2013 Season Forecast – Boston Red Sox

Already out the gate with the best record in baseball for the month of April, let’s see if the start can hold water for an entire season.

Last Five Years:
2012:  69 – 93 (5th, AL East)
2011:  90 – 72 (3rd, Crashed AL East)
2010:  89 – 73 (3rd, AL East)
2009:  95 – 67 (2nd, AL East)
2008:  95 – 67 (2nd, AL East)

In general, the trend is working in the wrong direction, but if Bob McGrath were singing “Which One of These Things is Not Like the Other…”, we’d single out the Bobby Valentine era as the odd ball.  The Sox have averaged about 88 wins a season.  Without checking any of the rest of it, to guess that the Sox could bounce back to 75 – 80 wins wouldn’t have been an improbable prediction.

Runs Scored:  734 (5th in the AL)
Runs Allowed:  806 (13th in the AL – ouch)

Runs in Fenway Park: 842, tops in the AL
Runs on the road: 698, 9th in the AL

So, for 2012, Fenway – always a good hitter’s park, was even more so last season.

Season Recap:

Mixed previews….  Some people thought the Sox would remain competitive, having spent a lot of money to bring in veteran talent.  Many thought the hiring of Bobby Valentine might be an odd way to mix things up following the firing of Terry Francona.  I’ll say…

The team got off to a bland start, but a nice streak of six wins got the team back to .500 as the month of April ended.  Losing nine of ten, the Sox fell out of the race as Bobby Valentine was losing his clubhouse as fast as you can say “Kevin Youkilis wasn’t mentally ready to play.”  To the Sox credit, they battled back to 21 – 21 and a second hot streak got the Sox to 42 – 37 right as July began.

At that point, the Sox fell out of contention. They sputtered through August, first slowly, and then – starting on about 8/19 – they fell off the map.  The Sox would give up ten or more runs in a game every week or more – seven times in the last 38 games.  As August ended, the Sox traded away a bunch of people who were seen as under-producing (Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford) and turned it over to the next wave of Sox players.  The Astros played better in September.  The Sox won just 27 of their last 83 games; and went 10 – 31 in the last 41 games.

Transactions:

Some minor moves before the season – resigning Cody Ross and David Ortiz, and trading Marco Scutaro to Colorado for Clayton Mortensen.  I can’t prove it, but maybe the season went south when they signed pitcher Billy Buckner on 2/29.

Actually, the were proving an interest in Chicago.  The traded Michael Bowden to the Cubs for Marlon Byrd.  Ouch – he was released in June.  The signed Mark Prior to a minor league deal.  The picked up former ChiSox outfielder Scott Podsednik when outfielders were hard to find in May.  Kevin Youkilis was moved to the White Sox in June for Brent Lillibridge and Zach Stewart.  I don’t see that working out…  They even sold Justin Germano (to the Cubs) and released Bobby Jenks (former Sox closer) – and in a related moved, signed Andy LaRoche, whose dad was a pitcher for the Cubs…  Look – the Cubs stink, and while the White Sox were pretty good, cast offs aren’t going to help…

Here’s a move I don’t understand.  They traded away Podsednik to Arizona, then signed him when Arizona released Podsednik.

I mentioned the big sell off – the Sox traded Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Nick Punto, and CASH to the Dodgers for James Loney, Ivan DeJesus, Allen Webster, and two guys who arrived in October – Rubby De La Rosa and Jerry Sands.

Starting Pitching:

Jon Lester had an off season, falling from ace to league average pitcher.  Clay Buchholz fell from surprise ace to league average.  Josh Beckett fell from famous pitcher who sometimes looks dominating to a shade below league average (and with a 5 – 11 record, looks worse than he really was).  Daisuke Matsuzaka went 1 – 7 with an ERA north of 8.00, Daniel Bard proved he was a reliever in 10 starts, Aaron Cook was given 18 starts to prove he was done (5.65 ERA).  Felix Doubront looked tolerable in 29 starts – I think he can build on that.

Going forward, the Red Sox could make immediate gains if Lester and Buchholz just got back half of what they lost in 2012 – that’s 30 saved runs.  Getting a fourth starter that could be CLOSE to league average to replace Dice-K and Cook could save 30 runs.  Replacing Josh Beckett with Ryan Dempster looks to be a wash – Dempster was awesome in Chicago, but rocked in Texas.  Boston just feels more like his kind of place – I think he can be at least league average in 30 starts, which is still better than 21 Josh Beckett starts and 10 bad Daniel Bard starts…  If Doubront doesn’t fall back and if John Lackey ever gets healthy, who knows.  I like the rotation to be 50 – 60 runs better than last year.

Bullpen:

Losing Andrew Bailey, who was brutal, and having to use Alfredo Aceves as a closer was bad.  I know Aceves got 25 saves, but the two combined to cost the Sox six unnecessary runs.  The rest of the pen was a nice patch work of guys like Junichi Tazawa, Andrew Miller, Rich Hill, Clayton Mortensen, Vincente Padilla, and Matt Albers.  Sure, they had a few sore thumbs (I’m looking at you, Mark Melancon and Zach Stewart), but every bullpen has one or two.

This year, the Sox signed Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan, have Andrew Bailey back, and added Koji Uehara to Tunizawa, Miller, and Mortensen.  This could be a bullpen that is ten runs better than last year.

Catching:

I’m thinking that the Sox missed their captain, the retired Jason Varitek.  Boston gave the job to Jarrod Saltalamacchia, with Kelly Shoppach (now gone) and Ryan Lavarnway as backups.  People could run on both Salty and Lavarnway (108 stolen, 21 caught), and as a unit, the team was below average in winning percentage, team ERA, and tended to be error prone.  The only category in which Boston catchers were above average was mobility (assists not tied to caught stealing), and that’s not saying a whole lot.

Shoppach was their best defensive catcher, had the best batting rates (5 runs per 27 outs, the only above average offensive player) – so he’s gone.  I know – Saltalamacchia hit 25 homers, but he batted .222 with a sub .300 OBP.  He hit like Jason Varitek did at the end, but with no defensive positives.  Salty is back, but the Sox did bring in David Ross from Atlanta, who is a fine catcher and should get at least 500 innings of work.

