Monthly archives: March 2006
This Is All Bud Selig's Fault Somehow
Did I say the roster was pretty much set? Silly me! Byung-Hyun Kim is out of action for a "considerable" amount of time after pulling a hamstring running the bases in a game against the Giants. Rockies trainer Keith Dugger says "considerable" amounts to "two or three weeks." That's not the end of the world, but it's very important for the psyche of the team, walkup ticket sales at Coors Field, and traffic to this website that the Rockies not utterly bury themselves in April this year as they did in 2005. He's still an emblem of big-stage failure to casual baseball fans nationwide, but BK was the Rockies' best starter by ERA last year and the dropoff from he to Zach Day or Josh Fogg could be quite dramatic. If there was one positive you could attach to the Rockies' starting rotation in 2006 versus last year's, it was the lack of complete punching bag types. Joe Kennedy and Jamey Wright were awful last year, and while The Two Kims don't exactly qualify as superstars, they were set to provide a marked upgrade from that dynamic duo. Now Byung-Hyun is starting the season on the DL for sure, and Sun-Woo has hamstring issues of his own.
The Rockies weren't petty enough to put a sign up at Hi Corbett Field whining about it, but Sun-Woo Kim and Byung-Hyun Kim's participation in the World Baseball Classic certainly threw a wrench in the team's planning this preseason. No one really stepped up to take it from him, but Sun-Woo's chances of grabbing the fifth starter's spot were certainly affected by his absence from Rockies camp. It may well be missing out on the usual March conditioning programs contributed to the Kims' injuries. Neither pitched very extensively for Korea in the tournament.
In any event, the Rockies won't need a fifth starter until April 17th. The team is being cautious with the rehabbing Miguel Asencio, so either Day or Fogg will draw the assignment assuming Sun-Woo Kim doesn't miss a start or two himself. Colorado can weather a few dropped starts from the likes of BK Kim here and there, but I'll say it again: a serious injury to any of the regulars (apart from the catchers) or any of the top four starters on the depth chart, and we're in 100-loss territory once again.
Clint Hurdle says Choo Freeman, Jason Smith, Eli Marrero, and Jamey Carroll are on the team. No real surprises here except for Smith, who isn't on the 40-man roster at the moment. The rash of injuries means that Smith's addition won't cost anybody their jobs for the moment. Ryan Shealy (elbow), Josh Wilson (busted toe), Scott Dohmann (viral infection), and Byung-Hyun Kim join Chin-Hui Tsao (remember him?) on the DL to begin the season. Dohmann's illness means that either Tom Martin or Jaime Cerda will probably hang around as the last guy in the pen, and secures a spot for David Cortes.
As the Roster Turns
The Rockies didn't plan on entering the 2006 regular season with a lot of question marks on their roster, and what decisions that were left to be made seem to have been settled by a late-spring run of injuries. Ryan Speier's surgery somewhat relieved the logjam at the back of the bullpen. Ryan Shealy's arm injury ended the outfield experiment before it had even really began; now Troy Renck writes that Shealy will likely be traded as soon as he can prove his health in AAA. Now health questions about Yorvit Torrealba could lead to a temporary roster spot for Miguel Ojeda. Josh Wilson broke his toe, so there are openings for Jamey Carroll and maybe even Jeff Baker.
OK, here's what we know for sure: Todd Helton, Luis Gonzalez, Clint Barmes, Garrett Atkins, Danny Ardoin, Brad Hawpe, Cory Sullivan, and Matt Holliday will be on the team. That's your opening day lineup, along with Jason Jennings. Jeff Francis, Aaron Cook, and Byung-Hyun Kim will join Jennings in the rotation. Ray King, Brian Fuentes, Jose Mesa, and Mike DeJean will be in the bullpen.
That leaves nine spots. First, somebody is going to have to take the fifth starter's job. I still think it's going to be Sun-Woo Kim, but Josh Fogg and Miguel Asencio are making late pushes. Asencio can be sent to Colorado Springs without clearing waivers first, so that right there might disqualify him. Whomever loses out between Fogg and Kim will probably stick with the big club in a long relief/swingman role. Zach Day looks like a longshot at this point. He's pitching right now, as a matter of fact, and has allowed four runs in four innings to San Francisco. I don't know what Day's status with regards to remaining options might be, and honestly, I don't care. Colorado might as well release him, because he's not going to do anything for us and his value isn't really high enough to produce anything worthwhile in trade. Have I mentioned recently that the Preston Wilson trade last year was a complete washout for Dan O'Dowd? Well, in one combination or the other, take Fogg and Kim.
