Pittsburgh Pirates: The Grilli Situation
Jason Grilli, who missed time last season with a flexor strain in his right forearm, is taking things at a much slower pace than other Pirate pitchers during Spring Training. According to team sources, Grilli is scheduled to make his debut in game action today against the Blue Jays, which will be an important first step if he is to begin the regular season on time. He was dominant last season, striking out 74 and walking only 13 in 50 innings while maintaining a 14.5% swinging strike rate. This led to 33 saves in 35 chances. The Pirates do have the luxury of being cautious with Grilli, as Mark Melancon, minus a few minor bumps, was simply dominant for the majority of the season as well, striking out 70 and walking 8 in 70 innings (yes, 8!). Perhaps Grilli's slider usage and age are catching up with him, so I do see a fair amount of risk with him this year. Even in the base case scenario, the Pirates are likely to manage him and spell him on occasion, so if you draft Grilli, do your best to handcuff him with Melancon. Unless he falls past that 145 NFBC ADP, I'm avoiding.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Francisco Liriano, Are You For Real?
After an inauspicious beginning to his spring, Liriano looked much better on Monday, blanking the Red Sox on 25 pitches across two innings. Liriano had quite the comeback season in 2013, posting a 3.02 ERA/3.12 xFIP, a 24.5% K-rate, and an improved 9.5% BB-rate. Incorporating more of his changeup into the mix, he saw a healthy increase in his overall chase-rate. Besides the quantitative indicators, one big qualitative one backs it up: The Searage Effect. Liriano spoke at length last season about the adjustments he made, whether mechanically with later timing in his delivery, to sequencing. While we project some minor regression in seeing his strand rate normalize, at his current NFBC ADP of 165, there is still value there.
Arizona Diamondbacks: A Fierce Battle at Short
The DBacks have embraced the competition for the starting shortstop gig between Chris Owings and Didi Gregorius. While neither has gotten off to a fast start at the plate, they both bring their own unique skill sets to the table. For the purposes of our fantasy game, Owings brings much more upside. He hit 12 homers and stole 20 bases, while posting a .330/.359/.482 line in 125 AAA games last season. However, he logged these stats while playing for the Reno Aces of the Pacific Coast League, a notorious hitter's environment. Add in his ugly .22 EYE, and I see him taking some time to put his tools to use in the Majors. Even if Owings finds a starting gig either with the DBacks or another team by the end of Spring Training, I advise tempering expectations. AL/NL-only leaguers should watch this battle closely, as one of them could easily find themselves in the AL by April.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Pollock's Time?
The starting centerfield position and leadoff role appear to be A.J. Pollock's heading into 2014. With the injury to Adam Eaton last season, Pollock put up a respectable .269/.322/.409 line with 8 homers and 12 steals in 137 games. As Pollock himself admits, he must work on his approach at the plate and be more selective, as his 6.8% BB-rate indicates. His defense will give him a long leash, and he draws rave reviews for his make-up and work ethic. I see him making modest improvements in his approach, which should lead to more solid contact and a higher line-drive rate. He is going off the board as the #84 OF in NFBC leagues (355 overall); I love the value, and think he could easily post top 60 OF production.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: Post-Hype Prospect or a Trap to Avoid?
Tyler Skaggs, who struggled a bit on Tuesday in 2 and 1/3 innings, is considered the favorite by most to win the no. 5 starter gig out of camp. An elite prospect and consensus blue-chipper just two short years ago, Skaggs endured a rough 2013 that saw his velocity plummet and his stuff diminish. He notably walked 47 in 109 and 2/3 innings at AAA. Will the change of scenery and a chance at a permanent spot in a big league rotation do him good and tap into his ceiling? I'm skeptical. His velocity has gone from 91-94 to 86-89 MPH on his fastball, largely a result of what many scouts and analysts see as inefficiencies in his delivery. Doug Thorburn and Paul Sporer, for instance, have noted his shallow extension and his tendency to release the ball too early, allowing hitters to pick up the ball easier and diminishing the explosiveness of his pitches. While Skaggs is working on his mechanics and the raw talent is there, I'm approaching him with extreme caution in re-draft leagues and looking at him more in AL-Only leagues.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: Will Raul Ibanez Find The Fountain of Youth Again, or Will The Angels Find C.J. Cron?
29 homers in 124 games is quite an impressive stat for a 41 year old, but many question whether Raul Ibanez can pull off an encore in his age 42 season, especially given his woeful second half. C.J. Cron is an interesting name to keep in mind, should Ibanez's production slip and/or his body wear down. Cron posted a solid 2013, hitting 14 homers at AA, and adding on 5 more in finishing runner-up to Kris Bryant for AFL MVP honors. He struck out 94 times in 599 Abs, so while he doesn't walk frequently (31 times last season), he also has demonstrated excellent contact skills. Jerry Dipoto says he'll see time in the majors this season, and once up, I wouldn't be surprised to see him stay and be a productive DH. He could be a great stash in deeper leagues and AL-Only leagues with bench spots.
Austin Jackson: Poised to Deliver?
2012 and 2013 feel like disappointing seasons for AJAX. After all, he only played 137 and 129 games respectively due to injuries. However, he posted runs scored totals of 103 and 99, homer totals of 16 and 12, and SB totals of 12 and 8 while accumulating a solid .280+ AVG. With his NFC ADP of 150 (37th OF off the board), I see a nice buying opportunity here. Our projections put him on the brink of 20/20 while scoring 90+ runs and posting a solid average, numbers more than worthy of a #3 OF. The peripherals show a player entering his prime, and if he can healthy, look out. A lot of his SB potential depends on Ausmus' style and where they hit him in the lineup, but with the cast in Detroit, he's going to fill up the stat sheet across the board.
