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Surprising Rays could be early buyers

Less than a week ago, one National League executive mused that if the Rays stumbled and traded outfielder Carl Crawford, the pressure would be off the Red Sox.

General manager Theo Epstein would not need to make a major acquisition, the exec said. A postseason berth would be almost assured.

Well, so much for that idea.

The Red Sox, even after their electrifying victory over the Rangers on Tuesday night, are 5½ games behind the Yankees and five behind the Rays in the AL East.

Yes it's early, but the way the Rays are playing, The Great Tampa Bay Demolition looks increasingly unlikely.

If anything, the Rays figure to be a player for a big bullpen arm -- the Padres' Heath Bell would be the obvious choice -- to pair with closer Rafael Soriano.

The bullpen is the Rays' biggest weakness, particularly with left-hander J.P. Howell out until at least May with a shoulder strain.

The Rays largely have masked the weakness during their 10-4 start. But they are nowhere near as strong as they were in 2008, when Howell and right-handers Dan Wheeler and Grant Balfour excelled in setup roles.

Closer Rafael Soriano should be healthier than Troy Percival was that season. Yet, Soriano missed most of '08 with an elbow issue, and is hardly a guarantee to stay healthy after making 77 appearances for the Braves last season.

Rest assured, the Rays will aim high on the trade market -- they made runs at Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Victor Martinez and Jason Bay at the last two non-waiver deadlines.

Ideally, they would make a preemptive strike in June, but sellers are rarely motivated that early in the trading season. The Rays, because of their low revenues, also are more protective of their prospects than most clubs.

It's inconceivable that they would trade a young pitcher such as Jeremy Hellickson or an outfielder such as Desmond Jennings for a reliever like Bell, who is affordable and under club control through 2011.

The point is, the dynamic has changed.

The possibility that the Rays will trade their prospective free agents -- Crawford, Soriano, first baseman Carlos Pena -- is rapidly diminishing.

The pressure on the Red Sox is coming from all angles.

WHICH WAY A'S?

The A's are realistic about their offense, knowing that they will need a hitter -- most likely in the outfield -- to be a serious threat in the AL West.

For starters, though, the A's could promote from within.

Michael Taylor and Chris Carter both could offer needed right-handed power, Taylor in left field, Carter at designated hitter.

Ideally, the A's would like both to spend at least a half-season at Triple-A. But Carter, in particular, could be an upgrade over Eric Chavez and Jack Cust.

Carter is playing first base for Sacramento. Cust is struggling as the DH.

"Carter is going to be a home-run guy who strikes out a lot," one scout says. "But he's a good-looking kid who should arrive in June or July."

THE GIANTS' GLARING NEED

Rival scouts and executives question the Giants' defense as much as their offense. The team's biggest need is a strong two-way threat in right field -- a type of player that is not all that easy to find.

One possible trade candidate, the Royals' David DeJesus, does not hit for much power. Another, the Brewers' Corey Hart, seems at a career crossroads. A third, the Astros' Hunter Pence, is unlikely to be moved.

The top potential free agent, the Phillies' Jayson Werth, will not be available until the off-season.

Braves right fielder Jason Heyward, of course, would be a perfect fit. The Giants and 13 other teams bypassed him in the first round of the 2007 draft. But the Giants' choice at No. 10, left-hander Madison Bumgarner, still might prove to be an outstanding pick.

Bumgarner, 20, pitched better in his third start at Triple-A after getting hit hard in his first two -- and drawing criticism from GM Brian Sabean, who criticized him to the San Jose Mercury-News for being "ill-prepared" coming into spring training.

THE SCOUT WHO GOT HIS MAN

The rise of Cardinals left-hander Jaime Garcia is testament to not only to his talent and perseverance, but also the persistence of the scout who signed him, Joe Almaraz.

Almaraz was working for the Orioles in 2004 when he recommended that the team draft Garcia. The Orioles selected Garcia in the 30th round, but did not sign him.

The next off-season, Almaraz left the Orioles for the Cardinals. He again recommended Garcia. The Cardinals took the pitcher in the 22nd round -- and got his name in a contract.

Garcia, 23, missed most of 2009 after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and the Cardinals figured they would start him at Class AAA, monitor his progress and watch him carefully.

Manager Tony La Russa said he slowly abandoned that plan after watching Garcia perform better than any Cardinals pitcher from the start of spring training.

Garcia has allowed only one earned run in 13 innings. At the moment, he might be the best fifth starter in the game.

PEDROIA: AN AUTHOR, NOT A READER

Mets infielder Alex Cora actually keeps a copy of former Red Sox teammate Dustin Pedroia's book, "Born to Play: My Life in the Game," in his locker.

Pedroia's brashness is a source of amusement throughout baseball, and Cora flipped through the pages hurriedly to find me one particularly funny passage.