That leaves two more spots in the pen after Mesa, Fuentes, DeJean, King, and Fogg/Kim. Jaime Cerda's lefthandedness works in his favor, but his tendency to walk everybody in sight more than counteracts that. Seeing as how no one has particularly distinguished themselves this spring, the Rockies might as well stick to the continuity theme and take Scott Dohmann and David Cortes with them to Denver when they break camp. Both of those righties were fairly reassuring presences in the Colorado bullpen in the second half of 2005. Besides, if either implodes, the Rockies don't have much invested there and they shouldn't be terribly difficult to replace.
All right, if my math serves, we have five spots for bench players. Backup catcher is the easiest. If Torrealba doesn't have to go on the disabled list with his bicep complaints, he's the guy. Otherwise, it'll be Ojeda. J.D. Closser has had a fine spring but the Rockies have already made up their minds to have him spend the season in AAA collecting the tattered shards of his defensive reputation. Eli Marrero and Choo Freeman are sure things. Jamey Carroll probably is too. That leaves one spot for a pinch hitter/outfielder, and the likely suspect would be Jorge Piedra. Don't count out Jeff Baker, however. He's been playing a bit of outfield. Neither Piedra nor Baker has had a particularly hot spring, and journeyman Jason Smith has. The former Tiger and non-roster player's .387 average in 31 at-bats could be enough to leapfrog him on to the big club for Opening Day, though it would mean the release of someone like Zach Day. That would be no great loss, although it would be silly for the Rockies or their fans to overthink these minor roster moves. Like last year, if Rockies bench players end up playing a significant number of innings, that means the season is in the toilet. The 2006 team is not utterly without hope, but they are utterly without depth.
I'm probably going to write much more at length about this topic at a later date, but a survey of "manager stats" in several baseball publications has led me to an important conclusion: Clint Hurdle bunts way, way, WAY too much. If I remember my run expectancy grid properly, it's hardly ever beneficial to use the sacrifice bunt unless you're in a tie game at home in the late innings. The distorting, vortex-like nature of Coors Field, where only the Rockies are ever the home team, may make Colorado (again) unique in that for them the sacrifice is never the right play. I don't even want to begin calculating the ramifications of combining mile-high park factors with the presence of Jose Mesa in the Colorado bullpen. It's too much all at once.
The Whirlwind Tour
I had my father join me in Arizona with my sister's laptop, fully intending to do Bad Altitude updates after each and every spring training game we attended. As it turned out, the computer required a password neither of us knew, and my sister Megan was on a beach somewhere in Portugal (of all places), incommunicado. What she was doing in Europe a week before baseball season started, AND while her school, Boston College, was very much alive in the NCAA tournament, I don't know. In many ways my sisters and I are very different people.
So I'll do this once quickly and perhaps longer tomorrow. Remember, of course, that you can't really form any useful opinions about teams from seeing most but not all of their regular lineups for five innings in March.
Friday afternoon: White Sox at Mariners, Peoria. Afterglow seasons must be a lot of fun. The aura of the south siders' championship run was enough to get 12,000 people out to this game, and on Sunday in Mesa the scalpers were already beginning to get a dreamy look contemplating Monday's White Sox-Cubs contest. Unseen forces have long been conspiring to maintain my father's opinion, usually left unstated, that despite my piles of reference books and fancy website, I don't actually know anything about baseball. Every time we go together to see a team featuring a player that my father likes despite my statistical arguments against him, like Mike Matheny, that guy invariably has a banner day. Friday it was Adrian Beltre, who clubbed an RBI double and made a couple of nice plays at third. Jamie Moyer pitched exceedingly well (six innings, one hit, two walks) and the Chicago offense remained more or less inactive until someone named Emiliano Fruto took the mound. Still, I like the White Sox pretty good this year, and I'm not sold on the Mariners. They've already lost Jeremy Reed for some time with a broken wrist, and that Betancourt/Lopez keystone combo strikes me as alarmingly punchless. Kenji Johjima didn't play, which is too bad. Ichiro stretches more pregame than any other MLB player I've seen.
Friday night: Padres at A's, Phoenix. After Moyer and Freddy Garcia in the day game, we got Barry Zito and Jake Peavy in the nightcap. That's four pretty good pitchers to see in one day. Neither was particularly sharp in this one however. Mike Piazza caught the whole game, how about that. My dad was a lot more excited about the middle of the San Diego lineup (Brian Giles, Piazza, Ryan Klesko, Vinny Castilla) than I was. We both were psyched to see Mark Bellhorn get in there, though. Dad and I are big Bellhorn backers: we once saw him, in person, hit home runs from opposite sides of the plate in the same inning for the Cubs in a game in Milwaukee. He homered again in this one, hitting righty off of Zito. Between Bellhorn, Dave Roberts, and Geoff Blum the Padres are loading up on bench players from the last two world champs. Neither Frank Thomas nor Eric Chavez played for Oakland, but with their pitching and a healthy (knock on wood) Bobby Crosby and Mark Ellis up the middle, you have to like them in the AL West. I'm not so sure about the Padres' chances of repeating in the NL West, but out of respect for my father I will allow that they might be better than I thought when I last wrote about them.
