Wednesday, March 31, 2010
The A's of 2010 do not offer much in the way of championship potential. However, what follows, compliments of Mr. Paul Campbell, is an epically entertaining tour of the Athletics roster. Enjoy!
Oakland Athletics 2010 Preview
The 2009 season was a disappointing one for the A's, as they were effectively out of the playoff hunt by June and stumbled to a 75-87 finish, bringing up the rear of the AL West. Despite the last-place finish, there were reasons for optimism in Oakland, with strong performances from rookie starter Brett Anderson and closer Andrew Bailey, and continued production from OF Ryan Sweeney in his second year in Oakland.
The Oakland offseason was headlined by the January 25 signing of free-agent SP Ben Sheets. Sheets, the former Brewer ace, may be the ultimate risk-reward signing of the 2009-2010 offseason. After missing all of 2009 while recovering from elbow surgery, Sheets signed a one-year, $10 million contract (+$2M in innings-based incentives) with Oakland.
While Sheets was the highest-profile move, he was not the only piece the A's brought in to shore up the roster. The A's traded for 3B Kevin Kouzmanoff to bring stability to the hot corner and hopefully provide better production than 2009's Adam Kennedy/Jack Hannahan/Bobby Crosby combination. The team also signed CF Coco Crisp to inexplicably keep the better-fielding Rajai Davis in LF, and Gabe Gross to serve as a fourth outfielder.
In terms of losses, the A's saw the offseason departures of minor-league IF Tommy Everidge (claimed off waivers by SEA), 3B Adam Kennedy (signed with WAS), OFs Scott Hairston and Aaron Cunningham (via the Kouzmanoff trade), IF Aaron Miles (trade), RP Bobby Casseveh (Rule V draft pick returned to LAA), and prospect OF Grant Desme (calling to Catholic priesthood), so...they are at least keeping it interesting in the East Bay.
The 2010 Oakland Athletics aren't going to light up the scoreboard, and will be hard-pressed to match the 2009 team's 759 runs scored. That team was paced by LF Matt Holliday, dealt at the trade deadline and now of the Cardinals. The 2010 roster will rely on production from Daric Barton, Kurt Suzuki, Jack Cust, Kouzmanoff, and Sweeney to offset a collection of mediocre bats at the remaining spots in the lineup. Even among the A's offensive leaders, the only exceptional bat is DH Cust.
Projected Lineup (2010 projected AVG/OBP/SLG/wOBA from CHONE, via Fangraphs)
C-R Kurt Suzuki (275/335/405/327)
1B-L Daric Barton (261/366/413/347)
2B-R Mark Ellis (248/312/386/310)
SS-S Cliff Pennington (243/325/341/304)
3B-R Kevin Kouzmanoff (259/304/431/320)
LF-R Rajai Davis (270/329/375/319)
CF-S Coco Crisp (254/330/370/319)
RF-L Ryan Sweeney (286/350/409/335)
DH-L Jack Cust (235/370/441/360)
OF-L Gabe Gross (238/332/387/321)
IF-L Eric Chavez (234/315/392/314)
C-R Landon Powell (227/314/399/316)
IF-R Adam Rosales (245/310/395/310)
In 2009 the A's found themselves in the middle of the pack (6th of 14 teams in the AL) by posting a +5.2 team UZR. Outfield defense was the A's strength, with Ryan Sweeney (+24.0 UZR) and Rajai Davis (+11.3) leading the way. Newcomer Gross, despite little career experience in LF, should bring an able glove to complement Sweeney and Davis and ensure that Oakland's pitchers are safe pitching to contact in the cavernous Coliseum outfield.
Based on recent and career UZR numbers, the A's project to post another year of roughly league-average defense. Davis/Crisp/Sweeney should continue to form a solid defensive outfield, while Gross will do an able Matt Holliday impression as a fourth outfielder, even if he may not come close to his production at the plate.
1B Daric Barton: +5>x>-5
2B Mark Ellis: +10>x>0
SS Cliff Pennington: +5>x>-5
3B Kevin Kouzmanoff: +5>x>-5
LF Rajai Davis: +15>x>+5
CF Coco Crisp: +10>x>0
RF Ryan Sweeney: +20>x>+10
The 2009 Oakland rotation was not the picture of inconsistency, with 14 different starters taking the mound over the course of the season, ten of them making at least five starts. Despite their inconsistency, the 14 SPs did serve as a good example of what average looks like, as the Oakland staff posted a collective 4.96 tRA, almost exactly in line with the league average 4.94. The A's were led by 21-year-old rookie Brett Anderson and his 3.58 tRA, good for a 5-WAR season. 25-year-old Dallas Braden (4.12 tRA, 3.1 WAR) was another indicator of success of Billy Beane's perpetual youth movement. Youth was not universally served, as Anderon's cohort, 21-year-old righty Trevor Cahill struggled with his command and had a rough season-long transition to Major League ball. For his troubles, Cahill will be on the outside looking in on the 2010 rotation, as the signing of Ben Sheets and the return of Justin Duchscherer (after missing all of 2009) will bolster the Oakland rotation.
The bullpen, however, was another story. The emergence of rookie closer Andrew Bailey (2.10 tRA, 91:25 K:BB) anchored a solid performance out of the A's relief corps. Even more impressive was Michael Wuertz in a setup role (1.60 tRA, 102:23 K:BB). Repeat performances by the two will go a long way toward Oakland's success in 2010. Unfortunately, both have health concerns, and in recent weeks the front office has brought in free agents Edwar Ramirez and Chad Gaudin as insurance.
Rotation (2010 projected IP, FIP from CHONE, via Fangraphs)
SP-R Ben Sheets (136 IP, 3.68 FIP)
Sheets, who missed all of 2009 recovering from elbow surgery, has dealt with injuries his entire career; but there is no doubt that he has the talent to be a dominant #1 starter when healthy. In 2008, his most recent complete season (198 IP), he was worth nearly 4.5 Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Obviously durability is a major question mark, but so too is the question of how much of the once-ballyhooed talent will remain following another major surgery. Oakland fans will root for Sheets' fastball velocity and breaking ball movement to return to 2008 levels. If this is the case, then Sheets could anchor the rotation. If his elbow issues flare up again, A's fans will share the experience of their divisional rivals the Mariners with Erik Bedard in 2008-2009.
SP-L Dallas Braden (138, 4.26)
Braden was a success last year, posting the Oakland rotation's second-best tRA (4.12) and FIP (3.73), but for the life of me, I can't figure out why. He brings a decent but not exceptional change to complement the fastball and curve in his repertoire, but has always been below-average at inducing groundballs and getting batters to swing and miss at his offerings. He doesn't strike many batters out, and his walk numbers are marginally better than average. Unfortunately for Braden, the only number that jumps out as unusual from his 2009 performance is one that indicates unsustainable good luck on his part: a HR/FB rate of 3.2%. Regression to the mean is an inevitability, making Braden likely to pitch like what he is in 2010: an average back of the rotation starter, but probably not anyone you want to count on to lead the pitching staff.
SP-R Justin Duchscherer (78, 4.17)
Duchscherer is kinda like Ben Sheets. Neither of them pitched in 2009. That's about all the similarities I have, I just wanted to put the words Duchscherer and Sheets in close proximity to one another. Duchscherer is coming off a year filled with shoulder and back injuries, compounded by a bout with clinical depression that I'm sure makes it interesting for him to swap stories with the Mariners' Ian Snell when they cross paths. (More depressing city to live in: Oakland or Pittsburgh? Go.) Duchscherer has impressive stuff despite a lack of overpowering velocity. He mixes his pitches exceptionally well to keep hitters off-balance. In 2008, Duchscherer posted an above-average 3.84 tRA (3.69 FIP), supported by a probably unsustainably low .235 BABIP and 4.6% HR/FB rate. Despite the probability of impending regression, Duchscherer is certainly talented. Assuming he comes back healthy and regains the All-Star form he demonstrated two years ago, Duchscherer will undoubtedly be a key component of the A's success in 2010.
SP-L Brett Anderson (138. 3.92)
Amazingly, Anderson was the less-heralded of the A's two 21-year-old starters coming into 2009. The lefty was considered a top prospect but overshadowed by cohort Trevor Cahilll. Despite the hype, it was Anderson that made the most of his promotion to the big leagues, putting up a 3.58 tRA/3.69 FIP. Anderson will be called on to deliver a repeat performance in 2010. With a fastball in the low-90s and a wickedly effective slider, the only questions regarding Anderson entering his age-22 season are (a) if he can manage the demands of a second year in the majors without a dropoff in production and (b) if the A's can find a third top SP prospect to complement Anderson and a resurgent Cahill to form the third generation of Oakland's Big Three.
SP-L Gio Gonzalez (155, 4.57)
Gonzalez makes heavy use of his impressive curveball (28.9% of all pitches in 2009) to complement an ineffectual fastball and change. He did show significant improvement in 2009 over 2008, with his swinging strike rate increasing from 6.9% to 9.8% (league average: 7.8%). Despite the improvement, Gonzalez was still moderately unlucky, with a below average strand rate (68.8%), and above-average HR/FB rate (10.3%) and BABIP (.355). Gonzalez is still only 24 and has room for improvement, but in 2010 will be a decent back of the rotation starter for the A's.
