2011 Season Forecast: Toronto Blue Jays

Last Five Years:

2010: 85 – 77 (4th in AL East)
2009: 75 – 87
2008: 86 – 76
2007: 83 – 79
2006: 87 – 75

Consistently good, not always as competitive in the toughest division to win in baseball.

Runs Scored: 755 (6th in AL, but 4th in the AL East)
Runs Allowed: 728 (9th in AL)

With this combination of run scored and allowed, you’d expect 84 wins, so Toronto was pretty much on the money.

2010 Recap:

Most everyone had them fourth – so no surprises here.  Well, not at a team level anyway…  A LOT of surprises at the player level – but we’ll cover that down below.

After trading wins and losses for a month, the Blue Jays got hot in May and raced toward the top of the division.  Unfortunately, the Jays were equally cold in June and fell back to fourth.  June was their only losing month – from July 7th on, the Jays were 14 over .500, so if they hadn’t gone cold for the 30 days from June 6 to July 6, it’s very likely that the Jays could have sneaked into the playoffs.

What made Toronto competitive on heals of losing the best pitcher in their team’s history, Roy Halliday, was a BUNCH of home runs.  Jose Bautista hit 54, Vernon Wells slammed 31 dingers, John Buck had 20, Edwin Encarnacion hit 21, even Alex Gonzalez had 17 in just 85 games.  Aaron Hill didn’t hit much, but clocked 26 homers.  Adam Lind tallied 23, Lyle Overbay slashed 20, and even the half season of Travis Snider was good for 14.  Toronto hit 257 homers but only allowed 150, a gap that covered for other weaknesses.

During the season, the Jays made a few minor deals, but the one that made a splash was the trade in July that sent shortstop Alex Gonzalez and two minor leaguers to Atlanta for Yunel Escobar and Jo-Jo Reyes.

Starters:

As mentioned, Roy Halliday was gone, and the Blue Jays were forced to rely on a bunch of young arms – many of whom were returning from prior shoulder and elbow injuries.  Ricky Romero improved on an impressive 2009 rookie season and made 32 starts, logged 210 innings and win 14 games, pitching like an ace for much of the season.  Shaun Marcum returned to go 13 – 8 and missed by a start of hitting 200 innings.  Brett Cecil, the #1 pick in 2007, raced through the minors and showed moxie – leading the team with 15 wins.  Brandon Morrow, who never seemed to live up to the hype in Seattle, fanned 178 batters in just 146.1 innings, kept hitters off stride, and won 10 decisions.  The fifth starter role was given to Marc Rzepczynski and Dana Eveland, but at the end was given to former Phillie prospect Kyle Drabek, who looks to make the rotation in 2011.

Looking ahead, Shaun Marcum is gone, having been moved to Milwaukee for Brett Lawrie, a top second base prospect.  That leaves Romero, Cecil, Morrow, and either Rzepczynski, Drabek, Reyes, or Jesse Litsch – another former Jays starter coming back from hip surgery.  Drabek comes with the most hype – the top prospect in the Toronto chain, having gone 14 – 9 for New Hampshire in the Eastern League.  Reyes can pitch some, but more likely will start the year in the bullpen and pick up a start from time to time, which leaves Litsch and Rzepczynski battling for the fifth slot.  I think Drabek can be every bit as good as Marcum was in 2010, and if Litsch or Rzepczynski can make 25 healthy starts, this will be a slight improvement – if only because you won’t have the nine less than stellar starts of Dana Eveland in the mix (or, for that matter, Litsch’s nine less than impressive starts).

Bullpen:

Gone is Kevin Gregg, who saved 37 games last year.  Gregg is NOT a dominant closer – but rather a tolerable one,  He was ably supported by Shawn Camp, Scott Downs, Jason Frasor, Casey Janssen, and David Purcey.

For 2011, the closer looks to be former Ranger closer Frank Francisco, who can be much better than Gregg but historically is just marginally better.  Other closers are in camp, including Octavio Dotel and Jon Rauch, as well as Frasor, Janssen, Camp, and Purcey.  This is a very deep staff and should continue to keep Toronto in games.

Catching:

Last year’s duo of John Buck and Jose Molina were impressive defensively – above average in six different categories, and league average in terms of basic mobility.  Buck also hit well – an all-star level performance.

Looking ahead, Toronto will be depending on rookie J.P. Arencibia.  After struggling through a rough 2009 season in Las Vegas, Arencibia pounded PCL pitchers to the tune of 32 – 85 – .301 in 104 games.  That translates to about 20 – 65 – .250, which is not too far from a typical John Buck season.  Molina remains as a capable defensive backup.

Infield:

The changes continue from the infield that started the 2010 season.  Basher Jose Bautista showed to be more consistent at third than Edwin Encarnacion, who will move to first or DH in 2011.  Yunel Escobar can find his groove and hopefully contribute like the hitter he was in 2009, and second baseman Aaron Hill will rebound from his .205 2010 season and hopefully retain his power.  Adam Lind moves to first base, replacing Lyle Overbay.  I’m nervous about this unit.  The left side will be marginally better than 2010 defensively, but the right side will not be.  Lind has yet to produce as many runs as Overbay, and the 85 games Alex Gonzalez played were productive and hard to immediately replace.

