Can you make a competitive team with your pick of the remaining free agents?

I was flipping through the list of remaining free agents (as of 1/16/2012) and tried to field the best team possible with those players still available.  Here’s what you can do…

Catcher:

The best hitting catcher is probably Ramon Castro, who I see as a DH but can catch some.  You have a couple of receivers with good defensive skills but a limited offensive outlook (Ivan Rodriguez, Jason Varitek) and a couple of catchers who have recently been regulars (Chris Snyder, Ronny Paulino).  If you took Castro and Rodriguez, at least you’d have someone who could work with the pitchers and throw, and you’d have a decent enough backup who could help put a few runs on the board.

First Baseman:

With Prince Fielder still available, you have the centerpiece of an offense – but you still have some competent backups.  Casey Kotchman seems to have found his hitting stroke, and Carlos Pena could help in a platoon role (can’t hit lefties, though).  If you weren’t willing to pony up $20 million per year for Fielder, a platoon of Pena and Derrek Lee might give you depth and a solid platoon.

Second Baseman:

Not a lot to choose from here…  The best player is probably Carlos Guillen, but he’s only going to play 40 games (not to be mean here, but his injury history is becoming problematic).  That leaves you with someone who can, at best, not embarrass you with the glove – Jeff Keppinger, for example – and even play a couple of positions since you may need some flexibility.

Third Baseman:

If you thought the pickings were thin at second, it’s even thinner at third base now.  Casey Blake has had a couple of good years, and Wilson Betemit can swing the bat.  After that, it’s guys who used to be able to play some (Eric Chavez, Alex Cora, Omar Vizquel).

Shortstop:

Three guys who can’t really cover the position anymore – Orlando Cabrera, Edgar Renteria, and Miguel Tejada.  The best overall option is probably Cabrera – or letting him play second and moving Keppinger over to play short.

Outfielders:

There are still a few players here who could contribute, but most of these guys are past prime players and few have the wheels to cover center.  However, Johnny Damon could still play left, Cody Ross can play right or center (though he’s running out of years he’ll be able to cover center).  Kosuke Fukudome is a fantastic right fielder and can still bat leadoff.  Behind that you have a couple of guys who could be good fourth outfielders and pinch hitting types – Jonny Gomes, Andruw Jones, Juan Pierre.  If you needed a defensive guy, Joey Gathright is there.  And, if you want to take a real chance, you could go for Yoenis Cespedes.

A lineup as listed below would score some runs, and probably fight the defense to a draw.

Fukudome – RF
Damon – LF
Guillen – 2B
Fielder – 1B
Castro – C
Ross – CF
Blake – 3B
Keppinger – SS
(Pitcher – assuming a National League team)

Starting Pitchers:

A couple recent signings has killed off much of the top remaining pitchers, but you still have a few guys who can win games.  I see a rotation that includes the following as having some potential:

Roy Oswalt
Edwin Jackson
Jon Garland
Joe Saunders
Livan Hernandez

And I’d give a sixth spot to Rich Harden – pitch him until something breaks (which it will).  Or, you could take Harden’s stuff and make a closer out of him.  Your emergency arm might be Kevin Millwood – I just don’t know if he has one more year left.  I’d stash him in AAA until Rich Harden breaks down…  The staff is really missing an ace, but you have two guys who can win at the top and three guys who can give you 650 innings at the bottom, which helps the bullpen.

Relievers:

The signing of Ryan Madson takes away the best available closer, but you can do a bullpen by committee and hope someone takes charge.  I see the top six arms as follows:

Michael Gonzalez
Danys Baez
Francisco Cordero
Juan Cruz
Brad Lidge
Arthur Rhodes

Out of that list, you can give Lidge the last inning (if he’s healthy) and mix and match the rest to be reasonably effective.

I haven’t done the math on this, but a team with this roster could possibly make a run at 85 wins.

