Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Looking Ahead: Colorado Rockies

2006 W-L Record: 76-86
2006 pW-pL Record: 81-81
Runs Scored: 813 (5th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 812 (13th in NL)
Free Agents: Vinny Castilla, Mike DeJean, Ray King, Jose Mesa

2006 Proj. Lineup:
1B -- Todd Helton
2B -- Jamey Carroll?
SS -- Troy Tulowitzki
3B -- Garrett Atkins
LF -- Matt Holliday
CF -- Cory Sullivan/Jeff Salazar
RF -- Brad Hawpe/Jeff Baker
C -- Chris Iannetta

2006 Proj. Rotation:
Jason Jennings
Jeff Francis
Aaron Cook
Byung-Hyun Kim
Josh Fogg

2006 Proj. Closer: Brian Fuentes

The Good News:
There's been a lot of talk about humidors and suchlike at Coors Field this year. And rightfully so, because Coors Field in 2006 played at its lowest level of offense in history. The Park Factor for offense in Coors Field last season was 107, meaning it was 7% above average in runs scored. This is still high, but it's not nearly as high as the peak years at Coors Field, and represents a big step down from last year's Park Factor of 113. Let's hope this continues, because now we can all delight in the fact that Coors Field is no longer a freak of nature; it's just a hitter's park. It wasn't even the best in the league -- Cincinnati's Park Factor was 108, and Arizona's was also 107. Yes, we're still dealing with a significant hitter's park, but it looks like the days of 130 Park Factors are over. This makes analysis a whole lot easier; we no longer have to consider Coors Field as a park in and of itself.
This means that the impressive performance by the Rockies' offense cannot be easily dismissed. The Rockies ranked 5th in the NL in runs scored last season, and even if we take their ballpark into account, it means that they were probably above-average. And when you consider the young talent they have about to reach the majors, there's even more reason for optimism.
It will probably just be a year or two before the Rockies are fielding an entirely homegrown lineup. Their current third baseman, Garrett Atkins, had an amazingly unlikely year in 2006, hitting 329/409/556. Remember, we can't dismiss this because of Coors; in fact, Atkins hit just as well away from Coors (313/402/531). There is some question as to where the hell this came from. Atkins has put up good offensive numbers before, but they were almost always a product of the parks he was playing in. He'll be 27 next year and is a butcher on defense, so he may not stay at the position, especially considering the players the Rockies have coming up.
Pushing Atkins off the hot corner will be the likes of Jeff Baker and Ian Stewart. Baker has fought through injury problems to post back-to-back respectable seasons between Triple-A Colorado Springs and the majors. In 2005, Baker hit 303/348/513 in Triple-A before a cup of coffee with the big club. This past season, he hit 305/369/508 before his promotion, and an impressive 368/379/825 with the Rockies. Other than his health, plate discipline is Baker's biggest problem; he posted a 47:124 BB:K mark in his combined 2006 stats. His batting average and power look impressive, but how much of this is the friendly thin air, and will it survive he transformati0n of Coors Field? It's looking doubtful that Baker will unseat Atkins, meaning he'll be spend 2007 back on the shuttle between Triple-A and the bigs.
Ian Stewart, on the other hand, has a much brighter future. Not only is he four years younger than Baker, he's shown a stronger skill set across the board. Strikeouts are an issue here, too, but Stewart has shown better defense, power, and patience throughout the minors. The only issue is that Stewart has never played above Double-A. He spent all of 2006 there and was slightly disappointing (268/351/452), this after a 274/353/497 performance in high A-ball the previous year. Long-term, Stewart will inevitably replace Atkins at third, but it's wishful thinking to expect him to start 2007 there.
With all these guys bouncing around third, the logical solution would be to shift someone across the diamond to first. But there resides the human roadblock known as Todd Helton. Helton is still a great defender with a great batting eye (career .430 OBP), but he's also 33 years old and amazingly expensive. The Rockies have Helton signed up through 2011 for an astonishing $85.5 million. As much as they would like to trade him (and they have tried), it's impossible to find a practical way to digest that contract. The Rockies have a fleet of young options to play the infield and outfield corners, and although Helton is still a fine player (302/404/476 in '06, including 266/360/421 on the road), he's going to be more of a hindrance than a help to the team's long-term plans. The grotesque spending spree that resulted in the Helton, Hampton, and Neagle contracts is still being felt in Colorado and, amazingly, their architect, GM Dan O'Dowd, is still in office. Helton has blocked the development of first basemen in the past and currently stands in the way of Joe Koshansky, who hit 284/371/526 at Triple-A and is not realistically capable of playing anywhere else but at first.
Okay then. Perhaps we could move someone (preferably Atkins) to the outfield corners? Fat chance. Left field is occupied for the foreseeable future by Matt Holliday. Holliday didn't let the humidor get to his head -- his numbers improved across the board in 2006 from his 2005 season (2005: 307/363/505; 2006: 326/387/586). Although we must still take into account Holliday's dramatic home/road splits -- 373/440/692 in Colorado, 280/333/485 on the road -- he's still one of the most effective offensive players at the position. Debating his relative merits in relation to his ballpark is largely academic; Holliday is swatting the hell out of the ball, and at age 26 isn't going anywhere.
What about right field? This would seem to be a much more likely solution if not for the unlikely 2006 performance by incumbent Brad Hawpe. Hawpe was seen as a good hitter, but mostly a product of Coors Field; certainly not the kind of guy to block a better player. But then Hawpe hit 293/383/515 in 2006. Coors Field? Not at all -- Hawpe somehow hit better on the road (303/395/571, compared to 282/369/454). The big surprise season by this 27-year-old cannot be taken at face value; it's doubtful that this fair hitter suddenly became one of the best right fielders in the league. But you can't take that 2006 performance for granted, and it's more than likely that Hawpe will return as the starting right fielder.
In center field, the Rockies have two candidates for the job, but the difference is that neither man has performed well enough to win it outright. Cory Sullivan held the job in 2006 and showed why he's considered fourth outfielder material; he hit 267/321/402 in one of the best hitter's parks in baseball. Prospect Jeff Salazar was supposed to come in and snatch the job away from Sullivan, but that hasn't happened quite yet. Salazar had great success in the low minors by displaying strong defense and good plate discipline, but then slowed down at the higher levels. Salazar's 2006 in Triple-A may look good -- 265/357/433 -- but it's not so amazing in the thin air of Colorado Springs. Salazar will have to improve his average and hit some more doubles and triples if he wants to win the center fielder's job for good. With Sullivan as his competition, that doesn't look too hard.
The rest of the Rockie infield is also full of young hope. The Colorado faithful got a look at shortstop of the future Troy Tulowitzki in late 2006. Although his time in the bigs was disappointing (240/318/292 in 25 games), the 21-year-old tore through the minor leagues, showing a strong all-around game as well as some power potential that should blossom at Coors. While he may still need some time to adjust to the big leagues (he made the jump after 104 games at Double-A, skipping Triple-A entirely), Tulowitzki is one of the best shortstop prospects in the game.
At second base, the Rockies have a familiar problem: too damn many people. But unlike at the other positions, where they have a list of talented (or vaguely talented) players, the list of potential second baseman is a list of everbody who lost their jobs when the good rookies came to town. Clint Barmes parlayed a good half-season in 2005 into instant fame, despite the fact that a) it was at a still-historic Coors Field and b) he'd never shown any signs of being a good player in the minors, where he'd been rotting since 2000. Both shortcomings became hideously obvious in 2006: Coors underwent a downward shift in offense, Barmes' luck ran out, and everyone noticed that he couldn't quite handle shortstop. That combined with a 220/264/335 hitting line, and Barmes was probably the worst player in baseball to get at least 500 PAs. He'll be in the mix for the second base job next year, out of habit I suppose.
The Rockies can point proudly to the season Jamey Carroll had at second in 2006. The resident Lil' Scrappy Infielder Guy hit an other-worldly 300/377/404 -- well above his career levels of 280/356/362. But for those who think this utility infielder suddenly improved at the age of 32, consider his 219/302/320 batting line away from Coors Field. Don't anoint his head with oil just yet.
The other second base possibility is Kaz Matsui, former New York Met washout obtained in a trade out of desperation. Colorado is friendlier to hitters than Shea Stadium, but no one told Matsui, who hit 267/310/379 with still-forgettable defense. The Rockies do have two young second basemen in Omar Quintanilla and Jayson Nix. Unfortunately, neither has shown signs of being anything but a slightly younger version of Carroll.
The Rockies moved another hot prospect into the everyday lineup in 2006 when they installed Chris Iannetta behind the plate. There was no doubt or competition inherent in this decision -- it was the only no-brainer the Rockies could enjoy. A college hitter out of North Carolina, Iannetta pulverized the minor leagues in barely two years spent in the Colorado system. He moved from Double-A (321/418/622) to Triple-A (351/447/510) to the majors (260/370/390) in 2006, installing himself in the starting lineup for the foreseeable future. Hitter's parks or not, Iannetta is one of the best young catchers in baseball and will give the Rockies a glorious respite from the likes of Danny Ardoin and J.D. Closser.

As if that weren't enough good news, the Colorado rotation took to the new Coors Field immediately. All past disappointments were forgotten when Jason Jennings, 2002 NL Rookie of the Year, went from a 5.02 ERA to a 3.78 mark. Although he still suffers from control issues (85 walks in 212 IP), Jennings proved that his breakthrough was at least somewhat legitimate by setting a new career high in strikeouts with 142.
Combining with Jennings was groundball specialist Aaron Cook, who had already shown the ability to succeed at Coors. Cook's low strikeout rate may not seem like an ideal fit for Denver, where balls in play mutate into doubles and homers, but Cook has consistently succeeded with a heavy sinker and the ability to keep the ball on the ground. Even in Denver, it's hard to hit a ground-ball home run.
But the best news was probably the success of young Jeff Francis. Considered one of the best pitching prospects in the game going into 2005, Francis struggled through a difficult season at Coors, posting a 5.68 ERA and a 70:128 BB:K ratio in 183.2 IP. It looked like Coors may have ruined yet another good pitcher. But while his peripherals still bear watching (69:117 BB:K ratio in 2006), he lowered his ERA down to 4.16, a sign of success beyond the change in his playing environment. The return to relative normalcy by Coors Field may be better news to Francis' career than anyone else's.
Behind these three the Rockies were able to get solid innings from Byung-Hyun Kim and Josh Fogg. Despite the fact that their ERAs were near 5.50 (with no 1.30 Park Factor to explain it), they were able to eat up innings and keep the Colorado offense in the game.
As if all of this weren't enough reason to celebrate and yell, "caloo-callay," the Rockies appear to have a top-notch closer who can consistently produce at Coors. Brian Fuentes saved 30 games with a 3.44 ERA and 73 K in 65.1 IP. Despite pitching 286.1 of his 298 career innings at Coors Field, Fuentes has a career 3.62 ERA and a 134:342 BB:K ratio.

