Not the Start Tampa Bay Imagined

The Tampa Bay Rays opened with a series against the rebuilding Baltimore Orioles and got swept.  Depending on how you see this (are you a Rays fan or an Orioles fan?), it was either great pitching by a young Orioles staff (they have great young arms, for sure), or a lifeless Rays offense (they lost Crawford, Pena, and Bartlett).

Let’s call it a little of both.

But the Rays certainly didn’t need this…  Evan Longoria, among the most productive players in all of baseball, was placed in the 15-day DL was a strained oblique – and while Longoria believes that he’ll be back in a couple of weeks, many times it’s a four to six week problem. [ESPN]

As an insurance policy, the Rays recalled infielder Felipe Lopez from AAA Durham.  Lopez, who turns 31 in May, is a journeyman – and the Rays are the seventh different team he’s played for since 2006.  Heck, in the last five years, he’s been in St. Louis two different times. Lopez is a career .266 hitter with medium range power but has had streaky productive runs, so you never know.  For a month, he isn’t a bad option.

Sean Rodriguez got the start there on Sunday and we’ll see how manager Joe Maddon manages around the injury.  This kind of start and injury, on the heels of losing such major contributors to the Rays playoff runs, is the type of bad karma that might take months to get past – so if Maddon gets them out of April with a record near .500, that will be quite the managerial accomplishment.

But he can take heart in the fact that the other team I picked to win this division, the Boston Red Sox, are also 0 – 3 to start the season.

Other Notable Transactions…

With Jair Jurrjens heading to the disabled list with a strained right oblique, the Braves recalled Mike Minor from AAA Gwinnett.  Minor is a very polished prospect, though he had mixed results in a short stint with the Braves in 2011.  He’ll be a fifth starter for the short term, and I think he can help. [ESPN]

Minor, as my friend Andy Finch will remind you, was an ace of the Vanderbilt University staff, and has moved very quickly through the minors.  He’s fanned 163 batters in 134 innings at three levels, and has great control.  Even with Atlanta, he fanned 43 and walked just 11 in 40 innings – he just got hit around a little.  Minor had a decent enough spring, though, so maybe he can stick this time around.

Grab a Screen Shot, Royals Fans…

As of this morning, your first place Kansas City Royals are 3 – 1, atop the AL Central, and it’s because of three consecutive wins in their final at bat.  Yesterday, backup catcher Matt Treanor hit a game-winning homer in extra innings to beat the Angels.

Happy Birthday…

Mickey Owen (1916) – solid catcher, started up baseball camps, that I believe are still around today…
Gil Hodges (1924) – Dodger favorite, Mets manager, late Hall of Fame addition…
Eddie Watt (1941) – Oriole reliever in the late 1960s and early 1970s…
Jim Fregosi (1942)
Ray Fosse (1947)
Tommy Herr (1956)
Brad Kommisk (1961) – long ago Braves prospect…
Scott Rolen (1975)

I’m ten years older than Scott Rolen, but in my mind, he’s older than I am.  Go figure.

100 Years Ago in The Sporting News

The April 6th, 1911 paper led with an article about Nebraska ruling in favor of Sunday baseball, and covered a number of teams as they were traveling through the south, as teams often did at the end of spring training, barnstorming through various cities to help pay for spring training expenses.

The top right corner of the first page included a small blurb about two young and bony St. Louis lefties – Harry “Slim” Sallee, who was a regular on the Cardinals, and the beanpole Thomas “Lefty” George.  The SABR Biography project has a great article about Sallee, a 6′ 3″, 150 pounder who was an awkward thrower – he would stride at a 45 degree angle between home and first, and then throw across his body back to the plate – that appears to have been written by a couple of his descendants.  Lefty George was a rookie with the Browns, having had a successful season with Indianapolis in the American Association.  Like Sallee, he barely tipped 150 pounds, but was a tad shorter at just 6′ 0″.  Sallee had the longer career, winning more than 170 games and being on the 1919 Reds team that won a fixed World Series.  George didn’t succeed in St. Louis (at that time, few did), wound up in Cleveland a year later, and then bounced around the minors for more than a decade after that – getting two short shots at the big leagues over the course of the next decade.

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Jimenez Tosses First Rocky No Hitter; Mets top Cards in 20 innings (and lots of old news)

Until last night, no Colorado Rockies pitcher had brought a no-hitter into the eighth inning – but Ubaldo Jimenez not only did that, he finished the job – cruising the last four innings and beating the Atlanta Braves.  Jimenez battled his control for five innings before his pitching coach, Bob Apodaca (a former Met, a team without a no-hitter in nearly 50 seasons) suggested that he pitch from the stretch to keep the ball in the strike zone.   After averaging more than 18 pitches an inning through five, Jimenez needed only 45 to finish the last four innings.  [MLB]

Funny story about that.  My friend, Steve Dubin, has Jimenez on his fantasy team – but was trying to protect an ERA and WHIP lead, so he left his starters on the bench.  So, he didn’t even get the fantasy points for the no-no.  Ouch.

