2011 Season Forecast: Baltimore Orioles

Last Five Years:

2010:  66 – 96 (Last in AL East)
2009:  64 – 98
2008:  68 – 93
2007:  69 – 93
2006:  70 – 92

The Orioles haven’t had a winning record since 1997, when the roster included Rafael Palmeiro, Robbie Alomar, Cal Ripken, and Brady Anderson, with Harold Baines and Eric Davis on the bench.  The rotation was Mussina, Erickson, Jimmy Key, and Scott Kamieniecki.  Randy Myers was the closer and Jesse Orosco, Armando Benitez, and Arthur Rhodes were in the bullpen.  Oh, and Jeffrey Maier got in the way…

Runs Scored: 613 (13th in the AL, 100 runs better than Seattle, but well below average)
Runs Allowed: 785 (13th in the AL, 60 runs better than the Royals, but well below average)

2010 in Review:

A lot was made out of the hiring of Buck Showalter, and the early results were admittedly stunning.

The Dave Trembley managed Orioles were picked by many to finish last or fourth in the AL and didn’t disappoint.  The young arms didn’t get started, and the bats never came around.  Baltimore started 5 – 18, won just 10 in May, and went 9 – 17 in June.  By then, Trembley had been relieved of his job and Juan Samuel was given the interim job.  Things didn’t get any better, as the Orioles went 8 – 19 in July.  With a record of 32 – 73 (!), having just been swept by the Royals, the Orioles were pacing for just 49 wins – an historically bad total – so Buck Showalter was brought in to add organization and teaching to the Orioles.  The Orioles had a winning record in August and September (and October, 3 – 1).  This 34 – 23 stretch was NOT built, like the White Sox, Minnesota, and Detroit win streaks, by beating up on the lower level teams in the AL or a run of games against the NL Central, but rather against the AL East and other good teams like Texas, Chicago, Anaheim, and Detroit.

The roster moved around mostly because young players were shuttled in and out, but the Orioles had tried bringing in Miguel Tejada, and then sent him packing to San Diego before the trading deadline.  The other minor deal the Orioles did was to trade Will (Suitcase) Ohman to the Marlins for fringe rotation starter Rick Vanden Hurk.

Starters:

Jeremy Guthrie had a pretty solid year – 3.83 ERA, 209.1 innings, doesn’t walk people but served up a few homers.  His strikeout rate is a bit low, which is disconcerting, but not yet problematic.  Behind him was the disappointing import Kevin Millwood.  Millwood went 4 – 16 with a 5.10 ERA, mostly because he gave up 30 homers.  He actually struck out more guys than Guthrie with decent control, but you can’t give up 30 dingers without absorbing losses…  The third starter, Brian Matusz, showed promise finishing 10 – 12 with even better K/9 rates, and a better than league average run rate.  Brad Bergesen made 28 starts and was a young Kevin Millwood – lots of homers, without the good K rate.  The fifth slot was shared by youngsters Jake Arrieta and Chris Tillman.  Arrieta is a prospect but had nearly as many walks as strikeouts, which isn’t very good, and Tillman is a 22-year-old prospect who had very similar numbers to Arrieta – actually finishing with the same number of walks to strikeouts.  Arrieta and Tillman had replaced David Hernandez, who was lousy in the rotation but decent as a reliever.

Looking forward to 2011, the only change is the dismissal of Millwood, and the possible addition of Justin Duchscherer as a fifth starter option.  Duchscherer lost 2009 to surgery on his left elbow, battled depression, and came back in 2010 only to miss most of that season to have surgery on his left hip.  What would help the rotation most would be to keep the ball in the park, and for the middle defense to get stronger…  And, it would be nice to have a true ACE at the top of the rotation, which would slot Guthrie, Matusz, and Bergesen one spot down the chain.

Bullpen:

Alfredo Simon failed as the closer, ceding the job to Koji Uehara.  Uehara is a good late inning option, finishing with 55 Ks and just 5 walks in 43 innings.  Will Ohman was tolerable, Matt Albers wasn’t, and Mike Gonzalez – a good reliever – couldn’t stay healthy.  Mark Hendrickson may have played himself out of baseball, and Jason Berken may have played his way into an eighth inning role.  On the whole, though, the bullpen was lacking an ace as well.  Berken or Uehara could BECOME an ace, but until then, the Orioles brought in Kevin Gregg to be the closer for at least four months…  (He seems to run out of gas in August, and I can’t explain that since he’s a reliever, but he’s got John Franco disease.)  Gregg can be much better than Alfredo Simon, and if Mike Gonzalez can pitch 50 innings, there is hope that the bullpen can be ten to fifteen runs better than in 2010.

Catching:

Matt Wieters is a good young catcher.  I don’t know if he will be the next Joe Mauer, but he can be 80% of Joe Mauer and that’s not half bad.  Defensively, he’s pretty solid with a strong arm.  Offensively, he wasn’t all that great, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he jumped from the 11 – 55 – .249 numbers of 2010 to 17 – 75 – .280 in 2011.  I saw him in the minors and he’s BIG – 6′ 5″ and 225, and there is something about him that is impressive.  Let’s hope he takes that step forward.  Jake Fox and Craig Tatum are backups.  Fox can hit some – but doesn’t have a defensive position (why can’t he just DH?) and Tatum hit singles and catches the ball, but didn’t throw out any base stealers in 2010.  Okay, two.

Infield:

Most of last year’s infield is gone.  Instead of Ty Wiggington playing everywhere (and well) – usually at first base, Brian Roberts at second, Cesar Izturis at short, and Miguel Tejada at third, you have a much different, and potentially stronger offensive lineup.

Look, Tejada played third very well but his offense is slipping (as you would expect), and he was traded to San Diego.  Izturis fell off both offensively and defensively, and Brian Roberts couldn’t stay healthy, forcing Julio Lugo or Robert Andino into more regular roles.  Garrett Atkins was given a shot and, as I mentioned, shouldn’t have been given that shot.  On the whole, though, the infield in 2010 was WEAK.

