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Ethier will put Dodgers on spot

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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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Dodgers right fielder Andre Ethier has warts. Injuries limited him to fewer than 140 games in each of the past two seasons. His career OPS is .909 against right-handers, but only .667 against lefties.

Yet Ethier, 30, is a fascinating case – and not simply because he represents the first opportunity for the Dodgers’ new ownership to make a statement in the post-McCourt era.

New Dodgers president Stan Kasten, a tough, experienced negotiator, likely will want to see Ethier stay healthy and productive for a full season before awarding him the game’s next $100 million contract.

The problem is, Ethier’s price will only rise if he stays healthy and productive. And in the supply-and-demand, give-and-take nature of free agency, he already holds an advantage.

Among potential free-agent outfielders, only the RangersJosh Hamilton fares better than Ethier in career OPS-plus – a statistic that adjusts a player’s OPS to his park and league, with 100 defined as league average.

Here are the career OPS-plus marks for some of the potential free-agent outfielders in 2012-13:

Hamilton: 137
Ethier: 124
Nick Swisher: 118
Ichiro: 114
Torii Hunter: 110
B.J. Upton: 106
Shane Victorino: 104
Michael Bourn: 90

Obviously, OPS-plus is only one measure. Ichiro, 38, and Hunter, 36, are past their primes. Victorino and Bourn are top-of-the-order types, not sluggers, and will not fare as well in this type of comparison.

Still, Ethier is second in the class of 2012-13 only to Hamilton, who is a decided risk due to his past addictions. And while OPS-plus does not account for defense, Baseball Prospectus 2012 said that “most of the major systems suggest (Ethier) was a shade above average (last season) after three years well below it).”

And the next free-agent class, you ask?

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The question is not necessarily relevant, seeing as how the Dodgers would need to replace Ethier next season. But Ethier also would top the class of 2013-14, a fact that only reinforces the difficulty of finding sluggers in today’s game.

Consider:

Hunter Pence: 120
Curtis Granderson: 119
Corey Hart: 115
Jacoby Ellsbury: 109
Adam Jones; 104

Not every one of those players will make it to free agency, further diminishing the supply – and enhancing Ethier’s appeal.

Ethier, who is earning $10.95 million this season, probably will want to match or exceed Jayson Werth’s seven-year, $126 million free-agent deal, considering that Werth’s career OPS-plus is 117.

The Dodgers almost certainly would balk at that notion; most in the industry view Werth’s contract as an outlier. But if Ethier returns to his previous levels – he produced OPS-plus figures of 132, 132 and 133 from 2009 to ’11 – he probably can name his price.

Supply and demand.

THE VIOLENCE OF BRYCE HARPER

One of the most appealing things about Bryce Harper is his ferocious style of play. A rival scout, however, expresses concern that the Nationals’ left fielder is too physical with his swing.

“He is an amazing athlete and will be great if he stays healthy,” the scout says. “But there is a huge difference between him and (Ken) Griffey and Alex (Rodriguez).

“Those guys had easy, non-violent swings. This guy uses his lower half so much, it’s like the old golfers who rotated their hips with such violence. You wonder when the lower back issues will begin.

“Look at Freddy Couples and those guys in the '80s – most of them rotated so hard with their lower halves. They had that violence that Harper does. And they all ended up with back issues.

“Does he have great bat speed? Yes. Unreal power? Yes. But it’s a little like a max-effort pitcher.”

In other words, stay tuned.

SCOUT ON PETTITTE: NOT YET

The Yankees are fortunate that right-hander Phil Hughes produced his best start of the season Sunday, allowing three runs in 6 2/3 innings in a 10-4 victory over the Royals.

Left-hander Andy Pettitte does not look close to ready, according to a rival scout who watched him pitch Sunday at Triple A.

Pettitte allowed five runs (three earned) in five innings against the Red Sox’s Pawtucket affiliate. The scout said that Pettitte threw 86 to 88 mph, but that his stuff lacked crispness and that he likely will need several more starts at Triple A before he is ready to pitch in the majors.

TRADE JOHAN? NOT SO FAST

The idea of the Mets trading left-hander Johan Santana sounds good, but take a look at his contract:

Santana is guaranteed $24 million this season and $25.5 million next season with a $5.5 million buyout on his $25 million club option for 2014. He also has a full no-trade clause.

Is it possible that the Mets could pay a significant chunk of Santana’s remaining salaries to facilitate a deal? Sure. But they probably would be better off keeping Santana rather than include an exorbitant sum to get one or two decent prospects in return.

