Indians Aided By Gulls; Old Pitchers Getting Second Looks

When I saw the highlight, I couldn’t believe it – but the Indians got a bizarre bounce to win its game against the Royals.  Shin Soo Choo’s line drive single to center went into a flock of gulls, hitting one of them, and the ball caromed past Coco Crisp to the wall, allowing the winning run to score.

David Ortiz has homered three times in the last week, and the Red Sox own the Yankees.  I’ve never really liked the Yankees – grew up a Fred Lynn and Carlton Fisk fan – but I never thought it would turn like this.  (For the record, I never hated them either – I grew up in Chicago, but the 1975 season was one of the years that galvanized me as a baseball fan.)

Is it me, or were the Red Sox more fun to root for when they were good but not quite good enough?  I think it’s because we’ve now added the term “nation” to refer to a group of fans, and that just sounds more arrogant.  Red Sox Nation is arrogant.  Red Sox fans are cool.  Living in Florida, they refer to Gator Nation, and that just makes me root for Florida International instead.  There’s no Jayhawk Nation.  If there were, I’d be less inclined to participate.

I digress.

Pablo Ozuna was trying to get back to the majors – apparently too hard.  He’ll be sitting for 50 games after a PED suspension kicks in.

With the injury to Brandon McCarthy and others, the Rangers are looking for pitching depth.  So, they signed Orlando Hernandez (El Duque!) to a minor league deal.  El Duque hasn’t pitched in the majors in two years, last losing time to a toe requiring surgery.

If El Duque can get a deal, how about Pedro?  Pedro Martinez threw for a Rays scout and might get a second look sometime this year.

Speaking of Mets pitchers, John Maine gets a DL stint to rest a weary shoulder.  That’s the story from MLB, but the transaction wire didn’t list it.

HOWEVER, the transaction wire noted the returns of Koji Uehara for Baltimore, Nick Punto for Minnesota, and Pat Burrell for Tampa.  I was watching the Rays game last night and Kevin Kennedy (now Rays TV color commentator, alongside Dwayne Staats) suggested that Burrell wasn’t hitting real well in his rehab stint, but Gabe Gross’s play made Matt Joyce expendable.  Kennedy also mentioned that Jason Bartlett is going to DH in his first rehab start before playing shortstop in a game.  Tony Clark gets a rehab trip to Reno before he returns to Arizona.

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Ready for the Draft? Hamilton Set for Surgery, Others on the Mend

Major League Baseball readies for the draft – and you can get updates in any number of ways, including Twitter (@MLBDraft).  The MLB.com site, for which I am a shameless plug (it’s a great site, really), will have updates and commentary.  And, MLB TV (if you have a premium cable outlet) will have wall-to-wall coverage on its flagship station.

Ultimately, the top question is whether or not the Nationals want Stephen Strasburg (they do – he throws 102 with pinpoint control of at least three pitches), and whether or not they can pay for him (Scott Boros is his agent).  Jerry Crasnick (ESPN) thinks this could be one of the great wars in Player/Team negotiations.

Having thought through this, I think the Nationals should sign him.  And, at that point, babying the investment goes out the window.  Strasburg gets three starts in the minors at AA and if he wins, he goes right into the rotation.  His contract should be based on major league innings – he cannot receive the full salary if he’s not on the major league roster.  Then, once Strasburg arrives, he gets USED and ABUSED.  He pitches every fourth game, and the Nationals get every inning humanly possible out of that arm.  I’d make him throw 300 innings by his third season – the Nationals need to get moving and in a hurry, there’s no need to treat him like a prospect – especially if he’s getting established player money.  He wants ace money, he walks in and pitches like an ace.  Or he doesn’t get paid.

I think that’s a fair trade.  If Strasburg wants every penny that the Nationals can afford to give, Strasburg has to give the Nationals every inning he can afford to give.

Additionally, if he FAILS – and the annals of draft history are paved with failure at the top pick – it could set back the amount of money given to hyped draft picks, which would be good for everyone involved.  Nobody, including Boros, will be able to ask for tens of millions and get it because of the “Strasburg incident.”

Josh Hamilton will have surgery to repair a partially torn abdominal muscle – no fun – but could be back after the all-star break.  In addition to the hole in the lineup, what fun will be the Home Run Derby without the guy who set the Derby on fire last season?  No matter who  plays, there will be a loss of production – sort of – no replacement will be as good as Hamilton was last year, but Hamilton has been more than ordinary so far this season fighting off injuries.  And, Hamilton really can’t cover centerfield as well as most centerfielders.

Texas is also losing starting pitcher Brandon McCarthy to a stress fracture in his throwing shoulder – the second time this has happened since 2007.  Taking McCarthy’s spot in the rotation for at least one turn will be Doug Mathis, a Texas farmhand who has decent control but not much of an out pitch.  He’s been lights out in Oklahoma City in his last four starts, though, so he’ll get a shot.  Mathis isn’t a BAD pitcher, but he was smacked around some in 2008.  And, he’s been hurt in the minors on at least two occasions.

