Friday, March 23, 2007

Cubs-Brewers '07...An In-Depth Analysis

# 1 Starter...Ben Sheets v. Carlos Zambrano.

This has the potential to be a terrific matchup. Sheets is the true X-Factor for the Brewers in 2007. Although his win totals have never been eye-catching, true baseball fans are aware that wins and losses are perhaps the 3rd or 4th most telling stat when it comes to evaluation of a starting pitcher. And Sheets' peripheral stats are truly remarkable. Consider the following...

Over the last three years, two of those he spent battling nagging injuries, Sheets has compiled 521 strikeouts, while walking just 68 in 499.6 innings. That's a 7.6/1 ratio, amongst the best in baseball. Sheets compiled an ERA of 3.13 over that time frame, once again amongst the best in the game. Although Sheets has picked up the dreaded Prior-like "injury-prone" status, Sheets missed a total of 3 starts over his first four full seasons (throwing well over 200 innings in three of them), and still managed to pitch over 250 innings over the course of the last two seasons. And by all accounts, this spring is the healthiest Sheets has felt since 2002.

Sheets put up some amazing numbers last year, despite the nagging injuries that limited him to 17 starts. Jeff Sackman’s brilliant article on hardball times pointed this out that in 106 innings of work last year, he posted 11 walks, while striking out 106 batters. No other pitcher has EVER thrown 50 more innings in a season while striking out a batter per inning, and walking fewer than on per 9. Incredible stuff. If you want a taste of what Ben can do over the course of a full season, refer to 2004, his last fully healthy campaign: He had a stellar ERA of 2.70, struck out 264 batters in 237 innings, and walked just 32, an 8.3-1 K/BB ratio. If the Brewers can coax 200 innings out of Sheets' golden right arm, Milwaukee has a terrific chance at a breakout season.

Zambrano is no slouch himself. Like Sheets, he is a two-time All-Star. Also like Sheets, his best season came in 2004, when he posted an ERA of 2.75 and a WHIP (Walks and hit per innings pitched) of 1.2. Unlike Sheets, Zambrano's durability can't be questioned. He's pitched at least 200 innings (these days the barometer for a workhouse starter) for the last four consecutive years, and his bulldog manor on the mound has served him well for the most part. One thing that might be of concern to Z is that, while his K/9 ratio was a career high 8.8, his BB/9 ratio also marked his highest total since becoming a full-time starter in 2003 at 4.8. Basically, both of those numbers mean he throws a ton of pitches per start. It will be interesting to see if those numbers, combined with the ridiculous mis-use of the pitching staff that characterized the Dusty Baker Era in Chicago, has an effect on Z. Certainly, this is a guy that is a legitimate ace, and looks to have another big year in 2007.

# 2 Starter...Jeff Suppan v. Ted Lilly.

The Brewers are paying Suppan 42 million over 4 years to do what he's done the last eight years...pitch at least 188 innings, provide a better than league average ERA, be a mentor to younger pitchers, and be a stabilizing force. $10.5/year might sound like a steep price, especially for the Brewers, but it was the going rate for those types in the offseason, and Brewers brass felt strongly enough about the rest of the team to invest in Suppan. His remarkable durability and postseason experience (he was the MVP of the '06 NLCS) make him a pretty decent # 2 starter, but certainly his stuff won't blow anyone away. His numbers over the past three years, in almost every category, are basically the same. He is 32 years old, which is a concern with any pitcher. However, because he is not, nor has he ever been, a flamethrower, age issues shouldn't effect him all that much.

The Cubs, meanwhile, shelled out basically the same deal for Lilly (4 years, 40 million). Lilly is a year younger, has never pitched 200 innings, has pitched never won a post-season game, and has a career ERA of 4.60. On the plus side, he's a lefty, had a terrific year in 2004, and pitched in baseball's toughest division over the last three years. While it would be hard to argue that Lilly is worth the $10/year he got, he should provide decent dependability to the rotation.

# 3 Starter ...Chris Capuano v. Jason Marquis

Over the last two years, Capuano has proven to be a dependable starter that shows flashes of brilliance. An All-Star in 2006, the lefty has pitched 440 innings over the last two years, has one of the best pickoff moves in all of baseball, and has a combined ERA of just under 4 for the last two seasons. Cappy made huge strides last season in improving his K/BB ratio. While maintaining his strikeout rate (176 in '05, 174 in '06), Cappy allowed just 47 walks in '06, as compared to 91 in the year prior. He has started 69 games over the past two seasons, and was 7th in the National League in innings pitched in 2006. He finished 6th in the NL in BB/9, with 1.91.

