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Sunday Baseball Notes

Rays still show swagger despite personnel losses

Rays manager Joe Maddon

Chris O’Meara/Associated Press

Rays manager Joe Maddon is part renaissance man, part psychologist, part miracle worker.

B.J. Upton, James Shields, Carlos Pena, Jeff Keppinger, J.P.Howell, Wade Davis. About $28 million of payroll was jettisoned from the Tampa Bay Rays payroll.

And you know what? No problem.

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The Rays have become a confident organization, confident they will be a factor in the American League East this season, mostly because they are a pitching factory. They have a manager in Joe Maddon who is part renaissance man, part psychologist, part miracle worker.

While others in his position have run away from shortstop Yunel Escobar, Maddon is genuinely excited and says Escobar “could be the linchpin to our success.”

Maddon will have what he calls a “quad-toon” at second base, where Kelly Johnson, Ben Zobrist (who will play mostly right field), Sean Rodriguez, and Ryan Roberts will see action. A healthy Evan Longoria and Escobar improve the left-side defense, which was Maddon’s top priority in the offseason.

James Loney also gives Tampa Bay a top defensive first baseman, though he won’t come close to the home run production the swing-and-miss Pena offered.

The bullpen is solid, led by lights-out closer Fernando Rodney, though they’ve lost second lefty Howell (signed by Dodgers) and top middle man Davis (traded to Royals in the Shields deal).

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What they do have is plenty of starting pitching. The rotation is David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, MattMoore, Alex Cobb, and then a free-for-all for No. 5 among Jeff Niemann, Chris Archer, Roberto Hernandez (the former Fausto Carmona), and Jake Odorizzi, who came in the Shields deal.

Hellickson said he’s ready to take Shields’s spot.

“I learned so much from him over the years, and the biggest thing was I didn’t work hard enough,” Hellickson said. “I want to pitch 200 innings and pitch deep into games. I’m ready to do that. I’m working hard to be that.”

Maddon feels that Hellickson (177 innings), Moore (177), and Cobb (136) all have “to put 200 or more innings on their back.

“It’s not necessarily getting stronger, but being more pitch-efficient, being able to throw a fastball where they want early in the count.

“Niemann looks outstanding, Hernandez looks outstanding, and Odorizzi — this is a really pretty, simple, clean delivery. Nice makeup. You believe this guy can be good.

“Losing Shields is never easy and I miss him already, but we were able to do it for other reasons.”

The Rays also have one of the best — and perhaps most underrated — pitching coaches in baseball in Jim Hickey, who keeps grooming quality major leaguers.

“He’s the Pied Piper,” Maddon said. “They follow him. He’s got a nice, great way about him.

“Hick doesn’t think he knows everything. Learn and try new things and he’s very open. He holds them accountable. They can’t get away with anything. If they say something that’s not accurate or true, he lets them know.

“He’s so good in deciphering something complex and making it easier. His pre-series prep is outstanding. He has a lot of good qualities. He can straighten out mechanics. His strong point is how he deals with them and his mental approach. His sense of humor is good. He relates to them very well.”

And the system-wide approach to pitching is top-shelf. Scouts often comment that Rays pitchers have the best mechanics and poise, from A ball all the way up to the majors.

“They really emphasize pitching here, and you can see why they’re so good at it,” Odorizzi said. “It’s exciting to be a part of that. I think it’s going to make me better.”

More will be expected from Desmond Jennings, who is likely to shift from left to center to replace Upton. He had somewhat of a disappointing year in 2012, but he is projected as a 40-base stealer who has the power to hit 20 homers.

“I can do everything better,” Jennings said. “I haven’t been told about center, but if that’s where I end up, that would be great. That’s where I’ve played most of my career. We lost some people, but we have so much talent here. We all need to step up and play better.”

They will have young righthanded power hitter Wil Myers, the centerpiece of the Shields deal, likely by early May after he is kept in Triple A long enough to delay his free agency clock. Myers is a young outfielder in the mold of some of their past successes such as Josh Hamilton, Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, and Upton.

“Hopefully he gets absorbed with the way we do things and our culture,” Maddon said. “I’m eager to watch him. There are no pressures or expectations from me or us. I want him to be himself. I want him to do what he does naturally well. Let him go out and impact a game and we’ll observe.”

A big thing for Maddon is the improved defense.

