Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Dodgers being the Dodgers

Well, they re-signed him.

After alot of huffing, puffing, and controversy, He will be back in Dodger Blue in 2009.

Certainly he will be one of the key pieces to the Dodger puzzle this season.

Yes, Rafael Furcal has a new contract in Los Angeles.



Who did you think I was talking about?


After an NLCS appearance in 2008, Joe Torre and the LA Dodgers (does that still seem like an odd combination to anyone, like saying "Gladys Knight and the Blowfish" or "Tom Petty and the Wailers") return as very heavy favorites to repeat as NL West Champions this season. The Dodgers have a roster filled with talent. Offensively they are probably peerless in the NL West. Their pitching stacks up well against pretty much all NL foes. Even if they under perform, does the talent exist in the NL West to overtake them at the top of the standings?

And, oh yeah, Manny Ramirez is back.


Pitching

One of the benefits of living in Honolulu is that I often catch Dodger games on TV. Vin Scully is still a joy to listen to as he calls a game. For the past two seasons he has gushed about "big Jonathon Broxton." Theres a strong man crush there and its very very obvious. So, out of respect for Mr. Scully, we will begin our discussion of the Dodgers' pitching with a look at the man at the back of their bullpen. After assuming closer's duties mid-season Broxton posted mixed numbers. His 3.13 ERA is right in that ambiguous area between acceptable and not for a closer. As the Dodgers full-time closer to start 2009, we will see what Broxton brings to the table, other than, of course, an impressive physique.

The starting rotation boasts Chad Billingsley and Hiroki Kuroda in its top 2 spots. Billingsley had a stellar 2008 until a sloppy postseason. The jury is still out on Kuroda. His ERA and WHIP were both in range to make him a more successful pitcher than his 2008 win-loss record would suggest.

Randy Wolf pitched like a man possessed after Houston GM Ed Wade picked himself up off of the floor and brought Wolf in for an attempted pennant chase. The Dodgers hope he can replicate 2008 as their 3rd starter. Youngster Clayton Kershaw should see a full season in the Dodger rotation. His numbers last season (when he was a mere 20 years old) were not eye-popping but they suggest that the immense talent and huge upside that scouts have long prophesied for Kershaw were not misguided. A 4.26 ERA at the big leagues is a nice jumping-off point for a career.

The 5th spot in the rotation is the subject of a great deal of Cactus League gossip. The Dodgers still own the rights to Jason Schmidt. And Pedro Martinez's name has been appearing in recent days as an option. Remember the result the last time he and Manny Ramirez were teammates?



And Joe Torre could manage them this time.


The Infield

Russel Martin is one heck-of-a catcher. He saw time at 3rd base on would-be off days and saw his numbers fall off considerably in the final weeks of 2008. His .293 average is nothing to shake a stick at and an .816 OPS (slugging plus on-base percentage) from your backstop is a nice asset for Joe Torre.

James Loney had a rough first full season in 2008. He hit .289, which isn't bad but did not live up to lofty expectations. His .772 OPS is low for a 1st baseman on a winning team, but, he did manage to drive in 90 runs. Which is the real James Loney, the .331 hitter from 2007 with a .919 OPS or last year's more pedestrian effort? Can he really not hit lefties with any kind of consistency?

Orlando Hudson arrives to, likely, play second base. This leaves Blake DeWitt, the 3rd base prospect who filled in admirably at 2nd last season in an awkward 5th infielder position. He will likely be the primary backup to both Hudson and third-sacker Casey Blake.

After a Days of Our Lives-esque offseason in which Furcal was signed by the Braves but not really signed by the Braves and then returned to the Dodger fold. His sparkling play in the 2008 NLDS trouncing of Chicago and his gaudy numbers in an injury-limited season are enough to remind us all that Furcal is an incredible talent and always a potential firecracker near the top of any lineup.

Furcal is a nice illustration of the Dodgers' biggest reason to be optimistic about 2009: They won in 2008 without having a particularly good year. Injury and inconsistancey weren't enough to derail the 2008 Dodger offense. Can anything stop them from winning in 2009?


The Outfield

Say what you will about his antics, his appearance, or how he quit on the Red Sox last season, but, Manny Ramirez is without question among the 5 greatest hitters of our era. With braids flailing about and his baggy trousers drooping well over his shoes, Ramirez crashes line drives all over (and often out of) big league parks. I love watching him hit. When he faces a team i root for, I cringe, but I cannot deny taking a certain pleasure in seeing him swing the bat. Barring injury, he will hit and hit well in the middle of an already potent Dodger lineup in 2009.

Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier will fill center and right field respectively. In his first full season in the big leagues, Kemp posted a modest .799 OPS hit .290, swiped 35 bases and slugged 18 homers. Nothing eye-popping, but, baseball writers and baseball brass rave about his potential and the upsides presented by his power/speed combination. Ethier lost playing time in the middle of last season and did not handle the snide well. His .880 OPS is an encouraging figure. Right field is his job to lose. Juan Pierre will once again be the odd-man-out in the Dodger outfield. He will be an expensive 4th outfielder (3 years and $28.5 million are still owed to him), providing defensive breaks for Ramirez in left field. He stole 40 bases in 52 attempts last season. He can still fly, something that, when everything boils down, simply can't be taught.

Overall

This is a talented team in a talent-thin division. Barring revelations that Manny Ramirez's braids contain a rare nerve-agent that cripples anyone who comes within 20 feet, the Dodgers will win the West going away. There's just not anyone to stop them.

91-71. 1st Place NL West.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Erie Warriors

Enough time has elapsed since the dark days of the late 80s and early 90s that most folks my age are hard pressed to remember a time when the indians were a joke.



A pleasant reminder.

Props to Chris Music for stepping up in the clutch with the Indians preview. Pedro Cerrano couldn't have come through better.





2009: A Year of Change for the Nation, a Year of Change for Baseball in Cleveland?

Will the Tribe break through in year 61 of the World Series Championship drought, or will it be another year of waiting for Cleveland fans?

(81-81, Central Division, 3rd Place)

Going into Eric Wedge’s seventh season as Indians’ skipper, the team faces many question marks:

* Will Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner bounce back from injury plagued 2008 seasons?
* Have the Indians found their lock down closer in Kerry Wood?
* How will the starting pitching unfold in its first full season without CC Sabathia?
* Will the corner outfielders produce enough offensively?
* Lastly, is Eric Wedge really the man for the job?



Recap of 2008:

Highlights:

* Grady Sizemore: .266, 33 HR, 90 RBI, 38 Steals
* Jhonny Peralta: .274, 23 HR, 89 RBI, 104 Runs
* Kelly Shoppach: .261, 21 HR, .875 OPS
* Shin-Soo Choo: .309, 14 HR, 66 RBI, .946 OPS (94 games)
* Cliff Lee: AL CY Young, 22-3, 2.54 ERA
* Jensen Lewis: 3.82 ERA, 13-13 in save opportunities after assuming closer role in August



Disappointments:

* Travis Hafner: 57 Games, .197, 5 HR, 24 RBI
* Victor Martinez: 73 Games, .278, 2 HR, 35 RBI
* Fausto Carmona: 8-7, 120.2 IP, 5.44 ERA
* Jake Westbrook: 1-2, 3.12 ERA, 5 starts, Tommy John Surgery last summer
* Rafael Betancourt: 5.07 ERA
* Jeremy Sowers: 4-9, 5.58 ERA



Despite a disappointing collapse in the 2007 ALCS, pundits across the nation in 2008 maintained high hopes for the Indians. Historically, the Indians have struggled mightily in fulfilling those predictions. Quickly the 2008 season’s fate was determined with Peter Gammons’ kiss of death predictions of an Indians World Series victory. After starting the season with two wins against the rival White Sox, the Tribe faltered quickly, losing 10 of the next 13 games. Horrendous hitting was a thorn in the Indians side, as they endured a stretch of 9 losses in 10 games in May along with a 10 game losing streak. Come July, the writing was on the wall, as Mark Shapiro traded CC Sabathia to Milwaukee for outfielders Matt Laporta and Michael Brantley and pitchers Zach Jackson and Rob Bryson. Weeks later, Shapiro dealt fan favorite Casey Blake to the Los Angeles Dodgers for pitcher Jon Meloan and catcher Carlos Santana (No not the musical legend.) Entering the All-Star Break at 41-53, and the GM trading for prospects it appeared the Tribe were destined to a 90 loss season and a LAST PLACE FINISH. However, Eric Wedge rallied the team to a 40-28 second half record, climbing into third place and finishing 7.5 games behind division winner Chicago.

Offseason Moves:

Players acquired:

* INF Mark DeRosa (Trade with Chicago Cubs)
* RP Kerry Wood (Free Agent signing from Chicago Cubs)
* RP Joe Smith (Trade with New York Mets)
* INF Luis Valbuena (Trade with Seattle Mariners)
* SP Carl Pavano (Free Agent signing from New York Yankees)



With a limited budget, Shapiro essentially could make only one “large” signing, to address any of the three areas of need: Closer, Corner Outfielder, and Middle Infielder/Third Baseman. Following his emphasis on a strong bullpen as a foundation, Shapiro chose to address the bullpen by signing Wood to a two year, $20.5M contract, with an option for $11M should Wood finish 55 games in either of the first two seasons. The move is a gamble for the Tribe, given Wood’s injury history, but for the first time since essentially the Jose Mesa era, the Indians have a traditional flame-throwing closer. In the DeRosa trade, Shapiro is attempting to kill two birds with one stone; finding a consistent second hitter in the order which the team has lacked since Omar Vizquel several years ago, and a replacement at third base for Casey Blake. In a three team trade involving the Mets and Mariners, the Indians acquired Joe Smith (yes, now two three Cleveland sports franchise have a role player named Joe Smith) and Luis Valbuena. Smith adds more depth to the bullpen in middle relief, and Valbuena gives the team added depth in the middle infield, potentially facilitating in the future, the shift of Jhonny Peralta to third base and Asdrubal Cabrera to his natural position at shortstop. The last acquisition of the off-season, signing Carl Pavano, is somewhat reminiscent of the Kevin Millwood signing Shapiro made prior to the 2005, in that both players had hobbled pasts coupled with flashes of brilliance. Pavano will earn $1.5M this season and up to $5.3M in incentives based on starts 18-35 and innings from 130-235. Pavano is currently the number three starter in the rotation, quite a risk in my opinion given that the last time he reached the low end of those incentives in 2004.

