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.

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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.

Dawson Bound for Cooperstown; Hot Stove Returns to Action

Andre Dawson, on his ninth try, was elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame.  Detractors say his on base percentage was too low – but that’s his only flaw.  He hit for power, hit for average, he ran down flies, and had the best arm on a right fielder I have ever seen.  Nobody was tougher; nobody was more universally respected and loved than this guy.  The Cubs fan in me remembers how he begged for a chance to play and earned a contract by winning the MVP in 1987.  [ESPN]

Bert Blyleven just missed (five votes short) and Robbie Alomar was denied a shot at first ballot entry by eight voters.

SI’s Tom Verducci thinks that there is a small and shrinking window for the stars of the last generation – guys like Tim Raines, Jack Morris, and Dale Murphy.  He makes an interesting point…   Jack Morris was a HORSE, Dale Murphy was overrated somewhat, but Tim Raines is undeniably a Hall of Famer.  [SI]

Keith Law, someone I usually find interesting and insightful, really scooped the deep end of the garbage can for this post.  Okay – I agree – Raines was robbed.  I agree, I don’t understand why people vote the way they do – or not vote at all.  But to say that Dawson didn’t deserve to make it and that Jim Rice lowered the standards?  Does he remember how good Jim Rice was for a decade?

Look – I’ve never seen anyone stand up for Jim Rice, but LOWERED the STANDARD?  Usually that’s done by the Veteran’s Committee – not the voters.  Jim Rice was the most feared hitter in baseball, was a solid outfielder in a difficult outfield, and is a credit to the game.  And to compare Andre Dawson to Yuniesky Betancourt is a joke.  Law wrote, “…Andre Dawson, is most notable for the enormous number of outs he made while bulking up his credentials.”  Really?  Most people don’t remember the outs – they remember the grace, class, power, speed, and arm.  They remember how he and Gary Carter gave the Expos credibility; how he mentored Tim Raines – keeping him on the straight and narrow.  He was a LEADER – by example and by action.

Each deserves their spot in the Hall of Fame.

HOT STOVE NEWS!!!

Eric Hinske signed a one-year deal with the Braves.  This is a GREAT signing.  Hinske is getting up there in years, but he hustles, hits for some power, can play four positions – just the kind of guy you want on your team for long summers and the post-season.  And the Braves look like they might be thinking about the post-season in 2010.  Does anyone remember that he was the 2002 AL Rookie of the Year?  [ESPN]

It’s official – Casey Kotchman is a Mariner – and the Red Sox will get utility infielder/outfielder Bill Hall.  This is a pretty good move for both teams, even though I think the Mariners could use a more productive first baseman than Kotchman.  Kotchman has appeared, at times, to be more of a poor man’s Mark Grace, but the more I look at it, Mientkiewicz  is a solid match.  He’s just not enough offense for the position. [MLB]

Oakland returns Jack Cust to the fold for the third time – though this time it was only because the As didn’t offer him a contract and signed him as a free agent a few weeks later.  Cust gets at least $2.65 million for 2010.  The DH/Outfielder remains a solid power threat with a few extra walks, though if he gets 600 plate appearances he might strikeout 200 times.  There are worse problems to have than a guy who hits 30 homers – but Richie Sexton didn’t stay around forever either…  [MLB]

The Royals added more pitching depth, signing Cuban defector Noel Arguelles to a multi-year deal worth $6.9 million.  After taking time off, Arguelles will join the Royals in spring training and figure out what level in the minors he’ll get to show off his stuff.  The kid is big – 6′ – 4″ and 225, athletic, and has a solid reputation in international play.  With Aaron Crow signing after being drafted out of Missouri, the Royals may have two potential aces to join Zach Greinke by 2012.  If they can find an offense, that would be something.  [MLB]

Edgar Gonzalez, older brother of Adrian, and also a member of the Padres is the first of the Gonzalez brothers to leave town…  Edgar is heading west, however, across the International Date Line, to play in Japan.

The Yankees kept Sergio Mitre around – one year, $850K.  Yawn.

A good guy isn’t pitching in 2010 – Scott Eyre decided that it would more fun to spend the summer with his family.  God Bless – see you on ESPN in 2011.

Happy Birthday!

Just a quick list today…  Kitty Bransfield (1875) – outfielder on the great Pirates team at the beginning of the last century, Johnny Mize (1913), Alvin Dark (1922), Dick Schofield (1935), Jim Lefebvre (1942), Tony Conigliaro (1945), Ross Grimsley (1950), Doug Capilla (1952), Allan Anderson (1964), Eric Gagne (1976), Alfonso Soriano (1976), Edwin Encarnacion (1983), and Jon Lester (1984).

