2013 Season Forecast – Houston Astros

I’m watching Opening Day on ESPN and decided I might as well write while I am getting settled in…  To be fair, with the Florida Marlins having decided to trade away all the talent they had recently acquired, I chose to find a new team to follow closely in 2013 – and that team is the Houston Astros.

Here’s a quick summary of where they are coming from:

Recent Records:
2012: 55 – 107 (Last, NL Central)
2011: 56 – 106 (Last, NL Central)
2010: 76 – 86 (4th, NL Central)
2009: 74 – 88 (5th, NL Central)
2008: 86 – 75 (3rd, NL Central)

This is a team that has hit rock bottom – even that team from five years ago was a bit of a fluke, having given up more runs than they had scored that year.

2012 Summary:
Home:  35 – 46
Away:  20 – 61 (ouch)

Runs Scored: 583
Runs Allowed: 794

There is a simple way to look at this.  A team that scores 100 runs more than it allows is likely to win 90 games.  The converse is also true.  At 200 runs, it’s another ten wins – 100 wins or 100 losses.  The Astros allowed 211 runs more than they scored – hence the lousy record.  So – things have to be looking up, right?

Record by Month:
April:  9 – 14
May:   13 – 15
June:  10 – 17
July:   3 – 24
Aug:    5 – 22
Sept:  15 – 15

The Astros started 3 – 1, were reasonably competitive through 45 games, and not altogether awful heading into the last week of June.  Then, Houston lost the last six games of the month and the first six of July.  After breaking that streak, they lost four in a row, then twelve more in a row – 28 of 30 games were lost…  When the month ended, anyone with any trade value was gone.  August wasn’t much better…  What team has ever had a stretch where they won just eight of sixty games?

Feeling Optimistic?

Beginning on September first and covering the last 30 games, the Astros played .500 ball.  Houston edged Cincinnati, toppled Philadelphia, split with Pittsburgh, edged Milwaukee, and split with Chicago.  Only St. Louis proved troublesome, taking five of six.  They did this without scoring a lot of runs – only 102 runs were scored in that period.  What allowed this to happen was that their pitching staff tossed a number of gems down the stretch, including three straight shutouts over Milwaukee and Chicago at the very end of the season.  In eleven of these wins, the Astros threw six shutouts and allowed just one run in five other starts.

Opening Day Lineup:
CF: Jordan Schafer
2B: Jose Altuve
LF: J.D. Martinez
1B: Carlos Lee
RF: Brian Bogusevic
3B: Chris Johnson
C: Jason Castro
SS: Marwin Gonzalez
SP: Wandy Rodriguez

Regulars by Games Played:
C: Jason Castro
1B: Brett Wallace or Carlos Lee (gone…)
2B: Jose Altuve
SS: Jed Lowrie (gone…)
3B: Chris Johnson (gone…)
LF: J.D. Martinez
CF: Justin Maxwell
RF: Brian Bogusevic (gone…)

4OF: Jordan Schafer
C2: Chris Snyder
UT: Marwin Gonzalez or Tyler Greene?

SP: Lucas Harrell
SP: Bud Norris
SP: Jordan Lyles
SP: Wandy Rodriguez (gone…), Dallas Keuchel
SP: J.A. Happ (gone…)
CL: Brett Myers (gone…), Wilton Lopez
RP: Brandon Lyon (gone…)
RP: Wesley Wright
RP: Francisco Rodriguez (gone…)
RP: Rhiner Cruz
RP: Fernando Abad

Key Transactions:

OCT (2011):

Lost Jason Michaels and Clint Barmes to free agency…  Michaels spent the year as an insurance policy for the Nationals in their AAA Syracuse affiliate, and likely is looking to become a coach.  As for Barmes, he moved to Pittsburgh and hit like someone who is 33 and running out of seasons.

NOV (2011):

Added Carlos Corporan, Travis Buck as free agents; claimed infielder Brian Bixler off of the waiver wire.

DEC (2011):

Traded Marc Melancon to Red Sox for Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland.  Melancon had been a pleasant surprise for Houston in 2011, but was miserable in Boston and eventually demoted to AAA.  Weiland had an infection in his throwing shoulder that required surgery and hopefully can return in 2013, but I would be leery of high expectations owing to a general lack of control.  I see him as a spot starter/long reliever type.  Jed Lowrie is a pretty good ballplayer, so the trade was a good one.

Claimed Rhiner Cruz off of waivers.  This was, at best, organizational depth as Cruz had just been promoted to AA Binghamton in an eight year career drifting in the low minors.  Putting Rhiner on the major league roster when he has no idea where the strike zone is (his mid-90s fastball has crazy movement and he can’t control his breaking ball) showed how little major league talent the Astros had.  I mean, Cruz walked 45 batters in 71.2 innings in the minors in 2011.

JAN (2012):

Here, the Astros were looking to find as many players who might be able to do SOMETHING as possible.

Signed, as free agents, Livan Hernandez, Zach Duke, Chris Snyder, Jack Cust, and Fernando Martinez (waiver claim).

FEB:

More minor signings…

MAR:

After (and during) spring training, the Astros released Hernandez, Duke and Cust, moved anyone who needed time to the minors, and made one trade…

Acquired LHP Kevin Chapman from the Royals for OF Jason Bourgeois and C Humberto Quintero.  Bourgeois was, like Melancon, a nice surprise in 2011 but is a 30-year-old outfielder with no long-term future.  Quintero is, at best, a backup catcher and the Astros had other options.  Chapman at least represents a future – had 90Ks in 62 innings in 2011, and built on that in 2012.  He still needs work (especially with his control), but at least he has a shot to be a late inning contributor very soon.

JULY:

The Astros, as sellers, moved what they could for prospects:

Carlos Lee (and cash) to the Marlins for 3B Matt Dominquez (good glove, minor bat) and LHP Rob Rasmussen (could be a starter in 2014).

