Look Who is Contending! And, Notes From the Training Room…

I was looking at the standings and there it was…  Pittsburgh is 7 – 5, and with a win last night the Nationals are 7 – 6.  San Diego matches that – good enough for second in the NL West.  Oakland leads the AL West at 9 – 5.

It’s only been two weeks, sure…  Still – nice to see a couple of surprise teams making a little early noise.

One Cheat Passes Another…

Alex Rodriguez hit home run #584, passing Mark McGwire for eighth on the all-time list.  Somewhere, a chemistry teacher feels rewarded for his or her work in the classroom.  Anyway…  Frank Robinson is next, and in a few months, there should be seven players with at least 600 homers in their career.  [FoxSports]

Fond Farewell…

Eric Gagne, for a few years the most feared reliever in baseball, called it a career.  The Dodgers released Gagne after a few poor outings in Spring Training and Gagne told a Montreal website he had lost his desire to play.  Gagne’s elbow, back, and shoulder have all required surgery, and it was fraying in his rotator cuff a couple of years ago that scared off the Red Sox.  Gagne was also mentioned in the Mitchell report for having received HGH from Kirk Radomski.  [SI]

But He Made The Ten Best Dressed List…

Tampa Rays manager Joe Maddon was told by MLB that he can no longer wear his favorite hoodie sweatshirt – one he frequently wears under his jacket to stay warm.  Maddon says he prefers the hoodies to winter coats.

From the Training Room…

Baltimore outfielder Felix Pie will likely miss the next three months recovering from an injury to his left shoulder – he ruptured the latissimus dorsai behind that shoulder.  Fortunately, no surgery is required, but he needs rest and rehab before he can play again.  [MLB]

Meanwhile, other Orioles remain on the mend…  Brian Roberts, already on the DL with abdominal injuries, saw a spinal specialist, Koji Uehara is testing his sore left hamstring, and Miguel Tejada says he’s ready to play after straining a hip adductor muscle.  The guy who may not be on the mend is manager Dave Trembley.  The Orioles are 2 – 11 already and now face New York or Boston for the next dozen games.  [MLB]

The Red Sox can’t buy a win, and now are stuck playing Bill Hall in centerfield with two other outfielders unable to play…  Jacoby Ellsbury collided with Adrian Beltre a week ago and has a severely bruised chest, while Mike Cameron still hasn’t found abdominal relief days after passing a kidney stone.  [MLB/ESPN]

Phillies starter J.A. Happ will miss a turn with a strained elbow.  Is Pedro Martinez still available? [ESPN]

Seattle starter Erik Bedard‘s return from shoulder surgery continues apace with the goal of making the team by Memorial Day.  [MLB]

San Diego starter Chris Young is playing catch, but is still some time away from returning to the Padres.  Young is the new Mike Hampton.  [MLB]

Transaction Wire

The Dodgers sent Russ Ortiz back to AAA (he was actually designated for assignment), and will give a roster spot to Jon Link.  Link was a former Padre and White Sox farmhand who was acquired in the Juan Pierre trade.  A Virginia Commonwealth grad, Link has made steady progress in the minors and looks to have closer stuff – but not quite.  Link has good strikeout numbers but he’s a touch wild, and his ERA hasn’t been around 2.00 – it’s more like 3 to 3.5.  Still – he can take some middle innings and not be too bad.

Arizona placed Conor Jackson on the DL with a right hamstring strain and immediately recalled Esmerling Vasquez – who hadn’t even made it to AAA when he was recalled.

The Mets recalled 1B prospect Ike Davis, the 23-year-old out of Arizona State.  Davis had made progress in the minors and was a stud during spring training.  He looks to have mid-range power, a big swing, and a little patience.  I think he can hit .275 or so in the bigs (but strike out a LOT) – still the Mets might as well give him a shot.  It’s not like Carlos Delgado is coming back any time soon.

Happy Birthday!

1876 – Charlie Hemphill – I think he played with Rube in the California League in 1902
1891 – Dave Bancroft (Hall of Fame shortstop)
1946 – Tommy Hutton – now a Marlins TV commentator and a good one
1950 – Milt Wilcox
1961 – Don Mattingly
1973 – Todd Hollingsworth

2010 Season Forecast: Houston Astros

Last Five Seasons:

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

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

Season Recap:

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

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

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

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

Pitching:

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

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

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

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

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

Catching:

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

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

Infield:

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

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

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

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

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

Outfield:

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

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

Prospects:

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

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

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

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

Forecast:

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

Cooper Fired in Houston; Did He Have a Chance?

