The Giants could be one big free-agent signing away from becoming the favorites to win the National League West, and their best option might be to sign the biggest name still on the market, left fielder Manny Ramirez. With spring training just hours away, Ramirez still doesn’t have a team, having recently turned down a one-year, $25 million offer to return to the Dodgers.

San Francisco has had interest in Manny all winter, though it has been low-key and they’ve yet to make an offer. But there is little doubt that Ramirez would help an offense that averaged just 3.95 runs per game last season with a .247 team Equivalent Average, both marks “good” for 15th in the NL, ahead of only the Padres in runs scored (3.93) and the Nationals in EqA (.244). After all, Ramirez had a .344 EqA in 2008, with a .404 EqA for the Dodgers in his two months in LA after they had acquired him from the Red Sox in a July 31 trade.

The Giants have yet to make an urgent move to sign Ramirez because believe they’re capable of winning the NL West, arguably the weakest of the major leagues’ six divisions, without him. “This is a great division to be in, because everybody’s got a shot,” closer Brian Wilson told Andy Baggarly of the San Jose Mercury News.

Though they were 72-90 last season, they finished only 12 games behind the division-winning Dodgers. “We’re a better club than we’ve been the last couple of years,” said Giants manager Bruce Bochy. “I’m not going to pick a favorite, but I like the improvements we’ve made, and we feel we can play with anybody in the division.”

They’re confident that they could be playing post-season games in China Basin for the first time since losing to the Marlins in the 2003 NLDS; they finished 17th in the majors in ’08 with 4.7 runs allowed per game last season, and they should have an improved starting rotation this year after signing left-hander and future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson as a free agent.

The Giants brought Johnson back to his native northern California to do more than just pick up the five wins needed to reach 300 for his career. Johnson had 3.5 SNLVAR last year for the Diamondbacks following his second back surgery in two years. While he’s no longer the dominating Big Unit of his prime and is coming into this season at the age of 45, he slides nicely into the rotation behind two 24-year-olds in reigning NL Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum (8.6) and second starter Matt Cain (5.3), both of whose best years are ahead of them. Johnson will be followed by 26-year-old lefty Jonathan Sanchez, who posted 3.0 SNLVAR last season, and lefty Barry Zito, who will become the highest-paid fifth starter in baseball history; he has five years and $101.5 million left on his seven-year, $126 million contract after having 2.0 SNLVAR last season.

The Giants also feel that they’ve strengthened their bullpen in front of Wilson by adding left-hander Jeremy Affeldt and right-hander Bob Howry as set-up men. Recent evidence disputes that take however; Wilson had 3.53 WXRL last season, but Affeldt (0.22) and Howry (-0.05) both had poor marks.

The Giants didn’t do much to upgrade their offense this winter beyond signing free-agent shortstop Edgar Renteria to replace Omar Vizquel. Renteria’s .248 EqA was a major disappointment for the Tigers last season, but it is a significant upgrade on Viqzuel’s anemic .197.

Barring the addition of Ramirez, the player who may be the key to the Giants’ chances of contending is 22-year-old catcher/corner infielder Pablo Sandoval, who made his major league debut last season, posting a .291 EqA in 154 plate appearances. That culminated an accelerated climb up through the system; he began the season at High-A San Jose and led the California League with a .302 EqA in 278 at-bats before making a 175 at-bat stopover at Double-A Connecticut, where he compiled a .294 EqA.

The Giants have also been pursuing free-agent third baseman Joe Crede, though they don’t seem willing to meet his reported $7 million demand for one season. The tentative plan for now is to put the 5-foot-11, 246-pound Sandoval at third, and though Sandoval’s bulky body type suggests he might not have the athleticism needed to play the hot corner, the Giants need the offense. In fact, Bochy is so confident in Sandoval’s bat that he plans to hit him third in the lineup. “He can really hit any pitch,” Bochy said. “He can hit a tough pitch and expand the zone-not that we want him to, but that’s his style. He finds a way to get the bat on the ball and got some big clutch hits for us in the little bit of time we had a chance to see him last year. He’s a switch-hitter, so we can [force opponents to] make a change in the bullpen. We think he’s one of our better hitters. The scouts and people in our organization just spoke so highly of this guy, and what a talent he was coming up through the minor leagues. I was not surprised by what he did for us last year. He did it everywhere he had been. He did it in San Jose and Connecticut. He made them better, and he made us a better club.”

