2010 Season Forecast: Pittsburgh Pirates

Last Five Years:
2009: 62 – 99 (6th, NL Central)
2008: 67 – 95
2007: 68 – 94
2006: 67 – 95
2005: 67 – 95

The Pirates won 79 games in 1997, which is the closest they have come to a winning season since 1992.

Runs Scored: 636 (Last, NL)
Runs Allowed: 768 (12th, NL)

Season Recap:

While we could hope that the Pirates would finally break the streak of losing seasons, most people figured that getting past 70 wins for the first time since 2004 would be an improvement…

Actually, the Pirates got out in front with decent April pitching.  After sweeping Florida and taking two from San Diego, Pittsburgh stood at 11 – 7.  Unfortunately, such heady days ended quickly as the Pirates went on to lose 14 of 17 as the offense stopped scoring any runs.  To their credit, the Pirates came back and had a winning June and on the 27th, the Pirates had gotten to within four games of .500

At this point, the Pirates sold out.  Nate McLouth was traded to Atlanta for a couple of prospects.  Nyjer Morgan went to Washington for Lastings Milledge (not sure why, either), Jack Wilson was sent to Seattle with a struggling Ian Snell.  Freddy Sanchez was packaged to San Francisco, and even former ace Tom Gorzelanny was shipped to Chicago with reliever John Grabow.

So, a team that actually was playing pretty well collapsed while testing a bunch of new guys, mixing in a variety of losing streaks between four and nine games long until they were fighting off the possibility of losing 100 games.  The Pirates lost 60 of their last 87 games.  Personally, I don’t know why the Pirates would want to ruin their season that way, but that’s just me.

Pitching:

Unlike Cincinnati, who had a few guys log a lot of innings but not one who was even SLIGHTLY above league average, the Pirates had a couple of decent arms.  Ross Ohlendorf got rolling down the stretch to win 11 games and save his team about seven extra runs in his 177 innings.  Zach Duke, usually a disappointment, logged 213 decent innings, walking just 49 guys, and edging nearly four runs better than the average guy.  Teams need Zach Dukes.  The Pirates wanted him to be an ace, which he is not, but Duke isn’t a problem.  Charlie Morton came over from Atlanta and was tolerable in his 18 starts.  Paul Maholm logged nearly 195 innings and wasn’t death.  Sometimes he looked pretty good.

What strikes you, however, in looking at the Pirates staff is the lack of a POWER arm.  Who on the staff strikes out a batter per inning?  Heck – who strikes out six per nine?  Nobody.  The closest thing the Pirates have to a live arm is Evan Meek, who had 42 Ks in 47 innings out of the pen, but his control keeps him from being a real stopper.  If you look at the guys who logged at least, say, 60 innings, you have nobody that blows you away.  The leader in strikeouts was Maholm with just 119.

Anyway – let’s look at what the Pirate rotation is going forward.  Maholm is back, as is Ohlendorf and Duke.  A full year of Charlie Morton – assuming he stays near league average as he did last year and doesn’t take a step back – will be better than what Ian Snell did last year (2 – 8, 5.36).  That leaves the fifth spot up for grabs.  Kevin Hart, acquired from Chicago for John Grabow, was miserable in his ten starts last year (1 – 8, 6.92) but really isn’t that bad.  Personally, I’d like to see Daniel McCutchen get a shot.  He got six decent starts down the stretch after going 13 – 6 with a 3.47 ERA and just 29 walks in 142.2 innings at Indianapolis.  He HAS to be better than what Kevin Hart did last year.

The Pirates are auditioning a ton of castoffs with Non-Roster Invites – a scary list of guys like Brian Burres, Jeff Karstens, Tyler Yates, and Jeremy Powell.  I don’t see any of these guys getting jobs other than those available in, say, Indianapolis.

The bullpen will be different.  After a rough year of Matt Capps, the Pirates signed Octavio Dotel to be the new closer.  Dotel has been a premium set up man, but as a closer he’s never really been up to the task – and that scares me.  Brendan Donnelly was signed (turns 39 on July 4th) to join Joel Hanrahan (my pick as future closer), Evan Meek, and Donnie Veal in the pen.  This is an eclectic mix of arms that I think improves if Kevin Hart is added to long relief and McCutchen is put in the rotation.

