It is GOOOOOOOOD to be back! After a nice little hibernation through January and February, we’re back at it here at Fantistics. Richard Gross got us kicked off yesterday covering situations surrounding the Mets, Mariners, A’s, and Angels and I’ll continue the momentum by taking a deeper look at team situations regarding the Rockies, Cubs, and Reds today along with a few player blurbs from around the league.
As a reminder to those looking for instant fantasy analysis this season as news happens, follow each of our analysts on twitter. You can catch me @DrewDinkmeyer (http://twitter.com/DrewDinkmeyer) for consistent updates. Also, make sure to check out our podcasts during the season, we’ve got one preseason podcast up now that you can check out on itunes and more coming in the future. Download, listen, and review!
6-8 Starters for 5 spots, whose in and whose out?
The Reds don’t have any true front-line starters on their roster but what they do have is arguably more depth than anyone in the National League. With a strong lineup behind them and a division filled with some friendly opposing lineups to face (Astros, Pirates, Cubs), the Reds starters should hold back-end value in mixed leagues, but particularly intriguing value in NL-only leagues where if you can decipher who will win the 5th spot the quickest, you’ll likely get a cheaper source of wins on draft day.
Let’s start with what we know. Of the eight potential starting candidates in the Reds camp this spring (Arroyo, Volquez, Cueto, Bailey, Leake, Wood, Chapman, Maloney), it appears that three of those spots are safe with Arroyo, Volquez, and Cueto while Chapman and Maloney, though deserving of shots at the rotation, are likely bullpen bound. In addition, Homer Bailey is out of options and made some nice strides in the 2nd half last season (3.11 K/BB, 3.55 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 9.1 K/9) so I think his spot in the rotation is safe as well.
This leaves us with Travis Wood vs. Mike Leake, which ended up being the battle for the 5th spot in the rotation last season as well. Leake won that one out of spring training, but ran out of gas as the season went on and struggled limiting the long ball. As a result he posted FIPs above 5.00 in June, July, and August before eventually being shut down. Travis Wood on the other hand seemed to get stronger as the season went on, finishing with a tremendous September (3.00 FIP, 8.2 K/9, 1.5 BB/9, 0.7 HR/9). Wood always seemed to out-pitch his peripherals as evidenced by a paltry .259 BABIP against and 6.3% HR/FB Rate, which both scream regression; but he had some success out-pitching those peripherals in the minors as well, as evidenced by low H/9 and HR/9 rates in the minors. Given that Wood finished strong in the regular season, is left-handed (something the rotation is missing) and has a bit longer minor league track record with which to evaluate; we’re betting Wood is the 5th starter out of spring training (with Mike Leake heading down to Louisville for his first taste of minor league baseball, in his 2nd season as a professional).
The interesting part of the equation is if Wood can continue the intriguing run of success he’s had deceiving hitters. The 21% LD Rate and 48% FB Rate from last season while pitching in Great American Ballpark suggest his numbers will be extremely tough to replicate, but the minor league track record has some credibility to it. My guess is we see some regression in his sophomore season, in both WHIP and ERA, but it’s not enough to knock him out of the rotation. I think a similar season to that of his rotation-mate Bronson Arroyo (the ’06-’07 versions) is likely, but there’s some upside with sneaky deception and effectiveness like a Ted Lilly. He’s a late round flier in mixed leagues, but a strong sleeper candidate in NL Only leagues.
Is this the year for Jay Bruce?
Jay Bruce is entering his 4th full season at the big league level. At age 24, he’s already averaged 31 HR’s along with 86 Runs and 82 RBI’s per 162 games, yet it feels like we’re waiting for a lot more. Part of the problem is Bruce has battled some nagging injuries since becoming a professional and the other part of the problem is the enormous expectations that were out there for Bruce. After posting a career minor league line of .308/.366/.551, Bruce appeared immediately ready for stardom. While it’s taken a bit of time to get there, the 2nd half of last season showed the stardom might be here… right now.
