2013 Season Forecast – Boston Red Sox

Already out the gate with the best record in baseball for the month of April, let’s see if the start can hold water for an entire season.

Last Five Years:
2012:  69 – 93 (5th, AL East)
2011:  90 – 72 (3rd, Crashed AL East)
2010:  89 – 73 (3rd, AL East)
2009:  95 – 67 (2nd, AL East)
2008:  95 – 67 (2nd, AL East)

In general, the trend is working in the wrong direction, but if Bob McGrath were singing “Which One of These Things is Not Like the Other…”, we’d single out the Bobby Valentine era as the odd ball.  The Sox have averaged about 88 wins a season.  Without checking any of the rest of it, to guess that the Sox could bounce back to 75 – 80 wins wouldn’t have been an improbable prediction.

Runs Scored:  734 (5th in the AL)
Runs Allowed:  806 (13th in the AL – ouch)

Runs in Fenway Park: 842, tops in the AL
Runs on the road: 698, 9th in the AL

So, for 2012, Fenway – always a good hitter’s park, was even more so last season.

Season Recap:

Mixed previews….  Some people thought the Sox would remain competitive, having spent a lot of money to bring in veteran talent.  Many thought the hiring of Bobby Valentine might be an odd way to mix things up following the firing of Terry Francona.  I’ll say…

The team got off to a bland start, but a nice streak of six wins got the team back to .500 as the month of April ended.  Losing nine of ten, the Sox fell out of the race as Bobby Valentine was losing his clubhouse as fast as you can say “Kevin Youkilis wasn’t mentally ready to play.”  To the Sox credit, they battled back to 21 – 21 and a second hot streak got the Sox to 42 – 37 right as July began.

At that point, the Sox fell out of contention. They sputtered through August, first slowly, and then – starting on about 8/19 – they fell off the map.  The Sox would give up ten or more runs in a game every week or more – seven times in the last 38 games.  As August ended, the Sox traded away a bunch of people who were seen as under-producing (Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford) and turned it over to the next wave of Sox players.  The Astros played better in September.  The Sox won just 27 of their last 83 games; and went 10 – 31 in the last 41 games.

Transactions:

Some minor moves before the season – resigning Cody Ross and David Ortiz, and trading Marco Scutaro to Colorado for Clayton Mortensen.  I can’t prove it, but maybe the season went south when they signed pitcher Billy Buckner on 2/29.

Actually, the were proving an interest in Chicago.  The traded Michael Bowden to the Cubs for Marlon Byrd.  Ouch – he was released in June.  The signed Mark Prior to a minor league deal.  The picked up former ChiSox outfielder Scott Podsednik when outfielders were hard to find in May.  Kevin Youkilis was moved to the White Sox in June for Brent Lillibridge and Zach Stewart.  I don’t see that working out…  They even sold Justin Germano (to the Cubs) and released Bobby Jenks (former Sox closer) – and in a related moved, signed Andy LaRoche, whose dad was a pitcher for the Cubs…  Look – the Cubs stink, and while the White Sox were pretty good, cast offs aren’t going to help…

Here’s a move I don’t understand.  They traded away Podsednik to Arizona, then signed him when Arizona released Podsednik.

I mentioned the big sell off – the Sox traded Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Nick Punto, and CASH to the Dodgers for James Loney, Ivan DeJesus, Allen Webster, and two guys who arrived in October – Rubby De La Rosa and Jerry Sands.

Starting Pitching:

Jon Lester had an off season, falling from ace to league average pitcher.  Clay Buchholz fell from surprise ace to league average.  Josh Beckett fell from famous pitcher who sometimes looks dominating to a shade below league average (and with a 5 – 11 record, looks worse than he really was).  Daisuke Matsuzaka went 1 – 7 with an ERA north of 8.00, Daniel Bard proved he was a reliever in 10 starts, Aaron Cook was given 18 starts to prove he was done (5.65 ERA).  Felix Doubront looked tolerable in 29 starts – I think he can build on that.

Going forward, the Red Sox could make immediate gains if Lester and Buchholz just got back half of what they lost in 2012 – that’s 30 saved runs.  Getting a fourth starter that could be CLOSE to league average to replace Dice-K and Cook could save 30 runs.  Replacing Josh Beckett with Ryan Dempster looks to be a wash – Dempster was awesome in Chicago, but rocked in Texas.  Boston just feels more like his kind of place – I think he can be at least league average in 30 starts, which is still better than 21 Josh Beckett starts and 10 bad Daniel Bard starts…  If Doubront doesn’t fall back and if John Lackey ever gets healthy, who knows.  I like the rotation to be 50 – 60 runs better than last year.