Brandon Lyon, J.A. Happ, and David Carpenter to Toronto for Francisco Cordero, Ben Francisco, Joseph Musgrove, Asher Wojciechowski (decent arm, not overmatched at AA, doesn’t miss enough bats), David Rollins, and Carlos Perez (athletic catcher, decent arm, not much offense).

Brett Myers to the White Sox for prospects Matthew Heidenreich and Blair Walters.

Wandy Rodriquez to Pittsburgh for Colton Cain, Robbie Grossman, and Rudy Owens.

Chris Johnson to Arizona for Bobby Borchering and Marc Krauss

If nothing else, that’s a lot of prospects.  If you see the kids producing in 2014 and the Astros making steady improvement, then these deals worked.  Seeing as the team went belly up in July and August of 2012, this did nothing to help the guys who were left behind to play.

By the way, Ben Francisco only hung around for a month.  He was shipped to Tampa for a player to be named later.  (That player was LHP Theron Geith.)  Despite being a pretty good outfielder, Francisco hasn’t been able to keep a regular job and at 31 seems destined to be a fourth outfielder for a few more years.  Geith, however, has a bright future.  In two minor league seasons, Geith has a 2.66 ERA, 83Ks in 84.2 innings, and just 18 walks.  He will be on the roster by 2014, and maybe next September.

Key Injuries:

Jed Lowrie missed time leaving spring training with a bruised thumb.  Kyle Weiland made three starts and went down with what was then termed shoulder bursitis.

Relievers Fernando Abad (intercostal strain) and Rhiner Cruz (ankle sprain) missed time in May.

June brought minor injuries to Travis Buck (Achilles tendinitis), Carlos Lee (strained hamstring) Marwin Gonzalez (bruised heel), Bud Norris (spraineed knee), Wilton Lopez (sprained elbow), and Justin Maxwell (loose bodies in ankle).

Jordan Schafer, Jed Lowrie, and Francisco Cordero spent some time on the DL in August and early September, Cordero wound up missing the rest of the season with a foot injury just six awful outings after his arrival.  He really wasn’t missed, and – as he turns 37 in May – has already been released.

Cordero’s was the only injury of signifigance.  Jed Lowrie missed a lot of games, but with small injuries that kept him out a couple of weeks at a time.

[Writer’s Note:  I had pulled much of this together a while ago when I had decided to become a Houston Astros fan.  The Astros got the Rangers in order in the first, but the Rangers did the same to the Astros – in part thanks to a bad call at second on a stolen base attempt by Jose Altuve.  If the Astros are lousy this year, it could just be that I have jinxed them.]

LOOKING AHEAD:

Starting Pitchers:

The rotation appears to be Bud Norris, Lucas Harrell, Philip Humber, Brad Peacock, and Erik Bedard.

Lucas Harrell is pretty good.  He gets some strikeouts but he walks a few too many guys.  Bud Norris has better stuff, but has been way more inconsistent, especially on the road.  Even at that, he’s marginally below average with a chance to become really good.  Bud Norris is the type of guy you might consider drafting in your fantasy league this year…

Philip Humber is trying, again, to get his career on track.  Humber threw a perfect game for the White Sox, but otherwise was awful.  He CAN pitch, but he can also think his way into oblivion.  If Humber can find his way, the Astros will have found a gem.  The problem is that his track record doesn’t give you a whole lot of reason for hope.

A guy who might, however, is Brad Peacock. The Palm Beach, FL native navigated his way through the minors, getting better every year, until he got a test drive with the Washington Nationals in 2011, where he wasn’t half bad.  Moved to Oakland, he spent 2012 in Sacramento, where he held his own despite being in a league that pounds pitchers.  After a pretty nice spring, he’s going to see if he’s ready for 25 – 30 starts.

Finally, Erik Bedard might be able to help – if he can stay healthy.  Having missed essentially two and half of the last five years, Bedard has been reasonably successful – well, at least until last year when he went 7 – 14 for Pittsburgh.  His walk rate was too high, and his ERA went over 5 (5.01), but there are reasons to think that he can be better than he was last year – starting with the fact that he has always been better than he was last year.

So, just trying to see if the rotation is better, at first glance, the answer is probably no.  Harrell and Norris are the same (though Norris might be slightly better).  I don’t buy that Humber is better than Jordan Lyles was in 2012, and Erik Bedard won’t be as good as a partial season of Wandy Rodriguez.  If one pitcher surprises, it might be Peacock who COULD be as good as J.A. Happ was.  So, let’s go with the team allowing perhaps 30 extra runs here.

Relief Pitchers:

The Astros are going to give the closer job, at least at first, to Jose Veres, who has four career saves.  Veres isn’t awful, but he isn’t a big time closer.  Brett Myers wasn’t awesome last year, so that’s not a big loss.  I was surprised that Wilton Lopez didn’t get a second chance, he pitched well enough, but the Astros went with younger arms – Hector Ambriz, Xavier Cedeno, Rhiner Cruz, Josh Fields, Edgar Gonzalez, and Wesley Wright.

This group will be no better or worse than last year.

Cruz had a 6.05 ERA last year – is that really worthy of a significant role?  Wesley Wright wasn’t half bad for a situational lefty.  Xavier Cedeno was league average and could be better.  Edgar Gonzalez has been around and he’s never been a dependable option.  The guy I like is Hector Ambriz, who fanned 22 in 19 innings in a late call last year.  He could wind up the setup man before all is said and done.

Catchers:

Last year’s catchers were league average in total, but had a few weaknesses, including starter Jason Castro not being too solid against the run.  Chris Snyder is gone, so Carlos Corporan is back as the backup.  He looks like he can throw.  Castro isn’t a bad hitter – he was slightly above average because he showed a little power and a little patience while hitting .257.  Chris Snyder hit .176 and didn’t hit enough to be worth keeping around.  Corporan can hit better than that – maybe .240 with a few homers, so that would be a step forward offensively.  If Castro can be stronger against the run that would help immensely.  This unit should score about 15 more runs than in 2012.

