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Friday, February 26, 2010

The Sporting Hippeaux's 2010 Shoulder Surgery Survey

I've recently been participating in some preseason roundtables over at Inside Pulse Sports.  Our discussion of the Arizona Diamondbacks, specifically Brandon Webb, prompted a little debate about the effectivity of shoulder surgeries.  The conversations got me thinking, 2010 is going to be an important season for surgeons.  Webb is just one of several notable pitchers who are returning to work after a major reconstructive surgery cost them the better part of the 2009 season.

In recent years, even the casual baseball fan has become familiar with "Tommy John surgery," the elbow operation which hundreds of major-leaguers have undergone.  The procedure has become so effective that are even cases of pitchers increasing their velocity upon returning.  Tim Hudson, Jake Westbrook, and Shaun Marcum are among the Tommy John recoverers who should be ready at the beginning of 2010.

Major shoulder injuries, on the other hand, are viewed as the death knell for pitchers.  Randy Johnson's discovery that his rotator cuff was going to require surgery may well have been what prompted his decision to retire.  Mark Prior had a shoulder replacement in 2007 and still hasn't made his way back to a big-league mound.  Mark Mulder has been trying to make his way back from a 2007 operation, but has managed only a dozen innings (and not good ones, either).  Shoulder injuries which required surgery also cut short the relatively promising careers of Matt Clement and Kris Benson.  The list is goes on.

There have, however, been a few instances of full recovery.  Pedro Martinez had to have his rotator cuff repaired in 2007 and while he struggled in 2008, his return to the mound last season with the Phillies was very successful.  Chris Carpenter had his labrum repaired in 2002 and has since been one of the best pitchers in all of baseball, winning a Cy Young in 2005.  Al Leiter had both Tommy John and shoulder surgery in 1989, at the age of 23, and proceeded to have an excellent career.  This experience helps lend a little credence to Leiter's prediction, as an MLB Network analyst, that Webb would be able to make a full recovery because he relies mainly on a sinker and has never needed an overpowering fastball (Leiter had a similar arsenal).    

A 2008 study of orthopedic surgeons found that only about a third of professional players were able to achieve their pre-injury level of production following a major shoulder surgery.  More than a third not only were unable to regain their former glory, but were forced into retirement.  Elbow surgeries faired much better, with slightly more than half of the players returning to full strength or even improving.  Sadly, it was still true that 30-40% of players were permanently effected to an extent that they were unable to continue to play.  More recent surveys have the specific ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction, known as "Tommy John," succeeding at a much higher rate, perhaps as high as 80-90%, though not every player gets a full recovery and the rehabilitation and strengthening process can be very lengthy.

Two years is a long time in terms of 21st-Century medical technology, so perhaps it's time for another look.  Eight noteworthy pitchers with be returning from shoulder operations early in 2010.  Throughout the season I'll be closely monitoring their progress and providing updates and analysis in hopes of understanding a little more about the long-term effects of this difficult and unpredictable procedure.

Here's our roster:

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Fantastic Thoughts: "Fat closers make happy owners." (Closer Preview)

1. Mariano Rivera (Yankees)
2. Jonathan Papelbon (Red Sox)
3. Francisco Rodriguez (Mets)
4. Jonathan Broxton (Dodgers)
5. Joe Nathan (Twins)

If you want one of these guys, you'll have to pay, either with one of your first five picks, or $25-$30 (if not more) in an auction.

6. Jose Valverde (Tigers)
7. Francisco Cordero (Reds)
8. Bobby Jenks (White Sox)
9. Trevor Hoffman (Brewers)

I really believe that this is where the value is.  Every year, the pundits become convince that these guys are just waiting to self-destruct.  Too fat.  Too old.  Too wild.  Too cocky.  But last year they combined for 130 saves.  In 2008, it was 138.  173 in '07.  136 in '06.  Many will bet against them in 2010 and maybe they'll finally be right, but me, I'll grab one of the fat boys in the middle rounds and odds are I'll be just fine.

10. Joakim Soria (Royals)
11. Brian Wilson (Giants)
12. Andrew Bailey (Athletics)
13. Huston Street (Rockies)
14. Carlos Marmol (Cubs)

The young guns.  A couple of these guys may jump into the top tier by the end of the year.  Soria would have been there already if injuries hadn't cut into his '09 campaign, thus causing potential owners some anxiety.  The price of youth is inconsistency, so buyer beware, but you'll be entertained watching them pitch.

15. Heath Bell (Padres)
16. Frank Francisco (Rangers)
17. David Aardsma (Mariners)

This trio pitched well in their first year captaining a bullpen and there's no obvious reason why they wouldn't do so again.  However, you should be slightly wary.  Literally hundreds of relievers have posted a 30-save season, but only a few dozen have done it more than once.  The sophomore season is when the wheat gets separated from the chaff when it comes to closing ballgames.

18. Brad Lidge (Phillies)
19. Brian Fuentes (Angels)
20. Billy Wagner (Braves)
21. Mike Gonzalez (Orioles)
22. Rafael Soriano (Rays)
23. Kerry Wood (Indians)
24. Octavio Dotel (Pirates)

These players have all done this job for several years and done it well, but there are a few reasons to be skeptical of them in 2010, to an extent you may not have been in the past.  Brad Lidge was a much-publicized mess last season.  There is no way Charlie Manuel will give him as long a leash if he again struggles out of the gate.  Brian Fuentes led the league in saves, but got bombed down the stretch and in the postseason, something Angels fans won't soon forget.  Wagner is old.  Wood is brittle.  You get the picture.

25. Leo Nunez (Marlins)
26. Ryan Franklin (Cardinals)
27. Matt Capps (Nationals)

This trio managed to win and hold down the closer's role for most or all of 2009, but they did so without dominating results.  They will be pressed from the start in 2010 and may not even survive Spring Training.

28. Juan Gutierrez (D-Backs)
29. Chad Qualls (D-Backs)
30. Jason Frasor (Blue Jays)
31. Brandon Lyon (Astros)
32. Matt Lindstrom (Astros)
33. Scott Downs (Blue Jays)
34. Kevin Gregg (Blue Jays)

The closer role is still TBD in Toronto, Houston, and Arizona.  These guys are likely to be battling it out all through the spring and possibly even into April, so you're unlikely to know for sure that you're even drafting a closer.  Nonetheless, it's worth speculating in the late rounds or with a few dollars, because it wouldn't surprise me at all if every guy on this list ends up with at least 8-10 saves.

35. Fernando Rodney (Angels)
36. J. P. Howell (Rays)
37. Ryan Madsen (Phillies)
38. Jim Johnson (Orioles)
39. J. J. Putz (White Sox)
40. George Sherrill (Dodgers)
41. Mike MacDougal (Marlins)

If you take one of these guys at the end of your draft, expect to be about as popular as a stock-shorter on the floor of the exchange.  By choosing a player from this tier or the one below it, you're essentially saying you have no faith in that team's current closer, either because you think they are going to be ineffective or injured.  The above group features players who have closing experience and have even had moderate success in the venture, and therefore are pretty much guaranteed the first shot at the job if the current closer does falter.

