Jackie Robinson’s First Week as a Dodger – and other news…

Today, April 15th, is Jackie Robinson day to Major League Baseball, the anniversary of Jackie’s first game and a celebration of his role in integrating baseball such that peoples of all color and backgrounds could play in the majors.  I took a few minutes to look at the coverage of his first game in The Sporting News below.  First – a look at what is going on in the game for you fantasy baseball team owners…

Giants closer Brian Wilson may miss the rest of the season after an MRI showed structural damage to his right elbow, meaning a second Tommy John surgery could be in the works.  He had a similar procedure done while at LSU.  [SI]

The Red Sox juggled their roster one more time this weekend, bring up utility infielder Nate Spears and outfielder Jason Repko, returning Che-Hsuan Lin back to Pawtucket, and designating catcher Luis Exposito and pitcher Michael Bowden for assignment.

Hurry Back!

The Padres placed outfielder Kyle Blanks on the 15-Day DL with a strained left shoulder.

Tampa placed catcher Jose Loboton on the 15-Day DL with a sore throwing shoulder, and he was replaced on the roster by Chris Jimenez.  Meanwhile, outfielder Sam Fuld was moved from the 15-Day to the 60-Day DL.

Welcome Back!

Pirates starter Charlie Morton returns to action after having hip surgery.

Toronto pitcher Sergio Santos returns after being on a personal leave – he’s a father!

Ryan Vogelsong returns to the Giants rotation after a short 15-Day DL stint.

The Angels activated pitcher Jerome Williams from the DL, optioning pitcher Brad Mills back to AAA Salt Lake City.

Transactions:

San Diego optioned Reidier Gonzalez to AAA Tuscon.

Kansas City recalled pitcher Louis Coleman and sent outfielder Jarrod Dyson back to AAA Omaha.

Colorado optioned Jordan Pacheco back to AAA Colorado Springs, and recalled lefty Drew Pomeranz to add another pitcher to the mix.

Tampa optioned Dane De La Rosa to AAA Durham and recalled Alex Cobb.

Happy Birthday!

(1877) Ed Abbaticchio, old Pirates infielder
(1886) Leonard “King” Cole
(1910) Eddie Mayo
(1931) Ed Bailey
(1940) Woodie Fryman – one of my favorite pitchers from the 1970s
(1940) Willie Davis, a wonderful centerfielder for the Dodgers
(1945) Ted Sizemore
(1969) Jeromy Burnitz
(1978) Milton Bradley
(1982) Michael Aubrey
(1985) Aaron Laffey

Jackie Robinson’s First Week as a Dodger

“All doubt of Jackie Robinson’s status was removed at 3:15 p.m., April 10, when Branch Rickey announced the Brooklyn Dodgers today purchased the contract of Jackie Roosevelt Robinson from the Montreal Royals.”

In general, the front page article suggests that Robinson didn’t play as well at first base during spring training, so the team’s decision was more based on his play in 1946 when he hit .346 with 40 stolen bases as Montreal’s second baseman.  The article noted that Jackie could play any infield position, but second and short were taken, so first base was his best option; that or being a frequent pinch runner.

All of this came in the wake of Commissioner Albert Chandler’s suspension of Dodgers manager Leo Durocher for association with known gamblers.  Durocher had to sit out the 1947 season, so the decision as to how to use Jackie Robinson was left to interim manager Burt Shotton.  Durocher, to his credit, was in favor of bringing Robinson to the Dodgers.

By the way, the Dodgers had to spend spring training in Havana, Cuba because segregation laws in Florida and other states pushed Brooklyn out of the country.  The Dodgers paid $25 per player per day, an expensive amount of money to spend on spring training, and got in three spring training games against the Yankees in Venezuela.

Regarding Rickey, he believed that Montreal needed to have spring training with the Dodgers so that Robinson would have to play against his future teammates as much as possible, earning the respect of those players, and hopefully getting less resentment from other Brooklyn players when he joined the team.  “No man had greater faith in his abilities as a ball player.  We believe that it was Branch’s honest opinion that the Brooklyn players would come rushing to him and shout: ‘Let’s have that fellow.  He can win the pennant for us.'”

