Injury Bug hits Hamilton, Furcal, and Zimmerman…

Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton, the reigning AL MVP, slid headfirst into home plate trying to avoid a tag from catcher Victor Martinez – an aggressive play in that he was tagging on a foul pop up – and broke the top of his right arm.  Dave Anderson, who was coaching at third, noticed that pitcher Brad Penny had not covered the plate, so he sent Hamilton – who later said he didn’t want to go and was worried that something would happen.  Afterwards, Hamilton called it a “stupid play” and threw his coach under the bus.  Hamilton will miss at least six weeks and likely two months.  [Fox Sports]

Sports Illustrated’s Joe Lemire (among others) suggested that the Rangers should be protecting their oft-injured prize.  [SI]

The Dodgers lost their leadoff hitter, shortstop Rafael Furcal, to a broken left thumb – also injured while sliding headfirst into a base (third).  Furcal won’t need surgery, but was so bothered by the injury that the word “retirement” crept into his post game comments.  He will be back in about six weeks.  While Jamey Carroll and Juan Uribe will get the bulk of the playing time, infielder Ivan DeJesus, Jr. was called up to be a bench player.  Of course, I am old enough to remember Ivan DeJesus, Sr. playing short and batting leadoff for the Cubs in the middle and late 1970s.  He’s coaching for the Cubs now and STILL looks fit enough to play.  [FoxSports]

I’m late in reporting this – sorry – but one of my favorite players, Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, will miss time on the DL dealing with a strained abdominal muscle.  The Nationals, who don’t want to give fans the idea that they know what they are doing, recalled a third catcher in his place.  [FoxSports]

Start the Argument Now…

So who do you think has a tougher road out of the cellar, Boston or Tampa?  Here’s MLB’s Matthew Leach’s take. [MLB]

Proof that Winning Cures a Lot of Ills…

Michael Young no longer thinks about getting traded…  That is – until he gets traded.  With Hamilton going down, though, he’ll get more playing time.   Can he play left?  [FoxSports]

Let the Healing Begin…

It was opening day in Japan, and teams all around the country remembered those affected by the earthquake and tsumami that ravaged the northeastern islands.  In Sendai, the Rakuten Eagles won – while the aftershocks that continue weeks later were felt in the stadium during the game.  [SI]

Transactions:

The Angels activated outfielder Reggie Willits and pitcher Scott Downs from the DL.

The Blue Jays placed outfielder Rajai Davis on the DL with an ankle sprain, and activated outfielder Corey Patterson from the DL.

The Padres activated Mat Latos from the DL, optioning Wade LeBlanc to AAA.

The  Brewers placed reliever Takashi Saito on the DL with a hamstring injury and recalled pitcher Brandon Kintzler from the Nashville Sounds.  Never heard of Kintzler?  He was a late round pick of the San Diego Padres in 2004, but couldn’t stay healthy enough to make any progress.  After three seasons of independent baseball, he was picked up by the Brewers and has made progress as a reliever, even getting a cup of coffee with the team last year.  He throws a low 90s fastball and a slider.  For a couple of years, he worked at a Coldstone Creamery franchise owned by his sister; I was listening to a Reds broadcast where Kintzler pitched and the color guy said he must have strengthened his forearm scooping ice cream.

Happy Birthday!

Kid Elberfeld (1875) – once had the only four hits in a game against Rube Waddell
Red Killefer (1885)
Claude Hendrix (1889)
Mark Leiter (1963)
Hunter Pence (1983)
Lorenzo Cain (1986) – doesn’t he have a name that should be the lead of some detective movie?

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2010 Season Forecast: Atlanta Braves

Last Five Seasons:

2009: 86 – 76 (3rd NL East)
2008: 72 – 90
2007: 84 – 78
2006: 79 – 83
2005: 90 – 72

Runs Scored: 735 (6th NL)
Runs Allowed: 641 (4th NL)

When a team outscores its opponents by 100 runs, the team can expect to win more than 90 games.  The Braves should have finished about 92 – 70.

Season Recap:

The Braves spent three months figuring things out – playing indifferent baseball and hanging within a few games of .500 through June.

In June, however, the pitching came together.  Javier Vazquez started pitching like an ace, Tommy Hanson joined the rotation and started winning like Brave starters of the previous decade.  Jair Jurrjens acted like a Cy Young candidate, and Derek Lowe ate innings.  After manager Bobby Cox flipped closers, replacing Mike Gonzalez with Rafael Soriano.

When the offense started gelling in July (Matt Diaz replacing Jeff Francouer and Martin Prado replacing Kelly Johnson), the Braves started making ground on the rest of the league.  Falling to 34 – 40, the Braves would win most series down the stretch – and then going on tear in September, winning 16 of 19 games to get into the fringe of the wild card race.  Unfortunately, they faced an equally talented Marlins squad, and lost the last six games – including four straight to Washington and four one-run games in the mix.