42. Neftali Feliz (Rangers)
43. Daniel Bard (Red Sox)
44. Phil Hughes/Joba Chamberlain (Yankees)
45. Angel Guzman (Cubs)
46. Drew Storen (Nationals)
47. Chris Perez (Indians)
48. Jason Motte (Cardinals)
49. Jose Ceda (Marlins)
50. Mike Adams (Padres)
51. Matt Thorton (White Sox)
52. Manny Corpas (Rockies)

These are "big" young arms who project as potential future closers.  It wouldn't take a miracle for them to end up doing the job as some point this season.  The first three on the list are especially interesting.  All three have the potential to contribute even as set-up men, because they'll feature good ERAs and WHIPs alongside a ton of strikeouts.  Moreover, as all three should move into either a closer or starter roles at some point in the next year or two, so they've got long-term consequences in keeper leagues.

Fantastic Thoughts: Breeding Backstops

One of the much-publicized trends in contemporary baseball is the growing tendency of organizations towards grooming starting pitchers from within.  Teams like San Francisco, Colorado, Minnesota, and Toronto have dedicated themselves to building rotations out of pitchers who've never worked for another franchise.  Less observed, however, it the parallel trend: the homegrown starting catcher.

The poster-boy for this trend is Joe Mauer, who was born and bred in Minnesota, has won three batting titles for the Twins, and is now looking to spend the next decade or more as their field general.  Many pitcher's on the Twins staff have been throwing to Mauer regularly since they were in the minor leagues, and will continue to throw to him, tens of thousands of pitches, for as long as they remain with the organization.

Mauer is the best, but he's hardly the only.  Brian McCann has spent his whole career thusfar in Atlanta.  Yadier Molina has never worked for anybody but Tony LaRussa.  Russell Martin is the heart and soul of the Dodgers.  And, of course, there's Jorge Posada, who's spent a dozen seasons behind the plate in the Bronx.

All told, nearly two thirds of major-league organizations will open the 2010 season with a catcher they drafted, developed, and brought to the big leagues.  Compare that to other positions in the free agent era and you'll see it's a remarkably high percentage.  And, it's not likely to go down anytime soon.  Some of the most highly regarded prospects in the game are catchers.  Matt Wieters reached the bigs midway through 2009 and looks to be the O's backstop for most of the twenty-teens.  This season he's likely to be followed by Buster Posey in San Francisco, Carlos Santana in Cleveland, and Jason Castro in Houston, each of whom is widely considered their organization's #1 prospect.  Not far behind them are Max Ramirez (Rangers), Jesus Montero (Yankees), Angel Salome (Brewers), and Tyler Flowers (White Sox).

The rationale is quite straightforward.  The catcher has more leadership responsibilities than any player on the diamond.  He needs to have a intimate relationship with his pitching staff and, to a slightly lesser extent, his infielders.  His competency is greatly assisted by having a long track record with most of his teammates, in a way that a slugging first-baseman's isn't.

How is this relevant in fantasy baseball?  Well, the best way to groom a catcher who you anticipate counting on for years to come is to give him big-league experience, preferably in slightly lower intensity scenarios.  As such, many of these rookie backstops may break camp as backups or even get sent to AAA, but as their teams drop out of contention, more and more will become regulars.  In deeper leagues which require two catchers or in keeper leagues, all of the players mentioned above are relevant even on Draft Day, and those who don't get drafted should be watched closely, because your league could come down to whether you get your August production from Jason Castro or Jason Kendall.


Fantastic Thoughts: "Winning isn't that much better than losing with players you love." (Auction Strategy)

Very few people play fantasy baseball for life-changing amounts of money.  If you're one of them, please disregard this and all other advice I offer.  I don't want it on my conscious.

Because fantasy baseball is primarily an entertainment, I dispute the popular punditry which argues that you should aspire to objectivity at your draft or auction.  Sure, you're decreasing your chance of winning your league if you choose to load up on your hometown Royals, but, within reason, you should target players that you enjoy watching.  An entire season of Nick Swisher at-bats generally yields some nice stats, but I, personally, find his plate appearances less than riveting.  I look forward to Carlos Zambrano starts, but, though I realize he's an equally competent pitcher in many respects, I don't feel the same way about Cole Hamels.

When it comes to players who have equal amounts of potential and implicit risks, like Hamels and Zambrano, your instinct is as good a determining factor as anything.  In a standard $260 auction, Hamels and Big Z should probably both go for $15-$20.  If I see Hamels stagnating on the lower end of that range or below (something which is unlikely to happen due to his notoriety), I would probably jump on him as a value pick, but I'm not going to pay full price, whereas I might go into the high teens for Zambrano (though, luckily, it's doubtful I'd have to, at least this year).

My point is, there are essentially two types of bids in an auction.  There are bids you make on players you desperately want, players you're willing to pay top dollar for, and there are bids you make because you think the players is being undervalued by your competitors and you like the reduced rate.  If you're going to have a good auction, you're going to need to do a little of both.

Depending on the size of your league, your roster, and your budget, you should probably target somewhere between eight and a dozen players.  Keep in mind, not all of them should be "premium" guys.  You're not going to follow more than a couple guys into the $30 range, maybe a couple more into the mid-to-upper twenties.  You should also have a variety of "sleepers" at various prices, guys you have high hopes for who you think can be had for $15, $10, $5, or even $1.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Next Elvis Andrus?

In an interview with MLB Network last week, Moises Alou predicted that Cubs uber-prospect, Starlin Castro, would be in the big-league lineup sometime this season, perhaps even in April.  Alou couldn't speak highly enough of Castro, who he coached very briefly in the Dominican Winter League, before the Cubs insisted that he shut it down for a month or two.

Castro's star, already on the horizon, shot into the national baseball consciousness this November, when he hit .376 in the Arizona Fall League.  The shortstop, who isn't yet 20-years-old, has hit for a high average and shown decent plate discipline at every level thusfar, though he hasn't yet displayed any power.  Not including the AFL, he's got only 31 games above A-ball.  It seems unlikely that the Cubs, who consider themselves potential contenders in the NL Central, would be willing to hand him an everyday job right out of the gate in 2010, as the Rangers did for Andrus in 2009 (Andrus, though like Castro in many ways, had, at least, one full season at AA).

However, the fact that the Cubs didn't sign a second-baseman this winter and already appear to have a plan of succession in place makes it more believable that Castro's arrival might be less than a year away.  If Castro can really flash the leather, forcing Ryan Theriot to move back to second base, than Chicago will get better defensively at two critical positions and the offense may be, at least, a wash, as Mike Fontenot and Jeff Baker, the current second base platoon, really bombed in '09.

I'm all for giving Fontenot and Baker another chance, and thus giving Castro a little more minor-league seasoning, but if that platoon hasn't improved dramatically on their '09 performance by July, there will be nothing to stop Jim Hendry from turning the infield and the eight-hole in the lineup over to Starlin.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Fantastic Thoughts: "Mark Buehrle may not be much to look at, but he's got a great personality." (Starting Pitcher Preview)

Rather than ranking hundreds of pitchers in a fashion which can be frustrating to manage during your draft or auction, I suggest grouping pitchers according to types.  This can be done in a number of ways, not necessarily exclusively those that I've outlined below, but I like to aim for getting at least one pitcher from each of my tiers (with the exception of #7, where I've put a number of guys who I will be flat-out ignoring).  You can still take a second or third guy from any one of the categories, if it fits your strategy or they are being undervalued, but this method will protect you somewhat from ending up with too many injury risks, too many unproven youngsters, too many low-strikeout veterans, or overspending on pitching in the early rounds.  It's not a perfect system, but I can boast that in the keeper league I invented it for I have now led the league in pitching staff scoring for three consecutive seasons, even though I only spend about 25% of my money on pitching.

