Wednesday, November 16, 2011

ATLANTA BRAVES: Major Needs, Minor Seeds

Chipper Jones still anchors an iffy Braves lineup

The Atlanta Braves were among baseball's best teams before back-breaking injuries to a top-notch pitching staff.  Aces Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens missed the final months of the season and a Braves team with amazing potential endured an epic collapse.  

Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, Dan Uggla and Michael Bourn anchor a lineup that sputtered in 2011.  Pitching once again looks like the Braves strength, but this creates even more off-season needs, as GM Frank Wren decides which arms are expendable.  

As a Braves fan, I'll admit that this edition of Major Needs, Minor Seeds holds a special place in my heart.  The Braves aren't far from building a serious contender, but the pieces must be adjusted properly.

This much is clear:
1.) Derek Lowe is gone (traded to Cleveland)
2.) Nate McLouth is gone (finally)
3.) Alex Gonzalez is a free agent, so the Braves need a shortstop

Let's get to the nitty gritty.

Gonzalez disappointed at the plate
  • Replace Alex Gonzalez 
This is the only immediate need that the Braves must address.  Alex Gonzalez is good for the occasional clutch hit, but his low OBP (.270) and overrated glove leave something to be desired.

The shortstop market isn't as deep as it seems this off-season, especially after Clint Barmes signed with the Pirates.  Jose Reyes will cost too much, Jimmy Rollins isn't worth what he's asking for, and everybody else is a big step down.

My hope?  Atlanta targets former Brave Rafael Furcal, who offers solid defense and a potentially live bat for a cheap two-year deal.

My best guess?  The Braves resign Gonzalez and hope he returns to his Toronto Blue Jays 2010 form.
  • Acquire a big bat, by any means necessary
Since spending big on a free agent shortstop is unlikely, the Braves must upgrade through trade.  Two names - Jair Jurrjens and Martin Prado - have been "floated" out to potential trade partners, but the Braves are reportedly seeking a major return for either.  
Trade Jurrjens for the right bat

Jurrjens, who loses some of his trade value after a knee injury shut him down, still has plenty to offer a pitching-starved contender.  His sub-2.00 ERA at the All-Star break made him a Cy Young contender, and he's still just 25 years old.  

The Braves pitching staff is as deep as any in baseball and trading Jurrjens makes sense.  Don't expect to see Atlanta pull the trigger unless they can acquire an impact bat.
  • Keep Martin Prado if at all possible
Even if Atlanta swings a deal for help in the outfield, Martin Prado still holds enormous value in Atlanta.  Chipper Jones is guaranteed to miss at least 30 games in 2012.  Prado's worth as a utility super-sub makes him a critical piece to this equation.  

Unless trading Prado is the only way to bring a star bat to Atlanta, I say keep him where he is.  
  • One solid righty in the pen
The Atlanta bullpen was the best in baseball into September.  But slow and steady wins the race, a lesson manager Freddy Gonzalez never learned.

The trifecta punch of O'Flaherty, Venters and Kimbrel wore down from an extreme workload in 2011, leaving the Braves just short of the Playoffs on the season's final day.  The lesson here is that the Braves need support for these arms, ideally in the form of a talented righty who can handle the late innings.

I vote for David Aardsma, the former Mariners closer who can be signed for cheap but has proven experience with games on the line.   


This is where covering the Braves gets fun.  One of baseball's best farm systems just keeps churning 'em out.  Pitching is the name of the game, but the Braves have plenty of everything when it comes to top-tier prospects.  At least two of these names should see playing time in Atlanta this year.

Julio Teheran could be an MLB ace in a few years
  • Julio Teheran (RHP) – Teheran kicked off 2011 as the top pitching prospect in baseball and lived up to the hype.  He went 15-3 with a 2.55 ERA in AAA, but was uninspiring over 19.2 IP in the majors (5.03 ERA).  He'll compete with Mike Minor for the fifth starter job and could start the season in the bullpen even if he comes up short. 
  • Randall Delgado (RHP) – Delgado impressed in seven big league starts (2.83 ERA), a heavier dose of action than most predicted for this exciting talent.  Delgado is still considered somewhat raw, but has front-of-the-rotation potential.  He has an outside chance of cracking the Braves bullpen to start 2012, but is more likely to anchor the Gwinnett Braves (AAA) rotation.
  • Jairo Asencio (RHP) - Asencio has the make-up and talent of a future closer, but he sure didn’t show it in a call-up to the bigs.  Asencio was shaky in six MLB relief appearances, but dominated (1.81 ERA) in AAA.  He’ll get his chance in 2012 at some point.
  • Tyler Pastornicky (SS) – Shame that the Braves need a shortstop this year, because Pastonicky is still a year away.  He’s got real-deal potential though, hitting .365 in a brief AAA stint.  He’s supposedly the SS of the future, though Curacao native Andrelton Simmons might be the best SS in the system. 
  • Mauro Gomez & Ernesto Mejia (1B) – We’re grouping these two together because this list could go on for a while.  Gomez tore up AAA pitching (.304, 24 HR) while Mejia excelled in AA (.299, 26 HR).  Both are blocked by rookie of the year runner-up Freddie Freeman, but make for interesting trade bait.
  • Honorable Mentions:  Arodys Vizcaino (RHP), Todd Redmond (RHP), Christian Bethancourt (C), J.J. Hoover (RHP)

Monday, November 14, 2011

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES - Major Needs, Minor Seeds

Why is Jon Papelbon so stoked?  Because Philly just made him the richest closer in baseball.

