2013 Season Forecast – Chicago Cubs

Record – Last Five Years:
2012:  61 – 101
2011:  71 – 91
2010:  75 – 87
2009:  83 – 78
2008:  97 – 64

Record at Home: 38 – 43
Record at Home: 23 – 58 (ouch)

Runs Scored:  613 (14th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 759 (14th in NL)

This is still going in the wrong direction.

Season Summary:

Ultimately, the team was awful out the gate, and continued playing poorly into May, including a long losing streak in late May (12 games).  Something clicked in late June and July – from 6/25 to 7/30, the Cubs went from 24-48 to 43-58, a nice run of 19 wins in 29 games.  Sadly, that was the high point – from that point forward, the Cubs had just a single good week in the last two months of the season.  When they played the Astros to end the season, it was the first time in nearly 50 years that two teams with 100 losses appeared in the same game(s).

Record By Month:
Apr:    8 – 15
May:   10 – 17
Jun:   10 – 17
Jul:   15 – 10
Aug:    8 – 21
Sep:    9 – 19
Oct:    1 –  2

The bad news is that the Astros are no longer in the NL Central, so if the Cubs want to avoid last place, they actually have to get better…

STARTERS:

The rotation, save a couple of spots, wasn’t the problem.  Jeff Samardzija was an above average option, going 9 – 13 thanks to a lack of run support.  Travis Wood wasn’t horrible, and neither was Paul Maholm (9 – 6 in 20 starts).  Ryan Dempster was great until he was sent to the AL, while Matt Garza was decent until he got sent to the DL.  The two problems were Chris Volstad, who was predictably horrible (3 – 12, 6.31) and rookie Justin Germano (2 – 10, 6.75).

Heading into 2013, the Cubs won’t have Maholm either – he’s a Brave.  However, the Cubs did import the well-traveled Edwin Jackson who should be an innings-eater, if nothing else.  Samardzija returns as the ace (and he is getting better), and the bottom of the rotation will include Scott Feldman from Texas and Carlos Villanueva, a former Brewer and Blue Jay arm.  Feldman was not very successful in Texas (11 runs worse than average in about 135 innings), but Villanueva wasn’t half bad in 125 innings.  The question is can either of these guys get to 180 innings.  If Garza can come back and help at all, the rotation looks to be no worse than last year with the efforts to improve the slot where Feldman takes over for Volstad offset by the lack of anyone who can pitch as well as Dempster did before he left.

RELIEVERS:

One of the biggest problems in Chicago lately has been the lack of a dependable closer – Carlos Marmol has no idea how to control his pitches and he walks people all day until he serves up a homer.  Even at that, his runs allowed rate is marginally above average.  Shawn Camp was pretty good, James Russell is a better reliever than starter, and former Sox arm Michael Bowden did okay.  The problem is that the rest of the relievers are below average.

The Cubs will give a shot to a couple of Asian imports, Kyuji Fujikawa and Hisanori Takahashi.  Both can be better than what the Cubs had, but aren’t really proven commodities.  If Marmol continues to deteriorate and the imports (and Camp) take a step back, this could be a devastating problem.

CATCHERS:

Goodbye Geovany Soto, and hello to the Wellington Castro era.  Dioner Navarro has been brought in to help out.  Cubs catching was well below average compared to the rest of the NL (bad against the running game, bad at winning games, bad at preventing runs from scoring, slightly error prone).  Castillo wasn’t better than Soto, but he did hit better than Soto had.  The problem is that Navarro may hit like Soto did last year.

INFIELD:

Anthony Rizzo was a solid addition at first base and only has room to improve.  Darwin Barney and Starlin Castro are the best keystone combination in the majors defensively – they hit some, too.  The problem is that the third base slot isn’t being filled well by either Luis Valbuena or Ian Stewart.  This is a significant hole – and Josh Vitters doesn’t look ready to fill it.  The Cubs miss Aramis Ramirez.  A full season of Rizzo looks like the only opportunity for improvement over last year.

OUTFIELD:

Alfonso Soriano had a reasonably good year in left – better as a defender, believe it or not, and as an expensive option, likely isn’t going anywhere.  David DeJesus is okay as a number two hitter, but not a great centerfielder.  He’s also getting older.  In right, the Cubs trade Bryan LeHair for former Giant Nate Schierholtz, which isn’t a step forward.  I see this group falling off from last season’s stats both offensively and defensively.

BENCH:

Alberto Gonzalez and Brett Lillibridge are around, as is Scott Hairston, who is an able bodied pinch hitter and fourth outfielder.  Other than Hairston, I’m not impressed.

DOWN ON THE FARM:

AAA Iowa Outfielder David Sappelt didn’t do much and got a job out of spring training, which scares me.  Josh Vitters hit .304 at Iowa with some power, but didn’t impress at the major league level – he will get another chance.  Rizzo killed AAA and made the big leagues.  None of the starters were impressive, even though Chris Rusin got a cup of coffee – the best relievers, like Bowden and Scott Maine, were given shots with the big club.

The AA Tennessee Smokies didn’t have a single batter clear .300 who played regularly, but Justin Bour wasn’t horrible – some power, a bit of a free swinger.  The best arm may be Nicholas Struck, who is 22, fanned 123 and walked just 44 in 155.2 innings and had a winning record.  Eric Jokisch looked okay in 17 starts, but needs to find a strikeout pitch to advance and be productive.

Daytona (A+) has 2011 first round pick Javier Baez to look forward to – but he’s a shorstop who may have to be traded for other options.  John Andreoli isn’t horrible, a good eye, great speed, but no power.  Young arms may help, though, including Matt Loosen and Frank Del Valle.  Unfortunately, 2010 first round pick Hayden Simpson may be done.

