The Tampa Bay Rays surprised us in 2008. Most of us knew that they had plenty of talent in the pipeline, and that in the next few years it would all come together to make them contenders. Few thought that would happen last year. Yet they ended the season with the second best record in the AL and beat out the Red Sox (and the Yankees) for the AL East title. It seems we get a bit of a surprise every year, so Tom Verducci wonders who it will be in 2009.

Verducci begins by discussing the criteria of a breakout team. First and foremost, they had to have losing record the previous year. He notes that 29 of 112 playoff teams since 1995 have had a losing record the previous year. Not only that, but 11 of the last 13 to do it had a record lower than their Pythagorean record. Run prevention is also more important than run production for these teams. Verducci notes that the 2007 Rays scored more runs than the 2008 Rays. In fact, no turnaround team this decade has done so without improving their run prevention from the previous year. Finally, teams with 98 or more losses are basically beyond hope, as the ’99 Diamondbacks have the biggest turnaround, having lost 97 games in 1998 before making the playoffs in ’99.

Finally, onto his picks.

Detroit Tigers. Really? Didn’t Verducci just talk about the value of run prevention? I suppose it’s tough to do worse than they did last year in that department, as they were third worst in the AL, posting a 4.90 team ERA. True, they could see a rebound from Verlander, which would help. On the other hand, their best starter in 2008 was a 26-year-old who doesn’t exactly have a stellar minor league record. Their bullpen is still a huge question mark, too. So they’ll need a bounceback from Verlander, an improbable repeat from Galarraga, a complete comeback from Dontrelle Willis, a solid showing when Jeremy Bonderman shows up, and some solid work out of Nate “6.35 ERA and they let me pitch 168.2 innings” Robertson. I’m not placing any bets here.

Braves. Great choice. They’ve added two quality pitchers in Javy Vazquez and Derek Lowe, plus Japanese import Kenshin Kawakami. They’ve got some arms on the farm, too, in case something goes wrong with their 2008 ace Jair Jurrjens, or if Kawakami ends up being spelled I-G-A-W-A. They could use some help with the bats, sure. As far as run prevention goes, they took definite steps to improving their 4.46 team ERA, which ranked 12th in the NL (though they were within 0.1 of being eighth).

A’s. This is a tough call. Their offense looks pretty set with the additions of Jason Giambi and Matt Holliday. The left side of their infield is still well below average unless Eric Chavez decides that he’s healthy and ready to hit, and even then they have a hole at shortstop with Bobby Crosby. On the run prevention side they’ll have a tough time improving on their 4.01 team ERA (5th in the AL). They’ve got a number of options should a starter fail, but there’s no big-time talent like Rich Harden or Dan Haren among them (at least that I’m aware, unless you’re counting Brett Anderson, who is only 21 years old). So why do I think they can be a turnaround team? Billy Beane obviously spent a lot of time tinkering and creating the team the way he wanted. He’s got a number of options. Plus, the Angels did nothing to improve their team this off-season.

Orioles. Seriously? At least ‘Ducc admits it’s virtually impossible: “Realistically, they have no shot at the playoffs, not in the AL East.” So why did he even bother to add them? Yes, they’re building a quality team and I certainly trust them in the hands of Andy MacPhail. They’re not going to be as bad in 2009 as they were in 2008, but the competition ahead is still stiff. It would take some major issues from the three top teams in the division for the Orioles to even have a chance. I do think, however, that they’ll put the Jays in the cellar this year (and considering the Jays had the best team ERA in the AL last year, that’s saying a lot for the competition in the AL East).

A surprise team doesn’t have to be a winner, though. In 2007 we saw the Chicago White Sox go 72-90 after having the inverse record in 2006 and winning the World Series in 2005. In 2008 that was the Detroit Tigers, who made it to the Series in 2006 and finished with an 88-74 record in 2007. They had an inverse of their 2007 record in 2008. So who are my fall-off-a-cliff candidates for 2009?

Mets. Yes, they improved one of their biggest 2008 weaknesses, the bullpen, in a big way. The rest of the team has issues, though. Their starting outfield is Fernando Tatis, Carlos Beltran, and Ryan Church. That’s not bad, but it also contains two guys who didn’t get to 350 at bats last year. That means Nick Evans will get some time out there, and he’s anything but a sure thing. They’ll need another big year from Carlos Delgado, and at 37 years old that’s a big question. In the rotation they have Santana, which is a force you cannot deny. Beyond that they have a guy who walked 105 hitters last year (and who was league average in overall performance), a guy who saw a 48-inning increase over his previous year, a guy coming off rotator cuff surgery, and Tim Redding. There’s potential for a fall there, especially in the NL East.