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2010 Season Forecast: Cincinnati Reds

Last Five Seasons:
2009: 78 – 84 (4th NL Central)
2008: 74 – 88
2007: 72 – 90
2006: 80 – 82
2005: 73 – 89

The Reds haven’t had a winning season since going 85 – 77 in 2000.  It’s time to fix this problem, don’t you think?

Runs Scored: 673 (10th in the NL)
Runs Allowed: 723 (8th in the NL)

Season Recap:

Most observers were mixed, but one could see hope on the horizon in guys like Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, and what looked like four potentially good starters.  I’m sure the Reds fans thought they should have finished better than .500.

The Reds actually got off to a pretty good start.  At one point, Cincinnati was 20 – 14 with Johnny Cueto at 4 – 1, Bronson Arroyo at 5 – 2 and Edinson Volquez at 4 – 2.  And then the bad things started to happen.  Joey Votto got hurt – and his confidence was suddenly shaken, requiring extra time to come to grips with being out of the lineup and being without his father who had passed away.  Volquez went down with an arm injury, taking their ace out of the rotation.  After two months looking like a contender, the Reds fell off in June and then fell APART in July.

Cincinnati was 40 – 39 on the Fourth of July.  And then the roof caved in falling all the way to 45 – 61 after a loss to Chicago on August 3.  The team couldn’t hit – as a group, they batted .240 or less in June, July and August.  In July, Red pitchers had an ERA of 5.58 and while August was better, it was their second worst complete month.

To their credit, the Reds unloaded a few problems (Edwin Encarnacion was traded to Toronto for Scott Rolen, Alex Gonzalez was sent to Boston and Paul Janish played shortstop), and got Willy Taveras and his lousy bat out of the leadoff spot.  Homer Bailey finally started pitching like a winner.  Justin Lehr replaced Micah Owings in the rotation and won five of eight decisions.  The rest of the way, the Reds went 33 – 23, which was better than even St. Louis down the stretch.

Pitchers:

Having looked at the numbers, adjusting for the defense and the park, I noticed this odd fact.  Every pitcher who made a start allowed more runs per nine than the average NL pitcher – a combined 77 runs worse than average.  Bronson Arroyo was the closest to average at -0.95, and having pitched the most innings, he’s the ace.  Johnny Cueto had his second straight season of running out of gas – he needs to step up big time in 2010.  Aaron Harang should be better than this (6 – 14, 4.21)), and yet he’s constantly moving backwards.  Micah Owings is the best hitting pitcher ever, probably, but he would have fit in with the Brewers rotation as badly as he pitched.  Homer Bailey was on the way to positives, but he didn’t quite make it before the season ended.  Even Edinson Volquez didn’t fare exceedingly well in his nine starts.

So, that the Reds went out of the box and signed Aroldis Chapman – who may wind up the fifth starter (crazy, I know it) – was a HUGE step forward.  The 20 year old with a 102 mile an hour fastball might start the year in AA, but in a year or two, he could be a serious ace.

If the Reds want to win, their starters have to step up.  Arroyo has to hold steady, Harang has to find his mojo, Cueto has to become a REAL #2 starter, and Bailey has to make 25 good starts and not 10.  The guy who might make this interesting, but isn’t guaranteed a roster spot is Matt Maloney, who had seven tolerable starts but gave up nine homers.  Everything else looks good (28Ks against 8 walks, for example).

The bullpen was pretty good, though.  Francisco Cordero was great, Nick Massett was solid, and even Arthur Rhodes – who pitched in Baltimore when Mike Flanagan was still pitching – was really good.  If Maloney isn’t going to start, he’s a good long relief option.  After that, you have a few “ifs” in Danny Herrera, Carlos Fisher, and Jared Burton.  These are guys who aren’t bad and would help more IF they could also step forward.

I like Harang to come back some, Cueto and Bailey to improve some more, and Micah Owings to play right field before too long.  I see at least a 25 run net gain.  A streak of confidence might make it 50.  That’s optimistic, though.

Catchers:

It’s the same group as last year – Ramon Hernandez and Ryan Hanigan.  Combined, they provided slightly better than league average catching, and slightly below average hitting.  The hope, I guess, is that Hernandez stays healthy, but he’s turning 34 in May, so I wouldn’t bet the farm on it.

