A-Rod’s suddenly an afterthought

Alex Rodriguez is two home runs shy of 600.

Does anyone care?

The Yankees do — A-Rod, with each homer, gets closer to $30 million in potential bonuses: $6 million each for tying Willie Mays at 660 homers, Babe Ruth at 714 and Hank Aaron at 755, and tying and breaking Barry Bonds’ record of 762.

The late George Steinbrenner, in his heyday, might have attempted to void those suckers after A-Rod’s admission of steroid use. As it stands, the Yankees figure to receive little of the marketing benefit they anticipated when they included the milestone bonuses in A-Rod’s 10-year, $275 million contract.

Rodriguez, who turns 35 on July 27, redeemed himself with Yankees fans last postseason, but for such an accomplished player his standing is almost shockingly low.

He no longer is the best all-around player on his team; second baseman Robinson Cano holds that distinction. Nor is he even the best third baseman in his division; the Rays’ Evan Longoria has surpassed A-Rod and the Red Sox’s Adrian Beltre is having a better year.

Longoria, in only his third season, has beaten A-Rod to two straight All-Star elections. He also is more visible than Rodriguez as a commercial pitchman.

In fact, A-Rod ranks only ninth among baseball’s most marketable players according to a new survey by SportsBusiness Daily. Derek Jeter — surprise! — tops the list. David Wright, the other third baseman in New York, also ranks ahead of Rodriguez, in eighth place.

A-Rod’s 600th homer will not alter that dynamic.

Only three players hit 600 homers in the pre-steroid era — Aaron, Ruth and Mays. Bonds passed all of them. Ken Griffey Jr., a player with no steroid taint, recently ended his career with 630 homers. Sammy Sosa, who reportedly tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003, finished with 609.

Fans, numbed by the inflated power figures, might simply be experiencing milestone fatigue. Jim Thome, a player widely perceived to be clean, is next on the active list with 574 homers. His countdown to 600, if it happened, probably would not generate wall-to-wall coverage, either.

Then again, if fans indeed are experiencing A-Rod fatigue, their ambivalence only figures to deepen — and perhaps even approach anger — as he starts collecting his $6 million bonuses.

The Yankees did not know that A-Rod had used steroids when they re-signed him in Dec. 2007. But, considering the excesses of the Steroid Era, they should have suspected that his place in history might not be secure.

Some marketing bonanza.

A-Rod is two homers shy of 600, and if fans are clapping at all, they’re clapping with one hand.


Rockies’ Iannetta: Going, going, going …


The Red Sox are again talking to the Rockies about catcher Chris Iannetta, but a trade seems more likely in the offseason than before the July 31 non-waiver deadline, major-league sources say.

The Rockies do not want to trade Iannetta during the season unless they can improve their major-league club. The Red Sox, depleted by injuries, cannot presently make that kind of deal.

Iannetta, with five home runs in his last 32 at-bats, has been hot since returning from Triple-A. Besides, if the Rockies wait until the off-season to move him, they could involve more teams in trade discussions.

The Rangers, for example, likely will need a catcher if they do not re-sign Bengie Molina. Other clubs also are scrambling for catching help due to an industry-wide shortage at the position.

Regardless, Iannetta does not figure to lose his appeal to the Sox, who could move forward next season without both of their primary catchers, Victor Martinez and Jason Varitek.

The Sox and other clubs like Iannetta’s contract — $1.75 million this season, $2.55 million next season and $3.55 million in 2012. His deal also includes a $5 million club option for ’13 that he can void if he is traded.

The Rockies, if necessary, could replace Iannetta short-term with Paul Phillips. Beyond that, they want to keep Miguel Olivo, who can void his $2.5 million club option and become a free agent if he makes 41 more starts.

The team also has two catching prospects with on-base/slugging percentages above .800 in the minors — Michael McKenry at Triple-A and Wilin Rosario at Double-A.

McKenry might only project as a backup, but Rosario — who recently appeared in the Futures Game — is considered one of the game’s better young catchers.


