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Monday, March 16, 2009

Why do I hate Derek Jeter?

It has become cliche. More than a handful of essays and articles have been published exposing the flaws in Jeter's game: his defense, primarily, but also his lack of speed and power, his unwillingness to change positions or bat lower in the lineup, his mediocre pitch selection, etc. Everywhere outside the Bronx, Jeter-haters abound. I've despised Jeter with a passion for almost a decade, brought on first by his being the centerpiece of the Millennial Yankee Dynasty and later by his undeserved Gold Gloves in '04, '05, and '06 which stole the spotlight from underappreciated defensive contributers like Orlando Cabrera, Miguel Tejada, and Alex Gonzalez.

These days what rubs me the wrong way is not only Jeter's holier-than-thou attitude, but the awestruck tone taken on by baseball commentators when the talk about him. Cue Rick Sutcliffe, coloring the World Baseball Classic last night on ESPN2. Apparently, Captain Jeter had not been in the lineup prior to the USA's elimination game against the Netherlands, supplanted by Jimmy Rollins, he of the deserved Gold Gloves, MVP award, and 2008 World Series ring. A true Captain America, one would assume, would've taken the benching in stride, complimented his teammate, and prepared for whatever opportunity might present itself. Jeter, however, according to Sutcliffe, was in an unprecedented "foul mood" during batting practice. Strangely, Sutcliffe did not deride the captain for putting his own pride ahead of his support of the club, but rather took it as an indication that "things needed to change" in the US clubhouse. Throughout the game (Jeter was inserted in the lineup at DH when Chipper Jones was scratched) Sutcliffe continued to praise "Mr. November," saying at one point, "How could you not love him?" The problem was, while J-Roll went 2-for-4 with a triple, homer, and 4 RBI, as well as some run-saving defense plays, Jeter was an absolute rally-killer, finishing 0-for-3 with six men left on base.

Davey Johnson promised that he would stick with the "hot hand" going into the WBC. It will be interesting to see if he can stick to his guns even when it means giving a living legend the cold shoulder. The US team faces a much tougher elimination game against either Venezuela or Puerto Rico (both of whom have already beat the US once) on Tuesday.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

2009 Hi-Lo (Part One)

Having now completed 3 mock auctions, 4 actual auctions, and 3 drafts, I feel like I'm getting a sense of which players are being especially favored by owners this year and which are flying under the radar. Here are my overrated and underrated teams going into 2009.


+ Victor Martinez, Ramon Hernandez, Yadier Molina, Jeff Clement
- Matt Wieters, Geo Soto

It is safe to say the Russell Martin and Brian McCann should be the first backstops off the board and for the most part that seems to be happening. What's surprising is that V-Mart, once considered by far the best option at his position, has fallen considerably in many rankings, behind the likes of Martin, McCann, Joe Mauer, Geovany Soto, and Ryan Doumit after an injury-plagued 2008 campaign. Martinez averaged 21 HR and 97 RBI in the four preceding season and I see no reason why he won't return to form, especially since he'll be seeing more time at 1B and DH after the breakout of Kelly Shoppach. In September Martinez hit .288 with 14 RBI, even after a prolonged absence. Take him with confidence for $8-10 or in the middle rounds. Meanwhile, Geo Soto will cost as much as $15 or a pick in the first five rounds and is unlikely to perform any better than V-Mart. I like Soto, but following up on his Rookie of the Year campaign is going to be difficult. I wouldn't consider him an elite option until he proves he can do it two years in a row.

Matt Wieters is going to be a monster. Don't get me wrong, I'm a believer, but unless you're in a keeper league or you can get him for under $5 or in the late rounds, he's not worth the investment just yet. The Orioles will delay his arrival in order to keep him off the arbitration clock. Remember Evan Longoria and Ryan Braun, both of whom were held off until late May or early June for similar reasons, only got tickets to the show as early as they did because their clubs had made themselves contenders. Unless the Orioles are surprising everybody this spring (not likely), I don't see Wieters getting at-bats before the All-Star break. Meanwhile, Jeff Clement will work his way into the lineup at C, 1B, or DH nearly everyday from the start of the year. He's just 25 and had a 1131 OPS at AAA in 2008.