"I have something like 20-10 eyesight," Pedroia writes. "All I know is that my eyesight is perfect. To be honest with you, I don't read very well, even though I can see the words. My eyes are just made for hitting. They're made to see fastballs coming in, but not to read a book."

Cora said of the book, "I don't use it for inspiration. I just want to laugh."

IGARASHI'S SUDDEN EMERGENCE

Mets right-hander Ryota Igarashi strained his left hamstring trying to field a bunt Tuesday night, a potentially significant blow to the team's surprisingly impressive bullpen.

Igarashi had followed the pattern of at least two prominent Japanese major leaguers, Red Sox left-hander Hideki Okajima and Mariners right fielder Ichiro Suzuki, both of whom performed poorly in spring training as rookies, then snapped to attention in the regular season.

Okajima, Cora recalls, was hit hard in his first spring, to the point where his new teammates thought he had been signed only to serve as a friend to the Sox's more heralded Japanese pitcher, right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Igarashi, meanwhile, did not make a positive impression upon the Mets until he threw 94-95 mph in his second outing in Colorado.

"I don't know the Japanese culture," Mets manager Jerry Manuel says. "They are so routine-oriented, (spring training) was just a part of his preparation. It wasn't, 'I'll show you what I can do.' It was, 'I'm preparing for what I need to do.'

"He did not perform extremely well in spring training. He seemed frustrated to some degree with that. He pitched in the first series, threw strikes. But in Colorado, he was a different guy. It was like, 'Wow!' What he said in that game is, 'I am your eighth-inning guy."

AROUND THE HORN

* White Sox right-hander Jake Peavy was better against the Indians in his third start, but one rival executive remains skeptical about how he will perform in the American League.

"I guarantee you he's not going to make it five innings when he faces Boston, New York, Minnesota, Tampa Bay," the exec says. "If he gets to five, that will be it -- 105 pitches in five innings."

Peavy, who has faced the Indians twice and the Blue Jays once, pitches against the Rays on Thursday.

* Cardinals utility man Felipe Lopez, who signed a one-year, $1 million free-agent contract, could end up one of the year's biggest bargains.

Lopez, who turns 30 on May 12, played terrific defense at shortstop in the Mets' series. Short, of course, was his original position with the Blue Jays.

"I don't think the instincts go away," he said. "I try to take groundballs as much as I can there. It's better to take them at shortstop than second base. It makes me work my feet."

* Cardinals manager Tony La Russa responded positively to a suggestion by FOX's Tim McCarver that Major League Baseball penalize any baserunner who goes after a catcher's head at home plate.

McCarver, a former major-league catcher, said the idea occurred to him after talking with former Cardinals catcher Mike Matheny, who was forced to retire due to concussion symptoms.

Any runner who hits a catcher above his neck would be ejected.

"I'd be all for it," La Russa said.

* Something worth watching: How Indians right-hander Justin Masterson progresses as a starter.

Masterson's high strikeout rate and extreme groundball rate point to success; his struggles against left-handed hitters do not.

The Indians believe that Masterson is smart enough and competitive enough to develop an approach against lefties over 30 starts.

* The Mets' Manuel had an interesting take on the increased reliance on scouting reports for defensive positioning. He said the use of such information, while valuable, is robbing players of their instincts.

"We have to give them the freedom," Manuel said. "It's easier to rein somebody in than keep 'em collared."

* Scouts question whether Braves first baseman Troy Glaus can still hit a good fastball, but keep in mind that Glaus missed nearly all of last season recovering from shoulder surgery.

Glaus was batting .182 and in an 0-for-14 slump Tuesday night with a two-run homer off a 1-1 fastball by Phillies closer Ryan Madson. He simply might need more time to find his rhythm; the Braves still believe he will be a major producer.

* First baseman Adam LaRoche and second baseman Kelly Johnson were secondary players for the Braves. But according to one Diamondbacks official, their prior experience in Atlanta gives them a certain cachet with their new teammates in Arizona.

LaRoche, 30, and Johnson, 28, are blending in well, helping police the clubhouse. LaRoche is popular wherever he goes, and Johnson seems poised for a bounce-back season. A left-handed hitter, he actually has hit lefties better than righties in his career.

* Mets first baseman Ike Davis reached the majors with only 240 at-bats above Single A. That figure does not include his 85 at-bats in the Arizona Fall League or his three years at Arizona State.

Before his promotion, one evaluator said, "He's looking better against left-handed pitching but still needs to show me he can consistently handle off-speed pitches going away from him."

* And finally, one more note from the 20-inning game, courtesy of my colleague, FOX broadcaster Kenny Albert.

Kenny's mother, Benita, actually worked an even longer game -- a 23-inning Mets-Giants game, the nightcap of a double-header, on Memorial Day 1964. Benita, then 19, was a Shea Stadium usherette.

As Kenny notes, the Mets through Saturday had played 7,647 games in their history -- and at least one member of the Albert family had been at two of the four longest games.