2011 Season Forecast: Tampa Rays

Last Five Seasons:

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

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

2010 Recap:

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

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

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

Starters:

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

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

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

Bullpen:

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

Catching:

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

Infield:

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

Outfield:

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

DH:

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

Down on the Farm:

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

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

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

Forecasting 2011:

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

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

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2011 Season Forecast: New York Yankees

Last Five Seasons:
2010:  95 – 67
2009: 103 – 59 (World Series Champs)
2008:  89 – 73
2007:  94 – 68
2006:  97 – 65

Runs Scored: 859 (Tops in the AL)
Runs Allowed: 693 (5th in the AL)

Based on this, the Yankees could have won the division with 98 wins…

2010 Recap:

Picked by many to repeat as AL East and World Series champs, the Yankees just missed by a game of winning the east, and had their starting rotation held up (or had they acquired Cliff Lee) they might have won the series, too.

The Yankees got off to a hot start, taking 15 of 22 in April, and having winning records every month until September, when they went 12 – 15 and were run down from behind by the Rays.  To be honest, they peaked after a long winning streak at 86 – 50, but actually collapsed to the finish line.  Had they missed the playoffs, it might have been given the same treatment as a Mets September, but for some reason, the Yankees were given a pass for going 9 – 17 down the stretch.

If I were them, I’d be nervous.

During the season, in addition to the run of the mill waiver claims and what not, the Yankees acquired Austin Kearns for spare parts from Cleveland, later picked up Kerry Wood at the trade deadline for two more minor leaguers, and gave up two decent prospects (Mark Melancon and Jimmy Paredes) to the Astros to pick up Lance Berkman.  Wood played pretty well, Kearns was just a backup, and Lance Berkman acted like he wanted to be somewhere else.

Starters:

The Yankees rotation is led by the remarkable C.C. Sabathia, who provided yet another season as a Cy Young candidate.  Philip Hughes took a big step forward by winning 18 decisions in 29 starts, but as a pitcher was just mildly better than the average starter.  Andy Pettitte heads to retirement following a remarkably good 21 starts, winning 11 of 14 decisions.  However, the #2 starter, A.J. Burnett went 10 – 15 with a 5.26 ERA – 25 runs worse than the average starter over 186.2 innings.  And Javier Vazquez was equally poor, despite the 10 – 10 record, with his 5.32 ERA.  Vazquez suffered as a flyball pitcher in Yankee Stadium, giving up a homer every fifth inning he pitched.  Dustin Moseley and Ivan Nova were tolerable when given chances to start – in fact Nova may earn a rotation spot in 2011.

However, the pitching is thin for 2011 in general.  The Yankees twice failed to get Cliff Lee to town (maybe the fans in Yankee Stadium should have been nicer to Lee’s wife).  Vazquez is now a Florida Marlin, Andy Pettitte has retired to Texas, and even Kerry Wood returned home (he’s pitching for the Cubs).  Sabathia returns, as does Burnett (he HAS to be better than last year), and Hughes will get 32 starts to see if he’s still got the magic.  That leaves Ivan Nova, Sergio Mitre, and former rotation stalwarts Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia – who are years removed from their better days.  I’m not a huge Garcia fan anymore, but he actually was tolerable as a fifth starter for the White Sox last year.  On the other hand, he won 12 games in his 28 starts despite a 4.64 ERA, served up a lot of homers, and only struck out 89 in 157 innings.  Vazquez came with much better credentials and stunk up the joint.  Ivan Nova or Sergio Mitre will have to step forward – and Mitre has enough innings under his belt to suggest he’s not the answer.  So that means Nova is likely to get a shot at being the #5 guy.

Bullpen:

Mariano Rivera continues to amaze as nears AARP status – a 1.80 ERA, 33 saves, and just 55 base runners in 60 innings.  Joba Chamberlain didn’t completely own the 7th or 8th inning, but there are still things to like, including a great K/9 rate and improved control.  Boone Logan and Damaso Marte served as solid one-out lefties, and David Robertson was decent in 61.1 innings.  Kerry Wood was impressive in his two months.

Looking ahead, Rivera returns for another go, but Rafael Soriano was imported from Tampa to provide an 8th inning ace and potential replacement closer.  The rest of the pen contains the familiar faces of Robertson, Logan, and Chamberlain, as well as newly added Pedro Feliciano.  Hopefully, these guys are ready for a step up in workload.

