Can you make a competitive team with your pick of the remaining free agents?

I was flipping through the list of remaining free agents (as of 1/16/2012) and tried to field the best team possible with those players still available.  Here’s what you can do…

Catcher:

The best hitting catcher is probably Ramon Castro, who I see as a DH but can catch some.  You have a couple of receivers with good defensive skills but a limited offensive outlook (Ivan Rodriguez, Jason Varitek) and a couple of catchers who have recently been regulars (Chris Snyder, Ronny Paulino).  If you took Castro and Rodriguez, at least you’d have someone who could work with the pitchers and throw, and you’d have a decent enough backup who could help put a few runs on the board.

First Baseman:

With Prince Fielder still available, you have the centerpiece of an offense – but you still have some competent backups.  Casey Kotchman seems to have found his hitting stroke, and Carlos Pena could help in a platoon role (can’t hit lefties, though).  If you weren’t willing to pony up $20 million per year for Fielder, a platoon of Pena and Derrek Lee might give you depth and a solid platoon.

Second Baseman:

Not a lot to choose from here…  The best player is probably Carlos Guillen, but he’s only going to play 40 games (not to be mean here, but his injury history is becoming problematic).  That leaves you with someone who can, at best, not embarrass you with the glove – Jeff Keppinger, for example – and even play a couple of positions since you may need some flexibility.

Third Baseman:

If you thought the pickings were thin at second, it’s even thinner at third base now.  Casey Blake has had a couple of good years, and Wilson Betemit can swing the bat.  After that, it’s guys who used to be able to play some (Eric Chavez, Alex Cora, Omar Vizquel).

Shortstop:

Three guys who can’t really cover the position anymore – Orlando Cabrera, Edgar Renteria, and Miguel Tejada.  The best overall option is probably Cabrera – or letting him play second and moving Keppinger over to play short.

Outfielders:

There are still a few players here who could contribute, but most of these guys are past prime players and few have the wheels to cover center.  However, Johnny Damon could still play left, Cody Ross can play right or center (though he’s running out of years he’ll be able to cover center).  Kosuke Fukudome is a fantastic right fielder and can still bat leadoff.  Behind that you have a couple of guys who could be good fourth outfielders and pinch hitting types – Jonny Gomes, Andruw Jones, Juan Pierre.  If you needed a defensive guy, Joey Gathright is there.  And, if you want to take a real chance, you could go for Yoenis Cespedes.

A lineup as listed below would score some runs, and probably fight the defense to a draw.

Fukudome – RF
Damon – LF
Guillen – 2B
Fielder – 1B
Castro – C
Ross – CF
Blake – 3B
Keppinger – SS
(Pitcher – assuming a National League team)

Starting Pitchers:

A couple recent signings has killed off much of the top remaining pitchers, but you still have a few guys who can win games.  I see a rotation that includes the following as having some potential:

Roy Oswalt
Edwin Jackson
Jon Garland
Joe Saunders
Livan Hernandez

And I’d give a sixth spot to Rich Harden – pitch him until something breaks (which it will).  Or, you could take Harden’s stuff and make a closer out of him.  Your emergency arm might be Kevin Millwood – I just don’t know if he has one more year left.  I’d stash him in AAA until Rich Harden breaks down…  The staff is really missing an ace, but you have two guys who can win at the top and three guys who can give you 650 innings at the bottom, which helps the bullpen.

Relievers:

The signing of Ryan Madson takes away the best available closer, but you can do a bullpen by committee and hope someone takes charge.  I see the top six arms as follows:

Michael Gonzalez
Danys Baez
Francisco Cordero
Juan Cruz
Brad Lidge
Arthur Rhodes

Out of that list, you can give Lidge the last inning (if he’s healthy) and mix and match the rest to be reasonably effective.

I haven’t done the math on this, but a team with this roster could possibly make a run at 85 wins.

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2011 Season Forecast: Baltimore Orioles

Last Five Years:

2010:  66 – 96 (Last in AL East)
2009:  64 – 98
2008:  68 – 93
2007:  69 – 93
2006:  70 – 92

The Orioles haven’t had a winning record since 1997, when the roster included Rafael Palmeiro, Robbie Alomar, Cal Ripken, and Brady Anderson, with Harold Baines and Eric Davis on the bench.  The rotation was Mussina, Erickson, Jimmy Key, and Scott Kamieniecki.  Randy Myers was the closer and Jesse Orosco, Armando Benitez, and Arthur Rhodes were in the bullpen.  Oh, and Jeffrey Maier got in the way…

Runs Scored: 613 (13th in the AL, 100 runs better than Seattle, but well below average)
Runs Allowed: 785 (13th in the AL, 60 runs better than the Royals, but well below average)

2010 in Review:

A lot was made out of the hiring of Buck Showalter, and the early results were admittedly stunning.

The Dave Trembley managed Orioles were picked by many to finish last or fourth in the AL and didn’t disappoint.  The young arms didn’t get started, and the bats never came around.  Baltimore started 5 – 18, won just 10 in May, and went 9 – 17 in June.  By then, Trembley had been relieved of his job and Juan Samuel was given the interim job.  Things didn’t get any better, as the Orioles went 8 – 19 in July.  With a record of 32 – 73 (!), having just been swept by the Royals, the Orioles were pacing for just 49 wins – an historically bad total – so Buck Showalter was brought in to add organization and teaching to the Orioles.  The Orioles had a winning record in August and September (and October, 3 – 1).  This 34 – 23 stretch was NOT built, like the White Sox, Minnesota, and Detroit win streaks, by beating up on the lower level teams in the AL or a run of games against the NL Central, but rather against the AL East and other good teams like Texas, Chicago, Anaheim, and Detroit.

