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Big Papi's giving Red Sox a dilemma

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Ken Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal has been the FOXSports.com's Senior MLB Writer since August 2005. He appears weekly on MLB on FOX, FOX Sports Radio and MLB Network. He's a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter.

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One Red Sox official offers a novel solution if the team chooses to re-sign designated hitter David Ortiz:

“Find someone to play for him in April.”

Ah, April, the month in which Ortiz batted .143 with a .524 OPS, raising concerns that his career might be over.

Since then, Ortiz’s slash line is .306/.411/.660, and the question now is whether the Sox might keep him after all.

Ortiz, who turns 35 on Nov. 18, is a potential free agent. So are Sox catcher Victor Martinez and third baseman Adrian Beltre, putting the team in position to pick and choose.

Well, Ortiz ranks 10th in the AL in OPS, and the RangersVladimir Guerrero is the only DH offering similar production.

Red Sox manager Terry Francona describes Ortiz as “fearsome,” a vital cog in the Red Sox’s major-league leading offense. Opponents are noticing; Ortiz leads the majors with 17 walks in June.

Obviously, it’s too early for the Sox to make a call on Ortiz — they need to see how he fares the rest of the season. Any discussion of his future likely would include a debate over length of contract; the Red Sox prefer short-term deals.

Martinez, who turns 32 in December, will be another interesting call — he, too, has revived, batting .395/.443/.698 since May 18, and remains one of the game’s most consistent offensive performers. But most teams, including the Red Sox, will be wary of Martinez as a catcher in free agency.

No one questions Martinez’s work ethic, but his 4.57 catcher’s ERA in 441 innings is more than a run per game higher than Jason Varitek’s 3.46 ERA in 203 innings. Though the sample is relatively small and such stats include numerous variables, the Sox need to figure out what they are doing at catcher long-term.

Martinez, a switch-hitter, also is producing odd offensive numbers — he leads the majors with a .463 batting average against left-handed pitching, but is hitting only .219 against righties. Again, the sample is small; prior to this season, his splits were fairly even, slightly better against righties, in fact.

Then there is Beltre, who is justifying his decision to sign a one-year, $10 million free-agent contract with the idea of increasing his value while playing for the Red Sox.

Beltre, 31, probably will not bat .336 all season, but he almost certain will reject his $5 million player option and re-enter the open market as the top third baseman available.

The Sox could keep Ortiz, re-sign Martinez to play first and move Kevin Youkilis to third if they lost Beltre, but their defense and overall athleticism would suffer.

If they re-signed Beltre, it would be difficult for them to keep both Ortiz and Martinez unless they continued to give Martinez the majority of his playing time at catcher.

The season is not even half-over. The plot will twist and turn and twist again. But the Red Sox have good choices now. Choices in April that they never imagined.

 

Yankees’ utility woes

 

The Yankees bought a lot with their major-league leading $206 million payroll.

But, as usual, they skimped on their bench.

Their deficiency was obvious on Saturday, when they started Ramiro Pena at short in place of Derek Jeter, who had a heel problem, and Kevin Russo at third in place of Alex Rodriguez, who was the DH.

Pena and Russo are versatile players and good defenders, but neither would provide sufficient offense if either Jeter or, more likely, A-Rod, was out for an extended period.

The Yankees’ rotation is second in the league in ERA. Their offense is second in runs. Club officials believe the bullpen is better than its statistics indicate. But the team is flirting with trouble by carrying such modest utility infielders. The Yankees are not yet actively looking for help, sources say — but they should be.

A-Rod’s groin/hip issues are restricting him, and given the closeness of the AL East race, the Yankees might not get to rest him in September. Jeter, meanwhile, turns 36 on Saturday. And, as first pointed out by Joel Sherman of the New York Post, his groundball rate is its highest and his line-drive rate its lowest since Fangraphs.com began tracking such data in 2002.

The problem for the Yankees is finding a capable utility man who can fill in at short and third. The BravesOmar Infante and AngelsMaicer Izturis, the players who perhaps best fit the profile, will not be available — they already play for contenders.

The RoyalsWillie Bloomquist and Blue JaysJohn McDonald are veteran utility types, but at this point neither represents a significant offensive upgrade. Ditto for Jayson Nix, who was designated for assignment by the White Sox over the weekend.

Ryan Theriot? The Cubs moved him off short, believing he is better suited for second. Geoff Blum of the Astros? He hasn’t played short with any frequency since 2006.

The Yankees might need to get creative in their search. After investing $206 million, it’s the least they can do.

 

Mariners’ Lee: Going, going . . .

 

Not that much doubt remains, but here’s another reason why the Mariners would be better off trading left-hander Cliff Lee rather than collecting two draft picks if he departs as a free agent.