“Pitchers were throwing more pitches because we weren’t catching the ball,” he said. “Getting back toward a high standard of defense is very important. We have pitchers who could put the ball on the ground. All that stuff permits you to perform at a high level.”

As for Escobar, Maddon said, “We’ve liked him for years when he played for Atlanta. [Rays general manager] Andrew [Friedman] was talking to me about him since Atlanta. I’ve watched him since those conversations.

“We think he’s really good. One of the best shortstop arms in the game. Offensively, I think he has the ability to look over a pitch. He’s the kind of guy who can work on a high on-base percentage and utilize the whole field and hit for power.

“I think he’s a complete player. Regarding what happened last year [when he had a gay slur written in Spanish in his eye black [while playing for the Blue Jays], I’m certain that won’t happen. Bad awareness on his part.

“I think he’s capable of being the AL All-Star shortstop and Gold Glove winner. From day one, I want him thinking in that direction.

“The thing about it is, a guy like him, of course there’s been chrome attached to his game, but maybe that’s why he’s good, too. When you talk about reining someone in, you don’t attempt to subtract something that makes him good.

“We’re all different. It’s about getting to know him and what makes him tick and then have him understand the culture of the Rays and what we expect from him.”

Apropos of something

Have teams become complete wimps to the point where arbitration is now a dinosaur?

Think about it. There are only a few remaining cases. If all of them get settled, it would mark the first time there hasn’t been an arbitration hearing in baseball.

More and more, teams are willing to settle with their players just to avoid what might be a negative setting in which the players gets criticized.

Players are eligible for arbitration between their third and sixth years in the majors. The team and the player’s agent submit figures and then try to hash out a midway point. Sometimes the team feels it has a strong case against an underperforming player, but less and less now do teams want to take their chances with an arbiter, feeling they would either lose or they would win and create hard feelings.

Teams actually pay out more money because they don’t want to hurt feelings.

The Red Sox are a great example. After playing a half of a year and underperforming, JacobyEllsbury was given a $1 million raise to $9 million. The Red Sox could have taken their case to arbitration, offered little to no raise, and might have saved themselves a half-million or so.

But teams generally cave in and don’t stick to their convictions, simply to avoid a confrontation. In Ellsbury’s case, the raise was based more on service time and comparables than performance.

Let’s face it, there is more money available to teams because of crazy TV deals. Unfortunately, not everyone benefits. While teams like the Red Sox overpay Ellsbury, they give their minor leaguers $120 a week in meal money. Many teams barely pay their scouts and minor league managers decent wages.

“There’s been a definite change over the past few years,” said longtime arbitration expert TalSmith, also the former president and CEO of the Houston Astros. “The thing is, it doesn’t have to be a negative process.

“Obviously, both sides state their respective cases and an arbiter decided the results. The player usually makes out well whether he wins or loses. Teams can save themselves significant money, but teams would rather spend the money than make their case.”

But longtime agent Alan Nero, who just negotiated a $175 million contract for Felix Hernandez, feels there no longer is the malice that used to exist between the union and MLB.

“Both sides are so well-prepared now,” said Nero. “Everyone knows a player’s value well before the numbers are even exchanged. I think Michael Weiner with the Players Association and Rob Manfred in the Commissioner’s Office deserve the credit for creating that environment.

“I remember years ago I went to arbitration with Wade Boggs three times and lost twice. The players back then didn’t have much of a chance, but the preparation now is so good that it fosters trying to come up to the midpoint, and if both sides negotiate in good faith, there’s no reason to create the tension involved in going all the way through.”

Nero feels the only time it should go to a hearing is in the case of an extraordinary player involved in what could be a landmark case, but those are few and far between.

Apropos of nothing

1. David Ortiz will have little or no protection in the Red Sox lineup and should expect to walk a ton this season. This could be a tough season for Ortiz, who will also try to stay healthy for the bulk of the year, despite his troublesome Achilles’ tendon. The Red Sox elected to go the “scrappy” lunchpail route rather than get the ultimate protection, Josh Hamilton. We’ll see if the strategy works.

2. Mike Napoli had little formal training as a first baseman even though he has played a good amount there. The Red Sox will open the season really not knowing how well he can play there. Lyle Overbay offers some protection for both Napoli and Ortiz, if they should falter physically. However, Overbay himself has struggled the past two seasons.