The roster moved around mostly because young players were shuttled in and out, but the Orioles had tried bringing in Miguel Tejada, and then sent him packing to San Diego before the trading deadline.  The other minor deal the Orioles did was to trade Will (Suitcase) Ohman to the Marlins for fringe rotation starter Rick Vanden Hurk.

Starters:

Jeremy Guthrie had a pretty solid year – 3.83 ERA, 209.1 innings, doesn’t walk people but served up a few homers.  His strikeout rate is a bit low, which is disconcerting, but not yet problematic.  Behind him was the disappointing import Kevin Millwood.  Millwood went 4 – 16 with a 5.10 ERA, mostly because he gave up 30 homers.  He actually struck out more guys than Guthrie with decent control, but you can’t give up 30 dingers without absorbing losses…  The third starter, Brian Matusz, showed promise finishing 10 – 12 with even better K/9 rates, and a better than league average run rate.  Brad Bergesen made 28 starts and was a young Kevin Millwood – lots of homers, without the good K rate.  The fifth slot was shared by youngsters Jake Arrieta and Chris Tillman.  Arrieta is a prospect but had nearly as many walks as strikeouts, which isn’t very good, and Tillman is a 22-year-old prospect who had very similar numbers to Arrieta – actually finishing with the same number of walks to strikeouts.  Arrieta and Tillman had replaced David Hernandez, who was lousy in the rotation but decent as a reliever.

Looking forward to 2011, the only change is the dismissal of Millwood, and the possible addition of Justin Duchscherer as a fifth starter option.  Duchscherer lost 2009 to surgery on his left elbow, battled depression, and came back in 2010 only to miss most of that season to have surgery on his left hip.  What would help the rotation most would be to keep the ball in the park, and for the middle defense to get stronger…  And, it would be nice to have a true ACE at the top of the rotation, which would slot Guthrie, Matusz, and Bergesen one spot down the chain.

Bullpen:

Alfredo Simon failed as the closer, ceding the job to Koji Uehara.  Uehara is a good late inning option, finishing with 55 Ks and just 5 walks in 43 innings.  Will Ohman was tolerable, Matt Albers wasn’t, and Mike Gonzalez – a good reliever – couldn’t stay healthy.  Mark Hendrickson may have played himself out of baseball, and Jason Berken may have played his way into an eighth inning role.  On the whole, though, the bullpen was lacking an ace as well.  Berken or Uehara could BECOME an ace, but until then, the Orioles brought in Kevin Gregg to be the closer for at least four months…  (He seems to run out of gas in August, and I can’t explain that since he’s a reliever, but he’s got John Franco disease.)  Gregg can be much better than Alfredo Simon, and if Mike Gonzalez can pitch 50 innings, there is hope that the bullpen can be ten to fifteen runs better than in 2010.

Catching:

Matt Wieters is a good young catcher.  I don’t know if he will be the next Joe Mauer, but he can be 80% of Joe Mauer and that’s not half bad.  Defensively, he’s pretty solid with a strong arm.  Offensively, he wasn’t all that great, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he jumped from the 11 – 55 – .249 numbers of 2010 to 17 – 75 – .280 in 2011.  I saw him in the minors and he’s BIG – 6′ 5″ and 225, and there is something about him that is impressive.  Let’s hope he takes that step forward.  Jake Fox and Craig Tatum are backups.  Fox can hit some – but doesn’t have a defensive position (why can’t he just DH?) and Tatum hit singles and catches the ball, but didn’t throw out any base stealers in 2010.  Okay, two.

Infield:

Most of last year’s infield is gone.  Instead of Ty Wiggington playing everywhere (and well) – usually at first base, Brian Roberts at second, Cesar Izturis at short, and Miguel Tejada at third, you have a much different, and potentially stronger offensive lineup.

Look, Tejada played third very well but his offense is slipping (as you would expect), and he was traded to San Diego.  Izturis fell off both offensively and defensively, and Brian Roberts couldn’t stay healthy, forcing Julio Lugo or Robert Andino into more regular roles.  Garrett Atkins was given a shot and, as I mentioned, shouldn’t have been given that shot.  On the whole, though, the infield in 2010 was WEAK.

Looking at 2011, you have Mark Reynolds, the basher who arrives from Arizona with a need to get his batting average back over .230 and cut his strikeouts down to under, say, 200.  STILL, even hitting .198, his power and walks make him an above average hitter and his defense is surprisingly strong.  J.J. Hardy comes over from Minnesota for prospects and immediately upgrades the offense and actually did a better job than Izturis in the field in 2010.  (I like Hardy as a late round fantasy pick – coming off a left wrist injury, his power should return – especially here.)  Izturis remains as a utility infielder along with Robert Andino.  Brian Roberts should be the DH because his body is breaking down and his defense has never been really good.  But, if he played 130 games at second, he might score 100 runs and few guys can do that.  Covering first base is newcomer Derrek Lee.  I’m not a huge fan of this – he’s getting old, his back doesn’t allow him to get to ground balls anymore, and he’s coming off of right thumb surgery – and I’d rather have kept Wigginton.  Luke Scott is his short term backup…  Still, there is a really good chance that the defense will be no worse than last year and the offense could jump up 60 – 80 runs better than last year.

Outfield:

Two positions remain capably covered, with Adam Jones being one of the most productive centerfielders in the AL, and Nick Markakis playing a reliable if not insanely productive right field.  Markakis could have a breakout season, but he sure hits fewer homers than he used to.  It would be nice if he accidentally tagged 25 homers, but I wouldn’t bet on it.  Luke Scott plays left, with Felix Pie getting at bats and logging late defensive innings.  It’s not a horrible platoon, really.  The fifth outfielder, Nolan Reimold, is better than his injury riddled numbers in 2011.

