Monday, June 30, 2008

Trades have Pacers poised for improvement

Last year the Indiana Pacers finished with a 36-46 record, one game back of the Atlanta Hawks for eighth place in the Eastern Conference. Here was the Pacers main starting lineup:

(Listed stats are '07-'08 averages)

PG: Jamaal Tinsley -- 11.9 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 8.4 apg, 1.7 steals
SG: Mike Dunleavy -- 19.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 3.5 apg, 1.1 steals
SF: Danny Granger -- 19.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 2.1 apg, 1.2 steals
PF: Troy Murphy -- 12.2 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 2.2 apg
C: Jermaine O'Neal -- 13.6 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 2.2 apg, 2.1 blocks

And these are some of the stats from other players in the Pacers rotation who averaged 15+ minutes off the bench, possibly because of injuries:

C Jeff Foster -- 6.4 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 1.7 apg
G Kareem Rush -- 8.3 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 1.3 apg
G Ronald Murray -- 11.0 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 3.5 apg
G Marquis Daniels -- 8.2 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 1.9 apg
PG Travis Diener -- 6.9 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 3.8 apg

The Pacers had another player on the bench, Ike Diogu, who only played in 30 games, averaging 5.6 points.

Two starters, Tinsley and O'Neal, both missed several games due to injuries last season. Tinsley only played in 39 games, starting 36 of them, and O'Neal played in just 42 games, starting 34 of them. Tinsley also had a fair share of off-the-court problems, and O'Neal's name was frequently mentioned in trade talks with the Lakers, Nets, Knicks, and other teams over the last few years.

In order to build around Granger, and to a lesser extent Dunleavy, the Pacers recently made two significant moves in the offseason. The first was the trade of Jermaine O'Neal and the 41st pick in the 2008 NBA Draft (the Raptors selected Nathan Jawai) to Toronto for T.J. Ford, Rasho Nesterovic, Maceo Baston, and the 17th pick in the draft (the Pacers took Roy Hibbert). So, to first take a step back from that deal, the Pacers turned Jermaine O'Neal and a second-round pick into Ford, Nesterovic, and Hibbert (plus cap space); barring some injuries, Baston probably won't play very much.

The second move happened during the draft and had the Pacers sending Jerryd Bayless (the 11th pick in the draft) and Ike Diogu to Portland for Jarrett Jack, Brandon Rush (13th pick), and Josh McRoberts. Again, to summarize, the Pacers traded a draft pick and a player who received few minutes for another draft pick (a 6'6 SG/SF), a proven back-up point guard, and a bench player -- not a bad idea.

The Pacers front office seems very content with completely reshaping the team's roster. If the team cannot trade Jamaal Tinsley, it will probably cut him. If Shawne Williams and Marquis Daniels do not change their ways and fix their images, they may be gone as well. With the trades and personnel moves, the Pacers starting lineup will probably be as follows:

PG: T.J. Ford -- 12.1 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 6.1 apg, 1.1 steals
SG: Mike Dunleavy
SF: Danny Granger
PF: Troy Murphy
C: Jeff Foster

With this starting lineup, the Pacers lose the offense and blocked shots of O'Neal, but the team gains more consistent point guard play from Ford. Ford put up the numbers above despite playing only 23.5 minutes per game last year; if healthy, he should play more than that and post even better numbers. Ford should thrive in getting the ball to the two best-shooting Pacers: Dunleavy, who was 12th in the NBA in three-point shooting at 42.4%, and Granger, 26th in the NBA at 40.4%.

And the Pacers bench could include:

G Jarrett Jack -- 9.9 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 3.8 apg
G/F Brandon Rush
C Rasho Nesterovic -- 7.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 1.2 apg
C Roy Hibbert
G Ronald Murray
G Travis Diener
G Kareem Rush (Rush is a free agent, so he may walk; a forward may take this spot)

The Pacers may not be a much improved team next year, but with the trades and possible upcoming moves, the team should be more exciting to watch with a younger core of players. Instead of building around O'Neal, which failed, the Pacers are now building around Granger and are hoping that Brandon Rush and Roy Hibbert develop rapidly in their first few years in the league.

At the very least, Larry Bird probably won't have to make comments like this anymore, which he made in February of 2008:

"We've got to be very clear about this -- we don't want our players hanging around murderers," team president Larry Bird said. "That's not a good sign for our young fans. It's not a good sign for management."

The Pacers are definitely taking some steps to change that.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Marlins deserve more credit

With all of the talk about the surprising Tampa Bay Rays and the possibility of a White Sox-Cubs World Series, another team has been, for the most part, left out of the discussion: the Florida Marlins.

When Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria fired Joe Girardi in 2006, many thought the decision was a poor one. After all, with a payroll just under $15 million, Girardi had guided the Marlins to an intriguing 78 wins. Marlins GM Larry Beinfest backed the decision.

"Joe is not returning because it was not a good fit," Beinfest said. "I will take some of that blame. I'm in charge, and it's my job to make sure everything runs as smoothly and efficiently as possible."

After firing Girardi, the Marlins hired Fredi Gonzalez, a 42-year-old former third-base coach for the Atlanta Braves. Gonzalez was thrilled to be managing, and the Marlins were happy to have Girardi gone.

The season before, in 2005, the Marlins, heading towards a disappointing finish with no postseason appearance in sight, chose to trade several star players away. In November of 2005, the Marlins traded first baseman Carlos Delgado and cash to the Mets for two prospects and another first baseman, Mike Jacobs. Also in November, the Marlins traded starting pitcher Josh Beckett, third baseman Mike Lowell, and reliever Guillermo Mota to the Red Sox in exchange for top shortstop prospect Hanley Ramirez and pitchers Anibal Sanchez, Jesus Delgado, and Harvey Garcia. In December, the Marlins traded outfielder Juan Pierre to the Cubs for three pitching prospects: Ricky Nolasco, Renyel Pinto, and Sergio Mitre. Also in December, the Marlins shipped second baseman Luis Castillo to the Twins for two pitching prospects: Travis Bowyer and Scott Tyler. Catcher Paul Lo Duca was also traded to the Mets for minor league pitcher Gaby Hernandez and outfielder Dante Brinkley.

The fire sale of 2005 ridded the Marlins roster of plenty of high-priced players and left them with an extremely young core of very talented players. Things didn't work out, as stated before, for the Marlins in 2006 (78-84) or 2007 (71-91). Again feeling the need to trade quality, established players in the offseason, the Marlins sent third baseman Miguel Cabrera and starting pitcher Dontrelle Willis to the Tigers for a plethora of young players: outfielder Cameron Maybin, pitcher Andrew Miller, catcher Mike Rabelo, and minor league pitchers Eulogio De La Cruz, Dallas Trahern, and Burke Badenhop.

While every baseball analyst was ready to consider the Tigers new and improved lineup the greatest of all time, the Marlins had put together lots of cheap talent for the 2008 season and beyond. (Interesting note: At this point in the season, the Tigers have hit 78 HRs and have a team OPS of .761. The Marlins have 111 HRs and a team OPS of .773.)

So far this season, the infield has been the most productive part of the team. Shortstop Hanley Ramirez, only 24, is the team's best player, and he's hitting .300 with 16 HRs, 33 RBI, and 19 SBs. Twenty-eight-year-old second baseman Dan Uggla, a Rule 5 pick in 2005 from the Diamondbacks, is hitting .296 with 23 HRs and 57 RBI. First baseman Mike Jacobs has 17 HRs and 46 RBI, and third baseman Jorge Cantu, signed to a $500,000 minor league contract in the offseason, is hitting .285 with 14 HRs and 43 RBI. These four infielders have hit a combined 70 HRs so far, and it's not even the All-Star Break yet.

Besides Ramirez and Jacobs, other acquired players from previous deals have played important roles in 2008. Starting pitcher Ricky Nolasco, who is 25, is 7-4 with a 4.31 RA and 58 Ks. Renyel Pinto, also 25, has two wins out of the bullpen and a 2.74 ERA. Twenty-three-year-old Andrew Miller is 5-5 in the Marlins starting rotation. He's pitched mildly well, with a 4.87 ERA and 62 Ks, and his future is very bright. Mike Rabelo serves as the backup catcher, but he's only hitting .208 with 3 HRs.

Other key performances for the solid start to the season:
  • Kevin Gregg: 5 Ws, 13 Saves, 2.52 ERA, 28 Ks. Acquired from the Angels in 2005 for pitcher Chris Resop.
  • Josh Willingham: .341 average, 6 HRs, 16 RBI. Currently on the disabled list, drafted in the 17th Round in 2000.
  • Jeremy Hermida: .268 average, 7 HRs, 36 RBI. Drafted in the first round in 2002.
  • Scott Olsen: 4-4, 3.51 ERA, 50 Ks. Drafted in the sixth round in 2002.
  • Luis Gonzalez: .273 average, 5 HRs, 29 RBI. Signed in the offseason for $2 million.
  • Cody Ross: .216 average, 12 HRs, 29 RBI. Acquired from the Reds in 2006 for the always-popular "player to be named later."

Currently, the Marlins, at 40-34, are one game back of the Phillies in the NL East. The Marlins have a payroll of $22.6 million, which is last in the league. Their payroll also happens happens to be $20 million below the second-to-last place team, the Tampa Bay Rays. The highest paid player on the Rays is Carlos Pena, who makes $6 million this season. The highest paid player on the Marlins is Kevin Gregg, who makes $2.5 million.

