Jon Heyman
Monday March 23rd, 2009

Universally respected Rangers' hitting guru Rudy Jaramillo is said to have told some folks at Rangers camp in Surprise, Ariz., this week: "Andruw Jones is back.''

Thanks to that bold and meaningful declaration, plus the all-important support of team president Nolan Ryan, the Hall of Fame pitcher who's now heavily involved in the team's day-to-day operations, the Rangers changed their minds and appear now to be leaning heavily toward trying to squeeze Jones onto their Opening Day roster, assuming he decides today to stay.

The Rangers and Jones met on Sunday, and the former Atlanta Braves star reportedly gave his OK to a part-time outfield and DH role if that's the way it works out. Even if he winds up as a part-time DH and backup outfielder to start the season, that's still a pretty good comeback from .158, three home runs and the cusp of oblivion.

Technically, Jones still has the right to leave Rangers camp today to seek a better situation elsewhere, and some other teams surely have noticed or heard about his enhanced stroke. The Yankees, Phillies and Braves were among the teams interested, even more so as Jones showed some semblance of his previous hitting form.

But with Texas, Jones has Jaramillo and manager Ron Washington on his side, and a seemingly decent chance to make the Opening Day roster despite a glut of talented, young outfielders. Jones, who turns 32 next month, also has Jaramillo's hitting savvy to help him rediscover his stroke, which was one of the main reasons why Jones picked Texas in the first place. So it makes sense for Jones to stay where he is and thus it would be a surprise if he opted for free agency today.

If Jaramillo is right, the Rangers could have an impact player for very little (the Dodgers are still paying almost all of his $22 million salary, though a vast majority of that is deferred now). This could be a very nice development for the Rangers, who took a low-cost look at the former star whose Hall of Fame career hit the skids last year in Los Angeles with an all-time bad performance.

But for Jones, it could be an even better story.

Just by sticking around this long on a team with a crowded outfield picture, Jones appears to be beating tremendous odds. His .158 average in 2008 caused the Dodgers to understandably give up on him, and his lack of power (three home runs, 14 RBIs) and high strikeout rate put his career on the brink.

Jaramillo's word is gold and goes a long way toward explaining why the Rangers didn't let Jones go only a few days after telling him he had little chance to make the team. While Jones seemed hopelessly lost early this spring and still has 14 strikeouts in 31 at-bats as a Ranger, he has looked revitalized of late -- almost since the moment the Rangers told him that it didn't look too good for him to make the team.

Last Thursday -- one day before his contract stipulated he could leave if he wasn't yet on the major-league roster -- Jones hit two home runs in a minor-league game, including one that traveled 450 feet. Decision day was pushed back to Monday, and it's likely to be pushed all the way until Opening Day now, with the most likely result being that Jones makes the roster. Jones could wind up sharing DH duties with Hank Blalock and backing up the young and talented outfield trio of Josh Hamilton, David Murphy and Nelson Cruz.

The Rangers were already trying to trade Frank Catalanotto, but his $6 million salary makes that impossible. Another possibility could be to release Catalanotto, who's an excellent pinch hitter and might fit better in the National League now. Texas could also seek to trade outfielder Marlon Byrd. Ultimately, Rangers higher-ups may figure one of those solutions would be better than letting Jones go elsewhere.

Twins catcher Joe Mauer and Phillies starter Cole Hamels -- two of the game's best players -- look like they probably won't be ready for Opening Day.

Mauer has admitted as much after battling a fairly mysterious back ailment all spring, while Hamels appears to be holding some small hope he can be there at the start. More than likely, though, left-hander J.A. Happ will join Brett Myers, Joe Blanton and Jamie Moyer in the Phillies' first-week rotation (they don't need five for a little while since they have three off days in the season's first nine days).

Mauer only feels pain when he runs but not when he hits, catches or throws, and the Twins are feeling better after both the Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins recommended anti-inflammatory drugs to combat what both believe to be inflammation of the sacroiliac joint, a rare ailment for a world-class athlete. Mauer's condition apparently isn't worrisome enough for the Twins to have pushed hard for Cooperstown-bound free-agent Ivan Rodriguez after getting solid reports on I-Rod from their scouting guru Joe McIlvaine. Even if they had pursued Pudge, he wants to play as close to 162 games as possible, so the Astros, who need a full-time starting catcher, are a better match.