Infield:

Adrian Gonzalez was underperforming, maybe, but he was still hitting .300 with 37 doubles and 86 RBI with a month to go.  And, he was saving them 35 runs with his glove in five months – gold glove play.  James Loney can’t hope to replace that – so the Sox let him leave and signed Mike Napoli to play there.  Napoli is an underrated catcher – I’d let him do that from time to time and try to find a better hitter (Daniel Nava?) to play first.  Dustin Pedroia was productive but his range is falling quickly.  Never GREAT before, he cost the team more than 15 runs because he makes nearly nine fewer plays per 870 balls in play than the average second sacker.  Mike Aviles was a below average hitter – first time in a full season he did that – but ordinary at short.   The Sox will try Stephen Drew there in 2013 – and I think he’s going to be a weak fielder and I fear he may not be that great a hitter anymore.  He has the tools to be, but it’s been a while.  If he hits his 150 game norms, he’s not going to be appreciably better than Mike Aviles overall.  A few more runs on the board for both teams…  The one place Boston may improve is at third, where Will Middlebrooks will get full time duty.  Youkilis struggled last season, so if Middlebrooks can match his half season stats across a full season, that will help.  He is NOT in Youkilis’s league as a fielder, but Youk was fading there last year.

As a whole, this group will likely be 50 runs worse defensively, but break even offensively.

Outfield:

A team that had so many injuries, nine guys played in left, eleven guys played in center, and eleven more played in right.  With Crawford gone, the Sox may try Jackie Bradley (he already got sent back) in left, or Daniel Nava.  They need a full (and productive) season from centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury – who is, at best, a league average fielder but CAN be a crazy good hitter.  Cody Ross is gone; Shane Victorino, who is as productive a hitter and a slightly better fielder will play right.  If Nava can step forward and get on base, or at least be a solid platoon with Jonny Gomes, and Ellsbury can get healthy, there is a chance for 40 – 50 extra runs on the board with little change in defensive value.

DH/Bench:

David Ortiz should be around for 25 more games than the 90 games he played last year, but at his age, he might decline some.  Nava can play all over, Victorino can spell Ellsbury if needed, and Pedro Ciriaco will be the utility infielder.  Not a bad bunch.

On the Farm!

At Pawtucket, the only prospect from 2012 may have been catcher Ryan Lavernway, who hit .295 and played with the big club.  He’s at least a good backup.  The best pitcher was probably Justin Germano, but he is 29 and now a Cub.  He’s no prospect.

2010 first round pick Bryce Brentz hit .296 at Portland (AA), showing power, and might make the big club this year.  Jackie Bradley didn’t look overmatched in his 61 games there – he was a 2011 first rounder.  Stolmy Pimentel didn’t look as strong as he had previously.  The reliever with promise may be Aaron Kurcz, who fanned 72 in 50 innings, but is wild.  2008 first round pick Joshua Fields is getting there – better control and 59 Ks in his 44 innings.  Unfortunately, he’s an Astro right now…

Look out for 3B Michael Almanzar, who hit .300 with power at A+ Salem.  He and SS Xander Bogaerts, who is just 20, will follow in the shoes of Jackie Bradley one day.  1B Travis Shaw had Adrian Gonzalez numbers there – but I don’t think that’s what he will be when he gets to the majors…  Keith Couch is looking close to being a prospect after going 11 – 9 with good control in 145.2 innings.  The better prospect might be Matt Barnes, the 2011 top pick, who strikes people out and is building a solid minor league resume very quickly.

Forecast:

Well, when I add up the offensive gains and the defensive gains (pitching) and losses (infield gloves), I see the Sox making strides toward .500.  I see them scoring about 65 more runs, and maybe saving five to ten runs over last year.  That puts them around 800 runs scored and allowed – or 81 wins.  I’m not convinced the hot start is going to stay for the year, but it will be a better season for Sox fans than 2012.

2013 Season Forecast – Chicago Cubs

Record – Last Five Years:
2012:  61 – 101
2011:  71 – 91
2010:  75 – 87
2009:  83 – 78
2008:  97 – 64

Record at Home: 38 – 43
Record at Home: 23 – 58 (ouch)

Runs Scored:  613 (14th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 759 (14th in NL)

This is still going in the wrong direction.

Season Summary:

Ultimately, the team was awful out the gate, and continued playing poorly into May, including a long losing streak in late May (12 games).  Something clicked in late June and July – from 6/25 to 7/30, the Cubs went from 24-48 to 43-58, a nice run of 19 wins in 29 games.  Sadly, that was the high point – from that point forward, the Cubs had just a single good week in the last two months of the season.  When they played the Astros to end the season, it was the first time in nearly 50 years that two teams with 100 losses appeared in the same game(s).

Record By Month:
Apr:    8 – 15
May:   10 – 17
Jun:   10 – 17
Jul:   15 – 10
Aug:    8 – 21
Sep:    9 – 19
Oct:    1 –  2

The bad news is that the Astros are no longer in the NL Central, so if the Cubs want to avoid last place, they actually have to get better…

STARTERS:

The rotation, save a couple of spots, wasn’t the problem.  Jeff Samardzija was an above average option, going 9 – 13 thanks to a lack of run support.  Travis Wood wasn’t horrible, and neither was Paul Maholm (9 – 6 in 20 starts).  Ryan Dempster was great until he was sent to the AL, while Matt Garza was decent until he got sent to the DL.  The two problems were Chris Volstad, who was predictably horrible (3 – 12, 6.31) and rookie Justin Germano (2 – 10, 6.75).

Heading into 2013, the Cubs won’t have Maholm either – he’s a Brave.  However, the Cubs did import the well-traveled Edwin Jackson who should be an innings-eater, if nothing else.  Samardzija returns as the ace (and he is getting better), and the bottom of the rotation will include Scott Feldman from Texas and Carlos Villanueva, a former Brewer and Blue Jay arm.  Feldman was not very successful in Texas (11 runs worse than average in about 135 innings), but Villanueva wasn’t half bad in 125 innings.  The question is can either of these guys get to 180 innings.  If Garza can come back and help at all, the rotation looks to be no worse than last year with the efforts to improve the slot where Feldman takes over for Volstad offset by the lack of anyone who can pitch as well as Dempster did before he left.

RELIEVERS:

One of the biggest problems in Chicago lately has been the lack of a dependable closer – Carlos Marmol has no idea how to control his pitches and he walks people all day until he serves up a homer.  Even at that, his runs allowed rate is marginally above average.  Shawn Camp was pretty good, James Russell is a better reliever than starter, and former Sox arm Michael Bowden did okay.  The problem is that the rest of the relievers are below average.

