THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Baseball Notes

After a month, season is off to a startling start

By Nick Cafardo
May 1, 2011

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We believe so strongly in this just-concluded month of April and we know we shouldn’t. We draw conclusions and make judgments and evaluate players and situations, and by June, we wonder, why’d we do that?

Sometimes what happens in April carries through to September. Many times, though, it has no bearing on the rest of the season. But we put emphasis on how a team starts, especially one like these Red Sox, who came in with so much expectation and hype.

“April is April,’’ said David Ortiz. “You can’t pay attention to this month. Look at what happened to me [last year]. It started bad and everyone writes and says I’m all done. And then I have a good year.

“It happens all over baseball. It happens to a lot of players. You all have to learn about this. April doesn’t matter. It’s July, August, September when things get tough — that’s when you want your players to be their best and not fade.

“How many players start great and then fade in the middle of the summer? A lot. Everybody forgets about April.’’

But there were interesting pieces of April that can’t be ignored.

In the top spot is the Frank McCourt/Bud Selig divorce. McCourt feels Selig has no right to butt into his Dodgers franchise unless there have been rules broken and things done behind the commissioner’s back. McCourt contends none of that happened and that the $3 billion deal he agreed to with Fox will solve any debt issues he has.

Selig is investigating and has appointed Tom Schieffer as a “monitor’’ of the team. McCourt resents that and vows to fight to keep his team.

Not far behind is Manny Ramirez testing positive — again. A surprise? It’s often been said here that if there’s one player capable of testing positive twice for a banned substance, it would be Manny. His Tampa Bay tenure lasted five games. He retired rather than face a 100-game suspension.

Then there was White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen being suspended for complaining about an ejection on Twitter during a game.

Who would have thought Carl Crawford would spend the month hitting under .200? The Rays signed Johnny Damon essentially to take Crawford’s No. 2 spot in the order, and it’s Damon who has 20 RBIs.

Who would have thought the Red Sox would finish the month under .500 with all that talent? And who would have thought Daisuke Matsuzaka would highlight the month with back-to-back one-hit efforts?

We thought the Yankee bullpen would be lights-out, yet Rafael Soriano and Mariano Rivera have had their rough spots while greybeard starters Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon have been steady. We thought Derek Jeter would revive his career but instead he has raised more doubts. We thought Alex Rodriguez’s hip would decline like Mike Lowell’s but it has gotten stronger. Already, the Yankees have lost young righty Phil Hughes to injury, and Andy Pettitte’s return (from retirement) doesn’t appear imminent.

The Indians renaissance is so refreshing. Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner (although he may be hurt again) are relevant again. Justin Masterson (5-0) has become Derek Lowe, minus the DUI. There are emerging stars in Asdrubal Cabrera, Shin-Soo Choo, Matt LaPorta, and Carlos Santana, and old standby Fausto Carmona is still very good.

Good for Cleveland, which needs some optimism after losing LeBron James and seeing the Tribe sell off their high-priced vets.

The Marlins are proving to be one of the more exciting young teams with impact players such as Mike Stanton, Gaby Sanchez, Chris Coghlan, and studs such as Hanley Ramirez and Josh Johnson. Anibal Sanchez, a remnant of the Josh Beckett-Lowell deal, has flirted with a no-hitter, and there’s every reason for optimism as the team moves into a new facility in 2012.

The Phillies’ Big Four have been swell, but the bad news is the mysterious knee injuries that have kept Chase Utley out.

Who is a better story than Durham, N.H.’s, Sammy Fuld? Acquired in the Matt Garza deal from the Cubs, he has energized the Rays. If Fuld keeps it up, he will be the answer to a future trivia question: Who replaced Manny Ramirez after his sudden retirement? Manager Joe Maddon has said Fuld is as good as Crawford defensively.

Stunning, too, is Jered Weaver’s 6-0 start with a measly 0.99 ERA. Weaver is this year’s Zack Greinke/Felix Hernandez.

Let’s not forget Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier’s 25-game hitting streak entering last night, longest ever in April; White Sox outfielder Brent Lillibridge’s two outstanding catches to rob the Yankees of a win; and the Washington rotation minus Stephen Strasburg — the only rotation in which the starter has gone five innings every time.

Mr. April is Cubs outfielder Kosuke Fukudome, who was batting .418 entering last night’s game, improving his career March/April average to .351, tops among active players. The Cardinals’ Lance Berkman has been phenomenal (8 homers, 22 RBIs), and how about the Rays’ Ben Zobrist’s 10-RBI day Thursday in a doubleheader?

