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Friday, January 28, 2011

Orioles Brass Abandons Baby Birds?

For the first time since 1997, Baltimore baseball fans have something to get excited about.  Yes, 2010 was their 13th consecutive losing season, but they capped it off by going 34-23 (.596) under midseason managerial hire, Buck Showalter.  The excitement surrounding Buck's Baby Birds prompted Eric Karabell to predict that every team in the AL East had a legitimate shot at a .500 record in 2011.  And he's not wrong.

What odd about this offseason, however, is that after four seasons strongly committed to the youth movement - drafting, player development, and money-saving measures - Andy MacPhail, the Orioles GM, seems to be moving in a different direction, loading his roster with questionable veterans.

It began innocently enough, as MacPhail traded David Hernandez and Kam Mickolio to the D-Backs for slugging cornerman, Mark Reynolds.  Hernandez and Mickolio were both fairly promising pitchers, still in their mid-twenties.  It was testament to the Orioles farm system that they had both fallen so far back on the depth chart as to be truly expendable.  And it's not as though Reynolds is past his prime.  Though coming off a down year, he's only 27 and signed to very favorable terms through the 2012 season.  He immediately becomes Baltimore's most substantial power threat.

What the Reynolds trade does do is block the progress of top prospect Josh Bell.  Although the two-month audition at the tail end of 2010 suggested Bell isn't quite ready for "the Show," he just turned 24 and possesses a decent power profile himself...and without Reynolds propensity for leading the league in strikeouts, flirting with the Mendoza line, and flashing a iron glove.

Three days after acquiring Reynolds, MacPhail picked up another pair of infielders from the Minnesota Twins, slick-fielding shortstop, J. J. Hardy, and utilityman, Brendan Harris.  For them, he surrendered a pair of young relievers, Jim Hoey and Brett Jacobsen.  Again, both pitchers were well down the Orioles depth chart and Hardy represented a major upgrade at shortstop.  With only one year left on his contract, he won't impede the ascent of 18-year-old phenom, Manny Machado.

Shortly after New Year's Day, Baltimore added another veteran rental, 35-year-old first-baseman, Derrek Lee, looking to rebuild his market coming off his worst season since 1999.  MacPhail also signed mediocre reliever cum closer, Kevin Gregg, coming off a career year, and reclamation project, Jeremy Accardo.  He resigned 30-year-old shortstop, Cesar Izturis, after a year in which he posted the lowest OPS of any batting title eligible player in over a decade (you're welcome, Neifi Perez).  Now there are widespread reports they are nearing a deal with 35-year-old DH, Vladimir Guerrero.

What gives?  Does MacPhail really believe the O's are ready to compete in 2011?  If so, I'd have to question his sanity.  The Orioles would need to leapfrog at least two of the three AL East powerhouses - New York, Boston, and Tampa Bay - just to get into the playoff conversation.  As much as I admire the talent they've assembled, they don't have a proven frontline starter, a premier closer, or a perennial MVP candidate.  The Red Sox, Rays, and Yankees can all boast of at least two of those three things.

If MacPhail isn't delusional about his chance to contend, these moves are even more difficult to parse.  Baltimore will have it's highest payroll since 2007 (MacPhail's first year) by a rather wide margin.  They've sacrificed a pair of first-round draft picks (Vlad and Lee were both Class A free agent), as well as four pitching prospects who all have at least modest major-league careers in front of them.  And they've created some troublesome roster math.

Reynolds, Hardy, Lee, Guerrero, Izturis, Brian Roberts, Matt Wieters, Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, and Luke Scott, are all assured roster spots.  Somebody, probably Jake Fox, will need to be the back-up catcher.  Robert Andino is out of minor-league options, which means Baltimore must either keep him in the majors or lose him.  No matter how it shakes out, Bell, as well as Nolan Reimold and/or Felix Pie, will spend far too much of 2011 either in AAA or riding major-league pine, instead of having their abilities tested and their development furthered.

Moreover, the Orioles are now committing themselves to below average defensive players at third and in at least one of the outfield spots.  The Orioles struggled on defense in 2010 (105 E, -22.9 UZR) and it could be worse in 2011.  That's never a good thing, but could be especially frustrating for a young rotation which has to face in inordinate number of very patient lineups (Yankees, Rays, Red Sox) and could/should be limited by pitching counts and innings caps.

Perhaps there is method to this madness.  Perhaps MacPhail has something else up his sleeve (trading Luke Scott, for instance).  But, so far as I can tell, the Orioles haven't made themselves enough better in the short term to compensate for the damage they may be doing to their long term prospects.    

Fantastic Thoughts: Perception v. Deception in the Outfield

The first round of fantasy mags has hit the stands and mainstream sources like ESPN, CBS, etc. have started publishing their preseason rankings.  Obviously, much will change between now and Opening Day, but I'd like to highlight some relative injustices I'm seeing in my early perusal of these resources.  You can also check out my preseason rankings.

Brett Gardner, LF (Yankees) v. Jacoby Ellsbury, CF (Red Sox)

After posting a WAR of 5.4 in his first full season - that's good for 5th among AL outfielders, by the way - I don't think anybody would deny that Brett Gardner is a better all-around player than Jacoby Ellsbury.  I'll acknowledge, however, that in fantasy there are occasions when it doesn't pay to take the better player and those occasions usually do involve guys like Ellsbury who have the potential to pile up stolen bases at a league-leading clip.  This isn't one of those occasions.

Ellsbury is nearly unanimously ranked as a top twenty outfielder (top five in the AL) while Gardner barely breaks the top 50.  The Sporting News has Ellsbury valued at double the price of Gardner ($30 v. $15) in AL-only auctions.  Here's a few reason why that's ludicrous, starting with the stats for each of their best seasons:

Jacoby Ellsbury '09: .301/.355/.415 - 94 R - 8 HR - 60 RBI - 70 SB - 624 AB
Brett Gardner '10: .277/.383/.379 - 97 R - 5 HR - 47 RBI - 47 SB - 477 AB

As you can see, Gardner's OBP skills aid him in piling up runs at a significantly higher rate than Ellbury, while his HR, RBI, and SB rates are comparable (if Gardner had gotten 624 AB he was on pace for 7 HR, 62 RBI, 62 SB).

600+ ABs are not assured for either of these players, but if I had to bet on one of them reaching that mark, I'd actually take Gardner.  Coming off a year in which Ellsbury was riddled with injuries and immersed in clubhouse controversies, there is no guarantee he remains an everyday player.  Mike Cameron is still hanging around.  Darnell McDonald will be looking to steal at-bats.  And Ryan Kalish is a superior offensive talent who proved in the second-half of 2010 that he's on the verge of being major-league ready.  While many assume Gardner will again be submitted to a platoon (presumably with Andruw Jones), he actually fared okay against lefties in 2010 (725 OPS).  In all likelihood, Jones will frequently spell Curtis Granderson, Jorge Posada, or Nick Swisher instead.

What you're looking at is a pair of speedy 27-year-old outfielders, both of whom hit in loaded lineups and have the permanent green light.  I can certainly imagine Ellsbury having a solid season and returning to his '09 production, but I think Gardner is, at the very least, comparable and could be available for as little as half the price.

Hippeaux's Rankings: Gardner #29, Ellsbury #30

Curtis Granderson, CF (Yankees) v. Austin Jackson, CF (Tigers)

Remember last winter's blockbuster.  Here's how that worked out, based on 2010 WAR:

Yankees: Curtis Granderson (3.6)
Tigers: Austin Jackson (3.8), Max Scherzer (3.7), Daniel Schlereth (0.1)
D-Backs: Ian Kennedy (2.4), Daniel Hudson (2.0), Edwin Jackson (1.8)

Yes, the early returns have been much better for Arizona and Detroit, especially when you consider that the combined salaries of Scherzer, Kennedy, Hudson, and Schlereth are less than what Granderson will make in 2011.

That aside, however, it does not make any sense to rank Austin Jackson ahead of Curtis Granderson on your fantasy draft board.  Let's take a look at their second-half splits for 2010, after Grandy got healthy and the league adjusted to the Detroit rookies:

Granderson: .253/.338/.523 - 44 R - 17 HR - 43 RBI - 5 SB - 241 AB
Jackson:  .285/.336/.397 - 51 R - 3 HR - 21 RBI - 13 SB - 305 AB

Jackson posted the highest BABIP in the majors (.396) and the 5th highest strikeout rate in the AL (27.5%), both of which suggest he's a prime candidate for the dreaded sophomore slump.  Meanwhile, Granderson will hit in the midst of a thunderous lineup in a ballpark tailored for left-handed power.  Given a fully healthy 2011 campaign, he's 30 HR and 90 RBI in the bank, with the potential for more.  

Hippeaux's Rankings: Granderson #19, Jackson #52

Garrett Jones, 1B/OF (Pirates) v. Basically Anybody (Anywhere)

He's consistently making the top 60 among outfielders (the Sporting News has him as high as #40) even though he was hardly a replacement level player in 2010 (0.1 WAR).  His power (21 HR) makes him fantasy relevant, but only if he's in the lineup...and Pittsburgh seems to have realized his limitations.  They signed Lyle Overbay and Matt Diaz during the offseason and they'll bring younger, more versatile players like John Bowker, Steve Pearce, Jeff Clement, and Alex Presley to camp.  The only way Garrett Jones gets 500 AB this year is if he gets traded to the Mariners.

