2013 Season Forecast – Houston Astros

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

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

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

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

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

Runs Scored: 583
Runs Allowed: 794

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

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

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

Feeling Optimistic?

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

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

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

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

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

Key Transactions:

OCT (2011):

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

NOV (2011):

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

DEC (2011):

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

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

JAN (2012):

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

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

FEB:

More minor signings…

MAR:

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

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

JULY:

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Johnson to Arizona for Bobby Borchering and Marc Krauss

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

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

Key Injuries:

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

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

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

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

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

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

LOOKING AHEAD:

Starting Pitchers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relief Pitchers:

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

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

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

Catchers:

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

Infielders:

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

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

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

Outfielders:

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

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

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

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

Down on the Farm:

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

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

Best guess on their record?

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

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

Marlins Need a Closer; Mattingly Backs Manny

2009 hasn’t been easy for Florida closer Matt Lindstrom.  First, he strains his rotator cuff while pitching for the US in the World Baseball Classic.  Then, he struggles in his return to the Marlins.  Now, Lindstrom has been placed on the DL with a sprained elbow.  It hasn’t affected his velocity, which regularly approaches 100 MPH, but Lindstrom says he feels it when he throws a breaking ball.  Early estimates suggest he’ll be out six weeks.

Leo Nunez, if he hadn’t tweaked an ankle in the Yankees series, would be the next in line for saves, but to be honest, it could be a bullpen by committee for now in Florida.

Dave Hyde, who is a good columnist for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, says it’s time for the Marlins to open up the checkbook and get a closer who can help keep the Marlins in the race.

Joining the roster will be Ontario Canada’s Chris Leroux, a decent propsect who got a cup of coffee earlier in the year.  Leroux is a sleeper prospect, a seventh round pick out of Winthrop University, who has had some success at A+ Jupiter and AA Jacksonville.  I think he’s a bit overmatched at this level, though – and won’t be put in the pressure situations.

Reason #2 That the Reds are in Fourth Place

Cincinnati’s Edinson Volquez had a second MRI, which showed that inflammation hadn’t yet left his elbow.  This means that any plans the Reds had in getting Volquez on a throwing program will be halted.  Volquez went on the DL with a sore back in May, came back to throw a single inning on June first, and hasn’t pitched since then.  Without Volquez, and without Joey Votto, the Reds slid from a contending position in May to under .500 and fading as June ends.  The Reds have Votto back, and hope to have Volquez back by the end of July.

The Line Still Says “TBA”

C.C. Sabathia says his bullpen session went well and he’s looking forward to pitching on Friday as scheduled.  Meanwhile, the Yankees haven’t formally announced Sabathia as the starter.

Only a Matter of Time

Speaking of the Yankees, GM Brian Cashman flew to New York to see his struggling Yankees, only to see them struggle some more.  Then, in the sixth, Joe Girardi got fired (up) over a bad call, got tossed, and the Yankees erupted for an 8 – 4 win.  The game featured a rare at bat for Mariano Rivera, who flew out with the bases loaded to end the eighth.  Cashman says that Girardi’s job is not in jeopardy.

Yet.

Webb Reviews Options

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, Arizona ace Brandon Webb may not pitch in 2009, and now comes word that an MRI suggests that surgery is the next option for his ailing right shoulder.  Webb has tried rest and strengthening to no avail, so is looking for a second opinion before going under the knife.

When Mattingly Hurt His Back, They Removed his Backbone

Don Mattingly told Dan Patrick that he believes Manny Ramirez should still go into the Hall of Fame despite having been caught using PEDs.  Mattingly said, “He’s put up numbers for way too long.”

Of course he did, Don.  He was using.  Way to stick to the company line.

But He Still Leads the AL 3B All-Star Voting…

Evan Longoria continues to fight a sore left hamstring, leaving last night’s win over the Phillies in the seventh inning.  He doesn’t expect to miss any time, but just thought that the tightness required a little ice and rest.

What I’ll be Watching…

I don’t know about you, but I will find a way to watch John Smoltz’s return to baseball.  It’ll be odd to watch him in a Red Sox uniform, and who knows what kind of stuff he’ll have, but I always liked watching him pitch.