Catching:

Jorge Posada and Francisco Cervelli provided decent enough catching, even if teams ran rampant on Posada when he caught.  Posada can still hit some, so he will be moved to the DH role, which means that Cervelli will cede a few innings to Russell Martin.  Cervelli is a decent backup – no power, some defense, a fair batting average.  Four years ago, Martin was a solid defensive catcher and run producer, that is until Joe Torre ran him into the ground.

Infield:

The Yankees have an interesting mix of current and aging superstars. At third, you have the declining Alex Rodriguez, who is getting more comfortable at third base as his batting statistics fall off from his MVP level (and steroid supported) play.  At short is the captain, Derek Jeter.  When he hits .320, Jeter is the most productive shortstop in the AL despite his defensive flaws (range, really, is his only flaw and it’s really getting problematic – so stop giving him the gold glove when he hasn’t ever deserved one).  Last year, he hit .270 and the team let him know, through an ugly contract negotiation, that they noticed his decline was both offensive and defensive.  At second, you have the remarkably talented Robinson Cano, who is as good a fielder as can be found in the AL and light years ahead of any second sacker when batting, too.  At first, you have Mark Teixeira, who struggled to get out April, but still managed 33 homers, 108 RBI, and got on base at a .368 clip.  That’s a solid off season.  Backing them up is Ramiro Pena, who has little power but some defensive skills – much like Eduardo Nunez, who is the sixth infielder.

I’d like to think that Jeter can bounce back for one more .300 season.  If he does, that bodes well for his chances at 3500 hits and the Yankees continuing to make playoff runs.  Realistically, that’s not going to happen.  Same with Alex Rodriguez, who is barely making 30 homers per year, misses a month of games each year now, and also hit .270 instead of .310.  Playing in Yankee Stadium is also masking some of their decline; if Jeter had hit .255 with 7 homers, would anyone give him a chance of a comeback?  Cano should be able to duplicate his 2010 season, but last year was a significant step forward to superstardom.  And Teixeira will not have another April like last year.  The issue is that all four are generally durable (even A-Rod, with his hip, has never missed 60 games in a season) and now, with all but Cano at least two years into their 30s, the chances of someone missing a significant amount of time is going up.  I can’t help but think that this is the year – and neither Pena nor Nunez can hit enough to make up for that kind of loss.

Outfield:

The trio of Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson, and Nick Swisher return after all three provided solid production in 2010.  Of the three, Gardner has the greatest chance to produce more in 2011.  He could be moved up in the lineup (he should be the leadoff hitter), which would give him more opportunities.  Until then, he’s the best centerfielder playing left field on the team, and he’s the best #9 hitter in baseball.  Granderson found his power stroke near the end of the year, but he’s only marginally better than average because he doesn’t quite hit .250 anymore.  Swisher is coming off a career year in batting and slugging and remains a surprisingly good defensive outfielder.  Austin Kearns and Randy Winn are gone (thankfully), but they have imported aging slugger Andruw Jones to help out here and be the right handed counterpart at DH.  Greg Golson may be the best defensive option as the alliterative fourth outfielder; Golson or Colin Curtis.

DH:

Last year, Marcus Thames was the surprise hit of the team, launching 12 homers in 212 at bats, batting .288, and generating more runs per 27 outs than even Teixeira.  In 2011, look for Jorge Posada, Andruw Jones, and one or more of the others (Rodriguez, Swisher, Granderson, or even Jeter to pick up a few at bats here.

Down On the Farm:

It all starts with Jesus Montero, who is an expanded set of defensive skills away from being the next great Yankee catcher.  In AAA Scranton/Wilkes Barre, Montero hit for more power, was more selective, and – at 20 – is just about ready.  Eduardo Nunez got his first cup of coffee after tying Montero for the team lead in batting, stole 23 bases in 28 attempts, and played a steady shortstop.  At 24, he could step in and help out.  The top pitcher was Ivan Nova, who went 12 – 3 with a 2.86 ERA, showed good control, and was reasonably solid in his Yankee debut.  David Phelps moved up through two levels, going 6 – 0 in 14 starts at AA Trenton, then 4 – 2 in 11 starts at AAA – with great command and a sub 3.00 ERA.