Bullpen (2010 projected IP, WHIP, FIP from CHONE via Fangraphs)
CL-R Andrew Bailey (62 IP, 1.23 WHIP, 3.81 FIP)
Bailey came in and took over the closing role with aplomb for Oakland in 2010, with the 25 year old converting on 26 of 30 save opportunities and posting a 2.10 tRA (2.56 FIP) while striking out 28% of batters faced. With an average fastball in the mid-90s and above-average command, Bailey should see similar success in his second year in the closing role.
RP-R Mike Wuertz (66, 1.23, 3.49)
RP-R Brad Ziegler (74, 1.26, 3.49)
RP-R Chad Gaudin (152, 1.48, 4.58*)
RP-L Craig Breslow (58, 1.28, 4.18)
RP-R Edwar Ramirez (62, 1.35, 4.37)
RP-L Jerry Blevins (72, 1.22, 3.82)
*CHONE projection as SP
The AL West collectively decided it wanted to get serious about ending the Angels' stranglehold on the division in the 2010 offseason. Signing Ben Sheets was the A's salvo in the rotation-upgrade competition, joining high-reward but injury-prone aces Rich Harden (TEX), Erik Bedard (SEA), and Cliff (--gulp--) Lee (SEA).
The A's lost one of their major offensive contributors when they traded Matt Holliday to St. Louis, and again when Adam Kennedy left for free agency. Even assuming continued production from Rajai Davis and Ryan Sweeney, bringing in Kevin Kouzmanoff and Coco Crisp is not the answer. The A's are likely not going to score a lot of runs, putting the onus for their season's fate on their ability to prevent runs. The pitching staff, despite its talent, has substantial injury questions: Sheets, exceptional as he may be, is not reliable to perform over a full season. Justin Duchscherer's return to the mound is similarly up in the air. In the bullpen, the dominant Bailey and Wuertz will have to fight through health issues to be effective in 2010. And the team's defense, while absent of any major sieves, is nothing exceptional on balance, despite a collection of defensive prowess in the outfield.
The A's have made substantive, if risky, improvements in 2010. Unfortunately for the Oakland faithful, the results might not be there as the Mariners and Rangers have both made more drastic improvements in the offseason, and even the Angels have mitigated against severe losses and will still be front-runners to win the division. Oakland will see some improvement on the field, but it probably won't come in the standings.
Prediction: 78-84, 4th place in the AL West
Tuesday, March 30, 2010
The Florida Marlins are one of those teams that sportswriters always label as “dangerous.” Unfortunately, that “dangerous” seems to have been stuck in neutral the last few seasons, unable to escalate to “ready to win.” Last year they finished 87-75, sometimes good enough to win the Wild Card or, more often, the NL Central. Unfortunately, the play in the NL East and had to settle for 2nd place. Are the Marlins ready to win this season? According to most prognosticators, probably not. The Braves have gotten more hype as the threat to the Phillies in the NL East and common opinion is that the Wild Card will come out of the NL West. But don’t overlook the Marlins.
After all, they do have the best player in baseball not named Albert Pujols. It’s amazing to think that the Red Sox traded away Hanley Ramirez. Granted, they got Josh Beckett and the 2007 World Series title, but Ramirez is so special a talent that what Boston got in return may not have been enough. Last year Ramirez put up an insane .342 BA/.410 OBP/.543 SLG/.954 OPS, in addition to 24 home runs and 27 stolen bases (which were down years for him). Unlike the Padres and Adrian Gonzalez though, Ramirez is no one man show.
Leading the way, literally and figuratively, is the reigning Rookie of the Year, Chris Coghlan. His .321 BA was good for 6th in the NL (note, all of the NL, not just among rookies), and after the All-Star break, Coghlan led all major leaguers in batting average (.372) and hits (113). CF Cameron Maybin may have only hit .250 with disappointing numbers in 2009, however his bright future is not debated. After all, he was one of the centerpieces of the Miguel Cabrera trade (note that Dontrelle Willis is barely even mentioning as a side note in that trade). Also, both Dan Uggla and Jorge Cantu offer power alternatives from the infield. Then there’s also speedster Emilio Bonifacio on the bench. Sure, his 2009 flamed out after the first three weeks, but he still has game-changing speed.
The Marlins rotation is led by Cy Young candidate Josh Johnson, who won 15 games in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery. With a WHIP of 1.16 and 119 strikeouts in ‘09, it’s not surprise that Johnson has the stuff to post a career ERA of 3.40. Tom Verducci warns that Johnson’s rapid increase in innings pitched last year could lead to injuries, but I expect Johnson to escape the dreaded Verducci effect. Behind Johnson are Ricky Nolasco, Anibal Sanchez (who once threw a no hitter), and talented if enigmatic youngster Chris Volstad. They may not be as reliable a top 4 that of the Yankees, however, they are “dangerous”, as sportswriters would say. I’m not sure any team would want to face that rotation in one last series with their seasons on the line.
Once again, I don’t know enough about the Marlins bullpen to adequately critique it. Hayden Penn, once a touted prospect, has a lifetime ERA close to 9. Dan Meyer never amounted to much until posting a 3.09 ERA last season, but can he build on it? Despite his great 2009, Brian Sanches was once released by both the Phillies and Nationals. Is he a fluke or did those teams make poor judgment calls? Leo Nunez at closer put up some pretty impressive numbers – he held opposing hitters to a .230 average and also put up 26 saves – but he also blew 7 saves, a number approaching Brad Lidge territory. Like most bullpens, there seem to be as many if not more questions than answers.
So what Marlins team will we see this season? They will most certainly be “dangerous.” The lineup has just enough power behind Hanley Ramirez and is the rotation is competent enough behind Josh Johnson that no one would be surprised if the Marlins challenge for a playoff spot. Could everything fall apart with the right combination of injuries? Sure. But even in that case, they’d still be better than the Nationals.
Monday, March 29, 2010
But, I have been behind the wheel of a car while an anxious Cardinals fan grits her teeth in the backseat en route to the nearest television to watch the clinching game of a World Series. On a chilly October night in 2006, I broke a few dozen traffic laws racing through the hills of Maryland to get my friend Jenny to a TV so that she could witness, through the miracle of broadcast media, her team's triumph over the Detroit Tigers.
Her thoughts on the 2010 Cardinals follow. Enjoy!
The Cardinals put up another solid effort in the 2009 season. The acquisition of Matt Holliday was a real turnaround for this ball club. After gaining Holliday in the second part of the 2009 season, everything started going right for the Redbirds. Carpenter returned to full form and landed himself a spot on the Cy Young ballot with co-pitcher, Adam Wainwright. The Cardinals hitting continued to be strong throughout 2009. Despite a tough loss in the NLDS to the Dodgers, the Cardinals displayed their usual competitive edge throughout the season. The offseason signing of Matt Holliday will continue to give the Cards a great offensive boost. There were little other offseason movements (with the exception of resigning Pujols, much to the delight of every citizen of St. Louis), but the Cardinals will continue to build on what they have and once again prove to be one of the best NL teams in 2010.
The Carpenter/Wainwright combination, with their 2.24 and 2.63 ERA’s respectively, is arguably the best 1-2 combination in the major leagues right now. Carpenter will continue to be a team ace. Wainwright, if he’s anything like what he’s been in the last three years, will keep improving and prove himself as one of the best pitchers in baseball right now. Any one of these guys is a likely candidate for the Cy Young award. Of course, all of St. Louis is on their knees praying that Carpenter doesn’t get injured again. If they both stay healthy, expect record breaking seasons from both of them. Losing Joel Piniero and his 3.49 ERA will definitely put some pressure on the Cardinal prospective 3-4-5 spots. Kyle Lohse will fill in behind Wainwright. His unpredictability will make it difficult to know how he will perform this season. There is hope in St. Louis that Brad Penny will recover and add great depth to the Cardinal’s starting rotation. Imagining a 2007 form Brad Penny added to the Carpenter/Wainwright combination should blow anybody’s mind. Assuming the more likely scenario that he will recover average ability, he’ll fill the number four spot in the rotation. Possible prospects for the number 5 spot include Kyle McClellan and a young prospect Jamie Garcia. McClellan, an unpopular reliever in St. Louis, is not the favored pick because of his very untimely pitching messups. If Jamie Garcia can work up a little endurance during this Spring Training season, he could prove a solid rookie for the 2010 season.
This fan’s picks for 2010 starting pitching rotation:
The bullpen was by far the weakest link in the 2009 Cards season. Due to the management’s lack of movement in this area during the offseason, it is likely to prove, once again, a sore spot in the Cardinal’s 2010 season. Ryan Franklin, in 2009, certainly lived up to the reputation that players like Isringhausen and Wainwright had left him as a solid closer for this ballclub. Other bullpen notables are:
Trever Miller—Franklin aside, the Redbirds best bullpen pitcher. He goes up great against left-handed batters (a winning point for Tony LaRussa). If he works up the ability to pitch the same way to righties, he’ll be a major asset in 2010.
