Rating the Pitchers: 2012 National League

In rating pitchers, my system looks at the number of runs allowed per nine by each pitcher, then is modified by a couple of things – the park in which he pitches, and the defense of the players behind him.  When I have that, I compare the number of runs he allowed to what the average pitcher might have allowed in the same number of innings to get a positive number of runs saved, or a negative number of runs – essentially how many additional runs that pitcher cost his team. In case you were curious, the average NL pitcher allowed 4.3054 runs per nine…

A pitcher in Colorado had a lot of things going against him.  First, games in Colorado scored about 400 more runs (5 per game for both teams combined) than Rockies road games.  Then, the defense behind him was brutal – costing pitchers an extra 100 runs.  Meanwhile, the pitchers in San Francisco got help from the park, and the team’s fielders (about 45 runs).

Top Starters:

37.91 Kris Medlin, ATL (138.00 innings)
33.34 Johnny Cueto, CIN (217.00)
31.06 Kyle Lohse, STL (211.00)
30.34 Clayton Kershaw, LAD (227.67)
28.98 R.A. Dickey, NYM (233.67)

22.27 Ryan Dempster, CHC (104.00)
21.95 Gio Gonzalez, WAS (199.33)
21.79 Cole Hamels, PHI (215.33)
21.15 Wade Miley, ARZ (194.67)
20.83 Cliff Lee, PHI (211.00)

Honorable Mentions:

Jordan Zimmermann
Yovani Gallardo
Matt Cain
Mat Latos
Zack Greinke

The NL Cy Young award went to Dickey, the uniqueness of his being a knuckleballer making his season seem so improbable – given how baseball loves smoke or power and loathes gimmicks.  Still, the system says that the most effective pitcher was a guy who pitched essentially a half-season (half a season from 15 years ago), which will happen from time to time.  Medlin finished with a 1.57 ERA, gave up fewer than a baserunner per inning and allowed but a homer every 23 innings.  Personally, I would have voted for Dickey and then Johnny Cueto, who didn’t get the same kind of help from his defense or park as Dickey.

Ryan Dempster didn’t pitch nearly as well in Boston as he did in Chicago before he left, and the Phillies decline can partially be traced to losing the performance of an ace (Roy Halliday).  Additional props shall be given to Clayton Kershaw who essentially repeated his Cy Young performance from 2011.

Kyle Lohse can’t get an offer from someone?  People remember too well how he pitched before he got to St. Louis and must think that he can’t carry this to another team…

Top Relievers:

22.41 Craig Kimbrel, ATL (62.67 innings)
21.73 Aroldis Chapman, CIN (71.67)
16.19 Mitchell Boggs, STL (73.33)
14.38 Rafael Betancourt, COL (57.67)
14.37 Wilton Lopez, HOU (66.33)

13.72 Brad Ziegler, ARI (68.67)
13.56 David Hernandez, ARI (68.33)
13.54 Luke Gregerson, SD (71.67)
13.53 Craig Stammen, WAS (88.33)
13.25 Matt Belisle, COL (80.00)

Honorable Mention:

Sergio Romo
Jason Motte
Eric O’Flaherty
Sean Marshall
Jonathan Papelbon

Craig Kimbral was only slightly more effective than Aroldis Chapman, who will likely become a starter.  Both pitchers were crazy good – Kimbrel allowing just 27 hits and 14 walks in 62.2 innings, while striking out 116 batters.  Chapman pitched nine more innings, gave up a few more hits and a few more walks, and struck out a hair fewer per nine.  Those two were well ahead of the next guy (Boggs), and to be honest, there wasn’t much difference between the next several guys.

Rafael Betancourt may be the best setup man in baseball and has been for many, many years now.

Worst Pitchers:

-44.88 Tim Lincecum, SF (186 tortuous innings)
-28.58 Erik Bedard, PIT (125.67)
-26.23 Chris Volstad, CHC (111.33)
-25.96 Jordan Lyles, HOU (141.33)
-24.77 Ross Ohlendorf, SD (48.67)

-22.07 Kevin Correia, PIT (171.00)
-21.56 Barry Zito, SF (184.33)
-20.41 Justin Germano, CHC (64.00)
-20.12 Jair Jurrjens, ATL (48.33)
-19.15 Tommy Hanson, ATL (174.67)

Usually, Tim Lincecum is on the top starter list – and the Giants gave him every chance to get his season on track.  Instead, he finished 10 – 15 and didn’t miss a start.  His K/9 rate was still pretty good, but he walked too many guys and was hurt by the long ball.  Throw in the fact that his defense and park were actually HELPING him, and that 5.18 ERA is even worse, really.

