2011 Season Forecast: Tampa Rays

Last Five Seasons:

2010:  96 – 66 (1st AL East)
2009:  84 – 78
2008:  97 – 65 (AL Champs)
2007:  66 – 96
2006:  61 – 101

Runs Scored: 802 (3rd, AL to NYY and BOS)
Runs Allowed: 649 (2nd, AL to OAK)

2010 Recap:

The Rays got off to a great start, winning 17 of 23 in April and extending their hot play into May where, on May 23rd, they went to sleep in first place with a 32 – 12 record.  An 11 – 14 stumble in June let the rest of the league back in the race, but once July started, the Rays went back to the front of the division, going 19 – 7, followed by a 17 – 12 August.  From there, the Rays seemed to run out of steam, but played .500 ball after September 1st as the Yankees collapsed to take the division crown.

In terms of mid-season transactions, the Rays mostly unloaded parts that weren’t working.  They released Pat Burrell and Hank Blalock, for example.  They did get Chad Qualls at the trading deadline, but he wasn’t much help down the stretch.

As a team, they hit homers and drew walks, but went through stretches where they couldn’t hit.  The Rays were on the wrong end of two no-hitters despite being one of only three teams to score 800 runs.  They have pitchers who throw strikes, a rather deep bullpen, and an AMAZING team defense.  These two items, as I have written before, make their staff look stronger than it really is.

Starters:

The rotation featured David Price, who had Cy Young worthy numbers in terms of wins (19), ERA (2.72), and strikeouts (188 in 208.2 innings).  Price was backed by Matt Garza (15 – 10, 3.91), James Shields (13 – 15, 5.18), Jeff Niemann (12 – 8, 4.39), and rookie Wade Davis (12 – 10, 4.07).  However, knowing that the Rays made few errors and turned 14 balls per 1000 into outs more than the average team AND they played in a park that helped the staff, you realize that many of those pitchers aren’t quite as good as advertised.  James Shields was more than 50 runs worse than the average pitcher because he puts a lot of balls into play, and he served up 34 homers.  Niemann was 19 runs worse than the average pitcher, and Matt Garza – the new Cub – was 14 runs worse than the average pitcher.  Wade Davis was also -11.

This isn’t new – I wrote about this a couple of years ago when the Rays made the series.  A good defense can make a bunch of pitchers who keep the ball in the park and don’t walk people look very good.

Looking ahead, Matt Garza moved to Chicago where he might get to serve up 50 homers.  At least he’s durable.  The rest of the rotation returns intact, joined by Jeremy Hellickson, who looked great in his 4 starts last summer.  Assuming Shields bounces back some (he can), Davis and Niemann show more growth (possible), and Hellickson remains tolerable over 160 innings, the rotation should be 30 runs better than last year.

Bullpen:

On the other hand, the bullpen was amazing in 2010.  Rafael Soriano saved 45 games, supported by Joaquin Benoit and his 1.34 ERA in 63 innings.  Dan Wheeler gave them 64 fair innings, Grant Balfour remained dependable, and even Randy Choate and Lance Cormier weren’t horrible.  Most of this staff is gone.  Right now, the closer looks to be Joel Peralta, the former Royal, Angel, and Rockies reliever who had his best season in 2010 with the Nationals last year – fanning 49 and walking just 9 (4 intentionally) in 49 innings.  In front of Peralta is journeyman fireballer, Kyle Farnsworth who has NEVER been as good as Benoit was last year.  Andy Sonnenstine, who has a very hittable fastball, is there, with a bunch of newcomers, including Ceasr Ramos and Adam Russell, who came from San Diego for Jason Bartlett.  Jake McGee, two years removed from Tommy John surgery, converted to the pen in 2010 and made it to the big leagues.  He’s a power lefty with a nice curveball.  Chris Archer is another hard thrower who might get time in the bullpen this year.  If the starters are going to improve by 30 runs, the bullpen cannot – and no matter what Manager Joe Maddon’s magic, this group will be 50 runs worse than in 2010.

Catching:

John Jaso earned his way ahead of Dioner Navarro and Kelly Shoppach by catching well enough and getting on base at a .375 clip.  Teams ran on Jaso some, and the young Jaso has much to learn, but he helps out.  Kelly Shoppach struggled at the plate, but did hit 5 homers in 158 at bats.  Navarro is gone.