John McDonald is still around to back everyone up – as is Encarncion.

Outfield:

Left field will be manned by former Angel Juan Rivera, who replaces Fred Lewis – a fourth outfielder at best.  While an improvement, Rivera is starting to get old and in ten seasons has never played 140 games in a season.  Vernon Wells is gone, replaced by Rajai Davis.  Davis is faster than Wells, but about 25 runs behind him as a hitter.  In right is Travis Snider, who replaces Bautista’s role.  Snider is due to step forward as a hitter, but hasn’t been a strong fielder.

Down on the Farm:

AAA Las Vegas wasn’t loaded with prospects other than Arencibia, who will start on opening day, and Brett Wallace, who was traded to Houston for Anthony Gose – a low level centerfielder with speed to burn, but a problem with contact and little power.  (I’ll be honest, I don’t see the reasoning there unless one thinks Wallace didn’t have a future in Toronto, but I think he’s better than Encarnacion.)

AA New Hampshire had Drabek, but also Zach Stewart, who is a year older but not quite as good.  David Cooper is a first baseman who has stats that look like Lyle Overbay – but at AA.  He might be a year away, but he’s not quite there yet.  Eric Thames has more power and a touch of speed.  He could replace Juan Rivera and you might not lose a step.  Darin Mastroianni is a leadoff type hitter, great speed and good on base percentages.  At 25, he’s getting old for a prospect, but he could help somebody for a months if needed.  The guy who is really interesting is Cuban import Adeiny Hechavarria, who looks like Davy Concepcion did when he was 21 years old – great glove, could grow into a hitter (but not yet).  Tristan Magnuson was successful as a reliever in AA, with great control, but Danny Farquhar has better stuff – 79Ks in 76 innings, just 50 hits allowed.  He’s a touch wild.

Alan Farina didn’t look like a prospect after a season of struggle at A+ Dunedin, but he DOMINATED A+ in 2010 and moved up to New Hampshire and kept right on going (74Ks in 55.2 innings).  If he does this in Las Vegas, he may make the roster in September, 2011.  Joel Carreno is a starter with moxie who will start in AA this year after a successful run in 2010 with Dunedin.  Catcher Travis D’Arnaud will get to build on a reasonably successful 2010 season, but it would help if he shows a little more power.

2011 Forecast:

There are things to like.  The outfield defense should be stronger.  The team will be spending less money at a couple of positions, which helped pay for a Jose Bautista contract.  The pitching staff is rather deep, especially in the bullpen.  The only slip defensively is at first base – which means the team will likely stay around 715 runs allowed, if not a few less than that.

The things that make you nervous?  I think the offense has to fall back.  I can see Bautista having a good season, but will it be as good as last year?  Probably not.  You have a drop in offense at first and center and possibly at catcher against potential improvements in left and second.  But there are too many “downs” to make up for the possible “ups” – and I see this as being sixty to eighty runs less than 2010.  As such, I see Toronto falling below .500 to about 77 – 85, which could very well be last in the AL East.  This isn’t a BAD team, just a team in the wrong division and falling back because a couple of guys were over their heads last year.  On the other hand, there are signs that this team is trying to build a new foundation of young players that can get them over the 90 win plateau and finally get back to the playoffs.

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.

2010 Season Forecast: Toronto Blue Jays

Last Five Years:

2009: 75 – 87 (4th AL East)
2008: 86 – 76
2007: 83 – 79
2006: 87 – 75
2005: 80 – 82

Runs Scored: 798 (6th AL)
Runs Allowed: 771 (12th AL)

Having outscored their opponents by 27 runs, the Jays should have won about 84 games.  This isn’t the first time that Toronto has won fewer games than one might expect based on their runs scored and allowed data.  In 2008, they were ten games over .500 with essentially the same ratio of runs as the World Series bound Tampa Rays.  In 2007, the Jays scored one fewer run than they allowed in road games, but lost 47 of 81 games.  And that 2005 club finished under .500 despite outscoring their opponents by 70 runs.  That’s four of five years that Roy Halliday thinks that he should have been on a contending team – only to fall by the wayside.

Who should be held responsible for this?

Season Recap:

Most teams had the Jays landing in fourth place in the prediction category, but most of us figured it would have been more like 85 wins.

The Jays got off to a GREAT start.  It wasn’t long before Toronto, led by Halliday, Scott Richmond, and Ricky Romero, were running off and looking like they would be a force in the AL Beast.  After sweeping the Chicago White Sox on May 18, Toronto hit a SLUMP – all CAPS because they lost nine straight, six to Boston and Baltimore.  Rumors that Halliday was to be traded starting dominating the news – when it wasn’t some member of the rotation going down to injury – and I think the Jays got horribly distracted.