Looking at 2011, you have Mark Reynolds, the basher who arrives from Arizona with a need to get his batting average back over .230 and cut his strikeouts down to under, say, 200.  STILL, even hitting .198, his power and walks make him an above average hitter and his defense is surprisingly strong.  J.J. Hardy comes over from Minnesota for prospects and immediately upgrades the offense and actually did a better job than Izturis in the field in 2010.  (I like Hardy as a late round fantasy pick – coming off a left wrist injury, his power should return – especially here.)  Izturis remains as a utility infielder along with Robert Andino.  Brian Roberts should be the DH because his body is breaking down and his defense has never been really good.  But, if he played 130 games at second, he might score 100 runs and few guys can do that.  Covering first base is newcomer Derrek Lee.  I’m not a huge fan of this – he’s getting old, his back doesn’t allow him to get to ground balls anymore, and he’s coming off of right thumb surgery – and I’d rather have kept Wigginton.  Luke Scott is his short term backup…  Still, there is a really good chance that the defense will be no worse than last year and the offense could jump up 60 – 80 runs better than last year.

Outfield:

Two positions remain capably covered, with Adam Jones being one of the most productive centerfielders in the AL, and Nick Markakis playing a reliable if not insanely productive right field.  Markakis could have a breakout season, but he sure hits fewer homers than he used to.  It would be nice if he accidentally tagged 25 homers, but I wouldn’t bet on it.  Luke Scott plays left, with Felix Pie getting at bats and logging late defensive innings.  It’s not a horrible platoon, really.  The fifth outfielder, Nolan Reimold, is better than his injury riddled numbers in 2011.

DH:

Luke Scott gets at bats here, as does Jake Fox, but in 2011, the Orioles have added Vlad Guerrero.  Guerrero had a decent first half in 2010, but faded badly down the stretch.  Oddly, the Orioles have a lot of candidates to play here and if they wanted someone on the Rangers, I’d gladly take Michael Young to play second and move Roberts to DH before I’d have given a deal to Guerrero.  Vlad got a one-year deal, though, so hopefully it will pay off.

Down on the Farm:

Most of what can play is already with the big club, leaving the top end of the minors system for Baltimore a bit thin.  The best players on the Norfolk Tides (AAA) were pitchers Jake Arrieta and Chris Tillman, who are pretty decent prospects, and catcher Brandon Snyder, who doesn’t have a place to play so long as Matt Wieters is still around.

Joel Guzman is still around, hitting 33 homers at AA Bowie.  A few years ago, Guzman was considered a propsect at SS because he was mobile and had power.  He’s still got power, but he’s older and heavier (and taller) and now he’s trying to make it back to the bigs but he might have to do it as a third baseman.  God bless him…  Ryan Adams was taken #2 five years ago, and looked like an almost prospect at Bowie – but mid-range power hitting .298 isn’t going to make it much past a cup of coffee.  Joe Mahoney seems to be making progress, hitting for more power and higher averages as he works through the minors.  He’ll likely start in Bowie, though, and for a first baseman mid-range power isn’t a total asset.

Speaking of first basemen with mid-range power… Tyler Townsend, taken in the third round in 2009, looks like a Gaby Sanchez-type hitter in A+ Frederick.  If he takes a step forward in 2011, look for him to make the squad in late 2013.  Former #2 pick, Mychal Givens is returning from a thumb injury, it will be interesting to see what the shortstop can do if he can just play a full season at  Delmarva or A+ Frederick.

Forecasting 2011:

The Orioles made a lot of bold changes to the roster, most of which will bolster the offense.  I mean, this is a pretty good lineup:  Roberts, Markakis, Jones, Scott, Reynolds, Vlad, Lee, Wieters and Hardy.  This team could easily jump from 613 runs scored to 725 or even 740 runs.  It could also struggle for three months if Vlad and Lee can’t get on track and finish at around 675.  I like the idea, however, that 700 runs is very possible.  The team isn’t GREAT defensively as long as Roberts and Hardy are your double-play combination, but the problem in 2010 was homers allowed more than anything else.

The pitching will hold steady in the rotation, but the bullpen could be marginally better.  Facing Boston, Tampa, New York, and Toronto, it’s hard to look great with your pitching staff.  That being said, I don’t know if the Yankees and Tampa will score more than 800 runs in 2011, and that will help lower the Baltimore defensive numbers.  It’s VERY possible that the AL East may have five teams at or above .500 at some point in the season.  Baltimore isn’t going to win 85 games, but they have a very good shot at 80 wins.  Realistically, I see them as a 79 – 83 team, getting the fans excited about the Orioles future.

I also see them having some big holes to fill in 2012 – first base, second base, closer, and ace – that will require the farm to turn out a future star or the ownership to make a REALLY bold move rather than fetch a bunch of veterans as short gap changes.

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2010 AL Second Basemen

Robinson Cano – NYY (118.3 Runs Created, 33.3 Runs Saved = 151.6 Total Runs Productivity)

Orlando Hudson is a very good second baseman.  Robinson Cano was nearly TWICE as productive as Hudson.  Power, range, doesn’t swing at bad pitches…  My pick for AL MVP, and he might get better.  Just entering his prime…

Orlando Hudson – MIN (65.9 Runs Created, 16.3 Runs Saved = 82.2 Total Runs Productivity)

Did exactly what you would expect – hits well and can bat first or second in the lineup (you’d rather have him hit second), fields the position as well as you could hope.  Not an all-star, but right below that line – and the kind of guy who can help you win championships.

Howie Kendrick – LAA (87.7 Runs Created, -10.4 Runs Saved = 77.3 Total Runs Productivity)

A very useful player who played every day, produced enough with the bat (5.1 runs per 27 outs), but needs a little work with the glove.  He’s NOT a top of the order hitter so long as his OBA is .316, but you could bat him from the seventh to the ninth spot and not do too badly with him.

Mike Aviles – KC (61.4 Runs Created, 15.8 Runs Saved = 77.2 Total Runs Productivity)

Came back from a disappointing 2009 to look like his superstar self from 2008.  Batted for average and mid-range power, fields his position extremely well, and remains one of the best players on the Royals.  Needs to stay healthy – if he does, the Royals have a top flight #2 hitter.