Meanwhile, guys like Josh Willingham, Pat Burrell, Matt Joyce, Jonny Gomes, Brad Hawpe, and Cody Ross are cheap sources of power with similar skill sets and substantially more upside.

Hippeaux's Rankings: Willingham #45, Gomes #67, Joyce #72, Ross #74, Burrell #76, Jones #90

Chris Young, CF (D-Backs) v. Drew Stubbs, CF (Reds)

Nobody knows what to do with these guys, both of whom are coming off 20/20 seasons and have real 30/30 potential, but are also batting average drains.  I've seen them both ranked as high as 12-15 and as low as 40-45.

Finally in the "post-hype" stage of his career, Young was very quietly a top 15 fantasy outfielder in 2010.  Entering his fifth full season, Young is that magical age: 27.  The age alone is certainly not enough to assure his ascendence among the elite fantasy outfielders.  However, there are other positive indicators.  He posted a career low strikeout rate in 2010, while keeping his walk rate at a decent level (11.1%), which led to a substantial improvement in OBP (.341).  Young will probably always be a free swinger and may never hit .280, but his other talents can shine so long as he maintains this level of patience.

Stubbs started the 2010 season slow and nearly lost his job, but he came on very strong after the break and was on fire for most of the last two months.  Over a 47 game stretch he hit .305 with 9 HR, 11 steals, and a 944 OPS.  I see more streakiness in Stubbs future.  It's a fairly common problem for young power hitters.  Like the young Young, Stubbs has not figured out the strikezone.  Only Adam Dunn and Mark Reynolds struck out at a greater rate (32.7%) among NL hitters and they, of course, hit more homers and drew a lot more walks.

Stubbs played college ball and then spent several seasons in the minors, so he's only about a year younger than Young and shouldn't suffer as drastic growing pains (Young's development included a short return to AAA in 2009), but there will be some.

Hippeaux's Rankings: Young #14, Stubbs #28

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Plowing The Depths of the Designated Hitting Market

When the week began, the only question remaining for the Hot Stove season was how to sort out the plethora of defensively-challenged veterans still looking for work.  You could've had your pick of players with Hall of Fame (or, at least, borderline Hall of Fame) credentials, including Jim Thome, Vladimir Guerrero, Manny Ramirez, and Johnny Damon.  As the week comes to a close, it looks like they've all been signed (or are on the verge of signing) and several teams are faced with the need to creatively distribute at-bats.

Tampa Bay Rays:

Only a handful of the self-anointed "idiots" who broke the Curse of the Bambino in 2004 are still bouncing around the major leagues.  Two of the most recognizable players from that legendary team, Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon, brought their talents back to the AL East this morning by signing one-year deals with the Tampa Bay Rays.

Both are coming off severely disappointing seasons:

Damon: .271/.355/.401, 145 G, 81 R, 8 HR, 51 RBI, 11 SB
Ramirez: .298/.409/.460, 90 G, 38 R, 9 HR, 42 RBI, 1 SB

However, the Rays can certainly find evidence of remaining skills (especially in the OBP department) and may hope that giving them the opportunity to stick it to their former teams will further motivate the former superstars.

ESPN is speculating that Damon, coming of a year in which he spent the majority of his time at DH for the Tigers, will get the bulk of the innings in left field, while Manny concentrates exclusively on his hitting.  It is certainly true that, while both are suspect fielders, Damon is the preferable option.

However, what has gone largely uncommented upon, at least thusfar, is the extent to which this complicates Tampa Bay's roster math.  There has been some dramatic turnover on the Rays since they got knocked out of the playoffs last October.  Among hitters, Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Jason Bartlett, Rocco Baldelli, and Willy Aybar have all been jettisoned.  Only a few things about the 2011 Rays lineup seem certain.  Evan Longoria, presuming his health, will start every game at third base.  Ben Zobrist will also play nearly everyday, wherever he is asked.  John Jaso and Kelly Shoppach will share the catching duties.

The remaining six lineup spots will presumably be shared by some combination of Ramirez, Damon, B. J. Upton, Reid Brignac, Sean Rodriguez, Desmond Jennings, Matt Joyce, Dan Johnson, and Leslie Anderson.  That's right, there may not be enough roster spots for all these guys, especially of the Rays need to carry extra relievers in the early weeks of the season.  The Spring Training competition could get pretty heated.

If you've read this blog at all, you're aware that I consider depth to be one of the foremost necessities of a competitive franchise, so Andrew Friedman has clearly done his manager a great service with these cost-effective signings.  Joe Maddon has a great track record for finding a sizable share of at-bats for everybody on his bench and he like to play matchup baseball.  It's worth pointing out, the above list of players features four lefties and five righties.

I wouldn't assume that Damon (L) and Ramirez (R) are everyday players.  Tampa Bay has generally put a high priority on defense, and there's no doubt that their best defensive alignment features Upton, Jennings, and either Zobrist or Joyce in the outfield.

This move should, however, light a fire under Jennings.  Most had assumed Jennings would open 2011 as a starter, but Tampa has frequently looked to slow down the arbitration clock on their top prospects by promoting them in May or June.

I'd also direct your attention to these splits from 2010:

Brignac (2B/SS): .224 AVG/654 OPS v. LH, .263 AVG/701 OPS v. RH
Rodriguez (2B/SS/OF): .282 AVG/824 OPS v. LH, .231 AVG/629 OPS v. RH
Joyce (1B/OF/DH): .190 AVG/774 OPS v. LH, .246 AVG/843 OPS v. RH
Johnson (1B/DH): .343 AVG/1068 OPS v. LH, .170 AVG/.696 OPS v. RH

Now, these are young players (except Johnson) who had only limited playing time in 2010, so the sample sizes are small and therefore suspect, but you can see the possibility of Maddon exploring platoons (good news for Rays fans, bad news for fantasy owners).

Toronto Blue Jays:

Alex Anthopoulos appears to have pulled off the biggest swindle since A. J. Pierzynski spent an unhappy year in San Francisco.  Yesterday, he sent Vernon Wells and $75 Million of remaining salary to the Los Angeles Angels (of Desperation Valley) for Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera.  The evisceration of Tony Reagins commenced the moment this deal was announced.  Anthopoulos couldn't have given Wells away to any of the other 28 GMs.  But, instead of lingering over the creative destruction of one of the most successful franchises of the last decade (in 2011, the Angels owe approximately $60 Million, which is the Blue Jays entire payroll, to Wells, Torii Hunter, Bobby Abreu, and Gary Matthews Jr.), I want to concentrate on the somewhat odd situation this creates for Toronto.

The Jays now feature five players - Napoli, Rivera, Adam Lind, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion - who are, to put it mildly, defensive liabilities.  Anthopolous has basically fielded an entire roster of DHs.  And I'm not even considering the fact that early scouting reports are very skeptical about the glovework of young Travis Snider and J. P. Arencibia.

The Jays are sluggers (#1 in HR, SLG% in 2010), but they are also slugs (28th in SB), and the loss of Vernon Wells, Lyle Overbay, and John Buck (actually some of their better defensive players) isn't going to change that.  Lind, who made 120 starts at DH last year, is slated to be their new first-baseman (he's logged a total of 76 innings there in his career).  Bautista will reprise his role as a utilityman of the Paul Molitor variety (a.k.a. he plays many positions poorly).  The Jays manager will daily debate whether he prefers Rivera and his -7.5 UZR in LF or Encarnacion and his -11.5 UZR at 3B.  Napoli (24% CS) and Arencibia (28% CS in minors) will take turns letting AL speedsters run wild.

None of this is intended as derision toward Anthopoulos.  He's pumped up the offense while slashing the payroll.  One can easily imagine the Jays and their solid corps of young talent developing into contenders while somebody else is still paying the outrageous contracts of Wells and Alex Rios (both through 2014!).

Up the middle, the Jays have actually improved via the quiet acquisitions (during the 2010 season) of Rajai Davis and Yunel Escobar. Nevertheless, there will probably be some Bad New Bears reenactments as Toronto tries to find someplace on the field to hide all their brawny bashers.

Minnesota Twins:

The good news for Twins fans is that Jim Thome and Carl Pavano, both of whom played major roles in last year's 94-win campaign, are back for another go-round.  The bad news is that means Jason Kubel will be forced to reprise his role as "outfielder."  Anybody who watched the Twins play with any regularity last season will not be surprised to discover these stats:

Denard Span: 1349 INN, 6.3 UZR (#4 among 15 AL CF)
Delmon Young: 1277 INN, -9.7 UZR (#13 among 14 AL LF)
Jason Kubel: 670 INN, -8.8 UZR (#15 among 16 AL RF)
Michael Cuddyer: 539 INN, -8.5 UZR (#14 among 16 AL RF)

Yes, their corner outfield defense was abyssmal, easily the worst in either league.

