Houston Astros – The Puma Is Out – Spring training is supposed to be about hope and optimism but this March has many teams scrambling trying to figure out backup plans for key players that are going down. Include the Astros as one of those teams with All-Star first baseman Lance Berkman undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery on Saturday. The surgery will have Berkman out of the lineup for about 4 weeks. This is a tough blow to the Astros for the start of the season as Berkman is a pivotal player in this lineup and his bat is a primary offensive source. Berkman was hoping for a injury-free year as he is playing for a contract this year and has much to prove after last season which was considered an off year by Berkman standards as he struggled with injuries in '09 as well. He still produced solid numbers with a slash line of .274/.399/.509 demonstrating an outstanding combination of patience and power. This is also reflected in an EYE of 0.99 and an ISO of .235. With so many outstanding first base choices, Berkman is still a guy to target draft day as his value will no doubt fall but should still have plenty of playing time to make a strong contribution this season, especially in a contract year where there is a high degree of motivation. If you can find room for him on your bench, he is worth having. His BHIP% of .296 last year is lower than his career number of .320, so that should also indicate a positive upswing. Closely monitor his rehabilitation for the rest of spring training to ensure that he doesn't have any setbacks.
In Berkman's absence, Geoff Blum will more than likely be the candidate to take over first base. Blum's a great guy to have coming off the bench because of the multitude of positions he can play. Did I mention that he is a great guy coming off the bench? THE BENCH! If you are even thinking that with Berkman gone, Blum is now a viable option to consider for first base on draft day, think again Sparky. This is about time where we compare replacement values and we can see that Blum has a WAR (win over replacement value) of 0.6 in '09. On the flip side, Berkman's WAR last year was 3.2 which was actually low for him. So with first base so deep, Blum doesn't have a lot of value and isn't worth wasting a pick on. There are plenty of other options out there and Berkman may come cheap or late in your draft with his start of the season delay.
Houston Astros – Competition for Catcher is Wide Open – Along with who will be the Astros closer, the catcher job is a wide open competition with no clear front-runner at this point. The Astros are committed to Humberto Quintero as the back-up guy for sure. With a .236 BA last year, a OBP of .284 and striking out more than 26% of the time, Quintero is irrelevant from a fantasy standpoint (wow...that sounded harsh. I'm sure your mom thinks your great Humberto). Which leaves the main catching duties up to J.R. Towles and Astro prospect Jason Castro (no, not the American Idol runner up). Towles, 26, is at a crossroads where if he doesn't make the team as the starting catcher, he will more than likely be viewed as a Triple A player for his career. In the minors last year he produced a slash line of .274/.384/.445 in 148 AB's at Round Rock but was only able to muster a .188 BA in a short stay with Houston. However, this spring Towles has been torrid at the plate hitting .600 in 17 AB's with 6 extra base hits. It's the kind of showing that Towles needs to have to fend off Castro from taking the starting job. Castro was a #1 draft choice in '08 (8th overall) and has been on the fast track through the farm system. Last year with his time split between High A and Double A he hit .299 in 445 AB's with 10 home runs and an EYE of 0.73 which is pretty good. He has been able to hit right-handed and left-handed pitching equally well (.323 vs. LH, .282 vs. RH) and has also been impressive this spring hitting .500 in 13 AB's. Towles has more big league experience as this point and Castro has yet to have a plate appearance at Triple A which would indicate that the Astros will more than likely go with Towles as their starter for now. From a fantasy perspective, I will be kinder to Towles than I was to Quintero in that Towles has little fantasy relevancy and would probably hit around .230 to .240 for the year with a handful of home runs if playing full time. Castro, on the other hand, is someone to target in keeper leagues and to keep an eye on if Towles should stumble as he might be a call-up. For now, it's probably best to look elsewhere for your catching options than in Houston.