Ramon Hernandez is a good power option (15 HR in '08) who's moving to the Great American Smallpark in Cincinnati. He's a solid late-round sleeper. Yadier Molina quietly hit above .300 last year. He's also just 25, but already has four seasons as a big-league regular. His offensive production has improved every year. These are the type of guys who come cheap and contribute at a couple of categories, which is much to be thankful for at a thin position.

First Base:

+ Justin Morneau
- Mark Texeira, Chris Davis

There aren't a lot of steals at this position. Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera are potentially to two most valuable players on the board and everybody knows it. Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard, and Lance Berkman aren't far behind. If any one of these fellows falls to the third round or goes for less than $25, you've gotten a heck of a deal. The same should be said of Justin Morneau, yet in two separate auctions I got him for $24. That seems strange for a guy who's a perennial MVP candidate. He's only 27 and he already has three years of at least 23 HR and 111 RBI. He may not have the upside of Howard or Fielder, but a season of .300 - 100 - 30 - 125 is a fairly safe bet.

Texeira is also a quality option, but I'm seeing him going early in the first-round and for upwards of $35 in the wake of his signing with New York. Maybe that will prove a reasonable estimation of his value, but you can have Pujols, Cabrera, Hanley Ramirez, or Jose Reyes for around the same price. You be the judge.

Maybe I just arrived late on the Chris Davis bandwagon (unusual for me) and I understand that the 2008 numbers are pretty stratospheric (.305 -119-40-130-11 combined at AA/AAA/MLB), but I caution you to remember the likes of Jeff Francoeur and Delmon Young. Chris Davis hasn't proven his pitch selection capability quite yet and until he does, I not willing to rank him ahead of Derrek Lee, Kevin Youkilis, Carlos Pena, Carlos Delgado, Joey Votto, and James Loney (which is where Davis is getting drafted). Caution is warranted here.

Second Base:

+ Brandon Phillips, Orlando Hudson
- Mark DeRosa

I let others pay $30 for Dustin Pedroia (coming off career year), Chase Utley (coming off injury), and Ian Kinsler (coming off injury in a career year), I'll happily grab Brandon Phillips for around $20. He will put up quality stats in at least four categories and has the five-tool talent outperform the lot of him (see also, Alexei Ramirez, who has now moved to shortstop).

Based on my experience, Orlando Hudson is still going to be on the board in Round 25. You could do much worse with that pick, especially if you can slot him in as your third middle infielder. Between injuries the last two seasons Hudson has hit .300+ with an 800+ OPS, and that was on a team that expected him to bat in the three hole. Now he's likely to slot in between Rafael Furcal and Manny Ramirez, Matt Kemp, and Andre Ethier. As long as he's in the lineup he'll be a cheap producer in all five categories.

Mark DeRosa is coming off three consecutive seasons of improving production, capped off by a .285-103-21-87-6 year with the Cubs in '08 (kudos, Jim Hendry). Now he's 34 and heading back to the AL, to a team (Cleveland) which has a lot of young talent waiting in the wings. Don't be surprised if DeRosa loses his starting job and ends up as a veteran utility-man who only gets around 400 AB. We'll miss him in Chicago, but I'm quite skeptical.

Third Base:

+ Garrett Atkins, Ryan Zimmerman
- Evan Longoria

Maybe Longoria will equal or improve upon his rookie campaign, as Ryan Braun did last year, but I worry about the high ticket price. He's been going considerably ahead of guys like Aramis Ramirez and Kevin Youkilis, both of whom seem like safer options to me. His K/BB ratio (almost 3/1) worries me, especially since in was worst at the end of last year (20/3 in September, 20/5 in October). He still has to prove that he's capable of adjusting to the league and could be prone to some extended slumps which you are not likely to get from Ramirez or Youkilis.