This is your lot, Cecil Cooper.  Your two best players, Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt, showed signs of getting older – missing time and underperforming.  Your shortstop is older than people were told and no longer is a force at the plate, and your starting catcher had played in more games than anyone in baseball history – then he was sent packing.  The rotation is patchwork at best, featuring one guy who may hold the record for DL trips (Mike Hampton) and a third starter who barely reaches 80 with his fastball and is only marginally tolerable (Brian Moehler).  Your fifth starter is 2 – 11 (Felipe Paulino – not to be confused with Fausto Carmona, but they have similar stats).  There are a couple of guys who aren’t half bad – Michael Bourn, Hunter Pence, Carlos Lee – but the bench slots are filled with people who probably can’t hit as well as you, Cecil.  Guys like Darin Erstad.  And Cooper hasn’t played in more than 20 years.

Through August, however, your team has hovered at the fringe of the race – sometimes a little above .500, sometimes a little below.  This isn’t a disappointment – like the Cubs – but probably a pleasant surprise.  I know lots of people who thought that, after spring training, Houston would finish with 100 losses and finish below Pittsburgh.

And now, Cecil Cooper has been fired.  Well, it wasn’t entirely your fault your team has no depth, no prospects, and gave away the catcher who, while he can’t hit, was keeping the pitching staff in games.  I mean, Wandy Rodriguez came into his own this year.  But you can’t take credit for that anymore either.  Reading the articles, the owner and GM felt that a team with a $103 million payroll should be better.  And, some of the players, like Berkman, felt responsible for Cooper’s firing.  And, to read it in Houston, the players no longer respected Cooper – not liking his style, and thinking that he didn’t handle game situations well.  Some writers in Houston think that his firing was inevitable, that he had no chance, but he deserved to be fired.  I think Ed Wade needs to be fired, too – he put this team together.  Cooper held it together, until too many pieces fell apart – and there weren’t players on the farm who could step up and contribute.  I mean, Russ Ortiz as a starter?  He hasn’t been good since 2004.  Maybe Dave Clark, the interim manager, will get a shot.  Not that Dave Clark had any more experience as a MLB manager than Cooper.  Either that, or Willie Randolph can get a shot at redemption.

Whomever gets the job next year is going to be lucky to win 70 games.  Cooper had done that. [ESPN/SI/MLB/Houston Chronicle]

Well – there’s no manager’s union for things like this.  However, when a player is a problem, thank God the MLB Players Association can step in and defend him.  Word is out that the MLBPA will file a grievance on behalf of Milton Bradley.  Guys – this is money well spent.

The Twins won last night, cutting the Tigers’ lead in the AL Central to just 2-1/2 games, but they will likely play a few games without outfielder Denard Span, who was beaned in the head last night.  Span felt soreness and a bit of dizziness, and is day-to-day.

Now, if the Twins catch the Tigers and the season ends in a tie, the challenge might be finding a place to play.  The Vikings hosts Green Bay in a Monday Night game, which is when the Twins would host the Tigers in a one-game playoff.  There may be nothing to worry about, but you never know.  MLB and NFL representatives will have to work out the details.  [ESPN]

Sometimes a slump is fixed based on who you play – and last night Kevin Millwood easily handled Oakland to get a win and lock up his contract for next season.  Of course, Oakland’s cleanup hitter is Kurt Suzuki and Bobby Crosby plays first base – so facing the A’s didn’t hurt…  [MLB]

Giants infielder Freddy Sanchez twisted his knee – the same knee that was bothering him when San Francisco acquired Sanchez from Pittsburgh.  He’s out for now, but may be available by the end of the week.

Hurry Back! Boston reliever Junichi Tazawa (left groin strain) went on the 60-day DL.

Welcome Back! Cubs outfielder Reed Johnson returns from the DL.

