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.

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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.

2009 Season Forecast: Baltimore Orioles

Baltimore Orioles
2008: 68-93 (5th AL East, 28.5 games back)
Runs Scored: 782
Runs Allowed: 869

With the trade of Miguel Tejada and Erik Bedard to Houston and Seattle respectively for prospects, 2008 represented the first year of a rebuilding plan in the American League’s toughest division.  But these Orioles weren’t half bad.  Sure, they were 22 – 50 inside their division, but actually above .500 against everyone else (46 – 43).  The reason?  The Orioles had a decent offense and a handful of young pitchers finding their way.  It’s a good time to be a Baltimore fan – just don’t expect to make the playoffs until a rotation anchor or two can be found.

Looking Back on 2008

With 782 runs scored, the Orioles finished in the middle of the league in terms of scoring – just a few runs behind the Yankees.  What they lacked was pitching and defense – having allowed 869 runs, which was next to last in the American League.

Baltimore got off to a great start – winning sixteen in April and fighting for the division lead for the first month.  Things slowed in May thanks to a streak against their own division where they lost ten of thirteen, but a solid June followed.  Even though the leaders in the division were starting to pull away, the Orioles were still five games over .500 as late as June 20th.  Heck, if Toronto had a 39 – 34 record at this point in the season, the way they finished, the Blue Jays might have won a playoff spot.

Instead, the Orioles got cold after the all-star break.  Ending a five-game losing streak had them at .500 for the last time on July 11th, and from that point on, Baltimore was a non-factor, losing a few games each month to .500 until September, when playing rookies killed the overall record.  The Orioles went 5 – 20 to close the season, ruining what had been, until then, a reasonably successful summer in Camden Yards.

Tell me about that offense

Behind the plate, the new Cincinnati Red, Ramon Hernandez, held his own.  He provided a little power, and a .250+ batting average, but not much else. Hernandez has actually slipped some from his performance in 2006, which didn’t help, but his backup, Guillermo Quiroz, couldn’t hit .200 in 134 at bats.

The infield was reasonably strong at two spots.  Third baseman Melvin Mora had a decent enough season, driving in 104 runs and batting .285.  Second sacker Brian Roberts is a great leadoff hitter, just missing .300, hitting 51 doubles, adding some triples and homers, a lot of walks, and 40 stolen bases in 50 chances.  Kevin Millar struggled to hit .234, but even that had a few homers and some walks.  For the position, that’s not good enough and he’s likely to move to a bench role with another team in 2009.  Where the Orioles really struggled was finding a consistent option at short.  Of the guys playing at least 200 innings (and nobody played more than 400 innings there), the best hitting option was former White Sox prospect Alex Cintron, who hit .286 but with little power or other helpers.  The rest averaged about .200 as a group, including Brandon Fahey, Freddie Bynum, and Juan Castro.

The outfield featured rookie Adam Jones, who hit .270, but showed room for power potential, a little speed, but not much else at this stage.  As such, he’s mildly below average as a hitter, but if he could step forward one or two notches, he could help.  Luke Scott came over from Houston and hit well enough, with 23 homers and showing some plate discipline.  However, his occasional platoon partner, Jay Payton, struggled at the plate – so the net result wasn’t exactly positive.  Rightfielder Nick Markakis continued to show growth as a future star, hitting for power (20 – 87 – .306) and getting on base.

If Markakis wasn’t the best hitter on the team, it was Aubrey Huff, who had a career season (32 – 108 – .304.)  Both scored about 7.5 runs per 27 outs, and anchored the offense.  Only Oscar Salazar hit well off the bench, and he didn’t have 100 plate appearances.

Defensively:

Baltimore pitchers worked with a defense that was not quite league average…  The league turned converted 68.6% batted balls in play into outs.  Baltimore finished at .68.5%.

Around the horn, Mora and Millar was just a touch above average, while Brian Roberts was just a touch below league average.  Most of the shortstops had decent defensive stats except Bynum, so while the offense at short was lacking, the defense was not.  However, the team was rather weak in terms of turning double plays in part because there were a lot of flyball pitchers and Roberts was working with a different partner most of the season.

Markakis and Scott were a shade off of league average, while Adam Jones was slightly worse than that.  When Jay Payton played, he couldn’t hit but the ball found his glove.  Luis Montanez, however, played three outfield positions and never seemed to be standing where the ball was hit…  Between them all, the outfield was actually below average and with a fly ball staff, this was a problem.