Kyle McClellan—LaRussa’s favorite. Assuming Garcia takes the spot in the starting rotation, he’s likely to see the most playing time in the bullpen.
Mitchell Boggs, Blake Hawksworth, Jason Motte and Dennys Reyes comprise the rest of the Cards very weak and inexperienced (Reyes aside) bullpen for 2010.
The Cards infield is looking very promising for the upcoming season. Pujols, Molina and Ryan have all proven themselves as greats in their positions. With Schumaker still adjusting at second base, and David Freese getting another chance at the majors, the infield’s greatest challenge in 2010 is learning to play well together. Here’s a glance at the players individually:
1st base: Albert Pujols— While better known for his hitting ability, Pujols has certainly proven himself as a great defensive first baseman. He pushes himself and tries hard to make every play. His relentless effort in defense shows just what type of player he is. A valuable leader in the Cardinals young infield.
2nd base: Skip Schumaker—Last season he made the difficult adjustment from center field to second base. He proved unexpectedly well at his new position, though definitely shows room for improvement. His teammates commend his eager to learn attitude, which will help him master his new position.
Shortstop: Brendan Ryan—He really picked it up at the end of last season, making some spectacular defensive plays. He managed to gain some national fame at the close of the season as a great, young shortstop. If he keeps playing like he did in the second half of 2009, he’s likely to draw in that same sort of attention and earn some fame to his name.
3rd base: David Freese—Straight from the Cardinals minor leagues. He made a number appearances in the big leagues last year before the Cardinals acquired Mark DeRosa and also for covering DeRosa a number of times throughout the season. He’s had a great spring training and is anticipated to be the starting 3rd baseman by many in the Cards club. It’s tough to tell how he’ll play out as the kid now has a history of having good spring trainings and rough season starters.
Catcher: Yadier Molina— This guy is the best in the game at his position. Consecutive two time gold glove award winner. Enough said.
The following three players committed a combined total of three errors in the 2009 season. They complement each other spectacularly and are one of the greatest strengths to the 2010 Cardinals team.
Left field: Matt Holliday—Now famous in St. Louis for his missed catch in game 3 of the playoffs last year, which many argue cost them the series against the Dodgers. A decent outfielder, but will definitely need to re-prove himself in 2010 to many doubtful fans in St. Louis.
Center field: Colby Rasmus—The golden star in the Cardinals outfield. As a rookie last year, he followed well in the footsteps of Jim Edmonds and Rick Ankiel making fantastic acrobatic plays. If his rookie season in 2009 was anything of a preview, it will be exciting to see what Rasmus has in store for this upcoming season and the rest of his career.
Right field: Ryan Ludwick—Definitely more famous for his offensive greatness. However, Ludwick has proven to be extremely valuable in the Cards outfield, committing only one error in the 2009 season. He has proven himself as threatening defensively as he is offensively.
THE 2010 LINEUP
1-2B: Skip Shumaker- Solid .300 hitter for the past two years. Hits a good number of doubles.
2-CF: Colby Rasmus- .251 BA, expected to improve as he gains experience.
3-1B: Albert Pujols- 3 time MVP. Enough said.
4-LF: Matt Holliday- Had a .353 with the Redbirds last year and will likely claim the cleanup spot again this season.
5-RF: Ryan Ludwick- A great homerun hitter. Hit 97 RBIs last year.
6-C: Yadier Molina- He’s picked up offensively in the past few years and in 2009 gained a reputation for stealing last year with a 75 SB%. The fans go crazy for this guy.
7-3B: David Freese- He had a .323 BA with only 31 AB. He’s had a good spring training so far this year.
8-SS: Brendan Ryan- .340 OBP. A decently clutch hitter.
The 2010 Cardinals are the best in the NL Central. Their offense is unbelievable on paper, and I see no reason why they won’t perform as everyone in St. Louis is anticipating them too. The pitching staff definitely has some holes in it. Many things will have to go right for the pitching to hold it together for the Cards in 2010. Wainwright and Carpenter will need to match their impeccable 2009 records. Brad Penny needs a decent recovery and Dave Duncan needs to find a solid player to fill the number five spot in the rotation. Oh, and the bullpen can’t blow every single save that comes their way. That being said, the Cardinals hitting and fielding will compensate for any pitching weaknesses and they will be the most competitive team in the NL Central.
MY HOPEFUL 2010 PREDICTION
95-67 and take the NL Central at least five games ahead of the Cubs.
A too close to call NLCS against the Phillies.
Despite the hype of a new $850-million stadium, the New York Mets finished last season winning a mere 70 games and going yard only 95 times, leaving them fourth in the National League East and fans wanting more. Granted, the inaugural season was not without its milestones, among them Gary Sheffield knocking out his 500th homerun. But visiting teams saw arguably more success in the stadium than the home boys did: New York Yankee Mariano Rivera recorded his 500th career save, becoming only the second relief pitcher to do so, and the Philadelphia Phillies’ Eric Bruntlett recorded a game-ending unassisted triple play, only the second in Major League history.
So, where does that leave the Mets this spring?
For starters, the Mets will have to exterminate the injury bug plaguing the clubhouse. It seems there is still speculation on whether shortstop Jose Reyes will be on the field for Opening Day after he was diagnosed with a hyperthyroid condition during spring training. Without his offensive drive, the lineup will be hurting. Centerfielder Carlos Beltran has come up big several times for the team since his acquisition, but his health has been on again, off again as well. A knee injury will keep him off the field in the beginning of 2010.
Offensively, the Mets need thirdbaseman David Wright to step up to the plate – literally – and get back to his old self, as well as bring his consistently solid defensive skills. Newcomer Jason Bay, an outfielder, is also expected to be a strong offensive contributor.
Starting pitchers may also present some issues. Johan Santana has established himself as a solid bet, but after him, reliability dwindles. John Maine and lefty Oliver Perez are recovering from injuries, and though Mike Pelfrey and Maine have come through for the team before, neither have secured the votes of confidence the Mets need.
Let’s hope the team gives Mets fans something more to cheer for this season than the Yankees to lose.
Sunday, March 28, 2010
By my unofficial count of ticket stubs in a shoebox under my bed, I saw 12 Nationals games in person last season. I saw young starting pitchers with not much potential implode and then get replaced by relievers with even less potential and an unfortunate penchant for making bad situations worse. I saw Cristian Guzman flail at just about any pitch in his continued crusade to never, ever, draw a walk. I watched Josh Bard stand in the box for a several dozen overmatched at-bats.
But I was also standing and clapping on a cold September evening when in a 2/3 full stadium, the Nationals rallied for 5 runs in the bottom of the 9th inning to beat the Mets in their final home game of the season. As Justin Maxwell approached home plate on his game-winning grand slam, he tossed his helmet skyward and was mobbed by an exuberant throng of bouncing teammates. In the brisk fall air 30,000 fans cheered the victory as if it was a game of some consequence. There was genuine excitement in Nationals Park that night. In some strange way, it was as if the entire putrid season hadn't happened. For all we cared, Maxwell was as good as hopping, skipping, and leaping homeward having just won a post-season game.
Even in their 4th straight miserable losing season, the Nats could provide excitement and joy. And this year, though the soul-crushing ineptitude remains to a degree, the arrival of Stephen Strasburg in a professional uniform, the continued flowering of Ryan Zimmerman, and an overall improved roster hold out the promise of more frequent competence. For those of use who will frequently make the subterranean journey to the Navy Yard stop on game nights this season, that hint of competitive play should make this summer a little brighter in DC.
The Nats allowed an apocalyptic 5.4 runs per game in 2009, the worst average in baseball. Not surprisingly, they have added a number of new arms to the organization. Jason Marquis, fresh off of a 15-win season in Colorado, signed as a free agent and will likely be the Nationals' Opening Day starter. Matt Capps, who managed 27 saves at the back end of the Pirates' bullpen in 2009, also signed as a free agent and will be expected to close games. Last year's part-time closer, Mike MacDougal was non-tendered at the close of 2009, signed with the Marlins, got released, and re-signed with the Nats, so technically, he's a new arrival too. However, two of the potentially most important new faces in 2010 will not arrive on the banks of the Anacostia until undisclosed future dates this summer. Stephen Strasburg, last year's Number One Overall Draft Pick, earned the nickname "Jesus" in his eye-catching and radar gun-melting audition this Spring but will start the season in Double-A. Chien-Ming Wang had a 9.64 ERA when the Yankees ended his 2009 campaign and sent his shoulder to an operating table. He won 19 games in 2007, and when he's on, he's as effective of a sinker-baller as exists in the game today. The Nationals hope he can fill a spot near the top of their rotation once he's healthy.
