2012 Season Forecast: Washington Nationals

2011 Season: 80 – 81 (3rd, NL East)
Runs Scored: 624 (12th, NL)
Runs Allowed: 643 (7th, NL)

A rain out prevented the team from having a chance at getting all the way back to .500.  Davey Johnson’s task is to find at least ten more wins, telling reporters at one point that if this team doesn’t make the playoffs he should be fired.  Let’s see if that can happen.

2011 Season Recap:

Without their ace, Stephen Strasburg, who was out following elbow surgery, the Nationals started adding even more pieces to the roster, building a team that remained competitive all season long – just in the wrong division.  What was odd was that the team played over .500 with Jim Riggleman, who then quit because he couldn’t get an extension to his contract.  Johnson took over – it took a month to figure things out, but he was 38 – 43 in his time with the team.

Just looking at the statistical breakdown, the team really just needed someone who could bat first or second.  Leadoff hitters batted  .226 with a .285 OBP and the number two hitters were worse – .222 with a .283 OBP, and the lowest slugging percentage other than the pitcher’s spot in the order.  Give them 70 extra runs out of those spots, and you have a team on the brink of a 90 win season.

Starting Pitching:

Last year, the Nationals opened with a rotation of John Lannan, Livan Hernandez, Jason Marquis, Tom Gorzelanny, and gave test drives to Ross Detwiler, Chien-Ming Wang and others before giving five starts to Strasburg when he came back in September.  The problem here is that Hernandez is really just eating innings but not that effective, costing his team some 24 runs against the league average.  Even Lannan, who has been their best pitcher prior to the arrival of Strasburg is below average now – -11 runs, and Wang, despite the winning record, cost the team almost nine runs.

Looking ahead, the Nationals now hope to get 30 starts from Strasburg, which could be worth 50 runs by replacing Hernandez – a huge change.  The Nationals also added Gio Gonzalez to the rotation – a solid starter for Oakland, who if he can take over for Lannan (who, surprisingly, found his way to AAA to start this season) and pitch close to what he did last year will save the team another 25 runs.  The rest of the rotation will include Edwin Jackson – and he has the potential to save another ten to fifteen runs over Marquis.  The last two spots go to Ross Detwiler and Jordan Zimmermann, both of whom showed promise last year.  Having Lannan as an alternate isn’t a bad thing – worst case he’s a bargaining chip for help later.  This could be a very tough rotation in 2012.

Relief Pitching:

At the back end, Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard are solid – a net 30 runs better than average pitching, though Storen’s ERA (2.75) is a touch high for a closer.  Sean Burnett and Todd Coffey are tolerable long men, and being able to move Tom Gorzelanny to the pen will be a help.  Another addition that could prove to be valuable is former stopper Brad Lidge and fireballer Henry Rodriguez.  It’s a reasonably deep staff with at least three solid options.  I think this team will be a shade better than last year – but not much.  The bullpen was pretty good as it was.

Catching:

Wilson Ramos took over the job – defensively, he’s pretty good.  As a hitter, he wasn’t bad either…  He has a little power, batted .267, and would take a walk if offered.  Backed up by Ivan Rodriguez, who can’t hit but can still work the plate and threw out more runners than were successful stealing, it wasn’t a bad combination.  However, former starter Jesus Flores is back and healthy, so Pudge was sent packing for 2012.  This remains a solid duo.

Infield:

This is a group with a little pop and solid defensively all around.  Adam LaRoche didn’t hit well last year, but Michael Morse was solid when he played there.  The problem is that they need TWO Michael Morse types.  Morse also played left, and moved to first only because LaRoche didn’t hit at all (3 – 15 – .172).  Danny Espinosa has power (21 homers, 55 extra base hits), but only hit .236, and Ian Desmond has a bit better batting average but less power.  Neither guy gets on base and each were hitting too frequently at the top of the order.  At third, Ryan Zimmerman missed two months with injuries – he needs to play a full season.  If he did, he’d be an MVP candidate.

These guys have room to grow, but it would help if Adam LaRoche found his hitting stroke.  Steve Lombardozzi and Mark DeRosa are around for insurance, but Lombardozzi isn’t as good a hitter as these guys and DeRosa hasn’t been healthy in three years.  I think Washington is going to miss Laynce Nix, who played a variety of positions and put a few runs on the board.

Outfield:

Last year, Michael Morse was the dominant hitter in the outfield.  Jayson Werth had signed the big contract to come to Washington and struggled, finishing with a .232 batting average, but he still helped to put runs on the board.  He drew 74 walks, was 19/22 on the bases, and had 47 extra base hits.  Granted – he didn’t hit to his contract, so there is room for improvement.  Rick Ankiel and Roger Bernadina will battle for playing time in center – and neither are even league average hitters anymore.

