Our long winter wait has finally come to an end. After a couple of "for real" games in Japan as well as the stateside opening night unveiling Washington's new ballpark yesterday, we get treated to a full slate of games for the first time in six months. With the exception of Boston and Oakland, every team will be playing today.
The Red Sox and A's split their two games last week in what now seems more like last season than this season. Emil Brown made a huge baserunning gaffe in the opener, then bounced back to hit a home run in game two when Rich Harden tossed a three-hit, one-run gem while striking out nine over six innings. One might say Harden looked as if he was in mid-season form but that would mean he was on the disabled list so we'll just say that the 26-year-old (yes, he's still young) righthander pitched as well as anyone could have hoped.
Boston and Oakland will extend their series tomorrow with Daisuke Matsuzaka facing Joe Blanton for the second time in a week, followed by a rematch of Jon Lester and Harden on Wednesday. In one of the most bizarre "road trips" in recent memory, the Red Sox will travel to Toronto for a three-game set this weekend. The defending World Series champions will finally unpack their suitcases next week when they host Detroit in what promises to be one of the best series of the young season.
Over in the National League, the Chicago Cubs are hoping to win a World Series title for the first time in 100 years. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants will square off today to mark the 50th anniversary of their move to California.
Let's take a look at today's schedule with a few comments attached to each game. All times are ET.
Diamondbacks (Brandon Webb) at Reds (Aaron Harang), 2:10
In a pitching duel between two of the ten best starters (yes, Aaron Harang deserves that ranking) in baseball, the game will feature Dusty Baker's return to the dugout. His influence is already being felt as Corey Patterson will play center field and bat lead-off for the Cincinnati Reds. After a horrendous spring, Brandon Webb will need to keep his sinker down at the Great American Ball Park to give the hitting-starved Arizona Diamondbacks a legitimate shot at winning their opener.
Brewers (Ben Sheets) at Cubs (Carlos Zambrano), 2:20
This game features the top two teams from the NL Central. Although the Chicago Cubs are the favorites to win the division, the Milwaukee Brewers won't go down without a fight, especially if Ben Sheets is healthy enough to start 30 games this season. Carlos Zambrano begins the first of five years of his new $91.5M contract. Some pundits believe he will pitch better with his new deal in hand while skeptics wonder if the ace of the Cubbies may face more pressure than ever. Only time will tell.
Nationals (Matt Chico) at Phillies (Brett Myers), 3:05
Matt Chico is one of the worst starting pitchers in baseball. His strikeout and walk rates are well-below average, which spells trouble for an extreme flyball pitcher. Brett Myers, in his return to the rotation, won't enjoy an easier matchup all year (at home against a mediocre hitting club and a weak pitcher, not to mention the fact that the Nationals will be coming down from their high after celebrating Ryan Zimmerman's walk-off home run in the team's opener at its new ballpark).
Giants (Barry Zito) at Dodgers (Brad Penny), 4:10
After three consecutive years of starting on Opening Day, Derek Lowe has relinquished his role to Brad Penny even though all of his stats other than wins, losses, and ERA would suggest that he actually had a better season than his fellow righthander. In the meantime, Barry Zito and his $126 million contract – the largest-ever pitcher contract at signing – gets the nod over Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum. I guess Brian Sabean and Bruce Bochy think the former Cy Young Award winner has earned it, so to speak.
Mets (Johan Santana) at Marlins (Mark Hendrickson), 4:10
In a matchup of lefthanders – hey, how else can I compare these two? – the New York Mets and Johan Santana are the prohibitive favorites to win this game despite playing on the road. The 2004 and 2006 Cy Young Award winner will think facing the Marlins at Dolphin Stadium is a minor league tuneup compared to a more normal game from past seasons in the American League.
Rockies (Jeff Francis) at Cardinals (Adam Wainwright), 4:15
This game is as much about the changing fortunes of two teams as anything else. These two clubs represented the NL in the last two World Series but their prospects seem to be heading in opposite directions with the Colorado Rockies trying to win the NL West and the St. Louis Cardinals trying to stay out of the cellar in the NL Central.
Pirates (Ian Snell) at Braves (Tom Glavine), 7:10
I like the Atlanta Braves more than the Pittsburgh Pirates but, at the same time, think Ian Snell is a much better pitcher than Tom Glavine. The latter is entering his 22nd season in the bigs while returning to the Atlanta Braves after spending five years with the New York Mets.
Astros (Roy Oswalt) at Padres (Jake Peavy), 10:05
The Houston Astros should struggle all year but Roy Oswalt will generally give his club a decent shot at winning anytime he is on the mound. It's just too bad that the perennial Cy Young candidate will be facing the CYA and Triple Crown of Pitching winner in Jake Peavy. Take the unders if the oddsmakers forget that the game is being played at Petco.
Blue Jays (Roy Halladay) at Yankees (Chien-Ming Wang), 1:05
It's only one game but this is a chance for the Toronto Blue Jays to make a statement right off the bat. A couple of sinkerballers will take the mound in what should be a low-scoring affair. Today's game marks the last opening game at what will be the old Yankee Stadium come next season.
Royals (Gil Meche) at Tigers (Justin Verlander), 1:05
The Detroit Tigers are the heavy favorites here but don't be too quck to dismiss the chances that Gil Meche could hurl a dandy and beat the team that many are picking to go to – and even win – the World Series. It says here that the Royals may be a little better than most think while the Tigers could be a little worse. We shall see if I'm right.
Rays (James Shields) at Orioles (Jeremy Guthrie), 3:05
Who would have thunk that James Shields and Jeremy Guthrie would be their team's Opening Day starters in 2008 just one year ago? Shields has emerged as one of the best pitchers in the AL while Guthrie finally met some of the expectations placed upon him when he was drafted out of Stanford in the first round of the 2002 amateur draft. The Rays are going up the elevator while the Orioles are going the elevator, and it would surprise few if Tampa Bay won as many as a dozen or more games than Baltimore than year (after winning three fewer last season).
White Sox (Mark Buehrle) at Indians (C.C. Sabathia), 3:05
Two lefthanded aces take the hill in this AL Central tilt. Give the edge to Cleveland as C.C. & Company are clearly better than Mark Buehrle and his teammates.
Rangers (Kevin Millwood) at Mariners (Erik Bedard), 6:40
Everyone will be watching to see if Erik Bedard can reverse a horrendous spring and pitch like he did last summer when the southpaw may have been the most dominating starter in baseball. If Bedard and Felix Hernandez put up Cy Young-type seasons, the M's just may find themselves competing for the AL West title now that the Los Angeles Angels are looking at a depleted pitching staff (with John Lackey, Kelvim Escobar, and Scot Shields all on the shelf).
Angels (Jered Weaver) at Twins (Livan Hernandez), 7:05
I haven't seen the line for this game, but if it is -120 or better, I would gladly take the Angels. Jered Weaver is healthy and he is coming off an outstanding spring. Livan Hernandez is the ace of the Twins' staff in name only. Last I heard, Ron Gardenhire hadn't even committed to Jason Kubel as his Designated Hitter. If Gardy can't see fit to play Kubel over Craig Monroe against a righthander who throws from a 3/4 arm slot, then Minnesota would be better served to trade the 25-year-old who hit .303/.379/.511 in the second half of 2007. That said, the main storyline here is Torii Hunter's return to Minnesota.
It seems like we are at a nice point in time with regard to the emergence of quite a bit of young talent. With nothing more than this thought in mind, I decided to have a look at it. In 2007, four position players 24 or younger managed an OPS+ of 150 or better. In case there is little context around that number for some readers, it's Jim Thome's career mark and a figure that Jim Rice only eclipsed twice.
Here are the four players (min 200 PA's):
P. Fielder 156
R. Braun 153
D. Wright 150
M. Cabrera 150
Since 1957, it was just the fifth season in which four or more players 24 or younger bested the 150 mark. From 2000 to 2006, there were only nine such seasons, and Albert Pujols lays claim to four of them. Here are the remaining seasons (again, min 200 PA's).
B. Powell 176
R. Santo 164
D. Allen 162
R. Carty 161
J. Mayberry 168
J. Bench 166
C. Cedeno 162
C. Fisk 162
R. Blomberg 153
R. Hebner 152
J. Canseco 170
W. Clark 160
M. Greenwell 159
F. McGriff 157
J. Olerud 186
K. Griffey 177
J. Gonzalez 169
M. Piazza 152
The five best seasons of the last fifty years according to OPS+ for players 24 or younger?
Yr Age OPS+
R. Jackson '69 23 189
A. Pujols '03 23 187
W. McCovey '59 21 187 (just 219 PA's)
J. Olerud '93 24 186
D. Allen '66 24 181
We have come down to the two final divisions in our preview series. Today we turn to the NL East with repeat participants Chris Needham of the Washington Nationals blog, Capitol Punishment and Dave Studeman of The Hardball Times. Previous division discussions can be found below.
Sully: The two-team race seems to be a theme this year. In both Central divisions it seems that two teams have emerged. The Boston-New York duopoly of the American League East sure seems in tact. The NL West probably figures to be a three-team battle and the AL West looks a bit more unpredictable now that Kelvim Escobar will be shelved for the year. So what about the NL East?
Chris: I think what's most exciting is that nobody has any really firm clue what's going to happen. There are three pretty good, but flawed teams at the top. And two younger, somewhat interesting dregs at the bottom. Last year's chokeapalooza by the Mets leaves some lingering doubts in my mind about how they'll play, even with Johan in town. The Phillies pulled off a miracle run, but some of that was smoke and mirrors. And Atlanta? That offense was pretty scary last year, and if the back end of the pitching holds up a bit better and with a full season of Mark Teixeira, won't they be better?
I can make a good argument for any of those teams winning the division or finishing third.
Dave: I see things a bit differently. Everyone is tired of talking about the Johan Santana trade, but it really did change everything in the NL East. We went from having a potential three-team race to looking at a clear front-runner. You really do have to pick the Mets as the most likely team to win it all this year, but they're not a certainty. Atlanta and Philadelphia are still strong teams, and any number of up and down years could change things. Not to mention injuries...
Marc: I'd be shocked if the NL East was not a three-team race, with Atlanta, Philadelphia and New York battling it out for first place. It may very well come down to who has the best depth and who manages to stay the healthiest. All three teams have shown weaknesses this spring, and not surprisingly, those weaknesses all revolve around pitching.
My feeling is that New York is not going to be as dominant as everyone thinks they will be. Sure they have Santana but can Pedro Martinez pitch a full season? Is Orlando Hernandez' fastball going to get above 85 mph? Can Oliver Perez finally find consistency long-term? I don't know…
I like Philadelphia's offence – Who doesn't? – but, again, the pitching gives me pause. Where is the guy that you're guaranteed to get 200 quality innings from?
Washington and Florida just have too many holes in their pitching staffs to make any sort of competent runs at the top of the NL East. Washington should have flipped both Ronnie Belliard and Dmitri Young for prospects last season at the trade deadline when the players had some value.
Sully: With the way Philadelphia hits, they can afford a below average pitching staff. But I think that after Brett Myers and Cole Hamels the back of the rotation and bullpen get too thin too quickly. There's just not much there after those two.
Chris:Kyle Kendrick is a perfect example of that smoke and mirrors approach I mentioned earlier. His success, despite a 3.6 K/9, screams fluke. I don't like to read too much into spring training stats, but his 9ish ERA isn't assuaging any of those fears.
The Phillies might've made the most underrated move of the offseason, too, when they signed Brad Lidge. It's not that Lidge is anything spectacular anymore, but that it frees up Myers to move back to the rotation. Even with questions at the back of the rotation, he shores up one of the top spots and is probably the second best pickup (if you will) of any team in the division. They don't lose much of anything at closer, but gain 180+ innings of pretty good starting pitching.
Dave: You know, I always have a tendency to think that the Phillies' pitching will be better than it turns out to be. For this year, Hamels is an ace and it's nice to see Myers back in the rotation. I'd put those two against the Mets' top two. However, the rest of the rotation is very iffy -- I'll be shocked if Kendrick duplicates last year's success. And the bullpen has two big question marks at the top in Lidge and Tom Gordon.
Marc: A rotation is in trouble when it relies heavily on a 45-year-old (92 ERA+), an inconsistent rookie (119 ERA+) and Adam Eaton (73 ERA+). Yes, you have Hamels and Myers – both of whom can be great – but they have yet to show consistency. You can't really call Hamels an ace until he throws 200 innings. Myers could be a solid No. 2 if he can bounce back from an ill-advised move to the pen. I know it's only spring training but any time I see 19 hits in less than 10 innings, I worry. And Kendrick only struck out 3.64 batters per nine innings last season in the majors and he had a line drive rate over 21 percent… so he's not fooling a lot of guys.
The bullpen is bad… outside of maybe Gordon (98 ERA+) and Lidge (131 ERA+). Who else would you want to see pitching in the seventh or eighth inning with the game on the line? Francisco Rosario? Clay Condrey?
Dave: Wow, the Philly offense was just awesome last year. I think it will be very good this year, too; the best in the division. But it won't be as good as last year's.
Aaron Rowand and his fluky good year are gone, Feliz is at third, Rollins likely won't hit 30 home runs again. As much as I love Utley, it's hard to see him matching last year's numbers (setting aside the playing time issue). But Pat Burrell is a known commodity, isn't he? Slugging Average the last three years: .504,.502, .502. And Howard should at least improve his batting average of .260.
Sully: Everyone knows how fantastic Philly is at short, second and first. Once again, they will get a lot of punch out of these three spots. On a year-over-year basis, at first glance, it's hard to see how there won't be considerable fall-back offensively. Rowand and his 123 OPS+ now toil in San Francisco. Feliz, the former Giant and one of the very worst offensive regulars in baseball, now starts at third for the defending NL East champs. But a Geoff Jenkins/Jayson Werth platoon should go a long way in making up for the loss of Rowand and the Phillies OPS at 3rd in 2007 (PHI third basemen hit .255/.321/.368) was last in the league; just behind - you guessed it - the Giants. Amazing though it may be, Feliz may provide an offensive uptick! I think this offense rakes again.
Marc: Obviously the offence is this team's strength with Howard (134 RBI, 144 OPS+), Utley (103 RBI, 145 OPS+) and Rollins (139 runs, 118 OPS+). The scary thing is that they could all still get better – they're all under 30 years of age. Burrell is a nice fourth option offensively (127 OPS+) although his contract is cumbersome and likely limits their ability to improve the pitching because they can't throw money at free agents.
Third base is a black hole for Philly… Feliz plays nice defence but I doubt his bat is going to make much of an impact, if at all. But with the other offensive cogs, maybe it doesn't have to. Victorino is a nice immediate option for centerfield but I don't think he's a long-term solution. The minor league system is pretty dry – especially with impact bats. There isn't much depth to absorb injuries either.
The Phillies can probably come close to generating 5.51 runs per game again, but they are also probably going to surpass allowing 5.07 runs per game.
Chris: That's one scary infield! Of the three main guys, the only one playing over his head was Rollins, but it wasn't that much over. The only performance they'll have a hard time duplicating is Rowand's impressive .309/.374/.515, but Feliz at third might make some of that up. Feliz doesn't have a good bat (other than power), but as Sully mentioned, he's better than Abe Nunez ( .234/ .318/ .282)!
Sully: With regard to their Mets and their chances at winning the division, I come down somewhere between Dave and Chris/Marc. Sure three teams have a chance at winning, but I see the Mets as the favorites. As far as I am concerned the two most meaningful changes in the NL East come in the form of Santana's addition and Martinez's comeback. The Mets won 88 games last season and sported about a dead average pitching staff while getting a combined 28 innings from the two stars. Conservatively, they figure to get at least 325 innings or so out of the pair. The math is not that tough.
Chris: If they stay healthy, Johan, Pedro and John Maine are an elite rotation front. But I think you're starting to see some questions about the depth beyond that. Last season, they started Brian Lawrence and Phil Humber in key games down the stretch with predictable results. Unless Mike Pelfrey proves that he belongs, they're likely to be scraping the bottom of the barrel there as well. And if Pedro goes down...
Dave: The Mets have Santana, who really is as good as the New York hype he's receiving. Pedro has looked good this spring; and Maine has had a tremendous spring and could be poised for a very good year. However, the next two spots are a bit up for grabs: Perez could be awesome, or he could not be. And the fifth spot is totally in the air: neither El Duque nor Pelfrey looked good in the spring. Really, if the Mets hadn't made the Santana trade, their starting pitching would be looking much thinner.
The Mets' bullpen should be solid. Billy Wagner is showing signs of age, but the depth is decent. Duaner Sanchez is coming along slowly -- he'll be a key guy for the Mets.
Defensively, the Mets have standouts at catcher, center and shortstop. Overall, they're a good fielding team, maybe a bit better than average.
Marc: I don't have much to add on the rotation other than to say I don't like Pelfrey one bit – how a former No. 1 pick got this far with no usable breaking ball is beyond me.
Wagner (34 saves or more in six of the last seven seasons) continues to get it done at the backend of the bullpen. Jorge Sosa is a nice option for the middle innings and I think Matt Wise could be a steal. Aaron Heilman (BB/9 has gone down in each of the last five seasons) is one of the more reliable relievers, who will not beat himself, in the east and the southpaw situation is solid with Pedro Feliciano and Scott Schoeneweis.
Chris: What's not to like about the bats? If rigor mortis doesn't set in with Carlos Delgado or Moises Alou, they've got as deep an offensive core as any team in the league. If they can shore up some outfield depth to cover for Alou's inevitable injuries, they should be ok. As a Nats fan, I'm intrigued to see the reaction to Brian Schneider and Ryan Church. Schneider doesn't have much of a bat. And Church puts up good rate stats, but some of the ABs he has are U-G-L-Y, the kind that bring out the boo-birds, especially in New York.
With Jose Reyes, it's amazing how much the expectations game affects our view of a player. Last year, he had a .354 OBP, hit 36 doubles, 12 triples and 12 homers. He had more stolen bases than anyone since 1992, played every day, upped his walk total by over 20 for the second consecutive year, and he was a disappointment? Sure, he slumped at the end, but I think almost any Mets fan would've signed on the dotted line for a year like that before the season began. Rearrange his hot and cold streaks a little, and everyone would be raving about him instead of complaining about him.
Dave: I think Reyes will bounce back fine andDavid Wright will have another fine year. It would be nice for Mets fans if Delgado bounced back and Alou stayed healthy, but it probably won't happen. Can it be that Carlos Beltran is underappreciated? Last year, he 33 home runs, created over 100 runs, played a fine centerfield and continued to be one of, if not the best, base runner in the majors.
According to Bill James, the Mets manufactured the third-most runs in the National League last year. They were first in the majors in runs manufactured by deliberate acts, such as stolen bases, but tied for last in the majors in manufacturing runs from things like wild pitches, moving up on batted balls and taking extra bases on singles. That's a weird dichotomy. I have no idea what it means.
Marc: Re-signing Luis Castillo was a mistake. His value always lay in his speed but he stole only 19 bases and his slugging percentage hasn't toped .374 in more than four seasons – and it's never been over .400 in his career. I proudly display my Carlos Delgado autograph on my baseball bookshelf (the only autograph I have) but he's pretty much done. He slugged under .500 in 2007 for the first time in 10 seasons and his OPS+ was only 103. It doesn't sound like his body is going to hold up over an entire season so I don't see him improving on those numbers in 2008. Overall, the offence looks like it's going to be a little worse this season; I don't see any areas of significant improvement.
Sully: I know that John Smoltz is out for just one start but at his age, I think it may be cause for concern. Of more concern is just how mediocre Braves starting pitching is after Smoltz. Tim Hudson is still decent but there is not much else.
Chris: There are definitely reasons to be a bit skeptical about the Braves pitching, but there's also a possibility of some upside. Smoltz' injury supposedly isn't serious -- the kind of thing a little rest heals. But if you look at the disaster that was the back end of the staff last year, it shouldn't be that hard to improve.
The Braves got 64 games from starters with ERAs over 5 (5.37 to be precise). Combined, those 219 innings totaled up to a 6.28 ERA. Even a nearly washed-up Tom Glavine should be able to knock that down a bit. They won't have Mark Redman or Lance Cormier to kick around anymore!
Dave: I can't see Atlanta having much pitching this year, particularly given Smoltz's questionable health. The rest of the rotation is filled with huge, yet intriguing, question marks. Can Hudson repeat last year's performance (almost certainly not). Glavine andMike Hampton? Great stories, but don't count on much. Jair Jurrjens? Great name.
Marc: Atlanta has an advantage over all the other teams in the east – They have six solid starters with Hudson (128 ERA+), Smoltz (137 ERA+), Hampton, Jurrjens, Glavine (96 ERA+) and Chuck James (100 ERA+). You know you're probably not going to get 30-34 starts out of Hampton, Smoltz or Glavine at this stage of their careers, so you have to hope they don't all break down at the same time, which will allow Jurrjens to fill in most of the time.
As for the 'pen, if Rafael Soriano's elbow does not continue to bother him, he could be a nice anchor in the bullpen – He had a 0.86 WHIP last year. Peter Moylan's command has improved since he first appeared in the majors and is slowly becoming a dependable reliever for Atlanta. Chris Resop and Blaine Boyer have looked good this spring and could help out at some point this season, if they don't both make the opening day roster. Royce Ring (.205 career average versus left-handed batters) and Will Ohman (.196 average) should be successful LOOGIES. Mike Gonzalez could return from Tommy John surgery later in the year and offer the bullpen a boost.
Sully: The Braves are going to mash though, aren't they?
Dave: Teixeira has got to be an early candidate for MVP and perhaps the most-watched potential free agent of the year. The Braves also have some excellent young hitters, particularly now that Francoeur has apparently learned to walk. I wonder when Chipper Jones will ever stop hitting? Doesn't he know he's getting old?
Hey, I'm getting old, too. Believe me, it's hard to miss.
Marc: Even with the loss of Andruw Jones, the offence looks nice, with Jeff Francoeur (103 OPS+), Teixeira (150 OPS+) and old man Chipper (166 OPS+) leading the way. The collection of Kelly Johnson (117 OPS+), Brian McCann (100 OPS+) and Yunel Escobar (119 OPS+) is a nice supporting cast. And I have always been a fan of Matt Diaz – even when he was struggling to get out of Triple-A and receive the shot he deserved. However, I don't think he's an everyday corner outfielder.
I don't like the Braves' centerfield options: Mark Kotsay or Josh Anderson. I would rather see them try Gregor Blanco in center – or see if Brandon Jones can handle it. There is no point in them keeping non-roster outfielder Joe Borchard, who has had a nice spring. He is not going to hit .300 in the majors – or even .250. If Jordan Schafer is for real – then they really only need someone to hold down the fort for one season.
Chris: The Braves were a pretty elite offense last season even with a first baseman who slugged .394 for two-thirds of the year and with a centerfielder batting .222. Even with a step down from Chipper (I wonder how many people realize how spectacular he was last year) and with Edgar Renteria out of town, there's no reason to think they won't finish in the top 3 or 4 in runs scored.
Sully: Chris, let's stick with you here since you are the resident Nats expert for this chat. Will the pitching improve this season?
Chris: Your guess is as good as mine at this point. The Nats seem confident enough in their kids (who seem like future 4th starters to me) that they could jettison a still-rehabbing (eternally rehabbing?) John Patterson. The Nats succeeded last year because Manny Acta minimized the damage the starting pitching could do by turning the game over the pen as early as possible. It worked last year. Can it work again this year?
The Nats starters (other than Shawn Hill) are mostly flyball pitchers. That worked really well when the power alleys were 390+ feet away, and when you had Church, Nook Logan and Austin Kearns roaming around there, catching anything. With 370-something power alleys and Wily Mo Pena and Lastings Milledge (who is either great or terrible in the field depending on who you're listening to), can the arms hold up? Signs point to no!
The one arm to watch is Joel Hanrahan, the former Dodgers pitching prospect. The Nats gave him a crack at the rotation last year and he walked the park (when he wasn't giving up homers). They converted him to relief, and it's allowed him to focus more, especially on repeating his delivery. His hard stuff got even harder, and he was utterly dominant all spring, and not just against the bench scrubs. He'll likely start out as the 6th-inning guy, but on this team and with this starting pitching, that's a pivotal role for Acta.
Marc: As the broken record continues, Washington has some question marks in the rotation… but that's not surprising when any club is looking to Odalis Perez as a savior and/or innings eater. Jason Bergmann has shown promise, but I want to see him over the course of a full season… I think he might be better in the bullpen. Matt Chico (91 ERA+), Hanrahan (70 ERA+) and Tim Redding (career 88 ERA+) are all probably middle relievers at best on other teams. Garrett Mock, Ross Detwiler and, to a lesser extent, Tyler Clippard offer some hope for later in 2008 or 2009.
Washington might have one of the better pens in the east, especially if Hanrahan and/or Redding end up there as a long reliever. The bullpen has some depth with Luis Ayala, Jesus Colome, Jon Rauch, Saul Rivera, Chris Schroder and closer Chad Cordero (career 154 ERA+), although his biggest value to the club might be as a trading chip. Does a team that's going to lose 90 games really need a topnotch closer? Non-roster player Ray King should be an acceptable left-handed reliever.
