Celebrating Victories, Thumbs, and Catchers

Headlines:

Congratulations to Ron Gardenhire for winning his 1000th game as manager of the Minnesota Twins.  Only ten managers have done that with the same team. [FoxSports]

Not an MLB story, but interesting nonetheless.  Auburn pitcher Jay Wade was supposed to issue an intentional pass to Austin Anderson of Ole Miss.  He didn’t.  The video captures the rest of the story.  [FoxSports]

Hurry Back!

Will Middlebrooks heads to the DL with a calf strain.  An MRI is forthcoming.  Meanwhile, Brock Holt gets some time with the parent team.  Holt came through the Pirates chain and has had two previous trips to the bigs (Pittsburgh and Boston), hitting .250 in 124 at bats.  He’s a contact hitter, some speed but not a ton, and not a lot of power.  That makes him, what, a poor man’s Bill Mueller? [MLB]

Yankee first baseman Mark Teixeira heads to the DL with a right hamstring pullAustin Romine will get his spot on the roster.  [SI]

Scott Hairston heads to the DL with a left oblique strain, which means that backup outfielder Tyler Moore returns to the Nationals.  [MLB]

Yasiel Puig injured his thumb sliding into first base on an infield single.  He stayed in the game – even forgot how many outs there were on a late game fly ball…  Anyway – he expects to get an xray soon. [MLB]

Speaking injured thumbs – Ryan Braun has been struggling with a thumb injury for nearly a full year now, and even the rest he got while sitting out last year for steroid usage didn’t help.  [ESPN]

National third baseman Ryan Zimmerman may have reinjured his shoulder on an awkward throw in Saturday’s game against the Braves.  [MLB]

Welcome Back!

Jon Niese returns to the Mets after his turn on the DL.

More Rehab…

Cole Hamels, Chris Stewart, Dane De La Rosa, Brian Wilson, Craig Gentry, Jake Arrieta, and J.A. Happ head off to minor league rehab assignments.

Baseball 365

Arrivals:

(1903) Mickey Cochrane – Hall of Fame catcher – probably the greatest one prior to the arrival of Yogi Berra.

(1908) Ernie Lombardi – one of the best hitting catchers, a two-time batting champ, and another member of the Hall of Fame.

(1937) Phil Regan – earned nickname, “The Vulture”, because he would swoop in as a reliever and take wins at the end of the ballgame.

(1943) Marty Pattin – I’ve probably written this before.  The first time that I bought my own pack of baseball cards was when I was probably six years old.  I took a quarter down to a corner store near where my grandparents lived on Sacramento in Chicago and bought a pack of Topps baseball cards.  There were no Cubs in that pack, and no other stars that caught my attention.  The one guy who stood out, to me, was Marty Pattin.

Pattin was born in the western suburbs of Chicago.  When his career – a good one – wound down, he would become the manager of the Kansas Jayhawks baseball team – but he left one year before I started broadcasting their games.  I believe he still lives in the Lawrence area, and I wonder if he ever heard my call.

Anyway – whenever I see his name, I think back to that first pack of cards.

(1951) Bert Blyleven – Hall of Fame pitcher and, like Jack Morris, the topic of enormous debate as to whether or not he was actually good enough to get the nod.  Chris Berman gave too many players nicknames in the 1980s and 1990s – but of the Bermanisms, Bert “Be Home” Blyleven was the best.

(1964) Kenny Williams – outfielder turned GM.

(1969) Bret Boone – another cheater, had some very big seasons in the 1990s.

(1971) Lou Merloni – my memory of Lou is that he was the guy who said that the Red Sox trainers used to give lessons in proper steroid taking…

Departures:

(1909) Doggie Miller

George Frederick Miller was born 15 August 1864 and with just a year of minor league ball was playing for Pittsburgh.  Miller was an agile catcher, a good hitter, and decent baserunner – which should have been enough to endear him to a generation of fans.  However, he had something uniquely special – and that was a remarkably loud voice.  So, when given the opportunity to coach the baselines, Miller would be heard all throughout the grounds – if not outside the grounds and a few blocks away.

His coaching voice was so loud it earned him the nicknames of Foghorn and Calliope.  The other nickname – Doggie – had to do with his rather unique batting stance.  A short, thin player – he propped himself even lower, and then he would kick forward with his front leg – almost like a dog taking a leak – before he would lean forward and slash at the ball.  Having been teased, Miller actually tried to hit without kicking his leg out, but it was ingrained into his routine.  He couldn’t hit without the kick.

Like many of the players of the 1880s and 1890s, he endured regular changes in the rules and equipment.  One change he didn’t necessarily take to was the chest protector.  A good enough player early in his career, Miller was often playing other positions to stay in the lineup – as his career wound down, he would eventually become the first player (and still only player) to play at least 20 games at every non-pitching position.

When his major league career ended in 1896, he wound up playing and managing in the minors,  Sadly, Miller contracted Bright’s Disease, however, and left this world before his 45th birthday.

(Summary thanks to my new favorite book – Major League Player Profiles – 1871 – 1900.)

Transactions:

(1975) The Astros purchased Joe Niekro from the Braves.

Events:

(1973) Ron Blomberg becomes the first designated hitter, drawing a walk off of Luis Tiant.  The second DH was Orlando Cepeda, who batted in the second inning of the same game.

2013 Season Forecast – Houston Astros

I’m watching Opening Day on ESPN and decided I might as well write while I am getting settled in…  To be fair, with the Florida Marlins having decided to trade away all the talent they had recently acquired, I chose to find a new team to follow closely in 2013 – and that team is the Houston Astros.

Here’s a quick summary of where they are coming from:

Recent Records:
2012: 55 – 107 (Last, NL Central)
2011: 56 – 106 (Last, NL Central)
2010: 76 – 86 (4th, NL Central)
2009: 74 – 88 (5th, NL Central)
2008: 86 – 75 (3rd, NL Central)

This is a team that has hit rock bottom – even that team from five years ago was a bit of a fluke, having given up more runs than they had scored that year.

2012 Summary:
Home:  35 – 46
Away:  20 – 61 (ouch)

Runs Scored: 583
Runs Allowed: 794

There is a simple way to look at this.  A team that scores 100 runs more than it allows is likely to win 90 games.  The converse is also true.  At 200 runs, it’s another ten wins – 100 wins or 100 losses.  The Astros allowed 211 runs more than they scored – hence the lousy record.  So – things have to be looking up, right?

Record by Month:
April:  9 – 14
May:   13 – 15
June:  10 – 17
July:   3 – 24
Aug:    5 – 22
Sept:  15 – 15

The Astros started 3 – 1, were reasonably competitive through 45 games, and not altogether awful heading into the last week of June.  Then, Houston lost the last six games of the month and the first six of July.  After breaking that streak, they lost four in a row, then twelve more in a row – 28 of 30 games were lost…  When the month ended, anyone with any trade value was gone.  August wasn’t much better…  What team has ever had a stretch where they won just eight of sixty games?

Feeling Optimistic?

Beginning on September first and covering the last 30 games, the Astros played .500 ball.  Houston edged Cincinnati, toppled Philadelphia, split with Pittsburgh, edged Milwaukee, and split with Chicago.  Only St. Louis proved troublesome, taking five of six.  They did this without scoring a lot of runs – only 102 runs were scored in that period.  What allowed this to happen was that their pitching staff tossed a number of gems down the stretch, including three straight shutouts over Milwaukee and Chicago at the very end of the season.  In eleven of these wins, the Astros threw six shutouts and allowed just one run in five other starts.

Opening Day Lineup:
CF: Jordan Schafer
2B: Jose Altuve
LF: J.D. Martinez
1B: Carlos Lee
RF: Brian Bogusevic
3B: Chris Johnson
C: Jason Castro
SS: Marwin Gonzalez
SP: Wandy Rodriguez

Regulars by Games Played:
C: Jason Castro
1B: Brett Wallace or Carlos Lee (gone…)
2B: Jose Altuve
SS: Jed Lowrie (gone…)
3B: Chris Johnson (gone…)
LF: J.D. Martinez
CF: Justin Maxwell
RF: Brian Bogusevic (gone…)

4OF: Jordan Schafer
C2: Chris Snyder
UT: Marwin Gonzalez or Tyler Greene?

SP: Lucas Harrell
SP: Bud Norris
SP: Jordan Lyles
SP: Wandy Rodriguez (gone…), Dallas Keuchel
SP: J.A. Happ (gone…)
CL: Brett Myers (gone…), Wilton Lopez
RP: Brandon Lyon (gone…)
RP: Wesley Wright
RP: Francisco Rodriguez (gone…)
RP: Rhiner Cruz
RP: Fernando Abad

Key Transactions:

OCT (2011):

Lost Jason Michaels and Clint Barmes to free agency…  Michaels spent the year as an insurance policy for the Nationals in their AAA Syracuse affiliate, and likely is looking to become a coach.  As for Barmes, he moved to Pittsburgh and hit like someone who is 33 and running out of seasons.