Infielders:

Three-quarters of the infield in use toward the end of the season returns – Brett Wallace at first, Jose Altuve at second, and Matt Dominguez at third.  Jed Lowrie is gone, replaced by Ronnie Cedeno.  Wallace is getting better defensively, Altuve is slightly below average as a glove man, but not problematic, and Dominguez is a solid defensive option – far better than Chris Johnson.   Cedeno may have more experience, but he won’t put up more runs than, say, Marwin Gonzalez.  They are essentially the same guy.  The problem is that neither is a long-term solution, so as we are following this team, look for them to find a better shortstop through the minors.

Carlos Pena was added to back up Wallace at first and be the primary DH – which will last as long as Pena keeps drawing walks and hitting homers.  I fear, however, that he may not hit .220.

As a unit, this team will probably hold the line offensively (Wallace will help offset the loss of Jed Lowrie), but it could be ten runs better defensively.

Outfielders:

This year’s outfield features Chris Carter, the old Oakland As prospect, Justin Maxwell, and Rick Ankiel – a reclamation project of sorts.  J. D. Martinez will be back as a possible fourth or fifth outfielder, sharing the role with Brandon Barnes.

Defensively, Carter can’t be worse than J.D. Martinez was, and he has the potential to put a lot more runs on the board by virtue of his power and patience.  Justin Maxwell is a better fielder and hitter than Jordan Schafer was – it would be nice if he hit, say, .250 rather than .220, though.  Ankiel hasn’t been a good hitter for a few years, but he’s still better than Brian Bogusevic was, and even if he isn’t, J.D. Martinez can hit better.

As a unit, this team could score about 60 more runs and save ten to fifteen in the field.

[As I reach this point in the essay, Justin Maxwell just hit a high drive off the top of the wall in left for a two-run triple, giving the Astros an early lead.  Woohoo!!!]

Down on the Farm:

Most of the guys who did anything at AAA are on the club, and nobody stands out as a prospect.  Moving to the Corpus Christi Red Hawks, the top prospects at AA would include first baseman Jonathan Singleton, who hit .284 with power, 88 walks, and is 21-years-old.  Another option is shortstop Jonathan Villar, a 22-year-old with speed and some hitting skills.  I’m just not sure he can hit in the majors.  A top pitching prospect might be Jason Stoffel, who fanned 57 in 58 innings, walked just 16, in a relief role.  Jarred Cosart made 15 starts at AA and was decent, but not great.  He is ranked highly by scouting organizations.

At A+ Lancaster, right fielder Domingo Santana impressed with power and average, while centerfielder George Springer has all that and speed, too. Both are free swingers.  Coming up in A Lexington is Delino Deshields II – who plays like his dad, but is a few years away (and only 20).  Another guy making marks include shortstop Carlos Correa, a top pick out of Puerto Rico last year.

Best guess on their record?

They aren’t as good as last September.  They aren’t as bad as last August.  I see the team being 75 runs better offensively, and five runs worse defensively, thanks to a slightly worse starting rotation.  That puts the runs scored/runs allowed ratio at about 660/800.  Working against that is the move to the offensively charged AL West, which features the Rangers and Angels, a decent Oakland, and an improving Seattle.  The system calls for 66 wins, which seems a tad bit high.  So, I’ll temper that to 64 – 98, hopefully avoiding a third straight year with 100 losses.  If that happens, let’s consider it a a success and watch for some talent to get added to this young team.

As I finish this, I see that the Astros have extended their lead to 4 – 0 in the fifth over Texas.  If they hold on for the win, it would make for a great start to the season.

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2010 Season Forecast: Houston Astros

Last Five Seasons:

2009: 74 – 88 (5th NL Central)
2008: 86 – 75
2007: 73 – 89
2006: 82 – 80
2005: 89 – 73

For two straight seasons, the Astros have outperformed their stats – which is to say that their record is better than the ratio of runs scored to runs allowed.  In 2008, the Astros were 11 games over .500 despite allowing 31 runs more than they scored.  In 2009, the Astros scored and allowed the same number of runs as Pittsburgh and yet won 12 more games.  That can’t keep happening…

Season Recap:

On the heels of a ridiculously over-successful 2008, some people thought the Astros might remain competitive in 2009.  Instead, long time veterans fell off (Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman), and eventually Cecil Cooper was fired because people didn’t think he knew what he was doing.

The Astros won an extra inning game on April 7th to pull to .500 with a win and a loss.  Houston lost five in a row, and then would trade wins and losses for about a month never getting better than four games under .500 until late June.  As the month turned into July, the Astros played their best baseball, winning 18 of 26 games.  This got their record to 50 – 46 and into the the NL Central race, just two games behind St. Louis and tied with Chicago for second place.

What happened next was that the Astros ran out of mojo.  A slow slide brought them back under .500, and despite sweeping the Phillies in four games the Astros could never get closer than two games under .500.  When the clubhouse, management, and media turned on Cecil Cooper, knowing that season was over anyway, Cooper was let go.  September was spent wondering what could have been, including a nine-game losing streak that knocked Houston into fifth place.

Were they really that good?  Probably not.  The Astros scored five runs more than Pittsburgh (743 – 738) and allowed two more (770 – 768).  Houston was as lucky as Pittsburgh was unlucky – and should really have won about 67 games.

Pitching:

Wandy Rodriquez turned into an ace, winning 14 games, throwing nearly 206 innings, and saving his team about 28.5 runs over what an average starter might have given up.  Roy Oswalt, admittedly having an off season, won just eight games but was still better than league average in his 30 starts.  And that’s where it ends.

Last year, Brian Moehler got 29 starts, allowed nearly six runs per nine, and was bad enough to virtually offset Rodriguez.  Mike Hampton returned to go 7 – 10, and he was 13 runs worse than the average pitcher over 112 innings.  How many of you thought he would make 100 innings?  Felipe Paulino was atrocious – 22 innings worse than average in just shy of 100 innings.  Ouch.  Russ Ortiz got 13 brutal starts.  Yorman Bazardo went 1 – 3 and had an ERA of 7.88.  Only rookie Bud Norris got a few starts and didn’t look lousy.  No team is going to be successful with what amounts to 500 innings of horrific pitching unless the lineup is eight Albert Pujols.

