Indians' Third Base - It's the Chiz Kid's Time: Reports out of Cleveland's camp point toward Lonnie Chisenhall getting first crack at the third base job this season with super-sub Mike Aviles waiting in the wings. For the past few years, Chisenhall has been one of the better prospects in a weak farm system for the Tribe. He first got his feet wet at the major league level in 2011. During that season, he got 223 plate appearances and posted a .255/.284/.415 slash line with 7 HRs, but showed little patience as evidenced by his 3% walk rate. Chisenhall spent most of last season in the minors, tallying a .517 SLG% and .314 batting average while also managing a .268/.311/.430 slash line in 43 major league games (mostly in June and September). At 24-years old, Chisenhall is entering his prime which makes me believe he can improve upon his decent .160-ish ISO at the major league level. I'm also encouraged by his strong 25% LD rate in 2012, which was a 6% improvement over his 2011 mark, and his 9% walk rate in September (hey, it's better than 3%). Chisenhall is not going to set the world on fire in 2013, but in deeper leagues he has a chance to be a solid backup 3B who hits double digit HRs.
Indians' Second Base - Jason Kipnis' Sophomore Season: Over the weekend, manager Terry Francona mentioned potentially hitting Jason Kipnis third in the lineup this season, which would bolster his value and likely put him between Asdrubal Cabrera and Nick Swisher. After playing in 36 major league games in 2011, Kipnis burst onto the fantasy baseball scene last season by clubbing 14 HRs, scoring 86 runs and stealing 31 bases. The steals were most surprising considering Kipnis had only recorded double digit steals once in a minor league season. Kipnis showed good patience for a young hitter by owning a 10% walk rate and made solid contact with a 22% LD rate. He also limited his chase rate to just 24%, meaning the second baseman was very selective at the plate (MLB chase rate average in 2012 was 30%). On the flip side, Kipnis' slash line of .257/.335/.379 wasn't pretty and his ISO was just .122. Looking at his minor league numbers, Kipnis has always shown good patience so he should continue to hold more value in OBP leagues and his minor league power numbers point toward an improvement in both his ISO and SLG% in 2013. As for the spike in steals, that shouts 'outlier' to me, but it's still probably a safe bet to expect 20 or so this season. With second base being a shallow position, Kipnis represents a high floor player who also has the ability to make another performance jump in 2013.
Cardinals' Rotation - Will it be Joe, Trevor or Shelby?: With Chris Carpenter unlikely to return this season, the Cardinals are searching for a 5th starter between Joe Kelly, Trevor Rosenthal and phenom prospect Shelby Miller. Kelly is the most experienced of the group, throwing 107 innings in 2012 with a 3.53 ERA, 6.31 K/9 and 0.84 HR/9. Kelly's 4.03 xFIP indicates he was a bit fortunate, but you have to be impressed with his 51% GB mark and 1.88 GB/FB rate. Kelly also has good fastball velocity, averaging a 94 mph heater last season.
If the spot goes to Rosenthal, he'll make for an intriguing option. Pitching out of relief in 19 games last season, Rosenthal struck out 25 in 22 innings while posting a 2.78 ERA. That's a small sample, but Rosenthal's minor league stats support his ability to miss bats and limit HRs and walks. He's not as highly touted as Miller, but Rosenthal represents higher upside than Kelly and could be a sleeper if he grabs the role.
Finally, there's Miller, who most everyone that follows baseball has heard of at this point. The right hander made his first appearance of the spring this past Saturday after being shut down in mid-February with shoulder soreness (the Cardinals said they were not worried about the injury). He struck out 3 and allowed a solo homer to Ian Desmond in his two innings. While his overall minor league numbers from 2012 aren't pretty (4.74 ERA, 4.48 FIP, 1.58 HR/9), Miller figured out something in August and September as he posted a 3.16 ERA, 36% strikeout rate and 3% walk rate. He has the highest upside of the trio if he can secure the 5th rotation spot and keep it for the season. For now, it appears Kelly is the lead horse as he is the only one of the three candidates who will pitch as a starter in spring training. Rosenthal and Miller will have to make their case from performances out of the bullpen.
Cardinals' Outfield - Jon Jay, Fantasy Sleeper: While everyone knows about the value St. Louis' other two outfielders - Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran - provide, don't overlook the Cardinals' centerfielder because Jon Jay has some nice fantasy upside this season. Jay accumulated 502 plate appearances in 2012, posting an impressive .305/.373/.400 slash line to go along with 19 steals (he was caught 7 times). He owned a solid 22% LD rate and 59% GB rate, which plays well for a guy who's really fast since Jay could beat out grounders hit on the infield. He made excellent contact on his swings (87% contact rate compared to MLB average of 79%) and limited his strikeouts to just 14%. While his .355 BABIP looks high, Jay's MLB career BABIP in 381 games is .348, so I don't expect a ton of regression in 2013. He should also bat leadoff for the Cardinals, which means lots of opportunities for runs and steals. Jay won't be sought after on draft/auction day, but he should be a solid contributor in most league formats this season.
