Manny Ramirez Ends Career Rather Than Face Suspension

Short morning – so we’ll try to do this quickly…

Manny Ramirez is Done…

Rather than face a 100 game suspension for what the NY Times reported as having been found using performance enhancing drugs (again), Manny Ramirez told MLB that he would retire.  In fact, the press release from MLB was how Manny’s team, the Tampa Rays, found out about it.

Good riddance to a self-centered cheat.

For other opinions on the subject, click here:

Joe Posnanski

Sports Illustrated News

Joe Lemire

Jayson Stark

Jon Paul Morosi

Michael Rosenburg

Other News…

The Marlins expect that Hanley Ramirez will be back in the starting lineup on Tuesday after getting bruised while being on the receiving end of a hard slide by Astros infielder Bill Hall.  If everyone agreed that Hall was just doing his job and nobody had any hard feelings, then why did Edward Mujica plunk Billy late in Sunday’s game – leading to two ejections?

I told this to my friend and former boss, Jose Gomez.  Mujica isn’t long for the majors.  He’s eminently hittable and only looked good last year because he played in San Diego.  Now that he’s somewhere where baseballs don’t always get caught, his flat fastball will be meat and his career will fade quickly.

Matt Holiday made it back to the lineup on Sunday, just nine days after an emergency appendectomy.  Modern medicine is amazing, really.

Nobody Can Retire Permanently…

Pedro Martinez is telling everyone he talks to that he’s not done and would welcome a return to the majors.  Boston tops his list of potential return cities.

Weekend Transactions…

Octavio Dotel returned to the Blue Jays, sending Casey Janssen back to Las Vegas.

Jeff Stevens returns to the Cubs from Iowa, replacing Andrew Cashner, who is on the 15-day disabled list – but not likely to return for a while…

Boston activated lefty rookie Felix Doubrant from the DL, and sent former Orioles reliever Matt Albers to the 15-day DL with a sore right lat.  Doubrant throws reasonably hard, has a nice change up, and throws a mean slider.  I think he’s going to stay a while…

The Yankees signed Carlos Silva to a minor league contract, while the Cubs – who dispatched Silva – signed Ramon Ortiz to a minor league contract.

The Twins placed Kevin Slowey on the DL with a sore right biceps muscle.  Alex Burnett was recalled from the Red Wings to take his place.  Burnett is 23, got in 41 games with the Twins last year, and hasn’t yet shown that he’s ready to go after reaching AA.

The Orioles sent Brad Bergesen back to the minors, calling up Chris Jakubaskas.

The Pirates sent Ross Ohlendorf to the DL with a shoulder strain.

The Angels sent Erick Aybar to the DL with a strained oblique, and activated pitcher Scott Downs from the DL.

The Mets recalled Jason Isringhausen (!) after a bullpen implosion this weekend.  Wow…

Happy Birthday!

Those celebrating with cake, cards, and remembrances include:

Sam Chapman (1916)
Sid Monge (1951)
Wally Whitehurst (1964)
Bret Saberhagen (1964)
Jason Varitek (1972)
Trot Nixon (1974)
Mark Teixeira (1980)
Alexander De Aza (1984)

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2010 Season Forecast: Chicago Cubs

Last Five Seasons:

2009: 83 – 78 (2nd – NL East)
2008: 97 – 74
2007: 85 – 77
2006: 66 – 96
2005: 79 – 83

Runs Scored: 707 (9th – NL)
Runs Allowed: 672 (5th – NL)

For what it’s worth, the Cubs and their opponents scored 732 runs in Wrigley Field and just 647 on the road last year…

Season Recap:

Picked by a ton of people to win the NL Central, the Cubs hung around the race for four months before throwing in the towel down the stretch.

