Can you make a competitive team with your pick of the remaining free agents?

I was flipping through the list of remaining free agents (as of 1/16/2012) and tried to field the best team possible with those players still available.  Here’s what you can do…

Catcher:

The best hitting catcher is probably Ramon Castro, who I see as a DH but can catch some.  You have a couple of receivers with good defensive skills but a limited offensive outlook (Ivan Rodriguez, Jason Varitek) and a couple of catchers who have recently been regulars (Chris Snyder, Ronny Paulino).  If you took Castro and Rodriguez, at least you’d have someone who could work with the pitchers and throw, and you’d have a decent enough backup who could help put a few runs on the board.

First Baseman:

With Prince Fielder still available, you have the centerpiece of an offense – but you still have some competent backups.  Casey Kotchman seems to have found his hitting stroke, and Carlos Pena could help in a platoon role (can’t hit lefties, though).  If you weren’t willing to pony up $20 million per year for Fielder, a platoon of Pena and Derrek Lee might give you depth and a solid platoon.

Second Baseman:

Not a lot to choose from here…  The best player is probably Carlos Guillen, but he’s only going to play 40 games (not to be mean here, but his injury history is becoming problematic).  That leaves you with someone who can, at best, not embarrass you with the glove – Jeff Keppinger, for example – and even play a couple of positions since you may need some flexibility.

Third Baseman:

If you thought the pickings were thin at second, it’s even thinner at third base now.  Casey Blake has had a couple of good years, and Wilson Betemit can swing the bat.  After that, it’s guys who used to be able to play some (Eric Chavez, Alex Cora, Omar Vizquel).

Shortstop:

Three guys who can’t really cover the position anymore – Orlando Cabrera, Edgar Renteria, and Miguel Tejada.  The best overall option is probably Cabrera – or letting him play second and moving Keppinger over to play short.

Outfielders:

There are still a few players here who could contribute, but most of these guys are past prime players and few have the wheels to cover center.  However, Johnny Damon could still play left, Cody Ross can play right or center (though he’s running out of years he’ll be able to cover center).  Kosuke Fukudome is a fantastic right fielder and can still bat leadoff.  Behind that you have a couple of guys who could be good fourth outfielders and pinch hitting types – Jonny Gomes, Andruw Jones, Juan Pierre.  If you needed a defensive guy, Joey Gathright is there.  And, if you want to take a real chance, you could go for Yoenis Cespedes.

A lineup as listed below would score some runs, and probably fight the defense to a draw.

Fukudome – RF
Damon – LF
Guillen – 2B
Fielder – 1B
Castro – C
Ross – CF
Blake – 3B
Keppinger – SS
(Pitcher – assuming a National League team)

Starting Pitchers:

A couple recent signings has killed off much of the top remaining pitchers, but you still have a few guys who can win games.  I see a rotation that includes the following as having some potential:

Roy Oswalt
Edwin Jackson
Jon Garland
Joe Saunders
Livan Hernandez

And I’d give a sixth spot to Rich Harden – pitch him until something breaks (which it will).  Or, you could take Harden’s stuff and make a closer out of him.  Your emergency arm might be Kevin Millwood – I just don’t know if he has one more year left.  I’d stash him in AAA until Rich Harden breaks down…  The staff is really missing an ace, but you have two guys who can win at the top and three guys who can give you 650 innings at the bottom, which helps the bullpen.

Relievers:

The signing of Ryan Madson takes away the best available closer, but you can do a bullpen by committee and hope someone takes charge.  I see the top six arms as follows:

Michael Gonzalez
Danys Baez
Francisco Cordero
Juan Cruz
Brad Lidge
Arthur Rhodes

Out of that list, you can give Lidge the last inning (if he’s healthy) and mix and match the rest to be reasonably effective.

I haven’t done the math on this, but a team with this roster could possibly make a run at 85 wins.