Marquis was signed to a 3-year, 21 million dollar deal despite being so terrible for the Cardinals in 2006 that they left him off their playoff roster. Marquis finished 2006 with a an ERA of 6.02 and struck out just 96 while walking 75. The Cubs have to hope that Larry Rothschild can bring back the Marquis that pitched over 200 innings in both 2004 and 2005, while compiling an ERA of around 4.23. Not stellar numbers, but at least enough to take some pressure off the bullpen and give your team a chance to win the game. Marquis' whip last season was over 1.5.

# 4 Starter...Dave Bush v. Rich Hill

Bush is an interesting story for the Brewers. He went to Wake Forest as a catcher, and was later converted to a lights-out college closer. He was drafted by the Blue Jays in the 2nd round, and quickly rose through the ranks and made his MLB debut in 2004 with Toronto. He had a decent rookie season in 2005, starting 25 games in the tough AL East, and compiled an ERA of 4.49. He was traded to the Brewers as part of the Lyle Overbay deal, and was very dependable in 2006. He pitched 210 innings, and his peripheral numbers were much better than his 4.41 ERA would indicate, possibly meaning he simply pitched in a lot of bad luck. His WHIP of 1.13 was good for 4th best in the National League, and he walked just 1.63 batters per 9 innings, good for 4th in the NL as well. He led the entire National League in K/BB ratio, tying Roy Oswalt with 4.37-1 ratio (Had Sheets pitched enough innings, he would've won in a landslide). For these reasons, I believe that Bush is a strong candidate for a breakout year in 2007, much like the one that Capuano experienced in 2005.

Hill is a pretty decent prospect for the Cubs that has always done well in the minors, but had a horrific big league stint in 2005. Last season appeared to be much the same as after 10 outings, he was carrying an ugly 6.44 ERA. However, Hill put his big, sweeping curveball to work for him down the stretch and ended up with an ERA of 4.17. It appeared as though he had things figured out, so 2007 will be a crucial year for Hill to make the leap. Who is the real Rich Hill? The guy that struggled through his first 20 outings or so, or the one that had terrific success in his last 7 outings in 2007?

#5 Starter...Claudio Vargas v. Wade Miller

Vargas, acquired in the Doug Davis-Johnny Estrada deal, is a fairly league average pitcher that has the ability to pitch a gem from time to time. However, despite his relative success last year, I am a bit skeptical at his abilities. He had a nice home/road split, which in this case means he wasn't very good in the hitter-friendly environs of BankOne Park, but was very decent (4.12 ERA) away from Arizona. I'll take a wait and see approach. He's 29, so it's not like he's going to get a lot better here quickly.

Wade Miller

I project Miller to win the 5th spot, but could easily be wrong, as Guzman and others are challenging. Miller in an interesting project. From 2002-2004, he averaged 184 innings, and compiled a solid 3.57 ERA for the Astros. However, in the three years since he has started merely 36 games, including 5 for the Cubs in late-season duty last year. Since his injury, his K/BB ratio has been atrocious, as he has walked 109 batters while striking out 158 in 199 innings. Last season, he walked 18 and struck out 20 for the Cubs, posting a pretty terrible 1.7 WHIP. While Miller was once a solid pitcher, he's 30 now, and coming off a serious injury. If he somehow returns to form, he will be a nice #5.

6th starter/Long Man/AAA Depth...Carlos Villanueva v. Angel Guzman

Villanueva is one of the pleasant surprises to come out of the Brewers farm system in the past few seasons. Acquired from the Giants for Wayne Franklin in 2003, Villanueva was a little-known rookie ball pitcher with average velocity and a slight frame. Whatever the Brewers brass saw in him, their faith was rewarded as Carlos steadily rose up the system, posting a 3.24 ERA in his minor league career. Villanueva was called up from AA last season after a string of terrible outings by higher touted prospects in the stead of Sheets and Tomo Ohka, who went down simultaneously with serious arm injuries. His 2006 starting debut came against Cincinnati in a very tough ballpark to pitch. He threw six scoreless innings. He ended his 2006 campaign by allowing two runs in 8.1 innings against the Cardinals, who at the time were still fighting for their playoff lives. In between, he strung together several strong outings that belied not only his tender age of 22. Carlos has a terrific changeup, great mound presence, and simply knows how to pitch.

Guzman is a very highly regarded prospect for the Cubs that has seen little major league success. His only stint in the show came in 2006, and like much of the rest of the Cubs staff, was summarily lit up like Clark Grizwald’s Christmas tree. He ended the season with a 7.39 ERA that was actually much worse (9.28 ERA) as a starter. He has solid stuff according to most accounts, but is also advancing in age for a prospect, as he turned 25 in December. His minor league numbers are beyond reproach, as he has compiled an ERA of 2.83 over 7 seasons in the Cubs minor league system. 20027 will be a put up or shut up kind of season for Guzman.

