Friday, February 24, 2017

Season 34 NL South Preview

Welcome to the ever-interesting AL-South, where over the last 3 seasons Austin and Charlotte have turned the tables on Texas and San Juan (winners of the previous 11 South titles, frequently under different franchise names and locations).  With Texas looking like it's stepping back to regroup, it looks like Austin and Charlotte again, with San Juan scrambling to catch up.

San Juan Padres
Season 33:  82-80

Season 32 In A Nutshell
Very nice 11-win improvement, thanks to a jump from 15th to 10th in runs scored, and an even bigger jump from 12th to 5th in Team ERA.  1B Bip Thornton (.297/32/88) and 3B Branden Clarkson (.289/42/90) sparked the offensive resurgence; all 5 primary starting pitchers improved their ERA's from Season 32.

Biggest Offseason Moves
Let LR Raymond Peterson and 1B Matty Campos walk in free agency; made a huge defensive upgrade (and maybe a slight offensive upgrade too) in CF with FA Alex Prieto for a steal of a price at $5.6 million for 3 years - great under-the-radar FA signing.

Season 34 Preview
Padres, please tell me you're going to make Omir Stowers your primary C.  Yeah, average-at-best arm and pitch calling, but that bat is just too good to leave on the bench again.  I know Felipe Cervantes is the rarest of birds who excels defensively at both 1B and C (a quirk of the diamond-in-the-rough algorithm no doubt), but that .611 OPS last year was beyond painful.

Besides, San Juan now has one of the best defensive squads around - Gold Glovers at 3B and SS with Clarkson and Orlando Mendoza, and potentially in CF with Prieto.   Whoever mans 2B, be it Cookie Jamie, Alex Duran or Gerald Nakano, is also going to be more of a defensive force than run-producer.  Not sure how they land another bat at this late date, but I'd love to see them swing some kind of a deal for a solid hitter for 1B.

OK, the hitting vs. defense debate aside, their pitching needs to look more like last year's than Season 32's. Rodgers,  Duran, Bautista, Howard and Granderson started 145 games in Season 32 and 161 games last year, and all 5 improved their ERA's significantly.  All 5, in fact, went below their career norms last year, so you have to expect at least some of them to blow up a bit this year.

The Padres run a mostly long-relief bullpen (4 long relievers), possibly as a way to increase the odds of finding 3 or 4 hot SP's for a season.  Not a lot of breakout potential among this group, although Henderson Koloff has put together some good seasons. 

I think they'll get some good things from their 2 exciting prospects in AAA - SP Ezequiel Escobar (Season 30 #22) and RP Ozzie Martin (Season 30 IFA).  These 2 could be their 2 best pitchers in short order.

Prognosis:  If everything goes right, they might push Austin and Charlotte.  More likely, they improve some more from last year but still get 3rd place.

Trade I'd Like To See:  Louie Almonte (Season 33 #9), when he's healthy, for a banger 1B.

Austin Massachusetts
Season 33: 97-65, Won Division, lost to Syracuse in the Division Round

Season 33 In A Nutshell
9-win improvement and 2nd straight division crown.  Their pitching really came together, as 4 SP's (Dawkins - 2.22, Tepera - 2.78, Matos - 3.46, and Martinez - 3.88) posted sub-4 ERA's.  The offense was wildly productive again (837 runs scored - 3rd in NL) behind another monster Trace Clark season (45 HR, .445 OBP) and the late-season boost from Yean Carlos Gonzalez (.326/18/45 in 40 games).

Biggest Offseason Moves
Gotta give raybie credit - he's not afraid to make the big deal.  One was last year's trade for Gonzalez; they did give up a couple of good young pitchers in Torey Izquierdo and Miguel Cedeno.  But not their best young pitchers, so I lean toward this deal as a big win for Austin.  One downside: Gonzalez looks like a fair bet to go FA after season 38, so they may only get 5 seasons of Gonzalez for 20 or so controlled seasons of the 2 P's.  The second big move was the big FA deal for Bartolo Cela, which I love - it fills a critical position need, and I don't think his age-30's ratings decline (power mostly, but some range too) will diminish his value much over the contract.  My bigger concern is the injury risk. Their 3rd big move was the trade for C Rickey Long, which I don't think was well advised (other than it let them move on from Cy Knepper, which now that I look more closely, may have been worth it just for that)...more on that in Outlook.