It was easy to get caught up in the speculation last September that manager Tony La Russa would be beginning the last of his 14 seasons with the Cardinals in 2009, especially since he had only one year left on his contract. He seemed worn out after spending the summer trying to coax everything he could out of a team short on talent that nonetheless stayed in the race into September, before fading to a fourth-place finish in the NL Central with an 86-76 record. He was also unhappy that general manager John Mozeliak did nothing to bolster the roster at either the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline or the August 31 deadline to acquire players who would be eligible for the postseason.

La Russa, however, says that he is energized with the new season at hand, his 30th in a row as a major league manager. While the 64-year-old isn’t ready to commit to staying with the Cardinals beyond this year, he is quick to point out that he has never negotiated a new contract until his current one had expired. “You decide how you approach things,” La Russa told Joe Strauss of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I’ve survived all this time with one mindset: You don’t look at the years on the contract. You don’t look at anything other than the responsibilities in spring training and the first half. Anytime a thought comes in there that doesn’t fit that, I just kick it out.”

It’s clear that tension still exists between La Russa and Mozeliak. The latter replaced Walt Jocketty as GM after the 2007 season, and Mozeliak is a believer in statistical analysis. Once famed for being the manager who brought computers into skippering, La Russa is more inclined to trust his instincts and those of his coaching staff, particularly pitching coach Dave Duncan. “It would be a mistake for me to define the way the organization prioritizes the guys in uniform,” La Russa said. “I say clearly what I feel. I believe analysis from a computer is useful, but should be secondary to what you observe. That may not be the opinion of the people in charge.”

Mozeliak does not agree with La Russa’s viewpoint, though he also says that he cannot envision a scenario in which the Cardinals would want to change managers. “I really think the value we attach to Tony and his staff’s opinions was strong, remains strong, and will always be strong,” Mozeliak said. “If you think about some of the changes we’ve made and how we run our operation, it’s true there have been substantial changes in the last five or six years. What remains constant is our desire for input from our uniform personnel.”

Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has done little to tweak the defending World Series champions besides signing free agent outfielder Raul IbaƱez to a three-year, $31.5 million contract as a free agent. Amaro, who was promoted from assistant GM to replace Pat Gillick less than a week after the Phillies beat the Rays in the Fall Classic, has still had a productive offseason by keeping the peace with two of his team’s most important players.

The Phillies signed first baseman Ryan Howard to a three-year, $54 million contract last Sunday, avoiding a potential salary arbitration hearing. Howard received a record $10 million award in a hearing last March. The signing of Howard follows that of left-hander Cole Hamels, the MVP of both the National League Championship Series and World Series last year, who avoided arbitration by signing a three-year, $20.5 million contract.

“We’re pleased to have gotten this behind us,” said Amaro. “I think that it’s important for the players to really worry about playing baseball. That’s really the most important thing, to get them ready to defend the title and to get them concentrating on what’s important, and that’s playing baseball and preparing themselves for the 2009 season.”

Most Phillies observers expected both Howard and Hamels to take the Phillies to the arbitration mat this winter, and for Howard to hold out for a six-year contract in excess of $100 million. The statistically inclined certainly would not have advocated a contract of that term or value; Howard’s .291 EqA last season was just 54th in the major leagues, although he also swatted a major league-leading 48 home runs. “We take a lot of risk here,” Amaro said. “We continue to take a lot of risk. At the same time, Ryan may have left some dollars on the table. If you had to go through the [arbitration] process three more times, there’s a possibility that he’s leaving money on the table based on what he’s done to this time in his career. He’s obviously put himself at levels that no one’s ever really gone to.”

Rangers owner Tom Hicks feels that he was lied to by Alex Rodriguez, the man upon whom he lavished the record-breaking 10-year, $252 million contract during the 2000 winter meetings. Rodriguez admitted this past Monday that he had used steroids during his three years with the Rangers from 2001-03 before being traded to his current team, the Yankees. During his time with the Rangers, Rodriguez was seventh in the major leagues in WARP3 in 2001 with 11.6, fifth with 11.5 in ’02, and 12th with 10.2 in ’03.

Rodriguez claimed that the pressure to live up to his contract led him to start using performance-enhancing drugs before spring training began in 2001. However, Hicks isn’t so sure Rodriguez didn’t juice during the first seven seasons of his career with the Mariners from 1994-2000. “I certainly don’t believe that, if he’s now admitting that he started using when he came to the Texas Rangers, why should I believe that it didn’t start before he came to the Texas Rangers?” said Hicks.

