Sunday baseball notes

It’s time for this group to step up to the plate

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / July 10, 2011

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With the All-Star break nearly upon us, it’s time to look at the 20 men who must step up in the second half in order for their teams to generate that final push for the playoffs:

1. Albert Pujols, 1B, Cardinals - Pujols wasn’t himself, then broke his wrist, and was left off the All-Star team for only the second time. He’s in his contract year and we expect a big second half if he’s physically able. Pujols could be the difference in propelling the Cardinals past the pack that includes Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati.

2. Carl Crawford, LF, Red Sox - What’s it gonna be, boom or bust? The high-priced free agent acquisition has missed a month with a hamstring injury, but is scheduled to return this week. Will we see the player in which the Sox invested seven years and $142 million, or the fraction of that player we’ve seen so far? The Sox need Crawford performing well to make this lineup truly head and shoulder above others.

3. CC Sabathia, LHP, Yankees - He’d better not get hurt. There’s no player more valuable and who is tied in more to the Yankees’ present and future success than Sabathia.

4. Roy Oswalt, RHP, Phillies - If he does, indeed, return in late August and he’s the money pitcher he’s always been, pencil in the Phillies for the National League pennant. They will have their Big Four intact and there won’t be a team that can boot them off their perch.

5. Ichiro Suzuki, RF, Mariners - The Mariners are in the AL West race, but unless Ichiro gives them the Ichiro of the last 10 seasons, it likely won’t happen for them. Ichiro has had the worst first half of his career, and failed to make the All-Star Game for the first time. There’s certainly pressure on general manager Jack Zduriencik to make a deal for a hitter, but Ichiro is the catalyst.

6. Aubrey Huff, OF, Giants - One of the keys to the Giants’ success last season, the cleanup hitter has been awful. His numbers (.238 average, .290 on-base percentage, .364 slugging percentage) aren’t cutting it. If he starts hitting, the Giants won’t need to give away the farm to get a bat. With a productive Huff and Pablo Sandoval, they’ll score enough runs to back their superior pitching.

7. Zack Greinke, RHP, Brewers - Considering what the Brewers gave up to get him and how much they’re paying him, they need him to be a lot better than his 5.45 ERA. Greinke needs to be an ace if the Brewers hope to play in October.

8. Joe Mauer, C, Twins - Mauer missed two-plus months with bilateral leg weakness, and when he played he didn’t play well. The Twins have made a bit of a comeback, but it won’t matter if Mauer doesn’t carry this offense.

9. Pedro Alvarez, 3B, Pirates - Alvarez, who has been on the disabled list since May 20 with a strained quadriceps, has hit just .208 with two homers and 10 RBIs in 36 games. If he comes back and hits like he did in the second half last season as a rookie - .270, 13 HRs, 53 RBIs in 71 games - it will be better than any trade the Pirates might be able to swing.

10. Kurt Suzuki, C, A’s - Where has the offense gone? Former A’s pitching coach Curt Young raves about Suzuki’s handling of pitchers and his presence behind the plate. But Suzuki could always handle the bat, as well. Not this year. The A’s get an “F’’ for offense, but one of the guys they’ve always depended on is Suzuki, who needs to hit.

11. Jayson Werth, RF, Nationals - Maybe Washington isn’t really a threat to earn a playoff berth, but it certainly won’t do it with Werth being a virtual non-factor offensively since signing that enormous seven-year, $126 million deal. There was much debate from the Red Sox’ perspective over Werth or Crawford. So far, it hasn’t worked out for either team.

12. Chris Antonetti, GM, Indians - The Indians aren’t fading as we thought they might. So hanging in requires enhancing your team. Antonetti and team president Mark Shapiro have said they will not make moves that require giving up prospects. This limits them, but they obviously need hitting with Shin-Soo Choo out until September with a broken thumb and Grady Sizemore not the player he once was.

13. Ozzie Guillen, manager, White Sox - If the White Sox stay in their malaise, when does it become apparent that Guillen’s ready to leave for another job, and how strict will management be in making him honor the final year of his contract in 2012? Wonder if this becomes a Guillen-to-Florida and Tony La Russa-to-Chicago scenario.

14. Jose Reyes, SS, Mets - A left hamstring strain has sent him to the DL with a .354 average, which leads the majors. The injury, if prolonged, may work in the Mets’ favor. If they can’t trade him at the deadline, it may help them re-sign him.

15. Mariano Rivera, RHP, Yankees - His elbow has been tender and the Yankees’ bullpen has some injuries, including to Rafael Soriano and Joba Chamberlain. Rivera has always been the rock. Let’s see if he can be that in the second half.

