2011 Season Forecast: Boston Red Sox

Last Five Seasons:

2010:  89 – 73 (3rd AL East)
2009:  95 – 67
2008:  95 – 67
2007:  96 – 66 (WS Champs)
2006:  86 – 76

Runs Scored: 818 (2nd, AL to NYY)
Runs Allowed: 744 (11th in the AL, but considering where they play, it was 6th if you adjust for the park)

2010 Recap:

After a lack-luster start in April, the Red Sox started rolling in May and June, at which point everyone started getting dinged up, including Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Cameron, Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, and J.D. Drew (which, frankly, was expected).  Bill Hall turned into an everyday player, Darnell McDonald was forced into the lineup, and Mike Lowell’s body finally gave out having to play as often as it did.  Even Tim Wakefield went down with a back injury.  The Red Sox played near .500 the rest of the way, but with both New York and Tampa playing lights out in July and August, the Red Sox weren’t really in the race despite almost making it to 90 wins.

The Red Sox made few mid-season moves of any consequence, other than putting people on the DL.

Starters:

On paper, as good a rotation as can be found.  Jon Lester is an ACE; a lefty in Fenway with a 3.25 ERA and 19 wins who strikes out more than a batter an inning and keeps the ball in the park.  Clay Buchholz earned 28 starts and was even better in terms of runs saved (34 to 26.5), but Lester really had the better stuff and pitched 35 more innings.  John Lackey took a while to get started, but still won 14 decisions and pitched 215 innings.  Daisuke Matsuzaka only made 25 starts, but had a winning record.  Josh Beckett, on the other hand, made 21 awful starts and finished with a 5.78 ERA.  He needs to move off the fastball and find another out pitch.  Tim Wakefield made 19 starts, got swatted around more than usual, and won just four games.  He’s not retired yet, but the league may retire him anyway.

The same five return for 2011, and Wakefield may not have a spot on the roster.  I don’t think Buchholz will match his 2010 rate, but Beckett could be better if healthy.  I don’t expect improvement from the three or five spots (Lackey or Matsuzaka) and worry what would happen if a key starter went down to injury.

Bullpen:

Like Josh Beckett, Jonathon Papelbon was more hittable than in previous years, finishing with a 3.90 ERA.  He walked more batters than usual and just had days where it didn’t work for him.  I think he’ll be fine, but 8th inning stud Daniel Bard could get some save opportunities if needed.  Hideki Okajima fell off a little in 2010, as did Manny Delcarmen.  Guys like Scott Atchison, Ramon Ramirez, Dustin Richardson, and Scott Schoeneweis didn’t really move the needle.  On the other hand, Lester, Lackey, and (down the stretch) Buchholz didn’t need more than two innings of help most nights.

Still, the Red Sox brought in a bunch of guys to help out for 2011, including Bobby Jenks (not really a closer), Matt Albers, Dan Wheeler, and Alfredo Aceves to shore up the pen, which should make it slightly stronger than in 2010.

Catching:

Last year, Victor Martinez proved he could still hit and Jason Varitek proved he could still catch.  On the other hand, Varitek can’t hit much, and Martinez should be a DH.  So, for 2011, Martinez will get to DH in Detroit, and the Red Sox imported Jarrod Saltalamacchia to be the primary starter.  Salty was acquired for prospects in July, 2010 but didn’t play much.  And, he comes to Boston as a question mark.  He has a great work ethic, but hasn’t ever really been a dominant hitter.  And, last year he was sent to AAA because he couldn’t make the throw from behind the plate back to the pitcher.  Let’s hope he’s got this behind him now…

Offensively, this will be a slide – maybe 25 runs – but defensively (unless Saltalamacchia falls off on his game) it could be a minor improvement.

Infield:

The infield was anchored by third baseman Adrian Beltre, who had his best season in Boston, hitting .321 with power, and fielding his position as well as just about anybody.  Shortstop Marco Scutaro didn’t miss many games, but he didn’t make many plays in the field, made quite a few errors, and his batting fell off to league average levels.  The other half missed half the season – Dustin Pedroia only played in 75 games and Kevin Youkilis missed 60.

Youkilis produces a run a game and can still field.  He will be moving off of first base to take over third as Beltre signed a free agent deal with Texas.  And, Adrian Gonzalez was aquired from San Diego (albeit after shoulder surgery) to play first base.  A healthy Gonzalez is a world class hitter and fielder, and if Pedroia plays 140 games, this unit will generate perhaps 15 more runs than they did in 2010.  If Scutaro struggles at the plate this year, it might be time to dig into the minors for glove wizard Jose Iglesias. Jed Lowrie backs everyone up in 2011.

Outfield:

The outfield of Ellsbury, Cameron, and Drew hardly ever played together, so it was a patchwork crew of guys like Jeremy Hermida, Bill Hall, Ryan Kalish, Darnell McDonald, Daniel Nava, and Josh Reddick.

This should change as the Red Sox signed Rays left fielder Carl Crawford for 2011.  Ellsbury will be back, hopefully staying in the lineup and batting in front of the boppers, playing center.  He’s the wild card of this group, not being an especially good defensive centerfielder, and having lost much of the season to build on his offensive tool set.  Drew returns to play as many games as possible in right, with Cameron and McDonald around to pick up games and innings as needed.  If Ellsbury can return to form, and having added Crawford, the offense could improve by 50 runs, easily.

DH:

David Ortiz is still around, having generated 98 runs of offense with a 32 – 102 – .270 campaign.  He’ll still play, but he might get a day off from time to time against a tough lefty with Cameron on the bench.  I don’t see Ortiz repeating 2010, but at least the Sox have options.

Down on the Farm:

AAA Pawtucket’s featured outfielders already got a shot, those being Ryan Kalish and Josh Reddeck – both are mid-level power decent bat types and don’t have jobs in Boston just yet.  Among the pitchers, Michael Bowden keeps getting calls to the Red Sox, but hasn’t been able to stick and probably is looking forward to free agency.

Pitcher Felix Doubront made eight solid starts for AA Portland, earning a trip to Pawtucket.  After another eight good starts, he was in Boston for a few outings and didn’t look overmatched.  I don’t see him making the roster in April, so expect the lefty to start in AAA for 2011.  Anthony Rizzo is a potential power source, having hit 20 homers in Portland after being moved up from A+ Salem.  Just 21, he may start at Pawtucket, but his route to the majors is also blocked.