Gaven, Michael. “Jackie Robinson Gets Change With Flatbush Troupe.” The Sporting News, April 16, 1947, Page 1.

The next week, The Sporting News gave a full page to his debut game.

Robinson said he prayed the night before, but really is worried about finding a nice apartment for his wife, Rachel, and toddler son, Jackie, Jr., who was but five months old.

Arthur Daley in his Sports of the Times column said that the debut was “uneventful, even though he had the quite unenviable distinction of snuffing out a rally by hitting into a remarkable double play.”  A veteran Dodger was quoted in that article as saying, “Having Jacking on the team is still a little strange, just like anything else that’s new.  We just don’t know how to act with him.  But he’ll be accepted in time.  You can be sure of that.  Other sports have had negroes.  Why not baseball?  I’m for him if he can win games.  That’s the only test I ask.”

Robinson himself said, “I was comfortable on that field in my first game.  The Brooklyn players have been swell and they were encouraging all the way.  The Brooklyn crowd was certainly on my side but I don’t know how it will be in other parks.  The size of the crowd didn’t faze me and it never will.”

Jackie realized, however, he’d have to start hitting.  “I hit .349 in Montreal last year and I was pretty fast, but I already realized a difference,” said Robinson.  “The big league pitchers are smarter.  I realize that, although I haven’t seen but a few of them.  Take that fellow Sain of the Boston Braves.  He works on you.  He has good control.  I’m aware that I have to hit to make it this year – this is my greatest chance.  Will I hit?  I hope I’ll hit.  I believe I’ll hit, I’m sure I’ll hit.”

Morehouse, Ward. “Debut ‘Just Another Game’ to Jackie.” The Sporting News, April 23, 1947, Page 3.

Marlins Open 2012 With Excitement, Ali, and a Loss

The Miami Marlins opened up the new stadium with fireworks, but couldn’t put together any hits off of Cardinals starter Kyle Lohse in a 4 – 1 loss on opening night.  Muhammad Ali delivered the game ball, which was pretty cool and very sad at the same time.  You could hear the cheers for Ali throughout the stadium, but the effects of Parkinson’s disease are painfully obvious – the tremors are very visible and Ali looked so much older (he’s 70) than the man I remember as a kid.

I met Ali when working for Sprint in Kansas City in 1992.  Even then, his voice was softened and he slurred, and there were small tremors in his hands.  I remember two or three things about that visit.  First, his hands were enormous.  When I shook his hand, his hand practically devoured mine.  Second, he still had a great sense of humor – he did this joke where he claimed he could move a briefcase with his mind.  When it didn’t move, he asked us, “Who do you think I am?  I’m a boxer, not a magician.”  Finally, what I really remember was thinking to myself that this was the closest thing to meeting God that I will likely ever experience.  I mean – it was HIM, Ali.  The Greatest.  Of all the people I have met, it was the only time I can remember being totally awed by someone’s presence.

Back to baseball…

If you are an Orioles fan, this can’t be good…  The Orioles lost a charity baseball game to the State College of Florida Manatees – a community college team – 2 – 1 in eight innings.  A couple of years ago, the Manatees beat Pittsburgh, a team that went on to lose nearly 100 games…  [Bradenton.com]

Andy Pettitte threw a scoreless inning against the Mets and hopes to get ready in time to join the Yankees in May.  If he makes it back, he’ll get a one-year, $2.5 million dollar contract.  [SI]

Torii Hunter accidentally set off the alarm in his house, leading to a visit from a couple of gun-wielding police officers.  The officers were merely following protocol and the guns were never pointed directly at Hunter.  However, Hunter’s identification was in an upstairs bedroom and he was tailed as he walked up to get his wallet.  [ESPN]

Vanderbilt pitching recruit and potential first round draft pick Stephen Gant was found dead near his Linden, TN home apparently having committed suicide by gunshot.  An investigation into Gant’s death continues.  [FoxSports]