Dave: Boy, I feel like I don't know a single pitcher on the Nationals. Tim Redding? Well, he's been around for a while. Matt Chico? Jason Bergmann? I mean, I've heard of these guys, but wha?
Like last year, the Nats will lean heavily on their bullpen. And from what I understand, the ballpark is likely to be a pitcher's park. So the Nats' pitching will look better than what we might expect, but we probably just won't understand how they did it.
Sully: The guy I am pulling for bigtime is Nick Johnson. I really hope he can somehow stay healthy this season. He is a real pleasure to watch at the plate.
Chris: It's going to be a shock seeing the team bat in a normal park. If it's neutral, it's a big jolt to the bats. The offense should probably be middle-of-the-pack, which is a big step up. The Elijah Dukes acquisition is key in that it gives the Nats a legit 4th outfielder (although he'll be starting initially because of Wily Mo Pena's injury). Last year, the Nats gave far too many ABs to Ryan Langerhans, Robert Fick, Kory Casto and other guys who couldn't hit their children's weight.
I'm excited, too, because there are quite a few breakout candidates. Ryan Zimmerman still has oodles of potential. Kearns was brutalized by RFK's walls and he's turning 28. The sky's the limit with Milledge, too. If they do what we expect, the runs will come. If one or more of them break out like they're capable of doing, the offense could surprise some people.
Dave: It will be fun to see how some of the young players develop in Washington. Milledge, Dukes, Pena. I also think Kearns is a fine player, as is Ryan Zimmerman. I hope they can both gain some power at bat, but I'm not sure they can. I wouldn't bet on it, anyway.
Marc: It looks like Cristian Guzman (career 74 OPS+) is going to win the shortstop job over Felipe Lopez (career 89 OPS+), but you really don't win with either guy in the starting lineup. If Washington had traded Belliard (100 OPS+ ) at last season's trade deadline, instead of offering him an extension, they could have more prospects in the system and Pete Orr or Willie Harris holding down the fort for less money. The same can be said for Dmitri Young (career 114 OPS+)… Sure, they didn't know if Johnson would make it back but you can always find a replacement level first baseman at Triple-A and that's probably what Young is going to end up as by the time his contract extension expires. First base prospect Josh Whitesell, whom the Nats just lost to Arizona on a waiver claim, could probably perform as well as Young will this season.
Sully: It figures to be a long one for the Fish. The pitching was a complete disaster last year but there were injuries all over the place. What do we think for 2008?
Dave: Florida will not prevent runs. They have no pitching and they have no fielding. Okay, maybe that's an overstatement. They do have young arms. Young arms can surprise and come through when you least expect it. But even if they have some young guys--say, Andrew Miller--turn in good years, I still think they'll give up more runs than any other team in the league.
Sully: I agree, Dave.
Chris: It's amazing how quickly that pitching staff collapsed last season, going from 5th in ERA to 15th. What was it? Rookies playing over their head? Fatigue from workload? I'd like to say some of it is the defense (they do have a pretty terrible defense!), but most of the same guys played both seasons.
They had a pretty significant bump up in offense, too. And the one-year park factor went from extreme pitcher's park to slight hitter's park. Might some of it just be the weather? I don't think there were any structural changes to the place. If it was just bad luck with weather, can we count on the pitching to 'improve' if the park returns to its historical level of offense?
Can I keep asking a bunch of questions without answering them? Perhaps?
Marc: Does Florida have any healthy pitchers left? Actually, the options are mostly guys brought in from other organizations: Mark Hendrickson and Andrew Miller. The other pitching options are going to have to be held together with duct tape: Ricky Nolasco, Scott Olsen. Rick VandenHurk appears to be an option as well, but I'm really not sold on his command and control. The same can be said for Andrew Miller – I would be shocked if his ERA is not above 5.00 by the end of the season. Rookie Chris Volstad should begin the year in the minors but he might be the team's most reliable starter by the end of the year.
Chris: They're sure going to miss Miguel Cabrera's bat (though the pitchers won't miss his glove!)
Hanley's season last year was absolutely incredible. It looks like something Nomar would've put up in 1999 -- had Nomar been able to steal bases or play more than 130 games! I'm really surprised that he didn't get more support in the MVP push by statheads. By VORP, he was the choice. By Runs Above Position, he was neck-and-neck with David Wright. He was easily the best shortstop in the game, and I think everyone went to great lengths to contort his defense to knock him down a few pegs. If the numbers are the biggest factor, and you're going to disqualify leadership and team's position, doesn't he have to be your guy?
Dave: How much will the Cabrera trade hurt the Marlins? A lot, a whole lot. Of course, Hanley Ramirez is awesome, Jeremy Hermida may break out, yada, yada. But losing Cabrera and replacing him with Jose Castillo and/or Jorge Cantu hurts a lot.
Marc: Like most of the NL East, the Marlins have the makings of a nice offensive club, although the offence still has a ways to go before it can match up with Atlanta, Philadelphia or New York. Ramirez (145 OPS+) and Uggla (108 OPS+) have a lot of offensive upside. Josh Willingham is a nice complimentary player and Hermida could become a nice force, if he can build on his 2007 season. Ramirez has an impressive combination of power and speed. Uggla is probably going to remain a one-dimensional slugger but the offence he offers at second base is pretty impressive as long as that batting average doesn't sink too low and drag down is on-base percentage.
Mike Jacobs is probably an average offensive first baseman at best. At third base, Cantu has been solid, but he's motivated as a non-roster player. Once he has his guaranteed contract and the losses begin to mount, how much effort is he going to put forth? The same question can be asked for Castillo, although he at least has a guaranteed contract. Florida needs to resist the urge to rush Cameron Maybin… He's barely played above A-ball and needs polish – they're not going to win this year and probably not next year so there is no point in rushing him.
The cynic in me wonders how many more years Ramirez and Uggla will be in Florida… Both are entering their arbitration years so they are going to start to get expensive. Is Florida finally prepared to build a foundation? We'll see soon enough.
Sully: How about surprises in the NL East this season? It's a mild surprise but I will call Atlanta leapfrogging Philadelphia in the standings. The Phils finish third.
Chris: I think the surprise is going to be how few fingernails fans in Atlanta, Philly and New York are going to have by the time mid-September rolls around. It was a heck of a pennant race last year, and with three teams fighting for the division, we could have a pretty exciting stretch run. Or, as David suggests, the Mets could run and hide!
Dave: I think the Marlins have a chance to be just awful this year; worse than some might think.
I also think that something surprising will happen with the Braves' rotation. I don't know what it will be, but it will be something. Career-ending injury for Smoltz? Final career meltdown for Glavine? Hampton makes incredible comeback? Jurrjens wins ROY? Someone comes out of nowhere to lead the rotation? I don't know what will happen, but watch that rotation.
Marc: Surprise? Tough to say. Perhaps it will be how really, really bad the starting pitching will be outside of Atlanta and New York. I'm not sure any of the other clubs have more than two reliable starting pitchers. Florida and Washington might not even have one.
Sully: The awards candidates are pretty obvious this season. Who do you guys like?
Chris: Carlos Beltran never seems to get the love. If he can finally stay healthy... Otherwise, I think that Jose Reyes is in a good position because of those lowered expectations. If he improves, and the Mets do break through, he's likely to be looked at as the catalyst for their success.
If you're betting against Santana for the Cy, you're crazy. If it's not him, then it's Tim Redding. (I can dream, can't I?)
Rookie? Hmmm... are there really any impact rookies out there? Jurrjens seems like the only one with a job.
Dave: MVP's: Lots of guys: Teixeira, Beltran, Wright, Howard, Utley. Maybe even Reyes. I predict Jimmy Rollins won't win the MVP this year.
CYA: Santana. If he falters, Hamels.
ROY: Maybin is the big name, but he was sent down for at least the start of the season. Of course, that doesn't mean that much, but it's not a good start. Otherwise, Jurrjens.
Marc: Outside of Johan Santana, I don't think there is a CY Young candidate in the east… Although if we're thinking outside the box, maybe John Maine... He looks so much better than he did three years ago when I saw him pitch in Triple-A. He was a one-pitch pitcher on that day.
For MVP, I'm going to say David Wright or Mark Teixeria… It depends on who finishes first overall, likely. Wright is a better all-around player so I'd give him the edge but Teixeria may be motivated by dollar signs.
I don't know if there are any real good, realistic, contenders for the Rookie of the Year… maybe pitcher Carlos Carrasco can develop quicker than anticipated and save Philadelphia? Maybe Cameron Maybin will turn into Hanley Ramirez?
Sully: Now the order of finish. I have the Mets by five or six games. Then Atlanta, Philly, the Nats and the Marlins.
Chris: I was confident in the Phillies last season. This year, I'm torn. Let's guess: Mets, Atlanta, Phillies, Nats, Marlins.
Dave: Mets, Phillies, Braves, Nationals, Marlins
Marc: Atlanta | New York | Philadelphia | Washington | Florida
Sully: There you go, Marc. I like it. Thanks, guys.
If there is a mark of shame for a position player, finishing with a sub-.200 career batting average is it.
In almost every case, players in the .199 and under range - even those with strong defensive skills - aren't worth keeping around. Could there be any exceptions to such an obvious rule? Three members of this undistinguished group actually have enough value to earn consideration for a reserve role despite falling under the dreaded Mendoza Line.
Jim French spent his entire big league career (1965-71) with the expansion version of the Washington Senators. As a catcher in a pitching-dominated era, French's .196 career average in 607 career at-bats may not be as terrible as it first appears.
After hitting an impressive .297 (11 for 37) in his 1965 debut, French went 6 for 40 (.150) in two cups of big league coffee in 1966 and 1967. During all three brief trials, the 5'7" lefty swinger was patient at the plate. His nine walks in '65 contributed to a .435 OBP.
French hit .194 in 165 ABs during pitching-dominated 1968. While his batting average stayed in the same range (.184 and .211) the following two seasons, French became even more patient under the influence of Ted Williams, who managed the Senators from 1969 to 1971.
A 29 for 158 season will usually get a player released, but add 38 walks to that total, and French's .348 OBP places him 27 points above the AL average of .321. It was more of the same in 1970, when French's 38 walks outnumbered his 35 hits. Despite little power (3 doubles, 1 triple and a home run), the stumpy catcher was a modest offensive asset, as his .358 OBP was well above the American League average of .322.
French was also valuable behind the plate, as he gunned down 22 of 53 attempted basestealers for a .415 success ratio in 1968. Exactly half (31 of 62) the stolen base attempts on French were foiled in 1969, and 121 career walks exceeds his 119 total hits.
Jack Cust fans will probably take a liking to Frank Fernandez. When it comes to an odd stat line, it's hard to beat this former catcher/outfielder.
The Staten Island native debuted with his hometown Yankees in 1967, and he played 51 games in 1968 when the franchise hit a pathetic .214. That is the worst team average of the live ball era.
Hitting .170 (23 for 135) with 50 strikeouts may scream "Putrid!" at first glance, but the rest of Fernandez's numbers are impressive. Seven home runs and 30 RBI projects to 26 HR and 111 RBI in 500 ABs during the worst offensive season since 1920. Add in 35 walks for a .341 OBP - 44 points above the AL average of .297 - and Fernandez becomes the ultimate Moneyball player of the 1960s. Fourteen of his 23 hits were for extra bases.
The righty slugger had another odd-looking year in 1969. Fernandez hit a career-best .223 with a dozen homers and 29 RBI in 229 ABs. While 68 strikeouts is a high total for a part-timer, Fernandez cut the Ks to one per 3.4 ABs from one per 2.7 ABs in 1968. A whopping 65 walks pushed the OBP to .399, which would have put Fernandez in eighth place in the American League had he qualified.
Traded to the A's after the season, Fernandez hit .214 with 15 HR and 44 RBI in 1970. His walk total fell to 40 in 252 ABs, putting his .327 OBP was just above the AL average of .322.
1971 was a bizarre season. Fernandez was constantly on the move, as he saw action in 39 games with the A's, Senators and Cubs. That may have contributed to a combined .138 (11 for 80) average.
Just 4 for 39 in the AL, Fernandez posted freakish numbers for the Cubs. His 7 for 41 (.171) average included four solo homers, which accounted for all his RBI in Chicago. Fernandez's 17 walks as a Cub outnumbered his 15 Ks and pushed his National League OBP to .414.
An 0 for 3 performance with the Cubs in 1972 closed out Fernandez's big league run and dropped his career average from .2003 to .1994. In 727 official ABs, Fernandez came through with 39 HR and 116 RBI. His walks (164) outnumbered his hits (145). Patience paid off for Fernandez, as his .350 OBP was high for the era.
Kevin Roberson's .197 career average came with frequent long-ball displays. While his 61 for 310 career with the Cubs and Mets from 1993 to 1996 is forgettable, nearly a third of Roberson's hits (20) cleared the fences. Add in 10 doubles and a triple, and more than half the outfielder's hits went for extra bases.
The 6'4" Roberson took an aggressive approach, as shown by his low walk total of 27. Not surprisingly, the switch-hitter was a high strikeout sort, with 93 career Ks.
No manager wants a sub-.200 type cluttering up his roster, but French, Fernandez and Roberson could legitimately point beyond their embarrasing batting averages in making a claim for a spot on the bench. Few others in that situation could do the same.
Last season I decided to run a piece putting myself out there with picks on Over/Under MLB team win totals. Well the 2008 numbers are very much in and I want to take another stab. Here is how I introduced last year's predictions.
Many would argue that the crux of Sabermetrics is that you can predict a team's win total by analyzing a team's ability to score and prevent runs. Virtually all other research aimed at determining what contributes to a baseball club's winning efforts, on both an individual and team-wide level, is derived from this finding. Sabermetric projection mechanisms with these principles at their core offer a neat opportunity for the enterprising individual to take advantage of Vegas over/under win totals.
Now, projections are never fool-proof and are often downright inaccurate. Just ask Tigers fans from last season. But I happen to believe that the astute fan has the opportunity to stick one to Vegas on these (hey, it makes up for football season). So without further ado, let me try my hand at each MLB team. I will offer up my prediction (over or under) and then briefly account for why I believe the arbitrage opportunity exists. And yeah, I will be on the record here so just as I stated back on Valentine's Day, feel free to check back and ridicule me if it turns out I am just dead wrong on a lot of these.
Last season I went 21-9, while mentioning that the White Sox and D-Backs represented the "easiest money on the board." Not bad. Onto my picks...
Arizona - Over 87.5 (-105) Under 87.5 (-125)
What is Vegas missing here?
That even though they played above their heads when you look at their 2007 Pythag, they added Dan Haren and have a lineup full of young talent that figures to begin to come together in 2008.
Atlanta - Over 86.5 (-105) Under 86.5 (-125)
What is Vegas missing here?
That with John Smoltz hurt, this could be one of the very worst starting fives in all of baseball. They'll hit, though.
Chicago Cubs - Over 88 (-110) Under 88 (-110)
What is Vegas missing here?
Not much. 88 sounds like it might be about right but I suspect the odds might underestimate the impact Kosuke Fukudome figures to have.
Cincinnati - Over 78 (-125) Under 78 (-105)
What is Vegas missing here?
That the front end of their rotation, Francisco Cordero and the potential upgrades coming in the form of Jay Bruce and Joey Votto should push them closer to the .500 mark (if not better).
That there is injury risk all over the place on this team. I don't necessarily think they miss 93 by much but they're in a good division and I just don't see them getting enough out of Carlos Delgado, Moises Alou or Pedro Martinez to get to 93.
74 sounds about right to me. I think I'll take the under by a tad.
New York Yankees - Over 93.5 (-120) Under 93.5 (-110)
What is Vegas missing here?
That the Yanks have the depth and resources to overcome problems that may emanate from their Opening Day rotation...that the offense is still really awesome...that they won 94 games last season without meaningful contributions from their promising youngsters.
Oakland Athletics - Over 73.5 / Under 73.5
What is Vegas missing here?
That the pitching is going to be steady and the lineup decent enough to allow them to hover around .500. An average team in nearly every sense.
Seattle - Over 84 (-105) Under 84 (-125)
What is Vegas missing here?
Another great pick. The back end of the rotation is awful, the defense is awful, the offense is awful.
Tampa Bay - Over 76.5 (-110) Under 76.5 (-120)
What is Vegas missing here?
I will just leave up what I said about Tampa Bay last season.
That Tampa Bay has a bunch of really good baseball players in their system and that this is the year they start to make some legitimate noise. The starting pitching leaves plenty to be desired but there is enough punch in that lineup to push their win total to around 75.
The Los Angeles Dodgers will host the Boston Red Sox in an exhibition game this Saturday. It's not just another spring training contest though. There are two unusual items about this tilt: (1) the Red Sox will be playing an "in-season" exhibition game and (2) the venue will be none other than the Los Angeles Coliseum. The game will mark the 50th anniversary of the Dodgers in Los Angeles.
The Dodgers played their home games at the Coliseum from 1958-1961. It was nothing more than a temporary facility for the club that left Brooklyn after the 1957 season. The Coliseum was built in the early 1920s, and it has hosted the Summer Olympics in 1932 (and 1984), as well as the World Series in 1959, and the first NFL-AFL Championship Game (later renamed the Super Bowl) in January 1967 and a second Super Bowl in 1973. The Coliseum remains the only venue to host the Olympics, World Series, and Super Bowl.
Located across the street from the University of Southern California, the Coliseum has been home to USC football for more than 80 years. Cross-town rival UCLA played its home games at the Coliseum from 1928 until the Bruins departed for the Rose Bowl in 1982. The former Cleveland Rams of the NFL relocated to the Coliseum in 1946 and stayed there through the 1979 season (before moving to Anaheim and later to St. Louis).
The Coliseum was designed as a track and field and football stadium and was never meant to host baseball games. The field was squeezed into the closed end of the Coliseum with home plate located near the tunnel that serves as the runway to the locker rooms for home and visiting teams. The left field fence was only 251 feet from home plate and a 42-foot high screen was installed to limit the number of home runs.
Due to the subsequent elimination of the running track and the expansion of seats, the left field fence will be 200 feet for the Red Sox-Dodgers game on Saturday night. Attendance is expected to exceed 100,000, which will be the all-time record for any baseball game.
Although the largest regular season attendance at the Coliseum was 78,672 for the home opener against the San Francisco Giants on April 18, 1958, an exhibition game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Yankees in honor of Roy Campanella drew a still major league record of 93,103 on May 7, 1959. The three World Series games between the Dodgers and White Sox in 1959 exceeded 92,000, including 92,706 fans for Game 5, a current MLB record for a non-exhibition game.
Appropriately, former owner Walter O’Malley, who was responsible for moving the Dodgers to Los Angeles and the westward expansion of Major League Baseball, was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee on December 3, 2007. The HoF induction ceremonies will be held on July 27, 2008 in Cooperstown, New York.
In four seasons at the Coliseum, the Dodgers posted a 330-288 record (.534), including the 1959 World Championship, their first of five titles in Los Angeles. Retrosheet's Dave Smith, who went to four games at the Coliseum (including his first MLB game), provided me with the following statistical information about the Coliseum:
TOP SINGLE-DAY PERFORMANCES IN COLISEUM
Batter Date AB H
Willie Mays 5-13-1958 5 5
Jim Davenport 8-10-1958 6 5
Maury Wills 9-15-1959 5 5 (10 innings)
Bob Lillis 10-01-1960 7 5 (14 innings)
Maury Wills 10-01-1960 8 5 (14 innings)
Batter Date AB H HR RBI
Don Demeter 9-12-1961 5 4 3 7
Bill White 7-05-1961 5 4 3 4
Lee Walls 4-24-1958 6 3 3 8
Don Demeter 4-21-1959 5 3 3 6 (11 innings)
Sam Jones 6-30-1959
Juan Marichal 8-02-1961
Due to a series of unforeseeable circumstances, we are going to break from our Two on Two format and simply go around the room with three of us. Al from Bleed Cubbie Blue has joined Marc Hulet and me. You can find the previous Two on Two's below:
Sully: Well guys, what do we think about the NL Central in 2008. Just like the American League Central, which pits Cleveland and Detroit as the only two teams one can really see winning it, in the NL Central we have Chicago and Milwaukee. I don't see Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Houston or even the consistently competitive St. Louis Cardinals mustering much of a threat to the Cubbies or the Brew Crew.
Al: This is the first time in a while that the Cubs go into the season as, legitimately, the favorite to win their division. And barring massive injuries, a collapse of any kind, or some sort of miracle year by Milwaukee (the only other team that's any good in the Central), the Cubs should repeat as division champions. This would be the first time in one hundred years that the Cubs qualify for the postseason in consecutive seasons, if it happens.
Marc: My first response after looking up and down the National League Central is that there are going to be some ugly, ugly seasons… especially for St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Houston. Who is going to start games for Houston and St. Louis? They each have one reliable pitcher - Roy Oswalt for the Astros and Adam Wainwright, one season removed from the bullpen, for the Cards. Aside from Albert Pujols and Troy Glaus – if he can stay healthy – who strikes fear in the hearts of opposing pitchers? Pittsburgh is made up of a bunch of fourth and fifth starters and position players who would mostly be role players on championship teams.
Sully: The Cubs are the defending division champs and bring back an excellent rotation more or less in tact. No problems there, right?
Al: Cub starting pitching was the best in the division in 2007 and one of the better ones in the National League. I don't see any reason why it shouldn't be the same this season. Rich Hill has one full season under his belt, Ted Lilly was one of the most consistent starters in baseball last year, and the Cubs are now dealing with a strange commodity, TOO MUCH starting pitching. Jon Lieber, Ryan Dempster and Jason Marquis are battling for two spots. One of them will not make it and will either go to the bullpen (unlikely) or be traded (probably).
Cubs defense has been steadily improving over the last year or so and this year, they will have an outfield with speed and plus arms at all three positions. Alfonso Soriano had 19 assists last year, the most for a Cub outfielder in more than 50 years. Felix Pie has a terrific arm and range and Kosuke Fukudome comes from Japan with a reputation for having a howitzer (he once threw out a runner at first on what should have been a clean single to RF).
Marc: Hands down, Chicago has the best and deepest starting rotation in the division… if not the league. One-through-three Carlos Zambrano (118 ERA+), Lilly (122 ERA+) and Hill (119 ERA+) are rock solid.
Sean Marshall (199 ERA+ in 21 games) and Sean Gallagher could probably be penciled in the No. 4 or 5 spots for a lot of teams but they could both be in the minors on opening day, if they're still in Chicago. Personally, I wouldn't trade either one in a Brian Roberts deal. Pitching is just too valuable – and delicate. Lieber, Marquis and Dempster are all aging pitchers who are, at best, No. 4 starters.
Sully: Chicago's offense was about dead average last season. Replace Jacque Jones with Fukudome, give the majority of the catching at-bats to Geovany Soto and keep Soriano, Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez healthy all season and they should be a good bit better.
Al: This is where Cub fans grit their teeth and hope. On paper, the offense looks great -- Lee, Ramirez and Soriano can all hit 35-plus HR. But will they? Lee's HR power was down last year. Fukudome hit HR in Japan, but many Japanese players see their power drop coming to the US. Will the two rookies in the lineup -- Pie and Soto -- hit the way they did in Triple-A last year? If they do, the Cub offense will be a powerhouse. If not, they could struggle.
Marc: Count me as someone who thinks Fukudome is going to be a poor man's Hideki Matsui… not someone who is going to take a lot of offensive pressure off of Lee and Ramirez. People talk about his .400-ish on-base percentage but I think it's going to take a significant hit against better pitching in the majors.
I'm not sold on Soto at catcher; I think his breakout last year was partially due to it being his third go-around with Triple-A Iowa and he also had an unsustainable .415 BABIP. The worst part is that Chicago does not have a fall-back plan in place if Soto bombs… none of the other guys in camp can play regularly behind the dish at the major league level.
Chicago just needs to give Pie the shot in centerfield. I think he can handle it… I've seen the guy play and he has some rough edges but the talent is obvious. Sam Fuld is a great fifth outfielder but they're asking for trouble if they think he can play regularly… and I doubt they do. Maybe they should look into someone like Toronto's Reed Johnson to help out in center on a platoon basis.
Al, what do you make of Milwaukee's pitching and defense?
Al: The Brewers' pitching and defense are the single biggest reason that they finished second in 2007. Ryan Braun was so bad at third base that the Brewers had to go sign Mike Cameron, so that Braun could move to LF and Bill Hall back to 3B. Their bullpen was horrendous; despite Francisco Cordero's 44 saves, he had several spectacular blown saves, and their setup relief was poor. With Cordero gone, they have to count on Eric Gagne, who's not the Gagne of five years ago.
Marc: It's a battle between Cincinnati and Milwaukee for the second best starting rotation in the division. Milwaukee has more experience and a little better depth, but Cincinnati has a higher upside with Homer Bailey, Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez. Last season Milwaukee's pitchers allowed 4.79 runs per game (R/G) and Cincinnati's allowed 5.27 R/G in a tough park to pitch in. My feeling is that Gallardo and Parra are closer to taking their games to the next step than Bailey and Volquez.
