Sox Release Lugo; Lowell Returns to Boston

Mike Lowell was ready to play, Clay Buchholz was needed to start – and Julio Lugo, making $9 million a year, wasn’t playing as well as Nick Green.  So, the Boston Red Sox dispatched Aaron Bates to AAA to make room for Buchholz, and – making room for Lowell – designated Lugo for assignment.  [ESPN]

Boston had been trying to trade Lugo, but Lugo hadn’t been able to stay healthy over the last two years and leg injuries appeared to have sapped his defensive range.  Nobody was willing to take on Lugo’s salary, and now someone can have him for the league minimum.

What are you getting for your Julio Lugo dollar?

Well – comments about Lugo’s diminished range are legit; he’s lost more than a step.

In 2005 with Tampa Bay, Lugo would have been my pick to win the Gold Glove.  (They gave it to Derek Jeter because he’s, well, Derek Jeter.)  The average shortstop made about 4.43 plays per nine innings – without adjustments, Lugo was at 4.82, and when you account for the flyball nature of his staff, grades out at 5.07.   (Jeter, before adjustments, was 4.58, but with a groundball staff, the adjusted rate was 4.41 or an edge below average.)  That means for every 800 balls in play, Lugo made 18 plays that the average shortsop (Jeter in 2005) didn’t – saving his team some 43 runs over the course of the season.   (By the way, Nick Green was on the Rays with Lugo in 2005, and there’s no question that Lugo was a better player and Nick Green wasn’t helping the Rays any.)

Heading to 2006, not only was Lugo still ahead of most shortstops (he was still six plays better than the average SS), he was hitting over .300 and getting on base at a .373 clip.  So, LA hoisted him from Tampa for a couple of prospects (who, by the way, never really panned out).  Lugo didn’ t hit as well in LA and they bounced him all over the infield – playing well at three positions – for the last two months of the year.

In December, 2006, Lugo signed a four-year, $36 million dollar deal with the Red Sox.  In his only full season with Boston, 2007, Lugo was a significant improvement over Edgar Renteria, but was now slowed by quad injuries.  His range was almost exactly league average, and going 0 – 33 early in the season contributed to batting .237 and being a well below league average hitter.  Hitting .280 with some walks, speed, and a little power and displaying great range is worth $9 million.  Hitting under .240 with little power and being ordinary at short isn’t going to cut it.  While his bat came back a little in 2008, now his range was below average (-6), and he’s still not a league average hitter.  This year, a knee injury didn’t help when Jed Lowrie got injured – and Nick Green played his way onto the team.  Lugo played his way to a demotion.

As we see Lugo in 2009, we see someone who is, at best, a utility option.    When healthy, he’s not an embarrassing backup – but he’s no longer the type of player who is going to lead you to championships.  With all the Mets injuries, he’s better than Argenis Reyes and maybe better than Angel Berroa – and Lugo has played second, third, and the outfield (Omar Minaya, are you listening?).  If not the Mets, somebody is going to give him a AAA contract, maybe bring him to the bigs.  But, if you get a Julio Lugo baseball card in the 2011 Topps Baseball Card set, it will be a surprise.  He’ll be 34 when the season is over, and I don’t see him playing after he turns 35.

Puma Derailed By Calf; Cubs Sign Ryan to Minor League Deal

Houston first basemen Lance Berkman left last night’s game in the eighth inning with a calf strain.  He’s listed as day-to-day, but Berkman admitted the calf had been bothering him for a while.  [MLB]

Lacking “organizational depth” (Piniella’s term) in left-handed relievers, the Chicago Cubs signed former Toronto closer B.J. Ryan to a minor league deal.  Ryan will report to the Cubs’ Arizona training complex and if all goes well, head to AAA Iowa for seasoning.  [ESPN]

The Braves look forward to the return of Javier Vasquez, and think Mike Gonzalez is still a couple of days away from returning to the mound.  Gonzalez is struggling with elbow inflammation.  [MLB]

