2013 Season Forecast – Houston Astros

I’m watching Opening Day on ESPN and decided I might as well write while I am getting settled in…  To be fair, with the Florida Marlins having decided to trade away all the talent they had recently acquired, I chose to find a new team to follow closely in 2013 – and that team is the Houston Astros.

Here’s a quick summary of where they are coming from:

Recent Records:
2012: 55 – 107 (Last, NL Central)
2011: 56 – 106 (Last, NL Central)
2010: 76 – 86 (4th, NL Central)
2009: 74 – 88 (5th, NL Central)
2008: 86 – 75 (3rd, NL Central)

This is a team that has hit rock bottom – even that team from five years ago was a bit of a fluke, having given up more runs than they had scored that year.

2012 Summary:
Home:  35 – 46
Away:  20 – 61 (ouch)

Runs Scored: 583
Runs Allowed: 794

There is a simple way to look at this.  A team that scores 100 runs more than it allows is likely to win 90 games.  The converse is also true.  At 200 runs, it’s another ten wins – 100 wins or 100 losses.  The Astros allowed 211 runs more than they scored – hence the lousy record.  So – things have to be looking up, right?

Record by Month:
April:  9 – 14
May:   13 – 15
June:  10 – 17
July:   3 – 24
Aug:    5 – 22
Sept:  15 – 15

The Astros started 3 – 1, were reasonably competitive through 45 games, and not altogether awful heading into the last week of June.  Then, Houston lost the last six games of the month and the first six of July.  After breaking that streak, they lost four in a row, then twelve more in a row – 28 of 30 games were lost…  When the month ended, anyone with any trade value was gone.  August wasn’t much better…  What team has ever had a stretch where they won just eight of sixty games?

Feeling Optimistic?

Beginning on September first and covering the last 30 games, the Astros played .500 ball.  Houston edged Cincinnati, toppled Philadelphia, split with Pittsburgh, edged Milwaukee, and split with Chicago.  Only St. Louis proved troublesome, taking five of six.  They did this without scoring a lot of runs – only 102 runs were scored in that period.  What allowed this to happen was that their pitching staff tossed a number of gems down the stretch, including three straight shutouts over Milwaukee and Chicago at the very end of the season.  In eleven of these wins, the Astros threw six shutouts and allowed just one run in five other starts.

Opening Day Lineup:
CF: Jordan Schafer
2B: Jose Altuve
LF: J.D. Martinez
1B: Carlos Lee
RF: Brian Bogusevic
3B: Chris Johnson
C: Jason Castro
SS: Marwin Gonzalez
SP: Wandy Rodriguez

Regulars by Games Played:
C: Jason Castro
1B: Brett Wallace or Carlos Lee (gone…)
2B: Jose Altuve
SS: Jed Lowrie (gone…)
3B: Chris Johnson (gone…)
LF: J.D. Martinez
CF: Justin Maxwell
RF: Brian Bogusevic (gone…)

4OF: Jordan Schafer
C2: Chris Snyder
UT: Marwin Gonzalez or Tyler Greene?

SP: Lucas Harrell
SP: Bud Norris
SP: Jordan Lyles
SP: Wandy Rodriguez (gone…), Dallas Keuchel
SP: J.A. Happ (gone…)
CL: Brett Myers (gone…), Wilton Lopez
RP: Brandon Lyon (gone…)
RP: Wesley Wright
RP: Francisco Rodriguez (gone…)
RP: Rhiner Cruz
RP: Fernando Abad

Key Transactions:

OCT (2011):

Lost Jason Michaels and Clint Barmes to free agency…  Michaels spent the year as an insurance policy for the Nationals in their AAA Syracuse affiliate, and likely is looking to become a coach.  As for Barmes, he moved to Pittsburgh and hit like someone who is 33 and running out of seasons.

NOV (2011):

Added Carlos Corporan, Travis Buck as free agents; claimed infielder Brian Bixler off of the waiver wire.

DEC (2011):

Traded Marc Melancon to Red Sox for Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland.  Melancon had been a pleasant surprise for Houston in 2011, but was miserable in Boston and eventually demoted to AAA.  Weiland had an infection in his throwing shoulder that required surgery and hopefully can return in 2013, but I would be leery of high expectations owing to a general lack of control.  I see him as a spot starter/long reliever type.  Jed Lowrie is a pretty good ballplayer, so the trade was a good one.

Claimed Rhiner Cruz off of waivers.  This was, at best, organizational depth as Cruz had just been promoted to AA Binghamton in an eight year career drifting in the low minors.  Putting Rhiner on the major league roster when he has no idea where the strike zone is (his mid-90s fastball has crazy movement and he can’t control his breaking ball) showed how little major league talent the Astros had.  I mean, Cruz walked 45 batters in 71.2 innings in the minors in 2011.

JAN (2012):

Here, the Astros were looking to find as many players who might be able to do SOMETHING as possible.

Signed, as free agents, Livan Hernandez, Zach Duke, Chris Snyder, Jack Cust, and Fernando Martinez (waiver claim).

FEB:

More minor signings…

MAR:

After (and during) spring training, the Astros released Hernandez, Duke and Cust, moved anyone who needed time to the minors, and made one trade…

Acquired LHP Kevin Chapman from the Royals for OF Jason Bourgeois and C Humberto Quintero.  Bourgeois was, like Melancon, a nice surprise in 2011 but is a 30-year-old outfielder with no long-term future.  Quintero is, at best, a backup catcher and the Astros had other options.  Chapman at least represents a future – had 90Ks in 62 innings in 2011, and built on that in 2012.  He still needs work (especially with his control), but at least he has a shot to be a late inning contributor very soon.

JULY:

The Astros, as sellers, moved what they could for prospects:

Carlos Lee (and cash) to the Marlins for 3B Matt Dominquez (good glove, minor bat) and LHP Rob Rasmussen (could be a starter in 2014).

Brandon Lyon, J.A. Happ, and David Carpenter to Toronto for Francisco Cordero, Ben Francisco, Joseph Musgrove, Asher Wojciechowski (decent arm, not overmatched at AA, doesn’t miss enough bats), David Rollins, and Carlos Perez (athletic catcher, decent arm, not much offense).

Brett Myers to the White Sox for prospects Matthew Heidenreich and Blair Walters.

Wandy Rodriquez to Pittsburgh for Colton Cain, Robbie Grossman, and Rudy Owens.

Chris Johnson to Arizona for Bobby Borchering and Marc Krauss

If nothing else, that’s a lot of prospects.  If you see the kids producing in 2014 and the Astros making steady improvement, then these deals worked.  Seeing as the team went belly up in July and August of 2012, this did nothing to help the guys who were left behind to play.

By the way, Ben Francisco only hung around for a month.  He was shipped to Tampa for a player to be named later.  (That player was LHP Theron Geith.)  Despite being a pretty good outfielder, Francisco hasn’t been able to keep a regular job and at 31 seems destined to be a fourth outfielder for a few more years.  Geith, however, has a bright future.  In two minor league seasons, Geith has a 2.66 ERA, 83Ks in 84.2 innings, and just 18 walks.  He will be on the roster by 2014, and maybe next September.

Key Injuries:

Jed Lowrie missed time leaving spring training with a bruised thumb.  Kyle Weiland made three starts and went down with what was then termed shoulder bursitis.