What saved Houston was a remarkable bullpen.  Jose Valverde had just 25 saves (injuries interruped his season), but he also was 12.6 runs better than the average pitcher in his 52 innings.  LaTroy Hawkins had perhaps his best season ever – 63 innings and a 2.13 ERA.  Jeff Fulchino was a stopper in middle relief, and Tim Byrdak allowed only 39 hits in his 61.1 innings.  Sure, the rest of the staff was a mixed bag of arms, but four solid relievers can keep games in hand even when the starters get lifted – and these starters were regularly lifted…

For 2010, the big move was adding former Phillie, Brett Myers, to the rotation.  A one-time starter, Myers can help here just by staying around league average.  Moving Bud Norris into a full time spot (#4) would also help some.  Sadly, Paulino and Moehler get to fight for that fifth spot in the rotation – or get starts that someone else might miss.  Still – this could be a 30 run improvement on the defensive side.

For the bullpen, Jose Valverde is gone, as is Hawkins.  Matt Lindstrom arrives from Florida with a 100 MPH fastball that has little or no movement.  Brandon Lyon was signed to a three-year deal to set up Lindstrom.  I don’t see how this is going to be better – and it could easily be 25 runs WORSE than last year.

Catching:

Ivan Rodriguez was installed as the starter at the beginning of the year and was still solid – makes few mistakes, strong against the run, still reasonably mobile, but isn’t a run producer.  After Pudge was allowed to leave for Texas, Humberto Quintero took over and was exceptional against the run though a bit more mistake prone.

One time prospect J.R. Towles gets one last shot at this job (one assumes that Jason Castro or Koby Clemens will be taking over soon enough) – with Quintero as his backup.  Though Towles didn’t throw anyone out last year (one guy – he threw out one guy), he does have better overall skills.  Overall, this might be five runs better, but I don’t buy it.  Let’s call the overall production a wash.

Infield:

Lance Berkman had his first off sesason after a long run of productive hitting.  He’s still an offensive force, but he missed a month of games with injuries.  Darin Erstad isn’t really good enough to take over here.  If the Astros expect to win, Berkman has to play 150 games and he’s at the age where that gets harder and harder to do.

Kaz Matsui returns – a glove man who really doesn’t do much to keep the offense going.  At this point, the Astros need to keep him because I don’t think Jeff Keppinger is going to do any better.

Miguel Tejada played a surprisingly solid shortstop, and kicked in with 199 hits and 46 doubles.  He’s NOT a top flight hitter, but he’s been as dependable for hits as anyone and remains above average for the league and his position.  He’s gone, though, to be replaced by rookie Tommy Manzella.  Manzella hit .289 at Round Rock last year, but isn’t going to hit as well as Tejada.  He MIGHT be 20 runs better defensively, but he may well hit about .260 with a little power, which will be about 30 runs worse offensively.

Geoff Blum had a rough season, to say the least.  He was below average offensively (.247, 10 homers – 4.2 runs per 27 outs) and he cost his team another 21 runs defensively at third base.  Enter Pedro Feliz, who had a monster season defensively and will be no worse a hitter.

On the whole, I see this group being about 40 runs better defensively, but lose 30 runs offensively.

Outfield:

Offensively, this is a strong unit.  Carlos Lee in left remains a potent power source.  Hunter Pence in right field has power, patience, speed, and provides good defense.  Michael Bourn is a burner who gets on base, steals what he can, and can cover ground in center.

Defensively, Lee needs to be a DH – costing his team about 32 runs in left.  He’s no longer mobile enough to cover any ground and he’s reaching the age where his bat might start to slip.  Jason Michaels returns to play the late innings for Lee.

Prospects:

Looking over AAA Round Rock, other than Tommy Manzello, you have Chris Johnson.  He’s a third baseman taken in the 4th round in 2006 out of Stetson.  Right now, he looks like he’d hit as well as Geoff Blum and if he fields better might be a better option for 2010.  At 25, Johnson has to step up now.  Among pitchers, Bud Norris already got the call in 2009, as did Bazardo and Sam Gervacio, who might get a second chance some time in 2010.  Gervacio showed power and control in AAA (58Ks, 21 Ws in 52.1 innings).

The best pitcher at AA Corpus Christi was Polin Trinidad, who walked just ten batters in 82.2 innings and earned a promotion to AAA mid-season.  He’s still a year away, but I’d rather see him than, say, Brian Moehler.  Drew Locke hit .338 with 20 homers there – but it’s taken a while for the former Dodger draft pick to get his career moving.  He must be a brutal fielder.  Catcher Jason Castro, the 2008 1st round pick, moved up to AA in 2009 and continues to hit for a decent average (.293) and work the count.  He could make the roster in 2010, for sure he’ll be on the Astros in 2011.

Pitchers in Lancaster (A+) got slapped around a lot there, but a few stood out.  Leandro Cespedes, Shane Wolf, and Fernando Abad all had decent control and strikeout numbers and are young enough to contribute a couple of years from now.  I especially liked Abad, who walked only eight in 82.2 innings.  He could be a future closer.  Because hitting is so easy there, you have to take stats with a grain of salt, but catcher Koby Clemens hit .345 with power – probably the best of the lot.

2008 1a pick Jordan Lyles pitched well at Lexington in the SAL – 167Ks just 38 walks in 144.2 innings.  Still a teenager, he’ll be in Lancaster and probably Corpus Christi soon enough.  2007 pick Collin Delome (5th round) has a lot of different skills, but needs to step up his batting average.  He looks like Brady Anderson, only in AA.  Meanwhile, top pick in 2006, Maxwell Sapp has yet to hit above. 241 in the minors and with two other catchers ahead of him, is not on the prospect lists anymore.

Forecast:

I don’t see the Astros being competitive in the NL Central.  I see them struggling to score runs – about 610 runs this season – and despite the improved defense, still giving up about 725 runs.  There are just too many holes to patch, and after two years of very lucky won-loss records, the system says no more than 67 wins and playing the under.