The Rockies may have a lot of issues and questions going into 2007, but they're still in fabulous shape. When your problem is having more good players than you have spots in the lineup, you're obviously doing something right. The Colorado youth movement is really starting to pay off, putting the franchise in its best condition in nearly 10 years.

The Bad News:
Really, there isn't a lot to say here. The Rockies may not have the talent to push the Dodgers in 2007 and may, in fact, get stuck behind Arizona and San Diego. But it's really hard to be pessimistic. This franchise appears to be heading into contention, with a strong young lineup and a capable pitching staff. They may have their work cut out for them against the other hot, young teams in their division, but we can finally call the Rockies contenders for the first time since 1995. Let the good times roll.

Offseason Game Plan:
The Rockies are returning all of the important players, losing only a few relief arms to free agency. The bullpen could always use some improvement, but the Rockies need to avoid spending money on overpriced veterans in the 'pen, which is what they've been doing since O'Dowd took over.
While I am optimistic about the Colorado rotation, it's not ironclad by any means. Jennings and Francis look capable of throwing 200+ above-average innings, and Cook isn't far behind them. But if they want to compete with Arizona and Los Angeles, they're going to have to sport something better than a medocre pitching staff. There aren't a lot of options within the system, and it would be folly to drop $60-70 million trying to lure a free agent pitcher to Colorado. But this is the club's biggest problem, and it needs a creative solution if the Rockies want to manage better than a strong 3rd place finish in the coming years.
The starting lineup should be in fine shape, if a bit overstocked. This is the Rockies' biggest advantage: good hitters rendered obsolete by the arrival of young talent. The Rockies are going to have to trade somebody eventually, and I would recommend pushing Atkins and Hawpe right now, when they're coming off what look like career years. You'd be losing a good player who might actually be better than good, but if you can get some pitching, it's worth the risk, especially since you can easily replace them. Look into trading Todd Helton as well, although that seems to be a hopeless proposition at this point.
You've got a lot of good young players, especially hitters. Don't screw it up by going after the next Mike Hampton.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Looking Ahead: Arizona Diamondbacks

I feel kind of bad about being so hard on the NL Central teams. It's not that they don't deserve it, but it tugs at my conscience to kick otherwise well-run teams (St. Louis, Milwaukee) when they're down (or as down as you can be in the midst of a World Championship parade). I have very little compunction about mocking teams like the Reds, but I hate to be such a Gloomy Gus about the NL Central.
Happily, though, we're moving on to the NL West. Just two years removed from being called the "NL Worst," this division boasts some of the best young talent in the game and could be the strongest division in the league as soon as next year. So we got to move on from a depressing division to a division full of bright futures . . . well, outside of San Francisco.
Never the less, we start with a well-run team, indeed: the Arizona Diamondbacks.

2006 W-L Record: 76-86
2006 pW-pL Record: 80-82
Runs Scored: 773 (7th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 788 (7th in NL)
Free Agents: Miguel Batista, Craig Counsell, Luis Gonzalez

Proj. 2007 Lineup:
1B -- Conor Jackson
2B -- Orlando Hudson
SS -- Stephen Drew
3B -- Chad Tracy
LF -- Eric Byrnes
CF -- Chris Young
RF -- Carlos Quentin
C -- Johnny Estrada

Proj. 2007 Rotation:
Brandon Webb
Livan Hernandez
Claudio Vargas
Edgar Gonzalez
Juan Cruz

Proj. 2007 Closer: Jorge Julio?

The Good News:
Any time a team can get rid of tens of millions of dollars in salary and improve, they're doing something right. It's unfortunate that the team's relationship with Luis Gonzalez had to end this way, and while he did mean a hell of a lot to the franchise, it really is best for the team to replace the expensive 39-year-old with a better, younger player. The same could be said for Craig Counsell, who's still good enough to start in the middle infield, but is superfluous with the emergence of Stephen Drew. Hopefully, both players will get good spots on other teams and everyone will end up happy.
Other expensive mistakes made by previous management include Shawn Green, Russ Ortiz, and to a lesser extent, Troy Glaus. Green wasn't so expensive -- Los Angeles was picking up a good deal of his salary -- but the friendly Arizona ballpark was hiding a ballplayer whose skill set was evaporating quickly. We'll never really know what suddenly turned Green into a 40-homer MVP candidate at age 26 or what stole his power away at age 31. Suspicious people would suggest steroids. While I'm as realistic/cynical as the next guy, it's hard to look at the 6'4", 190-pound Shawn Green and see this generation's Jose Canseco.
Russ Ortiz never had any sort of power spike; in fact, all of his "vital signs" were degenerating quickly as he entered free agency. Never the less, the D-Backs gave him gobs of money to become one of the biggest free agent busts ever. The new ownership decided Ortiz would be most valuable to the team if he didn't pitch, or take up a roster spot. So they released him in the summer of 2006 and ate the rest of his big contract. The saddest part of it all was that the D-Backs, like King Oedipus, didn't see the impending tragedy in Ortiz that was perfectly obvious to everyone -- everyone with two eyes, that is. (Greek tragedy humor --available exclusively at Aaron's Baseball Blog).
Glaus was expensive, coming in during the same offseason spending spree as Ortiz. But unlike Ortiz, T-Glaus was productive, hitting 258/363/522 in 2005. But it was poor foresight to sign a free agent third baseman -- the D-Backs already had a third baseman playing at first in Chad Tracy, and a perfect replacement for him in Conor Jackson. If you have two good, young corner infielders making the league minimum, you don't need Troy Glaus. The 'Backs realized this and traded him to Toronto, getting a good haul in exchange with Miguel Batista and Orlando Hudson. The Blue Jays weren't short of corner infielders, either, but we'll leave that puzzling decision for our American League blog.
What enabled the 'Backs to cut away so much payroll was the development of their young players. The first to arrive was Chad Tracy, a tough player in that he doesn't hit well enough to play first or field well enough to play third. But with Conor Jackson arriving at first, the 'Backs decided to err on the side of offense and live with Tracy's work at third. And his defense isn't really that bad, and if he keeps hitting like his 2006 line of 281/343/451, he's a perfectly acceptable compromise.
Jackson was a highly-touted prospect with precocious plate discipline. Jackson's "old player skills" -- power and patience, with little athleticism or contact hitting -- may not bode well for later in his career, but for now, he should be a good young first baseman for the team (291/368/441 in '06).
I mentioned before that the 'Backs got second baseman Orlando Hudson in the Glaus deal. The odd part of the deal was that the Blue Jays traded for a corner infielder -- of which they already had three or four -- and in the process gave up a good middle infielder -- of which they had exactly zero. And while the Jays young replacements continued to struggle in the middle infield, Hudson quietly had another fine year in Arizona. He may not look sensational -- he's a career 275/335/428 hitter who improved to 287/354/454 in his first season in Arizona. But when you're getting that production from the best defensive second baseman in baseball (19 FRAA in '06, with at least 15 FRAA in every full season of his career), you've got an underrated gem. Hudson is especially valuable for Arizona, whose top pitcher (Brandon Webb) gives up nearly 2/3 ground balls.
The club got good production and fine defense from Counsell at shorstop in '06, but will be letting him walk as a free agent this year. They'll be doing this because they have 23-year-old Stephen Drew to take his place. Drew, younger brother of Dodger outfielder J.D., is a big-time prospect who came roaring out of Florida State to make it through the minors and into the starting lineup in one-and-a-half seasons. Drew hasn't reached his full potential yet, but it's encouraging that in his 58 major league games this past year, he hit 316/357/517. Drew can handle shortstop, and with his power he has a lot of people excited about his future.
The Arizona outfield is no less exciting. The centerpiece is center fielder Chris Young. The D-Backs got him from the White Sox in the Javier Vazquez deal. It's understandable that the White Sox, with more than one major league-ready center fielder, would be prepared to trade one of them away. But the general consensus in the year since that trade is that the White Sox got rid of the wrong guy. Young is an exciting all-around prospect, with power, plate discipline, speed, and defense. He's only 23 years old next year, and like Drew, has already made it to the big leagues. Young's time in the majors was less successful -- he hit only 243/308/386 -- but that was in a mere 70 ABs. And even if he does have a bit more developing to do, he's got nothing left to prove in the minors and is the best (and cheapest) choice for the organization.
Right fielder Carlos Quentin's numbers are jaw-dropping even in the hitter-friendly minor league system that the Diamondbacks enjoy. Quentin started the minors in 2004 at high A-Ball and hit 310/428/562. He was promoted to Double-A in mid-season and hit 357/443/533 there. He spent the entire 2005 season in Triple-A Tucson and destroyed the PCL to the tune of 301/422/520. With Gonzalez and Green still clogging things up, Quentin started out 2006 in Triple-A, but got promoted to the bigs after hitting 289/424/487 in his first 85 games. He played 56 games with the big club, hitting 252/339/534. He's already shown power with the big club, and his minor league stats suggest a wide range of offensive skills. He hits for a good average, draws walks, and almost never strikes out despite good power. He is, in other words, a gift-wrapped major league right fielder waiting to be unwrapped for next year. He, along with Young, has the potential to break out big-time in 2007. He's also still a wee lad, just 24 years old. It's because of players like this that I get so optimistic about the D-Backs' future.
The only downside is that with Gonzalez gone, the sub-par Eric Byrnes will be slotted in left field. Byrnes shares Ryan Freel's unfortunate predilection for high-speed collisions with outfield walls, and at age 31, he isn't going to get any better. Byrnes' 2006 "improvement" was tied up entirely in his power; he hit 267/313/484, which looks suspiciously like a poor hitter taking advantage of the cozy Arizona park. The only good news here is that Byrnes isn't expensive, and the 'Backs have enough production from the rest of the lineup to compensate.
At catcher, the 'Backs have capable, tolerable Johnny Estrada. GM Josh Byrnes wisely nabbed Estrada from the Braves for a pair of non-essential relief arms in early 2006, after the D-Backs' other catching prospects had failed miserably in '05. Estrada provided welcome stability behind the plate and should do so again in 2007. Whether he will be in Arizona is questionable; the 'Backs look like they finally have a young catcher ready for success in Miguel Montero, who had a good year even by Triple-A Tucson standards in 2006 (321/396/515). The Backs may choose to stick with Estrada and phase Montero in, or they may just trade him now and give the job to the youngster. It's really a win-win scenario when you have more major league catchers than you need.
Pitching-wise, it's a less optimistic story. Granted, the 2006 squad managed a 4.48 ERA, which is respectable in that park. But they'll be losing a big part of that in Miguel Batista, who will provide his LAIM (league-average innings-muncher) services elsewhere. They will be returning ace Brandon Webb, who finally got some well-deserved recognition in 2006 with a performance that may earn him a Cy Young. Webb, a Kentucky native, improved upon a solid 2005 by managing an excellent 3.10 ERA in 235 innings, posting a fine 50:178 BB:K ratio. It's true that Webb's Cy Young case is mainly due to the weak field in 2006, but he's also a fine pitcher with a solid track record who should be pitching well in Arizona for some time to come.