Relievers Fernando Abad (intercostal strain) and Rhiner Cruz (ankle sprain) missed time in May.

June brought minor injuries to Travis Buck (Achilles tendinitis), Carlos Lee (strained hamstring) Marwin Gonzalez (bruised heel), Bud Norris (spraineed knee), Wilton Lopez (sprained elbow), and Justin Maxwell (loose bodies in ankle).

Jordan Schafer, Jed Lowrie, and Francisco Cordero spent some time on the DL in August and early September, Cordero wound up missing the rest of the season with a foot injury just six awful outings after his arrival.  He really wasn’t missed, and – as he turns 37 in May – has already been released.

Cordero’s was the only injury of signifigance.  Jed Lowrie missed a lot of games, but with small injuries that kept him out a couple of weeks at a time.

[Writer’s Note:  I had pulled much of this together a while ago when I had decided to become a Houston Astros fan.  The Astros got the Rangers in order in the first, but the Rangers did the same to the Astros – in part thanks to a bad call at second on a stolen base attempt by Jose Altuve.  If the Astros are lousy this year, it could just be that I have jinxed them.]

LOOKING AHEAD:

Starting Pitchers:

The rotation appears to be Bud Norris, Lucas Harrell, Philip Humber, Brad Peacock, and Erik Bedard.

Lucas Harrell is pretty good.  He gets some strikeouts but he walks a few too many guys.  Bud Norris has better stuff, but has been way more inconsistent, especially on the road.  Even at that, he’s marginally below average with a chance to become really good.  Bud Norris is the type of guy you might consider drafting in your fantasy league this year…

Philip Humber is trying, again, to get his career on track.  Humber threw a perfect game for the White Sox, but otherwise was awful.  He CAN pitch, but he can also think his way into oblivion.  If Humber can find his way, the Astros will have found a gem.  The problem is that his track record doesn’t give you a whole lot of reason for hope.

A guy who might, however, is Brad Peacock. The Palm Beach, FL native navigated his way through the minors, getting better every year, until he got a test drive with the Washington Nationals in 2011, where he wasn’t half bad.  Moved to Oakland, he spent 2012 in Sacramento, where he held his own despite being in a league that pounds pitchers.  After a pretty nice spring, he’s going to see if he’s ready for 25 – 30 starts.

Finally, Erik Bedard might be able to help – if he can stay healthy.  Having missed essentially two and half of the last five years, Bedard has been reasonably successful – well, at least until last year when he went 7 – 14 for Pittsburgh.  His walk rate was too high, and his ERA went over 5 (5.01), but there are reasons to think that he can be better than he was last year – starting with the fact that he has always been better than he was last year.

So, just trying to see if the rotation is better, at first glance, the answer is probably no.  Harrell and Norris are the same (though Norris might be slightly better).  I don’t buy that Humber is better than Jordan Lyles was in 2012, and Erik Bedard won’t be as good as a partial season of Wandy Rodriguez.  If one pitcher surprises, it might be Peacock who COULD be as good as J.A. Happ was.  So, let’s go with the team allowing perhaps 30 extra runs here.

Relief Pitchers:

The Astros are going to give the closer job, at least at first, to Jose Veres, who has four career saves.  Veres isn’t awful, but he isn’t a big time closer.  Brett Myers wasn’t awesome last year, so that’s not a big loss.  I was surprised that Wilton Lopez didn’t get a second chance, he pitched well enough, but the Astros went with younger arms – Hector Ambriz, Xavier Cedeno, Rhiner Cruz, Josh Fields, Edgar Gonzalez, and Wesley Wright.

This group will be no better or worse than last year.

Cruz had a 6.05 ERA last year – is that really worthy of a significant role?  Wesley Wright wasn’t half bad for a situational lefty.  Xavier Cedeno was league average and could be better.  Edgar Gonzalez has been around and he’s never been a dependable option.  The guy I like is Hector Ambriz, who fanned 22 in 19 innings in a late call last year.  He could wind up the setup man before all is said and done.

Catchers:

Last year’s catchers were league average in total, but had a few weaknesses, including starter Jason Castro not being too solid against the run.  Chris Snyder is gone, so Carlos Corporan is back as the backup.  He looks like he can throw.  Castro isn’t a bad hitter – he was slightly above average because he showed a little power and a little patience while hitting .257.  Chris Snyder hit .176 and didn’t hit enough to be worth keeping around.  Corporan can hit better than that – maybe .240 with a few homers, so that would be a step forward offensively.  If Castro can be stronger against the run that would help immensely.  This unit should score about 15 more runs than in 2012.

Infielders:

Three-quarters of the infield in use toward the end of the season returns – Brett Wallace at first, Jose Altuve at second, and Matt Dominguez at third.  Jed Lowrie is gone, replaced by Ronnie Cedeno.  Wallace is getting better defensively, Altuve is slightly below average as a glove man, but not problematic, and Dominguez is a solid defensive option – far better than Chris Johnson.   Cedeno may have more experience, but he won’t put up more runs than, say, Marwin Gonzalez.  They are essentially the same guy.  The problem is that neither is a long-term solution, so as we are following this team, look for them to find a better shortstop through the minors.

Carlos Pena was added to back up Wallace at first and be the primary DH – which will last as long as Pena keeps drawing walks and hitting homers.  I fear, however, that he may not hit .220.

As a unit, this team will probably hold the line offensively (Wallace will help offset the loss of Jed Lowrie), but it could be ten runs better defensively.

Outfielders:

This year’s outfield features Chris Carter, the old Oakland As prospect, Justin Maxwell, and Rick Ankiel – a reclamation project of sorts.  J. D. Martinez will be back as a possible fourth or fifth outfielder, sharing the role with Brandon Barnes.

Defensively, Carter can’t be worse than J.D. Martinez was, and he has the potential to put a lot more runs on the board by virtue of his power and patience.  Justin Maxwell is a better fielder and hitter than Jordan Schafer was – it would be nice if he hit, say, .250 rather than .220, though.  Ankiel hasn’t been a good hitter for a few years, but he’s still better than Brian Bogusevic was, and even if he isn’t, J.D. Martinez can hit better.

As a unit, this team could score about 60 more runs and save ten to fifteen in the field.

[As I reach this point in the essay, Justin Maxwell just hit a high drive off the top of the wall in left for a two-run triple, giving the Astros an early lead.  Woohoo!!!]

Down on the Farm:

Most of the guys who did anything at AAA are on the club, and nobody stands out as a prospect.  Moving to the Corpus Christi Red Hawks, the top prospects at AA would include first baseman Jonathan Singleton, who hit .284 with power, 88 walks, and is 21-years-old.  Another option is shortstop Jonathan Villar, a 22-year-old with speed and some hitting skills.  I’m just not sure he can hit in the majors.  A top pitching prospect might be Jason Stoffel, who fanned 57 in 58 innings, walked just 16, in a relief role.  Jarred Cosart made 15 starts at AA and was decent, but not great.  He is ranked highly by scouting organizations.

At A+ Lancaster, right fielder Domingo Santana impressed with power and average, while centerfielder George Springer has all that and speed, too. Both are free swingers.  Coming up in A Lexington is Delino Deshields II – who plays like his dad, but is a few years away (and only 20).  Another guy making marks include shortstop Carlos Correa, a top pick out of Puerto Rico last year.

