Jason Castro Is Out. Houston, We Have A Catching Problem.
Heading into spring, the Astros expected their best minor league prospect Jason Castro to claim the starting job behind the dish. Unfortunately, a torn ACL has sidelined Castro for most, if not all of 2011, meaning the Astros must rely on Humberto Quintero, Brian Esposito, J.R. Towles or Carlos Corporan to be the regular backstop for the foreseeable future. There’s being caught between a rock and a hard place and then there’s having to choose a catcher from the aforementioned list. There isn’t a good choice among that bunch: Quintero is a career backup who posted a 2.9% BB% and .579 OPS in 265 ABs in ’10, Esposito owns a dreadful .217 career minor league BA in 2200+ ABs and Towles hit .191 in 47 ABs in ’10 before getting sent to the minors. The most interesting of the bunch, Corporan, did slug .514 in AAA last season to go along with 12 HRs, but he also has all of one major league AB.
While Towles used to be the catcher of the future, his ceiling is considerably lower after hitting .189 in 281 career major league ABs, and it’s a stretch to expect him to have any sort of fantasy impact if he somehow wins the starting gig in ’11 (although he is off to a hot start this spring, batting .350 with 2 HRs in his first 20 ABs). Quintero and Esposito are both horrendous hitters so you’d be better off starting no one than having those two on your roster.
The ray of hope for Houston is that Corporan learns how to hit at the MLB level right away or they can acquire another catcher to take on the starting job. Names such as Jesus Flores and Ryan Doumit have been thrown out as possibilities, but until the Astros actually make a move, you can safely look to pretty much any other team in the majors for catching help as this group represents the very bottom of the barrel.
He Is The Walrus.
Despite struggling in 144 ABs during his first taste of big league pitching in ’10, Brett Wallace is still considered by many to be one of the better prospects in baseball and will have the inside track to win the starting job at first base this spring. Like many young hitters, Wallace struck out way too often (34% K%) and didn’t draw enough walks (5% BB%) which resulted in a 0.16 EYE in ’10. He also swung at 40% of pitches outside the strike zone so pitchers knew they could get him to chase junk. The Astros are hoping Wallace can make the necessary adjustments this season and start tallying the kind of numbers he posted at AAA in ’10 when he slugged 18 HRs and batted .301. For fantasy purposes, first base is always deep so Wallace has much more value in keeper leagues than one-year leagues, at least until he proves his power from AAA will translate to major league production.
If Wallace can’t hold onto the first baseman’s job, expect the Astros to send him to AAA Oklahoma City where he can get every day ABs. In this situation, Houston will likely shift Carlos Lee from outfield to first base, which may actually boost his numbers a bit as he won’t have to put his 34-year old body through chasing down balls in the outfield. Unfortunately, Lee isn’t the same dominant hitter he used to be. In ’10, Lee recorded the lowest ISO and BA of his career as well as his lowest HR total since ’01. Lee should improve a bit on last season as he did experience a .238 BABIP, but there are enough other options at OF and 1B that I wouldn’t risk taking Lee in ’11.
No One Can Replace Adam Wainwright, But Kyle McClellan Will Try.
With Adam Wainwright out until the middle of next season, the Cardinals are searching for a SP to step up, eat some innings and, ideally, give the team a decent chance at winning those games. Enter former reliever Kyle McClellan. McClellan has never started a game at the major league level, working out of the bullpen during the past three seasons. In 217 career IP, McCellan has been a reliable pitcher, posting a 3.23 ERA, 4.00 FIP, 7.03 K/9, 3.83 BB/9 and 0.83 HR/9. I bet the St. Louis front office would take those numbers from McClellan in 2011 in a heartbeat and it makes me think McClellan could be a sleeper for fantasy teams this season.
