Toronto Blue Jays
RA Dickey (SP-TOR) - Does he deserve to start on opening day?
On Tuesday, RA Dickey was named the opening day starter for Toronto. After winning the NL CY Young award in 2012, he was traded to the Blue Jays in the off-season. Dickey battled injuries last year, specifically a back injury that affected the velocity on his knuckleball in the first half. While it may seem insignificant for a knuckleballer, Dickey's velocity dropped from 77.2 MPH in 2012 to just 75.8 MPH in 2013. What's interesting about this is the correlation between Dickey's fastball velocity and his strikeout rate. In the first half, his knuckleball velocity was 75.3 MPH and his strikeout rate was 16.8%. Conversely, in the second half, Dickey's knuckleball velocity was 76.7 MPH and he had a strikeout rate of 21.5%. As a comparison point, in 2012, Dickey's velocity was 77.2 MPH and he had a strikeout rate of 24.8%. Velocity isn't everything for a pitcher, but playing in the AL East is much different than the NL East. Three of the five teams in the AL East play in stadiums with a park index above 100 for homeruns (Toronto, New York, & Baltimore). For Dickey to have success in in Toronto this year, he must find a way to limit his long balls, which jumped up to 1.40 per nine innings last year. If Dickey can make the necessary adjustments and maintain his higher velocity, he has a decent shot at a bounce back season.
Jose Reyes (SS-TOR) - Can he stay healthy?
When Jose Reyes is healthy, he's a game changer in the fantasy world. In his first full season since 2008, Reyes stuffed the stat sheet in 2012 while playing for the Miami Marlins. Unfortunately for the Blue Jays, he missed most of the first half in 2013 and didn't look like the same player in the second half. Most notably for fantasy owners, Reyes only attempted to steal 16 bases last year. Reyes has had a myriad of injuries the last six years and that is his biggest obstacle standing in his way to being a fantasy superstar. As long as he can stay healthy, Reyes should be able to do well again in his age 31 season. Reyes' strengths include his on-base percentage, contact rate and plate discipline, proven by his career chase rate below 30%. Hitting in front of Bautista and Encarnacion should provide him ample opportunities to be driven in. If he can stay on the field, look for him to put up a batting average around .300 with plenty of runs scored and the potential for 30 stolen bases.
Kansas City Royals
Eric Hosmer (1B - KC) - Is it worth reaching for Hosmer?
Hosmer is gaining a lot of momentum heading into the fantasy draft season this year. Bouncing back from a somewhat disappointing sophomore season, Hosmer has plenty of things to get excited about. Despite playing half his games in Kauffman Stadium which suppresses homeruns (88 park index for HRs), Hosmer still managed to post a HR/FB ratio of 13%, which is above average. His 2.11 GB/FB ratio is a reason to believe that he might not ever be a big power hitter, but of his 17 homeruns last year, only 3 were "just enough". He also managed to have an average batted ball speed of 105 on those homeruns, which is also very good and points to good things to come in the power department. Hosmer's batting average rebounded nicely last year, but also saw his total steals of 11 drop by nearly 30% from the prior year. As long as he can keep his steals in the double digits, he should provide great value at his current draft position of 4.05.
Billy Butler (DH - KC) - A model of consistency
If you're looking for consistency, look no further than Billy Butler. Practically a lock to give you at .290/15/80, Butler hasn't played less than 158 games since his rookie season in 2008. Butler's ADP is being driven down due to his position eligibility at only "Utility" in most leagues due to DH'ing in all but 7 games in 2013. Butler's high contact rate (84%) coupled with his high GB/FB ratio (2.01) helps his batting average stay high, but also limits his power ceiling. The last three years, Butler's FB% has decreased each year, despite hitting a career high of 29 HRs in 2012 (driven by an insane 20% HR/FB ratio). You know what you're getting with Butler and that's worth its weight on draft day. Just don't expect more out of him than his career averages.
Jeff Samardzija (SP - CHC) - Is still a Cub...For now
The subject of dozens of trade rumors over the winter, Jeff Samardzija stayed in Chicago for now, likely because the Cubs asking price was too high. Most of the articles regarding the Samardzija trade rumors this off season said the Cubs were asking for a package of prospects that valued the pitcher as an ace while his performance last year was more of an SP3 or SP4. So is he actually an ace and simply had bad luck or will he always be a middle-of-the-rotation starter? Samardzija's season started great and he even had an ERA below 3.00 on June 1st. Unfortunately, he only went downhill from there, finishing the year with an ERA of 4.34 with 214K's in 213IPs. Samardzija's biggest problems are the amount of homeruns he gives up and his strand rate (below average at 71% for his career). While he did suffer from bad luck in the second half (.322 BABIP), Samardzija showed an uptick in his HR/FB ratio to 13%. Some good news is that 11 of the 25 homeruns Samardzija gave up were "just enough" to clear the fence, and his average homerun ball distance was just 395 ft. Given the strikeout ability he has shown, he has the potential to be a top-15 starting pitcher if his luck returns to normal and he can limit some of his long-balls.
