2010 Season Forecast: Pittsburgh Pirates

Last Five Years:
2009: 62 – 99 (6th, NL Central)
2008: 67 – 95
2007: 68 – 94
2006: 67 – 95
2005: 67 – 95

The Pirates won 79 games in 1997, which is the closest they have come to a winning season since 1992.

Runs Scored: 636 (Last, NL)
Runs Allowed: 768 (12th, NL)

Season Recap:

While we could hope that the Pirates would finally break the streak of losing seasons, most people figured that getting past 70 wins for the first time since 2004 would be an improvement…

Actually, the Pirates got out in front with decent April pitching.  After sweeping Florida and taking two from San Diego, Pittsburgh stood at 11 – 7.  Unfortunately, such heady days ended quickly as the Pirates went on to lose 14 of 17 as the offense stopped scoring any runs.  To their credit, the Pirates came back and had a winning June and on the 27th, the Pirates had gotten to within four games of .500

At this point, the Pirates sold out.  Nate McLouth was traded to Atlanta for a couple of prospects.  Nyjer Morgan went to Washington for Lastings Milledge (not sure why, either), Jack Wilson was sent to Seattle with a struggling Ian Snell.  Freddy Sanchez was packaged to San Francisco, and even former ace Tom Gorzelanny was shipped to Chicago with reliever John Grabow.

So, a team that actually was playing pretty well collapsed while testing a bunch of new guys, mixing in a variety of losing streaks between four and nine games long until they were fighting off the possibility of losing 100 games.  The Pirates lost 60 of their last 87 games.  Personally, I don’t know why the Pirates would want to ruin their season that way, but that’s just me.

Pitching:

Unlike Cincinnati, who had a few guys log a lot of innings but not one who was even SLIGHTLY above league average, the Pirates had a couple of decent arms.  Ross Ohlendorf got rolling down the stretch to win 11 games and save his team about seven extra runs in his 177 innings.  Zach Duke, usually a disappointment, logged 213 decent innings, walking just 49 guys, and edging nearly four runs better than the average guy.  Teams need Zach Dukes.  The Pirates wanted him to be an ace, which he is not, but Duke isn’t a problem.  Charlie Morton came over from Atlanta and was tolerable in his 18 starts.  Paul Maholm logged nearly 195 innings and wasn’t death.  Sometimes he looked pretty good.

What strikes you, however, in looking at the Pirates staff is the lack of a POWER arm.  Who on the staff strikes out a batter per inning?  Heck – who strikes out six per nine?  Nobody.  The closest thing the Pirates have to a live arm is Evan Meek, who had 42 Ks in 47 innings out of the pen, but his control keeps him from being a real stopper.  If you look at the guys who logged at least, say, 60 innings, you have nobody that blows you away.  The leader in strikeouts was Maholm with just 119.

Anyway – let’s look at what the Pirate rotation is going forward.  Maholm is back, as is Ohlendorf and Duke.  A full year of Charlie Morton – assuming he stays near league average as he did last year and doesn’t take a step back – will be better than what Ian Snell did last year (2 – 8, 5.36).  That leaves the fifth spot up for grabs.  Kevin Hart, acquired from Chicago for John Grabow, was miserable in his ten starts last year (1 – 8, 6.92) but really isn’t that bad.  Personally, I’d like to see Daniel McCutchen get a shot.  He got six decent starts down the stretch after going 13 – 6 with a 3.47 ERA and just 29 walks in 142.2 innings at Indianapolis.  He HAS to be better than what Kevin Hart did last year.

The Pirates are auditioning a ton of castoffs with Non-Roster Invites – a scary list of guys like Brian Burres, Jeff Karstens, Tyler Yates, and Jeremy Powell.  I don’t see any of these guys getting jobs other than those available in, say, Indianapolis.

The bullpen will be different.  After a rough year of Matt Capps, the Pirates signed Octavio Dotel to be the new closer.  Dotel has been a premium set up man, but as a closer he’s never really been up to the task – and that scares me.  Brendan Donnelly was signed (turns 39 on July 4th) to join Joel Hanrahan (my pick as future closer), Evan Meek, and Donnie Veal in the pen.  This is an eclectic mix of arms that I think improves if Kevin Hart is added to long relief and McCutchen is put in the rotation.

On the whole, however, I do see an improvement.  My take on it is that the starting rotation should be 20 runs better than last year.  It’s not enough.  They need a real ace to step forward – and Ohlendorf may be that guy – someone who is 20 – 30 runs above the league.  And to be really competitive, they need two.  I don’t see two of them here.  I see five guys who are within ten runs of league average over 200 innings – a bunch of third and fourth starters.

