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Baseball Notes

Outlook in pen is bullish for Yankees, Braves

By Nick Cafardo
April 3, 2011

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One of the beauties of baseball is its unpredictable nature. Take Opening Day. Here you have Daniel Bard, probably the surest thing in the Red Sox bullpen, entrusted with a 5-5 game, and what happens? He implodes.

In the Bronx, the Yankees bullpen worked in lockstep precision. Joba Chamberlain in the seventh, Rafael Soriano in the eighth, Mariano Rivera in the ninth.

Will it stay this way for either team? Of course not. Bard will be good, and we suspect that Chamberlain will be erratic. But it’s all about the end result, isn’t it? It’s all about which of these two bullpens will be better able to close out victories. You have to have a good bullpen just to get to the postseason, and once in it, you generally win big if you have an elite one.

“The Yankees have a great advantage with that bullpen,’’ said an American League general manager. “I’m not saying Boston’s bullpen is shabby, but when I look at the potential of the Yankee pen, I think it could be the best in baseball. And they’ll need it, because I think Boston’s starting pitching might be better.’’

Let’s throw this out there, too: All you can do right now is judge a team on paper, because there isn’t enough of a sample to draw better conclusions. Everyone has their opinions on who is best. The first glimpse? The Yankees win.

The goal for the Yankees is to keep up that Game 1 routine, but also make sure that when the fourth and fifth starters go, the bullpen is lined up. Don’t forget that the Yankees also have the skillful David Robertson to use before or instead of Chamberlain. They later will add Pedro Feliciano, who has been an excellent situational lefty, and Damaso Marte, another effective lefty.

One debate has been whether Soriano can accept being a set-up man after a tremendous season as a closer for Tampa Bay. So far? Not bad.

Meanwhle, the Red Sox seem to need another lefty. The one they have, Dennys Reyes, walked Josh Hamilton in his first chance. And Jonathan Papelbon must smooth out for this to work.

One of the more exciting bullpens could be in Atlanta. Again, it is a first glimpse, but youngsters Jonny Venters (a lefty) and Craig Kimbrel (a righty) were electric at the end of a 2-0 win over Washington on Opening Day. Add lefty-righty veterans Eric O’Flaherty and Peter Moylan and lefty-righty vets George Sherrill and Scott Linebrink, and it looks so balanced.

Once Brian Wilson returns, the Giants will have an effective pen again. Then Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla from the right side and Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez from the left can shut teams down, as they did last season.

The Twins have a good situation with Joe Nathan fully recovered from Tommy John surgery and Matt Capps a set-up man with closing experience; he can close when Nathan is unavailable. Manager Ron Gardenhire is going to use Kevin Slowey out of the bullpen because of the impressive life on his fastball late in games. He’ll join Jose Mijares as another middle to short man, giving the Twins pretty decent depth.

In their Opening Day loss to the Yankees, the Tigers used fifth starter Phil Coke late, and he allowed a game-winning home run to Curtis Granderson.

But the Tigers have a formidable threesome of Ryan Perry, Joaquin Benoit, and Jose Valverde that should be pretty nasty. It’s prior to those three that it gets uncertain. Starters Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello, and Max Scherzer can pitch deep into games, but when Brad Penny and Coke start, the Tigers will have to rely on those secondary relievers.

The Phillies have a problem now that closer Brad Lidge has a partial tear in his labrum and won’t be around a while. Jose Contreras, Ryan Madson, David Herndon, Danys Baez, and J.C. Romero probably will have to extend themselves into an uncomfortable zone at times. The Phillies have survived this before, but the potential is there for the Big Four to suffer some heartbreaking losses.

Another interesting pen is the Dodgers’, if closer Jonathan Broxton can stay consistent. Lefty Hong-Chih Kuo — maybe as nasty as they come — and righty Matt Guerrier are a tough setup tandem.

The White Sox have a couple of effective lefties in Matt Thornton and Chris Sale, with Jesse Crain, Sergio Santos, and Tony Pena from the right. Again, good balance but no guarantees with Thornton as the closer.

The Reds have some starting pitching injuries that should test their pen from the get-go, but again they have a nice left-right balance with Francisco Cordero (R), Aroldis Chapman (L), Nick Masset (R), and Bill Bray (L).

The Cardinals had a bad bullpen day in their opener, with closer Ryan Franklin blowing the save against San Diego. John Axford did the same for the Brewers against the Reds.

The Rays, of course, are the ultimate hodgepodge. Manager Joe Maddon has no idea about the order, the closer, the set-up man. The guy they’d love to see take the closer role is rookie lefty Jake McGee — but not right now.