Saturday afternoon: Rangers at Rockies, Tucson. The Rangers didn't bring a single regular south for the game at Hi Corbett, unless you count Ian Kinsler. Perhaps Rockies brass should consider that fact before giving Miguel Asencio the fifth starters' job based on this outing. Asencio looked good, Brian Fuentes looked good, even Jose Mesa looked pretty sharp, but Jaime Cerda had control problems. Todd Helton went 3 for 3, causing my dad to break out the line he uses every time we see the Rockies together comparing Helton to Ernie Banks -- great ballplayer, stuck with a bad team for life. Well, Todd's young yet. Garrett Atkins homered off of Texas starter Vicente Padilla (have fun in Arlington, Vicente). Ian Stewart got in late and managed to scorch a single and make a fabulous play at third. Oh man, I want it to be September already. If this is the Rangers' bench (four hits total, two by Erubiel Durazo), their bench is pretty bad. I really liked the way Brad Hawpe was working the count in his at-bats. The Rockies let Texas use a DH while Asencio batted for himself, though only the one time. That was pretty nice of Clint Hurdle. Speaking of Hurdle, I realized flipping through the Rockies' spring program something I didn't know before: Clint Hurdle's older daughter from his previous marriage is pretty hot.
Saturday night: Ducks at Coyotes, Glendale. No night baseball on Saturday so we took in a hockey game instead. I only sporadically follow the NHL, especially with the Blackhawks trapped in an everlasting yawning pit of despair as they are, but my dad is a hockey guy and it's fun to go to games with him. Anaheim is a lot better than Phoenix, and Teemu Selanne is a great player. For a team coached by Wayne Gretzky, the Coyotes play a whole lot of dump-and-chase. The Ducks' defensemen were so dominant at keeping the puck in the offensive zone that it appeared as if Anaheim was on the power play for the whole game, except during the numerous actual power plays for the home team. My dad and I are both pretty positive about the new-look NHL, but there's a fine line between encouraging offense and blowing whistles for every little ticky-tack infraction imaginable. We think, and I imagine most hockey fans think the same, that it won't be until the playoffs start that we'll really see if the new officiating guidelines are here to stay.
Sunday: Diamondbacks at Cubs, Mesa. Maybe the D-Backs aren't silly for keeping the old geezers around; Luis Gonzalez and Shawn Green looked sharp in this one. My father isn't the sort of fan who pores through prospect books but the buzz on Stephen Drew and Conor Jackson had reached even his ears. He wondered aloud, not without reason, why the Cubs don't have any guys like that. Yes, the Cubs. Danger alert. My feelings for Chicago's NL franchise since 2003 have been the usual ones reserved for ex-lovers: contempt mixed with mild disgust. But let's put that aside for a second. Even speaking objectively, this is a flawed team without a coherent plan. By now they have to assume that Kerry Wood and Mark Prior will never be healthy again. Around Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez they've assembled a lineup of huge OBP sinks. Their bullpen is made up of a lot of guys who need to be handled extremely delicately in order to assure maximum returns, and their manager is, well, indelicate. I wasn't going to do a HAP for the Cubs because I thought it would be too depressing, but now I feel almost compelled to do so. It could be crater city for Chicago in 2006, and Dusty Baker's firing will be only the first nasty explosion. What's more, my dad, who's still a fan, thinks so too.
Monday: Royals at Giants, Scottsdale. I wanted to come away from this one with something nice to say about the poor Royals, and I did. Their defense will be a lot better this year. That's usually faint praise, but Kansas City's defense was slapstick-level awful last year, and at the very least it won't drive (any more) starting pitchers completely insane this season. The Giants are still real old, and they don't have any good young position players anywhere in the system. Matt Cain started and was not sharp. The real story in this game was one we missed, because we had to cut out around the sixth to go catch our plane -- Armando Benitez came in and gave up ten runs. Ten runs! How funny is that?
The Mariners performed badly enough last year to earn themselves their own section in the sidebar I set aside for the Rockies' competition as worst team in the majors (to which I should probably add the Marlins, but more about them later). Unlike Colorado, Kansas City, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, and now Florida, Seattle wasn't particularly young last season, and they won't be any younger in 2006. Kenji Johjima, their big offseason get from Japan, will probably be pretty good, but for certain he will turn 30 in June. Yes, there is one glaring exception to Seattle's overall grayness: Felix Hernandez. I assume you've heard about him. Hernandez is 19 and will probably be the best player on the M's this year. If you grabbed him for your fantasy team, feel free to tent your fingers in a Mr. Burns manner right now.
