2010 Season Forecast: Houston Astros

Last Five Seasons:

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

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

Season Recap:

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

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

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

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

Pitching:

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

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

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

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

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

Catching:

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

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

Infield:

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

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

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

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

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

Outfield:

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

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

Prospects:

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

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

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

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

Forecast:

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

2009 Season Forecast: Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox
2008: 95-67 (2nd AL East, 2 games back)

By my take, the Boston Red Sox were the best team in the American League, but were beaten by the darlings of destiny in Tampa Bay within their own division and in the playoffs.  Anaheim played over their head in the weakest division in baseball.  The White Sox and Twins were good, but the Red Sox were truly a great team that just missed winning back to back World Series.

Scoring 845 runs, only Texas had a stronger offense.  Allowing just 694 runs, the Red Sox were third defensively.  The combination was the best ratio of runs scored to runs allowed in the league.  Boston just had a couple of hiccoughs – the Manny Ramirez saga, Mike Lowell’s hip injury, and an off-season from David Ortiz – which kept them from operating on all cylinders.

Looking Back on 2008

Looking month-to-month, the Red Sox won between 16 and 18 games every month but July, when they went 11 – 13 and fell behind Tampa Bay.  Oddly, looking at their monthly offensive numbers, July was the only month where Boston couldn’t hit homers (just 18 and usually in the high 20s or 30s) , and the only month where they weren’t successful stealing bases (8 of 16, where every other month was better than 15 of 22).

The pitching was sort of a bell curve – league average in April, getting better through the summer, and then drifting back over 4.00 for August and September.

Despite areas of consistency, the team was surprisingly streaky for about sixty games.  Off to a slow start, the Red Sox won ten of eleven to take charge of the division at the end of April.  Then, they lost five in a row to Anaheim and Tampa Bay, who swept the Sox.  After trading a couple of games, the Sox went on another tear for a week.  It was win seven, lose four, win six of seven, lose five of six – very streaky for a team this good.  June was relatively even, winning two of three most of the month, until another hitting another losing streak as the month turned into July.  In July, they would lose at least back to back games once or twice a week, never putting together a winning streak until August hit – and then they went on another tear.  Down the stretch, Boston played well, but lost four of six in two series to the Rays and finished the division in second place.

Tell me about that offense

For the last couple of years, David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez got all the press.  In 2008, the big bats were Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia.

I know – Pedroia is the little guy with the big bat and Youkilis is rather odd looking, with that shaved head and big goatee (shaved for 2009), plus that huge waggle when he stands in the plate.  But, the MVP award should have gone to Youkilis.  Youkilis generated about five fewer runs than Pedroia (122 to 117), but he did so making fewer outs.  Youk’ created 8.2 runs every 27 outs, while Pedroia was a full run behind that (7.2).  Defensively, Pedroia was a steady second baseman – but he had slightly below average range and was solid turning two and avoiding errors.  Youkilis was well above average playing first base, was solid playing third – and even when forced into right field for a game, turned in a solid game.  Pedroia plays a tougher position, but Youkilis plays his far better – and more of them.

Anyway – the two were both great.  Mike Lowell was good until his hip failed him.  The only weak spot was Julio Lugo.  Even Jed Lowrie and Alex Cora were better hitters – but none were better than average.  Cora should have been the starter.  Jeff Bailey backed up Youkilis and Lowell and was a solid hitter.  He’s Kevin Millar without the job.  Sean Casey was decent in a backup role, too.

In the outfield, Ramirez was still solid – .299 with 20 homers and nearly 70 RBI for four months.  His replacement, Jason Bay, hit just as well when he arrived.  In center, both Jacoby Ellsbury and Coco Crisp were good, though not great.  Ellsbury has room to improve and hasn’t lost a step defensively and will keep his job for 2009.  In right, J. D. Drew remains productive, but can’t keep his back healthy – he’ll never be much for 120 games anymore (not that he played 120 every year before).  The other outfielders didn’t really produce.