Best guess on their record?

They aren’t as good as last September.  They aren’t as bad as last August.  I see the team being 75 runs better offensively, and five runs worse defensively, thanks to a slightly worse starting rotation.  That puts the runs scored/runs allowed ratio at about 660/800.  Working against that is the move to the offensively charged AL West, which features the Rangers and Angels, a decent Oakland, and an improving Seattle.  The system calls for 66 wins, which seems a tad bit high.  So, I’ll temper that to 64 – 98, hopefully avoiding a third straight year with 100 losses.  If that happens, let’s consider it a a success and watch for some talent to get added to this young team.

As I finish this, I see that the Astros have extended their lead to 4 – 0 in the fifth over Texas.  If they hold on for the win, it would make for a great start to the season.

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Panda Ties Mays, and I admit to being a Bonifacio fan…

Pablo Sandoval extended his hitting streak at the start of the 2012 season to 16 games by hitting a homer in the first inning against the Mets.  The 16 game streak matches the longest hitting streak to start the season in Giants history – a record set in 1960 by Willie Mays.

Tampa, looking for a little more bench strength, are considering giving a contract to Godzilla himself, Hideki Matsui.  Matsui hit .251 with a dozen homers for the A’s last year.  The twelve homers put Matsui at 505 career homers – the first 332 with Yomiuri in Japan.

Hunter Pence took today off with a sore shoulder injured while diving for a ball Sunday in San Diego.  He’s day to day.

Hurry Back!

The Mets placed shortstop Ronny Cedeno on the 15-Day DL with a left intercostal strain.  To cover the infield, the Mets recalled infielder Jordany Valdespin from AAA Buffalo.  Not sure what to make of Valdespin.  He looks like a pretty decent fielder, has gotten better with the bat but puts everything in play, can run a little, but hasn’t been a great percentage base runner.  He might help, but I don’t know how much playing time the 23-year-old kid from San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic will get…

The Boston Red Sox, already down a couple of outfielders, placed Jason Repko on the DL with a partially separated shoulder.  Back comes Lars Anderson…  The first baseman (and Norse Guitar Hero) has been learning to play the outfield to increase his opportunities with the Sox.

Welcome back!

The Indians activated Asdrubel Cabrera from the bereavement list.  Nick Hagadone returns to AAA Columbus.

Happy Birthday!

Those celebrating with cake, cards, and remembrances include:

(1886) Harry Coveleski – Stan’s brother…
(1900) Sunny Jim Bottomly
(1907) Dolph Camilli
(1921) Warren Spahn
(1939) Chico Fernandez
(1967) Rheal Cormier
(1979) Carlos Silva
(1985) Emilio Bonifacio

When the Marlins first got Bonifacio, I nailed his productivity, which wasn’t going to be all that good – low average, few walks, didn’t run enough.  To his credit, and not that any of us writers had anything to do about it, he’s gotten better.  Bonifacio is better about working the count and getting on base.  He makes better contact.  He’s been convinced to use his speed more on the bases and now is among the leaders in stolen bases.  He can play a decent enough third, a good short, is fast enough to cover center though he never looks totally comfortable out there and doesn’t really have that strong an arm.  He’s the best defensive shortstop on the Marlins roster – but he’ll never be the starter with all that star power there.

I’m convinced – and I’m now a fan.

2012 Season Forecast: New York Mets

2011 Record: 77 – 85  (4th, NL East)
Runs Scored: 718  (6th, NL)
Runs Allowed: 742  (13th, NL)

For all the grief given to the stadium regarding how the deep fences kill home run totals, the problem wasn’t with the offense.  Rather, it was the pitching staff…

2011 Season Recap:

Mets ownership’s ties to the Madoff ponzi scheme created the backdrop for a team that started the process of unloading salaries and rebuilding the team.  The Mets weren’t an awful team, really.  They just didn’t have enough arms and the gloves in the field weren’t helping out any.

The Mets had a slow April, but actually had winning months until July and were two games over .500 at the trading deadline.  They were, too, out of it and decided to sell off players, starting with Francisco Rodriguez (who had gotten in hot water over a fight with his potential in-laws) and then moving outfielder Carlos Beltran to San Francisco for prospect Zack WheelerDavid Wright had his first truly off season, and missed two months with a stress fracture in his lower back, which didn’t help either.  Ike Davis sprained an ankle, getting a bone bruise, and missed most of the season.  Anyway – before it was over the pitching left them.  The Mets, who had only allowed ten runs or more in a game four times in the first four months, did so five times in the last two.  Mike Pelfrey looked like he was pitching through an injury,  Dillon Gee ran out of gas,  Jon Niese went on the DL, and both Jose Reyes and Daniel Murphy missed three weeks with various injuries.

Starting Pitchers:

In 2011, the Mets featured Mike Pelfrey, R.A. Dickey, Dillon Gee, Chris Capuano, and Jonathan Niese.  Once Dickey got out of April, he was the most dependable of the starters and the only one who pitched better than a league average arm (16 runs saved).  Pelfrey gave back 16 runs, Niese (who just got an extenstion) cost them 11, Capuano was -8, and Gee was -6.

Heading into 2012, the Mets have to hope Pelfrey returns to form (he has alternated between decent and poor seasons for the last four years – a poor man’s Bret Saberhagen?) and that Gee and Niese can make steps forward.  One advantage, however, may be the return of Johan Santana, who made his first start  (in nearly 600 days) on opening day.  If Santana can pitch 160 – 180 innings at about 80% of his former self, he’d improve the team by about 25 runs himself.  My fear is that Pelfrey could use a different approach and may not improve – and that leaves a big hole in the rotation.

Relief Pitchers:

Gone are the 2011 closer tandem of Francisco Rodriguez and Jason Isringhausen.  For 2012, the Mets imported the Toronto back end – Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch, which should help improve the bullpen.  Another addition, Ramon Ramirez, arrives from San Francisco and will help, too.  The rest are holdovers from last season:  Bobby Parnell, Tim Byrdak, Pedro Beato, and Miguel Batista – and this group has room to improve.  On the whole, this unit should be 15 to 20 runs better than last year.

Catchers:

Josh Thole is young and has room to improve.  The Mets catchers were not a very good lot – poor against the run, with a losing record, poor ERA, and (in part, thanks to Dickey) a bit mistake prone.  Ronny Paulino, a decent enough catcher, is gone now leaving Mike Nickeas as the #2.  Nickeas can’t hit as well, but his defensive skills may be better.

Infield:

Most of the infield remains intact from last year, with Jose Reyes leaving for Miami for $100+ million and a multi-year contract.  In his stead, Ruben Tejada gets the nod.  Tejada isn’t too bad – a slightly above average hitter, a better glove – but even saying that, it’s a 50 run hit from what Reyes delivered last year.

Daniel Murphy hit .320 and can play everywhere.  He’s earned a shot at being the regular second baseman.  Ike Davis will be back – a full season would help make up for some of the loss of Reyes.  And, a full season of David Wright could also pick up some slack.  Backing them up, Justin Turner is a useful player and Ronny Cedeno brings a glove to the middle infield slots.

