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Preseason Prep - March 10, 2012

Joseph Hettler

Top Of The Rotation News: Justin Masterson - The Indians' Opening Day starter isn't flashy and won't blow you away with high strikeout totals but he's a reliable and steady rotation option for your fantasy team. Consider that Justin Masterson has improved in the following stat categories in the past two seasons: walk rate, HR rate, FIP and xFIP. He also posted a 3.21 ERA and 1.28 WHIP in 2011 to go along with 158 punchouts in 216 innings. Masterson's success is tied to a high groundball rate; he's posted GB marks between 54% and 60% during each season of his major league career. And while the Tribe's infield may not be a superior defensive unit, the front office seems to be confident that it can get the job done as they've built a rotation that relies heavily on grounders. In 10-team leagues, Masterson is a strong No. 5 starter and someone I'd target because I value guys who can eat innings and help you across ERA, WHIP, strikeouts and Wins/Quality Starts categories.

Sleeper Time: True Or False, Russ Canzler Will Be A Late Bloomer Like Nelson Cruz? - When the Tribe purchased Russ Canzler's contract from the Rays in late January, my Cleveland friends actually got pretty excited. That's what happens when your favorite team's major offseason signings include the names Cristian Guzman and Felix Pie. Especially if it's 2012 and not 2008. However, there are valid reasons to be, at least, intrigued by the right-handed hitting Canzler going to a team that could start up to nine left-handed bats at times in 2012. Last year, Canzler won the International League's MVP as a 25-year old by hitting .314/.401/.530 with 18 HRs and 83 RBI in 131 games. In his eight-year minor league career, he's posted an OPS of .820 to go along with 84 HRs. However, despite the impressive stats, Canzler has received all of five plate appearances in the majors as the Cubs and Rays didn't think he had the bat speed to handle major league pitching. The Indians are definitely one of the best places for him to land because they already have too many left-handed bats and their current first base option, Matt LaPorta, hasn't produced in more than 1,000 major league plate appearances. That said, there are very few cases like Nelson Cruz, another so-called Quad-A player who finally broke through and produced in the majors at age 28 in 2009. Keep an eye on Canzler during spring training and if he appears likely to secure a roster spot, feel free to take a shot at adding him to your roster if it doesn't cost you anything besides the last pick in your draft.

Houston Astros Closer News: Brett Myers - Isn't the Astros front office supposedly getting smarter? If so, they sure have a strange way of showing it. Brett Myers is no Roy Halladay in the rotation but he has logged at least 216 innings the past two seasons with 3.14 and 4.46 ERAs, respectively. Considering the Astros are going to win somewhere between 30 and 50 games, moving a dependable starter to closer makes absolutely no sense. It's not like Myers has a history of mowing down batters as a reliever, either. In 58 games as a relief pitcher, Myers owns a decent, but certainly not great, 3.41 ERA and 1.25 WHIP. If you're desperate to add a closer and you're in a 24-team, NL-only league, sure, take a shot on Myers. But in pretty much every other format, Myers is probably the worst choice for one of your closer spots thanks to the likely combination of so-so performance coupled with a crappy team.

The Fastest French Player In The Majors: Jason Bourgeois - Last season, Jason Bourgeois made the most of his 252 plate appearances by swiping 31 bases in 37 chances while batting .294. However, injuries and a crowded Astros outfield meant regular playing time was tough to come by for Bourgeois. It didn't help that he walked in just 4% of his plate appearances or that he didn't show any power, recording a 0.63 ISO and .357 SLG%. This spring, Bourgeois will battle Jordan Schafer and Brian Bogusevic for the starting centerfield spot in Houston's Opening Day lineup. Considering the quality of his competition, there's a decent chance Bourgeois opens the season in center and as the Astros' leadoff hitter. If he does, than you're looking at a guy who can steal 50+ bases and hit .280-.290 - similar to what Emilio Bonifacio did with the Marlins in 2011. For those, like me, who don't like to pay for steals, keep an eye on Bourgeois as a cheap speedster in 2012.