16. Dan Uggla, 2B, Braves - Uggla was the Braves’ big offensive acquisition, but he’s had the first half from hell. The Braves need run production to go along with a pretty nice pitching staff. Uggla must be one of their more productive hitters.

17. Josh Hamilton, LF, Rangers - Hamilton will have to deal with watching a man topple over the railing to his death after he flipped the man a ball to give to his son. What a tragedy. Not an easy thing for anyone to deal with, let alone Hamilton, who has overcome so many demons in his life. Hamilton had a mediocre first half for him - .293/10/46 - and as the centerpiece of the Rangers’ offense he needs to be his dominating self in the second half.

18. Jered Weaver, RHP, Angels - He’s having a Cy Young-type season, and while Dan Haren has been outstanding, losing Weaver for any stretch would doom the Angels, who have a good chance of taking the AL West.

19. John Lackey, RHP, Red Sox - If Lackey could give the Red Sox a respectable second half, it would go far in them winning the AL East. This is a great time for Lackey to show veteran leadership with Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz on the shelf.

20. Carlos Beltran, CF, Mets - Beltran is going to influence whichever team he goes to at the deadline. He was on Boston’s radar before the Sox signed Crawford (would they have been better off with Beltran?), and the Sox may still be interested. The Giants definitely have their sights set on him.

Mariners’ Gray awaits chance Remember Roger LaFrancois, who spent the 1982 season with the Red Sox as a catcher? He was there from Game 1 through Game 162, and had 10 at-bats with four hits. He never played in the majors again, finishing with a .400 average. He played in eight games for Ralph Houk that season, with Gary Allenson doing the bulk of the catching and Rich Gedman the primary backup.

That one might be the all-timer, but in this day and age when all players seem to play a significant amount, the Mariners have righthander Jeff Gray, who was claimed off waivers from the White Sox May 13, and has been on the roster since.

Word is he’s healthy, but as of Friday he’d appeared in just three games, not facing a batter since June 11.

What’s happened? Mariners pitching has been decent since his arrival, eliminating the need for the long man. Manager Eric Wedge has relied heavily on his top four relievers - Brandon League, David Pauley, Jamey Wright, and Aaron Laffey, and somewhat on Chris Ray.

Relievers may be available The reliever market is heating up, and the prize appears to be Heath Bell (left). The Padres’ closer could wind up in different scenarios, though not necessarily as a closer. The Yankees are sniffing around, given the losses of setup men Rafael Soriano and Joba Chamberlain, and elbow issues that have cropped up with Mariano Rivera.

According to one major league source, the Rays are also interested, and able to offer a good package of young players. But the Rays have to determine over the next two weeks whether they have enough firepower to seriously compete with the Red Sox and Yankees for a playoff spot.

The Rangers, Diamondbacks, and Phillies are also monitoring Bell.

There are other teams who could be selling. The A’s need offense and have lefthanders Craig Breslow and Brian Fuentes to offer. Grant Balfour and Michael Wuertz are also possible chips. The Blue Jays may be ready to sell, with Jason Frasor the major piece, though Octavio Dotel or Shawn Camp may be intriguing to some teams.

There’s also interest in Baltimore’s Mike Gonzalez, a lefty who could fill a situational and/or setup role. The Padres may listen, too, on setup man Mike Adams.

Apropos of nothing 1. The Orioles’ Matt Wieters is the only catcher with more than 40 starts this season who has not been charged with a passed ball. He had caught 640 1/3 innings through Friday; 2. While in Houston recently, the Herald’s Scott Lauber and I shared a cab, and were surprised to hear that the driver was John Drew, former Atlanta Hawks star who has driven a cab for 14 years; 3. Loved Mike Scioscia’s line to describe Justin Verlander getting out of a fifth-inning jam in his 1-0 loss to the Angels: “[Verlander] went from electric to nuclear.’’; 4. Astros officials are really against a move to the AL West. They don’t buy the theory of a rivalry against the Rangers; 5. Well done, Derek Jeter.

Updates on nine 1. Scott Kazmir, LHP, free agent - There hasn’t been a lot of interest. The Padres and Rangers have taken a look, but Kazmir was so messed up, it would take a good amount of time to straighten him out. Not as bad as the Dontrelle Willis downfall, but as one press box scribe said, “He looked like a lefthander trying to throw righthanded.’’ Now that’s messed up.

