2010 Season Forecast: Baltimore Orioles

Last Five Years:

2009: 63 – 98 (5th AL East)
2008: 68 – 93
2007: 69 – 93
2006: 70 – 92
2005: 74 – 88

The Baltimore Orioles have had a worse record each year since winning 78 games in 2004 and haven’t posted a winning season since 1997, when they won 98 games.  What in the name of Earl Weaver is going on here???

Runs Scored: 741 (11th, AL)
Runs Allowed: 876 (Last, AL)

Season Recap:

Another year of rebuilding, another year of trying out prospects, and another year of being battered in road games, where the Orioles were 25 – 56.  Ouch.

Despite this, the Orioles are starting to show signs that they are accumulating the type of talent that will make them competitive – which would be good enough in the AL Central, but not in the AL East.

Just looking at the monthly splits, the team batted pretty well all year but had power surges in May and August.  What really happened was that the team slugged enough to help the pitchers in the beginning of the season, but the  pitching really left them after the all-star break.  The team ERA was a tolerable 4.55 in July when the Orioles were off – winning just 9 of 25 decisions.  Then it went to 5.30 in August as Baltimore lost 20 of 30 games, and finished at 6.22 (!) in September when the team lost 20 of 26 decisions.  Were it not for a four game winning streak in October, the Orioles would have lost 100 games.

So – looking ahead quickly, the Orioles need to figure out how to make up for a 135 run gap between offense and defense that would allow them to get to .500.

Pitching:

Jeremy Guthrie, who would look good on most teams, got to 200 innings in his 33 starts and wasn’t horrible despite his 10 – 17 record.  He’s not a league average pitcher in part because he doesn’t strike out enough batters – just 110 on the season.

The rest of the rotation struggled.  Rich Hill, brought in as sort of a reclamation project, gave the Orioles 13 awful starts (7.80 ERA), David Hernandez was called up for 19 starts that were a bit better, but he was whacked around to a 4 – 10 record.  Koji Uehara started off okay, but went down to a shoulder injury.  Prospect Jason Berken didn’t look ready – 24 starts and a 6.54 ERA.  Adam Eaton was added to the rotation and was predictably awful (2 – 5, 8.56).  Mark Hendrickson was allowed to start 11 times but was better in relief.

However, Brad Bergesen came up and won 7 of 12 decisions, and saved his team 16 runs over 123.1 innings.  Brian Matusz was given 8 starts and was league average, winning five of seven decisions.  Chris Tillman wasn’t awful.

The bullpen had George Sherrill‘s 20 saves and a solid 2.40 ERA, but shipped him to Los Angeles, putting Jim Johnson in the closer position where he was barely tolerable – not necessarily helping down the stretch.  Danys Baez gave the Orioles 72 decent innings.  Brian Bass was asked to work a lot of long relief.

Working against those four were Matt Albers (5.51 ERA), former closer Chris Ray (7.27 ERA) and a few other small time tryouts.

Looking ahead to 2010, the Orioles have to start by finding 400 better innings of pitching.  Kevin Millwood was acquired from Texas – Millwood was solid for five months and if he can keep his ERA under 4.50, would represent a 40 run improvement over 2009.  Guthrie gets the second spot, and Bergesen and Matusz will get more starts.  If they stay healthy and make 30 starts, that’s another 40 runs better.  Chris Tillman is expected to be a prize – and certainly will be better than eight Adam Eaton starts.

So, a realist sees the potential to make up at least 60 runs on last year, and an optimist might see 100 runs of improvement.

The bullpen adds former Braves reliever Mike Gonzalez to the closer spot.  Gonzalez CAN be a good closer, and he CAN be a bit inconsistent.  Still, adding the healthy arm to the mix will be a step up.  Former Padre Cla Meredith will also help out, taking on the Baez innings.  Will Ohman comes over from the NL – and I would rather see him than, say, Matt Albers, who is still around and on the active roster as of 4/1.

I don’t see the bullpen being that much better than last year – and certainly nowhere near as deep as the top three teams in the division.

Catching:

Matt Wieters is here – the cover of Sports Illustrated in March – and could EXPLODE on the scene and make the all-star team.  Wieters didn’t disappoint as a rookie, showing a little power and hitting .288.  He represents a step up over Chad Moeller and Greg Zaun, and has far more upside.  The new back up is Craig Tatum.  Wieters does need to improve is caught stealing rate (barely league average) but is more mobile and made fewer mistakes per game than the two veterans in 2009.

Infield:

Last year, Aubrey Huff was merely ordinary and not producing at the rate the Orioles had hoped – just 13 – 72 – .253.  First baseman are supposed to create 100 runs of offense, and Huff was responsible for just 55.  Michael Aubrey and Garrett Atkins are around now.  Aubrey is an oft-injured Indian farm hand who was stuck behind Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez (among others), but could be a surprise performer.  Atkins has been in decline for a few years and when asked to backup Todd Helton at first looked awkward.  I’d rather play Aubrey and keep Atkins on the bench.

Brian Roberts remains a remarkably productive offensive force at the top of the lineup, but his bad back is affecting his already below average range.  The Orioles don’t really have another choice (Robert Andino could field it, but not hit), so they have to hope that Roberts can keep his back loose and mobile.

At short, Cesar Izturis provided a great glove with no bat in the mold of Mark Belanger – hitting .253 with no power and, even worse, drawing just 18 walks in 114 games.  At least he keeps the pitchers happy.

Melvin Mora looked very old last year – only eight homers, and barely generating 50 runs of offense.  In his place, the Orioles are returning former Oriole Miguel Tejada (who is older than Mora) to play third.  Tejada had a solid season at short for Houston last year, but agreed to the move here.  Mora is usually pretty solid defensively, but Tejada could be his match and will certainly provide a bit more offense.

Looking at this pragmatically, and assuming Michael Aubrey gets the first shot at first base, there could be 30 more runs here (35 more at third, 15 more at first, offset by a potential decline at second base).  If Atkins plays, it’s probably only 15 runs better than last year, and that’s offset by Atkins bungling the position defensively, too.