McClellan throws four pitches – fastball, curveball, cutter and a newly-developed change-up that he started using about 6% of the time in ’10. The right hander cut down on his walks in ’10 and improved his strikeout rate while lowering his ERA for the third straight season. He did allow a few more HRs but otherwise continued a positive trajectory of improvement in each of his first three big league seasons. I’d keep an eye on McClellan to ensure he officially secures the 5th starter’s spot and then target him for a $1 or late round pick.
The Amazing Story Of The Successful Closer With A Sub-6.00 Strikeout Rate.
When most people think of successful closers, they imagine a flamethrower who blows batters away with a 95 mph fastball. What they don’t think of is someone like Ryan Franklin, who has recorded 65 saves the past two seasons for St. Louis despite strikeout rates of 6.49 and 5.82. Franklin had another quality season as a reliever in ’10, lowering his walk rate from 3.54 in ’09 to 1.38 which subsequently boosted his K/BB to an impressive 4.20. He’s also been consistent, recording ERAs under 3.55 the past four seasons.
If you’re not convinced that Franklin can maintain his success again in ’11, you should keep an eye on Jason Motte. Motte owns a 3.30 career ERA and is coming off his best season at the MLB level. In ’10, he owned a 2.24 ERA, 3.29 FIP and 9.29 K/9 in 52 IP. Motte may very well be the closer of the future in St. Louis, but I suspect Franklin will hold him off for at least another season.
Is This The Year Matt LaPorta Reaches His Potential?
The key piece of the C.C. Sabathia deal, Matt LaPorta has been a flat out disappointment for the Indians, struggling in 557 career major league ABs to the tune of a .230 BA, .156 ISO and .694 OPS. In 2010, he hit 12 HRs, drove in 41 and owned just a .221/.306/.362 slash line in 425 plate appearances. At 26 years old, this season is make-or-break for LaPorta if he ever wants to take the next step to being a productive major league first baseman. The Tribe will give him every chance to maintain a hold on the first base job, but he’s going to have to start hitting much better than a sub-.700 OPS.
If LaPorta struggles, Cleveland may give recently-signed Nick Johnson a chance for some ABs, assuming he can stay healthy (which is a big assumption). Johnson is an OBP machine (.401 career mark) but missed most of the 2008 and 2010 season due to injuries. If he gets ABs, Johnson definitely has value in deep leagues but he’s not worth owning until there’s more certainty around his health and performance.
The Indians also plan on having catcher Carlos Santana spend some time at first base to give his legs rest during the long major league season. You can expect Santana to gain first base eligibility at some point during the first couple months of 2011.
Travis Hafner Will Continue To Be A Huge Bust In 2011.
Travis Hafner was one of the better hitters in baseball between 2004 and 2006, a decent hitter in 2007 and an inconsistent, oft-injured hitter between 2008 and 2010. Sadly for the Indians, Hafner hasn’t topped 16 HRs and 50 RBI since ’07 and can’t play on a daily basis thanks to a chronically sore shoulder. In past years, fantasy owners may have held out hope that Hafner could regain his former greatness but, at this point, that thinking is foolish. Hafner is too far removed from being a productive hitter to garner any fantasy attention this season. Worse, manager Manny Acta said he plans to sit Hafner often to “keep him fresh”, whatever that means. The Tribe signed Austin Kearns this offseason and he may take ABs from Hafner while there’s always the possibility Shelley Duncan or Santana get starts at DH from time to time. At the end of the day, Hafner should see 300-350 ABs, hit 15 HRs and drive in 45 runs this season – all for $13 million.