White Sox. They have so many questions. Who plays center, and can he be league average? Can Alexei Ramirez post a league-average OBP (and can he not get caught in 9 or 22 steal attempts?), can Konerko have a full, quality year as he did in 2007? Can Josh Fields handle third? Can one of their prospects handle second? Can Bartolo Colon hold up over the course of the season? Can the Sox find a useful fifth starter from their internal options? Was 2008 Gavin Floyd for real? I’m not saying these will all go wrong for them, but I think they’re deep questions that could lead to a team with some serious flaws.

Dodgers. If they bring back Manny, I suppose the story changes. However, if he walks they might have some problems in the West. Not that their peers have improved substantially. But the Rockies and Giants have decent-looking teams, as do the Diamondbacks. In any case, an infield of Casey Blake, Rafael Furcal, James Loney, and Blake DeWitt doesn’t sound too inspiring, especially when you start to think about injury issues. They’ll also be heavily reliant on youngsters in their rotation, and a repeat performance by Hiroki Kuroda.

Brewers. A 90-win team in 2008 likely won’t be in 2009. We know of their losses this off-season, and it was all on the run-prevention end. If they get Sheets back and he’s healthy they’ll have a shot in the central, or at least at the Wild Card. Absent that, though, they’re looking at Yovani Gallardo as their ace, followed by Jeff Suppan, David Bush, and Manny Parra. Yeah, Sheets would help a lot.

Categories : Analysis
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This is a profile of Yankees relief pitching prospect Mark Melancon. To find out the latest news on Melancon click here.

Mark Melancon | RHP

Background
Melancon was born in Wheat Ridge, CO and grew up in nearby Golden, just outside of Denver. He attended Golden High School, where he lettered all four years in baseball and basketball and three times in football. He helped capture the National Championship in baseball, winning the clinching game after doubling off Ian Kennedy earlier in the double elimination tournament. Melancon was named to the All-State Team twice in his career (as well as twice in football and once in basketball) and graduated as a member of the National Honors Society.

Despite being rated the third best prospect in the state by Baseball America, Melancon was not a major prospect for the 2003 Draft. The Dodgers grabbed him the 30th round, adding him to a haul that included Chad Billingsley, Matt Kemp, Russ Martin and Andy LaRoche. Melancon didn’t sign, instead following through on his commitment to The University of Arizona.

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Categories : Prospect Profiles
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  • Yanks trade Wright for minor leaguer
    By

    Via Sam Borden, the Yanks have acquired minor leaguer Eric Fryer from the Brewers in exchange for Chase Wright. Fryer was the Brewers’ 10th round pick in 2007 out of Ohio State, and last year hit .335-.407-.506 for Low-A West Virginia while spending most of his time in left field. He didn’t make the Brewers’ top 30 prospects in the 2009 Prospect Handbook. When Wright was designated for assignment to make room for Andy Pettitte on the 40 man roster last week, the Yanks had ten days to trade the lefty before exposing him to waivers. Teams don’t have much leverage when trying to trade DFA’ed players, so this is the typical return you can expect. · (134) ·

The Yanks may have won the winter, but it didn’t come cheap. Speaking at a charity event last night, Brian Cashman addressed the Yanks’ off-season spending and said that the team is done with the big contracts this year.

David Waldstein from The Times covered the Yankee GM’s appearance:

Cashman spoke for nearly two hours to a capacity audience of 164 people at the Jacob Burns Film Center on behalf of Ed Randall’s Bat for the Cure foundation to benefit prostate cancer research. He talked at length about George Steinbrenner, Manny Ramírez, the 2004 collapse against the Red Sox, the Yankees’ center-field situation and past failures regarding pitching and minor-league development…

Regarding the current Yankees, Cashman said he was looking only to sign some nonroster invitees to spring training, and did not expect any major moves between now and the beginning of camp. “I fully expect to go to spring training with what we’ve got,” he said. “And that’s a good thing.”

Cashman took a question about why he was not pursuing Ramírez, and he said that he simply could not afford it after spending so freely during the off-season. “People expect us to get in on Manny, but it’s not going to happen,” Cashman said. “We’re in the nonroster invitee mode…He’s a great player, but when you look at our payroll, we’re tapped.”

