The quest for respectability, 2009 edition

Around this time last year, I profiled four teams that consistently finished at or near the bottom of their respective divisions to see what they had done to prevent similar results in 2008. Of the four, only Tampa, with the development of its young core and a couple of nifty trades, was able to rise above the .500 mark. (Of course, the Rays were the success story of last season.)

It’s time to return to those teams that wallow beneath mediocrity to see if this is the year someone can mimic the 2008 Rays and jump from the bottom to the top. We’ll look at four and how they’ve assembled their rosters heading into spring training, with an eye on improvement in 2009.

Washington Nationals

Key gains: Adam Dunn (23 WS), Daniel Cabrera (6 WS), Scott Olsen (8 WS), Josh Willingham (13 WS), Corey Patterson (2 WS)

Key losses: Aaron Boone (3 WS), Tim Redding (5 WS), Emilio Bonifacio (2 WS), Paul LoDuca (1 WS)

Net: +41 WS

Winners of the Adam Dunn sweepstakes, the Nationals are taking the shotgun approach to building their roster.

Already stocked with a plethora of corner outfield types, the additions of Dunn and Willingham add to the logjam. Dunn obviously will play somewhere—either left field or first base. If he’s at first, that displaces the oft-injured Nick Johnson, who could be trade bait. The top question in the Nats camp is whether Johnson can recapture the form he showed when he was last healthy in 2006; he hit .290/.428/.520 that year.

Willingham will battle Elijah Dukes and Austin Kearns for one of those corner spots as well. Willingham should be able to earn a spot, even if Dunn is pushed to the outfield so Johnson can play first.

Consider for a moment an outfield of Willingham (.903 RZR last year) in left, Lastings Millege (.834 RZR) in center and Dunn in right (.889 RZR). Nationals pitchers could lead the league in surrendering doubles and triples.

While the Nats are overstocking their corner outfield, they have also attempted to deal with their rotation. Last year’s starters pitched fewer innings than any rotation in baseball while posting a 4.97 ERA. That ranked them third from the bottom in the NL. Redding is the Mets’ headache now, having signed with them after being non-tendered, so Washington will turn to it’s newcomers in Olsen and Cabrera to front the rotation.

Olson topped 200 innings for the first time in his career last summer, but arrives in Washington with enough red flags flying to scare away Somali pirates. On first glance, his 4.20 ERA is a nice recovery from his disastrous 2007 season, when he finished with a 5.81 ERA, but a little more digging reveals a pitcher who is breaking down. His xFIP was 5.05 last year and he seems to have benefitted from an absurdly low .266 BABIP. His strikeout rate of 5 K/9 last season is a huge decrease from the 8.3 K/9 he had just two years ago.

Then, there’s the issue of his velocity. Last year, his fastball struggled to break 90 mph and averaged just 87.8 mph. That’s three mph less than his average fastball of just two seasons ago.

It turns out Olsen and his new rotation mate Cabrera have something in common: a big drop in velocity. Cabrera used to be known for having a live arm with no idea how to locate. In 2006 his average fastball was clocked at almost 95 mph, but his walk rate was an obscene 6.3 BB/9. A modern day Nuke LaLoosh, if you will.

However, last year Cabrera’s average heater was only 92.6 mph. Still fast, but a drop nonetheless.

The signings of Olsen and Cabrera give the Nationals the distinction of having two of the top five biggest losers of fastball velocity from ’07 to ’08. Here’s the list of the five pitchers who saw the greatest decrease:

Scott Olsen: -2.6%
Dan Wheeler: -2.0%
Tom Glavine: -1.8%
Francisco Rodriguez: -1.8%
Daniel Cabrera: -1.8%

That’s not the way to build a rotation.

By the way, mentioning Patterson in the “key gains” category is just my way of having some fun.

Baltimore Orioles

Key gains: Mark Hendrickson (3 WS), Cesar Izturis (8 WS), Koji Uehara, Ty Wigginton (15 WS), Gregg Zaun (8 WS), Felix Pie (2 WS), Rich Hill (1 WS), Ryan Freel (4 WS)

Key losses: Daniel Cabrera (6 WS), Lance Cormier (4 WS), Ramon Hernandez (12 WS), Garrett Olson (1 WS)

Net: +18 WS

Since the Rays no longer can be considered among the bottom tier of clubs (an American League pennant kind of changes the hierarchy, no?) we need a new team to take their place. The Orioles, with 11 consecutive losing seasons and three straight years of 90-plus losses fit the bill. They’re in.

