Please check out the Hippeaux's weekly posts at SNY affiliate, It's About The Money.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Fantastic Thoughts: Hippeaux 2011 "Sleeper" Team

As you may have noticed, things have been a little busy in the land of Hippeaux.  I apologize for the fact that, at the time of year when many are itching for preseason predictions and analysis, I've been busy with my day job.  Over the weekend, I'll get out the "ouija board" and continue my series on Tout Wars.  I will obviously have an unfair advantage in my predictions, having already watched a game or two of Milwaukee v. Cincinnati.  In the meantime, here's a lineup of guys I'm "touting" for breakout campaigns in 2011.  I know it's belated, but there are still plenty of drafts on the horizon.

Russell Martin - C - New York Yankees

What's new, right?  Martin's always been among my favorites and it's going to pain me dearly to see him in pinstripes, but as a fantasy owner, this is a dream come true.  For one thing, Martin's popularity has absolutely tanked.  After his first three seasons, when Martin was averaging 14 HR and 16 SB a year, we probably got a little giddy, ranking him alongside the McCann's and V-Mart's of the world.  Now, coming off two seasons in which he was dogged by injuries, buried in a mediocre lineup, and discouraged by an unsupportive organization, he's been more or less forgotten (he's the 17th most popular catcher in ESPN standard leagues).  The argument for Martin goes like this:

1.) He's a high energy player and excellent defender who Joe Girardi is going to fall in love with.  So long as his hip is fully healthy, I think he's a synch to start 140 games.

2.) Even in his worst years, he's shown good plate discipline.  He's going to get on base.  Batting at the bottom of New York's lineup, that should mean solid runs and probably solid RBI as well (for his position).

3.) He's the only catcher in fantasy baseball who gives you any steals (double-digits in 4 out of 5 seasons and was on pace for that again last year before his injury).

4.) He's still just 28.

(P.S. In BLOGZKRIEG! I insured myself by adding Jesus Montero for a surprisingly cheap price.  I recommend this course of action in deep leagues.  If Martin goes down or fails to perform, you can bet Montero will be his replacement, either behind the plate or at DH, with Posada moving as well.)

Kila Ka'aihue - 1B - Kansas City Royals

I've been promoting the Kila Monster for three seasons now, ever since he posted a 1085 OPS and a 104/67 BB/K ratio in the high minors in 2008.  The Royals, of course, would seem to have botched his development, flipping him back and forth between leagues and never giving him a prolonged look in the majors.  This year, he has until July (by which time Super Two eligibility will have expired and K.C. might be tempted to promote Eric Hosmer).  Ka'aihue showed how serious he was about taking advantage of his opportunity by hitting .397 with a 1307 OPS this spring.  Obviously, we can't read a ton into those numbers, but I think it suggests that he's chomping at the bit to show off his skills for teams who might free him from baseball purgatory.  Don't reach, but as a cheap corner infielder or utilityman, Kila has a lot of upside and not that much downside.

Rickie Weeks - 2B - Milwaukee Brewers

You're going to be reading quite a bit about the Brewers in these pages in the coming months, just as you did about the Rangers in 2010.  Hopefully, I can spur them to the same sort of luck.  Many will question Weeks ability to duplicate what he did last year (.269 AVG-112 R-29 HR-83 RBI-11 SB-830 OPS), but I think that's just the beginning.  It feels like Weeks has been around forever, but that's just because he was such a high profile prospect and got promoted at such a young age.  He's still just 28, with plenty of room for improvement, if he can just stay on the field. say...well, isn't that his problem?  Let me just name a few guys getting drafted ahead of him: Chase Utley, Ian Kinsler, and Dustin Pedroia.  You want a bastion of health at this thin position?  Get in line.

Pablo Sandoval - 3B - San Francisco Giants

Kung Fu Panda's incredible offseason health regimen has turned him into a preseason favorite for Comeback Player of the Year.  In BBA BLOGZKRIEG! I had to go all the way to $19 to roster him, which I was more than willing to do.  Let's face it, you can't hit .330 with a 943 OPS over a full season at the age of 22 as a "fluke."  It just doesn't happen.  His belly has disappeared.  His skills haven't.