2013 FORECAST:

I don’t see a reason to be optimistic.  The team crashed down the stretch, they didn’t make any significant changes to the roster, and the one area where the team could improve (first base) is going to be offset by the outfield getting another year older and less productive.  This team looks to finish about 65 – 97 and are an injury to Rizzo or Castro from losing 105 games.  Theo – it’s about time for your first miracle, wouldn’t you think?

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2012 Season Forecast: Chicago Cubs

2011 Record:  71 – 91 (5th, NL Central)
Runs Scored:  654 (8th, NL)
Runs Allowed:  756 (14th, NL)

Only Colorado and Houston allowed more runs…

2011 in Review:

The Cubs started losing early, and pretty much were consistent about it throughout the season.  Starlin Castro kept hitting all year long, but the team was lacking in production from the outfield and the catcher spot.  Carlos Zambrano was extremely frustrated and threatened to retire – but considering his history of blow ups, the Cubs shut him down anyway.  The Cubs really had little truly decent pitching, helped by a defense that had little range and made a lot of errors.  When it was over, Chicago was under new ownership.  That group finally let Jim Hendry go – Hendry was the GM who was responsible for this mess – and replaced him with the Boston Red Sox mastermind, Theo Epstein.  At least the Cubs have THAT going for them.

 

Starting Pitching:

Matt Garza was acquired from Tampa and battled things to a draw.  He finished 10 – 10, his ERA looks good here, but it’s masked somewhat by the 17 unearned runs he allowed.  In terms of runs allowed per nine, he was barely league average.  Ryan Dempster‘s season was particularly troublesome.  His strikeout rate was pretty good, but he walked more than in the past and he gave up too many homers.  Zambrano, Randy Wells, Casey Coleman, Rodrigo Lopez, and Doug Davis were all at least 10 runs worse than the average pitcher given the number of innings pitched.  Here’s the breakdown:

Runs Saved /Pitcher
1.81    Matt Garza (31 starts)
-10.71  Rodrigo Lopez (16 starts)
-12.45  Carlos Zambrano (24 starts)
-13.24  Randy Wells (24 starts)
-16.82  Doug Davis (9 starts – ouch)
-17.17  Ryan Dempster (34 starts)
-22.88  Casey Coleman (17 starts)

Essentially, the starters gave up 90 runs more than an average pitcher would have done in the same amount of innings.

For 2012, Dempster and Garza are back.  Zambrano was traded to the Marlins for starter Chris Volstad, but that’s not an improvement – Volstad pitched worse than Zambrano last year.  Jeff Samardzija is being moved to the rotation – he was one of the few Cubs pitchers to pitch on the good side of average.  If he can match that for 180 innings instead of 90 innings, that would be a huge improvement over, say, Casey Coleman and Rodrigo Lopez.  If Wells can stay healthy and get back, that would help, too.  One can see a 40 run improvement at this spot.

 

Relief Pitchers:

Carlos Marmol has been a closer for a few years now, and he isn’t getting any better.  A closer with an ERA over 4 is a problem – and he’s so wild that he’s allowing nearly six walks every nine innings.  The set up squad was actually pretty good – Samardzija was nearly six runs better than the average pitcher; Sean Marshall was even better – the best pitcher on the staff (14 runs saved).  Kerry Wood was tolerable, but is running out of innings in his arm.  After that, though, you run through some guys who struggled – John Grabow and James Russell.

Looking forward, I’m scared here.  The best pitcher, Sean Marshall, is gone.  Samardzija is in the rotation.  The Cubs could be relying on Coleman to take on a long relief role, or pulling in Rafael Dolis or Chris Carpenter.  I’m worried that this unit could easily be 10 – 15 runs worse than 2011.

 

Catching:

As a unit, Geovany Soto and Koyie Hill were fair against the run and mobile.  On the other hand, they were mistake prone and if they are to get some responsibility for the pitching staff, the team was 20 games under .500 with a lousy overall ERA.

Soto can hit a little, but he’s been inconsistent with his batting average and power.  Soto finished by hitting .228 with 17 homers, which really isn’t good enough – especially in Wrigley Field.  Hill was worse – .194 with sub .300 slugging and on base percentages.

 

Infield:

I made a comment that the team defense wasn’t very good in 2011 – that doesn’t apply to the middle infielders here.  Shortstop Starlin Castro saved the team 18 runs – which breaks down to 24 runs because of his range, but he gives back nearly six runs because of his errors.  Darwin Barney was also mobile and slightly error prone, but the net result was another 14 runs saved.  The play on the corners, though, featured two older guys who no longer have the range to help out.  Carlos Pena was once a fine fielder – not anymore.  He cost the team 19 runs.  Aramis Ramirez was even worse – he cost the Cubs 36 runs.  Granted, the offense here isn’t half bad.  Barney has room to improve – he needs to be more selective at the plate and get his batting average up to the .290 range.  Castro had 207 hits and generated 108 runs of offense, but he makes a lot of outs.  Ramirez had a nice season – 109 runs created, and Pena added 85 more, despite hitting just .225 (he drew 101 walks and hit 28 homers).  That kind of production will be hard to replace.

The Cubs will try Bryan Lahair, the minor league home run champ, at first base.  His fielding isn’t sterling, but his bat can help.  Ian Stewart was acquired from Colorado and he’s going to hit better than the .156 he hit in 2011, but he’s NOT going to be the run producer that Ramirez was.  Castro may still have more growth in him, as will Barney, but this unit could easily be down 50 runs from last year.

 

Outfield:

The Cubs featured an outfield of Alfonso Soriano, who has below average range, Marlon Byrd, who is surprisingly mobile for an older guy – but still below average in terms of range, and, for three months, Kosuke Fukudome.  Fukodome has great range for a right fielder.  Tyler Colvin replaced him, but he fell off the map in terms of his offensive output.