Aches and Pains

Tampa closer Kyle Farnsworth will go on the DL with soreness in his elbow caused by a muscle strain.  He joins B.J. Upton (back) and Sam Fuld (surgery, right wrist) on the DL.  [ESPN]

Other players who found their way to the DL as the season started include:

Tim Hudson (back)
Ryan Madson (TJ Surgery)
Carl Crawford (wrist)
Grady Sizemore (back)
A.J. Burnett (eye socket)
Ted Lilly (neck)
Stephen Drew (ankle)
Charlie Morton (hip)
Andrew Bailey (thumb)
Jose Ceda (TJ Surgery)
Ryan Kalish (shoulder)
Joba Chamberlain (dislocated ankle)

and a number of players who will get 15 days after being nicked up in spring training.

Transaction Wire:

The details of the deal signed by the Reds and first baseman Joey Votto were released – 12 years and $251.5 million, the third largest contract in value and the longest in terms of years in baseball history.  The deal includes a club option in 2024 (!) when Votto would be 41 years old.  This more than doubles the contract given to Ken Griffey, Jr. – at one time the largest contract signing in Cincinnati history…  [ESPN]

The New York Mets signed Jonathan Niese to a five year extension worth more than $25 million.  Niese won 11 for the Mets in 2011.  [SI]

Washington pitcher John Lannan was optioned to AAA, and wasn’t happy about it.  Lannan was an opening day starter in 2009 and 2010, and has requested a trade.  [ESPN]

The Twins sent pitcher Scott Baker to the DL and optioned starting pitcher Jason Marquis to AA New Britain to get work since both missed time in Spring Training.  [SI]

In a late spring training trade, the New York Yankees sent pitcher George Kontos to San Francisco for catcher Chris Stewart.  Stewart was given the backup job, which meant that Francisco Cervelli was unhappily dispatched to AAA.  Kontos pitched well at AAA last season earning a cup of coffee in September.  The big right hander is a Northwestern Grad…  As for Chris Stewart, he’s a catch and throw guy – not much of a hitter even in the minors.  He must be pretty good – Cervelli has logged a lot of innings the last couple of years so it’s a bit of a surprise to see Cervelli moved to AAA.

This is the time when players are optioned to AAA or recalled to the majors having earned a spot on the roster – it’s a long list.  A couple of things caught my eye, though…

Nick Johnson made the Orioles roster
Felix Pie was released by Cleveland
Bill Hall was released by New York.

Happy Birthday!

Those celebrating with cards, cake, or remembrances include:

(1876) Bill Dinneen – pitcher, later an umpire
(1907) Merritt (Sugar) Cain…  Today, he’d get the song Cocaine played when he came to the plate.  Shouldn’t Lorenzo Cain have the nickname “Sugar”?
(1938) Ron Hansen
(1951) Rennie Stennett – one of my favorite Pirates of the 1970s…
(1976) Ross Gload
(1985) Lastings Milledge

2010 Season Forecast: Atlanta Braves

Last Five Seasons:

2009: 86 – 76 (3rd NL East)
2008: 72 – 90
2007: 84 – 78
2006: 79 – 83
2005: 90 – 72

Runs Scored: 735 (6th NL)
Runs Allowed: 641 (4th NL)

When a team outscores its opponents by 100 runs, the team can expect to win more than 90 games.  The Braves should have finished about 92 – 70.

Season Recap:

The Braves spent three months figuring things out – playing indifferent baseball and hanging within a few games of .500 through June.

In June, however, the pitching came together.  Javier Vazquez started pitching like an ace, Tommy Hanson joined the rotation and started winning like Brave starters of the previous decade.  Jair Jurrjens acted like a Cy Young candidate, and Derek Lowe ate innings.  After manager Bobby Cox flipped closers, replacing Mike Gonzalez with Rafael Soriano.