Ian Kinsler – TEX (62.4 Runs Created, 8.0 Runs Saved = 70.4 Total Runs Productivity)

The new Mark Ellis.  Hits, has power, gets on base, can run, fields the position really well, can’t stay in the lineup.

Mark Ellis – OAK (62.8 Runs Created, 3.5 Runs Saved = 66.3 Total Runs Productivity)

Turns 34 in June, Mark Ellis’s body may not help him make it to 2014.  Still a decent enough hitter, but his power is leaving him, and his range – once solid – is now a smidge above average.  The A’s are getting better and you’d like to see Ellis get one more shot at the post season.

Sean Rodriguez – TB (49.2 Runs Created, 15.2 Runs Saved = 64.4 Total Runs Productivity)

The kid came up, played all over the field as Ben Zobrist had before him, and proved himself to be a very valuable player.  Sean Rodriguez settled in at second base and was rock solid there, and with his decent power earned a chance to be the starter for all of 2011.  I like him.

Dustin Pedroia – BOS (55.4 Runs Created, -0.8 Runs Saved = 54.6 Total Runs Productivity)

Missed half the season after fouling a ball off his left foot and breaking it, requiring surgery.  On pace for 25 homers and 50 doubles, despite a brutal May, Pedroia is one of the best offensive forces in the league.  Bill Hall played a lot of second base after Pedroia went down, and not badly.  However, even with Hall’s power, he’s not the run producer that Pedroia is.  Jed Lowrie is a better fielder, but he can’t hit like DP either.  In the years Dustin plays 130+ games, the Sox make the playoffs – so you know what Boston is rooting for…

Reid Brignac – TB (40.3 Runs Created, 14.3 Runs Saved = 54.6 Total Runs Productivity)

A very good season defensively and a pretty good season offensively, he earned a chance to be the regular shortstop and allowed the Rays to trade a declining Jason Bartlett.  With Evan Longoria and Rodriguez throwing to a dependable first baseman, this could be the best defensive infield in baseball for 2011.

Gordon Beckham – CHI (51.0 Runs Created, 8.4 Runs Saved = 59.4 Total Runs Productivity)

Offensively, Beckham was off, barely creating four runs per 27 outs.  Defensively, having switched over from third base, he was fantastic.  For Beckham to really help the White Sox, he needs to create 75 or more runs, the way he seemed to be capable of in 2009.  Otherwise, he’s rather ordinary.  He is, however, better than Chris Getz.

Chone Figgins – SEA (78.4 Runs Created, -33.3 Runs Saved = 45.1 Total Runs Productivity)

Never really looked comfortable with the switch to second after spending much of the last few years at third base, and his batting stats predictably fell off after his remarkable 2009 season.  I think he’ll be better in 2011, but still isn’t one of the five best second base options in the AL.

Aaron Hill – TOR (55.2 Runs Created, -14.5 Runs Saved = 40.7 Total Runs Productivity)

Chone Figgins without the position change.  Fell to earth, crashed really, after an amazing 2009, and brought his struggles to the field with him.  I think he’ll bounce back, but looking at his baseball card, you’ll always do a double take comparing the two seasons.

Carlos Guillen – DET (35.3 Runs Created, 4.3 Runs Saved = 39.6 Total Runs Productivity)

A stop gap option after Scott Sizemore skidded to Toledo, at least until his body broke down, Guillen used to be a good shortstop, a good left fielder, and could be a good second baseman.  On the other hand, he’s 35 and is really best suited to be a DH – and Detroit has DH options.  So, Guillen – assuming he has a good chiropractor and trainer – could be a utility guy, getting 450 productive at bats all over the field.  In the last year of his contract, so let’s see if he can keep it together and help the Tigers…

Jayson Nix – CLE (35.0 Runs Created, 1.8 Runs Saved = 36.8 Total Runs Productivity)

He could be a new Dan Uggla if the Indians wanted to go that way – he hits for power, doesn’t do badly at the position, and I’d let him play there if they found a good option at third base.

Will Rhymes – DET (28.0 Runs Created, 6.2 Runs Saved = 34.2 Total Runs Productivity)

The best of the Tigers three second baseman, Rhymes hit .304, had an acceptable slugging and fielding percentage, and played the position well – all the things Detroit thought that Scott Sizemore could do.  Should have first dibs at the position in 2011 – though he’s a bit old for a rookie, turning 28 on April Fool’s Day.

Luis Valbuena – CLE (20.2 Runs Created, 6.5 Runs Saved = 26.7 Total Runs Productivity)

A disappointing season with the bat, batting under the Mendoza line.  I think he’ll be a bit better, but he’ll never be much of a run producer, limiting him to a career as a utility infielder.

Julio Lugo – BAL (20.0 Runs Created, 5.6 Runs Saved = 25.6 Total Runs Productivity)

He’s still around, can help by playing four positions, but can’t hit enough to be more than a good utility guy.  Might have one more year left, but I wouldn’t bet on 2012.

Jason Donald – CLE (36.7 Runs Created, -11.9 Runs Saved = 24.8 Total Runs Productivity)

If he had a more discerning eye, he could be the new Brian Roberts.  Offensively, Donald doesn’t hurt you, but he didn’t show the type of range needed at either second or short.  Both could improve, however, and the Indians would be finding a way to move the team in the right direction.  I’d be surprised if he doesn’t get a better chance in 2011.  Working against him, he’s rather old for a rookie and will turn 27 when the season is over.

Brian Roberts – BAL (32.6 Runs Created, -17.1 Runs Saved = 15.5 Total Runs Productivity)

Injured at the beginning of the season, then perpetually on the trading block.  I know he’s not a very good defensive player, but how many really good leadoff hitters are out there?  I’d make him the new Paul Molitor.  If he can stay healthy, and at 33 his back is going to bother him from time to time, he’s got a shot at 100 runs scored – and that’s a valuable commodity.