Mike Aviles - 2B, 3B, SS - Kansas City Royals

Aviles has a strong chance of being this season's Martin Prado.  Don't overestimate his value, but don't ignore the fact that he's hit .298 over three big-league seasons, despite hitting only .183 in his injury-shortened 2009 campaign.  Aviles is a legitimate .300+ hitter who throws in double-digit power and double-digit speed and, perhaps most importantly, will qualify at three shallow infield positions in most leagues.  Like Prado and Placido Polanco before him, he's great insurance against injury and batting average protection.  Buy with confidence.

Ryan Braun - LF - Milwaukee Brewers

There are different breeds of "sleepers."  Mike Aviles and Ryan Braun are definitely not of the same species.  That said, every year there is a premier player (or two) who consistently fall to far.  Last year's examples were Miguel Cabrera and Josh Hamilton.  This year I think that distinction belongs to the two Brewers sluggers, Braun and Fielder.  A popular new crop of young, high-upside outfielders, led by Carlos Gonzalez, Jason Heyward, Andrew McCutchen, and Mike Stanton have seduced fantasy leaguers into believing there is a panoply of five-tool options in the outfield.  When you have to fill five slots, as is the case in most leagues, that's simply not the case.  If Braun is still around at the end of the first round or goes for less than $40 in a standard mixed league auction, you'll regret letting him go to somebody else.  This is a guys who's 162-game averages are .307 AVG-111 R-36 HR-118 RBI-18 SB-918 OPS.  Yes, please! Oh, and he just turned 27.

Delmon Young - LF - Minnesota Twins

For some reason, people hate Delmon Young.  I don't know exactly why it is.  Maybe it dates back to that minor-league fracas he got himself into.  Maybe it's because he often looks a little lackadaisical, even a little confused, in the spirit of J. D. Drew and B. J. Upton.  To me, he seems like a quiet unassuming kid.  I emphasize kid because last season, prior to which a whole lot of pundits were ready to declare the former #1 pick a bust, Delmon Young was 24-years-old.  Remember what you were doing when you were 24?  Who's the bigger "bust"?  Delmon proceeded to hit .298 and drive in 112 runs.  Now, I'm the first to admit, he got a lot of RBI chances.  I wouldn't expect him to match that total.  But I see no reason why he can't improve in every other category, as he continues to cut down on strikeouts and improve his power and discipline.  I'll guarantee you this, he's better than the 25th best outfielder in fantasy baseball.

Jay Bruce - RF - Cincinnati Reds

I know, I know: "BANDWAGON!!!"  Sometimes the conventional wisdom is simply wisdom.  Bruce has made strides in each of his first three seasons.  Everybody knows he's a industrial-strength toolbox.  Last year, he started to lay off pitches that even the catcher couldn't reach.  And, really, that's about all he can't hit.  Second half splits in 2010: .306 AVG-30 R-15 HR-34 RBI-0 SB-951 OPS.  Don't be the fool who takes him ahead of Ichiro or Shin-Soo Choo, but don't be the idiot who believes he'd be better off with Corey Hart.

The following pitchers I covered in the most recent edition of "21st Century Cys," so I won't belabor the point with more than a few additional words:

Francisco Liriano - SP - Minnesota Twins

Say hello to the 2011 AL Cy Young.

Chad Billingsley - SP - Los Angeles Dodgers

Could be the Ubaldo of 2011, which doesn't mean he won't suffer from a second-half slide.

Ian Kennedy - SP - Arizona D-Backs

Yankees fans will be cursing the trade that sent Kennedy to Arizona about every fifth day.

Here are the underrated veterans:

Carlos Zambrano - SP - Chicago Cubs

No more Lou Pinella.  No more Derrek Lee.  No more Carlos Silva.  No more Milton Bradley.  Perhaps Big Z will get pissed off be somebody else, but in the second half of 2010, he showed what he could do with a little anger management: 8-0, 1.58 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 64 K, 74 IP.  I'm obviously hoping for more of the same in 2011.  As an added bonus, Z's meltdown from a season ago has made him eligible as a relief pitcher in many leagues.  Depending upon your scoring system, that could dramatically increase his value.