Also, keep in mind, that although pitchers who I've grouped together share some particular trait, their potential and their risk can vary dramatically from #1 to #20, which also roughly suggests where they'll be available in the draft.  Say, for instance, that the first two pitchers I select are Matt Cain (#11) and Carlos Zambrano (#9), I will probably try to get a top five guy from the "upside" group and at least a top ten guy from the "rubber arms" group.  However, if I already have Roy Halladay (#1) and Yovani Gallardo (#6), I'll probably wait until deeper in the draft to spring for guys like Derek Lowe (#15), Manny Parra (#17), and Gavin Floyd (#11).  You probably don't want to just lift my tiers verbatim, but rather design your own to fit the particular scoring rules and roster requirements of your league.

#1: Bonafide Aces

1. Roy Halladay (Phillies)
2. Tim Lincecum (Giants)
3. C. C. Sabathia (Yankees)
4. Johan Santana (Mets)
5. Felix Hernandez (Mariners)
6. Justin Verlander (Tigers)
7. Cliff Lee (Mariners)
8. Chris Carpenter (Cardinals)
9. Dan Haren (D-Backs)
10. Jon Lester (Red Sox)
11. Matt Cain (Giants)
12. Adam Wainwright (Cardinals)

If you are going to draft a pitcher in the first five rounds of a standard (10-team) league, make it be one of these fellows.  Now, I'm not saying you need a pitcher that early in the draft.  There are plenty of workable strategies that don't require a bonafide Ace, but if you go that route, go with these proven commodities.  Every one of these players has had multiple seasons of excellence and remains in the prime of his career.

You can bicker with my rankings, especially at the top.  I chose Halladay over Lincecum mainly because he'll get a lot more run support, and therefore have a better chance at accumulating wins, but there's a strong chance Lincecum leads him in strikeouts by a sizable margin.  If there is any uncertainty surrounding Johan Santana's health by the middle of Spring Training, he falls out of this class.  Same goes for Carpenter and Lee.  Again, if you're drafting a pitcher early, you need somebody who is at least seemingly without risk.

#2: Aces?

1. Zack Greinke (Royals)
2. Brandon Webb (D-Backs)
3. Josh Beckett (Red Sox)
4. Ubaldo Jimenez (Rockies)
5. Josh Johnson (Marlins)
6. Yovani Gallardo (Brewers)
7. Javier Vazquez (Braves)
8. Matt Garza (Rays)
9. Carlos Zambrano (Cubs)
10. Ricky Nolasco (Marlins)
11. Cole Hamels (Phillies)
12. Scott Kazmir (Angels)
13. Jake Peavy (White Sox)

I'm perfectly content with one of these hurlers as a #1 pitcher.  All have proven their ability to pitch like an Ace.  Just don't reach for them too early, because either youth (Jimenez), health (Johnson), or an inexplicable disposition (Zambrano) have prevented them from doing it consistently.

It will be tempting to overreach for Greinke after his Cy Young season.  Sure, I think he has permanently "arrived," but the 2009 numbers are difficult to duplicate, especially as he continues to pitch for the worst team in baseball.  There is no doubt that the prolonged frustration and perfectionism which results from pitching in front of a bad defense that never scores you any runs can have an effect on the psyche and eventually the stats of even great pitchers.  We saw it with Cliff Lee in the first half of '09 and with Matt Cain in '08.

#3: Rubber Arms

1. A. J. Burnett (Yankees)
2. John Lackey (Red Sox)
3. James Shields (Rays)
4. Jered Weaver (Angels)
5. Roy Oswalt (Astros)
6. Wandy Rodriguez (Astros)
7. Edwin Jackson (D-Backs)
8. Bronson Arroyo (Reds)
9. Ted Lilly (Cubs)
10. Mark Buehrle (White Sox)
11. Ryan Dempster (Cubs)
12. Scott Baker (Twins)
13. Joe Saunders (Angels)
14. John Danks (White Sox)
15. Derek Lowe (Braves)
16. Kevin Millwood (Orioles)
17. Joe Blanton (Phillies)
18. Andy Pettitte (Yankees)

Guys from this tier are notoriously underrated.  In fact, you'll likely end up selecting one of your high-upside #4 or #5 guys prior to somebody from the bottom half of this list.  But, by the end of the season, these guys will have quietly accumulated the stats to justify at least #3 status and, as such, will have a very special place in your heart.  The most underrated statistic in fantasy baseball is 30+ games started.

I could confidently sell you on any one of these guys, but this season I'll honor Joe Saunders, who, in 2009, posted his second consecutive season of 31 starts, 185+ innings, and 16+ wins.  His ERA rose above where you'd like it (4.60), mainly due to a rough midsummer stretch, but he finished strong, going 7-1 with a 2.55 ERA in his final eight starts.  He doesn't turn 29 until June and he pitches in the midst of a fairly deep rotation on a team that was second in the league in scoring in 2009.  It's a fine situation.    

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Spring Training Position Battle EVERYBODY'S Talking About: Blue Jays Catcher

I don't have to tell you that when Toronto announced the signing of Jose Molina this afternoon, the shockwaves reverberated around the world.  It was a press conference the baseball media had been anticipating for days and marked the resolution of a free agent storyline that had dominated the headlines of months.  What may especially surprise you is that the man known primarily as "the middle Molina," "the other Molina," or "the Molina that can't hit" may not be guaranteed a spot on Toronto's opening day roster.  The Blue Jays don't have many players with the "star power" of the former Yankee and Angels back-up, but Cito Gaston is renowned for his willingness to go with the hot hand, so Molina will have to earn his way, just like anybody else.

The Blue Jays rookie GM, Alex Anthropologist, has spent his first offseason in the typical fashion of a young administrator looking to make his mark, he's been collecting second and third string catchers.  He began on the 11th of December by signing John Buck, a product of the Kansas City farm system, that bastion of drafting and development.  Buck started each of the last five seasons as the Royals primary backstop and proceeded each time to lose at-bats to cagey veterans with household names like Paul Bako, Jason LaRue, and Miguel Olivo.  At the beginning of 2010, after nearly 600 major-league games, Buck still hasn't raised his OBP to .300

Thankfully, the Jays GM didn't stop there.  On the very next day he re-signed Raul Chavez, a 37-year-old journeyman, who in fourteen seasons has never been deemed worthy of as many as 200 major-league at-bats.  A week later, in the blockbuster trade of the offseason, when Anthopoulos sent Roy Halladay to Philadelphia, one of the prospects he got in return was a catcher named Travis d'Arnaud.  d'Arnaud hasn't advanced past A ball, but his 738 OPS at that level suggest he profiles as, well, Raul Chavez or, with a little luck, Ramon Castro.

