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Sunday baseball notes

Rays’ Hickey has a tall order rebuilding pen

JIM HICKEY Faces challenge JIM HICKEY
Faces challenge
By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / March 6, 2011

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Jim Hickey probably never thought of it this way, but he may be the most important non-playing person in the American League this season. After all, who has a bigger task than the Rays’ well-regarded pitching coach, who has to rebuild an entire bullpen in the most competitive division in baseball?

If Hickey pulls it off, the Rays could make the lives of the Red Sox and Yankees miserable. If he doesn’t, it could be a very long season in Tampa.

“Absolutely looking forward to the challenge — there’s no other way to look at it,’’ Hickey said at Rays camp in Port Charlotte, Fla. “It’s certainly something we’re capable of working out because of the quality we have and the depth that we have.

“It’s not that we’re searching for guys who have good enough stuff. I think those guys are in camp. We have to be able to identify and pick out the guys who are best suited to succeed in the role in which we’re going to use them. [Manager] Joe [Maddon] does a nice job of matching guys up to put them in the best position to succeed.’’

This is the ultimate baseball crossword puzzle. The Rays lost closer Rafael Soriano, set-up man Joaquin Benoit, seventh-inning men Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler, as well as specialists Randy Choate and Lance Cormier.

The “talent’’ Hickey will have to fit together includes veteran righties Kyle Farnsworth, Juan Cruz, Joel Peralta, Adam Russell, Chris Archer, and lefties Jake McGee and Cesar Ramos.

The outside perception is that Hickey must make chicken salad out of chicken manure.

This looks like the old bullpen by committee, but Hickey doesn’t think so.

“Not sure I can answer that question right now, but in my mind I hope not,’’ he said. “Even last year at this time we had a lot of question marks.

“You look at the year that Joaquin Benoit had, and he wasn’t even in the picture at this time last year. Grant Balfour was a big question mark the deeper we got into spring training. We thought J.P. Howell was going to be a part of that bullpen. It turned out he wasn’t.

“Someone’s going to emerge unexpectedly. The biggest difference between one year ago today and now is that we knew Soriano would pitch the ninth inning and we probably know who that will be by Opening Day, but we just don’t know it now.’’

Hickey plays the mind game with himself. Who replaces Soriano? Who replaces Benoit? Who replaces Balfour and Wheeler?

“If there was going to be a Benoit, it would be Juan Cruz,’’ he said. “I’d put my money on Juan. Similar injury to Benoit and not pitching last year. He’s got great stuff. He’s got a plus-plus arm, a plus breaking ball. He’s got a really good changeup, very much like Benoit.

“I expect Farnsworth to be really productive. Peralta, too. Jake McGee we’re hoping will surprise a lot of people. J.P. Howell is on the cusp of coming back.

“All of a sudden, four weeks into the season, we could be saying, ‘This isn’t bad at all.’ ’’

The Rays need to get lucky. They might need the youngster McGee to take the lefty set-up role or perhaps even the closer job. Possible?

“McGee, I would say, he has the chance to start the year here, but it’s really, really premature,’’ said Hickey. “I compare him to Matt Thornton with the White Sox a lot. I would consider them capable of closing ballgames.’’

Hickey knew there was a chance he’d lose the bulk of his bullpen because it performed so well last year.

“I didn’t think we’d lose all of them, but a good solid four of them,’’ he said. “You’re talking about Soriano, Benoit, Balfour, and Wheeler, and Choate and Cormier were very valuable to us.

“A guy like Wheeler was very, very underrated. If you take his performance the last five years and block out the name and just go by the numbers, he’d be top 20 in the game in terms of non-closing relief pitchers.

“Our biggest challenge is to accelerate our projection curve a little bit. If it takes us until the middle of May to figure it out, you could all of a sudden be seven games behind in this division and trying to catch up, which is tough in this division.

“That’s our challenge. We need to do an accelerated job of projecting. And that’s not necessarily fastballs and curveballs, that’s more what’s in a guy’s head and heart and intestinal fortitude. Is he capable of doing this or that or what we’re asking him to do?’’

On paper, it seems a very huge task for this collection of relievers to make an impact. General manager Andrew Freidman may not be done trying to find a closer. Hickey would be the coach of the year if he pulls this off.

“I would say, yeah, it would be satisfying, but some think we’re totally behind the 8-ball,’’ he said. “I understand that sentiment, given the people we’ve lost. But, honestly, I don’t think there are a lot of people running around here that feel that way. We’re equipped to do it.

“I would say never count us out. Never underestimate us. We always seem to find a way to get it done.

“We have a theme in camp, and basically the theme is ‘Another Way.’ We’re going to find another way to get it done.