NOV (2011):

Added Carlos Corporan, Travis Buck as free agents; claimed infielder Brian Bixler off of the waiver wire.

DEC (2011):

Traded Marc Melancon to Red Sox for Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland.  Melancon had been a pleasant surprise for Houston in 2011, but was miserable in Boston and eventually demoted to AAA.  Weiland had an infection in his throwing shoulder that required surgery and hopefully can return in 2013, but I would be leery of high expectations owing to a general lack of control.  I see him as a spot starter/long reliever type.  Jed Lowrie is a pretty good ballplayer, so the trade was a good one.

Claimed Rhiner Cruz off of waivers.  This was, at best, organizational depth as Cruz had just been promoted to AA Binghamton in an eight year career drifting in the low minors.  Putting Rhiner on the major league roster when he has no idea where the strike zone is (his mid-90s fastball has crazy movement and he can’t control his breaking ball) showed how little major league talent the Astros had.  I mean, Cruz walked 45 batters in 71.2 innings in the minors in 2011.

JAN (2012):

Here, the Astros were looking to find as many players who might be able to do SOMETHING as possible.

Signed, as free agents, Livan Hernandez, Zach Duke, Chris Snyder, Jack Cust, and Fernando Martinez (waiver claim).

FEB:

More minor signings…

MAR:

After (and during) spring training, the Astros released Hernandez, Duke and Cust, moved anyone who needed time to the minors, and made one trade…

Acquired LHP Kevin Chapman from the Royals for OF Jason Bourgeois and C Humberto Quintero.  Bourgeois was, like Melancon, a nice surprise in 2011 but is a 30-year-old outfielder with no long-term future.  Quintero is, at best, a backup catcher and the Astros had other options.  Chapman at least represents a future – had 90Ks in 62 innings in 2011, and built on that in 2012.  He still needs work (especially with his control), but at least he has a shot to be a late inning contributor very soon.

JULY:

The Astros, as sellers, moved what they could for prospects:

Carlos Lee (and cash) to the Marlins for 3B Matt Dominquez (good glove, minor bat) and LHP Rob Rasmussen (could be a starter in 2014).

Brandon Lyon, J.A. Happ, and David Carpenter to Toronto for Francisco Cordero, Ben Francisco, Joseph Musgrove, Asher Wojciechowski (decent arm, not overmatched at AA, doesn’t miss enough bats), David Rollins, and Carlos Perez (athletic catcher, decent arm, not much offense).

Brett Myers to the White Sox for prospects Matthew Heidenreich and Blair Walters.

Wandy Rodriquez to Pittsburgh for Colton Cain, Robbie Grossman, and Rudy Owens.

Chris Johnson to Arizona for Bobby Borchering and Marc Krauss

If nothing else, that’s a lot of prospects.  If you see the kids producing in 2014 and the Astros making steady improvement, then these deals worked.  Seeing as the team went belly up in July and August of 2012, this did nothing to help the guys who were left behind to play.

By the way, Ben Francisco only hung around for a month.  He was shipped to Tampa for a player to be named later.  (That player was LHP Theron Geith.)  Despite being a pretty good outfielder, Francisco hasn’t been able to keep a regular job and at 31 seems destined to be a fourth outfielder for a few more years.  Geith, however, has a bright future.  In two minor league seasons, Geith has a 2.66 ERA, 83Ks in 84.2 innings, and just 18 walks.  He will be on the roster by 2014, and maybe next September.

Key Injuries:

Jed Lowrie missed time leaving spring training with a bruised thumb.  Kyle Weiland made three starts and went down with what was then termed shoulder bursitis.

Relievers Fernando Abad (intercostal strain) and Rhiner Cruz (ankle sprain) missed time in May.

June brought minor injuries to Travis Buck (Achilles tendinitis), Carlos Lee (strained hamstring) Marwin Gonzalez (bruised heel), Bud Norris (spraineed knee), Wilton Lopez (sprained elbow), and Justin Maxwell (loose bodies in ankle).

Jordan Schafer, Jed Lowrie, and Francisco Cordero spent some time on the DL in August and early September, Cordero wound up missing the rest of the season with a foot injury just six awful outings after his arrival.  He really wasn’t missed, and – as he turns 37 in May – has already been released.

Cordero’s was the only injury of signifigance.  Jed Lowrie missed a lot of games, but with small injuries that kept him out a couple of weeks at a time.

[Writer’s Note:  I had pulled much of this together a while ago when I had decided to become a Houston Astros fan.  The Astros got the Rangers in order in the first, but the Rangers did the same to the Astros – in part thanks to a bad call at second on a stolen base attempt by Jose Altuve.  If the Astros are lousy this year, it could just be that I have jinxed them.]

LOOKING AHEAD:

Starting Pitchers:

The rotation appears to be Bud Norris, Lucas Harrell, Philip Humber, Brad Peacock, and Erik Bedard.

Lucas Harrell is pretty good.  He gets some strikeouts but he walks a few too many guys.  Bud Norris has better stuff, but has been way more inconsistent, especially on the road.  Even at that, he’s marginally below average with a chance to become really good.  Bud Norris is the type of guy you might consider drafting in your fantasy league this year…

Philip Humber is trying, again, to get his career on track.  Humber threw a perfect game for the White Sox, but otherwise was awful.  He CAN pitch, but he can also think his way into oblivion.  If Humber can find his way, the Astros will have found a gem.  The problem is that his track record doesn’t give you a whole lot of reason for hope.

A guy who might, however, is Brad Peacock. The Palm Beach, FL native navigated his way through the minors, getting better every year, until he got a test drive with the Washington Nationals in 2011, where he wasn’t half bad.  Moved to Oakland, he spent 2012 in Sacramento, where he held his own despite being in a league that pounds pitchers.  After a pretty nice spring, he’s going to see if he’s ready for 25 – 30 starts.

Finally, Erik Bedard might be able to help – if he can stay healthy.  Having missed essentially two and half of the last five years, Bedard has been reasonably successful – well, at least until last year when he went 7 – 14 for Pittsburgh.  His walk rate was too high, and his ERA went over 5 (5.01), but there are reasons to think that he can be better than he was last year – starting with the fact that he has always been better than he was last year.

So, just trying to see if the rotation is better, at first glance, the answer is probably no.  Harrell and Norris are the same (though Norris might be slightly better).  I don’t buy that Humber is better than Jordan Lyles was in 2012, and Erik Bedard won’t be as good as a partial season of Wandy Rodriguez.  If one pitcher surprises, it might be Peacock who COULD be as good as J.A. Happ was.  So, let’s go with the team allowing perhaps 30 extra runs here.

Relief Pitchers:

The Astros are going to give the closer job, at least at first, to Jose Veres, who has four career saves.  Veres isn’t awful, but he isn’t a big time closer.  Brett Myers wasn’t awesome last year, so that’s not a big loss.  I was surprised that Wilton Lopez didn’t get a second chance, he pitched well enough, but the Astros went with younger arms – Hector Ambriz, Xavier Cedeno, Rhiner Cruz, Josh Fields, Edgar Gonzalez, and Wesley Wright.

This group will be no better or worse than last year.

Cruz had a 6.05 ERA last year – is that really worthy of a significant role?  Wesley Wright wasn’t half bad for a situational lefty.  Xavier Cedeno was league average and could be better.  Edgar Gonzalez has been around and he’s never been a dependable option.  The guy I like is Hector Ambriz, who fanned 22 in 19 innings in a late call last year.  He could wind up the setup man before all is said and done.

Catchers:

Last year’s catchers were league average in total, but had a few weaknesses, including starter Jason Castro not being too solid against the run.  Chris Snyder is gone, so Carlos Corporan is back as the backup.  He looks like he can throw.  Castro isn’t a bad hitter – he was slightly above average because he showed a little power and a little patience while hitting .257.  Chris Snyder hit .176 and didn’t hit enough to be worth keeping around.  Corporan can hit better than that – maybe .240 with a few homers, so that would be a step forward offensively.  If Castro can be stronger against the run that would help immensely.  This unit should score about 15 more runs than in 2012.

Infielders:

Three-quarters of the infield in use toward the end of the season returns – Brett Wallace at first, Jose Altuve at second, and Matt Dominguez at third.  Jed Lowrie is gone, replaced by Ronnie Cedeno.  Wallace is getting better defensively, Altuve is slightly below average as a glove man, but not problematic, and Dominguez is a solid defensive option – far better than Chris Johnson.   Cedeno may have more experience, but he won’t put up more runs than, say, Marwin Gonzalez.  They are essentially the same guy.  The problem is that neither is a long-term solution, so as we are following this team, look for them to find a better shortstop through the minors.

Carlos Pena was added to back up Wallace at first and be the primary DH – which will last as long as Pena keeps drawing walks and hitting homers.  I fear, however, that he may not hit .220.

As a unit, this team will probably hold the line offensively (Wallace will help offset the loss of Jed Lowrie), but it could be ten runs better defensively.