Remember how good Tiger Woods was ten years ago?  It wasn't as much a matter of "who will win," but rather "by how many strokes?"

Roger Federer had the same thing going until that pesky Spaniard Rafael Nadal came along.

Sometimes, the underdog has his day and the favorite is dubbed "overrated."  

In short, it's not easy being the best. 

Such was life for the Philadelphia Phillies in 2011.  A franchise record 102 regular season wins wasn't nearly enough to satisfy the appetite of the Philly front office and a massive fan base.  An enormous payroll and a legendary pitching staff were supposed to take the Phils back to the promised land.  Guess baseball can't be simplified into projections and statistics after all.  

How about this for a statistic: $12.5 million per year over four years.  That's how Philadelphia opened up the off-season, handing the largest closer contract in history to Red Sox righty Jon Papelbon.  

My take?  

Big mistake.

  • Don't overspend on a closer...whoops, too late
First, rumor spread that GM Ruben Amaro had offered 2011 closer Ryan Madson 4 years/$44 million.  That quickly died down when the Phils officially forked over $50 million to Papelbon.  

Yes, the Phillies are a legitimate contender once again.  It makes sense to pursue a lock-it-down 9th inning guy so the Halladays and Lees in this rotation aren't sweating it after leaving with a 2-1 lead.  But is Papelbon worth it?  

The Jonathan Papelbon I see has already reached the peak of his potential.  He was an All-Star each of his first four seasons (06-09), then came out flat in 2010, posting a career-worst 3.90 ERA.  Last season was a bounce-back for Papelbon - he struck out a career-high 87 batters and lowered his ERA to 2.94.  

But he still wasn't the young, flame-throwing righty the Sox won a Series with in '07.  He proved it by blowing a save to the Orioles on the season's final day, costing the Red Sox a berth in the Playoffs.  

Some of baseball's most respected pundits believe no closer warrants a contract like the one Papelbon got.  The idea is that anybody can do what these guys just need two great pitches and some grooming.   I won't go that far, because the 8th inning and the 9th inning just aren't the same.  But for a team with a payroll over $130 million, couldn't the Phillies find a more affordable option?  Or an option that wouldn't cost them a first round draft pick (like Papelbon did)?

To be fair, I still believe Papelbon can be an effective MLB closer.  Problem is, there were probably a dozen other options out there for the Phils, many of which would have come at an affordable rate through trade. 
  • Instead, put that money into a lineup that needs help
If Ruben Amaro is so eager to throw money at free agents this Winter, why not focus on what really needs to addressed.  

SS Jimmy Rollins and OF Raul Ibanez are free agents.  The rest of the Phillies infield (1B Howard, 2B Utley, 3B Polanco) are injury liabilities.  This team needs at least three bats, and so far they've signed just one - veteran 1B Jim Thome (a nice move, by the way).  

First, let's look at SS.  J-Roll is reportedly seeking 4 years at $13 million per season.  Geez, what is wrong with these guys?  How did it come to this, that a veteran SS with at most 4 decent years left is entitled that kind of money?  But that's besides the point.

If the Phillies can afford it, it makes more sense to target Jose Reyes at SS.  They'll have to outbid the Miami Marlins, but Reyes for 5 years at around $17 million is a better deal than Rollins at 4 years and $13 million.  

Otherwise, the target will be either Rafael Furcal or Clint Barmes, both letdowns for a star-studded Phillies infield.  

The prime target to replace Raul Ibanez is Twins OF Michael Cuddyer, who could also back up Utley, Polanco and Howard on the infield.  Seems like a smart signing, particularly because Cuddy is extremely well-liked and a perfect veteran presence for a championship contender.  Keep in mind that OF John Mayberry impressed in limited AB's, and should contend for the final spot in the Phillies outfield along with overrated prospect Domonic Brown.