Middle Relief…Turnbow, Wise, Capellan, Shouse v. Eyre, Howry, Novoa, Wood, Ohman

The keys to the Brewers bullpen lay in the hands of Derrick Turnbow. The former Angel castoff took Milwaukee by storm in 2005, posting a terrific 1.74 ERA and franchise record-tying 39 saves. He started out ’06 in the same fashion, recording saves in the team’s first four games of the season to set a MLB record. On June 29, Turnbow had 23 saves and an ERA of 3.28 on the season. That’s when the wheels came off, and Turnbow came unglued. The rest of his season was a nightmare, and his problems appeared to be almost totally mental. He was still throwing 97, but couldn’t locate his breaking pitches, and the fastball then became predictable, and hittable. This spring, Turnbow has been terrific. If he can return to his pre-breakdown stage, the Brewers can play a lot of 7-inning games this season. If not, another reliable setup man will have to emerge. Matt Wise has been a steady presence in the bullpen for the last three years with his nasty changeup. Injuries limited him to 40 games last season, and his health will be a key to the ’06 pen. Big things are expected out of Jose Capellan, who was 2nd on the club in appearances last season with 61. Another flamethrower, Capellan has lacked consistency, typical of young relievers. Some in the Brewers organization believe that he can become a dominant closer. Brian Shouse is the lefty specialist who came trotting in 59 times out of the pen last year, and held lefties to a .238 average.

The Cubs middle relief was a high point last season, as high dollar contracts doled out to the likes of Bobby Howry (3.17 ERA) and Scott Eyre (3.38) paid off nicely. Other bullpen stalwarts included Will Ohman (4.13 ERA, 78G) and Roberto Novoa (4.26 ERA, 66G), both of whom will be integral parts of the 2007 pen. Neil Cotts has had one decent season, 2005, but posted a WHIP of 1.63 last season, and a 5.17 ERA The X factor for Chicago could be former wunderkid Kerry Wood, who is currently down with an arm ailment. Shocking, I know. No one has ever questioned the stuff of Wood, whose two-pitch repertoire could play very well out of the pen. Should Wood be able to pitch 40-50 times this season, the middle relief could very well be a huge strength for the Cubs.

Closer…Cordero v. Dempster

Francisco “Coco” Cordero was acquired in the Carlos Lee deal, and basically single-handedly kept the Brewers season from completely going in the toilet. He was incredible upon entering the National League for the first time in an 8-year career, 7 of which were spent with the Rangers. He was unscored upon in his first 13.2 innings with the Crew, allowing just 7 hits in that timeframe. He finished 16-18 in save opportunities, and solidified the bullpen down the stretch. Cordero has absolutely nasty stuff, and was terrific, save April of 2006, for the Rangers, 86 games over the course of 2004-2005. Coco is one of the elite closers in the game, and should serve the Brewers well in 2007.

Dempster, a converted starter, had a nightmare 2006. He went 1-9 with a 4.80 ERA and nine saves. Because, save Wood, the Cubs don’t have another candidate for closer, Dempster will at least start the season with the job. He did the job in 2005, saving 33 games while compiling a 3.13 ERA.

Misc. Bullpen comments…

A bullpen’s best friend is a starting rotation that can consistently get deep into games. In this way, the Brewers figure to have a large edge, particularly as the season wears on, and the bullpens wear out. Although there are question marks in the middle of Milwaukee’s pen, if they can keep games in the hands of their top 4 relievers before Cordero, they should be fine.

Catcher…Estrada v. Barrett

In their only trade of the offseason, the Brewers sought to upgrade their catching position that has been a weak spot in the lineup since David Nilsson hit .309 with 21 home runs in 1999, making the All-Star team in the process. Estrada is a guy that is known more for his offense than his defense, but his arm should be adequate for what his bat can provide. He had a terrific 2004 for the Braves, hitting .314 with 9 HR before regressing into a .261 season in 2005, featuring just 4 long balls. He bounced back in 2006 with the Diamondbacks, hitting .302 with a career high 11 home runs. The issue with Estrada is that he doesn’t draw a lot of walks (just 13 in 2006). So when his batting average goes, so too goes his OBP down the tunes. However, at age 31, he shouldn’t be in a quick decline, and hopefully finish somewhere around that .300 mark. He certainly has people taking note of his hitting skills in Arizona, as he is still hovering around the .450 mark just less than two weeks before the season starts.