But besides Hernandez and (maybe) Cuban shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt, who do the Mariners have on the upswing of their careers? Certainly not Adrian Beltre, who has three more years until he has to worry about his next contract push. Not Jamie Moyer, who got thrashed on the road last year (3-7, 6.11 ERA versus 10-0, 2.95 at home). Not Ichiro, who will remain a good player long enough to build a very interesting Hall of Fame argument, but more than likely won't win any more MVP's. Not Richie Sexson, who was really more than the Mariners could have asked for last year, for all the good it did them. Their free agent pickups fit the same mold. Jarrod Washburn ought to maintain his inflated reputation pitching his home games at Safeco, but he's not going to win a lot of games in front of Seattle's lineup. Matt Lawton isn't fit to be a full-time player any longer (.207/.301/.317 against lefties last year). The White Sox won the World Series, so all is forgiven, but Carl Everett was dire down the stretch last year (as BP '06 notes at length), and now he's a newly-minted Mariner.
Then there's Jose Lopez and Jeremy Reed. Lopez isn't ready, but the Mariners really didn't expect the Great Bret Boone Implosion of 2005, and they didn't have much of a backup plan. Seattle's attitude towards Lopez seems to be, well, he's already here, so he might as well play, a common franchise strategy which brought us such seasons as Bucky Jacobsen's 2004. (So it can't be all bad.) Conversely Reed has been ready for some time, or at least that was the word when the Mariners acquired him in the Freddy Garcia deal. The centerfielder had a rough 2005, though, his first full year in the bigs. Between Lopez, Reed, and Betancourt, the Mariners are abusing their privilege to field young players who are "already great with the glove, so we'll just wait for their hitting to come around." (I feel obligated to disclose that Jeremy Reed is the first major league player ever born in San Dimas, CA. I have no word on whether he ever shopped at the Circle K or tried the slides at Waterloo.)
Seattle's offense was pretty terrible in 2005 (a 29th-in-the-majors .709 team OPS), and it won't be better this year. Ichiro will hit his singles, and Sexson will hit his homers, and after that, good luck. Can the pitchers pick up the slack? Hernandez, yes. Washburn, maybe a little. Moyer is three years overdue for a precipitous collapse. The other guys are Gil Meche and Jor-El Pineiro. Eddie Guardado is still around to anchor the bullpen, a decent if unheralded group also featuring Rafael Soriano, Julio Mateo, and J.J. Putz. Clint Nageotte fills the requisite failed-starting-prospect-now-a-swingman role. Former Rockies reliever Marcos Carvajal could lend a hand in this department, but if the Mariners were really clever they'd send him to the minors for seasoning as a starter as Colorado was planning to do before they swapped him for Yorvit Torrealba. The bullpen is really only the team's strength by default, as the lineup and rotation sure don't qualify. Don't even get me started on the bench.
Seattle's close-but-no-cigar run in the late '90s/early '00s was marked by a number of major contributors who peaked relatively late in their careers -- Boone, Moyer, Edgar Martinez, 27-year-old "rookie" Ichiro. That doesn't excuse the fact that they've allowed their farm system to go completely to seed. Quite the opposite, really. There's no way they can claim now that they believed the good times would roll forever, or at least until, say, 2007. Now they're stuck with a talent core that's either retired, spent, or untradeable for other reasons (Ichiro). Plus they play in a murderous division. The Angels and A's are perennial contenders now and for the forseeable future, and the Rangers, if flawed, will certainly drain your bullpen resources rather quickly if you're not careful. Seattle has to be hoping that Ichiro stays healthy and Hernandez remains on course for megasuperstardom, because they're not going to be drawing fans in with division titles for the next several years.
Between the "Classic," that thrilling NCAA play-in game, and the sixth round of the FA Cup, I haven't been paying a lot of attention to the news coming out of Rockies camp this week. It is important to stop and note, however, that Ryan Shealy's transition from first baseman to outfielder has been hampered by an injury to his throwing elbow. Were Shealy able to play the outfield, he'd only be the third-best hitter on the team. BP's PECOTA projections like him nearly as much as Matt Holliday. This is a story worth watching. Hopefully by the time I make it down to Tucson the last week of March Ryan will be out there starting in the outfield.
Meanwhile Ian Stewart is just destroying Cactus League pitching; in 22 AB's the kid has five homers and three doubles and is slugging 1.409. That's pretty good. Stewart survived the first round of cuts but will more than likely begin the season in AA. That's fine. The Rockies aren't going anywhere in particular in the NL West this season, and there should be no hurry to begin the major league service clock on a player who has yet to turn 21. Garrett Atkins isn't particularly old himself, and if he can build on his decent 2005, next year the Rockies can send him somewhere else to make room for Stewart while adding a few pieces elsewhere much as the Brewers did with Lyle Overbay and Prince Fielder.