The Phils still have some spending room, even after an egregious closer contract.  You can bet this team will make some off-season headlines in the months ahead. 
  • The bullpen still needs some work
Ryan Madson isn't the only departing Phillies reliever this off-season.  He's joined by former closer Brad Lidge, who will have to be replaced.  Jose Contreras enjoyed a revival season when healthy, but can he and youngster Antonio Bastardo be counted on again?
The Phillies will likely add two steady arms to the pen this off-season.  Here are the options for all teams in need of some bullpen help, courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors:

Right-handed relievers
David Aardsma (29)
Jeremy Accardo (30)
Luis Ayala (34)
Danys Baez (34)
Miguel Batista (41)
Dave Bush (32)
Shawn Camp (36) - Type B
Todd Coffey (31)
Juan Cruz (31)
Octavio Dotel (38) - Type A
Chad Durbin (34)
Jeff Fulchino (32)
Juan Gutierrez (28)
LaTroy Hawkins (37)
Aaron Heilman (33)
Ryota Igarashi (33)
Jason Isringhausen (39)
Chris Jakubauskas (33)
Brad Lidge (35) - Type B
Scott Linebrink (35)
Mike MacDougal (35)
Guillermo Mota (38)
Pat Neshek (31)
Ramon Ortiz (39)
Vicente Padilla (34)
Tony Pena (30)
Chad Qualls (33)
Jon Rauch (33) - Type B
Fernando Rodney (35)
Adam Russell (29)
Takashi Saito (42) - Type A
Dan Wheeler (34) - Type B
Kerry Wood (35) - Type B
Jamey Wright (37)
Michael Wuertz (33)
Joel Zumaya (27)

Left-handed relievers
Mike Gonzalez (34)
John Grabow (33)
Damaso Marte (37)
Trever Miller (39)
Darren Oliver (41) - Type A
Arthur Rhodes (41) - Type B
J.C. Romero (36)
George Sherrill (35)
Brian Tallet (34)
  • Trade SP Joe Blanton already 
Seriously.  Why is he still in Philadelphia?  Now with just one year left on his contract, Blanton is an ideal acquisition for a team in search of a fourth or fifth starter.  The Phillies would likely swallow some of his $8.5 million for 2012, and they have almost no reason to keep him.  If Blanton can return help on the infield, a solid bullpen arm, or even a couple nice prospects...he's worth trading.   


Teams like the Phillies are naturally less reliant on the Minor League pipeline.  They made that clear when they shipped off their two best prospects (1B Jonathan Singleton and SP Jared Cosart) to Houston for Hunter Pence.  

But to sustain a mighty franchise, a GM must continue to develop his farm system to supplement free agent acquisitions.  The Phillies still have a pretty nice group coming up (particularly in the pitching department), though few will see Major League action in 2012.
  • Michael Shwimer (RHP ) - This 6-8, 240-pound reliever dominated the AAA ranks (9-1, 1.85 ERA), striking out more than a batter per inning.  Like SP Vance Worley and reliever Michael Stutes, Schwimer could earn a chance at big league action if he starts out hot.
Trevor May was third in MILB in K's (208)
  • Trevor May (RHP) - Posted seven games with double-digit strikeouts in 2011.  He'll start at AA Lehigh Valley with a couple other top pitching prospects.  This is why the Phillies really don't need Joe Blanton.
  • Julio Rodriguez (RHP) - Another High A stud (16-7, 2.76 ERA) who improved as the season went on.  Outside of strikeouts, he actually outperformed May.  
  • Austin Hyatt (RHP) - Seems underrated considering his stellar work in AA this past season (12-6, 171 K's).  Hyatt projects more as a high-strikeout reliever, a commodity always in demand.
  • Freddy Galvis (SS) - Named the Phillies top hitting prospect this season, Galvis climbed up to AAA with solid all-around production.  The enthusiasm here is a bit premature - Galvis' numbers weren't explosive by any means, but he's only 22 and is reportedly chock full of potential.  He's not ready to take over at SS for the Phils yet. 
  • Honorable Mention - Jesse Biddle (LHP), Jon Pettibone (RHP), Justin de Fratus (RHP)


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

CINCINNATI REDS - Major Needs, Minor Seeds

Francisco Cordero, second among active pitchers in saves (327), is a free agent.
Which teams were baseball's biggest disappointments in 2011?

Certainly the Red Sox and Braves, who pulled the ultimate choke in the season's waning days, are in the running.

The defending champion Giants were a letdown but only because their life blood was spilled the day catcher Buster Posey went down.

I'm left with three teams, all Midwest staples with fantastic fan bases and plenty of wasted potential:  The Minnesota Twins (63-99), Chicago White Sox (79-83), and Cincinatti Reds (79-83).

Today, we'll focus on the Reds' most prominent questions - and the answers to those questions - as we begin the 2011 off-season.

  • Bang for your buck
Word has it the Reds and GM Walt Jocketty don't have much to spend this off-season, especially after exercising Brandon Phillips' $12 million option.  There's still the matter of resigning Francisco Cordero (Aroldis Chapman isn't ready to close out games just yet), and the Reds have other needs in both the starting rotation and the bullpen.  Fortunately, the lineup is stacked with great young hitters under contract, so the attention can be focused elsewhere.  
  • You've got the prospects - use them
If you're strapped for cash, what's the best way to improve your team?  Trades!
And the Reds are more than capable of swinging a few thanks to a deep and advanced farm system.  Top young talents Chris Heisey (OF), Devin Mesoraco (C), Todd Frazier (IF), Paul Janish (IF), Dave Sappelt (OF), and Travis Wood (P) could all be available for the right return.  LF Yonder Alonso and SS Zach Cozart are simply too talented and valuable to trade, unless they return amazing value.

