Paul had mentioned keeping an eye on Chris Volstad earlier in the spring and it might be time to start paying closer attention. Volstad is typically a prime candidate we’d warn you about coming into the season as his .78 Strand Rate and .266 BHIP% against last season scream regression in his 2.89 ERA and 1.33 WHIP. But Volstad is quietly making some nice progress this spring and it deserves mentioning. He threw 4 more shutout innings yesterday lowering his spring ERA to 2.50. He struck out 3 but most importantly of all, he walked 0. In 18 spring innings, Volstad now has just 2 BB’s and 10 K’s. The K’s aren’t where we’d like them and the lack of them will always limit Volstad’s upside, but the BB’s are extremely significant. Volstad’s an extreme ground ball pitcher, posting ground ball rates consistently between 55-60% in the minor leagues. The extreme ground ball tendencies allow Volstad to limit HR’s allowed and that combination with a low BB Rate can lead to success. It’s a combination Derek Lowe has relied on throughout his career and Lowe is a strong comparison for Volstad as a tall lanky sinkerballer. Volstad struggled with his command last year at the major league level (.43 BB Rate) and a big part of an expected regression is based off of that BB Rate remaining high. If he’s able to bring the BB’s down closer to his minor league norms (.28-.33), Volstad could post a mid-high 3’s ERA along with a 1.27-1.35 WHIP. He’s nothing more than a late round sleeper/matchups type SP for most traditional mixed leaguers but for those NL only types Volstad makes for a nice mid-late round sleeper who should give quality innings that do more harm than good.
Ludwick owners paying for a repeat of last season have to be a bit relieved to see Ludwick finally put together something positive this spring. Mired in a 6-40 slump without a HR, Ludwick finally broke through on Thursday knocking out his first spring training HR. It was off of Scott Kazmir no less, but Ludwick finished the day with another 1-4 with another strikeout and raised his spring average to .159. While Ludwick is unlikely to repeat last years numbers, the spring training results aren’t too concerning just yet. Ludwick’s still shown similar control of the strike zone in his 44 AB’s (5 BB’s, 8 K’s) to last season but he’s had some horrid luck (.121 BHIP%). The true concern is his ability to maintain an extra base hit rate nearing 15%. Ludwick’s minor league career posted levels in the 12-13% rate which is where I think he regresses back down towards this year. Our projections are a bit more optimistic than I am but I see Ludwick dropping back down closer to 27-30 HR’s with 95 Runs and 95 RBI’s, still making a quality starting OF, but perhaps not the premier one we saw last season. Don’t put too much stock into the spring training struggles so far, but do be prepared for a bit of a drop-off in production this season as his extra base hit rate from last season seems unsustainable.
Tony LaRussa has given little indication of who he’ll enter the season with as closer, but Jason Motte appears to be doing everything he can to make that decision for his manager. Motte notched his 3rd save of the spring recording 4 outs on Thursday against the Rays. He struck out 2 and walked just 1 in the 4 outs and now has a 12:1 K:BB ratio in 7 1/3 spring innings. This coming after he posted an impressive 16:3 K:BB ratio in 11 September innings at the end of last season. Motte is a converted position player with an electric fastball. He struck out 110 in just 66 2/3 innings last year out of the AAA pen showing an ability to blow hitters away. He doesn’t have much else other than the fastball but his ability to strike batters out and his apparent improving grip on the closer’s role has his value improving. As Anthony mentioned yesterday we’ll be shifting our attention towards Motte and away from Perez as our favorite in the Cardinals bullpen.
Towles difficulties this spring and the Astros apparent need to “make a splash” led to the signing of Pudge Rodriguez earlier this week. Unfortunately for Towles, one of my favorite deep catcher sleepers is out of a job and out of much opportunity. Towles struggled at the major league level last season looking overmatched and suffering from some horrid luck (.113 BHIP%), but he went back down to AAA and mashed posting an .870 OPS in 168 AB’s. With Pudge on board and the Astros lacking patience with Towles his value has taken a dramatic hit. He’s now just a reserve candidate in NL only formats where owners can hope he dominates AAA again and forces the Astros hand for a mid-season call-up.