Outfielders:

This year’s outfield features Chris Carter, the old Oakland As prospect, Justin Maxwell, and Rick Ankiel – a reclamation project of sorts.  J. D. Martinez will be back as a possible fourth or fifth outfielder, sharing the role with Brandon Barnes.

Defensively, Carter can’t be worse than J.D. Martinez was, and he has the potential to put a lot more runs on the board by virtue of his power and patience.  Justin Maxwell is a better fielder and hitter than Jordan Schafer was – it would be nice if he hit, say, .250 rather than .220, though.  Ankiel hasn’t been a good hitter for a few years, but he’s still better than Brian Bogusevic was, and even if he isn’t, J.D. Martinez can hit better.

As a unit, this team could score about 60 more runs and save ten to fifteen in the field.

[As I reach this point in the essay, Justin Maxwell just hit a high drive off the top of the wall in left for a two-run triple, giving the Astros an early lead.  Woohoo!!!]

Down on the Farm:

Most of the guys who did anything at AAA are on the club, and nobody stands out as a prospect.  Moving to the Corpus Christi Red Hawks, the top prospects at AA would include first baseman Jonathan Singleton, who hit .284 with power, 88 walks, and is 21-years-old.  Another option is shortstop Jonathan Villar, a 22-year-old with speed and some hitting skills.  I’m just not sure he can hit in the majors.  A top pitching prospect might be Jason Stoffel, who fanned 57 in 58 innings, walked just 16, in a relief role.  Jarred Cosart made 15 starts at AA and was decent, but not great.  He is ranked highly by scouting organizations.

At A+ Lancaster, right fielder Domingo Santana impressed with power and average, while centerfielder George Springer has all that and speed, too. Both are free swingers.  Coming up in A Lexington is Delino Deshields II – who plays like his dad, but is a few years away (and only 20).  Another guy making marks include shortstop Carlos Correa, a top pick out of Puerto Rico last year.

Best guess on their record?

They aren’t as good as last September.  They aren’t as bad as last August.  I see the team being 75 runs better offensively, and five runs worse defensively, thanks to a slightly worse starting rotation.  That puts the runs scored/runs allowed ratio at about 660/800.  Working against that is the move to the offensively charged AL West, which features the Rangers and Angels, a decent Oakland, and an improving Seattle.  The system calls for 66 wins, which seems a tad bit high.  So, I’ll temper that to 64 – 98, hopefully avoiding a third straight year with 100 losses.  If that happens, let’s consider it a a success and watch for some talent to get added to this young team.

As I finish this, I see that the Astros have extended their lead to 4 – 0 in the fifth over Texas.  If they hold on for the win, it would make for a great start to the season.

2011 NL Best and Worst Pitchers

Finally getting caught up on my statistical analysis as I head into the 2012 Spring Training season…  First of all, God Bless Sean Lahman, whose baseball database makes it possible to write queries and look at statistics using a Microsoft Access relational database…  The rest is doing the math.

When I review best and worst pitchers, I look at the total number of runs saved relative to the league average pitcher.  I get data for runs allowed per nine innings, then adjust for the pitcher’s home park and finally I adjust for the defense of the players behind that pitcher.  The best pitcher is the one who saves his team the most runs – the worst is the pitcher who costs his team the most runs.

Top Starting Pitchers of 2011:

Roy Halliday (PHI) 45.37 saved runs – 233.2 innings
Cliff Lee (PHI) 43.94 – 232.2 innings
Clayton Kershaw (LAD) 37.81 – 233.1 innings
Cole Hamels (PHI) 34.28 – 216 innings
Ian Kennedy (AZ) 31.53 – 222 innings
Johnny Cueto (CIN) 20.82 – 156 innings
Jair Jurrjens (ATL) 17.56 – 152 innings
Jhoulys Chacin (COL) 17.53 – 194 innings
R.A. Dickey (NYM) 15.92 – 208.2 innings
Vance Worley (PHI) 15.53 – 131.2 innings

You want to know why the Phillies won 100+ games, it’s because they had three of the top four starting pitchers, and a fourth who wound up in the top ten.  Even Roy Oswalt (not listed) was an above average pitcher.  Clayton Kershaw was a fantastic choice for the NL Cy Young award, but the numbers suggest what we all know – Roy Halliday is the best pitcher in baseball.

Worst Pitchers of 2011:

Bronson Arroyo (CIN) 27.88 (extra runs allowed)- 199 innings
J.A. Happ (HOU) 25.44 – 156.1 innings
Derek Lowe (ATL) 25.20 – 187 innings
Livan Hernandez (WASH) 24.16 – 175.1 innings
Ricky Nolasco (FLA) 23.26 – 206 innings
Casey Coleman (CHI) 22.88 – 84.1 innings
Edinson Volquez (CIN) 22.31 – 108.2 innings
Jonathan Sanchez (SF) 21.19 – 101.1 innings
Chris Volstad (FLA) 20.64 – 165.2 innings
Barry Zito (SF) 19.3 – 53.2 innings

The guy who usually tops this list is a starter who keeps getting run out there as if his team has no other options.  Certainly, the Reds should have been able to address the Bronson Arroyo problem by now (nearly 30 extra runs allowed than an average pitcher over the course of 199 innings), and running him out there every fifth day was problematic.  The Marlins have the same issue with Ricky Nolasco.  He’s got amazing stuff, but for some reason keeps getting hit.  If he doesn’t turn things around, the Marlins will have to find another option.  By the way, the Marlins can’t afford to have two guys on the bad list and make the playoffs.  The Brewers used to be on this list – and then they got five league average pitchers to match up with their amazing offense and made the playoffs.

By the way, this is total runs that one player cost his team.  Barry Zito, for example, was far worse per inning than Arroyo.  Had Barry been allowed to throw 200 innings, at the rate he was going he would have given up close to 75 extra runs.  The Giants had other options, so Zito was removed from the rotation before any further overall damage could be done.

Top Relievers of 2011:

Eric O’Flaherty (ATL) 24.99 (runs saved) – 73.2 innings
Tyler Clippard (WASH) 21.58 – 88.3 innings
Jonny Venters (ATL) 21.58 – 88 innings
Craig Kimbrel (ATL) 16.36 – 77 innings
John Axford (MIL) 15.50 – 73.2 innings
Joel Hanrahan (PIT) 15.41 – 68.2 innings
Fernando Salas (SD) 14.76 – 75 innings
Mike Adams (SD) 14.15 – 48 innings
Sean Marshall (CHI) 14.08 – 75.2 innings
Ryan Madson (PHI) 12.63 – 60.2 innings

Few surprises here – guys who gave up hardly any runs in a decent number of innings.  The Braves certainly had the best bullpen in 2011.

Worst Relievers of 2011:

Hong-Chih Kuo (LAD) 18.39 (extra runs allowed) – 27 innings
Aneury Rodruiguez (HOU) 14.62 – 85.1 innings
Ryan Franklin (STL) 14.17 – 27.2 innings
Dan Runzler (SF) 13.84 – 27.1 innings
Matt Maloney (CIN) 12.54 – 18.2 innings

I’ll cut off the list at five – guys who make this list are people who wind up in AAA or released before you know it.  Still Kuo was bad – basically six runs worse than any other guy every nine innings he pitched.  Aneury Rodriguez was the lone exception…

Look Who is Contending! And, Notes From the Training Room…

I was looking at the standings and there it was…  Pittsburgh is 7 – 5, and with a win last night the Nationals are 7 – 6.  San Diego matches that – good enough for second in the NL West.  Oakland leads the AL West at 9 – 5.

It’s only been two weeks, sure…  Still – nice to see a couple of surprise teams making a little early noise.

One Cheat Passes Another…

Alex Rodriguez hit home run #584, passing Mark McGwire for eighth on the all-time list.  Somewhere, a chemistry teacher feels rewarded for his or her work in the classroom.  Anyway…  Frank Robinson is next, and in a few months, there should be seven players with at least 600 homers in their career.  [FoxSports]

Fond Farewell…

Eric Gagne, for a few years the most feared reliever in baseball, called it a career.  The Dodgers released Gagne after a few poor outings in Spring Training and Gagne told a Montreal website he had lost his desire to play.  Gagne’s elbow, back, and shoulder have all required surgery, and it was fraying in his rotator cuff a couple of years ago that scared off the Red Sox.  Gagne was also mentioned in the Mitchell report for having received HGH from Kirk Radomski.  [SI]

But He Made The Ten Best Dressed List…

Tampa Rays manager Joe Maddon was told by MLB that he can no longer wear his favorite hoodie sweatshirt – one he frequently wears under his jacket to stay warm.  Maddon says he prefers the hoodies to winter coats.

