Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Ray of Doubt

Scott Kazmir left the intrasquad game he was scheduled to pitch in without throwing a pitch on Tuesday. He has been diagnosed with a strained left elbow, and will rest for two weeks before resuming his program. He thinks he will be ready for Opening Day but has made no promises. Tampa Bay will not rush him back, and they have little reason to do so as he will be 24 this season while entering his fourth full season with the Rays. This is an unfortunate turn for Kazmir as he really turned into an elite starting pitcher after the break last season turning in an 8-3 record with 124 strikeouts with only 31 walks in 94.1 innings. The truly impressive mark there is his K/BB ratio, which was significantly worse in the first half. It it's hard to be sure which is the real Scott Kazmir as he has never demonstrated the ability to avoid walking batters before the latter half of last year, but it certainly is unfortunate that he has this incident after turning in such a great second half. His great command resulted in a 2.39 ERA, and a 1.14 WHIP (Walks+Hits/Innings Pitched) in the second half. This is opposed to a 4.41 ERA and a 1.58 WHIP in the first half. There are so many statistics that demonstrate his improvement over the year, so I'll stop throwing them out there, but I just think it is a shame that this had to happen to start the year. If Kazmir can be healthy for the rest of the season I think the Rays had a decent shot at .500, which would be the first time in their franchise history for them to accomplish that, and they could conceivably win more. What this does is allow Edwin Jackson, J.P. Howell, Andy Sonnanstine and Jason Hammel a little breathing room in the competition for the back end spots in the rotation. Here's to hoping Kazmir is back by Opening Day.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Demotion looming for The Boss?

For those of you that don't know, The Boss is Jay Bruce the top prospect in the Cincinnati Reds farm system, and likely, all of baseball. Word today is that when Reds Manager Dusty Baker was asked who would lead off when Ryan Freel or Norris Hopper aren't in the lineup, he responded that he "[hoped] one or the other was in the game". This doesn't bode well for Bruce's chances of making the big club directly out of Spring Training, as I had been hoping he would. Bruce is a truly great prospect who would likely be stretched a bit in center field, but has the ability to play it at this stage in his career. He will likely fill out a bit and slot into right field when Ken Griffey Jr.'s contract runs out this year, or in '09 if the Reds pick up his option.

Every one of Bruce's skills rate as above average on the 20-80 scouting scale with his best being his power as a 65-70. He has the ability to hit for average and power because of his tremendous bat speed. He also has a fantastic work ethic resulting in him often being the first to arrive and the last to leave the ballpark, as well as displaying exceptional instinct and leadership qualities. He does strike out a lot, but it hasn't affected his ability to hit for average and is an acceptable tradeoff considering his power production. Last year in the Minors he started at Hi A and progressed all the way to Triple-A. His call up to Triple-A was only supposed to be as an injury fill in, but he impressed enough to stay there the rest of the year. He ended up hitting a combined .319/.375/.587, with 26 homers between the three levels.

I am extremely excited to see Bruce in the majors, and hope it happens as soon as possible because Ryan Freel is much better suited to be a utility man and Norris Hopper is a 4th/5th outfielder who got extremely lucky late last year. This would be the best thing for the Reds to do if they are to overcome the odds, the Cubs and the Brewers to reach the playoffs this year, although I would understand if they sent him back to Triple-A for a couple weeks to delay his free agency clock for another year, but that would still result in him likely becoming a Super-Two player. Still, at this point in the Major Leagues, the more cost control, the better.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

That's Erik with a "K"

Here is my belated analysis of the long, drawn out trade that sent Erik Bedard to Seattle in exchange for a slew of prospects and a middle reliever. I spoke earlier how I thought this deal, in conjunction with a Brian Roberts trade was necessary for the Orioles to begin their rebuilding process in earnest. The O's did not get the deal that was being discussed at the time, but it was a great deal for them nonetheless. The Mariners received possibly the most dominant pitcher of 2007, until his oblique strain took him out for the rest of the year. Bedard was well on his way to winning the strikeout title last year, until he hit the DL and was surpassed by Scott Kazmir and Johan Santana.

The Deal:

Mariners Get: Erik Bedard

Orioles Get: Adam Jones, George Sherrill, Tony Butler (Hi A), Chris Tillman (Hi A), and Kam Mickolio (AAA)

Seattle: The Mariners desperately needed to upgrade their starting pitching after using the likes of Horacio Ramirez and Ryan Feierabend in the rotation last year. After rushing first round pick Brandon Morrow to the big leagues, he has not developed anything past his fastball, so he will likely move back to the bullpen after the acquisition of Bedard. What Bedard gives the Mariners is one of, if not the top 1-2 punches in the Major Leagues. Combining Bedard with Felix Hernandez gives the Mariners a potentially dominant lefty/righty combination that could do real damage in a short playoff series. There is a downside to Bedard though as he has never pitched 200 innings in his career and did have Tommy John surgery several years ago. Additionally, Bedard is tough on both lefties and righties using a power arsenal of a low 90s fastball and a plus-plus curve that is the definition of an out pitch. He used his repertoire to amass 221 strikeouts in a mere 186 innings, and he lowered his walk rate to 2.8 per nine innings. He also led the AL in strikeouts per nine innings with 10.9.

