2011 Season Forecast: Chicago White Sox

Last Five Seasons:

2010:  88 – 74
2009:  79 – 83
2008:  89 – 74
2007:  72 – 90
2006:  90 – 72

The White Sox have been competitive for much of the last six or seven years, 2007 notwithstanding.

Runs Scored: 752 (7th in the AL)
Runs Allowed: 704 ( 8th in the AL)

With this combination, the White Sox would be expected to win 86 games or so – right about where they finished.

Season Recap:

At the beginning of the season, many expected the White Sox to contend with the Twins for the AL Central crown, and they contended until the last few days of the season.

The Sox actually got off to kind of a slow start, having losing records in April and May.  At one point, the Sox were eight games under .500 and threatening to finish in last place at 24 – 33 after a loss to Detroit.  However, the Sox got SCORCHING HOT, winning eleven in a row and fifteen of sixteen to sprint back into the race.  (Of course, they played the Cubs, Pirates, Nationals, and Braves for that stretch, losing only a 1 – 0 game to Ted Lilly and the Cubs which likely saved Lou Piniella’s job.)  Another nine game winning streak got the Sox to 50 – 39, at which point people started to think playoffs.

Once they had to face teams in their division, however, the Sox fell back.  Only one more hot streak – a seven game winning streak in the beginning of September – kept them alive.  Then, facing the Twins and Tigers, the Sox lost eight in a row (the last two to Oakland), and they were done.  The Twins beat the Sox 13 times, the difference between first and second place.

During the season, the Sox acquired two players, trading Daniel Hudson and David Holmberg to Arizona for Edwin Jackson and claiming Manny Ramirez from the Dodgers after he had been waived.  Neither player figured heavily in the team’s fortunes down the stretch.  Jackson pitched reasonably well in his eleven starts; Manny – not so much, but only batted 69 times.
Starters:

The Sox have a LOT of quality starting pitching.  John Danks was fantastic – 213 innings and saving his team 24 runs over that span.  Mark Buehrle did what he always does, throws strikes, eats innings, and wins games.  Gavin Floyd was saddled with a losing record but, like Buehrle is an above average pitcher with a record of durability.  Jake Peavy was expected to be the ace, but he suffered a significant tear in a muscle behind his throwing shoulder and hopes to be back for much of the 2011 season after having an experimental surgery to repair it.  Last year’s #5, Freddy Garcia, was surprisingly effective in 28 starts but won’t be back because Edwin Jackson is about the best fifth starter you can possibly imagine.  37 wins in the last three years, a no-hitter last year, and a power arm.  It’s hard to find a better overall rotation outside of Philadelphia anywhere.

Relievers:

Bobby Jenks and his 4.44 ERA is no longer the closer, having moved on to Boston.  And, J.J. Putz, the former set up man, is a closer in Arizona.  Don’t worry about the Pale Hose, though, because the rest of the bullpen is as good as the rotation.  Chris Sale was impressive in 23.1 innings, striking out 32 batters and allowing just 15 hits – and becomes the new closer.  His late season dominance allowed Jenks, who was losing his effectiveness, to leave town.  Scott Thornton has been a solid reliever for a couple of years now and becomes the lock down set up man.  Sergio Santos was effective, Jesse Crain and Will Ohman have been imported to provide middle inning support options, and Tony Pena can do the job as a swing man or long reliever.

Catching:

The Sox have a decent tandem in A.J. Pierzynski and Ramon Castro.  Pierzynski is starting to show signs of age, but is still reasonably effective.  Castro is a good enough hitter to warrant more playing time if needed.  As a defensive unit, the two were above average in five categories (ERA, Winning Percentage, Caught Stealing, Mistakes per Game, and Fielding Percentage on plays other than strikeouts), and below average only in mobility categories.

Infield:

Both offensively and defensively, you had two positions working in the Sox favor, and two working the other way.  Paul Konerko remains a sturdy bat in the middle of the lineup, but defensively he and his 2010 backup, Mark Kotsay, are well below average.  At second base, Gordon Beckham, you had the opposite.  Beckham has decent enough defensive skills, but didn’t hold his own with the bat in 2010, unlike what he suggested was possible in 2009.  At short, Alexei Ramirez was solid offensively despite a rather low OBP because he hit for power and had a reasonably good batting average.  And, defensively, he played at a gold glove level.  Then you have the hole at third, where Mark Teahan had an off year and couldn’t stay healthy either – costing the team runs with the glove and bat.  The person who played the most at third was the elder statesman, Omar Vizquel, who looked very out of place defensively and hit like Paul Bako with even less power.