Every time the Cubs would get rolling, they found a losing streak.  Two weeks in, Chicago rolled out to an 8 – 4 record, only to lose four in a row.  Recovering, they won 8 of 12 only to lose a couple more.  Into May, the Cubbies took off – rattling five in a row to get to 21 – 14.  Thinking that this win streak might put them out in front for good, Chicago lost EIGHT straight…

Hanging around .500 for the next several weeks, the Cubs entered the All-Star break at 43 – 42.  Sensing a need to get going, the Cubs rolled out to 57 – 48 and actually sneaked into the top spot for a day in late July.  That’s when the bullpen suddenly lost it.  The Marlins came back to beat former closer Kevin Gregg and the Cubs hit a tailspin that knocked them out of the NL Central race just as St. Louis was adding Holliday, DeRosa, and Lopez for the stretch run.  The Cubs fell back to a game over .500, made a small fuss for the wild card race, and then disappeared.

Injuries hurt the Cubs as much as many other teams – losing Aramis Ramirez, Milton Bradley (injuries to his body as well as his attitude), Ted Lilly and Alfonso Soriano – but poor performances were equally to blame.  Milton Bradley signed a three-year, $30 million deal and proceeded to hit .257 with middling power.  Soriano’s season was worse – knee injuries and age contributing to a horrific .241 batting average.  And Geovany Soto, such a huge part of the 2008 NL Central Champs, fell off to .218, with just 11 homers.  Throw in the decline of a portly Carlos Zambrano, who failed to win ten games and missed at least six starts, and you can see why the Cubs fell back 13.5 games from 2008.

2010 Goals:

Lessee…  The Cubs need an attitude adjustment.  Bringing Milton Bradley was a BAD idea – no matter how good his upside might have been, there’s no excuse for that deal.  Just as importantly, the big horses need to find the old mojo and get healthy.  Soto and Zambrano need to return to form and it would be nice to get 140 healthy games out of Ramirez and Soriano – both of whom are running out of youth.  Finding a dependable closer would help, too.

Pitchers:

On paper, the Cubs have a fantastic rotation.  Carlos Zambrano should be an innings eater, and if his off-season fitness plan works out (no pun intended), he could return to form.  He pitched okay in the 160 innings he logged in 2009, but he needs to pitch 220 or more.  Ted Lilly will be back, but might miss a few starts early on as he recovers from minor surgery to clean up his elbow.  Ryan Dempster returns, as well as last year’s top newcomer, Randy Wells.  The fifth starter is former Pirate star (and Jayhawk alum) Tom Gorzelanny – who a couple of years ago was the ace of the Pirates staff.  Last year, the Cubs front five (the top four plus Rich Harden) were about 68 runs better than average and threw  852 innings.  That’s going to be hard to BEAT, but is something that the Cubs should be able to hold steady for 2010.

The bullpen wasn’t horrible – as a group about 16 runs better than average – but it lacked a big time stopper.  Kevin Gregg saved 23 games, but was really only decent for three months and scary the rest of the way.  He’s gone…  Carlos Marmol assumed the closer role – nearly impossible to hit stuff but walks a batter an inning which makes him Mitch Williams with a better chance to field grounders.  Angel Guzman and John Grabow return to set the table, and Jeff Samardzija, Justin Berg, Sean Marshall will get long relief or spot starts.  Samardzija is likely the one guy who could surprise as a fifth starter, but I’ll be honest.  I don’t see him as anything special.  Still – he throws hard and has as good a chance as anyone to have a good year facing 200 batters…  The Cubs added Carlos Silva in a trade with Seattle – ridding themselves of one headache (Milton Bradley) while acquiring organizational depth in terms of a guy to toss BP.

So, as a staff, the pitching – already good – will remain good in 2010.

Catchers:

Geovany Soto returns, with his backup Koyie Hill intact.  As a unit, they aren’t horrible – but if there is a room for improvement, it’s here.  If Soto splits the difference between his awesome 2008 numbers and his horrific 2009 numbers, the Cubs could get 20 more runs on the scoreboard.

Infield:

Derrek Lee had a quietly amazing year with the stick – 35 – 111 – .306, generating about 115 runs of offense.  On top of that, Lee also had 36 doubles…  The problems with his neck and back, however, affected his defensive range.  Usually Lee is among the top two or three defenders at his position, but in 2009 he was below average in terms of range.  Going forward, I see a 20 run slip in his offense, but he could at least return to league average defense if his back feels better.  In terms of net production, it’s a wash…

At second base, Jeff Baker arrived from Colorado and had a career half season, batting over .300 and fielding everything in site.  That made up for the poor performance of Mike Fontenot, who appears to still have the job.  I don’t think Baker can do this over 500 at bats, and neither do the Cubs who have Fontenot penciled in as the regular.  Fontenot was below average in both offense and defense – and I don’t see this improving in 2010.  If anything whatever bounce back Fontenot has will be covered by the slide in Jeff Baker’s performance.

