Jason Bay‘s eventual free-agent jackpot seems to get bigger with every home run he hits and every run he drives in for a Red Sox lineup that has leaned heavily on the left fielder through the first third of the season as it battles through various cases of injuries and ineffectiveness. Then again, maybe his price tag isn’t going to be as high as one might think in these difficult economic times.

Bay failed to come to terms on a contract extension during spring training, but unlike most players who would claim money talk during the season is a distraction, Bay has been willing to continue negotiating. He also realizes that he could step into the free-agent market in November with no guarantee of landing the type of big-money contract his numbers suggest he should fetch. “It was a calculated risk in not signing the extension,” Bay admitted. “It might also be a calculated risk to go on the open market in the winter. It’s just so hard to tell right now. These aren’t normal times. You saw what happened on the free-agent market last winter. There were some big contracts, but there were a lot of guys who wound up signing for a lot less than what you would have expected. I really don’t know what’s going to happen. The only thing I know is that my agent [Joe Urbon] and I had a number we were looking for when we talked with the Red Sox, and they had a different number. We just couldn’t come to an agreement. It wasn’t acrimonious. Neither side slammed the door in each other’s face. We just disagreed at that time, and we’ll see what eventually happens.”

Because of the onset of the nation’s worst financial crisis since the Great Depression eight decades ago, last winter’s free-agent market was slowed, and at times it stalled completely, at least beyond the recession-proof Yankees, who spent $423.5 million on CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Teixeira. Many veteran free agents, including potential Hall of Famers Frank Thomas and Pedro Martinez, are still waiting for teams to call, and there is a distinct possibility that their careers have ended. Thus, Bay and the rest of those who are eligible to become free agents at the end of this season can only wait and wonder what will happen. “It’s going to be interesting, that’s for sure,” Bay said.

In Bay’s case, at least, he’s not spending very much time trying to project what the economic picture will look like come late fall. Instead, he is trying to make a case with his bat to convince some team to open the vault and sign him to a mega-contract as he is in the last year of a bargain-rate, four-year, $17 million deal he signed with the Pirates following the 2005 season.

Bay is in his first full season with the Red Sox after being acquired from the Pirates last July 31 in a deal at the non-waiver trading deadline, and is 12th in the American League with a .323 EqA, which also ranks second on the team behind Kevin Youkilis‘ .360 EqA. Bay has helped make up for the collapse of designated hitter David Ortiz, whose EqA is a sickly .212. “He’s just been unbelievable for us,” Red Sox manager Terry Francona said of Bay. “I don’t know where we’d be without him. He’s everything we could have hoped for and more when we got him in the trade. We knew we were getting a good player, a guy who could really help our lineup, but I don’t think anyone understood just how good of a hitter he is.”

Bay spent his career in relative obscurity playing for the Pirates, though he did win National League Rookie of the Year honors in 2004, and get a start in the 2006 All-Star Game. The logical question following the trade, however, was how Bay would react in going from playing on a losing team in a city where football is both king and prince, to Boston, where Red Sox baseball is a religion. Bay has answered that question with authority. “Our situation is just so different, because you always have that apprehension on how a new player will handle coming to Boston,” Francona said. “It took Jason about five minutes to adjust. He just has the type of personality that allows him to get along with everybody. I love him, his teammates love him, the fans love him. He’s a guy who is impossible not to like.”

Bay has quickly come to love playing in a winning situation. All things being equal, he would prefer to re-sign with the Red Sox, but if things turn out to be unequal, he admits that he would have a hard time signing on with any franchise that isn’t a winner. “I loved playing in Pittsburgh, and the people there were great to me,” he said. “The losing does wear on you, though. It’s tough to go to the ballpark every day when you know you’re really not playing for anything other than pride. I’ve really loved playing for the Red Sox. It’s so much fun to play when you have a chance to win and there’s a buzz in the ballpark every night. Once you get a taste of it like I have, it would be hard to go somewhere where that isn’t there. Hopefully, it’ll work out with the Red Sox. That’s my number one priority. If it doesn’t, then I definitely want to be in a situation where I can win.”

