Season Forecast: Arizona Diamondbacks

Last Five Years:
2009:  70 – 92    (5th in NL West)
2008:  82 – 80
2007:  90 – 72
2006:  76 – 86
2005:  77 – 85

Runs Scored: 720 (8th, NL)
Runs Allowed: 782 (14th, NL)

The Diamondbacks play in a park that helps the offense – 817 runs were scored in games played at home, against the 685 runs scored on the road – so to be in the middle of the league in scoring tells you that the offense isn’t the eighth best offense in the NL.  It’s actually one of the worst.  One reason for it?  The Snakes struck out 1298 times, more than any other team in the majors.

Season Recap:

The Diamondbacks were the surprise team to win the NL Central in 2007 and then opened 2008 like they were going to stomp everyone.  Instead, they slowly collapsed until finally bleeding away the division on the last weekend of the season.

I don’t know about you, but something told me that the 2009 team would have to start guns a-blazing to feel good about the year, and should have been expected to win 80 – 85 games anyway.  Instead, Brandon Webb blew out his shoulder on opening day and the team never really recovered.  When the offense showed little consistent signs of life, the Diamondbacks fell to the bottom of the league and never really contended.  A losing stretch in early May put them behind the eight-ball, and many other losing stretches contributed to losing 92 games and finishing last in the division race.

That being said, as I see it the problem was tied to two things – losing Webb and replacing him with the ineffective Yusmeiro Petit and Billy Buckner probably cost the team about 60 runs defensively.  Despite that, the rest of the rotation and most of the bullpen were somewhat above average players.  That leaves the offense – and the offense wasn’t good enough to help the pitchers.

Pitching:

Danny Haren was magnificent – saving his team about 40 runs with his low ERA (3.14) in a tough park and pitching more than 229 innings.  Haren also fanned 223 while walking only 38 batters.  Doug Davis and Max Scherzer were league average in terms of ERA – though Scherzer looks to have a solid future as a #2 starter right now.  Jon Garland ate up enough innings as a #4 starter.  The only weak link was having to replace Webb with Buckner and Petit.

The bullpen featured no real aces – closer Chad Qualls had a 3.63 ERA and only 24 saves – but they had no problems, unless you consider a couple of short term players.  No reliever with more than 50 innings pitched was worse than league average.  Three of the four lefties, however, weren’t very good in short runs – including Scott Schoeneweis, Daniel Schlereth, and Doug Slaten.

Fielding:

Arizona pitchers weren’t helped too much here, but a lot of that is the park.

The infield of Chad Tracy, Felipe Lopez, Mark Reynolds, and Stephen Drew were basically average, though Lopez and Drew weren’t necessarily good at turning two.  The problem was that a couple of the backups weren’t very solid in limited innings – including the really poor 2018 innings Reynolds played at first and the 241.2 weak innings Augie Ojeda turned in at short.

The outfield should have been better, but Chris Young seemed to take his problems at the plate with him to the field, costing his team about eight runs.  Gerardo Parra is decent enough and Justin Upton, a pretty good right fielder, also got a lot of extra action with so many right handed pitchers on the staff.

Catchers Miguel Montero and Chris Snyder weren’t awful, though they were pretty easy to run on.

Batting:

The highs?  Justin Upton looks like the second coming of Henry Aaron.  You’d like him to walk a bit more, but he has developing power and hits .300.  Mark Reynolds fanned 223 times (!) to set the major league record but he doesn’t care.  He batted .260 with 44 homers, does draw a few walks, and puts runs on the board.  Felipe Lopez hit .301 at second, which was helpful, and Gerardo Parra hit .290 but didn’t do much else – he will be better with time.  Catcher Miguel Montero hit .294 with some power.  Stephen Drew was league average.

The problem is that the lows are LOW.  Chris Young, the regular centerfielder, hit all of .212, striking out 30% of the time, despite showing a little more patience.  Eric Byrnes came back from leg injuries to hit .226 with only 12 walks in half a season of plate appearances.  Chris Snyder batted .200 in 165 at bats.  Former producers Conor Jackson and Chad Tracy didn’t hit.  When Tony Clark retired – his bat failing him – his replacements on the roster, guys like Josh Whitesell and Brandon Allen didn’t hit either.  The really good teams have six or seven positive run producers and a couple of guys who pitch in.  The Diamondbacks had three and sometimes more guys who weren’t getting any hits and no bench players to write home about when the few that could hit took a day off.

