2011 Season Forecast: Kansas City Royals

Last Five Seasons:
2010: 67 – 95
2009: 65 – 97
2008: 75 – 87
2007: 69 – 93
2006: 62 – 100

Last winning season?  2003

Runs Scored: 676 (10th in AL)
Runs Allowed: 845 (Last in AL – and by 60 runs)

With this combination, the Royals would have been expected to win about 63 games.

Season Recap:

Few people picked the Royals to finish higher than fourth, so from a prediction standpoint, the Royals did what people expected.  KC didn’t have a winning month…  They were close, going 13 – 14 in June and actually outscoring their opponents that month.  The bottom was in July, though, when they went 10 – 15 (they had a worse record in September), but got outscored 173 – 94.  The Royals hung around .500 until early May, when they got swept by Texas, lost a couple of more and fell to 11 – 23.  That cost Trey Hillman his job, and gave Ned Yost a shot at managing the Royals.  I mentioned the bad July – included in that month were an 11 – 0 loss to Anaheim, a 15 – 5 loss to the White Sox, a 13 – 1 loss to Toronto, and 10 – 4 loss to the Yankees, and three straight losses of 12 – 6, 19 – 1, and 11 – 2 (Yankees, then two to the Twins).

Among the disappointments was the lackluster season of pitcher Zack Greinke, who fell from Cy Young to a league average pitcher, going 10 – 14.  Gil Meche never got healthy and retired at the end of the season rather than face another year of collecting $11 million for rehab work.  A lot of pitchers had ERAs that were downright scary.  Offensively, there were just too many outs – including the acquisition of catcher Jason Kendall and infielder Chris Getz, and the return of Alex Gordon, who hit .215.  Scott Podsednik played well enough in left, only to get shipped to the Dodgers for the stretch run.  The Royals did get good performances out of Mike Aviles, Billy Butler, and David DeJesus – until DeJesus went down after 91 games to injury.

Starters:

Zack Greinke is gone, having been shipped to Milwaukee with Yuniesky Betancourt for Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Jeremy Jeffress, and minor leaguer Jake Odorizzi.  Brian Bannister is also gone – he wasn’t getting anyone out and when he opted for free agency, the Royals didn’t bite.  Of course, Bannister had an ERA over 6.00…  What is left behind is an unproven group waiting for help from Aaron Crow or John Lamb whenever either shows signs of being ready.

Instead of a rotation of Greinke, Bannister, Kyle Davies, Luke Hochevar, Bruce Chen, and either Meche or Sean O’Sullivan, the Royals are looking at a rotation of Davies, Hochevar, Chen, Jeff Francis, Vinnie Mazzaro and maybe O’Sullivan.

Hochevar has skills but hasn’t put together a strong and consistent month.  Kyle Davies eats innings, but isn’t a world beater.  Bruce Chen was a pleasant surprise last year, going 12 – 7 with 23 starts and 10 relief appearances.  Jeff Francis is the former Rockies ace coming back from shoulder surgery.  He made 19 starts last year for Colorado with good control and if he can pitch 30 times will be an improvement over Bannister.  Vin Mazzaro might remind you of Hochevar – shows signs of life but needs to make another step forward to help the team.  O’Sullivan was hit around a lot last year and needs some seasoning.

There’s a reasonably good chance for a little improvement if Jeff Francis continues to get a feel for throwing.  He can easily match what Greinke did in 2010, anyway, though there is no chance of anyone having a season like Greike’s in 2009.  Mazzaro will be a step up from Brian Bannister, and if Chen can make 32 starts instead of 23, that’s also a step forward.

Relievers:

Talk about a rag-tag bunch.  At the tail end, you have one of the best closers in the business in Joakim Soria.  However, it’s an odd mix of arms in front of him, including Blake Wood, Robinson Tejada, Jesse Chavez, Jeremy Jeffress, Greg Holland.  Holland and Tejada have the power arms, and of this group Holland looks to be the one guy who might make a significant contribution.

Catching:

Jason Kendall and Brayan Pena return to give the club below average catching.  Unless Pena is given a chance to play as the starter, there is no chance that this will be better than 2010.

Infielders:

The left side of the infield will be different, with Escobar replacing Betancourt and Mike Moustakas likely getting the opening day nod at third.  Moustakas is a highly rated prospect because in the last couple of years, he’s been hitting bombs all over the minor leagues.  Escobar is Betancourt’s equal in the field, but after hitting the bigs and making a big impression in 2009, he fell back to hitting .235 in 2010.  Betancourt wasn’t half bad last year, showing a little power and actually playing better than league average defense.

The left side remains solid with Mike Aviles and Billy Butler manning second base and first base.  Butler is a hitting machine, and Aviles is a quality #2 or #3 hitter in any lineup.

Pedro Feliz is in camp as a potential depth option, having gotten a non-roster invite to spring training.  He could be a starter on opening day if the Royals choose to give Moustakas a few at bats in AAA.

It’s hard to believe that this will be an improvement in 2011, in part because Alberto Callaspo and Wilson Betemit both hit well while playing third base (about 95 runs created) and Escobar wasn’t as good as Betancourt.  However, Moustakas COULD be a league average fielder, which would be a 30 run improvement.  The pitchers will appreciate the help, for sure.

Outfielders:

Last year’s outfield of Podesdnik or Gordon in left, Mitch Maier or Gregor Blanco or Rick Ankiel in center, and DeJesus or Mitch Maier or Jose Guillen in right has to be replaced.  Looking at the 40 man roster, an outfield could be made of free agent signee Melky Cabrera, Lorenzo Cain, and Jeff Francouer.  Again – not a single world beater in the outfield, which is problematic.  Blanco can hit a little, but has been a disappointment in the field, making him a probable fourth outfielder.  Maier has improved some with the bat, but on his best day really should bat ninth.  Jeff Francoeur is long removed from being a middle of the order hitter, and Melky Cabrera might be a solid eighth or seventh hitter.  No really competitive team has NOBODY who is an outfielder and can’t hit in the middle of the lineup.

DH:

Gone is Jose Guillen, so look for Alex Gordon or Jeff Francouer or Kila Ka’aihue to get the at bats.  I like Mt. Ka’aihue, a minor league power hitter who has to prove he can be more than a AAAA player.