Meanwhile, the Fox Sports team put in some overtime – the game of the week between the New York Mets and St. Louis Cardinals was a scoreless affair through eighteen innings before the Mets finally got a run off of outfielder Joe Mather to open the nineteenth inning.  Mather was the tenth pitcher used by Tony LaRussa – and SECOND position player (Felipe Lopez pitched a scoreless 18th inning).  Meanwhile, the Mets trotted out nine pitchers.  The eighth was closer Francisco Rodriguez – who blew the save opportunity.  Rodriguez admitted he was tired – he had been up and down in the bullpen and threw at least 100 pitches before heading to the mound.  Mather, however, stayed out a second inning and the Mets reached him for a second run in the top of the twentieth inning.  Mike Pelfrey, who was itching for a chance to participate, became the 19th pitcher of the game and earned the save.  [MLB]

Looking ahead to today, the Mets are out of pitchers – a bunch of guys threw at least 2 innings and 30 pitches, so Pelfrey may have to close again today.  Both managers will be hoping the Sunday night game starters, John Maine and Adam Wainwright, go the distance.

From the Training Room…

Giants outfielder Aaron Rowand was hit in the earflap of his helmet by a Vincente Padilla fastball, breaking two bones in his cheek.   With Rowand heading to the DL for two weeks, the Giants recalled infielder Matt Downs.

Wondering who Matt Downs is?  Downs was a 36th round draft pick in 2006 out of Alabama, but has made steady progress through the minors by hitting for a decent average, showing some power, and running the bases pretty well.  He even hit .372 in spring training this year…  Looking at his stats at Fresno, I think it transfers to a guy who might hit .250 with a dozen homers, a few walks, and ten or more steals, which on the Giants is an above average hitter…  I don’t know if he’ll stick but he became a better prospect than Kevin Frandsen, who was allowed to go to Boston instead.  Look for Downs to get some playing time – but he may not stay for long.

Royals infielder Chris Getz heads to the DL with an oblique strain that occurred diving into a base.  The Royals considered bringing back struggling infielder Mike Aviles, but brought back Alex Gordon instead.  Gordon, who missed most of last year following hip surgery, and then – feeling fit – broke his thumb diving into a base during a spring training game, may not be in the field right away.  [MLB]

Giants outfielder Mark DeRosa left Saturday’s game with a tweaked hammy.  He’s day-to-day.  [MLB]

Cubs pitcher (and Jayhawk alum) Tom Gorzelanny was drilled by a liner in the left shoulder and left the game for a pinch hitter in the third inning, but he says he won’t miss a start.  After getting drilled, Gorzelanny stayed in and finished his inning – he just didn’t stay in the game after that.  [MLB]

In this case, the injury might be an ego.  Addressing a story on FoxSports that ownership turned down offers from Cal Ripken, Jr. to become more involved with the Orioles operations, owner Peter Angelos said that if Cal wants to be a part of the team, he’d welcome that discussion.  [ESPN]

Angels closer Brian Fuentes is scheduling his minor league rehab in hopes of a mid-week return.  [MLB]

Indians closer (?) Kerry Wood will pitch a simulated game before heading to rehab and may return before May.  Wood is out with a sore back. [MLB]

Jarrod Saltalamacchia hopes to return to Texas, but his next rehab stint will be in AAA.  With soreness in his left shoulder and upper back, the Rangers want to see Salty catch nine innings before he returns next week.  [MLB]

Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins is on the DL with a strained calf.  The Phillies have been successful, in part, because so few regulars have spent any time on the DL…  (Brad Lidge isn’t a starter, but he’s spent the most time on the DL over the last couple of years.)  [FoxSports]

Pirates ace Ross Ohlendorf heads to the DL with back spasms…  In his place, the Pirates recalled starter Daniel McCutchen.  McCutchen faces the Reds, against whom he has his only MLB victory.  [MLB]

Orioles infielder Miguel Tejada strained a groin (hopefully his own) running the bases and is considered day-to-day.  Tejada, for all it’s worth, hasn’t missed a whole lot of games in his career.  [MLB]

Staying in Baltimore, outfielder Felix Pie strained his left shoulder batting on Thursday and was placed on the 15-day-DL.

Marlins outfielder Chris Coghlan returned to the lineup this weekend after missing a couple of games with bruised left ribs sustained while making a game-saving diving catch on the hard warning track last Tuesday.  What he needs to feel better might be a few two-hit games…  [MLB]

Chan Ho Park, Yankee long reliever, headed to the DL with a hamstring strain that occurred while warming up in the bullpen.  If you injure yourself warming up, what does that say about your level of fitness?  [MLB]

Red Sox outfielder Mike Cameron returned to the lineup this weekend after passing a kidney stone (must have been SOME kind of a stone!).  [MLB]

Royals outfielder Jose Guillen took time to discuss his leg injuries from 2009 and revealed that he had life-threatening blood clots during the off-season.  [MLB]

Old News…

Giants outfielder Fred Lewis was disappointed with his lack of playing time – so he requested a trade.  San Francisco obliged his request, sending him to Toronto for future considerations.  Fred Lewis himself broke the story on his Facebook page.

