2010 Season Forecast: Baltimore Orioles

Last Five Years:

2009: 63 – 98 (5th AL East)
2008: 68 – 93
2007: 69 – 93
2006: 70 – 92
2005: 74 – 88

The Baltimore Orioles have had a worse record each year since winning 78 games in 2004 and haven’t posted a winning season since 1997, when they won 98 games.  What in the name of Earl Weaver is going on here???

Runs Scored: 741 (11th, AL)
Runs Allowed: 876 (Last, AL)

Season Recap:

Another year of rebuilding, another year of trying out prospects, and another year of being battered in road games, where the Orioles were 25 – 56.  Ouch.

Despite this, the Orioles are starting to show signs that they are accumulating the type of talent that will make them competitive – which would be good enough in the AL Central, but not in the AL East.

Just looking at the monthly splits, the team batted pretty well all year but had power surges in May and August.  What really happened was that the team slugged enough to help the pitchers in the beginning of the season, but the  pitching really left them after the all-star break.  The team ERA was a tolerable 4.55 in July when the Orioles were off – winning just 9 of 25 decisions.  Then it went to 5.30 in August as Baltimore lost 20 of 30 games, and finished at 6.22 (!) in September when the team lost 20 of 26 decisions.  Were it not for a four game winning streak in October, the Orioles would have lost 100 games.

So – looking ahead quickly, the Orioles need to figure out how to make up for a 135 run gap between offense and defense that would allow them to get to .500.

Pitching:

Jeremy Guthrie, who would look good on most teams, got to 200 innings in his 33 starts and wasn’t horrible despite his 10 – 17 record.  He’s not a league average pitcher in part because he doesn’t strike out enough batters – just 110 on the season.

The rest of the rotation struggled.  Rich Hill, brought in as sort of a reclamation project, gave the Orioles 13 awful starts (7.80 ERA), David Hernandez was called up for 19 starts that were a bit better, but he was whacked around to a 4 – 10 record.  Koji Uehara started off okay, but went down to a shoulder injury.  Prospect Jason Berken didn’t look ready – 24 starts and a 6.54 ERA.  Adam Eaton was added to the rotation and was predictably awful (2 – 5, 8.56).  Mark Hendrickson was allowed to start 11 times but was better in relief.

However, Brad Bergesen came up and won 7 of 12 decisions, and saved his team 16 runs over 123.1 innings.  Brian Matusz was given 8 starts and was league average, winning five of seven decisions.  Chris Tillman wasn’t awful.

The bullpen had George Sherrill‘s 20 saves and a solid 2.40 ERA, but shipped him to Los Angeles, putting Jim Johnson in the closer position where he was barely tolerable – not necessarily helping down the stretch.  Danys Baez gave the Orioles 72 decent innings.  Brian Bass was asked to work a lot of long relief.

Working against those four were Matt Albers (5.51 ERA), former closer Chris Ray (7.27 ERA) and a few other small time tryouts.

Looking ahead to 2010, the Orioles have to start by finding 400 better innings of pitching.  Kevin Millwood was acquired from Texas – Millwood was solid for five months and if he can keep his ERA under 4.50, would represent a 40 run improvement over 2009.  Guthrie gets the second spot, and Bergesen and Matusz will get more starts.  If they stay healthy and make 30 starts, that’s another 40 runs better.  Chris Tillman is expected to be a prize – and certainly will be better than eight Adam Eaton starts.

So, a realist sees the potential to make up at least 60 runs on last year, and an optimist might see 100 runs of improvement.

The bullpen adds former Braves reliever Mike Gonzalez to the closer spot.  Gonzalez CAN be a good closer, and he CAN be a bit inconsistent.  Still, adding the healthy arm to the mix will be a step up.  Former Padre Cla Meredith will also help out, taking on the Baez innings.  Will Ohman comes over from the NL – and I would rather see him than, say, Matt Albers, who is still around and on the active roster as of 4/1.

I don’t see the bullpen being that much better than last year – and certainly nowhere near as deep as the top three teams in the division.

Catching:

Matt Wieters is here – the cover of Sports Illustrated in March – and could EXPLODE on the scene and make the all-star team.  Wieters didn’t disappoint as a rookie, showing a little power and hitting .288.  He represents a step up over Chad Moeller and Greg Zaun, and has far more upside.  The new back up is Craig Tatum.  Wieters does need to improve is caught stealing rate (barely league average) but is more mobile and made fewer mistakes per game than the two veterans in 2009.

Infield:

Last year, Aubrey Huff was merely ordinary and not producing at the rate the Orioles had hoped – just 13 – 72 – .253.  First baseman are supposed to create 100 runs of offense, and Huff was responsible for just 55.  Michael Aubrey and Garrett Atkins are around now.  Aubrey is an oft-injured Indian farm hand who was stuck behind Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez (among others), but could be a surprise performer.  Atkins has been in decline for a few years and when asked to backup Todd Helton at first looked awkward.  I’d rather play Aubrey and keep Atkins on the bench.

Brian Roberts remains a remarkably productive offensive force at the top of the lineup, but his bad back is affecting his already below average range.  The Orioles don’t really have another choice (Robert Andino could field it, but not hit), so they have to hope that Roberts can keep his back loose and mobile.

At short, Cesar Izturis provided a great glove with no bat in the mold of Mark Belanger – hitting .253 with no power and, even worse, drawing just 18 walks in 114 games.  At least he keeps the pitchers happy.

Melvin Mora looked very old last year – only eight homers, and barely generating 50 runs of offense.  In his place, the Orioles are returning former Oriole Miguel Tejada (who is older than Mora) to play third.  Tejada had a solid season at short for Houston last year, but agreed to the move here.  Mora is usually pretty solid defensively, but Tejada could be his match and will certainly provide a bit more offense.

