Can you make a competitive team with your pick of the remaining free agents?

I was flipping through the list of remaining free agents (as of 1/16/2012) and tried to field the best team possible with those players still available.  Here’s what you can do…

Catcher:

The best hitting catcher is probably Ramon Castro, who I see as a DH but can catch some.  You have a couple of receivers with good defensive skills but a limited offensive outlook (Ivan Rodriguez, Jason Varitek) and a couple of catchers who have recently been regulars (Chris Snyder, Ronny Paulino).  If you took Castro and Rodriguez, at least you’d have someone who could work with the pitchers and throw, and you’d have a decent enough backup who could help put a few runs on the board.

First Baseman:

With Prince Fielder still available, you have the centerpiece of an offense – but you still have some competent backups.  Casey Kotchman seems to have found his hitting stroke, and Carlos Pena could help in a platoon role (can’t hit lefties, though).  If you weren’t willing to pony up $20 million per year for Fielder, a platoon of Pena and Derrek Lee might give you depth and a solid platoon.

Second Baseman:

Not a lot to choose from here…  The best player is probably Carlos Guillen, but he’s only going to play 40 games (not to be mean here, but his injury history is becoming problematic).  That leaves you with someone who can, at best, not embarrass you with the glove – Jeff Keppinger, for example – and even play a couple of positions since you may need some flexibility.

Third Baseman:

If you thought the pickings were thin at second, it’s even thinner at third base now.  Casey Blake has had a couple of good years, and Wilson Betemit can swing the bat.  After that, it’s guys who used to be able to play some (Eric Chavez, Alex Cora, Omar Vizquel).

Shortstop:

Three guys who can’t really cover the position anymore – Orlando Cabrera, Edgar Renteria, and Miguel Tejada.  The best overall option is probably Cabrera – or letting him play second and moving Keppinger over to play short.

Outfielders:

There are still a few players here who could contribute, but most of these guys are past prime players and few have the wheels to cover center.  However, Johnny Damon could still play left, Cody Ross can play right or center (though he’s running out of years he’ll be able to cover center).  Kosuke Fukudome is a fantastic right fielder and can still bat leadoff.  Behind that you have a couple of guys who could be good fourth outfielders and pinch hitting types – Jonny Gomes, Andruw Jones, Juan Pierre.  If you needed a defensive guy, Joey Gathright is there.  And, if you want to take a real chance, you could go for Yoenis Cespedes.

A lineup as listed below would score some runs, and probably fight the defense to a draw.

Fukudome – RF
Damon – LF
Guillen – 2B
Fielder – 1B
Castro – C
Ross – CF
Blake – 3B
Keppinger – SS
(Pitcher – assuming a National League team)

Starting Pitchers:

A couple recent signings has killed off much of the top remaining pitchers, but you still have a few guys who can win games.  I see a rotation that includes the following as having some potential:

Roy Oswalt
Edwin Jackson
Jon Garland
Joe Saunders
Livan Hernandez

And I’d give a sixth spot to Rich Harden – pitch him until something breaks (which it will).  Or, you could take Harden’s stuff and make a closer out of him.  Your emergency arm might be Kevin Millwood – I just don’t know if he has one more year left.  I’d stash him in AAA until Rich Harden breaks down…  The staff is really missing an ace, but you have two guys who can win at the top and three guys who can give you 650 innings at the bottom, which helps the bullpen.

Relievers:

The signing of Ryan Madson takes away the best available closer, but you can do a bullpen by committee and hope someone takes charge.  I see the top six arms as follows:

Michael Gonzalez
Danys Baez
Francisco Cordero
Juan Cruz
Brad Lidge
Arthur Rhodes

Out of that list, you can give Lidge the last inning (if he’s healthy) and mix and match the rest to be reasonably effective.

I haven’t done the math on this, but a team with this roster could possibly make a run at 85 wins.

2011 Season Forecast: Baltimore Orioles

Last Five Years:

2010:  66 – 96 (Last in AL East)
2009:  64 – 98
2008:  68 – 93
2007:  69 – 93
2006:  70 – 92

The Orioles haven’t had a winning record since 1997, when the roster included Rafael Palmeiro, Robbie Alomar, Cal Ripken, and Brady Anderson, with Harold Baines and Eric Davis on the bench.  The rotation was Mussina, Erickson, Jimmy Key, and Scott Kamieniecki.  Randy Myers was the closer and Jesse Orosco, Armando Benitez, and Arthur Rhodes were in the bullpen.  Oh, and Jeffrey Maier got in the way…

Runs Scored: 613 (13th in the AL, 100 runs better than Seattle, but well below average)
Runs Allowed: 785 (13th in the AL, 60 runs better than the Royals, but well below average)

2010 in Review:

A lot was made out of the hiring of Buck Showalter, and the early results were admittedly stunning.