But this is a two-sided coin.  Those prospects that don't get swapped deserve a chance to prove themselves in a Major League lineup.  Heisey, Frazier and Wood have each earned spots, but there aren't enough to go around.  It's time for Walt Jocketty to upgrade his team by giving some of these guys up so others get a chance to start. 
  • Go get a top-tier pitcher
The Reds have one fringe ace in Johnny Cueto.  The rest of this rotation fits somewhere between a #4 and #5 starter.  That's not gonna cut it.

Since the Reds won't have money to contend for a C.J. Wilson or Mark Buehrle, they'll have to pick up an ace through trade.  MLB Trade Rumors - which covers this stuff like a blanket - suggests that Kenny Williams and the White Sox could be an ideal trading partner for Walt Jocketty.  The South Side Sox could hold a fire sale this season, which means pitching studs Gavin Floyd and John Danks could be had.  Other ideal targets for the Reds to consider:
When healthy, Jurrjens offers front-line potential (2011 First Half: 12-3, 1.87 ERA)
    • Jair Jurrjens (ATL) - The Braves have been "floating" him around, but would seek a massive return, more than what the White Sox want for Floyd or Danks.
    • Wandy Rodriguez (HOU) - He's been talked about for the past year as a trade candidate for a rebuilding Astros team.  
    • James Shields (TB) - Matt Moore needs a spot in that Tampa rotation, and Shields is apparently always on the block.
    • Wade Davis (TB) - Another trade possibility from the Rays, though he barely qualifies as a "potential ace."
    • Gio Gonzalez (OAK) - Billy Beane is reportedly looking to once again dump his best pitchers.  That probably means they're about to tank (a la Barry Zito).
    • Trevor Cahill (OAK) - Yep, even Cahill.
  • Go sign a couple vets - it is Veteran's Day after all
Any time I see an exciting young team on the cusp of competing, I look for the veterans.  Every team needs a few savvy vets to help guide the youngsters through the ups and downs.  Guys who have played on both first place and last place teams are invaluable resources to the star-struck newbies who are still adjusting to the bright lights of Major League ball.

The Reds have one excellent veteran already in 3B Scott Rolen.  I say they could use at least one more, ideally at C (Ivan Rodriguez is still out there) and perhaps at SS (maybe try Orlando Cabrera instead of Edgar Renteria this time?).  


This is where the Reds could really shine in 2012.  It's not worth dropping names like SS Zach Cozart or LF Yonder Alonso again here, since both saw ample playing time last season.  But a few other up-and-coming bats in the Reds farm system will get substantial playing time and could be impact players.    
  • Devin Mesoraco (C) - Ramon Hernandez is gone, so the door is half-way open for one of the top catching prospects in baseball.   Right behind Mesoraco, another top catcher in Yasmani Grandal is waiting for a chance.
  • Juan Francisco (3B) - Look out Scott Rolen, cause this 240-pound third base stud is knocking on the door.  Francisco's bat has MLB potential right now, but he might have to wait another year to earn the job.
    Billy Hamilton led pro baseball in steals in 2011
  • Billy Hamilton (SS) - Many presume that the fastest man in baseball will move to 2B and eventually replace Brandon Phillips.  I watched Hamilton in the Midwest League last season.  Not only did his bat come a long way, but he really is the best base-stealer in the game.  
  • Brad Boxberger (RHP) - This guy has excelled as a closer since his USC days.  He moved all the way up to AAA Louisville in 2011, and still locked it down as the 9th inning stopper.  Boxberger should join the Reds bullpen this year, and could be the closer before too long.
  • Honorable Mention - Dennis Phipps (.380 avg in AAA - wow), Josh Smith (LHP with nice stuff), Drew Hayes (dominant closer for A-ball Dayton).  

PITTSBURGH PIRATES - Major Needs, Minor Seeds

If the Pirates ever make the Playoffs, Andrew McCutchen will challenge for an MVP
As we continue in the National League Central - home of the champion Cardinals and runner-up Brewers - by assessing the off-season needs and seeds for the Pittsburgh Pirates, let's pause for a moment....and remember back to the 2011 All-Star break.  Do you recall which team sat atop the NL Central?

Not the mighty Cardinals.

Not the loaded Brewers.

The lowly Pittsburgh Pirates, expected to once again bottom-feed in one of baseball's feistiest divisions, held a half-game advantage on St. Louis and Milwaukee.  The team with the longest streak of losing seasons (now 19) in any of the four major pro sports was suddenly in the hunt for the playoffs.

The Pirates dismal second half dropped them back down to reality, but there's a silver lining for the Steel City.  A wave of exciting young talent enjoyed a first-half taste of competitive baseball, and can build on that in 2012.  The Pirates lose only one key player - pitcher Paul Maholm - to free agency, and could look to add talent this off-season.