2010 Season Forecast: Houston Astros

Last Five Seasons:

2009: 74 – 88 (5th NL Central)
2008: 86 – 75
2007: 73 – 89
2006: 82 – 80
2005: 89 – 73

For two straight seasons, the Astros have outperformed their stats – which is to say that their record is better than the ratio of runs scored to runs allowed.  In 2008, the Astros were 11 games over .500 despite allowing 31 runs more than they scored.  In 2009, the Astros scored and allowed the same number of runs as Pittsburgh and yet won 12 more games.  That can’t keep happening…

Season Recap:

On the heels of a ridiculously over-successful 2008, some people thought the Astros might remain competitive in 2009.  Instead, long time veterans fell off (Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman), and eventually Cecil Cooper was fired because people didn’t think he knew what he was doing.

The Astros won an extra inning game on April 7th to pull to .500 with a win and a loss.  Houston lost five in a row, and then would trade wins and losses for about a month never getting better than four games under .500 until late June.  As the month turned into July, the Astros played their best baseball, winning 18 of 26 games.  This got their record to 50 – 46 and into the the NL Central race, just two games behind St. Louis and tied with Chicago for second place.

What happened next was that the Astros ran out of mojo.  A slow slide brought them back under .500, and despite sweeping the Phillies in four games the Astros could never get closer than two games under .500.  When the clubhouse, management, and media turned on Cecil Cooper, knowing that season was over anyway, Cooper was let go.  September was spent wondering what could have been, including a nine-game losing streak that knocked Houston into fifth place.

Were they really that good?  Probably not.  The Astros scored five runs more than Pittsburgh (743 – 738) and allowed two more (770 – 768).  Houston was as lucky as Pittsburgh was unlucky – and should really have won about 67 games.

Pitching:

Wandy Rodriquez turned into an ace, winning 14 games, throwing nearly 206 innings, and saving his team about 28.5 runs over what an average starter might have given up.  Roy Oswalt, admittedly having an off season, won just eight games but was still better than league average in his 30 starts.  And that’s where it ends.

Last year, Brian Moehler got 29 starts, allowed nearly six runs per nine, and was bad enough to virtually offset Rodriguez.  Mike Hampton returned to go 7 – 10, and he was 13 runs worse than the average pitcher over 112 innings.  How many of you thought he would make 100 innings?  Felipe Paulino was atrocious – 22 innings worse than average in just shy of 100 innings.  Ouch.  Russ Ortiz got 13 brutal starts.  Yorman Bazardo went 1 – 3 and had an ERA of 7.88.  Only rookie Bud Norris got a few starts and didn’t look lousy.  No team is going to be successful with what amounts to 500 innings of horrific pitching unless the lineup is eight Albert Pujols.

What saved Houston was a remarkable bullpen.  Jose Valverde had just 25 saves (injuries interruped his season), but he also was 12.6 runs better than the average pitcher in his 52 innings.  LaTroy Hawkins had perhaps his best season ever – 63 innings and a 2.13 ERA.  Jeff Fulchino was a stopper in middle relief, and Tim Byrdak allowed only 39 hits in his 61.1 innings.  Sure, the rest of the staff was a mixed bag of arms, but four solid relievers can keep games in hand even when the starters get lifted – and these starters were regularly lifted…

For 2010, the big move was adding former Phillie, Brett Myers, to the rotation.  A one-time starter, Myers can help here just by staying around league average.  Moving Bud Norris into a full time spot (#4) would also help some.  Sadly, Paulino and Moehler get to fight for that fifth spot in the rotation – or get starts that someone else might miss.  Still – this could be a 30 run improvement on the defensive side.

For the bullpen, Jose Valverde is gone, as is Hawkins.  Matt Lindstrom arrives from Florida with a 100 MPH fastball that has little or no movement.  Brandon Lyon was signed to a three-year deal to set up Lindstrom.  I don’t see how this is going to be better – and it could easily be 25 runs WORSE than last year.

Catching:

Ivan Rodriguez was installed as the starter at the beginning of the year and was still solid – makes few mistakes, strong against the run, still reasonably mobile, but isn’t a run producer.  After Pudge was allowed to leave for Texas, Humberto Quintero took over and was exceptional against the run though a bit more mistake prone.