Mark Grudzielanek – CLE (10.5 Runs Created, 3.3 Runs Saved = 13.8 Total Runs Productivity)

Had 30 hits and all were singles.  At 40, not sure if he’ll be back, but he can still play second base a little bit.  He MIGHT be your favorite team’s next manager one day.

Chris Getz – KC (21.1 Runs Created, -8.4 Runs Saved = 12.7 Total Runs Productivity)

An alleged glove man who hasn’t shown that at the major league level, and he can’t hit.  Will be a short term utility guy, but you’d rather have someone who does SOMETHING.  Maybe someone who plays four positions well defensively (Alfredo Amezaga), or someone who can play the positions poorly, but hits enough to let it slide from time to time and can pinch hit (Jeff Treadway).  Getz can’t do either.

Scott Sizemore – DET (14.4 Runs Created, -10.9 Runs Saved = 3.5 Total Runs Productivity)

This wasn’t what Detroit had in mind – the man chosen to replace Placido Polanco didn’t hit and didn’t field as well as had been hoped and wound up back in Toledo for 2010.  Compared to Rhymes, he has always been a bit better hitter with a better eye, comparable speed, and a bit more power. He’s also 26.  However, Rhymes did the job.  Sizemore will likely get another chance, but at this point, he can’t afford to blow it.

2010 Season Forecast: Boston Red Sox

Last Five Seasons:
2009: 95 – 67 (2nd AL East)
2008: 95 – 67
2007: 96 – 66
2006: 86 – 76
2005: 95 – 67

Runs Scored: 872 (3rd AL)
Runs Allowed: 736 (3rd AL)

Season Recap:

Most people figured that the Red Sox would finish first or second in the AL East and, as they have done four times in the last five years, the finished with at least 95 wins.

The Sox actually stumbled out of the gate, losing their first three series to Tampa, Los Angeles, and then Oakland.  An eleven game winning streak got things going, however, putting the Red Sox out front in the first month of the season.  Jason Bay‘s April made up for the struggles of David Ortiz, but already there were problems.

As the calendar turned to May, the Sox were dealing with a hole at shortstop, the lack of offensive production behind the plate, and still David Ortiz hitting like a middle aged AAA infielder.  Brad Penny wasn’t pitching well as a fourth starter, and the team leader in wins was a 40 something knuckeballer.  Daisuke Matsuzaka was rehabbing a sore back – and dealing with his lack of fitness.

In June, things started to look up.  Ortiz started hitting.  Jon Lester hit his stride, and the Sox went 20 – 8 to regain control of the AL East.  Unfortunately, the Yankees were becoming more complete as the season went on while the Red Sox were just coping.  Mike Lowell‘s hip became problematic.  Jed Lowrie was out and Julio Lugo couldn’t stay in the lineup.  Nick Green, who had taken over for both, began hitting the way Nick Green usually hit – which is .240 with no power or patience.  J.D. Drew missed a month of games, and Jason Bay took a month off with poor production in July.

When August began, the Yankees were in control and the Red Sox were an afterthought.  The Sox didn’t have enough bats to make up for a pitching staff that had 4.86 ERA for the last two months of the year.  In fact, if you consider May, July, August, and September, the Red Sox were just eight games over .500 (59 – 51) and had no business being considered among the elite teams in baseball.  A decent April and a very good June gave them the gaudy record they had.

Pitching:

At the top of the rotation, the Red Sox were solid.  Jon Lester went 15 – 8 and saved his team 33 runs over 203.1 innings.  Josh Beckett delivered a healthy season, 17 wins, and saved his team 20 runs in 212.1 innings.  Tim Wakefield wasn’t bad, but with his bad back, he couldn’t pitch much after the all-star break, making just 21 starts.  After that, however, nobody else was really that impressive.

Brad Penny had a 6.08 ERA in his 24 starts.  John Smoltz returned from surgery to make eight ugly start (8.33 ERA).  Daisuke Matsuzaka went 4 – 6 with a 5.76 ERA.  The Sox gave four starts to Junichi Tazawa that they wish hadn’t happened.  Boston finally gave 16 starts to Clay Buchholz, and he went 7 – 4 with a 4.21 ERA – but you have to wonder what took so long.  Same goes with Justin Masterson, who was left in the bullpen but should have had more than six starts.

In the bullpen, the Red Sox remained solid with Jonathan Papelbon‘s  38 saves and 1.85 ERA.  Hideki Okajima, Takashi Saito, and Ramon Ramirez were capable and competent middle and short relievers.  Even Billy Wagner and Daniel Bard contributed when asked to pitch.

Looking to 2010, if the Sox want to keep up with the Yankees, they need to have more starting pitching.  John Lackey was signed away from the Angels to give the Sox a big three to go along with Beckett and Lester.  Matsuzaka has to find his way back to 2007 – 2008 form.  If so, that’s four solid starters.  Look for Matsuzaka to fight with Buchholz and Wakefield for the last two spots in the rotation.  Justin Masterson, as you might remember, is with Cleveland after the Sox traded for catcher Victor Martinez.

The bullpen includes Jonathan Papelbon, Hideki Okajima, and Ramon Ramirez, and is supported by Manny Delcarmen, Daniel Bard, and possibly prospect Michael Bowden.  I think the Sox will miss having Saito, but if Lackey can stay healthy for 30 starts (he’s been nicked up the last couple of years), they might not need the bullpen as often.

That being said, this unit is more potential than actual at the back end – and that tempers my opinion just a little bit.  There is every good reason for this group to be 30 runs better than last season, but in all likelihood, I see it more like 15 runs better.

Catching:

Victor Martinez joined the Sox in the late summer and helped sustain the offense (.336 BA, 507 Slugging).  I think he’ll do just fine in a full season – which will be about 15 runs better than having more Jason Varitek playing full time.  At the same time, Martinez isn’t in Varitek’s league as a catcher (though neither is any good against the run anymore), so it might cost the team about five runs defensively.