Barrett has been remarkably consistent in his three years with the Cubs, hitting exactly 16 home runs each season, and always batting between .275 and .307. While his walk rate is better than Estrada, he also doesn’t meet the 1 BB/10 AB standard preferred by OBP mavens. He’s the same age as Estrada roughly, and shouldn’t decline too much in 2007.

1st Base…Fielder vs. Lee

A position of strength for both teams to be sure. Fielder had a terrific rookie campaign, shaking off an 0-11 start with 27 home runs, and a solid .830 OPS (on-base plus slugging, the preferred offensive metric for most statheads). Seeing that he’s only 23 years old, and 2006 was his first full season of action, there’s absolutely no reason to believe that he won’t exceed his 2006 numbers. His ceiling is virtually unlimited, and he could easily turn into one of the game’s top sluggers. He was very durable last year, playing 157 games, and was better defensively than most expected.

Derrek Lee’s absence from the Cubs lineup was a major contributing factor to their garbage 2006 season. He hit well when he was in the lineup, though not up to the silly numbers he put up in 2005. In that season, his OPS was an astounding 1.080, good for first in the majors. Last season, he regressed back to .842, which was more near his career norms. I certainly think Lee’s a good hitter, but it’s also just as clear when looking at his career stats that the 2005 season was an outlier, and should be treated as such. Still, most teams would kill to have him in their lineup every day, and his defense is simply stellar at the bag.

2nd base…Weeks vs. DeRosa

Firmly entrenched as the Brewers leadoff hitter, this is a big year in the career of the talented Mr. Weeks. One of the highest touted prospects in baseball, Weeks tore through the minor leagues and made his debut in June of 2005. He got off to a solid start before injuring his thumb and sputtered down the stretch. 2006 was much of the same, as he missed the last 62 games with a wrist injury. It appears to be mostly healed, though in a troubling statement Weeks recently indicated that it still wasn’t 100%, merely good enough to play with. Weeks needs a healthy campaign for the Brewers to excel in 2007. He should steal well over 20 bases, hit at least 15 home runs, and hit around .280 with a decent OBP in 2007. Weeks still has the ceiling to be one of the top offensive 2nd baseman in baseball, but ’07 is a year to prove his mettle. Defensively, he was a disaster for the first 50 games, and nothing less than stellar his final 45 or so. His range is terrific, but he sometimes struggles with routine plays.

Mark DeRosa was signed by the Cubs in the offseason after spending two seasons with the Texas Rangers. In the offensive haven that is the Ballpark at Arlington, Derosa put up a solid .813 OPS, but spent just 26 games at 2nd base. A versatile player who has played all over the diamond in his career, he will stay at 2nd for the Cubs. Before last season, DeRosa had never played more than 108 games in a season, never hit more than 8 home runs, or driven in more than 31 runs. He has no speed to speak of, and is average defensively. Still, if he can put up similar numbers to last season (unlikely since about 70% of his AB’s came against LHP, against whom he hit .342) the Cubs might have a really solid right side of the infield.

SS…Hardy v. Izturis

Much like Ricky Weeks, JJ Hardy has lots to prove as the Brewers SS. A 2nd round pick with silky smooth defensive abilities, Hardy saw his 2006 campaign cut short with an ankle injury that felled him on May 16. He had a very slow start to his major league career, hitting just .180 in the first half of his rookie campaign. However, the Brewers’ patience was rewarded when JJ bounced back with a .308 batting average in the 2nd half. He also has a surprising power stroke, hitting 14 homers in 159 career games. A realistic total year for Hardy would be around .270, 12-15 homers, and a solid year defensively. His plate discipline is acceptable, but as a potential #2 hitter in the lineup, more patience would be helpful.

Cesar Izturis was acquired in the Greg Maddox deal from the Dodgers last season, and there is no doubting his defensive acumen. The 2004 Gold Glove Award Winner sees has seen his share of problems as the plate, however. Besides a breakout year in 2004 when he was a National League All-Star and compiled a .711 .OPS, his highest season stands at just .624. That’s thanks mostly to his complete lack of plate discipline. Last season, he drew just 12 walks, and he’s never even came close to the 1BB/10 AB standard. It also doesn’t help that he doesn’t have any power at all, as Hardy (14) has more homers in 159 games that Izturis does (11) in over 650 games. The Cubs obviously feel that they are strong enough elsewhere offensively to overcome his deficiencies.

