So Long, Tony LaRussa

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

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

Sabathia to Stay a Yankee

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

Indians, Braves Swipe Pitchers – Derek Lowe Heads to Cleveland

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

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

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

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

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

Twins Claim Maloney, Gray off Waivers

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

Happy Birthday!

Those celebrating with cards, cake, or remembrances include:

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

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2011 Season Forecast: Cleveland Indians

Last Five Years:

2010:  69 – 93  (Fourth in AL Central)
2009:  65 – 97
2008:  81 – 81
2007:  96 – 66
2006:  78 – 84

Remember 2007, anyone?  the Indians were a game away from getting to the World Series.

Runs Scored: 646 (12th in the AL)
Runs Allowed: 752 (12th in the AL)

With this combination of runs scored and allowed, the Indians would have been expected to win 69 games – which is what they did.

Season Recap:

Most experts had the Indians and Royals battling for the bottom of the AL Central, and the Indians did just that – edging the Royals by two games to claim fourth in the division.

The Indians got off to a moderately slow start, but fell way off the pace in May, going 9 – 18.  Other than that month and a rather poor August (10 – 18, but played better than that), the Indians roared down the stretch with a 15 – 12 September, catching the Royals to get out of the cellar.  Part of this was adding a few nuggets – like rookie catcher Carlos Santana and infielders Jason Donald and Jayson Nix – who were happy to get playing time and helped lead the charge.

Starters:

Fausto Carmona returned to form, tossing sinkers and sinking fastballs, and giving the Indians 210.1 innings of solid baseball.  Justin Masterson’s first season as a regular in the rotation wasn’t a complete loss.  Sure, he allowed a lot of runs, but he had decent strikeout numbers and hung in there for the whole year.  He needs to work on his control, but there’s something to build on here.  Mitch Talbot won 10 games, but I’m not sure how.  He doesn’t strike a lot of guys out and he tends to walk even more guys than Masterson.  Jake Westbrook returned to make 21 fair starts before being shipped off to St. Louis for the stretch run.  David Huff, Josh Tomlin, and Jeanmar Gomez served as fifth starters – only Huff looked way out of place and of the three, Tomlin looks to be ready to take a turn 30 times and be successful.

Looking forward, a rotation of Carmona, Masterson, Talbot, Tomlin, and another kid named Carlos Carrasco has some potential for growth.  I see Talbot falling off a little, but if Carmona can hold form, the other three guys could certainly shave 30 – 40 runs off the runs allowed side of the ledger.

Relievers:

Chris Perez did a great job as the closer and returns for another season.  Tony Sipp, Rafael Perez, Joe Smith, Jensen Lewis, and Frank Herrmann will tote some innings as well.  Justin Germano did an okay job last year and gets a non-roster invitation to training camp.  He has a shot at being the 11th man on the staff.  Of these, I am less inclined to believe that Perez and Smith will be as successful, so Lewis, Herrmann, and SOMEBODY will have to step up.  I think the bullpen may be off by 10 runs over the course of the season.

Catching:

Carlos Santana had a great first 40 games.  He’s a convert – came to the Dodgers in 2005 as a third baseman and played all over the infield and outfield – an Elmo Plaskett sort of career.  I 2007, he was switched to catcher and has shown himself to be a quick learner with a strong arm.  As a hitter, he has a .401 OBP in the minors with 25 homer potential.  His backup, Lou Marson, has solid defensive skills but struggled at the plate last year – even after being sent to AAA.  I don’t think this will happen again.

Infield:

Last year’s infield started out as Russell Branyan, Mark Grudzielanek or Luis Valbuena, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Jhonny Peralta.  By August, Grudzielanek was released and now is retired.  Branyan was returned to Seattle, and I have no reason why they would have done that – but what the hey.  Matt LaPorta came in to play first.  Jayson Nix outplayed Andy Marte to win the third base job, and Jason Donald earned a shot at second base.  Only Cabrera played most of the season – but even he, by the end of the season, was seeing less playing time because his bat had tanked from where it was in 2009.

Looking forward, Donald or Nix looks to be the third baseman, LaPorta will get one more shot at first base, and Asdrubal Cabrera will get a shot to return to form at short.  More importantly, the Indians have imported Reds infielder Orlando Cabrera to play second base.  Jayson Nix and Valbuena return as depth.  I like adding Orlando Cabrera, though he’s getting long in the tooth and hasn’t really played a whole lot of second base in his career.  Donald can hit as well as Peralta these days, and LaPorta has room for growth.  Defensively, it’s not awesome – but it’s not bad either (well, LaPorta didn’t impress me).  If nothing else, it’s an infield that gives a manager a lot of daily options if necessary.

