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

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

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

One Cheat Passes Another…

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

Fond Farewell…

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

But He Made The Ten Best Dressed List…

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

From the Training Room…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transaction Wire

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

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

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

Happy Birthday!

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

2010 Season Forecast: Houston Astros

Last Five Seasons:

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

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

Season Recap:

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

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

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

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

Pitching:

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

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

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

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

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

Catching:

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

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

Infield:

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

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

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

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

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

Outfield:

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

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

Prospects:

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

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

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

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

Forecast:

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

Cooper Fired in Houston; Did He Have a Chance?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Youkilis in Left? God, Engineering Saves Friend

With Jason Bay out for most of the weekend and Rocco Baldelli nursing a sore ankle, the Red Sox moved Kevin Youkilis to left field for a game or two.  Youkilis was lifted for a defensive replacement, but managed an assist – throwing out Derek Jeter at second base.  [FoxSports]

Arizona placed outfielder Justin Upton on the DL with an oblique strain suffered, oddly, while running the bases.  (Well, it could have happened earlier, but he noticed it running the bases…)  Taking his roster spot is long time minor leaguer, Trent Oeltjen – an Aussie Olympian – who brings some speed, but not much power to the Snakes.  Hitting .300 in Reno, it translates to about .250 with a few walks, some steals and maybe a triple or two more than most players…  [ESPN]

The Mets have decided that Bobby Parnell will replace the injured Jonathan Niese in the rotation.  Parnell throws HARD – 98 MPH or so – so I might have to actually watch a Mets game (when they aren’t playing the Marlins or Cubs).  [ESPN]

The Yankees acquired Chad Gaudin from the Padres for either cash or a player to be named later…  With San Diego acquiring a number of prospects at the trading deadline, Gaudin became expendable.  He’ll be a long reliever or fifth starter option in the Bronx.   Let me ask you this…  How good is any pitcher with a 5.13 ERA pitching in the run scarce environment in San Diego? [SI]

Two Washington Nationals minor leaguers, both at AA Harrisburg, were suspended 50 games for testing positive for amphetamines.  Ofilio Castro and Edgardo Baez will miss most of the rest of the season.  [FoxSports]

Then, the Nationals set infielder Anderson Hernandez to the Mets for minor leaguer Greg Veloz.  Neither is a prospect, and I’ve watched Hernandez – he’s a glove in search of hitting skills.

Baseball card collectors wanting official MLB stuff will now have fewer options…  MLB signed an exclusive multi-year deal with Topps Trading Cards Co., which (if you didn’t know) is now run by Michael Eisner.  Yeah – that Michael Eisner.  Upper Deck still has a deal with the MLB Players Association, which means that they can make cards, but cannot use team logos and what not.  I’ve collected pretty much only Topps cards for years, but I will admit the last 15 years or so have been crazy with so many possible brands.  Now, it should be easier for kids to figure out what to buy.  [SI]

I mention this because my friend, Andy Finch, is a professor at Vanderbilt…  Mike Minor, Commodore grad and seventh overall pick in the 2009 draft, signed a contract with Atlanta yesterday.  This summer, we saw two other Vandy alums playing in Peoria – so maybe we can find this guy in a minor league game next summer.  [ESPN]

Speaking of friends…  One of the best people I know, Steve Dubin, walked away from a five car accident yesterday morning.  He was on the turnpike heading to the office when he had to stop for cars who had slowed for a flash rain.  He stopped, but the van behind him did not and plowed into him at about 65 MPH.  The impact threw Steve and his car across three lanes of traffic, where he bounced off of three other cars.  God and Hyundai engineering shined down on Steve – he got out of his car and, not knowing what to do, began taking pictures of the mess.  The interior – including two car seats, which thankfully were empty – was intact.  The exterior, however, was crushed like a discarded beer can.

I’ve known Steve for about a decade, our kids will probably date in high school, and his wife is a sweetheart.  But I feel especially lucky to still have the big lug around.  He was hauled to a hospital, checked out okay, and given pain killers to deal with the ache of getting whalloped the way Albert Pujols hits belt-high fastballs.  That seems reason enough to think today will be a good day no matter what else happens.

Welcome Back!  Doug Waechter returns from the DL for the Royals, and they need him…  Royal reliever Juan Cruz was placed on the DL with a strained right shoulder.  The Yankees signeed Russ Ortiz to a minor league contract.  He’s Chad Gaudin, only older and used to be good.

Hurry Back!  Other than Cruz, Rocco Baldelli (mentioned above) is on the DL with his ankle contusion.

Dodgers and Cubs Fortify Bullpen; Pirates Nearly Devoid of ML Roster

The Los Angeles Dodgers sent two prospects to Baltimore to acquire George Sherrill; the Oriole closer will become the eighth inning pitcher in front of Jonathan Broxton or give Joe Torre an alternate closer if needed.  Baltimore gets Josh Bell and Steve Johnson, two solid prospects.  In fact, if you add it up, the Orioles originally got Sherrill as part of the Erik Bedard trade, so to trade Sherrill for two more players, Baltimore has actually turned Bedard into six players.  [ESPN]

Sherrill was an all-star in 2008 and has actually gotten better in 2009, with just a single loss against 20 saves and a 2.40 ERA.  Josh Bell is a third baseman with some skill – just 22 (drafted out of Lantana HS in Florida), he’s improved his patience and contact as he’s moved through the minors, has a little power, and likely can be considered a replacement to Melvin Mora in 2011.  Steve Johnson is the son of former Oriole pitcher (and current broadcaster) Dave Johnson.  He fights his control from time to time, but he’s got a big strikeout pitch and just arrived in AA one month shy of 22 and looked impressive.  If he rights the control ship, he’d be a solid prospect.  For now, he’s a live arm with potential.

 The Cubs swapped pitchers with the Pirates, sending starter Kevin Hart, reliever Jose Ascanio, and minor league infielder Josh Harrison to Pittsburgh for reliever John Grabow and Jayhawk alum, Tom Gorzelanny.  The Cubs wanted left handed pitching – especially a situational lefty – and got it.  The Pirates swap someone who was good once for someone who could make the rotation right away (Gorzelanny for Hart)…  This isn’t much of a trade, but the bonus could be nice for the Bucs – and that’s Josh Harrison.  Harrison is a mobile infielder who makes good contact and is willing to work the count.  In a couple of years, he could be playing second base and batting second in the Pirates lineup.  I actually like this deal for Pittsburgh.  [SI]

The Cubs will be looking for an outfielder to replace Reed Johnson, who fouled a ball off his foot, causing a fracture that will sideline Johnson for three to four weeks.  [MLB]

Kansas City sent cash to Detroit for outfielder Josh Anderson.  I like Anderson, though he’s never really made a big splash at the major league level yet.  He’ll be a welcome defender for Royals pitchers, and with the underperforming Jose Guillen out with a knee injury. he’s actually a step up over what the Royals are playing now.  He’s NOT going to change the fortune of the Royals – Anderson is a line drive guy with not a whole lot of power and never drew a ton of walks – but at least he can play a little.  Kansas City needs a BOPPER.  [ESPN]

Arizona’s ace Brandon Webb’s shoulder has never felt right this year, and now he’s going to be examined again – in part to determine if he needs surgery.   This all started when Webb was negotiating an extension, and now he’s likely going to miss two full seasons…  [ESPN]

Hurry Back!  Brewer starter Jeff Suppan heads to the DL with a strained oblique.

Is it Over?  Houston released Russ Ortiz.  He hasn’t won a July game in five years – and the Cubs pounded him last night.