Sunday baseball notes

Braun case is still in a positively tricky area

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / February 26, 2012
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As part of the new Basic Agreement, testing for human growth hormone was implemented around baseball this past week for the first time, yet another area of screening to keep players from cheating.

While the Players Association agreed to this, there remains resistance to its invasiveness, especially because there is blood being drawn for the first time. Players don’t want their samples to become tainted, and they don’t want to feel lightheaded or nauseated after giving samples. These are already common complaints.

And after National League MVP Ryan Braun won his appeal of a 50-game suspension for testing positive for a banned substance, the fears of players will likely rise again.

Braun won his appeal because it was found that his sample had been mishandled by a drug administrator.

Now, one mistake does not negate the fact that Major League Baseball has done a great job in getting steroid use under control, but MLB, which strongly disagreed with the arbitrator, has to be upset that the chain of custody was broken in the handling of Braun’s sample, and now the entire program has to be revisited from the standpoint of execution.

How could the administrator hold Braun’s sample in his refrigerator before sending it off to a lab?

OK, Braun seemed to get off on a technicality, and that is probably not the greatest way to establish innocence, but the first appeal ever won by a player in 13 attempts gives them hope that if their sample is mishandled, there is recourse.

The biggest fear of the players in all testing issues is that their sample will somehow be tainted or mixed up with someone else’s. This is a problem now for MLB.

The other problem is that word of Braun’s positive result leaked out before his appeal, when this information is supposed to be confidential. MLB also had a huge problem when some results of its 2003 random and non-binding testing leaked out.

Braun is personable and smart, and before this incident, he projected a strong image for Major League Baseball. If you had to pick out one of the game’s great young stars to promote your sport, Braun would be the guy.

Now he is trying to repair that clean image.

And he has stuck to his story that he never took a banned substance. The day the news of the positive test came out, he told USA Today, “This is b.s.’’ And in addressing the media Friday, he continued to go down the “truth will set you free’’ path.

“If I had done this intentionally, or unintentionally, I would be the first one to step up and say, ‘I did it,’ ’’ Braun said. “By no means am I perfect, but if I’ve ever made any mistakes in my life, I’ve taken responsibilities for my actions.

“I truly believe in my heart, and I would bet my life, that this substance never entered my body at any point.’’

Question is, do you believe him?

In other words, there was a positive test, but he didn’t take anything to make it positive? The positive test was the result of his sample being tainted in a drug administrator’s refrigerator? The sample got mixed up with some mustard or mayo or a rotten banana?

Major League Baseball didn’t buy it, which is why it came out so strongly against the arbitrator’s ruling.

Braun still may have a tough time convincing people that the positive test was the result of poor handling, or that someone put something in the sample. That’s what he is expecting us to believe.

“It’s no different than a criminal case where the person did it and he gets off on a technicality,’’ said one baseball official. “Braun will get support from a certain segment of the population, his fans, his teammates, his friends, and his family.

“But public opinion is not going to be with him. He’ll live it down eventually, but would most reasonable people believe that he didn’t take something to indicate a positive test? I don’t think so.’’

Braun will likely be tested often from now on.

Toronto’s Jose Bautista said he has taken 16 tests the last two years, probably because there was suspicion when he went from utility player to one of the most prolific sluggers in the game.

Braun can keep proving his innocence by testing negative, which, by his estimation, he had done 25 times before the one positive.

The only real winners are the Milwaukee Brewers. They get their superstar back from Day One, a big thing since they lost Prince Fielder in free agency.

Both MLB and Braun still need to explain what went wrong.


A look at Sox in crystal ball

Baseball Prospectus’s 2012 projections are out, and there are some interesting tidbits regarding the Red Sox:

Jacoby Ellsbury will see a decline in his power numbers. He was in the top 10 in baseball in percentage of fastballs seen last year, and will likely see more breaking balls and secondary pitches in 2012. He is projected to dip from 32 homers to 12, with his RBI total going from 105 to 71. He is also projected to have 40 steals.

Carl Crawford will bounce back to hit .291, but he remains at 11 homers with only 10 more RBIs (66). He is expected to keep losing hits after his move off the turf to a natural surface. He also is projected to have 32 steals.

David Ortiz will continue to produce, Prospectus says, noting that he struck out in less than 11 percent of his plate appearances last April - a month that has hurt him in the past - and increasingly is going the other way, even though his power is pull-oriented. Yet Ortiz projects to smaller numbers: 25 homers, 83 RBIs, and a .277 average. Also expected is a decrease in on-base and slugging percentage to .376/.512 after last year’s .398/.554.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia is expected to get fewer plate appearances (from 386 to 292) because of Ryan Lavarnway. Salty’s average is projected to rise from .235 to .247, with his home run total reduced from 16 to 9 and 22 fewer RBIs.