That both San Francisco and Atlanta were able to make it to the post season with TWO starters who were killing them is impressive.  And Pittsburgh was loaded with poor starters and still were competitive for most of the season.

In the case of Jurrjens and Ross Ohlendorf, this was the case of eight or nine brutal starts rather than a full season of below average misery.  Ohlendorf was allowing more than 4.5 runs than the average pitcher every nine innings.

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2012 Season Forecast: Chicago Cubs

2011 Record:  71 – 91 (5th, NL Central)
Runs Scored:  654 (8th, NL)
Runs Allowed:  756 (14th, NL)

Only Colorado and Houston allowed more runs…

2011 in Review:

The Cubs started losing early, and pretty much were consistent about it throughout the season.  Starlin Castro kept hitting all year long, but the team was lacking in production from the outfield and the catcher spot.  Carlos Zambrano was extremely frustrated and threatened to retire – but considering his history of blow ups, the Cubs shut him down anyway.  The Cubs really had little truly decent pitching, helped by a defense that had little range and made a lot of errors.  When it was over, Chicago was under new ownership.  That group finally let Jim Hendry go – Hendry was the GM who was responsible for this mess – and replaced him with the Boston Red Sox mastermind, Theo Epstein.  At least the Cubs have THAT going for them.

 

Starting Pitching:

Matt Garza was acquired from Tampa and battled things to a draw.  He finished 10 – 10, his ERA looks good here, but it’s masked somewhat by the 17 unearned runs he allowed.  In terms of runs allowed per nine, he was barely league average.  Ryan Dempster‘s season was particularly troublesome.  His strikeout rate was pretty good, but he walked more than in the past and he gave up too many homers.  Zambrano, Randy Wells, Casey Coleman, Rodrigo Lopez, and Doug Davis were all at least 10 runs worse than the average pitcher given the number of innings pitched.  Here’s the breakdown:

Runs Saved /Pitcher
1.81    Matt Garza (31 starts)
-10.71  Rodrigo Lopez (16 starts)
-12.45  Carlos Zambrano (24 starts)
-13.24  Randy Wells (24 starts)
-16.82  Doug Davis (9 starts – ouch)
-17.17  Ryan Dempster (34 starts)
-22.88  Casey Coleman (17 starts)

Essentially, the starters gave up 90 runs more than an average pitcher would have done in the same amount of innings.

For 2012, Dempster and Garza are back.  Zambrano was traded to the Marlins for starter Chris Volstad, but that’s not an improvement – Volstad pitched worse than Zambrano last year.  Jeff Samardzija is being moved to the rotation – he was one of the few Cubs pitchers to pitch on the good side of average.  If he can match that for 180 innings instead of 90 innings, that would be a huge improvement over, say, Casey Coleman and Rodrigo Lopez.  If Wells can stay healthy and get back, that would help, too.  One can see a 40 run improvement at this spot.

 

Relief Pitchers:

Carlos Marmol has been a closer for a few years now, and he isn’t getting any better.  A closer with an ERA over 4 is a problem – and he’s so wild that he’s allowing nearly six walks every nine innings.  The set up squad was actually pretty good – Samardzija was nearly six runs better than the average pitcher; Sean Marshall was even better – the best pitcher on the staff (14 runs saved).  Kerry Wood was tolerable, but is running out of innings in his arm.  After that, though, you run through some guys who struggled – John Grabow and James Russell.

Looking forward, I’m scared here.  The best pitcher, Sean Marshall, is gone.  Samardzija is in the rotation.  The Cubs could be relying on Coleman to take on a long relief role, or pulling in Rafael Dolis or Chris Carpenter.  I’m worried that this unit could easily be 10 – 15 runs worse than 2011.

 

Catching:

As a unit, Geovany Soto and Koyie Hill were fair against the run and mobile.  On the other hand, they were mistake prone and if they are to get some responsibility for the pitching staff, the team was 20 games under .500 with a lousy overall ERA.

Soto can hit a little, but he’s been inconsistent with his batting average and power.  Soto finished by hitting .228 with 17 homers, which really isn’t good enough – especially in Wrigley Field.  Hill was worse – .194 with sub .300 slugging and on base percentages.