Salem featured pitcher Stolmy Pimentel, who has decent command but needs a little seasoning.  Infielder Oscar Tejeda hit .307 in Salem, with decent power and some speed.  Ryan Lavarnway showed power and command of the strike zone and should start the year at AA Portland.

Forecasting 2011:

The Red Sox are the consensus pick to win the AL East and possibly the World Series.  It’s hard to argue with the logic.  By my methods, I see the offense improving by perhaps as many as 40 runs, and the pitching holding steady.  The defense will be stronger in the outfield, and the only hole will likely be short and catcher.  With 860 runs scored, and about 740 runs allowed, that puts the Sox around 93 wins.  It’s fewer than many others have predicted, but still enough to edge the Rays for the division crown.

Advertisements

2011 Season Forecast: Detroit Tigers

Last Five Seasons:

2010:  81 – 81
2009:  86 – 77
2008:  74 – 88
2007:  88 – 74
2006:  95 – 67

Has it been that long since Kenny Rogers was doctoring baseballs in the World Series?

More to the current team – last year the Tigers were 52 – 29 at home, and 29 – 52 on the road, with comparable splits in terms of runs scored/allowed.  The Tigers were +82 in runs at home, and – 74 in runs on the road.

Runs Scored: 751  (8th in the AL)
Runs Allowed: 743  (10th in the AL)

You’d think that a team that was below average in offense and defense would have a record slightly below .500, but the Tigers held on for dear life to stay at .500.

Season Recap:

The Tigers were picked by many to compete for the AL Central crown, but most people had them second or third.  After a reasonably good April, the Tigers gave back games in May, won a few more than they lost in June, and then just kind of stayed just off the fringe of the race until August.  By then, they had lost Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen.  The Scott Sizemore experiment was a disaster, which didn’t help, and despite the best efforts of Miguel Cabrera, the offense couldn’t deliver down the stretch.

The Tigers were a team that got on rolls – good and bad.  They would win a bunch of games and make a run to the top.  Five of six off the start, six in a row in early May, eight of nine against Pittsburgh, Washington and Arizona (I mean – WOW – Detroit had an easy interleague schedule) to move to 37 – 29.  The fourth streak, in early July, put the Tigers at 48 – 37 one day before the All-Star break.  Unfortunately, the Tigers lost all momentum – losing seven in a row and 20 of 25 to fall out of the race by early August.  Toward the end of the season, Detroit rattled off eight wins in nine games to get to 80 – 75, but lost six in a row and had to win the last game of the season to get to .500.

Starters:

Justin Verlander is a legitimate ace, saving his team 20 runs over league average pitching and winning 67% of his decisions.  Max Scherzer, acquired from Arizona, is a solid #2 starter and was a start away from 200 innings, which he should make in 2011.  Rick Porcello wasn’t as good as hoped, but there are things to build on.  Armando Galarraga, he of the perfect game that wasn’t, was a moderately below average pitcher in part because he, like Porcello, pitches too much to contact and doesn’t miss bats with pitches.  Jeremy Bonderman made a comeback season, but in a painful way – an ERA of 5.53 pitching in a decent pitcher’s park and with a reasonably good defense behind him – he was 32 runs worse than an average starter of his 171 innings.  An extra run a start.  Ouch.  Two others made a few starts, Dontrelle Willis – who is gone – and Andrew Oliver, who should be back in AAA.

Looking ahead, Verlander, Scherzer, and Porcello return, to be joined by reliever Phil Coke – a decent middle reliever – and former quality starter, Brad Penny.  I’ve always been a fan of Penny’s (works very fast, throws strikes), but I don’t know if his body can handle the load.  He’s turning into Rick Reuschel, which can’t be good either.  However, he’s a better bet to be successful than Jeremy Bonderman.  The problem may be finding a sixth starter option.

Relievers:

The bullpen is led by closer Jose Valverde, a very good finisher, and imported setup man, Joaquin Benoit – a shut down 8th inning option.  After that, Joel Zumaya is still around (albeit a chance to get injured), and a few others are there to mop up, including Daniel Schlereth (a decent enough lefty with gobs of upside), Ryan Perry, and Brad Thomas or Eddie Bonine.

Catching:

Alex Avila earned the job full time, and his backup will be DH Victor Martinez.  Avila has tolerable defensive skills, but needs to step up some with the batting average – which would start with striking out less.

Infield:

Miguel Cabrera is arguably the best hitter in baseball, and last year seemed to have beaten whatever demons befell him at the end of 2009.  Of course, he blew that heading to spring training, but he should still be able to hit the ball in 2011.  The Tigers missed Placido Polanco, a solid defensive player who chipped in by hitting around .300.  Last year, Scott Sizemore earned a shot, but gave it away by showing less than acceptable range and hitting .224 and striking out about 28% of the time.  Carlos Guillen played a little at second before his body gave way and Will Rhymes took over.  In the minors, Rhymes was never Sizemore’s equal in terms of being a prospect, but at the majors, Rhymes was a better fielder and hitter. Looking ahead, the same three guys are back – and someone will have to back up Guillen when he breaks down in June or July.  (Look, I like Guillen, but this is what happens when you get old.  If he plays 140 games, the Tigers will benefit greatly, but I don’t know that he can do it.)  Jhonny Peralta returns to play short for the full year – not a solid defender anymore but can still put some runs on the board.  Brandon Inge returns to play third base – fielding well, hitting a few homers, but otherwise being an ordinary player.

Looking at this, the problem is that the front four are (a) on the down side of their career, or (b) trying to age faster than he has to by adding weight and drinking heavily.  This can’t be a good sign if you are a Tigers fan.

Outfield:

Austin Jackson was fantastic last year – a lot of hits, decent defense, and flashes of brilliant speed (10 triples, 27 stolen bases).  He is among the best centerfielders in the AL.  Right fielder Magglio Ordonez is getting long in the tooth, still can hit, but his defense is problematic.  And he can’t DH as much as you’d want because Victor Martinez was brought in to be the DH.  In left, either Ryan Raburn or Brennan Boesch, who are essentially the same player, will get to play.  Raburn is marginally better – higher average, slightly better glove – but you wouldn’t complain (as a pitcher) if your outfield were Raburn, Jackson, and Boesch.

DH:

Did I mention that Victor Martinez was brought in to be the DH?  He replaces Johnny Damon, who heads to Tampa because everyone from the east heads to Florida to retire.  Martinez should contribute more than Damon, but not a TON more.  Martinez played in Boston and generated about 83.4 runs of offense, while Damon played in Detroit and generated 79.7 runs.