Former Astros and Rockies speedster Willy Taveras recently inked a minor league deal with the team. With Elijah Dukes' recent dismissal from the team, Taveras is an early likely candidate for at least part-time duty in right field. Veteran catcher Ivan Rodriguez, arguably the finest defensive catcher of the past two decades, signed a two-year contract this winter. He will be the primary catcher as Jesus Flores works his way back into good health, which may take most of the season, according to some reports. Adam Kennedy signed early in the Spring and is slated to bring overall competence and stability to second base.
The 2009 incarnation of the Nationals' offense was far from great, but also far from the worst in baseball. 4.4 runs per game from the Nats' bats was good for 10th best in the National League. Compared to the effort by the pitching, the offense wasn't half bad. And with most of the critical pieces back from 2009, and a few younger faces looking to make bigger contributions, the Nationals will likely do an even better job in 2010 of putting big numbers up in the proper boxes on the MASSIVE CENTER FIELD SCOREBOARD.
-- 3rd Baseman Ryan Zimmerman hit like a man possessed for much of 2009, finishing with 33 homeruns, 106 RBI, and an impressive .292 batting average. After an injury-marred 2008, Zimmerman's 2009 campaign was exactly the statement year Nats fans wanted to see and it loudly announced Zimmerman as a real contender for the title of Best National League Third-Sacker.
-- Adam Dunn looked like a statue in left field for much of the season but after Nick Johnson was traded away, Dunn moved to the infield and played an almost serviceable 1st Base. His streak of consecutive 40-homer seasons came to an end last year, but the 38 dingers he did manage are certainly worth the $8 million he earned. To paraphrase a great President, I cannot spare this man. He hits!
-- Josh Willingham began the year as a man without a position but finished 2009 as the every day left fielder, launching 24 homers in the process. For much of the second half of the season, Willingham joined Dunn and Zimmerman to form a triumvirate of terror in the middle of the order for opposing pitchers.
-- Centerfielder Nyjer Morgan, aka Tony Plush, dazzled in DC after arriving in a trade from Pittsburgh. He hit .351 as a Nat, stole 24 bases, and generally endeared himself to the organization and its fans. Both of whom would like to see an encore of those numbers in 2010.
-- Cristian Guzman, as of earlier today, has finally lost his hold on the job of Nationals' shortstop. Ian Desmond who hit the ball with General Patton-esque authority during his September cameo last year, will bring youth, energy, talent, and the ability to occasionally take pitches to the lineup this season and start the season as the every day shortstop. Similar to Morgan, much is expected of Desmond this season by fans and management alike.
-- Willie Harris should be a part of the rightfield platoon to start the season, but should see action up and down the lineup and all over the field. He won't contend for the team lead in homeruns (oh how 2008 was a dark year for the Nats offense) but Harris has proven a competent utility man whose bat and legs provide occasional offensive spark.
In a perfect world, the previously discussed Strasburg, Marquis, and Wang will be fixtures in the Nationals' rotation for much of the season, allowing Jim Riggleman to lean less and less heavily on "John Lannan and the chuck-and-duckers," who saw most of year's mound time. Lannan is a legit big league pitcher who was forced last season to play the role of staff ace on a very bad team. He kept his ERA under 4.00 but only managed 9 victories. He'll be near the top of the Nats rotation this year and likely for seasons to come. For the time being, Lannan will be joined in the rotation by some combination of Scott Olsen, Garrett Mock, JD Martin, Livan Hernandez (yes, the same guy who made the all-star team in 2005 as the Nationals' ace), and Craig Stammen.
The bullpen will, ideally, be anchored by the arrival of Capps, the return of MacDougal, and continued development by Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett, and Jason Bergmann. New arrival Brian Bruney had an eye-catching 0.99 WHIP and 1.83 ERA in 2008 and serviceable numbers last year as a Yankee. He'll see a lot of action out of Riggleman's pen. Non-roster invitee Miguel Batista, and whoever loses the 5th starter sweepstakes also figure to join the bullpen mix.
Every time the Nationals lose, the following plays over the Nats Park PA system
That got a lot of air time in 2009. With new big league additions to the team and more experience for young role players, the Nationals should subject their fans to noticeably less losing in 2010.
And even if Bob Marley once again does fill the air this summer at Nats Park, with the arrival of Stephen Strasburg on the horizon, Nats fans can listen to the song's wise advice and not worry about a thing. Things may turn out all right in DC sooner rather than later.
Friday, March 26, 2010
I feel a certain connection to the Tigers. I think that feeling goes back to a simple combination of events. I visited Comerica Park, the Tigers' magnificent home in the summer of 2005 and was very very impressed. Then, almost out of nowhere, the 2006 Tigers stormed out to a big lead in the AL Central, faltered down the stretch, limped into the playoffs as a wild card, then proceeded to upset the favored Yankees in the ALDS before eventually falling to the Cardinals in a very sloppy World Series. I rooted hard for the Tigers in the 2006 playoffs, right up until that final fatal whiff by Brandon Inge ended the Series and the Tigers' hopes for a title.
In short, I like the Tigers. They're not my favorite team, or, honestly, even my second favorite, but I've got absolutely nothing against them.
So it was with a certain amount of dismay and confusion that I initially observed the Tigers' offseason transaction following their second-place finish in 2009. In a three-team-swap the Tigers dealt away centerfielder Curtis Granderson, fresh off of a 30 homer season, and hard-throwing starter Edwin Jackson, who won 13 games and tossed 214 innings in 2009. In return, the Tigers received 2 young lefty relievers, a 2nd year starter, and a prized centerfield prospect. Trading Granderson before his contract expired and Jackson before he could ask for a raise and letting reliable second baseman Placido Polanco leave town, while obtaining mostly unproven talent in return signaled to me that Detroit was embarking on a rebuilding campaign. Let young talent develop while the team waits out or sells off its remaining big bucks contracts, and then, with a new nucleus ready to rock, make another charge at contention.
But then the Tigers management did some things that simply did not fit into my initial analysis. They inked Justin Verlander, their staff ace and probably best trading chip to a long term, mega-bucks extension. They signed closer Jose Valverde, and brought in aging Johnny Damon presumably to play left field. Basically, they aborted the sell-off and started buying.
I was confused.
Then, in reading in preparation to write this article, I realized very clearly that my initial assumption after the Granderson trade had been wrong. Sure, the modus operandi of teams looking to go cheap and young is usually to trade talent right before the time comes to renegotiate contracts. But that does not mean that every time a team opts not to resign a good player who is about to cash his first big check the team in question is thinning its payroll. Sometimes, and I think this is the case with the 2010 Tigers, a team trades a star (or two) because that trade will get them the pieces they feel they need to contend sooner rather than later.
The recently re-signed Justin Verlander had a splendid 2009 season. 19 wins, a 1.18 WHIP, and 269 strikeouts, Verlander is a staff ace, a big game clutch pitcher, and one of the 5 or 6 best pitchers in the American League. And he's only 27. After Verlander the Tigers can feel confident sending Rick Porcello (14 wins, 3.96 ERA last season in his FIRST SEASON ABOVE A-BALL) and newly-acquired Max Scherzer (9 wins 174 K's and a 4.12 ERA in his first full big league season) to the mound as 2nd and 3rd starters. The Tigers are betting heavily on Verlander's ability to repeat his great 2009 and Scherzer and Porcello taking the next step up from transcendentally promising rookie campaigns. The 4th and 5th slots will be filled by two of the following: Dontrelle Willis, Nate Robertson, and Jeremy Bonderman. Willis used to be a star and is now a head case with a frail psyche and frailer body, Nate Robertson followed up a 6.35 ERA in 2008 with a 5.44 ERA in 2009. Bonderman hasn't been healthy since 2007. If one of those three somehow pulls it together this season, the Tigers will have a formidable rotation. If not, tune into Tigers games once in a while this summer, you may see an endless line of retreads that you haven't seen for year toeing the rubber.
Jose Valverde brings his portly pitching prowess to the Motor City in 2010. He should bring stability in the 9th inning. If somehow, flame-throwing Joel Zumaya can keep his arm attached to his body, he'll provide supperior 8th inning relief. Lefty relief ace Bobby Seay has an appointment with Dr. James Andrews. Other than Doctor Kavorkian or Doctor No, there is no doctor's name I dread hearing more in relation to any athlete. New arrivals Daniel Schlereth and Phil Coke will also see a lot of innings out of Jim Leyland's bullpen.