Projected 25 Man Roster:

Starting Lineup:

1. Grady Sizemore (CF) – A strained groin has kept him out of the WBC, hopefully he will not push too hard in Spring Training. Stealing a page from the Right Guard marketing books…Anything less than a 30/30 season this year would be uncivilized
2. Mark DeRosa (3B) – His 21 HR and 87 RBI last year were career highs. A season of .285, with about 15-18 HR and 75 RBI would be a great success in 2009.
3. Travis Hafner (DH) – A huge question mark for 2009, he has just started playing in spring training games this week. Hopefully, he can bounce back and produce a line of .280, 30 HR, 100 RBI
4. Victor Martinez (1B) – Coming into camp, he told the media that he is healthy and ready to go. Wedge announced that he will be Carmona’s official catcher this season. Given Shoppach’s success last year, Victor will probably see no more than 80-100 games behind the plate. With his ability to play first base, the reduced strain from catching should help him return to the form which hit over .300 in 2005-2007
5. Jhonny Peralta (SS) – Last season Peralta performed admirably in the cleanup spot while Hafner and Martinez were on the DL. Jhonny’s power numbers have continued to mature, and he could make a run at 30 HR this season.
6. Shin-Soo Choo (RF) – Choo had a dynamite partial season last year, returning from Tommy John surgery. Currently playing for Korea in the WBC though he is experiencing some trouble with the surgically repaired elbow. Choo can get on base, and barring any relapse could have a breakout season with a full year of at-bats.
7. Ben Francisco (LF) – Which Francisco will the Indians see this year; the one who hit close to .300 in the first half, or the one who hit in the .230s in the second half? Expect something in the .280 range, given that last year he experienced a “baptism by fire” by being forced to spend most of his rookie season in the number three slot in the order. Also, hits righties equally as well as lefties.
8. Kelly Shoppach (C) – Will be Cliff Lee’s personal catcher this year. Can he hit enough to give Victor adequate rest from catching though?
9. Asdrubal Cabrera (2B) – After struggling with the bat early on, he hit .320 over the last two months of 2008. In addition, he possesses a dynamite glove, one capable of making a web gem on any given night.



Bench:

* Ryan Garko (1B) – Shoppach’s development last year, coupled with management wanting to ease the burden on Martinez behind the plate, have Garko on the short end of a four player platoon (Hafner, Martinez, Shoppach) for three positions (C, 1B, DH). Garko has spent some in Left Field in Spring Training and could see some time there this year
* David Dellucci (OF) – Not much to say here, the guy does not have incredible bat speed, does not have a great arm, essentially here because Shapiro overpaid. Look for him to keep the seat warm until Trevor Crowe or Matt LaPorta are ready for a promotion mid-season
* Jamey Carroll (UTIL) – The Ryan Seacrest lookalike is a scrapper, who can pretty much play any position on the field, has great range and can get on base. Ideally would prefer to see him playing 60-70 games instead of 113 last year.
* Josh Barfield (INF/OF) – Like Garko, Barfield has spent some time in the outfield to improve his versatility on the team. Hopefully can bounce back from two disappointing years in Cleveland and give the Indians some valuable depth at multiple positions.
* Prospects to consider later in the season: LaPorta, Crowe, Wes Hodges, Michael Brantley



Starting Rotation:

1. Cliff Lee - Can he continue to take command as the ace of the rotation now that Sabathia is gone? Expect to see approximately 15-20 wins and an ERA around 3.50.
2. Fausto Carmona – Given the rest of the rotation after him, it is imperative that he gives the Indians at least 30 starts this season. He looked strong in Winter Ball and barring injury should win 12-16 games
3. Carl Pavano – Yes, this is not a typo. Here’s to hoping that he can gain some incentives out of this contract, since Jake Westbrook will be out the entire first half of the season recovering from Tommy John surgery.
4. Anthony Reyes – Could be a real diamond in the rough, as he compiled a 1.83 ERA in six starts late last season. Can he avoid the arm trouble that shut him down in September?
5. Aaron Laffey? – Given his track record compared to the others he has the inside track, however, has had a shaky spring. Jeremy Sowers, Zach Jackson, Scott Lewis, and David Huff all are still in the running for this final spot



Bullpen:

1. Kerry Wood (CP) - If healthy enough to replicate last year’s performance, a big win for Shapiro
2. Jensen Lewis – Flourished last year in the closer role, showed no signs of a sophomore slump in his first full season as a reliever. Could be Wood’s primary setup man for 2009
3. Rafael Perez – 2008 was his second consecutive strong season and continues to dominate lefties.
4. Rafael Betancourt – Like the San Antonio Spurs, Betancourt has stronger seasons in odd years, playing a critical role in the success of the 2005 and 2007 seasons. If he maintains this streak, the Indians could very well play six inning games much of this coming season
5. Joe Smith – Posted back to back sub-4.00 ERA seasons with the Mets, sidearm motion brings a different flavor to the pen.
6. Masahide Kobayashi – In the first half of 2008 was the Tribe’s most effective reliever; however, he dropped mightily starting in July. Given the depth, hopefully he will have a reduced role.
7. Adam Miller? - The much hyped prospect of the 2003 Draft for the Indians, is trying to make the team as the last reliever. Injuries have plagued his career, and he currently has a hole in one of the fingers on his pitching hand! When healthy, he is dominating, and there had been talk of grooming him to be the closer of the future.

Others in consideration for the role are Rich Rundles, John Meloan, Tony Sipp, Kirk Saarloos, and last but certainly not least Edward “Last of the Mujicans” Mujica. Mujica is out of options, and Saarloos has the most big league experience of the bunch, which could lead to one of the two winning the spot if Miller falters. This corner personally hopes that 2008 was truly the “Last of the Mujicans,” given his propensity to give up multiple runs without completing a full inning.

Final Outlook: (87-75), Second place AL Central. Right now just too many question marks to leave this corner confident enough to return to the playoffs….

Sunday, March 15, 2009

101 Years...

The Chicago Cubs are the most talented team in baseball.

The same statement could probably have been made at the beginning of last season too. And, for 162 games, the Cubs more often than not acted the part of King of the Jungle in the National League. When the playoffs rolled around, the ferocity was gone and the Cubs made a quick exit at the hands of the Dodgers.

Manager Lou Pinella is back for another season and will, presumably, continue to be the mostly even tempered guy from the AquaFina commercials. Most of the key pieces from last season return. The bullpen has received a facelift (for better or for worse) and some additional firepower has been added to the lineup. The Cubs will score runs in bunches. They won’t surrender many. This team is built to win in 2009.

Around the Diamond

1B- Derrek Lee .291 20HR 90RBI
2B- Mike Fontenot .305 9 HR 40 RBI
SS- Ryan Theriot .307 1 HR 38 RBI
3B- Aramis Ramirez .289 27 HR 111 RBI
C- Geovany Soto .285 23 HR 86 RBI

What the middle infield duo of Theriot and Fontenot may lack in power numbers (Theriot slugged a pitiful .359 last season) they make up for in OBP and BA. A team with Aramis Ramirez at 3rd and Geovany Soto behind the plate can get away with a light hitting shortstop as long as his 2008 penchant for getting on base remains a habit in 2009. Derrek Lee is still a good glove man at 1st base and still hits doubles (84 in the last 2 seasons) as well as anyone in the league. He is aging, but he is far from ready for the retirement home. Aramis Ramirez is one of the rare hitters who the algorithms employed by the team of stat-heads at Baseball Prospectus project as a 100+ RBI guy for this season. The infield corps alone will light up the scoreboard this season.

Patrolling Wrigley’s Lawn

LF- Alfonso Soriano .280 29HR 75 RBI
CF- Kosuke Fukudome .257 10 HR 58 RBI
RF- Milton Bradley .321 22HR 77 RBI

Alfonso Soriano is, when healthy, a formidable power threat in left field. He wasn’t healthy in 2008. If healthy in 2009 the Cubs offense may be jaw-droppingly potent. Imported from Japan before last season, Kosuke Fukudome was a big splash signing for the Cubs. His play was adequate but did not begin to live up to expectations set by lofty numbers from his Japan days. In his second season against big league pitching, Fukudome must improve on last season’s .257 effort at the plate in order to hold down his spot and keep 4th outfielder Reed Johnson and reserve off-season pick up Joey Gathright from stealing his at bats. Milton Bradley, signed away from the dreadful Rangers, brings an enormous amount of talent (and some emotional baggage) to Wrigley’s right field.

The Moundsmen

SP- Carlos Zambrano 14-6 3.91 ERA 130K
SP- Rich Harden 10-2 181K 148IP
SP- Ted Lilly 17-9 4.09 ERA 184K
SP- Ryan Dempster 17-6 2.96 ERA 187K
SP-Sean Marshall 3-5 3.86 ERA

RP- Carlos Marmol 2.68 ERA 0.93WHIP
RP- Jeff Smardzija 2.27 ERA 1.41 WHIP
RP- Kevin Gregg 3.41 ERA 1.28 WHIP 29 SV

On paper, the Cubs can boast the finest top 4 starters in the National League. Zambrano is a bona fide staff ace, Harden is one of the game’s finest starters when healthy, and Lilly and Dempster each turned in stellar 2008 campaigns. If Zambrano and Harden stay healthy (and that is a HUGE if) and if Lilly and Dempster are able to come close to replicating their 2008 efforts, then it won’t matter who/what fills the 5th spot in the rotation. The top 4 alone will win 60 games. If someone (we’re looking at you Rich Harden) misses a start or two here and there, newly acquired Aaron Heilman may see innings as a starting pitcher. He and Sean Marshall will compete all spring for first dibs on the 5th slot in the rotation and for emergency starts.

Kevin Gregg replaces Kerry Wood at the back end of Pinella’s relief corps. While Marmol’s 2008 numbers probably make him the early season favorite to lock down closer duties, the live arm of former Notre Dame football star Jeff Smardzija and the arrival of Kevin Gregg from the Marlins make them viable late inning options as well. Neal Cotts will be the primary lefty in the bullpen. Smardzija posted an alarming 1.41 WHIP in 2008, he’ll have to allow fewer base runners to establish himself as a secure late game option.

Down on the Farm

Josh Vitters 3B

Vitters will turn 20 in August. In a little more than a full season in the minor leagues (low level A-ball is as far as he’s reached) Vitters has shown promise that the Cubs may have been wise in selecting him with their first pick in 2007. He may be the in-house replacement in a couple of years for Aramis Ramirez.


Overall in 2009

While, obviously, the defending champion Phillies are the team with the bullseye on their backs in 2009, the road to the World Series may run through Chicago. The NL Central is not exactly bursting with talent. Especially not the kind of pitching talent that health-permitting will be featured at Wrigley this season. The Cubs will either be a huge disappointment to themselves and to their long-suffering fan base or they will be a force to be reckoned with well into October.

Prediction

93-69 1st Place NL Central

Friday, March 13, 2009

First in War. First in Peace. Last in the NL East.

The simple truth is that, since their arrival on the shores of the Anacostia River in 2005, the Washington Nationals have been a tragically dysfunctional franchise and a consistently poorly performing team. After some surprise first half success in 2005, the Nationals began a steady descent into the basement of the NL East. Not even the cost-cutting Marlins have been able to under-perform the Nats.

And its not that the Nationals have underachieved. An objective look at each season’s roster reveals 4 teams which were not built with winning major league baseball games in mind.

2005: Livan Hernandez and Esteban Loiza each post their 2nd best season (in terms of IP and win totals) at the top of the rotation. Career high in wins for John Patterson. Career years for closer Chad Cordero, journeyman reliever Hector Carrasco, and setup man Luis Ayala. Those statistical aberrations from the pitching staff masked the fact that the offense was a motley assortment of washouts including but not limited to: Jeffery Hammonds, Carlos Baerga, Wil Cordero, Vinny Castilla, Junior Spivey, and Deivi Cruz.

