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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Indicators & Illusions: Matt Cain

Baseball Tonight is just one of several places where the ongoing and somewhat irrelevant antagonism between sabermetrics and scouting is being played out for public consumption.  The fact is, unless you work for a stubborn backwater organization like the Royals or the Astros, you know that the battle has already been won, defiantly, by the sabermetricians.  Successful franchises pay handsomely for a wide variety of statistical metrics, some of their own design, and frequently combine them with economic analysis in an effort to directly link player performance and profit.

Sabermetrics are so in fashion that the heroes of their rise to power, guys like Bill James and Rob Neyer, now find themselves in the unusual position of frequently reminding their neophyte followers that there is actually a human element to the game (an x-factor) that cannot ever be fully accounted for, but must be recognized.  You cannot purely play the numbers.

For instance, Neyer recently discussed the "closer by committee" situation in Minnesota.  The role of relievers has long be a subject of debate for sabermetricians, many of whom believe, with good cause, that your best reliever should not necessarily be reserved for the ninth, and that the best approach to the late innings to to play match-ups and not identify roles like closer, set-up man, LOOGY, long-man, etc.

However, while excellent in theory, the "closer by committee" hasn't really caught on because the few teams that have tried it haven't had much success.  James recently switched his stance on the issue largely due to the "x-factor," recognizing that having a defined role allowed relievers to prepare physically and psychologically for the moment they took the mound, a routine which was critical to having consistent success.

Whether the connection is accurate or not, sabermetric analysic continues to be linked to fantasy baseball.  There is, apparently, a geek quotient that makes them natural bedfellows.  Thus, the Luddites like to accuse sabermetricians of following fake baseball.  Again, however, as men like Trace Wood and Jason Gray have long argued, the numbers cannot exist in a vacuum and they work best when they are used to ratify observations made during actual games.  Anybody who follows political debates know that statistics can be used to mislead.  Though the intent isn't as devious, the same is true in arguments about baseball.  Here is but one example of conflicting statistical indicators this spring.

Matt Cain had a fantasic, some might say "breakout" season in 2009, winning fourteen games and posting at 2.89 ERA at 24-years-old.  The basic stats, combined with his age, would make him appear to be a pitcher who should be considered among the ten or fifteen best in baseball, with the potential to develop into a perennial Cy Young candidate.

However, experts consistently rank Cain outside the top twenty among starting pitchers, behind guys like Ricky Nolasco and Scott Baker, players who are older and have never had a season rivaling what Cain did in '09.  They justify their rankings by pointing to a rising home-run rate (from 0.79/9 to 0.91), a declining strikeout rate (from 7.69/9 to 7.07) and a uncharacteristically low BABIP (.268 compared to .278 for his career).

Anybody who watched Cain consistently in 2009 would be very surprised by (in fact, would probably disbelieve) these suggestion that he was somehow becoming less dominant instead of more dominant as he moved into his mid-twenties.  Counting myself among them, I entirely agree.

Cain slightly altered his pitching philosophy in 2009.  Although still capable of getting strikeouts when the situation demanded it, Cain was far more content to pitch to contact.  The effort, I expect, was prompted largely by his desire to pitch deeper into games and factor into more decisions.  In '07 and '08 Cain had been profoundly unlucky, posting a 15-30 record over the course of those two seasons, despite the fact that his ERA (3.71), WHIP (1.31), and strikeout rate were all significantly better than the league averages.

Cain had an obvious and much-publicized run support problem, but also worked himself very hard, making it difficult for him to pitch deep into games, as is expected of a true Ace.  In 2008, Cain completed seven innings in less than half of his starts and pitched into the eighth on only five occasions.    Compare that to his teammate and Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum, who finished the seventh 60% of the time and pitched into the eighth 30% of the time, and you can understand how Lincecum won eleven more games, despite be saddled with the same poor offense.

In 2009, Cain made eighteen starts that lasted seven innings or longer, including a league-leading four complete games (as many complete games, by the way, as he had in previous four seasons combined).  He pitched into the eighth inning 25% of the time.  We can see, statistically, what made this possible.  Cain's walk rate went from 3.76/9 to 3.02.  The percentage of groundballs he induced went from 33.2% to 38.9%.

Cain's commitment to keeping the ball in the strike zone naturally led to more contact and thus more long balls and less strikeouts, but it also made for a lot more easy innings.  Conveniently for our analysis, Cain threw exactly the same number of innings in '08 and '09 (217 2/3), but in '09 he did it with one less start and more importantly with almost 250 fewer pitches, facing 47 fewer hitters (which explains his career best WHIP).  That's essentially two games less wear and tear on his young arm.

It wouldn't surprise me terribly if Cain returned to a more normal BABIP (~.280-.285) in 2010 and thus saw a slight regression in ERA.  However, it also wouldn't surprise me if he intensified his commitment to the philosophy that served him so well in '09 and saw a further reduction in walks and an increase in innings and wins, cementing him as one of the National League's elite pitchers.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Fantastic Thoughts: Hippeaux's 2010 Hot List

I wrapped up my last "real" draft of the season this afternoon, but I won't simply be twiddling my thumbs until Opening Day.  Below is a comprehensive list of players who ended up on several Hippeaux teams this March.  This doesn't necessarily mean this are my "favorite" players at any position, merely that they are players who I clearly have ranked at least a notch or two higher than most of my competitors.  If a player winds up on two of my eight teams it might be merely coincidence, but three or more seems to suggest a pattern...

Friday, March 26, 2010

What's left to prove...

With Stephen Strasburg optioned to AA, Jason Heyward penciled into the Braves Opening Day lineup, and Phil Hughes confirmed as the Yankees fifth starter, it may feel like March is coming to an anticlimactic end.  Here are the best remaining storylines heading into the final week of Spring Training.


Every year there is an off-the-radar player who dominates the Grapefruit League and unexpectedly earns a spot on the major-league roster (remember Chris Shelton).  Usually, that player is an afterthought by the middle of May, but that may not be the case with Sean Rodriguez.  Rodriguez is hitting .413 and leading the league with six homers, while Pat Burrell (.171) and Gabe Kapler (.138) have been less than impressive.  Matt Joyce's elbow injury may limit him to DH duties or even force him to the DL to begin the season, which may clear space for S-Rod in right field or at second base (with Ben Zobrist moving to right).

Rodriguez is a serious prospect, the key piece in the Scott Kazmir trade with the Angels last August.  S-Rod has shown tremendous power throughout his minor-league career and in recent seasons has shown a steadily improving sense of the strike zone.  He's going to swing and miss plenty, but at least he'll whiff primarily on pitches in the zone and could be make a run at 30 HR even as a rookie if he's given everyday at-bats.  The Rays are "all-in" with Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena headed to free agency at the end of 2010, so I think they'll give S-Rod a chance to prove his March numbers are no fluke.  If he produces during the time it takes Matt Joyce's elbow to heal, it could spell the end of the Pat the Bat experiment in Tampa Bay.

The Jeff Suppan Mercy Killing

The Brewers are facing an unfamiliar problem this spring: a dearth of starting pitching.  With Yovani Gallardo, Randy Wolf, Doug Davis, and Manny Parra pretty much guaranteed spots in the rotation, only one remains for either Dave Bush, Jeff Suppan, or Chris Narveson.

Both Bush and Narveson have pitched extremely well this spring, while Suppan has not.  The fact that Bush, Narveson, and Parra are all out of minor-league options and would undoubtedly be claimed off waivers, makes it almost impossible for the traditionally pitching poor Brewers to leave any one of them off the active roster.

Suppan has gotten progressively worse since coming to Milwaukee and seems now like a serious candidate for release, even though that would mean the Brewers would have to eat the remaining $14 Million on his contract.  Better that, however, than lose a useful and relatively young pitcher like Narveson or Bush and get nothing in return.

No doubt Doug Melvin is beating the bushes trying to find a trading partner.  That may not be far-fetched considering how many teams have starting pitching shortages, but they will be able to drive a hard bargain with the knowledge that Milwaukee's roster math just doesn't work at this juncture.  It wouldn't surprise me terribly if the Brewers began the season with thirteen pitchers, or if Suppan came down with a convenient case of tendinitis that forced him to the 15-day DL.

Roll the Dice on Aroldis?

I've been saying it all spring and I still believe, assuming his back spasms aren't a recurring problem, Aroldis Chapman will be the Reds best option for the final spot in the rotation.  I don't think he's the second-coming of Dwight Gooden.  There will be some rough outings.  But if the Reds are serious about contending during the final year of Dusty Baker's contract (and potentially the final year in Cincinnati for Aaron Harang, Bronson Arroyo, and Ramon Hernandez), Chapman has the best chance of helping them to that goal straight out of the gate.

Peter Gammons argues eloquently for giving Chapman a Strasburg-style six-week minor-league training program and I understand his logic, but I think it's safe to say that if the Nationals thought they had a legitimate shot at the postseason, they probably would've made Strasburg their Opening Day starter.  Many in the Braves organization regret starting Tommy Hanson at AAA in '09, considering the Braves ended missing the playoffs by only six games and the men who kept Hanson's seat warm, primarily Jo-Jo Reyes and Kris Medlen, combined for only one win in April and May.  There is quite a bit riding on this season, for Baker, for the Reds veterans, and for the front office. Making their first postseason appearance since 1995 would more than make up for the money they might lose if Chapman gets one more year of arbitration.

The Comeback Train?

The Tigers are going to pay $35 Million this season to Dontrelle Willis, Jeremy Bonderman, and Nate Robertson, but at this juncture it looks like there's only room or two of them in the rotation.  Bonderman and Willis are clear favorites, both because they have more raw talent and because Robertson has a better chance of adapting to a relief role.  I think it's safe to say that everybody's rooting for the affable, spirited D-Train, but while his increasing velocity and 1.20 ERA in fifteen spring innings are damn good signs, his eight walks are a red flag, especially considering that control problems are what derailed him in '08 and '09.