Motor City Mashing
Statistical Note: OPS= On Base Percentage + Slugging Percentage
1B) Miguel Cabrera .324 BA, 34 HR, 103 RBI, .943 OPS
2B) Scott Sizemore .308 BA, 17 HR, .889 OPS (Combined 2009 Stats in AA and AAA)
SS) Adam Everett .238 BA, .613 OPS
3B) Brandon Inge .230 BA, 27 HR, 170 SO, .720 OPS
LF) Johnny Damon .282 BA, 24 HR, .854 OPS
CF) Austin Jackson .300 BA, .759 OPS (2009 AAA Stats)
RF) Magglio Ordonez .310 BA, .804 OPS, 50 RBI
C) Gerald Laird .225 BA, .626 OPS
DH) Carlos Guillen .242 BA, .758 OPS
Clete Thomas .240 BA, .709 OPS
Ryan Rayburn 16 HR, .892 OPS
Ramon Santiago .267 BA, .703 OPS
Alex Avila .279 BA, .965 OPS
There is star power (Cabrera), former stars (Damon and Ordonez), serviceable major leaguers (Laird, Everett, and Guillen) two top prospects who have played a grand total of ZERO big league innings (Sizemore and Jackson) and a player whose statistics call into question the sanity of the men who sign his massive checks every two weeks (Inge). Miguel Cabrera had some personal troubles in 2009 but assures the public that his drinking and anger issues are behind him. He's a superstar when his head on on straight. Magglio Ordonez is in the final year of a huge contract and Tiger fans can only hope that now, at last, he delivers production commensurate to his wages. Carlos Guillen's offensive output was way above league average...when he was still a shortstop. As a DH, his batting prowess likely will not be as impressive. Despite hitting 27 homeruns last year, Brandon Inge managed an OPS barely above .700 and struck out 170 times. His .236 batting average in 2007 remains his highest in the last three years. Look for Alex Avila to steal more and more time behind the plate from Laird as the season rolls on. Avila hit very well in a late season cameo last season, his first action above Double-A.
Jim Leyland is a notorious chain-smoker. There is a good chance that this incarnation of the Tigers will have Leyland lighting up with great frequency. There is also a chance, however, that if the starting rotation meets expectations, bullpen health holds, and the offense functions without too many hiccups, the Tigers could challenge for the top spot in the AL Central. With Kansas City and Cleveland likely to lose prodigiously, Detroit would have to really stink up the joint to fall to the bottom of the AL Central. The above question marks will determine whether the Tigers settle into the middle of the standings or put up a winning record.
Thursday, March 25, 2010
The Baseball Prospectus postmortem on the 2009 Diamondbacks does not apologize for the team's dissapointing campaign. However the statheads who write for that publication of publications used a new and relatively untried statistic to demonstrate that though the Diamondbacks hurlers were wretchedly awful in 2009, their poor performance does have a possible explanation slightly more nuanced than a simple "THEY SUCK!" Consider the following set of events in an inning, in no particular order. A pitcher strikes out the side, allows a single, a walk, and a homerun. Depending on the order of those events, the inning is either alright (1 run scored), less desirable (2 runs across the plate), or horrific (3 runs home). The Diamondbacks pitchers did not witness sharp rises in other key stats (WHIP, walks, etc) but their ERAs did shoot up. The explanation, Baseball Prospectus argues is "Order of Operations Syndrome." In 2009, Diamondbacks pitchers had the bad fortune of giving up base runners and longballs in the wrong order, resulting in a substantial rise in runs allowed without a huge rise in runners allowed on base. Those big hits tended to come with men on base. Its one explanation.
To the Future...
To attempt to reverse their rotation's fortunes in 2010, the Diamondbacks had an active offseason, trading away top prospect Max Scherzer in order to obtain talented Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy, who once Webb returns (fingers crossed) will fill the 3rd and 4th slots in the Arizona rotation. Staff ace Dan Haren, who despite a less-than-stellar 2009, remains one of the top 10 starters in all of baseball and an annual threat to win a Cy Young Award. A rogues gallery (including Rodrigo Lopez!) will vie for the 5th starter slot.
Two offseason additions, Bob Howry and Aaron Heilman are expected to perform heavy labor in steadying the Arizona bullpen. Chad Qualls will return in 2010 as the team's closer, he had passable numbers a season ago but, like many of his brethren who toed the rubber for the D-Backs, Qualls had "order of operations" issues." His WHIP was low, but his ERA was a little on the high (for a closer) side. Joar Gutierrez can regularly hit 95 on a radar gun and posted reasonable numbers in his first full season in the big leagues; he'll fill a middle relief slot.
On offense, the Diamondbacks 2009 effort was a mixed bag of breakout seasons and maddening underachievement.
Third baseman Mark Reynolds struck out 223 times last season, smashing his own single season whiff record. He also connected for 44 homeruns and drove in 102 runs, so the Diamondbacks recently re-signed the slugging 3rd baseman for 3 years and $14.5 million. Justin Upton will turn 23 in August but has already established himself as an elite hitter, batting .300 last season with a gaudy .532 slugging percentage. Catcher Miguel Montero clubbed 16 homers a year ago and batted a cool .294. When he wasn't deathly ill, Conor Jackson batted a meager .182 in 2009, he and Stephen Drew (a paltry .748 OPS), must regain form to provide the lineup with top-to-bottom pop.
Like the bullpen, two new additions will be critical to the offense's success. Kelly Johnson hit a disappointing .224 a season ago in Atlanta. The Diamondbacks would like Johnson to hold down second base, gambling that Johnson can regain his 2007-08 form which saw batting averages around .280 and double-digit homerun totals. New first baseman Adam Laroche plays plus defense but has a checkered past in the batters box. He has an unfortunate penchant for hanging around the Mendoza-line until the All-Star Break, then finishing with a flurry for an overall respectable season. The Diamondbacks would like a full season of competent glove work AND a full season of line drives off of their new First Baseman's bat.
So Where Does This Leave Us?
Lets say Brandon Webb is actually able to return to the rotation in mid-April and regains his old form. Lets say the offensive question marks (Young, Drew, Laroche) pull their weight and Reynolds and Upton build on their 2009 successes. Then lets say that the starting pitchers not named Webb and Haren keep their ERAs and all other statistical measures on the happy side of average. And the bullpen doesn't completely melt down. Then, this is a team that can run with the Dodgers, Giants, Rockies.
If the above pleasant thoughts do not turn into reality, then we can all say in October, "No wonder the _______ (fill in the blank with the NL West winner) won so many games. They got to play several series against the Padres AND the Diamondbacks."
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Since we at baseballbreaksyourheart.com started our round-the-league season snapshots, the teams about which we've been writing have been out and about and providing the careful observer with new nuggets of insight. New plot lines unfold, and we start to get a little clearer picture of what 2010 has in store.
Here are 10 quick items that have caught my eye since March 1st:
10) The retirement of Nomar Garciaparra.
Nomar kept playing baseball after July 2004? Well. Sort of. After Theo Epstein shipped his 5-time All-Star shortstop to Chicago in 2004, No-MAH simply became Nomar, and his fragile mortality was painfully and clearly revealed. Once the iconic batters box hyperactive from Beantown, Garciaparra became a nomadic traveling injury show after the trade. He managed 500 plate appearances only once in his life after Boston, that came in 2006 when he made the NL All-Star team as a member of the Dodgers and went on to win the Comeback Player of the Year Award. But injuries had him in their death grip. Last season, he appeared in 65 games for the hapless Oakland Athletics. On March 10, Garciaparra signed a one-day contract with the Boston Red Sox, and, No-MAH for one final day, he announced his retirement. He will join ESPN as a talking head on Baseball Tonight.
9) The Fall of Vin Scully
Have you ever seen or heard someone do something so perfectly that the thought flashes in your mind, "Wow, they're doing exactly what they were born to do!"? Like the goosebump-y feeling I get watching Usain Bolt sprint, Tiger Woods hit a golf ball, or Jerry Seinfeld tell jokes, my nervous system gets all wacky when I hear Vin Scully broadcast a baseball game. He's been a voice of the Dodgers since about the time that my mother was born. Heck, he was the person who, in 1955 after their triumph over the Yankees, proclaimed to unseen millions, "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Brooklyn Dodgers are the champions of the world!" Scully's voice soothes, excites, and in his pleasing baritone he describes the game in a way that invites listeners to close their eyes and imagine the scenes unfolding on the field. But, Vin is getting up in years. Last Thursday, he took an unplanned spill to the floor in his home, suffering some bruises and earning himself a hospital visit. But Scully, who for health reasons only broadcasts the Dodgers home games and away games played nearby, was back behind the microphone on Sunday, telling the Dodger faithful, "I'm sorry to have caused the accident that caused so much concern." If you happen to be able to tune into the occasional Dodger broadcast and happen to hear the voice of voices calling the play-by-play, do yourself a favor: stop what you're doing and listen. Scully is par excellence.
8) Cliff Lee's Suspension
This is a new one. Before so much as lacing up his spikes for a regular season game with his new team Seattle, Cliff Lee, the Mariners cherished top-of-the-line starter has run afoul of the Commissioners Office. During a March 14 game in Arizona, the prized left-hander buzzed the head of Arizona's Chris Snyder, earning himself an early exit from the contest, and a five-game regular season banishment. The enforced time off may prove a blessing in disguise for Lee and for perilously optimistic Mariner faithful; multiple news sources report that Lee has recently experienced significant pain while throwing side-sessions.