Even if Davis and Wright come all the way back, it’d be hard to make up all 50 runs lost by losing Reyes.  I see this unit being down at least 25 runs from 2011.

Outfield:

Rightfielder Lucas Duda showed he has a bat and should be more mobile in the outfield than Beltran at this point.  Angel Pagan, who wasn’t horrible but appeared to struggle down the stretch, is gone – his replacement is former Giant Andres Torres, who is about the same level player but is coming off a down season.  In left you have Jason Bay, who might have a bounce back in him – Lord knows the Mets could use it.  Scott Hairston is a competent backup and Mike Baxter will get a shot as a fifth outfielder.

Prospects:

Many of the players at AAA Buffalo wound up getting a lot of time with the Mets, including Tejada, Nick Evans, and Lucas Duda.  Outfielder Fernando Martinez was lost to Houston in a roster shuffle – he looks like he might have been able to help, the Astros will find out for sure this year.  Pitcher Jenrry Mejia quickly made it to the bigs, but spent most of his 2011 AAA season on the DL.  Kirk Nieuwenhuis was noted for his overall approach to the game and will be the first callup for New York if someone gets hurt in the outfield.

AA Binghampton featured a familiar name – Allan Dykstra, who had a line that looked like something off the back of his dad’s baseball card:  19 – 77 – .267, but is more of a free swinger and not much of a threat on the basepaths.  Josh Satin bombarded AA pitching and wound up getting a look at the majors.  Juan Lagares arrived after hitting .338 in A+ ball and continued to hit .370 after arriving.  If he continues to hit over .300 in AA or AAA, the 23-year-old will get a shot to play left field.  The top AA pitcher was Collin McHugh, who went 8 – 2, fanned 100 in 93.1 innings, and allowed just two homers.  Reliever Joshua Stinson moved through AA and got a shot at the big club in 2011 – he will start 2012 in AAA.

A+ Port St. Lucie featured Matt Den Dekker, who hit a well rounded .296 and flashed baserunning prowess and moved up to AA by mid-season.  Wilmer Flores and Pedro Zapata will move up – let’s see if they continue to progress as hitters.  The best arm is 2010 first round pick Matt Harvey, who fanned 92 in 76 innings and finished in AA.  Zack Wheeler, who came over for Beltran, has a live arm and will start 2012 in AA.

2012 Forecast:

Somebody has to finish last in what will certainly be the toughest division in baseball.  With the change in the fences, the team’s offense will LOOK better, but without Reyes and Beltran, the likelihood is that the offense will be a touch worse than last year – maybe 25 – 30 runs worse.  The pitching staff will be better, though, probably 40 runs better (even allowing that they will have a tougher time with the shorter fences at home).

The statistical profile suggests 80 wins – 690 runs scored and about 700 runs allowed.  I’m not sure I buy the system on this one.  You have four really good teams in the division and the Mets will likely be sellers at the trade deadline – even considering that they shed more than $50 million in salary from last year already.  The Mets could certainly win 80 games, but my hunch is that will be closer to 75.

2010 Season Forecast: Pittsburgh Pirates

Last Five Years:
2009: 62 – 99 (6th, NL Central)
2008: 67 – 95
2007: 68 – 94
2006: 67 – 95
2005: 67 – 95

The Pirates won 79 games in 1997, which is the closest they have come to a winning season since 1992.

Runs Scored: 636 (Last, NL)
Runs Allowed: 768 (12th, NL)

Season Recap:

While we could hope that the Pirates would finally break the streak of losing seasons, most people figured that getting past 70 wins for the first time since 2004 would be an improvement…

Actually, the Pirates got out in front with decent April pitching.  After sweeping Florida and taking two from San Diego, Pittsburgh stood at 11 – 7.  Unfortunately, such heady days ended quickly as the Pirates went on to lose 14 of 17 as the offense stopped scoring any runs.  To their credit, the Pirates came back and had a winning June and on the 27th, the Pirates had gotten to within four games of .500

At this point, the Pirates sold out.  Nate McLouth was traded to Atlanta for a couple of prospects.  Nyjer Morgan went to Washington for Lastings Milledge (not sure why, either), Jack Wilson was sent to Seattle with a struggling Ian Snell.  Freddy Sanchez was packaged to San Francisco, and even former ace Tom Gorzelanny was shipped to Chicago with reliever John Grabow.

So, a team that actually was playing pretty well collapsed while testing a bunch of new guys, mixing in a variety of losing streaks between four and nine games long until they were fighting off the possibility of losing 100 games.  The Pirates lost 60 of their last 87 games.  Personally, I don’t know why the Pirates would want to ruin their season that way, but that’s just me.

Pitching:

Unlike Cincinnati, who had a few guys log a lot of innings but not one who was even SLIGHTLY above league average, the Pirates had a couple of decent arms.  Ross Ohlendorf got rolling down the stretch to win 11 games and save his team about seven extra runs in his 177 innings.  Zach Duke, usually a disappointment, logged 213 decent innings, walking just 49 guys, and edging nearly four runs better than the average guy.  Teams need Zach Dukes.  The Pirates wanted him to be an ace, which he is not, but Duke isn’t a problem.  Charlie Morton came over from Atlanta and was tolerable in his 18 starts.  Paul Maholm logged nearly 195 innings and wasn’t death.  Sometimes he looked pretty good.

What strikes you, however, in looking at the Pirates staff is the lack of a POWER arm.  Who on the staff strikes out a batter per inning?  Heck – who strikes out six per nine?  Nobody.  The closest thing the Pirates have to a live arm is Evan Meek, who had 42 Ks in 47 innings out of the pen, but his control keeps him from being a real stopper.  If you look at the guys who logged at least, say, 60 innings, you have nobody that blows you away.  The leader in strikeouts was Maholm with just 119.

Anyway – let’s look at what the Pirate rotation is going forward.  Maholm is back, as is Ohlendorf and Duke.  A full year of Charlie Morton – assuming he stays near league average as he did last year and doesn’t take a step back – will be better than what Ian Snell did last year (2 – 8, 5.36).  That leaves the fifth spot up for grabs.  Kevin Hart, acquired from Chicago for John Grabow, was miserable in his ten starts last year (1 – 8, 6.92) but really isn’t that bad.  Personally, I’d like to see Daniel McCutchen get a shot.  He got six decent starts down the stretch after going 13 – 6 with a 3.47 ERA and just 29 walks in 142.2 innings at Indianapolis.  He HAS to be better than what Kevin Hart did last year.

The Pirates are auditioning a ton of castoffs with Non-Roster Invites – a scary list of guys like Brian Burres, Jeff Karstens, Tyler Yates, and Jeremy Powell.  I don’t see any of these guys getting jobs other than those available in, say, Indianapolis.

The bullpen will be different.  After a rough year of Matt Capps, the Pirates signed Octavio Dotel to be the new closer.  Dotel has been a premium set up man, but as a closer he’s never really been up to the task – and that scares me.  Brendan Donnelly was signed (turns 39 on July 4th) to join Joel Hanrahan (my pick as future closer), Evan Meek, and Donnie Veal in the pen.  This is an eclectic mix of arms that I think improves if Kevin Hart is added to long relief and McCutchen is put in the rotation.