Johan Santana – The Bergen Record reported Sunday that Johan Santana’s season was in jeopardy after he experienced a setback in his rehab from a torn anterior capsule in his left shoulder, which occurred last season. However, Santana publicly denied this report and said he was on track with his rehab, although he did admit to feeling some normal discomfort in the shoulder. Still, this isn’t exactly reassuring news to anyone targeting Santana as a mid-year sleeper. Prior to the injury last season, Santana’s average fastball was just 89.4 MPH which was a one full MPH drop from 2009 and the lowest mark of his career. Unsurprisingly, he struck out just 144 in 199 IP, good for just a 6.51 K/9. Here are Santana’s strikeout rates during the past 5 seasons:
This is an alarming trend for the Mets and Santana’s fantasy owners. Add in the fact that we don’t know when Santana will return or how effective he’ll be once back on the mound in 2011 and I’d proceed with caution. You can justify taking Santana for a couple bucks or a late pick and then stashing him on your DL in hopes of a successful return, but I wouldn’t reach much beyond that as he’s just too risky at this point.
Ryan Braun – As a Ryan Braun owner the past three seasons in my 12-team keeper league, I shuddered when seeing the headline from Saturday which stated, “Braun exits game with strained ribcage.” This is nothing new for Braun, who experienced a similar injury in each of the past two seasons. The good news is that Braun told the Brewers public relations spokesman that he was “fine” and should be back in the lineup in a day or two. Over the past three seasons, Braun has played in at least 151 games or more, so he isn’t exactly an injury risk. I definitely wouldn’t move him in your rankings based off this latest setback as he remains primed for another excellent season in 2011. Despite batting a career low .271 BA against LHP in ’10 (from .395 in ’09), Braun still managed to finish the season with a .304/.365/.501 slash line. I’ve mentioned this before, but I am a bit concerned about Braun’s declining ISO (SLG% - BA) which peaked at .310 in ’07 but has steadily fallen all the way to .197 last season. Certainly, .197 isn’t bad but you’d like to see that number bounce back to the .230-range in ’11. Fantistics projects 32 HR, 107 RBI and 13 steals for Braun this season, which I believe is spot on.
Daisuke Matsuzaka – There was some back-and-forth during the weekend on whether the Red Sox are interested in trading Dice-K for catching prospects. Regardless of the validity of the initial report (which Theo Epstein denied on Saturday), Matsuzaka remains an average fantasy SP because of his high walk rate and inability to stay healthy. In the past two seasons, Dice-K has won just 13 games and pitched in only 200 IP while recording ERAs of 5.76 and 4.69, respectively. He’s maintained a strikeout rate around 8.00 and also managed to lower his HR rate from 1.52 in ’09 to just 0.76 in ’10. However, Dice-K’s walk rate is still well north of 4.00 and his success is largely tied to luck – he’s experienced some wild swings in BABIP and LOB% the past few seasons. Overall, I try to avoid relying on pitchers who have control and consistency issues so you won’t see Dice-K on any of my team rosters in ’11.
Adrian Gonzalez – Yo Adrian! Boston’s big first baseman collected his first hit of spring training on Saturday by roping a single off Josh Johnson and finished the game 1-for-1 with a sac fly. Seeing Gonzalez (torn labrum in non-throwing shoulder) in game action is obviously a great sign for the Red Sox and his fantasy owners. By getting away from Petco, Gonzalez should see a huge improvement in his overall numbers. In his career as a Padre, Gonzalez slugged 127 points higher on the road and enjoyed an 83 point increase on his ISO. I’d go as far as to say Gonzalez will likely be underrated in your draft or auction because other owners won’t realize how much Petco and a weak Padres offense have suppressed Gonzalez’s power numbers during the past seven seasons. Based off his home/road splits, we’re talking about a guy who will likely become one of the top two or three fantasy first basemen in 2011. Think 40 HRs, 115 RBI and 115 Runs and feel confident taking Gonzalez ahead of anyone not named Pujols.
Dontrelle Willis – You know your career is falling apart when you get injured by tripping over a bat. Welcome to Dontrelle Willis’ world. The big LHP sprained his ankle after falling over a bat while backing up a play during the Reds’ spring training game on Saturday. Willis is attempting to win a spot in Cincinnati’s bullpen but right now Paul Janish looks like a better option. Willis recorded just one out on Saturday and was charged with 4 runs and has been generally unimpressive based off previous reports. In ’10, Willis tossed 65 innings but continued to struggle with his command as he posted a 7.68 BB/9. Fantistics projects a whopping 13 innings and 7 Ks this season so it’s safe to say we’re tempering our expectations.