Looking at this pragmatically, and assuming Michael Aubrey gets the first shot at first base, there could be 30 more runs here (35 more at third, 15 more at first, offset by a potential decline at second base).  If Atkins plays, it’s probably only 15 runs better than last year, and that’s offset by Atkins bungling the position defensively, too.

Outfield:

With Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, and Felix Pie or Nolan Reimold, the Orioles have a pretty productive group here.

Markakis is a dependable source of hits and runs, though his range isn’t enough to make up for his rocket arm.  I do believe, however, that this will be his breakout offensive season.  Jones needs to play 150 games, and if he does, will make a run at 20 – 20, if not 30 – 30.  Pie can field any of the three positions and isn’t a problem with the bat, though he’s not a well rounded hitter.  However, Nolan Reimold showed power and patience and if given 500 at bats, might hit 25 homers.  Fifth outfielder Luke Scott gets to be the DH – a power source from the left side of the plate, though he needs a platoon partner.

Looking ahead, I see no reason that this group can’t find 50 more runs of offense by (a) staying in the lineup, and (b) continuing to show progress.

Bench:

Robert Andino and Garrett Atkins in the infield and Felix Pie in the outfield are joined by super sub Ty Wiggington, who could also be a regular first baseman and help the club.  Luis Montanez gets to be an extra outfielder when needed.

Prospects:

The best guy not already listed above that played at AAA Norfolk might be second baseman Justin Turner.  Turner hit .300 with a .362 OBP and has tolerable speed.  He’s NOT as good as Brian Roberts, but if he is forced to play, I think he will outhit Andino and might surprise you with how good a fielder he is.  He’s certainly better with the glove than Roberts at this stage.  Turner is a Cal State Fullerton grad, and a former Reds draft pick (7th Round, 2006).

The best pitchers in Norfolk were Chris Tillman and David Hernandez, who had solid runs and shots with the parent club last year.  Another option is reliever Kam Mickolio.  They all have the tools, they just need to put things together, which isn’t as easy as it looks – especially in the AL East.

A couple of Bowie Baysox (AA) pitchers to look for will be Brandon Erbe (44 hits allowed in 73 innings, but control issues) and Jacob Arrieta (70 Ks in 59 innings across 11 starts).  Give them a year or two and they might round out the Orioles rotation.  Another young reliever, Steven Johnson, might start the year at AAA.  The best hitter going through AA was Brandon Snyder, who pounded pitchers to a .343 batting average with 10 homers in 201 at bats, but appeared a bit overmatched at AAA.  A former catcher (and 2005 #1 pick), Snyder is getting time at first base now and if both Aubrey and Atkins aren’t producing in June, Snyder is just a hot start away from making the roster.

Richie Hebner managed former Wofford College slugger Brandon Waring and the Frederick Keys in 2009.  Waring is a third baseman who hits the ball a LONG way, and seems to be making progress in reducing his strikeout numbers.  Another former Reds prospect, Waring is still a couple of years away and should be ready for a look when Tejada hits 40.  Former FAU grad Robert Widlansky hit .340 for Frederick, but this was the first time he had played this well.

Among the pitchers, Brian Matusz already made it from Frederick to the bigs, and 22-year-old Zach Britton looks ready to try on AA after a year with 131 Ks in 140 innings.  Reliever Pat Egan still showed great control, but may not have enough gas to make it to the bigs.

Forecasting 2010:

You have to like Baltimore’s chances of moving the wins needle back in the right direction.  The potential to shave 60 – 80 runs defensively is there, and if Tejada doesn’t turn out to be 45 at third base, the offense could improve by 75 to 90 runs.  What is working against the Orioles is the top of the division – three teams all worthy of 90 wins.  I think the Orioles are extremely capable of winning more games than they lose – but might not just because they are in the AL East where good isn’t good enough.  So, even though the system says 83 – 79  I think 79 – 83 might be more in line with the final record and I am going to go against what the system says.

Matthews a Met; Ankiel a Royal – and Other Hot Stove Happenings

With the prospects of missing centerfielder Carlos Beltran for at least a month, the Mets acquired outfielder Gary Matthews, Jr. from the Angels for middle reliever Brian Stokes.  The Angels, who overpaid for Matthews having a good year back in 2006, sent more than $20 million back to the Mets to cover the bulk of Matthews’ salary.  For Matthews, who wants to play every day but hasn’t been more than a fourth outfielder since 2007, this is a chance to earn full-time status – in center for now, and possibly in right field once Beltran returns – assuming Beltran is healthy.  [SI]

I’m not sure why the Mets want him.

Matthews used to hit for power – a little bit.  In 2006, he stunned everyone by hitting 19 homers and batting .313 for Texas – and making a highlight reel catch off Mike Lamb where he climbed a wall and reached over it to steal away a homer.  He hit 18 more in his first season in Anaheim, though his other numbers fell off.  Then, Matthews was named in a steroid ring that ended Jason Grimsley’s career.  Since then, Matthews’ power has fell off the map – eight homers in 2008 and just four last year – 12 in more than 700 at bats.  While he will take a walk and can still run the bases smartly, he strikes out more than ever.

His defense is slipping.  He was okay in 2006 and 2007, but fell off in 2008 and was below average in 2009.  Matthews isn’t getting any younger, either, having turned 35 in August.  So, the likelihood is that neither his bat or wheels are suddenly going to improve.  With the Angels picking up the tab, he’s cheap help and if he has a good six weeks and Beltran is healthy, I guess that’s worth $1 million in New York.

Good luck with that.

