Archive for the ‘better luck next year’ Category

Better Luck Next Year: Chicago Cubs

September 9, 2009

Hey, happy 09/09/09 (at 9 a.m.)!

So, theirs is the one failure that has surprised me most in 2009. At 70-67, the Cubs haven’t been awful, but I (and almost everyone else) thought they’d run away with the NL Central, and instead they’ve let the Cardinals run away with it. The Cubbies are now about 11 games behind in the division and eight games (and five teams) out of the Wildcard, with just 28 to play. So the streak without a championship will certainly run to 101 seasons; any chance it ends there?

2010 Cubs now under contract, with 2009 WAR
C: Geovany Soto (1.1)
1B: Derrek Lee (4.0)
2B: Mike Fontenot (0.2)
3B: Aramis Ramirez (1.7)
SS: Ryan Theriot (2.3)
LF: Alfonso Soriano (-0.7)
CF: Kosuke Fukudome (2.5)
RF: Milton Bradley (1.7)

Pitchers, with 2009 FIPs:
Ryan Dempster (4.02)
Ted Lilly (3.88)
Randy Wells (3.85)
Carlos Zambrano (3.90)
Sean Marshall (4.35)
Bullpen: Carlos Marmol (4.01), Aaron Heilman (4.43), Angel Guzman (4.34)

It would be kind of gratifying to blame this season on GM Jim Hendry’s predictably terrible offseason moves — chief among them his baffling decision to pick up mediocre “closer” Kevin Gregg and his severe overpayment of problem child Milton Bradley — but take a look at this. This is the difference between the following players’ 2008 and 2009 WARs:
Soriano: 3.9
Soto: 3.5
Fontenot: 2.9
Ramirez: 2.3
TOTAL: 12.6

Add those 13 wins to the Cubs’ total right now and they’re 83-54, about two games ahead of the Cards (and that’s assuming, probably falsely, that none of those extra wins come against the Cards).

Now, that oversimplifies things. Rookie Jake Fox came in and relieved some of the pressure from losing Ramirez to injury with a solid bat (though WAR says he’s given most of it back on defense), and Lee has been much better than expected. And it’s not like Gregg hasn’t cost them a win or so, and Marmol’s complete loss of the strike zone, and Dempster and Harden not being quite as good as they would’ve hoped…but really, make whatever little adjustments you want, and still, if you give those four guys listed above their 2008 numbers back (and none of them were outlandish numbers, really), you’ve got a real race for the division.

So here’s where I normally do the three things they need to MAKE happen and the three things they need to HAVE happen…but I don’t think that works here, for a few reasons:

First, there aren’t a lot of moves to be made for this team. They might bring Harden back and kick Marshall back out of the rotation, or they might sign another starter, and they could certainly stand to improve that bullpen, but outside the pen, everyone on the list above has been a quality full-time major league starter at his listed position sometime in the last two seasons. That’s not to say that you can’t improve one of those positions, but it’s just hard to see how it would go down. Most of these guys are well paid, few would be terribly attractive targets to teams looking to dump talent, and the Cubs’ prospect list is pretty thin at the top. I’m sure Hendry wants to do something anyway, but I’m not convinced that anything he might do is likely to actually help this squad.

Second, and maybe more importantly, I’m not sure they’ll be permitted to make any moves at this point. Assuming the sale of the team is even finalized by the time for moves to be made, who knows how much the owners will want to spend? They’ve already got more than $10 million each (and in some cases, much more) committed to Lee, Bradley, Dempster, Fukudome, Soriano, Ramirez and Zambrano for 2010. Now, the Cubs and Wrigley Field may look to you and me like bottomless bowls of money (in the sense of the bottomless cup of coffee you might get at a diner), but we also know that millionaires and billionaires get to be millionaires and billionaires by not looking at the world that way. There’s definitely a limit to what the Cubs will (and in a business sense should) spend, and I think there’s a good chance they’re already pretty close to that limit for 2010. Also, a lot of these guys’ contracts are expiring in 2010 or ’11, and while that may mean that 2010 is when you really go for it, it also means that it might be a bad time to sign a big free agent to a long-term contract; it’s hard to believe with a team like the Cubs, but you might be looking at a rebuilding situation in a year or two.