The loss of Cordero is going to hurt Milwaukee but I don't think he's going to save 44 games again for anyone. My instinct is that Gagne's days of domination are over and Derrick Turnbow is not a reliable back-up option. Gagne should be good enough, though, to gut out 30 saves. The Brewers probably have 10 or 12 guys in camp who could legitimately start the year in the bullpen; that's nice depth as long as some of those guys don't get lost on waiver claims or to free agency at the end of the spring… but none of them are difference-makers.
Al: The Brewers can hit. And hit, and hit, and hit. They have excellent young hitters up and down their lineup, capped by Braun, who drove in 97 runs in only 113 games in 2007, and Prince Fielder, who became the youngest player ever to hit 50 HR in a season. And that's not even counting guys like J. J. Hardy and Corey Hart, who became solid regulars. Milwaukee finished fifth in runs in 2007; they could be even higher-ranking this year.
Sully: I would say that Jason Kendall might hurt this Brewer lineup but how far is there to fall off of Johnny Estrada's 2007 effort? A big key for the Brew Crew will be Rickie Weeks, who quietly put together a .251/.422/.488 second half last season. If he can fulfill his promise and put together a big year, Milwaukee will push Chicago for the division.
Marc: Milwaukee's offence generated the most runs per game in the Central Division last year (4.94 R/G) and this season should be even better, as all the young players have another year of experience under their belts. Fielder and Braun will probably regress a bit offensively but I expect others to pick up the slack. Hart… the boy may be poised to break out of the box. I also think Hall will rebound offensively now that he is back in the infield.
Count me as one of the few that thinks Weeks will not break out and that he is going to be a classic underachiever. It's just a feeling I've had since he was drafted second overall in 2003. In more than 1,100 at-bats he's hitting under .250 and there has been very little progression, although his OPS has gone up the last three seasons. I'd love to be proven wrong. I have mixed feelings on Hardy… I think his overall offensive breakout was for real, but I don't think the power surge was... if that makes any sense.
Sully: St. Louis is a team that just does nothing for me. They have become a mediocrity laden, uninspiring bunch. Wake me up when Colby Rasmus gets to town.
Al:The Cardinals are on the Let's-Reclaim-A-Sucky-Pitcher plan. This began last year with the acquisition of Joel Pineiro, who admittedly didn't do too badly (6-4, 3.96 in 11 starts). Now, they've added Matt Clement and Kyle Lohse to this motley collection of starting pitchers. Jason Isringhausen is still a pretty good closer at age 35, but how many games will he even get a save opportunity?
If Albert Pujols is out for any length of time in 2008, the Cardinals' defense will be less than mediocre (to say nothing of their offense).
Marc: Let me sum up St. Louis' pitching potential in one word: Painful. The club's No.1 starter is a guy who was a reliever in 2006, allowed more hits than innings pitched in 2007 and walked 70 guys (3.12 BB/9). Sure Adam Wainwright has potential (and, now, some financial security) but he's not the guy I'd want to be pinning my hopes on – not yet anyway. Braden Looper is another guy thrust into a starting role in 2006 and struck out 4.47 batters per nine innings last year – yikes. And he could be your No. 2 starter. Both Pineiro and Todd Wellemeyer played better for St. Louis in 2007 than anyone could reasonably have hoped. Pineiro is injured and Wellemeyer has a career BB/9 of 5.62. I doubt he finally figured out how to throw strikes at the age of 29.
Free agent holdout Lohse finally settled on St. Louis and he's going to make things a little less ugly, but he's just a league average pitcher. Who knows what, if anything, St. Louis will get from injured right-handers Chris Carpenter and Clement, as well as southpaw Mark Mulder. Carpenter probably won't pitch this year and the other two have only an outside chance of being effective after missing so much time due to injuries. St. Louis' bullpen is in a little better shape than the starting rotation but that's not saying much.
Sully: Is Cesar Izturis enough to get this offense where it needs to be?
Al: Very funny, Sully. I repeat what I said above: if Pujols is out for any length of time in 2008, the Cardinals' offense will be less than mediocre. In fact, I might even call it an "expansion team offense" without Pujols. If St. Louis starts out badly -- and I expect them to -- and Pujols' elbow is still bothering him by, say, Memorial Day, I'd expect him to bite the bullet, go under the knife, and be ready for 2009.
Marc: You have Pujols, Glaus and maybe Chris Duncan and that's it. I'd be shocked, though, if Glaus makes it through the season... I've watched him hobble pretty badly the past two seasons. And St. Louis fans really need to be concerned about Pujols' injuries... he could have a blowout at any minutes, or he could be perfectly fine. You never know but he is such an important figure on the team; everything revolves around Albert.
Rick Ankiel is a dark horse but seems to have serious confidence issues and is prone to significant slumps. Beyond Duncan (115 OPS+) and Ankiel (120 OPS+) there is nothing in the outfield. Skip Schumaker and Joe Mather are fourth outfielders. St. Louis was lucky to get Ryan Ludwick's one good season but he'll probably go back to having trouble hitting .220 (he has a career 98 OPS+).
Sully: Anyone have anything nice to say about Houston?
Marc: As far as pitching goes, Roy Oswalt is great… a true No. 1 starter, but Houston lacks a No. 2 guy and Wandy Rodriguez is at best a No. 3 but probably realistically he is a No. 4 guy. His ERA+ last season was only 96. The sad collection of Chris Sampson, Woody Williams and Brandon Backe are No. 5 guys who could be asked to pitch as high as the third slot in the rotation. The Astros best pitching prospect Felipe Paulino probably could have helped out at some point this season but he has a pinched nerve and will be out for while… He thinks as much as three months. And he's going to need more minor league seasoning after that, so you can write him off for 2008.
In the bullpen, former Arizona teammates Jose Valverde and Oscar Villarreal have been reunited after separate trades this winter. Valverde is coming off an awesome season but he has always been inconsistent. And he's walked almost four batters per nine innings in his major league career. Villarreal is an OK set-up guy but is better left to the six or seventh inning. Geoff Geary was a nice pick-up but he allowed 289 hits in 267 innings in his career with Philadelphia and things are not going to get any easier pitching in Houston.
That's about all you can say about the Houston pitching staff. And Oswalt's human now, not the 20-game winner he was in 2004 and 2005. Sure, the Astros got a good closer in Valverde -- but just as with St. Louis, how many games is he going to get the opportunity to save? Woody Williams is probably the #2 starter on this staff. That's frightening.
Sully: There's a lot to like about this offense. They are pretty much covered with very good hitters at the corner outfield spots, the corner infield spots and shortstop. If Manager Cecil Cooper does the right thing and gets J.R. Towles the majority of the time behind the plate, that will help as well. I have concerns about Michael Bourn and for the life of me don't understand the Kaz Matsui acquisition.
Marc: The Astros have a solid outfield with slugger Carlos Lee, rookie sensation Hunter Pence and speedster Bourn. It's a nice mix of power, speed, contact and defence. I am a supporter of Bourn and think he'll steal 50 bases this season in Houston and be an effective hitter – at least league average for a centerfielder. He's shown some improvements with his patience at the plate in spring training… hopefully it's not just a tease.
From all reports Miguel Tejada has looked terrible this spring, at the plate and in the field. With his name also having been mentioned in the Mitchell Report, I think it could be an ugly, ugly season for him and I wouldn't expect that much of an offensive contribution… maybe some homers but a low average.
Al: For every Lance Berkman, there's a Mark Loretta. For every Tejada, there's a Brad Ausmus. For every Lee, there's a Matsui. For every Pence, there's a Ty Wigginton. The Astros were 13th in the NL in runs scored in 2007. They won't be last this year, but they'll be close.
Sully: Cincinatti's an interesting team with a stud hitter in Adam Dunn and one of the very best starting pitchers in the game in Aaron Harang. They also boast a number of enticing youngsters. Let's start on the run prevention side. Marc, you have touched on them already but let's talk about the Reds a bit more.
Marc: Every time I get really excited about the Reds' potential, I remember one thing: Dusty Baker. He's not a bad manager but I can't stress enough how wrong he is for this team.
There isn't a starting pitcher in the central that I like more than Harang. He is a workhorse who knows how to get batters out and survives being a flyball pitcher in Cincinnati. Interestingly, half of the flyballs put into the air against Harang are hit to centerfield – the deepest part of the park. For me, Bronson Arroyo is an OK second fiddle. Ideally, he's a No. 3 starter but he's better than his 2007 record of 9-15 indicates.
The additions of Josh Fogg and Jeremy Affeldt are not going to help Cincinnati trim the 5.27 runs allowed per game, especially if they're in the rotation. Fogg's ERA+ has never surpassed 97. I also think Cincinnati is going to rue the day they gave Josh Hamilton away for Volquez… he's just so darn inconsistent. He's turning 25 this year and hasn't proven anything. Cueto… I don't know what to expect from him this year. He's looked good in the spring and could be ready sooner than I – or anyone, really – anticipated.
Early I said I wasn't a fan of the Cordero signing, but he is the best closer in the division – at least until Marmol establishes himself. David Weathers has been good but he's 38 now and shouldn't be relied on as a set-up guy. But the other guys behind him are going to give up a lot of runs.
Al: It's hard to prevent runs when your ballpark is a launching pad. Harang tries really hard, and was one of the best pitchers in the NL last year. But the Reds staff allowed the second-most HR in the NL in 2007. That's not likely to change under the "aggressive" management style of Dusty Baker.
Cincinnati defense could be good -- or it could be injured much of the year, which it was in the second half of 2007.
Sully: This is an offense, where, if each player played his very best for one season together, it would be remarkable. There is nobody bad per se at any position but injuries loom large and questions surround players like Jeff Keppinger, Brandon Phillips and Edwin Encarnacion. These guys might be very good. They might not be.
Al: Prediction: Adam Dunn, who has never walked fewer than 100 times in a season (in a full year) in his career, will draw 80 or fewer in 2008, as Dusty Baker's managing style has him up there being hackalicious. I'll also be interested in seeing what Corey Patterson, who was either helped or hurt by Baker with the Cubs (depending on what story you're believing this week), does as the starting CF in Cincinnati.
The Reds finished 7th in the NL in runs scored in 2007. They will rank lower in 2008. They ranked 6th in the NL in walks in 2007. They will rank lower in 2008.
Marc: I like Cincinnati's offence, but I'd like it better if they'd trust starting jobs to Joey Votto and Jay Bruce… and I don't think that is going to happen in April. Phillips is good… but his numbers are probably going to slip from last year's. Encarnacion should be better this year, which will pick up the slack. If you take out April and June, he had a very nice season and more consistency will come with age and experience.
An outfield of Ken Griffey, Dunn and Bruce (ed note: Bruce has since been sent down) will generate a lot of runs, and I like Corey Patterson as the fourth outfielder – but not the starter in center. Yeah, Dunn scrapes .250 but he has hit at least 40 homers the last four seasons and he has walked at least 100 times five out of the last six seasons. He has also averaged 100 runs scored and 100 runs driven in over the last four years. Griffey is a nice complimentary player in the outfield, but he is definitely no longer a star, even if he remains healthy. He has posted OPS+ of 99 and 119 the last two years. Patterson has only posted an OPS+ over 100 once in his career and that was in 2003.
Al: The Pirates have a surprisingly good young pitching staff. Though they were nearly last in the NL in 2007 in ERA, between Tom Gorzelanny, Ian Snell and Paul Maholm, they've got three pitchers 26 and under (two left-handed) who could have breakout years this year. If Zach Duke ever recovers his 2005 promise, and if whatever remains of the carcass of Matt Morris can produce, the Pirates could move rapidly up the pitching food chain.
Defensively, Jack Wilson's pretty good. Um, yeah. That's the ticket. Jack Wilson.
Marc: The Pirates actually have a better starting rotation than Houston and St. Louis. Snell is a nice No. 1 for them, but he would be a No. 2 on a lot of teams. He's only 26 so he should continue to get better. The Pirates lack a No. 2 guy but they have an OK collection of guys to fill out the rotation with Duke, Gorzelanny, Maholm Morris – although why they took his contract, I'll never understand.
I am worried about Duke though. He's only 25 but he's regressed the last three years. If they can use him as the No. 4 or 5 guy, maybe he'll be OK. Gorzelanny, who turns 25 this year, is an underrated lefty who posted an ERA+ of 112 last year and 117 in 2006. Morris is a placeholder who has been league average or below for the past four seasons. I was a huge fan of his when he first came up but he's done. Maholm is another guy who should be a No. 5 starter… he's been below average in both of his two full seasons in the majors. But he doesn't turn 25 until mid-season and he's a former No. 1 pick so I wouldn't give up on him… yet.
This rotation is going to give up a lot of runs, but they should also provide innings. The staff allowed the third most runs per game in the league last year (5.22 R/G) and they're probably no better in 2008… But lucky for them Houston and St. Louis are worse. Pittsburgh also has youth on its side.
Sully:Matt Capps is tremendous and we all know Damaso Marte sports a live arm but really that's about it in the Bucco bullpen. What about the bats?
Marc:Adam LaRoche was pressing last year when he came to Pittsburgh and I think he'll have a big year. He hit .239/.324/.439 before the break and .312/.371/.482 after. I also think Jason Bay will rebound and those two will form a nice one-two punch. If Jose Bautista can hit 20 homers this year, he'll offer some protection for Bay and LaRoche. Freddy Sanchez is a nice guy at the top of the order but I wish he'd take a few more walks and improve that on-base percentage… it's very reliant on his batting average. Regardless of who the Pirates throw out in center – Chris Duffy, Nate McLouth, or Nyjer Morgan – they're going to end up with basically the same output.
Steven Pearce is a sleeper for this club. If he can handle the outfield, I think he could have a pretty nice offensive season. He held his own last year and showed an ability to hit the ball without trying too hard to hit a homer every time up.
Al: The Pirates scored one more run than the Astros in 2007. That's surprising, since Houston had big boppers like Lee, Berkman and Pence, and the Pirates had... well, Bay on the decline, leadoff men who didn't get on base, and no one with more than 21 HR, 77 runs scored or 88 RBI.
This is likely why the Pirates lost 94 games last year. Still, I think that someone (LaRoche sounds about right, Marc) will break out and have a big year in 2008.
Sully: Now I would love to hear some surprises coming out of the Central in 2008. Mine? I say the Cards end the year at least 20 games under .500. They're bad.
Al: The real question mark, I think, is whether the Reds will have the "Dusty Baker effect". In both of his managing jobs, he took a 90-loss team and turned them around by more than 20 wins, making the playoffs with the Cubs and missing by only one game with the Giants (and winning 103 games in doing so). If the Reds suddenly start playing well under Baker, they could be a surprise team.
I don't expect this, but it COULD happen.
Marc: The major surprise could be that Pittsburgh is better off than Houston and St. Louis. Houston has zero depth and no pitching. St. Louis has little depth and no pitching. Pittsburgh has some starting pitching – although they won't wow you – and I think their offence is going to be more consistent game-in and game-out than Houston and St. Louis… although the Pirates lack an impact hitter.
Sully: How about awards candidates? I will take Harang in the running for the Cy, Pujols and Braun for MVP and Bruce for ROY should he ever make his way back to the Queen City. Fukudome could well take ROY as well.
Al: The Cubs have two ROY players -- Soto and Fukudome, who is eligible even though he's 30, since this is his first year in the majors. Bruce might have had a chance to be ROY, except not with Dusty Baker managing. Bruce will spend the summer in lovely Louisville.
Obviously, the Brewers have MVP candidates in Braun and Fielder.
Perhaps this is the year that Zambrano will have that ONE big year that all Cub fans have been hoping for and he'll be a Cy Young candidate. One sleeper from an up-and-coming team who might surprise is Gorzelanny. And I like Gallardo a lot -- the Brewers have a keeper there. He may be a couple years away from Cy Young contention, though.
Marc: I'll pick Towles in Houston because he's a good hitter playing in a hitter's park, he plays a premium position and his biggest threat to playing time is Ausmus.
As for MVP I think I'd have to take Aramis Ramirez… especially if the Cubs win the Central. He's been really consistent over the last couple of years (138, 135, 126, 129 OPS+ the last four years) and he's flown under the radar. If the Cubs are really good this year, people will take notice.
Zambrano gets a lot of attention, but what about Harang in Cincinnati… He's a horse (two straight years of 230-plus innings). He threw more innings, struck out more batters and had a better ERA+ than Zambrano last year, but Harang gets no love.
Sully: Predictions, guys?
Marc: I'll go out on a limb and be a little controversial and say: Chicago | Milwaukee | Cincinnati | Pittsburgh | Houston | St. Louis
Sully: I like the same order as you guys but I will flip Milwaukee and Chicago. Weeks goes nuts this season. Thanks, Al, for contributing. It was fun.
As Major League Baseball’s 2008 Spring Training begins to (mercifully) wind down, we are faced with six interesting stories related to players who are out of options.
To dumb down a complicated process: Clubs who have used up the three (and sometimes four) option years on players must pass said players through waivers in order to assign them to the minor leagues.
The First Basemen
With the emergence of Jack Cust at DH and Daric Barton at first base – as well as the signing of veteran Mike Sweeney to a minor league deal – Dan Johnson, who has the longest tenure with the A’s of the foursome, is on the bubble. Johnson has shown snippets of offensive outbursts, but consistency has eluded him. A reoccurring hand injury with Barton, though, may save Johnson’s roster spot in Oakland – at least temporarily.
You could perhaps draw some comparisons from Jason Botts to former Ranger Travis Hafner. They are both hulking sluggers who were drafted by Texas and have shown flashes of potential in the minors. In fact, they were both low round picks (Hafner 31st round and Botts 46th round) who signed as draft-and-follows out of community colleges.
They also both faced roadblocks for playing time at the Major League level and were allowed to languish in the minors: Hafner was 27 before he played his first full season in the majors and Botts will turn 28 in July. In his last two full minor league seasons, Hafner posted lines of .282/.396/.545 and .342/.463/.559 while Botts posted lines of .309/.398/.582 and .320/.436/.545. With news that Texas will no longer play Jarrod Saltalamacchia at first base (he’ll either catch full-time in the majors or at Triple-A), Botts biggest obstacles to a 2008 roster spot are Ben Broussard and non-roster spring invitee Chris Shelton.
The Rangers also have a glut of outfielders that could cause a trickle down effect on the designated hitter spot. As well, power prospect Chris Davis isn’t far away, likely meaning it’s now or never for Botts to secure himself in Texas.
The 2008 Detroit Tigers appear to have an offensive juggernaut. The starting rotation is solid… and possibly the deepest one-through-five in the American League Central. The bullpen, on the other hand, is a mess. Closer Todd Jones will turn 40 in April and is nowhere near overpowering or a sure thing. Set-up options Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney are dealing with injuries. Matt Mantei aborted a brief comeback attempt after an injury. Zach Minerprobably has a spot in the bullpen. So too does Jason Grilli, although both are also out of options.
Beyond that, it is a crapshoot. Five players who are out of options are battling with a group of others who have minor league options remaining, including Jordan Tata (who broke a knuckle on his pitching hand last week after punching a wall) and Virgil Vasquez, who was just optioned out. But with Detroit gunning for the World Series this year, the club will no doubt take the seven best relievers north to begin the season.
Hard-throwing Denny Bautista has always had promise but he also has a growing list of teams that have given up on him due to his lack of control. Yorman Bazardo has looked good – both in spring training and winter ball. Francisco Cruceta falls into the Bautista category but he was also very impressive in winter ball. However, he has been delayed this spring with visa issues in the Dominican Republic and should get left behind in extended spring training to begin the season.
Non-roster Aquilino Lopez has continued his annual trend of looking amazing in spring training. Unfortunately he always follows that up with being pedestrian during the season. Lefties Bobby Seay and Tim Byrdak have an obvious advantage because southpaws are always in demand.
The Fallen Prospects
It is becoming harder and harder to remember when Cleveland’s Andy Marte was oozing with potential. He is very close to garnering the “bust” label. Teammate Shin-Soo Choo has been able to do nothing but watch as the Indians have brought in average veteran outfielder after average veteran outfielder (David Dellucci, Trot Nixon, non-roster Jason Tyner), trapping the former Mariner prospect in Triple-A. Choo also hasn’t been able to stay healthy and doesn’t have enough power to player everyday in right field.
Athletic, speedy outfielder Reggie Abercrombie was unable to secure regular playing time in Florida so his chances this year in Houston are not great. He needs to make more contact, strikeout less and play to his strengths. His biggest competitions for a fourth or fifth outfielder role are Jose Cruz, Darin Erstad and maybe David Newhan.
After Atlanta acquired slugger Mark Teixeira from Texas last year, former top prospect Scott Thorman was probably contemplating packing his bags. Consistency has eluded Thorman at the major league level and there may not be a roster spot for him this season. At least he no longer faces the threat of losing at-bats to a 48-year-old.
The Dodgers’ Delwyn Young has done nothing but hit in the minor leagues… But he has also shown his ineptitude in the field time and time again. A fresh start in the DH-friendly American League may do wonders for his career.
It seems like a lifetime ago that Merkin Valdez was a hard-throwing, top starting pitching prospect with the Atlanta Braves, but fast forward past a name change, Tommy John surgery and a trade to San Francisco and Valdez is hanging onto his 40-man roster spot for dear life. He still has better stuff than most of the pitchers he’s battling for a spot in the bullpen so he should break camp with the big club, if all goes well.
The Mets’ Ruben Gotay can’t catch a break – which is good and bad news. He severely sprained his ankle and could miss a significant chunk of spring training – but at least early rumors that he had broken it were dispelled. Even after hitting .295/.351/.421 in 98 games in 2007, the Mets refused to guarantee Gotay a 2008 roster spot and the organization re-signed Jose Valentin to a minor league deal and re-signed three aging veterans to major league deals: former speedster Luis Castillo, Damion Easley and Marlon Anderson.
St. Louis’ Outfield
One thing is for sure: The St. Louis outfield will not strike fear in many opponents. Yes, Rick Ankiel and Chris Duncan have power, but they have yet to show much else (aside from Ankiel’s cannon of an arm).
Brian Barton is a Rule 5 pick out of Cleveland with no major league experience and Colby Rasmus is the Cardinals’ top offensive prospect, but he may not be ready for the majors before mid-season. That leaves a collection of minor league veterans battling for roles.
Three players are out of options: Ankiel, Skip Schumaker and Ryan Ludwick. Ludwick has some power but, during his previous MLB stints, he has never shown the ability to post a decent average or on-base percentage. Schumaker hits for a nice average but it’s an empty average with little power or patience at the plate. He also doesn’t steal bases very often anymore.
San Francisco’s Outfield
With the exit of Barry Bonds in San Francisco, there are some enormous holes in the outfield - even with the team (snicker) relying on Randy Winn and Dave Roberts to make an impact. Of the remaining MASH unit, Rajai Davis and Fred Lewis are players who are out of options.
Davis and Lewis can play all three outfield spots and have speed. Both were also very raw when they were drafted, which is how they ran out of options but remain promising and unproven. Ideally, the Giants should purge Winn and Roberts because Davis and Lewis can likely at least match the offensive and defensive output from the veterans at a much smaller cost.
Four players battling for roster spots – and playing time at second base – in Colorado are out of options. Second baseman Jayson Nix has had one OK offensive season in four years. Clint Barmes lost his starting shortstop gig last season to Troy Tulowitzki and hasn’t done much to show that he deserves another shot at a starting role.
Second baseman Marcus Giles is a non-roster player trying to prove he still has something to offer. Jeff Baker’s best role is probably as an outfielder, although he has experience at both first base and third base.
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Rich Harden will start at Phoenix today, and Joe Blanton at Mesa, splitting the scouting hordes that have been watching the two all spring. Both are potential candidates to be traded, and the Yankees apparently have expressed interest in Harden, according to one source.
The A's, however, won't provide any real discount for Harden, even though he has been hurt much of the past three years. They probably would ask for right-hander Ian Kennedy, for starters, and perhaps pitchers Alan Horne and Jeff Marquez as well.
IP K BB WHIP ERA ERA+
Harden 464.7 431 201 1.26 3.60 123
Sort of sounds like a pending stalemate to me. On the one hand the Yankees have every right to ask for a discount to his overall abilities due to the injury risk they would be assuming. On the other, the A's might as well benefit from Harden's excellent pitching when he can be out there if they cannot get something worthwhile in return.
The graph below includes strikeout and groundball data for every reliever in the majors (defined for this exercise as those with 30 or more innings who started less than one-third of the time). The x-axis is strikeouts per batter faced (K/BF) and the y-axis is groundball percentage (GB%). The intersection equals the average K/BF of 18.99% and the average GB% of 43.34%. By comparison, starters had a mean K/BF rates of 16.33% and GB% of 43.88%, respectively. While the groundball rates were virtually the same, the average strikeout rate among relievers was 2.66 percentage points higher or 16.3%.
Let's drill down and take a closer look at each of the quadrants. The NE, SE, and SW quadrants are listed by K/BF, while the pitchers in the NW quadrant are in order of GB%.
