Saturday, March 31, 2007

Hitting is fundamental

In 2006, the Mets' offense was the third best in the National League as they scored 834 runs, their highest season total since 1999. They got some big years from some players who shouldn't be expected to repeat, but they also had some significant holes which have since been filled. Several key contributors are still in the prime of their careers (or younger). As good as the offense was last year, no one should be surprised if it's as good or better this year.

Catcher Paul Lo Duca is one of those who will likely come back to earth a bit. He had a big year, hitting .318/.355/.428, probably the second best of his career behind his ridiculous 2001 (.320/.374/.543). He avoided the second-half fade that had become tradition for him and was just about everything his vocal supporters have ever claimed he was. The former heart and soul of the Los Angeles Dodgers finally played in a postseason game for the first time in his career and all it took was having a bunch of players who were better than him on the team. Now he's a catcher about to turn thirty-five and can't be expected to remain as healthy and productive as he was last year. Backup Ramon Castro could bounce back from a bad 2006 to relieve some pressure, but this position looks like one that will be less productive for the Mets in 2007.

First baseman Carlos Delgado is another Met in his mid-thirties, but he didn't do anything out of the ordinary in 2006. He hit .235/.361/.548, pretty similar to what he did in 2004 in Toronto. Still, this was an enormous improvement at a position that had been a black hole for the Mets since the start of this millennium. Delgado should be able to keep up this level of performance for at least another year.

Second base is a spot where many think the sky may fall in on the Mets. "Thirty-seven-year-old Jose Valentin certainly won't repeat his miraculous .271/.330/.490 season," they say. "Thirty-seven-year-old Damion Easley is far from an adequate backup plan," they bellow. It is hard to argue with either of these statements. But Valentin was not the only Met to man the keystone in 2006. The likes of Kazuo Matsui and Chris Woodward were so awful that the Mets actually got below average production from the position for the season as a whole. The average National League second baseman hit .272/.336/.422. Met second basemen hit .244/.300/.406. I don't think anyone would be stunned if Valentin and Easley were able to match or exceed that level of production. Yes, Valentin is sure to fade somewhat, but that will hardly doom the Mets to an early offseason.

Then there's David Wright. The Met third baseman didn't hit with a lot of power in the second half of 2006. His defense isn't so hot. And his .311/.381/.531 line was nearly identical to what he did in 2005. On the other hand, he's twenty-four years old and one of the best hitters in the game. Now he'll probably be batting second, the end result of which will be that he gets to hit more often this year than he did either of the last two. I think this will be a position of strength for the Mets for a little while longer.

The same could reasonably be said about shortstop. Jose Reyes finally made good on the promise he'd been showing since his 2003 debut, putting together a spectacular season at the age of twenty-three. He met or exceeded his career highs in walks, hits, doubles, triples, home runs and stolen bases, hitting .300/.354/.487 while playing very good defense. Now the question is whether or not he can do it again. We won't know until he does or doesn't, but the all-around improvement he showed last year looked a lot more like real, sustainable growth than any kind of fluke. Reyes has gotten past the injury problems that slowed him early in his career and has begun to mature as a player. He is as fun to watch as any player in the game and seeing where he goes from here should be just as fun.

In contrast to the great infield of 2006, the Mets' outfield showed a lot of room for improvement, no spot more so than left field. After a terrific and healthy 2005, Cliff Floyd surprised few by failing to repeat in 2006. He played in just 97 games and hit .244/.324/.407, leaving the Mets' thin bench a lot of work to do. The Mets' one major move this offseason was to fill this hole with Moises Alou. Now, Alou will turn forty-one in July and he only played in 98 games for the Giants last year. But he also hit .301/.352/.571. He won't give the Mets anything on defense or play 150 games, but as long as he's in the lineup, he should provide a lot more offense than the Mets got out of this spot last year. If Willie Randolph can give him a couple of days a week off in favor of Endy Chavez or Lastings Milledge, maybe Alou can still be ambulatory come October.