Texas and St. Louis are contenders in the Roy Halliday sweepstakes.  Personally, I’m not sure that Toronto should deal their ace away – it’s hard to find guys like Halliday, no matter how many prospects or players you might get.  Only one team has ever really turned this to their favor – Cleveland’s trading Bartolo Colon netted them Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore, and Brandon Phillips (since traded).  [MLB]

Boston is willing to eat shortstop Julio Lugo’s salary, and is looking for takers in a trade according to Ken Rosenthal.  The oft-injured shortstop has a year and a half left on a $9 million per season contract.  [FoxSports]

No news is bad news – the Mets remain unsure about the return of too many players.  The longer Reyes, Maine, Delgado, and Beltran remain on the DL, the worse my prediction that the Mets would win the NL East looks…  [MLB]

By the way, if you like tragedies, read Cliff Corcoran’s opinion on why the Cubs are miserable failures so far in 2009.  [SI.com]

Five more minor leaguers out of the Dominican Republic were suspended for steroid use.  Anybody surprised?  [ESPN]

Hurry Back!  Padre ace Jake Peavy lost his boot and is throwing a little.  Rehab begins now that Peavy got a clean bill of health from team doctors…  Milwaukee starter Dave Bush continues to struggle in his rehab, having suffered a torn triceps.  LA’s Cory Wade heads to the DL with a right shoulder strain.  Atlanta’s Jo-Jo Reyes gets a rehab stint in Gwinnett.

Welcome Back!  The Royals activated Alex Gordon and newly acquired shorstop Yuniesky Betancourt from the DL.  (I missed this trade while vacationing…  The Royals sent cash and a couple of players to Seattle to fill a gap at short.  Danny Cortes is a fireballer with control issues joining his third organization.  Just 22, he might benefit by becoming a reliever.  The other guy, Derrick Saito, is a Hawaiian reliever who was drafted out of Cal Poly.  He has skills and could make the Mariners happy in 2011.  Seattle filled the organization gap by signing Alex Cintron to a minor league deal.).  The Royals need a shot in the arm, and this could help immensely.  Colorado welcomes back reliever Manny Corpas.

Others coming back to the majors?  Blake DeWitt (Dodgers), Josh Whitesell (D-backs), Angel Berroa (Mets), Alexi Casilla (Twins), Garrett Mock (Nationals), Wesley Wright (Astros).

Others heading in the wrong direction?  Mett Belisle (Giants) and Tony Pena (Royals) were designated for assignment.  The Mets dispatched Argenis Reyes back to the minors.

2009 Season Forecast: Kansas City Royals

KC Royals
75 – 87 (4th AL Central)
Scored 691 Allowed 781

Quick Season Summary:

The Royals got off to a slow start, but seemed to get things turned around in August, and built steam down the stretch. Along the way, they found a new ace in Zach Greinke, who pairs with Gil Meche to provide one of the best starting duos in baseball. The problem was that the offense was tolerable at times, but had too many holes.

Tell Me About That Offense:

Mike Aviles was the best rookie hitter since 1987 (Seitzer), hitting .325 with some pop. He’s old for a rookie – 27 – and if you think he’s a long term answer, you’re probably wrong. He is, however, a nice short term solution. David DeJesus was solid. Jose Guillen was added, had 97 RBI, but was generally overrated because his batting average was just .264 and he drew 23 walks. The lineup features a lot of average to below average hitters; they still need a couple of good bats. Tony Pena couldn’t buy a hit. On the whole, too many holes. Only two teams scored fewer runs.

And the Defense:

David DeJesus was out of position in center, but better than Joey Gathright who is fast except when chasing fly balls. Tony Pena was atrocious in the field, his bad hitting going to the field with him. Alex Gordon wasn’t great, and Mark Grudzielanek was tolerable when healthy. Most of the first basemen couldn’t field. Mark Teahan fields well no matter where he plays.