Season 34 Outlook

In my (frequently wrong-headed) opinion, the Long trade forced them to play Clark at 1B and Gonzalez in RF, guaranteeing something like 35 bad plays at those 2 spots. Better to acquire a COF (in a preseason market awash with COF's...cripes, Columbus can't even get rid of Woody Reagan), put Clark at C, Gonzalez at 1B, and poof...erases 35 bad plays.  They're a playoff team even with the extra 35 bad plays, but in the playoffs 1 or 2 bad plays could send you packin'.

<<<<Interesting side note>>> Austin agreed to acquire "perfectly adequate" LF Ernest Stynes from New Orleans for defensive stopper Yangervis Vega, only to have the deal nullified when Vega went #2 in the Rule 5 draft.

The starting pitching should be sterling there a better rotation one through five in the NL than Dawkins, Tepera, Matos, Martinez and Ramos?  Buffalo and Salem beat them in team ERA last year but both had much greater bullpen contributions.  Give me Austin's rotation as the NL's best.

The bullpen will be better but needs depth.  Hong-Jin Baek will snap back from his worst season ever, and Livan Maduro will provide 70 quality innings again, but they could use probably 1 more quality reliever (maybe not even needed until the playoffs, so a trade deadline deal perhaps?).

I asked raybie for his comments on the team and here's what he said:

"I'm very optimistic this season because I feel like the team doesn't have any major weaknesses. I think my offense should be top 3 in league, even without the ballpark effect.  And I feel really good about my 1-4 SPs. I don't love my bullpen but hopefully I won't have to rely on them much. Of course 1B and RF will be defensive liabilities but if I'm gonna have duds in the field I want them at those 2 positions.

'Lee will be CF against LHP with Cela at 2B. Against RHPs I'll play Ryu instead of Lee, either at 2B or CF.

'One thing I'm going to be sure to do this season is make sure my guys are rested come playoff time. Even with a first round bye last season I still had guys at 95-97%. Dumb on my part."

Prognosis:  Best case 100 wins and Division crown.  If everything goes south they still get a wild card.

Trade I'd Like To See:  scrape together a couple of middling prospects or younger MLers and send them to Columbus for Jose Palacios

Charlotte Steam
Season 33: 94-68, Wild Card, lost to Syracuse in Round 1

Season 33 In A Nutshell
In a stunning turnaround, they went from 56 wins to 94. They promoted most of the prospects obtained in the Season 32 sell-off, made big trades for Harry Johnson, Andre Counsel and Jack Allensworth; and eventually came away with Bucky Champion in the great mid-season waiver kerfuffle.  One of the best-executed one-season turnarounds you'll ever see.

Biggest Offseason Moves
Parlayed a big suplus of COF's into SP's Vladimir Andujar (for Jenrry Zumaya) and Adeiny Cedeno (for Gustavo Trevino).

One might question giving that much for Andujar given that he's likely a 1-year rental, but they had (1) a real logjam of talent at COF, and (2) a pair of monster SP prospects at AAA (Paul Kinney, Sea 33 #2, and Geraldo Manto, a Season 33, $22 million IFA).  Next season might be early for both of those prospects, but Manto could certainly make the jump if needed.

Season 34 Outlook
Pep Walsh ( .289/38/122 and reigning NL ROY) leads the parade of young stars that includes 2B Fautino Castillo (.288/28/91) and LF Octavio Trevino (.269/28/96).  It seems like they've traded a dozen COF's this offseason, but still have Dallas Sever (.295/13/39 in 183 AB) to replace Zumaya in RF.  Brett McMahan, an 11th rounder who has morphed into one of Hobbs' best DITR's, looks like he'll get 300 AB's as the primary backup at 1B and both COF spots.  Charlotte was 2nd in the NL with 850 runs last year; they might not have the same depth and firepower this season, but I bet they'll still get well over 800 runs across.