From the Training Room…

Baltimore outfielder Felix Pie will likely miss the next three months recovering from an injury to his left shoulder – he ruptured the latissimus dorsai behind that shoulder.  Fortunately, no surgery is required, but he needs rest and rehab before he can play again.  [MLB]

Meanwhile, other Orioles remain on the mend…  Brian Roberts, already on the DL with abdominal injuries, saw a spinal specialist, Koji Uehara is testing his sore left hamstring, and Miguel Tejada says he’s ready to play after straining a hip adductor muscle.  The guy who may not be on the mend is manager Dave Trembley.  The Orioles are 2 – 11 already and now face New York or Boston for the next dozen games.  [MLB]

The Red Sox can’t buy a win, and now are stuck playing Bill Hall in centerfield with two other outfielders unable to play…  Jacoby Ellsbury collided with Adrian Beltre a week ago and has a severely bruised chest, while Mike Cameron still hasn’t found abdominal relief days after passing a kidney stone.  [MLB/ESPN]

Phillies starter J.A. Happ will miss a turn with a strained elbow.  Is Pedro Martinez still available? [ESPN]

Seattle starter Erik Bedard‘s return from shoulder surgery continues apace with the goal of making the team by Memorial Day.  [MLB]

San Diego starter Chris Young is playing catch, but is still some time away from returning to the Padres.  Young is the new Mike Hampton.  [MLB]

Transaction Wire

The Dodgers sent Russ Ortiz back to AAA (he was actually designated for assignment), and will give a roster spot to Jon Link.  Link was a former Padre and White Sox farmhand who was acquired in the Juan Pierre trade.  A Virginia Commonwealth grad, Link has made steady progress in the minors and looks to have closer stuff – but not quite.  Link has good strikeout numbers but he’s a touch wild, and his ERA hasn’t been around 2.00 – it’s more like 3 to 3.5.  Still – he can take some middle innings and not be too bad.

Arizona placed Conor Jackson on the DL with a right hamstring strain and immediately recalled Esmerling Vasquez – who hadn’t even made it to AAA when he was recalled.

The Mets recalled 1B prospect Ike Davis, the 23-year-old out of Arizona State.  Davis had made progress in the minors and was a stud during spring training.  He looks to have mid-range power, a big swing, and a little patience.  I think he can hit .275 or so in the bigs (but strike out a LOT) – still the Mets might as well give him a shot.  It’s not like Carlos Delgado is coming back any time soon.

Happy Birthday!

1876 – Charlie Hemphill – I think he played with Rube in the California League in 1902
1891 – Dave Bancroft (Hall of Fame shortstop)
1946 – Tommy Hutton – now a Marlins TV commentator and a good one
1950 – Milt Wilcox
1961 – Don Mattingly
1973 – Todd Hollingsworth

2010 Season Forecast: Philadelphia Phillies

Last Five Years:
2009:  93 – 69 (1st, NL East, Lost World Series)
2008:  92 – 70
2007:  89 – 73
2006:  85 – 77
2005:  88 – 74

Runs Scored: 820 (1st NL)
Runs Allowed: 709 (6th NL)

Season Recap:

The best offense in the NL – despite an off season from shortstop and lead off man, Jimmy Rollins.

A solid pitching performance – despite problems with Cole Hamels not pitching like an ace, Jamie Moyer starting to look his age, and a bullpen that couldn’t close the door – namely the oft injured and ineffective Brad Lidge.

The Phillies had one bad month, but one GREAT month, and nobody in the league was really as good – top to bottom – as Philadelphia.  And yet, there were a couple of holes.  The defense at a couple of positions were off – namely center, left, and short – and the starting pitching so degenerated down the stretch that the aged Pedro Martinez was brought in and seen as sort of a Godsend.  No worries – there were enough runs scored on a regular basis that it didn’t really matter.

Pitching:

As mentioned earlier, Cole Hamels was the staff ace who lost his mojo along the way – giving up a few too many homers and hits.  Still – he wasn’t horrible; just league average.  Joe Blanton actually led the Phils in innings pitched and saved his team about seven more runs over the same amount of time.

What helped the Phillies was the surprise performance of J.A. Happ, who moved from the pen to the rotation and went 12 – 4 (one of three 12 game winners), and saving his team nearly 30 runs over league average pitching.  Cliff Lee arrived at the trading deadline and won seven of eleven decisions and looked great the longer he hung around (including the postseason).  Pedro Martinez made nine good enough starts, taking Jamie Moyer‘s spot.  Moyer had served up 27 homers in just 162 innings, though his offensive support kept his record on the positive side (12 – 10).

The other fifth slot starters, Brett Myers, Chan Ho Park, Antonio Bastardo, Kyle Kendrick, and Rodrigo Lopez, weren’t much help – which necessitated Lee’s arrival.

The bullpen was nowhere near as supportive.  In 2008, there were five guys who were well above league average and Brad Lidge converted every save opportunity.  In 2009, Lidge was 22 runs worse than the average pitcher in just 58.2 innings – and ERA of 7.21 proof of the pain.

Ryan Madson was still solid, and Chan Ho Park was decent in long relief.  Chad Durbin, however, fell off while Clay Condrey, Tyler Walker, and Scott Eyre were decent in smaller roles.

Looking ahead to 2010, Cliff Lee was traded to Seattle as part of a three-team deal that brought Roy Halliday to town.  Halliday will be an immediate improvement over just about anyone.  I think Hamels will figure it out and gain about 10 runs against the league.  That will make up for Happ’s falling back a little.  Blanton is what he is – a middle of the rotation guy.  Martinez isn’t back – suddenly Moyer is #5 again – and I’m not convinced that this is going to be a good thing.  Moyer was ten runs worse than the league – probably will be again – so he cuts into the gains of having Halliday at the top.  Maybe Kyle Kendrick will fool enough people long enough to help out – or be a long reliever.

If Lidge gets his act together, if Jose Contreras helps the way Park did, if Danys Baez is tolerable…  Lots of ifs in the bullpen.  I don’t see the bullpen getting better soon.  Even if Lidge comes back and is league average, the rest of the bullpen isn’t all that impressive anymore.  Scott Eyre retired.

The net change is relatively flat.  No matter how good Halliday will be, and even with Hamels returning to form, the rest of the staff isn’t very good and may slip by 10 runs.

Catching:

Carlos Ruiz isn’t horrible and his bat came back last year.  Backups Chris Coste and Paul Bako have some skills – Bako defensively, Coste offensively, though he fell back last year in limited opportunities.

Moving forward, Ruiz keeps his job, to be backed up by former Met Brian Schneider.  No change.

Infield:

Ryan Howard is a FORCE, even if he doesn’t always hit lefties as well as you might want.  And, his glove isn’t a problem.

Chase Utley is an offensive marvel and a defensive wizard.

Jimmy Rollins is NOT – but he still helps out a little bit.  He hit 21 homers, had 40+ doubles, 31 stolen bases – but made a LOT of outs at the top of the order.  And, his range was abysmal – 12 plays per 800 balls in play less than his shortstop brethren, costing his team 26 runs.

Not that you want Eric Bruntlett out there either.

Pedro Feliz didn’t provide too much offense (despite 30 doubles and a dozen homers), but his glove was worthy of gold glove consideration.

Looking ahead, you have three of the four back and former Phillie (and Tiger) Placido Polanco becomes the new third baseman.  I don’t think Polanco will match Feliz in the field (though he won’t be bad), but he might add a few runs offensively.

Eric Bruntlett, Greg Dobbs, and Juan Castro back these guys up but won’t get much playing time.  Ross Gload was added as a pinch hitter.

Outfield:

Raul Ibanez hit for power, falling off after a remarkably fast start, but his defensive leaves a lot to be desired.  (Still – he’s better than, say, Pat Burrell.)

In center, Shane Victorino improved as a hitter, but didn’t look totally comfortable in center.  With a range factor of -9 (nine plays worse than average for every 800 balls in play), he cost his team 26 runs.  Add in Ibanez, and you’ve cost your pitchers 40 runs – way too many.

However, rightfielder Jayson Werth was AWESOME defensively – making more putouts than Victorino (very rare for RF to catch more balls than CF) and added 36 homers (four Phillies cleared 30) and 20 steals.

John Mayberry, Greg Dobbs, Ben Francisco, and Eric Bruntlett provide backup innings – but only Francisco can really play the outfield.

Prospects:

The best player in AAA was Lou Marson, a catcher who is now in Cleveland.  Otherwise, this is a team of 30 somethings.  Andrew Carpenter can pitch a little – he fared better in Lehigh than Kyle Kendrick, but doesn’t have ACE material.  Carlos Carrasco is just 23 and has the K/W ratio you like but a 6 – 9, 5.18 mark won’t put you high on prospect lists.

The best player in AA Reading was pitcher Kyle Drabek, who is now in Toronto.  Reliever Sergio Escalona may make the roster – he has okay control and some Ks, but keeps the ball in the park.  At best, a seventh inning guy.  Antonio Bastardo got a shot with the parent club – he looked really good in limited AA time, so he probably needs a full season in AAA to prove he’s worth a roster spot full time.  Outfielders Domonic Brown and Michael Taylor showed bat speed and power – but Taylor is the real prospect after hitting .333 with 15 homers in 86 games.  Taylor, however, is now with the Oakland As – after heading to Toronto, the Blue Jays moved him to Oakland for prospect Brett Wallace.