The Angels get a righty reliever who has been marginally better than average despite not having a consistent command of the strike zone.  Brian Stokes came up with Tampa, moved to New York in 2008, and has been decent despite not having a big strikeout pitch.  He’s not really a long term prospect, but he helps fill out the bullpen by providing an experienced arm for the ninth or tenth spot on the staff.

Another confusing move…

The Phillies signed Jose Contreras to a one-year deal.  The last Cuban player who was a teammate of Fidel Castro, Contreras has moved back and forth with the White Sox; two of the last three years he was costing the team about 20 runs more than the average pitcher – and his control is slipping, as if he’s trying to be more careful with his pitches.  Maybe Contreras can fill a long relief, spot starting role.  For sure, even at this stage, he’s probably more dependable than trying Adam Eaton or Chan Ho Park again.  [SI]

What are the Royals Thinking?

The Kansas City Royals signed outfielder Rick Ankiel to a one year deal worth $3.25 million, with bonuses and an option for 2011.  It’s not a HORRIBLE deal – but another signing of a 30 year old guy whose career isn’t moving in the right direction.  Having switched from his pitching days, Ankiel is getting more comfortable in centerfield; his range and runs saved rankings have gone from a negative to a positive in the last three years.  However, his power – Ankiel is another guy caught in the PED scandal – has fallen off.  In 2007, Ankiel slugged .500, but last year it was under .400.  The Royals COULD benefit from picking up a guy who is on the cheap after an off-season, but I’d rather have Chris Gomez coming off an off season than a 30 year old centerfielder.  I think Ankiel could help the Royals in right – so, if you see him there the Royals may do okay provided he stays healthy (an oufield of DeJesus, Podsednik, and Ankiel would be a step up, though I’d rather see Mitch Maier in center if his bat steps forward…).

Milwaukee Addresses Rotation…

In my “Worst NL Pitchers” list, you couldn’t help but notice that the Brewers were loaded with guys who weren’t helping the cause in the rotation.  Earlier, the Brewers added Randy Wolf and now Milwaukee adds lefty (and former Brew Crew) Doug Davis. Each of the last three years, Davis has been an above average pitcher, a dependable lefty capable of six good innings and ten wins.  I like this move because it continues to lower the predicted runs allowed number for Milwaukee – and I think makes them a contender in the NL Central this year.  [MLB]

Quick Hits…

So Taguchi is retiring from US baseball and heading back to Onix in Japan.  [MLB]

Despite an ailing shoulder, the Giants are happy with the Freddy Sanchez deal and signing.  [MLB]

Javier Vasquez may call it a career after 2010?  [ESPN]

Is Jason Giambi coming back to Colorado for 2010?  [ESPN]

Afterthoughts…

A’s prospect Grant Desme, recently named the most valuable player in the Arizona Fall League is retiring – to pursue the pulpit.  “I love the game, but I aspire to higher things,” Desme said.  [SI]

Your Baseball Weekend Update…

John Smoltz’s career has life after beating San Diego Sunday.  Smoltz threw five shutout innings and fanned nine batters.  Maybe the AL is tougher than the NL – but it certainly helps to face a punchless San Diego team, too.  [MLB/SI]

For the second time in history (according to STATS, Inc, that’s who), Eric Bruntlett ended a game by himself – recording an unassisted triple play to help Brad Lidge avoid another blown save and give Pedro Martinez a win over his former team, the Mets.  The score stood 9 – 7 after a run scoring single by Daniel Murphy.  Murphy and Luis Castillo, who was on second, attempted a double steal when Jeff Francouer launched a Lidge pitch back up the middle where Bruntlett was moving…  Bruntlett caught the liner, stepped on second, and tagged Murphy.  [MLB/SI]

Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez will be more careful next time – he stabbed himself in the left hand with a falling steak knife, requiring a single stitch but keeping him out of the lineup for the next couple of days.  [SI]

Meanwhile, the Rockies have come to terms with free agent Jason Giambi, most recently released by the Oakland As.  He’d be a nice bench option, that’s for certain.  [ESPN]

Moving to the Rockies rotation, the pitching staff took a big hit when Aaron Cook hit the DL with a sore shoulder.  Cook had to leave Friday’s start with a strain and an MRI is scheduled for Monday.  If the Rockies have to use Adam Eaton down the stretch, pencil in San Francisco or the Dodgers as the Wild Card team in the NL.   Josh Fogg is the other option (not appreciably better), and Matt Herges got the call from AAA Colorado Springs to join the roster. [FoxSports]

Reds starter Aaron Harang’s season came to an end thanks to emergency appendectomy surgery.  He’ll see restricted activity for about three weeks before he can do anything physical in nature.  According to SI, Harang is the ninth player to head to the DL for Cincinnati, and the seventh to require surgery – which is an amazing number, really.  Fortunately, Scott Rolen came off the DL – but he can’t pitch.  [SI]

Boston may have claimed Billy Wagner off the waiver wire (the Mets haven’t decided whether to allow the claim, work a deal, or pull him back), but apparently the bullpen wouldn’t have done it.  Both Jonathon Papelbon and Manny Delcarmen weren’t excited about it when asked by WEEI radio earlier this weekend.  [ESPN]

FoxSports reported that David Eckstein will remain in San Diego next year and signed a contract extension for 2010…  He’s not really a championship level producer anymore, but he’s an extra coach for a young team and Eckstein does have a history of being on winning teams.  [FoxSports]