Los Angeles Angels – Tenuous Closer Situation – Make no mistake, the Angels acquired Fernando Rodney this offseason for a reason and Brian Fuentes should pay attention because this is definitely a warning shot across the bow of his ship. Fuentes will be on a very short leash and the slightest hint of inconsistency may cost him his role. Ironically, last year Fuentes had a career high in saves at 48 and lead the league in that category. But he also blew 7 saves in the process and had an elevated ERA of 3.93. It was his highest ERA since becoming a closer back in Colorado. A little more concerning was that his WHIP was 1.40 (second highest of his career), his hit per 9 innings were at 8.7 (second highest of his career) and his strikeouts per nine innings were down to 7.5 (the lowest of his career). Some of you may be thinking, “C'mon, Fuentes couldn’t have been that bad. After all, he led the league in saves.” While this is true, the Angels as a team have averaged 52.5 saves per season from 2006-2009. That's more than any other club. Whether it's Francisco Rodriguez or Brian Fuentes, it seems that saves will come the closer's way if you are wearing a Angel uniform. But why all of the struggles last year for Fuentes? Most notable was the decrease in velocity on his fastball in '09 to 90 mph. In the past he has thrown about 92 mph. As a result, it’s not surprising that his swing and miss rate also decreased to 6.9% from 9.3%. So what does this mean from a fantasy baseball perspective? On draft day it might be prudent to stay away from Fuentes as his role is extremely tenuous and may not be the closer for the entire year. If during spring training, Fuentes isn’t crisp and sharp, we may see that switch happen before opening day or Scioscia may opt to use a tandem closer situation. This would be a shame for fantasy players as the Angels have shown from season to season to be a treasure trove of save opportunities and having them split between two relievers, could lessen the fantasy impact of both Fuentes and Rodney.
Los Angeles Angels – Two Completely Different Catchers – I know that Mike Scioscia is a very well respected manager. He leads the Angels to a division win almost every year. But from a fantasy standpoint there is no manager in baseball that drives me more crazy. Scioscia likes to have a lot of versatile players who can play many positions and he likes to have a lot of moving parts. But in fantasy you need to be able to count on players to get their AB's and to log their innings. One of the more aggravating platoons on the Angels is the split of time between the offensive Mike Napoli and the defensive Jeff Mathis. Scioscia, having been a catcher himself, understands the value of a strong fielding catcher but Scioscia obviously doesn't play fantasy baseball. Napoli is perhaps one of the best hitting catchers in baseball but his value is decreased because of defensive limitations. The last two seasons he has hit a crisp .273, with 40 home runs in just 609 AB's. If Napoli played an entire season rather than splitting his time, this would probably project out to about 35 long balls. This would make him a real gem in a offensively scarce position. Yes, he strikeout far, far too much, almost 24% of the time, but he had a strong wOBA of .362 last season which shows that when he has gotten on base, it's been in productive situations. He also takes more pitches per plate appearance, 4.14, than most of his other teammates which shows that plate discipline is there if only his CT% was better than 71%. Jeff Mathis is a non-factor offensively, hitting on .211 and .200 for his career. This spring is illustrating the disparity between the two catchers with Napoli crushing the ball, hitting .444 with 4 home runs and Mathis hitting just .200. The problem for fantasy owners is that Scioscia being such an advocate for defensive catchers, it devalues Napoli's offensive worth. Napoli is working on his defensive skills and if he can get 400 AB's, his offensive potential is certainly worth a pick on draft day. Additionally, keep in mind that Hideki Matsui will handle much of the DH role but even he will need rest and Napoli may find himself contributing more time in that role throughout the season. Even though Napoli is a great offensive threat, don't value him too high on draft day as he will no doubt slip a little because of the playing time issue. Hopefully, Scioscia will find ways to get him into the lineup more consistently than he has done in the past.
Atlanta Braves – Competition for Pitching Spots – The first round of cuts for the Braves take place on Monday and one of the pitchers who looks like he'll get a longer look is Craig Kimbrel. Kimbrel, 20, is one of the top prospects in the Braves organization and despite his slight stature of 5'9”, he throws a 95 mph fastball. It's easy to draw comparisons to teammate Billy Wagner who has a similar frame and a blazing fastball. But Wagner is holding on to that closer role for now and Kimbrel may be the guy to watch in the future. He has only pitched 2 years in the minor leagues but has a career 1.98 ERA with 159 K's in 95.1 innings. That's enough to raise some eyebrows. He's only given up 2 home runs in those 95 innings with hitters batting a paltry .146 against him. So this is where you might ask, “What's the catch?”. The catch is is that Kimbrel has a little bit of control issues with a career BB/9 of 5.7. Yes, we are dealing with pretty raw talent here. It's a long shot, but if Kimbrel did make the club, it would probably be in a middle relief role initially and for those who are in non-keeper leagues he is a name you should keep in mind but not target for draft day. If you are in a keeper league, especially those that have farm system, Kimbrel is someone to look into as he has huge potential and if he can learn to harness that fastball, could be the Braves closer of the future.