Entering this offseason Baltimore needed to overhaul a starting rotation that last year threw just 882 innings, the lowest total in baseball. Their starters also had a collective 5.51 ERA, which was tied with the Rangers for the worst ERA by a starting staff. So maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised that Baltimore opened camp with 27 pitchers on the 40 man roster. It’s like American Idol for pitchers.

The Orioles are auditioning for replacements for Cabrera and Olson, who combined for 312 of those innings last year and hope that newcomer Uehara will be one of those to step into the breach. A nine-year veteran of Japan’s Central League, Uehara has a 2.91 ERA with a 0.99 WHIP (for his career!) in 1,400 innings while pitching for the Yomiuri Giants. With a legendary walk rate of 1.1 BB/9 for his career, Uehara has bounced between the rotation and the bullpen for the Giants the last couple of years, and has been successful in whatever role he has assumed. But the Orioles have such a need for their rotation, they aren’t considering Uehara as anything but a starter.

Joining Uehara in the rotation will be former Cub Rich Hill. After a solid 2007 in which he made 32 starts and had a 3.92 ERA and 4.17 xFIP, Hill struggled at the beginning of last season with his control and quickly fell out of favor with manager Lou Piniella. You can’t blame Piniella for his lack of patience: In just 19 innings over five starts last year, Hill walked 18 batters. Overall, he threw 353 pitches, but just 194 were for strikes and only 19 of those strikes were the swing and miss variety.

He didn’t do much better after his demotion to the minors, walking 28 in just 26 innings before shutting his season down with back spasms. It was a curious turn for a pitcher who led the Cubs in strikeouts in 2007 with 183 and owned a better than league average walk rate of 2.9 BB/9.

The Orioles are banking on Hill rediscovering his control and returning to his ’07 form. Early signs aren’t encouraging: In the Venezuelan Winter League, Hill surrendered 23 walks in 21 innings.

Another former Cub hoping he’s moved on to greener pastures is Pie. A former top prospect, he’s struggled to make the jump to the Show. In 287 career plate appearances, he’s hit just .241/.312/.325. Absolutely, that suffers from a small sample size. However, it has to be noted that Pie has at times struggled to make contact. Last year his contact rate when swinging at balls in the strike zone was 84 percent and for his career, he’s whiffed in 28 percent of his at-bats. Those aren’t horrible rates… if you’re a power hitter. However for Pie, speed is his game. So while a career 1.5 GB/FB ratio is a step in the right direction, he’ll need to make more contact if he’s ever going to stick.

Last year, the five Orioles shortstops played more than 200 innings in the field. This year, they’re tuning to Izturis in hopes he can solidify defense up the middle. Last summer, Izturis had a .869 RZR for the Cardinals, which ranked as the second best rate (behind former Oriole Miguel Tejada) among National League shortstops and was rated as +19 on the Fielding Bible’s plus/minus scale.

By adding Wigginton and Freel, the Orioles feel they have improved their depth in position players. But their rotation is still no match for the rough and tumble AL East.

Kansas City Royals

Key gains: Mike Jacobs (15 WS), Coco Crisp (11 WS), Kyle Farnsworth (0 WS), Willie Bloomquist (4 WS), Horacio Ramirez (2 WS)

Key losses: Leo Nunez (5 WS), Joey Gathright (5 WS), Ramon Ramirez (9 WS)

Net: +13 WS

Last year was the fourth consecutive season the Royals increased their win total, but they still finished below .500 for the 13th time in the last 14 seasons.

The Royals have been searching for a power hitter for years and think they found one in Jacobs, who hit 32 home runs last summer for the Marlins. With a .397 team slugging percentage in 2007 (rank: 25th) it’s certainly true they could use some pop. However, they also carried a below average on-base percentage of .320 (rank: 26). By trading for Jacobs with his career OPB of .318, the Royals are hoping the power will offset the outs. That’s normally not a winning tradeoff.

The Royals also have lacked a true leadoff hitter for years. David DeJesus has filled that role, but he figures to move down in the order. For the top spot in 2009, they’ll turn to Crisp. While most top leadoff men walk more than 12 percent of the time, Crisp carries a career walk rate of just 7 percent. He has improved his discipline in the last couple of seasons, with a career high rate of 8.7 percent in 2007 which he topped again last season with a rate of 8.8 percent. Like DeJesus, Crisp seems better suited to hit lower in the order, but with the Royals lacking options, he’s the guy by default.