The Bad News:
Behind Webb, things in the starting rotation get a little hairy. The club acquired Livan Hernandez at the trading deadline and will have him for another year in 2007. Hernandez managed a solid 3.76 ERA with the team, although his 26:39 BB:K ratio indicates that he may still be the disappointing guy who started out the season with a 5.34 mark in Washington. While he may not be that good, Hernandez is the most durable starter in baseball, which is good news for a staff that may be working in some projects and rookies in the #3-5 spots.
Speaking of projects, you have Juan Cruz. Cruz used to be a highly-regarded starter in the Cubs system, but amazingly, some time spent under Dusty Baker didn't do his career any favors. He found some success in Oakland as a relief pitcher, but after coming to the Diamondbacks, the club tried to resurrect him as a starter to fill out their weak rotation. Cruz did tolerably well -- his 4.18 ERA in 15 starts and 16 relief appearances masks a lot of inconsistency, but he did notch 88 strikeouts in his 94.2 IP. He's not a sure thing by any stretch of the imagination, but even a makeshift starter would be a blessing for this club.
Claudio Vargas isn't really a project, I guess; he's a 28-year-old with a 4.92 career ERA that accurately represents his abilities. But he is able to stay in ballgames and pitch some innings, and even a Livan Lite could work as a fifth starter on this club.
The club has a few other options. Edgar Gonzlaez and Enrique Gonzalez are not only confusing to tell apart on the scoresheet, they're both pitchers who have yet to translate their minor league success to the majors. They've got some other young pitchers in their system who could start in the majors -- Dustin Nippert or Adam Bass -- but you couldn't really expect them to be much better than either Gonzalez. While the D-Backs could go out and get a #3 pitcher -- or just re-sign Batista -- they may decide to be fiscally conservative (for a change) and just do the best they can with what they've got in Spring Training. I'm not sure which would move be the right one -- the lower minors don't look much more promising than the high minors in terms of pitching prospects -- but at the same time, I can understand an unwillingness to spend $8 million a year for the likes of Jeff Suppan. Unfortunately, it might take free agency to improve the Arizona rotation -- unless they can swing a good trade.
The Ariz0na bullpen is a work in progress, but in a more positive sense than the rotation. The closer's role is still open, although the club will likely opt for Jorge Julio. Julio won't help you much (career 4.20 ERA), but he won't kill you either. And the 'Backs got good work in the 'pen from Luis Vizcaino, Brandon Lyon, and Brandon Medders last season. Combine that with whichever E. Gonzalez is left out of the rotation and some minor league possibilities, and you should end up with a P.A.B -- perfectly acceptable bullpen.

Offseason Game Plan:
Have a cup of coffee and read a nice book. Seriously, though, the Diamondbacks have little to gain from the free agent market apart from the occasional role player. While a #3 starter would be good, my hunch is that the D-Backs will save their money and go with what they've got. This puts them in the enviable position of getting to sit back and watch other teams scramble to save their dying teams (most notably San Francisco) while most of their hard work is already done.
This isn't to suggest that the front office should be idle or complacent. On the contrary, Byrnes should keep his ear to the ground for any good pitchers on the trading block. The 'Backs should be willing to work from a position of strength and improve their pitching staff, but they also don't have any truly pressing need to do so. Their offense alone should make them contenders in a division where 90 wins could mean a trip to October. But it will take some smart work in putting together a patchwork pitching staff to get them that far. Especially since their division rivals in Los Angeles have some good young talent of their own.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Looking Ahead: St. Louis Cardinals

I felt that this would be the appropriate place to discuss the Cardinals' World Series victory. Everything that needs to be said about the Cardinals has been said: they're the worst World Champions ever, but it's not such a big deal. Not only is their winning percentage the worst ever for a World Champion, but two more sophisticated measures of team quality agree. Baseball Prospectus uses third-order wins and ELO (which I thought was the name of a boy band) to demonstrate that the Cardinals were indeed worse than the '87 Twins, '03 Marlins or '00 Yankees.
But it's not such a big deal. Right now, everyone's totally positive about the Cardinals (and anyone who isn't gets an earful from a not-always-sensible fanbase). But in the months and years to come, I think a lot of people are going to use the example of the Cardinals as a way to debunk the Wild Card or to change the current playoff system.
Anytime you expand the playoffs, you're increasing the possibility that a lesser team will win the World Series. It happened with two divisions per league, and it's happening with three divisions. And even then, no switching around of divisions will change what happens in the Series itself. Were the '69 Mets a better team than the '69 Orioles? Highly unlikely. But they won the World Series. Any time you reduce a 162-game season to a 5- or 7-game affair, this is the risk you take.
Is it a risk we can live with? Yeah. I think too many people have spent all of their lives believing in the magic of October destiny and are quickly becoming disillusioned. I never had such illusions. The idea that the magic of October and the World Series somehow show the real best team in baseball is farcical. I've always known and felt that luck and talent have far more to do with it than magic. But for those romantics (usually writers), it's a difficult disillusionment.
This isn't to say that I'm thrilled that the Cardinals won, but I guess I just look at it philosophically. The '87 Cardinals were definitely a better team than the Twins, the '85 Cards were probably better than the Royals, and the '04 Cardinals were better than their Series sweep would indicate. I look at 2006 as the Cardinals' "lifetime achievement award." This is for all those times you deserved to win but never did; we'll make it up to you now. It's never too late. The Cardinals have achieved semi-dynastic status since 1996, but had no World Championship to show for it; even the Braves got at least one. And the world is a better place when the best player in baseball, Albert Pujols, has a World Series ring. Too many great baseball players -- such as Mel Ott, Ernie Banks, Phil Niekro or even Craig Biggio -- never did.
As for the baseball itself, it could best be described as "ugly." The games were usually close, but there was rarely any thought that you were watching top-notch baseball. The errors by the Tiger pitchers received a lot of press; I don't think they prove much at all, but the freaky nature of it is astounding. No pitching staff ever made as many errors in a World Series and remember, this one only lasted five games. What would we have seen in a Game 6 or Game 7? Kenny Rogers colliding with the right field umpire? Nate Robertson getting a ball stuck inside his shirt? I shudder to think.
A lot of it was attributed to youth, and I guess this was somewhat true. Anyone with any idea of body language could certainly tell that Justin Verlander was nervous as hell and pitching like it. It was jaw-dropping to see him make the exact same error as Joel Zumaya -- throwing the ball to third when he should have thrown it to first, and sending it about a foot or two out of the reach of Brandon Inge. But at least those were explainable by the quick thinking required in tense circumstances. Fernando Rodney's error was more puzzling; it was a slow comebacker that he had plenty of time on. But he bare-handed the ball and then let it fly about two or three feet over Placido Polanco's head. They should check Rodney's vision for depth perception; Placido Polanco is not going to be mistaken for Andre the Giant.
But that's really something about nothing, at least in the big picture. Obviously, those errors cost the Tigers big; all of them came in high-leverage situations and all of them led to at least one run. But it's hard for me to believe that these were the result of much more than chance; it's evident that the Tigers have some defensive issues, but to pass sweeping judgment on them all based on 5 games is silly. Curtis Granderson is not a bad center fielder, but anyone who slips and falls while tracking a fly ball is going to look like one. Craig Monroe isn't a bad left fielder, either; but he played a line drive oddly and then had it skip off the end of his glove. Bad decisions, absolutely -- but not bad players, not necessarily.
One of the problems with baseball (and a lot of things in life) is that people pass sweeping judgments based on very little evidence. This is especially true of baseball commentators; it is, after all, their job. They can take one play and make it turn into a statement about the entire team and sometimes even about baseball in general. This makes what they're doing sound more interesting, and it makes them sound smarter. But it's still just one play; one of a million in a baseball season. But as I said, it's their job; people want to hear things about Kenny Rogers' "personal transformation in the heated crucible of October;" they don't want to hear someone say, "Yeah, he's a good pitcher who was unlucky a few years back . . . yup . . . that's it."
As for the Tigers, their weaknesses finally caught up with them. I said sometime back in July that i'd finally stopped waiting for the Tigers' poor plate discipline to severely affect them; well, I guess I waited long enough. The Tigers finally ran up against a pitching staff that was able to exploit their hack-happy ways. As Keith Law said, the Tigers were hitting like there was a bomb in the dugout. The Cardinals' finesse pitchers were indeed finessing, and the Tigers were able to go up against the likes of Jeff Weaver and make themselves look bad. This isn't to say that Weaver pitched poorly, but if anything the Tigers were helping him out.
After Game 4 of the Series, Tiger leadoff hitter (and at the time, hitless wonder) Curtis Granderson said the Tigers needed to be "more aggressive" at the plate. Coach Andy Van Slyke echoed these sentiments. This is roughly akin to a drowning man saying, "Yes, I know I'm drowning, so I'm going to dive down to the bottom of the ocean and look for oxygen down there." It's like an army general claiming that there weren't enough Japanese bombers at Pearl Harbor. It's like a doctor treating brain cancer with an appendectomy.
More aggressive? Were the Tigers really getting tired of all of those two-and-three pitch at-bats? Did they think that standing at the plate for longer than 3 seconds would freeze their brain? My goodness but some people don't have the best problem-solving skills.
Unfortunately, the American viewing public was well aware of the dim nature of this year's Series combatants and showed it by decisively not watching it. I haven't seen the data on the Series as a whole, but early reports showed that Game 3 was the worst-rated Game 3 in history, and that the 3-game average was also the worst ever. I doubt things got better for Games 4 and 5.
This just isn't good news; it never is, when you're consistently setting new lows with every consecutive postseason, interrupted only by the once-in-a-lifetime Boston Red Sox spectacular in 2004. Attendance at baseball games is flourishing, and the money is flowing into the game at an unprecedented level. But there's just no good way to spin news that's this bad; baseball may be the national "pastime," but it hasn't been the national sport since the 1960's. Baseball has fallen far behind football and basketball and is getting dangerously close to hockey, NASCAR, and soccer. Actually, the sport baseball bears the closest resemblance to is golf. It's something that many Americans do, and they very much enjoy getting outdoors and being a part of it. But they don't want to watch it on TV.
A lot of this has to do with the growing regionalism of baseball; I'd say that more than ever, fans in baseball are tied solely to their hometown teams and show little interest in games played by other teams, with the possible exception of the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, Dodgers and Braves.
Example: I came across a picture in a book I read recently. It showed a throng of a couple thousand people in Times Square. They were all gathered around a board set up in the middle of the square, but were spilling out into the street and bringing everything to a standstill. Why were they there? To watch the returns from the World Series. Now, keep in mind, they weren't watching the Series itself; they were watching the games reenacted on a large board with a baseball diamond displaying the score and the action. The news was sent in by telegraph and posted on these boards in cities across America. They drew crowds everywhere to follow the games, even though they were second-hand from thousands of miles away. This World Series drew a few thousand into Times Square just to watch this re-enactment. The kicker is that this was the 1919 World Series -- between Cincinnati and Chicago, both of them very far away from New York. Neither of the two teams had a significant national following; indeed, the Reds were a perennial doormat that had just won their first pennant of the century. While allowing that there may have been an inordinate number of gamblers in this particular crowd, the picture struck me a stark contrast to where baseball is today. We can't even get people excited enough to sit on their own couches and watch the game. These people were standing out in the cold on a city street to watch a chalkboard re-enactment of a baseball game. There were thousands like them in every major city in America, major league or not.
The only modern parallel is the Super Bowl; everyone watches the Super Bowl, even if they're not football fans. What a brilliant achievement in marketing this is! To get people who don't like your product to watch it anyway, but only once a year so you can charge historically exorbitant amounts for advertising. Football has taken baseball's place as the national pastime, and I don't think that's going to change in my lifetime.