Last year, this shortcoming was balanced, at least in part, by the fact that J. J. Hardy (#3 among AL SS in UZR) and Orlando Hudson (#2 among AL 2B in UZR) were outstanding middle-infielders.  Minnesota must hope they can get similar defense from Alexi Casilla (-7.9 UZR/150 in 1998 career innings at 2B) and rookie shortstop, Tsuyoshi Nishioka.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Fantastic Thoughts: Everybody's Underrated in Canada

Since the mid-nineties, few save diehards like myself, have felt it necessary to follow that friendly fourth-place team from north of the border, the Toronto Blue Jays.  Canadian baseball fans have dwindled, robbed of one franchise and forced to watch another languish in baseball's toughest division.  You probably don't realize that over the last six seasons the Jays are actually twenty games over .500, having never won fewer than 75 games.  If they were in any other division, they would routinely be playing meaningful games in August and September and would likely have brought home at least one or two division titles during that span.

In fantasy baseball, as the 2010 season proved once again, it doesn't pay to ignore the Jays.  Toronto hit 46 more homers than any other team in baseball last year.  That's right.  Even if they hadn't had the MLB leader in homers, Jose Bautista, they would've been second in the majors in long balls.  (Note: On the other side of things, the Jays finished dead last in the AL in steals, with 58.  That's right, the entire team managed fewer steals than Juan Pierre.)

As such a dramatic team-wide power surge suggests, some of the year's best deals came out of Toronto.  Most notably, Bautista, generally ignored in all by the deepest leagues, compiled the biggest home run total by any player since 2007 and was also among the league leaders in runs, RBI, walks, and OPS.  Vernon Wells, the once-promising centerfielder who many had left for dead after a string of rather dismal campaigns, had his first 30+ HR season since 2006 (and didn't kill your batting average either).  You probably could've had him for $1 add the tail end of your mixed-league auction.

John Buck, a infinitely forgettable 30-year-old catcher who wasn't even guaranteed a starting job when the season began, posted career highs in nearly every relevant offensive category (I kid you not: runs, hits, doubles, homers, RBI, AVG, OBP, SLG).  Alex Gonzalez, a veteran shortstop generally favored only for his defense, who hadn't hit more than 16 homers in a season since 2004, hit 17 in half a season in Toronto, before being traded to the Braves.  He also finished the season with career highs in 2B, HR, and RBI.

One might assume, with balls flying out of the Skydome at such an alarming rate and from such unexpected sources, that Blue Jays pitchers were not quite as promising investments.  But that wasn't exactly the case.  When Spring Training began, many fantasy analysts didn't have a clue who was going to be in the Toronto rotation.  Doc Halladay was gone and the only other pitchers with significant track records - Shaun Marcum, Jesse Litsch, and Dustin McGowan - were all coming off major injuries with uncertain timetables for recovery.  There was a three-headed competition for the closer's job, with no clear favorite.  Basically, you could've had any Blue Jays pitcher for a song.  And several were worth well more than that.

It took him until a week or so into the season, but Kevin Gregg eventually won the closer's job and compiled a nice total of saves (37), though with somewhat suspect rate numbers (3.51 ERA, 1.39 WHIP).  Ricky Romero and Shaun Marcum became the team's co-Aces, and though their numbers were unspectacular, they were a solid addition to the backend of any fantasy staff.  Brett Cecil and Brandon Morrow emerged as good in-season pickups.  Cecil didn't start the season in the majors, but ended up leading the team in wins, with 15.  His second-half was particularly strong (for a 24-year-old), as he went 8-2 with a 4.08 ERA.  Morrow spend the whole year in the rotation (save a brief stint on the DL), but he wasn't exactly drawing many suitors when his ERA sat a 6.80 on May 25th.  Thereafter, the converted reliever became one of the best strikeout artists in the American League, going 7-3 with a 3.46 ERA and 119 K in 101 innings.

But all that was last year, right?

Buck, Gonzalez, Gregg, and Marcum have all moved on to other teams, most of which don't offer quite as promising environs (Marcum is the exception).  Nobody's going to be sleeping on Bautista coming off his breakout year.  Wells is a notoriously risky investment who had tricked people before.  Do the 2011 Jays promise to have any sleepers?

Well, I think Morrow, Cecil, and Romero will all remain under value.  All are in their mid-twenties.  An additional step forward in the development process would be enough to make them borderline elite pitchers.  There's no guarantee that happens this year, but it could.  And you certainly won't have to pay for it.  In many leagues, because they play in Toronto, these pitchers will go completely unrecognized, even though their numbers are just as promising (if not moreso) than youngsters like Phil Hughes, Wade Davis, and Brian Matusz who will get much more attention.

Also, if you were paying attention at the beginning of last year, you'll recall that nobody was expecting Bautista and Wells to be the workhorses in the middle of the Jays lineup.  That duty was supposed to fall to Adam Lind and Aaron Hill.  These were guys who had even gotten some MVP consideration in 2009.  Both were coming off seasons of 35+ HR and 100+ RBI.  Both sputtered big time in 2010.  Although they still hit some homers (23 for Lind, 26 for Hill), neither managed to get his OBP above .300 or his average above .240, and all their other numbers suffered accordingly.  While it's probably true that neither should be expected to return to their '09 levels, both also suffered from some tremendously bad luck.  Steep dropoffs in BABIP (Hill had by far the lowest BABIP of any player in the majors) suggest they have a strong chance of getting back to somewhere between their '09 and '10 production.  If that means 25-30 HR and 90-100 RBI with averages in the .270 range, you should be getting good value.

Toronto is a good place for players with power.  Last week, I included J. P. Arencibia among my top five fantasy rookies for exactly that reason.  Travis Snider and Edwin Encarnacion, though not rookies, are also potential beneficiaries.  Encarnacion hit five homers in the last four games of 2010.  Obviously, that's a small sample size, but he's a former top prospect who had been struggling with injuries.  Fully healthy and limited primarily to DH duties, the 28-year-old could be primed for a breakout year.  The Jays rushed Snider to the bigs (he played his first MLB game at age 20).  As a result, even though he's now just 23, many fantasy players will have forgotten about him.  Remember last winter how everybody had decided that 24-year-old Delmon Young was a flop?  Snider could follow that pattern.

Finally, one word about Jose Bautista.  There will be no shortage of leagues in which Jose Bautista, coming off his 54 HR season, will actually be underrated.  How could this be?  Well, of course, many cagey skeptics will conclude that he can't possible repeat that production.  Beware taking that rational too far.  The baseball season is long.  It's hard to stay consistent throughout, especially if you're a player who's playing above his abilities.  Evidence of "flukishness" will show up over the course of a season.  Weaknesses will be found and exploited.  Here's the thing though, Bautista's BABIP was actually substantially lower than his career average, so it's hard to argue he was getting lucky.  And here are his monthly totals:

April: 4 HR, 741 OPS
May: 12 HR, 1188 OPS
June: 4 HR, 692 OPS
July: 11 HR, 1183 OPS
August: 12 HR, 1173 OPS
September: 11 HR, 935 OPS

To me, this doesn't look like a guy who's suffering from overexposure as the season progresses.  As yet, there's no indication that the league has figured him out.  Could it happen in 2011?  Sure.  But I think it is equally likely that Bautista is once again at 45+ HR and 110+ RBI hitter who has multiple position eligibility.  Bautista's power surge was accompanied by sizable increases in his walk rate and a sizable decrease in his strikeout rate.  Those are talents which, once learned, generally don't just disappear.

ADDENDUM:  The Jays recently made official deals with Jon Rauch and Octavio Dotel.  So it would appear, just like last year, Spring Training will probably feature a three-way competition for closing duties between Rauch, Dotel, and Jason Frasor.  Frasor actually won that competition last year, but was replaced in early April by Kevin Gregg, who held down the spot for most of the remaining season.  I don't think one of these guys is dramatically better than the others, but all have previous closing experience (with some modicum of success) and because of the uncertainty, they will all come on the cheap.  As somebody who always endorses prospecting for saves as late in your draft or auction as possible, you could do a lot worse than any (or all) of these guys, especially in deep leagues.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Wandy Rodriguez Is This Year's Cliff Lee?!?

This found its way into by inbox yesterday:

"Last year Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt helped to carry teams into the postseason after being traded at midseason.  Which potential aces could be on the market at this year's deadline?" - Jerry

Thanks, Jerry.  It's an interesting question.

Yes, last year Roy Oswalt was traded from Houston to Philadelphia and his dominance during a stretch of a dozen starts (7-1, 1.74 ERA, 0.90 WHIP) was a significant factor in the Phillies late-season push.

Ruben Amaro made a very similar move for Cliff Lee in 2009 and Lee famously went 11-4 for his new franchise, including four wins in the postseason.  Last year, however, Lee's story was slightly different.  He actually struggled (by his standards) in his fifteen regular season starts for the Rangers (4-6, 3.98 ERA), but did manage to make Jon Daniels look pretty good in October.

In 2008, it was C. C. Sabathia who was the mercenary former Indian.  He absolutely carried his new team, the Brewers, into the playoffs with a 17 start run in which he was 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA and 7(!) complete games.

In the very same year, Rich Harden moved from Oakland to Chicago and went 5-1 with a 1.77 ERA in 12 starts, helping to guide the Cubs to their best season since the Roosevelt administration.

The upshot of all this is that, like Jerry, we've come to treat the trading of a "mercenary Ace" as a necessary part of the baseball narrative, when, in fact, history shows that the examples cited above are very much outliers.  Could it be that this is a new trend in the 21st-century game that will continue indefinitely?  Perhaps.  But it's also very possible that we see little or no movement of premier starters at the 2011 deadline.

