April 01, 2005

Drago, R-Phils, enter blogosphere

Long-time Reading Phillies beat writer Mike Drago of the Reading Eagle has started a blog called "Keeping Score." Drago has been at the Reading Eagle for more than 20 years, covering scholastic football and basketball, the Reading Phillies, and more.

With the season just around the corner, his latest posts take a look at the newly announced additions to the 2005 R-Phils, including a rumor that top outfield prospect Michael Bourn may be ticketed for Baseballtown.

"Keeping Score" will serve as a great resource this season, as no one is closer to the Double-A beat and Berks County sports than Mike.

Best of luck!

NL East shortstop poll

Readers are invited to vote for the NL East shortstop they believe will have the best season.

The choice is between Rafael Furcal, Atlanta, Cristian Guzman, Washington, Alex Gonzalez, Florida, Jose Reyes, New York Mets, and Jimmy Rollins, Philadelphia.

Last season, Rollins led all National League shortstops with 26 win shares.

Win Shares is a statistic that takes all the contributions a player makes, in this case offense and defense, toward his team’s wins and distills them into a single number that represents the number of wins contributed to the team, times three.

If readers are still confused, don't worry. Win shares is simply a stat designed to assign value to how much a player contributes to his team. To put it in context, Barry Bonds had 53 win shares in ’04, Craig Biggio had 18, and Ricky Ledee had 0.

For more, follow this link to the Hardball Times.
And as always, readers are invited to comment on their selection on the post below.

Byrd joins Howard in Scranton

A day after Ryan Howard was sent to Triple-A, center fielder Marlon Byrd also got word he will start the year in Scranton/Wilkes Barre.

Byrd put together an excellent spring, batting .390 with a homer and 10 RBIs in 14 games, making a strong case to make the team as a backup. Byrd’s demotion means infielder Jose Offerman will stay on as a left-handed bat off the bench and Kenny Lofton will start in center.

BPF Take
None of this is surprising to the BPF. In fact, Byrd's story since October has gone exactly as I'd envisioned it would.

There was a lot of blame assigned following last season, and center field drew a lot of the focus. Byrd was an awful sophomore, slugging a meager .321 and only getting on base to the tune of .287. His midseason demotion to Triple-A was justified, and in hindsight, should have happened earlier.

So when the wrath of Philadelphia came crashing down in October, Byrd took a hard fall. Labeled the team’s future center fielder just months before, GM Ed Wade reacted, dangling Byrd for pitching and trading for veteran center fielder Kenny Lofton.

The team was right in bringing in Lofton. They couldn't go forward in '05 with uncertainty at the position. There was a chance Byrd might never come around, and hesitation in playing Jason Michaels too much for fear he’d get exposed at the plate and in the field.

But I never agreed with the majority opinion that Byrd must be traded. In keeping him as a third option at center, I asked readers to step back and look what the team had. He's young, gifted defensively, played stellar baseball in the minors and hit for pop, on top of a solid rookie debut.

Good center fielders are a commodity, and when Byrd was nearly traded to the Brewers for dime-a-dozen relief pitcher Jeff Bennett, I almost lost it.

Here’s something else I don't get. There's a general attitude that if a player isn't good enough to make the 25-man roster, they have no value to the team. In my November 18 article, "Tip-toeing around Scranton," I studied how Triple-A has devolved into baseball’s black hole, when it should really be a holding tank for players like Byrd and Ryan Howard – young, talented, but blocked by proven veterans. If nothing else, Ed Wade has a stack of chips to toss on the table and get a pitcher.

Before spring training, I had a hunch Byrd would reemerge and force officials to reconsider, and that's precisely what happened. I also predicted both Howard and Byrd starting the year in Scranton, and still maintain that’s the best spot for them.

Lofton is the man you want to start the season, and maybe even finish it, but Byrd is your best long-term solution and an asset other teams will trade for.

March 31, 2005

Howard to begin season in Triple-A

The big story in Berks was that Ryan Howard was sent back to Triple-A yesterday. Phillies beat writer Phil Gianficaro had the story this morning for the Reading Eagle. (Photo: Reading Eagle)

BPF take
The disappointment is understandable as many fans here in Reading are anxious to see how his phenominal minor-league power translates to the majors. The 25-year-old hit 46 home runs between Reading and Scranton last season, and only got a taste of the major league pitching late in the year.

"Yes, it's disappointing," Howard said in Gianficaro's article. "But I'm realistic about it."

