Word leaked out of Dodgers camp late Friday that Andy LaRoche would be sidelined an estimated 8-10 weeks after being hit on the hand by a throw. The injury to LaRoche ends the 3B competition with Nomar Garciaparra prematurely, a competition that never should’ve taken place. LaRoche’s .677 OPS in 91 major league AB’s last year along with his .226 batting average and .312 slugging percentage leave a lot to be desired, but his extremely strong EYE (.83) and tremendous BB Rate (17.4%) in the limited edition show plenty of promise. Add in the .950+ OPS in over 460 AAA AB’s and you have one of the more underrated prospects heading into this year. Nomar gets a bump up in value as a result of the injury as he now becomes the everyday 3B, but his .699 OPS in 431 AB’s aren’t inspiring. Nomar’s supporters will point out that he’s just 1 year removed from posting an .872 OPS in 469 AB’s, but last year’s numbers show true signs of deterioration of skill. Nomar’s power dipped across the board in all extra base hit categories, he started hitting more ground balls, and his K Rate jumped up as well. All signs point towards a similarly dismal offensive performance heading into 2008.
By all accounts it was a successful spring debut for Francisco Liriano. Liriano threw 1 2/3 scoreless innings on Friday allowing 2 hits and 1 walk, while striking out 1. Reports say Liriano’s fastball sat in the 88-90 range while touching 91. The slight dip in velocity is to be expected early in the spring and especially in his first spring start back, the good sign is he’s out on a mound. Pitchers coming back from Tommy John surgery usually struggle with command initially but tend to regain that after about the 18 month mark, which Liriano will hit mid-season. Thus the expectation would be a slightly muted 1st half for Liriano followed by a strong finish to the season. For those owners looking to draft Liriano they might not get him at the discount they were hoping too off of last year’s missed season. Liriano is currently being drafted just outside the Top 100 players right around the area Ben Sheets, Tim Lincecum, and Rich Hill are being taken. He’ll likely continue to move further up draft boards as he dispels the question marks surrounding his health. In an earlier draft I had this week Liriano went in the 6th round. For most owners this means you’ll have to be extremely aggressive in drafting Liriano and be you’ll have to be prepared to embrace risk. The payoff will be significant for Liriano if he can return to the form he displayed in 2006, but he’s not coming with the usual margin of safety you get from player’s coming off of a major injury. To get Liriano in drafts this season you’ll likely have to pay close to a premium.
San Diego’s OF should be an interesting fantasy situation to follow all season. They’ve moved into spring training looking for a regular starting LF and the other starting OF positions are held by aging and fragile representatives: Jim Edmonds and Brian Giles. Edmonds health is already testing this plan as an MRI revealed a calf strain in his right calf which will sideline him 2-3 weeks. The Padres are hopeful Edmonds will be ready for opening day but relying on the 38 year old’s health has been difficult as he’s missed 45+ games each of the last 2 seasons. Edmonds power and plate patience have been in steady decline for the last 4 seasons and the move to spacious Petco shouldn’t help Edmonds strong Fly Ball tendencies.
Ryan Braun seems to be picking up this spring right where he left off after his incredible 2007 Rookie of the Year campaign. Braun launched his 2nd HR of the spring in 17 AB’s and is hitting .352 so far in the spring. Braun’s high K Rate combined with his extremely fortunate BHIP% last season had almost everyone predicting some sort of regression. But the more and more you delve into Braun’s incredible 2007 season the more his fantasy appeal looks real. Sure he’s not going to hit .320, but the power-speed combination is quite legitimate and with the Brewers strong lineup he should approach 110+ runs and RBI’s. Braun makes for a “safe” 2nd round pick and can justifiably be pushed into the 1st round with the other 2 dominant 3B. I think he’s going 40-20 this season and for that reason would have no problem taking him in the 1st over 1B like Ryan Howard or teammate Prince Fielder. My feeling is 1B is deeper this year than 1B so getting an elite 3B option early takes precedence over comparable 1B.
Jackson is off to a solid spring start hitting .292/.346/.542 through his first 24 AB’s. Jackson tends to get lost in the shuffle with all the other intriguing young players in Arizona, but his 2007 shows some significant improvements. Jackson improved his power across the board, raising his Extra Base Hit Rate from 7.58% to 9.43%. He also showed dominant plate discipline improving his EYE from 0.74 in ’06 to 1.06 in ’07. His 2nd half also showed the improvements you’d like out of a younger player as he went .308-.371-.555, despite an abnormally low .160 BHIP%. Jackson no longer has Tony Clark to steal AB’s away from him and is likely locked in as the Diamondbacks #3 hitter this year. He’s barely being drafted right now with an ADP of over 300 and should make for an excellent late-round flier. I think our projection on Jackson is pretty conservative and could easily see a .300/.370/.530 season with 85 Runs, 95 RBIs, and 20 HR’s. While others are taking late round fliers on hyped youngsters like Joey Votto or aging veterans like Richie Sexson, I’ll be looking directly at Conor Jackson. He has the best combination of plate discipline and opportunity of any late round 1B available and I think he’s in store for a breakout 2008.