Atkins is the prototype of the underrated player. He consistently lasts until the middle to late rounds, despite averaging .300-93-25-110 the last three seasons. He'll no longer benefit from the presence of Matt Holliday, but he still represents a top-quality choice at a surprisingly think position (especially now that A-Rod is questionable).

Nobody wants to touch Nationals hitters after they were among the worst in baseball last season, with no player exceeding 14 HR or 61 RBI. However, Zimmerman was limited to only 106 games in 2008 and stands to benefit the most from the addition of Adam Dunn, who will likely hit cleanup right behind him. Lastings Milledge, Elijah Dukes, and Christian Guzman should be capable table-setters and, most importantly, Zimmerman will be only 24 in his fourth big-league season. He seems to be consistently available late in the draft or auction. Few players at that point have this much upside.


+ Rafael Furcal, Troy Tulowitzki
- Derek Jeter

Remember, "intangibles" are not a fantasy category, so the fact the Jeter is going directly behind Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes, and Jimmy Rollins is probably the most laughable aspect of this years draft. Jeter is still a solid middle-of-the-road shortstop, capable of providing you with .300-90-10-70-10, but similar guys are available late in the draft (i.e. Orlando Hudson, Orlando Cabrera, Jhonny Peralta). If you're going to pay a premium price, take a gamble on Furcal, Tulowitzki, Alexei Ramirez, or Stephen Drew, all of whom could be competing with the trio of elite shortstops in years to come. Furcal will probably be the cheapest of the group (because he is the oldest and coming off an injury-plagued season). His combination of speed, plate discipline, and a threatening lineup behind him could allow him to challenge for a batting title and he has shown consistently improving power as his career has progressed. Two years of battling injuries may lead us to forget he is still in his prime.

Fantasy Highlights

- In 2001 I put together an NL-Only team which included NL MVP Barry Bonds, NL Rookie of the Year Albert Pujols, and Cardinals Aces Darryl Kile and Matt Morris, who combined for 38 wins. I was surprisingly taken to the wire by a fellow manager who had Sammy Sosa, Luis Gonzalez, and D-Backs co-Aces Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. What put me over the top was probably the play of Jimmy Rollins and Moises Alou.

- In 2002, in a H2H mixed league, I put together a pen of John Smoltz, Eric Gagne, Robb Nen, and Ugeth Urbina, who combined for nearly 200 saves and 350 K, alongside Pedro Martinez and Matt Clement, both of whom exceeded 200 K, I had four categories guaranteed week-in and week-out. Once I realized this fact, I started dispatching my sluggers to accumulate a stable of high-average speedsters who would assure my dominance in SB, AVG., and R, guys like Kenny Lofton, Alfonso Soriano, Luis Castillo, and Johnny Damon.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The World Baseball Classic

- Cuba is once again making apparent their place as the most incredible source of baseball talent in the world, much to the chagrin of "old-school" baseball broadcasters like Charlie Steiner, who is forced to utter attenuated compliments through gritted teeth.

- Ubaldo Jimenez and Pedro Martinez made impressive showings despite the Domincan Republics's embarrassing first-round exit following two one-run losses to the Netherlands. Jimenez pitched four innings and surrendered no runs, two hits, and zero walks with 10 strikeouts. Pedro made a pair of appearances and allowed only two baserunners in six innings, with six strikeouts.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Preseason Notes: The Raging Jays

There are several reasons why sportswriters, commentators, and pundits are dismissing the Toronto Blue Jays this March.  First and foremost, there is the quality of their competition.  The Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays were all superior last season and each of those teams made more of an off-season splash than the Jays.  More importantly, perhaps, the Blue Jays strength, a pitching staff which was very quietly the best in baseball in 2008, has been decimated by the loss of three starters - A. J. Burnett to free agency, and Dustin McGowan and Shawn Marcum to injury.  Toronto was 11th in the A.L. in runs scored last year and their only offensive acquisition is Kevin Millar, so presumably they need to shut down their opponents in order to win.  Ace Roy Halladay and Jesse Litsch are the only pitchers competing for rotations spots this spring who started more than a dozen games in the majors last season.

