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2010 Preseason Prep - March 18, 2010

Joseph Hettler

Cleveland Indians First Base - Given regular at-bats for the first time since 2002, Russell Branyan provided Seattle with an excellent first half last season, posting a .280/.382/.573 line while clobbering 22 HRs. He struggled in the second half (.193/.274/.414 with 9 HRs) and was bothered by a herniated disc which eventually ended his season on Aug. 30. Despite the injury, Cleveland signed Branyan to a one year, $2 million deal during the offseason. The left-handed slugger has yet to play in a spring training game due to a slower-than-expected back rehab.

Was Branyan’s second half collapse primarily caused by a regression to the mean, the herniated disc, or a combination of both? He did benefit from an inflated BABIP in the first half compared to the second half (.335 to .226) but didn’t lose too much of his power in the second half (13.0 AB/HR in first half compared to a 16.1 AB/HR in second half). Branyan, who’s always struggled against lefties, actually hit southpaws fairly well throughout the entire ’09 season, finishing with an .802 OPS and 10 home runs. He’s never been a sexy pick thanks to all those strikeouts, but the guy has a .822 career OPS and homers every 14.8 at-bats. Simply put, Branyan’s an overlooked, cheap source of power and RBI for your team as a backup first baseman. Grab him in the late rounds of your draft or for a few bucks in auctions and enjoy the 25 HRs.

The Branyan signing means prospect Matt LaPorta will battle for at-bats in left field, designated hitter and relieve Branyan when necessary at first base. He had hip surgery in the offseason but shouldn’t be too far behind his teammates in Spring Training. LaPorta is a power hitter (22 HRs in 362 ABs at AAA in ’08 and 17 HR in 338 AB in ’09) with the ability to hit for a decent average (.299 at AAA in ’09) while also getting on base (.75 BB/K at AAA in ’09). He didn’t completely flop during his stint at the Big League level in ’09 (.750 OPS) and we believe he’ll have a very strong first full major league season by popping 26 HRs, driving in 78 and hitting a respectable .278.

Cleveland Indians Bullpen - Kerry Wood signed with the Indians prior to 2009 with the hopes of being a closer on a contending team. That hope was quickly extinguished when the Tribe started slow and struggled throughout last season. Wood recorded just 20 saves in 26 chances and posted an unsightly 4.25 ERA. Worse, his BB/9 ballooned from 2.44 with the Cubs in ’08 to 4.58 last season while his K/9 rate dropped from 11.40 to 10.31. Wood’s WHIP also jumped from 1.09 to 1.38 despite his BABIP actually falling from .331 to .308. At 32 and with a history of arm issues, Wood is a risky closer pick in ’10.

With the possibility that Wood either struggles again or is traded (since Cleveland will likely be selling and Wood is owed $10.5 million in 2010), I expect fireballer Chris Perez to assume the closer duties by mid-season. Acquired from the Cardinals for Mark DeRosa last year, Perez had a strong first full season in the majors, tallying a K/9 of 10.74 and WHIP of just 1.19. Like many young pitchers, he needs to improve his control (4.26 BB/K in ’09), but his FIP (4.27) was right in line with his ERA (4.26), so he didn’t benefit from any luck. Perez and his 95 mph fastball will post plenty of Ks in ’10 and could easily provide 15 saves by season’s end.

San Diego Padres Shortstop – Looking for cheap steals at a hard-to-fill position? Meet San Diego’s Opening Day shortstop, Everth Cabrera. After playing a full season for Colorado’s A team in 2008, Cabrera skyrocketed through San Diego’s minor league system and made it to the Big Leagues after just 50 ABs in ’09. In his first full major league season, the then-22 year old stole 25 bases, tallied eight triples and showed decent plate discipline (.52 BB/K) in just 377 at-bats. With little power or RBI ability, Cabrera’s potential lies in his speed. He stole 73 bases in 89 attempts at A ball in ’08. After the Padres allowed Cabrera to attempt 33 steals last season, it’s safe to assume he’ll have even more opportunities in 2010.

Since he has such limited playing time above A ball, it’s hard to predict Cabrera’s ability to hit for average (he hit .284 in 550 A-ball ABs in ’08) but he wasn’t horrible in ’09, batting .242. More importantly, the fact that he held his own despite very limited experience above A ball says a lot about the kid’s potential to improve in ’10. We believe Cabrera will continue to grow into his role as San Diego’s SS by posting 41 steals and 86 runs in 556 ABs.

San Diego Padres Catcher - Catchers that hit nearly .300 should have no problems finding new teams in the free agent market, but it took until Feb. 7 for Yorvit Torrealba to ink a contract with the Padres. The reason? Torrealba enjoyed an unsustainable .347 BABIP and showed off power reminiscent of Omar Vizuel by posting a paltry 0.89 ISO. Add in the advantages of playing home games at hitter-friendly Coors Field and Torrealba could be in for a long season at spacious Petco. With little plate discipline (career .40 BB/K) and a horrendous career OPS of .706, Torrealba will split time with Nick Hundley and shouldn’t sniff your fantasy team’s roster.