Here’s a position that won’t get much of an argument… FoxSports Jon Paul Morosi makes his case that Ichiro Suzuki will one day enter the Hall of Fame.   His take on it is mostly “Well, he has more hits than anybody, and Ken Griffey says he’s a Hall of Famer…”  Let’s look at it more subjectively.  Assuming he finishes the season and gets 16 more hits in the last 40 games or so – meaning he won’t get injured or suddenly freeze at the plate – Ichiro will have nine straight seasons of 200 hits, more than 2000 in his career, and his fourth season batting at least .350.  Dusting off a 1986 Bill James Baseball Abstract, his Hall of Fame calculator shows that Ichiro has  collected nearly 200 points of accomplishments that Hall of Fame voters tend to consider when voting for someone – which makes him, well, overqualified (the gray area is from 70 – 130; beyond that is pretty much guaranteed in, unless you are Pete Rose or Barry Bonds).  Then, you add that he was the first Japanese position player and remains one of the most skilled outfielders and hitters – he certainly qualifies as both famous and great.   Ichiro may wind up with more professional hits than Pete Rose when it’s all over – he could have 4500 hits if you count his days in Japan.

Hurry Back! Alfonso Soriano continues to miss games with a sore knee.  Gee – I thought it was his poor batting.  (Sorry – Angry Cub Fan in me typing that one…)  Marlins reliever Brendan Donnelly hits the DL with a calf strain.  I watched the play – I’m not sure what he did, but if he can’t field a grounder without getting hurt, he needs to step aside.  Phillies infielder Greg Dobbs also has a strained calf.  Cardinal starter Kyle Lohse just came off the DL – he heads back with a strained groin (hopefully his own).

Welcome Back! Miguel Cairo was called up by the Phillies to take Dobbs’ spot.  Did you see that Armando Benitez was signed by Houston?  He heads to Round Rock to see if he can still pitch.    Jason Grilli returned to Texas from the DL.  Seattle is giving one more shot to former Marlin Randy Messenger.  I can answer this for you – this Messenger has already been shot.

Pennant Chances:  Now that the season has entered its final quarter, let’s pronounce some races over…

Nobody is catching the Phillies or Cards.  The Yankees would have a significant collapse if they were to lose now, as would the Angels.  Even though it’s closer than before, I have faith in the Dodgers – but give Colorado a 15% chance to win, and San Francisco 10%.  The NL Wild Card is too close to call, but it’s going to be one of the teams from the West.  If someone were to surprise, it’s going to be Atlanta because they suddenly have a healthy pitching staff – but it’s getting late to put up a fight.  I’d give them a 15% chance of pulling it off.  The closest race is Detroit and Chicago in the AL Central, and I am relatively confident it will be Detroit by a nose because Chicago plays too sloppily to win.  Minnesota doesn’t have a fight in them this season thanks to a failing rotation.  The AL Wild Card will be the best race because Texas is good enough to win and Boston is just crazy enough to blow it right now.  I know – I picked Boston to win it all, but the last three weeks have been disastrous and I don’t see how they will get out of it.  I give Tampa a 15% chance of surprising somebody.

Pedro, Smoltz Heading in Different Directions; Brewers Commence Another Late Season Overhaul

John Smoltz refused a minor league assignment, which leaves the Red Sox with two alternatives – trade the aging legend or release him.  All too rarely does an athlete leave on his own terms – sadly, it’s usually forced upon him/her through injury or failed performance.  Smoltz may get one  more shot, but that’s probably it.  Ken Rosenthal suspects it may be the Dodgers…  [FoxSports]

Pedro Martinez won his start, lasting five innings but getting tons of run support as the Phillies bombarded the Cubs last night.  Glad to see that I’m not the only one warning people to watch this with some level of caution.   I mean, three runs in five innings isn’t really stopper material – and Jamie Moyer would have likely won that start and lasted another innning or two…  [SI]

Milwaukee is trying to overhaul the roster in hopes of a late pennant run.  They put in a waiver claim on Diamondbacks starter Doug Davis, and also shook up things at home by firing pitching coach Bill Castro in favor of former starter Chris Bosio.  Then, the struggling J.J. Hardy was dispatched to AAA Nashville while Bill Hall was designated for assignment – which means he’ll be released and the Brewers will be eating about $11 million in Hall’s contract.  Coming up from AAA Nashville are two prospects, SS Alcides Escobar and OF Jason Bourgeois.  [SI/ESPN]

Alcides Escobar is a burner, a guy who makes contact, gets hits, steals bases and can cover ground in the field.  He’s not a leadoff guy – doesn’t really work the count and doesn’t have much power.  However, he can help – and J.J. Hardy isn’t helping by hitting .229 with 11 homers…  Baseball America ranked Escobar as Milwaukee’s top prospect, and has worked his way up the prospect ladder.  Jason Bourgeois isn’t going to take the world by fire – unless you need steals on your fantasy roster.  Originally an infielder in the Texas chain, he’s worked his way all over the minors for the Rangers, Braves, White Sox, and Seattle.  As best as I can tell, he’s a 27-year-old Willy Taveras – contact, speed, okay batting average and little else.  If he hits .270 and plays okay defense, he’ll be better than Hall, but he isn’t going to make anyone forget Mike Felder…  Unfortunately, he’s not a long term answer.