David Ortiz had an off year but was productive, some power, still walks, still fierce with the game on the line.  Catcher Jason Varitek had a well-publicized off year, hitting .220 with a little power, but it was his homer that nearly turned the AL Championship Series into Boston’s party.  Kevin Cash didn’t hit well either.  Maybe he got tired chasing knucklers.

On the whole, though, with at least three amazing performers and four other positive offensive contributions in the lineup, the Red Sox had a fantastic offense.

Defensively:

Like the offense, the defensive lineup was a collection of remarkably good performers, surrounded by a number of players who didn’t quite make the expected contributions.

Around the horn, both Lowell and Youkilis were impressive – Youkilis, as mentioned before, was really good at both first and third, saving the Sox about 24 runs with his glove.  Pedroia is a good, but not great second baseman (101 DPs and only 7 errors, but -2.8 range factor – meaning he made about three fewer plays per 800 balls in play than the average second sacker).  The shortstops were a mixed bag.  Cora, who had the best offensive numbers, also was the only above average shortstop in the field.  Lugo and Lowrie struggled – Lowrie was especially immobile when playing shortstop, making just 3.39 plays per nine innings (Lugo was below average at 3.71, while Cora was well above average at 4.63 plays per nine).  The net was positive, but shortstop was an obvious hole.

In the outfield, Ellsbury was awesome – he played all three outfield positions well and saved the Red Sox about 25 runs.  Unfortunately, Crisp, Ramirez, and Drew (and even Bay, who had to learn to play the Green Monster), negated Ellsbury’s value.  Mark Kotsay was imported from Atlanta to help out, and his back doesn’t allow him to be very mobile anymore either.
Behind the plate, Varitek remains solid, and Cash is actually very good despite having to deal with catching Tim Wakefield’s knuckleball.  Neither were very good stopping base stealers, but the way Boston scores runs in bunches, it doesn’t really matter.

David Ortiz doesn’t play the field anymore.

Now Pitching…

Jon Lester was Cy Young worthy last year – leading his team in innings and saving his team about 33 runs more than the average pitcher.  Daisuke Matsuzaka was equally baffling; despite walking way too many batters, nobody hit him.  He was 30 runs better than average, too.  Josh Beckett alternated between solid performances and injury recovery – missing a few starts but still pitching enough like an ace to rank near the top of the league in strikeouts despite missing at least six starts.  Tim Wakefield is still an above average pitcher, eating innings while tossing butterfly balls.

The fifth spot was less steady, shared by either Clay Buchholtz, who was lousy (6.75 ERA), or Justin Masterson, who looks like another ace in the making.

One day, I have to write this up but I happened to notice this.  Every once in a while, Josh Beckett doesn’t have it – gets whacked around right from the get go.  Terry Francona, though, knows that (a) it’s early in the game and (b) Beckett is one of those guys who won’t be happy getting yanked in the first inning.  However, every time Beckett threw 30 or more pitches in the first inning, he would get a tight elbow and then miss a start or two.  I had this theory that I have been using for about, oh, twenty years now that says that we need to stop looking at the total number of pitches thrown (managers start looking to the bullpen as the pitcher reaches 100 pitches) and start looking at pitches thrown in an inning.

I’m going to watch this again this year.  It makes no sense to let any pitcher throw 30 pitches in an inning.  If 100 is bad over six innings, what is 30 pitches in ten minutes?  In a perfect world, I think the max number of pitches someone should throw starts at 28 – and once a pitcher reaches 15, the catcher should go out there and let the pitcher catch his breath.  Then, each inning, I’d drop that number by one, unless he threw 20 pitches in that inning.  So, let’s say Beckett throws 24 pitches in the first, the new max number would drop from 28 to 26 in the second inning.  If he gets to 28, though, get him out of there.  If the pitcher has two innings where he clears 20 pitches, give him an extra day of rest.