Zach Duke – The Duke got hit by a line drive on his left hand while pitching Saturday night and was removed from the game. Duke said he didn’t experience any sharp pain so he was optimistic that he’d be OK, even after getting re-evaluated on Sunday. Well, the re-evaluation didn’t go well for Duke who found out he had two broken bones and will miss at least the next month. The LHP was actually fairly effective in ’09 as he recorded a 4.06 ERA and 4.24 FIP in 213 IP. However, he struggled last season as his BABIP jumped from .293 in ’09 to .338 and his LOB% fell from 73% in ’09 to just 65%. Overall, Duke is in a fight for a rotation spot in Arizona but shouldn’t be considered for a spot on your fantasy team, especially now that he'll be a month behind.
Gio Gonzalez – The Oakland LHP surprised most everyone last season by posting a 3.23 ERA and 3.78 FIP in 200 IP while also winning 15 games. Gonzalez has always had outstanding strikeout rates in the minors, ranging from 9.00 to 11.10 between ’06 and ’09 and he continued this trend by tallying a 9.94 mark in his ’09 rookie season at the big league level. However, he also struggled with command (5.11 BB/9) and HRs (1.28 HR/9) which resulted in a 5.75 ERA. Gonzalez was able to be much more successful in ’10 by cutting his walk rate to a more manageable 4.13 and slicing his HR rate to just 0.67. Add in a very fortuitous .274 BABIP and 78% LOB% and you get a breakout season. While I expect he’ll regress a bit in ’11, I am also excited about the strikeout potential. Based off his minor league rates, he should improve on his 7.67 K/9 mark from ’10 and could reach 180+ strikeouts in ’11.
Bobby Abreu – The Angels’ outfielder experienced an odd season in 2010 as he enjoyed a spike in power (20 HRs from 15 HRs in ’09) but also posted the lowest BABIP (.296) of his career which contributed to a 38-point drop in BA. The lower BABIP can be partly attributed to Abreu hitting fewer line drives (-3% LD% compared to ’09) and more fly balls (+3% FB% compared to ’09). The Angels’ lineup also hurt Abreu as he failed to reach 100 RBI for the first time since 2002. The good news is that despite being 36 years old, Abreu still managed to swipe 24 bases. Looking at this season, expect the BA to jump back to the .280-.290 range and another 25 steals but the HR and RBI totals should be closer to 15 and 80, respectively.
Adrian Beltre – The Rangers’ new third baseman is slated to make his debut today after sitting out the first part of spring with a calf strain. As you probably know, Beltre enjoyed an outstanding 2010 campaign which was fueled by a .331 BABIP and .233 ISO. The last time Beltre posted a BABIP in the .330s? It was 2004, when he slugged 48 HRs and hit .325. Otherwise, his BABIP has resided in the .280 to .300 range which has resulted in a .255 to .275 BA. There’s no reason to believe Beltre will come anywhere close to posting a .321/.365/.553 line again – expect closer to .285/23 HRs/87 RBI.
Carlos Quentin – Carlos Quentin continues to be a tough guy to read after his breakout 2008 season when he smashed 36 HRs and drove in 100. In 2010, Quentin had an excellent first half by posting an .867 OPS with 19 HRs. Unfortunately, Quentin experienced a 104-point drop in his SLG% in the second half and hit just 7 HRs. He’s also missed time in each of the past two seasons due to injuries which adds to his risk. You may want to consider a platoon when acquiring Quentin for your team as he hit .270 with 19 HRs at The Cell but struggled to just a .214 BA with 7 HRs on the road. There’s 30-HR potential here but only if you’re a gamblin’ man.
For daily fantasy tips and info, check me out on Twitter.