  • Can't make the playoffs without pitching
Paul Maholm is headed to a big market, and the Pirates could use a top-notch starter to take his place.  The best option on the market (because he'll sign for one year and he'll come relatively cheap) is Javier Vazquez, but rumor has it he's planning to retire this off-season.  Then again, he said the same thing after his final season with the Yankees.

Other free agent names worth checking into:
    • Erik Bedard - Big potential, low risk (because he can be signed for 1-2 years).
    • Jeff Francis - Might fare better returning to the NL.  Still only 30 years old.
    • Aaron Cook - Interesting potential here if he can be pried away from Colorado.
    • Rich Harden - Another potential-heavy talent who can be signed for 1 year.
    • Jon Garland - Turns in a solid year more often than not.
    • Aaron Harang - Could be awful outside of San Diego, but still an option.
    Hernandez is by far the best C option

  • Bring in a veteran catcher
A team serious about winning must have a reliable option behind the plate.  No offense, but rookie Michael McKenry is not that guy.  The Pirates should make acquiring a catcher their top off-season priority because there aren't many to go around.  Ramon Hernandez is the best fit, but signing him would force the Pirates to surrender a second-round pick.

UPDATE:  As of Thursday (Nov. 10) morning, the Pirates have signed C Rod Barajas, who hit .230 with 16 HR in 2011 as a member of the LA Dodgers.  So much for Ramon Hernandez.

  • The time to win is now
It's time to stop building toward the future.  The future is now for a talented young Pirates team with the right manager at the helm in Clint Hurdle.  Usually a seller before and into every season, the Pirates should play buyer this off-season, like they did when they acquired Derek Lee and Ryan Ludwick at the deadline in 2011.  

Yes, the Buc's have plenty of young talent in the pitching department, but signing a legitimate top-tier starter isn't a bad idea.  Same goes for a solid bat, particularly at either shortstop (where rookie Chase D'Arnaud is expected to get the job) or first base (where Garrett Jones still needs to prove himself).  The biggest name free agents this off-season coincidentally play those positions.  I know it's a stretch for the Pirates to hand out a 5+ year, $100+ million deal, but Andrew McCutchen can't do this on his own.

Otherwise, the Pirates should target the following more affordable bats:
    • Derek Lee - Showed flashes of his old self in Pittsburgh.  Why not resign him for cheap?
    • Edgar Renteria - Could be a perfect SS solution as a stop-gap for D'Arnaud.
    • Orlando Cabrera - A proven winner who would add veteran leadership at SS
    • Carlos Pena - A bit pricier but could pack a punch.
    • Russel Branyan - Best power value in baseball if you can tolerate his .230 average. 

Will Gerrit Cole be the next to flop in the Pirates system?
The only advantage to 19 straight losing seasons?  High draft picks.  

The Pirates selected Gerrit Cole with the top pick in the 2011 draft.  The UCLA star should crack the bigs in 2013, which means other minor seeds planted in years past must step in 2012.  

But there's one big problem.

Many of the Pirates top picks in the past decade have been MAJOR flops, and the trend continued last season with exciting prospects Stetson Allie (P) and Tony Sanchez (C).  The Pirates still have plenty to be excited about, but it's worth tracking the development of these youngsters to be sure that the problem isn't with the development staff in the Pirates farm system.

For the sake of "MINOR SEEDS," we'll begin with guys that could actually have an impact on the big league club in 2012.

  • Starling Marte (CF) - Marte is a five-tool talent with Andrew McCutcheon potential.  The outfield is crowded in Pittsburgh, so perhaps Marte makes for good trade bait in exchange for help elsewhere.   
  • Kyle McPherson (RHP) - Pitching between High A and AA for the Pirates in 2011, McPherson exceeded expectations and forced himself into the spotlight.  He could start 2012 in AAA and should push for major league starts at some point in 2012.
  • Brock Holt (CF) - Another Pirate prospect with no home in the outfield, but it's a real shame because Holt eats, drinks and breathes baseball.  Since his Florida State days, Holt has been a five-tool stud and a Dustin Pedroia-type gamer.
  • Matt Hague (1B) - Put up nice numbers in AAA and has an outside chance of earning the vacant 1B job with the Bucs.  Hague has drawn comparisons to Lyle Overbay.
  • Jameson Taillon (RHP) - 2010's version of Gerrit Cole, this first-round stud has the stuff and makeup to be the Pirates ace by 2013.  It's unlikely he'll get a crack in 2012, but keep an eye out for him in September.
  • Honorable Mentions: Josh Bell (2nd round pick in 2011), Robbie Grossman (OF), Alex Dickerson (OF), Matt Curry (1B) 

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

MILWAUKEE BREWERS - Major Needs, Minor Seeds

Milwaukee's too small for these big guns
When the St. Louis Cardinals upset the Phillies in the NLDS, it sure seemed like the Brewers were bound for the World Series, didn't it?  One of baseball's most impressive teams in 2011 had a ticking clock hanging over its head all season.  With star first basemen Prince Fielder headed to free agency this off-season, the Brewers knew that last year was the year.