At short, Ryan Theriot returns – a decent enough glove man and someone who batted a lot near the top of the order, though – to be fair – he’s really a GREAT number eight hitter.  Andres Blanco returns – a capable infielder.

Finally, you have Aramis Ramirez – as good a hitter as you can find if he’s playing 150 games at third base.  Last year, playing just 82 games, he was as good as expected.  Here’s what makes me nervous – Ramirez turns 32 in June – so he might get back to 140 games, but it could be at a lesser scale.  Chad Tracy is in camp to challenge Bobby Scales for a backup role – else Jeff Baker will be the other option here.  Assuming Ramirez takes up the innings given to others last year, even if Ramirez slips in production by 20 runs, the team will still be better offensively by 10 runs at this position.

As a unit, I see this team declining in offense by ten runs and declining by ten runs defensively.

Outfield:

This is where the Cubs had the biggest failures.  Alfonso Soriano led the group in homers with 20.  Kosuke Fukudome was out of position in center but sensational in right – so to make things better, he needs to stay in right.  But to bring in Marlon Byrd?

Last year, Sam Fuld got a small chance and played well defensively while getting on base at a .400 clip in just 100 at bats or so.  Fuld is NOT going to do that in a full season, but it’s taken the Cubs a long time to get Fuld to the majors after drafting him in the fifth round out of Stanford six years ago.  He’s quick, will bat about .275 to .290, and draw enough walks to be a scary leadoff hitter in front of Lee and Ramirez.  Instead, the Cubs chose to spend money on Marlon Byrd.  Byrd is about four years older, coming off a career year in Texas, and is a liability in centerfield.

If his knees are steady, Soriano could be a pleasant surprise – especially if he agrees to hit sixth and drive in runs rather than pretend to be a leadoff hitter who gets in the way of rallies.  Healthy, he hits .270 with 30 homers.  Another off season, and the Cubs will have an expensive problem for three more years.

Fukudome gets on base and surprises with power.  He’s a good #2 hitter, and his current backup, Xavier Nady – who signed an incentive laden deal on the heels of his multiple shoulder surgeries – would also make for a productive #2 hitter.

Any gains in Soriano’s health and Fukudome’s moving to right full time will be negated by the addition of Marlon Byrd.  This group will likely improve by 20 runs offensively but decline by 20 runs defensively.

Bench:

Kevin Millar will be battling for a pinch hitting role, joining Nady, Baker, Fuld, and Hill in providing one of the deeper and more productive supporting casts in baseball.

Prospects:

If the Cubs have any for 2010, there aren’t many on the 40 man roster – that’s for sure.  This is a veteran club.  On the whole, the prospects are mostly a few years away and only a couple really stand out…

Nobody stood out as a hitter in AAA Iowa (other than Blanco and Fuld), the top pitchers weren’t impressive, though reliever John Gaub had 31.1 solid innings, striking out 40, but walking 16.  Gaub had similar stats (28.2 innings, 40 Ks, 17 walks) in AA.  He’ll get a shot in 2010 – I just don’t know how many innings he’ll get.  Expect Gaub to start in Iowa, though.

Casey Coleman was 14 – 6 with a 3.68 ERA for the AA Tennessee Smokies, but struck out just 84 in 149 innings, so he’s not a long term option.  He is, however, just 21, so if he can find a strikeout pitch, he’ll be on the roster by the end of 2011.  Starlin Castro might be the next big thing, though.  A Dominican shortstop, Castro will turn 20 in spring training, but because the Cubs have options he’ll likely start the year in AA or AAA.  He wasn’t overmatched in 31 AA games last season and had hit .300 or better in rookie ball and in Daytona.  Castro would be my pick as the top prospect in the system.