Top NL Left Fielders in 2009

Ryan Braun (MIL):  A threat to win the triple crown at some point, and now a tolerable fielder (much better in left than at third base), Ryan Braun is one of the five most valuable properties in baseball.  (148.3 Runs Created, 1.84 Runs Saved = 150.09 Total Run Production)

Jason Bay, had he played in the NL, would rank here.  The Mets did okay with this signing…

Matt Holliday (OAK/STL):  After arriving in STL, he hit like Albert Pujols and fielded like Chris Duncan.  He’s not usually that bad a fielder, so I wouldn’t worry about it.  (126.5 Runs Created, -13.4 Runs Saved = 113.1 Total Run Production)

Nyjer Morgan (PIT/WAS):  In Pittsburgh, Morgan played left and was supurb defensively and acceptable offensively.  Moved to Washington, Morgan played in center and was supurb both ways.  A late start to his career because he started as a hockey player, he’s the type of player that anybody would be happy to have around.  I don’t think he’s going to be a 100 run producer every year, but for the next three or four years, he might just be a top flight ballplayer.  (76.2 Runs Created, 26.9 Runs Saved = 103.08 Total Run Production)

Josh Willingham (WAS):  Forever, Josh Willingham has been among the worst defensive outfielders in baseball.  Last year, either (a) his back was feeling WAY better than it had been in recent years or (b) Nationals pitchers allowed an ungodly number of fly balls to left than in previous seasons.  Regardless, Willingham had a solid season with the bat in a tough place to hit and caught more than his share of fly balls.  As someone who liked him when he was with the Marlins, to see Willingham exceed our expectations is fun.  (78.5 Runs Created, 5.7 Runs Saved = 84.23 Total Run Production)

Raul Ibanez (PHI):  At some point in the early summer, it looked like Ibanez would hit 50 homers.  And then the aches of being mid-to-late 30s kicked in and things changed.  Still, Ibanez was a valuable performer and contributed to the Phillies success.  I DON’T see him as much better than this in 2010, but if he stays in the remarkable shape he’s in, he should be fine.  (96.0 Runs Created, -13.2 Runs Saved = 82.86 Total Run Production)

Adam Dunn (WAS):  Also a first baseman, Dunn really should be a DH.  One of the most feared hitters, Dunn just gives a ton of runs back defensively such that his overall value suffers.  In the AL, that wouldn’t matter.  (115.0 Runs Created, -33.54 Runs Saved = 81.45 Total Run Production)

Daniel Murphy (NYM):  Like Dunn, plays a lot of first base but isn’t an embarrassment here.  Not really the offensive weapon you’d like at the position.  (71.5 Runs Created, 10.0 Runs Saved = 81.44 Total Run Production)

Chase Headley (SD):  Living in San Diego puts a crimp in his stats, but he’s not a horrible hitter.  He’s really an above average hitter, but a slightly below average outfielder.  The net is just okay, though – and on most teams he would be a fourth outfielder.  (86.0 Runs Created, -4.8 Runs Saved = 81.17 Total Run Production)

Chris Coghlan (FLA):  Two incredible months of two hit games, day after day…  Didn’t come up until May, took about a month to figure things out.  He’s miscast as a left fielder – had played the infield pretty much his whole life until called to the big leagues.  The Marlins hope that he’s their leadoff man for the next three to five years – until he’s due for arbitration, that is.  (86.4 Runs Created, -8.4 Runs Saved = 78.02 Total Run Production)

Carlos Lee (HOU):  See Adam Dunn.  Carlos Lee can hit, even though he’s showing signs of aging, but he doesn’t move around very well anymore and needs to be a DH soon.  (108.2 Runs Created, -31.8 Runs Saved = 76.32 Total Run Production)

Manny Ramirez (LAD):  Cheater.  I’m betting he’s been a cheater for a long time now.  Notice how all the cheaters play for Tony LaRussa and Joe Torre (as well as in Boston, where this was also encouraged)?  People talk about how steroid use will keep Mark McGwire out of the Hall of Fame.  Will it keep Tony LaRussa out of the Hall?  It should.  (84.3 Runs Created, -10.7 Runs Saved = 73.58 Total Run Production)

Juan Pierre (LAD):  When he bats over .300 and gets on base, he can be a productive offensive player.  In left field, where he still has far more range than most left fielders, he comes out as a positive.  If the White Sox try him in center, where he doesn’t really have that kind of range, and Pierre hits .280 and doesn’t add a few walks, then he’s a bust.  (65.3 Runs Created, 1.2 Runs Saved = 66.50 Total Run Production.

Seth Smith (COL):  Showed a balanced set of skills – he didn’t get as many at bats, but the rates were much like Troy Tulowitzki.  And, defensively, he was a step up over Matt Holliday.  If he keeps this up, he’ll be a force in Colorado.  (58.8 Runs Created, 7.5 Runs Saved = 66.29 Total Run Production)

Fernando Tatis (NYM):  Played all over for the Mets and was surprisingly good defensively.  My personal take on it was that it was (a) another year in the majors where he felt more comfortable, and (b) a bit lucky.  He also hit pretty well, batting .282 with a touch of power.  Had he done this a few years ago, he might not have disappeared.  (53.3 Runs Created, 13.9 Runs Saved = 66.20 Total Run Production)

Matt Diaz (ATL):  His bat returned, but his defensive range slipped.  Still, a very valuable performer for Atlanta and probably should have been a regular for a couple of years now.  (77.5 Runs Created, -14.5 Runs Saved = 63.02 Total Run Production)

Alfonso Soriano (CHC):  A miserable season for one of the highly priced players on the Cubs roster – but probably isn’t going to give any of that money back.  Below average baserunner these days to go along with a fading bat and abysmal OBP.  Holds his own with the leather, but if the Cubs are going to challenge for the crown, this guy has to make a comeback.  I just don’t think, at this point in his career, that a comeback is possible.  Sam Fuld, who got a lot of innings in the outfield, would be a better leadoff hitter with his .400 OBP.   (59.0 Runs Created, 1.5 Runs Saved = 60.50 Total Run Production)