No one inside baseball's inner circle expect Fielder to be back in Wisconsin in 2012.  Teams like the Rangers, Orioles and Cubs will participate in the sweepstakes, while GM Doug Melvin is forced to find a new solution.  First base will be the Brewers priority this off-season, but it's not the only area that needs addressing.

  • Crowning a new prince 
If Prince Fielder bolts, the Brewers are left with a gaping hole in their lineup.  They still have at least one power bat in Ryan Braun, but what once was a fearsome lineup becomes a very average group. 

The Brewers will have money to spend this off-season, just not enough for Fielder.  With a hole at SS (Yuniesky Betancourt's option was declined), the Brewers might look to pursue top free agents Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins.  This doesn't address the power outage in the wake of Fielder's departure, but at least it adds talent to a deflated lineup.   
  • Who's on first? 
If Milwaukee bites on a top-tier free agent at shortstop, there's still the matter of finding a new first basemen.  GM Doug Melvin has discussed moving long-time prospect Matt Gamel to first (woof), but his lifetime .222 average leaves something to be desired.  Jim Thome (who couldn't play first every day anyway) was the first of the 1B free agents to find a home.  Here's a look at some candidates for the job.
    • Michael Cuddyer - Good luck, Brewers.  The Twins and Phillies are all over him.
    • Casey Kotchman - Still just 29 years old, and produced well in the Rays lineup.  Problem is, Joe Maddon probably wants him back.
    • Derek Lee - Old and oft-injured, Lee isn't what the Brewers are looking for.
    • Carlos Pena - An interesting option, since he could replicate some of Fielder's power production.
  • Fountain of Youth bullpen 
Ancient relievers Takashi Saito and LaTroy Hawkins did a fine job teaming up with K-Rod and John Axford in the Milwaukee bullpen last year.  Both are free agents and the Brewers sound interested.  But with K-Rod looking for a big contract elsewhere and the old guys just getting older, Milwaukee must address their bullpen.  

The starting rotation should be stacked again, which means any money devoted to pitching should go towards relief help.  The Brewers would be smart to sign at least three solid bullpen arms, but could also find help through their farm system.

Taylor Green is the Brewers best hitting prospect
Before the start of the 2011 season, the Brewers were ranked the worst minor league system in baseball, having shipped off their best prospects in off-season trades.  Top prospect Brett Lawrie (swapped for Shaun Marcum) is now a star rookie for the Blue Jays, and will be sorely missed.  But the Brewers are slowly building back the system, thanks in part to an excellent 2011 draft class.  We'll focus primarily on the more advanced prospects who could have an impact in 2012. 
  • Wily Peralta (RHP) - Signed at age 16, Peralta dazzled in five AAA starts, and could offer the Brewers bullpen help (or a fifth starter should someone get hurt) in 2012. 
  • Taylor Green (3B) - He can play second base as well, but Rickie Weeks has that locked up.  Green posted awesome AAA stats (.336 AVG, 22 HR), and could push Casey McGehee if he keeps it up. 
  • Mike Fiers (RHP) - Fiers earned a September call-up in 2011 thanks to a marvellous run in AAA.  He went 8-0 with a 1.11 ERA and struck out more than a batter per inning.  Shame there's no room in the Brewers starting rotation. 
  • Logan Schafer (CF) - Not to be confused with Astros CF Jordan Schafer, this young talent has great speed and an impressive bat.  He's Nyjer Morgan's heir apparent, but he's not ready for the spotlight just yet. 
  • Tyler Thornburg (RHP) - Thornburg draws Tim Lincecum comparisons because of his small stature and terrific stuff.  He's controlling minor league hitters at every level and could be the most legitimate pitching ace on this list.  Still, he won't crack the majors until September at the earliest. 
  • Honorable Mentions: Taylor Jungmann (RHP), Caleb Gindl (OF), Scooter Gennett (2B)

      Friday, November 4, 2011

      HOUSTON ASTROS - Major Needs, Minor Seeds

      The face of the Astros organization now plays for the Phillies.

      For two years running, the Astros have been Major League Baseball's shopping center.  Everything is for sale at the right price.  Even the club's two best players, outfielders Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn, now call the National League's Eastern Division home.

      A year earlier, this once proud NL Central contender dumped franchise legends Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman.  Heck, the team itself is for sale...rumor has it the 'Stros should change hands within the next two weeks after owner Drayton McLane shook hands with Texas oil mogul Jim Crane.

      Then there's this business about Houston jumping to the American League.

      Chaos and upheaval are the buzz words for this identity-starved franchise.  Like most teams in this situation, the "Major Needs" take a backseat to the "Minor Seeds."  In other words, you won't see the Astros go after big name free agents this offseason.  Instead you'll see them rely on a farm system chock full of potential.

