2013 Season Forecast – Houston Astros

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

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

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

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

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

Runs Scored: 583
Runs Allowed: 794

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

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

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

Feeling Optimistic?

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

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

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

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

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

Key Transactions:

OCT (2011):

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

NOV (2011):

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

DEC (2011):

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

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

JAN (2012):

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

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

FEB:

More minor signings…

MAR:

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

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

JULY:

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Johnson to Arizona for Bobby Borchering and Marc Krauss

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

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

Key Injuries:

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

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

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

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

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

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

LOOKING AHEAD:

Starting Pitchers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relief Pitchers:

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

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

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

Catchers:

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

Infielders:

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

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

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

Outfielders:

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

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

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

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

Down on the Farm:

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

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

Best guess on their record?

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

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

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First Trade of 2012… Who had Jason Frasor in that pool?

(Edited to correct three spelling errors.  I should have done a better job editing my stuff last night.  Sorry…)

The Chicago White Sox have been active shedding salary in a remaking of the 2012 roster.

Carlos Quentin Going Home to San Diego

The Chicago White Sox dealt outfielder Carlos Quentin to the San Diego Padres for two pitching prospects, Simon Castro and Pedro Hernandez.

Quentin broke out in 2008 after the Sox lifted him from Arizona for Chris Carter.  Now, the GM that traded Quentin away (Josh Byrnes) gets him back – just in a different city.  Quentin grew up in the San Diego area and attended the University of San Diego, so this is a homecoming of sorts for the power hitting outfielder.  What might make the Padres nervous is that Quentin has never played more than 131 games or made it to 500 at bats – but he is a consistent threat to hit the ball out – even in spacious San Diego.  My take on it, though, is that he will likely hit about .225 with 18 homers – I’ll have to do the math…

White Sox GM Kenny Williams says that Dayan Viciedo will likely get the first shot at being the regular right fielder.  Essentially equal in talent to Quentin, Viciedo is also seven years younger and not arbitration eligible…

Simon Castro is a righty starter who has struggled as he has moved up into AA and AAA ball – he’s been especially hard hit at AAA Portland and Tucson.  The Sox will have to tinker with him to find an out pitch.  Left Pedro Hernandez has superb control and has been more successful at the higher levels.  Both will likely need one more year, though, before they contribute to the Sox rotation or bullpen.

Sox Send Frasor to Jays in First Trade of 2012

Just days after acquiring veteran lefty reliever Darren Oliver, the Blue Jays added Jason Frasor – a former Jay – in a trade with the White Sox.  The White Sox receive minor league pitchers Myles Jaye and Daniel Webb.

Jason Frasor spent eight seasons in Toronto before being sent to Chicago as part of the Colby Rasmus deal last summer and actually has pitched in more games than any other player in Blue Jays history (455).

Myles Jaye was a 17th round pick in 2010 and pitched reasonably well in Bluefield (RK) of the Appalachian League, finishing with a 3 – 3 record with 49 Ks in 54 innings with decent control – not bad for a first year kid out of high school.  Daniel Webb pitched at two levels last year, is 22, and hasn’t shown signs of a career a couple of years removed from his days at the Northwest Florida State (thanks to a writer/visitor for pointing out an error here).  Unless Jaye pans out, this looks like a salary dump if you ask me.

Ryan Braun’s Suspension a Lock?

Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote that he had spoken with an MLB person “in the know” and that person suggested that there is little chance that Ryan Braun‘s positive test for a banned substance will be overturned.  According to the article, two things are working against him: (1) that both test samples came back positive, and (2) that the Brewers did not approve anything Braun may have been taking at the time.  Already likely without Prince Fielder, the Brewers are planning for a third of the season without the 2011 MVP in left field.

Braves Trainer Loses Wife in New Year’s Eve Crash

The Atlanta Braves are joining together to help Head Athletic Trainer Jeff Porter deal with the aftermath of a horrific car crash that killed his wife, Kathy, and injured himself, his son, David, and family friend Courtney Ann Williams.  Porter’s car was hit by a state police car that was racing through an intersection en route to participate in a high speed chase nearby.

Jones Remains a Yankee…

Andruw Jones will return to the Yankees as a utility outfielder and DH for $2 million and incentives.  Last year, the veteran outfielder hit .247 with 13 homers in hitter friendly Yankee Stadium.  Is Jones still thought of as a Hall of Fame candidate?