Transactions:

On the way in?  Infielder Tony Abreu, acquired from the Dodgers and can play second or short.  He might well be a hitter, but I don’t see him as the new Rafael Furcal either.  Kelly Johnson was signed from Atlanta to play second – a decision I like – and Jeff Bailey was signed away from Boston, another decision I like because he is a solid bench player.  In January, Arizona added Adam LaRoche, which will pay off in the second half…  In March, the Snakes signed Kris Benson, who actually made the roster…  The Diamondbacks traded Max Scherzer and Daniel Schlereth to Detroit for pitcher Edwin Jackson and Yankees prospect Ian Kennedy in the deal that sent Curtis Granderson to the Yankees…  I’m not sure I’d make that deal, but what the hey.  The other questionable deal was trading for Cubs malcontent pitcher Aaron Heilman.

On the way out?  Yusmeiro Petit was claimed by Seattle on waivers, Doug Davis signed a deal with Milwaukee and Chad Tracy signed with Chicago.  Eric Byrnes was released and called it a career.  Jon Garland was allowed to leave and pitch for the Angels.

Propspects:

At AAA Reno, the two hitting prospects appeared to be former White Sox farmhand Brandon Allen and utility outfielder Alex Romero.  Allen hit like Babe Ruth in 38 games to earn a call, but didn’t amount to much in 104 at bats with the Snakes.  I don’t think he’s THAT good, but he’ll be better in another shot.  Romero has had two trips to the bigs and didn’t hit either time and I think will be lucky to hit .260 in the majors.  The best pitchers in AAA were Buckner and 29-year-old Doug Slaten.  Buckner at least looked like a prospect, but hasn’t yet found his stride in the majors and may run out of time.

Schlereth tore through AA Mobile, fanning 39 in 26.2 innings, which is how he quickly was given a shot at the majors.  He’s a touch wild, but has a live arm.  Bryan Augenstein made nine starts there, finishing with a 0.99 ERA, 36Ks and only 9 walks in 45.2 innings.  Not nearly as successful at Reno, he still earned a tryout with the Snakes.  I think he’s going to be fine but is two years away.  Reliever Josh Ellis had a good year and might make the relief corps by the end of 2010.  A young arm is 2007 first round pick Jarrod Parker, who dominated A+ Visalia before getting sixteen decent starts in AA.

At Visalia, I also like pitcher Josh Collmenter who had a decent K/W ratio (152/55) in his 145 innings and he kept the ball in the park.  Obviously, he’s still a few years away.

Looking ahead for 2010:

The pitching staff will likely be weaker if Brandon Webb can’t pitch – and because I don’t like this year’s rotation compared to last year’s rotation.  I know – Jackson was very good for Detroit, but I think Max Scherzer looks like a solid pitcher.  Call it a wash.  Ian Kennedy won’t pitch as many innings as Doug Davis did and may not be as successful, and even though Jon Garland is just there to take up space, he’s better than most fifth starters.  His replacement may well be a step down and I think he’ll be missed.  As such, I see the rotation falling back by 25 runs.

The bullpen isn’t going to be better with Aaron Heilman – it could be worse by ten runs.

The offense?  I like adding LaRoche and Johnson, which I think could be worth 30 runs, mostly because LaRoche will be solid.  Johnson could come back nicely, but that means being as good as Lopez was last year.  A full year of Parra will be better than Eric Byrnes; if Chris Young can come back at all the outfield will also be better by 30 runs.  Defensively, the changes will not help the team and may make the infield defense a little worse.  However, the outfield defense, with two centerfielders and Upton should be steady.

As such, with 780 runs scored and 810 runs allowed, the Snakes should win 78 games.  That’s an improvement over last year, but not enough to threaten anybody at the top of the division.

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Rios Waived by Blue Jays – Let White Sox Pick Up Tab; More Cub Injury Woes…

I’m not sure I buy this, but okay.  The Toronto Blue Jays were disappointed by Alex Rios’ production on the heels of a huge contract signing in 2008 – and placed him on waivers.  The White Sox put in a claim…  So, the Blue Jays could either (a) recall Rios and make a trade offer or just keep him, or (b) let the White Sox keep him and absorb his salary.  The Jays chose (b).  Sure it’s a cash savings, but do they really have a replacement for him?  Rios was the best centerfielder on the team – but they insisted on playing the older (and slower, and more injury prone) Vernon Wells out there.  And, the Jays get NOTHING.  No prospects, no short term help.  A year ago, this team should have been in the playoffs.  Now, Roy Halliday was placed on the trading block, A.J. Burnett left as a free agent, B.J. Ryan wasn’t allowed to work through his issues, and Alex Rios is gone.