The bullpen may be better if only some of the guys logging innings (Jeff Karstens, Virgil Vasquez, and Chris Bootcheck) won’t be there.  But I don’t have strong faith that the eighth and ninth innings will be solid.  Let’s call it a wash.

Catching:

A full season of Ryan Doumit would help.  Doumit missed half the season, forcing Jason Jaramillo, not an offensive force, into the lineup.  Doumit is a middle of the order guy and could add 20 runs by hanging around for 130 games this year.  Defensively, this isn’t a strong group, being below average in team numbers (ERA, W-L PCT), fielding percentage, and being slightly mistake prone.  I’m not sure that Doumit will improve these numbers, but he’s the best Pirate against the running game and makes fewer mistakes than Robinson Diaz – who is NOT ready for the big leagues.

Infield:

Adam LaRoche is also gone – forgot to mention him in the selloff comment.  In his place might be Garrett Jones, who showed his slugging skills and wasn’t embarrassing at first base.  I don’t know that he’s going to be a huge step forward from LaRoche defensively, but you never know.  Jones hit 21 homers in 82 games – and a full season of that would be a huge step forward.  If not Jones, the Pirates may try Seattle prospect Jeff Clement there.  Clement has, at times, looked like the real deal in the minors but hasn’t put it all together in the bigs.  The Pirates would make immediate and big improvements if they would just move 2008 first round pick Pedro Alvarez here and call it good.

After Freddy Sanchez left, Delwyn Young took over and was a step back offensively and defensively.  Sanchez was creating about 5.5 runs per 27 outs; Young about 4.3.  Sanchez has slightly below average range (-3.9 plays per 800 balls in play), but Young was brutal (-10.2 per 800 balls in play).  To solve this problem, the Pirates picked up former Tampa Ray Akinora Iwamura.  Iwamura should be more like Sanchez in terms of range and batting.  Not playing Young is worth ten runs of offense.

Jack Wilson is gone and Ronny Cedeno is now the new shortstop.  Cedeno is a better fielder than Wilson these days – which could be worth ten runs over the course of a season – and was pretty much the same hitter.  Bobby Crosby arrives looking for a chance to play, but he’ll likely be a bench player for now.

Andy LaRoche finally got a shot at third base in the big leagues and proved to be a fantastic glove, but a league average hitter.  I like his chances of improving at the plate, however, now that he has a full season under his belt.

Looking forward, I see this team being about twenty runs better offensively and perhaps another twenty better defensively.  Unless, of course, Jeff Clement gets more playing time.  My fear is, in looking at the current depth chart, that Clement is going to get every chance at making the starting lineup.  If this happens, I’d go with no offensive improvement and only ten runs better defensively.

Outfield:

Wouldn’t it have been fun to see an outfield of, say, Jason Bay in left, Andrew McCutchen in center, and Nate McLouth in right?

Instead, McCutchen arrives as the full-time centerfielder.  He was a bit rough in the outfield last year, but he’ll be better – and he showed power, patience, and speed as an offensive force.  I like him a LOT.  And the other two guys are gone.

Garrett Jones will likely start in right field, which will be better than Brandon Moss offensively – but likely ten runs worse (or more) defensively.  Ryan Church is around, as is Moss.  Church used to be good until two nasty concussions clipped his 2008 season and likely affected his 2009 season.

In left, expect Lastings Milledge to get one last shot to make things work.  Milledge, to me, is the new Delmon Young.  He SHOULD be better, but is really nothing special.  Moss and Nyjer Morgan were great defenders and will be missed with this outfield.

I see the outfield being down this year – perhaps ten to twenty runs down offensively and twenty runs defensively.  If Milledge lives up to former top prospect expectations, it would help.  I just don’t buy it.

Prospects:

Well, the top pitchers in AAA (McCutchen, Morton, Vaszquez) are already in town.  Even Denny Bautista and Steven Jackson were given shots and didn’t take the world by storm.  The top AAA hitters are in Pittsburgh now, too.

Pedro Alvarez tore up AA playing for the Altoona Curve, hitting .333 with power.  He really needs to be on the Pirates now.  Gorkys Hernandez has great speed, and is 22 – but he needs to improve his OBP.  Jose Tabata, 21, is close to making it – he hit well enough at Altoona to get moved up to Indianapolis.  Not much power, better OBP than Hernandez with good contact skills, and decent speed.  Just not sure he’ll be better than a fourth outfielder at this point.  I think he can play some, though.  If Ryan Church doesn’t stay healthy, Tabata will get a shot.