Raining On The Parade: Why David Freese Will Be Overrated In 2012 - Let's be clear: David Freese had a monstrous postseason in 2011. He almost single-handedly won the Cardinals the World Series with his clutchness. However, a few good playoff series doesn't automatically mean Freese will be an excellent third base option in fantasy baseball in 2012. For starters, Freese turns 29 in April so he's no spring chicken. He's nearing the end of the typical age 26 through age 29 peak seasons. Last year, Freese posted a .144 ISO and .441 SLG% with 10 HRs in 363 plate appearances. Those aren't bad numbers but not anything that makes me think he's ready to break out. He also owned a walk rate under 7% while striking out more than 20% of the time. And his .297/.350 BA and OBP lines were inflated by a .356 BABIP, which is not sustainable even if he can post another line drive rate of 24% (like he did in '11). I'm fine paying for Freese under the assumption he'll hit between 15-20 HRs and drive in 80. But from what I'm seeing, fantasy managers are taking Freese much earlier or for more money than I think makes sense. Temper your expectations and let the other mangers in your league overvalue the Cardinals' third baseman.

The Skinniest Molina Cashes In: Yadier Molina - By now you know that St. Louis signed Yadier Molina to a five-year, $75 million extension which makes the youngest Molina brother one of the highest-paid catchers in baseball. However, most of that money is for Molina's superior defense rather than his bat. Yes, he hit 14 HRs and posted a .160 ISO in 2011 but I'm not convinced he can repeat those totals because they were such a spike compared to his career marks. Prior to 2011, Molina had never hit more than eight HRs or recorded an ISO over .106. His career high in runs scored is 55 (in '11) and RBI is 65 (again, in '11). He's hit over .300 twice, but his career mark is just .274 thanks to some low BAs in 2006 (.216) and 2010 (.262). He won't hurt your team in 12-team leagues but he's also not going to give you much of a boost. If you acquire Molina, realize his past performance indicates he's a better bet to hit fewer than 10 HRs and finish with fewer than 60 RBI than he is to bat .304/.349/.465 like he did last season.

Mark Reynolds - You'd think a guy who's hit 141 HRs in the past four years would get more hype, but Mark Reynolds remains a fairly cheap option at first base in most leagues thanks to his low BA. But as power becomes scarcer, players like Reynolds should see a rise in value. Reynolds doesn't turn 29 until August and has posted an ISO above .234 in each of the past three seasons while drawing his fair share of walks (between 11.5% and 14%). We project another 35+ HR season which makes Reynolds a solid play at first for those who want to spend money or high picks on different positions.

Melky Cabrera - Melky Cabrera had a breakout season in 2011 with Kansas City, scoring 102 runs, stealing 20 bases, driving in 87 and batting .305. Much like oversized eyeglasses and ugly plaid shirts for NBA players, grabbing Cabrera may be a popular trend in your auction or draft this season. However, be cautious when taking the outfielder as several signs point to a regression in '12. Cabrera posted a .332 BABIP last year, which was 44 points above his previous career high. He's also not positioned to hit another 18 HRs as the Giants play in a pitcher-friendly ballpark. I'm also concerned about Cabrera's walk rate, which dropped from 8% in '10 to just 5% in '11. All that said, I don't have much confidence in Cabrera being more than a 4th outfielder in 10-team formats.

Austin Jackson - Owners of Fantistics projection software weren't surprised when Austin Jackson struggled as a second-year player in 2011. We predicted that his tendency to strikeout and an incredibly high BABIP in 2010 had bolstered his numbers to Unsustainable-Land. And on cue, Jackson took a nosedive by hitting just .249 and striking out in 27% of his plate appearances. However, this year Jackson may actually be undervalued for a couple reasons. One, he's still just 25-years old and should naturally make improvement. Two, he's going to hit in a potent Tigers' lineup which means he's a virtual lock for 90 runs scored. Three, despite a .317 OBP in '11, Jackson still managed to steal 22 bases. Assuming he improves his EYE a bit, and gets on base more often, he'll have more chances to steal this season. Obviously a lot matters on where you take him in your draft/auction but I actually like Jackson more than the aforementioned Melky Cabrera in 2012.