Assuming Torrealba struggles as expected, Hundley has a great chance to distance himself from this platoon and handle the majority of ABs for the Padres this season. The 25-year-old has shown glimpses of power in the minors, hitting 20 home runs for AA San Antonio in 2003. However, he’s struggled in 454 career ABs in the majors, hitting just .238/.298/.385 with 13 HRs and 54 RBI. In 2009, Hundley couldn’t hit anything throw outside the strike out (connecting with just 42.6% of those pitches compared to a MLB average of 61.8%) and struck out in nearly 30% of his ABs. There’s hope in those minor league power numbers, so if he can cut down on the strike outs and improve his walk rate even a little, Hundley may have some value as a backup catcher for your fantasy team. Unlike the 31-year-old Torrealba, Hundley is still young enough to have an upside, so keep an eye on him as a sleeper in deep NL-only or mixed leagues.

Seattle Mariners Third Baseman - During the past offseason, the Mariners enticed long-time Angel Chone Figgins to switch divisional allegiances and join Seattle with a four-year, $36 million contract. While he’s started playing some second base in Spring Training, Figgins will likely see the majority of his time at third base in 2010.

The former Colorado fourth round pick had a stellar 2009 season, hitting .298 with 42 steals and 114 runs scored. Most surprisingly, Figgins blew away his previous career-high walk total of 65 by taking 101 free passes and posting a .395 OBP. It was also the third straight year Figgins improved his BB/K rate, although he did strike out in a career-high 114 ABs. One of the primary reasons Figgins took so many walks was because he only swung at 14.9% of pitches outside the strike zone, compared to the league average of 25.1%.

Heading into 2010, Figgins should hit in the No. 2 spot behind Ichiro and ahead of Milton Bradley (if healthy/sane) in a lineup that’s certainly less potent than the Anaheim lineups in which Figgins is accustomed. The lineup downgrade will impact Figgins in the runs scored department and possibly provide him with fewer ABs since Seattle won’t turn the lineup over as often. Still, as long as he’s healthy, Figgins will provide steals, runs, a decent batting average and an excellent OBP. Plus, if Jose Lopez thrives at third base during Spring Training, Figgins would be even more valuable by owning 2B/3B eligibility.

Seattle Mariners Left Fielder/Designated Hitter - As baseball’s version of Mike Tyson, you never know what to expect from Milton Bradley. He’s always been a quality major leaguer hitter, but either poor health or poor judgment has stopped Bradley from reaching his full potential. After a disastrous 2009 season in Chicago, Bradley signed with the Mariners and will play left field while also spending some time as DH.

After posting a tremendous albeit lucky 2008 slash line of .321/.436/.563 that included an outrageous .388 BABIP, Bradley hit just .257 as a Chicago Cub and saw his ISO drop from .242 to .140. Throughout his career, Bradley’s best skill is an ability to get on-base as he boasts a career OBP of .371 and BB/K of .69. He also has decent power, reaching 19 and 22 HRs in the two seasons (2004/2008) when he was healthy enough to eclipse 400 ABs. But therein lies Bradley’s biggest problem – he simply can’t stay on the field.

As a defensive and health liability, it’s in Seattle’s best interest to play Bradley exclusively at DH. If this happens, Bradley will have a chance at reaching 400 ABs, knocking out 15-20 HRs, driving in 75-80 and posting his usual .370+ OBPs. Those are definitely valuable numbers for your fantasy team, especially as a third outfielder in deeper leagues. Just keep in mind Bradley’s entering his 11th Big League season, likely will play much more left field than he should and has tallied more than 415 ABs just one time.

Huston Street - Colorado’s closer had a setback with his shoulder and was scheduled for an MRI Wednesday. He’s expected to begin the season on the DL. That’s a major problem for Street owners since the reliever is coming off a 2009 season that saw him post a 3.06 ERA, 10.22 K/9, and 1.90 B/9 (lowered from 3.47 in ’09) with 35 saves. We expected similar numbers in 2010 (3.20 ERA, 36 Saves) prior to the injury, but you’ll want to readjust your closer rankings since this is Street’s second arm issue since September.

Franklin Morales/Manny Corpas - With Street injured, somebody’s going to save games in April for Colorado which means a battle of ineptitude between Franklin Morales and Manny Corpas. In Morales’ 104 major league innings, he’s hasn’t struck out enough batters (6.54 K/9), walked too many (4.54 BB/9) and recorded a 4.36 FIP and 1.47 WHIP. At just 24 years old, there’s still time for improvement, but we don’t have much faith in Morales making a significant jump this season and see the reliever tallying a 4.37 ERA and 6 Saves.