Free Agents Filing at Torrid Pace…

‘Tis the season for teams to decide on what members will remain on the 40-man roster, and which players will not get tendered offers based on existing options, and for other players to test the market.  So, for the next several days, the list of players on the MLB Free Agent list will grow and the number of players officially on the 40-man rosters will likely shrink for a little while.

The Rumor Mill

FoxSports reports that the Cubs are considering a three-way deal to move Milton Bradley.  The Cubs would get Luis Castillo from the Mets, the Mets would get Lyle Overbay from the Toronto Blue Jays, and Toronto would get Bradley.  Other deals suggest the Rays getting involved and offering Pat Burrell for Bradley.  [FoxSports]

The Mariners are looking to keep Felix Hernandez around (which means starting the process of a long-term deal now), but understand that there are many, many suitors for the AL Cy Young candidate.  [SI]

Thanks for Playing!

Carl Crawford remains in Tampa as the Rays honored his $10 million option.  Meanwhile, Brian Shouse and Greg Zaun were both bought out and will become free agents.  [ESPN]

Boston picked up the option for catcher Victor Martinez ($7.1 million), signed Tim Wakefield to a two-year deal loaded with incentives, but declined an option on Jason Varitek.  Varitek has the option to sign for $3 million to be a backup next year, else join the free agent market.  For Wakefield, he’ll have a chance to break the team record for pitching victories (Young/Clemens have 192) and win his 200th career game.  [ESPN]

Free Agent Filings…

The most interesting story is that a Japanese fireballer, Ryota Igarashi of the Yakult Swallows, owner of a 98-mph fastball, wants to play here.  Japanese players have to wait nine seasons before they can come to the states and Igarashi is already 30 but could be a viable late inning pitcher for somebody.  [ESPN]

The Dodgers declined a $2.2 million option on reliever Will Ohman, while Mark Loretta and Juan Castro also filed.  [ESPN/MLB]

Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui, Yankee World Series heroes, joined the current list of 151 free agents.  Other Yankees on the list now include Eric Hinske, Jose Molina, and Xavier Nady.  [MLB]

Houston’s Jose Valverde, as good a reliever on the market, filed for free agency yesterday.  At least five Astros players (Erstad, Tejada, Brocail) are on the list now.  [MLB]

Octavio Dotel not only filed, but learned he was a Type A free agent, which means the Sox have to offer arbitation if they hope to get compensation should someone else sign Dotel.  [MLB]

Rockies pitchers Joe Beimel and Jose Contreras filed for free agency.  If Beimel is healthy, he’s a good pickup, but I’d be surprised if Contreras gets a lot of interest from teams.  [MLB]

Cubs closer (well, former closer) Kevin Gregg filed for free agency, and – like Dotel – was graded as a Type A free agent, meaning the Cubs have to offer Gregg arbitration to get the compensation draft pick.  [MLB]

Twins infielder Orlando Cabrera joined the list of free agents, alongside Mike Redmond, Ron Mahay, Carl Pavano, and Joe Crede on the list.  [MLB]

Toronto catcher Rod Barajas is a free agent, though he noted that he’d love to stay a Blue Jay.  [MLB]

You know who has a lot of free agents?  St. Louis.  Todd Wellemeyer became the ninth player (Holliday, Ankiel, Pineiro, Smoltz, Glaus, Greene, DeRosa, LaRue) to file.  [MLB]

Gary Sheffield also filed for free agency, trying to find ANYONE who might give him a chance to play.  He’s at eight teams and counting…  [MLB]

Free Agent Discussions

Jerry Crasnick met with a number of executives and put eight questions before them.  Want to see the answers?  [ESPN]

SI’s Ted Keith identifies his list of the ten riskiest free agents.  Well, nine + Rich Harden!!!  [SI]

Old News…

Something else I missed last week…  With several infielders on the horizon (Reid Brignac, Tim Beckham) and Ben Zobrist having blasted his way into the starting lineup, the Rays had less need for Akinori Iwamura.  So, the Rays shipped Iwamura to Pittsburgh for reliever Jesse Chavez.  Chavez probably appreciates the change of scenery, joining a contender, but he’ll need to step up his game to be a contributor.  I like this move for Pittsburgh.

Happy Birthday!