Outfield:

With Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, and Felix Pie or Nolan Reimold, the Orioles have a pretty productive group here.

Markakis is a dependable source of hits and runs, though his range isn’t enough to make up for his rocket arm.  I do believe, however, that this will be his breakout offensive season.  Jones needs to play 150 games, and if he does, will make a run at 20 – 20, if not 30 – 30.  Pie can field any of the three positions and isn’t a problem with the bat, though he’s not a well rounded hitter.  However, Nolan Reimold showed power and patience and if given 500 at bats, might hit 25 homers.  Fifth outfielder Luke Scott gets to be the DH – a power source from the left side of the plate, though he needs a platoon partner.

Looking ahead, I see no reason that this group can’t find 50 more runs of offense by (a) staying in the lineup, and (b) continuing to show progress.

Bench:

Robert Andino and Garrett Atkins in the infield and Felix Pie in the outfield are joined by super sub Ty Wiggington, who could also be a regular first baseman and help the club.  Luis Montanez gets to be an extra outfielder when needed.

Prospects:

The best guy not already listed above that played at AAA Norfolk might be second baseman Justin Turner.  Turner hit .300 with a .362 OBP and has tolerable speed.  He’s NOT as good as Brian Roberts, but if he is forced to play, I think he will outhit Andino and might surprise you with how good a fielder he is.  He’s certainly better with the glove than Roberts at this stage.  Turner is a Cal State Fullerton grad, and a former Reds draft pick (7th Round, 2006).

The best pitchers in Norfolk were Chris Tillman and David Hernandez, who had solid runs and shots with the parent club last year.  Another option is reliever Kam Mickolio.  They all have the tools, they just need to put things together, which isn’t as easy as it looks – especially in the AL East.

A couple of Bowie Baysox (AA) pitchers to look for will be Brandon Erbe (44 hits allowed in 73 innings, but control issues) and Jacob Arrieta (70 Ks in 59 innings across 11 starts).  Give them a year or two and they might round out the Orioles rotation.  Another young reliever, Steven Johnson, might start the year at AAA.  The best hitter going through AA was Brandon Snyder, who pounded pitchers to a .343 batting average with 10 homers in 201 at bats, but appeared a bit overmatched at AAA.  A former catcher (and 2005 #1 pick), Snyder is getting time at first base now and if both Aubrey and Atkins aren’t producing in June, Snyder is just a hot start away from making the roster.

Richie Hebner managed former Wofford College slugger Brandon Waring and the Frederick Keys in 2009.  Waring is a third baseman who hits the ball a LONG way, and seems to be making progress in reducing his strikeout numbers.  Another former Reds prospect, Waring is still a couple of years away and should be ready for a look when Tejada hits 40.  Former FAU grad Robert Widlansky hit .340 for Frederick, but this was the first time he had played this well.

Among the pitchers, Brian Matusz already made it from Frederick to the bigs, and 22-year-old Zach Britton looks ready to try on AA after a year with 131 Ks in 140 innings.  Reliever Pat Egan still showed great control, but may not have enough gas to make it to the bigs.

Forecasting 2010:

You have to like Baltimore’s chances of moving the wins needle back in the right direction.  The potential to shave 60 – 80 runs defensively is there, and if Tejada doesn’t turn out to be 45 at third base, the offense could improve by 75 to 90 runs.  What is working against the Orioles is the top of the division – three teams all worthy of 90 wins.  I think the Orioles are extremely capable of winning more games than they lose – but might not just because they are in the AL East where good isn’t good enough.  So, even though the system says 83 – 79  I think 79 – 83 might be more in line with the final record and I am going to go against what the system says.

Top AL Catchers in 2009

Unlike the guys who play between the baselines, determining the value of a catcher defensively is a much harder proposition for me.  I haven’t been able to translate defense into runs the way I have for all the other positions, but I AM able to look at the responsibilities of a catcher and determine what teams are benefiting more from good catching than others.  Here’s how I do it.

There are seven things for which a catcher would get credit as being solid defensively.  If the catchers for a team are above average in a category, they get a point.  If below average, they lose a point.  The top score is seven, the lowest score (obviously) would be -7.  Here are the categories:

W/L Percentage: Score a point for a winning record, take one away for being below .500.

Adjusted ERA: If the team’s staff has a better than league average ERA (4.43), score a point.

Mistakes Per Game: Essentially errors and passed balls are added up.  The norm is about .11 mistakes a game for AL catchers.  Score a point for doing better than that.  Otherwise, take one away.  The only time this is patently unfair is when a team has a knuckleballer – so this works against Boston right now.  But it’s just a single category and I tend to give that team the benefit of the doubt on that category.

Mobililty: Mobility is the total number of assists that aren’t tied to stolen bases and the number of putouts that aren’t strikeouts.  A good catcher blocks the plate and gets outs on throws home, or can race out of the crouch to snare bunts and make plays in the field.  In the AL, the average catcher made .38 plays requiring mobility.  Score a point for beating that number.

Fielding Percentage (not counting strikeouts):  I guess someone had to get credit for the putout when a batter strikes out.  Unfortunately, catching strike three isn’t really “fielding”.  So, I look at the fielding percentage after removing putouts for Ks.  The average catcher has a fielding percentage of about .914 on balls in play or when runners are trying to advance.  Beat it, and score a point.

Assists Per Game: These are assists NOT tied to stolen bases and is used to grade the catcher’s ability to make good throws.  The league average is .23 assists per game.

Stolen Base Percentage: Can a catcher hold the running game in check?  If so, score a point.  The league average is 73.6% – which is awfully high, don’t you think?

The best catcher (well, team of catchers) can score a seven – and it happens from time to time.  As it turns out, there was a seven in the AL in 2009 – and it was your Detroit Tigers led by Gerald Laird.  The Tigers had a winning record, an adjusted ERA of 4.26, cut off the running game, made few errors, few mistakes in total, had great mobility, and had an above average number of assists not tied to stolen bases.