Howard certainly represents a dynamic presence. When he steps to the plate, there's general sense something good will happen. Manager Charlie Manuel described Howard as "a major-league hitter."

Nevertheless, the decision to start him in Triple-A is a sensible one, though not as rational as trading him for pitching would have been. Jim Thome is the team’s first baseman and an excellent one at that. At Scranton, Howard can play every day and stay warm in case he’s called up. One likely scenario has Howard getting called back in May for interleague play. A number of top hitting prospects around the league, including Andy Marte of Atlanta, could also follow this scenario.

No matter where his career leads him, fans in this area will always track Howard a little more after his remarkable season in Baseballtown.

Telly out, Liriano in
The biggest race of spring between 31-year-old Amary Telemaco and 24-year-old Pedro Liriano went to Liriano yesterday as Telly was released. Randy Miller at phillyburbs.com had that story.

BPF take
Looking at the stats, they both had pretty good springs aside from the games I saw. Overall, they both got a lot of looks this spring: Liriaro is 0-1 with a 3.07 ERA in 14 2/3 innings, and Telemaco had a 3.52 ERA over 10 appearances.

One upside to Liriano is, of course, he's seven years younger that Telemaco. Liriano had a 4.02 ERA in 11 appearances last year with Milwaukee, but didn't start in any of those. He was claimed off waivers in December.

Pedro Liriano

I've only seen him once this spring, but he looks like a wicked little right-hander. He was tough on righties last season - they hit .206 off him.

The big knock on Telly is his tendency to give up the long ball, a big no-no especially with 81 games at Citizen's Bank Park. Still, the Phils are giving up a pitcher that can provide a spot start or two, and that's important with a rotation as thin and unhealthy as theirs. Perhaps they envision Liriano as a potential 6th or 7th starter, but for now, he's long relief "B" after Ryan Madson.

Other roster moves:
The Phillies narrowed their roster to 26 yesterday, including these noteworthy moves:

- Rule 5 outfielder Shane Victorino was placed on waivers
BPF: Lost the battle early to Marlon Byrd, had an unimpressive spring. No surprise here. Phils would like him back for Scranton if no other team wants him. My take ... sure. Why not? If anyone cares to contribute to the Victorino conversation, feel free. Anybody? Oh.

- Re-assigned OF Mark Budzinski and C A.J. Hinch to minor league camp
BPF: Rumors of a catchers duel between Hinch and Pratt proven totally bogus.

- (And this one happened March 17): Optioned LHP Eude Brito, RHP Edwin Moreno, RHP Franklin Perez, RHP Robinson Tejada and C Carlos Ruiz to minor league camp
BPF: Todd Pratt era ends next season, junior pudge era begins, baby.

Viva Ruiz!

March 30, 2005

Braves hope history repeats itself

The Atlanta Braves are counting on offseason acquisition Tim Hudson to lead the team to their 14th consecutive division title, and beyond.

The Braves are the reason why the riddle of winning baseball will never be solved through numbers and essays, and through study and debate.

With Atlanta, you get a brand of baseball closer to folklore than fact, keeping that old flame called suspension of disbelief alive. Like Mother Goose, they have "characters," like Leo Mazzone, the wise old shaman, and Julio Franco, the man who doesn't age.

Without teams like Atlanta, there may soon come a time when I can plug my brain into a laptop and a season will auto-simulate as fast as Gavin Floyd's 2013 DIP can compute.

As the Braves win their 14th consecutive division title this year, we'll all be wondering, again, how they did it; how they managed to lose their best hitter and pitcher for the second-straight season and still with the NL East by double digits.

There have been rumors for years that with attendance declining - despite a sterling product on the field and the best efforts of the GM John Shuerholz, the best in the biz - something had to give, and it had to give big. After a $12 million loss in gate receipts, the team slashed payroll by $15 million last year, and seemed ready to slash more.

When the season ended, I wrote a piece previewing their annual yard sale. J.D. Drew, their best hitter, was a free agent, as were Russ Ortiz and Jaret Wright, the team's co-leaders in wins with 15 each.

While stopping short of saying they couldn't possibly repeat if they lost all three – and that's exactly what happened - I established it would be a cold day in hell before I picked anyone but Atlanta.

Before I get to Hudson, Smoltz and how they solved it without breaking the bank, here's a look back on 2003, the year Atlanta was the best bridesmaid in baseball.