Infielders:

Joey Votto is the real deal – like Ryan Braun, Votto is a threat to win a triple crown.  It would be nice if the Reds wouldn’t do goofy things like force Ramon Hernandez to first base, but when Votto went down, Dusty Baker decided that Hernandez was Victor Martinez.  He’s not.  (He’s actually a better fielder, but not a hitter.)

Brandon Phillips remains a great second baseman; durable, a defender, and one of the most productive players in the game.

After a year of letting Alex Gonzalez try to regain his youth, the Reds are going with veteran Orlando Cabrera.  This HAS to go better, wouldn’t you think?  Paul Janish played spectacularly with the glove, but hits like Mark Belanger, too.

Arriving in a trade, Scott Rolen takes over at third base and if he can fight father time will be a step up over Edwin Encarnacion.

The bench now includes Aaron Miles and Paul Janish, capable gloves even if the bats aren’t really strong.  Drew Sutton is also around, but likely will wind up at AAA.  And, the ancient Miguel Cairo got a Non-Roster Invite – he could sneak in there.

All told, I like this group to be 30 – 40 runs more productive offensively, and perhaps five runs better defensively.  Only Rolen’s health makes me nervous – but at .255 and some power, he’s an improvement.  And, Cabrera could get old this year – but he’ll be better than Gonzalez.

Outfielders:

This is a young group and I think will be better next year because Willy Taveras is gone.  Chris Dickerson isn’t a huge power threat, but he was an above average hitter at 5.4 runs per 27 outs.  Give him 500 at bats, and that’s a step up.  Jonny Gomes will get at bats (and not catch flies) after hitting 20 homers last season.  And I don’t believe that Jay Bruce will hit .223 again (but he might hit 30 homers).  Add to that Drew Stubbs, who hit .267 with some power after taking over for Taveras in center.  I’m not convinced he’s better than Chris Dickerson (in part because that power isn’t to be expected and he doesn’t have enough patience), but BOTH guys would be better than Taveras.

Arriving from Seattle is Wladimir Balentien, who played well after arriving in late July- but had been disappointing as a Mariner.  I like him as a fourth or fifth outfielder.  Can Micah Owings shag flies?  Put him in left field and let the man hit.  Put him at first base when Joey Votto needs a day off and let him hit.  Sheesh.

I see perhaps 50 more runs of offense in 2010 from the outfield, with the defense holding steady – and improving if Gomes is a pinch hitter and not a regular outfielder.

Prospects:

The best players in AAA already started getting playing time – Stubbs, Maloney, Lehr, Bailey.  Aroldis Chapman may not see any minor league time, and we already mentioned him.  So, if you are looking for prospects, we have to look to the lower levels.

Travis Wood is close.  At AA Carolina, he went 9 – 3 with a 1.21 ERA (!), in part because he allowed just two homers and had a 3:1 K/W ratio.  He earned a shot at AAA where he had eight decent starts.  His minor league career has been a bit uneven, so look for Wood to start the year in AAA, but get the first shot at the majors if someone falters.  Chris Heisey had an amazing half season at AA, hitting .347 with 13 homers, walking as often as he struck out, and earning a trip to AAA with Wood.  He didn’t quite keep up the same pace, but his four years in the minors have shown Heisey to be a hitter.  He’ll get another shot at AAA because the Reds have outfield options right now.

Another AA prospect is first baseman Yonder Alonso, the 2008 first round pick out of Miami, who smoked his way through rookie, A, and into AA last year.  He’s got some pop, patience, and a .300 average in the minors.  Alonso’s spot would seem to be blocked in the majors, though – so the question will be can he move to the outfield, or will he be moved for a pitcher.  I think he looks like a young Eddie Murray…  Todd Frazier, a 2007 top pick (1A), has hit well, with patience and power, but might not have the range at short and is blocked at second.  Frazier MIGHT get a shot, though, if someone gets injured.