The exception to the Mets' outfield troubles was center field, where Carlos Beltran followed up a disappointing 2005 with the best season of his career and finished fourth in NL MVP voting despite a rough September. To the extent that any one player can be said to have "carried" this team, it was Beltran with his exceptional combination of power, patience and defense. He hit .275/.388/.594 and tied the club record for home runs with 41. All this while hitting just .224/.368/.487 at home. He will turn thirty in April and should challenge for an MVP award or two in the years to come. His defense will be especially important this season given his statuesque wingmen.

Right now, officially, the Mets' starting right fielder is scheduled to be Shawn Green. This despite his lack of offense after being traded to the Mets last season, his laughable attempts at defense in the postseason and a poor Spring. To be fair, he did hit pretty well in the playoffs--.292/.346/.542 with three home runs. But his spring batting average of .154 is especially damning when compared to the .352 put up by Milledge. Now, generally a player's Spring Training stats have about as much predictive value as his horoscope ("When the moon is in the Seventh House and Jupiter aligns with Mars, you will be in the best shape of your career..."). But Green not hitting is hardly a new development. Milledge made the opening day roster, so hopefully he'll be able to play his way into a starting job before too long.

Of course, when Milledge stops being part of the Mets bench, it will be a pretty weak group. Chavez is back and will likely provide stellar defense at any outfield position, but he won't repeat the career year he had with the bat last season. Castro has been a solid backup catcher in his career, last year notwithstanding. Aside from those three and Easley, the Met reserves are Julio Franco and David Newhan. Franco didn't have a great year last year as his power declined significantly. I would never bet against the elder statesman of the major leagues, but it's hard to see him making a huge contribution this year. The thirty-three year old former Oriole Newhan couldn't even manage a .300 OBP either of the last two years so I don't have very high hopes for him either. The Mets just signed Ricky Ledee to a minor league deal, but that's probably not the solution to all of their bench problems. They're just going to have to be satisfied with an awesome starting lineup and a weak bench. Who knows? Maybe Green will seem useful by the standard of a pinch hitter once he gets demoted.

The Mets probably won't win 97 games again in 2007, but I think they still have to be the favorites to win the National League East. The Phillies should provide a stiffer challenge than they did last year, but they are still the Phillies. These Mets should be playoff-bound and once they reach the postseason, anything can happen. As a wise man once said, ya gotta believe.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Guillen to stay in Motown

The Tigers signed SS Carlos Guillen to a four-year extension today, locking up the 31-year-old through 2011. Guillen has had some trouble with injuries, but produces offensive numbers to rival any SS when healthy. In 2006, his OPS was .920 and in 2004 it was .921 -- both times the best in the bigs. Guillen would have been a free agent after this season.

Rogers, over and out

Kenny Rogers will be on the shelf for at least 3 months, according to the Tigers. He had surgery today to remove a blood clot and repair arteries.

As we noted yesterday, Chad Durbin moved into the rotation. Rogers had 17 wins last year for Detroit; Durbin has 17 wins in his entire 7-year career. On the bright side, Durbin has been sharp this spring, allowing just 18 baserunners in 21.2 IP and posting a 2.08 ERA.

Rating Pudge

I’ve got a feeling Pudge is sitting on a big year. As this story notes, he’s closing in on a number of milestones and I think he’s going to redouble his focus. I think he is aware that he could have a special place in baseball history if he continues to perform at a top level.

Could Pudge be the greatest catcher of all time already? Certainly, an argument could be made in his favor. He has 12 Gold Glove Awards, the most for any catcher. Johnny Bench has 10 and I think could be the only catcher that could challenge Pudge for the top spot if you factor both offense and defense.

Bench had a career OPS of .818 while Pudge has a .825 mark. Although Bench owns a 389-277 advantage in HR, Pudge has a .483-.476 edge in SLG.

Pudge’s career Runs Created/27 Outs is 6.0 while Bench has a 5.7 lifetime mark.