Bullpen:

Losing Andrew Bailey, who was brutal, and having to use Alfredo Aceves as a closer was bad.  I know Aceves got 25 saves, but the two combined to cost the Sox six unnecessary runs.  The rest of the pen was a nice patch work of guys like Junichi Tazawa, Andrew Miller, Rich Hill, Clayton Mortensen, Vincente Padilla, and Matt Albers.  Sure, they had a few sore thumbs (I’m looking at you, Mark Melancon and Zach Stewart), but every bullpen has one or two.

This year, the Sox signed Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan, have Andrew Bailey back, and added Koji Uehara to Tunizawa, Miller, and Mortensen.  This could be a bullpen that is ten runs better than last year.

Catching:

I’m thinking that the Sox missed their captain, the retired Jason Varitek.  Boston gave the job to Jarrod Saltalamacchia, with Kelly Shoppach (now gone) and Ryan Lavarnway as backups.  People could run on both Salty and Lavarnway (108 stolen, 21 caught), and as a unit, the team was below average in winning percentage, team ERA, and tended to be error prone.  The only category in which Boston catchers were above average was mobility (assists not tied to caught stealing), and that’s not saying a whole lot.

Shoppach was their best defensive catcher, had the best batting rates (5 runs per 27 outs, the only above average offensive player) – so he’s gone.  I know – Saltalamacchia hit 25 homers, but he batted .222 with a sub .300 OBP.  He hit like Jason Varitek did at the end, but with no defensive positives.  Salty is back, but the Sox did bring in David Ross from Atlanta, who is a fine catcher and should get at least 500 innings of work.

Infield:

Adrian Gonzalez was underperforming, maybe, but he was still hitting .300 with 37 doubles and 86 RBI with a month to go.  And, he was saving them 35 runs with his glove in five months – gold glove play.  James Loney can’t hope to replace that – so the Sox let him leave and signed Mike Napoli to play there.  Napoli is an underrated catcher – I’d let him do that from time to time and try to find a better hitter (Daniel Nava?) to play first.  Dustin Pedroia was productive but his range is falling quickly.  Never GREAT before, he cost the team more than 15 runs because he makes nearly nine fewer plays per 870 balls in play than the average second sacker.  Mike Aviles was a below average hitter – first time in a full season he did that – but ordinary at short.   The Sox will try Stephen Drew there in 2013 – and I think he’s going to be a weak fielder and I fear he may not be that great a hitter anymore.  He has the tools to be, but it’s been a while.  If he hits his 150 game norms, he’s not going to be appreciably better than Mike Aviles overall.  A few more runs on the board for both teams…  The one place Boston may improve is at third, where Will Middlebrooks will get full time duty.  Youkilis struggled last season, so if Middlebrooks can match his half season stats across a full season, that will help.  He is NOT in Youkilis’s league as a fielder, but Youk was fading there last year.

As a whole, this group will likely be 50 runs worse defensively, but break even offensively.

Outfield:

A team that had so many injuries, nine guys played in left, eleven guys played in center, and eleven more played in right.  With Crawford gone, the Sox may try Jackie Bradley (he already got sent back) in left, or Daniel Nava.  They need a full (and productive) season from centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury – who is, at best, a league average fielder but CAN be a crazy good hitter.  Cody Ross is gone; Shane Victorino, who is as productive a hitter and a slightly better fielder will play right.  If Nava can step forward and get on base, or at least be a solid platoon with Jonny Gomes, and Ellsbury can get healthy, there is a chance for 40 – 50 extra runs on the board with little change in defensive value.

DH/Bench:

David Ortiz should be around for 25 more games than the 90 games he played last year, but at his age, he might decline some.  Nava can play all over, Victorino can spell Ellsbury if needed, and Pedro Ciriaco will be the utility infielder.  Not a bad bunch.

On the Farm!

At Pawtucket, the only prospect from 2012 may have been catcher Ryan Lavernway, who hit .295 and played with the big club.  He’s at least a good backup.  The best pitcher was probably Justin Germano, but he is 29 and now a Cub.  He’s no prospect.

2010 first round pick Bryce Brentz hit .296 at Portland (AA), showing power, and might make the big club this year.  Jackie Bradley didn’t look overmatched in his 61 games there – he was a 2011 first rounder.  Stolmy Pimentel didn’t look as strong as he had previously.  The reliever with promise may be Aaron Kurcz, who fanned 72 in 50 innings, but is wild.  2008 first round pick Joshua Fields is getting there – better control and 59 Ks in his 44 innings.  Unfortunately, he’s an Astro right now…

Look out for 3B Michael Almanzar, who hit .300 with power at A+ Salem.  He and SS Xander Bogaerts, who is just 20, will follow in the shoes of Jackie Bradley one day.  1B Travis Shaw had Adrian Gonzalez numbers there – but I don’t think that’s what he will be when he gets to the majors…  Keith Couch is looking close to being a prospect after going 11 – 9 with good control in 145.2 innings.  The better prospect might be Matt Barnes, the 2011 top pick, who strikes people out and is building a solid minor league resume very quickly.