The Dunn conundrum(Chapter 424)


If the Nationals want to keep first baseman Adam Dunn, they should extend his contract — say, for three years, $36 million.

On the other hand, if the Nats do not intend to keep Dunn, they should make the best trade possible before July 31.

It’s really that simple.

Yet, the way things look, the Nats are not committed to either course.

The Nats, if they retain Dunn and offer him salary arbitration, would land two high draft picks if he departs as a free agent this off-season.

Dunn could foil that strategy by accepting arbitration — and gaining a one-year raise from his current $12 million salary to $14 million or so. But his desire for stability, combined with his strong chances of landing a multi-year deal, would seem to mitigate against that possibility. Power is in short supply, and Dunn will be in demand.

Then again, if Dunn remains unwilling to be a designated hitter, he would cut off almost half his market. American League clubs are likely to show the most interest in Dunn. One rival executive mentioned the Red Sox, in particular, comparing Dunn to a “young David Ortiz.”

Dunn is working hard to improve at first. Others are worse defenders at the position. But some teams believe Dunn’s defensive shortcomings cut into his offensive value. As the exec says, “Teams will pay him not to put a glove on his hand.”


The Rays: Offensive predicament


The Rays rank fourth in the AL in scoring, but their offensive deficiencies were evident in their two losses at Yankee Stadium over the weekend.

The middle of the Rays’ order twice failed to produce a hit with the bases loaded and none out on Friday night, and the team went 2-for-14 with runners in scoring position on Sunday.

Cleanup hitter Carlos Pena could be snapping out of it — he went 4-for-9 with two homers in the past two games, raising his batting average from .201 to .213. The Rays badly needed Pena to produce, or teams will stop pitching to Longoria, who bats third.

Pena leads the AL in strikeouts, and the Rays’ strikeout rate is the second-highest in the AL, behind only the Blue Jays. Strikeouts often are an acceptable tradeoff for power. But the Rays rank only eighth in the AL in slugging percentage.

Dunn, if the Rays could get him, would add power, but also another high-strikeout hitter to their lineup. The Royals’ David DeJesus, another trade possibility, would provide more contact, but less power.

The Rays, as always, will look for the move — or moves — that would produce the greatest impact.

Reid Brignac, an above-average defender at short with offensive upside, would figure to interest rival clubs, though the Rays might be reluctant to trade him.

Jason Bartlett is under club control only through next season. Shortstop Tim Beckham, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 draft, is only at high Class A.


The A’s: Too many starters?


The A’s, who are back at .500 and just seven games out in the AL West, are telling clubs that they have “no intention” of trading center fielder Coco Crisp, whom they can keep next season on a $5.75 million club option. The same goes for second baseman Mark Ellis, who has a $6 million club option.

The greater intrigue is in their starting rotation.

Left-hander Dallas Braden returns from the DL on Tuesday, and lefty Brett Anderson is scheduled to make his final rehabilitation start on that same day. So, by the end of next weekend, the A’s could have six worthy starting pitchers, righty Vin Mazzarro has a 2.06 ERA in his last five starts.

Such a logjam seemingly would point to a trade of right-hander Ben Sheets. The A’s, who value Sheets as a mentor and teammate, say they are in no hurry to make such a move. But for several reasons, a deal would make sense.

Sheets will earn more than $6 million the rest of the season if he reaches all of his incentives. While the A’s are not under financial pressure to trade him, they also will receive no draft-pick compensation if he departs. Sheets will be an unranked free agent.


Hurry back, Kyle


Cardinals righty Kyle Lohse, coming off arm surgery in May, threw a 50-pitch bullpen session Saturday and — if all continues to go well — could return in a few weeks.

The successful return of Lohse would enable the Cardinals to place a greater emphasis on acquiring a middle infielder than a starting pitcher, particularly if righty Jeff Suppan continues pitching as effectively as he did Sunday against the Dodgers.

If the Cardinals stabilize the back of their rotation, their four off-days between Aug. 4 and 20 also would enable them to rest Jaime Garcia, their brilliant rookie left-hander. Garcia has pitched 103 innings after working only 37 2/3 last season — all in the minors — coming off Tommy John surgery.