Happy Birthday!

Those celebrating with cards, cake, or remembrances include:

Tim Keefe (1857)
Bumpus Jones (1870)
Ethan Allen (1904)
Hank Greenberg (1911)
Earl Torgeson (1924)
La Marr Hoyt (1953)
Fernando Tatis (1975)

Hank and Hoyt you probably heard of…  Bumpus Jones was a pitcher for hire in the 1890s and early 1900s – mostly in the minors.  However, in his first ML game, he threw a no-hitter.  Fernando Tatis, you may recall, hit two grand slams in the same inning – the best inning of hitting ever.

2010 Season Forecast: Boston Red Sox

Last Five Seasons:
2009: 95 – 67 (2nd AL East)
2008: 95 – 67
2007: 96 – 66
2006: 86 – 76
2005: 95 – 67

Runs Scored: 872 (3rd AL)
Runs Allowed: 736 (3rd AL)

Season Recap:

Most people figured that the Red Sox would finish first or second in the AL East and, as they have done four times in the last five years, the finished with at least 95 wins.

The Sox actually stumbled out of the gate, losing their first three series to Tampa, Los Angeles, and then Oakland.  An eleven game winning streak got things going, however, putting the Red Sox out front in the first month of the season.  Jason Bay‘s April made up for the struggles of David Ortiz, but already there were problems.

As the calendar turned to May, the Sox were dealing with a hole at shortstop, the lack of offensive production behind the plate, and still David Ortiz hitting like a middle aged AAA infielder.  Brad Penny wasn’t pitching well as a fourth starter, and the team leader in wins was a 40 something knuckeballer.  Daisuke Matsuzaka was rehabbing a sore back – and dealing with his lack of fitness.

In June, things started to look up.  Ortiz started hitting.  Jon Lester hit his stride, and the Sox went 20 – 8 to regain control of the AL East.  Unfortunately, the Yankees were becoming more complete as the season went on while the Red Sox were just coping.  Mike Lowell‘s hip became problematic.  Jed Lowrie was out and Julio Lugo couldn’t stay in the lineup.  Nick Green, who had taken over for both, began hitting the way Nick Green usually hit – which is .240 with no power or patience.  J.D. Drew missed a month of games, and Jason Bay took a month off with poor production in July.

When August began, the Yankees were in control and the Red Sox were an afterthought.  The Sox didn’t have enough bats to make up for a pitching staff that had 4.86 ERA for the last two months of the year.  In fact, if you consider May, July, August, and September, the Red Sox were just eight games over .500 (59 – 51) and had no business being considered among the elite teams in baseball.  A decent April and a very good June gave them the gaudy record they had.

Pitching:

At the top of the rotation, the Red Sox were solid.  Jon Lester went 15 – 8 and saved his team 33 runs over 203.1 innings.  Josh Beckett delivered a healthy season, 17 wins, and saved his team 20 runs in 212.1 innings.  Tim Wakefield wasn’t bad, but with his bad back, he couldn’t pitch much after the all-star break, making just 21 starts.  After that, however, nobody else was really that impressive.

Brad Penny had a 6.08 ERA in his 24 starts.  John Smoltz returned from surgery to make eight ugly start (8.33 ERA).  Daisuke Matsuzaka went 4 – 6 with a 5.76 ERA.  The Sox gave four starts to Junichi Tazawa that they wish hadn’t happened.  Boston finally gave 16 starts to Clay Buchholz, and he went 7 – 4 with a 4.21 ERA – but you have to wonder what took so long.  Same goes with Justin Masterson, who was left in the bullpen but should have had more than six starts.

In the bullpen, the Red Sox remained solid with Jonathan Papelbon‘s  38 saves and 1.85 ERA.  Hideki Okajima, Takashi Saito, and Ramon Ramirez were capable and competent middle and short relievers.  Even Billy Wagner and Daniel Bard contributed when asked to pitch.

Looking to 2010, if the Sox want to keep up with the Yankees, they need to have more starting pitching.  John Lackey was signed away from the Angels to give the Sox a big three to go along with Beckett and Lester.  Matsuzaka has to find his way back to 2007 – 2008 form.  If so, that’s four solid starters.  Look for Matsuzaka to fight with Buchholz and Wakefield for the last two spots in the rotation.  Justin Masterson, as you might remember, is with Cleveland after the Sox traded for catcher Victor Martinez.