NORTHEAST QUADRANT (ABOVE-AVG K AND GB RATES)
Pitcher K/BF GB%
Takashi Saito 33.33% 45.99%
Jonathan Broxton 29.64% 48.79%
Derrick Turnbow 28.77% 46.54%
Brett Myers 28.33% 45.76%
Heath Bell 28.10% 58.82%
Rafael Perez 26.27% 52.56%
Mike Wuertz 25.32% 43.98%
Mariano Rivera 25.08% 53.00%
Chris Ray 24.58% 44.74%
Jason Frasor 24.38% 45.45%
Fernando Rodney 24.22% 45.32%
Scot Shields 24.06% 44.61%
Scott Downs 23.85% 59.87%
Tyler Yates 23.47% 46.49%
John Bale 23.46% 43.36%
Manny Delcarmen 23.30% 44.64%
Hideki Okajima 23.16% 44.57%
Chad Qualls 22.61% 56.65%
Bobby Jenks 22.49% 53.76%
Pedro Feliciano 22.18% 55.75%
C.J. Wilson 22.11% 49.17%
Matt Thornton 22.09% 46.99%
Joe Smith 21.95% 62.31%
Matt Lindstrom 21.83% 47.42%
Jeremy Accardo 20.73% 49.21%
Jared Burton 20.45% 45.22%
Jon Coutlangus 20.32% 47.79%
Angel Guzman 20.31% 44.94%
Jason Isringhausen 20.22% 44.51%
Jorge Julio 20.00% 51.60%
Ron Mahay 19.57% 48.91%
Ryan Dempster 19.50% 47.12%
Salomon Torres 19.48% 47.83%
Matt Guerrier 19.37% 47.45%
Kevin Cameron 19.01% 48.54%
Saito and Broxton are 1-2, forming perhaps the top bullpen tandem in the majors. Over the past two seasons, these two righthanders have struck out nearly one-third of all batters faced. If the Dodgers starters can pitch seven innings, Saito and Broxton are a good bet to get the final six outs.
Brett Myers has been converted from a closer back to his customary role as a starting pitcher and, in fact, is scheduled to be the Phillies Opening Day starter. Look for his strikeout rate to decline to 22-23% (equal to 2005-06) as he works more innings.
Bell was one of the biggest success stories of 2007. Stolen from the New York Mets in November 2006, the burly righthander improved his ERA by more than three runs. Were there any signs that the now 30-year-old was on the verge of making such a leap forward? Well, Bell's stats (21.08% and 50.85%) placed him firmly in the NE quadrant in 2006.
In addition to Bell, Rafael Perez and Mariano Rivera were the only other relievers who qualified for the 25-50 club. (A.J. Burnett was the lone starter meeting both hurdles.) Mike Wuertz, who possesses one of the nastiest sliders in the game, ranked in the top ten in the NE quadrant for the second year in a row. If the 29-year-old righthander can improve his control, he could break out and become an elite reliever.
SOUTHEAST QUADRANT (ABOVE-AVG K AND BELOW-AVG GB RATES)
Pitcher K/BF GB%
Jonathan Papelbon 37.50% 28.93%
Carlos Marmol 33.68% 31.29%
Juan Cruz 33.21% 34.81%
Francisco Cordero 32.95% 40.52%
Huston Street 31.66% 40.00%
Francisco Rodriguez 31.58% 43.31%
J.J. Putz 31.54% 42.14%
George Sherrill 30.77% 24.51%
Brad Lidge 30.66% 42.41%
Octavio Dotel 29.71% 37.97%
Jose Valverde 29.43% 35.90%
Justin Miller 28.57% 42.58%
Billy Wagner 28.37% 36.78%
Damaso Marte 28.02% 42.59%
Joakim Soria 27.78% 39.18%
Rafael Betancourt 27.68% 26.77%
Al Reyes 27.56% 20.25%
Joe Nathan 27.30% 40.44%
Pat Neshek 26.62% 31.95%
Jonathan Sanchez 26.05% 39.13%
Joaquin Benoit 25.82% 37.33%
Russ Springer 25.68% 29.88%
Dan Wheeler 25.55% 36.54%
Rafael Soriano 25.36% 32.98%
Ryan Rowland-Smith 25.00% 33.64%
Armando Benitez 25.00% 33.08%
Tim Byrdak 24.62% 40.83%
Kevin Gregg 24.51% 29.03%
Andrew Brown 24.16% 40.71%
Troy Percival 24.00% 33.01%
Taylor Tankersley 23.90% 36.67%
David Aardsma 23.84% 36.84%
Santiago Casilla 23.74% 33.33%
Justin Speier 23.74% 37.40%
Fernando Cabrera 23.19% 31.25%
Renyel Pinto 23.14% 37.41%
Eric Gagne 22.97% 38.51%
Jack Taschner 22.97% 32.85%
Brandon Morrow 22.84% 35.15%
Chris Schroder 22.40% 33.59%
Rudy Seanez 22.19% 36.07%
Brian Fuentes 21.96% 35.93%
Trever Miller 21.80% 34.07%
Mark McLemore 21.74% 20.00%
Jimmy Gobble 21.46% 35.03%
Bob Howry 21.43% 32.35%
Zack Greinke 20.91% 32.12%
Matt Capps 20.32% 31.28%
Carlos Villanueva 20.25% 36.28%
Brian Tallet 20.22% 40.34%
Bobby Seay 20.11% 37.69%
Jon Rauch 20.06% 33.46%
Joe Borowski 19.86% 33.66%
Tom Mastny 19.85% 40.35%
Will Ohman 19.64% 40.71%
Winston Abreu 19.55% 33.33%
Mike Gosling 19.51% 41.00%
Dustin Nippert 19.39% 38.03%
Dave Borkowski 19.38% 43.12%
Chad Cordero 19.31% 38.05%
Macay McBride 19.23% 40.82%
Scott Dohmann 19.12% 38.64%
Scott Atchison 19.08% 36.56%
Joel Zumaya 19.01% 36.46%
Papelbon had the highest strikeout rate in baseball last season. Although his groundball rate fell from 37.35% to 28.93%, Paps more than made up for it by increasing his K/BF by greater than eight percentage points or over 28%.
Billy Wagner, on the other hand, saw his GB rate plummet from 52.84% to 36.78% while also striking out fewer hitters year over year (from 31.65% to 28.37%). While still reasonably effective, all of his numbers (ERA, BB and SO rates) were materially worse in the second half last season. Be forewarned: age may finally be catching up to the hard-throwing lefty.
NORTHWEST QUADRANT (ABOVE-AVG GB AND BELOW-AVG K RATES)
Pitcher GB% K/BF
Cla Meredith 71.98% 17.25%
LaTroy Hawkins 63.28% 12.89%
Chad Bradford 62.17% 10.03%
Peter Moylan 62.15% 17.55%
Sean Green 60.87% 17.43%
J.C. Romero 60.00% 17.72%
Scott Feldman 58.82% 9.90%
Jay Marshall 58.00% 9.09%
Todd Coffey 57.56% 17.77%
Manuel Corpas 57.40% 18.95%
Shawn Camp 57.14% 18.18%
John Rheinecker 56.29% 16.74%
Zach Miner 56.14% 14.66%
Mike MacDougal 56.06% 18.75%
Mike Myers 55.85% 11.02%
Brian Wolfe 55.71% 12.64%
Brian Shouse 55.41% 15.92%
Akinori Otsuka 55.21% 17.56%
Wes Littleton 54.66% 11.71%
John Parrish 54.39% 16.14%
Kirk Saarloos 53.38% 13.43%
Jeremy Affeldt 53.01% 18.18%
Antonio Alfonseca 53.01% 10.17%
Javier Lopez 52.85% 14.94%
Sean White 52.50% 9.70%
Brian Moehler 52.48% 14.01%
Rick White 52.03% 11.11%
Scott Schoeneweis 51.34% 15.47%
Danys Baez 51.22% 12.45%
Chris Spurling 51.12% 12.44%
Boone Logan 50.90% 15.49%
Chad Paronto 50.71% 7.78%
Mike Wood 50.53% 10.68%
John Grabow 49.68% 18.42%
Saul Rivera 49.64% 16.08%
Geoff Geary 49.30% 12.84%
Ryan Braun 49.25% 13.11%
Tom Gordon 49.18% 18.82%
Casey Janssen 48.93% 13.13%
Jason Davis 48.84% 10.73%
Kurt Birkins 48.76% 17.65%
Juan Rincon 48.66% 18.01%
Joel Pineiro 48.62% 14.32%
Ryan Franklin 48.44% 13.88%
Elmer Dessens 48.33% 14.10%
Brian Stokes 48.25% 11.90%
Rob Bell 48.22% 11.16%
Tony Pena 48.13% 18.31%
Ruddy Lugo 48.03% 14.91%
Dustin Moseley 48.00% 13.05%
Darren Oliver 47.96% 18.68%
Billy Traber 47.79% 14.84%
Steve Kline 47.70% 7.87%
Joe Beimel 47.60% 13.88%
Ryan Madson 47.27% 18.14%
Justin Hampson 46.84% 15.53%
Matt Herges 46.48% 15.71%
Clay Condrey 46.37% 11.84%
Brad Hennessey 46.26% 13.94%
Todd Jones 45.85% 12.45%
Randy Messenger 45.61% 11.68%
Jose Mesa 45.61% 12.66%
Kevin Correia 45.13% 18.31%
Brandon Duckworth 45.12% 9.95%
Levale Speigner 45.10% 9.60%
Willie Eyre 45.09% 13.68%
Aaron Heilman 44.92% 17.90%
Jason Grilli 44.76% 17.61%
Casey Fossum 44.69% 14.56%
Eric O'Flaherty 44.65% 16.29%
Taylor Buchholz 44.41% 15.40%
Ryan Bukvich 44.35% 10.59%
Oscar Villarreal 44.30% 17.26%
Aaron Sele 44.27% 11.60%
Guillermo Mota 43.98% 18.01%
Bob Wickman 43.98% 15.95%
Roberto Hernandez 43.95% 14.03%
Doug Slaten 43.80% 17.18%
Shawn Chacon 43.77% 18.46%
Chris Bootcheck 43.62% 16.92%
Kelvin Jimenez 43.42% 12.12%
Hector Carrasco 43.41% 17.65%
With an ERA of 3.50, Meredith was just a shell of his successful self in 2006 when he posted a 1.07 ERA while limiting RHB to a line of .107/.130/.170 (vs. .303/.333/.362 in 2007). The biggest culprit was a BABIP that rose from an unsustainably low .199 during his rookie season to a rather high .344 last year. Get this, the righthander allowed only 30 hits in 50 2/3 IP in 2006 and 94 H in 79 2/3 IP in 2007. He started with a big bang last season by tossing 14 scoreless innings before getting rocked in May and June (6.48 ERA with 42 hits, including 5 HR, in 25 IP). Whether hitters have caught up to the 24-year-old Padre and his unique delivery remains to be seen.
Manuel Corpas, who went from relative unknown to Colorado's closer in the second half last season, was within a whisker of being in the NE quadrant for the second consecutive season. He recorded 18 of his 19 saves in the final three months while fashioning an ERA of 1.54 and a K/BB rate of better than 4:1.
Pitcher K/BF GB%
Scott Eyre 18.75% 38.85%
Trevor Hoffman 18.72% 30.59%
Randy Flores 18.58% 40.56%
Luis Vizcaino 18.56% 35.59%
Vinnie Chulk 18.47% 30.63%
Frank Francisco 18.28% 35.26%
Matt Wise 18.22% 34.88%
Kyle Farnsworth 18.05% 30.32%
Joel Peralta 18.03% 36.10%
David Riske 17.99% 41.38%
Alan Embree 17.96% 34.12%
Aaron Fultz 17.72% 35.14%
Brian Bruney 17.11% 30.82%
Todd Wellemeyer 17.00% 40.16%
Scott Linebrink 16.95% 42.13%
Kyle Snyder 16.94% 37.11%
Micah Bowie 16.94% 42.69%
Victor Santos 16.90% 42.78%
Wil Ledezma 16.79% 39.15%
Kiko Calero 16.76% 33.59%
Scott Proctor 16.75% 28.24%
Lee Gardner 16.72% 42.55%
Jonah Bayliss 16.20% 26.92%
Jamie Walker 15.89% 33.50%
Rocky Cherry 15.86% 36.73%
Juan Salas 15.48% 31.09%
Luis Ayala 15.47% 38.97%
Sean Henn 15.47% 37.50%
Gary Glover 15.27% 38.25%
Mike Stanton 15.21% 35.86%
Jesus Colome 15.03% 35.55%
Patrick Misch 14.77% 42.86%
Tyler Johnson 14.63% 40.68%
David Weathers 14.63% 35.54%
Jorge Sosa 14.35% 37.50%
Ray King 14.29% 40.80%
Ron Villone 14.20% 37.21%
Mike Timlin 13.96% 38.69%
Colby Lewis 13.53% 37.98%
Doug Brocail 13.48% 42.45%
Brandon Lyon 13.03% 42.68%
Jay Witasick 12.33% 36.36%
Ramon Ortiz 11.11% 42.97%
Nick Masset 10.88% 42.66%
Other than Trevor Hoffman and Brandon Lyon, the SW quadrant is nothing more than a bunch of non-descript middle relievers. If these pitchers were stocks, I would "short" all of them, including Hoffman and Lyon. Hoffman, who enters the 2008 season as the all-time leader in saves with 524, had the lowest strikeout rate of his career last year while getting knocked around for a 4.44 ERA with more hits than innings pitched during the second half. Lyon's K rate is dangerously low, especially for a closer. His effectiveness was due to a fantastic home run rate (2 HR in 74 IP), but I would be surprised if he is able to repeat that success this year.
Categorizing Pitchers by Strikeout and Groundball Rates: Starters - 2007 Edition
By Rich Lederer
It is no secret that the best outcome for a pitcher is a strikeout. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about that statement of fact. That's the way it has always been and that's the way it will always be. Except for the rare missed third strike, a strikeout always produces an out and no chance for runners to advance bases (other than a stolen base).
Among batted ball types, we know that infield flies are the least harmful, followed by groundballs, outfield flies, and line drives. In fact, thanks to researchers like Dave Studeman of The Hardball Times, we can even place a value on the run impact of each event. For example, according to Dave's Batted Balls Redux article in The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2007, strikeouts had a run impact of -0.113, infield flies -0.088, groundballs 0.045, outfield flies 0.192, and line drives 0.391 per incident in 2006.
Although groundballs generate more hits and errors than flyballs, their run impact is lower because the hits are usually limited to singles and an occasional double down the first or third base line, whereas balls in the air that turn into hits more often become doubles, triples, or home runs. Not only is the run impact from a groundball lower than an outfield fly or line drive but groundball pitchers give up fewer line drives and flyballs. Conversely, pitchers who don't induce as many groundballs allow more line drives and flyballs. One of the basic truths of maintaining a low home run rate is to keep batted balls on the ground. It is also important to note that home run rates tend to fluctuate more than groundball rates because park effects and randomness play a huge role when it comes to the outcome of long flyballs, especially among pitchers.
Based on the above information, it follows that just as pitchers with high strikeout rates would generally fare better than those with low rates, pitchers with high groundball rates would normally fare better than those with low rates (all else being equal). Furthermore, it also suggests that pitchers who combine higher strikeout and groundball rates will outperform those with lower rates.
With the foregoing in mind, in January 2007, I introduced the idea of categorizing starters and relievers by strikeout and groundball rates. Due to the popularity of this series, I have decided to categorize pitchers based on the 2007 data. Like last year, I have greatly benefited from the help of David Appelman of FanGraphs in creating graphs that plot strikeout and groundball rates separately for starters and relievers (featured in part two on Tuesday).
The x-axis is strikeouts per batter faced (K/BF) and the y-axis is groundball percentage (GB%). The graph for the starting pitchers (defined as major leaguers who completed 100 or more innings and started in at least 33% of their appearances) is divided into quadrants with the mid-point equal to the average K/BF of 16.33% and the average GB% of 43.88%. By placing pitchers in quadrants, one can easily ascertain those with above-average strikeout and groundball rates (referred herein as the northeast quadrant), above-average strikeout and below-average groundball rates (southeast quadrant), above-average groundball and below-average strikeout rates (northwest quadrant), and below-average groundball and strikeout rates (southwest quadrant).
Lowe graduated from the northwest quadrant (13.47% K/BF and 67.04% GB in 2006) to the northeast quadrant (17.69% and 64.97%) by improving his strikeout rate 4.22 percentage points or more than 30% while excelling at inducing grounders. The righthanded sinkerballer had the best groundball and line drive (15.8%) rates in the NL last season. Amazingly, he also had the highest home run rate as a percentage of flyballs (17.1%). According to THT, "research has shown that about 11% to 12% of outfield flies are hit for home runs. For pitchers, significant variations from 11% are probably the result of 'luck'." Here's betting that Lowe's GB will remain fairly steady while his HR/FB rate regresses toward the league mean.
The biggest surprises in the northeast quadrant for me were Mark Hendrickson and Edwin Jackson. However, both had K and GB rates that were close to the league average. As such, I wouldn't classify either as a special pitcher. If anything, I would think of Jackson more along the lines of Daniel Cabrera, another power arm, than not. Both are blessed – or cursed as it may be – with that "p" word, as in potential.
SOUTHEAST QUADRANT (ABOVE-AVG K AND BELOW-AVG GB RATES)
Pitcher K/BF GB%
Scott Kazmir 26.94% 43.15%
Johan Santana 26.77% 38.02%
Javier Vazquez 24.15% 39.77%
Cole Hamels 23.82% 41.87%
Chris Young 23.69% 29.15%
Daisuke Matsuzaka 23.00% 38.39%
Aaron Harang 23.00% 40.27%
Oliver Perez 22.75% 32.79%
Chad Billingsley 22.63% 41.04%
Rich Hill 22.54% 36.01%
John Maine 22.22% 36.96%
Yovani Gallardo 21.67% 38.17%
Justin Verlander 21.13% 41.12%
James Shields 21.05% 43.38%
Orlando Hernandez 21.05% 37.75%
Ted Lilly 20.54% 33.67%
Randy Wolf 20.52% 40.78%
Wandy Rodriguez 20.20% 41.44%
Chris Capuano 19.73% 42.95%
Matt Cain 19.59% 39.44%
Byung-Hyun Kim 19.04% 40.17%
Ervin Santana 18.67% 35.64%
Shaun Marcum 18.48% 40.17%
Jason Bergmann 17.92% 33.43%
Ben Sheets 17.91% 36.53%
Brett Tomko 17.86% 41.01%
Claudio Vargas 17.69% 33.79%
John Danks 17.52% 34.76%
Andrew Sonnanstine 17.51% 38.94%
Brian Burres 17.17% 37.73%
Jeremy Guthrie 17.01% 42.49%
Bronson Arroyo 16.94% 35.28%
Scott Baker 16.83% 34.64%
Chuck James 16.79% 30.99%
Jered Weaver 16.55% 35.65%
David Bush 16.54% 43.36%
There are at least a dozen outstanding pitchers in this group, most notably those listed in the top half (or with K rates over 20%). Kazmir just missed the northeast quadrant although he had K and GB rates that were almost identical to Peavy, who just so happened to win the Triple Crown of pitching by leading the NL in ERA, wins, and strikeouts.
Young had the ninth-highest K/BF rate of all starting pitchers and was the only one with a GB% below 30. Despite being an extreme flyball pitcher, Young has benefited by pitching his home games at Petco Park, which tied with Busch Stadium for the second-lowest HR rate in the majors in 2007 (behind only RFK Stadium).
NORTHWEST QUADRANT (ABOVE-AVG GB AND BELOW-AVG K RATES)
Pitcher GB% K/BF
Fausto Carmona 64.31% 15.59%
Tim Hudson 61.96% 14.27%
Sergio Mitre 59.73% 12.08%
Chien-Ming Wang 58.45% 12.64%
Aaron Cook 57.89% 8.74%
Kameron Loe 56.33% 12.68%
Lenny DiNardo 56.28% 10.63%
Julian Tavarez 53.78% 12.75%
Jake Westbrook 53.54% 14.35%
Paul Maholm 53.25% 13.73%
Roy Halladay 53.10% 14.99%
Greg Maddux 51.48% 12.53%
Zach Duke 50.62% 8.51%
Jason Marquis 49.52% 12.88%
Brad Thompson 49.46% 9.14%
Justin Germano 49.19% 13.78%
Joe Kennedy 48.93% 10.18%
Brad Penny 48.72% 15.61%
Matt Morris 48.48% 11.54%
Kip Wells 48.21% 16.27%
Sean Marshall 48.18% 15.02%
Adam Wainwright 48.15% 15.42%
Jesse Litsch 48.14% 10.46%
Matt Albers 47.99% 13.98%
Andy Pettitte 47.69% 15.39%
Carlos Silva 47.54% 10.50%
Chris Sampson 47.31% 9.77%
Kyle Kendrick 47.06% 9.82%
Joe Blanton 46.95% 14.74%
Dontrelle Willis 46.44% 15.50%
Kevin Millwood 46.42% 15.61%
Vicente Padilla 45.69% 12.84%
Joe Saunders 45.38% 14.59%
Jeff Suppan 45.38% 12.40%
Odalis Perez 45.36% 10.22%
Noah Lowry 44.92% 12.54%
Jose Contreras 44.89% 13.17%
Nate Robertson 44.63% 15.24%
Edgar Gonzalez 44.54% 14.19%
Miguel Batista 44.07% 15.47%
Chad Durbin 43.95% 11.76%
As a whole, they rank behind those in the NE quadrant and ahead of those in the SW quadrant. Opposite of the pitchers in the SE quadrant, the NW inhabitants succeed by inducing grounders and keeping the ball in the park, whereas their counterparts thrive on strikeouts.
SOUTHWEST QUADRANT (BELOW-AVG K AND GB RATES)
Pitcher K/BF GB%
Micah B Owings 16.28% 37.45%
Matt Belisle 16.21% 41.75%
Josh Towers 16.20% 43.85%
Scott Olsen 16.10% 37.65%
Buddy Carlyle 16.02% 32.35%
Curt Schilling 15.96% 37.27%
Kyle Davies 15.76% 38.83%
Anthony Reyes 15.61% 35.17%
Jason Hirsh 15.53% 30.17%
Tom Gorzelanny 15.45% 42.09%
Barry Zito 15.41% 39.12%
Jamie Moyer 15.34% 39.41%
Kyle Lohse 14.72% 36.89%
Jorge de la Rosa 13.92% 40.63%
Mike Mussina 13.87% 41.91%
Mark Buehrle 13.77% 43.23%
Tim Wakefield 13.75% 38.90%
Jarrod Washburn 13.59% 36.54%
Adam Eaton 13.22% 39.29%
Brandon McCarthy 12.85% 35.76%
Josh Fogg 12.62% 40.04%
Matthew Chico 12.58% 33.39%
Jeff Weaver 12.18% 35.80%
Woody Williams 12.12% 39.16%
David Wells 11.82% 43.53%
Braden Looper 11.66% 42.16%
Brian Bannister 11.27% 40.83%
Jon Garland 11.10% 39.44%
Paul Byrd 10.54% 38.26%
Tom Glavine 10.41% 41.75%
Livan Hernandez 9.86% 38.45%
Mike Maroth 9.29% 42.53%
Mike Bacsik 8.65% 40.84%
Steve Trachsel 7.98% 41.16%
Repeating what I said last year, "this is the quadrant that you want to avoid. It is inhabited by some of the worst starters in the game. If you fail to miss bats and don't keep the ball on the ground when it is put into play, you are going to run into trouble." There are two ways to survive (or perhaps semi-survive) in this quadrant: (1) being close to league average in both K and GB rates and (2) throwing strikes and maintaining a low walk rate. Matt Belisle, Josh Towers, and Tom Gorzelanny fit the first bill, while Belisle, Towers, Curt Schilling, Kyle Lohse, Mike Mussina, Mark Buehrle, Jeff Weaver, and David Wells would qualify under the second scenario. However, all of these types of pitchers live on the edge with very little margin for error.
When it comes to evaluating pitchers, I would rather know their strikeout and groundball rates than their ERA. Throw in walk rates and you have almost everything you need to know about a pitcher. Focusing on these components gives one a much more comprehensive understanding of a pitcher's upside and downside than looking at a single metric such as ERA.
Tomorrow: Categorizing Relievers by Strikeout and Groundball Rates.
I've been looking at the run values of different pitch locations for the last couple of weeks and today I wanted to examine the frequency that pitches are thrown to a particular location. The frequency a pitch is thrown plays a huge part in it's effectiveness, and I believe the frequency it is thrown to a certain location is a further refinement on looking at just regular frequency. I found some interesting regarding the success against fastballs in certain areas last week and thought that maybe looking at the frequency could help clarify some of those findings.
In order to examine the locational frequencies I created density plots that show how often a pitch is thrown in a certain area. The dots on the plot are individual pitches and are colored based on the local frequency. The color scale follows the standard convention of a density plot, with "hotter" colors representing areas where events are more frequent. Another thing to keep in mind when looking at these graphs is that the scales are relative for each situation. This isn't ideal, because you can't easily compare frequencies across situations, but it works fine for each situational graph individually.