DH:

Luke Scott gets at bats here, as does Jake Fox, but in 2011, the Orioles have added Vlad Guerrero.  Guerrero had a decent first half in 2010, but faded badly down the stretch.  Oddly, the Orioles have a lot of candidates to play here and if they wanted someone on the Rangers, I’d gladly take Michael Young to play second and move Roberts to DH before I’d have given a deal to Guerrero.  Vlad got a one-year deal, though, so hopefully it will pay off.

Down on the Farm:

Most of what can play is already with the big club, leaving the top end of the minors system for Baltimore a bit thin.  The best players on the Norfolk Tides (AAA) were pitchers Jake Arrieta and Chris Tillman, who are pretty decent prospects, and catcher Brandon Snyder, who doesn’t have a place to play so long as Matt Wieters is still around.

Joel Guzman is still around, hitting 33 homers at AA Bowie.  A few years ago, Guzman was considered a propsect at SS because he was mobile and had power.  He’s still got power, but he’s older and heavier (and taller) and now he’s trying to make it back to the bigs but he might have to do it as a third baseman.  God bless him…  Ryan Adams was taken #2 five years ago, and looked like an almost prospect at Bowie – but mid-range power hitting .298 isn’t going to make it much past a cup of coffee.  Joe Mahoney seems to be making progress, hitting for more power and higher averages as he works through the minors.  He’ll likely start in Bowie, though, and for a first baseman mid-range power isn’t a total asset.

Speaking of first basemen with mid-range power… Tyler Townsend, taken in the third round in 2009, looks like a Gaby Sanchez-type hitter in A+ Frederick.  If he takes a step forward in 2011, look for him to make the squad in late 2013.  Former #2 pick, Mychal Givens is returning from a thumb injury, it will be interesting to see what the shortstop can do if he can just play a full season at  Delmarva or A+ Frederick.

Forecasting 2011:

The Orioles made a lot of bold changes to the roster, most of which will bolster the offense.  I mean, this is a pretty good lineup:  Roberts, Markakis, Jones, Scott, Reynolds, Vlad, Lee, Wieters and Hardy.  This team could easily jump from 613 runs scored to 725 or even 740 runs.  It could also struggle for three months if Vlad and Lee can’t get on track and finish at around 675.  I like the idea, however, that 700 runs is very possible.  The team isn’t GREAT defensively as long as Roberts and Hardy are your double-play combination, but the problem in 2010 was homers allowed more than anything else.

The pitching will hold steady in the rotation, but the bullpen could be marginally better.  Facing Boston, Tampa, New York, and Toronto, it’s hard to look great with your pitching staff.  That being said, I don’t know if the Yankees and Tampa will score more than 800 runs in 2011, and that will help lower the Baltimore defensive numbers.  It’s VERY possible that the AL East may have five teams at or above .500 at some point in the season.  Baltimore isn’t going to win 85 games, but they have a very good shot at 80 wins.  Realistically, I see them as a 79 – 83 team, getting the fans excited about the Orioles future.

I also see them having some big holes to fill in 2012 – first base, second base, closer, and ace – that will require the farm to turn out a future star or the ownership to make a REALLY bold move rather than fetch a bunch of veterans as short gap changes.

2010 Season Forecast: Chicago Cubs

Last Five Seasons:

2009: 83 – 78 (2nd – NL East)
2008: 97 – 74
2007: 85 – 77
2006: 66 – 96
2005: 79 – 83

Runs Scored: 707 (9th – NL)
Runs Allowed: 672 (5th – NL)

For what it’s worth, the Cubs and their opponents scored 732 runs in Wrigley Field and just 647 on the road last year…

Season Recap:

Picked by a ton of people to win the NL Central, the Cubs hung around the race for four months before throwing in the towel down the stretch.

Every time the Cubs would get rolling, they found a losing streak.  Two weeks in, Chicago rolled out to an 8 – 4 record, only to lose four in a row.  Recovering, they won 8 of 12 only to lose a couple more.  Into May, the Cubbies took off – rattling five in a row to get to 21 – 14.  Thinking that this win streak might put them out in front for good, Chicago lost EIGHT straight…

Hanging around .500 for the next several weeks, the Cubs entered the All-Star break at 43 – 42.  Sensing a need to get going, the Cubs rolled out to 57 – 48 and actually sneaked into the top spot for a day in late July.  That’s when the bullpen suddenly lost it.  The Marlins came back to beat former closer Kevin Gregg and the Cubs hit a tailspin that knocked them out of the NL Central race just as St. Louis was adding Holliday, DeRosa, and Lopez for the stretch run.  The Cubs fell back to a game over .500, made a small fuss for the wild card race, and then disappeared.

Injuries hurt the Cubs as much as many other teams – losing Aramis Ramirez, Milton Bradley (injuries to his body as well as his attitude), Ted Lilly and Alfonso Soriano – but poor performances were equally to blame.  Milton Bradley signed a three-year, $30 million deal and proceeded to hit .257 with middling power.  Soriano’s season was worse – knee injuries and age contributing to a horrific .241 batting average.  And Geovany Soto, such a huge part of the 2008 NL Central Champs, fell off to .218, with just 11 homers.  Throw in the decline of a portly Carlos Zambrano, who failed to win ten games and missed at least six starts, and you can see why the Cubs fell back 13.5 games from 2008.

2010 Goals:

Lessee…  The Cubs need an attitude adjustment.  Bringing Milton Bradley was a BAD idea – no matter how good his upside might have been, there’s no excuse for that deal.  Just as importantly, the big horses need to find the old mojo and get healthy.  Soto and Zambrano need to return to form and it would be nice to get 140 healthy games out of Ramirez and Soriano – both of whom are running out of youth.  Finding a dependable closer would help, too.