Trenton featured first baseman Brandon Laird, a 23 year old who hit 23 – 90 – .291.  Hector Noesi went 8 – 4 with a 1.09 WHIP and an 86/18 K/BB rate.  Another pitcher making a step up was Adam Warren, who whipped through three levels since his 2009 draft (4th round), and has been impressive with his command and control at all three levels.

Corbin Joseph was a 4th round pick out of Franklin, TN in 2008 and hit .302 in A+ Tampa.  He’s a slight second baseman who seems to be developing a little power as he ages.  Another young prospect is Jose Pirela, a Venezuelan burner who plays shortstop and hit 13 triples for Tampa.  He may be fighting Joseph for a shot at the second base job in three years.  Among the top arms were Pat Venditte (4 – 1, 1.73, 85/14 in 72.2 innings), Dellen Betances – a Brooklyn native who clobbered Tampa opponents (8 – 1, 1.77, 88/19 in 81 innings), and Mexican teen sensation Manny Banuelos, who had 79Ks in 59.2 innings and seems to be ready for a full trip in AA Trenton.

Forecasting 2011:

It’s hard to pick against the Yankees because (a) the outfielders are all in their prime, as is Teixeira, and (b) the veterans they have are all still very productive.

On the other hand, this might be the year things fall off.  The Yankees won’t be getting MORE production in center or right fields.  They won’t be getting MORE production from second base, shortstop, or third base.  They won’t be getting MORE production behind the plate.  The only spots where improvement might be seen is left field – but that would be at the expense of another position.  I think the offense will still be good – but not 859 runs of good.  More like 780 runs – a top five offense rather than a #1 offense.

Then you have the defense, which could slip a little at four or five positions.  I’d swap Granderson and Gardner, which would help, but you never know if the Yankees would do that since Granderson is only 30.  You’d ALMOST want to switch A-ROD and Jeter – but I’m not certain that after the hip surgeries A-ROD can cover short anymore.  In fact, nobody in New York can cover short – which makes a lot of the pitchers look worse than they have to.  At least Jeter is still solid at turning two.

That brings us to the pitchers.  If Sabathia, who came to spring training in WAY better shape than he had been, were to miss any chunk of time, this team could fall off the map.  Hughes is good, but not great, Burnett isn’t dependable and is one slump away from being sent to the Pirates or something.  Your fourth and fifth starters are rookies or retreads.  I think the Yankees will allow a few more runs than in 2010 – maybe 40 more.  That puts the team around 780 runs scored and just 725 allowed, which converts to 87 wins.  And wait until the Steinbrenner boys see THAT number…

2010 – Top AL Pitchers

Just as a recap, here’s what I am trying to do:

1) I start with the number of runs allowed by each pitcher, and the number of innings that guy pitched.

2) I modify the number of runs allowed to account for any bias based on the pitcher’s home park.

3) I modify the number of runs allowed based on my defensive rating system for teams and players because if you have Seattle’s team defense behind you, you are less likely to allow a run than if you had the Royals defense behind you.

Top 10 Starters:

Runs    Inn    Pitcher
34.1    173.2    Clay Buchholz (BOS)
29.7    249.2    Felix Hernandez (SEA)
26.5    208.0    Jon Lester (BOS)
26.2    237.2    C.C Sabathia (NYY)
25.8    200.2    Gio Gonzalez (OAK)

25.8    196.2    Trevor Cahill (OAK)
24.0    213.0    John Danks (CHI)
23.5    130.2    Brian Dunsing (MIN)
22.5    224.1    Jered Weaver (LAA)
19.4    191.2    Francisco Liriano (MIN)

I was surprised that Buchholz saved more runs, but he also had a remarkable ERA pitching in Fenway.  Like #3 Jon Lester.  Brian Duensing made 13 starts when Minnesota needed them, and his overall contributions were also impressive.  Not sure if he has a 200 inning season in him, but at this rate, he would have led the league in runs saved.  Among the returners from last year, Fernandez, Lester, and Sabathia…

Top 10 Relievers:

Runs    Inn    Pitcher
20.4    65.2    Joakim Soria (KC)
20.0    74.1    Daniel Bard (BOS)
17.6    60.1    Joaquin Benoit (TEX)
16.7    63.0    Chris Perez (CLE)
16.4    49.0    Andrew Bailey (OAK)

15.8    60.0    Mariano Rivera (NYY)
15.7    62.0    Darren O’Day (TEX)
14.6    41.2    Alexi Ogando (TEX)
14.3    60.2    Matt Thornton (CWS)
13.7    62.1    Rafael Soriano (TB)

Three Rangers in the top ten – which helps explain how they controlled the division if the offense could just get a lead through five or six innings.  This is the second year I have made the list – and Bailey, Rivera, O’Day, and Thornton all returned to the list.