The top prospect on the team, Bryce Harper, has to play here.  Yes – he’s still a teen, but Werth or Harper has enough gas to cover centerfield and having Harper could be a step up over either Ankiel or Bernadina.  Mark DeRosa and Xavier Nady are around and will get at bats.  Neither has been a productive enough hitter since about 2008.

Morse can hit – he’s done it everywhere he has played.  Werth should be better – it’s all about getting someone else in the outfield (or first base) who can contribute.  I think if the Nationals get off to a slow start, Harper will be here quickly.

Prospects:

Let’s start with the obvious – Bryce Harper hit .318 with power and patience at A level Hagerstown and earned a trip to Harrisburg in AA where he wasn’t overmatched.  He may need a full season at AA or AAA, but I don’t know if the Nationals can wait for that.

AAA Syracuse features outfielder Chris Marrero, who has a decent bat and eye, but I don’t think he’s got enough power to merit a job at first base.  He’d be better than Adam LaRoche was last year, but not a game changer.  Pitcher Tommy Milone has an interesting line – only 16 walks and 155 Ks in 148.1 innings.  He got a look in 2011; he might get some long relief innings in 2012.  Ross Detwiler made 16 starts here before joining the rotation with the major league team.

AA Harrisburg had Harper for a little while, but featured the 31 homers of Tyler Moore.  Unfortunately, Moore’s power comes with a lot of strikeouts and little patience at the plate.  Catcher Derek Norris hit for power, but his batting average doesn’t make you long for his arrival yet.  Brad Peacock had a great run in AA – 129 Ks and 23 walks in 14 starts.  Something clicked for him – it was, by far, the best season he’d had in the minors in five seasons.

David Freitas, a catcher at Hagerstown, might have a future – he hit .288, drew 82 walks, and had mid-range power.  He could make the Nationals roster in a couple of years.  Infielder Blake Kelso also had a nice season, stole some bases, and will get a shot at AA soon.  Pitcher A.J. Cole fanned 108 in 89 innings, showed good control and kept the ball in the park.  He may have a nice future here.

2012 Forecast:

With the upgrade to the rotation, the Nationals look to save at least 80 runs when compared to the 2011 model – which would be a huge step forward.  The issue remains with the offense, which isn’t really good enough.  The lineup can be better.  Desmond or Espinosa could move forward ten runs each.  Werth could improve by twenty runs.  Zimmerman could play a full season – another twenty run impact.  On the other hand, Ankiel and Morse could fall back a similar amount.  The Nationals really need a leadoff hitter – and they don’t have one.

I see them scoring about twenty runs more than last year, and saving 80 more runs.  That puts them around 640 runs scored and 560 runs allowed – or 92 wins.  You might temper that total based on the competition in the division – the Phillies, Marlins, and Braves are all very good teams.  Realistically, the Nationals could win 90 games – I just don’t know if 90 will be enough to win the division.  It could be enough to get that second wild card slot.

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Jimenez Tosses First Rocky No Hitter; Mets top Cards in 20 innings (and lots of old news)

Until last night, no Colorado Rockies pitcher had brought a no-hitter into the eighth inning – but Ubaldo Jimenez not only did that, he finished the job – cruising the last four innings and beating the Atlanta Braves.  Jimenez battled his control for five innings before his pitching coach, Bob Apodaca (a former Met, a team without a no-hitter in nearly 50 seasons) suggested that he pitch from the stretch to keep the ball in the strike zone.   After averaging more than 18 pitches an inning through five, Jimenez needed only 45 to finish the last four innings.  [MLB]

Funny story about that.  My friend, Steve Dubin, has Jimenez on his fantasy team – but was trying to protect an ERA and WHIP lead, so he left his starters on the bench.  So, he didn’t even get the fantasy points for the no-no.  Ouch.

Meanwhile, the Fox Sports team put in some overtime – the game of the week between the New York Mets and St. Louis Cardinals was a scoreless affair through eighteen innings before the Mets finally got a run off of outfielder Joe Mather to open the nineteenth inning.  Mather was the tenth pitcher used by Tony LaRussa – and SECOND position player (Felipe Lopez pitched a scoreless 18th inning).  Meanwhile, the Mets trotted out nine pitchers.  The eighth was closer Francisco Rodriguez – who blew the save opportunity.  Rodriguez admitted he was tired – he had been up and down in the bullpen and threw at least 100 pitches before heading to the mound.  Mather, however, stayed out a second inning and the Mets reached him for a second run in the top of the twentieth inning.  Mike Pelfrey, who was itching for a chance to participate, became the 19th pitcher of the game and earned the save.  [MLB]

Looking ahead to today, the Mets are out of pitchers – a bunch of guys threw at least 2 innings and 30 pitches, so Pelfrey may have to close again today.  Both managers will be hoping the Sunday night game starters, John Maine and Adam Wainwright, go the distance.