2. Adam Dunn, DH, White Sox - Since the All-Star break last year, Dunn is hitting .192 with 24 homers, 76 RBIs, and 204 strikeouts in 495 at-bats (through Thursday). “This guy is too good not to get it going,’’ Royals manager Ned Yost said. “When he gets to the point where he just says, ‘Screw it,’ and gets back to not thinking about it, he’s going to be OK.’’

3. Dayan Viciedo, OF, White Sox - While Dunn struggles, the Cuban-born Viciedo is hitting .325, with 16 homers, 62 RBIs, and a .909 OPS in 87 games at Triple A, with four homers in his last 10 games. He’s stuck in the minors because Juan Pierre, Carlos Quentin or Dunn would have to sit to get him big league at-bats, and manager Ozzie Guillen doesn’t want to do that. GM Ken Williams has basically said it’s Guillen’s call, and Viciedo has turned into the most discussed prospect for a Chicago team since maybe Mark Prior.

4. Jason Kendall, C, Royals - Kendall’s career might be over, after it was revealed he has re-torn two tendons in his right rotator cuff. The 37-year-old is scheduled for surgery Wednesday. “That takes him out of the picture for this year and out of the picture for next year,’’ Yost said. “I think it’s more a quality-of-life surgery so he can have function in his shoulder.’’ His 1,990 starts as a catcher rank fourth in history. Kendall has a .288 average with 75 homers and 744 RBIs in 2,085 career games, and has been selected to three All-Star teams.

5. Aramis Ramirez, 3B, Cubs - The Cubs would love to make a deal for Ramirez, who is in the final year of his contract earning $14.64 million, with a $2 million buyout. Thing is, there aren’t many places to go. The hottest interest seems to be coming from the Angels. The Mariners have finally benched Chone Figgins and are going with rookie Kyle Seager and they need hitting, so Ramirez, with an .854 OPS, would be welcome. Other teams who might have interest include the Giants (though what do you do with Pablo Sandoval and Aubrey Huff at the corners?), the Braves (who need the bat but not at that position), the Angels, and possibly the Diamondbacks.

6. Matt Garza, RHP, Cubs - The Cubs may not deal him, but baseball people insist they would have to listen. Garza, 4-7 with a 4.26 ERA, is AL East battle-tested and would have to appeal to the Yankees and Red Sox.

7. Mike Cameron, OF, Marlins - The Marlins needed veteran leadership and it looks as if Cameron may be able to provide it for Jack McKeon. Question is, can he back that up with good play? Cameron will get a chance to play more center field, which he prefers to the corners. He should be a good influence on Mike Stanton. “I’m coming out here fresh,’’ said Cameron, who will receive just under $200,000 of his remaining $7.5 million salary from the Marlins. “Hopefully my mind is fresh. I haven’t played every day since spring training. I haven’t gotten much time on the field other than a few at-bats here, a few at-bats there, so I’m looking forward to it. Especially going back to the middle of the diamond, I expect it will be a little bit of a grind, but once my legs get under me I should be OK.’’

8. Justin Masterson, RHP, Indians - Looks as if the Red Sox gave up a gem in the Victor Martinez deal. That’s not breaking news, but it may haunt them considering they spent all that money on John Lackey and Martinez turned into a rent-a-player. Masterson’s 2.66 ERA is top 10 and his 7-6 record is due, in part, to his team being shut out in four of those losses. He was 5-0 in April, winless in May and June, before dominating the Yankees, who had six lefthanded batters go a combined 0 for 19. He’s throwing a sinking fastball at 95-96 miles per hour. Pretty nasty.

9. Jaime Garcia, LHP, Cardinals - The Cardinals are being proactive with Garcia, who is 21-11 over the last two seasons. He’s about to sign a four-year, $27.5 million deal, which will take him through the first year he’s eligible for free agency. The Red Sox recently did this with Clay Buchholz and would probably like to do it with Jacoby Ellsbury, who with Scott Boras representing him will likely avoid such a deal. Garcia was going to be arbitration-eligible after this season.

Short hops From the Bill Chuck Files: “The Charlie Sheen Award: There is very little difference in the numbers of C.J. Wilson (3.02 ERA, 1.208 WHIP), Hiroki Kuroda (3.06, 1.221), and Paul Maholm (3.08, 1.219) except in one key category: winning. Wilson is 8-3 (.727), Kuroda is 6-10 (.375), and Maholm is 5-9 (.359).’’ Also, “Carlos Quentin in the final year of his contract with the White Sox has dramatically improved his fielding in right field. Last season, he had a minus-21 Total Zone rating, and this year it’s a plus-8.’’ . . . Happy 57th birthday, Andre Dawson.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at 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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