Pitchers:

On paper, the Cubs have a fantastic rotation.  Carlos Zambrano should be an innings eater, and if his off-season fitness plan works out (no pun intended), he could return to form.  He pitched okay in the 160 innings he logged in 2009, but he needs to pitch 220 or more.  Ted Lilly will be back, but might miss a few starts early on as he recovers from minor surgery to clean up his elbow.  Ryan Dempster returns, as well as last year’s top newcomer, Randy Wells.  The fifth starter is former Pirate star (and Jayhawk alum) Tom Gorzelanny – who a couple of years ago was the ace of the Pirates staff.  Last year, the Cubs front five (the top four plus Rich Harden) were about 68 runs better than average and threw  852 innings.  That’s going to be hard to BEAT, but is something that the Cubs should be able to hold steady for 2010.

The bullpen wasn’t horrible – as a group about 16 runs better than average – but it lacked a big time stopper.  Kevin Gregg saved 23 games, but was really only decent for three months and scary the rest of the way.  He’s gone…  Carlos Marmol assumed the closer role – nearly impossible to hit stuff but walks a batter an inning which makes him Mitch Williams with a better chance to field grounders.  Angel Guzman and John Grabow return to set the table, and Jeff Samardzija, Justin Berg, Sean Marshall will get long relief or spot starts.  Samardzija is likely the one guy who could surprise as a fifth starter, but I’ll be honest.  I don’t see him as anything special.  Still – he throws hard and has as good a chance as anyone to have a good year facing 200 batters…  The Cubs added Carlos Silva in a trade with Seattle – ridding themselves of one headache (Milton Bradley) while acquiring organizational depth in terms of a guy to toss BP.

So, as a staff, the pitching – already good – will remain good in 2010.

Catchers:

Geovany Soto returns, with his backup Koyie Hill intact.  As a unit, they aren’t horrible – but if there is a room for improvement, it’s here.  If Soto splits the difference between his awesome 2008 numbers and his horrific 2009 numbers, the Cubs could get 20 more runs on the scoreboard.

Infield:

Derrek Lee had a quietly amazing year with the stick – 35 – 111 – .306, generating about 115 runs of offense.  On top of that, Lee also had 36 doubles…  The problems with his neck and back, however, affected his defensive range.  Usually Lee is among the top two or three defenders at his position, but in 2009 he was below average in terms of range.  Going forward, I see a 20 run slip in his offense, but he could at least return to league average defense if his back feels better.  In terms of net production, it’s a wash…

At second base, Jeff Baker arrived from Colorado and had a career half season, batting over .300 and fielding everything in site.  That made up for the poor performance of Mike Fontenot, who appears to still have the job.  I don’t think Baker can do this over 500 at bats, and neither do the Cubs who have Fontenot penciled in as the regular.  Fontenot was below average in both offense and defense – and I don’t see this improving in 2010.  If anything whatever bounce back Fontenot has will be covered by the slide in Jeff Baker’s performance.

At short, Ryan Theriot returns – a decent enough glove man and someone who batted a lot near the top of the order, though – to be fair – he’s really a GREAT number eight hitter.  Andres Blanco returns – a capable infielder.

Finally, you have Aramis Ramirez – as good a hitter as you can find if he’s playing 150 games at third base.  Last year, playing just 82 games, he was as good as expected.  Here’s what makes me nervous – Ramirez turns 32 in June – so he might get back to 140 games, but it could be at a lesser scale.  Chad Tracy is in camp to challenge Bobby Scales for a backup role – else Jeff Baker will be the other option here.  Assuming Ramirez takes up the innings given to others last year, even if Ramirez slips in production by 20 runs, the team will still be better offensively by 10 runs at this position.

As a unit, I see this team declining in offense by ten runs and declining by ten runs defensively.

Outfield:

This is where the Cubs had the biggest failures.  Alfonso Soriano led the group in homers with 20.  Kosuke Fukudome was out of position in center but sensational in right – so to make things better, he needs to stay in right.  But to bring in Marlon Byrd?

Last year, Sam Fuld got a small chance and played well defensively while getting on base at a .400 clip in just 100 at bats or so.  Fuld is NOT going to do that in a full season, but it’s taken the Cubs a long time to get Fuld to the majors after drafting him in the fifth round out of Stanford six years ago.  He’s quick, will bat about .275 to .290, and draw enough walks to be a scary leadoff hitter in front of Lee and Ramirez.  Instead, the Cubs chose to spend money on Marlon Byrd.  Byrd is about four years older, coming off a career year in Texas, and is a liability in centerfield.

If his knees are steady, Soriano could be a pleasant surprise – especially if he agrees to hit sixth and drive in runs rather than pretend to be a leadoff hitter who gets in the way of rallies.  Healthy, he hits .270 with 30 homers.  Another off season, and the Cubs will have an expensive problem for three more years.

Fukudome gets on base and surprises with power.  He’s a good #2 hitter, and his current backup, Xavier Nady – who signed an incentive laden deal on the heels of his multiple shoulder surgeries – would also make for a productive #2 hitter.

Any gains in Soriano’s health and Fukudome’s moving to right full time will be negated by the addition of Marlon Byrd.  This group will likely improve by 20 runs offensively but decline by 20 runs defensively.

Bench:

Kevin Millar will be battling for a pinch hitting role, joining Nady, Baker, Fuld, and Hill in providing one of the deeper and more productive supporting casts in baseball.

Prospects:

If the Cubs have any for 2010, there aren’t many on the 40 man roster – that’s for sure.  This is a veteran club.  On the whole, the prospects are mostly a few years away and only a couple really stand out…

Nobody stood out as a hitter in AAA Iowa (other than Blanco and Fuld), the top pitchers weren’t impressive, though reliever John Gaub had 31.1 solid innings, striking out 40, but walking 16.  Gaub had similar stats (28.2 innings, 40 Ks, 17 walks) in AA.  He’ll get a shot in 2010 – I just don’t know how many innings he’ll get.  Expect Gaub to start in Iowa, though.