Afterthoughts… Aroldis Chapman, the Cuban defector, has established residency in Andorra, and hopes to sign a contract that will allow him to play for somebody in 2010.  Chapman chose a non-US location so as not to be part of the MLB Draft, which would make him a free agent and available to the highest bidder.  (Boston?  New York? Los Angeles?  I find it hard to believe he’d be a Marlin, but there are tons of former Cubans there…)  Chapman throws 100+, which is why he’s trying to be a free agent.  And, Andorra is kind of a playground for the rich families of Europe – and his agent hopes that Chapman may one day join them…  [ESPN]

Your Weekend Baseball Update: Comings and Goings of the Stars

Already covered the Scott Kazmir trade – so here’s the rest of what was a pretty interesting weekend of baseball, even if the only races worth watching are the Wild Card races.

Jake Peavy was pushing it – trying to use an elbow that had just been nailed by a liner five days back.  Saturday, he left his start early and now he’s going to have an MRI.  Sheesh – if he’d just waited it out, maybe there’s nothing wrong.  If he misses more than just a turn in the rotation, it’s a much bigger problem.  [ESPN]

Randy Johnson hopes to begin throwing again, but if he returns to the Giants he’s coming back to the bullpen.  I’d love to see him one more time, as even Johnson has no idea if he’s got a 2010 season in him.  [ESPN]

Boston’s Tim Wakefield took a cortisone shot to relieve pain in his back, but it will be a few days before it will be known if he’s going to be able to pitch down the stretch.  Wakefield has been out nearly six weeks now.  Meanwhile, somebody finally signed Paul Byrd; it was Boston and he pitched well enough this weekend to offer hope as a fifth starter option.  [ESPN]

Houston’s Mike Hamption is done for 2009, another season ending in injury.  Hampton is scheduled to have surgery on both knees and his throwing shoulder – knocking off three at once rather than pushing out his career DL trip record with two more trips next year.  Manager Cecil Cooper says Hampton should come back as a pinch hitter.  [SI]

Another Astro who won’t be coming back soon – Chad Qualls.  Qualls was twisting out of the way of a liner hit back up the middle when his left leg buckled, dislocating his knee cap.  He got the save (it was the last pitch of the game), but Qualls called for help immediately after he went down.  [MLB]

The Dodgers got a utility infielder, Ronnie Belliard, from the Nationals for a minor leaguer and a PTNL.  Belliard needs playing time to stay sharp because (if you haven’t seen him lately) he’s not the fittest looking guy and if he doesn’t play his timing goes off quickly.  The Nationals get Luis Garcia, who (if I am correct in guessing WHICH Luis Garcia he is) is a pretty good, albeit very young, reliever throwing for the Great Lakes Loons in the Midwest League.  This Luis Garcia has 55 ks and 15 bbs in 71 innings, is just 22, and hails from the Dominican Republic.   [MLB]

The Twins signed two relievers, acquiring Jon Rauch for a PTNL from Arizona, and signing the waived Ron Mahay away from Kansas City.  These guys may be experienced, but I’m not certain they are going to be players who change the course of the AL Central race.  [MLB]

My old Hoffman High School friend Robb Tavill is worried that Rich Harden may be on his way out of Chicago, and according to FoxSports, he could be a Twin if a deal can be reached.   St. Louis did a lot of damage in July – the Twins are loading up in August.  [FoxSports]

On the other hand, Twins third baseman Joe Crede is back on the DL with a sore back – a back that is so bad that it’s now considered career threatening.  Crede’s had epidural shots to help relieve pain, but at some point he’s going to have to deal with the pain that has linked to his last operation.  [MLB]

Back to the Cubs… Alfonso Soriano is hoping that the MRI done on his ailing knee gives him hope, else the Cubs could be shutting him down for the rest of 2009.  After a rather disappointing 2009, those six remaining years on his contract seem like such a LONG time…  [FoxSports]

Mets third baseman David Wright wants to play in September and is scheduled to come off the DL soon, a stint caused by a beaning two weeks ago.  One gets the impression from the news stories that Jerry Manual likes that Wright isn’t around and I’m not sure why that is.  But then again, I don’t understand those guys running the Mets.  [FoxSports]

Seattle’s Ian Snell was drilled in the right wrist by a liner on Saturday, but he’ll be fine – didn’t even leave the game.  Snell thanks milk for his bone not breaking – he put up his right arm in self-defense.  [MLB]