Down on the Farm:

Alfredo Figaro looked like the best pitching prospect at AAA Toledo, but even with a decent W/L record and K/W data, his ERA was the same as the team average and when he got a cup of coffee with the big club, he was treated rudely by batters.  The best hitters are on the Tigers – Scott Sizemore and Will Rhymes.  Not a lot of immediate help here…

Heading to AA Erie, the most interesting person there might be outfielder Brandon Douglas.  He has NO power.  None.  What he has is amazing contact skills and has hit .331 in his several stops in the minors.  I can’t tell how good a fielder he is – he’s bounced around between second and short, which means he’s a second baseman in the bigs.  If he’s ANY good at all, in a year or two he could be the next Placido Polanco.

Another guy who could be interesting is pitcher Adam Wilk.  Wilk made 14 starts in low A ball after coming out of Long Beach State and struck out 67 and walked just seven batters.  He had comparable numbers at A+ Lakeland (100Ks, 19 walks in 24 starts), and then slid into AA for three starts – and all were successful.  He’s not making the Tigers in 2011, but he COULD make the team in 2012 and be a good fourth or third starter.

Last year’s #1 pick Jacob Turner did what you wanted to see in his first year of professional ball, and will likely start 2011 in A+ Lakeland before moving to Erie mid-season.  Second round pick Andrew Oliver is moving quickly through the system and was given a cup of coffee in 2010 with the parent club.

Season Forecast:

I’m not convinced that Detroit will compete.  Inge, Guillen, Peralta, and even Cabrera are candidates to regress from 2010.  That could be 20 runs defensively and 40 runs offensively.  The outfield will stay the same – the gains in center field and possibly left are offset by the potential losses in right field.  Then you get to the pitching staff, and I don’t see how Coke is better than Galarraga and even though Penny is better than Bonderman – how many starts will that be?  10?  20?  30?  The sixth starter option doesn’t appeal to me – so if it’s 10, the pitching won’t be much better in 2011 than it was last year.

Given this, I think the Tigers will score about 720 runs and allow about 760, which is about 77 wins.  It’s not too unreasonable to think it could be worse, especially if Cabrera misses a significant amount of time or plays below the level we are used to seeing.  This team could injure it’s way out and suffer through six months that were as bad as the Tigers were in July and August.  That’s a 70 – 90 team.

Where can you find optimism?  Brad Penny making 30 starts, Rick Porcello getting a bit better, Guillen and Ordonez not only maintaining batting skills but playing 130 games each, and Ryan Raburn bouncing up in his numbers.  If ALL those things happened, the Tigers could win 85 games.  I just think that’s a lot to ask for.

2010 – Top AL Catchers

Joe Mauer (MIN) – 99.3 runs created

Mauer wasn’t 100%, but he’s still amazing.  Defensively, he has few peers and offensively he’s a solid #3 hitter.  His power was off – just nine homers – and his batting average fell with the league, but he remained a threat to win the batting title.  Backup Drew Butera was solid, too – cutting down 43% of would be base stealers.  Of course, Butera hits like Sal Butera – which isn’t very good.

Victor Martinez (BOS) – 83.4 runs created

Martinez and Jason Varitek remained solid as a team behind the plate, being way below average against the run (80% success rate and 169 stolen bases allowed) and not necessarily being that mobile – though who really bunts against the Sox, anyway.  Martinez hit well here, batting .302 with 20 homers, and Varitek had surprisingly good power in limited plate appearances.  Martinez is gone now, leaving Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jason Varitek as top options, which will hurt the Sox offensively in 2011.  Saltalamacchia has never hit that well – and Varitek isn’t going to hit .275 anytime soon.  Let’s hope that Salty has beaten his phobia of throwing back to the pitcher…

Mike Napoli (LAA) 73.1 runs created

Jeff Mathis is supposedly the stronger defensive catcher – but Napoli was actually better against the run and made slightly fewer mistakes.  Mathis is definitely a cleaner catcher – far more mobile, but not a world beater with the bat.  Bobby Wilson got 29 starts and wasn’t awful, didn’t impress me with either his mobility or arm, but he might be able to hit a little.  As a group, they were well below average and partly to blame for not winning the division in 2010.  Offensively, Mike Napoli has power and produces runs, and held down first base when Kendry Morales went down to that freak broken leg.  Mathis hit like Lou Marson (see below) in fewer at bats.  Will Hank Conger win the job in spring training?

John Buck (TOR) – 61.7 runs created

Now a Marlin, John Buck was dependable, decent against the run, didn’t make too many errors, and generally mobile.  The pitching was surprisingly good and Toronto had a winning record.  Defensively, for this position, it was a lot of positives.  Backup Jose Molina was awesome against the run (44% caught stealing), and Buck was pretty good.  Rookie J.P. Arencibia gets the nod for 2011, and he didn’t look so bad either.  By the way, Buck had his best offensive season, too – hitting .281 and slugging 20 homers.  His weakness?  He doesn’t walk at all.

Jorge Posada/Francisco Cervelli (NYY) – 57.9 runs created

Innings split nearly down the middle, Posada is aging (he doesn’t LOOK old, but he’s playing old), but Cervelli isn’t the answer either.  Neither can stop the run, though Cervelli is younger and, therefore, more mobile.  The pitching isn’t happy with the catching either.  As a hitter, Cervelli is learning, and marginally below average, but not awful; he also isn’t seen as the next Yogi Berra either.  Posada did what we would have expected to do – which is lose a little in his batting average, though he still gets on base and hits for some power.  Jesus Montero will have this job as soon as he is ready.

Kurt Suzuki (OAK) – 57.1 runs created

Suzuki remains a decent catcher, though he’s not very good against the run anymore.  Backup Landon Powell is better against the run, but needs to remove some of his mistakes – which will come with time.  As a duo, they weren’t very good – not very mobile, and slightly above average in terms of making mistakes.  Suzuki still hits a little, but it’s a little less and he’s now below average.  He’s still better than Landon Powell.

John Jaso (TB) – 54.2 runs created

Jaso is young and gets on base – much like his Florida Marlins counterpart, John Baker.  In fact, he got on base enough that Joe Maddon let him bat leadoff from time to time.  Dioner Navarro is the best catcher of this group, but his weight is problematic and he isn’t hitting.  Kelly Shoppach doesn’t look like he’ll be in the league very long and should start brushing up on his coaching skills instead.