For the White Sox, who haven’t really had a solid centerfielder all season, they get an immediate upgrade defensively and offensively (albeit for about $60 million over the next six seasons) and if Rios puts it together, they could have an impact player between elder statesman Jermaine Dye and the injured but exciting Carlos Quentin.  And all they had to do was claim a guy off of waivers?

Should I be worried that this is just a precedent and other teams wishing to dump salary will no longer trade for prospects but just drop the player and keep the cash?   Look out Texas, San Diego, and others.  If you don’t win, your players may not get traded – they may just get dumped.

Two Cubs horses are making doctor visits…  Carlos Zambrano had an epidural treatment to relieve pain in his back – sources saying its the third time (at least) that this has happened this season.  And now comes word that Aramis Ramirez’s left shoulder is ailing again and needs a doctor visit – the same shoulder he separated diving for a liner earlier in the season causing him to miss two months of the season.  [MLB/ESPN]

And it doesn’t get any better.  The same night the Cubs were clocked by the Rockies (and Troy Tulowitski’s seven RBI, five hit – cycle even – game last night), starter Tom Gorzelanny was hit by a grounder in the second inning and had to leave the game.  He should make his (well, Zambrano’s) next start.  [MLB]

Two years ago, he was the toast of the 2007 rookie crop.  Last year, he signed a five year extension.  In 2009, with a batting average hovering around .180 with little power and no confidence, Diamondback centerfielder Chris Young heads to AAA to find his swagger.  Gerrardo Parra will likely get the bulk of the playing time in center for Arizona.  [FoxSports]

The Phillies are going to tempt fate, move Jamie Moyer to the bullpen, and give a start Wednesday to Pedro Martinez.  For a couple of innings this might be fun.  After that, who knows…  Personally, I don’t want to see Pedro lose his 100th decision.  [FoxSports]

Dodger second sacker Orlando Hudson strained a groin when he had to quickly change directions on a deflected grounder Monday night and will likely miss at least Tuesday’s game while he heals.  So, he’s day-to-day until we hear otherwise…  [MLB]

Chad Billingsley’s hamstring will keep the Dodger ace from making his start this week, and if he can’t go next Monday will head to the DL.  [SI]

Another player leaving early with an injury is Reds starter Johnny Cueto, who will have his left hip flexor examined.  Cueto was running to first on a grounder when he limped and quit running about 45 feet down the line.  The Reds hurler has been off his game for a month, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets a DL stint to rest up and comes back in September.  [MLB]

The Cards got some bad news – Todd Wellemeyer’s elbow was sore following a bullpen session and may miss his next start.  [SI]

And, two other pitchers may get moved soon – both Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang have cleared waivers, according to FoxSports.  Any takers out there?  I mean, a two month loan for a couple of guys who might be motivated to finish strong…  Milwaukee?  Houston?  Los Angeles?  Chicago?

Welcome Back!  Jared Burton (Reds), Chad Durbin (Phils) return from the DL.  Arizona signed Daniel Cabrera to a minor league deal.  I used to love watching Cabrera – big fastball and no idea what he was doing out there.  Maybe he’ll figure it out here – but I doubt it.  I’ll still watch.

Hurry Back!  Rodrigo Lopez got lit up by the Marlins, so the Phillies sent Lopez to AAA.

So the Nationals Might Fire Manny Acta… Will it Help?

A couple of weeks ago, when the second manager firing of 2009 took place, I wondered how long Manny Acta would keep his job in Washington.  Now, FoxSports is reporting that Acta may be fired and replaced by Jim Riggleman, and Sports Illustrated confirms this rumor.

Here’s what I wrote in their season forecast.  I figured 72 – 90 was an optimistic season based on what should be an improved offense (they are better than eight other teams, right in the middle of the pack), but the lack of solid pitching and a thin collection of young talent in the minors would work against them.  For their pitching to improve, they needed at least one of three things to happen: 25 starts by Shawn Hill; improvement from Scott Olsen, and a significant return to form of Daniel Cabrera.

Cabrera was awful and was released after starting 0 – 5 with 5.85 ERA, led by 16 strikeouts and 35 walks in 40 innings.  Nobody has picked up the one time Baltimore prospect and fireballer – a sign that something is really wrong.

Scott Olsen has been eminently hittable, starting 1 – 4 with an ERA over 7, and is on the DL with shoulder inflammation.

As for Shawn Hill, the Nationals decided to release him right after I did the forecast because he was undependable – management never knew if he’d be healthy enough to pitch.  Signed by San Diego, Hill is back on the DL with soreness in his bicep and elbow.

So much for optimism.  Suddenly National fans long for the return of Tim Redding and Odalis Perez.  At 355 runs allowed, no team is worse at preventing runs than the Nationals.