For now, Minnesota will employ veteran journeyman Mike Redmond as its regular catcher, with either the defensively strong Drew Butera or offensively adept Jose Morales as the backup. This is quite a dropoff for a team dependent on its young starting pitchers and one that many view as the favorite in a tight AL Central.

World Series MVP Hamels, who's said to be feeling fine after a cortisone shot and recent long-toss session, is slated to pitch on Tuesday in a minor-league game and is still optimistically pointing toward Opening Day. But realistically time is running short for him to open Philly's defense of its title on April 5. More likely, Happ (a Northwestern product, so I vow not to knock him; Hail to Purple, Hail to White) gets a call after a nice spring. Top prospect Carlos Carrasco and veteran Chan Ho Park -- before tweaking his hamstring "he was throwing the heck out of the ball,'' one observer said -- represent the reinforcements.

Meanwhile, Chase Utley is expecting to make it for Opening Day after offseason hip surgery for a condition that is said by doctors to have been worse than that of Alex Rodriguez. Utley is still said to be hampered by less than his usual bat speed but is feeling up to the task of the quick return.

Matt Wieters, who some have said is the best player in Orioles camp right now (especially since All-Star Brian Roberts has been playing in the WBC), will be demoted to Triple A, people familiar with the Orioles' thinking say.

Wieters has wowed scouts both offensively and defensively. ("He's the real deal,'' one scout said.) But the Orioles have told folks that they want to play it cautiously with Wieters, a former No. 5 overall pick who's generally considered the best catching prospect in baseball.

Rays manger Joe Maddon suggested aloud the other day that the Orioles are doing the right thing if they take it slow with Wieters and call him up a month or so into the season, as the Rays did last year with third base phenom Evan Longoria. It's as if Maddon had inside info, and perhaps he did.

There is also a major financial benefit to starting such future stars in the minors, because it likely delays arbitration and free agency by a year. But Maddon said the real benefit is it allows the phenoms to come up without the glare of Opening Day.

The strategy makes some sense for teams that aren't expected to be contenders. Of course the Rays surprised everyone by not only contending but winning the stacked AL East last year. This shouldn't be an issue for Baltimore.

The Rays have been planning to demote to the minors pitching phenom David Price, the former No. 1-overall pick and a late-season hero of last year, and instead place two other young pitchers, Jeff Niemann and Jason Hammel, on the Opening Day roster. But Price is doing what he can to put a halt to that plan, throwing four shutout innings vs. the Yankees on Sunday.

Whatever they decide now (and it may be too late for Price to change their minds), the Rays still expect Price to make a major impact for them this season.

One issue working against Price's wish to make the Opening Day roster is Niemann and Hammel are both out of options, and the Rays don't want to lose either talented pitcher. One of them is expected to be in the rotation, the other in long relief. The guess here is that the 6-foot-9 Niemann, another former first-rounder, gets the nod to start.

Maddon strongly suggested the plan was to start Price in the minors, explaining that this will be a way to keep Price's innings down. Maddon opined a demotion now will also give Price a chance to gain more seasoning.

Maddon pointed out that folks saw Price blow hitters away in a relief role ("Everyone saw him pitch in spurts,'' is the way Maddon put it), but that the Rays would like to see him first do three things: 1) lower his pitch counts, 2) show more consistent command of his fastball and 3) further develop his third pitch, the changeup.

"We want to make sure everything's in order,'' Maddon said. "Believe me, he's not far off.''

Dodgers owner Frank McCourt declared at the press conference to welcome back Manny Ramirez that every player to sign a Dodgers contract would be obligated to donate to the Dodgers Dream Foundation, via the new "Manny Ramirez Provision,'' and it's understandable why the players union would be against such forced donations. While it's supposed to be a nice gesture when donations are written into contracts, that sounds more like coercion, not donation.

However, it seems a bit heavy-handed for the players union to now challenge all the donations currently written into contracts after the fact. Players signed their contracts knowing that these provisions were in them, and presumably are happy to contribute. The amount in dispute represents a relative pittance ($5.8 million) in a $6 billion industry. But most important, at a time when baseball needs positive publicity to offset all the steroid news, the union comes off as arguing for less charity even if the intention is only to prevent forced charity.

