2012 Season Forecast – Atlanta Braves

2011 Record: 89 – 73
Runs Scored: 641 (10th in the NL)
Runs Allowed: 605 (3rd in the NL)

The Braves actually played better than can be expected based on the ratio of runs to runs scored (estimated 86 wins).

2011 Season Summary:

Never really a threat to win the division (to my dismay as I predicted them to surprise many to win the east), the Braves were never really bad.  They could win in four spots of the rotation, but they couldn’t generate enough offense to make it easy.  Off seasons by Jason Heyward, Chipper Jones, Dan Uggla (he needed a 30-game hitting streak to get to .233 on the season), and anyone who played center field offset a bullpen led by Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters that held every lead…  Well, until the last ten days of the season.  Like their old cousins in Boston, the Braves couldn’t get that one or two wins that would have sealed the deal and wound up being kicked out the playoffs by the Cardinals.

Pitching:

The Braves have ample starting pitching.  Tim Hudson won 16 games and was well above average all year long.  Three others made between 22 and 25 starts – all were successful.  Jair Jurrjens, who is constantly on the trading block, was the best of the lot (13 – 6, 2.96 ERA), but Tommy Hanson and Brandon Beachy were both decent.  Mike Minor took on 15 starts and continues to improve – he’s nearly a league average pitcher now and could be ready for a rotation slot.  Only Derek Lowe struggled – he fell off the map in the second half – and has been dispatched to Cleveland to see if he has anything left.  The Braves even have prospects in Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado if needed.  Looking forward, the rotation could still be solid if not a hair better than last year.  Hudson and Jurrjens might take a slight step backward, but Beachy and Minor could be better and one of the rookies will most certainly be better than Derek Lowe last year.

In the bullpen, three pitchers had absolutely stunning years.  Closer Craig Kimbrel saved 46 games and was 16 runs better than the average pitcher in his 75 innings.  Set up man Jonny Venters was even better – 21.5 runs better than average.  The best of the lot was Eric O’Flaherty, who had a 0.98 ERA in just shy of 74 innings and saved the team nearly 25 full runs.  George Sherrill, Scott Linebrink, and Christian Martinez were also above average pitchers last year.  Looking ahead, it’s hard to see the Braves being BETTER than that – it’s rare to save that many runs over 70+ innings – so I think gravity is going to pull this team back some 25 runs.  O’Flaherty can’t possibly have a sub 1.00 ERA again, for example.  This will still be a good unit, but it can’t be THAT good again.

Catching:

Brian McCann is one of the premier offensive catchers in the game and his defensive skills are pretty good.  His backup Dave Ross remains dependable and adds a little offense.  As a unit, this is one of the three best teams in baseball behind the plate.  At issue is the fact that McCann may be the best offensive player on the team – but his best seasons seem to be two or three years ago.

Infield:

Defensively, an infield of Freddie Freeman, Dan Uggla, Alex Gonzalez, and Chipper Jones is, at best, not bad but not too good either.  It’s actually better when Martin Prado plays third.  Offensively, they put up runs – and that’s one reason the Braves win games.

Freddie Freeman is going to be one of the better first basemen in the NL – already a fair fielder and an above average hitter, he will be an all-star for many years to come.  Dan Uggla has been a steady, dependable power source and is good on the double play.  Tyler Pastornicky is going to get every shot to take over at short, now that Alex Gonzalez has been allowed to leave.  Gonzalez gave you flashes of power, but his bat isn’t great anymore and his glove is now just pretty good for an old guy.  Pastornicky will have better range, but might not match the offense.  As for Chipper Jones, he’s nursing sore knees and has already said that 2012 will be his last season.  Defensively, he’s been problematic at third for a while but his bat has been good enough.  Now, that’s not going to be the case.  When Jones is gone, Prado or Eric Hinske will get innings.  It sure would be more beneficial if Prado hit closer to .300 than .260 as he did last year.