His 1961 season put him on the map, and for much of the 1960s, he was a great Tiger slugger – Norm Cash would be 75 today…

Also celebrating with cards and cake (or rememberances):  Jimmy Dykes (1896), Birdie Tebbetts (1912), Gene Conley (1930), Mike Vail (1951), Larry Christenson (1953), Larry Parrish (1953), Bob Stanley (1954), Jack Clark (1955), Kenny Rogers (1964), Keith Lockhart (1964), and Shawn Green (1972)…

Afterthoughts…

For the first time in nearly 30 years, it looks like all 27 members of the U.S. Appeals court will review the “drug list” case, determining the fate of the list of 104 players who allegedly failed the 2003 anonymous steroid survey.  [MLB]

Yankees Add Hinske From Pirates For Two Prospects

With news that Xavier Nady is likely out for the season, the New York Yankees traded for a corner outfielder, getting Eric Hinske from the Pirates for two minor leaguers.  Hinske is a former Rookie of the Year (2002 – Toronto), and was a key contributor to the 2007 Boston Red Sox.

For the Pirates, they get a couple of prospects in Casey Erickson, a pitcher out of Springfield College, and Eric Fryer, a former catcher now mostly playing in the outfield.  Both look to be at least three years away from a major league roster, but might have skills.  Erickson has decent command and from what his stats say, looks like he keeps the ball down – maybe a cutter or sinking fastball.  He also throws strikes, but gives up a few hits per nine more than the really hard throwers.  So, he probably could use a solid infield to help out – something he’s not getting with this Yankee’s lineup…  Fryer is a hitter – batted .335 last year in A ball, shows some patience and a little pop.  However, in the Florida State League this year, his batting average and slugging average is down a piece (which happens, by the way – big parks and heavy sea-level air).

I like this for the Yankees, even though Hinske hasn’t really panned out as a regular.  They get someone who can help for three months rather cheaply – two guys who probably have a 15% chance of being as productive as Hinske.  It gives the Pirates a little more depth in their organization – which is a positive – and both players have room for growth (probably a bit more time for Erickson than Fryer).  In three years, Erickson could be a fifth starter or middle reliever that eats innings, which is a positive.  Besides, Hinske wasn’t really in the Pirates long-term plans.

[MLB.COM]

2009 Season Forecast: Tampa Rays

Tampa Bay Rays
2008: 97-65 (1st AL East, League Champions)
Runs Scored: 774
Runs Allowed: 671

What a ride!  A team that had never before approached .500 made a series of impressive moves, getting younger and more talented, adding a key veteran as necessary, and getting skilled guidance from a manager who looks like a science teacher and believes in winning.

At the outset, many people predicted that they would be improved.  A few people, including me, thought they would be above .500 and possibly competitive – and the Rays went further than that.  They held down the high powered offenses of the AL East, held off Boston not only for the division crown but also for a trip to the World Series, and look to be a team that might be among the best teams in the AL for the foreseeable future.

Looking Back on 2008

To anyone who really studied what the Rays did, you really have to start with the defense.  In 2007, there were a TON of holes.  You had two outfielders who couldn’t find their way to the ball in Delmon Young and Elijah Dukes.  You had weak play at second and short, especially Brendan Harris – who really is better than he played in 2007, but wasn’t very good that year.  The bullpen was atrocious and a few starters were not long term solutions but just warm bodies, which meant that there were too many people on base.  Batters would walk or the ball would find holes or even leave the park.  The 2007 Rays allowed more than 900 runs.

The trade of Harris and Young to Minnesota for Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza immediately improved the team by 70 runs.  Bartlett is an amazing shortstop, acrobatic and sure.  Garza is a legitimate starter – an upgrade over Casey Fossum.  Getting Evan Longoria to the big leagues and moving Akinori Iwamura to second put a tremendous defender at the hot corner, and Iwamura was solid at second.  Not especially rangy, but good on the double play and not prone to errors.

What this did, of course, by strengthening the infield defense (Strengthen? It was air tight!) was give the Rays pitchers confidence that no matter where the ball was put in play, it was going to be turned into an out.  So, pitchers just needed to throw strikes.  If they did that, they would strike a few more people out and the fielders would turn batted balls into outs.  Stress free pitching.