Corpas did save 19 games in 2007 while posting a 2.08 ERA, but since then he hasn’t been nearly as effective or lucky. Corpas struggled last season thanks to inducing fewer groundballs (48.6% in ’09 compared to 57.4% in ’07) and striking out just 6.42 batters per 9. To be fair, he was unlucky with balls in play, finishing the season with a .366 BABIP that certainly contributed to his 5.88 ERA. Still, neither of these relievers are long-term options for the Rockies bullpen or yours.

Wandy Rodriguez - Rodriguez allowed two more home runs on Wednesday, bringing his spring training total to four in just nine innings. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the left-hander struck out seven in four innings of work. Last season Rodriguez secured 24 quality starts and held opponents to an OOBP of just .306 while punching out 193 batters in 205 IP. While it’ll be difficult for Rodriguez to match his ERA of 3.02, we still predict Houston’s new ace to post a solid 3.60 ERA and another 193 Ks in 2010.

Aroldis Chapman - The most hyped young pitcher this side of Stephen Strasburg made his first Spring Training start Wednesday against the Brewers and struck out five while allowing just one run in three innings. When predicting Chapman’s performance this season, it’s hard to ignore his blazing fastball. He reached 100 mph in his first two outings but “only” clocked 98 mph several times yesterday. We think that fastball, along with his slider, will lead Chapman to a 3.54 ERA and 140 Ks during his first big league season. Certainly excellent numbers for any pitcher, especially a rookie with no previous experience in the States.

John Lackey - Lackey needed just 39 pitches to work through four innings against the Mets on Wednesday and allow two hits, no walks, and no runs. The Red Sox right-hander is one of those players that has more perceived value than he probably deserves. For his career, Lackey strikes out just 7.20 batters per 9, and has an ERA (3.81) hovering just below 4.00 with a WHIP of 1.31. He’s certainly a solid SP for your team’s rotation but don’t overspend for someone who doesn’t really do anything outstanding.

Tommy Hanson - The Braves phenom mowed down the Marlins on Wednesday, striking out four and allowing one run in his five innings. Last year Hanson was lights out, holding opponents to a .226 BAA while posting a sub-3.00 ERA and striking out 116 in 127 IP. He’s picked up in Spring Training where he left off at the end of ’09 by allowing just two ER in 9 1/3 innings thus far. A rare young pitcher who is a safe bet to be your team’s No. 2 (or even better) SP, we predict Hanson for a 3.22 ERA, 157 Ks and 1.25 WHIP in 2010.

Jake Peavy - In just his second outing this spring, Peavy struck out six Dodgers in five innings, yielding just one run. The former Padre looks healthy and poised to post numbers in line with his career 3.26 ERA and 9.02 K/9. He does move from a pitchers park in San Diego to home-run friendly U.S. Cellular, but I wouldn’t be too worried. Peavy’s posted sub-3.00 ERAs in four of the past six seasons and reached 200 Ks three times. We don’t think he’ll be under 3.00 this season, but a 3.63 ERA, 188 Ks and 14 wins will certainly help your team’s rotation.

Jayson Werth - Werth knocked his second home run of the spring on Wednesday and finished with three RBI against his the Yankees. After hitting 24 home runs in 2008, Werth surprisingly crushed 36 in a career-high 571 ABs while also stealing 20 bags last season. He may have been undervalued heading into the 2009 draft but that certainly won’t happen again this season. Werth has a legitimate shot at reaching 100 runs, 100 RBI, 30 HRs and 20 steals this season. Entering his age-31 season, we don’t think he’ll quite get there, but I’m sure Werth owners will happily settle for our predictions of 96 runs, 97 RBI, 32 HRs and 20 stolen bases.

Mark Reynolds - With the ink on his new contract not yet dry, Reynolds drilled his first home run of the spring on Wednesday. Despite increasing his strike out rate to a career-high 38.6% in 2009, Reynolds managed to hit 44 HRs and drive in 102. The strike outs are always going to be a problem, but for reasons you may not realize. Reynolds doesn’t actually chase an extraordinary number of pitches outside the strike zone (his O-Swing% was 27.3% in ’09 compared to the major league average of 25.1%). Instead while the average major leaguer connects on 87% of the pitches that he swings at in the strike zone, Reynolds hits a mere 70%. However, when he does connect, the ball usually goes a long ways. We predict that he’ll reach 42 HRs and 101 RBI in 2010.

James Shields - Shields continued his nice start to the preseason by holding Minnesota to just one run in five innings of work on Wednesday. You know what you’re getting with the big right-hander as he’s posted FIPs of 3.86, 3.82, and 4.02 the past three seasons. Last year, a slightly unlucky BABIP of .317 and a higher walk rate likely contributed to Shields’ WHIP increasing from 1.15 in ’08 to 1.32 in ’09. He’s a very useful value pick who will provide decent ERA, WHIP, and Ks without the huge price tag.

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