Cincinnati’s Jay Bruce is finally able to swing with his injured wrist – he hopes to get back to the Reds before the season is out.  Bruce broke his wrist diving for a ball in right field on July 11th and has been out since then.  [MLB]

Padres outfielder Kyle Blanks injured his foot rounding the bases on a home run trot and had to leave Saturday’s game – so the plantar fasciitis that he’s been suffering from (similar to the injury that hobbled Carlos Quentin and my running partner Mike Coe) is rearing its ugly foot.  Now, Blanks is on the DL.  [MLB]

Toronto’s Marco Scutaro was drilled in the head by a Josh Beckett fastball on Friday night, suffering a mild concussion, and remains day-to-day.  Scutaro and Aaron Hill have carried the Jays offense this season.  [MLB]

FoxSports reporter Chris Ballard wonders why teams are hooked on the five man rotation.  I think Ballard is even missing a more important point – and that’s why do teams use a five man rotation and not a five DAY rotation?  A baseball season is essentially 183 days, so if your ace started every fifth DAY rather than every fifth GAME, you’d get 36 or 37 starts out of him, rather than 33.  Why wouldn’t you take 16 starts away from your fifth starter and give them to the first four slots in the rotation?  I am also in favor of having rookie starters work on six days rest rather than five.  One year in long relief, one year as a fifth starter – getting 16 starts and maybe 10 – 15 relief appearances in between those starts – and then moving into the rotation.

There are teams that have a ton of young pitching that could just go with a six man rotation, too.   We digress.

Hurry Back! Chris Snyder, D-Backs catcher, heads to the DL with inflammation in his lower back.  Seattle’s Russell Branyan is having his best season, and now goes to the DL with a herniated disk in his back.  Florida sent Chris Volstad to AAA New Orleans – he needs to find his command.

Welcome Back! The Rays brought back Akinori Iwamura, who had injured his knee in a collision with Marlin outfielder Chris Coghlan in May.

Smoltz For the Birds; Votto’s Struggles Continue

John Smoltz joined the Cardinals yesterday and will open this weekend as the fifth starter against San Diego.  The reason Smoltz is getting a start is to get him some innings and give the team a chance to see what Smoltz has left.  After two or three starts, Smoltz may stay in the rotation or move to the bullpen.  [ESPN]

Cincinnati’s Joey Votto’s 2009 season continues to provide new challenges.  First, it was dizziness caused by inner ear infections, followed by a DL stint to deal with anxiety and depression.  Now, Votto left a game with blurred vision.  He’s day-to-day.  [ESPN]

Cleveland prospect Matt LaPorta will get another shot with the big league club as Trevor Crowe needs a DL stint to deal with an oblique strain.  LaPorta struggled in a previous call up and needs to demonstrate why he was the centerpiece of last year’s C.C. Sabathia deal.  [SI]

Milwaukee sent outfielder Bill Hall to Seattle for minor league reliever Ruben Flores.  Gordon Ash, Brewers GM, admits that this is a cost saving move.  [SI]

Los Angeles signed Vincente Padilla – who now heads to Albuquerque to make a warm up start before taking Hiroki Kuroda’s spot in the rotation.  [SI]

FoxSports reported that D-Backs starter Jon Garland cleared waivers, meaning any team willing to absorb a few million dollars for a six week stretch run can consider adding Garland to their roster.  [FoxSports]

Houston’s Mike Hampton has a partially torn rotator cuff, but isn’t getting another operation and hopes to pitch one more time this season.  [ESPN]

Mets reliever Billy Wagner is ready to make his return from Tommy John surgery, but if he gets a shot with New York, it’s as an audition…  The Mets are looking to move Wagner before the waiver trading deadline (8/31).  Wagner has a lot of money left on his final contract year and becomes a free agent for 2010.  Again – the Marlins could use someone for the stretch run and it would be a gas if he had anything left…  [ESPN]

Braves infielder Martin Prado is suffering from exertional headaches and is hoping that inflammatory medicines help reduce the strain.  [MLB]

Hurry Back! Willy Taveras (CIN) goes to the DL with a strained left quad.  Everyday Eddie Guardado (TEX) heads to the DL with a strained knee.

