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.

Advertisements

2010 Season Forecast: Atlanta Braves

Last Five Seasons:

2009: 86 – 76 (3rd NL East)
2008: 72 – 90
2007: 84 – 78
2006: 79 – 83
2005: 90 – 72

Runs Scored: 735 (6th NL)
Runs Allowed: 641 (4th NL)

When a team outscores its opponents by 100 runs, the team can expect to win more than 90 games.  The Braves should have finished about 92 – 70.

Season Recap:

The Braves spent three months figuring things out – playing indifferent baseball and hanging within a few games of .500 through June.

In June, however, the pitching came together.  Javier Vazquez started pitching like an ace, Tommy Hanson joined the rotation and started winning like Brave starters of the previous decade.  Jair Jurrjens acted like a Cy Young candidate, and Derek Lowe ate innings.  After manager Bobby Cox flipped closers, replacing Mike Gonzalez with Rafael Soriano.

When the offense started gelling in July (Matt Diaz replacing Jeff Francouer and Martin Prado replacing Kelly Johnson), the Braves started making ground on the rest of the league.  Falling to 34 – 40, the Braves would win most series down the stretch – and then going on tear in September, winning 16 of 19 games to get into the fringe of the wild card race.  Unfortunately, they faced an equally talented Marlins squad, and lost the last six games – including four straight to Washington and four one-run games in the mix.

Pitching:

Javier Vazquez, new Yankee fourth starter, won 15 and finished with a 2.87 ERA – saving the Braves more than 36 runs.  And with that, he was the SECOND best starter on the staff.  Jair Jurrjens didn’t flash the same K/W numbers, but had a 2.60 ERA and saved the Braves 38 runs over what one might expect from average pitching.

Derek Lowe was a 15 game winner in a slightly off season – his ERA was 4.67, which might have been bad luck with balls in play followed by feeling the pressure of struggling.  Still – Lowe made 34 starts and remains a dependable arm.

Tommy Hanson joined the rotation to make 21 starts, winning 11, and finishing with a sub 3 ERA – and it’s not easy to find teams in recent years to have three pitchers with at least 120 innings and ERAs under 3.00.  (Houston, 2005 – Boston, 2002).  Finally, Kenshin Kawakami made 25 starts and pitched well enough to deserve a better record than 7 – 12.

The good news is that Tim Hudson returned from 2008’s season ending surgery to make seven solid starts and ready himself for a rotation slot in 2010.  The Braves even tested two other options – JoJo Reyes made five forgettable starts (7.00 ERA) while Kris Medlin worked four starts into mostly bullpen work and would be a nice fifth option or reliever.

In the bullpen, Rafael Soriano smoked 102 batters in 75.2 innings, and only allowed 80 baserunners saving 28 games.  Mike Gonzalez accepted his demotion with a vengeance and finished with 90Ks in 74.1 innings – providing the Braves with a devastating one-two punch to close games.  Medlin, Eric O’Flaherty, Jeff Bennett, Peter Moylan, and Manny Acosto also pitched better than average innings – one of the deeper bullpens in the National League.

Looking ahead, Vazquez is gone – but it might not matter.  Tim Hudson is back and looks great (he did in the spring), Jurrjens returns after two straight solid seasons, and Tommy Hanson gets to make 33 starts instead of 21.  Derek Lowe is still around, and the fifth spot could be handled by either Kawakami or Medlin without feeling any loss in skill.  That’s FIVE sold starters with a dependable sixth option.

The bullpen got a makeover when both Soriano and Gonzalez took free agent options in Tampa Bay and Baltimore (respectively).  Still – the Braves have options, signing a newly healthy Billy Wagner and bringing in Takashi Saito from Boston.  These two are old (38 and 40) but have been dependable for years.  Moylan, Medlen, O’Flaherty, and Jesse Chavez are able backups and Jo-Jo Reyes isn’t a lousy 12th arm in the pen.  He’ll be better this year.

Catching:

Brian McCann is the best hitting catcher in the NL right now – power, average, and despite troublesome issues with his eyes gets a few walks from time to time…  His backup, David Ross, isn’t chopped liver either – slugging .508 and getting on base to a .380 clip.  This is the best catching in the NL – offensively anyway.