The Dave Trembley managed Orioles were picked by many to finish last or fourth in the AL and didn’t disappoint.  The young arms didn’t get started, and the bats never came around.  Baltimore started 5 – 18, won just 10 in May, and went 9 – 17 in June.  By then, Trembley had been relieved of his job and Juan Samuel was given the interim job.  Things didn’t get any better, as the Orioles went 8 – 19 in July.  With a record of 32 – 73 (!), having just been swept by the Royals, the Orioles were pacing for just 49 wins – an historically bad total – so Buck Showalter was brought in to add organization and teaching to the Orioles.  The Orioles had a winning record in August and September (and October, 3 – 1).  This 34 – 23 stretch was NOT built, like the White Sox, Minnesota, and Detroit win streaks, by beating up on the lower level teams in the AL or a run of games against the NL Central, but rather against the AL East and other good teams like Texas, Chicago, Anaheim, and Detroit.

The roster moved around mostly because young players were shuttled in and out, but the Orioles had tried bringing in Miguel Tejada, and then sent him packing to San Diego before the trading deadline.  The other minor deal the Orioles did was to trade Will (Suitcase) Ohman to the Marlins for fringe rotation starter Rick Vanden Hurk.

Starters:

Jeremy Guthrie had a pretty solid year – 3.83 ERA, 209.1 innings, doesn’t walk people but served up a few homers.  His strikeout rate is a bit low, which is disconcerting, but not yet problematic.  Behind him was the disappointing import Kevin Millwood.  Millwood went 4 – 16 with a 5.10 ERA, mostly because he gave up 30 homers.  He actually struck out more guys than Guthrie with decent control, but you can’t give up 30 dingers without absorbing losses…  The third starter, Brian Matusz, showed promise finishing 10 – 12 with even better K/9 rates, and a better than league average run rate.  Brad Bergesen made 28 starts and was a young Kevin Millwood – lots of homers, without the good K rate.  The fifth slot was shared by youngsters Jake Arrieta and Chris Tillman.  Arrieta is a prospect but had nearly as many walks as strikeouts, which isn’t very good, and Tillman is a 22-year-old prospect who had very similar numbers to Arrieta – actually finishing with the same number of walks to strikeouts.  Arrieta and Tillman had replaced David Hernandez, who was lousy in the rotation but decent as a reliever.

Looking forward to 2011, the only change is the dismissal of Millwood, and the possible addition of Justin Duchscherer as a fifth starter option.  Duchscherer lost 2009 to surgery on his left elbow, battled depression, and came back in 2010 only to miss most of that season to have surgery on his left hip.  What would help the rotation most would be to keep the ball in the park, and for the middle defense to get stronger…  And, it would be nice to have a true ACE at the top of the rotation, which would slot Guthrie, Matusz, and Bergesen one spot down the chain.

Bullpen:

Alfredo Simon failed as the closer, ceding the job to Koji Uehara.  Uehara is a good late inning option, finishing with 55 Ks and just 5 walks in 43 innings.  Will Ohman was tolerable, Matt Albers wasn’t, and Mike Gonzalez – a good reliever – couldn’t stay healthy.  Mark Hendrickson may have played himself out of baseball, and Jason Berken may have played his way into an eighth inning role.  On the whole, though, the bullpen was lacking an ace as well.  Berken or Uehara could BECOME an ace, but until then, the Orioles brought in Kevin Gregg to be the closer for at least four months…  (He seems to run out of gas in August, and I can’t explain that since he’s a reliever, but he’s got John Franco disease.)  Gregg can be much better than Alfredo Simon, and if Mike Gonzalez can pitch 50 innings, there is hope that the bullpen can be ten to fifteen runs better than in 2010.

Catching:

Matt Wieters is a good young catcher.  I don’t know if he will be the next Joe Mauer, but he can be 80% of Joe Mauer and that’s not half bad.  Defensively, he’s pretty solid with a strong arm.  Offensively, he wasn’t all that great, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he jumped from the 11 – 55 – .249 numbers of 2010 to 17 – 75 – .280 in 2011.  I saw him in the minors and he’s BIG – 6′ 5″ and 225, and there is something about him that is impressive.  Let’s hope he takes that step forward.  Jake Fox and Craig Tatum are backups.  Fox can hit some – but doesn’t have a defensive position (why can’t he just DH?) and Tatum hit singles and catches the ball, but didn’t throw out any base stealers in 2010.  Okay, two.

Infield:

Most of last year’s infield is gone.  Instead of Ty Wiggington playing everywhere (and well) – usually at first base, Brian Roberts at second, Cesar Izturis at short, and Miguel Tejada at third, you have a much different, and potentially stronger offensive lineup.

Look, Tejada played third very well but his offense is slipping (as you would expect), and he was traded to San Diego.  Izturis fell off both offensively and defensively, and Brian Roberts couldn’t stay healthy, forcing Julio Lugo or Robert Andino into more regular roles.  Garrett Atkins was given a shot and, as I mentioned, shouldn’t have been given that shot.  On the whole, though, the infield in 2010 was WEAK.