Garrett Anderson (ATL):  Did about what I expected – which was slip a little further and struggle defensively.  While Anderson is still a better hitter than most people who try to play baseball, he’s now merely league average as a regular.  To be honest, he’s a veteran bench player at best these days.  (65.0 Runs Created, -8.0 Runs Saved = 57.03 Total Run Production)

Carlos Gonzalez (COL):  Fourth outfielder on this roster, but a good one.  Could be a starter on other teams.  (49.0 Runs Created, 4.7 Runs Saved = 53.75 Total Run Production)

Gerardo Parra (ARI):  Called up mid-season, Parra should have room to grow.  Despite the decent batting average (.290), he’s got a lousy OBP and and marginal power – which left him slightly below average in terms of runs created per 27 outs made.  That being said, a second season might be 10 – 15% better – more comfortable in the outfield and at the plate – and if he’s better, Parra worth playing.  Besides, Parra turns 23 in May and made the jump from AA to the majors – all while hitting .290 – those are the things you look for in a prospect.  (56.0 Runs Created, -2.5 Runs Saved = 53.49 Total Run Production)

Jeremy Hermida (FLA):  Now in Boston where he can take two strikes and always bat behind in the count there instead.  Hermida is actually mobile, but he’s awkward and uncomfortable diving or playing the wall.  In Florida, where the wall is a mini-monster in left field, this was a problem and it showed up in the way he plays.  Having watched him for a few years now, the issue is one of confidence and aggression.  Someone needs to get it in his head that it’s okay to look for a pitch to drive earlier in the count and give it a rip – and that diving for a ball from time to time won’t hurt him.  Otherwise, he just strikes you as someone who has loads of talent but is too passive to take advantage of it.  Chris Coghlan is a patient hitter, too – but when he sees a pitch he can hit, attacks it.  Hermida doesn’t attack anything.  (55.9 Runs Created, -8.7 Runs Saved = 47.20 Total Run Production)

Fred Lewis (SF):  Drew a few walks, but he doesn’t hit for a high average or hit for much power, hence his low rating here.  (40.7 Runs Created, 5.7 Runs Saved = 46.38 Total Run Production)

Jonny Gomes (CIN):  Had a really good year with the bat, but really isn’t a fielder.  I was surprised that Cincy didn’t just scoop the guy up and keep him around, though, but the Reds haven’t always been the brightest of franchises for a while now.  (52.9 Runs Created, -8.5 Runs Saved = 44.43 Total Run Production)

Ryan Spilborghs (COL):  Useful fourth or fifth outfielder who got 300+ innings in left.  Seth Smith earned the job for 2010, though.  (40 Runs Created, 0.1 Run Saved = 40.01 Total Run Production)

Laynce Nix (CIN):  The other half of the left field platoon – Gomes and Nix combineed for 35 homers and 97 RBI – which would rank pretty well up this list.  Nix is younger and a bit more mobile, but I’m not sure I’d take him over Gomes.  Nix has had nearly three full seasons and his career batting mark is .236 with no OBP to speak of.  (43.8 Runs Created, -4.7 Runs Saved = 39.09 Total Run Production)

Wladimir Balentien (SEA/CIN):  Overrated prospect who played pretty well after arriving in Cincinnati.  There’s always hope.  (32.6 Runs Created, 5.8 Runs Saved = 38.3 Total Run Production)

Gary Sheffield (NYM):  The man can hit.  Can’t run much anymore, but still has a smoking hot bat.  Somebody will likely give him a shot, but he’s running out of teams to infuriate.  What do you make of a guy with 500 career homers, and might still have an outside shot at 3000 hits (he’s at 2689), may get past 1700 RBI this year and 1800 for his career, and has more than 250 stolen bases?  If I were San Diego or Pittsburgh or Kansas City, I’d give him a job and leave him alone.  (47.0 Runs created, -9.1 Runs Saved = 37.95 Total Run Production)

Eugenio Velez (SF):  See Fred Lewis.  Andres Torres is better than both of them…  (36.4 Runs Created, 0.5 Runs Saved = 36.9 Total Run Production)

Eric Byrnes (ARI):  The body is finally giving out on the old warrior.  Now in Seattle where he’ll be a fun fifth outfielder.  Still plays great defense…  (24.5 Runs Created, 8.3 Runs Saved = 32.85 Total Run Production)

Lastings Millege (PIT):  The National League’s answer to Delmon Young.  Uninspired ballplayer who hasn’t taken that next step forward.  (31.5 Runs Created, -0.8 Runs Saved = 30.7 Total Run Production)

Chris Duncan (STL/BOS AAA):  Didn’t hit enough, can’t cover any ground.  Needs to launch a new career as a DH or else it’s over and over fast.  (32.2 Runs Created, -15.0 Runs Saved = 17.17 Total Run Production)

Mighty Casey Awards – Gold Glove Winners in the NL

When ranking defensive players, I have long used a modified system that I once built so that I could assign defensive ratings to players for the board game Superstar Baseball.  The issue at hand was how to rank fielders when (a) fielding stats are affected by things like balls in play, and (b) can you get it to a system that more or less tells you how that player affects the batting average of the hitter.  That’s what a gamer is looking to replicate.

Well – I figured that out.  But what made it valuable to me was when I figured out how to convert plays not made (essentially hits added) into runs using a table of values in Total Baseball.  I don’t know if you remember that encyclopedia, but Pete Palmer had calculated the value of each hit into runs.

Here’s how I do it.

1) Get the number of balls in play for the team.

2) Figure out the number of plays made by a player for every 800 balls in play.  Why 800?  Because for every 1000 at bats, there will likely be about 200 strikeouts or homers – so by using 800, one additional play made by a fielder is essentially removing one point of batting average to a hitter.  Also, let’s face it, a fielder is going to have more chances if his team is loaded with sinker slider guys who get the ball in play, than a big strikeout guy.  So, to get things to a common number of balls in play is a fairer way to evaluate each position.