Atlanta Braves – Competition for Roster Spots – It's no secret that the Braves are a team where health is a issue with players like Tim Hudson, Chipper Jones, Troy Glaus and Billy Wagner. With these kinds of concerns, the Braves will need to ensure that their bench is strong as these role players may play a prominent part in the Braves' season. Brooks Conrad is making a play to be that role player and is doing a convincing job with scintillating fielding this spring and an equally strong performance at the plate batting .480 in 16 AB's with 4 extra base hits. Conrad only has 73 major league AB's split between Oakland and Atlanta and is batting just .192 for his M.L. Career. But he has shown nice offensive potential in the minors where he has had 4 seasons hitting over 20 home runs. Hopefully, the Braves infield will stay healthy, but if any of the key players (Jones, Glaus) go down with extended injuries, Conrad could be an interesting guy who may get playing time. He is primarily a middle infielder but can play third base and does have power potential to make him worth investigating. For now, keep him on the back burner but as things shake out for the Braves during the season, keep Conrad in mind for a good fill-in guy.
Denard Span (Twins—OF) Kudos to Denard Span who signed a five-year $16.5 million contract this weekend receiving the endorsement of the Twins as the centerfielder for now and years to come. Span really established himself last season in the leadoff role with a .311 BA and .392 OBP. His 0.79 EYE was very good and that combined with excellent speed (23 SB's) should allow him to provide strong, consistent offensive results. His BHIP% was high at .353 but Span hits more than 53% of the balls on the ground, has CT% of 90% and is able to utilize his speed so he has the ability to keep that number high and keep that batting average above .300. When comparing him to other centerfielders, he has the potential to be in the top 5 of many offensive categories this season. He should have good numbers in hits, runs, stolen bases, triples, OBP, average and walks. Also, hitting at the top of the order means more AB's which means more potential to help your fantasy team. Compared to a lot of big bopper outfielders, Span is a different kind of player, but he had a RAR (run above replacement player) of 38.9 and could be a great pick in later rounds in your draft. Don't forget about him on draft day as he deserves your attention.
C.C. Sabathia (Yankees—SP) C.C. Sabathia is a notorious slow starter and this was exhibited quite distinctly on Sunday in his 3rd outing of the spring against Pittsburgh. Sabathia pitched just 4.1 innings, allowing 3 ER, with 2 BB and 2K's. His ERA for the spring now stands at 8.31 and it's a good thing it doesn't count. Last season, Sabathia performed pretty much as advertised. He was a workhorse, logging 230 innings and secured 19 wins for himself which was in large part due to being the being the 4th most run-supported pitcher in baseball last year. Now I'm not trying to say that Sabathia isn't a top tier pitcher, but playing for the Yankees makes his fantasy value inflate considerably so just be careful with how much you spend for him in auction drafts or where you pick him in a snake draft. His xFIP last year was 3.82 compared to his ERA 3.37 which indicates a high percentage of fly balls that always increases the potential for home runs. Sabathia's FB% was slightly elevated last season at 37.3% (35.4% FB for his career) but his HR/FB was lower last year at 7.4% compared to 8.4% for his career. What this means that playing at Yankee Stadium, we may see a few more home runs hit this season and a little bump on his ERA. But despite that, he does play for the Yanks and will no doubt produce strong numbers overall.
B.J. Upton (Rays—OF) With the progression that Justin Upton is making year to year, it's easy to forget that there is another Upton brother who is very talented but has fallen on tough times the past couple of seasons. B.J. Upton has struggled with a shoulder injury that may have slowed his power production to a total of 20 home runs in '08 and '09 when hitting a career high 24 in '07. He's 25 years old and a positive indication of health is that he has hit 2 home runs in 26 AB's this spring suggesting a possible resurgence of power. Upton's BHIP% last year was a career low for him at .310 and with his speed, we can presume better things to come in '10. Whether the power returns or not, he will be an excellent source of stolen bases and will certainly see a better OBP than last year's .313. It can safely be assumed that Upton is better than what we saw last year and could be due for a nice bounce back. Our website here projects him with a FPI of 0.70 putting him in the above average range. He may be a solid sleeper pick on draft day most certainly for steals and if you temper your expectations in regards to the power, you may be pleasantly surprised by the best output since '07.
Johan Santana (Mets—SP) The Johan Santana that showed up on the mound Sunday looked like the real Santana compared to the impostor that showed up in the first outing of the spring. Santana pitched 4 scoreless innings, allowing just 3 hits and striking out 4. It was a solid piece of good news seeing Santana looking like his old self after elbow surgery that put him on the DL at the end of '09. The outing provided a Mets' camp with a much needed boost of confidence and perhaps a new belief that something could go right for them. '09 was the first time in 6 seasons that Santana had been unable to log 200+ innings and 200+ strikeouts, but there is a little reason to believe that even a healthy Santana may not able to reach those numbers this season. At 31, Santana's velocity (90.5 mph) dropped for the 3rd consecrative year in a row as did his K/9 rate (7.9), while his BB/9 increased (2.5). It's this trend that has fantasy owners thinking twice about Santana's effectiveness and durability. Santana could slip some in your draft but could pay high dividends if his woes from last year were strictly related to his sore elbow and is 100% healed. Monitor his spring closely to watch his effectiveness, velocity on his pitches and his durability and make your move on draft day accordingly.