Some people don't like how the Marlins operate because they always seem to acquire young talent, wait until they improve and get a little older, and then trade them before they have to pay them any type of significant salary. But even though the Marlins remain competitive every few years, fans don't go to see the team play. Since 2001, the Marlins have ranked in the bottom five in total attendance every season. Even when the team won the World Series in 2003, the Marlins were 28th (out of 30 teams), averaging only 16,290 fans per game. So far this season, the Marlins are ranked dead-last, averaging just 14,795 fans per game.

Are the Marlins' fortunes about to change? Possibly. A new stadium is being built for the Marlins in Miami, and the team is scheduled to play there in 2011. As part of the deal, the Marlins will be called the "Miami Marlins." And with the deal to play in a new stadium, the organization signed Hanley Ramirez to the biggest contract in Marlins history in May: a six-year, $70 million contract.

Whether or not the Marlins will start to spend big money on free agents with the new ballpark on the horizon, the front office obviously knows how to acquire talent through trades and smart, cheap moves that seem to happen quickly and silently.

If the Marlins happen to earn the Wild Card berth in the NL, look out, because they may just win the World Series again. Besides, that's how it happened in 1997 and 2003.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Brief thought on the Joba Chamberlain situation

I wrote this yesterday and forgot to post it, but this is just a quick opinion on the whole Joba Chamberlain situation and how the Yankees are handling it:

The Yankees have handled the Joba Chamberlain situation all wrong. Since when is during the season (for the New York Yankees of all teams) the best time to transform a late-inning reliever into a starter?

If they want to do it the right way, the front office should either send him to Triple-A so he can really get his innings and pitch counts in, or they should just wait until the season is over and have him prepare in the offseason and in spring training next year.

If he fails, everyone will assume the Yankees made the wrong choice, not to mention he'll keep losing confidence. And if he pitches well and stays in the rotation for the whole season, the Yankees have a huge hole in the 7th and 8th innings in order to get the ball to Mariano Rivera with little help in sight. The whole situation seems rushed and stupid.

Outfield of the future?

While the Orioles continue to hover around the .500 mark through early June, it's easy to see why the future appears to be bright. Through smarter draft picks, better talent evaluations, and the intelligent trading of Miguel Tejada and Erik Bedard for a multitude of young talent, the bullpen has been much improved and the starters seem to be more consistent.

Because of these moves, potentially solid pitching prospects are littered throughout the farm system, particularly in Frederick, Bowie, and Norfolk. Also, the Orioles' hopeful catcher of the future at Frederick, Matt Wieters, continues to impress by hitting .324 with 12 HRs and 33 RBIs.

Obviously, the wealth of pitching prospects and the potential of Wieters are both reasons enough to give O's fans more hope than has been available to them over the last several seasons.

The one weakness of the farm system, even after the 2008 MLB Draft, is producing, trading for, or finding better infield prospects, especially middle infielders. And the biggest question mark may be: Who will be in the Orioles' infield two-to-three years down the road? The best infield prospect in the O's system other than Wieters is 3B Billy Rowell at Frederick, but he seems to be a few years off, not to mention that he can't seem to stay healthy.

The infield concerns will certainly need to be addressed, but the outfield doesn't appear to offer many questions. The 22-year-old Adam Jones (.256/.297/.372) will be the everyday centerfielder for many years to come, and 24-year-old Nick Markakis (.272/.380/.461) will be the everyday rightfielder. Markakis is the best hitter on the Orioles right now, but Jones, as expected, has struggled a bit. Still, he has shown the ability to gets hits in the clutch when the Orioles need them.

Offensively, both Jones and Markakis will improve year-in and year-out. And defensively, both players are outstanding outfielders already. They have both only committed one error apiece this season, and Markakis has an MLB-leading eight outfield assists. Jones only has one assist, but he also possesses an outstanding arm.

With the centerfield and rightfield positions locked down, the other outfield concern is who to play in left field. Jay Payton isn't the long-term answer, though Luke Scott, at 29, may become a DH or part-time player against right-handed pitching in a few years if he is still with the team -- sort of like a Jay Gibbons-type role without the steroid use, horrible defensive ability, and bird-like facial features.

The best answer appears to be Nolan Reimold (his middle name is Gallagher, which is funny), who is, for some reason, currently playing right field for the Bowie Baysox. Drafted by the Orioles in the second round in 2005, Reimold has plenty of talent, but he has not been able to stay healthy for a significant amount of time.

Reimold is only 24, and he is healthy right now and seems to be playing well. In 59 games, Reimold is batting .272 with 8 HRs and 26 RBIs.