When it was all over, the Rays pitchers were near the top of the league in strikeouts.  They cut the walks down – they allowed fewer free passes than the league average.  The high strikeout count meant fewer balls in play, but even there it didn’t matter because no team in the American League was even CLOSE to the efficiency of the Rays defense.  Nobody turned more balls in play into outs than Tampa.  And, those that got on base were removed by double plays at a well above league average rate.  Oh, and the catching was above average against the run, and with hardly anyone on base anyway, nobody allowed fewer stolen bases than Tampa.

Oh yeah.  The offense wasn’t horrible either.  About as good as the Yankees last year.

One other quick thing before we talk about the specifics – the pitching staff was remarkably healthy.  Scott Kazmir was out a little early in the year, but after that you had four guys make at least 30 starts and Kazmir had 27 starts.  Troy Percival injured his hamstring at the end of the season, but the rest of the staff was pretty stable.  And that didn’t hurt either.

Tell me about that offense

Looking up and down the lineup, what you see are no superstars, but no weak sisters either.  The average hitter can be expected to put about 4.7 runs per 27 outs on the scoreboard, no regular on the Rays was below that.

Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena serve as the power bookends.  Pena dropped a bit from 2007’s peak season numbers, but still hit 32 homers and knocked in 102.  He strikes out a lot (166 times), but he draws walks.  Longoria, for a rookie, hit like Mike Lowell in his early years – good power, RBIs, and a decent .272 batting average.  Had he played a full season of games, he would have cleared 30 – 100 himself.  In between, Iwamura and Bartlett weren’t huge run producers, but slapped the ball around enough to contribute.  Backup Willy Aybar had a decent season – mid range power, a few walks, and above league average production in 300-plus at bats.

In the outfield, B. J. Upton’s power numbers were down – he and Carl Crawford had similar power numbers – but both contributed offensively.  In Upton’s case, he’s still young and the Up(ton) side is scary high.  A collection of helpers played in right and the designated hitter role, all being productive when called upon.  Cliff Floyd, Rocco Baldelli, Ben Zobrist, Gabe Gross, and Eric Hinske all contributed – giving the Rays a variety of options for the daily scorecard.

Behind the plate, Dioner Navarro just missed .300 by a couple of hits – and had a number of game changing hits.  His backup, Shawn Riggans, was one of only two players with at least 80 at bats who was a below average run producer (Johnny Gomes was the other).  However, neither was WAY below average – they just didn’t have big seasons in about 150 at bats.

Defensively:

I discussed the net results before – but here are the details.  Longoria had a positive range factor of 6.3 – meaning he made six plays more than the average third basemen for every 800 balls in play.  He also started 26 double plays while making only 12 errors, which means that he helped save his pitchers some 15 runs over the course of the season.  Iwamura was average in terms of range, but well above average in his double play ratio (109 DPs, only 7 errors), so he helped save another three or four runs.  Bartlett’s range is slightly better than Longoria’s (6.5); he was saving his team twelve runs.  Despite all three fielders making more plays than expected, Pena continued with his solid defensive play, making an above average number of plays after taking out the assists of his fielders.

Crawford and Upton were better than average fielders, each saving his team more than 10 runs with above average range.  Hinske was great in right, not so good in left, but the net was okay.  Gabe Gross came over and gave the team seven above average fielders behind the pitcher on a day-to-day basis.  Johnny Gomes and Hinske were the only regulars to show below average defensive numbers.  Willy Aybar and Ben Zobrist were decent fielding options.

Dioner Navarro was a pretty good catcher, though slightly mistake prone and not necessarily very mobile.  Riggans is a solid number two, and even better than Navarro against the run.

Now Pitching…

Knowing how good the defense was, you have to look at the pitchers a bit differently.  Both James Shields and Scott Kazmir are good pitchers – but they are not GREAT pitchers.  They had a lot of help.  Matt Garza was actually slightly below average once you remove the help of his defenders, and both Edwin Jackson and Andy Sonnestine were below average.

The average ERA in the AL last year was 4.34.  For Tampa Bay, the team finished at 3.82.  However, by my count, the team’s defense was 109 runs better than the average AL squad.  That means that, on the whole, the Rays pitching was actually slightly WORSE than average.

Pitcher Innings Runs Allowed Modified Runs Allowed RA/9 MRA/9
Scott Kazmir 152.33 61 73 3.60 4.31
James Shields 215 94 112 3.93 4.69
Matt Garza 184.67 83 99 4.05 4.82
Andy Sonnestine 193.33 105 125 4.89 5.82
Edwin Jackson 183.33 91 108 4.47 5.30

Looking at it this way, only the top two starters were better than league average (and Shields only barely), Garza was at league average (slightly below, actually), and Jackson and Sonnestine will be fighting for a job once David Price is moved into the rotation.