The Cubs will give a shot to a couple of Asian imports, Kyuji Fujikawa and Hisanori Takahashi.  Both can be better than what the Cubs had, but aren’t really proven commodities.  If Marmol continues to deteriorate and the imports (and Camp) take a step back, this could be a devastating problem.

CATCHERS:

Goodbye Geovany Soto, and hello to the Wellington Castro era.  Dioner Navarro has been brought in to help out.  Cubs catching was well below average compared to the rest of the NL (bad against the running game, bad at winning games, bad at preventing runs from scoring, slightly error prone).  Castillo wasn’t better than Soto, but he did hit better than Soto had.  The problem is that Navarro may hit like Soto did last year.

INFIELD:

Anthony Rizzo was a solid addition at first base and only has room to improve.  Darwin Barney and Starlin Castro are the best keystone combination in the majors defensively – they hit some, too.  The problem is that the third base slot isn’t being filled well by either Luis Valbuena or Ian Stewart.  This is a significant hole – and Josh Vitters doesn’t look ready to fill it.  The Cubs miss Aramis Ramirez.  A full season of Rizzo looks like the only opportunity for improvement over last year.

OUTFIELD:

Alfonso Soriano had a reasonably good year in left – better as a defender, believe it or not, and as an expensive option, likely isn’t going anywhere.  David DeJesus is okay as a number two hitter, but not a great centerfielder.  He’s also getting older.  In right, the Cubs trade Bryan LeHair for former Giant Nate Schierholtz, which isn’t a step forward.  I see this group falling off from last season’s stats both offensively and defensively.

BENCH:

Alberto Gonzalez and Brett Lillibridge are around, as is Scott Hairston, who is an able bodied pinch hitter and fourth outfielder.  Other than Hairston, I’m not impressed.

DOWN ON THE FARM:

AAA Iowa Outfielder David Sappelt didn’t do much and got a job out of spring training, which scares me.  Josh Vitters hit .304 at Iowa with some power, but didn’t impress at the major league level – he will get another chance.  Rizzo killed AAA and made the big leagues.  None of the starters were impressive, even though Chris Rusin got a cup of coffee – the best relievers, like Bowden and Scott Maine, were given shots with the big club.

The AA Tennessee Smokies didn’t have a single batter clear .300 who played regularly, but Justin Bour wasn’t horrible – some power, a bit of a free swinger.  The best arm may be Nicholas Struck, who is 22, fanned 123 and walked just 44 in 155.2 innings and had a winning record.  Eric Jokisch looked okay in 17 starts, but needs to find a strikeout pitch to advance and be productive.

Daytona (A+) has 2011 first round pick Javier Baez to look forward to – but he’s a shorstop who may have to be traded for other options.  John Andreoli isn’t horrible, a good eye, great speed, but no power.  Young arms may help, though, including Matt Loosen and Frank Del Valle.  Unfortunately, 2010 first round pick Hayden Simpson may be done.

2013 FORECAST:

I don’t see a reason to be optimistic.  The team crashed down the stretch, they didn’t make any significant changes to the roster, and the one area where the team could improve (first base) is going to be offset by the outfield getting another year older and less productive.  This team looks to finish about 65 – 97 and are an injury to Rizzo or Castro from losing 105 games.  Theo – it’s about time for your first miracle, wouldn’t you think?

2013 Season Forecast – Houston Astros

I’m watching Opening Day on ESPN and decided I might as well write while I am getting settled in…  To be fair, with the Florida Marlins having decided to trade away all the talent they had recently acquired, I chose to find a new team to follow closely in 2013 – and that team is the Houston Astros.

Here’s a quick summary of where they are coming from:

Recent Records:
2012: 55 – 107 (Last, NL Central)
2011: 56 – 106 (Last, NL Central)
2010: 76 – 86 (4th, NL Central)
2009: 74 – 88 (5th, NL Central)
2008: 86 – 75 (3rd, NL Central)

This is a team that has hit rock bottom – even that team from five years ago was a bit of a fluke, having given up more runs than they had scored that year.

2012 Summary:
Home:  35 – 46
Away:  20 – 61 (ouch)

Runs Scored: 583
Runs Allowed: 794

There is a simple way to look at this.  A team that scores 100 runs more than it allows is likely to win 90 games.  The converse is also true.  At 200 runs, it’s another ten wins – 100 wins or 100 losses.  The Astros allowed 211 runs more than they scored – hence the lousy record.  So – things have to be looking up, right?

Record by Month:
April:  9 – 14
May:   13 – 15
June:  10 – 17
July:   3 – 24
Aug:    5 – 22
Sept:  15 – 15

The Astros started 3 – 1, were reasonably competitive through 45 games, and not altogether awful heading into the last week of June.  Then, Houston lost the last six games of the month and the first six of July.  After breaking that streak, they lost four in a row, then twelve more in a row – 28 of 30 games were lost…  When the month ended, anyone with any trade value was gone.  August wasn’t much better…  What team has ever had a stretch where they won just eight of sixty games?

Feeling Optimistic?

Beginning on September first and covering the last 30 games, the Astros played .500 ball.  Houston edged Cincinnati, toppled Philadelphia, split with Pittsburgh, edged Milwaukee, and split with Chicago.  Only St. Louis proved troublesome, taking five of six.  They did this without scoring a lot of runs – only 102 runs were scored in that period.  What allowed this to happen was that their pitching staff tossed a number of gems down the stretch, including three straight shutouts over Milwaukee and Chicago at the very end of the season.  In eleven of these wins, the Astros threw six shutouts and allowed just one run in five other starts.

Opening Day Lineup:
CF: Jordan Schafer
2B: Jose Altuve
LF: J.D. Martinez
1B: Carlos Lee
RF: Brian Bogusevic
3B: Chris Johnson
C: Jason Castro
SS: Marwin Gonzalez
SP: Wandy Rodriguez

Regulars by Games Played:
C: Jason Castro
1B: Brett Wallace or Carlos Lee (gone…)
2B: Jose Altuve
SS: Jed Lowrie (gone…)
3B: Chris Johnson (gone…)
LF: J.D. Martinez
CF: Justin Maxwell
RF: Brian Bogusevic (gone…)

4OF: Jordan Schafer
C2: Chris Snyder
UT: Marwin Gonzalez or Tyler Greene?