The Second Coming of R. Ortiz

Coming into Spring Training the Dodgers probably expected that the competition for fifth starter would come down to youngsters like James McDonald and Charlie Haeger.  That has not been the case.  There is still a rookie in the running, 24-year-old Carlos Monasterios, but frontrunners are a pair of guys named Ortiz, both of whom came into camp facing very long odds.

Ramon Ortiz, the former Angels workhorse who will turn 37 in May, hasn't pitched in a major-league game since 2007, but he has struck out nineteen batters in fourteen innings, posting a 1.29 ERA.

Russ Ortiz, the former Giants Ace, is a year younger, and got thirteen starts for the Astros in 2009, but he hasn't had even a mediocre season since 2004.  Over the last five years he is 10-28 with a 6.56 ERA. However, this spring he's been dominant, allowing on two earned runs in thirteen innings (2.08 ERA).

Many were surprised yesterday when Joe Torre announced that Vicente Padilla would be his Opening Day starter.  They're going to be even more surprised when he announces who gets the call on April 11th.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

My Broke-Ass Ouija Board Says...I've Got No Frickin' Clue Who's Gonna Win the AL West

It's damn sure going to be fun to watch.

You've got the Scioscia-constructed juggernaut, the Los Angeles Angels, who are coming off three consecutive division titles (and five of the last six), but look oddly unfamiliar without Vladimir Guerrero, John Lackey, and Chone Figgins.

There's the offseason darling, the Seattle Mariners, whose GM seems to be every sportswriter's new man-crush (myself included), even though his highest finish thusfar is third place.  The Mariners have a pair of Aces (King Felix & Cliff Lee), a pair of exceptional leadoff hitters (Ichiro & Chone Figgins), and a pair of designated hitters (Ken Griffey Jr. & Milton Bradley), but it isn't quite clear whether all the pieces will fit nicely together.

There's a redemption song being written in Texas, as Ron Washington and Josh Hamilton try to overcome offseason drug scandals (not the performance-enhancing kind), Vladimir Guerrero tries to prove his career is far from over, and Nolan Ryan and Mike Maddux try to figure out how to get 200 innings out of Rich Harden.

And, finally, there are the sneaky-good Oakland Athletics.  Billy Beane has shunned household names following the Holliday-Giambi-Garciaparra debacle in 2009, but he's got tons of young talent on both side of the ball, and won't hesitate to give anybody and everybody an opportunity.  The players in the mix for the rotation, especially, could make their divisional rivals very, very uncomfortable.

At some point during the last month I've imagined every team in this division as worthy of my support.

Remaining Position Battles

With only a little over a week left in Spring Training, managers are beginning to post lineups which look a lot more like what we might see on Opening Day.  Rotation candidates are pitching into the fifth and sixth innings with some frequency, using all their pitches, and focusing a little more on "the results."

There are a number of players who have a lot riding on their performance during the remainder of March, either because they are trying to make a major-league roster, or they are trying to gain a larger role.  I take this opportunity to provide a team-by-team look at undecided position battles.

Arizona Diamondbacks:

Their lineup is set, barring injuries, but the rotation is only 60% filled, since Brandon Webb appears likely to miss at least the first two or three turns.  Billy Buckner was a leading candidate headed into the spring, but he's been rather dreadful, especially in his last outing, when he allowed eight earned runs in two inning against the Royals.  Non-roster invitee, Rodrigo Lopez, has pitched fairly well, as has Kevin Mulvey, a post-hype prospect who came over in the Jon Rauch trade with Minnesota.  While Mulvey doesn't have a ton of upside, neither does Buckner.  The delay in Webb's rehab give the D-Backs an opportunity to give one or both of them a brief regular-season audition.

Atlanta Braves:

The Braves have no reason to leave Jason Heyward behind when they break camp.  Bobby Cox and Chipper Jones have both given him ringing endorsements and poor springs from Nate McLouth and Matt Diaz have helped cement his place in the Opening Day lineup.  The Braves only decision at this point is who secures the final spot on their bench.  Brooks Conrad, Joe Thurston, Freddie Freeman, and Gregor Blanco have all played fairly well.  With David Ross, Omar Infante, Eric Hinske, and Diaz already in the fold, they've got experienced pinch-hitters and defensive backups at every position, so it's very hard to predict which factors will weigh heavily for Cox and Frank Wren when making their final cuts.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Fantastic Questions: "How good are the Upton brothers?"

We've survived the Ides of March and, although your draft and auction season is probably just beginning, mine is already wrapping up.  Most blogger and fantasy analyst leagues and mocks happen well in advance of the season, so that there is a chance for commentary.  As such, I've already done 8 drafts/auction in a variety of different formats and I'm beginning to feel like I've got a pretty good sense of the trends this March and some of the questions you need to ask yourself during your draft prep, like...

Are the Uptons worth it?

Upton the Younger knows very well how Jason Heyward is feeling right now.  The D-Backs rushed him to the majors in the waning months of the 2007 season, when he was just 19-years-old, billed as the best prospect since Alex Rodriguez.  Still only 22, Justin Upton appears on the verge of living up to all the hype.  He'll be drafted by the middle of the second round, if not earlier, and if you want him in an auction league, you had better be prepared to pay $30 at least.  

He'll be the only hitter in that price class who has never driven in a hundred runs, never scored a hundred runs, never hit thirty homers, or stolen thirty bases.  Those who pick him do so with they expectation that this will be the first year of many where he reaches at least two or three of those milestones. 

If you are in a keeper league, Upton, like Heyward, is a bargain at almost any price.  However, in yearly leagues, $30 is a lot to pay for a guy whose '09 numbers are not that much better than guys who'll be available for half that price: Carlos Lee, Brad Hawpe, etc.

Don't get me wrong, I'm an Upton believer.  I'm a Heyward believer as well, but players who aren't named Pujols simply don't post MVP-caliber numbers in their early twenties.  Check out these lines from a few Hall of Fame outfielders at age 22:

Hank Aaron .328 AVG, 106 R, 26 HR, 92 RBI, 2 SB
Barry Bonds .261 AVG, 99 R, 25 HR, 59 RBI, 32 SB
Ken Griffey Jr. .308 AVG, 83 R, 27 HR, 103 RBI, 10 SB
Frank Robinson .269 AVG, 90 R, 31 HR, 83 RBI, 10 SB

Hopefully that gives you a sense of how extraordinary it would be for Justin Upton to go .300-100-30-100-30 this season, something I think many of his owners are unfairly expecting he will do.  I think .280-90-25-90-20 is far more likely, and that would still be an outstanding line at his age, but not worth more than $20-$25 or a third or fourth round selection.

It's hard to see Justin rivalng the production of Matt Kemp, Ryan Braun, or Matt Holliday...this year.

While Justin is likely to be consistently, if not fairly, priced in the $30-$35 range, his brother, B. J. Upton, is going all over the map.  I've seen winning bids from $12-$28 in auctions and in mock drafts I've seen him picked as high as round five and as low as round twelve.

Do you need a disturbing window into your fantasy baseball obsession this draft season?

In 2005 journalist Sam Walker published a book, Fantasyland, which followed the 2004 baseball season through the eyes of the truly baseball-obsessed participants in one of the most prestigious fantasy experts leagues, Tout Wars.  Walker provided a history of the hobby and profiles of some of the industry's biggest names, but also presented a relatively simple thesis.  He believed that, if he was diligent in his preparation and strategy, the "insider" status gained via his press credentials would allow him to best the Ron Shandlers and Lawr Michaels of the world, who approached the game primarily through statistics.  Thus, his book includes interviews with players like Nick Swisher and David Ortiz, who Walker ended up acquiring largely based on hunches picked up via personal interactions.

Professionally written, humorous, and self-effacing, the book attempts to navigate the fine line between fantasy baseball and the real thing.  It does not hurt the narrative arch, of course, that Walker goes on to win the AL Tout Wars title in 2005.  The book had a readymade audience, the tens of millions of people who play fantasy sports, and though not a runaway bestseller, it sold well, and has inspired a documentary, released this month and directed by Stephen Paigon.  The documentary, called Fantasyland: A Season on Baseball's Lunatic Fringe, takes Walker's thesis in a new direction, as Tout Wars opens up one spot to an "amateur," who hopes to make up for his level of expertise through sheer willpower and gall.  The film follows this baseball-obsessed Wall Street analyst, Jed Latkin, as he attempts to duplicate Walker's feat during the 2008 season.

The film performs some of the same functions as Walker's book, providing a brief history of rotisserie baseball and introducing Tout Wars regulars like Shandler, Michaels, and Walker.  But Latkin is clearly the star, and his completely un-self-conscious reflections on what the filmmakers clearly characterize as an addiction remind one of other voyeuristic documentaries which cover somewhat creepy OCD subcultures like The King of Kong and Murderball.  Latkin embodies two seemingly conflicting stereotypes.  He is a Wall Street trader: aggressive, fast-talking, and a little bit shady.  At one point he is seen attempting to make a trade while his wife is in labor.  He is also a geek.  He's fastidious, his voice is nasally, he doesn't smoke or drink, and his offseason obsession is Star Wars.

The filmmakers clearly chose Latkin specifically for his candidness and oddity.  His personality constantly breeds the awkward moments which are the lifeblood of "mockumentary" and reality television.  There are no shortage of cringe-worthy moments.  Among the best come when the twitchy, excitable Latkin interviews deeply skeptical ballplayers who he has drafted, including Gary Sheffield, Vernon Wells, and Justin Verlander.

Fantasyland is not a film about baseball.  This can't be overstated.  You won't learn anything about the game, the players, about statistics, or even about fantasy baseball strategy from watching it, all things that were substantively covered in Walker's book.  Its intended audience probably already has a cursory knowledge of such things, being fanatics themselves, or they have no desire to know such things because their attraction to the film comes from the "lunatic fringe" aspect.  Walker himself admits at one point that meeting Jed was cathartic because it made him less ashamed of his own sports obsession, which is moderate by comparison.