I’ll list the table here to show you where the catchers rank defensively and then discuss the nuts and bolts in the player comments below.

ERA WPct SB% FPct-K MTK/G Mobility Asst/G Rank
AL AVG 4.43 .500 73.6% 0.914 0.11 0.38 0.23 ***
BAL 5.05 .395 78.3% 0.918 0.10 0.50 0.16 -1
BOS 4.20 .586 86.8% 0.925 0.10 0.47 0.20 3
CHA 4.02 .488 75.9% 0.899 0.09 0.18 0.11 -3
CLE 5.50 .401 77.1% 0.948 0.09 0.36 0.21 -3
DET 4.26 .528 63.8% 0.975 0.10 0.43 0.30 7
KCA 4.57 .401 74.5% 0.873 0.17 0.45 0.18 -5
LAA 4.41 .599 76.6% 0.875 0.14 0.41 0.43 1
MIN 4.28 .534 77.0% 0.933 0.12 0.32 0.10 -1
NYA 4.34 .636 70.6% 0.925 0.10 0.37 0.25 5
OAK 4.32 .463 70.8% 0.922 0.08 0.35 0.27 3
SEA 3.98 .525 60.4% 0.935 0.13 0.35 0.27 3
TBA 4.33 .519 76.3% 0.905 0.09 0.37 0.23 0
TEX 4.20 .537 69.7% 0.858 0.15 0.34 0.17 -1
TOR 4.61 .463 65.9% 0.911 0.13 0.41 0.32 -1

Joe Mauer (MIN):  Hands down the best catcher in baseball, wouldn’t you think?  An offensive force who chose to try and take advantage of hitter’s counts and blasted his way to creating 131.6 runs.  Last year, Mauer wasn’t as dominating against the run, but he still did a few good things.  His backups, Mike Redmond and Jose Morales can contribute.  Both can hit a little and catch enough – but had limits.  Redmond struggled against baserunners, who were successful 35 out of 40 times, while Morales had 5 passed balls and 3 errors in just 183 innings.

Victor Martinez (CLE/BOS):  A remarkable hitter who bounced back from an unproductive and injury riddled 2008 to hit 23 homers, drive in 108 runs, and generate 108.8 runs of offense.  His catching skills don’t match his offensive numbers – easy to run on, not exceptionally mobile.  And, when asked to play first base, shows his lack of mobility there.  Still, he’s 30 runs better than any other catcher offensively, you can live with the rest of it most days.

Kurt Suzuki (OAK):  Would you have guessed he was the third most productive offensive catcher?  Mid range power and average, can run some (78.45 Runs Created) and his stats aren’t helped any by playing in Oakland.  Plays a lot of innings.  Not great against the run and his teams haven’t been remarkably successful, but don’t blame this guy.  Oakland’s catchers scored at 3 points, which is five above average counters, and just missing on mobility and the team’s winning percentage.  He’s a great catcher.

Jorge Posada (NYY):  Still a very productive player (74.98 Runs Created).  Good power, good batting average, and patient at the plate.  Defensively, Posada found some of his youth.  His backups, Jose Molina (now in Toronto) and Francisco Cervelli may not hit like Jorge, but they are more than his equal defensively – a nice thing for the Yankees to have.  Overall, the team ranked at +5 – six above average categories and just missed the league average for mobility.  Cervelli was great against the run – gunning down 10 of 23 runners.

A.J. Pierzynski (CWS):  Hit .300 but his power numbers were down a bit.  Contributes with the bat (69.22 Runs Created), but his defense is not helping out.  Not very mobile, makes a few too many mistakes, and the team fell below .500.  The final tally was -3, which means that only the team’s ERA and the total mistakes per game numbers were above average.  Everything else was not.  Ramon Castro was #2 last year, and he isn’t known for his defense either (though he threw well in 2009).

Mike Napoli (LAA):  An impressive hitter – power, patience, hit .272.  His backup, Jeff Mathis, is the glove wizard.  The net is a very productive combination.  Slightly above average catching (+1) and above average hitting.

Miguel Olivo (KCA):  Hits for power, but doesn’t get on base (53.59).  Has a strong throwing arm, but doesn’t always get the ball where he was aiming.  Makes an awful lot of mistakes, and for a guy who looks lean, isn’t very mobile.  Royals catching was well below average (-5) because John Buck couldn’t throw people out and even though he’s less mistake prone, EVERYBODY is less mistake prone than Olivo.  In 2010, both Olivo and Buck will be gone.  Olivo is in Colorado, where if he gets off to a hot start might hit 30 homers and make 15 errors…  Buck is in Toronto.

Jason Kendall, who inherits this job, would rank in this spot offensively and I don’t believe that things are going to improve that much defensively.  You never know.

Matt Wieters (BAL):  In two years, he may be the guy challenging Joe Mauer for the top rung.  For now, he’s got work to do. A good hitter (.288, .412 slugging – 49.04 Runs Created) and not horrible catching (-1 as a team), I like where Baltimore is heading here.  Gregg Zaun is gone, so Chad Moeller can back things up himself.  Moeller didn’t throw anybody out trying to steal, though.  Okay, two people, but that’s it.  Maybe they can sign Paul Bako to teach Wieters a few tricks.

Rod Barajas (TOR):  His batting average tanked to .226, but his power numbers were up (46.99 Runs Created).  I think Toronto would miss Barajas, but Raul Chavez was equally good at shutting down the running game and not horribly error prone.  Chavez is also more mobile these days and offensively they were a wash.  Chavez is cheaper, though…  The 2010 Blue Jays have only one catcher on the 40 man roster, Royals vet John Buck.  After that, it’s non-roster invites like Chavez, Jose Molina and former first round pick J.P. Arencibia.  Arencibia, out of Tennessee, has good power and some skills, but right now looks like he’d have Barajas’ batting numbers.