From the Training Room…

Giants outfielder Aaron Rowand was hit in the earflap of his helmet by a Vincente Padilla fastball, breaking two bones in his cheek.   With Rowand heading to the DL for two weeks, the Giants recalled infielder Matt Downs.

Wondering who Matt Downs is?  Downs was a 36th round draft pick in 2006 out of Alabama, but has made steady progress through the minors by hitting for a decent average, showing some power, and running the bases pretty well.  He even hit .372 in spring training this year…  Looking at his stats at Fresno, I think it transfers to a guy who might hit .250 with a dozen homers, a few walks, and ten or more steals, which on the Giants is an above average hitter…  I don’t know if he’ll stick but he became a better prospect than Kevin Frandsen, who was allowed to go to Boston instead.  Look for Downs to get some playing time – but he may not stay for long.

Royals infielder Chris Getz heads to the DL with an oblique strain that occurred diving into a base.  The Royals considered bringing back struggling infielder Mike Aviles, but brought back Alex Gordon instead.  Gordon, who missed most of last year following hip surgery, and then – feeling fit – broke his thumb diving into a base during a spring training game, may not be in the field right away.  [MLB]

Giants outfielder Mark DeRosa left Saturday’s game with a tweaked hammy.  He’s day-to-day.  [MLB]

Cubs pitcher (and Jayhawk alum) Tom Gorzelanny was drilled by a liner in the left shoulder and left the game for a pinch hitter in the third inning, but he says he won’t miss a start.  After getting drilled, Gorzelanny stayed in and finished his inning – he just didn’t stay in the game after that.  [MLB]

In this case, the injury might be an ego.  Addressing a story on FoxSports that ownership turned down offers from Cal Ripken, Jr. to become more involved with the Orioles operations, owner Peter Angelos said that if Cal wants to be a part of the team, he’d welcome that discussion.  [ESPN]

Angels closer Brian Fuentes is scheduling his minor league rehab in hopes of a mid-week return.  [MLB]

Indians closer (?) Kerry Wood will pitch a simulated game before heading to rehab and may return before May.  Wood is out with a sore back. [MLB]

Jarrod Saltalamacchia hopes to return to Texas, but his next rehab stint will be in AAA.  With soreness in his left shoulder and upper back, the Rangers want to see Salty catch nine innings before he returns next week.  [MLB]

Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins is on the DL with a strained calf.  The Phillies have been successful, in part, because so few regulars have spent any time on the DL…  (Brad Lidge isn’t a starter, but he’s spent the most time on the DL over the last couple of years.)  [FoxSports]

Pirates ace Ross Ohlendorf heads to the DL with back spasms…  In his place, the Pirates recalled starter Daniel McCutchen.  McCutchen faces the Reds, against whom he has his only MLB victory.  [MLB]

Orioles infielder Miguel Tejada strained a groin (hopefully his own) running the bases and is considered day-to-day.  Tejada, for all it’s worth, hasn’t missed a whole lot of games in his career.  [MLB]

Staying in Baltimore, outfielder Felix Pie strained his left shoulder batting on Thursday and was placed on the 15-day-DL.

Marlins outfielder Chris Coghlan returned to the lineup this weekend after missing a couple of games with bruised left ribs sustained while making a game-saving diving catch on the hard warning track last Tuesday.  What he needs to feel better might be a few two-hit games…  [MLB]

Chan Ho Park, Yankee long reliever, headed to the DL with a hamstring strain that occurred while warming up in the bullpen.  If you injure yourself warming up, what does that say about your level of fitness?  [MLB]

Red Sox outfielder Mike Cameron returned to the lineup this weekend after passing a kidney stone (must have been SOME kind of a stone!).  [MLB]

Royals outfielder Jose Guillen took time to discuss his leg injuries from 2009 and revealed that he had life-threatening blood clots during the off-season.  [MLB]

Old News…

Giants outfielder Fred Lewis was disappointed with his lack of playing time – so he requested a trade.  San Francisco obliged his request, sending him to Toronto for future considerations.  Fred Lewis himself broke the story on his Facebook page.

