Tampa Bay Rays outfielder B.J. Upton is the franchise's next...

Tampa Bay Rays outfielder B.J. Upton is the franchise's next big player to hit free agency. (undated file photo) Credit: Getty Images

Upton up next

The Rays simply don't retain their star players when they enter free agency. As Tampa Bay executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said: "We could sign any one player in baseball. The challenging part would be putting 24 players around them."

The Rays headliner for next winter's free-agent class is centerfielder B.J. Upton, the second overall pick of the 2002 amateur draft, who arrived as a shortstop and has transformed into a very good centerfielder.

"There is no doubt in my mind that we wouldn't have gone to the playoffs three of the last four years without him," Friedman said of Upton. "If you suspend what the expectations were, he's a very productive, valuable player.

"There's a lot of moving parts for us in every decision we make. But in a perfect world, I would love the relationship to continue for many more years."

Said Upton: "I'm not even worrying about that. I'm just focusing on this season. When the time comes around to talk about that, I will."

It isn't easy to find an all-around centerfielder as good as Upton. Therefore, it's easy to predict he'll be playing elsewhere next year.

 

A good buy

The Cardinals committed five years and $75 million to Yadier Molina on Friday, the third-largest package for a catcher behind Joe Mauer (eight years, $184 million from Minnesota) and Mike Piazza (seven years, $91 million from the Mets). Molina lacks the offensive track record of those two guys. Nevertheless, mark this down as a prescient move by the Cardinals, as well as a good deal for Molina and his agent Melvin Roman of MDR Sports Management.

The catching supply out there is simply awful, and if Molina replicated his 2011 season, he could've been in demand by nearly every large-market team out there, from Boston to Texas to the Dodgers to the Angels. Maybe even the Yankees, if they gave up hope on the whole "getting the payroll to $189 million by 2014" thing. And he would've topped $75 million.

Molina couldn't pass up such a favorable deal, however. He's this valuable because he adds a developing bat to the standard Molina defensive tools. The Cardinals should regard this as a better investment than if they had matched the 10 years and $240 million that the Angels gave St. Louis icon Albert Pujols.

 

Where's Johnny?

With 277 hits shy of the 3,000 mark for his career and his primary home in the Orlando area, Johnny Damon probably would've been best off returning to Tampa Bay for a pay cut. Damon and the Rays enjoyed their time together.

However, Damon -- represented by Scott Boras -- and Tampa Bay never came close to an agreement on Damon's value. And now Damon is looking for work even as we're in March.

Damon told friends that he thought the Tigers could be a fit, and Boras has an excellent relationship with Detroit owner Mike Ilitch. But right now, the Tigers are regarding their designated hitter slot as a place to give half-days to Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Delmon Young and others.

The reality, creepy as it may be, is that Damon's best chance for playing time would probably result from an injury somewhere.

 

The downside of depth

Chaminade High School product John Lannan has put up four consecutive solid years for the Nationals. Suddenly, however, the Nationals boast of significant depth in their starting rotation, adding Gio Gonzalez (by trade) and Edwin Jackson (free agent) over the winter and re-signing former Yankee Chien-Ming Wang to join young ace Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann.

Lannan could be the odd man out. He could be traded.

"Competition is good," Lannan said. "It brings out the best in players, and I know it brings out the best in me. That's what you look for, competition. I'm just focusing on getting ready for the season and nothing else."

 

Pop quiz

In the 1942 Western "Bad Men of the Hills," the lead character, played by Charles Starrett, shares the name of a real-life Hall of Fame pitcher (who wasn't yet born when this film came out). Name the character and/or the name-sharing lefthander.

ANSWER BELOW

 

Three early, impactful injuries

A.J. Burnett, Pirates. The poor ex-Yankee fractured his right orbital bone during a bunting drill.

Grady Sizemore, Indians. The injury-prone centerfielder had back surgery Thursday.

Ryan Howard, Phillies. He had a setback while rehabilitating from the left Achilles tendon injury he suffered in last year's playoffs.

 

Three players who need good spring trainings

Jason Heyward, Braves. He's the key to improving the Braves' offense.

Johan Santana, Mets. The Mets desperately need him to be functional for the season.

Jesus Montero, Mariners. He has to show that he can catch.

 

The quote

"We intend to own the franchise for a very long time. Whether they're happy about that right now or not, I don't know."

Mets principal owner Fred Wilpon

 

Pop quiz answer

Steve Carlton. Thanks to Rob Edelman of Amsterdam, N.Y., for the suggestion.

From new rides at Adventureland to Long Island's best seafood restaurants to must-see summer concerts, here's your inside look at Newsday's summer Fun Book. Credit: Newsday Staff

Elisa DiStefano kick-starts summer with the Fun Book show From new rides at Adventureland to Long Island's best seafood restaurants to must-see summer concerts, here's your inside look at Newsday's summer Fun Book.

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