Casey Coleman was 14 – 6 with a 3.68 ERA for the AA Tennessee Smokies, but struck out just 84 in 149 innings, so he’s not a long term option.  He is, however, just 21, so if he can find a strikeout pitch, he’ll be on the roster by the end of 2011.  Starlin Castro might be the next big thing, though.  A Dominican shortstop, Castro will turn 20 in spring training, but because the Cubs have options he’ll likely start the year in AA or AAA.  He wasn’t overmatched in 31 AA games last season and had hit .300 or better in rookie ball and in Daytona.  Castro would be my pick as the top prospect in the system.

Daytona had more than just Starlin Castro.  Brandon Guyer hit .347 in half a season in the Florida State League, earning a trip to Tennessee, but he struggled in AA – if he’s going to make it, he has to get it in gear quickly.  Tony Campana is a burner – 55 steals – but it would be nice if he got his OBP a bit higher.  Craig Muschko appeared to turn the corner at Daytona – 19 walks in 103 innings and an improving K rate.  And, Jay Jackson could be the other top prospect – cruising through Daytona with 46 Ks and just 4 walks, moving up to Tennessee where he went 5 – 5 with a decent K rate, and even getting a start at Iowa and winning his only appearance.  A Furman alum, Jackson will make the Cubs in 2010 if for no other reason than to get a cup of coffee in September.  I like him.

2008 #1 draft pick Andrew Cashner made it to Daytona and didn’t disappoint.  Look for him in AA Tennessee, maybe even Iowa for parts of 2010.  Ryan Flaherty, the 1A pick in 2008, will see if he can’t handle more after a 20 homer season at Peoria.  A shortstop with power would look good in Wrigley – but Flaherty is a few years away.  Others in Peoria that may stand out in 2010 will be 2008 draft picks Aaron Shafer and Christopher Carpenter, but the guy with the most stuff might be 2009 Chief Chris Archer, who blew away 119 batters in 109 innings and only allowed 78 hits – with NO homers allowed.

Josh Vitters, the first round pick in 2007, struggled at Daytona after a solid half season in Peoria.  He’ll get a second chance at A+ ball this year – but he’s just 20 and has time to get rolling.  Tyler Colvin, once a first round pick out of Clemson in 2006, got to the majors after shuffling out of the prospect picture.  At 25, he’s running out of time – and as an outfielder, the Cubs seem to like older players…

I should note that the other minor league prospect moving up through the ranks is manager Ryne Sandberg.  Perhaps you’ve heard of him.  After a year in Peoria, he moved up to Tennessee and will start 2010 as the Iowa manager.  If the Cubs get off to a slow start, he’s being groomed to replace Lou Piniella.

Outlook:

The Cubs certainly have the star power to compete, but the cracks that showed up in 2010 weren’t necessarily filled by young new help.  Instead, the Cubs have essentially the same team with one difference – Marlon Byrd instead of Milton Bradley.

I see the Cubs scoring a few more runs than last year – as many as 740, but allowing a few more, too – 700.  That works out to 85 or 86 wins (85.5, but if you carry out another decimal point, you’d round down).  With an improving Milwaukee and a still very good St. Louis, that’s probably good for third place – and at some point, the end of Lou Piniella’s tenure in Chicago.  With a slow start, he could be gone as early as June 1.

However, the guy responsible for Piniella and the rest of the roster is General Manager Jim Hendry.  With a new ownership group in town, when Lou leaves he’ll have someone to hold open the door – Hendry will likely be shown that same door.

Top NL First Basemen in 2009

Albert Pujols (STL):  Far and away the best player in baseball, as he has been since he arrived nearly a decade ago.  Nobody approached his offensive production and he remains the best fielding first baseman in the game.  As such, his overall production exceeded 225 runs – a staggering total.  I show Pujols as about 50 runs better than the next most productive player in the game.  The question going forward will not be whether Pujols belongs in the Hall of Fame, but whether Pujols is the greatest player God invented.  (178.7 Runs Created, 46.8 Runs Saved = 225.52 Total Run Production)

Adrian Gonzalez (SD):  In most years, this kind of production would lead his league – much less his position.  Instead, he’s just the second most productive player in baseball.  No wonder the Red Sox (and everybody else) wants him.  Dependable and rangy at first base, hits for power and has a solid OBP.  And, he’s doing this in San Diego – the hardest place to put up decent offensive numbers.  It took a while for Gonzalez to reach his fullest potential, but you have to like the total package.  (143.3 Runs Created, 31.05 Runs Saved = 174.38 Total Run Production)

Ryan Howard (PHI):  Had a normal season for him (45 – 151 – .279), but seems to be getting more comfortable defensively.  Howard hit .207 with just 6 homers in 222 at bats – I have no idea why any team would let him face a righty (39 – 108 – .320 in 394 at bats).  By the way, his splits against lefties were WORSE than his career rate (.226 with 53 homers in 935 at bats).  So that’s not a good thing.  (127.6 Runs Created, 11.66 Runs Saved = 139.25 Total Run Production)

Prince Fielder (MIL):  The second most productive hitter in baseball, but his range at first base is now problematic.  In 2006, I showed Fielder as being slightly above average (where Ryan Howard is now).  In 2007 and 2008, he was about ten runs worse than average.  Last year, he was atrocious.  Some of this could have been his pitching staff (Corey Hart had lousy numbers in right field), but giving him 20 runs back still makes him about 10 runs worse than average.  Of course, when you create 150 runs of offense, you can live with the glove.  (157.9 Runs Created, -31.0 Runs Saved = 126.88 Total Run Production)

Pablo Sandoval (SF):  A third baseman, but probably should play first base instead.   If he played first base regularly, he’d rate here…

