Opening Day: The Best Day of the Year

Opening Day in Major League Baseball is my favorite day of the year – and this one had plenty of highlights that suggest that 2011 could be as exciting a season as can be imagined.

  • Red catcher Ramon Hernandez hits a three-run, game-winning homer to beat the Milwaukee Brewers – an at bat that happened, in part, because Brandon Phillips emulated Chad Ochocinco to avoid a Casey McGehee tag two batters earlier.   (McGehee claimed that Phillips left the baseline, but replays suggest the juke was legit.)
  • Jason Heyward launched a season starting homer for the second straight season.
  • Cameron Maybin, newly acquired centerfielder for the Padres, launched a game-tying two-out homer in the ninth, allowing San Diego to trip up the Cardinals in extra-innings.  Albert Pujols didn’t help the cause, becoming the first player to ground into three double plays on Opening Day.
  • The night ended with a remarkable pitcher’s duel between two young guns.  Los Angeles Dodger Clayton Kershaw outdueled San Francisco Giant Tim Lincecum to give Don Mattingly his first managerial victory.

If you didn’t enjoy those games, then you just don’t like Baseball

Transaction Wire:

Nearly everything over the last day or two had to do with decisions on whether or not to put some player on the DL for various knicks, pulls, and injuries.  Those getting to miss the fun for at least a week or so include Jason Bay, Brandon Webb (still), J.P. Howell, Tommy Hunter, Scott Feldman, Cody Ross, Johan Santana, Aaron Cook, Scott Olsen, Brian Wilson, Clint Barmes, Corey Patterson, Brandon Morrow, Frank Francisco, Homer Bailey, Brad Lidge, Chase Utley, Dayan Viciedo, Domonic Brown, David Aardsma, Franklin Gutierrez, Jake Peavy, Johnny Cueto, John Baker, Geoff Blum, Zach Duke, Jason Kendall, Francisco Cervelli, and Andrew Bailey.  (There are plenty of others, and if you have a fantasy baseball team, you are aware of many of these guys…

A new DL move, Giants outfielder Aaron Rowand was listed for today – Rowand has a fractured cheekbone.

Ronny Paulino has a few days left on his steroids suspension, so the Mets placed him on the restricted list.

A couple of days ago, the Phillies had signed Luis Castillo as an insurance policy while Chase Utley allows his troublesome left knee to heal.  That didn’t work out (Castillo is relatively immobile these days and his bat hasn’t been healthy for at least four months now), so the Phillies signed Ronnie Belliard.  Belliard, who turns 36 next Thursday, had an unimpressive season as a utiltiy infielder and pinch hitter for the Dodgers in 2010 (2 – 19 -.216) and a weak spring for the Yankees (.136 in 22 at bats), so this may be his last couple of months in the big leagues unless he can get a few clutch hits.

The Arizona Diamondbacks, seeing that shortstop Stephen Drew wasn’t 100% for opening day, signed former Mariner glove man Josh Wilson.  Wilson isn’t a bad guy to have around, but don’t count on him to hit like Drew can.

On the MLB Drama Network

Not sure if you are following the Barry Bonds trial, but we now have a handful of players who all admitted that they used steroids provided by Greg Anderson, Bonds’ personal trainer who is sitting in jail for his unwillingness to discuss the number of needles he put in Bond’s belly and butt.  Some of them admitted that they did because of the success Bonds was having since hiring Anderson to build up his physique.  A former personal shopper for Bonds says she saw Anderson give Bonds a shot in his belly button (ouch!), something Bonds told her was “…a little something for the road.”

Not that I am plugging my book (but I am):

Today is the day that Rube Waddell died, the result of a long fight against Tuberculosis, a major killer of men and women 100 years ago.  Waddell died in 1914 while convalescing in a San Antonio nursing home.  At the time of his death, he weighed at least 60 pounds less than his playing weight, 210.

Happy Birthday!