Anthony Rizzo (1B - CHC) - Ready to shake his bad luck
The first major move of the Theo Epstein era was re-acquiring a player he drafted in Boston. In January 2012, the Cubs sent starting pitcher fireballer Andrew Cashner to the Padres for Anthony Rizzo. In his rookie season as a Cub, he did not disappoint hitting 15 HRs and 48 RBIs in half a season. Despite a 4% increase in his walk rate offset by a 2% increase in his strikeout rate, Rizzo hit just .233 in 2013 but still managed 23 HRs and 80 RBIs. While his HR/FB ratio dropped from 18% to 12% this past year, he actually hit more FBs which helped him sustain his HR total. He's flying low in drafts this year mainly due to the low batting average. This is good news for savvy fantasy owners who can nab him for a discount. Currently being drafted in the 7th round of most drafts, Rizzo could easily return the value of a player taken two to three rounds earlier.
Around the League
Bryce Harper (OF - WAS) - On Wednesday, it was reported that rookie manager Matt Williams was leaning towards batting Harper 5th this season. That collective groan you hear is from fantasy owners lamenting the terrible news. It's difficult for a player to return top-15 value while getting most of his at-bats from the five hole. It's well documented that batting lower in the batting lineup leads to fewer ABs and fewer opportunities to score and drive in runs. Another interest tidbit from Wednesday came when Bryce announced that he lost 16 lbs and is down to 220. He said he is more comfortable at this weight and could be a good thing for his production this season. Harper could still make improvements to his plate discipline but his walk rate is actually very good despite an elevated chase and swinging strike rate. Harper's FB% is still a little low compared to most power hitters but his batted ball speed of 105 MPH is elite. Fantasy owners are still finding it difficult to trust him as a first round pick but it wouldn't be a surprise to anyone if he becomes a fantasy monster any season now.
Allen Craig (OF - STL) - Surprisingly little is being talked about Allen Craig this winter as he recovers from a Lisfranc injury to his foot. Those of you familiar with fantasy football know that similar injuries have plagued several star NFL running backs in recent years, most notably Maurice Jones-Drew and Le'Veon Bell. The recovery time for this injury varies player to player with some recoveries taking a few weeks and others taking a few months. The troubling part about this type of injury is the ability to re-aggravate the area since the mid-foot is put under a great amount of stress when a player pushes off to run or turn quickly, for example. It sounds like the Cardinals are being cautious with their outfielder, as the team announced on Wednesday that he is making progress but is yet to run the bases this spring. Craig missed most of September last season, as well as the playoffs with this injury. His homerun total suffered last year, in part to a lower fly ball percentage and a 6% drop in his HR/FB ratio. Instead of hitting fly balls, Craig ended up hitting more line drives that helped inflate his BABIP and batting average. Looking at his homeruns in more detail, just under half were of the "just enough" variety and his average distance of 397 ft and speed of 103.7 MPH is also a bit discouraging in terms of power. Assuming he suffers no setbacks and is able to participate in drills this spring, Craig should be able to put together another solid season hitting in the Cardinals loaded lineup, just don't expect a big step forward in the homerun department.
Tanner Scheppers (RP - TEX) ¬ Reported improvement on Wednesday after experiencing back spasms on Tuesday. Scheppers has seen his name tossed around as being the Ranger's potential 5th starter or even as a darkhorse candidate for the closer job. Scheppers throws hard with a velocity of 96 MPH on his fastball, but he has also shown improvement in his secondary pitches this past year. His SIERRA, FIP, and xFIP point to some regression to his 1.88 ERA last season but with a swinging strike rate of 10% and a 50% groundball rate, Scheppers is an excellent fit in Texas.
Nick Franklin/Brad Miller (SS - SEA) - Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said on Wednesday that Nick Franklin and Brad Miller would each have an opportunity to compete for the starting shortstop job this spring. On Thursday, another report surfaced that the loser of the position battle is likely to be traded before opening day. Miller is a more polished defender and hit well in a short sample in 2013, which should help him get the advantage at the position. While it's typical for players to take a little time to adjust to major league pitching, Miller's walk rate of 7.2% was well below his rate in the minors. His minor league walk rate ranged from 11-12%, so there's some growth potential there. Looking deeper, his ISO in the minors ranged from .156-.185 so he should see continued power growth in 2014, if given an opportunity. Franklin is a former 2009 1st round draft pick and has a good pedigree that would interest plenty of teams, if they could handle some defensive blunders. Even if he doesn't win the Mariners starting job, he could have value depending on if and where he gets traded. While his 11.4% HR/FB rate is likely unsustainable, he still posted a great line drive rate of 24% in a short sample size.