I think Freeman and Uggla will be slightly better this year, which should make up for the team losing runs at short and third – call it a wash…

Outfield:

I think that the Cubs have a weak outfield in terms of production.  The Braves aren’t much better.

In left, you had Martin Prado – decent glove, middling power, and slightly worse than league average production.  That’s LEAGUE average, not LEFT FIELD average – where you want someone who hits 20+ homers and might drive in 85 or more runs.  Prado went 13 – 57 – .260 with hardly any other benefits (4/12 SBs, 34 walks in 129 games).  If Jose Constanza can hit the way he did in 109 at bats last year, that wouldn’t hurt.  Unfortunately, he’s not a banger either – he’s a burner and could play center for many teams.

In center, nobody hit.  Michael Bourn will be there all year, but he’s never hit .300 and doesn’t hit for power.  Nate McClouth hit .228 with four homers and Jordan Schafer was less productive (and sent to Houston for Bourn).  A full year of Bourn will be better, though, than what the Braves had last year.

In right, you had sophomore Jason Heyward, who fell off the map after such a promising rookie season.  I don’t see him hitting .227 again.  He still shows some patience at the plate and his power remains.

The problem may be a lack of a plan B.  Eric Hinske remains, as does Constanza, but even a returning Matt Diaz doesn’t look to help much if a hole opens up in the outfield.

Bench:

Prado gives the Braves some versatility, as does Hinske.  Diaz can pinch hit and platoon some.  Josh and Jack Wilson are around, but don’t offer much offense (and Jack is getting up there in years) and both are losing defensive skills, too.  Ross is good behind the plate.  It’s a full bench, but maybe not a great one.

Prospects:

The top prospects in AAA mostly made it for cups of coffee last year, including Constanza, Teheran and Pastornicky.  The one who didn’t was undrafted first baseman Mauro Gomez, who might be able to help out.  I don’t have a read on his glove, but he’s a decent power bat – might hit .250 with 20 homers in the big leagues.  He just doesn’t have a place to play here.  Another guy who wouldn’t kill you might be pitcher Todd Redmond, who had decent numbers at AAA Gwinett, going 10 – 8 with 142 Ks and just 47 walks in 169.2 innings.  The problem is that he’s been at AAA for three years now and he’s probably going to have to get a shot somewhere else as he’s not high on the prospect list.

The best hitter in AA isn’t high on the prospect lists either – that’s 26 year old Ernesto Mejia, who has stats like Mauro Gomez and, thus, has nowhere to play.  Some like infielder Mykal Jones, but he’s not going to replace Pastornicky any time soon.  Pitchers Arodys Vizcaino and Randall Delgado got shots – they have major league stuff and are just kids.  Another good arm might be Brett Oberholtzer, who is close but needs more strikeouts to move up more quickly.  Reliever Billy Bullock has quite the arm, but lacks in control (65Ks, 34BBs in 49.2 innings).

A+ Rome features catcher Joe Terdoslavich, a power hitter who had 52 doubles to go with 20 homers. A one-time former #1 pick, Cory Rasmus has the stuff, but needs to find the strike zone more frequently – and stay healthier.

2012 Forecast:

I think the offense can be 25 runs better than last year – might even be more than that – because Bourn is here all year and Heyward will be better.  On the other hand, I think that the gravitational pull that will be working against the bullpen will equally offset that 25 run gain.  Throw in the fact that two other teams may well be challenging for the top spot in the NL East, the Braves will be lucky to finish with 85 wins, which might be third or fourth in this division.

Advertisements

2011 NL Best and Worst Pitchers

Finally getting caught up on my statistical analysis as I head into the 2012 Spring Training season…  First of all, God Bless Sean Lahman, whose baseball database makes it possible to write queries and look at statistics using a Microsoft Access relational database…  The rest is doing the math.