Considering how the Yanks’ payroll appears to be right around $192.5 million heading into Spring Training, Cash’s words ring true. This time, there will be no stealth, 11th-hour signing of Manny Ramirez, and as Scott Boras and the Dodgers square off, Manny is in danger of losing his negotiating leverage.

Meanwhile, with the Yanks committed to their current roster, that means the starting center fielder come Opening Day will be either Melky Cabrera or Brett Gardner. Cashman expects the two to fight it out and egg each other on this season. I’d be more comfortable with a better player anchoring that spot.

But that’s that. Now bring on Spring Training.

Categories : Hot Stove League
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  • Cashman: “We’ve won the winter …”
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    “… but that doesn’t mean you’re going to win the summer when it counts.” That quote came from this Don Amore article, which follows a breakfast Brian Cashman recently had with Connecticut Chamber of Commerce. Cash spoke primarily about the team’s offseason while avoiding Joe Torre’s book like the plague (can you blame him?). The most interesting point he touched on were the adjustment periods that CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett and Mark Teixeira would need now that they’re coming to New York, and how Joe Girardi will be better after all the experience he gained last year. It’s a quick and interesting read, so make sure you check it out. (h/t Sam Borden) · (43) ·

2009 Payroll

Player Sal.
A-Rod $32
Sabathia $14*
Teixeira $20**
Jeter $20
Burnett $16.5
Mo $15
Jorge $13.1
Damon $13
Matsui $13
Swisher $5.3
Wang $5
Marte $3.75
Nady $6.55
Cano $6
Molina $1
Bruney $1.25
Melky $1.4
Pettitte $5.5
Total $192.35


* $9 million bonus
** $5 million bonus

Depending on how exactly the Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia signing bonuses count against the payroll, that $192.35 million could turn into $206.35 million. That covers 18 of 25 players, leaving seven roster spots to players who will presumably make under $500,000 each. Even factoring in the $500K, that means another $3.5 million, bringing payroll to $209.85, or right in line with 2008.

That would seem to be the Opening Day figure, though the Yankees do owe a bit more money elsewhere. For starters, they need to pay a certain minimum to all players on the 40-man roster, though that’s won’t bump up the value too much. There’s also the million or so owed to Andrew Brackman, and the $4 million owed to Kei Igawa. Plus, if a player hits the Major League disabled list, they’ll call up another player, who will get a prorated portion of the league minimum salary.

We can start to form a better picture of the Yankees salary situation into the future as well.

Yankees Future Payroll w/ Tex

  2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017
A-Rod 32 32 31 29 28 25 21 20 20
Tex 25 20 22.5 22.5 22.5 22.5 22.5 22.5  
Sabathia 23 23 23 23** 23** 23** 23**    
Burnett 16.5 16.5 16.5 16.5 16.5        
Cano 6 9 10 14* 15*        
Marte 3.75 4 4 4*          
Swish 5.3 6.75 9 10.25*          
Jorge 13.1 13.1 13.1            
Jeter 20 21              
Mo 15 15              
Damon 13                
Matsui 13                
Molina 1                
Wang 5                
Nady 6.55                
Melky 1.4                
Burney 1.25                
~Total 206.35 160.35 129.1 119.25 105 70.5 66.5 42.5 20


* team option
** can opt out of contract

Matt Holliday’s name has been connected with the Yankees by many fans (and his own father). If he puts up a good season in Oakland he’ll be one of the premier names in the 2010 free agent class. With Scott Boras as his agent you know he’ll do just fine on the market. Figure, for the sake of argument, that the Yanks land him on a five-year, $85 million deal. That would bring the Yanks 2010 payroll to $177.35 for just 11 players. In 2011 that would be $146 million for nine players. Things could clear up in 2012, when CC could opt out and the Yankees hold options on Cano, Marte, and Swisher. However, that’s still $85 million on four players.

With such big numbers prevent the Yankees from adding another long-term contract or two? I don’t think so. It will certainly make them think twice, but as with Teixeira, if a player they desire falls into their price range, they’re going to make the move. Their best weapon is capital. They might as well use it when they can, so long as they use it wisely.

Bonus section:

A couple of links in my browser that don’t really even fit in an aside:

At the LA Times, Jon Weisman and his commenters ponder an inside-the-park home run derby. I’d watch it for sure.