The bullpen includes Jonathan Papelbon, Hideki Okajima, and Ramon Ramirez, and is supported by Manny Delcarmen, Daniel Bard, and possibly prospect Michael Bowden.  I think the Sox will miss having Saito, but if Lackey can stay healthy for 30 starts (he’s been nicked up the last couple of years), they might not need the bullpen as often.

That being said, this unit is more potential than actual at the back end – and that tempers my opinion just a little bit.  There is every good reason for this group to be 30 runs better than last season, but in all likelihood, I see it more like 15 runs better.

Catching:

Victor Martinez joined the Sox in the late summer and helped sustain the offense (.336 BA, 507 Slugging).  I think he’ll do just fine in a full season – which will be about 15 runs better than having more Jason Varitek playing full time.  At the same time, Martinez isn’t in Varitek’s league as a catcher (though neither is any good against the run anymore), so it might cost the team about five runs defensively.

Infield:

Kevin Youkilis is a mobile and dependable first and third baseman who, with the addition of Adrian Beltre, will find most of his playing time at first base.  He hits for some power, gets on base a lot – one of the best first basemen in baseball.  Mike Lowell, if he remains, could be a competent backup at both corners.

Dustin Pedroia wasn’t as good in 2009 as he had been in 2008 – but he dropped off both offensively and defensively.  I think he’ll bounce back some defensively, but we’ve probably seen his best offensive season already.

After a year trying Julio Lugo, Jed Lowrie, Nick Green, and Alex Gonzalez at short – failures abounding here – the Sox went out and signed free agent Marco Scutaro from Toronto.  As mentioned in my comments about the shortstops, Scutaro is NOT a top flight defender, but he’ll be a step up.  He’s also coming off a career year and is closer to 35 than 25.

At third, the Sox went defensive – signing Mariner Adrian Beltre to replace Mike Lowell (only Lowell couldn’t leave).  Beltre remains as good a fielder at the position as you will find, and if he can return to good health will have offensive numbers not too different than what Lowell produced.  Lowell was supposedly traded to Texas for catcher Max Ramirez, but hand injuries prevented that trade from happening.  So, for now the Sox have a really good (and expensive) insurance policy.

Bill Hall arrives from Milwaukee to join Jed Lowrie and Lowell in providing bench support.

As a group, this is going to be a bit better than last year – maybe 20 runs better defensively and 15 runs better offensively.

Outfield:

Jason Bay, an all-star left fielder, is gone – and his replacement is Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Mike Cameron.  Cameron is still a solid defensive player so he’ll get the nod in center and move speedster (but not nearly as good defensively) Jacoby Ellsbury to left.  Bay was surprisingly good in left, so Ellsbury will hopefully just maintain the good numbers.  Cameron will be an improvement over Ellsbury in center – assuming that he doesn’t suddenly age in Boston.  In right, J.D. Drew returns – just as likely he’ll be missing time and we’ll get to see more of former Marlin Jeremy HermidaBill Hall could play some out here as well.

I don’t see this as an offensive improvement – it’s probably a loss of 40 runs from 2009.  Defensively, however, it should be fifteen runs better.

DH/Bench:

David Ortiz struggled and you all read about it.  What is lost is how well he played in the last four months, nearly making it to 100 RBI.  I don’t think he’s going back to his old days – he doesn’t have the bat speed and needs to lose about 30 pounds.  But, he can be productive and guys like Hermida and Martinez will do fine as his occasional replacement.

The rest of the bench is pretty good – Hermida can play two positions in the outfield, Hall can play four or five positions.  Jed Lowrie covers the other two, and Varitek is a tolerable back up catcher.  I just don’t think that the offense off the bench will be that good.

Prospects:

Most of the AAA hitters are getting long in the tooth, and the one player who stood out was outfielder Chris Carter, a former Diamondback farmhand who is 27 and should have made it by now.  He must have defensive issues – because he can surely hit.  Of course, he’s with the Mets now.  Let’s hope he catches a break there.  The best pitchers, Daniel Bard, Michael Bowden, Hunter Jones, and Clay Buchholz are already with the big club.  (Hunter Jones is with the Marlins.)