A.J. Pierzynski (CHISOX) – 52.4 runs created

Pierzynski is starting to get old, but he’s a good kind of old – just good enough against the run, few mistakes, and keeping the pitching staff on point – though he has a good set of pitchers to work with.  His offense fell off to where his power slipped and his OBP is woeful (.301).  Backup Ramon Castro isn’t half bad, and the man can hit (.278/.504/.331).  He could easily be a DH if the Sox wanted, and I’d be tempted to let him play more.

Matt Wieters (BAL) – 51.4 runs created

The Orioles future is now with Matt Wieters assuming the starting role full time.  As a team, Oriole catching rates as slightly above average, with the young Wieters being mobile, and making few errors or passed balls.  The TEAM was below average in terms of the stolen base percentage, but Wieters wasn’t the problem, nabbing 24 of 77 runners.  Craig Tatum was horrible here, allowing 25 of 27 runners to reach the next base.  Offensively, Wieters didn’t amaze as we had been led to believe, but there were a few positives, including 11 homers in 446 at bats.  I think he’s going to be better.  Tatum had a nice batting average (.281), but he didn’t do much with those singles.

Jason Kendall (KC) – 43.6 runs created

You want to know why the Royals are never going to win?  Who was responsible for letting John Buck go to Toronto (where Toronto suddenly had the best overall catching in the league), and replacing him with the ancient, impotent, and immobile Jason Kendall?  Kendall can still throw a little, but the rest of his game is lacking.  Brayan Pena should have been given this job from the outset.  Pena is a better hitter, a better athlete, and has upside.

Alex Avila/Gerald Laird (DET) – 32.3 runs created

Laird is a really good catcher with solid skills, good with pitchers, good against the run, relatively mistake free.  Avila is nearly his equal and played 86 more innings.  Neither hit – but Avila was closer to league average than Laird, who seems to have lost his bat altogether – explaining why Avila got more time behind the plate.  If Avila can step up a bit – maybe .260 and slugging .400 – this would be a positive.  He’ll be a backup, though, as Victor Martinez will take on a load of catching in 2011.

Lou Marson (CLE) – 22.4 runs created

As a team, Indian catchers were average – but the young guys were good in terms of avoiding mistakes and making the throws.  The veteran backup, Mike Redmond, struggled against baserunners (see Craig Tatum, BAL, above).  I’ve always been a Marson fan, but if his bat doesn’t improve soon (.195 with no power), he’ll become the new Paul Bako.  You think the Indians miss Victor Martinez?

Matt Treanor/Bengie Molina (TEX) – 20.5 runs created

A few years ago, it looked like Texas had all the good young catchers.  Saltalamacchia is gone, Taylor Teagarden has been disappointing, Max Ramirez isn’t the answer yet, leaving veteran Matt Treanor as the best of the lot.  It was so bad, the Rangers imported Bengie Molina from the Giants down the stretch, and he wasn’t much better than Treanor – though he was more mobile.  Nobody hit here, so the addition of Mike Napoli and Yorvit Torrealba will help immensely.

Adam Moore/Rob Johnson (SEA) – 14.9 runs created

Josh Bard got 300 innings, too – nobody had more than 515 innings at the position in 2010.  Moore wasn’t very good against the run and he isn’t very mobile.  If he has room to grow, that’s news to me.  Rob Johnson was good against the run and more mobile, but his health record looks like Medicare’s worst nightmare.  Bard can catch, but that’s about it.  As a team, among the worst catching in the league.  Only Bard hit above .200, and he hit .214.  Not good at all…

2010 Season Forecast: Baltimore Orioles

Last Five Years:

2009: 63 – 98 (5th AL East)
2008: 68 – 93
2007: 69 – 93
2006: 70 – 92
2005: 74 – 88

The Baltimore Orioles have had a worse record each year since winning 78 games in 2004 and haven’t posted a winning season since 1997, when they won 98 games.  What in the name of Earl Weaver is going on here???

Runs Scored: 741 (11th, AL)
Runs Allowed: 876 (Last, AL)

Season Recap:

Another year of rebuilding, another year of trying out prospects, and another year of being battered in road games, where the Orioles were 25 – 56.  Ouch.

Despite this, the Orioles are starting to show signs that they are accumulating the type of talent that will make them competitive – which would be good enough in the AL Central, but not in the AL East.

Just looking at the monthly splits, the team batted pretty well all year but had power surges in May and August.  What really happened was that the team slugged enough to help the pitchers in the beginning of the season, but the  pitching really left them after the all-star break.  The team ERA was a tolerable 4.55 in July when the Orioles were off – winning just 9 of 25 decisions.  Then it went to 5.30 in August as Baltimore lost 20 of 30 games, and finished at 6.22 (!) in September when the team lost 20 of 26 decisions.  Were it not for a four game winning streak in October, the Orioles would have lost 100 games.

So – looking ahead quickly, the Orioles need to figure out how to make up for a 135 run gap between offense and defense that would allow them to get to .500.

Pitching:

Jeremy Guthrie, who would look good on most teams, got to 200 innings in his 33 starts and wasn’t horrible despite his 10 – 17 record.  He’s not a league average pitcher in part because he doesn’t strike out enough batters – just 110 on the season.

The rest of the rotation struggled.  Rich Hill, brought in as sort of a reclamation project, gave the Orioles 13 awful starts (7.80 ERA), David Hernandez was called up for 19 starts that were a bit better, but he was whacked around to a 4 – 10 record.  Koji Uehara started off okay, but went down to a shoulder injury.  Prospect Jason Berken didn’t look ready – 24 starts and a 6.54 ERA.  Adam Eaton was added to the rotation and was predictably awful (2 – 5, 8.56).  Mark Hendrickson was allowed to start 11 times but was better in relief.

However, Brad Bergesen came up and won 7 of 12 decisions, and saved his team 16 runs over 123.1 innings.  Brian Matusz was given 8 starts and was league average, winning five of seven decisions.  Chris Tillman wasn’t awful.

The bullpen had George Sherrill‘s 20 saves and a solid 2.40 ERA, but shipped him to Los Angeles, putting Jim Johnson in the closer position where he was barely tolerable – not necessarily helping down the stretch.  Danys Baez gave the Orioles 72 decent innings.  Brian Bass was asked to work a lot of long relief.

Working against those four were Matt Albers (5.51 ERA), former closer Chris Ray (7.27 ERA) and a few other small time tryouts.

Looking ahead to 2010, the Orioles have to start by finding 400 better innings of pitching.  Kevin Millwood was acquired from Texas – Millwood was solid for five months and if he can keep his ERA under 4.50, would represent a 40 run improvement over 2009.  Guthrie gets the second spot, and Bergesen and Matusz will get more starts.  If they stay healthy and make 30 starts, that’s another 40 runs better.  Chris Tillman is expected to be a prize – and certainly will be better than eight Adam Eaton starts.