3. What does Joe Maddon call Roberto Hernandez, who was formerly known as “Fausto Carmona,” the name he used to acquire a work visa in the United States? “Fausto,” Maddon said. Hernandez was arrested for using a false name, and it was also revealed that he was three years older (32) than he claimed. Maddon loves his stuff, and he appears to be a front-runner for the No. 5 slot in the Rays rotation.

4. The Indians made a late rush for players such as Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn in an effort to have a competent lineup for new manager Terry Francona. The last thing the Indians want is to hire a high-profile manager and then allow him to fail. They still have major issues with their rotation, but they should be a competent team.

5. Alex Cora should be great as an ESPN analyst.

6. Speaking of which, Mike Lowell is tremendous on MLB Network.

7. Just get the funny feeling Jacoby Ellsbury is going to be of interest to the Yankees after this season.

8. Hey, it had to take some nails for Kevin Youkilis to tell his New York audience he’ll always be a Red Sock.

9. OK, I hope it sells well and everyone got things off their chests, but I think I’m just about done with the Francona book.

10. Could the Astros come close to the 1962 Mets’ 120 losses?

ETC.

Updates on 9

1. Kyle Lohse, RHP, free agent — Scott Boras did an incredible last-minute deal with Cleveland for Michael Bourn, but can he do the same for Lohse? It says here he can. There are many teams void of one more top-of-the-line starter.

2. Clayton Mortensen, RHP, Red Sox — He is going to be a very interesting reliever that teams will pay attention to in spring training, because he’s not only good, he’s out of options. The way the Sox bullpen could be configured, Mortensen looks to be the odd man out. He was like a yo-yo last season on the Pawtucket-Boston shuttle. Mortensen, 27, had a WHIP of 1.214 in 26 appearances.

3. Chris Perez, RHP, Indians — It looks as if the Indians will hold on to Perez, but it wasn’t long ago that the Dodgers had big-time interest in him. Keep this on the back burner, depending on what type of start the Indians have.

4. David DeJesus, CF, Cubs — While there’s more focus on where Alfonso Soriano might be dealt, don’t forget DeJesus. The former A’s outfielder is a pretty good player who would fit a few teams, including the Phillies, Orioles, and Red Sox. DeJesus could be a nice midseason chip for Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein.

5. Roy Oswalt, RHP, free agent — The former Astros ace hasn’t officially retired, which leaves him as a possible midseason option. His part-time philosophy didn’t work out with the Rangers, who demoted him to the bullpen. If motivated, Oswalt still throws well enough to fill a role.

6. Roger Clemens, Astros special assistant — According to a major league source familiar with the 10-year personal services deal he signed with former owner Drayton McLane, Clemens was to earn an annual salary of $300,000 for appearances, instruction, and public relations duties. Clemens put things off while devoting his time to his perjury trial, but is expected to have a role in spring training with young pitchers.

7. Mike Carp, 1B/OF, Mariners — The Sox have discussed Carp, who was designated for assignment last week, as a backup, but the problem is they’ve committed to Lyle Overbay, who has asked the Red Sox if he could play some outfield as well. Overbay was a college outfielder converted to first base.

8. Chien Ming Wang, RHP, free agent — Agent Alan Nero said he has taken Wang off the market until he pitches for Taiwan in the WBC. Wang doesn’t have the nasty sinker he had as a 19-game winner with the Yankees, and injuries have taken their toll. But if he pitches well, he should have a healthy market for a team needing May inventory.

9. Bronson Arroyo, RHP, Reds — He has been such a consistent pitcher for the Reds, but the feeling is (and Arroyo said as much last week) that this could be his last year in Cincinnati. One major league source figures a perfect fit would be the Cubs, as a strong veteran presence in their rebuilding effort. Arroyo has never been injured and also enjoys a strong personal relationship with Epstein.

Short hops

From the Bill Chuck files: “In case you didn’t notice, over the last two seasons, Johnny Cueto is 28-14 with a 2.58 ERA and a 1.137 WHIP while Felix Hernandez is 27-23 with a 3.27 ERA and a 1.181 WHIP.” Also, “PECOTA predicts that the Red Sox will go 86-76, but John Farrell needs the Sox to go 89-73 to be a .500 manager. He enters the season 154-170.” . . . Happy 37th birthday, Scott Williamson.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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