Fausto Carmona - SP - Cleveland Indians

In 2007, Carmona was the best pitcher on a staff that also featured C. C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee.  The following two seasons, things went terribly wrong.  Last year, Carmona recaptured some of that former glory and earned himself an All-Star bid (the truly pathetic quality of his teammates didn't hurt).  Carmona won't pile up strikeouts, but he keeps the ball on the ground and has the potential to pitch deep into games, giving you significant aid in ERA and even WHIP.  Victories may be few and far between in Cleveland, but even with some bad luck, he got 13 in 2010.  This is a very strong pitcher who is almost always available in the late stages of your auction or draft.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Tout Wars Mixed 2011 Pt. 1: Backstops & The Bruce

The 2011 Tout Wars Mixed League Auction began with the nomination of Jay Bruce.  Every year a few players generate an abundance of buzz during the fantasy baseball prep season.  This year, nobody has been more buzzworthy than Bruce.  Not yet 24, the Reds rightfielder is now three seasons into his major-league career and in 2010 he managed to both stay off the disabled list and show enough patience to manage a respectable average (.281).  A torrential second half (.306 AVG, 15 HR, 951 OPS) adds to the perception that Bruce is on the verge of superstardom, as many have been expecting every since he broke into the bigs.

So, perhaps, Andy Behrens of Yahoo!, Tout Wars Mixed defending champion, believed Bruce was the perfect player to generate active, maybe even excessive, bidding from the 15 fantasy baseball "experts" who were itching to start spending.  Indeed, more than half the assembled players got a bid in before Dave Feldman of rostered Bruce for $19.  Although by no means an obscene number (the experts do occasionally practice restraint!), it did turn out to be more than was paid for more established outfielders like Curtis Granderson ($18), Shane Victorino ($17), and Corey Hart ($14).  It was the first of several cases of Touts going to the mat for popular young "breakthrough" candidates.  Clayton Kershaw, for instance, cost Fred Zinkie of $19, more than former Cy Young candidates like Zack Greinke ($18), Dan Haren ($18), Ubaldo Jimenez ($17), and David Price ($17), none of whom are exactly "over the hill" themselves.

Following a year in which many of the best fantasy producers - guys like Carlos Gonzalez, Joey Votto, Jose Bautista, Jered Weaver, and Jimenez - had been relatively unheralded in the preseason, the temptation to pay for "upside" was even greater.  Minor bidding wars developed at some surprising places.  The 21-year-old Florida outfielder, Mike Stanton, who, in both his impressive power and his 34.3 K%, is very reminiscent of Jay Bruce circa 2008, somehow managed to cost more than Bruce, and more than Hunter Pence, Delmon Young, or B. J. Upton.  Another sophomore uberprospect, Carlos Santana, whose rookie season was cut short by an unfortunate and catastrophic collision at home plate, though he possesses all of 46 games of major-league experience, was Tout Wars second most expensive backstop, topping steady producers like Victor Martinez and Brian McCann, as well as the NL Rookie of the Year and postseason hero, Buster Posey.

Catchers, in general, were nominated early and often.  Before the first break, Joe Mauer ($27), Posey ($23), McCann ($21), Geovany Soto ($17), Yadier Molina ($11), Matt Wieters ($10), John Jaso ($7), A. J. Pierzynski ($5), Russell Martin ($4), Nick Hundley ($3), Jesus Montero ($2), and Yorbit Torrealba ($2) had all been rostered.  Certainly, this explains to some extent the furious bidding on Santana ($24), Mike Napoli ($20), and others, later in the day, when the backstop pool was getting thin.  The Touts took very diverse approaches to the run on catching.  Zinkie and Seth Trachtman saw an opportunity to create a large marginal advantage at the position by nabbing two premium players.  Trachtman spent nearly 20% of his budget on V-Mart and Mauer.  Others, like Scott Swanay, The Fantasy Sherpa, and Nando Di Fino of, more or less punted the position.