Down on the Farm:

The Royals are loaded with prospects.  Mike Moustakas we mentioned earlier…  The 2007 1st round draft pick hit .319 with 15 homers in just 225 AAA at bats, after clobbering AA pitchers to the tune of 21 – 76 – .347 in 66 games.  Kila Ka’aihue hit .319 with 24 dingers in 323 at bats, draws walks, too.  Among the pitchers, Greg Holland and Blake Wood showed success at AAA and both made the Royals for the end of the season and can help in the pen.

In AA Northwest Arkansas, every one hits – the team hit .291 in 2010.  The two that make prospect lists are second baseman Johnny Giavotella, who hit .322 with a .395 OBP, and first baseman Eric Hosmer, who got to AA at 20, hit .313 with 13 homers in 50 games (he had hit .354 in A+ Wilmington).  2009 1st round pick Aaron Crow didn’t pitch as well as hoped, but he made a big jump out of college.  His control got the best of him – 59 walks in just 119.1 innings.  The best stats belonged to Everett Teaford, who went 14 – 3, fanning 113 in just 99 innings, and walking only 32.  Danny Duffy made seven solid starts after a promotion, and reliever Louis Coleman gave up 31 hits in 51.2 innings, while striking out 55 and walking just 14.

John Lamb climbed from Burlington through Wilmington (A+) to AA and is just 20.  Lamb is a lefty with great command and in 42 minor league starts, has 230 strikeouts and just 65 walks.  He could be the lefty version of Bret Saberhagen – and the Royals need this to be true.  Wil Myers is a catcher who, in his first full professional season, finished by hitting .315 at two levels with power and a .429 OBP.

2011 Prediction:

The Royals may climb out of the cellar, but not far.  I think the starting pitching can be 20 – 30 runs better than last year even without Greinke coming  back.  Moving Moustakas in at third base will help defensively – this could be 25 runs or more at his position alone.  Lorenzo Cain and Melky Cabrera give the Royals defensive stability – certainly better in left field and possibly centerfield than what was there in 2010.  And, your fourth outfielder, Maier, can cover ground.  So, look for the Royals to drop the runs allowed from 845 to about 780.  And I don’t think Kendall manages a staff very well.

Offensively, adding Moustakas will be nice, but unless Lorenzo Cain can hit .290 and get on base a lot, there won’t be many runners for Butler and Moustakas to drive in.  That being said, a full season of Mike Aviles would also add a few runs.  But Cain would be hitting like Podsednik, and Francoeur is no different, really, than Jose Guillen.  That means that the offense isn’t likely to climb up that many notches.  Ka’aihue is a wild card.  If he hits .260 with 75 walks and 25 homers as a DH, that would be a lift.  If Moustakas is a rookie of the year candidate, maybe another lift.  Unfortunately, you still have too many outs.  Escobar, Cabrera, and Kendall.  Please let Kendall back up Pena – that could be worth 10 runs.

You have an ace-less staff, old catching, with league average fielding and a well-below average offense.  That gets you about 69 wins, and if you are optimistic, maybe 72 wins.  That’s the bad news.  The good news is that the Royals have a deep farm system and by 2013 – especially if the pitching steps up – could be competitive.  Hang in there fans, there is help on the way.

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2010 Top AL Centerfielders

If Josh Hamilton were a centerfielder every day, he’d rank first with 136.2 Total Runs Productivity – well above everyone else on this list.  On the other hand, it would likely be lower because he no longer has the range to play center and, when he does, he gets hurt.

Torii Hunter – LAA (103.9 Runs Created, 5.9 Runs Saved = 109.8 Total Runs Productivity)

Don’t let that Runs Saved number fool you – he was great as a right fielder, but marginally below average in center.  The move to right is the right move, and Hunter remains a formidable offensive weapon.

Austin Jackson – DET (91.7 Runs Created, 4.6 Runs Saved = 96.3 Total Runs Productivity)

A fine rookie season.  Sure – he struck out nearly as often as he got a hit, but he got a lot of those, turning many into doubles and triples.  Has room for improvement, and time to do it.

Alex Rios – CHI (87.6 Runs created, 8.0 Runs Saved = 95.6 Total Runs Productivity)

The change of scenery did him well, and getting to be a regular centerfielder, Rios had a very good season.  As a player, a dead ringer for Adam Jones, only with more experience and a tad more speed.

Vernon Wells – TOR (99.3 Runs Created, -7.4 Runs Saved = 91.9 Total Runs Productivity)

Heading to LA where he won’t be asked to play centerfield very often, which is good because Wells hasn’t been a league average fielder in center since the first George W term.  Rajai Davis gets the job in 2011, and I’m not sure that’s going to be an improvement.

B.J. Upton – TB (90.0 Runs Created, 1.8 Runs Saved = 91.8 Total Runs Productivity)

Has bat speed and foot speed that anyone would die for, and knows the strike zone.  And yet, he’s a disappointment.  He strikes out a LOT.  Now dogged for dogging it, and yet a very valuable player for the Rays.

Adam Jones – BAL (80.5 Runs Created, 7.9 Runs Saved = 88.4 Total Runs Productivity)

A good, but not great player – decent average, good power, some speed, above average glove.  Wish he were more patient, or could take it up a notch.  I was listening to a Baseball Prospectus podcast and Kevin Goldstein noted that, with the end of Ken Griffey’s career, we really haven’t had a big time centerfielder for a while – and that remains true.

Denard Span – MIN (78.9 Runs Created, 3.9 Runs Saved = 82.8 Total Runs Productivity)

Good baserunner, gets on base, but has little to no power.  Above average range in center.  Not a horrible centerfielder, but not making anyone forget Kirby Puckett.

Franklin Gutierrez – SEA (74.4 Runs Created, 1.1 Runs Saved = 75.5 Total Runs Productivity)

Wonder if the struggles of the Mariner season got to Gutierrez?  Fell off offensively and defensively in 2010 to the point he was just a league average player.  He will have better seasons.

