Farnsworth Bit by Dogs; Smoltz to Start on June 25th

Kyle Farnsworth won’t miss time, but needed four stitches to repair cuts caused when he had to break up a fight between his two pet bulldogs, who apparently were arguing over the affection of a child.

John Smoltz’s rehab is nearly complete, and the Red Sox announced that Smoltz will likely start a game on June 25th against the Washington Nationals – which is really just another rehab start against a AAA team.  Smoltz last pitched in June, 2008; he was pitching in relief since he couldn’t deal with the discomfort as a starter for the Braves at the time.

What are the Red Sox going to do?  They have more pitching than they know what to do with, they have a solid offense and even Big Papi seems to be coming out of his slump.  They have one of the great stockpiles of talent – three guys with closer’s stuff in the pen (Papelbon, Soriano, Saito), seven starters (the current rotation plus Smoltz and Clay Buchholz in AAA) – what more do they need?  Can they loan it to Washington???  (Hey, that’s what the Yankees would have done in the 50s and 60s – send extra players to Kansas City until they needed them.)

Johan Santana says that his problems are not tied to a sore knee, as his pitching coach Rick Peterson suggested.  He says he’s dealing with location issues.  Santana admits, though, that he’s nicked up a bit (split fingernail, blisters) – but it’s not the reason for getting bombed by the Yankees.

Speaking of nicked up…  Derek Jeter has a stiff ankle.  Torii Hunter got bruised ribs for crashing into a wall yesterday – he skipped today’s game.

Shoulder pain put Carlos Guillen on the DL; now the Tiger slugger may lose the season to shoulder surgery.

On the mend?  Joe Crede and Michael Cuddyer both played for the Twins today.  Kyle Lohse may be ready for rehab soon.  Roy Halliday played catch without pain; even Brad Lidge says his leg feels better.  Casey Kotchman returns to the Braves from the DL.  Brian Bruney is back with the Yankees after a DL stint, as is Glen Perkins of the Twins.  Kaz Matsui retured to Houston from his DL stint.  And Emmanuel Burriss (Giants) and Will Ohman (Dodgers) get rehab trips.

On the other hand, Houston’s Geoff Blum heads to the DL with a hamstring injury, and Cub lefty Jason Waddell sits 15 days with a non-injury related medical condition. 

Quick Crime Report…  Former MLB outfielder Mel Hall was convicted of sexual assault with a 12-year-old girl – three counts of assault, and two more counts of indecency.  Sentencing continues tomorrow.  Yuck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2009 Season Forecast: Atlanta Braves

Atlanta Braves
2008: 72-90 (4th NL East, 20 games back)

This was my worst pick last year – picking them to win the division, only to watch the pitching staff get obliterated by injuries, and a couple of players taking steps back in production.  That being said, looking at the 2008 Braves, it’s really confusing to see a team that should have been better finish with a record totally unbefitting its reputation, manager, and its statistics.

Looking Back on 2008

Many people had the Braves to finish at or near the top of the division.  Bobby Cox’s team was fronted by two great starters in John Smoltz and Tim Hudson.  Tom Glavine returned home and Jair Jurrjens looked ready for his first full season in the rotation.  There was a decent power core in Chipper Jones, Mark Teixeira, Brian McCann and Jeff Francoeur, some good young hitters in the infield and outfield – this was a very good team.  On paper.

And then the pitching staff was gone.  Smoltz made five starts and left without a functioning elbow.  Tim Hudson made it into August before his elbow went.  Tom Glavine never missed a turn for twenty years – he made just 13 starts.  Mike Hampton’s comeback stalled in spring training, he made only 13 starts.  Chuck James made seven starts.  Lousy starts.

For the first two months, the Braves were more than competitive.  Chipper Jones looked like he might hit .400.  Other hitters supported the cause.  But Smoltz was already gone and Glavine would follow.  Five games over .500 approaching Memorial Day, the Braves slumped in June and July and fell out of the race.  At that point, the Braves decided to become sellers.  Mark Teixeira was given away to the Angels. (For Casey Kotchman?  That’s all you could get?  Shame!)  Mark Kotsay was sent to Boston.  When management gave up on the team, the team gave up on the season, going 9 – 20 in August.