Reds' Closer Situation - Jonathan Broxton Meets Regression?: The Reds should have a very good club this season and made a savvy offseason move to acquire Shin-Soo Choo. That said, the signing of Jonathan Broxton to a 3-year, $21-million deal was likely a poor decision because Broxton's 2012 numbers scream, 'regression to the mean'. With Aroldis Chapman likely heading to the rotation, Broxton has the closer's role locked up for a team that could easily win 90+ games. However, despite coming off a season where he posted a 2.48 ERA and saved 27 games for the Royals and Reds, Broxton's got some red flags. First, his 3.62 xFIP was more than a run above his ERA. Second, he enjoyed an 80% strand rate and struck out just 6.98 batters per game. And third, his fastball velocity remained at 94 mph, after being at 98 mph as recently as 2009. That drop in velocity coincides with strikeout rate that has declined in each of the past three seasons. He reinvented himself as a pitch-to-contact reliever who limited walks and allowed batters to put the ball in play more often. That's not a recipe for consistent success in the closer's role and I expect Broxton to take a step back in 2013.
Reds' Third Base - Todd Frazier has Power: You won't mistake Todd Frazier for a top-5 third baseman this season, but the 27-year old has some real value to add at the hot corner in all league formats. Last season, in 128 games and 465 plate appearances, Frazier cracked 19 HRs and posted an incredibly impressive .225 ISO to go along with a .498 SLG%. He also recorded a respectable .273 batting average and 22% LD rate while showing no significant differences in his RHP/LHP splits (.858 OPS vs. .817 OPS). For all those good signs, there are also some red flags to consider with Frazier. He seemed to tire at the end of last season, slumping badly in September (.176 batting average, .491 OPS). Additionally, the Reds have brought in defensive-slanted Jack Hannahan to potentially eat into Frazier's playing time. Frazier also wasn't exactly the most patient hitter last season, owning a 37% swinging strike rate. However, on the whole, I believe in Frazier's power and his ability to fight off Hannahan for the starting job all season. If you don't obtain one of the top few third baseman, consider targeting Frazier as a late round/low cost value for 2013.
Around the League...
John Axford - The Brewers' closer saved 35 games last season, but also blew 9 opportunities and finished the year with an ugly 4.67 ERA. However, I see Axford bouncing back this season and being an effective closer once again. In 2012, the biggest issue for Axford was an enormous jump in his HR/9 rate from 0.49 in 2011 to a whopping 1.30 in addition to a 13% increase in his HR/FB rate to 19.6%. Axford had never had such issues keeping the ball in the yard, so I expect some significant, positive regression in 2013. The lefty's velocity remains strong as he posted a 96 mph average on his heater. He also missed a ton of bats as evidenced by his 12.07 K/9 and his xFIP was a solid 3.26. Based on these peripheral stats, Axford should be much better this season.
Emilio Bonifacio - The speedster cracked a HR on Saturday for the Blue Jays in his bid to win the second base job from Macier Izturis this spring. While I expect Izturis to ultimately win the job, Bonifacio should still get plenty of ABs as a utility player around the diamond. In 2011, Bonifacio posted a 40-steal season to go along with a .296 batting average and .360 OBP, making him valuable in both BA and OBP leagues. However, before getting injured last season, the former Marlin wasn't nearly as good, owning a .258 batting average and .330 OBP (although he did steal 30 bases in just 64 games). Bonifacio's biggest issue was that he stopped hitting line drives, seeing his LD% drop from 24% in 2011 to just 16% in 2012. This caused his BABIP to fall by 50 points. If he get improve on his LD%, Bonifacio could very well get back into the .270-.280 range with his batting average and have a .350-ish OBP. He's clearly going to be a great source of steals and thus will have at least some value in all league formats.
Aramis Ramirez - Catching up on the weekend games, the Brewers' Aramis Ramirez left Saturday's spring training game with a strained left knee after legging out a double. Milwaukee announced that their third baseman will get an MRI and is considered day-to-day. Ramirez should continue to be an excellent option at the hot corner in 2013. He's coming off a 2012 season where he posted his best ISO (.240) and SLG% (.540) since 2006. The only major concern I have with Ramirez is that his LD% dropped by 5% last season, but his BABIP remained at .310. It's unlikely Ramirez can enjoy a .310 BABIP with a sub-20% LD rate again this season, so he may experience a slight drop in his overall slash line if he is unable to improve his LD rate. Otherwise, at 32-years old, Ramirez just keeps chugging along.
Austin Jackson - I've been high on Austin Jackson for the past few years because of his potential to provide a great combination of power and steals. As he enters his year-26 season, I am targeting Jackson earlier in drafts and am willing to pay more him in auctions. Last season, Jackson posted a .300/.377/.479 while hitting 16 HRs and stealing 12 bases. While the low stolen base total was disappointing, our Fantistics projections expect a bounce back in 2013. Jackson swiped 27 and 22 bases in 2011 and 2012, respectively, and we see him getting to 21 again this year. Jackson also continues to improve his walk and strikeout rates, improving the former by 3% while cutting down on the whiffs by 6% to just 21% in 2012. Obviously, more balls in play provide Jackson opportunities for more HRs as well as a higher BA/OBP because of his speed and ability to maintain high BABIPs. We're projecting a 20-20 season with 100+ runs, which makes Jackson a very valuable commodity in any league.