One thing that leads me to this conclusion is that the class of free agent starting pitchers next offseason doesn't feature a marquis name like Cliff Lee or C. C. Sabathia.  Mark Buehrle is probably the best pitcher scheduled to become a free agent to 2012.

Buehrle is certainly capable of having an Oswalt-esque stretch of dominance.  However, the other factor that makes this question hard to answer is that the availability of a Buehrle or a Chris Carpenter is largely dependent on whether their current franchises are still in the playoff mix.  Kenny Williams has certainly managed his offseason like a man who expects to be playing for the AL Central crown in August and September.  If that's the case, the face of the franchise, Mark Buehrle, ain't goin' nowhere.

If there's going to be a "mercenary Ace" in 2011, Carpenter is probably the odds-on favorite.  Carp's current contract features a $15 Million option for 2012.  As good as Carpenter is when he's on the mound, that's a big number for what will be a 37-year-old pitcher with a long injury history.  St. Louis, as you may have heard, has some other very expensive priorities, so it may be sensible for John Mozeliak to leave the tough decision about Carpenter's option to somebody else.

On the other hand, Carpenter is very, very popular in St. Louis.  He's owes a great deal to Dave Duncan and Tony LaRussa.  And he has "no-trade" protection.  If he believes St. Louis has a chance of getting themselves back in the playoff picture in the next couple years, he may simple decline to move.

It's not always impending free agents who are involved in these deals.  Lee (in '09) and Oswalt both had additional years when they were traded.  There are certainly scenarios in which one could see Zack Greinke, Dan Haren, Matt Cain, or Tim Hudson being shopped, but all of their teams are entering the season with sincere playoff aspirations.  Even if they were to go on the market, each would command a relatively massive package in return and could end up, like Roy Halladay in 2009, being beyond the reach of interested clubs.

The other possibility is that their is a "once and future Ace" who is on the verge of having a Renaissance season.  Candidates for that mantle would include Jake Peavy, James Shields, and Scott Kazmir.  If they were to return to their former levels of production AND their current franchise fell out of the playoff picture by midseason, you could definitely see them being traded at a price which wasn't wholly insurmountable.

Finally, this gives me opportunity to tout one of the favorite sleeper candidates for 2011.  Wandy Rodriguez of the Houston Astros will be a free agent in 2012.  Certainly, at this moment, nobody thinks of him as analogous to Cliff Lee or C. C. Sabathia, but just two years ago Wandy put up Ace numbers (14-12, 3.02 ERA, 206 IP, 193 K).  His overall performance in 2010 was disappointing (11-12, 3.60 ERA), but don't make the mistake of overlooking his second half.  From June 24th on, a stretch of 18 starts, Way-Rod went 8-2 with a 2.03 ERA and 126 K in 120 IP.  One can imagine how much more press he would've gotten had he been pitching like that for a contender.  The Astros are in rebuilding mode, and at 32, Wandy isn't exactly the kind of guy you build around.  He'll be in motion by the deadline and if he begins 2011 in the fashion he ended 2012, there could be a bidding war.

Friday, January 14, 2011

2011 Fantasy Baseball Rookies

The following list anticipates actual production of rookies in standard 5X5 fantasy formats.  This is not a "top prospects" list, which is why you won't see Bryce Harper or Mike Trout anywhere one it.  Under consideration is not only talent, but also age, opportunity, franchise, ballpark, and positional eligibility.

1.  Domonic Brown - RF - Philadelphia Phillies

Brown managed an OPS above 920 and a batting average above .300 at each of the three highest minor-league levels.  He's a five-tool talent.  He's got a decent eye and a low strikeout rate.  Best of all, for fantasy owners, he'll open the season with a starting position, hitting amidst a thunderous lineup, in a power-friendly ballpark.  If there is a 2011 version of Jason Heyward, he's it.

2.  Jeremy Hellickson - SP - Tampa Bay Rays

One of the biggest upshots of the Matt Garza deal was that it made room in Tampa's rotation for Hellickson.  He will be the most expensive rookie in most fantasy auctions because he had a very impressive and well-publicized debut in August of last year, when he won three consecutive starts while filling in for Jeff Niemann.  Be forewarned, however, even premier starting pitching prospects like David Price and Tommy Hanson, have experienced growing pains in their first full seasons.  Hellickson's maturation process is further complicated by the fact that he has to pitch in the loaded AL East.  I like Hellickson as much as anybody, but I probably won't own him in many leagues this year, because the price is too high.

3.  Brandon Allen - 1B - Arizona D-Backs

I don't know if he's technically a rookie, since he's gotten an extended cup of coffee in each of the last two seasons, but this will be Allen's first full year in the big leagues.  Coming out of the D-Backs system, he's something of an under-the-radar talent, but he's got everything one looks for in a fantasy first-baseman: awesome power (.541 SLG @ AAA), very good eye (83 BB/95 K in 2010), and even a little bit of speed (14 SB in '10).  His average probably won't be great (although he did hit .298 in '09), but Arizona's park certainly plays to his strengths and he's got to be the odds-on favorite to replace Mark Reynolds as Justin Upton's protection.

4.  J. P. Arencibia - C - Toronto Blue Jays

While your fellow owners are scrambling for Jesus Montero, who could very well spend the entirety of 2011 at AAA, do yourself a favor and grab Arencibia instead.  Montero is probably the better prospect long-term, but Arencibia had much better numbers at AAA last season (986 OPS, 32 HR, .301 AVG) and, most importantly, he'll open the season as the Blue Jays primary backstop.  Arencibia's can hit homers (averaged 27 HR per season in the minors), and, as Jose Bautista & Co. proved in 2010, Toronto is a very good place to be a power-hitter.

5.  Tsuyoshi Nishioka - 2B/SS - Minnesota Twins

It's extremely hard to predict how Japanese players will perform in the MLB.  For every Ichiro, Dice-K, or Godzilla, there is a Kaz Matsui, Kosuke Fukudome, or Hideki Irabu.  What we do know about Nishioka is that the Twins, by trading away J. J. Hardy and allowing Orlando Hudson to walk, have committed to playing him in their middle infield.  There's also a fair chance he'll start the season hitting in front of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau.  That's a favorable situation.  In Japan, he showed good discipline, decent speed, and power...for his position.  And that's the key.  Middle infield talent doesn't come into the league very often, so it's worth grabbing a 26-year-old with significant upside, even if his overall numbers won't necessarily compare to some of the guys I rank below him.  

6.  Freddie Freeman - 1B - Atlanta Braves

Freeman probably doesn't have as much long-term upside as many of the prospects ranked below him, but what he does have in 2011 is a starting job, as the Braves elected not to pursue any free agent first-basemen.  Freeman's '10 numbers at AAA - .319 AVG, 898 OPS, 18 HR, 87 RBI - justify that decision, but don't necessarily scream "Rookie of the Year."  He plays a position with many preferable veteran options, so don't overpay, but 2010 Gaby Sanchez is probably a reasonable comparison.  His big advantage, like Sanchez, is that he doesn't have the name recognition of Hellickson, Brown, or Jennings, so he'll probably still be available in the final rounds of your draft, at which point he's got a very commendable risk-to-reward ratio. 

7.  Desmond Jennings - LF - Tampa Bay Rays

Jennings has a hard act to follow, as he replaces arguably the best outfielder in all of baseball.  He's also not completely absent of competition, as there a plenty of good young players trying to earn roster spots in Tampa.  Don't be surprised if the Rays elect to give Jennings a couple more "Super Two" months in AAA.  He didn't exactly light it up in 2010 (.278 AVG, 756 OPS).  That said, I think Jennings has a great future and with a career .384 OBP and 84% success rate, he promises to be an excellent source of runs and steals as soon as he enters the league.  Don't mistake him for a five-tool player, however.  He's got great speed, a great batter's eye, and plays good defense, but as yet he hasn't developed much power (.415 SLG @ AAA) and has been prone to occasional slumps, especially when starting new levels.

8.  Lorenzo Cain - CF - Kansas City Royals

With guys like Melky Cabrera and Mitch Maier hanging around, there's no guarantee Cain will be Kansas City's Opening Day centerfielder.  However, it's a pretty safe bet he'll be holding down that position be midseason.  Cain looked very good in a brief stint with the Brewers at the end of 2010 and was made one of the key pieces in the Zack Greinke deal.  He's got the tools to be an excellent leadoff hitter (.317 AVG, .402 OBP, 9 3B, 26 SB in 84 games between AA and AAA in '10).

9.  Mike Moustakas - 3B - Kansas City Royals

Like Cain, the only thing stopping Moustakas from breaking camp with the Royals is the "Super Two" rule.  He'll be one of the first players promoted in June and will likely hit in the middle of the Royals order soon thereafter.  He could very well be a Rookie of the Year candidate, even with the late start, just as Buster Posey was last year.  Is he the next Ryan Braun?  Maybe...but probably not.

10.  Chris Sale - RP - Chicago White Sox

Sale sailed through the minors (that's the second time I've made that joke this week, tee hee).  He'll be fighting for the closer role in Chicago during Spring Training.  I think he gets it.  High-upside rookie closers win fantasy leagues (see Feliz, Neftali).