And yet, they still should have done better.  The team scored nearly as many runs as they allowed, 753 to 778, which means that with a little luck, they might have finished 78 – 84 or so.  This was especially problematic on the road, where they were outscored by only four runs, but finished 29 – 52.

Tell me about that offense

The Braves, even without Teixeria now, have a lot of offensive options but will be looking to fill a couple of holes.

The infield is led by third baseman Chipper Jones, who has improved his on base percentage each of the last two years because (a) he’s hitting better than ever, and (b) he’s drawing even more walks than he was in 2006.  As such, he’s now creating nearly 11 runs per 27 outs – one of the best rates in baseball.  At first base, Mark Teixeira produced runs at a decent clip until he was shipped out.  Casey Kotchman arrived and did not – hitting for a low average (.237) with no power (one homer a month).  Few teams can win when the first baseman doesn’t produce runs.  Kelly Johnson is a decent hitting second baseman; he has some power and a good eye.  Last year he hit 39 doubles and 12 homers, which are good numbers from someone who can hit first or second in the lineup.  Yunel Escobar didn’t hit .300, but he hit enough, drew a few walks, and finished with double digit homers.  Three of the four positions are solidly represented at the plate.  Even backup Omar Infante hit pretty well.

Like with the Marlins, the outfield didn’t do its job.  Matt Diaz fell from hitting .330 to .244 with no power and only 3 walks against 32 strikeouts in 135 at bats.  Mark Kotsay was okay but barely above average and his back is no longer dependable for 120 games anymore.  Josh Anderson looked like a better hitter when he arrived in August.  And then you have Jeff Francouer, who had a season he’d probably rather forget.  He’s gone from 29 homers to 19, and last year finished with 11.  His RBI count was down because his batting average fell from .293 to .239.  He didn’t strike out more often; he just couldn’t get good contact on the ball.  Gregor Blanco, Greg Norton, and Brandon Jones are all decent backups, but aren’t championship quality hitters or defenders.

Brian McCann is the best hitting catcher in baseball – high averages, good power (23 homers and 42 doubles), and good plate discipline, earning some walks and not too many strikeouts.

Defensively:

With the glove, you have a veritable mixed bag of talent, but nobody who really stands out.

McCann’s catching isn’t very good.  He makes a few more mistakes (errors, passed balls) than you would like.  Only two teams allowed more stolen bases (SD and WASH) and both of those teams play in caverns where it’s hard to bash your way to runs.  On the other hand, he’s still mobile and contributes a little bit.  With his bat, a few extra stolen bases aren’t going to kill you.

Both Teixeira and Kotchman have great reputations for their glovework, but you wouldn’t have noticed it from their stats where both were actually below average in terms of range (but both were great in not making errors).  Chipper Jones had a decent year – a better ratio of double plays to errors, as well as better range than in 2007.  However, he’s still slightly below average at third.  Of the backups, Martin Prado did the best, and Infante was no better than Jones.  Both Escobar and Johnson have slightly above average range, but make more errors than you would like – the signs of young infielders.

Nobody in the outfield was very good.  Francouer has slightly below average range but a fantastic arm.  Kotsay looked immobile in centerfield (-7.6 range) – in a half season’s worth of innings, he cost the team eleven runs.  Gregor Blanco is supposed to be fast, but you wouldn’t know it by his statistics.  He cost his team another twelve or thirteen runs.  Matt Diaz was their best outfielder and he couldn’t hit.

Despite that, the Braves were about league average overall in terms of turning balls in play into outs, and that was because the infield was pretty good.

Now Pitching…

Hudson and Smoltz were great, but as you remember, were short term pitchers.   Jair Jurrgens, in his first full season, was fantastic finishing with 13 – 10 with a 3.68 ERA in 31 starts.  Jorge Campillo was forced into the rotation and was above average in terms of preventing runs in about 160 innings.  Mike Hampton and Tom Glavine were slightly below league average but didn’t turn in many innings.  In total, the first three slots of the rotation (when you combine them all) were actually pretty good.  The last two slots, though, were really bad.  Chuck James had an ERA over nine in his seven starts.  Charlie Morton was forced into fifteen starts and had an ERA over six.  Jo Jo Reyes got 22 starts that the Braves wish didn’t happen.  Still – all told, the starters were about eighteen runs better than the average rotation, which was a positive.