I know this – the team’s OBP every month was about .333 except July, when they must have started swinging at everything.  The OBP in July was .298.  So, even though the pitching staff was still getting the job done (a 3.81 ERA, best of the year), they couldn’t win, and it was July that put them out.

At this point, the Jays lost a lot – killing off the season as July started and finally bottoming out after reaching fifteen below .500 in early September.  Halliday never got traded and, in fact, once the team figured out they had better just enjoy being a team the rest of the way, the team had a winning September when it didn’t matter.

Pitching:

Roy Halliday was marvelous – 17 – 10 with a 2.50 ERA and saving his club 47 runs more than average pitching would have provided.  Ricky Romero finished with 13 wins and was about 8.5 runs better than average in 178 innings.  Scott Richmond lost 11 of his last 15 decisions, costing his team 14.5 runs, and then hit the DL where he’ll likely miss most of 2010.  Brian Tallett got 160 innings and his control got the best of him.  Brett Cecil got 17 starts, had a winning record, but seemed very hittable (5.30 ERA, 17 homers and 116 hits in 93.1 innings).

On the other hand, Marc Rzepczynski proved a potential rotation player with 11 decent enough starts – and hopefully can build on that for 2010.

In the bullpen, a closer could not keep a job.  B.J. Ryan wasn’t worthy – 6.53 ERA – and was shipped out.  Scott Downs hung in there for a while with 9 saves and decent numbers (good control); Jason Frasor was even better and eventually earned the closer role for good.

No worries – for 2010, the pitching staff will look different with Halliday having been shipped to Philadelphia for a boatload of prospects.

First, Shaun Marcum returns from an injury forced exile to take over the front of the rotation.  I like Marcum – he’s a fine pitcher, but he’s no Halliday.  Romero returns, as does Rzepczynski and Tallett, with former Mariner Brandon Morrow joining the rotation to take the ball in the first inning every fifth turn.

Marcum has always been an above average pitcher – but not 40 runs above average.  And Morrow has never been dependable as a starter.  Even Tallett is a converted reliever – which means his arm hasn’t been abused, but he needs to find consistency this year.

The bullpen starts with Frasor, but adds Kevin Gregg from the Cubs.  Scott Downs returns and will help.  Jesse Carlson and Jeremy Accardo round out the top five.  Gregg is inconsistent, too – but he’ll be a nice eighth inning option.  There is more depth here than in, say Baltimore.  I like Baltimore’s rotation better, though.

Looking forward, I see this unit performing about 50 runs worse than the 2009 rotation – mostly because Halliday won’t be there.  That puts a lot of pressure on the bullpen, and the sixth and seventh guys.  And THOSE aren’t the guys you want pitching important innings.

Catching:

Rod Barajas provided solid catching, but couldn’t get his batting average over .230.  Still – he had 19 homers and 71 RBI.  Essentially, the Blue Jays replaced him with the same guy – former Royal John Buck.  Buck can get the same numbers at the plate but probably not behind it; Buck isn’t as good as Barajas against the run.

Infield:

Lyle Overbay didn’t seem as mobile with the glove, and with a falloff at the plate, he was a bit of a problem.  Overbay ISN’T a bad first baseman.  Usually he makes up for his lack of power with fantastic fielding.  If he’s not going to be a gold glove winner, then his bat – still above average – looks pedestrian when compared to others.  His backup, Kevin Millar, didn’t help at the plate or in the field.

Aaron Hill came back from concussion issues to give head injuries to the baseball, hitting 36 homers and another 37 doubles.  Hill was nearly an MVP candidate.

Marco Scutaro was an amazing leadoff hitter, getting on base at a .383 clip and scoring 100 runs.  Backup infielder John McDonald still fields well, but his hitting is pedestrian.

The Jays started with Scott Rolen, who hit .320 (who saw THAT?), but was traded to Cincinnati for Edwin Encarnacion – who didn’t.  Rolen was traded because he was expensive, but at least he was producing.

For 2010, the infield still has Overbay and Hill, but the other side of the infield features Alex Gonzalez, who has little range and a fading bat.  He WON’T generate 100 runs of offense, and he’ll be worse in the field than the below average Scutaro.  Rolen, until the injuries, was know for being dependable – something Encarnacion is not – and he won’t ever hit like Rolen, either.  I can’t see Hill repeating, Overbay may slide some more, and the other two will KILL the Blue Jays offense.  Look for a 80 run decline offensively and a 20 run decline defensively.

Outfield:

Yes – Alex Rios was disappointing when considering his pay and his production.  However, Rios is an above average fielder and hitter.  He’s gone.  Jose Bautista, who was nearly as productive and cheaper, will get the nod in right field.  It’s no better than a wash going forward.

Vernon Wells remains in centerfield.  He’s old, has had below average range for half a decade now, and will have hamstring problems until he’s 100.  He’s no longer capable of 20 homers and doesn’t get on base much.  He also has a contract nobody else wants.

