Holiday Cheer in Hot Stove Deals…

A belated Merry Christmas from Mighty Casey Baseball – Casey himself got a new mitt amongst a number of other Bakugan and football related gifts.  Looking forward to getting Casey outside and fielding grounders and catching flies (we do that before batting practice).

Short on time this week, I’ll just fly through the list of deals that completed or appear to be close to done this past week.  After the new year, the focus will be on assembling the 2009 data and comparing it with the trends of the last five seasons to see if we can make heads or tails out of what is happening, eventually turning our attention to the teams and players we’ll be watching (or selecting in fantasy drafts) in 2010.

And, at some point we’ll mix in a few other more free-formed baseball articles – whether of a historical nature or whatever time will allow.  For those of you who visit, I’d love to know what you WANT to read – that way I know I am providing a service and not just getting typing practice…

The Rich Get Richer…

The Yankees acquire Javier Vasquez from the Braves for Melky Cabrera – and a couple of other prospects swap homes, too.  In reality, the rich spend more.  Vasquez pitched for the Yankees in 2004, he’s durable if nothing else, and will be the best fourth starter on any team since the Braves had Kevin Millwood following the big three of Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz.  Cabrera is okay – a league average hitter moving from an okay hitting park to one that doesn’t help anybody much.  Vasquez moves back to a park that isn’t going to help him much – he serves up a lot of fly balls and in NYC, that only works if you pitch for the Mets.

Among the prospects, the Braves get Michael Dunn – a project who seems to be turning the corner despite his wildness.  He strikes out a lot of batters and has been more successful since switching from a starter’s role to the bullpen.  However, Dunn does walk a lot of guys, so he’ll be a long reliever until he figures that out – and he may never do that.  The Braves also got Arodys Vizcaino, an 18 year old who could be a long term prospect having had some success at low A Staten Island last year.  The Braves gave up reliever Boone Logan, a former White Sox arm who is used like a lefty one-out guy but doesn’t get people out.  He’ll learn to love the bus rides in AAA for the Yankees.  [FoxSports]

The Braves are giving Troy Glaus a one-year deal to play first base and spell Chipper Jones at third, I guess.  Glaus missed most of 2009, has been up and down with injuries but was productive with Toronto when healthy – not too bad with the Cards in 2008 either.  Here’s what I can tell you…  We’re not sure what he’ll hit.  If he’s healthy, he might get to .260 with 25 homers and 85 RBI, which wouldn’t be horrible.  As a defender, he’s below average (his last three seasons were -3, -11, and -3 in range, costing his team between 3 and 12 runs per season)  – and he’s moving to a new position where he’ll be out of sorts.  [SI]

And, Nick Johnson returns to the Yankees – one year, $5.5 million with an option – to be the DH and get on base, which is what Johnson does as well as anybody.  Let’s hope for NYC, he stays healthy.  [SI]

The Angels signed reliever Fernando Rodney, formerly of Detroit, to a two year deal worth $11 million, which seems like a lot of money for a setup guy who might get a few saves.  [SI]

Washington Adding Talent…

The Nationals are trying to add some legitimate talent to the roster via free agency.  First, the team signed Jason Marquis to a two-year deal.  Marquis is worth 180 innings, but most of the good innings occur before August 1.  (The Nationals need to win games then, too.)  Marquis will get $15 million. [MLB]

And, Washington added reliever Matt Capps to the back end of the bullpen.  Capps would take over the closer role once held by Mike MacDougal.  [ESPN]

In a lesser reported deal, the Nationals signed Eddie Guardado to a minor league deal, but I’d be surprised if he doesn’t make this roster for 2010.   Guardado will likely pitch in his 950th game this year (18th season if he makes the roster)… [SI]

Seattle Still Dealing…

The Mariners sent Brandon Morrow – a struggling #1 draft pick who has been all over the map in terms of performance – to Toronto for reliever Brandon League.  Morrow will be a starter for Toronto and I’ll be rooting for him – but admittedly nervous.  Morrow tends to walk guys and leaves the ball up – and that’s a problem in Toronto.  League is one of those guys with great numbers – strong strikeout and walk data, a lot of grounders, and will be moving to a team that might be able to help him a bit more.  I’d like it better if Beltre were manning the hot corner, but you never know…  Toronto also gave up minor leaguer Johermyn Chavez, a free swinging outfielder who is just 20 and starting to find himself as a minor league hitter.  [SI]