Bruce hit .306/.376/.575 over his final 210 PA’s. For the season he demonstrated improvements in his BB Rate (bumping it above 10%), while also getting more balls in the air (64% vs. career 62%). He did strike out a bit more, but his overall contact rate stayed the same (74% vs. career 73.7%) and his outside zone swing rate also stayed nearly identical (29.3% vs. career 28.8%). Add it all up and the big jump in strikeouts seems pretty fluky. His ISO took a slight step back, largely because he hit more LD’s (helping the batting average) last year than fly balls, but on the cusp of his power prime, you have to think the power only improves from here. With career averages per 162 games around 30+ HR and 80 Runs/RBI’s, I’m expecting Bruce to be able to achieve those numbers in more typical 150 game season. With upside rivaling any other mid round selection in fantasy, Bruce’s 32 HR, 86 Run, 84 RBI projection looks pretty good to me.
2B Position Battle filled with Sleeper Potential
Do you prefer power or speed? A guy with 300 minor league walks in 7 seasons or a guy with barely 220 walks in 12 professional seasons? To say Jose Lopez and Eric Young Jr. aren’t very similar is a bit of an overstatement. Lopez is a bulky veteran 2B option who has derived most of his value from his power over the years, while Young is an intriguing prospect with great legs and a great EYE who can be a game-changer in the SB category (313 in 605 minor league games). While there styles are very different, whomever wins the 2B job outright should be a nice sleeper. Let’s take a look at the two individually before assessing who will win the job.
Jose Lopez – Lopez posts a career .266/.297/.400 line that on the surface looks pretty unappealing, but thanks to hitting in the middle of the lineup in Seattle he’s been able to post decent counting totals per 162 game season, showing a career .266-71-15-80 line, which isn’t too bad considering he’s averaged 152 games the last 5 years. While the counting totals have been boosted by his lineup positioning, his per AB production has been significantly hampered by his home park where he’s posted just a .675 OPS for his career. The move to Coors Field should do wonders for Lopez, whose pull power was largely mitigated by SAFECO. The home park in Seattle had a park factor of just 84 for RHB compared to Coors Field’s splendid 117 mark. It’s a big difference, and one that has my eye on Lopez as a nice sleeper. With a significant park improvement and the chance at playing time not only at 2B, but around the diamond (1B, 3B), makes me believe we can see another .280-20-85 type season out of Lopez that we saw in 2008/2009 in Seattle. He won’t run and he won’t get on-base, but as a MI option that can offer upside in the power categories along with run production and a decent batting average (.280 hitter away from SAFECO), Lopez is flying pretty low under the radar right now.
Eric Young Jr. – Speed. Speed. Speed. Young has averaged 80 SB’s per 162 games at the minor league level and flashed his tremendous wheels in a brief stint last season (17 SB’s in 189 PA’s). With full playing time, he’s a lock for 50 SB’s, a mark that only a handful of guys in baseball can reach.
The problem with Young is the same problem that plagues a lot of speedy youngster: He can’t steal first base. In two brief stints totalling 250 PA’s, Young has posted an ugly .308 OBP. Granted, in the minors Young consistently got on-base to the tune of a .382 clip, and his competition at the major league level is hardly an on-base machine himself (.297 career OBP); so perhaps its not a big concern long-term. But there are some other lingering concerns. Young is recovering from a stress fracture in his shin and has the hurdle of accomodating himself to major league pitching. In addition with a projected contender on their hands the Rockies may be pressed to go the veteran route if Young doesn’t assert himself in the spring, a worthwhile concern given Young’s recovery.
Who will win it? Of the two, Young has all the upside and perhaps even an early lead (currently listed as the starter on the Rockies website). In addition Lopez’s versatility may make him a more likely fit for the utility infielder role previously held by Clint Barmes and Melvin Mora. I have to think Lopez will have to earn the job over Young this spring, but ultimately I think he does. Young’s elite/game-changing speed is worth a late look in all formats just to stash on upside, but Lopez is the guy we’re expecting to win the everyday role.
