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Sunday baseball notes

Sox need a little luck with catcher and a lefty

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / January 16, 2011

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You can be off-the-charts good and deep, spend tons of money, and still have to count on someone to give you an unexpected performance.

The Red Sox need that to happen with a catcher and lefthanded reliever.

“We need to get lucky, especially with a lefty reliever,’’ said a Sox official. “We definitely have pitchers who could be an asset for us in our bullpen. I think you need that as an organization, to have someone you didn’t expect to step up to step up. If we get that, it will be a huge shot in the arm.’’

The Rays got it last season with Joaquin Benoit, who was signed off the scrap heap Feb. 15 and just dominated the league. He and Rafael Soriano were all but unhittable in the eighth and ninth innings.

The lefty reliever situation will be the most heated competition in spring training for the Sox, and don’t bet against another free agent being added to the mix. Currently, they have Andrew Miller, Rich Hill, Lenny DiNardo, and Hideki Okajima. And while the Sox want Felix Doubront to be a starter and begin the year in Pawtucket, he too may be added.

If Okajima can be the Okajima of old, then there’s no competition. A dead arm and a back problem seemed to take a toll on Okajima last season, though he came on in September and looked more like himself. Frustrated in their attempts to acquire a lefty like Brian Fuentes (who is still a free agent and demanding three years, though he may back off that), the Sox decided to bring Okie back.

There was a school of thought that batters had finally caught up to that 87-m.p.h. fastball and Okie-Dokie change, but it was really a matter of location, and whatever ailed Okajima might have thrown off his mechanics a tick.

Hill is a fascinating possibility. He showed signs in September that he can be effective against lefthanders with his curveball, which is devastating when he gets it over. He allowed one hit to lefties (Robinson Cano) in eight plate appearances.

Miller seems to have the highest ceiling and is also the biggest project. The Sox love his size (6 feet 8 inches) and the possible intimidation factor of his fastball (97-100 m.p.h.) in short relief.

The Sox would love to have pitching coach Curt Young work with Miller in spring training, especially on his command, stretch him out as a starter, and then send him to Pawtucket for the start of the season. But the intent long-term will be to convert him to the bullpen.

DiNardo, who had nine bone chips removed from his elbow, will be in minor league camp, but given his major league experience, he’ll have a chance to find his way to Boston. He could be just depth protection at Pawtucket, but if he can get his off-speed stuff over and create sink on his fastball, he could be in the Sox bullpen.

Currently, the bullpen looks like this: Jonathan Papelbon, closer; Daniel Bard and Bobby Jenks, setup; Dan Wheeler, Matt Albers, and Scott Atchison, middle; Tim Wakefield, long/situational. They will carry a lefty, so they have some excess.

On the catching side, general manager Theo Epstein is taking the chance that Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s enormous upside will finally surface, especially his offense, which so many baseball scouts believed would be his strength.

The Sox are taking the approach that as long as his defense is sound, whatever he gives them offensively will be a bonus. But that’s not why Saltalamacchia was drafted in the first round. He was supposed to be a switch-hitting catcher with power.

Now that he’s conquered his throwing disorder and his thumb injury has healed, that offensive talent may blossom.

“If it’s going to happen for him, it going to happen now,’’ said one of Saltalamacchia’s former teammates. “He’s gone through his rough spots, had his injury issues and problems, and now he seems to be over everything and on a good team where he doesn’t have to feel the pressure. I think you’re going to see whatever it is Salty is going to become this year.

“The Red Sox may have timed this whole thing perfectly, but I know Salty has worked really hard and he wants to be what everyone thought he should be. The fact he hasn’t yet, I’m sure eats at him because he’s so competitive and cares so much. So now we’re going to see.’’

The Gary Tuck-Jason Varitek mentoring has worked well. Tuck has worked with Salty in Florida this offseason; at one point, he worked him so hard that Tuck called manager Terry Francona to tell him he should check in with Saltalamacchia after a pretty intense workout to make sure he was OK.

“The workouts have been great,’’ said Saltalamacchia, “I’ve gotten so much out of them.’’

WOLFF AT THE DOOR
A’s owner sees move coming in three years You have to give him an A for patience.

What else can you say about Lew Wolff, owner of the Oakland A’s? He is trying to move the team to San Jose, where he has plans for a 32,000-seat privately-funded stadium to keep the A’s in the Bay area.

“I’m fairly optimistic now,’’ Wolff said. “We’re waiting for commissioner [Bud] Selig to give us the approval to move forward, and it’s been a very slow process, but there’s a committee and we have to go through the process.’’