Pudge Returns to Rangers; Lots of Baseball Briefs…

Ivan Rodriguez, perhaps the greatest Texas Ranger of all, returns to his original home team for the stretch run.  The Astros traded the veteran to Texas for three prospects (one named, two not) so that Taylor Teagarden could have a veteran backup with Jarrod Saltalamacchia on the DL.   Pudge is no longer the offensive threat he was even three years ago, much less in his prime, hitting like a veteran backup catcher.  On the other hand, what does this say about where Houston is heading?  Houston had made an impressive run to get to into the NL Central mix, only to deal away someone who had been helping keep the Astros staff intact and checking the running game.  J. R. Towles gets one more shot to become the starter they envisioned back in 2007, I guess.  [ESPN]

Who did Houston get?  Matt Nevarez has looked solid at Hickory (A), with 50Ks in just 35 innings, and finally appears to be harnessing his control.  Nevarez is 22, signed four years ago after being drafted in the 10th round out of high school.

Look for Dodger starter Hiroki Kuroda to get a DL stint to recover from post-concussion elements.  [ESPN]

John Smoltz might be a Cardinal?  No team has done more in the last four weeks to upgrade the team than St. Louis.  [ESPN/FoxSports]

Meanwhile, FoxSports thinks that the Dodgers, in need of a starter, might consider Vincente Padilla.  [FoxSports]

I haven’t found the article – admitting that I haven’t searched too much – but I read in the Chicago Tribune that Carlos Zambrano admitted that his back problems start with poor conditioning…  So, while he’s on the DL, Big Z is battling the bulge, too.  Meanwhile, another Carlos Cubbie – Carlos Marmol, finally gets a shot at the closer role – despite his on/off season.  I checked this out yesterday – Kevin Gregg was AWESOME in the month of July, only to fall flat in August (for the second year in a row, by the way).  [FoxSports]

Another pitcher with a bad back isn’t ready to return, and that’s Boston’s Tim Wakefield.  Look for him to rehab for at least two or three more starts.  [ESPN]

Stephen Strasburg isn’t going to be ready to pitch for at least a month, so don’t look for him to pitch in Washington in 2009 – and he’ll likely spend a year in the minors after that.  Word on the street is that the Nationals will not unnecessarily race him to the majors, despite his major league paycheck.  [ESPN]

Fun stuff?  Check out Rob Neyer’s blog on ESPN…

Welcome  Back!  Tampa’s Chad Bradford returns from the DL (officially), costing Reid Brignac a roster spot.  KC’s Kyle Farnsworth returns from his DL stint.

Hurry Back!  Houston’s Mike Hampton heads to the DL with a shoulder strain.  Met Alex Cora heads to the DL with sprains in BOTH thumbs.  Wow.  White Sox Hero Dewayne Wise has a strained right shoulder and gets some time off.

Weekend Update: Aaron Boone’s Got Heart – an Amazing Comeback!

In what would be the greatest comeback that I can think of in recent history, Aaron Boone is getting ready to make a run at returning to the Astros.  Boone’s career and life was put on hold to have open heart surgery to repair a defective valve in March.  He’ll play for two weeks in AA Corpus Christi, spend some time at AAA Round Rock, and hopefully return to the Astros by the end of the year.  God Speed, Mr. Boone.  [MLB]

Cubs starter Carlos Zambrano’s back is bad enough to require a DL stint.  He left his start about a week ago after three innings, and didn’t make a run at his last start.  [FoxSports]

Aaron Cook missed his start with a jammed toe, out of fear that it will mess with his mechanics.

There really isn’t a trading deadline – is there?  David Weathers snuck through waivers and was sent from Cincinnati to Milwaukee for a PTNL.  Weathers is just a season away from 1000 lifetime games.  For those of us who saw him in Florida a long time ago, this seems amazing.  For those of us in Florida wondering if we can get an extra arm in the bullpen, this is disappointing that Milwaukee can do this but Florida cannot. [ESPN]

Stop me if you heard this before…  Houston’s Mike Hampton had to leave his start Saturday with a knee injury and is considered day-to-day (start to start?). [MLB]

 Cleveland’s Jake Westbrook can’t recover from his elbow injury because even his rehab starts get halted due to elbow pain.  A visit to Dr. Yokum is forthcoming.  [MLB]

A rested Gil Meche is expected to start for Kansas City on Thursday…  Meche is a very, very good pitcher and the Royals need him.