Daytona had more than just Starlin Castro.  Brandon Guyer hit .347 in half a season in the Florida State League, earning a trip to Tennessee, but he struggled in AA – if he’s going to make it, he has to get it in gear quickly.  Tony Campana is a burner – 55 steals – but it would be nice if he got his OBP a bit higher.  Craig Muschko appeared to turn the corner at Daytona – 19 walks in 103 innings and an improving K rate.  And, Jay Jackson could be the other top prospect – cruising through Daytona with 46 Ks and just 4 walks, moving up to Tennessee where he went 5 – 5 with a decent K rate, and even getting a start at Iowa and winning his only appearance.  A Furman alum, Jackson will make the Cubs in 2010 if for no other reason than to get a cup of coffee in September.  I like him.

2008 #1 draft pick Andrew Cashner made it to Daytona and didn’t disappoint.  Look for him in AA Tennessee, maybe even Iowa for parts of 2010.  Ryan Flaherty, the 1A pick in 2008, will see if he can’t handle more after a 20 homer season at Peoria.  A shortstop with power would look good in Wrigley – but Flaherty is a few years away.  Others in Peoria that may stand out in 2010 will be 2008 draft picks Aaron Shafer and Christopher Carpenter, but the guy with the most stuff might be 2009 Chief Chris Archer, who blew away 119 batters in 109 innings and only allowed 78 hits – with NO homers allowed.

Josh Vitters, the first round pick in 2007, struggled at Daytona after a solid half season in Peoria.  He’ll get a second chance at A+ ball this year – but he’s just 20 and has time to get rolling.  Tyler Colvin, once a first round pick out of Clemson in 2006, got to the majors after shuffling out of the prospect picture.  At 25, he’s running out of time – and as an outfielder, the Cubs seem to like older players…

I should note that the other minor league prospect moving up through the ranks is manager Ryne Sandberg.  Perhaps you’ve heard of him.  After a year in Peoria, he moved up to Tennessee and will start 2010 as the Iowa manager.  If the Cubs get off to a slow start, he’s being groomed to replace Lou Piniella.

Outlook:

The Cubs certainly have the star power to compete, but the cracks that showed up in 2010 weren’t necessarily filled by young new help.  Instead, the Cubs have essentially the same team with one difference – Marlon Byrd instead of Milton Bradley.

I see the Cubs scoring a few more runs than last year – as many as 740, but allowing a few more, too – 700.  That works out to 85 or 86 wins (85.5, but if you carry out another decimal point, you’d round down).  With an improving Milwaukee and a still very good St. Louis, that’s probably good for third place – and at some point, the end of Lou Piniella’s tenure in Chicago.  With a slow start, he could be gone as early as June 1.

However, the guy responsible for Piniella and the rest of the roster is General Manager Jim Hendry.  With a new ownership group in town, when Lou leaves he’ll have someone to hold open the door – Hendry will likely be shown that same door.

Mariners, Cubs Exchange Headaches…

On the heels of an all-star season, the Cubs signed Milton Bradley to a three-year deal – GM Jim Hendry knowing that it could implode as quickly as I eat a bag of M&Ms.  After three good seasons in four – not great, but good – the Mariners gave $48 million to Carlos Silva hoping he would eat as many innings as I eat M&Ms as a member of the Seattle rotation.

Neither idea worked out.  Bradley’s performance slipped and his attitude sunk, eventually blaming fans and the media and the Cubs of a variety of things including a bad atmosphere, racism, and the ghost of Mike Royko.  Silva won all of five games, losing nearly twenty, served up more hits than Motown, and and made Mariners fans long for the days of Mike Moore.

Sometimes a change of scenery (and cash) makes things better.  So, now Carlos Silva is a member of the Cubs and Milton Bradley is a Mariner.

Look – this can work for the Mariners if Bradley chooses to play and enjoy his last chance (this is, what, his eighth team in nine major league seasons?).  He can hit – he can still run a little, but his fielding isn’t what you’d like it to be.  I mean, Bradley is a better hitter than Silva is a pitcher.  Bradley has a little power, is patient (at least at the plate), and can hit for a nice average.