Among those celebrating with cake, cards, or remembrances are…

Ron Perranoski (1936) – Dodger pitcher and pitching coach
Phil Niekro (1939) – greatest knuckleball pitcher ever
Rusty Staub (1944) – Le Grande Orange, and one of my favorite players as a kid
Willie Montanez (1948)
Frank Castillo (1969)
Matt Herges (1970)
Will Rhymes (1983)
John Axford (1983) – who gave up that homer to Ramon Hernandez yesterday (ouch)
Daniel Murphy (1985)

2011 Season Forecast: Kansas City Royals

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

Last winning season?  2003

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

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

Season Recap:

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

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

Starters:

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

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

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

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

Relievers:

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

Catching:

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

Infielders:

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

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

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

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

Outfielders:

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

DH:

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

Down on the Farm:

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

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

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

2011 Prediction:

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

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

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

2010 – Top AL Catchers

Joe Mauer (MIN) – 99.3 runs created

Mauer wasn’t 100%, but he’s still amazing.  Defensively, he has few peers and offensively he’s a solid #3 hitter.  His power was off – just nine homers – and his batting average fell with the league, but he remained a threat to win the batting title.  Backup Drew Butera was solid, too – cutting down 43% of would be base stealers.  Of course, Butera hits like Sal Butera – which isn’t very good.

Victor Martinez (BOS) – 83.4 runs created

Martinez and Jason Varitek remained solid as a team behind the plate, being way below average against the run (80% success rate and 169 stolen bases allowed) and not necessarily being that mobile – though who really bunts against the Sox, anyway.  Martinez hit well here, batting .302 with 20 homers, and Varitek had surprisingly good power in limited plate appearances.  Martinez is gone now, leaving Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jason Varitek as top options, which will hurt the Sox offensively in 2011.  Saltalamacchia has never hit that well – and Varitek isn’t going to hit .275 anytime soon.  Let’s hope that Salty has beaten his phobia of throwing back to the pitcher…

Mike Napoli (LAA) 73.1 runs created

Jeff Mathis is supposedly the stronger defensive catcher – but Napoli was actually better against the run and made slightly fewer mistakes.  Mathis is definitely a cleaner catcher – far more mobile, but not a world beater with the bat.  Bobby Wilson got 29 starts and wasn’t awful, didn’t impress me with either his mobility or arm, but he might be able to hit a little.  As a group, they were well below average and partly to blame for not winning the division in 2010.  Offensively, Mike Napoli has power and produces runs, and held down first base when Kendry Morales went down to that freak broken leg.  Mathis hit like Lou Marson (see below) in fewer at bats.  Will Hank Conger win the job in spring training?

John Buck (TOR) – 61.7 runs created

Now a Marlin, John Buck was dependable, decent against the run, didn’t make too many errors, and generally mobile.  The pitching was surprisingly good and Toronto had a winning record.  Defensively, for this position, it was a lot of positives.  Backup Jose Molina was awesome against the run (44% caught stealing), and Buck was pretty good.  Rookie J.P. Arencibia gets the nod for 2011, and he didn’t look so bad either.  By the way, Buck had his best offensive season, too – hitting .281 and slugging 20 homers.  His weakness?  He doesn’t walk at all.

Jorge Posada/Francisco Cervelli (NYY) – 57.9 runs created

Innings split nearly down the middle, Posada is aging (he doesn’t LOOK old, but he’s playing old), but Cervelli isn’t the answer either.  Neither can stop the run, though Cervelli is younger and, therefore, more mobile.  The pitching isn’t happy with the catching either.  As a hitter, Cervelli is learning, and marginally below average, but not awful; he also isn’t seen as the next Yogi Berra either.  Posada did what we would have expected to do – which is lose a little in his batting average, though he still gets on base and hits for some power.  Jesus Montero will have this job as soon as he is ready.

Kurt Suzuki (OAK) – 57.1 runs created

Suzuki remains a decent catcher, though he’s not very good against the run anymore.  Backup Landon Powell is better against the run, but needs to remove some of his mistakes – which will come with time.  As a duo, they weren’t very good – not very mobile, and slightly above average in terms of making mistakes.  Suzuki still hits a little, but it’s a little less and he’s now below average.  He’s still better than Landon Powell.

John Jaso (TB) – 54.2 runs created

Jaso is young and gets on base – much like his Florida Marlins counterpart, John Baker.  In fact, he got on base enough that Joe Maddon let him bat leadoff from time to time.  Dioner Navarro is the best catcher of this group, but his weight is problematic and he isn’t hitting.  Kelly Shoppach doesn’t look like he’ll be in the league very long and should start brushing up on his coaching skills instead.

A.J. Pierzynski (CHISOX) – 52.4 runs created

Pierzynski is starting to get old, but he’s a good kind of old – just good enough against the run, few mistakes, and keeping the pitching staff on point – though he has a good set of pitchers to work with.  His offense fell off to where his power slipped and his OBP is woeful (.301).  Backup Ramon Castro isn’t half bad, and the man can hit (.278/.504/.331).  He could easily be a DH if the Sox wanted, and I’d be tempted to let him play more.