Eddie at Detroit Tiger Tales discusses what went wrong with his predictions for the Elias rankings. Hopefully this leads to an even more accurate projection after the 2009 season.

Categories : Front Office
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Chien-Ming Wang & Jorge PosadaPitchers and catchers are just eleven short days away, but two of the Yanks’ most important pieces are already down in Tampa getting their workout on. Anthony McCarron has the word:

Anyway, I am down here for a little pre-spring training visit and saw several Yankees hard at work, including Jorge Posada and Chien-Ming Wang. Posada has been showing up most days since early December to get his surgically-repaired shoulder ready for the season and says he can feel great progress and there’s no pain. He made 140 throws during a workout Monday and says he’ll increase the intensity Wednesday. He throws every other day and while he won’t be ready to catch in spring training until at least March 6, he said, he will be ready for opening day.

After a light workout in the batting cage, Posada went through a series of strenuous exercises in the weight room and did some agility drills.

[snip]

As for Wang, he threw his first pre-spring training bullpen, going for seven minutes and 27 pitches. Decked out in a dark blue shorts and a gray Yankees’ T-shirt pulled over a long-sleeve T-shirt, he threw only fastballs under a blue sky. Pitching coach Dave Eiland was among those who watched, along with pitching guru Billy Connors.

Wang, whose 2008 season was wrecked by foot injuries, said afterward, “Everything feels fine. It’s just normal.” Wang had gotten a clean bill of health in October from Yankee doctors, even throwing a few bullpens then. When he went home to Taiwan during the winter, he did a lot of fitness work on his feet, he said.

Well, of course Posada thinks he’ll be ready for Opening Day, anyone could have told you that. The real issue is whether or not the doctors say he’s ready. It’s very encouraging that he’s so far along in his rehab and hasn’t suffered any setbacks, but until he gets back out there in game action we just won’t know. Same goes for Wang.

Anyway here’s your open thread for the night. Rangers great Adam Graves is having his #9 jersey retired tonight at the Garden. The ceremony started at 6:30, but you can still flip over and catch the bulk of it. Hot shot prospect Artem Anisimov will also be making his NHL debut for the Blueshirts tonight, think of it as the hockey equivalent of Phil Hughes‘ first start. The Nets are hosting the Bucks, and the Knicks won’t give up 61 points to one player tonight because they’re off. The Caribbean Series (Mexico vs Venezuela) is on MLB Network at 9pm. Hooray for live baseball. Anything topic’s fair game here, just be cool.

Photo Credit: Bill Kostroun, Associated Press

Categories : Open Thread
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  • Costas joins MLB Network
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    Maury Brown at The Biz of Baseball has the news. The award winning sportscaster will join the network immediately, and host special original programming and head back to the broadcast booth for select games. Costas obviously is great addition to the network, but let’s just hope they don’t force him down our throats. Costas is good in moderation, but we don’t need to see his holier than thou schpeel every night. · (12) ·

ecksteinThis is the time of year when we fans have nothing to complain about except the bench. With the additions of CC Sabathia & AJ Burnett, as well as the return of Andy Pettitte, the Yanks’ starting rotation is as set as can be in February. Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy and Al Aceves provide some Triple-A depth for spot starts. The bullpen is chock full of options, and the additions of Mark Teixeira and Nick Swisher fortify the offense. Just about the only part of the team that can use some real improvement is the bench corps.

One problem with being the Yankees is that it can be tough to get those borderline everyday/bench players to come to the Bronx because of a lack of opportunity. Take David Eckstein for example. The little scrapper would have been a solid pickup as a backup middle infielder, providing pesky at-bats of the bench while being capable of playing everyday should Derek Jeter or Robbie Cano hit the DL for a few weeks, but why would he pass up a chance to start and play everyday for the Padres for the opportunity to ride the pine for the Yanks? It just makes sense for him to head to San Diego.

Because of this, the only real way the Yanks can acquire quality players for the bench is by trading for them. Just look at the 1996 team’s bench: Charlie Hayes and Cecil Fielder were both acquired in mid-season trades – Hayes from the Pirates for a PTBNL, Fielder for the disgruntled Ruben Sierra and 1993 first rounder Matt Drews, who was in the process of flaming out because of extreme control issues. Both Hayes and Fielder were available because of unfavorable contract situations, so why can’t the Yanks work a similar scheme thirteen years later?

After the jump is a few potential mid-season trade targets that fit the bill for that oh so terrible bench.

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Categories : Hot Stove League
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