Of course there are still potential trades out there. Josh proposes that the Cubs trade Soriano and Bradley for Vernon Wells, which would trade two bad contracts for one and free up some payroll in the short term. Even if the Jays would do that, though (and I can’t think of a reason they would), if I’m the Cubs, I’m saying no to that one. In all likelihood, the Jays are getting the two best players in a three-player deal, and Bradley’s contract isn’t that bad (he’s still a valuable player despite all the bad press, and has a chance to be a very valuable one again in 2010).

So I’d pretty much stand pat and hope for the best. With four starters with FIPs right around 4.00, they’ve got one of the best rotations in baseball (Randy Wells’ minor league record suggests he’s not really that guy, but even if not, Sean Marshall isn’t that much of a dropoff). Bring Harden back (4.30 FIP in 2008, but 3.58 career), and it gets even better. I don’t see much else for them to do right now than to count on some combination of bouncebacks by A-Ram, Soriano, Soto and Fontenot, improvements by Fukudome and Bradley, or another big step forward by Jake Fox to provide offense behind that pitching staff. And improve the bullpen, naturally, but scoring runs is the big thing.

One idea, though: trade Milton Bradley to some AL team for prospects. He’s okay in the field, but he arguably has more value to a team that can DH him to keep his bat in the lineup. Then, move Fukudome back to RF and pick up a good one-year center fielder…someone like free-agent-to-be Mike Cameron. Fukudome is a plus defender in the corners and an average defender in center, while Bradley is merely an average defender in the corner. Cameron will be 37, but has long been one of the best outfield defenders in teh game and can still cover plenty of ground out there. He’s still got a pretty solid bat, and has the kind of gap power that Wrigley could turn into homer power (small sample, but he has a career .577 SLG there). It would improve their defense without sacrificing much, or possibly any, offense (unless Bradley bounces back into 2008 form).

I’d be reluctant to do that, because the bad press and low power output have made Bradley pretty undesirable right now. They’d get very little for him, and may end up having to pay a large portion of his salary (which, depending on the team’s budget, might put even Cameron out of their range). It’s a lot of work and a lot of risk for a pretty marginal improvement.

The Cardinals are almost guaranteed to come back to earth in 2010, barring a big surprise move or two in the offseason (more on that at some point, I’m sure); there’s no reason to think A-Ram will get hurt again; and Soriano and Soto almost couldn’t help but get better. So while the bad news is that I don’t see a lot of ways for them to get better for 2010, the good news is that I think the team as currently constituted (plus some cheap bullpen help and maybe Harden) has a very good chance to compete.

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Better Luck Next Year: Cincinnati Reds

August 31, 2009

You could say that a deficit of 19.5 games (that’s how far the Reds are behind the Cardinals as of this morning) isn’t likely to be made up in a year–especially not when there are three more teams between you and first place–and you’d be right. But the Reds have some intriguing young players and have been dragged down by some pretty devastating injuries, so it’s worth taking a look.

2010 Reds now under contract, with 2009 WAR
C Ryan Hanigan (0.9)
1B Joey Votto (2.7)
2B Brandon Phillips (2.3)
3B Scott Rolen (3.0)
SS Paul Janish (0.6)
LF Chris Dickerson (1.8)
CF Drew Stubbs (Rookie)
RF Jay Bruce (1.0)

Pitchers, with 2009 FIPs:
Aaron Harang (4.18)
Bronson Arroyo (5.10)
Johnny Cueto (4.75)
Homer Bailey (5.23)
Micah Owings (5.75)
Bullpen: Francisco Cordero (3.18), Nick Masset (3.84), Danny Herrera (4.05)

Bad, but filled with promise. Stubbs should be a hell of a player. Bruce is having a nightmare of a season, but was the top prospect in the game not two years ago, and he’s been terrific in right field. Phillips plays good D and can hit better than the league-average line he’s put up so far. Votto is a stud who missed a bunch of games this year, and his defense (by UZR) looks pretty bad for 2009, but was +10 runs (roughly +1 win) in 2008; a rebound by him should be expected and will make a huge difference.

