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Revamped AL teams major concern for Sox

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / December 18, 2011
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With the likelihood the expanded playoff format won’t go into effect until 2013, the Red Sox must be careful not to go a third year without a postseason berth.

Not only must they worry about the Yankees and Rays in their division, there are the rising Blue Jays as well. The Sox also are looking at an improved American League West, where the Angels are making a serious bid to overtake the Rangers as top dog. The improvement of the Angels makes them contenders to either be the wild card or win the West. The Sox made a huge splash last offseason with Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, so the addition of Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson doesn’t guarantee the Angels anything. But they took December for sure.

Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington made a very good deal in acquiring young reliever Mark Melancon from the Astros for Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland, who didn’t fit into Boston’s plans.

They didn’t add much payroll. And in the 26-year-old Melancon, they have a potential closer, though as one Sox source said late last week, “We’d be comfortable with him as our closer, but we’re always looking to upgrade anyplace on the field.’’

In other words, if the Sox can’t trade for someone like Andrew Bailey or sign Ryan Madson, they would opt for Melancon as their closer and not feel too uncomfortable about it.

In terms of what’s next, the Sox could go in many different directions, and Cherington has been active, according to other GMs. The Sox have talked to the Marlins about Hanley Ramirez, if only to determine whether Miami is really interested in dealing the shortstop, who will move to third base with the acquisition of Jose Reyes.

Cherington has been in on lower-cost starting pitchers such as A’s lefthander Gio Gonzalez and Braves righthander Jair Jurrjens, and has had some interest in non-tendered lefty Joe Saunders. He’s had discussions with the White Sox about John Danks and Gavin Floyd.

He’s also explored the righthanded-hitting right field market, passing on the more expensive Michael Cuddyer, who would have been a perfect fit for the Red Sox. Cuddyer wound up signing a three-year, $31.5 million deal with the Rockies.

There are still some viable alternatives such as Cody Ross and Ryan Ludwick, who could function well in Boston’s large right field and in the Sox’ lineup either as full-time players or in a platoon with Josh Reddick, if he’s not dealt to the A’s in a package for Bailey.

There is also the possibility of Ryan Kalish getting back into the right field picture after missing most of last season with injuries.

From a pure hitting point of view, Carlos Beltran would be perfect, but scouts question his ability to patrol right field at Fenway. Said Mets special assistant J.P. Ricciardi, “He’s an outstanding pure hitter. I’m sure he would love to hit in a ballpark like Fenway. He’s a guy who works very hard. He’s very committed. Whoever gets him will get an excellent hitter and overall player.’’

While the Red Sox know what they’re up against with the Angels, the Rangers, who have made it to the World Series two straight years, seem to be waiting for a couple of things to develop. One is Japanese pitcher YuDarvish, whom they bid on, and the possibility they sign Prince Fielder, which would offset the Angels obtaining Pujols.

The Rangers are experimenting with putting closer Neftali Feliz in their rotation as the Red Sox are with Daniel Bard. The Rangers lost Wilson to the Angels, and would like to add one more starting pitcher.

It wouldn’t be a shock to see Roy Oswalt enter the picture for the Rangers.

As for the Rays, how would you like to be sitting there with eight starting pitchers? Might you have some leverage in trades?

The Rays have some of the best chips for a deal. They could deal outfielder B.J. Upton. The Nationals have always been interested. They have Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann, or youngsters Alex Cobb and Chris Archer available. If they trade Upton, Desmond Jennings would move to center and they’d need a corner outfielder.

The Rays can bring back Johnny Damon to be their DH, but still need a catcher and a possible left field bat.

If they don’t deal Niemann he could wind up in the bullpen. Cobb is an interesting starting candidate, but for the moment David Price, James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, and Wade Davis are a pretty formidable rotation.

“They could just continue to bottom-feed and keep all of their pitching,’’ said one AL executive. “There’s that January market that they’ve done very well with, and as long as they keep making the right decisions, their pitching is so good it will keep them in that playoff hunt every year.’’

The Tigers should continue to be the top team in the AL Central. The White Sox, Twins, and Royals continue their rebuilding efforts, while the Indians could be poised to make a run for a divisional spot or a wild card.

That brings us to the Yankees.

It appears that GM Brian Cashman is in a similar boat to the Red Sox in that the Yankees aren’t crazy about having to pay a lot of luxury tax. Although they have no choice in the matter because their payroll is north of $200 million, the Yankees would love to incorporate some of their very talented young players onto their aging team.

They will go younger with Jesus Montero the likely DH.