Pitching:

Javier Vazquez, new Yankee fourth starter, won 15 and finished with a 2.87 ERA – saving the Braves more than 36 runs.  And with that, he was the SECOND best starter on the staff.  Jair Jurrjens didn’t flash the same K/W numbers, but had a 2.60 ERA and saved the Braves 38 runs over what one might expect from average pitching.

Derek Lowe was a 15 game winner in a slightly off season – his ERA was 4.67, which might have been bad luck with balls in play followed by feeling the pressure of struggling.  Still – Lowe made 34 starts and remains a dependable arm.

Tommy Hanson joined the rotation to make 21 starts, winning 11, and finishing with a sub 3 ERA – and it’s not easy to find teams in recent years to have three pitchers with at least 120 innings and ERAs under 3.00.  (Houston, 2005 – Boston, 2002).  Finally, Kenshin Kawakami made 25 starts and pitched well enough to deserve a better record than 7 – 12.

The good news is that Tim Hudson returned from 2008’s season ending surgery to make seven solid starts and ready himself for a rotation slot in 2010.  The Braves even tested two other options – JoJo Reyes made five forgettable starts (7.00 ERA) while Kris Medlin worked four starts into mostly bullpen work and would be a nice fifth option or reliever.

In the bullpen, Rafael Soriano smoked 102 batters in 75.2 innings, and only allowed 80 baserunners saving 28 games.  Mike Gonzalez accepted his demotion with a vengeance and finished with 90Ks in 74.1 innings – providing the Braves with a devastating one-two punch to close games.  Medlin, Eric O’Flaherty, Jeff Bennett, Peter Moylan, and Manny Acosto also pitched better than average innings – one of the deeper bullpens in the National League.

Looking ahead, Vazquez is gone – but it might not matter.  Tim Hudson is back and looks great (he did in the spring), Jurrjens returns after two straight solid seasons, and Tommy Hanson gets to make 33 starts instead of 21.  Derek Lowe is still around, and the fifth spot could be handled by either Kawakami or Medlin without feeling any loss in skill.  That’s FIVE sold starters with a dependable sixth option.

The bullpen got a makeover when both Soriano and Gonzalez took free agent options in Tampa Bay and Baltimore (respectively).  Still – the Braves have options, signing a newly healthy Billy Wagner and bringing in Takashi Saito from Boston.  These two are old (38 and 40) but have been dependable for years.  Moylan, Medlen, O’Flaherty, and Jesse Chavez are able backups and Jo-Jo Reyes isn’t a lousy 12th arm in the pen.  He’ll be better this year.

Catching:

Brian McCann is the best hitting catcher in the NL right now – power, average, and despite troublesome issues with his eyes gets a few walks from time to time…  His backup, David Ross, isn’t chopped liver either – slugging .508 and getting on base to a .380 clip.  This is the best catching in the NL – offensively anyway.

Infield:

The Braves shifted from Casey Kotchman to Adam LaRoche at the trading deadline and got better production from LaRoche offensively and defensively – despite Kotchman’s reputation.  It certainly helped the Braves finish strongly.  For 2010, the Braves are giving veteran third baseman Troy Glaus a chance.  I’m not sure this will be an improvement, to be honest.  Glaus has had troubles staying healthy and hasn’t been a regular first baseman before, so this would be a question mark going forward.

Kelly Johnson had the job at the beginning of the year, but Martin Prado will carry it forward.  Prado can hit, he’s a tolerable fielder (no different than Johnson), so this should be a benefit in 2010.

Yunel Escobar remains a potent offensively player, and is improving equally as a defensive player.  He’s a good shortstop to own in fantasy leagues for 2010.

Chipper Jones is running out of years – injured more frequently and his batting numbers slopped, though he still has enough patience to help score runs.  Defensively, he’s not much – costing his team nearly 20 runs a year.  It’s time to find a replacement by 2012, wouldn’t you think?

Omar Infante and Brooks Conrad back up this unit – Infante has some skills as a hitter, but wasn’t very mobile defensively in 2009.  Conrad is getting his feet wet, but nears 30.

Outfield:

Garrett Anderson was a free agent signee and test drive who hit a little but couldn’t cover enough ground in left.  He’s gone in 2010, with his replacement, Matt Diaz, likely getting a full time job as a fourth outfielder and left fielder.

Nate McClouth came over from Pittsburgh when rookie Jordan Schafer‘s injuries interrupted his development.  McClouth can hit and isn’t an awful fielder, but he won’t make anyone forget Andruw Jones in his prime.  Melky Cabrera was added and may move McClouth to left and/or picking up defensive innings as required.

With Jeff Francoeur now a Met, the Braves are turning to rookie Jason Heyward, who is rated by many as the top prospect in all of baseball.  He may not have Francoeur’s arm, but he can hit and he has young legs.  It should be a fun season for jersey sales.

Omar Infante can cover the remaining innings in the outfield, and Eric Hinske arrives able to play corner outfield and infield positions as well as pinch hit.

Prospects:

AAA Gwinnett featured a lot of veteran hitters and a few pitching prospects – some of whom aren’t around because they were sent out in trades (Charlie Morton), or because they are on the team (Hanson, Medlin).  Boone Logan and Luis Valdez are good pitchers – might be prospects on other teams.