In all my years of watching the Phillies finish second or lower, I've never seen a team manhandle a division as the Braves did two years ago, doing it, this time, with their bats. It was Atlanta's answer to doubts they couldn’t win without pitchers Tom Glavine and Kevin Millwood. Yes, winning titles after losing bodies is nothing new to

Their 5.6 runs-per-game was best in the National League that year. The formula was simple: When a runner got on, the next man moved him along. They put on a clinic for hitting with men in scoring position, almost rubbing it in the Phillies faces.

Javy Lopez, not a spectacular hitter for his career, proved as efficient with home runs as Babe Ruth in 2003, smashing 43 after hitting just 17 and 11 in his previous two injury-filled seasons. Adding to the battery was Gary Sheffield and his modest 39 home runs. Not that they needed anything more, it was also the year Marcus Giles decided it was time to become one of the NL's premier second basemen, hitting 21 of his own. And Vinny Castilla added ten homers from the previous season to hit 22 round-trippers.

With a supporting cast that also featured Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones and Rafael Furcal, it was, in hindsight, the best NL offense of the 21st Century before '04 St. Louis earned the title last year.

How, then, was it possible for the Braves to win 96 games last year after losing so much – Lopez and Sheffield, their best bats – and Greg Maddux, the face of Braves pitching dominance for over a decade?

While they didn't repeat the heavyweight offensive performance from the year before, they were still very good, scoring almost 5 runs a game for 5th best in the NL. However, their pitching was better. Led by a resurgent Jaret Wright who went 15-8, along with 15-game winner Russ Ortiz, Mike Hampton, John Thomson and Paul Byrd, they allowed fewer runs a game, just over 4, finishing 3rd in the NL in that category. I'm sure manager Bobby Cox would also admit the Braves stepped in a fair-sized pile of luck, especially with Ortiz.

But above all that, the thing I admired most about last year's team was their ability to fill holes. Somehow, they always seem to uncover this incredible depth that allows them never to lose step when a starter goes down. Nick Green filled in admirably at second base when Marcus Giles broke his collarbone. And outfielder Charles Thomas, never considered a prospect with major-league staying power, gave the team just the lift they needed as they turned on the mid-summer afterburners.

In addition, they also managed to, once again, get better miles out of average-to-above-average talent, including third baseman Mark DeRosa, first baseman Adam LaRoche, and probably the entire starting rotation.

The 2004 Braves will also be remembered for Johnny Estrada, who rose to the head of the class among the division's catchers, and the season J.D. Drew stayed healthy long enough to finally come of age. Nearly every new addition seems to thrive in Atlanta.

This season will be Atlanta's return to what got them there – pitching.

I called Shuerholz's deal for Tim Hudson the most important offseason acquisition by an NL East team. At the time, most argued he'd be gone in a year, if not before, but a month later, the Braves locked him up to a long-term contract giving the team their first true ace since Maddux.

Known as an innings eater, Hudson is already a Braves type of guy and would have been a perfect addition for the Phillies. I wouldn't put Hudson in the top ten in the league, but he's among the best in quality starts, his groudball to flyball ratio was 2 to 1 and he's an excellent defender.

I also believed strongly that moving John Smoltz from closer back to the starting rotation was an excellent decision. In hindsight, when ranking the offseason moves, I should have put this one higher. It has the potential to have the biggest impact for the Braves this season.

So far this spring, Smoltz has been excellent, having not allowed a run in 14 innings, along with 8 strikeouts.

In an era when Roger Clemens can change leagues and win the Cy Young at age 41, I expect Smoltz, 37, to do the same, returning to the spot he belongs. I'm picking Smoltz to win the NL Cy Young.

John Smoltz

1. Rafael Furcal, SS*
2. Marcus Giles, 2B
3. Chipper Jones, 3B
4. Andrew Jones, CF
5. Adam LaRoche, 1B
6. Raul Mondesi, RF*
7. Johnny Estrada, C
8. Brian Jordan, LF*

1. John Smolz, RHP
2. Tim Hudson, RHP
3. John Thompson, RHP
4. Mike Hampton, LHP
5. Horacio Ramirez, LHP

Bullpen: Danny Kolb, closer, Chris Reitsma, Tom Martin, Gabe White, Kevin Gryboski

Bench: Julio Franco, Wilson Betemit, Nick Green

* I’d like to pay special attention to Furcal. In a year when defense is the next big thing, this will also be the year defense will get serious consideration when voting for MVP, especially now that Barry Bonds will not win it.