In left, Adam Lind will be a DH (whew!) but Travis Snider needs to step forward.  There’s a lot to like – he has power, but needs to make better contact.  At least he’ll get to more fly balls than Lind.  Randy Ruiz, a slugger, will also get some more at bats after hitting ten homers in 115 at bats last year.  Like Lind, Ruiz is immobile in the field, too.

I don’t think Bautista is a long-term answer and if Wells go down (and he will), they’ll need to get Phillies prospect Michael Taylor to the big leagues.

Prospects:

First, you have the prospects that the Jays got in the Halliday trade.  one, catcher Travis D’Arnaud, will make the club in a couple of years.  Pitcher Kyle Drabek will be allowed to find his feet in AAA before moving up to the bigs later this year.  And Michael Taylor isn’t listed on the 25 man roster, so he’ll get some time to prove his worth before getting the call.

Looking at AAA Las Vegas, you have to remember that to be a prospect, you have to hit about .330 – like Travis Snider.  J.P. Arencibia would be a better power prospect if he hit .336, but he hit .236 instead.  Other than Snider, who should be ready, nobody else is a prospect for the lineup.  For the same reason, pitching prospects never look so good – so you want good control and an ERA under 4.00 and there just aren’t that many who fit that bill.  Dirk Hayhurst might be close – but he starts 2010 on the 60-day DL after surgery on his right shoulder.  Maybe he can come back in 2011.

At AA New Hampshire, Reidier Gonzalez showed control but not enough strikeouts in his 93 innings.  Fabio Castro, a tiny lefty who has seven years with four franchises, looked okay but doesn’t have a strikeout pitch that he can depend on as he moves up and faces AAA hitting.

The best hitter at AA was Brian Dopirak, who hasn’t yet made it to the bigs but is starting to look like he might hit about .270 with some power if he gets there.  Dopirak hit .308 with 19 homers in New Hampshire, then .330 with 8 homers in Las Vegas.  With Overbay around, he won’t get a chance without someone getting hurt.

A+ Dunedin featured Darin Mastroianni, a speedy centerfielder who can steal bases (70 in Dunedin and New Hampshire last year) and finally started to look like a hitter last year.  He needs to keep drawing more walks to look like a Brett Butler type, but he made progress on that last year, too – 76 in 131 games.  Pitcher Bobby Bell had 112 Ks and just 22 walks in 96.1 innings, but the real ace might be reliever Tim Collins, a teenager last year, who had 99 Ks and 29 walks in just 64.2 innings.  That’s CLOSER material, and I’d name him as the most exciting prospect on the farm.

The Lansing Lugnuts featured a few young arms with promise.  Of them, I like Henderson Alvarez, who walked just 19 in 124.1 innings and led his team in Innings, ERA and wins.

Forecast:

Let the rebuilding begin.  We’re talking about a team that is going to lose 100 runs of offense, probably, and another 80 runs defensively.  Toronto will likely lose 95 games and possibly 100, costing Cito Gaston his sanity if not his job.  The system says 65.5 wins, but I’m rounding down in this division.

2010 Season Forecast: Chicago Cubs

Last Five Seasons:

2009: 83 – 78 (2nd – NL East)
2008: 97 – 74
2007: 85 – 77
2006: 66 – 96
2005: 79 – 83

Runs Scored: 707 (9th – NL)
Runs Allowed: 672 (5th – NL)

For what it’s worth, the Cubs and their opponents scored 732 runs in Wrigley Field and just 647 on the road last year…

Season Recap:

Picked by a ton of people to win the NL Central, the Cubs hung around the race for four months before throwing in the towel down the stretch.

Every time the Cubs would get rolling, they found a losing streak.  Two weeks in, Chicago rolled out to an 8 – 4 record, only to lose four in a row.  Recovering, they won 8 of 12 only to lose a couple more.  Into May, the Cubbies took off – rattling five in a row to get to 21 – 14.  Thinking that this win streak might put them out in front for good, Chicago lost EIGHT straight…

Hanging around .500 for the next several weeks, the Cubs entered the All-Star break at 43 – 42.  Sensing a need to get going, the Cubs rolled out to 57 – 48 and actually sneaked into the top spot for a day in late July.  That’s when the bullpen suddenly lost it.  The Marlins came back to beat former closer Kevin Gregg and the Cubs hit a tailspin that knocked them out of the NL Central race just as St. Louis was adding Holliday, DeRosa, and Lopez for the stretch run.  The Cubs fell back to a game over .500, made a small fuss for the wild card race, and then disappeared.

Injuries hurt the Cubs as much as many other teams – losing Aramis Ramirez, Milton Bradley (injuries to his body as well as his attitude), Ted Lilly and Alfonso Soriano – but poor performances were equally to blame.  Milton Bradley signed a three-year, $30 million deal and proceeded to hit .257 with middling power.  Soriano’s season was worse – knee injuries and age contributing to a horrific .241 batting average.  And Geovany Soto, such a huge part of the 2008 NL Central Champs, fell off to .218, with just 11 homers.  Throw in the decline of a portly Carlos Zambrano, who failed to win ten games and missed at least six starts, and you can see why the Cubs fell back 13.5 games from 2008.