Other Signings…

Darren Oliver returns to Texas, one year $3.5 million with an option for 2011 – but Oliver, who started as a Ranger a LONG time ago, will likely retire a Ranger at some point…  [SI]

Coco Crisp needed surgery on both shoulders after an injury riddled 2009 in Kansas City, but the A’s signed him anyway – $5.25 million and an option for 2011.  It’s a risky deal – one that really surprised me.  [ESPN]

The Royals, missing outfielders who hit barely .220 with deceptive speed, signed Brian Anderson.  [ESPN]

Oakland is also taking a chance on former closer Justin Duchscherer; one year – guarantees and incentives – pending a physical.  [ESPN]

Veneszuela’s answer to Mike Hamption, Kelvim Escobar, signed a one-year deal with the Mets worth $1.25 million.  He’ll be used as a reliever and has a bonus program tied to his performance there.  [ESPN]

I like this deal, but don’t expect his stats to hold up with the move – Arizona signed reliever Bobby Howry to a one-year deal. [ESPN]

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Smoltz For the Birds; Votto’s Struggles Continue

John Smoltz joined the Cardinals yesterday and will open this weekend as the fifth starter against San Diego.  The reason Smoltz is getting a start is to get him some innings and give the team a chance to see what Smoltz has left.  After two or three starts, Smoltz may stay in the rotation or move to the bullpen.  [ESPN]

Cincinnati’s Joey Votto’s 2009 season continues to provide new challenges.  First, it was dizziness caused by inner ear infections, followed by a DL stint to deal with anxiety and depression.  Now, Votto left a game with blurred vision.  He’s day-to-day.  [ESPN]

Cleveland prospect Matt LaPorta will get another shot with the big league club as Trevor Crowe needs a DL stint to deal with an oblique strain.  LaPorta struggled in a previous call up and needs to demonstrate why he was the centerpiece of last year’s C.C. Sabathia deal.  [SI]

Milwaukee sent outfielder Bill Hall to Seattle for minor league reliever Ruben Flores.  Gordon Ash, Brewers GM, admits that this is a cost saving move.  [SI]

Los Angeles signed Vincente Padilla – who now heads to Albuquerque to make a warm up start before taking Hiroki Kuroda’s spot in the rotation.  [SI]

FoxSports reported that D-Backs starter Jon Garland cleared waivers, meaning any team willing to absorb a few million dollars for a six week stretch run can consider adding Garland to their roster.  [FoxSports]

Houston’s Mike Hampton has a partially torn rotator cuff, but isn’t getting another operation and hopes to pitch one more time this season.  [ESPN]

Mets reliever Billy Wagner is ready to make his return from Tommy John surgery, but if he gets a shot with New York, it’s as an audition…  The Mets are looking to move Wagner before the waiver trading deadline (8/31).  Wagner has a lot of money left on his final contract year and becomes a free agent for 2010.  Again – the Marlins could use someone for the stretch run and it would be a gas if he had anything left…  [ESPN]

Braves infielder Martin Prado is suffering from exertional headaches and is hoping that inflammatory medicines help reduce the strain.  [MLB]

Hurry Back! Willy Taveras (CIN) goes to the DL with a strained left quad.  Everyday Eddie Guardado (TEX) heads to the DL with a strained knee.

2009 Season Forecast: Texas Rangers

Texas Rangers
79 – 83 (2nd AL West – 21 Games Back)
Runs Scored: 901 (Tops in AL)
Runs Allowed: 967 (Worst in AL)

2008 Summary:

The most exciting team, and one that is just a few pitchers away from being an immediate contender in the AL West…  Got off to a slow April, but rebounded in May thanks to the Josh Hamilton show (and Ian Kinsler) to get back over .500.  The Rangers actually stayed there through June and July before their season was wrecked by an 11 – 18 August.

And, to be honest, the difference was pitching and defense.  By my reckoning, the pitching was about 83 runs worse than the average team, and the defense was another 67 runs worse than the average team (not counting catchers).  So, if you could get back 150 runs allowed, with this offense, you’re talking about winning 90 games.