Boston’s Kevin Youkilis and Detroit’s Rick Porcello were suspended for five games following the bean/brawl.  Having watched it eight to ten times, Porcello doesn’t have a reason to be suspended and is challenging the decision.  Youkilis took the day off and Mike Lowell hit another homer in his place…  [ESPN]

Joba Chamberlain’s innings will be even more closely monitored as he shifts to a seven day rotation.  [ESPN]

Erik Bedard will have exploratory surgery to determine the source of the pain in his shoulder, and address the fraying already there.  What is open to debate is whether or not he’ll be back with the Mariners next year.  Seattle has an option, or could let Bedard become a free agent.  [ESPN]

Another pitcher going under the knife is Washington prospect Jordan Zimmermann, who gets Tommy John surgery and will likely not pitch until 2011.  [ESPN]

It doesn’t get better for the Mets.  Carlos Delgado’s hip recovery was stalled by a strained oblique muscle.  [FoxSports]

Kaz Matsui is one hit away from having 2000 combined hits in Japan and MLB – which would put him in a rather exclusive club among Japanese ballplayers.  He would join the Meikyukai, an elite group of players with 200 hits, 250 saves, or 200 wins – whether in Japan, the US, or both.  Others you may have heard of?  Ichiro Szuki, Hideki Matsui, and Hideo Nomo…  [MLB]

A couple of players got hit yesterday and had to leave games…  Yankee captain Derek Jeter was hit in the right instep by a pitch last night and couldn’t run the bases well, so was pulled in the third inning.  And, Reds starter Homer Bailey was struck by an Albert Pujols liner in the left foot and had to leave in the first inning.  Both are day-to-day.

Hurry Back!  Rich Aurilia (Giants) heads to the DL.  Evan Meek (Pirates) has a strained obligue – gets a DL stint.  Wesley Wright (Astros) has a strained left shoulder – gets a DL stint, too.

Welcome Back!  Other than Pedro, Lance Berkman (Astros) returned from the DL and helped slaughter my Marlins…  Another Astro – LaTroy Hawkins, also came off the DL yesterday.  The Giants returned Nick Hundley from the DL, as well as outfielder Nate Schierholtz…

Afterthoughts…  Colorado had signed Adam Eaton to the minor league deal and yesterday recalled Eaton from AAA.  Do they want to know how high of an ERA Eaton can get?  I mean, what’s the goal here?

Yesterday’s Trivia:  How to get from Tom Gordon to Rube Waddell in six steps?

When Gordon arrived, one of his teammates was the aging Billy Buckner, whose rookie team in 1972 included Hoyt Wilhelm.  Wilhelm played in St. Louis in 1957 with Stan Musial, whose 1941 teammate was future Hall of Famer Eppa Rixey.  Rixey’s career started in Philadelphia many, many moons earlier when he was a teammate of slugger Gavy Cravath.  Cravath’s career came together when he was an outfielder for the Minneapolis Millers from 1910 to 1911, where he was a teammate of Rube Waddell – who had joined the Millers prior to the 1911 season and would win the American Association.

Public Admonishing of Umpires

Didn’t get to watch any baseball last night as I was the emcee for the Norcrest Elementary School PTA Fundraiser. Jeanne was the chair of the event – I just stood on the stage and talked about some of the cool things people could bid on and announced winners. We raised about $13,000 last night, which is pretty cool.

The best item, probably, was a deal provided by Santana Moss, whose kids go to Norcrest and went to pre-school with Casey. He is paying for four people to fly to Washington DC, stay in a hotel for the weekend, and be his guest at a Redskins game… Top bid was around $2500.

The verdict is in – Carlos Zambrano will miss six games.

With most position players, this would be a two game suspension, but for starting pitchers they have to do more games because they have to make sure he misses a normal turn in the rotation. Frankly, this is unfair to the pitchers who then get docked six days pay instead of two days pay. Can we get a system that separates making the pitcher miss a turn in the rotation from getting whacked in the paycheck?

More unfair, however, is the umpire leaning in and causing the bump – it was totally inadvertant. Had the umpire backed off instead of leaning in and turning in Zambrano’s direction, the Gatorade machine is saved and cooler heads might have prevailed.

And, at what point should an umpire just challenge people? Back off, allow for a short vent, ask them to leave, and walk away. If the player or manager chases, then you have room to kick someone out. But sometimes you have to walk away. And, when the umpire is out of line – as he was here, and the umpire who pushed Magglio Ordonez out of the batter’s box, I want public admonishment from MLB.

Take last night’s fiasco between the Twins and Red Sox where a bad home plate umpire having a rough night missed a call at the plate and then had to run Mike Redmond and Ron Gardenhire – and THEN, because his strike zone judgment was impaired, ran Jason Varitek and Terry Francona. If four people are tossed, maybe the umpire needs a six-day suspension.

Todd Tichenor needs a suspension and the league should announce it.

The Phillies Brett Myers may have hip surgery, which would put the defending champs in a bit of a (Randy) lurch. Myers said in an interview that there was fraying in his hip.

Jorge Posada will be with the Yankees as they begin a series in Cleveland. Players who arrived early got to see a great basketball game last night…

Cubs utility infielder Ryan Freel went on the DL last night with a strained hamstring – not surprising since Freel does this every couple of months or so. Bobby Scales, who had been dispatched to AAA Iowa, was asked to turn the car around and head back to the park. Scales returned in time to hit a pinch hit homer in the Cubs loss to the Dodgers.

On the transaction list, Baltimore recalled David Hernandez from AAA Norfolk, gave him the start last night, and he won his debut. Hernandez can pitch. In the minors, he averaged 10.4 Ks per nine, he kept the ball in the park, and while he’s occasionally wild, he’s been dominating people the last two years. He had 60Ks in 43.1 innings at Norfolk. This is the kind of dominating performance you want from a propsect. I hope he stays – he’s a heckuva lot better than Adam Eaton. If you are hunting for a cheap starter, go get him.

Mike MacDougal, former Royals arm, gets a chance with the Nationals. Meanwhile, former Orioles closer Chris Ray heads back to Norfolk to find his stuff.

On the Mend? Tom Glavine had a successful rehab start. Annibel Sanchez was assigned to Jupiter (may have to find a night to see him pitch) by the Marlins. C Carlos Dominguez was sent to Bakersfield by Texas.