Forecast:

Well, when I add up the offensive gains and the defensive gains (pitching) and losses (infield gloves), I see the Sox making strides toward .500.  I see them scoring about 65 more runs, and maybe saving five to ten runs over last year.  That puts them around 800 runs scored and allowed – or 81 wins.  I’m not convinced the hot start is going to stay for the year, but it will be a better season for Sox fans than 2012.

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2010 Season Forecast: Baltimore Orioles

Last Five Years:

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

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

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

Season Recap:

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

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

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

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

Pitching:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catching:

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

Infield:

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

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

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

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

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

Outfield:

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

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

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

Bench:

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

Prospects:

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

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

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

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

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

Forecasting 2010:

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

2010 Season Forecast: St. Louis Cardinals

Last Five Years:

2009:  91 – 71 (1st NL Central)
2008:  86 – 76
2007:  78 – 84
2006:  83 – 78
2005: 100 – 62

Runs Scored: 730
Runs Allowed: 640

Season Recap:

With two aces and the world’s greatest offensive force, the Cardinals held their own throughout the 2009 season.  And just when it looked like someone might catch them, the Cards added Matt Holliday, Mark DeRosa, and John Smoltz to bury the rest of the division.

The Cardinals got off to a hot start, winning 17 of the first 24 games.  However, like the Cubs, a couple of ill-timed losing streaks returned the team back to the pack and in fact St. Louis trailed Milwaukee for parts of June.  In fact, all three teams played indifferently for much of the summer until the front office got involved.

Adding Holliday to the offense and giving a few starts to someone other than Todd Wellemeyer helped get a winning stretch going.  From July 27th through the end of the year, the Cardinals played great – going 38 – 23 before losing in the playoffs.

Injuries claimed Ryan Ludwick and Rick Ankiel at times, and LaRussa had to work around a defense that wasn’t functional at many positions.  Skip Schumaker was an outfielder impersonating a second baseman – badly.  He was replaced by Julio Lugo near the end of the season, and the ball wasn’t hit close enough to him either – not that Lugo had been a regular second baseman recently.  Chris Duncan is a poor outfielder – replaced by Matt Holliday who actually played even worse.  Ryan Ludwick played at a below average pace in right and the ball wasn’t hit to his occasional replacements (Ankiel, Nick Stavinoha) either.

Despite this, the pitchers allowed the third fewest runs in the NL – which shows you how good Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter were.  And they were simply amazing.  Put this staff in front of the middle 80’s team that featured Ozzie and Willie McGee and company, and they might have allowed only 500 runs all year.

Starting Pitching:

Adam Wainwright pitched 233 innings, fanned 212, and had a 3:1 K/W ratio.  He saved his team some 43 runs over using a league average starter.  Chris Carpenter was even better.  Returning from elbow surgery, Carpenter nearly tossed 200 innings in just 28 starts, winning 17 and finishing with an ERA of just 2.24.  He saved his squad 48 runs.  The third starter, Joel Pineiro won 15 himself, hardly walking anyone and keeping batted balls on the ground all season.

With 51 wins in the top three spots, the Cardinals countered with Todd Wellemeyer and Kyle Lohse at the bottom of the rotation; two who were below average pitchers.  Wellemeyer was so bad, he cancelled out half an ace with his 5.89 ERA.

Three starters are back, starting with the aces and adding Kyle Lohse.  Pineiro is gone, replaced by Brad Penny – and my take on it that Penny should be close to as good as Pineiro was.  They have comparable strikeout rates, and if Penny keeps the ball over the plate, should fare well here.  Wellemeyer is also history, but it’s hard to tell who might get that fifth slot.  It could be Mitchell Boggs, who got nine starts and while his ERA was tolerable (4.19), he sure got lucky.  Boggs allowed 71 hits in 58 innings and walked 33 more.  Some time back, I suggested that you could figure how lucky a pitcher was by comparing his actual runs allowed data against his “reverse runs created” data.  Essentially, I was treating his pitching stats like I would an offensive player.  Given the combination of hits and walks that Boggs allowed, he would expect to have allowed 40 runs, not 28, and his ERA would have been about 6.05.