Hernandez had an awful year throwing out runners – 99 of the 123 people who tried to steal were successful.  Throw in the fact that he was slightly above average in terms of mistakes per game and that the staff’s ERA and winning percentage wasn’t very strong, my system suggests that Hernandez was among the weaker catchers in the AL.

Now Pitching…

Only two pitchers had really strong seasons for Baltimore.  Starter Jeremy Guthrie was about 19 runs better than the average pitcher, going 10 – 12, with good control through a few too many balls left the yard.  It was the second solid season for Guthrie, who is far and away the ace of the staff.  Middle reliever Jim Johnson didn’t allow a homer all season, which kept his ERA down, and despite having ordinary walk and strikeout data was also valuable for the Orioles.

Unfortunately, too many guys were WAY below average here.  Among the rotation starters, Brian Burres (-21 runs), Daniel Cabrera (-14 runs), Radhames Liz (-22 runs), Garrett Olson (-29 runs), and Steve Trachsel (-20 runs in 8 starts) got the Orioles in the hole early all too often.  Chris Waters came up and had 11 middling to below average starts with a 5.01 ERA and was an improvement.

The bullpen had Chad Bradford for a while, and George Sherrill had 33 saves, but they weren’t by any means awesome.  Sherrill’s ERA was 4.73, so he wasn’t setting the AL on fire as the Orioles’ fireman.  Most of the other relievers, including Dennis Sarfate, Lance Cormier, Jamie Walker and others struggled to put up league average numbers.  Compare that to the staffs of Boston, New York, or Tampa (much less Toronto), and you can see where the team needs to improve.

Forecasting 2009:

Ideally, the Orioles would like to see a little more offense, but more importantly, they have to find ways to keep the other team from scoring runs.  To get to .500, you’re talking about cutting more than 100 runs from the runs allowed, which means finding six decent pitchers and improving the outfield defense.

Offensively, the changes start at catcher (Greg Zaun for Ramon Hernandez, with Matt Wieters possibly getting his shot at some point this season), as well as first base (Millar is gone, with Ty Wigginton here).  Cesar Izturis arrives from St. Louis to play short – he’s not a championship quality hitter, but will be an improvement over the crew who played here last year.  It looks like the Orioles will not be trading Brian Roberts (they shouldn’t), which helps, and if Melvin Mora stays productive, the infield will be solid.  Defensively, they are probably 5 to 10 runs better, and offensively they are probably 15 runs better.

The outfield has added Felix Pie and Ryan Freel, but I don’t see how either of them will take Jones, Scott, or Markakis out of the lineup.  However, Pie could be the surprise – and as a defensive replacement, he’ll be solid.  The outfield of Scott, Jones, and Markakis can still produce runs, but more importantly there are a couple of bench performers who can contribute.  Offensively this is probably worth ten runs, and defensively, this could be worth ten runs, too.

Zaun is a better defensive catcher than Hernandez, but he’s been catching since Doug Ault was in Toronto (not really), and his contribution will not last the season.  Of the NRIs, Robby Hammock might play, and he can at least hit the ball some.  Chad Moeller and Guillermo Quiroz are in camp, but neither will be making a big contribution in the near future.  Matt Wieters has a job as soon as he’s ready.

One assumes that Huff should stay productive in his role, but he was so good last year, it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s off by ten runs this season.

There are, oh, 120 pitchers in camp in Ft. Lauderdale hoping to make the Orioles roster in April.  Guthrie is still here, and Rich Hill arrives from Chicago trying to put his career back together.  Hill would be a step up if he brings his best game.  The rest are a bunch of unknowns.  Matt Alberts was better as a reliever, but he could start some and be an improvement of ten runs over somebody.  Brian Bass comes over from Minnesota where, as a reliever, he wasn’t special.  As a starter he was tolerable here in Baltimore.  He might get a shot.  Troy Patton came over with the Tejada deal, he might be ready for a few starts.  George Sherrill needs to up his performance – and someone else needs to help out in the bullpen.

The problem is that they are all unproven rookies or second year guys.  Could they be better?  Sure – but it’s just not something you can predict with any dependability.