Pitching:

Royals pitchers were either really good or really bad. Zack Greinke and Gil Meche were really good. Brian Bannister and Luke Hochevar were really bad. Why did they try Brett Tomko, who we all know can’t pitch? Kyle Davies looked good as a rookie. In the pen, the Royals were better than expected. Joakim Soria is a stud, Leo Nunez was good, Ramon Ramirez was solid, and ancient veteran Ron Mahay was good, too. However, Jimmy Gobble, Joel Peralta, and Kip Wells (predictably for Wells) were awful.

What is Different for 2009?

Kansas City lost Ramirez to Boston (he’ll be missed), but got Coco Crisp to play center. They traded Leo Nunez for Marlin Mike Jacobs, like they needed another first baseman, but Jake can hit for power. Luke Hochever was sent back to AAA, and they will be trying Sidney Ponson (why?). Kyle Davies moved into rotation permanently. Juan Cruz and Kyle Farnsworth were signed for bullpen – Cruz is an especially good acquisition. Brian Bannister has to improve or his career ends – he allows too many balls in play, many of which left the yard. The net result, though, is positive. Probably 25 runs better than last year.

Crisp in center is a step up from Gathright, which means a full season of DeJesus in left – another good idea. No Pena, more Aviles is a positive. I’m not happy with Gordon’s progression, but he’ll get better (he has to), and Jacobs won’t be worse than what they had. They’ll miss Grudz at second; Alberto Callaspo isn’t that good. The net result is positive if Crisp stays healthy, so that’s another 15 runs better than last year.

The offense might be better. Billy Butler showed improvement after he got back from AAA. Jacobs adds some run production, but he needs to hit better than last year in Florida – a few more walks wouldn’t hurt. Crisp COULD be really good, he’s going to be way better than Gathright. More Olivo and less Buck is good. Did I say that the Royals would miss Grudz – he hits better than Callaspo, too. I think they score 40 runs more than last year.

When you add it up, the numbers suggest about 730 runs scored, allow about 740. With the right breaks, they finish with 80 wins or even sneak over .500. However, they actually played a bit better than would have been expected last year, and I’m not convinced that Bannister will be that much better. So, I’ll go with 78 – 84, which will still be a slight improvement and in the AL Central, could be competitive.

On the Farm…

One look at AAA Omaha and you see that one of the Royals’ problems is the lack of depth in the organization. The best players got a shot – Ryan Shealy, Shane Costa, Angel Berroa (how sad, really). The only real prospect is Billy Butler and quite possibly the Hawaiian Volcano, Kilo Kaaihue (11 homers in 114 at bats at AAA, another 26 homers in AA, which makes you wonder why the Royals traded for Mike Jacobs…). Brett Bigler got moved up – he was 23 last year. The best pitcher was Kyle Davies – 6 – 2, 2.03 ERA, he’s already on the team. Jorge De La Rosa got four starts, but is 27 and too old to be called a prospect. Carlos Rosa might be good – 4 – 3 in 11 starts, 44 Ks and 12 BBs in Omaha, after going 4 – 2 with a 1.20 ERA in AA with an even better K/W ratio.

Dan Cortes won 10 games in AA Northwest Arkansas, but could stand to improve his control. Moving to A+ Wilmington, at least you see some youth and speed. Derrick Robinson is a burner but doesn’t hit for average or power. Joe Dickerson can run and hit some, shows plate discipline – probably the best prospect here. The best pitcher is either Greg Holland, a 22-year-old who fanned 96 in 84.1 innings, or 22-year-old Henry Barrera, a reliever with 78Ks in 57.2 innings.

2009 Season Forecast: Los Angeles Dodgers

Los Angeles Dodgers
2008: 84-78 (1st NL West)

One of the great mysteries, as I see it, is trying to reconstruct how the Dodgers did what they did.  This is a team that, on the surface, looks like it should have clocked the division – but it didn’t.  Joe Torre’s job, as I see it, is to figure out how to make them play more consistently at the high level shown not just in September but at other odd stretches throughout the season, and eliminate some of the huge stretches of losing streaks that plagued Los Angeles for much of the season.