Also notable on the spring training stat table: all of the Rockies' catchers are hitting except the nominal starter, as Danny Ardoin, J.D. Closser, and sometime receiver Eli Marrero are all above .400. Yorvit Torrealba is 0 for 8. Jason Jennings and Aaron Cook have looked good so far. Mike Esposito allowed 8 runs in 3 1/3 before being sent to minor league camp. Jaime Cerda looks like the early favorite to claim the second bullpen lefty role, having allowed two hits and no runs across five appearances. Mike DeJean and Ray King have nice-looking ERAs in limited innings. Juan Morillo, Zach Day, and Judd Songster have all gotten tagged. Jeff Francis (5.40 ERA) looks about his normal away-from-Coors self. Does anybody want the fifth starter spot? Day isn't making much of a case, it appears Esposito was never really in the running, and Josh Fogg has been bad and is now hurt. Byung-Hyun Kim has looked very good in the Classic so far, not allowing a run and striking out four in 2 2/3 for the undefeated South Korean team, but his role as fourth starter has never been in question. We should be more concerned about the performance of Sunny Kim, who got hit in his only WBC start. I'm not sure who's going for KOR tonight against Japan, but a Japanese win would probably eliminate the U.S., which would be kind of funny. Oh yeah, Jeff Francis got smacked around in his one start for Canada...one of these days the kid has to pitch a good game on the road, right?
Josh Wilson and Jeff Salazar are also on the injured list, and Choo Freeman is hitting .379 and out of options, so your projected Opening Day roster now looks like this:
IF (6): Helton, Gonzalez, Barmes, Atkins, Carroll, Shealy
Jorge Piedra is hitting .143 on the spring so Shealy will probably steal his job as designated pinch hitter, particularly if he manages to log a couple of innings in left before the trip north. There's plenty of competition for the last spot in the bullpen and Dohmann is just my guess at this point given his solid second half last year. Nate Field, Tom Martin, Miguel Asencio, and those guys from the Shawn Chacon trade are around, but have work left to do. Manuel Corpas is still a few levels away.
Boy, there's really not much to get excited about in Baltimore. Unless you count the second coming of Jeff Conine. Miguel Tejada is cranky, Kris Benson is best known for his wife, and Brian Roberts is highly unlikely to repeat his career numbers from 2005. Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro are gone, but Corey Patterson and Javy Lopez appear eminently prepared to take over the underperforming malcontent roles. Ramon Hernandez and Kevin Millar are the big free-agent signings. I feel both guys are overrated from their experience as lesser regulars on recent playoff teams. The O's finished comfortably in fourth last season with a 74-88 record, and that was after a very hot start. They won't get that benefit in 2006. If Tampa Bay works intelligently to turn its current surplus of outfielders into average-ish rotation help, Baltimore will finish last in the AL East. They may do so even if the Devil Rays fail to get any deals done.
Was there anything Baltimore could have done this offseason to avoid a last-place fate? Not really. Trading Tejada for pennies on the dollar certainly wouldn't have helped. The acquisition of Benson is certainly defensible, as the righthander is at the very least durable and league-average starters simply aren't available on the cheap these days. If you ignore the fact that Lopez is exactly the kind of catcher who makes a big deal out of being "demoted" to DH, the addition of Hernandez improves their defense and perhaps their pitching as well. Leo Mazzone brings his trunk of snake charms, magical poultices, and evil eyes north from Atlanta, where he'll have his work cut out for him with the Erik Bedards, Daniel Cabreras, and Eric DuBoses of the world. If Mazzone can somehow coax a second consecutive good year out of Bruce Chen, he'll have sealed his case for the Hall of Fame in my mind. If he makes a bunch of rookies, sophomores, and LaTroy Hawkins into a real bullpen, he should be canonized.
Melvin Mora, Tejada, and Roberts give the Orioles a dynamite infield, but their outfield could be truly awful. Corey Patterson is still young and still shows tantalizing flashes of comprehension, but we all remember how well the last Baltimore rehabilitation of a Cubs outfield project went. Millar's power abandoned him last year and in his mid-thirties he doesn't look like the sort of player who will age at all gracefully. Jay Gibbons experienced a slight bump in his rate stats last year thanks to a jump in his number of at-bats against righthanders. The Orioles in their wisdom have rewarded him with a new contract and a promise of an everyday job. He still can't hit lefties, so we'll see how well that goes.