Arriving to help the cause is Brent Morel, a third round pick in 2008 out of Cal Poly, who has shown a plus bat and some power.  In AA and AAA, he hit 10 – 60 – .322 and earned a 21 game tryout with the Sox in September.  If Morel can hold his own at the position and hit .280 with a dozen homers, this would be a significant step up for the Sox over what played there in 2010.

Outfield:

Alex Rios came over from Toronto, played center extremely well, and put a lot of runs on the board – his best season since signing that huge contract a few years ago.  Juan Pierre remains the left fielder – though Mighty Casey can’t explain it.  For a guy who is supposed to be fast, he’s NOT a plus range fielder, and unless he’s hitting .320, he’s a waste of at bats.  In right, Carlos Quentin was so bad defensively that he offset whatever benefits having Rios and Pierre in center and left may have provided.  His power is still around, but he misses a lot games (much less pitches).  I think the Sox will miss Andruw Jones, who can’t really cover any ground but hit 19 homers in essentially a half season of at bats.  Alejando De Aza is the new fourth outfielder, a guy I used to root for in Florida, and is running out of chances to stick.  He can play a little.

DH:

Last year, there was a rotation of hitters, none who will be anywhere as good as the newly signed free agent, Adam Dunn.  Dunn is an offensive force, and gives the team depth at left or first base, too.  (He can’t field them, but he can certainly hit enough so that you won’t notice too much.)

Down on the Farm:

Brett Morel we covered…  Behind him on the AAA depth chart is 3B-1B candidate Dayan Viciedo, a 22-year-old Cuban kid with serious power and upside and didn’t disappoint when given a shot with the parent club in 2010.  If Paul Konerko starts to get old, Viciedo could step in and be a quality first baseman for more than a decade.  Pitcher Daniel Hudson looked to be close to ready, but was sent to Arizona for Edwin Jackson at the trade deadline.  Hudson looked like he could be as good as Jackson, but Arizona is rebuilding while the White Sox are merely retooling.

At AA Birmingham, first baseman Jimmy Gallagher had a season that looks like something on the back of Mark Grace’s baseball card, but may not have a future here unless it’s as a pinch hitter.  The pitcher who stands out, to me anyway, is reliever Deunte Heath, who fanned 84 in 57.2 innings, but may have issues harnessing his control.  Anthony Carter also had a decent season in relief.

A guy who seems to have the team’s eye is Gregory Infante, who converted from a starter to a reliever and blew through A+ Winston-Salem and then Birmingham.  69Ks in 60 innings, didn’t allow a single homer (just 12 in 291 minor league innings), and for a really young kid out of Caracas, Venezuela, he may get a shot at closing in AAA.  A guy you may read about in 2011 could be Justin Greene, a centerfielder with speed and power who also blew through A+ and landed at AA.  Dylan Axelrod had a 1.99 ERA in Winston-Salem, earning a promotion to AA, and things are finally starting to click for him.  Working against him is the fact that he’s a late round pick originally drafted by San Diego, and the Sox having a lot of starters at the big league level who aren’t going away anytime soon.

2011 Forecast:

I’m feeling a bit optimistic about the Sox, mostly because Dunn and Morel could quickly address the two biggest weaknesses they have.  You have the potential regression of Pierzinski, Konerko, Pierre, Rios, and Quentin, weighed against the potential of gaining 80 or more offensive runs with Morel and Dunn.  The pitching staff will be equally solid and could be marginally better – and would be really good if there weren’t two holes on the same side of the field (Konerko, Quentin).  Still – a full season of Morel at third should help the overall defense, too.  I like getting Jenks out of the closer role, and the Sox pen is still very, very good.  I like the White Sox scoring 825 runs and allowing barely 700, which puts the sox at 95 wins.  I also think the Sox could win the World Series, another shot across the bow at Cub fans who continue to wait for a miracle that won’t arrive until they figure out how to manage resources.

Working against the Sox is the idea that Jake Peavy’s shoulder may explode at any moment, and Ozzie Guillen imploding after another irrational outburst at his general manager, who has assembled quite the roster.  Ozzie – sit back and enjoy the ride to the playoffs.