I mentioned Domonic Brown, who also demolished the Florida State League, but another prospect at A+ Clearwater was Tim Kennelly, a kid from Perth, Australia who is finally coming into his own.  He’s a catcher, third baseman, outfielder – which means they don’t think he can catch.  Yet.  Pitcher Michael Schwimer fanned 82 in 60 innings and at that rate would be a future closer.

Forecast:

You have pretty much the same team as last year, a team that might allow fifteen more runs because of the weaker bullpen. but might not need the bullpen as often with Halliday out there.  If Hamels and Blanton and Halliday eat 675 innings and Happ and Moyer eat 350 more, that leaves only 350 – 400 innings for the bullpen, a very small number.  I don’t like that the team is a year older all over the field, but then again – you don’t mess with a team that has been in back-to-back World Series.  I might have looked for a young outfielder who could fly in center and moved Victorino to left, though.  Can you trade Jimmy Rollins?  I just don’t see anyone to replace him on the farm, though.

Still, I see the team with 820 runs scored and 725 runs allowed, and the system says 91 wins.  My hunch says another division crown, but there are reasons to think it might not happen.  If Atlanta is as good as advertised, the Philles might not win the division and will be hard pressed to hold off the Marlins.  There’s a lot of pride and experience here – but the system says that the Braves will be slightly better.

NL’s Best and Worst Pitchers in 2009 – Hot Stove News…

Quick news hits first before we take a quick look back at pitchers in 2009…

Tim Lincecum asked for $13 million when filing for arbitration – if he wins, it would be the highest amount paid to an arbitration eligible pitcher.  Of course, Lincecum is a bit of a party animal off the field, but between the lines he’s one of the five best pitchers in the National League.  He’s certainly one of the most valuable commodities – a pretty durable arm (so far) who gets a lot of batters out and wins games.  [ESPN/SI]

There’s a rather long list of players and teams avoiding arbitration or signing deals – you can get the list on SI or MLB – but the ones that caught my attention were (a) Jonathon Papelbon getting $9.35 million from Boston – about two million more than the going rate and (b) Bengie Molina likely returning to the Giants.  The Mets pursued Molina but apparently not hard enough, and are now stuck with playing backup catchers every day for another year (unless you consider Omir Santos a budding starter).  [FoxSports/ESPN]

FUN WITH DATA!

Having purchased my copy of the Lahman database, which is invaluable for doing quick queries so that I can plug data into my spreadsheets very easily, I can finally start doing the type of statistical analysis that I like…  I’ve already assembled the NL data and will be doing the AL data later this week.  And, after having knocked out the NL sheets, we get to have some fun with the lists it generates.  Today, we’ll start with the pitchers.

Top NL Starting Pitchers

The first rating system I have looks at how many runs a pitcher cost or saved his team over the course of the year above or below what the average pitcher allowed.  ERA is a pretty simple way to note this, mind you.  Someone with an ERA of 2.00 is two runs per nine innings better than someone with an ERA of 4.00.  However, it’s easier to have a low ERA when you pitch in San Diego, so I modify the runs allowed (not earned runs, but runs allowed) by removing the park effect.  Then, I also try to isolate the advantage a pitcher has in being on a team with a good defense vs. one with a bad defense.  For example, a pitcher on the Giants gets help from having a very solid defense – Randy Winn and Fred Lewis in the outfield are plus defenders at their position, the infielders were rather good as well.  Meanwhile, the Cardinals staff had behind them an injured Rick Ankiel or Chris Duncan or Ryan Ludwick in the outfield not catching as many flies as most teams and were playing an injured (and less mobile) Mark DeRosa at third and, perhaps more importantly, an outfielder at second base all year in Skip Schumaker.  Once I figure out how many runs the seven guys in the field affected the team’s ability to prevent runs, you can make a second modification to a pitcher’s runs allowed numbers and compare it with the league average.

The league average pitcher allowed about 4.53 runs per nine innings.  The total number of runs saved is not just dependent on runs allowed per nine, but the number of innings pitched.  The best pitchers in saving runs will usually be starters.  Sometimes, a reliever can sneak in there, but not very often.  Let’s get to the list.

Best Starters:

In terms of runs saved, the best starting pitchers in the National League were…

48.57 – Chris Carpenter (STL)
43.19 – Adam Wainwright (STL)
40.25 – Danny Haren (ARZ)
38.80 – Tim Lincecum (SF)
38.30 – Ubaldo Jimenez (COL)
38.16 – Jair Jurrjens (ATL)
36.39 – Javier Vasquez (ATL)
33.68 – Josh Johnson (FLA)
30.62 – Matt Cain (SF)
28.51 – Wandy Rodriguez (HOU)
28.09 – J.A. Happ (PHI)
26.14 – Ted Lilly (CHC)
23.33 – Jason Marquis (COL)
22.81 – Tommy Hanson (ATL)
21.32 – Clayton Kershaw (LA)

No other starters saved at least 20 runs more than an average pitcher would have allowed given the number of innings pitched by that player.  The top two guys were Cardinals – two pitchers who were wonderful despite having several players not necessarily having good years with the glove.  Those pitchers DO benefit from having the best catching in baseball (Yadier Molina) – but Carpenter’s 48+ runs saved over the average pitcher might be the largest number I have seen in the five years I have done this.  Based on this criteria, Carpenter deserved his Cy Young consideration.  Among the surprises on this list was Clayton Kershaw who couldn’t get any support from his team but really did pitch very, very well and I think could be a sleeper ace for 2010.  And, seeing how well Jason Marquis pitched for the first four months of the season, one assumes that Colorado will miss that kind of production.

Top Relievers:

18.13 – Kiko Calero (FLA)
17.86 – Ryan Franklin (STL)
16.29 – LaTroy Hawkins (HOU)
16.23 – Jeremy Affeldt (SF)
15.49 – Trevor Hoffman (MIL)
13.89 – Nick Massett (CIN)
13.42 – Rafael Soriano (ATL)
12.98 – Huston Street (COL)
12.57 – Jose Valverde (HOU)
12.36 – Todd Coffey (MIL)
12.15 – Tyler Clippard (WAS)

As has been the case for many years, the top relievers are frequently NOT closers but middle relievers who have really good seasons in less demanding roles.  Kiko Calero, who has never had a season anywhere NEAR what he did in 2009 is the surprise winner here.  That being said, the top closer was Ryan Franklin, followed closely by Trevor Hoffman.  More than any other list, this group will change a lot from year to year.  Any number close to 10 is a great year for a reliever.

Worst NL Pitchers…

-44.28 – Manny Parra (MIL)
-33.36 – Josh Geer (SD)
-32.70 – Braden Looper (MIL)
-31.70 – David Bush (MIL)
-31.25 – Jeff Suppan (MIL)
-27.36 – Chad Gaudin (SD)
-25.35 – Todd Wellemeyer (STL)
-22.83 – Micah Owings (CIN)
-21.95 – Felipe Paulino (HOU)
-21.90 – Brad Lidge (PHI)
-20.53 – Brian Moehler (HOU)
-20.20 – Walter Silva (SD)

-21.31 – Kevin Hart (PIT) – but positive 6.30 in CHC

These are the starters for teams who felt like they had no other option than to give 150 innings to someone with a 5+ ERA.  Or, in the case of Brad Lidge, a manager who kept feeding his closer the ball despite the fact that he was getting hammered all too often.  Rarely does a reliever make this list.

One thing that is immediately noticeable is the fact that four of the five worst pitchers in terms of their relation to the average pitcher were Brewers.  Look – they aren’t the worst pitchers.  There were guys with 8+ ERAs who got just 20 innings and were sent packing to AAA, too.  Or were hurt or something.  But the Brewers were hanging in there with four guys who are no better than long relievers.  Three of them had seen better days (Looper, Suppan, Bush), but wow.  One sees immediately where the Brewers should spend their money.  Go find three guys who can pitch.  If that means giving Ben Sheets a deal, do it.  Finding three guys who can give you a 4.20 ERA in 180 innings would move the Brewers up 10 games in the standings.  Is it that hard to find three of those guys?  I can’t wait to do my team overview for the Brewers…

Coghlan, Bailey Earn Rookie of Year Honors… Other News…

Nice to be back after a long weekend camping near Lake Okeechobee with my son – a boys weekend and a good time.  In retrospect, we probably should have stayed longer and fished more on Sunday morning, so next time that will be the plan…

Coghlan wins NL MVP…

Beating out a good crowd, including Andrew McCutchen and J.A. Happ, Florida Marlins outfielder Chris Coghlan won the NL Rookie of the Year Award.  He’s the third Fish to win, following Dontrelle Willis and Hanley Ramirez.  Keith Law was interviewed on ESPN Radio last night and said that the Marlins are going to have ROY candidates every year because they need to integrate young players onto the roster more regularly than other teams – a fair assessment.  At the same time, Coghlan deserved it.