These are areas of serious concern, but they don't provide a full picture of Toronto's potential.  One thing remains constant, the Blue Jays retain Halladay, the best starting pitcher in either league (with all due respect to Sabathia and Santana), and a veteran presence whose influence on his young teammates helps reify comparisons with Greg Maddux.  Halladay has electric strikeout-artist stuff, just like Maddux in his prime, but it is his willingness to pitch to contact which allows him to stick around deep into games and deep into the season.  He's surpassed 16 wins and 220 innings in each of the last three seasons, despite getting less than average run production.  With Doc's presence on the mound every fifth game, the Blue Jays have the ability to stop losing streaks and take pressure of their young arms and their bullpen.

That stable of young arms is impressive, even without Marcum and McGowan, both of whom are likely to miss all of 2009.  Jesse Litsch will be expected to move up to #2 in the rotation this year, at the age of 23, but his numbers from last season (13-9, 3.58 ERA, 99K, and 1.23 WHIP in 176 IP) suggest he is ready to be successful in that role.  In fact, he may be primed for a breakout season, more than filling the shoes of the departed Burnett.  Halladay and Litsch will be followed by some combination of David Purcey, Brett Cecil, Casey Janssen, Ricky Romero, Scott Richmond, and Matt Clement.  All the these pitchers possess a certain amount of upside, but Brett Cecil is the kid to watch most closely.  He jumped three levels in 2008 (at the age of 21), performing well at each of them and earning himself a long look this spring.  During his extended run at AA, Cecil posted a miniscule ERA (2.55) and excellent strikeout ratios (10.08 K/9, 3.78 K/BB).  More patient hitters at AAA led to more walks in his brief time there to end the season, but he continued to be overpowering (9.10 K/9) and generally effective (4.11 ERA).  Most prospects of his caliber would be getting some major love at this point, but Cecil is benefitting from the wall of invisibility that comes with playing baseball in Canada.  If he shows strong command during camp, he could be a sleeper for Rookie of the Year and a key to making the Blue Jays rotation formidable once again.

What has gone most unnoticed in the writing off of the Jays, however, is that there offense is not as bad as it appeared last season.  Extended injuries to Aaron Hill, Vernon Wells, and Scott Rolen meant far too much exposure for Marcus Scutaro, John McDonald, and Joe Inglett, each of whom provides value only in more limited utility roles.  The return of Wells, Rolen, and Hill will also bolster the performance of Alex Rios, the Jays star right-fielder, whose production also suffered early in the year.  From June on, Rios hit .306 with 12 HR and an 854 OPS, clearly benefitting from improved lineup protection.  Even if Toronto again struggles with injuries, the acquisition of Millar and Jose Bautista will give them improved offensive option off the bench.  

Former manager John Gibbons also experimented far too long with cast-away veterans Brad Wilkerson, Kevin Mench, and Shannon Stewart in the outfield and DH roles in 2008.  Don't expect Cito Gaston to make the same mistake.  One of Gaston's first acts as manager was inserting Adam Lind in LF full-time, the result of which was a .296 AVG, 9 HR, and a respectable 792 OPS from June 22nd on.  Lind can hit.  I expect all those numbers to improve in his sophomore campaign.  He will be followed to the big leagues by Travis Snider.  The two are Toronto's top hitting prospects, both providing considerable power and good plate discipline, both of which were profoundly missing last season when the Jays were 10th in the A.L. in OBP and 11th in SLG%.

There is very little pressure on the Jays as everybody looks at the AL East as a three-horse race, but I expect Toronto to again finish the season above .500 (for the fourth year in a row), play spoiler, and perhaps even challenge for a wild-card berth.