Infield:

The Braves shifted from Casey Kotchman to Adam LaRoche at the trading deadline and got better production from LaRoche offensively and defensively – despite Kotchman’s reputation.  It certainly helped the Braves finish strongly.  For 2010, the Braves are giving veteran third baseman Troy Glaus a chance.  I’m not sure this will be an improvement, to be honest.  Glaus has had troubles staying healthy and hasn’t been a regular first baseman before, so this would be a question mark going forward.

Kelly Johnson had the job at the beginning of the year, but Martin Prado will carry it forward.  Prado can hit, he’s a tolerable fielder (no different than Johnson), so this should be a benefit in 2010.

Yunel Escobar remains a potent offensively player, and is improving equally as a defensive player.  He’s a good shortstop to own in fantasy leagues for 2010.

Chipper Jones is running out of years – injured more frequently and his batting numbers slopped, though he still has enough patience to help score runs.  Defensively, he’s not much – costing his team nearly 20 runs a year.  It’s time to find a replacement by 2012, wouldn’t you think?

Omar Infante and Brooks Conrad back up this unit – Infante has some skills as a hitter, but wasn’t very mobile defensively in 2009.  Conrad is getting his feet wet, but nears 30.

Outfield:

Garrett Anderson was a free agent signee and test drive who hit a little but couldn’t cover enough ground in left.  He’s gone in 2010, with his replacement, Matt Diaz, likely getting a full time job as a fourth outfielder and left fielder.

Nate McClouth came over from Pittsburgh when rookie Jordan Schafer‘s injuries interrupted his development.  McClouth can hit and isn’t an awful fielder, but he won’t make anyone forget Andruw Jones in his prime.  Melky Cabrera was added and may move McClouth to left and/or picking up defensive innings as required.

With Jeff Francoeur now a Met, the Braves are turning to rookie Jason Heyward, who is rated by many as the top prospect in all of baseball.  He may not have Francoeur’s arm, but he can hit and he has young legs.  It should be a fun season for jersey sales.

Omar Infante can cover the remaining innings in the outfield, and Eric Hinske arrives able to play corner outfield and infield positions as well as pinch hit.

Prospects:

AAA Gwinnett featured a lot of veteran hitters and a few pitching prospects – some of whom aren’t around because they were sent out in trades (Charlie Morton), or because they are on the team (Hanson, Medlin).  Boone Logan and Luis Valdez are good pitchers – might be prospects on other teams.

The best prospect at AA was Jason Heyward – after that it’s slim pickings.  Pitcher Jose Ortegano has control and is just 22.  He might make the bullpen in two years.

A+ Myrtle Beach features reliever Cory Gearrin, who walked just three and fanned 32 in 29.1 innings, earning 17 saves.  Gearrin was still good in 20 outings at AA Mississippi – and appears to have reigned in the wildness that marked his first two years in the minors.

J.J. Hoover, Dimaster Delgado, and Randall Delgado looked solid at A Rome, and are just getting their careers started.  Same with 2008 draft pick Adam Milligan, who showed flashes of power and a sweet bat at three levels. Too bad he’s not a third baseman…

Forecast:

Defensively, the team will probably stay the same.  The rotation is solid and can withstand an injury or two.  The bullpen is deep, but not necessarily capable of stellar performances.  However, the defense should be better in the outfield and middle infield.

Offensively, I’m not so sure, but I don’t see many reasons to think it’s going to be WORSE.  I don’t see how it’s going to be BETTER.  I think the positives and negatives will offset each other and the team will still score runs.  There are a lot of good hitters in their prime, and a couple of veteran bats and a deep bench.

As such, I wouldn’t be surprised if the team is still 100 runs better than their opponents, and win 90 – 92 games.  And, if the bad luck in decisions that seemed to follow them last year goes away, it could be more.  Will it be enough to beat the Phillies?  I don’t know.  But they should be a playoff contender for sure.  The system calls for 92 – 70, so I’ll go with that.

Top NL Rightfielders in 2009

Jayson Werth (PHI):  Made more plays defensively in rightfield than Shane Victorino made in center – which is amazing, really.  Throw in 36 homers and a .376 OBP and you have one of the best players in baseball.  (111.3 Runs Created, 24.1 Runs Saved = 135.36 Total Run Production)

Andre Ethier (LAD):  The offense of Werth, but league average defense.  Still – a very potent package.  Any fantasy player worth his salt will take it – and the Dodgers aren’t going to complain either (Ethier?)…  (119.6 Runs Created, -2.09 Runs Saved = 117.55 Total Run Production)