Looking at 2011, you have Mark Reynolds, the basher who arrives from Arizona with a need to get his batting average back over .230 and cut his strikeouts down to under, say, 200.  STILL, even hitting .198, his power and walks make him an above average hitter and his defense is surprisingly strong.  J.J. Hardy comes over from Minnesota for prospects and immediately upgrades the offense and actually did a better job than Izturis in the field in 2010.  (I like Hardy as a late round fantasy pick – coming off a left wrist injury, his power should return – especially here.)  Izturis remains as a utility infielder along with Robert Andino.  Brian Roberts should be the DH because his body is breaking down and his defense has never been really good.  But, if he played 130 games at second, he might score 100 runs and few guys can do that.  Covering first base is newcomer Derrek Lee.  I’m not a huge fan of this – he’s getting old, his back doesn’t allow him to get to ground balls anymore, and he’s coming off of right thumb surgery – and I’d rather have kept Wigginton.  Luke Scott is his short term backup…  Still, there is a really good chance that the defense will be no worse than last year and the offense could jump up 60 – 80 runs better than last year.

Outfield:

Two positions remain capably covered, with Adam Jones being one of the most productive centerfielders in the AL, and Nick Markakis playing a reliable if not insanely productive right field.  Markakis could have a breakout season, but he sure hits fewer homers than he used to.  It would be nice if he accidentally tagged 25 homers, but I wouldn’t bet on it.  Luke Scott plays left, with Felix Pie getting at bats and logging late defensive innings.  It’s not a horrible platoon, really.  The fifth outfielder, Nolan Reimold, is better than his injury riddled numbers in 2011.

DH:

Luke Scott gets at bats here, as does Jake Fox, but in 2011, the Orioles have added Vlad Guerrero.  Guerrero had a decent first half in 2010, but faded badly down the stretch.  Oddly, the Orioles have a lot of candidates to play here and if they wanted someone on the Rangers, I’d gladly take Michael Young to play second and move Roberts to DH before I’d have given a deal to Guerrero.  Vlad got a one-year deal, though, so hopefully it will pay off.

Down on the Farm:

Most of what can play is already with the big club, leaving the top end of the minors system for Baltimore a bit thin.  The best players on the Norfolk Tides (AAA) were pitchers Jake Arrieta and Chris Tillman, who are pretty decent prospects, and catcher Brandon Snyder, who doesn’t have a place to play so long as Matt Wieters is still around.

Joel Guzman is still around, hitting 33 homers at AA Bowie.  A few years ago, Guzman was considered a propsect at SS because he was mobile and had power.  He’s still got power, but he’s older and heavier (and taller) and now he’s trying to make it back to the bigs but he might have to do it as a third baseman.  God bless him…  Ryan Adams was taken #2 five years ago, and looked like an almost prospect at Bowie – but mid-range power hitting .298 isn’t going to make it much past a cup of coffee.  Joe Mahoney seems to be making progress, hitting for more power and higher averages as he works through the minors.  He’ll likely start in Bowie, though, and for a first baseman mid-range power isn’t a total asset.

Speaking of first basemen with mid-range power… Tyler Townsend, taken in the third round in 2009, looks like a Gaby Sanchez-type hitter in A+ Frederick.  If he takes a step forward in 2011, look for him to make the squad in late 2013.  Former #2 pick, Mychal Givens is returning from a thumb injury, it will be interesting to see what the shortstop can do if he can just play a full season at  Delmarva or A+ Frederick.

Forecasting 2011:

The Orioles made a lot of bold changes to the roster, most of which will bolster the offense.  I mean, this is a pretty good lineup:  Roberts, Markakis, Jones, Scott, Reynolds, Vlad, Lee, Wieters and Hardy.  This team could easily jump from 613 runs scored to 725 or even 740 runs.  It could also struggle for three months if Vlad and Lee can’t get on track and finish at around 675.  I like the idea, however, that 700 runs is very possible.  The team isn’t GREAT defensively as long as Roberts and Hardy are your double-play combination, but the problem in 2010 was homers allowed more than anything else.

The pitching will hold steady in the rotation, but the bullpen could be marginally better.  Facing Boston, Tampa, New York, and Toronto, it’s hard to look great with your pitching staff.  That being said, I don’t know if the Yankees and Tampa will score more than 800 runs in 2011, and that will help lower the Baltimore defensive numbers.  It’s VERY possible that the AL East may have five teams at or above .500 at some point in the season.  Baltimore isn’t going to win 85 games, but they have a very good shot at 80 wins.  Realistically, I see them as a 79 – 83 team, getting the fans excited about the Orioles future.

I also see them having some big holes to fill in 2012 – first base, second base, closer, and ace – that will require the farm to turn out a future star or the ownership to make a REALLY bold move rather than fetch a bunch of veterans as short gap changes.

2010 Season Forecast: Atlanta Braves

Last Five Seasons:

2009: 86 – 76 (3rd NL East)
2008: 72 – 90
2007: 84 – 78
2006: 79 – 83
2005: 90 – 72

Runs Scored: 735 (6th NL)
Runs Allowed: 641 (4th NL)

When a team outscores its opponents by 100 runs, the team can expect to win more than 90 games.  The Braves should have finished about 92 – 70.

Season Recap:

The Braves spent three months figuring things out – playing indifferent baseball and hanging within a few games of .500 through June.