My second theory has to do with the amount of time between pitches.  The way most of these guys throw – whipping everything they have into a pitch to get 95 MPH on the gun – they shouldn’t be resting for 30 seconds between pitches.  I think that gets in the way of keeping an arm loose.  As a weightlifter, you don’t do a heavy rep of one, and then rest, and then another heavy rep of one, and then rest, and then another heavy rep of one.  You’d blow out a tendon.  You want smooth, steady movement, without letting momentum force you out of bad mechanics.  I understand that in throwing, momentum is part of getting speed on the ball, but you don’t want to overexert yourself such that it wrecks your momentum.  I would think you want the pitchers to work more quickly – not letting muscles and tendons get cold with every pitch – using a controlled momentum so as not to overwork any one tendon that either provides the thrust or the braking of the movement.

Part of that isn’t the pitcher’s fault.  Some of it is the batter.  If I were pitching to Youkilis, for example, I’d remind the umpire that I don’t want him stepping out and moving all over while I was working.  I’d just get the ball, get my sign (without shaking off the catcher), and fire away.  He can dance after the game, but not while I’m pitching.  And if he complains that I’m working too quickly, he can duck out of the way of my next pitch.  I’ve got a job to do, and that’s to work smoothly, and not sit around while he scares small children with his gyrations.

But I digress.

The bullpen was great – only Mike Timlin was a weak link.  Jonathon Papelbon is a legitimate ace, Hideki Okajima was even more effective in terms of runs allowed, and Manny Delcarmen is solid.  All three were 10 runs better than average.  The long relievers, when Masterson was being used as a starter, were weak but fortunately rarely used.

Again, four solid starters, a solid swing man, and three killers in the bullpen, and you can see why the Red Sox, despite playing in Fenway, was third in runs allowed.

Forecasting 2008:

When you are the best team in baseball, you can’t really move up – but the Red Sox might actually be better in 2009.

Offensively, Big Papi could improve by ten runs.  If Ellsbury improves, and he seemed to be making steps in the right direction by season’s end, that would be another ten runs.  I don’t see Pedroia or Youkilis getting worse, though one or the other could take a little step back.  The key will be getting production out of Lowell when his hip heals.  If not, Youkilis at third and Jeff Bailey at first isn’t a step down.  The other outfielders, Bay and Drew, won’t be better than last year, but Bay might be a bit better defensively.  It would be great if Varitek bounced back, but he’s been declining regularly for years and it’s probably not going to happen.  Still – the offense could be ten to fifteen runs better, and that’s not bad.

Defensively, a full year from Beckett might be worth ten runs.  If newcomer Brad Penny comes back strong, the fifth spot suddenly is very productive.  If not, Justin Masterson is a great option.  Or John Smoltz, who will get to pitch sometime this summer after getting his shoulder rehab done successfully.  I don’t know if Lester and Matsuzaka will stay 30 runs better than average, but they will stay productive if they stay healthy.  Adding Takashi Saito and not throwing Mike Timlin will help, as will adding Ramon Ramirez to the pen.  On paper, this is the best bullpen in baseball.  The net change is going to be slim, but probably a slight improvement over last year.  Say ten runs.  If so, the Red Sox will be in line to win 98 games, outpacing everyone by at least six or seven games, and cruising into the playoffs.

Down on the Farm…

If Boston has a prospect at AAA Pawtuckett, I don’t see it.  The best players, like Bailey and Buchholz and Masterson are already on the major league roster, and the others (Devern Hansack, Charlie Zink) are pushing 30 and still haven’t made it.

The Portland (AA) Sea Dogs features Lars Anderson and Zach Daeges, who both hit a little like Youkilis – decent average, great eye, some power.  Michael Bowden went 9 – 4 with great strikeout and control numbers before moving to AAA.  There’s not a lot of room on the major league roster right now, but if he has one more solid season in AAA, they’ll have to make space for the 22 year old from Winfield, Illinois.

A couple of A ball catchers might make a splash in a couple of years.  At Salem you have Koby Clemens (his father is rather famous in Boston), and Luis Exposito hit pretty well at Greenville.  Expo has the better average and power, but Clemens has a better eye at the plate and, well, he has connections.  Kyle Weiland dominated while pitching for Lowell (low A), good strikeout numbers and few walks.  The rookie from Notre Dame has good tools and should be in either Salem or Portland in 2009.