Another Rockies breakout in the OF?
Arguably the biggest breakout candidate in all of baseball last season came from the Rockies OF (Carlos Gonzalez) but can it happen again? I’ve got my eyes on two Rockies OF this year who I think have some fantastic sleeper potential: Dexter Fowler and Seth Smith.
In the past the Rockies OF was littered with a rotation that involved 5 OF’s, all of whom could provide reasonable overall value and strong platoon value. This season with Brad Hawpe gone, the group has shrunk to 4 and the OF rotation would appear to be an easy call for manager Jim Tracy. Dexter Fowler will get the majority of time in CF, while Seth Smith and Ryan Spilborghs will likely platoon in LF, with Smith garnering the bulk of the AB’s as the LH.
Playing time has always been the issue for Seth Smith, as he’s posted a solid .271/.349/.486 line that should’ve earned more than 916 PA’s in 4 seasons. Seen as strictly a LH platoon option (.597 OPS vs LH), Smith hasn’t garnered many opportunities against LH’s and as a result his potential has been stuck on the bench. He’s shown great patience throughout his career (10.5% BB Rate), coupled with an improving power stroke (.215 ISO, 223 ISO last season), and solid contact rates (80%). He’s a smooth swinger who just needs consistent playing time to get it done. With less competition in the OF this year, there’s reason to believe 2011 is the season that Smith emerges and the man who just left the crowded OF (Brad Hawpe), figures to be a good comparison.
A quick check of Hawpe vs. Smith for their careers, reveals some interesting similarities:
Smith – 10.5% BB Rate, 19.5% K Rate, .218 ISO, (.597 OPS vs. LH)
Hawpe – 12.9% BB Rate, 26.8% K Rate, .211 ISO, (.760 OPS vs. LH)
The inability to hit LH’s may prevent Smith from reaching the 30 HR/100 RBI plateau Hawpe nearly touched a couple of times, but with 450 PA’s, a 20-25 HR/85 RBI campaign seems within reach. He’s not getting drafted in most mixed leagues, so owners can be patient and see how his spring develops, but in NL Only leagues I want him as a late round flier.
The guy who excites me even more for Colorado is Dexter Fowler. Fowler has no competition for a starting role and has shown an ability to hit major league pitching already. Despite being promoted aggressively, he’s held his own the last two years posting a near .760 OPS in over 1000 PA’s. He possesses good speed (40 SB’s last 2 years) and gap power (just 10 HR’s), but the exciting thing for me with Fowler are the improvements he demonstrated as the season went on last year. In the 2nd half he posted a LD Rate well over 21%, while bringing his FB Rate down below 35%. As a result despite Fowler’s propensity to strike out, he hit .280, allowing his legs to do more work for him on the base-paths. He also showed improvements in his contact rate in the 2nd half as his K Rate dropped from 23% to 18.5%. This all coming from a young player who ascended very quickly through the minor leagues (just 1651 PA’s, 3 full seasons). Given that Fowler demonstrated better pop and speed potential in the minors, I think his two year average of 5 HR’s/20 SB’s, is just scratching the surface. I think Fowler, at age 25 bumps those numbers up to 10 HR’s/30 SB’s with a boatload of Runs hitting atop the Rockies lineup.
Will Garza’s move to the NL be the key to a breakout?
Historically pitchers get a nice bump moving from the AL to the NL, but Matt Garza’s move comes with some unique factors. First he moves from a defense that consistently ranked amongst the best in the game at opposing BABIP to a Cubs defense that has been in the bottom 3rd of the league the last few years at limiting BABIP. In addition he moves from the Trop a home-park that has ranked in the bottom third of the league in HR Factor to Wrigley Field that has ranked in the top third of the league in HR’s allowed. In fact a closer look at Garza’s home/road splits for HR/FB% suggest that Garza has received a nice boost from his home park. For his career Garza’s HR/FB Rate at home has been 7.6%, on the road 11.1%. The dramatic switch in home parks will almost certainly result in a raised HR/FB Rate and for a pitcher that gives up 42% FB’s, we’re talking about a handful of extra HR’s which will almost certainly raise that ERA.