Matt Wieters (BAL) – 51.4 runs created

The Orioles future is now with Matt Wieters assuming the starting role full time.  As a team, Oriole catching rates as slightly above average, with the young Wieters being mobile, and making few errors or passed balls.  The TEAM was below average in terms of the stolen base percentage, but Wieters wasn’t the problem, nabbing 24 of 77 runners.  Craig Tatum was horrible here, allowing 25 of 27 runners to reach the next base.  Offensively, Wieters didn’t amaze as we had been led to believe, but there were a few positives, including 11 homers in 446 at bats.  I think he’s going to be better.  Tatum had a nice batting average (.281), but he didn’t do much with those singles.

Jason Kendall (KC) – 43.6 runs created

You want to know why the Royals are never going to win?  Who was responsible for letting John Buck go to Toronto (where Toronto suddenly had the best overall catching in the league), and replacing him with the ancient, impotent, and immobile Jason Kendall?  Kendall can still throw a little, but the rest of his game is lacking.  Brayan Pena should have been given this job from the outset.  Pena is a better hitter, a better athlete, and has upside.

Alex Avila/Gerald Laird (DET) – 32.3 runs created

Laird is a really good catcher with solid skills, good with pitchers, good against the run, relatively mistake free.  Avila is nearly his equal and played 86 more innings.  Neither hit – but Avila was closer to league average than Laird, who seems to have lost his bat altogether – explaining why Avila got more time behind the plate.  If Avila can step up a bit – maybe .260 and slugging .400 – this would be a positive.  He’ll be a backup, though, as Victor Martinez will take on a load of catching in 2011.

Lou Marson (CLE) – 22.4 runs created

As a team, Indian catchers were average – but the young guys were good in terms of avoiding mistakes and making the throws.  The veteran backup, Mike Redmond, struggled against baserunners (see Craig Tatum, BAL, above).  I’ve always been a Marson fan, but if his bat doesn’t improve soon (.195 with no power), he’ll become the new Paul Bako.  You think the Indians miss Victor Martinez?

Matt Treanor/Bengie Molina (TEX) – 20.5 runs created

A few years ago, it looked like Texas had all the good young catchers.  Saltalamacchia is gone, Taylor Teagarden has been disappointing, Max Ramirez isn’t the answer yet, leaving veteran Matt Treanor as the best of the lot.  It was so bad, the Rangers imported Bengie Molina from the Giants down the stretch, and he wasn’t much better than Treanor – though he was more mobile.  Nobody hit here, so the addition of Mike Napoli and Yorvit Torrealba will help immensely.

Adam Moore/Rob Johnson (SEA) – 14.9 runs created

Josh Bard got 300 innings, too – nobody had more than 515 innings at the position in 2010.  Moore wasn’t very good against the run and he isn’t very mobile.  If he has room to grow, that’s news to me.  Rob Johnson was good against the run and more mobile, but his health record looks like Medicare’s worst nightmare.  Bard can catch, but that’s about it.  As a team, among the worst catching in the league.  Only Bard hit above .200, and he hit .214.  Not good at all…

2010 Season Forecast: Kansas City Royals

Last Five Seasons:

2009:  65 –  97 (Tied for last in AL Central)
2008:  75 –  87
2007:  69 –  93
2006:  62 – 100
2005:  56 – 106

Runs Scored: 686 – 13th in the AL
Runs Allowed: 842 – 12th in the AL

The pitching of Cleveland meets the offense of Seattle.

2009 Season in Review:

Trey Hillman was able to ride the success of Zach Greinke only so far – and the lack of production at too many offensive positions combined with some poor starting pitching meant that Greinke’s success meant avoiding 100 losses (again).

Did you know that after beating Seattle 3 – 1 on May 7th, the Royals were 18 – 11 and leading the AL Central?  A losing streak kicked off and by May 25th, the Royals fell under .500 at 22 – 23.  That means that Kansas City went 47 – 86 after that hot start…

Fun stat: Royals cleanup hitters hit .211, slugged .315, and had a .280 OBP.  There are players who slug .600 – but the Royals clean up hitters didn’t ADD UP to that number.  Ouch.