Harang has taken a bit of a step back from his “unheralded ace” status of a couple years ago, but is still a solid pitcher, and all of the other four starters have shown signs that they can be very good pitchers (some more likely to be than others, but it’s all possible). This is a team, however, that will badly miss Edinson Volquez, who is expected to miss most of the 2010 season. Their bullpen is full of guys with pretty ERAs; most bullpen ERAs can’t be trusted, but given the sheer number of them, you have to figure they can find three or four talents in there that can anchor their 2010 ‘pen in front of Cordero.

Then again, they could just decide to blow the whole thing up any day now. Their odds are long, and Harang, Arroyo and Cordero are all pretty expensive. But let’s just say they decide to go for it. And anyway, why would they have picked up the last year and a half of Rolen’s contract if they weren’t going to go for it?

What They Need to MAKE Happen
1. Get an impact player at catcher or shortstop. Impact catchers are hard (okay, impossible) to find on the open market. Bengie Molina wouldn’t be a bad gamble at the right price (decent defensive skills and an OPS close to average qualifies as “impact” by catcher standards), but I’m sure someone (very likely his current club, the Giants) will overvalue his veteran leadership and RBIs and drive him well out of reasonable range.
At shortstop, I’m sure they can get the recently departed Alex Gonzalez back for a song, but that’s approximately one song more than he’s worth at this point. His defense has been good, but his bat has completely vanished, and comebacks by middling shortstops at age 33 aren’t good bets (even if the bat comes back, the defense slips–see Guzman, Cristian).
So unless someone like Molina falls into their laps or they can swing an improbable trade for an underutilized catcher on someone else’s team (I’m looking at you, Chris Iannetta), the focus should be on getting a better shortstop. The best of the free agent class is likely to be Marco Scutaro, though Miguel Tejada is out there too, and there are several likely to be available in fairly minor trades who could give you a +2.5-win-or-so performance.

2. Separate Dusty Baker from Willy Taveras and Everyone Like Him. I’d be all for firing Dusty Baker–the man just doesn’t know what he’s doing–but if you can’t do that, you’ve got to purge your team of all possible gutsy, toolsy players so that Dusty can’t be tempted to actually use them. Taveras is a blindingly fast runner, an excellent defensive center fielder, and an overall crap player because he can’t hit to save his life. He’d be a fine pinch runner/defensive replacement, but Dusty would use him way more than that. Drew Stubbs needs to be the center fielder of both the future and the present for this team. No more Taverases and Corey Pattersons, anywhere, ever. Unfortunately, Taveras is owed $4 million for 2010 for some reason, so if he’s healthy, he’ll likely be given every opportunity to win a spot on the team. So come to think of it, just fire Dusty already.

3. Find a platoon partner for Chris Dickerson. The Reds have two reasonable options for left field: Dickerson and Laynce Nix. Nix has shown some nice power and both have played good D, but Dickerson is the better player, and both are lefties who can’t hit lefties. It would be ideal if the Reds could move Nix for a similar bit player who bats right-handed. Dickerson is a career .289/.388/.460 hitter against righties. If they were able to pair someone like the Tigers’ Ryan Raburn (.242/.355/.516 vs. LHP this season) with that, they could have the equivalent of something like a $10-12 million player for the cost of essentially two minimum salaries. (I have no particular reason to believe that Raburn would be available, but guys like him certainly will be–many are likely hidden away in AAA because of their inability to hit righty pitching.)