The best pitchers at Altoona was probably Brad Lincoln (some power, good control) but it was the only time he looked solid since being drafted out of the University of Houston in the first round (2006).  He shares a birthday with the author, though, so he’s on my radar…  Former first round pick Daniel Moskos (2007) has control, but doesn’t blow people away – 77Ks in 149 innings.

Moving to Lynchburg, top picks Jordy Mercer (3rd Round, 2008) and Chase D’Arnaud (4th Round, 2008) started to show signs of progress.  Mercer might develop some power, while D’Arnaud seems to have a more well rounded game.  Both outhit Alvarez at A+ ball, but neither are REALLY better hitters…  You’ll see that when they get to AA.

On the whole, it’s hard to see who is going to help the Pirates, other than Alvarez, in the next year or two.

Outlook:

If the Pirates were serious about this, they’d get Jones in the outfield, move Alvarez to first base and play him now, and let both McCutchens play as often as possible.  This isn’t going to happen this spring, and as such, the Pirates have to hope for minor improvements.  I see the team scoring about 670 runs and allowing 740.  That gets them to 73 wins, which would look great compared to the last five years.  However, with the Reds and Brewers likely improving – it might not get to 73.  It might barely get to 70…

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A Long Weekend of Deals – Catching Up on Hot Stove News…

Kevin Kouzmanoff heads north, going from San Diego to Oakland in a four player deal.  San Diego acquires Scott Hairston and Aaron Cunningham for the veteran third baseman and minor leaguer Eric Sogard.  Kouzmanoff will get playing time and serves as an insurance policy lest Eric Chavez cannot recover from back problems. [SI]

And, with the chances pretty strong that Jerry Hairston will also sign with the Padres, it makes us long for Edgar Gonzalez, because San Diego would have had two pairs of brothers and the son of former Padre Tony Gwynn.  Nepotism?  [FoxSports]

Adam LaRoche chose to sign with Arizona, getting $6 million and a mutual option for 2011.  From the sounds of it, LaRoche chose Arizona and a one year deal over other places (like San Francisco) that had offered two year deals because (a) he’ll likely have better stats, and (b) if he does have a great season, he’ll have better options for a contract in the next offseason.  Once LaRoche signed his deal, the Diamondbacks designated Eric Byrnes for assignment – despite having one more expensive year left on a three-year deal. [MLB]

The Florida Marlins, possibly pressured by MLB and the MLBPA, signed pitcher Josh Johnson to a four-year, $39 million deal with other incentives – a slightly better deal than the one given Zack Greinke.  [MLB]

The White Sox signed reliever Bobby Jenks ($7.5 million) and outfielder Carlos Quentin ($3.2 million) to one-year deals.  [MLB]

The Pirates are filling out the bullpen, inking Brendan Donnelly to an incentive-laden deal, as well as D.J. Carrasco (minor league deal), and are chasing Octavio Dotel.  [MLB]

The Indians signed Mike Redmond to a one-year deal.  Redmond is an excellent veteran to back Lou Marson (and my favorite backup catcher, ever).  [MLB]

From the Hot Stove to the Law:

Legal Analyst Michael McCann says that we shouldn’t expect confessions from Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, or Rafael Palmeiro any time soon.  [SI]

Milton Bradley may be through with the Cubs, but not Chicago – as he is being sued by his Chicago-based landlord for rent and other obligations.  [FanHouse]

Jose Offerman punched an umpire in a Dominican Winter League game.  Offerman, who was managing in Licey, has now been permanently banned from the league.  This is Offerman’s second on-field assault.  [SI]

Happy Birthday! On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday, those celebrating birthdays include Curt Flood – whose challenge of the reserve clause (he didn’t want to be traded) was kind of the first significant movement toward free agency – as the Boston Tea Party was to the American Revolution.  Flood was born in 1938.

Others celebrating include Bill McGowen (1896), pitcher Carl Morton (1944), Billy Grabarkewitz (1946), Scott McGregor (1954), Mike Lieberthal (1972), and Wandy Rodriguez (1979).

Phillies Clinch; Braves and Twins Likely Done – and what to do with Joba Chamberlain?

With a pounding of the Astros, the Philadelphia Phillies clinched a third straight NL East title.  And, while the champaign was freely flowing, one player won’t get to participate in the post season, and that’s Jamie Moyer, who needs surgery to repair tendon tears in his abdomen and left groin.  [ESPN/SI]

Detroit got the magic number down to two with a 7 – 2 win over the Twins and Carl Pavano.  The Twins needed to take three of four to have a legitimate shot – and now the Tigers can win tonight and end the race without any additional help.