Hunter Pence (HOU):  A great season – above average in all facets of the game, but not a superstar in anything.  The best player on the Astros in 2009.  (102.2 Runs Created, 9.9 Runs Saved = 112.18 Total Run Production)

Justin Upton (ARI):  Still just a kid, he’s had his first really good season and it’s only a matter of time before he becomes Henry Aaron.  Seriously.  (97.9 Runs Created, 8.8 Runs Saved = 106.68 Total Run Production)

Jeff Francoeur (ATL/NYM):  Played much better with the change of scenery…  Showed flashes of this old power and still has the cannon arm.  (84.1 Runs Created, -2.7 Runs Saved = 81.4 Total Run Production)

Kosuke Fukudome (CHC):  Should be here and not in center.  Would actually rank higher than Francoeur probably…

Randy Winn (SF):  Still a fantastic defensive outfielder, but his bat is leaving him – he hit just two homers last season.  The Yankees signed him for defensive insurance – a good idea because he’s really not a starter anymore.  (62.7 Runs Created, 14.00 Runs Saved = 76.70 Total Run Production)

Cody Ross (FLA):  See Kosuke Fukudome, above.  Would rank ahead of Winn, for sure.

Ryan Ludwick (STL):  Injuries nearly prevented him from making the majors, and then they ruined his chance at back-to-back solid seasons.  Didn’t perform at the pace of 2009 and may never will – and yet still had 22 homers and 97 RBI (he hits behind Pujols).  His range defensively fell off the map.  (75.7 Runs Created, -10.1 Runs Saved = 65.65 Total Run Production)

Matt Diaz (ATL):  A better left fielder, but played some here.  He’s a hitter, though.  (77.5 Runs Created, -14.5 Runs Saved = 63.02 Total Run Production)

Brad Hawpe (COL):  Year after year, the worst outfielder in baseball, but hits enough in Colorado to keep his job.  Has cost his team about 100 runs defensively in the last four years.  (89.7 Runs Created, -28.1 Runs Saved = 61.60 Total Run Production)

Garrett Jones (PIT):  Put on quite a show as the season wound down.  Again – the Pirates have HAD talent, but have chosen not to keep it together.  Get him on your fantasy team in 2010.  (67.6 Runs Created, -7.8 Runs Saved = 59.75 Total Run Production)

Jay Bruce (CIN):  The right fielders in the NL weren’t all that great, were they?  Coming in eleventh is a guy who hit .223 with some power, but fielded okay.  (50.4 Runs Created, 8.1 Runs Saved = 58.46 Total Run Production)

Milton Bradley (CHC):  Now in Seattle, and good riddance.  Uninspiring play for all that money and he blames the fans?  To be fair, his power was off and his batting average was down, but he still got on base.  (55.8 Runs Created, 0.3 Runs Saved = 56.11 Total Run Production)

Brandon Moss (PIT):  Not sure if he’s the real deal, but I would love to see him get 500 at bats and see what happens.  It includes a lot of strikeouts, though.  Played solid defensively, too.  (42.1 Runs Created, 12.4 Runs Saved = 54.55 Total Run Production)

Carlos Gonzalez (COL):  Can play here – would rather see him than Hawpe.  Gonzalez had half the playing time and nearly the same overall production…  (49.0 Runs Created, 4.7 Runs Saved = 53.75 Total Run Production)

Will Venable (SD):  Split time with Brian Giles and by the end of the season the job was his.  Hits for power and could have room for growth.  (49.1 Runs Created, 1.3 Runs Saved = 50.42 Total Run Production)

Elijah Dukes (WAS):  As a full-timer, would rank higher.  He’s just not GREAT – rather, he’s okay…  Power, not enough patience, and a tolerable fielder.  (48.8 Runs Created, -1.4 Runs Saved = 47.47 Total Run Production)

Jeremy Hermida (FLA):  His normal position, his attempts to play left notwithstanding.  One hopes he finds his potential…  I wrote about his failings in the Left Field section.  (55.9 Runs Created, -8.7 Runs Saved = 47.20 Total Run Production)

Jonny Gomes (CIN):  Saw more time in left, but wasn’t embarrassing in right either.  Somebody is going to give him a contract – not everyone can hit 20 homers in about 350 at bats.  (52.9 Runs Created, -8.5 Runs Saved = 44.43 Total Run Production)

Corey Hart (MIL):  Tolerable offense, but a horrible year with the glove.  It’s hopefully a fluke and not a Brad Hawpe level problem…  (64.8 Runs Created, -22.0 Runs Saved = 42.82 Total Run Production)