SP: Lucas Harrell
SP: Bud Norris
SP: Jordan Lyles
SP: Wandy Rodriguez (gone…), Dallas Keuchel
SP: J.A. Happ (gone…)
CL: Brett Myers (gone…), Wilton Lopez
RP: Brandon Lyon (gone…)
RP: Wesley Wright
RP: Francisco Rodriguez (gone…)
RP: Rhiner Cruz
RP: Fernando Abad

Key Transactions:

OCT (2011):

Lost Jason Michaels and Clint Barmes to free agency…  Michaels spent the year as an insurance policy for the Nationals in their AAA Syracuse affiliate, and likely is looking to become a coach.  As for Barmes, he moved to Pittsburgh and hit like someone who is 33 and running out of seasons.

NOV (2011):

Added Carlos Corporan, Travis Buck as free agents; claimed infielder Brian Bixler off of the waiver wire.

DEC (2011):

Traded Marc Melancon to Red Sox for Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland.  Melancon had been a pleasant surprise for Houston in 2011, but was miserable in Boston and eventually demoted to AAA.  Weiland had an infection in his throwing shoulder that required surgery and hopefully can return in 2013, but I would be leery of high expectations owing to a general lack of control.  I see him as a spot starter/long reliever type.  Jed Lowrie is a pretty good ballplayer, so the trade was a good one.

Claimed Rhiner Cruz off of waivers.  This was, at best, organizational depth as Cruz had just been promoted to AA Binghamton in an eight year career drifting in the low minors.  Putting Rhiner on the major league roster when he has no idea where the strike zone is (his mid-90s fastball has crazy movement and he can’t control his breaking ball) showed how little major league talent the Astros had.  I mean, Cruz walked 45 batters in 71.2 innings in the minors in 2011.

JAN (2012):

Here, the Astros were looking to find as many players who might be able to do SOMETHING as possible.

Signed, as free agents, Livan Hernandez, Zach Duke, Chris Snyder, Jack Cust, and Fernando Martinez (waiver claim).

FEB:

More minor signings…

MAR:

After (and during) spring training, the Astros released Hernandez, Duke and Cust, moved anyone who needed time to the minors, and made one trade…

Acquired LHP Kevin Chapman from the Royals for OF Jason Bourgeois and C Humberto Quintero.  Bourgeois was, like Melancon, a nice surprise in 2011 but is a 30-year-old outfielder with no long-term future.  Quintero is, at best, a backup catcher and the Astros had other options.  Chapman at least represents a future – had 90Ks in 62 innings in 2011, and built on that in 2012.  He still needs work (especially with his control), but at least he has a shot to be a late inning contributor very soon.

JULY:

The Astros, as sellers, moved what they could for prospects:

Carlos Lee (and cash) to the Marlins for 3B Matt Dominquez (good glove, minor bat) and LHP Rob Rasmussen (could be a starter in 2014).

Brandon Lyon, J.A. Happ, and David Carpenter to Toronto for Francisco Cordero, Ben Francisco, Joseph Musgrove, Asher Wojciechowski (decent arm, not overmatched at AA, doesn’t miss enough bats), David Rollins, and Carlos Perez (athletic catcher, decent arm, not much offense).

Brett Myers to the White Sox for prospects Matthew Heidenreich and Blair Walters.

Wandy Rodriquez to Pittsburgh for Colton Cain, Robbie Grossman, and Rudy Owens.

Chris Johnson to Arizona for Bobby Borchering and Marc Krauss

If nothing else, that’s a lot of prospects.  If you see the kids producing in 2014 and the Astros making steady improvement, then these deals worked.  Seeing as the team went belly up in July and August of 2012, this did nothing to help the guys who were left behind to play.

By the way, Ben Francisco only hung around for a month.  He was shipped to Tampa for a player to be named later.  (That player was LHP Theron Geith.)  Despite being a pretty good outfielder, Francisco hasn’t been able to keep a regular job and at 31 seems destined to be a fourth outfielder for a few more years.  Geith, however, has a bright future.  In two minor league seasons, Geith has a 2.66 ERA, 83Ks in 84.2 innings, and just 18 walks.  He will be on the roster by 2014, and maybe next September.

Key Injuries:

Jed Lowrie missed time leaving spring training with a bruised thumb.  Kyle Weiland made three starts and went down with what was then termed shoulder bursitis.

Relievers Fernando Abad (intercostal strain) and Rhiner Cruz (ankle sprain) missed time in May.

June brought minor injuries to Travis Buck (Achilles tendinitis), Carlos Lee (strained hamstring) Marwin Gonzalez (bruised heel), Bud Norris (spraineed knee), Wilton Lopez (sprained elbow), and Justin Maxwell (loose bodies in ankle).

Jordan Schafer, Jed Lowrie, and Francisco Cordero spent some time on the DL in August and early September, Cordero wound up missing the rest of the season with a foot injury just six awful outings after his arrival.  He really wasn’t missed, and – as he turns 37 in May – has already been released.

Cordero’s was the only injury of signifigance.  Jed Lowrie missed a lot of games, but with small injuries that kept him out a couple of weeks at a time.

[Writer’s Note:  I had pulled much of this together a while ago when I had decided to become a Houston Astros fan.  The Astros got the Rangers in order in the first, but the Rangers did the same to the Astros – in part thanks to a bad call at second on a stolen base attempt by Jose Altuve.  If the Astros are lousy this year, it could just be that I have jinxed them.]

LOOKING AHEAD:

Starting Pitchers:

The rotation appears to be Bud Norris, Lucas Harrell, Philip Humber, Brad Peacock, and Erik Bedard.

Lucas Harrell is pretty good.  He gets some strikeouts but he walks a few too many guys.  Bud Norris has better stuff, but has been way more inconsistent, especially on the road.  Even at that, he’s marginally below average with a chance to become really good.  Bud Norris is the type of guy you might consider drafting in your fantasy league this year…

Philip Humber is trying, again, to get his career on track.  Humber threw a perfect game for the White Sox, but otherwise was awful.  He CAN pitch, but he can also think his way into oblivion.  If Humber can find his way, the Astros will have found a gem.  The problem is that his track record doesn’t give you a whole lot of reason for hope.

A guy who might, however, is Brad Peacock. The Palm Beach, FL native navigated his way through the minors, getting better every year, until he got a test drive with the Washington Nationals in 2011, where he wasn’t half bad.  Moved to Oakland, he spent 2012 in Sacramento, where he held his own despite being in a league that pounds pitchers.  After a pretty nice spring, he’s going to see if he’s ready for 25 – 30 starts.