Before I let this get away, John Buck wasn’t horrible last year.  Defensively, as mentioned, he was stronger than Olivo but everyone focused on Olivo’s homers and so he got to play more.  Buck hits for some power and, per 27 outs, was actually more productive hitting than Olivo because he gets on base more often.  I’m NOT suggesting that Buck is a hidden all star, but rather that if he got 450 at bats and kept his batting average around .240 rather than .220, he would probably help a team more often than not.

Jason Varitek (BOS):  Now Victor Martinez’s job.  Varitek started out okay and just faded to 14 – 51 – .209 (43.3 Runs Created).  His slugging and OBP numbers aren’t very good either.  ‘Tek also allowed 87% of the runners to steal – 108 successes against 16 runners gunned down.  Martinez and George Kottaras weren’t any better (Martinez was worse in Boston, about the same if you combine his days in Cleveland).  Martinez is going to help score runs in Boston, but I think the pitchers might miss Varitek.  The young Varitek anyway…

Gerald Laird (DET):  Didn’t get the lion’s share of the credit for Detroit’s comeback season because as a hitter, he’s not one.  Creating just 41.3 runs with his .225 batting average and .320 slugging percentage, nobody’s putting Laird on their fantasy team if they can help it.  But he was solid as a defensive stopper – above average in all seven categories and only Kenji Johjima was harder to run on.  Laird tossed out more than 40% of all runners.

Kelly Shoppach (CLE):  Did I read that right?  Shoppach was hit 18 times by pitches?  What did he do???  As a hitter, he strikes out WAY too much (39.77 Runs Created).  He’s better defensively than Victor Martinez was, but that’s like saying I’m taller than my seven-year-old.  He was a bit more mistake prone, but better against the run and much more mobile.  Lou Marson, the former Phillies prospect, will get every chance to win the job and I gather he will.  Marson will hit in the 280s with medium power and some patience.  And, he can throw, too.  Oddly enough, in terms of total production, Shoppach was better in Cleveland than Victor Martinez because if you count everything, you have to include Victor’s lack of defense at first base.

Dioner Navarro (TB):  After such a nice 2008, Navarro crashed and burned in 2009.  His batting average fell to .218, his power was gone, and he doesn’t get on base in other ways so that was a big zilch at the end of the lineup (32.63 Runs Created).  His reputation against the running game may have stopped more people than actually stole bases – the numbers show him to be league average and in the seven categories, Tampa scored ZERO – just as many above average categories than below average categories.  The team says they want Navarro to come into camp lighter, so check the Diamond Notes in the spring.

Kenji Johjima (SEA):  Back in Japan – his batting average and playing time fell off (despite being more productive per 27 outs than many of the guys ahead of him – the net was just 29.91 Runs Created).  Defensively, he and Rob Johnson weren’t too bad – just a few too many mistakes and marginal mobility.

Rob Johnson, who – like Grady Sizemore – had surgeries over two-thirds of his body in the offseason, comes into 2010 as the odds-on starter.  And yet Johnson wasn’t all that solid, generating just 25.2 runs while being a slightly above average catcher (compared to Johjima, who was awesome).

Jarrod Saltalamacchia (TEX):  He needed to have a big season with Laird gone and Teagarden coming up behind him and it didn’t happen.  Salty wasn’t horrible defensively but Teagarden is better – better against the run and more mobile.  As a hitter, Saltalamacchia didn’t cut it – just 29.3 runs created with an OBP under .300 and the SLG under .375.  If it was .320 and .425, he’d be hard to replace.

As it was, Taylor Teagarden hit worse than Saltalamacchia, generating 19.3 runs in his 200+ plate appearances.  So, Teagarden’s chance may have passed as well – meaning Max Ramirez may wind up the starting catcher.  The only problem with that is that even Ramirez didn’t hit in AAA last year – batting just .234 with a .336 SLG in Oklahoma City.  The Rangers THOUGHT they had the position locked down two years ago, and now Laird is gone and nobody has really stepped forward.  I think Saltalamacchia, because he’s likely the better hitter of the group, will eventually take over for good.

Final Thoughts…  You want to know how valuable Joe Mauer is?  Look at how many catchers generate barely 50 runs of offense and realize that Mauer is 80 to 90 runs better than that.  AND, he’s a great catcher.  He was easily the most valuable player in the AL last year and will deserve whatever monster five or six year deal he can get.

Might Be Yankees Year; Giambi and Padilla join Smoltz on Released and Designated for Assignment List

I struggled to stay up to watch the Yankees-Red Sox fifteen inning masterpiece – a great game, really, with loads of amazing pitching and the best stained player of his generation hitting a game-winning homer in the 15th inning to win it.  You had Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett, former teammates in Florida, dueling it out before handing it to the bullpen.  And it was the bullpen of the Sox – heck, the pitching of the Sox, once touted for its depth and skill and now looking frazzled and weak – that finally caved.  The one time weakness, the Yankees bullpen, pitched nearly eight innings of beautiful baseball.  It’s certainly not over.  Ali looked like he would finish Frazier in 4 rounds in Manilla, if you remember, but Frazier gamely came back for more.  A war of this size cannot be won in a single series.  But the Yankees look like the best team in the AL East, and Tampa might be #2.  And the difference is depth – depth in offense and pitching, which the Yankees have now, and the Sox do not.

