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February 24, 2010

On the Beat

Mid-Week Update

by John Perrotto

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Readers of this site have certainly been hit with much prognostic information with the release of the PECOTA projections and the refinements since the original numbers were published a few weeks back. Thus, you probably have a pretty good idea by now of who the system believes is going to improve this season, who is going to take a step backward and who will post statistics similar to their 2009 totals.

PECOTA has been very accurate over the years at projecting player performance. It has been so accurate that there is not a front office in baseball that does not look at the projections, and many have analysts who have tried to copy Nate Silver's original formula.

However, major-league clubs also like to have human eyes back up what the data tells them. Thus, they invest hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to scout the other 29 teams.

The scouts have their opinions about how various players will perform in 2010. We talked to a cross-section of them in the past few weeks to see which players might be ready to surprise this year. Here are five National Leaguers, guys you can follow in the Grapefruit and Cactus League box scores while you wait for the real games:

Jay Bruce, Reds, right fielder

Bruce didn't have an awful first full season in the major leagues last year. It just didn't match up with the hype he received while coming up through the minor leagues or the strong impression he made as a rookie in 2008. In all, Bruce hit .223/.303/.470 with a .266 EqA and 22 home runs in 387 plate appearances while missing two months with a fractured right wrist.

The low batting average left the perception of a dreadful season, especially for someone who was expected to be a superstar. Well, Bruce turns 23 on April 3, which gives him plenty of time to become a superstar and many scouts feel that could happen this year.

"He's just a baby and he hit 22 home runs in an off year," a scout said. "Imagine what he's going to do when he's healthy. This kid has tremendous power and he's already advanced enough that he hits them out to all fields because he knows how to turn on inside pitches and he is strong enough to go the other way with balls on the outer half of the plate. What we've seen of him is strictly the tip of the iceberg."

PECOTA also feels Bruce is ready to bust out, projecting him to hit .275/.342/.520 with 32 home runs in 620 plate appearances.

Ronny Cedeno, Pirates, shortstop

It seems like Cedeno should be much older than 27 as he was a Cubs' prospect forever then spent the first four months of last season with the Mariners. However, Cedeno is still young enough to have some upside and a lot of scouts think he can start reaching it this season.

Cedeno hit .258/.307/.394 with .253 EqA and five home runs in 170 plate appearances for the Pirates last season after being acquired in a late-July trade. He followed that by homering 10 times in 150 at-bats in Venezuela.

"Nobody has ever questioned this guy's tools," a scout said. "He's got good pop for a shortstop and outstanding range and a good arm. The problem has always been focus and confidence. In the past, his mind would drift and he seemed unsure of himself but I saw a different guy when he got to Pittsburgh last year. They gave him the starting job and he looked ready to run with it."

PECOTA isn't quite so optimistic, expecting Cedeno to get to fewer plate appearances at shortstop than Bobby Crosby while hitting .257/.317/.398 with seven homers in 267 plate appearances.

Xavier Nady, Cubs, outfielder

Nady had a lost 2009 with the Yankees. He played in just seven games before blowing out an elbow ligament and requiring season-ending Tommy John surgery.

The Cubs signed Nady to a one-year, $3.3-million contract as a free agent and he will ostensibly serve as the fourth outfielder, primarily backing up left fielder Alfonso Soriano and right fielder Koskuke Fukudome. Considering Soriano reported to spring training not yet healed from last season's knee surgery and that Fukudome just isn't very good, Nady, 31, could become a valuable player. Keep in mind that Nady hit combined .305/.357/.510 with a .300 EqA and 25 home runs for the Pirates and Yankees in 2008.

"I know some people questioned guaranteeing him that much money coming off surgery, but it's a good move," a scout said. "He's a professional hitter and he'll do a good job. The elbow won't be a concern because they signed him to hit, not win a Gold Glove. I'm thinking he winds up with around 400 at-bats and winds up being worth every penny."

PECOTA sees Nady getting just 195 trips to the plate but being extremely productive with .280/.338/.472 slash stats and 12 homers.