Other DL trips include: Casey Kotchman (ATL), Calf; Eric Milton (LAD), Back; Luis Perdomo (SD), Knee.

On the Mend? Evan Longoria was back in the lineup for the Rays.  Hanley Ramirez plays through a sore groin for the Marlins, Miguel Cabrera is back for the Tigers.  Jose Contreras returned to the White Sox from Carolina.  Guys heading to rehab trips include: Khalil Greene (STL); Donald Veal (PIT); Pat Burrell (TB); Robinson Tejada (KC); Rich Harden (CHC) heads to Iowa.

Barry Bonds has another legal issue to deal with.  His wife filed separation papers; a divorce is imminent.

2009 Season Forecast: Texas Rangers

Texas Rangers
79 – 83 (2nd AL West – 21 Games Back)
Runs Scored: 901 (Tops in AL)
Runs Allowed: 967 (Worst in AL)

2008 Summary:

The most exciting team, and one that is just a few pitchers away from being an immediate contender in the AL West…  Got off to a slow April, but rebounded in May thanks to the Josh Hamilton show (and Ian Kinsler) to get back over .500.  The Rangers actually stayed there through June and July before their season was wrecked by an 11 – 18 August.

And, to be honest, the difference was pitching and defense.  By my reckoning, the pitching was about 83 runs worse than the average team, and the defense was another 67 runs worse than the average team (not counting catchers).  So, if you could get back 150 runs allowed, with this offense, you’re talking about winning 90 games.

Tell Me About That Offense:

No weak spots in the lineup – that’s for sure.

The outfield boasted Josh Hamilton, he of the Home Run Derby power, who played his first full season and blasted 32 homers good for 130 RBI.  Milton Bradley missed 25 percent of the season (what else is new), but put nearly 100 runs on the board, hitting .321 with a .441 OBP and a .563 slugging percentage.  He was so good, the Cubs overlooked everything else to sign him to a $30 million contract.  Rookie David Murphy was decent, too – some power, and a decent bat.  The fourth outfielder, Marlon Byrd, batted .298 with some walks, a little speed, and a little punch – a valuable performance.

In the infield, you had Ian Kinsler, with his 60 extrabase hits and 26 steals, batting .319 before losing last five weeks to an injury.  Michael Young gets credit for his 12 – 82 – .284 line, but to be honest, he doesn’t get on base that much and if he didn’t get to bat in the middle of the lineup, you wouldn’t really notice him.  He’s really just an average hitter.  Hank Blalock missed a lot of time, but hit when he played.  Ramon Vazquez played a lot and contributed with the bat.  Chris Davis hit for power though he struck out a lot – even short timers Joaquin Arias and future stud Nelson Cruz helped.  Cruz batted .330 with serious power in just 115 at bats.

Behind the plate, Gerald Laird and Jarrod Saltalamacchia were a decent hitting tandem.

And the Defense?

Not so good.

Ian Kinsler is a great second baseman, and maybe the first basemen were just told not to go to their right because Kinsler was a gold glove quality player.  He makes 15 plays per 800 balls in play more than the average second sacker, helping save 26 runs.  However, three of the five guys who  played at least 200 innings at first were LOUSY.  Chris Davis, Hank Blalock, and Frank Catalanotto combined to give back nearly 50 runs with their shoddy range.  Throw in five third basemen who all had below average range, and you had serious problems at the corners.  I know Michael Young got the gold glove at SS, but I think they were honoring him by having been a shortstop for a long time.  He’s not that good.  I have him as slightly below league average in terms of range, made up somehwat by good DP/Error numbers.  It would have been more appropriate to give the award to Jason Bartlett.  Besides, if Young was so good, why did he move to third so that the rookie Elvis Andrus could play there in 2009?

Moving to the outfield, not a single guy logged 1000 innings at a position – though Hamilton did combine for it if you add his innings in center and right.  Milton Bradley and Hamilton both played well in right field, but the large and ambling Hamilton played too many innings in center, costing his team nearly 16 runs out there.  The best centerfielder is Marlon Byrd.  David Murphy played okay in right, not quite as well in left – which makes me think that he should have played in right, moved Hamilton to Left, and let Byrd play center all year.  This alone would have saved the club about 40 runs defensively, if not more.  Brandon Boggs is a better outfielder, but not as good a hitter as the others.  Nelson Cruz wasn’t bad out there – so the future will be brighter if Hamilton gets an easier gig.

As a tandem, the catching of Laird and Saltalamacchia was the worst in the AL, being below average in team ERA, winning percentage, stolen base percentage allowed (only two teams allowed more stolen bases than Texas), fielding percentage, and mistakes per game.  Because they were young, they were mobile.  That’s it.

Now Pitching:

Having admitted that the pitchers had no help from three postions (both corner infield and centerfield), and inexperienced catching, the pitching was still awful.

