Wednesday, March 31, 2010

2010 Year in Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

So apparently it must have been the name change. After 10 seasons as the whipping boy of the AL East, the Rays dropped the "Devil" from their name before the 2008 season and went on to shock the baseball world by winning the toughest division in baseball and going on the World Series. Last season wasn't quite as magical, and the divisional competition was as stiff as ever, leaving the Rays in a familiar position on the outside looking in at the Yankees and Red Sox. The Rays may be one of the youngest, most talented teams in baseball, and if their farm system is any indication there should be plenty more help on the way. I'd look for them to again be serious contenders this year, but they certainly have their work cut out for them to leapfrog Boston or New York and earn a playoff spot.

2009 Season: 84-78, 3rd place in the AL East.

Key Departures:

It was by all accounts a very quiet off-season for Tampa Bay, as there were very few holes in the roster that needed to be addressed. They didn't lose or add any game-changers, but a few familiar faces from the past few seasons have moved on. Second baseman Akinori Iwamura was traded to Pittsburgh for RP Jesse Chavez. Iwamura isn't a superstar, but he was plenty solid at second base for the Rays, posting a .274/.349/.380 line in his last full season in 2008, while playing slightly above-average defense. An ACL tear limited him to only 260 plate appearances last year. Sean Rodriguez, who came over in the Scott Kazmir trade (and although not projected as a stud prospect absolutely CRUSHED Triple-A pitching for the Angels last year to the tune of .299/.400/.616 with 30 homers and a .318(!) ISO) will take over 2B duties for the time being. Other losses include journeyman catcher Gregg Zaun, who departed for Milwaukee, and a number of relievers, notably Chad Bradford, Joe Nelson and two formerly-dominant-circa-2004 closers in Troy Percival and Jason Isringhausen. Outside of Iwamura, the bottom line is that none of the other departures were major contributors.

Key Additions:

As I noted before, the Rays took on a whopping $1.5MM in free agent salaries, signing OF Gape Kapler to a one-year, $1.05MM deal and 1B Dan Johnson for $500K. Kapler played for the Rays in 2009 and can play all outfield positions, which is the bulk of his value, and Johnson, well, he last saw significant ML action in 2007 with the A's, so perhaps I need not say more. One of the two main additions was reliever Rafael Soriano, who was acquired from the Braves for Chavez, so i guess by the reflexive property (?) Iwamura = Soriano. Tampa expects Soriano to hold down the closer role after he compiled 27 saves with a 2.97 ERA and a blistering 12.13 K/9 for Atlanta last year, hopefully bringing an end to last year's closer-by-committee situation. The other notable acquisition was obtaining catcher Kelly Shoppach from Cleveland for pitcher Mitch Talbot and subsequently signing him to a two-year, $3.5MM extension. I talked a little about Shoppach in my Indians preview, but he'll definitely be a serviceable platoon-mate to Dioner Navarro (who took a big step backwards last year after a breakout 2008 campaign). Shoppach certainly has power potential as evidenced by his 21 homers in 2008, but last year he saw his ISO decrease from .256 to .185. Again, not a game-changing trade, but Shoppach is a slight upgrade at the position and was obtained at a reasonable cost.

Talent En Route:

Here is where things get really interesting. The Rays' farm system is STACKED with potential talent, with five prospects given a 5-star ranking by Baseball Prospectus and an organizational ranking of third overall. Most other analysts have the Tampay system ranked in the top three, and there is little doubt that there could be even more stars in the making for a team that already has plenty of young talent. Their years of having top draft picks might be over, but there are a number of guys who are certainly ready to contribute in the near future. It's definitely pitching heavy at the top, but most teams would kill for the collection of high-upside arms that the Rays have.

Desmond Jennings (CF) - Jennings is the Rays' top prospect, and is widely regarded as one of the top 10 prospects in all of baseball. Although he's got all the tools, his primary asset is speed, which grades out as an 80 (the top) on the scouting scale. He started 2009 at Double-A, posting a .316/.395/.486 line in 100 games, and didn't slow down at all after a promotion to Triple-A, playing 32 games at a .325/.419/.491 clip. His power is only average, but his ability to get on base and blazing speed make him a potentially game-changing leadoff man. As Kevin Goldstein puts it, "Imagine Carl Crawford with outstanding plate discipline." Depending on what happens with Crawford, which I'll discuss later, Jennings looks more than ready to fill his shoes. It looks like a summer call-up might be the most likely scenario, and an outfield of Crawford, B.J. Upton, and Jennings would certainly be a force to be reckoned with.

Jeremy Hellickson (RHP) - Hellickson is the highest-upside pitcher at a very deep position, and gets absolutely glowing reviews from scouts. He doesn't feature overpowering velocity or raw stuff, but has outstanding command of three plus pitches (fastball with movement, curveball and a filthy changeup). He has consistently elevated his K rate through all levels of the minors up to a high of 10.99 K/9 at Triple-A, while keeping his walk rate fairly consistent. Combine that with the fact that he apparently just "knows how to pitch" and Hellickson is a potential ace in the making. The Rays' rotation seems to be pretty set, but I wouldn't be totally surprised to see him in the bigs at some point, especially if Wade Davis (see below) struggles.

Wade Davis (RHP) - Whereas Hellickson is more of a command/control type pitcher, Davis can certainly bring the heat. He touches 96 mph with the fastball, and according to Goldstein, he also features a plus curve with very similar arm action the fastball, making it difficult for batters to pick up. He's two years older than Hellickson and is a bit more advanced in his development, which gives him the edge in terms of earning a roster spot. He'll be the fifth starter in the rotation to begin the season, but could also be moved to the bullpen should in not work out, a role that might also fit his power pitching style, given that he only really has two good pitches.

Alex Colome (RHP) - Another in the line of young righties, Colome is younger and much less developed than Hellickson or Davis, but the raw material is undoubtedly there. He can touch 98 with the fastball and has good secondary pitches at times, but he lacks consistent command and delivery. In 15 games of short-season ball (sample size alert) he was impressive, however, striking out 94 in only 76 innings and allowing a .174 BAA. He could be an impact arm down the line, but he's likely a ways off.

2011 Free Agency and Salary Outlook:

The biggest pending free agent question in 2011 for the Rays will be Carl Crawford, a question that won't be answered until the next off-season after Crawford put an end to negotiations during Spring Training. Although the Twins' signing of Joe Mauer should give some hope to smaller market teams that would like to hang on to their marquee players, the impetus for Tampa to resign Crawford might be less than it was for the Twins to hang on to Mauer. Crawford's current deal with the Rays has been an absolute bargain, as he was worth 5.5 wins above replacement last year (worth $24.9MM according to FanGraphs) while playing for only $8.25MM. He could likely command $15MM or more per year in free agency, a number that the Tampa front office has never offered to a player, and the emergence of Jennings could mean that management will choose to focus its resources elsewhere.