Tell Me About That Offense:

No weak spots in the lineup – that’s for sure.

The outfield boasted Josh Hamilton, he of the Home Run Derby power, who played his first full season and blasted 32 homers good for 130 RBI.  Milton Bradley missed 25 percent of the season (what else is new), but put nearly 100 runs on the board, hitting .321 with a .441 OBP and a .563 slugging percentage.  He was so good, the Cubs overlooked everything else to sign him to a $30 million contract.  Rookie David Murphy was decent, too – some power, and a decent bat.  The fourth outfielder, Marlon Byrd, batted .298 with some walks, a little speed, and a little punch – a valuable performance.

In the infield, you had Ian Kinsler, with his 60 extrabase hits and 26 steals, batting .319 before losing last five weeks to an injury.  Michael Young gets credit for his 12 – 82 – .284 line, but to be honest, he doesn’t get on base that much and if he didn’t get to bat in the middle of the lineup, you wouldn’t really notice him.  He’s really just an average hitter.  Hank Blalock missed a lot of time, but hit when he played.  Ramon Vazquez played a lot and contributed with the bat.  Chris Davis hit for power though he struck out a lot – even short timers Joaquin Arias and future stud Nelson Cruz helped.  Cruz batted .330 with serious power in just 115 at bats.

Behind the plate, Gerald Laird and Jarrod Saltalamacchia were a decent hitting tandem.

And the Defense?

Not so good.

Ian Kinsler is a great second baseman, and maybe the first basemen were just told not to go to their right because Kinsler was a gold glove quality player.  He makes 15 plays per 800 balls in play more than the average second sacker, helping save 26 runs.  However, three of the five guys who  played at least 200 innings at first were LOUSY.  Chris Davis, Hank Blalock, and Frank Catalanotto combined to give back nearly 50 runs with their shoddy range.  Throw in five third basemen who all had below average range, and you had serious problems at the corners.  I know Michael Young got the gold glove at SS, but I think they were honoring him by having been a shortstop for a long time.  He’s not that good.  I have him as slightly below league average in terms of range, made up somehwat by good DP/Error numbers.  It would have been more appropriate to give the award to Jason Bartlett.  Besides, if Young was so good, why did he move to third so that the rookie Elvis Andrus could play there in 2009?

Moving to the outfield, not a single guy logged 1000 innings at a position – though Hamilton did combine for it if you add his innings in center and right.  Milton Bradley and Hamilton both played well in right field, but the large and ambling Hamilton played too many innings in center, costing his team nearly 16 runs out there.  The best centerfielder is Marlon Byrd.  David Murphy played okay in right, not quite as well in left – which makes me think that he should have played in right, moved Hamilton to Left, and let Byrd play center all year.  This alone would have saved the club about 40 runs defensively, if not more.  Brandon Boggs is a better outfielder, but not as good a hitter as the others.  Nelson Cruz wasn’t bad out there – so the future will be brighter if Hamilton gets an easier gig.

As a tandem, the catching of Laird and Saltalamacchia was the worst in the AL, being below average in team ERA, winning percentage, stolen base percentage allowed (only two teams allowed more stolen bases than Texas), fielding percentage, and mistakes per game.  Because they were young, they were mobile.  That’s it.

Now Pitching:

Having admitted that the pitchers had no help from three postions (both corner infield and centerfield), and inexperienced catching, the pitching was still awful.

Kevin Millwood gained weight and was hit around a lot.  Vincente Padilla was slightly better than league average – but neither were in ace territory.  The really good pitchers save their teams 20 or 30 runs over 200 innings.  Combined, Padilla and Millwood were one run better than the average pitcher in 58 starts.  Basically two #3 pitchers.  Scott Feldman logged 25 starts and hopefully will find room to improve, but he doesn’t strike anyone out (74 in more than 151 innings).  Kason Gabbard was tolerable, Matt Harrison looks like he might be okay, but also didn’t fan a lot of guys, and Luis Mendoza got 11 starts we wish never happened.  He allowed more than a run each inning – 31 runs worse than the average pitcher in just 63 innings.  He’s the anti-Cy Young award winner…  There were a few guys (Boof Bonser, for example) who had a worse total number, but threw far more innings than Mendoza.

