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Boston's catching needs, Toronto's third-place dreams, more mailbag


Welcome to the season's first mailbag. Technically it's the second, but I'm putting an asterisk next to the one from February about Alex Rodriguez. Speaking of which, let's put aside any A-Rod or steroids talk now that the games are (finally) here and providing plenty of other discussion points, including the Big Apple's two new stadiums, the upside-down standings and baseball's continuing efforts to have every player sport ridiculous looking facial hair. Let's dive in.

Now that A-Rod and other steroid cheaters, wife beaters and law breakers are still playing major league baseball and some are probably in the Hall of Fame, do you think Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose will finally get in? Or is it Joe Jackson's and Pete Rose's fault for playing in a less sensitive, less forgiving time?-- Bill Hewson, Buena Park, Fla.

So much for that idea. I don't think the continued exclusion of Jackson and Rose has as much to do with the sensitivity of the times in which they played as the nature of the crime they committed. Betting on baseball is the game's cardinal sin, and that is what Jackson and Rose did. There are signs in every clubhouse spelling out the egregiousness of betting on the game, and Rose did it anyway. He also didn't do himself any favors by continuing to deny he gambled and then only coming clean once he had a book to sell. The crimes committed by steroid users were no less acceptable, but they occurred in a culture that allowed that behavior to grow. Betting on the game has been intolerable for decades.

I know you can never have enough pitching, but the Red Sox are in need of a catcher in the next year. I think that the longer you wait to pull the trigger, the more it will cost you to get one that you would want for the next five to six years. We have an abundance of both starting pitching and relief pitching to give up and maybe a prospect to get the likes of a Jarrod Saltalamacchia or Taylor Teagarden. What is your take on this?-- Robert Anderson, Worcester, Mass.

There were reports during the offseason that the Rangers were looking for Boston to include Clay Buchholz in any deal to get either Saltalamacchia or Teagarden. Two things are clear: the Red Sox will need a catcher soon, perhaps as soon as midseason, and the Rangers will have one (or two) to spare. Jason Varitek may be a beloved figure in Boston, but his .200 batting average isn't. It would be hard to imagine the Red Sox making a deal that would in effect demote their captain, but come the offseason they'll have another decision to make. Varitek's deal features a $5 million club option for 2010 and a $3 million player option, so there's a decent chance he'll be back in Boston next season.

The Rangers, meanwhile, not only have Salty and Teagarden (the better defender of the two) but also 24-year-old Max Ramirez. Ramirez, who has maintained a .312 batting average in five minor league seasons, tore up Double A in 2008, batting .354/.450/.646 and earning a promotion to Triple A and, at year's end, the parent club. He's back in the minors after playing in the World Baseball Classic this spring, but it won't be long before he's ready for significant playing time in the majors. There's no reason to hold on to three top-flight catchers, so unless the Rangers are willing to ask one of them to change positions, a trade would be the most likely scenario.

Rather than using instant replay, wouldn't it make more sense to require teams to have a real fence, so that a ball that is hit over the fence is a home run, and if the ball bounces back into the field of play it is not a home run? No more painting a line and saying that above the line is a HR, below is not; no more fans sitting close enough to reach into the field of play and interfere?-- David Parsons, Salem, Ore.

Fans always have been and always will be able to reach into the field of play, and not just to disrupt a home run ball (as Chicago Cubs fans remember all too well). Being close to the action makes for a better experience for the fans, a better environment for the players and a more exciting atmosphere in the ballpark and on television. That alone is reason enough to keep fans as close to the field as possible, but it isn't the only reason, and I'll give you one guess as to what that other reason is. If teams have an opportunity to sell tickets by putting seats right at the fence, they will. Baseball is a business, and money, especially in difficult economic conditions, will continue to influence much of a franchise's decision-making. And you know what? There's nothing wrong with that.

Is there any hope for the Astros this year?-- Mark Pachankisq, Vivian, La.

Sure, the Astros can hope for many things this season -- short of making it to October, that is. After a 1-6 start, the Astros are already four games out in the National League Central and there haven't been many bright spots, either. They rank last in the league in runs, last in on-base percentage and 14th in ERA. There simply don't appear to have enough pitching to stay competitive in the NL Central this year.