“I think Joe has said a few times, “The death of the Rays has been greatly exaggerated. I think so. I’m not saying this just to say it, because we have enough capable people to piece it back together.’’

Paying his dues
Red Sox’ Hale worthy managerial candidate DeMarlo Hale interviewed for two of the managerial openings in the offseason. Hours of preparation and research into each team’s players, front office, and ownership didn’t yield a job.

The Red Sox bench coach, a branch of the Terry Francona managerial tree, has done it the right way — from minor league manager to first base coach to third base coach and now bench coach with a high-profile team.

He has coached Alex Rodriguez and Michael Young, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. He has taken the long bus rides to get to games and made an impact every place he’s been.

But the Mets wanted a more experienced manager, and they tapped Terry Collins, who hadn’t managed in the majors since 1999. The Blue Jays opted for John Farrell in a close race with Hale.

Of the openings, none went to an African-American candidate and Fredi Gonzalez (Braves) was the lone Hispanic to get a job. Pittsburgh went with Clint Hurdle, Seattle with Eric Wedge, the Dodgers with Don Mattingly, and the Brewers with Ron Roenicke. (The Cubs stayed with interim Mike Quade and the Marlins kept Edwin Rodriguez.)

Right now, there doesn’t appear to be an obvious place for a managerial change next season. Charlie Manuel should sign a contract extension with the Phillies soon. Tony La Russa or Jim Leyland could retire, but that’s unlikely.

“I have to concentrate on the job at hand now,’’ Hale said. “Out of respect for the organization, the players and Tito, I’m here to be the bench coach and that’s what I need to focus on. It’s been a hell of a journey and hopefully it’s not over.’’

When he was a rising young manager in the Red Sox organization, Hale interviewed in Arizona and Seattle. When he became a coach in Texas, he interviewed for the job that went to Buck Showalter. And in 2004, Hale interviewed with the Red Sox for the job that went to Francona.

“Great communicator,’’ said Mike Cameron. “He runs this camp and everyone knows what they’re supposed to be doing. He really understands how to get the most out of players.

“He’s so deserving of the chance. Hopefully this is a blessing and he’ll get something even better in the long run.’’

No shortcomings
Gonzalez’s defense, bat keys to Braves’ season Braves shortstop Alex Gonzalez looks muscular without his shirt on, and when told that he appeared strong, he said, “Not strong, healthy.’’

The former Red Sox shortstop, who homered off John Lackey Wednesday at City of Palms Park, has flashed power at various times in his career. Last season, he matched his career high with 23 homers for the Blue Jays and Braves and knocked in 88 runs.

“I’ve been able to hit the long ball if I get my pitch and drive the ball,’’ Gonzalez said. “If I stay healthy, I can hit home runs and drive in runs.

“We have a lot of talent here, and it’s going to be a fun team to be a part of. I liked that we got [second baseman] Dan Uggla, who I’ve been watching for a long time with the Marlins, and he’s going to hit for power in our lineup. I’m really looking forward to working with him.’’

Gonzalez, of course, is a superb defensive shortstop. He is one of the reasons the Braves were able acquire Uggla, who has his limitations at second base. Atlanta gave up a little defense to get more power, believing Gonzalez can make up for any problems Uggla has.

Gonzalez isn’t conceding the division to the Phillies and their all-world pitching staff.

“Our staff is also very good,’’ he said. “There aren’t too many teams who like to face us either.’’

Regarding the Phillies rotation, he said, “You still have to go out there and throw the ball. Anything can happen. They’re tough. We know it, and we’re going to have to play them tough every time we go up against them.

“But we have a good team here.’’

Gonzalez doesn’t like being the traveling man that he’s become. He hoped to stay in Toronto, where the ballpark was suited for his offense, but now that he’s with the Braves, he feels extremely comfortable with his surroundings.

“I would love to stay here a long time,’’ Gonzalez said. “I’ve known [manager] Fredi [Gonzalez] for a long time. He was my manager in A ball, Double A, and two years in the big leagues in Florida.

“This is a great situation for me personally, but I think we have a great chance to win something here.’’

Etc.
Apropos of nothingApropos of nothing 1. Yankees catching prospect Jesus Montero can really hit but is very slow; 2. Don’t get this dispute between David Ortiz and Jay-Z. Jay-Z has a nightclub called 40/40 and Ortiz has one called Forty Forty. One is in New York, the other in Santo Domingo. What’s the big deal?; 3. Joe Torre seems too nice a guy for the “baseball operations’’ job he’s taking with MLB; 4. Still think that New England baseball fans would have supported a National League team in Foxborough; 5. Sleeper: Eric Chavez making the Yankees.