On the whole, however, I do see an improvement.  My take on it is that the starting rotation should be 20 runs better than last year.  It’s not enough.  They need a real ace to step forward – and Ohlendorf may be that guy – someone who is 20 – 30 runs above the league.  And to be really competitive, they need two.  I don’t see two of them here.  I see five guys who are within ten runs of league average over 200 innings – a bunch of third and fourth starters.

The bullpen may be better if only some of the guys logging innings (Jeff Karstens, Virgil Vasquez, and Chris Bootcheck) won’t be there.  But I don’t have strong faith that the eighth and ninth innings will be solid.  Let’s call it a wash.

Catching:

A full season of Ryan Doumit would help.  Doumit missed half the season, forcing Jason Jaramillo, not an offensive force, into the lineup.  Doumit is a middle of the order guy and could add 20 runs by hanging around for 130 games this year.  Defensively, this isn’t a strong group, being below average in team numbers (ERA, W-L PCT), fielding percentage, and being slightly mistake prone.  I’m not sure that Doumit will improve these numbers, but he’s the best Pirate against the running game and makes fewer mistakes than Robinson Diaz – who is NOT ready for the big leagues.

Infield:

Adam LaRoche is also gone – forgot to mention him in the selloff comment.  In his place might be Garrett Jones, who showed his slugging skills and wasn’t embarrassing at first base.  I don’t know that he’s going to be a huge step forward from LaRoche defensively, but you never know.  Jones hit 21 homers in 82 games – and a full season of that would be a huge step forward.  If not Jones, the Pirates may try Seattle prospect Jeff Clement there.  Clement has, at times, looked like the real deal in the minors but hasn’t put it all together in the bigs.  The Pirates would make immediate and big improvements if they would just move 2008 first round pick Pedro Alvarez here and call it good.

After Freddy Sanchez left, Delwyn Young took over and was a step back offensively and defensively.  Sanchez was creating about 5.5 runs per 27 outs; Young about 4.3.  Sanchez has slightly below average range (-3.9 plays per 800 balls in play), but Young was brutal (-10.2 per 800 balls in play).  To solve this problem, the Pirates picked up former Tampa Ray Akinora Iwamura.  Iwamura should be more like Sanchez in terms of range and batting.  Not playing Young is worth ten runs of offense.

Jack Wilson is gone and Ronny Cedeno is now the new shortstop.  Cedeno is a better fielder than Wilson these days – which could be worth ten runs over the course of a season – and was pretty much the same hitter.  Bobby Crosby arrives looking for a chance to play, but he’ll likely be a bench player for now.

Andy LaRoche finally got a shot at third base in the big leagues and proved to be a fantastic glove, but a league average hitter.  I like his chances of improving at the plate, however, now that he has a full season under his belt.

Looking forward, I see this team being about twenty runs better offensively and perhaps another twenty better defensively.  Unless, of course, Jeff Clement gets more playing time.  My fear is, in looking at the current depth chart, that Clement is going to get every chance at making the starting lineup.  If this happens, I’d go with no offensive improvement and only ten runs better defensively.

Outfield:

Wouldn’t it have been fun to see an outfield of, say, Jason Bay in left, Andrew McCutchen in center, and Nate McLouth in right?

Instead, McCutchen arrives as the full-time centerfielder.  He was a bit rough in the outfield last year, but he’ll be better – and he showed power, patience, and speed as an offensive force.  I like him a LOT.  And the other two guys are gone.

Garrett Jones will likely start in right field, which will be better than Brandon Moss offensively – but likely ten runs worse (or more) defensively.  Ryan Church is around, as is Moss.  Church used to be good until two nasty concussions clipped his 2008 season and likely affected his 2009 season.

In left, expect Lastings Milledge to get one last shot to make things work.  Milledge, to me, is the new Delmon Young.  He SHOULD be better, but is really nothing special.  Moss and Nyjer Morgan were great defenders and will be missed with this outfield.

I see the outfield being down this year – perhaps ten to twenty runs down offensively and twenty runs defensively.  If Milledge lives up to former top prospect expectations, it would help.  I just don’t buy it.

Prospects:

Well, the top pitchers in AAA (McCutchen, Morton, Vaszquez) are already in town.  Even Denny Bautista and Steven Jackson were given shots and didn’t take the world by storm.  The top AAA hitters are in Pittsburgh now, too.

Pedro Alvarez tore up AA playing for the Altoona Curve, hitting .333 with power.  He really needs to be on the Pirates now.  Gorkys Hernandez has great speed, and is 22 – but he needs to improve his OBP.  Jose Tabata, 21, is close to making it – he hit well enough at Altoona to get moved up to Indianapolis.  Not much power, better OBP than Hernandez with good contact skills, and decent speed.  Just not sure he’ll be better than a fourth outfielder at this point.  I think he can play some, though.  If Ryan Church doesn’t stay healthy, Tabata will get a shot.

The best pitchers at Altoona was probably Brad Lincoln (some power, good control) but it was the only time he looked solid since being drafted out of the University of Houston in the first round (2006).  He shares a birthday with the author, though, so he’s on my radar…  Former first round pick Daniel Moskos (2007) has control, but doesn’t blow people away – 77Ks in 149 innings.

Moving to Lynchburg, top picks Jordy Mercer (3rd Round, 2008) and Chase D’Arnaud (4th Round, 2008) started to show signs of progress.  Mercer might develop some power, while D’Arnaud seems to have a more well rounded game.  Both outhit Alvarez at A+ ball, but neither are REALLY better hitters…  You’ll see that when they get to AA.

On the whole, it’s hard to see who is going to help the Pirates, other than Alvarez, in the next year or two.

Outlook:

If the Pirates were serious about this, they’d get Jones in the outfield, move Alvarez to first base and play him now, and let both McCutchens play as often as possible.  This isn’t going to happen this spring, and as such, the Pirates have to hope for minor improvements.  I see the team scoring about 670 runs and allowing 740.  That gets them to 73 wins, which would look great compared to the last five years.  However, with the Reds and Brewers likely improving – it might not get to 73.  It might barely get to 70…

Top NL Catchers

Unlike the guys who play between the baselines, determining the value of a catcher defensively is a much harder proposition for me.  I haven’t been able to translate defense into runs the way I have for all the other positions, but I AM able to look at the responsibilities of a catcher and determine what teams are benefiting more from good catching than others.  Here’s how I do it.

There are seven things for which a catcher would get credit as being solid defensively.  If the catchers for a team are above average in a category, they get a point.  If below average, they lose a point.  The top score is seven, the lowest score (obviously) would be -7.  Here are the categories:

W/L Percentage: Score a point for a winning record, take one away for being below .500.

Adjusted ERA: If the team’s staff has a better than league average ERA (4.21), score a point.

Mistakes Per Game: Essentially errors and passed balls are added up.  The norm is about .11 mistakes a game for AL catchers.  Score a point for doing better than that.  Otherwise, take one away.  The only time this is patently unfair is when a team has a knuckleballer – so this works against Boston right now.  But it’s just a single category and I tend to give that team the benefit of the doubt on that category.

Mobililty: Mobility is the total number of assists that aren’t tied to stolen bases and the number of putouts that aren’t strikeouts.  A good catcher blocks the plate and gets outs on throws home, or can race out of the crouch to snare bunts and make plays in the field.  In the AL, the average catcher made .38 plays requiring mobility.  Score a point for beating that number.