Speaking of the Red Sox pitching…  What to do with John Smoltz, he of the 8-plus ERA?  He’s been designated for assignment.  The Sox have ten days to trade or release him, and then Smoltz will have to figure out what he wants to do.  Should he head to the minors and work through it?  Should he take another offer?  Should he ride off in his golf cart into the sunset?  If so, he’ll have plenty of people to golf with – now that Maddux and Glavine also have free time.  The PGA Champions Tour will have to look out.  Smoltz is coming soon.  [MLB, SI, ESPN, FoxSports]

Just as the Cubs started rolling after the All-Star break, another pitcher stumbles.  This time, it’s Carlos Zambrano who was scratched from his start with a stiff lower back.  [SI]

And, the Dodgers don’t need this – Chad Billingsley tweaked his hamstring running the bases after hitting a single in the sixth inning.  Billingsley tried to pitch at the start of the seventh, but one warmup pitch later, he was done.  He’s start to start, but a DL stint wouldn’t be surprising.  [MLB]

Seattle’s Erik Bedard has fraying in his sore throwing shoulder – and will likely miss this season and if another MRI shows more damage, could require surgery.  [SI]

The Minnesota Twins could use some starting pitching, and Cleveland – who had given up on 2009 – gave them Carl Pavano.  Pavano will actually start Saturday for the Twins.  Cleveland put Pavano on the waiver wire, the Twins pegged him, so the two clubs worked out a deal.  Cleveland will get a player to be named later.  [MLB]

Baltimore also got a player to be named later when they agreed to trade catcher Greg Zaun to Tampa.  Chad Moeller was recalled from AAA to back up Matt Wieters.  [SI]

Most teams are looking for help.  Here are two teams that are moving in the other direction.  Texas designated Vincente Padilla for assignment.  Padilla hasn’t been in the good graces of Rangers management – and now management has ten days to trade, release, or send Padilla to the minors.  And, Oakland released Jason Giambi.  The 38-year-old slugger has been fighting a quad injury that has him on the DL – and now he’s got time to find a new job.  If he’s healthy, he might be able to help someone off the bench for six weeks – so somebody might take a flyer on him.  [SI]

Alex Rios was considered a franchise type player by Toronto.  Now, he’s been put on the waiver wire and according to sources, some team put in a claim.  Toronto can let him go (the new team takes on the rest of his $60 million in salary), or pull him back and make a trade offer.  [FoxSports]

Welcome Back!  Geovany Soto (Cubs), Darin Erstad (Astros), Rich Aurilia (Giants) all returned from the DL.  Chris Woodward had been released by Seattle – Boston needs a shortstop badly, so they signed him up…

Hurry Back!  Astro reliever Doug Brocail heads to the DL with a strained right shoulder.  The Dodgers got two starts out of Jason Schmidt before he headed back to the DL with a strained shoulder.  Now THAT was a good investment of $47 million… 

Welcome to the Majors!  Julio Borbon was called up by Texas.  He’s hit over .300 the last couple of years heading through the minors, but in cities that make people look like hitters.  He’s got some speed and won’t turn down a walk, but isn’t likely to get one because he makes so much contact.  He’s probably no better or worse than Willy Taveras (though he won’t run as often), but he is certainly younger and cheaper…

2009 Season Forecast: Baltimore Orioles

Baltimore Orioles
2008: 68-93 (5th AL East, 28.5 games back)
Runs Scored: 782
Runs Allowed: 869

With the trade of Miguel Tejada and Erik Bedard to Houston and Seattle respectively for prospects, 2008 represented the first year of a rebuilding plan in the American League’s toughest division.  But these Orioles weren’t half bad.  Sure, they were 22 – 50 inside their division, but actually above .500 against everyone else (46 – 43).  The reason?  The Orioles had a decent offense and a handful of young pitchers finding their way.  It’s a good time to be a Baltimore fan – just don’t expect to make the playoffs until a rotation anchor or two can be found.

Looking Back on 2008

With 782 runs scored, the Orioles finished in the middle of the league in terms of scoring – just a few runs behind the Yankees.  What they lacked was pitching and defense – having allowed 869 runs, which was next to last in the American League.

Baltimore got off to a great start – winning sixteen in April and fighting for the division lead for the first month.  Things slowed in May thanks to a streak against their own division where they lost ten of thirteen, but a solid June followed.  Even though the leaders in the division were starting to pull away, the Orioles were still five games over .500 as late as June 20th.  Heck, if Toronto had a 39 – 34 record at this point in the season, the way they finished, the Blue Jays might have won a playoff spot.

Instead, the Orioles got cold after the all-star break.  Ending a five-game losing streak had them at .500 for the last time on July 11th, and from that point on, Baltimore was a non-factor, losing a few games each month to .500 until September, when playing rookies killed the overall record.  The Orioles went 5 – 20 to close the season, ruining what had been, until then, a reasonably successful summer in Camden Yards.

Tell me about that offense

Behind the plate, the new Cincinnati Red, Ramon Hernandez, held his own.  He provided a little power, and a .250+ batting average, but not much else. Hernandez has actually slipped some from his performance in 2006, which didn’t help, but his backup, Guillermo Quiroz, couldn’t hit .200 in 134 at bats.

The infield was reasonably strong at two spots.  Third baseman Melvin Mora had a decent enough season, driving in 104 runs and batting .285.  Second sacker Brian Roberts is a great leadoff hitter, just missing .300, hitting 51 doubles, adding some triples and homers, a lot of walks, and 40 stolen bases in 50 chances.  Kevin Millar struggled to hit .234, but even that had a few homers and some walks.  For the position, that’s not good enough and he’s likely to move to a bench role with another team in 2009.  Where the Orioles really struggled was finding a consistent option at short.  Of the guys playing at least 200 innings (and nobody played more than 400 innings there), the best hitting option was former White Sox prospect Alex Cintron, who hit .286 but with little power or other helpers.  The rest averaged about .200 as a group, including Brandon Fahey, Freddie Bynum, and Juan Castro.

The outfield featured rookie Adam Jones, who hit .270, but showed room for power potential, a little speed, but not much else at this stage.  As such, he’s mildly below average as a hitter, but if he could step forward one or two notches, he could help.  Luke Scott came over from Houston and hit well enough, with 23 homers and showing some plate discipline.  However, his occasional platoon partner, Jay Payton, struggled at the plate – so the net result wasn’t exactly positive.  Rightfielder Nick Markakis continued to show growth as a future star, hitting for power (20 – 87 – .306) and getting on base.

If Markakis wasn’t the best hitter on the team, it was Aubrey Huff, who had a career season (32 – 108 – .304.)  Both scored about 7.5 runs per 27 outs, and anchored the offense.  Only Oscar Salazar hit well off the bench, and he didn’t have 100 plate appearances.

Defensively:

Baltimore pitchers worked with a defense that was not quite league average…  The league turned converted 68.6% batted balls in play into outs.  Baltimore finished at .68.5%.