Young dominated the Diamondbacks regulars on Friday pitching 3 scoreless and hitless innings. The only blemish, a BB, can be overlooked with the 3 strikeouts. Young’s looked good in both spring training outings and while questions surround his durability (has yet to top 180 innings), Young has proved himself as one of the most difficult pitchers for opponents to hit. His Opponents Slugging has dropped from .407 to .297 over the last 3 years largely aided by his switch in ballparks (from Texas to San Diego) but also aided by an increased K Rate. Young was a bit lucky last year in his HR’s allowed so we can expect a slight uptick in that area, but overall Young leads our 2nd tier of SP’s. His dominant WHIP (1.13, 1.10 last 2 years) allows his owners flexibility to take some chances on other high WHIP high potential starters like Chad Billingsley. Young and similar WHIP specialist James Shields are terrific targets for those owners who like to build hitting heavy squads and don’t select their first pitcher the 8th-10th rounds of drafts.
McCarthy could only go 1 inning on Friday before being pulled with a sore forearm. McCarthy’s injury history since coming over to Texas isn’t a pretty one, it reads: finger injury (missed 11 games), finger injury (15 day DL), finger injury (missed 17 games), shoulder injury (15 day DL, missed 17 games), forearm injury (missed 9 games). The sore forearm can be a precursor to elbow problems which wouldn’t be a surprise at this point. McCarthy’s injury plagued 2007 season was littered with poor performance when on the mound and it looks like his star is fading quickly.
From a statistical standpoint it’s hard not to like Chris Capuano’s chances at rebounding from a miserable 2007 season. His K Rate stayed in line and while his BB Rate jumped back to his 2004 and 2005 levels, the real issue was his poor luck with BHIP. Throw in an unusually low Strand Rate and you end up with some ugly overall numbers, 5.10 ERA, 1.49 WHIP. As a result Capuano has become the poster-boy for regression in some of our analysis. However I’m a bit skeptical and Capuano’s horrible outing yesterday didn’t help my confidence in him. Capuano went just 2 innings allowing 6 ER’s on 7 hits and 1 BB, while striking out 1. This marked Capuano’s 2nd sub par start, his first start he allowed 2 ER’s in 2 innings. Scouting reports at the end of last year talked about Capuano’s velocity tailing significantly and while it didn’t show in his K Rate, I’m concerned Capuano’s quick drop in effectiveness reminds me too much of another former LH Brewer, Doug Davis. Davis had similar issues where he started losing his command again and suddenly became much more hittable after two great years in ’04 and ’05. The situation mirrors Capuano’s great ’05 and ’06 seasons. Add in the competition from Manny Parra, Claudio Vargas, Dave Bush and Carlos Villanueva for back-end rotation slots and I’m hesitant in investing anything in Capuano this season, even if the numbers tell me I shouldn’t be.
Kinsler was one of our favorite pre-season sleepers heading into last season and while the hype has quieted, we still love the 2B from Texas. Kinsler’s 20-20 season in 2007 was as streaky as they come with much of the production coming in April and then a late season flurry in August and September. This spring he’s off to another hot start hitting .474/.565/.632 through his first 19 AB’s and looks like he’s locking himself into the leadoff position. The leadoff position in Texas should be kind to Kinsler even without the vaunted Rangers lineup of years past. Kinsler scored 46 runs in his 56 games sans Teixeira in the 2nd half of last season and should approach 105-115 runs this year hitting leadoff. He’s a good bet for another 20-20 season and while my good man Joe Ribando loves Cano’s ADP I’ll take the power-speed combo Kinsler provides at the same price and sacrifice the batting average.
Billingsley got knocked around a little bit yesterday by the Cardinals, surrendering long balls to Albert Pujols, D’Angelo Jimenez, and Colby Rasmus, but the key indicator for Billingsley is the control. In 3 innings yesterday he only walked 1 and struck out 4. For the spring he’s only walked 1 batter in 5 innings and if he can keep that control heading into the season he could make the leap forward Dodgers’ fans have been expecting out of Billingsley. Looking at Billingsley’s projection this year the biggest knock on his value is his projected 1.34 WHIP. The K’s are nice (178) and the W’s (11) and ERA (3.94) are tolerable, but the 1.34 WHIP places your staff behind the gun immediately. This is largely based on Billingsley’s inability to command the strike zone. His 122 BB’s in 237 professional innings for a .51 BB Rate are concerning, while the BB’s came down a bit last year his .45 BB Rate in his final 16 starts show some of the same problems. If Billingsley can bring the BB Rate down to the .35 area he has a chance to be a legitimate Fantasy Ace, but until the command comes he’ll continue to be a tantalizing fantasy pitcher with the absolute ceiling of a Carlos Zambrano.