The problem was the lack of a consistent bullpen.  A couple of options were okay – Jeff Bennett had a solid season.  But for every good option, there was at least one pitcher who negated that benefit.  Manny Acosta had a decent ERA despite having a lousy strikeout to walk ratio.  Blaine Boyer was the opposite – a few too many homers allowed, but good numbers otherwise.  Mike Gonzalez came back in the second half to record 14 saves, but had a high ERA.  Will Ohman and Buddy Carlisle had okay seasons, but Royce Ring pitched only 22 innings in 42 appearances and had an ERA of 8.46.  Like the rotation, there were more positives than negatives, though.

Forecasting 2009:

The 2009 Braves will see a lot of changes.  Gone are both Hudson and Smoltz.  Smoltz signed as a free agent with the Red Sox, who gave him a better guaranteed contract, while Hudson only recently started throwing and is hoping to pitch after the all-star break.  In their places will be Derek Lowe and Javier Vasquez.  Kenshin Kawakami comes over from Japan and will likely be in the rotation behind Jurrgens, who is the number three starter.  That leaves the fifth spot to Campillo, or possibly to rookie Tommy Hanson. 

Lowe has been a dependable starter for a long time; in terms of what he offers the Braves he will essentially replace Hudson.  Vasquez has been logging innings, but he’s mildly above average because he is a fly ball pitcher.  In Atlanta, he might fare a bit better – but he’s still a step down from a full season of Smoltz (not that the Braves got a full season from him).  Kawakami is going to be an improvement over Reyes even if he’s league average, and I am reasonably confident Jurrjens will not suffer a sophomore letdown unless his control gets the best of him.

The bullpen didn’t change over the offseason, with the hopes of a full season of Gonzalez and improvement from some younger relievers in the seventh and eighth innings.  If the Braves get more innings out of their starters than last year, that will be worth ten runs just not having to dip into long relief as often.  The upgrade to the staff is likely worth about twenty or twenty five runs.

Offensively, I’m concerned about the team’s ability to score more runs than last season.  Jones turns 37 this April and while he’s been amazing over the last three years, he hasn’t been healthy.  Casey Kotchman for a full season will be twenty runs worse (or more) than having a full season of Mark Teixeira.  So, the infield may contribute 30 or 40 runs less than last year.  Garrett Anderson has been brought in to play left field – he will be an upgrade over what Matt Diaz and Gregor Blanco provided, but he’s also long in the tooth and may need 40 days off over the course of the season.  And, he’s not an improvement defensively, either.  A full season of Josh Anderson or Blanco in center isn’t going to be that much better than what the Braves got out of Kotsay and others in 2008.  So, the key to the outfield will be a comeback season by Francoeur.  If he comes back to the levels of the previous two years – 100 runs created instead of 60 – and Anderson stays healthy and hits the way he has in the past, this gets the Braves to about the same level as last season.  I like McCann to keep producing for three or four more years.

The optimist says that the team scores about 750 runs and allows about 750 runs – that’s a .500 season.  A pragmatist might wonder about what having most of the staff pitching in the World Baseball Classic means to their rotation in September, and worries that the outfield will remain mildly disappointing, and even weaker defensively.  If you are Javier Vasquez and you see an outfield that doesn’t run down fly balls, you might be one frustrated pitcher.  For that reason, I don’t agree with the optimistic view, and peg the Braves to finish about 78 – 84.

Down on the Farm…

The Braves AAA club in Gwinnett, GA got most of the prospects up to the big leagues.  Josh Anderson hit .314 and stole 42 bases.  He’s not a free swinger, but doesn’t bring a big OBA to the big leagues, so if he makes it as the starting centerfielder, he probably bats seventh or eighth in this lineup.  Charlie Morton pitched well before being called up – in 79 innings, he fanned 72 against only 27 walks and didn’t give up a homer.  I think he’ll be okay as a long reliever while he figures things out at the big league level.  Most of the rest of the AAA roster, you saw at the major league level much of the last few years.