Recent early picks aren’t making the same progress.  Catcher Devin Mesoraco (2007 – #1) hasn’t hit much in the minors.  Kyle Lotzkar walks a lot of batters (24 in 37.2 innings at A Dayton) but, more importantly, has to recover from a broken bone in his elbow that caused him to miss the 2009 season.

Forecast:

I like the Reds to make a splash in 2010.  I think the offense might be 80 runs better than last year, with improvement in the outfield and at two infield positions.  The defense may be a little better – and there is room for improvement on the staff.  I see Cincinnati scoring 750 runs and allowing perhaps 680 – and it could be less.  I have them at 89 wins, which isn’t out of the range of possibility.  If SOMEBODY can pitch like an ace, look out.

If asked to name a sleeper to make the World Series, it’s the Cincinnati Reds.

2009 Season Forecast: Florida Marlins

Florida Marlins
2008: 84-77 (3rd NL East, 7.5 games back)

At some point, the people who regularly pick the Marlins to finish 71 – 91 are going to finally understand that General Manager Larry Beinfest knows what he’s doing.  Florida has fielded a competitive team every year but one in the last six seasons.  This year, management feels like it has a young staff that rivals the team that won the World Series in 2003 (Burnett, Beckett, Willis, Penny), and returns the core of a batting order that features three players who might all hit 30 homers.  This year, the outfield will be more mobile, the infield will have more experience, and the young arms will have a chance to shine.

Looking Back on 2008

The Marlins were one of the surprise teams in baseball (again), getting off to a solid start in April and May, and finding themselves in first place for a good chunk of the spring.  A weak June, where the hitting slowed and the starting pitching struggled mightily, sent them back to third place.  However, the Marlins wouldn’t fall to the bottom.  Instead, they rifled through July to hang near the top of the division.  After the all-star break, the bats slowed – Dan Uggla, Josh Willingham, Jorge Cantu, Mike Jacobs, and Jeremy Hermida all tanked – just as the rotation was overhauled.  So, despite replacing Rich VandenHurk, Burke Badenhop, Mark Hendrickson, and Andrew Miller with Josh Johnson, Chris Volstad, and Anibel Sanchez (to go along with Ricky Nolasco and Scott Olsen), giving the Marlins a strong rotation and having the best single month ERA, the team struggled to win 11 games.  The bullpen didn’t help either – Kevin Gregg’s balky knee and Reynal Pinto’s return to earth appeared to end Florida’s chances.

Even then, the Marlins wouldn’t die.  In late September, the Marlins won nine in a row and looked like they might suddenly repeat the Rockies Run of 2007 only to lose to Philadelphia and finish in 3rd with 84 wins.  With the strong finish and the improved rotation, the Marlins looked forward to 2009.

Tell me about that offense

If nothing else, the Marlins hit a LOT of homers.  They have one or two guys who can run, they have one or two guys who might hit close to .300, but they have a lot of guys who put the ball in the seats.

The infield offense was a single Jorge Cantu homer away from being the first to have all four starters hit 30 homers.  Hanley Ramirez is an offensive force, a 30/30 man who added 92 walks to his stat sheet, and scored 125 runs.  Dan Uggla had an unbelievable May that was so good (12 homers, .347 average) that it made up for two months of nothing (July, August).  The new Kansas City Royal, Mike Jacobs, hit for power but not much else.  Jorge Cantu looked like the hitter he was for Tampa Bay in 2005 and might be heading into his prime.  No other infield, including Philadelphia’s three MVP candidates, had such a broad impact on the offense.

The outfield, however, struggled to keep up.  Josh Willingham had only one good month.  Jeremy Hermida, coming off a 2007 where it looked like he might live up to his first round draft pick status, lost his way after the all-star break.  Cody Ross was a pleasant surprise and should have played more.  The usual centerfielder was the amazing Alfredo Amezega, who doesn’t do much other than hit a few singles.  The fifth outfielder, Luis Gonzalez, hit like a player who used to hit well.