      • Bring in Pudge
      Ivan Rodriguez is 40 years old, guaranteed for the Hall of Fame, and probably ready to hang 'em up.  But if any team should go after the veteran backstop, it's the Astros.  

      When you're rebuilding with a young roster and an inexperienced pitching staff, you want a guy behind the plate that knows the game cold.  Pudge has been there, done that.  And he's done it plenty in the Lone Star State, for years with the Rangers and for part of 2009 with these very Astros.  In fact, I-Rod's last productive stint at the plate came in a half-season with Houston back in '09, when he hit over .250 with decent pop (8 HR).  No, he won't win a Gold Glove or start more than two out of three games.  But Ivan Rodriguez would be an excellent veteran presence for a group whose average age might be 25.  
      • Consider signing a cornerstone
      New owner, new Division, new roster.  What's supposed to bring Houstonites to the ballpark?  Why invest yourself in this team?  

      Baseball is also a business, and if Jim Crane wants a return on his $680 million investment, he'll have to put money back into the team.  Shortstop Clint Barmes is a free agent, which opens the door for top-tier speedster Jose Reyes.  If Reyes (or any other high profile free agent) is willing to play for a team out of contention like Houston, they'll need an especially hefty paycheck.  Crane should have the money, and now's not the time to be stingy.
      • Sit back and observe
      More likely than not, the Astros will sign only middle and low-range players to complement their young nucleus.  2012 should be about watching the progress of the young talent that's already in place.  Youngsters Brett Wallace and Chris Johnson have already flashed potential on the infield corners.  A couple others are worth tracking this season...
        Norris will have no run support in 2012, but he's got ace potential
        • Bud Norris (RHP) - This guy has front of the rotation potential and flashed it in 2011.  A great guy for the Astros staff to build around.
        • J.D. Martinez (LF) - Pretty solid stats (.742 OPS) in over 50 games as a rookie.  Hit third for Houston once he was called up (yikes).
        • Brian Bogusevic (RF) - Hit .287 over 164 AB's and showcased a mighty arm in right field.  Just don't ask me how to pronounce his last name.
        • Matt Downs (UTIL) - Performed surprisingly well (.864 OPS, 10 HR) in approximately 200 AB's, and can play all over the field.  Has earned a starting job somewhere in 2012.

      The Astros have placed all their marbles in this bag, so it better come together.  By trading away practically their entire team over the past couple years, they've built up a compelling Minor League player base.  The names below could make or break the Astros franchise over the next decade.
      • Jarred Cosart (RHP) - Acquired from Philadelphia in the Pence deal, this hard-throwing right-hander and Texas native could see his chance at big league action before the end of 2012.  Electric stuff but herky-jerky mechanics are a concern.
      • Jordan Lyles (RHP) - He's been talked up for years, and he's still just 21.  Solid numbers in AAA last season (3.61 ERA) means he'll get a chance at some big league starts if he opens up 2012 on the right note.
      • Paul Clemens (RHP) - No, he's not Roger's son (that's Koby Clemens, also an Astros Minor Leaguer).  Unlike Kobe, Paul Clemens has immediate major league potential, and could crack the bigs before any other Houston prospect.  His ceiling can't compare with Cosart and Lyles, but he's been consistent at every level and deserves a shot.
      Jonathan Singleton should start 2012 in AA
      • Jonathan Singleton (1B) - The other key piece to the Hunter Pence trade.  He was blocked at first base by Ryan Howard, and he's still blocked in Houston by Carlos Lee.  El Caballo should be riding out before too long, and Singleton will have a chance to prove himself. 

      • David Carpenter (RHP) - He's not on anyone's radar, but credit Carpenter for making the most of a mid-season call-up to AAA.  He dominated as the Oklahoma City Redhawks closer, converting all nine save chance and posting an unblemished 0.00 ERA in 19 IP.  
      • George Springer (OF) - I once saw this guy hit a deep fly ball that bounced off of OF Zach Cone's (Rangers 2nd round pick 2011) head for a HR.  He's not only an incredibly gifted athlete but the baseball gods are clearly on his side.  Springer is year's out from contributing but has just as much potential as anyone on this list.

      Thursday, November 3, 2011

      CHICAGO CUBS - Major Needs, Minor Seeds

      Left to Right: Jason McLeod, Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer (Photo by Stephen Green)
      First of all, Cubs fans need to chill out about new GM Theo Epstein and his lovable band of baseball exec's.

      Are they brilliant and baseball savvy?  Yes.

      Will they turn the Cubs into an immediate contender?  Highly unlikely.

      Will the Cubs win the World Series in the next 5 years?  I still say no, but at least there's reason for hope on the north side for the first time since 2003.
      The guy on the right?  He's nuts.
      • Get out of here, Carlos Zambrano!
      If you did a study, you'd find that one in every 30 baseball players has a screw loose (approximately one for every team).  But the Cubs do the rest of baseball a favor by holding at least a few of these rare gems (Carlos Zambrano, Alfonso Soriano, and Matt Garza - trust me, just watch him on the mound).