Offensively, Soriano still has power – 26 homers – but he doesn’t run and he still is too much of a free swinger.  Byrd seems to have lost all of his power and he, too, stopped getting on base after getting hit in the face with a pitch in Boston last May.  Colvin hit .150 – ouch!  The Cubs never seemed satisfied with Fukudome, yet he was actually the most productive hitter in the outfield.

Colvin is gone – he’s in Colorado – but Soriano isn’t going anywhere soon, and Byrd needs to get out of center and move to right so that the young legs of Tony Campana can take over in center.  Reed Johnson (he’s still around?) played well – he needed to play more.  The problem is that the Cubs don’t have someone who can help immediately.

 

Prospects:

The AAA Iowa Cubs were devoid of young prospects who can help soon…  The aforementioned Bryan Lahair hit 38 – 109 – .331, but was 28 last year.  The best player to roll through here that was younger might be catcher Wellington Castillo , a 24-year-old who looks no better or worse than Geovany Soto, and Tony Campana, who was here for just 30 games and hit .342 – a burner with little or no power.  Casey Coleman was the best pitcher, but even he had holes – he doesn’t have a big strikeout pitch and he gave up 11 homers in 70 innings.

There may be help in AA, though – the Tennessee Smokies were a top flight minor league team.  Josh Vitters, a former #1 pick (2007) and Rebel Ridling – a great name – hit enough and with some power to suggest that they might get a shot by the end of 2012.  2008 #1 pick Ryan Flaherty hit pretty well, but he’s a shortstop and middle infielders are pretty set in Chicago.  He might get used in a deal soon – him or his fellow middle infielder D.J. LeMahieu…  The pitcher who had results was reliever Jeff Beliveau – who sounds like he should be a hockey player – 57 innings, 69 Ks and just 13 walks.  Kevin Rhoderick has a stunning arm but needs to refine his control.  Jeff Stevens had good numbers here, but he’s already turning 28 soon and has had a cup of coffee…

A+ Daytona finished second in the Florida State League and first baseman Justin Bour led the team in homers and RBIs – hitting 23 homers in the FSL is legit power.  Undrafted Junior Lake continued to play well – is turning 22 and hit over .300 with some power and great speed.  One thing you notice when looking over the pitching staff is a lack of high draft picks – the best pitcher was undrafted Jeff Antiqua, who logged 83.1 innings, fanned 81, and walked just 18.

If there is help on the way, it might be catcher Richard Jones, who hit 24 homers and batted .309 for low A Peoria.  It doesn’t look like it will be #1 pick Hayden Simpson, who fell off to 1 – 6 – 5.32.  The best arm might belong to 11th round pick Eric Jokisch, who went 9 – 3 with a good K/W ratio in 118.2 innings.

 

2012 Forecast:

The Cubs will probably allow 30 fewer runs this year – it can’t really get worse than 2011 – but the offense looks worse.  If the team falls back another 50 runs, which is entirely possible, you’re looking at a 66 – 96 team.  If Stewart doesn’t come back and Soriano falls off, and LeHair doesn’t hit in the majors, the Cubs are looking at 100 losses.  Theo Epstein has a lot of work to do.

2011 Season Forecast: Tampa Rays

Last Five Seasons:

2010:  96 – 66 (1st AL East)
2009:  84 – 78
2008:  97 – 65 (AL Champs)
2007:  66 – 96
2006:  61 – 101

Runs Scored: 802 (3rd, AL to NYY and BOS)
Runs Allowed: 649 (2nd, AL to OAK)

2010 Recap:

The Rays got off to a great start, winning 17 of 23 in April and extending their hot play into May where, on May 23rd, they went to sleep in first place with a 32 – 12 record.  An 11 – 14 stumble in June let the rest of the league back in the race, but once July started, the Rays went back to the front of the division, going 19 – 7, followed by a 17 – 12 August.  From there, the Rays seemed to run out of steam, but played .500 ball after September 1st as the Yankees collapsed to take the division crown.

In terms of mid-season transactions, the Rays mostly unloaded parts that weren’t working.  They released Pat Burrell and Hank Blalock, for example.  They did get Chad Qualls at the trading deadline, but he wasn’t much help down the stretch.

As a team, they hit homers and drew walks, but went through stretches where they couldn’t hit.  The Rays were on the wrong end of two no-hitters despite being one of only three teams to score 800 runs.  They have pitchers who throw strikes, a rather deep bullpen, and an AMAZING team defense.  These two items, as I have written before, make their staff look stronger than it really is.

Starters:

The rotation featured David Price, who had Cy Young worthy numbers in terms of wins (19), ERA (2.72), and strikeouts (188 in 208.2 innings).  Price was backed by Matt Garza (15 – 10, 3.91), James Shields (13 – 15, 5.18), Jeff Niemann (12 – 8, 4.39), and rookie Wade Davis (12 – 10, 4.07).  However, knowing that the Rays made few errors and turned 14 balls per 1000 into outs more than the average team AND they played in a park that helped the staff, you realize that many of those pitchers aren’t quite as good as advertised.  James Shields was more than 50 runs worse than the average pitcher because he puts a lot of balls into play, and he served up 34 homers.  Niemann was 19 runs worse than the average pitcher, and Matt Garza – the new Cub – was 14 runs worse than the average pitcher.  Wade Davis was also -11.

This isn’t new – I wrote about this a couple of years ago when the Rays made the series.  A good defense can make a bunch of pitchers who keep the ball in the park and don’t walk people look very good.