The Cardinals, who rank ninth in the NL in OPS at second base and 14th in OPS at shortstop, checked in on shortstop Alex Gonzalez before the Blue Jays traded him to the Braves.


Missing Joe Nathan


The Twins’ biggest problem is their rotation, but closer Jon Rauch, after converting 20 of 24 save opportunities with a 2.38 ERA before the All-Star break, also is becoming a concern.

Manager Ron Gardenhire pulled Rauch from a save situation Friday and warmed up righty Matt Guerrier and lefty Brian Duensing instead of Rauch with a 3-2 lead in the ninth inning Saturday.

“He really has no out pitch,” one scout says of Rauch, whose average fastball velocity is 91.1 mph according to PitchFx data on fangraphs.com “Put him in (in) October with that stuff, and you’re asking for trouble.”


Rays’ Niemann: Learning on the job


You’ve heard of pitchers who struggle to make adjustments? Rays right-hander Jeff Niemann is just the opposite. During the course of last season, he says he underwent “a complete transformation” on the mound.

Niemann demonstrated rare aptitude by effectively adding three pitches — a two-seam (sinking) fastball, a split-fingered fastball and a cutter. He also features a four-seam fastball and curve in his five-pitch repertoire.

As a rookie last season, Niemann says he started out just trying to survive. Gradually, he started exploring new and better ways to get hitters out. He always had the two-seamer, split and cutter, but was not confident enough to throw them.

“You’ve got to trick yourself into trusting it at first,” Niemann says. “You have to trick yourself into thinking that it is a good pitch when you really have no idea how it’s going to go.”


Around the horn


• Teams in need of starting pitching might want to consider Brewers righty Dave Bush, who has produced six straight quality starts and 12 of 18 overall — a higher percentage than the Brewers’ ace, Yovani Gallardo. Bush, earning $4.215 million, is a free agent after this season, but likely will be unranked, yielding no draft-pick compensation.

• If the Pirates trade closer Octavio Dotel, it won’t be a giveaway. The team can retain Dotel on a $4.5 million club option, or gain a high draft pick as compensation if they offer him arbitration and he departs as a free agent. Dotel currently projects as a Type B free agent, according to MLBTraderumors.com. His option becomes a mutual option if he is traded.

• The Yankees, in theory, could trade Francisco Cervelli this off-season to clear a spot for Double-A catcher Austin Romine, but one club official says the team would prefer to keep its inventory. Cervelli is a frequent trade target of rival clubs — the Tigers wanted him in the Curtis Granderson deal last winter.

• The Braves discussed super-utility man Jose Bautista with the Blue Jays while negotiating the Yunel Escobar-Alex Gonzalez trade, but the Braves want to see how center fielder Nate McLouth recovers from concussion-like symptoms before determining their next move. McLouth had only a .281 OBP in the first seven games of his rehabilitation assignment at Triple-A.

• Right-hander Jake Westbrook remains a trade candidate for the Indians, but closer Kerry Wood is on the DL with a blister on his right index finger and outfielder Austin Kearns isn’t exactly bursting with appeal for contenders. Kearns started hot, but has batted .239/.328/.366 since May 12.

• One scout says Orioles right-hander Jeremy Guthrie would be more effective as a reliever, while another says, “He should be better than he is. He used to have a plus curveball. Now he hardly throws it. He’s not big (6-1). He’s a fastball-slider guy with no depth or downward movement. Everything is hard. Everything is on the same plane. He needs the curveball.”

• Encouraging sign for the Marlins: Left-hander Andrew Miller might be starting to figure things out at Double-A. Miller, the sixth overall pick of the 2006 draft and a key part of the Miguel Cabrera-Dontrelle Willis trade, has a 2.15 ERA in his last five starts. He began the season in A ball.

• The Mets are excited about Double-A center fielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis, the Eastern League Player of the Week. Nieuwenhuis, who is 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, is similar in body type to Josh Hamilton, who is 6-4, 240. He projects more as a corner outfielder than a center fielder.