In June, however, the pitching came together.  Javier Vazquez started pitching like an ace, Tommy Hanson joined the rotation and started winning like Brave starters of the previous decade.  Jair Jurrjens acted like a Cy Young candidate, and Derek Lowe ate innings.  After manager Bobby Cox flipped closers, replacing Mike Gonzalez with Rafael Soriano.

When the offense started gelling in July (Matt Diaz replacing Jeff Francouer and Martin Prado replacing Kelly Johnson), the Braves started making ground on the rest of the league.  Falling to 34 – 40, the Braves would win most series down the stretch – and then going on tear in September, winning 16 of 19 games to get into the fringe of the wild card race.  Unfortunately, they faced an equally talented Marlins squad, and lost the last six games – including four straight to Washington and four one-run games in the mix.

Pitching:

Javier Vazquez, new Yankee fourth starter, won 15 and finished with a 2.87 ERA – saving the Braves more than 36 runs.  And with that, he was the SECOND best starter on the staff.  Jair Jurrjens didn’t flash the same K/W numbers, but had a 2.60 ERA and saved the Braves 38 runs over what one might expect from average pitching.

Derek Lowe was a 15 game winner in a slightly off season – his ERA was 4.67, which might have been bad luck with balls in play followed by feeling the pressure of struggling.  Still – Lowe made 34 starts and remains a dependable arm.

Tommy Hanson joined the rotation to make 21 starts, winning 11, and finishing with a sub 3 ERA – and it’s not easy to find teams in recent years to have three pitchers with at least 120 innings and ERAs under 3.00.  (Houston, 2005 – Boston, 2002).  Finally, Kenshin Kawakami made 25 starts and pitched well enough to deserve a better record than 7 – 12.

The good news is that Tim Hudson returned from 2008’s season ending surgery to make seven solid starts and ready himself for a rotation slot in 2010.  The Braves even tested two other options – JoJo Reyes made five forgettable starts (7.00 ERA) while Kris Medlin worked four starts into mostly bullpen work and would be a nice fifth option or reliever.

In the bullpen, Rafael Soriano smoked 102 batters in 75.2 innings, and only allowed 80 baserunners saving 28 games.  Mike Gonzalez accepted his demotion with a vengeance and finished with 90Ks in 74.1 innings – providing the Braves with a devastating one-two punch to close games.  Medlin, Eric O’Flaherty, Jeff Bennett, Peter Moylan, and Manny Acosto also pitched better than average innings – one of the deeper bullpens in the National League.

Looking ahead, Vazquez is gone – but it might not matter.  Tim Hudson is back and looks great (he did in the spring), Jurrjens returns after two straight solid seasons, and Tommy Hanson gets to make 33 starts instead of 21.  Derek Lowe is still around, and the fifth spot could be handled by either Kawakami or Medlin without feeling any loss in skill.  That’s FIVE sold starters with a dependable sixth option.

The bullpen got a makeover when both Soriano and Gonzalez took free agent options in Tampa Bay and Baltimore (respectively).  Still – the Braves have options, signing a newly healthy Billy Wagner and bringing in Takashi Saito from Boston.  These two are old (38 and 40) but have been dependable for years.  Moylan, Medlen, O’Flaherty, and Jesse Chavez are able backups and Jo-Jo Reyes isn’t a lousy 12th arm in the pen.  He’ll be better this year.

Catching:

Brian McCann is the best hitting catcher in the NL right now – power, average, and despite troublesome issues with his eyes gets a few walks from time to time…  His backup, David Ross, isn’t chopped liver either – slugging .508 and getting on base to a .380 clip.  This is the best catching in the NL – offensively anyway.

Infield:

The Braves shifted from Casey Kotchman to Adam LaRoche at the trading deadline and got better production from LaRoche offensively and defensively – despite Kotchman’s reputation.  It certainly helped the Braves finish strongly.  For 2010, the Braves are giving veteran third baseman Troy Glaus a chance.  I’m not sure this will be an improvement, to be honest.  Glaus has had troubles staying healthy and hasn’t been a regular first baseman before, so this would be a question mark going forward.

Kelly Johnson had the job at the beginning of the year, but Martin Prado will carry it forward.  Prado can hit, he’s a tolerable fielder (no different than Johnson), so this should be a benefit in 2010.

Yunel Escobar remains a potent offensively player, and is improving equally as a defensive player.  He’s a good shortstop to own in fantasy leagues for 2010.

Chipper Jones is running out of years – injured more frequently and his batting numbers slopped, though he still has enough patience to help score runs.  Defensively, he’s not much – costing his team nearly 20 runs a year.  It’s time to find a replacement by 2012, wouldn’t you think?

Omar Infante and Brooks Conrad back up this unit – Infante has some skills as a hitter, but wasn’t very mobile defensively in 2009.  Conrad is getting his feet wet, but nears 30.

Outfield:

Garrett Anderson was a free agent signee and test drive who hit a little but couldn’t cover enough ground in left.  He’s gone in 2010, with his replacement, Matt Diaz, likely getting a full time job as a fourth outfielder and left fielder.

Nate McClouth came over from Pittsburgh when rookie Jordan Schafer‘s injuries interrupted his development.  McClouth can hit and isn’t an awful fielder, but he won’t make anyone forget Andruw Jones in his prime.  Melky Cabrera was added and may move McClouth to left and/or picking up defensive innings as required.