Jorge Cantu (FLA):  Had a surprisingly good season defensively – frankly, I’m stunned, but if you look at how few assists the rest of the infielders had and then see how many putouts he had, you realize that Cantu takes charge of the infield and makes the most of his time out there.  Additionally, he’s a reasonably productive hitter – an old school definition RBI guy, gets lots of chances and seems to drive in runs whenever called upon.  He’s NOT that productive a hitter – he’s good, but not that good.  However, if he fields like Derrek Lee used to, it’s a valuable package.  (84.9 Runs Created, 25.3 Runs Saved = 110.24 Total Run Production)

James Loney (LAD):  Looking at his stats, I can’t see a difference between Loney and Cantu.  Medium range power, RBIs when opportunities arise, solid defense.  (90.4 Runs Created, 17.58 Runs Saved = 108.03 Total Run Production)

Adam LaRoche (PIT/BOS/ATL):  Had a reasonably good year with the glove – better than any in recent years (since 2006, for sure).  Coupled with decent power and a fair eye, LaRoche was reasonably productive in 2009.  That he’s suddenly moving around more than a regional sales director makes me think his career will start moving downhill, but for now he’s still worth keeping around.  And, compared to what the Diamondbacks had last year, LaRoche is a significant step forward.  It would help him measurably if he could hit in April.  The Pittsburgh job now lands on Jeff Clement, a former Mariner prospect who hasn’t shown major league hitting ability yet.  (99.8 Runs Created, 7.7 Runs Saved = 107.5 Total Run Production)

Joey Votto (CIN):  Missed time this summer dealing with ailments both mental and physical, otherwise he would have rated higher.  Votto is a surpremely talented hitter and a tolerable fielder.  Mashed lefties and righties with equal aplomb in 2009 but gets more walks and power against righties.  I’d love to have him on my team – and he’s my pick to have a crazy breakout season.  (112.6 Runs Created, -5.2 Runs Saved = 107.33 Total Run Production)

Todd Helton (COL):  Still hits well – power stats like Loney but gets on base more often.  His fielding draws raves, but with a stiff back and older wheels, he’s really just a dependable ball catcher who doesn’t have much range anymore.  I wrote about how much Helton has been helped by playing in Colorado, but even at that, he’s been a good player for a lot of years.  When he comes up for the Hall of Fame ballot, it’ll be interesting to see how he fares.  (99.9 Runs Created, 0.8 Runs Saved = 100.69 Total Run Production)

Derrek Lee (CHC):  His back and neck must have really been bothering him as his defensive contribution – usually in the top three or four at first base – was actually among the worst fielders at the position in 2009.  His bat returned to form, however, and he’s been a good hitter (occasionally great hitter) for a long time now.  If I were a betting man, however, I’d be picking Lee as one player who might slip in 2010.  At the end of the season, Lee turns 35 – so time and various injuries are going to start working against him.  As a Derrek Lee fan, I don’t want to see this happen – but the Cubs will have to plan for replacing Lee in the next couple of years.  (114.7 Runs Created, -16.7 Runs Saved = 97.98 Total Run Production.)

Lance Berkman (HOU):  Already appears to have lost a step as a fielder and hitter and that decline contributed to Cecil Cooper’s firing.  Even having slipped, Berkman puts runs on the board.  Now 34, Berkman is in a race against father time…  Hey, Astros fans – who has been a greater player over his career:  Lance Berkman, Craig Biggio or Jeff Bagwell?  (98.9 Runs Created, -4.9 Runs Saved = 94.07 Total Run Production)

Adam Dunn (WAS):  Not much of a fielder here or in left field – but I think I’d rather him be at first base.  Offensively, he’s still a force – but he’s a poor man’s Prince Fielder.  (115.0 Runs Created, -33.54 Runs Saved – 81.45 Total Run Production)

Daniel Murphy (NYM):  Took over when Carlos Delgado could no longer play; he’s mobile and a fair hitter.  Considering what the rest of the league has above him, Murphy is going to have to step up considerably to help the Mets long term.  I think he can get up to where Cantu or Loney are, but he’ll never be GREAT.  At this point, the Mets would settle for solid.  (71.5 Runs Created, 10 Runs Saved = 81.45 Total Run Production)

Travis Ishikawa (SF):  A smooth fielder with middling power, at this position it’s not going to cut it – which is why the Giants acquired Aubrey Huff.  I think Ryan Garko would have been a better option for 2010, but they didn’t ask me…  Ishikawa might hang around for years as a pinch hitter, low cost option for the position.  (41.1 Runs Created, 23.26 Runs Saved = 64.34 Total Run Production)

Casey Kotchman (ATL/BOS):  A glove man who hits like Ishikawa, too.  Has moved around a lot because he doesn’t put many runs on the board.  Now in Seattle, I bet the Mariners fans will miss Russell Branyan by mid July.  (53.0 Runs Created, 5.1 Runs Saved = 58.1 Total Run Production)

Nick Johnson (WAS/FLA):  A coveted free agent, but I’m not sure why.  He gets on base, but doesn’t create a TON of runs because he has marginal power.  As a fielder, he’s abysmal.  Here’s an odd stat for you.  Nick Johnson’s defense at first base was so poor that he cost the Marlins more runs with this glove than he actually produced with his bat.

You think I’m kidding?  Let’s look at putouts per inning data.  When Jorge Cantu played first, he had 829 putouts in 850 innings.  When Johnson played first, he had 192 putouts in 260.2 innings.  In the same number of innings, that works out to 626 putouts – or 200 (!) fewer than Cantu had.  Does Johnson catch any pop ups, foul balls or line drives?  Apparently not.  Maybe he’s a ground ball repellent – when in the field, the pitchers only got fly balls to the outfield for outs.  I digress.