Infield:

Kevin Youkilis is a mobile and dependable first and third baseman who, with the addition of Adrian Beltre, will find most of his playing time at first base.  He hits for some power, gets on base a lot – one of the best first basemen in baseball.  Mike Lowell, if he remains, could be a competent backup at both corners.

Dustin Pedroia wasn’t as good in 2009 as he had been in 2008 – but he dropped off both offensively and defensively.  I think he’ll bounce back some defensively, but we’ve probably seen his best offensive season already.

After a year trying Julio Lugo, Jed Lowrie, Nick Green, and Alex Gonzalez at short – failures abounding here – the Sox went out and signed free agent Marco Scutaro from Toronto.  As mentioned in my comments about the shortstops, Scutaro is NOT a top flight defender, but he’ll be a step up.  He’s also coming off a career year and is closer to 35 than 25.

At third, the Sox went defensive – signing Mariner Adrian Beltre to replace Mike Lowell (only Lowell couldn’t leave).  Beltre remains as good a fielder at the position as you will find, and if he can return to good health will have offensive numbers not too different than what Lowell produced.  Lowell was supposedly traded to Texas for catcher Max Ramirez, but hand injuries prevented that trade from happening.  So, for now the Sox have a really good (and expensive) insurance policy.

Bill Hall arrives from Milwaukee to join Jed Lowrie and Lowell in providing bench support.

As a group, this is going to be a bit better than last year – maybe 20 runs better defensively and 15 runs better offensively.

Outfield:

Jason Bay, an all-star left fielder, is gone – and his replacement is Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Mike Cameron.  Cameron is still a solid defensive player so he’ll get the nod in center and move speedster (but not nearly as good defensively) Jacoby Ellsbury to left.  Bay was surprisingly good in left, so Ellsbury will hopefully just maintain the good numbers.  Cameron will be an improvement over Ellsbury in center – assuming that he doesn’t suddenly age in Boston.  In right, J.D. Drew returns – just as likely he’ll be missing time and we’ll get to see more of former Marlin Jeremy HermidaBill Hall could play some out here as well.

I don’t see this as an offensive improvement – it’s probably a loss of 40 runs from 2009.  Defensively, however, it should be fifteen runs better.

DH/Bench:

David Ortiz struggled and you all read about it.  What is lost is how well he played in the last four months, nearly making it to 100 RBI.  I don’t think he’s going back to his old days – he doesn’t have the bat speed and needs to lose about 30 pounds.  But, he can be productive and guys like Hermida and Martinez will do fine as his occasional replacement.

The rest of the bench is pretty good – Hermida can play two positions in the outfield, Hall can play four or five positions.  Jed Lowrie covers the other two, and Varitek is a tolerable back up catcher.  I just don’t think that the offense off the bench will be that good.

Prospects:

Most of the AAA hitters are getting long in the tooth, and the one player who stood out was outfielder Chris Carter, a former Diamondback farmhand who is 27 and should have made it by now.  He must have defensive issues – because he can surely hit.  Of course, he’s with the Mets now.  Let’s hope he catches a break there.  The best pitchers, Daniel Bard, Michael Bowden, Hunter Jones, and Clay Buchholz are already with the big club.  (Hunter Jones is with the Marlins.)

The Portland River Dogs (AA) featured a couple of pitchers that might make an impact in a couple of years – but likely somewhere else.  Junichi Tazawa smoked AA, pitched well enough at AAA and got a shot with the big club.  He’s not ready, but he’s close.  Good control, decent strikeout numbers…  Felix Doubrant, a 22-year-old, has great stuff but needs to work on his control.  I see him in AAA at the start of 2010.  And reliever Dustin Richardson has NASTY stuff, 80Ks in 63 innings, but walked 40 – and that’s going to be a problem.  He COULD be a future closer, but not yet.

First baseman Aaron Bates alternates between hitting .340 and .240 – the good guy would be great, but the former third round pick (2006) hasn’t been consistent at the top levels.  Outfielder Josh Reddick is 23, has great power, but needs another season before he makes the concert tour with the big boys.

At A+ Salem (where I was surprised to see former Royals infielder Carlos Febles is the batting instructor), the most interesting prospect is from Taiwan, Che-Hsuan Lin.  Lin can run, is 21, and shows some patience and the potential to find a little power.  If he has a big year in AA, look for someone to give him a MLB look.  Anthony Rizzo is even younger and hits a bit like Mark Grace – and plays first base, too.  Ryan Kalish was so good at Salem, he moved to Portland and still showed power.  He’s 22 and will start 2010 at AAA.

Two pitchers that caught my eye were Casey Kelly and Eammon Portice.  Portice has control, an out pitch, and the Ft. Lauderdale native who was a late round 2007 draft pick has been a pleasant surprise at every level.  Kelly is a rare find – the spot starter/shortstop.  He won’t hit enough to play in the big leagues, but has a live arm and might make it based on his great control and power strikeout numbers.  In 95 innings, he’s walked just 16 batters, allowed 65 hits, and fanned 74.

Forecast:

With the offense staying good but likely not great, the improvements defensively and in the rotation should be enough to push the Red Sox back to the top.  The system says 97 wins, but personally, I’d play the under.  If my hunches about both the Yankees and Red Sox are right, Boston and New York would finish in a dead heat – but the system picks the Sox.

2010 Season Forecast: St. Louis Cardinals

Last Five Years:

2009:  91 – 71 (1st NL Central)
2008:  86 – 76
2007:  78 – 84
2006:  83 – 78
2005: 100 – 62

Runs Scored: 730
Runs Allowed: 640

Season Recap:

With two aces and the world’s greatest offensive force, the Cardinals held their own throughout the 2009 season.  And just when it looked like someone might catch them, the Cards added Matt Holliday, Mark DeRosa, and John Smoltz to bury the rest of the division.

The Cardinals got off to a hot start, winning 17 of the first 24 games.  However, like the Cubs, a couple of ill-timed losing streaks returned the team back to the pack and in fact St. Louis trailed Milwaukee for parts of June.  In fact, all three teams played indifferently for much of the summer until the front office got involved.