The O's are basically punting for 2006, and it's hard to blame them. The major moves of this offseason, or at least the ones in which can be detected some sort of rational line of reasoning, are built around making the best possible incubating environment for young pitchers possible. Sam Perlozzo was retained as manager partly because young players like him and mostly because of his connections with Mazzone. Hernandez was added to give all the young arms a trustworthy target behind the plate. The Benson trade serves to take the pressure off the Orioles' developing aces for a season or two, and to make it easier for Perlozzo to resist the temptation to overextend Bedard, Cabrera or (upon his arrival) Adam Loewen. That's all very well and good, but Baltimore needs a plan for building a competitive offense as well. None of their current core guys are at all young and obviously after this offseason Tejada is not the sort who's going to wait around like the good organizational soldier. On the farm they've got Nick Markakis and that's about it. At last season's deadline and then again during this offseason, it didn't look like the Orioles had much veteran talent to offer for trade, but markets change. If during this year some team somewhere gets desperate enough for a "proven" starter that Baltimore can flip Rodrigo Lopez or Benson for hitting prospects, they may be able to speed up the rebuilding process considerably. In the right light Mora or Javy Lopez might have value as well. In a sense the worst thing that could happen to the '06 O's is for them to hang around in the AL East race for the first half, because the last thing this team needs to keep doing is convincing themselves they're anything close to a contender. At this point they're farther away from the playoffs than Tampa Bay, but with their superior finances they needn't remain that way for very long.
The Orioles, like Detroit, have been bad at a very high cost for quite some time. They had a better offseason than the Tigers, however. The Millar and Conine signings are somewhat pointless but it's not as if either was for many years or many dollars. Ramon Hernandez's contract is a little more onerous but decent catchers are never easy to come by and Hernandez's impact on the development of the young pitching staff may indeed give him value over and above his lukewarm offensive numbers. Baltimore needs to deal frequently and vigorously to return to prominence in the American League, but the first step is always recognizing how much work you have left to do. It seems as if management has successfully identified the Orioles' decent first half in 2005 as the fluke that it was. That's a good start. The next step is making sure no one involved with the franchise is ever seen wearing one of those hideous solid orange jerseys ever again.
Would it be worth it, being a Braves fan? In the playoffs every year without fail, but less to show for it than your own division's Marlins, who have never won the NL East but have twice won the World Series. Caught in a vortex where you can't sell out home playoff games but even when you try to cut payroll and rebuild the Mets, Fish, Phillies, and ExpoNationals gift you with the division anyway. What could the Braves be doing differently? Should they be doing anything differently? Are their serial playoff failures sheer bad luck as most statheads would tell you or is there some element John Schuerholz's otherwise ironclad team construction leaves out year after year? These are questions worth considering. I hope for a few moments at least you will do as I am now doing and pretend you're not just completely sick of the Atlanta Braves. (And speaking as a Rockies fan, of course it would be worth it. We've yet to even make the playoffs in a real season, and the capacity crowds of 1993 and 1995 are a distant memory. Even if it's to get crushed in three games as badly as the South African national team, please give us a playoff berth.)
Last year it might have seemed like the Braves' tendency to win division titles was crossing over into the realm of the mystical, given the number of well-publicized contributions they had from unknown rookies. It's true that the list of Atlanta's offensive leaders from last year has a ton of these names on it -- Jeff Francoeur, Wilson Betemit, Ryan Langerhans, Kelly Johnson, Pete Orr, Brian McCann, plus second-year player Adam LaRoche. How lucky did the Braves get? Well, while it's certainly a bit unusual to get positive contributions from so many youngsters, especially on a contending team, it's not as if Francoeur (21.2 VORP) and Langerhans (13.0) formed the engine that drove the team. That would be the familiar foursome of Chipper Jones (49.0), Rafael Furcal (49.4), Marcus Giles (48.8), and Andruw Jones (60.9). If the 2005 Braves proved anything, it was that a bunch of seasoned, low-ceiling prospects makes for a better option than Brian Jordan and Raul Mondesi. But I think we knew that already.
For 2006, Furcal exits and Edgar Renteria takes his place. Renteria was a washout in Boston, but he's been a good player more often than not, Atlanta didn't have any particularly appealing internal options, and the Red Sox will pay enough of his salary going forward that the risk for the Braves isn't apalling. (As opposed to Mike Hampton, still on his Colorado contract but now fully Atlanta's financial problem to the tune of $43 million over the next three years plus another $23 million or so in buyouts and deferred money. I think it's safe to say that Dan O'Dowd still gets Christmas cards from the Hamptons.) LaRoche, Francoeur, and company will be starting from the outset this year but none of them are exactly breakout candidates, as many will be making the switch from platooning to full-time starting. Andruw Jones will probably back down a bit from a career '05 while Chipper Jones in all likelihood will spend some more time on the DL. In short, they will really miss Rafael Furcal. In retrospect it's a little strange that they were so quick to deal Andy Marte for Renteria, as he might have been the only guy high in the system with the chance to become an All-Star cornerstone type. Then again, the Braves almost never trade guys like that, so maybe Schuerholz knows something about Marte that we don't.