Outfield:

In right field, Shin Soo Choo is awesome – 20/20 with a high batting average and on base percentage.  He’s one of the best in the game.  The problem is the other two positions.  In center, the Indians are hoping that Grady Sizemore can return from microfracture surgery on his left knee.  At peak, and Sizemore is just 29, Sizemore is a potent bat in the middle of the lineup.  He hasn’t had centerfield range in years, though, so I’d rather see him play left field.  That leaves Michael Brantley or Trevor Crowe in left (or center) and neither impressed at the plate, being low average, low power guys with speed.  Crowe might be the better defensive option in center, but neither has 1000 innings in the field yet, so it’s still open for debate.  Austin Kearns returns to be a fourth or fifth outfielder and DH option.

DH:

Travis Hafner, no longer the threat he once was, still helps put runs on the board.  Carlos Santana, Shelly Duncan, or Austin Kearns will be the other half of a platoon arrangement.

Down on the Farm:

The guys at AAA who looked like they could play a little, Brantley, Crowe, Donald, LaPorta (who caught in AAA), all got shots with the parent club.  Of those who did not, Jose Constanza hit .319 with less power and a lower OBP than Brantley, so that won’t work.  Cord Phelps moved up from AA, is just 24, and hit .317 with a little power.  Phelps is a 3rd round pick out of Stanford in 2008 who has been moved up quickly and played better at each level.  That being said, the entire Columbus AAA team hit .285, so I wouldn’t put stock in those averages holding up at the big league level.  None of the guys who hit .300 in AAA hit anywhere near .250 in the bigs in 2010.  A couple of pitchers were rushed to the bigs, including Gomez and Huff, while Carlos Carrasco pitched better than all of them (10 – 6, 133Ks in 150.1 innings, good control, 3.65 ERA in a hitter’s park).  So of the young arms in camp, I like his the best.

AA Akron features a couple of pitchers who might make you look for them in a year or two.  Alex White is just 22, had a 2.28 ERA in 17 starts, and had good control, decent K numbers, and kept the ball in the park.  The UNC grad was the #1 pick of the Indians in 2009 and appears to have a fast track to the majors.  Chen Lee pitched relief, fanned 82 and walked just 22 in 72.2 innings of work.

The second round pick of the 2009 draft, Jason Kipnis, hit well at A+ Kinston, batting .300 with a .387 OBP and power, earning a trip to Akron, where he continued to hit well (.311/.385/.502).  I like him because he’s from Northbrook, IL – a graduate of Glenbrook North, where a bunch of my cousins went to school.  He’s still figuring out second base, but he will be in the majors before you know it.  The 2008 #1 pick, Lonnie Chisenhall, has migrated to third base and shows power – but right now projects out as an Andy Marte clone – and that’s not MLB ready yet.

2011 Forecast:

Let’s call it guarded optimism.  The young pitchers should be able to build on 2010, but I think the defense will suffer if Sizemore is allowed to play center and with Orlando Cabrera learning a new position (and LaPorta likely getting 1000 innings at first).  It’s not a total wash, but it’s at least mitigating some of the potential improvement.  If Sizemore plays left and Crowe plays center, the team will remove 30 runs from the runs allowed side.  If Sizemore is still in center, I don’t see any change.

The offense will certainly be better at catcher, and if Sizemore can hit, that’s another huge plus – possibly 80 extra runs on the board between the two positions.  Cabrera or Donald or Nix will be better than a full season of Luis Valbuena, too.  When I feel optimistic, the system says that the team should score 725 runs and allow about 740 – but managerial decisions and Sizemore’s health aren’t guarantees, so I’ll hedge my bet and guess it will be more like 700 and 750 instead.  That puts the Indians at 75 wins – a nice step in the right direction.  On the other hand, the potential is there to get to 80 games if a lot of things work in their favor.  Besides, Cleveland could use some good news from a sporting standpoint.  As such, I’ll be rooting for the pleasant surprise…

Best and Worst Pitchers in the AL for 2009; And Other Notes…

Earlier this week, I posted my list of the top pitchers in the NL and explained my methods.  Just as a recap, here’s what I am trying to do:

1) I start with the number of runs allowed by each pitcher, and the number of innings that guy pitched.