Starting Pitching:

Zack Greinke had the best season for a starter in a LONG time…  Gil Meche isn’t a horrible second starter, despite the big paycheck, though he is showing signs of being more frail than first thought.  Kyle Davies can’t be a long term pitcher unless he learns to strike people out.  And he’s not even as good as another no-K pitcher, Brian Bannister.  Luke Hochevar occasionally shows signs of being a really good AAA starter and will be in the rotation.  Guys like Davies and Bannister need air-tight defenses to be successful but do you see any really good fielders below?  The Royals need to stop trying things like giving chances to Sidney Ponson…

Relief Pitching:

Closer Joakim Soria is the real deal – gets outs, keeps people off the bases.  They had one guy who was surprisingly good (Robinson Tejada) and another who was surprisingly bad (Yasuhiko Yabuta), and a bunch of guys who didn’t matter (Kyle Farnsworth, Juan Cruz, John Bale, Roman Colon, Bruce Chen).

Catching:

Replacing Miguel Olivo and John Buck with Jason Kendall, who comes over after signing a two-year deal.  I get that Olivo is rather error prone and Buck isn’t a budding all-star.  But they put 80 runs on the board (combined) and are far, far younger than Jason Kendall, who is better defensively but only puts 50 runs on the board in a season.  And that’s giving Kendall the benefit of the doubt, because if you went by handling the staff, nobody wants the lack of production found in the Milwaukee pitching staff.

Infield:

Billy Butler is a very good hitter who may one day become comfortable playing first base.  Chris Getz comes over to play second base from the White Sox where he proved nothing as a hitter but is about 15 runs better defensively than Alberto Callaspo.  Callaspo can hit, though, so he will likely play somewhere.  You’d love for Mike Aviles to come back – working through back injuries (among other problems), Aviles went from Rookie of the Year to Mario Mendoza and that won’t help managers.  At short, the Royals are trying Yuniesky Betancourt, who isn’t going to help the Royals offensively or defensively.  He’s just sort of there.  Alex Gordon was once projected to be a star isn’t, and Mark Teahen – who can and did play everywhere and contributed a little bit offensively – is now with the White Sox.  Another former Royal?  Mike Jacobs played himself out of a job at first.  Does anyone other than me think that Kila Ka’aihue isn’t given a real chance, rather than spending good money on Mike Jacobs?

Outfield:

Signing Coco Crisp for the 2009 season was a bit of a nightmare, especially watching his salary get spent on the DL and his on-field production falling off.  Mitch Maier got a few innings and plays hard if not productively.  He’s Dave Martinez (some old Cub fans might remember him) at this point, and not quite that good.  David DeJesus is a pretty good outfielder and a pretty good hitter – a poor man’s Carl Crawford.  Jose Guillen not only underperformed at the plate but is a liability defensively in right field.  Looking forward, the team paid good money for a fading and ineffective (and now add injury prone) Rick Ankiel, and added White Sox outfielder Scott Podsednik, who is Juan Pierre with a bit better arm.  Willie Bloomquist returns as a fourth/fifth outfielder.

Down on the Farm:

Kila Ka’aihue could be a prospect – but another year at AAA wasn’t as good.  He’s 25 and wasted in this organization.  Brayan Pena is close to being ready as a catcher, hitting .307 in limited time at Omaha – and he’s also getting old for a prospect (28 in 2010).  The best pitcher, Luke Hochevar, isn’t ready for the big leagues yet but the Royals don’t have better options right now.

The best pitchers at AA Northwest Arkansas are relivers Chris Nicoll (7 – 0, but a bit wild and his ERA was 3.50) or either Greg Holland or Aaron Hartsock.  Former 2nd round pick, Jeff Bianchi, showed signs of putting his career together, hitting .300 at A+ Wilmington and .315 with a little power and speed at AA.  I like David Lough even more – and he’s just 23.  More power, better batting average, fewer years in the system.  He’ll be in the outfield soon enough.

Danny Duffy, a twenty-year-old fire baller, had a solid run at A+ Wilmington, and teen Mike Montgomery will be on the Royals staff by the end of 2010 if not 2011’s Opening Day roster.  Both have control, good K/9 ratios, and winning records.  They’re just too young right now.

Looking Ahead to 2010:

Can this really be a better team in 2010 than 2009?  Does the pitching look better this year?  It’s the same rotation hoping that Greinke is still this good.  If he comes down to earth to where he’s just ordinary good, that’s a loss of 35 runs on the defensive side.  The bullpen isn’t deeper.  The catching has gotten older and Kendall is going to lose his reputation for game management if he has another off year with a staff.

Then you look at the lineup.  They’ve gotten 30 runs worse at catcher.  They could be 20 runs better in the outfield (Podsednik instead of Crisp/Maier in the outfield), but the infield isn’t getting better because if Aviles comes back he’s just being as good as Teahen and Getz isn’t going to hit.  Defensively, this is a poor infield – nobody can field for them.