Finally, Erik Bedard might be able to help – if he can stay healthy.  Having missed essentially two and half of the last five years, Bedard has been reasonably successful – well, at least until last year when he went 7 – 14 for Pittsburgh.  His walk rate was too high, and his ERA went over 5 (5.01), but there are reasons to think that he can be better than he was last year – starting with the fact that he has always been better than he was last year.

So, just trying to see if the rotation is better, at first glance, the answer is probably no.  Harrell and Norris are the same (though Norris might be slightly better).  I don’t buy that Humber is better than Jordan Lyles was in 2012, and Erik Bedard won’t be as good as a partial season of Wandy Rodriguez.  If one pitcher surprises, it might be Peacock who COULD be as good as J.A. Happ was.  So, let’s go with the team allowing perhaps 30 extra runs here.

Relief Pitchers:

The Astros are going to give the closer job, at least at first, to Jose Veres, who has four career saves.  Veres isn’t awful, but he isn’t a big time closer.  Brett Myers wasn’t awesome last year, so that’s not a big loss.  I was surprised that Wilton Lopez didn’t get a second chance, he pitched well enough, but the Astros went with younger arms – Hector Ambriz, Xavier Cedeno, Rhiner Cruz, Josh Fields, Edgar Gonzalez, and Wesley Wright.

This group will be no better or worse than last year.

Cruz had a 6.05 ERA last year – is that really worthy of a significant role?  Wesley Wright wasn’t half bad for a situational lefty.  Xavier Cedeno was league average and could be better.  Edgar Gonzalez has been around and he’s never been a dependable option.  The guy I like is Hector Ambriz, who fanned 22 in 19 innings in a late call last year.  He could wind up the setup man before all is said and done.

Catchers:

Last year’s catchers were league average in total, but had a few weaknesses, including starter Jason Castro not being too solid against the run.  Chris Snyder is gone, so Carlos Corporan is back as the backup.  He looks like he can throw.  Castro isn’t a bad hitter – he was slightly above average because he showed a little power and a little patience while hitting .257.  Chris Snyder hit .176 and didn’t hit enough to be worth keeping around.  Corporan can hit better than that – maybe .240 with a few homers, so that would be a step forward offensively.  If Castro can be stronger against the run that would help immensely.  This unit should score about 15 more runs than in 2012.

Infielders:

Three-quarters of the infield in use toward the end of the season returns – Brett Wallace at first, Jose Altuve at second, and Matt Dominguez at third.  Jed Lowrie is gone, replaced by Ronnie Cedeno.  Wallace is getting better defensively, Altuve is slightly below average as a glove man, but not problematic, and Dominguez is a solid defensive option – far better than Chris Johnson.   Cedeno may have more experience, but he won’t put up more runs than, say, Marwin Gonzalez.  They are essentially the same guy.  The problem is that neither is a long-term solution, so as we are following this team, look for them to find a better shortstop through the minors.

Carlos Pena was added to back up Wallace at first and be the primary DH – which will last as long as Pena keeps drawing walks and hitting homers.  I fear, however, that he may not hit .220.

As a unit, this team will probably hold the line offensively (Wallace will help offset the loss of Jed Lowrie), but it could be ten runs better defensively.

Outfielders:

This year’s outfield features Chris Carter, the old Oakland As prospect, Justin Maxwell, and Rick Ankiel – a reclamation project of sorts.  J. D. Martinez will be back as a possible fourth or fifth outfielder, sharing the role with Brandon Barnes.

Defensively, Carter can’t be worse than J.D. Martinez was, and he has the potential to put a lot more runs on the board by virtue of his power and patience.  Justin Maxwell is a better fielder and hitter than Jordan Schafer was – it would be nice if he hit, say, .250 rather than .220, though.  Ankiel hasn’t been a good hitter for a few years, but he’s still better than Brian Bogusevic was, and even if he isn’t, J.D. Martinez can hit better.

As a unit, this team could score about 60 more runs and save ten to fifteen in the field.

[As I reach this point in the essay, Justin Maxwell just hit a high drive off the top of the wall in left for a two-run triple, giving the Astros an early lead.  Woohoo!!!]

Down on the Farm:

Most of the guys who did anything at AAA are on the club, and nobody stands out as a prospect.  Moving to the Corpus Christi Red Hawks, the top prospects at AA would include first baseman Jonathan Singleton, who hit .284 with power, 88 walks, and is 21-years-old.  Another option is shortstop Jonathan Villar, a 22-year-old with speed and some hitting skills.  I’m just not sure he can hit in the majors.  A top pitching prospect might be Jason Stoffel, who fanned 57 in 58 innings, walked just 16, in a relief role.  Jarred Cosart made 15 starts at AA and was decent, but not great.  He is ranked highly by scouting organizations.

At A+ Lancaster, right fielder Domingo Santana impressed with power and average, while centerfielder George Springer has all that and speed, too. Both are free swingers.  Coming up in A Lexington is Delino Deshields II – who plays like his dad, but is a few years away (and only 20).  Another guy making marks include shortstop Carlos Correa, a top pick out of Puerto Rico last year.

Best guess on their record?

They aren’t as good as last September.  They aren’t as bad as last August.  I see the team being 75 runs better offensively, and five runs worse defensively, thanks to a slightly worse starting rotation.  That puts the runs scored/runs allowed ratio at about 660/800.  Working against that is the move to the offensively charged AL West, which features the Rangers and Angels, a decent Oakland, and an improving Seattle.  The system calls for 66 wins, which seems a tad bit high.  So, I’ll temper that to 64 – 98, hopefully avoiding a third straight year with 100 losses.  If that happens, let’s consider it a a success and watch for some talent to get added to this young team.

As I finish this, I see that the Astros have extended their lead to 4 – 0 in the fifth over Texas.  If they hold on for the win, it would make for a great start to the season.

2012 Season Forecast: Chicago Cubs

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

Only Colorado and Houston allowed more runs…

2011 in Review:

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

 

Starting Pitching:

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

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

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

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

 

Relief Pitchers:

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

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

 

Catching:

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

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

 

Infield:

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

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

 

Outfield:

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

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

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

 

Prospects:

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

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

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

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

 

2012 Forecast:

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

2011 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.