Fielding Percentage (not counting strikeouts):  I guess someone had to get credit for the putout when a batter strikes out.  Unfortunately, catching strike three isn’t really “fielding”.  So, I look at the fielding percentage after removing putouts for Ks.  The average catcher has a fielding percentage of about .914 on balls in play or when runners are trying to advance.  Beat it, and score a point.

Assists Per Game: These are assists NOT tied to stolen bases and is used to grade the catcher’s ability to make good throws.  The league average is .23 assists per game.

Stolen Base Percentage: Can a catcher hold the running game in check?  If so, score a point.  The league average is 73.6% – which is awfully high, don’t you think?

The best catcher (well, team of catchers) can score a seven – and it happens from time to time.  As it turns out, there was a seven in the NL in 2009 – and it was your St. Louis Cardinals led by the incredible Yadier Molina.  The Cardinals had a winning record, an adjusted ERA of 3.48, cut off the running game, made few errors, few mistakes in total, had great mobility, and had an above average number of assists not tied to stolen bases.

I’ll list the table here to show you where the catchers rank defensively and then discuss the nuts and bolts in the player comments below.

  M. ERA WPct SB% FPct-K MTK Mob. Asst Rank
NL AVG 4.21 0.500 71.2% 0.917 0.11 0.44 0.33 ***
ARI 4.03 0.432 76.1% 0.948 0.08 0.37 0.32 -1
ATL 3.77 0.531 67.8% 0.906 0.15 0.49 0.31 1
CHN 3.60 0.516 67.4% 0.879 0.14 0.50 0.34 3
CIN 4.23 0.481 62.7% 0.923 0.09 0.52 0.28 1
COL 3.76 0.568 81.0% 0.886 0.11 0.41 0.42 0
FLA 4.02 0.537 75.4% 0.971 0.07 0.35 0.29 1
HOU 4.71 0.457 69.1% 0.924 0.13 0.58 0.38 2
LAN 3.67 0.586 69.5% 0.914 0.09 0.41 0.37 3
MIL 5.12 0.494 79.6% 0.968 0.06 0.43 0.34 -1
NYN 4.58 0.432 66.0% 0.904 0.11 0.38 0.18 -4
PHI 4.10 0.574 72.0% 0.917 0.12 0.39 0.21 0
PIT 4.51 0.385 71.3% 0.883 0.18 0.44 0.39 -4
SDN 5.02 0.463 70.4% 0.891 0.16 0.45 0.29 -3
SFN 3.48 0.543 71.8% 0.911 0.12 0.37 0.42 -1
SLN 3.82 0.562 61.1% 0.943 0.07 0.54 0.42 7
WAS 4.98 0.364 70.1% 0.941 0.10 0.46 0.26 1

Catchers Ranked by Runs Created

Brian McCann (ATL):  Unlike the AL, where Joe Mauer is arguably as valuable as any player in the game, the NL doesn’t have even one catcher who can generate 100 runs of offense.  McCann has the ability to do it, but in 2009 fell a little short.  Not that anybody is complaining – he’s been a top flight catcher for a few years now…  Power, patience, hits for a good average (though not as high as two years ago).  McCann is such a good hitter that it might be worth it to move him to first base to save his bat before the grind catches up with him.  Backup Dave Ross was impressive against base stealers, nabbing 19 of 40 attempts.  (88.95 Runs Created)

Yadier Molina (STL):  A complete defensive package – only the best runners even DARE to run on him, and those are nabbed at a 40% rate.  As an offensive weapon, Molina almost hit .300 and worked his way on base about 36% of the time – very good offensive production for a catcher, too.  (72.22 Runs Created)

Miguel Montero (ARI):  Power, patience, decent batting average.  Granted – gets help by playing in Arizona, but would look good most anywhere.  Montero and Chris Snyder avoid mistakes, but aren’t all that good against the run – and the team generally underperformed (though it’s not their fault that Brandon Webb didn’t play except on Opening Day).  (66.14 Runs Created)

Russell Martin (LAD):  Years of playing every day likely contributed to Martin’s amazing loss of energy and power.  Still a solid defensive catcher – good against the run, his teams are very successful and the pitchers all look good.  He’s consistently the second best catcher in the NL – but now is a below average offensive run producer.  (65.19 Runs Created)

Bengie Molina (SF):  More power than most catchers, and a decent (if slightly above average) batting average.  Rarely walks, though, so his OBP is low (.291) which makes him a slightly below average offensive performer even with the power.  People can run on Bengie (and do) and he’s just below average in terms of his mobility and dependability.  Backup Eli Whiteside was great against the run.  In a year, Buster Posey will have this job.  Maybe sooner.  (61.7 Runs Created)

Miguel Olivo, recently of Kansas City and now in Colorado, would rank here.

John Baker (FLA):  He’s a decent enough hitter that Baker bats second in the lineup from time to time.  Good OBP, decent power.  His platoon mate, Ronny Paulino, also had a good season so the Marlins got a lot of production from this spot.  Both tend to be dependable, but not necessarily mobile – and Paulino threw well enough…  (50.26 Runs Created)

Jason Kendall (MIL):  Brings his lack of power and barely acceptable on base percentage with him to Kansas City.  To Kendall’s credit, the man is durable.  On the other hand, look how badly so many Brewers pitchers fared.  Look at the team ERA.  Sure, he doesn’t make mistakes, but baserunners were successful 80% of the time.  And the Royals didn’t want John Buck out there?   For 2010, the Brewers will try Greg Zaun, George Kottaras, and possibly rookie Angel Salome – who would be my first choice… (50.24 Runs Created)

Carlos Ruiz (PHI):  Not appreciably different than Baker – both had 9 homers, between 40 and 50 RBI, and virtually the same SLG and OBP.  Ruiz, Paul Bako, and Chris Coste provide ordinary, middle of the road defense.  How many teams has Paul Bako played for now?  (48.6 Runs Created)

Rod Barajas – just signed by the Mets – would rank here.

Chris Iannetta (COL):  His batting average was down (.228), but his power and OBP were still solid.  Shared the job with Yorvit Torrealba and now will share with Miguel Olivo.  Virtually everyone could run on Torrealba or third stringer Paul Phillips.  (41.42 Runs Created)

Ramon Hernandez (CIN):  I’d say this was a disappointing season for the veteran backstop – missed half the season due to injuries.  Power numbers fell off to five homers, the rest of his game is barely average.  Of course, Ryan Hanigan caught the most innings, but he’s not better with the bat (merely average at best).  Even third stringer Craig Tatum had a good year against base stealers and as a team, the Reds had pretty good catching defensively.  (40.10 Runs Created)

Nick Hundley (SD):  Had stats that his dad might have had…  Some power, a low batting average, but on the whole wasn’t too bad.  Has room to improve defensively – easy to run on and a bit mistake prone.  Henry Blanco was much better behind the plate, but you’d rather see Nick with the stick.  (39.18 Runs Created)

Geovany Soto (CHI):  Now THERE’S a sophomore slump.  Ouch.  Cut his homers in half (seemed like his batting average, too) – lost power and his OBP (.326).  Says that he’s going to come into spring training in better shape and also not have to deal with the World Baseball Classic.  For the Cubs sake, let’s hope so.  Defensively, his backup, Koyie Hill, looked stronger against the run, but as a team they were above average in five categories – so they ranked very highly.  (38.66 Runs Created)