7) Elijah Dukes' Unemployment
Yo. You out of work Dawg! In a move which caught most baseball people unawares, the Washington Nationals abruptly severed ties with their troubled but talented rightfielder last week. The Nationals had hoped that Dukes would leave his checkered past (You dead dawg!) in Tampa and bring only his immense talent to the Nation's Capital. To his credit, Dukes has stayed out of trouble, as far as this writer knows, since arriving in DC. But the incredible physical gifts of young Elijah have not yet translated into noteworthy on-field production. Although, he did provide one of my favorite moments thus far at Nats Park in June 2008 by launching a laser-like game winning two-run homer against the Cardinals on a night that I had gotten stuck with overpriced outfield terrace seats. The move leaves two big questions: Who will play rightfield in Washington this summer? AND What really happened to earn Elijah his walking papers?
6) A New Number in the Bronx
This isn't exactly a new development, per se, but, this March, we got our first in-game look at Joe Girardi's new number. As a constant reminder to himself, the team, and fans that the Yankees are pursuing their 28th world championship this season, Girardi has upped his uniform identifier from 27 to 28. Yankee fans, upon seeing the new number in Spring Training games, were reminded of all of the reasons that they love their team. Some of us saw 28 and thought of famine, suffering, and war.
5) Twitter Trouble in Chicago
Has anything good ever come into this world because of Twitter? Really. I'm curious, anyone who has ever witnessed the world becoming a brighter place because of a "tweet," please, let me know. Twitter is like a big can of Raid and we are all little bugs. Just ask the Guillen family. Not that Ozzie Guillen ever needs help in finding controversy, Twitter helped the outspoken White Sox skipper to land in the middle of a heap of it earlier this month. Thanks to his overactive tweeting, Guillen's son Oney was forced out of his job with the White Sox. The ensuing brouhaha has exposed what many feel is a widening chasm between Guillen and White Sox GM Ken Williams. It will be worth watching as the year progresses.
4) Brian Roberts' Back and Jose Reyes Thyroid
Did anyone else notice how far middle infield stalwarts Brian Roberts and Jose Reyes fell in their fantasy drafts? Roberts, the Orioles leadoff man extraordinaire and a lock for 50 doubles and 25 stolen bases every season has been plagued all spring by a herniated disc in his back which has caused him to spend most of the month shuttling between Orioles Camp in Florida and a back specialist in Baltimore. He is the table-setter for a Baltimore offense that will be leaned on heavily this season as young pitchers chuck and duck their way towards becoming bona fide big leaguers.
Reyes has a Thyroid gland problem. Of all the things to sideline a member of the Mets after last season's Hiroshima-esque explosion of bad luck, their shortstop has been disabled by one of his glands. As of this writing Reyes has been cleared for baseball activities but news outlets express skepticism about his readiness when the Mets open their season on April 5th in Queens against the Marlins.
3) Ron Washington Failed D.A.R.E
Theres a movie coming out which promises to be one of the worst of this generation, which makes it a strong candidate for worst all-time.
Really. Almost certainly epically bad.
I can't help but feel, however, that I myself have been transported back to the mid 80s. Earlier this month, it was revealed that Rangers' manager Ron Washington had tested positive for cocaine last season. For anyone who has ever heard stories about Dave Parker testifying in Federal Court about rampant baseball drug use, or heard tales of Tim Raines sliding headfirst so as to avoid breaking cocaine viles hidden in his pants pockets, or been exposed to the sad saga of Steve Howe, Washington's admission is a sad reminder to baseball fans that, alas, drug use still haunts the National Pastime just as it haunts the nation itself.
I've always had a soft spot in my heart for the 80s. Heck, its when I was born. But I can do without 1980s-style athletes and drugs revelations.
2) Stephen Strasburg Facing Hitters
The Nationals recently sent uber-phenom Stephen Strasburg to their Minor League Camp, ensuring that the talented hurler will begin his pro career in the minors, likely in Double-A. In what we were able to see of him this spring, Strasburg seems a likely candidate to deliver on the lofty expectations which surround him. To quote the Washington Post, "Strasburg's spring performance cemented his can't-miss status." He struck out 12 hitters and walked only 1 in 9 innings of Spring Training work, running up a nifty 2.00 ERA in the process.
Once March Madness is over, set up your Stephen Strasburg Debut Office Pool. He's coming.
1) Joe Nathan to the DL, Joe Mauer to the Bank
Shortly after announcing that All-Star closer Joe Nathan will, as feared, miss the entire 2010 campaign, the Minnesota Twins went public with the news that they had signed AL MVP Joe Mauer to an 8-year $184 million extension. This is a remarkable paradigm shift for an organization which faced contraction in 2002. With a new ballpark opening this year, the Twins apparently do not view themselves as "small market" anymore. The Twins, it seems, intend to contend for the remainder of this oh-so-brand-new decade. The Mauer signing does nothing to fill their suddenly gaping void at closer. But, its noteworthy nevertheless.
Thank you for allowing me that brief interruption. Tomorrow, we're back to team previews with a look at everyone's favorite team to undergo a complete color-scheme overhaul in recent years: The Arizona Diamondbacks.
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Fast, name someone on the Royals not named Zack Greinke.
Perhaps the above exagerates the Royals' misery somewhat. There really are bright spots in Kansas City in the summer time. Zack Greinke was the American League's best pitcher in 2009 and received the Cy Young Award for his efforts. First Baseman Billy Butler hit .301 last year while slugging 21 homers and 51 doubles. The team added Rick Ankiel and Scott Podsednik to (theoretically) improve the outfield. This year could be the year in which Alex Gordon finally becomes the second coming of George Brett. And Jose Guillen has yet to do anything so egregiously crazy as to cause harm to his teammates or the Royals fanbase.
A story. I braved ungodly traffic on a Tuesday night last July and drove up to Baltimore because I couldn't resist the pitching matchup offered by an Orioles-Royals game. Baltimore's prized pitching prospect Chris Tillman would be making his big league debut against Royals ace Zack Greinke. Too good to miss. Tillman's 4 2/3 inning performance was more or less unmemorable, but Grienke's outing and the game's eventual outcome proved a nifty microcosm of the 2009 Kansas City Royals experience.
The top of the Orioles lineup took some good hacks against Greinke in the first inning. An Adam Jones homer put the Birds up 2-0 and Nick Markakis followed with a resounding double that nearly left the Yard. After a walk and a hit batter, Greinke struck out 2 Orioles and wriggled himself out of trouble. He then proceeded to allow a grand total of 3 baserunners in the next 5 innings and finished his outing at 6 IP, 2 R, 7K. Greinke made big league hitters look silly over and over again all night. He left with the Royals ahead 3-2. In the bottom of the 7th, the Royals bullpen took over. Before the Kansas City relief corps had recorded an out, the Orioles led 5 to 3. Two more Orioles runs in the 8th gave the game its final score: Baltimore 7 Kansas City 3.
Zack Greinke's 2009 was fully worthy of the post-season accolades he received. He is a top flight major league starter and a bona fide staff ace. Behind Greinke, however, things get dicey. Gil Meche met and often exceeded expectations in his first two seasons in Kansas City after he signed a rich contract to lead the Royals' staff but last year, in year number 3, Meche struggled mightily, finishing with a 6-10 record. After Meche, the Royals will turn to Lukle Hochevar, who pitched to the tune of a 2.49 in his 7 wins but to the off-pitch screech of a 10.88 in his 13 losses. The final 3 slots in the rotation will likely go to two members of the three-headed monster of Kyle Davies (5.27 ERA), Brian Bannister (a hopeful 1.37 WHIP), and Robinson Tejeda (only 6 starts last year, but, in combined starting/relieving he ran up a dandy 3.54 ERA).
Like the rotation, the bullpen features a lights-out performer. Closer Joakim Soria managed 30 saves in 2009 despite some DL time and despite playing for a team that managed only a meager 65 wins. Unfortunately, like the rotation, the rest of the bullpen often stinks up the joint. Kyle Farnsworth, though in possession of a strong right arm, is highly flammable between the months of April and October. Juan Cruz had a 5.72 ERA last year, Victor Marte ran up an 8.25, and Dusty Hughes posted a 5.14. Possible bright spots include Carlos Rosa (1.22 WHIP in late season action last year) and Ramon Colon (3rd best ERA in the Royals pen last year).
The aforementioned Billy Butler hits line drives. Sometimes those line drives travel great distances or land between outfielders. He'll still be 23 on Opening Day, the best is yet to come. Joining Butler in the middle of the Royals' lineup will be Alex Gordon, who just turned 26 and has yet to fulfill very lofty expectations for his offensive prowess. If he's healthy in 2010, this could be the year he improves on his pedestrian .250 career BA and .746 career OPS.
The outfield will feature a rotation of Guillen, Ankiel, Podsednik, David DeJesus, and Josh Fields. Fields came over in the offseason along with Chris Getz (who will likely have second base duties this season) in the trade which made the once promising Mark Teahan a White Sock. Ankiel, as of this writing, is nursing a sore ankle and is missing Spring Training time; not the most promising start to the pitcher-turned-outfielder's new life in Kansas City.
Behind the plate, the Royals will turn to Jason Kendall this season. Since the 2000 season, Kendall has managed a slugging percentage above .400 only once. Last year, Kendall's .305 slugging percentage was less than half of what Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols managed. The Royals speak highly of his ability to handle pitchers and "call a game," but his offense really is awful. Backing up Kendall will be Brayan Pena, who hit a grand total of 25 homeruns in 654 minor league games. Thats not many. The Royals won't get much punch from their catchers this year.