Bottom 10 Pitchers:

Runs    Inn    Pitcher
-56.5     203.1    James Shields (TB)
-56.3     109.1    Ryan Rowland-Smith (SEA)
-35.8     150.0    Scott Kazmir (LAA)
-32.0    171.0    Jeremy Bonderman (DET)
-28.5    141.1    Scott Feldman (TEX)

-24.9    186.2    A.J. Burnett (NYY)
-23.1    161.0    Brian Bannister (KC)
-20.9    127.2    Josh Beckett (BOS)
-19.7     79.2    David Huff (CLE)
-19.4    161.0    Nick Blackburn (MIN)

Shields cleared 50 because he pitched 200 innings, had a solid defense behind him, and kept serving up homers.  The Rays stuck with him all season and will be giving him another shot in 2011.  I don’t think he’ll be this bad…  The worst pitcher, though, was Rowland-Smith.  He pitched just 109 innings, so essentially he gave up a run more than the average pitcher every other inning.  Ouch.

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: Tampa Rays

Last Five Seasons:

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

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

Season Recap:

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

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

Pitching:

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

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

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

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

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

Catching:

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

Infield:

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

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

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

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

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

Outfield:

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

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

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

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

Prospects:

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

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

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

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

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

Outlook:

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

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

NL’s Best and Worst Pitchers in 2009 – Hot Stove News…

Quick news hits first before we take a quick look back at pitchers in 2009…

Tim Lincecum asked for $13 million when filing for arbitration – if he wins, it would be the highest amount paid to an arbitration eligible pitcher.  Of course, Lincecum is a bit of a party animal off the field, but between the lines he’s one of the five best pitchers in the National League.  He’s certainly one of the most valuable commodities – a pretty durable arm (so far) who gets a lot of batters out and wins games.  [ESPN/SI]

There’s a rather long list of players and teams avoiding arbitration or signing deals – you can get the list on SI or MLB – but the ones that caught my attention were (a) Jonathon Papelbon getting $9.35 million from Boston – about two million more than the going rate and (b) Bengie Molina likely returning to the Giants.  The Mets pursued Molina but apparently not hard enough, and are now stuck with playing backup catchers every day for another year (unless you consider Omir Santos a budding starter).  [FoxSports/ESPN]

FUN WITH DATA!

Having purchased my copy of the Lahman database, which is invaluable for doing quick queries so that I can plug data into my spreadsheets very easily, I can finally start doing the type of statistical analysis that I like…  I’ve already assembled the NL data and will be doing the AL data later this week.  And, after having knocked out the NL sheets, we get to have some fun with the lists it generates.  Today, we’ll start with the pitchers.

Top NL Starting Pitchers

The first rating system I have looks at how many runs a pitcher cost or saved his team over the course of the year above or below what the average pitcher allowed.  ERA is a pretty simple way to note this, mind you.  Someone with an ERA of 2.00 is two runs per nine innings better than someone with an ERA of 4.00.  However, it’s easier to have a low ERA when you pitch in San Diego, so I modify the runs allowed (not earned runs, but runs allowed) by removing the park effect.  Then, I also try to isolate the advantage a pitcher has in being on a team with a good defense vs. one with a bad defense.  For example, a pitcher on the Giants gets help from having a very solid defense – Randy Winn and Fred Lewis in the outfield are plus defenders at their position, the infielders were rather good as well.  Meanwhile, the Cardinals staff had behind them an injured Rick Ankiel or Chris Duncan or Ryan Ludwick in the outfield not catching as many flies as most teams and were playing an injured (and less mobile) Mark DeRosa at third and, perhaps more importantly, an outfielder at second base all year in Skip Schumaker.  Once I figure out how many runs the seven guys in the field affected the team’s ability to prevent runs, you can make a second modification to a pitcher’s runs allowed numbers and compare it with the league average.