Meanwhile, the Jays have two young, twenty-something catchers, J. P. Arencibia and Kyle Phillips, each of whom now have had considerable experience and moderate success at AAA.  There is absolutely no reason to believe the combo of Arencibia and Phillips would be any worse, at least offensively, than Buck and Molina, or Buck and Castro.  Even if they were, getting them experience in the big leagues during a season in which Toronto must be considered a rebuilding franchise, seems a worthwhile proposition...seem, in fact, very much like the definition of "rebuilding."  Even if Anthopoulos and Gaston have reservations about going with two rookie catchers, I still can't understand why they need THREE hopeless veterans.  What a nightmare the past year has been for Blue Jays fans.


ESPN Insider is currently running a series in tandem with Baseball Prospectus on the PECOTA Projections for each of the divisional races.  PECOTA is a player projection system invented by Nate Silver, who recently became America's most famous statistician, after his wildly popular 2008 election projections at  For the last couple seasons, Baseball Prospectus has co-opted the PECOTA player projections to produce team projections as well, with full acknowledgement that there are a variety of factors which cannot be accounted for in this way.

Last season, PECOTA did a fairly good job in the AL, predicting three of the four playoff representatives and coming darn close on a number of win-loss records.  They were a bit too high on the Indians (projecting a first place finish) and the Athletics (second place), but otherwise their projections look an awful lot like what actually happened.

PECOTA wasn't nearly as accurate on the NL, netting just one of the four postseason teams (Dodgers).  BP was hardly alone in predicting the Cubs to win the Central and the Mets to win the East, though both picks ended up looking silly, as the team finished third and fourth, respectively.  Perhaps their most surprisingly call was predicting the D-Backs to take the Wild Card with the Rockies (the eventual Wild Card winner) finishing last in the West.

For 2010, PECOTA has once again yielded some pretty interesting results.  The biggest surprise comes from the AL West, where BP is not only predicting a more tightly packed race (which probably goes without saying since all four teams have been very active this offseason), but have the three-time reigning champion Angels finishing dead last.  If would be their first such finish of Mike Scioscia's career.  PECOTA projects that all three of the other franchises in the AL West will finish above .500, with the Rangers coming out on top by a four games.

Obviously, as I'm sure even BP would readily admit, the margin of error for PECOTA is relatively large.  Anytime teams are separated by five games or less, it can probably be considered a tie, which makes the AL Central results even more fascinating.  PECOTA has three teams - the White Sox, Twins, and Tigers - in a dead heat for first place, with nobody managing even a .500 record.  PECOTA has all three at 80 wins, with the Indians just three games back.  I would agree with what this projection implies, that all of these franchises have considerable limitations, and that the division will probably be decided largely by injuries and in-season maneuvering by its exceptional class of managers and general managers (Kenny Williams & Ozzie Guillen, Dave Dombrowski & Jim Leyland, Bill Smith & Ron Gardenhire, Mark Shapiro & Manny Acta).  

In the NL, PECOTA lines up pretty closely with the conventional wisdom, with both the Phillies and Cardinals expected to win their divisions by a fairly substantial margin.  In the West, BP has gotten on the Colorado bandwagon, perhaps embarrassed by their naysaying in '09 (PECOTA is, of course, a computer program, so, presumably, it doesn't experience embarrassment).  They have the Rockies winning the division, with the D-Backs finishing second, in position for the Wild Card.  Most surprising, perhaps, is that they've got the Dodgers and Giants, who many expect to battle for first, finishing at only .500, in a tie for third place.

Most people who check in on the PECOTA projections are probably interested foremost by one question, "Yankees or Red Sox?"  Last year PECOTA accurately predicted that New York would win the NL East, with Boston taking the Wild Card, and the Rays finishing third with a winning record (PECOTA actually thought Tampa Bay would be slightly better than they were).  This year they again see all three teams posting 90+ wins, but with Boston coming out on top, followed by the Yankees and then the Rays.  The caveat, of course, is that the trio is separated by only a three-game margin, so clearly, it's anybody's division.

If we re-interpret the PECOTA projections as Power Rankings, they expect the top five teams to be the 1.) Red Sox (94 W), 2.) Yankees (92), 3.) Rays (91), 4t.) Phillies/Cardinals/Rockies (88) and the bottom five teams to be 30.) Blue Jays (71), 29t.) Padres/Pirates (72), 27.) Royals (74), 26t.) Angels/Nationals (76).

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Sporting Hippeaux Fantasy Update

In the coming decade, I promise to continue to inundate the blogosphere with my particular brand of baseball obsession.  I am also, in 2010, hosting a new fantasy league, the SPH TwentyTeens AL/NL Extravaganza.

It is a concept I have been contemplating for several seasons and you can check out its up-and-coming homepage at ESPN.  In the TwentyTeens AL/NL Extravaganza there will be twenty teams, but only ten owners.  Each owner will manage one NL-only and one AL-only franchise in a 19-week Head-2-Head regular season, followed by an eight-team playoff which will eventually pit the top AL franchise against the top NL franchise (I know, I know, it's a concept which is ingenious in its familiarity).

There will be a small prize pool (buoyed by a $10 entry fee), just to promote interest.  Most years the money will be split between champion ($40) and runner-up ($20), with each playoff team getting a share ($5) of their fee back.  However, as an added twist, if the same owner manages to win both the AL and the NL pennant, they take home the whole bounty.

Rosters will look like actual baseball teams, with 25-man active rosters, including 12 pitchers (at least five starters and five relievers), two catchers, four outfielders, etc.  Every position scores, but you will have a DL on which to stash injured players.

The scoring will be 8 X 8 with normal categories (AVG, R, HR, RBI, W, SV+HLD, ERA, WHIP, IP) balanced by "sabermetrics" (OBP, SLG, PPA, Net SB, K/9, K/BB, BAA).  The mix of counting stats and rate stats should make for very interesting week-to-week strategizing.  Each matchup will consist of sixteen potential "wins," so that final regular season records will look as though each team played a 304-game season.  This way, if you run neck-and-neck with a team and barely lose, instead of going 0-1, you'll go 7-9 or 6-8-2, which makes recovering from bad luck much easier.

I am tentatively planning on making this an auction league, but with 500-player pool, that may prove to be unwieldy.  The draft is scheduled for March 27th.  There are currently five openings.  Email me if you are interested.

There is also currently one opening in the SPH 640.  The SPH 640, now entering its third season, is the deepest league around, featuring sixteen teams, each with a 40-man roster (25 active, 15 bench).  We play a Head-2-Head schedule, using a points system.  It is an extremely active, competitive league, despite the fact that it is completely free.  Each team retains six keepers from year to year.  The available franchise (Naptown Nightmare) has some solid options (Ryan Braun, Ryan Howard, Dan Haren, etc.).  The draft (a 34-round snake draft) is currently scheduled for March 13th.  Again, email me if interested.

Finally, The Sporting Hippeaux will be represented in the the inaugural season of an "experts" league hosted by the Baseball Bloggers Alliance.  More details coming shortly!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Offseason Prospectus #30: The Kansas City Royals

Last, but not...well, actually...

There are a number of baseball franchises which vie for the title of "Best Punchline."  The Pirates recently set a record of prolonged futility by finishing below .500 for seventeen consecutive seasons.  The Nationals/Expos have made just one playoff appearance in their 41 year history.  And, of course, there are the accursed Cubs, who championship drought recently extended beyond the century mark.