Looking ahead, Matt Garza moved to Chicago where he might get to serve up 50 homers.  At least he’s durable.  The rest of the rotation returns intact, joined by Jeremy Hellickson, who looked great in his 4 starts last summer.  Assuming Shields bounces back some (he can), Davis and Niemann show more growth (possible), and Hellickson remains tolerable over 160 innings, the rotation should be 30 runs better than last year.

Bullpen:

On the other hand, the bullpen was amazing in 2010.  Rafael Soriano saved 45 games, supported by Joaquin Benoit and his 1.34 ERA in 63 innings.  Dan Wheeler gave them 64 fair innings, Grant Balfour remained dependable, and even Randy Choate and Lance Cormier weren’t horrible.  Most of this staff is gone.  Right now, the closer looks to be Joel Peralta, the former Royal, Angel, and Rockies reliever who had his best season in 2010 with the Nationals last year – fanning 49 and walking just 9 (4 intentionally) in 49 innings.  In front of Peralta is journeyman fireballer, Kyle Farnsworth who has NEVER been as good as Benoit was last year.  Andy Sonnenstine, who has a very hittable fastball, is there, with a bunch of newcomers, including Ceasr Ramos and Adam Russell, who came from San Diego for Jason Bartlett.  Jake McGee, two years removed from Tommy John surgery, converted to the pen in 2010 and made it to the big leagues.  He’s a power lefty with a nice curveball.  Chris Archer is another hard thrower who might get time in the bullpen this year.  If the starters are going to improve by 30 runs, the bullpen cannot – and no matter what Manager Joe Maddon’s magic, this group will be 50 runs worse than in 2010.

Catching:

John Jaso earned his way ahead of Dioner Navarro and Kelly Shoppach by catching well enough and getting on base at a .375 clip.  Teams ran on Jaso some, and the young Jaso has much to learn, but he helps out.  Kelly Shoppach struggled at the plate, but did hit 5 homers in 158 at bats.  Navarro is gone.

Infield:

A couple of years ago, the infield was a solid Evan Longoria, Jason Bartlett, Akinori Iwamura, and Carlos Pena.  Now, only Longoria – an MVP candidate – remains.   Longoria can hit and field with the best of them and even stole 15 bases in 20 tries.  Bartlett’s bat and glove has fallen off in recent years since he injured his ankle in 2009 and will be replaced by Reid Brignac, who is younger, just as good a hitter, and more mobile.  Sean Rodriguez got a chance to play the infield and hits for some power, can run the bases, and is solid in the field.  Mr. Everywhere, Ben Zobrist, backs them both up.  Carlos Pena is gone, to be replaced by either Dan Johnson (a patient power hitter who, like Pena, failed to hit .200 last year), and possibly Johnny Damon.  I think the offense will remain solid, though it could lose 20 runs at first base overall if Johnson can’t improve in 2011.

Outfield:

Carl Crawford had an MVP-type campaign in 2010, fielding as well as any left fielder, and generating nearly 130 runs of offense with the bat (average and some power) as well as his feet (47 steals).  He’s in Boston now, with Johnny Damon taking over.  Damon is okay, but not anywhere near what Crawford can provide – and he’s going to need time off.  Options include Matt Joyce or Sam Fuld.  In center, B.J. Upton is still frustratingly productive.  He is an above average offensive performer – quick bat, power, speed – but frustrating in that he strikes out a LOT, keeping his average under .240.  Defensively, he remains above average but, again, doesn’t seem to be as good as he could be.  In right, Ben Zobrist fell off from his 2009 season in terms of average and power, but still was productive because he plays solid defense and gets on base.  (I’d let Joyce play left all year and see if he can hit 30 homers knowing he’s a better fielder than Damon, too.  Damon can DH and back up three positions, even providing some production.)

DH:

Pat Burrell couldn’t cut it and Hank Blalock wasn’t the answer.  Willy Aybar fell off last year, though Matt Joyce might have been a decent answer if they let him do it.  Looking ahead, though, the Rays took a cheap flyer on the craziest great hitter of the last two decades, Manny Ramirez.  Say what you will about him, Manny can STILL hit.  He missed a lot of time last year, but when he left Los Angeles, he was hitting .311, with a .410 OBA, and a .510 SLG.  He didn’t hit as well with the White Sox, but he had a .420 OBP.  He won’t do that in Tampa, but he could certainly go 20 – 110 – .285, with walks and doubles.  Johnny Damon could platoon some with him, letting Matt Joyce play left field.

Down on the Farm:

Jeremy Hellickson we noted – the new fifth starter for the Rays – as he went 12 – 3 with 123Ks in 117.2 innings for AAA Durham.  Desmond Jennings, a potential Carl Crawford clone, fell off in terms of his batting average, but he still gets on base and he can FLY.

Jake McGee made it from Montgomery in AA through Durham before getting a cup of coffee with the Rays.  In AA, McGee fanned 100 in 88.1 innings, showed good command (getting better, anyway), and looked awesome in 11 AAA appearances (27Ks, 3 walks, one ER in 17.1 innings).  Alex Torres and Alexander Cobb were solid for Montgomery, winning records, good strikeout rates.  Cobb has better control, but both are young and will spend 2011 in Durham.

Former #1 pick Tim Beckham finished his season with A+ Charlotte and seems to have stalled, but having watched him in the minors, he sure is the one guy on the field you can’t help but notice.  He’s still only 21, so there is time for a step forward.  The best of Charlotte is the young staff, led by Matt Moore, who fanned 208 in 144.2 innings with his powerful fastball and curveball.  Joe Cruz showed solid command, going 13 – 6 – 2.85 in his 142 innings and will start 2011 in AA.  Then you have reliever Zach Quate, who fanned 90 in 72.1 innings, saving 25 games, with great control.