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Buehrle Retires 45 Straight; Wang and Johnson Done?

The Cub fan in me was supposed to watch their game with Houston last night; instead I watched Mark Buehrle figuring I should watch to see how long he could keep getting batters out.  Buehrle didn’t disappoint – cruising through five innings as if he’d never allow a batter to reach base again.  His streak reached 45 batters when he got the first two out in the sixth inning and suddenly people were wondering if he’d throw a second straight perfect game,  Then, Buehrle he got up 0 – 2 to Alexi Casilla and I was thinking, “grounder to short.”  Instead, Casilla coaxed a walk, followed by Denard Span’s liner into center for a single.  When Scott Podsednik misplayed Joe Mauer’s fly ball into a ground rule double, the magic was over.  (They only give errors when you get a glove or body part on the ball, but never when you slow up or short arm the reach.  It clearly should have been caught.)

Still – 45 straight!  The record of 41 was first set in 1972 by Jim Barr of the Giants, and later tied by Bobby Jenks (Buehrle’s teammate) a couple of years ago.  I was listening to SportsCenter this morning, and the comment about Barr and Jenks was “these guys were relievers…” as if it was easier for a reliever to get that many outs in a row.  As I see it, they got it wrong on both counts.  At that time in his career, Barr was a starter.  He got the last 21 in a row in a complete game shutout of Pittsburgh on August 23, 1972, and then got the first twenty out before allowing a double to Bernie Carbo of the Cardinals in his second complete game shutout six days later…  Barr threw a perfect game in the middle there – but it didn’t count.  Later in his career, with a burned out arm, Barr was a reliever.  As for what Jenks did – working one inning at a time, he didn’t allow a hit for over a month in the 9th inning protecting a lead.  How is that any easier?

Buehrle got roughed up in the seventh and took the loss to Minnesota – which is what happens when you are coming off of perfect games.  Too much magic needed to win two consecutive games when so much is spent on the first game…

On to Other News…

Chien-Ming Wang’s season is over – shoulder surgery is next.  [ESPN]

Randy Johnson’s season, and possibly his career, may be over as he learned he has a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder.  Johnson laughed that his days of doing an instructional hitting video are over.  The Big Unit hopes to return in September.  [ESPN]

Houston pitchers are running into back problems…  Roy Oswalt left last night’s start against the Cubs in the second inning and will have his strained back looked at.  For Latroy Hawkins, he heads to the DL with shingles in his back.  Yuck.

Oswalt’s injury (and, for that matter, Hawkins’) opens the door for prospect Bud Norris to join the Astros.  Norris has great stats – big strikeout numbers, even in the PCL, and occasionally fights his control.  Baseball America says he’s the #2 prospect in the Astros organization.  If there is a “but…”, it’s his minor league W-L record, which stands at 12 – 25.  You’d like for your top prospects to have winning records – even on bad minor league teams.

Ian Kinsler strained his left hammy running out a grounder and is day-to-day for now.  This is a tough loss for the contending Texas Rangers.

The latest blockbuster trade?  Boston sent Mark Kotsay to the White Sox for outfielder Brian Anderson.  Kotsay used to be a good fielding outfielder, but his back has taken away that mobility.  Anderson’s reputation is that of being a good outfielder, but at 27 he’s never had the stats to back that up and his bat reminds you of someone who might never get out of AA – heck, he had just been sent back to AAA.  Kotsay is a good pinch hitter and can play first a little – so the White Sox would seem to have gotten some value out of the deal.  [SI]

ESPN has a good rundown of current trade rumors, as we await the trade deadline on Friday, as does FanNation.  Or you could read about trade rumors on MLB.com…  [ESPN/SI/MLB]

Welcome Back!  A bunch of guys came off the DL in the last 24 hours…  Houston reliever Doug Brocail, Blue Jays pitcher Scott Richmond, Cubs starter Ryan Dempster (looked rusty last night), Arizona catcher Chris Snyder, Padres catcher Henry Blanco and infielder David Eckstein…

Make it Work!  Andy Marte was called up by Cleveland…  Three years ago, he was a top prospect, but it hasn’t worked in more than 500 MLB at bats – hitting all of .211 with nine hommers.  It’s time for Marte to make his mark in the majors or he’ll be an afterthought before long.