(You want to know the sick part? I have really really really fond memories of that team.)

2006: 46 Homeruns off of the bat of recently-acquired Alfonso Soriano provided some pop to an otherwise impotent offense. The pitching staff came back down to earth. Livan Hernandez was shipped to Arizona at the trading deadline, Ramon Ortiz, the only Nationals starter to tally double digit wins leaves town at the end of the season.

2007: After getting nothing in return for the departed Soriano, the Nationals enter the season full of holes. “Ace” John Patterson is dreadful at the start of the season, gets sent to the DL, and then off into the sunset of retirement. The team closes RFK Stadium with a whimper.


2008: With no real staff ace on the roster, Odalis Perez draws the assignment for the Nats opening game in their bright new ballpark. A walk-off homerun by Ryan Zimmerman proves to be the highlight of the season. Injuries cripple the team. The team lead for homeruns at the end of the season has hit 14. The Nationals finish with the worst record in baseball.

Adding insult to injury, damning offseason revelations emerge tying the Nationals front office to bonus-skimming scams in the Dominican Republic. In the chaos, GM Jim Bowden resigns, still proclaiming his innocence. As the season rolls on, and more details from the scandal emerge, the Nationals may well be last in the standings and last in positive press coverage.

Reasons to be Optimistic

Cristian Guzman had a fantastic season in 2008. His putrid performance in 2005 and injury-ruined seasons in the interim seemed like distant memories as Guzman provided occasional moments of offensive spark and defensive competence last season. As the Nationals everyday shortstop, he will have the chance to show that his All-Star season of a year ago was not a fluke.

Adam Dunn has hit at least 40 homers for five straight seasons. He will play left field and bat cleanup and provide much needed pop to a Nationals lineup that in 2008 had to look to Willy Harris (All 5’9 175lbs of him) for power.

There is no reason to doubt that Ryan Zimmerman will be 100% healthy and ready to go opening day. He is the cornerstone of the franchise and his work in the #3 spot in the lineup and his slick glove work at the hot corner make him a good “face of the team.” This could be the season that Zimmerman becomes an all-star.

Several of the young arms that will be called upon to pitch major innings in 2009 showed signs of promise in 2008. John Lannan, the likely opening day starter in the mound, posted a sub-4.00 ERA last season. Joel Hanrahan, the closer, also posted a sub-4.00 ERA and struck out more than a batter per inning.

Before departing in ignominy, Jim Bowden brought in Daniel Cabrera and Scott Olsen to fill the middle of the starting rotation. Both have the potential to win 12-15 games. Their shortcomings can wait until the next section.

Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes will patrol centerfield and rightfield respectively. They have each shown flashes of brilliance in their checkered careers. If they stay out of clubhouse controversy and. Most importantly, stay out of police patrol cars, there is enough talent in the Dukes/Milledge combo to provide Natinoals Park’s paying customers with a whole summer of excitement.

Jesus Flores hit the ball with authority with some frequency in 2008. If healthy for 2009, his power numbers (8 HR and 59 RBI in about 300 PA) should go up. Also, he won’t turn 25 until the week of the World Series. His best years are still to come.


Cause for Concern

Daniel Cabrera is in the starting rotation. Ask any of your friends who are Orioles fans why this promises to be a maddening experience for fans inside the DC Beltway.

Several of the key components of the offense, Nick Johnson, Ryan Zimmerman, and Cristian Guzman have shown a penchant for season-long or other extended stints on the Disabled List.

John Lannan is the ace of the staff. He has 11 major league wins to his credit.

Odalis Perez decided that the Nationals were not showing him the level of respect he deserved and opted not to show up for training camp. He was promptly released.

Adam Dunn hit under .240 last year.

There are a grand total of zero members of the Nationals organization in the top 55 of Baseball Prospectus’ list of the Top 100 Prospects.

The Nationals = The Oakland Raiders of MLB

"Hey, dawg. It's on, dawg. You dead, dawg. I ain't even bulls-------. Your kids too, dawg. It don't even matter to me who is in the car with you. N-----, all I know is, n-----, when I see your m-----f------- a-- riding, dawg, it's on. As a matter of fact, I'm coming to your m-----f------ house."
(Elijah Dukes to the mother of one of his children)


Overall

The 2009 Nationals do not look drastically different than any of their bottom-feeding progenitors. If one is to blame the GM for putting together a lousy product each season, then Nationals fans should greet Bowden’s departure with jubilation. If organizational chaos is also a bad thing, that jubilation will be short lived.

Adam Dunn’s arrival helps. But, as we learned in 2006, one power bat does not equal many more wins when the arms and the other bats are simply not on the level of the competition in the fierce NL East.

60-102 Last in the NL East

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Home of the Braves

In 1988 the Atlanta Braves were locked in a season long struggle with my Baltimore Orioles for the worst record in baseball. Call it misery loving company, but, I took a liking to the Braves then and was rewarded soon thereafter with the right to claim casual fanhood of the team of the 90s.

I appreciate that Andrew Kozakowski took time out from his busy schedule of recruiting Guatemalan mercenaries to contribute to the blog. I once watched him shred by hand several dozen copies of the school newspaper in a fit of nervous anxiety brought on by a Braves NLDS game against the Astros. Caring about baseball teams makes us all do very strange things.



Hope springs eternal

A third straight year of missing the playoffs brought disappointment to most Braves fans after enjoying fourteen years of supremacy in the NL East. The failures of last year stood in stark contrast to the dominant Atlanta teams of the nineties, namely, strong pitching. Although all-star level seasons in some position players were cancelled out by regression in others, the complete collapse of the starting rotation and bullpen doomed the Braves’ shot at even competing for the wild card. GM Frank Wren spent the offseason working to address Atlanta’s shortcomings, and although it was a roller coaster ride thanks to the Jake Peavy, A.J. Burnett, Rafael Furcal, and Ken Griffey Jr. negotiations, the outcome is a Braves team that is in a position to pose a strong challenge to the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies both this year and in the years to come.

Pitching

Going into this offseason, Frank Wren looked to upgrade a pitching staff that was decimated by injuries last year. A potentially formidable rotation last year fronted by aces John Smoltz and Tim Hudson and filled with a mix of reliable (Tom Glavine), promising (Jair Jurrjens), live (Jo-Jo Reyes), and expensive (and need I say, perpetually broken - Mike Hampton) arms succumbed to a variety of injuries. This left the rookie Jurrjens and Mexican League surprise Jorge Campillo holding down the fort for the second half of the year in a poor man’s version of “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain”. Needless to say, this placed a fair amount of strain on a bullpen that was dealing with its own injuries. The Braves saw the closer’s role passed around like a hot potato while 2007 stalwarts Mike Gonzalez, Rafael Soriano, and Peter Moylan battled injuries. Despite the loss of Braves mainstay John Smoltz this offseason, Wren largely succeeding in upgrading the team’s biggest weakness.

(Top Five Starting Pitchers in 2008 – by IP)
Player Record GS IP K ERA WHIP ERA+ SNLVAR
1. J. Jurrjens 13-10 31 188.3 139 3.68 1.37 116 4.1
2. J. Campillo 8-7 25 158.6 107 3.91 1.24 109 3.2
3. T. Hudson 11-7 22 142.0 85 3.17 1.16 134 4.5
4. J. Reyes 3-11 22 113.0 78 5.81 1.65 73 1.1
5. C. Morton 4-8 15 74.6 48 6.15 1.62 69 0.4


Wren was very active addressing the need for starting pitching via trades and free agency. After a trade for Jake Peavy fell through, the Braves succeeded in acquiring Javier Vazquez from the White Sox for catcher Tyler Flowers (a good prospect to be sure, but not one of the elite of Atlanta’s farm system). Recognizing that even with Vazquez, the Braves would have trouble staying competitive in the NL East, Wren sought help on the free agent market. Derek Lowe signed with the Braves after A.J. Burnett (luckily) spurned the Braves’ advances and signed with the Yankees. In addition, they added Japanese starter Kenshin Kawakami to provide innings at the back of the rotation. With Lowe and Vazquez up front, Jurrjens as a three, and Kawakami, Glavine, Campillo, star prospect Tommy Hanson, and eventually Tim Hudson rounding out the back of the rotation, the Braves should have more than enough depth and talent to make a run at both the division and wild card. Although no individual in the Braves’ rotation stacks up to the Phillies’ Cole Hamels or the Mets’ Johan Santana at this point in time, the rotation as a whole is one of the deepest in the league and compares favorably to the rotations of their top competitors.

(Projected Starting Rotation – 2008 stats used)
Player Record GS IP K ERA WHIP ERA+ SNLVAR
1. D. Lowe 14-11 34 211.0 147 3.24 1.13 131 6.9
2. J. Vazquez 12-16 33 208.3 200 4.67 1.32 98 3.3
3. J. Jurrjens 13-10 31 188.3 139 3.68 1.37 116 4.1
4. K. Kawakami* 9-5 20 117.3 112 2.30 1.06 --- ---
5a. T. Glavine 2-4 13 63.3 37 5.54 1.64 77 0.9
5b. J. Campillo 8-7 25 158.6 107 3.91 1.24 109 3.2
5c. T. Hanson** 11-5 25 138 163 2.41 0.99 --- ---

*Numbers from Chunichi Dragons, Central League, NPB

**Numbers from Carolina and Southern Leagues (A+, AA)

Unlike the rotation, Wren largely left the bullpen alone. This is in mostly due to a number of key relievers returning from serious injuries as well as several promising arms coming up through the minors. Gonzalez, Soriano, and Moylan should all play significant roles setting up and closing games after returning from injuries. Blaine Boyer, Manny Acosta, a LOOGY or two, and whoever fails to make the starting rotation (in all likelihood Jorge Campillo and quite possibly Tommy Hanson in early summer) should round out a bullpen that is much stronger than the previous year’s. Add in the improved starting pitching, and it is highly likely that the bullpen will not be overstretched as it was last year and what was one of the Braves’ biggest weaknesses should now be a strength.

Position Players

With the overhaul to the pitching staff completed, the key to the 2009 season may rest on whether or not the Braves receive any production from the outfield after their infield carried the team last year. Chipper Jones turned in one of his best years in 2008, albeit with time missed due to the numerous injuries that continue to crop up. He should continue to provide MVP-caliber production while healthy, and the Braves have solid backups in Omar Infante and Martin Prado to cover while he’s injured. Brian McCann proved that he is one of the best young catchers in the Majors and barring injury, should continue to put up all-star caliber seasons for years to come. Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson both put up solid, if unspectacular seasons and should continue to provide above average support to the Braves’ offense. The only infield question mark is Casey Kotchman, who was the primary return for Mark Teixeira at last year’s trading deadline. Kotchman struggled upon his arrival in Atlanta, but should return to the high on-base percentage, relatively low power form that he displayed out in Anaheim. As a unit, the Braves’ infield can come close to matching the production of their NL East competitors, who all have some weaknesses of their own.