Looking Back on 2008

Looking at the roster, you had a lot of potential in the young players like Andre Ethier, Chad Billingsly, Jonathon Broxton, James Loney, and Matt Kemp, surrounded by the veteran presence of players like Rafael Furcal and Andruw Jones, Jeff Kent, and Derek Lowe.  Plus, you had the new sage leadership of Joe Torre and his management crew – guys like Don Mattingly and Larry Bowa.  At the beginning of the season, many (including me) had them winning the division and possibly making a run deep into the playoffs.  And they did – but it wasn’t in any way a dominating performance.

Instead, you had a wildly inconsistent team.  The Dodgers were capable of winning ten out of eleven, just as well as losing ten out of eleven.  Nearly unbeatable at home, the hitters didn’t produce on the road and the pitchers might as well as not got off the plane on the road.

Right away, the Dodgers lost nine of twelve to fall into a deep hole as it coincided with the hot start of the Arizona Diamondbacks.  Facing Colorado twice, the Marlins and Mets at the end of April, the team ran off ten wins in eleven games, to get five games over and back into the race.  However, with Andruw Jones hitting half the Mendoza line, and Brad Penny fighting through injuries and pitching poorly, a second slump pushed the Dodgers seven games under .500 after getting swept by a lousy Detroit team in mid-June.

Not quitting – and getting Penny and Jones out of the lineup – the team rallied gamely back over the next six weeks, winning a few more than they lost into mid-August when another extremely poor streak (losing eleven of 13) would have appeared to bury LA.  The last of the losses was to Arizona.  Any other manager might have been fired, but Joe Torre was left in charge – at which point Manny Ramirez put the Dodgers on his back.

Los Angeles won the last two against Arizona and never looked back.  Winning fourteen of sixteen, the Dodgers not only roared back into the race but caught the fading Diamondbacks, holding them off thanks in large part to a weak schedule for the last two weeks of the year.  The Dodgers finished with San Francisco, San Diego, Colorado, and Pittsburgh down the stretch, while Arizona imploded.

Manny Ramirez continued his hot hitting into the playoffs, but by then the Dodgers had to face really good teams (Chicago and Philadelphia) and one of them was bound to be hotter.  Philadelphia finished off Los Angeles one series shy of the World Series.

 
Tell me about that offense

The Dodgers had a lot of solid performances up and down the lineup, but had two or three really poor performances that prevented this team from looking really as strong as they probably should have been.

The two best hitters didn’t play 90 games combined.  Rafael Furcal played in just 36 games, Manny Ramirez 53, but in those 89 games, I see them as having created about 117 runs – an unreal total.  The problem was that both players were negated by two others, Angel Berroa and Andruw Jones, who hit like two non-prospects from AA.  Much has been written about Ramirez’s hitting .396 in two months – at a pace that would have created 50 homers and 160 RBI in a full season.  But Furcal was also remarkably productive – in about a fourth of a season, he paced out at 20 homers, 30 steals, a .340 bat and a .440 OBA, a leadoff hitter any team would wish for.

They just weren’t here all year.

Behind the plate, Russell Martin played every game (not really – 155 of 162) and only really wilting in August, but playing well in September.  Few catchers have as well rounded a game as Martin – a little power, decent baserunner, works the count.

The infield was pretty sold, except when Angel Berroa had to play in Furcal’s absence.  Aside from Furcal, Jeff Kent was still an above average run producer and Blake DeWitt hit just as well as Kent.  James Loney isn’t a bopper at first base but still contributed close to 100 runs, hitting like Mark Grace without the batting eye.  Casey Blake and Nomar Garciaparra were decent fill-ins offensively.  Berroa, however, consumed outs and didn’t generate any offense (about 3 runs per 27 outs).  Not having Furcal all season probably cost the Dodgers 60 runs of offense.