The bullpen was shaky, too.  C.J. Wilson was so erratic (6.02 ERA) that he lost his job to Frank Francisco (good call).  Eddie Guardado, who has been pitching since the Mexican War, was one of only two good relief options.  Jamey Wright, Josh Rupe, Warner Madrigal, and Dustin Nippert were not.

Forecasting 2009:

Actually, the Rangers are probably on the brink of a division crown.  When you can bash the balls like these guys, all you need to do is add a few decent pitchers and reorganize the defense and make a signficant impact.

First – who’s not here.  No Milton Bradley.  He was amazing last year as a hitter, but Nelson Cruz could be just as good.  And we haven’t heard stories (yet) that Cruz has “issues”.  Gerald Laird is gone – the team will live with youngster Taylor Teagarden and Saltalamacchia.

Who is new?  Elvis Andrus, a rookie, will take over at short.  Supposedly, he’s the real deal.  Blalock will get a shot at DH, 1B, and backing up new third baseman, Michael Young.  Andruw Jones signed a league minimum deal – it will be nice he can contribute, but his days of being a superstar are over.

A full season of Kinsler might net 10 extra runs.  Young will produce as much as the third basemen did last year – and the bench is still solid.  I think the improvement of Murphy and addition of Cruz might make up for what happens when Josh Hamilton slips just a little since last year was so much above anything he had shown before.  Chris Davis can bash – I hope he and Blalock field better.

The change in offense, though, is probably negative.  I think that without Laird, without Blalock (as much), and using Andrus at short probably costs the team 50 runs on offense.  Instead of 900 runs, it will be more like 850.

The key is defensive in nature.  Andrus and Young on the left side could be worth 50 or 60 runs in defense.  Davis and Blalock being (a) more comfortable at first and (b) in Blalock’s case, a little healthier, could be 20 runs of improvement.  The outfield would be stable with the moves I suggested – which may or may not happen.  Still – 80 runs of improvement.

Then, you have the pitching.  Rumor has it that Kevin Millwood was challenged by Nolan Ryan to act like the ace he is being paid to be.  Vincente Padilla slowed down after a summer in Texas, maybe he could hang in there.  Brandon McCarthy will be better than Mendoza.  More Francsco and less Wilson will help finish games, and if Wilson puts it back together in the seventh or eighth innings, that’s another ten runs.  More Derek Holland or Matt Harrison might be good for a short term fix.  They really could use another reliever – the injured Joaquin Benoit isn’t coming soon, but if someone were to just have a season like his in 2006, that would help.  Still, I don’t see that though I do see an improvement.  It could be 50 runs better.

So, if the team scores 850 and allows 830, it could be 83 wins.  And, if the Angels crash to earth (as I am predicting), the Rangers would be among the first to bash their way to the forefront.  If they were to get one more ace starter, look out.

Down on the Farm:

Most of the arms who looked any good in AAA Oklahoma City got a shot, including Brandon McCarthy, Kameron Loe, and 21 year old Tommy Hunter (nice control, doesn’t blow people away).  Matt Harrison will be a regular going forward – he was 22 last year.  Players who can hit also have arrived – Nelson Cruz (37 – 99 – .342, and Chris Davis (10 – 31 – .222 in 31 games).  Cruz is the real deal, but Davis has a bit of a hole in his swing.

Elvis Andrus hit .296 for the Frisco Roughriders (AA) at 19.  Julio Borbon, an outfielder with some speed, hit .337, and catcher for 2010, Max Ramirez, hit .354 with serious power.  Chad Tracy is a first baseman with a bat, too.  The best pitcher in AA was probably Derek Holland, who got four starts and looked great.  He got rushed through A, A+ and into AA because he has the goods.  I just hope he isn’t rushed to the majors because he might get swatted around and mess with his confidence.  He can pitch, though.

At A+ Bakersfield, watch out for Kasey Kiker – who looks like he can pitch a little.  Tanner Roark looks like he can pitch some, too.  Roark has control and strikes people out – a good combination.

From what I can tell, the Rangers have some hitting options, and might have a few future arms.  The future is bright.