The starters aren’t the only problem.  The bullpen gave up on Chad Cordero, actually had a night where the whole bullpen was overhauled in April, and those that have stayed haven’t been able to maintain the few leads they have actually had.  With 16 wins and 44 losses, there haven’t been that many leads.

Offensively, four players have contributed.  Ryan Zimmerman is a top flight hitter and defender at third base.  When healthy, shortstop Christian Guzman has held his own at the top of the lineup.  First baseman Nick Johnson (knock on wood) has been healthy and gets on base.  Leftfielder Adam Dunn does what he always does – hit homers and draw walks.  Backstop Jesus Flores has been a decent hitter when healthy – he’s just missed half the season.  Outfielder Elijah Dukes has hit a little, but not enough.  I keep thinking he’s going to get seriously hot, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Then what?  Backup catchers aren’t hitting (few do).  Austin Kearns needs to be released, Anderson Hernandez isn’t a major league hitter at second base, and the bench players haven’t helped at all, except an occasional hit from Josh Willingham.  But, Willingham has nine homers and just twelve RBI (!) – is that possible???

AAA Syracuse offers little hope.  Anyone who pitched well there is already on the big league roster or back, including Craig Stammen, Garrett Mock, Tyler Clippard, and Jason Bergmann.  Stammen is in the rotation, and Bergmann has been disappointing since looking like he might have potential back in 2007.  The best hitter is soon to be 30-year-old Jorge Padilla, a very good AAA hitter, but someone who (for whatever reason) hasn’t ever been given a shot.  Padilla no longer has speed to cover center, though, and he wouldn’t have a job on this roster if Roger Bernadina was healthy.  The Nationals need a burner in centerfield who can start or continue rallies, and Dukes or Padilla would hurt pitchers in the new stadium with their lack of range.  Still, he’s cheaper and better than Kearns and might be happy to be a fourth outfielder on this roster.

AA is empty – Ross Detwiler is on the roster, and nobody else is tearing it up at Harrisburg.

That leaves you with trades, and there are few veterans that are going to fetch anything on the open market.  Few contenders are going to need an injury-prone first baseman, or a slugger who can’t realistically cover left field, or an aging shortstop.  The most tradable commodity is starter John Lannon or rookie Jordan Zimmermann, and if Ryan Zimmerman leaves (a la Nate McLouth), the Nationals could draw fewer fans than the Marlins the rest of the way.

Stephen Strasburg.  I think there are issues with racing guys through the minors – not that there aren’t people who can play in the majors without the benefit of a minor league apprenticeship, but that kids need to experience some success that they can fall back on should they stumble in their first outings in the majors.  So, while I believe that the Nationals may have no choice but to race a Stephen Strasburg to the majors, the fact that they have little or no choice but to do so is problematic.

Look, few teams play .267 ball for a whole season.  So, once Riggleman (or someone) gets Acta’s job, it’s going to be a step forward just to play .400 ball.  Getting Scott Olson back and contributing will do that.  Finding four reasonably dependable relievers would certainly help.  Accepting their fate with Austin Kearns and letting Jorge Padilla show appreciation for a shot at playing in the majors might help.  I’d certainly be willing to give Paul Byrd (still available) or someone a shot at being the fifth starter.  But don’t expect miracles.  The Nationals need six quality players – a second baseman, an outfielder, two starters, two relievers.  Firing Manny Acta doesn’t address that.  Of course, neither does stringing Acta along in the press. 

Really, the team needs a completely new management structure – GM, Manager, Minor League Director, the whole thing.  Riggleman gets them to October.  Who is going to get this team to 2012?

Broadway comes to the Mets, Rockies clear (out) Hurdle

The first manager to fall is Clint Hurdle, replaced after an 18 – 28 start, which makes you wonder how Manny Acta keeps his job in Washington (13 – 34) or similar slow starts in Oakland (18 – 28) or Houston (19 – 27). Or, how about the teams that are disappointing – like Cleveland (21 – 29).

Interim manager, Jim Tracy, won his first game.

The Yankees won, taking over first place in the AL East, getting contributions from a variety of sources, including Jorge Posada. Andy Pettitte left in the sixth with a sore back – he’s day to day for now. Mariano Rivera got the save, making them the greatest combination win/save duo in history. Cue Tim Kurkjian.

Hanley Ramirez isn’t ready to start, but he did pinch hit for the Marlins last night.

Khalil Greene went on the DL with an anxiety disorder. I have that – seriously – and I didn’t miss 15 days (or more) of work. When you make that kind of money and hit .200 with little to show for it, I guess you can. I’d be feeling anxious in his shoes, too… Returning in his place is outfielder Ryan Ludwick.