Chad Billingsley, Dodgers, right-handed pitcher

Billingsley had an eventful 2009 season, going from pitching in the All-Star Game to making only one long relief appearance in the postseason. He had a 3.38 ERA and .654 OPS allowed in 125.1 innings before the All-Star break but those numbers swelled to 5.20 and .781 in 71 innings in the second half. In all, he finished with a 4.03 ERA and a .703 OPS allowed in 196 1/3 innings.

Manager Joe Torre clearly lost faith in Billingsley, but he is going to be forced to use him this season, as the Dodgers did not add any starters during the offseason. Billingsley, 25, also became a whipping boy in the media late in the season with some questioning his mental toughness.

"He's going to come back and have a good year," a scout said. "This kid has great stuff and he knows how to use it. He got in a funk last year, but he's too good and too young not to bounce back. It's funny, but when he was pitching well in 2008 and the first half of last year, nobody ever said he was soft. Then he loses a few games and he suddenly has no guts? I don't buy it."

PECOTA doesn't measure intestinal fortitude, but it does like Billinsgley to bounce back to post a 3.85 ERA with 184 strikeouts in 195 innings.

Chris Young, Diamondbacks, center fielder

Like Billingsley, Young experienced highs and lows in 2009. He struggled so badly that he was sent to the minor leagues on Aug. 10 after hitting .194/.297/.359 with seven home runs in 366 plate appearances. Not exactly the best way to begin the first season of a six-year, $28-million contract.

Young, 26, returned on Aug. 29 and performed better, putting up a .263/.351/.508 line with eight homers in 135 plate appearances to finish .212/.311/.400 with 15 homers in 501 plate appearances. He even had a three-home run game against the Rockies on Sept. 6 at Denver. Though Young has frustrated the Diamondbacks with his inconsistency, scouts see his power/speed combination and still need to wipe the drool off their chins.

"This guy has so much ability that you can't give up on the idea of him being a star player," a scout said. "It takes some players longer to fully develop. This kid has talent and you can tell he likes the game and works at it. Sometimes, the light bulb suddenly goes on for a guy, and I saw signs of that in September."

PECOTA has a more tempered view of Young, projecting him for .248/.331/.460 with 21 homers in 567 plate appearances.

---

Spring training is the time to put last season behind and look forward to a new one. However, Mets owner Fred Wilpon admits that the pain of last year's 71-91 finish that saw his team decimated by injuries still causes pain.

"Fans were disappointed, but not any more disappointed than I was" Wilpon said as the Mets opened camp last weekend. "I'm probably the biggest fan, but that's last year and this is 2010, so I have a great feeling of optimism."

The Mets took their share of heat during the offseason for not addressing their major needs through free agency or trades, as they failed to land a frontline starting pitcher, starting catcher, or regular first baseman. Many analysts feel signing left fielder Jason Bay to a four-year, $66-million contract was a bad idea because he is likely to enter the decline phase of his career and he does not have the defensive ability to cover the spacious gaps of Citi Field.

Jeff Wilpon, son of Fred and the Mets' president, has long been accused of being too hands-on with baseball decisions, which have led to questions about the autonomy of general manager Omar Minaya. However, Fred Wilpon was adamant that the baseball decisions are made by Minaya and his staff.

"I think we have to be guided by our baseball people and our baseball evaluated, for example, some of our pitchers as (being) as good or better than those on the market," Wilpon said. "Our baseball people evaluated other positions and we went by what they did. Jeff followed them. Jeff and I don't pick the baseball players."

It was rough year beyond baseball for the Wilpons, as they were also one of the investors in Bernie Madoff's fraudulent Ponzi scheme. The Wilpons will not say how much money they lost or even if they lost money. Reports have been all over the map, ranging from them actually making money in the deal to losing as much as $750 million.

Whatever the total, Wilpon said it has no bearing on his family's ownership of the Mets, commenting, "I've always said if it's up to me and my family, we'll be involved for the next generation. That's all I can tell you. I can't say that about any other asset we own."

---

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim now have five seasons under their belt with the most unwieldy name of a major American professional sports franchise since the Kansas City-Omaha Kings packed up in presumably two cities and moved to Sacramento in 1985.