Yogi Berri won 3 MVP Awards and had a seven-year stretch in which he finished no worse than fourth in the voting, so that certainly merits consideration even though he never won a Gold Glove. The award didn’t start until 1957, when Berra was 32.

To judge Berra’s defense, he had a .989 career fielding percentage at catcher while the league average was .987. He had a 5.61 range factor while the league average was 4.73. Pudge’s numbers are .991 for FP and 6.55 for range factor.

Berra has an .830 career OPS and 6.05 RC/27.

Pudge has 1 MVP Award and 1 NLCS MVP honor to his credit. Bench has a ROY plus 2 MVP and 1 WS MVP awards.

Mike Piazza has a career .930 OPS and 7.75 RC/27, which probably makes him the position’s greatest offensive force.

Bold Talking Head?

This morning on "Mike and Mike in the Morning", Peter Gammons predicted that the Milwaukee Brewers will win the NL Central.

He also declared the Baltimore Orioles to be the among the "most interesting" teams coming into this season. That if Bedard, Cabrera and Loewen "get it together, which is very possible" the Orioles would be a "major contender" in the AL East.

Gammons does not come near the 'Talking Head Standard of Boldness' set by Beano Cook in 1984, but he approaches nearer than any of the Talking Heads I've heard.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Tigers deal out Gambler

This is why it is so tough to win, much less repeat. The Tigers say Kenny Rogers will miss at least 1 start with arm fatigue. Rogers, a crafty 42-year-old lefty, was put on the 15-day DL.

Last year, the Tigers were relatively healthy throughout the season; only injuries to Mike Maroth and Placido Polanco were big blows and by the time Polanco was hurt Detroit had a pretty good hold on a playoff spot.

Just recently I read a blog by Tigers reliever Todd Jones where he said he would take a healthy team over a more talented team when it comes to winning the division.

I don’t know what it means for Rogers’ future if he’s got arm fatigue at this point. Hopefully, this is precautionary. Rogers threw well this spring, posting a 2.05 ERA in 22 IP.

Chad Durbin will move from the bullpen to the rotation and lefty Bobby Seay will be called up to take over in the pen. Durbin has impressed by giving up just 8 hits and 3 walks in 16 IP heading into today.

Given Verlander’s struggles this spring, things are getting unexpectedly interesting with the pitching staff.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Dream is Still Alive

Julio Franco is the last remaining man on a Major League Baseball 40 man roster who was born before I was. I can still make it to the big leagues. I am not too old.

Too lazy? Probably.

Not skilled enough? Certainly.

Too old?

Julio and I say, "Mente tu maneras, muchacho!"

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Waiting For Pedro

A lot of negative things have been written about the Mets' starting rotation in recent months, and justifiably so. The surest thing in the bunch is a soft-tossing forty-one year old. Even now that the list has been pared down to the final five, question marks abound. There's plenty of reason for concern among Mets fans. But I think there's at least as much reason for excitement.

Beyond the two old men at the top of the list there are three pitchers the oldest of whom will be twenty-six at season's end. The Mets haven't had three starting pitchers this young playing major roles since Bobby Jones, Jason Isringhausen and Paul Wilson eleven years ago. And these three kids aren't just roster filler. You've got two newly minted playoff heroes and the most promising New York pitching prospect to actually reach the majors as a Met since the heady days of Generation K. Maybe I'm crazy, but I think this could be a lot of fun.

First, we've got Tom Glavine. Last year Glavine went 15-7 with a 3.82 ERA in 198 innings, narrowly missing his third straight 200 IP season. He enters 2007 ten wins shy of 300 for his career and shouldn't have too much trouble reaching that magic number. Throughout his career, he's been about as consistently healthy as he has been good. While he won't be one of the top handful of pitchers in the league he'll almost surely be an important and dependable piece of the Mets staff.