Infield:

A couple of years ago, the infield was a solid Evan Longoria, Jason Bartlett, Akinori Iwamura, and Carlos Pena.  Now, only Longoria – an MVP candidate – remains.   Longoria can hit and field with the best of them and even stole 15 bases in 20 tries.  Bartlett’s bat and glove has fallen off in recent years since he injured his ankle in 2009 and will be replaced by Reid Brignac, who is younger, just as good a hitter, and more mobile.  Sean Rodriguez got a chance to play the infield and hits for some power, can run the bases, and is solid in the field.  Mr. Everywhere, Ben Zobrist, backs them both up.  Carlos Pena is gone, to be replaced by either Dan Johnson (a patient power hitter who, like Pena, failed to hit .200 last year), and possibly Johnny Damon.  I think the offense will remain solid, though it could lose 20 runs at first base overall if Johnson can’t improve in 2011.

Outfield:

Carl Crawford had an MVP-type campaign in 2010, fielding as well as any left fielder, and generating nearly 130 runs of offense with the bat (average and some power) as well as his feet (47 steals).  He’s in Boston now, with Johnny Damon taking over.  Damon is okay, but not anywhere near what Crawford can provide – and he’s going to need time off.  Options include Matt Joyce or Sam Fuld.  In center, B.J. Upton is still frustratingly productive.  He is an above average offensive performer – quick bat, power, speed – but frustrating in that he strikes out a LOT, keeping his average under .240.  Defensively, he remains above average but, again, doesn’t seem to be as good as he could be.  In right, Ben Zobrist fell off from his 2009 season in terms of average and power, but still was productive because he plays solid defense and gets on base.  (I’d let Joyce play left all year and see if he can hit 30 homers knowing he’s a better fielder than Damon, too.  Damon can DH and back up three positions, even providing some production.)

DH:

Pat Burrell couldn’t cut it and Hank Blalock wasn’t the answer.  Willy Aybar fell off last year, though Matt Joyce might have been a decent answer if they let him do it.  Looking ahead, though, the Rays took a cheap flyer on the craziest great hitter of the last two decades, Manny Ramirez.  Say what you will about him, Manny can STILL hit.  He missed a lot of time last year, but when he left Los Angeles, he was hitting .311, with a .410 OBA, and a .510 SLG.  He didn’t hit as well with the White Sox, but he had a .420 OBP.  He won’t do that in Tampa, but he could certainly go 20 – 110 – .285, with walks and doubles.  Johnny Damon could platoon some with him, letting Matt Joyce play left field.

Down on the Farm:

Jeremy Hellickson we noted – the new fifth starter for the Rays – as he went 12 – 3 with 123Ks in 117.2 innings for AAA Durham.  Desmond Jennings, a potential Carl Crawford clone, fell off in terms of his batting average, but he still gets on base and he can FLY.

Jake McGee made it from Montgomery in AA through Durham before getting a cup of coffee with the Rays.  In AA, McGee fanned 100 in 88.1 innings, showed good command (getting better, anyway), and looked awesome in 11 AAA appearances (27Ks, 3 walks, one ER in 17.1 innings).  Alex Torres and Alexander Cobb were solid for Montgomery, winning records, good strikeout rates.  Cobb has better control, but both are young and will spend 2011 in Durham.

Former #1 pick Tim Beckham finished his season with A+ Charlotte and seems to have stalled, but having watched him in the minors, he sure is the one guy on the field you can’t help but notice.  He’s still only 21, so there is time for a step forward.  The best of Charlotte is the young staff, led by Matt Moore, who fanned 208 in 144.2 innings with his powerful fastball and curveball.  Joe Cruz showed solid command, going 13 – 6 – 2.85 in his 142 innings and will start 2011 in AA.  Then you have reliever Zach Quate, who fanned 90 in 72.1 innings, saving 25 games, with great control.

Forecasting 2011:

I don’t see how the Rays are going to repeat winning the AL East crown in 2011, but they won’t be bad and they should take a Wild Card spot.  The rotation may be slightly better, but the bullpen will be well off from last year.  The defense will be better at short (Brignac is better than Bartlett), but worse in left (Damon or Joyce instead of Crawford) and I’m not sure Johnson is better than an aging Carlos Pena at first.  The catching might improve a touch, and more Jaso is better than more Dioner Navarro offensively.  The Rays are better at DH.

I see the offense being good, but a touch worse – maybe 770 runs.  And the runs allowed number will likely go up by 30 runs to about 680.  That puts the Rays at 91 wins, which some will see as a surprise – but not me.