Interleague Baseball is Fun!

Lots of fun stuff going on in baseball right now – wish I had more time to chase it all down for you…

Michael Cuddyer hit for the cycle – the fourth of 2009 and second for the Twins.

Jake Peavy stayed home, and trashed the Cubs last night. For the Cubs, Carlos Zambrano came off the DL and was decent – looks like he’ll be fine. However, Zambrano was replaced on the DL by Rich Harden (big surprise) with a back injury. Zambrano drilled David Eckstein with a pitch in the first inning, though, when Eck squared up to bunt. The pitch nailed Eckstein high on the chest. He stayed through the inning, but left when he said he was light-headed on the bases.

Daisuke Matsuzaka returned to the Red Sox last night and was okay – threw a lot of first pitch strikes, but was pulled after 80 pitches in his first start. He was topped by Johan Santana, who was fired up after a little tussle with Kevin Youkilis. Youk yelled loudly when plunked in the fifth inning and made it a little dicey – but it only made Santana focus more. By the way, J.J. Putz has a stiff neck, so Bobby Parnell pitched the 8th. Did you know Parnell could hit 100 on the gun? Me neither. Suddenly, I’m a fan. Meanwhile, outfielder Ryan Church left the game with a sore hammy.

Texas won in extra innings, but not without a price. Michael Young has a strained foot and may not play today.

How about Ricky Nolasco? After another bad outing last night (he ruined my ERA), he was shipped to AAA New Orleans. Ouch. The Marlins, who were clocked 15 – 2 by the Rays, called on Ross Gload to pitch an inning. Apparently Cody Ross was unavailable. Continuing to try and find anyone who can pitch, the Marlins designated David Davidson for assignment, then called up Sean West and Christopher Leroux from AA Jacksonville. West, who has stuff but may not be ready, gets the start today for the Fish. He was a 1st round draft pick in 2005 – looks to be wild and a flyball guy. Baseball America calls him the #4 prospect on the team, but I can’t tell. Leroux doesn’t look like a prospect yet. The kid hails from Wintrop University and hasn’t been bad, but he’s maybe 80% the pitcher West is, and West doesn’t look ready.

Seven more homers in Yankee stadium last night – A.J. Burnett gets the loss to the Phillies. Chien Ming Wang allowed two runs in three innings of relief, his first game since returning from the DL, and dropped his ERA to 25.00.

David Price may get the call by the Rays. The Ripped Hydes have been holding him all year and may finally get to use him!!! Scott Kazmir, who hasn’t looked the same, was placed on the 15 day DL with a quadriceps strain. It may last longer than that, though, as his mechanics are fouled up. Also, Troy Percival’s shoulder problems put the veteran reliever on the DL – though the stories coming out of Tampa suggest that Percival may actually hang up the mitt for good. Percival helped two teams get to the World Series, and has been a VERY good reliever since coming up in 1995.

Add J.J. Hardy to the Day-To-Day list… Back spasms.

The Transaction List for 5/22 in MLB was ENORMOUS. Here are the highlights:

Welcome back! Magglio Ordonez (personal), Juan Uribe (bereavement), Nomar Garciaparra (calf – DL). Billy Buckner got the call from Arizona and got a win for the Snakes. Johnny Gomes gets a trip back with Cincy with Joey Votto’s illness.

On the Mend: Kelvin Escobar (arm) gets a rehab stint in Rancho Cucamonga, along side Vlad Guerrero. Hiroki Kuroda was assigned to Inland Empire for his stint.

Hurry Back! Travis Snider (Toronto), whose bat stopped working. Wilkin Ramirez (covering for Maggs), Ramon Ramirez (Reds) – replaced by prospect Carlos Fisher. Eugenio Velez (SF) who wasn’t hitting as well, and the Giants like Kevin Frandsen better. Hunter Jones (BOS), who was replaced by Dice-K. He can pitch, will be back with somebody. Maybe, when the Sox decide to replace David Ortiz, they’ll package Jones and Brad Penny in a trade for someone…

Is it over? Adam Eaton was (finally) released by the Orioles.

Afterthoughts… Jerry Koosman may land in jail following a conviction for income tax evasion over a three year period. Sad story, really. Sounds like he became a radical conservative!!!

2009 Season Forecast: Philadelphia Phillies

Philadelphia Phillies
2008: 90-72 (1st NL East, World Series Champions)

The 2008 Philadelphia Phillies were a very good team that got hot at the right time (September and October) and generally did this because the offense was good, the bench produced, and the pitching staff – especially the bullpen – was flat out impressive.

In the National League, only one team scored more runs (the Chicago Cubs), and only two teams allowed fewer runs (The Cubs and the Los Angeles Dodgers), which helps to explain why only the Cubs had the better regular season record.  However, the Cubs folded the tent in October while the Phillies were just getting started.  If the Phillies needed to score runs, they could.  If the team needed a solid pitching performance, especially down the stretch, it could get one, and if the bullpen needed to hold a lead, Brad Lidge and company could stop another team cold in its tracks.  It didn’t hurt that down the stretch the Phillies played a lot of games against the weak sisters (Atlanta, Washington, and the folding Mets), but even when faced with a playoff bound Milwaukee in September, the Phillies smoked them in four straight – which should have sounded the alarm that this team was ready for the playoffs.

And they were ready.  They took down the Brewers, they stopped the charging Dodgers, and they blew away a very good Tampa Bay Rays team winning every home game and losing just once on the road in each series.

Looking Back on 2008

As in 2007, the getaway was problematic but not as bad.  For 20 games, Philadelphia would win two and lose two, never falling more than two games under .500, but never getting past it, either.  Then, in game 23, the Phillies got above even and started making progress toward the top of the division.