As for the outfield, an injury to Matt Diaz and the massive collapse of Jeff Francoeur left the Braves with one of the least productive outfields in all of baseball last year. Despite the free agent market being flooded with solid to all-star caliber left fielders, Frank Wren largely stood pat. After failing to sign Rafael Furcal (which would have moved Kelly Johnson to left field) and Ken Griffey Jr., the Braves signed the declining Garret Anderson to a relatively small deal. While it would have been nice to see the Braves sign either Bobby Abreu (signed with the Angels for $5 million plus incentives) or Adam Dunn (signed with the Nationals for $8 million this year, $12 million next) and move to the head of the class in the NL East, the outfield should still be an improvement from last year. A Garret Anderson and Matt Diaz platoon, if used correctly, should provide average production in left. Highly regarded prospect Jordan Schafer may win the starting center field job out of spring training or take over later in the summer from Josh Anderson. Right field should improve almost by default; Francoeur will be hard pressed to play much worse than he did in 2008 and is still young and talented enough to greatly improve.

(Projected Starters - 2008 numbers)
Position Player AB AVG OBP SLG HR VORP
C B. McCann 509 .301 .373 .523 23 52.0
1B C. Kotchman 525 .287 .328 .410 14 6.7
2B K. Johnson 547 .287 .349 .446 12 28.1
3B C. Jones 439 .364 .470 .574 22 75.9
SS Y. Escobar 514 .288 .366 .401 10 25.8
LFa G. Anderson 557 .293 .325 .433 15 14.9
LFb M. Diaz 135 .244 .264 .304 2 -7.1
CF J. Schafer* 297 .269 .378 .471 10 1.8
RF J. Francoeur 599 .239 .294 .359 11 -16.9
Util O. Infante 317 .293 .338 .416 3 10.2
Util M. Prado 254 .320 .377 .461 2 16.7

*Numbers from the Southern League (AA)

Outlook

When all put together, the Braves’ position players should provide slightly above average production with a reasonable possibility to produce even more. This should be more than enough support for a much improved pitching staff. The Braves should easily be above .500 this year with a shot at reaching 90 wins depending on how things go both in the back of their rotation, the health of their stars, and their outfield.

All told, are they the class of the division? No. That title belongs to the world champion Phillies, though with this past offseason improvements, the Mets may also lay claim to the title of best in the NL East. But as things are, neither of those teams are without their flaws and with this past offseason, the Braves have put themselves into a position where they can take advantage of any mishaps or mistakes by either team and emerge as the surprise division winner. Even failing that, they’ll easily compete for the wild card.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Canada's Only Team



That was 16 years ago.

The Blue Jays haven't caught a whiff of the postseason, or even a pennant race if we're being truly honest, since that October night in 1993 when Joe Carter danced around the bases after smashing a World Series-ending homerun.

The unfortunate reality for Jays fans is that they find themselves in the same division as Boston, Tampa Bay, and New York, three teams who have made World Series appearances in the last seven years. Even without posting abysmal losing records, the Blue Jays find themselves mired in 4th place in the AL East. A playoff appearance for Cito Gaston's bunch will require both a spectacular season north of the border, as well as below expectation performances from at least two of the AL East's three power teams.

In order to beef up for the 2009 season, the JAys front office went on a free agent aigning binge. Rather than targeting big names, Toronto added more than a dozen players to its payroll on minor league contracts and offered many of its signees invites to Spring Training. Add in a few waiver claims and the loss of AJ Burnett to the division rival Yankees, and it was a real snoozer of an offseason at Rogers Centre. If one look around the Jays Spring Training Camp makes you think that you've accidentally wandered into a refugee camp for former Orioles, you're not entirely wrong. Baltimore castoffs Kevin Millar, Adam Loewen, Brian Burres, and Brandon Fahey will try to win spots on this year's Toronto roster. They are joined as non-roster invitees by a few recognizable names such as Michael Barret, Jason Lane, Mike Maroth, and Matt Clement.

The Pitching

Starters
Roy Halladay 20-11 2.78
Jesse Litsch 13-9 3.58
David Purcey 3-6 5.54
Casey Janssen DNP
Scott Richmond/Matt Clement/Brian Burres

Bullpen
BJ Ryan 2.95 ERA 51 Saves
Jeremy Accardo 6.59 ERA
Scott Downs 1.78 ERA
Brian Tallet 2.88 ERA
Jason Frasor 4.19 ERA
Jesse Carlson 2.25 ERA
Brandon League 2.18 ERA

Roy Halladay. If you're a Jays fan or own him on your fantasy team, just saying the words is probably enough to brighten any situation. In an era when pitchers rarely finish games and extended stays on the disabled list have become a common fear for staff aces, Roy Halladay is a rarity. He logged 246 innings in 2008 and compiled a remarkable 1.05 WHIP and 2.78 ERA in the process. Only a Denny McLain-eqsue season from Cliff Lee cost Halladay another Cy Young award.

Dustin McGowan, two years removed from a stellar 12-win effort in 2007 will be ready to go mid-season after season-ending surgery last July. He will provide the Jays with a third proven arm in the starting rotation behind Halladay and Jesse Litsch. The bullpen boasts several arms, Carlson, Downs, allet and League, who posted impressive ERAs in 2008. Much of the Jays success in 2009 may hinge on the ability of the bullpen crew to repeat their stellar 2008 numbers. With a starting rotation made thinner by the departure of AJ Burnett to the Yankees and the loss of Shaun Marcum to Tommy John surgery, the Jays bullpen should see plenty of innings. Closer BJ Ryan must prove that he can stay healthy for an entire season.

The Offense

The Blue Jays have, in the words of Baseball Prospectus, a number of complimentary players miscast as stars. Scott Rolen is no longer a real power threat at 3rd base and has more tha likely entered the twilight of his career. Alex Rios is very good (.516 SLG in 2006)but has never turned in a breakout season to elevate him into the game's elite. Lyle Overbay is a good hitter. Not a great one, but, his bat in the lineup certainly doesn't do any harm. The fact that he only slugged .419 last season makes his salary (more than $7 million per season) and the fact that he plays 1st Base (a traditional hangout for sluggers) something of a liability. Vernon Wells has yet to be fully healthy after an eye-popping 2006 campaign in which he crushed 32 homers and drove in 106. When healthy he may be the one true star in Toronto's attack.

A new face in Toronto's lineup this spring will be that of Travis Snider. The organization's top outfield prospect hit .301 in an end of year call-up last season and will likely be the everyday left fielder this season. He has put up impressive numbers at every level of the minor leagues, and, at 21 years old, his cieling is very high.

The offense could receive a big boost if the double play combo of Marco Scutaro and Aaron Hill improve on their 2008 efforts. Hill's 2007 season (.291 AVG 17 HR) faded into memory as injuries stinkified his 2008 campaign. After many seasons as a untilityman for the Athletics, Scutaro got regular at bats for the first time as a Blue Jay in 2008. Time will tell if playing everyday will have any impact on his modest offensive stats.

The team exercised their 2009 option on veteran backstop Rod Barajas. He brings some pop (11HR last season) to the lineup. Like many other journeymen on many teams, Barajas' actual job description this season is "Placeholder" while the Blue Jays await the arrival of catcher of the future JP Arencibia. Having only played a half season at Double A, most experts agree that Arencibia is still one year away from making an impact in the majors. If the Blue Jays find themselves out of contention in September, Arencibia may get a taste of the bigs.

Forecast

Roy Halladay will be excellent. Jesse Litsch will continue to grow. But the rest of the pitching staff and the offense is a house of cards. With an unbalanced schedule pitting them frequently against the Red Sox, Rays, and Yankees, Toronto is overmatched. Not quite overmatched on a Baltimore vs the AL East level, but, in over their heads nonetheless. 78-84 4th Place AL East.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

New Stadium, Same Name

I am proud to say that I saw 3 games at Yankee Stadium. I missed out on catching an A-Rod homerun in 2006 because of two large Italian men adorned in gold chains to my right who stood in my way of lunging for the ball. I've heard Derek Jeter get booed after striking out with men on base. I even once saw an extra-inning thriller between the Red Sox and Yankees which ended in a victory for the home team on a Robin Ventura single.



The Bronx Bombers move into new digs this season. They hope to christen their new home with a championship run compliments of their pricey off-season acquisitions and core of mostly veteran talent.

Today's author, Georgetown Baseball Society founder Matthew Homyk, would be a candidate for beatification someday if only he rooted for a different team.

Enjoy.



I refuse to discuss anything related to performance-enhancing drugs in this article. Thankfully, with the spending the Yankees did this winter, and the return of several veterans who missed much of 2008, the 2009 season provides plenty topics of discussion and a dose of optimism in the new Yankee Stadium.

Pitching

Two of the three biggest names added to the Yankees roster this winter are pitchers - CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. While Sabathia should live up to his contract, Burnett gets injured a lot, and he was fortunate to stay healthy in a contract year in 2008. With the Yankees’ luck (think Carl Pavano) I doubt Burnett will remain effective throughout 2009. On the other hand, CC's second-half performance for the Brewers leads me to pick him to have a Cy Young-caliber season. Sabathia has managed to stay healthy through his career thusfar and has averaged 15 wins per year with a 3.66 ERA. While Burnett averages 13 wins per season, he has started 30 games only three times in his career, while Sabathia has started 30 games seven times. His durability played a major role in getting him the $161 million contract.

Chien-Ming Wang missed most of 2008 with a foot injury, so his return to the rotation will be welcome. Wang had 19 wins in both 2006 and 2007, with an ERA of 3.65. Those wins would have been nice in 2008, but hopefully, barring injury, Yankees fans can count on Wang for at least 15 to 18 wins.

The jury is still out on whether Joba Chamberlain has the durability and pitching style to be a starting pitcher for the Yankees. Last season, Joba made only 12 starts, and the team constantly has changed its mind about whether he should start. Joba’s stuff is brilliant as a relief pitcher, but he showed weakness when he couldn’t rely solely on his heat.

Mike Mussina retired this offseason, but Andy Pettitte is back for what could be his last season. Mariano Rivera will still be the closer, but he is coming off surgery on his shoulder. Rivera is throwing off a mound, but won’t be throwing full speed for a week or two.

Even though casual baseball fans don’t recognize the names of any pitchers in the Yankees bullpen, their young arms comprised one of the best bullpens in the league last season. Edwar Ramirez and Jose Veras combined for a 3.74 ERA. Meanwhile, Phil Coke, David Robertson, Brian Bruney, and Alfredo Aceves round out the pen. The Yankees have done the right thing by avoiding overpriced veterans for the bullpen. According to Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus, the Yankees “have more than enough effective relievers to go around, whether you've heard of them or not.”

Position Players

Alex Rodriguez has a hip condition that warrants some concern, but I still expect him to be typical A-Rod and put up big numbers. For the past few years, New Yorkers have whispered about the slow demise of Derek Jeter’s performance. While Jeter did have his worst season since 1997 in 2008, he still managed to hit .300 and continued to stay injury-free, which is impressive since he turns 35 in June (can you believe he’s already 35?!)