Starting in an 0&0 count, lets see how pitchers start right-handed hitters off. The four graphs below show the frequency that fastballs, changeups, sliders and curveballs are thrown in that situation.
Again, you can't directly compare the scales from graph to graph, but you can get a good idea of where the different types of pitches are thrown. One thing that was somewhat interesting, especially after looking at these graphs, was the frequency that pitchers worked inside to RHH. 0&0 is a neutral count, so the pitcher has some choice with where he throws a pitch, but whats interesting is how the locations for different pitches in an 0&0 count compare to the locations for the same pitches in an 0&2 count.
This is pretty neat. The locations are pretty much what we would expect, with more pitches being thrown out of the zone and at the corners than before. You can see that pitchers do go up in the zone with 0&2 fastballs and that 0&2 breaking balls are thrown down and out of the zone.
There is a ton more to learn from these graphs and similar pictures, however, I'm not going to be the person who does the majority of that discovering, at least not online. I've taken an internship with an MLB team and this is my last article for Baseball Analysts.
Sure the pay is low and the hours are long, but for a 23 year old baseball fiend, there's no cooler feeling than going to work at the ballpark everyday. Working in professional baseball is what I want to do. I'm deeply indebted to Rich for giving me the opportunity and space to write these articles on the pitch f/x system and I'm also in debt to the readers who forced me to be at (or near) the top of my game when I was writing articles. Writing for for Baseball Analysts has been a fantastic experience and I'm going to miss it, but I'm moving on and couldn't be happier with what the future holds. To quote The Boss, "good luck goodbye" (and thanks).
I can't imagine that many readers of this site do not have at least some form of addiction to Baseball Reference, a veritable data goldmine for any baseball junkie. I know I sure do.
Recently I have taken to coming up with some point of interest, and really digging in to see if any trends or incremental insights can be gleaned. Even if they cannot, it can be fascinating to present data in an organized format to see how teams differ with regard to their approaches (and abilities). What follows is a summation of how the American League fared when the count was 3-0 in 2007, with the final column presenting the AVG/OBP/SLG line for teams after 3-0.
PA AB AVG SLG Post-3&0 AVG/OBP/SLG
BOS 175 11 .455 1.182 .277/.761/.563
NYY 153 7 .429 .571 .350/.776/.675
TOR 148 9 .444 .667 .327/.767/.523
BAL 129 3 .333 .667 .235/.713/.395
TBR 133 8 .500 1.500 .316/.749/.518
LAA 168 15 .600 1.267 .371/.806/.670
SEA 130 10 .200 .200 .301/.743/.398
OAK 141 0 NA NA .351/.815/.670
TEX 105 4 .250 .500 .297/.739/.525
I am not sure that there are conclusions to be drawn from any of this, but it sure looks interesting. What stuck out most for me were the Oakland Athletics, and what seems to be evidence of an organizational approach to hitting. We have long-known that the A's favor a patient style at the plate. A casual search looking at past articles related to Oakland's philosophical beliefs on how to approach an at-bat will yield a lot of words like "patience" and "selectivity" and "taking a walk".
It may just be semantics and not reflective of meaningful differences between the two clubs but being a Red Sox fan and living in Boston, when Theo Epstein speaks of an organizational approach, he will use a term like "strike zone management" or "pitch recognition". Oakland seems to believe that taking more pitches is an end to itself, while Boston might think that so long as you can recognize effectively a ball and a strike, aggressiveness is not necessarily a bad thing.
It's hard to say who is right based solely on the data above (or if there is any right way at all). Oakland did not put one ball in play on a 3-0 count in 2007. Of their 141 recorded plate appearances with three balls and no strikes, Oakland walked all 141 times. Equally interesting, they led the American League with a 1.485 OPS after 3-0.
There does appear to be a downside to this approach, however. Only Texas found themselves in more 0-2 counts than Oakland in 2007. If your mandate is to take pitches, you can find yourself in a quick hole. When the count was 0-2 last year, Oakland hit .150/.161/.238. After 0-2 they hit .175/.216/.281.
I am not sure that there are meaningful conclusions to be drawn with respect to whether or not there is an optimal hitting strategy; on 3-0 or otherwise. But mining the data gets you closer to answers, and Lord knows there is more than enough data out there.
We're bringing out the big guns for the American League Central. We hope you enjoyed the AL West and NL West previews and trust you will find today's roundtable discussion with two of our favorite writers informative and entertaining.
Rob Neyer, a senior writer at ESPN.com and the author of six books (including the soon-to-be-released Big Book of Baseball Legends), is on the very, very short list of parties most responsible for advancing statistical performance analysis into the mainstream. Often referred to as a "Bill James disciple" resulting from his time working for the so-called godfather of sabermetrics, Rob ascended to his current position of influence by championing a constant message and winning over a legion of loyal readers.
Joe Posnanski, a columnist for the Kansas City Star and author of The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America, stands out among his peers in that he uses his mainstream platform to advance analytical metrics that in too many circles are still considered to be the stuff of propeller-heads and Mom's basement dwellers. Posnanski's appealing writing style and broad audience make him a critical voice in furthering the understanding of fundamental tenets of what constitutes winning (and losing) baseball. Poz (as he is often called) was named best sports columnist in America by the Associated Press Sports Editors in April of 2007. You can also enjoy his "curiously long posts" and Pozterisks at his fun-to-read blog.
Go grab a cup of coffee. Heck, get two. You can sip both of them slowly and finish about the same time as our discussion. Enjoy!
Sully: What sticks out for me when I stand back and look at the AL Central is just how quickly this division got top-heavy. It's become a two-team show between Cleveland and Detroit as both Chicago and Minnesota have taken significant strides backwards from just a couple of years ago.
Rich: Cleveland may have been the second-best team in all of baseball last year. The Indians won the division by eight games, walloped the Yankees in the ALDS, and won three of the first four games against the Red Sox in the ALCS. The team that was one win away from the AL pennant and perhaps the World Series championship is basically one and the same in 2008 and would be favored to win the AL Central if not for the aggressive moves this winter on the part of Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski, who has added Miguel Cabrera, Edgar Renteria, and Dontrelle Willis to a solid nucleus that went to the World Series in 2006. It's no secret, this is a two-team race between the Indians and Tigers with Minnesota, Chicago, and Kansas City playing for third place.
Sully: Bold call, Joe. Playing at Comerica and with some age and injury risk mixed in with all of that promise, I think they will be a whale of an offense but will come up well short of 1,000 runs. So I guess you see Detroit running away with this thing, Joe?
Joe: Not necessarily; I still think the Indians will make this a race. That Tigers rotation has holes, and their bullpen is shaky – if the Indians get the big years out of C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona I think this thing could be fun.
Rob: I’m looking forward to a great pennant race, and as fans we all may wish the best for Francisco Liriano in his comeback. Personally, I’m most excited by the prospect of watching Billy Butler for a whole season.
Sully: OK, let's start with the defending Central champions. Sabathia is one of the very best pitchers in baseball. His 5.65 K/BB in 241 innings made him a most deserving Cy Young choice. Carmona will be hard pressed to repeat his sterling 2007 with such a low K rate but I think he has made it clear that he has the talent to pitch effectively for years to come. The back end of the rotation leaves a bit to be desired while the bullpen ex-Borowski is tremendous.
Joe: I think Sabathia has arrived as an ace – there's no going back for him now. And he's so much fun to watch. It's stunning to think he has 100 wins and won't turn 28 until late July. People talk about the 300 pitcher being dead but I think if Sabathia can keep plowing along, he gets there before his 39th birthday.
A lot of people think Carmona will have a come-down year after last season ... I don't know. To me, he had the best stuff in baseball when I saw him pitch. I've heard from fans and scouts that hitters will wait him out this year, make him throw strikes, force him to adjust. Maybe. His strikeout rate is remarkably blah for a power pitcher but he's the one guy I watch and think, "How the heck do you hit this guy?".
Rob: It’s hard to imagine Sabathia and Carmona combining to go 38-15, right? Especially considering how many innings they threw last year? Including October? Cleveland’s No. 5 starters were generally horrible last season, but I suspect somebody – Aaron Laffey or Cliff Lee or Jeremy Sowers, as things stand now – will have to make a solid contribution to help offset the minor-but-likely decline of the guys at the front end of the rotation.
Joe: I look for Jake Westbrook and Paul Byrd to switch roles – this time it will be Westbrook getting the 200 or so innings and 15 wins, Byrd battling all year with injuries and inconsistency. Anyway, as long as at least one of those guys serves the 200 innings, league-average ERA role, they'll be fine.
I can't figure out Lee. I had one scout tell me last year that his stuff has dropped two or three grades over the last two years. Injuries, wear-and-tear, whatever – the guy won't be 30 until late August and his future is hazy.
Rich: Cleveland was No. 1 in Rob's Beane Count, primarily because the pitching staff gave up the fewest number of walks in the majors and ranked second in the AL in home runs allowed. Led by Sabathia and Carmona, the club was second in the league in ERA+ and runs per game on the road. The rotation is deep and Rafael Betancourt ranks among the most effective set-up men in the league.
Rob: The bullpen was bizarre last season, with Joe Borowski and Tom Mastny pitching much worse than expected, and Betancourt and Perez pitching much better than expected. This season they’ll all regress to the mean and the Indians will again have a solid bullpen.
Joe: The Indians have a lot of great arms in the bullpen, but the guy who gets me is Borowski. The guy's gutsy and likable and if you take away his three or four blowup games every year, he's pretty effective. BUT ... you're just tempting fate with this guy as your closer, right? It's hard enough to win games without giving Joe Borowski a one-run lead in the ninth.
Rich: I believe the key to Cleveland's run prevention will be whether manager Eric Wedge can once again get 450 quality innings out of Sabathia and Carmona, both of whom were worked hard last season and faded in October. How about this offense?
Rob: The Indians are strong up the middle and weak on the corners (with the exception of first base, where Ryan Garko’s not far from stardom). This is unchanged from last year, as the Indians bring back essentially the same lineup they used from the middle of last August, with Asdrubal Cabrera taking over at second base. I do expect Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner to improve, which is probably the No. 1 reason to be optimistic about the Indians’ chances this season.
Sully: It's hard to envision a scenario in which the Tribe offensive attack fails to make considerable strides forward in 2008. Take away Josh Barfield's and Trot Nixon's plate appearances in 2007 and mix in some bounce-back from Hafner and all of a sudden the 100 OPS+ offense of last season looks well above average again.
Rich: While Sizemore and Victor Martinez may be the league's best offensive players at their respective positions, this is nothing more than a middle-of-the-road lineup unless Hafner (.266/.385/.451) can bounce back to his 2004-06 form (.308/.419/.611).
Joe: The whole key to the Indians, for me, is Hafner. If he's the Hafner of 2005 and 2006, when he might have been the best offensive player in the league, then I think the Tribe offense will score a bunch of runs and be competitive with Detroit. If he's the ever shrinking Hafner of 2007, then I think there's trouble. It would be hard to overstate how bad Hafner was last year. After a very Hafner-like first month, he hit .253/.364/.427 the last five months of the season. Awful. He can't play a position, his slugging percentage dropped more than 200 points, he can't run ... the hope here is that it was a mirage. The Indians need him to swat.
Sully: Joe, any thoughts on the Indians position players not named Hafner?
Joe: One of the fun arguments we had last year was who you would rather have right now, Sizemore or Granderson. Obviously that's a situation where you'd be happy to have second choice ... but when making the comparison:
Sizemore walks a lot more.
Granderson's slugging percentage was 90 points higher.
Sizemore will probably hit more home runs.
Granderson runs better.
Sizemore won the Gold Glove in 2007.
Granderson is a pretty darned good fielder too.
And so on. It's a good argument ... I've become convinced that Sizemore has the edge right now though because he hits lefties .(284/.384/.428) while Granderson does not (.160/.225/.269). There is no doubt in my mind that Granderson will make the adjustment – he's just too gifted and driven not to adjust. But for now, I think, it's Sizemore.
Sully I'm with you, Joe. Sizemore for me as well. Speaking of Granderson, I am of the belief that his excellent defensive play in center field masks some fundamental problems with Detroit's pitching. The staff's 1.85 team K/BB ratio was just 11th best in the American League in 2007. Fortunately for them they were excellent from a Defensive Efficiency standpoint.
Rob: Last season, six Tigers started at least a dozen games. Their ERAs (in descending order of innings pitched): 3.66, 4.76, 5.01, 4.72, 5.06, 5.63. Justin Verlander’s responsible for that 3.66, so he was Detroit’s only starter who might reasonably have been categorized as “good.” With that in mind it’s surprising that the Tigers managed to win 88 games.
Have they addressed this obvious problem? The Tigers bring back their top three starters: Verlander, Nate Robertson and Jeremy Bonderman. They hope Kenny Rogers, who posted a 4.43 ERA in 11 starts, will pitch more (if not necessarily better). And they’ve added Dontrelle Willis, who has allowed more hits than innings pitched in each of his last two seasons while pitching in a pitcher’s ballpark in a pitcher’s league. In the rotation, the Tigers’ best hopes are that Verlander takes yet another step forward and Bonderman’s ERA finally matches his other, generally impressive stats.
Joe: It is no fun being a fan of Bonderman. Every time you think he's about to turn the corner and become one of the elite pitchers in the AL ... he doesn't. It will be interesting to see how he bounces back – his last 18 starts last year he was 6-9 with a 6.06 ERA and he gave up 18 homers in 108 innings.
I guess everyone's watching Dontrelle closely. Its almost impossible to believe, but the guy is only 26 years old ‐ he won't turn 27 until 2009. I think there's reason to hope even after the tough year he had in 2007. For one thing, his batting average on balls-in-play was very high (.326) and that should come down. Also, even last year he was about as unhittable as you could be against left-handed batters, and in a division with Sizemore, Hafner, Thome, Morneau, Mauer and most of the Royals, that could come in handy. Maybe it's because I like the guy so much, but I'm thinking a big rebound year for him.
Rich: The Tigers are thin everywhere, including the bullpen and depth in the starting rotation. An injury here and there could derail Detroit's chances of gaining a postseason berth. While Verlander is poised to win a Cy Young Award one of these years, the other four starters bring as many questions as answers to the rotation. Age, health, and inconsistencies surround Bonderman, Robertson, Rogers, and Willis with little or no help waiting in the wings. A bullpen headed by Todd Jones and Fernando Rodney and bereft of Joel Zumaya's services for most of the first half is a weakness that can't be ignored.
Rob: The bullpen wasn’t particularly good last season and could be a true disaster this season, especially if Jones shows his age and Rodney’s not healthy. The Tigers do have some young arms who might fill the breach, but you know what usually happens to teams that rely on young arms.
Joe: I agree with Rich and Rob. That bullpen is big-time shaky, I think, and I think Detroit fans will want to be up 8-3 going into the seventh a lot. But with that lineup, it should happen a lot.
Sully: Let's talk about Detroit's offense. I touched on it above but I will say it again. There is no doubt they can hit but I have been hearing some awfully high praise. I have some doubts as to whether they will be the game's best offense this season, much less one of historical significance.
Joe: Well, it's the best lineup in the game, and depending on how things work out it could be a 1,000-run offense this year. There have been seven teams since 1900 to score 1,000 runs in a season – only one in the last 50 years. Rob, you want to take a shot at this? Yep, the 1999 Cleveland Indians scored 1009 runs. A quick comparison:
Catcher: Einar Diaz vs. Ivan Rodriguez.
Thought: Diaz and Sandy Alomar probably provide more run production than Pudge v2.0 at this stage of his career – hard to believe that Rodriguez has not had a 100 OPS+ in three seasons.
First base: Jim Thome vs. Carlos Guillen
Thought: Edge to Thome, who had a .426 on-base percentage and a 141 OPS+. But Guillen is not chopped liver. I have not idea what that expression means, by the way.
Second base: Roberto Alomar vs. Placido Polanco
Thought: Alomar could have been MVP in 1999 – .323/.422/.533 with 24 homers, 138 runs scored and 37 stolen bases. Again, though, Polanco ain't bad, coming off a .341/.388/.451 year.
Shortstop: Omar Vizquel vs. Edgar Renteria
Thought: Vizquel had a career year offensively – he hit .333 with a .397 OBP and 112 runs scored. Renteria, though, is coming off an even better year.
Third base: Travis Fryman and Co. vs. Miggy Cabrera
Thought: A blowout. Cabrera has had a 150 OPS+ or better each of the last three seasons.
Left field: David Justice vs. Jacque Jones/Marcus Thames
Thought: Justice had a nice 21 homer, 123 OPS+ year – I suspect Jones and Thames together won't quite match that (certainly not Justice's .413 OBP) but they'll be plenty good.
Center field: Kenny Lofton vs. Curtis Granderson
Thought: Lofton had a .405 OBP (one of FIVE Indians regulars with an OBP better than .400) and scored 110 runs. Granderson, though, is coming off of one of the more sensational number stews in memory – 38 doubles, 23 triples, 23 homers, 26 steals, whew.
Right field: MannyBeingManny vs. Magglio Ordonez
Thought: MBM drove in 165 runs in 147 games (173 OPS+), so it will be tough to beat that. Can't downplay Magglio's 167 OPS+ season a year ago.
DH: Richie Sexson/Wil Cordero vs. Gary Sheffield
Thought: Sexson/Cordero combined for 39 homers and 148 RBIs in about 190 games combined. And Sheffield is 39 years old. But Sheffield's career OPS+ is 143 ... he's an incredible hitter when healthy.
So, all in all, I could see this Tigers team scoring more than those Indians, or at least coming awfully close.
Rich: I have no doubt that Detroit will score more runs than this year's Indians, but I'm not sure about those Indians. At a minimum, I think we can all agree that the Tigers have the best offense in the division. However, I see it a little bit differently than Joe. By my way of thinking, there are a number of question marks here. Can Granderson hit southpaws? Can a 39-year-old Sheffield bounce back from minor shoulder surgery in October and leg cramps this spring? Will Magglio, Polanco, and Renteria hit .363, .341, and .332, respectively, again? Can Pudge ever draw a base on balls (46 BB in his last three seasons, covering 1620 PA)? Oh well, maybe the difference between Cabrera and Brandon Inge is enough to make up for any and all of these potential shortfalls.
Rob: As late as August 1 last season, the Tigers actually led the American League in scoring, which was quite a shock. Granted, Comerica Park is now a decent park for hitters. Also granted, the Yankees passed the Tigers and wound up leading the league (as usual). Still, Detroit’s offense was truly impressive.
But, as Rich asked, can they do it again? I don’t see how. The Tigers were carried by five hitters: Magglio Ordonez (167 OPS+), Curtis Granderson (136), Carlos Guillen (123), Placido Polanco (122), and Gary Sheffield (120). They’re all good players, but I suspect four or even five of them will fall off this season. They’ll be a lot better at third base, with Miguel Cabrera instead of Brandon Inge. They should be better in left field, simply because Craig Monroe’s gone. But while the Tigers figure to have a good attack, they won’t be great again. And I should mention somewhere that much of what they’ll gain with Cabrera’s bat they’ll lose with his glove.
Rich: Other than the Indians, are there any teams capable of stopping this potent offense?
Rob: Well, let’s see … the Twins gave up the best pitcher in the known universe and replaced him with … Livan Hernandez? Well, not exactly. Ideally, Johan Santana’s replacement, at least statistically, will be Francisco Liriano; for a 10-week stretch in 2006, Liriano was actually the best pitcher in the universe, going 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA. Liriano has spent the last 16 months rehabbing from Tommy John Surgery, and if he’s league-average this season the Twins should be thrilled. In addition to Liriano, there’s plenty of other young talent on hand, but of course young talent in the rotation and three bucks will get you a fancy coffee at Starbucks.
Rich: Like Rob said, Santana is gone but Liriano is back. Hmmm. Well, we know Minnesota's pitching won't be as strong as it was in 2006 when Santana and Liriano were both in the rotation, but it may not drop off year-over-year as much as some people expect.
Joe: How good will Liriano be coming off the injury? It's easy to forget that for 16 starts in 2006, he went 11-3 with a 1.92 ERA and 112 strikeouts in 98 innings. It's also easy to forget that he has not pitched a Major League game in 18 months, so who knows? With Santana, Silva and Matt Garza gone, Liriano isn't just the key to this team's pitching. He's pretty much the whole show.
Sully: There is a frightening lack of depth in this starting rotation. Given the uncertainty surrounding Liriano's injury, Livan Hernandez's general ineffectiveness and the reality that just one, maybe two of Boof Bonser, Kevin Slowey or Scott Baker emerge this season, I just don't see how the Twins are going to be able to consistently hold opposing offenses down.
Rich:Adam Everett, who handles the leather as well as any middle infielder, should prevent numerous runs at shortstop but only to the extent that the pitchers do a better job at inducing groundballs than last year when the staff was second-to-last in home runs allowed. The bullpen should be first rate, provided that Joe Nathan, who has yet to sign a contract extension, isn't traded.
Joe: How about that Nathan? His ERAs the last four years have been 1.88, 1.58, 2.60 and 1.62. I bring this up because his career ERA, even after that, is 3.00 – mainly because of one bad season as a reliever in 2000. I think what this tells you is this: Nathan is a fabulous pitcher. But man, he hardly throws ANY innings. Do you know how many saves he had last year where he pitched more than one inning? Three. All three he threw 1 1/3 innings. Hey this is the game now, and that's OK, but man how can you compare his value to, say, Dan Quisenberry, who routinely threw twice as many innings?
Rich: Removing Nick Punto from Minnesota's lineup will do more for this offense than adding Delmon Young – and that's not meant to be a dig on the 22-year-old former No. 1 overall draft pick. After signing multi-year contracts, Michael Cuddyer, Joe Mauer, and Justin Morneau will be richer if not better this year. The club was second from the bottom in home runs in 2007 and will probably wind up at or near the basement again in 2008.
Rob: The Twins were 12th in the league in scoring last year. That stinks. Statistically, their biggest problem was an utter lack of power: 13th in doubles, 13th in home runs. Morneau hit 31 homers; every other infielder on the club combined for 11 homers. Torii Hunter hit 28 homers, and now he’s an Angel. Could things get better this year? Sure. Joe Mauer might play 140 games rather than 109. Morneau might bat .301 rather than .271. Fellow infielders Mike Lamb and Everet and Brendan Harris might … actually, they might be out of jobs by the end of the season. Bad example. The Twins’ only real hope of significant improvement is that Young and Carlos Gomez develop quicker than we think. Realistically, though, the Twins don’t figure to be even AL-average, hitting-wise, until 2009 or ’10.
Joe: I'm curious to see what Young will do in Minnesota. I thought that trade really didn't get as much hype as it might have – who trades 22-year-old, No. 1 overall picks who are already up in the big leagues? I'm not saying it was a bad trade for Tampa – hell, it might have been a great trade – but I'm saying this is more or less unheard of. The Rays REALLY must have soured on him. Isn't it possible that this guy will be a monster superstar, and everyone will wake up one day and go, "Did Tampa REALLY trade that guy?"
Sully: I just want to echo Rich's point about the impact alone of getting Punto the hell out of that lineup. There can be no overstating the devastating impact of handing 536 plate appearances over to someone who delivers at a .210/.291/.271 clip.
Joe: I'm like the world's biggest Mauer fan. I really thought he deserved to be MVP in 2006. But I just don't hear much good about him around baseball. Maybe it's because he doesn't hit with much power. Maybe it's because he's had injuries. I don't know. But I talk to a lot of scouts, a lot of people in the game, and Mauer just isn't high on their list. Everybody thinks he's good, but when scouts start raving about people in this division, it's always Sizemore and Verlander and even guys like Alex Gordon. I don't get it. He must send out a bad vibe or something.
Rich: Go figure, the White Sox were 16-26 in one-run games last season, yet won five more contests than expected based on the club's run differential. Although I'm not a fan of Jon Garland, his likely replacement in the rotation, Gavin Floyd, gave up 17 home runs in 70 innings last season. While Kenny Williams may think he has improved his bullpen with a couple of acquisitions, Octavio Dotel's health is always a question mark and Scott End of the Linebrink appears as if he has very little life left in his right arm.
Joe: I don't like that White Sox team at all – I mean AT ALL – but you have to give them a puncher's chance to be OK with Mark Buehrle, Javier Vazquez and Jose Contreras as their top three starters, no? Well, Contreras might be toast. The White Sox were 35-28 last year when Buehrle and Vazquez started games – 37-68 when they did not. Yikes.
Vazquez is one of those pitchers – Carmona is like this, Verlander, Felix Hernandez sometimes – where, when he's on, I have no idea how ANYBODY hits him. He pitched a game in Kansas City, I guess it was in 2006, where in the first inning I said, "Oh man, he's throwing a no-hitter today." And he took a no-hitter into like the seventh inning, when Doug Mientkiewicz beat out a goofy little infield ground ball off the end of his bat. That guy on that day was about as dominant looking as a pitcher can be. One year, he's bound to put together a Cy Young type of season.
Sully: This is nothing more than a top-heavy, middle of the road pitching staff that once again figures to feature two good starting pitchers and three crummy ones. Chicago's off-season baffled me a bit in that they clearly have no identity. Garland for Orlando Cabrera is mere wheel-spinning , while trading youngsters for proven talent seems like a tough way to address the long-term health of a franchise coming off of a 72-win campaign.