The best prospect at AA was Jason Heyward – after that it’s slim pickings.  Pitcher Jose Ortegano has control and is just 22.  He might make the bullpen in two years.

A+ Myrtle Beach features reliever Cory Gearrin, who walked just three and fanned 32 in 29.1 innings, earning 17 saves.  Gearrin was still good in 20 outings at AA Mississippi – and appears to have reigned in the wildness that marked his first two years in the minors.

J.J. Hoover, Dimaster Delgado, and Randall Delgado looked solid at A Rome, and are just getting their careers started.  Same with 2008 draft pick Adam Milligan, who showed flashes of power and a sweet bat at three levels. Too bad he’s not a third baseman…

Forecast:

Defensively, the team will probably stay the same.  The rotation is solid and can withstand an injury or two.  The bullpen is deep, but not necessarily capable of stellar performances.  However, the defense should be better in the outfield and middle infield.

Offensively, I’m not so sure, but I don’t see many reasons to think it’s going to be WORSE.  I don’t see how it’s going to be BETTER.  I think the positives and negatives will offset each other and the team will still score runs.  There are a lot of good hitters in their prime, and a couple of veteran bats and a deep bench.

As such, I wouldn’t be surprised if the team is still 100 runs better than their opponents, and win 90 – 92 games.  And, if the bad luck in decisions that seemed to follow them last year goes away, it could be more.  Will it be enough to beat the Phillies?  I don’t know.  But they should be a playoff contender for sure.  The system calls for 92 – 70, so I’ll go with that.

2010 Season Forecast: Boston Red Sox

Last Five Seasons:
2009: 95 – 67 (2nd AL East)
2008: 95 – 67
2007: 96 – 66
2006: 86 – 76
2005: 95 – 67

Runs Scored: 872 (3rd AL)
Runs Allowed: 736 (3rd AL)

Season Recap:

Most people figured that the Red Sox would finish first or second in the AL East and, as they have done four times in the last five years, the finished with at least 95 wins.

The Sox actually stumbled out of the gate, losing their first three series to Tampa, Los Angeles, and then Oakland.  An eleven game winning streak got things going, however, putting the Red Sox out front in the first month of the season.  Jason Bay‘s April made up for the struggles of David Ortiz, but already there were problems.

As the calendar turned to May, the Sox were dealing with a hole at shortstop, the lack of offensive production behind the plate, and still David Ortiz hitting like a middle aged AAA infielder.  Brad Penny wasn’t pitching well as a fourth starter, and the team leader in wins was a 40 something knuckeballer.  Daisuke Matsuzaka was rehabbing a sore back – and dealing with his lack of fitness.

In June, things started to look up.  Ortiz started hitting.  Jon Lester hit his stride, and the Sox went 20 – 8 to regain control of the AL East.  Unfortunately, the Yankees were becoming more complete as the season went on while the Red Sox were just coping.  Mike Lowell‘s hip became problematic.  Jed Lowrie was out and Julio Lugo couldn’t stay in the lineup.  Nick Green, who had taken over for both, began hitting the way Nick Green usually hit – which is .240 with no power or patience.  J.D. Drew missed a month of games, and Jason Bay took a month off with poor production in July.

When August began, the Yankees were in control and the Red Sox were an afterthought.  The Sox didn’t have enough bats to make up for a pitching staff that had 4.86 ERA for the last two months of the year.  In fact, if you consider May, July, August, and September, the Red Sox were just eight games over .500 (59 – 51) and had no business being considered among the elite teams in baseball.  A decent April and a very good June gave them the gaudy record they had.

Pitching:

At the top of the rotation, the Red Sox were solid.  Jon Lester went 15 – 8 and saved his team 33 runs over 203.1 innings.  Josh Beckett delivered a healthy season, 17 wins, and saved his team 20 runs in 212.1 innings.  Tim Wakefield wasn’t bad, but with his bad back, he couldn’t pitch much after the all-star break, making just 21 starts.  After that, however, nobody else was really that impressive.

Brad Penny had a 6.08 ERA in his 24 starts.  John Smoltz returned from surgery to make eight ugly start (8.33 ERA).  Daisuke Matsuzaka went 4 – 6 with a 5.76 ERA.  The Sox gave four starts to Junichi Tazawa that they wish hadn’t happened.  Boston finally gave 16 starts to Clay Buchholz, and he went 7 – 4 with a 4.21 ERA – but you have to wonder what took so long.  Same goes with Justin Masterson, who was left in the bullpen but should have had more than six starts.

In the bullpen, the Red Sox remained solid with Jonathan Papelbon‘s  38 saves and 1.85 ERA.  Hideki Okajima, Takashi Saito, and Ramon Ramirez were capable and competent middle and short relievers.  Even Billy Wagner and Daniel Bard contributed when asked to pitch.