 

Infield:

I made a comment that the team defense wasn’t very good in 2011 – that doesn’t apply to the middle infielders here.  Shortstop Starlin Castro saved the team 18 runs – which breaks down to 24 runs because of his range, but he gives back nearly six runs because of his errors.  Darwin Barney was also mobile and slightly error prone, but the net result was another 14 runs saved.  The play on the corners, though, featured two older guys who no longer have the range to help out.  Carlos Pena was once a fine fielder – not anymore.  He cost the team 19 runs.  Aramis Ramirez was even worse – he cost the Cubs 36 runs.  Granted, the offense here isn’t half bad.  Barney has room to improve – he needs to be more selective at the plate and get his batting average up to the .290 range.  Castro had 207 hits and generated 108 runs of offense, but he makes a lot of outs.  Ramirez had a nice season – 109 runs created, and Pena added 85 more, despite hitting just .225 (he drew 101 walks and hit 28 homers).  That kind of production will be hard to replace.

The Cubs will try Bryan Lahair, the minor league home run champ, at first base.  His fielding isn’t sterling, but his bat can help.  Ian Stewart was acquired from Colorado and he’s going to hit better than the .156 he hit in 2011, but he’s NOT going to be the run producer that Ramirez was.  Castro may still have more growth in him, as will Barney, but this unit could easily be down 50 runs from last year.

 

Outfield:

The Cubs featured an outfield of Alfonso Soriano, who has below average range, Marlon Byrd, who is surprisingly mobile for an older guy – but still below average in terms of range, and, for three months, Kosuke Fukudome.  Fukodome has great range for a right fielder.  Tyler Colvin replaced him, but he fell off the map in terms of his offensive output.

Offensively, Soriano still has power – 26 homers – but he doesn’t run and he still is too much of a free swinger.  Byrd seems to have lost all of his power and he, too, stopped getting on base after getting hit in the face with a pitch in Boston last May.  Colvin hit .150 – ouch!  The Cubs never seemed satisfied with Fukudome, yet he was actually the most productive hitter in the outfield.

Colvin is gone – he’s in Colorado – but Soriano isn’t going anywhere soon, and Byrd needs to get out of center and move to right so that the young legs of Tony Campana can take over in center.  Reed Johnson (he’s still around?) played well – he needed to play more.  The problem is that the Cubs don’t have someone who can help immediately.

 

Prospects:

The AAA Iowa Cubs were devoid of young prospects who can help soon…  The aforementioned Bryan Lahair hit 38 – 109 – .331, but was 28 last year.  The best player to roll through here that was younger might be catcher Wellington Castillo , a 24-year-old who looks no better or worse than Geovany Soto, and Tony Campana, who was here for just 30 games and hit .342 – a burner with little or no power.  Casey Coleman was the best pitcher, but even he had holes – he doesn’t have a big strikeout pitch and he gave up 11 homers in 70 innings.

There may be help in AA, though – the Tennessee Smokies were a top flight minor league team.  Josh Vitters, a former #1 pick (2007) and Rebel Ridling – a great name – hit enough and with some power to suggest that they might get a shot by the end of 2012.  2008 #1 pick Ryan Flaherty hit pretty well, but he’s a shortstop and middle infielders are pretty set in Chicago.  He might get used in a deal soon – him or his fellow middle infielder D.J. LeMahieu…  The pitcher who had results was reliever Jeff Beliveau – who sounds like he should be a hockey player – 57 innings, 69 Ks and just 13 walks.  Kevin Rhoderick has a stunning arm but needs to refine his control.  Jeff Stevens had good numbers here, but he’s already turning 28 soon and has had a cup of coffee…

A+ Daytona finished second in the Florida State League and first baseman Justin Bour led the team in homers and RBIs – hitting 23 homers in the FSL is legit power.  Undrafted Junior Lake continued to play well – is turning 22 and hit over .300 with some power and great speed.  One thing you notice when looking over the pitching staff is a lack of high draft picks – the best pitcher was undrafted Jeff Antiqua, who logged 83.1 innings, fanned 81, and walked just 18.

If there is help on the way, it might be catcher Richard Jones, who hit 24 homers and batted .309 for low A Peoria.  It doesn’t look like it will be #1 pick Hayden Simpson, who fell off to 1 – 6 – 5.32.  The best arm might belong to 11th round pick Eric Jokisch, who went 9 – 3 with a good K/W ratio in 118.2 innings.