As someone who struggles with reality television and even embarrassment comedians like Ray Romano and Ben Stiller, Fantasyland provided me with some challenges.  I had to pause the film a couple times when Jed had made me uncomfortably anxious.  However, there is no denying that the film is excellently constructed and often quite funny.  The subjects, Jed included, are genuine and, as such, deeply sympathetic.  Highly recommended for fantasy nuts...and, even moreso, their significant others.

Check it out here.

Monday, March 22, 2010

More Power to Mauer

The Twins, as many expected, managed to get Joe Mauer signed to a long-term deal in time for the opening of Target Field.  The eight-year, $184 Million contract is easily the largest ever signed by a catcher, and in terms of average annual value, only A-Rod has made more in a multi-year deal (Roger Clemens famously signed a one-year, $28 Million deal with the Yankees in 2007).

Odd as it may be to say this about a contract this size, Joe Mauer clearly gave the Twins a sizable hometown discount, as many speculated that he could get as much as $25 Million/year on the open market, perhaps for as many as ten years.  If the Yankees, Red Sox, or Mets had handed him a ten-year, $250 Million deal in 2011, few would've been surprised.  Mauer clearly genuinely wanted to play for his hometown team throughout the prime of his career and that is certainly commendable.

The questions for the Twins are now twofold.  How much revenue will the new ballpark, combined with this good publicity, generate in 2010 and beyond?  And, can they keep Mauer healthy and productive into his mid-thirties?

The Twins are banking, literally, on a dramatic increase in revenues, as their payroll for this year is already almost $30 Million bigger than it was in 2009, and $23 Million larger than it's ever been in the history of the franchise.  Their primary thumpers, Mauer and Justin Morneau, are under contract until at least 2013 (after which Morneau's contract expires), and the Twins also locked up Scott Baker, Denard Span, and Nick Blackburn through their arbitration years.

The team will still be facing a lot of tough contract decisions in the coming offseasons.  Orlando Hudson, Carl Pavano, Jim Thome, and Jon Rauch each have one-year deals.  Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, and Nick Punto all have contracts which include sizable options for 2011.  Those could be tough decisions, depending upon how they produce in 2010.  Joe Nathan has a $12.5 Million option for 2012, which is among the several reasons he needed to get Tommy John surgery out of the way now.  Minnesota appears to have no long-term plan at second or third base, so they may need to solidify their infield via the free agent market if they hope to remain competitive.

Unfortunately, the history of mid-market teams and $100 Million contracts does not include a lot of success stories.  A-Rod's first massive contract, signed with the Rangers, pushed their payroll into the stratosphere, but actually cost the team competitively.  In the three year prior to A-Rod's arrival, the Rangers averaged 87 wins a season, in the three years A-Rod was in Texas they averaged 72 wins a season, despite that face that in '02 and '03 the Rangers payroll was almost twice as high as any time before or since.

The Rockies experimented with the hundred-million dollar man via Todd Helton and Mike Hampton.  They have been quite successful in the waning years of the Helton deal, partially because Todd took a significant chunk of deferred money, but it shouldn't go unnoticed that worst years in franchise's history came when the Rockies had some $35 Million/year committed to Helton, Hampton, Denny Neagle, and Larry Walker.  The Hampton deal was an unmitigated disaster, as the Rockies ended up paying $49 Million for 21 wins and a 5.75 ERA before the Braves mercifully took him off their hands.

Toronto's $126 Million deal with Vernon Wells, who I've rated the greatest albatross of all time, may have kept them from retaining Roy Halladay and very well may keep them from having any shot at contention before 2015.  Ken Griffey Jr. ($108 Million) never had a winning season with the Reds.  Carlos Lee ($100 Million) has ushered in the worst era in Astros baseball since the mid-nineties.  The Tigers signed Miguel Cabrera ($152 Million) immediately following their participation in the '06 World Series.  They haven't been back to the playoffs since.

Nine contracts of $100 Million or more have been signed by teams outside of New York, Chicago, and Boston.  Of those nine, only Helton and Albert Pujols have participated in a postseason game with the franchise that made them mega-rich.  Clearly, the Twins have reason to believe Mauer could be more like Pujols than the other eight.  He has done unprecedented things in his first five seasons.  He has also missed a substantial amount of time due to back and knee issues.

There's no true precedent for Joe Mauer, as his batting titles suggest, however, when we look at Hall of Fame catchers, there is a clear trend towards falling production in the mid-thirties. Johnny Bench's best years came in his mid-twenties, after which he declined steadily, with his last truly good season coming at age 32.  The same can be said of Gary Carter.  Mike Piazza was a steady producer from 1993 to 2002, they dropped off dramatically from age 34 forward and was out of baseball entirely four years later.  Pudge Rodriguez peaked at age 27, when he won his MVP, but he didn't become an offensive liability until he was 33.  Yogi Berra faded slowly through his early thirties, but was still a productive hitter when he was 36.  The outlier is Carlton Fisk, who was a steady producer throughout his thirties and even into his forties.    

The Twins clearly took these cases into account when they elected to go for an eight year deal for more money per season, rather than a ten year deal around $200 Million, as many had speculated. Minnesota must assume that they will pay for a year or two of Mauer's decline at the end of the contract, but Mauer should still be a useful player at 34, even if he's no longer the best in the league.  The good news is, unless he is riddled by injuries, the contract should be ended before he becomes a league-average player, so the Twins will have the opportunity to negotiate a more reasonable rate in his final seasons, as the Rockies did with Helton recently.  

SPH 2010 Shoulder Surgery Survey (March)

About a month ago I outlined my intentions to follow the trials and tribulations of eight starting pitchers attempting to return from shoulder surgeries in 2010.  We have gotten off to an auspicious start.  When Spring Training began, at least six of our eight participants were aiming to make the Opening Day roster.  Now, with the regular season about two weeks away, that number is falling fast.

Brandon Webb, the most notable pitcher in the group, complained in early March that he felt "stagnant." Unable to build upon his early progress, he has resigned himself to opening the season on the D.L. and is aiming for a late April return, at the earliest.

Chien-Ming Wang, another former Ace, trying to make a comeback with the Nationals, threw his first bullpen session on Wednesday.  While reports were very positive regarding Wang's control and the movement on his sinker, two concerns following his disastrous '09 season, the timetable for his return has been tentatively set for early May.  With Stephen Strasburg headed to the minors and Wang joining Ross Detwiler and Jordan Zimmerman on the D.L., the Nats are forced to audition guys like Garrett Mock and J. D. Martin for the rotation.

Ted Lilly, whose surgery this offseason was supposed to be "routine," suffered a couple early setbacks and has yet to appear in a preseason game.  He threw off the mound for the first time this week and is optimistic he could be ready by the middle of April.  The Cubs don't need a fifth starter until April 19th.

Dustin McGowan made a Spring Training start on Friday, but as he surgery was more invasive than Lilly's his rehabilitation process is dramatically longer.  Since Toronto is in rebuilding mode and have a number of starting pitchers who they'd like to have a long look at in 2010, they will not rush McGowan, who is certainly one of the most talented in the group.  He was capable of throwing in the high 90s prior to the injury, but hadn't thrown a pitch for about eighteen months.  He will build up his arm strength during an extended Spring Training, likely followed by a long rehab assignment working his way up through the Jays minor-league system.  If all goes well, I'd bet on a June return to Toronto.

Erik Bedard, who the Mariners re-signed with the full knowledge that he was unlikely to return prior to June, has been cleared to throw his first bullpen session this week.  Seattle GM, Jack Zduriencik, even speculates that Bedard may be a little ahead of schedule.  However, I wouldn't put much stock in any diagnosis when Bedard has yet to throw off a mound.  The Marines signed him hoping to get half a season.  Hopefully, they'll stick with that timetable for his return.

While most of our roster won't make an active roster this April, there is some good news as well.

The Tigers' Jeremy Bonderman has made four Spring Training appearances and is likely to make the Opening Day rotation.  His overall numbers are skewed by a very rough outing in early March, but in his last two outing he's thrown a total of six innings, allowing eight hits and three earned runs, while walking two and striking out four.  Bonderman is struggling to regain his control after missing most of the last two season, which is to be expected, but he's throwing the ball in the mid-nineties, an encouraging sign that he will could eventually regain the velocity he featured prior to surgery.  The Tigers rotation hasn't been set, but Bonderman would probably make his first start against Cleveland in the Tigers first home series, April 9th through 11th.

Jeff Francis of the Rockies is also on schedule for an early April return.  He's thrown nine innings so far this spring and is one schedule to throw 85-95 pitches in his first regular season start, which will likely be the Rockies home opener against San Diego on April 9th.

Finally, Freddy Garcia is on track to make his first start on the 11th against Minnesota.  Garcia was able to make nine starts at the end of 2009 and is now more than two year removed from his surgery, so the White Sox haven't been treating the veteran with any kid gloves this spring, never questioning that he would be their #5 starter.

With the possible exception of Garcia, who the White Sox believe will be capable of pitching deep into games, as he did during his tenure with them from 2004 to 2006, most of these pitchers will be on strick pitch counts during the opening months.  For Francis and Lilly, who have always made their livings pitching to contact, that shouldn't be a terrible problem.  For Bonderman and McGowan, that could be a major adjustment, as both are strikeout artists who tend towards high pitch counts even when they are throwing well.  

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Fantastic Questions: "Pay for Rays?"

We've survived the Ides of March and, although your draft and auction season is probably just beginning, mine is already wrapping up.  Most blogger and fantasy analyst leagues and mocks happen well in advance of the season, so that there is a chance for commentary.  As such, I've already done 8 drafts/auction in a variety of different formats and I'm beginning to feel like I've got a pretty good sense of the trends this March and some of the questions you need to ask yourself during your draft prep, like...