But enough of that gloom and doom. We can all celebrate for the Cardinals, who hadn't won the Series in 22 years. They'll always have the flags and the rings, even if nobody was watching when they won them.
Is there any chance the Cardinals could return to the Series in 2007? Let's find out (sorry, I take the segues when I can get them):

2006 W-L Record: 83-78
2006 pW-pL Record: 82-79
Runs Scored: 781 (6th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 762 (5th in NL)

Free Agents: Ronnie Belliard, Gary Bennett, Jason Marquis, Mark Mulder, Scott Spiezio, Jeff Suppan, Jeff Weaver
Pending Options: Jim Edmonds, Preston Wilson

2007 Proj. Lineup:
1B -- Albert Pujols
2B -- Aaron Miles
SS -- David Eckstein
3B -- Scott Rolen
LF -- Chris Duncan
CF -- Jim Edmonds*
RF -- Juan Encarnacion
C -- Yadier Molina

2007 Proj. Rotation:
Chris Carpenter
Anthony Reyes
Adam Wainwright
Brad Thompson?

2007 Proj. Closer: Jason Isringhausen

The Good News:
Well, if it worked this year, it might work next year. But that rotation is about as stable as Danny Bonaduce. GM Walt Jocketty will certainly take steps to address this in the offseason, but it will be difficult; pitching will be going at historic prices this year, and the Cardinals don't have anyone ready to step up from the minors.
Yeah, I know this is supposed to be the good news, but I can't just start off with optimism without setting it in a very tough reality. The optimism surrounds the lineup, which returns pretty much intact. To my knowledge, the option on Jim Edmonds in center field is still pending for 2007, but I imagine the Cards will pick it up. He's still a star player so long as he isn't concussed, and the Cards certainly don't need guys like So Taguchi getting 300+ ABs again next year.
If the is option picked up, the Cardinals will be returning their star troika of Pujols-Edmonds-Rolen. The good news is that Pujols is still a perennial MVP, and Rolen and Edmonds are still perennial All-Stars. The latter two are starting to get pretty brittle, especially for their age (Rolen will be 32 next year, Edmonds turns 37 next June). You can't exactly bank on those guys for 600 PAs a year, especially not at the level of their historic 2004 performances. But if they're in the lineup and are still mostly productive, they're still dangerous, as they proved in the Series.
Beyond these three, the lineup lacks depth. Chris Duncan emerged as an unlikely power hitter in 2006; his 293/363/589 performance in 90 games helped replace Reggie Sanders and give the Cardinals something besides out machines Preston Wilson and Juan Encarnacion in the outfield corners. But notice that I said "unlikely." The odds that Duncan slugs anything near .589 in the future are beyond remote. In the minors, his best mark was .473, at Double-A in 2004. It's true that hitters can develop power, but it's wishful thinking to imagine that Duncan has developed from a decent slugger into a monster. That makes his role in 2006 especially touchy, especially since his outfield defense is obviously sub-par. Some people are bad outfielders, but get by with it, because their weakness is range, which is mostly invisible. Sadly, Duncan's weaknesses are all too apparent, and he got to show them to the world in October. It's not fair for him to catch too much heat; he's a natural first baseman who obviously isn't playing there in St. Louis. Even if he's just a sometime slugger, you have to get his bat in the lineup. And it doesn't hurt when your Dad's the pitching coach.
While the Cardinals do have several quality defenders, as far as offense goes it's hard to get excited about any of the remaining slots in the lineup. Juan Encarnacion is one of the most overrated guys out there; he has the reputation of being decent, when he's not even that. He has occasional power on mistake pitches when he's not maintaining that .316 career OBP. But at least he has a .269 career average. And he did hit 20 home runs . . . once. But other than that, he's aces (sarcasm fully intended).
I've talked about David Eckstein before. He doesn't really hurt you much -- solid defense, above-average on-base skills -- but he's not going to help you either. He was the World Series MVP, yes, in the proud tradition of Bucky Dent (1978), Pat Borders (1992), and Ron Cey, Pedro Guerrero and Steve Yeager (all 1981, talk about your indecisive voters). But really, he only won the award because 1) he's short and therefore scrappy -- tall, strong guys are genetically incapable of being "scrappy" -- and 2) the Tiger outfield turned a couple outs into doubles. Eckstein played his part, but let's calm down and call a halt to the coronation.
At second base, the Cardinals have no one. There will be no one 0n the field playing the position at all, leaving Eckstein and Pujols to shift closer together to compensate. Runners stealing second will make it easily when the catcher's throw sails into center field, and a shortstop throwing to second for the double play will only send the ball hurtling into the right field corner. Unless they can find a center fielder with really good range, they will be in trouble.
All kidding aside, though, this is a big hole. The Baseball Prospectus annual said before the season, "Realistically, a team looking at [Junior] Spivey, [Deivi] Cruz, [Aaron] Miles annd [Hector] Luna as their second base alternatives has no second baseman. On the plus side, the loss of Ronnie Belliard (237/295/371 with the team) doesn't really hurt them at all.
At catcher, the Cardinals find themselves in a familiar dilemma; they have a player whose great defensive talent is equalled only by his great lack of offensive talent. Yadier Molina is a fine defensive catcher, and I'm not just saying that. But when you're a weak hitting catcher and you go into a slump (216/274/321 in 47 ABs), you should just not bother. On the plus side, Molina is only 24 and should get better. He has good power potential, too. But here's hoping he doesn't go on the official Molina Brothers diet and turn out like his brother Bengie, who runs as if his legs were sewn together.
I shouldn't take such pleasure in making semi-witty comments about the Cardinals. They ranked 6th in the NL in scoring this past season, and that was with a concussed Jim Edmonds and a touchy Scott Rolen. The bar is set low in the NL Central, and maybe they can pitch their way to a repeat as division champions.

The Bad News:
I know I made that last paragraph sound like the bad news, but it really, really wasn't. The Cardinal rotation is the bad news, in its most violent form.

Well, first off, I'll just put it right out there that Chris Carpenter is an ace pitcher. I'm not going to qualify that statement in any way, except perhaps to say that he's turning 32 and has thrown a lot of pitches recently. But that's splitting hairs; he's an excellent pitcher and should be top-notch in 2006.
And the rest of the St. Louis rotation will be crafted in Gepetto's shop. To be fair, Anthony Reyes has a great deal of promise as a starter, even though he was inconsistent this past year. Adam Wainwright had a great showing as closer when Jason Isringhausen got injured, but the Cards need him in the starting rotation, especially when Izzy comes back. He's got a lot of promise, which is more than I can say for everybody else.
In trying to come up with another two pitchers for the St. Louis rotation, I was pretty much stumped. Look back at that list of free agents: that is the Cardinal rotation from 2006, minus Carpenter's full season and Reyes' half-season. I give Walt Jocketty credit for being able to wangle something out of a tough free agent market, but he's got his work cut out for him. And there isn't really a Plan B. The only real option I could find was Brad Thompson; he was a starter in the low minors before being shifted into the bullpen last year. Realistically, though, Thompson's shift was with good reason; he was struggling as a starter. The Cards do still have Jorge Sosa, I think, but it shouldn't have to come to that.
But since I put so much bad news in the good news heading, I'll compensate with this: if Jocketty can find someone to fill in the middle of the rotation, the Cardinals wouldn't be in bad shape. Perferably, this would be someone with the quality of a #2, because as good as Reyes could be, you don't want to count on him to be the second best pitcher on your team. But if you've got someone ahead of him, then you've got a lot more depth and much more quality in your starters. Finding a fifth starter isn't easy, but it's not nearly as difficult as getting a #2; Walt Jocketty should be up to it.
I would criticize the Cardinals for their slim farm system, but this is hardly appropriate for a team that just won the World Series. Jocketty has never been a gung-ho, homegrown sort of fellow, but unlike other GMs, he usually makes the right decisions and keeps the right people. The Cardinals did have a few possibilities among both pitchers and players in the minors, but it seems (from what I saw) that the Cardinals' prospects took a collective step back this year. This hurts them both in the outfield, the middle infield, and in the pitching department. But that kind of thing is hard to predict; you just have to roll with the punches. And Jocketty rolls about as well as anyone.