Billy Butler (Royals—1B) In general, if a player is on the Kansas City Royals and their name is not Grienke, we tend to forget about them on draft day. Billy Butler is one of those guys you don't want to forget especially with the plethora of first base choices. He could be an outstanding value compared to where he may fall in your draft. Butler is a legitimate candidate to hit .300 with 20+ home runs and 100+ RBI. After starting off the season slowly, Butler really accelerated his game with a slash line of .314/.385/.540 in the second half. And in case you're not doing the math, that equates to a .925 OPS. His XBH% was a solid 10.9% in '09, exceeding the MLB average by 3%. There's a good chance that the soon-to-be 24 year old can but up similar numbers and has a chance to be one of those Royals who will no longer fly under the radar. Expect him to be a solid sleeper pick on draft day with a boat load of potential.
Clayton Kershaw (Dodgers—SP) Clayton Kershaw had a breakout year in '09 with a 2.79 ERA and K/9 of 9.74. He's a talented 22 year-old with a 94 mph fastball and very good CT% of 75%. He's main issue right now is that he is prone to wildness as reflected in his BB/9 of 4.79 last season. This should improve but fantasy owners should temper their expectations for a repeat of a below 3.00 ERA. Kershaw BHIP% was a very low .274 and that along with a FIP of 3.08 indicates a rise in runs. Still, he is going to be a great source of many starting pitching categories and will probably go later in a draft. If he is able to get a handle on the wildness, he could be in line for a notable season.
Matt Thornton (White Sox—RP) Matt Thornton's stock is on the rise. Thornton made a smooth transition from lefty specialist to set-up man for Bobby Jenks last year. He has been a killer against left-handed batters but has been able to hold off the right-handed hitters as well keeping them at bay with a .230 BA and a 1.14 WHIP last season. What was particularly nice for fantasy owners who are in deeper leagues where holds count was that not only was Thornton a great source of holds (24 in '09) but he also stepped into the closer role on a few occasions and was able to notch 4 saves for the White Sox. He will be working in a similar role this year as well and if Jenks should ever falter, Thornton with a 73% CT% and a 95-96 mph fastball has the makeup to step right in. He's a great choice on draft day for leagues that are AL only or reward middle relievers.
Julio Borbon (Rangers – OF) One of the more intriguing outfield options on draft day is the Ranger's Julio Borbon. Borbon made a big splash last year when he was called up from Triple A and promptly hit .312 in 157 AB's and had a .376 OBP. He has speed galore, swiping 19 stolen bases in 23 tries and could be a potential 50 stolen base player with regular playing time. But that's where it gets a little sticky as Borbon struggled against lefties last year hitting just .125 against them but with limited exposure. He makes contact 86% of the time but his BHIP% of .360 is high, so we may see some regression there. But his speed makes him a viable player who can maintain a .300 average especially with his GB% last year being over 54%. Look for him as an excellent source of steal but will provide little no power with an ISO last year of .102.
Erick Aybar (Angels – SS) Looking for viable options at shortstop? Rollins, Tulowitzki and Ramirez already drafted? Reyes too risky? Jeter's age scaring you off? Well, these are certainly the premium shortstops in baseball but if you are willing to go down to the next level, Erick Aybar may be a option worth considering. None of Aybar's stats pop out at you but he did bat a solid .312 last year and showed good speed, legging out 9 triples and 14 SB's. His OBP of .353 makes him a credible option and he will no doubt get plenty of playing time as he is a perfect fit for the kind of lineup and game Mike Scioscia likes to play. Rumor has it that he may be given the leadoff spot as well which increases his value as he will get plenty of AB's and opportunities to produce. While he may not be a .300 hitter on an on-going basis, he is a decent .275 hitter in a soft position.
Jason Bartlett (Ray – SS) If you miss out on those top tier shortstops, Jason Bartlett may be another good option at the position. But don't be fooled by his .320 BA last season as that will more than likely not be repeated. His BHIP% was extremely high at .364, much higher than any other season, so it can be anticipated that they will be a downward swing for hi, this year. He does have good speed as evident by his 30 stolen bases and that could help to buoy an average, but it will probably be more likely in the .285 to .290 range. Also expect a drop in home runs this year as his HR/FB was at a high in '09 at 8.7% compared to 4.2% for his career. He's a solid shortstop choice after the top guys are gone but ensure that you value him correctly on draft day.
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