2010 Goals:

Lessee…  The Cubs need an attitude adjustment.  Bringing Milton Bradley was a BAD idea – no matter how good his upside might have been, there’s no excuse for that deal.  Just as importantly, the big horses need to find the old mojo and get healthy.  Soto and Zambrano need to return to form and it would be nice to get 140 healthy games out of Ramirez and Soriano – both of whom are running out of youth.  Finding a dependable closer would help, too.

Pitchers:

On paper, the Cubs have a fantastic rotation.  Carlos Zambrano should be an innings eater, and if his off-season fitness plan works out (no pun intended), he could return to form.  He pitched okay in the 160 innings he logged in 2009, but he needs to pitch 220 or more.  Ted Lilly will be back, but might miss a few starts early on as he recovers from minor surgery to clean up his elbow.  Ryan Dempster returns, as well as last year’s top newcomer, Randy Wells.  The fifth starter is former Pirate star (and Jayhawk alum) Tom Gorzelanny – who a couple of years ago was the ace of the Pirates staff.  Last year, the Cubs front five (the top four plus Rich Harden) were about 68 runs better than average and threw  852 innings.  That’s going to be hard to BEAT, but is something that the Cubs should be able to hold steady for 2010.

The bullpen wasn’t horrible – as a group about 16 runs better than average – but it lacked a big time stopper.  Kevin Gregg saved 23 games, but was really only decent for three months and scary the rest of the way.  He’s gone…  Carlos Marmol assumed the closer role – nearly impossible to hit stuff but walks a batter an inning which makes him Mitch Williams with a better chance to field grounders.  Angel Guzman and John Grabow return to set the table, and Jeff Samardzija, Justin Berg, Sean Marshall will get long relief or spot starts.  Samardzija is likely the one guy who could surprise as a fifth starter, but I’ll be honest.  I don’t see him as anything special.  Still – he throws hard and has as good a chance as anyone to have a good year facing 200 batters…  The Cubs added Carlos Silva in a trade with Seattle – ridding themselves of one headache (Milton Bradley) while acquiring organizational depth in terms of a guy to toss BP.

So, as a staff, the pitching – already good – will remain good in 2010.

Catchers:

Geovany Soto returns, with his backup Koyie Hill intact.  As a unit, they aren’t horrible – but if there is a room for improvement, it’s here.  If Soto splits the difference between his awesome 2008 numbers and his horrific 2009 numbers, the Cubs could get 20 more runs on the scoreboard.

Infield:

Derrek Lee had a quietly amazing year with the stick – 35 – 111 – .306, generating about 115 runs of offense.  On top of that, Lee also had 36 doubles…  The problems with his neck and back, however, affected his defensive range.  Usually Lee is among the top two or three defenders at his position, but in 2009 he was below average in terms of range.  Going forward, I see a 20 run slip in his offense, but he could at least return to league average defense if his back feels better.  In terms of net production, it’s a wash…

At second base, Jeff Baker arrived from Colorado and had a career half season, batting over .300 and fielding everything in site.  That made up for the poor performance of Mike Fontenot, who appears to still have the job.  I don’t think Baker can do this over 500 at bats, and neither do the Cubs who have Fontenot penciled in as the regular.  Fontenot was below average in both offense and defense – and I don’t see this improving in 2010.  If anything whatever bounce back Fontenot has will be covered by the slide in Jeff Baker’s performance.

At short, Ryan Theriot returns – a decent enough glove man and someone who batted a lot near the top of the order, though – to be fair – he’s really a GREAT number eight hitter.  Andres Blanco returns – a capable infielder.

Finally, you have Aramis Ramirez – as good a hitter as you can find if he’s playing 150 games at third base.  Last year, playing just 82 games, he was as good as expected.  Here’s what makes me nervous – Ramirez turns 32 in June – so he might get back to 140 games, but it could be at a lesser scale.  Chad Tracy is in camp to challenge Bobby Scales for a backup role – else Jeff Baker will be the other option here.  Assuming Ramirez takes up the innings given to others last year, even if Ramirez slips in production by 20 runs, the team will still be better offensively by 10 runs at this position.

As a unit, I see this team declining in offense by ten runs and declining by ten runs defensively.

Outfield:

This is where the Cubs had the biggest failures.  Alfonso Soriano led the group in homers with 20.  Kosuke Fukudome was out of position in center but sensational in right – so to make things better, he needs to stay in right.  But to bring in Marlon Byrd?

Last year, Sam Fuld got a small chance and played well defensively while getting on base at a .400 clip in just 100 at bats or so.  Fuld is NOT going to do that in a full season, but it’s taken the Cubs a long time to get Fuld to the majors after drafting him in the fifth round out of Stanford six years ago.  He’s quick, will bat about .275 to .290, and draw enough walks to be a scary leadoff hitter in front of Lee and Ramirez.  Instead, the Cubs chose to spend money on Marlon Byrd.  Byrd is about four years older, coming off a career year in Texas, and is a liability in centerfield.