So, a realist sees the potential to make up at least 60 runs on last year, and an optimist might see 100 runs of improvement.

The bullpen adds former Braves reliever Mike Gonzalez to the closer spot.  Gonzalez CAN be a good closer, and he CAN be a bit inconsistent.  Still, adding the healthy arm to the mix will be a step up.  Former Padre Cla Meredith will also help out, taking on the Baez innings.  Will Ohman comes over from the NL – and I would rather see him than, say, Matt Albers, who is still around and on the active roster as of 4/1.

I don’t see the bullpen being that much better than last year – and certainly nowhere near as deep as the top three teams in the division.

Catching:

Matt Wieters is here – the cover of Sports Illustrated in March – and could EXPLODE on the scene and make the all-star team.  Wieters didn’t disappoint as a rookie, showing a little power and hitting .288.  He represents a step up over Chad Moeller and Greg Zaun, and has far more upside.  The new back up is Craig Tatum.  Wieters does need to improve is caught stealing rate (barely league average) but is more mobile and made fewer mistakes per game than the two veterans in 2009.

Infield:

Last year, Aubrey Huff was merely ordinary and not producing at the rate the Orioles had hoped – just 13 – 72 – .253.  First baseman are supposed to create 100 runs of offense, and Huff was responsible for just 55.  Michael Aubrey and Garrett Atkins are around now.  Aubrey is an oft-injured Indian farm hand who was stuck behind Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez (among others), but could be a surprise performer.  Atkins has been in decline for a few years and when asked to backup Todd Helton at first looked awkward.  I’d rather play Aubrey and keep Atkins on the bench.

Brian Roberts remains a remarkably productive offensive force at the top of the lineup, but his bad back is affecting his already below average range.  The Orioles don’t really have another choice (Robert Andino could field it, but not hit), so they have to hope that Roberts can keep his back loose and mobile.

At short, Cesar Izturis provided a great glove with no bat in the mold of Mark Belanger – hitting .253 with no power and, even worse, drawing just 18 walks in 114 games.  At least he keeps the pitchers happy.

Melvin Mora looked very old last year – only eight homers, and barely generating 50 runs of offense.  In his place, the Orioles are returning former Oriole Miguel Tejada (who is older than Mora) to play third.  Tejada had a solid season at short for Houston last year, but agreed to the move here.  Mora is usually pretty solid defensively, but Tejada could be his match and will certainly provide a bit more offense.

Looking at this pragmatically, and assuming Michael Aubrey gets the first shot at first base, there could be 30 more runs here (35 more at third, 15 more at first, offset by a potential decline at second base).  If Atkins plays, it’s probably only 15 runs better than last year, and that’s offset by Atkins bungling the position defensively, too.

Outfield:

With Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, and Felix Pie or Nolan Reimold, the Orioles have a pretty productive group here.

Markakis is a dependable source of hits and runs, though his range isn’t enough to make up for his rocket arm.  I do believe, however, that this will be his breakout offensive season.  Jones needs to play 150 games, and if he does, will make a run at 20 – 20, if not 30 – 30.  Pie can field any of the three positions and isn’t a problem with the bat, though he’s not a well rounded hitter.  However, Nolan Reimold showed power and patience and if given 500 at bats, might hit 25 homers.  Fifth outfielder Luke Scott gets to be the DH – a power source from the left side of the plate, though he needs a platoon partner.

Looking ahead, I see no reason that this group can’t find 50 more runs of offense by (a) staying in the lineup, and (b) continuing to show progress.

Bench:

Robert Andino and Garrett Atkins in the infield and Felix Pie in the outfield are joined by super sub Ty Wiggington, who could also be a regular first baseman and help the club.  Luis Montanez gets to be an extra outfielder when needed.

Prospects:

The best guy not already listed above that played at AAA Norfolk might be second baseman Justin Turner.  Turner hit .300 with a .362 OBP and has tolerable speed.  He’s NOT as good as Brian Roberts, but if he is forced to play, I think he will outhit Andino and might surprise you with how good a fielder he is.  He’s certainly better with the glove than Roberts at this stage.  Turner is a Cal State Fullerton grad, and a former Reds draft pick (7th Round, 2006).

The best pitchers in Norfolk were Chris Tillman and David Hernandez, who had solid runs and shots with the parent club last year.  Another option is reliever Kam Mickolio.  They all have the tools, they just need to put things together, which isn’t as easy as it looks – especially in the AL East.

A couple of Bowie Baysox (AA) pitchers to look for will be Brandon Erbe (44 hits allowed in 73 innings, but control issues) and Jacob Arrieta (70 Ks in 59 innings across 11 starts).  Give them a year or two and they might round out the Orioles rotation.  Another young reliever, Steven Johnson, might start the year at AAA.  The best hitter going through AA was Brandon Snyder, who pounded pitchers to a .343 batting average with 10 homers in 201 at bats, but appeared a bit overmatched at AAA.  A former catcher (and 2005 #1 pick), Snyder is getting time at first base now and if both Aubrey and Atkins aren’t producing in June, Snyder is just a hot start away from making the roster.

Richie Hebner managed former Wofford College slugger Brandon Waring and the Frederick Keys in 2009.  Waring is a third baseman who hits the ball a LONG way, and seems to be making progress in reducing his strikeout numbers.  Another former Reds prospect, Waring is still a couple of years away and should be ready for a look when Tejada hits 40.  Former FAU grad Robert Widlansky hit .340 for Frederick, but this was the first time he had played this well.

Among the pitchers, Brian Matusz already made it from Frederick to the bigs, and 22-year-old Zach Britton looks ready to try on AA after a year with 131 Ks in 140 innings.  Reliever Pat Egan still showed great control, but may not have enough gas to make it to the bigs.

Forecasting 2010:

You have to like Baltimore’s chances of moving the wins needle back in the right direction.  The potential to shave 60 – 80 runs defensively is there, and if Tejada doesn’t turn out to be 45 at third base, the offense could improve by 75 to 90 runs.  What is working against the Orioles is the top of the division – three teams all worthy of 90 wins.  I think the Orioles are extremely capable of winning more games than they lose – but might not just because they are in the AL East where good isn’t good enough.  So, even though the system says 83 – 79  I think 79 – 83 might be more in line with the final record and I am going to go against what the system says.