Somewhat less dependable is the nominal number two, Orlando Hernandez. El Duque got off to a bad start last season, posting a 6.11 ERA in nine starts for the Diamondbacks. He pitched better for the Mets, cutting down on his hits, walks and home runs allowed as he shifted to a more pitcher-friendly environment. His 4.09 ERA in twenty starts was nice, but then he got hurt and missed the playoffs. The only thing we can be sure of for 2007 is that he won't be healthy for all of it. He's pitched over 200 innings in a season once, in 1999. He could very well give the Mets some solid innings for as long as he's healthy, but there's little doubt he'll have them dipping into their surplus starting pitching at some point.

John Maine is where things start to get interesting. Maine had a solid debut for the Mets last year, posting a 3.60 ERA in ninety innings and and pitching well in two of his three postseason starts. In the regular season he had some trouble with the home run ball, allowing fifteen to leave the yard, and got quite lucky when it came to balls in play being turned into outs, allowing just a .225 batting average on such balls, compared to a league average of .303. There's not much chance he'll repeat that. Still, if he can stay in the rotation all year and give the Mets an ERA around four, he'll be an improvement over every non-Glavine starter the Mets sent to the mound last year.

Even more interesting is Oliver Perez who, with a little help from He Who Is Called Endy, shut the Cardinals down for six innings in the Mets' biggest game of 2006. The 2004 season in which he was one of the best pitchers in baseball will always inspire hope and the NLCS wasn't the only time he gave New York fans a glimpse of that pitcher. If that Oliver Perez shows up this season, it could completely alter the complexion of this rotation. Maybe he'll never approach that kind of success (239 Ks and a 2.98 ERA in 196 IP) again. But I wouldn't be shocked if Rick Peterson did a better job coaching him than anyone employed by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the last three years.

Finally, there's Mike Pelfrey. The Mets' 2005 first round pick made it to the majors so fast they didn't have a chance to desperately exchange him for shiny veteran trinkets, making his debut less than six months after signing. His first taste of the majors didn't go so well as he posted a 5.48 ERA and a 13:12 K:BB ratio in 21.1 innings. He was much more impressive in tearing through three minor league levels, with a 2.43 ERA, 109 strikeouts and 33 walks in 96.1 innings. It will probably take him some time to establish some consistency at the major league level, but this is clearly a talented kid and it will be exciting to watch a young, homegrown starter grow up in a Mets uniform for once.

This group isn't going to strike fear into the hearts of the National League, but it wasn't starting pitching that carried the 2006 Mets as far as they went. The only guys who pitched more than 132.2 innings last year were Glavine and Steve Trachsel who, 15 wins or not, was not the kind of pitcher you'd want as your number two. The Mets stopped just short of pulling fans out of the stands to man the back of their rotation last year--in fact, that may have been how Jose Lima got four starts--and the only ones who were any good for any length of time were Maine and Hernandez. The situation may not be a whole lot better this year, but it's going to take some serious bad luck for the Mets to be reaching for the Limas and Geremi Gonzalezes of the world in 2007. And they might very well have an ace up their sleeve come July or August if a certain Dominican gentleman is feeling healthy.

The bullpen is a bit more troubling. Met relievers were excellent last year and some of the most important guys are back. There's Billy Wagner, who was great in the closer role, and Aaron Heilman, who was very good setting him up. Beyond that, there's not much we can be sure of. The recent news that Duaner Sanchez will miss most if not all of the season has left some spots up for grabs.

Pedro Feliciano returns to the lefty specialist role he did well in last year. Scott Schoeneweis is also a lefty, but hardly anything special. Rookie sidearmer Joe Smith will try to be the new Chad Bradford. Chan Ho Park will hope to be more successful in relief than he has been as a starter lately. And if all else fails, the Mets will send out Aaron Sele and try again the next day.

What was one of the best bullpens in baseball last year should be quite effective again in the eighth and ninth innings. Getting there might be a little trickier. Perhaps Park will make like Eric Gagne and go from unimpressive starter to dominant reliever. Maybe Smith's minor league success will translate smoothly to the majors. Someone like Ambiorix Burgos or Jorge Sosa could figure things out in the minors and make an impact. There's not much chance that all of these things will happen. Met relievers aren't about to turn into a half dozen Mel Rojases, but the bullpen won't be quite the strength it was in 2006.