But from my perspective, it was Behrens who most stealthily handled the problem.  Seven rounds into the nominations, when most of the participants had showed their hands, either by netting backstops or moving into the "scrubs" portion of their strategy, Behrens brought home Miguel Montero for exactly half the price of Santana.  Montero is a 27-year-old D-Back, who, when healthy, has shown considerably power and respectable average for the position.  And, of course, he falls into that "post-hype" prime, possessing both upside and experience.  Near the auction's conclusion, Behrens nominated and won Carlos Ruiz ($3).  Nobody gets goosebumps watching Carlos Ruiz, but Chooch has all the advantage of ballpark, lineup protection, and playing time certainty that one looks for in a #2 catcher, and, his excellent bat control (193/188 K/BB for his career) give him a high likelihood of providing a respectable average (for the position).  In 2010, he did even more than that, hitting .302.  From Montero and Ruiz, Behrens won't get Mauer and V-Mart level production, certainly, but he will get considerably more than 30% of their output, which is the price he paid for his tandem.

Next up...Tout Wars reveals that "Stubs & Scrubs" is still alive and well, and with good reason.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Fantastic Thoughts On Tout Wars

The Sporting Hippeaux is on the road.  I'll be live-blogging from the Tout Wars Mixed-League Auction tomorrow afternoon at the official Tout Wars website.

Next week you can look for a couple posts about the auction, the results, and commentary from some of the participants.

The 2011 season is near.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

21st Century Cys (2011 Edition)

Last season about this time, in response to "out of nowhere" Cy Young award-winners like Zack Greinke and Cliff Lee, I offered a method for identifying the next set of pitchers who could climb suddenly to the elite Ace status.  You can read the original for more on my rationale, but the basic premise is to identify pitchers who haven't garnered Cy Young attention in previous seasons, but are in their mid-twenties, have at one time or another been considered blue-chip prospects, and are coming off respectable, but not dominant, seasons.  This was the 2010 class:

Chad Billingsley - Los Angeles Dodgers (25-years-old in '10, 1st-Rnd. Pick in '03)
12-11, 3.57 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 171 K, 192 IP, 4.6 WAR (+1.4), '10 All-Star

John Danks - Chicago White Sox (25, 1st-Rnd. '03)
15-11, 3.72 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 162 K, 213 IP, 4.3 WAR (+1.4)

Yovani Gallardo - Milwaukee Brewers (24, Baseball America #16 Prospect in '07)
14-7, 3.84 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 200 K, 185 IP, 4.6 WAR (+1.9)

Edwin Jackson - Chicago White Sox (26, BA #4 '04)
10-12, 4.47 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 181 K, 209 IP, 3.8 WAR (+0.3), No-Hitter

Ubaldo Jimenez, Colorado Rockies (25, Entered League at 22)
19-8, 2.88 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 214 K, 222 IP, 6.3 WAR (+0.6), '10 All-Star Starter, #3 NL Cy Young Voting, #23 NL MVP Voting, No-Hitter

John Lannan, Washington Nationals (25, Entered League at 22)
8-8, 4.65 ERA, 1.56 WHIP, 71 K, 143 IP, 1.2 WAR (-0.3)

Ricky Nolasco, Florida Marlins (27, Entered League at 23)
14-9, 4.51 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 147 K, 158 IP, 2.5 WAR (-1.8)

Jered Weaver, Los Angeles Angels (27, 1st-Rnd. '04)
13-12, 3.01 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 233 K, 224 IP, 5.9 WAR (+2.0)

As you can see, although none won the Cy Young award (both leagues chose a player who was a perennial favorite), two pitchers, Jimenez and Weaver, were legitimate contenders, six of our eight pitchers improved upon their '09 campaigns (according to WAR), and five of the eight set career highs in WAR.  In total, the "21st Century Cy" class of 2010 combined for a 5.5 win improvement.  The only two backtrackers, Lannan and Nolasco, were derailed mainly by early season slumps.  After a month-long demotion, Lannan actually bounced back to go 6-3 with a 3.42 ERA in the second half.   Nolasco had his season ended early, but not before he put together a solid sixteen start stretch in which he went 10-5 with a 4.05 ERA and 9.7 K/9.