Cubs Closer Situation
I know my man Ribando was pitching Kerry Wood yesterday but I’m sticking with my prediction on Bob Howry as the Cubs opening day closer even if Woody is touching 98 mph. I still can’t see how the Cubs will thrust Wood into the closer role without any indication he can go back-to-back days. The Cubs opening schedule brings a lot of early home games in March/April (16 to be exact), this should temper the Cubs willingness to utilize Wood often early on in the Cold weather. Carlos Marmol is the best candidate from a fantasy perspective but he may hold more value to the Cubs being able to go 2 innings at a time in highly leveraged situations like he did last year. This leaves Howry, who also happens to be a pending FA and if there’s anyway to drive up his Elias ranking it’s to allow him to notch a few saves as well. This gives the Cubs an added incentive to utilize Howry in this position. The early season cold weather should benefit Howry despite his early season struggles in the past as Howry’s extreme fly ball tendencies should play better in Wrigley where the wind typically blows in off the lake throughout April. For all these reasons, I’m sticking with Howry as the favorite to land the closer’s role.
Cubs CF Battle
The CF battle in Cubs camp between Felix Pie and Sam Fuld hasn’t exactly been a rivoting position battle early on. Fuld has looked like the 4A player many scouts reference him as and Pie’s continued to show his struggles with plate discipline striking out 5 times in his first 21 ABs. What Pie has done is flash the power that should give him a huge edge in the battle. His .231 batting average early on in spring isn’t too exciting, but the .875 OPS buoyed by a .571 Slugging % early on sure would play in CF. Of Pie’s 5 hits, 3 have been for extra bases including 2 HR’s. We’re pretty high on Pie as a nice late round sleeper projecting a .275-93-7-71-29 line as the starting CF.
Johnny Cueto’s strong spring continues
Cueto was impressive again yesterday throwing 3 dominating innings against the Pirates on Friday. Sure, it was the Pirates, but Cueto breezed through 3 innings only allowing a measly base-runner while striking out 4. Cueto reportedly topped out at 97 mph, sitting consistently at 95, throwing 25 strikes in his 35 pitches. Cueto’s spring line now sits at 1 ER, 5 Hits, 0 BB’s, and 6 K’s through his first 5 innings. His impressive spring could land him a look at the 5th spot in the rotation but more likely he’ll end up in AAA to start the year. Homer Bailey gets all the press as the better prospect, but I’m not buying into it nearly as much as I am Johnny Cueto. Cueto’s posted practically the same minor league numbers as Bailey with HALF the BB’s. If you’re looking for a young Cincinnati pitcher to bet on long-term, I’m investing in Cueto.
A’s 1B/DH job does Mike Sweeney fit in?
The A’s have a bevy of 1B/DH talent in camp this spring with Mike Sweeney, Jack Cust, Dan Johnson, and Daric Barton all competing for roster spots. Johnson is out of options, so he needs a roster spot or a trade if the A’s are interested in keeping him. Cust and Sweeney are both murdering the ball this spring, but both really should be relegated to DH duties, which mean we have 4 players for 2 spots. At this point barring injury it looks like Johnson will have to be shipped out and could land with a team like the Giants who are dying for any offensive help, while Barton will claim the 1B job and Cust is likely the everyday DH, but where does Sweeney fit in? Sweeney could act as just the big bat off the Bench but his lack of defensive value hurts his chances at that spot. The A’s recently have been giving Cust some time in LF to open up the DH spot for Sweeney, and continue to stress to him that he’s an OF not a DH. Keep an eye on this situation as the spring progresses, the A’s only have 17 more days till they open in Japan, so the more time we see Cust playing in LF the more of a chance Mike Sweeney might actually get at playing time, making him a potential late round sleeper in AL only formats.
Brandon Wood’s slow spring
A couple weeks back I highlighted Wood as a potential sleeper in AL Only leagues because of the uncertainty surrounding the Angels SS position. While I noted he would likely start the season in AAA, Wood’s atrocious spring is guaranteeing it. Wood is still struggling with making contact (6 K’s in 16 AB’s) and as a result is hitting a measly .125 so far. His only 2 hits have cleared the fences, which remains consistent with the jaw dropping power we’ve seen throughout his minor league career. I still think Wood has a chance as the season progresses if he can put together a big start to the season at AAA, but his continued inability to flash any semblance of plate discipline against major league pitching continues to impede his path to stardom.
Lackey through a bullpen session yesterday, which he termed “lights out” and is keeping the opening day start as his target. Mike Scioscia on the other hand isn’t thinking along those same lines as he indicated the Angels would want Lackey to make 5 spring starts before taking the mound in the regular season and not 4. At this point the Angels are considering Lackey the starter for the 5th game of the season, despite Lackey’s intentions. Regardless, the good news here is Lackey appears to be healthy and pushing the elbow concerns behind him.