Around the horn, Mora and Millar was just a touch above average, while Brian Roberts was just a touch below league average.  Most of the shortstops had decent defensive stats except Bynum, so while the offense at short was lacking, the defense was not.  However, the team was rather weak in terms of turning double plays in part because there were a lot of flyball pitchers and Roberts was working with a different partner most of the season.

Markakis and Scott were a shade off of league average, while Adam Jones was slightly worse than that.  When Jay Payton played, he couldn’t hit but the ball found his glove.  Luis Montanez, however, played three outfield positions and never seemed to be standing where the ball was hit…  Between them all, the outfield was actually below average and with a fly ball staff, this was a problem.

Hernandez had an awful year throwing out runners – 99 of the 123 people who tried to steal were successful.  Throw in the fact that he was slightly above average in terms of mistakes per game and that the staff’s ERA and winning percentage wasn’t very strong, my system suggests that Hernandez was among the weaker catchers in the AL.

Now Pitching…

Only two pitchers had really strong seasons for Baltimore.  Starter Jeremy Guthrie was about 19 runs better than the average pitcher, going 10 – 12, with good control through a few too many balls left the yard.  It was the second solid season for Guthrie, who is far and away the ace of the staff.  Middle reliever Jim Johnson didn’t allow a homer all season, which kept his ERA down, and despite having ordinary walk and strikeout data was also valuable for the Orioles.

Unfortunately, too many guys were WAY below average here.  Among the rotation starters, Brian Burres (-21 runs), Daniel Cabrera (-14 runs), Radhames Liz (-22 runs), Garrett Olson (-29 runs), and Steve Trachsel (-20 runs in 8 starts) got the Orioles in the hole early all too often.  Chris Waters came up and had 11 middling to below average starts with a 5.01 ERA and was an improvement.

The bullpen had Chad Bradford for a while, and George Sherrill had 33 saves, but they weren’t by any means awesome.  Sherrill’s ERA was 4.73, so he wasn’t setting the AL on fire as the Orioles’ fireman.  Most of the other relievers, including Dennis Sarfate, Lance Cormier, Jamie Walker and others struggled to put up league average numbers.  Compare that to the staffs of Boston, New York, or Tampa (much less Toronto), and you can see where the team needs to improve.

Forecasting 2009:

Ideally, the Orioles would like to see a little more offense, but more importantly, they have to find ways to keep the other team from scoring runs.  To get to .500, you’re talking about cutting more than 100 runs from the runs allowed, which means finding six decent pitchers and improving the outfield defense.

Offensively, the changes start at catcher (Greg Zaun for Ramon Hernandez, with Matt Wieters possibly getting his shot at some point this season), as well as first base (Millar is gone, with Ty Wigginton here).  Cesar Izturis arrives from St. Louis to play short – he’s not a championship quality hitter, but will be an improvement over the crew who played here last year.  It looks like the Orioles will not be trading Brian Roberts (they shouldn’t), which helps, and if Melvin Mora stays productive, the infield will be solid.  Defensively, they are probably 5 to 10 runs better, and offensively they are probably 15 runs better.

The outfield has added Felix Pie and Ryan Freel, but I don’t see how either of them will take Jones, Scott, or Markakis out of the lineup.  However, Pie could be the surprise – and as a defensive replacement, he’ll be solid.  The outfield of Scott, Jones, and Markakis can still produce runs, but more importantly there are a couple of bench performers who can contribute.  Offensively this is probably worth ten runs, and defensively, this could be worth ten runs, too.

Zaun is a better defensive catcher than Hernandez, but he’s been catching since Doug Ault was in Toronto (not really), and his contribution will not last the season.  Of the NRIs, Robby Hammock might play, and he can at least hit the ball some.  Chad Moeller and Guillermo Quiroz are in camp, but neither will be making a big contribution in the near future.  Matt Wieters has a job as soon as he’s ready.

One assumes that Huff should stay productive in his role, but he was so good last year, it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s off by ten runs this season.

There are, oh, 120 pitchers in camp in Ft. Lauderdale hoping to make the Orioles roster in April.  Guthrie is still here, and Rich Hill arrives from Chicago trying to put his career back together.  Hill would be a step up if he brings his best game.  The rest are a bunch of unknowns.  Matt Alberts was better as a reliever, but he could start some and be an improvement of ten runs over somebody.  Brian Bass comes over from Minnesota where, as a reliever, he wasn’t special.  As a starter he was tolerable here in Baltimore.  He might get a shot.  Troy Patton came over with the Tejada deal, he might be ready for a few starts.  George Sherrill needs to up his performance – and someone else needs to help out in the bullpen.

The problem is that they are all unproven rookies or second year guys.  Could they be better?  Sure – but it’s just not something you can predict with any dependability.

As such, I see the runs scored/runs allowed breakdown to be somewhere around 800/850, which translates to about 76 wins.  In this division, that’s a tall order, but there are enough pieces to see a better team in Baltimore.  If one or two pitchers step up in the rotation – a Hill and a Sherrill, for example – suddenly these guys are approaching .500 – and that’s pretty impressive.  When a few more young arms make it to the majors, this team might be ready to compete for a playoff spot.

Down on the Farm…

AAA Norfolk’s best hitter was Oscar Salazar (13 – 85 – .316), who got a cup of coffee with the big league club and played well.  He could have slid into the first base slot, and may well get this job after spending a decade in the minors (he’s 30).  He’s just been blocked everywhere he’s been (Oakland, the Mets, Detroit, Kansas City, Anaheim, and Cleveland), and he wasn’t a good enough middle infielder when he was younger.  However, with the ability to play the whole infield, he’s a good bench option.  Radhames Liz and Jim Miller pitched well enough to earn shots with the parent club last year.