I don’t know if you have ever seen him play, but he’s got to be the quietest hitter you’ll ever see.  There is little wasted motion.  He gets in his set position and hardly moves until he whips his bat around to tattoo a pitch.  He strikes me as a Todd Walker, Chuck Knobloch type, someone who can be valuable at the top of the order for a few years and then maybe last forever as a utility player/pinch hitter type.  Having seen him play, though, (and admittedly as a Marlins fan) I’d love for him to take another step forward.  To do that, he’d have to add a little power and keep his speed.  I don’t know that it’s possible, but even if he stays the way he is right now (and Coghlan finished the season with about 80 hits in the last two months alone – singles and doubles all over the place and two hits nearly every night), he’ll be a good one for a long time.

In the NL, there were several really good candidates.  Andrew McCutchen could be a Curtis Granderson type – but as a rookie, he wasn’t any more impressive than Coughlin.  Tommy Hanson was a very good pitcher for Atlanta, as was Happ for Philadelphia, and Randy Wells for Chicago.  Of the three, I think Hanson has the best chance for long-term success, but I’d be happy with Wells in my rotation for the next ten years, too.  It’ll be fun to see where they wind up in 2012.

Andrew Bailey Takes AL Rookie Hardware…

In the AL, a closer won the Rookie of the Year award, Oakland’s Andrew Bailey.  Bailey was impressive – 26 saves in 30 chances, a solid ERA and opposing batting average.  Certainly, Bailey had the credentials for the award.  Other rookies were equally solid – Brett Anderson (Oakland starter), Rick Porcello – who could be a good pitcher for a long, long time, and (my choice), Elvis Andrus.  Andrus was an amazing fielder and had as much to do with the success of his team as anyone.  If he continues to improve as a hitter, Andrus will be an all-star for a long time.  Andrus got robbed twice this year – once by Derek Jeter for a Gold Glove and now this…

Hot Stove News…

Ramon Hernandez will be back with the Reds, signing a one year, $3 million deal with an option for 2011 tied to games played (and collecting a $1 million buy out).  The Reds had declined his $8 million option…  [ESPN]

Ben Sheets says he will be ready for spring training.  Any takers?  According to ESPN, there will be interest, for sure, even though he’s had five arm related DL trips and a case of vertigo…   (I’d love to find out, personally – can the Marlins sign him to a one year, incentive laden deal???)  [ESPN]

Speaking of Milwaukee, the Brewers declined Braden Looper’s option worth $6.5 million (not a bad price for a league average – at best – pitcher), and paid Looper $1 million in a buy out.  Looper will join the list of more than 150 free agents…  [FoxSports]

Jack Wilson signed a two-year, $10 million deal to stay in Seattle – which the pitchers will appreciate…  [ESPN]

FoxSports says that free agent Pedro Martinez had so much fun in Philadelphia, and feels so good, that he wants to play all of 2010.  Philadelphia, LA, and Chicago are expected to be suitors…  [FoxSports]

Another Phillie chose to become a free agent…  Eric Bruntlett declined a minor league contract offer from Philadelphia.  [SI]

Colorado declined a $5 million option on Rafael Betancourt, but are still trying to work something out with the setup man.  [FoxSports]

Think about it…

FoxSports Bob Klapisch talks about the Yankees and contract options regarding Derek Jeter.  I think it’s a good read…

One of my favorite writers, SI’s Joe Posnanski, picks four players who deserve Hall of Fame plaques.  Tell me if you agree with him…

Happy Birthday! Tom Seaver hits 65.  I can’t believe he’s that old – I can still see him zinging pitches past the Cubs hitters of the 1970s.  (Except that one that Burt Hooten hit off him for a Grand Slam…)

Others celebrating with cake, cards, or rememberances include:  George Stallings  (1867) – a fantastic manager who may become my next biography topic, “The Big Bear” Mike Garcia (1923), Jim Brewer (1937), Dave Frost (1952), Mitch Williams (1964), Jeff Nelson (1966), Eli Marrero (1973), Ryan Braun (1983), and Nick Markakis (1983).

Afterthoughts…

Wally Backman, whose post playing career has been rather problematic, has a job managing Brooklyn – a minor league outpost for the Mets – in 2010.  [ESPN]

Phillies Return to World Series; Other News We Missed Watching Playoff Games…

Sorry for the extended absence…  A very busy work schedule, some play time with my son, and a lack of an internet connection at home (until resolved by Comcast yesterday) has kept me from blogging.  I’ll be better going forward…

PHILLIES SMOKE DODGERS…

Having watched it, I feel goofy for having picked the Phillies to finish second in the NL East (Mets injury implosion notwithstanding).  The potent lineup smoked a makeshift Dodger rotation that had trouble throwing strikes – and if you put people on base, the Phillies have too much power to get away with it.  And, they have just enough pitching.  Going forward, the question will be do the Phillies have enough pitching to keep up with the bats of the Yankees who face John Lackey and the Angels in game five tonight…  At least you’ll likely see a lot of offense if the Yankees and Phillies face off in the Series.

IN OTHER NEWS

When the Series makes it to television next Wednesday (ugh), you will see Ozzie Guillen on your television.  Guillen will do pregame and postgame sessions with Chris Rose, Mark Grace, and Eric Karros.  Can’t we get a pitcher in the broadcast booth?  Where is Jim Kaat when we need him???  [SI]

Someone you won’t see is Steve Phillips – but we’ll get to that later.

Aroldis Chapman is interviewing with various teams trying to sign a free agent deal.  The Cuban refugee with the 100 MPH fastball is likely to sign with…  New York or Boston?  NO WAY!!!

Managers and Coaches

The Chicago Cubs hired former Texas Rangers hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo to be the hitting coach for 2010.  Jaramillo replaces Von Joshua, who will accept the same role for the Cubs’ AAA Iowa team.  [SI]

The Tampa Rays hired Derek Shelton to replace Steve Henderson as the hitting coach for 2010.  Shelton had been the hitting coach for Cleveland since 2005.  I don’t understand how Henderson got fired – the Rays had more homers, walks, and runs than in 2008…  [SI]

Bobby Valentine, Manny Acta, Travis Fryman, Torey Lovullo, and Don Mattingly are on the interview list for the Cleveland Indians manager position.  I’d rather have Mattingly, if it were me.  [ESPN, MLB]

Former Arizona and Seattle pitching coach Bryan Price was tabbed for the Cincinnati Reds pitching coach position.  [MLB]

Boston Red Sox Assistant GM Jed Hoyer may sign to be the GM of the San Diego Padres.  Hoyer will have his work cut out for him, and not nearly the same amount of resources as his boss, Theo Epstein, enjoys in Boston…  [ESPN]

Joe Torre wants to manage in 2010, and his GM Nick Colletti already has his long-term deal with the Dodgers.   I’d be surprised if Torre isn’t back for one more go.  [MLB]

GM Dan O’Dowd and Manager Jim Tracy are close to deals to remain with Colorado…  [MLB]

Rick Peterson, former Mets and A’s pitching coach and now pitching guru, will get a chance to prove his genius as pitching coach of the Milwaukee Brewers.  Peterson is a new breed – has a psychology degree, which helps, and is a proponent of bio-metrics – using physiology to help with mechanics and strength.  [MLB]

Phil Garner wants his old job back as manager of the Houston Astros.  [MLB]

Infield coach Perry Hill wants out of Pittsburgh, even though Pittsburgh picked up his option.   Is it that bad? [ESPN]

Check Out the Red Carpet Photos…

The Sporting News is handing out some awards – leading off with the Rookies of the Year.  J.A. Happ got the nod in the NL, while Gordon Beckham gets the hardware in the AL.  I haven’t given this much thought, but is Happ really better than Marlins outfielder Chris Coughlin?  Not in my book.  [MLB/TSN]

Want a Good Argument?

Joe Posnanski, one of my favorite writers, lists the top ten “pure hitters” since 1947.  No – Bill Madlock didn’t make the top ten, but for a couple of years there, I loved watching him hit.  [SI]

Jayhawk Alum and ESPN blogger Rob Neyer wonders if Bobby Abreu or Johnny Damon has a better shot at the Hall of Fame…  [ESPN]

Hurry Back!

Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols had successful surgery to remove bone chips from his ailing elbow.  I pity pitchers next year.  [SI]

Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge is headed for surgery to repair a sore left knee that hampered the second half of his all-star season.  [MLB]

The Transaction Wire…

The Cubs claimed former Marlins outfielder Alejandro De Aza off of waivers.  I liked that kid – saw him play in spring training a few times.  Once, I sat next to some little fella’ who had De Aza’s signature on his scorecard the year De Aza stole the centerfield job.  Ankle injuries spoiled the fun, so I hope he gets another shot.  This follows the Cubs releasing outfielder So Taguchi.

Will Ohman filed for free agency.  Good luck with that.

Is it Over?

The Mets released 40-year-old reliever Ken Takahashi.  The Japanese vet wasn’t horrible, but his release opens a slot on the 40 man roster.  I thought he could pitch, but he’s not a long-term solution to any problems.  [MLB]

Meanwhile, another Japanese import, catcher Kenji Johjima is going back to Japan and forfeiting more than $15 million dollars of his three year deal with Seattle.  Johjima had been relegated to second string behind Rob Johnson and wants to finish his career near his home.  [MLB]

Happy Birthday!