11.  Dayan Viciedo - 3B - Chicago White Sox

Nobody seemed to notice that 21-year-old Dayan Viciedo bashed 20 HR in half a season at AAA than joined the major-league club for about six weeks and hit .308 with an 840 OPS.  Like his close friend, Alexei Ramirez, Viciedo is going to struggle with his plate discipline (.313 OBP in the minors), but he's a power stud at a very young age, and at this moment looks like the probable starter at third base in Chicago (he'll have competition from another rookie, Brent Morel).  I don't imagine he'll contend for Rookie of the Year, but he could play well enough to stick in the majors.  Third base is currently one of the shallowest positions in fantasy baseball, so you could do worse than snagging a kid who'll get you 20+ HR at the very end of your deep-league draft.  

12.  Dustin Ackley - 2B - Seattle Mariners

At this point, it appears the Mariners are heading into 2011 expecting the #2 pick in the '09 draft to be their Opening Day second-baseman.  There is nothing about his 2010 campaign that suggests he will be a productive player immediately.  He showed no power (7 HR, .410 SLG), only moderate speed (10 SB), and hit a modest .267.  He did show excellent discipline (75 BB/79 K, .368 OBP) which bodes well for his long-term prospects, but with Seattle's poorly offense and tough ballpark, I just can't see Ackley having a stellar rookie campaign.  That said, as I pointed out earlier, high-upside middle-infielders are a rare breed indeed, so Ackley should be owned in keeper leagues and deep leagues, and everybody should pay careful attention to how he does this spring.

13.  Leslie Anderson - 1B - Tampa Bay Rays

As a 28-year-old Cuban defector, Anderson has snuck in under-the-radar of most prospect analysts.  Sure, he's old for a rookie, but that's not exactly his fault.  He moved quickly through the Rays system in 2010, accumulating solid numbers at each level.  He doesn't have prototypical first-base power, but he'll hit for a high average.  Most importantly, at this point it looks like he has the inside track to replace Carlos Pena.  The Rays will probably bill it as an open competition between him and Dan Johnson this spring, but after failing to top the Mendoza line when the Rays handed him a starting job at the end of last season, Johnson's got to be running out of chances.

14.  Craig Kimbrel - RP - Atlanta Braves

I think Jonny Venters will get the first crack at the closer's job in Atlanta, but many people think it will go to Kimbrel and there's no denying he's got the talent for it.  In deep leagues, even if he isn't pitching in the ninth, he'll be well worth owning just for his ability to rack up strikeouts at an alarming rate and make solid contributions to your ERA and WHIP.

15.  Mike Minor - SP - Atlanta Braves

Atlanta is the place to go for rookie strikeout artists.  Mike Minor will probably struggle a bit with his control, but he's got an outstanding strikeout rate for a starting pitcher (10.9 K/9 in 2010).  Right now he's the odds-on favorite to slot in the back of Atlanta's strong rotation.  He got some experience down the stretch last year, so the majors won't be a total shock.  Could be a decent sleeper candidate for NL Rookie of the Year.

16.  Jenrry Mejia - SP - New York Mets

Mejia looked pretty good as a reliever early in 2010, so the Mets sent him back to the minors to convert him into a starter.  The 21-year-old responded by posting a 1.28 ERA and a 1.06 WHIP with 45 K in 42 innings across three different levels.  He'll be back in New York to begin 2011, slotted into the back end of the Mets rotation.  It's a notoriously good place to pitch, so even if there are some growing pains, Mejia could end up with solid fantasy numbers.

17.  Mark Rogers - SP - Milwaukee Brewers

The #5 pick in the '04 draft, Rogers moved slower through the system than the Brewers might have liked, due to a surgery that cost him more than two full seasons.  But in the last two years, Rogers has made significant strides.  He'll enter the spring with an opportunity to battle Manny Parra and Chris Narveson for the last spot in the rotation.  The Brewers are "going for it" in 2011, so service time consideration should be ignored if Rogers proves himself ready to contribute to that goal.

18.  Jake McGee - SP - Tampa Bay Rays

He may have to wait until midseason, but at some point this year McGee will get his opportunity to contribute at the major league level, either as a starter or possibly as the Rays closer.  Watch carefully how he performs in Spring Training.  He's a sleeper candidate to start the year at the back of the bullpen.

19.  Aroldis Chapman - RP - Cincinnati Reds

I'd like to rank him much, much higher, because there's no denying his talent warrants it, but with a dearth of solid starting pitching on the Reds and a top-flight closer in their bullpen, there's little reason to predict Chapman will evolve beyond his set-up man role in 2011.  Even so, I'd expect he'll scavenge his share of wins and saves, as well as pile up a whole bunch of strikeouts, so you could do a lot worse in this rookie crop.

20.  Jesus Montero - C - New York Yankees

Unfortunately, Montero's fantasy impact is entirely dictated by the fate's of Russell Martin and Jorge Posada.  If the veterans stay healthy and play even moderately well, Montero will probably linger in the minors for another season.  However, if he does get an opportunity, there's a strong chance he'll hit the ground running and catchers with his kind of impact bat are, as Buster Posey proved this past year, game-changers, both for their real and their fantasy franchises.

21.  Kyle Drabek - SP - Toronto Blue Jays

When the Jays tell you that Drabek is in competition to make the rotation straight out of Spring Training, don't listen to them.  Drabek's ETA is June 15th, at best, because there is no reason for the Jays to start his service clock any earlier than that.  They've got a stable of other interesting starting pitchers and they will want to get the most they possibly can out of the major fruit of the Doc Halladay trade.  Drabek did do everything he was supposed to in 2010.  He pitched lights out at AA (14-9, 2.94 ERA, 1.20 WHIP).  He'll be in Toronto soon enough, but the AL East can be cruel to rookie pitchers, no matter how talented they are.

22.  Martin Perez - SP - Texas Rangers

Perez is probably the most anticipated pitching prospect in baseball.  However, like Montero, he is not assured a spot on the major-league roster in 2011.  Even without Cliff Lee, the Rangers have a nice stable of arms, many of whom are much further along in the development process than Perez, who is just 19-years-old and didn't exactly light up AA (5.96 ERA, 1.68 WHIP).  There's still a strong likelihood he'll be in Arlington by October, but the Rangers have a history of introducing their young arms as relievers (Neftali Feliz, Derek Holland, Michael Kirkman, etc.), so Perez's immediate future could be in middle relief, where he has little fantasy value.

23.  Tim Collins - RP - Kansas City Royals

Collins is definitely the best thing to come out of the Rick Ankiel experiment for Kansas City.  He won't make many lists of the top 25 prospects in the country, because he's a reliever, but maybe he should.  His minor-league stats are a little obscene.  Last season, between AA and AAA, he struck out 108 batters in 71 innings.  His overall ERA was 2.02.  A 21-year-old who already has 223 innings of professional relief under his belt, he's got a career 2.26 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, and 13.3 K/9.  Collins won't start the season in Kansas City, but I bet he ends it as the Royals closer.  The Zack Greinke trade confirmed that Kansas City has committed to at least two and probably three more years of rebuilding.  One would presume that means Joakim Soria will be available at the trade deadline, if not before, as K.C. attempts to further its stockpile of prospects.  Collins is Soria's heir apparent and could be good for double-digit saves given a couple months in the role.

24.  Michael Pineda - SP - Seattle Mariners

After a very busy offseason in 2010, the Mariners have been more or less silent in 2011.  Unless they make a flurry of moves between now and Opening Day, it seems likely that Pineda, like Dustin Ackley, will make the major-league roster, probably even the rotation.  I'm not sure he's "ready," given his 4.76 ERA in a dozen starts at AAA, but opportunity is as important to fantasy relevance as talent.  His ballpark works to his advantage, as does his division, so Pineda could manage respectable stats even as a work in progress.

25. Yunesky Maya - SP - Washington Nationals

The Cuban defector's numbers were not great in five starts at the tail end of last year, but Maya's got the inside track to be in the Nats rotation and there's no denying he's got stuff.

Other Rookies/Prospects Worth Following:

Yonder Alonso - 1B - Cincinnati Reds
Chris Carter - 1B - Oakland Athletics
Brandon Belt - 1B/OF - San Francisco Giants
Fernando Martinez - OF - New York Mets
Jason Kipnis - 2B - Cleveland Indians

Fantastic Thoughts: Rafael Soriano The Latest Premier Reliever To Settle For "Holds"

Rafael Soriano disappointed his fantasy owners yesterday when he signed the largest set-up man contract in the history of the game.  If you owned Soriano last year, you probably got him for a song and he proceeded to be the most productive closer in the game.  In many keeper leagues it would be possible to redouble that value in 2011...if Soriano had signed on to be somebody's closer.  Soriano chose instead to be Mariano Rivera's opening act.  There's nothing wrong with that.  He'll get to pitch for a competitive team.  He'll be in line, potentially, to be Mo's replacement (if he ever retires).  And, in the interim, he'll be content to take home around $12 Million a year.  Not too shabby.