Forecasting 2011:

I don’t see how the Rays are going to repeat winning the AL East crown in 2011, but they won’t be bad and they should take a Wild Card spot.  The rotation may be slightly better, but the bullpen will be well off from last year.  The defense will be better at short (Brignac is better than Bartlett), but worse in left (Damon or Joyce instead of Crawford) and I’m not sure Johnson is better than an aging Carlos Pena at first.  The catching might improve a touch, and more Jaso is better than more Dioner Navarro offensively.  The Rays are better at DH.

I see the offense being good, but a touch worse – maybe 770 runs.  And the runs allowed number will likely go up by 30 runs to about 680.  That puts the Rays at 91 wins, which some will see as a surprise – but not me.

2010 Season Forecast: Tampa Rays

Last Five Seasons:

2009: 84 – 78 (3rd AL East)
2008: 97 – 65
2007: 66 – 96
2006: 61 – 101
2005: 67 – 95

Runs Scored: 803 (5th AL)
Runs Allowed: 754 (7th AL)

Season Recap:

Optimism reigned supreme on the heels of an amazing run into to the World Series.  I warned you, however, that while the team looked good there were reasons to suspect that the Rays might under-perform.  The Rays were good, but couldn’t catch any breaks on the road and, as such, couldn’t keep up with the Yankees or Red Sox when the race got going.

The Rays were never really out of it despite a 9 – 14 April, and after a fantastic June (19 – 7) were in the thick of the race.  Unfortunately, the Yankees blew the doors open in July and August while the Rays suddenly got flat.  Scott Kazmir, unhealthy and unproductive was sent to Anaheim.  Carlos Pena, leading the AL in homers at the time, broke his wrist.  Troy Percival was injured and eventually hung up the spikes.  When September came calling, the Rays were far enough out to throw in the towel – and they did, fading from 13 over .500 to just six over at the end.

Pitching:

In 2008, backed by a sure-handed and mobile defense, the pitching over delivered.  In 2009, the defense slipped and a few holes were discovered in the rotation.  Matt Garza became the ace and James Shields – usually dependable – gave up 239 hits in 220 innings, 29 of them homers.  Scott Kazmir made just 20 starts and finished with an ERA just shy of 6.00…  Andy Sonnestine, as warned, was eminently hittable, finishing with a 6.77 ERA and earning the Anti-Cy – the pitcher costing his team the most runs with his below average pitching.

Two good things came out of the experimenting required by Joe Maddon.  Rookie David Price showed flashes, winning 10 games, and Jeff Niemann was even better, making 30 starts, winning 13 games, and showing good control and command.

In the bullpen, Troy Percival made just 14 appearances, eventually having to be replaced by J.P. Howell at the back end of the bullpen.  However, Maddon used a committee as required, as Randy Choate (5), Grant Balfour (4), Joe Nelson (3), and four others wound up with saves.

Looking ahead, the Rays should have a decent enough rotation.  Shields should bounce back some, Garza is back, Niemann returns, Price will get 30+ starts, and rookie Wade Davis should pick up 20 – 25 starts.  If Davis is even 10 runs below average, he’s saving the team 25 runs over last season.  15 more starts of David Price will be worth another 30 runs.  I like the rotation to be at least 50 runs better than in 2009.

The bullpen adds closer Rafael Soriano from Atlanta and returns the core of what has been a very dependable bullpen – Howell, Choate, Balfour, and Dan Wheeler.  I like the bullpen to be at least 15 runs better than in 2009 as well.

Catching:

Dioner Navarro is back – hopefully lighter than last year, as his bat slipped mightily in 2009.  He’s essentially a league average backstop – right on the average against the run, has a decent reputation with handling the pitchers but isn’t as mobile as you would like.  Kelly Shoppach was signed from Cleveland to back up Navarro – and he is good enough to take up the slack if Navarro slips some more.

Infield:

In 2008, the infield defense was a big reason that the Rays won the AL East.  However, Carlos Pena showed signed that he might not be as mobile as he had been as a gold glove caliber first baseman.  Additionally, his batting average fell to .227, though he did continue to get on base and knock out homers.  Pena has had an up and down career and, nearing 32, his prime seasons are nearly over.

Akinori Iwamura went down to a horrible knee injury, but returns to play for Pittsburgh.  The reason Iwamura was allowed to move was the remarkable season of Ben Zobrist, who fielded his position very well and broke out with 27 homers and a .407 OBP.

Jason Bartlett hit better than expected – finishing at .320 with a .490 slugging percentage – but ankle injuries affected his range and he went from someone worth of a gold glove to someone challenging Derek Jeter for the worst range at short.  One hopes he finds his old mobility, but if he produces 103 runs of offense, nobody will notice.

Evan Longoria remains the best third baseman in baseball – he looks like the new Mike Schmidt.  A 40 homer season wouldn’t be out of the question, as he finished with 33 homers in 2009 and had 44 doubles, too.

Backing this unit up is Willie Aybar, who can play third and first and hit well enough.  Reid Brignac is a prospect who appears to have hitting skills but hasn’t shown range in the field.

Outfield:

Carl Crawford returns in left field, as good a fielder as there is out in left and a very productive hitter.  Crawford is known for his 60 stolen bases, but he added 51 extra base hits while hitting .305.

B.J. Upton will be the wild card of 2010.  Battling shoulder and leg injuries, Upton’s range numbers in the outfield were problematic and he finished at .241 and didn’t slug .400.  For a while, Upton was at the top of the lineup and getting in the way.  If he bounces back and shows the form he displayed in the 2008 World Series, the Rays will get 30 extra runs of offense and 20 extra runs of defense.  If not, the Rays may not be able to compete.