Melky Cabrera and Robinson Canó each had disappointing performances in 2008. Cabrera might not get his starting spot in center field back because Brett Gardner has shown more fire and better numbers down in the Grapefruit League. When asked about Gardner, Manager Joe Girardi said, “He can be a pest, and we like that." Gardner is the fastest player in the entire Yankees organization. In contrast, Cabrera has not demonstrated passion or performance over the past year.

However, Canó should have an excellent 2009. In 2006 and 2007 he hit .342 and .306. Canó has the ability to be an all-star, as he was in 2006. Expect him to return to 2006 form after working with hitting coach Kevin Long.

In right field, there is another battle for the starting spot between incumbent Xavier Nady and new acquisition Nick Swisher. Nady and Swisher put up very similar numbers (Swisher has a slight batting advantage), so neither is a clear front-runner for the position. Expect one of the two to be traded midseason when another team needs an outfielder with an above-average OBP.

Furthermore, Jorge Posada returns from an injury-plagued 2008. His temporary replacement last year, Pudge Rodriguez, was not re-signed and is still looking for a job. Jose Molina, a reliable defensive catcher with a weak bat, will back him up and may regain the starting job if Posada suffers another injury in his relatively advanced age.

Finally, after shedding a few tears this fall when the curtains closed on the "House That Ruth Built," it will be exciting to see what the new Yankee Stadium has in store for the next generation of Yankees fans. Although the old stadium will always be missed, the new digs, with their astronomical price tag, should be impressive. With the excitement of the new stadium and the most loaded roster in major league baseball, anything less than a World Series Championship will be a disappointment.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Mile High Club

On an overcast evening in the middle of August last summer, I watched the Colorado Rockies top the Washington Nationals 4-3 from the highly-sought-after $5 seats in the third base side upper deck at the new Nationals’ Park. It was a meaningless game between two teams with losing records. The Rockies, as is the god-given right of all NL West teams, were still technically in the running for a division title at that point. The Nationals, having been eliminated from contention sometime around Flag Day, were in full play-out-the-string mode.

Other than a rocket solo homerun to leftfield by Troy Tulowitzki, a resounding RBI double from Matt Holliday, and a couple of stolen bases from Willy Taveras which set a team SB record, the game was mostly unmemorable. Taking a 4-3 lead into the 8th inning, Rockies pitchers did not allow another Nationals batsman to reach base. Taylor Buchholz and Brian Fuentes combined to retire 6 straight hitters. 4 of them on strikeouts.

For our present purposes, that story is relevant because Holliday is now in Oakland, Taveras is a Red, Buchholz will start the season on the disabled list with ominous elbow issues, and Fuentes is now a member of Los Angeles de Los Angeles.

The 2009 Rockies are starting to look a lot less like the team which appeared in the 2007 World Series. If this season goes poorly expect the team to look even less like their 2007 counterparts.

Pitching

The injury bug has already drawn blood from the Rockies. In addition to Buchholz’s ulnar collateral ligament strain, lefty staff ace Jeff Francis underwent shoulder surgery on February 25 and will miss the entire season. Word out of the Rockies medical tent is that Francis will be ready again in 2010. Still, the words “ace” and “shoulder surgery” don’t go well together.

2008 All Star Aaron Cook will anchor this season’s Rockies staff. His sub-4.00 ERA and 16 wins in 2008 are reason for Denver fans to rejoice. The fact that he gave up 236 hits in 211 innings last year is cause for some concern that the real Aaron Cook is something more like the .500 pitcher of previous years. Behind Cook in the Rockies rotation is Ubaldo Jimenez who used an upper 90’s fastball and a modicum of control to post 12 wins with a 3.99 ERA in his first full season of big league work. Jason Marquis, acquired via trade from the Cubs in the offseason will eat innings in the middle of the rotation and, if his career track record is any indication, he may run into serious homerun-surrendering issues in Denver’s thin air. The 4th spot in the rotation should go to Jorge de la Rosa whose workman-like 2008 offers hope that his early career struggles in Milwaukee and Kansas City were merely growing pains. Greg Smith, a lefty acquired in the Holliday deal is the early leader in the 5th spot sweepstakes. Look for prospects Franklin Morales and Greg Reynolds to be early season options to bolster the rotation if injuries and ineffectiveness rear their ugly heads.

With Fuentes gone to LA and Buchholz on the shelf for the foreseeable future, the onus of late game bullpen-ing will fall upon the maddeningly inconsistent Manny Corpas and the equally enigmatic new arrival, Huston Street. Its unclear which of the two will emerge as the full-time closer or if manager Clint Hurdle will simply go with the pitcher with the hot hand in late game situations. Veteran lefty Alan Embree and righty Jason Grilli will provide most of the major league experience in the middle innings relief corps. Longtime veterans Glendon Rusch and Josh Fogg are in camp this spring seeking long relief jobs. Rusch kept his ERA under 5.00 last season, which, in Denver, isn’t bad for a long reliever.


Offense

Matt Holliday is gone. Over the last 3 years he slugged .586, .607, and .538 and scored 346 runs. That’s a lot of offense departed to Oakland. The folks at Baseball Prospectus produce numbers to show that Holliday was a classic Thin Air Superstar in Denver. Even if that’s the case, he was a pretty good Mile High fluke.

Todd Helton, the longtime face of the Colorado franchise will turn 36 this season and has shown every indication in the past few seasons of having entered the always difficult to watch “statistical free fall” segment of his career. He will be the everyday 1st baseman for the Rockies until his body, or a miracle of a trade, say otherwise. Across the diamond from Helton is 3rd baseman Garret Atkins who saw significant drops in every major offensive category last season. He’s only 29 years old however, so a return to his 2006 form (.329 Avg, 120 RBI) is not merely a thin air induced hallucination.

The double-play combination of Tulowitzki and Clint Barmes might be among the league’s most offensively and defensively stellar pairs. Or they might be a nightmare for Rockies fans. Tulowitzki’s sophomore campaign was slow out of the gate and de-railed by injuries. Barmes grabbed hold of the 2nd base job last year by hitting .290. This after consecutive sub-.220 seasons left him without a big league job.

Catcher Chris Iannetta had a breakout 2008 campaign stroking 18 homers in about 400 plate appearances. Continued pop from behind the plate will help alleviate the offensive pain caused by the fact that left field is now an open competition between young players (Seth Smith and Carlos Gonzalez) and low-ceiling veterans (Scott Podsednik and Matt Murton). Brad Hawpe, who, like everyone else, experienced a drop in his power numbers last season, returns to play right field. Hawpe and centerfielder Ryan Spilborghs will be counted on heavily to create runs this season.

Outfield prospect Dexter Fowler may get a look from the big league club this spring or merit a promotion early in the season. Described by one publication as “one of those players about whom, the second he takes the field, the first thing you say to yourself is ‘I want me one of those!” Fowler slugged an impressive .515 in double-A last season and has speed capable of stealing 20+ bases in the major leagues.

It must also be noted that Sal Fasano is in Rockies camp trying for a backup catching job. Anyone who has seen him in Baltimore, Philadelphia, or any of his other big league stops knows why that is, if nothing else, amusing.






Overall

Even as the Manny Ramirez circus has died down somewhat after the braided slugger signed his name on a 2 year contract, the NL West remains a wide open division. Even with off season upgrades by the Giants and Dodgers, there is not enough talent in this division to rule out a competitive season in 2009 for Colorado. Nobody saw the 2007 run coming. 2009 could be another memorable one in Denver.

Prediction

It won’t be. By the trading deadline, Hawpe, Atkins, and Cook may well be in new lowland homes and Hurdle may end up a mid-season casualty of a front office looking to scapegoat. 71-91. 4th Place NL West.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Meet the Mets

Shea Stadium is no more. In its last season of existence, I was fortunate to get to see a game there last summer between the Mets and Marlins. The Mets had not yet begun their September skid. The stadium was very nearly full to capacity. The home team won and the atmosphere was electric.




I came away very impressed with the quality of fans who devote their time and affection to the Mets. Someday, some glorious day, Oriole Park will once again be filled with fans wearing Orioles colors who live and die with every pitch.

A thank you goes to my former co-worker Matt Rabinowitz for taking time out of his senior year at Georgetown to talk about the Mets. Much to our employer's dismay, Matt was always willing to discuss the Mets at length with me during our shared work shifts a few years ago.

His writing this article is proof that Oliver Perez hasn't killed him.

At least not yet.



The New York Metropolitans enter the 2009 season with a bitter taste in their mouths. For the second consecutive year, the team squandered an opportunity to make the playoffs, losing out to their newfound rivals, the Philadelphia Phillies. However, it’s a new era for the Mets as they open the year in Citi Field with Manager Jerry Manuel ready for his first full season at the helm. While question marks surface in several areas, this team just might have what it takes to finally claim a National League East title.

On the mound, there is no one better than Johan Santana. Despite the constant rumors you will hear about Johan missing Opening Day, I chalk this up partially to the New York media. In all likelihood, Santana will get his 30+ starts and give the production Mets fans are expecting from their ace. After Santana though, the waters become a bit murky. Newly resigned Oliver Perez continues to show flashes of brilliance in one instance, only to walk the ballpark in the next. With his new contract, he is now the official #2 in the rotation, and will have to be more consistent if the Mets expect to be in it come September. At the 3 and 4 spots, you have to like the combination of Mike Pelfrey and John Maine. Maine was a potential all-star last year, although his production dipped in the second half of the year. Meanwhile, Big Pelf seems to be coming into his own in New York, as he is developing secondary pitches to accommodate his devastating fastball. The final starter spot is still open for debate. Currently, Freddy Garcia, Jon Niese, Livan Hernandez, and Tim Redding are all competing for the role. If Redding can get healthy, chances are he will take over, but I would not be surprised to see Livan every 5th day. He is an experienced innings eater who is looking to prove he’s still got it.

What was perhaps the weakest area for the 2008 Mets, may now be the strongest asset in 2009. Free agent acquisitions Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz could provide the greatest 1-2 punch in all of baseball…and by a substantial margin. Sure, we can discuss the rest of the pen, but at this point, all you need to know is, if the opposing team is trailing after 7 innings…fuggedaboutit.

Around the horn, this year’s team features its usual studs, but still some gaping holes. Jose Reyes will be the sparkplug for the offense. Whenever he gets on base, the Mets seem to put at least 1 on the board. Reyes’ unique combination of speed, power, and sheer talent makes him one of the best leadoff men in baseball and a sleeper pick for NL MVP. While some fans were clamoring for some added pop to the lineup (i.e. Manny Ramirez), they will go to the war with David Wright and Carlos Delgado at the corners. Wright is a five tool stud who can carry the team to victory on any given night. However, he has not shown a particular aptitude for clutch hitting, an issue that has plagued this team in the past. Carlos Delgado is quite possibly the biggest question mark of the year. Will we see the Carlos Delgado that struggled to surpass the Mendoza line at the start of the year, or the man that hit .340 over his last 25 games? Unfortunately, my vote goes to the former, and I would expect a huge dip in production, as well as a huge drop in the batting order for Mr. Delgado. At 2B, the Mets will look to either Luis Castillo or Alex Cora to step up. Castillo is a slap hitter who has trouble staying on the field, while Cora is much more intriguing. Expect Cora to be the starter by the all-star break, and perhaps round out the infield nicely.