What can you expect from Jason Bartlett and Ben Zobrist?

Last season the Rays finished fifth in the American League in scoring.  All the teams who finished ahead of them went to the playoffs.  They had been the top scoring franchise at the All-Star Break.  And yet, the Rays got very little from B. J. Upton, Dioner Navarro, and Pat Burrell.  They lost Akinori Iwamura for the year.  They lost Carlos Pena for all of the September.  Where was all this production coming from?  The obvious answers are Evan Longoria and Carl Crawford, but the big surprise in 2009 was how much the Rays depended on Jason Bartlett and Ben Zobrist...on both sides of the ball.

Until last year, Bartlett was viewed primarily as a defender.  In both '07 and '08 he finished third among AL shortstops in UZR, but it both seasons his OPS was under 700.  He was the classic "slick-field, no-hit" shortstop.  But in 2009, his batting average jumped to .320, 44 points above his career average up to that point.  His OPS jumped almost 200 points, to 879, as he hit more home runs in one season (14) than he had in 1700 previous major-league plate appearances (11).  Thanks to a spike in OBP he was able to cash in more often on his speed and swiped 30 bases for the first time in his career and scored 90 runs.  By the end of '09 Bartlett had set career highs in every statistical category and had gone to his first All-Star Game.

As 2010 begins, he is among the most coveted shortstops in fantasy baseball, especially in AL-only leagues.  In many drafts he is the second player taken at his position, behind Derek Jeter.  If you want Bartlett in an auction league, you'd better be prepared to pay $18-$20.

Unfortunately, there is almost no way that Bartlett will live up to that price.  His BABIP in 2009 was almost 40 points above his career norm, which accounts entirely for his tremendously high average.  Every projection I've seen has him settling back into the .280-.290 range.  This, of course, is likely to effect his run, RBI, and stolen base totals.  However, Bartlett did hit for a high average in the minor leagues, so I could see him once again breaking .300, though not by much.

There is even less reason to believe that the power is legit.  Bartlett hit a grand total of nine homers in three seasons at AAA.  His '09 slugging percentage was 20 points higher than his previous career any level.

I isn't reasonable expect more from Bartlett in 2010 than .295 AVG, 80 R, 8 HR, 55 RBI, and 25 SB.  Even those numbers might be slightly optimistic.  Clearly, he's still worth owning, especially in AL-only play, where good shortstops are particularly scarce, but I'd let Bartlett fall behind Alexei Ramirez, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Miguel Tejada on my draft board and in an auction league I would prefer to $5-$8 on the potential of J. J. Hardy or Erick Aybar, than $15-$20 on Jason Bartlett.

Zobrist's case is very different.  Although his 27 HR and 91 RBI seemed to come from out of nowhere, Zobrist has always been a very good hitter.  His problem has been getting enough at-bats to put his talents on display.  Whether because he was dogged by minor injuries or because he drew the short stick on the Rays depth chart, Zobrist hadn't gotten a full season worth of plate appearances at any level since 2006.  The Rays brass bounced him all over the organization and the diamond the last three years, as he logged innings at every position besides pitcher and catcher.  Nevertheless, he always posted solid averages (.316 in 364 minor-league games) and exceptional OBP (.429) and BB/K (1.29).  There was evidence of developing power as well, although his .543 SLG in '09 may be a bit on the high side.

Settled into second base and getting everyday at-bats, I expect Zobrist could actually build on his '09 campaign, at least in three categories.  I don't expect more than 25 HR and 15 SB (Zobrist has never run at a particularly high rate of success), but 100+ R and 100+ RBI are very realistic if the Rays continue to bat him fifth and I think his average will climb above .300.  On my board he ranks just below the top tier of second baseman (Utley, Pedroia, Phillips, Cano, Kinsler) and I'd be willing to pursue him up to and perhaps slightly above $20, depending on the league.  

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Fantastic Questions: "Will the real Nelson Cruz please stand up?"

We've survived the Ides of March and, although your draft and auction season is probably just beginning, mine is already wrapping up.  Most blogger and fantasy analyst leagues and mocks happen well in advance of the season, so that there is a chance for commentary.  As such, I've already done 8 drafts/auction in a variety of different formats and I'm beginning to feel like I've got a pretty good sense of the trends this March and some of the questions you need to ask yourself during your draft prep, like...

How much are you willing to pay for Nelson Cruz?

RotoProfessor provides a pretty solid answer to this question and I concur.  I will err on the side of caution with Cruz this year, rather than expecting him to build upon his 33 HR performance in 2009.  Don't get me wrong, I think the power - so evidently on display during the Home Run Derby - is real.  I expect Cruz will once again be good or 20-30 HR, thanks in part to the friendly confines of the Ballpark at Arlington, and 15-20 SB, with an unremarkable average (.260 in '09).  I'd be willing to pay the going rate for such a player, which is probably $15-$18 in most leagues.  However, in my experience, there has been somebody in every league willing to pay considerably more than that, operating with the expectation that Cruz might actually have 30/30, 35/25, or even 40/30 potential.  However, I don't think that's a reasonable expectation.

What worries me most is his plate discipline and a rather alarming strikeout rate.  In the minor league he struck out 724 time in 725 games.  Last year he struck out 118 time in 128 games.  His strikout rate actually climbed over the course of the season, as the league adjusted to him, so that he had more strikeouts than games played in the second half, which is a 1/1 ratio I never like to see.

There are, of course, players who can perform quite well, even with all those whiffs.  Adam Dunn being the most obvious example.  The difference between Cruz and Dunn, however, comes down to OBP.  Adam Dunn has been averaging 115 walks a season since 2002.  Cruz picked up just 49 free passes in 2009.  He didn't just swing and miss a lot.  He swung and missed on a lot of pitches he had no chance of hitting squarely.  Until he proves himself capable of laying off pitches that are nowhere near the zone, big-league pitchers are going to find it easier and easier to get him out.  Ask Alfonso Soriano.

The good news for Cruz's fans is that Vladimir Guerrero could be quite helpful in this department.  A fellow Dominican, Guerrero is famous for his nose to toes approach, but those who have watched Guerrero consistently over the past couple years realize that he has adjusted a bit with age.  He still hates the free pass, but he realizes he can no longer go yard on pitches that bounce before they hit the plate.  If he can help to teach Cruz a modicum of plate discipline, his 2010 owners might get what they paid for.

The other big question with Nelson Cruz is for how long and how often will he continue to run.  He swiped 20 bags in 24 attempts in '09, but he only had 20+ steals in once (in 2008) in seven seasons in the minors, and he never ran with that high a success rate.  Perhaps, with the help of Ron Washington and the Texas coaches, he has become a better basestealer.  Or, perhaps, he was just particularly fortunate last year.  Not only will he slow down if he starts getting caught more often, he will slow down in a hurry if he continues to be hampered by injuries.  The Rangers definitely need him at the plate more than on the bases, so he could earn himself a red light with another spate of injuries.

Nelson Cruz isn't the worst high-risk/high-reward play for 2010, but I would much prefer one of the following players, who are younger, hit for a higher average, and also offer both power and speed, but at a lower price.

Carlos Gonzalez (Rockies)
Adam Jones (Orioles)
Andrew McCutchen (Pirates)
Alex Rios (White Sox)
Chris Young (D-Backs)  

BBA BLOGZKRIEG! 2010 Auction Features Cheap Closers, Expensive Injuries, Inebriated Late-Night Bidding

The inaugural BBA BLOGZKRIEG! auction, hosted by Couch Managers took place over the course of sixteens days, beginning on the first of March.  BLOGZKRIEG! is a mixed 5 X 5 league with twelve teams, 30-man rosters (23 active), and a $330 budget.

This cast of fantasy baseball pundits clearly came into the auction with the impression that the stiff competition was grounds for some outside-the-box strategies.  Jonathan Gangi of Roto Rebel spent the same amount of money on Victor Martinez ($24) as he did on all eight of his starting pitchers combined.  Scott Swanay, The Fantasy Baseball Sherpa, didn't draft a closer until ten days into the auction, when he brought home Bobby Jenks ($10).  The Sporting Hippeaux gambled on young players, generally, and especially young arms, bringing home nine pitchers under the age of 27.

Clearly, "risk adversity" was not part of  the BLOGZKRIEG! vocabulary.  A relatively high premium was paid for potential studs coming off serious injuries, like Jose Reyes ($35), Josh Hamilton ($21), and Jake Peavy ($20).  Young, high-upside starting pitchers also cost a pretty penny, as Tommy Hanson and Clayton Kershaw came in at the same price as Chris Carpenter ($19), and guys like Max Scherzer and Clay Buchholz cost as much as A. J. Burnett and Carlos Zambrano ($8).

The high profile rookies, however, were treated with some skepticism.  Stephen Strasburg and Aroldis Chapman both sold for $4, while Jason Heyward and Julio Borbon went for $7.

As a unit our contestants refused to "pay for saves," as no closer cost more than $18 (half the price of Halladay & Lincecum), though 22 relievers went for $10 or more.  Some teams are going to get a lot more bang for their buck when it comes to saves.

One of the advantages of a slow auction that progresses through the heart of Spring Training is that strategies can be altered "on the fly."  Joe Nathan ($18) was drafted early and following news of his injury, Ryan Lester (of Lester's Legends) moved to corner the market on his potential replacements by adding Jon Rauch ($3) and Matt Guerrier ($1).  Continuous and widely varying injury updates probably effected the bidding on Justin Morneau ($22), Brandon Webb ($16), Jairr Jurrjens ($9), Daisuke Matsuzaka ($6), and Kevin Slowey ($4).

As usual, most contestants expressed optimism following the auction's conclusion.  We may have even preferred the auction to last a little longer, rather than sit quietly on frozen rosters for the remainder of March.  Mercifully, Opening Day is now just over a week away.  You can see the teams here and the contestants and complete auction results here.