Matt Wieters, the future catcher, hit .365 at AA Bowie in 208 at bats, with 12 homers and 51 RBI.  He can’t be far off…  Lou Montanez and Nolan Reimhold hit for power; Montanez had the higher batting average, but Reimhold has the better plate discipline.  David Hernandez and Chris Tillman led a quartet of Bay Sox pitchers to double-digit victories (the others were Brad Bergeson and Jason Berken, two other potential studs).  Both showed killer K/9 rates and will be in line for rotation spots by 2010 if not sometime this summer.  Julio Manon dominated as the closer – he’s just not a young prospect.  He’s 36 this summer.

Cole McMurray and Pat Egan led the hurlers at Aberdeen (High A), with closer Brandon Cooney (from nearby Florida Atlantic – near me, anyway) showing strong numbers.  Other than Wieters, the Frederick Keys also had first baseman Brandon Snyder (15 – 80 – .315) and pitchers Brandon Erbe and Jake Arrieta, who both had strong strikeout numbers if not solid won-loss records.

2009 Season Forecast: New York Yankees

New York Yankees
2008: 89-73 (3rd AL East, 8 games back)

The General Motors of baseball – throwing good money into superficial things and veterans only to wind up with nothing because they never really invest in the core of the team, just dressing up what they have and making another run.

Well, this year, by golly, we’re going to spend top dollar on the best players available and fix things!  The Yankees spent a half billion on two pitchers and a first baseman (and Nick Swisher).  That they bought CC Sabathia was not a surprise.  That they risked a lot of money on A.J. Burnett was not totally out of character.  However, to have given the rest of the bank to Mark Teixeira seemed like one big check too many – on a team loaded with big checks.  Let’s see if they spent it on the right things.

Did you know?  Something like 20 of the 86 players mentioned in the Mitchell Report played for Joe Torre?  Ah, but that’s just beating a dead horse.

Looking Back on 2008

The Yankees got off to a slow start, winning 14 of 29 in April, but seemed to play better through the rest of the spring and summer.  Most months were about 15 – 12 – not great months – which left the team behind the Red Sox and Rays for most of the summer.  The pitching fell apart in August, leading to another losing month – but not a 10 – 20 month, just a 13 – 15 month – before actually playing really well down the stretch in September.  The problem was that by then, they were too far out of the race.

Part of the problem was injuries.  Deteriorating knees (and operations on both of them in the last two seasons) cut into Hideki Matsui’s playing time and offensive contribution.  Chien-Ming Wang tore a tendon in his foot in June and was shut down for the rest of the year.  Catcher Jorge Posada’s shoulder required surgery.  For a while, he tried to play through it – but he couldn’t throw and eventually couldn’t hit.  As it was, his batting was well off his amazing 2007 season.

Part of it was that some of the younger guys didn’t produce.  Robinson Cano seemed lethargic at the beginning of the season and hit so poorly in April that nobody noticed he hit about .280 or better the rest of the way.  Ian Kennedy was given a shot at the starting rotation and left after nine starts with an ERA over 8.00.  Phil Hughes took over, pitched a little better – which still wasn’t good enough – and then left with a broken rib.  Melky Cabrera had such a poor stretch, he lost his job in centerfield, coming back only when it was obvious that Matsui couldn’t play the field.

The rest is that the best players weren’t at top form.  Alex Rodriguez was good, but off from his 2007 MVP numbers.  Derek Jeter was rather ordinary, with fewer doubles and homers cutting into his overall production.  The Yankees added Xavier Nady, who didn’t exactly set the world on fire when he arrived, and Ivan Rodriguez, who looked old at the plate.  Johnny Damon and Bobby Abreu played well – but there were a lot of holes at the bottom of the lineup for too much of the season.

Tell me about that offense

It’s rough when your “off season” is 35 homers, 103 RBI, batting .302 with 18 stolen bases in 21 attempts, but that’s what life is like for A-Rod.  Now, Alex Rodriguez will be dealing with a different kind of “off season” – as in his admission for using steroids, and now choosing to undergo surgery on a hip that began troubling him last fall.  Derek Jeter has superficially good numbers in a high batting average, but didn’t do much else last year.  He is much like Michael Young for Texas.  Playing nearly every day and batting at the top of the lineup, he gets a lot of at bats so the numbers look superficially better.  However, Jeter generated just 5.4 runs for every 27 outs – above average but not WAY above average.  As mentioned, Cano was awful in April – so much so that he finished as a below average producer.  He hardly ever walks, so unless he hits .320, he’s not much of a force.  Last year, he walked just 26 times, so made a lot of outs.  Jason Giambi had a decent year – don’t mind the low batting average (.246), he hit 32 homers and still gets on base a lot.

In the outfield, Johnny Damon was very productive.  He hits for a little power now, still is an effective baserunner, and has become more selective at the plate.  Bobby Abreu, even now, remains a very productive hitter, with decent power, some speed, and a good eye.  At some point, we may have to ask ourselves if Bobby Abreu is a Hall of Famer.  After that, however, you have a few more weak links.  Matsui is still productive, though his power is waning and his speed is gone.  Xavier Nady was okay – hit a few homers in Yankee Stadium, but otherwise had bland numbers.  Step down again to Melky Cabrera, who didn’t quite make it to .250, had little power, and doesn’t run well enough to make up for not being on base.

Behind the plate, Posada lost nearly 100 points in his batting average with his shoulder bothering him.  This forced the Yankees to play Jose Molina, who hit .216 with little power.  When that didn’t work, New York imported Ivan Rodriguez, who hit like Molina and didn’t throw very well.  Chad Moeller didn’t impress people with his bat either.

Unlike Yankee teams in the past, you had at least three holes in the lineup (second base, centerfield, and catcher), and with two other off seasons, and little help at DH, the offense was rather ordinary.  The Yankees finished seventh in runs scored in the American League.

Defensively:

Not very good.

Let’s start with the admission that it’s very likely that Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are negatively affected by the fact that opponents will let more left handed hitters play in Yankee Stadium than most other parks.  STILL, that infield is rather porous.  Jeter’s range rating the last three years has been -9.4, -12.3, -9.1.  A-Rod? -8.5, -6.1, -5.6.  At least he’s gotten better – and he cut down on his errors last year.  If the disparity were true, then Cano should be way above average, right?  He’s good, but not great.  4.2, 6.5, 5.4.  The NET of Jeter and Cano remains below zero – meaning that the infield is letting a lot of balls through to the outfield.  Giambi, who battles as best he can, is no Albert Pujols with the glove.