What They Need to HAVE Happen
1. Jay Bruce needs to get good fast. This was a guy that was projected as something like a .300/.350/.550, 40-HR hitter with good D in the outfield corners, and quickly. The defense has been there in ’09, but the offense has been offensive, with 18 homers but a .207 batting average and a .287 OBP through Saturday. On one hand, there are all kinds of reasons to expect him to bounce back; he’s very young, he’s walking more and striking out less than in 2008, and he’s been victimized by an almost unbelievably low .202 BABIP, so there’s no question that a lot of it is bad luck. On the other hand, though, his line drive and ground ball rates have plummeted while his fly ball rate has shot through the roof (35.2% in 2008, 49.6% in 2009), which isn’t conducive to getting a lot of hits. He’s very likely to be a productive player in 2010 regardless, but getting back to hitting the top half of the ball every now and then would probably help a lot.

2. Scott Rolen needs to stay healthy. It’s hard to believe Rolen will be just 35 years old in 2010; in some ways, he’s seemed old since pretty much the day he arrived with the Phillies 13 years ago. From 2004-2008 he played 142, 56, 142, 112 and 115 games, and if he plays every remaining game in 2009 he’ll still end up in only 132 for the year. But when he’s on the field, he’s still a star. He plays excellent defense — if not as excellent as five or six years ago when he was the best-fielding 3B anyone who missed Mike Schmidt’s prime had ever seen — and is currently hitting .312/.368/.466. Much of that was in the tougher American League, and there aren’t a lot of markers to suggest that he’s benefiting from a lot of luck, so .300/.370/.480 or so would be a reasonable expectation from a healthy Rolen in 2010. This is a team, as I’ve said, whose status as a contender kind of on the brink as it is, so they badly need every game they can possibly squeeze out of Rolen.

3. Either Johnny Cueto or Homer Bailey needs to fulfill his potential. A year or two ago, they were two of the better pitching prospects in the game, and while Cueto has been much better than Bailey in the majors, neither one has come close to doing what people thought he could do. One of those two guys needs to take the leap and form a strong 1-2 with Harang. The good news is that in his last two starts, Bailey is 2-0 with 11 hits, 5 walks, 11 strikeouts and an 0.60 ERA in 15 innings; the bad newses are that (a) Cueto has seemed to get worse every month he’s been in the majors, and (b) those performances dropped Bailey’s ERA all the way from 7.53 to 6.04.

The Reds are going to have a tough time avoiding the 90-loss mark this year, and they’re not going to emerge from Spring Training ’10 as anything like favorites. But if all these things happen and they get a couple more little breaks here and there, I can see them winning something between 85 and 90. And is it really that hard to see 87 wins or so being enough to win the Central?

Better Luck Next Year: Seattle Mariners

August 26, 2009

Today begins a series that will be in an unspecified number of parts over an indeterminate number of weeks in which I look at a team that is out of the 2009 playoff picture, but that might have designs on 2010.

I’ve been planning for a couple days now to do this starting with the Mariners, a team I already know pretty well, but then yesterday Rob Neyer had to come in and rain all over my parade, concluding that the Ms’ “long-term prognosis doesn’t look so bad. But the growing pains might be a bit ugly. Perhaps the only bright note at the moment is that there’s nowhere to go but up.”

First of all, what? Did he write that last year (when the Mariners were 61-101) and forget to post it until this year? Because right now the Mariners are better than a .500 team, and when you’re a .500 team there’s about as far to go down as there is up. I know what he meant, though: most of the article was about hitting, and the Mariners’ offense has been truly dreadful. And it’s true that you have to score runs to win baseball games.

But here’s the thing: you don’t have to score a lot of runs as long as you give up even fewer runs. And that’s been the Mariners’ mantra this year, due mostly to the most vastly improved defense in the entire history of sports that use the term “defense.” I think they’re in a pretty good position to keep doing it next year, too…with a few tweaks here and there.