Silva, however, is a big time question mark.  He throws strikes and he throws a hard sinker.  I watched his last few outings in 2009 after he came back from a shoulder injury and it seemed to me that he was leaving his pitches up – way up – and that’s going to lead to a lot of homers.  Shouldn’t a guy who throws a hard sinker be getting burrowing grounders all day?  At best, he’s a spot starter and long reliever for the Cubs – assuming he really is healthy.

Anyway – two of the worst free agent signings of the last few years are going to get a second (eighth?) chance.  Good luck to both of them.

Meanwhile, the Mariners resigned outfielder Ryan Langerhans to a one-year, $525K deal…  I wonder how much playing time he’ll get with Bradley on the roster?  If he’s ever going to break out, this would be the right season.

Glad to Have You Around!

The Phillies picked up the 2011 option year for Jimmy Rollins, keeping their gold glove shortstop around at least two more seasons.  Rollins will make $7.5 million in 2010, and $8.5 million in 2011.  [ESPN]

Scott Rolen agreed to defer $5 million (as a signing bonus) of what would have been the last year of his contract in 2009 in exchange for two additional years at $6.5 million guaranteed.  The Reds had hoped to work with Rolen because (a) they wanted more financial flexibility in 2010 and (b) they liked having Rolen on the team.  [ESPN]

I Guess We’re Stuck With You:

Mike Lowell’s injured thumb will require surgery.  This means that the trade between the Red Sox and Rangers, which would have sent Mike Lowell and enough cash to cover 75% of his salary to Texas for catching prospect Max Ramirez, is now over.  At least until Spring Training…  [MLB]

Happy Birthday!

One of the great lists of birthdays in terms of interesting people and legends of baseball so rather than point out one person who stands above the rest, I’ll just go with the list…

Harry Stovey (1856), Jimmy Williams (1876)…  Jimmy Williams was Rube Waddell’s teammate three different times, so I have a pretty good grasp of his career.  When he first started, he was a pretty good hitting third baseman.  When the league changed the foul/strike rule his batting average fell some, but he was still okay for most of the first decade of the last century.  He famously struggled in the 1900 postseason with a ton of throwing errors (something he struggled with his first two years in Pittsburgh), which hastened his move from third base to second base.  Williams was the first Pirate stolen in the NL/AL wars when the AL first got started, signing with Baltimore (who became the Yankees) and helped immensely when they made their surprise run in the 1904 season.  He eventually moved to St. Louis where he helped the Browns in the 1908 pennant race.  When he couldn’t hit AL pitching, Williams played successfully in the American Association where he was a star for the Minneapolis Millers…

Continuing…  Branch Rickey (1881), Fred Merkle (1888), Gabby Hartnett (1900), Spud Davis (1904), Julio Becquet (1931), Oscar Gamble and Cecil Cooper (1949), Jose DeLeon (1960), Aubrey Huff (1976),  David DeJesus (1979), and David Wright (1982).  I mean – that’s a lot of major league talent and historical people…

Afterthoughts…

Turns out that Sammy Sosa won’t be sued after all – a judge threw out a case brought against Sosa by a business associate for insufficient evidence.  [ESPN]

Dad, Daughter Find 15 Minutes of Fame over a Foul Ball (and other news…)

This is what it’s all about – a family going to the ball game.  Steve Monforto, a long-time Phillies fan, takes his wife and two daughters to the game and for the first time catches a foul ball.  After sharing the moment with those around him, he does the nice thing and gives the ball to his daughter – who promptly throws the ball over the railing and down to the lower deck.  The girl immediately realizes (from the reaction of the fans around her) that throwing the ball may not have been the right thing – but Daddy rescues her by giving her a big hug.