When I review best and worst pitchers, I look at the total number of runs saved relative to the league average pitcher.  I get data for runs allowed per nine innings, then adjust for the pitcher’s home park and finally I adjust for the defense of the players behind that pitcher.  The best pitcher is the one who saves his team the most runs – the worst is the pitcher who costs his team the most runs.

Top Starting Pitchers of 2011:

Roy Halliday (PHI) 45.37 saved runs – 233.2 innings
Cliff Lee (PHI) 43.94 – 232.2 innings
Clayton Kershaw (LAD) 37.81 – 233.1 innings
Cole Hamels (PHI) 34.28 – 216 innings
Ian Kennedy (AZ) 31.53 – 222 innings
Johnny Cueto (CIN) 20.82 – 156 innings
Jair Jurrjens (ATL) 17.56 – 152 innings
Jhoulys Chacin (COL) 17.53 – 194 innings
R.A. Dickey (NYM) 15.92 – 208.2 innings
Vance Worley (PHI) 15.53 – 131.2 innings

You want to know why the Phillies won 100+ games, it’s because they had three of the top four starting pitchers, and a fourth who wound up in the top ten.  Even Roy Oswalt (not listed) was an above average pitcher.  Clayton Kershaw was a fantastic choice for the NL Cy Young award, but the numbers suggest what we all know – Roy Halliday is the best pitcher in baseball.

Worst Pitchers of 2011:

Bronson Arroyo (CIN) 27.88 (extra runs allowed)- 199 innings
J.A. Happ (HOU) 25.44 – 156.1 innings
Derek Lowe (ATL) 25.20 – 187 innings
Livan Hernandez (WASH) 24.16 – 175.1 innings
Ricky Nolasco (FLA) 23.26 – 206 innings
Casey Coleman (CHI) 22.88 – 84.1 innings
Edinson Volquez (CIN) 22.31 – 108.2 innings
Jonathan Sanchez (SF) 21.19 – 101.1 innings
Chris Volstad (FLA) 20.64 – 165.2 innings
Barry Zito (SF) 19.3 – 53.2 innings

The guy who usually tops this list is a starter who keeps getting run out there as if his team has no other options.  Certainly, the Reds should have been able to address the Bronson Arroyo problem by now (nearly 30 extra runs allowed than an average pitcher over the course of 199 innings), and running him out there every fifth day was problematic.  The Marlins have the same issue with Ricky Nolasco.  He’s got amazing stuff, but for some reason keeps getting hit.  If he doesn’t turn things around, the Marlins will have to find another option.  By the way, the Marlins can’t afford to have two guys on the bad list and make the playoffs.  The Brewers used to be on this list – and then they got five league average pitchers to match up with their amazing offense and made the playoffs.

By the way, this is total runs that one player cost his team.  Barry Zito, for example, was far worse per inning than Arroyo.  Had Barry been allowed to throw 200 innings, at the rate he was going he would have given up close to 75 extra runs.  The Giants had other options, so Zito was removed from the rotation before any further overall damage could be done.

Top Relievers of 2011:

Eric O’Flaherty (ATL) 24.99 (runs saved) – 73.2 innings
Tyler Clippard (WASH) 21.58 – 88.3 innings
Jonny Venters (ATL) 21.58 – 88 innings
Craig Kimbrel (ATL) 16.36 – 77 innings
John Axford (MIL) 15.50 – 73.2 innings
Joel Hanrahan (PIT) 15.41 – 68.2 innings
Fernando Salas (SD) 14.76 – 75 innings
Mike Adams (SD) 14.15 – 48 innings
Sean Marshall (CHI) 14.08 – 75.2 innings
Ryan Madson (PHI) 12.63 – 60.2 innings

Few surprises here – guys who gave up hardly any runs in a decent number of innings.  The Braves certainly had the best bullpen in 2011.