 

2012 Forecast:

The Cubs will probably allow 30 fewer runs this year – it can’t really get worse than 2011 – but the offense looks worse.  If the team falls back another 50 runs, which is entirely possible, you’re looking at a 66 – 96 team.  If Stewart doesn’t come back and Soriano falls off, and LeHair doesn’t hit in the majors, the Cubs are looking at 100 losses.  Theo Epstein has a lot of work to do.

2011 NL Best and Worst Pitchers

Finally getting caught up on my statistical analysis as I head into the 2012 Spring Training season…  First of all, God Bless Sean Lahman, whose baseball database makes it possible to write queries and look at statistics using a Microsoft Access relational database…  The rest is doing the math.

When I review best and worst pitchers, I look at the total number of runs saved relative to the league average pitcher.  I get data for runs allowed per nine innings, then adjust for the pitcher’s home park and finally I adjust for the defense of the players behind that pitcher.  The best pitcher is the one who saves his team the most runs – the worst is the pitcher who costs his team the most runs.

Top Starting Pitchers of 2011:

Roy Halliday (PHI) 45.37 saved runs – 233.2 innings
Cliff Lee (PHI) 43.94 – 232.2 innings
Clayton Kershaw (LAD) 37.81 – 233.1 innings
Cole Hamels (PHI) 34.28 – 216 innings
Ian Kennedy (AZ) 31.53 – 222 innings
Johnny Cueto (CIN) 20.82 – 156 innings
Jair Jurrjens (ATL) 17.56 – 152 innings
Jhoulys Chacin (COL) 17.53 – 194 innings
R.A. Dickey (NYM) 15.92 – 208.2 innings
Vance Worley (PHI) 15.53 – 131.2 innings

You want to know why the Phillies won 100+ games, it’s because they had three of the top four starting pitchers, and a fourth who wound up in the top ten.  Even Roy Oswalt (not listed) was an above average pitcher.  Clayton Kershaw was a fantastic choice for the NL Cy Young award, but the numbers suggest what we all know – Roy Halliday is the best pitcher in baseball.

Worst Pitchers of 2011:

Bronson Arroyo (CIN) 27.88 (extra runs allowed)- 199 innings
J.A. Happ (HOU) 25.44 – 156.1 innings
Derek Lowe (ATL) 25.20 – 187 innings
Livan Hernandez (WASH) 24.16 – 175.1 innings
Ricky Nolasco (FLA) 23.26 – 206 innings
Casey Coleman (CHI) 22.88 – 84.1 innings
Edinson Volquez (CIN) 22.31 – 108.2 innings
Jonathan Sanchez (SF) 21.19 – 101.1 innings
Chris Volstad (FLA) 20.64 – 165.2 innings
Barry Zito (SF) 19.3 – 53.2 innings

The guy who usually tops this list is a starter who keeps getting run out there as if his team has no other options.  Certainly, the Reds should have been able to address the Bronson Arroyo problem by now (nearly 30 extra runs allowed than an average pitcher over the course of 199 innings), and running him out there every fifth day was problematic.  The Marlins have the same issue with Ricky Nolasco.  He’s got amazing stuff, but for some reason keeps getting hit.  If he doesn’t turn things around, the Marlins will have to find another option.  By the way, the Marlins can’t afford to have two guys on the bad list and make the playoffs.  The Brewers used to be on this list – and then they got five league average pitchers to match up with their amazing offense and made the playoffs.

By the way, this is total runs that one player cost his team.  Barry Zito, for example, was far worse per inning than Arroyo.  Had Barry been allowed to throw 200 innings, at the rate he was going he would have given up close to 75 extra runs.  The Giants had other options, so Zito was removed from the rotation before any further overall damage could be done.

Top Relievers of 2011:

Eric O’Flaherty (ATL) 24.99 (runs saved) – 73.2 innings
Tyler Clippard (WASH) 21.58 – 88.3 innings
Jonny Venters (ATL) 21.58 – 88 innings
Craig Kimbrel (ATL) 16.36 – 77 innings
John Axford (MIL) 15.50 – 73.2 innings
Joel Hanrahan (PIT) 15.41 – 68.2 innings
Fernando Salas (SD) 14.76 – 75 innings
Mike Adams (SD) 14.15 – 48 innings
Sean Marshall (CHI) 14.08 – 75.2 innings
Ryan Madson (PHI) 12.63 – 60.2 innings

Few surprises here – guys who gave up hardly any runs in a decent number of innings.  The Braves certainly had the best bullpen in 2011.