And this morning (Thursday), the family will be on the Today Show.  Click on the link and watch the MLB video (or watch it here, below) – it’s priceless.  The article on MLB is also well written and contains a number of great story lines.  [MLB]

As expected, Jorge Posada and Jesse Carlson were suspended three games for their roles in a bench-clearning incident.  Posada needed three days off anyway… [ESPN]

The Texas Rangers lost a fourth straight game (maybe I should add the Rangers to the “Is it Over” segment below), this by a one-hitter to Oakland (!) – mostly because they don’t have their two most productive hitters in the lineup.  Michael Young may play this weekend against the Angels, but his hamstring is still a problem.  And, Josh Hamilton not only has lower back pain and a strained glute (are they related?) – and is worried he might not play again in 2009.  [ESPN]

This is what happens when  your team goes from playoff contention to losing twelve of thirteen.  Tampa’s Carl Crawford gave a shout out to Pat Burrell, resulting in a bit of a screaming match requiring Joe Maddon to call both to his office to clear the air.  [ESPN]

Yankee starter Andy Pettitte missed his start yesterday to rest a “tired” shoulder.  Pettitte is now scheduled to pitch against Los Angeles next week.  [FoxSports]

In a classy move, the Tigers invited Ernie Harwell back to Comerica Park and to thank him for his more than 40 years of service to the Tigers community.  Harwell used the opportunity to thank those people in Detroit and all of Michigan for sharing their love and concern for him.  Harwell nears 92 years old and has inoperable cancer.  I listened to him on the radio back in the day – and nobody was better at making a ballgame seem like baseball was a large part of a community’s fabric.  An equally classy move – Tigers Manager Jim Leyland called a team meeting to explain to the younger players just how much Harwell meant to baseball in Detroit and beyond.  When Harwell was brought out, both dugouts watched in awe, many players taking pictures to capture the moment.  [ESPN]

Roy Oswalt’s season come to an end as the Astros ace doesn’t want his back and hip pain (now affecting his shoulder, too) to linger into 2010.  So, Oswalt will begin the rest and rehab process now instead.  Oswalt finishes with eight wins on the season – far below his normal levels of success.  Hurry back, Roy – baseball needs more guys like you.  [ESPN]

Another pitcher who may not pitch again in 2009 is Tiger Jarrod Washburn, whose knee injury isn’t healing very quickly.  Washburn says he’s hurting the team by going out there, and doesn’t know why the team would let him pitch. [FoxSports]

Cleveland centerfielder Grady Sizemore’s second surgery, this to repair a sports hernia, was a success.  Here’s to coming back healthy and strong for 2010 as well.

Not Fun Stat Mark Reynolds may have 42 homers and is hitting .272.  On the other hand, for the second straight year he has 200 strikeouts (!), and should break his record of 204 sometime by the end of the week.  Amazing, really.

Is it Over? The White Sox waived Bartolo Colon.  Colon was signed, got hurt, and would disappear during rehab stints.  I think we’ve seen the last of him.

Welcome Back! Randy Johnson was activated by the Giants.  Greg Dobbs (Philles), Clay Condrey (Phillies), Laynce Nix (Reds), Carlos Silva (Mariners), Alfredo (Marriage of) Figaro (Tigers) all came off the DL.

Hurry Back! Billy Sadler (Astros – Shoulder), Justin Miller (Giants – Elbow), Sean White (Mariners – Shoulder) and Mark DeFelice (Brewers – Shoulder) all head to the DL to start the rehab process and get ready for 2010.

Afterthoughts… Tommy Lasorda’s portrait will be hung in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC.  Who doesn’t love the guy, really?  If you don’t love Lasorda, you don’t love baseball.

2009 Season Forecast: Seattle Mariners

Seattle Mariners
61 – 101 (Last, AL West 39 games back)
Runs Scored: 671
Runs Allowed: 811

2008 in Review:

Many, many teams saw the acquisition of Erik Bedard and thought the Mariners would be really, really good – a contender for the AL West crown.  Instead, they had a hard time scoring runs, a harder time preventing them, and even won fewer games than they should have considering that they had the largest gap in runs allowed to runs scored (opponents outscored the Mariners by 140 runs) than anyone in the AL.

In short, they were a team with odd splits, some bad decisions, and the worst record in the American League.

Actually, the Mariners should have been around .500 in April and June, but they underperformed.  An 8 – 20 May put them well out of the race in a hurry, and by the All-Star break, they were working to acquire some warm bodies.