I have a hard time seeing the Royals as better – and they may be worse.  The staff will likely allow about 875 runs and the offense will be lucky to score 700 runs unless (a) the Royals let Brayan Pena catch and (b) Aviles hits like he did in 2008 and (c) Jose Guillen does SOMETHING.  You never know.  As such, I see the team winning about 63 games.  Another long season in KC – and another three to five year plan will likely have to start in 2011.

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)

Top AL Catchers in 2009

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 (4.43), 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 AL in 2009 – and it was your Detroit Tigers led by Gerald Laird.  The Tigers had a winning record, an adjusted ERA of 4.26, 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.

ERA WPct SB% FPct-K MTK/G Mobility Asst/G Rank
AL AVG 4.43 .500 73.6% 0.914 0.11 0.38 0.23 ***
BAL 5.05 .395 78.3% 0.918 0.10 0.50 0.16 -1
BOS 4.20 .586 86.8% 0.925 0.10 0.47 0.20 3
CHA 4.02 .488 75.9% 0.899 0.09 0.18 0.11 -3
CLE 5.50 .401 77.1% 0.948 0.09 0.36 0.21 -3
DET 4.26 .528 63.8% 0.975 0.10 0.43 0.30 7
KCA 4.57 .401 74.5% 0.873 0.17 0.45 0.18 -5
LAA 4.41 .599 76.6% 0.875 0.14 0.41 0.43 1
MIN 4.28 .534 77.0% 0.933 0.12 0.32 0.10 -1
NYA 4.34 .636 70.6% 0.925 0.10 0.37 0.25 5
OAK 4.32 .463 70.8% 0.922 0.08 0.35 0.27 3
SEA 3.98 .525 60.4% 0.935 0.13 0.35 0.27 3
TBA 4.33 .519 76.3% 0.905 0.09 0.37 0.23 0
TEX 4.20 .537 69.7% 0.858 0.15 0.34 0.17 -1
TOR 4.61 .463 65.9% 0.911 0.13 0.41 0.32 -1

Joe Mauer (MIN):  Hands down the best catcher in baseball, wouldn’t you think?  An offensive force who chose to try and take advantage of hitter’s counts and blasted his way to creating 131.6 runs.  Last year, Mauer wasn’t as dominating against the run, but he still did a few good things.  His backups, Mike Redmond and Jose Morales can contribute.  Both can hit a little and catch enough – but had limits.  Redmond struggled against baserunners, who were successful 35 out of 40 times, while Morales had 5 passed balls and 3 errors in just 183 innings.

Victor Martinez (CLE/BOS):  A remarkable hitter who bounced back from an unproductive and injury riddled 2008 to hit 23 homers, drive in 108 runs, and generate 108.8 runs of offense.  His catching skills don’t match his offensive numbers – easy to run on, not exceptionally mobile.  And, when asked to play first base, shows his lack of mobility there.  Still, he’s 30 runs better than any other catcher offensively, you can live with the rest of it most days.

Kurt Suzuki (OAK):  Would you have guessed he was the third most productive offensive catcher?  Mid range power and average, can run some (78.45 Runs Created) and his stats aren’t helped any by playing in Oakland.  Plays a lot of innings.  Not great against the run and his teams haven’t been remarkably successful, but don’t blame this guy.  Oakland’s catchers scored at 3 points, which is five above average counters, and just missing on mobility and the team’s winning percentage.  He’s a great catcher.

Jorge Posada (NYY):  Still a very productive player (74.98 Runs Created).  Good power, good batting average, and patient at the plate.  Defensively, Posada found some of his youth.  His backups, Jose Molina (now in Toronto) and Francisco Cervelli may not hit like Jorge, but they are more than his equal defensively – a nice thing for the Yankees to have.  Overall, the team ranked at +5 – six above average categories and just missed the league average for mobility.  Cervelli was great against the run – gunning down 10 of 23 runners.

A.J. Pierzynski (CWS):  Hit .300 but his power numbers were down a bit.  Contributes with the bat (69.22 Runs Created), but his defense is not helping out.  Not very mobile, makes a few too many mistakes, and the team fell below .500.  The final tally was -3, which means that only the team’s ERA and the total mistakes per game numbers were above average.  Everything else was not.  Ramon Castro was #2 last year, and he isn’t known for his defense either (though he threw well in 2009).

Mike Napoli (LAA):  An impressive hitter – power, patience, hit .272.  His backup, Jeff Mathis, is the glove wizard.  The net is a very productive combination.  Slightly above average catching (+1) and above average hitting.