Cleveland Looks for Relief

Two trades yesterday, both involving the Cleveland Indians.  The Indians dealt Michael Aubrey, their top pick out of Tulsa in 2003, to Baltimore for a player to be named later.  At various times, Aubrey was a top prospect, but too many injuries later, he’s lost track of what looked like a promising career.  Aubrey makes contact, doesn’t walk too much, has a little power – just not enough to oust Victor Martinez, Travis Hafner and others from the first base slot.

The Indians also acquired Jose Veras from the Yankees for cash.  Veras is at best a tolerable middle reliever, but really isn’t destined for heavy lifting even out of the Cleveland pen, which lately has had a habit of making closers look really, really bad.

Welcome back! 

Yankee 3B Cody Ransom, originally asked to replace A-Rod, but instead joined him on the DL.  (Angel Berroa was designated for assignment, and will either be back at AAA or could be signed by another team looking for a utility infielder.)  Also, Twin OF Denard Span.

Hurry back! 

A’s Josh Outman, DL with a sprained elbow.  Yankee Xavier Nady gets a rehab assignment with Scranton-Wilkes Barre.

Afterthoughts…

Kip Wells lost his job in Washington – which means unless he develops a knuckleball, his career may likely be over.  He was designated for assignment.  I wonder if someone will sign him, or if he’ll take a trip to AAA.

I saw a headline that says the Mets called up Reyes from Buffalo, and thought my fantasy roster would need a change – but it was infielder Argenis Reyes, a stop-gap utlily infielder.

2009 Season Forecast: New York Yankees

New York Yankees
2008: 89-73 (3rd AL East, 8 games back)

The General Motors of baseball – throwing good money into superficial things and veterans only to wind up with nothing because they never really invest in the core of the team, just dressing up what they have and making another run.

Well, this year, by golly, we’re going to spend top dollar on the best players available and fix things!  The Yankees spent a half billion on two pitchers and a first baseman (and Nick Swisher).  That they bought CC Sabathia was not a surprise.  That they risked a lot of money on A.J. Burnett was not totally out of character.  However, to have given the rest of the bank to Mark Teixeira seemed like one big check too many – on a team loaded with big checks.  Let’s see if they spent it on the right things.

Did you know?  Something like 20 of the 86 players mentioned in the Mitchell Report played for Joe Torre?  Ah, but that’s just beating a dead horse.

Looking Back on 2008

The Yankees got off to a slow start, winning 14 of 29 in April, but seemed to play better through the rest of the spring and summer.  Most months were about 15 – 12 – not great months – which left the team behind the Red Sox and Rays for most of the summer.  The pitching fell apart in August, leading to another losing month – but not a 10 – 20 month, just a 13 – 15 month – before actually playing really well down the stretch in September.  The problem was that by then, they were too far out of the race.

Part of the problem was injuries.  Deteriorating knees (and operations on both of them in the last two seasons) cut into Hideki Matsui’s playing time and offensive contribution.  Chien-Ming Wang tore a tendon in his foot in June and was shut down for the rest of the year.  Catcher Jorge Posada’s shoulder required surgery.  For a while, he tried to play through it – but he couldn’t throw and eventually couldn’t hit.  As it was, his batting was well off his amazing 2007 season.

Part of it was that some of the younger guys didn’t produce.  Robinson Cano seemed lethargic at the beginning of the season and hit so poorly in April that nobody noticed he hit about .280 or better the rest of the way.  Ian Kennedy was given a shot at the starting rotation and left after nine starts with an ERA over 8.00.  Phil Hughes took over, pitched a little better – which still wasn’t good enough – and then left with a broken rib.  Melky Cabrera had such a poor stretch, he lost his job in centerfield, coming back only when it was obvious that Matsui couldn’t play the field.

The rest is that the best players weren’t at top form.  Alex Rodriguez was good, but off from his 2007 MVP numbers.  Derek Jeter was rather ordinary, with fewer doubles and homers cutting into his overall production.  The Yankees added Xavier Nady, who didn’t exactly set the world on fire when he arrived, and Ivan Rodriguez, who looked old at the plate.  Johnny Damon and Bobby Abreu played well – but there were a lot of holes at the bottom of the lineup for too much of the season.