Rajai Davis – OAK (74.4 Runs Created,-2.1 Runs Saved = 72.3 Total Runs Productivity)

Speedster, stats hidden by playing in Oakland (not that he’s really Mickey Mantle or something).  Not an awful player, but he’d help more if he could add something else to his skill set.  Your new Blue Jays centerfielder…

Curtis Granderson – NYY (67.3 Runs Created, -5.8 Runs Saved = 61.5 Total Runs Productivity)

Brett Gardner covers more ground, and is a more valuable hitter.  I like Granderson, don’t get me wrong, but they should switch and put Granderson in left.

Trevor Crowe – CLE (49.0 Runs Created, 11.4 Runs Saved = 60.4 Total Runs Productivity)

Has speed, but will probably show little growth as a hitter since he’s already 27 and wasn’t a world beater in the minors, Crowe played more centerfield but was just a few innings from leading the Indians in time spent in left field as well.  At this point, he’s a much better defensive player than Grady Sizemore, but he needs to increase either his on base percentage or slugging percentage to be worth giving 1000 innings in the field.  He’s really a fifth outfielder at best.

Coco Crisp – OAK (51.3 Runs Created, 3.7 Runs Saved = 55.0 Total Runs Productivity)

Would be a remarkably valuable player if he could just stay in the lineup.  In 2010, it was injuries to his left pinkie – twice.  Last full season?  2007.

Julio Borbon – TEX (46.5 Runs Created, 1.9 Runs Saved = 48.4 Total Runs Productivity)

Slap hitter, fast – but not a great basestealer or defensive wizard.  I think he can step forward, though, and has to because when Josh Hamilton is forced into centerfield, he finds the DL.

Melky Cabrera, former Yankee and Brave who signed with the Royals in December, 2010, would rank here (45.3 Total Runs Productivity).

Mitch Maier – KC (47.4 Runs Created, -4.4 Runs Saved = 43.0 Total Runs Productivity)

A fourth outfielder masquerading as a regular because in Kansas City, they need warm bodies.  Hits a little, fields some, tries hard.  He won’t get 2500 career at bats, though.  For 2011, the job will fall to either Melky Cabrera or Lorenzo Cain, a raw talent who arrived in the Zack Greinke trade.  Cabrera is a really good fourth outfielder, while Cain might be a shade better than Cabrera these days.

Darnell McDonald – BOS (46.1 Runs Created, -5.1 Runs Saved = 41.0 Total Runs Productivity)

14 years ago, he was a first round choice of the Orioles and was rushed through the system before he was really ready because he just LOOKED like an athlete.  Spent a decade as a AA/AAA guy before he was finally given a reasoanble opportunity for playing time.  Of course, everyone in Boston’s outfield was injured at the time.  He’s not an awful player, but he’s now 32 and probably wishes things had worked out differently.

Peter Bourjos – LAA (19.0 Runs Created, 12.4 Runs Saved = 31.4 Total Runs Productivity)

The new Devon White.  Some power, tons of speed, swings at everything.  If he can hit anything at all, will become a very valuable commodity.  I think he can hit .250 hitting eighth or ninth in this lineup, which would be just fine.

Mike Cameron – BOS (20.7 Runs Created, 0.4 Runs Saved = 21.1 Total Runs Productivity)

Can still play – retaining a huge chunk of his skills as he approaches 40.  Always liked him, but if it were me, I think I’d rather play Kalish in center.

Ryan Kalish – BOS (21.2 Runs Created, -.2 Runs Saved = 21.0 Total Runs Productivity)

You want to know how deep the Red Sox farm is?  Ryan Kalish is a pretty good player.  Great base runner, sneaky power, decent fielder.  And, he has no place to play on this team.  Still – he’s not far from being a solid fourth outfielder in Boston, and if necessary, wouldn’t be an awful option as a centerfielder for long stretches of time.  Other teams would LOVE to have a Ryan Kalish in their system.  Turns 23 in spring training.

Michael Brantley – CLE (31.4 Runs Created, -15.5 Runs Saved = 15.9 Total Runs Productivity)

In 100 career games now, he’s hit 3 – 33 – .264, with barely tolerable on base percentage skills, and his defensive skills haven’t yet impressed anyone at the major league level.  Too good for AAA, he’s a fifth outfielder hoping to step it up.  Stiil a kid – turns 24 in May – so there is room for growth.

Gregor Blanco – KC (24.9 Runs Created, -11.2 Runs Saved = 13.7 Total Runs Productivity)

A fifth outfielder who got too much playing time.  Can contribute a little with the bat, but hasn’t been a consistently good fielder.

Grady Sizemore – CLE (11.0 Runs Created, -11.2 Runs Saved, = -0.2 Total Runs Productivity)

Hasn’t been the same since the personal photo shoot.  Body has left him, skills haven’t been seen in a couple of years now.  I’m not sure he’ll ever be back.

2010 AL Gold Glove and Dirty Brick Award Winners

My fielding ranking system is a method that looks at the number of plays made per 800 balls in play.  In effect, if someone makes one play more than another person at the same position, he reduces the batting average of the hitter by a point.  The best fielders occasionally make a run at 15 plays per 800 balls in play more than average, the worst can go 15 in the other direction.  Then, I convert those plays made into runs saved (or not saved, if the number is negative) based on the types of hits allowed on balls hit toward that fielder.  I also convert double plays and errors into runs based on Pete Palmer formulas found in the old Total Baseball encyclopedias.

Does it work?  Actually – yes.  It passes the eye ball test (Elvis Andrus, when you watch him, looks like an impressive fielder), and the system is comparable to other methodologies.  I’ve used this for about ten years, when I was first trying to rate fielders to make player cards for the old Superstar Baseball board game.

I try to remove biases for groundball/flyball tendencies, and for lefty/righty balls in play.  If there is one position where I am always concerned, it’s first base because much of that is based on the rest of the infield – so I essentially remove infield assists from the first baseman’s putout total.  Even with that, there is usually a greater range between the best and worst fielders.  However, after doing this for years, I have reached the conclusion that the reason for this has more to do with the fact that the worst fielders are, indeed, the least mobile athletes on the field and if you get someone at first base who is young and still fleet of foot, that person is going to make GOBS more plays than a big lumbering first baseman whose first move is to start heading to first to catch a throw on almost any ball hit to his right.