When the offense started gelling in July (Matt Diaz replacing Jeff Francouer and Martin Prado replacing Kelly Johnson), the Braves started making ground on the rest of the league.  Falling to 34 – 40, the Braves would win most series down the stretch – and then going on tear in September, winning 16 of 19 games to get into the fringe of the wild card race.  Unfortunately, they faced an equally talented Marlins squad, and lost the last six games – including four straight to Washington and four one-run games in the mix.

Pitching:

Javier Vazquez, new Yankee fourth starter, won 15 and finished with a 2.87 ERA – saving the Braves more than 36 runs.  And with that, he was the SECOND best starter on the staff.  Jair Jurrjens didn’t flash the same K/W numbers, but had a 2.60 ERA and saved the Braves 38 runs over what one might expect from average pitching.

Derek Lowe was a 15 game winner in a slightly off season – his ERA was 4.67, which might have been bad luck with balls in play followed by feeling the pressure of struggling.  Still – Lowe made 34 starts and remains a dependable arm.

Tommy Hanson joined the rotation to make 21 starts, winning 11, and finishing with a sub 3 ERA – and it’s not easy to find teams in recent years to have three pitchers with at least 120 innings and ERAs under 3.00.  (Houston, 2005 – Boston, 2002).  Finally, Kenshin Kawakami made 25 starts and pitched well enough to deserve a better record than 7 – 12.

The good news is that Tim Hudson returned from 2008’s season ending surgery to make seven solid starts and ready himself for a rotation slot in 2010.  The Braves even tested two other options – JoJo Reyes made five forgettable starts (7.00 ERA) while Kris Medlin worked four starts into mostly bullpen work and would be a nice fifth option or reliever.

In the bullpen, Rafael Soriano smoked 102 batters in 75.2 innings, and only allowed 80 baserunners saving 28 games.  Mike Gonzalez accepted his demotion with a vengeance and finished with 90Ks in 74.1 innings – providing the Braves with a devastating one-two punch to close games.  Medlin, Eric O’Flaherty, Jeff Bennett, Peter Moylan, and Manny Acosto also pitched better than average innings – one of the deeper bullpens in the National League.

Looking ahead, Vazquez is gone – but it might not matter.  Tim Hudson is back and looks great (he did in the spring), Jurrjens returns after two straight solid seasons, and Tommy Hanson gets to make 33 starts instead of 21.  Derek Lowe is still around, and the fifth spot could be handled by either Kawakami or Medlin without feeling any loss in skill.  That’s FIVE sold starters with a dependable sixth option.

The bullpen got a makeover when both Soriano and Gonzalez took free agent options in Tampa Bay and Baltimore (respectively).  Still – the Braves have options, signing a newly healthy Billy Wagner and bringing in Takashi Saito from Boston.  These two are old (38 and 40) but have been dependable for years.  Moylan, Medlen, O’Flaherty, and Jesse Chavez are able backups and Jo-Jo Reyes isn’t a lousy 12th arm in the pen.  He’ll be better this year.

Catching:

Brian McCann is the best hitting catcher in the NL right now – power, average, and despite troublesome issues with his eyes gets a few walks from time to time…  His backup, David Ross, isn’t chopped liver either – slugging .508 and getting on base to a .380 clip.  This is the best catching in the NL – offensively anyway.

Infield:

The Braves shifted from Casey Kotchman to Adam LaRoche at the trading deadline and got better production from LaRoche offensively and defensively – despite Kotchman’s reputation.  It certainly helped the Braves finish strongly.  For 2010, the Braves are giving veteran third baseman Troy Glaus a chance.  I’m not sure this will be an improvement, to be honest.  Glaus has had troubles staying healthy and hasn’t been a regular first baseman before, so this would be a question mark going forward.

Kelly Johnson had the job at the beginning of the year, but Martin Prado will carry it forward.  Prado can hit, he’s a tolerable fielder (no different than Johnson), so this should be a benefit in 2010.

Yunel Escobar remains a potent offensively player, and is improving equally as a defensive player.  He’s a good shortstop to own in fantasy leagues for 2010.