Ivan Rodriguez (HOU):  Finished year in Texas, now catching for the Nationals.  His arm isn’t as good as it used to be, but it’s still solid.  Backup Humberto Quintero was even better, nabbing 12 of 25 would be base stealers.  I-Rod’s bat is gone, though.  As a prospect, J.R. Towles would appear to be finished, huh?  (36.46 Runs Created)

Ryan Doumit (PIT):  Missed time with injuries (most catchers do), didn’t have his best season offensively and, as such, fell far down the list.  As a team, Pirate catchers look bad – mistake prone, average against the run, with poor records and poor pitching ERAs.  Jason Jaramillo isn’t the answer either and hits like a backup catcher.  (34.97 Runs Created)

Omir Santos (NYM):  Forced into more playing time than planned, Santos was tolerable.  Slightly below average as a hitter – like many of the people on this list – Santos played when (a) Brian Schneider couldn’t keep his back and knees healthy and then (b) Ramon Castro got sent to the White Sox.  On the whole, Santos didn’t look very mobile and Schneider certainly is more polished.  But, the Mets catching as a whole looked off – below average results for pitchers and the team, a few too many mistakes…  (34.20 Runs Created)

Ronny Paulino, discussed above, would rank here in offensive production – not bad for the right handed partner of a very effective Marlins platoon.  (32.41 Runs Created)

Ryan Hanigan, the Reds catcher, got more innings than Hernandez, but a few less at bats.  Good glove, a little bat kind of a guy.

Josh Bard (WAS)  Got more innings than Wil Nieves or the injured Jesus Flores, Bard has some skills and was probably glad to not have to catch a knuckler…  Doesn’t hit or get on base, and is power is marginal at best.  (29.03 Runs Created)

Yorvit Torrealba (COL)  Suffered through the kidnapping of his son, which – fortunately for all – ended without incident.  Hit .305 with a decent OBA…  Brutal against the run (8 out of 57 baserunners) but made fewer errors than Iannetta.  (25.95 Runs Created)

Koyie Kill (CHC):  Not much of a hitter – but can still throw some.  (23.94 Runs Created)

Top NL Shortstops in 2009

Hanley Ramirez (FLA):  Not great defensively, but an amazingly good hitter and the whole package makes him the best shortstop in baseball.  More patient than ever, has solid power and can still run the bases.  Go look at his minor league stats and tell me if you can see this coming.  I still think Miguel Cabrera is the best player ever to wear the Marlins uniform, but it might be Hanley.  (126.9 Runs Created, -6.24 Runs Saved = 120.63 Total Run Production)

Miguel Tejada (HOU):  Still a remarkably productive hitter despite not drawing any walks.  Hardly misses a game, had a decent year in the field (Blum can’t cut off anything) – now heading back to Baltimore and moving to third base.  (104.1 Runs Created, -2.0 Runs Saved = 102.07 Total Run Production)

There was a time when I was a big Tejada fan.  Now, not so much.  The Astros wanted him to move to third base and had he done that the Astros would have been probably 30 runs better because Keppinger would have been the full time shortstop.  (That being said, Keppinger should have been the full time third baseman.)  He lied about his age.  He was incriminated by Rafael Palmeiro – and if you look at it – I absolutely believe that Tejada was juicing.  He was in Oakland, one of the two centers of PED abuse (the other being Texas, but only because Canseco brought the practice with him from Oakland to Texas).  His power numbers have fallen off the further away from his PED use he’s gotten.  He does what he thinks is right and not what the manager wants.  Nobody has come right out and said it, but there’s no way he’s a role model for anybody.

Troy Tulowitzki (COL):  Even considering he played in Colorado, Tulo’s offense was great – good power, good patience, good baserunning, almost hit .300.  His fielding isn’t what it was a few years ago when he came up, but if he puts 100 runs on the board, nobody will complain.  (106.0 Runs Created, -6.6 Runs Saved = 99.43 Total Run Production)

Yunel Escobar (ATL):  I see a lot of him being a Marlins fan and boy is this guy good.  He’s no Ramirez, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he hits .320 with 20 homers one day.  I hope he’s on my fantasy team when he does it.  I look for that season in 2011, but it could be this year.  92.9 Runs Created, 3.4 Runs Saved = 96.24 Total Run Production)

Rafael Furcal (LAD):  A near healthy season – his batting average isn’t what it once was, and he doesn’t tear up the bases like he used to, and he can’t field the way he once did…  His arm is still a cannon.  He’s pretty much a league average starter now and slightly above average for his position.  (85.7 Runs Created, 3.5 Runs Saved = 89.17 Total Run Production)

Ryan Theriot (CHC):  Doesn’t hit for enough power to move up this list, but still  a fine shortstop.  The Cubs should be glad to have him.  (75.8 Runs Created, 8.5 Runs Saved = 84.27 Total Run Production)

Brendan Ryan (STL):  I liked him a couple of years ago, but he was better than I had thought he’d be in 2009.  Hit enough and played the position supurbly.  Didn’t get enough credit for helping the Cardinals make it to the top of the NL Central.  (58.5 Runs Created, 21.2 Runs Saved = 79.71 Total Run Production)

Everth Cabrera (SD):  Brendan Ryan with a bit more speed.  He’s an old school #2 hitter – would be nice if he could step up with about 15% more offense.  That means finding more ways to get on base because he has little, if any, power.  (59.1 Runs Created, 13.7 Runs Saved = 72.81 Total Run Production)

Stephen Drew (ARI):  Isn’t horrible, but I can’t help but think he’s kind of a disappointment.  Hits for a little power, gets on base some – doesn’t kill you with the glove.  You don’t hear about him because he plays in Arizona and they aren’t all that good right now, but he’s not all that noticeable either.  (68.2 Runs Created, -3.67 Runs Saved = 64.56 Total Run Production)

Jimmy Rollins (PHI):  Phillie fans are going to be surprised at this rating, but despite the power and base stealing, what did he do?  I know – Rollins got the gold glove.  But did ANYBODY look at the stats?  Like Derek Jeter, his reputation was bigger than his range – he had the WORST range of anyone playing 300 innings at the position – except for the ancient Edgar Renteria.  When you adjust for the staff (balls in play, groundball/fly ball) Rollins is dead last.  He also didn’t get on base.  When he’s on – he can explode offensively, but he is NOT a valuable commodity anymore.  Would I rather have Everth Cabrera these days than Jimmy Rollins?  Yes.  Yes, I would.  (88.5 Runs Created, -26.07 Runs Saved = 62.42 Total Run Production)

Cristian Guzman (WAS):  Only his batting average is worth anything.  Range is gone, speed is gone, and he has little power or patience at the plate.  I’d play Ian Desmond.  (63.9 Runs Created, -10.2 Runs Saved = 53.73 Total Run Production)

J.J. Hardy (MIL):  Gone – now the job belongs to Alcides Escobar.  He’s not horrible, but it would be nice if he could find his bat again.  I promise you he’ll be playing for two or three more years and is NOT the new Dale Sveum.  (47.9 Runs Created, 3.9 Runs Saved = 51.74 Total Run Production)

Alcides Escobar got his first taste of the big leagues and looked great.  Good range, decent enough bat.  At 500 at bats and 140 games, he’s moving into the top seven and if he’s all that, he’s a big step up from Hardy.