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2010 Season Forecast: Tampa Rays

Last Five Seasons:

2009: 84 – 78 (3rd AL East)
2008: 97 – 65
2007: 66 – 96
2006: 61 – 101
2005: 67 – 95

Runs Scored: 803 (5th AL)
Runs Allowed: 754 (7th AL)

Season Recap:

Optimism reigned supreme on the heels of an amazing run into to the World Series.  I warned you, however, that while the team looked good there were reasons to suspect that the Rays might under-perform.  The Rays were good, but couldn’t catch any breaks on the road and, as such, couldn’t keep up with the Yankees or Red Sox when the race got going.

The Rays were never really out of it despite a 9 – 14 April, and after a fantastic June (19 – 7) were in the thick of the race.  Unfortunately, the Yankees blew the doors open in July and August while the Rays suddenly got flat.  Scott Kazmir, unhealthy and unproductive was sent to Anaheim.  Carlos Pena, leading the AL in homers at the time, broke his wrist.  Troy Percival was injured and eventually hung up the spikes.  When September came calling, the Rays were far enough out to throw in the towel – and they did, fading from 13 over .500 to just six over at the end.

Pitching:

In 2008, backed by a sure-handed and mobile defense, the pitching over delivered.  In 2009, the defense slipped and a few holes were discovered in the rotation.  Matt Garza became the ace and James Shields – usually dependable – gave up 239 hits in 220 innings, 29 of them homers.  Scott Kazmir made just 20 starts and finished with an ERA just shy of 6.00…  Andy Sonnestine, as warned, was eminently hittable, finishing with a 6.77 ERA and earning the Anti-Cy – the pitcher costing his team the most runs with his below average pitching.

Two good things came out of the experimenting required by Joe Maddon.  Rookie David Price showed flashes, winning 10 games, and Jeff Niemann was even better, making 30 starts, winning 13 games, and showing good control and command.

In the bullpen, Troy Percival made just 14 appearances, eventually having to be replaced by J.P. Howell at the back end of the bullpen.  However, Maddon used a committee as required, as Randy Choate (5), Grant Balfour (4), Joe Nelson (3), and four others wound up with saves.

Looking ahead, the Rays should have a decent enough rotation.  Shields should bounce back some, Garza is back, Niemann returns, Price will get 30+ starts, and rookie Wade Davis should pick up 20 – 25 starts.  If Davis is even 10 runs below average, he’s saving the team 25 runs over last season.  15 more starts of David Price will be worth another 30 runs.  I like the rotation to be at least 50 runs better than in 2009.

The bullpen adds closer Rafael Soriano from Atlanta and returns the core of what has been a very dependable bullpen – Howell, Choate, Balfour, and Dan Wheeler.  I like the bullpen to be at least 15 runs better than in 2009 as well.

Catching:

Dioner Navarro is back – hopefully lighter than last year, as his bat slipped mightily in 2009.  He’s essentially a league average backstop – right on the average against the run, has a decent reputation with handling the pitchers but isn’t as mobile as you would like.  Kelly Shoppach was signed from Cleveland to back up Navarro – and he is good enough to take up the slack if Navarro slips some more.

Infield:

In 2008, the infield defense was a big reason that the Rays won the AL East.  However, Carlos Pena showed signed that he might not be as mobile as he had been as a gold glove caliber first baseman.  Additionally, his batting average fell to .227, though he did continue to get on base and knock out homers.  Pena has had an up and down career and, nearing 32, his prime seasons are nearly over.

Akinori Iwamura went down to a horrible knee injury, but returns to play for Pittsburgh.  The reason Iwamura was allowed to move was the remarkable season of Ben Zobrist, who fielded his position very well and broke out with 27 homers and a .407 OBP.

Jason Bartlett hit better than expected – finishing at .320 with a .490 slugging percentage – but ankle injuries affected his range and he went from someone worth of a gold glove to someone challenging Derek Jeter for the worst range at short.  One hopes he finds his old mobility, but if he produces 103 runs of offense, nobody will notice.

Evan Longoria remains the best third baseman in baseball – he looks like the new Mike Schmidt.  A 40 homer season wouldn’t be out of the question, as he finished with 33 homers in 2009 and had 44 doubles, too.

Backing this unit up is Willie Aybar, who can play third and first and hit well enough.  Reid Brignac is a prospect who appears to have hitting skills but hasn’t shown range in the field.

Outfield:

Carl Crawford returns in left field, as good a fielder as there is out in left and a very productive hitter.  Crawford is known for his 60 stolen bases, but he added 51 extra base hits while hitting .305.