The Portland River Dogs (AA) featured a couple of pitchers that might make an impact in a couple of years – but likely somewhere else.  Junichi Tazawa smoked AA, pitched well enough at AAA and got a shot with the big club.  He’s not ready, but he’s close.  Good control, decent strikeout numbers…  Felix Doubrant, a 22-year-old, has great stuff but needs to work on his control.  I see him in AAA at the start of 2010.  And reliever Dustin Richardson has NASTY stuff, 80Ks in 63 innings, but walked 40 – and that’s going to be a problem.  He COULD be a future closer, but not yet.

First baseman Aaron Bates alternates between hitting .340 and .240 – the good guy would be great, but the former third round pick (2006) hasn’t been consistent at the top levels.  Outfielder Josh Reddick is 23, has great power, but needs another season before he makes the concert tour with the big boys.

At A+ Salem (where I was surprised to see former Royals infielder Carlos Febles is the batting instructor), the most interesting prospect is from Taiwan, Che-Hsuan Lin.  Lin can run, is 21, and shows some patience and the potential to find a little power.  If he has a big year in AA, look for someone to give him a MLB look.  Anthony Rizzo is even younger and hits a bit like Mark Grace – and plays first base, too.  Ryan Kalish was so good at Salem, he moved to Portland and still showed power.  He’s 22 and will start 2010 at AAA.

Two pitchers that caught my eye were Casey Kelly and Eammon Portice.  Portice has control, an out pitch, and the Ft. Lauderdale native who was a late round 2007 draft pick has been a pleasant surprise at every level.  Kelly is a rare find – the spot starter/shortstop.  He won’t hit enough to play in the big leagues, but has a live arm and might make it based on his great control and power strikeout numbers.  In 95 innings, he’s walked just 16 batters, allowed 65 hits, and fanned 74.

Forecast:

With the offense staying good but likely not great, the improvements defensively and in the rotation should be enough to push the Red Sox back to the top.  The system says 97 wins, but personally, I’d play the under.  If my hunches about both the Yankees and Red Sox are right, Boston and New York would finish in a dead heat – but the system picks the Sox.

Philadelphia – Where You Can Always Go Home…

It’s not enough that the Philadelphia 76ers resigned Allen Iverson, the Philadelphia Phillies came to terms with a former infielder, Placido Polanco, a gold-glove winning second baseman for the Tigers.  Polanco will become Philadelphia’s new third baseman, as the Philles allowed Pedro Feliz to enjoy free agency…  [ESPN]

Polanco still makes a lot of contact – but his batting average (career .303) has dropped each year since 2007 when he hit .341 for Detroit.  Last year, Polanco hit .285 with 31 doubles and 10 homers – but only 36 walks, so he has a rather pedestrian OBP (.331).  Still, he’s not appreciably less productive than Feliz (12 homers, 30 doubles, 35 walks, and only a .266 average in a park that would appear to be better for hitting).  Polanco hasn’t played third much in a few years but when he did, Polanco was dependable (68 double plays, only 15 errors) and mobile.

And, he gives the Phillies a little extra versatility.  He can move to second to spell Chase Utley, or let Utley play first to spell Ryan Howard.

Look – Polanco can still play second.  I just spent a night putting together the defensive stats for the AL using my ranking system and it shows that Polanco had as much range as anyone at that position last year, almost a dead heat between Polanco, Ian Kinsler, Aaron Hill and Robinson Cano.  (I’ve only done this at a team level so far, so I’ll know a bit more once I break this down for individuals.)  And, he remains dependable and relatively error free.  So, to have spent $18 million for three years (and an option for a fourth year) is probably not so bad.

The other real concern is Polanco’s age.  He’s 34 and while he’s aging gracefully, he’s still aging.  He might look good for a year, but by the third year it might not be so pretty.  On the whole though, two good years make this a good deal for the Phillies – and if they get three good years, $18 million might look like a bargain.

So, with Iverson and Polanco back, who’s next?  Mark Recchi?

Pedroia Can Stay at Second…

The Red Sox signed former Toronto shortstop Marco Scutaro to a two-year deal.  Wow – now THAT’S taking advantage of one really good year…  Scutaro had never played the way he did in 2009 – .282, with a little power, a .379 OBA before, and seeing as he (like Polanco) turned 34 in October, one wonders if he can do that again.  [SI]

Okay – from a defensive standpoint, Toronto shortstops (mostly Marco) were below average in range.  Oddly, they were better than what Boston put out there last year (Jed Lowrie, Nick Green, Alex Gonzalez).