All of this adds up to a pitching staff that's going to need its offense to score some runs. By a fortunate coincidence, the Mets have an offense capable of doing just that. I'll be back later this week with a look at those responsible for really sockin' the ball and knockin' those home runs over the wall.

Monday, March 26, 2007

March Madness?

A certain Orioles fan I know (I won't name him, but everyone calls him Pappy) is predicting 50 wins combined for the troika of O's young starting pitchers: Bedard, Cabrera and Loewen.

I predict 61 wins for the Orioles entire starting staff.

Good news, bad news

There was good news out of Tigers' camp regarding Justin Verlander. The 2006 ROY tossed six scoreless innings yesterday against minor leaguers. It was his sharpest performance of the spring, according to reports. Verlander has been struggling with his location and has an ERA over 8 this spring. Detroit's brass supposedly isn't concerned because Verlander was prohibited from throwing during the offseason, so there was the expectation it could take time for him to get into a groove again. We'll see.

Bad news for Chris Shelton, who got sent down despite hitting .388-2-5 in 49 spring ABs. The news wasn't entirely unexpected because Shelton was battling Marcus Thames for the backup job at 1B -- and Thames is out of minor league options.

Neifi Perez got the last non-pitching spot, beating out Ramon Santiago. Perez is hitting .324-0-4 in 37 ABs this spring and has 9 walks against 6 strikeouts.

Righthander Chad Durbin got the final spot in the bullpen over lefthander Bobby Seay and righty Zach Miner.

So with a week to go before the opener, the Tigers' roster is set. GM Dave Dombrowski said he's "never" had a roster set this early. Jim Leyland didn't see any reason to drag out the process and wanted guys to have time to adjust to the news.

Here's the team:

Starters are RH Jeremy Bonderman, LH Kenny Rogers, RH Justin Verlander, LH Nate Robertson, and LH Mike Maroth. The bullpen is RH Todd Jones, RH Joel Zumaya, RH Fernando Rodney, RH Jose Mesa, RH Jason Grilli, RH Chad Durbin, and LH Wil Ledezma.

The catchers are Ivan Rodriguez and Vance Wilson. The infield has Sean Casey, Placido Polanco, Carlos Guillen and Brandon Inge with Neifi Perez and Omar Infante as backups. The outfield is Craig Monroe, Curtis Granderson and Magglio Ordonez with Marcus Thames as the fourth OF and reserve 1B. Infante also can play CF. Gary Sheffield is the DH.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Pavano to toss Yanks opener?

With Chien-Ming Wang going on the DL, the Yankees will most likely turn to Carl Pavano to start for them on Opening Day. Yes, Carl Pavano. Probably the most hated free agent pitcher signing for the Pinstripes since Eddie Lee Whitson. It could be a fun day.

The blueprint

I'm getting to watch the Tigers play the Yankees today on YES.

Granderson led off the bottom of the first with a hustle double ... Polanco followed with a slashing single, scoring Granderson ... Monroe walked ... Shef followed with a 3-run homer.

More please. All season long.

And just a note: Yankees color analysist John Flaherty called Polanco "the perfect No. 2 hitter."

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Numbers vs. the Real World

I was looking at stats today and started studying Placido Polanco. I am not alone in believing his presence in the No. 2 spot for the Tigers is a key to making their lineup go. However, when looking at his numbers, particularly through the use of sabermetrics, Polanco rated very poorly last season. Here is an example.

Polanco's OPS of .693 was last among 14 AL second basemen with at least 425 plate appearances in 2006. His Runs Created/27 Outs was 3.85, which was No. 13 in the same group.

So what gives? The Tigers clearly suffered without Polanco last year. Do intangibles outweigh mere numerical analysis or am I blinded by love for a player and the supposed benefits of "the little things" he brings to the lineup?

This much I know: Detroit was 72-38 with Polly in the lineup and 23-29 without him (by my count). Much of that damage came from mid-August to late September when Polanco was out with a shoulder injury.