For his career Garza has an ERA about .30 below his FIP largely due to a lower than average HR/FB Rate (9.4%) and lower than average BABIP (.285). While we expect Garza to get a boost in his peripherals from facing weaker competition (a higher K Rate, slightly lower BB Rate), the park and defense effects will likely keep his actual production in the same range we’ve been accustomed to. Don’t get too excited about the league switch with Garza, he should be pretty close to the same player we’ve seen in recent years.
Can Aramis Ramirez rebound?
A quick look at Aramis Ramirez’s 2010 season and you see a pretty startling decline across all the potential indicators. His BB Rate collapsed back down to just 6.9%. His K Rate rose to over 19.4% (career 15.5%). His ISO dropped from .217 to .211 and his LD Rate, career 19.6%, fell all the way to 15.8%. Even the swing data was ugly as Ramirez swung at 7% more pitches outside the zone and his contact rates inside the strike zone dropped 2%. In total, the season looks like a complete collapse and one that suggests the 32 year old is unlikely to rebound from.
However, if you separate the season into two increments: pre-DL time and post-DL time, there are some pretty startling differences. He was hitting just .168/.232/.285 with five homers in just about 200 PA before hitting the disabled list with a sprained thumb in mid-June and then rattled off a .287/.333/.556 line that included 20 HR’s in his final 300 or so PA’s. If you plug in that .889 OPS into Ramirez’s last few years you get an aging pattern that looks a bit more normalized:
2004 - .956
2005 - .926
2006 - .912
2007 - .915
2008 - .898
2009 - .905
2010 - .889 (ended up really being .745)
It’s not just the overall numbers that ended up more in-line with Ramirez’s career, it’s the indicators as well. Ramirez’s K Rate after the DL stint dropped back down to 14.7% and although the batted ball data still showed more FB’s than LD’s, the HR/FB Rate was back in a big way. On the surface, Aramis Ramirez looks like an aging player in severe decline, but dig a bit deeper and it just looks like a lost season due to a thumb injury. While Ramirez might not get back to the .900+ OPS seasons we’ve seen in the past, he’s a terrific bet to return to his 25-30 HR/100 RBI ways, making for an intriguing draft day value.
Notes from around the league:
Russell Branyan (1B – ARZ) – Branyan joins a lackluster, albeit deep, 1B competition in Arizona after the Diamondbacks inked him to a minor league deal on Wednesday. Contenders for the 1B role in Arizona include Juan Miranda, Xavier Nady, Brandon Allen, and now Russell Branyan. Of the group Branyan has clearly had the most recent major league success, swatting 56 HR’s combined over the last two seasons in 930 PA’s. Ideally Branyan would slide in as a platoon option as he struggles vs. LH’s (career .733 OPS, and has had trouble staying on the field in a full-time role. Of course the problem with that is Nady is the only RH hitting competitor in the group, and it would appear unlikely for a non-contending team to platoon Branyan/Nady and passing on the potential development of Brandon Allen (who has some legitimate upside, if he can make contact). Even in a part time role, the move to Chase Field (which enhances LH hitting in a significant way) should make Branyan a 20 HR candidate. As always he’ll have significant health and batting average risk, but it’s hard to imagine him (if healthy) not beating out the competition for a significant role. In NL Only leagues he’s now a solid power option and for deep mixed leagues he’ll have value in daily leagues with deep benches where owners can pick their spots. Even 30-40 HR’s wouldn’t be out of the question with the new home park and Branyan’s immense power.
