A-Rod could be primed for a big year

Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez was the American League MVP in 2003, ’05 and ’07. Don’t be surprised if he emerges as a leading competitor for the award in ’11.

“I can’t say enough about his swing, his body, the shape he’s in,” Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long said. “Every time he’s up there, I think he’s going to hit a home run.

“That’s scary. I saw that in 2007. He’s got that kind of explosion right now.”

Rodriguez, 35, was at it again Saturday, going 1 for 2 with an RBI double and two walks against the Blue Jays. He has hit safely in each of his 12 Grapefruit League games this season and driven in a run in six straight.

His slash line in 37 spring-training plate appearances: .412/.459/.912.

“I’ve never put a lot of stock in preseason stats or even results,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve always said that for me, spring training is all about what happens pre- and postgame. For the most part, I’m very happy with my development, and Kevin and I are both happy with my progress.”

Rodriguez, leaner and more agile, reportedly reduced his weight from 233 to 223 pounds and his body fat from 12 to 9 percent. He said this is probably the best he has felt physically since ’07, and certainly since Dr. Marc Phillippon surgically repaired his torn hip labrum in March 2009.

Asked if he worked out more this offseason than in the past, Rodriguez said, “About the same. But a lot more than I have in the last two or three offseasons. Phillipon ordered the training wheels to come off, which for me was a great relief.”

LAWRIE: THE JAYS’ CHARLIE HUSTLE

Brett Lawrie, the Blue Jays’ rookie third baseman, nearly beat out a routine groundball to Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter on Saturday. After the play, Jeter looked over to Rodriguez at third as if to say, “Who the heck was that?”

The Jays recently clocked Lawrie at 4.12 seconds going home to first from the right side. That time is exceptionally quick, Jays third base coach Brian Butterfield said, considering that, “Power guys don’t get out of the box that well.”

Lawrie, 21, is batting .324/.361/.559 this spring, and Butterfield said his transition from second to third base is proceeding, “quicker than you think.” The Jays could send him to the minors to further refine his defense, and to prevent him from becoming eligible for a fourth year of arbitration. But if they keep Lawrie, Jose Bautista could play his preferred position, right field.

“I’m going to go down swinging,” Lawrie said. “I’ve worked my ass off all spring to get where I’m at right now. I’m just trying to make the decision as tough as possible.”

Lawrie, 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds, led the Double-A Southern League with 16 triples and 250 total bases last season despite being the second-youngest player in the league. He said he runs out even routine groundballs because, “I don’t take things lightly if I screw them up.”

The kid does not lack confidence, that’s for sure.

Told Jeter looked surprised the play at first was close, Lawrie replied, “I was safe. The first-base coach thought I was safe. The umpire doesn’t really have his head on straight. I guess it’s spring training for him, too. But I got there.”

THE TIGERS’ POSITION OF STRENGTH

One scout following the Tigers says the team is deep enough in young outfielders to possibly trade one for a back-of-the-rotation starter.

The Tigers will start Ryan Raburn in left, Austin Jackson in center and Magglio Ordonez in right. Brennan Boesch, Clete Thomas, Casper Wells and Andy Dirks are the potential reserves.

Wells would appear a lock — he is the only right-handed hitter in the group, plays all three outfield positions and is described by manager Jim Leyland as the team’s second-best defensive outfielder behind Jackson.

All three of the Tigers’ starting outfielders also bat right-handed, but the club actually will need a right-handed hitting reserve. The team likely will sit catcher Alex Avila against lefties, play Victor Martinez at catcher and use Ordonez as its DH.

AROUND THE HORN

• The Astros are at their payroll limit, but would like to add a left-handed hitting outfielder to platoon with Jason Michaels if they go with Carlos Lee over Brett Wallace at first base, which is hardly a sure thing. Wallace is hitting .362/.388/.617 this spring.

The team’s greater need is a replacement for catcher Jason Castro, who is out for the season due to a torn ACL in his right knee. The Astros like the Royals’ Brayan Pena, but the Royals won’t trade him with Jason Kendall still recovering from shoulder surgery.

• The Dodgers scored only two more runs last season than the offensively challenged Padres. On-base percentage again could be a major concern, particularly if leadoff man Rafael Furcal fails to stay healthy.

New second baseman Juan Uribe had only a .310 OBP last season, while new catcher Rod Barajas was at .284. Other OBPs from last season: Third baseman Casey Blake, .320; left fielder Jay Gibbons, .313; center fielder Matt Kemp, .310; new outfielder Tony Gwynn .304.

The NL average was .324.

• Former A’s third baseman Eric Chavez, trying to stick with the Yankees as a backup corner infielder, is thrilled he can still compete after appearing in only 154 games the past four seasons.

“When I came out here, I didn’t know what to expect,” Chavez said. “I kind of had a good feeling that if I shortened up my spring, it would give me a better opportunity to be competitive. But just to know that it’s in there, it’s a really good feeling for me.”

What is the “it” that Chavez is talking about?

His talent.

• Jays bench coach Don Wakamatsu described center-field prospect Anthony Gose as a cross between Kenny Lofton and Juan Pierre.

Gose’s mannerisms are similar to Lofton’s, Wakamatsu said, and Pierre is one of Gose’s favorite players.

The difference: Gose, 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, is bigger than both Pierre and Lofton and possesses a much stronger arm.

• The Marlins are talking about signing second baseman Luis Castillo once he clears waivers, but they also could go with Emilio Bonifacio at second and Omar Infante at third if they choose to demote rookie third baseman Matt Dominguez.

• One scout predicts the Cardinals actually will miss Brendan Ryan, a defensive wonder who batted only .223/.279/.294 last season. The scout says of Ryan Theriot: “He’s kind of lost his identity a little bit. He used to be blue-collar. Now he acts like an established big leaguer. I don’t see the hunger.”

• And finally, a compliment for the Rays’ Manny Ramirez: “I know it’s spring training, but I tip my hat to him,” one scout said. “He’s playing with enthusiasm, bringing it again. He’s got his swagger back. He looks like the old Manny.”