B.J. Upton will be the wild card of 2010.  Battling shoulder and leg injuries, Upton’s range numbers in the outfield were problematic and he finished at .241 and didn’t slug .400.  For a while, Upton was at the top of the lineup and getting in the way.  If he bounces back and shows the form he displayed in the 2008 World Series, the Rays will get 30 extra runs of offense and 20 extra runs of defense.  If not, the Rays may not be able to compete.

Gabe Kapler and Gabe Gross shared right field (with Ben Zobrist, until he moved to second base).  Both are acceptable in the field, but don’t add much to the offense.  Matt Joyce, formerly of Detroit, may get the nod in 2010.  He’s got young legs and potential at the plate – 30 homer power though he might not make it if he doesn’t curb the strikeouts.  Desmond Jennings, a prospect at Durham, might sneak in and take over as well.

Backing these guys up are Zobrist and Aybar, as well as DH (and disappointment) Pat Burrell.  Burrell’s 14 – 64 – .221 season meant that the Rays will give former Ranger Hank Blalock a shot at the DH role in 2010.

Prospects:

Looking at AAA Durham, you see people who have already gotten a shot…  Justin Ruggiano has some power and speed but is a bit old as a prospect.  Reid Brignac and Matt Joyce are already Rays.  Among the pitchers, Wade Davis is going to make the roster after going 10 – 8 for the Bulls with a 3.40 ERA and a 140/60 K/BB ratio in 158.2 innings.  Jeremy Hellickson will likely start at Durham in 2010, but was 6 – 1 in nine starts at the end of the season last year with 70 Ks in 57.1 innings.  Hellickson is the ace in waiting for now.

Hellickson had 11 starts for AA Montgomery, winning three of four decisions with 62 Ks, 14 BBs, and only 41 hits allowed in 56.2 innings.  Only reliever Paul Phillips looked ready for AAA.  Aneury Rodriguez is young (22) and pitched okay for the Biscuits but could stand to improve his control.  The best hitter in AA was Desmond Jennings, who finished at .316 with 37 steals (caught just five times), earning a nod to Durham where he hit .325 there with 15 more steals.  Jennings could take over in centerfield if Upton gets hurt.

A+ Charlotte has a few pitchers to watch in AA next year to see if they can continue to command the strike zone in Jeremy Hall, Alexander Cobb, and Darin Downs.  All three had good ERAs, good strikeout and walk numbers, and winning records.

Bowling Green (A) featured Matt Moore, a live-armed kid who fanned 176 but walked 70 in 123 innings.  Josh Satow was the closer, getting 20 saves, strikeing out 65 and walking just 15 in 63 innings.  Andy Finch and I saw Tim Beckham and Kyeong Kang when touring the midwest last summer.  Beckham has the air of stardom and is still a teen.  Kang looks to have a little power, hit .307 and had a .390 OBP.

The Rays have a young roster, and they have PROSPECTS.

Outlook:

I like the Rays to be very competitive.  Unlike 2009, where I thought the team might take a step back from the World Series peak, I see reasons for optimism.  I think the starters, absent Sonnestine and Kazmir’s poor performances, will show improvement.  I like B.J. Upton’s chances of having a breakout season.  And, I’m optimistic that the Rays can close games better than in 2009.  Working against that is the fact that I think Zobrist may slip, Pena might age, and Bartlett may have peaked as a hitter.

I think the Rays will score a few more runs – maybe 810 – but allow a lot less, possibly as few as 680 runs.  If so, the Rays will win 95 games.  Working against this is the strength of the division, which includes what should be an improving Baltimore club.  So, despite what the system tells me, my hunch is that they might fall a few wins short of 95, and it might mean barely missing the playoffs.  Still, the system says 95 and that’s what I am putting on my board.

AL Designated Hitters

Rather than rank them, I’ll just sort by team – especially since some teams didn’t really have a standard DH (Detroit, for example).

Baltimore:  Luke Scott got 89 games, the rest were mixed.  Scott is an above average offensive player with legitimate power and enough patience to help out (55 walks in 128 games).  Scott is not really an outfielder, but he can back people up in right field if required.  (73.3 Runs Created)

Boston:  David Ortiz played 139 games.  We know about his horrible first two months, but he finished strong – 28 homers and 99 RBI.  I don’t think he can rebound to being a .300/.400/.550 guy again, but if he gets off to a quicker start and hits close to .260, he’ll remain valuable.  (81.0 Runs Created)

Chicago:  Jim Thome played 98 games before being traded…  Still a great hitter and the Twins will like him.  Is Carlos Quentin the first choice in 2010?  Thome was productive – more so than Ortiz per 27 outs, but played far fewer games.  (61.7 Runs Created)

Cleveland:  Travis Hafner played 88 games…  He and the Indians are still recovering.  The rest were shared amongst the other teammates.  Hafner may never hit 25 homers again…  (61.6 Runs Created)

Detroit:  Didn’t really have a regular – Marcus Thames got 50 games, Carlos Guillen 33, Aubrey Huff 28 brutally bad games down the stretch.  Magglio Ordonez should have the job because he’s been an immobile object in right for several years now.