Adding Holliday to the offense and giving a few starts to someone other than Todd Wellemeyer helped get a winning stretch going.  From July 27th through the end of the year, the Cardinals played great – going 38 – 23 before losing in the playoffs.

Injuries claimed Ryan Ludwick and Rick Ankiel at times, and LaRussa had to work around a defense that wasn’t functional at many positions.  Skip Schumaker was an outfielder impersonating a second baseman – badly.  He was replaced by Julio Lugo near the end of the season, and the ball wasn’t hit close enough to him either – not that Lugo had been a regular second baseman recently.  Chris Duncan is a poor outfielder – replaced by Matt Holliday who actually played even worse.  Ryan Ludwick played at a below average pace in right and the ball wasn’t hit to his occasional replacements (Ankiel, Nick Stavinoha) either.

Despite this, the pitchers allowed the third fewest runs in the NL – which shows you how good Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter were.  And they were simply amazing.  Put this staff in front of the middle 80’s team that featured Ozzie and Willie McGee and company, and they might have allowed only 500 runs all year.

Starting Pitching:

Adam Wainwright pitched 233 innings, fanned 212, and had a 3:1 K/W ratio.  He saved his team some 43 runs over using a league average starter.  Chris Carpenter was even better.  Returning from elbow surgery, Carpenter nearly tossed 200 innings in just 28 starts, winning 17 and finishing with an ERA of just 2.24.  He saved his squad 48 runs.  The third starter, Joel Pineiro won 15 himself, hardly walking anyone and keeping batted balls on the ground all season.

With 51 wins in the top three spots, the Cardinals countered with Todd Wellemeyer and Kyle Lohse at the bottom of the rotation; two who were below average pitchers.  Wellemeyer was so bad, he cancelled out half an ace with his 5.89 ERA.

Three starters are back, starting with the aces and adding Kyle Lohse.  Pineiro is gone, replaced by Brad Penny – and my take on it that Penny should be close to as good as Pineiro was.  They have comparable strikeout rates, and if Penny keeps the ball over the plate, should fare well here.  Wellemeyer is also history, but it’s hard to tell who might get that fifth slot.  It could be Mitchell Boggs, who got nine starts and while his ERA was tolerable (4.19), he sure got lucky.  Boggs allowed 71 hits in 58 innings and walked 33 more.  Some time back, I suggested that you could figure how lucky a pitcher was by comparing his actual runs allowed data against his “reverse runs created” data.  Essentially, I was treating his pitching stats like I would an offensive player.  Given the combination of hits and walks that Boggs allowed, he would expect to have allowed 40 runs, not 28, and his ERA would have been about 6.05.

I digress.  The fifth starter could also be non-roster invitee Rich Hill, who is just the type of pitcher that seems to get his career healed by the coaching of Dave Duncan.  Look for Hill to make the roster and possibly make the rotation.

The bullpen returns virtually intact – Ryan Franklin was about the best closer in the National League, but he’s NOT a power guy and I don’t believe that he’s going to be as successful in 2010.  Trever Miller had a great season, but he only pitched 43.2 innings in his 70 games, which means that LaRussa spotted him well.  He and Dennys Reyes will be the designated lefties, while Kyle McClellan, Brad Thompson, and Jason Motte pick up the other innings.  Rookie Jess Todd might be a nice set up man for part of the season.

My view of this is that the pitching can’t possibly be this good next year.  Not that Wainwright and Carpenter won’t be good – they could be 25 runs better than the average pitchers, which is very good, but that would be 40 runs off from last year’s production.  Ryan Franklin could be good, but lose five runs from a peak season last year.  Not having to pitch Todd Wellemeyer will help some, however I’d be nervous about the current options.  I see the pitching being off by about 50 runs.

Catching:

Yadier Molina remains the best defensive catcher in baseball and seems to be adding some offensive tools.  His backup is Jason LaRue – who will get to catch four times a month.

Infield:

Albert Pujols is the best offensive player in the game, and the best defensive player at his position.  His quickness means that he plays farther off the bag than most people – which gives him a serious range advantage over just about anybody.

After a year of Skip Schumaker, who stays to provide depth, the Cardinals will be using Felipe Lopez at second base.  This is an immediate 20 run upgrade defensively, and if Lopez continues to hit, a match to the production Schumaker provided (80 runs created, and 5.7 runs per 27 outs – which is solid).

Brendan Ryan was a stopper defensively, but starts the season coming back from wrist surgery.  I’m not sure he’ll be able to replicate last year’s production defensively and it’s hard to come back and hit right away after a hand or wrist injury.  His backup will be Julio Lugo or Tyler Greene.

At third, Mark DeRosa is gone and the Joe Thurston experiment is over.  David Freese will get the job.  Freese is a prospect, albeit a rather old prospect.  You may remember that Freese was acquired from San Diego for Jim Edmonds.  Well, Freese has been solid in the minors – hitting .306 with 26 homers in Memphis in 2008, and then batting .300 with 10 homers in just 200 at bats last season at AAA.  The Ballwin, MO native can hit at this level – he’ll be 27 in April.  I think he’ll hit like Todd Zeile – 18 homers, .270 batting average.  If he can field at all, he’ll be an upgrade over what the Cards got last year.

Pujols season was better than what he had done the previous couple of years, he could lose twenty runs of offense and STILL be the best hitter in the game.  With the wrist injury, Brendan Ryan will be off, but that will be made up by the play of Freese.  The net result, however, is probably 20 runs fewer offensively and probably ten runs off defensively.

Outfield:

This is going to be a very productive offense featuring Matt Holliday, Colby Rasmus, and Ryan Ludwick.  Ludwick, if healthy, holds his own.  A full season of Holliday will be better than half a season of Chris Duncan.  And Colby Rasmus will hit better than what Rick Ankiel did last year.  Defensively, Rasmus should hold steady, Holliday will be a slight improvement over Duncan, and Ankiel won’t be better.

Backups include Skip Schumaker, Nick Stavinoha and maybe a rookie – Joe MatherShane Robinson?  It could be Allen Craig, who had a solid year at Memphis last year (see Prospects).