It could be argued the Tigers were in a swoon anyway at that point, and Polly's absence was merely coincidental and not a true factor. However, prior to the injury, the Tigs were 70-33 with Polanco and just 8-8 without him.

Maybe it was all because of his defense; he did rank No. 3 in range factor among AL second basemen.

Numbers make my head hurt.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Leading off -- Pudge

Jim Leyland made official what was speculated by writers this spring -- Pudge will bat leadoff against lefthanders this season, replacing Granderson.

Last season, Granderson, a left-handed batter, hit .218 with 4 HR in 147 AB against lefties. He struck out 49 times, or 1 in 3 trips. Pudge batted a team-best .340 against lefties last season and had 5 HR in 156 AB.

Granderson hit .274 with 15 HR in 449 AB vs. righties. He whiffed 125 times, or once every 3.6 times to the plate. Pudge hit .284 with 8 HR in 391 AB against righties.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

No maybes about Maybin

Cameron Maybin won't be with the Tigers when the season opens, but he created quite a buzz during spring training. The 19-year-old outfielder was 9-for-21 (.429) with 7 runs, 2 HR, 7 RBI and 2 triples. Last year, he was voted by Baseball America the most exciting player in the Class A Midwest League. He is the consensus top prospect in the Detroit system and Gary Sheffield says he could be a 30-HR, 70-SB guy. From what I've read, it's only a matter of time before he forces Curtis Granderson from CF to LF to make room. That means Craig Monroe, who just turned 30 and had 28 HR-92 RBI last season, could become available.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Just to show I'm not alone

This item was part of the Tigers' preview on

Achilles' heel: How much did (Jamie) Walker mean to this franchise? The Tigers are about to find out. With Walker now in Baltimore's bullpen with a lucrative contract, Leyland is left with the mercurial Wilfredo Ledezma as his primary lefty. Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney can more than hold their own against left-handed hitters, but Detroit needs Ledezma to step up as an option against the American League Central's lefty sluggers.

First sign of spring

Stop me if you've heard this one before, but Kerry Wood and Mark Prior could start the year on the DL.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

5 Simple Ways ...

The 2007 Tigers can be better than 2006:

1. Sheffield wears out pitchers.
2. Maroth makes successful return from elbow surgery.
3. Granderson blossoms into top leadoff man.
4. Bonderman ascends to ace status.
5. Casey in clubhouse and lineup for full season.

The 2007 Tigers can be worse than 2006:

1. Sheffield wears out welcome.
2. Rogers, Jones, Pudge, Casey, Mesa, Sheff all start to feel their age.
3. Inge and Monroe don’t come near duplicating 2006.
4. Injuries.
5. Leyland loses magic touch.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Good news for O's fans

The O's have signed Brian Roberts through 2009 adding one more of the key players on the O's roster to be on board thru 2009. Roberts (in addition to several of last seasons' "key signings") repeated the mantra that he's where he wants to be; he wants to be in Baltimore when they bring a winner home to a great baseball town.
I hope he means it. I hope they all mean it. But really, I just hope they make it happen.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Chris Ray delivering heat

Greetings from Fort Lauderdale

Ol' Sparky is "working" in Florida for a few days and had just enough spare time to see the Orioles play the Cardinals. Unfortunately for the O's fans, Baltimore lost 4-0. Unfortunately for the Tigers fans, it meant watching the Cards win again.

Got to see former Detroiter Jamie Walker toss two innings for the Birds. As I've stated previously, I'm fearful the loss of Walker could damage the Tigers' bullpen. Our loss is Baltimore's gain.

The photo is Jamie doing his famous levitating ball trick.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Spring Omen?

I met a Phillies fan last night at a local watering hole who was sky high on the Phillies prospects this year because of the "6 great starting pitchers" in spring camp. He advised that he was hoping the Phillies would deal for either Curt Schilling or Randy Johnson to be the Phillies closer.

After telling him I was an Orioles fan, he told me he was sorry for me. He declared the Orioles were looking at another losing season because they had "let Sosa go".