The other big free agency question is Carlos Pena, who will make $10.25MM this season in the last year of a three-year contract signed in 2008. Pena is the archetypal pure-power/low-average slugger, clubbing 39 homers last year with a .227/.356/.537 line. He rated below average defensively in 2009 according to UZR/150 (-6.2), but that could be misleading as he posted excellent numbers in 2007 and 2008 (2.5 and 4.8, respectively). The bottom line is that with a payroll hovering around $60MM, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for the Rays to keep both Pena and Crawford. At this point in his career, Crawford is a more valuable player, but Jennings is waiting in the wings, whereas there don't seem to be any power bats lurking in the system that could replace Pena's production. However, Pena could certainly choose to walk, as he'll be the best first baseman to hit the open market in 2011.

An area that isn't a question for now, however, is the rotation, where the Rays really shine in terms of quality cost-controlled talent. The top two starters, Matt Garza and James Shields, are making only $3.35 and $2.5MM, respectively, and both are under team control through 2013. Third starter Jeff Niemann will enter his arbitration years early as a result of the major league contract he signed in 2005, but figures to get only a modest raise, and former stud prospect-now-arrived David Price will make right around $2MM the next three seasons on the back end of his six-year major league deal. Fifth starter Davis still qualifies as a financial serf and will make the league minimum for at least a few years.

With as much cheap talent as they possess, the Rays should have enough financial flexibility to either re-sign their pending free agents or snag a few impact players on the market, but the sad fact remains that they are significantly hampered by woeful attendance figures. Even during the magical 2008 season they failed to exceed 2 million tickets sold, and only 60K more fans total showed up for the defending AL champs in 2009. Until Rays fans start showing that they care a little more (and as a Twins fan I can empathize with Tropicana Field, but that's not an excuse) they are only handicapping the revenue that management can put into the on-field product.

The Future of the Rays:

Much like AK47's opinion of the Orioles, optimism of the Rays' future is tempered significantly by the division in which they play. In most other divisions in baseball, they would now be at the point where they could contend every year, but in the AL East, it's hard to predict success on a consistent basis. The fact remains though that Tampa is loaded with young talent, and the Yankees, while possessing a mid-level farm system by most accounts, are aging. Losing Crawford and Pena would be significant blows, but Evan Longoria has emerged as a big bat in the middle of the order and could take some of the sting from losing Pena, and Desmond Jennings has the potential to be better than Crawford. The key word there is potential, however. Predicting major league success from "potential" is tricky, but Tampa seems to have the luxury of being a team that has both the opportunity to contend now and the young talent to sustain their success for many years to come.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

2010 Year in Preview: Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles are one of those teams you kinda have to have some pity for. They have the budget of a small market team in the midst of an absolutely LOADED AL East, and for all the prospective talent they have, you have to wonder if they will be able to legitimately compete when the payrolls of their competition (Yankees and Red Sox) are 3 times as large. As I mentioned however, they do have some fairly exciting young talent that they may be able to build upon soon.

As a side-note while we're on the topic of Baltimore, if you've never watched the HBO Series "The Wire," you're missing out. "The Wire" takes place in Baltimore and is one of the best TV series ever produced (in this author's humble opinion). Just a word of warning: It's not the faint of heart.

2009 Record: (64-98), last place, 39GB the Division and World Champion New York Yankees

Key Departures:
3B Melvin Mora (free agent signed with Colorado), RP Chris Ray (Traded to the Rangers)

Melvin Mora is only a big name in that he played 3rd base for the Orioles for the past 10 years. He's 38 years old and probably nearing the end of his career. I'm not close with the beat of Orioles fans so I have no idea if his departure has been met with sadness or not, but he has certainly been a figure since Cal Ripken Jr. retired in 2001. As for Chris Ray, he was not much of a force with the Orioles, and I don't think they lost much here.

Key Arrivals:
RP Mike Gonzalez (free agent signing from the Braves), 1B Garrett Atkins (free agent signing from Colorado), SS Miguel Tejada (free agent signing from the Astros), SP Kevin Millwood (trade from the Rangers)

These are fairly significant signings in the sense that all of these players will play big roles for the Orioles. Gonzalez will be the closer this year, Akins the starting 1st baseman, Tejada the starting Shortstop (a change for him as he has been a 3rd baseman up until now) and Millwood will be the Orioles Opening Day starter. Millwood has an especially important role considering that he will be looked to as the veteran of a very young pitching staff that features 2nd-year pitcher Brad Bergesen and rookies Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman, all of whom are quite talented.

Talent En Route: 
This is where the Orioles really shine. They have some top talent that is either ripe for the picking now or will be soon. There are four prospects in their system that deserve mention.

Brian Matusz (LH SP) - Matusz will be in the rotation at the beginning of this season, likely in the 3rd spot behind Millwood and Guthrie. Matusz saw some brief action towards the end of last year, pitching in 8 games and compiling a 4.63 ERA in 44+ innings with 38Ks. Drafted in the 1st round of the 2008 draft, Matusz made it as high as Double-A ball last year before the Orioles called him up. In the minors he had been tearing it up with sub-two ERAs and better than a 9K/9 ratio at 2 stops. It might take a season for this kid to get truly comfortable, but as a lefty with a low-90s fastball and excellent control, it won't be long before he's dominating.

Josh Bell (3B) - Drafted in the 4th round of the 2005 draft by the Dodgers and traded to the Orioles last year as part of the George Sherrill deal, Bell has blossomed into an exciting 3B with major potential to land a starting job with the Orioles here either this season or next. In 33 games at Double-A (post trade to the Orioles) he hit for a .289/.346/.570 line displaying the excellent power he had been developing within the Dodgers organization. This past off-season, the Orioles declined the option to Melvin Mora, paving a pretty clear path for Bell either later this season or next.

Jake Arrieta (RH SP) - Arrieta will be starting this season at Triple-A, but according to Baseball Prospectus, Arrieta possesses one of the best fastballs in the Orioles system, topping out around 96mph and consistently hitting 92-94mph. The problem with Arrieta, and what will likely prevent him from cracking the Majors until next season, is that his other pitches are not that great. This inevitably makes him predictable and in the 2nd half last year, he struggled at Triple-A. If he further develops his secondary pitches, he could become yet another of the young, exciting starters that the Orioles have.

Zach Britton (LH SP) - Drafted out of a Texas high-school in 2006, Britton pitched 140 innings at High-A last year with a 2.70ERA, 55BB and 131Ks. What scouts like about Britton is the action on his sinker, which some have said is the best sinker in the Orioles system. Britton is not likely to break into the Majors this year because he still has quite a bit of developing to do, but come 2011 or 2012, he could be a force.

2011 Free Agency and Salary Outlook:
When I think of the Orioles I think Brian Roberts and Nick Markakis...oh and Matt Wieters. So, in terms of these three 'faces of the franchise', Roberts is locked up through the 2013 season, Markakis is locked up through the 2014 season and Wieters is still in line for a rookie contract. In other words, the Orioles have locked up some of their core talent so far and can start building around that. The only notable names they'll lose moving forward through the next two season are Millwood, Tejada, and Gonzalez, all of whom they brought on this year. I could see them re-signing Gonzalez, but Millwood and Tejada are just place-holders until some younger talent develops a little further (Bell and another of their pitching prospects). This team is young and getting younger and I don't see them being active too active in the free agency/trade market until they have a little better understanding of what they have.