Tell me about that offense

It’s rough when your “off season” is 35 homers, 103 RBI, batting .302 with 18 stolen bases in 21 attempts, but that’s what life is like for A-Rod.  Now, Alex Rodriguez will be dealing with a different kind of “off season” – as in his admission for using steroids, and now choosing to undergo surgery on a hip that began troubling him last fall.  Derek Jeter has superficially good numbers in a high batting average, but didn’t do much else last year.  He is much like Michael Young for Texas.  Playing nearly every day and batting at the top of the lineup, he gets a lot of at bats so the numbers look superficially better.  However, Jeter generated just 5.4 runs for every 27 outs – above average but not WAY above average.  As mentioned, Cano was awful in April – so much so that he finished as a below average producer.  He hardly ever walks, so unless he hits .320, he’s not much of a force.  Last year, he walked just 26 times, so made a lot of outs.  Jason Giambi had a decent year – don’t mind the low batting average (.246), he hit 32 homers and still gets on base a lot.

In the outfield, Johnny Damon was very productive.  He hits for a little power now, still is an effective baserunner, and has become more selective at the plate.  Bobby Abreu, even now, remains a very productive hitter, with decent power, some speed, and a good eye.  At some point, we may have to ask ourselves if Bobby Abreu is a Hall of Famer.  After that, however, you have a few more weak links.  Matsui is still productive, though his power is waning and his speed is gone.  Xavier Nady was okay – hit a few homers in Yankee Stadium, but otherwise had bland numbers.  Step down again to Melky Cabrera, who didn’t quite make it to .250, had little power, and doesn’t run well enough to make up for not being on base.

Behind the plate, Posada lost nearly 100 points in his batting average with his shoulder bothering him.  This forced the Yankees to play Jose Molina, who hit .216 with little power.  When that didn’t work, New York imported Ivan Rodriguez, who hit like Molina and didn’t throw very well.  Chad Moeller didn’t impress people with his bat either.

Unlike Yankee teams in the past, you had at least three holes in the lineup (second base, centerfield, and catcher), and with two other off seasons, and little help at DH, the offense was rather ordinary.  The Yankees finished seventh in runs scored in the American League.

Defensively:

Not very good.

Let’s start with the admission that it’s very likely that Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are negatively affected by the fact that opponents will let more left handed hitters play in Yankee Stadium than most other parks.  STILL, that infield is rather porous.  Jeter’s range rating the last three years has been -9.4, -12.3, -9.1.  A-Rod? -8.5, -6.1, -5.6.  At least he’s gotten better – and he cut down on his errors last year.  If the disparity were true, then Cano should be way above average, right?  He’s good, but not great.  4.2, 6.5, 5.4.  The NET of Jeter and Cano remains below zero – meaning that the infield is letting a lot of balls through to the outfield.  Giambi, who battles as best he can, is no Albert Pujols with the glove.

The end result is that if you had a ground ball pitcher, like Wang, he’s actually hurt by not having anybody behind him who can really scoop up grounders.  Wang has been successful not because of his defense, but rather because usually the team scores a lot of runs for him.

In the outfield, Cabrera wasn’t good enough, and Damon can’t cover center anymore.  Damon is still pretty good in left – but if Matsui is his backup, that’s a problem because Matsui can’t run at all.  Abreu in right is no longer a mobile outfielder.  Most days, the Yankees were playing five guys in the field who were defensive liabilities – and then you had Posada trying to catch.

Molina was actually very good against the run, allowing just 56% of the baserunners to make it – well above the league average and the best rate in the league.  Pudge did better in Detroit, but is finally showing signs of getting long in the tooth behind the plate.

Now Pitching…

Mike Mussina was great – nearly 30 runs better than the average pitcher despite having no defense behind him.  Getting 20 wins for the first (and only) time in his career was a wonderful way to leave the game – and the Yankees will miss him.  After that, the only other pitcher to make 30 starts was Andy Pettitte, and he was okay – about seven runs better than the average pitcher.  By the way – look at the hits per nine data for these two and you’ll see that the defense isn’t that strong behind them.

After that, you have Wang, who was good for two months, and Joba Chamberlain, who looked great in his 100 innings.  This year, look for Chamberlain to get 30 starts and 180 innings – if so, he could be amazing, or he could get hurt.  The rest of the staff was pretty weak.  Darrell Rasner was given 20 below average starts.  We talked about Hughes and Kennedy having poor runs.  Sidney Ponson was ordinary in 15 starts, and Carl Pavano was trying to remember how to pitch in his seven starts.  So, you had basically 2.5 good pitchers in the rotation – and for this division, that’s not enough.