Meanwhile, the Atlanta Braves were handled by Ricky Nolasco and the Florida Marlins, 5 – 4, pretty much ending Atlanta’s shot at a post season bid.  Nolasco fanned nine in a row at one point, finishing with a league high 16 strikeouts.  The Rockies keep winning – and with the Dodgers unable to win a game in San Diego, the Rockies still have a shot at catching the Dodgers for the NL West crown.

Speaking of the Marlins, the Miami Herald discussed a number of potential roster changes for Florida based on the usual need to dump salary (which makes it hard to be a Marlins fan).  Among those who could be tossed or traded:  Jeremy Hermida, Dan Uggla, Jorge Cantu, Nick Johnson, and Brendan Donnelly.  Hermida, a former first round draft pick, has been sidelined with a strained oblique and rarely plays anymore – plus he’s never lived up to the hype.  (Heck, his first ever plate appearance, he hit a grand slam, so there was no room to go up…)

It’s Over! Cleveland Manager Eric Wedge was fired effective at the end of the season.  When a season is disappointing, and the best players are traded to other contenders at the trading deadline, and THEN you lose 20 of 25 – your fate is pretty obvious.  [SI]

Is it over? Anybody see how poorly John Smoltz pitched (again) last night?  And he blamed it on the baseballs, saying he could never get a grip or feel comfortable throwing.

Is it over? I know that Ken Griffey’s not saying “retirement”, but hitting .218 isn’t what he probably had in mind for 2009.

Is it over, too? Joba Chamberlain’s poor August and September may end his days as a starter for the Yankees (I was touting him as a starter a few months ago, but he’s be lousy lately), and may keep him from the post season roster altogether.  I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure this is all Joba’s fault.  He was ROLLING in July – and when he has a couple of tough outings in early August, the next thing you know, the Yankees management starts limiting his pitch count, which couldn’t have been good for his head.  Now, he’s probably pressing – trying to get back his rotation slot as the Yankees have decided to go back to letting him throw 100 pitch outings again.  I compared Pitch FX data (not too closely, but looked at stuff) and it doesn’t look like he’s lost velocity – but he has lost the strike zone.  He was throwing strikes 61.5% of the time in July, but less than 59.5% of the time in September.  The Yankee’s lack of commitment to Chamberlain in a given role is, to me, as problematic as it gets.

Hurry Back! Freddy Sanchez had successful surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee, but should be back for spring training.

Welcome Back! Chris Dickerson (Reds) and Russell Branyan (Mariners) came off the DL.

Jeter Ties Gehrig; Ripken’s Monument Recovered

Cue Tim Kurkjian – it’s time for the Derek Jeter retrospective…  Jeter’s third hit last night (breaking an 0 – 12 streak) tied him with Lou Gehrig atop the all-time list for most hits in a Yankees uniform.  Certainly Jeter is worthy – a heads up player who hustles every night, plays nearly every day, and is nearly universally accepted as the face of MLB.  Congratulations are certainly in order.  [ESPN]

So how many more hits does Jeter have in him?  Averaging 160 hits a year until he’s 40 (not a total stretch; he’d have to stay healthy and near the top of the lineup to do it), he’d have 3500+ hits.  He’d have to change positions or seriously exceed 160 hits per season to make a legitimate run at 4000 hits (not impossible).  Personally, I think Rose’s hit record is likely safe, but if Jeter hits 40 closer to 3750 hits and is still batting around .310 when he gets to 40, he’d at least have a shot.  Is Jeter capable of playing until he’s 44 or 45?

Another player who could make the 3000 hit club is just four hits shy of his ninth straight 200 hit season – Ichiro Suzuki.  Ichiro would pass the record previously held by Wee Willie Keeler, who had 200 hits each year from 1894 to 1901.  Ichiro already has 2001 MLB hits, and 1278 hits while playing in Japan, putting him about 5 years shy of Pete Rose’s career mark if you combine the two leagues.  Now – to be fair, playing in Japan is a far cry from playing in the majors, but they also play shorter seasons.  Rose had another 427 hits as a minor leaguer playing in the Reds chain, so perhaps Ichiro should be gunning for 4683 total professional hits…  [MLB]

One more Tim Kurkjian moment…  Brian Roberts collected his 50th double last night, the third time he has done that, joining Tris Speaker (5), Paul Waner (3), and Stan Musial (3) as the only players to have had 50 or more doubles in three or more seasons.  [MLB]

Dodgers pitcher Randy Wolf thinks he followed in the footsteps of Randy Johnson – injuring his elbow swinging a bat.  Word is that Wolf will miss at least one start with tightness in his elbow, but you never know.  Thankfully, Hiroki Kuroda is back.  [ESPN]