If his knees are steady, Soriano could be a pleasant surprise – especially if he agrees to hit sixth and drive in runs rather than pretend to be a leadoff hitter who gets in the way of rallies.  Healthy, he hits .270 with 30 homers.  Another off season, and the Cubs will have an expensive problem for three more years.

Fukudome gets on base and surprises with power.  He’s a good #2 hitter, and his current backup, Xavier Nady – who signed an incentive laden deal on the heels of his multiple shoulder surgeries – would also make for a productive #2 hitter.

Any gains in Soriano’s health and Fukudome’s moving to right full time will be negated by the addition of Marlon Byrd.  This group will likely improve by 20 runs offensively but decline by 20 runs defensively.

Bench:

Kevin Millar will be battling for a pinch hitting role, joining Nady, Baker, Fuld, and Hill in providing one of the deeper and more productive supporting casts in baseball.

Prospects:

If the Cubs have any for 2010, there aren’t many on the 40 man roster – that’s for sure.  This is a veteran club.  On the whole, the prospects are mostly a few years away and only a couple really stand out…

Nobody stood out as a hitter in AAA Iowa (other than Blanco and Fuld), the top pitchers weren’t impressive, though reliever John Gaub had 31.1 solid innings, striking out 40, but walking 16.  Gaub had similar stats (28.2 innings, 40 Ks, 17 walks) in AA.  He’ll get a shot in 2010 – I just don’t know how many innings he’ll get.  Expect Gaub to start in Iowa, though.

Casey Coleman was 14 – 6 with a 3.68 ERA for the AA Tennessee Smokies, but struck out just 84 in 149 innings, so he’s not a long term option.  He is, however, just 21, so if he can find a strikeout pitch, he’ll be on the roster by the end of 2011.  Starlin Castro might be the next big thing, though.  A Dominican shortstop, Castro will turn 20 in spring training, but because the Cubs have options he’ll likely start the year in AA or AAA.  He wasn’t overmatched in 31 AA games last season and had hit .300 or better in rookie ball and in Daytona.  Castro would be my pick as the top prospect in the system.

Daytona had more than just Starlin Castro.  Brandon Guyer hit .347 in half a season in the Florida State League, earning a trip to Tennessee, but he struggled in AA – if he’s going to make it, he has to get it in gear quickly.  Tony Campana is a burner – 55 steals – but it would be nice if he got his OBP a bit higher.  Craig Muschko appeared to turn the corner at Daytona – 19 walks in 103 innings and an improving K rate.  And, Jay Jackson could be the other top prospect – cruising through Daytona with 46 Ks and just 4 walks, moving up to Tennessee where he went 5 – 5 with a decent K rate, and even getting a start at Iowa and winning his only appearance.  A Furman alum, Jackson will make the Cubs in 2010 if for no other reason than to get a cup of coffee in September.  I like him.

2008 #1 draft pick Andrew Cashner made it to Daytona and didn’t disappoint.  Look for him in AA Tennessee, maybe even Iowa for parts of 2010.  Ryan Flaherty, the 1A pick in 2008, will see if he can’t handle more after a 20 homer season at Peoria.  A shortstop with power would look good in Wrigley – but Flaherty is a few years away.  Others in Peoria that may stand out in 2010 will be 2008 draft picks Aaron Shafer and Christopher Carpenter, but the guy with the most stuff might be 2009 Chief Chris Archer, who blew away 119 batters in 109 innings and only allowed 78 hits – with NO homers allowed.

Josh Vitters, the first round pick in 2007, struggled at Daytona after a solid half season in Peoria.  He’ll get a second chance at A+ ball this year – but he’s just 20 and has time to get rolling.  Tyler Colvin, once a first round pick out of Clemson in 2006, got to the majors after shuffling out of the prospect picture.  At 25, he’s running out of time – and as an outfielder, the Cubs seem to like older players…

I should note that the other minor league prospect moving up through the ranks is manager Ryne Sandberg.  Perhaps you’ve heard of him.  After a year in Peoria, he moved up to Tennessee and will start 2010 as the Iowa manager.  If the Cubs get off to a slow start, he’s being groomed to replace Lou Piniella.

Outlook:

The Cubs certainly have the star power to compete, but the cracks that showed up in 2010 weren’t necessarily filled by young new help.  Instead, the Cubs have essentially the same team with one difference – Marlon Byrd instead of Milton Bradley.

I see the Cubs scoring a few more runs than last year – as many as 740, but allowing a few more, too – 700.  That works out to 85 or 86 wins (85.5, but if you carry out another decimal point, you’d round down).  With an improving Milwaukee and a still very good St. Louis, that’s probably good for third place – and at some point, the end of Lou Piniella’s tenure in Chicago.  With a slow start, he could be gone as early as June 1.