Behind the plate, Matt Treanor struggled with injuries, Mike Rabelo played indifferently and was sent to AAA.  Part of the team’s success was finding John Baker, who hit .299 and reached base 40% of the time during the last two months of the season.

Defensively:

In 2007, the defense was the weakest part of the Marlins game.  In 2008, they battled it to a draw.

The catching was below average and mistake prone, and neither Baker, Rabelo, or Treanor could stop the running game.  Baker was the worst of the throwers, but his bat makes him the first choice to start in 2009.

The infield was slightly better than average.  Uggla and Ramirez were both slightly better than average in terms of range.  Uggla was especially good making many more good plays than bad, and helping turn two.  Ramirez cut down on his errors and made a few more plays.  If you watched both Jacobs and Cantu, you’d think they weren’t very mobile.  They’re not.  But the statistics show that they weren’t awful.  Cantu was dead even average in terms of range but makes a few too many errors, while Jacobs was just slightly below average at first and not helping in terms of being dependable.  Of the backups, only Andino (at second base) looks like a truly better defender, and since everybody who started hit, the defense provided was gravy.

Amezega is a surprisingly good outfielder; when you see him every day you realize just how skilled a fielder he is.  Cody Ross is mobile enough to play center, and solid in left or right.  Jeremy Hermida is mobile but awkward.  The primary backups, Luis Gonzales and Josh Willingham aren’t mobile, though Willingham gives good effort.  Putting Maybin in center, who looks truly amazing, and moving Ross to right will make what was a reasonably solid outfield even better.

Now Pitching…

The rotation featured only two guys who didn’t miss starts, Ricky Nolasco and Scott Olsen, and rotated out weaker starters once Josh Johnson and Anibel Sanchez got healthy and Chris Volstad was ready to go.

Nolasco started getting his curve over for strikes, becoming the staff ace and winning 15 games.  Scott Olsen kept the ball in the park, appeared to mature on the mound, and kept his team in games.  While Nolasco was 22 runs better than the average starter in his 212.1 innings, he gave up a few homers.  What helped was having stunning control (only 42 walks against 186 strikeouts).  Olsen, on the other hand, was just a good number four starter.  He wasn’t special but he was steady.

The rest of the rotation improved when the Marlins switched out Andrew Miller (-22) and Mark Hendrickson (-18), and no longer needed to use Burke Badenhop (-9) when Josh Johnson (+9) Chris Volstad (+14), and Sanchez joined the rotation.  Sanchez was not nearly as solid (-8), but was still a step up over Miller or Hendrickson.

The bullpen was tolerable.  Kevin Gregg was great for four months, and not so good down the stretch, but Matt Lindstrom picked up some of the slack in September.  For three months, Reynal Pinto avoided problems caused by his lack of control until it caught up to him in August and September.  As good as Joe Nelson and Doug Waechter were, they were negated by Ryan Tucker, Taylor Tankersley, and Eulogio De La Cruz, who were scary bad in major league tryouts.

Forecasting 2008:

There is a lot of optimism in Florida, and I would tend to agree.  Let’s start with the pitching.

Josh Johnson is great, but has never made it to 160 innings.  He potentially could be twenty runs better than average.  Realistically, he’ll be five runs better than average for every 50 innings he pitches.  Nolasco was amazing last year – let’s hope he stays equally solid, but he might fall back just a little from last year.  Volstad could be a pretty solid third starter.  If he keeps his quality for 180 innings, he would be solid and likely 15 runs better than average.  It’s the bottom slots featuring Sanchez and Miller that make me nervous.  Miller hasn’t been that good and seems to be off his game until the third inning.  Sanchez was good as a rookie and seems to have mound savvy, but before his injury wasn’t very good and at the end of last year, he wasn’t all that great either.  Either could improve, but I’m not confident both will.  If both pitch 180 innings, they’ll cancel each other out.  Granted, there will be no Hendrickson, which is a huge benefit, and if they only need to get 10 starts out of Badenhop or someone else, that’ll be good.  The optimist says an improvement of 30 runs over last year.