Dustin Pedroia is projected to have a dip in power from 21 homers to 14 and RBIs from 91 to 80, while his average will rise a few points to .315.

Kevin Youkilis is expected to continue his trend of spending time out of the lineup. His projected numbers reflect that: .291, 17 homers, and 65 RBIs in 471 plate appearances. Youkilis has averaged 119 games the last three years.

Josh Beckett is projected with a 12-6 record over 24 starts with a 1.25 WHIP - much higher than the terrific 1.03 he sported last season. Persistent back problems are cited. This would not be good news for the Red Sox.

Andrew Bailey projects to 18 saves in 36 games. This is not what the Red Sox have in mind for their closer. The authors wonder about Bailey in the Boston pressure cooker.

Jon Lester projects to a 13-6 record over 26 starts and only 166 innings. The worry is the increase in walks he showed from 3.3 per nine innings over the last three years to 4.5 over the last two months of the season.

Mark Melancon draws some favorable reviews. “He was ruthless vs. righthanders while allowing a .344 [on-base percentage] to lefthanders, but his effectiveness in 2011 was closer-worthy,’’ write the authors. Melancon projects to 6 saves, a 1.28 WHIP, and a 3.69 ERA.

Clay Buchholz is projected to make only 14 starts and have a 7-3 record, the authors still fearing back repercussions.

Adrian Gonzalez is expected to hold steady with his production - 29 homers, 94 RBIs - but his average is expected to dip from .338 to .286. His doubles will increase because of the Wall, but not his home runs.


Apropos of nothing

1. Bobby Valentine said he has no interest in opening a restaurant in the Fenway area. He said he’s always been a hands-on owner and would not want to get into something he couldn’t devote enough time to. Valentine has owned restaurants for the past 31 years, including a sports bar in Arlington, Texas, while he was manager of the Rangers.

2. In Brandon Jacobs, Xander Bogaerts, Bryce Brentz, and Zach Kapstein, the Red Sox seem to have decent righthanded power emerging in their system.

3. With Tim Wakefield’s knuckleball gone, Vicente Padilla’s eephus pitch will now draw attention. It may actually be slower than Wakefield’s 66 m.p.h. knuckleball.

4. Suggestion: “Tim Wakefield’s Knuckleball School.’’

5. Every team should have a Scott Atchison.

6. I’m interested to see Andrew Bailey’s transition from Oakland to Boston. Jonathan Papelbon said that once Bailey steps onto the field before a packed house, the adrenaline rush will carry him. “Yeah, for sure,’’ Bailey said. “All players feed off adrenaline the fans give. For me, nothing is going to change except for the uniform I’m wearing.’’ But he also said he’ll miss the Coliseum. “It’s a great place to pitch,’’ he said. “I remember those games against the Giants when we sold out, and you wish it could be like that every night because it was so loud. Players liked playing there.’’

7. The Blue Jays did a smart thing bringing in Omar Vizquel for a year as a utility player. He would have been a perfect fit to groom Jose Iglesias.

8. Wonder if Valentine will have a fried chicken and beer party before the start of the season.

9. So Frank McCourt will likely receive close to $2 billion for the Dodgers (from which he has to pay off massive debt) and hold on to the 300 acres around Dodger Stadium? Good deal.

10. I know they were trying to replicate Fenway, but seriously, how can you build JetBlue Park so that fans sitting on the third base side can’t see the left-field corner?

11. Manny Ramirez showed up at A’s camp jovial, fun-loving, and with his wife (yes, the one who called 911) and children. People keep buying his act.

12. Peter Gammons is a little bit country. He’ll join Bronson Arroyo, Ben Broussard, Huston Street, and country music stars Joe Nichols and Keni Thomas for Woodjock 2012 at Toby Keith’s “I Love This Bar and Grill’’ in Mesa, Ariz., March 15. Proceeds benefit the Arizona RBI program.