With Jeff Francoeur now a Met, the Braves are turning to rookie Jason Heyward, who is rated by many as the top prospect in all of baseball.  He may not have Francoeur’s arm, but he can hit and he has young legs.  It should be a fun season for jersey sales.

Omar Infante can cover the remaining innings in the outfield, and Eric Hinske arrives able to play corner outfield and infield positions as well as pinch hit.

Prospects:

AAA Gwinnett featured a lot of veteran hitters and a few pitching prospects – some of whom aren’t around because they were sent out in trades (Charlie Morton), or because they are on the team (Hanson, Medlin).  Boone Logan and Luis Valdez are good pitchers – might be prospects on other teams.

The best prospect at AA was Jason Heyward – after that it’s slim pickings.  Pitcher Jose Ortegano has control and is just 22.  He might make the bullpen in two years.

A+ Myrtle Beach features reliever Cory Gearrin, who walked just three and fanned 32 in 29.1 innings, earning 17 saves.  Gearrin was still good in 20 outings at AA Mississippi – and appears to have reigned in the wildness that marked his first two years in the minors.

J.J. Hoover, Dimaster Delgado, and Randall Delgado looked solid at A Rome, and are just getting their careers started.  Same with 2008 draft pick Adam Milligan, who showed flashes of power and a sweet bat at three levels. Too bad he’s not a third baseman…

Forecast:

Defensively, the team will probably stay the same.  The rotation is solid and can withstand an injury or two.  The bullpen is deep, but not necessarily capable of stellar performances.  However, the defense should be better in the outfield and middle infield.

Offensively, I’m not so sure, but I don’t see many reasons to think it’s going to be WORSE.  I don’t see how it’s going to be BETTER.  I think the positives and negatives will offset each other and the team will still score runs.  There are a lot of good hitters in their prime, and a couple of veteran bats and a deep bench.

As such, I wouldn’t be surprised if the team is still 100 runs better than their opponents, and win 90 – 92 games.  And, if the bad luck in decisions that seemed to follow them last year goes away, it could be more.  Will it be enough to beat the Phillies?  I don’t know.  But they should be a playoff contender for sure.  The system calls for 92 – 70, so I’ll go with that.

2010 Season Forecast: Baltimore Orioles

Last Five Years:

2009: 63 – 98 (5th AL East)
2008: 68 – 93
2007: 69 – 93
2006: 70 – 92
2005: 74 – 88

The Baltimore Orioles have had a worse record each year since winning 78 games in 2004 and haven’t posted a winning season since 1997, when they won 98 games.  What in the name of Earl Weaver is going on here???

Runs Scored: 741 (11th, AL)
Runs Allowed: 876 (Last, AL)

Season Recap:

Another year of rebuilding, another year of trying out prospects, and another year of being battered in road games, where the Orioles were 25 – 56.  Ouch.

Despite this, the Orioles are starting to show signs that they are accumulating the type of talent that will make them competitive – which would be good enough in the AL Central, but not in the AL East.

Just looking at the monthly splits, the team batted pretty well all year but had power surges in May and August.  What really happened was that the team slugged enough to help the pitchers in the beginning of the season, but the  pitching really left them after the all-star break.  The team ERA was a tolerable 4.55 in July when the Orioles were off – winning just 9 of 25 decisions.  Then it went to 5.30 in August as Baltimore lost 20 of 30 games, and finished at 6.22 (!) in September when the team lost 20 of 26 decisions.  Were it not for a four game winning streak in October, the Orioles would have lost 100 games.

So – looking ahead quickly, the Orioles need to figure out how to make up for a 135 run gap between offense and defense that would allow them to get to .500.

Pitching:

Jeremy Guthrie, who would look good on most teams, got to 200 innings in his 33 starts and wasn’t horrible despite his 10 – 17 record.  He’s not a league average pitcher in part because he doesn’t strike out enough batters – just 110 on the season.

The rest of the rotation struggled.  Rich Hill, brought in as sort of a reclamation project, gave the Orioles 13 awful starts (7.80 ERA), David Hernandez was called up for 19 starts that were a bit better, but he was whacked around to a 4 – 10 record.  Koji Uehara started off okay, but went down to a shoulder injury.  Prospect Jason Berken didn’t look ready – 24 starts and a 6.54 ERA.  Adam Eaton was added to the rotation and was predictably awful (2 – 5, 8.56).  Mark Hendrickson was allowed to start 11 times but was better in relief.

However, Brad Bergesen came up and won 7 of 12 decisions, and saved his team 16 runs over 123.1 innings.  Brian Matusz was given 8 starts and was league average, winning five of seven decisions.  Chris Tillman wasn’t awful.

The bullpen had George Sherrill‘s 20 saves and a solid 2.40 ERA, but shipped him to Los Angeles, putting Jim Johnson in the closer position where he was barely tolerable – not necessarily helping down the stretch.  Danys Baez gave the Orioles 72 decent innings.  Brian Bass was asked to work a lot of long relief.

Working against those four were Matt Albers (5.51 ERA), former closer Chris Ray (7.27 ERA) and a few other small time tryouts.