However, the guy responsible for Piniella and the rest of the roster is General Manager Jim Hendry.  With a new ownership group in town, when Lou leaves he’ll have someone to hold open the door – Hendry will likely be shown that same door.

Hudson, Kennedy Sign Deals and Other Hot Stove News…

I had posted it earlier this week in reviewing the performance of AL second basemen.  First – Adam Kennedy had a pretty good year for Oakland and would have been a tolerable option for a team that didn’t have second base locked down.  Then, noting that the Twins had nobody in house who could contribute at second base, if Orlando Hudson was still available, it would make sense to make him an offer.

If only every day I felt that smart.

Anyway – Minnesota signed Hudson to a one-year deal and immediately gave themselves a 40 run upgrade over Nick Punto, Alexi Casilla, or Brian Dinkelman.  Hudson can still hit .280+ with a little power and a few walks thrown in – he’s an excellent #2 hitter.  And, he’s still a solid defender.  Great signing.  [SI]

Now, Minnesota outbid Washington for Hudson’s services but the Nationals didn’t wait.  Once the deal was done, the Nationals landed Adam Kennedy for their second base hole.  Hey – if you can name the guy who got the most innings in at second base for the DC squad last year, you’re probably the only one who can.  (Anderson Hernandez)  Again, this could be a 30 run improvement for the Nationals – and they have room for improvement.

Kevin Gregg may get another shot at closing games, signing a one year deal with two different follow up options to join Toronto.  I’ve watched Gregg a lot because I live in a Florida and because I watch Cubs games…  He’s NOT a bad reliever.  However, he does get in ruts and he has a history of trying to pitch through pain which affects his ability to keep the ball down.  (On the side, he looks like Clark Kent and his vision is really poor…)  [SI]

Congrats to Justin Verlander, who signed a five-year, $80 million deal to stay with the Tigers.  He certainly earned it.  [ESPN]

Quick notes – Orlando Cabrera is the new Reds shortstop.  He might just be a temporary fix, but you never know.  Cubs signed Kevin Millar to a minor league deal – he’s teammates with Derrek Lee again.

Free Agents Filing at Torrid Pace…

‘Tis the season for teams to decide on what members will remain on the 40-man roster, and which players will not get tendered offers based on existing options, and for other players to test the market.  So, for the next several days, the list of players on the MLB Free Agent list will grow and the number of players officially on the 40-man rosters will likely shrink for a little while.

The Rumor Mill

FoxSports reports that the Cubs are considering a three-way deal to move Milton Bradley.  The Cubs would get Luis Castillo from the Mets, the Mets would get Lyle Overbay from the Toronto Blue Jays, and Toronto would get Bradley.  Other deals suggest the Rays getting involved and offering Pat Burrell for Bradley.  [FoxSports]

The Mariners are looking to keep Felix Hernandez around (which means starting the process of a long-term deal now), but understand that there are many, many suitors for the AL Cy Young candidate.  [SI]

Thanks for Playing!

Carl Crawford remains in Tampa as the Rays honored his $10 million option.  Meanwhile, Brian Shouse and Greg Zaun were both bought out and will become free agents.  [ESPN]

Boston picked up the option for catcher Victor Martinez ($7.1 million), signed Tim Wakefield to a two-year deal loaded with incentives, but declined an option on Jason Varitek.  Varitek has the option to sign for $3 million to be a backup next year, else join the free agent market.  For Wakefield, he’ll have a chance to break the team record for pitching victories (Young/Clemens have 192) and win his 200th career game.  [ESPN]

Free Agent Filings…

The most interesting story is that a Japanese fireballer, Ryota Igarashi of the Yakult Swallows, owner of a 98-mph fastball, wants to play here.  Japanese players have to wait nine seasons before they can come to the states and Igarashi is already 30 but could be a viable late inning pitcher for somebody.  [ESPN]

The Dodgers declined a $2.2 million option on reliever Will Ohman, while Mark Loretta and Juan Castro also filed.  [ESPN/MLB]

Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui, Yankee World Series heroes, joined the current list of 151 free agents.  Other Yankees on the list now include Eric Hinske, Jose Molina, and Xavier Nady.  [MLB]

Houston’s Jose Valverde, as good a reliever on the market, filed for free agency yesterday.  At least five Astros players (Erstad, Tejada, Brocail) are on the list now.  [MLB]

Octavio Dotel not only filed, but learned he was a Type A free agent, which means the Sox have to offer arbitation if they hope to get compensation should someone else sign Dotel.  [MLB]

Rockies pitchers Joe Beimel and Jose Contreras filed for free agency.  If Beimel is healthy, he’s a good pickup, but I’d be surprised if Contreras gets a lot of interest from teams.  [MLB]

Cubs closer (well, former closer) Kevin Gregg filed for free agency, and – like Dotel – was graded as a Type A free agent, meaning the Cubs have to offer Gregg arbitration to get the compensation draft pick.  [MLB]

Twins infielder Orlando Cabrera joined the list of free agents, alongside Mike Redmond, Ron Mahay, Carl Pavano, and Joe Crede on the list.  [MLB]

