off the playoff roster — an expensive player who has never panned out.

“We’re hoping Barry can put together a good first half and a good second half,’’ said Sabean. “We’ve seen him put together good halves, but not the entire season. He’s a consummate team guy and he understood being left off the roster for the playoffs.’’

Sabean did a masterful job last year piecing things together as the season went on.

He brought in Pat Burrell and Jose Guillen, who both contributed. He was awarded Ross on waivers after putting in a claim simply to block the Padres. Pure luck that Ross was a postseason force? Maybe, but it worked.

Sabean resisted the temptation to bring up Posey too fast, but once he arrived, Posey was a dynamite offensive player who had to be in the lineup every day. Juan Uribe had a huge year playing shortstop in place of Edgar Renteria, who lost his job, then returned to be the World Series MVP.

The Giants had great starting pitching, and Sabean made strategic moves with Javier Lopez and Ramon Ramirez, a pair of ex-Red Sox who really firmed up the Giants pen.

It wasn’t exactly the way GMs like to draw it up, but it worked.

“You just never know how things are going to go and happen,’’ Sabean said. “You make decisions and hope they work out. They don’t always, but hopefully we can get back out there and compete for the things we won last season.’’

ETC.
Apropos of nothing 1. The shock of the century: if the Sox and Adrian Gonzalez do not come to terms on a new contract by the end of spring training; 2. Impressive that Jonathan Papelbon and Jarrod Saltalamacchia were the first two veterans to arrive in Fort Myers; 3. Rich Gedman was one of the hardest-working players in the game; now watch his tireless work with Lowell Spinners hitters; 4. Are sports fans mustering up any interest in the government going after Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens?; 5. Crystal ball: I’m seeing a Cy Young Award in Jon Lester’s future.

Updates on nine 1. Juan Cruz, RHP, Rays — Whenever you see the Rays sign a guy like this, you think, “Is this their new Joaquin Benoit?’’ Cruz was released by the Royals last season but was a pretty decent reliever at times, going 15-7 with a 3.47 ERA in 141 games from 2006-08. The Rays are auditioning 28 pitchers in spring training and have about 11 going for three spots behind Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, Andy Sonnanstine, and Adam Russell.

2. Kevin Millwood, RHP, free agent — There is a salary hang-up, with Millwood still asking too much for some teams’ liking at this late stage of free agency. The Mets, Yankees, and Indians are keeping an eye on him.

3. Alfredo Aceves, RHP, free agent — The Red Sox are looking into Aceves, who was shut down by the Yankees May 8 after hurting his back. Aceves is 14-1 in his career, including 10-1 in 2009 with the Yankees. He was 3-0 last season until his back injury flared up. He would be an injury rehab project but is working out and could provide protection in the bullpen or as a starter.

4. Michael Young, DH, Rangers — One thing hindering a trade is the remaining three years at $48 million on his contract. The Rangers are content to keep Young, a terrific hitter and consummate team player, but if they can find a suitor, one longtime scout said, “The Rangers would move him, because as he gets older, he becomes more of a liability in the field and he’s making a lot of money to be a DH.’’ The Red Sox kicked around the idea of Young as their shortstop a couple of years ago but passed because of the contract.

5. Vladimir Guerrero, DH, Orioles — Guerrero, who should be grateful for landing an $8 million deal this late in the process, adds an intriguing element to the Baltimore lineup, which now has quite a bit of sock. One problem, though, is the defensively challenged Luke Scott moving to left field. But this lineup is no day at the beach: Brian Roberts, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, Guerrero, Scott, Derrek Lee, Mark Reynolds, Matt Wieters, and J.J. Hardy. “Lots of strikeouts, but lots of power,’’ is the way one AL executive summed it up. “There are guys who can clog the bases but guys who can win it with one swing.’’

6. Ron Mahay, LHP, Dodgers — GM Ned Colletti had a nice offseason with smart, value signings, and Mahay is an example. He got a minor league deal and is a very good gamble for a team that already has one of the best lefty relievers in Hong-Chih Kuo.

7. Joe Blanton, RHP, Phillies — He seems to be the “take-me-if-you-need-a-pitcher’’ candidate to move in trade, but how good an option is he for the Yankees? They will see what they have with Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, and Sergio Mitre before considering someone like Blanton, who is a bulldog but may not be the best fit in the AL East.

8. J.D. Drew, RF, Red Sox — He had some lingering hamstring issues this offseason and may be slowed up a tad to start spring training. The Sox have Ryan Kalish ready to go as Drew’s eventual replacement in right field, as this is the last season of Drew’s five-year, $72 million contract. He gave indications last spring that this could be his last year in baseball but backed off that when he felt healthy during the season. He still appears to have something left in the tank at age 35, going into his 14th season.

9. Wandy Rodriguez, LHP, Astros — There were rumblings that he would be available in a deal to a team such as the Yankees, but the Astros, who signed Rodriguez to a three-year extension last month, insist they have no plans to move him.

Short hops From the Bill Chuck files: “An enigma wrapped in a mystery: New Orioles third baseman Mark Reynolds hit all of .198 last season and struck out 211 times, yet he was the only player with at least 30 homers and 80 RBIs in less than 500 at-bats. In 499 at-bats, he hit 32 homers and drove home 85. Prince Fielder had 32 homers and 83 RBIs in 578 at-bats.’’ Also, “Only three players have hit at least .300 each of the last five seasons. Naming Ichiro Suzuki and Albert Pujols is easy, but getting the Cardinals’ Matt Holliday takes a moment.’’ And, “Only three players have hit at least 20 homers each of the last 10 seasons. Naming Alex Rodriguez and Pujols is easy, but getting the Astros’ Carlos Lee requires some thought.’’ . . . Wish Juan Pizarro a happy 74th birthday and Carney Lansford a happy 54th tomorrow.

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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