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.

2010 Season Forecast: Cincinnati Reds

Last Five Seasons:
2009: 78 – 84 (4th NL Central)
2008: 74 – 88
2007: 72 – 90
2006: 80 – 82
2005: 73 – 89

The Reds haven’t had a winning season since going 85 – 77 in 2000.  It’s time to fix this problem, don’t you think?

Runs Scored: 673 (10th in the NL)
Runs Allowed: 723 (8th in the NL)

Season Recap:

Most observers were mixed, but one could see hope on the horizon in guys like Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, and what looked like four potentially good starters.  I’m sure the Reds fans thought they should have finished better than .500.

The Reds actually got off to a pretty good start.  At one point, Cincinnati was 20 – 14 with Johnny Cueto at 4 – 1, Bronson Arroyo at 5 – 2 and Edinson Volquez at 4 – 2.  And then the bad things started to happen.  Joey Votto got hurt – and his confidence was suddenly shaken, requiring extra time to come to grips with being out of the lineup and being without his father who had passed away.  Volquez went down with an arm injury, taking their ace out of the rotation.  After two months looking like a contender, the Reds fell off in June and then fell APART in July.

Cincinnati was 40 – 39 on the Fourth of July.  And then the roof caved in falling all the way to 45 – 61 after a loss to Chicago on August 3.  The team couldn’t hit – as a group, they batted .240 or less in June, July and August.  In July, Red pitchers had an ERA of 5.58 and while August was better, it was their second worst complete month.

To their credit, the Reds unloaded a few problems (Edwin Encarnacion was traded to Toronto for Scott Rolen, Alex Gonzalez was sent to Boston and Paul Janish played shortstop), and got Willy Taveras and his lousy bat out of the leadoff spot.  Homer Bailey finally started pitching like a winner.  Justin Lehr replaced Micah Owings in the rotation and won five of eight decisions.  The rest of the way, the Reds went 33 – 23, which was better than even St. Louis down the stretch.

Pitchers:

Having looked at the numbers, adjusting for the defense and the park, I noticed this odd fact.  Every pitcher who made a start allowed more runs per nine than the average NL pitcher – a combined 77 runs worse than average.  Bronson Arroyo was the closest to average at -0.95, and having pitched the most innings, he’s the ace.  Johnny Cueto had his second straight season of running out of gas – he needs to step up big time in 2010.  Aaron Harang should be better than this (6 – 14, 4.21)), and yet he’s constantly moving backwards.  Micah Owings is the best hitting pitcher ever, probably, but he would have fit in with the Brewers rotation as badly as he pitched.  Homer Bailey was on the way to positives, but he didn’t quite make it before the season ended.  Even Edinson Volquez didn’t fare exceedingly well in his nine starts.

So, that the Reds went out of the box and signed Aroldis Chapman – who may wind up the fifth starter (crazy, I know it) – was a HUGE step forward.  The 20 year old with a 102 mile an hour fastball might start the year in AA, but in a year or two, he could be a serious ace.

If the Reds want to win, their starters have to step up.  Arroyo has to hold steady, Harang has to find his mojo, Cueto has to become a REAL #2 starter, and Bailey has to make 25 good starts and not 10.  The guy who might make this interesting, but isn’t guaranteed a roster spot is Matt Maloney, who had seven tolerable starts but gave up nine homers.  Everything else looks good (28Ks against 8 walks, for example).

The bullpen was pretty good, though.  Francisco Cordero was great, Nick Massett was solid, and even Arthur Rhodes – who pitched in Baltimore when Mike Flanagan was still pitching – was really good.  If Maloney isn’t going to start, he’s a good long relief option.  After that, you have a few “ifs” in Danny Herrera, Carlos Fisher, and Jared Burton.  These are guys who aren’t bad and would help more IF they could also step forward.

I like Harang to come back some, Cueto and Bailey to improve some more, and Micah Owings to play right field before too long.  I see at least a 25 run net gain.  A streak of confidence might make it 50.  That’s optimistic, though.

Catchers:

It’s the same group as last year – Ramon Hernandez and Ryan Hanigan.  Combined, they provided slightly better than league average catching, and slightly below average hitting.  The hope, I guess, is that Hernandez stays healthy, but he’s turning 34 in May, so I wouldn’t bet the farm on it.

Infielders:

Joey Votto is the real deal – like Ryan Braun, Votto is a threat to win a triple crown.  It would be nice if the Reds wouldn’t do goofy things like force Ramon Hernandez to first base, but when Votto went down, Dusty Baker decided that Hernandez was Victor Martinez.  He’s not.  (He’s actually a better fielder, but not a hitter.)

Brandon Phillips remains a great second baseman; durable, a defender, and one of the most productive players in the game.

After a year of letting Alex Gonzalez try to regain his youth, the Reds are going with veteran Orlando Cabrera.  This HAS to go better, wouldn’t you think?  Paul Janish played spectacularly with the glove, but hits like Mark Belanger, too.

Arriving in a trade, Scott Rolen takes over at third base and if he can fight father time will be a step up over Edwin Encarnacion.

The bench now includes Aaron Miles and Paul Janish, capable gloves even if the bats aren’t really strong.  Drew Sutton is also around, but likely will wind up at AAA.  And, the ancient Miguel Cairo got a Non-Roster Invite – he could sneak in there.

All told, I like this group to be 30 – 40 runs more productive offensively, and perhaps five runs better defensively.  Only Rolen’s health makes me nervous – but at .255 and some power, he’s an improvement.  And, Cabrera could get old this year – but he’ll be better than Gonzalez.

Outfielders:

This is a young group and I think will be better next year because Willy Taveras is gone.  Chris Dickerson isn’t a huge power threat, but he was an above average hitter at 5.4 runs per 27 outs.  Give him 500 at bats, and that’s a step up.  Jonny Gomes will get at bats (and not catch flies) after hitting 20 homers last season.  And I don’t believe that Jay Bruce will hit .223 again (but he might hit 30 homers).  Add to that Drew Stubbs, who hit .267 with some power after taking over for Taveras in center.  I’m not convinced he’s better than Chris Dickerson (in part because that power isn’t to be expected and he doesn’t have enough patience), but BOTH guys would be better than Taveras.

Arriving from Seattle is Wladimir Balentien, who played well after arriving in late July- but had been disappointing as a Mariner.  I like him as a fourth or fifth outfielder.  Can Micah Owings shag flies?  Put him in left field and let the man hit.  Put him at first base when Joey Votto needs a day off and let him hit.  Sheesh.