Welcome Back!  Eric Stults returns to the Dodgers from Albuquerque.  Except for the occasional injury trip, he should have never left.  Ronald Belisario returns to the Dodgers from the DL.  Yorman Bazardo returns to the Astros from AAA.

Hurry Back!  Angel starter Joe Saunders heads to the DL with shoulder soreness.  Boston SS Jed Lowrie has ulnar neuritis in his balky left wrist and heads to the DL.

Bye – and stay out!  Luis Ayala was sent to AAA by the Marlins.  I didn’t like that they signed him.  Good riddance.

Pirates Sell Clemente Statue, Outfielders to Washington for Two Players and a Soldier on Horseback Monument to be Named Later (and other news…)

The Pittsburgh Pirates made a second deal including an outfielder today, sending Nyjer Morgan and Sean Burnett to the Washington Nationals for outfielder Lastings Milledge and reliever Joel Hanrahan. [MLB]

The Nationals get a reasonably good defensive centerfielder with some offensive skills and a middle reliever who has been successful in a not-too demanding role.  Meanwhile the Pirates get an outfielder who just doesn’t seem to be living up to the promise (or at least the hopes of promise) attached to him while in the Mets farm system three years ago.  And, they get a failed closer who throws hard, but has a flat fastball.

If you want to know what the Nationals think of Milledge, listen to the comment from Acting GM Mike Rizzo: “We have a great character guy in Morgan.  We have our centerfielder.”

Morgan has essentially a full season of games in his career (157), and has hit .286 with little power, but he draws walks and has some speed (34 steals, but 18 caught stealing).  He’s not a bad fourth outfielder and isn’t even a horrible lead off option if he can just add about 10 points to his batting average and be even more selective at the plate.

Milledge is three years younger than Morgan, so there’s room to grow, but it doesn’t look like he’s grown much since he took AA by storm, hitting .337 at Binghamton.

As for Hanrahan, he was a surprise success for Washington in 2008, with a lot of strikeouts (93 in 84.1 innings) and nine saves when he took over the closer job down the stretch.  However, this year, he sports a 7.71 ERA and has given up 50 hits in 32.2 innings.  Hopefully the change of scenery (getting away from all that losing and going to the Pirates?) will help him find what made him successful last season.

I’m not convinced that the Pirates management has any idea what it’s doing.  It left it’s best prospect in AAA at the start of the season, gave away Nate McLouth for scratch, and now unloaded a productive corner outfielder for two distant prospects at best.  Now this.  How does adding two underperforming guys help Pittsburgh?

On to Other News…

Yesterday’s post included a report about Mike Lowell receiving treatment for his infected and troublesome hip.  Today, the Red Sox placed Lowell on the 15-Day DL.  Returning to the roster is Jeff Bailey, a very good first baseman and hitter, which means Kevin Youkilis will be playing more third base in the near future. [ESPN]

FoxSports reporter Ken Rosenthal reports that the Diamondbacks turned down the Angel’s trade offer for Dan Haren. [FoxSports]

Grady Sizemore’s left elbow may require surgery in the offseason to address the synovitis that causes an inflammation of the joint lining.  As Sizemore has already lost three weeks to the season, the goal is to keep him healthy enough not to miss many more games down the stretch. [SI]

ESPN’s rumor mill includes a note about Brandon Webb likely facing surgery to repair a torn labrum – per a report coming from the Arizona Republic. [ESPN]

Texas Centerfielder Josh Hamilton feels great in his rehab assignment and hopes to join the parent club this weekend.  Even if he returns, Hamilton will not participate in the All-Star Game’s Home Run Derby. [ESPN]

Cardinal Centerfielder Colby Rasmus has missed a few games suffering from a hiatal hernia.  The slumping rookie decided to check out stomach pains and, other than late night feedings contributing to some of the problem, the hernia was discovered.  He hopes to play this week. [SI]

With the Phillies losing Antonio Bastardo to the DL with a strained shoulder, Sergio Escalona gets the call from AAA Lehigh Valley.  Escalona has been with the club on and off this season with moderate success.  He had a solid 2008 in A and AA, turning out strikeouts but still walking a few guys.  He must have a live arm because the Phillies have constantly tried to move the guy up the ladder without having sustained success for long periods of time.  Not that he’s been horrible – it’s just hard to get a reading on a guy when he only pitches in a few games before he moves on.  Anyway – he might get a baseball card, and if he does, you won’t get much money on Ebay for it. [FoxSports]

Welcome Back!