Police Blotter…

A New Jersey man was arrested for his obnoxious behavior at a game after similar behavior got his friend removed from the stadium.  Angered by that, Matthew Clemmens then made himself vomit on a man and his 11-year-old daughter.  The man on the receiving end was an off-duty police officer who showed remarkable restraint by not pummeling Clemens (which, admittedly, I would have considered if someone had done that to me or my son).  Seriously – some credit is due the off-duty cop for his restraint.  Clemmens gets charged with a variety of offenses (disorderly behavior, assault, reckless endangerment) and should get to spend time in jail.  He should also be banned from attending any sporting event.  [FoxSports]

Music mogul Jay-Z is suing David Ortiz because Ortiz named his new Dominican nightclub 40/40 – the same name used by Jay-Z in nightclubs he owns…  [FoxSports]

Longest Division Games in the AL?

Boston – New York average 3:39 – well over the league average of about 2:56.  Joe Posnanski did the work – read his article.

From the Transaction Wire…

Twins pitcher Jose Mijares heads to the DL with an elbow strain.  Coming up from Rochester is pitcher Alex Burnett – a converted starter that has been nearly unhittable as a reliever since 2009.

The Braves need an extra arm and are extending a short stint to pitcher Jonny Venters.  If you saw his career stats, you’d know he’s a non-prospect.

With Esmerling Vasquez struggling, the Diamondbacks are giving a few innings to Kris Benson…  He’s still around?  Benson pitched for Texas last year and had an ERA of about 8.50 – and hasn’t been below 4.00 since 2000 when he was still in Pittsburgh.  Isn’t Pedro Martinez still available???

Season Forecast: Arizona Diamondbacks

Last Five Years:
2009:  70 – 92    (5th in NL West)
2008:  82 – 80
2007:  90 – 72
2006:  76 – 86
2005:  77 – 85

Runs Scored: 720 (8th, NL)
Runs Allowed: 782 (14th, NL)

The Diamondbacks play in a park that helps the offense – 817 runs were scored in games played at home, against the 685 runs scored on the road – so to be in the middle of the league in scoring tells you that the offense isn’t the eighth best offense in the NL.  It’s actually one of the worst.  One reason for it?  The Snakes struck out 1298 times, more than any other team in the majors.

Season Recap:

The Diamondbacks were the surprise team to win the NL Central in 2007 and then opened 2008 like they were going to stomp everyone.  Instead, they slowly collapsed until finally bleeding away the division on the last weekend of the season.

I don’t know about you, but something told me that the 2009 team would have to start guns a-blazing to feel good about the year, and should have been expected to win 80 – 85 games anyway.  Instead, Brandon Webb blew out his shoulder on opening day and the team never really recovered.  When the offense showed little consistent signs of life, the Diamondbacks fell to the bottom of the league and never really contended.  A losing stretch in early May put them behind the eight-ball, and many other losing stretches contributed to losing 92 games and finishing last in the division race.

That being said, as I see it the problem was tied to two things – losing Webb and replacing him with the ineffective Yusmeiro Petit and Billy Buckner probably cost the team about 60 runs defensively.  Despite that, the rest of the rotation and most of the bullpen were somewhat above average players.  That leaves the offense – and the offense wasn’t good enough to help the pitchers.

Pitching:

Danny Haren was magnificent – saving his team about 40 runs with his low ERA (3.14) in a tough park and pitching more than 229 innings.  Haren also fanned 223 while walking only 38 batters.  Doug Davis and Max Scherzer were league average in terms of ERA – though Scherzer looks to have a solid future as a #2 starter right now.  Jon Garland ate up enough innings as a #4 starter.  The only weak link was having to replace Webb with Buckner and Petit.

The bullpen featured no real aces – closer Chad Qualls had a 3.63 ERA and only 24 saves – but they had no problems, unless you consider a couple of short term players.  No reliever with more than 50 innings pitched was worse than league average.  Three of the four lefties, however, weren’t very good in short runs – including Scott Schoeneweis, Daniel Schlereth, and Doug Slaten.

Fielding:

Arizona pitchers weren’t helped too much here, but a lot of that is the park.

The infield of Chad Tracy, Felipe Lopez, Mark Reynolds, and Stephen Drew were basically average, though Lopez and Drew weren’t necessarily good at turning two.  The problem was that a couple of the backups weren’t very solid in limited innings – including the really poor 2018 innings Reynolds played at first and the 241.2 weak innings Augie Ojeda turned in at short.

The outfield should have been better, but Chris Young seemed to take his problems at the plate with him to the field, costing his team about eight runs.  Gerardo Parra is decent enough and Justin Upton, a pretty good right fielder, also got a lot of extra action with so many right handed pitchers on the staff.

Catchers Miguel Montero and Chris Snyder weren’t awful, though they were pretty easy to run on.

Batting:

The highs?  Justin Upton looks like the second coming of Henry Aaron.  You’d like him to walk a bit more, but he has developing power and hits .300.  Mark Reynolds fanned 223 times (!) to set the major league record but he doesn’t care.  He batted .260 with 44 homers, does draw a few walks, and puts runs on the board.  Felipe Lopez hit .301 at second, which was helpful, and Gerardo Parra hit .290 but didn’t do much else – he will be better with time.  Catcher Miguel Montero hit .294 with some power.  Stephen Drew was league average.