Santana’s leadership and presence have significant value, particularly for a team that will be breaking in several top pitching prospects over the next few years.

AVALANCHE IN COLORADO

The Rockies expected growing pains with their young pitching staff, but it’s fair to wonder about the team’s direction after its dismal performance over the weekend against the Braves.

SHOOTING STARS

These athletes burst onto the scene with great fanfare.

True, the Braves are the top-scoring team in the majors, but they pounded out 29 runs and 42 hits in sweeping three games at Coors Field, rallying from 5-0 and 6-0 deficits in the first two.

The Rockies’ 5.13 ERA is the worst in the NL. Opponents are batting .294 with an .839 OPS, both major-league highs against one club. For good measure, the Rockies rank next-to-last in the majors in defensive efficiency, a statistic that measures the percentage of balls in play that are converted into outs.

Young pitchers such as Jhoulys Chacin and Esmil Rogers are regressing; the team demoted Chacin to Triple A last week. The Rockies take pride in their stability, but at this point a shake-up in the coaching staff does not appear out of the question.

THE DODGERS’ FREE-AGENT FINDS

It would be premature to proclaim the Dodgers’ free-agent signings of left-hander Chris Capuano and righty Aaron Harang a success, but the early returns are good: Capuano is 4-0 with a 2.21 ERA in six starts, and Harang has produced quality starts in three of his last four outings.

The Dodgers needed two starting pitchers last offseason, and right-hander Hiroki Kuroda wanted $15 million to return, then $12 million. General manager Ned Colletti instead signed Capuano for two years, $10 million and Harang for two years, $12 million.

Both pitchers turn 34 this season, and Capuano, in particular, is a physical risk, having twice undergone Tommy John surgery. Still, Capuano is four years removed from his last TJ, and he made 31 starts and threw 186 innings for the Mets last season.

We’re talking about a pitcher who earned a degree in economics from Duke. Capuano is highly intelligent, knows his body well and is a diligent worker. Regression is likely: Capuano’s current strikeout rate of 8.8 per nine innings would be a career-high, and his .250 opponents’ batting average on balls in play suggests good luck (the major-league average generally is around .300).

Still, so far, so good.

JAYS CATCHERS: HANDS OFF!

The Diamondbacks, among other clubs, would love to get their hands on one of the Blue Jays’ catchers. But don’t count on Toronto moving either J.P. Arencibia or Triple-A catcher Travis d’Arnaud before the season is over.

Arencibia, 26, is batting only .234/.277/.364, but the Jays are thrilled with his game-calling and overall defense. Such attributes are difficult to measure, but the team’s rotation is full of pitchers who are difficult to catch, making Arencibia’s work all the more impressive.

D’Arnaud, 23, is batting .271/.342/.402 at Triple A, but this is only his first season at that level and the Pacific Coast League is hitter-friendly. The Jays don’t want to trade him because his upside is greater than Arencibia’s. And they don’t want to promote him while they are trying to contend, believing he is not ready for the majors just yet.

THE REDS: SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW

Reds third baseman Scott Rolen is batting only .188/.258/.325, and a rival scout says those numbers are real, pointing out that Rolen no longer can hit good fastballs and is cheating on pitches away.

The scout adds that Rolen’s sheer presence is still important to the Reds, calling him the team’s “unquestioned leader.” But Rolen, 37, already has been dropped from the cleanup spot to sixth, and would be the first to admit that leadership goes only so far when a player fails to perform.

On a brighter Reds note, another scout calls the team’s top prospect, Class A shortstop Billy Hamilton, “one of the most exciting players I’ve seen in years. His speed absolutely changes the game and he’s OK at shortstop as well.”

Hamilton, 21, is batting .382/.458/.559 at High A Bakersfield, and is 31-for-38 in stolen-base attempts in just 26 games.

LITTLE MAN, BIG STICK

Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, who previously was the Cardinals’ director of player procurement, was not unfamiliar with Houston’s 5-foot-7, 168-pound second baseman, Jose Altuve.

“The Cardinals and Astros have quite a few minor-league teams in the same league,” Luhnow said. “I kind of had a feel for who the Astros’ prospects were. And I kept a closer eye on the NL Central.