2) I modify the number of runs allowed to account for any bias based on the pitcher’s home park.

3) I modify the number of runs allowed based on my defensive rating system for teams and players because if you have Seattle’s team defense behind you, you are less likely to allow a run than if you had the Royals defense behind you.  We’ll get into this in more detail when we hand out defensive awards next week.

Then, I compare what an average pitcher would have done with what that pitcher did – and come up with a “runs saved” or “extra runs allowed” ranking.  Nobody saved his team more runs than did Zack Greinke last year.  Zack Greinke had a really low ERA over more than 220 innings despite pitching in a park that helps hitters a little bit and having a rather poor defense behind him.  As such, his season is the best season I have tracked since I started doing this in 2005.

Top Pitchers (by Runs Saved)

65.61 – Zack Greinke (KC)
47.11 – Roy Halliday (TOR)
33.22 – Jon Lester (BOS)
32.14 – Felix Hernandez (SEA)
27.55 – Andrew Bailey (OAK)
26.51 – Cliff Lee (CLE)
25.74 – C.C. Sabathia (NYY)
25.73 – Justin Verlander (DET)
22.21 – Jonathan Papelbon (BOS)
21.30 – Mariano Rivera (NYY)
21.13 – Joe Nathan (MIN)
20.80 – Jered Weaver (LAA)
20.57 – Kevin Millwood (TEX)
20.09 – Josh Beckett (BOS)

21.61 – Jarrod Washburn (SEA) – but -13.29 in DET

In fact, it’s not even close – Greinke had as good a season as we’ve seen by a pitcher in a long, long time.  Imagine if he had done this for 40 starts instead of 33, with a team like Seattle.  He MIGHT have had an ERA around 1.70 and a won-loss record of something like 27 – 4.  From this, you can see that Halliday instead of Cliff Lee will be a slight step up for Philadelphia and would have been a more serious contender for the Cy Young Award (in my book) had not Greinke been more dominating.

Another thing of interest – four relievers were good enough to sneak onto the list of pitcher saving his team more than 20 runs, led by Andrew Bailey.  Let’s use that to show the list of the top relievers in the AL last year.

Top Relievers

27.55 – Andrew Bailey (OAK)
22.21 – Jonathan Papelbon (BOS)
21.30 – Mariano Rivera (NYY)
21.13 – Joe Nathan (MIN)
18.41 – Matt Guerrier (MIN)
18.09 – Darren O’Day (TEX)
17.04 – Matt Thornton (CHW)
17.04 – Michael Wuertz (OAK)
16.79 – Darren Oliver (LAA)
16.41 – Jose Mijares (MIN)
16.16 – Brandon Lyon (DET)
15.87 – Joakim Soria (KC)

A couple of things – usually the top guys are middle relievers or set up men with great ERAs in 70 innings.  There are a couple here – Thorton, Wuertz, and Oliver for example.  Still – the top four guys were KILLER closers in 2009.

Worst Pitchers

-37.04 – Andy Sonnestine (TB)
-33.26 – Fausto Carmona (CLE)
-24.16 – Chien-Ming Wang (NYY)
-22.81 – Jason Berken (BAL)
-21.45 – Derek Holland (TEX)
-20.71 – Luke Hochevar (KC)
-21.02 – Chris Jakubauskas (SEA)
-20.38 – Jose Contreras (CHW)
-19.59 – Armando Galarraga (DET)
-19.17 – Rich Hill (BAL)
-18.36 – Garrett Olson (SEA)

-23.47 – Scott Kazmir (TB) – but positive 11.34 in LAA

If you had Andy Sonnestine on your fantasy team last year, you didn’t read my Tampa Rays Team Profile that pointed out that many of the Rays pitchers weren’t as good as you thought because the team defense in 2008 was amazingly good.  In 2009, Bartlett was hurt, and Upton struggled, and Aki Iwamura went down, and Carlos Pena looked a little older (and then left to an injury).  Sonnestine may throw strikes, but they sure do get hit a lot.

Hopefully, Fausto Carmona and Chien-Ming Wang can figure things out.  Two years ago, these guys won nearly 40 games combined – and now they are #2 and #3 on the wrong list.

And, if you are scrolling down to the NL List, note that the list contained a bunch of Brewer and Padre pitchers.  In the AL, only Seattle doubled up by having two guys get pounded around – bad pitching was more evenly distributed…

Cooper Fired in Houston; Did He Have a Chance?