The problem is that the lows are LOW.  Chris Young, the regular centerfielder, hit all of .212, striking out 30% of the time, despite showing a little more patience.  Eric Byrnes came back from leg injuries to hit .226 with only 12 walks in half a season of plate appearances.  Chris Snyder batted .200 in 165 at bats.  Former producers Conor Jackson and Chad Tracy didn’t hit.  When Tony Clark retired – his bat failing him – his replacements on the roster, guys like Josh Whitesell and Brandon Allen didn’t hit either.  The really good teams have six or seven positive run producers and a couple of guys who pitch in.  The Diamondbacks had three and sometimes more guys who weren’t getting any hits and no bench players to write home about when the few that could hit took a day off.

Transactions:

On the way in?  Infielder Tony Abreu, acquired from the Dodgers and can play second or short.  He might well be a hitter, but I don’t see him as the new Rafael Furcal either.  Kelly Johnson was signed from Atlanta to play second – a decision I like – and Jeff Bailey was signed away from Boston, another decision I like because he is a solid bench player.  In January, Arizona added Adam LaRoche, which will pay off in the second half…  In March, the Snakes signed Kris Benson, who actually made the roster…  The Diamondbacks traded Max Scherzer and Daniel Schlereth to Detroit for pitcher Edwin Jackson and Yankees prospect Ian Kennedy in the deal that sent Curtis Granderson to the Yankees…  I’m not sure I’d make that deal, but what the hey.  The other questionable deal was trading for Cubs malcontent pitcher Aaron Heilman.

On the way out?  Yusmeiro Petit was claimed by Seattle on waivers, Doug Davis signed a deal with Milwaukee and Chad Tracy signed with Chicago.  Eric Byrnes was released and called it a career.  Jon Garland was allowed to leave and pitch for the Angels.

Propspects:

At AAA Reno, the two hitting prospects appeared to be former White Sox farmhand Brandon Allen and utility outfielder Alex Romero.  Allen hit like Babe Ruth in 38 games to earn a call, but didn’t amount to much in 104 at bats with the Snakes.  I don’t think he’s THAT good, but he’ll be better in another shot.  Romero has had two trips to the bigs and didn’t hit either time and I think will be lucky to hit .260 in the majors.  The best pitchers in AAA were Buckner and 29-year-old Doug Slaten.  Buckner at least looked like a prospect, but hasn’t yet found his stride in the majors and may run out of time.

Schlereth tore through AA Mobile, fanning 39 in 26.2 innings, which is how he quickly was given a shot at the majors.  He’s a touch wild, but has a live arm.  Bryan Augenstein made nine starts there, finishing with a 0.99 ERA, 36Ks and only 9 walks in 45.2 innings.  Not nearly as successful at Reno, he still earned a tryout with the Snakes.  I think he’s going to be fine but is two years away.  Reliever Josh Ellis had a good year and might make the relief corps by the end of 2010.  A young arm is 2007 first round pick Jarrod Parker, who dominated A+ Visalia before getting sixteen decent starts in AA.

At Visalia, I also like pitcher Josh Collmenter who had a decent K/W ratio (152/55) in his 145 innings and he kept the ball in the park.  Obviously, he’s still a few years away.

Looking ahead for 2010:

The pitching staff will likely be weaker if Brandon Webb can’t pitch – and because I don’t like this year’s rotation compared to last year’s rotation.  I know – Jackson was very good for Detroit, but I think Max Scherzer looks like a solid pitcher.  Call it a wash.  Ian Kennedy won’t pitch as many innings as Doug Davis did and may not be as successful, and even though Jon Garland is just there to take up space, he’s better than most fifth starters.  His replacement may well be a step down and I think he’ll be missed.  As such, I see the rotation falling back by 25 runs.

The bullpen isn’t going to be better with Aaron Heilman – it could be worse by ten runs.

The offense?  I like adding LaRoche and Johnson, which I think could be worth 30 runs, mostly because LaRoche will be solid.  Johnson could come back nicely, but that means being as good as Lopez was last year.  A full year of Parra will be better than Eric Byrnes; if Chris Young can come back at all the outfield will also be better by 30 runs.  Defensively, the changes will not help the team and may make the infield defense a little worse.  However, the outfield defense, with two centerfielders and Upton should be steady.

As such, with 780 runs scored and 810 runs allowed, the Snakes should win 78 games.  That’s an improvement over last year, but not enough to threaten anybody at the top of the division.

2010 Season Forecast: St. Louis Cardinals

Last Five Years:

2009:  91 – 71 (1st NL Central)
2008:  86 – 76
2007:  78 – 84
2006:  83 – 78
2005: 100 – 62

Runs Scored: 730
Runs Allowed: 640

Season Recap:

With two aces and the world’s greatest offensive force, the Cardinals held their own throughout the 2009 season.  And just when it looked like someone might catch them, the Cards added Matt Holliday, Mark DeRosa, and John Smoltz to bury the rest of the division.

The Cardinals got off to a hot start, winning 17 of the first 24 games.  However, like the Cubs, a couple of ill-timed losing streaks returned the team back to the pack and in fact St. Louis trailed Milwaukee for parts of June.  In fact, all three teams played indifferently for much of the summer until the front office got involved.

Adding Holliday to the offense and giving a few starts to someone other than Todd Wellemeyer helped get a winning stretch going.  From July 27th through the end of the year, the Cardinals played great – going 38 – 23 before losing in the playoffs.

