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Sunday Baseball Notes

Views from the projection room of 2011

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / March 27, 2011

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In this section previewing the season, I pick the Red Sox, White Sox, and Athletics as division winners in the American League, and Atlanta, St. Louis, and San Francisco as division winners in the National League, plus the Yankees and Phillies as wild card winners.

There is a Boston-Atlanta World Series dancing in my brain, with Boston winning. Beyond that, here are some projections for 2011 and other issues that may arise:

Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez could be the MVPs. Pujols is playing for a contract, and nobody in spring training was as devastating a hitter. Rodriguez is in tremendous shape. His chronic hip condition seems to be better, and he is moving around well in the field. Expect a huge season for A-Rod.

Jon Lester, Cy Young Award winner? This is the year it could happen. He turned 27 in January and is in the prime of his career. He’s had very successful seasons already, including last season’s 19-win effort, and pitches so well within the division and against the best teams. CC Sabathia and Felix Hernandez are there to challenge him, but it appears his time has come.

Mike Stanton, superstar. This kid has amazing power, the kind you saw with Bo Jackson, Jose Canseco, and Mark McGwire. The 21-year-old Marlins outfielder, whom Theo Epstein tried to acquire for Manny Ramirez at the trading deadline in 2008, has a crushing swing. He will strike out a lot, as most sluggers do, but he can hit off-speed pitches. Last week, he crushed a Clay Buchholz changeup almost 500 feet. That’s right, a changeup. He also hit a curveball for a homer in that game and drove in seven runs. It was his first spring game after hurting a quadriceps in Florida’s first exhibition game, against the University of Miami.

Buck Showalter will make a big difference as Orioles manager. Showalter has changed the thinking of the players, who are far more serious than they’ve been in Baltimore in some time. He needs a young pitcher to emerge, catcher Matt Wieters to become a star, and his lineup to crush a lot of homers. Let’s watch this one closely. The guy can motivate.

■ One reason to pick the Cardinals to win the NL Central is their professionalism. After I spoke to an astute baseball person about this topic recently, the conclusion was that there may not be a more professional team in terms of its overall demeanor and penchant for doing things right on the field. It’s a reflection of their leader, Tony La Russa. It’s also similar to the feeling you get about the professionalism of the Patriots. The Cardinals have a terrific lineup, and despite the loss of ace Adam Wainwright, they could have enough pitching to take the division.

■ The Braves are so good because they have a very balanced team if they stay healthy. Their pitching rotation is not as flashy as the Phillies’, but the foursome of Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Derek Lowe, and Jair Jurrjens is very solid. The bullpen is young but has great arms. With Dan Uggla and a more mature Jason Heyward, the power numbers should rise. Big first baseman Freddie Freeman could be a huge factor. If they can get Nate McLouth to be something close to what he was in Pittsburgh, this will be an intriguing team and will wage quite a battle with the Phillies in the NL East.

■ A new basic agreement could be hashed out before season’s end. The general consensus is that a hangup or even the slightest threat of a work stoppage would be shocking. The Players Association, under Michael Weiner’s leadership, is even open to changes in revenue-sharing formulas, which big-market owners, such as the Steinbrenners in New York and John Henry and Tom Werner in Boston, would love. The addition of more wild cards, the international draft, and salary slotting for draft picks are all issues that will be on the table. But nobody seems worried than any of them will be a deal-breaker.

■ The future of Yankees general manager Brian Cashman will remain a fascinating topic in the final year of his contract. Cashman has run the show since 1997, a long run for a GM in this era, and whether he wants a break, or a change to a new location, is anyone’s guess. He’d be hired elsewhere in a New York minute. It has always been the belief here that big-payroll GMs such as Cashman and Epstein would love the opportunity in a smaller market to show that they don’t need a lot of money to build a solid team.

TROUBLED SPOTS

Taking stock of those with market problems

Baseball has an overflowing revenue stream, but it also has markets that are problematic.

The A’s may have a very good team this year, but their potential move to San Jose has dragged out, and you wonder whether at some point they will move to a different market altogether.

It is difficult to imagine a happy ending for the Wilpon family and the Mets, embroiled as they are in the Madoff mess. Who would be in line to buy? Guess here is Tampa Bay owner Stuart Sternberg, a Mets season ticket-holder. He appears to be in another no-win situation with the Rays: no new stadium, and attendance that doesn’t improve no matter how good the team is.

The other team for sale is the Astros. Longtime owner Drayton McLane has no heirs interested in running the team, so the franchise could be had for something in the $700 million-$800 million range.