Notes from a Saturday Night in Baseball

Even backup Mets are getting hurt.  Gary Sheffield tweaked a hamstring chasing a Yunel Escobar double a couple days back and heads to the DL.  Did you know that Sheffield leads the Mets in homers?  I know – me neither.  [FoxSports]

More Roy Halliday trade rumors – including the idea that the charging Angels want Halliday, too.  [FoxSports]

And, our friends at FoxSports surmise that the Reds could wind up acquiring Scott Rolen from Toronto – and that Bronson Arroyo or Aaron Harang might be heading to Toronto.  This would be based on Halliday actually leaving Toronto.   Personally, I’m no longer sold on Rolen being a top option at this point in his career owing to a long injury history. [FoxSports]

Quick Angels note:  Maybe I don’t watch enough baseball talk shows, but the Angels are 33 – 13 in their last 46 games.  I want to apologize, in advance, for being so wrong with this prediction.

The first casualty in the Red Sox acquisitions?  Mark Kotsay, who was designated for assignment.  Kotsay isn’t much of an outfielder anymore, is still learning first base, but could be a nice pinch hitter for somebody over the next couple of years.  Kotsay, who is one of the more friendly guys in the majors, could wind up being the next Jay Johnstone if he wants.  He just needs to be funnier.  [SI]

When Roger Maris’s home run mark had an asterisk to it, it was because he hit 61 homers in more games (162) than Babe Ruth hit his 60 (154).  Now, as we approach the Hall of Fame weekend, a few hall of famers talk about putting asterisks on the numbers assembled during the PED era, including Hank Aaron and Ozzie Smith.  [ESPN]

Pirates Trade McLouth to Braves for Prospects (They Hope)

Nate McLouth was probably Pittsburgh’s best player last year – well, close.  Jason Bay was better for four months but was traded to Boston.  Xavier Nady was amazing for nearly four months but was traded to New York.  Ryan Doumit generated a lot of runs, but is limited defensively (and this year is hurt).  McLouth is better than Freddy Sanchez and either Andy or Adam LaRoche.

He’s pretty good, though.  Above average power (26 homers, 46 doubles last year, on pace for more of the same in 2009); good speed (23 steals, just three caught stealing in 2008).  Patient enough at the plate, doesn’t strikeout too much, but he does fan from time to time.

Defensively, however, he’s not THAT good a centerfielder.  I have him has having below average range the last three years in center (-9.2, -4.3, -4.7 – meaning that for every 800 balls in play, McLouth makes that many fewer plays than the average centerfielder, and therefore adds that many points to the batter’s batting average).  In limited innings, he hasn’t been especially mobile in left or right, either.  So, in addition to putting about 117 runs on the board for the Pirates, he also helped put an extra 15 runs on the board for his opponents.  The net, however, is very positive.   Not every player contributes 100 runs to a team’s success.

So, with the Pirates falling to their usual fate – the bottom of the NL Central and a losing record for the umpteenth straight season – management decided to sell off their best remaining asset to the Atlanta Braves for three prospects.  Was this a good idea?

For the Braves – YES!  With Jordan Schafer being sent to AAA by the Braves yesterday to be replaced by Gregor Blanco, and dissatisfied with the production of Jeff Francouer, McLouth will still be a welcome addition to the Braves.  He’s better than anyone who played there in 2008 (Mark Kotsay, Blanco), and far better than anyone who could play there in the Braves system now.  (Blanco, who just got called up to the majors to replace Schafer, was a below average batter and fielder in center.)  And, none of their TOP prospects were involved in the trade – Hanson, Medlin, and others will still be available to Atlanta for growth or trades.

What did the Pirates get in return?

Charlie Morton was the 2nd round pick by Atlanta back in 2002, and has worked his way through the minors.  To his credit, Morton has improved in terms of his control and strikeout rate.  In 2008, he was far ahead of anything he had done in his prior years and earned a trip to the majors where he was miserable – 6.15 ERA, and walking nearly as many as he struck out.  In AAA this year, Morton has been solid for Gwinnett, even better than in 2008, but not as dominant as Tommy Hanson or even Kris Medlin.