But for pure sporting incompetence, it's hard to argue with the Kansas City Royals.  They won the World Series in 1985 and for a few years thereafter were contenders in the AL West.  Since the late eighties, however, the Royals have managed a winning record only three times (once during the strike-shortened '94 season) and have not returned to the postseason since their '85 championship.

In recent years, they have grown more and more woeful, as they've featured eight managers in their past eight seasons and cracked 100 losses four times.  In the tenure of current General Manager, Dayton Moore, they have become a kind of anachronism, a franchise which seems steadfastly determined to defy the evolutions of their industry...and not in a good way.

In 2009, FanGraphs ranked 154 players according to Wins Above Replacement.  Of those 154, only eight finished below replacement level.  And the man who finished 154th was almost a full win worse than the guy at 153 (Aubrey Huff).  That man was Yuniesky Betancourt, the former Mariner shortstop who was Moore's primary 2009 acquisition.  Betancourt wasn't just the worst player in baseball, he was the worst player by a long shot.

For Dayton Moore, this is just the most dramatic instance of his stubbornly standing in defiance of "new-fangled" statistical metrics.  This offseason alone he signed three players who score extraordinarily low in categories like WAR, UZR, and OPS: Scott Podsednik, Jason Kendall, and Rick Ankiel.  And for this reason he's become the scourge of sabermetric analysts like Rob Neyer, who happens to also be a Royals fan.

But while Moore is eviscerated by sportswriters (in this rare instance, the sabermetricians and the traditionalists seem mostly in agreement) he has the full endorsement of Kansas City ownership, which recently extended his contract through the 2013 season.  Unfortunately, that probably assures that Royals fans are looking at four more years of absolutely dismal baseball.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Fantastic Thoughts: "American League teams don't even carry five outfielders." (Outfield Preview)

It's a fantasy baseball tradition.  The vast majority of leagues require each team to carry five active outfielders.  So, while it may appear that that this position is loaded with excellent options at the beginning of your draft, it probably won't feel that way by the time you're making your fourth and fifth selections, especially if you're playing in an AL-only or large mixed league.  It's wise to get a stud early (in the first three to five rounds).

This is also one of those positions that doesn't necessarily jibe with the ever-popular "high-risk/high-reward" strategy.  Sure, I'll advocate a good many young up-and-comers, as I would at any position, but I'm also a big fan of ho-hum veterans that can be had in the late rounds or for very little money.  Nobody gets revved up about Hideki Matsui, J. D. Drew, and Jermaine Dye anymore, but for years they have been mortal locks for 20 HR, 150 R + RBI, and an average that won't hurt you.  You'll find such numbers quite satisfactory from your fifth outfielder.

Rather than rank 100+ outfielders, I'll provide my top forty and then a few pools of players who are can fulfill certain roles.

1. Ryan Braun (Brewers)
2. Justin Upton (D-Backs)
3. Matt Kemp (Dodgers)
4. Carl Crawford (Rays)
5. Matt Holliday (Cardinals)

No matter how you rank them (I'm probably higher on Upton than most), everybody in this quintet is going to be gone by the end of the second round.  You can't go too far wrong with any of them, but the first three are especially scary, as none are older than 26.

6. Nick Markakis (Orioles)
7. Curtis Granderson (Yankees)
8. Grady Sizemore (Indians)
9. Adam Jones (Orioles)
10. Jayson Werth (Phillies)
11. Shin-Soo Choo (Indians)

This may seem like a reach for some of these guys, but they are all "five-tool" players in their primes, for whom 30/30 seasons are not a terrible stretch.  The potential for that kind of across-the-board production makes them very tempting.  Choo very quietly had a breakout effort in '09, with 20 HR and 21 SB, to go along with a .300 average and 80+ runs and RBI.  With two full seasons under his belt and an improved Cleveland lineup around him, he could turn into an MVP candidate.

As a baseball fan, I hate that Curtis Granderson is a Yankee.  But as a fantasy owner, I am downright buoyant.  If Johnny Damon can hit 20+ bombs with the help of the new right-field porch in the Bronx, Granderson could have an outside shot at 40.  No matter where he hits in the New York order, Grandy is going to see better pitches and have more run-producing opportunities than he did as the leadoff hitter in Detroit.

12. Ichiro Suzuki (Mariners)
13. Manny Ramirez (Dodgers)
14. Carlos Lee (Astros)
15. Jason Bay (Mets)
16. Bobby Abreu (Angels)

None of these guys are spring chickens, but they are still fairly safe plays as your #1 or #2 outfielder.  Some people will be wary of Bay because of his move to Citi Field and some will be wary of Manny because of his unusual late-season slump.  Let them worry away.

17. Carlos Beltran (Mets)
18. B. J. Upton (Rays)
19. Josh Hamilton (Rangers)

Here is the first tier of "injury risks."  There was much ado about Beltran's offseason surgery and the the uncertainty of the timeline for his return.  Upton struggled throughout last season and had another operation this past winter.  And, of course, Hamilton has been consistently creaky throughout his career. That said, all three of these guys, when happy and healthy, could very easily jump from the top twenty into the top five.

20. Carlos Gonzalez (Rockies)
21. Torii Hunter (Angels)
22. Andrew McCutchen (Pirates)
23. Hunter Pence (Astros)

A lesser version of the second tier, guys who possess high-end speed and power.  McCutchen and Gonzalez are perhaps primed to jump into the top ten, but both will have to prove that the can reproduce (or even improve upon) their second-half surges.  Gonzalez was among the best in all of baseball during the waning months of '09, as he hit .320 with a dozen homers and a 992 OPS in about 200 plate appearances after the All-Star Break, then batted .588 (!) in the NLDS.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Offseason Prospectus #29: The Philadelphia Phillies

They've won two straight NL pennants.  They have easily the most lethal lineup in the National League and among the best in all of baseball.  Unwilling to rest on their laurels after losing to the Yankees in the '09 World Series, management traded for and signed the game's best starting pitcher and another All-Star caliber infielder.  You would think that Phillies fans wouldn't have much to complain about.

But, of course, the most notoriously surly fan base in all of sports has found something to harp on this winter: Cliff Lee.  And, honestly, as envious as I am of the team they do have, I can't blame them.  After Philadelphia acquired Roy Halladay this offseason, they immediately sent Lee to Seattle for a trio of decent prospects.  Their GM, Ruben Amaro, cited the need to restock the farm system, so that the team would remain competitive throughout the coming decade.  However, the Philly faithful had grown quite attached to Lee as he was their workhorse throughout the last three months of the season, including the playoffs, and they had to ask: Why not mortgage the future, if it gives us a better chance at bringing home a couple more rings?  With Lee and Halladay at the top, the Phillies would be balancing the NL's best lineup with the NL's best rotation, and have a tandem of former AL Cy Youngs which could intimidate even the megaliths in New York and Boston in a short series.