If Reimold can stay healthy, the potential three-headed outfield monster of Markakis, Jones, and Reimold definitely would be one of the best and youngest in the majors.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Don't let Jamie Walker pitch indoors or versus lefties

The Orioles bullpen consists of two left-handed relievers: closer George Sherrill and Jamie Walker. Sherrill has done a solid job as the Orioles closer; he is 19 for 21 in save opportunities and has a more than respectable 3.16 ERA. He has a tendency to make things a little interesting in the ninth inning when he comes into the game by usually allowing a runner or two, but he's definitely been getting the job done and may end up being the lone Oriole player in the 2008 All-Star Game.

While Sherrill has pitched well, Jamie Walker (4.76 ERA, 1.82 WHIP) has not. Walker is the left-handed specialist in the bullpen, but there is one rather large problem with that: he can't get lefties out this season. As of today, left-handed batters are hitting .396 against Walker, while right-handed batters are only hitting .261 against him. Also, all four of the home runs he has allowed have been to lefties.

His struggles against left-handed hitters don't seem to make much sense. For his career, Walker has allowed lefties to hit only .238 against him.

Besides struggling against lefties, Walker hasn't had much fun pitching indoors either. In 15.1 innings pitched outdoors, Walker has given up four earned runs, which is good enough for a 2.35 ERA. But in only 1.2 innings pitched indoors, Walker has allowed five earned runs, which is bad enough for an ERA of 27.

Other than the struggles of Walker and occassionally Chad Bradford (2.95) and Dennis Sarfate (3.28), the Orioles bullpen has been outstanding. Jim Johnson (1.39) is performing superbly in the setup-man role, and Matt Albers (2.20) has been a flexible reliever who can pitch multiple innings at a time when needed. Because of such strong performances, the Orioles bullpen currently ranks seventh in team bullpen ERA in MLB at 3.22 -- just 0.01 behind the Oakland A's at number six.

In order to keep improving, the O's bullpen needs Walker to start retiring more lefties, and it needs to stop walking so many opposing hitters. The bullpen has handed out 95 walks -- fifth most in MLB.

But with the way the bullpen pitched last season, the bullpen's performance in 2008 has been a 180-degree turn-around. What a relief. (No pun intended.)

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Red Sox place Ortiz on the 15-day DL

After hurting his wrist on a swing against the Orioles on Saturday, David Ortiz was placed on the 15-day disabled list today after an MRI on Monday revealed a partially torn tendon in Ortiz's left wrist. The injury also may be serious enough to threaten the rest of the season for Ortiz.

The Red Sox brought up Justin Masterson from Triple-A, but he's probably only going to make a spot-start today against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Obviously losing Ortiz's presence in the third spot in the lineup is huge. The Red Sox have a few options to consider on how to deal with the temporary or long-term loss.

1) No significant moves. The Red Sox are currently second in the AL in runs scored (302), first in batting average (.283), and first in on base percentage (.358). Obviously Ortiz helped the Red Sox reach those numbers, but they still have plenty of talented hitters who have helped them achieve those solid stats. The Red Sox can do what they did in the game last night and DH Manny Ramirez and have Jacoby Ellsbury play left field, Coco Crisp in center, and Drew in right. Manager Terry Francona placed Kevin Youkilis in the third slot, which isn't really a bad option considering how he's playing. With Ramirez as the DH, the Red Sox gain better outfield defense but certainly lose a big left-handed bat in the middle of the lineup.

2) Play Sean Casey more. The Red Sox have 1B Casey on their bench, and he can probably fill in at the DH spot when Francona wants to have Ramirez in left field or when the Red Sox face a right-handed pitcher. Casey doesn't have much power, which means he may not be placed in the middle of the lineup, but he's a solid contact hitter who is a more than reliable option as a replacement.

3) Promote someone from the minors. OF prospect Chris Carter is hitting .310 at Triple-A Pawtucket and has 10 HRs and 35 RBIs. He is also left-handed.

4) Make a trade. The Red Sox have a deep farm system, so if they wanted to go out and trade for a left-handed power hitter, they could. Again, they'd probably only do this if they lost Ortiz for the rest of the season. Ken Griffey, Jr? Adam Dunn? Jay Payton? (O's fans wish)

5) Sign Barry Bonds. Sounds crazy, right? Well, some Red Sox fans are already suggesting Bonds as a possible option. Through everything the Red Sox have done over the last few years, moves like this one have been avoided at all costs. The signing of Bonds would surely be a complete distraction, which is probably something the Red Sox want to stay away from.

The Red Sox will probably choose a combination of 1, 2, and 3 as long as Ortiz is scheduled to come back. But if he's lost for the season, don't be surpised if Theo Epstein tries to make a big move.