Decisions that didn’t work out?  Erik Bedard was a good acquisition, but he missed more than half the season.  But someone should be held responsible for racing out and giving millions to Miguel Batista (4 – 14, 6.26).  Ouch.  And who’s idea was it to sign Carlos Silva?  (4 – 15, 6.46).  Yes – Silva doesn’t walk anybody, but he’s VERY hittable.  And, some prospects aren’t panning out…  Wladimir Balentien and Jeff Clement combined to hit about .212 in more than 440 at bats – a lot of outs.  Throw in two or three more off seasons, and you can see where this is headed.

The odd splits?  The Mariners won just one road game in both May and September, and just one home game in June.  Those three splits combined for a 3 – 38 record.  Oh, and lefties couldn’t get left handed hitters out.  In that situation, opponents hit .300, with a .371 on base percentage.

Tell Me About the Offense…

Lousy – and in need of a serious facelift.

The infield featured Richie Sexton, who was released after hitting .218 with 11 homers in half a season.  His replacement, Jeff Clement, hit .227 with only 5 homers.  Bryan LeHair didn’t hit much, either.  Mike Sweeney would have been an improvement if he could stay off the DL – but he can’t.  He’s usually only asked to DH – and his back won’t let him do that much any more.  Jose Lopez was surprisingly productive at second, with 41 doubles and 17 homers.  However Yuniesky Betancourt needed an amazing September to close with production that remains below league average.  At least Adrian Beltre hit well, 25 – 77 – .266, but has never hit anything like that 40+ homer season that got his big contract.  Miguel Cairo played a lot of positions and didn’t help the offense too much.

Ichiro Suzuki continues to slap hits all over the field, generating more than 100 runs of offense by getting on base, but he’s not one of the great offensive dynamos in right field.  He has no power at all, with a .386 slugging percentage.  And his OBA is .363, not .400.  Raul Ibanez is their best hitter – driving in 110 runs without missing a game (you’d never know he was closer to 40 than 30).  He’s in Philadelphia now, and will be very, very difficult to replace.  The third outfielder was a disappointment – Brad Wilkerson, Balentien, Jeremy Reed.  Willie Bloomquist got on base a little, but after that does little to help an offense score runs.

The catchers, led by Kenji Johjima and his power-free .227 batting average didn’t put any runs on the board.  And, the DHs – the retired Jose Vidro – were hopeless.  (Except the rare Mike Sweeney days.)

Defense:

Johjima and Jamie Burke weren’t horrible.  For all the baserunners allowed, few stole second.  Clement didn’t stop anybody from stealing, but his best shot is to find his swing and play first base.  Overall, they score poorly because the team record and ERA were awful, and they don’t score well in terms of mobility (assists per game that aren’t stolen bases).  Maybe teams didn’t need to bunt off of these guys (and they didn’t).

The infield wasn’t too bad, but they had holes.  Sexton is an awful fielder and the infield got better the minute he moved out of town.  Lopez has a bit of range, but is error prone.  Beltre appears to have lost a step, and Betancourt’s range is slightly below average – and his reputation for not hustling isn’t going to help his range.  He makes a lot of errors, too.

The outfield is okay – Suzuki’s range in center was pretty good, but his range in right (despite his speed) was actually below average.  Ibanez is league average – impressive for his age.  Balentien is okay in right, but neither he nor Jeremy Reed are really any good in center.  Bloomquist covers a lot of ground in center, but didn’t get too many innings there.

Now Pitching:

The rotation should have been better.  Felix Hernandez made 30 starts and was solid.  Bedard was okay for 15 starts, but missed the rest of the year with a bum shoulder.  Jarrod Washburn was disappointing and either needs to learn another pitch or accept that he’s fifth starter material.  His record was poor (5 – 14), but some of that was offense, too.  However, Batista was 27.5 runs worse than the average pitcher, and Silva was even worse – 32 runs below average.  Ryan Feierabend would have been in that league, but he only made eight scary starts.  R.A. Dickey looks like a young Miguel Batista, and that’s not going to help any.

The bullpen lost closer J.J. Putz, but Brandon Morrow was solid in his place.  Roy Corcoran had a solid season in middle relief, though his lack of strikeouts makes me think it was a fluke.  Mark Lowe isn’t long for the majors if he pitches like this, but Ryan Rowland-Smith was very good pitching as a starter or reliever.  I’d put him in the rotation.  Sean Green pitched a lot – but won’t be here as he was signed by the Mets.