In the rotation you have golden oldie John Smoltz, Tim Hudson, John "No P" Thomson, Jorge Sosa, and Horacio Ramirez. No Hampton (TJ surgery) and no Leo Mazzone either. We'll see if guys like Ramirez and Sosa can remember what Mazzone told them last year, or whether they require constant reinforcement in order to maintain their Atlanta-based gains. Hudson didn't turn out to be exactly what the Braves traded the farm for last year, but neither Juan Cruz nor Dan Meyer has done much in Oakland to make Atlanta fans regret the deal. If Smoltz is healthy, he'll be good, but he is pushing 40 and this "Life Begins at 40" trend of pitchers having career years at or past that age (Jamie Moyer, Kenny Rogers, Roger Clemens) is really beginning to creep me out. Unusually for Atlanta, the list of fallback options is rather lean. The young guys who went to the bullpen last year (Macay McBride, Blaine Boyer, Kyle Davies) look like best fits to stay there, and there will be no more longshot reclamation projects from Dr. Mazzone's secret lab. Not as if even Mazzone could do anything special with the likes of Wes Obermueller. You can understand Atlanta's lack of enthusiasm for throwing huge coin at noted flake Kyle Farnsworth, but in the pen nothing much remains in his wake. Chris Reitsma bears the closer's mantle at the moment, but nobody in Braves camp except Reitsma himself seems particularly enthusiastic about it. Lance Cormier and Mike Remlinger provide the requisite veteran bullpen presences.
The Braves were top ten in the big leagues in runs scored last year, and they probably won't be this year, although the drop won't be dramatic. They were this close to being in the top ten in ERA as well, and that won't happen again either. You get the pattern. The Braves look set to decline slightly (again) in 2006, and this time I believe that finally someone else in the NL East, probably the Mets, will rise up enough to pass them. Of course, a whole lot of writers more respected than I have looked very foolish saying variations on the same thing for the last five years. Atlanta still has a world-class manager and a terrific front office. They're legitimate World Series contenders until proven otherwise.
The Ironing is Delicious
Canada defeats the U.S., 8-6. In the fifth inning, Adam Stern, who nearly joined Colorado last year as part of a Larry Bigbie/Kelly Shoppach trade, hit an inside-the-park homer. Going back trying to field Stern's shot, which took a weird bounce of the Chase Field fence, Matt Holliday looked for a second as if he messed up his ankle, although he stayed in the game. Luck and this franchise are not close friends.
Goodnight, Sweet Woody
Longtime Giants pitcher Kirk Rueter is calling it a career at 35. You have to tip your hat to the guy for finishing with a .586 career winning percentage despite sub-Jamie Moyer stuff. And for not dragging out the bitter end when he had clearly lost whatever it was he had last year. If the Rockies wanted to get him into camp for a few days to explain to Jeff Francis whatever voodoo Rueter used to stay in the league for so long, that wouldn't be the worst of ideas.
Also, the Cactus League schedule is underway, although I haven't been paying much attention. The Rockies are 2-2 so far for what it's worth. This time of year, you just cross your fingers and hope not to hear that any of your starters have been injured. I did tune it to many of the Far Eastern World Baseball "Classic" games and I've been surprised by how engaging I found them. Byung-Hyun Kim looks good on the mound for Korea so far. As for China, well, they definitely had the snappiest uniforms in Pool A. Better luck next time.
More Rockies tidbits: Charlie Monfort puts his foot in his mouth, again. Baseball Prospectus readers voted overwhelmingly to name a stat "reflecting big leads squandered" a "Mesa." Neither Josh Fogg, Sunny Kim, nor Zach Day has done much to distinguish themself for the fifth starter's spot so far. From Dave Krieger, a spirited defense of Dan O'Dowd.
Zack Greinke update: ESPN's Buster Olney writes in his blog, "Greinke's discontent was felt last year, as well, when he repeatedly indicated to others that he was fed up with the way his baseball career was going. He told others he was ready to walk away." Would he feel this way if he was playing for Atlanta or Oakland?
More HAPs soon.
When you consider the talent they had on the roster, the Nationals' performance in their inaugural season was pretty impressive. They finished 81-81 while being outscored by 34, which is a little lucky but not insanely so. Helped along by a hurler-friendly home park, Washington fielded a pretty sweet little pitching staff. Chad Cordero posted 47 saves and a sub-1.00 WHIP. Livan Hernandez, John Patterson, and Esteban Loaiza were as low-profile a trio of lockdown starters as the NL's ever seen. Rookie Gary Majewksi (who was born, by the way, on the precise same date as me, 2/26/1980) was nifty in a setup role, as were Luis Ayala and super swingman Hector Carrasco. The Nationals were this close (0.6 in the case of Ayala) from having seven pitchers with 20+ VORP.