In 2009 the Royals got featured twice in an excellent commercial.
In 2010, the Royals will have to hope that Greinke, Soria, and Butler repeat and even magnify their past successes, Gordon finally reaches his potential, and Ankiel, Meche, Kendall and Podsednik rediscover whatever magic they cast in previous successful years. This is not the worst team in baseball. And, in an AL Central which boasts mediocre Detroit and Cleveland clubs, the Royals may even be able to make a run at 3rd place. But alot has to go right for that to happen.
A LOT has to go right.
Otherwise, with the team far out of contention, August in Kansas City may be a long, intolerable month.
Warning. THIS CONTAINS ONE PIECE OF ADULT LANGUAGE. But its Ichiro. So its funny.
Monday, March 22, 2010
The Baltimore Orioles will rise from the basement of the AL East in 2010 as their avian rivals, the Toronto Blue Jays, spend the foreseeable future at the bottom of the division. TQ, things are getting better all the time.
The Blue Jays, like the Tampa Bay Rays, were forced to reduce their payroll for the coming season. Part of the reduction came by trading the best pitcher in Major League Baseball, Roy Halladay, to the Phillies for a package of prospects. When you combine the dearth of starting pitching with a lack of talented infielders and a reliable closer, the Blue Jays simply cannot compete in 2010.
There will be a competition for opening day starting pitcher between Ricky Romero and Shaun Marcum. Romero went 13-9 with a 4.30 ERA as a rookie last season. Marcum, who hasn’t pitched since 2008 due to Tommy John surgery, was 9-7 with a 3.39 ERA in 2008.
The remaining three spots in the starting rotation could be filled by Brandon Morrow, Marc Rzepczynski, and Brett Cecil. Morrow was acquired from Seattle in the deal that sent Brandon League to the Mariners. He was a disappointment for the Mariners, who had hoped Morrow would develop into either a bona fide starter or at least a reliable reliever. At the end of 2009, Morrow showed promise.
All in all, the starting rotation will be a disaster for the Blue Jays. When you subtract the statistics of their bona fide ace, Halladay, from last season’s starting rotation, the staff ERA was a combined 5.30. Ouch.
John Buck and Jose Molina both signed in the offseason. Buck will get the majority of starts behind the plate in 2010 unless he is injured. Toronto, no doubt, expects its premiere catching prospects to develop into full-time roles within the next year or two, so Buck and Molina are temporary solutions. As a Yankee fan, however, I can testify that Jose Molina was very underappreciated this offseason and can contribute to the Blue Jays if need be.
The Blue Jays have an excellent designated hitter in Adam Lind. He had a killer year in 2009, batting over .300 with 35 HRs and 114 RBIs. Expect Lind to have another great year, even if he doesn’t repeat the 30-100 numbers.
Besides 2B Aaron Hill, who had an excellent 2009 with 36 HRs and 108 RBIs, the infield consists of 1B Lyle Overbay, 3B Edwin Encarnacion, and SS Alex Gonzalez. Gonzalex replaces Marco Scutaro, who left for more money after a breakout season in 2009.
Vernon Wells enters 2010 still trying to prove that he was worth the seven year, $126 million contract he signed after the 2006 season. Some have suggested that his contract was the worst ever for a position player.
Travis Snider, only 22 years old, will start in left field.
Travis Snider, only 22 years old, will start in left field.
Jose Bautista will play right field and lead off for the Blue Jays.
Sunday, March 21, 2010
Early March brought the 2nd worst news any Twins fan could hear: due to a tear in the lower part of his ulnar collateral ligament Joe Nathan likely needs Tommy John's surgery and will miss the 2010 season. Only an injury to 2009 MVP Joe Mauer could be worse news to Minnesotans. As of this writing, we are in the two-week resting period before Nathan tests his arm away from reporters on March 20th or 21st. Still, recovery looks unlikely and the Twins are going to be looking for a closer for the first time since 2004. After expanding their payroll by $31 million already, it is doubtful that the Twins would be willing to pay much for or be able to find a quality closer on the free agent market and will likely look to their solid bullpen to replace Nathan. Despite being a fan favorite, I don't think Nathan's absence will have great effect. With Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, Jose Mijares and Pat Neshek—once he is fully healthy—all possibilities to close, the Twins' bullpen is still one of the league's best.
The most important developments for the Twins involve the other Joe, the new stadium and the direction the club takes after the death of long time owner Carl Pohlad in 2009. Target Field (pictured) puts the Twins back outdoors after spending 1982 to 2009 inside the HHH Metrodome. Target field is everything a modern field should be, but what it really means to the Twins are two things, attendance and money. Its location near downtown Minneapolis makes it even more of an attraction for fans as does being able to sit outside on a summer night rather than in an inflatable white dome.
It's hard to tell if the new stadium or new ownership is a bigger factor behind the 2010 $96 million opening day payroll. In a begrudging way I can respect the way Carl Pohlad refused to lose money for “the privilege of showing baseball”, but I am optimistic about the increased payroll. The only thing that could sidetrack the Twins from the promising new direction in which they are moving would be the loss of their MVP, favored son, and hoped-for husband of almost every Minnesotan woman, Joe Mauer, to the Red Sox, Yankees or any other non-Twins club. Signing Joe Mauer has to be priority number one for the Twins front office or they could face decreased interest, attendance and money after only one season in their new digs.
As a Twins fans since 1987, I've often wondered if the Twins are trying to have a baseball season or write the plot of the next baseball movie in any given year. Given the seriousness and competence of Tom Kelly and Ron Gardenhire I'll grant them the former, but take a look at the evidence. Without straying into superlative territory too far, the 1991 World Series against the Braves was the most exciting and dramatic WS ever. A game seven that goes into extra innings with no runs scored, amazing! It was almost certainly the most exciting pitching dual any of us will ever see. In 2002, facing extinction, the Twins under first-year manager Gardenhire won their division and the ALDS and talk of contracting the Twins ended. Fast-forward to last year.
The 2009 season passed in similar storybook fashion. After an extremely average season, the Twins, sitting at 70-72 and 5.5 games behind the Tigers, watch their clean-up hitter and former MVP, Justin Morneau, injure his lower back sliding into first and get benched for the rest of 2009. At this point it's over, they'll finish around .500 and hope for a better 2010, right? No. Led by a ragtag bunch of no-namers and a to-be-named 2009 MVP (think of the teams from Major League, Mighty Ducks or Dodgeball here), they close out the regular season on a 16-4 run with major contributions coming from Nick Blackburn (RHP), their bullpen (Joe Nathan was 9 for 9 in save opportunities) and such names as Nick Punto (.400 OBP), Delmon Young (.600 SLG), and Matt Tolbert, who? (.795 OPS). To close out the fairy tale regular season the Twins won a one-game playoff against the Tigers on the 12th inning hitting of Alexi “.202” Casilla (think of Charlie in Mighty Ducks taking the penalty shot in overtime to win the game).
In the postseason, to quote BP, they got squashed by the Yankees in the ALDS (ending the season series 0-10)... because in the real world, Cinderella usually has to settle for the townhouse and the station wagon, not Prince Charming and the palace. The ALDS ended not in Game 3, but in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 2, when A-Rod homered off of Nathan to tie the game. After that it was a foregone conclusion. Side note, the last playoff game the Twins won was in 2004.
Here is a rundown of the offseason news that doesn't include Joe Nathan. Playing for the Leones del Escogido, Francisco Liriano torched his way through the Dominican League playoffs going 3-1 with a 0.49 ERA in 7 starts. In spring training, Liriano has continued to look good and hopefully can approach his 2006 performance level in 2010.
In 2009, the Twins opening day payroll was $65 million. Heading to opening day 2010, their payroll now stands at $96 million after re-signings—notably Span for 5 years and $16.5 million—and acquiring Orlando Hudson (2B) from the Dodgers, J.J. Hardy (SS) from Milwaukee, and Jim Thome (DH/1B) from the Dodgers while losing Orlando Cabrera (SS) to the Reds, not re-signing Joe Crede and sending Carlos Gomez (CF) to the Brewers for J.J. Hardy and a promise that no one ever speak of the Johan Santana trade ever again.
(All stats are for the complete 2009 season.)
Offensively, this is a very exciting team. Despite a fairly weak ninth hitter, the Twins have the best lineup in memory.