Kevin Millwood gained weight and was hit around a lot.  Vincente Padilla was slightly better than league average – but neither were in ace territory.  The really good pitchers save their teams 20 or 30 runs over 200 innings.  Combined, Padilla and Millwood were one run better than the average pitcher in 58 starts.  Basically two #3 pitchers.  Scott Feldman logged 25 starts and hopefully will find room to improve, but he doesn’t strike anyone out (74 in more than 151 innings).  Kason Gabbard was tolerable, Matt Harrison looks like he might be okay, but also didn’t fan a lot of guys, and Luis Mendoza got 11 starts we wish never happened.  He allowed more than a run each inning – 31 runs worse than the average pitcher in just 63 innings.  He’s the anti-Cy Young award winner…  There were a few guys (Boof Bonser, for example) who had a worse total number, but threw far more innings than Mendoza.

The bullpen was shaky, too.  C.J. Wilson was so erratic (6.02 ERA) that he lost his job to Frank Francisco (good call).  Eddie Guardado, who has been pitching since the Mexican War, was one of only two good relief options.  Jamey Wright, Josh Rupe, Warner Madrigal, and Dustin Nippert were not.

Forecasting 2009:

Actually, the Rangers are probably on the brink of a division crown.  When you can bash the balls like these guys, all you need to do is add a few decent pitchers and reorganize the defense and make a signficant impact.

First – who’s not here.  No Milton Bradley.  He was amazing last year as a hitter, but Nelson Cruz could be just as good.  And we haven’t heard stories (yet) that Cruz has “issues”.  Gerald Laird is gone – the team will live with youngster Taylor Teagarden and Saltalamacchia.

Who is new?  Elvis Andrus, a rookie, will take over at short.  Supposedly, he’s the real deal.  Blalock will get a shot at DH, 1B, and backing up new third baseman, Michael Young.  Andruw Jones signed a league minimum deal – it will be nice he can contribute, but his days of being a superstar are over.

A full season of Kinsler might net 10 extra runs.  Young will produce as much as the third basemen did last year – and the bench is still solid.  I think the improvement of Murphy and addition of Cruz might make up for what happens when Josh Hamilton slips just a little since last year was so much above anything he had shown before.  Chris Davis can bash – I hope he and Blalock field better.

The change in offense, though, is probably negative.  I think that without Laird, without Blalock (as much), and using Andrus at short probably costs the team 50 runs on offense.  Instead of 900 runs, it will be more like 850.

The key is defensive in nature.  Andrus and Young on the left side could be worth 50 or 60 runs in defense.  Davis and Blalock being (a) more comfortable at first and (b) in Blalock’s case, a little healthier, could be 20 runs of improvement.  The outfield would be stable with the moves I suggested – which may or may not happen.  Still – 80 runs of improvement.

Then, you have the pitching.  Rumor has it that Kevin Millwood was challenged by Nolan Ryan to act like the ace he is being paid to be.  Vincente Padilla slowed down after a summer in Texas, maybe he could hang in there.  Brandon McCarthy will be better than Mendoza.  More Francsco and less Wilson will help finish games, and if Wilson puts it back together in the seventh or eighth innings, that’s another ten runs.  More Derek Holland or Matt Harrison might be good for a short term fix.  They really could use another reliever – the injured Joaquin Benoit isn’t coming soon, but if someone were to just have a season like his in 2006, that would help.  Still, I don’t see that though I do see an improvement.  It could be 50 runs better.

So, if the team scores 850 and allows 830, it could be 83 wins.  And, if the Angels crash to earth (as I am predicting), the Rangers would be among the first to bash their way to the forefront.  If they were to get one more ace starter, look out.

Down on the Farm:

Most of the arms who looked any good in AAA Oklahoma City got a shot, including Brandon McCarthy, Kameron Loe, and 21 year old Tommy Hunter (nice control, doesn’t blow people away).  Matt Harrison will be a regular going forward – he was 22 last year.  Players who can hit also have arrived – Nelson Cruz (37 – 99 – .342, and Chris Davis (10 – 31 – .222 in 31 games).  Cruz is the real deal, but Davis has a bit of a hole in his swing.

Elvis Andrus hit .296 for the Frisco Roughriders (AA) at 19.  Julio Borbon, an outfielder with some speed, hit .337, and catcher for 2010, Max Ramirez, hit .354 with serious power.  Chad Tracy is a first baseman with a bat, too.  The best pitcher in AA was probably Derek Holland, who got four starts and looked great.  He got rushed through A, A+ and into AA because he has the goods.  I just hope he isn’t rushed to the majors because he might get swatted around and mess with his confidence.  He can pitch, though.

At A+ Bakersfield, watch out for Kasey Kiker – who looks like he can pitch a little.  Tanner Roark looks like he can pitch some, too.  Roark has control and strikes people out – a good combination.

From what I can tell, the Rangers have some hitting options, and might have a few future arms.  The future is bright.