But the Yankees will do something to obtain a starting pitcher before the winter is over and the Red Sox know it.

The Sox shook things up with a new manager (Bobby Valentine) and GM (Cherington). They have acquired a quality young reliever (Melancon) and made an upgrade in their utility infield slot (Nick Punto). They say Bard is heading to the rotation, an experiment that nobody knows will work.

The competition is getting stiffer around the league.

Will the Red Sox keep up?


Epstein has a game plan

The Cubs were everyone’s mystery team this offseason. They were supposed to be in on Albert Pujols. Uh, not really. They were supposed to be in on Yu Darvish (yes, but a major league source indicated they made a very low bid and have no illusions of winning the post), and now they’re supposed to be in on Prince Fielder.

Things could change, but as of this writing the Cubs were still in the mode of, let’s not spend until we’re ready to spend and right now we’re not ready to spend.

There appears to be the perception that because Theo Epstein spent a lot of money on free agents in Boston, he will do the same in Chicago. Maybe in time he will, but his focus in addition to improving the team is revamping the farm system.

In order to do that you need players. You need draft choices.

Judging by the nastiness of the tweets and e-mails from Chicago, the Cubs fan base is no longer the mild-mannered, just-happy-to-go-to-Wrigley following it perhaps was once upon a time. They want a winner. Unfortunately, some fans equated Epstein’s arrival with instant winning. Doesn’t work that way.

Epstein didn’t inherit a great situation and his first order of business is to try to get out from under it, hoping to lose some of the big contracts that weigh down the franchise. Improve Carlos Zambrano’s value? Of course. Make it so Alfonso Soriano is at least somewhat attractive to another contending team? That’s the goal. Bid adieu to Aramis Ramirez? Done.

Possibly deal pitcher Matt Garza, probably Chicago’s biggest asset, for a boatload of good young players? Why not. This is the way you rebuild your organization. Epstein has a plan to retool and he appears to be sticking with it.

Now, owner Tom Ricketts could always intervene and order Epstein to sign Fielder, but that’s not why he hired him. Ricketts hired Epstein to do the job and put together the team his way.


Fielder makes sense for Jays

If the Blue Jays won the bidding for Yu Darvish, as MLB Network radio host Jim Bowden first reported, is it money well spent over Prince Fielder?

If the posting fee is around $50 million and the overall outlay is more than $100 million, is that commitment more sound than giving Fielder a seven- or eight-year deal at $170 million-$180 million? The Jays could very well be in on Fielder as well, but given the choice the Jays may have been better off devoting the money to Fielder (and/or Carlos Beltran), everyday players who could hit a ton of homers at Rogers Centre. Fielder and Jose Bautista could be a better 1-2 punch than Fielder and Ryan Braun in Milwaukee.

Toronto manager John Farrell has experience with Japanese pitchers and it’s not all good. His subject was Daisuke Matsuzaka, and there were plenty of frustrating moments between them. The Red Sox changed some of Dice-K’s routine and tried to Americanize him to fit their pitching philosophy. It wasn’t exactly a smooth transition.

That doesn’t mean Darvish would have similar problems. They are different pitchers with different repertoires. All indications are that Darvish is more adaptable to the major leagues than Dice-K was. But that adaptation to pitching every five days and scaling down exhaustive throwing programs is difficult for Japanese pitchers.

“Everybody’s different,’’ said Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine. “It’s no different than American pitchers. They all do things a little bit differently. Many years have progressed from Daisuke coming to the majors, so a lot had been learned from an acclimation standpoint. The acclimation to the major leagues is always the toughest part.’’

It was rumored that Darvish had hoped to be posted by one of the big-market teams such as Boston, New York, LA, or Chicago. Maybe even Texas. But if it’s Toronto, would Darvish balk at signing a contract?


Apropos of nothing

1. Barry Bonds should be happy. He had good lawyers and got off with house arrest and two years’ probation for misleading a grand jury on whether he took steroids; 2. The Angels will become the national TV darlings of 2012; 3. Speaking of which, how many San Diego fans will forgo Padres games and take the 60-mile ride north to see the Angels? 4. Prediction: Jason Bay returns to form this season; 5. Could Jason Varitek soon be a Cub?

Updates on nine

1. Andruw Jones, OF, free agent - The Red Sox are trying to cut costs in their pursuit of a righthanded-hitting outfielder. How about Jones? The former Braves 10-time Gold Glover had a .923 OPS against lefties for the Yankees last season. He hit 13 homers and knocked in 33 runs in 222 at-bats and hit .247. Jones once told me when he played for the Braves that he probably wouldn’t want to play in Boston because of the weather. But he played in New York.