Meanwhile, teammate Clayton Kershaw will miss a start after bruising his shoulder shagging flies during batting practice.  Kershaw ran into an auxiliary scoreboard – with his right (non-throwing) shoulder.  When he can deal with the pain, he’ll pitch again.  [FoxSports]

Phillies pitching woes continue…  Scott Eyre is getting an examination on his elbow, and J.A. Happ will miss a start with an oblique strain.  Jamie Moyer gets the start in Happ’s absence.  [ESPN]

Boston knuckleballer Tim Wakefield will get a cortisone shot to help his ailing lower back, hoping to coax a start out of the 43-year-old pitcher about ten days from now.  [MLB]

Speaking of bumps and bruises…  Cardinal outfielder Matt Holliday stumbled running out a grounder and bruised his knee and is day-to-day.  And B.J. Upton’s ankle is bothering him – he looked slow chasing a Derek Jeter double in the fifth and was pulled by manager Joe Maddon.  [MLB]

Four men were arrested and charged with stealing the aluminum “8” that honors Cal Ripken, Jr. outside of Camden Yards.  While the monument was recovered, it’s not yet known if the monument can be remounted on its base.  [SI]

The Twins activated Francisco Liriano off the DL, but announced that the disappointing starter is now going to be used out of the bullpen for the rest of the year.  [SI]

The Orioles acquired Sean Henn from the Twins for future considerations (cash or a minor leaguer).  Henn is a long-time Yankees prospect who is now with his fourth organization (also San Diego).  The 28-year-old had a few other MLB trips, but hasn’t stuck – so consider Henn “organizational depth”; he’s not a prospect at this stage of his career.  [SI]

A frustrated Jose Reyes still wants to try to play in 2009, and has even offered to play winter ball to be ready for the 2010 season.  Reyes hasn’t played since late May – when the Mets were just one game out of first…  Seems so long ago, doesn’t it?  [FoxSports]

Welcome Back! Those returning from the DL include Dexter Fowler (Rockies), Jeff Karstens (Pirates), Ryan Hanigan (Reds), Brendan Donnelly (Marlins), Donald Veal (Pirates) and Joe Crede (Twins).

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.

Johnson, Wang Injure Shoulders; Manny Already Tired

Randy Johnson injured his throwing shoulder while batting in Sunday’s game against Houston. With the All-Star break coming, he’ll likely just miss one start and not need to go on the DL, but you never know. [MLB]

Manny Ramirez’s comeback lasted just two days, as he needed to take Sunday off to rest his legs. Eric Milton, who just came off the DL with back soreness, went back on the DL – which makes me wonder if he really was ready or not – so the Dodgers could recall Blake DeWitt.

This really shouldn’t be news, but it gives you an idea of how dedicated Manny is to the Dodgers. He couldn’t keep himself in shape while he was out, and he chose not to use all ten rehab games to get his wheels back. Apparently it’s hard to run back and forth to the outfield from the dugout between innings. [MLB]

2009 continues to haunt Chien-Ming Wang. Sunday, the Yankees placed Wang on the DL with a strained throwing shoulder – the injury suffered Saturday against Toronto. As of last night, the Yankees were evaluating their options for replacing him in the rotation, and it sounded like Phil Hughes won’t be the guy – at least not right away. [ESPN]

The Florida Marlins looking to bolster their bullpen, signed former Angel Brendan Donnelly. Donnelly will replace Chris Leroux, who went on the DL with shoulder inflammation. [ESPN]

Oakland gave up two prospects (Ryan Webb, Craig Italiano), and a player to be named later to acquire Scott Hairston from the Padres. FoxSports reporter Ken Rosenthal believes that this is a potential sign that Matt Holliday is on the trading block. Hairston is a good fourth outfielder type with some right-handed power. Ryan Webb is barely a prospect who happens to be doing okay in AAA Sacramento right now. He’s never had an ERA under 4.76 until this year. Italiano is better – had a killer year at A Kane County in 2008, and is doing okay at Stockton (A+). At least he has room to grow. To be honest, the A’s didn’t give up much to get Hairston.

If you haven’t seen this year’s All-Star Game rosters, give MLB’s coverage a look-see.

Welcome Back! Josh Hamilton returns Monday (Chris Davis was sent to AAA Oklahoma City to teach his bat to make contact), Phillies reliever Scott Eyre, Angels outfielder Reggie Willits, Yankees reliever Jonathan Albaladejo.

Hurry Back! Padres catcher Henry Blanco has a strained hamstring, earning a DL trip. Jose Lobaton gets the call from AAA Portland to be the backup catcher. The undrafted free agent has bounced around the minors and has been better when given stable work – but still really isn’t a prospect.