• Blue Jays closer B.J. Ryan is throwing in the "low 80s,'' according to one AL scout. "I don't know if he's just pacing himself or this is all he's got,'' the scout said. The implication was that if this was all he had, that's a bad sign.

• Mets second baseman Luis Castillo is said by scouts to be looking a little better, though he's "still not running like he used to,'' one scout said. He has batted first or second almost all spring, but it's good to see manager Jerry Manuel doing the right thing now and moving Castillo down to the No. 8 slot. Daniel Murphy should be much more productive as the No. 2 hitter. Regarding Murphy, one scout said, "He sure can hit ... but he's not going to help in the field too much.''

• There's something wrong when Barry Bonds is out of baseball (OK, that part isn't totally wrong) while his BALCO partner Gary Sheffield gets to prattle on about how he's going to have a big comeback year ("I'm back to where I was,'' he tells the Boston Globe's Nick Cafardo). Both BALCO boys claimed they didn't knowingly take steroids. The only difference, in my opinion, is that Sheffield isn't an all-time great, and therefore not a target of the federal government.

• The Nationals' moves seem a lot better since Jim Bowden's exit. And maybe they are.

• Most baseball people believe Mike Rizzo will get to keep the job as the Nats' GM. After all, the Nationals need to discover talent, and Rizzo is known as an excellent talent evaluator.

• The Astros might be kicking themselves for letting Ty Wigginton go now that Aaron Boone is out for the year while awaiting heart surgery, as Cafardo pointed out in his Sunday column. It did seem odd for the Astros to non-tender Wigginton. Of course they couldn't have known what was about to happen to Boone.

Rick Porcello, 20, is odds on to make the Tigers rotation.

• As for Dontrelle Willis, one scout tells Joel Sherman of the New York Post, "He has no idea where the ball is going. He has to let up just to try to throw a strike.''

• Good job by the White Sox to get Gavin Floyd locked up for $15.5 million over four years. No surprise, either, that John Danks rejected the same offer. From here, while Floyd is very good, Danks is better. (As Bill Chuck pointed out, in 56 more innings he allowed 13 fewer home runs and only three more walks.) Chicago's young outfield star Carlos Quentin also has rebuffed offers of extensions thus far.

• Also from the Bill Chuck files, Matt Kemp's first three years are eerily close to the first three of former Dodger Willie Davis. Kemp's 1,134 plate appearances are six fewer than Davis. His 170 runs are one fewer, his 141 RBIs are one more, his 71 walks are two fewer and his 35 home runs are the same. Kemp has a higher batting average (.299 to .278) and more strikeouts (272 to 130), though.

• Apologies to the Jays and fans of slugging sensation Travis Snyder for leaving him off the long list of great young players in this space a few days ago. The power-hitting Snyder definitely should have made the list, as several e-mailers pointed out.

• New Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval is impressing folks with his ability to hit to all fields. But one competing GM says, "They're expecting quite a bit out of the gate.''

Randy Wolf, who signed for $5 million with the Dodgers after a $28 million offer from the Astros was pulled due to the team's change of heart, should have made my list of bargains a few days ago.

• Congrats to the Yankees' resident author. Books by longtime Yankees official Ray Negron are No. 1 (One Last Time) and No. 4 (Greatest Story Never Told) on the Amazon bestseller list for kids. Negron, whose Yankee days date back to the Reggie Jackson years, has many times been offered a chance to pen a tell-all but has the good sense to write kids' books instead.

• Amazing if the Marlins can win a another crucial round today and a new stadium in this economy.

• The WBC effect: The Cubs would like to see that kind of play from Kosuke Fukudome during the regular season. Likewise with the Mariners and Kenji Johjima.

Brian McCann, David Wright, Ryan Braun, Curtis Granderson and some other Team USA players had the right attitude, and that's nice to see. But Japan proved yet again that it can play the game a lot better. If part of the idea of the WBC was to promote Major League Baseball, I'm not sure that part worked.

• I guess Roy Oswalt, like Jake Peavy, was getting his work in during Sunday night's semifinal loss.

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