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Baseball notes

Time is right for teams to ponder the match game

By Nick Cafardo
May 15, 2011

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It may be too early for teams to make deals to improve their rosters, but it’s not too early to look at candidates who may be available in June and July. While much of the organizational focus right now is on the June draft, the groundwork is being laid by special assistants and scouts for possible moves.

“I guess it’s never too early,’’ said an American League general manager. “Sometimes you have to wait things out to see how well the team you’re trying to deal with is doing at the time you’d want to make the deal, and that part is always tricky. And then there are those who become available that you had no idea would be available, so it’s not perfect.

“But you’d better have an idea of how you match up with certain organizations, which is why we have scouts evaluating other minor league systems to see where there’s an excess and a match.’’

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman could be a huge player in the trade market because he has the chips.

“I’d like to think we have pieces to deal, but I’d also rather keep those chips and have them help our team,’’ Cashman said. “I know we have excellent talent in our system that other teams would like, because that’s been expressed to us.

“But you do everything you can to see if you can fill a need organizationally first before you think about the trading of young prospects.’’

The Yankees have a plethora of catching talent, starting with Jesus Montero, who is crushing Triple A pitching in Scranton. Montero’s defensive skills are still in question, but his bat isn’t. The Yankees also have Austin Romine, whom one National League talent evaluator has downgraded to “good backup,’’ though others don’t agree. The best of them might be 18-year-old Gary Sanchez, who could be the whole package.

While pitching is normally at the forefront of everyone’s thinking, an NL executive said, “It’s hard to find a good righthanded-hitting corner outfielder, and that’s a need for a few teams.’’

The feeling is the Braves would consider dealing Derek Lowe (left) if they could get a good outfielder who can produce runs. Lowe, because of his sinker and newfound slider, works well in both leagues and is the most likely big-name pitcher to change teams.

The Braves and Phillies could use another hitter. Tampa Bay could also find a spot for one.

The buzz around the league is that San Diego righthander Heath Bell will become the reliever prize and that the Phillies will be the major suitor. The Yankees need a lefty reliever, though that job is much harder to fill.

Teams such as the Twins will be waiting to see whether they can turn it around, but we’ve seen this before: They usually recover and make the playoffs. If not, there will be suitors galore for Jason Kubel, one of the league’s top hitters, who is due to be a free agent. The Twins also have free agent-to-be Michael Cuddyer, lefty starter Francisco Liriano, and who knows whether they would deal veteran Carl Pavano, who hasn’t pitched well this season?

The Twins usually don’t sell off, but with impending free agents, they might.

If Houston businessman Jim Crane buys the Astros this week, will he want to build them up with free agents or go the rebuilding route? According to a team source, the Astros occasionally field inquiries about outfielders Hunter Pence and Michael Bourne, and pitcher Brett Myers.

Then there are the Indians, who have gotten off to a phenomenal start. If they fade, would they entertain deals for righthander Fausto Carmona, center fielder Grady Sizemore, or designated hitter Travis Hafner?

The Orioles would likely move DH Luke Scott or outfielder Felix Pie, and are drawing interest on middle infielder Cesar Izturis from the Braves, who need a backup infielder.

The Nationals, who could be the team to watch in 2012 and beyond, are searching for a center fielder and could even make first baseman Adam LaRoche, a good hitter, available.

The Red Sox could be an interesting team in that they’re expected to come out of their doldrums and contend. But they could also shake things up. They have two commodities in Mike Cameron, a righthanded-hitting outfielder, and veteran shortstop Marco Scutaro. Even though he has a no-trade clause, would J.D. Drew approve a deal? It’ll be interesting to see whether the Sox have to shop for a starting pitcher.

The Mets are another team to watch because they have a hugely attractive piece in shortstop/leadoff man Jose Reyes, another free agent-to-be they likely won’t re-sign. Reyes could help the Giants, for one, or the Cardinals, for another. He’s been linked with the Red Sox, but that seems far-fetched. Also in play is left fielder Jason Bay, who wouldn’t shed many tears about leaving New York.

After one of their best starts in years, the Pirates are heading south of .500 again, and they have veteran pieces such as first baseman Lyle Overbay and catchers Chris Snyder and Ryan Doumit who could help contenders.

The Cubs have tried in the past to trade outfielder Kosuke Fukodome, and this year, Alfonso Soriano may be more tradeable if the money left on his contract could be worked out. First baseman Carlos Pena is a struggling hitter whom the Cubs would probably move with an eye toward a bigger prize such as Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder in the offseason.