Offseason Game Plan:
Pitching help is obviously top priority. There are issues with the lineup, but first attention should be paid to getting a strong pitcher. It would preferably be someone who's clearly above-average and can fill in with 30+ good starts in the #2 role. Realistically, there are about 15 teams looking for that kind of guy, and the market prices will be crazy. If you can find a #3-level guy who's durable, then settle for that. Look into re-signing Suppan, who knows (if he's smart) that he's dead meat if he goes to the AL.
If you can get a good starting pitcher, turn your attention to the lineup. The bullpen isn't a real issue; you've got several good arms knocking around out there, and this year's postseason shows that Tony LaRussa has the personnel to prosper even without Isringhausen. As for the #5 starter's spot, this shouldn't be a problem for a clever man like Jocketty. Look for a low-end guy who can provide you some returns (I would say Jeff Weaver, but his postseason performance has jacked up his asking price). Sign some emergency guys to minor league contracts, etc. etc. Don't go for anything as volatile (and as awful) as Sidney Ponson; if Russ Ortiz calls, hang up.
In the lineup, second base is your top priority. It's not a thick market for second baseman, and in fact, the talent at this position is pretty poor around baseball. There will be rich teams going after Julio Lugo, but give him your best sales pitch. He can play all over the infield, steal bases, and bunt; LaRussa will love him. He's got a good enough bat and glove that he'll actually be a true asset more than just a placeholder. Don't make the Deivi Cruz mistake; you can sign three guys that are just as good/bad as Miles, and while that does increase your depth, it doesn't help your ballclub, because your second baseman is still going to suck.
There's really nothing you can do at catcher, nor should you; Molina is so good defensively that you should just stick with him and hope that this year was as bad as it gets. In left field, you really have to stick with Chris Duncan until he proves otherwise. As much as I think he's a sizable fluke in left field, he's the best thing you've got. Unless Moises Alou just drops in your lap for a 1-year/$5 million deal, you'll have to stick with Duncan.
Juan Encarnacion, however, should be traded, but won't. He's got a free agent deal of his own, and you know how GMs are at admitting their mistakes. That plus I don't know if the Cardinals are really aware of how much of a liability he is; he's one of the worst starting right fielders in baseball. And it's not like this is some sudden development; he's been one of the worst for years.
A #2 or #3 pitcher and a second baseman should be at the top of the Cards' shopping list this off-season. Keep your ears open for a good deal on a corner outfielder, but don't get desperate and sign another Encarnacion. You've got as much chance as anybody at winning the division next year. Just try to maintain what you've got.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Looking Ahead: Pitt. Pirates

2006 W-L Record: 67-95
2006 pW-pL Record: 71-91
Runs Scored: 691 (16th in NL -- last)
Runs Allowed: 797 (9th in NL)
Free Agents: Joe Randa, Victor Santos
Pending Options: Jeromy Burnitz

2007 Projected Lineup:
1B -- Xavier Nady
2B -- Jose Castillo
SS -- Jack Wilson
3B -- Freddy Sanchez
LF -- Jason Bay
CF -- Chris Duffy/Jose Bautista
RF -- Jeromy Burnitz*/Nate McLouth
C -- Ronny Paulino

2007 Proj. Rotation:
Zach Duke
Ian Snell
Paul Maholm
Tom Gorzellany
Shawn Chacon?

2007 Proj. Closer: Mike Gonzalez

The Good News:
This is always a short section in Pittsburgh. But truly, the Pirates have some impressive young pitchers arriving in the majors. Duke, Snell, and Maholm all have some potential either as quality hurlers or at least reliable arms. That's quite an accomplishment for the Pirates, who have been terrible at developing pitchers for years now; in fact, you could argue that the Pirates are among the worst franchises ever at developing them. Vern Law and Wilbur Cooper were fine pitchers, don't get me wrong; but if you've been around for over 100 years and those two are the best you've come up with, then that's a problem.
The Pirates fell victim to the need for an "established closer" from 2004-5 and were lucky they got nothing worse than moderate production from Jose Mesa. This past year, the Pirates finally just gave the job to a talented young hurler out of the bullpen and saw strong results. Mike Gonzalez came over from Boston along with Freddy Sanchez in what now looks like a pretty lopsided trade from Boston. True, the Red Soxs weren't giving up any Hall-of-Famers, but all they got in return was a poor half-season of Jeff Suppan. After toiling in relative obscurity, the Pirates finally decided to take the conservative route and make a closer out of someone in the organization. Gonzalez repaid them by posting a 2.17 ERA with 64 K in 54 IP. That's not out of line with his true level of talent, either; in three full seasons of relief, Gonzalez has managed a 2.37 career ERA, with 183 K in 155.2 IP. Hopefully, the Gonzalez experiment will encourage more teams to make closers out of strikeout pitchers already in their bullpen.
As far as the lineup goes, there's not much of note here, but there are some promising factors. Jason Bay stands head and shoulders ahead of anyone, but then he's one of the best players in the National League, so it's indeed surprising to see him in Pittsburgh at all. Bay won Rookie of the Year in 2004 (the first Pirate ever to do so) and has compiled a 292/390/546 lifetime batting line. He's a slugger, but he also has well-rounded hitting abilities, although he is prone to strikeouts. But in any event, the Pirates are truly lucky to have him. Let's see if they can turn his prime years into anything useful for the team.
Third baseman Freddy Sanchez won the batting title in an unlikely breakout campaign this past season. His final hitting line of 344/378/473 belies anything he's done since the minor leagues. But even if he does fall back below .300 (as is likely), he'll still be a useful third baseman, and that's worth something.
After #1 catching prospect Ryan Doumit failed to impress (208/322/389), the Pirates turned to their #2, Ronny Paulino, and were paid off in aces (310/360/394). Paulino has a fine defensive reputation and his hitting skills are for real. He may not make any All-Star teams, but there's a lot worse things to have than a solid defensive backstop with some offense to boot.
The Pirates, disappointing though they always are, do have some promising pieces in place. This is a team with low expectations, but it's not unreasonable to expect this team to finish over .500 in the next few years, something they haven't done since winning the NL East in 1992.

The Bad News:
This is a pretty poor team, and the prospects for improvement are, realistically, not that great. While the Pirates do have the pieces in place to form a competitive team, there's no reason to think that this organization, one of the poorest in baseball, will be able to translate that into long-term success.
The Pirates have had some promising young pitchers since 1992, but have almost never been able to translate that into success. The Pirates at one point had the semi-promising troika of Jason Schmidt, Esteban Loaiza, and Francisco Cordova. While that might seem like the basis upon which to build at least a .500 ballclub, the Pirates failed miserably. Although the front office personnel is different, their level of competence is unfortunately pretty much the same.
It's for this reason that I refuse to get too excited about the Pirates' young pitchers. It's not that I don't see their talent; it's just that I don't expect that talent to be developed and exploited to any great degree. 2006 was a disturbing prelude in this regard; Zach Duke led the team in ERA with a 4.47 mark. Snell finished at 4.74 and Maholm at 4.76. This was not out of line with their peripherals, as only Snell managed a respectable strikeout rate (74:169 in 186 IP). This could just be the sign of the growing pains experienced by any prospects, and to some extent I'm sure it is. But I also think it's a sign that we should never be optimistic about the future in Kevin McGlinchy's Pittsburgh.
As far as the lineup goes, the Pirates finished dead last in the NL in runs scored, and there's nothing to suggest that it's a fluke or a passing phase. You could argue that they were somewhat better than the Cubs, due to ballparks and all, but that's a dubious distinction if ever there was one. The Pirates have a decent base of talent in Bay, Paulino, and Sanchez, as well as defensive whiz Jack Wilson, but that's about it. A small trickle of prospects makes the offense look better in 2007, but it will probably still be a below-average batting order by any measure.

Offseason Game Plan:
Don't do what you do in every other offseason: don't sign low-level free agents that do nothing to help your long-term plans. The Pirates, like the Royals, do this every year. I'm convinced that they do this not just out of incompetence (although that could always play a part), but because they're more interested in creating a small buzz and selling some season tickets than actually putting together a winning ballclub.
I think that, in a fan's eyes, the worst thing a GM can do in the offseason is nothing at all. In the eyes of fans, reporters, and players, a GM has to make some "moves" to prove the franchise's commitment to winning. Inaction means incompetence. They say that you should go out and sign some people, even if they're low-level, to help push the team into contention.
I think that this is ludicrous; it's a ludicrous thing for fans and reporters to ask for, and it's ludicrous that the Pirates kowtow to it instead of building up a long-term winner. In the 2006 preseason, the Pirates traded for Sean Casey and signed Joe Randa and Jeromy Burnitz to free agent deals. I'm sure that every columnist in Pittsburgh wrote that this showed the Pirates' "commitment to winning," that they were willing to spend money to improve the team.
I'm sorry, but no team that goes out and gets Casey, Randa, and Burnitz is committed to "winning," and it's ludicrous to suggest that these players are much help at all in that regard. You'd be better off spending your money on a flashy center-field fountain than on Sean Casey. But if the only standard is that a GM must do "something," we can't really blame guys like Kevin McGlinchy for making useless, expensive free agent moves just to keep their jobs and protect the slow trickle of season ticket sales.
We fans and reporters are as much to blame as anyone for this. I challenge a reporter to come forward in Pittsburgh and say that the Pirates must do nothing in the offseason free agent market. That doesn't mean that they can't explore a valuable trade or look for some underrated help to sign to low-end deals, but the Pirates have to stay away from any sort of major money commitment. If the reporters will take a stand on this, that will be a big help. The next thing is that the fans must hold the team to a more reasonable commitment: do what's best for the team, never just make a move for its own sake. If you make a lot of moves that only end up hurting the team, we're not going to call in to the "Jimmy Whine Whine" local sports talk show and say that the team has a "commitment to winning" or that "hey, at least they did something." We want what's best for the team. And besides, saying that the Pirates are "committed to winning" is like saying that Josef Stalin was committed to human rights.
Stay the course with your young talent and resist the urge to sign the next Reggie Sanders, or Jeromy Burnitz, or Benito Santiago, or Randall Simon or . . . you get the idea. Some low-budget teams can get by with making small free-agent deals, but you've shown such sheer incompetence at choosing which players to take a chance on that it's better you do nothing at all. Always explore trades, and never settle on someone for the sake of continuing mediocrity. Of course, while I'm getting the Pirates to stop settling for mediocrity, I might as well get the Palestinians to stop settling in the West Bank.
This is a hopeless franchise; not because there are no talented players, but because there is no clue in this organization how to win baseball games. Until they get one, the relative talent of their young players is pretty much irrelevant.