Baltimore: To get everything described above, Seattle had to give up quite a lot. They gave up a total of five players, only one of which has played in the Major Leagues extensively. That means the Orioles received 4 players who have less than one year of service time, which gives them a lot of cost control over the coming years and that's exactly what they need in this stage of rebuilding.

The best player Baltimore received is Adam Jones. He is a 22 year old centerfielder who packs some punch in his swing. He is fantastic defensively, and between Jones and Nick Markakis, the Orioles should have a good outfield defense for years to come. Jones should hit for power immediately in the majors, and while he might not hit for average right away that should come in time as he's demonstrated the ability to do it in the minors. He seemed to have a better grasp of the strike zone and showed good plate discipline in Triple-A this year, and there's no reason to think that won't translate to the Majors eventually.

The other Major Leaguer involved in the deal is George Sherrill, a lefty reliever who came undrafted out of college. He could easily be more than the LOOGY (Lefty One Out GuY) that Seattle used him as. He should be the favorite for the closer spot in Baltimore, as he is the one with the most recent success although he will face competition from fellow lefty specialist Jamie Walker among others. There is also the possibility that the Orioles will spin Sherrill to another team in search of a reliever at the deadline for prospects.*

Tony Butler is a 20 year old lefthander who spent the year at Low A for Seattle. He throws a high 80s/low 90s four seam fastball that shows late life, in addition to a promising curveball. He also features a change-up with good fade and deception. There is cause for worry though, as he spent time on the disabled list twice with a dead arm. However, Butler is 6-7 and at only 2o he has room to fill out his frame, and add velocity as well as consistency.

Chris Tillman is probably the second most valuable player received in this deal, or at least has the potential to be. He was pushed to Hi A as a 19 year old, and while he struggled initially, he eventually adapted to the better competition and unfriendly ballpark. He managed to maintain his strikeout rate despite the bump up, and that is certainly an encouraging sign. At 6-5, Tillman still has room to fill out, and add velocity to his solid low 90s fastball. His curve has 11-5 tilt, and he controls it with an advanced feel. His change up is easily his third offering, but it has the opportunity to be more than just a show-me pitch.

Kam Mickolio was an 18th round selection, and moved from college to Triple-A in less than a year. He features a dominating power sinker that runs between 92-97 mph. Mickolio is 6-9 and pitches from a low three quarters arm slot with some cross body deception, so the sinker bores in on right handed hitters and really gives them fits. Even though his best pitch is his sinker, he still had a 9.2 k/9 between Double and Triple-A last year. His slider is merely average, but he doesn't need it to be much more than that if he is going to remain a reliever, although he does not to improve his consistency. He also must develop a change up if he is going to be able to face lefties in the Majors.

In the end, I think the Orioles did well to get all these prospects, and while the Mariners bolster their rotation with an elite pitcher they were not as good as they appeared to be last year, and I'm not sure this is enough to move them past the Angels into the post-season. Obviously much of the season is determined by injuries and luck, but if we are to speculate on who would win the AL West now, I think that the Angels must still be the favorites.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

File This Under "It's About Time..."

Johan Santana was FINALLY traded from the Minnesota Twins to the New York Mets. In return for Santana, and the 72 hour negotiating window, Minnesota received 4 prospects from the Mets depleted farm system. The Twins received perceived centerpiece Carlos Gomez, Phillip Humber, Deolis Guerra, and Kevin Mulvey. I particularly like this deal from the Mets perspective as they get the best pitcher on the planet for 4 of their top prospects, but keep in mind that being a top prospect for the Mets is kind of like being the youngest person at a retirement home (excepting all individuals named Fernando Martinez). Maybe you're the best around, but it doesn't mean you're anything special.

The Deal:

Mets Get: Johan Santana

Twins Get: Carlos Gomez, Phillip Humber (AAA), Deolis Guerra(Hi A) and Kevin Mulvey (AAA)

New York: In Johan Santana the Mets receive the best pitcher in baseball over the last several years. He was not his usual dominant self in 2007, he was still one of the 5 best pitchers in the American League in my opinion (along with C.C. Sabathia, Josh Beckett, John Lackey and Fausto Carmona). He gave up a career high 33 home runs, while compiling 219 innings pitched, his lowest since 2003. He especially tired at the end of the season, posting a 4.94 era in the month of September. This has some people thinking that he was injured at the end of the season, but I believe that he had a consistently large workload that caused him to tire out at the end of this season. If he conditions himself properly, and throws fewer high pressure innings he will more than likely be fine this season. It is a bit of an oxymoron that we have in baseball right now in that the ability to throw many innings is highly valued, but too much mileage on a pitchers arm causes teams to be weary, however I think that while Santana is not immune to such things as wear and tear, he does condition himself appropriately, and takes good care of his body. Additionally, Santana should feast on the bottom of National League lineups, and this should save some wear and tear on his arm as it should be significantly easier to go through the less talented, less imposing NL East lineups, compared to those of the AL Central. Furthermore, I expect him to increase his already gaudy strikeout numbers, as he moves to an easier league, division and is still on the good side of 30. But enough about Santana, we've heard about him ad nauseum the last few years. Let's move on to the unknowns.