Chipper Jones is running out of years – injured more frequently and his batting numbers slopped, though he still has enough patience to help score runs.  Defensively, he’s not much – costing his team nearly 20 runs a year.  It’s time to find a replacement by 2012, wouldn’t you think?

Omar Infante and Brooks Conrad back up this unit – Infante has some skills as a hitter, but wasn’t very mobile defensively in 2009.  Conrad is getting his feet wet, but nears 30.

Outfield:

Garrett Anderson was a free agent signee and test drive who hit a little but couldn’t cover enough ground in left.  He’s gone in 2010, with his replacement, Matt Diaz, likely getting a full time job as a fourth outfielder and left fielder.

Nate McClouth came over from Pittsburgh when rookie Jordan Schafer‘s injuries interrupted his development.  McClouth can hit and isn’t an awful fielder, but he won’t make anyone forget Andruw Jones in his prime.  Melky Cabrera was added and may move McClouth to left and/or picking up defensive innings as required.

With Jeff Francoeur now a Met, the Braves are turning to rookie Jason Heyward, who is rated by many as the top prospect in all of baseball.  He may not have Francoeur’s arm, but he can hit and he has young legs.  It should be a fun season for jersey sales.

Omar Infante can cover the remaining innings in the outfield, and Eric Hinske arrives able to play corner outfield and infield positions as well as pinch hit.

Prospects:

AAA Gwinnett featured a lot of veteran hitters and a few pitching prospects – some of whom aren’t around because they were sent out in trades (Charlie Morton), or because they are on the team (Hanson, Medlin).  Boone Logan and Luis Valdez are good pitchers – might be prospects on other teams.

The best prospect at AA was Jason Heyward – after that it’s slim pickings.  Pitcher Jose Ortegano has control and is just 22.  He might make the bullpen in two years.

A+ Myrtle Beach features reliever Cory Gearrin, who walked just three and fanned 32 in 29.1 innings, earning 17 saves.  Gearrin was still good in 20 outings at AA Mississippi – and appears to have reigned in the wildness that marked his first two years in the minors.

J.J. Hoover, Dimaster Delgado, and Randall Delgado looked solid at A Rome, and are just getting their careers started.  Same with 2008 draft pick Adam Milligan, who showed flashes of power and a sweet bat at three levels. Too bad he’s not a third baseman…

Forecast:

Defensively, the team will probably stay the same.  The rotation is solid and can withstand an injury or two.  The bullpen is deep, but not necessarily capable of stellar performances.  However, the defense should be better in the outfield and middle infield.

Offensively, I’m not so sure, but I don’t see many reasons to think it’s going to be WORSE.  I don’t see how it’s going to be BETTER.  I think the positives and negatives will offset each other and the team will still score runs.  There are a lot of good hitters in their prime, and a couple of veteran bats and a deep bench.

As such, I wouldn’t be surprised if the team is still 100 runs better than their opponents, and win 90 – 92 games.  And, if the bad luck in decisions that seemed to follow them last year goes away, it could be more.  Will it be enough to beat the Phillies?  I don’t know.  But they should be a playoff contender for sure.  The system calls for 92 – 70, so I’ll go with that.

2010 Season Forecast: Pittsburgh Pirates

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

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

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

Season Recap:

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

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

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

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

Pitching:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catching:

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

Infield:

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

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

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

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

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

Outfield:

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

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

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

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

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

Prospects:

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

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

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

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

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

Outlook:

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

Pirates Trade McLouth to Braves for Prospects (They Hope)

Nate McLouth was probably Pittsburgh’s best player last year – well, close.  Jason Bay was better for four months but was traded to Boston.  Xavier Nady was amazing for nearly four months but was traded to New York.  Ryan Doumit generated a lot of runs, but is limited defensively (and this year is hurt).  McLouth is better than Freddy Sanchez and either Andy or Adam LaRoche.

He’s pretty good, though.  Above average power (26 homers, 46 doubles last year, on pace for more of the same in 2009); good speed (23 steals, just three caught stealing in 2008).  Patient enough at the plate, doesn’t strikeout too much, but he does fan from time to time.