On the whole, however, I do see an improvement.  My take on it is that the starting rotation should be 20 runs better than last year.  It’s not enough.  They need a real ace to step forward – and Ohlendorf may be that guy – someone who is 20 – 30 runs above the league.  And to be really competitive, they need two.  I don’t see two of them here.  I see five guys who are within ten runs of league average over 200 innings – a bunch of third and fourth starters.

The bullpen may be better if only some of the guys logging innings (Jeff Karstens, Virgil Vasquez, and Chris Bootcheck) won’t be there.  But I don’t have strong faith that the eighth and ninth innings will be solid.  Let’s call it a wash.

Catching:

A full season of Ryan Doumit would help.  Doumit missed half the season, forcing Jason Jaramillo, not an offensive force, into the lineup.  Doumit is a middle of the order guy and could add 20 runs by hanging around for 130 games this year.  Defensively, this isn’t a strong group, being below average in team numbers (ERA, W-L PCT), fielding percentage, and being slightly mistake prone.  I’m not sure that Doumit will improve these numbers, but he’s the best Pirate against the running game and makes fewer mistakes than Robinson Diaz – who is NOT ready for the big leagues.

Infield:

Adam LaRoche is also gone – forgot to mention him in the selloff comment.  In his place might be Garrett Jones, who showed his slugging skills and wasn’t embarrassing at first base.  I don’t know that he’s going to be a huge step forward from LaRoche defensively, but you never know.  Jones hit 21 homers in 82 games – and a full season of that would be a huge step forward.  If not Jones, the Pirates may try Seattle prospect Jeff Clement there.  Clement has, at times, looked like the real deal in the minors but hasn’t put it all together in the bigs.  The Pirates would make immediate and big improvements if they would just move 2008 first round pick Pedro Alvarez here and call it good.

After Freddy Sanchez left, Delwyn Young took over and was a step back offensively and defensively.  Sanchez was creating about 5.5 runs per 27 outs; Young about 4.3.  Sanchez has slightly below average range (-3.9 plays per 800 balls in play), but Young was brutal (-10.2 per 800 balls in play).  To solve this problem, the Pirates picked up former Tampa Ray Akinora Iwamura.  Iwamura should be more like Sanchez in terms of range and batting.  Not playing Young is worth ten runs of offense.

Jack Wilson is gone and Ronny Cedeno is now the new shortstop.  Cedeno is a better fielder than Wilson these days – which could be worth ten runs over the course of a season – and was pretty much the same hitter.  Bobby Crosby arrives looking for a chance to play, but he’ll likely be a bench player for now.

Andy LaRoche finally got a shot at third base in the big leagues and proved to be a fantastic glove, but a league average hitter.  I like his chances of improving at the plate, however, now that he has a full season under his belt.

Looking forward, I see this team being about twenty runs better offensively and perhaps another twenty better defensively.  Unless, of course, Jeff Clement gets more playing time.  My fear is, in looking at the current depth chart, that Clement is going to get every chance at making the starting lineup.  If this happens, I’d go with no offensive improvement and only ten runs better defensively.

Outfield:

Wouldn’t it have been fun to see an outfield of, say, Jason Bay in left, Andrew McCutchen in center, and Nate McLouth in right?

Instead, McCutchen arrives as the full-time centerfielder.  He was a bit rough in the outfield last year, but he’ll be better – and he showed power, patience, and speed as an offensive force.  I like him a LOT.  And the other two guys are gone.

Garrett Jones will likely start in right field, which will be better than Brandon Moss offensively – but likely ten runs worse (or more) defensively.  Ryan Church is around, as is Moss.  Church used to be good until two nasty concussions clipped his 2008 season and likely affected his 2009 season.

In left, expect Lastings Milledge to get one last shot to make things work.  Milledge, to me, is the new Delmon Young.  He SHOULD be better, but is really nothing special.  Moss and Nyjer Morgan were great defenders and will be missed with this outfield.

I see the outfield being down this year – perhaps ten to twenty runs down offensively and twenty runs defensively.  If Milledge lives up to former top prospect expectations, it would help.  I just don’t buy it.

Prospects:

Well, the top pitchers in AAA (McCutchen, Morton, Vaszquez) are already in town.  Even Denny Bautista and Steven Jackson were given shots and didn’t take the world by storm.  The top AAA hitters are in Pittsburgh now, too.