He’s a DH/#2 hitter – which I imagine might be his job with the Yankees in 2010.  (78.0 Runs Created, -23.3 Runs Saved = 54.7 Total Run Production)

Chad Tracy (ARI):  Got the most action there, but really only played half a season for the Diamondbacks.  He’s gone – thankfully – and Adam LaRoche will improve the output at this position immediately.  (28.4 Runs Created, -5.1 Runs Saved = 23.33 Total Run Production)

Hudson, Kennedy Sign Deals and Other Hot Stove News…

I had posted it earlier this week in reviewing the performance of AL second basemen.  First – Adam Kennedy had a pretty good year for Oakland and would have been a tolerable option for a team that didn’t have second base locked down.  Then, noting that the Twins had nobody in house who could contribute at second base, if Orlando Hudson was still available, it would make sense to make him an offer.

If only every day I felt that smart.

Anyway – Minnesota signed Hudson to a one-year deal and immediately gave themselves a 40 run upgrade over Nick Punto, Alexi Casilla, or Brian Dinkelman.  Hudson can still hit .280+ with a little power and a few walks thrown in – he’s an excellent #2 hitter.  And, he’s still a solid defender.  Great signing.  [SI]

Now, Minnesota outbid Washington for Hudson’s services but the Nationals didn’t wait.  Once the deal was done, the Nationals landed Adam Kennedy for their second base hole.  Hey – if you can name the guy who got the most innings in at second base for the DC squad last year, you’re probably the only one who can.  (Anderson Hernandez)  Again, this could be a 30 run improvement for the Nationals – and they have room for improvement.

Kevin Gregg may get another shot at closing games, signing a one year deal with two different follow up options to join Toronto.  I’ve watched Gregg a lot because I live in a Florida and because I watch Cubs games…  He’s NOT a bad reliever.  However, he does get in ruts and he has a history of trying to pitch through pain which affects his ability to keep the ball down.  (On the side, he looks like Clark Kent and his vision is really poor…)  [SI]

Congrats to Justin Verlander, who signed a five-year, $80 million deal to stay with the Tigers.  He certainly earned it.  [ESPN]

Quick notes – Orlando Cabrera is the new Reds shortstop.  He might just be a temporary fix, but you never know.  Cubs signed Kevin Millar to a minor league deal – he’s teammates with Derrek Lee again.

Mighty Casey Awards – Gold Glove Winners in the NL

When ranking defensive players, I have long used a modified system that I once built so that I could assign defensive ratings to players for the board game Superstar Baseball.  The issue at hand was how to rank fielders when (a) fielding stats are affected by things like balls in play, and (b) can you get it to a system that more or less tells you how that player affects the batting average of the hitter.  That’s what a gamer is looking to replicate.

Well – I figured that out.  But what made it valuable to me was when I figured out how to convert plays not made (essentially hits added) into runs using a table of values in Total Baseball.  I don’t know if you remember that encyclopedia, but Pete Palmer had calculated the value of each hit into runs.

Here’s how I do it.

1) Get the number of balls in play for the team.

2) Figure out the number of plays made by a player for every 800 balls in play.  Why 800?  Because for every 1000 at bats, there will likely be about 200 strikeouts or homers – so by using 800, one additional play made by a fielder is essentially removing one point of batting average to a hitter.  Also, let’s face it, a fielder is going to have more chances if his team is loaded with sinker slider guys who get the ball in play, than a big strikeout guy.  So, to get things to a common number of balls in play is a fairer way to evaluate each position.

3) Once I have the number of hits removed (or added) based on that Range/800 factor, compare that number to a run value for hits allowed based on the position.  For outfielders, it’s a combination of singles, doubles, or triples (for center and right fielders).  For corner infielders, it’s singles and doubles.  For middle infielders, it’s all singles.  I have a different system for catchers, and since pitchers don’t play many innings, I tend to look at it from the team perspective – but it works.

4) I make minor modifications for things like double plays, as well as putouts made by outfielders as that shows the groundball/flyball tendency of a staff.  And, for first basemen, I remove infielder assists from his putouts total.

5) Finally, I wind up with two numbers – a “range per 800” value, and a runs saved (or allowed) value.

Here’s the National League Position Gold Gloves and Brick Gloves.  The first number listed is his range per 800 plays above or below average for the position, and the second number is runs saved (or allowed).

Right Field:

7.48  22.42 Jayson Werth (PHI)
6.38  11.67 Randy Winn (SF)

22.27 13.17 Kosuke Fukudome (CHI) ***263 innings

Werth made more plays in RF than Shane Victorino made in CF…  Fukudome played 1/5th the innings that Werth did, but at that pace would have had 395 putouts – which would be solid for a centerfielder…  Does anyone other than me think that Randy Winn is an underrated defensive wizard?

-10.07 -28.14 Brad Hawpe (COL) – third straight year
– 9.66 -22.00 Corey Hart (MIL)

Hawpe hasn’t been close to average since 2006.  In 540 innings, Matt Diaz was brutal in RF with a -14.38 range factor, costing his team 17.56 runs.

Center Field:

12.26  19.26 Tony Gwynn (SD)
4.96  17.77 Matt Kemp (LAD)
6.06  10.80 Willy Taveras (CIN)
14.35  12.62 Nyjer Morgan (WAS)

Morgan was good, but not that good in the few innings he played in Pittsburgh and didn’t have enough innings to qualify, but in WASH he was amazing out there…  However, he was lights out in LF in Pittsburgh, and I might have given him award for the combined effort.

-9.15  -25.58 Shane Victorino (PHI)
-6.45  -13.86 Andrew McCutchen (PIT)

Maybe Victorino deferred to Werth on anything hit to right…  The NET result is slightly below average between the two of them.  McCutcheon is learning the league and will probably get better – but he’s not a natural at this point.

Left Field:

10.25  13.88 Nyjer Morgan (PIT)
4.67   7.53 Seth Smith (COL)

Not many to choose from, really.  Most of the good ones didn’t play many innings here.  One odd note – Fernando Tatis was a ball magnet in the 179 innings he played in left field – which is why I tend to ignore guys until they play 500 or 1000 innings.  Tatis caught 56 flies in just about 20 games in the field, which at that pace works out to 375 putouts in 140 games.  The most anybody had in left field was Ryan Braun, who made 304 plays out there.