One time prospect J.R. Towles gets one last shot at this job (one assumes that Jason Castro or Koby Clemens will be taking over soon enough) – with Quintero as his backup.  Though Towles didn’t throw anyone out last year (one guy – he threw out one guy), he does have better overall skills.  Overall, this might be five runs better, but I don’t buy it.  Let’s call the overall production a wash.

Infield:

Lance Berkman had his first off sesason after a long run of productive hitting.  He’s still an offensive force, but he missed a month of games with injuries.  Darin Erstad isn’t really good enough to take over here.  If the Astros expect to win, Berkman has to play 150 games and he’s at the age where that gets harder and harder to do.

Kaz Matsui returns – a glove man who really doesn’t do much to keep the offense going.  At this point, the Astros need to keep him because I don’t think Jeff Keppinger is going to do any better.

Miguel Tejada played a surprisingly solid shortstop, and kicked in with 199 hits and 46 doubles.  He’s NOT a top flight hitter, but he’s been as dependable for hits as anyone and remains above average for the league and his position.  He’s gone, though, to be replaced by rookie Tommy Manzella.  Manzella hit .289 at Round Rock last year, but isn’t going to hit as well as Tejada.  He MIGHT be 20 runs better defensively, but he may well hit about .260 with a little power, which will be about 30 runs worse offensively.

Geoff Blum had a rough season, to say the least.  He was below average offensively (.247, 10 homers – 4.2 runs per 27 outs) and he cost his team another 21 runs defensively at third base.  Enter Pedro Feliz, who had a monster season defensively and will be no worse a hitter.

On the whole, I see this group being about 40 runs better defensively, but lose 30 runs offensively.

Outfield:

Offensively, this is a strong unit.  Carlos Lee in left remains a potent power source.  Hunter Pence in right field has power, patience, speed, and provides good defense.  Michael Bourn is a burner who gets on base, steals what he can, and can cover ground in center.

Defensively, Lee needs to be a DH – costing his team about 32 runs in left.  He’s no longer mobile enough to cover any ground and he’s reaching the age where his bat might start to slip.  Jason Michaels returns to play the late innings for Lee.

Prospects:

Looking over AAA Round Rock, other than Tommy Manzello, you have Chris Johnson.  He’s a third baseman taken in the 4th round in 2006 out of Stetson.  Right now, he looks like he’d hit as well as Geoff Blum and if he fields better might be a better option for 2010.  At 25, Johnson has to step up now.  Among pitchers, Bud Norris already got the call in 2009, as did Bazardo and Sam Gervacio, who might get a second chance some time in 2010.  Gervacio showed power and control in AAA (58Ks, 21 Ws in 52.1 innings).

The best pitcher at AA Corpus Christi was Polin Trinidad, who walked just ten batters in 82.2 innings and earned a promotion to AAA mid-season.  He’s still a year away, but I’d rather see him than, say, Brian Moehler.  Drew Locke hit .338 with 20 homers there – but it’s taken a while for the former Dodger draft pick to get his career moving.  He must be a brutal fielder.  Catcher Jason Castro, the 2008 1st round pick, moved up to AA in 2009 and continues to hit for a decent average (.293) and work the count.  He could make the roster in 2010, for sure he’ll be on the Astros in 2011.

Pitchers in Lancaster (A+) got slapped around a lot there, but a few stood out.  Leandro Cespedes, Shane Wolf, and Fernando Abad all had decent control and strikeout numbers and are young enough to contribute a couple of years from now.  I especially liked Abad, who walked only eight in 82.2 innings.  He could be a future closer.  Because hitting is so easy there, you have to take stats with a grain of salt, but catcher Koby Clemens hit .345 with power – probably the best of the lot.

2008 1a pick Jordan Lyles pitched well at Lexington in the SAL – 167Ks just 38 walks in 144.2 innings.  Still a teenager, he’ll be in Lancaster and probably Corpus Christi soon enough.  2007 pick Collin Delome (5th round) has a lot of different skills, but needs to step up his batting average.  He looks like Brady Anderson, only in AA.  Meanwhile, top pick in 2006, Maxwell Sapp has yet to hit above. 241 in the minors and with two other catchers ahead of him, is not on the prospect lists anymore.