Here are the Mariners’ best position players currently under contract for 2010, with their current 2009 WAR in parentheses:
C: Johnson(0.5)/Johjima (0.3)
1B: Brad Nelson? (rookie)
2B: Jose Lopez (1.7)
3B: Jack Hannahan (1.1)/Bill Hall (0.2)
SS: Jack Wilson (1.9)
LF: Michael Saunders (rookie)
CF: Franklin Gutierrez (4.2)
RF: Ichiro! (4.2)
DH: Mike Carp (rookie)

Pitchers, with 2009 FIPs:
Felix Hernandez (3.11)
Carlos Silva? (5.91)
Ryan Rowland-Smith? (5.27)
Brandon Morrow (5.70)
Jason Vargas? (5.26)
Bullpen: Aardsma (3.14), Lowe (3.56), White (3.86)

It looks bad, but it’s not, at least for a starting point. Ichiro seems to go from overrated to underrated and back again just about every other year, and currently he’s underrated again, and having what might be his finest offensive season while still playing great D. Gutierrez has continued to be the best defensive outfielder in the game while blossoming into an average-hitting outfielder, which makes him on balance one of the better players in the league. King Felix will be my recurring pre-season pick for Cy Young every year from 2010 until further notice (perhaps 2019 or so). The bullpen is good.

What they need to MAKE happen:
1. Re-sign Russ Branyan. He won’t be as cheap as he was this year ($1.4 million), but it shouldn’t be all that tough to convince him to stay, either. The Mariners will have ended up giving him something like 100 more PA in a season than any of his seven other teams ever have, and Safeco Field–a pitcher’s park in general but a friendly place for lefty home run hitters–is a great place for him. Brad Nelson is 26 and has put up just an .811 OPS in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League; that’s not going to do it for this team. Branyan provides badly needed power, can get on base, and actually holds his own at first. Unless somebody wants to go crazy and give him a ridiculous contract based on one surprising performance, he’s a no-brainer for them.

2. Sign one pretty good starting pitcher. Erik Bedard and the Mariners were a match made in that place that also brought you Ike and Tina Turner. He’s gone. That starting rotation after Felix looks awful, but remember, they’re a better-than-.500 team with a rotation that’s no better than that right now, plus a fluky performance by Jarrod Washburn. One good pitcher would make a big difference. No telling who will really be available at this point (Rich Harden? John Lackey? Bring back Joel Pineiro? Randy Wolf? The reanimated Ben Sheets?), but they’ll be out there.

3. Re-sign Adrian Beltre. Among the many brilliant things he’s done, rookie GM Jack Zduriencik actually did a fantastic job making arrangements in the event of a Beltre departure in free agency. Bill Hall hits lefties well, Jack Hannahan hits righties…well enough to spell Hall when he’s flailing, and they both play very good defense while costing relatively little. But put them together, and they’re no better than an average player. As Dave Cameron wrote on USS Mariner yesterday (bad day for me to try to talk M’s, come to think of it), they badly need another core player, and as awesome as the Gutierrez trade was for them, they had to give up real major-league value for that–value that they can’t afford to part with this year. A healthy Beltre is that kind of player. He might be a hard sign–he’s a Boras client, and a lot of teams understand how huge his defense is now–but then again he’s coming off a horrible, injury-plagued season, and maybe he likes Seattle. Who knows? If not that, they need another core player. But who? They should have a ton of money–pretty much everyone save Ichiro is pretty cheap right now–but there just aren’t that many free-agents-to-be out there who would fit, and they don’t have the kind of prospects that would being in a superstar.

What they need to HAVE happen:
1. Those few core players they do have–Ichiro, Felix, Gutierrez, and hopefully Beltre or a reasonable facsimile–need to stay healthy. You always hear that, but this is an especially thin team at the top, making it especially true.

2. Brandon Morrow needs to make a big comeback. No, he’ll never be the guy who was drafted five picks later, but he’s still got basically unhittable stuff. A little control would go along way.

3. One of those rookies, Saunders or Carp, needs to show something. I’m sure Zduriencik can (and will) replace one of those guys, but not both, and there’s really nothing else on the way up.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I like the team and really want this to be true, but seeing how they’re doing this year, I think with a few tweaks and a little luck, this team could win 90-93 games in 2010 and make a really good run at the division.