Pedro Alvarez tore up AA playing for the Altoona Curve, hitting .333 with power.  He really needs to be on the Pirates now.  Gorkys Hernandez has great speed, and is 22 – but he needs to improve his OBP.  Jose Tabata, 21, is close to making it – he hit well enough at Altoona to get moved up to Indianapolis.  Not much power, better OBP than Hernandez with good contact skills, and decent speed.  Just not sure he’ll be better than a fourth outfielder at this point.  I think he can play some, though.  If Ryan Church doesn’t stay healthy, Tabata will get a shot.

The best pitchers at Altoona was probably Brad Lincoln (some power, good control) but it was the only time he looked solid since being drafted out of the University of Houston in the first round (2006).  He shares a birthday with the author, though, so he’s on my radar…  Former first round pick Daniel Moskos (2007) has control, but doesn’t blow people away – 77Ks in 149 innings.

Moving to Lynchburg, top picks Jordy Mercer (3rd Round, 2008) and Chase D’Arnaud (4th Round, 2008) started to show signs of progress.  Mercer might develop some power, while D’Arnaud seems to have a more well rounded game.  Both outhit Alvarez at A+ ball, but neither are REALLY better hitters…  You’ll see that when they get to AA.

On the whole, it’s hard to see who is going to help the Pirates, other than Alvarez, in the next year or two.

Outlook:

If the Pirates were serious about this, they’d get Jones in the outfield, move Alvarez to first base and play him now, and let both McCutchens play as often as possible.  This isn’t going to happen this spring, and as such, the Pirates have to hope for minor improvements.  I see the team scoring about 670 runs and allowing 740.  That gets them to 73 wins, which would look great compared to the last five years.  However, with the Reds and Brewers likely improving – it might not get to 73.  It might barely get to 70…

Top NL Catchers

Unlike the guys who play between the baselines, determining the value of a catcher defensively is a much harder proposition for me.  I haven’t been able to translate defense into runs the way I have for all the other positions, but I AM able to look at the responsibilities of a catcher and determine what teams are benefiting more from good catching than others.  Here’s how I do it.

There are seven things for which a catcher would get credit as being solid defensively.  If the catchers for a team are above average in a category, they get a point.  If below average, they lose a point.  The top score is seven, the lowest score (obviously) would be -7.  Here are the categories:

W/L Percentage: Score a point for a winning record, take one away for being below .500.

Adjusted ERA: If the team’s staff has a better than league average ERA (4.21), score a point.

Mistakes Per Game: Essentially errors and passed balls are added up.  The norm is about .11 mistakes a game for AL catchers.  Score a point for doing better than that.  Otherwise, take one away.  The only time this is patently unfair is when a team has a knuckleballer – so this works against Boston right now.  But it’s just a single category and I tend to give that team the benefit of the doubt on that category.

Mobililty: Mobility is the total number of assists that aren’t tied to stolen bases and the number of putouts that aren’t strikeouts.  A good catcher blocks the plate and gets outs on throws home, or can race out of the crouch to snare bunts and make plays in the field.  In the AL, the average catcher made .38 plays requiring mobility.  Score a point for beating that number.

Fielding Percentage (not counting strikeouts):  I guess someone had to get credit for the putout when a batter strikes out.  Unfortunately, catching strike three isn’t really “fielding”.  So, I look at the fielding percentage after removing putouts for Ks.  The average catcher has a fielding percentage of about .914 on balls in play or when runners are trying to advance.  Beat it, and score a point.

Assists Per Game: These are assists NOT tied to stolen bases and is used to grade the catcher’s ability to make good throws.  The league average is .23 assists per game.

Stolen Base Percentage: Can a catcher hold the running game in check?  If so, score a point.  The league average is 73.6% – which is awfully high, don’t you think?

The best catcher (well, team of catchers) can score a seven – and it happens from time to time.  As it turns out, there was a seven in the NL in 2009 – and it was your St. Louis Cardinals led by the incredible Yadier Molina.  The Cardinals had a winning record, an adjusted ERA of 3.48, cut off the running game, made few errors, few mistakes in total, had great mobility, and had an above average number of assists not tied to stolen bases.