This is your lot, Cecil Cooper.  Your two best players, Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt, showed signs of getting older – missing time and underperforming.  Your shortstop is older than people were told and no longer is a force at the plate, and your starting catcher had played in more games than anyone in baseball history – then he was sent packing.  The rotation is patchwork at best, featuring one guy who may hold the record for DL trips (Mike Hampton) and a third starter who barely reaches 80 with his fastball and is only marginally tolerable (Brian Moehler).  Your fifth starter is 2 – 11 (Felipe Paulino – not to be confused with Fausto Carmona, but they have similar stats).  There are a couple of guys who aren’t half bad – Michael Bourn, Hunter Pence, Carlos Lee – but the bench slots are filled with people who probably can’t hit as well as you, Cecil.  Guys like Darin Erstad.  And Cooper hasn’t played in more than 20 years.

Through August, however, your team has hovered at the fringe of the race – sometimes a little above .500, sometimes a little below.  This isn’t a disappointment – like the Cubs – but probably a pleasant surprise.  I know lots of people who thought that, after spring training, Houston would finish with 100 losses and finish below Pittsburgh.

And now, Cecil Cooper has been fired.  Well, it wasn’t entirely your fault your team has no depth, no prospects, and gave away the catcher who, while he can’t hit, was keeping the pitching staff in games.  I mean, Wandy Rodriguez came into his own this year.  But you can’t take credit for that anymore either.  Reading the articles, the owner and GM felt that a team with a $103 million payroll should be better.  And, some of the players, like Berkman, felt responsible for Cooper’s firing.  And, to read it in Houston, the players no longer respected Cooper – not liking his style, and thinking that he didn’t handle game situations well.  Some writers in Houston think that his firing was inevitable, that he had no chance, but he deserved to be fired.  I think Ed Wade needs to be fired, too – he put this team together.  Cooper held it together, until too many pieces fell apart – and there weren’t players on the farm who could step up and contribute.  I mean, Russ Ortiz as a starter?  He hasn’t been good since 2004.  Maybe Dave Clark, the interim manager, will get a shot.  Not that Dave Clark had any more experience as a MLB manager than Cooper.  Either that, or Willie Randolph can get a shot at redemption.

Whomever gets the job next year is going to be lucky to win 70 games.  Cooper had done that. [ESPN/SI/MLB/Houston Chronicle]

Well – there’s no manager’s union for things like this.  However, when a player is a problem, thank God the MLB Players Association can step in and defend him.  Word is out that the MLBPA will file a grievance on behalf of Milton Bradley.  Guys – this is money well spent.

The Twins won last night, cutting the Tigers’ lead in the AL Central to just 2-1/2 games, but they will likely play a few games without outfielder Denard Span, who was beaned in the head last night.  Span felt soreness and a bit of dizziness, and is day-to-day.

Now, if the Twins catch the Tigers and the season ends in a tie, the challenge might be finding a place to play.  The Vikings hosts Green Bay in a Monday Night game, which is when the Twins would host the Tigers in a one-game playoff.  There may be nothing to worry about, but you never know.  MLB and NFL representatives will have to work out the details.  [ESPN]

Sometimes a slump is fixed based on who you play – and last night Kevin Millwood easily handled Oakland to get a win and lock up his contract for next season.  Of course, Oakland’s cleanup hitter is Kurt Suzuki and Bobby Crosby plays first base – so facing the A’s didn’t hurt…  [MLB]

Giants infielder Freddy Sanchez twisted his knee – the same knee that was bothering him when San Francisco acquired Sanchez from Pittsburgh.  He’s out for now, but may be available by the end of the week.

Hurry Back! Boston reliever Junichi Tazawa (left groin strain) went on the 60-day DL.

Welcome Back! Cubs outfielder Reed Johnson returns from the DL.

Afterthoughts… Aroldis Chapman, the Cuban defector, has established residency in Andorra, and hopes to sign a contract that will allow him to play for somebody in 2010.  Chapman chose a non-US location so as not to be part of the MLB Draft, which would make him a free agent and available to the highest bidder.  (Boston?  New York? Los Angeles?  I find it hard to believe he’d be a Marlin, but there are tons of former Cubans there…)  Chapman throws 100+, which is why he’s trying to be a free agent.  And, Andorra is kind of a playground for the rich families of Europe – and his agent hopes that Chapman may one day join them…  [ESPN]