Most Expensive Players By Position:

C - Joe Mauer ($33)
1B - Albert Pujols ($50)
2B - Chase Utley ($37)
3B - Alex Rodriguez ($43)
SS - Hanley Ramirez ($50)
LF - Ryan Braun ($42)
CF - Matt Kemp ($41)
RF - Justin Upton ($32)
SP - Roy Halladay & Tim Lincecum ($36)
RP - M. Rivera, J. Nathan, & J. Soria ($18)

Median Players (not including <$5):

C - M. Montero, G. Soto, & K. Suzuki ($12)
1B - Joey Votto ($23)
2B - Aaron Hill ($17)
3B - Aramis Ramirez ($17)
SS - Elvis Andrus & Asdrubal Cabrera ($13)
LF - Manny Ramirez ($16)
CF - Carlos Beltran ($16)
RF - S. Choo, A. Ethier, & H. Pence ($16)
SP - Brett Anderson & Scott Baker ($15)
RP - F. Francisco, T. Hoffman, & B. Wagner ($11)

Friday, March 19, 2010

Fantastic Questions: "How committed are you to Tommy Hanson?"

We've survived the Ides of March and, although your draft and auction season is probably just beginning, mine is already wrapping up.  Most blogger and fantasy analyst leagues and mocks happen well in advance of the season, so that there is a chance for commentary.  As such, I've already done 8 drafts/auction in a variety of different formats and I'm beginning to feel like I've got a pretty good sense of the trends this March and some of the questions you need to ask yourself during your draft prep, like...

How much are you willing to pay for Tommy Hanson?

Hanson's roto line last year was pretty impressive:

11 W, 2.89 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 116 K, 128 IP

Naturally, following those rookie numbers, he's high on a lot of draft boards and can no longer be considered a "sleeper" by anybody's standards.  I've seen Hanson going for as much a $25 and even in BLOGZKRIEG!, a league filled with "experts" who are generally tentative about paying big buck for starting pitchers, he went for $19, which was the same price as Chris Carpenter.

Before you go reaching for Hanson in front of guys like Josh Beckett, Matt Cain, and Chad Billingsley, let me show you another couple of exceptional rookie lines:

2005 - 8 W, 1.81 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 58 K, 85 IP
2006 - 11 W, 2.56 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 105 K, 123 IP

Both of these pitchers, like Hanson, had incredible minor-league pedigrees and, like Hanson, they entered the majors before the turned 23.  So, who are they?  Tim Lincecum?  Felix Hernandez?  Cliff Lee?


Those numbers belong to Zack Duke and Jered Weaver.  While both Duke and Weaver have matured into solid major-league pitchers and even fantasy-worthy targets, neither has yet posted a season worthy of a $20 bid or a pick in the top twelve rounds.  In fact, both of them had their best seasons in 2009, which looked like this:

Weaver - 16 W, 3.75 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 174 K, 211 IP
Duke - 11 W, 4.06 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 106 K, 213 IP

I'm not saying that it isn't possible that Hanson immediately jumps into the top tier of National League pitchers.  Certainly, there are guys like Lincecum and Dwight Gooden who have made that leap.  However, there are many, many more pitchers who have gone in the other direction during their sophomore campaign.  Very recent examples include David Price, Justin Verlander, and Edinson Volquez.  Unless you're playing in a keeper league (and, even then, I'd be tentative) please consider letting somebody else have Hanson and instead take a long look at these pitchers, who have just as much upside, more big-league experience, and will probably be available for about half the price (or less).

Brett Anderson (Athletics)
Chad Billingsley (Dodgers)
Clay Buchholz (Red Sox)
Joba Chamberlain (Yankees)
Johnny Cueto (Reds)
John Danks (White Sox)
Jorge De La Rosa (Rockies)
Gavin Floyd (White Sox)
Matt Garza (Rays)
David Price (Rays)
Wandy Rodriguez (Astros)
Ervin Santana (Angels)
Jered Weaver (Angels)

Thursday, March 18, 2010

My Broke-Ass Ouija Board Says...The Rockies Hang Their First NL West Flag

The Rockies have an NL Pennant (from 2007) and have been to the postseason three time ('95, '07, '09), but they are the embodiment of the Wild Card era, having come into existence only two year prior to its invention, and utilizing it for every one of their playoff bids.  This is the year that Colorado finally surges to the front of the NL West.

I've been putting off making my western division predictions for both leagues, as I there are a number of reasonable contenders in each of west coast division.  In fact, while participating in the Inside Pulse Sports "30 Teams in 30 Days" roundtables, I think I ended up predicting that four teams in the NL West would finish in third place in order to prevent myself from having to make a strong case for any one of them.

Since those roundtables, there have been a few significant developments.  First, Russell Martin went down with a groin pull.  It isn't expected to cost 'Trane more than a couple weeks of regular season play, but knowing Martin's intensity, you have to wonder whether he will be patient with the rehabilitation process.  Groin injuries can dog a player for much longer than they should if not allowed to fully heal.  A bounceback season from Martin is absolutely key for the Dodgers if they hope to make Joe Torre three-for-three in NL West title attempts.

Also, after early progress, Brandon Webb's rehabilitation has stalled.  It now appears certain that he will begin the season on the DL, with no clear timetable for this return.  With Webb and Dan Haren as co-Aces, followed by Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy, the D-Backs had a formidable rotation.  It looks much, much different with two gaping holes at the backend.

Most recently, the Rockies closer, Huston Street, has been diagnosed with a shoulder injury, which will almost certainly cost him a couple months, if not the whole season.  Franklin Morales is the early favorite to take over the closer role, but the Rockies also have two other pitchers with considerable closing experience, Rafael Betancourt and Manny Corpas.  There are also reports that the Rockies have been considering re-signing Joe Beimel or trading for Juan Cruz, although neither is likely to enter the competition for saves.

Giants camp hasn't been completely free of setbacks either.  Freddy Sanchez is unlikely to be ready for Opening Day and Mark DeRosa remains somewhat questionable.  Madison Bumgarner, the early favorite for the fifth spot in the rotation, showed a significant decline in velocity in his first couple outings, provoking worry.

All of this suggests, what probably should be assumed from the start, that with four very competitive teams, the NL West will be determined largely by health and depth.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Stephen Strasburg v. Aroldis Chapman

Whether fairly or not, these phenoms are going to be inextricably linked, at least for the next couple years, if not for the entirety of their careers.  For starters, both were born in 1988.  Both rose to notoriety more than a year before they signed major-league contracts: Chapman as an enigma in Cuba's bullpen during the '09 WBC and Strasburg as an absolutely unhittable Ace during his final two seasons playing for Tony Gwynn's team at San Diego State.

They ascended into the public consciousness for much the same reason.  They both are capable of not only touching triple digits on the radar gun, an ability that sends tingles down the spine of the most jaded baseball men, but appear to be able to live there for innings at a time on their best days.  Justin Verlander and Ubaldo Jimenez are the only starting pitchers currently in the major leagues who climb into that range even occasionally, and the ability to do it consistently was the exclusive territory of Joel Zumaya in 2009.

This ability to light up the radar gun, combined with the impression that both have excellent pitches with which to balance the dominating fastball, led both to enter unprecedented contractual territory.  The Nationals took Strasburg with the #1 pick in '09 and will pay him $15 Million over the next four seasons.  The biggest contract ever extended to an American amateur player.  A few months later Chapman set a new precedent for amateur internationals by signing a six-year, $30 Million deal with the Reds.

Naturally, as both have joined franchises who have almost nothing to show for the last decade, fans of the Reds and Nats are clamoring to see these wunderkinds pitch.  And so far this spring, neither has disappointed.  Chapman has yet to allow a run in two outings.  He's thrown four innings, struck out five, and allowed three hits and a walk.  He has, as promised, had several 100 MPH deliveries.  Strasburg, also, has not yet allowed a run, striking out four and walking one in five innings of work.

The immediate future, however, seems set in stone for Stephen Strasburg.  He will make one or two more starts before being optioned to the minor-leagues, where, depending on how he fairs, he will remain until at least June, so that the Nationals can set his arbitration clock back a year.  Although it's may be a disappointment to Washington fans, and baseball fans generally, it's a savvy move.

The Nats aren't going anywhere in 2010.  They play in a division which includes their league's reigning behemoth, the Phillies, as well as three other teams with aspirations of contending (whether realistic or not).  Two of Washington's most promising young pitchers, Jordan Zimmerman and Ross Detwiler, are out for at least the first half of the season, as is their promising young backstop, Jesus Flores.  The Nats know that Strasburg, so long as he stays healthy, will be part of their rotation for many years to come.  They aren't so sure about guys like Scott Olsen, Craig Stammen, J. D. Martin, and Garrett Mock.  Now is good time to see what those fellows can do.

On the other hand, the Cincinnati Reds have reason to believe that their time is now.  They went 27-13 down the stretch in 2009.  On paper at least, they match up fairly well with all three of the teams the finished ahead of them in 2009.  Their manager, Dusty Baker, is in the final year of his contract, at the beginning of which he promised to end Cincinnati's playoff drought, dating back to 1995.  If he wants to be rehired in 2011, he'll need to at least deliver the club's first winning season since 2000.

There is no tangential benefit to leaving Chapman behind at the start of the season, if he seems ready.  The other options for the rotation, Justin Lehr and Micah Owings, are veteran players who have had several seasons in the major-leagues already.  There is almost no chance they will be anything better than replacement-level starters.  Also, because of how Chapman's contract is structured, the Reds have already bought out most of his arbitration years, so their isn't any financial incentive to keeping him in the minor leagues for an extra couple months.  If they believe he's ready (and indications so far are that he is), he should be their fifth starter.    