Worst Relievers of 2011:

Hong-Chih Kuo (LAD) 18.39 (extra runs allowed) – 27 innings
Aneury Rodruiguez (HOU) 14.62 – 85.1 innings
Ryan Franklin (STL) 14.17 – 27.2 innings
Dan Runzler (SF) 13.84 – 27.1 innings
Matt Maloney (CIN) 12.54 – 18.2 innings

I’ll cut off the list at five – guys who make this list are people who wind up in AAA or released before you know it.  Still Kuo was bad – basically six runs worse than any other guy every nine innings he pitched.  Aneury Rodriguez was the lone exception…

2010 Season Forecast: Chicago Cubs

Last Five Seasons:

2009: 83 – 78 (2nd – NL East)
2008: 97 – 74
2007: 85 – 77
2006: 66 – 96
2005: 79 – 83

Runs Scored: 707 (9th – NL)
Runs Allowed: 672 (5th – NL)

For what it’s worth, the Cubs and their opponents scored 732 runs in Wrigley Field and just 647 on the road last year…

Season Recap:

Picked by a ton of people to win the NL Central, the Cubs hung around the race for four months before throwing in the towel down the stretch.

Every time the Cubs would get rolling, they found a losing streak.  Two weeks in, Chicago rolled out to an 8 – 4 record, only to lose four in a row.  Recovering, they won 8 of 12 only to lose a couple more.  Into May, the Cubbies took off – rattling five in a row to get to 21 – 14.  Thinking that this win streak might put them out in front for good, Chicago lost EIGHT straight…

Hanging around .500 for the next several weeks, the Cubs entered the All-Star break at 43 – 42.  Sensing a need to get going, the Cubs rolled out to 57 – 48 and actually sneaked into the top spot for a day in late July.  That’s when the bullpen suddenly lost it.  The Marlins came back to beat former closer Kevin Gregg and the Cubs hit a tailspin that knocked them out of the NL Central race just as St. Louis was adding Holliday, DeRosa, and Lopez for the stretch run.  The Cubs fell back to a game over .500, made a small fuss for the wild card race, and then disappeared.

Injuries hurt the Cubs as much as many other teams – losing Aramis Ramirez, Milton Bradley (injuries to his body as well as his attitude), Ted Lilly and Alfonso Soriano – but poor performances were equally to blame.  Milton Bradley signed a three-year, $30 million deal and proceeded to hit .257 with middling power.  Soriano’s season was worse – knee injuries and age contributing to a horrific .241 batting average.  And Geovany Soto, such a huge part of the 2008 NL Central Champs, fell off to .218, with just 11 homers.  Throw in the decline of a portly Carlos Zambrano, who failed to win ten games and missed at least six starts, and you can see why the Cubs fell back 13.5 games from 2008.

2010 Goals:

Lessee…  The Cubs need an attitude adjustment.  Bringing Milton Bradley was a BAD idea – no matter how good his upside might have been, there’s no excuse for that deal.  Just as importantly, the big horses need to find the old mojo and get healthy.  Soto and Zambrano need to return to form and it would be nice to get 140 healthy games out of Ramirez and Soriano – both of whom are running out of youth.  Finding a dependable closer would help, too.

Pitchers:

On paper, the Cubs have a fantastic rotation.  Carlos Zambrano should be an innings eater, and if his off-season fitness plan works out (no pun intended), he could return to form.  He pitched okay in the 160 innings he logged in 2009, but he needs to pitch 220 or more.  Ted Lilly will be back, but might miss a few starts early on as he recovers from minor surgery to clean up his elbow.  Ryan Dempster returns, as well as last year’s top newcomer, Randy Wells.  The fifth starter is former Pirate star (and Jayhawk alum) Tom Gorzelanny – who a couple of years ago was the ace of the Pirates staff.  Last year, the Cubs front five (the top four plus Rich Harden) were about 68 runs better than average and threw  852 innings.  That’s going to be hard to BEAT, but is something that the Cubs should be able to hold steady for 2010.

The bullpen wasn’t horrible – as a group about 16 runs better than average – but it lacked a big time stopper.  Kevin Gregg saved 23 games, but was really only decent for three months and scary the rest of the way.  He’s gone…  Carlos Marmol assumed the closer role – nearly impossible to hit stuff but walks a batter an inning which makes him Mitch Williams with a better chance to field grounders.  Angel Guzman and John Grabow return to set the table, and Jeff Samardzija, Justin Berg, Sean Marshall will get long relief or spot starts.  Samardzija is likely the one guy who could surprise as a fifth starter, but I’ll be honest.  I don’t see him as anything special.  Still – he throws hard and has as good a chance as anyone to have a good year facing 200 batters…  The Cubs added Carlos Silva in a trade with Seattle – ridding themselves of one headache (Milton Bradley) while acquiring organizational depth in terms of a guy to toss BP.