Updates on nine 1. Carlos Silva, RHP, Cubs — His little tussle with Aramis Ramirez in the dugout after a tough first inning may be symptomatic of the veteran hurler’s uneasiness with his uncertain situation in the rotation. Silva is still due $13.5 million ($5.5 million is the responsibility of the Mariners), but there is competition for his spot among a younger brood that includes Randy Wells, Andrew Cashner, Casey Coleman, Jeff Samardzija, Todd Wellemeyer, and Braden Looper). Silva could be available to a team needing a fifth starter.

2. Mike Cameron, OF, Red Sox — He remains the best fit for the Phillies, who are watching top prospect Domonic Brown struggle in spring training. The only problem with a Cameron-Phillies hookup is that he may be a very valuable member of the Red Sox now that he’s completely recovered from abdominal surgery. “I’m feeling healthy and I want to go out there and show I can do some things,’’ Cameron said. “I want to help this team any way I can.’’ Cameron will likely see a lot of action against lefthanded pitching. That may be too valuable for the Sox to give up.

3. Jason Castro, C, Astros — News that he will miss the season because of reconstructive ACL surgery is a devastating blow to the Astros, who are transitioning to the new wave of players after dealing mainstays Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman last season. Castro was the centerpiece of that transition, but now it will have to be delayed a year. “He’s worked so hard trying to get to this point where he’s a leader,’’ said manager Brad Mills. “But he’ll be back and he’ll assume that role when he’s ready.’’

4. Hank Steinbrenner, co-chairman, Yankees — All indications are that Steinbrenner was not fined for his comments concerning revenue sharing. He put in his two cents two weeks ago, and his seemed more inflammatory than those of John Henry in December 2009, which brought a $500,000 fine from the commissioner. Steinbrenner basically said that if you can’t sustain a team, then you shouldn’t have one, and he compared revenue sharing to “socialism.’’

5. Dirk Hayhurst, RHP, Rays — He is a candidate for one of the many available bullpen spots in Tampa, but he might have another career if the baseball thing doesn’t work out. He’s the author of the bestselling “The Bullpen Gospels’’ and the creator of the children’s character the Garfoose (half-giraffe, half-moose). His wife is a special needs teacher and they use the character as a teaching tool. Asked about his dual careers, Hayhurst said, “I’m the most unnecessarily famous career minor leaguer there is now.’’

6. Max Venable, OF, Padres — The Adrian Gonzalez influence lives on in San Diego, where Venable is trying to emulate Gonzalez’s inside-out swing at expansive Petco Park. Venable has studied the swing and spoke to the new Sox first baseman in the offseason about his setup to it. Venable is resting the bat on his left shoulder, then tipping the barrel in an effort to create better timing and reduce his strikeouts.

7. Javier Vazquez, RHP, Marlins — He believes a 3-mile-per-hour drop in velocity probably led to his demise as a Yankee last season. So far, he’s up to 90 m.p.h. with the Marlins, and some feel Vazquez can get even closer to his form of 2009, when he went 15-10, 2.87 as a Brave. Vazquez had been a consistent and durable pitcher until last year. In 10 years leading up to 2010, he averaged more than 12 wins, 216 innings, and 200 strikeouts.

8. Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pirates — The Pirates are fortunate to have this type of elite talent; most important, the 99- and 105-loss seasons made him sick. “I hate to lose,’’ he said. The speedy McCutchen may soon bid farewell to the leadoff spot because manager Clint Hurdle is considering him as the No. 3 hitter in a youthful lineup that includes third baseman Pedro Alvarez, outfielder Jose Tabata, and second baseman Neil Walker. McCutchen, 24, has a chance to be a pretty special player and could help the Pirates out of their 18-year funk.

9. Reid Brignac, SS, Tampa Bay — Scouts have commented that Brignac, who is taking over for Jason Bartlett, has not looked very fluid at the plate or in the field. The Rays have a safety net in Ben Zobrist, who can play many positions and already has gotten time at shortstop in camp. The Rays were very quick to give Brignac the job, and this bears watching. Short hops From the Bill Chuck files: “Let’s hope that Fu-Te Ni makes the Tigers roster, as he has pitched 54 innings in 58 games without a big league win. He is the active leader in most appearances without a win, but has a ways to go to catch Ed Olwine and Juan Alvarez, who each appeared in 80 games without a win, and Terry Felton, who threw 138 1/3 innings for the Twins and ended his career 0-16.’’ Also, “Detroit plans to use Victor Martinez as a DH, hopefully more successfully than the Sox did last year, when V-Mart was 1 for 16.’’ And, “In 16 of his 17 big league seasons, Tigers first baseman Norm Cash never hit higher than .286, but 50 years ago in 1961, he led the AL with a .361 batting average.’’ . . . Wish Galen Cisco a happy 75th birthday 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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