The Future of the Baltimore Orioles:
You know, having done this write-up, I'm feeling a little more optimistic about the Orioles. The biggest factor in my mind is the maturation of their young pitching talent. Between Matusz, Tillman, Bergesen, and Arrieta, they should have at least a couple of solid starters emerge and if three of the four pan out, they could be looking at a cheap, young rotation for the next few years. That would allow them to build around the offensive pieces they have (Wieters, Markakis, etc) and wah-lah, you have a contender in a couple of years. As I started off saying, however, their management has got to start spending a little coin to bring in those pieces that will compliment the young talent they already have. Without a financial commitment, it will be awfully hard to compete in this division. For Orioles fans' sake I hope that management steps up a little, this would be the perfect time.

2010 Year in Preview: Toronto Blue Jays

Sweeps week rolls on this morning with a look at the Toronto Blue Jays, last seen in 2009 with a 75-87 record, finishing 4th in the AL East, 28 GB the 103-59 Yankees.  The Blue Jays had themselves quite the offseason.  Let's get to it.

Key Departures: 

Goodbye, Doc.  I won't miss Halladay mowing down the Yankees game after game after game.  It seemed like we would face Halladay every time we played the Blue Jays.  We just couldn't catch a series where we got the soft end of the Jays' rotation.  Oh no.  There was Doc, going eight innings strong, throwing 132 pitches, striking out 7 and walking none.  Think I'm exaggerating?

In 2008, he faced the Yankees six times, six!, holding them to a .211/.262/.335 line with a K/BB ratio of 4.43.  Mind you, the Yankees faced the Blue Jays...wait for it...six times in 2008.  In 2009, he faced the Yankees five times, holding them to a .240/.274/.413 line with a K/BB ratio of 4.00.  The Yankees and the Blue Jays faced off 6 times in 2008, but two of those series were two-game affairs.  From 1999 to 2009, Halladay held the Yankees to a .239/.289/.367 line posting a 3.52 K/BB ratio.  He turned the Yankees into Nick Punto every time he faced them.  I'm glad Halladay is done tormenting the Yankees, but I'll miss getting the opportunity to see a master of the craft at work.

The Blue Jays dealt Halladay to to the Phillies for C Travis d'Arnaud, RHP Kyle Drabek, and outfielder Michael Taylor, whom they immediately flipped to Oakland for 3B prospect Brett Wallace. They lost SS Marco Scutaro to free agency when the Red Sox signed him to a two year deal, but will receive Boston's first round draft pick as compensation since Scutaro was a Type A free agent.  Other losses include C Rod Barajas, 1B Kevin Millar and RHP Brian Wolfe.  

Additionally, the Jays lost RHP Brandon League and minor league outfield prospect Johermyn Chavez when they traded them to the Mariners for RHP Brandon Morrow.

Key Additions: 
As mentioned above, the Jays picked up C Travis d'Arnaud, RHP Kyle Drabek, 3B Brett Wallace and RHP Brandon Morrow in trades this winter.  They also acquired RHP Dana Eveland from the Oakland Athletics in exchange for cash.  Other than that, the Jays went short-term and low-cost with their free agent signings, inking defensive king SS John McDonald to a two year, $3M deal, SS Alex Gonzalez to a 1 year, $2.75M deal, RHP Kevin Gregg to a 1 year, $2.75M deal with a $4.75M option for 2011 and an $8.75M option for 2012, and catcher John Buck for a 1 year, $2M deal. That's a grand total of $10.5M committed to the payroll.

Talent en Route: 
Without a doubt, the most highly regarded prospect the Jays now have is RHP Kyle Drabek.  This 23 year old was Philadelphia's first round draft pick in 2006 and was showing promise in his first season of work in 2007 by posting a 4.33 ERA in 54 IP, striking out 46 and walking 23. However, this campaign was cut short in July of that year when Drabek injured his elbow and needed Tommy John surgery.  In 2008, he returned to the mound for 32 innings, but 2009 was his first full year back and he did not disappoint.  Drabek threw 158 innings in 2009, splitting time between High A and Double A.  In High A, he struck out 10.8 batters per nine innings and walked 2.8 batters per nine.  Over 61 innings, his ERA was 2.48.  Upon his promotion to Double A, Drabek's K rate dipped slightly 7.41 batters per nine, and his walk rate stayed the same at 2.9.  Over 96 innings, Drabek posted an ERA 3.64.

Drabek is obviously a very talented pitching prospect, and is almost major-league ready.  His first full year of work when coming back from Tommy John surgery was tremendous, especially the control he exhibited.  Often, pitchers recovering from Tommy John surgery find control to be one of the last things to return.  Additionally, Drabek has a good repetoire, using a great curveball to complement a legitimate power fastball.  However, there are a few things that  concern me about Drabek.  For one, I'd like to see his K rate in the higher levels of the minors be a bit higher than the 7.0 range. This will be the year that we see if he's able to do it.  Secondly, Drabek's jump in innings in 2009 seems a bit excessive, especially given his injury history.  Drabek threw 23 innings in 2006 as an 18 year old and 54 innings the following year before going down with his injury.  In 2008, he logged 32 innings in rehab starts and then was unleashed for 158 innings the following year.  It's almost as if the Phillies were trying to get as much out of him to maximize his trade value.  The last thing that gives me pause about Drabek is his size.  At 6'0", 185 lb, he has likely maxed out in terms of velocity and projection.  There's no rule that says you have to be tall to be a successful major league pitcher, but it certainly doesn't hurt.  This is just nit-picking though.  There's plenty to love about Drabek, and he'll be a big name to watch in 2010.

The second prospect to focus on in 2010 is big man Brett Wallace, a left-handed hitting, oversized masher listed generously at 6'2", 205 lb.  Here is a picture of Wallace when he played for the Cardinals:

That's a big boy.  Wallace has been around the league in the past two seasons.  He was originally drafted by the Blue Jays in 2005 in the 42nd round of the 2005 MLB draft, but didn't sign and went to Arizona State, where he was two-time Pac 10 Player of the Year.  In the 2008 MLB Draft, the Cardinals picked him with the 13th pick of the first round, and he put up an incredibly impressive line of .337/.427/.530 between A and AA as a 21 year old.  Of course, Wallace is an advanced college bat, so the real test of his ability came when he faced better pitching.  The following year, Wallace began in AA and improved his on-base skills while seeing a drop-off in slugging, putting up a line of .281/.403/.438.  The Cards promoted him after 32 games to AAA.  Here he saw further regression (.293/.346/.423), before getting traded to the A's in the Matt Holliday deal, at which point he went on an absolute tear, going for .302/.365/.505 and hitting 9 home runs in 182 ABs.  He finished the year with a combined line of .293/.367/.455, and then was promptly dealt to the Jays in exchange for OF Michael Taylor.  