2011 Season Forecast: New York Yankees

Last Five Seasons:
2010:  95 – 67
2009: 103 – 59 (World Series Champs)
2008:  89 – 73
2007:  94 – 68
2006:  97 – 65

Runs Scored: 859 (Tops in the AL)
Runs Allowed: 693 (5th in the AL)

Based on this, the Yankees could have won the division with 98 wins…

2010 Recap:

Picked by many to repeat as AL East and World Series champs, the Yankees just missed by a game of winning the east, and had their starting rotation held up (or had they acquired Cliff Lee) they might have won the series, too.

The Yankees got off to a hot start, taking 15 of 22 in April, and having winning records every month until September, when they went 12 – 15 and were run down from behind by the Rays.  To be honest, they peaked after a long winning streak at 86 – 50, but actually collapsed to the finish line.  Had they missed the playoffs, it might have been given the same treatment as a Mets September, but for some reason, the Yankees were given a pass for going 9 – 17 down the stretch.

If I were them, I’d be nervous.

During the season, in addition to the run of the mill waiver claims and what not, the Yankees acquired Austin Kearns for spare parts from Cleveland, later picked up Kerry Wood at the trade deadline for two more minor leaguers, and gave up two decent prospects (Mark Melancon and Jimmy Paredes) to the Astros to pick up Lance Berkman.  Wood played pretty well, Kearns was just a backup, and Lance Berkman acted like he wanted to be somewhere else.

Starters:

The Yankees rotation is led by the remarkable C.C. Sabathia, who provided yet another season as a Cy Young candidate.  Philip Hughes took a big step forward by winning 18 decisions in 29 starts, but as a pitcher was just mildly better than the average starter.  Andy Pettitte heads to retirement following a remarkably good 21 starts, winning 11 of 14 decisions.  However, the #2 starter, A.J. Burnett went 10 – 15 with a 5.26 ERA – 25 runs worse than the average starter over 186.2 innings.  And Javier Vazquez was equally poor, despite the 10 – 10 record, with his 5.32 ERA.  Vazquez suffered as a flyball pitcher in Yankee Stadium, giving up a homer every fifth inning he pitched.  Dustin Moseley and Ivan Nova were tolerable when given chances to start – in fact Nova may earn a rotation spot in 2011.

However, the pitching is thin for 2011 in general.  The Yankees twice failed to get Cliff Lee to town (maybe the fans in Yankee Stadium should have been nicer to Lee’s wife).  Vazquez is now a Florida Marlin, Andy Pettitte has retired to Texas, and even Kerry Wood returned home (he’s pitching for the Cubs).  Sabathia returns, as does Burnett (he HAS to be better than last year), and Hughes will get 32 starts to see if he’s still got the magic.  That leaves Ivan Nova, Sergio Mitre, and former rotation stalwarts Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia – who are years removed from their better days.  I’m not a huge Garcia fan anymore, but he actually was tolerable as a fifth starter for the White Sox last year.  On the other hand, he won 12 games in his 28 starts despite a 4.64 ERA, served up a lot of homers, and only struck out 89 in 157 innings.  Vazquez came with much better credentials and stunk up the joint.  Ivan Nova or Sergio Mitre will have to step forward – and Mitre has enough innings under his belt to suggest he’s not the answer.  So that means Nova is likely to get a shot at being the #5 guy.

Bullpen:

Mariano Rivera continues to amaze as nears AARP status – a 1.80 ERA, 33 saves, and just 55 base runners in 60 innings.  Joba Chamberlain didn’t completely own the 7th or 8th inning, but there are still things to like, including a great K/9 rate and improved control.  Boone Logan and Damaso Marte served as solid one-out lefties, and David Robertson was decent in 61.1 innings.  Kerry Wood was impressive in his two months.

Looking ahead, Rivera returns for another go, but Rafael Soriano was imported from Tampa to provide an 8th inning ace and potential replacement closer.  The rest of the pen contains the familiar faces of Robertson, Logan, and Chamberlain, as well as newly added Pedro Feliciano.  Hopefully, these guys are ready for a step up in workload.

Catching:

Jorge Posada and Francisco Cervelli provided decent enough catching, even if teams ran rampant on Posada when he caught.  Posada can still hit some, so he will be moved to the DH role, which means that Cervelli will cede a few innings to Russell Martin.  Cervelli is a decent backup – no power, some defense, a fair batting average.  Four years ago, Martin was a solid defensive catcher and run producer, that is until Joe Torre ran him into the ground.

Infield:

The Yankees have an interesting mix of current and aging superstars. At third, you have the declining Alex Rodriguez, who is getting more comfortable at third base as his batting statistics fall off from his MVP level (and steroid supported) play.  At short is the captain, Derek Jeter.  When he hits .320, Jeter is the most productive shortstop in the AL despite his defensive flaws (range, really, is his only flaw and it’s really getting problematic – so stop giving him the gold glove when he hasn’t ever deserved one).  Last year, he hit .270 and the team let him know, through an ugly contract negotiation, that they noticed his decline was both offensive and defensive.  At second, you have the remarkably talented Robinson Cano, who is as good a fielder as can be found in the AL and light years ahead of any second sacker when batting, too.  At first, you have Mark Teixeira, who struggled to get out April, but still managed 33 homers, 108 RBI, and got on base at a .368 clip.  That’s a solid off season.  Backing them up is Ramiro Pena, who has little power but some defensive skills – much like Eduardo Nunez, who is the sixth infielder.

I’d like to think that Jeter can bounce back for one more .300 season.  If he does, that bodes well for his chances at 3500 hits and the Yankees continuing to make playoff runs.  Realistically, that’s not going to happen.  Same with Alex Rodriguez, who is barely making 30 homers per year, misses a month of games each year now, and also hit .270 instead of .310.  Playing in Yankee Stadium is also masking some of their decline; if Jeter had hit .255 with 7 homers, would anyone give him a chance of a comeback?  Cano should be able to duplicate his 2010 season, but last year was a significant step forward to superstardom.  And Teixeira will not have another April like last year.  The issue is that all four are generally durable (even A-Rod, with his hip, has never missed 60 games in a season) and now, with all but Cano at least two years into their 30s, the chances of someone missing a significant amount of time is going up.  I can’t help but think that this is the year – and neither Pena nor Nunez can hit enough to make up for that kind of loss.