Looking Ahead: Milw. Brewers

2006 W-L Record: 75-87
2006 pW-pL Record: 71-91
Runs Scored: 730 (14th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 833 (14th in NL)
Free Agents: David Bell, Jeff Cirillo, Tony Graffanino, Dan Kolb, Tomo Ohka

2007 Projected Lineup:
1B -- Prince Fielder
2B -- Rickie Weeks
SS -- J.J. Hardy
3B -- Corey Koskie
LF -- Bill Hall/Corey Hart
CF -- Brady Clark/Anthony Gwynn
RF -- Geoff Jenkins
C -- Damian Miller

2007 Proj. Rotation:
Ben Sheets
Chris Capuano
Dave Bush
Doug Davis

2007 Proj. Closer: Francisco Cordero

The Good News:
Pretty much everything went wrong for the Brewers in 2006. They came in as a team considered to be a dark horse contender for the Wild Card. They finished a few furlongs back, in the uncomfortable company of the Cubs and Pirates. The long-term plan for Milwaukee is still solid, although you can't ignore the ugly setback that was 2006.
The Brewers will be fielding a top-notch infield in 2006, 3/4 homegrown and pretty cheap. Fielder (271/347/483) and Weeks (279/363/404) have already proven themselves in the majors, although both performed a shade worse than was anticipated. Shortstop J.J. Hardy was held back by injuries once again, but should be back on track in time for 2007. He was projected to be a very strong young shortstop, and still is, although the past two years must be taken into account. Third base will be manned by trade acquisition Corey Koskie. Koskie is very expensive, but is also solid (261/343/490 in '06) when not struggling with his own injuries. Damian Miller picked up his option to return as catcher. He's not that good anymore (251/322/390), but he's by far the best option in the organization for 2007.
Most of the questions in the lineup are in the outfield, as you might have deduced from the squadron of players who will be competing for playing time. Almost nothing is set in stone, and while there is a lot of potential, there are also a lot of questions. Things didn't turn out so well in 2006 (especially after the team replaced Carlos Lee with Kevin Mench), but there is good hope for 2007.
The one certainty will be Geoff Jenkins, although it's unclear whether he'll be in left or right field. Jenkins is the last holdover from the bad old days and is still earning the salary of a mediocre player who is nonetheless a franchise staple. Jenkins has had a couple of good years recently, including a surprising 271/357/434 in 2006, but this is the last year of his deal, and at age 32, it's doubtful the Brewers will pick up his option for 2008.
The other corner outfield spot will likely come down to Corey Hart, the organizational Prospect Without a Position, converted infielder Bill Hall, imported Blue Jay Gabe Gross, and imported Ranger Kevin Mench. Hart has had stardom in his cards for some time now, and finally broke through to the majors with an impressive 283/328/468 part-time performance in 2006. He's young yet, and may not get the everyday job to start 2007, but will be around in a bench role until he can right his way into the starting lineup.
The starting role will most likely go to Bill Hall. The trouble with Hall is that while he's an excellent hitter for a middle infielder (career 267/322/479 with, clearly, some big power), he's not so swell when moved to the outfield corners. Moving him there would remove his poor defense from the infield and open up a spot for Hardy at shortstop, but it's doubtful that Hall can hit well enough to hold down the position. He's probably the best option the Brewers have right now, although I'd rather see them stick with Corey Hart. Another alternative would be to put Hall at third and trade Koskie (and his salary).
Neither Gross nor Mench are likely to get in the way of Hall and Hart. Gross was a really nice bonus picked up in the Overbay trade with Toronto, hitting 274/382/476 in part-time work this past season. But it's not likely that he'll upset the organizational insiders. Ditto for Mench, who looked pretty ordinary away from Texas' friendly walls (230/248/317 with the team). With so many options and so few spots on the roster, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Brewers to trade an excess man at some point.
In center field, the question is whether the Brewers will go with the disappointing (and aging) Brady Clark, or give way to young Tony Gwynn, Jr. Gwynn has shown good contact hitting skills and a solid batting eye in the minors, but he doesn't yet have the major league pedigree to confidently predict his success in the bigs; it's still to be seen whether his batting eye will translate to the bigs, since he's not really able to punish the pitchers who do throw strikes. Clark had a career year in 2005 (306/372/426) but a disastrous 2006 (263/348/335). He is still a good center fielder, and normally I'd be tempted to predict that his 2007 performance would be somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. But Clark will be 34 in April, and it's just as likely that we're seeing the decline of someone who wasn't that great to begin with. The result of this two-man race will likely be played out in Spring Training.
There is a strong nucleus of talent here supported by more prospects still coming out of the minors. While the Brewers are strong all over and have great depth, they lack superstar strength at any one position. This could change, say, if Fielder hits .300 next year or Rickie Weeks finds his rhythm. But there's no guarantees that the Brewers will be anything more than above-average, especially given the crude reality check that was 2006.
Pitching-wise, there's little to be happy about here, especially if starter Ben Sheets continues to fall prey to injuries. However, if Sheets is healthy, he and Chris Capuano would give Milwaukee the best 1-2 punch in the division. The Brewers have good depth behind this two, with durable arms Dave Bush and Doug Davis, but they'll need to be on the positive side of durable in 2007; Davis especially suffered through a very rough 2006 (4.91 ERA, 102:159 BB:K ratio in 203.1 IP). The good news is that the Brewers had three starters go 200+ innings last year. If Sheets is healthy, they could have four in 2007, which would be great news for the team and especially the bullpen. The bad news is that, as I said before, durability is only an asset if you're good; the team ERA of 4.82 last year was due mainly to an awful bullpen, but the starters played their part as well. Cautious optimism is in order for the pitching staff, but really, everything revolves around the health of ace pitcher Sheets.

The Bad News:
If the good news is the offense, then the bad news is the pitching. I've already spoken about the starting rotation, but let me say again what a difficult scenario it would be if Sheets is only good for 100 innings, as he was in 2006. The loss of Tomo Ohka hurts, but not as much as you'd think; the Brewers already have several guys who can suck up innings, and they've got enough loose arms in their system to cobble together a #5 starter. But if Sheets falls apart, the onus is on Dave Bush and Doug Davis to produce. Bush has proven to be solid and pretty reliable in his work with Toronto and Milwaukee, but it's hard to tell in advance which side of the 4.50 ERA he'll be on. Ditto for Doug Davis, whose main problem is his penchant for wildness; he's been second in the NL in walks for two years running. The Brewers will need both Davis and Bush to keep their ERAs closer to 4.00 than 5.00 and to pump out quality starts like both men are capable of.
The bullpen was a horrific mess in 2006. On one hand, there's really nowhere to go but upfrmo here; the Brewers have too many good arms in the 'pen not to be able to make something out of it. On the other hand, they had pretty much the same talent base last year and couldn't find anyone able to stay healthy and productive. The acquisition of Francisco Cordero is a big help. Cordero will likely end up as the most valuable man taken in the Carlos Lee trade, and since they got him in mid-slump, they should be sitting pretty. Cordero's recent troubles are enough to raise eyebrows, but he's a lock to stick in those close games and notch some strikeouts; he's also one of the toughest pitchers in the game to homer against. And anything is better than what the Brew Crew got from Derrick Turnbow last year (6.87 ERA in 56.1 IP).
With Cordero acked up by Turnbow (who shouldn't be nearly as bad), Jose Capellan, Brian Shouse, Matt Wise, and a fleet of other possible options, the Brewers should be able to find somebody who can handle the middle innings. But once again, 2006 hangs over us; I was confident in the Brewers' bullpen last year and look what happened.

As much as I may compliment the offense, it's hard to ignore a team that finished 14th in the NL in scoring. Even if things do go right for the team, they'd probably just be elevated to above-average status; still not enough to carry what should be a work-in-progress pitching staff. The Brewers can't really afford free agents, and with their options, they shouldn't go for any; however, the relatively low ceiling this offense suffers from could be what keeps this team from contending in what is still a winnabe division.

Offseason Game Plan:
Aside from the Lee deal, which is looking like a bust, Doug Melvin has proven to be efficient and intelligent in making trades and improving his team on a budget. This is still a team that's kept its long-term strategy intact and could very well have the best 5-year outlook of any NL Central team. But someday the Brewers will have to get all of their good prospects in the lineup and producing at the same time -- as one baseball man once put it, their "phenoms ain't phenominating."
The most pressing problem, though, is the pitching staff, as I said. But even here, Melvin's hands are tied; there's not much the General Manager can do in this situation. All of the pieces are there, and it's not worthwhile to try changing them out unless you really think you can make an improvement. But the Brewers' problem isn't so much with the personnel -- it's with getting the personnel to produce. I've heard nothing but positive things about manager Ned Yost and pitching coach Mike Maddux, and I tend to agree; but they're going to have to start turning all of this potential into more than 75 wins one of these days. The Brewers may seem like the team that's about to break out, but we shouldn't get ahead of ourselves; as good as their future may look, they're not there yet.

It's up to those within the organization to turn all of this potential into a winning season. The good news is that in Melvin, Yost, and Maddux, I think they've got the right men for the job, and I'll keep saying so until they finally prove me wrong.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Looking Ahead: Houston Astros

2006 W-L Record: 82-80
2006 pW-pL Record: 83-79
Runs Scored: 735 (12th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 719 (1st in NL)

Free Agents: Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Roger Clemens, Aubrey Huff, Andy Pettitte, Russ Springer

2007 Projected Lineup:
1B -- Lance Berkman/Mike Lamb
2B -- Chris Burke?
SS -- Adam Everett
3B -- Morgan Ensberg
LF -- Lance Berkman/Luke Scott
CF -- Willy Taveras
RF -- Jason Lane
C --Brad Ausmus

2007 Proj. Rotation:
Roy Oswalt
Fernando Nieve
Jason Hirsh
Taylor Buchholz
Wandy Rodriguez/Matt Albers/?

2007 Proj. Closer: Brad Lidge

The Good News:
The Astros were better at preventing runs than any other team in the National League by a significant margin. Their pitching staff was fabulous, headed up by Roy Oswalt. Oswalt is in the running for the Cy Young Award this year, but then he's a Cy Young candidate every year he's healthy. The Astros recently signed him to a hefty contract extension (5 years, $73 mil.), but if anybody's worth it, it's him.
The Astros will be losing a great deal of their pitching this offseason, with both Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte departing as free agents. My guess is, though, that if the team fails to re-sign either player, they will go after someone either via free agency or a trade. With Clemens and Bagwell especially, the 'Stros will be dropping a lot of salary in the off-season, giving them plenty of room to maneuver.