Brandon McCarthy - Oakland's Opening Day starter made big improvements last year by increasing his GB% by 8%, logging a career-high 170 innings and posting an incredibly low FIP of 2.86. Guys like McCarthy and Doug Fister will end up going late in drafts/auctions because of their ability to eat innings and post solid ERA and WHIP stats. I like McCarthy more than Fister because his success was more sustainable from last year as evidenced by his xFIP, BABIP and strand rate. We predict more than 200 innings, a 3.34 ERA and 13 wins from McCarthy in 2012.

R.A. Dickey - Now that he's returned from climbing mountains, R.A. Dickey can go back to being an undervalued fantasy starter. A couple years ago when Dickey started having success in the Mets' rotation, I didn't believe he'd be able to sustain his success over the course of a season. But Dickey's proven me wrong by tallying 383 innings between 2010 and 2011 and recording ERAs of 2.84 and 3.36 during those respective seasons. The knuckleballer's key indicators have been nearly identical during the past two seasons and all signs point toward another solid year for Dickey where he'll help your team with ERA, WHIP and Quality Starts.

Giancarlo Stanton - Can we all take a moment to congratulate Mike Stanton for switching back to his birth name of Giancarlo? When your first name is Giancarlo, you can't hide that from the world. You have to wear that name proud and flaunt it wherever possible. I'd go as far as to say this name switch may even help Stanton improve upon his 27% strikeout rate from 2011. Last year, Stanton smacked 34 HRs, drove in 87 and posted a .537 SLG% during his age-22 season. I think we all sometimes forget that Giancarlo is still just a baby and won't reach his peak years until 2015(!). I get that he won't help your BA category but for goodness sake the guy has ridiculous power and hit the most no doubter HRs of any player in the NL in 2011. He's got a chance at 40 bombs in 2012 to go along with his first 100-RBI season. I see little downside with taking Giancarlo early in your draft or spending a pretty penny to grab him in your auction.

Adam Wainwright - The Cardinals' ace returned to the hill for the first time since Sept. 24, 2010 and pitched a scoreless two innings against the Twins on Friday. He tossed 30 pitches, struck out two and walked one with a fastball that averaged 91-92 mph in the first inning and 89-91 mph in the second inning. Wainwright may struggle a bit out of the gate as he rebuilds his arm strength but he remains a strong No. 2 SP in most fantasy leagues this season.

Kenley Jansen - The Dodgers and their high strikeout reliever got good news Friday when Kenley Jansen received medical clearance to resume baseball activities after he dealt with heart palpitations earlier in the week. Jansen was first diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat last July and missed three weeks due to the condition. He should be fine moving forward and this latest minor setback doesn't change his value. In 2011, Jansen posted a major league record 16.10 strikeout rate by fanning 96 batters in a mere 53 innings. Jansen has a chance to close in 2012 and will compete with Javy Guerra and Matt Guerrier for 9th inning duties.

Chris Carpenter - Lots of updates on St. Louis players today - go Missouri! The news on Chris Carpenter wasn't great on Friday as the starting pitcher didn't participate in team workout because of persistent neck stiffness. He remains day-to-day but this is a bit concerning because Carpenter already missed a side session earlier in the week. Considering it's so earlier in the spring, expect the Cardinals to take their sweet time bringing Carpenter along although right now he still appears on track for the beginning of the season.

Domonic Brown - The Phillies received more injury news on Friday as an MRI showed inflammation in Domonic Brown's sprained right thumb. Brown injured the thumb on Monday diving for a ball but still expects to return to game action sometime next week. Brown is hoping to play his way into regular playing time this year after hitting just .245/.333/.391 in 210 plate appearances in the majors in 2011. However, with Hunter Pence, Juan Pierre, Laynce Nix, Shane Victorino and John Mayberry (when he's not playing first base) probable outfield candidates, there's a decent chance Brown starts the season in AAA.

For fantasy baseball news and advice, follow me on Twitter.

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