The reason for this was that half the starting rotation was working, and half the offense was working.  Cole Hamels and Jamie Moyer were great, Brett Myers and Adam Eaton were struggling, and Kyle Kendrick was somewhere in the middle.  And, Ryan Howard got off to such a slow start it negated the amazing start of Chase Utley.  Pat Burrell was hitting, but Jimmy Rollins was fighting nagging injuries and not hitting.

In late May, the pieces started coming together.  Over the summer, Charlie Manual and the rest of Phillie management convinced Brett Myers to take a month in the minors to work on a couple of adjustments and see if he couldn’t get things turned around.  Myers, to his credit, did just that and when he came back in August was solid down the stretch.  Then, the Phillies finally gave up on Adam Eaton and traded for Joe Blanton, giving up a couple of minor leaguers.  Blanton, who had struggled some in Oakland, found his stride down the stretch and looked even more confident in the post-season.  So, by the time September rolled around, the rotation featured four solid starters and Kyle Kendrick – who wasn’t pitching well, but still had a winning record.  The Phillies had their best month in September, winning seventeen games while losing just eight.  In October, they were even better.

Tell me about that offense

Believe it or not, as good as the 2008 Phillies line up was, they were almost 100 runs worse than in 2007.

Some of this could have been predicted (and was).  Jimmy Rollins was coming off his best season ever, so to think he would generate 140 runs of offense again would have been extremely optimistic.  Struggling through the year, Rollins still produced, but was 45 runs worse than the previous year.  He missed 35 games, lost 100 points in his slugging percentage, and it showed up on the scoreboard.  His backup, usually Eric Bruntlett, can’t hit like Rollins.  Shane Victorino moved to center to replace Aaron Rowand, who was coming off his career best season.  Victorino was good, but still 25 runs behind what Rowand produced.

Some of the rest was just the give and take of seasons.  Ryan Howard was slow to get rolling and was off slightly from the previous year.  Pedro Feliz looked slow at the plate and was below average in hitting.  Catcher Carlos Ruiz struggled, giving more time to Chris Coste, who hit pretty well.  Chase Utley and Pat Burrell were no better than they had been in 2007 – which is to say they remained potent hitters.

However, top to bottom, this was a solid line up.  You had six above average bats (Rollins, Utley, Howard, Burrell, Victorino, and Werth), and a couple of slower bats – but it worked.  No team is going to complain about finishing in second in runs scored.  The Phillies could hit.

Defensively:

The Phillies were slightly above average in terms of turning balls in play into outs.  The outfield improved in part because Victorino and Werth were an improvement on Rowand in center, Pat Burrell had a slightly better year than in 2007 defensively (still bad though), and the backups in the outfield (Werth when he played in center, Taguchi when he played in left) caught everything.

Jimmy Rollins has below average range (-4.1, the third straight year between -4 and -5), but makes up for it on the double play and avoiding errors.  Chase Utley has above average range and is also good turning two.  The Phillies were slightly above average in the percentage of baserunners removed by double plays.  Howard appears to be losing his mobility.  The few replacements at first base all had better per inning numbers, but nobody is taking Howard off the diamond.  Pedro Feliz was slightly below average but even his replacement was solid (Dobbs).

The outfield was weak.  Victorino and Werth were, on the whole, average.  The now departed Burrell has wrestled with Josh Willingham for two years to see who was the worst defensive left fielder in the National League.  The backups, So Taguchi and Geoff Jenkins, were both solid defensively.

Behind the plate, Ruiz and Coste are tolerable.  Both were below average against the stolen base and the total number of steals allowed was the fifth most in the league.  Coste makes fewer mistakes, but Ruiz appears to be more mobile in that he had 28 more assists that were not people trying to steal bases than Cost in a similar number of innings.

Now Pitching…

Last year I wrote, “Cole Hamels was brilliant, winning 15 of 20 decisions and with an ERA of 3.39 in a difficult park.  He continued to strike out nearly a batter an inning and cut his walk rate down to just 43 in more than 180 innings of work….  Hamels might be able to pick up 40 more innings…”  I’ll just quote that part, since it was right on the money, and not note that I had predicted Jamie Moyer to decline, when Moyer was equally brilliant in 2008.  Hamels saved his team 30 runs over the average pitcher, Moyer another 20.

Blanton was a slightly above average pitcher after his arrival, and Brett Myers was break even – with his second half being as good as his first half was poor.  So, the top four starters, who all return in 2009, were above average.

After that, you have Kyle Kendrick.  In two seasons, Kendrick has had a winning record – but things are going in the wrong direction.  He doesn’t strike anyone out and he doesn’t walk people.  In 2007, the ball stayed in the park.  In 2008, the ball left the yard.  When a pitcher allows too many hitters to put the ball in play, it’s a bad combination that is bound to backfire.  In 2008 it did.  Adam Eaton is still around, but for the third straight year, he posted an ERA over 5.00.  I would be surprised if Eaton is on the roster in 2008.

The bullpen, however, showed incredible improvement.  Brad Lidge didn’t blow a single save and was absolutely amazing all season long.  And – he wasn’t alone.  Ryan Madson, J.C. Romero, Clay Condrey, and Chad Durbin all were 10 runs allowed better than the average reliever.  Scott Eyre came over from the Cubs and was above average as well.  I mean – every pitcher who played a key role on the team, with the exception of Adam Eaton, was above average.  That’s TEN solid pitchers.

Forecasting 2008:

Conventional wisdom might look at this team and say “wow – look how good they were, this is the team to beat in the NL” – and for the most part conventional wisdom is right.  Unfortunately, there are a few “buts” to consider.