And of course there’s the Dodgers. Frank McCourt, who has been dragged through a very public divorce with his ex-wife Jamie, is trying everything he can to raise money to hang on.

One potential ownership group to watch for is the one led by Dennis Gilbert, the former super-agent and insurance executive, and current adviser to White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf. He was runner-up to the Chuck Greenberg group in the Rangers sale but has a well-funded group of investors ready to go.

Also, do not discount a Tom Werner bid for the Dodgers, if it ever came to that. And one more team to keep an eye on: Cleveland. It’s getting harder and harder for that market to sustain a major league baseball team.

ETC.

Apropos of nothing

1. Kevin Kennedy’s biggest competition for the Red Sox managing job in 1995? Charlie Manuel; 2. It was fun reminiscing with Terry Francona about the great shakes at Andy’s Igloo in Winter Haven, Fla.; 3. My latest kick: Wade Boggs’s No. 26 should be retired by the Sox; 4. The Chattanooga Lookouts (Southern League) are for sale; $7 million-$10 million might get it done; 5. The Sox should sign Pedro Martinez, let him get ready at his own pace, then pop him into the majors after the All-Star break. What would be more exciting than that?

Updates on nine
1. Neftali Feliz, closer, Rangers — There was speculation about Texas acquiring Jonathan Papelbon, but a deal never materialized, and the Rangers couldn’t solve the closer role internally. So they had no choice but to keep Feliz as the closer, even after they stretched him out to be a starter. Mark Lowe had a 14.00 ERA this spring, and Darren O’Day didn’t run with the opportunity. The endgame is that there’s no true replacement for Cliff Lee.

2. Tim Wakefield, P, Red Sox — Wakefield played on the last winning team in Pittsburgh, in 1992. “I think about it a little bit,’’ he said, “because it’s the organization I came up with, so you always follow it. I had a great time there. A great baseball town, and it’s a shame the fans haven’t had a winning team for 19 years. I think back and, wow, it’s a long time. You just hope they can get there soon.’’

3. Cody Ross, OF, Giants — The NLCS MVP will open the season on the disabled list with a moderate sprain of the right calf. This may open the door for Brandon Belt to make the team as the first baseman, with Aubrey Huff moving to the outfield. Or the highly paid Aaron Rowand could get an outfield spot. The Giants love introducing new players, so Belt has a real shot.

4. Jack Wilson, 2B, Mariners — Lots of reorganizing in the Seattle infield, with Wilson moving from shortstop to second and Brendan Ryan starting at short. Wilson may only be keeping the seat warm for Dustin Ackley, the second pick in last year’s draft, who may be up for good in June.

5. Manny Ramirez, DH, Rays — Nice research by St. Petersburg Times writer Marc Topkin, who determined that the Rays have employed 102 DHs since the team’s inception in 1998, and in that time, they had the lowest OPS (.750) in the league among DHs. The hope is Ramirez changes the trend.

6. Kevin Millwood, P, Yankees — He isn’t the greatest, but maybe he, Freddy Garcia, and Bartolo Colon can piece together a spot-and-a-half in the rotation. All three have had success in the league, and with the run support they’ll receive, they could cover a good percentage of Andy Pettitte’s loss.

7. Carlos Silva, P, Cubs — Silva was informed yesterday he would not make the major league team. Instead, Andrew Cashner will be the fifth starter. The Cubs gave Silva the option to go to Triple A Iowa or be released, and he chose the latter. Silva had a 10.90 ERA in spring training, but the move was still surprising — especially to him. “Don’t say people are competing for a spot because it wasn’t true,’’ said Silva. “They already had their rotation down. It was very clear.’’ With Bronson Arroyo suffering from mononucleosis, the Reds might have interest in Silva.

8. Jason Bay, LF, Mets — He is one of the Mets who has spoken glowingly about new manager Terry Collins. “He reminds me a lot of Terry Francona,’’ said Bay. “Terry really communicates well. He’s in the clubhouse. He lets you know what you are doing days in advance. He’s doing a great job.’’

9. Kevin Slowey, P, Twins — As scouts probe deeper into Slowey’s availability, they find that Minnesota may not be in a hurry to move him. The Twins are looking for relief, but one scout said, “He’s throwing too well for them to deal him.’’

Short hops
From the Bill Chuck files: “Both Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez have committed 219 errors.’’ Also, “In his career, new White Sox Adam Dunn has played in 652 winning games and 795 losing games (and one tie). In 10 seasons, the only team he ever played with that finished over .500 was the 2008 Diamondbacks (82-80), and Dunn joined them for the last 44 games; they went 22-22 in the games he played.’’ . . . Happy 48th birthday, Mike Dalton.

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.

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