Monday, March 15, 2010

My Broke-Ass Ouija Board Says...Somebody In the AL Central Will Attain the Glory of 85 Wins

For two straight seasons it has taken 163 games to decide the winner in the AL Central.  And, or two years running, the Central has been the only division in the American League to send a team to the postseason with less than 90 wins.  While the 163rd game is one of the rarest and most beautiful things in baseball, it wouldn't totally surprise me if we had the pleasure of another this October.  Every division except the NL East boasts at least three teams with a reasonable shot at the title.  Of these, the AL Central may be the toughest to call, a supposition supported by the fact that Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA projections predicted a three-way tie between the White Sox, Tigers, and Twins, each with 80 wins apiece.

While I'd be mighty surprised if nobody in the division managed a .500 record, I think it's safe to say that 90 wins won't be necessary.  All three of the "contenders" have abundant and apparent shortcomings.

The reigning champs, the Twins, finished 12th in the AL in rotational ERA in 2009.  While they went a long way towards fixing their lineup depth problems (which became so apparent in the ALDS) by adding Orlando Hudson and J. J. Hardy, there is still an obvious hole at 3B and they are only an injury away from again deploying the likes of Brendan Harris (672 OPS), Matt Tolbert (611 OPS), and Alexi Casilla (538 OPS).  

The Tigers, following their schizophrenic offseason, don't look a whole lot different from the team that it took 162 games plus twelve innings to eliminate in '09.  Like Minnesota, they've got severe lineup depth problems, with automatic outs like Gerald Laird and Adam Everett, as well as unknown commodities like Scott Sizemore and Austin Jackson.  The bullpen is also a big question mark.  Jose Valverde is an improvement at closer, but it remains to be seen how Joel Zumaya, Ryan Perry, and Phil Coke will adjust to late-inning roles.

In Chicago, one of the big issues is age, particularly on offense.  The White Sox have four regulars who are 33 or older.  They are asking Juan Pierre and Andruw Jones to step into more prominent roles than they have held the past couple seasons in Los Angeles and Texas, and will need at least one more strong campaign from Paul Konerko and A. J. Pierzynski.  Carlos Quentin and Gordon Beckham be critical top-of-the-order hitters.  They certainly have the talent to perform in that capacity, but not yet the track record.

When looking at three equally flawed franchises I am tempted to say that this division will be determined largely by luck (which is why the Joe Nathan injury looms so large in Minnesota).  None of these teams have tremendous depth on their roster, so even minor injuries can expose significant holes.  It's impossible to guess where those injuries will surface, so instead, for the purposes of my predictions, I looked at management.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

My Broke-Ass Ouija Board Says...Roy Halladay Is Gonna Love the National League (NL East Preview)

It's almost too obvious predicting that Roy Halladay will become the fourth pitcher in baseball history to win a Cy Young in both leagues (following in the footsteps of Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and Roger Clemens).  Last year he had a 0.90 ERA in interleague play.  For his career he's 17-8 with a 3.02 ERA against NL teams, 8-4 against clubs in the NL East.  As good as he was against the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays in '09 (6-7, 2.97 ERA), he was even better against everybody else (11-3, 2.62 ERA).  He's a pitcher perfectly primed for a career year.  He's at the tail end of his prime (33), widely considered among the smartest pitchers in the game, facing a league that's unfamiliar with him, pitching in front of a very good defense for a team that scores a ton of runs, and is determined to go to his first postseason ever.  It would seem, certainly, that the stars are aligned.

Halladay's run at history aside, the Phillies look to me like the only truly easy pick in baseball.  This can certainly be a jinx.  Last year the Cubs looked like runaway favorites in the NL Central.  A couple years ago pretty much everybody thought the Tigers would storm their way through a weak AL Central.  The Phillies will half to fight off complacency following two straight pennants, and Halladay's determination to pitch in October should help a great deal.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Let it be. Let it be.

Milton Bradley is a Seattle Mariner.  His primary focus this spring is getting fit, staying healthy, and proving he can be the middle of the order presence the Mariners desperately need if they intend to compete in the tight AL West.  His former team, the Chicago Cubs, training right down the road in Mesa, Arizona, should be dedicated to erasing the memory of last season's disappointing performance.  And yet, the story of the disastrous relationship between Bradley and his former employers refuses to die.

Hopefully this is merely a result of the inevitable Spring Training microscope.  Reporters don't have much to ask about, with few developments on the field, so they reopen the scars of the previous year.  For the most parts, the Cubs players have said all the right things: Bradley wasn't a bad guy, they wish him well with his new club, they're focused on the task ahead instead of last year's failures.  After all, Bradley was bad in 2009, but frankly, so was everybody else in the Cubs lineup (with the exception of Derrek Lee).

One wonders where the Cubs players learned to be so politic, considering their general manager, the man who should be setting the tone for the whole organization, refuse to leave Bradley alone.  Sure, Bradley isn't pulling any punches either, as he's also being bombarded by questions he'd probably rather not answer, but Jim Hendry has every reason to take the high road and he defiantly hasn't, choosing instead to fling his own set of barbs and accusations (primarily that Bradley had a bad attitude, is a narcissist, and is lying about the racist treatment he got from Chicago fans).

Hendry has dramatically misevaluated the situation.  As long as it was just Bradley trying to drag his old team through the mud, he just looked embittered.  His reputation for drawing controversy throughout his journeyman career gave his statements even less credence, even though some former Cubs (like LaTroy Hawkins and Jacque Jones) have made similar accusations.  However, compared with Jim Hendry's defensive and blustering statements this morning, Milton Bradley's appears downright poised in his ESPN interview.

Hendry's need to bring Derrek Lee and Marlon Byrd into a conversation where they frankly don't belong serves to dignify Bradley's statements.  Doth the lady protest too much?

As a Cubs fan this bothers me on two levels.  Obviously, I hate to have my team and their fans accused of any sort of racial prejudice.  I hate even more that it appears increasingly evident that there is at least an element of truth...still.  Yes, I've been to my fair share of Cubs games over the last decade and though I've never actually heard a racial epithet hurled from the bleachers, it wouldn't surprise me if it happened occasionally (as it probably does anywhere too many white people are filled with too much Old Style).  However, if this did become a routine occurrence, accompanied by un-postmarked hatemail and threats to his family, as Bradley reports, it was the Cubs duty to take action.  It only takes a few fans getting tossed from their $100 seats to solve at least one part of the problem.

Jim Hendry (like Bud Selig) is feigning ignorance.  This is hardly the first time somebody has questioned the sportsmanship of the Wrigley Field faithful.  In the '60s, the original "Bleacher Bums," who, to be fair, pestered most opposing players, were particularly cruel to Lou Brock and Curt Flood, African-American outfielders on the rival Cardinals, to the point of drenching them with beer and pelting them with tennis balls (this story is recounted in several places, including Flood's exceptional autobiography).  As late as the 1980s, conventional wisdom held that black fans went to the South Side, to see the White Sox, while the Cubs catered to Caucasians.

Calling Milton Bradley's accusations "ridiculous" does not necessarily make them so.  This is merely the latest of Jim Hendry's desperate attempts to prove that everything is business as usual for the organization, when that is apparently not the case.

Fantastic Thoughts: "One man's trash..."

The fantasy baseball draft season is officially underway and, as is usually the case, there are few elite players about whom opinions are dramatically split.  Here are my thoughts alongside roto projection from four of the more popular outlets: Bill James, ESPN, CBS Sportsline, and Rotoworld.

David Wright - New York Mets - Third Base

Wright has been a consensus first-rounder in each of the last three seasons, but his 10 HR last year in the inaugural season at Citi Field has a number of fantasy pundits shying away.  Others see it as perhaps your last opportunity to roster Wright on the cheap during his prime years (Wright is that magical age of 27).

2009: .307, 88 R, 10 HR, 88 RBI, 27 SB
BJAM: .302, 100 R, 23 HR, 99 RBI, 24 SB
ESPN: .304, 104 R, 21 HR, 97 RBI, 25 SB
CBSS: .300, 90 R, 20 HR, 90 RBI, 24 SB
ROTO: .310, 105 R, 28, 102 RBI, 24 SB

All four projections agree that Wright's power bounces back at least to the 20 HR plateau, but most see him nowhere close to the 30+ he hit in '07 and '08 at Shea.  Yesterday, Nate Ravitz was arguing that Wright was still a good pick at the end of the first round, ahead of Miguel Cabrera, thanks in part to lack of depth at third base this season, but I don't see it.  Cabrera trounces him in at least three of the five categories and Wright's obvious superiority in stolen bases doesn't make up for the outside chance he again falls short of 20 HR and 100 RBI.  I've said it before and I'll say it again.  In the first round, I want stat-hounds, guys that fill up the scorebook every single year, no matter where they play.  I won't reach for Wright until late in the second round.  

Justin Morneau - Minnesota Twins - First Base

Morneau's season ended early in 2009 as he suffered from some severe back pain, then had to have a bone chip removed from his wrist.  Of course, wrist surgeries can be hell on hitters (see D-Lee, Big Papi, etc.), but this procedure was relatively minor.  No reconstruction.  No torn tendons.  No pins.  Before Morneau went down, he was on pace to once again be an MVP candidate, with 30 HR and 100 RBI in just 135 games.

2009: .274, 85 R, 30 HR, 100 RBI, 0 SB
BJAM: .282, 91 R, 31 HR, 115 RBI, 0 SB
ESPN: .278, 88 R, 33 HR, 111 RBI, 0 SB
CBSS: .299, 91 R, 30 HR, 117 RBI, 1 SB
ROTO: .286, 88 R, 31 HR, 114 RBI, 1 SB

Despite his problems, Morneau still netted his fourth consecutive 100 RBI season and he probably would've stolen a couple MVP votes if he'd stayed healthy to the end.  Everything I've read suggests that Morneau is feeling fit this spring and has agreed to take a few more days off in order to keep his back problems from re-surfacing (thank goodness the Twins will finally be playing on real grass).  I understand worrying about a power-hitter with Morneau's particular injuries, but in BLOGZKRIEG! he was the 10th most expensive first-baseman, a full $20 behind Prince Fielder.  If he's going for under $25 in your standard league, you've got to make that play.  In a draft, he should be one of the first 25 players off the table.