I digress.  The fifth starter could also be non-roster invitee Rich Hill, who is just the type of pitcher that seems to get his career healed by the coaching of Dave Duncan.  Look for Hill to make the roster and possibly make the rotation.

The bullpen returns virtually intact – Ryan Franklin was about the best closer in the National League, but he’s NOT a power guy and I don’t believe that he’s going to be as successful in 2010.  Trever Miller had a great season, but he only pitched 43.2 innings in his 70 games, which means that LaRussa spotted him well.  He and Dennys Reyes will be the designated lefties, while Kyle McClellan, Brad Thompson, and Jason Motte pick up the other innings.  Rookie Jess Todd might be a nice set up man for part of the season.

My view of this is that the pitching can’t possibly be this good next year.  Not that Wainwright and Carpenter won’t be good – they could be 25 runs better than the average pitchers, which is very good, but that would be 40 runs off from last year’s production.  Ryan Franklin could be good, but lose five runs from a peak season last year.  Not having to pitch Todd Wellemeyer will help some, however I’d be nervous about the current options.  I see the pitching being off by about 50 runs.

Catching:

Yadier Molina remains the best defensive catcher in baseball and seems to be adding some offensive tools.  His backup is Jason LaRue – who will get to catch four times a month.

Infield:

Albert Pujols is the best offensive player in the game, and the best defensive player at his position.  His quickness means that he plays farther off the bag than most people – which gives him a serious range advantage over just about anybody.

After a year of Skip Schumaker, who stays to provide depth, the Cardinals will be using Felipe Lopez at second base.  This is an immediate 20 run upgrade defensively, and if Lopez continues to hit, a match to the production Schumaker provided (80 runs created, and 5.7 runs per 27 outs – which is solid).

Brendan Ryan was a stopper defensively, but starts the season coming back from wrist surgery.  I’m not sure he’ll be able to replicate last year’s production defensively and it’s hard to come back and hit right away after a hand or wrist injury.  His backup will be Julio Lugo or Tyler Greene.

At third, Mark DeRosa is gone and the Joe Thurston experiment is over.  David Freese will get the job.  Freese is a prospect, albeit a rather old prospect.  You may remember that Freese was acquired from San Diego for Jim Edmonds.  Well, Freese has been solid in the minors – hitting .306 with 26 homers in Memphis in 2008, and then batting .300 with 10 homers in just 200 at bats last season at AAA.  The Ballwin, MO native can hit at this level – he’ll be 27 in April.  I think he’ll hit like Todd Zeile – 18 homers, .270 batting average.  If he can field at all, he’ll be an upgrade over what the Cards got last year.

Pujols season was better than what he had done the previous couple of years, he could lose twenty runs of offense and STILL be the best hitter in the game.  With the wrist injury, Brendan Ryan will be off, but that will be made up by the play of Freese.  The net result, however, is probably 20 runs fewer offensively and probably ten runs off defensively.

Outfield:

This is going to be a very productive offense featuring Matt Holliday, Colby Rasmus, and Ryan Ludwick.  Ludwick, if healthy, holds his own.  A full season of Holliday will be better than half a season of Chris Duncan.  And Colby Rasmus will hit better than what Rick Ankiel did last year.  Defensively, Rasmus should hold steady, Holliday will be a slight improvement over Duncan, and Ankiel won’t be better.

Backups include Skip Schumaker, Nick Stavinoha and maybe a rookie – Joe MatherShane Robinson?  It could be Allen Craig, who had a solid year at Memphis last year (see Prospects).

This team will score produce about 30 runs more than last year and hold steady defensively.

Bench:

Not a bad bunch, but some holes…  Skip Schumaker will get a lot of innings, Julio Lugo returns, as does Tyler Greene, and then you have Nick Stavinoha, and Jason LaRue.  Which of these guys, other than Schumaker, would you want as a pinch hitter?  It’s a bit weak.

Prospects:

AAA Memphis had a couple of guys who might be interesting.  David Freese will get a shot at the third base job after a year and a half of solid play with the Redbirds.  Allen Craig hit .322 with 26 homers, but he’s not really patient at the plate.  He’s a potential fourth outfielder with the Cardinals though, and could be Ryan Ludwick’s equal in right field.  (.280 – 20 homers)

Jess Todd was the closer in Memphis and was solid – 59 Ks, 13 walks, 24 saves to match his 2.20 ERA.  He’ll be on the Cardinals in 2010.  The best starter was likely P.J. Walters, who was tolerable – decent control, a good strikeout record, but a bit hittable.