Minnesota: Carlos Gomez appears to be the headliner in this deal, although I have an inkling that he won't be the most valuable property when it's all said and done. Gomez is a potential five-tool player, but he is quite raw at the moment. He does possess plus-plus speed, and an above average arm. His bat speed is excellent which helps his power to project to be average at least. It is not all roses for Gomez though, as his hitting tool will likely be the last to develop, and his plate discipline leaves much to be desired. As much as I like toolsy prospects, I do not see Gomez reaching his ceiling because he has not refined his approach at the plate, and while he improved last year, it came at the expense of his power. Additionally, he has never hit above .281 at any stop in the minors, and while his OBP rose to .355 in limited time in the minors last year, his SLG dipped under .400. Overall in the minors he has never had an OPS of over .800, which doesn't bode well for his future. I understand he is not destined to become a power hitter, but unless he can raise his OBP, I don't think he will be the type of hitter everyone is projecting him to be. And while he has played in the majors, he is still quite quite raw, and I think it would serve him well to play another half season at least in Triple-A.

Phillip Humber comes to the Twins with a bit of the luster off of his star. He signed with the Mets as a first round pick out of Rice, but quickly hit the operating room, needing Tommy John surgery after only 15 professional starts. While he has rebounded some from TJ, like most pitchers he has regained his velocity, but still lacks the control he once displayed. While he has regained much of his velocity, he cannot reach the 94-95 mph he pitched at when at Rice, and generally settles in the high 80's and low 90's. He has refined his curveball, and is now able to throw it for quality strikes when he needs to. He no longer projects to be at the front end of the rotation, but could still be a serviceable back end starter in the Major Leagues. He is likely ready to pitch now, but the Twins have a plethora of young arms to sort out at the back of their rotation.

Deolis Guerra is the furthest away from the Major Leagues, and is the youngest and most raw player of the bunch. However, I believe he will be the best player when it's all said and done. This is a risky prediction to make, however, by the time we determine if I am right or wrong, it's likely that no one will recall I made it. Guerra will be 19 years old in mid-April, and he has only thrown 179 professional innings at this point in his career, which makes him is essentially pure projection at this point, but at 6-5, 200 lbs, he provides plenty of it. He already commands to above average pitches in his fastball, which had a spike in velocity (touching 96) late in the season. His best pitch is a change up that has the chance to become an out pitch at the major league level, due to his fantastic arm speed. I think he is the key to this deal, and considering the Twins ability to scout other organizations for talent (Liriano, Bonser, Nathan, Santana, and even going back to Appier) I trust their judgement.

Mulvey is the last player in this deal, and his ceiling is akin to that of Humber's although he goes about it in a completely different manner. Mulvey's value comes from his ability to keep the ball down in the zone, while controlling four different pitches. He was a second round draft pick in 2006(the highest the Mets had that year) out of Villanova. His top pitch is currently a fastball with lots of sink and run, and his slider has the potential to be an out pitch. He also features a change-up, and an 11-5 curveball. He is extremely hard on righties limiting them to a .224 batting average, but has struggled against lefties because of his inability to pitch inside to them. Like Humber, Mulvey projects as a middle to back end of the rotation starter. He could potentially break camp with the Twins, but again, they have a stable of young starters with limited ceilings, so while he will be in that mix, there's no guarantee he won't start in the minors.

Again, overall I think this was a win for the Mets despite the record contract they signed Santana to. While that contract is a lot to pay for a pitcher, and pitchers are always loaded with risk, the Mets desperately needed a front of the rotation starter to slide everyone back a slot in their rotation, and they acquired the best pitch around for far less than he was thought to go for. While I don't blame the Twins for waiting out for the best deal, they did end up overplaying their hand and settling for less than they could have received. I think the Mets easily got the better of the deal in the short term, but it will take years until the Twins see if their investments pan out or not.

What Was That Song by Staind?

Sorry it's been a few weeks, but I began to have a life once again, and my free time was spent in the realm of the subconscious more than writing for a blog with an audience I could count on my fingers. Nevertheless I will rededicate myself to the blog and with the pitchers and catchers having reported and the start of Spring Training less than two weeks away, my hope is that there will be information aplenty for me to comment on. In the meantime I will comment on, and possibly do an in-depth breakdown of the Johan Santana and Erik Bedard deals.

P.S.: That song by Staind was "It's Been A While". I don't care if you find that too cheesy, I did it just for me.