Looking to 2010, if the Sox want to keep up with the Yankees, they need to have more starting pitching.  John Lackey was signed away from the Angels to give the Sox a big three to go along with Beckett and Lester.  Matsuzaka has to find his way back to 2007 – 2008 form.  If so, that’s four solid starters.  Look for Matsuzaka to fight with Buchholz and Wakefield for the last two spots in the rotation.  Justin Masterson, as you might remember, is with Cleveland after the Sox traded for catcher Victor Martinez.

The bullpen includes Jonathan Papelbon, Hideki Okajima, and Ramon Ramirez, and is supported by Manny Delcarmen, Daniel Bard, and possibly prospect Michael Bowden.  I think the Sox will miss having Saito, but if Lackey can stay healthy for 30 starts (he’s been nicked up the last couple of years), they might not need the bullpen as often.

That being said, this unit is more potential than actual at the back end – and that tempers my opinion just a little bit.  There is every good reason for this group to be 30 runs better than last season, but in all likelihood, I see it more like 15 runs better.

Catching:

Victor Martinez joined the Sox in the late summer and helped sustain the offense (.336 BA, 507 Slugging).  I think he’ll do just fine in a full season – which will be about 15 runs better than having more Jason Varitek playing full time.  At the same time, Martinez isn’t in Varitek’s league as a catcher (though neither is any good against the run anymore), so it might cost the team about five runs defensively.

Infield:

Kevin Youkilis is a mobile and dependable first and third baseman who, with the addition of Adrian Beltre, will find most of his playing time at first base.  He hits for some power, gets on base a lot – one of the best first basemen in baseball.  Mike Lowell, if he remains, could be a competent backup at both corners.

Dustin Pedroia wasn’t as good in 2009 as he had been in 2008 – but he dropped off both offensively and defensively.  I think he’ll bounce back some defensively, but we’ve probably seen his best offensive season already.

After a year trying Julio Lugo, Jed Lowrie, Nick Green, and Alex Gonzalez at short – failures abounding here – the Sox went out and signed free agent Marco Scutaro from Toronto.  As mentioned in my comments about the shortstops, Scutaro is NOT a top flight defender, but he’ll be a step up.  He’s also coming off a career year and is closer to 35 than 25.

At third, the Sox went defensive – signing Mariner Adrian Beltre to replace Mike Lowell (only Lowell couldn’t leave).  Beltre remains as good a fielder at the position as you will find, and if he can return to good health will have offensive numbers not too different than what Lowell produced.  Lowell was supposedly traded to Texas for catcher Max Ramirez, but hand injuries prevented that trade from happening.  So, for now the Sox have a really good (and expensive) insurance policy.

Bill Hall arrives from Milwaukee to join Jed Lowrie and Lowell in providing bench support.

As a group, this is going to be a bit better than last year – maybe 20 runs better defensively and 15 runs better offensively.

Outfield:

Jason Bay, an all-star left fielder, is gone – and his replacement is Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Mike Cameron.  Cameron is still a solid defensive player so he’ll get the nod in center and move speedster (but not nearly as good defensively) Jacoby Ellsbury to left.  Bay was surprisingly good in left, so Ellsbury will hopefully just maintain the good numbers.  Cameron will be an improvement over Ellsbury in center – assuming that he doesn’t suddenly age in Boston.  In right, J.D. Drew returns – just as likely he’ll be missing time and we’ll get to see more of former Marlin Jeremy HermidaBill Hall could play some out here as well.

I don’t see this as an offensive improvement – it’s probably a loss of 40 runs from 2009.  Defensively, however, it should be fifteen runs better.

DH/Bench:

David Ortiz struggled and you all read about it.  What is lost is how well he played in the last four months, nearly making it to 100 RBI.  I don’t think he’s going back to his old days – he doesn’t have the bat speed and needs to lose about 30 pounds.  But, he can be productive and guys like Hermida and Martinez will do fine as his occasional replacement.

The rest of the bench is pretty good – Hermida can play two positions in the outfield, Hall can play four or five positions.  Jed Lowrie covers the other two, and Varitek is a tolerable back up catcher.  I just don’t think that the offense off the bench will be that good.

Prospects:

Most of the AAA hitters are getting long in the tooth, and the one player who stood out was outfielder Chris Carter, a former Diamondback farmhand who is 27 and should have made it by now.  He must have defensive issues – because he can surely hit.  Of course, he’s with the Mets now.  Let’s hope he catches a break there.  The best pitchers, Daniel Bard, Michael Bowden, Hunter Jones, and Clay Buchholz are already with the big club.  (Hunter Jones is with the Marlins.)

The Portland River Dogs (AA) featured a couple of pitchers that might make an impact in a couple of years – but likely somewhere else.  Junichi Tazawa smoked AA, pitched well enough at AAA and got a shot with the big club.  He’s not ready, but he’s close.  Good control, decent strikeout numbers…  Felix Doubrant, a 22-year-old, has great stuff but needs to work on his control.  I see him in AAA at the start of 2010.  And reliever Dustin Richardson has NASTY stuff, 80Ks in 63 innings, but walked 40 – and that’s going to be a problem.  He COULD be a future closer, but not yet.

