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Baseball notes

A pressurized situation for Red Sox closer

By Nick Cafardo
March 20, 2011

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There’s nothing more volatile for a team than an unsettled closer situation. It can make or break you, especially if you’re a contending team. Which is why the Jonathan Papelbon situation is so pins-and-needles for a Red Sox team that has so much to look forward to — but so much to lose if Papelbon is a bust in his contract year.

Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon has said there’s nothing worse than the deflating feeling a bad bullpen can give your team. You could have terrific starting pitching and a dynamite lineup, but if the closer comes in and gives up the lead, it’s an awful feeling that can linger and bring the entire team down.

And as we sit here with just a couple of weeks before the start of the season, the Sox have no idea how this is going to go. Not that you ever really know for sure. But Papelbon has given nobody reason to think this is going to be a comfortable ride. If he can’t do it, Daniel Bard can, but then Papelbon would have to be a setup man, and how would he react to that?

Bobby Jenks, of course, has already gone through that metamorphosis. His declining performance as a closer over the past three seasons — including his walk year with the White Sox — forced him to accept a setup role in a two-year deal for $12 million total, which is the amount Papelbon makes this season.

As good as the Sox bullpen looks on paper, Jenks has to show a performance boost and an acceptance of his role for this experiment to work.

The Sox were open for business on Papelbon this winter, but they weren’t tempted enough to trade him. The possibility still exists of a trade with the Rangers, who have decided to put Neftali Feliz, last year’s Rookie of the Year closer, in the starting rotation.

The Sox have decided over the years to be very careful about trading pitching, no matter how volatile the situation might be.

Last summer, the bullpen was so bad that the Sox parted ways with Manny Delcarmen and Ramon Ramirez, who had been their middle men the past couple of seasons. Delcarmen hooked on with the Mariners and was demoted to the minors last week. Ramirez had success changing leagues and is part of the World Series champion Giants.

Though they missed on Delcarmen and Ramirez, the Sox got lucky with Scott Atchison, who performed better than the journeyman reliever he’d been.

The Sox made revamping the bullpen a top priority, but a few relievers they were interested in — e.g. Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crane, and Scott Downs — signed elsewhere because they wanted more guaranteed years than the Sox were comfortable giving. We’ll see whether settling for Jenks and Dan Wheeler was the right thing to do.

All teams love to come up with “finds’’ in the bullpen. The ultimate one was last season when Joaquin Benoit came off the scrap heap to become one of the best relievers in the game with Tampa Bay. The Rays are hoping to repeat that with Juan Cruz.

The Sox hope it happens with Alfredo Aceves, a late signing because of what many teams consider a touchy injury history. The Sox also could get lucky with someone like Dennys Reyes. He has bounced around from team to team, but as one scout put it, “All he does is get people out.’’

We all understand that Papelbon is capable of being an elite closer. In a walk year, a closer can overdo it with preparation for the season, trying to perfect things. Papelbon has every right to tweak things in camp, but when he gets hit around — as he has a couple of times — you wonder, why haven’t those things been smoothed out yet?

Papelbon said last week he’s trying to tweak his delivery, that it isn’t quite there yet. And it may very well be that once April 1 rolls around, he will save the Opening Day game in Texas. But if he doesn’t, and if he struggles early, the door is going to be wide open for major apprehension about whether he is the right man.

Papelbon has traditionally had problems pitching in day games; last season, he had a WHIP of 1.625 in 16 day games, compared with a 1.157 WHIP in 49 night games.

He has problems with migraine headaches, so you wonder whether there is some light sensitivity there.

Walk years can put a lot of pressure on closers. When you think about it, who has more pressure on him on this team than Papelbon? He’s not only the closer — one of the more important roles — but his future earning power hangs in the balance.

Papelbon desires to become the highest-paid closer in baseball and enjoy a career path similar to Mariano Rivera’s. Not that it all comes down to this season, because even if he’s bad, he’ll get other chances to climb back up the ladder. But once you fall off, as Jenks did with the White Sox, you have to reinvent yourself.

The last thing Papelbon wants is to have to pick himself back up.

It also would be devastating to a team that seems to have everything.

SMALL PIECE OF THE PIE

Scouts, development personnel need a raise

For an industry with $7 billion in revenues, which claims up and down that scouting and player development are the bread and butter of the game, it is amazing how little scouting and development people are paid.

Those we interviewed on the subject agree the system is problematic — but it has hardly ever changed. There is a pay level most teams just won’t cross.

