Michael Waldo touched on the Cardinals' closer conundrum in his 'A Closer Look' column yesterday. I highly encourage you to read it, but let's delve a little deeper into St. Louis' gluttony of bullpen arms. Six Cardinals pitchers recorded a save last year. The club was led by Bud Norris, who is unsigned as of this posting. Meanwhile, St. Louis brought in Andrew Miller (Josh Hader before there was Josh Hader) on a two-year, $25 million contract. In one sense, the pricey acquisition would figure to be in the lead for the closer role. However, Miller hasn't been a full-time closer since 2015 with the Yankees. Plus, he's 33 years old and coming of an injury-riddled final season with Cleveland. In 34 innings last season, Miller's chase rate dropped to a below-average 27.7%, swinging strike rate dipped three percentage points and hard hit rate spiked to 41.4%. Sure, much of that can be attributed to injuries, but it's difficult to imagine the Cardinals are just going to hand Andrew Miller the keys to the closer position.
So what about Jordan Hicks? The flamethrower was the hardest-throwing pitcher in baseball last season, who despite consistently topping 100 miles per hour, only managed to induce a 9.4% swinging strike rate, 77.1% contact rate and 26.1% chase rate. In other words, he wasn't fooling hitters as much as you'd think. Combine that with the fact he only threw in the zone 43% of the time and his K/BB rate was only 1.56. Hicks is only 22 years old and he has plenty of time to improve his control and develop into a dominant closer, but clearly the Cardinals don't view him as their unquestioned 9th-inning option right now.
Folks, there are other options. Rumors continue to swirl that Carlos Martinez will not be guaranteed a spot in the starting rotation. In 15 appearances out of the bullpen last year, CarMart was excellent, allowing only three runs in 18.1 innings, striking out 19 and picking up five saves. I could see a scenario where Martinez is the regular closer, Miller is the "roaming bullpen arm" and Hicks is purely the setup man.
The Cardinals also have former Astros closer Luke Gregerson, Brett Cecil, Dominic Leone and the enigma of them all, Alex Reyes. However, even if Reyes is in the bullpen to start the season, he would likely have to establish consistent performance before the Cardinals give him the closer role.
Manger Mike Shildt has shied away from specifics in discussing the bullpen and prefers to wax poetic about the quantity of arms available for the various roles. And that's the conundrum facing fantasy owners. There's a good possibility 2019 is another season where St. Louis has five or more players record saves.
The Cardinals 'Designated Hitter'
It seemed inevitable Jose Martinez would be playing for another team by this point, but underwhelmed by the trade offers they received, the Cardinals opted to keep their defensively-challenged late bloomer. In fact, the team signed Martinez to a two-year extension on Saturday, essentially buying out his final two years of arbitration. I refer to Martinez as "late bloomer," but it isn't that Martinez struggled in the early part of his professional career. In 341 at bats with the Royals' AAA affiliate in 2015, Martinez hit .384 with 10 home runs. It's just that the Cardinals were the first team to give him a shot. All he's done in 915 career major league plate appearances is hit .309 with 31 home runs and a 130 wRC+. He ranks in the upper echelon of hard hit rate and barrels per plate appearance, all with above-average plate discipline.
The issue with Martinez is his defense, and it becomes even more complicated in 2019. Martinez made two-thirds of his starts at first base last year, but the Cardinals' acquisition of Paul Goldschmidt eliminates that option. That leaves right field, which is expected to be primarily defended by Dexter Fowler. Martinez is a far superior offensive player at this point compared to Fowler, but Fowler is a better fielder. So St. Louis has to decide how to handle the 30 year old liability. Maybe the Cardinals are waiting for the inevitable DH in the National League?
Carpe Diem: Sieze the Analytics
Matt Carpenter's 2018 season is a demonstration of the significance of sabermetrics. On May 15, he was floundering to a .140/.286/.272 slash line. Read that again. He was batting .140. One. Forty! He had three home runs and it was fair to start considering if he had a future in baseball. But those darn analytics guys took a closer look. What they saw was a .178 BABIP and a 39.5% hard hit rate combined with solid plate discipline. So the Cardinals just let him keep going to work his way out of the slump. What occurred was not just a return to previous norms but an MVP-caliber season catapulted by an extreme .300 ISO from May 16 through the end of the season.
Even with an elevated 19.1% HR/FB rate last year, Carpenter has one of the most pronounced launch angles in the majors and along with his elite hard hit rate (he finished 2018 at 49%), he is primed for another 30-homer season. One question facing Carpenter's fantasy owners is where he will bat in the Cardinals lineup. He hit leadoff most of the 2018 season, and he will likely retain that role as the Cards don't have another great option to lead off and truthfully that's where he excelled in the final two-thirds of last season. However, it's enticing to think about his RBI opportunities if he would just move back one or two spots in the lineup. Until there's any confirmation though, one would have to assume he's the leadoff hitter and therefore his RBI totals will be capped.