Brett Wallace is a pure hitter and possesses the ability to hit for average and power.  Unfortunately, Wallace's defensive skills are minimal, due to his unathletic build and lack of speed.  The Jays will move him to first base, where his bat should play fine.  He is scheduled to start in Triple A in 2010, but may force his way onto the major league roster by mid-year.  Wallace will be a good source of power for the coming years, even if his defensive skills are minimal.  As a hitter, he reminds me a lot of Billy Butler, and I think Jays fans would be happy if Wallace can produce at Butler's level in the near future.  

2011 Salary and Free Agency Outlook
Thanks to the Rios and Halladay deals, the Jays have shed a lot of payroll going into 2010 and should begin the year with a payroll around $70M, down from $80M in 2009 and $94M in 2008.  The financial picture improves considerably for the Jays in the future though, as they only have $33M committed to payroll in 2011.  Unfortunately, $26M of that is committed to one player, Vernon Wells.  Wells is scheduled to make a sickening $26M in 2011, $24M in 2012, $24M in 2013 and $24M in 2014.  Words fail me. 

The Jays have a slew of players that will be due for significant raises going into 2011.  Brian Tallet and Shawn Camp are both due for their fourth and final year of arbitration in 2011, and Jeremy Accardo and Edwin Encarnacion are both scheduled for their third.  Shaun Marcum, Dustin McGowan and Casey Jansenn are all due for a big raise in their second year of arbitration eligibility, and Morrow, Litsch, Lind, Eveland and Carlson all become eligible for the first time. The good news for the Jays is that they have considerable talent that won't reach arbitration eligibility until at least 2012 in Travis Snider, Scott Richmond, Brett Cecil, Ricky Romero and Marc Rzepczynski.  Additionally, 2B Aaron Hil is signed to a very club-friendly deal that will pay him $4M in 2010, $5M in 2011 and gives the Jays $8M club options for 2012 and 2012 and a $10M club option in 2014.  That's a lot of cheap talent under team control for a very long time. 

So what will the Jays attempt to do in free agency in 2011?  Lyle Overbay, Jason Frasor, Scott Downs and John Buck are all scheduled to become free agents, so the Jays have ostensible holes at the back end of the bullpen, at first base, and at catcher.  As we noted above, though, Brett Wallace should be able to man first base by at least Opening Day 2011, leaving the Jays with a projected lineup of: 

C - Jose Molina or FA
1B - Brett Wallace 
2B - Aaron Hill 
SS - Alex Gonzalez (club option $2.5M)/John McDonald ($1.5M)
3B - Edwin Encarnacion 
LF - Travis Snider/Adam Lind 
CF - Vernon Wells 
RF - Jose Bautista/Travis Snider
DH - Adam Lind 

The obvious holes here are at catcher and RF.  I doubt we'll see the Jays pursue a big name at either of those positions.  At catcher, Buck may be a good candidate to return.  In right field, Xavier Nady might be a good fit.  The Jays could use Snider to RF and sign someone like Johnny Damon to play LF and split time at DH with Adam Lind.  Another option would be to sign a first baseman and use Lind in left, Snider in right and Wallace at DH, but I suspect the Jays want to see if Wallace's glove can stick at first before slotting him as a DH. 

In the rotation, the Jays have a ton of cheap, solid talent with a lot of upside.  Marcum, Romero and Morrow are the Jays' top three starters according to the Jays' Depth Chart, but Morrow has already had shoulder trouble this spring and I'm bearish on his ability to remain in the rotation long-term.  Thus, if Frasor and Downs leave via free agency, we might see the Jays shift Morrow to the bullpen, where his power stuff would play up.  The back-end of the rotation is solid, with strikeout artist Marc Rzepczynski and lefty Brian Tallet occupying the fourth and fifth spots.  Rzepczynski was one of my deep sleepers to target in fantasy baseball this year, and I'm wondering if we might see big things from him this year.  Beyond that, the Jays have Eveland, Cecil and McGowan waiting in the wings, all decent options with varying amounts of upside.  This has the potential to be a formidable pitching staff in 2010 and 2011, even without Roy Halladay. 

The Future of the Blue Jays
The Jays went through a tough time in 2009 when they realized the current construction of the team wasn't good enough to compete and that they needed to rebuilt and deal ace Roy Halladay.  It was a dark time for Jays fans, but things are on the up and up.  For one, ownership decided to can the criminally stupid JP Ricciardi.  If not for Ricciardi and his asinine signings of Rios, Wells and BJ Ryan, the Jays could have had the payroll flexibility to keep Halladay and even sign him to an extension.  What's done is done, though, and there are reasons for optimisim.

For one, they hired Alex Anthopolous to be their GM, and he has done a superb job in his first few months in an extremely difficult situation.  Secondly, they have a lot of high upside pitching talent coming off injury in Marcum and McGowan (and Litsch in 2011).  Thirdly, they have good, cheap options for the rotation in Rzepczynski, Romero and Cecil, with Drabek and Eveland on the outside looking in.  Finally,  they have solid, cheap bats in Hill, Snider, Wallace and Lind, and enough salary room to make a splash in 2011 or 2012 if they desire.  It's going to take a lot of things to go right, and in the AL East you have very little margin for error, but I think the Jays are going to see an improvement in 2010 and 2011, and fast.  And if they're able to deal Wells without eating his salary, then watch out.  

Monday, March 29, 2010

2010 Year in Preview: NL East Wrap-Up

Without much chit-chat before-hand, let's dive in to the wrap up...

Top NL East Prospect(s):

There is little doubt which two prospects deserves mention here, and both of the 2009 draftees could make big waves in the NL East this year. Both Stephen Strasburg and Jason Heyward could both see major playing time with their respective clubs and according to ESPN and various other outlets, Heyward will most like be the starting RFer for the Braves on Opening Day.

For me, I guess I don't know exactly what to think of Strasburg. Some outlets have said that he's "once in a generation" talent and other respected sources like Baseball America have Heyward ranked over Strasburg. On his current trajectory there is little doubt Strasburg is going to be one heck of a pitcher, but the jury is still out because there have been other EPIC busts who were touted as "sure things" (i.e. Mark Prior, Matt Bush, Brien Taylor).

I'm a little more convinced with Heyward simply because he has shown this Spring that he can hit Major League pitching and has even gotten to the point where he has now made the club for Opening Day. It will be interesting to see if Heyward can maintain a respectable level of production throughout the entire season and it wouldn't surprise me a bit if the Braves use him somewhat sparingly in April and May. Eventually the pitchers are going to figure him out to a degree and it remains to be seen how quickly he will adjust.

Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA Projection Standings - And CHONE Projections too:

Philadelphia Phillies (90-72): 774RS, 684RA, .266/.339/.432
Atlanta Braves (86-76): 744RS, 696RA, .265/.341/.414
Florida Marlins (80-82): 725RS, 739RA, .257/.329/.415
New York Mets (78-84): 743RS, 781RA, .264/.335/.417
Washington Nationals (74-88): 677RS, 749RA, .251/.325/.388

Atlanta Braves (89-73)
Philadelphia Phillies (87-75)
New York Mets (80-82)
Florida Marlins (76-86)
Washington Nationals (74-88)

The most notable difference between the two is who wins the division, but both see the Braves and Phillies being the cream of the NL East with a steep drop-off after that. I think the key for the Braves hanging in there with the Phillies will be the evolution of their starting rotation. Jurrjens and Lowe are known entities and should continue to perform well, young Tommy Hanson will be entering his 2nd season and will hopefully continue to improve, but it is the back-end of Kawakami and Hudson who are the wild cards. Hudson has looked absolutely fantastic so far this Spring, but with him it's always a question of health, having only pitched parts of the last two seasons.

Aside from that, I can't imagine that NL East batters are looking forward to facing Roy Halladay who could be in line to absolutely tear apart the National League. With the run support he should get, what's the limit on wins? 25? Add to that a rising young star in J.A. Happ and the young Cole Hamels and you've got a pretty fearsome top 3. There is little doubt here, barring injuries, that the Braves and Phils will be challenging for the NL East crown and possibly the Wild Card berth as well.

Predictions Sure to Lead People Astray:


Phillies (90-72)
Braves (86-76)
Marlins (81-81)
Mets (78-84)
Nationals (70-92)
Phillies (87-75)
Braves (86-76)
Mets (83-79)
Marlins (78-84)
Nationals (72-90)

Braves (89-73)
Phillies (88-74)
Marlins (83-79)
Mets (80-82)
Nats (71-91)

Just like CHONE and PECOTA, we're all predicting similar outcomes for the NL East with the Phillies and Braves at the top. This could be one of the 'sleepier' divisions in baseball over the coming season and by that I do not mean it will be boring, but as things stand now it should play out fairly predictably. It will be very interesting to watch the prospects in the NL East and see how they pan out over their first season of action, only a week to go till the season starts!!

Sweeps Week

It's Sweeps Week here on The Bat Shatters.  What is Sweeps Week, you ask?  

Let's turn to AnswerBag for some insight: 

At various times throughout the year, Nielsen Media Research, the company which records viewing figures for television programs, sends out diaries to sample homes in the various markets around the country, for the residents to record the shows they watched.

These diaries are then "swept" up, and the results analysed to produce viewing figures for the various programs and channels. These are important, because it's based on these that the networks set their advertising rates. The more people watch a show, the more they can charge for the commercials during it.

It's no secret when the diaries are operational - see here for the 
And so, during these times, networks deliberately bring out new episodes, series and specials, in an effort to boost their viewing figures, and hence ad revenue. It's the sweeps periods - usually a month, not a week, though each home taking part in the survey only keeps a diary for a week - which determines what shows (and network executives!) live or die.

    Now, Nielsen isn't watching, and we have no reason to think our traffic will be higher than normal in the next few days.  But in the next week, we're going to be bringing out the new material - previewing the AL East and the NL West, and then giving a overview of the entire MLB and offering predictions.  It's going to be busy around here, so check back in early and often.  

    Sunday, March 28, 2010

    Blog Shout-out: Curve For a Strike

    It's a little belated, but TheBatShatters would like to thank for a nice profile of our blog along with some very nice comments. Curve is an excellent Twins blog, go and check it out!

    Friday, March 26, 2010

    2010 Year in Preview: Philadelphia Phillies

    When we last saw the Phillies, this happened: 

    And then this happened: 

    And then this happened: 

    Now that I've made all the Phillies fans leave in disgust, let's get to it.  2010 Year In Preview: Philadelphia Phillies!

    2010 Season: 93-69, Winners of the NL East and the NL Pennant; lost to the Yankees in six games in the World Series.  

    Key Departures: Cliff Lee (traded to Mariners), Pedro Feliz (signed with Astros), Scott Eyre (quit), Brett Myers (signed with Astros), Chan Ho Park (signed with WSC Yankees)

    Key Additions: 

    Thanks to Drunk Jays Fans for giving us permission to use the image!  Huge fan of DJF.   

    One Roy Halladay, arguably the best pitcher in the game (traded from Blue Jays), Placido Polanco (3B free agent), Jose Contreras (RHP, free agent).  

    I'll cover the economics behind the Halladay/Lee deal in greater depth in the 2011 Free Agency and Salary Outlook, which has apparently become my forte, but essentially the Phils swapped Halladay for Lee, and secured themselves a good pitching prospect in Phillippe Aumont in the process.  This move was about payroll, but also minor league depth.  

    Talent En Route: 
    The Phillies lost three of their best prospects in the Halladay deal when they sent RHP Kyle Drabek, catcher Travis d'Arnaud and OF Michael Taylor to the Blue Jays.  They got some prospects back by trading Cliff Lee to the Mariners, the best of which is Phillippe Aumont.  But getting Lee in the first place from the Indians cost them a bounty in Lou Marson, Jason Knapp and Carlos Carrasco.  In sum, the Phillies' minor league depth has been depleted a great deal, but there are still two prospects worth watching in 2010. 

    The first is Domonic Brown. Brown is a giant specimen of a center fielder, standing in at 6'5" and weighing 220.  The Phillies drafted him straight out of high school in the 20th round of the 2006 MLB draft.  In his first full season of work as a nineteen year old, he posted a .299/.363/.415 line with 4 HR in 77 games, stealing 14 bases.  The next year as a 20 year old in high A ball he showed good OBP skills with a .291/.382/.417 line in 516 plate appearances.  As you can see, the power was not yet there.  The next year, Brown owned High A pitching to the tune of a .504 SLG and 11 home runs in 280 AB, and earned a callup to Double A.  There he went for .279/.346/.456 but only hit 3 home runs in 147 AB.  

    There's a lot to like about Brown.  He has a projectable frame, and you can see that he could add power as he gets older and fills out.  He also possesses great speed and a plus arm.  The challenge for Brown is finding a consistent power stroke while learning how to adapt to better pitching.  As you can see from his minor league stats, he often struggles when he gets promoted up a level, and then learns to adjust.  For this reason, I'm thinking that Opening Day 2011 may be too aggressive of a timeline for Brown even though the Phillies' front office is hoping that he'll be able to take Werth's spot in RF.  My prediction for 2010: a .290/370/.490 line from Brown in Double A and a .280/.350/.410 line in Triple A in 2010.  