This team will score produce about 30 runs more than last year and hold steady defensively.

Bench:

Not a bad bunch, but some holes…  Skip Schumaker will get a lot of innings, Julio Lugo returns, as does Tyler Greene, and then you have Nick Stavinoha, and Jason LaRue.  Which of these guys, other than Schumaker, would you want as a pinch hitter?  It’s a bit weak.

Prospects:

AAA Memphis had a couple of guys who might be interesting.  David Freese will get a shot at the third base job after a year and a half of solid play with the Redbirds.  Allen Craig hit .322 with 26 homers, but he’s not really patient at the plate.  He’s a potential fourth outfielder with the Cardinals though, and could be Ryan Ludwick’s equal in right field.  (.280 – 20 homers)

Jess Todd was the closer in Memphis and was solid – 59 Ks, 13 walks, 24 saves to match his 2.20 ERA.  He’ll be on the Cardinals in 2010.  The best starter was likely P.J. Walters, who was tolerable – decent control, a good strikeout record, but a bit hittable.

The best pitchers at Springfield (AA) weren’t dominating, but had good records and avoided the long ball.  Trey Hearne and Lance Lynn combined for 23 wins and only 7 losses and have interchangeable stats.  Lynn was a 1A draft pick in 2008, so he’s moving up quickly and the Cardinals have high hopes for him.  Infielder Daniel Descalso hit well (.323, .396 OBP) at Springfield but hasn’t been consistent at that level in the minors.

Former first round picks, like Brett Wallace, Clayton Mortensen and Shane Carpenter are gone.  Peter Kozma was a top pick in 2007 and struggled to hit .216 in AA – he’s going to run out of chances soon.  Another, 2007 pick David Kopp struggled to a 6.43 ERA at Springfield – he might get one more shot before being cast away.  Much of the 2006 draft is still around and getting close – Adam Ottavino, Chris Perez, Jon Jay, Shane Robinson, and Allen Craig are in Memphis but haven’t made it in (or to) the bigs yet.

There are a couple of players in the minors, but as a whole, the Cardinal organization is a little thin right now.

Outlook:

Having gone through the process, I think the Cardinals will be in the mix but might not easily repeat.  I think they’ll score about 740 runs, but allow more than last year – as many as 690 runs.  If that’s the combination, it works out to 87 wins.  With Milwaukee likely getting better and the Cubs in the mix, the NL Central could easily have the most exciting September in baseball.  The Cards MIGHT win the division, and they MIGHT get the wild card.  Or, they MIGHT fall a game or two short.  It’s too close to call.

News and Notes from a Friday in Baseball…

It’s official – Boston has given up on catching the Yankees.  The Red Sox acquired shortstop Alex Gonzalez from Cincinnati for minor leaguer Kris Negron.  Let’s look at what Boston is getting.  Three years ago, Gonzalez was a below average hitter (4.2 runs per 27 outs) and a below average fielder (7.6 plays less than the average shortstop per 800 balls in play).  He played a little better in Cincinnati – slightly above average as a hitter, but still below average as a fielder (-2.3).  Then, he missed all of 2008 with an injury.  So – if you were expecting Gonzalez to perform any better than, say, 2006, you were extremely optimistic.

For 2009, Gonzalez is hitting all of .213 – which, admittedly, is better than Nick Green has hit since June, but not going to keep up with the Yankees.  Julio Lugo was a better option, but he was given up for lost (and then given up for a AAA outfielder in Chris Duncan).  A lot of moves are made in desperation – and this was definitely one of them.  Certainly Jack Wilson would have been a better option, but apparently Pittsburgh must have wanted too much.

John Smoltz isn’t going to retire – though his contract may make it difficult for Boston to deal the veteran pitcher.  So, look for Boston to release Smoltz, and then a small bidding war between four or five teams looking for extra bullpen arms.  [FoxSports]

Let’s talk surgery.  Erik Bedard’s was a success, and he looks to a return for spring training, though what team’s spring training is up in the air.  Bedard’s contract is up, and the Mariners can either (a) exercise an option, (b) resign him through arbitration or contract negotiations, or (c) let him go as a free agent, though possibly without future considerations given Bedard’s lack of playing time due to injuries since he arrived in Seattle.  [FoxSports]

Another pitcher looking forward to the knife is San Diego’s Chris Young, who has scheduled his surgery for Monday.  Young’s season was over, and he could have tried rest and rehab, or a minor operation and rehab.  So – bring on the knife.  [MLB]

The Rangers got Ian Kinsler back from the DL, but lost Nelson Cruz to the same list…  Cruz sprained his ankle against Oakland more than a week ago and it’s healing slowly.  [FoxSports]

Yankee Alex Rodriguez sat out a game with a sore elbow (he was beaned squarely on the point of the elbow Wednesday night), but missed last night’s game with a sore back.  He remains day-to-day…  [SI]

Welcome Back!  Tampa gets back side armed reliever Chad Bradford from the DL.

Hurry Back!  Pittsburgh’s Jose Ascanio heads to the DL with shoulder tendinitis.  White Sox infielder Chris Getz heads to the DL with a strained oblique.

Both St. Louis and Oakland are Winners in the Holliday Deal

Friday’s hot topic was the trade of Matt Holliday from the Oakland A’s to the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for three prospects.  Will this give the Cards a leg up on the rest of the very tight NL Central?

Let’s give this a look see.

In acquiring Matt Holliday, that means that the Cards are effectively replacing what used to be the departed Chris Duncan or the disappointing Rick Ankiel (since rookie Colby Rasmus made an impact on the team and now plays center) with a so-far disappointing Holliday.  As a defender, Holliday is better than Duncan, but not appreciably better than Ankiel in left.  However, he might be about 20 runs better as a hitter – and likely to be more healthy – than the combination of Duncan and Ankiel.  Moving Ankiel to the bench as a fourth outfielder, pinch hitter isn’t a bad thing either.  If Holliday goes haywire upon his return to the NL – hitting like Manny Ramirez in LA or Mark Teixeira in LAA (Angels) last year – it could be better, but you cannot predict .350 and power for two months.