The M’s would not necessarily receive a first-round pick even if they qualified for one in the usual manner — by losing Lee to a club that finished with one of the 15 best records in the majors.

Lee, as of Friday, ranked only 12th in the Elias rankings among projected Type A free agents, according to a rival executive.

His standing figures to rise; Twins reliever Matt Guerrier actually was above him last week. But at the end of the season, Lee still could trail many of the leading Type As, including Jayson Werth, Victor Martinez, Adrian Beltre and Carl Crawford.

Thus, if the Yankee signed Crawford and Lee, or Werth and Lee, the Mariners might receive only a second-round pick, plus a compensation pick between the first and second rounds.

The Brewers got shafted out of a first-round pick for CC Sabathia in precisely the same fashion when the Yankees signed first baseman Mark Teixeira, a higher-ranking free agent, after the 2008 season.

Lee, by the way, has a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 67-to-4 in 77 2/3 innings, a figure that astonishes one rival executive.

“It’s not like he’s throwing 96 (mph),” the exec says. “He’s 91 to 93.”

 

Ranger Carl?

 

Brett Gardner’s .812 OPS compares well to Crawford’s .860, so perhaps the Yankees will not pursue Crawford in free agency as heavily as many anticipated — particularly when they intend to re-sign shortstop Derek Jeter and closer Mariano Rivera and court Lee.

Crawford, though, hardly will lack for suitors, and one rival executive came up with an interesting landing spot:

Texas.

“Can you imagine the pressure they could put on teams with (Elvis) Andrus and Crawford at the top of the lineup?” the executive said.

Crawford is not an obvious fit — center fielder Julio Borbon finally is hitting, and the Rangers control left fielder Josh Hamilton for two more years and right fielder Nelson Cruz for three. Any discussion of how the Rangers might operate in free agency presumes that the team actually will be sold by the time the market opens in November. One never knows . . .

Then again, Crawford would help upgrade the Rangers’ outfield defense, and they could rotate Hamilton, Cruz and others in the DH spot if they chose not to re-sign Vladimir Guerrero.

Or, they could keep Guerrero and trade Hamilton for pitching and/or catching help. Hamilton, 29, is enjoying his best season yet, ranking fifth in the AL in OPS. But some in the industry continue to question his ability to stay healthy long-term.

 

Oswalt to Rangers: No easy deal

 

Astros owner Drayton McLane, in somewhat of a surprise, is “not adverse” to trading right-hander Roy Oswalt to the cross-state rival Rangers, according to a source with knowledge of McLane’s thinking.

But three other obstacles stand in the way of an Oswalt trade to the Rangers.

The biggest, of course, is money.

No matter how much Rangers president Nolan Ryan might want Oswalt, his team only will be in play for the pitcher if its sale is completed before the July 31 non-waiver deadline.

Oswalt, under contract through 2011 with a club option for ‘12, also must waive his no-trade clause for the Rangers — no sure thing given the distaste most pitchers have for the hitter-friendly Rangers Ballpark.

Finally, McLane must relent on his desire to land top prospects and gain financial relief in an Oswalt trade. To this point, McLane gives no indication of budging.

For now, the Rangers remain in a holding pattern on virtually all trades. The A’s outbid them for Diamondbacks outfielder Conor Jackson in part because they were willing to assume more of Jackson’s salary.

 

Dodgers’ Kemp: Below average in center

 

Remember back in late April when Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said Matt Kemp was a below-average defender and base-runner?

Not only is Kemp performing below expectations offensively, but advanced defensive metrics also do not paint a pretty picture of his play in center field.

According to Ultimate Zone Rating, Kemp is the worst defensive center fielder in the majors. Even when you account for UZR’s flaws and the small sample, it’s startling that Kemp is 34.2 runs below average per 150 defensive games. The next worst center fielder according to UZR, the Braves’ Nate McLouth is 22.1 runs below average.

Kemp also fares poorly in the plus-minus ratings on Bill James Online, ranking 35th among all qualifying major-league center fielders.

 

Party at the Pedroias!

 

Dustin Pedroia and Andre Ethier, former teammates at Arizona State, watched Game 7 of the NBA Finals at Pedroia’s home Thursday after the Dodgers arrived in Boston.

The game, however, did not command center stage.

“Our kids were going nuts,” Pedroia said. “We were trying to figure out which kid was going to throw something through the TV.”

Ethier and his wife, Maggie, actually arrived first, greeting Pedroia’s wife, Kelli — the Dodgers flew to Boston after an afternoon game in Cincinnati, while the Red Sox played the Diamondbacks at home that night.