Erik Bedard (SP-DL, I mean… SEA) – Bedard has already gotten through two bullpen sessions without any setbacks which for Bedard owners in recent years would appear to be a small miracle. Bedard appeared on his way back last season after making 6 rehab starts, but once again ran into shoulder issues and eventually had another surgery. Whenever he’s been able to get on a mound, he’s been fantastic (even in rehab starts). While he comes with a significant amount of risk, and you’ll want to see some healthy spring starts before investing significantly in him; he is worth a roster spot for those that have drafted early. If healthy, he still has immense upside, which our current projection reflects.
Jacoby Ellsbury (OF – BOS) – As we speculated on our first podcast of the season, there are now reports surfacing suggesting Jacoby Ellsbury will begin the season batting 9th. It’s the logical choice for the Red Sox lineup construction, but one that will have negative impacts on Ellsbury’s fantasy value. The drop from 1st to 9th will cost him somewhere around 120-150 PA’s over the course of the season, which will result in about a 20 Run decrease for Ellsbury based on his career run/PA averages. It’s meaningful and makes Ellsbury more of a 80 Run/55 SB threat than the 100 Run/70 SB threat many will be drafting him as. Do not take the trip down the batting order lightly. Last year the Red Sox leadoff spot generated 780 PA’s, while the 9th spot generated 640 PA’s. It’s a huge detriment to Ellsbury’s value.
Scott Podsednik – (OF – TOR) – The Blue Jays inked Podsednik to a minor league deal on Wednesday afternoon. The soon-to-be 35-year old will compete for a roster spot and add some needed OF depth to the Blue Jays roster. The Jays currently have Rajai Davis, Juan Rivera, and Travis Snider penciled in as their starting OF with Adam Lind (DH) and Jose Bautista (3B) also offering some flexibility behind them. Podsednik fills two potential roles as a 4th OF and also as a potential top-of-the-order hitter for a team that only had 1 player with an OBP above .333 last season. With rumors surrounding the Jays willingness to trade Juan Rivera, there is some sleeper SB potential, especially for AL-only leaguers here. He’s now worth a late round draft selection in AL-only leagues.
Rickie Weeks – (2B – MIL) – The Brewers and Rickie Weeks finally reached an agreement on a four-year extension they have been negotiating for… wait for it… WEEKS!!!!! Don’t worry… we’re not charging you extra for the jokes. Weeks is an elite 2B when healthy, the big problem is relying on him to be healthy. He’s eclipsed 130 major league games just once in his 6 major league seasons and 130 games in total just three times in 7 professional seasons. If Weeks is healthy he’ll be well worth a Top 5 rd selection, but the downside for owning Weeks, simply because of health, is enough to warrant concern over investing a high round pick in him. If I own Weeks this year, I will make sure to have some 2B/MI insurance in my pocket in the later rounds. It’s most likely I’ll use a high round selection on a player with a more predictable pattern of health.
Geovany Soto – (C – CHC) – Soto’s remarkable bounce-back 2010 season was for the most part lost on fantasy owners due to managerial incompetence in Chicago. Despite ranking 1st amongst all catchers in OPS last season, Soto finished 8th on ESPN’s player rater for fantasy value. The entire reason why? Soto finished with just 387 PA’s which was over 150 PA’s fewer than Joe Mauer, Victor Martinez, and Brian McCann. Soto did miss some time due to shoulder issues, but the bigger issue wasn’t health as much as it was lineup placement. Soto hit 7th or 8th for 77% of his PA’s last season. A simple shift into a more prominent lineup spot and Soto would’ve approached 20-25 HR’s along with 70+ RBI’s, putting him on-pace with McCann and Victor Martinez. New Cubs manager Mike Quade wasn’t much better at utilizing Soto in his September debut so it remains to be seen how Soto is deployed this season. Keep an eye on early Cubs spring training lineups. If Soto is hitting in the middle of the order, as he should, he’ll vault into that Top 5-6 fantasy catchers.