In most fantasy formats, however, Soriano is now all but irrelevant, joining a cast which includes Bobby Jenks, Kerry Wood, Matt Lindstrom, and Matt Capps: all established closers who will spend 2011 as set-up men.  From a baseball perspective, this is a very encouraging trend.  More and more GMs have realized that it's just as rational (if not more rational) to pay for a dominant reliever who pitches whenever the game is on the line in the 7th and 8th, as it is to pay seven figures to a guy who only takes the ball in save situations.  From a fantasy perspective, this sucks.

There were already few enough guys who were consistent candidates for 30+ saves.  Now several of them are chasing "holds" instead.  When the 2011 season begins, at least a third of the 30 MLB teams will be featuring a pitcher for whom this is their first Opening Day with the closer label.  Several may elect to go with that infamous strategy which is fantasy kryptonite: closer-by-committee.

Some will be apt to tell you that this widespread uncertainty is reason to invest heavily in one of the few truly established closing options, guys like Rivera, Joakim Soria, Brian Wilson, and Jose Valverde.  I disagree.  I hate paying for saves.  With so many bullpens in flux, more cheap saves are coming into the league than ever before.  Besides Soriano (48 SV), here are some guys you could've had for next to nothing in 2010:

Matt Capps (42 SV), Kevin Gregg (37 SV), Leo Nunez (30 SV), John Axford (24 SV), Matt Lindstrom (23 SV), Chris Perez (23 SV), Octavio Dotel (22 SV), Jon Rauch (21 SV), Brandon Lyon (20 SV), Alfredo Simon (17 SV), Juan Gutierrez (15 SV), Fernando Rodney (14 SV), Koji Uehara (13 SV), Hong-Chih Kuo (12 SV), Manny Corpas (10 SV)

Just counting guys who went either undrafted or in the very final rounds of standard drafts, that's fifteen players with double-digit saves.  I'd be willing to bet there will be even more in 2011.  Let's take a look at the few of the franchises with the most uncertainty and discuss some of the candidates for closing duties.

Tampa Bay Rays:

The Rays have probably the best bullpen in baseball last season.  However, this offseason, they lost their four best releivers: Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, Grant Balfour, and Dan Wheeler.  They also lost a couple innings-eaters in Randy Choate and Chad Qualls.  The additions Tampa Bay has made - Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta - are not exactly guys who've had late-inning success, so the new closer is almost certainly coming from within the organization.

J. P. Howell will get a crack at it, if he's healthy.  Howell was very good during a limited tenure as Tampa Bay's closer during the second half of 2009 (16 SV, 3.02 ERA).  However, he missed all of 2010 with a shoulder injury.  He may not be ready to pitch again at all until May or June, and even then nobody can predict how his surgically-repaired rotator cuff will respond.

The Padres converted Mike Ekstrom into a reliever during the 2008 season.  In two full seasons at AAA, Ekstrom posted a 2.24 ERA.  Promoted in the final month of 2010, Ekstrom looked fine doing mop-up work for the Rays (3.31 ERA in 16 IP).  However, Ekstrom has never been a closer at any level and doesn't have prototypical closer stuff (6.8 K/9 at AAA).

With Joe Maddon, anything is possible.  Maddon is notorious for going against the conventional wisdom, especially in his bullpen management.  In the past, for brief periods, he featured top-flight starters like David Price and Matt Garza at closer.  Maddon could consider rehashing that trick with Jake McGee.  McGee is one of the Rays top pitching prospects and, after a solid run at AA in 2010, he's probably not far from being major-league ready.  However, there's currently no room in the rotation.  The Rays gave McGee a quick audition in relief at the end of last year.  He posted a 0.52 ERA with 27 strikeouts in 17 innings at AAA and a 1.80 ERA with 6 K in five innings in the bigs.  Obviously, that's an extremely small sample, but he's got the kind of power stuff (10.4 K/9 in his professional career) that one likes to see in a closer.

Finally, don't sleep on Matt Gorgen.  Gorgen was the closer of the Montgomery Biscuits (AA) last year, piling up 22 saves and a 1.65 ERA in 45 innings.  If Gorgen can continue to build momentum at AAA and the closer carousel doesn't go well in the early months of the season, Maddon could be very interested in a guy who has spend his entire pro career closing games, has a solid minor-league track record, and a power arm (10.1 K/9 in minors).

Atlanta Braves:

Some, including myself, aren't fully convinced that Billy Wagner is really retiring, just two saves away from becoming all-time leader for left-handed relievers and fourth overall, behind just Trevor Hoffman, Mariano Rivera, and Lee Smith.

If Wagner really doesn't come back for a 16th season, the Braves may be forced to turn to one of their other flame-throwing southpaws, either Jonny Venters or Eric O'Flaherty.  Both Venters and O'Flaherty were excellent last seasons.  Venters (1.95 ERA, 93 K, 83 IP) even garnered a little Rookie of the Year consideration, which is a hard thing to do as a middle reliever.  Both will be 26-years-old in 2011.  O'Flaherty has more experience, but Venters would probably get the first crack at the job.

The closer of the future in Atlanta is Craig Kimbrel.  Many are assuming that future is now.  Kimbrel throws fire (14.4 K/9 in minors).  He moved quickly through the minors as a closer and posted solid numbers in his late-season audition (0.44 ERA, 40 K, 21 IP).  Fredi Gonzalez may indeed be comfortable handing him the job straightaway.  However, I expect Atlanta will be a little cautious following Kimbrel's NLDS.  When Wagner was sidelined, they asked Kimbrel to take over the ninth and in a critical Game 3 appearance he got a little ruffled and ended up taking the loss.  Bobby Cox was alwasy reluctant to use young pitchers in the 9th.  Don't be surprised if Gonzalez follows that pattern as well.

With that in mind, one probably shouldn't ignore the presence of George Sherrill.  Sherrill quietly joined the Braves bullpen this offseason.  He is the only pitcher in Atlanta with substantial closing experience (52 SV between '08 and '09).  He had a tough year in L.A. in 2010, but he's one of those unflappable reliever that managers generally love to use in the 9th.

Toronto Blue Jays:

Most are assuming that 37-year-old  Octavio Dotel has been signed to be the Blue Jays closer.  I, personally, think that's an unwise assumption.  Dotel hasn't spent a full season closing games since 2004.  His last temporary stint as a closer (during the first half of 2010 with Pittsburgh) was sufficiently underwhelming (4.28 ERA).

The Jays have other options.  Their best reliever from last season was Shawn Camp (2.99 ERA in 72 IP).  Camp's numbers have gotten substantially better every years since 2007.  He may be due for a shot.

Jason Frasor, who began the season as Toronto's closer, after posting great numbers in 2009, should also be on your radar.  Frasor lost the job to Kevin Gregg after blowing two of his first five opportunities, but he really found his rhythm again in the second half.  He had a 2.48 ERA and a 1.10 WHIP after the All-Star Break.

Also, watch for Alan Farina, who the Jays recently added to their 40-man roster.  Farina, drafted in '07, could move quickly in '11.  He compiled a 1.29 ERA, a 0.81 WHIP, and a 12.0 K/9 between two levels in 2010.

Chicago White Sox:

Bobby Jenks will be pitching for a different color of Sox in 2011, for the first time in his career, so, for the first time since 2005, the ChiSox are auditioning closers.

The Vegas money would probably be on Matt Thornton, who, in three seasons as Jenks primary set-up man, posted a 2.70 ERA and 245 K in 200 IP.  The only thing working against Thornton is the fact that he's far more valuable doing exactly what he's been doing for the last three years.  His rubber arm, his ability shut down the league's top lefties, and work out of james with inherited runners are all talents that would be slightly compromised by reserving him exclusively for save situations.

Instead, the Sox could hand the job over to Chris Sale, their 2010 draft pick who went almost directly to the major leagues.  After being drafted in June, Sale sailed through the minors and still managed to get 21 appearances in Chicago, where he posted a 1.93 ERA with 32 K.  Ozzie Guillen handed Jenks the closer job when he was just a rookie, so don't assume he'll be hesitant to put that pressure on Sale.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Fantastic Thoughts: The Year After The Year Of The Pitcher

It's almost upon us.  The first round of fantasy baseball magazines will start hitting the shelves next week.  In anticipation, I want to analyze some fantasy-relevant players who have changed franchises this offseason.  There are still a few outstanding free agents.  Rafael Soriano and Billy Wagner (assuming he returns) are likely worth owning, assuming they land closing jobs.  Carl Pavano has been a solid contributer in recent seasons.  Veteran power-hitters like Vladimir Guerrero, Manny Ramirez, and Jim Thome will provoke a little interest at the tail-end of standard league drafts.  If they find a favorable situations, I might be tempted to take a flyer on Jeremy Bonderman, Jeff Francis, or Justin deep leagues.  For the most part, however, the fantasy-relevant players have found there new homes.  Let begin with those pitchers who have moved to friendlier confines:

Zack Greinke - SP - Milwaukee Brewers

I've already commended the Greinke trade.  The only downside to in, in my opinion, is that it put the 2009 Cy Young winner back on the fantasy radar.  Greinke wasn't bad in 2010, but those who expected him to be a fantasy Ace were severely disappointed by his 10-14 record and his 4.17 ERA.  It became clear late in the year that Greinke was sick of playing in meaningless games and getting atrocious run support.  Had he remained in Kansas City, I think few owners would've been interested in him prior to the middle rounds.  The move to Milwaukee, however, to a clubhouse with great chemistry and a real opportunity to contend, should be invigorating.  Not only that, but the move to the NL will almost certainly result in an ERA well under 3.50 and strikeout totals greater than 200.  He isn't going to sneak up on anybody now.  You'll have to pay for that production.