Rob: The White Sox improved their defense and their offense when they traded Garland for Cabrera, and hurt their pitching at the same time. On balance? A wash, roughly speaking. Sometimes they’ll surprise you, but a rotation that includes Contreras, Jon Danks and Floyd looks to me like three-fifths of a disaster.
Joe: How old do we think Contreras really is? I guess they're listing him at 36, but I have this suspicion that he grew up with the Castros.
Joe: I like Swisher – maybe not in centerfield as Rich says, but I like the bat. I like Carlos Quentin a little – I thought that was a really good gamble for them. I think Jermaine Dye has something left, I think when Jim Thome's healthy he will hit, I think Paul Konerko is probably good for his usual 35 homers, 100 RBIs. And yet I don't like this offense at all. I guess it's because they just don't get on base.
Rich: Here's a weird one for you... while the White Sox were second in the league in home runs, the team ranked dead last in runs.
Rob: Sure, part of that’s their ballpark – they hit 110 homers at home, only 80 on the road – but the real problem was their .246 batting average that led to a .318 on-base percentage (both figures were AL-worsts). Getting Cabrera into the lineup (and Juan Uribe out) will help some, as will Swisher’s presence. I like Quentin, too. But considering the ages of Thome and Dye, any improvement this season should be modest.
Rich: It looks as if Ozzie won't be playing small ball again this year with the likes of Dye (28 HR, 107 SO), Josh Fields (23 HR in 100 games along with a 30% SO rate), Konerko (31 HR, 102 SO), Swisher (22 HR, 131 SO), and Thome (35 HR, 134 SO) in the lineup. Heck, even Uribe (20, 112), who just may win the second base job this spring, fits right in there.
Sully: I want to make sure Joe and Rob get most of the floor for their Royals but I will transition over to them by simply saying that, coming off of a season in which they notched an ERA+ over 100 for the first time since 1996, this has to be Kansas City's most promising pitching staff in a long time.
Joe: Finally, we're to the team. I think, for me, I think it's exciting that the Royals have three starters who could potentially have double-digit victories – Gil Meche, Brian Bannister and Zack Greinke. Do you know when the last time the Royals had three starters with double digit wins? It was not 2004 or 2005 when combined they had, let me see here, carry the one, um oh yeah, zero. It was 1996, when my old UNC Charlotte classmate Chris Haney had 10 wins to complete the trilogy (along with Kevin Appier and Tim Belcher).
Rob: Last year the Royals’ 4.48 team ERA was seventh best in the league. This might not seem like a big thing until you find that the Royals had finished 14th (last) in the league in ERA in each of the previous three seasons, and that they hadn’t finished in the top 10 in the league since 1997 (when they finished eighth, thanks to Appier), and that their seventh-place finish last year was their best since 1996.
What does it mean? Ask me in six months. In ’96 the Royals’ 4.55 ERA was third in the league, in ’97 their 4.71 ERA was eighth, and in ’98 their 5.16 ERA was 13th. The Royals’ top three starters could be quite good, and their bottom two (or three or four, as it’s not likely that they’ll need only five starters) could be quite bad. It’s a matter of degree, and there’s really not much separating fifth in the league from 12th.
Rich: As Joe and Rob have pointed out, Kansas City's team ERA last season wasn't too bad and, as Sully mentioned, the ERA+ (104) was better than average. However, it looks as if they did it with smoke and mirrors as the peripherals were iffy at best. For the most part, the pitchers are young and should be no worse this year than last. Nobody is laughing about Meche's contract anymore, Bannister is studious if not the real deal, and Greinke is only 24 and occasionally flashing the stardom scouts projected when he was the sixth overall pick in the 2002 draft.
Joe: The Royals are really hopeful that Meche will take the steps he made last year and step forward again, become an upper-echelon American League pitcher. He has the stuff to do it. He seems to have his head on straight now. Who knows?
The guy I'm rooting for harder than anyone else in baseball is Brian Bannister ... people in the SABR community have gotten to know him this offseason and the one pitcher in baseball who not only knows his BABIP but really wants to figure out how to keep his BABIP low. This is obscure, but I tend to think of him as the Tom Cruise character in "Minority Report" who was able to change his future only because he knew of it in advance. Anyway, Bannister is an all-time great guy, as smart as they come, as determined as they come – we will find out if he can be a good Major League pitcher without a big fastball.
Rich: Well, Joe, Bannister is about "as smart as they come" because he went to ... ahem, USC.
Sully: OJ Simpson too, Rich!
Joe: Zack Greinke? I'm tired of guessing. He has all the pitches – he can be a dominant starter. And he's been getting lit up all spring. The Royals are excited about Luke Hochevar, which is good to hear because I thought that he was a mistake No. 1 overall pick.
Rich: He was. Evan Longoria was in that draft. Oh, you want a pitcher? How about Tim Lincecum? Hochevar is good but should have never been a No. 1 overall pick, so help me Matt Sosnick Scott Boras.
Joe:Joakim Soria is the closer – and he's fun to watch. I was messaging with Rob about this: I cannot remember a young pitcher who started out his career as a closer and then became a good major league starter. I bring this up because the Royals keep talking about making him a starter down the road ... I don't think so. Seems to me the decision is made.
Rich:Jonathan Papelbon? Oh, that's right. That only last a couple of starts in spring training last year. Hmmm... I can think of some pretty good pitchers who started as relievers (Orel Hershiser, Fergie Jenkins, Pedro Martinez, Dave Stewart, Bob Welch, and David Wells to name an Antonio Alfonseca handful), but I guess it would be unfair to call them "closers." I don't know, Joe, you might be on to something here. The closest one that I can think of would be Charlie Hough. As a knuckleballer, maybe he doesn't qualify. Or maybe you don't think he was a "good major league pitcher?"
Joe: Well, Charlie Hough doesn't qualify in my mind because he wasn't especially young when he came up as a closer (he was 28 in his first full season) and while he did become a good starter at 34, I'm suspecting that's probably not the career arc the Royals are hoping for with Soria. Knuckleballers are indeed a whole other thing. And yes, the Cardinals are trying to do it with Braden Looper, but you couldn't call that a success story yet. ... The closest I've been able to find is actually Scott Garrelts, who wasn't exactly the closer with the Giants -- he was sort of a co-closer with Craig Lefferts -- and then he had one really good year as a starter, another so-so year, and then he got hurt and was done. Again, not exactly the model I think anyone is hoping for.
Sully: Offensively, this looks to be another tough year for KC. Gordon and Butler will be fun to monitor and David DeJesus is a decent all-around player but after that there is not a whole lot that excites about this KC offense.
Rich: While the offense should be better in 2008 than 2007, it's still nothing to write home about. The Royals were last in the majors in home runs and second-to-last in walks. Hey Joe, where's Carlos Beltran when you need him?
Joe: It breaks my heart every time I see Beltran in a Mets uniform. Just breaks my heart.
Rob: As usual, the Royals didn’t score any runs last season, mostly because (as usual) they didn’t hit any home runs (14th in AL) or draw any walks (13th). They’ll do better this season, thanks to a bit of experience for Gordon and a full season for Butler. Elsewhere, though, there’s little upside. They probably won’t finish last in scoring again – that honor will fall to the Orioles or the Twins – but it’s going to be another long year for the poorly supported starting pitchers.
Joe: I sure like Billy Butler. In the late 1990s, even though the Royals were terrible, they were developing good young hitters. Johnny Damon could hit, Mike Sweeney could hit, Carlos Beltran could hit, even Michael Tucker and Mark Quinn showed some flashes. Then, it got BAD. The Royals started taking pitchers in the first round every year, and until last year the Royals had a LONG drought of every day players. I think DeJesus was the only player in the 2005 or 2006 every day lineup developed by the Royals. Last year, though, Gordon and Butler were called up, and I think they are huge keys to this team's future. Everybody likes Gordon – I include myself in that – but the guy I really like is Butler, who I think can put huge, Miggy Cabrera type numbers in the next two or three years. We'll see.
Rich: Butler reminds me of Greg Luzinski. Big body, thick legs, slow as molasses, can't field, but, boy, they can both hit for average and power. Well, I'm not sure if the Bull can still do those things at the age of 57 although he was one heckuva hitter back in the 1970s. I wonder if Butler's career will have a similar shape – oops, poor choice of words – to it?
Rob: It's funny, the Luzinski comparison keeps popping up (or out, to continue your theme). It must be true; BP's top four comps for Butler are Marc Newfield, Luzinski, Gary Carter, and Paul Konerko. But from the very first time I saw Butler, I thought of Edgar Martinez. Statistically that comparison doesn't work, at least not yet, but I think Butler will wind up hitting 25 homers and 40 doubles in his good seasons, and as perhaps the first great hitter to serve as a DH from (practically speaking) the beginning, he may finish his career No. 2 among DH's in a bunch of categories, behind only Harold Baines.
Joe: Obviously, the Royals don't have much power – a weakness that will be made even more apparent by their large ballpark. It will be interesting to see how new manager Trey Hillman plays things. He says a lot of the right things – he preaches OBP, says that he has no intention to give up too many outs – but he also has been very plain in saying that if you can't score runs conventionally, then you have to 'do some things to help the offense along." I think he likes the bunt, the hit and run, the running game, and I expect him to play that game often. How often? How early? We shall see.
Sully: What do you think will be the major surprise in the AL Central in 2008? I will put myself out there and call a third-place finish for Kansas City. This call is probably more of an indictment of Minnesota and Chicago than it is a reflection on any great feelings I have about KC but nonetheless there it is, KC in third.
Joe: Well, obviously when the Royals win the division, that will be the big surprise. But beyond that, I think the Twins have a chance to surprise a little if Liriano's healthy. The Twins have been winning games against logic for quite a while now – every year they won the division this decade they outperformed their Pythag by five games at least, once by eight games. I like Gardy, I like Mauer-Morneau, I don't know. I'm picking them last with the expectation that they could surprise.
Rob: The Tigers, a popular choice this spring as the best team in the American League, won’t qualify for the playoffs.
Rich: I believe the surprise will be that the White Sox, a 10/1 bet at The Mirage to win the World Series, will finish at least 10 games out of second place. Who do you guys see as the main MVP, CYA and ROY candidates in the AL Central?
Sully: Give me Miggy for MVP, Sabathia again for the Cy, and I don't think I see a ROY candidate coming out of the Central.
Rob: MVP: Grady Sizemore and Miguel Cabrera.
Cy Young: Justin Verlander and C.C. Sabathia.
Rookie of the Year: It’s not a good year for rookies in the Central. There literally aren’t any hitters to get excited about, and while Detroit’s Rick Porcello and Cleveland’s Adam Miller both are supposedly future No. 1 starters, neither is on track for much action in the majors this year.
Joe: Detroit has three or four MVP candidates, I think – Granderson, Miggy, Magglio for sure. Cleveland has Grady. That's probably it, unless you're with me on the Billy Butler bandwagon.
Cy Young, I'm with the usual suspects: C.C., Verlander. I think Carmona has another good year, though a lot of people seem to think he will step back. You never know when Vazquez will blow up and have a great year. A healthy Liriano had Pedro-like numbers. And you can't ever count out my guy Banny.
Rich: Turning to how it will all shake out, I feel safe in saying that Cleveland and Detroit will finish 1-2 or 2-1 (okay, okay, 1-2) and that Chicago, while overrated, will finish third, Minnesota fourth, and Kansas City fifth.
Joe: I think it's Detroit, Cleveland, Kansas City (I have to people), Chicago, Minnesota. I only feel any confidence at all about Detroit and Cleveland duking it out.
Rob: Indians, Tigers, Royals, Twins, White Sox. But there’s not much separating the top two from one another, or the bottom three from one another.
Sully: Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, Minnesota, Chicago. Thanks a lot, guys. That was a lot of fun.
Everyone can breathe a sigh of relief. We made it safely to the end of the six-part look at the rookies most likely to have a profound impact at the major league level in 2008. If you missed any of the previous articles, you can check them out here: AL East | AL Central | AL West | NL East | NL Central.
Signed: 2000 non-drafted free agent (Houston)
2007 MLB: 5.91 ERA | 21.1 IP | 10.55 H/9 | 2.53 BB/9 | 6.75 K/9
Gutierrez has a nice arm and a solid sinking fastball. But his secondary pitches still need work, although his change-up is plus at times. The lack of a consistent breaking ball keeps him from getting the most out of his stuff, though, as he could stand to change batters’ eye levels more often. Gutierrez did not have a great 2007 in Triple-A. He struck out only 6.75 batters per game and his walks were high at 3.63 BB/9. Regardless, the pitching-starved Astros gave him a look and, in 21.1 innings, he was just OK and showed there is work to be done. He allowed line drives at 26.1 percent and induced grounders only 33.3 percent of the time despite the good sink on his fastball. One thing to consider is that Gutierrez pitched in 2007 at a park that favors hitters. At home in Round Rock, Gutierrez allowed a line of .286/.346/.439 compared to .237/.320/.358 on the road.
Drafted: 2004 2nd round (Kansas City)
2007 MLB: 5.29 ERA | 34 IP | 9.79 H/9 | 4.24 BB/9 | 4.50 K/9
Buckner has always allowed a lot of hits – more than one per inning (9.57 H/9) in his minor league career. But his biggest problem, until 2007, was walks. He allowed more than four walks per game while pitching in High-A ball and Double-A. Admittedly, both of those parks were hitters’ parks (especially High Desert). However, does that suggest he shied away from being aggressive against strong hitting? If so, that does not bode well for facing the likes of Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday. In his major league debut, Buckner did a solid job of keeping the ball on the ground (40.4 percent) but allowed line drives at a rate of 26.6 percent. He needs to improve against left-handed batters as they raked him to the tune of .310/.347/.503 at Triple-A and .314/.402/.600 at the Major League level.
Franklin Morales LHP
Signed: 2002 non-drafted free agent
2007 MLB: 3.43 ERA | 39.1 IP | 7.78 H/9 | 3.20 BB/9 | 5.95 K/9
The Rockies organization seemingly improved its pitching depth this past off-season, which means players like Morales and Juan Morillo will not be relied on quite so heavily. However, the likes of Josh Towers and Kip Wells will only see success for so long… meaning Morales is likely to secure a Major League position sooner rather than later. At Double-A in 2007, Morales was tough on both lefties (.670 OPS) and righties (.688 OPS). However, Morales had a .339 BABIP against lefties and a .247 BABIP versus against righties. The young left-hander induced groundballs in the majors almost 55 percent of the time, which is a great number… especially if you make your home in Colorado. His line drive rate was 16.6 percent. However, Morales struck out just over five batters per game in the majors after averaging between eight to 10 strikeouts per game in the minors the last two seasons. His control has always been a major issue and he posted 4.23 BB/9 at Double-A in 2007, 6.88 BB/9 at Triple-A and 3.20 BB/9 in the majors. With sharper control, Morales could be dominating.
Drafted: 2001 1st round supplemental
2007 MLB: Played at Triple-A
A chance to play regularly in the majors has been a long time coming for Nix, a former supplemental first round pick way back in 2001. After an outstanding season in A-ball in 2003, which saw him slug more than 20 homers, Nix put too much pressure on himself and got away from his strengths. After averaging a strikeout rate of more than 20 percent earlier in his minor league career, Nix was down at 18 percent in 2007, which is acceptable… especially if playing in Colorado helps him hit 15-20 homers per year as an offensive-minded second baseman. Nix, a right-handed batter, hit both lefties and righties OK, but his OPS was slightly lower against right-handers (.812 versus .770). Average-wise, Nix is probably going to hit around .240-.250, at least early in his career, although he hit .288 in Triple-A last season. His average rebounded after he hit .230/.338/.279 in April and .242/.342/.348 in May. Nix stung the ball in both June and August and he hit 10 homers collectively in those two months suggesting he is prone to slumps and hot streaks.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Los Angeles has not been the most welcoming of places in recent years for rookies looking to establish themselves in the majors. And it’s not going to get any easier with Joe Torre, who favors veterans, now guiding the ship. That said, Los Angeles has some promising stars-in-the-making on the way in Andy LaRoche and Clayton Kershaw. Under Torre, though, it’s hard to know for sure just how good of a shot they’ll get. LaRoche faces stiff competition from veteran Nomar Garciaparra, but the odds of him staying healthy and on the field for even 120 games is pretty slim.
Drafted: 2003 39th round
2007 MLB: 93 AB | .226/.365/.312
LaRoche has more offensive potential than brother Adam, who is a solid regular for the Pittsburgh Pirates. In a brief Major League trial in 2007, though, the younger LaRoche showed that he still has some work to do. He controls the strike zone well for a power hitter and even walked more than he struck out in Double-A in 2006 (15.1 percent versus 13.9 percent in 230 at-bats). At the major league level in 2007, his strikeouts rose suddenly to 25.8 percent in 93 at-bats. LaRoche also hit almost as many groundballs as flyballs at the MLB level (41.4 percent versus 40 percent). As a power hitter, he probably wants to increase the flyball rate if he hopes to make a bigger impact in 2008. LaRoche hits both lefties and righties well and at Triple-A in 2007 he had a 1.194 OPS versus southpaws and .918 versus right-handers. Unfortunately, LaRoche's season will start late as he will be out eight to 10 weeks after tearing the ulnar collateral ligament in his right thumb.
Clayton Kershaw LHP
Drafted: 2006 1st round
2007 MLB: Played in minors
Considered by many to be the best pitching prospect in the minors, Kershaw may not be there long. He is young – only 20 – but experts would not be surprised to see him in the majors in 2008, especially if an injury occurs to one or more of the Dodgers’ top five starters. At the A-ball level in 2007, Kershaw struck out 134 in 97.1 innings of work (12.39 K/9) and then skipped High-A and pitched more than 20 innings at Double-A. Kershaw’s control was a little iffy at Double-A but he otherwise dominated, allowing only 6.28 hits per game and struck out batters at a rate of 10.58 K/9. Batting averages against Kershaw have actually decreased with each promotion: from .212 at Rookie ball to .208 in A-ball to .196 in Double-A. With a little polish to his control, Kershaw should be good to go at the Major League level later this year.
San Diego Padres
The Padres are out to show they can do more than create outstanding bullpens; the organization has some exciting players ready to break through to the Major League level in 2008. The most notable rookies that could – and should – have an impact this year include Chase Headley and Matt Antonelli. Interestingly, both players entered pro ball as third basemen but both will be looking to play elsewhere at the Major League level – Headley in left field and Antonelli at second base.
Scouts always knew Headley was talented but he took his game to an all new level in 2007 and could make the jump straight from Double-A to the majors in 2008. Headley’s OPS increased significantly when he jumped from High-A ball to Double-A – from .819 to 1.008. Unfortunately, his strikeouts also rose from 19.8 percent to 26.3 percent – but with an increase in power, it’s not such a big deal (and it doesn’t hurt that he hit .330). As a switch-hitter, Headley was effective from both sides in 2007 and hit .36/.453/.679 right-handed and .308/.424/.542 from the left side. One huge caution about Headley’s high average in 2007 is that his BABIP was an astronomical .400. The power increase is probably for real – the high average is not.
Matt Antonelli 2B
Drafted: 2006 1st round
2007 MLB: Played in minors
A lot of people had mixed reactions to Antonelli as a first round pick in 2006. Some thought he lacked the power to play third base… but that problem was quickly solved: the Padres moved him to second base. Antonelli is described as a grinder and he took to second base well, although he will probably never win a Gold Glove. The 2007 power output and high average both come with some warnings as Antonelli played in two home parks that favor hitters… so it will be interesting to see how he adapts to a much larger Major League park (although he did hit better on the road than at home in Double-A San Antonio). In his pro debut in 2006, Antonelli hit no home runs in more than 200 at-bats. In Double-A, he fared much better against right-handed pitchers (.900 versus .736 OPS in 184 AB) but it was the opposite in High-A ball (1.068 versus .859 OPS).
San Francisco Giants
The Giants have officially entered into the post-Bonds era and it’s not pretty. Instead of embracing a rebuilding effort, the Giants are continuing on with a roster full of position players looking for their old-age pensions. There are a few younger players filtering in - Eugenio Velez and Nate Schierholtz to name a couple – but none of them have perennial All-Star potential.
Velez was stolen from the Blue Jays in the Rule 5 minor league draft (where, unlike the Rule 5 Major League draft, you don’t have to return players). No, he probably won’t be a star or perhaps not even a regular starter, but Velez could be a valuable bench player with blazing speed. Velez languished in the low minors with the Jays for a number of seasons, never getting the opportunity to play regularly as his skill set did not fit the organizational philosophy. Once he was allowed to play everyday in the Giants’ organization, though, Velez flourished and hit 20 triples and 14 homers in his first year. He was good the next year, although his power output dropped as his slugging percentage went from .557 at A-ball to .399 at High-A ball. One of the difficulties with projecting Velez is that, since coming over to the Giants, he has always been old for the league he was playing in. Although Velez only had 11 major league at-bats, his line drive rate was 50 percent and he only hit 12.2 percent of his balls on the fly – which is a great strategy for a guy with wheels.
Nate Schierholtz OF
Drafted: 2003 2nd round
2007 MLB: 112 AB | .304/.316/.402
Schierholtz is probably the most intriguing and promising of all the young outfielders the Giants will sift through in 2008, but he still comes with some question marks. The first question is whether or not he’ll hit for enough power, after hitting only 14 and 16 homers the last two seasons in the minors. On the positive side, his slugging percentage did jump from .443 in Double-A in 2006 to .560 in Triple-A in 2007. The raw power is there, but it doesn’t show up consistently in games. The second question is whether or not Schierholtz will show enough patience in the majors after posting walk percentages of 5.4 in 2006 and 4.0 in 2007. That rate also dropped to 1.8 percent during his Major League trial. On the plus side, his strikeout totals have dropped each of the last three seasons and he is a career .305 minor league hitter. With the Giants, Schierholtz’ line drive rate was only 14.7 percent and he hit 44.2 percent of his balls on the ground.
Thanks for reading the six-part series, which concludes with this article. Questions, comments and suggestions are always welcomed by e-mailing MarcHulet@BaseballAnalysts.com.
I had some comments/requests for additional context about the charts I showed last week and other aspects of my linear weights articles, so I wanted to present those and clear up some confusion about the charts from last week.
Among others, Richard Aronson commented here last week about my statement that left-handed hitters liked the ball down and in, but mentioned that the linear weights in those areas were still negative. He suggested that I break up the charts by balls in play and balls not in play and see if the statement still held true. The chart below shows how left-handed hitters fared against all pitch types in any count, but only when they swung at the pitch.
The chart shows that pitches in the middle of the strike-zone, both horizontally and vertically, benefit the hitter, while pitches on the corners, especially the lower ones, favor the pitcher. In addition to only looking at swings, this chart differs from the one I presented last week in that it looks at all pitch types, not just fast balls. Maybe left-handed hitters are able to hit down and in fastballs very well. We can test that and...
crap. They still can't hit pitches in that location very well, and its interesting to see that they are able to hit fastballs on the outside half of the plate much better than they can hit fastballs on the inside. Generally inside fastballs are thought of as places where a pitcher can get hurt, while outside fastballs are encouraged. One reason left-handed batters are able to hit outside fastballs better than inside fastballs could be because of the extra fraction of a second an outside pitch affords the batter. An outside pitch is hit slightly after it crosses the plate, and giving the batter an extra 'beat' to track the ball. In order to be driven, inside fastballs need to be hit in front of the plate, and the batter has slightly less time to react. This probably isn't a meaningful reason for the inside/outside difference, but with a fastball, the extra split-second could help the hitter.
The chart below is shows the run value for fastballs that are put in play by right-handed hitters.
Apparently righties like low and inside fastballs more than lefties, and righties also don't hit fastballs on the outside as well as they hit inside ones.
Looking at all pitch types, right-handed hitters actually hit all down and in pitches very well.
I also wanted to quickly go over the way I calculate the run value for each pitch. I take every event that resulted from a pitch being thrown and assigned it a weight, based on the count it occurred in. Different events are worth more in different counts, and for an extreme example, a 3&0 strike isn't worth as much to the pitcher as a strike thrown in an 0&2 count. By the same logic, any base hit in an 0&2 count hurts the pitcher more than the same hit would have in a 3&0 count. The process and weights are explained a little more in depth here.
There are some loose ends that I need to tidy up, such as if called strikes and swinging strikes should be weighed the same (currently I weigh all strikes, including fouls with less than two strikes, the same amount), and what to do with pitches that result in a steal or caught stealing (currently I'm ignoring this, but a pitcher is partially responsible for the running game, so his pitches should get some penalty/benefit if the runner steals or is caught stealing.)
As with many other endeavors, a sober and honest self-diagnosis when things go awry in baseball is a true rarity. Excuse making is rampant because it is hard to admit failure. When failure is undeniable and right there staring us in the face, it's quite easy to flail and grasp at straws looking for the reasons why. After all, it is often the case that the root of failure is attributable to causes that would amount to an indictment of some of the very core beliefs and principles of the responsible parties.