3B…Graffanino v. Ramirez

This is the one position in which the Brewers are obviously weak offensively. Their best laid plans went to waste once it became apparent that Corey Koskie might never play again after suffering a concussion last summer. At the very least, he’ll be out the first month or so, which left the Brewers with an interesting dilemma at 3rd base. They gave stud prospect Ryan Braun a look, and his bat wowed, while his glove woahed, which is why he’ll be spending opening day 2007 in a Nashville Sounds uniform instead of facing Derek Lowe and the Dodgers. The 26th best prospect in the game according to Baseball America, Braun will hone his defensive skills on a lesser stage, but look for him to be up by June 1 at the latest. A positive about him starting in AAA (where he has yet to have an AB) is that the Brewers will gain a whole additional year of Braun’s services, as long as he is in the minors until late April. He will now be Brewers property until 2012, which will take him up to right around his prime. It’s certainly looking ahead a long way, but getting to bide your time another year before having to pay big bucks could be crucial. In the meantime, the hot corner will be manned by Tony Graffanino and Craig Counsell. Hopefully heavy on Graffanino. Graffy was solid after being acquired by the Crew last season, putting up a .750 OPS. However, he simply doesn’t have any power, and that’s a big negative when you’re talking about a corner infield spot. The positives are that he will be more than adequate defensively, hits righties about the same as lefties, and will hopefully be in this spot for just a few months maximum. Counsell is a weak hitting middle infielder who has had pretty decent on-base skills. At this stage of his career, Counsell should start about 40 games, and be a defensive replacement if he plays other than that. I will be extremely disappointed if Yost chooses to do a straight platoon, as Counsell hit lefties about the same as righties, around .255 last season.

Ramirez, meanwhile, is one of the Cubs’ greatest assets. They resigned him to a long-term deal over the winter, a just reward for the guy that has averaged 35 home runs and 105 RBI over the past three seasons, and has played solid defense at the hot corner. His OPS has declined over the past two seasons, but at over .900 all three years, he’s still doing just fine. At 29, he’s still got plenty of good years left, and should be a staple in the Cubs lineup for years to come.

LF…Jenkins v. Murton

The Brewers figure to give Geoff Jeknins the lions share of AB’s in left this season, though there has been plenty of noise about a platoon with lefty-masher Kevin Mench. After playing in left all his career, Jenks moved to right for two years to accommodate Carlos Lee. He was one of the game’s premier defensive LF’s for a long time, and although it appeared his defense slipped in the past couple of years, he should be fine out there. The question is weather he can hit LHP. The answer last year at least was a definitive no. He hit a paltry .133 against them last year, well down from his career mark of .244. He continued to mash against righties, hitting .306 with 15 of his 17 home runs. His season overall last year was disappointing. He limped into September hitting just .250 with 10 home runs, and for the first time in his career, he was benched. When injuries to other outfielders forced him back into the lineup, he excelled, hitting .409 with 7 homers in the season’s final month of action. Jenkins is also in the final year of a contract, and has been killing the ball against all pitchers in spring training thus far. It will be very interesting to see if Yost indeed does use Mench often against LHP. For his career, Mench is hitting .303 against lefties with a very healthy .930 OPS. After coming over from the Rangers in the Carlos Lee deal, Mench, a butcher defensively, struggled mightily, hitting just .230 with one home run in 130 Milwaukee AB’s. Seeing as though he hit 51 home runs in the two years prior in Texas, it’s clear that Mench has some value, particularly against LHP. Strictly going by the numbers (Mench career .930 OPS v. LHP, Jenkins .892 career OPS v. RHP), a platoon makes a lot of sense. However, both of these players have expressed reservations about doing that, which could lead to decreased productivity. One of the biggest choices Yost will have is how to make up his lineup card against LHP. In the past, he has been hesitant to bench or platoon veterans, but all spring long the talk has been platoon. I guess we’ll find out, starting April 2.

Speaking of platoon, the Cubs might go that route as well, though I think it’s silly to take any AB’s away from Matt Murton to give to the aging Cliff Floyd. Murton last season put up solid numbers, hitting .292 with 13 home runs, showing decent plate discipline and putting put a .803 OPS. He hit righties almost as well as lefties (.782 vs. .870) and got stronger as the year went on (last three months over .300). He’s just 25 years old, is decent defensively, and is a player on the rise. Floyd, meanwhile, is 34 years old, bad in the outfield, and had just a .731 OPS last season with the Mets. He hit just .179 against lefties for a putrid .631 OPS, while he fashioned a decent .765 OPS against lefties. I don’t know why they signed him, unless it’s simply for depth on the bench. If that turns out to be the case, and Murton starts 130-plus games, then it’s not a bad signing. If they split the AB’s…not good.

CF…Hall v. Soriano.

Let’s compare some numbers, shall we?