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Do you think Roger Clemens will make it to the Hall of Fame or spend the rest of his life trying to get in like Pete Rose?-- Mike Naron, Houston, Texas

I think a lot of it will depend on what other information comes out about him and the rest of the Steroids Era between now and when he's eligible in 2013. Clemens' appearance in the Mitchell Report, and the claims of his trainer, Brian McNamee, have been damaging, and at this point I can't imagine him making it to the Hall of Fame with that cloud hanging over his head. And if it's ever proven beyond a doubt that he used steroids, I don't think he'll get in.

What are the chances of the Royals having a successful year (being over .500) this season?-- Keith, Warrensburg, Mo.

To get over .500, the Royals would have to improve by eight wins over a season ago. That's a reasonable goal for a team that has increased its wins totals by six, seven and six wins the past three seasons since bottoming out at a franchise-worst 106 losses in 2005. For that to happen, though, their young starting pitchers must develop enough to support Gil Meche in the rotation. So far, so good: twenty-five year-olds Zack Greinke and Kyle Davies are 3-0 with a combined 1.14 ERA in four starts. Another promising starter, Luke Hochevar, was sent to the minor leagues at the end of spring training but should be back before long.

I am a huge Frank Thomas fan. Do you think there is any chance he will find a team to play for?-- Shannon Artman, Monee, Ill.

Thomas made it clear he would like to play this season, and he might be able to find a team that needs him -- after all, he did manage to drive in 95 and 114 runs in his last two full seasons. But will those teams want to take a chance on him? He played just 71 games in 2008, hasn't played in the field since 2004 and will turn 41 in late May. Putting aside the money issue, there isn't a huge market for injury-prone, over-40 DHs.

What if Rolen can be Rolen, Rios can be Rios, Wells can stay healthy and Overbay goes back to his 2006 numbers? Add a for-sure breakout year for Hill and Lind, RoY contender Snider, more from our deep bullpen, wins in 80 percent of Doc's games and competent management from Gaston. Can we spoil one of the Big Three? Can we fight for our third place finish this year?-- Allister, Toronto

It's probably instructive that even if all those things happen -- which is a big if -- it would only spell a third place finish in the loaded AL East. It's also instructive that a third place finish would satisfy a large number of Blue Jays fans. It just goes to show just how tough the AL East is and just how big a mountain the Blue Jays and Orioles have to climb to be consistently competitive in that division.

All the articles I've read about Skip Schumaker this spring say his switch from the outfield to second base is unprecedented. Didn't Kelly Johnson of the Braves do it just a few years ago?-- Chas Reitzner, Middletown, Calif.

Johnson did, in fact, make a similar move, playing 79 games in left field in 2005 before moving to second base in 2007 and playing 133 games there. You may have noticed a significant difference between Johnson and Schumaker, though: Johnson took a year off between his moves to recover from Tommy John surgery, which became necessary when throws from the outfield put further strain on his already damaged arm. Schumaker made his move from one season to the next, and didn't have any injury concerns to worry about. Neither is the first player to have made such a move, though. Alan Wiggins of the Padres made a similar transition, playing 105 games in the outfield in 1983 (and 45 games at first base) and then 157 games at second base in 1984, when the Padres won a surprising National League pennant.

Shouldn't your article about who would opt for the NBA include Lawson and Ellington? If either stays, Carolina becomes a favorite again.-- Steven Smith, Jacksonville

Whoa, what is this question doing in here? Since you asked, I'll tell you what a friend of mine says whenever the topic of Ty Lawson returning to North Carolina for his senior year comes up. When fans try to talk themselves into thinking their favorite players will return to their team/school, he quotes a recently-released chick-flick. "He's just not that into you. You're like the girl who thinks that just because you went out a couple of times he really is going to choose you over the super-hot girl who also happens to be filthy rich that wants to date him." Translation: Lawson is gone, and Ellington probably is too. Carolina will still be a factor next year, but another national championship run is probably a stretch.