How (and when) did you find VFTB?
How (and when) did you find VFTB?
James Russell started the 2011 season as the second left handed pitcher in the Cubs’ bullpen behind all world setup man Sean Marshall. Less than a week later, the Cubs were down two starting pitchers and moved Russell to the rotation. That experiment did not succeed, to say the least. Russell was terrible in the rotation, going only 18.1 innings in five starts and posting a 9.33 ERA.
Upon his return to the bullpen, Russell was much more successful, posting a 2.19 ERA over 49.1 appearances. However, Russell’s peripherals as a reliever were not as strong as his results. Russell avoided walks out of the bullpen, giving a free pass to only 1.64 batters per nine innings. But he also did not post high strikeout totals as a reliever, with a 6.02 K/9 rate, and Russell is a fly ball pitcher (37.9% ground ball rate as a reliever). Unlike his time in the rotation, though, when 20% of those fly balls left the park, Russell was able to keep the ball in the yard as a reliever, posting a HR/FB rate 6.8%. This led to a FIP of 3.61 and an xFIP of 4.18 as a reliever. The difference in the latter two metrics is that FIP considers HR/FB rate, while FIP normalizes that rate and considers ground ball percentage instead.
So what do all those numbers mean? That James Russell has some significant improvement to make if he is going to fill Sean Marshall’s role. But, prior to 2010, Sean Marshall was not who he is now. To be able to become that, though, Russell will either have to strike more hitters out, induce more ground balls, or some combination of both.
But enough of looking at what James Russell could potentially become and what he would have to do to get there. What is he now? At the least, right now he is a solid left handed specialist who has had great success against left handed hitters out of the bullpen, less success against right handed hitters, and should probably never start a Major League game again.
With the Cubs starting the season with Russell as the one left handed pitcher out of the bullpen, it is possible that a massive proportion of the hitters he faces could be left handed. It would not be a surprise to see Dale Sveum wait to use Russell until late inning situations where the Cubs will specifically have to deal with a tough left handed hitter or two. And the NL Central only has one good team with two left handed middle of the order bats in the Reds’ Joey Votto and Jay Bruce. While the Cardinals will have switch hitters Carlos Beltran and Lance Berkman in the middle of their order, Berkman is the only one it is really important to try to turn around to the right side of the plate.
Odds are strong that, at the least, Russell will continue to have success as a solid left handed specialist. But, if he can raise the strikeout rate, ground ball rate or both against right handed pitchers he could become special as a reliever in the same vein as Sean Marshall’s last two seasons. It is a very difficult jump to make, but Russell should stick in the bullpen long enough to get every chance to prove if he can be more than just a LOOGY.
OAKLAND ATHLETICS – (Last Year: 74-88) – The A’s off-season mystified a lot of fans, both those in Oakland and elsewhere. Starting pitchers Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez were sent away to Arizona and Washington, respectively, while closer Andrew Bailey, who’s been very effective when he’s managed to stay healthy, was packed off to the Red Sox. The set of young players received in return is too big too enumerate, but the major-league relevant pieces for this season include Josh Reddick, a young Georgian right-fielder with a cannon arm and power potential, Jarrod Parker, a starting pitcher with a blazing fastball, #2 upside, and Tommy John surgery in his past, Brad Peacock, another starting pitcher, though one with perhaps a tad less upside and a less sexy stuff profile, and Tom Milone, a crafty lefty with a bread-denting fastball and a ton on of polish.
Immediately after trading three of his four best healthy pitchers (Brandon McCarthy, last year’s league leader in FIP), Billy Beane embarked on a campaign to make the team respectable in 2012, re-signing Coco Crisp to play center, trading two mediocre pitchers to Colorado for Seth Smith, signing platoon outfielder Jonny Gomes, bringing in Bartolo Colon on a low-dollar one-year deal, and adding Manny Ramirez on a no-risk minor-league contract. In the midst of all this, Beane shocked the world by signing Cuban sensation center-fielder Yoenis Cespedes. This conflicts with the Crisp signing, which many speculated was designed to appease the players’ union and other teams by actually spending money on major-league players, but it looks for all the world like Cespedes fell into Oakland’s lap. They were reportedly the only team willing to give Cespedes a four-year contract with an agreement to let him become a free agent afterward, and with the Rangers and the Angels in the division, Beane probably feels that he has to gamble on a player like Cespedes when the opportunity presents itself if he wants to compete in 2014 and going forward.
That’s a lot of space just devoted to roster moves, but that’s what the A’s are all about. The on-field result is that the offense will probably be better than its reputation this season, assuming manager Bob Melvin can sort out all the moving pieces in the outfield and at first base/DH, while the pitching might just be ok, masked by a good outfield defense and an even better pitcher’s park. Still, the team will almost certainly not be good, as they’ve got a bunch of hitters who should be around the league average and very few who have star upside. They’re certainly not a threat to the Anaheim and Arlington-based squads in the division. Non-A’s fans might want to tune in to find out whether Yoenis Cespedes turns out more like Bo Jackson or Wily Mo Pena, and Jemile Weeks promises to be one of the most dynamic second basemen in the game, but I’d peg them as a 71-91 team when it’s all said and done. ~ Jason Wojciechowski (www.beaneball.org)
SEATTLE MARINERS – (Last Year: 67-95) – With Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson now on the Las Angeles Angels, the American League West appears to be a two horse race. For the Mariners and their fans, that means another season of playing the kids, assessing who might fit in long term, and losing ninety games. The difference between this year and 2011? High upside minor league pitching, a revamped bullpen, and the best hitting prospect the franchise has seen since Alex Rodriguez loom as a bright light at the end of the tunnel.