Kansas City:  Mike Jacobs got the bulk of the work – 102 games – and it was crushingly unproductive.  49 Runs Created, less than four runs per 27 outs.  There just weren’t a whole lot of better options – the team needs to add DEPTH and add it fast.  (49.0 Runs Created)

Los Angeles:  Vladimir Guerrero stayed healthy enough for 93 games, the rest were split among friends…  Vlad is now in Texas, but  I would be concerned about his health, as his body is breaking down after a rather long and productive career.  Even last year, falling off as a hitter, he was still productive.  Hideki Matsui‘s job now…  (58.7 Runs Created)

Minnesota:  Jason Kubel got half, Joe Mauer used the position for his bat and resting his back…  As a hitter, Kubel was the second most productive of the DH regulars.  (98.1 Runs Created)

New York:  Hideki Matsui‘s primary job – 116 games.  Kubel may have created more runs, but Matsui created more runs per 27 outs (7.0).  Now an Angel, if he can stay healthy he’d still be productive even with losing 10 – 20% of his skills.  (87.0 Runs Created)

Oakland:  Jack Cust got 96 games, Jason Giambi – while in town – got 22 more.  Nomar Garciaparra also got 22 games here.  Cust struck out 36% of the time – a frightening number – and yet had a .359 OBP and created runs.  (78.5 Runs Created)

Seattle:  Ken Griffey‘s last job as a Mariner.  Mike Sweeney was his platoon partner.  They combined for 27 homers and 91 RBI – but the net batting average and OBP was rather pedestrian.

Tampa:  Pat (The Bat) Burrell‘s job 112 times, otherwise Willy Aybar.  Aybar was better…  When Burrell signed, I don’t think 14 – 64 – .221 was what they had in mind.  (48.5 Runs Created)

Texas:  Andruw Jones and Hank Blalock split 100 games, the rest were dished out with Julio Borbon getting 21 shots.  Nobody really helped the cause, which is why Vlad Guerrero was added to the roster.

Toronto:  Adam Lind, a born DH, was here 92 times.  Randy Ruiz got 30, and the rest were shared…  Lind was the best hitter of the bunch – 36 – 108 – .305.  He’ll play outfield from time to time, but in a few years, he’ll be Jim Thome for sure.  Randy Ruiz was just as good in his shot – 10 homers in 115 at bats and batted .313.

Top AL First Basemen in 2009

Let’s put some of this fun data together and look at the top players by position.  Today, we’ll start with the AL First Basemen.

What I have done is taken the basic runs created data (an older Bill James formula modified to account for the park in which that player played) and my defensive runs saved data and combined them into a Total Run Production number.  The best players will create the most runs offensively and prevent the most runs defensively.

Kendry Morales (LAA) – Now THAT’S an impact season.  You start with the power and average – 34 – 108 – .306.  He didn’t walk a lot, but he added more than 40 doubles, too.  Morales is also a very mobile first baseman – more mobile than Teixeira.  I show him creating about 115 runs of offense and then saving his team about 38 runs defensively.  This isn’t the first time that he’s had impressive defensive stats at first.  In more than 450 innings there in 2006 he was very good and in 121 innings in 2007 he had similar range numbers.  (115.4 Runs Created, 37.8 Runs Saved = 153.20 Total Run Production)

Mark Teixeira (NYY) – It was close, but Morales’ defensive numbers put him over the top.  I’m not suggesting that Teixeira is BAD defensively.  He’s not.  He’s got soft hands and makes many, many impressive plays.  However, in the last four years he’s been all over the map.  Not so good in Texas, decent in a half season in Atlanta.  Then, after a slower start in ATL in 2008, he was very good with the Angels.  He was above average last year with the Yankees.  As a hitter, Tex was worth 20 more runs, but as a fielder, Morales made up for it with about five runs to spare.  I think I’d rather have Tex on my fantasy team, though.  (135.6 Runs Created, 12.7 Runs Saved = 148.32 Total Run Production)

Miguel Cabrera (DET) – An alcohol problem surfaced in 2009 and yet he was still very productive.  Hopefully, a cleaner Cabrera will have a breakout season in 2010.  In 2009, he wasn’t half bad at first base and he remains one of the most productive hitters at any position.  I’d draft him.  (132.7 Runs Created, 0.9 Runs Saved = 133.62 Total Run Production)