For a hitting coach or a lower-level minor league manager to make $30,000-$40,000 is not unusual. If a Triple A manager earns $70,000, that’s considered good.

Scouts are often away from their homes and families, but unless they become directors or special assistants to the GM, they live on low wages.

Some organizations — such as the Pirates and White Sox — do well in paying their scouts top-of-the-line expenses for meals, cars, etc., but others are woefully lacking in salaries and benefits.

“It’s disgraceful,’’ said one player agent who has advised coaches and managers over the years. “Think about it. They’re entrusted with grooming the most prized possessions of an organization and they could make more money working full-time at a department store or fast-food restaurant. And you can’t say anything about it.’’

As I spoke to one major league coach about my interest in this, he warned, “Great topic. But you won’t get anyone to say anything about it on the record. Because what they always tell you is, ‘You don’t want the job on our teams, there are a hundred other people behind you who want the job.’

“Should guys who dedicate their lives to this and work around the clock get paid a livable wage? Of course. But they don’t.’’

The Pirates, White Sox, Twins, Red Sox, and Yankees have reputations for taking care of development people. White Sox president Jerry Reinsdorf has been ahead of the curve on minor league development and scouting.

Four owners with whom I have regular correspondence would not even respond to this topic. A’s general manager Billy Beane, when asked in a text message why development and scouting people don’t get paid well, responded, “The good ones do.’’

Wayne Krivsky, an assistant GM with the Mets and former GM of the Reds, recalls making certain that his rookie-level manager was paid above the normal range.

“I value player development in general, and the people you’re going to put in first-year player development, for me, should be experienced people who are handling these kids,’’ said Krivsky. “So if that takes more money to find someone like that, then I was willing to do it. It’s imperative that you have people in those positions to maximize the investment of your minor league talent.’’

Common sense, right?

LITTLE BIG MAN

Collins making his case for Royals’ setup role

Worcester’s Tim Collins has a chance to be Joakim Soria’s setup man in Kansas City. Furthermore, we might be looking at the Dustin Pedroia of setup men.

The lefthanded Collins, 21, stands 5 feet 7 inches but throws 95 miles per hour and has been lights-out in 151 minor league games (2.26 ERA).

He was scouted essentially by accident at Worcester Technical High School by J.P. Ricciardi, who was then general manager of the Blue Jays.

Apparently, Ricciardi was watching an American Legion game in which 6-foot-7-inch lefthander Keith Landers was pitching. But Ricciardi had been told by friends to take a look at this little kid — about 130 pounds soaking wet — playing for Main South Post 341. Ricciardi was blown away and signed him.

“I was standing down the right-field line and I could hear the fastball,’’ recalled Ricciardi. “You can just tell by the sound. He throws 93-95, has a great curve and very good change, and he’s absolutely fearless.

“I think his size works to his advantage. He’s got these long arms and reminds me a lot of Billy Wagner. But his delivery is very similar to Tim Lincecum’s.’’

Because of Collins’s small stature, there’s always the fear that he’ll break down at some point, much as there was with Pedroia. But he appears to be a very durable kid.

Collins didn’t get drafted out of high school despite going 91-5, and he has already been with three organizations. The Blue Jays traded him to Atlanta in the Yunel Escobar deal, and the Braves in turn dealt him and Jesse Chavez to the Royals for Rick Ankiel and Kyle Farnsworth. It was one of Kansas City GM Dayton Moore’s finer moments.

If they can get him to mix his curveball and changeup with the fastball, the Royals believe they’ll have a pretty interesting reliever.

According to scouts who have watched him in the Cactus League, he has the perfect demeanor to be a closer.

“I hope he gets a chance,’’ said Ricciardi.“I know scouts probably found him a hard sell because of his size. Because I was the GM, I was able to take the chance. I think this kid is going to be terrific.’’

Etc.
Apropos of nothing 1. Heckle of the Week: “You’d better buy some real estate in Portland because you ain’t getting out of there,’’ said a boisterous fan to Lars Anderson; 2. Things you remember: the smell of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies right around 11:30 a.m. every day in the Red Sox clubhouse; 3. Didn’t know that Sox PR man Jon Shestakofsky was once the mascot Bristles (a 9-foot toothbrush) for the Lowell Spinners; 4. Hearing that Winter Haven, Fla., is going to make a bid to lure the Brewers for spring training; 5. There was a Hee and a Hu in a Sox game Thursday: Sox shortstop Jonathan Hee and Mets third baseman Chin-lung Hu.