Police Blotter…

A New Jersey man was arrested for his obnoxious behavior at a game after similar behavior got his friend removed from the stadium.  Angered by that, Matthew Clemmens then made himself vomit on a man and his 11-year-old daughter.  The man on the receiving end was an off-duty police officer who showed remarkable restraint by not pummeling Clemens (which, admittedly, I would have considered if someone had done that to me or my son).  Seriously – some credit is due the off-duty cop for his restraint.  Clemmens gets charged with a variety of offenses (disorderly behavior, assault, reckless endangerment) and should get to spend time in jail.  He should also be banned from attending any sporting event.  [FoxSports]

Music mogul Jay-Z is suing David Ortiz because Ortiz named his new Dominican nightclub 40/40 – the same name used by Jay-Z in nightclubs he owns…  [FoxSports]

Longest Division Games in the AL?

Boston – New York average 3:39 – well over the league average of about 2:56.  Joe Posnanski did the work – read his article.

From the Transaction Wire…

Twins pitcher Jose Mijares heads to the DL with an elbow strain.  Coming up from Rochester is pitcher Alex Burnett – a converted starter that has been nearly unhittable as a reliever since 2009.

The Braves need an extra arm and are extending a short stint to pitcher Jonny Venters.  If you saw his career stats, you’d know he’s a non-prospect.

With Esmerling Vasquez struggling, the Diamondbacks are giving a few innings to Kris Benson…  He’s still around?  Benson pitched for Texas last year and had an ERA of about 8.50 – and hasn’t been below 4.00 since 2000 when he was still in Pittsburgh.  Isn’t Pedro Martinez still available???

2010 Season Forecast: Pittsburgh Pirates

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

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

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

Season Recap:

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

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

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

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

Pitching:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catching:

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

Infield:

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

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

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

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

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

Outfield:

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

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

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

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

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

Prospects:

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

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

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

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

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

Outlook:

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

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.

Rios Waived by Blue Jays – Let White Sox Pick Up Tab; More Cub Injury Woes…

I’m not sure I buy this, but okay.  The Toronto Blue Jays were disappointed by Alex Rios’ production on the heels of a huge contract signing in 2008 – and placed him on waivers.  The White Sox put in a claim…  So, the Blue Jays could either (a) recall Rios and make a trade offer or just keep him, or (b) let the White Sox keep him and absorb his salary.  The Jays chose (b).  Sure it’s a cash savings, but do they really have a replacement for him?  Rios was the best centerfielder on the team – but they insisted on playing the older (and slower, and more injury prone) Vernon Wells out there.  And, the Jays get NOTHING.  No prospects, no short term help.  A year ago, this team should have been in the playoffs.  Now, Roy Halliday was placed on the trading block, A.J. Burnett left as a free agent, B.J. Ryan wasn’t allowed to work through his issues, and Alex Rios is gone.

For the White Sox, who haven’t really had a solid centerfielder all season, they get an immediate upgrade defensively and offensively (albeit for about $60 million over the next six seasons) and if Rios puts it together, they could have an impact player between elder statesman Jermaine Dye and the injured but exciting Carlos Quentin.  And all they had to do was claim a guy off of waivers?

Should I be worried that this is just a precedent and other teams wishing to dump salary will no longer trade for prospects but just drop the player and keep the cash?   Look out Texas, San Diego, and others.  If you don’t win, your players may not get traded – they may just get dumped.

Two Cubs horses are making doctor visits…  Carlos Zambrano had an epidural treatment to relieve pain in his back – sources saying its the third time (at least) that this has happened this season.  And now comes word that Aramis Ramirez’s left shoulder is ailing again and needs a doctor visit – the same shoulder he separated diving for a liner earlier in the season causing him to miss two months of the season.  [MLB/ESPN]

And it doesn’t get any better.  The same night the Cubs were clocked by the Rockies (and Troy Tulowitski’s seven RBI, five hit – cycle even – game last night), starter Tom Gorzelanny was hit by a grounder in the second inning and had to leave the game.  He should make his (well, Zambrano’s) next start.  [MLB]

Two years ago, he was the toast of the 2007 rookie crop.  Last year, he signed a five year extension.  In 2009, with a batting average hovering around .180 with little power and no confidence, Diamondback centerfielder Chris Young heads to AAA to find his swagger.  Gerrardo Parra will likely get the bulk of the playing time in center for Arizona.  [FoxSports]

The Phillies are going to tempt fate, move Jamie Moyer to the bullpen, and give a start Wednesday to Pedro Martinez.  For a couple of innings this might be fun.  After that, who knows…  Personally, I don’t want to see Pedro lose his 100th decision.  [FoxSports]

Dodger second sacker Orlando Hudson strained a groin when he had to quickly change directions on a deflected grounder Monday night and will likely miss at least Tuesday’s game while he heals.  So, he’s day-to-day until we hear otherwise…  [MLB]