One of the dangers of the "Moneyball era," in which teams are increasingly obsessed with youth and making wise long-term investments, is that teams are afraid to cash in all their chips and "go for it," as such, they may miss out on dynastic opportunities.  The Phillies have a team that's built to win now, with a core signed through at least the 2011 season.  It is very rare in this era to put together a team which can reach baseball's pinnacle several years running.  2009 was the first time in eight seasons that a team repeated as its league's champion.  The Yankees are the only team in the Wild Card era to make it three or more, and only two franchises - New York and Oakland - have accomplished that feat in the integration era (since '47).  Returning to and especially winning another World Series in 2010 would be legacy-making moment for Philadelphia, and you can understand why fans might want that to take precedent over the future exploits of Phillippe Aumont.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Fantastic Thoughts: "Pitching and defense may win championships in reality, but fantasy baseball pennants are all about the O." (Shortstop Preview)

In my first "Fantastic Thoughts" column of 2010, I encouraged readers to think about the way the recent trend toward defense might effect playing time and therefore change how they rate players, especially at the most challenging positions, shortstop being first among them.  That said, getting the ABs in just half the battle.  You still need to employ a player who has a prayer at the plate.  Ask anybody who has made the mistake of owning Jason Kendall or Adam Everett just how much it sucks to have 600 plate appearances from a guy that hits .240.  In what follows, because of lack of depth at the position, I will consistently endorse shortstops based on potential rather than production (except for the elite class).  Basically, I'd rather have a 22-year-old hitting .240 than a 35-year-old hitting .240.  The result may end up the same, but, as Elvis Andrus and Everth Cabrera proved in 2009, young players can make significant strides over the course of a six month season.  That .240 in April may be .280 in September, which still isn't great, but at this position, you're looking for little victories.

1. Hanley Ramirez (Marlins)
2. Jimmy Rollins (Phillies)
3. Troy Tulowitzki (Rockies)
4. Jose Reyes (Mets)

For more that a decade now, the early rounds of fantasy drafts have been governed largely by the dispersal of the "Big Three," a rotating trio of shortstops capable of producing like iron-gloved first-baseman.  The separation between the "Big Three" and the rest of the shortstop is perhaps the largest gap at any position, thus increasing the boon of selecting one of them.  The cast over the years has included a number of recognizable hypenations: A-Rod, Han-Ram, J-Roll, No-Mar, etc.

This year, the trio becomes a quartet, as Troy Tulowitzki joins incumbents Rollins, Reyes, and Ramirez.  While Hanley obviously belongs at the top (he's likely the #2 pick in most drafts), we could bicker at length about how to rank the other three.  Tulo hasn't put up back-to-back elite performances yet.  Reyes is coming off a major injury.  Rollins had a horrific first half in '09.  I wouldn't fault you for backing any one of these guys over the others, but I will point out that J-Roll, in his "off year," still managed 100 R (#4 among SS), 77 RBI (#5), 21 HR (#3), and 31 SB (#2).  There wasn't a single shortstop who came close to matching him in all four categories and only one player in all of baseball eclipsed his production across the board (Ian Kinsler).  Assuming J-Roll's 2010 is more like his second half (801 OPS) than his first half (642 OPS), we can expect him to once again warrant selection in the top two or three rounds.

5. Derek Jeter (Yankees)
6. Miguel Tejada (Orioles) [will become eligible at 3B in most leagues]
7. Jason Bartlett (Rays)
8. Alexei Ramirez (White Sox)

Ramirez was a very popular sleeper selection prior to 2009, but he failed to build on his solid rookie season.  I'm among those who would be willing to lay double or nothing that that 25/25 season that many people were expecting is still on the way, but I can't base that prediction on much more than a gut feeling.

Jason Bartlett is the opposite case.  Nobody expected his breakout in '09, as he hit more homers (14) than he had in his previous four seasons combined (11) and only Jeter and Hanley hit for a higher average (.320).  Bartlett is 30-years-old.  Is he a late bloomer, or was '09 a fluke?

Tejada's excellent showing in '09 continues to be overlooked.  He's no longer the power threat he was in his prime, but he still led the league in doubles, his a sparkling .313, and provided great run production for the position (83 R, 86 RBI).  It's hard to see how the move to Baltimore hurts him in any way.

9. J. J. Hardy (Twins)
10. Yunel Escobar (Braves)
11. Asdrubel Cabrera (Indians)
12. Stephen Drew (D-Backs)

As with Ramirez, you'd be drafting these guys for their upside as much as for any proven production, although they do all have at least one solid season in the rearview mirror.  Hardy and Drew have 20 HR power, but they're also strikeout machines.  Cabrera and Escobar don't excel at any particular aspect of the fantasy game, but each is quite likely to put up a .285-80-10-75-15 line, which is nothing to sneeze at from this position.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Offseason Prospectus #28: The Detroit Tigers

It's been an interesting offseason for Dave Dombrowski and the Tigers.  After a heartbreaking 163rd game the franchise looked destined for an overhaul.  And, that was exactly what appeared to be happening when Dombrowski traded away Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson, then allowed Placido Polanco, Brandon Lyon, and Fernando Rodney to walk.  The Tigers had lost the face of their franchise, their two most reliable relievers, an All-Star starter, and a Gold Glove infielder.

A funny thing happened in the last two months.  The "rebuilding" Tigers suddenly look like a team with a realistic shot of competing for the AL Central.  It's not so much what they've done - although the additions of Max Scherzer and Jose Valverde are nothing to sneeze at - as what their primary competitors have failed to do.

The Twins improved themselves offensively and defensively with the additions of J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson, but the rotation, which was their primary Achilles heel last season, remains a mystery.  If Francisco Liriano and Kevin Slowey become the frontline pitcher many expect, the division will be the Twins to lose, but that's by no means a safe bet.  Meanwhile, the White Sox have a solid rotation, but their lineup is old (Paul Konerko, A. J. Pierzynski, etc.) and inconsistent (Alex Rios, Carlos Quentin, etc.).

The Tigers are, likewise, a flawed team.  But their flaws are not significantly greater than their main competitors and their strengths are noteworthy.  They still boast what are quite possibly the division's best hitter and pitcher, Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander (I haven't forgotten about the reigning MVP and Cy Young, but, honestly, these Tigers were right there with them and are, perhaps, more proven commodities).  They've still got a solid defense, although they will be hard-pressed to replace Polanco and Granderson, and they have a nice infusion of youth on both sides of the ball in the form of Scherzer, Rick Porcello, Austin Jackson, and Alex Avila.  I think the oddsmakers are right to rate Detroit third in their division, but it isn't hard to see how they might overcome.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Fantastic Thoughts: "A-Rod's fantasy owners regret 'Juiced Ball Era,' admit culpability, and promise to 'move forward' with 'that kid from Vanderbilt.'" (Third Base Preview)

1. Alex Rodriguez (Yankees)
2. Evan Longoria (Rays)
3. Pablo Sandoval (Giants) [also eligible at 1B in most leagues]
4. Ryan Zimmerman (Nationals)
5. David Wright (Mets)

I was reading Athlon Sports fantasy preview the other day and was deeply surprise to find that they ranked A-Rod 26th overall and fourth among third-basemen.  Although I would agree that A-Rod is no longer a consensus #1 pick, as he has been for most of the last decade, I think passing on him in favor of guys like Troy Tulowitzki, Dustin Pedroia, and Mark Texeira might be a premature estimation of his demise.  Do you think Mark Texeira would even draft himself in front of the guy who protects him in the order?!?  I doubt it.