Hicks said he broached the subject of steroid use during Rodriguez’s stint with the Rangers, and that Rodriguez said he had never used them. “Not in an accusatory way, but I certainly asked the question in a way where I came away with a clear answer that he had much too much respect of his body to ever do anything like that to hurt it with steroids,” Hicks said.

Rodriguez’s revelation, in response to Sports Illustrated reporting that he had failed a survey drug test in 2003, leaves Hicks wondering if anyone was clean before mandatory drug testing and penalties took effect in MLB in 2004. “If a [young] player like Alex Rodriguez, with all the promise and upside, was using steroids, I don’t know who to believe wasn’t using if they were a power hitter or power pitcher,” Hicks said.

MLB Rumors and Rumblings:
The Angels are making a late bid for free-agent outfielder Bobby Abreu, though the Mets have interest at a drastically reduced price. … The Athletics are making an 11th-hour bid to sign shortstop Orlando Cabrera as a free agent, and they also have interest in left-hander Andy Sisco, who was outrighted off of the White Sox‘s 40-man roster after last season, and is recovering from Tommy John surgery. … The Yankees will use Joba Chamberlain as a starting pitcher this year, rather than reprise last season’s plan of having the right-hander begin the year in the bullpen and then move into the rotation in June. … The Dodgers appear to be the frontrunners to sign left-handed reliever Dennys Reyes as a free agent, though the Athletics and Phillies are still in the picture. … The Cardinals plan to hold an open tryout at second base in spring training after abruptly releasing Adam Kennedy this week, with Brian Barden, Brendan Ryan, Jarrett Hoffpauir, Tyler Greene, and Joe Thurston all getting a shot, along with Skip Schumaker, who will be tried in the infield after being an outfield regular last season.

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\"If a [young] player like Alex Rodriguez, with all the promise and upside, was using steroids, I don\'t know who to believe wasn\'t using if they were a power hitter or power pitcher,\" Hicks said. Power hitters like David Segui and Manny Alexander?
I wonder if Bochy knows how hysterically funny he is. \"Yeah, we signed a 45-year-old starter with a long history of back problems, added 2 bad relievers, swapped Renteria for Vizquel, and one of our better hitters is a 22-year-old with 154 ABs above AA. We gonna ROCK.\" Hicks is a moron with zero credibility. I\'ll bet the first thing Hicks did when A-Rod said he wasn\'t doing \'roids was try to figure out a way to get him to start.
Why would Hicks be upset? He played good money for a great player. The player took serious risk to live up to that contract. What more should he be asking for?
I guess Hicks is going to give back all the money he made from ticket revenue for people coming to see the best player in the game.
Please, please, never again put a quote from an owner about steroid use. First of all, why the hell would Hicks care? A-Rod taking steroids to make himself better made the Rangers better therefore making Hicks more money. Thus his quote is just mindless after the fact posturing to try to make himself feel better (like nearly everything else written on the topic) but at least we know that Hicks is totally full of s**t.
Does anyone know if Jarrett Hoffpauir is related to Micah Hoffpauir on the Cubs?
yes, the Hoffpauirs are brothers. why did the cards release kennedy? i didn\'t catch this story until i read it here (thanks bp!). they had to pay him his full $4M for the year, and although he\'s nothing special, with aaron miles gone he was probably the best option left for them. as a cubs fan, i am a bit afraid they sign one of the free agent 2Bs left (hudson, durham, grudz) but they haven\'t been spending much money recently, and just threw 4 mill away. of course at this point, one of them might be desperate to play and sign for very little. strange move to me though, why release him until you\'ve got the next guy lined up?
A lot of us Cards fans have been wondering the same thing. The official explanation is that they\'ve found him untradeable and just want to get this over with. Given that TLR has basically told Kennedy he\'s not wanted, they probably just decided not to prolong the agony. See \"Costs, sunk.\" It\'d be fun to have Hoffpauir vs. Hoffpauir in the NL Central, wouldn\'t it? However, Hoffpauir the Shorter is not likely to be the starting 2B, unless he has a monster spring training.
That the Giants are slotting an untested, 5-11, 246-pound, 22-year-old third in the lineup is all you need to know about their pennant hopes. This team could take batting practice in the lobby of the Waldorf without shattering glass.* *Not an original description