Toronto catcher Rod Barajas is a free agent, though he noted that he’d love to stay a Blue Jay.  [MLB]

You know who has a lot of free agents?  St. Louis.  Todd Wellemeyer became the ninth player (Holliday, Ankiel, Pineiro, Smoltz, Glaus, Greene, DeRosa, LaRue) to file.  [MLB]

Gary Sheffield also filed for free agency, trying to find ANYONE who might give him a chance to play.  He’s at eight teams and counting…  [MLB]

Free Agent Discussions

Jerry Crasnick met with a number of executives and put eight questions before them.  Want to see the answers?  [ESPN]

SI’s Ted Keith identifies his list of the ten riskiest free agents.  Well, nine + Rich Harden!!!  [SI]

Old News…

Something else I missed last week…  With several infielders on the horizon (Reid Brignac, Tim Beckham) and Ben Zobrist having blasted his way into the starting lineup, the Rays had less need for Akinori Iwamura.  So, the Rays shipped Iwamura to Pittsburgh for reliever Jesse Chavez.  Chavez probably appreciates the change of scenery, joining a contender, but he’ll need to step up his game to be a contributor.  I like this move for Pittsburgh.

Happy Birthday!

His 1961 season put him on the map, and for much of the 1960s, he was a great Tiger slugger – Norm Cash would be 75 today…

Also celebrating with cards and cake (or rememberances):  Jimmy Dykes (1896), Birdie Tebbetts (1912), Gene Conley (1930), Mike Vail (1951), Larry Christenson (1953), Larry Parrish (1953), Bob Stanley (1954), Jack Clark (1955), Kenny Rogers (1964), Keith Lockhart (1964), and Shawn Green (1972)…

Afterthoughts…

For the first time in nearly 30 years, it looks like all 27 members of the U.S. Appeals court will review the “drug list” case, determining the fate of the list of 104 players who allegedly failed the 2003 anonymous steroid survey.  [MLB]

Lidge Blows Eleventh Save (!) – and Other News…

When the rain came, the Marlins trailed the Phillies 6 – 4.   Then, the Marlins brought the rain, with Jorge Cantu and Brett Carroll knocking in runs to beat Brad Lidge and the Phillies.  For Lidge, he’s blown 11 saves (and the Cubs complain about Kevin Gregg and his seven blown saves, though most of them came in about a two week period in August).  Ryan Madson was given a shot – and failed.  Brett Myers may not be healthy enough.  So, unless there’s a new call for Tyler Walker to be a closer, the Phillies have no choice but to let their starters go nine every night.  Can Jamie Moyer close?  [ESPN]

The Phillies got a small dose of good news…  Catcher Carlos Ruiz has just a sprain, and will return to the lineup soon.  Ruiz made a tag of Matt Diaz at the plate Friday night against the Braves and tweaked his wrist on the play.  [ESPN]

Atlanta manager Bobby Cox says 2010 will be his last year on the bench – nearly 2500 wins after starting his managerial career with the Braves back when Dale Murphy was still occasionally catching (1978).  [FoxSports]

ESPN reports that Milton Bradley will not challenge his suspension and awaits news of his Cubs career.   Bradley even apologized for the situation…   [ESPN/FoxSports]

Let’s Talk Yankees…

Jorge Posada fouled a ball off his toes, but x-rays revealed no breaks.  He’s probably out until the weekend.  Meanwhile, GM Brian Cashman said that the struggling Joba Chamberlain has to step up, else not make the Yankees playoff roster.  Finally, FanNation is allowing commentary on a New York Daily News comment that manager Joe Girardi has to win the World Series to keep his job for 2010.  [ESPN/SI/FanNation]

Moving on…

The Miami Herald is reporting that the Marlins might make a four-year, $50 million offer to pitcher Josh Johnson.  If that happens, Dan Uggla will complain any time Josh has to leave a start before the sixth inning and question his toughness.  [FanNation]

Chicago White Sox GM Ken Williams – Disappointed in 2009, Optimistic for 2010.  You decide if he’s a glass half full or empty type of guy.  [ESPN/MLB]

FanNation reports that Arizona pitcher Brandon Webb, who has spent most of 2009 on the DL, wants his full option and no pay cut to come back to the Diamondbacks for 2010.  I know a lot of teams that would invest in Webb if he were healthy next year…  [FanNation]

Nolan Reimold had successful surgery to repair a frayed Achilles tendon.  Here’s to a complete recovery for the Orioles rookie slugger.  [FoxSports]

Hurry Back! The Royals placed pitcher Bruce Chen on the DL with a strained oblique.  (Of course, he’ll be back in 2010, and not in 2009.)

Welcome Back! With Chen leaving, the Royals activated pitcher Juan Cruz, and the Indians brought back pitcher Joe Smith from the DL.

Afterthoughts… Tough day for umpire Marty Foster, who took three foul balls – one off the face mask – in last night’s Giants-D’Backs game…