A couple of Hall of Famers – Jimmy Foxx (1907) and Ichiro Suzuki (1973) head today’s birthday list.  Others being remembered with cards and cake include:  Jumbo Elliott (1900), Harry “the Hat” Walker (1916), Ron Jackson (1933), Wilbur Wood (1941 – my dad’s age), Jamie Quirk (1954), Frank DiPino (1956), Gerald Young (1964 – remember the promise he showed in 1987?), Michael Barrett (1976), and Yankees second sacker Robinson Cano (1982).

Afterthoughts… Steve Phillips was granted a leave of absence from ESPN when the 22-year-old ESPN office assistant with whom he was having an affair went all psycho and threatened Phillips’ wife and family.  Marni Phillips, who had to deal with Phillips getting in too deep while working for the Mets following another similar scandal (which led to an out-of-court settlement of a sexual harrassment charge), has filed for divorce.  Phillips may have had a good track record as a GM, but many in the blogosphere are less enamored of his taste in women.  [ESPN, The Hollywood Gossip]

Trade Analysis: Indians Send Cliff Lee and Ben Francisco to Phillies for Four Prospects

Maybe the Blue Jays were asking too much for Roy Halliday…  Philadelphia, already building a comfortable lead in the NL East and still the reigning World Series Champions, dealt away four prospects for last year’s AL Cy Young winner, Cliff Lee.  Along for the ride is a right-handed hitting outfielder, Ben Francisco.  Cleveland gets four ranked prospects, Jason Knapp, Carlos Carrasco, Lou Marson, and Jason Donald.

Philadelphia Gets:  A starter who as every bit as good as Roy Halliday, but with a lower price tag.  Lee’s salary is about $6 million per year less than Halliday, and he can stay through 2010 because of a club option…  Don’t look at Lee’s record – the Indians haven’t done diddly when Lee is on the hill.  Check out his control and ERA, which are both solid.  Hamels, Lee, Happ, and Moyer (who has been better), with a dose of Joe Blanton makes for a killer rotation down the stretch, and you have two aces at the top for the playoffs.  The Phillies have to be the favorite to make the 2009 World Series.

The Phillies also get a decent outfielder in Francisco – someone who can play left or right field (he looks more comfortable in left, though), hits with power and still retains a little speed.  He’s certainly an upgrade over John Mayberry, Jr. – who may never be as good as Francisco.  And – none of the prospects that Toronto asked for – Kyle Drabek, J.A. Happ, or outfielder Dominic Brown – were part of the deal.  Happ has been a god send, and Drabek is frequently cited as the best pitching prospect the Phillies have.

Cleveland Gets:  It’s not that Cleveland got NOTHING.  They just didn’t get anyone who might immediately help, the way J.A. Happ could obviously step into the rotation and pitch today (or whatever day he was scheduled to pitch).

Jason Knapp was selected #2 in 2008 out of high school.  He has a tender shoulder right now, which isn’t a positive and may actually hold up the completion of the deal.  As a pitcher, though, Knapp has SERIOUS tools.  He throws high 90s, fanned 111 in 95 innings at Lakewood in the SAL.  When he arrives in 2011, Knapp could be a #2 starter.  Granted, this is early, but this is the kind of prospect you want to see in a trade.  Upside and at least a little proven ability.

Carlos Carrasco is a bit further along – learning a new pitch in AAA.  The good news is he has good control and decent strikeout numbers.  He’s just 22 and yet has had some success in the minors.  Right now, I think he translates out to a #4 starter at best, but he could surprise you.  He may get to make a few starts in September (or sooner) for Cleveland, and prove to be a positive.  The best news is that he has improved his control at each level and that bodes well for him the more he pitches.

Jason Donald is a shortstop who, until this year, had been a decent hitter – mixing a little power with nice patience and a touch of speed.  He suffered a knee injury this year, though, and in AAA has struggled to hit .240.  In time, he might serve as a potential replacement for Jhonny Peralta should he move to third (where Andy Marte has failed to make an impact).  I see Donald as a Rich Aurilia type and could be helpful for a couple of years if he can make one more step up.  Donald might move to second, with Asdrubel Cabrera manning short next year, too.  Either way, it should be a solid infield.

Lou Marson is a catcher with skills – Scott Bradley with more walks.  I thought he might become the Phillies catcher for the next decade.  He’s a good contact hitter, has some patience – and has shown improvement at every level.  And, he’s just 23.  Adding Marson means that Victor Martinez is still (more?) expendable – though you’d like to see someone who can play first base emerge (or, in the case of Travis Hafner, get healthy).

In summary, I like the trade for both teams.  Obviously, Philadelphia could be a solid winner not just for 2009, but 2010, and retains three blue chippers.  If you are a Cleveland fan, though, you have to feel a bit cheated out of what should have been a tiny dynasty over the last three years.  Two aces are gone and a third (Fausto Carmona) fell by the wayside.  The Indians SHOULD have been in the playoffs every year since 2007.  Someone is to blame for that, and I don’t know who.  On the other hand, in the last three days, the Indians have picked up five guys (Jess Todd, in the Mark DeRosa deal) who could be on the major league roster in three years, and four might be on the roster next year.

2009 Season Forecast: Philadelphia Phillies

Philadelphia Phillies
2008: 90-72 (1st NL East, World Series Champions)

The 2008 Philadelphia Phillies were a very good team that got hot at the right time (September and October) and generally did this because the offense was good, the bench produced, and the pitching staff – especially the bullpen – was flat out impressive.

In the National League, only one team scored more runs (the Chicago Cubs), and only two teams allowed fewer runs (The Cubs and the Los Angeles Dodgers), which helps to explain why only the Cubs had the better regular season record.  However, the Cubs folded the tent in October while the Phillies were just getting started.  If the Phillies needed to score runs, they could.  If the team needed a solid pitching performance, especially down the stretch, it could get one, and if the bullpen needed to hold a lead, Brad Lidge and company could stop another team cold in its tracks.  It didn’t hurt that down the stretch the Phillies played a lot of games against the weak sisters (Atlanta, Washington, and the folding Mets), but even when faced with a playoff bound Milwaukee in September, the Phillies smoked them in four straight – which should have sounded the alarm that this team was ready for the playoffs.

And they were ready.  They took down the Brewers, they stopped the charging Dodgers, and they blew away a very good Tampa Bay Rays team winning every home game and losing just once on the road in each series.

Looking Back on 2008

As in 2007, the getaway was problematic but not as bad.  For 20 games, Philadelphia would win two and lose two, never falling more than two games under .500, but never getting past it, either.  Then, in game 23, the Phillies got above even and started making progress toward the top of the division.

The reason for this was that half the starting rotation was working, and half the offense was working.  Cole Hamels and Jamie Moyer were great, Brett Myers and Adam Eaton were struggling, and Kyle Kendrick was somewhere in the middle.  And, Ryan Howard got off to such a slow start it negated the amazing start of Chase Utley.  Pat Burrell was hitting, but Jimmy Rollins was fighting nagging injuries and not hitting.

In late May, the pieces started coming together.  Over the summer, Charlie Manual and the rest of Phillie management convinced Brett Myers to take a month in the minors to work on a couple of adjustments and see if he couldn’t get things turned around.  Myers, to his credit, did just that and when he came back in August was solid down the stretch.  Then, the Phillies finally gave up on Adam Eaton and traded for Joe Blanton, giving up a couple of minor leaguers.  Blanton, who had struggled some in Oakland, found his stride down the stretch and looked even more confident in the post-season.  So, by the time September rolled around, the rotation featured four solid starters and Kyle Kendrick – who wasn’t pitching well, but still had a winning record.  The Phillies had their best month in September, winning seventeen games while losing just eight.  In October, they were even better.

Tell me about that offense

Believe it or not, as good as the 2008 Phillies line up was, they were almost 100 runs worse than in 2007.

Some of this could have been predicted (and was).  Jimmy Rollins was coming off his best season ever, so to think he would generate 140 runs of offense again would have been extremely optimistic.  Struggling through the year, Rollins still produced, but was 45 runs worse than the previous year.  He missed 35 games, lost 100 points in his slugging percentage, and it showed up on the scoreboard.  His backup, usually Eric Bruntlett, can’t hit like Rollins.  Shane Victorino moved to center to replace Aaron Rowand, who was coming off his career best season.  Victorino was good, but still 25 runs behind what Rowand produced.

Some of the rest was just the give and take of seasons.  Ryan Howard was slow to get rolling and was off slightly from the previous year.  Pedro Feliz looked slow at the plate and was below average in hitting.  Catcher Carlos Ruiz struggled, giving more time to Chris Coste, who hit pretty well.  Chase Utley and Pat Burrell were no better than they had been in 2007 – which is to say they remained potent hitters.