In the outfield, Ethier and Kemp were both worth 110 or more runs offensively, with good power, some speed, and, in Ethier’s case, a willingness to work the count.  Jones was awful (2 runs per 27 outs); where he once created 110 runs a season or more, he was on pace to create about 35.  Forced to play Juan Pierre, Pierre did what you would expect – hit singles, ground out a lot, and steal a few bases.  He was slightly above what the average player delivers, but the net loss caused by Jones’s poor season was probably another 40 runs.

Then, you look at the rest of the bench and you see a lot of holes.  Mark Sweeney was asked to pinch hit a lot.  In 92 at bats, he got 12 hits.  Berroa was so weak as a hitter, the Dodgers gave innings to Luis Maza and Chin-Hung Lu, both of whom were even worse than Berroa.

Jones, Furcal, and the weak bench kept this team from scoring 800 runs, which would have been near the top of the National League – impressive for a team playing in Dodger Stadium.

Defensively:

Not so good.  Behind the plate, Martin is average – good with the pitchers, weak against the run, and makes a few too many errors.  Danny Ardoin occupied the bench a lot.

The infield features James Loney, who looks rather immobile for such a young player, and is missing a fielder at either second or third.  Offensively, Casey Blake and Jeff Kent and Blake DeWitt were interchangeable, but only DeWitt can field.  Once Kent lost his mobility, Torre made the right decision to play DeWitt at second and let Blake play at third.  If Manny Ramirez doesn’t come back, I think the Dodgers may miss Andy LaRoche.  Berroa played decently in the field, while Furcal’s numbers were way off thanks to injuries.

The outfield was generally weak.  Jones is no better than an average centerfielder, Kemp is slightly below average.  Ethier is weak in either corner.  That leaves you with left field where Pierre isn’t really that good at running down flies (for as fast as he is, he is consistently below average defensively).  Ramirez was surprisingly interested in fielding for two months – the best corner outfielder they have.

Ideally, the Dodgers would love to have a burner in center and move Kemp to right, Ethier to left – but I don’t see that happening soon.  And, thankfully, Jones is gone.

Now Pitching…

Just as the offense had to studs and a couple of serious burnouts, the pitching staff had a couple of studs, some good complimentary arms, and two guys who just killed them.

Chad Billingsley’s first full season as a starter was a decided success, finishing nearly 24 runs better than the average pitcher in 200 innings.  Derek Lowe was nearly as good, another 20 runs above average.  Hiroki Kuroda was slightly above average, and Clayton Kershaw showed enough in 100 innings that if he gains command of the strike zone, he could become a solid #2 starter.  After that, the Dodgers prayed.  Brad Penny was miserable, costing his team nearly 23 runs that an average pitcher wouldn’t have allowed – basically negating one ace – and the scraps given to Greg Maddux and Eric Stults were tolerable.  At least Stults looks like he has a future.

The bullpen was nearly as good as Philadelphia’s – with Takashi Saito holding down the closer role until he had to sit with a sore elbow.  Jonathon Broxton was solid as a setup man, and other pitchers, like Joe Beimel, Cory Wade and Hong-Chi Kuo were well above average pitchers.  Only Scott Proctor – also marred by a sore elbow – didn’t pitch above average on the season.

Forecasting 2008:

If there is optimism here, I don’t see it – and it really starts with the pitchers.

Billingsley was marvelous but it was his first season, and now he’s recovering from a broken shin bone suffered while falling on the ice in November.  He should be healthy, but he could be good and still ten runs worse than last year.  Lowe is gone – his likely replacement could be Randy Wolf, who has been generally unimpressive since coming back from injury three years ago.  If he actually gets to 200 innings and is better than planned, that would be league average and likely another 20 runs worse than last year.

Kuroda and Kershaw will be expanding their roles – not totally confident that either will make significant strides in any direction.  Let’s call that a wash over last year – but with more innings pitched.  That leaves the fifth spot, which could go to Stults, or Jason Schmidt (yeah, still here and collecting a paycheck), or Claudio Vargas.  If Schmidt is really healthy (the first surgeries were okay, but a clavicle repair in the fall apparently cleared up his pain and he’s throwing freely for the first time in years), this could be a big upgrade – a 30 run upgrade.  If not, it’s still going to be better – maybe 10 runs better.  I’ve seen a list of the other options and none of them impress me.  Jeff Weaver?  Really?