So, as a staff, the pitching – already good – will remain good in 2010.

Catchers:

Geovany Soto returns, with his backup Koyie Hill intact.  As a unit, they aren’t horrible – but if there is a room for improvement, it’s here.  If Soto splits the difference between his awesome 2008 numbers and his horrific 2009 numbers, the Cubs could get 20 more runs on the scoreboard.

Infield:

Derrek Lee had a quietly amazing year with the stick – 35 – 111 – .306, generating about 115 runs of offense.  On top of that, Lee also had 36 doubles…  The problems with his neck and back, however, affected his defensive range.  Usually Lee is among the top two or three defenders at his position, but in 2009 he was below average in terms of range.  Going forward, I see a 20 run slip in his offense, but he could at least return to league average defense if his back feels better.  In terms of net production, it’s a wash…

At second base, Jeff Baker arrived from Colorado and had a career half season, batting over .300 and fielding everything in site.  That made up for the poor performance of Mike Fontenot, who appears to still have the job.  I don’t think Baker can do this over 500 at bats, and neither do the Cubs who have Fontenot penciled in as the regular.  Fontenot was below average in both offense and defense – and I don’t see this improving in 2010.  If anything whatever bounce back Fontenot has will be covered by the slide in Jeff Baker’s performance.

At short, Ryan Theriot returns – a decent enough glove man and someone who batted a lot near the top of the order, though – to be fair – he’s really a GREAT number eight hitter.  Andres Blanco returns – a capable infielder.

Finally, you have Aramis Ramirez – as good a hitter as you can find if he’s playing 150 games at third base.  Last year, playing just 82 games, he was as good as expected.  Here’s what makes me nervous – Ramirez turns 32 in June – so he might get back to 140 games, but it could be at a lesser scale.  Chad Tracy is in camp to challenge Bobby Scales for a backup role – else Jeff Baker will be the other option here.  Assuming Ramirez takes up the innings given to others last year, even if Ramirez slips in production by 20 runs, the team will still be better offensively by 10 runs at this position.

As a unit, I see this team declining in offense by ten runs and declining by ten runs defensively.

Outfield:

This is where the Cubs had the biggest failures.  Alfonso Soriano led the group in homers with 20.  Kosuke Fukudome was out of position in center but sensational in right – so to make things better, he needs to stay in right.  But to bring in Marlon Byrd?

Last year, Sam Fuld got a small chance and played well defensively while getting on base at a .400 clip in just 100 at bats or so.  Fuld is NOT going to do that in a full season, but it’s taken the Cubs a long time to get Fuld to the majors after drafting him in the fifth round out of Stanford six years ago.  He’s quick, will bat about .275 to .290, and draw enough walks to be a scary leadoff hitter in front of Lee and Ramirez.  Instead, the Cubs chose to spend money on Marlon Byrd.  Byrd is about four years older, coming off a career year in Texas, and is a liability in centerfield.

If his knees are steady, Soriano could be a pleasant surprise – especially if he agrees to hit sixth and drive in runs rather than pretend to be a leadoff hitter who gets in the way of rallies.  Healthy, he hits .270 with 30 homers.  Another off season, and the Cubs will have an expensive problem for three more years.

Fukudome gets on base and surprises with power.  He’s a good #2 hitter, and his current backup, Xavier Nady – who signed an incentive laden deal on the heels of his multiple shoulder surgeries – would also make for a productive #2 hitter.

Any gains in Soriano’s health and Fukudome’s moving to right full time will be negated by the addition of Marlon Byrd.  This group will likely improve by 20 runs offensively but decline by 20 runs defensively.

Bench:

Kevin Millar will be battling for a pinch hitting role, joining Nady, Baker, Fuld, and Hill in providing one of the deeper and more productive supporting casts in baseball.

Prospects:

If the Cubs have any for 2010, there aren’t many on the 40 man roster – that’s for sure.  This is a veteran club.  On the whole, the prospects are mostly a few years away and only a couple really stand out…

Nobody stood out as a hitter in AAA Iowa (other than Blanco and Fuld), the top pitchers weren’t impressive, though reliever John Gaub had 31.1 solid innings, striking out 40, but walking 16.  Gaub had similar stats (28.2 innings, 40 Ks, 17 walks) in AA.  He’ll get a shot in 2010 – I just don’t know how many innings he’ll get.  Expect Gaub to start in Iowa, though.