I’m not convinced that this is going to make Albert Pujols a better hitter.  So, stop saying that, sports reporters – Pujols doesn’t need protection and people are still going to be afraid to pitch to him.  It’s just depth in the lineup – and good depth.

What the Cardinals really need is for Mark DeRosa to get hot and make the team forget the Joe Thurston experiment, and for Julio Lugo to break free as the new second baseman, hitting better than Khalil Greene, Brian Barden, and Tyler Green have hit trying to impersonate a shortstop.  Brendan Ryan has been good enough, but if Lugo suddenly finds his form at the top of the lineup, THAT extra 15 – 20 runs would be equally valuable.  In the NL central, forty extra runs in 65 games would be a significant improvement – possibly worth 6 games to the good, and in a race as close as this one, an extra six wins would go a long way to putting St. Louis in the playoffs.

For Oakland, they get three prospects.  What did Oakland receive?

Most analysts are saying the keystone is Brett Wallace, a first round pick in 2008 who has stormed through A, AA, and now AAA for St. Louis.  At Memphis, Wallace was hitting .293 with a little power (which I believe will continue to improve), and until recently had always shown patience at the plate.  His OBP in two minor league seasons is .390, though it was over .400 at every stop until Memphis.  Oakland’s current third sacker, Eric Chavez, is rehabbing and may not return to his prime.  He’s 32 and will have missed more than two seasons worth of games in the last three years.  So – this addresses an important need for Oakland in 2010 and beyond.  In fact, Wallace’s stats make you think of Eric Chavez in his prime, which would be great for the A’s over the next five or six seasons.

Shane Peterson is a 21 year old outfielder who has shown some speed and a little pop in his bat since being drafted in the second round of the 2008 draft out of Long Beach State.  His numbers remind me a little of Juan Encarnacion, hopefully with a little bit better speed.  As of today, I think he projects out as a good fourth outfielder and if he could add a little power to his frame, would be a nice addition to someone’s lineup.  At 15 – 70 – .275, he’s probably the bottom edge of where you’d want a starting outfielder to be, but if he got to 20 – 80 – .290, he’d be very nice.

The third prospect was another first round pick: Clayton Mortensen, who was taken in 2007 out of Gonzaga.  He’s not a bad option, having shown improvement in 2009 pitching in AAA for Memphis.  He was in AAA for fourteen starts last year, seventeen starts this year and his H/9 rate is down a full hit, his strikeout rate has improved, and his walk rate has gone from 4.7 to 2.9 per nine innings.  And, despite pitching in the PCL, he’s had decent success keeping the ball in the park.

Look – the A’s were only going to get two more months of Holliday.  He’s a free agent at the end of the season, so assuming Oakland wasn’t planning to sign him, they might have received two decent draft picks as compensation.  Instead, they got the equivalance of three high draft picks, and got three picks that have shown improvement and potential.  So, I’d have to grade the trade as a very positive one for the As, and one that could have a significant impact as early as 2010.

And, for St. Louis, they added someone who could help finish the job and win the NL Central – and, if he signs, could pair up with Albert Pujols for a couple of playoff runs over the next four or five years.  If he LEAVES, the Cards get two more early round picks – which makes up for two of the three they lost.  So, it’s still potentially positive for St. Louis.

All in all – I think it’s a great deal for both clubs, though I’d lean slightly in favor of Oakland.

In Other News…

The Cubs lost Ted Lilly to the DL for two weeks with an ailing shoulder.  Kevin Hart will likely take his starts, and fortunately Ryan Dempster is nearly ready to return.  Justin Berg arrives from AAA to help in the bullpen.  If you were wonder, Berg is nice, but not a prospect.  [MLB]

Texas starter Vincente Padilla was diagnosed with H1N1 – swine flu.  He’ll be fine – already feels better – but out for a few more days.  According to ESPN, Padilla is the fifth Ranger to come down with the flu in recent days.  [ESPN]

 Welcome Back!  Alex Gonzalez returns to the Reds from the DL.

Edgar Gonzalez Hospitalized After Beaning; Does Omar Minaya Read This Blog?

Padres infielder Edgar Gonzalez was hospitalized after getting hit in the head by a Jason Hammel pitch.  He was conscious and aware at the time, but suffering from dizziness and ringing in his ears.  The pitch hit him on the side of the helmet.  His brother, Adrian, also left the game in the sixth to be with his brother.  Colorado’s Hammel hit three batters in the game.  [MLB]

Royals starter Gil Meche heads to the DL with a sore back, to be replaced by Sidney Ponson.  SI’s coverage suggests that manager Trey Hillman may have contributed to the problem by allowing Meche to make too many pitches, noting that he hasn’t won since throwing 132 pitches in a shutout last month.  [SI]

Angel left fielder Juan Rivera left last night’s win over Oakland with tightness in his right leg.  He’s experienced stiffness in his quad for a couple of days now.  Robb Quinlan got the call and may see more playing time in the short term.  [MLB]

Astros OF/1B Darin Erstad left last night’s game with a pulled hamstring after running out a single.  He’s day-to-day for now, but this has been bothering him for weeks.  [MLB]

Rays starter Scott Kazmir left last night’s game in the seventh inning with cramping in his left forearm.  Kazmir thinks it was tied to dehydration and isn’t worried about it.  [MLB]

FoxSports Ken Rosenthal reports that Troy Glaus may rehab as an outfielder in the minors for St. Louis.  He hasn’t been able to make the throw from third to first, but  as an outfielder he might be able to help the Cardinals with his bat.

I swear I just wrote this suggestion a day or two ago.  Was it ESP?  Does Omar Minaya read every baseball blog out there?  The New York Daily News says that the Mets are working with Julio Lugo as a potential shortstop option and may release pitcher Tim Redding to make room for him.  [FanNation/SI/NY Daily News]

Welcome Back!  Mark DeRosa returns to the Cards, while Jarrett Hoffpauir heads back to the minors.  And, Jed Lowrie returned to the Red Sox.