That said, it's pretty easy to see the top five here as interchangeable.  Each of them offers a modest risk.  A-Rod has that amazing "self-healing" hip thing.  David Wright plays his home games on a Par 5.  Kung Fu Panda and Z-Pack have yet to prove they can produce at an elite level two years in a row.  And, Evan Longoria, well, actually, I'm having a hard time finding the chink in Longoria's armor.

6. Kevin Youkilis (Red Sox) [also eligible at 1B]
7. Aramis Ramirez (Cubs)
8. Mark Reynolds (D-Backs) [also eligible at 1B in most leagues]
9. Chone Figgins (Mariners)

Get while the getting is good, because after these top two tiers, the position gets really shallow really fast.  Believe me, you don't want to get stuck with Jorge Cantu as one of your top corner infield options.

One could probably argue that Youkilis and Ramirez belong in the top tier and I'd be perfectly satisfied drafting either of them, but they are also both coming off injury shortened campaigns, which is why I rated them slightly lower.  Reynolds and Figgins are elite one-category producers (for Reynolds it's power, for Figgins it's speed), who offer solid production in other areas as well.  Reynolds can be a bit of a drag on your batting average in a roto league and in points leagues that register deductions for strikeouts, but he is also one of the game's few 30/30 threats.

10. Adrian Beltre (Red Sox)
11. Miguel Tejada (Orioles) [also eligible at SS]
12. Michael Young (Rangers)
13. Jorge Cantu (Marlins) [also eligible at 1B in most leagues]
14. Chipper Jones (Braves)

Some will be mighty surprised that Chipper doesn't even make my top ten, and I am in no way denying his ability to provide excellent production...when he's on the field.  But in this year particularly, when there are not a lot of quality three-baggers available late in the draft or on the waiver wire, I'm not comfortable having a #1 guy who's guaranteed to spend at least a couple weeks on the DL, and maybe much more.  Chipper has made as many as 140 starts since 2003.  I love the risk/reward ration if you can get him as a backup/utility option, but not as a #1.

I'm probably unusually high on Beltre.  His recent seasons certainly haven't been superior to many of the guys I've ranked below him, but I like the fact that he's moving away from the spacious Safeco Field and into a lineup which will provide him with a lot more run-producing opportunities.  This could be the year he finally has another 30 HR, 100 RBI season.

15. Alex Gordon (Royals)
16. Gordon Beckham (White Sox) [will be eligible at 2B early in the season]
17. Andy LaRoche (Pirates)
18. Jake Fox (Athletics)

Grasping at straws!  So soon!  There are a full four tiers of risky young players in this preview, because several teams don't have clear starters and may even be flirting with platoons (otherwise known as "fantasy kryptonite").  These are the youngsters I'm highest on, each of whom is likely to have a full-time gig...if they stay healthy and play well.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Zduriencik Makes a Midseason February

The Seattle Mariners have already been the toast of the 2009-2010 offseason.  Perhaps no two trades have been more unanimously lauded than GM Jack Zduriencik's acquisitions of Cliff Lee from Philadelphia (for three minor leaguers, none of which were big-name prospects) and Milton Bradley from the Cubs (for 250 pounds of eminently releasable pitcher, known as Carlos Silva).  Zduriencik also made a big splash by signing one of this year's most desirable free agents, Chone Figgins, to a four-year deal.

Those moves, all involving noteworthy players and all accomplished before Christmas, already had many anticipating Seattle making a serious run at the AL West crown.  It should be noted, however, that Zduriencik has not been resting on his laurels in the last six weeks, and it may be his recent thrifty additions to the Mariners depth chart which make the eventual difference in what seems sure to be a hard-fought race with both the Angels and Rangers.

In the last month, Zduriencik has made a flurry of interesting speculative signings, many of which seem designed to increase the potential options at the positions which remain somewhat in flux, namely first base, left field, and designated hitter.  Granted, the Mariners may have been fine sticking with Bradley, Ken Griffey Jr., and two of their top prospects, Michael Saunders and Mike Carp, but with the injury history of the two veterans and, of course, the general inconsistency of rookies, it seems wise to have a Plan B.  Zduriencik has given his manager, Don Wakamatsu, plans C and D as well.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Offseason Prospectus #27: The St. Louis Cardinals

If you want to know how crazy innovative Tony La Russa really is, check out this article from the Riverfront Times in 2004.  Like any steadfast progressive, La Russa has laid a few eccentric eggs.  But, that said, it is becoming increasingly difficult to argue against his case for greatest manager of all time.  MLB Network's "Prime 9" ranked him at #4, behind Casey Stengel, Joe McCarthy, and John McGraw.  But, of those three, only Stengel managed after integration (most of my readers know, I don't dignify much that happened prior to 1947), none of them managed during the free agent era, and all of them had the luxury of managing the most profitable and talent-laden franchise in the league for the bulk of their careers (the Yankees for McCarthy and Stengel, the New York Giants for McGraw).

La Russa has certainly had his fair share of talent, having managed Pujols, Rickey Henderson, Dave Parker, Eckersley, McGwire, Canseco, etc., but he's also guided his share of overachieving franchises, most notably the '06 Champs.  The Cardinals, which La Russa has managed since 1996 certainly aren't the stingiest team in the league, but they've never had a payroll over $100 Million (according to Cot's Contracts). In fourteen seasons under La Russa, they've made eight playoff appearance and have only three losing campaigns.  La Russa currently trails only Joe Torre and Bobby Cox in playoff appearances, and, of course, we know each of them to have been blessed with significantly larger budgets.

La Russa, alongside the other greats of his generation (especially Torre and Cox) has succeeded by being a "players manager."  Former players like Eckersley and McGwire speak of him in reverential tones.  And, of course, he and longtime pitching coach, Dave Duncan, are responsible for a long list of pitching Renaissances, including Eckersley, Chris Carpenter, Woody Williams, Tom Seaver, Joel Pineiro, Jeff Suppan, Mike Moore, and the late, great Daryl Kile, to name just a few.  Many also credit La Russa and Duncan with revolutionizing the use of situational relievers, especially the LOOGY.

His most recent attack on conventional wisdom, moving the pitcher into the eighth spot in the lineup, hasn't caught on particularly quickly.  Ned Yost picked it up in Milwaukee, briefly, in 2008.  Shortly thereafter, he got fired.  I haven't seen a whole lot of material evidence for or against the move, but I appreciate the logic, separating the "easy out" from the statistical haymaker known as Albert Pujols.

I could go on, but for now I will simply recommend Buzz Bissinger's lovely book, Three Nights in August, and add that La Russa's case could get dramatically better with another championship.  He would join Torre and Sparky Anderson as the only men in the free agents era with more than two, and Torre as the only man in the free agent era with six or more pennants.

In '09 I expected the Cardinals to make a deep playoff run.  It didn't happen, but all the pieces which inspired that prediction are still in place.  St. Louis has a lethal one-two punch at the top of the rotation, serious thunder in the middle of the order,  a fairly deep bullpen, and a nice infusion of youth.  My only hesitancy, one expressed frequently in these pages, is fueled by their lack of depth.  Prince Albert has proven himself nigh invincible, but the same cannot be said of many of the other Cardinal regulars.  If John Mozeliak doesn't make a few more "inventory" moves in the coming months, La Russa and his staff will need to invest in every rabbit's foot, dreamcatcher, and four-leaf clover they can get their hands on.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Fantastic Thoughts: "O-Dog would probably sign with your fantasy team, if you're willing to give him a three-year contract." (Second Base Preview)

I've been bemoaning it for months, but I'll be damned if it doesn't continue to infuriate me that Orlando Hudson doesn't have a job, in February, for the second year in a row.  He is, nonetheless, included on my list, along with fellow unsigned free agent, Felipe Lopez.