However, top to bottom, this was a solid line up.  You had six above average bats (Rollins, Utley, Howard, Burrell, Victorino, and Werth), and a couple of slower bats – but it worked.  No team is going to complain about finishing in second in runs scored.  The Phillies could hit.

Defensively:

The Phillies were slightly above average in terms of turning balls in play into outs.  The outfield improved in part because Victorino and Werth were an improvement on Rowand in center, Pat Burrell had a slightly better year than in 2007 defensively (still bad though), and the backups in the outfield (Werth when he played in center, Taguchi when he played in left) caught everything.

Jimmy Rollins has below average range (-4.1, the third straight year between -4 and -5), but makes up for it on the double play and avoiding errors.  Chase Utley has above average range and is also good turning two.  The Phillies were slightly above average in the percentage of baserunners removed by double plays.  Howard appears to be losing his mobility.  The few replacements at first base all had better per inning numbers, but nobody is taking Howard off the diamond.  Pedro Feliz was slightly below average but even his replacement was solid (Dobbs).

The outfield was weak.  Victorino and Werth were, on the whole, average.  The now departed Burrell has wrestled with Josh Willingham for two years to see who was the worst defensive left fielder in the National League.  The backups, So Taguchi and Geoff Jenkins, were both solid defensively.

Behind the plate, Ruiz and Coste are tolerable.  Both were below average against the stolen base and the total number of steals allowed was the fifth most in the league.  Coste makes fewer mistakes, but Ruiz appears to be more mobile in that he had 28 more assists that were not people trying to steal bases than Cost in a similar number of innings.

Now Pitching…

Last year I wrote, “Cole Hamels was brilliant, winning 15 of 20 decisions and with an ERA of 3.39 in a difficult park.  He continued to strike out nearly a batter an inning and cut his walk rate down to just 43 in more than 180 innings of work….  Hamels might be able to pick up 40 more innings…”  I’ll just quote that part, since it was right on the money, and not note that I had predicted Jamie Moyer to decline, when Moyer was equally brilliant in 2008.  Hamels saved his team 30 runs over the average pitcher, Moyer another 20.

Blanton was a slightly above average pitcher after his arrival, and Brett Myers was break even – with his second half being as good as his first half was poor.  So, the top four starters, who all return in 2009, were above average.

After that, you have Kyle Kendrick.  In two seasons, Kendrick has had a winning record – but things are going in the wrong direction.  He doesn’t strike anyone out and he doesn’t walk people.  In 2007, the ball stayed in the park.  In 2008, the ball left the yard.  When a pitcher allows too many hitters to put the ball in play, it’s a bad combination that is bound to backfire.  In 2008 it did.  Adam Eaton is still around, but for the third straight year, he posted an ERA over 5.00.  I would be surprised if Eaton is on the roster in 2008.

The bullpen, however, showed incredible improvement.  Brad Lidge didn’t blow a single save and was absolutely amazing all season long.  And – he wasn’t alone.  Ryan Madson, J.C. Romero, Clay Condrey, and Chad Durbin all were 10 runs allowed better than the average reliever.  Scott Eyre came over from the Cubs and was above average as well.  I mean – every pitcher who played a key role on the team, with the exception of Adam Eaton, was above average.  That’s TEN solid pitchers.

Forecasting 2008:

Conventional wisdom might look at this team and say “wow – look how good they were, this is the team to beat in the NL” – and for the most part conventional wisdom is right.  Unfortunately, there are a few “buts” to consider.

Last year, the team was virtually injury free.  Jimmy Rollins was the only starter to miss any significant time, and he still played in nearly 140 games.  No pitcher went down with a serious injury, except Tom Gordon, who wasn’t needed and was the last active pitcher who played with Frank White.  I’d be hard pressed to believe that the same luck will stay with the Phillies in 2009.  Chase Utley had hip surgery in the offseason and the Phillies are cautiously optimistic that he’ll be back around opening day.  As such, Marcus Giles was given a Non-Roster Invite to spring training – and he hasn’t been good since 2006.

The 2008 Phillies were a veteran team.  Not an old team, but a collection of guys around 29 on offense, and – Moyer not withstanding – generally prime ages for pitchers.  That works in their favor – but they aren’t getting younger either.  Replacing Burrell in left field will be the 37 year-old Raul Ibanez.  Raul’s slightly better in the field than Burrell, and hasn’t missed much time in the last seven years.  But he’s 37 – and guys who are 37 miss games.  They don’t get faster.  Ibanez isn’t likely to be better than Burrell, he’s likely to be worse. 

J.C Romero tested positive for performance enhancing drugs, moving Scott Eyre into a more prominent role, but Romero’s roster spot was claimed by Chan Ho Park.  Park turns 36 in mid-season.  Park won’t be better than Romero, that’s for sure.  And, God help the Phillies if they need him to be a starter – he hasn’t been effective in that role for years.  Outfielder Tai Iguchi is gone; the remaining backup outfielders are Jenkins (34) and Matt Stairs (40).  John Mayberry, Jr., acquired from Texas, hasn’t played in the majors yet and has never hit above .270 in the minors.  And, like a lot of young major leaguers, he strikes out a lot.

Let’s try to do this by runs.  My guess is that Ibanez will be 10 – 15 runs worse than Burrell, Feliz will continue to look older, and Greg Dobbs may not be as consistent.  If it were me, I’d play Dobbs over Feliz, but I don’t think Manual agrees with me.  Anyway – that’s another ten run loss.  Ryan Howard isn’t getting better – just richer.  He could be off five runs from last year.  Utley is a question mark.  I root for the guy, personally, but it could be a 30 – 40 run decline from 2008.  There could be a slight improvement at catcher, Ronnie Paulino was acquired from Pittsburgh as insurance, but he’s not better than either Ruiz or Coste.  There is no position where the Phillies will be BETTER on offense.   More likely, the Phillies will fall from nearly 800 runs to 750 runs offensively.  It could be less than that.

Defensively, the team will likely be flat – depending on how well Utley’s replacement plays.  Giles won’t be better than Utley, though the improvement of not playing Burrell for 1000 innings in the outfield will make up for that in some way.

So that leaves the pitching staff.  Let’s say Hamels remains outstanding, and Blanton and Myers are above average.  It’s equally likely however that whatever benefits Blanton and Myers may add will be negated by a decline by Moyer.  Moyer’s season in 2008 was the lone solid season in the last four – and while he’s one of my favorite pitchers, he’s not going to be better than last year.  I think he could easily be 20 runs worse than last year – which makes Moyer league average.  Moyer’s record will be 10 – 12 if he makes 30 starts again.  He usually does…

If I’m Charlie Manual, I give starts to J.A. Happ.  Happ looks to be an improvement over Kyle Kendrick – he’s been solid in the minors and didn’t disappoint in four starts last year.  That would be his only chance to improve the rotation.  At least Manual has a good sixth option.  Park is not.  Eaton should be released.  A full year of Blanton is an improvement over 13 starts of Blanton and 19 starts by Eaton.

However, so many pitchers were above average in the bullpen, I’d fear for at least one of them (Clay Condrey is my first guess, Park the other) to be league average or worse.  That’s another decline of at least 20 runs.  On the whole, the pitchers are likely to allow 35 more runs than in 2008.  That puts the runs scored/runs allowed numbers at 750/700 – a record of about 87 – 75.  87 wins might be enough to make the playoffs, though – and since this team has two straight years of closing strongly, I wouldn’t be surprised if they sneak in by a nose.  One pitcher injury, however – especially if it’s Hamels – would cost the team five games in the standings, and 82 wins won’t get it done.

Down on the Farm…

The Lehigh Valley IronPigs look to be shy on players who can help.  The best hitter is probably first baseman Adam Tracy – but he isn’t great and Howard isn’t moving.  Mike Cervanek looks like Enos Cabell – might hit .280 with 10 homers and no walks.  Outfielder Brendan Watson isn’t going to help people if he hits .270 with no power and a bad stolen base percentage.  Their catching prospect, Jason Jaramillo was sent to Pittsburgh for Ronny Paulino.  The best pitcher was J.A. Happ, who should be starting for Philadelphia already.  He just needs a chance to pitch 140 innings and show what he can do and learn how to survive at the top level.

The best hitter in Reading (AA) was catcher Lou Marson, who got to play in one September game and homered for the Phillies that day.  I thought he looked good at Clearwater in 2007, so his continued improvement bodes well for his future.  He’ll be starting here by 2010.   Jason Donald looked good at shortstop, hitting for power and showing plate discipline.  He’s blocked at the big league level, though, unless Utley can’t come back.  Jeremy Slayden can hit some, but he’ll be 27 soon and running out of time.  He’s reaching his peak and hasn’t gotten past AA.  No pitchers in AA were that impressive – nobody with stunning strikeout numbers, a low number of hits per nine, or remarkable control.

At the lower levels, Michael Taylor hit a ton at Lakeland and Clearwater, but few others had successful runs.  Taylor comes from Stanford and is built like a tight end (6’ 6”, 250) but needs to move up a couple of levels quickly.  This was his first solid season in the minors.