    Phillippe Aumont is the other prospect I want to profile in the Phillies Year In Preview.  Aumont was drafted by the Mariners with the 11th pick of the 1st round of the 2007 draft, who completely converted him to a reliever.  Aumont stands in at 6'7", 220 lbs and features a heavy, sinking fastball that ranges from 92 to 96, a plus slider and a rudimentary changeup.  The Phillies plan to convert Aumont back into a starter in 2010, a move of which I wholeheartedly approve.  While Aumont may have been able to crack the bigs earlier as a reliever, his stuff merits a long look in the rotation.  Due to the fact that he was drafted straight of out high school and has thrown a mere 106 total innings in the two years since, Aumont won't likely have any impact on the Phillies rotation in 2010 and will need plenty of time to build arm strength and get a full year of innings under his belt.  There's plenty of reason to be optimistic, given his arsenal.  Frankie Piliere of AOL Fanhouse really liked what he saw: 

    The best way to describe Aumont when he's on his game? He's a force of nature. With one of the best sinking fastballs in professional baseball, there are points in the game where Aumont can use that pitch almost exclusively and completely dominate a lineup. 
    The entire piece is worth a read, so check it out.  I really enjoyed reading his scouting report on Aumont and on the perennial tease and frustration, Yankees RHP Christian Garcia, whom I love and hate with equal parts.  

    2011 Free Agency and Salary Outlook
    The Phillies are no small-market, gritty, overachieving, low-budget team like the Red Sox (#sarcasm), as they opened the 2009 season with a payroll of $113M.  Their payroll is set to go up at least $25M to $138M in 2010, due to the deal that Ryan Howard received (3 years, $54M), the extension that Halladay signed (3 years, $60M), and the baffling deal they handed to Blanton (3 years and $24M).  Let's stop and fixate on the Blanton deal for a second.  Ruben Amaro stated that the reason they dealt Lee was to replenish the farm system and to sign a top tier pitcher to a long-term, and affordable, deal.  Yet many have speculated that they also traded Lee to clear payroll for 2010.  Lee is only making $8M in 2010.  Was it really necessary to lock up Blanton to an $8M AAV deal while clearing space by trading Lee?  Imagine how formidable a rotation of Halladay-Lee-Hamels would be in the playoffs!  And if the reason for dealing Lee wasn't payroll, just to replenish the farm system, couldn't they have gotten a better return than Aumont and a few lesser pieces?  Why didn't they shop him longer, and more openly?  No teams were willing to offer more than Aumont for one year of Lee at $8M?  And finally, if not, why not keep him for 2010, deal Blanton, and then offer Lee arbitration after the 2010 season and use the draft pick to replenish the farm system?

    I don't get it.  I didn't get it then, and I don't get it now.  Flags fly forever, and I think keeping Lee would have made the Phillies a far more fierce opponent in October.

    All of that aside, the Phils still have $132M committed to their payroll in 2011, not factoring in arbitration raises to Kyle Kendrick, J.A. Happ and others.  That's a lot of coin.  Coming off the payroll are Moyer, Durbin and Werth.  Since their payroll is already so high, I would imagine that they let Werth walk and hope that Brown can assume the role full-time.  Other than RF, the Phillies will have no other significant holes in 2011.

    Phillies Overview: 
    To cut to the chase, the Phillies are a team built to win now. They have an excellent, but aging, core of players in Utley, Werth, Howard, Rollins and Halladay, all of whom are paid handsomely.  Their farm system has been depleted due to the trades for Lee and Halladay, and while getting Aumont back from the Mariners certainly doesn't hurt, they don't have now have a pitching prospect so close to the majors like they had in Drabek.  The Phillies have been very good at winning for the past two years.  There's no reason to think that won't continue in 2010; they are the cream of the crop of the National League.  But the warning signs are there - Werth will leave after 2010, Howard is very expensive, and their core of Utley and Rollins weakened considerably in 2009 with Rollins' dropoff and isn't getting any younger. For 2010 and 2011, though, there's no reason to think that the Phillies won't be near or at the top of NL East and competitive in the playoffs.  I wouldn't be surprised to see them back in the World Series this October as the first winner of three straight National League pennants in six decades, when the St. Louis Cardinals and Stan Musial reigned supreme.

    Tuesday, March 23, 2010

    2010 Year in Preview: Washington Nationals

    Ah, previewing the Washington Nationals. This one could definitely elicit that "Aw, do I have to?" response, but the Nats actually have sort of a soft spot in my heart for a few different reasons. Number one, I lived in DC for a little over two years and attended a handful of games both at RFK (terrible) and at Nationals Park (actually pretty nice, even if it was usually only a quarter or so full), so I at least sympathize with Nats fans, more out of feeling bad for them than anything else. Number two is quite a bit more tangential, but the original Nats (aka the Senators) went on to become the Twins, bringing Harmon Killebrew with them, so there's that. The history of this ballclub is pretty short, unless you care to go back into the Expos days (which I don't, particularly), and it has been a short history of general futility. Surprisingly, they managed an 81-81 record in 2005, their first season in the nation's capital, but any optimism that may have sparked is long gone. They've topped 100 losses in each of the last two seasons, but there may be some glimmers of hope on the horizon.

    2009 Season: 59-103, last place in the NL East. Ouch.

    The team was so bad the even the jersey manufacturers stopped caring.

    Key Departures:

    There's actually quite a list of players that the Nats let go this year, but keep in mind that the point of this section is "key" arrivals and departures. Actually, wait - none of the guys they lost actually qualify as "key," but I have to talk about someone, right?
    Mike MacDougal (RP) - Non-tendered, signed MiL deal with Florida. MacDougal spent time in the revolving-door closer situation in Washington, and his numbers surprisingly weren't that bad. He managed 20 saves and a 3.60 ERA in 50 IP, but significantly outpitched his FIP, somehow managing to pitch around his ugly 31/31 K/BB ratio. This clears the way for Matt Capps to take over closer duties and hopefully bring some stability to the position.

    Austin Kearns (OF) - Free agent, signed MiL deal with Cleveland. After seeing nearly 600 plate appearances per season in 2006 and 2007, Kearns' playing time significantly decreased over the last two years. He got only 211 PA's in '09, posting a putrid .195/.336/.305 line. They probably won't notice that he's gone.
    Key Additions:
    Washington was actually quite busy in the free agent market this off-season, and while none of the signings are on the Adam Dunn level, many of the new hires figure to be significant contributors this year.

    Jason Marquis (RHP) - Signed as free agent from Colorado. Marquis parlayed his All-Star season in 2009 into a tidy little two-year, $15MM deal, the largest the Nats' front office offered to a free agent. He posted a 4.04 ERA over 216 innings, which was actually very close to his FIP as well. He'll likely provide a mid-4 ERA and roughly 200 innings next year, which certainly has value, but the Nats likely could have gotten the same level of production elsewhere on a cheaper one-year deal. That said, he'll provide consistency that the rotation has been severely lacking.

    Ivan Rodriguez (C) - Signed as free agent from Texas. This one was a bit of a head-scratcher. While certainly destined for Cooperstown, Pudge is a shadow of his former self, and giving him a two-year deal was generally regarded as pointless. His line last year was .249/.280(?!?)/.384. Sure, you could play the veteran leadership card, but this is another one of those could-have-done-better-cheaper situations.