Forecast:

I don’t see the Astros being competitive in the NL Central.  I see them struggling to score runs – about 610 runs this season – and despite the improved defense, still giving up about 725 runs.  There are just too many holes to patch, and after two years of very lucky won-loss records, the system says no more than 67 wins and playing the under.

Top NL Shortstops in 2009

Hanley Ramirez (FLA):  Not great defensively, but an amazingly good hitter and the whole package makes him the best shortstop in baseball.  More patient than ever, has solid power and can still run the bases.  Go look at his minor league stats and tell me if you can see this coming.  I still think Miguel Cabrera is the best player ever to wear the Marlins uniform, but it might be Hanley.  (126.9 Runs Created, -6.24 Runs Saved = 120.63 Total Run Production)

Miguel Tejada (HOU):  Still a remarkably productive hitter despite not drawing any walks.  Hardly misses a game, had a decent year in the field (Blum can’t cut off anything) – now heading back to Baltimore and moving to third base.  (104.1 Runs Created, -2.0 Runs Saved = 102.07 Total Run Production)

There was a time when I was a big Tejada fan.  Now, not so much.  The Astros wanted him to move to third base and had he done that the Astros would have been probably 30 runs better because Keppinger would have been the full time shortstop.  (That being said, Keppinger should have been the full time third baseman.)  He lied about his age.  He was incriminated by Rafael Palmeiro – and if you look at it – I absolutely believe that Tejada was juicing.  He was in Oakland, one of the two centers of PED abuse (the other being Texas, but only because Canseco brought the practice with him from Oakland to Texas).  His power numbers have fallen off the further away from his PED use he’s gotten.  He does what he thinks is right and not what the manager wants.  Nobody has come right out and said it, but there’s no way he’s a role model for anybody.

Troy Tulowitzki (COL):  Even considering he played in Colorado, Tulo’s offense was great – good power, good patience, good baserunning, almost hit .300.  His fielding isn’t what it was a few years ago when he came up, but if he puts 100 runs on the board, nobody will complain.  (106.0 Runs Created, -6.6 Runs Saved = 99.43 Total Run Production)

Yunel Escobar (ATL):  I see a lot of him being a Marlins fan and boy is this guy good.  He’s no Ramirez, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he hits .320 with 20 homers one day.  I hope he’s on my fantasy team when he does it.  I look for that season in 2011, but it could be this year.  92.9 Runs Created, 3.4 Runs Saved = 96.24 Total Run Production)

Rafael Furcal (LAD):  A near healthy season – his batting average isn’t what it once was, and he doesn’t tear up the bases like he used to, and he can’t field the way he once did…  His arm is still a cannon.  He’s pretty much a league average starter now and slightly above average for his position.  (85.7 Runs Created, 3.5 Runs Saved = 89.17 Total Run Production)

Ryan Theriot (CHC):  Doesn’t hit for enough power to move up this list, but still  a fine shortstop.  The Cubs should be glad to have him.  (75.8 Runs Created, 8.5 Runs Saved = 84.27 Total Run Production)

Brendan Ryan (STL):  I liked him a couple of years ago, but he was better than I had thought he’d be in 2009.  Hit enough and played the position supurbly.  Didn’t get enough credit for helping the Cardinals make it to the top of the NL Central.  (58.5 Runs Created, 21.2 Runs Saved = 79.71 Total Run Production)

Everth Cabrera (SD):  Brendan Ryan with a bit more speed.  He’s an old school #2 hitter – would be nice if he could step up with about 15% more offense.  That means finding more ways to get on base because he has little, if any, power.  (59.1 Runs Created, 13.7 Runs Saved = 72.81 Total Run Production)

Stephen Drew (ARI):  Isn’t horrible, but I can’t help but think he’s kind of a disappointment.  Hits for a little power, gets on base some – doesn’t kill you with the glove.  You don’t hear about him because he plays in Arizona and they aren’t all that good right now, but he’s not all that noticeable either.  (68.2 Runs Created, -3.67 Runs Saved = 64.56 Total Run Production)