Jeff Locke was the Braves’ 2nd round pick in 2006 out of high school.  Unlike Morton, Locke DOMINATED rookie ball, but since then seems to have taken a step back.  He was okay in 2008 at A Rome; good control, but ugly record and a lot of balls in play turned into hits.  And, in 2009 for Myrtle Beach, he looks very ordinary and not very prospect like.  Baseball America may say he’s a top ten prospect in the Braves system, but not based on this year, for sure.  He’s young and has room to grow; yet Locke is NOT going to pitch for Pittsburgh for two or three years.

The last guy might help some, and that’s Gorkys Hernandez, who is a Venezuelan burner.  Just 21 now (22 in September), Gorkys has 50 steals in him, and has hit well this year at AA Mississippi, coming to Atlanta from Detroit in the deal that sent Edgar Renteria to Detroit in 2008.  Now, while his average is higher and he’s still stealing bases, he’s not drawing walks and his strikeout rate at AA is prohibitively high (54 in just 212 at bats).  Baseball America ranked Hernandez as the fourth best prospect in the Braves system.

Still – a poor man’s Grady Sizemore (check out the comparisons – McLouth is 85% of Sizemore, and Sizemore is overrated defensively, too) for a fourth or fifth starter (at best), a struggling kid pitcher, and a Willy Taveras clone doesn’t strike me as a great deal.  Especially when none of the pitchers can help immediately (and one is going in the wrong direction) and you already have a centerfielder-in-waiting in Andrew McCutchen.  Granted, three players thicken up the talent base, but giving away one of the few hitters capable of putting 100 runs on the scoreboard each year seems like a good deal for Atlanta and a disappointing return for Pittsburgh.  Pittsburgh needed to turn McLouth into a pitcher capable of winning 15 games.  That’s not going to happen anytime soon.

Look for Andrew McCutchen, hitting well and running like the wind at AAA Indianpolis, to get the call to play center.  For three years, McCutchen has been one of the two highest ranked prospects (per Baseball America) and it’s time to get him on the major league roster.   If you haven’t gotten him for your fantasy team, it’s time to think about picking him up.

To Err is Human, Else You’re a Yankee; Hamilton Out Indefinitely

A Yankee finally made an error, but it didn’t matter.  New York still slaughtered Texas in a battle of division leaders.  When Elvis Andrus stole second, Jorge Posada’s throw was pushed into deep right center field by the jet stream that’s been contributing to all those homers…  The MLB record stands at 18 consecutive games without an error, which (as mentioned yesterday) is a remarkable feat.  In the game, Derek Jeter passed the 1500 runs scored milestone.  I want to say he passed 2600 hits a day ago, something covered on Mike and Mike in the Morning on ESPN Radio when I was driving to work this morning.

The MLB Transaction List was rather large today with people going on or coming off the DL, and a lot of teams shuffling players back and forth between the majors and minors.  Complete coverage will be difficult, but a couple of changes stand out.

Josh Hamilton’s ab injury is serious – enough to land him on the DL.  Depending on the source, the timetable is either two weeks to two months or undeterminable.  Texas’s best hitter last year, Hamilton has struggled through a slow start, and injuries occuring while slamming into walls.  That Texas has played well despite Hamilton’s lack of production is amazing – but if it really is two months, this could eventually become problematic – especially as the summer heat saps some of Texas’s batting thunder.

Cincinnati’s ace, Edinson Volquez returns to the disabled list one inning after his most recent injury activation with elbow tendinitis.  Jared Burton was returned from AAA where Burton was sent initially to regain some success, probably because the Reds need bullpen help for the next couple of days.  Is a return of Homer Bailey in the cards when Volquez is next scheduled to start?  Good thing the Reds still have three solid starters, but losing Volquez for what looks like at least a month of the season is tough.  Six starts by Homer Bailey (or someone else) compared to six starts of Volquez means allowing at least an extra run a start, and probably two extra losses.  In a division as close as the NL Central, Dusty Baker needs as many wins as he can get.

Coming off the DL?  Kansas City returns Joakim Soria, ace closer, and infielder Tony Pena.  One hopes Pena’s injured bat returns, too, else Willie Bloomquist will be playing a lot of shortstop until Mike Aviles returns.  To make room on the roster, Sidney Ponson was placed on the DL with an elbow strain (I thought it was because he can’t pitch).  Coco Crisp was added to the bereavement list following the death of his great-grandmother.  (God Bless, sir.)