First baseman Aaron Bates alternates between hitting .340 and .240 – the good guy would be great, but the former third round pick (2006) hasn’t been consistent at the top levels.  Outfielder Josh Reddick is 23, has great power, but needs another season before he makes the concert tour with the big boys.

At A+ Salem (where I was surprised to see former Royals infielder Carlos Febles is the batting instructor), the most interesting prospect is from Taiwan, Che-Hsuan Lin.  Lin can run, is 21, and shows some patience and the potential to find a little power.  If he has a big year in AA, look for someone to give him a MLB look.  Anthony Rizzo is even younger and hits a bit like Mark Grace – and plays first base, too.  Ryan Kalish was so good at Salem, he moved to Portland and still showed power.  He’s 22 and will start 2010 at AAA.

Two pitchers that caught my eye were Casey Kelly and Eammon Portice.  Portice has control, an out pitch, and the Ft. Lauderdale native who was a late round 2007 draft pick has been a pleasant surprise at every level.  Kelly is a rare find – the spot starter/shortstop.  He won’t hit enough to play in the big leagues, but has a live arm and might make it based on his great control and power strikeout numbers.  In 95 innings, he’s walked just 16 batters, allowed 65 hits, and fanned 74.

Forecast:

With the offense staying good but likely not great, the improvements defensively and in the rotation should be enough to push the Red Sox back to the top.  The system says 97 wins, but personally, I’d play the under.  If my hunches about both the Yankees and Red Sox are right, Boston and New York would finish in a dead heat – but the system picks the Sox.

Philadelphia – Where You Can Always Go Home…

It’s not enough that the Philadelphia 76ers resigned Allen Iverson, the Philadelphia Phillies came to terms with a former infielder, Placido Polanco, a gold-glove winning second baseman for the Tigers.  Polanco will become Philadelphia’s new third baseman, as the Philles allowed Pedro Feliz to enjoy free agency…  [ESPN]

Polanco still makes a lot of contact – but his batting average (career .303) has dropped each year since 2007 when he hit .341 for Detroit.  Last year, Polanco hit .285 with 31 doubles and 10 homers – but only 36 walks, so he has a rather pedestrian OBP (.331).  Still, he’s not appreciably less productive than Feliz (12 homers, 30 doubles, 35 walks, and only a .266 average in a park that would appear to be better for hitting).  Polanco hasn’t played third much in a few years but when he did, Polanco was dependable (68 double plays, only 15 errors) and mobile.

And, he gives the Phillies a little extra versatility.  He can move to second to spell Chase Utley, or let Utley play first to spell Ryan Howard.

Look – Polanco can still play second.  I just spent a night putting together the defensive stats for the AL using my ranking system and it shows that Polanco had as much range as anyone at that position last year, almost a dead heat between Polanco, Ian Kinsler, Aaron Hill and Robinson Cano.  (I’ve only done this at a team level so far, so I’ll know a bit more once I break this down for individuals.)  And, he remains dependable and relatively error free.  So, to have spent $18 million for three years (and an option for a fourth year) is probably not so bad.

The other real concern is Polanco’s age.  He’s 34 and while he’s aging gracefully, he’s still aging.  He might look good for a year, but by the third year it might not be so pretty.  On the whole though, two good years make this a good deal for the Phillies – and if they get three good years, $18 million might look like a bargain.

So, with Iverson and Polanco back, who’s next?  Mark Recchi?

Pedroia Can Stay at Second…

The Red Sox signed former Toronto shortstop Marco Scutaro to a two-year deal.  Wow – now THAT’S taking advantage of one really good year…  Scutaro had never played the way he did in 2009 – .282, with a little power, a .379 OBA before, and seeing as he (like Polanco) turned 34 in October, one wonders if he can do that again.  [SI]

Okay – from a defensive standpoint, Toronto shortstops (mostly Marco) were below average in range.  Oddly, they were better than what Boston put out there last year (Jed Lowrie, Nick Green, Alex Gonzalez).

If you were curious, Boston with a range score of -7.89, had the 13th worst range at the shortstop position, while Scutaro and Toronto were 12th at -4.29, which means that for every 800 balls in play, Boston shortstops were involved in nearly 8 fewer plays than the average shortstop.  Since the average team puts about 4300 balls in play or so, Boston’s shortstops basically allowed about 40 more hits than the average shortstop over the course of the season.  The only team worse than Boston was New York, with their gold glove winning shortstop, Derek Jeter, who were at -8.49.  The best defensive shortstop was, by far, Elvis Andrus.  Texas shortstops scored at 13.28, which means they saved their pitchers about 55 hits over the course of the season – or at least 100 more than the guy who was supposedly the best fielding shortstop in the AL.

Anyway – this means that Boston is inheriting an aging infielder coming off a heel injury that shelved Scutaro for the last two weeks of the season, and coming off his best season as a regular ever, as he moves another year away from his supposed prime, and already has below average range.  Long and short, I’m not a fan of this deal.