I see perhaps 50 more runs of offense in 2010 from the outfield, with the defense holding steady – and improving if Gomes is a pinch hitter and not a regular outfielder.

Prospects:

The best players in AAA already started getting playing time – Stubbs, Maloney, Lehr, Bailey.  Aroldis Chapman may not see any minor league time, and we already mentioned him.  So, if you are looking for prospects, we have to look to the lower levels.

Travis Wood is close.  At AA Carolina, he went 9 – 3 with a 1.21 ERA (!), in part because he allowed just two homers and had a 3:1 K/W ratio.  He earned a shot at AAA where he had eight decent starts.  His minor league career has been a bit uneven, so look for Wood to start the year in AAA, but get the first shot at the majors if someone falters.  Chris Heisey had an amazing half season at AA, hitting .347 with 13 homers, walking as often as he struck out, and earning a trip to AAA with Wood.  He didn’t quite keep up the same pace, but his four years in the minors have shown Heisey to be a hitter.  He’ll get another shot at AAA because the Reds have outfield options right now.

Another AA prospect is first baseman Yonder Alonso, the 2008 first round pick out of Miami, who smoked his way through rookie, A, and into AA last year.  He’s got some pop, patience, and a .300 average in the minors.  Alonso’s spot would seem to be blocked in the majors, though – so the question will be can he move to the outfield, or will he be moved for a pitcher.  I think he looks like a young Eddie Murray…  Todd Frazier, a 2007 top pick (1A), has hit well, with patience and power, but might not have the range at short and is blocked at second.  Frazier MIGHT get a shot, though, if someone gets injured.

Recent early picks aren’t making the same progress.  Catcher Devin Mesoraco (2007 – #1) hasn’t hit much in the minors.  Kyle Lotzkar walks a lot of batters (24 in 37.2 innings at A Dayton) but, more importantly, has to recover from a broken bone in his elbow that caused him to miss the 2009 season.

Forecast:

I like the Reds to make a splash in 2010.  I think the offense might be 80 runs better than last year, with improvement in the outfield and at two infield positions.  The defense may be a little better – and there is room for improvement on the staff.  I see Cincinnati scoring 750 runs and allowing perhaps 680 – and it could be less.  I have them at 89 wins, which isn’t out of the range of possibility.  If SOMEBODY can pitch like an ace, look out.

If asked to name a sleeper to make the World Series, it’s the Cincinnati Reds.

Top AL Catchers in 2009

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

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

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

Adjusted ERA: If the team’s staff has a better than league average ERA (4.43), score a point.

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

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

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

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

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

The best catcher (well, team of catchers) can score a seven – and it happens from time to time.  As it turns out, there was a seven in the AL in 2009 – and it was your Detroit Tigers led by Gerald Laird.  The Tigers had a winning record, an adjusted ERA of 4.26, cut off the running game, made few errors, few mistakes in total, had great mobility, and had an above average number of assists not tied to stolen bases.

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

ERA WPct SB% FPct-K MTK/G Mobility Asst/G Rank
AL AVG 4.43 .500 73.6% 0.914 0.11 0.38 0.23 ***
BAL 5.05 .395 78.3% 0.918 0.10 0.50 0.16 -1
BOS 4.20 .586 86.8% 0.925 0.10 0.47 0.20 3
CHA 4.02 .488 75.9% 0.899 0.09 0.18 0.11 -3
CLE 5.50 .401 77.1% 0.948 0.09 0.36 0.21 -3
DET 4.26 .528 63.8% 0.975 0.10 0.43 0.30 7
KCA 4.57 .401 74.5% 0.873 0.17 0.45 0.18 -5
LAA 4.41 .599 76.6% 0.875 0.14 0.41 0.43 1
MIN 4.28 .534 77.0% 0.933 0.12 0.32 0.10 -1
NYA 4.34 .636 70.6% 0.925 0.10 0.37 0.25 5
OAK 4.32 .463 70.8% 0.922 0.08 0.35 0.27 3
SEA 3.98 .525 60.4% 0.935 0.13 0.35 0.27 3
TBA 4.33 .519 76.3% 0.905 0.09 0.37 0.23 0
TEX 4.20 .537 69.7% 0.858 0.15 0.34 0.17 -1
TOR 4.61 .463 65.9% 0.911 0.13 0.41 0.32 -1

Joe Mauer (MIN):  Hands down the best catcher in baseball, wouldn’t you think?  An offensive force who chose to try and take advantage of hitter’s counts and blasted his way to creating 131.6 runs.  Last year, Mauer wasn’t as dominating against the run, but he still did a few good things.  His backups, Mike Redmond and Jose Morales can contribute.  Both can hit a little and catch enough – but had limits.  Redmond struggled against baserunners, who were successful 35 out of 40 times, while Morales had 5 passed balls and 3 errors in just 183 innings.

Victor Martinez (CLE/BOS):  A remarkable hitter who bounced back from an unproductive and injury riddled 2008 to hit 23 homers, drive in 108 runs, and generate 108.8 runs of offense.  His catching skills don’t match his offensive numbers – easy to run on, not exceptionally mobile.  And, when asked to play first base, shows his lack of mobility there.  Still, he’s 30 runs better than any other catcher offensively, you can live with the rest of it most days.

Kurt Suzuki (OAK):  Would you have guessed he was the third most productive offensive catcher?  Mid range power and average, can run some (78.45 Runs Created) and his stats aren’t helped any by playing in Oakland.  Plays a lot of innings.  Not great against the run and his teams haven’t been remarkably successful, but don’t blame this guy.  Oakland’s catchers scored at 3 points, which is five above average counters, and just missing on mobility and the team’s winning percentage.  He’s a great catcher.

Jorge Posada (NYY):  Still a very productive player (74.98 Runs Created).  Good power, good batting average, and patient at the plate.  Defensively, Posada found some of his youth.  His backups, Jose Molina (now in Toronto) and Francisco Cervelli may not hit like Jorge, but they are more than his equal defensively – a nice thing for the Yankees to have.  Overall, the team ranked at +5 – six above average categories and just missed the league average for mobility.  Cervelli was great against the run – gunning down 10 of 23 runners.

A.J. Pierzynski (CWS):  Hit .300 but his power numbers were down a bit.  Contributes with the bat (69.22 Runs Created), but his defense is not helping out.  Not very mobile, makes a few too many mistakes, and the team fell below .500.  The final tally was -3, which means that only the team’s ERA and the total mistakes per game numbers were above average.  Everything else was not.  Ramon Castro was #2 last year, and he isn’t known for his defense either (though he threw well in 2009).