Worst Relievers of 2011:

Hong-Chih Kuo (LAD) 18.39 (extra runs allowed) – 27 innings
Aneury Rodruiguez (HOU) 14.62 – 85.1 innings
Ryan Franklin (STL) 14.17 – 27.2 innings
Dan Runzler (SF) 13.84 – 27.1 innings
Matt Maloney (CIN) 12.54 – 18.2 innings

I’ll cut off the list at five – guys who make this list are people who wind up in AAA or released before you know it.  Still Kuo was bad – basically six runs worse than any other guy every nine innings he pitched.  Aneury Rodriguez was the lone exception…

So Long, Tony LaRussa

Riding out in style with his third World Series win, the manager who watched the second most games from the dugout is calling it a career.  LaRussa will head to Cooperstown in a few years, likely joining Joe Torre and Bobby Cox.

I actually remember LaRussa as the young gun who turned the White Sox around in the early 1980s and got Chicago to the top of the AL West in 1983.  When the Sox grew tired of waiting for him to repeat his success (despite horrible support from upper management), the A’s were only too happy to snap him up, where he next guided Oakland to three World Series.  He managed in five different decades, winning divisions in four of them, and had a winning record in the postseason, too.  [Multiple Sources]

Sabathia to Stay a Yankee

CC Sabathia signed a one year extension which, when coupled with a buy-out clause, added $30 million to his existing contract with the New York Yankees.  This keeps the rotation anchor in pinstripes through at least the 2016 season with an option for 2017.  Sabathia added that he will refocus on maintaining a healthier body size, which he had done during the previous off-season by eliminating (among other things) Capt. Crunch cereals.  [MLB]

Indians, Braves Swipe Pitchers – Derek Lowe Heads to Cleveland

In the first trade of the Hot Stove season, the Cleveland Indians acquired starting pitcher Derek Lowe from the Atlanta Braves in exchange for minor league reliever Chris Jones.  The Braves will pay $10 million of Lowe’s 2012 salary, the last year of his four-year contract.

In his favor, Lowe has been a workhorse for the better part of a decade.  Working against him is the fact that he’s been in decline for the last couple of seasons and collapsed as the Braves fell apart in September.

In addition to unloading salary, Atlanta looks to get younger in the rotation.  With Lowe gone, the Braves make room to promote any of four potential rookie starters – including top prospect Julio Teheran, who got a cup of coffee after a 15 – 3 2.55 season at AAA Gwinnett.

For the Indians, they will pay $5 million of Lowe’s salary and add him to the rotation behind Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jiminez, and Fausto Carmona – hoping that Lowe has one more bounce back season and can add leadership to a generally young pitching staff.

Chris Jones was drafted by the Indians in 2007 but fell off the map for a couple of years.  He returned to pitch well for Kinston (A+) last year – winning seven of eight decisions with a decent strikeout rate.  His control is a bit out there, but he just turned 23 and is a converted lefty starter.

Twins Claim Maloney, Gray off Waivers

The Minnesota Twins bolstered the bullpen by claiming two pitchers off the waiver wire.  In Jeff Gray, the former Seattle middle reliever provides depth, and in Matt Maloney, the former Reds starter provides a little potential.  Gray has been up and down between AAA and the majors for about five years and hasn’t displayed much of a strikeout pitch, while Maloney has great control and fares pretty well against AAA bats.  Of the two, Maloney probably has the greatest chance to stick as he is a lefty who can either start or relieve.

Happy Birthday!

Those celebrating with cards, cake, or remembrances include:

Bid McPhee (1859)
Vic Power (1927)
Miguel Dilone (1954)
Gary Redus (1956)
Fernando Valenzuela (1960)
Coco Crisp (1979)

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.

Tracy, Scioscia Win Manager of Year Awards; Other News…

Colorado’s Jim Tracy and Angels manager Mike Scioscia were named Manager of the Year in their respective leagues yesterday, which means  one of them has a chance to get fired in two years, right?  If I had to pick, I’d guess that Tracy would be more likely to get the boot…

Seriously, though, Tracy turned around a Rockies team that was lifeless until he took over for a fired Clint Hurdle.  Scioscia managed his Angels through a series of nasty injuries to his entire pitching staff and outfield, and helped his team cope with the loss of Nick Adenhart, who had been killed in a car accident after his first start of the year in April.