Angels owner Arte Moreno angered many in Anaheim and Orange County with the name change from Anaheim Angels to TLAAoA. However, Moreno believes the franchise has benefited greatly by adding Los Angeles to its title.

"We had people who thought Los Angeles was Los Angeles, and they wouldn't buy Anaheim," Moreno told the Los Angeles Times' Mike DiGiovanna. "The way we marketed and promoted the team throughout the whole region, the fact that we didn't make it a small-community team, has helped."

It certainly has. When the Angels made their lone World Series appearance, beating the Giants in 2002, and the team was still owned by Disney, they drew 2.3 million, sold 14,000 season tickets and had about $100 million in revenues.

Moreno bought the team in the winter following the World Series and it has become one of biggest revenue-generating franchises in the game, attracting at least three million fans in each of the last seven seasons. In 2009, when the Angels won their third straight American League West title, they grossed around $230 million while drawing 3.24 million and selling 26,000 season tickets.

"My job is to make sure we can generate the revenues to build a team that can compete at a high level every year," said Moreno, whose team has won five of the last six division titles.

---

The Major League Baseball Players Association pushed Major League Baseball into ordering the Marlins to begin spending more of their revenue-sharing money on player payroll. There continues to be rumblings that other teams will also feeling the same heat at some point.

However, one team that receives revenue-sharing money but isn't in danger of becoming a union target is the Brewers. They took in $30 million last year but began the season with an $80-million payroll despite playing in the smallest media market of the 30 major-league franchises.

"We don't do all of this without revenue sharing," Attanasio told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's Tom Haudricourt. "We've been a beneficiary of it, and Major League Baseball has, too. There's a wider disparity in payroll in our sport than any other sport, even with what we have but it does allow a team like ours to compete."

The Brewers' payroll this season figures to be $85 million, which will likely rank 17th in the majors. Attanasio said as long as the Brewers keep drawing so well for their market size, he will keep spending. They surpassed three million in attendance each of the past two years despite a sagging economy.

"I'm a little nervous, but that's kind of my job," Attanasio said of stretching the payroll. "If you look, there were a lot of other teams that are similarly situated that were committed to cutting payroll. Thanks to the support from our fans, we're able to take this calculated business risk. When we did the analysis for buying the team, we knew what a tremendous sports community and baseball community that we had. But I must say when we looked at our budgets, I never imagined we could get to three million fans. That's just a terrific show of support and interest in the team."

---

MLB Rumors and Rumblings: The Rangers are expected to fill their utility infielder vacancy that was created when Khalil Greene had a relapse of social anxiety disorder and did not report to spring training by staying in-house and giving the job to Joaquin Arias, who is out of minor-league options. As the Yankees began spring training, club officials were giving the indication that Phil Hughes has the edge over Joba Chamberlain for the fifth starter's job, though they insist Alfredo Aceves, Chad Gaudin, and Sergio Mitre are also in the running. The Pirates say they will monitor left-hander Zach Duke's workload after he made the All-Star team last season, but then wound up tiring in the second half and leading the National League in losses. Rangers manager Ron Washington says the starting catching position is open, with Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Taylor Teagarden vying for the job. Braves outfielder Melky Cabrera will start in right field if rookie Jason Heyward doesn't make the club, and platoon in left field with Matt Diaz if he does.

The White Sox plan to use Andruw Jones as their primary designated hitter, with Mark Kotsay and Omar Vizquel also getting some starts. Yes, Omar Vizquel as a DH. The Royals plan to rotate Josh Fields between first base, third base, and left field. The Red Sox will stretch right-hander Boof Bonser out as a starter this spring with the idea of using him as a swingman in the regular season. After originally saying he would be looked at as a long reliever in spring training when they signed him, the Giants have decided to try Todd Wellemeyer as a starter and he will compete with prospect Madison Bumgarner for the fifth spot in the rotation. The Rays are trying infielder Joe Dillon behind the plate in hopes he could be an emergency third catcher. Hall of Famer and Yankees special assistant Reggie Jackson called Tigers manager Jim Leyland to give his endorsement of rookie center fielder Austin Jackson, who was traded from New York to Detroit at the Winter Meetings.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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