While Jacobs and Crisp are supposed to bring added dimension to the lineup, the addition of Farnsworth is meant to shore up the bullpen, which was depleted when Nunez and Ramon Ramirez were dealt. The Royals hope Farnsworth, with a strikeout rate of 9.1 K/9 last year, can be the fireballing strikeout pitcher they covet as a set-up man in the back of the bullpen.

Unfortunately, he’s just as likely to serve up a walk or a home run, making him undependable even in the best of times. Last year, he allowed 15 home runs in 60 innings and waked 22. In his career, Farnsworth’s two best seasons were 2003 and 2005—years when his GB/FB ratio was greater than one and his home run rate dipped to below 0.75 HR/9. However since 2006, he’s become an extreme fly ball pitcher with a GB/FB ratio of 0.62. His home run rate has ballooned to 1.6 HR/9 during that time.

Horacio Ramirez is an interesting case in that he is listed as a “gain,” but he earned his two Win Shares while with the Royals. He began last year in Seattle, was released in March, signed by the Royals in May, traded to the White Sox in August and finally signed by the Royals as a free agent last December.

Ramirez is entirely dependent on getting ground balls and letting his fielders do the dirty work. Last year for the Royals, his ground ball rate was an astounding 60 percent and he had a 2.59 ERA and a 3.67 xFIP coming out of the bullpen. However when he moved to Chicago, his ground ball rate dropped to 44 percent and his ERA jumped to 7.62 along with an xFIP of 6.47. Ouch.

Ramirez relies so heavily on the ground ball because hitters have no problem getting the bat on the ball. Last year, his strikeout rate was an abysmal 3.1 K/9, which is just a single strikeout worse than his career average of 4.1 K/9. Despite all of this, the Royals are going to drop Ramirez in the rotation.

This will not end well.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Key gains: Eric Hinske (11 WS), Ramon Vazquez (9 WS)

Key losses: Jason Michaels (7 WS), Ronny Paulino (3 WS)

Net: +10 WS

After tying a major league record by finishing under .500 for the 16th consecutive season, the Pirates made very little noise this winter. Huh?

It’s true. Hinske was signed to be a fourth outfielder and Vazquez is expected to be the Bucs’ backup infielder. Pittsburgh also traded for minor league catcher Jason Jaramillo, who is expected to back up Ryan Doumit and selected left-hander Donald Veal from the Chicago Cubs in the Rule V draft.

So, with not much winter action, the Pirates will depend on players acquired last year such as Brandon Moss and Andy LaRoche, whom they obtained from the Red Sox and Dodgers, respectively, in the three-team deal that sent Jason Bay to Boston. Both are former top prospects who haven’t seen their minor league successes translate to the majors.

They’ll also look within their own system: Andrew McCutchen could break into the outfield mix as a leadoff hitter. There’s also last year’s No. 1 overall pick, Pedro Alvarez from Vanderbilt, who could experience an Evan Longoria-type fast track through the Pirates system.

They’ll need to score runs because the Pirates pitching staff that posted an NL worst team ERA of 5.36 last summer remains largely unchanged. For the rotation, Pittsburgh will rely on Paul Maholm to continue his development while hoping for a bounce-back season from Ian Snell.

Snell, who had a 3.76 ERA and a 2.6 K/BB ratio in 2007, slumped to a 5.42 ERA, largely due to a walk rate of 4.9 BB/9. The increase in walks pushed his K/BB ratio down to 1.5. He had other problems last year, like a .303 BA against and the fact opposing hitters tattooed the ball, posting a 25 percent line drive rate. That was the highest rate against a starter in the National League.

They’re also looking for bounce-back seasons from left handers Tom Gorzelanny (6.66 ERA in ’08 after having a 3.88 ERA in ’07) and Zach Duke (4.82 ERA in ’08 after a 4.47 ERA in ’06)

Although Gorzelanny’s 2007 xFIP of 4.87 points to a pitcher who overachieved, like Snell he’ll have to rediscover his control after posting a walk rate of 6 BB/9 if he hopes to come close to that ERA again.

Duke’s control is fine, but the problem with him is that he’s not a strikeout pitcher. With a career rate of 4.6 K/9, hitters are making contact too often. According to FanGraphs, last year hitters made contact 92.8 percent of the time they swung at a Duke pitch in the strike zone, a rate that trailed only Livan Hernandez (at a whopping 94.9 percent) in hittability. The Pirates are throwing considerable trust behind a staff that seems ill-suited for success at the major league level.

While building around youth is the way many of these clubs are going to rise above .500 consistently, it’s going to be difficult for the Pirates to avoid their 17th losing season in a row. Come October, the record will belong to Pittsburgh.

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