Injuries claimed Ryan Ludwick and Rick Ankiel at times, and LaRussa had to work around a defense that wasn’t functional at many positions.  Skip Schumaker was an outfielder impersonating a second baseman – badly.  He was replaced by Julio Lugo near the end of the season, and the ball wasn’t hit close enough to him either – not that Lugo had been a regular second baseman recently.  Chris Duncan is a poor outfielder – replaced by Matt Holliday who actually played even worse.  Ryan Ludwick played at a below average pace in right and the ball wasn’t hit to his occasional replacements (Ankiel, Nick Stavinoha) either.

Despite this, the pitchers allowed the third fewest runs in the NL – which shows you how good Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter were.  And they were simply amazing.  Put this staff in front of the middle 80’s team that featured Ozzie and Willie McGee and company, and they might have allowed only 500 runs all year.

Starting Pitching:

Adam Wainwright pitched 233 innings, fanned 212, and had a 3:1 K/W ratio.  He saved his team some 43 runs over using a league average starter.  Chris Carpenter was even better.  Returning from elbow surgery, Carpenter nearly tossed 200 innings in just 28 starts, winning 17 and finishing with an ERA of just 2.24.  He saved his squad 48 runs.  The third starter, Joel Pineiro won 15 himself, hardly walking anyone and keeping batted balls on the ground all season.

With 51 wins in the top three spots, the Cardinals countered with Todd Wellemeyer and Kyle Lohse at the bottom of the rotation; two who were below average pitchers.  Wellemeyer was so bad, he cancelled out half an ace with his 5.89 ERA.

Three starters are back, starting with the aces and adding Kyle Lohse.  Pineiro is gone, replaced by Brad Penny – and my take on it that Penny should be close to as good as Pineiro was.  They have comparable strikeout rates, and if Penny keeps the ball over the plate, should fare well here.  Wellemeyer is also history, but it’s hard to tell who might get that fifth slot.  It could be Mitchell Boggs, who got nine starts and while his ERA was tolerable (4.19), he sure got lucky.  Boggs allowed 71 hits in 58 innings and walked 33 more.  Some time back, I suggested that you could figure how lucky a pitcher was by comparing his actual runs allowed data against his “reverse runs created” data.  Essentially, I was treating his pitching stats like I would an offensive player.  Given the combination of hits and walks that Boggs allowed, he would expect to have allowed 40 runs, not 28, and his ERA would have been about 6.05.

I digress.  The fifth starter could also be non-roster invitee Rich Hill, who is just the type of pitcher that seems to get his career healed by the coaching of Dave Duncan.  Look for Hill to make the roster and possibly make the rotation.

The bullpen returns virtually intact – Ryan Franklin was about the best closer in the National League, but he’s NOT a power guy and I don’t believe that he’s going to be as successful in 2010.  Trever Miller had a great season, but he only pitched 43.2 innings in his 70 games, which means that LaRussa spotted him well.  He and Dennys Reyes will be the designated lefties, while Kyle McClellan, Brad Thompson, and Jason Motte pick up the other innings.  Rookie Jess Todd might be a nice set up man for part of the season.

My view of this is that the pitching can’t possibly be this good next year.  Not that Wainwright and Carpenter won’t be good – they could be 25 runs better than the average pitchers, which is very good, but that would be 40 runs off from last year’s production.  Ryan Franklin could be good, but lose five runs from a peak season last year.  Not having to pitch Todd Wellemeyer will help some, however I’d be nervous about the current options.  I see the pitching being off by about 50 runs.

Catching:

Yadier Molina remains the best defensive catcher in baseball and seems to be adding some offensive tools.  His backup is Jason LaRue – who will get to catch four times a month.

Infield:

Albert Pujols is the best offensive player in the game, and the best defensive player at his position.  His quickness means that he plays farther off the bag than most people – which gives him a serious range advantage over just about anybody.

After a year of Skip Schumaker, who stays to provide depth, the Cardinals will be using Felipe Lopez at second base.  This is an immediate 20 run upgrade defensively, and if Lopez continues to hit, a match to the production Schumaker provided (80 runs created, and 5.7 runs per 27 outs – which is solid).

Brendan Ryan was a stopper defensively, but starts the season coming back from wrist surgery.  I’m not sure he’ll be able to replicate last year’s production defensively and it’s hard to come back and hit right away after a hand or wrist injury.  His backup will be Julio Lugo or Tyler Greene.

At third, Mark DeRosa is gone and the Joe Thurston experiment is over.  David Freese will get the job.  Freese is a prospect, albeit a rather old prospect.  You may remember that Freese was acquired from San Diego for Jim Edmonds.  Well, Freese has been solid in the minors – hitting .306 with 26 homers in Memphis in 2008, and then batting .300 with 10 homers in just 200 at bats last season at AAA.  The Ballwin, MO native can hit at this level – he’ll be 27 in April.  I think he’ll hit like Todd Zeile – 18 homers, .270 batting average.  If he can field at all, he’ll be an upgrade over what the Cards got last year.

Pujols season was better than what he had done the previous couple of years, he could lose twenty runs of offense and STILL be the best hitter in the game.  With the wrist injury, Brendan Ryan will be off, but that will be made up by the play of Freese.  The net result, however, is probably 20 runs fewer offensively and probably ten runs off defensively.