Nate Schierholtz (SF):  May inherit the job.  Good luck.  He’s got young legs, but hasn’t proven that he can hit enough for the position. (34.8 Runs Created, 8.0 Runs Saved = 42.79 Total Run Production)

Brian Giles (SD):  Hit the end of the road with a big clunk.  Sorry to see him go – a great player for a lot of years on some very bad teams.  (19.6 Runs Created, 0.4 Runs Saved = 20.04 Total Run Production)

Surgery for Santana? More Met Injury Stories…

Look, I’m not a Met fan – never will be.  I mean, I root for the Mets to keep Omar Minaya around, for what it’s worth.  I think Omar Minaya should be fired for holding on to too many veterans, running Willie Randolph out of town, and his inability to handle staff members like Tony Bernazard.  He’s not easy on the NY press.  Minaya is the guy who went after the reporter who broke the Bernazard story claiming the writer wanted a front office job with the Mets.  Sounds like the perfect GM for the Mets.

I digress.

However, when I read that Johan Santana is getting an opinion on his sore elbow and might be heading to surgery, I almost felt bad for the franchise.  I like Santana, but his elbow is affecting his performance – and he wasn’t making his off-start throwing days.  He was really fighting it.  And now he’s looking at surgery.

The Mets have had more than their share of injuries.  Let’s look at the opening day starting lineup:

Jose Reyes, SS
Daniel Murphy, LF
David Wright, 3B
Carlos Delgado, 1B
Carlos Beltran, CF
Ryan Church, RF
Brian Schneider, C
Luis Castillo, 2b
Johan Santana, P

Who hasn’t missed time?  Granted – Church was traded (and then mocked by his former manager – another Minaya staffer who can’t avoid misspeaking).  However, only Murphy and Castillo (who missed 15 days, which happens) can be considered full timers – though that’s being mean to David Wright who only got injured about ten days ago…  Still – these have been disabling injuries.  That’s not counting losing Putz and Maine and Niese and Nieve and Cora and both Ramon and Fernando Martinez and then having to deal with Gary Sheffield (frequently injured both physically and mentally, frequently unfriendly) and not having the unwanted Billy Wagner either.  And, when Wagner comes back, the Mets feel the need to send him out immediately.

Until Santana gets an MRI and a doctor’s evaluation, we won’t know how long he’ll be out – but the fear is that it’s season ending.  Surgery might mean next season, too.  That’s never good, and I love watching Santana pitch.

By the way, in the same news story, Jeff Francoeur admitted that he tore a ligament in his thumb that will require surgery at the end of the year, though he will try to play through the pain.  Yikes.

Again, I’ll never be a Mets fan.  I grew up rooting for the Cubs.  But that’s a lot of injuries, and I don’t wish that on my enemies.  I wish Omar Minaya on the Mets, maybe, but not injuries.

Your Baseball Weekend Update…

John Smoltz’s career has life after beating San Diego Sunday.  Smoltz threw five shutout innings and fanned nine batters.  Maybe the AL is tougher than the NL – but it certainly helps to face a punchless San Diego team, too.  [MLB/SI]

For the second time in history (according to STATS, Inc, that’s who), Eric Bruntlett ended a game by himself – recording an unassisted triple play to help Brad Lidge avoid another blown save and give Pedro Martinez a win over his former team, the Mets.  The score stood 9 – 7 after a run scoring single by Daniel Murphy.  Murphy and Luis Castillo, who was on second, attempted a double steal when Jeff Francouer launched a Lidge pitch back up the middle where Bruntlett was moving…  Bruntlett caught the liner, stepped on second, and tagged Murphy.  [MLB/SI]

Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez will be more careful next time – he stabbed himself in the left hand with a falling steak knife, requiring a single stitch but keeping him out of the lineup for the next couple of days.  [SI]

Meanwhile, the Rockies have come to terms with free agent Jason Giambi, most recently released by the Oakland As.  He’d be a nice bench option, that’s for certain.  [ESPN]

Moving to the Rockies rotation, the pitching staff took a big hit when Aaron Cook hit the DL with a sore shoulder.  Cook had to leave Friday’s start with a strain and an MRI is scheduled for Monday.  If the Rockies have to use Adam Eaton down the stretch, pencil in San Francisco or the Dodgers as the Wild Card team in the NL.   Josh Fogg is the other option (not appreciably better), and Matt Herges got the call from AAA Colorado Springs to join the roster. [FoxSports]