Over the last 3 years Paul Konerko has shown all the classic signs of aging. His power rates have gone across the board, he’s hitting more ground balls as he loses loft in his swing, and his EYE has slightly improved. Having just turned 33 a few weeks back though Konerko is trying to show he has a little bit more left in the tank. Konerko knocked out his 4th HR of the spring on Thursday and added a 2B in a 2-3 effort against Matt Cain. He’s struck out just once in 45 spring AB’s and now has a 13.3% extra base hit rate, which is more indicative of the guy we used to consistently see in the 11.3-11.7% range (last year he was all the way down to 9.6%). Konerko’s EYE hasn’t evaporated yet (the last part of the aging process), so if the power comes back at all Konerko could be in for a surprise bounce-back season. At age 33, Konerko should still have something left in the tank. It’s just spring, but its worth noting and a guy to keep an eye on heading into the season.
Corey feel free to save some of this for the season! Hart knocked out his 5th HR of the spring and now has 11 extra base hits in 40 spring AB’s, for a slugging % right around 1.000. Along with those 11 extra base hits are 11 K’s as well and just 1 BB. This was the issue for Hart last year as his plate discipline fell apart in the 2nd half and pitchers took advantage. Hart’s strong power-speed combination will allow him to make a fantasy impact regardless but his ability to reach the upside his raw skills suggest would depend on an improved understanding of the strike zone, and this improvement seems unlikely. We look for Hart to improve from last year though modestly as his weak OBP leaves owners in those formats a lot to be desired and owners in all formats with mediocre Run totals.
We touched on Kershaw’s improving command in the spring and Thursday was another step in the right direction. Kershaw walked just one in 5 shutout innings on Thursday as his spring ERA begins to catch up with his peripherals. He’s now struck out 14 and walked just 3 in 15 1/3 innings. A stud in the making Kershaw remains a nice late round bargain with significant upside. We’ve touched on this all last year but Kershaw’s already figured out 2 of the 3 stats for the pitching trifecta (high K’s, high GB Rate), he just needs to control the strike zone and we’re looking at a #1 fantasy starter.
Fantasy baseball talk in March almost always revolves around sleepers and one of my favorite least talked about sleepers in fantasy this year is Ryan Spilborghs. Spilborghs has done nothing but hit during his major league career posting a .302/.374/.466 line. He enters the season with a hold on the CF job and while he’ll be a bit overmatched defensively, us fantasy owners could care less. He’s in a great position to succeed hitting in Coors Field and even in the worse case scenario (if he can’t prove to handle CF defensively or gets pushed by Dexter Fowler) Spilborghs should get ABs as the RH part of a platoon. He’s a nice gamble as a bench OF late in mixed leagues as he’s shown decent power and a willingness to run at the big league level and makes a nice starting option in NL only formats.
A quick injury update here as Dustin Pedroia expects to return to action on Friday with the Red Sox from his strained rib cage injury suffered during the WBC. Pedroia owners can breathe a sigh of relief as it looks like Pedroia’s opening day isn’t in jeopardy in any way.
Another one of my favorite late round closer options notched down a save on Thursday as Frank Francisco pitched an uneventful 9th inning while striking out 2. He goes a bit unnoticed pitching in a horrible pitchers park, but Francisco was dominant last year out of the pen striking out 83 in 63 1/3 innings. He’s always been a big strikeout guy that has struggled with command and he did have his battles last year (.41 BB Rate), but the rate came down to under .25 during the 2nd half of the season and Francisco hasn’t walked a batter yet in 5 spring innings. He’s available late but has the upside of a solid #2 closer thanks to the strong K Rates and improving command.
Sean Marshall Officially Claims 5th Starter Role:
We’ve been on this all spring but Lou Pineilla made it official on Thursday as he named Sean Marshall the 5th starter. Marshall’s been outstanding all spring allowing just 1 ER in 14 1/3 innings while posting a solid 8:1 K:BB ratio. He’s not going to strike a lot of batters out but strong command and improving GB rates make Marshall a solid #5 starter for the Cubs. From a fantasy perspective he’ll be a matchups type play in mixed formats and a solid back-end option in NL only leagues who should provide solid WHIP and good W potential.
Can Milton Bradley Repeat?