In the outfield, the discussion starts with Carlos Beltran. You can write him down for .275, 30, and 100 right now, along with some stellar defensive play. However, like Wright, he is notorious for coming up empty when it counts, most noticeably when he left the bat on his shoulders during Game 7 of the NLCS against the Cards. Over in right field, big things are expected from Ryan Church. The former National looked good to start the year, but battled concussion issues all season long. Look for him to come out strong out of the gate. I also expect big things from Daniel “don’t call me Dan” Murphy. Daniel can flat out rake the ball, and while the Mets were hoping he could fill the void at the 2B, he remains in the outfield. Moreover, Fernando Tatis, Jeremy Reed, and potentially Angel Pagan, will provide some much needed depth on the bench.

Overall, this team is not the one you’ve seen in years passed. While much of their offense is still the same, their bullpen is vastly improved. Putz and K-Rod just might be enough to surpass the favored Phillies, and take home the NL East crown.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Griffey's Back in Town

You know a franchise has hit rock bottom when someone can say "Man, they really got swindled by the Orioles."

From the very bottom of my heart. Thanks, Seattle, for Adam Jones, George Sherrill, Tony Butler, Kam Mickolio, and Chris Tillman. Really. Thank you. That was big of you.

I forgot the above information when I offered Paul Campbell the chance to forget about his Georgetown Basketball induced troubles for awhile and write about his beloved Seattle Mariners. "The inherent problem," he explained to me, "is that you assume that shifting attention from the Hoyas to the Mariners is an upgrade." Well said. I think in his write-up Paul has skillfully captured the absurdity which is caring about a losing team. I should know. Its been 11 years and counting in Charm City...

Enjoy!


2008 in Review:

Alright, the AL West is down this year. We won 88 games in 07, maybe this is the year the M’s put it back together. Erik Bedard cost a lot of talent, but (King) Felix Hernandez and Bedard will make a great 1-2 combo.

Oh dear.

Oh no.

No, no, no.

Can this get any worse?

Oh, look, Bedard’s hurt again.

Oh my god, it can get worse.

$100 million on payroll.

100 losses.

HISTORY!

Maybe we can get the 2009 #1 draft pick.

THE NATS WERE ONE GAME WORSE??? WE CAN’T EVEN LOSE RIGHT.

Baseball sucks.

[fin]

Mariners’ fans only bright spot of the 2008 season came in interleague play on June 23, when King Felix, in his only plate appearance of the season, took a first-pitch fastball to the opposite field for a grand slam off Johan Santana at Shea. Fittingly, Hernandez would leave the game in the fifth inning with an injury and miss his next start.

The Mariners were plagued by the continuing collapse of Richie Sexson, whose saga came to an end with his July 10 release. Catcher Kenji Johjima didn’t fare much better, putting up an anemic .227/.277/.332 line that suggests his career may be firmly situated in a decline stage at the age of 32. Offensively the only bright spot was Raul Ibanez (.293/.358/.479), whose offensive value was significantly mitigated by his atrocious range in the field. UZR pegged him at 12 runs below average for the season.

The pitching staff was somehow even more aggravating than the lineup. Eleven different starters took the mound for Seattle, only two of which had above league-average seasons. One of those pitchers, Erik Bedard, only managed 15 starts and 81.0 innings in an injury-riddled season, an attempt to shred whatever might have been left of now-former GM Bill Bavasi’s reputation. Felix Hernandez had one of the better 9-11 seasons you’re likely to find. Miguel Batista (7.93 tRA), Carlos Silva (5.92), and Jarrod Washburn (5.72) all had the type of seasons that make you wonder why they were ever given multi-year contracts, and Silva’s was in the first year of a 4/$48M deal that will be haunting Safeco Field for a long time.

2008-2009 Offseason

In:

1B Mike Sweeney

IF Ronny Cedeno

SP Garrett Olson

RP David Aardsma

?P Tyler Walker

IF Reegie Corona

?P Jose Lugo

OF Endy Chavez

?P Jason Vargas

IF Mike Carp

OF Ezequiel Carrera

?P Maikel Cleto

OF Franklin Gutierrez

IF Chris Shelton

IF Russell Branyan

“OF” Ken Griffey Jr.

Out:

RP J.J. Putz

RP Sean Green

OF Jeremy Reed

2B Luis Valbuena

IF Tug Hulett

UT Willie Bloomquist

Unsurprisingly, when a team loses 101 games with a $100 million+ payroll, ownership will change some things up. The 2008 season started with Bill Bavasi at GM and John McLaren at manager. Bavasi was terminated June 16. Three days later McLaren was let go. Lee Pelekoudas and John Riggleman couldn’t show improvement as interim GM and manager respectively and were not retained at the end of the season. After a long search, club management announced Jack Zduriencik, formerly of the Milwaukee Brewers, as GM. GMZ’s first major move brought Oakland bench coach Don Wakamatsu to Safeco as the new manager and with that an overhaul of the team was in place.

If anything, GMZ’s first offseason showed a new understanding of how to evaluate players, focusing on their defensive contribution. Last year’s pitching staff was probably not as bad as their ERAs would indicate, but mediocre outfield defense deflated their numbers. Bringing in Endy Chavez and Franklin Gutierrez, two outfielders who don’t bring big bats to the plate but provide huge value with the glove, should see serious time this year, while Raul Ibanez will “patrol left field” in Philadelphia, leaving Phillies fans to enjoy a favorite pastime of Mariners fans, debating whether Ibanez or a drunk gorilla has better range and instincts in the outfield. Enjoy that multi-year deal, Phils fans.

Of course no preview would be complete without mentioning Ken Griffey Jr.’s return to Seattle. For all the ticket and merchandise sales the Junior signing will doubtlessly generate, it’s important to point out that this is not even close to the same Griffey who left after the 1999 season. A series of injuries have stripped Griffey of much of his speed and range, and his inability to hit left-handed pitching makes him an ideal DH platoon candidate. But as I wrote in an email to a friend after the signing, “I don’t care if he’s terrible and everything rational says it was a bad signing, he’s Ken Griffey Jr. and he’s a Mariner again and that’s how it should be.”

2009 Roster

The Mariners are clearly going to experience yet another re-building year, yet Zduriencik’s moves give reason to believe that the team’s new approach could pay dividends. In 2010. The woeful ineffectiveness of Richie Sexson has been replaced by what is projected to be a serviceable platoon of Russell Branyan and Chris Shelton, while a Chavez-Ichiro!-Gutierrez outfield would be a welcome defensive upgrade over the horrific Ibanez-Ichiro!-Bra d Wilkerson debacle that kicked off 2008. When a team finishes 40 games below .500, it’s hard to prioritize improving offense, pitching, or defense—the Mariners desperately need help in all three areas.

2009 Lineup (with projections)

C-R Kenji Johjima - .260/.310/.395 (400 PAs)

C/DH/1B-L Jeff Clement- .250/.330/.430 (300 PAs)

1B-L Russell Branyan- .235/.330/.450 (350 PAs)

1B/DH-R Chris Shelton- .260/.340/.450 (350 PAs)

2B Jose Lopez- .280/.320/.410

SS Yuniesky Betancourt- .280/.310/.390

3B Adrian Beltre- .270/.330/.460

LF Endy Chavez- .275/.320/.370

CF/RF Ichiro!- .310/.360/.400

RF/CF Franklin Gutierrez- .255/.320/.410

DH-L Ken Griffey Jr.- .250/.340/.450

2009 Rotation (with projections)

SP-R Felix Hernandez (13-9, 3.70 FIP)

SP-L Erik Bedard (8-6, 3.75 FIP)

SP-R Carlos Silva (8-10, 4.70 FIP)

SP-R Brandon Morrow (8-8, 4.10 FIP)

SP-R Jarrod Washburn (7-11, 4.60 FIP)

The AL West is going to suffer another down year, with Josh Hamilton being the only legitimate offensive star in the league now that Mark Teixeira is on the opposite coast. Unlike 2008, there’s no reason to believe that the Mariners will contend for the division crown unless the Angels and Rangers stumble through the season. There is reason for Mariners fans to be hopeful again. But it’s not likely to pay off this year.

Wholly Optimistic Projection: 75-87, 3rd in the AL West

Want to read more about the tragicomedy that is the Seattle Mariners?

Check out www.ussmariner.com and www.lookoutlanding.com.


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Tomorrow:

Meet the Mets. Meet the Mets. Step right up and beat the Mets?

Friday, March 6, 2009

Josh Hamilton and the Rangers

Someone forgot to have the baseball equivalent of the dreaded “Birds and the Bees” discussion with GM Jon Daniels and his predecessors in the Texas Rangers front office.

“You see Jon, baseball is different from other sports.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, son, In baseball you don’t automatically get to try to score points after the other team has scored. You have to get the other team out before you can take your turn at bat. If you don’t get the other team out, you don’t get to try to score runs.”

“Yeah, dad, I get it.”

“I’m serious son. Even the most powerful offense in the world cannot get onto the field to bat if their pitchers never get the other team’s hitters out.”

“But what if we score a lot of runs? Like maybe 30 in one game!”

“No matter how many runs you can score, if the other team bats forever, you’ll never, ever, reach the World Series.”

(under his breath) “This old guy doesn’t know anything!”

In 2008, as they did in 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001, etc, the Texas Rangers tried to parlay a team philosophy of ‘all offense and no pitching’ into a winning season. The result has been one winning season in this decade, a respectable 89-73 mark in 2004. Last season’s 79-83 finish got the Rangers 2nd place in the talent-depleted AL West. It was the club’s highest finish in the division standings since 1999.

Offseason Moves:

The Rangers added two household names to their payroll by signing 42 year-old shortstop Omar Vizquel and former All-Star Andruw Jones to low-risk minor league contracts. Jones his an abysmal .158 with 76 strikeouts in just 238 plate appearances last season. Vizquel hit an almost equally disappointing .222 in an injury-filled season in San Francisco. Jones is a Ranger in the hope that he will regain his 2006 form (.894 OPS w/ 41 HR). Vizquel is a Ranger to tutor prized prospect Elvis Andrus in the ways of big league shortstoppery.

The Ranger tradition of plugging also-rans into all-star sized holes in the pitching staff continues with the signings of Kris Benson, Brendan Donnelly, Derrick Turnbow and the re-upping of Jason Jennings and Eddie Guardado. All of the above come to Spring Training on minor league contracts.

Catcher Gerald Laird is now a Tiger thanks to a trade which netted the Rangers some minor league arms with some upside. The trade leaves Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the gem of the 2007 Marx Teixeira trade, as the 2009 every day catcher.

Milton Bradley, who hit .321 for last year’s team, is now hitting line drives (and possibly raising hell) in Chicago.