Confortitude: Will the Former 1st Rounder Produce?
Despite questions surrounding his health for much of last offseason, Michael Conforto managed to accrue 638 plate appearances. Despite nearly 200 more plate appearances from 2017 to 2018, Conforto only hit one more home run. His ISO dropped from .276 to .204 and his batting average fell 36 points. In part, that can be attributed to a significant drop in line drives, hard hit rate and also a little bad luck as his BABIP was down nearly 40 points. However, what is most concerning is a particular struggle against right-handed pitching. After hitting .303 with 21 home runs against righties in 2017, the former Oregon State Beaver only mustered a .241 batting average with 18 long balls last year. The good news is Conforto improved his results against lefties, but in order for him to put together a full season of top-10 outfielder numbers, he will have to mash righties like he did two years ago.
As explained in my February 15 column on the blog, the Mets added offensive pieces that should both protect Conforto more and contribute to his runs and RBIs. He is still only 25 years old and offers elite upside, but staying healthy and terrorizing right-handed pitching will be key for him to offer one of the top returns on investment this draft season.
Every Rose has its Thorns
Understandably a lot of fantasy owners are skeptical of taking Noah Syndergaard as their fantasy ace, but should they be? Injuries are the biggest concern with the big righty as he suffered a torn lat muscle in 2017 and missed more than a month with an injured finger last year, but he has pitched 150 or more innings in three of his four major league seasons. Meanwhile, when he's out there he dazzles, compiling a 2.66 career FIP and nearly 10 strikeouts per 9 innings.
In 2018, Syndergaard produced the results you want in your SP1: a 24.1% strikeout rate, 2.80 FIP and spectacular 21.9% hard hit rate, which was significantly better than any other starting pitcher. The one category he did not supply top returns was of course his 154.1 innings pitched. However, he was coming off the injury-riddled 2017 and was limited by the injured finger in mid-May. Barring more injuries, Syndergaard should be able to get back to the 180+ innings he threw in 2016 and that would offer the upside of more than just the 14th best pitcher (his current ADP in NFBC leagues). You're risking injury, but then again you're always risking injury.
In 2018, Amed Rosario made drastic improvements to his EYE from his short sample in 2017. His 4.9% BB rate is still pitiful, but it is much better than the 1.8% he displayed his rookie year. He also improved his contact rate from a concerning 67.3% to a respectable 76.0%. Unfortunately, that only amounted to eight more points on his batting average and he actually dropped 20 points off his ISO. His hard hit rate and GB/FB rate were fairly stagnant along with a wOBA that showed only slight improvement. The positive news is he was much better in the final two months of the season, hitting .284 with a 102 wRC+ in August and September.
He also stole 15 of his 24 bases in those final two months, and that is likely what fantasy owners are most interested in with Rosario. I will caution prospective owners, however, that while Rosario has very good speed, he does not offer elite speed. Statcast ranks Rosario 26th in pure sprint speed and he was caught stealing 11 times in 35 attempts last season. I don't see much reason to believe Rosario is more than a 30-steal candidate. That's still valuable in this age of diminished returns on stolen bases, but don't go overboard with his one true offering. If he takes another step in all categories, he offers the upside of a .285 average with 12 home runs and 30 steals.
AROUND THE LEAGUE:
Kris Bryant, 3B (CHC)
Bryant excited Cubs fans and fantasy owners in Chicago's spring training opener, crushing a two-run home run in the 1st inning of Saturday's game against Milwaukee. He added another hit in the 3rd before exiting the game. How many times have you been reminded not to take spring training results too seriously? However, there are certain circumstances when February and March numbers could factor into your fantasy draft prep. Bryant's power is one of those instances. After hitting 39 home runs in 2016, Bryant totaled only 42 over the last two seasons. A shoulder injury undoubtedly affected his power last year and perhaps in 2017 as well. It doesn't really matter what his batting average is or how disciplined he is at the plate this spring, but is he hitting home runs? What is his ISO? Those are factors that could foretell whether Bryant is a true bounceback candidate.
Craig Kimbrel, RP (FA)
Early in the day on Saturday, MLB analyst Jim Bowden reported Kimbrel may sit out the entire 2019 season if he doesn't get the contract he desires. His agent promptly refuted that report, saying "he looks forward to signing a new contract in the near future." Kimbrel's signing is very important for fantasy owners as obviously they would like to know where he's going to pitch, but it will also inevitably shuffle whichever bullpen he joins. Kimbrel still ranks as one of the elite closers in the game, but if he remains unsigned too much longer, it's important to question whether it will threaten his availability to start the season.