At AA Mississippi, what impresses you most are the pitchers.  Tulsa native Tommy Hanson went 8-4, 3.03 with 114 strikeouts in just 98 innings.  Some compare his slider to Smoltz.  Todd Redmond went 13 – 5, 3.52 with good control.  He has a chance to make the big league roster by the end of 2009 with a good season in AAA next year.  Closer Luis Valdez stepped up with 28 saves and a lot of strikeouts.  His control may be his only weakness.

Jason Heyward was the star of the A Rome Braves, flashing some power, running the bases, and looking like Francoeur’s replacement by 2011.  He’s just 19.  Fredrick Freeman also hit well, showing some power while playing first base there – he’s a month younger than Heyward.  So, if Kotchman is a dud this year, look for Freeman to be a contender for the job in 2010 – especially if Freeman continues to mature in AA.  Edgar Osuna started and relieved in Rome – he looks like he has tools to compete at higher levels.  Look for catcher Tyler Flowers to make it to the big leagues one day.  His batting stats look like a young Mickey Tettleton at A Myrtle Beach.

2009 Season Forecast: Los Angeles Angels

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
100 – 62 (1st Place – AL West)
Runs Scored: 765
Runs Allowed: 697

2008 Season Summary:

Pretty simple, actually.  The Angels got off to a solid April, going 18 – 10, kept a winning record through May and June, then ran away with the division with a 19 – 6 July.  With a weak division, strong pitching, a closer having a record season, and just enough hitting, the Angels never had a losing month.

You know what’s really odd about the season?  They weren’t that good – rather, they weren’t as good as their record.  Based on the ratio of runs scored to runs allowed, you would expect them to win 90 games – still good, but not 100 wins good.

Four teams allowed fewer runs – one of them was Oakland – and nine teams scored more.  So, they weren’t blowing teams away.  When they got a lead, though, nobody could get past that bullpen – featuring the 62 saves of Francisco Rodriguez.  Heck, in close games Jose Arredondo won 10 and lost 2.  Five starters won 10 or more – that doesn’t happen very often at all.

What they were was a broadly talented team with few superstars having a bit more pitching than everyone else, and the ability to shut down games after the sixth inning.

How About That Offense:

The outfielders weren’t half bad.  Vlad Guerrero missed a little time, but still delivered punch, with 27 homers and a .303 average.  Torii Hunter, added from Minnesota, was just ordinary good – above average power and speed.  Garrett Anderson remains slightly above average offensively even as he ages.  The power numbers are down, but his batting average remains decent.  As always, he just doesn’t do anything else to get on base.  Backups Juan Rivera and Gary Matthews were okay, but actually below average offensive performers.

The infield was also a hair above ordinary.  Chone Figgins and Erick Aybar were a notch below average while Howie Kendrick and Casey Kotchman were a hair above average.  Until Mark Teixeira arrived, there were no bangers in the infield.  For all the talk about the two months that Manny Ramirez gave Los Angeles, was it that much better than what Tex did?  Teixeira batted .358, slugged .632, and drove in 43 runs in just 54 games.  Backups Robb Quinlan, Brandon Wood, and Macier Izturis were tolerable backups.

The combined performance of the catching was impressive – 29 homers, 91 RBI.  Of course, only Mike Napoli was really good.  Jeff Mathis hit .194, but with 42 RBI, so the few hits he had were important.

Tell Me About the Defense:

Defensively, the catching was tolerable – Mathis being the better of the two against the run (Napoli only caught 11 of 52 runners), far more mobile, though slightly more mistake prone.

The infield defense was above average – anchored by two good glovemen at first (Kotchman and Teixeira).  Howie Kendrick is slightly above average (1 play per 800 balls in play) and doesn’t hurt you on the double play or in making errors.  Erick Aybar is a gold glove candidate, while Chone Figgins is the best option at third (though Wood has more range).  Figgins was – 5 in terms of range, but doesn’t make mistakes, and so he doesn’t hurt you too much.