Outfield:

The trio of Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson, and Nick Swisher return after all three provided solid production in 2010.  Of the three, Gardner has the greatest chance to produce more in 2011.  He could be moved up in the lineup (he should be the leadoff hitter), which would give him more opportunities.  Until then, he’s the best centerfielder playing left field on the team, and he’s the best #9 hitter in baseball.  Granderson found his power stroke near the end of the year, but he’s only marginally better than average because he doesn’t quite hit .250 anymore.  Swisher is coming off a career year in batting and slugging and remains a surprisingly good defensive outfielder.  Austin Kearns and Randy Winn are gone (thankfully), but they have imported aging slugger Andruw Jones to help out here and be the right handed counterpart at DH.  Greg Golson may be the best defensive option as the alliterative fourth outfielder; Golson or Colin Curtis.

DH:

Last year, Marcus Thames was the surprise hit of the team, launching 12 homers in 212 at bats, batting .288, and generating more runs per 27 outs than even Teixeira.  In 2011, look for Jorge Posada, Andruw Jones, and one or more of the others (Rodriguez, Swisher, Granderson, or even Jeter to pick up a few at bats here.

Down On the Farm:

It all starts with Jesus Montero, who is an expanded set of defensive skills away from being the next great Yankee catcher.  In AAA Scranton/Wilkes Barre, Montero hit for more power, was more selective, and – at 20 – is just about ready.  Eduardo Nunez got his first cup of coffee after tying Montero for the team lead in batting, stole 23 bases in 28 attempts, and played a steady shortstop.  At 24, he could step in and help out.  The top pitcher was Ivan Nova, who went 12 – 3 with a 2.86 ERA, showed good control, and was reasonably solid in his Yankee debut.  David Phelps moved up through two levels, going 6 – 0 in 14 starts at AA Trenton, then 4 – 2 in 11 starts at AAA – with great command and a sub 3.00 ERA.

Trenton featured first baseman Brandon Laird, a 23 year old who hit 23 – 90 – .291.  Hector Noesi went 8 – 4 with a 1.09 WHIP and an 86/18 K/BB rate.  Another pitcher making a step up was Adam Warren, who whipped through three levels since his 2009 draft (4th round), and has been impressive with his command and control at all three levels.

Corbin Joseph was a 4th round pick out of Franklin, TN in 2008 and hit .302 in A+ Tampa.  He’s a slight second baseman who seems to be developing a little power as he ages.  Another young prospect is Jose Pirela, a Venezuelan burner who plays shortstop and hit 13 triples for Tampa.  He may be fighting Joseph for a shot at the second base job in three years.  Among the top arms were Pat Venditte (4 – 1, 1.73, 85/14 in 72.2 innings), Dellen Betances – a Brooklyn native who clobbered Tampa opponents (8 – 1, 1.77, 88/19 in 81 innings), and Mexican teen sensation Manny Banuelos, who had 79Ks in 59.2 innings and seems to be ready for a full trip in AA Trenton.

Forecasting 2011:

It’s hard to pick against the Yankees because (a) the outfielders are all in their prime, as is Teixeira, and (b) the veterans they have are all still very productive.

On the other hand, this might be the year things fall off.  The Yankees won’t be getting MORE production in center or right fields.  They won’t be getting MORE production from second base, shortstop, or third base.  They won’t be getting MORE production behind the plate.  The only spots where improvement might be seen is left field – but that would be at the expense of another position.  I think the offense will still be good – but not 859 runs of good.  More like 780 runs – a top five offense rather than a #1 offense.

Then you have the defense, which could slip a little at four or five positions.  I’d swap Granderson and Gardner, which would help, but you never know if the Yankees would do that since Granderson is only 30.  You’d ALMOST want to switch A-ROD and Jeter – but I’m not certain that after the hip surgeries A-ROD can cover short anymore.  In fact, nobody in New York can cover short – which makes a lot of the pitchers look worse than they have to.  At least Jeter is still solid at turning two.

That brings us to the pitchers.  If Sabathia, who came to spring training in WAY better shape than he had been, were to miss any chunk of time, this team could fall off the map.  Hughes is good, but not great, Burnett isn’t dependable and is one slump away from being sent to the Pirates or something.  Your fourth and fifth starters are rookies or retreads.  I think the Yankees will allow a few more runs than in 2010 – maybe 40 more.  That puts the team around 780 runs scored and just 725 allowed, which converts to 87 wins.  And wait until the Steinbrenner boys see THAT number…

2011 Season Forecast: Toronto Blue Jays

Last Five Years:

2010: 85 – 77 (4th in AL East)
2009: 75 – 87
2008: 86 – 76
2007: 83 – 79
2006: 87 – 75

Consistently good, not always as competitive in the toughest division to win in baseball.

Runs Scored: 755 (6th in AL, but 4th in the AL East)
Runs Allowed: 728 (9th in AL)

With this combination of run scored and allowed, you’d expect 84 wins, so Toronto was pretty much on the money.

2010 Recap:

Most everyone had them fourth – so no surprises here.  Well, not at a team level anyway…  A LOT of surprises at the player level – but we’ll cover that down below.

After trading wins and losses for a month, the Blue Jays got hot in May and raced toward the top of the division.  Unfortunately, the Jays were equally cold in June and fell back to fourth.  June was their only losing month – from July 7th on, the Jays were 14 over .500, so if they hadn’t gone cold for the 30 days from June 6 to July 6, it’s very likely that the Jays could have sneaked into the playoffs.

What made Toronto competitive on heals of losing the best pitcher in their team’s history, Roy Halliday, was a BUNCH of home runs.  Jose Bautista hit 54, Vernon Wells slammed 31 dingers, John Buck had 20, Edwin Encarnacion hit 21, even Alex Gonzalez had 17 in just 85 games.  Aaron Hill didn’t hit much, but clocked 26 homers.  Adam Lind tallied 23, Lyle Overbay slashed 20, and even the half season of Travis Snider was good for 14.  Toronto hit 257 homers but only allowed 150, a gap that covered for other weaknesses.

During the season, the Jays made a few minor deals, but the one that made a splash was the trade in July that sent shortstop Alex Gonzalez and two minor leaguers to Atlanta for Yunel Escobar and Jo-Jo Reyes.