Outfield:

This is going to be a very productive offense featuring Matt Holliday, Colby Rasmus, and Ryan Ludwick.  Ludwick, if healthy, holds his own.  A full season of Holliday will be better than half a season of Chris Duncan.  And Colby Rasmus will hit better than what Rick Ankiel did last year.  Defensively, Rasmus should hold steady, Holliday will be a slight improvement over Duncan, and Ankiel won’t be better.

Backups include Skip Schumaker, Nick Stavinoha and maybe a rookie – Joe MatherShane Robinson?  It could be Allen Craig, who had a solid year at Memphis last year (see Prospects).

This team will score produce about 30 runs more than last year and hold steady defensively.

Bench:

Not a bad bunch, but some holes…  Skip Schumaker will get a lot of innings, Julio Lugo returns, as does Tyler Greene, and then you have Nick Stavinoha, and Jason LaRue.  Which of these guys, other than Schumaker, would you want as a pinch hitter?  It’s a bit weak.

Prospects:

AAA Memphis had a couple of guys who might be interesting.  David Freese will get a shot at the third base job after a year and a half of solid play with the Redbirds.  Allen Craig hit .322 with 26 homers, but he’s not really patient at the plate.  He’s a potential fourth outfielder with the Cardinals though, and could be Ryan Ludwick’s equal in right field.  (.280 – 20 homers)

Jess Todd was the closer in Memphis and was solid – 59 Ks, 13 walks, 24 saves to match his 2.20 ERA.  He’ll be on the Cardinals in 2010.  The best starter was likely P.J. Walters, who was tolerable – decent control, a good strikeout record, but a bit hittable.

The best pitchers at Springfield (AA) weren’t dominating, but had good records and avoided the long ball.  Trey Hearne and Lance Lynn combined for 23 wins and only 7 losses and have interchangeable stats.  Lynn was a 1A draft pick in 2008, so he’s moving up quickly and the Cardinals have high hopes for him.  Infielder Daniel Descalso hit well (.323, .396 OBP) at Springfield but hasn’t been consistent at that level in the minors.

Former first round picks, like Brett Wallace, Clayton Mortensen and Shane Carpenter are gone.  Peter Kozma was a top pick in 2007 and struggled to hit .216 in AA – he’s going to run out of chances soon.  Another, 2007 pick David Kopp struggled to a 6.43 ERA at Springfield – he might get one more shot before being cast away.  Much of the 2006 draft is still around and getting close – Adam Ottavino, Chris Perez, Jon Jay, Shane Robinson, and Allen Craig are in Memphis but haven’t made it in (or to) the bigs yet.

There are a couple of players in the minors, but as a whole, the Cardinal organization is a little thin right now.

Outlook:

Having gone through the process, I think the Cardinals will be in the mix but might not easily repeat.  I think they’ll score about 740 runs, but allow more than last year – as many as 690 runs.  If that’s the combination, it works out to 87 wins.  With Milwaukee likely getting better and the Cubs in the mix, the NL Central could easily have the most exciting September in baseball.  The Cards MIGHT win the division, and they MIGHT get the wild card.  Or, they MIGHT fall a game or two short.  It’s too close to call.

Top NL Second Basemen in 2009

Chase Utley (PHI):  One of the ten most valuable players in all of baseball, Utley hits for a decent average, power, works the count to get on base, steals bases and is among the best fielders at his position.  Not counting first basemen, I have Utley at just a shade more valuable than Robinson Cano and Aaron Hill as the most valuable infielder in the game.  While it pains me to say it, he might be more valuable than Ryne Sandberg in his prime.  Sandberg never had a .400 OBP – that’s for sure.  Part of the reason is because Utley gets hit by a lot of pitches – between 24 and 27 each of the last three years.  He doesn’t walk more often than Sandberg did.  That might be the only advantage…

That being said, Utley has been in a minor (graceful) slide for two seasons now and he’s already 31.  He didn’t establish himself as a major leaguer until 2004 when he was 25 years-old.  His walks total sprung forward a bit last season, compensating for a lower batting average.  I’m NOT predicting doom and gloom here – I’m just saying that he’s not going to be the first second baseman to hit 400 career homers or drive in 1500 runs.  And, even if he slides down to .270 and 20 homers, he’s going to have value.  And only one other guy in the NL is even CLOSE to that kind of productivity.  (119.3 Runs Created, 18.2 Runs Saved = 137.53 Total Run Production)

Brandon Phillips (CIN):  One of the great ones, and lost in a Reds organization that hasn’t put much of a run together for a playoff run.  One hopes this happens before he runs out of gas.  Anybody out there remember that Phillips was traded to the Reds for pitcher Jeff Stevens in 2006?  Jeff Stevens finally made it to the bigs with the Cubs last year and got pounded in 11 appearances.  Who did Cleveland have that was better?  (92.6 Runs Created, 13.5 Runs Saved = 106.15 Total Run Production)

Orlando Hudson (LAD):  Now in Minnesota.  I was reading a Joe Posnanski comment where he, like me, wondered why nobody seems to want this guy.  The Dodgers benched him to play Ronnie Belliard – is that for real?  Gets on base, plays a solid second base.  Anybody should LOVE to have this guy on the roster.  (90.8 Runs Created, 12.3 Runs Saved = 103.10 Total Run Production)

I don’t know where you stand on this, but the Dodgers are taking a step back here in 2010.  Ronnie Belliard hits okay but he doesn’t have Hudson’s dependable glove.  Backing him up will be Jamey Carroll, who isn’t in either guy’s league.  Behind that is Blake DeWitt, who looked like a major leaguer in 2008 but didn’t play like one in 2009 and was shifted back and forth between the majors and AAA as often as anybody last year.  I’m betting DeWitt will have this job by July, or the Dodgers will try to get somebody for the stretch run.