As such, I see the runs scored/runs allowed breakdown to be somewhere around 800/850, which translates to about 76 wins.  In this division, that’s a tall order, but there are enough pieces to see a better team in Baltimore.  If one or two pitchers step up in the rotation – a Hill and a Sherrill, for example – suddenly these guys are approaching .500 – and that’s pretty impressive.  When a few more young arms make it to the majors, this team might be ready to compete for a playoff spot.

Down on the Farm…

AAA Norfolk’s best hitter was Oscar Salazar (13 – 85 – .316), who got a cup of coffee with the big league club and played well.  He could have slid into the first base slot, and may well get this job after spending a decade in the minors (he’s 30).  He’s just been blocked everywhere he’s been (Oakland, the Mets, Detroit, Kansas City, Anaheim, and Cleveland), and he wasn’t a good enough middle infielder when he was younger.  However, with the ability to play the whole infield, he’s a good bench option.  Radhames Liz and Jim Miller pitched well enough to earn shots with the parent club last year.

Matt Wieters, the future catcher, hit .365 at AA Bowie in 208 at bats, with 12 homers and 51 RBI.  He can’t be far off…  Lou Montanez and Nolan Reimhold hit for power; Montanez had the higher batting average, but Reimhold has the better plate discipline.  David Hernandez and Chris Tillman led a quartet of Bay Sox pitchers to double-digit victories (the others were Brad Bergeson and Jason Berken, two other potential studs).  Both showed killer K/9 rates and will be in line for rotation spots by 2010 if not sometime this summer.  Julio Manon dominated as the closer – he’s just not a young prospect.  He’s 36 this summer.

Cole McMurray and Pat Egan led the hurlers at Aberdeen (High A), with closer Brandon Cooney (from nearby Florida Atlantic – near me, anyway) showing strong numbers.  Other than Wieters, the Frederick Keys also had first baseman Brandon Snyder (15 – 80 – .315) and pitchers Brandon Erbe and Jake Arrieta, who both had strong strikeout numbers if not solid won-loss records.

2009 Season Forecast: Toronto Blue Jays

Toronto Blue Jays
2008: 86-76 (3rd AL East, 11 games back)

If the Tampa Bay Rays were the team of destiny, then the Blue Jays represent the team of destiny lost.  My pick to win the wild card, the Blue Jays played just as well as Tampa, but didn’t play as well as they should have – and probably could have.  Allowing just 610 runs, the Blue Jays had the best pitching/defense combination in the American League.  Their offense was below average – only three teams scored fewer runs – but because they outscored their opponents by 104 runs, you would have expected this team to win 93 or 94 games.  They didn’t.   They missed that mark by 7 or 8 games, enough to have projected them into the race on the last weekend of the season had they just done what was expected.

Looking Back on 2008

Every good team has a bad month.  Toronto had two – one in April, the other in June.  That made it seem like the Jays were out of it all season.  Losers of eight of nine as the month closed, the Jays fell to the bottom of the division and had a long climb to get back in the race.

Then, after a decent May – actually, let’s call it what it was – an awesome May, where Toronto climbed all the way back to 31 – 26, the Blue Jays hit a HUGE losing stretch.  Seven in a row and 15 losses in 19 games put the season out of its misery.  And, yet, the Jays played three and a half solid months from there to get back to ten games over .500.  They were just too far back with three really good teams ahead of them to make any headway.

Looking at team splits, the only thing that stands out is that they couldn’t hit left handed pitching.  Righthanded hitters fared just as well against righties as southpaws, and left handed hitters couldn’t hit lefties at all – a .299 OBA and a .313 slugging percentage.  That’s a good year for Mario Mendoza, perhaps, but not enough to win any ballgames.

Tell me about that offense

When you think about the big hitters of the AL East, do you think about anybody in Toronto?  Frank Thomas was supposed to help, but 60 ugly at bats and that idea went out the window (and finally to Oakland).  Vernon Wells hit well, but missed a third of the season with injuries.  Alex Rios fought through nagging injuries and his own early season slump (tied to his signing a big contract and pressing?), but was rather ordinary in 600+ plate appearances.  So, with the three best hitters looking rather pedestrian, the Jays were rarely going to blow away opponents.

Behind the plate, Rod Barajas was a below average contributor, producing 4.3 runs for every 27 outs.  He has a little power (11 homers in 349 at bats), but hitting .249 with just 17 walks, he’s not helping the team keep rallies alive.  This is his third straight year with comparable numbers (for three different teams), so the likelihood that he’s going to improve any is null.  Greg Zaun backed him up and was no better – walked more, but hits for less power, and his batting average didn’t clear .240.