The league average pitcher allowed about 4.53 runs per nine innings.  The total number of runs saved is not just dependent on runs allowed per nine, but the number of innings pitched.  The best pitchers in saving runs will usually be starters.  Sometimes, a reliever can sneak in there, but not very often.  Let’s get to the list.

Best Starters:

In terms of runs saved, the best starting pitchers in the National League were…

48.57 – Chris Carpenter (STL)
43.19 – Adam Wainwright (STL)
40.25 – Danny Haren (ARZ)
38.80 – Tim Lincecum (SF)
38.30 – Ubaldo Jimenez (COL)
38.16 – Jair Jurrjens (ATL)
36.39 – Javier Vasquez (ATL)
33.68 – Josh Johnson (FLA)
30.62 – Matt Cain (SF)
28.51 – Wandy Rodriguez (HOU)
28.09 – J.A. Happ (PHI)
26.14 – Ted Lilly (CHC)
23.33 – Jason Marquis (COL)
22.81 – Tommy Hanson (ATL)
21.32 – Clayton Kershaw (LA)

No other starters saved at least 20 runs more than an average pitcher would have allowed given the number of innings pitched by that player.  The top two guys were Cardinals – two pitchers who were wonderful despite having several players not necessarily having good years with the glove.  Those pitchers DO benefit from having the best catching in baseball (Yadier Molina) – but Carpenter’s 48+ runs saved over the average pitcher might be the largest number I have seen in the five years I have done this.  Based on this criteria, Carpenter deserved his Cy Young consideration.  Among the surprises on this list was Clayton Kershaw who couldn’t get any support from his team but really did pitch very, very well and I think could be a sleeper ace for 2010.  And, seeing how well Jason Marquis pitched for the first four months of the season, one assumes that Colorado will miss that kind of production.

Top Relievers:

18.13 – Kiko Calero (FLA)
17.86 – Ryan Franklin (STL)
16.29 – LaTroy Hawkins (HOU)
16.23 – Jeremy Affeldt (SF)
15.49 – Trevor Hoffman (MIL)
13.89 – Nick Massett (CIN)
13.42 – Rafael Soriano (ATL)
12.98 – Huston Street (COL)
12.57 – Jose Valverde (HOU)
12.36 – Todd Coffey (MIL)
12.15 – Tyler Clippard (WAS)

As has been the case for many years, the top relievers are frequently NOT closers but middle relievers who have really good seasons in less demanding roles.  Kiko Calero, who has never had a season anywhere NEAR what he did in 2009 is the surprise winner here.  That being said, the top closer was Ryan Franklin, followed closely by Trevor Hoffman.  More than any other list, this group will change a lot from year to year.  Any number close to 10 is a great year for a reliever.

Worst NL Pitchers…

-44.28 – Manny Parra (MIL)
-33.36 – Josh Geer (SD)
-32.70 – Braden Looper (MIL)
-31.70 – David Bush (MIL)
-31.25 – Jeff Suppan (MIL)
-27.36 – Chad Gaudin (SD)
-25.35 – Todd Wellemeyer (STL)
-22.83 – Micah Owings (CIN)
-21.95 – Felipe Paulino (HOU)
-21.90 – Brad Lidge (PHI)
-20.53 – Brian Moehler (HOU)
-20.20 – Walter Silva (SD)

-21.31 – Kevin Hart (PIT) – but positive 6.30 in CHC

These are the starters for teams who felt like they had no other option than to give 150 innings to someone with a 5+ ERA.  Or, in the case of Brad Lidge, a manager who kept feeding his closer the ball despite the fact that he was getting hammered all too often.  Rarely does a reliever make this list.

One thing that is immediately noticeable is the fact that four of the five worst pitchers in terms of their relation to the average pitcher were Brewers.  Look – they aren’t the worst pitchers.  There were guys with 8+ ERAs who got just 20 innings and were sent packing to AAA, too.  Or were hurt or something.  But the Brewers were hanging in there with four guys who are no better than long relievers.  Three of them had seen better days (Looper, Suppan, Bush), but wow.  One sees immediately where the Brewers should spend their money.  Go find three guys who can pitch.  If that means giving Ben Sheets a deal, do it.  Finding three guys who can give you a 4.20 ERA in 180 innings would move the Brewers up 10 games in the standings.  Is it that hard to find three of those guys?  I can’t wait to do my team overview for the Brewers…

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).