Chad Billingsley’s hamstring will keep the Dodger ace from making his start this week, and if he can’t go next Monday will head to the DL.  [SI]

Another player leaving early with an injury is Reds starter Johnny Cueto, who will have his left hip flexor examined.  Cueto was running to first on a grounder when he limped and quit running about 45 feet down the line.  The Reds hurler has been off his game for a month, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets a DL stint to rest up and comes back in September.  [MLB]

The Cards got some bad news – Todd Wellemeyer’s elbow was sore following a bullpen session and may miss his next start.  [SI]

And, two other pitchers may get moved soon – both Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang have cleared waivers, according to FoxSports.  Any takers out there?  I mean, a two month loan for a couple of guys who might be motivated to finish strong…  Milwaukee?  Houston?  Los Angeles?  Chicago?

Welcome Back!  Jared Burton (Reds), Chad Durbin (Phils) return from the DL.  Arizona signed Daniel Cabrera to a minor league deal.  I used to love watching Cabrera – big fastball and no idea what he was doing out there.  Maybe he’ll figure it out here – but I doubt it.  I’ll still watch.

Hurry Back!  Rodrigo Lopez got lit up by the Marlins, so the Phillies sent Lopez to AAA.

Add Brian Matusz to Your Fantasy Roster; And Do They Teach Geography to USC Football Players?

Did I hear that correctly?  Chris Mortensen is interviewing Clay Matthews, Jr., the USC “grad” who was drafted by Green Bay.  When asked about the difference between SoCAL and Green Bay, Matthews said he had to go to the internet and look up Green Bay – he didn’t know that Green Bay was in Wisconsin.  Really?

The Angels are on a great run – without Torii Hunter and Vlad Guerrero – and now those guys are coming back…  Guerrero was activated from the DL (calf, hamstring injuries to the left leg) and is getting at bats in the DH slot.  [SI]

Twins starter Kevin Slowey had successful surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow and expects to be ready for spring training.   What should make everyone nervous is that Francisco Liriano missed a start with forearm stiffness and is going to make a go of it on Tuesday.  Not that Liriano has been that good in 2009, but if he goes down, so do the chances of the Twins sneaking into the playoffs.  [SI]

Newly acquired Red Scott Rolen had a CT scan on his head and checked out as normal – though he still hasn’t played since getting hit by a Jason Marquis pitch in the head on Sunday.  [SI]

Speaking of third basemen who used to be really, really good…  Troy Glaus hoped to return to the Cardinals in August, but a bulging disc in his back shut down his rehab.  He now hopes to play in September.  [SI]

The Mets can’t keep anyone healthy – and now comes word that Luis Castillo had to leave last night’s game against the Cardinals when he fell down the dugout steps and injured his ankle.  Castillo is day-to-day…  [ESPN]

Lance Berkman’s calf isn’t ready, so don’t look for him to return to the Astros when his DL stint ends this week.  [MLB]

San Diego released Mark Prior, whose rehab hasn’t been as successful as anyone had hoped.  Very sad…

Welcome Back!  Seattle returns Adrian Beltre from the DL, while Wilkin Ramirez got a quick shot to be on the Tigers roster – and was promptly sent back down to Toledo…

Hurry Back!  The Cubs placed Andres Blanco on the DL with a calf strain.  Bobby Wilson and Chris Woodward were dispatched to AAA with the return of other players…

Welcome to the Bigs!  Alex Avila gets a cup of coffee with Detroit.  Avila is a catching prospect with some power and patience at the plate.  He was recalled from AA Erie, and he’s not totally ready for the bigs, but he looks like he can play some…  The Alabama grad was a fifth round draft pick in 2008, and could make Baseball America’s Top Ten in the Tigers Chain list soon.  Brian Matusz was undefeated at AA Bowie, so Baltimore decided to give the kid a shot last night – and now Matusz is undefeated with the Orioles…   That makes Matusz the fifth rookie bird to win his first game in 2009.  Matusz was a first round pick out of the University of San Diego and has awesome stuff – strikes people out, has a breaking ball that moves, and hardly walks anyone (last night’s effort not withstanding).  If Earl Weaver had his way, Matusz would hang in long relief for a year or two before moving into the rotation in 2011 and turning into Scott McGregor if not Jim Palmer.   If you can, get this kid on your fantasy roster soon.

Afterthoughts…  Jayhawk alum Tom Gorzelanny started and got the win for Chicago last night, allowing just one earned in 7-plus innings…  I admit it – I bleed Crimson and Blue…