Mike Napoli (LAA):  An impressive hitter – power, patience, hit .272.  His backup, Jeff Mathis, is the glove wizard.  The net is a very productive combination.  Slightly above average catching (+1) and above average hitting.

Miguel Olivo (KCA):  Hits for power, but doesn’t get on base (53.59).  Has a strong throwing arm, but doesn’t always get the ball where he was aiming.  Makes an awful lot of mistakes, and for a guy who looks lean, isn’t very mobile.  Royals catching was well below average (-5) because John Buck couldn’t throw people out and even though he’s less mistake prone, EVERYBODY is less mistake prone than Olivo.  In 2010, both Olivo and Buck will be gone.  Olivo is in Colorado, where if he gets off to a hot start might hit 30 homers and make 15 errors…  Buck is in Toronto.

Jason Kendall, who inherits this job, would rank in this spot offensively and I don’t believe that things are going to improve that much defensively.  You never know.

Matt Wieters (BAL):  In two years, he may be the guy challenging Joe Mauer for the top rung.  For now, he’s got work to do. A good hitter (.288, .412 slugging – 49.04 Runs Created) and not horrible catching (-1 as a team), I like where Baltimore is heading here.  Gregg Zaun is gone, so Chad Moeller can back things up himself.  Moeller didn’t throw anybody out trying to steal, though.  Okay, two people, but that’s it.  Maybe they can sign Paul Bako to teach Wieters a few tricks.

Rod Barajas (TOR):  His batting average tanked to .226, but his power numbers were up (46.99 Runs Created).  I think Toronto would miss Barajas, but Raul Chavez was equally good at shutting down the running game and not horribly error prone.  Chavez is also more mobile these days and offensively they were a wash.  Chavez is cheaper, though…  The 2010 Blue Jays have only one catcher on the 40 man roster, Royals vet John Buck.  After that, it’s non-roster invites like Chavez, Jose Molina and former first round pick J.P. Arencibia.  Arencibia, out of Tennessee, has good power and some skills, but right now looks like he’d have Barajas’ batting numbers.

Before I let this get away, John Buck wasn’t horrible last year.  Defensively, as mentioned, he was stronger than Olivo but everyone focused on Olivo’s homers and so he got to play more.  Buck hits for some power and, per 27 outs, was actually more productive hitting than Olivo because he gets on base more often.  I’m NOT suggesting that Buck is a hidden all star, but rather that if he got 450 at bats and kept his batting average around .240 rather than .220, he would probably help a team more often than not.

Jason Varitek (BOS):  Now Victor Martinez’s job.  Varitek started out okay and just faded to 14 – 51 – .209 (43.3 Runs Created).  His slugging and OBP numbers aren’t very good either.  ‘Tek also allowed 87% of the runners to steal – 108 successes against 16 runners gunned down.  Martinez and George Kottaras weren’t any better (Martinez was worse in Boston, about the same if you combine his days in Cleveland).  Martinez is going to help score runs in Boston, but I think the pitchers might miss Varitek.  The young Varitek anyway…

Gerald Laird (DET):  Didn’t get the lion’s share of the credit for Detroit’s comeback season because as a hitter, he’s not one.  Creating just 41.3 runs with his .225 batting average and .320 slugging percentage, nobody’s putting Laird on their fantasy team if they can help it.  But he was solid as a defensive stopper – above average in all seven categories and only Kenji Johjima was harder to run on.  Laird tossed out more than 40% of all runners.

Kelly Shoppach (CLE):  Did I read that right?  Shoppach was hit 18 times by pitches?  What did he do???  As a hitter, he strikes out WAY too much (39.77 Runs Created).  He’s better defensively than Victor Martinez was, but that’s like saying I’m taller than my seven-year-old.  He was a bit more mistake prone, but better against the run and much more mobile.  Lou Marson, the former Phillies prospect, will get every chance to win the job and I gather he will.  Marson will hit in the 280s with medium power and some patience.  And, he can throw, too.  Oddly enough, in terms of total production, Shoppach was better in Cleveland than Victor Martinez because if you count everything, you have to include Victor’s lack of defense at first base.

Dioner Navarro (TB):  After such a nice 2008, Navarro crashed and burned in 2009.  His batting average fell to .218, his power was gone, and he doesn’t get on base in other ways so that was a big zilch at the end of the lineup (32.63 Runs Created).  His reputation against the running game may have stopped more people than actually stole bases – the numbers show him to be league average and in the seven categories, Tampa scored ZERO – just as many above average categories than below average categories.  The team says they want Navarro to come into camp lighter, so check the Diamond Notes in the spring.

Kenji Johjima (SEA):  Back in Japan – his batting average and playing time fell off (despite being more productive per 27 outs than many of the guys ahead of him – the net was just 29.91 Runs Created).  Defensively, he and Rob Johnson weren’t too bad – just a few too many mistakes and marginal mobility.

Rob Johnson, who – like Grady Sizemore – had surgeries over two-thirds of his body in the offseason, comes into 2010 as the odds-on starter.  And yet Johnson wasn’t all that solid, generating just 25.2 runs while being a slightly above average catcher (compared to Johjima, who was awesome).

Jarrod Saltalamacchia (TEX):  He needed to have a big season with Laird gone and Teagarden coming up behind him and it didn’t happen.  Salty wasn’t horrible defensively but Teagarden is better – better against the run and more mobile.  As a hitter, Saltalamacchia didn’t cut it – just 29.3 runs created with an OBP under .300 and the SLG under .375.  If it was .320 and .425, he’d be hard to replace.

As it was, Taylor Teagarden hit worse than Saltalamacchia, generating 19.3 runs in his 200+ plate appearances.  So, Teagarden’s chance may have passed as well – meaning Max Ramirez may wind up the starting catcher.  The only problem with that is that even Ramirez didn’t hit in AAA last year – batting just .234 with a .336 SLG in Oklahoma City.  The Rangers THOUGHT they had the position locked down two years ago, and now Laird is gone and nobody has really stepped forward.  I think Saltalamacchia, because he’s likely the better hitter of the group, will eventually take over for good.

Final Thoughts…  You want to know how valuable Joe Mauer is?  Look at how many catchers generate barely 50 runs of offense and realize that Mauer is 80 to 90 runs better than that.  AND, he’s a great catcher.  He was easily the most valuable player in the AL last year and will deserve whatever monster five or six year deal he can get.