Wolff has watched the A’s flounder at the Coliseum, which has been antiquated for some time. They can’t generate the revenue they need to stay relevant, even though the organization has continually produced top-level talent in the Billy Beane era.

Even when Wolff wants to spend money to bring in top free agents, he is hindered by the stadium and the atmosphere. The A’s tried for two years to acquire Adrian Beltre but he has no interest in playing there.

“It’s been very difficult to attract players,’’ Wolff said, “and once their wives see it . . .’’

There will be a vote of owners, with two-thirds required to approve a move; that shouldn’t be an issue. The stadium is well past the planning stages, so it just would be a matter of getting it built.

Wolff said it would be the smallest venue in baseball by design, in an effort to create a warm, cozy atmosphere — the anti-Coliseum.

“Once we get the go-ahead, it’ll be about three years before we’re playing there,’’ Wolff said.

That may seem like a long time, but Wolff already has waited for what seems like an eternity.

Even without Beltre, the A’s should have a formidable team in 2011. Beane and assistant David Forst added offense by acquiring outfielders David DeJesus from Kansas City and Josh Willingham from Washington in trades. They also signed Hideki Matsui to be their DH.

The A’s have a strong rotation in Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson, Gio Gonzalez, Dallas Braden, and Brandon McCarthy, and a potentially superb bullpen led by closer Andrew Bailey along with Michael Wuertz, Brad Ziegler, and lefties Jerry Blevins and Craig Breslow.

They also signed Rich Harden, who could move into the rotation or be used in middle relief.

HITTERS FOR HIRE
Big names are available to plug gaps Manny Ramirez, Vladimir Guerrero, Johnny Damon, Andruw Jones, Jermaine Dye, Jason Giambi, Nick Johnson . . . there is still a lot of offensive firepower out there for teams needing a hitter.

The Twins took a major hitter off the market when they re-signed 40-year-old Jim Thome late in the week. He produced 25 homers, 59 RBIs, a .283 average, and a 1.039 OPS in 276 at-bats last season.

Guerrero, 35, may have slowed toward the end of the season but he hit .300 with 29 homers and 115 RBIs. Ramirez, 38, slumped to .298 with 9 homers and 42 RBIs in 265 at-bats between the Dodgers and White Sox and has said he’d like to DH rather than play the field.

Jones, a 10-time Gold Glove winner, can still play the outfield very well, and he had a .931 OPS against lefthanded pitching. Overall, he hit .230 with 19 homers and 48 RBIs in 278 at-bats and he’s still only 33.

Damon can still be valuable because of his leadership and toughness. He still grinds out at-bats and wears down pitchers. His power fell off when he went to Comerica Park from Yankee Stadium last season, going from 24 homers to 8.

“Damon can certainly still be a full-time player who can fit in nicely in the No. 2 hole in any lineup and be terrific,’’ said an AL executive. “None of my business, but he’d be ideal for a team like Tampa Bay, where you could use him in left field and DH him now and then and really give that club a leadership shot with Carl Crawford out of there.

“The others, for me, are mostly part-time players at this juncture though Manny and Vlad could DH every day for some team. But those spots seem to be running out.’’

The issue with Ramirez appears to be, as always, his reputation. When will he quit on you? That will be the issue for teams like the Rays, Blue Jays, and White Sox. His handlers say he’s working hard to get in shape so he can play the field if necessary.

Jones could find a home with the Yankees if he would accept a lower base salary. He would basically assume Marcus Thames’s role but still has skills as an outfielder.

ETC.
Apropos of nothing 1. Owners emphasized the importance of labor peace at their meetings in Phoenix this past week; 2. When we asked Dustin Pedroia if he was 100 percent recovered from his broken foot, he responded, “Does a bear [go to the bathroom] in the woods?’’ We took that as a yes; 3. Shout out to Dennis Gilbert, who continues to put out a fabulous show for the Scouts Foundation at his annual “In the Spirit of the Game’’ dinner in Beverly Hills; 4. Frank McCourt doesn’t sound like someone who has any intention of selling the Dodgers; 5. Great call by Bud Selig: No expanded replay in 2011.

Updates on nine 1. Armando Galarraga, RHP, Tigers — He finds himself among the “extras’’ for the rotation after Detroit signed Brad Penny to a one-year, $3 million deal. Galarraga taught us so much about sportsmanship with the gracious way he responded to umpire Jim Joyce denying him a perfect game. Now Galarraga will either be depth or trade bait for the Tigers. Except for that near no-hitter, he hasn’t been impressive: 10-19 the last two years, including 4-9 with a 4.49 ERA last season. The Tigers, like the Rangers before them, have had difficulty getting Galarraga to pitch inside and challenge hitters.