Gabe Kapler and Gabe Gross shared right field (with Ben Zobrist, until he moved to second base).  Both are acceptable in the field, but don’t add much to the offense.  Matt Joyce, formerly of Detroit, may get the nod in 2010.  He’s got young legs and potential at the plate – 30 homer power though he might not make it if he doesn’t curb the strikeouts.  Desmond Jennings, a prospect at Durham, might sneak in and take over as well.

Backing these guys up are Zobrist and Aybar, as well as DH (and disappointment) Pat Burrell.  Burrell’s 14 – 64 – .221 season meant that the Rays will give former Ranger Hank Blalock a shot at the DH role in 2010.

Prospects:

Looking at AAA Durham, you see people who have already gotten a shot…  Justin Ruggiano has some power and speed but is a bit old as a prospect.  Reid Brignac and Matt Joyce are already Rays.  Among the pitchers, Wade Davis is going to make the roster after going 10 – 8 for the Bulls with a 3.40 ERA and a 140/60 K/BB ratio in 158.2 innings.  Jeremy Hellickson will likely start at Durham in 2010, but was 6 – 1 in nine starts at the end of the season last year with 70 Ks in 57.1 innings.  Hellickson is the ace in waiting for now.

Hellickson had 11 starts for AA Montgomery, winning three of four decisions with 62 Ks, 14 BBs, and only 41 hits allowed in 56.2 innings.  Only reliever Paul Phillips looked ready for AAA.  Aneury Rodriguez is young (22) and pitched okay for the Biscuits but could stand to improve his control.  The best hitter in AA was Desmond Jennings, who finished at .316 with 37 steals (caught just five times), earning a nod to Durham where he hit .325 there with 15 more steals.  Jennings could take over in centerfield if Upton gets hurt.

A+ Charlotte has a few pitchers to watch in AA next year to see if they can continue to command the strike zone in Jeremy Hall, Alexander Cobb, and Darin Downs.  All three had good ERAs, good strikeout and walk numbers, and winning records.

Bowling Green (A) featured Matt Moore, a live-armed kid who fanned 176 but walked 70 in 123 innings.  Josh Satow was the closer, getting 20 saves, strikeing out 65 and walking just 15 in 63 innings.  Andy Finch and I saw Tim Beckham and Kyeong Kang when touring the midwest last summer.  Beckham has the air of stardom and is still a teen.  Kang looks to have a little power, hit .307 and had a .390 OBP.

The Rays have a young roster, and they have PROSPECTS.

Outlook:

I like the Rays to be very competitive.  Unlike 2009, where I thought the team might take a step back from the World Series peak, I see reasons for optimism.  I think the starters, absent Sonnestine and Kazmir’s poor performances, will show improvement.  I like B.J. Upton’s chances of having a breakout season.  And, I’m optimistic that the Rays can close games better than in 2009.  Working against that is the fact that I think Zobrist may slip, Pena might age, and Bartlett may have peaked as a hitter.

I think the Rays will score a few more runs – maybe 810 – but allow a lot less, possibly as few as 680 runs.  If so, the Rays will win 95 games.  Working against this is the strength of the division, which includes what should be an improving Baltimore club.  So, despite what the system tells me, my hunch is that they might fall a few wins short of 95, and it might mean barely missing the playoffs.  Still, the system says 95 and that’s what I am putting on my board.

Kids – Wear a Cup; Peavy and Hudson Nearing Returns

On a day with a limited baseball schedule, most of the news was focused on Johnny Gomes hitting three homers, Prince Fielder hitting  a pair – including one high off the scoreboard about 460 away in centerfield – and a number of great pitching performances, highlighted by Bronson Arroyo’s two hitter over Washington yesterday.  However,  a few other things caught my attention and might be of interest to my baseball brethren…

Speaking of Bronson Arroyo, he’s admitted to doing Andro while a member of the Red Sox (again – Boston may really have been the hub of PED usage, alongside Texas, Oakland, and New York).  Now, he talks about his own supplement usage and whether or not he thinks it really matters.  [ESPN]

Tiger Rick Porcello changed his mind – he’ll accept his five day suspension, though he really did nothing to deserve it other than plunk Kevin Youkilis.  It’s not like he SAID he would do it, like – say – Matt Garza.  [SI]

Meanwhile, Tiger slugger Miguel Cabrera’s hand is still sore, but is willing to play through the pain at the base of his left thumb – the spot where he was hit by a pitch three days ago.  [MLB]

Seattle’s Adrian Beltre doesn’t like to wear a cup.  Now he is paying for it.  A couple of nights ago, he took a grounder in the groin – stayed in the game to score the winning run in the 14th inning – but the pain never went away.  He’s got bleeding in a testicle and is on the DL while it’s being treated.  Ouch.  [SI]

Jake Peavy fanned five of the eleven batters he faced in his first rehab outing, and now the new White Sox ace needs to build up some endurance.  He’s a few weeks away from joining the rotation, which could put Chicago over the top in the AL central.  [ESPN]

Another ace making his way back?  Tim Hudson of the Braves, who had a solid four inning performance at AAA Gwinnett.  I always liked Hudson and hope his return is steady and long-term.  [MLB]

How long before Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija signs with the Bears?  After getting shelled by Philadelphia this week, the Cubs sent Samardzija back to AAA.  Now – the Cubs need help with none of the starters getting the job done and the bullpen being savaged lately.  Justin Berg was recalled in part to have a fresh arm in the pen. [FoxSports]

There is some good news for the Cubs though…  Cubs starter Ted Lilly had success in his minor league rehab start and proclaimed himself ready for Monday’s start…  [MLB]

FoxSports reports that the Red Sox may be interested in Red shortstop Alex Gonzalez, who played in Boston back in 2006.  Not sure how much help he will be as he’s been fighting injuries and aging for the last couple of years…  [FoxSports]

Twins starter Glen Perkins learned that his shoulder problem is a strain and will not require surgery.  [FoxSports]

Welcome Back!  Royals ace Gil Meche, who beat the Twins last night in his first start after returning from the DL.