Miguel Olivo (KCA):  Hits for power, but doesn’t get on base (53.59).  Has a strong throwing arm, but doesn’t always get the ball where he was aiming.  Makes an awful lot of mistakes, and for a guy who looks lean, isn’t very mobile.  Royals catching was well below average (-5) because John Buck couldn’t throw people out and even though he’s less mistake prone, EVERYBODY is less mistake prone than Olivo.  In 2010, both Olivo and Buck will be gone.  Olivo is in Colorado, where if he gets off to a hot start might hit 30 homers and make 15 errors…  Buck is in Toronto.

Jason Kendall, who inherits this job, would rank in this spot offensively and I don’t believe that things are going to improve that much defensively.  You never know.

Matt Wieters (BAL):  In two years, he may be the guy challenging Joe Mauer for the top rung.  For now, he’s got work to do. A good hitter (.288, .412 slugging – 49.04 Runs Created) and not horrible catching (-1 as a team), I like where Baltimore is heading here.  Gregg Zaun is gone, so Chad Moeller can back things up himself.  Moeller didn’t throw anybody out trying to steal, though.  Okay, two people, but that’s it.  Maybe they can sign Paul Bako to teach Wieters a few tricks.

Rod Barajas (TOR):  His batting average tanked to .226, but his power numbers were up (46.99 Runs Created).  I think Toronto would miss Barajas, but Raul Chavez was equally good at shutting down the running game and not horribly error prone.  Chavez is also more mobile these days and offensively they were a wash.  Chavez is cheaper, though…  The 2010 Blue Jays have only one catcher on the 40 man roster, Royals vet John Buck.  After that, it’s non-roster invites like Chavez, Jose Molina and former first round pick J.P. Arencibia.  Arencibia, out of Tennessee, has good power and some skills, but right now looks like he’d have Barajas’ batting numbers.

Before I let this get away, John Buck wasn’t horrible last year.  Defensively, as mentioned, he was stronger than Olivo but everyone focused on Olivo’s homers and so he got to play more.  Buck hits for some power and, per 27 outs, was actually more productive hitting than Olivo because he gets on base more often.  I’m NOT suggesting that Buck is a hidden all star, but rather that if he got 450 at bats and kept his batting average around .240 rather than .220, he would probably help a team more often than not.

Jason Varitek (BOS):  Now Victor Martinez’s job.  Varitek started out okay and just faded to 14 – 51 – .209 (43.3 Runs Created).  His slugging and OBP numbers aren’t very good either.  ‘Tek also allowed 87% of the runners to steal – 108 successes against 16 runners gunned down.  Martinez and George Kottaras weren’t any better (Martinez was worse in Boston, about the same if you combine his days in Cleveland).  Martinez is going to help score runs in Boston, but I think the pitchers might miss Varitek.  The young Varitek anyway…

Gerald Laird (DET):  Didn’t get the lion’s share of the credit for Detroit’s comeback season because as a hitter, he’s not one.  Creating just 41.3 runs with his .225 batting average and .320 slugging percentage, nobody’s putting Laird on their fantasy team if they can help it.  But he was solid as a defensive stopper – above average in all seven categories and only Kenji Johjima was harder to run on.  Laird tossed out more than 40% of all runners.

Kelly Shoppach (CLE):  Did I read that right?  Shoppach was hit 18 times by pitches?  What did he do???  As a hitter, he strikes out WAY too much (39.77 Runs Created).  He’s better defensively than Victor Martinez was, but that’s like saying I’m taller than my seven-year-old.  He was a bit more mistake prone, but better against the run and much more mobile.  Lou Marson, the former Phillies prospect, will get every chance to win the job and I gather he will.  Marson will hit in the 280s with medium power and some patience.  And, he can throw, too.  Oddly enough, in terms of total production, Shoppach was better in Cleveland than Victor Martinez because if you count everything, you have to include Victor’s lack of defense at first base.

Dioner Navarro (TB):  After such a nice 2008, Navarro crashed and burned in 2009.  His batting average fell to .218, his power was gone, and he doesn’t get on base in other ways so that was a big zilch at the end of the lineup (32.63 Runs Created).  His reputation against the running game may have stopped more people than actually stole bases – the numbers show him to be league average and in the seven categories, Tampa scored ZERO – just as many above average categories than below average categories.  The team says they want Navarro to come into camp lighter, so check the Diamond Notes in the spring.