Defensively, however, he’s not THAT good a centerfielder.  I have him has having below average range the last three years in center (-9.2, -4.3, -4.7 – meaning that for every 800 balls in play, McLouth makes that many fewer plays than the average centerfielder, and therefore adds that many points to the batter’s batting average).  In limited innings, he hasn’t been especially mobile in left or right, either.  So, in addition to putting about 117 runs on the board for the Pirates, he also helped put an extra 15 runs on the board for his opponents.  The net, however, is very positive.   Not every player contributes 100 runs to a team’s success.

So, with the Pirates falling to their usual fate – the bottom of the NL Central and a losing record for the umpteenth straight season – management decided to sell off their best remaining asset to the Atlanta Braves for three prospects.  Was this a good idea?

For the Braves – YES!  With Jordan Schafer being sent to AAA by the Braves yesterday to be replaced by Gregor Blanco, and dissatisfied with the production of Jeff Francouer, McLouth will still be a welcome addition to the Braves.  He’s better than anyone who played there in 2008 (Mark Kotsay, Blanco), and far better than anyone who could play there in the Braves system now.  (Blanco, who just got called up to the majors to replace Schafer, was a below average batter and fielder in center.)  And, none of their TOP prospects were involved in the trade – Hanson, Medlin, and others will still be available to Atlanta for growth or trades.

What did the Pirates get in return?

Charlie Morton was the 2nd round pick by Atlanta back in 2002, and has worked his way through the minors.  To his credit, Morton has improved in terms of his control and strikeout rate.  In 2008, he was far ahead of anything he had done in his prior years and earned a trip to the majors where he was miserable – 6.15 ERA, and walking nearly as many as he struck out.  In AAA this year, Morton has been solid for Gwinnett, even better than in 2008, but not as dominant as Tommy Hanson or even Kris Medlin.

Jeff Locke was the Braves’ 2nd round pick in 2006 out of high school.  Unlike Morton, Locke DOMINATED rookie ball, but since then seems to have taken a step back.  He was okay in 2008 at A Rome; good control, but ugly record and a lot of balls in play turned into hits.  And, in 2009 for Myrtle Beach, he looks very ordinary and not very prospect like.  Baseball America may say he’s a top ten prospect in the Braves system, but not based on this year, for sure.  He’s young and has room to grow; yet Locke is NOT going to pitch for Pittsburgh for two or three years.

The last guy might help some, and that’s Gorkys Hernandez, who is a Venezuelan burner.  Just 21 now (22 in September), Gorkys has 50 steals in him, and has hit well this year at AA Mississippi, coming to Atlanta from Detroit in the deal that sent Edgar Renteria to Detroit in 2008.  Now, while his average is higher and he’s still stealing bases, he’s not drawing walks and his strikeout rate at AA is prohibitively high (54 in just 212 at bats).  Baseball America ranked Hernandez as the fourth best prospect in the Braves system.

Still – a poor man’s Grady Sizemore (check out the comparisons – McLouth is 85% of Sizemore, and Sizemore is overrated defensively, too) for a fourth or fifth starter (at best), a struggling kid pitcher, and a Willy Taveras clone doesn’t strike me as a great deal.  Especially when none of the pitchers can help immediately (and one is going in the wrong direction) and you already have a centerfielder-in-waiting in Andrew McCutchen.  Granted, three players thicken up the talent base, but giving away one of the few hitters capable of putting 100 runs on the scoreboard each year seems like a good deal for Atlanta and a disappointing return for Pittsburgh.  Pittsburgh needed to turn McLouth into a pitcher capable of winning 15 games.  That’s not going to happen anytime soon.

Look for Andrew McCutchen, hitting well and running like the wind at AAA Indianpolis, to get the call to play center.  For three years, McCutchen has been one of the two highest ranked prospects (per Baseball America) and it’s time to get him on the major league roster.   If you haven’t gotten him for your fantasy team, it’s time to think about picking him up.

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.