1. Chase Utley (Phillies)
2. Ian Kinsler (Rangers)
3. Dustin Pedroia (Red Sox)
4. Brandon Phillips (Reds)

Not long ago, the big question at second base was, "Who don't I take if I don't get Jeff Kent?"  The pickings were slim.  But in recent years, the field has gotten progressively better, led, of course, by Chase Utley, a perennial MVP candidate who should be among the top five players off the board and will cost you close to $40 in an auction.

Some will be surprised that I rank Phillips among the elite options, but I like the consistency of his across-the-board production and, at 28, I think his best season may still be in front of him.  He's been 20/20 for three years running and with more lineup protection has a legit shot at going 30/30 (as he did in '07), to go along with at least 80 R and 90 RBI.  Phillips is the picture of health, with 550+ plate appearances in each of the last four seasons.

5. Robinson Cano (Yankees)
6. Aaron Hill (Blue Jays)
7. Ben Zobrist (Rays) [also eligible at SS and OF in many leagues]

There is a very strong argument for passing on the elite guys and jumping on the second tier this season, as each of these options has the potential to perform at the elite level.  What keeps them out of the first tier is merely consistency.  Hill and Zobrist had breakout seasons in '09, but they need to prove themselves more than "one-hit wonders."  Personally, I think both are legit, as they showed consistent progression in both power and discipline throughout the minor leagues and in their first few big-league seasons.

Cano offers a slightly different quandary.  He put up the biggest season of an already impressive career in '09 directly following his atrocious '08 campaign, so many will wonder what to trust.  I think he's about to blossom into a batting champ.  Obviously, you can't complain about his situation, hitting in the middle of a loaded lineup at a ballpark built for left-handed hitters.  Cano will continue to see lots of good pitches and have plenty of run-producing opportunities.  Also, as good as his '09 was as a whole, he was even better in the second half.  In the final three months he hit .341 with a 925 OPS.

8. Brian Roberts (Orioles)
9. Dan Uggla (Marlins)
10. Ian Stewart (Rockies) [actually plays 3B, but eligible at 2B in most leagues]
11. Jose Lopez (Mariners)

These are your "category" options in roto leagues, each of whom excels at some aspect of the game, but could hurt you in others.  Roberts hit 16 HR last season, which was the second-highest total of his career, and drove in 79 runs, which was a career high.  I don't expect him to reach or exceed those totals in 2010.  However, he will once again be among the league leaders in runs scored, with excellent stolen base totals and a decent average.

The other three are inversions of Roberts.  Each has unusual power for the positions, but they are "all or nothing" kinds of hitters, who don't reach base often and don't offer much speed when they do.  Lopez will hit for a slightly higher average than Uggla or Stewart, but '09 was his first 25 HR season, where Uggla has hit 30+ for three years running.  Stewart is the high-risk/high-reward option here.  He's only 25-years-old and spent much of '09 as a platoon player, so there's plenty of room for improvement, but there's also room for a sophomore slump, as he's a free swinger with plenty of holes (see Chris Davis).  The Rockies just added Melvin Mora to their bench, suggesting that Stewart may only be one bad month from finding himself back in a platoon, and two bad months from Colorado Springs.

12. Howie Kendrick (Angels)
13. Gordon Beckham (White Sox) [also eligible at 3B in most leagues]
14. Rickie Weeks (Brewers)
15. Martin Prado (Braves) [also eligible at 3B and 1B in many leagues]
16. Casey McGehee (Brewers) [also eligible at 3B in most leagues]

This tier is all about "upside."  Unless you're in a very deep league, you'd prefer that none of these guys be your first-string middle infielder, but at a utility spot, or otherwise provide depth, they offer tons of potential.  One of the great tragedies of '09 was Rickie Weeks wrist injury.  In the seasons opening weeks he looked like he was headed for the monster season that his owners have been expecting for years.  Hopefully, that breakout is just on a ten month delay.  Be cautious though.  It can take a player more than a full season to re-strengthen he wrist after a major injury (see Derrek Lee and David Ortiz), so Weeks power, the quality which makes him so tempting, may not return until 2011.

McGehee replaced Weeks in Milwaukee and his performance (.301, 16 HR, 66 RBI) helped keep the Brewers in contention much longer than if they'd turned second base over to Craig Counsell.  As such, McGehee earned a starting position going into 2010, at third base.  I doubt, however, that he will be able to keep it.  McGehee's '09 numbers look extraordinarily flukish.  He never had an average above .300 or an OPS above 800 in the minors.  Maybe he "discovered" his stroke upon being promoted, but I'd bet that he's just as likely to "lose" it again.  The Brewers top hitting prospect, Mat Gamel, will be nipping at his heels, so he probably doesn't have much leash.  By midseason, McGehee will be a utilityman.

17. Placido Polanco (Phillies) [will be eligible at 3B early in the season]
18. Orlando Hudson (Nationals?)

A couple of oldies, but goodies.  If you need a stable presence, I would actually recommend taking O-Dog or Polly ahead of some of the guys in the previous tier, because though unspectacular, each is dependable.  Oddly, I might even argue that Polance has a little upside, at the age of 34, because he'll be hitting somewhere in the middle of the loaded Phillies lineup (I'm guessing either second or seventh).  I think he's a safe bet for .300-80-10-80-5, which isn't exactly mouth-watering, but is solid production from a guy who you can get as your third or fourth infielder.

My passion for Hudson is well-documented, but I'll simply remind everybody that he was damn good in the first half of '09 (All-Star worthy, in fact) and not nearly as bad as people think in the second half.  Recent rumors have him headed to D.C., which would be a good fit for his fantasy owners, as he'd be a lock for everyday at-bats and would probably hit near the top of the order, right in front of Z-Pack and Big Donkey (Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn).

Monday, February 01, 2010

Offseason Prospectus #26: The Atlanta Braves

I've got very little love for the Atlanta Braves.  I'll never be able to get past the abusive relationship they had with the early-'90s Pirates.  They are a team from the Deep South who didn't have the good sense not to employ an unabashedly racist reliever (John Rocker).  And, let's face it, the face of their franchise, Chipper Jones, falls somewhere between REO Speedwagon and offal on the likability scale.

That said, if this is in fact Bobby Cox's final season at the helm, I wouldn't be totally disappointed if the Braves made a somewhat unexpected playoff run on his behalf, with the caveat that it must end with the opposition beating them with a walkoff single by a backup infielder in Game 7 of the NLCS.

The Braves have positioned themselves to contend, if not for the AL East title, at least for the Wild Card.  It's hard to believe, but it's actually been four years since Atlanta finished even as higher than third place.  Granted, this stretch was preceded by fourteen consecutive division titles, so I don't feel terribly sorry for them, but it would befit Cox to go out on a high note.

Atlanta has a deep rotation, a solid retrofitted bullpen, and, assuming Jones and Troy Glaus stay healthy, just enough offense to be dangerous.