The Angels won’t have first baseman Kendry Morales back in 2011, and will likely be in the market for a hitter. With three catchers on the roster, Jeff Mathis — a solid, athletic catcher who handles a staff well — would be trade bait.

MORE POWER TO HIM

Bautista already ahead of last year’s HR pace

Jose Bautista (left) is one of the more fascinating stories in baseball, transforming from utility player to perhaps the most feared slugger in the game.

He hit 54 home runs last season for the Blue Jays, and everyone wondered, can he do it again? Well, so far the answer is yes, as he hit his 13th yesterday. He had seven homers through May 14 last season, then hit two on May 15.

“It does amaze me, too,’’ Bautista said. “Like last year, to look back? Geez. I hit 54 home runs. That’s not easy to do. I couldn’t believe it myself.

“I was lucky to come here and get the opportunity and make the changes I needed to make.’’

The changes have been well-publicized. He altered a timing mechanism in his swing that gets him in optimum position to put the barrel of the bat on the ball.

Bautista said timing is so paramount in his swing that he no longer even worries about the position of his shoulder, elbow, or any body part. And because his timing is so precise, he has moved to a heavier bat — 34 ounces instead of 33.

Bautista is starting to get the Barry Bonds treatment, i.e. very few good pitches to hit. His walk total is up (34 entering yesterday), which has contributed to his .365 batting average, .525 on-base percentage, and 1.323 OPS.

“Everybody pitches me the same way it seems — hard, up, and in,’’ he said. “I need to be patient, and I have been more patient this year than I was last year. I need to get the pitcher in a better hitting count so I can get a pitch to hit.’’

In the offseason, Bautista signed a five-year, $65 million deal with an option for a sixth year at $14 million.

“He’s a fantastic human being,’’ said Jays coach Luis Rivera. “He takes care of everybody. He’s got a big heart on top of being one of the best power hitters in baseball. Everybody here loves him.’’

SHORT PEOPLE

KC’s Collins cutting hitters down to size

Dustin Pedroia is motivated by his size. And now he has someone who understands.

Tim Collins, the Royals’ 5-foot-7-inch lefthander, isn’t your typical major league set-up man.

“When I get those jokes, it adds fuel to the fire,’’ said the 21-year-old Worcester native. “I love hearing fans making short jokes. That pumps me up a little bit.

“It’s something I’m never going to live down, so I might as well roll with the punches. It absolutely motivates me.’’

He gets it from fellow major leaguers, too.

“Players don’t heckle me or anything like that,’’ he said, “but you’ll get the occasional short joke, like you can’t reach something, or putting my name over the smaller toilet in the clubhouse. It’s all in good fun.’’

The Royals love Collins, who throws in the mid 90s and has a paralyzing curveball to go along with a palm ball. In 22 appearances entering yesterday, he is 2-1 with a 3.38 ERA, though he did go through a rough patch when he walked a lot of batters and wasn’t effective against lefthanders. He has struck out 25 but walked 17.

“I never had those problems before,’’ he said. “I did a lot of work and focused on throwing back into the strike zone.

“One of my struggles was getting my off-speed stuff over for strikes, and I don’t care how hard you throw, if you can’t get your off-speed stuff over, they’re going to hit your fastball.’’

At 21, is he still in awe of facing hitters he used to watch on TV?

“It was pretty cool facing [Derek] Jeter,’’ he said. “But I’m here for a reason, and I need to get the job done. It’s cool to see them in the box, but I have to get them out.’’

He was a diehard Red Sox follower growing up, a huge fan of Nomar Garciaparra and Pedro Martinez. The Royals come to Fenway July 25-28.

“That will be special,’’ he said. “Pretty amazing. But, like I said, I’m here to get them out.’’

ETC.
Apropos of nothing 1. This is how far from Moneyball the A’s are: Leadoff hitter Coco Crisp has drawn just three walks in 31 games; 2. What grace, what dignity, Mr. Harmon Killebrew, in your career and your life, and now again as you enter hospice care with esophageal cancer; 3. Has a hug (Albert Pujols and Cubs general manager Jim Hendry) ever gotten so much mileage? Didn’t we already know that the Cubs will go after him hard? 4. NESN’s Don Orsillo is a pro, seamlessly working with several personalities while Jerry Remy dealt with his medical issues; 5. Always got a kick out of the fact that John Henry bought Frank McCourt’s $16 million home in Brookline and leveled it.