The best pitchers at Springfield (AA) weren’t dominating, but had good records and avoided the long ball.  Trey Hearne and Lance Lynn combined for 23 wins and only 7 losses and have interchangeable stats.  Lynn was a 1A draft pick in 2008, so he’s moving up quickly and the Cardinals have high hopes for him.  Infielder Daniel Descalso hit well (.323, .396 OBP) at Springfield but hasn’t been consistent at that level in the minors.

Former first round picks, like Brett Wallace, Clayton Mortensen and Shane Carpenter are gone.  Peter Kozma was a top pick in 2007 and struggled to hit .216 in AA – he’s going to run out of chances soon.  Another, 2007 pick David Kopp struggled to a 6.43 ERA at Springfield – he might get one more shot before being cast away.  Much of the 2006 draft is still around and getting close – Adam Ottavino, Chris Perez, Jon Jay, Shane Robinson, and Allen Craig are in Memphis but haven’t made it in (or to) the bigs yet.

There are a couple of players in the minors, but as a whole, the Cardinal organization is a little thin right now.

Outlook:

Having gone through the process, I think the Cardinals will be in the mix but might not easily repeat.  I think they’ll score about 740 runs, but allow more than last year – as many as 690 runs.  If that’s the combination, it works out to 87 wins.  With Milwaukee likely getting better and the Cubs in the mix, the NL Central could easily have the most exciting September in baseball.  The Cards MIGHT win the division, and they MIGHT get the wild card.  Or, they MIGHT fall a game or two short.  It’s too close to call.

Sheets in Bed With A’s; Tejada Returns to O’s – and other Hot Stove News

Ben Sheets, having missed all of 2009 recovering from elbow surgery, has a new home in Oakland – signing a $10 million, one year deal.  Sheets gets to mentor a young staff while rebuilding his own street cred.  It’s a little expensive, but I like this deal.  My guess is that they’ll give him some extra time to recover between starts and he might only get about 160 innings, but those will be good innings.  Welcome Back!  [FoxSports]

Miguel Tejada returns to Baltimore – the passed physical making it official.  Tejada returns four years older than he was two years ago…  And, despite having a pretty good year at short, Tejada moves to third base where he will replace Melvin Mora.  Still a good contact hitter, Tejada’s power has regularly slid since being implicated in the steroids show.  Where once he threatened 30 homers regularly, he might hit 12 now.  Tejada’s deal?  1 year, $6 million.  [ESPN]

Jim Thome stays in the AL Central – but not with the White Sox.  The Minnesota Twins hired the DH to fill out the bench – pinch hitting and occasionally playing first base or DH as required.  The deal?  1 year, $1.5 million and incentives.  The man can still hit.  [ESPN]

Jon Garland stays in southern California, signing a one-year, $5.3 million deal with San Diego.  Garland is a dependable arm, not a world beater, but usually league average.  He MIGHT be a better fantasy choice this year because of his home park, but he might not get many wins…  I like the signing on the whole, though.  [ESPN]

Xavier Nady may wind up a platoon player with the Chicago Cubs.  Nady is coming off of shoulder injuries, but was making progress as a hitter into 2008 when the trouble struck.  [FoxSports]

Other Quick Hits from the MLB Transaction Wire…

The Dodgers signed Brad Ausmus to back up Russell Martin behind the plate.

Texas traded outfielder Greg Golson to the Yankees for minor leaguer Mitch Hilligoss.  Not a prospect in the group…

St. Louis signed pitcher Rich Hill – and if I were to bet on somebody to make a surprise step up into valued producer, it’s Rich Hill.

Happy Birthday…

Those celebrating with cake, cards, and remembrances include:  Bob Emslie (1859), Otis Clymer (1876) a middling but quick outfielder who was a minor league teammate of Rube Waddell, Milt Gaston (1896), Bob Barrett and Bibb Falk (1899), John Lowenstein (1947), Tom Trebelhorn (1948), Phil Plantier (1969), and Gavin Floyd (1983).

Best and Worst Pitchers in the AL for 2009; And Other Notes…

Earlier this week, I posted my list of the top pitchers in the NL and explained my methods.  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.  We’ll get into this in more detail when we hand out defensive awards next week.

Then, I compare what an average pitcher would have done with what that pitcher did – and come up with a “runs saved” or “extra runs allowed” ranking.  Nobody saved his team more runs than did Zack Greinke last year.  Zack Greinke had a really low ERA over more than 220 innings despite pitching in a park that helps hitters a little bit and having a rather poor defense behind him.  As such, his season is the best season I have tracked since I started doing this in 2005.