Pitching was the big offseason focus.  I'm guessing Counsel, Allensworth, and Andujar are set as the top three starters; they have 5 more SP's vying for 2 rotation spots - maybe they just go with the hot hand and spread 65 starts among all 5 of those guys.  If I had to pick 2 for the rotation now, I'd go with Johnny Gardner (Season 30's #4 pick) and gee, I don't know.  I'd probably audition all season for the #5 starter.

The Steam's late-inning guys get the nod over Austin's, largely due to the presence of Bucky Champion, although Freddie Martin certainly had a nice rookie season.  One concern: with all the shuffling around last year, Champion managed to lose a couple of rating points.  Nothing major, but when you're paying $15 million a year, every point counts (and he certainly didn't dominate in his Charlotte stint last year - .782 OPS-against in 39 IP...something to keep an eye on).

Prognosis:  their pitching was quite good last year (right behind Austin's in Team ERA in fact), but some of those guys are gone and some bettered their career norms.  I think they've done enough with the additions, plus Champion for a full season, that their pitching could improve even more.  I think it's 50/50 between the Steam and Austin for the crown.

Trade I'd Like To See:  nothing obvious...they still have just 12 position players on the ML roster and I assume they'll add a couple of backup COF's.

Texas Choades
Season 33:  87-75

Season 33 In A Nutshell
Reached a 6-year high in wins but couldn't quite hang with Austin and Charlotte.  Got outstanding pitching performances from Joe Johnson (14-8, 2.73), John Reed (25 saves, 2.95 ERA), Corey Booker (0.99 WHIP, 5 wins after arriving in a late-season trade), and Joe Cunningham (16-8, 3.52).  The offense didn't quite measure up, falling from 770 runs to 701, as 1B Bob Tucker suffered through a "bad" season of only .286/39/113.

Biggest Offseason Moves
The free-agent departures of Corey Booker and John Shigetoshi marked the beginning of the "teardown" phase of the rebuilding plan, which has so far seen the trades of ace SP Joe Johnson (to Indiana for Phil Newfield and Gary Blair) and reliever Matt Naulty (to New Orleans for Bernie Escobar). On the free agent side they signed a couple of nice low-budget players in 3B Harry Estrada and OF Randy Floyd.

Season 34 Outlook
It's gonna be a long year (if all you're looking at is the W-L record).  

As constructed now, Texas is competitive but not a contender.  There's some pop in the lineup with Tucker and COF's Floyd and Willie Palmeiro (it's all righthanded but that's really splitting hairs at this stage).  They have a very nice defensive duo up the middle in Don Loretta and Patrick Bordick.  And the pitching staff still has some bright lights in Newfield, Cunningham and short reliever Reed.

Of course, "competitive" and "rebuilding" have to balance. Since the Choades won 87 last year, they can go pretty low and still make the 2-year mwr of 125.  Let's say they trade Tucker and Cunningham and only win 60 - they clear they clear the mwr easily and set up to make the mwr the following year with just 65 wins. And I think this team would win more than 60 even without Cunningham and Tucker.

Personally, I'm a huge fan of the "Charlotte 1-year turnaround model".  They won 81 games in Season 31, cleared out everybody in Season 32 and took their lumps with 56 wins, and bounced back with 94 last year.  Would love to see Texas follow the same path.

Prognosis: 4th, but the more interesting question is how they go about rebuilding

Trade I'd Love To See:  There are more than a handful of teams that would pay up for Bob about division-mate San Juan?  Tucker for Louie Almonte, anyone? How about the Orphans?  David James' contract is up this year.  Eddie Harvey's contract in Durham is up this year. Seems like there would be more than a couple of ideal deadline deals for Tucker.

Division Outlook
1. Charlotte
2. Austin
3. San Juan
4. Texas

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