Mighty Casey generally doesn’t rank pitchers individually, but the best team in this regard was probably Cleveland.  Cleveland pitchers had a positive ratio of double plays to errors (19/13, where the league pitchers participated in 180 DPs and made 181 errors) and also handled about 5 chances more than the average team per 800 balls in play.  The worst was easily Detroit (17 DPs, 18 errors, 6.4 plays below average per 800 balls in play).

I also rank catchers differently, choosing to score them as a team.  There are seven categories for which a team of catchers could be graded:  ERA, Winning Percentage, SB%, Fielding Percentage on plays not including strikeouts, Mistakes per Game (passed balls, errors), Plays Made per Game (or Mobility), Other Assists per Game (not including Caught Stealing).  The catchers get a point for each category in which they are above the league average, and lose a point if below league average.  The highest score, theoretically, is seven and the lowest would be -7.  Nobody was that good, nor that bad.

Catcher:

Toronto had the best rankings, being above average in six categories and dead even on Mobility.  John Buck did the yeoman’s share of the work, but his backup Jose Molina was also exceptional against the run, tossing out 15 of 34 runners.  That being said, I don’t think that John Buck is the best catcher in the AL, it’s Joe Mauer.  But the rankings say that Toronto’s catchers held their own collectively.

Behind Toronto, the White Sox scored at positive four, failing only in mobility categories, and then a tie between Boston, Detroit, and Minnesota at positive three.

The worst catching was a toss up between three teams that all scored at -3: Seattle, Los Angeles, and Kansas City.

First Base:

For the first time in several years, the stats matched the reputation.  Mark Teixeira earns the nod, saving his team nearly 32 runs with his range and ability to avoid errors and turn double plays.  I was surprised at how good Ty Wigginton was, showing even better range, but then again – he’s an infielder moving over to first – and frequently those guys are used to straying as far as possible to get grounders where many first basemen will give up on balls to the right and let the second sacker get them while moving to first base.

I’m not totally certain that Teixeira would have won the award had Kendry Morales not gotten hurt.  Morales, in just 51 games, had a slightly higher range and was on pace to save just as many runs as Big Tex.  Two others who didn’t get 1000 innings at the position also scored well here – Kevin Youkilis and rookie Justin Smoak.

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Mark Teixeira    1291.2    10.2    31.7
Ty Wigginton    787    12.5    18.7
Justin Smoak    807.2    10.3    17.5

The Dirty Brick goes to Cleveland’s Matt LaPorta, whose poor range didn’t help a season where his bat wasn’t very strong – negating half of the runs he created offensively.  The other two shouldn’t be a surprise.  Miguel Cabrera is looking less and less lean, and Mike Napoli is a catcher playing first.

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Matt LaPorta    791.1    -13.5    -25.0
Miguel Cabrera    1285.1    -5.6    -19.9
Mike Napoli    586.1    -12.7    -19.2

Dishonorable mentions go out to Daric Barton, Justin Morneau (on pace to match LaPorta, but he missed half the season), and Paul Konerko…

Second Base:

Robinson Cano had an amazing year with the bat, and was equally strong with the glove.  His range factor was nearly 11 plays per 800 balls in play more than average, and he made just 3 errors while turning 114 double plays.  As such, he not only saved his team 26 runs just by eliminating hits, but he took more than seven more runs off the board by avoiding errors and helping with the DP – the most at his position by far.  Orlando Hudson provided value for Minnesota, and KC’s Mike Aviles returned and made a positive contribution with the bat and glove, too.  Regular leaders here, Ian Kinsler and Mark Ellis, fell back as both missed about 500 innings at the position due to injuries.  Honorable mention to Sean Rodriguez at Tampa who nearly made the list in just a half season of innings, and to Gordon Beckham who switched over from third and was solid for the White Sox.

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Robinson Cano    1393.1    10.9    33.3
Orlando Hudson    1067    7.4    16.3
Mike Aviles    765.2    14.8    15.8

The Dirty Brick goes to a position switch as well – Seattle’s Chone Figgins.  He was a decided bust at second base, making 19 errors and making an adjusted 4.11 plays per nine – 11.9 plays fewer per 800 balls in play than the average second baseman.  Seattle signed him as a third baseman, switched him over to let Jose Lopez play third.  Thankfully, Lopez was fantastic over there – else it would have been a total loss…  Brian Roberts, a regular to the brick list, was abhorrant in a shade under 500 innings, 20 plays worse than the average second sacker per 800 balls in play, and Aaron Hill took his struggles at the plate with him to the field.  Dishonorable mentions to supposed glove man Chris Getz (-7 runs) and rookie Scott Sizemore (-11 runs in must 314 innings).  So much for replacing Placido Polanco…

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Chone Figgins    1417    -11.9    -33.3
Brian Roberts    498.1    -19.5    -17.1
Aaron Hill    1188    -6.1    -14.5

Third Base:

As poorly as Chone Figgins played second base for Seattle, converted third baseman Jose Lopez was a decided success.  His range was superior, and he didn’t disappoint in terms of errors or double plays.  Evan Longoria remained in the 30 runs saved range – a remarkable player, really – and Adrian Beltre continued to field his position remarkably well.  An honorable mention goes to the reluctantly converted Miguel Tejada, who had greater range than even Longoria, but played just 808 innings before being shipped out.  Nick Punto played an out shy of 345 innings there without making an error…

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Jose Lopez    1252.2    13.3    36.9
Evan Longoria    1330.2    8.7    31.1
Adrian Beltre    1342.2    6.6    19.0

The dirty brick goes to a part-timer, Royals infielder Wilson Betemit, who must have had ball repellant on him, making barely 2.2 plays per nine and having a range about 17 plays worse than the average player per 800 balls in play.  Another halftimer, Omar Vizquel got close to 600 unnecessary innings at third base for the White Sox – he’s an ancient shortstop who hadn’t played there for his entire career.  You want to know why the White Sox lost the division – look right here.  Of the regulars, Michael Young was, again, a lousy third baseman – but he did make improvement over last year.  No wonder he volunteered to be a DH.