Sergio Santos is taking the closer role for the White Sox, unscored upon in his first nine outings. And the Pirates bullpen — yes, Pirates — allowed only four earned runs in a 33 1/3-inning span.

The month also gave us the despicable story of Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell mouthing anti-gay sentiments toward a fan and actually saying to him, “Kids don’t belong at the ballpark.’’

I’m sure Selig loved hearing that one.

April is over, believe it or not.

$12 MILLION QUESTION

Where do Red Sox go from here with Ortiz?

Question of the Week No. 1: What if David Ortiz has a good season?

The Red Sox exercised his $12 million option because he had a strong 2010. If Ortiz has another strong season, will they keep him as their DH at the same rate of pay, try to knock him down a tad, or bid farewell?

As Ortiz often says, “Thirty-home run/100-RBI guys are hard to find. They don’t grow on trees.’’

Is he the devastating, feared hitter he once was? Probably not. But productive enough that his absence would be felt in the lineup? Probably.

“If you’re the Red Sox, you’re looking at keeping his salary level around the same if his production maintains steady,’’ said an American League front office person. “If Ortiz has another 30/100 year, he has value. He’s a lefthanded power hitter who can easily fit in the No. 3 or No. 4 holes in other lineups.

“Where he’s hurting himself a bit is not playing first base, but you’re not signing a guy like that to play the field.’’

Good point. Ortiz decided in spring training that he wanted to devote his time to hitting, so he rarely took infield practice. Lately, however, he has been taking grounders.

In the limited time he has spent in the field in interleague situations, Ortiz hasn’t been the greatest first baseman, but he’s not the worst, either. If he were faced with going to the National League, Ortiz said, “I would have to consider it. I don’t think people want me for that, because I’m a hitter.’’

It may be difficult to get Ortiz into interleague games this year, because Adrian Gonzalez won’t likely be taken out of many.

Ortiz has handled his usual April struggles pretty well. The most noticeable difference is his ability to hit lefthanders.

“I’m just trying to be smarter,’’ Ortiz said. “I’m seeing more pitches and trying to take my walks. I’m swinging at more strikes, at more good pitches.’’

The bottom line is that Ortiz hasn’t changed his mind about wanting to retire with the Red Sox. If his performance does not decline, he hopes they will reward him with some type of security.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Does Lowrie’s progress affect Youkilis’s future?

Question of the Week No. 2: If Jed Lowrie (left) proves he can play a full season (let’s say 145 games), would the Red Sox consider trading Kevin Youkilis?

Where did this one come out of, left field? Ah, maybe, maybe not.

Consider this: Lowrie’s best position is third base, and the team’s top prospect is a shortstop, Jose Iglesias.

Lowrie has to prove that he is durable and can sustain his April performance over a full season. Obviously, he’s a fine hitter, in the Bill Mueller mode. He may not be the power-hitting prototype many teams look for at third base, but his line drives and gap power are certainly welcome.

The far-fetched part would be dealing Youkilis.

“Here’s why I don’t think so,’’ said a National League general manager. “Youkilis is a gritty player who grinds out at-bats, wears down the pitcher, and plays as hard as he can on every play.

“Those guys are tough to give up because of what they mean to your team and the example they set with their work ethic and the way they go about things.

“He’s really a fine player. There aren’t many guys who can go from being a Gold Glove first baseman to a pretty good third baseman. He’s not [Adrian] Beltre in the field, but he’s not far off it, either.’’

Lowrie, 27, is five years younger than Youkilis. Could he get shipped out in a deal? Lowrie is already forcing the Sox to start him at shortstop over Marco Scutaro.

By all indications, Iglesias will be ready for full-time duty in the majors by next season, and there doesn’t seem any way the Sox would slow that process down if they don’t have to.

This is his first season in Triple A after missing some time in Double A with a wrist injury last year. Iglesias hasn’t torn it up at the plate at Pawtucket (.242). But would the Sox put off his debut in the majors until 2013? Unlikely. The bridge has always been to 2012.

Etc.
Apropos of nothing 1. The Angels have 11 players with two years of service time or less; 2. Shameless plug: Paperback version of “100 Things a Red Sox Fan Should Know and Do Before They Die,’’ by me, is now available; 3. A’s third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff had three errors all of 2009 for the Padres; he has six already; 4. Nice man, Win Bates, longtime sportswriter for the Brockton Enterprise, who died much too young; 5. I prefer a three-game wild-card round, not a single game, when the playoffs expand next season. Start the season in late March.

Updates on nine 1. Bill Haselman, former Red Sox catcher — Tremendous hire by the Sox to evaluate and teach their young catchers in the minor leagues. He serves as an assistant to minor league catching instructor Chad Epperson. Catching is so important, and it’s good to have another expert to evaluate talent.