Bullpens really do control a contending team’s state of mind and eventually will dictate how bumpy the ride to the playoffs will be. Right now, the Yankees and Braves have to be pleased with their state of mind.

MEN OF STEAL

Sox have legs to win any runoff in AL East

Run, Red Sox, run.

That’s the advice of a few baseball scouts who watched the American League East teams closely in spring training. They came to the conclusion that if the Sox don’t have Carl Crawford (above) and Jacoby Ellsbury running a ton, they should have their heads examined.

“The Red Sox have the ability to make the Yankees look absolutely foolish if they want to,’’ said a National League scout. “Between the fact their pitchers don’t hold runners and Russell Martin being erratic behind the plate, they’re the perfect team to force the running game with.’’

“Obviously, the Red Sox aren’t great at it, either. We saw their liabilities at the beginning of last year, but Victor Martinez isn’t in that mix, and so far it seems [Jarrod] Saltalamacchia seems to have a better chance back there.’’

Obvious, too, is the fact that no team has the speed potential of the Sox, who have the game’s two premier base stealers. The Yankees do have Brett Gardner and Curtis Granderson. And Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Robinson Cano can steal bases here and there.

The Sox also could take advantage of young Jays catcher J.P. Arencibia, though stealing might be a little tougher against the Orioles because of Matt Wieters’s arm.

The Rays, who used to steal the Sox blind when Crawford was on the other side, don’t have the speed they once did. The Sox could very well turn the tables on them when the teams meet.

“From the teams I saw, I think the Red Sox have improved the most, and maybe that’s [pitching coach] Curt Young’s influence,’’ said the scout. “Put it this way, they’re making more of an attempt to at least acknowledge there’s a runner on base and you need to hold him close.

“Teams just don’t care enough about it. When you allow a runner to take an extra base and get into scoring position, that could be the difference between winning and losing, and I just don’t think teams do a good enough job at it.’’

MOUNDS OF TALENT

A’s and Giants escalate arms race in Bay area

The Bay area is known for panoramic views, bridges, wine, and the high-tech industry. Add good pitching to the list. The A’s and Giants go into the season with two of the best staffs in the game.

The staff of the World Series champion Giants speaks for itself, with four studs in Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, and Madison Bumgarner. Barry Zito is the fifth man, and while he hasn’t lived up to his seven-year, $126 million contract, as No. 5 starters go, he’s not bad.

There’s also a bit of competition between the teams on who’s better.

Asked whether the A’s can be as good as the Giants, Oakland starter Dallas Braden said, “Yeah, I think we have the ability to. You have to give them their respect. That’s a championship rotation. If we can fall in line and maintain a level of health, we can compete.’’

Both teams started the year with their closers on the disabled list, San Francisco’s Brian Wilson with an oblique strain and Oakland’s Andrew Bailey with a strained right forearm.

While the Giants have Zito in the fifth hole, the A’s turned to Brandon McCarthy, a pitcher of perpetual potential. McCarthy was a man-child in the White Sox organization but has been disappointing (mostly because of injuries).

Many baseball people considered him a No. 1 or No. 2 starter down the road. The Rangers thought so much of him they traded John Danks to the White Sox for him in a multi-player deal in 2006.

McCarthy was once a power pitcher but he has changed his stripes to more of a finesse guy, likely as a result of having three stress fractures in his shoulder the past four years.

McCarthy, who is still only 27, used to be a four-seam power pitcher with a good curveball, but now he drops down and throws his curveball from different angles and has added a sinker and a cutter.

Both teams will have effective bullpens once the closers are back. The A’s beefed up with Brian Fuentes (who will close in Bailey’s absence) and Grant Balfour as set-up guys, to go along with Michael Wuertz, Brad Ziegler, and lefty specialist Craig Breslow.

Etc.
Apropos of nothing 1. Bad news. The National Hot Dog Council predicts that the Dodger Dog will dethrone the two-time defending champion Fenway Frank as the top-selling dog this season; 2. After their Opening Day win, the Angels are 49-19 (.721) against the Royals since 2003. Only the Athletics’ 45-16 mark (.738) against Baltimore is better in that time — that’s insane; 3. How uneasy must Cubs owner Tom Ricketts feel to be paying $54.4 million this season for Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Zambrano, and Aramis Ramirez?; 4. Closer Joakim Soria, one of the best, tops the Royals’ payroll at $4 million, same salary as injured Yankees lefty Damaso Marte; 5. Baseball people shake their heads at the fact that the Red Sox can pay Hideki Okajima $1.75 million to play in Triple A.