Forecasting 2009:

We’re talking about a team that has to close the gap between runs scored and allowed by 140 runs to get to .500.  Let’s see what we got.

A full season of Erik Bedard would help, and Rowland-Smith instead of Silva means the potential for 30 or 40 runs of savings.  Clement instead of Sexton could be 10 runs of improvement in the defense.  Franklin Gutierrez is a great outfielder, he might be worth 10 runs, too.  I just don’t see any other defensive option – unless whomever takes over in left field (likely Balentien) is going to that much better than Ibanez.  Besides, with Putz gone, is Brandon Morrow a closer or starter?  Batista could become a closer (I wouldn’t, though he did it a few years ago for Toronto), or you could try Mark Lowe or somebody.  But I don’t know how it’s going to be better than last year’s bullpen – I don’t see the depth.

Offensively, Balentien is no Ibanez – that could be 30 runs less in offense.  Franklin Gutierrez arrives to play the outfield from Cleveland – I like what brings.  He’ll help out some – he’s 15 runs better than Bloomquist and Reed combined, it not more, and plays better in the field.  I know Ken Griffey, Jr. is back – and that’s great for ticket sales, but he’s not an offensive force anymore.  Still, as badly as Jose Vidro was, he’s probably worth 20 runs of improvement.  The one BIG improvement might be giving Russell Branyan, a free agent signing, a shot to play DH.  He might be so happy to have a full-time job, he’d improve the offense 50 or 60 runs by himself by playing first or DH.  Clement or Johjima might do better at the plate – 10 more runs from the catcher’s spot.

Let’s add it up.  Instead of giving up 811 runs, they might get it to 751.  Instead of scoring 671 runs, they might score 735.  That means a record of about 79 – 83, which would still be a pretty solid improvement.  The lineup is better than what they had last year, and the rotation could be better, while the bullpen is a question mark.  I’ll buy 79 wins.

The real question is this:  If they are any good in July, are they going to make a run at winning the division, or sell off Washburn and Lopez and Beltre?  I sure hope not.  One more starter and a legitimate extra hitter might make this team the division winner.

Down on the Farm:

AAA Tacoma has a few players who, on the surface, look like they might help – but remember to discount stats in the PCL…  The best prospect was Jeff Clement, who was hitting .335 with power, but hasn’t yet panned out in the majors.  That means the 23-year-old Wladimir Balentien (.266 with serious power) shouldn’t be expected to hit .280, but more like .220.  Matt Tuiasosopo, son of Manu, may have a future as a third baseman, but he’s not ready yet.  If he raises his numbers from 13 – 73 – .281 to, say, 20 – 90 – .320, I’d say he’s ready.  He’s a kid though – just 23.  Infielder Luis Valbuena might be okay – just 22, gets on base, can run – but not a really high batting average.  If he gets on base, though, he’s a potential upgrade over Betancourt.

In terms of pitchers, the Mariners gave a shot to anyone with good control already (R.A. Dickey, Feierabend, Chris Jakubauskas).  None are legitimate prospects.

AA West Tennessee (the Diamond Jaxx) have one pitcher I like – reliever Shawn Kelley, who has control, power, and a little record of success.  He’s a future bullpen guy.  Catcher Adam Moore hit .319 with some power; if he’s going to take Johjima’s spot, he needs a solid year in AAA in 2009.  Michael Saunders is a young speedy outfielder with a future – could be a centerfielder or left fielder if he picks it up in AAA next year. 

The guys at High Desert (A+) to look for?  I like teenaged infielder Carlos Triunfel, who has a little power and a lot of speed – and a whole lot of upside.  Gregory Halman is 20 and already has signs of being a power hitter.  In Wisconsin, Michael Pineda looks like a potential ace starter (8 – 6, 1.95 – good K/W numbers), and Nathan Adcock is a starter with a live arm – perhaps too live (13 WPs).  2007 first round pick Phillippe Aumont is roaring through the minors with killer stuff.  He’ll be in the bigs by the end of 2010 at this rate.