The domino effect will bring "second-tier" shortstops, meaning good shortstops not named Nomar, Jeter, Renteria and Tejeda, into the forefront. That means Furcal, Jimmy Rollins and others.

I believe strongly one of these two will earn some votes for MVP. Furcal is a great table setter at the top of the lineup with improving power. Though Jimmy Rollins bested Furcal in a number of categories, including win shares, Furcal comes through in the clutch more than J-Roll, and is just a step ahead of him at this point. They are, after all, still just 27 and 26 respectively, yet it seems like they’ve been playing for decades.

This "rivalry," if you want to call it that, will be one of the great stories this year.

*The second asterisk is to point out bets are already being taken at Braves blogs on the date minor league sensation Andy Marte gets the callup to replace either Jordon or Mondesi.

Baseball Prospectus called Marte the best prospect in baseball and a future superstar, and Martin Smith, our traveling correspondent, was impressed when he hit two homers in a spring training game he attended.

Conclusion: I see two Cy Young candidates in Hudson and Smoltz. I see MVP candidates in Furcal and Andruw Jones, who’s working at hitting to all fields this spring.

I see a 14th consecutive division title, basing the pick partially on stats, but mostly on history.

March 27, 2005

Phils face tough decisions early

Not to make hard decisions harder, center fielders Kenny Lofton and Marlon Byrd may begin the season on the disabled list, just one week from when the Phillies make the final roster cuts.

Before March 11, when Kenny Lofton went on the shelf with a pulled hammy, the major pieces for April 4 were set. Lofton would be the center fielder and likely bat second, with Marlon Byrd winning back a major-league spot as his reserve. Byrd dislocated his finger a week ago.

Team physician Michael Ciccotti examined a number of players yesterday including Lofton and Byrd. Lofton seems likely to begin the season on the DL, and Byrd has a "good" chance, Jim Salisbury reported in Sunday's Inquirer.

The toughest choice is what to do with Rule 5 center fielder Shane Victorino. Victorino, a defensive specialist, must be included on the 25-man roster or be offered back to the Dodgers. If the Dodgers decline, they can keep him.

It was an easy choice before Lofton and Byrd became injured. Victorino hasn't been hitting well this spring, and lost the battle against the resurgent Byrd by a landslide. Victorino played 38 games with the Padres in 2003, and has since bounced between AAA and AA with modest to good success. But with uncertaintely at the position, Victorino's chances of sticking increase. There is also a chance the Phillies may trade for yet another outfielder or add someone off waivers, Salisbury reported.

Who bats two?
Three weeks ago, readers at BPF said they wanted Placido Polanco to get the majority of hacks out of the two-hole this season. The problem is, he's blocked out of starting by David Bell, plus, Lofton has been penciled as the number two.

Bell, who's been out most of the spring with back problems, seems recovered and should be clear to start the season. Meanwhile, Polanco has had a fantastic spring.

BPF take
I’m a believer in riding the hot bat over position loyalty, and Polanco not only has hit this spring, but came on strong at the end of last season. In my view, Polanco is a better hitter than Bell anyway, and the team's best No. 2 hitter period. I'd like to see Polanco start the season instead of Bell, hitting second until Lofton returns. Then, move Bell back to the lineup and resume Polanco's place as super-utility.

Race for backup catcher just good theater?
I didn't believe backup catcher was being contested this spring, but apparently there's a race between incumbent Todd Pratt and challenger A.J. Hinch.

I contend it's more smoke and mirrors.

In 77 games with Scranton, Hinch hit .234, .313 OBP, .298 SLG 2 HR.

In 45 games in Philadelphia, Pratt hit .258, .351 OBP, .367 SLG, 3 HR.

If there’s a legitimate gripe with Pratt, it's age. Hinch is 7 years Pratt’s junior, and Pratt, 38, projects as a high injury risk.

Yet Pratt is as solid a backup as they come, a good defender, good with pitchers, and seems loyal to the team by always resigning.

I’m not sure what this is all about, but my feeling is they're creating a catchers dual to draw interest to Hinch. There’s a dearth of quality backups around the league, and a number of open spots have shaken loose on contending teams. Salisbury today reported the Yankees have interest in Hinch. Since trading Dioneer Navarro to the Dodgers this winter, the Yanks are extremely shallow at the position.

The Phillies are also excited about BPF favorite Carlos Ruiz, who will get the lions share of starts in Scranton, even if Hinch sticks around.

The moral of the story is, major league catching is a commodity, and the Phillies believe they have plenty. Looking around the league, they may be right.