Kevin Youkilis (BOS) – A great fielder at two positions, Boston looks to get more time for Youkilis at first base with Adrian Beltre playing the hot corner.  Where the top three guys were all 30 – 100 – .300 types, Youk was 27 – 94 .305 – just a notch below them in power, but just as patient (if not more so) at the plate.  (109.6 Runs Created, 14.9 Runs Saved = 124.45 Total Run Production)

Russell Branyan (SEA) – Finally getting a full season of at bats (well, he was injured at the end of the year), Branyan delivered the goods.  Solid power and patience, but a lower batting average (.251) than the top tier guys.  And, Branyan was surprisingly good at first base, showing well above average range.  Seattle turned a negative to a huge positive in 2009.  That being said, he still didn’t get to 500 plate appearances and he’s 34.  I bet Branyan would like a second shot at his career – but this might have been his best chance and it took forever for someone (Cleveland) to sign him.  People must not think he can repeat what he did last year.  (81.2 Runs Created, 24.4 Runs Saved = 105.66 Total Run Production)

Paul Konerko (CHI) – The really slow start messed with what was really a pretty good season.  Konerko had an average season defensively and a shade more than 90 runs of offense.  The issue, of course, is that he’s running out of prime years, turning 34 in Spring Training…  (92.5 Runs Created, 7.3 Runs Saved = 99.85 Total Run Production)

Billy Butler (KC) – If you are looking for a sleeper for your fantasy team, you could do worse than drafting this guy…  Butler can hit .300 with some power – which will likely get better as he ages.  He’s still young and his defense, while not great, wasn’t miserably bad.  Personally, I’d rather have Butler than Konerko next year.  (103.1 Runs Created, -10.8 Runs Saved = 92.29 Total Run Production.)

Carlos Pena (TB) – Still has world class power (39 homers despite missing a month), but his batting average tanked to .227.  He’s NOT a .300 hitter, and I don’t think he’s really a .227 hitter.  However, he’s coming off a bad wrist injury and is now 32 (well – he will be in May). His defense is still solid, but it’s not what it once was.  Watch how he does in the spring and steal him if he gets off to a decent start.  (91.3 Runs Created, .7 Runs Saved = 92.02 Total Run Production)

Lyle Overbay (TOR) – His defense, normally awesome, slipped in 2009.  His offense, normally tolerable, slipped in 2009.  Overbay isn’t going to hit 20 homers and unless he’s hitting close to .300 and hitting a bunch of doubles and cutting down grounders and line drives to right field, he’s gaining on losing his job to Adam Lind…  He might bounce back some, but he’s not high on my draft list.  (76.1 Runs Created, -1.8 Runs Saved = 74.31 Total Run Production)

Justin Morneau (MIN) – If healthy, Justin Morneau will likely move back up the list in 2010.  However, with stress fractures in his back last year, his batting tanked in the late summer and he couldn’t move well enough in the field.  He generated 90 runs of offense (most of it before the All-Star break), which is okay, but he gave 20 back with his defense – hence the low rating.  (91.4 Runs Created, -20.51 Runs Saved = 70.92 Total Run Production)

Ryan Garko (CLE) – No longer an Indian, Garko was replaced by Andy Marte after being dealt to San Francisco – and Victor Martinez got several innings here, too.  Garko’s net production among two teams was 64.50 (56.5 Runs Created with 8 Runs Saved).  The job may well get split again this year among Marte and Travis Hafner.  Marte, a long time prospect who turned 26 in the offseason, looked like he hadn’t spent much time there and Victor Martinez looked like a catcher trying to play first base.  To be fair, a full season of Garko wouldn’t be horrible – it might be better than having Lyle Overbay these days.  Roster Update!!! The Indians signed Russell Branyan to a one-year deal as spring training started – so if Branyan is healthy, the Indians could have a solid answer for 2010.

Aubrey Huff (BAL) – Now plying his trade for San Francisco, Huff had an off season to say the least.  Between two teams, Huff’s total production was 58.70 runs (63.8 Runs Created, but -5.1 runs saved).  The new first baseman could be Michael Aubrey, a former Indian prospect who has some skills and the same, albeit displaced, name.  He’s going to field a little better than Huff and he MIGHT hit pretty well, too.  Suffering through injuries in the minor leagues, Baltimore hopes this Aubrey is a late bloomer.  God forbid they have to play Garrett Atkins there.