Starters:

As mentioned, Roy Halliday was gone, and the Blue Jays were forced to rely on a bunch of young arms – many of whom were returning from prior shoulder and elbow injuries.  Ricky Romero improved on an impressive 2009 rookie season and made 32 starts, logged 210 innings and win 14 games, pitching like an ace for much of the season.  Shaun Marcum returned to go 13 – 8 and missed by a start of hitting 200 innings.  Brett Cecil, the #1 pick in 2007, raced through the minors and showed moxie – leading the team with 15 wins.  Brandon Morrow, who never seemed to live up to the hype in Seattle, fanned 178 batters in just 146.1 innings, kept hitters off stride, and won 10 decisions.  The fifth starter role was given to Marc Rzepczynski and Dana Eveland, but at the end was given to former Phillie prospect Kyle Drabek, who looks to make the rotation in 2011.

Looking ahead, Shaun Marcum is gone, having been moved to Milwaukee for Brett Lawrie, a top second base prospect.  That leaves Romero, Cecil, Morrow, and either Rzepczynski, Drabek, Reyes, or Jesse Litsch – another former Jays starter coming back from hip surgery.  Drabek comes with the most hype – the top prospect in the Toronto chain, having gone 14 – 9 for New Hampshire in the Eastern League.  Reyes can pitch some, but more likely will start the year in the bullpen and pick up a start from time to time, which leaves Litsch and Rzepczynski battling for the fifth slot.  I think Drabek can be every bit as good as Marcum was in 2010, and if Litsch or Rzepczynski can make 25 healthy starts, this will be a slight improvement – if only because you won’t have the nine less than stellar starts of Dana Eveland in the mix (or, for that matter, Litsch’s nine less than impressive starts).

Bullpen:

Gone is Kevin Gregg, who saved 37 games last year.  Gregg is NOT a dominant closer – but rather a tolerable one,  He was ably supported by Shawn Camp, Scott Downs, Jason Frasor, Casey Janssen, and David Purcey.

For 2011, the closer looks to be former Ranger closer Frank Francisco, who can be much better than Gregg but historically is just marginally better.  Other closers are in camp, including Octavio Dotel and Jon Rauch, as well as Frasor, Janssen, Camp, and Purcey.  This is a very deep staff and should continue to keep Toronto in games.

Catching:

Last year’s duo of John Buck and Jose Molina were impressive defensively – above average in six different categories, and league average in terms of basic mobility.  Buck also hit well – an all-star level performance.

Looking ahead, Toronto will be depending on rookie J.P. Arencibia.  After struggling through a rough 2009 season in Las Vegas, Arencibia pounded PCL pitchers to the tune of 32 – 85 – .301 in 104 games.  That translates to about 20 – 65 – .250, which is not too far from a typical John Buck season.  Molina remains as a capable defensive backup.

Infield:

The changes continue from the infield that started the 2010 season.  Basher Jose Bautista showed to be more consistent at third than Edwin Encarnacion, who will move to first or DH in 2011.  Yunel Escobar can find his groove and hopefully contribute like the hitter he was in 2009, and second baseman Aaron Hill will rebound from his .205 2010 season and hopefully retain his power.  Adam Lind moves to first base, replacing Lyle Overbay.  I’m nervous about this unit.  The left side will be marginally better than 2010 defensively, but the right side will not be.  Lind has yet to produce as many runs as Overbay, and the 85 games Alex Gonzalez played were productive and hard to immediately replace.

John McDonald is still around to back everyone up – as is Encarncion.

Outfield:

Left field will be manned by former Angel Juan Rivera, who replaces Fred Lewis – a fourth outfielder at best.  While an improvement, Rivera is starting to get old and in ten seasons has never played 140 games in a season.  Vernon Wells is gone, replaced by Rajai Davis.  Davis is faster than Wells, but about 25 runs behind him as a hitter.  In right is Travis Snider, who replaces Bautista’s role.  Snider is due to step forward as a hitter, but hasn’t been a strong fielder.

Down on the Farm:

AAA Las Vegas wasn’t loaded with prospects other than Arencibia, who will start on opening day, and Brett Wallace, who was traded to Houston for Anthony Gose – a low level centerfielder with speed to burn, but a problem with contact and little power.  (I’ll be honest, I don’t see the reasoning there unless one thinks Wallace didn’t have a future in Toronto, but I think he’s better than Encarnacion.)

AA New Hampshire had Drabek, but also Zach Stewart, who is a year older but not quite as good.  David Cooper is a first baseman who has stats that look like Lyle Overbay – but at AA.  He might be a year away, but he’s not quite there yet.  Eric Thames has more power and a touch of speed.  He could replace Juan Rivera and you might not lose a step.  Darin Mastroianni is a leadoff type hitter, great speed and good on base percentages.  At 25, he’s getting old for a prospect, but he could help somebody for a months if needed.  The guy who is really interesting is Cuban import Adeiny Hechavarria, who looks like Davy Concepcion did when he was 21 years old – great glove, could grow into a hitter (but not yet).  Tristan Magnuson was successful as a reliever in AA, with great control, but Danny Farquhar has better stuff – 79Ks in 76 innings, just 50 hits allowed.  He’s a touch wild.

Alan Farina didn’t look like a prospect after a season of struggle at A+ Dunedin, but he DOMINATED A+ in 2010 and moved up to New Hampshire and kept right on going (74Ks in 55.2 innings).  If he does this in Las Vegas, he may make the roster in September, 2011.  Joel Carreno is a starter with moxie who will start in AA this year after a successful run in 2010 with Dunedin.  Catcher Travis D’Arnaud will get to build on a reasonably successful 2010 season, but it would help if he shows a little more power.

2011 Forecast:

There are things to like.  The outfield defense should be stronger.  The team will be spending less money at a couple of positions, which helped pay for a Jose Bautista contract.  The pitching staff is rather deep, especially in the bullpen.  The only slip defensively is at first base – which means the team will likely stay around 715 runs allowed, if not a few less than that.

The things that make you nervous?  I think the offense has to fall back.  I can see Bautista having a good season, but will it be as good as last year?  Probably not.  You have a drop in offense at first and center and possibly at catcher against potential improvements in left and second.  But there are too many “downs” to make up for the possible “ups” – and I see this as being sixty to eighty runs less than 2010.  As such, I see Toronto falling below .500 to about 77 – 85, which could very well be last in the AL East.  This isn’t a BAD team, just a team in the wrong division and falling back because a couple of guys were over their heads last year.  On the other hand, there are signs that this team is trying to build a new foundation of young players that can get them over the 90 win plateau and finally get back to the playoffs.