Oh, and because Scutaro was a top tier free agent and had been offered arbitration, Toronto receives a first round draft pick from Boston and another sandwich pick in between the first and second rounds.

Other News…

The Braves continue to bolster the bullpen, signing one-time Dodger and Red Sox reliever Takashi  Saito.  Saito gets a one-year, $3.2 million deal with incentives.  Saito, now 40, was a closer in LA and a solid set up man in Boston – now he gives the Braves some flexibility when finishing games (Wagner is a lefty; Saito a righty).  [FoxSports]

Having lost Brian Schneider, the Mets signed two potential backup catchers, Chris Coste and Henry Blanco.  They still have Omir Santos, prospect Joshua Thole, and might still be shopping for a front line starter.  [SI]

The Oakland As acquired Jake Fox and Aaron Miles (and cash) from the Cubs for a few prospects.  I’m not totally sold on Aaron Miles, but Jake Fox is a Hitter (!) and should vastly improve the Oakland offense (though you might not notice it playing in the Colisseum).  Miles is probably looking at his last major league season unless he suddenly gets healthy and produces.  At least he can play a lot of positions and act like a coach to other infielders.

The Cubs get prospects.  Pitcher Jeff Gray is a 28-year-old reliever with okay control, but a little hittable.  He’s at best a long reliever…  Matt Spencer was once a pitcher but now is a bit of a free swinging outfielder.  24 in January, I don’t see how he’s going to be a long term prospect.  He has a little power (19 homers in two levels last year, finishing at AA Midland), but I’d rather have Spencer’s teammate Chris Carter.  He can’t hit the way Fox can hit, that’s for sure.  The third prospect is Ronny Morla, a string bean Domincan fireballer, just twenty, who seems to be finding his way in the low minors.  Morla is the one who gives the Cubs a chance to break even on this deal.  Otherwise, I like what Fox could do for Oakland.

Here’s SI’s take on the best and worst farm systems

Happy Birthday!

My brother, Michael, a pretty good ballplayer as a kid anyway, turns 42 today…  Happy Birthday, Bro!

Hall of Famer Jesse Burkett was born on this day back in 1868.  Burkett was the Ty Cobb of his day…  Others celebrating with cake, cards, or remembrances include:  Joe Corbett (1875) – brother of boxer Gentleman Jim Corbett and a pretty good pitcher, Shano Collins (1895), Bob Shawkey (1890) – a member of the 1920s Yankees, Harvey Kuenn (1930), Barbaro Garbey (1956), Pat Sheridan (1957), Lee Smith (1957), Tai Iguchi (1974), Kyle Lohse (1978).

As a young kid and adult, I remember Lee Smith pitching for the Cubs.  The first time I got to see a game in Fenway Park, he was then with the Red Sox and I amazed those sitting around me with my understanding of the Smith routine.  By then, he might make eight warm up tosses in the bullpen because he didn’t want to get tired before he dragged his huge carcass to the mound.  He smoked the first two hitters before blowing it – allowing a few hits and the lead runs to score in the top of the eighth or ninth inning.  All I could think about was that I finally got to see Fenway, and when I do, I get to see Lee Smith blow another game.  All that way for something I had seen dozens of times before!!!

That being said, Lee Smith was a great reliever for a long, long time, and probably deserves more consideration for the Hall of Fame.

2009 Season Forecast: Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox
2008: 95-67 (2nd AL East, 2 games back)

By my take, the Boston Red Sox were the best team in the American League, but were beaten by the darlings of destiny in Tampa Bay within their own division and in the playoffs.  Anaheim played over their head in the weakest division in baseball.  The White Sox and Twins were good, but the Red Sox were truly a great team that just missed winning back to back World Series.

Scoring 845 runs, only Texas had a stronger offense.  Allowing just 694 runs, the Red Sox were third defensively.  The combination was the best ratio of runs scored to runs allowed in the league.  Boston just had a couple of hiccoughs – the Manny Ramirez saga, Mike Lowell’s hip injury, and an off-season from David Ortiz – which kept them from operating on all cylinders.

Looking Back on 2008

Looking month-to-month, the Red Sox won between 16 and 18 games every month but July, when they went 11 – 13 and fell behind Tampa Bay.  Oddly, looking at their monthly offensive numbers, July was the only month where Boston couldn’t hit homers (just 18 and usually in the high 20s or 30s) , and the only month where they weren’t successful stealing bases (8 of 16, where every other month was better than 15 of 22).

The pitching was sort of a bell curve – league average in April, getting better through the summer, and then drifting back over 4.00 for August and September.

Despite areas of consistency, the team was surprisingly streaky for about sixty games.  Off to a slow start, the Red Sox won ten of eleven to take charge of the division at the end of April.  Then, they lost five in a row to Anaheim and Tampa Bay, who swept the Sox.  After trading a couple of games, the Sox went on another tear for a week.  It was win seven, lose four, win six of seven, lose five of six – very streaky for a team this good.  June was relatively even, winning two of three most of the month, until another hitting another losing streak as the month turned into July.  In July, they would lose at least back to back games once or twice a week, never putting together a winning streak until August hit – and then they went on another tear.  Down the stretch, Boston played well, but lost four of six in two series to the Rays and finished the division in second place.