Peter Alonso, 1B (NYM)
I get this strange feeling Alonso is going to be that guy this year who lights spring training on fire, causing him to rise up draft boards before ultimately falling into certain struggles during the regular season. He started that theory just fine, popping a home run on the first pitch he saw this spring. Alonso hitting home runs isn't going to surprise anyone (he finished with 36 across two minor league levels in 2018), but how he will profile in a major league season is very much up for debate. First of all, there's no guaranteed opening for Alonso at first base. J.D. Davis is his competition there and Todd Frazier could play first if Jed Lowrie is healthy. Furthermore, he only hit .260 with a 26% strikeout rate in 301 plate appearances last year at AAA. Still, the power is unquestioned and if he gets his shot, he could be a difference maker in fantasy.
Cody Bellinger, 1B/OF (LAD)
Bellinger has a sore back and is expected to miss a few days. It doesn't appear to be anything serious and Bellinger has plenty of time to recover before the start of the regular season, but this is the Dodgers we're talking about and they are notoriously vague with injuries so this is one worth monitoring. Bellinger may never repeat the success he had his rookie season when he hit 39 home runs, but he remains a solid bat in the middle of the Los Angeles lineup.
Chase Anderson, SP (MIL)
There weren't a whole lot of major league pitchers getting the start on Saturday, but one of them was Anderson and he promptly contributed to the fears fantasy owners had after last year. He allowed 30 home runs in 158 innings and then gave up a 2-run homer to Kris Bryant in the first inning on Saturday. He only threw one inning, allowing two hits, two runs and struck out one batter. Anderson took a big step backwards after a superb season in 2017. He was not throwing the ball in the zone as much and allowed more contact, contributing to the regressive numbers.
Royce Lewis, SS (MIN)
One of the top prospects in baseball, Lewis had a chance to make an impression in spring training, but that may not be possible this year as the 19 year old suffered an oblique injury and was ruled out indefinitely. Lewis hit 14 home runs with 28 stolen bases across two minor league levels last year and while he is not expected to reach the big leagues this year, his number could be called sooner than people expect. He could open the season at the Twins' AA affiliate.
Michael Chavis, 3B (BOS)
Chavis is an undersized corner infielder who despite being a former top prospect, has way too much swing-and-miss in his game. Nonetheless, he hit a home run on Saturday and the Red Sox do have vulnerabilities at the corners. Rafael Devers continues to produce inconsistent results and the Mitch Moreland/Steve Pearce platoon at first base doesn't blow anybody out of the water. Thus, Chavis could be a very late-round, deep league sleeper as a guy who has displayed massive power in the minor leagues.
Khris Davis, DH (OAK)
Khris Davis is out with a mild left calf strain, according to Jane Lee of MLB.com. Manager Bob Melvin said "it may be a few days" before the team puts him back on the field. He's been dealing with lower body issues (LBI for my hockey brethren) since he arrived in Arizona and has been limited in his baseball activity. Davis has improved in nearly every offensive category every year, but is it possible he adds more to 2018 career high of 48 home runs? The only thing we know is that he will finish the 2019 season with a .247 batting average. Death. Taxes. And Khris Davis hitting .247.
Jose Iglesias, SS (CIN)
The Cincinnati Reds signed Jose Iglesias to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training. Iglesias will compete for a spot on the Reds' bench as the Cincinnati starting lineup is completely full. In fact along with the recent addition of Derek Dietrich, Cincinnati has one of the deepest offensive units in the majors. Iglesias is only 29 years old and stole a career high 15 bases in 2018, but he's playing a numbers game and the Reds don't anticipate having as many plate appearances available as the Tigers did. I would expect Iglesias to make the Opening Day roster, but it would take a number of injuries to earn detection on the fantasy radar.
Jed Lowrie, INF (NYM)
Lowrie was diagnosed with a left knee capsule strain. That sounds scary and it has the potential to really affect his status in the regular season. The good news is an MRI showed no structural damage, but Lowrie admitted "there's no real timetable right now." After years of battling through injuries, Lowrie played at least 153 games in each of the last two seasons in Oakland and put together an All-Star season in 2018. His 23 home runs and .181 ISO were career bests; however, his contact rate and swinging strike rate were career worsts. Fantasy owners must monitor this injury carefully throughout spring training. While it could be a nothing-burger, Lowrie's 34-year-old frame could take a little longer to recover.
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