The bullpen had a couple of great performances from Grant Balfour and J.P Howell – but the rest were average to below average performances.  (Okay, Dan Wheeler was above average, too.)   The good news was that, with five guys logging more innings than any Rays staff before, the bullpen wasn’t usually exposed.  And, they got help from the defense behind them.  The weakest reliever in a key role was Troy Percival.  Balfour’s season, even after taking the defense into consideration, was truly remarkable.  Less than a hit allowed every HALF inning, 82 strikouts in 58.1 innings, only three homers allowed.  One of the greatest seasons by a middle reliever/set up man ever.  By the way, moving Price to the closer role in the playoffs was a necessity – the rest of the bullpen after Balfour and Howell weren’t all that good anyway.

Forecasting 2009:

Last year, the Rays scored 774 runs and allowed just 671.  So, to remain at 90+ wins, they have to keep things the same – outscore their opponents by 100 runs. 

The only real change on offense will be replacing Cliff Floyd and Johnny Gomes with Pat Burrell at the DH position.  Burrell is a consistent hitter and if he can stay involved in games (and not have to play the field), that could be worth 10 or 15 more runs.  The rest of the offense (and defense) is relatively unchanged.  While the players might be a little better, the only ones who have a chance to be REALLY improved are B. J. Upton and Evan Longoria.  Upton is coming off of shoulder surgery in November, so he might not be ready on opening day.   Longoria could step up, too, but his replacement (Willie Aybar) had a good season last year anyway – so it might only net to about five runs.  Longoria might have a sophomore slump for a short period of time and have to get his bearings.  If he doesn’t, though, he could have a Matt Williams type season.  Maybe a peak Troy Glaus season.  If so, that’s a ten to fifteen run increase.  Since so many bench players had solid seasons, it’s not unreasonable to think that one or two of them might not have a good run in 150 at bats – so that would negate that benefit.  I think the Rays MIGHT get to 800 runs, but more realistically, they’ll be not too far off from where they are now.

Defensively, the team will remain solid if everyone remains healthy and Pat Burrell isn’t asked to play the field.  If so, life is good and the pitchers will benefit.  If not – especially if the lost player is Bartlett or Iwamura, or even Upton, that means trouble – ten to fifteen runs of trouble.  The one real opportunity for immediate improvement is the addition of David Price to the rotation.  Price will certainly be an upgrade on Edwin Jackson or Andy Sonnestine, so that could make up for 20 runs of potential decline in other areas.  Howell, Wheeler, and Balfour were so good last year that they really can’t be expected to turn in the same seasons, and if Percival really is the closer, this could be a problem because the defense hid the fact that he really wasn’t all that good.  Jason Isringhausen got a non-roster invite to spring training, and I hope he isn’t pressed into closer duty.

Throw in the fact that the Rays were actually a little bit over their heads last year (the Blue Jays had essentially the same differential in runs scored and runs allowed, but finished with an unlucky 86 wins), and one wonders if the Rays might actually decline a little bit.  A slow start or small slump, and the team struggles with expectations – next thing you know it’s 85 – 77 and not 95 – 67.  My best guess is that the team will win 92 games and be right in the thick of the playoff hunt.  If Las Vegas odds makers have the Rays winning 92, though, I’m playing the under.

Down on the Farm…

Justin Ruggiano was the best outfielder and hitter at AAA Durham, hitting 11 homers with 20 steals – a good combination of speed and power – in just half a season.  However, he doesn’t walk much (22 in about 280 plate appearances).  Still, he’s as good as Gabe Gross, just as mobile in the field, though learning at the plate.  Mitch Talbot might get a shot as a starter or long reliever after going 13 – 9 for the Bulls, with good K/W data and few homers allowed.  Jeremy Cummings and Dale Thayer had good years, but are too old to be considered as prospects.

The best player at AA Montgomery (the Biscuits!) was David Price, and he’s not going to be heading back unless it’s a rehab assignment.  Chris Nowak might be a future third base prospect, but not in Tampa Bay.  Cesar Valdez led Visalia (A+) posting a 10 – 3 record with good control.  Jeremy Hellickson ripped through Vero Beach (A+), going 7 – 1 in 14 starts, with 83 Ks against only 5 walks (!) in nearly 77 innings.  He was quickly moved to Montgomery and held his own.  Hellickson will be on the major league team if he keeps at this rate – though probably not until 2010.