I’ll list the table here to show you where the catchers rank defensively and then discuss the nuts and bolts in the player comments below.

  M. ERA WPct SB% FPct-K MTK Mob. Asst Rank
NL AVG 4.21 0.500 71.2% 0.917 0.11 0.44 0.33 ***
ARI 4.03 0.432 76.1% 0.948 0.08 0.37 0.32 -1
ATL 3.77 0.531 67.8% 0.906 0.15 0.49 0.31 1
CHN 3.60 0.516 67.4% 0.879 0.14 0.50 0.34 3
CIN 4.23 0.481 62.7% 0.923 0.09 0.52 0.28 1
COL 3.76 0.568 81.0% 0.886 0.11 0.41 0.42 0
FLA 4.02 0.537 75.4% 0.971 0.07 0.35 0.29 1
HOU 4.71 0.457 69.1% 0.924 0.13 0.58 0.38 2
LAN 3.67 0.586 69.5% 0.914 0.09 0.41 0.37 3
MIL 5.12 0.494 79.6% 0.968 0.06 0.43 0.34 -1
NYN 4.58 0.432 66.0% 0.904 0.11 0.38 0.18 -4
PHI 4.10 0.574 72.0% 0.917 0.12 0.39 0.21 0
PIT 4.51 0.385 71.3% 0.883 0.18 0.44 0.39 -4
SDN 5.02 0.463 70.4% 0.891 0.16 0.45 0.29 -3
SFN 3.48 0.543 71.8% 0.911 0.12 0.37 0.42 -1
SLN 3.82 0.562 61.1% 0.943 0.07 0.54 0.42 7
WAS 4.98 0.364 70.1% 0.941 0.10 0.46 0.26 1

Catchers Ranked by Runs Created

Brian McCann (ATL):  Unlike the AL, where Joe Mauer is arguably as valuable as any player in the game, the NL doesn’t have even one catcher who can generate 100 runs of offense.  McCann has the ability to do it, but in 2009 fell a little short.  Not that anybody is complaining – he’s been a top flight catcher for a few years now…  Power, patience, hits for a good average (though not as high as two years ago).  McCann is such a good hitter that it might be worth it to move him to first base to save his bat before the grind catches up with him.  Backup Dave Ross was impressive against base stealers, nabbing 19 of 40 attempts.  (88.95 Runs Created)

Yadier Molina (STL):  A complete defensive package – only the best runners even DARE to run on him, and those are nabbed at a 40% rate.  As an offensive weapon, Molina almost hit .300 and worked his way on base about 36% of the time – very good offensive production for a catcher, too.  (72.22 Runs Created)

Miguel Montero (ARI):  Power, patience, decent batting average.  Granted – gets help by playing in Arizona, but would look good most anywhere.  Montero and Chris Snyder avoid mistakes, but aren’t all that good against the run – and the team generally underperformed (though it’s not their fault that Brandon Webb didn’t play except on Opening Day).  (66.14 Runs Created)

Russell Martin (LAD):  Years of playing every day likely contributed to Martin’s amazing loss of energy and power.  Still a solid defensive catcher – good against the run, his teams are very successful and the pitchers all look good.  He’s consistently the second best catcher in the NL – but now is a below average offensive run producer.  (65.19 Runs Created)

Bengie Molina (SF):  More power than most catchers, and a decent (if slightly above average) batting average.  Rarely walks, though, so his OBP is low (.291) which makes him a slightly below average offensive performer even with the power.  People can run on Bengie (and do) and he’s just below average in terms of his mobility and dependability.  Backup Eli Whiteside was great against the run.  In a year, Buster Posey will have this job.  Maybe sooner.  (61.7 Runs Created)

Miguel Olivo, recently of Kansas City and now in Colorado, would rank here.