Tracy’s efforts were rewarded – he got a three-year deal from Colorado to remain as manager.  [ESPN]

Other News…

Bud Selig wants to tweak a few things in baseball, but the one getting attention right now is shortening the time lapse between playoff series.  The schedule is frequently dictated by television contracts, but Mike Scioscia was on the money when noting that his team played only eight games in twenty days – after six months of 28 – 30 games a month…  [ESPN]

Taking Sides…

FoxSports’ Ken Rosenthal talks about how agents and baseball executives have a vastly different opinion as to the financial state of baseball teams.  It’s a fascinating look at the economics of the game.  [FoxSports]

Hot Stove…

The Braves could be shopping both Derek Lowe and Javier Vasquez, two 200 inning types.  Let the bidding begin…  [FanHouse]

Jason Marquis, a New Yorker, wants to be a Met in 2009.  Marquis is the best four month pitcher in baseball…  He tends to tire and is far less effective after August 1.  That being said, the Mets could use a dependable arm and Marquis is that.

Third string catcher, George Kotteras, was released by the Red Sox and immediately scooped up by Milwaukee.  Kotteras has some skills behind the plate, is a left handed hitter – a low average hitter with some power.

Happy Birthday!

Hall of Famer Roy Campanella, one of the greatest catchers to don the mask, was born on this day in 1921.

Before I get to the rest of the list, there’s a great baseball site operated out of Atlanta called Baseballisms (www.baseballisms.com) and its goal is to collect all of these snippets and memories people have of the game – whether it’s a personal anecdote about a little league or high school game, or your memories of going to games and seeing your favorite players, or whatever it is that makes you love the game.  Today’s baseball list would fill a dozen posts for Baseballisms…

Anyway, others celebrating or being remembered today include: The Parson, Billy Sunday (1862), John Roach (1867), Everett Scott (1892) – a shortstop who held the record for consecutive games prior to Lou Gehrig, Joe Morgan (1930) – a good Red Sox manager who couldn’t catch a break, Larry Haney (1942), Bobby Tolan (1945) – I can still picture his batting stance, a lefty with the high hand placement, another guy whose career never seemed to take off, Bob Boone (1947) – I can remember when he managed the Royals PLEADING with him not to have Jay Bell bunt after someone had led off with a single.  Sure enough, Bell bounced into a double play.  By the way – if you ever check out the infield grass at Royals stadium, the grass goes right up to the baselines in part because Boone wanted more grass to catch bunts.  Continuing…  Dickie Noles (1956) – another Cubs/Phillies trade back when Dallas Green ran the Cubs, Gary DiSarcina (1967) – who never, ever, took a walk if he had to, Jeff Berblinger (1970) – the second baseman for Kansas when Andy Finch and I used to broadcast Jayhawk baseball games, Andy Sheets (1971), Justin Duchscherer (1977), Jeff Bailey (1978) – a minor league nomad who finally got to play for the Sox in 2008 and hit a homer for his first major league hit, and “Big Sexy” – Ryan Howard.

See a lot of baseballisms for me today.

After Randy Johnson, Who’s Next to 300 Wins?

With Randy Johnson going for win #300 this week and Jamie Moyer winning #250 tonight, I wondered what the chances were of finding who was next. There aren’t a lot of guys who are close. Mike Mussina would have been next to 300, but he retired at 40 with 270. He would have had a fighting chance, but admittedly, he was running on a lot of guile and luck and three more years of success might have been a lot to ask for.

I’ll do them by age groups.

Over 40: Jamie Moyer would have to win 50 games more to join Johnson and that means pitching until he’s 50. I think he was lucky to get a two year deal and will not make 270, much less 275. John Smoltz has the goods but an arm that is running out of bullets. And, he’s 90 short when he finally makes it back. That’s six years from now when he’ll be 48. Not likely.