Top Pitchers (by Runs Saved)

65.61 – Zack Greinke (KC)
47.11 – Roy Halliday (TOR)
33.22 – Jon Lester (BOS)
32.14 – Felix Hernandez (SEA)
27.55 – Andrew Bailey (OAK)
26.51 – Cliff Lee (CLE)
25.74 – C.C. Sabathia (NYY)
25.73 – Justin Verlander (DET)
22.21 – Jonathan Papelbon (BOS)
21.30 – Mariano Rivera (NYY)
21.13 – Joe Nathan (MIN)
20.80 – Jered Weaver (LAA)
20.57 – Kevin Millwood (TEX)
20.09 – Josh Beckett (BOS)

21.61 – Jarrod Washburn (SEA) – but -13.29 in DET

In fact, it’s not even close – Greinke had as good a season as we’ve seen by a pitcher in a long, long time.  Imagine if he had done this for 40 starts instead of 33, with a team like Seattle.  He MIGHT have had an ERA around 1.70 and a won-loss record of something like 27 – 4.  From this, you can see that Halliday instead of Cliff Lee will be a slight step up for Philadelphia and would have been a more serious contender for the Cy Young Award (in my book) had not Greinke been more dominating.

Another thing of interest – four relievers were good enough to sneak onto the list of pitcher saving his team more than 20 runs, led by Andrew Bailey.  Let’s use that to show the list of the top relievers in the AL last year.

Top Relievers

27.55 – Andrew Bailey (OAK)
22.21 – Jonathan Papelbon (BOS)
21.30 – Mariano Rivera (NYY)
21.13 – Joe Nathan (MIN)
18.41 – Matt Guerrier (MIN)
18.09 – Darren O’Day (TEX)
17.04 – Matt Thornton (CHW)
17.04 – Michael Wuertz (OAK)
16.79 – Darren Oliver (LAA)
16.41 – Jose Mijares (MIN)
16.16 – Brandon Lyon (DET)
15.87 – Joakim Soria (KC)

A couple of things – usually the top guys are middle relievers or set up men with great ERAs in 70 innings.  There are a couple here – Thorton, Wuertz, and Oliver for example.  Still – the top four guys were KILLER closers in 2009.

Worst Pitchers

-37.04 – Andy Sonnestine (TB)
-33.26 – Fausto Carmona (CLE)
-24.16 – Chien-Ming Wang (NYY)
-22.81 – Jason Berken (BAL)
-21.45 – Derek Holland (TEX)
-20.71 – Luke Hochevar (KC)
-21.02 – Chris Jakubauskas (SEA)
-20.38 – Jose Contreras (CHW)
-19.59 – Armando Galarraga (DET)
-19.17 – Rich Hill (BAL)
-18.36 – Garrett Olson (SEA)

-23.47 – Scott Kazmir (TB) – but positive 11.34 in LAA

If you had Andy Sonnestine on your fantasy team last year, you didn’t read my Tampa Rays Team Profile that pointed out that many of the Rays pitchers weren’t as good as you thought because the team defense in 2008 was amazingly good.  In 2009, Bartlett was hurt, and Upton struggled, and Aki Iwamura went down, and Carlos Pena looked a little older (and then left to an injury).  Sonnestine may throw strikes, but they sure do get hit a lot.

Hopefully, Fausto Carmona and Chien-Ming Wang can figure things out.  Two years ago, these guys won nearly 40 games combined – and now they are #2 and #3 on the wrong list.

And, if you are scrolling down to the NL List, note that the list contained a bunch of Brewer and Padre pitchers.  In the AL, only Seattle doubled up by having two guys get pounded around – bad pitching was more evenly distributed…

2009 Season Forecast: Baltimore Orioles

Baltimore Orioles
2008: 68-93 (5th AL East, 28.5 games back)
Runs Scored: 782
Runs Allowed: 869

With the trade of Miguel Tejada and Erik Bedard to Houston and Seattle respectively for prospects, 2008 represented the first year of a rebuilding plan in the American League’s toughest division.  But these Orioles weren’t half bad.  Sure, they were 22 – 50 inside their division, but actually above .500 against everyone else (46 – 43).  The reason?  The Orioles had a decent offense and a handful of young pitchers finding their way.  It’s a good time to be a Baltimore fan – just don’t expect to make the playoffs until a rotation anchor or two can be found.

Looking Back on 2008

With 782 runs scored, the Orioles finished in the middle of the league in terms of scoring – just a few runs behind the Yankees.  What they lacked was pitching and defense – having allowed 869 runs, which was next to last in the American League.

Baltimore got off to a great start – winning sixteen in April and fighting for the division lead for the first month.  Things slowed in May thanks to a streak against their own division where they lost ten of thirteen, but a solid June followed.  Even though the leaders in the division were starting to pull away, the Orioles were still five games over .500 as late as June 20th.  Heck, if Toronto had a 39 – 34 record at this point in the season, the way they finished, the Blue Jays might have won a playoff spot.