3) Once I have the number of hits removed (or added) based on that Range/800 factor, compare that number to a run value for hits allowed based on the position.  For outfielders, it’s a combination of singles, doubles, or triples (for center and right fielders).  For corner infielders, it’s singles and doubles.  For middle infielders, it’s all singles.  I have a different system for catchers, and since pitchers don’t play many innings, I tend to look at it from the team perspective – but it works.

4) I make minor modifications for things like double plays, as well as putouts made by outfielders as that shows the groundball/flyball tendency of a staff.  And, for first basemen, I remove infielder assists from his putouts total.

5) Finally, I wind up with two numbers – a “range per 800” value, and a runs saved (or allowed) value.

Here’s the National League Position Gold Gloves and Brick Gloves.  The first number listed is his range per 800 plays above or below average for the position, and the second number is runs saved (or allowed).

Right Field:

7.48  22.42 Jayson Werth (PHI)
6.38  11.67 Randy Winn (SF)

22.27 13.17 Kosuke Fukudome (CHI) ***263 innings

Werth made more plays in RF than Shane Victorino made in CF…  Fukudome played 1/5th the innings that Werth did, but at that pace would have had 395 putouts – which would be solid for a centerfielder…  Does anyone other than me think that Randy Winn is an underrated defensive wizard?

-10.07 -28.14 Brad Hawpe (COL) – third straight year
– 9.66 -22.00 Corey Hart (MIL)

Hawpe hasn’t been close to average since 2006.  In 540 innings, Matt Diaz was brutal in RF with a -14.38 range factor, costing his team 17.56 runs.

Center Field:

12.26  19.26 Tony Gwynn (SD)
4.96  17.77 Matt Kemp (LAD)
6.06  10.80 Willy Taveras (CIN)
14.35  12.62 Nyjer Morgan (WAS)

Morgan was good, but not that good in the few innings he played in Pittsburgh and didn’t have enough innings to qualify, but in WASH he was amazing out there…  However, he was lights out in LF in Pittsburgh, and I might have given him award for the combined effort.

-9.15  -25.58 Shane Victorino (PHI)
-6.45  -13.86 Andrew McCutchen (PIT)

Maybe Victorino deferred to Werth on anything hit to right…  The NET result is slightly below average between the two of them.  McCutcheon is learning the league and will probably get better – but he’s not a natural at this point.

Left Field:

10.25  13.88 Nyjer Morgan (PIT)
4.67   7.53 Seth Smith (COL)

Not many to choose from, really.  Most of the good ones didn’t play many innings here.  One odd note – Fernando Tatis was a ball magnet in the 179 innings he played in left field – which is why I tend to ignore guys until they play 500 or 1000 innings.  Tatis caught 56 flies in just about 20 games in the field, which at that pace works out to 375 putouts in 140 games.  The most anybody had in left field was Ryan Braun, who made 304 plays out there.

-11.39  -32.31 Carlos Lee (HOU)
-12.33  -15.36 Matt Holiday (STL)
-11.09  -13.76 Chris Duncan (STL)

Lee looked bigger and slower when I watched him and the stats bear this out.  And, I pity the poor St. Louis pitchers…

Shortstop:

13.05  23.58 Brendan Ryan (STL)
17.54  23.16 Paul Janish (CIN)
11.97  13.74 Everth Cabrera (SD)

None of these guys played 1000 innings, but they all played 590 or more innings very well.  The best to clear 1000 innings was Chicago’s Ryan Theriot (2.59 range, 8.45 runs saved).

-12.31  -26.07 Jimmy Rollins (PHI)
-13.71  -12.02 Alberto Gonzalez (WAS)
– 2.52  -10.16 Cristian Guzman (WAS)

Didn’t they award the Gold Glove to Rollins?  Did anyone notice that he made hardly any plays out there?  Miguel Tejada had two more putouts and 86 more assists in roughly the same number of innings.  Yunel Escobar played 150+ fewer innings and had 20 more assists.  The only regular to make fewer plays per nine was the immobile Edgar Renteria.  let’s say that there is some bias in the ground ball distribution – if you add Rollins and Utley together, it’s still a negative.  If you add Rollins and Feliz together, it’s still a negative.  Rollins had a lousy year – has been overrated for a few years now, and should stop being considered as a good fielder.

Third Baseman:

10.37  30.30 Andy LaRoche (PIT)
7.56  25.18 Pedro Feliz (PHI)
8.36  25.14 Casey Blake (LAD)

A couple of guys having very good years – I never thought Blake was that good and Feliz was better than ever (cutting off grounders to short?).  Did you know that LaRoche was that good either?  The usual suspects of previous seasons (Zimmerman, Wright) were off.  Zimmerman was still good, but Wright was below average last year.

-13.66  -20.97 Geoff Blum (HOU)
-11.20  -18.78 Ian Stewart (COL)
– 6.07  -18.11 Chipper Jones (ATL)

Not that Colorado is going to miss Garrett Atkins anymore, but Stewart wasn’t that good a fielder.  By the way, if the Marlins are thinking about moving Jorge Cantu back to third, his performance would give me pause (-18.48 / -14.66 runs saved).

Second Baseman:

6.64  18.22 Chase Utley (PHI)
6.17  15.29 Kaz Matsui (HOU)
5.59  13.53 Brandon Phillips (CIN)

Honorable mention to Jeff Baker in just 369 innings for Chicago…

-13.66  -24.76 Skip Schumaker (STL)
– 5.61  -15.30 Dan Uggla (FLA)

The Pirates tried Delwyn Young at second base and it was a bad idea, too.  LaRussa won despite this – and a lot of other holes in the defense.  I watch Dan Uggla a lot, he’s always struck me as a bit stiff but effective.  Makes more good plays than bad, occasionally surprisingly good plays.  This suggests that the stiffness is winning, though.