Looking ahead to 2010, the Orioles have to start by finding 400 better innings of pitching.  Kevin Millwood was acquired from Texas – Millwood was solid for five months and if he can keep his ERA under 4.50, would represent a 40 run improvement over 2009.  Guthrie gets the second spot, and Bergesen and Matusz will get more starts.  If they stay healthy and make 30 starts, that’s another 40 runs better.  Chris Tillman is expected to be a prize – and certainly will be better than eight Adam Eaton starts.

So, a realist sees the potential to make up at least 60 runs on last year, and an optimist might see 100 runs of improvement.

The bullpen adds former Braves reliever Mike Gonzalez to the closer spot.  Gonzalez CAN be a good closer, and he CAN be a bit inconsistent.  Still, adding the healthy arm to the mix will be a step up.  Former Padre Cla Meredith will also help out, taking on the Baez innings.  Will Ohman comes over from the NL – and I would rather see him than, say, Matt Albers, who is still around and on the active roster as of 4/1.

I don’t see the bullpen being that much better than last year – and certainly nowhere near as deep as the top three teams in the division.

Catching:

Matt Wieters is here – the cover of Sports Illustrated in March – and could EXPLODE on the scene and make the all-star team.  Wieters didn’t disappoint as a rookie, showing a little power and hitting .288.  He represents a step up over Chad Moeller and Greg Zaun, and has far more upside.  The new back up is Craig Tatum.  Wieters does need to improve is caught stealing rate (barely league average) but is more mobile and made fewer mistakes per game than the two veterans in 2009.

Infield:

Last year, Aubrey Huff was merely ordinary and not producing at the rate the Orioles had hoped – just 13 – 72 – .253.  First baseman are supposed to create 100 runs of offense, and Huff was responsible for just 55.  Michael Aubrey and Garrett Atkins are around now.  Aubrey is an oft-injured Indian farm hand who was stuck behind Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez (among others), but could be a surprise performer.  Atkins has been in decline for a few years and when asked to backup Todd Helton at first looked awkward.  I’d rather play Aubrey and keep Atkins on the bench.

Brian Roberts remains a remarkably productive offensive force at the top of the lineup, but his bad back is affecting his already below average range.  The Orioles don’t really have another choice (Robert Andino could field it, but not hit), so they have to hope that Roberts can keep his back loose and mobile.

At short, Cesar Izturis provided a great glove with no bat in the mold of Mark Belanger – hitting .253 with no power and, even worse, drawing just 18 walks in 114 games.  At least he keeps the pitchers happy.

Melvin Mora looked very old last year – only eight homers, and barely generating 50 runs of offense.  In his place, the Orioles are returning former Oriole Miguel Tejada (who is older than Mora) to play third.  Tejada had a solid season at short for Houston last year, but agreed to the move here.  Mora is usually pretty solid defensively, but Tejada could be his match and will certainly provide a bit more offense.

Looking at this pragmatically, and assuming Michael Aubrey gets the first shot at first base, there could be 30 more runs here (35 more at third, 15 more at first, offset by a potential decline at second base).  If Atkins plays, it’s probably only 15 runs better than last year, and that’s offset by Atkins bungling the position defensively, too.

Outfield:

With Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, and Felix Pie or Nolan Reimold, the Orioles have a pretty productive group here.

Markakis is a dependable source of hits and runs, though his range isn’t enough to make up for his rocket arm.  I do believe, however, that this will be his breakout offensive season.  Jones needs to play 150 games, and if he does, will make a run at 20 – 20, if not 30 – 30.  Pie can field any of the three positions and isn’t a problem with the bat, though he’s not a well rounded hitter.  However, Nolan Reimold showed power and patience and if given 500 at bats, might hit 25 homers.  Fifth outfielder Luke Scott gets to be the DH – a power source from the left side of the plate, though he needs a platoon partner.

Looking ahead, I see no reason that this group can’t find 50 more runs of offense by (a) staying in the lineup, and (b) continuing to show progress.

Bench:

Robert Andino and Garrett Atkins in the infield and Felix Pie in the outfield are joined by super sub Ty Wiggington, who could also be a regular first baseman and help the club.  Luis Montanez gets to be an extra outfielder when needed.

Prospects:

The best guy not already listed above that played at AAA Norfolk might be second baseman Justin Turner.  Turner hit .300 with a .362 OBP and has tolerable speed.  He’s NOT as good as Brian Roberts, but if he is forced to play, I think he will outhit Andino and might surprise you with how good a fielder he is.  He’s certainly better with the glove than Roberts at this stage.  Turner is a Cal State Fullerton grad, and a former Reds draft pick (7th Round, 2006).

The best pitchers in Norfolk were Chris Tillman and David Hernandez, who had solid runs and shots with the parent club last year.  Another option is reliever Kam Mickolio.  They all have the tools, they just need to put things together, which isn’t as easy as it looks – especially in the AL East.