2. Jeremy Bonderman, RHP, free agent — He still hopes to hook on to the end of a rotation somewhere. The Yankees have been in contact with Bonderman’s agents, and there’s minor interest from Texas and St. Louis. Bonderman made 29 starts last season for the Tigers but had a 5.53 ERA and an 8-10 record. He is only 28 and did not suffer any aftereffects from the blood clot in his shoulder that essentially took away almost two years of his career. But he just hasn’t returned to his previous form.

3. Carl Pavano, RHP, free agent — There has been strange silence since we reported that Pavano and the Twins were getting close to a deal last week. He definitely wants to remain with the Twins, so there isn’t a great urgency to act quickly. The Nationals seemed very aggressive on Pavano but were hesitant about offering a third year. The Pirates and Royals could pony up a third year, but at 35, Pavano is probably hesitant to be part of a rebuilding situation.

4. Rocco Baldelli, OF, free agent — Just back from a trip to Italy, Baldelli said there’s nothing new concerning a destination for 2011. He evaluated and instructed in the Rays farm system last season, then was activated before Aug. 31 and participated in the playoffs. But he still has a mitochondrial disorder, and whether he can play a full season is in doubt.

5. Rafael Soriano, RHP, Yankees — If he adapts to a set-up role for Mariano Rivera, this could be a devastating 1-2 punch out of the pen. Are the Yankees overcompensating for what might be a lack of starting pitching? Of course, but as an AL executive said, “It’s a smart move because the games you’re leading in late, you’re going to win now. You don’t have that fear you’re going to let games slip away late because your bullpen isn’t sound.’’ The Yankees now may have one of the best pens in the AL, with Joba Chamberlain and David Robertson in the middle and Pedro Feliciano as the lefty specialist. That will take pressure off the starters. As our Bill Chuck points out, Feliciano led the majors in “clean outings,’’ which means he did not allow a run or inherited runner to score in 68 games for the Mets. The Yankees still need a starter; perhaps a veteran such as Bonderman, Kevin Millwood, or Justin Duchscherer is in their future. But it appears they compensated in the right way.

6. Andy Pettitte, LHP, free agent — While Pettitte has told the Yankees not to count on him for the start of the season, this may turn out fine if he decides to rejoin them in June or July. They would have a well-rested Pettitte just in time for the second half and playoffs. Someone close to Pettitte said, “He knows he can still pitch at a high level and I’d be shocked if we’ve seen the last of him.’’

7. Jose Bautista, RF/3B, Blue Jays — One of the most interesting decisions in spring training is whether the Jays will keep Bautista as their primary right fielder — with his tremendous arm — or have him play third base. Nobody wants to disrupt whatever mojo helped him hit 54 homers last season. Bautista has invoked the “whatever is best for the team’’ line, but he has told this reporter he’d prefer to stay in right. Moving Aaron Hill from second to third would seem the smarter move.

8. Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, Red Sox — A veteran special assistant said that while teams may bust Gonzalez inside so that he can’t always hit the ball the other way at Fenway, “How many pitchers in the league can pitch effectively inside? To be effective against Gonzalez, you really have to get it in there at his knuckles, but then you have to be careful anyway because he can turn on the ball. He’s a guy who hits to all fields and he hits it where you throw it. He certainly has the power to hit it out in right field at Fenway if that’s the way they’re going to pitch him.’’

9. Junichi Tazawa, RHP, Red Sox (left) — The guy you don’t hear too much about. Coming back from Tommy John surgery, he could provide the Sox with big-time depth. He’ll have a chance to work his way back slowly in the minors, but in Tazawa and Felix Doubront, the Sox have two guys who could be major league-ready starters this year.

Short hops From the Bill Chuck files: “Jose Bautista scored 11 of 16 times from first on a double; Carl Crawford was 11 for 19.’’ Also, “Joe Maddon led AL managers last season by pinch-hitting 174 times, a remarkable 44 more times than runner-up Jim Leyland. Tony La Russa led the majors with 292.’’ And, “New Rays reliever Kyle Farnsworth was third in the majors in appearances from 2001-10 with 640. Mariano Rivera (646) and David Weathers (644) were the leaders.’’ . . . Happy 57th birthday, Dave Stapleton.

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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