Updates on nine 1. Adam Dunn, DH, White Sox — He always cringed when asked whether he’d want to DH, but when the White Sox offered him four years and $56 million, what choice did he have? His worst fears came to pass in spring training when he hit only .224 and struck out 27 times in 67 at-bats. He went stir-crazy between at-bats because it was too far a walk to the exercise equipment to stay loose. Now he’s in a better routine.

2. Jair Jurrjens, RHP, Braves — He is recovering from a sore side but is a key component to this rotation and needs to make 30-plus starts for the Braves to live up to the hype of prognosticators. In the best-case scenario, Jurrjens would start Wednesday against the Brewers. The Braves also could bring up lefthander Mike Minor, who lost the No. 5 job to Brandon Beachy, to make one start.

3. Billy Wagner, LHP, Braves — When he retired after last season, the question, was “Why?’’ Wagner, who authored 422 saves, fifth all-time, seemed to have a lot left, but he felt he’d had enough. Wagner’s $6.5 million option for 2011 had vested, and he had to agree to waive the salary. He’s the second player this year to walk away from millions; Kansas City’s Gil Meche had $12 million guaranteed when he retired.

4. Roy Halladay, RHP, Phillies — He was looking for something special to give his catcher, Carlos Ruiz, out of gratitude for the way Ruiz makes his job easier. And he nailed it. Halladay gave Ruiz a replica of his 2010 Cy Young Award, and the catcher was blown away. “It means a lot,’’ said Ruiz. “It’s hard to say what I feel. It’s special, you know? I’m definitely going to say thank you a thousand times.’’

5. Michael Young, DH, Rangers — The Rangers haven’t closed the door on a trade, but to whom and when are the issues. The Phillies and Mets remain possibilities as they consider second base options. The Phillies cut Mets reject Luis Castillo last week, while the Mets are going with Brad Emaus. Never rule out the Phillies, who don’t want to mess up their Dream Four rotation with a lack of run support. Young isn’t the best defender, but his bat would be formidable in that lineup. The Phillies are slightly more optimistic about getting Chase Utley back than they were a couple of weeks ago. Meanwhile, the Mets need anything. I liked the trade proposal I heard from a scout: Young for Frankie Rodriguez. That would enable the Rangers to move Neftali Feliz into the rotation.

6. Kendry Morales, 1B, Angels — Maybe the Angels flubbed up the offseason (the Carl Crawford talks, in particular) but they’re slowly rounding into shape. Morales, who broke his ankle last May 29, is a big missing piece. After weeks of setbacks and a lack of progress, he will be cleared to start running this week and could be on a rehab assignment next weekend.

7. Shin-Soo Choo, OF, Indians — One of the most underrated players in baseball, he hit .300 with 22 homers, 22 steals, and 90 RBIs a year ago. He had played with the distraction of military service in his native South Korea hanging over him, since South Korean men must serve two years in the military before age 30. But the government waived that last summer after Choo led the country to a 9-3 win over Taiwan in the Asian Games.

8. Derek Lowe, RHP, Braves — With the Red Sox, Lowe experienced ups and downs, though the high moments were huge in the 2004 season and postseason. But at 37, he may be in one of the best stretches of his career with the development of a slider. His superb Opening Day win over Washington (5 2/3 scoreless innings) was merely a continuation of an excellent September and a strong spring training. In his last six starts, Lowe has a 0.99 ERA. It all started when he worked with pitching coach Roger McDowell on the new pitch in September. Lowe is getting tremendous late movement, making it very difficult for the hitter. “You’re not going to find a better, more dependable pitcher in baseball,’’ said an NL scout. “With Lowe, it’s always a question of how long does it last? He’s a great competitor, though. Always has been.’’

9. Mark Prior, RHP, Yankees — He told this reporter right before spring training he had no idea what to expect in his comeback from elbow and shoulder woes that have kept him out of baseball since 2006. What he got was a pleasant surprise: He can pitch as a reliever. He struck out 11 batters in 7 2/3 innings and allowed just one run in spring training. The Yankees will start him in Single A and move him up as he proves himself. He may be a nice weapon for an already loaded bullpen.

Short hops From the Bill Chuck Files: “Playing since 1876 as the Milwaukee Braves, Boston Braves, Boston Bees, Boston Rustlers, Boston Doves, Boston Beaneaters, and Boston Red Caps, the Atlanta Braves entered this season with an all-time record of 9,945-9,954.’’ Also, “The Giants have had exactly 1,411 hits each of the last two years, but last year they hit 162 homers, 40 more than the year before.’’ . . . Happy 43d birthday, Mike Lansing.

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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