Player A: .270 BA, .345 OBP, .898 OPS, 27 years old

Player B: .277 BA, .351 OBP, .911 OPS, 31 years old

If you had to guess, which player would have just signed a 4-year, 34 million dollar deal, and which player signed an 8-year, 136 million dollar contract, what would you say? Certainly most astute baseball followers would never say give the money to player B, especially when you consider that his normal position (LF) is a spot where you need those kind of numbers simply to stay afloat, right?

Well, if you haven’t figured it out by now, Player A is Bill Hall, and Player B is Alfonso Soriano. Soriano got the money, Bill Hall simply the production.

Hall is a pretty good story. A 6th round pick out of high school, Hall climbed the ladder pretty quickly and reached the big leagues (well before he was ready) by age 22. He stuck for good in 2004, but he was still without a position when he entered camp in 2005. He bounced around the diamond, playing 66 games at SS, 59 at 3B, and 23 at 2B. He did this while making a huge jump in his offensive game. His OPS jumped from .650 to .837, and his home run total from 9 to 17. He made another quantum leap in 2006, jumping from .837 to .898, and from 17 to 35 home runs. In another positive development, Hall went from walking 39 times to 63 and seems to have made plate discipline a priority in his game. His defense might be interesting to start out with, but Hall’s athleticism makes him a solid candidate for a CF spot.

Soriano, meanwhile, is coming off a good season which saw him mash 46 home run for the Washington Nationals. Plate discipline is neither a strength nor a focus for Soriano, as despite being the only formidable hitter in the Nats lineup, he walked just 67 times in 647 AB’s. That total represented almost double his previous career high. So perhaps he’s getting the hang of it. Or, perhaps he was just pitched around so much with that bad lineup that he couldn’t help himself. He also strikes out a ton, including a career-high 160 times last season. He was among the league’s worst 2nd basemen defensively with the Yankees and Rangers, and then made 11 errors in LF last season. He has not played a game in center field in his entire career. He has good speed, as evidenced by his 41 steals (he was also caught 17 times, too high of a number) last season, but it remains to be seen weather he can play a passable CF or not. And the contract is just ridiculous. I realize that Wrigley Field is a money-making machine, but do they honestly believe that this guy is going to be worth 17 million for more than a year or two? Studies have shown that the prime of a player’s career is between 27-30. He’s now 31. He will be 39 when his contract expires. He plays a position, or at least WILL play a position that makes offense a premium (remember that the Cubs tried to get a CF so he wouldn’t have to play out there). Overall, a silly deal, but there’s also no question that he represents a significant upgrade for the 2007 Cubs.

RF…Hart v. Jones

Corey Hart has flat-out hit where ever he has gone. In seven minor league seasons, he hit .299, compiled an .855 OPS, and hit 86 home runs. The former 11th round draft pick was the MVP of the Southern League in 2003, and stole 131 bases. He was switched all around the diamond before settling in the outfield. Last season, Hart hit .283 with nine home runs in 82 games, positing an .798 OPS. I believe that given 500 AB’s, Hart could easily put up a .280, 20 HR, 80 RBI year, with an .830ish OPS and at least 15 steals. He’s got a lot of ability, is just 25, and should only get better as the years go by.

Jacque Jones had a pretty solid season last year, despite his bashing of the Wrigley Field faithful. Jones posted an .833 OPS last season, hitting 27 home runs on the season. He plays a very mediocre right field, making the Cubs defense in the outfield pretty terrible. He has very little plate discipline, striking out 116 times while walking only 35. Jones hit only .234 against lefties last season.

Bench…Counsell, Mench, Miller, Gross, Clark v. Floyd, Theriot, Blanco, Ward, Pagan

The Brewers’ depth in 2007 is one thing that sets them apart from years past. They have a solid backup infielder in Counsell, one of the game’s premier backup catchers in Damian Miller, and a stable of outfielders that, depth-wise, has to be among the best in baseball. Gabe Gross was solid off the bench in 2006, finishing with an OPS of .908 against righties. Brady Clark is a seasoned pro that can play any of the three outfield positions, and get on base at a decent clip. There still is a decent chance of a trade being made with one of the outfielders, most likely Mench, but they have the depth to lose of those guys.

The Cubs counter with Daryle Ward, who can’t play defense or hit lefties but is a solid option as a PH against righties. Ryan Theriot hit well in a brief stint in 2007, and could be given a long look at 2nd base if DeRosa struggles. Henry Blanco is the definition of the good-field, bad-hit catcher, who actually didn’t do too badly at the plate last season, hitting .266 with seven homers. Angel Pagan is reserve outfielder that could make the team, while Ronny Cedeno has a chance at a backup infielders spot.