Chris Davis (TEX) – Shared the role with Hank Blalock, none of which is the answer…  At least Davis has some range and a little power but he sure does strikeout a lot.  If you combine Davis and Blalock, the total production is close to the production of Carlos Pena and his backups…  (47.4 Runs Created, 10.1 Runs Saved = 57.44 Total Run Production)

Daric Barton (OAK) – Barton took over for Jason Giambi and wasn’t horrible.  He fielded the position well and he gets on base some – though you wish he had a little more power.  He’s 70% of Mark Grace, but he’s 24 and has a little room left to grow…  The A’s could choose to go with Eric Chavez here if they let Kevin Kouzmanoff play third base all season.  Barton also serves as the emergency catcher, having started his career as a catcher out of high school.

Quick Notes… Having done this, the median starting first baseman in the AL produced about 92 runs for his team and the replacement level would have been about 70 runs of production.  The latter seems a little low in that Minnesota’s final number, if you included the time spent at first base by Michael Cuddyer, would have been closer to 85 or 90 runs.  So, more realistically, your first basemen have to generate at least 90 runs of production lest they need to be replaced.  Morales and Teixeira were, in essence, about six wins better than the average first baseman.

2009 AL Gold Glove and Brick Glove Winners

Last week, I gave you the NL Gold Glove and Brick Glove winners and losers…  It’s time to do the same for their brethren in the AL.  As a reminder, here’s how I do it:

1) Look at the number of plays made per every 800 balls in play, because it provides a level playing field and because, in effect, one extra play made is essentially removing one point of batting average from each hitter.

2) Make modifications for things like flyballs and ground balls allowed by pitching staffs.

3) Make modifications to middle infielders based on double plays.

4) Remove infield assists from first basemen’s putout numbers.

5) Convert plays made/not made into runs saved/lost based on values for each hit as determined by Pete Palmer – with hits assigned by position.

6) Determine additional benefits for runs saved based on double plays and errors.

7) Sort.

For the lists below, you’ll see two numbers for each player.  Positive numbers are always better.  The first number tells you how many plays he makes per 800 balls in play more or less than the average guy.  Nelson Cruz made 14 plays every 800 balls in play more than the average right fielder.  That’s a lot.  Derek Jeter’s first number is about -9, which means he makes nine plays less than the average shortstop per 800 balls in play.  The second number tells you how many runs that player saved his team (or cost his team, if the number is negative).  So, the effect of Nelson Cruz making 14 extra catches for ever 800 balls in play (and not make errors, or contribute to double plays) was to save his team about 35 runs over the course of the season.  Again, a negative number is bad – a player’s range or being error prone would cost his team that many runs.

Right Field:

14.0 34.5 Nelson Cruz (TEX)
11.9 17.0 Ryan Sweeney (OAK)

Cruz made a lot of plays – only Suzuki made more, but Ichiro played more than 250 additional innings and had just 24 more putouts.  Like Jayson Werth, Cruz had more putouts than Texas center fielders – something that rarely happens.  Sweeney was solid, but in only 600 innings. Shin-Soo Choo or Alex Rios were third by my reckoning…  For years, Rios should have been in center and not Vernon Wells.

– 8.4 -28.7 Nick Markakis (BAL)
-10.4 -23.3 Michael Cuddyer (MIN)
-10.2 -17.8 Magglio Ordonez (DET)

Jack Cust just missed this list and he only played 400 atrociously lousy innings…  Markakis gets raves for his arm, but if you don’t get to any flies, you aren’t helping the team.  Ordonez is a regular to the brick glove list and should be a DH.

Center Field:

10.0 20.0 Carlos Gomez (MIN)
7.4 16.4 Adam Jones (BAL)
5.4 14.4 Franklin Gutierrez (SEA)

All the young legs.  Milwaukee will appreciate how good Gomez is defensively (the pitchers will, anyway).  I thought Gutierrez should have moved Sizemore to right in Cleveland and he proved me right.

-5.9 -16.8 Vernon Wells (TOR)
-5.9 -16.5 Jacoby Ellsbury (BOS)
-7.4 -14.9 Marlon Byrd (TEX)

Vernon Wells has been a slow centerfielder for years – it’s about time to move him to left or right field.  (Just listing his range numbers, 2006: -3.7, 2007: -5.1, 2008: -6.2, costing between 10 and 17 runs to his team each year.)  Ellsbury was lousy despite setting the record for most putouts in a game.  And pity the Cubs if they put Byrd in CF…

Left Field:

5.3 17.8 Jason Bay (BOS)
4.6 15.3 David DeJesus (KC)
4.2 12.5 Carl Crawford (TB)

Bay sure does get a bad reputation for his defense, but he wasn’t a problem last year.  I think Boston will miss him.  Unlike the NL, the AL has a few guys who can really play here and are truly left fielders.