Lyle Overbay doesn’t hit nearly as well as his AL East brethren.  His batting average fell to .271, with average power and some walks as he played through a hand injury.  He’s an above average hitter – but not for a first baseman.  He needs to get back to .300 with 20 homers, otherwise his bat in this lineup is a liability.  Aaron Hill missed four months with post-concussion symptoms following a collision with David Eckstein.  The two months he played weren’t his best months.  Replacement Joe Inglett actually played pretty well – some speed, plate discipline, and the speed helps in hitting doubles and triples, making it look like he has some power (he doesn’t, really).  The Jays tried David Eckstein at short, but he’s really not a good enough hitter (or fielder anymore), then tried John McDonald, who struggled at the plate and apparently it affected his fielding, and even tried Marco Scutaro there, who played well.  Between the three, you had no better than league average hitting, though.  At third, you had the regularly injured Scott Rolen, who batted like 80% of Scott Rolen – okay, but not a great hitter anymore.  Scutaro played enough around the horn to get 517 just average at bats.

Consider this – all three teams that finished ahead of the Blue Jays last year are better at EVERY infield position.  That’s a huge hole to fill when trying to win this division.

Moving to the outfield, Alex Rios was disappointing, maybe, but not a problem.  He cleared 40 doubles, hit 8 triples, stole 32 bases, and was a decent outfielder.  You wish he’d walk more, but he still put 100 runs on the scoreboard.  Vernon Wells was a productive hitter, but missed a third of the season with hamstring problems (which, by the way, already recurred in spring training).  The problem with losing Wells is that there were no backup outfielders who could help.  The best left fielder (hitting-wise) was probably Adam Lind, and he’s tolerable.  Brad Wilkerson was miserable, and former Jays outfielder Shannon Stewart was equally unproductive in 52 games.  Having two less productive bats  in the lineup (when Wells was out) didn’t help.

The DHs were awful, from Thomas, through Stairs (who was a league average hitter – which is weak for the spot), and Kevin Mench.

The team did hit better after John Gibbons was fired and Cito Gaston was made manager – but for the Jays to compete in 2009, they’ll need to get healthy seasons from Aaron Hill, Vernon Wells, and Scott Rolen – and at this point, only one of three is really likely.

Defensively:

Normally, the Jays have a number of quality fielders helping the staff.  The defense in 2009 was good – but not as good as it used to be.

Overbay remains one of the best fielding first basemen, period.  If you don’t believe it, check out the putout numbers for his pitchers; 144, where no other was over 106.  And, he still makes a lot of plays throwing out runners on the paths. Aaron Hill, normally at least a league average second sacker wasn’t in 2009.  Joe Inglett was league average, but no better.  Eckstein has lost a step (and his job), but John McDonald wasn’t very good last year, and Scott Rolen is less mobile than he used to be.  Only Marco Scutaro looked like (and played like) a healthy and valuable defender.  And he was good all over the infield.

In the outfield, Alex Rios is pretty good – he actually played very well in center while Wells was gone.  Wells has been below average for each of the last three years in center – perhaps he should be in left with Rios in center.  Lind, Wilkerson, and a host of others had scattered skill sets but basically helped make outs.

Behind the plate, Barajas and Zaun were as good as any tandem in the American League.  They win more than they lost, the team ERA (despite the defense) was great, they were mobile, made few mistakes, and held the running game in check.  Barajas caught 22 of the 64 people who tried to steal, one of the best in the AL.

Now Pitching…

The Tampa Bay Rays pitchers had decent ERAs and Hits/9 ratings in part because the defense behind them was so good that it likely saved everybody about 110 runs in 162 games.  The Jays had off-seasons from a few players but remained agile in the field.  And, with only 84 errors, the team rarely allowed unearned runs – which makes the pitching look a little stronger than it might be otherwise.

That being said, the Jays pitching is still great.  Roy Halliday was a machine, winning 20 games, leading the league in complete games, and saving his team 40 runs more than the average pitcher – over a league leading 246 innings.  The best pitcher in the AL, bar none.  Behind him was A.J. Burnett, who won 18 games and led the league in strikeouts.  Jesse Litsch and Shaun Marcum were given more prominent roles and combined to save the team 30 runs.  Only the fifth slot, where Dustin McGowan and David Purcey struggled, was there an off slot in the rotation.