2. Mark DeRosa, INF/OF, Giants — He is very effective when he plays. But he hasn’t played much. After being signed to a two-year, $12 million deal before last season, he has played in only 37 games. Now he’s on the disabled list with inflammation in his surgically repaired left wrist. DeRosa was 6 for 18 in 11 games this year. Between DeRosa’s absence and Miguel Tejada’s recent 3-for-32 stretch, the Giants have some issues.

3. Mark Verstegen, founder, Athletes’ Performance — Last Wednesday, Red Sox employees got a workout, as Verstegen offered fitness tips to them. The team wants its players, staff, and employees to stay healthy and energized during the long season. Athletes’ Performance is branching out from athletes to corporate wellness, and Sox employees are among the first to benefit.

4. Wandy Rodriguez, LHP, Astros — Houston handed him a three-year, $34 million deal with the belief that he will be a front-of-the-rotation starter for years to come, but so far Rodriguez is 1-3 with a 5.40 ERA. Only two of his five starts were quality starts, and he has been leaving balls over the middle of the plate. The Astros hope he is just one of those guys who have bad Aprils. Last year, he was 3-10, 6.09, in his first 14 starts but 8-2, 2.03, in his last 18. That’s what got him the new deal. The Astros have told anyone who will listen that he’s not available in a deal, but right now there doesn’t seem to be a lot of value.

5. Ron Washington, manager, Rangers — He gets credit for keeping the team together amid injuries to several key players. He has had to withstand the loss of Josh Hamilton (likely out another month with a broken right arm), closer Neftali Feliz (inflammation in his right shoulder), and pitchers Tommy Hunter, Brandon Webb, Scott Feldman, and Darren O’Day. Also give him credit for making the Michael Young situation work for the benefit of the team. Young was not a happy camper when the Rangers acquired third baseman Adrian Beltre, which relegated him to DH duty, but he has been among the most productive offensive players in baseball. Washington, said an AL talent evaluator who covers the Rangers, “has kept them afloat with the way he handles things. There’s no panic.’’

6. Marco Scutaro, SS, Red Sox — At some point, he is going to be valuable to a team looking for a shortstop or second baseman, if he becomes expendable. The Phillies have mentioned him internally. Scutaro is versatile and dependable, which is what a contending team needs. The Sox will have interesting choices with Scutaro and possibly Mike Cameron, another player teams may look at because righthanded-hitting outfielders who can play center are somewhat rare. Asked about the possibility, Cameron said, “I have other things to think about right now.’’ He is trying his best to adjust to not playing every day. It hasn’t been easy.

7. Russell Martin, C, Yankees — The biggest concern for the Yankees is “whether he keeps going in the second half,’’ according to a Dodgers official. “He tends to fade on you.’’ The Sox had issues with Martin’s hip, though it wasn’t the final determinant in them passing on him. They were outbid by the Yankees and they wanted Jarrod Saltalamacchia to catch anyway. Martin got off to a good start (.292, 6 HRs, 18 RBIs). “He’s playing great,’’ said the official. “Better than he played for us.’’

8. Jeff Mathis, C, Angels — The Angels have been exploring deals for their excess catching since spring training, and now that they’ve committed to young Hank Conger, Mathis could become available to a team such as the Red Sox. The Angels would probably prefer dealing Bobby Wilson because Mathis knows the pitching staff so well and is so athletic. The Angels bench isn’t configured well at the moment, with two catchers and no outfielders. They likely would want a lefthanded-hitting outfielder with some pop. Don’t know if the Sox have anything like that, unless it’s Josh Reddick.

9. Jered Weaver, RHP, Angels — One would think that between now and the end of the 2012 season, the Angels will want to repair whatever relationship issues exist between their side and his. Weaver is expected to break the bank as a free agent at that juncture. The Angels and his agent, Scott Boras, have not been the best match. Beltre, another Boras client, seemed like a perfect fit for the Angels, but they simply wouldn’t go as far as Texas did with a five-year, $72 million deal. And Beltre has gotten off to a great start.

Short hops From the Bill Chuck files: When Ben Zobrist drove home eight runs in six at-bats Thursday, he had more RBIs than Magglio Ordonez, Derrek Lee, and Austin Jackson had combined in 230 at-bats this season.’’ Also, “Brad Penny allowed 20 runs in his first five starts. His only worse April was 2009, when he allowed 21 runs in four starts for the Red Sox.’’ . . . Happy 47th birthday, Dan Gakeler.

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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