Instead, the Orioles got cold after the all-star break.  Ending a five-game losing streak had them at .500 for the last time on July 11th, and from that point on, Baltimore was a non-factor, losing a few games each month to .500 until September, when playing rookies killed the overall record.  The Orioles went 5 – 20 to close the season, ruining what had been, until then, a reasonably successful summer in Camden Yards.

Tell me about that offense

Behind the plate, the new Cincinnati Red, Ramon Hernandez, held his own.  He provided a little power, and a .250+ batting average, but not much else. Hernandez has actually slipped some from his performance in 2006, which didn’t help, but his backup, Guillermo Quiroz, couldn’t hit .200 in 134 at bats.

The infield was reasonably strong at two spots.  Third baseman Melvin Mora had a decent enough season, driving in 104 runs and batting .285.  Second sacker Brian Roberts is a great leadoff hitter, just missing .300, hitting 51 doubles, adding some triples and homers, a lot of walks, and 40 stolen bases in 50 chances.  Kevin Millar struggled to hit .234, but even that had a few homers and some walks.  For the position, that’s not good enough and he’s likely to move to a bench role with another team in 2009.  Where the Orioles really struggled was finding a consistent option at short.  Of the guys playing at least 200 innings (and nobody played more than 400 innings there), the best hitting option was former White Sox prospect Alex Cintron, who hit .286 but with little power or other helpers.  The rest averaged about .200 as a group, including Brandon Fahey, Freddie Bynum, and Juan Castro.

The outfield featured rookie Adam Jones, who hit .270, but showed room for power potential, a little speed, but not much else at this stage.  As such, he’s mildly below average as a hitter, but if he could step forward one or two notches, he could help.  Luke Scott came over from Houston and hit well enough, with 23 homers and showing some plate discipline.  However, his occasional platoon partner, Jay Payton, struggled at the plate – so the net result wasn’t exactly positive.  Rightfielder Nick Markakis continued to show growth as a future star, hitting for power (20 – 87 – .306) and getting on base.

If Markakis wasn’t the best hitter on the team, it was Aubrey Huff, who had a career season (32 – 108 – .304.)  Both scored about 7.5 runs per 27 outs, and anchored the offense.  Only Oscar Salazar hit well off the bench, and he didn’t have 100 plate appearances.

Defensively:

Baltimore pitchers worked with a defense that was not quite league average…  The league turned converted 68.6% batted balls in play into outs.  Baltimore finished at .68.5%.

Around the horn, Mora and Millar was just a touch above average, while Brian Roberts was just a touch below league average.  Most of the shortstops had decent defensive stats except Bynum, so while the offense at short was lacking, the defense was not.  However, the team was rather weak in terms of turning double plays in part because there were a lot of flyball pitchers and Roberts was working with a different partner most of the season.

Markakis and Scott were a shade off of league average, while Adam Jones was slightly worse than that.  When Jay Payton played, he couldn’t hit but the ball found his glove.  Luis Montanez, however, played three outfield positions and never seemed to be standing where the ball was hit…  Between them all, the outfield was actually below average and with a fly ball staff, this was a problem.

Hernandez had an awful year throwing out runners – 99 of the 123 people who tried to steal were successful.  Throw in the fact that he was slightly above average in terms of mistakes per game and that the staff’s ERA and winning percentage wasn’t very strong, my system suggests that Hernandez was among the weaker catchers in the AL.

Now Pitching…

Only two pitchers had really strong seasons for Baltimore.  Starter Jeremy Guthrie was about 19 runs better than the average pitcher, going 10 – 12, with good control through a few too many balls left the yard.  It was the second solid season for Guthrie, who is far and away the ace of the staff.  Middle reliever Jim Johnson didn’t allow a homer all season, which kept his ERA down, and despite having ordinary walk and strikeout data was also valuable for the Orioles.

Unfortunately, too many guys were WAY below average here.  Among the rotation starters, Brian Burres (-21 runs), Daniel Cabrera (-14 runs), Radhames Liz (-22 runs), Garrett Olson (-29 runs), and Steve Trachsel (-20 runs in 8 starts) got the Orioles in the hole early all too often.  Chris Waters came up and had 11 middling to below average starts with a 5.01 ERA and was an improvement.

The bullpen had Chad Bradford for a while, and George Sherrill had 33 saves, but they weren’t by any means awesome.  Sherrill’s ERA was 4.73, so he wasn’t setting the AL on fire as the Orioles’ fireman.  Most of the other relievers, including Dennis Sarfate, Lance Cormier, Jamie Walker and others struggled to put up league average numbers.  Compare that to the staffs of Boston, New York, or Tampa (much less Toronto), and you can see where the team needs to improve.