And, the bullpen is thinner.  Saito is with the Red Sox, Beimel is unsigned but still a free agent.   Wade and Kuo are still here, and Broxton was promoted to the closer role.  However, the potential replacements are Ramon Troncoso and Guillermo Mota, none of which have had a solid season in the majors in the last three years (granted Troncoso is just 25).  NRI options include Yhency Brazoben and Shawn Estes (really?).  Granted, an injured Proctor is gone, but the bullpen certainly won’t be better than last year.  More realistically, the bullpen will be 20 runs worse than last year. 

Defensively, the Dodgers would improve if they moved DeWitt back to third and played recently acquired Mark Loretta at second.  Only problem is that Loretta is 37 and likely just an insurance policy.  So, the infield will still be a challenge unless Furcal can return to the form he showed three years ago.  Furcal still has the arm, but he is 31 and collecting injuries at too quick a pace.  The outfield, already slightly below average, is likely going to remain below average.  Kemp and Ethier might perform a little better, but Manny will not and a full season of Juan Pierre in the outfield isn’t making anything better.

Offensively, the team is already pretty solid.  Kemp, Ethier or Loney could turn doubles into homers with another year of seasoning – and Ethier is at that age where a breakout season is possible.  The net effect should be about twenty runs better than before.  A full season of Furcal would help – it’s worth 15 more runs than having to play Tony Abreu or Lu at short.  Casey Blake, however is, 35 and may lose a step.  DeWitt has potential for improvement, but he’ll be playing his first full season.  Let’s see what happens.

Russell Martin is the question mark.  If asked to play 150 games again, I don’t think the offense holds up.  And, if he cedes games to Danny Ardoin or the unretired Brad Ausmus, they’ll lose ten runs by letting those guys bat.  If Martin goes down, the loss would be devastating.

And, if Manny signs, he’s not going to hit .396 all season.  Heck, he might not be here at all.  My take on it is that if he signs, the Dodgers will score about 710 runs this year.  If not, it might be closer to 670 runs.  If Manny isn’t back, when coupled with the decline of the pitching and defense, and the Dodgers are a candidate to finish under .500.  Even if he returns, we’re talking about a team that MIGHT with 82 games. 

I’m not that confident.  I think Joe Torre’s last year will be a year of distractions and underperforming.  If I were a betting man, I’d look at the over/under on the number of wins listed in Vegas and bet the under.  The system says 84 wins with Manny, and 79 without him.  My gut tells me 77 wins will be successful.

Down on the Farm…

After a couple of years in Las Vegas, the Dodgers are going back to Albuquerque for AAA games.  A couple of guys may make the move…  Eric Stults and Jason Johnson both pitched well in Vegas.  Stults is a long shot prospect, but Jason Johnson you might remember from stints in Detroit, Baltimore, and other major league outposts.  He’s 35 and running out of time.  Even Stults is rather old for a prospect – he’s 29.  Most of the batters for Las Vegas were older than Stults – those who are younger are now on an MLB roster.

The AA team is also moving from Jacksonville to Chattanooga in 2009.  The best player for Jacksonville was the son of a former Dodger prospect, Ivan DeJesus, Jr., who will likely be Rafael Furcal’s replacement in 2011.  He has a bit more power than his dad, and his batting eye looks to be a bit better, too.  Clayton Kershaw already made it to the bigs, leaving Scott Elbert, a former first round draft pick, as the next best pitcher on the AA staff.  Elbert has been slow to move up, but strikes out a lot of minor league hitters.  His next stop looks to be Albuquerque.

Carlos Santana looks to be the catcher of the future, after a solid season in A ball, and he’s still just 22.  He hit well, showed some power, and good plate discipline.  After that, it’s slim pickings.