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Wilson Betemit    455.1    -16.9    -18.4
Omar Vizquel    582.1    -19.4    -17.4
Michael Young    1370.1    -3.3    -10.3

Shortstop:

Nobody was more surprised to see this than I, but Alexei Ramirez had a remarkable year at shortstop, showing great range – as good as he ever played.  He was one assist shy of 500 – a great season by any measurement.  Cliff Pennington helped out the young A’s staff by making his share of plays, and Elvis Andrus remained among the best fielders of his time.  Seattle’s Jack and Josh Wilson, if combined, saved Seattle more than 20 runs.

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Alexei Ramirez    1376.2    12.8    32.1
Cliff Pennington   1304.2    12.0    26.9
Elvis Andrus    1291.1    10.3    26.0

At least the reigning gold glove winner didn’t finish last, but he did have the worst range amongst the regulars.  This year, Marco Scutaro’s 18 errors and only contributing to 57 double plays made up for making slightly more plays than Derek Jeter, who had just 6 errors and 94 double plays.  The 11 run swing gave the brick to Scutaro, who killed the Red Sox infield.  He’ll need to be replaced soon if the Sox want to be competitive.  Third place went to Jason Bartlett who no longer looks like the slick fielding shortstop he was before all the ankle injuries in 2009.  Thankfully for the Rays, they have other options for 2011.

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Marco Scutaro    1166    -13.2    -32.0
Derek Jeter    1303.2    -15.0    -27.4
Jason Bartlett    1104    -8.9    -16.4

Left Field:

A centerfielder playing left who also had his best offensive season heading into free agency, the gold glove goes to the perennially amazing Carl Crawford.  Crawford was the only left fielder to save his team more than 10 runs, but only because the next closest guys played too few innings to save enough runs.  Only three left fielders played 1000 innings there in 2010.

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Carl Crawford    1260.1    4.2    13.1
Michael Saunders   647.2    6.3    9.6
Alex Gordon    486.1    7.6    9.0

One of those three was Dirty Brick winner Delmon Young, who abused left field until he cost the Twins 25 runs out there.  At least he found his bat last year…  Fred Lewis played a disinterested left field for Toronto, and Daniel Nava was the Boston representative of the list of bad outfielders who played between 200 and 500 innings in the AL.

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Delmon Young    1277.2    -8.5    -25.0
Fred Lewis    726.1    -7.8    -13.2
Daniel Nava    380    -12.9    -10.4

Center Field:

The Angels are rightfully excited about the defensive capabilities of their new centerfielder, Peter Bourjos.  The man can fly – reminding you of a young Gary Pettis.  He can throw, too – ten assists in what amounts to a third of a season in the field.  This allows Los Angeles to move Torii Hunter, who is now a slightly below average centerfielder to right (where he was really good), and makes room for another below average centerfielder, Vernon Wells, to move to left.  As it was, there isn’t a whole lot of difference amongst the starting centerfielders, except for Bourjos, in terms of overall range.

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Peter Bourjos    449.2    12.0    12.4
Adam Jones    1298.1    2.9    7.9
Alex Rios    1246.2    2.8    7.1

The Dirty Brick goes to a guy whose body and game are falling apart, and that’s Grady Sizemore.  One hopes he can heal and start to put his career back in the right direction, but it’s probably going to have to be at a different position.  Sadly, his replacement (Brantley) doesn’t look much better, and among those who played at least 1000 innings, Vernon Wells, who was healthier than in recent seasons, is still the worst of the lot (costing his team about 7.5 runs).  Thankfully, he’s done as a centerfielder.

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Grady Sizemore    269.2    -17.5    -11.2
Michael Brantley562.2    -6.9    -9.4
Gregor Blanco    347    -11.2    -8.4

Right Field:

For the second year in a row, Nelson Cruz was a remarkable outfielder, though he threw hardly anybody out from right.  I was surprised to see how well Nick Swisher did, but that could be because opponents may allow more lefties to bat in the new Yankee Stadium.  Honorable mention to Ben Zobrist, who has to play everywhere but looked solid enough in right.  I wonder if there isn’t some form of statistical bias in Texas, though, as even Vlad Guerrero showed up as above average in his 118.2 innings there.  Not WAY above average, but slightly.

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Nelson Cruz    799.1    15.2    25.9
Nick Swisher    1102    6.1    14.5
Jason Repko    226    16.4    9.3

The Dirty Brick goes to the surprise hammer of the league – Jose Bautista, followed by a bunch of guys who are either ill-suited for the outfield, aging, our out of position (David DeJesus).  The worst right fielder who played at least 1000 innings was Shin-Soo Choo, who barely edged out the immobile Nick Markakis and the aging J.D. Drew, and were all between -7.02 and -7.17 runs in the wrong direction.

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Jose Bautista    982.2    -6.8    -14.6
Carlos Quentin    897    -5.3    -13.6
Bobby Abreu    805.2    -3.4    -7.9

Pirates Trade McLouth to Braves for Prospects (They Hope)

Nate McLouth was probably Pittsburgh’s best player last year – well, close.  Jason Bay was better for four months but was traded to Boston.  Xavier Nady was amazing for nearly four months but was traded to New York.  Ryan Doumit generated a lot of runs, but is limited defensively (and this year is hurt).  McLouth is better than Freddy Sanchez and either Andy or Adam LaRoche.

He’s pretty good, though.  Above average power (26 homers, 46 doubles last year, on pace for more of the same in 2009); good speed (23 steals, just three caught stealing in 2008).  Patient enough at the plate, doesn’t strikeout too much, but he does fan from time to time.

Defensively, however, he’s not THAT good a centerfielder.  I have him has having below average range the last three years in center (-9.2, -4.3, -4.7 – meaning that for every 800 balls in play, McLouth makes that many fewer plays than the average centerfielder, and therefore adds that many points to the batter’s batting average).  In limited innings, he hasn’t been especially mobile in left or right, either.  So, in addition to putting about 117 runs on the board for the Pirates, he also helped put an extra 15 runs on the board for his opponents.  The net, however, is very positive.   Not every player contributes 100 runs to a team’s success.

So, with the Pirates falling to their usual fate – the bottom of the NL Central and a losing record for the umpteenth straight season – management decided to sell off their best remaining asset to the Atlanta Braves for three prospects.  Was this a good idea?