The last player to miss time with anxiety was Dontrelle Willis, who was slapped around pretty good last night…

Cincinnati’s Joey Votto left last night’s game with dizziness again. Hopefully this goes away soon. He may land on the DL this time, though.

Nick Punto pulled a groin (hopefully his own) and lands on the DL for Minnesota. Coming back from AAA is Alexi Casilla, who has been a good major leaguer before. Here’s to putting it back together.

Houston’s Kaz Matsui is out with a strained hammy.

White Sox slugger Carlos Quentin has plantar fascitis and will go on the DL. My running partner, Mike Coe, has been fighting that for months. Yuck! Dewayne Wise returns from the DL to take his spot.

In a rare May trade, the Mets sent C Ramon Castro to the White Sox for (sort of) prospect pitcher Lance Broadway. I always liked Castro and thought he should play more, but he’s a career backup. He can hit and hit for power. Broadway is a former #1 pick (2005) who hasn’t really found his groove.

Corky Miller loses his backup status in Chicago.

Dodger Will Ohman returns from the DL, but Texas prospect (and darned good pitcher) Matt Harrison goes to the DL with inflammation in his shoulder. Hurry back!

On the mend? Indian pitcher Joe Smith and Mets infielder Alex Cora, also Texas pitcher Tommy Hunter.

Look for David Dellucci and/or Daniel Cabrera to decline AAA assignments and become free agents.

299 and Counting; Zambrano Erupts? No Way!

Randy Johnson stopped Atlanta for his 299th win last night, next up Washington next Wednesday, then (likely) Florida. If that happens, you know where I’ll be.

Moving to the Marlins (sort of), Philadelphia’s Brett Myers left last night’s game with pain in his right hip. MRI and possibly a cortizone shot in his near future. He’ll miss a start.

Carlos Zambrano will likely miss a start after erupting over a close play that went against him in last night’s game against Pittsburgh. He was mad when contact between he and the umpire sealed Zambrano’s fate. Having watched it, though, it looks like the umpire bumped Zambrano and not the other way around. So, Zambrano beat up a gatorade machine.

How about that Daisuke Matsuzaka start? Four wild pitches yesterday, and then two more by relievers, tying an AL record for most wild pitches in the game. Catcher George Kottaras got a little extra exercise last night…

A couple was arrested in Tampa last night, and on the way to jail claimed that they were the steroids suppliers to the Washington Nationals (and Washington Capitals of the NHL). If anyone has seen the Nationals play, you know that they aren’t using steroids – or don’t know what to do with the stuff. Richard Thomas, who was caught with $200,000 worth of steroids, says “the truth will come out…” Isn’t Richard Thomas the guy who played John Boy Walton on TV 30 years ago?

Jake Peavy is pitching through an ankle injury – which is just the type of thing that ruins a shoulder or ankle. If I owned him, I’d be nervous. If I were trading for him (Cubs, Phillies), I’d be more nervous.

Houston’s Brandon Backe returns from the DL – and the Astros can use him out of the bullpen. Wesley Wright returns to AAA Round Rock.

On the Mend? Jorge Posada might be back with the Yankees for the weekend. Cincy’s Edinson Volquez says he can throw without back pain. And, Minnesota’s Joe Crede might be back today.

Melky Cabrera made a fine running catch and crashed into a wall – and now is headed back for treatment on his non-throwing shoulder. He’s day-to-day.

Definitely out? Cubs Aaron Miles (shoulder), A’s Nomar Garciaparra (calf), and Oriole Koji Uehara (hamstring). The last one is especially sad as he’s been doing a good job for Baltimore.

My favorite failed prospect, Daniel Cabrera, was designated for assignment by Washington. Talk about someone who needs a new pitching coach!!! His velocity is down a touch, and (like Matt Lindstrom) he throws a very flat fastball.

A few other transactions hit the wire, but nobody of interest is on the list. Sorry to see the Cubs sent Bobby Scales back to AAA Iowa…

St. Louis’s hot streak has them in first place in the NL Central. Toronto’s loss last night is the ninth straight and moves them off people’s playoff radar…

Buster Olney’s blog on ESPN.com has a bunch of odd stats, of which just a couple are really important. The Indians pitchers are walking a lot of batters, which was contributed to the disappointing start, and the rest are mostly trivial unless they hold up for the rest of the season. However, he has a couple of interesting trade rumors, including Brad Penny to Philadelphia… Hmmm…. Penny has pitched well for Boston and just would like to stay healthy to get a contract for next year.

Andrew Gallo was officially indicted in the death of Nick Adenhart and two others stemming from an alcohol related accident in southern California last April.

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.