Milton Bradley’s 2008 season certainly stands out as a monster .321/.436/.563 line notched Bradley 17 MVP votes, but can he do it again? The good news is Bradley is moving to an easier league and playing in another favorable hitters park, the bad news is Bradley’s long history of injuries. This spring he’s only been able to get on the field for 17 AB’s as he’s been limited by the Flu and a Quad Strain. Bradley’s hit when he’s been there notching 2 2B’s in 17 AB’s and posting a 1.00 EYE but getting on the field and staying on the field has already been an issue for a player no longer playing for a contract and no longer being able to DH. Though Bradley brings plenty of upside to the table, he’s best served for fantasy purposes in leagues that reward OBP, otherwise his days off limit the production in the counting stats and brings and added level of roster frustration. Unless benches are deep, I prefer to let Bradley go to another owner and let them get frustrated with him early in the season rather than use a draft pick on the volatile DH turned OF.
Justin Duchscherer’s Rehab:
Duchscherer threw from flat ground on Wednesday and said he no longer feels pain in his elbow. Duchscherer intends to ramp up the rehab process, saying it shouldn’t “take long to get game ready”, but can he be relied upon? Duchscherer’s peripherals last year have been discussed on end and all the reasons for regression are there (high strand rate, obscenely low BHIP%, .230), but as importantly for me is Duchscherer’s injury history and his major league career high in innings last season. Used primarily as a reliever during his big league career, Duchscherer had thrown just 71 innings in the previous two years before 2008 due in large part to a degenerative hip condition. With his arm ailing early on in spring and the history there prior to last year, “Dukes” is someone I’m avoiding in all formats.
Ryan Sweeney’s Hot Spring resolving A’s OF situation:
The A’s have had a glut of similar OF’s the last few years, gap power guys who can get on base and play good defense and coming into camp this year with newly acquired Matt Holliday the two other OF slots were up for grabs. Ryan Sweeney and Travis Buck figure to be the favorites and Sweeney just continues to tighten his grip on the CF spot. Sweeney went 1-4 on Thursday and actually dropped his average to .432 on the spring. He’s shown good plate discipline but most of the hot spring is driven by a favorable singles average. While Sweeney’s hot spring has likely locked up his spot as the A’s starting CF, he shouldn’t be up for consideration for anything but AL only formats. Sweeney has middling plate control, lacks power, and doesn’t steal enough bases to make much of an impact. Though he’ll be getting less AB’s Raja Davis remains the more valuable potential A’s CF for fantasy purposes because of the extremely strong SB potential.
Jay Bruce being vastly overvalued:
As fantasy players we are obsessed with upside. Who knows maybe its some unreasonable obsession with finding the perfect team of all top players that has us reach for upside and dismiss reliability. Whatever it is it’s causing an absurd over-drafting of Jay Bruce this season. Bruce is going on average just inside the Top 100 picks overall despite posting a modest .244/.300/.468 line in the 2nd half of last season with a K Rate over 26%. He doesn’t run very much (just 41 career minor league SB’s with a 62% success rate) and his low OBP and batting average risk make him susceptible in both Runs and BA. That’s now 3 of the 5 categories that Bruce offers downside in for standard roto players. Jay Bruce is going to be a superstar someday, no doubt about it, but unless he figures it out very early this season, Bruce is going to be a draft bust for most fantasy owners. Things don’t seem to be improving as Bruce entered yesterday’s game with 9 K’s in 30 AB’s (and he’s struck out in his first 2 plate appearances tonight). With a K Rate in spring nearing 30%, Bruce is showing he still needs time to learn. He’ll be great someday but for fantasy owners focused on winning this year there’s going to be a lot of lost time early in the season when he’s relied upon in your starting lineup.
Aaron Harang’s Concerning Spring:
We started the spring talking about Aaron Harang’s depressed draft day value but after a few more concerning starts some red flags are starting to creep up around Harang. He’s struck out just 6 batters in 13 2/3 innings while walking 4. The decreasing K Rates come after a drop in the 2nd half last year down to 0.73 (from .89). Harang never really recovered last year after the extended bullpen outing on 2 days rest in a 17 inning game in San Diego. As the season wore on he battled elbow issues and his K Rate continued to slide. With the K Rate sliding further this spring questions about his health continue to linger in this analyst’s mind. While I still think there’s good value (and good upside) attached to Harang where he’s being drafted I’m starting to choose other pitchers with upside around him instead (players like Clayton Kershaw).