Forecasting 2009:

Ideally, the Orioles would like to see a little more offense, but more importantly, they have to find ways to keep the other team from scoring runs.  To get to .500, you’re talking about cutting more than 100 runs from the runs allowed, which means finding six decent pitchers and improving the outfield defense.

Offensively, the changes start at catcher (Greg Zaun for Ramon Hernandez, with Matt Wieters possibly getting his shot at some point this season), as well as first base (Millar is gone, with Ty Wigginton here).  Cesar Izturis arrives from St. Louis to play short – he’s not a championship quality hitter, but will be an improvement over the crew who played here last year.  It looks like the Orioles will not be trading Brian Roberts (they shouldn’t), which helps, and if Melvin Mora stays productive, the infield will be solid.  Defensively, they are probably 5 to 10 runs better, and offensively they are probably 15 runs better.

The outfield has added Felix Pie and Ryan Freel, but I don’t see how either of them will take Jones, Scott, or Markakis out of the lineup.  However, Pie could be the surprise – and as a defensive replacement, he’ll be solid.  The outfield of Scott, Jones, and Markakis can still produce runs, but more importantly there are a couple of bench performers who can contribute.  Offensively this is probably worth ten runs, and defensively, this could be worth ten runs, too.

Zaun is a better defensive catcher than Hernandez, but he’s been catching since Doug Ault was in Toronto (not really), and his contribution will not last the season.  Of the NRIs, Robby Hammock might play, and he can at least hit the ball some.  Chad Moeller and Guillermo Quiroz are in camp, but neither will be making a big contribution in the near future.  Matt Wieters has a job as soon as he’s ready.

One assumes that Huff should stay productive in his role, but he was so good last year, it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s off by ten runs this season.

There are, oh, 120 pitchers in camp in Ft. Lauderdale hoping to make the Orioles roster in April.  Guthrie is still here, and Rich Hill arrives from Chicago trying to put his career back together.  Hill would be a step up if he brings his best game.  The rest are a bunch of unknowns.  Matt Alberts was better as a reliever, but he could start some and be an improvement of ten runs over somebody.  Brian Bass comes over from Minnesota where, as a reliever, he wasn’t special.  As a starter he was tolerable here in Baltimore.  He might get a shot.  Troy Patton came over with the Tejada deal, he might be ready for a few starts.  George Sherrill needs to up his performance – and someone else needs to help out in the bullpen.

The problem is that they are all unproven rookies or second year guys.  Could they be better?  Sure – but it’s just not something you can predict with any dependability.

As such, I see the runs scored/runs allowed breakdown to be somewhere around 800/850, which translates to about 76 wins.  In this division, that’s a tall order, but there are enough pieces to see a better team in Baltimore.  If one or two pitchers step up in the rotation – a Hill and a Sherrill, for example – suddenly these guys are approaching .500 – and that’s pretty impressive.  When a few more young arms make it to the majors, this team might be ready to compete for a playoff spot.

Down on the Farm…

AAA Norfolk’s best hitter was Oscar Salazar (13 – 85 – .316), who got a cup of coffee with the big league club and played well.  He could have slid into the first base slot, and may well get this job after spending a decade in the minors (he’s 30).  He’s just been blocked everywhere he’s been (Oakland, the Mets, Detroit, Kansas City, Anaheim, and Cleveland), and he wasn’t a good enough middle infielder when he was younger.  However, with the ability to play the whole infield, he’s a good bench option.  Radhames Liz and Jim Miller pitched well enough to earn shots with the parent club last year.

Matt Wieters, the future catcher, hit .365 at AA Bowie in 208 at bats, with 12 homers and 51 RBI.  He can’t be far off…  Lou Montanez and Nolan Reimhold hit for power; Montanez had the higher batting average, but Reimhold has the better plate discipline.  David Hernandez and Chris Tillman led a quartet of Bay Sox pitchers to double-digit victories (the others were Brad Bergeson and Jason Berken, two other potential studs).  Both showed killer K/9 rates and will be in line for rotation spots by 2010 if not sometime this summer.  Julio Manon dominated as the closer – he’s just not a young prospect.  He’s 36 this summer.

Cole McMurray and Pat Egan led the hurlers at Aberdeen (High A), with closer Brandon Cooney (from nearby Florida Atlantic – near me, anyway) showing strong numbers.  Other than Wieters, the Frederick Keys also had first baseman Brandon Snyder (15 – 80 – .315) and pitchers Brandon Erbe and Jake Arrieta, who both had strong strikeout numbers if not solid won-loss records.