Summary…The NL Central is wide open this year. You could make a solid argument that any of four teams could win the division. Conversely, you could also come up with a laundry list of reasons that any one of those teams could end up under .500. I believe that this will be the Brewers best year since 1992…however, I’m just not quite ready to predict a division title, as people from Baseball America (Brewers 1st, Cubs 5th) and the Chicago Tribune (Phil Rogers) have done lately. I think the Cardinals will see their manager sober up and their pitching stabilize, and win the division with an 89-73 mark. I see the Brewers just a few games back at 85-77, while the Cubs languish around .500, and end up 80-82. It should be a fun summer of baseball.

Labels: , , , , ,

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Dear Roger: Shit or Get Off the Pot

The way I see it there are two options for older baseball players who think about retiring: keep playing or retire. That’s it, right? Not if you’re William Roger Clemens, who can keep three (or more) teams in limbo with his annual whining about the “grind” of the baseball season. It’s not often I intensely dislike a future hall-of-famer. But it’s not because he threw at his own kid’s head in a game, it’s not because he threw the broken bat at Piazza in 2000, and it’s not because his wife sells fugly shit like this for charity. It’s because he can’t make up his mind. Sports columnists, analysts, and commentators across America have given their opinion on Clemens’ annual dalliance with the retirement issue. Here’s my six-word advice: shit or get off the pot.

It’s really simple. As any reader of knows, almost every single day someone gives an “update” on his retirement. Sometimes it’s a health issue – Clemens doesn’t feel physically “there” yet and isn’t sure his body will hold up. Sometimes he actually shows up somewhere that might betray his feelings on coming back for another season – see his recent trip to the Astros training facility for one example (or last season when he caused a shitstorm in Houston when he went to a Rangers game). Or, now we can actually quantify the possibility of retirement. In a statement similar to Jordan’s famous “99% sure I’m retired” comment, Clemens recently stated the odds of him retiring were 80/20.

As a professional non-athlete, I don’t know first-hand how athletes feel about retirement, although I’m sure it’s a difficult decision. But seriously, stop making the New York media track your every word, Roger, and just retire. Or show up to spring training like EVERY SINGLE OTHER PLAYER IN MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL. Last I checked the baseball season begins in spring training and ends in the fall. Stop acting like a little girl and make a damn decision.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The rich get richer ... or at least more Japanese

Ben Godar

Just when you start to think that revenue sharing might be moving The Game toward financial equity, something like this happens: the Red Sox pay $51 million just for the right to negotiate with one player.

For that sum, the BoSox will try to negotiate a deal with Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka through America’s Sweetheart, Scott Boras. If no deal is reached, hell will freeze over and the Sox get their millions back. Otherwise, the cash goes to Matsuzaka’s Japanese team, the Seibu Lions.

It was disgusting to see several Yankee players with a higher annual salary than the entire Marlins team. But the Red Sox bid just for negotiations tops the total salary of five MLB teams. It is more than half the salary of the World Champ Cardinals.

But wait, it gets worse.

Published reports estimate it will cost Boston around $40 million more to sign Matsuzaka. That means Boston is likely to spend $91 million to sign one player. Only nine teams had a payroll of higher than $91 million last season.

And enough of this business of the Red Sox as the lovable underdogs, or the anti-Yankees. The Red Sox play Yankee ball, they’re just not as good at it. And when I say “not as good,” what I mean is “they don’t have as much money.” That’s what it comes down to, and that’s the problem with this whole damn system.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Out with the purple, in with... Another red team!

Ed McElvain

The Arizona Diamondbacks yesterday made baseball fashion news by trading in their horrible purple and turquoise uniforms for... red. As in the same color that the Nationals adopted after saying bye bye to their less-than-illustrious past playing the Expos blues. As in the same color that the Astros and Angels adopted last decade. As in the same color that the Rangers, Braves, and Red Sox wear (only, at home on a Sunday when a lefty with 3 vowels in his first name is pitching or something). As in the same color that the Cardinals, Reds, and Phillies have always worn.

Next year there will be an almost 1 in 3 chance that at least one of the teams playing in any ball game will be wearing red as their primary color (assuming it is the day that the part-time teams wear their red unis) -- 6/16 in the National League. Red is batting .375 in the NL.

It could be worse, though. In the late 19th Century the game experimented with having unique uniforms by position (rather than team) great confusion. No one could tell who played for what team. Luckily, due to road/home jersey differentiation and the fact that most teams today have 3 or 4 different jersey's to choose from, we probably aren't going to have to worry about it getting that bad even if eventually every team wears red.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

T. White

I finally got around to visiting the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum this past weekend, and it only took me about three months of living here – for shame!