Chad Tracy returns to Arizona after missing a month with a strained oblique.  [SI]

Former Notre Dame Wide Receiver Jeff Samardzija returns to the Cubs, replacing Jose Ascanio who was sent to AAA Iowa.  Though Samardzija was a starter at Iowa, he’ll likely spend more time in the Cubs bullpen. [MLB]

He won’t be back soon, but injured Reds starter Edinson Volquez was cleared to begin throwing.  According to reports, he’ll literally be starting from scratch. [MLB]

I see the Astros brought Mike Hampton off the DL today.  He’ll be back soon…

With Adrian Beltre heading to the DL for shoulder surgery, former Braves farmhand Ryan Langerhans gets a trip to the Mariners.

Let’s Ignore Sosa and Focus on Today; Bud Selig Would Be Proud

You can dig through the stories coming out in the wake of the New York Times reporting that Sammy Sosa failed a test for performance enhancing drugs six years ago.  Congress wants to investigate – ooooohhh…  Can’ t we resolve the Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens stories first?  Jose Canseco wants to sue MLB for being ostracized for his contributions to the term “better living through chemistry” – he’s just looking for publicity.  I think he’s taught enough people a few too many things, don’t you? 

Let’s focus on today.

Toronto placed 20% of its pitching staff on the DL – Roy Halliday (groin strain), closer Scott Downs (toe strain), and starter Casey Janssen (shoulder pain) all get 15 days.  Brad Mills has already joined the team, and Toronto will announce other roster moves on Thursday.  Mills is a top prospect, a left-hander with a big strikeout pitch and a great minor league record (15 – 5, sub 2.00 ERA) since being selected in the fourth round of the 2007 draft.  One look at his minor league numbers and you think that this guy is ready.

Toronto was as good as Tampa Bay last year (seriously!) – they just didn’t get the breaks that the Rays got and with that slow start couldn’t run down three teams in the AL East.  This year, I had them finishing slightly above .500, but if they keep losing pitchers at this rate, I don’t know how they’ll get to 81.  Halliday could be back soon, and you don’t want Downs to mess with his delivery over a toe injury – still Janssen’s injury (coming off of surgery) is a concern.  This is a tough stretch and a bad ten days will finish the Blue Jays as contenders.

Toronto isn’t alone.  Seattle placed Erik Bedard on the 15-day DL with shoulder inflammation.  Bedard hasn’t pitched in more than a week and likely needs ten more days of rest and rehab.  Like Toronto, Seattle was a front-runner in April but is fading from the race, and the loss of Bedard for longer than a month would end their chances of winning the division.

Pedro Martinez is looking for a team – and so far the Cubs and Rays have shown the most interest.  I don’t get either team’s interest – wouldn’t Texas or the Marlins be a better fit?  The Cubs have decent pitching and can’t get any offense going.  The Rays could use another arm, but I’m not sure they need another old arm.  Their luck with veterans this year has been problematic (both Percival and Isringhausen are considering retirements on the DL).

One other pitcher heads to the DL, but stop me if you heard this before…  Astro Mike Hampton heads to the DL with a strained groin – I hope it’s his own groin.  It’s the 12th DL stint of his career.

One trade to note…  The Padres acquired former Nationals prospect Mike O’Connor for a player to be named later..  O’Connor has had success in the minors but it hasn’t translated to success in the big leagues yet.  Maybe a change of scenery will help out.  If nothing else, that roster spot could go to a new draft selection (would Stephen Strasburg sign THAT quickly?).

Joey Votto gets a rehab assignment for Cincinnati.  Votto lost the last three weeks to dizziness caused by an inner ear infection and other stress related issues.  Hurry back!!!

2009 Season Forecast: Atlanta Braves

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

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

Looking Back on 2008

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

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

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

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

Tell me about that offense

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

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

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

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

Defensively:

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

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

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

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

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

Now Pitching…

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

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

Forecasting 2009:

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

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

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

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

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

Down on the Farm…

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

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

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