Of course, free agency is still a long way off, and there is plenty of uncertainty. “We’ll wait and see,” said Bay.

The Rangers ended any speculation that manager Ron Washington‘s job could be on the line (this even while he has his team in first place in the American League West) by picking up the option on his contract for the 2010 season. “This was an easy decision,” said Rangers general manager Jon Daniels. “We’re excited about the direction the club is going under Ron’s leadership, and we look forward to a long, productive relationship with him as our manager.”

Washington’s job security has been the subject of many rumors since Nolan Ryan took over as club president prior to last season, and it has been widely reported that Ryan nearly fired Washington last year after the Rangers got off to a 7-16 start. Ryan, however, says that Washington has proven himself by getting the Rangers to play hard on a consistent basis. “That’s the number one thing,” Ryan told the Dallas Morning News‘ Richard Durrett. “He’s a manger of 25 people and personalities, and his challenge is to try to get them to play consistently every day, to go out and play hard every day. Ron is consistent with the way he approaches each game each day, and the team has taken on his personality about that. We don’t have problems in the clubhouse, and that’s due to Ron and the way he approaches each game and his life, and players respect that and go out and put whatever problems they have aside and play hard.”

Washington has been put into a number of difficult situations during his three years on the job. He was asked to make changes to his coaching staff after each of his first two seasons, including firing bench coach and close friend Art Howe last year, and he was also expected to get on board with Ryan’s somewhat controversial decision to allow pitchers to work deeper into games with relaxed standards on their possible pitch counts. Washington had to make do last season with a pitching staff that finished last in the major leagues in runs allowed. “Last year, as many times as we gave up the lead, I never heard Ron complain one time about, ‘Can’t you give us some help in the bullpen?'” Ryan said. “He knew that was his team, and he tried to make the most of it. He wholeheartedly embraced our off-season program last year, and the team has done the same. It starts at the top, and he wasn’t complaining about the fact that at times we were short with our pitching and had so many injuries and didn’t have experience or quality to bring up. He accepted what he got, and he made the most of it.”

Washington, for his part, had been downplaying his contract status in recent weeks, though it had threatened to become an issue the longer it hung over the team. “I didn’t have any feelings about it when everyone was talking about it,” Washington said. “It was never on my mind.”

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa has already begun sounding the drumbeat that his team needs to acquire a big bat to complement first baseman Albert Pujols in the middle of his team’s lineup. La Russa has even gone so far as to mention the Athletics left fielder, Matt Holliday, as a possible trade target.

This all comes one year after La Russa had been critical of ownership and general manager John Mozeliak for not making any moves to bolster the roster at the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline last season. The Cardinals were tied for second place in the National League Central at the end of July, just five games out before fading to a fourth-place finish.

It is understandable why La Russa would like to acquire some hitting. The Cardinals scored just nine runs in being swept by the Rockies in a four-game weekend series, and they’re now in a three-way tie for second in the division with the Cubs and Reds, only 2½ games behind the Brewers.

Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt said that he would be open to trades, but he also doesn’t want to make a move out of panic. “We’ve had some tough games,” DeWitt told Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I’m hopeful we’ll turn it around. Obviously, we’ve had some trouble scoring runs. We’ve had some close games that have gotten away from us late. You go through cycles.”

The Braves made a preemptive strike last week by acquiring outfielder Nate McLouth from the Pirates for three minor leaguers. That has led to the belief held by many in baseball that other contenders will begin making moves soon. In contrast, DeWitt isn’t so sure that teams are prepared to make big trades at this point, observing that, “[w]e’re always open, we’re always looking, but I’m not certain a market’s developed for any of the players who would help us. We’d be reluctant to do something on a marginal basis, just to make a change. It’s too early for clubs to start moving players that could have an impact. There’s a lot of parity now, and there’s not too many clubs who are ready to say, ‘We’re out of it.'”