A prime example of this sort of behavior is on display in today's Chicago Tribune. Rick Morrissey has written a piece examining the White Sox problems in 2007 and how they are addressing them for 2008 titled "Sox have rhetoric, but what's behind words?" In it, we get numerous quotes from General Manager Kenny Williams (among others) talking about what they need to do to get back to their tip-top, 2005-2006 form.
"We as a staff—(manager) Ozzie Guillen, myself and all the coaches—we had to look at ourselves in the mirror and reassess some of the things we had done," general manager Ken Williams said. "We won the World Series and we came back and followed that up with 90 wins. OK, we were a veteran team, so we said, 'Go out there and play. You know what it takes to get yourself prepared.' Well, it got away from us."
Morrissey concludes the piece with another Williams quote, and then finishes it off with a line of his own.
"There's a little different focus and intensity," Williams said. "One of the best things that maybe could have happened was some of the criticisms that were levied against all of us during the off-season. Guys showed up in shape ready to go.
"I like that in the second game of the [spring] that Orlando Cabrera turns around to the rest of the bench and says, 'Hey, let's go. Spring training or not, I'm here to win.' Nick Swisher said something similar."
Wait a second. That sounds suspiciously like passion. Or swagger. Or both.
According to Morrissey and Williams, passion and swagger, or a lack of it for that matter, accounted for the 72-win Chicago White Sox in 2007. But let's just have a quick look at 2005, 2006 and 2007 for the White Sox and see if we can't identify more tangibly what might have gone wrong for them last season. In its most basic form, here is a glimpse at Chicago's run prevention and run scoring ability in each season.
Just once, how great would it be to hear something like this?
"Said, Williams: It's really pretty simple. In 2005 we pitched the living daylights out of the ball and had a bang-up defense out there to boot. We had four starting pitchers combine for 890 innings of 3.51 ERA pitching. Of our top three relievers, the lowest ERA of the bunch belonged to Dustin Hermanson; it was 2.04. Going a full season allowing only 645 runs while playing home games at our ballpark, I don't care how run of the mill your offense is, you will figure out a way to win games.
In 2006, as you might expect, our run prevention fell off a bit. We were still a pretty decent pitching team but our bullpen was not nearly as strong. We picked up Javier Vazquez but he disappointed and Mark Buehrle took a major step backwards after a Cy Young type 2005. We were able to counteract all of that because we acquired Jim Thome, while Paul Konerko and Jermaine Dye went nuts. The stellar performance of these three had the dual effect of off-setting some pitching regression while masking some serious problems elsewhere in our lineup (we had three regulars with an OPS+ of 75 or less).
Given how instrumental three guys north of 30 were to our offense in 2006, I probably should have foreseen some of the problems we experienced coming in 2007. Unfortunately, I probably compounded them a bit by tacking on another player on the wrong side of 30, Darin Erstad. We ran him and Jerry Owens out there for three quarters of our innings in center field, only to have Erstad put up an OPS+ of 68 while Owens managed a 67. Meanwhile we kept pretending that Scott Podsednik was a good player and that Jose Contreras wasn't 51 years old. Predictably (in retrospect), Thome struggled to stay healthy while Dye and Konerko fell off pretty drastically from their 2006 performances. In short, it was a foreseeable situation that I failed to see.
Fortunately, I think we made some moves that figure to help the 2008 edition of the club. The team is playing hard thus far this Spring, and I look forward to seeing what kind of season we can put together."
We are on the home stretch now with the fifth installment of the six-part series, which looks at the prospects most likely to make an impact in the Major Leagues in 2008. This week’s article is a breakdown of the National League Central.
And before anyone asks, yes I did purposely omit Chicago’s Kosuke Fukudome because in my mind Japanese baseball players are not rookies and it is unfortunate that they are allowed to take the awards away from deserving first-year players. Rant over, and now back to your regularly scheduled program…
National League Central
Breaking in as a young pitcher in Chicago will not be easy this season. The Cubs have a starting rotation stacked with veterans, including Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Jason Marquis, Jon Lieber, and Ryan Dempster. Rich Hill is also guaranteed a spot. Should an injury occur to the previously mentioned players, Sean Marshall appears to be first-in-line among the younger players without a promised role. That leaves the promising Sean Gallagher waiting in the wings in Iowa but baseball is a funny game and he could be in Chicago before you know it. Geovany Soto faces a much less harrowing task when it comes to solidifying a role on the 2008 Cubs, as the catching options at the MLB level are slim.
Geovanny Soto C
Drafted: 2001 11th round
2007 MLB: 54 AB | .389/.433/.667
After six nondescript years in the minors, Soto finally emerged as a top-flight catching prospect last season after shedding significant weight and taking the game more seriously. However, it was also his third shot at Triple-A, so some cautioned should be used before predicting multiple All-Star appearances. In his 2007 MLB trial, Soto hit well, including some solid line drives (22 percent of the time). He still doesn’t walk a lot (12.1 percent at Triple-A) but heck, who wants a catcher clogging up first base anyway? Given 400 major league at-bats in 2008, most projections (Bill James, CHONE) have Soto hitting 15-17 homers, which shouldn’t be too hard in cozy Wrigley… if Soto’s 2007 was for real. The Cubs had better hope it was for real, though, as Henry Blanco offers zip in the batter’s box and non-roster invitees J.D. Closser and Koyie Hill are not upgrades either. Jake Fox has an interesting bat, but has proven he cannot catch. Soto was impressively consistent in 2007, hitting above .300 in each month, other than May (.286). Concentration may be an issue with Soto, as he hit .268 with the bases empty and .420 with men on.
Sean Gallagher RHP
Drafted: 2004 12th round
2007 MLB: 14.2 IP | 8.59 ERA | 11.66 H/9 | 7.36 BB/9 | 3.07 K/9
By the time April rolls around, Gallagher may be long gone from the Windy City, as his name has been linked to Brian Roberts trade rumors throughout the winter. Gallagher’s hope at landing a spot on the major league roster to begin the year is also no sure thing considering the depth of the Cubs’ starting rotation and bullpen. He’s posted some impressive minor league numbers but he probably won’t be hurt by spending some more time in Iowa. Gallagher could stand to pitch down in the zone a little more as he induced ground balls only 39.3 percent of the time. Left-handed batters performed a little bit better than righties against Gallagher at Double-A (.678 OPS versus .577). Gallagher also buckled down with runners on, holding batters to an average below .200.
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The Reds are absolutely stacked with rookies who could make huge impacts during the 2008 season, with Homer Bailey, Johnny Cueto, Joey Votto and Jay Bruce all close to being major league ready. I actually like Cueto a bit more than Bailey, because I have never been a huge fan of players who only view baseball as a job and were never fans of the sport – which is something Bailey stated in an interview prior to the 2004 draft. I have no statistical proof to back up my opinion, but it seems to me there would be less drive and motivation to reach one’s ceiling. I also really don’t like the idea of Dusty Baker managing a team loaded with talented youngsters… that’s a train wreck waiting to happen.
Homer Bailey RHP
Drafted: 2004 1st round
2007 MLB: 45.1 IP | 5.76 ERA | 8.54 H/9 | 5.56 BB/9 | 5.56 K/9
Bailey failed to live up to the hype in his brief major league stay in 2007, but he wasn’t completely healthy. Reds fans should get a good look at Bailey’s impressive abilities in 2008. The right-handed flamethrower was death on lefties at Triple-A in 2007, limiting them to a line of .149/.289/.208. Like many young pitchers, Bailey is more comfortable with the bases empty and held batters to a line of .179/.266/.265 compared to .244/.343/.378 with men on. He buckled down again, though, with runners in scoring position: .175/.274/.270. While batters have never hit Bailey well at any level, including the majors (.252 AVG), he’ll need to improve his control (5.56 BB/9 in the majors, 4.28 BB/9 in Triple-A).
Johnny Cueto RHP
Signed: 2004 non-drafted free agent
2007 MLB: Played in minors
Cueto is less heralded than teammate Bailey, but he may be just as talented when all is said and done. He currently displays better control than Bailey and Cueto’s walks actually dropped as he climbed the organizational ladder, posting ratios of 2.41 BB/9 at High-A ball (78.1 innings), 1.62 BB/9 at Double-A (61.0 innings) and 0.82 BB/9 at Triple-A (22.0 innings). In more than 160 innings pitched at three levels in 2007, Cueto managed to keep the ball in the park more often than not, allowing only 11 homers. He also kept his K/9 rate more than respectable at 8.27 K/9 in High-A ball, 11.36 in Double-A and 8.59 in Triple-A. After the season ended, Cueto continued his solid pitching in the Dominican Winter League, posting an ERA of 2.84 in 31.2 innings. He allowed 31 hits, seven walks and struck out 37. He also kept the ball on the ground and posted a 1.42 GO/AO (ground outs to air outs). Don’t be surprised, though, if Cueto has a slow start to the season in 2008 as collectively he threw 193 innings last season. It’s disappointing that Cincinnati did not do a better job of capping his innings. In the last three seasons, Cueto’s innings have climbed from 49 in 2005 to 137 to 193.
With the resigning of Scott Hatteberg, the Reds have signaled that the organization will not simply hand the starting first base job to the talented Canadian rookie. To make matters even more muddled, the Reds also have non-roster invitee Andy Phillips in camp, who can play first base. The truth of the matter is, though, that even if Votto struggles a bit in his first full season, he should be able to out-produce both players. He won’t walk as consistently as Hatteberg, but Votto has recorded more than 70 walks each of the last two seasons with between 490 and 510 at-bats. He’ll need to be a little less aggressive in the majors, where he walked only 5.6 percent of the time. Votto, a former catcher, may be limited to a platoon situation early on given his Triple-A numbers in 2007: .240 versus lefties and .309 versus righties.
Jay Bruce OF
Drafted: 2005 1st round
2007 MLB: Played in minors
An early favorite for Rookie of the Year, Bruce should be in the Reds’ opening day outfield despite his lack of experience. A monster 2007 saw the young outfielder rocket through the system, beginning the year in A-ball and ending in Triple-A. He hit more than .305 at each stop and clubbed 26 homers overall. Bruce likely won’t challenge Adam Dunn for the team lead in strikeouts, but he will collect his fair share after posting percentages of 25.0% in High-A ball, 30.3% in Double-A and 25.7% in Triple-A. His BABIP was over .400 in both his stops in High-A and Double-A. Bruce hit consistently well in Triple-A with both the bases empty (.292) and runners on base (.324). It took him a while to get warmed up in games at the Triple-A level, as he went only 5-for-56 in the first three innings.
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Houston fans frustrated for years by the offensive void that is Brad Ausmus finally have hope: J.R. Towles. As well, the Astros desperately need some pitching help and there isn’t much hope in the barren minor league system… outside of flame-throwing Felipe Paulino.
JR Towles C
Drafted: 2004 20th round
2007 MLB: 40 AB | .375/.432/.575
Towles is a solid offensive catcher who started the season in High-A ball and ended the year in the majors. He certainly did not look out of place with Houston, walking more than he struck out (only once), hitting for a high average and slugging .575 (and a line drive rate of 23.7 percent). His defence is solid, but he threw out just 28 percent of base runners on the year. Towles could stand to walk more (8.5 percent at Double-A) but he offsets that by not striking out either (16.2 percent). Towles hit left-handed pitching well at Double-A (.807 OPS) but killed right-handers (1.038 OPS).
Felipe Paulino RHP
Signed: 2001 non-drafted free agent
2007 MLB: 19.0 IP | 7.11 ERA | 10.42 H/9 | 3.32 BB/9 | 5.21 H/9
For a guy who has reportedly hit 102 mph on the gun, Paulino does not strike out a ton (6.48 K/9 in High-A ball in 2006 and 8.84 K/9 in Double-A in 2007) and he also gives up a lot of homers (five in 19 big league innings), in part because he works up in the zone. Despite that, he induced ground balls on almost 50 percent of balls in play. Right-handed batters were all but hopeless against Paulino in Double, batting .189/.250/.254. That said, they had a .254 BABIP against him, compared to left-handers at .341, suggesting a certain amount of luck – or lack thereof.
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St. Louis Cardinals
Thanks to the recently-released Scott Spiezio, the Cardinals’ collective demons continue to haunt them in 2008. However, rookie phenom and former first round pick Colby Rasmus could give Cardinals’ fans something to get excited about in 2008. But other than that, the farm system likely will not produce any impact players this season.
Colby Rasmus OF
Drafted: 2005 1st round
2007 MLB: Played in minors
Rasmus, like Bruce, was drafted in the first round out of high school in 2005. He also has a chance to seize a starting role in the majors out of spring training in 2008. Rasmus slugged 29 homers in Double-A in 2007 and improved his patience a bit (12.9 percent) compared to 2006 (8.7 percent in A ball, 12.3 percent in High-A ball). Unfortunately his strikeouts also rose (18.1 percent in 2006, 22.9 percent in 2007). Rasmus has an outside chance of becoming a 30-30 hitter in the future. As a left-handed batter, he needs to improve against southpaws (.246/.383/.465). Rasmus’ season numbers took a hit when he batted only .206 in June and July but he rebounded in August to hit .365/.455/.779 with 12 homers in 104 at-bats.
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The one thing Milwaukee has going into 2008 is pitching depth. That depth could push major league ready Manny Parra and even Carlos Villanueva, who spent 2007 in the bullpen, to Triple-A. 2007 first round draft pick Matt LaPorta bat is almost major league ready, but he has no where to play – and left field remains a big stretch.
Manny Parra LHP
Drafted: 2001 26th round
2007 MLB: 26.1 IP | 3.76 ERA | 8.54 H/9 | 4.10 BB/9 | 8.89 K/9
Parra has pretty much been a prospect forever but injuries have kept his promising arm in the minors until last season. He was dominating at times in 2007 and most clubs would have room for someone of with his talents, but depth issues could send Parra to Triple-A, although he will only be an injury away. In the last two seasons Parra has maintained solid K/9 rates from A-ball to Triple-A, averaging between 10.04 and 8.33 strikeouts per game. After an ugly 5.27 BB/9 in 14 A-ball starts in 2006 he has maintained reasonable walk rates between 2.30 and 2.90 in the minors. Parra’s BB/9 in the majors, though, was high at 4.10 but he balanced that out somewhat with a K/9 of 8.89. Of the balls put into play against Parra in the majors only 32.9 percent of them were on the ground so that is cause for mild concern.
Matt LaPorta LF/1B
Drafted: 2007 1st round
2007 MLB: Played in college and minors
LaPorta, whom I interviewed for Baseball Analysts prior to the 2007 draft, is one of the nicest, well-mannered people you could ever meet. He is also one heck of a ballplayer and should open his first full pro season in 2008 in Double-A. The only thing that will keep LaPorta from making his Major League debut this season – outside of an injury - will likely be his defence. There aren’t many scouts sold on LaPorta’s work in the outfield, even though he has embraced it and worked hard to become an average left fielder - a goal that at this point is still eluding him. There aren’t a lot of pro numbers to analyze for LaPorta – he has played only 30 games in the minors. But during those 30 games, he hit 12 homers in 115 at-bats, along with a line of .318/.368/.750 in A-ball. He was a little impatient , walking only 7.4 percent of the time and striking out 25.0 percent of the time. But he is a power hitter and strikeouts will happen.
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Another year, another disappointment for the Pirates. Despite the club's mediocrity in recent years, the Pirates still haven’t graduated any significant homegrown hitting talents in recent years and 2008 may not be any different. The best hope is former first round pick Neil Walker but his prospect status took a hit when he had to move out from behind the dish. Steve Pearce, a former college senior draft pick, came out of nowhere last year and had a very encouraging season. The Pirates can only hope he doesn’t become the next Brad Eldred.
Neil Walker 3B
Drafted: 2004 1st round
2007 MLB: Played in minors
The jury is still out on whether or not Walker will display enough usable power to be an above-average third baseman in the majors. In his last four minor league stops his slugging percentage has been: .409, .355, .462 and .250 (in 64 Triple-A at-bats). His patience has been wildly inconsistent, running as low as 3.1 percent and as high as 11.0 percent. In Double-A where he spent the majority of his time in 2007, the switch hitter hit both lefties and righties equally well, which bodes well for his future: .281/.383/.453 versus southpaws and .288/.350/.460 versus right-handers. Against better pitching in Triple-A, albeit in limited at-bats (45), Walker struggled against righties: .170/.260/.222.
Steve Pearce 1B/LF
Drafted: 2005 8th round
2007 MLB: 68 AB | .294/.342/.397
Pearce has been fairly consistent with his walk rates the past two seasons, hovering around 9.5 percent. Encouragingly, his strikeout rates have dropped in each of his last two seasons from 20.0 percent in A-ball to about 18.0 in High A-ball to 15.5 in Double-A to 9.8 in Triple-A. But it did jump back up to 17.6 during 68 major league at-bats in 2007. Pearce is also very consistent at the plate and maintains similar numbers regardless of the situation: bases empty, runners on and runners in scoring position. He also hits both lefties and righties equally well. These numbers all bode well for Pearce’s continued success in the majors.
This week's edition of the annual Two on Two series focuses on the American League West. We were thrilled with the way last week's discussion on the NL West went, and we think we have assembled a similarly excellent ensemble for readers this week.
David Cameron of one of the very finest team blogs out there, USS Mariner, joins us. So too does Sean Smith of "Anaheim Angels all the way". David and Sean are two of the brightest baseball analysts writing regularly on the web.
Sully: Rich, you're in Southern California, a west coast guy, I want to start with you. What are some immediate thoughts that come to mind when you think of the AL West in 2008?
Rich: Although it's difficult to try and compare a division with four teams to another with six, the AL West isn't much stronger than the NL Central. I like the Angels and Seattle ain't half bad but Oakland is in the process of rebuilding and Texas is – what do you call it when a team has had just one winning record in the past eight seasons? – well . . . Texas. Long gone are the years in which the AL West sent two teams to the playoffs like in 2000-2002. While the Angels appear to have the clearest path to the postseason of any AL club, there is zero chance that the Wild Card will come from this division this year.
Dave: I see where Rich is coming from here. The AL West, at first glance, might look a little boring for 2008. Texas is rebuilding, Oakland is selling off talent, and the Mariners are banking on their starting pitching to help them chase down the Angels. For most people, they'll just decide whether they think Eric Bedard and Carlos Silva are enough to put the M's over the top, and if not, they'll default to LAA as the choice for the division.
However, I think that overlooks a lot of variables. Texas has quietly put together a potentially terrific offense with a lot of young talent, and despite the sell-off, Oakland's still got a quality club capable of putting together a good streak of wins. While I'm not disagreeing that the Angels are the presumptive favorites, I will say that I think there are a lot more possible outcomes in this race than just the Mariners and Angels fighting to the death in September.
Sean: The Angels look far stronger than everyone else in this division. Last year they were the favorites, but this year they will be expected not just to win, but to run away with the division.
Sully: I agree, Sean. I want to go against the grain here but no matter how much I squint, the Angels still come out on top. What excites me about following this division in 2008 is the intriguing young talent coming of age in it.
Sean: Well that's just it, if we're not expecting a close race, the excitement comes from seeing which young players can establish themselves as major leaguers. This time next year, we should know if Brandon Wood and/or Erick Aybar are capable major league shortstops. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, will he become a run producer? Will his defense be acceptable at catcher? If yes to either one, he'll be a useful player, but if the answer is yes to both, he'll be a superstar. The A's are unsettled in the outfield, in the pitching rotation, and will start rookie Daric Barton at first. Only the Mariners seem to rely almost exclusively on veterans, though Wladimir Balentien may take some playing time away from Brad Wilkerson or Raul Ibanez in the outfield.
Sully: The most decisive strength on the best team in the division is the pitching of the Angels. Los Angeles had a 108 ERA+ in 2007, a fine figure before taking into account specific circumstances. When you take the 250 innings of 5.99 ERA pitching that Bartolo Colon and Ervin Santana contributed, you really start to get a good sense for how strong this Angels pitching staff is.
Rich: The Angels have a deep pitching staff, both in the starting rotation and in the bullpen. The depth, aided by the acquisition of Jon Garland this winter, is going to come in handy once again with Kelvim Escobar expected to be out of action until May. John Lackey, a healthy Escobar, and Jered Weaver form a solid 1-2-3. Garland is a dependable, if unspectacular, No. 4, and Ervin Santana and Joe Saunders are certainly capable at the back end of the rotation. There are worse things than turning the ball over to Justin Speier, Scot Shields, and Frankie Rodriguez for the late innings.
Dave: From my perspective, this Angels team has a lot of downside potential on the run prevention side of the ball. Even beyond Escobar's injury, this isn't the dominating pitching staff they've had in recent years. Jon Garland is nearing the end of his usefulness, and while Rich might not want to hear this, Jered Weaver is more innings eater than ace. Importing Torii Hunter and shifting Gary Matthews to a corner outfield spot should keep the defense good enough that it won't cause the pitching staff to implode, but this isn't a team of guys who are going to create extra outs with their gloves either.
The key here will be the performance of Saunders and Santana - both will probably spend a solid amount of time in the rotation, and both are good enough pitchers to solidify the back end should Escobar not get healthy.
Sully: Pretty harsh, Dave. Weaver is a 25 year-old, career 137 ERA+ Major League pitcher. [Dave responded to this and his thoughtful remarks are posted at the bottom of the piece.]
Sean: The Angels' defense is pretty ordinary, but the pitching is outstanding. If only the Halos had Hunter five years ago. He's still a good center fielder, but most observations I've read suggest he's lost a step or two from his peak. This is to be expected with a 32 year-old who plays the most speed intensive position in the field. If Aybar is the starting shortstop I expect to see a lot of errors. In 35 games in the Dominican winter league he made 19 errors.
Sully: The Angels offense was dead average last season, and that was with Garret Anderson going bananas. The addition of Hunter helps but I still don't love this offense. What does everyone else think?
Rich: Hunter's signing will help but this is still a middle-of-the-road offense, one that scored more runs at home than on the road. There are a lot of moving parts here, just in the infield alone. Casey Kotchman was having a breakout season when he suffered a concussion on a thrown ball while diving back to second base in June. Howie Kendrick broke bones in his left hand not once but twice last season and missed more than 70 games. Orlando Cabrera is being replaced at shortstop by either Aybar or Maicer Izturis. Chone Figgins had a career season and will be hard pressed to duplicate it this year. The outfielders will rotate through the DH spot but none of these guys are young or getting better. As usual, the Angels will be dependent on another big season from Big Daddy Vladdy. Put me in charge and I would pitch to him like the count was 0-2 from the moment he stepped into the batter's box.
Dave: For years, if you pitched around Vlad, you could hold the Angels offense down and be okay. This looks to be the year that changes. I see Kendrick and Kotchman both ready for prime time and if that's the case, the team has two impact young bats that can produce runs even when Guerrero's not terrorizing fastballs. I wouldn't be surprised if the Angels sent these three to the All-Star Game, and along with Hunter, Gary Matthews, Mike Napoli, and the role players, the Angels should actually be a threat to win their games with the bats for once.
Sean: The Angels should be able to produce about as many runs as last season. Anderson is unlikely to hit as well as he did in the second half, and Figgins is not going to hit .330 again, but the young trio of Kotchman, Kendrick, and Napoli should improve the team some, even if just by playing more than they did last year. Hunter adds a 25 homer bat to the middle of the order. While he's not the dominant hitter that Mark Teixiera, Adam Dunn, or Miguel Cabrera are (the mythical big bat behind Vlad) he certainly won't hurt.
Rich: A lot was made out of the fact that Arizona scored fewer runs than it allowed last year, but how many folks know that Seattle did the same while going 88-74? It wasn't that the Mariners offense (with an OPS+ of 104) let the club down as so many people tend to think; rather, it was due to the fact that the defense (ERA+ of 91, third-worst in the AL) gave up a lot of runs. Well, the good news for Seattle fans is that this problem has been addressed in a big way by acquiring one of the game's best pitchers in Erik Bedard. A starting rotation of Bedard, Felix Hernandez, and three league-average innings eaters coupled with arguably the most dominant closer in baseball last season gives Seattle a competitive advantage in the pitching department for the first time in five years.
Dave: One of the main themes I've been hammering on our blog for the past couple of years is the contribution of defense in run prevention. In general, people attribute almost all of a pitcher's ERA to his own ability, but I think we realize more and more that there's significant contributions from his teammates involved in his performances. Well, the Mariners seem bound and determined to do the opposite of whatever we preach, and so they've decided to build a team around a starting rotation and put a group that is mediocre-at-best defensively behind them. Yes, Erik Bedard is awesome, and I'm as high on King Felix as I have ever been, but are two terrific arms enough to contend?
Sully: Interesting stuff, Dave. How do you see the lacking defense impacting the M's?
Dave: Both Carlos Silva and Jarrod Washburn are highly dependent on their fielders, and the Mariners are going to run out two of the worst defensive players in baseball (Ibanez in left, Richie Sexson at first) on a daily basis. The organization has spent about $30 million on the back-end of the rotation to try and avoid any more Jeff Weaver / Horacio Ramirez / Joel Pineiro disaster type seasons, but perhaps someone in that front office should consider spending a fraction of that on some better defenders? Don't be surprised if the M's are at a loss to explain the sudden collapse of one of their proven veteran starters; my money's on Washburn.