Reds starter Aaron Harang’s season came to an end thanks to emergency appendectomy surgery.  He’ll see restricted activity for about three weeks before he can do anything physical in nature.  According to SI, Harang is the ninth player to head to the DL for Cincinnati, and the seventh to require surgery – which is an amazing number, really.  Fortunately, Scott Rolen came off the DL – but he can’t pitch.  [SI]

Boston may have claimed Billy Wagner off the waiver wire (the Mets haven’t decided whether to allow the claim, work a deal, or pull him back), but apparently the bullpen wouldn’t have done it.  Both Jonathon Papelbon and Manny Delcarmen weren’t excited about it when asked by WEEI radio earlier this weekend.  [ESPN]

FoxSports reported that David Eckstein will remain in San Diego next year and signed a contract extension for 2010…  He’s not really a championship level producer anymore, but he’s an extra coach for a young team and Eckstein does have a history of being on winning teams.  [FoxSports]

Here’s a position that won’t get much of an argument… FoxSports Jon Paul Morosi makes his case that Ichiro Suzuki will one day enter the Hall of Fame.   His take on it is mostly “Well, he has more hits than anybody, and Ken Griffey says he’s a Hall of Famer…”  Let’s look at it more subjectively.  Assuming he finishes the season and gets 16 more hits in the last 40 games or so – meaning he won’t get injured or suddenly freeze at the plate – Ichiro will have nine straight seasons of 200 hits, more than 2000 in his career, and his fourth season batting at least .350.  Dusting off a 1986 Bill James Baseball Abstract, his Hall of Fame calculator shows that Ichiro has  collected nearly 200 points of accomplishments that Hall of Fame voters tend to consider when voting for someone – which makes him, well, overqualified (the gray area is from 70 – 130; beyond that is pretty much guaranteed in, unless you are Pete Rose or Barry Bonds).  Then, you add that he was the first Japanese position player and remains one of the most skilled outfielders and hitters – he certainly qualifies as both famous and great.   Ichiro may wind up with more professional hits than Pete Rose when it’s all over – he could have 4500 hits if you count his days in Japan.

Hurry Back! Alfonso Soriano continues to miss games with a sore knee.  Gee – I thought it was his poor batting.  (Sorry – Angry Cub Fan in me typing that one…)  Marlins reliever Brendan Donnelly hits the DL with a calf strain.  I watched the play – I’m not sure what he did, but if he can’t field a grounder without getting hurt, he needs to step aside.  Phillies infielder Greg Dobbs also has a strained calf.  Cardinal starter Kyle Lohse just came off the DL – he heads back with a strained groin (hopefully his own).

Welcome Back! Miguel Cairo was called up by the Phillies to take Dobbs’ spot.  Did you see that Armando Benitez was signed by Houston?  He heads to Round Rock to see if he can still pitch.    Jason Grilli returned to Texas from the DL.  Seattle is giving one more shot to former Marlin Randy Messenger.  I can answer this for you – this Messenger has already been shot.

Pennant Chances:  Now that the season has entered its final quarter, let’s pronounce some races over…

Nobody is catching the Phillies or Cards.  The Yankees would have a significant collapse if they were to lose now, as would the Angels.  Even though it’s closer than before, I have faith in the Dodgers – but give Colorado a 15% chance to win, and San Francisco 10%.  The NL Wild Card is too close to call, but it’s going to be one of the teams from the West.  If someone were to surprise, it’s going to be Atlanta because they suddenly have a healthy pitching staff – but it’s getting late to put up a fight.  I’d give them a 15% chance of pulling it off.  The closest race is Detroit and Chicago in the AL Central, and I am relatively confident it will be Detroit by a nose because Chicago plays too sloppily to win.  Minnesota doesn’t have a fight in them this season thanks to a failing rotation.  The AL Wild Card will be the best race because Texas is good enough to win and Boston is just crazy enough to blow it right now.  I know – I picked Boston to win it all, but the last three weeks have been disastrous and I don’t see how they will get out of it.  I give Tampa a 15% chance of surprising somebody.

2009 Season Forecast: Atlanta Braves

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

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

Looking Back on 2008

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

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

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

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

Tell me about that offense

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

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

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

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

Defensively:

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

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

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

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

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

Now Pitching…

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

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

Forecasting 2009:

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

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

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

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

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

Down on the Farm…

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

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

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