Washington placed Kip Wells on the DL with a right adductor strain.  Replacing him on the roster is Elijah Dukes, whose bat will be welcomed immediately now that he’s no longer on the DL.  Meanwhile, Washington also replaced coaches, releasing pitching coach Randy St. Claire and replacing him with former A’s pitcher, Steve McCatty.  Washington’s league worst ERA and worst record in baseball, especially given the overhaul of members of the bullpen, contributed to St. Claire’s demise.  On the other hand, who signed Kip Wells?  Why isn’t THAT guy fired?

Others returning from the DL include Texas starter Vincente Padilla, Red Sox outfielder Mark Kotsay (he’ll be injured soon enough) and Mets infielder Alex Cora.

Milwaukee released Jorge Julio, making them the 14th team to have released Julio since 2003.  Great arm, no idea what he’s doing out there.  A few years ago, he was the surprise closer for Baltimore, but that’s the only success he’s really had.

The New York Mets are dealing with a lot of issues, including persisent flu and virus illnesses to John Maine and Carlos Beltran, a knee injury to Gary Sheffield, and various other ailments.   They’ve been playing with a patchwork lineup for days and hanging in there, but at some point, Jerry Manuel is going to run out of options…

On the Mend?  Rich Harden is throwing for the Cubs.  The Rockies assigned Chris Ianetta to Colorado Springs for his rehab work.  The Dodgers sent Claudio Vargas to the Inland Empire to begin his rehab stint. 

The struggling Jordan Schaeffer was sent to Gwinnett to find his confidence, so the Braves recalled speedy outfielder Gregor Blanco.

Finally, my favorite Marlin, Burke Badenhop, pitched five innings of one hit relief after Anibal Sanchez got through three innings in 71 pitches (typical for him, by the way, and not because it’s Sanchez’s first start off the DL) to earn the win over Milwaukee tonight.  He used to be Casey’s favorite player, but now I think it’s either Hanley Ramirez or Dan Uggla (though he always asks me who #6 is).

2009 Season Forecast: Atlanta Braves

Atlanta Braves
2008: 72-90 (4th NL East, 20 games back)

This was my worst pick last year – picking them to win the division, only to watch the pitching staff get obliterated by injuries, and a couple of players taking steps back in production.  That being said, looking at the 2008 Braves, it’s really confusing to see a team that should have been better finish with a record totally unbefitting its reputation, manager, and its statistics.

Looking Back on 2008

Many people had the Braves to finish at or near the top of the division.  Bobby Cox’s team was fronted by two great starters in John Smoltz and Tim Hudson.  Tom Glavine returned home and Jair Jurrjens looked ready for his first full season in the rotation.  There was a decent power core in Chipper Jones, Mark Teixeira, Brian McCann and Jeff Francoeur, some good young hitters in the infield and outfield – this was a very good team.  On paper.

And then the pitching staff was gone.  Smoltz made five starts and left without a functioning elbow.  Tim Hudson made it into August before his elbow went.  Tom Glavine never missed a turn for twenty years – he made just 13 starts.  Mike Hampton’s comeback stalled in spring training, he made only 13 starts.  Chuck James made seven starts.  Lousy starts.

For the first two months, the Braves were more than competitive.  Chipper Jones looked like he might hit .400.  Other hitters supported the cause.  But Smoltz was already gone and Glavine would follow.  Five games over .500 approaching Memorial Day, the Braves slumped in June and July and fell out of the race.  At that point, the Braves decided to become sellers.  Mark Teixeira was given away to the Angels. (For Casey Kotchman?  That’s all you could get?  Shame!)  Mark Kotsay was sent to Boston.  When management gave up on the team, the team gave up on the season, going 9 – 20 in August.

And yet, they still should have done better.  The team scored nearly as many runs as they allowed, 753 to 778, which means that with a little luck, they might have finished 78 – 84 or so.  This was especially problematic on the road, where they were outscored by only four runs, but finished 29 – 52.

Tell me about that offense

The Braves, even without Teixeria now, have a lot of offensive options but will be looking to fill a couple of holes.