The Offense

The 2008 Rangers scored a league best 5.57 runs per game. Josh Hamilton, last year’s feel good story, is back for another season as the centerpiece of the Texas attack. He will be joined in the outfield on any given night by a combination of Jones, Nelson Cruz (.609 SLG in limited major league action last season), David Murphy, Brandon Boggs (93 SO in 334 PA last season), and Marlon Byrd (respectable .842 OPS last season). It’s a potentially potent outfield.

The infield may be as offensively vibrant as any in baseball. Young slugger Chris Davis dazzled with 17 homers in half a season in the majors last season and will likely be the everyday 1st baseman. Ian Kinsler (.319 BA 102 R) returns at 2nd base. Though experiencing continued decline in his production, Michael Young had a respectable 2008 campaign and will make the switch from shortstop to 3rd base this season to make room for Andrus, who stole 54 bases in the minors last season.

Health permitting, Hank Blalock will get most of the Rangers’ DH at-bats. The reserve outfielders, backup backstop Taylor Teagarden (.319 BA), and pinch-hit specialist Frank Catalanotto (.289 BA as a PH for his career) will provide offensive options off the bench. It will be interesting to see how long Vizquel hangs around as an occasional glove substitute/situational pinch hitter.

The Pitching

Lets hear it for Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla. After posting 5.07 and 4.74 ERAs respectively last season, the duo returns to the top of the Ranger rotation. The 3rd slot in the rotation should go to another piece of the 2007 Teixeira deal, lefty Matt Harrison whose 5.48 ERA in a partial season in the bigs was good enough to run up a 9-3 record. His WHIP (1.57) as well as the 1.43 WHIP of 4th starter Scott Feldman are proof that neither starter is the next coming of Bob Gibson, but not necessarily cause for weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth. The 5th starter job may be a season long revolving door as Kason Gabbard, Brandon McCarthy, and the off-season signees (Benson, et al) vie for innings.

Any discussion of the Rangers starters would be much more interesting had the team not shipped Edinson Volquez to the Reds in the 07-08 offseason. That trade brought breakout star Josh Hamilton to Texas, but, it robbed the team of the front of the rotation guy they so desperately lack. Baseball is different, Mr. Daniels.

The bullpen, like the rest of the staff, was less than effective in 2008. “Closer” CJ Wilson ran up a 6.03 ERA. Luis Mendoza pitched in 25 games to the tune of an 8.67 ERA. Joaquin Benoit didn’t far too much better, finishing the season with and ERA of 5.00. The one bright spot in the bullpen from last season, Frank Francisco, becomes this year’s closer. Francisco fanned 83 hitters in only 63 1/3 innings of work in 2008 and his 3.13 ERA looks out of place on a Rangers stat sheet. Guardado, Donnelly and Turnbow should all see significant innings, at least enough to justify the minor league deals each pitcher received.

Overall

Despite sound bytes from team President Nolan Ryan about pitchers being held to higher conditioning and performance standards, the 2009 Rangers are, essentially, the same team that has graced the green grass of the Ballpark in Arlington for the past decade. They will score runs. They may even, on occasion get a few of the other team’s hitters out. If they do they will be able to remain within ICBM range of first place in a talent-deficient AL West. If the pitchers ERAs remain in the mid 5’s, prospects Andrus, Davis, and Cruz don’t pan out, and the off season retread signings all blow up on the highway, no missile known to man could reach first place from the depths to which the Rangers could plummet.

70-92 3rd Place in the AL West

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Cecil Cooper's Base Stealers

The Astros were in the World Series a few years ago. That is worth remembering. This is a team which has been consistently successful (if only for the second half of some recent seasons) for essentially the past decade. Streaky? Definitely. Champions? Not yet. Relevant for 2009? Time will tell.

I appreciate Mark Smith's willingness to provide a fan's eye view of the 2009 Astros. While media attention is prone to centering on Miguel Tejada's off-field battles with the Justice system and against his birth certificate, it is easy to get distracted from the simple fact that the Astros are a baseball team who will take the field 162 times this year trying to win the NL Central division.

Enjoy.


Last year the Astros had the second best record during the second half of last season. The Astros had just begun playing their best ball of the year when hurricane Ike decided to pay a visit to the Lone Star State. Thanks to Drayton waiting to be sure that Ike was coming to Houston and Bud Selig’s poor decision making, we were stuck playing a 3 game “home series” against the division leader Chicago Cubs in Milwaukee. Even though the city of Houston had other things on their mind, Astros fans were irate with the fact we were playing a key “home” series against the Cubs a little over 90 miles away from the Windy City. During this “home series, Zambrono no hit the Astros and the rush to the wild card was all but dead. The roster for the Houston Astros this season has a few changes from last year, however it does not seem like these changes improved the team very much. Almost every player that the Astros did not resign went to play for the Dodgers. Randy Wolf, Brad Ausmus, and Mark Loretta all will be wearing Dodger blue this spring. The Astros also non-tendered Ty Wiggington who will now be suiting up in orange and black, joining all the other former Astros that now play for the Orioles (Luke Scott, Aubrey Huff, Dennis Sarfate, and Troy Patton to just name a few). While BP projects the Astros to lose 97 games I have a little more confidence in The Good Guys than that.

While losing Wolf is hard to swallow, especially for a measly (in baseball terms) 5 million, I think he was over performing the second half of last year. According to good old Milo Hamilton, Mike Hampton and Russ Ortiz have looked really good. Currently the fifth spot in the rotation is up for grabs with Russ Ortiz, Houston Clay Hensley, Fernando Nieve, Felipe Paulino, and Galveston product Brandon Backe in the running. Backe is the odds on favorite but Russ Ortiz has been playing well early. Nieve has no options left on his contract so if he doesn’t make it he will have to pass through waivers. An outside candidate for the open rotation spot is our top pitching prospect Bud Norris. He has yet to pitch above AA so he has to have a very dominant spring to make the big leagues. The only solace that an Astros fan can find in the starting rotation is the consistent and dependable Roy Oswalt. He can always be counted on for at least two hundred innings and anything between 15-20 wins. He is the definition of an ace.

One of the biggest strengths of the Astros is their bullpen. At the back end there is Jose Valverde who has more saves over the last two seasons than every player besides K-Rod. Setting him up is the combination of Doug Brocail and LaTroy Hawkins, both who had sub 3 ERA’s last year.

There are only two other positions that have a battle going on, even though they are pretty much locked up. At catcher Brad Ausmus is gone, which is met with great sadness by all the female fans. We now have Humberto Quintero penciled in as the favorite to start and Rule V draftee Lou Palmisano is projected to be the backup. J.R. Towles is also in the running but after hitting .137 last year, his chances are very low. Astros fans everywhere are just hoping that our top prospect and last year’s first round pick, Jason Castro will be called up this year and Ed Wade has said he might be ready for full time duty in 2010. The other open position is third base. After cutting Wiggy, the Astros signed Aaron (Bleeping) Boone to platoon with Geoff Blum. This is locked up unless Chris Johnson has an amazing spring. He hit .324 in AA last year but in a little over hundred at bats at AAA he hit only .218. If he has a terrific spring he has a chance, but is likely ticketed for AAA.
Out in the outfield Carlos Lee has left field locked up for the next four years, so no problems there. Hunter Pence will be patrolling right field for years to come and hopefully Michael Bourn can put it together and produce this year in center. As the biggest piece the Astros received from the Brad Lidge trade, Bourn is under a lot of scrutiny and pressure to succeed. He has amazing speed and if he could just figure out how to get on base he would be a threat at the top of the lineup. If Bourn gets off to a slow start again this year and Brian Bogusevic is hammering the ball down in AAA he better watch out. Bogusevic is trying to pull a Rick Ankiel after flaming out as a pitcher. Last year in AA he hit .371 and he projects as a centerfielder with plus power.

In the infield, Lance Berkman will be manning first base, Kaz Matsui will be trotting out to second base when healthy, Miguel Tejada will be at shortstop, and Geoff Blum and Aaron Boone have third base. The infield backups will be whoever isn’t playing out of Boone and Blum and either Edwin Maysonet, Tommy Manzella, Jason Smith, or Matt Kata. Manzella is projected to take over at SS in 2010 if the Astros let Tejada walk at the end of the season as many expect.

Overall I do not think that the Astros will go 67-95 as BP projects. This team is not as good as last year’s team right now, but if Hampton and Ortiz or Backe can chip in 10-15 wins this team has chance to sneak into the wild card picture. Right now I see this team maybe going .500 or a little less. The most important thing for this team going into the season is starting off good. In 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2008 they started poorly and finished with a tear. If they can play good in the first half of the season, Drayton McLane has always shown willingness to increase the payroll if the team is performing well by bringing in top players in midseason (Carlos Beltran, Randy Johnson, etc). If the cards fall in the right spot this team has a chance. The key to this season is whether Mike Hampton and whoever our fifth starter is can play up to their potential. If that happens, the Astros might turn some heads this year; let’s all just hope they get it together before August.
Final Projection: 83- 79, 3rd in the NL Central

Projected Starting Lineup
2B Kaz Matsui, .293, 6 HR, 33 RBI
SS Miguel Tejada .283, 13 HR, 66 RBI
1B Lance Berkman .312, 29 HR, 106 RBI
LF Carlos Lee .314, 28 HR, 100 RBI
RF Hunter Pence.269, 25 HR, 83 RBI
3B Geoff Blum .240, 13 HR, 53 RBI
C Humberto Quintero .226, 2 HR, 12 RBI
CF Michael Bourn .229, 5 HR, 29 RBI
Projected Starting Rotation
Roy Oswalt 17-10, 3.54, 165 K
Wandy Rodriguez 9-7, 3.54, 131 K
Mike Hampton 3-4, 4.85, 38 K
Brian Moehler 11-8, 4.56, 82 K
Brandon Backe 9-14, 6.05, 127 K
Bullpen
Closer: Jose Valverde 44 Saves, 3.38 ERA, 83 K
Set up: Doug Brocail 3.93 ERA, 64 K, 68.2 IP
LaTroy Hawkins 3.92 ERA, 48 K, 62 IP
Middle Relief: Wesley Wright 5.01 ERA, 57 K, 55.2 IP
Geoff Geary 2.53 ERA, 45 K, 64 IP
Tim Byrdak 3.90 ERA, 47 K, 55.1 IP
Long Relief: Chris Sampson 4.22 ERA, 61 K, 117.1 IP

Bench
OF/1B Darin Erstad .276, 4 HR, 31 RBI
OF Jason Michaels .224, 8 HR, 53 RBI
3B/IF Aaron Boone .241, 6 HR, 28 RBI
C Lou Palmisano No stats, played in AA last season
The other backup infield spot is up for competition between prospects Tommy Manzella, Edwin Maysonet, Jason Smith, and Matt Kata.