Casey Coleman was 14 – 6 with a 3.68 ERA for the AA Tennessee Smokies, but struck out just 84 in 149 innings, so he’s not a long term option.  He is, however, just 21, so if he can find a strikeout pitch, he’ll be on the roster by the end of 2011.  Starlin Castro might be the next big thing, though.  A Dominican shortstop, Castro will turn 20 in spring training, but because the Cubs have options he’ll likely start the year in AA or AAA.  He wasn’t overmatched in 31 AA games last season and had hit .300 or better in rookie ball and in Daytona.  Castro would be my pick as the top prospect in the system.

Daytona had more than just Starlin Castro.  Brandon Guyer hit .347 in half a season in the Florida State League, earning a trip to Tennessee, but he struggled in AA – if he’s going to make it, he has to get it in gear quickly.  Tony Campana is a burner – 55 steals – but it would be nice if he got his OBP a bit higher.  Craig Muschko appeared to turn the corner at Daytona – 19 walks in 103 innings and an improving K rate.  And, Jay Jackson could be the other top prospect – cruising through Daytona with 46 Ks and just 4 walks, moving up to Tennessee where he went 5 – 5 with a decent K rate, and even getting a start at Iowa and winning his only appearance.  A Furman alum, Jackson will make the Cubs in 2010 if for no other reason than to get a cup of coffee in September.  I like him.

2008 #1 draft pick Andrew Cashner made it to Daytona and didn’t disappoint.  Look for him in AA Tennessee, maybe even Iowa for parts of 2010.  Ryan Flaherty, the 1A pick in 2008, will see if he can’t handle more after a 20 homer season at Peoria.  A shortstop with power would look good in Wrigley – but Flaherty is a few years away.  Others in Peoria that may stand out in 2010 will be 2008 draft picks Aaron Shafer and Christopher Carpenter, but the guy with the most stuff might be 2009 Chief Chris Archer, who blew away 119 batters in 109 innings and only allowed 78 hits – with NO homers allowed.

Josh Vitters, the first round pick in 2007, struggled at Daytona after a solid half season in Peoria.  He’ll get a second chance at A+ ball this year – but he’s just 20 and has time to get rolling.  Tyler Colvin, once a first round pick out of Clemson in 2006, got to the majors after shuffling out of the prospect picture.  At 25, he’s running out of time – and as an outfielder, the Cubs seem to like older players…

I should note that the other minor league prospect moving up through the ranks is manager Ryne Sandberg.  Perhaps you’ve heard of him.  After a year in Peoria, he moved up to Tennessee and will start 2010 as the Iowa manager.  If the Cubs get off to a slow start, he’s being groomed to replace Lou Piniella.

Outlook:

The Cubs certainly have the star power to compete, but the cracks that showed up in 2010 weren’t necessarily filled by young new help.  Instead, the Cubs have essentially the same team with one difference – Marlon Byrd instead of Milton Bradley.

I see the Cubs scoring a few more runs than last year – as many as 740, but allowing a few more, too – 700.  That works out to 85 or 86 wins (85.5, but if you carry out another decimal point, you’d round down).  With an improving Milwaukee and a still very good St. Louis, that’s probably good for third place – and at some point, the end of Lou Piniella’s tenure in Chicago.  With a slow start, he could be gone as early as June 1.

However, the guy responsible for Piniella and the rest of the roster is General Manager Jim Hendry.  With a new ownership group in town, when Lou leaves he’ll have someone to hold open the door – Hendry will likely be shown that same door.

A Weekend of Wheeling and Dealing…

After a weekend of work and play, it’s time to see what all happened while we went Christmas and Hanukkah shopping…

Who Signed?