Tell me about that offense

For the last couple of years, David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez got all the press.  In 2008, the big bats were Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia.

I know – Pedroia is the little guy with the big bat and Youkilis is rather odd looking, with that shaved head and big goatee (shaved for 2009), plus that huge waggle when he stands in the plate.  But, the MVP award should have gone to Youkilis.  Youkilis generated about five fewer runs than Pedroia (122 to 117), but he did so making fewer outs.  Youk’ created 8.2 runs every 27 outs, while Pedroia was a full run behind that (7.2).  Defensively, Pedroia was a steady second baseman – but he had slightly below average range and was solid turning two and avoiding errors.  Youkilis was well above average playing first base, was solid playing third – and even when forced into right field for a game, turned in a solid game.  Pedroia plays a tougher position, but Youkilis plays his far better – and more of them.

Anyway – the two were both great.  Mike Lowell was good until his hip failed him.  The only weak spot was Julio Lugo.  Even Jed Lowrie and Alex Cora were better hitters – but none were better than average.  Cora should have been the starter.  Jeff Bailey backed up Youkilis and Lowell and was a solid hitter.  He’s Kevin Millar without the job.  Sean Casey was decent in a backup role, too.

In the outfield, Ramirez was still solid – .299 with 20 homers and nearly 70 RBI for four months.  His replacement, Jason Bay, hit just as well when he arrived.  In center, both Jacoby Ellsbury and Coco Crisp were good, though not great.  Ellsbury has room to improve and hasn’t lost a step defensively and will keep his job for 2009.  In right, J. D. Drew remains productive, but can’t keep his back healthy – he’ll never be much for 120 games anymore (not that he played 120 every year before).  The other outfielders didn’t really produce.

David Ortiz had an off year but was productive, some power, still walks, still fierce with the game on the line.  Catcher Jason Varitek had a well-publicized off year, hitting .220 with a little power, but it was his homer that nearly turned the AL Championship Series into Boston’s party.  Kevin Cash didn’t hit well either.  Maybe he got tired chasing knucklers.

On the whole, though, with at least three amazing performers and four other positive offensive contributions in the lineup, the Red Sox had a fantastic offense.

Defensively:

Like the offense, the defensive lineup was a collection of remarkably good performers, surrounded by a number of players who didn’t quite make the expected contributions.

Around the horn, both Lowell and Youkilis were impressive – Youkilis, as mentioned before, was really good at both first and third, saving the Sox about 24 runs with his glove.  Pedroia is a good, but not great second baseman (101 DPs and only 7 errors, but -2.8 range factor – meaning he made about three fewer plays per 800 balls in play than the average second sacker).  The shortstops were a mixed bag.  Cora, who had the best offensive numbers, also was the only above average shortstop in the field.  Lugo and Lowrie struggled – Lowrie was especially immobile when playing shortstop, making just 3.39 plays per nine innings (Lugo was below average at 3.71, while Cora was well above average at 4.63 plays per nine).  The net was positive, but shortstop was an obvious hole.

In the outfield, Ellsbury was awesome – he played all three outfield positions well and saved the Red Sox about 25 runs.  Unfortunately, Crisp, Ramirez, and Drew (and even Bay, who had to learn to play the Green Monster), negated Ellsbury’s value.  Mark Kotsay was imported from Atlanta to help out, and his back doesn’t allow him to be very mobile anymore either.
Behind the plate, Varitek remains solid, and Cash is actually very good despite having to deal with catching Tim Wakefield’s knuckleball.  Neither were very good stopping base stealers, but the way Boston scores runs in bunches, it doesn’t really matter.

David Ortiz doesn’t play the field anymore.

Now Pitching…

Jon Lester was Cy Young worthy last year – leading his team in innings and saving his team about 33 runs more than the average pitcher.  Daisuke Matsuzaka was equally baffling; despite walking way too many batters, nobody hit him.  He was 30 runs better than average, too.  Josh Beckett alternated between solid performances and injury recovery – missing a few starts but still pitching enough like an ace to rank near the top of the league in strikeouts despite missing at least six starts.  Tim Wakefield is still an above average pitcher, eating innings while tossing butterfly balls.

The fifth spot was less steady, shared by either Clay Buchholtz, who was lousy (6.75 ERA), or Justin Masterson, who looks like another ace in the making.

One day, I have to write this up but I happened to notice this.  Every once in a while, Josh Beckett doesn’t have it – gets whacked around right from the get go.  Terry Francona, though, knows that (a) it’s early in the game and (b) Beckett is one of those guys who won’t be happy getting yanked in the first inning.  However, every time Beckett threw 30 or more pitches in the first inning, he would get a tight elbow and then miss a start or two.  I had this theory that I have been using for about, oh, twenty years now that says that we need to stop looking at the total number of pitches thrown (managers start looking to the bullpen as the pitcher reaches 100 pitches) and start looking at pitches thrown in an inning.