Although the loss in depth behind Oswalt is disturbing, the Astros do have some young arms coming up that could help mitigate the problem. While guys like Buchholz and Rodriguez are little more than placeholders, Nieve and Hirsh both have the potential to become quality big-league hurlers. But neither man has yet established himself in the majors. Nieve debuted with 100 decent innings in 2006, while Hirsh only managed a 44.2 inning cup of coffee late in the season. Neither man is a lock for quality production in 2007, which is why the Astros may look outside the organization to add depth while these two continue to develop. The loss of Brandon Backe to Tommy John surgery hurts, but not as much as people think; Backe is a postseason hero, but has a career 4.71 ERA in 317 major-league innings. Matt Albers could get himself a shot for the simple reason that he's not as bad as Wandy Rodriguez; this would give me the continued satisfaction of yelling out, "Hey, hey, hey! It's Matt Albers!" every time he enters a game. (If I do nothing else with this blog, I would like to add at least one nickname to the big-league lexicon.)
It should also be noted that the Astros' pitchers were helped by one of the best defenses in the game. The guiding lights here were shortstop Adam Everett and center fielder Willy Taveras, both of whom are among the league's best at their position. Morgan Ensberg is a quality third baseman, and the Astros also have the benefit of above-average, athletic role-players in the outfield corners.
The Astro lineup is weak, but they have the benefit of a few big boppers out there. Lance Berkman is probably the most underrated player in baseball; he hits like an MVP every year (career 304/416/567) but only twice has he finished in the top 5 in the MVP voting. Berkman will be just 31 next year; he's making a heap of money, but he still hits for a high average and is more athletic than he seems, meaning he's still got a lot of great hitting left in him.
Third baseman Morgan Ensberg is another underappreciated hitter. Injuries hampered Ensberg in '06, leaving him with a final batting line reminiscent of Adam Dunn (235/396/463). Ensberg is a quality third baseman, and while his inconsistency can be maddening, he's a true asset to the team.
Offensively, the only real bright light for the Astros was the flashy debut of Luke Scott. Scott had been knocking around the minors for six years before finally reaching the majors for good in 2006. He'd shown off some good-hitting chops in the minors, but his 336/426/621 performance in 65 major league games this year was a giant surprise. At age 28, it's not a surprise that we're ever going to see again, but it's a refreshingly good story from amongst the horde of weak-hitting outfielders the Astros have developed in recent years. Organizational blue-chipper Hunter Pence had a fine year in Double-A, but he isn't likely to crack the majors until at least the middle of next year unless the team gets desperate.

The Bad News:
The Astros are a team with a barely adequate offense that can't afford to lose any of its good pitchers. It's very hard to imagine the Astros coming up with anybody to replace the innings and effectiveness that Clemens and Pettitte have given them. They could try and make it up by improving their offense, but that's also unlikely. The team has made overtures toward some free agent hitters, but this team is so full of holes that's it's probably more than just one hitter away from .500 ball.
The holes mentioned above are primarily shortstop, catcher, and the outfield. At shortstop, the Astros have one of the best defenders in baseball in Adam Everett. They will most likely just live with his anemic bat and seek to improve elsewhere, which is wise.
The best place to improve would be catcher, where the Astros have an equally impotent hitter who is nothing like the defensive asset that Adam Everett is. The trouble is that the Astros have convinced themselves that Brad Ausmus is a defensive asset; how else would you explain signing a 36-year-old backstop to a 2-year, $7.5 million contract after hitting 258/351/331 in 2005? Especially when you consider that, for Ausmus, 2005 was a career year -- he's a lifetime 253/326/347 hitter. But the Astros are stuck with the Ausmus millstone for at least another year, because they somehow think he's saving millions of runs as a catcher. Sorry, folks -- not true. And it's hard to win when you've got what amounts to three pitchers hitting 7-8-9 in you lineup, as anyone who saw the 2005 World Series will attest.
The other big zero is center fielder Willy Taveras. Taveras is pretty much a .280 hitter, but he does steal a lot of bases. Therefore, he hits leadoff. But no one with a .333 OBP (career .329) should hit lead-off. You'd have to steal about 300 bases a year to make up for all those outs (410 this year), I don't care how good a bunter you are. Taveras also has no power, which makes him a further liability.
The Astros are therefore somewhat hamstrung in that their two biggest defensive assets are also their two biggest offensive liabilities. It's for this reason that the Astros have to maximize what they get from every other spot in the lineup to compensate. Thus keeping Brad Ausmus and Craig Biggio (who hit 246/306/422 at age 40) around is a luxury that the Astros really can't afford; not if they want to contend in 2007. Because if you're getting less than a .330 OBP from five spots in your lineup guaranteed (2B, SS, CF, C, P), it doesn't really matter if you have Lance Berkman at first or Lou Gehrig.
The Astros do have a whole lot of talent on their bench, but too much of it is seeing regular playing time. Players like Chris Burke, Eric Bruntlett, and even Jason Lane have proven a poor solution to the team's corner outfield problems.
That said, the Astros have compensated for this terrible offense in recent years by putting together a dynamite pitching staff. This hasn't gotten them more than 92 wins yet, but it did get them a couple of unlikely Wild Card berths (including an equally unlikely pennant in 2005). But that pitching -- which is what kept this team in contention for three years -- is taking a big hit this offseason. They've got a huge drop-off in talent after Oswalt, which they can only somewhat fix through free agency or a trade. They certainly don't have the money to fill two holes, and even filling one hole wouldn't replace Clemens and Pettitte.
With the arrival of some good young talent, the future does look brighter. And the Astros have the advantage of playing in baseball's most winnable division; their chief rivals, the Cardinals, have the exact same problems: no depth in pitching after the #1 starter, good defenders clogging up the lineup with their terrible hitting, and only a few true stars, most of whom are aging. So the Astros, provided they can get good support from their young players, might actually be contenders in the NL Central after all. But that's more an insult to the NL Central than it is a compliment to the Astros.

Offseason Game Plan:
Don't get rid of Brad Lidge. Lidge's poor season (5.28 ERA) doesn't really jibe with his peripheral stats (36:104 BB:K ratio in just 75 IP). Although he is allowing more HR (10, after giving up just 5 last season), that's not enough to explain the ERA.
While I can't dismiss the issues surrounding Lidge's confidence, his strikeout numbers lead me to believe that he's still a good pitcher. He didn't earn an ERA over 5.00 last year, and he should rebound to something closer to his 2.29 performance in 2005. This is the worst possible time to trade Lidge; his return value will be at its lowest. There's no reason to trade someone this good, especially when you won't get anything really worthwhile in return. Lidge will earn his arbitration money, mark my words. And if the Astros trade him, it will be to one really lucky team.
You have to do something significant to improve your offense. Under ideal circumstances, it would mean replacing your least valuable player in Brad Ausmus. But the Astros have an emotional commitment to Ausmus that belies logic, so that won't happen. In that case, you have to milk everything you can out of the corner outfield spots. You got rid of Preston Wilson; don't make the mistake of replacing him with someone just as worthless.
Commit to your youth movement. You just missed the playoffs this year and despite your mediocrity, should be contenders again next year. There's no reason to shoot the moon and go for it all this year, not when you've finally got a little promise for the future. You've got money to spend, but should spend it wisely; that normally goes without saying, but of course, it too often goes unheeded.
Don't panic. You're up there with the Cardinals and Brewers among the top contenders in your division and don't need to ruin the future to try and pass them.

Looking Ahead: Cincinnati Reds

2006 W-L Record: 80-82
2006 pW-pL Record: 76-86
Runs Scored: 749 (9th in NL)
Runs Allowed: 801 (10th in NL)
Free Agents: Royce Clayton, Eddie Guardado, Chris Hammond, Scott Hatteberg, Kent Mercker, Scott Schoeneweis, Javier Valentin, David Weathers, Paul Wilson
Pending Options: Rich Aurilia

2007 Projected Lineup:
1B -- Rich Aurilia*
2B -- Ryan Freel
SS -- Brandon Phillips?
3B -- Edwin Encarnacion
LF -- Adam Dunn
CF -- Ken Griffey, Jr.
RF -- Chris Denorfia
C -- Jason LaRue

2007 Proj. Rotation:
Bronson Arroyo
Aaron Harang
Eric Milton
Kyle Lohse?
Elizardo Ramirez/Brandon Claussen/Matt Belisle/???