1. CF Denard Span (my favorite and the most underrated Twin, .392 OBP and a prototypical lead-off man)
2. 2B Orlando Hudson (.283 BA, Gold Glove winner, every Twins fan is happy to have him)
3. C Joe Mauer (2009 MVP, what else is there to say?)
4. 1B Justin Morneau (sadly, his MVP year is starting to look like an outlier)
5. RF Michael Cuddyer (Virginia Beach's own; Cuddy was vital during last year's end-of-season surge)
6. DH Jason Kubel (appeared on some MVP ballots last year, but struggles against LHP)
7. LF Delmon Young (improving and still young at only 24)
8. SS J.J. Hardy (stellar defensively; struggles against RHP)
9. 3B Punto/Harris/Tolbert/Cassila (a tossup, but at least this year the Twins have 8 solid starters)
Drew Butera and Wilson Ramos will compete for the backup catcher position until Jose Morales recovers from surgery on his right wrist. Morales batted .311 last year when he shared time with Mike Redmond during Mauer's absence and is a good bet to get the backup position once he is healthy. Jim Thome will try to stay healthy and DH off the bench. Brendan Harris (IF) and Nick Punto (IF) will take positions on the roster and only one of Alexi Cassila (IF) and Matt Tolbert (IF) will likely make it. For the record, I don't agree with many pundits who say that Punto is a terrible player. With OBP's of .337 and .341 in the past two seasons, Punto keeps rallies alive and that is all you can ask for from your #9 batter.
Here is where the Twins run into trouble. I expect my predictions for the starting lineup and bullpen to be mostly accurate, but here, I wouldn't bet money that more than three of these guys will be in the rotation at the end of the season.
Scott Baker-RHP (Opening Day starter for 2010 and a diamond in the rough that is the starting rotation; after a slow start last season, Baker turned hot, posting a 3.67 ERA and going 13-3 in his last 24 starts)
Kevin Slowey-RHP (rrom BP, the Twins are an organization that collects finesse pitchers as if they'll be used as currency following the apocalypse; Slowey fits this mold perfectly, but it is very much up in the air if he can recover from last year's season-ending wrist injury)
Carl Pavano-RHP (the fact that he's here shows how badly the Twins need starting pitchers, look for a lot of 4 to 5 inning efforts from him)
Nick Blackburn-RHP (he gets his outs through forcing grounders, not strikeouts; again, his presence in the starting lineup is not a good sign)
Francisco Liriano-LHP (optimistically Liriano will be 80% of his 2006 self and therefore a solid contributor; if he fails as a starter again, look for him in the bullpen)
Jeff Manship-RHP (has given up 9 ER in 5.2 innings so far in spring training; still in competition for the 5th spot)
Glen Perkins-LHP (the Twins were hoping to trade him before he allowed 9 earned runs in 8.1 innings this spring; now his trade value is even lower)
Brian Duensing-LHP (not having the best Spring so far giving up 5 runs in 4 innings)
Jose Mijares-LHP (solid set-up man last year and may play an expanded role in Nathan's absence)
Jesse Crain-RHP (ditto)
Jon Rauch-RHP (ditto)
Pat Neshek-RHP (coming off Tommy John's surgery this side-armer is one of my favorite Twins' relievers and is having a good spring so far (5.0 IP, 1 ER))
Matt Guerrier-RHP (lead the AL in appearances last year; another solid set-up man)
Clay Condrey-RHP (picked up from Philadelphia in the off-season, will likely play a role as the Twins starting rotation will require the bullpen to pitch 3 to 4 innings in many games)
Anthony Slama-RHP (after a good spring is now referred to by Gardy as Slama Jama; more likely to make the roster with Nathan out)
Anthony Swarzak-RHP (a rarity, a power pitcher in the Twins' system)
The starting rotation lives up to its billing and no matter what replacements are made, nothing works. The talented lineup is plagued by injuries (Morneau's back, Mauer's knees, etc.). The excellent bullpen never becomes a factor.
At some point during the season it leaks that Mauer's agent is in serious negotiations with the Yankees. This will coincide with an announcement by Brett Favre that he was really working for the Packers the whole of last season and gained all of Minnesota's trust just to crush them when they were minutes away from the Super Bowl, and also news that the T-Wolves are hiring back Kevin McHale. Target Field is found to be structurally unsound and Minnesotan decide to give up all non-hockey sports for eternity because their hearts just hurt too much.
Let's face it, the Twins will almost certainly never have a roster that compares to that of the Red Sox or Yankees on paper. Losing players to free agency, not gaining them has been the norm. So if the Twins are going to win a World Series anytime soon it will be somewhat as a Cinderella. 2010 seems as likely a year for this as any. Offensively, the Twins haven't looked this good for years. Defensively, if the Twins can cobble together 5 starters that will allow games to get to a point where their bullpen can work their magic then they can compete with anyone.
Bottom Line Bottom Line:
Look for the Twins to capture a weak AL Central with one more victory that the second place White Sox. At this point they will play the Red Sox or the Yankees in the ALDS, losing 2 games to 3, which at least gives them their first playoff victories since 2004.
Saturday, March 20, 2010
At the far southwest of our great nation lies a beautiful city. Discovered by the Germans in 1904, they named it San Diego, which of course in German means a whale’s…well, you get the point. In this beautiful city lies a beautiful baseball stadium, which some people know, seeing as it drew over 1.9 million visitors last year. In this stadium play the local nine, the Padres. Decidedly fewer people know anything about the Padres, at least I’m willing to presume. Quick quiz: how many players not named Adrian Gonzalez do you know who play for the Padres? I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about baseball and I was able to come up with two: Heath Bell and Tony Gwynn, Jr. If you were able to come up with more than that, congratulations, pat yourself on the back.
Many people forget that in 2007 the Padres were a Matt Holliday chin-scraping slide away from winning the wild card. Gone from that team are Jake Peavy, Trevor Hoffman, and Greg Maddux. I tried finding star offensive players other than Gonzalez from that team, but a partial Milton Bradley was as good as I got. That, if you recall, is the year he tore his ACL while being restrained from arguing with an ump.
We might as well start with the two bright spots on the 2009 team: Gonzalez and Bell. Gonzalez has developed into a star about as quietly as possible. Between playing on the West Coast and playing for a team that has been awful to not quite mediocre the last two years, the “East Coast Bias” has definitely overlooked Gonzalez’s development. Since coming over to the Padres in 2006, he has never hit below .277 and has seen his power numbers steadily increase. Last year he put up a line worthy of his all-star selection: .277 BA/.407 OBP/.551 SLG/.958 OPS/40 HR/99 RBI. However, with the great Albert Pujols and the very good Ryan Howard playing for National League contenders, Gonzalez will continue to find himself playing 3rd string in the popularity contest. Given the expectations for the Padres, many wonder how long it will be before Gonzalez is traded. His contract through 2011 (2010 with a club option) is a steal, so if they trade him, the Pads better ask for a king’s ransom in return.
Heath Bell is currently the Padres’ closer. I say currently because in the wake of Joe Nathan’s elbow injury, rumors are swirling that the Twins may be interested in Bell’s services. For now, let’s just assume that Bell will be a Padre. Since Bell came over from the Mets in 2007, he has steadily become the Padres’ go-to-guy. Although he didn’t become closer until Trevor Hoffman’s departure in 2009, Bell played a huge role in the Pads 2007 bullpen, posting a 2.02 ERA and 0.96 WHIP. Those numbers increased to 2.71 and 1.12, respectively, in 2009, however there was one key addition: 42 saves. For a team struggling to re-establish itself in the competitive NL West, having a reliable closer is huge.
Unfortunately there are 23 other players who will need to contribute for the Padres to contend in 2009, and therein lies the rub. The Padres are counting on Chris Young on being their ace. Yup, the same Chris Young coming back from labrum surgery. The same Chris Young whose career high in wins is 12 and whose career ERA hovers around 4. The rest of the rotation is likely filled out by Kevin Correia, Jon Garland, Clayton Richard and Mat Latos. Correia, after 6 unremarkable years as a Giant, was serviceable last season. Jon Garland is somewhat of a mystery: his career ERA in no way corresponds with his impressive career win-loss record. Richard and Matos are too young to evaluate, but any positive contributions from them will be gladly accepted. As for the bullpen – I’ve never heard of any of their current arms. Seriously. So I’m not even going to go there.
According to their depth chart, their field will look like this:
C: Nick Hundley: Youngin’ whose never played more than 80 games or hit above .240
1B: Adrian Gonzalez: Enough said
2B: David Eckstein: He’s a gamer! He plays the game the right way!
3B: Chase Headley: Hit .262/12 HR/64 RBI in his first full season
SS: Everth Cabrera: Another young player – stole 25 bases in 103 games.
LF: Kyle Blanks: Probably the Pads’ best offensive prospect. Hit 10 HRs in only 54 games, though he did strike out 55 times.
CF: Scott Hairston: Well, there have to be some veterans on the team.
RF: Will Venable: Another young outfielder. May hit for less power than Blanks, but a better average.
So…yea. Those are the Padres. I’m sorry for the brief preview but there’s not much for an East Coaster to write about a young, at best mediocre, team from California. I don’t’ know much about their young players, but I find it nearly impossible to believe that this team will contend in the NL West. There are at worst 3 teams ahead of them (depending on which way the Diamondbacks decide to turn out). The Dodgers have been to the NLCS two consecutive years. The Rockies are built solidly for another Rocktober. Even the offensively challenged Giants have the pitching to contend. At least the fans have the gorgeous stadium to enjoy.