Jose Reyes - New York Mets - Shortstop

News of Jose Reyes' thyroid condition should factor into owners' concerns nearly as much as health of his hamstrings, which cost him almost the entirety of 2009.  Reyes is, of course, a fantasy monster when healthy, but he hasn't yet taken the field in Spring Training, his health remains a major question mark.

2009: .279, 18 R, 2 HR, 15 RBI, 11 SB
BJAM: .285, 113 R, 14 HR, 67 RBI, 57 SB
ESPN: .283, 93 R, 11 HR, 54 RBI, 47 SB
CBSS: .284, 100 R, 10 HR, 55 RBI, 45 SB
ROTO: .289, 110 R, 16 HR, 59 RBI, 44 SB

All I see in those projections is the stolen bases.  From '05 through '08 Reyes averaged 65 stolen bases a season.  He could single-handedly dominate a category.  As such, his value is intrinsically tied to his speed, which might be significantly jeopardized.  If he's no longer good for 50+ SB, even if he ups his other numbers a little, he's not a top 25 player.  If Reyes is still on the table in the third or fourth round, or for less than $25, he's probably a decent pick, but even then there is risk involved.

Jimmy Rollins - Philadelphia Phillies - Shortstop

Unlike Reyes, Rollins had no problem staying on the field last season, but he had serious problems getting on base (.296 OBP), which of course effected his statistics across the board.  Several have suggested it was the beginning of J-Roll's precipitous decline.

2009: .250, 100 R, 21 HR, 77 RBI, 31 SB
BJAM: .271, 104 R, 19 HR, 71 RBI, 33 SB
ESPN: .273, 103 R, 19 HR, 79 RBI, 32 SB
CBSS: .274, 100 R, 17 HR, 76 RBI, 33 SB
ROTO: .271, 110 R, 18 HR, 71 RBI, 34 SB

The projections are very similar to Reyes, right?  The difference is that while the projections for Reyes are optimistic and assume that he's healthy, the projections for Rollins are more like a baseline.  It takes only a modest improvement in batting average and OBP for Rollins to easily surmount those numbers.  I don't think that's going to be a problem.  Rollins '09 numbers are heavily influenced by a first-half slump.  From July 1 on he went .285-59-15-50-21.  Project those numbers over a full season and Rollins is once again on a lot of MVP ballot (though maybe not at the top).  J-Roll is only 30, still in the middle of his prime, so I think he's got at least a couple more big seasons in him.  A second rounder (or $25-$30 at auction) with confidence.

Jacoby Ellsbury - Boston Red Sox - Outfield

Ellsbury is entering his third full season coming off his second consecutive year of pacing the American League in stolen bases.  He's only 26-years-old and in '09 he improve upon his rookie year in almost every major indicator.  In AL-only leagues and deep leagues (15+ teams) he's frequently taken in the first round, with the assumption that we haven't yet seen the limits of his skills.

2009: .301, 94 R, 8 HR, 60 RBI, 70 SB
BJAM: .302, 106 R, 9 HR, 62 RBI, 64 SB
ESPN: .296, 92 R, 7 HR, 58 RBI, 62 SB
CBSS: .285, 95 R, 8 HR, 47 RBI, 54 SB
ROTO: .296, 106 R, 11 HR, 60 RBI, 57 SB

As you can see, these are the most disparate of any of the projections we've looked at.  The thing I keep asking about Ellsbury is, "How is it that a guy hitting atop the Red Sox lineup, getting 700 plate appearances a year, hasn't scored 100 runs yet?"  Ellsbury's walk rate is a little worrisome, especially against right-handed pitching.  More worrisome for potential fantasy owners is the fact that Ellsbury faces competition for both the leadoff spot (Marco Scutaro) and his position (Mike Cameron, Jeremy Hermida).  Obviously, Ellsbury will still be on the field the majority of the time, but he could very realistically lose 75-100 AB this season.  An outfield rotation makes the Red Sox a better team.  It doesn't bode well for roto stats.  I think Ellsbury remains good for 90 R and around 60 SB, which makes him a solid second or third round selection, but I won't reach into Carl Crawford territory until he shows a little more power, or the ability to hit .315.      

Monday, March 08, 2010

Fantastic Thoughts: QuickNotes on Spring Training Injuries

Russell Martin - Los Angeles Dodgers - Catcher

It may sound odd, but I actually think this is good news.  It was clear that Trane was struggling with a lingering injury throughout 2009.  Obviously, he's probably the league's premier "gamer," a Charlie Hustle-type who resists taking even routine days off (he's average 150 games a season over the last three years, easily tops at his position).  As a result, his offensive production has suffered in the second half, even in his best seasons ('07 & '08).  If this injury allows Joe Torre to give him more frequent rest in April and May, I think fantasy owners will see dividends in his overall production.  Russell's definitely getting drafted like a top five catcher, despite his off year in '09.  Hopefully this news will push him down a rung, behind guys like Miguel Montero, Kurt Suzuki, and Mike Napoli.  At that price, I'd draft him with gusto.

Alex Gordon - Kansas City Royals - Third Base

Gordon was a tempting "sleeper" pick at a shallow position prior to breaking his thumb.  Now, he won't find his way onto any of my teams.  Hand injuries have lingering effects on production, even once the player is deemed fully healthy.  The upside for fantasy owners, especially in deep leagues, is that this assures that both Josh Fields and Alberto Callaspo get regular at-bats.  Callaspo was K.C.'s second most productive hitter in '09 (which is, granted, like being the second best show on TNT).  He's got multiple position eligibility and thankfully, in fantasy, the fact that he makes Skip Schumaker look like a natural infielder doesn't effect you.

Josh Hamilton - Texas Rangers - Outfield

Hamilton's shoulder issues are definitely driving down his price in many leagues.  I think you've got to treat him as you would Carlos Beltran, a guy who's likely to miss as much as half of the season, but who could provide elite production for an extended stretch.  I wouldn't be surprised if both Hamilton and Beltran make at least 120 starts.  If either of these guys is available 100 picks into your draft (or for $12-$15 in a standard auction), it's well worth the gamble, just make sure sure you also select a solid sixth outfielder.

Jose Reyes - New York Mets - Shortstop

If you were willing to gamble on Reyes last Friday, no reason to change your mind based on the recent news.  His thyroid condition, whatever it is, is highly unlikely to have any effect on his career, outside costing him a few Spring Training games.  You can only hope that it drives some other owner to caution and provides a small discount.  For my, personally, I wasn't willing to pay the premium on Reyes last week and unless he drops dramatically, I'll still be hesitant.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

21st-Century Cy

Not every year does a relatively unheralded pitcher come, as though from out of nowhere, to win his profession's most prestigious award.  It has happened, however, in each of the last two seasons, and seven times in the last decade (during which, of course, twenty Cy Youngs have been awarded.)

Way back in 2002, a 24-year-old Barry Zito won 23 games in what has proved to be the best season of his career.  The season prior to it he had been very good (17-8, 3.49 ERA), but certainly not superlative, and going into '02 he was still considered the #3 starter on his own team.

In 2004, Johan Santana "arrived."  Although his arm had been gaining him notoriety for a couple years, he had spent most of his career prior to '04 in the bullpen.  That year, however, he made 34 starts, won 20 of them, and led the league in strikeouts (265) and ERA (2.61).

The very next year, a 30-year-old Chris Carpenter, after seven seasons floundering with the Blue Jays and struggling with injuries and control, suddenly became one of the best pitchers in baseball, going 21-5 with a 2.83 ERA in his second year under the tutelage of Dave Duncan in St. Louis.

There was another first-time Cy Young vote-getter in 2006, when Brandon Webb won the award with his 16 wins and 3.10 ERA.

And, most recently, as you will remember, Cliff Lee and Zack Greinke finished their somewhat unlikely ascents to the top of the American League, and Tim Lincecum won the NL version of the award in his first full season in the majors in '08.

So, who's going to be the next unexpected Cy?  Here are some criteria for making the prediction.  With the exception of Cliff Lee, none of the pitchers discussed above had placed in the Cy Young voting prior to the year they won it, but all were coming off pretty solid seasons, in which they won at least 12 games and had an ERA lower than 3.80 (Lincecum didn't get enough starts to meet this criteria in his rookie year, but in all likelihood he would've easily matched it).

Although Lee had a notoriously bad run in '06 and '07, he had previously logged three seasons with 14 or more wins and finished as high as fourth in Cy Young voting in 2005.  So, what I'm looking for primarily, is a player who won 12-15 games in '09 and posted an ERA between 3.50 and 4.00 with some positive trends in his other numbers.

I'm also looking for somebody in their mid-twenties who was, at one point or another, even if it was five or six years ago, considered a top prospect.  Four of my seven Cys were first-round picks and Santana certainly would have been (he signed as an amateur free agent out of Venezuela).  Five won the award for the first time between the ages of 24 and 27, while Lee won it at 29 and Carpenter was 30.  With those factors in mind, here are the top candidates:

Saturday, March 06, 2010

BBA BLOGZKRIEG! 2010 Auction Makes Ray Romano Monologue Seem Fast-Paced

We're exactly one week into the auction process in the Baseball Bloggers Alliance's inaugural "experts" league and just under 50% of the players have been rostered.  That said, more that 75% of funds have been spent and only two teams have more left in their coffers than they've laid on the table.  It'll be up to them in coming weeks to wield the jesus-stick against imprudent owners who think they can sneak Alex Rios through the draft for nothing more than a crisp two-dollar bill.