John Baker (FLA):  He’s a decent enough hitter that Baker bats second in the lineup from time to time.  Good OBP, decent power.  His platoon mate, Ronny Paulino, also had a good season so the Marlins got a lot of production from this spot.  Both tend to be dependable, but not necessarily mobile – and Paulino threw well enough…  (50.26 Runs Created)

Jason Kendall (MIL):  Brings his lack of power and barely acceptable on base percentage with him to Kansas City.  To Kendall’s credit, the man is durable.  On the other hand, look how badly so many Brewers pitchers fared.  Look at the team ERA.  Sure, he doesn’t make mistakes, but baserunners were successful 80% of the time.  And the Royals didn’t want John Buck out there?   For 2010, the Brewers will try Greg Zaun, George Kottaras, and possibly rookie Angel Salome – who would be my first choice… (50.24 Runs Created)

Carlos Ruiz (PHI):  Not appreciably different than Baker – both had 9 homers, between 40 and 50 RBI, and virtually the same SLG and OBP.  Ruiz, Paul Bako, and Chris Coste provide ordinary, middle of the road defense.  How many teams has Paul Bako played for now?  (48.6 Runs Created)

Rod Barajas – just signed by the Mets – would rank here.

Chris Iannetta (COL):  His batting average was down (.228), but his power and OBP were still solid.  Shared the job with Yorvit Torrealba and now will share with Miguel Olivo.  Virtually everyone could run on Torrealba or third stringer Paul Phillips.  (41.42 Runs Created)

Ramon Hernandez (CIN):  I’d say this was a disappointing season for the veteran backstop – missed half the season due to injuries.  Power numbers fell off to five homers, the rest of his game is barely average.  Of course, Ryan Hanigan caught the most innings, but he’s not better with the bat (merely average at best).  Even third stringer Craig Tatum had a good year against base stealers and as a team, the Reds had pretty good catching defensively.  (40.10 Runs Created)

Nick Hundley (SD):  Had stats that his dad might have had…  Some power, a low batting average, but on the whole wasn’t too bad.  Has room to improve defensively – easy to run on and a bit mistake prone.  Henry Blanco was much better behind the plate, but you’d rather see Nick with the stick.  (39.18 Runs Created)

Geovany Soto (CHI):  Now THERE’S a sophomore slump.  Ouch.  Cut his homers in half (seemed like his batting average, too) – lost power and his OBP (.326).  Says that he’s going to come into spring training in better shape and also not have to deal with the World Baseball Classic.  For the Cubs sake, let’s hope so.  Defensively, his backup, Koyie Hill, looked stronger against the run, but as a team they were above average in five categories – so they ranked very highly.  (38.66 Runs Created)

Ivan Rodriguez (HOU):  Finished year in Texas, now catching for the Nationals.  His arm isn’t as good as it used to be, but it’s still solid.  Backup Humberto Quintero was even better, nabbing 12 of 25 would be base stealers.  I-Rod’s bat is gone, though.  As a prospect, J.R. Towles would appear to be finished, huh?  (36.46 Runs Created)

Ryan Doumit (PIT):  Missed time with injuries (most catchers do), didn’t have his best season offensively and, as such, fell far down the list.  As a team, Pirate catchers look bad – mistake prone, average against the run, with poor records and poor pitching ERAs.  Jason Jaramillo isn’t the answer either and hits like a backup catcher.  (34.97 Runs Created)

Omir Santos (NYM):  Forced into more playing time than planned, Santos was tolerable.  Slightly below average as a hitter – like many of the people on this list – Santos played when (a) Brian Schneider couldn’t keep his back and knees healthy and then (b) Ramon Castro got sent to the White Sox.  On the whole, Santos didn’t look very mobile and Schneider certainly is more polished.  But, the Mets catching as a whole looked off – below average results for pitchers and the team, a few too many mistakes…  (34.20 Runs Created)

Ronny Paulino, discussed above, would rank here in offensive production – not bad for the right handed partner of a very effective Marlins platoon.  (32.41 Runs Created)

Ryan Hanigan, the Reds catcher, got more innings than Hernandez, but a few less at bats.  Good glove, a little bat kind of a guy.

Josh Bard (WAS)  Got more innings than Wil Nieves or the injured Jesus Flores, Bard has some skills and was probably glad to not have to catch a knuckler…  Doesn’t hit or get on base, and is power is marginal at best.  (29.03 Runs Created)

Yorvit Torrealba (COL)  Suffered through the kidnapping of his son, which – fortunately for all – ended without incident.  Hit .305 with a decent OBA…  Brutal against the run (8 out of 57 baserunners) but made fewer errors than Iannetta.  (25.95 Runs Created)

Koyie Kill (CHC):  Not much of a hitter – but can still throw some.  (23.94 Runs Created)

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.