And then there was the offense. I always heard Nick Johnson was good. Last year, he was great (.408 OBP). Jose Guillen, who was about due for a good year, had a good year (.283/.337/.479, and randomly a league-leading 19 HBP -- Craig Biggio must be slipping). Brian Schneider is quietly one of the best catchers in the National League. (Which is a funny sort of thing to say. Looking now at the list of catchers' VORP in the NL, I would say about 7 of the top 12 qualify as going about their business "quietly." Have folks figured out about Michael Barrett yet? I guess maybe folks have. But what about Javier Valentin?) But as for the Nationals, Ryan Church, Jose Vidro, and Brad Wilkerson hit a bit, and after that it got ugly. Please take advantage of our "comment" feature to make your own Cristian Guzman jokes, because they just never stop being funny. Guzman's .219/.256/.314 line last year -- in the first year of a spectacularly ill-advised long-term deal -- is a gift that keeps on giving. Please, please, please may Frank Robinson give him 500 plate appearances again this year. Can Guzman possibly beat that 55 OPS+ figure from last year? Who doesn't want to see him try? HOW LOW CAN HE GO?
Anyway, with the exception of Guzman the starters weren't bad (which is sort of like saying that German history is pretty upbeat if you just overlook 1936-1945), with Vinny Castilla providing a pretty typical sea level Castilla season. But the bench (starring Deivi Cruz, Junior Spivey, backup catching retread Gary Bennett, and new Rockies acquisition Jamey Carroll) was awful and nobody hit any home runs except Preston Wilson, who's gone. Mix that with a barn of a home field and the result is the fewest runs scored in the majors. The rotation dropped off precipitously for the fourth and fifth starters' spots, so when you get right down to it, it was pretty remarkable the Nationals won as many games as they did. If they'd been in the NL West, they could have won the thing (as the Padres, a team they greatly resemble, actually did). As it was they led the NL East for an astonishingly long stretch and stayed nominally in contention for far longer than they had any right to.
OK, so what's new for 2006? Well, they have a new hat option, presumably because certain constituents of their fanbase feel uncomfortable trotting around with a big "W" on their caps. For reasons unclear, they traded Brad Wilkerson for Alfonso Soriano, which has already come back to haunt them before camp even began, with Soriano predictably whining about not wanting to play in the outfield. They lost a bidding war for Esteban Loaiza to Oakland of all teams, and traded Castilla for Brian Lawrence to try and replace him. Ramon Ortiz and Pedro Astacio are in the rotation mix as well. Patterson and Hernandez (assuming he doesn't retire out of thin air as he threatened to at one point last season) should be okay. After that...well. Yeah. New faces Mike Stanton and Felix Rodriguez probably won't make a huge difference, but the bullpen retains Cordero, Majewksi, Ayala, and Joey Eischen; they should be fine there assuming they ever get any leads to protect.
On offense they exchange Castilla and Wilkerson for Ryan Zimmerman and Brandon Watson (or Church). Soriano, assuming he ever recovers from his bout of poutiness, will be hard-pressed to make up for that much lost power by his lonesome. Alfonso's home/road splits last year were dramatic: .315/.355/.656, 25 homers at Ameriquest, .224/.265/.374, 11 homers elsewhere. It's fun to imagine Jim Bowden's thought process. "What can I do for an encore after the Guzman contract? Is it even possible? Maybe I should just retire now, I'm never going to be able top that one. Wait! Eureka! Alfonso Soriano is the answer!" Even in a best-case scenario Soriano will maybe hit 30 homers and keep his OBP barely above .300, which is in fact subpar for a corner outfielder. Worst-case scenario, Guzman and Soriano collide trying to field a pop-up in short left and a black hole of critical suckitude opens up spontaneously right there on the sickly RFK lawn.
The offense is going to be even worse for the 2006 Nationals, they've gone from a 60% legit rotation to (maybe) 40%, but the bullpen remains pretty good. They're not going to go 12-6 in interleague play again, and they'll probably be a lot worse than 36-41 in a division that still has three pretty good teams. I would be mildly surprised if the baby Marlins nudged by and relegated Washington to last place in the division in '06, but I certainly wouldn't be shocked. If so, you better believe Frank Robinson will blame it all on the unconscionable sale of Jamey Carroll.
Not trying to win, but at least ticket prices won't rise (again)
About the Toaster
Baseball Toaster was unplugged on February 4, 2009.
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