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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.

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