Felipe Lopez (ARI/MIL):  Milwaukee got him to cover for Rickie Weeks when Weeks went down and he played great.  High batting average, a few walks, a little power and league average defender.  In the NL, that makes you a valuable commodity.  As of 2/15, still didn’t have a job – which makes no sense to me…  The Mets or Cardinals would LOVE to have this guy, wouldn’t you think? (98.6 Runs Created, -4.2 Runs Saved = 94.4 Total Run Production)

Juan Uribe (SF):  Nobody was a regular at this position in 2009 for the Giants, and defensively Uribe wasn’t as strong at second has he had been in the past.  However, if he had a full time job at this position, he would likely rank here.  There’s no way that Emmanuel Burriss is better than Uribe and, to be honest, I think Uribe is one of the most underrated players of the last decade.  Hits for power, decent average, usually a good glove.  (64.6 Runs Created, 10.9 Runs Saved = 75.53 Total Run Production)

Kaz Matsui (HOU):  Starting to show signs of age but still has some value because of his defense.  Doesn’t put runs on the board, though…  The AL is LOADED with good second basemen, but the NL’s top six isn’t in their league…  (56.9 Runs Created, 15.3 Runs Saved = 72.15 Total Run Production)

Dan Uggla (FLA):  The opposite of Matsui – a run producer despite the low batting average.  Last year his range, which had been tolerable the last couple of years, fell off the map and I don’t think he’s going to turn it around and field like Chase Utley any time soon.  My son’s favorite player…  (86.7 Runs Created, -15.3 Runs Saved = 71.39 Total Run Production)

Clint Barmes (COL):  Power doesn’t make up for not getting on base (.298 OBP) but I’m not sure that Colorado has better options.  Had a decent enough year with the glove…  (65.9 Runs Created, 4.2 Runs Saved = 70.08 Total Run Production)

Martin Prado (ATL):  Hit better than Kelly Johnson, but was a liability with the glove.  Room to improve, though, and if he hits .300 with moderate power as he did last year, the Braves will appreciate the help.  (79.7 Runs Created, -10.2 Runs Saved = 69.53 Total Run Production)

Freddy Sanchez (PIT/SF):  If he hits .344, as he did in 2006, he has value.  If he hits .270, his lack of walks and doubles power isn’t creating that many runs.  He was a pretty good defensive third baseman, but just about league average at second base.  And he’s hurt.  The Giants don’t need that kind of problem right now.  (63.6 Runs Created, -1.2 Runs Saved = 62.4 Total Run Production)

David Eckstein (SD):  In my mind, he’s the replacement level second baseman – and yet he was the eighth most productive second baseman in the NL last year.  Doesn’t really get on base a lot, doesn’t really hit for a good average, and doesn’t have any power at all.  (63.3 Runs Created, -3.8 Runs Saved = 59.49 Total Run Production)

Luis Castillo (NYM):  Came back some as a hitter last year, but his range is slipping and it’s time to look for some younger legs.  I’d want him around as a bench guy, don’t get me wrong – he’s still got some playing time left.  He gets on base and can still run the bases.  Two years away from 2000 career hits – and I’d say he’s going to get them and be done…  (71.9 Runs Created, -13.1 Runs Saved = 58.82 Total Run Production)

Skip Schumaker (STL):  Hits like Castillo without the baserunning skills, and – as an outfielder forced to play second base – looked very out of position with the glove.  Despite that, he provided some value for a team that had too many outfielders and no infield depth and can be a #2 hitter and not embarrass the lineup any because he hits doubles and gets on base.  I don’t think he’ll last for long as a starter, but LaRussa may keep him in the majors for another decade.  (79.9 Runs Created, -24.6 Runs Saved = 55.30 Total Run Production)

Jeff Baker (CHC):  His defense was better than Mike Fontenot, and his batting was more productive.  Combined, the two would rank between Lopez and Uribe on the list…  I don’t know if Baker could hit .305 over 500 at bats, but if he fields this well, the Cubs would LOVE it if he hit .270 in the eighth spot in the lineup.  (31.2 Runs Created, 14.2 Runs Saved = 45.38 Total Run Production)

Mike Fontenot (CHC):  Ordinary fielder, less than ordinary hitter.  About to become a utility infielder for the rest of his career.  (41.2 Runs Created, -0.3 Runs Saved = 40.92 Total Run Production)

Kelly Johnson (ATL):  I always thought he was underappreciated.  League average fielder, gets on base.  But, he never got out of Bobby Cox’s dog house and when he stopped getting hits last year, he lost his job to Martin Prado.  Even hitting .224, he was near the league average in terms of runs created per 27 outs because he draws walks and hits for some power.  Now the Arizona second baseman, I think he’s going to bounce back fine.  (39.2 Runs Created, -1.0 Runs Saved = 38.14 Total Run Production)