Clayton Kershaw – (SP – LAD) – Kershaw was named the Dodgers opening day starter by new manager Don Mattingly and rightfully so after Kershaw has now posted consecutive seasons with an ERA below 3.00. Perhaps the quietest truly elite pitcher in the game, Kershaw seems to go unnoticed because of low win totals (just 21 in the last two seasons). Despite the lack of run support, Kershaw continues to show big improvements in his skill-set. Last year he dropped the BB Rate down to 3.6 BB/9 (still quite high), and started working from ahead in the count more (60% First Strike %) as well as locating the zone more often in total. The results were startling in that Kershaw improved his IP/start from 5 2/3 IP per start to 6 1/3 IP per start. All the other peripherals showed significant improvements as well. Kershaw started getting a few more ground balls (something he dominated with at the minor leagues, posting high 40%’s), getting the rate back into the 40%’s and decreased his LD’s allowed down under 18%. In addition all the swing data was impressive. Kershaw got 3% more swings outside the zone, 2% more swings overall, and contact decreased by 1%. The addition of a devastating slider to his repertoire made Kershaw more consistent and with a 4-pitch arsenal and all the indicators ticking up, Kershaw looks like a Top 10 starting option this season. We think he’s severely undervalued as a 6th rd draft selection.
Alex Rodriguez – (3B – NYY) If you look at the overall trend for ARod we’re seeing some signs of deterioration (albeit slow ones). Over the last 4 years ARod’s ISO has dropped from .331 to .236 and his HR/FB Rate has dropped from 27% to 17% despite moving to a more attractive home park for HR’s. In addition ARod’s missed at least 24 games in the past 3 years. Entering his age 35 season, the warning signs are there. In addition the thing that stands out for me is one of the primary signs of decline comes in bat speed and how hitters approach their plate appearances. Typically we see the bat speed slow, which is indicated in the dropping power numbers, and then we see an older player begin to “cheat”, not steroids cheat – we’ve been down that road, but cheat with bat speed. This means the hitter usually starts his swing earlier in order to make up for a loss of bat speed. It’s usually shown in an increased Swing % and a more willingness to expand the zone. We saw BOTH those things in 2011 as ARod swung at more balls outside the zone and swung more often in general. In addition ARod’s SB total dipped to just 4 last year. While he’ll still get a great performance boost from Yankee Stadium and the Yankees lineup, he’s no longer a sure-fire early round pick. His name value far exceeds his actual value and with an ADP of round 2, you won’t see many of our subscribers ending up with Alex Rodriguez, who we view as more of a 3rd-4th rd value.
Joel Hanrahan – (RP – PIT) – It’s always nice when we get some clarity to closer’s situations early in spring training and on Wednesday we got some with regards to the Pirates. Joel Hanrahan will operate as the closer with Evan Meek operating as the primary setup man. Hanrahan finally harnessed some of his great stuff last year, getting his BB Rate back down below 4.0 to go with an outstanding 12.9 K/9. He’s always been a bit more “hit-prone” than his stuff would suggest as his LD Rate was consistently above 22%, but last year he got it down to a more reasonable 17%. If he can continue to keep the LD’s down, Hanrahan can get by with his shaky command. If those improvements made last year he can hold the closer’s job all season, in a Francisco Cordero shaky kind of way, but it remains to be seen if he can maintain those improvements. He’ll rank as a last tier closer with some upside because of the K Rate.
Albert Pujols – (1B – STL) – The big news in baseball on Wednesday was that Albert Pujols-imposed deadline came and passed without a contract extension. Pujols did see some slight deterioration in his indicators last season with his EYE dipping to a still remarkable 1.36 (led by deterioration in both his K and BB Rates). In addition the ISO dipped back down under .300. These are all minor deteriorations in skill and no threat to Pujols status as the consensus #1 fantasy selection in re-draft formats. There has been some mild evidence suggesting there actually IS something to contract years for players so if you needed an extra incentive to recognize Pujols greatness, a contract year can do the trick as well. He’s once again in line for another monstrous season.