The infield is led by third baseman Chipper Jones, who has improved his on base percentage each of the last two years because (a) he’s hitting better than ever, and (b) he’s drawing even more walks than he was in 2006.  As such, he’s now creating nearly 11 runs per 27 outs – one of the best rates in baseball.  At first base, Mark Teixeira produced runs at a decent clip until he was shipped out.  Casey Kotchman arrived and did not – hitting for a low average (.237) with no power (one homer a month).  Few teams can win when the first baseman doesn’t produce runs.  Kelly Johnson is a decent hitting second baseman; he has some power and a good eye.  Last year he hit 39 doubles and 12 homers, which are good numbers from someone who can hit first or second in the lineup.  Yunel Escobar didn’t hit .300, but he hit enough, drew a few walks, and finished with double digit homers.  Three of the four positions are solidly represented at the plate.  Even backup Omar Infante hit pretty well.

Like with the Marlins, the outfield didn’t do its job.  Matt Diaz fell from hitting .330 to .244 with no power and only 3 walks against 32 strikeouts in 135 at bats.  Mark Kotsay was okay but barely above average and his back is no longer dependable for 120 games anymore.  Josh Anderson looked like a better hitter when he arrived in August.  And then you have Jeff Francouer, who had a season he’d probably rather forget.  He’s gone from 29 homers to 19, and last year finished with 11.  His RBI count was down because his batting average fell from .293 to .239.  He didn’t strike out more often; he just couldn’t get good contact on the ball.  Gregor Blanco, Greg Norton, and Brandon Jones are all decent backups, but aren’t championship quality hitters or defenders.

Brian McCann is the best hitting catcher in baseball – high averages, good power (23 homers and 42 doubles), and good plate discipline, earning some walks and not too many strikeouts.

Defensively:

With the glove, you have a veritable mixed bag of talent, but nobody who really stands out.

McCann’s catching isn’t very good.  He makes a few more mistakes (errors, passed balls) than you would like.  Only two teams allowed more stolen bases (SD and WASH) and both of those teams play in caverns where it’s hard to bash your way to runs.  On the other hand, he’s still mobile and contributes a little bit.  With his bat, a few extra stolen bases aren’t going to kill you.

Both Teixeira and Kotchman have great reputations for their glovework, but you wouldn’t have noticed it from their stats where both were actually below average in terms of range (but both were great in not making errors).  Chipper Jones had a decent year – a better ratio of double plays to errors, as well as better range than in 2007.  However, he’s still slightly below average at third.  Of the backups, Martin Prado did the best, and Infante was no better than Jones.  Both Escobar and Johnson have slightly above average range, but make more errors than you would like – the signs of young infielders.

Nobody in the outfield was very good.  Francouer has slightly below average range but a fantastic arm.  Kotsay looked immobile in centerfield (-7.6 range) – in a half season’s worth of innings, he cost the team eleven runs.  Gregor Blanco is supposed to be fast, but you wouldn’t know it by his statistics.  He cost his team another twelve or thirteen runs.  Matt Diaz was their best outfielder and he couldn’t hit.

Despite that, the Braves were about league average overall in terms of turning balls in play into outs, and that was because the infield was pretty good.

Now Pitching…

Hudson and Smoltz were great, but as you remember, were short term pitchers.   Jair Jurrgens, in his first full season, was fantastic finishing with 13 – 10 with a 3.68 ERA in 31 starts.  Jorge Campillo was forced into the rotation and was above average in terms of preventing runs in about 160 innings.  Mike Hampton and Tom Glavine were slightly below league average but didn’t turn in many innings.  In total, the first three slots of the rotation (when you combine them all) were actually pretty good.  The last two slots, though, were really bad.  Chuck James had an ERA over nine in his seven starts.  Charlie Morton was forced into fifteen starts and had an ERA over six.  Jo Jo Reyes got 22 starts that the Braves wish didn’t happen.  Still – all told, the starters were about eighteen runs better than the average rotation, which was a positive.

The problem was the lack of a consistent bullpen.  A couple of options were okay – Jeff Bennett had a solid season.  But for every good option, there was at least one pitcher who negated that benefit.  Manny Acosta had a decent ERA despite having a lousy strikeout to walk ratio.  Blaine Boyer was the opposite – a few too many homers allowed, but good numbers otherwise.  Mike Gonzalez came back in the second half to record 14 saves, but had a high ERA.  Will Ohman and Buddy Carlisle had okay seasons, but Royce Ring pitched only 22 innings in 42 appearances and had an ERA of 8.46.  Like the rotation, there were more positives than negatives, though.