I’m going to watch this again this year.  It makes no sense to let any pitcher throw 30 pitches in an inning.  If 100 is bad over six innings, what is 30 pitches in ten minutes?  In a perfect world, I think the max number of pitches someone should throw starts at 28 – and once a pitcher reaches 15, the catcher should go out there and let the pitcher catch his breath.  Then, each inning, I’d drop that number by one, unless he threw 20 pitches in that inning.  So, let’s say Beckett throws 24 pitches in the first, the new max number would drop from 28 to 26 in the second inning.  If he gets to 28, though, get him out of there.  If the pitcher has two innings where he clears 20 pitches, give him an extra day of rest.

My second theory has to do with the amount of time between pitches.  The way most of these guys throw – whipping everything they have into a pitch to get 95 MPH on the gun – they shouldn’t be resting for 30 seconds between pitches.  I think that gets in the way of keeping an arm loose.  As a weightlifter, you don’t do a heavy rep of one, and then rest, and then another heavy rep of one, and then rest, and then another heavy rep of one.  You’d blow out a tendon.  You want smooth, steady movement, without letting momentum force you out of bad mechanics.  I understand that in throwing, momentum is part of getting speed on the ball, but you don’t want to overexert yourself such that it wrecks your momentum.  I would think you want the pitchers to work more quickly – not letting muscles and tendons get cold with every pitch – using a controlled momentum so as not to overwork any one tendon that either provides the thrust or the braking of the movement.

Part of that isn’t the pitcher’s fault.  Some of it is the batter.  If I were pitching to Youkilis, for example, I’d remind the umpire that I don’t want him stepping out and moving all over while I was working.  I’d just get the ball, get my sign (without shaking off the catcher), and fire away.  He can dance after the game, but not while I’m pitching.  And if he complains that I’m working too quickly, he can duck out of the way of my next pitch.  I’ve got a job to do, and that’s to work smoothly, and not sit around while he scares small children with his gyrations.

But I digress.

The bullpen was great – only Mike Timlin was a weak link.  Jonathon Papelbon is a legitimate ace, Hideki Okajima was even more effective in terms of runs allowed, and Manny Delcarmen is solid.  All three were 10 runs better than average.  The long relievers, when Masterson was being used as a starter, were weak but fortunately rarely used.

Again, four solid starters, a solid swing man, and three killers in the bullpen, and you can see why the Red Sox, despite playing in Fenway, was third in runs allowed.

Forecasting 2008:

When you are the best team in baseball, you can’t really move up – but the Red Sox might actually be better in 2009.

Offensively, Big Papi could improve by ten runs.  If Ellsbury improves, and he seemed to be making steps in the right direction by season’s end, that would be another ten runs.  I don’t see Pedroia or Youkilis getting worse, though one or the other could take a little step back.  The key will be getting production out of Lowell when his hip heals.  If not, Youkilis at third and Jeff Bailey at first isn’t a step down.  The other outfielders, Bay and Drew, won’t be better than last year, but Bay might be a bit better defensively.  It would be great if Varitek bounced back, but he’s been declining regularly for years and it’s probably not going to happen.  Still – the offense could be ten to fifteen runs better, and that’s not bad.

Defensively, a full year from Beckett might be worth ten runs.  If newcomer Brad Penny comes back strong, the fifth spot suddenly is very productive.  If not, Justin Masterson is a great option.  Or John Smoltz, who will get to pitch sometime this summer after getting his shoulder rehab done successfully.  I don’t know if Lester and Matsuzaka will stay 30 runs better than average, but they will stay productive if they stay healthy.  Adding Takashi Saito and not throwing Mike Timlin will help, as will adding Ramon Ramirez to the pen.  On paper, this is the best bullpen in baseball.  The net change is going to be slim, but probably a slight improvement over last year.  Say ten runs.  If so, the Red Sox will be in line to win 98 games, outpacing everyone by at least six or seven games, and cruising into the playoffs.

Down on the Farm…

If Boston has a prospect at AAA Pawtuckett, I don’t see it.  The best players, like Bailey and Buchholz and Masterson are already on the major league roster, and the others (Devern Hansack, Charlie Zink) are pushing 30 and still haven’t made it.

The Portland (AA) Sea Dogs features Lars Anderson and Zach Daeges, who both hit a little like Youkilis – decent average, great eye, some power.  Michael Bowden went 9 – 4 with great strikeout and control numbers before moving to AAA.  There’s not a lot of room on the major league roster right now, but if he has one more solid season in AAA, they’ll have to make space for the 22 year old from Winfield, Illinois.

A couple of A ball catchers might make a splash in a couple of years.  At Salem you have Koby Clemens (his father is rather famous in Boston), and Luis Exposito hit pretty well at Greenville.  Expo has the better average and power, but Clemens has a better eye at the plate and, well, he has connections.  Kyle Weiland dominated while pitching for Lowell (low A), good strikeout numbers and few walks.  The rookie from Notre Dame has good tools and should be in either Salem or Portland in 2009.