It’s quite a place: through a plethora of news articles, photographs, uniforms, memorabilia, statues and interactive exhibits, the museum chronicles the simultaneous progression of Black history, Black baseball and the Major (formerly White) Leagues.

The exhibits are laid out around a scaled down “Field of Dreams”, visitors free to wander and examine bronze statues of heralded players at each position (Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Judy Johnson, et al). I was surprised how the designers succeeded in combining the dark, solemnity standard in museums with an old weathered-fence sandlot atmosphere.

For a nice hour or so, the NLBM offers a wonderful crash course on the Negro Leagues, although it’s far from canonical. The museum could easily be twice as large, with three times the content, and so it should. I certainly wasn’t disappointed, but I’d certainly love to see more.

Kansas City’s own Dalai Lama, Buck O’Neil (who passed away earlier this month), was a tireless champion and promoter for the museum. Up to his death he was working to help transform an historic YMCA building into a learning center and annex for the museum (now officially the Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center). This project, while under way, is in its early stages.

If you’re ever feeling generous, consider sending a donation to the museum (view their official site,, to learn how). Even better, make a pilgrimage to Kansas City and visit the museum (and know that this is NOT, as they emphatically state, a Negro Baseball Hall of Fame). It has so much to teach about an important and fascinating foundation to our great, national pastime.

And my two favorite facts learned over the weekend?

1. Cool Papa Bell once stole 2 bases on a single pitch (well, this is a legend, but still...)
2. Cap Anson was an asshole (this one is true)

Thursday, October 19, 2006

A Major League Death

T. White

The AP reports that MLB is teaming up with Eternal Images, a company in the lucrative funerary industry, to make officially-licensed caskets and cremation urns bearing team logos and colors.

The punchline, actually appearing in the story, is to find out “how many fans have undying loyalty to their favorite team.”

MLB and Eternal Images are tying to capture “the life and the passions of the person that has passed away,” said the Spokesman for the National Funeral Director’s Association. “More and more families are wanting to have something that respects the personalities.”

A funeral director interviewed also mentions that this will have great appeal to blue-collar fans, apparently ‘cause they’re all too willing to make a mockery of their death. But having an official Yankees casket is not respectful. It’s not endearing, it’s not a show of true devotion, and it’s certainly not cute. It’s sad. Sad, sad, sad.

And so the common man can now choose to leave his remains in a receptacle befitting his station in life – namely, a casket emblazoned with a grinning cartoon Indian. Whether or not it smells like beer farts and hot dogs remains to be seen.

Even worse is the douche bag Commissioner wanting a slice of corpse pie. Fans are already annually quasi-fucked by rising costs in tickets, parking and concessions, the absence of a salary cap, bloated player salaries that affect performance and widen the gap between them and the public, owners constantly seeking public funding by threat of relocation, drug scandals…I suppose it’s only a short, shameless step to death profiteering.

And how can we end this grief? Well, as I’m sure Bud Selig would tell you, hopefully by dying in Major League style. After all, stamped on each casket and urn is the embarrassing proclamation that “Major League Baseball officially recognizes (person’s name) as a lifelong fan of (team).”

(There is, I admit, an upside to this travesty…maybe some terminal kid who hates his Cubs-lovin’ father will demand a St. Louis casket as a final “fuck you”.)

Thursday, October 12, 2006

According to Jim

By Rembrandt Q. Einstein

This past Monday I read an interview with Jim Edmonds where he discussed his future, increasing frailty and diminishing playing ability (actually, he and the writer used euphemisms such as ‘ability to play on a consistent basis’, but the savvy reader can read between the lines), all while battling post-concussion syndrome.

After this season, Jim will join the ranks of free agency. The Cards are expected to fork over $3 million buyout, allowing them to void his 2007, $10 million option; although I doubt you’ll hear anybody in the organization say this out loud, it would be folly to keep him around.

What does Jim want? Even if it means hobbling back to the AL, sinking to the lowly role of DH (becoming, I’m sure he hopes, another Jim Thome), he wants to keep playing baseball. His exact words were “That’s the key: I want to play everyday.” But it’s hard to take a man with a concussion seriously on the topic of what he remains capable of doing.

According to Edmonds, he still has his bat, tools and several good years left in him. And you know, he may well at that. But he will never equal his better seasons, and at 37, in his condition, he’s never gonna be a Julio Franco.

It’s sad to say, ‘cause he’s one of my favorite players, but I think it would be folly for him to stick around playing the game. Jim, no matter where he lands, is likely to become the next Jeff Bagwell. And when – doubtfully “if” – it comes to that, he seems like the type of guy that will try to prove us wrong, showing up some spring camp, all worn down, sticking out like a sore thumb, embarrassing our memories of his once great self.