For the Braves – YES!  With Jordan Schafer being sent to AAA by the Braves yesterday to be replaced by Gregor Blanco, and dissatisfied with the production of Jeff Francouer, McLouth will still be a welcome addition to the Braves.  He’s better than anyone who played there in 2008 (Mark Kotsay, Blanco), and far better than anyone who could play there in the Braves system now.  (Blanco, who just got called up to the majors to replace Schafer, was a below average batter and fielder in center.)  And, none of their TOP prospects were involved in the trade – Hanson, Medlin, and others will still be available to Atlanta for growth or trades.

What did the Pirates get in return?

Charlie Morton was the 2nd round pick by Atlanta back in 2002, and has worked his way through the minors.  To his credit, Morton has improved in terms of his control and strikeout rate.  In 2008, he was far ahead of anything he had done in his prior years and earned a trip to the majors where he was miserable – 6.15 ERA, and walking nearly as many as he struck out.  In AAA this year, Morton has been solid for Gwinnett, even better than in 2008, but not as dominant as Tommy Hanson or even Kris Medlin.

Jeff Locke was the Braves’ 2nd round pick in 2006 out of high school.  Unlike Morton, Locke DOMINATED rookie ball, but since then seems to have taken a step back.  He was okay in 2008 at A Rome; good control, but ugly record and a lot of balls in play turned into hits.  And, in 2009 for Myrtle Beach, he looks very ordinary and not very prospect like.  Baseball America may say he’s a top ten prospect in the Braves system, but not based on this year, for sure.  He’s young and has room to grow; yet Locke is NOT going to pitch for Pittsburgh for two or three years.

The last guy might help some, and that’s Gorkys Hernandez, who is a Venezuelan burner.  Just 21 now (22 in September), Gorkys has 50 steals in him, and has hit well this year at AA Mississippi, coming to Atlanta from Detroit in the deal that sent Edgar Renteria to Detroit in 2008.  Now, while his average is higher and he’s still stealing bases, he’s not drawing walks and his strikeout rate at AA is prohibitively high (54 in just 212 at bats).  Baseball America ranked Hernandez as the fourth best prospect in the Braves system.

Still – a poor man’s Grady Sizemore (check out the comparisons – McLouth is 85% of Sizemore, and Sizemore is overrated defensively, too) for a fourth or fifth starter (at best), a struggling kid pitcher, and a Willy Taveras clone doesn’t strike me as a great deal.  Especially when none of the pitchers can help immediately (and one is going in the wrong direction) and you already have a centerfielder-in-waiting in Andrew McCutchen.  Granted, three players thicken up the talent base, but giving away one of the few hitters capable of putting 100 runs on the scoreboard each year seems like a good deal for Atlanta and a disappointing return for Pittsburgh.  Pittsburgh needed to turn McLouth into a pitcher capable of winning 15 games.  That’s not going to happen anytime soon.

Look for Andrew McCutchen, hitting well and running like the wind at AAA Indianpolis, to get the call to play center.  For three years, McCutchen has been one of the two highest ranked prospects (per Baseball America) and it’s time to get him on the major league roster.   If you haven’t gotten him for your fantasy team, it’s time to think about picking him up.

To Err is Human, Else You’re a Yankee; Hamilton Out Indefinitely

A Yankee finally made an error, but it didn’t matter.  New York still slaughtered Texas in a battle of division leaders.  When Elvis Andrus stole second, Jorge Posada’s throw was pushed into deep right center field by the jet stream that’s been contributing to all those homers…  The MLB record stands at 18 consecutive games without an error, which (as mentioned yesterday) is a remarkable feat.  In the game, Derek Jeter passed the 1500 runs scored milestone.  I want to say he passed 2600 hits a day ago, something covered on Mike and Mike in the Morning on ESPN Radio when I was driving to work this morning.

The MLB Transaction List was rather large today with people going on or coming off the DL, and a lot of teams shuffling players back and forth between the majors and minors.  Complete coverage will be difficult, but a couple of changes stand out.

Josh Hamilton’s ab injury is serious – enough to land him on the DL.  Depending on the source, the timetable is either two weeks to two months or undeterminable.  Texas’s best hitter last year, Hamilton has struggled through a slow start, and injuries occuring while slamming into walls.  That Texas has played well despite Hamilton’s lack of production is amazing – but if it really is two months, this could eventually become problematic – especially as the summer heat saps some of Texas’s batting thunder.

Cincinnati’s ace, Edinson Volquez returns to the disabled list one inning after his most recent injury activation with elbow tendinitis.  Jared Burton was returned from AAA where Burton was sent initially to regain some success, probably because the Reds need bullpen help for the next couple of days.  Is a return of Homer Bailey in the cards when Volquez is next scheduled to start?  Good thing the Reds still have three solid starters, but losing Volquez for what looks like at least a month of the season is tough.  Six starts by Homer Bailey (or someone else) compared to six starts of Volquez means allowing at least an extra run a start, and probably two extra losses.  In a division as close as the NL Central, Dusty Baker needs as many wins as he can get.

Coming off the DL?  Kansas City returns Joakim Soria, ace closer, and infielder Tony Pena.  One hopes Pena’s injured bat returns, too, else Willie Bloomquist will be playing a lot of shortstop until Mike Aviles returns.  To make room on the roster, Sidney Ponson was placed on the DL with an elbow strain (I thought it was because he can’t pitch).  Coco Crisp was added to the bereavement list following the death of his great-grandmother.  (God Bless, sir.)

Washington placed Kip Wells on the DL with a right adductor strain.  Replacing him on the roster is Elijah Dukes, whose bat will be welcomed immediately now that he’s no longer on the DL.  Meanwhile, Washington also replaced coaches, releasing pitching coach Randy St. Claire and replacing him with former A’s pitcher, Steve McCatty.  Washington’s league worst ERA and worst record in baseball, especially given the overhaul of members of the bullpen, contributed to St. Claire’s demise.  On the other hand, who signed Kip Wells?  Why isn’t THAT guy fired?

Others returning from the DL include Texas starter Vincente Padilla, Red Sox outfielder Mark Kotsay (he’ll be injured soon enough) and Mets infielder Alex Cora.