    Matt Capps (RHP) - Signed as free agent from Pittsburgh. As mentioned earlier, Capps is the favorite to take over closer duties. He's certainly got closer stuff, but it didn't necessarily translate into success last year. He converted 27 of 35 saves with a 5.80 ERA, but that number isn't as ugly as it looks, as he got burned by a whopping .370 BABIP. If he can keep the walks under control (2.82 per nine innings in '09) he should rebound.

    Chien-Ming Wang (RHP) - Signed as free agent from New York. The former Yankees ace burned out spectacularly last year, pitching only 42 innings and posting a 9.64 ERA. Yikes. Sure, part of that was due to a .397 BABIP, but Wang was nowhere near the pitcher he once was and ended up having shoulder surgery on July 30. Signed to a deal worth only $2MM base salary, there isn't a lot of risk here, and if Wang can regain something close to his old form, this will be a nice pickup for the pitching-deficient Nats rotation.

    Adam Kennedy (2B) - Signed as free agent from Oakland. Another cheap, low-risk signing, Kennedy can provide at least modest pop (11 HR last year) and decent defense, although UZR can't exactly figure out what to do with him over the last three years (-5.7, 21.8 and -11.4, respectively). Not a bad signing by any means.

    Talent En Route:
    Stephen Strasburg (RHP) - I'm not going to try to say anything about Strasburg that hasn't been said already. The guy is a stud. The biggest question seems to be when he'll join the big club, as it appears he'll start the year in Double-A. There are also questions about his mechanics and his college workload, but if he's able to stay healthy the sky is the limit.

    Derek Norris (C) - Only 21 years old, Norris has already shown that he has plenty of value in his bat. In a full season at High-A last year, he raked to the tune of .289/.413/.513 with 23 HR. Like many power hitters, he strikes out a lot at 26.5% of the time, but appears to working on developing a more patient approach, in addition to honing his defensive skills. He might be a long way off, but could be a contributor in a few years.

    Overall, the Nats' farm system is far from stocked with future talent, ranking only 23rd according to Keith Law.

    2011 Free Agency and Salary Outlook:

    As it stands right now, the Nats' opening day payroll will be right around $60MM, with a bulk of that going to Adam Dunn ($12MM) and Cristian Guzman ($8MM), both of whom will become free agents in 2011. Should either of them be resigned? I have to imagine not re-signing Guzman is somewhat of a no-brainer (he's getting older, plays sub-par defense, and for a top-of-the-order hitter, almost NEVER walks). Dunn will take more thought. He's an offensive force, having clubbed 38 HR last year while posting an OBP of .398, but his defense is historically atrocious, even when they try to "hide" him at first base. I have to imagine they'll try to re-sign him as the only real offensive threat in the order outside of Ryan Zimmerman, but the fact is that Dunn should be a DH in the AL. Regarding Zimmerman, he still has 4 years left on his 5-year, $45MM deal (money well spent), but there are also a large number of pending free agents in 2012, including the bulk of the players signed over the off-season. I think Washington would be wise to join teams like Cleveland in focusing on re-stocking the farm system and refraining from expensive veteran contracts, but outside of Marquis and Rodriguez (which, while not ideal, really aren't that bad), there aren't any horrendously expensive or risky contracts dragging them down at the moment.

    The Future of the Nationals:

    Over the next few years, the success of the Nationals outside of the consistency of Dunn and Zimmerman hinges on an interesting mix of fairly solid but overpaid veterans (Marquis, Guzman), pretty crappy and overpaid veterans (Rodriguez), low-risk but potentially rewarding investments (Wang, Kennedy) and elite prospects (Strasburg and....Bryce Harper?). Pitching, both starters and relievers, has been the weakness of this team; John Lannan has been the only consistent part of the rotation over the last few seasons but is in danger of serious regression from his 3.88 ERA in '09, particularly in light of his 3.88 K/9. They'll need Wang to bounce back, Strasburg to get the bigs sooner rather than later, and Capps to pitch like his 2008 self if they hope to have any chance of contending. I don't see it happening this year, but if they commit to developing the farm system and are able to free up money for a few impact free agents, they could enter the realm of respectability.

    Monday, March 22, 2010

    2010 Year In Preview: Atlanta Braves

    As the season draws nigh, our march towards previewing every major league team continues.  Today, we look at the Atlanta Braves, the "always the bridesmaid, never the bride" team of the 1990s.  They're one of my favorite National League teams, and I thought they had a real chance at winning the NL East in 2009.  Can they improve in 2010?  Let's get to it. 

    2009 Record: 86-76, 3rd place in the NL East, 7GB of the Phillies, 6GB of the Wild Card.  Did you know that the Marlins came in second last year?  I did not know that until right now.  Odd. 

    Key Additions: Billy Wagner (signed as a FA for 1 yr, 7M), Takashi Saito (signed as FA for 1 yr, 3.2M), Melky Cabrera (trade with Yankees), LHP Mike Dunn (trade with Yankees), 1B Troy Glaus (signed as FA for 1 yr, $1.75M), UTIL and good-luck charm Eric Hinske (signed as FA), RHP Jesse Chavez (trade from Rays), RHP Scott Proctor (signed as MiL FA). 

    Key Departures: RHP Javier Vazquez (trade with Yankees), LHP Boone Logan (trade with Yankees), LHP Mike Gonzalez (free agent, signed with Orioles), RHP Rafael Soriano (traded to Rays), 1B Adam LaRoche (free agent, signed with Diamondbacks), 2B Kelly Johnson (non-tendered, signed with Diamondbacks) , RF Ryan Church (non-tendered, signed with Pirates), OF Brandon Jones (claimed off waivers by Pirates), RHP Jorge Campillo (released, signed minor league deal with Royals), RHP Buddy Carlyle (released, signed with Japanese team), LF Garret Anderson (free agent, signed minor league deal with Dodgers), INF/OF Greg Norton (free agent, unsigned), RHP Vladimir Nunez (free agent, unsigned).

    Snap, yo.  That's a lot of turnover.  The biggest move of the offseason for the Braves has to be the trade of Javier Vazquez to the Yankees.  In this trade, the Braves sent Vazquez and LHP Boone Logan to the Yankees in exchange for Melky Cabrera, LHP Mike Dunn, RHP Arodys Vizcaino and $500,000 in cash.  I'll profile Vizcaino below in the Talent En Route section.  This trade was about Atlanta clearing some payroll for the ostensible purpose of signing a power bat.  As you can see, they never quite got around to doing that. 

    Honestly, the Braves continue to baffle me.  Javier Vazquez was the second-best pitcher in the National League last year, with apologies to Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright.  He had a reasonable contract at $11M in 2010, and he will be a Type A free agent at the end of the year.  They traded him for one good prospect and a bunch of spare parts.  Then they signed Tim Hudson, who is coming off TJ surgery, to a three year, 28M extension.  From the Braves perspective, I would much rather have seen them deal Derek Lowe, who is signed to a horrific deal, Kenshin Kawakami (2nd year of a 3yr, 21M deal) or simply decline the club option they had on Hudson.  From what I understood, they couldn't find any takers on Lowe and seem to be stuck with him for the foreseeable future. But had they declined the option on Hudson, their rotation would have been fantastic in 2010: Vazquez, Hanson, Jurrjens, Lowe and Kawakami.  