Updates on nine 1. Edwin Rodriguez, manager, Marlins — He is making a strong case to get re-upped in Florida, unless there is a real possibility of Ozzie Guillen becoming the next Marlins manager. Said a baseball evaluator, “He does a great job running the game, gets guys in motion, hit-and-runs. He’s on the money. One thing he doesn’t do is he doesn’t allow his starters to get themselves out of trouble and probably uses the bullpen too much. We’ll see what happens, but he may burn the pen out.’’

2. Joe Maddon, manager, Rays — An early leader (along with Cleveland’s Manny Acta) for American League Manager of the Year. His rotation is solid, and that rebuilt bullpen has an AL-best 2.71 ERA. The one thing that stuck out in spring training — in stark contrast to the Red Sox — was the togetherness of the team. Before every game, the team would huddle, almost giving each other a pep talk the way a college or high school team would. Does it mean much? Who knows? But it’s refreshing to see. An AL official said, “They go out and play the game of baseball the right way every night.’’

3. Bryce Harper, OF, Hagerstown — The 18-year-old Nationals phenom is breaking down the door, dominating the South Atlantic League with a 16-game hitting streak heading into the weekend (.484, 5 HRs, 16 RBIs during the streak). Overall, he was hitting .395 with 8 HRs, 30 RBIs, and a 1.175 OPS. He just got fitted for contact lenses, which should help even more.

4. Eric Hosmer, 1B, Royals — The 6-foot-4-inch, 230-pound phenom does not seem out of place in the majors. Tall, strong, and poised, Hosmer is often described as a cross between Will Clark and Joey Votto, and he is all of that. Playing in Yankee Stadium last week suited the big lefthanded hitter: He hit two homers and knocked in four runs in the three-game series.

5. Todd Helton, 1B, Rockies — We often write about Lance Berkman’s great comeback, but the 37-year-old Helton hit .256 last season and everyone thought he was done. He strengthened his lower half in the offseason, and that is helping him drive the ball. He was hitting .318 with four homers entering yesterday’s game. Among the five active players with 1,200 walks and 1,200 RBIs (Helton, Jim Thome, Chipper Jones, Jason Giambi, and Bobby Abreu), Helton is the only one with fewer than 1,000 strikeouts (985).

6. Clint Hurdle, manager, Pirates — You have to love the fact that Hurdle has twice benched players for not hustling, including the team’s star, Andrew McCutchen. Hurdle thinks McCutchen got the message. Conversely, some who have watched Hanley Ramirez struggle at times in Florida feel Rodriguez should have done the same to his star. “I was surprised the other night to see Ramirez running out a ground ball,’’ said a scout. “It was the first one I’d seen him actually run out in a long time. That should not happen.’’

7. Milton Bradley, OF, free agent — Who knows whether another team will take a chance on Bradley, a very troubled player with talent? He couldn’t get his game together in Seattle, where he was hitting .218 before being designated for assignment. The Red Sox kicked his name around two years ago after he hit .321 with the Rangers. But Bradley was being thrown out of games for arguing calls, admitted to having suicidal thoughts as recently as last year, and was arrested for allegedly threatening his wife. “There’s always a team who thinks they can bring him in and have him be peaceful for a year or two,’’ said an AL official, “but those situations have been few and far between.’’

8. Aroldis Chapman, LHP, Reds — When he’s on, he’s really on — as in 106 miles per hour on the gun. He started the season with 11 2/3 scoreless innings, but lately his control has gone haywire. He had allowed six runs in his last three appearances entering yesterday and has gone back to pitching coach Bryan Price for a refresher on staying on top of the ball. Price has emphasized repeating his delivery and avoiding a lower arm slot.

9. Mike Adams, RHP, Padres — This is how bad relief pitching is in baseball. Stats Inc. calculates that among the 176 relievers who have appeared in at least 10 games this season, only two have yet to allow a first batter to reach base. Adams has retired all 18 of his first batters, and the Angels’ Rich Thompson has set down all 13. First batters have gone 0 for 18 against another Padre, Chad Qualls, though he walked one.

Short hops From the Bill Chuck files: “The next big Japanese pitching export should be Yu Darvish, who last week pitched his first shutout of the season for the first-place Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters and struck out a career-high 15, including former major league infielders Akinori Iwamura three times and Kaz Matsui twice.’’ Also, “John Lackey and Carl Pavano each have four games in which they have given up six or more earned runs this season. In 1930, Ray Benge gave up six or more in 13 games, as did Pedro Astacio in 1998.’’ . . . Happy birthday to Josh Beckett (31), Steve Woodward (36), and John Smoltz (44).

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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