A couple of Bowie Baysox (AA) pitchers to look for will be Brandon Erbe (44 hits allowed in 73 innings, but control issues) and Jacob Arrieta (70 Ks in 59 innings across 11 starts).  Give them a year or two and they might round out the Orioles rotation.  Another young reliever, Steven Johnson, might start the year at AAA.  The best hitter going through AA was Brandon Snyder, who pounded pitchers to a .343 batting average with 10 homers in 201 at bats, but appeared a bit overmatched at AAA.  A former catcher (and 2005 #1 pick), Snyder is getting time at first base now and if both Aubrey and Atkins aren’t producing in June, Snyder is just a hot start away from making the roster.

Richie Hebner managed former Wofford College slugger Brandon Waring and the Frederick Keys in 2009.  Waring is a third baseman who hits the ball a LONG way, and seems to be making progress in reducing his strikeout numbers.  Another former Reds prospect, Waring is still a couple of years away and should be ready for a look when Tejada hits 40.  Former FAU grad Robert Widlansky hit .340 for Frederick, but this was the first time he had played this well.

Among the pitchers, Brian Matusz already made it from Frederick to the bigs, and 22-year-old Zach Britton looks ready to try on AA after a year with 131 Ks in 140 innings.  Reliever Pat Egan still showed great control, but may not have enough gas to make it to the bigs.

Forecasting 2010:

You have to like Baltimore’s chances of moving the wins needle back in the right direction.  The potential to shave 60 – 80 runs defensively is there, and if Tejada doesn’t turn out to be 45 at third base, the offense could improve by 75 to 90 runs.  What is working against the Orioles is the top of the division – three teams all worthy of 90 wins.  I think the Orioles are extremely capable of winning more games than they lose – but might not just because they are in the AL East where good isn’t good enough.  So, even though the system says 83 – 79  I think 79 – 83 might be more in line with the final record and I am going to go against what the system says.

O’s Have New Closer; Dodgers Pay ChiSox to Play Pierre

The Orioles added Braves reliever Mike Gonzalez to a two-year deal worth at least $12 million, and up to $16 million with incentives.  Gonzalez, who had lost his closer role to Rafael Soriano and then Billy Wagner in Atlanta, found success as the eighth inning guy for the Braves.  [FoxSports]

I was flipping through a couple of sites that made it seem like this was some kind of an upgrade for the Orioles – and in a small way it is but only by the standards of September.  George Sherrill was solid last year before being shipped to the Dodgers at the trade deadline.  Jim Johnson inherited the role for the rest of the season, and he proved he’s not bad – but he’s not a closer (at least not yet).  Gonzalez, if anyone remembers, struggled as a closer at the beginning of the season.  So, I’d be a little leery of proclaiming this a success.  It fills a void, but only if Gonzalez approximates a closer.  In the AL East, he’ll get a dose of heavy hitters half the season – so to my thinking, this isn’t any type of guarantee.

The Orioles also took a flier on former Rockie third baseman Garrett Atkins.  Atkins got a one year, $4.5 million deal with an option.  I don’t know about you, but I see Atkins as an expensive insurance policy and not an investment.  I’d rather play Ty Wigginton there.  [SI]

The Chicago White Sox acquired outfielder Juan Pierre from the Los Angeles Dodgers for two players to be named later.  Pierre, oft-cited as one of the bad investments made in LA (5 years, $45 million for a guy with no power and an average glove despite what appears to be good speed), has a chance to play left or center field every day in Chicago.  The Dodgers are also paying for more than half of Pierre’s remaining two contract years.  Pierre isn’t as good as the departed Scott (Studriffik) Podsednik, and if Carlos Quentin is healthy, the Sox might have to play Pierre in center – and he’s not a centerfielder.  He lacks the range and arm for that position.  [SI]

The Marlins locked up starter Ricky Nolasco for 2010, avoiding arbitration by signing Nolasco to a one year deal worth $3.8 million.  I like it – he’s going to be better than 2009, though probably not as good as 2008.  Nolasco strikes out batters, and after he went to the minors to work through his two strike pitch routine, was solid down the stretch.  [MLB]

The Mets signed a replacement to J.J. Putz – Japanese import Ryota Igarashi.  The 30 year old gets $3 million over two years – far less than was paid Putz.  How appropriate for the Mets that the team with a reputation for choking signed a member of the (Yakult) Swallows.  [SI]

Good News!

Alex Rodriguez’s surgically repaired hip has healed – meaning that the post-season surgery he feared will not be required.  [SI]

What do you think?

SI/KC Star writer Joe Posnanski thinks that Tim Raines is a better outfielder than Roberto Clemente.  Wow – talk about taking on a legend…  I loved Tim Raines as a player, and I think that in the 1980’s, Raines was as good as it got – a regular contender for the MVP award usually given to Mike Schmidt or Kirk Gibson or Dale Murphy.  [SI]

A Committee to Set Up a Committee…

Bud Selig created a committee of owners, GMs, managers, and George Will (no players, no umps) to review on-field things such as speeding up play, the post-season schedule, the DH, instant replay, and who knows what else.  Selig has said “there are no sacred cows” – so it could be fun.  On the other hand, getting anything done will require tinkering with contracts (players and umpire unions, as well as TV/Radio deals) so implementing some things might be harder than working out some of the initial details and rules.  [MLB]

Happy Birthday!