Javier Vazquez - SP - Florida Marlins

Vazquez, on the other hand, is coming off the worst season of his career and a very public humiliation at the hands of the New York media.  He will attempt to rebuild his market with the Marlins.  With the exception of Javy's ever-advancing age (he will be 35 in 2011), almost everything about his new situation is advantageous.  He moves to a pitcher's park in a pitcher's league.  It's a low-pressure environment, pitching at the back end of the rotation on one of the league's least popular teams.  The Marlins have a solid offense.  And, perhaps most importantly, the last time Vazquez played in the NL East he posted a 2.87 ERA and finished fourth in the Cy Young voting.  I don't necessarily expect him to do that again, but solid contributions across the board are very possible, especially when you consider he will probably be completely ignored in most standard drafts.

Jake Westbrook - SP - St. Louis Cardinals

Westbrook isn't technically changing teams, but if you weren't paying close attention at the end of last season, you may not have noticed that the 33-year-old sinkerballer posted a 3.48 ERA in a dozen starts with the Redbirds.  Dave Duncan is famous for turning middling veterans like Westbrook into All-Stars, so this is an extremely likable flyer.

Shaun Marcum - SP - Milwaukee Brewers

Marcum followed up an under-the-radar season in 2010 by being involved in an under-the-radar trade to Milwaukee.  Like Matt Garza, he's leaving the AL East and he couldn't be happier.  In 2010, Marcum was 1-6 against Boston, New York, and Tampa Bay.  He went 12-2 against everybody else.  At 29, with three full seasons under his belt, now two years removed from Tommy John surgery, and pitching in the National League, Marcum has all the makings of a breakout candidate.

Matt Garza - SP - Chicago Cubs

I like Garza.  I like the fact that he'll be 27-years-old in 2011.  I like the fact that he's moving away from the AL East.  I really like the fact that he's got a rubber arm.  However, I'm concerned about his falling strikeout rate.  I'm concerned about his propensity for giving up homers.  And, most of all, I'm concerned that he'll be pitching for one of the most accursed franchise in baseball.  Garza should contribute a boatload of innings.  His ERA and WHIP should be very solid.  And, hopefully, his strikeouts will rebound.  I don't believe, however, even in the best case scenario, that he's a strong candidate for 15+ wins.  Garza is a nice pitcher, but don't make Jim Hendry's mistake by casting him as an Ace.

Aaron Harang - SP - San Diego Padres

It seems like a long time ago that Aaron Harang was considered a legitimate Ace, but he was, undeniably, one of the best and most dependable pitchers in the National League from '05 to '07.  Since then, he's gone 18-38 in three injury-plagued seasons.  In 2011, at the ripe old age of 33, he's going to try to rebuild his career in pitching's Valhalla, Petco Park.  He will follow in the footsteps of reborn starters like Jon Garland, Tim Stauffer, Woody Williams, and David Wells.  Adding to the potential redemptive flavor is the fact the Harang grew up in San Diego and pitched at San Diego State.  It might be worth betting a dollar on his homecoming.

J. J. Putz - RP - Arizona Diamondbacks

The D-Backs were 6th in the NL in save opportunities last season, but they were second in blown saves, which made for the worst save percentage (59%).  Putz is their solution and he isn't an unreasonable one.  In '06 and '07, Putz closed out 91 game for the Mariners and posted a measly 1.98 ERA.  Injuries plagued his next two seasons, but he returned to something near dominance last season as set-up man for the White Sox (7-5, 2.83 ERA, 54 IP, 65 K).  For those who hate "paying for saves," Putz is low-risk, high-reward type of option.

Here are some pitcher's who may not be completely comfortable in their new homes:

Vin Mazzaro - SP - Kansas City Royals

Mazzaro was a premier prospect who looked damn good in the second half of 2010.  He posted a 3.97 ERA from June 23rd on and, at 24 years young, might seem primed to take another sizable step forward.  Unfortunately, that step must come in Kansas City, where he won't be buoyed by one of the league's best pitching ballparks or one of the league's best defenses, as he was in Oakland.  Nor will he get to beat up on horrible offenses like those of the 2010 Mariners and Angels.  Moreover, he'll probably be expected to pitch near the front of K.C.'s young rotation.  All things considered, Mazzaro has tons of promise, but I think fantasy relevance is still a year or two away.

Cliff Lee - SP - Philadelphia Phillies

Many are on the verge of anointing Philadelphia's '11 rotation the greatest of all time and I won't deny it has that potential.  According to WAR, Lee was the best pitcher in baseball last season, despite his modest record, and we all know how dominant he was in the postseason, as well as the last time he pitched for the Phillies.  I'm a huge Lee fan, so I'm certainly not denying his potential to post another Cy Young quality season.  However, the price will be steep, and, in fantasy, postseason glory is irrelevant.  Lee will undoubtedly be among the five most expensive pitchers in fantasy, perhaps one of the top three, but, at the age of 32, he's posted only one season in which he really provided elite fantasy production.  Only twice has he topped 14 wins.  He's never had more than 185 strikeouts.  And, of course, for a premier pitcher, he's a little homer-prone.  All that said, I like Lee.  I just don't like the price.

Jon Garland - SP - Los Angeles Dodgers

What Garland did last season was the definition of a mirage.  His walk rate went way up.  His K/BB rate  went way down.  He homer rate stayed in line with his career rate.  And yet, he posted a career best ERA and his lowest WHIP since 2005.  Certainly, Petco Park worked in his favor.  As did the prolonged stretch when it appeared that every bounce was going San Diego's way.  This becomes evident when you see that Jon Garland's .267 BABIP was among the lowest in baseball.  Moving to L.A. isn't necessarily a bad thing.  He'll still be in a pitcher's park and he'll have a better offense and defense surrounding him.  Still, I think the "real" Jon Garland is probaby the guy who averaged 12 W, 4.37 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 99 K from '07 to '09, not the guy who went 14 W, 3.47 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 136 K in 2010.

Bobby Jenks - RP - Boston Red Sox

From 2006 to 2010 only four pitchers had more saves than Bobby Jenks.  Unfortunately, it will probably be a couple years before Jenks gets a chance to reprise the role in which he had such prolonged success.  A rough conclusion to the 2010 season prompted an unsavory parting between Jenks and the White Sox.  Theo Epstein and the BoSox saw value in Jenks's over-exaggerated fall from grace.  But, for fantasy purposes, Jenks is now all but irrelevant.  Jonathan Papelbon is still toeing the mound in Boston and he's one of the four closers who outperformed Jenks since '06.  Daniel Bard is very much his heir apparent.  In very deep leagues, Jenks may still be a source for strikeouts, holds, and perhaps an occasional scavenged save in middle relief, but he's waiver wire fodder in almost every format.

Zach Duke - SP - Arizona D-Backs

Was among the most homer-happy pitchers in the NL while playing for Pittsburgh.  Moves to the most homer-happy ballpark in the NL.  Not a favorable combination.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Much Ado About Nothing? (The Juiced Hall Era)

Almost exactly a year ago I posted my concerns about the increasing irrelevance of the Hall of Fame.  I didn't expect there would be much to add this time around.  As predicted, Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven did gain entry on the 2011 ballot, and no accused, confessed, or even merely suspected steroids users got even as high as 50% (with 75% needed for admission).  Several players who I, personally, think very relevant to the history of the sport - especially Dave Parker, Harold Baines, Kevin Brown, and John Franco - got little enough support that they will be dropped from all future ballots, until they are eligible for consideration by the Veterans Committee.

As I stated last year, I am in favor of inclusivity to the highest degree, because I believe that the Hall of Fame is only interesting as a museum of baseball history (it serves this purpose less and less every year).  I think arguments about "diluting" the player pool are frankly silly and condescending, and voting based on issues of ethics and morality utterly ridiculous.  There isn't a single member of the BBWAA that who I'd trust within a hundred yards of a podium or pulpit.  That some of them actually literally think of themselves as "morality police" is beyond laughable.  That they think moral policing is synonymous with acting as "custodians of the game's history" is evidence of actual psychotic delusion.  I would urge all who believe that the narrative of history should be tailored to a specific ideology to take a long look at the definition of propaganda, as well as the careers of Goebbels, Stalin, Joe McCarthy, and David Duke.

The selection process reached a whole new level of absurdity this year.  Foremost and most frighteningly there was the outrageous treatment of Jeff Bagwell.  Bagwell is something of a borderline candidate, based upon the strange numbers game that has historically dictated entry, and bordrline candidates generally don't get in during their first few years on the ballot.  So, Bagwell, who with 41.7% of the vote had the best performance of any player gaining eligibility in 2011, shouldn't despair.  However, that several righteous pundits took this opportunity to smear him with the scarlet S, despite the fact that he never showed up in A.) The Mitchell Report, B.) The BALCO Investigation, or C.) Conseco's sordid memoirs, is simply ugly.  I certainly don't believe that the sources listed above are utterly reliable (and U.S. law has thusfar agreed with me), but for Bagwell to have his candidacy jeopardized by merely circumstantial evidence (and that's a relatively kind description of Jeff Pearlman's justification) is the very heart of slander.  Shame.  Shame.  Shame.