Paul Janish (CIN):  Can’t hit a lick (.211, with little power or patience) but had amazing defensive stats.  The new John McDonald?  (23.7 Runs Created, 24.73 Runs Saved = 48.46 Total Run Production)

Jack Wilson (PIT/SEA):  I know – great glove.  However, he’s gettin older, missing time, and isn’t much of an offensive force.  Tell me again how this helps the Mariners in the long run?  (39.8 Runs Created, 7.6 Runs Saved = 47.40 Total Run Production)

Edgar Renteria (SF):  Had a better year with the glove than normal, but still below average.  Not much offensively anymore either.  And yet, he has a job in San Francisco.  Reason #3 that the team won’t make the playoffs.  (46.9 Runs Created, -6.7 Runs Saved = 40.29 Total Run Production)

Jeff Keppinger (HOU):  Most of the time, he played third base behind Blum but he can still play short.  If he played full time, he’s at least as good as Guzman and maybe as productive (overall) as Rollins or Drew.   In 2010, he might get more innings there – the MLB depth chart lists rookie Tommy Manzello as the potential starter.  Manzello has little power, isn’t a huge on base guy – but if he can field at all he’s a Jack Wilson clone. (39.4 Runs Created, 0.7 Runs Saved = 40.07 Total Run Production)

Ronny Cedeno (PIT):  No hit, decent glove, utility infield type.  Not going to impact Pittsburgh other than he’s playing because nobody else is ready.  31.0 Runs Created, 7.3 Runs Saved = 38.3 Total Run Production)

Alex Cora (NYM):  Broke BOTH thumbs.  Now THAT’S a bad break.  He’s really not a half-bad player and most teams would love to have him as their shortstop.  (29.2 Runs Created, 7.6 Runs Saved = 36.78 Total Run Production)

Alex Gonzalez (CIN/BOS):  Age and injuries have sapped his range – he was never that good with the bat.  It was a good run, though.  Orlando Cabrera has the job now and he’s a serious step up over what Cincy threw out there in 2009. (39.9 Runs Created, -12.3 Runs Saved = 27.6 Total Run Production)

Jose Reyes (NYM):  Obviously a better player than this, but his bum wheels affected his range and he didn’t play into the summer.  If healthy, he’s top six for sure.  (23.6 Runs Created, -6.3 Runs Saved = 17.26 Total Run Production)

Seattle a Buyer? Adds Wilson, Snell from Bucs for Clement and Four Others

Last year, many had Seattle contending for the AL West crown only to look bad as Jarrod Washburn struggled and Erik Bedard went down to injury.  This year, forecasts for Seattle were more conservative – and yet here is Seattle just 7-1/2 behind Los Angeles and an outside shot to take down a wild card spot.  So – rather than deal away talent, Seattle tried to fill a couple of holes and just might have done it.  Seattle acquired shortstop Jack Wilson, who had complained about his lot in Pittsburgh, and Ian Snell, whose struggles earned him a ticket to AAA, for a quintet of players including Jeff Clement, Ronnie Cedeno and three others.

Seattle Gets:  A solid fielder, even at 31, who is looking for a change of scenery.  Jack Wilson is 25 runs each season better than the departed Yuniesky Betancourt and the recently struggling Ronnie Cedeno (a good utility infielder, though – and a legitimately great fielder).  Wilson won’t put these guys over the top, but he’s a step up for sure and might be even better now that he’s with a team that – so far as he knows – isn’t dealing away anybody with talent for prospects. 

Ian Snell is the wild card.  He SHOULD be a solid #3 starter, but because he’s been in Pittsburgh where arms go lame and playing for a team that hasn’t had a sense of direction, he hasn’t really developed into the top flight starter he should be.  That being said, he can be fixed; he can be saved.  Seattle give him that opportunity.  And, if Bedard can come back and give the Mariners eight to ten solid starts, you almost have to like their chances to make a run in September.  It may not be enough, but if they find one more piece – preferably a hitter – the Mariners are contenders.

Pittsburgh Gets:   Well.  I’m not sure.  Jeff Clement was a first round pick out of USC – and should be what Ryan Doumit is.  But he hasn’t been that good.  Look, if you play in the PCL, just drop 50 points off the batting average – and Clement has hit about .275.  That doesn’t equal a major leaguer.  Maybe he can find something in Pittsburgh to add 40 points to his batting average and unlock his power.  However, he’ll be 26 in a month and he’s running out of time as a prospect.  He can catch – and if Doumit becomes a permanent first baseman, he’ll help out for a year or two.  After that, though, I’m not sold on Jeff Clement.

Ronny Cedeno has improved some with more time in the majors – as a hitter.  He’s a gold glove candidate if he plays 1000 innings in the field.  So, the Pirates got Jack Wilson without the bad attitude and a little less punch.  I’ll try not to get too excited, though.  If Pittsburgh is to win at all on this deal, the three minor leaguers had better be prospects.

Nathan Adcock is a high school draft pick from 2006 who isn’t making great progress in the minors.  He has some stuff, but no command and remains – three years later – with A+ High Desert Mavericks.  If he makes a big step up in his control, he’s got a shot at being a mop up reliever.  At this point, though, he’s losing ground on being a ranked prospect.

Brett Lorin is a young arm pitching for Clinton (A) right now – and pitching really well.  A starter with good command – a great K/W ratio, too – Lorin has a chance to make this work for Pittsburgh.  The problem is (a) he’s still three years away, and (b) Pittsburgh has wasted the arms of so many prospects.  Otherwise, I like this kid and think that the 2012 rotation may feature Lorin in the #4 or #5 spot.  If he gets further than that, the Pirates will have overhauled their development program.

Aaron Pribanic is pitching with Lorin at Clinton.  Drafted out of the University of Nebraska, he’s got decent numbers but at a glance his stuff isn’t quite as nasty as Lorin’s.  Given a few years to mature, though, he might turn into Matt Herges – and that wouldn’t be a bad career.  We’ll get a few baseball cards, anyway.  I don’t see him making a huge difference in the Pirates fortunes in 2012, but he could be on the roster.

In summary, I think Seattle wins this one – getting two guys who can help now and might have an immediate impact just by being freed from the Bucs dungeon.  Pittsburgh, however, only removed two talents who were no longer friends of management to acquire the next Andy Marte, Rey Ordonez, and three guys to fill out the AA roster.  I’ll root for Lorin to wear the black and yellow, though.

In a related trade…  Disappointing prospect Wladimir Balentien was shuttled to Cincinnati for reliever Robert Manuel.  I’m okay with this – Balentien might help the Reds in a utility outfielder role and he certainly needs a change of scenery, having failed in Seattle and being designated for assignment.  However, Manuel isn’t bad – good control in the minors, strikes out a lot of guys.  If this translates to big league success, you’re talking about getting a seventh inning guy or long reliever you aren’t embarrassed to shove out there if needed.  I like both of these moves for Seattle.  I DON’T think they’re going to catch teams and surprise someone in the playoffs, but they definitely improved the roster for very little cost.