Updates on nine

1. Roy Oswalt, RHP, free agent - Strange dynamic this offseason. His stock fell dramatically, from a top-tier pitcher who could command $15 million-$16 million per year on a multiyear deal to one who may get only one year at $5 million, even though a lot of teams were trying to get him. “I think most teams felt that for one year in the $5 million-$7 million range, he was worth the gamble,’’ said a National League general manager. “Everyone knows he has back issues, but the thing that bothered teams was that all of a sudden, he wanted to be closer to home and wanted to start picking and choosing where he wanted to be. A lot of people felt he lost that desire he used to have to pitch, and now we’re seeing him say, ‘Maybe I’ll show up somewhere around midseason and make just as much as I’d make if I signed now.’ ’’ From a Red Sox point of view, he fit their rotation, but Bobby Valentine was never a huge proponent. Oswalt’s agent, Bob Garber, communicates only in formal written statements and never seems to engage in any real public dialogue, which has raised more concerns about Oswalt’s frame of mind.

2. Wandy Rodriguez, LHP, Astros - He will be a top “go get’’ guy before the trading deadline for teams needing that extra piece. We’ve written before that Astros people are surprised at the lack of interest in Rodriguez, even with Houston willing to pick up about half the $36 million remaining on his contract. Teams will get desperate, however.

3. Derek Lowe, RHP, Indians - He has strong interest in returning to the Red Sox after this season as a starter or reliever. What transpires in Cleveland this year certainly will have a lot to do with his mind-set for the future, but Lowe, who attended Tim Wakefield’s retirement press conference, resides about 2 miles from JetBlue Park. He could have been an interesting solution as Boston’s fourth or fifth starter, but picking up $10 million of his salary from the Braves was more than the Red Sox were interested in doing.

4. Ichiro Suzuki, RF, Mariners - There’s no doubt that as manager Eric Wedge was contemplating moving Ichiro to the No. 3 spot in the order, he was thinking of Wade Boggs. Ichiro and Boggs have long been linked because of their hitting styles. Both have excellent power that was not utilized to the fullest extent. But Wedge is there every day with Ichiro. He sees what all of us see when Ichiro takes batting practice: power. Whether or not he does what Boggs did in 1987 - hit 24 homers for kicks out of the No. 3 spot (with a 1.049 OPS) - Ichiro should drive in runs. That’s what the Mariners need.

5. Jason Varitek, C, free agent - His friends still insist that he is leaning toward retirement only because he can’t envision himself in another uniform. Yet he feels he can still play and at least be someone’s backup. The Rays and Twins could surely use him. A Jose Molina-Varitek tandem would have to be nirvana for that Tampa Bay pitching staff.

6. Chone Figgins, 3B, Mariners - Guess we’re about to see a Figgins remake in Seattle. Figgins, who hit .188 and lost his job last season, is going to hit leadoff, a spot where he excelled with the Angels. A few baseball people I spoke to feel Figgins, like Carl Crawford, could bounce back once he is comfortable and hitting in his regular spot. He’d better. The Mariners are paying him $9 million this year and $8 million next year.

7. Bobby Abreu, DH, Angels - Owing him $9 million, the Angels are unlikely to outright release him, but their efforts to deal him have been fruitless. (A.J. Burnett refused a deal to the Angels that would have sent Abreu back to the Yankees.) The Angels have a bunch of DH possibilities, including Kendrys Morales (who may open up in the minors) and Mark Trumbo (who will be used in the super-utility role), and Abreu is coming off his worst season. Abreu has said that if the Angels can’t find playing time for him, he should be traded. But that’s easier said than done.

8. Peter Bourjos, CF, Angels - He is still prominent on the Nationals’ wish list for center fielders, and the Angels have phenom Mike Trout. But the Angels want big value back if they’re trading him. Bourjos has earned the reputation of being perhaps the best defensive center fielder in baseball, with speed. With Torii Hunter 36 and in the final year of his contract, there is room to keep both Bourjos and Trout.

9. Zach Kapstein, C/OF, Red Sox - He is not a kid who gets a lot of media attention in the Sox system, even though he hit over .400 in the Gulf Coast League last season. But he is a tremendous athlete who can hit. Josh Beckett knows who he is now. The 20-year-old native of Tiverton, R.I., jolted Beckett’s world in one round of BP Friday. He lined a double and also hit a hard ball up the middle that missed Beckett only because there was a screen. After Beckett decided to come high and tight in an attempt to intimidate the kid, Kapstein dug back in and sent a fastball more than 400 feet beyond the wall in center. One of those special spring training moments.

Short hops

From the Bill Chuck files: “Since 1998, no one has played more games than Bobby Abreu’s 2,173. Last season, he played in 142, breaking his streak of 13 straight years of 150-plus.’’ Also, “Over the last two seasons combined, Daric Barton has walked 149 times and whiffed 149 times, and Dustin Pedroia has walked 123 times and struck out 123 times.’’ . . . Happy birthday to J.T. Snow (44) and Jack Brohamer (62).

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