Kenji Johjima (SEA):  Back in Japan – his batting average and playing time fell off (despite being more productive per 27 outs than many of the guys ahead of him – the net was just 29.91 Runs Created).  Defensively, he and Rob Johnson weren’t too bad – just a few too many mistakes and marginal mobility.

Rob Johnson, who – like Grady Sizemore – had surgeries over two-thirds of his body in the offseason, comes into 2010 as the odds-on starter.  And yet Johnson wasn’t all that solid, generating just 25.2 runs while being a slightly above average catcher (compared to Johjima, who was awesome).

Jarrod Saltalamacchia (TEX):  He needed to have a big season with Laird gone and Teagarden coming up behind him and it didn’t happen.  Salty wasn’t horrible defensively but Teagarden is better – better against the run and more mobile.  As a hitter, Saltalamacchia didn’t cut it – just 29.3 runs created with an OBP under .300 and the SLG under .375.  If it was .320 and .425, he’d be hard to replace.

As it was, Taylor Teagarden hit worse than Saltalamacchia, generating 19.3 runs in his 200+ plate appearances.  So, Teagarden’s chance may have passed as well – meaning Max Ramirez may wind up the starting catcher.  The only problem with that is that even Ramirez didn’t hit in AAA last year – batting just .234 with a .336 SLG in Oklahoma City.  The Rangers THOUGHT they had the position locked down two years ago, and now Laird is gone and nobody has really stepped forward.  I think Saltalamacchia, because he’s likely the better hitter of the group, will eventually take over for good.

Final Thoughts…  You want to know how valuable Joe Mauer is?  Look at how many catchers generate barely 50 runs of offense and realize that Mauer is 80 to 90 runs better than that.  AND, he’s a great catcher.  He was easily the most valuable player in the AL last year and will deserve whatever monster five or six year deal he can get.

2010 Season Forecast: Milwaukee Brewers

Last Five Seasons:

2009: 80 – 82 (3rd, NL Central)
2008: 90 – 72
2007: 83 – 79
2006: 75 – 87
2005: 81 – 81

Runs Scored: 785  (3rd, NL)
Runs Allowed: 818  (15th, NL)

Season Recap:

Generally a .500 team as their hitting kept pace with their poor pitching…  The Brewers got a hot run in May, winning 14 of 17 to make a run to the top of the division, but gradually fell back to .500 by mid August and a bit below it in September.  They lost Rickie Weeks to a wrist injury in May, but found ways to work around it.  J.J. Hardy’s bat got lost in the summer, but the Brewers had a way around that in Alcides Escobar.  The Brewers battered opposing pitchers with above average performers in at least six spots in the lineup on a daily basis.

What they couldn’t get around was their pitching – four starters with ERAs between 5.22 and 6.38.  They tried Mike Burns (a prospect four years ago) and his ERA (5.75) fit right in there.  Carlos Villanueva had a few spot starts and his ERA was 5.34, too.  The bullpen was tolerable – Trevor Hoffman was remarkably solid and Todd Coffey did a great job, but the rest were rather middling.

Defensively, the Brewers had two holes – first base and right field.  That both were REALLY poor suggests that there might be a statistical bias, however Milwaukee had only one lefty starter and he worked just 140 innings.  Granted – the righties on the staff don’t blow you away with fastballs either.  The Brewers third basemen, as a group, were above average – but not MORE above average than Prince Fielder was below average.  And the Brewers left fielder, Ryan Braun, was merely league average while Corey Hart was well below average.  As a team, the Brewers turned fewer balls in play into outs than the average NL team and the middle infielders didn’t help out by turning two often enough either.

2010 Goals:

As I read it, the Brewers need to shore up the starting rotation, see if Alcides Escobar is the real deal, and hope that Corey Hart is more mobile in 2010 than he was last year.  If Prince Fielder could lose 20 pounds, it might help, too.  I’d worry about the long term viability of Trevor Hoffman as a closer – but he was so good last year it’s hard to think that this is the year he falls off the map.  However, Hoffman is 42 now and the end could come at any time.

Pitchers:

In 2009, the Brewers had one pretty good starter in Yovani Gallardo, who went 13 – 12 with a 3.73 ERA.  By my count, he was about ten and half runs better than the average starter in his 185.2 innings.  That makes him a solid #2 guy in any rotation.  And so ends the good news.  Braden Looper cost the team 33 runs (14 – 7, 5.22 ERA), Jeff Suppan cost them 31 more, David Bush 32 in just 114.1 innings, and Manny Parra cost the Brewers 44 runs in his 140 innings.  The four guys (other than Gallardo) were 140 runs worse than the average pitcher – and that has to be fixed.