-11.39  -32.31 Carlos Lee (HOU)
-12.33  -15.36 Matt Holiday (STL)
-11.09  -13.76 Chris Duncan (STL)

Lee looked bigger and slower when I watched him and the stats bear this out.  And, I pity the poor St. Louis pitchers…

Shortstop:

13.05  23.58 Brendan Ryan (STL)
17.54  23.16 Paul Janish (CIN)
11.97  13.74 Everth Cabrera (SD)

None of these guys played 1000 innings, but they all played 590 or more innings very well.  The best to clear 1000 innings was Chicago’s Ryan Theriot (2.59 range, 8.45 runs saved).

-12.31  -26.07 Jimmy Rollins (PHI)
-13.71  -12.02 Alberto Gonzalez (WAS)
– 2.52  -10.16 Cristian Guzman (WAS)

Didn’t they award the Gold Glove to Rollins?  Did anyone notice that he made hardly any plays out there?  Miguel Tejada had two more putouts and 86 more assists in roughly the same number of innings.  Yunel Escobar played 150+ fewer innings and had 20 more assists.  The only regular to make fewer plays per nine was the immobile Edgar Renteria.  let’s say that there is some bias in the ground ball distribution – if you add Rollins and Utley together, it’s still a negative.  If you add Rollins and Feliz together, it’s still a negative.  Rollins had a lousy year – has been overrated for a few years now, and should stop being considered as a good fielder.

Third Baseman:

10.37  30.30 Andy LaRoche (PIT)
7.56  25.18 Pedro Feliz (PHI)
8.36  25.14 Casey Blake (LAD)

A couple of guys having very good years – I never thought Blake was that good and Feliz was better than ever (cutting off grounders to short?).  Did you know that LaRoche was that good either?  The usual suspects of previous seasons (Zimmerman, Wright) were off.  Zimmerman was still good, but Wright was below average last year.

-13.66  -20.97 Geoff Blum (HOU)
-11.20  -18.78 Ian Stewart (COL)
– 6.07  -18.11 Chipper Jones (ATL)

Not that Colorado is going to miss Garrett Atkins anymore, but Stewart wasn’t that good a fielder.  By the way, if the Marlins are thinking about moving Jorge Cantu back to third, his performance would give me pause (-18.48 / -14.66 runs saved).

Second Baseman:

6.64  18.22 Chase Utley (PHI)
6.17  15.29 Kaz Matsui (HOU)
5.59  13.53 Brandon Phillips (CIN)

Honorable mention to Jeff Baker in just 369 innings for Chicago…

-13.66  -24.76 Skip Schumaker (STL)
– 5.61  -15.30 Dan Uggla (FLA)

The Pirates tried Delwyn Young at second base and it was a bad idea, too.  LaRussa won despite this – and a lot of other holes in the defense.  I watch Dan Uggla a lot, he’s always struck me as a bit stiff but effective.  Makes more good plays than bad, occasionally surprisingly good plays.  This suggests that the stiffness is winning, though.

First Baseman:

16.18  46.78 Albert Pujols (STL)
23.10  39.99 Jorge Cantu (FLA)
11.45  31.05 Adrian Gonzalez (SD)

There is such a gap between the most athletic and least athletic players at this position, so the best and worst fielders are further from the average than anywhere else.  Pujols is ALWAYS at the top of this list.  He plays further off the bag, makes a lot of throws all over the field – a truly amazing first baseman.  Gonzalez is the same thing.  Cantu is the surprise – I watched him and never would have guessed it.  The issue, of course, is that he had three below average fielders at the other spots – so he must have caught a lot of liners and popups to give him a stronger putout total.  While Cantu is reasonably mobile, I didn’t see this coming.

-10.74  -31.01 Prince Fielder (MIL)
– 8.07  -16.69 Derrek Lee (CHI)
-17.34  -23.12 Adam Dunn (WAS)
-27.01  -14.14 Nick Johnson (FLA)

I always thought that Fielder was rather graceful for such a big dude – but that size is now too big.  Derrek Lee is usually on the other list – but he played a very nicked up season – problems with his neck and back – and this affected his range.  Adam Dunn thinks that the only job of a first baseman is to catch throws…

Nick Johnson, however, isn’t usually this bad (he wasn’t very good in Washington, either).  However, the Marlins had essentially the same infield up the middle regardless of the first baseman.  Cantu had nearly as many putouts as innings played (850 innings, 829 putouts, plus 38 assists).  Johnson played 260 innings, made only 192 putouts, but had a few more assists (24).  If you extrapolate his numbers to 850 innings, that’s just 626 putouts – nearly 200 fewer than what Cantu had.  So, you can see why their rankings are so different.

Update the Fantasy Rosters – Injuries shelve Soriano and Sizemore

Cubs manager Lou Piniella appreciated his willingness to play through the pain, but now Alfonso Soriano is being shut down indefinitely.  Soriano will work with trainers, hoping to avoid injury.

Meanwhile, Grady Sizemore’s pain-filled season also comes to a close, as he will have two surgeries.  The first will repair an injured elbow and the second will repair a tear in his abdomen/groin (for some friends, they will remember this as a “Boot Hill” reference).

Seattle’s Ken Griffey will rest his left knee, tendinitis the latest source of pain.  An MRI was normal, but the pain persists.  [MLB]

Washington pulled Jesus Flores off the DL mostly to have his bat on the bench, as he’s still not able to throw and therefore can’t catch.  [MLB]

There was another Cub out of the lineup, and that was Derrek Lee, who left the team for the birth of his second child.  Christina is okay, but at press, there was no information about the baby…  [MLB]