The big news over the off-season was the acquisition of Jesus Montero, and while there are some who question whether the move made the team better or simply turned over the roster, nobody is denying that Montero is going to rake. Montero joins Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, and Taijuan Walker as top prospects, giving the Mariners one the best collections of high ceiling talent in the game. Beyond those four, questions about Ichiro’s career trajectory, Brandon League’s trade destination, and Justin Smoak’s ability to produce liven the conversation about the big league club.
While the M’s are a longshot to sniff October this season, prospects on the horizon and an intriguing crop of free agents available at year’s end suggest that the team has better days ahead in the near future. The bottom line is that the team’s priority should be developing the talent on hand as well as possible. If guys like Mike Carp and Casper Wells can build upon their successful 2011 campaigns, and if the team can find another diamond in the rough, Seattle could be in line to compete before too long. I predict 76 wins this season. ~ Brendan Gawlowski (www.proballnw.com)
LOS ANGELES ANGELS – (Last Year: 86-76) – The Angels made a pair of key moves this offseason to go from Wild Card contenders to legitimate World Series contenders, signing Albert Pujols and CJ Wilson, who just might add enough to push the Angels past Texas in the race for the AL West title.
With the added pop of Pujols in the lineup, as well as the possible return to glory for Kendrys Morales and the addition of CJ Wilson to the already sterling rotation, the Angels should find themselves playing into the middle of October this season.
In 2011 the Angels went 27-30 in the moderate AL West. In 2012, the Angels should be more competitive against Texas, again trounce the Mariners, and crush the Outfielders Athletics. Expect a significant boost in the win total there, as well as against the rest of the league.
On the whole, this is a team with tons of star power and plenty of depth. Anything short of a playoff birth will be a major disappointment, especially with the new playoff format. Come October, I expect the Angels to be 97-65 preparing to use Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, and CJ Wilson to make it to the Fall Classic. ~ Hudson Belinsky (www.halosdaily.com)
The Texas Rangers have declined to comment on this silly prediction series. In all seriousness, I just couldn’t find a blogger that covers the team willing to write it and I know nothing of interest about the Rangers other than Josh Hamilton. Essentially my preview would be “blah blah blah Josh Hamilton. Blah Blah Blah, relapse. Blah blah blah, World Series.
Even in a game as unpredictable as baseball, there are constants. The Yankees will always be able to afford the biggest free agent names. White Sox fans’ pride in their team will always be disproportionate to the product on the field. Tommy LaSorda will always make himself the hero of every story. And every year, no-name players will surprise their teams in Spring Training and play their way into unexpected roster spots.
This year, the Cubs’ Spring Training surprise is Joe Mather.
Mather is a 29 year old journeyman who spent most of his career in the Cardinals’ organization. He’s also logged some time with the Braves and Rockies. Altogether he’s appeared in 126 games, and his stats are about what you’d expect from a guy who could never consistently crack a big league lineup.
That’s what makes the .412/.455/.745 (roughly) he’s posted this spring as a non-roster invitee such a surprise. In limited playing time, he’s had good success at the plate against righties and lefties, he’s shown some power, and he runs pretty well, too, swiping three bases so far.
But what makes him really valuable to this Cubs team is his versatility in the field–he can play all three outfield spots along with first and third. And manager Dale even hinted he’d consider playing him in the middle infield if need be. He’s got the ability to backup as many as five positions, and depending on how Ian Stewart, Bryan LaHair, and David DeJesus start off their seasons, he could see some significant playing time early in the year.
He’s essentially like a Blake DeWitt who isn’t an embarrassment in the outfield or at the plate. He’s a Jeff Baker who can hit righties, and hit ’em well. Dare I say it–he might even be a poor man’s Mark DeRosa.
And here’s where it gets interesting Cubs fans. If he can bring the hot bat with him to Chicago next week–and that’s a big if–then the trade rumors swirling around Marlon Byrd, Jeff Baker, and Blake DeWitt take on an instant credibility. I like Byrd, but none of those guys are vital to this Cubs team, especially if they can bring back anything of value in a trade. And when you figure there’s got to be a market for Randy Wells–who appears to be to the odd man out of our rotation–you might be able to package him with Byrd or one of our utility guys for something more than spare parts. It’s clear Theo and Jed have the long view in mind even as the season is about to start, and if Mather can keep it going he gives them plenty of flexibility.
We’ll see next week–next week!–whether he can be more than just a Spring Training surprise. In the meantime, expect an announcement from the Cubs–possibly as soon as today–that he’ll be on the 25-man roster. He’s earned it.