First Baseman:

16.18  46.78 Albert Pujols (STL)
23.10  39.99 Jorge Cantu (FLA)
11.45  31.05 Adrian Gonzalez (SD)

There is such a gap between the most athletic and least athletic players at this position, so the best and worst fielders are further from the average than anywhere else.  Pujols is ALWAYS at the top of this list.  He plays further off the bag, makes a lot of throws all over the field – a truly amazing first baseman.  Gonzalez is the same thing.  Cantu is the surprise – I watched him and never would have guessed it.  The issue, of course, is that he had three below average fielders at the other spots – so he must have caught a lot of liners and popups to give him a stronger putout total.  While Cantu is reasonably mobile, I didn’t see this coming.

-10.74  -31.01 Prince Fielder (MIL)
– 8.07  -16.69 Derrek Lee (CHI)
-17.34  -23.12 Adam Dunn (WAS)
-27.01  -14.14 Nick Johnson (FLA)

I always thought that Fielder was rather graceful for such a big dude – but that size is now too big.  Derrek Lee is usually on the other list – but he played a very nicked up season – problems with his neck and back – and this affected his range.  Adam Dunn thinks that the only job of a first baseman is to catch throws…

Nick Johnson, however, isn’t usually this bad (he wasn’t very good in Washington, either).  However, the Marlins had essentially the same infield up the middle regardless of the first baseman.  Cantu had nearly as many putouts as innings played (850 innings, 829 putouts, plus 38 assists).  Johnson played 260 innings, made only 192 putouts, but had a few more assists (24).  If you extrapolate his numbers to 850 innings, that’s just 626 putouts – nearly 200 fewer than what Cantu had.  So, you can see why their rankings are so different.

Cooper Fired in Houston; Did He Have a Chance?

This is your lot, Cecil Cooper.  Your two best players, Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt, showed signs of getting older – missing time and underperforming.  Your shortstop is older than people were told and no longer is a force at the plate, and your starting catcher had played in more games than anyone in baseball history – then he was sent packing.  The rotation is patchwork at best, featuring one guy who may hold the record for DL trips (Mike Hampton) and a third starter who barely reaches 80 with his fastball and is only marginally tolerable (Brian Moehler).  Your fifth starter is 2 – 11 (Felipe Paulino – not to be confused with Fausto Carmona, but they have similar stats).  There are a couple of guys who aren’t half bad – Michael Bourn, Hunter Pence, Carlos Lee – but the bench slots are filled with people who probably can’t hit as well as you, Cecil.  Guys like Darin Erstad.  And Cooper hasn’t played in more than 20 years.

Through August, however, your team has hovered at the fringe of the race – sometimes a little above .500, sometimes a little below.  This isn’t a disappointment – like the Cubs – but probably a pleasant surprise.  I know lots of people who thought that, after spring training, Houston would finish with 100 losses and finish below Pittsburgh.

And now, Cecil Cooper has been fired.  Well, it wasn’t entirely your fault your team has no depth, no prospects, and gave away the catcher who, while he can’t hit, was keeping the pitching staff in games.  I mean, Wandy Rodriguez came into his own this year.  But you can’t take credit for that anymore either.  Reading the articles, the owner and GM felt that a team with a $103 million payroll should be better.  And, some of the players, like Berkman, felt responsible for Cooper’s firing.  And, to read it in Houston, the players no longer respected Cooper – not liking his style, and thinking that he didn’t handle game situations well.  Some writers in Houston think that his firing was inevitable, that he had no chance, but he deserved to be fired.  I think Ed Wade needs to be fired, too – he put this team together.  Cooper held it together, until too many pieces fell apart – and there weren’t players on the farm who could step up and contribute.  I mean, Russ Ortiz as a starter?  He hasn’t been good since 2004.  Maybe Dave Clark, the interim manager, will get a shot.  Not that Dave Clark had any more experience as a MLB manager than Cooper.  Either that, or Willie Randolph can get a shot at redemption.

Whomever gets the job next year is going to be lucky to win 70 games.  Cooper had done that. [ESPN/SI/MLB/Houston Chronicle]

Well – there’s no manager’s union for things like this.  However, when a player is a problem, thank God the MLB Players Association can step in and defend him.  Word is out that the MLBPA will file a grievance on behalf of Milton Bradley.  Guys – this is money well spent.

The Twins won last night, cutting the Tigers’ lead in the AL Central to just 2-1/2 games, but they will likely play a few games without outfielder Denard Span, who was beaned in the head last night.  Span felt soreness and a bit of dizziness, and is day-to-day.

Now, if the Twins catch the Tigers and the season ends in a tie, the challenge might be finding a place to play.  The Vikings hosts Green Bay in a Monday Night game, which is when the Twins would host the Tigers in a one-game playoff.  There may be nothing to worry about, but you never know.  MLB and NFL representatives will have to work out the details.  [ESPN]

Sometimes a slump is fixed based on who you play – and last night Kevin Millwood easily handled Oakland to get a win and lock up his contract for next season.  Of course, Oakland’s cleanup hitter is Kurt Suzuki and Bobby Crosby plays first base – so facing the A’s didn’t hurt…  [MLB]

Giants infielder Freddy Sanchez twisted his knee – the same knee that was bothering him when San Francisco acquired Sanchez from Pittsburgh.  He’s out for now, but may be available by the end of the week.

Hurry Back! Boston reliever Junichi Tazawa (left groin strain) went on the 60-day DL.

Welcome Back! Cubs outfielder Reed Johnson returns from the DL.

Afterthoughts… Aroldis Chapman, the Cuban defector, has established residency in Andorra, and hopes to sign a contract that will allow him to play for somebody in 2010.  Chapman chose a non-US location so as not to be part of the MLB Draft, which would make him a free agent and available to the highest bidder.  (Boston?  New York? Los Angeles?  I find it hard to believe he’d be a Marlin, but there are tons of former Cubans there…)  Chapman throws 100+, which is why he’s trying to be a free agent.  And, Andorra is kind of a playground for the rich families of Europe – and his agent hopes that Chapman may one day join them…  [ESPN]