The outfield was average all the way around.  The best fielder is Gary Matthews, but he’s just everyone’s backup.  It’s time to admit that Torii Hunter is no longer the centerfielder he was five years ago – he just looks smooth.  Per 800 balls in play, Hunter is just one play better than average.  Matthews, by the way, was +10 – much better than Hunter, though in just 221 innings.  Garrett Anderson and Vladimir Guerrero were better than expected at this point by being league average.

Now Pitching:

The most complete rotation in the majors.  Ervin Santana was 24 runs better than the average pitcher and gave the Angels 219 innings.  Joe Saunders surprised everyone with 198 innings, won 17 games, and was 20 runs better than average.  John Lackey missed ten starts and still was 13 runs better than average.  Jered Weaver hasn’t blossomed into an ace, but he’s still slightly above average, too.  Only Jon Garland, who still went 14 – 8, was below the bar – 15 runs below average, but over 196.2 innings.  Dustin Mosely and Nick Adenhart picked up the missing 13 starts and weren’t ready yet but showed promise.

The bullpen was amazing, led by Rodriguez and the 14 runs he saved the team.  However, Arredondo was 17 runs to the good (42 hits in 61 innings), Scot Shields remained dependable, and Darren Oliver kicked in 72 solid innings.  Only the mop up guy, Justin Speier, was below average in any way.  Only Philadelphia had more bullpen weapons.

Looking Ahead to 2009:

The front four members of the rotation stay, and the lone weak spot (Garland) was allowed to leave.  Nick Adenhart or Dustin Moseley can be as good as Garland – at least not worse.

The bullpen lost Rodriguez and signed Brian Fuentes from Colorado – who, I am sure, is happy to be here.  I don’t buy that Arredondo can repeat his performance, and Joe Saunders might take a step back.  Darren Oliver won’t be 15 runs better than league average again.  I think it’s probably going to cost the Angels about 25 runs.

Defensively, Matthews is going to be a step up (it would be even better if he played center and moved Hunter to left or right).  Getting Vlad to the DH position and letting Juan Rivera play right isn’t going to be an improvement – so the net change will be balanced out.  And, the infield lost Teixeira to the Yankees – so the infield defense may lose 10 to 15 runs – maybe more – by playing Kendry Morales.

So – instead of allowing 697 runs, it might be more like 735.

Offensively, Matthews isn’t as good as Anderson, who is in Atlanta.  Hunter and Vlad may step a bit back.  The infield loses the big bat of Tex, but Morales will be better than Kotchman.  Still, the net loss will be another 30 runs.  So, the net runs scored will be around 735.

That puts Los Angeles at .500 – 81 and 81, and might not win the division.  My take on it is a disappointing second place.

Down on the Farm:

For the last three seasons, Baseball America has been calling Nick Adenhart one of the top two prospects in the chain.  Adenhart has been okay in AA and AAA, finishing 2008 with a 9 – 13 record in 26 starts, with less than promising command.  In fact, it’s gotten worse with each season in the minors.  I know people hit a ton in the PCL, but 75 walks in 145.1 innings should be a concern.  In his favor is his age – he’s just 22.  In fact, it’s hard to see who the prospect is at Salt Lake City.  Dustin Moseley got starts with the Angels but had a 6.94 ERA there.  Shane Loux was 12 – 6, doesn’t strike a ton of guys out, and is 28.  If Adenhart is a prospect, so is Nick Green, who had comparable numbers, is 23, and went 8 – 8.

Brandon Wood gets shots with the parent club and has real power, but the best hitter will be new first baseman Kendry Morales, who hit .341 at SLC with some power, makes great contact – but could be a little more selective at the plate.  Sean Rodriguez, a second baseman with power and discipline hit .306 with a .645 slugging percentage and a .397 OBP.  He won’t do that in the majors, but he can play.

No hitters at AA impressed me, but 23 year old Kevin Jepsen had a 1.42 ERA for Arkansas – a power pitcher who could work on his control a bit.  Steve Marek fanned 57 in just 46.2 innings and may be a reliever of the future.

Rancho Cucamonga (A+) featured several young arms, of which Sean O’Sullivan and Amalio Diaz stood out.  20 year old Alexander Torres will also get a long look in a couple of years.  He had nice strikeout numbers in ten starts.  Catcher HanK Conger is 20, hit .303 for the Quakes, and might be a long term Angel in 2012.