The bullpen will feature some lively young arms.  Lindstrom hits 100 once in a while, but his fastball is flat.  If his slider stays strong, he’ll be okay.  Former Royal Leo Nunez might be okay here, and Kensing might help.  Badenhop should be better as a long relief option – his pitches moved so much he had a hard time finding the strike zone, something that hadn’t been a problem in the minors.  He may start the year in AAA.  Scott Proctor was signed to a one-year deal.  Last year with the Dodgers, Proctor suffered through elbow tendinitis, having his first off season as a professional, but it was after two strong seasons where he appeared in 83 games each year.  Still, Gregg wasn’t bad and a few othes were really good (Joe Nelson, Doug Waechter, and Arthur Rhodes, all of whom are gone).  Just like 2008, though, there will be a few undependable arms, so the net result will likely be no change.  Jose Ceda looks like Lee Smith, but he’s a year away.

Defensively, there is a chance for improvement just by getting Maybin in the lineup and Willingham or Gonzalez off the field.  Also, if Gaby Sanchez plays first instead of Jacobs, the infield could be even more airtight.  The gain could be an additional ten run improvement.

Offensively, the Marlins have a formidable lineup.  Ramirez, Hermida, Cantu, Ross, Uggla, and Baker will hit.  Sanchez looks like a Mark Grace type, but for all the power Jacobs provided, he hit .243 with a low On Base Percentage.  So, it will be a wash at that position.  The potential for Hermida to improve will probably wash out with any decline by another player (Cantu?  Uggla?), and if Maybin is slightlyover matched as a hitter, it’s not going to be a huge loss since Amezega isn’t a run producer anyway.  I’m not as convinced that the bench hitting will be as strong.  The 2008 Marlins had some depth, while the 2009 Marlins look a little thin offensively.  Emilio Bonafacio and Jay Gibbons are around (Gibbons got a Non-Roster Invite to spring training), Wes Helms is still here.  If the Marlins get someone else – perhaps Dallas McPherson – to contribute, it might be okay.  But I think the offense will lose ten runs from last year.

All things considered, though, it’s a team that should win 85 games and be in the hunt for a wild card spot, and that shouldn’t be a surprise anymore.  They have been in the hunt more often than not over the last six seasons.  (I see that Peter Gammons finally agrees with my assessment, telling a Baseball Tonight preview show audience that they will be in the hunt into the final week of the season as his long shot pick.  It’s a safe long shot pick.)

Down on the Farm…

The Marlins moved their AAA franchise a bit closer to home, leaving Albuquerque for New Orleans.  That means when a prospect hits .300, he’ll be a legitimate prospect.  In New Mexico, everyone hits about .320 with some power.  The best hitters there were guys who had failed in previous trips, including Brett Carroll, who is not an awful fifth outfielder.  Only Eulogio De La Cruz really pitched well there and earned a trip to the bigs.

The AA Carolina Mudcats provided the real home for prospects, such as Gaby Sanchez (17 – 92 – .314) and Cameron Maybin.  Chris Volstad made the roster after a strong start, but Ryan Tucker (5 – 3, 1.58) and William Glen (9 – 4, 2.01 87Ks in 94 innings) actually fared better.  One of these guys will replace somebody in the rotation if he gets a strong run in AAA.  Chris Mobley fanned 70 in 58 innings as the closer and will eventually make a roster in the future.  This year’s AA franchise will be a bit closer to home, moving to Jacksonville, FL.

Logan Morrison was the top hitter for the High A Jupiter Hammerheads (13 – 74 – .332).  Teen Michael Stanton (39 homers) and Bryan Peterson mashed the ball for the Low A Greensboro Grasshoppers, but so did a lot of guys (and the pitchers were equally mauled).  The best lower level pitcher may be Georgia Southern grad Andrew Battisto, who fanned 101 in 81 innings and walked only 11, winning eight and losing just one for the Grasshoppers.  What made that season especially impressive was a strong ground ball/fly ball ratio – so not only did he strikeout a lot of batters, but the batted balls were kept in the park.