Josh Reddick (OF - OAK) - According to the San Jose Mercury News, Reddick is ready to put last year's disappointing season behind him. He has been working with A's hitting coach Chili Davis to find ways to improve his performance in 2014. After posting an abnormally high 14% HR/FB ratio while slugging 32 HRs in 2012, Reddick came back down to earth to hit just 12 HRs driven by a lower than average 9% HR/FB rate (his average is closer to 11%). Reddick's luck should normalize in 2014 and he should post numbers somewhere between '12 and '13. He still strikes out too much but his contact rate is a respectable 81%. Fantistics is projecting Reddick to post a .248/21/74 line in 2014.
Yoenis Cespedes (OF - OAK) - One year removed from being a fantasy darling as a five category contributor, Yoenis Cespedes put up numbers similar to his rookie year minus the batting average. Some of his batting average woes can be blamed on bad luck as well as hitting a higher percentage of flyballs. From an ISO perspective, he was still very good last year at .202. On Wednesday, it was reported that Cespedes is working to shorten his swing to try to improve his contact rate and improve on his 2013 line of .240/.294/.442. Last year, he made contact just 74% of the time and had a chase rate of nearly 37%. Consequently, his swinging strike percent was predictably bad at 13% and he had a strikeout rate of nearly 24%. It's worth following Cespedes this spring to see if his adjustments will make a difference for him at the plate. Despite only playing two years in the league, Cespedes is already 28-years old and is in the middle of his prime.
Nick Markakis (OF - BAL) - Nick Markakis broke into the league with fantastic fantasy performances 2007-2009 but actually saw a decline in his numbers as he approached his prime years. A 2014 ADP of 20.07 may finally reflect the true player he has become. Thanks to a very high contact rate and groundball percentage, Markakis will typically post an above average batting average but also throw in 50-60 RBIs and 12-15 HRs. The speed he showed early in his career is practically nonexistent now. While his type of performance won't win anyone a fantasy championship, it certainly won't lose one either. Markakis has added 15-20 pounds this off-season and is confident that he will bounce back from nagging injuries that have derailed his last two seasons. He's a candidate to leadoff in Baltimore and could be a sneaky value as he enters the final year of his contract.
Pablo Sandoval (3B -SFG) - Impressed with the improved mobility of his third baseman, Bruce Bochy announced that he will no longer pull Sandoval for a defensive replacement late in games in 2014. The Panda's weight loss of 42 pounds was well-documented earlier this spring and seems to have helped him earn some respect with his skipper. Sandoval hasn't played more than 152 games in a season since 2010 and would need to be paired with a solid backup for fantasy owners taking him as their main third baseman. Sandoval has consistently hacked at pitches outside of the zone throughout his career but his contact rate on the pitches he chases is also about 13% higher than league average. Despite playing in the one of the league's more pitching friendly places, Sandoval has managed to keep his home and away splits fairly comparable with the biggest difference in batting average (.317 at home vs. .279 on the road).
Josh Willingham (OF- MIN) - Josh Willingham recently announced a willingness to sign an extension with Minnesota. While no deal is imminent, Willingham is hoping to force the Twins' hand this season by matching his 2011 & 2012 output. After coming off two consecutive seasons of close to 30 HR and 100 RBIs, "The Hammer" posted disappointing numbers in an injury-filled season in 2013. With a career ISO of .215, Willingham is consistently undervalued in fantasy circles thanks to his batting average that is usually around .250. At age 35, he is showing signs of aging with a slowly decreasing contact rate but he is still making pitchers throw him balls in the zone and he has always posted strong walk rates, especially in recent years. Look for Willingham to bounce back this year.
Chase Headley (3B - SD) - On Wednesday, Padres owner Ron Fowler said that a long-term extension with Headley is not imminent. Many fantasy owners fell in love with Headley after a magical 2012 season that saw his HR/FB rate spike to 21%. Headley's career HR/FB ratio of 10% in 2013 is a bit more realistic but his homerun total of 13 might actually be a little low. Headley's 8 stolen bases in 2013 were 11 lower than his total in 2012 and was likely disappointing to owners since he converted a stolen base only 66% of the time. For his career, he has a stolen base success rate of about 78%. Already 29, it's not uncommon for players to see decline in their stolen base success rates and will begin to run less frequently. Expect to see a slight uptick in the numbers from Headley this year but don't expect him to regain his 2012 form.