Rafael Soriano was signed to a $7 million contract – and then traded by the Braves to Tampa for reliever Jesse Chavez.  Soriano immediately upgrades the closer role in Tampa, a problem all of 2009.  [FanHouse/SI]

Houston inked reliever Brandon Lyon to a three year, $15 million deal.  Lyon isn’t bad – he’s dependable, but is he really better than Grant Balfour?  $3 million better for the next three years?  (See his deal below.)  [SI]

The new third baseman in Houston is former Phillie Pedro Feliz – one year, $4.5 million.  [SI]

Scott Olsen got an incentive-filled deal with the Nationals – coming off a disappointing season and shoulder surgery.  [ESPN]

Jason Kendall – who looked like he aged four years at the plate last year – signed a two year deal with the Royals.  (See John Buck, below.)  By the way – Miguel Olivo might not return.  The Royals confuse me.  [SI]

Meanwhile, the Royals signed Brian Bannister and Kyle Davies to one-year deals.  [SI]

The Royals non-tendered catcher John Buck, but he signed with Toronto for $2 million pending a physical.  [ESPN]

Two years ago, he was a closer – now, J.J. Putz is an eighth inning guy in Chicago for one year at $3 million.  There are a lot of incentives, too.  [SI]

Kevin Correia will stay in San Diego, signing a one-year, $3.6 million deal.  [ESPN]

Arizona signed Augie Ojeda and Blaine Boyer to one-year deals.  [SI]

The Braves signed outfielder Matt Diaz for one year at $2.55 million. [ESPN]

Grant Balfour signed with Tampa – one year, $2.05 million.  [SI]

Milwaukee gets one more year with Craig Counsell – who remains a valuable utility player at 39.  [MLB]

Esteban German remains in Texas for 2010.  [MLB]

The Cubs tendered offers to eight players, (Jeff Baker, Mike Fontenot, Koyie Hill, Ryan Theriot, Tom Gorzelanny, Angel Guzman, Carlos Marmol and Sean Marshall) with Neil Cotts likely heading to arbitration.  [MLB]

The Dodgers tendered offers to nine players (go read the article), including Chad Billingsley, Andre Ethier, Jonathan Broxton and Russell Martin.  Everybody gets a raise in LA!!!  [MLB]

Who Got Let Go…

The Braves non-tendered outfielder Ryan Church and second baseman Kelly Johnson.  [MLB]

Boston non-tendered outfielder Brian Anderson.

The Mets non-tendered four players, including pitchers Tim Redding and Lance Broadway, as well as outfielders Cory Sullivan and Jeremy Reed.  [ESPN]

Despite hitting 20 homers in little more than a half season, Johnny Gomes was non-tendered by the Reds.  He might still sign somewhere, but let’s face it – he’s a DH.  [ESPN]

Chien-Ming Wang is a free agent, and apparently disappointed that the Yankees didn’t stay with him…  Since injuring his ankle running the bases, Wang has REALLY struggled. [ESPN]

Matt Capps, closer for Pittsburgh, was caught off guard – he was non-tendered by the Pirates.  [MLB]

Jose Arredondo, about to have surgery, will not have an Angels contract for 2010.  [MLB]

Jack Cust (Oakland), Ryan Garko (San Francisco), Mike MacDougal (Washington), D.J. Carrasco (Chi Sox), Clay Condrey (Philadelphia), Alfredo Amezaga (Florida) join a LONG list of free agents.

Here’s a good summary of who is now available…  [SI]

For a complete list of transactions, you can always go here…  [MLB]

What’s the Hold Up?

Jason Bay may not return to Boston – the hold up appears to be the duration of the contract.  Bay wants five years; Boston is offering four.  [ESPN]

Mike Lowell’s injured thumb is stalling an agreement between Texas and Boston.  Boston would (a) get catcher Max Ramirez – a good prospect and (b) pretty much pay for Lowell to play in Texas where he would play first, DH, and backup Michael Young at third base.  [ESPN]

The Cards made a pitch to Matt Holliday and hope to have an answer this week.  [FoxSports]

Happy Birthday!

One of the more famous names in baseball history, Bill Buckner, turns 60.  Billy Buck was a hustler – played through injuries, used to complain about every called strike or close play at first base.  He was unfortunately humbled by that error in the 1986 World Series and his career degenerated quickly after that – though he was showing signs of age at the time.  He had a lot of hits – 2715 of them – and used to be fast.  Something tells me that he’s probably mellowed a lot over the last 20 years…  I’d love to buy him lunch.  Happy Birthday, Billy.

Others celebrating with cake, cards, or remembrances include: Honest John Anderson (1872), Maurice “The Comet” Archdeacon (1897), Toothpick Sam Jones (1925), Ken Hunt (1938), Ken Hill and future Hall of Famer Craig Biggio (1965) – I loved Biggio who was an amazingly versatile athlete, Dave Nilsson and Scott Hatteberg (1969), Angel Guzman (1981), and Josh Fields (1982).

Afterthoughts…

Peter Gammons thanks everyone for the memories at ESPN.