Forecasting 2009:

The 2009 Braves will see a lot of changes.  Gone are both Hudson and Smoltz.  Smoltz signed as a free agent with the Red Sox, who gave him a better guaranteed contract, while Hudson only recently started throwing and is hoping to pitch after the all-star break.  In their places will be Derek Lowe and Javier Vasquez.  Kenshin Kawakami comes over from Japan and will likely be in the rotation behind Jurrgens, who is the number three starter.  That leaves the fifth spot to Campillo, or possibly to rookie Tommy Hanson. 

Lowe has been a dependable starter for a long time; in terms of what he offers the Braves he will essentially replace Hudson.  Vasquez has been logging innings, but he’s mildly above average because he is a fly ball pitcher.  In Atlanta, he might fare a bit better – but he’s still a step down from a full season of Smoltz (not that the Braves got a full season from him).  Kawakami is going to be an improvement over Reyes even if he’s league average, and I am reasonably confident Jurrjens will not suffer a sophomore letdown unless his control gets the best of him.

The bullpen didn’t change over the offseason, with the hopes of a full season of Gonzalez and improvement from some younger relievers in the seventh and eighth innings.  If the Braves get more innings out of their starters than last year, that will be worth ten runs just not having to dip into long relief as often.  The upgrade to the staff is likely worth about twenty or twenty five runs.

Offensively, I’m concerned about the team’s ability to score more runs than last season.  Jones turns 37 this April and while he’s been amazing over the last three years, he hasn’t been healthy.  Casey Kotchman for a full season will be twenty runs worse (or more) than having a full season of Mark Teixeira.  So, the infield may contribute 30 or 40 runs less than last year.  Garrett Anderson has been brought in to play left field – he will be an upgrade over what Matt Diaz and Gregor Blanco provided, but he’s also long in the tooth and may need 40 days off over the course of the season.  And, he’s not an improvement defensively, either.  A full season of Josh Anderson or Blanco in center isn’t going to be that much better than what the Braves got out of Kotsay and others in 2008.  So, the key to the outfield will be a comeback season by Francoeur.  If he comes back to the levels of the previous two years – 100 runs created instead of 60 – and Anderson stays healthy and hits the way he has in the past, this gets the Braves to about the same level as last season.  I like McCann to keep producing for three or four more years.

The optimist says that the team scores about 750 runs and allows about 750 runs – that’s a .500 season.  A pragmatist might wonder about what having most of the staff pitching in the World Baseball Classic means to their rotation in September, and worries that the outfield will remain mildly disappointing, and even weaker defensively.  If you are Javier Vasquez and you see an outfield that doesn’t run down fly balls, you might be one frustrated pitcher.  For that reason, I don’t agree with the optimistic view, and peg the Braves to finish about 78 – 84.

Down on the Farm…

The Braves AAA club in Gwinnett, GA got most of the prospects up to the big leagues.  Josh Anderson hit .314 and stole 42 bases.  He’s not a free swinger, but doesn’t bring a big OBA to the big leagues, so if he makes it as the starting centerfielder, he probably bats seventh or eighth in this lineup.  Charlie Morton pitched well before being called up – in 79 innings, he fanned 72 against only 27 walks and didn’t give up a homer.  I think he’ll be okay as a long reliever while he figures things out at the big league level.  Most of the rest of the AAA roster, you saw at the major league level much of the last few years.

At AA Mississippi, what impresses you most are the pitchers.  Tulsa native Tommy Hanson went 8-4, 3.03 with 114 strikeouts in just 98 innings.  Some compare his slider to Smoltz.  Todd Redmond went 13 – 5, 3.52 with good control.  He has a chance to make the big league roster by the end of 2009 with a good season in AAA next year.  Closer Luis Valdez stepped up with 28 saves and a lot of strikeouts.  His control may be his only weakness.

Jason Heyward was the star of the A Rome Braves, flashing some power, running the bases, and looking like Francoeur’s replacement by 2011.  He’s just 19.  Fredrick Freeman also hit well, showing some power while playing first base there – he’s a month younger than Heyward.  So, if Kotchman is a dud this year, look for Freeman to be a contender for the job in 2010 – especially if Freeman continues to mature in AA.  Edgar Osuna started and relieved in Rome – he looks like he has tools to compete at higher levels.  Look for catcher Tyler Flowers to make it to the big leagues one day.  His batting stats look like a young Mickey Tettleton at A Myrtle Beach.

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.