Rafael Furcal - The Cardinals shut down Rafael Furcal from all baseball-related activities this weekend due to increasing pain in his right elbow. Up to this point, Furcal had been throwing with limitations and had resumed swinging just last week. He is supposed to get an MRI in the coming days, but this is definitely a bad sign, especially for a team without another decent shortstop option (unless you considered Pete Kozma or Ronny Cedeno decent). At 35-years old, Furcal will continue to be a very risky SS play in all league formats because of his injury risk and declining production. Last season, he posted just a .264/.325/.346 slash line to go along with 12 steals in 121 games. His chase rate also jumped by 5% to 27%, meaning he was going after more pitches outside the strike zone. Even if Furcal's injury isn't significant, there's not much to like in 2013.
Matt Garza - Matt Garza has been sidelined since mid-February with a strained left lat and he experienced tightness while playing catch this weekend. The Cubs decided not to take any chances and have shut down the right hander for a week. He'll likely miss the first month of the season. In 2011, Garza put together an excellent season by owning a 3.32 ERA, 3.19 xFIP and 8.95 K/9. However, aside from that career year, Garza's been much closer to a 4.00 ERA in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2012. He's also only recorded an FIP under 4.00 one time in his big league career. With a whiff rate above 8.00 in three of the past four seasons, Garza certainly has solid fantasy value, but, during that same time frame, he's also allowed 1.11, 1.23 and 1.30 HR/9 rates. Expect Garza to provide an ERA in the high 3.00s and about 170 strikeouts in 2013.
Dan Uggla - After owning Dan Uggla in my primary fantasy league for the past four years, I finally cut ties with the Braves' second baseman during this past offseason. I've always appreciated the power Uggla brings to a shallow second base position, but he has too many alarming signs at this point. Uggla hit his first HR of the spring Sunday, but he was just 3 for his first 21 ABs overall. Sure, it's just spring training, but Uggla is coming off a season where his strikeout rate increased by 3%, his SLG% dropped by 69 points and he batted a career-low .220. While he increased his LD% by 5%, Uggla's HR/FB rate fell by 7% to a career-low 11% and he hit just 19 HRs after posting 5 straight 30+ HR seasons. I expect a bounce back in the power in 2013, but doubt he gets back to the upper 20s or low 30s in HRs. At 33-years old, there's quite a bit of risk with taking Uggla this year.
Ryan Zimmerman - Ryan Zimmerman made his first appearance this spring in the Nationals' lineup on Sunday when he batted cleanup and was the team's designated hitter. Zimmerman finished 1-for-3. Manager Davey Johnson plans to play Zimmerman every other day until the third baseman can build up enough arm strength to begin taking the field. In 145 games last year, Zimmerman battled shoulder pain but still managed to hit 25 HRs and post a .196 ISO. He also owned a career-best 16% HR/FB rate. Zimmerman should be a very strong fantasy play at third base as long as he stays healthy. He hasn't topped 600 ABs since 2009, so there's definitely some risk here.
Wade Davis - On Sunday, Wade Davis tossed 3 innings and struck out 3 versus the Reds. After back-to-back years as a starter in 2011 and 2012, where he struggled to miss bats and post decent ERAs, Davis was moved to the bullpen in 2012 and thrived. He owned a 2.43 ERA and 3.24 xFIP to go along with an 11.13 K/9, 30% strikeout percentage and 0.64 HR/9. The question for 2013 is whether Davis can translate his success as a reliever to being an effective starter. He's still just 27-years old and was a highly touted prospect for many years, so there's definitely a chance he figures it out. Keep an eye on Davis' performances this spring - he's worth a late round flier in drafts and a few bucks in auctions.
A.J. Pollock - Reports out of Diamondbacks' camp indicate that it's increasingly more likely prospect A.J. Pollock will be sent to AAA Reno to begin this season. With Arizona flush with outfielders, including Gerardo Parra, Jason Kubel, Cody Ross and Adam Eaton, there's no room at the inn for Pollock and he'll at least get more ABs in the minors until an injury or trade brings him back to the big league club. Last season in 31 games, Pollock batted .247/.315/.395 with 2 HRs and a steal. In the minors, Pollock has shown excellent speed, swiping 21 and 36 bases the past two seasons while also batting over .300. He may have some fantasy value in the next couple years, but not in 2013.
Martin Perez - The Rangers' young prospect suffered a broken forearm after being hit by a line drive during his spring training outing on Sunday. Perez will not resume a throwing program for a month. The southpaw was competing to win the Rangers' 5th rotation spot. In 38 innings with the big league club last season, Perez owned a 5.45 ERA, 4.15 FIP and struck out 5.92 batters per game. His K/9 rates have dropped each year, and at each level of the minors, since 2010 which has lowered expectations for his potential ceiling. That said, the kid's only 22-years old so if he does get back in the majors this season, he's worth monitoring, especially in dynasty leagues.
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