According to Ethier, the chaos only increased after Pedroia returned home from Fenway and started egging the kids on — a version that Pedroia did not dispute.

Dustin’s son, Dylan, is 10 months old. Ethier’s son, Dresen, is almost 2.

 

Inter-league play: Competitive imbalance

 

Inter-league play is commissioner Bud Selig’s baby. Fans, for the most part, seem to like it. But the scheduling inequities drive teams nuts.

Consider the Dodgers’ inter-league schedule this season along with those of two of their principal division rivals, the Giants and Padres.

Dodgers opponents

Angels (6 games)
Tigers
Red Sox
Yankees
Combined winning percentage: .582.

Giants opponents

A’s (6 games)
Orioles
Blue Jays
Red Sox
Combined winning percentage: .477

Padres opponents

Mariners (6 games)
Blue Jays
Orioles
Rays
Combined winning percentage: .458

 

White Sox bullying the NL

 

The Marlins were one of the teams that inquired on left-hander Matt Thornton during the brief period that the White Sox were in sell mode.

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The White Sox said they would not even entertain trading Thornton, and they have now won 11 of their last 12 games, reaching .500 for the first time since April 7. Their run started against the Tigers and continued against feeble NL opponents — the Cubs, Pirates and Nationals.

White Sox starting pitchers are 9-1 with a 1.95 ERA in this stretch. Their ability to contend could be determined by how they fare in their six series leading to the All-Star break. They will be home against the Braves and Cubs, on the road against the Royals and Rangers, home against the Angels and Royals.

If the White Sox end up buyers, their biggest need will be the same as it was in the off-season — a left-handed hitter for the middle of the order.

 

That’s Mark with a ‘K’

 

As the Diamondbacks ponder which players to trade, third baseman Mark Reynolds’ stock isn’t exactly soaring.

Reynolds leads the team with 16 homers, but has struck out 17 times in his last 22 at-bats to increase his major-league lead over his teammate, right fielder Justin Upton.

Reynolds, who set the two highest marks for strikeouts in a season in 2008 and ’09, also has produced a disappointing slash line of .215/.327/.472.

 

Around the horn

 

• One of the Dodgers’ problems in pursuing right-hander Roy Halladay last winter was that their prospects, in the Blue Jays’ view, were not close enough to the majors.

The same issue could surface in the Lee sweepstakes; the Mariners want major-league or major-league ready hitters, and most of the Dodgers’ top prospects — outfielder Andrew Lambo, shortstop Dee Gordon, right-hander Chris Withrow — are still developing at Double A.

Lambo currently is serving a 50-game suspension for a second positive test for a drug of abuse, as opposed to a performance-enhancing drug.

• Attention, deadline shoppers: One rival executive who is familiar with the Orioles’ Ty Wigginton says the veteran infielder is best defensively at first base, then third, then second.

Wigginton’s bat, not his defense, could make him attractive to any number of contenders. The Rockies are interested, according to FOXSports.com’s Tracy Ringolsby, and the Angels, Twins and Rangers also represent possible fits.

• The Rays will take their usual approach at the deadline, looking for the player who will make the biggest impact, regardless of position. Could be a DH, could be a starter, could be a reliever — though Triple A right-hander Jeremy Hellickson could reinforce the bullpen at some point.

• A’s right-hander Ben Sheets is pitching the best of the available second-tier starting pitchers — he has worked at least six innings in nine straight starts, producing a 3.79 ERA over that span.

The A’s, eight games back in the AL West, figure to be sellers unless they can revive against their next four opponents — the Reds, Pirates, Orioles and Indians.

• History repeating? Mike Stanton’s grand slam Friday night occurred almost seven years to the day after Miguel Cabrera hit a walkoff homer for the Marlins in his major-league debut. Both shots came against the Rays.

• Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo says right-hander Stephen Strasburg’s performance against the White Sox on Friday night was his most dominant yet. The reason: Strasburg’s changeup was the best it has been.

• A final thought:

Jim Joyce, home-plate umpire, All-Star Game.

Tagged: Orioles, Red Sox, Angels, White Sox, Tigers, Royals, Twins, Yankees, Athletics, Mariners, Rangers, Blue Jays, Braves, Cubs, Astros, Dodgers, Nationals, Phillies, Marlins, Diamondbacks, Rays, CC Sabathia, David Ortiz, Derek Jeter, Roy Oswalt, Adrian Beltre, Vladimir Guerrero, Victor Martinez, Ty Wigginton, Carl Crawford, Cliff Lee, Mark Teixeira, Matt Thornton, Matt Guerrier, Nate McLouth, Josh Hamilton, Dustin Pedroia, Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, Mark Reynolds

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