“The first time I ever saw Altuve was in the Appalachian League. He was pretty impressive back then, but really small. I wanted to see how that would play out. I’m obviously not afraid of small guys. We drafted (5-foot-9 second baseman Kolten) Wong last year in St. Louis. The Cardinals had (David) Eckstein in ’05.

“I had a feeling Altuve would be a high batting average type of guy, a very good defender. But I wasn’t sure if he could take his game to the next level, get into better counts, take walks when he needs to. A lot of people say you can’t teach that stuff. Either it’s there or it’s not. Altuve so far is proving that you can make significant improvements in those areas.”

In 118 plate appearances, Altuve is batting .352/.393/.528.

WAY TO GO, PEDRO

The Pirates rank seventh in the NL with a 3.41 ERA, but the team’s most encouraging sign is the sudden turnaround of third baseman Pedro Alvarez, who moved into the cleanup spot on Saturday.

Alvarez, in his first 40 plate appearances, batted .103/.125/.256 with 17 strikeouts and one walk. In his last 46 plate appearances, he’s batting .395/.478/.895 with nine strikeouts and seven walks.

“Two things stand out,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington says. “One, first and foremost, he’s trusting his abilities. And two, he has simplified his swing and approach.”

Alvarez tried a toe tap in spring training, but eliminated it in near the end of Grapefruit League play after failing to achieve the desired results. His swing is shorter and more compact now, and he is getting his front foot down early, enabling him to cover the outer half of the plate.

A scout who watched Alvarez over the weekend noted two positive trends – Alvarez is handling inside pitches better, and trying to go the other way more. But Alvarez is still more of a power hitter than a skilled hitter, and he will continue to go through stretches where he produces ugly swings-and-misses.

The Pirates need Alvarez not only to be their cleanup hitter, but also to remain at third base. Alvarez is much more valuable at third than he would be at first, given the shortage of quality third basemen in the majors.

AROUND THE HORN

* Braves right-hander Brandon Beachy has a 1.62 ERA in 39 innings, but his strikeout rate is down and he likely won’t sustain his .228 opponents’ batting average on balls in play.

Still, the Braves say that Beachy is pitching even better than he did in his impressive rookie season. His fastball command to both sides of the plate has improved, and he’s making better use of his breaking pitches, enhancing his fastball that much more.

Something else interesting with the Braves: Rookie shortstop Tyler Pastornicky leads the team with 4.08 pitches seen per plate appearance. Pastornicky is batting only .259/.302/.370, but the Braves want him to be a tough out, and so far he has been.

* A rival executive points out that right-hander Ernesto Frieri rarely pitched in high-leverage situations with the Padres, raising the question of whether he could handle additional pressure with the Angels.

“Who knows how it will go?” the exec says. “His first five outings will be really important.”

Well, Frieri’s first two, at least, were quite good.

Frieri pitched a scoreless ninth inning and struck out the side to close out a 6-2 victory over the Blue Jays on Saturday. He also pitched a scoreless eighth with a 4-3 lead on Sunday.

* Another good sign for the Angels, though the sample is still small: Infielder/outfielder Mark Trumbo is drawing walks at nearly twice the rate he did last season.

Trumbo averaged a walk every 22.92 plate appearances last season and finished with just a .291 on-base percentage.

This season he is averaging a walk every 12.17 plate appearances and also hitting for a higher average. His OBP is .370.

* Adrian Gonzalez’s batting average dropped from .284 to .264 with his 0-for-8 in Sunday’s 17-inning marathon between the Red Sox and Orioles.

Gonzalez had been 6-for-10 in his previous two games – and 0-for-15 prior to that.

* And finally, major-league umpires are offering up to 200 ticket packages, signed items and one-of-a-kind VIP experiences during their fourth annual “Umps Care” charities online auction, which runs until 8 p.m. Sunday.

Proceeds help provide major-league experiences for children awaiting adoption, Build-A-Bear Workshop experiences for children coping with cancer and college scholarships for deserving young adults who were adopted as children.

Go to www.MLB.com/UmpsCare.

Tagged: Red Sox, Angels, Yankees, Rangers, Blue Jays, Braves, Reds, Astros, Dodgers, Nationals, Mets, Phillies, Pirates, Cardinals, Rockies, Torii Hunter, Johan Santana, Andy Pettitte, Scott Rolen, Jayson Werth, Aaron Harang, Chris Capuano, Nick Swisher, Josh Hamilton, Andre Ethier, Hunter Pence, Ernesto Frieri, Pedro Alvarez, J.P. Arencibia, Mark Trumbo

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