Sean: Seattle's starting rotation may be the best in the division. I could see Bedard and Hernandez each contending for the Cy Young award. Their defense is poor. Despite good reputations for Ichiro, Adrian Beltre, and Yuniesky Betencourt, the team defensive efficiency was better than only Tampa Bay's among AL teams. It's some combination of those players being not quite as good as their reputations, and Raul Ibanez, Sexson, and Jose Guillen being true liabilities. Wilkerson or Balentien should be improvements on Guillen, though neither is a gold glover. Still, the pitching is good enough, combined with the park, that Seattle will be right there with Anaheim in run prevention.
Sully: I think I see this one just as you and Dave do, Sean. Having two premier strikeout guys at the top will go a long way in masking problems with a particularly defense-dependent back end. All in all, it's probably nothing more than an above-average run prevention unit. As for the offense, I see a considerable step back coming in 2008. As Rich mentioned above, the offense was actually quite good in 2007. I think Ibanez and Ichiro will both regress a bit this season.
Rich: Change out Guillen for Wilkerson in right field and this is basically the same offense as last year. Betancourt and Jose Lopez are the only two players under the age of 29 and both are in the lineup more for their defense than offense. As such, it is difficult to see how the offense will produce more runs in 2008 than in 2007. Oh, I guess Sexson could bounce back a bit and Jeff Clement could be of some help on the margin, but the bottom line is that the team is deficient at drawing walks (last in the majors in 2007 with 389 BB) and hitting home runs, hardly the recipe for scoring runs. These are your guys, Dave. What do you think?
Dave: Watching this team hit, there are times when I wonder if the Mariners purchased this offense at Costco; why buy just one right-handed free-swinger with gap power who can't hit a curveball when you can have four? Jose Guillen's departure takes away some of the repetition of this player type, but it's still hard to find a line-up that has four guys more similar in approach than Beltre, Kenji Johjima, Lopez, and Betancourt. If you can bury a slider in the dirt in the left-handers batters box, odds are you can get these four to get themselves out with very little effort.
Beyond those four, the team is counting on production from Ibanez (36 years old, can't hit lefties, clearly in physical decline), Jose Vidro (33 years old, zero power), Sexson (33 years old, already collapsed), and Wilkerson (31 years old, body of someone three times that age). Intimidated? Not unless you're worried they're going to steal the remote from you to watch Matlock or take your spot at the early bird table at the cafeteria.
And, as the cherry on top, this already questionable line-up is built horribly for Safeco Field, which destroys right-handed power hitters and is quite friendly to lefty flyball hitters with pull power. Ibanez and Wilkerson are good fits for Safeco offensively (defense is another story), but Vidro and Ichiro pound the ball into the ground, nullifying the short fence down the RF line, and the rest of the roster swings from the right side, watching their long fly balls turn into outs in the alley.
I can't help but look at this offense and think that advanced scouts for opposing teams look at writing this team up as something of a vacation. The offense is both simultaneously not good and easy to match up with; Bedard is going to have to be pretty fricking awesome to win 20 games with this bunch providing run support.
Sean: The Mariner offense will struggle in 2008. Last year they had seven regulars play 147 or more games. Their catcher played 135 games. They were lucky to stay as healthy as they did last year, and I would be shocked if they can repeat it. Especially as this is not a young team. As Rich mentioned, their only young regulars, Lopez and Betencourt, are also the team's worst hitters.
Sully: It seems to me that the M's made moves as though they were building off of the foundation of a legitimate 88-win team again in 2008. Add Bedard and Silva and look, "we're a 95-win team." Unfortunately, it does not appear to be that simple for Seattle. Oakland is another team that might struggle but at least they have come to grips with their identity. They are rebuilding. Dan Haren is gone now, so what do we make of Oakland's pitching and defense?
Rich: On the positive side of the ledger, Oakland's pitching staff gave up the fewest home runs (138) in the AL last season. Of course, the A's are helped by playing home games in a big ballpark. The club allowed the fourth most runs on the road, which is probably a better indication of its pitching prowess (or lack thereof). Add in the fact that Haren is no longer with the team and the possibility that Joe Blanton could be traded at some point, and it becomes difficult to comprehend how the situation could improve this year. A healthy season from Rich Harden would certainly help but that likelihood is remote at best.
Dave: While the Mariners seem to have no idea how big of a role defense plays, on the other end of the understanding the importance of defense, we have the Oakland Athletics. Mark Ellis continues to be one of the more underrated players in the game, as he gets very little credit for being a premium defender. Perhaps one of these years, he'll get the recognition he deserves as one of the prime reasons the A's keep shuffling pitchers through their rotation while still preventing runs with the best teams in the league. With Haren off to Arizona and the health of Chad Gaudin, Rich Harden, and Justin Duchscherer all up in the air, Oakland will have to continue to rely on their defense to help keep runs off the board. Don't be surprised if they continue to perform better than expected, and hopefully, one of these days people might give Ellis some of the credit.
Sean: It's very hard to predict how the A's will do this season keeping runs off the board. Joe Blanton is the only starter they can count on. They have a lot of potential starters, and I expect to see a lot of auditions for spots. In past years the A's defense was good enough to make ordinary pitchers look good, but this may not be the case in 2008. The infield defense is still strong, especially Ellis, but the outfield has no true center fielder, and the possibility of Jack Cust playing outfield (to get the bats of Mark Sweeney or Dan Johnson in the lineup) does not bode well for the young pitchers.
Rich: With the additions of Barton, Travis Buck, and Kurt Suzuki, the offense is getting younger. The question is whether it will be better. The A's traded away Nick Swisher, their most productive offensive player, and the left side of the infield is once again struggling with back problems in March. If Cust turns out to be a one-year wonder, Oakland is going to have a difficult time finding a power source this season. The sleeper here is Buck, a first round draft pick out of Arizona State in 2005. As a 23-year-old rookie, the lefthanded-hitting outfielder, who put up a .325/.398/.510 line over three seasons in the minors, hit .316/.407/.538 on the road. He is an All-Star in the making and will anchor this club's offense in the years to come.
Dave: On the offensive side of things, the view isn't quite so pretty. Long gone are the days of the A's sitting around and waiting for the three run homer, because this offense is seriously short on power. Yes, Jack Cust can hit a fastball a long way, Travis Buck has some pop, and Eric Chavez can still pull pitches off of right-handed pitchers, but beyond that, the position players are going to struggle to do much besides slap the ball around and try to draw walks. It's the kind of line-up that pitchers aren't afraid to attack, and with a bottom of the order that could include some combination of Bobby Crosby, Emil Brown, Suzuki, and Chris Denorfia, it's easy to understand why.
Sean: Their offense should be below average. They traded their best player, Nick Swisher. If Barton develops quickly they might be able to maintain the offensive level of the last few seasons, but the chances of that aren't especially good. If Barton struggles and Cust proves a fluke (hard to keep producing like that while striking out over 40% of the time) the offense could be ugly. In any case, it leans strongly to the left. They have 5 hitters who I project to be above league average - Barton, Cust, Buck, Chavez, and Johnson, and all five bat from the left side.
Sully: So it looks like the A's might struggle in 2008. I would have to agree. But the news isn't all bad for A's fans and it sure seems like Billy Beane is comfortable with a down-tick this season. The Swisher and Haren deals both netted them considerable returns and the future figures to get better in Oakland before long. The same goes for the Texas Rangers, whose farm system Baseball America ranks as fourth best in MLB. They are not there yet though, are they?
Rich: Texas doesn't do a very good job at preventing runs. The Rangers had the AL's second-worst road ERA in 2007. Among the six likely starters, only Kason Gabbard (100) had an ERA+ better than 93. Three of them had ERA in the fives and sixes. The bullpen isn't all that great either. Overall, Texas just gives up too many walks (4.1 per game, second to last in the AL) and gets too few strikeouts (6.02/game, dead last), putting way too much pressure on a mediocre defense to save runs.
Dave: Thanks to their ballpark, the Rangers could assemble a veritable all-star rotation and people would still talk about their struggles in finding good pitchers. Between the dimensions and the weather, trying to keep run scoring down in Arlington during the summer is basically impossible. However, I can say with some confidence that the 2008 Rangers have not assembled an all-star rotation. Kevin Millwood is a solid bounce back candidate, and I think Texas could get some positive contributions from back-end starters Jason Jennings and Gabbard, but when Vicente Padilla and Brandon McCarthy are your #2 and #3 starters, well, you're probably not going to make the playoffs.
Sean: What run prevention? They will bring back the same group of pitchers. Last year, only McCarthy (4.87) started at least 10 games and had an ERA under 5. They had one pitcher, Edinson Volquez, who appeared to make progress last season and might have improved the staff, but he was traded to the Reds. Like usual, the Rangers are not going to prevent many runs.
Rich: On a ballpark-adjusted basis, the Rangers had the worst offense in the division last season. The arrival of Milton Bradley and Josh Hamilton, as well as a healthy Hank Blalock, could help the cause this year. However, the team will be without Teixeira for the entire campaign and Saltalamacchia is unlikely to come close in replacing his lost production. Shake it all up and the Texas offense should be about the same or perhaps slightly better if everything goes well in 2008.
Dave: With a pitching staff that is going to require the team to win a lot of 7-6 games, the Rangers offense may actually be up to the task, assuming they can figure out how to keep their best hitters healthy. Bradley and Hamilton are legitimate offensive forces when they step up to the dish, and every other line-up spot is filled with a player with some real offensive talent. Former uberprospect Hank Blalock might actually be the worst hitter in the line-up when Saltalamacchia is behind the plate. Even if Bradley tops out at 400 at-bats, the outfield depth in the organization should keep the holes filled adequately, and this team should easily score the most runs in the division. Even when accounting for their home park, this is probably the best line-up in the American League West.
Sean: They will score quite a few runs, and not just against Baltimore (I'll never forget watching that 30 run outburst). The Rangers will look good offensively thanks to their ballpark. Assuming they stay on the field, Bradley and Hamilton should put up impressive numbers this year, assuming they stay on the field.
Sully I think the big surprise in the West this season is just how bad the Rangers will be. I think they battle injuries and horrendous pitching all year long en route to a sub-70 win season.
Dave: I am going against Sully here. Because Texas doesn't have any marquee names and are assumed to be rebuilding with young players, the national assumptions I have seen have them winning 70-75 games. In reality, I think this team is going to be quite a bit better than that, and it's not hard to envision a scenario where the Rangers put up 82-86 wins. In a division where the top of the division looks relatively weak in comparison to other divisions and the bottom of the division is apparently underrated, there may not be a huge gap between the teams at the end of the season, and while it may appear a major surprise considering the preseason narrative, there's a realistic chance for each team in this division to take the title and sneak into the playoffs.
Sean: My surprise is that Brandon Wood will win the starting shortstop job for the Angels, and most of the talk about him will not be about his power, but about his defense as he proves that he does indeed have the range to stick at the position, and then some.
Rich: I don't see many surprises in the AL West this year, yet I think the division could play a factor in the MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year awards. I mean, as far as the MVP goes, the voters would eat it up if Hunter hit .300 with 30 HR and 100 RBI while playing a Gold Glove center field for an Angels club that won the division. Given that Hunter has never hit .300 means that probably isn't gonna happen. If it did, I guess that would be my surprise. Otherwise, I would go with Guerrero as the MVP or perhaps Suzuki should the Mariners beat out the Angels. The CYA could go to Lackey, Bedard, or King Felix. Barton would be the favorite to win ROY if it went to a player in the AL West.
Sean: I don't think the MVP will come from the West, but Guerrero is the #1 choice, and Torii Hunter #2. For Cy Young, I'll pick Bedard, Felix Hernandez, and Francisco Rodriguez. Daric Barton for Rookie of the Year.
Dave: The two best position players in the A.L West are Ichiro and Vladimir Guerrero, and you have to start any potential MVP discussion from this divsion with those two players. However, there's a second tier of quality role players who all have some breakout potential and are capable of having an MVP caliber season. Among this group are Casey Kotchman, Howie Kendrick, and Adrian Beltre, while Michael Young and Ian Kinsler could get votes from those who don't adjust for park effects (and, in Young's case, defense).
In terms of Cy Young contenders, you have to look at John Lackey, Kevlim Escobar, Erik Bedard, and Felix Hernandez. While Bedard could be scary good as a high strikeout southpaw pitching half his games in Safeco Field, King Felix is the guy here who could make this a race for second place. Despite his inconsistencies, he's still the most talented pitcher on the planet, and has the raw ability to put up seasons that would rank among the best of all time.
As for the newcomers, Daric Barton seems to be the obvious frontrunner as the guy who should get 500 at-bats if he stays healthy. Perhaps Brandon Wood finally learns how to recognize a breaking ball and provides some competition, but this isn't a particularly strong crop of rookies, with most of the young talent in the division having already surpassed the rookie thresholds, and thus, no longer qualify for the award.
Rich: I will be surprised if the Angels and Mariners don't finish 1-2. Put me down for the A's in third by the slimmest of margins and the Rangers in fourth – that sounds better than last, doesn't it?
Los Angeles: 88-74
Sully: Thanks for participating, everyone. I am taking the same order as Sean, with the Rangers a good bit back of Oakland.
David Cameron on Jered Weaver:
While ERA+ is a fun little toy for historical comparisons of past events, I don't find it particularly useful for projecting pitcher's future performance. There are a host of variables that go into ERA that have little or nothing to do with the actual talent level of the pitcher, and I'm not interested in assuming past events that were outside of the pitchers control will continue on in the future.
And, let's be honest, quoting Weaver's career ERA+ is not exactly giving people accurate information. People would be better served by actually looking at what he's done in his short time in the majors.
In 2006, Jered Weaver posted an ERA+ of 173. This is, of course, a tremendous number. There were few pitchers better at keeping runs off the board. What was the key to his success? As many others have shown (and I've covered in my Evaluating Pitcher Talent article at http://ussmariner.com/2006/08/29/evaluating-pitcher-talent/), run prevention is influenced essentially by five things; walk rate, strikeout rate, home run rate, batting average on balls in play, and runner stranding. Or, statistically, BB%, K%, HR/F, BABIP, and LOB%. By looking at these five metrics, we can easily determine why a pitcher was successful in keeping runs off the board.
So, what was so great about Jered Weaver in 2006? His strikeout rate was very good (8.3 K/G), his batting average on balls in play was very low (.236), and his runner stranding rate was very high (86.2%). As has been shown in various studies, the latter three events aren't nearly as predictive as the first two from year to year. Considering the shaky foundation of Weaver's 2.56 ERA in 2006, it wasn't any surprise to watch him take a significant step back last year as both his batting average on balls in play and his strand rate regressed heavily to the mean.
So, when Weaver wasn't posting the lowest BABIP and the highest LOB% in the American League, he was actually just a bit above average, and not a world beater as quoting his career ERA+ might suggest. If we look at his FIP, we see that the 3.99 mark in 2006 wasn't that much different than his 4.14 mark in 2007; in other words, Jered Weaver didn't pitch that much worse, as his ERA might imply, but instead his run prevention performance just regressed to more closely match his actual abilities.
Jered Weaver is essentially a strike-throwing flyball machine with a good enough breaking ball to miss bats a little more than average. When those flyballs aren't flying over the wall or are being chased down by his outfielders, he'll look just fine. When the wind is blowing out or Garret Anderson or Vladimir Guerrero are chasing that same flyball, he's going to look pretty mediocre.
This isn't to say Jered Weaver isn't an asset. Having a healthy pitcher who can put the ball in the strike zone with regularity without giving up 30+ home runs a year means that you've got a pretty solid pitcher, but let's not be deceived by the fact that his ERA in 2006 was artificially deflated by things outside of his control. Weaver's a nice pitcher to have, but he's a huge step behind the good pitchers in this division.
The first two weekends of the college baseball season brought three-ranked teams into Long Beach to play the Dirtbags. I was able to see a number of pro prospects, most of whom will be eligible for the draft this June.
The newly implemented uniform start date pushed back the opening of the season to February 22, four weeks after last season's first games. Prior to 2008, schools could begin playing competitively once the spring semester was underway with many Sun Belt teams hosting games as early as mid-January. As it now stands, teams aren't even allowed to practice until February 1. Rolling back the start was obviously designed to level the playing field in the hope that schools in the north and midwest could return to the prominence achieved in the 1950s and 1960s when three programs from the Big 10 won six College World Series titles in a span of 14 years.
Ironically, these changes come on the heels of Oregon State, located in chilly and rainy Corvallis, Oregon, winning back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007. However, Oregon State and Wichita State are the only two cold-weather schools to have won the CWS since 1967. Colleges from California, Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, and Florida have captured all but five of the national titles in the past 40 years.
The current season will cover 56 games over 13 weeks, meaning schools will be required to play four contests every week and five in four of those weeks. Pushing the season forward or back a week would do away with the hardships involving five-game weeks. Alternatively, the NCAA could reduce the schedules from 56 to 52 games. Look for a change perhaps as early as next year.
In the meantime, schools with deep pitching staffs are going to have a competitive advantage, especially in the mid-week games. With scholarships already spread thin, a by-product of the new schedule may favor public schools with in-state tuitions that are affordable for walk-on pitchers. One such university is Long Beach State, ranked 13th in Baseball America's pre-season poll. The Dirtbags have played in 16 NCAA Regionals since the field was expanded to 48 teams in 1987 and made it all the way to Omaha four times. That said, it has been 10 years since Long Beach found itself playing at Rosenblatt Stadium in June.
Chomping at the bit to go to a baseball game, my brother and I went to the opener vs. 14th-ranked Rice a week ago Friday. The Dirtbags, behind outstanding pitching and the play of shortstop Danny Espinosa, won two of three from the Owls. Long Beach lost a Tuesday night game to 11th-ranked San Diego, then bounced back and swept a three-game series from 20th-ranked Wichita State last weekend. At 5-2 and playing perhaps the most difficult schedule in the country, albeit at home, the Dirtbags are likely to join the ranks of the Top 10 when the new polls are unveiled this week.
Senior righthander Andrew Liebel (pronounced LEE-bull) has struck out 22 batters without allowing an earned run over 15 1/3 innings in his two Friday night starts vs. Rice and Wichita State. On the smallish side at 6-foot and 196 pounds, Liebel commands three pitches: a fastball that sits at 89-90 mph and touches as high as 93, as well as a solid-average curveball and changeup. Drafted in the 47th round in 2004 out of Damien High School in Pomona, CA, Liebel chose to attend Long Beach State, where he spent the bulk of his first 2 1/2 years as a reliever. Liebel emerged from the bullpen in the middle of last season and became the ace of the staff, finishing with a 9-3 record and a 2.84 ERA. His experience has earned him the Friday night role in 2008 and he has pitched as well as possible, striking out 11 batters in each of his first two starts while allowing a total of just two walks.
Long Beach's Saturday night starter, Vance Worley, was a prized recruit out of McClatchy HS in Sacramento in 2005. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound righthander suffered an elbow strain during his senior season that limited his time and effectiveness on the mound and Baseball America's premier pitching prospect in Northern California slipped to the 20th round in the draft that June. Beset by inexperience and injuries during his first two seasons at Long Beach, Worley has failed to live up to his potential but still possesses the type of stuff that causes scouts to sit up and take notice. His fastball ranges from 90 to 95 and his curveball, while inconsistent, can be a plus pitch at times. He didn't play summer ball last year, choosing instead to rehab his elbow and tone his body while working out back home at Sacramento City College. Worley may have more upside than Liebel although the latter definitely has superior polish at this point in their careers.
Although only a freshman, Jake Thompson, who has performed well in his two Sunday starts, just may be the best of the bunch. A mere 18, Thompson passed the GED and skipped his senior season in high school to sign with the Dirtbags last fall. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound righthander, who was impressing scouts at Mayfair HS in Lakewood, CA during his sophomore season in 2006, transferred to Long Beach Wilson HS for his junior year in 2007 but was ruled ineligible. With his status still up in the air, Thompson earned his high school diploma a year early and is now one of the top three starting pitchers on the Dirtbags. He pitched six solid innings in his college debut a week ago Sunday and another seven strong yesterday, striking out eight without allowing a walk. Thompson throws a low-90s fastball, has a curve and change that are on the verge of being plus pitches, and has uncommon poise for someone his age.
Thompson surrendered a two-run home run to Wichita State shortstop Dusty Coleman in the first inning but shut down the Shockers the rest of the way. Coleman's roundtripper, his third of the young season, was a more than 400-foot blast to dead center. The 6-foot-2, 185-pound sophomore will be a highly regarded prospect next season. Meanwhile, his fellow infielders, third baseman Conor Gillaspie (pronounced Ga-LESS-pee) and second baseman Josh Workman, are draft eligible this year. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound lefthanded-hitting Gillaspie was the MVP of the Cape Cod League last summer, leading the circuit in AVG (.345) and SLG (.673). Baseball America ranks him as the 23rd best junior and pegs him as the Player of the Year and No. 1 prospect from the Missouri Valley Conference. He went 6-for-14 during the series with a triple off the right field wall on Sunday.
Workman appears to be healthy following two shoulder surgeries. The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder is strong and athletic. He generates power out of a pronounced crouch from the left side and was clocked to first base on a drag bunt single in 3.75 seconds. I liked what I saw of him and would be surprised if he doesn't move up the draft boards in a big way this spring.
Long Beach's Espinosa is off to a terrific start and is a multi-tooled shortstop with good range and a rocket arm reminiscent of his predecessor's, none other than Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki, who should have won the NL Gold Glove as a rookie in 2007. A starter for Team USA last summer, I believe the 6-foot, 180-pound, switch-hitting Espinosa will be drafted higher than Baseball America's current projections and could see him going as early as the second round.
Whether Espinosa is drafted before or after first baseman Shane Peterson is up for debate. The lefthanded-hitting Peterson earned All-Cape Cod League honors last summer when he led in hits (52) while batting .338 with a .436 on-base average. After a slow start, he went 7-for-14 in the just-completed weekend series with two hard-hit doubles on Sunday. A two-way performer as a sophomore, the 6-foot, 200-pounder out of Chaparral HS in Temecula, CA came on strong last year, hitting in 22 straight games and in 30 of the final 31.
Other prospects to keep an eye on who have made their way through town are Long Beach's Bryan Shaw, a righthanded relief pitcher with a 91-95 mph fastball and a major league-caliber slider; Rice's Cole St. Clair, whose fastball is way down from last year while returning from a shoulder injury and making a transition from a closer to a starter; relief pitcher Bryan Price and his 94-95 mph fastball; catcher Adam Zornes and OF/DH Aaron Luna; San Diego's Brian Matusz, a LHP who didn't pitch but struck out 11 last Friday in a highly anticipated duel with Fresno State's Tanner Scheppers; Josh Romanski, a CF/LHP; and Wichita State's Aaron Shafer, a righty whose fastball was unimpressive at 86-89, and Rob Musgrave, a finesse southpaw who was working throughout the 80s.
The future looks good for Rice's sophomore righthander Ryan Berry, who shut out the Dirtbags for seven innings, striking out eight with no walks while fashioning a Burt Hooton-like knuckle curve, and freshman shortstop Rick Hague. The same can be said for San Diego's triumvirate of underclassmen pitchers Kyle Blair, A.J. Griffin, and Matt Thomson, and perhaps most of all freshman third baseman Victor Sanchez, who went 3-for-3 and cranked two home runs in his lone appearance at Blair Field.
Up In the Air Part 2: National League Personnel Choices
By The Baseball Analysts Staff
Last week I took a look at some of the more intriguing position battles facing contending teams in the American League. For the National League I will broaden it a bit. Contending or not (and really who was I to say last week who was and who was not a contender), here are the most interesting decisions facing Managers in the NL.
Seems to me the Nats need a Human Resources expert more than they do someone with baseball expertise. Sure, Nick Johnson probably figures to outplay Dmitri Young in 2008 but how do you tell Young to take a seat on the bench after Johnson missed all of 2007 and Young was by all accounts both a tremendous performer and leader. As for shortstop, the 2007 disaster that was Felipe Lopez's season looks very much to have been anomalous. Same goes for Guzman's scorching start in 2007. He is an awful hitter.
There is also a logjam of sorts in the outfield. The Nationals personnel situation will be one to monitor this Spring.
Cincinnati Reds First Base & Center Field
Like the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Cincinnati's hopes this season will rest on how Dusty Baker uses the resources at hand. According to Baseball America, Bruce is the very best prospect in baseball. Votto has a career .476 slugging percentage in five Minor League seasons. Now 24 and coming off a scorching September call-up last year, he seems primed for regular play. That Jeff Keppinger might now take over for the injured Alex Gonzalez seems to mean one more potential upgrade for the Reds. If Votto, Bruce and Keppinger combine for 1200 plate appearances in 2008, I think they can push Milwaukee and Chicago for the division.
I know it looks like the starting job is his to lose but I can't figure out this Jayson Nix thing. His career offensive totals in the Minor Leagues are such that it is hard to imagine he is a good enough fielder to merit starting consideration for a team aiming to win a World Championship. Moreover, Nix has spent two full seasons at both AA and AAA, not exactly characteristic of championship caliber talent.