Hurry Back!  Royals reliever Doug Waechter, who heads to the DL with a shoulder strain just days after coming off the DL.  Not a good sign.

Afterthoughts…  If you want a good read, take a look at SI’s Joe Posnanski’s article about the worst active contracts in baseball.

2009 Season Forecast: Tampa Rays

Tampa Bay Rays
2008: 97-65 (1st AL East, League Champions)
Runs Scored: 774
Runs Allowed: 671

What a ride!  A team that had never before approached .500 made a series of impressive moves, getting younger and more talented, adding a key veteran as necessary, and getting skilled guidance from a manager who looks like a science teacher and believes in winning.

At the outset, many people predicted that they would be improved.  A few people, including me, thought they would be above .500 and possibly competitive – and the Rays went further than that.  They held down the high powered offenses of the AL East, held off Boston not only for the division crown but also for a trip to the World Series, and look to be a team that might be among the best teams in the AL for the foreseeable future.

Looking Back on 2008

To anyone who really studied what the Rays did, you really have to start with the defense.  In 2007, there were a TON of holes.  You had two outfielders who couldn’t find their way to the ball in Delmon Young and Elijah Dukes.  You had weak play at second and short, especially Brendan Harris – who really is better than he played in 2007, but wasn’t very good that year.  The bullpen was atrocious and a few starters were not long term solutions but just warm bodies, which meant that there were too many people on base.  Batters would walk or the ball would find holes or even leave the park.  The 2007 Rays allowed more than 900 runs.

The trade of Harris and Young to Minnesota for Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza immediately improved the team by 70 runs.  Bartlett is an amazing shortstop, acrobatic and sure.  Garza is a legitimate starter – an upgrade over Casey Fossum.  Getting Evan Longoria to the big leagues and moving Akinori Iwamura to second put a tremendous defender at the hot corner, and Iwamura was solid at second.  Not especially rangy, but good on the double play and not prone to errors.

What this did, of course, by strengthening the infield defense (Strengthen? It was air tight!) was give the Rays pitchers confidence that no matter where the ball was put in play, it was going to be turned into an out.  So, pitchers just needed to throw strikes.  If they did that, they would strike a few more people out and the fielders would turn batted balls into outs.  Stress free pitching.

When it was all over, the Rays pitchers were near the top of the league in strikeouts.  They cut the walks down – they allowed fewer free passes than the league average.  The high strikeout count meant fewer balls in play, but even there it didn’t matter because no team in the American League was even CLOSE to the efficiency of the Rays defense.  Nobody turned more balls in play into outs than Tampa.  And, those that got on base were removed by double plays at a well above league average rate.  Oh, and the catching was above average against the run, and with hardly anyone on base anyway, nobody allowed fewer stolen bases than Tampa.

Oh yeah.  The offense wasn’t horrible either.  About as good as the Yankees last year.

One other quick thing before we talk about the specifics – the pitching staff was remarkably healthy.  Scott Kazmir was out a little early in the year, but after that you had four guys make at least 30 starts and Kazmir had 27 starts.  Troy Percival injured his hamstring at the end of the season, but the rest of the staff was pretty stable.  And that didn’t hurt either.

Tell me about that offense

Looking up and down the lineup, what you see are no superstars, but no weak sisters either.  The average hitter can be expected to put about 4.7 runs per 27 outs on the scoreboard, no regular on the Rays was below that.

Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena serve as the power bookends.  Pena dropped a bit from 2007’s peak season numbers, but still hit 32 homers and knocked in 102.  He strikes out a lot (166 times), but he draws walks.  Longoria, for a rookie, hit like Mike Lowell in his early years – good power, RBIs, and a decent .272 batting average.  Had he played a full season of games, he would have cleared 30 – 100 himself.  In between, Iwamura and Bartlett weren’t huge run producers, but slapped the ball around enough to contribute.  Backup Willy Aybar had a decent season – mid range power, a few walks, and above league average production in 300-plus at bats.

In the outfield, B. J. Upton’s power numbers were down – he and Carl Crawford had similar power numbers – but both contributed offensively.  In Upton’s case, he’s still young and the Up(ton) side is scary high.  A collection of helpers played in right and the designated hitter role, all being productive when called upon.  Cliff Floyd, Rocco Baldelli, Ben Zobrist, Gabe Gross, and Eric Hinske all contributed – giving the Rays a variety of options for the daily scorecard.

Behind the plate, Dioner Navarro just missed .300 by a couple of hits – and had a number of game changing hits.  His backup, Shawn Riggans, was one of only two players with at least 80 at bats who was a below average run producer (Johnny Gomes was the other).  However, neither was WAY below average – they just didn’t have big seasons in about 150 at bats.

Defensively:

I discussed the net results before – but here are the details.  Longoria had a positive range factor of 6.3 – meaning he made six plays more than the average third basemen for every 800 balls in play.  He also started 26 double plays while making only 12 errors, which means that he helped save his pitchers some 15 runs over the course of the season.  Iwamura was average in terms of range, but well above average in his double play ratio (109 DPs, only 7 errors), so he helped save another three or four runs.  Bartlett’s range is slightly better than Longoria’s (6.5); he was saving his team twelve runs.  Despite all three fielders making more plays than expected, Pena continued with his solid defensive play, making an above average number of plays after taking out the assists of his fielders.

Crawford and Upton were better than average fielders, each saving his team more than 10 runs with above average range.  Hinske was great in right, not so good in left, but the net was okay.  Gabe Gross came over and gave the team seven above average fielders behind the pitcher on a day-to-day basis.  Johnny Gomes and Hinske were the only regulars to show below average defensive numbers.  Willy Aybar and Ben Zobrist were decent fielding options.