Updates on nine 1. Jeff Mathis, Bobby Wilson, Angels catchers — The Angels have a surplus at catcher, even with the trade of Mike Napoli. Prospect Hank Conger will eventually take the job. The Red Sox are looking for a veteran catcher they might be able to keep at Triple A in case someone gets hurt. They have tried to establish whether one of their organizational catchers could be that fallback. Not sure they’re convinced on anyone.

2. Dennys Reyes, LHP, Red Sox — Scouts are watching what the Sox decide in the pen, because Reyes is becoming a hot commodity. Scouts like his ability to get outs and his cool nature in tough situations. This is a tough call for the Sox, who also have Hideki Okajima on a one-year guaranteed contract ($1.75 million). There also is interest in Rich Hill.

3. Brian Roberts, 2B, Orioles — The Orioles wonder whether Roberts (back spasms, disk) will remain healthy, and if not, what are their options? They have Nick Green and Brendan Harris in camp. Green is a “tick slow’’ on his swing, according to one scout, and that has raised his strikeout total. The Orioles also are looking for a fifth starter with Justin Duchscherer experiencing hip soreness.

4. Drew Sutton, INF, Red Sox — The former Reds infielder is generating a lot of positive reports from scouts who like his versatility and his switch-hitting stroke, particularly from the left side. Sutton seems to be earmarked for Pawtucket, but don’t be surprised if the Sox get some trade interest.

5. Michael Pineda, RHP, Mariners — He may make the Opening Day roster as a fifth starter now that lefty Nate Robertson will undergo elbow surgery and be out at least until June. Pineda is a pretty exciting prospect, throwing in the high 90s. The Mariners say that delaying his service time won’t be a factor in the decision on whether to keep him at the major league level. No team needs exciting players more than the Mariners.

6. Lonnie Chisenhall, 3B, Indians — An impressive prospect who could take the league by storm. He was hitting .478 with a 1.459 OPS when the Indians sent him to minor league camp last week. He’s scheduled to start the season at Triple A Columbus, but the expectation is that he’ll be in Cleveland by the All-Star break, if not sooner. Chisenhall, a 22-year-old lefthanded hitter, batted .278 with 17 homers and 84 RBIs at Double A Akron last season.

7. Brandon Belt, 1B, Giants — His last name describes his hitting. The question is, will the Giants take the approach they did with Buster Posey and start him in the minors, or will he be on the roster from Day One, which would move Aubrey Huff to left field? Among the things entering into the decision are veteran Aaron Rowand, whom the Giants are trying to deal; Travis Ishikawa, who is still in the 1B/OF picture; and Nate Schierholtz, who is out of options. “If Belt forces his way on, it would have to be legitimate, and we’re all agreed he would be the seventh hitter,’’ said general manager Brian Sabean. “I think we’re all more open-minded now because he’s played a lot and, because of that, has faced front-line pitching. It’s not like he’s coming in the second part of a game and not facing major league pitching. With each day that he holds his own or excels, it turns your head.’’

8. Mark Trumbo, 1B, Angels — This could be one of those Wally Pipp stories. With Kendry Morales likely to start the season on the disabled list, Trumbo, a powerful righthanded hitter, will get his shot. He hit 36 homers and knocked in 122 runs while batting .301 at Salt Lake City last season. He followed that up with .336, five homers, and 21 RBIs in winter ball and had five homers in spring training. Trumbo is a 6-foot-4-inch, 220-pound monster. “Great power,’’ said an American League scout. “You make a mistake to him, and he’ll crush it. Interesting guy.’’

9. Jake Peavy, RHP, White Sox — He is throwing in the low 90s and seems on track to start the season after recovering from a lat injury. But the White Sox may err on the side of caution and let him miss some of April for extended spring training time. Peavy said he wants the ball and feels he can pitch with the other four starters, but he’s open to the game plan. This is good news for the White Sox, who with him have five very good, experienced major league starters.

Short hops From the Bill Chuck files: Tim Hudson has a 165-87 record, identical to the career record of Sandy Koufax.’’ Also, “Should the Phillies be concerned that Chase Utley’s OPS has gone from .976 in 2007, to .915 in 2008, to .905 in 2009, and all the way down to .832 in 2010?’’ . . . Happy birthday, Dana Williams (48) and Manny Alexander (40).

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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