The bullpen, though, was solid.  Mariano Rivera was the best reliever in baseball last year – 27 runs better than the average pitcher in just 70 innings.  Brian Bruney, Kyle Farnsworth, Edwar Ramirez, and Jose Veres were excellent in support roles.  Most people just didn’t notice because the Yankee gloves didn’t help these guys out.  Sure – there were a few duds, but nobody in the pen was really that bad, and none were as bad as an Ian Kennedy.

Forecasting 2009:

So, let’s summarize.  The problems to address were:

A) Find some starting pitching, especially since their best pitcher retired.
B) Get a better gloves in the outfield and probably at first base.
C) Get more offense out of centerfield, catching spots and hope for some veterans to bounce back some.  Also, don’t lose too much offense when Giambi and Abreu leave the team.

I think they did it.

Let’s look at the rotation, as it now features CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Pettitte, Wang, and Chamberlain.  To be honest – that’s a force compared with what the Yankees had last year.  This could easily be 60 runs better than in 2008.  The bullpen needs Rivera to be healthy, but I think the rest of the bullpen will be okay.  Rivera won’t be as good as last year – even if he’s healthy and good – so let’s take 15 runs back from the starters.  The good news is that the bullpen may need to be used less than before.

Offensively, Nady is not Abreu.  Cabrera is fighting with Brett Gardner for the centerfield slot – and frankly, I’d let the burner Gardner play.  At least you’d have to improvements in the outfield defensively.  The pitchers would appreciate having Gardner in center, for sure.  The defensive improvement would be another 20 runs.

With A-Rod gone for a couple of months, having to play Cody Ransom or somebody else for two months (or, if worse comes to worse) longer means losing 60 runs of offense.  Granted Teixeira will be a nice addition, but is he that much better than Giambi?  Hopefully, he’ll make the defense look a little better.  If Jeter and Damon hold steady, and Cano has a better season – I’d still look for the Yankees to score 50 fewer runs than in 2008.

If the Yankees finish with 740 runs scored and 645 runs allowed, they might win about 92 games.  That puts them in line with the Rays, who also look to win that many games.  My take on it is that the Rays won’t get to 92, which puts the Yankees in line for the wild card slot.  And, if they make the playoffs, they would have the front line pitching to compete all the way to the World Series.  I don’t think they are better than Boston, but they could win a short series.

Down on the Farm…

You may not have heard of Cody Ransom, but with A-Rod out, you will.  Ransom led Scranton/ Wilkes-Barre (AAA) with 22 homers.  However, he hit only .255 and struck out enough to think he won’t be much better than, say, a rough Jim Presley…  And, he’s not a prospect – he’s 33.  The best hitter, though, was probably Brett Gardner.  Gardner is a burner with no power, but he walks and bunts and could help the pitching staff with his defense.  The pitching staff is filled with people you’ve probably heard of before – Kei Igawa, Kennedy, Hughes, and the like.

AA Trenton doesn’t have much to brag about, but Phil Coke is a pitcher you might see once in a while.  Coke has slowly moved through the minors, but at AA Trenton he was 9 – 4 with good K/W numbers.  Coke got a shot at AAA and even saw time with the Yankees and pitched very well in 14 innings.  At best, he’s a long shot to pitch long relief and may start the season in AAA.

Catcher Jesus Montero batted .326 with power, leading the Charleston River Dogs (A+) in RBI.  He’s just 19, and figures to be a replacement for Posada by 2011.  I’d pick him as the top prospect on the team (Baseball America says he’s #6 in the system).  Baseball America says Brooklyn’s Dellin Betances is a better prospect – he’s a 20 year old pitcher who had big strikeout numbers for Charleston, but he looks like he needs to gain more control of the strike zone.  Still – look for the Yankees to trade him in a future July deal.  Betances is 6’ 8” and about 250 pounds, so he must be intimidating.  Zachary McAllister is working his way up quickly, winning 14 with a 2.09 ERA at two levels, finishing at Tampa (A+) last year.