2. Wandy Rodriguez, LHP, Astros - The Astros are trying to create a market for their No. 1 lefthander and hope to get a bounty in return. Rodriguez will be 33 next month but he would certainly be a strong middle of the rotation starter for any contender. One team that may be looking is the Marlins. Though they signed Mark Buehrle, they could use one more starter. The Astros appear to be willing to eat some money. Many of the same teams that like Oakland’s Gio Gonzalez could be in the Rodriguez market.

3. Jed Lowrie, SS, Astros - The feeling is the Astros achieved their objective in making their deal with the Red Sox in which they obtained a shortstop and a young starter for their closer. Brad Mills had Lowrie in Boston and feels a change of scenery could do him some good. Lowrie will likely get the starting nod, but won’t have to play every day. The Astros are hoping that Lowrie will be able to relax out of the Boston bubble and become the effective offensive shortstop the Sox believed he would be.

4. Joel Zumaya, reliever, free agent - The former Tiger, known for his 100-plus-m.p.h. fastball, threw well at his workout at an indoor facility in Houston last week, and should enter the free agent pool shortly with a few teams interested, including the Red Sox. Zumaya, who has battled elbow and shoulder problems since 2008, always had electric stuff, but has not been able to stay healthy. Still only 27, he could be added to the back end of a bullpen. “He threw two 20-pitch sessions off a mound. Didn’t have much of a breaking ball but threw 93-96 on his fastball. Somebody will bite on him,’’ said one National League scout in attendance.

5. Dan Duquette, GM, Orioles - He has begun to shake things up in the organization. He’s reassigned a few major league scouts and designated Bruce Kison and Dave Engel as his major league pro scouts. Duquette already has added his former right-hand man in Boston, Lee Thomas, along with Gary Rajsich. He also hired Ray Poitevint to help him in the Pacific rim. Poitevint and Duquette teamed up in the Japanese market when they were together in Boston. On Friday, Duquette signed Danny Haas to be the Orioles’ national crosschecker. Haas had been with the Red Sox for 10 years, signing players such as Ryan Kalish, Ryan Lavarnway, and Michael Bowden.

6. Gio Gonzalez, LHP, A’s - He’s on just about everyone’s wish list, and the A’s are eyeing the top of every team’s prospect list (for pitching) in return. The Red Sox are certainly in on it, but it doesn’t appear they would have the caliber of prospects Oakland wants.

7. Jimmy Rollins, SS, Phillies - The free agent yesterday agreed to stay in Philadelphia on a three-year, $33 million contract, with a vesting option for a fourth year. But with interest from other teams having dropped off dramatically recently, that was less in money and years than what he had wanted. The Tigers had been a possibility.

8. Jordan Walden, closer, Angels - Will the Angels go into the season with a closer who blew 11 saves last season? Walden could obviously improve, but with a very good starting rotation and an excellent lineup, do you take the chance on having an erratic closer? Looks like free agent Ryan Madson could enter the mix.

9. Johan Santana, LHP, Mets - The Mets feel that he will be able to pitch by spring training. They don’t expect the workhorse Santana of old, but would be happy if he gave them north of 130 innings.

Short hops

From the Bill Chuck Files: “Josh Beckett has pitched in 173 games with the Red Sox with a 4.04 ERA. In 139 of those games his catcher has been Jason Varitek, with whom he’s had a 3.68 ERA.’’ Also, “What do Alfredo Aceves, Bartolo Colon, Gustavo Molina, and soon Mark Melancon have in common? They are all active players who have played for both the Yankees and Red Sox.’’ . . . “An intimate evening with Pedro Martinez,’’ a Jimmy Fund event, will take place at the Liberty Hotel Jan. 13. Tickets are $350. Call Paul Gardiner at 781-648-4048 . . . Josh Reddick is the 2011 winner of the Harry Agganis Award as Red Sox Rookie of the Year as voted by members of the Boston Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Reddick, who hit .280 with seven home runs and 28 RBIs last season, will be among the head-table guests at the chapter’s 73d annual dinner at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 19, at the Westin Copley Hotel. Tickets are $175 each and are available by sending a check made out to The Sports Museum care of Rusty Sullivan, The Sports Museum, 100 Legends Way, Boston, MA 02114 . . . Belated happy birthdays (yesterday) to Rudy Pemberton (42), Curtis Pride (43), Bob Ojeda (54), and Rollie Sheldon (75).

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