Born in 1970 – 1972: Pedro Martinez has 214 and no job, so it’s hard to see that he’ll make it. Besides, he’s not the same guy and his health hasn’t been solid lately. A year younger and still winning is Andy Pettitte, who turns 37 in a few weeks. He keeps threatening to retire, so that doesn’t bode well, but he has 215 wins, so six good years and he’s got a shot. Let’s see what he’s like two years from now and guess again.

Born 1973 – 1976: Derek Lowe has 126, Bartolo Colon has 150. Only Lowe is still going strong, but 170 wins means 10 really good seasons and he doesn’t usually win 17. Kevin Millwood is at 142, turns 35 on Christmas Eve. He’s probably going to make 200 if he stays healthy, but I doubt it.

Tim Hudson and Livan Hernandez are at 146 and 147, but only Hudson seems young at 34. Livan always seemed six years older than he is. Hudson, if he finds a second life, could make a run at 250 but would need a few really successful seasons. Javier Vasquez turns 33 this year, has always been healthy, and has 127 wins. He could make a run at 250, but he could use some help. He’s never won 20, so if he gets there, it’s by attrition.

Born 1977 – 1979: Roy Halliday (131) and Roy Oswalt (129) are 32 this summer. They’ll likely be around 145, hopefully more, by the end of the year. If it’s 150, eight more good years could get them to 270 and then it’s a matter of knowing how healthy either is at 40. My money will be on Halliday.

Barry Zito leads the 31 year olds with 123 wins. If he finds a new life – certainly possible, he could easily make a run at 250. And, if he has a Moyer resurgence, he could get further. I just don’t know if he’ll make it.

The guys who are 30 in 2009 include Mark Buehrle and Johan Santana. Guess who has more wins? If you guessed the Southsider, you’d be right. Buehrle has 122 and at this rate is well on pace for 250 by 40. If this year’s start is indicative of better things to come, he’d have a legitimate shot at 300. Santana is the better pitcher, but only has 109 wins. He’s going to need about five really good years to pass Buehrle and get on track. I like 250 as his end point, but you never know.

Born 1980 – 1984: Sabathia is already at 117 and counting. With the Yankees, he’s going to be a candidate for 20 wins a lot and if he stays healthy he could hit 35 with more than 225 wins. He’s my top pick to make 300 next. Josh Beckett has 89 wins, and should make 200, but won’t get much past it.

Carlos Zambrano turns 28 on 6/1 and already has 100 wins. He’s ahead of Halliday’s pace and is a horse. I like his chances to blow through 250 and if he stays healthy and doesn’t get too fat, he could make a run at 300. Jake Peavy is also 28 this year, but ten wins behind Zambrano. I like his chances at 250, but I’d like them better if he were on good teams.

The big winners of the 1982 birth year are Dontrelle Willis and Jeremy Bonderman, neither of whom will be active in 2015. Justin Verlander has 50 wins and will be around 60 when the year is done. He could be around 200 at age 36, so 250 is not impossible. He COULD be really good, but I don’t buy it.

The guys who are 24 or 25 include too many guys with just 30 wins – Zack Greinke, Chad Billingsley, and what not. Three really good years, though, and I’ll think about it.

The one really young guy who is off to a good start is the 23 year old Felix Hernandez. He’s blown by 40 wins and should make 55 at the end of the year. Assuming any luck in good health and good teams, he could easily pass 100 wins by 27, which would make him well prepared for a run at 250 or more.

In sum:

SOLID BETS: Sabathia, Halliday, Zambrano
GOOD BETS: Buehrle, Zito, Verlander, Hernandez
LONG SHOTS: Anyone who is 25.
NO SHOTS: Everyone else.

I’d say that ONE of the guys listed here will make 300, and maybe two.

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.