Milwaukee released Jorge Julio, making them the 14th team to have released Julio since 2003.  Great arm, no idea what he’s doing out there.  A few years ago, he was the surprise closer for Baltimore, but that’s the only success he’s really had.

The New York Mets are dealing with a lot of issues, including persisent flu and virus illnesses to John Maine and Carlos Beltran, a knee injury to Gary Sheffield, and various other ailments.   They’ve been playing with a patchwork lineup for days and hanging in there, but at some point, Jerry Manuel is going to run out of options…

On the Mend?  Rich Harden is throwing for the Cubs.  The Rockies assigned Chris Ianetta to Colorado Springs for his rehab work.  The Dodgers sent Claudio Vargas to the Inland Empire to begin his rehab stint. 

The struggling Jordan Schaeffer was sent to Gwinnett to find his confidence, so the Braves recalled speedy outfielder Gregor Blanco.

Finally, my favorite Marlin, Burke Badenhop, pitched five innings of one hit relief after Anibal Sanchez got through three innings in 71 pitches (typical for him, by the way, and not because it’s Sanchez’s first start off the DL) to earn the win over Milwaukee tonight.  He used to be Casey’s favorite player, but now I think it’s either Hanley Ramirez or Dan Uggla (though he always asks me who #6 is).

2009 Season Forecast: Atlanta Braves

Atlanta Braves
2008: 72-90 (4th NL East, 20 games back)

This was my worst pick last year – picking them to win the division, only to watch the pitching staff get obliterated by injuries, and a couple of players taking steps back in production.  That being said, looking at the 2008 Braves, it’s really confusing to see a team that should have been better finish with a record totally unbefitting its reputation, manager, and its statistics.

Looking Back on 2008

Many people had the Braves to finish at or near the top of the division.  Bobby Cox’s team was fronted by two great starters in John Smoltz and Tim Hudson.  Tom Glavine returned home and Jair Jurrjens looked ready for his first full season in the rotation.  There was a decent power core in Chipper Jones, Mark Teixeira, Brian McCann and Jeff Francoeur, some good young hitters in the infield and outfield – this was a very good team.  On paper.

And then the pitching staff was gone.  Smoltz made five starts and left without a functioning elbow.  Tim Hudson made it into August before his elbow went.  Tom Glavine never missed a turn for twenty years – he made just 13 starts.  Mike Hampton’s comeback stalled in spring training, he made only 13 starts.  Chuck James made seven starts.  Lousy starts.

For the first two months, the Braves were more than competitive.  Chipper Jones looked like he might hit .400.  Other hitters supported the cause.  But Smoltz was already gone and Glavine would follow.  Five games over .500 approaching Memorial Day, the Braves slumped in June and July and fell out of the race.  At that point, the Braves decided to become sellers.  Mark Teixeira was given away to the Angels. (For Casey Kotchman?  That’s all you could get?  Shame!)  Mark Kotsay was sent to Boston.  When management gave up on the team, the team gave up on the season, going 9 – 20 in August.

And yet, they still should have done better.  The team scored nearly as many runs as they allowed, 753 to 778, which means that with a little luck, they might have finished 78 – 84 or so.  This was especially problematic on the road, where they were outscored by only four runs, but finished 29 – 52.

Tell me about that offense

The Braves, even without Teixeria now, have a lot of offensive options but will be looking to fill a couple of holes.

The infield is led by third baseman Chipper Jones, who has improved his on base percentage each of the last two years because (a) he’s hitting better than ever, and (b) he’s drawing even more walks than he was in 2006.  As such, he’s now creating nearly 11 runs per 27 outs – one of the best rates in baseball.  At first base, Mark Teixeira produced runs at a decent clip until he was shipped out.  Casey Kotchman arrived and did not – hitting for a low average (.237) with no power (one homer a month).  Few teams can win when the first baseman doesn’t produce runs.  Kelly Johnson is a decent hitting second baseman; he has some power and a good eye.  Last year he hit 39 doubles and 12 homers, which are good numbers from someone who can hit first or second in the lineup.  Yunel Escobar didn’t hit .300, but he hit enough, drew a few walks, and finished with double digit homers.  Three of the four positions are solidly represented at the plate.  Even backup Omar Infante hit pretty well.

Like with the Marlins, the outfield didn’t do its job.  Matt Diaz fell from hitting .330 to .244 with no power and only 3 walks against 32 strikeouts in 135 at bats.  Mark Kotsay was okay but barely above average and his back is no longer dependable for 120 games anymore.  Josh Anderson looked like a better hitter when he arrived in August.  And then you have Jeff Francouer, who had a season he’d probably rather forget.  He’s gone from 29 homers to 19, and last year finished with 11.  His RBI count was down because his batting average fell from .293 to .239.  He didn’t strike out more often; he just couldn’t get good contact on the ball.  Gregor Blanco, Greg Norton, and Brandon Jones are all decent backups, but aren’t championship quality hitters or defenders.

Brian McCann is the best hitting catcher in baseball – high averages, good power (23 homers and 42 doubles), and good plate discipline, earning some walks and not too many strikeouts.

Defensively:

With the glove, you have a veritable mixed bag of talent, but nobody who really stands out.

McCann’s catching isn’t very good.  He makes a few more mistakes (errors, passed balls) than you would like.  Only two teams allowed more stolen bases (SD and WASH) and both of those teams play in caverns where it’s hard to bash your way to runs.  On the other hand, he’s still mobile and contributes a little bit.  With his bat, a few extra stolen bases aren’t going to kill you.

Both Teixeira and Kotchman have great reputations for their glovework, but you wouldn’t have noticed it from their stats where both were actually below average in terms of range (but both were great in not making errors).  Chipper Jones had a decent year – a better ratio of double plays to errors, as well as better range than in 2007.  However, he’s still slightly below average at third.  Of the backups, Martin Prado did the best, and Infante was no better than Jones.  Both Escobar and Johnson have slightly above average range, but make more errors than you would like – the signs of young infielders.