-14.2 -15.3 Adam Lind (TOR)
– 4.7 -12.3 Johnny Damon (NYY)
– 4.6 -10.2 Delmon Young (MIN)

Adam Lind is a DH who is forced into left.  Damon is 36 and is starting to show the effects of old and injured wheels.  And Delmon Young has NEVER been a good fielder.

Shortstop:

14.1 30.8 Elvis Andrus (TEX)
7.6 15.7 Cesar Izturis (BAL)
3.5 11.1 Erick Aybar (LAA)

If anyone in their right mind really looks at this, there is NO WAY that Elvis Andrus should have been denied a gold glove.  Okay – he makes a few too many errors.  But he makes SO MANY plays.  Compared to the worst fielding shortstop in the AL – the guy they gave the gold glove to – Elvis had 55 more putouts and 67 more assists in about 23 fewer innings. 122 additional plays.

-9.2 -14.2 Derek Jeter (NYY)

If you go by guys who played a lot of innings, Alexei Ramirez and Marco Scutaro (or Asdrubal Cabrera) would be second and third. However, I thought I would point out that even though Marco Scutaro is a step up from the 2009 position holders – he’s NOT going to make Boston’s defense airtight.  Scutaro’s range is -5.0/-6.4.  However, Julio Lugo’s 243 innings were brutal (-20.4 range, costing 12.3 runs) and Alex Gonzalez was a step up from abysmal to just bad (-10.9 range, costing them 5.6 runs).  Jason Bartlett’s ankle injury was serious – he went from a gold glover to a problem.

Third Base:

9.3 31.9 Evan Longoria (TB)
14.0 28.6 Adrian Beltre (SEA)
8.6 21.7 Melvin Mora (BAL)

Chone Figgins is above average, but defensively is about twenty runs worse than having Beltre out there.  I stand by what I wrote before – it’s not an improvement to have Figgins in Seattle, though the backups will play less.  Longoria is the real deal.

-16.9 -39.0 Michael Young (TEX)
-17.0 -12.9 Ty Wigginton (BAL)

Michael Young must have been watching Elvis get all the grounders, too.  This just proves that because you once were a decent enough (not great, though) shortstop you can’t just try playing third base and become good at it.  It’s taken YEARS for Alex Rodriguez to go from a lousy third baseman to one who is just a little below average.

Second Base:

7.9 23.3 Placido Polanco (DET)
5.9 18.8 Aaron Hill (TOR)
6.1 16.4 Robinson Cano (NYY)

And Detroit didn’t want Polanco anymore?  He remains very, very good at second base.  Philadelphia hopes he can still play third but I have my doubts that he’ll be GREAT the way he is great here.  Cano has improved every year.  Ian Kinsler just missed this list – he’s regularly awesome.

-11.0 -31.2 Brian Roberts (BAL)
– 6.5 -19.9 Alberto Callaspo (KC)

That Mora and Izturis were solid makes me think that there could be a statistical bias here, but Roberts’ numbers, even with help, are still plain old bad.  By the way – this isn’t news.   He’s been below average three of the last four years.

2006: -4.8 -10.4
2007:   1.2 5.2
2008: -4.3 -12.6
2009: -11.0 -31.2

That’s a pretty big dip, which is part aging and probably part batters hitting in a different direction last year.

First Base:

14.3 37.8 Kendry Morales (LAA)
12.1 24.4 Russell Branyan (SEA)
8.2 15.1 Chris Davis (TEX)

Mark Teixeira, for the first time in a while, just missed making this list. He’s usually in the middle.  I had no idea Morales was that good (or, for that matter, anyone on this list), but I will be watching to see if he remains this good going forward.

-33.5 -28.0 Victor Martinez (CLE)
– 9.6 -20.5 Justin Morneau (MIN)
-14.3 -17.3 Hank Blalock (TEX)

If you count his time in Boston, Martinez cost his teams more than 35 runs – he’s a catcher and can’t really play the position.  Morneau’s injury wasn’t just killing his bat – he was less and less mobile as the year went on.

2009 Season Forecast: Texas Rangers

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

2008 Summary:

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

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

Tell Me About That Offense:

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

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

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

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

And the Defense?

Not so good.

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

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

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

Now Pitching:

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

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

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

Forecasting 2009:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Down on the Farm:

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

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

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

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