Revelations which followed the BBWAA's announcement of the voting results compounded the absurdity.  Most glaring was one member's ballot which consisted of votes for Jack Morris, Edgar Martinez, Tino Martinez, Don Mattingly, and (I kid you not) B. J. Surhoff.  With the exception of Surhoff, I actually don't oppose the induction of any of these guys, but the fact that one can vote for up to ten players and this guy chose to leave off his ballot Tim Raines, Barry Larkin, Bagwell, Blyleven, and Alomar is obviously indefensible.  One can really only read this ballot as a satirical statement about the selection process itself.

There has been an abundance of commentary in the last few days, much of which is mere retread of disputes which have raged since Mark McGwire became the first presumed PED abuser to gain HOF eligibility.  The most interesting and original addition to this conversation comes from Rob Neyer, who, like his mentor, Bill James, actually cares a great deal about the Hall's existence, its standards, and the induction process.  I think he's probably wasting his energy, but I admire his resolve.  What Neyer observes is that the morality police contingent are actually endangering the tradition they have so pedantically sworn to uphold.  And, they are threatening the continued viability of the HOF as an economic institution.

Neyer points to the very real possibility, first off, that in the very near future there will be years in which way more than ten candidates who seriously deserve HOF consideration, may even be "sure things" in many voters minds, will be on the ballot all at once.  Such a glut of options could lead to many more instances of really good, even HOF worthy players falling off the ballot after gaining less than 5% of the vote.  It could also, as Neyer warns, result in years in which nobody gets 75% of the vote and therefore nobody comes to the midsummer induction ceremony which is actually what keeps Cooperstown economically viable.

Believe me, unless the people running the Hall of Fame are as "infantile, ahistorical, and asinine" as Neyer accuses many of the members of the BBWAA of being, he is not the only one worried by this potential.  The induction ceremonies bring tourist dollars to the institution and the surrounding community at a rate unequaled throughout the rest of the year.  However, the long-term sustainability of the Hall is also being jeopardized by the "morality police," even if we never end up with a year in which there are no inductions.  A contingent of indignant, short-sighted, and, frankly, bigoted baseball writers are blackballing a generation of baseball players and, therefore, a generation of baseball fans.  Think about it.  If you, like me, became a fan during the 1990s, what cause do you have to take your sons and daughters to an institution that minimizes (or, in some cases, even denies) the relevance of many of the most memorable players of your youth.

It isn't as though Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Roger Clemens, Manny Ramirez, et al are going to be forgotten by baseball history.  The Hall of Fame will stop being the custodian of that history long before that happens.  Which could be a great thing!  After all, Cooperstown is in the middle of nowhere, inaccessible even by major freeways, and, frankly, the selection process has been flawed from the start.  Maybe this is MLB's opportunity to start fresh with a serious baseball history museum in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh or Atlanta.

More likely, however, the BBWAA are writing their own death warrant.  They have been the middle man in this process all along.  What they are doing right now is kind of like SYSCO refusing to bring Coke products to McDonald's.  When the smoke clears, McDonald's isn't going to stop selling Coke products.  They're going to find another distributor.  And the BBWAA, by compounding stubbornness with ineptitude and increasing irrelevance on all fronts, isn't exactly urging MLB and the Hall of Fame to keep them in the loop.  If I'm a curator in Cooperstown, I'm enraged by the fact that somebody with power over my institution has suggested that B. J. Surhoff is more important to baseball history than Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa.  I'm foreseeing the possibility of a Hall of Fame which does not include baseball's all-time hits leader, the all-time home run leaders, etc., etc.  And is also, thanks to the apparent political biases of the Veterans Committe, without Marvin Miller, Curt Flood, and several other icons who help to establish the relevance of baseball to American history at large.

Let's face it, we are on the verge of a situation which pits the BBWAA against MLB, the MLBPA, New York State, and the museum itself.  One of these things is not like the others.

Good riddance.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Matt Garza is Not Your Savior, Cubs Fans. Sorry.

The Chicago Sun Times is reporting that the Cubs are close to acquiring Matt Garza from the Tampa Bay Rays.  Jordan Campbell of Cubbies Crib thinks this is a move that makes the Cubs serious contenders again in the NL Central.  I caution all Cubs fans against such enthusiasm.

Here's the good news.  Garza is a pitcher in his prime.  He'll be 27-year-old for the duration of the 2011 season and 27 is often a magical age for baseball players.  Garza is a premium talent.  He was a first-round draft pick in 2005 and several times over the course of his young career he has put together dominant stretches.  In '08 he was so good against Boston that he won the ALCS MVP.  He's been quite durable thusfar as well, pitching over 200 inning in each of the past two seasons.  He has yet to make a trip to the disabled list since he was permanently promoted by the Twins in 2007.  Though he's already eligible for some sizable awards in arbitration, he'll be under Chicago's control for three more seasons before he reaches free agency, so this is no one-year rental.  And, finally, of course, he's a pitcher from the AL East coming to the NL Central.  That move should be good for at least half a run dip in ERA and possibly even greater improvements across the board.  Last season, for instance, Garza had to make nine starts against the Red Sox and Yankees in which he went 2-3 with an ERA well over 6.00.

It hasn't yet been reported who the Cubs are giving up in order to retain Garza's services, but so long as the package doesn't include Starlin Castro, it's probably not an unreasonable bounty.  A solid starting pitcher with considerable upside who won't be a free agent until 2014 represents considerable leverage.  And I'm not opposed to this trade because it provides a potential rotational lynchpin for several seasons to come.  However, I urge Cubs fans to temper their expectation for 2011.  Matt Garza is no Zack Greinke.  And, even if he does take a long-anticipated step forward to become a true front-of-the-rotation type starter, it may not be enough to surge Chicago past the other, much deeper teams in their division.

Garza is coming off a disappointing season and his overall numbers (15-10, 3.91 ERA, etc.) don't actually tell the full story.  From May 26 to September 20, a span of 21 starts, Garza posted a rather dismal 4.86 ERA.  Worse yet, for a guy whose promise is tied largely to his durability, he left 10 of those games without surviving six innings, including four straight short outings in September.  Now, Garza did conclude his season with two dominant starts, but they were against the Mariners and the Royals, arguably the two worst offenses in the American League.  More compelling for Cubs GM, Jim Hendry, is the fact that Garza pitched very well against Texas in the Division Series, though he ended up taking a hard loss.  My point is, too many Cubs fans will see his basic statline, which includes career highs in wins and innings, and think he's clearly on the verge of a becoming a true Ace.  That could be true.  Maybe his 2010 campaign will be character building, but there are also serious causes for concern.  His strikeout rate dropped dramatically (8.4 K/9 to 6.6 K/9).  He gave up a career high in homers (28), hits (193), and wild pitches (12).  According to Baseball Reference's ERA+ stat, Garza was basically a league-average pitcher in 2010 (101 ERA+, 100 is Average).  There's certainly nothing wrong with adding a league-average pitcher, especially one with Garza's potential to develop, but unless that development happens extremely rapidly, it's highly unlikely such a move can get the Cubs back into the playoff picture.

Again, none of this is meant to deny that Garza is a decent investment for the franchise long-term.  In fact, coming off his 2010 performance, Tampa Bay, a franchise committed to tightening its pursestrings in 2011, might actually be undervaluing Garza.  He just isn't a difference-making pitcher like Greinke or Cliff Lee or Roy Halladay.

More importantly, although there is certainly no such thing as "too much pitching" and the Cubs did need a replacement for Ted Lilly, the Cubs real problems do not lie in their rotation.  Prior to Lilly's departure last August, Chicago's rotation was, in fact, among the best in the National League, and even after that, when the front office had thrown in the towel and were experimenting with young arms, the Cubs starters remains better than average.  Their relievers, on the other hand, posted the second worst ERA (4.72) and Winning Percentage (.357) in the National League, despite having one of the league's best closers, Carlos Marmol, and a premium set-up man, Sean Marshall.  Hendry's solution to this problem is Kerry Wood.  Is that really a solution?  Maybe, maybe not.  On offense, the Cubs had the league's worst strikeout-to-walk rate, were last in stolen bases, and were near the bottom in batting average and on-base percentage.  Replacing Derrek Lee with Carlos Pena does nothing to remedy those shortcomings.  In fact, it probably exacerbates them.

Yes, the Cubs suffered some season-changing losses in 2010, especially Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Zambrano, but unfortunately, I think the acquisition of Garza represents, at best, a chance to get back to something like the 83-win team they had in '09.  Meanwhile, all the other NL Central contenders have moved forward.  Most notably, the Brewers added Greinke and bullpen depth.  The Cardinals added Jake Westbrook and Lance Berkman.  The Reds, built around young players who could still be developing (hazard the thought), retained all the important pieces of their 2010 division-winning roster.

I wish I could say differently, but for Cubs fans willing to be honest with themselves, Matt Garza represents, at best, hope for 2012.

UPDATE: The title of this post may be appropriate on a couple levels., ESPN, and WGN have all alleged that negotiation between Chicago and Tampa Bay are not as close to fruition as the Sun Times suggested.