      Zambrano takes the crazy cake for this team, and unlike Soriano and Garza, he's a clubhouse cancer.  After outrageous behavior in 2011 and a dismissal from the team around mid-season, there's no chance Big Z will be back with the Cubs in 2012.  It's crucial that Theo Epstein find a new home for this mad man.  Teams will hesitate to take on such a wild card, but here's an interesting thought: Zambrano was surrounded by aces Kerry Wood, Mark Prior and Greg Maddux back in 2003, and he quietly took care of business.  The crazy only came out when he was forced to shoulder the load of being the Chicago Cubs ace.  Give Z a spot on the Red Sox rotation or Yankees rotation and the big guns at the top of the pile should help put him in line.  
      • Pitching, pitching, pitching
      We might hit this topic with every team in baseball, but it's a bigger concern for the Cubs than most.  There's reason to trust three starters in the Cubs pitching rotation.  Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster have B+ potential and Randy Wells - at his best - could make a solid fourth starter.  That means Theo Epstein's priority this offseason must be to find at least one reliable arm.  Here are a few names the Cubs should be thinking about: 
        • Edwin Jackson (pitched in Chi-town with the Sox and now has World Series experience)
        • Paul Maholm (former Pirate will want long-term big money)
        • Mark Buehrle (hey, maybe Ozzie Guillen was the only thing keeping him on the south side)
        • Roy Oswalt (risky, but could be just what the doctor ordered)
      • Who's your Quade? 
      Just like the Cardinals, the Cubs need a manager.  Theo Epstein fired Mike Quade faster than it takes Josh Beckett to chug a beer.

      It's likely the Cubs will find their man in the next few days, as Dale Sveum (Brewers hitting coach) and Mike Maddux (Rangers pitching coach) are the front-runners.  Whoever gets the gig will have to be in it for the long haul because this Cubs team isn't going anywhere next year without a miracle.
      • Speaking of Carlos...
      Carlos Zambrano is undoubtedly the most troublesome Carlos on the north side.  But closer Carlos Marmol is a close second.

      Seriously, what's wrong with this guy?  He had superstar stuff and was given every opportunity.  The problem is two-fold: declining velocity on a solid fastball and terrific slider (which both developed this year), and outrageously awful control (an issue he's always dealt with).

      The solution is simple.  Sign another closer this off-season.  Perhaps a set-up role and a lighter workload is all Marmol needs to get back on track.  Closers who blow double-digit save opportunities don't last long in this's time for Marmol to go.   
      • Keeping up the with Red Sox 
      On the surface, adding Theo Epstein as President of Baseball Operations is exciting.  But imagine what's going through Epstein's head right now.  "Okay, one curse down, one more to go."  Just like the rest of the baseball world, Theo will be holding himself to an exceptionally high standard.  Sometimes, knowing too much success sets you up for failure.  My concern is that Epstein's hire is driving unwarrated enthusiasm for a Cubs team that's most likely a few years out from legitimate contention.  Temper your expectations, Cubs nation.  You've waited 103 years...what's another 10?


      This is where the Cubs get interesting, at least when it comes to revamping their lineup.  They already sport an exciting young talent at SS in Starlin Castro.  Darwin Barney showed signs of life at second base, and minor league veterans Tyler Colvin and Bryan LaHair are on the verge of becoming regulars.  Here are a few names that you might not know as much about. 
      Brett Jackson, CF of the future
      • Brett Jackson (CF) - Even if he doesn't succeed in the big leagues, you'll love everything about Jackson.  Cal Berkeley surfer dude with an infectious personality and the perfect clubhouse make-up.  Flashy center fielder with great tools and work ethic and plenty of raw talent.  If he can hit major league pitching, he'll be a Cubs staple for years to come.  And he should get his chance this year.
      • D.J. LeMahieu (SS) - LeMahieu saw some time with the Cubs in 2012 and hit just .250 over 60 AB's.  Still, he's got the bat to be a big contributor for a team needing help on the left side of the infield.  It's doubtful the Cubs would consider LeMahieu at third base if Aramis Ramirez doesn't resign, but it's nice to have him just in case. 
      • Jeffrey Beliveau (LHP) - A guy who hasn't received the hype he deserves.  While AA closer Rafael Dolis captured scout's attention, Beliveau quietly turned in a better season, mastering the Southern League with a 1.89 ERA and more than a strikeout per inning.  Beliveau could end up a factor in the Cubs bullpen by next year.
      • Greg Rohan (Utility) -  Notice the "Utility" position for this blossoming talent.  Rohan started in Low A, then moved to High A.  He shredded pitching at both levels, and has the flexibility to play practically every corner position on the field (1B, 3B, LF, RF).  Rohan, like many of the Cubs most promising prospects, is still a couple years out from contributing at the highest level.