Dioner Navarro was a pretty good catcher, though slightly mistake prone and not necessarily very mobile.  Riggans is a solid number two, and even better than Navarro against the run.

Now Pitching…

Knowing how good the defense was, you have to look at the pitchers a bit differently.  Both James Shields and Scott Kazmir are good pitchers – but they are not GREAT pitchers.  They had a lot of help.  Matt Garza was actually slightly below average once you remove the help of his defenders, and both Edwin Jackson and Andy Sonnestine were below average.

The average ERA in the AL last year was 4.34.  For Tampa Bay, the team finished at 3.82.  However, by my count, the team’s defense was 109 runs better than the average AL squad.  That means that, on the whole, the Rays pitching was actually slightly WORSE than average.

Pitcher Innings Runs Allowed Modified Runs Allowed RA/9 MRA/9
Scott Kazmir 152.33 61 73 3.60 4.31
James Shields 215 94 112 3.93 4.69
Matt Garza 184.67 83 99 4.05 4.82
Andy Sonnestine 193.33 105 125 4.89 5.82
Edwin Jackson 183.33 91 108 4.47 5.30

Looking at it this way, only the top two starters were better than league average (and Shields only barely), Garza was at league average (slightly below, actually), and Jackson and Sonnestine will be fighting for a job once David Price is moved into the rotation.

The bullpen had a couple of great performances from Grant Balfour and J.P Howell – but the rest were average to below average performances.  (Okay, Dan Wheeler was above average, too.)   The good news was that, with five guys logging more innings than any Rays staff before, the bullpen wasn’t usually exposed.  And, they got help from the defense behind them.  The weakest reliever in a key role was Troy Percival.  Balfour’s season, even after taking the defense into consideration, was truly remarkable.  Less than a hit allowed every HALF inning, 82 strikouts in 58.1 innings, only three homers allowed.  One of the greatest seasons by a middle reliever/set up man ever.  By the way, moving Price to the closer role in the playoffs was a necessity – the rest of the bullpen after Balfour and Howell weren’t all that good anyway.

Forecasting 2009:

Last year, the Rays scored 774 runs and allowed just 671.  So, to remain at 90+ wins, they have to keep things the same – outscore their opponents by 100 runs. 

The only real change on offense will be replacing Cliff Floyd and Johnny Gomes with Pat Burrell at the DH position.  Burrell is a consistent hitter and if he can stay involved in games (and not have to play the field), that could be worth 10 or 15 more runs.  The rest of the offense (and defense) is relatively unchanged.  While the players might be a little better, the only ones who have a chance to be REALLY improved are B. J. Upton and Evan Longoria.  Upton is coming off of shoulder surgery in November, so he might not be ready on opening day.   Longoria could step up, too, but his replacement (Willie Aybar) had a good season last year anyway – so it might only net to about five runs.  Longoria might have a sophomore slump for a short period of time and have to get his bearings.  If he doesn’t, though, he could have a Matt Williams type season.  Maybe a peak Troy Glaus season.  If so, that’s a ten to fifteen run increase.  Since so many bench players had solid seasons, it’s not unreasonable to think that one or two of them might not have a good run in 150 at bats – so that would negate that benefit.  I think the Rays MIGHT get to 800 runs, but more realistically, they’ll be not too far off from where they are now.

Defensively, the team will remain solid if everyone remains healthy and Pat Burrell isn’t asked to play the field.  If so, life is good and the pitchers will benefit.  If not – especially if the lost player is Bartlett or Iwamura, or even Upton, that means trouble – ten to fifteen runs of trouble.  The one real opportunity for immediate improvement is the addition of David Price to the rotation.  Price will certainly be an upgrade on Edwin Jackson or Andy Sonnestine, so that could make up for 20 runs of potential decline in other areas.  Howell, Wheeler, and Balfour were so good last year that they really can’t be expected to turn in the same seasons, and if Percival really is the closer, this could be a problem because the defense hid the fact that he really wasn’t all that good.  Jason Isringhausen got a non-roster invite to spring training, and I hope he isn’t pressed into closer duty.

Throw in the fact that the Rays were actually a little bit over their heads last year (the Blue Jays had essentially the same differential in runs scored and runs allowed, but finished with an unlucky 86 wins), and one wonders if the Rays might actually decline a little bit.  A slow start or small slump, and the team struggles with expectations – next thing you know it’s 85 – 77 and not 95 – 67.  My best guess is that the team will win 92 games and be right in the thick of the playoff hunt.  If Las Vegas odds makers have the Rays winning 92, though, I’m playing the under.

Down on the Farm…

Justin Ruggiano was the best outfielder and hitter at AAA Durham, hitting 11 homers with 20 steals – a good combination of speed and power – in just half a season.  However, he doesn’t walk much (22 in about 280 plate appearances).  Still, he’s as good as Gabe Gross, just as mobile in the field, though learning at the plate.  Mitch Talbot might get a shot as a starter or long reliever after going 13 – 9 for the Bulls, with good K/W data and few homers allowed.  Jeremy Cummings and Dale Thayer had good years, but are too old to be considered as prospects.

The best player at AA Montgomery (the Biscuits!) was David Price, and he’s not going to be heading back unless it’s a rehab assignment.  Chris Nowak might be a future third base prospect, but not in Tampa Bay.  Cesar Valdez led Visalia (A+) posting a 10 – 3 record with good control.  Jeremy Hellickson ripped through Vero Beach (A+), going 7 – 1 in 14 starts, with 83 Ks against only 5 walks (!) in nearly 77 innings.  He was quickly moved to Montgomery and held his own.  Hellickson will be on the major league team if he keeps at this rate – though probably not until 2010.