And, the bullpen was equally strong.  B. J. Ryan returned from elbow surgery to save 32 games with a 2.95 ERA.  Brian Tallett was successful in middle relief, and Jesse Carlson had a fine ERA and seven wins in relief.  Carlson has good control and keeps the ball in the park, exactly what you want a seventh inning guy to do.  Scott Downs was solid as the set up man, and two others, Shawn Camp and Jason Frasor were better than league average.  With four good rotation slots and a complete bullpen, the Jays were able to stop other lineups and stay competitive despite a lack of support from their own hitters.

Forecasting 2009:

Cito Gaston lost a couple of key contributors and will be relying on other players to stay healthy in 2009.  He needs a new #2 starter, and he could use three hitters to raise their gaimes.

McGowan was supposed to be the next rotation anchor, but hasn’t shown it yet.  If he or Purcey can’t make significant strides, I don’t see who is going to replace Burnett.   From a predictive standpoint, I don’t think Halliday stays 40 runs above average – maybe 25 after such a busy season.  Throw in a drop from the #2 slot, and that’s probably a 30 run decline from last year.  The bullpen had two or three guys pitching over their heads a bit – so I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a ten run drop here, too.

Defensively, the team isn’t getting better.  Hill may be back but he wasn’t magic.  McDonald can’t hit well enough to play short – Scutaro may have to take his position.  Rolen isn’t going to get better.  Overbay is at his peak already.  The outfield would be better if Wells were moved to a corner spot (he might not pull as many hamstrings, too), but I don’t see that Gaston has many options here.  They will be relying on 20 year old Travis Snider, who has young legs but a build (5’ 11” and 245) that doesn’t suggest mobility.  Oddly, the defense gets better when Wells is not in center.  Michael Barrett will likely back up Barajas this year – on the whole the defense is probably a wash over last year but might fall back ten runs.

Offensively, there is room for improvement, but only because Hill could come back and Rios could step up, and Wells might play a full season, and because Kevin Millar or somebody should be a better DH than what has been there.  Overbay could be better.  Or – they could not.  If the pitching and defense slides 40 to 50 runs (and it will), will the offense be 60 runs better?  It should be better, but not that much better.  Kevin Millar may be the DH – but he’s not that much better than what was here last year.  I see the team scoring 25 runs more than last year – but no more than that.

That puts the runs scored/runs allowed at 740/670, which is still good enough to win 89 games.  My hunch, though, is that even with Gaston running the ship, I have no idea how it’s going to be that good.  The system says 89, but I say 83 or 84.  The rest of the division is strong, the Orioles could be stronger, and even though Litsch and Marcum were good last year, they don’t give me the same feeling as 34 starts of A.J. Burnett.

Down on the Farm…

The Toronto AAA club, for years in Syracuse, will be in Las Vegas for 2009.  Last year, Syracuse was devoid of prospects.  The best players were discarded prospects like Buck Coats (former Cub), and Russ Adams (former Blue Jay starting shortstop), and they aren’t good enough to replace who is already here.  If Coats or Adams could play short, they wouldn’t be logging time in the Syracuse outfield.  The best AAA pitcher was John Parrish, a 30 year old Baltimore castoff, who went 9 – 1.

Robert Ray and Brad Mills pitched well for AA New Hampshire, but will likely start the year at AAA.  Travis Snider made a AAA call and cup of coffee with Toronto after hitting 17 homers in 362 at bats as a 20 year old.  He’ll be a major leaguer for a long time – and a DH by 2013.  Scott Campbell, from Auckland, New Zealand, looks like a future second baseman and #2 hitter – he hits for a high average, walks some, but he’s not a burner.

Brian Dopirak continues to hit and hit for power, but can’t find his way past high A or AA.  He was the leading threat for the Dunedin Blue Jays.  He’s 25 now and has to move up quickly to have a career.  Kenny Rodriguez didn’t have the best record, but he had the best stuff at Dunedin.  The palindrome named Reidier Gonzalez went 12 – 4, but doesn’t strikeout enough guys to make it far in the big leagues.  Mark Rzepczynski could win Scrabble tournaments with a name like that – but it’s his stuff that will get him promoted to AA soon.  124 Ks in 121 innings, few hits and homers allowed, and good control helped Mark to a winning record for the Lansing Lugnuts.  A slew of 19 year olds got most of the at bats, but struggled to hit .250 on the season.