Last year, the team was virtually injury free.  Jimmy Rollins was the only starter to miss any significant time, and he still played in nearly 140 games.  No pitcher went down with a serious injury, except Tom Gordon, who wasn’t needed and was the last active pitcher who played with Frank White.  I’d be hard pressed to believe that the same luck will stay with the Phillies in 2009.  Chase Utley had hip surgery in the offseason and the Phillies are cautiously optimistic that he’ll be back around opening day.  As such, Marcus Giles was given a Non-Roster Invite to spring training – and he hasn’t been good since 2006.

The 2008 Phillies were a veteran team.  Not an old team, but a collection of guys around 29 on offense, and – Moyer not withstanding – generally prime ages for pitchers.  That works in their favor – but they aren’t getting younger either.  Replacing Burrell in left field will be the 37 year-old Raul Ibanez.  Raul’s slightly better in the field than Burrell, and hasn’t missed much time in the last seven years.  But he’s 37 – and guys who are 37 miss games.  They don’t get faster.  Ibanez isn’t likely to be better than Burrell, he’s likely to be worse. 

J.C Romero tested positive for performance enhancing drugs, moving Scott Eyre into a more prominent role, but Romero’s roster spot was claimed by Chan Ho Park.  Park turns 36 in mid-season.  Park won’t be better than Romero, that’s for sure.  And, God help the Phillies if they need him to be a starter – he hasn’t been effective in that role for years.  Outfielder Tai Iguchi is gone; the remaining backup outfielders are Jenkins (34) and Matt Stairs (40).  John Mayberry, Jr., acquired from Texas, hasn’t played in the majors yet and has never hit above .270 in the minors.  And, like a lot of young major leaguers, he strikes out a lot.

Let’s try to do this by runs.  My guess is that Ibanez will be 10 – 15 runs worse than Burrell, Feliz will continue to look older, and Greg Dobbs may not be as consistent.  If it were me, I’d play Dobbs over Feliz, but I don’t think Manual agrees with me.  Anyway – that’s another ten run loss.  Ryan Howard isn’t getting better – just richer.  He could be off five runs from last year.  Utley is a question mark.  I root for the guy, personally, but it could be a 30 – 40 run decline from 2008.  There could be a slight improvement at catcher, Ronnie Paulino was acquired from Pittsburgh as insurance, but he’s not better than either Ruiz or Coste.  There is no position where the Phillies will be BETTER on offense.   More likely, the Phillies will fall from nearly 800 runs to 750 runs offensively.  It could be less than that.

Defensively, the team will likely be flat – depending on how well Utley’s replacement plays.  Giles won’t be better than Utley, though the improvement of not playing Burrell for 1000 innings in the outfield will make up for that in some way.

So that leaves the pitching staff.  Let’s say Hamels remains outstanding, and Blanton and Myers are above average.  It’s equally likely however that whatever benefits Blanton and Myers may add will be negated by a decline by Moyer.  Moyer’s season in 2008 was the lone solid season in the last four – and while he’s one of my favorite pitchers, he’s not going to be better than last year.  I think he could easily be 20 runs worse than last year – which makes Moyer league average.  Moyer’s record will be 10 – 12 if he makes 30 starts again.  He usually does…

If I’m Charlie Manual, I give starts to J.A. Happ.  Happ looks to be an improvement over Kyle Kendrick – he’s been solid in the minors and didn’t disappoint in four starts last year.  That would be his only chance to improve the rotation.  At least Manual has a good sixth option.  Park is not.  Eaton should be released.  A full year of Blanton is an improvement over 13 starts of Blanton and 19 starts by Eaton.

However, so many pitchers were above average in the bullpen, I’d fear for at least one of them (Clay Condrey is my first guess, Park the other) to be league average or worse.  That’s another decline of at least 20 runs.  On the whole, the pitchers are likely to allow 35 more runs than in 2008.  That puts the runs scored/runs allowed numbers at 750/700 – a record of about 87 – 75.  87 wins might be enough to make the playoffs, though – and since this team has two straight years of closing strongly, I wouldn’t be surprised if they sneak in by a nose.  One pitcher injury, however – especially if it’s Hamels – would cost the team five games in the standings, and 82 wins won’t get it done.

Down on the Farm…

The Lehigh Valley IronPigs look to be shy on players who can help.  The best hitter is probably first baseman Adam Tracy – but he isn’t great and Howard isn’t moving.  Mike Cervanek looks like Enos Cabell – might hit .280 with 10 homers and no walks.  Outfielder Brendan Watson isn’t going to help people if he hits .270 with no power and a bad stolen base percentage.  Their catching prospect, Jason Jaramillo was sent to Pittsburgh for Ronny Paulino.  The best pitcher was J.A. Happ, who should be starting for Philadelphia already.  He just needs a chance to pitch 140 innings and show what he can do and learn how to survive at the top level.

The best hitter in Reading (AA) was catcher Lou Marson, who got to play in one September game and homered for the Phillies that day.  I thought he looked good at Clearwater in 2007, so his continued improvement bodes well for his future.  He’ll be starting here by 2010.   Jason Donald looked good at shortstop, hitting for power and showing plate discipline.  He’s blocked at the big league level, though, unless Utley can’t come back.  Jeremy Slayden can hit some, but he’ll be 27 soon and running out of time.  He’s reaching his peak and hasn’t gotten past AA.  No pitchers in AA were that impressive – nobody with stunning strikeout numbers, a low number of hits per nine, or remarkable control.

At the lower levels, Michael Taylor hit a ton at Lakeland and Clearwater, but few others had successful runs.  Taylor comes from Stanford and is built like a tight end (6’ 6”, 250) but needs to move up a couple of levels quickly.  This was his first solid season in the minors.