In the off season, the Brewers added Randy Wolf from LA – he had his best season in 2009, but has been around league average (up and down) since 2006.  He doesn’t have to blow the league away, but if he could give the Brewers 200 innings of league average pitching, he’d immediately save the team 50 runs.  Another signing was Doug Davis – a former Brewer – who has been an above average starter for the last three years.  Again – 180 innings at league average would be worth 35 runs in savings.  If Claudio Vargas can return to the rotation, or if Manny Parra can stop walking guys and getting in unnecessary trouble, there are two other chances (a little less dependable chances) that the team could save 30 more runs.

The bullpen may need help.  I like moving Bush to the bullpen.  If Vargas stays in the pen, that would help.  Trevor Hoffman is getting old, and Todd Coffey exceeded expectations.  I see this group actually taking a step back in 2010 – maybe 20 runs worse than last year.

Catchers:

Out is Jason Kendall, who last year was a tolerable catcher though a bit easy to run on, and a miserable offensive player.  In his place for 2010 is Gregg Zaun, who is nearing 40, George Kotteras, and rookie Angel Colome, who battered pitching at Huntsville in 2008 and was decent, though not great, at Nashville last year.  Baseball America named Colome as the Brewers’ #5 prospect last year.  At best this is a wash.

Infield:

This is a pretty good group.  Prince Fielder is an offensive machine and a defensive liability.  The net, though, is one of the better players in baseball.  Around the horn, Weeks, Escobar, and Casey McGehee were solid and all will contribute with the bat some.  If Escobar lives up to the hype (and he was solid in 2009’s call up), he might add a few runs offensively and remove a few defensively compared to J.J. Hardy.  At worst, he’s a wash.  Waiting in the wings is #2 prospect Mat Gamel, who was drafted five years ago and if he’s going to make a splash, better get on the diving board soon.  Gamel plays third or first – but with Fielder there, would likely push McGehee for his job.

Outfield:

Ryan Braun remains a triple crown threat, and Corey Hart needs to bounce back.  Hart’s season was marred by injuries which may have contributed to his range falling off the map.  He’s got some power, but his batting average has fallen each year since breaking out in 2007.  Mike Cameron, still a productive outfielder and rangy centerfielder, is gone having landed in Boston.  In his place is former Twins and Mets prospect Carlos Gomez.  Gomez can run down flies like Cameron, but has yet to prove himself as an offensive producer.  If Gomez shows improvement and Hart bounces back, this won’t necessarily be an improvement but it won’t be a loss either.  My gut tells me that Gomez won’t ever produce like Cameron did last year, and that the Crew will be looking for a new centerfielder in 2011.

Bench:

Remains strong – Jody Gerut is a dependable fourth or fifth outfielder.  Hernan Iribarren and Craig Counsell are still here and producing.  Prospect Lorenzo Cain will get a look in the outfield.  Heck, if the Brewers get really stuck, they could play Weeks in the outfield if necessary.  Zaun and Kotteras will be good backup catchers.

Prospects:

I like Chris Cody, a pitcher in Huntsville last year, who showed some promise and was promoted to AAA Nashville mid-season.  He’s not ready, but he might have a shot in 2011.  Mike Burns was the best AAA pitcher last year, but didn’t look overly impressive in 2009 with the Brewers and he’s not a prospect…  Chris Smith (2 – 0, 17 saves, 1.27 ERA) could be the closer in waiting.  He fanned 49 and walked just 6, in 42.2 innings.  Brett Lawrie moved up quickly to AA after showing power, discipline, a little speed – and just turned 20.  In a couple of years, check back on the progress of Amaury Rivas and Evan Anundsen, who pitched well for Brevard County (A+) in the Florida State League.  Rivas, at 23, has been working his way up slowly through the minors.  Anundsen was drafted out of high school in 2006 and looks to be turning the corner.  Another interesting guy is Eric Farris, a BURNER out of Loyola Marymount, who is a bit of a slap hitter, but stole 70 bases in 76 tries at Brevard County.  His teammate Caleb Gindl is a decent outfielder with some power and speed and is making his mark.  We’ll see him in 2012 or 2013.

Outlook:

On the whole, I think the Brewers will contend for the NL Central.  I’m guessing they score about 760 runs or thereabouts, but more importantly, cut the runs allowed number to a more respectable 700.  That would work out to 88 wins – and a potential playoff berth.  If the bullpen holds solid and three starting rotation positions show real improvement (and not just two), it could easily be 90 wins or more.