Nobody in the outfield was very good.  Francouer has slightly below average range but a fantastic arm.  Kotsay looked immobile in centerfield (-7.6 range) – in a half season’s worth of innings, he cost the team eleven runs.  Gregor Blanco is supposed to be fast, but you wouldn’t know it by his statistics.  He cost his team another twelve or thirteen runs.  Matt Diaz was their best outfielder and he couldn’t hit.

Despite that, the Braves were about league average overall in terms of turning balls in play into outs, and that was because the infield was pretty good.

Now Pitching…

Hudson and Smoltz were great, but as you remember, were short term pitchers.   Jair Jurrgens, in his first full season, was fantastic finishing with 13 – 10 with a 3.68 ERA in 31 starts.  Jorge Campillo was forced into the rotation and was above average in terms of preventing runs in about 160 innings.  Mike Hampton and Tom Glavine were slightly below league average but didn’t turn in many innings.  In total, the first three slots of the rotation (when you combine them all) were actually pretty good.  The last two slots, though, were really bad.  Chuck James had an ERA over nine in his seven starts.  Charlie Morton was forced into fifteen starts and had an ERA over six.  Jo Jo Reyes got 22 starts that the Braves wish didn’t happen.  Still – all told, the starters were about eighteen runs better than the average rotation, which was a positive.

The problem was the lack of a consistent bullpen.  A couple of options were okay – Jeff Bennett had a solid season.  But for every good option, there was at least one pitcher who negated that benefit.  Manny Acosta had a decent ERA despite having a lousy strikeout to walk ratio.  Blaine Boyer was the opposite – a few too many homers allowed, but good numbers otherwise.  Mike Gonzalez came back in the second half to record 14 saves, but had a high ERA.  Will Ohman and Buddy Carlisle had okay seasons, but Royce Ring pitched only 22 innings in 42 appearances and had an ERA of 8.46.  Like the rotation, there were more positives than negatives, though.

Forecasting 2009:

The 2009 Braves will see a lot of changes.  Gone are both Hudson and Smoltz.  Smoltz signed as a free agent with the Red Sox, who gave him a better guaranteed contract, while Hudson only recently started throwing and is hoping to pitch after the all-star break.  In their places will be Derek Lowe and Javier Vasquez.  Kenshin Kawakami comes over from Japan and will likely be in the rotation behind Jurrgens, who is the number three starter.  That leaves the fifth spot to Campillo, or possibly to rookie Tommy Hanson. 

Lowe has been a dependable starter for a long time; in terms of what he offers the Braves he will essentially replace Hudson.  Vasquez has been logging innings, but he’s mildly above average because he is a fly ball pitcher.  In Atlanta, he might fare a bit better – but he’s still a step down from a full season of Smoltz (not that the Braves got a full season from him).  Kawakami is going to be an improvement over Reyes even if he’s league average, and I am reasonably confident Jurrjens will not suffer a sophomore letdown unless his control gets the best of him.

The bullpen didn’t change over the offseason, with the hopes of a full season of Gonzalez and improvement from some younger relievers in the seventh and eighth innings.  If the Braves get more innings out of their starters than last year, that will be worth ten runs just not having to dip into long relief as often.  The upgrade to the staff is likely worth about twenty or twenty five runs.

Offensively, I’m concerned about the team’s ability to score more runs than last season.  Jones turns 37 this April and while he’s been amazing over the last three years, he hasn’t been healthy.  Casey Kotchman for a full season will be twenty runs worse (or more) than having a full season of Mark Teixeira.  So, the infield may contribute 30 or 40 runs less than last year.  Garrett Anderson has been brought in to play left field – he will be an upgrade over what Matt Diaz and Gregor Blanco provided, but he’s also long in the tooth and may need 40 days off over the course of the season.  And, he’s not an improvement defensively, either.  A full season of Josh Anderson or Blanco in center isn’t going to be that much better than what the Braves got out of Kotsay and others in 2008.  So, the key to the outfield will be a comeback season by Francoeur.  If he comes back to the levels of the previous two years – 100 runs created instead of 60 – and Anderson stays healthy and hits the way he has in the past, this gets the Braves to about the same level as last season.  I like McCann to keep producing for three or four more years.

The optimist says that the team scores about 750 runs and allows about 750 runs – that’s a .500 season.  A pragmatist might wonder about what having most of the staff pitching in the World Baseball Classic means to their rotation in September, and worries that the outfield will remain mildly disappointing, and even weaker defensively.  If you are Javier Vasquez and you see an outfield that doesn’t run down fly balls, you might be one frustrated pitcher.  For that reason, I don’t agree with the optimistic view, and peg the Braves to finish about 78 – 84.

Down on the Farm…

The Braves AAA club in Gwinnett, GA got most of the prospects up to the big leagues.  Josh Anderson hit .314 and stole 42 bases.  He’s not a free swinger, but doesn’t bring a big OBA to the big leagues, so if he makes it as the starting centerfielder, he probably bats seventh or eighth in this lineup.  Charlie Morton pitched well before being called up – in 79 innings, he fanned 72 against only 27 walks and didn’t give up a homer.  I think he’ll be okay as a long reliever while he figures things out at the big league level.  Most of the rest of the AAA roster, you saw at the major league level much of the last few years.

At AA Mississippi, what impresses you most are the pitchers.  Tulsa native Tommy Hanson went 8-4, 3.03 with 114 strikeouts in just 98 innings.  Some compare his slider to Smoltz.  Todd Redmond went 13 – 5, 3.52 with good control.  He has a chance to make the big league roster by the end of 2009 with a good season in AAA next year.  Closer Luis Valdez stepped up with 28 saves and a lot of strikeouts.  His control may be his only weakness.

Jason Heyward was the star of the A Rome Braves, flashing some power, running the bases, and looking like Francoeur’s replacement by 2011.  He’s just 19.  Fredrick Freeman also hit well, showing some power while playing first base there – he’s a month younger than Heyward.  So, if Kotchman is a dud this year, look for Freeman to be a contender for the job in 2010 – especially if Freeman continues to mature in AA.  Edgar Osuna started and relieved in Rome – he looks like he has tools to compete at higher levels.  Look for catcher Tyler Flowers to make it to the big leagues one day.  His batting stats look like a young Mickey Tettleton at A Myrtle Beach.