It figured to be only a matter of time before White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen blew up; his team has been frustrating him all season, and now has a 27-32 record. The eruption finally came on Monday, when he called a team meeting following a 5-4 loss to the Tigers in the first game of a day-night doubleheader at US Cellular Field. “I talked to them,” Guillen said. “One thing about it: Good teams win games. Bad teams have meetings. Well, I think we’re to the point of having a lot of meetings. That’s all I can say.”

Guillen has been furious about his team’s inability to execute fundamentals, and he even referred back to his playing days to give an example of how he felt the game has changed. “If this was the 1980s, [none] of these guys would be in the big leagues right now, because if you hit .210 to .230 and you can’t execute, I don’t think you should be out here,” he said. “When you can’t bunt, hit-and-run, squeeze, and move the guy over, you better hit 40 home runs and drive in 140.”

Guillen is now in his sixth season as the club’s manager, and he skippered an end to the White Sox’ 88-year title drought by leading them to victory in the 2005 World Series. Now, however, he is starting to question whether or not he has lost his ability to get through to his players. “One thing about players, you protect their [rears] for 140 games, and you say one thing about it one day and all of a sudden you’re a bad person,” said Guillen. “It’s not an easy spot to be, but my job is to get the best out of them, and I’m not getting the best out of them. Then it might be my fault. I might not push hard enough. I might not get mad enough. Or I’m too tough on some guys. If we don’t do what we’re supposed to do, I’ll take the blame because that’s my job. In the meanwhile, if anyone watched from the first day of the season to right now, I will look myself in the mirror and figure out whose fault it is. We’re not doing it. We got excited here and there, and that’s it.”

Scouts’ views on various major league players:

  • Marlins third baseman Emilio Bonifacio: “The league has caught up to him and realized you can just overpower him with good fastballs. His 15 minutes of fame are over.”

  • Royals center fielder Coco Crisp: “I’m starting to think he just can’t handle playing every day, because he gets dinged up too much and wears down. For me, he’s a heckuva fourth outfielder.”

  • Padres outfielder Cliff Floyd: “When he’s healthy, he still can help as a bat off the bench, but he just can’t stay healthy anymore. I’ve got to believe this is his last year.”

  • Angels designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero: “He might not admit it, but it looks to me like he is still hurting. He has really lost bat speed and he’s not driving the ball.”

  • Cubs first baseman/outfielder Micah Hoffpauir: “I’m usually skeptical of guys who are still trying to establish themselves in the major leagues in their late 20s, but I think this guy is a late bloomer. I’m not saying he’s going to be a star, but he can definitely swing the bat and pitchers have to respect his power.”

  • Giants left-hander Randy Johnson: “It’s kind of jarring to watch him transform into a junkballer, but he’s smart enough to get people out without overpowering anyone. If you get him out of there after six innings, he can still be effective.”

  • Athletics pitcher Vin Mazzaro: “I really love this kid. He just has no fear at all and goes right after hitters. He’s got good stuff and a lot of guts.”

  • White Sox outfielder Scott Podsednik: “He seems to have found new life being back with the White Sox. He’s getting on base and making things happen from the leadoff spot. I don’t know how long it’ll last, but he’s helping that team.”

  • Diamondbacks closer Chad Qualls: “He’s really becoming a solid closer, but the problem is they can’t get the lead to him enough. With so many teams looking for relief help, if I were the Diamondbacks, I’d leverage him and try to get a nice little package back in a trade. He can definitely help a contender.”

Three series to watch this weekend, with probable pitching matchups:

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When a career .626 OPS hitter with good but not great defense says you don't deserve to be in the majors it must really sting.
Also stings when it's the last ML regular to have more CS's in a season than BB's (and he did that twice).
How many more years could Randy Johnson pitch as a LOOGY?