Miscellaneous Notes
When the economy started to really go downhill in October, The Astros' Owner decided that he was going to cut back on his spending. It started out that if the Astros were going to sign a top tier free agent or resign Randy Wolf, they were going to have to trade a high priced veteran such as Miguel Tejada, Jose Valverde, or Ty Wiggington. As the winter drew on the Astros decided that they were better off keeping a top flight closer than resigning a mid level starter in Randy Wolf. In order to save more money the team decided to non-tender Wiggy. Also of note is that manager Cecil Cooper is in the last year of his contract. This is curious because the Astros have always shown a willingness to sign their managers to extensions before their contracts run out (Phil Garner and Larry Dierker come to mind). This also is made interesting by the fact that Cecil Cooper was not hired by General Manager Ed Wade. Drayton removed the interim manager tag from Cooper at the end of the 2007 season. As a result of Coop not being offered a contract extension beyond this season, it is believed by many that he is on the hot seat.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The DiamondbacKs

Why should anyone care about the Arizona Diamondbacks?

That’s not just east coast bias talking. It is a valid question. The Diamondbacks of 2008 started the season in first place despite an offense that couldn’t score runs with any sort of consistency. They weren’t particularly stalwart defensively and their bullpen was a patchwork collection of mediocre hurlers. Their highly touted young talent, Chris Young and Justin Upton combined for 286 strikeouts and only 37 homeruns. The pair hit a combined .249 last season. The sizzling start to the season was buried under a long season of exceptional mediocrity. Without anyone paying too much attention and without doing anything overly sexy, the Diamondbacks finished with an 82-80 record. Ask any Orioles fan. That’s a record I would kill for at this point.

Subtract the aging but ageless Randy Johnson and late-season acquisition Adam Dunn, and you have this year’s Diamondback roster. The question must be asked, is there anything about this year’s Arizona team that would make them worth watching?

Pitching:

The answer to the above query is, surprisingly, yes. The most basic reason to pay attention to the Diamondbacks are the two names at the top of their starting rotation. Brandon Webb and Dan Haren are as formidable of a pitching duo as exists in the game today. Webb, who has finished 1st or 2nd in NL Cy Young Voting in each of the last three seasons, is a durable staff ace in an era in which durable staff aces are an endangered species. Dan Haren is far more than the Robin to Webb’s Batman. Haren also goes over 200 innings every year at nearly a strikeout per inning. He hasn’t missed a start in the last four seasons.

The rest of the starting rotation consists of established inning eaters Doug Davis and recently signed Jon Garland. The 5th member of the rotation provides yet another reason to watch the Diamondbacks. Max Scherzer brings and upper 90s fastball and a promising young arm to the back end of the starting staff. Stay tuned, he provided many teasing glimpses of his immense potential in his half season in the big leagues last year.

Once the starters are taken out of the game, the Diamondbacks become much less noteworthy. With no established back of the bullpen presence, the Diamondbacks will again look to Chad Qualls and Jon Rauch as their two-headed end of game monster. Qualls posted admirable stats last season (2.81 ERA 1.07 WHIP) Rauch had similar numbers (2.98 ERA 1.01WHIP) in his 2/3 of the season as the Nationals’ closer but ran up an unimpressive 6.57 ERA over the season’s final 2 months as a member of the Diamondbacks’ pen.

Offense

For the purposes of this section, we will refer to the team in question as the DiamondbacKs. Baseball Prospectus included an interesting blurb on the DiamondbacKs’ propensity to whiff. At home, 19.6 of their plate appearances resulted in a strikeout. On the road that disturbing figure jumped to 22.2 percent. They don’t make a great deal of contact. MarK Reynolds set a record by coming up empty 204 times last season. Upton, Young, and Stephen Drew each topped 100 strikeouts. Catcher Chris Snyder whiffed 101 times in 404 plate appearances. That’s exactly ¼ of his trips to the plate.

Stephen Drew, JD’s sturdier younger brother, became the first of the Upton/Young/Drew triumvirate to put together a respectable offensive season at the big league level. In his second full season, the Arizona shortstop slugged .502, stroked 44 doubles, and scored 91 runs. The arrival of a new double play partner, Felipe Lopez, provides the DiamondbacKs with a potent middle infield.

The ability of Young and Upton to live up to the lofty expectations created by their very obvious talent is potentially, another reason to follow Arizona this season. There is a possibility that balls could fly out of Chase Field all summer if the two outfielders progress.

Tony Clark is back for yet another season in Phoenix. He will share 1st Base duties with the oft-injured Chad Tracy. Conor Jackson, exiled to left field last season, could see time at first base as well but, according to plans, will join Upton and Young in the outfield.

Overall

The starting rotation is as close to a sure thing as exists in baseball. The bullpen has potential leaks. The offense has a core group of talented young hitters who have yet to learn to put the ball in play with any kind of regularity. If the strikeouts and abysmal batting averages persist, the Diamondbacks will be hard pressed to repeat last season’s 2nd place finish. However, if the glowing upsides of their free swinging outfield somehow manage to shine brighter this season, the Diamondbacks can be a force in the National League West.

Prediction: The young bats continue to miss the ball more than Bob Melvin would like. 79-83. 2nd in NL West.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The American League Champs

Did anybody see that coming? Tampa Bay Rays: AL Champions. It rolls off the tongue nicely.

Not only did the baseball world not see the Tampa Bay Rays’ worst-to-first 2008 season coming, most residents of Tampa did not see the miracle turnaround as it was happening. On July 6, 2008, only 20,587 fans turned out to watch their first place Rays throttle Kansas City and extend their lead over 2nd place Boston to a full 5 games. By comparison, the dreadful Nationals drew 28,000 people that same day for a tussle with the lowly Reds, The pitiful Orioles gated 22,000 for a slugfest with the hapless Rangers, the floundering Rockies were viewed by more than 27,000 fans that day.

For the season, the Rays only averaged 22,259 fans in attendance at each game. That was good for 26th in baseball. On average, 47.2% of the seats in Tropicana Field were empty for Rays games. That’s a lot.

We can forgive everyone’s reluctance to get behind the suddenly successful Rays. 10 straight losing seasons to begin a franchise’s life can make anyone skeptical. And by the time the playoffs rolled around, Tampa fans admirably filled Tropicana Field.

Will they still show up in large numbers this season? Will support for the Rays be a one year bandwagon (half year to be exact)? Or is baseball here to stay in Tampa?

The answer to those questions may well hinge upon the performance of this year’s team. If last season was the most important season in the history of the franchise, this season now becomes the most important for the present and future of baseball in Tampa.

The good news, then, for newly christened Rays fans is that last years pennant winners are almost entirely back in tact for their AL title defense. Uber-phenoms David Price and Evan Longoria have their first full season ahead of them. Young pitchers have post-season experience already under their belts. None of the truly essential pieces of last year’s team have jumped ship.

Pitching:

Scott Kazmir missed several weeks of action in 2008, making only 27 starts. He has gone over 200 innings only once in his career. When he’s healthy, he is as dominant as any pitcher in baseball today. When he’s hurt and sitting in the dugout, he’s no more helpful than Jorge Julio. Kazmir is 25 years old and immensely talented. The more his body allows him to show off that talent, the easier sustained success will become for the Rays.

Kazmir is joined in the Rays rotation by soon to be household name James Shields. Matt Garza, Andy Sonnanstine, and, if all goes according to plan, October standout David Price will round out a young and exciting starting staff. Barring injury, the rotation will be young, seasoned by postseason experience, and increasingly unhittable. James Shields is the rotation’s senior statesman, and he’s 27. That should terrify fans of other AL East teams.

The bullpen, apart from the Game 5 meltdown against Boston in the ALCS dominated hitters well into the month of October. The burning bullpen question going into the 2009 season remains the role of closer. Troy Percival’s season ended well before the Rays’ season came to a close. Closer by committee took the Rays to the World Series, but, Percival’s presence at the back of the bullpen was missed. His ability to return this season and provide a steadying back of the bullpen force would certainly be reassuring to Rays fans.

The Offense.

The Rays may have made the offseason’s savviest signing when they inked Pat Burrell to a 2-year contract. “Pat the Bat” adds right-handed punch to last year’s lefty-heavy lineup. Burrell slugged 33 homers last season as the Phillies’ left fielder. As Tampa’s full-time DH, his defensive shortcomings won’t ever be on display, an added bonus. Burrell’s arrival should fill the gap left by Cliff Floyd’s free agent flight to San Diego.

Carlos Pena (.871 OPS) is back. Jason Bartlett is back. Aki Iwamura (91 Runs scored), Dionar Navarro (.295 BA), and Carl Crawford (career .293 hitter) are back and, in Crawford’s case, finally fully healthy. BJ Upton (44 SB) has another season of hitting big league pitching under his belt. Evan Longoria (.874 OPS) has a season of experience now. This is not the 1927 Yankees. But, there is no reason to suspect that the 2009 incarnation of the Rays will fail to improve on last season’s 4.78 runs per game performance. A healthy Carl Crawford and the addition of Burrell should help this year’s Rays to put runs on the board.

Beyond the starters, Willy Aybar (.949 OPS in the postseason), Matt Joyce (acquired from the Tigers for Edwin Jackson), and Gabe Kapler (.838 OPS last season) provide pop off of the bench.


What to Look For

The 2008 Rays exuded team chemistry. From manager Joe Maddon’s highly publicized willingness to sport a “Ray-Hawk,” to the manner in which the team rallied to overcome a meltdown loss in Game 5 of the ALCS, it was clear that the 2008 Rays liked each other, believed in the concept of team preached by management, and were united in the common pursuit of the franchise’s first championship.

Last year the Rays showed everyone that they, as a team, enjoyed winning. With the arrival of top prospects at the big league level, the continued big league maturation of top-tier talent, and the arrivals of the Slugging Burrell and the valuable Joyce and Kapler, the 2009 Rays should be even better than their 2008 counterparts.

There are no certainties in baseball. But, both the numbers and the observations of the trained eye seem to scream that continued success is inevitable in Tampa.

With this lineup returning, what can go wrong?

Player AVG/OBP/SLG
1B- Carlos Pena .247/.377/.494
2B- Aki Iwamora .274/.349/.380
3B- Evan Longoria .272/.343/.531
SS- Jason Bartlett .286/.329/.361
LF- Carl Crawford .272/.319/.400
CF- BJ Upton .273/.383/.401
RF- Gabe Gross/Matt Joyce .242/.333/.434 and .252/.339/.492
C- Dionar Navarro .295/.349/.407
DH-Pat Burrell .250/.367/.507

Starting Pitchers
Scott Kazmir 1.27 WHIP and 9.8 K per 9 innings
James Shields 1.15 WHIP and consecutive seasons of 215 IP
Matt Garza 1.24 WHIP and 3.70 ERA
Andy Sonnanstine 1.29 WHIP and 3.35/1 K/BB ratio
David Price. Did you watch the postseason?

Bullpen
Dan Wheeler 0.99 WHIP
JP Howell 1.13 WHIP
Troy Percival 28 Saves
Grant Balfour 0.89 WHIP


The official baseballbreaksyourheart.com prediction: 94 wins 68 losses. 1st place in AL East.


Editorial Note:

My initial plan was to begin the 2009 season previews with the four teams who appeared in last years League Championship Series. However, as the Manny Ramirez saga in Los Angeles continues to drag on, the Dodgers season preview has been put on hold until the corn-rowed elephant has either left the room or agreed to hang around and play by the rules.

Thus, tomorrow we will look at the Diamondbacks. The Dodgers will have to wait for later this month.