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The Strike Zone

Bad break for Rangers could be win for Lohse

Kyle Lohse Despite being one of the NL's best pitchers last season, Kyle Lohse is still unsigned with Opening Day less than a month away. (AP)

By Cliff Corcoran

“Kyle Lohse not completely off Rangers’ radar,” read the headline in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Sunday morning. Sunday afternoon, the Rangers ran out the top two contenders for the fifth spot in their rotation only to watch righty Justin Grimm get shelled for six runs in 2 1/3 innings and see lefty Martin Perez’s left ulna get fractured by a comebacker. A May return is the best-case scenario for Perez, who was the favorite to win that final rotation spot, and his injury has touched off rampant speculation that Lohse’s 127-day free agency may finally be coming to an end.

The primary reason Lohse, who finished seventh in the NL Cy Young voting last year and went 33-11 with a 3.11 ERA for a pair of playoff teams over the last two seasons, remains unsigned is that he will cost his new team their top pick in this June’s amateur draft. However, the Rangers, who have a very strong farm system as is, gained a first-round draft pick when Josh Hamilton signed with the Angels and thus would only drop seven places from their own 24th pick to that compensation pick at number 31 (the amount of money the league will allow them to spend on signing bonuses would shrink accordingly).

Given the Rangers’ status as a perennial contender in a tightly contested division and the fact that their intended fourth starter, Alexi Ogando, is attempting to make the transition from the bullpen for the second time in three years, having a reliable veteran like Lohse in the fifth spot would seem to be a gamble worth taking. Then again, as a fly-ball pitcher with low strikeout rates, the 34-year-old Lohse could be a disaster in homer-happy Arlington, and with Perez and veteran Colby Lewis (who had elbow surgery last July) both expected to return in May, signing Lohse could quickly prove to be an expensive mistake.

Reports are that Texas' front office is split along those same lines, and the longer it takes the team to make its decision, the less time Lohse will have to get into shape for the part of the season during which he’s most needed. Therefore, look for a decision to be made quickly.

Around The Majors

Garza to DL: Matt Garza, who spent the winter rehabbing a stress fracture in his pitching elbow, is going to open the regular season on the disabled list due to a latisimus dorsi strain he suffered during a throwing session two weeks ago. Garza resumed playing catch on Thursday only to re-aggravate the lat injury. The Cubs expect him to miss the entire first month of the season, though Garza hopes he’ll be able to return sooner.

The good news for the Cubs is that Garza’s elbow has thus far not been an issue and will now receive additional rest. If he returns by May 1, he’ll still have plenty of time to prove his health and build up value before the July 31 trading deadline. Jeff Samardzija will be Chicago's Opening Day starter, while both Travis Wood and Carlos Villanueva are now expected to open the season in the team's rotation as free agent addition Scott Baker continues to rehab from Tommy John surgery.

Furcal a mystery: The Cardinals have no idea when to expect Rafael Furcal to be game-ready. Furcal’s 2012 season came to an end on Aug. 31 due to a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, and Furcal admitted on Saturday that the elbow, which was not surgically repared, is “not getting better.” On Sunday, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny added that Furcal is “having pain just standing around.”

An MRI taken of Furcal’s throwing arm on Friday showed inflammation in the elbow, but no tear, which would seem to be a good sign, at the very least keeping Tommy John surgery out of the picture for the time being. Still, Furcal’s lack of progress to this point makes him a player the Cardinals can't count on for the coming season, leaving shortstop in the hands of Peter Kozma and Ronny Cedeño.

Johan Santana behind schedule: The reported word out of Mets’ camp on Saturday was that the reason Johan Santana suffered from shoulder fatigue soon after arriving in camp, resulting in his being shut down, was that he didn’t arrive in camp in pitching shape. However, it seems the team’s reported displeasure about that development was overstated. Santana and the Mets agreed that he was to spend the winter resting his shoulder and his body after spending the last three offseasons rehabbing various injuries, even with the understanding that he might arrive a bit behind the rest of the pitchers.

Still, Santana arrived even further behind than expected, prompting pitching coach Bill Warthen to speculate that there had been a “misinterpretation” on Santana’s part. Warthen also speculated that Santana’s anger over Saturday’s reports motivated him to throw a bullpen on Sunday. Santana threw off a mound on Sunday, but at less than full effort to a catcher crouching in front of the plate. Warthen was happy with how Santana looked, and Santana still plans to be ready for Opening Day.

Leyland wants Valverde: Jim Leyland remains interested in having closer Jose Valverde back as insurance for his bullpen, according to a tweet by the New York Post’s Joel Sherman on Saturday. Leyland’s interest likely spiked when intended rookie closer Bruce Rondon was hit hard by the Braves on Sunday, but Valverde won't participate in the World Baseball Classic due to a family member's illness, thus preventing the Tigers from getting a good look at him without offering him a contract, and could be well behind schedule even if Detroit does invite him to camp. For his part, Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski said the team is “not looking to add anyone.”

Selig wants stiffer penalties: “We've made meaningful adjustments to our testing, and the time has come to make meaningful adjustments to our penalties,” said Commissioner Bud Selig in a press conference at Diamondbacks camp on Saturday, referring to baseball’s performance-enhancing-drug program. Selig added that last year’s positive tests by players such as Melky Cabrera, Bartolo Colon and Yasmani Grandal suggest that the current penalties aren’t sufficient deterrents. Selig is supposedly seeking something on the order of a full-season ban for the first offense and a lifetime ban for the second, rather than the current three-strikes approach. According to reports, union head Michael Weiner says the players may be amenable to such changes, but they would likely not go into effect until after the coming season.

Retention Bonus: Adam Rubin of ESPN New York points out a wrinkle in the new collective bargaining agreement worth noting. Teams have to make early decisions on players with six or more years of major league service time who are in camp on minor league contracts this spring. By noon on March 26, the fifth day prior to Opening Day, those players must either be 1) notified that they will be included on the 25-man roster or major league disabled list 2) given their unconditional release or 3) paid a $100,000 “retention bonus” that effectively extends the minor league contract through the end of May, at which point players still not on the 25-man roster or major league DL or can choose to opt out of their contract. For full details see Article XX, Section B.(5)(d) in the Basic Agreement.

World Baseball Classic 

The third World Baseball Classic kicked off Friday night in Taiwan with home team Chinese Taipei cruising to a 4-1 win over Australia behind strong pitching performances from unsigned major leaguers Chien-Ming Wang and Hung-Chih Kuo, who combined for seven scoreless innings. Six of those came from Wang, who was being watched by scouts from the Yankees, among other teams. On Saturday, the Netherlands, who pulled a stunning upset by beating the Dominican Republic twice in the 2009 tournament, opened this year's Classic by upsetting Pool B favorite South Korea, who made it to extra innings in the final game in '09 before losing to Japan.

No such upsets have occurred thus far in Pool A, as two-time champion and home team Japan and 2006 runner-up Cuba are both 2-0 and have thus clinched a Round 2 berth. Those two teams will face off in the final Pool A game on Wednesday morning, but before they do, the Netherlands (1-1) will face Australia (0-2) and Chinese Taipei (2-0) will face Korea (1-1) to determine the top two teams from Pool B who will move on to Round 2 action in Tokyo on Thursday night. Thursday night will also bring the first action for Pools C and D, the latter containing the U.S. team, in San Juan and Phoenix, respectively. The USA team will play its first game on Friday night at 9 p.m. EST against Mexico in Phoenix.

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