Jimmy Rollins (PHI):  Phillie fans are going to be surprised at this rating, but despite the power and base stealing, what did he do?  I know – Rollins got the gold glove.  But did ANYBODY look at the stats?  Like Derek Jeter, his reputation was bigger than his range – he had the WORST range of anyone playing 300 innings at the position – except for the ancient Edgar Renteria.  When you adjust for the staff (balls in play, groundball/fly ball) Rollins is dead last.  He also didn’t get on base.  When he’s on – he can explode offensively, but he is NOT a valuable commodity anymore.  Would I rather have Everth Cabrera these days than Jimmy Rollins?  Yes.  Yes, I would.  (88.5 Runs Created, -26.07 Runs Saved = 62.42 Total Run Production)

Cristian Guzman (WAS):  Only his batting average is worth anything.  Range is gone, speed is gone, and he has little power or patience at the plate.  I’d play Ian Desmond.  (63.9 Runs Created, -10.2 Runs Saved = 53.73 Total Run Production)

J.J. Hardy (MIL):  Gone – now the job belongs to Alcides Escobar.  He’s not horrible, but it would be nice if he could find his bat again.  I promise you he’ll be playing for two or three more years and is NOT the new Dale Sveum.  (47.9 Runs Created, 3.9 Runs Saved = 51.74 Total Run Production)

Alcides Escobar got his first taste of the big leagues and looked great.  Good range, decent enough bat.  At 500 at bats and 140 games, he’s moving into the top seven and if he’s all that, he’s a big step up from Hardy.

Paul Janish (CIN):  Can’t hit a lick (.211, with little power or patience) but had amazing defensive stats.  The new John McDonald?  (23.7 Runs Created, 24.73 Runs Saved = 48.46 Total Run Production)

Jack Wilson (PIT/SEA):  I know – great glove.  However, he’s gettin older, missing time, and isn’t much of an offensive force.  Tell me again how this helps the Mariners in the long run?  (39.8 Runs Created, 7.6 Runs Saved = 47.40 Total Run Production)

Edgar Renteria (SF):  Had a better year with the glove than normal, but still below average.  Not much offensively anymore either.  And yet, he has a job in San Francisco.  Reason #3 that the team won’t make the playoffs.  (46.9 Runs Created, -6.7 Runs Saved = 40.29 Total Run Production)

Jeff Keppinger (HOU):  Most of the time, he played third base behind Blum but he can still play short.  If he played full time, he’s at least as good as Guzman and maybe as productive (overall) as Rollins or Drew.   In 2010, he might get more innings there – the MLB depth chart lists rookie Tommy Manzello as the potential starter.  Manzello has little power, isn’t a huge on base guy – but if he can field at all he’s a Jack Wilson clone. (39.4 Runs Created, 0.7 Runs Saved = 40.07 Total Run Production)

Ronny Cedeno (PIT):  No hit, decent glove, utility infield type.  Not going to impact Pittsburgh other than he’s playing because nobody else is ready.  31.0 Runs Created, 7.3 Runs Saved = 38.3 Total Run Production)

Alex Cora (NYM):  Broke BOTH thumbs.  Now THAT’S a bad break.  He’s really not a half-bad player and most teams would love to have him as their shortstop.  (29.2 Runs Created, 7.6 Runs Saved = 36.78 Total Run Production)

Alex Gonzalez (CIN/BOS):  Age and injuries have sapped his range – he was never that good with the bat.  It was a good run, though.  Orlando Cabrera has the job now and he’s a serious step up over what Cincy threw out there in 2009. (39.9 Runs Created, -12.3 Runs Saved = 27.6 Total Run Production)

Jose Reyes (NYM):  Obviously a better player than this, but his bum wheels affected his range and he didn’t play into the summer.  If healthy, he’s top six for sure.  (23.6 Runs Created, -6.3 Runs Saved = 17.26 Total Run Production)