World Series slugger Chase Utley hits 31 today…  He’s on his way to the Hall of Fame, wouldn’t you think?

Others celebrating with cards, cake and remembrances include: Roy Patterson (1876) – a member of the Hitless Wonders and a stud pitcher in the AA for a few years as a teammate of Rube Waddell in Minneapolis, Cy Falkenberg (1880), Ray Jablonski (1926), Cal Ripken, Sr. (1935), Jerry Adair (1936), Rollie Sheldon (1936), Leo Cardenas (1938),  Bob Ojeda (1957), Marvelle Wynne (1959), Curtis Pride (1968), Alex Cintron (1968), and Josh Barfield (1982).

Pirates Dismantling Complete; Freddy Sanchez Dealt for Prospect Who Can Be Traded Away in 2012.

Lessee…  The Pirates could have had a lineup of Aramis Ramirez, Jason Bay, Nate McClouth, Adam LaRoche, Ryan Doumit or Jason Kendall, Freddy Sanchez, and Jack Wilson.  Xavier Nady was a Pirate.  Jason Schmidt and Ian Snell were Pirates.  Mike Gonzalez was in the pen as a closer.

None of these guys is left.

The last, Freddy Sanchez, was given to San Francisco for Tim Alderson, a young pitcher with a world of potential…

Sanchez has some skills – gets on base, decent batting average, though not a GREAT run producer and just an average glove (at best) playing second or third.  He’ll help the Giants, but not as much as they think.

Alderson is a 20-year-old with GREAT control, strikes guys out – though that rate fell a bit at AA this year.  I like his 20 – 6 record in the minors, I like his control, and right now projects to be a member of the rotation in 2011.

Still – you look at the ten or eleven guys listed at the top of the page and you wonder why the Pirates haven’t had a winning season since Barry Bonds weighed 185 pounds.

Ugh.

Puma Derailed By Calf; Cubs Sign Ryan to Minor League Deal

Houston first basemen Lance Berkman left last night’s game in the eighth inning with a calf strain.  He’s listed as day-to-day, but Berkman admitted the calf had been bothering him for a while.  [MLB]

Lacking “organizational depth” (Piniella’s term) in left-handed relievers, the Chicago Cubs signed former Toronto closer B.J. Ryan to a minor league deal.  Ryan will report to the Cubs’ Arizona training complex and if all goes well, head to AAA Iowa for seasoning.  [ESPN]

The Braves look forward to the return of Javier Vasquez, and think Mike Gonzalez is still a couple of days away from returning to the mound.  Gonzalez is struggling with elbow inflammation.  [MLB]

Texas and St. Louis are contenders in the Roy Halliday sweepstakes.  Personally, I’m not sure that Toronto should deal their ace away – it’s hard to find guys like Halliday, no matter how many prospects or players you might get.  Only one team has ever really turned this to their favor – Cleveland’s trading Bartolo Colon netted them Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore, and Brandon Phillips (since traded).  [MLB]

Boston is willing to eat shortstop Julio Lugo’s salary, and is looking for takers in a trade according to Ken Rosenthal.  The oft-injured shortstop has a year and a half left on a $9 million per season contract.  [FoxSports]

No news is bad news – the Mets remain unsure about the return of too many players.  The longer Reyes, Maine, Delgado, and Beltran remain on the DL, the worse my prediction that the Mets would win the NL East looks…  [MLB]

By the way, if you like tragedies, read Cliff Corcoran’s opinion on why the Cubs are miserable failures so far in 2009.  [SI.com]

Five more minor leaguers out of the Dominican Republic were suspended for steroid use.  Anybody surprised?  [ESPN]

Hurry Back!  Padre ace Jake Peavy lost his boot and is throwing a little.  Rehab begins now that Peavy got a clean bill of health from team doctors…  Milwaukee starter Dave Bush continues to struggle in his rehab, having suffered a torn triceps.  LA’s Cory Wade heads to the DL with a right shoulder strain.  Atlanta’s Jo-Jo Reyes gets a rehab stint in Gwinnett.

Welcome Back!  The Royals activated Alex Gordon and newly acquired shorstop Yuniesky Betancourt from the DL.  (I missed this trade while vacationing…  The Royals sent cash and a couple of players to Seattle to fill a gap at short.  Danny Cortes is a fireballer with control issues joining his third organization.  Just 22, he might benefit by becoming a reliever.  The other guy, Derrick Saito, is a Hawaiian reliever who was drafted out of Cal Poly.  He has skills and could make the Mariners happy in 2011.  Seattle filled the organization gap by signing Alex Cintron to a minor league deal.).  The Royals need a shot in the arm, and this could help immensely.  Colorado welcomes back reliever Manny Corpas.

Others coming back to the majors?  Blake DeWitt (Dodgers), Josh Whitesell (D-backs), Angel Berroa (Mets), Alexi Casilla (Twins), Garrett Mock (Nationals), Wesley Wright (Astros).

Others heading in the wrong direction?  Mett Belisle (Giants) and Tony Pena (Royals) were designated for assignment.  The Mets dispatched Argenis Reyes back to the minors.