I used the "21st Century Cy" designation as part of my BLOGZKRIEG! draft stategy, landing Jimenez, Weaver, Gallardo, Danks, Jackson, and Lannan, and they were a big part of my eventual championship. Was this merely good fortune?  Well, there's only one way to find out.  Using the same formula as last season, I've identified a new class of "21st Century Cys."  It's signficantly larger than the 2010 class, indicating the dearth of good young pitching in the major leagues right now.  Three players from last season's class - Billingsley, Danks, and Gallardo - still qualify based upon all my criteria, but I won't bother profiling them again.  Here are the other candidates:

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Get Well Wishes To Former Fan Favorite

When I was a kid during the 80s and early 90s the Cubs were, for the most part, thoroughly mediocre.   This was when Sammy Sosa was still a spindly young fourth outfielder, long before Wood and Prior, before Bartman, before a nine-figure annual payroll helped make the Cubs consistent contenders, for which I'm thankful, but also before Wrigleyville, always a popular summer destination, became unaffordable for anything more than the rarest special occasion.  My family, grandparents and all, would routinely pile in our gas-guzzling American-made boat of a car and drive three hours to take in a game (hell, gas was less than a dollar a gallon, right?).

Naturally, the Cubs teams of this era will always have a special place in my heart.  Not just Dawson, Sandberg, and Maddux, our contributions to Cooperstown, and longtime regulars like Mark Grace, Shawon Dunston, and Joe Girardi, but also the cast of shapely misfit utilitymen, including Hector Villanueva, Doug Dascenzo, Lloyd McClendon, Vance Law, and one Luis Salazar.

Like all of the players listed above, each of whom brought one basic skill in abundance, but were severely lacking in all the rest, Salazar was absolutely beloved by the Wrigley Field faithful.  One of the most raucous moments in any game was when Don Zimmer, as part of some desperate double switch, elected to replace one of his revolving door of borderline major-leaguers with another.  Villanueva would pinch-hit and remain at catcher as Gary Varsho shifted to center, Salazar took his place in left, and Dascenzo trotted in from the outfield and took the mound (this happened far more often than it should have).

Salazar, a journeyman infielder, finished his career with four years on the north side.  He was, perhaps too frequently, our starting third baseman, but also spent time at four other positions and was a fairly sharp defender (by my memory, at least) everywhere.  He couldn't hit a lick, but he was a hustler, and, despite being in his mid-thirties by the time he landed in Chicago, had incredibly quick reflexes, perfect for the hot corner.  Which only makes his recent injury, struck by a foul liner while he stood in the dugout, even sadder.  After the initial shock, Salazar fell upon his head and neck, sustaining even further injuries.  After three surgeries, he is apparently stable and ready to return home.  Though doctors had to remove an eye, they feel fortunate that he has escaped death, paralysis, or severe brain damage.  Best wishes to Salazar, his family, and Braves teammates.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

BBA BLOGZKRIEG! Auction: Watch Out For Falling Prices

In the wake of the "Year of the Pitcher," the conventional wisdom avers that top-flight Aces are not worth what they once were.  This was exactly what played out during the first week of auctioning for BBA BLOGZKRIEG! 2011.  Even last year's NL Cy Young winner, who was the most expensive pitcher of the 2010 class, fell $4 in 2011.  Other high profile starters like Tim Lincecum ($28), Yovani Gallardo ($22), and Chris Carpenter ($17) also saw their prices drop considerably, despite excellent 2010 performances.  King Felix ($34) was the most expensive pitcher of this year's auction.  Doc Halladay was the only other pitcher to top $30.

However, the pitching market was the only thing suffering from deflation.  Last season, half a dozen hitters went for upwards of $40, with both Albert Pujols and Hanley Ramirez clearing the $50 mark.  This year, even Albert dropped modestly (to $49), and HanRam ($43) was the only player who came within $10 of the undisputed king of fantasy.  Other perennial studs, like Ryan Braun ($38), Matt Kemp ($33), and Mark Teixeira ($33) came down substantially from where they were a year ago, while BLOGZKRIEG! participants remained somewhat conservative towards 2010 MVPs Joey Votto ($35) and Josh Hamilton ($31), as well as breakout MVP candidates Carlos Gonzalez ($34) and Jose Bautista ($27).

With most of the premium players rostered, there is still quite a bit of money on the table, so the next week of bidding for mid-level and high-upside talents should be pretty furious.  Expect to see some popular "sleepers" become the object of bidding wars.