2007 Proj. Closer: Todd Coffey?

The Good News:
Well, there's not a whole lot for this section, but it's worth pointing out that in 2005, the Reds finished last in the NL in runs allowed with 889, and were next-to-last in 2004 with 907. It may be a relative compliment, but the Reds' pitching is getting better.
The #1 reason for this was the acquisition of Bronson Arroyo. Unless Wily Mo Pena becomes a superstar (which I doubt), this was a good trade for Cincinnati. Arroyo was a quality guy in Boston and should continue to be one in Cincinnati. Getting above-average innings and some strikeouts from anybody is reason for celebration in the Queen City. Don't expect a Cy Young-caliber performance every year, though. Arroyo's 2006 ERA of 3.29 was almost a full run better than his career mark (4.21). He'll probably be better than that, having moved to a bad division in the lesser of the two leagues, but I don't anticipate another season below 3.50.
More promising than Arroyo even was the continued development of Aaron Harang. When the Reds sold off their roster -- including their entire bullpen -- back in 2003, they got pretty much nothing in return; reason enough to fire Jim Bowden the following year. The one worthwhile guy they did get was this man: Aaron Harang. He didn't look like a superstar, but the Reds took him anyway in a deal with Oakland for Jose Guillen.
Harang started out by developing into a decent pitcher, thus isolating himself from the rest of the staff. Since then, he's actually started to become dominant. Would you believe that Harang led the entire league in strikeouts last season, with 216? It is the NL, yes, but he was up against the likes of Oswalt, Carpenter, and Zambrano. He's not as good as those guys, but simply putting himself in the same sentence is great news for the Reds. They've actually got a 1-2 punch of Harang-Arroyo that is -- as of right now -- the best in the NL Central. What a turnaround that is.
There's no good news behind Arroyo and Harang, although there is a prospect that's turning a lot of heads in the minors. Not only will Homer Bailey be only 21 years old next year, but he's already dominated at the Double-A level. Bailey split 2006 between high A-ball and Double-A and impressed at both stops, striking out 154 batters in 138.2 IP (combined). There was some talk of bringing Bailey up mid-season to help the Reds' sagging postseason chances, but the front office wisely decided that they would most likely be shooting themselves in the foot there. I would even venture to say that Bailey should start 2007 at Double-A; he only threw 68 innings there, and while they were good innings, they were the only innings he's ever thrown above A-ball. But no fan cares about patience or the specter of future injury when a guy posts a 1.59 ERA at Double-A; fans are no better than spoiled kids when that happens. "We want him!" "You can get him next year." "But we want him nooooowww! WAAAAAAH!"
Still, if Bailey impresses in Spring Training, he will likely find a spot in the Reds' starting rotation. There certainly isn't anyone better, and he may indeed be ready for the majors. Let's just hope that the scouts and executives exercise more caution and maturity than the fans. Because as good as this guy could be, you don't want to be the one that screws him up.
The back end of the Reds' rotation is sloppy as ever, as I said, but they've actually managed to solidify the bullpen somewhat. David Weathers may not have been the best bang for your buck a bad team like Cincinnati needed, but he's been durable and versatile, filling in as closer in parts of his two seasons in Cincinnati, posting ERAs of 3.94 and 3.54. The Reds probably didn't imagine in the pre-season 2005 that among their recent acquisitions Eric Milton, Ramon Ortiz, Kent Mercker, and David Weathers, that Weathers would be the most valuable. Too bad for the Reds the 38-year-old is a free agent.
Of the guys they've still got, their best bet is likely Todd Coffey. The Reds are fond of drafting high school pitchers. That's okay if you know what you're doing. But most of their guys either get injured or don't pan out. The Reds simply have to realize that when you draft an 18-year-old, it's going to take him a little longer than usual. He also has three more years of potential injuries ahead of him, unlike a college draftee. Coffey went through the injuries but, unlike his Cincinnati draft compatriots, survived to make the majors and contribute. The 26-year-old wasn't dominant, but he did manage a 3.58 ERA in 78 innings, with a 27:60 BB:K ratio. He's a valuable bullpen arm who may be turned into a closer out of necessity.
The only other real bright spots in the Cincinnati bullpen are two arms obtained from Washington: Gary Majewski and Bill Bray. Bray is a prospect who should turn in to a solid contributor, whereas Majewski already is a solid contributor, although he was hampered by injuries in 2006. Too bad the Reds had to gut their lineup to get him.
Speaking of the lineup, the Reds are fading fast, but they do have some bright spots. The biggest is easily Adam Dunn, who hit 234/365/490 with 40 HR and 194 strikeouts (1 less than the all-time record he set in 2004). Dunn is the answer to the question "Is it possible to be a good hitter if your batting average is .234?" The answer is yes, but very rarely. You have to draw your walks and hit your homers, and Dunn does both very well. He's a better version of Ron Kittle, although the defense is unfortunately similar. Kittle is, in fact, Dunn's #1 comp. A list of Dunn's top-10 comparables is a Who's Who of 1-year wonders, with the likes of Jim Gentile, Henry Rodriguez, Nate Colbert, John Jaha, and Nick Esasky. That may not bode well for his long-term career, but rest assured that he's going to be slugging for a while yet. Just don't be the one stuck with him when he turns 35.
Other than Dunn, the top contributor is third baseman Edwin Encarnacion. Edwin's defense needs some work, but there's really no reason for the Reds to play anybody else at third base -- not that they have anybody else. Encarnacion started hitting to his potential last year, finishing at 276/359/473. He's erratic, certainly, and no one would mistake him for David Wright. But he's just going to be 24 next year and is a bright spot in the Cincinnati order.
Unfortunately, most of the other bright spots in the order come with several "buts" attached. Thus, we will continue . . .

The Bad News:
Perhaps the biggest problem with the trade that lost Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez is that the Reds don't have near the depth it would take to replace them. They don't have another shortstop, and they already traded away their backup right fielder to get Arroyo. So the Reds, who looked to be forming a long-term powerhouse lineup, are now a team with a couple of good guys, a couple old guys, and some failed youngsters. I wish I had faith in GM Wayne Krivsky's ability to tell them apart.
I already mentioned that the Reds had assets in Dunn and Encarnacion. They do have other hopeful players, but they come with a few caveats:
  • Ryan Freel is a good leadoff man who can get on base and then steal them. He's also very versatile on defense. BUT it's unclear if he can keep up the .370+ OBP necessary to compensate for someone with no power and a .270 average. His ability to play hard and with great heart is what makes Cincinnati fans love him nearly as much as managers and GMs love him. But his propensity for running into walls when not absolutely necessary is simply not a good long-term career choice.
  • Ken Griffey, Jr. still has some power BUT that's absolutely it. The man hit .250 last year, and drew 39 walks, his fewest ever for a full season. His defense is becoming abysmal, and he needs to be moved from center field to a position where he's less harmful and less likely to be harmed. But no one in Cincinnati seems to have noticed Griffey's declining defense, whereas everybody and their mother jumped on Bernie Williams the second he slowed down. Part of this is due to injuries, sure, but hey -- do you think he's ever going to stop getting injured? Or that he's going to become more resilient at age 38?
  • Chris Denorfia has a nice set of skills that worked well for him in the minors and has finally got him a semi-regular job in the big leagues BUT he might be stretched in everyday work as a corner outfielder. The best plan would be to move Denorfia to center field, where his offense would be more valuable and his defense an upgrade over Griffey. They could move Griffey to left, Dunn to first, and let Rich Aurilia go wherever it is that players like Rich Aurilia go (I would say Cincinnati, but then he's already here). But that would leave the Reds with a hole in right field. They tried Ryan Freel in the role, but he's much better cast as a second baseman. His offense is a plus there, whereas it's a zero in right. It also keeps him a good distance away from any walls.
    So where can the Reds find a good right fielder? Well, that Kearns fellow in Washington sure looks like he can handle the position . . .
  • Brandon Phillips had a real breakout year at second base for Cincinnati this year and has the former prospect status to back it up BUT it's still doubtful that he's for real. He got off to a hot start, yes, but a 149/204/253 September sent him crashing back to earth (or, more likely, reality). Phillips finished with a batting line of 276/324/427 which is to say that he's a below-average hitter who's lucky to be in Cincinnati (he hit a dreadful 250/293/408 on the road this year). I've heard rumbling that the Reds are planning to move Phillips to shortstop, which is puzzling to me. The Cincinnati Post news article quoted Reds manager Jerry Narron as saying that Phillips was a gold glove-quality second baseman. Apparently, there is some evil twin of Brandon Phillips who shows up and plays good defense for Jerry Narron. Because he sure can't be watching the same guy that I (and the stats -- a dreadful -15 FRAA) are watching. He's not too bad at second, but I truly think he'd be awful at shortstop.
    Are the Reds secretly run by the Barnum & Bailey Circus? Or are they slowly transforming themselves into a sort of baseball version of Whose Line Is It Anyway? Inquiring minds want to know.

That's the Cincinnati lineup, folks, a group who ranked below-average in the NL in run scoring before you take their ballpark into account. Is there any help in the farm system? Well, the only real bright spot is a first baseman named Joey Votto. The first problem is that Votto is a first baseman/DH who's probably a better fit for the latter. The Reds already have a couple of guys like that roaming the outfield in Dunn and Griffey, and it may be truly ugly if they try to add a third. The other problem is that scouts worry that Votto's long swing won't translate well to the majors. That may be true. But it's also true that, at age 22, Votto clobbered Double-A to the tune of 319/408/547 this season. Double-A Chattanooga is a hitter's park, but Votto's offensive skills look sharp across the board. He's got a few "buts" himself, but he may be the best hope for the immediate future. And he might be better (and definitely cheaper) than Rich Aurilia.

As far as the pitching staff goes, I touched on a lot of their shortcomings in the first part of my entry. But there isn't a lot that's awful to say; yes, the back end of their rotation is a mess and their bullpen is very much a work in progress. But it's also true that they're significantly better than they have been in years, and it doesn't appear to be a passing phase. If they hadn't squandered most of their offense, they might have made the postseason. Might have.

Offseason Game Plan:
First take a long, hard look at that 76-86 Pythagorean W-L record. That's how good this club really is. While the NL Central does suck and this club could contend, you can't afford to piss away the future on any more bone-headed trades. The Reds are good enough to play .500 ball if everything goes right, which means that they do have an outside shot at contending in the NL Central.
But be realistic. No matter how much pressure you may be under, don't go out and commit another Eric Milton-esque blunder because you think your team's a lot better than it actually is.
Move Ken Griffey to left, Adam Dunn to first, and Chris Denorfia to center. I'd recommend keeping Brandon Phillips at second base. This means that you need a shortstop and a right fielder . . . wait a minute -- didn't we just have a shortstop and a right fielder? Call Jim Bowden in Washington and see if he'll nullify the Kearns/Lopez deal on account of "diminished capacity."
Seriously, as much as I may have legitimate hope for the Reds, I don't think that Wayne Krivsky is the man to realize their potential. It's rough and probably unfair to judge anyone by their first year on the job, but then few people have made such a mess of things as Krivsky. If he had done absolutely nothing, it would have been better than doing the deal with Washington and trading for every relief pitcher in the Western Hemisphere not in prison. Krivsky is from the "pitching and defense" school in Minnesota and has evidently decided that scoring runs is bad, and we that should get rid of those people.
I only speak partly in jest. Recently, Krivsky was asked to comment on the 2006 season and the progress made by the Reds, and while he gave your boilerplate GM speech about fundamentals, etc., he did specifically state how much he hated strikeouts, and how he wanted to reduce his offense's strikeouts.
He might as well have cut off a horse's head and put it in Adam Dunn's bed. Because Adam is Mr. Strikeout.
While this may be material for a column in and of itself, I'll be brief by saying that everybody gets far, far too bent out of shape about strikeouts. All sorts of research into events and outcomes has shown that strikeouts aren't that much more harmful than regular outs. So if you've got a great hitter who also happens to strike out a lot -- Mr. Dunn -- you just live with it.
I'm very, very afraid that Krivsky is going to screw up the centerpiece of his offense under the delusion that he's actually making his team better. Adam Dunn is no Albert Pujols -- he's not even a Jason Bay -- but he's a good hitter that shouldn't be taken for granted. I don't have any direct evidence, but I just know that Krivsky is going to remake this team into a "pitching-and-defense" squad and pay a gajillion dollars to guys like Juan Pierre and Dave Roberts. He's going to take a team with one strength -- offense -- and systematically get rid of it.
Many people are perfectly aware of the fact that it's no longer 1913. Krivsky -- along with an ever-shrinking but still-vocal horde of baseball beat reporters and TV analysts -- think that all it takes to win is hiring a few slap hitters, pitching to contact, and getting good team chemistry. I'm sorry, folks, but the John McGraw era ended almost a century ago. Baseball is a different game, but I guess there's no convincing them of that. There's really no point in trying to present evidence to someone who is quite clearly not in full command of his senses.
If the Reds can only split 50/50 the bone-headed mistakes with the smart moves, it will be an accomplishment. Because Cincinnati doesn't need another entrant in its revolving door of general managers.