    So, I don't get it, and it's frustrating.  But this frustration is mitigated by the force that is Jason Heyward.  Without further ado: 

    Talent En Route

    Jason Heyward.  If you haven't heard of him, you've been hiding under a rock for the past few months, so let me update you on the news: healthcare blah blah blah, Tiger Woods sent a bunch of nasty sexts, and Parks and Rec is the best show on TV right now. 

    Heyward was ranked the #2 prospect in baseball by Baseball Prospectus, and some outlets have him as #1, ahead of Strasburg.  Whether he's 1 or 2 is immaterial; what's important is that we all step back and marvel at the greatness of Jason.  

    Drafted straight out of high school with the 14th pick of the 1st round, Heyward put up a .854 OPS as an 18 year old in his first full season of professional ball at Low A and High A, showing the ability to hit for average and power while swiping 15 bags in 120 games. The following year, 2009, Heyward began the year in High A and earned a Double A callup midseason after posting a .296/.369/.519 line with 10 HR and 4 SB in 49 games.  Heyward apparently found Double A more to his liking, though, putting up a punishing .352/.446/.611 line with 13 homers and 5 SB in 47 games.  That boy be crazy. 

    Braves fans and experts everywhere know that Heyward is special.  Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus lists his perfect world projection as a "game changing superstar".  He has the ability to hit for average, to take walks and get on base, and to absolutely crush the ball when he wants.  He has good speed, and a plus-plus arm.  Heyward is the full package. 

    Heyward spent a ton of time in big league camp this year, which has some Braves fans clamoring for his inclusion on the major league roster at the outset of the season.  Honestly, it makes sense for the Braves to keep him in Triple A for the start of the year, minimizing his service time and maximizing the amount of time they'll have him as a cost-controlled talent.  Players like Heyward don't come around very often, and when they do clubs should hang on for dear life.  Regardless of what Atlanta decides, and I think they'll send him to AAA, we'll see Heyward in the bigs this year. 

    Now it's time for me to hate on Baseball Prospectus for a moment.  As I noted above, Arodys Vizcaino was the major trade chip in the Vazquez deal with the Yankees.  Vizcaino was a favorite of mine when he was on the Yankees.  He was a raw product out of the Dominican Republic, and put up very good numbers in his first full year of work in Low A ball, albeit in a small sample of 42 innings.    

    Yet, when Vizcaino was a Yankee, Goldstein ranked him a 4-star prospect on 12/22/09. Jesus Montero topped NYY's list with a 5 star ranking.  Then, a mere four weeks later though, after his trade to Atlanta, Goldstein ranked him a 5 star prospect, right next to 5 star Jason Heyward.  Additionally, Goldstein ranked Vizcaino the top pitching prospect in the Yankees' system, but put him behind Julio Teheran in Atlanta.  So, I'm a bit confused.  If Heyward is #2 on the top 101 list and Montero is #5, and if Vizcaino is the best pitching prospect for NY but only the second best for ATL, shouldn't he be, at very least, a 5-star in both?  Or, if "stars" are contingent upon organizational depth, wouldn't it make more sense to rate Vizcaino as a 5 star in NY's system, and a 4 star in Atlanta? Doing it the way Goldstein has done it, though, makes it look like Vizcaino became a better and more valuable prospect simply by virtue of getting traded to the Braves. 

    That's the end of the rant on Vizcaino, but I think it's clear that Goldstein and BP need to come up with a better methodology for this arbitrary "star" ranking system.  Either make the number of 5 star rankings in the MLB static, or make them vary team-by-team and based on depth, or...something.  Seeing it fluctuate like this, seemingly with no reason, makes it hard to trust the reliability of the system.  

    2011 Salary and Free Agency Outlook
    I noticed that the projected 2010 payroll for the Braves is somewhere in the $80-85M range, which is noticeably lower than the payroll in 2009 and 2008 ($96M and $102M, respectively).  I asked Peter Hjort of Capitol Avenue Club whether it was reasonable to expect 2010 payroll to sit at around $85M, which is markedly below previous levels, and this was his response: 

    The short version: 2009's payroll will be in the $85-90 million range and they should have at least a little bit of financial flexibility to add a piece mid season if needed
    We may have more from Peter on Thursday about the Braves payroll, and if so, I'll write up another piece about the Braves and free agency then.  Suffice it to say for now that the Braves have managed to cut some salary and are positioned well for 2011.  They become even more flexible if one Chipper Jones retires, as he's scheduled to make $13M apiece in 2011 and 2012.  If that happens, their payroll (not including arbitration raises) drops to $43M. Budgeting around $7M in arbitration raises to Jair Jurrjens, Martin Prado, Yunel Escobar, Melky Cabrera and Matt Diaz, and the Braves payroll should be somewhere around $65M with Jones or $50M without him.  This could mean that the Braves become major players in free agency in 2011.

    All five current members of their rotation are under contract for 2011, so I don't expect them to pursue a starter.  Even if Lowe is dealt or Kawakami or Hudson go down with injury again, the Braves have Kris Medlen and Jo-Jo Reyes waiting in the wings.  The Braves should also be set with their catcher (McCann), SS (Escobar), CF (McLouth) and RF (Heyward) in 2011.  Possible areas of improvement include LF, 3B (if Jones retires) and 1B.

    Here's a wild idea: how about swinging a midseason trade for Lance Berkman?  As I noted in my 2010 Year in Preview: Houston Astros, the Astros may make Berkman available if (when) they fall out of contention and decide to cut costs and rebuild.  Assuming the Astros dealt him at the deadline, Atlanta would be on the hook for about $7M of his contract in 2010, and then could decide whether to keep him for 2011 for $15M or decline his option and see him leave via free agency.  Berkman does have a no trade clause, which complicates the picture a great deal.  He might want an extension, or he might want Atlanta to guarantee that they'll accept, or decline (I suppose) his option.  It's a long shot, but I love the idea for both teams, especially if Jones retires after 2010.  As an FYI, CHONE projects Berkman to a .277/.378/.500 line in 2010 with 27 HR.  This would be the highest OPS of anyone on the Braves.

    The Future of the Braves
    As always, I'm bullish on the Braves.  I'm absolutely crazy about their homegrown talent, and I think they've managed to position themselves well for free agency in 2011.  I wish they had dealt Lowe or Kawakami instead of Vazquez, but they'll still field a competitive team in 2010, one that should compete for the second spot in the division and be a wild card contender.  I thought 2009 was the year of the Braves in the NL East, and while I won't make the same prediction in 2010, I will say that most of the pieces are there for the Braves to continue to be a threat in the National League.  Which is more than I can say for the Cubs.