If you were curious, Boston with a range score of -7.89, had the 13th worst range at the shortstop position, while Scutaro and Toronto were 12th at -4.29, which means that for every 800 balls in play, Boston shortstops were involved in nearly 8 fewer plays than the average shortstop.  Since the average team puts about 4300 balls in play or so, Boston’s shortstops basically allowed about 40 more hits than the average shortstop over the course of the season.  The only team worse than Boston was New York, with their gold glove winning shortstop, Derek Jeter, who were at -8.49.  The best defensive shortstop was, by far, Elvis Andrus.  Texas shortstops scored at 13.28, which means they saved their pitchers about 55 hits over the course of the season – or at least 100 more than the guy who was supposedly the best fielding shortstop in the AL.

Anyway – this means that Boston is inheriting an aging infielder coming off a heel injury that shelved Scutaro for the last two weeks of the season, and coming off his best season as a regular ever, as he moves another year away from his supposed prime, and already has below average range.  Long and short, I’m not a fan of this deal.

Oh, and because Scutaro was a top tier free agent and had been offered arbitration, Toronto receives a first round draft pick from Boston and another sandwich pick in between the first and second rounds.

Other News…

The Braves continue to bolster the bullpen, signing one-time Dodger and Red Sox reliever Takashi  Saito.  Saito gets a one-year, $3.2 million deal with incentives.  Saito, now 40, was a closer in LA and a solid set up man in Boston – now he gives the Braves some flexibility when finishing games (Wagner is a lefty; Saito a righty).  [FoxSports]

Having lost Brian Schneider, the Mets signed two potential backup catchers, Chris Coste and Henry Blanco.  They still have Omir Santos, prospect Joshua Thole, and might still be shopping for a front line starter.  [SI]

The Oakland As acquired Jake Fox and Aaron Miles (and cash) from the Cubs for a few prospects.  I’m not totally sold on Aaron Miles, but Jake Fox is a Hitter (!) and should vastly improve the Oakland offense (though you might not notice it playing in the Colisseum).  Miles is probably looking at his last major league season unless he suddenly gets healthy and produces.  At least he can play a lot of positions and act like a coach to other infielders.

The Cubs get prospects.  Pitcher Jeff Gray is a 28-year-old reliever with okay control, but a little hittable.  He’s at best a long reliever…  Matt Spencer was once a pitcher but now is a bit of a free swinging outfielder.  24 in January, I don’t see how he’s going to be a long term prospect.  He has a little power (19 homers in two levels last year, finishing at AA Midland), but I’d rather have Spencer’s teammate Chris Carter.  He can’t hit the way Fox can hit, that’s for sure.  The third prospect is Ronny Morla, a string bean Domincan fireballer, just twenty, who seems to be finding his way in the low minors.  Morla is the one who gives the Cubs a chance to break even on this deal.  Otherwise, I like what Fox could do for Oakland.

Here’s SI’s take on the best and worst farm systems

Happy Birthday!

My brother, Michael, a pretty good ballplayer as a kid anyway, turns 42 today…  Happy Birthday, Bro!

Hall of Famer Jesse Burkett was born on this day back in 1868.  Burkett was the Ty Cobb of his day…  Others celebrating with cake, cards, or remembrances include:  Joe Corbett (1875) – brother of boxer Gentleman Jim Corbett and a pretty good pitcher, Shano Collins (1895), Bob Shawkey (1890) – a member of the 1920s Yankees, Harvey Kuenn (1930), Barbaro Garbey (1956), Pat Sheridan (1957), Lee Smith (1957), Tai Iguchi (1974), Kyle Lohse (1978).

As a young kid and adult, I remember Lee Smith pitching for the Cubs.  The first time I got to see a game in Fenway Park, he was then with the Red Sox and I amazed those sitting around me with my understanding of the Smith routine.  By then, he might make eight warm up tosses in the bullpen because he didn’t want to get tired before he dragged his huge carcass to the mound.  He smoked the first two hitters before blowing it – allowing a few hits and the lead runs to score in the top of the eighth or ninth inning.  All I could think about was that I finally got to see Fenway, and when I do, I get to see Lee Smith blow another game.  All that way for something I had seen dozens of times before!!!

That being said, Lee Smith was a great reliever for a long, long time, and probably deserves more consideration for the Hall of Fame.