The most shocking development from the first week was Ryan Lester's extravagant version of the infamous "studs & scrubs" strategy.  In just over 48 hours, Mr. Lester brought home both the consensus #1 and #2 players in fantasy baseball for a single Benjamin.  Ryan proceeded to compliment King Albert ($50) and Han-Ram ($50) by paying essentially market value for Felix Hernandez ($28), Dustin Pedroia ($24), Jayson Werth ($22), Jonathan Papelbon ($17), and Joe Nathan ($18), so that going into week two he'll looking to fill half his roster with 10% of his money.

Mr. Lester wasn't the only one employing a "go bold or go home" strategy in the early rounds.  Mike Kuchera, the Fantasy Man, dropped $258 on a dozen players in week one, only one of whom was a pitcher (Jon Lester).  Monday afternoon he got a good start on building an inexpensive rotation by stealing A. J. Burnett for a measly $8.

Nando Di Fino lies patiently waiting with $145 still in his pocket, but the spending he did do early was on players coming off lost seasons.  He took a modest injury-risk discount on Josh Hamilton ($21) and former Cy Youngs, Johan Santana ($26) and Jake Peavy ($20).  If all three revisit their elite potential, they'll be worth well more than that.

A few very interesting general trends have developed.  The price difference between elite players and the middle tier is even more drastic than usual.  Five outfielders went for $30 or more, with Ryan Braun and Matt Kemp going for $40+, but then Jacoby Ellsbury ($25) was the only player between Matt Holliday ($31) and Jayson Werth ($22), who was followed by eleven players selected between $19-$21.   So essentially you could have two Grady Sizemores for the price of one Matt Kemp.

For pitchers it was equally dramatic, as Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum both went for $36, but no other pitcher went for more than $30 (Zack Greinke) and a couple perennial Cy Young candidates were available for $20 (Cliff Lee & Chris Carpenter).

It shouldn't surprise anybody that a bunch of experienced fantasy pundits are steadfastly against "paying for saves," but in BLOGZKRIEG! closers have been absolutely dirt cheap.  Mariano Rivera and Joe Nathan paced the field (so far) at $18 followed by a dozen closers for $10-$17.

You can follow the auction here, see daily updates from Roto Rebel, or belated entries in The Sporting Hippeaux's "admittedly solipsistic" BLOGZKRIEG! diary.

Friday, March 05, 2010

My Broke-Ass Ouija Board Says...The Yankees Eat It!

Wishful thinking, right?  The Yankees, of course, when they're clicking, are the best team in the game, as they proved by posting the best record in baseball during the 2009 regular season, then winning the World Series.  The thing about the '09 Yanks though...they were really, really lucky.  I know, I know, there's no such thing as a "lucky" two-hundred-million-dollar team.  The Steinbrenners paid handsomely for every one of those 114 wins and every one of those pretty rings which now adorn the private showrooms of their exclusive cast of aspiring billionaires.  Fair enough.

What I'd like to point out, however, is that of none of the Yankees starting nine in '09 missed a significant stretch of time.  Sure, A-Rod had the whole flexible hip thing (remember that?) which cost him April, but he still got 535 plate appearances and his annual 30 HR and 100 RBI.  Jorge Posada missed a couple weeks midsummer, but he still got into more than twice as many games as he did in 2008.  And the remainder of the starting seven all played at least 142 games.  Even more importantly, four Yankee pitchers made 30+ starts.  So, I'd like you to guess, how many franchises had eight players get 500+ plate appearances and four pitchers make 30+ starts in '09?

That's right, one and only one: the New York Yankees.

The Red Sox, on the other hand, got basically nothing from Daisuke Matsuzaka and John Smoltz, both of whom were supposed to be big contributors to their rotation, and Tim Wakefield missed most of the second half.  The lost their starting shortstop, Jed Lowrie, for basically the whole season and got a significantly reduced effort from their starting third-baseman, Mike Lowell, whose hip injury limited him to a hobbled 434 at-bats.  J.D. Drew, predictably, and Kevin Youkilis, unpredictably, also missed a few weeks apiece.  And the Red Sox still managed to win 95 games.

So, imagine for a moment that New York had some similarly bad luck.  Say, they lost A. J. Burnett for the season and Joba Chamberlain for half the season, as well as Melky Cabrera, and A-Rod didn't make it back until June, and even at that point, he was only half-strength.  Would they have managed 95 wins?  90?

Are you willing to bet that they can repeat their clean bill of health?

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The Anticipation Is Killing Me (Spring Training Primer)

In honor of the opening of the Spring Training schedule, I'd like to draw your attention to some of the burning questions for each organization this March.  Sure, as a baseball addict, you're probably jonesing so bad by now that you're willing to watch a split-squad scrimmage, even though it hardly resembles the game you love (Why is Bill Hall pinch-hitting for David Ortiz?).  Hopefully, this can act as a guide to which spring performances really do matter.

Arizona Diamondbacks:

How healthy is Brandon Webb?
For more perspective, check out the ongoing Shoulder Surgery Survey, but needless to say, the D-Backs are a whole lot better with the man who was arguably the best pitcher in the NL from 2006 to 2008.

Who's going to be the fifth starter?
Rotation depth was a major problem for the D-Backs last season.  The return of Webb and the acquisition of Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy will make a difference, but the D-Backs still have a vacancy at the backend.  Billy Buckner, Kevin Mulvey, and Bryan Augenstein are probably the leading candidates, but it's an open audition.

Is Chad Qualls still the closer?
In Qualls first full season as a closer he was okay, going 24 for 29 in save opportunities and posting a 3.63 ERA.  Those are, certainly, not dominating numbers.  The closer of the future is Juan Gutierrez, who went 8 for 8 with a 3.29 ERA when the D-Backs gave him an audition last September.  That, to me, suggests that the future is now.

Atlanta Braves:

Will Jason Heyward be the Opening Day right-fielder?
Bobby Cox is already on the record saying the job is Heyward's to lose.  He may have dodged a bullet when the Braves finished second in the Johnny Damon bidding, but that doesn't mean Atlanta won't bring in another free agent outfielder in the next month.  Obviously, I'm drooling over Heyward's talent, but he's only 20.  Even if he's a future superstar, he may not be the Braves best everyday option this year.  Are they really trying to win a championship in Bobby Cox's final season?  If so, I don't think Heyward will stick.

Baltimore Orioles:

Exactly which rookies will be joining Jeremy Guthrie and Kevin Millwood in the rotation?
Several of the candidates lost their official rookie status by getting a handful of starts last season, but for all intents and purposes, Chris Tillman, Brian Matusz, Brad Bergesen, Troy Patton, Koji Uehara, and David Hernandez are still rookies.  And they've also got Jake Arrieta, a true rookie, who's on the verge of being major-league ready.  Injuries may dictate Baltimore's decision and they may conclude that Uehara and Hernandez make more sense as relievers.  In any case, all of them will be pitching this spring for the opportunity to stay in "the show."

Who will assert himself in the LF/1B/DH rotation?
There's a lot of talent already in the Orioles lineup, but they could use more power.  The most likely candidates to provide it are Nolan Reimold, Garrett Atkins, Ty Wigginton, and Luke Scott.  All will probably get 400+ AB this year, but a good spring could determine who has the upper hand for playing everyday.  The wild card here is Felix Pie, who doesn't project for as much power, but is a more complete player and a better defensive option in the outfield.  If both he and Reimold have big springs, the trio of veterans may find themselves sharing the DH role.

Boston Red Sox:

What are the BoSox gonna do with ole Mike Lowell?
When Boston's deal with the Rangers fell through, Lowell became an All-Star without a position.  If Lowell can prove himself fully healthy, Theo Epstein might try again to trade him, but if he isn't successful, Terry Francona will have the perhaps enviable chore of trying to rotate Lowell into a lineup already crowded with talent.

What are the BoSox gonna do with ole Timothy Wakefield?
Wakefield is looking around and wondering at how quickly his All-Star performance from 2009 was forgotten.  Like Lowell, he's been ousted from the rotation.  Wakefield has lots of experience as a long reliever, so shouldn't be a problem.  The question is whether Wakefield will quietly resume his place in the bullpen at this point in his career.

Can Jed Lowrie or Jeremy Hermida make the veterans uncomfortable?
It's not a stretch to suggest that Lowrie and Hermida possess more talent than Marco Scutaro and Mike Cameron.  As yet, however, they haven't turned that talent into actual production.  If one of them seems primed for a breakout campaign, will Terry Francona have the guts to bench one of the Red Sox major free agent acquisitions?

Monday, March 01, 2010

My Broke-Ass Ouija Board Says...The Brewers Will Win The NL Central

The conventional wisdom favors the Cardinals.  They pummeled the rest of the division throughout the second half of '09.  They resigned Matt Holiday.  They still have Pujols, Carpenter, and Wainwright.  And nobody in their division got markedly better.

I don't doubt that the Cardinals will be there right to the end and it never surprises me when Tony LaRussa edges a team into the postseason, but the Cardinals are not as complete as some would have you believe.  The backend of the rotation is an utter mystery, as Dave Duncan will be expected to work his magic once again with the likes of Brad Penny and Kyle Lohse.  Even if he does, if injury befalls one of the Cardinal Aces, the organization does not have a whole lot of compensatory depth.

The left side of the infield is another major weakness.  Brendan Ryan and David Freese can catch it and throw it well enough, but they'll make little to no offensive contribution.  Few teams are able to survive by punting at short and third.  The good news is that John Mozeliak has provided Tony LaRussa with a pair of his favorite things: utility infielders.  Felipe Lopez and Julio Lugo can both play pretty much everywhere and hit a little as well, so LaRussa can mix and match to his heart's content.

As a whole, beyond Pujols and Holliday, the Cardinals lineup looks a little tepid.  They really need Ryan Ludwick to regain his 2008 form, or Colby Rasmus to make good on his considerable potential.  If that happens, and they stay relatively healthy, the Cards could win the division running away, as many expect.  However, those are some sizable "ifs".