Delwyn Young (PIT):  Inherited the job Freddy Sanchez left behind and needs to make some improvements to move far up this list.  Hits about as well as Johnson did, but didn’t field well in limited innings.  I’d like to give him 1000 innings and see what happens.  I just don’t see Young having a long career – he’s already 29 and hasn’t made it yet.  Besides, the Pirates signed Akinori Iwamura for 2010 and unless he’s lost a step following that catastrophic knee injury, he’ll be the starter.  (43.7 Runs Created, -5.7 Runs Saved = 38.00 Total Run Production)

Ronnie Belliard (LAD):  Hot bat after arriving in LA gave him the Dodgers job down the stretch.  He has always been a hitter, but his range is not what you would want for the position and the Dodger pitchers will want Hudson back.  (42.3 Runs Created, -7.3 Runs Saved = 35.00 Total Run Production)

Rickie Weeks (MIL):  Won’t rank this low if he plays a full season.  Not a GREAT leadoff hitter, but he has pop in the bat and holds his own with the glove.  In a full season, he’s probably rank about fifth in the league.  I’m a fan.  (27.8 Runs Created, -0.7 RUns Saved = 27.02 Total Run Production)

Anderson Hernandez (WAS):  Got a chance and played himself out of a job by not hitting or fielding well enough to be a regular.  Adam Kennedy moves to the Nationals after a fine season in Oakland.  (23.8 Runs Created, -4.2 Runs Saved = 19.56 Total Run Production)

Emmanuel Burriss (SF):  May still get playing time while Sanchez heals.  I don’t know why.  (17.2 Runs Created, 1.6 Runs Saved = 18.87 Total Run Production)

On the 40th Anniversary of the Lunar Landing, Edgar Gonzalez is Still Seeing Stars – and other baseball notes

Happy anniversary, Apollo 11.  I was in Wisconsin on a family vacation at a summer home my Aunt Pat and Uncle John owned when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.  It’s one of my two earliest memories.  I also remember some goofy song about it – I had a 45 RPM (remember those) that would play this 1920s sounding swing tune “There’s an American Flag on the moon tonight, flying red and blue and white…  There’s an American flag, waving on the moon, waving on the moon tonight.”

Enough of that.

Cris Carter said on Mike and Mike this morning that if you signed with the New York Mets, you’d be injured in a week.  Well, for Fernando Nieve, it was more like six weeks, but it holds true.  Nieve left the game in the second when he strained a quad (it looked more like an ankle or achilles injury when I watched it happen) running out a grounder.  [MLB]

With Edgar Gonzalez still hospitalized following a beaning, the San Diego Padres traded reliever Cla Meredith to Baltimore for infielder Oscar Salazar.  Meredith has been, at times, a very competent middle reliever – but be wary of him leaving San Diego for a park that helps hitters like Baltimore.  Oscar Salazar is a long-time minor leaguer – now with his seventh organization (not counting a trip to the Mexican League) – but has hit well in a few trips with Baltimore.  He’s probably not an awful short term option.  Gonzalez still has headaches and ringing in his ears, dizziness, and partial hearing loss.  [SI/ESPN]

Another option would have been signing Mark Grudzielanek, but Minnesota did that instead.  [MLB/Transaction List]

The Texas Rangesrs will operate without outfielder Nelson Cruz, who broke a finger diving into first base on a pickoff play and now is day to day.  Cruz says he can pinch hit, based on pain tolerance for the day.  [ESPN]

Milwaukee is trying to hang close in the NL Central, and wanted some infield help with Rickie Weeks gone.  So, the Brew Crew traded two prospects to Arizona to pick up second baseman Felipe Lopez.  Lopez has a little speed (he once stole 44 bases), and is willing to work the count a little in his favor.  In Arizona, he was hitting .301 with a .365 OBP – however, his career averages are nothing like that and I wouldn’t expect that heading to Milwaukee.  It’s not to say he can’t have a great two months or so, but that I would expect him to hit more like .260 with a .340 OBP; still better than Craig Counsell at this stage, but not an impact player. [SI]

What did Arizona get?  Cole Gillespie is a minor league outfielder with a little power and plate discipline and a little speed – but happens to be struggling a little bit with AAA Nashville.  Drafted out of Oregon State, he projects to a fourth or fifth outfielder right now.  Roque Mercedes might be the nugget, though – a young Dominican who has gotten better every year and started to look like a prospect last year with West Virginia in the SAL.  This year at Brevard County in the Florida State League, he’s had moments of domination – so a few years from now, he could help Arizona.  Ryan Roberts, a poor man’s Felipe Lopez, will likely get the second base job.

Welcome Back!  Logan Kensing was recalled by Washington, Rick VandenHurk was recalled by Florida.

Hurry Back!  Scott Olsen is the reason Kensing returns to the Nationals.  Olsen heads to the DL with shoulder soreness.  Houston sent J.R. Towles back to AAA Round Rock, while Florida sent Andy Gonzalez to AAA New Orleans.

Is it Over?  Julian Taverez was designated for assignment by Washington.  After 11 teams and more than 800 games as a reliever (and once a Boston starter), this could be the last rodeo for the 36 year old.