The end result is that if you had a ground ball pitcher, like Wang, he’s actually hurt by not having anybody behind him who can really scoop up grounders.  Wang has been successful not because of his defense, but rather because usually the team scores a lot of runs for him.

In the outfield, Cabrera wasn’t good enough, and Damon can’t cover center anymore.  Damon is still pretty good in left – but if Matsui is his backup, that’s a problem because Matsui can’t run at all.  Abreu in right is no longer a mobile outfielder.  Most days, the Yankees were playing five guys in the field who were defensive liabilities – and then you had Posada trying to catch.

Molina was actually very good against the run, allowing just 56% of the baserunners to make it – well above the league average and the best rate in the league.  Pudge did better in Detroit, but is finally showing signs of getting long in the tooth behind the plate.

Now Pitching…

Mike Mussina was great – nearly 30 runs better than the average pitcher despite having no defense behind him.  Getting 20 wins for the first (and only) time in his career was a wonderful way to leave the game – and the Yankees will miss him.  After that, the only other pitcher to make 30 starts was Andy Pettitte, and he was okay – about seven runs better than the average pitcher.  By the way – look at the hits per nine data for these two and you’ll see that the defense isn’t that strong behind them.

After that, you have Wang, who was good for two months, and Joba Chamberlain, who looked great in his 100 innings.  This year, look for Chamberlain to get 30 starts and 180 innings – if so, he could be amazing, or he could get hurt.  The rest of the staff was pretty weak.  Darrell Rasner was given 20 below average starts.  We talked about Hughes and Kennedy having poor runs.  Sidney Ponson was ordinary in 15 starts, and Carl Pavano was trying to remember how to pitch in his seven starts.  So, you had basically 2.5 good pitchers in the rotation – and for this division, that’s not enough.

The bullpen, though, was solid.  Mariano Rivera was the best reliever in baseball last year – 27 runs better than the average pitcher in just 70 innings.  Brian Bruney, Kyle Farnsworth, Edwar Ramirez, and Jose Veres were excellent in support roles.  Most people just didn’t notice because the Yankee gloves didn’t help these guys out.  Sure – there were a few duds, but nobody in the pen was really that bad, and none were as bad as an Ian Kennedy.

Forecasting 2009:

So, let’s summarize.  The problems to address were:

A) Find some starting pitching, especially since their best pitcher retired.
B) Get a better gloves in the outfield and probably at first base.
C) Get more offense out of centerfield, catching spots and hope for some veterans to bounce back some.  Also, don’t lose too much offense when Giambi and Abreu leave the team.

I think they did it.

Let’s look at the rotation, as it now features CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Pettitte, Wang, and Chamberlain.  To be honest – that’s a force compared with what the Yankees had last year.  This could easily be 60 runs better than in 2008.  The bullpen needs Rivera to be healthy, but I think the rest of the bullpen will be okay.  Rivera won’t be as good as last year – even if he’s healthy and good – so let’s take 15 runs back from the starters.  The good news is that the bullpen may need to be used less than before.

Offensively, Nady is not Abreu.  Cabrera is fighting with Brett Gardner for the centerfield slot – and frankly, I’d let the burner Gardner play.  At least you’d have to improvements in the outfield defensively.  The pitchers would appreciate having Gardner in center, for sure.  The defensive improvement would be another 20 runs.

With A-Rod gone for a couple of months, having to play Cody Ransom or somebody else for two months (or, if worse comes to worse) longer means losing 60 runs of offense.  Granted Teixeira will be a nice addition, but is he that much better than Giambi?  Hopefully, he’ll make the defense look a little better.  If Jeter and Damon hold steady, and Cano has a better season – I’d still look for the Yankees to score 50 fewer runs than in 2008.

If the Yankees finish with 740 runs scored and 645 runs allowed, they might win about 92 games.  That puts them in line with the Rays, who also look to win that many games.  My take on it is that the Rays won’t get to 92, which puts the Yankees in line for the wild card slot.  And, if they make the playoffs, they would have the front line pitching to compete all the way to the World Series.  I don’t think they are better than Boston, but they could win a short series.

Down on the Farm…

You may not have heard of Cody Ransom, but with A-Rod out, you will.  Ransom led Scranton/ Wilkes-Barre (AAA) with 22 homers.  However, he hit only .255 and struck out enough to think he won’t be much better than, say, a rough Jim Presley…  And, he’s not a prospect – he’s 33.  The best hitter, though, was probably Brett Gardner.  Gardner is a burner with no power, but he walks and bunts and could help the pitching staff with his defense.  The pitching staff is filled with people you’ve probably heard of before – Kei Igawa, Kennedy, Hughes, and the like.

AA Trenton doesn’t have much to brag about, but Phil Coke is a pitcher you might see once in a while.  Coke has slowly moved through the minors, but at AA Trenton he was 9 – 4 with good K/W numbers.  Coke got a shot at AAA and even saw time with the Yankees and pitched very well in 14 innings.  At best, he’s a long shot to pitch long relief and may start the season in AAA.

Catcher Jesus Montero batted .326 with power, leading the Charleston River Dogs (A+) in RBI.  He’s just 19, and figures to be a replacement for Posada by 2011.  I’d pick him as the top prospect on the team (Baseball America says he’s #6 in the system).  Baseball America says Brooklyn’s Dellin Betances is a better prospect – he’s a 20 year old pitcher who had big strikeout numbers for Charleston, but he looks like he needs to gain more control of the strike zone.  Still – look for the Yankees to trade him in a future July deal.  Betances is 6’ 8” and about 250 pounds, so he must be intimidating.  Zachary McAllister is working his way up quickly, winning 14 with a 2.09 ERA at two levels, finishing at Tampa (A+) last year.