Detroit Tigers: Justin Verlander's Status
Verlander is progressing nicely from core muscle surgery and is schedule to pitch in his first spring game today. However, the weather forecast may prevent that from happening, and with the Tigers taking a cautious approach, this may jeopardize an opening day start. On the surface, Verlander took a step back last season, posting a 3.46 ERA/3.67xFIP, while seeing his velocity, K and BB-rates move in the wrong directions. I see this as creating a fantastic buying opportunity. If you look at the final month of the regular season and the playoffs, Verlander was Verlander. He allowed 1 earned run in his last 35 innings with an astounding 53:7 K:BB ratio, his velocity improving along the way. And the narrative backs up the numbers, as Verlander spoke about the mechanical adjustments he made to get more on top of the ball down the stretch. He hinted that the issue may have originated with the weakening core, so if this is behind him, look out. He may miss 1 start to begin the year, which could make him an even better bargain.
Around the League
Garin Cecchini (3B-BOS): Cecchini, in my view the most underrated prospect in the game, continued his fast offensive start to spring with another hit on Wednesday. Last season the lefty posted a .322/.443/.471 line across two MiLB levels with 7 homers, 23 steals, and an impressive 94:86 BB:K ratio. Injuries in high school and early in his pro career have kept Cecchini under the radar, but all he has done since his debut is hit. Finally healthy and in the upper-minors, he is knocking on the doorstep and could see time this season if Middlebrooks struggles or injuries open up a need at DH. Cecchini hits lefties extremely well, and the only real weakness to his game is in the power department. But if that develops, he could become a Scott Rolen type player. More of an AL-only stash option for now, Cecchini is a name to keep in mind in all keeper/dynasty leagues.
Shelby Miller (SP-STL): Miller looked in mid-season form yesterday, striking out 5 and only allowing 1 hit in 2 and 2/3 innings. 2013 had a bizarre ending for the phenom, as he struggled early in the second half with fatigue before the Cardinals phased him out of their postseason rotation. All totaled, he posted a 3.06 ERA/3.73 xFIP, striking out 169 and walking 57 in 173 and 1/3 innings. He is currently going 123rd overall in NFBC drafts, some 30 picks after Michael Wacha. If he can become more efficient with his pitch counts and go deeper into games, Miller could be a draft-day steal.
Jesse Crain (RP-HOU): According to the Houston Chronicle, Crain (right calf strain, shoulder) is on a conservative throwing program and isn't likely to see action in spring games. Crain took his game to a new level last season with the White Sox, striking out 46 and walking 11 in 36 and 2/3 innings before the shoulder injury shut him down. While he didn't allow a single home run, Crain gained a MPH on his fastball (to 94.5), incorporated a curveball more frequently, and posted the highest chase % of his career. There are question marks surrounding his health, and he isn't likely to see a MLB mound by mid-April in the best-case scenario. However, with the competition in the Astros bullpen being led by Chad Qualls and Josh Fields, he could seize the closer role by the end of April.
Francisco Lindor (SS-CLE): Lost under the hype of other SS prospects such as Addison Russell and Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor is a name to keep in mind in all leagues. He hit a pinch-hit, RBI double off of Danny Farquhar and scored a run to continue his impressive showing early in camp. Known as a defense-first shortstop with his slender frame, Lindor flies under the radar. He hit .303 last year, stole 25 bases, and walked 3 more times than he struck out (49:46). Sure, he only hit 2 homers, but he hit 22 doubles and 7 triples. A former home-run derby champion on the junior circuit, many scouts believe he will hit 15-homers annually as he continues to fill out. With the injury-prone Asdrubal Cabrera in a contract year, Lindor has several routes to playing time in the second-half this season, and makes a great speculative pickup in deeper leagues with the bench room. His offense continues to catch up to his defense.
Andrew Heaney (SP-MIA): Heaney continued to impress on Wednesday, throwing another scoreless inning in a "B" game against the Cardinals. After minor injuries de-railed the start to 2013, Heaney hit the ground running, finishing the year with 89 K's, 26 BB's, allowing only 17 earned runs across two levels in the minors. Then he backed that up with an impressive showing in the hitter-friendly AFL, posting a 24:9 K:BB ratio in 27 and 2/3 innings, allowing only 6 earned runs. The lefty has plus velocity from the left side, what many scouts call a wipe-out slider, command, and tremendous mound presence. As we know, the Marlins aren't afraid to push their prospects. Even if Heaney doesn't break camp, which he easily could, we'll likely see him before the All-Star Break. He's the kind of guy to pick in the later rounds on upside alone, rather than drafting a safe, league-average pick that you could find on the waiver-wire if he doesn't work out.
Bronson Arroyo (SP-ARI): MRI results revealed a slight bulging disc in his back, compelling the D-Backs to limit his activity for the next 7-10 days. While the D-Backs' front office doesn't seem too concerned about the issue, this is the same disc that bothered Arroyo in 2011. At the very least, he is likely to miss his first turn in the rotation to start the season. Arroyo is much more valuable in real-life than in the fantasy game, mostly do to his well-below average K-rate of 15.1%. He has proven quite durable, however, throwing 199+ innings in each of the past 9 seasons, becoming more of a groundball pitcher along the way, and is a viable option at the back-end of your rotation (#5/#6) provided you find you K's elsewhere. Provided he's healthy, he makes for a solid #4/5 in deeper points leagues.
Yasiel Puig (OF-LAD): Back and shoulder soreness compelled Puig to exit Wedneday's game early. The Cuban sensation also suffered through similar ailments at times last season, and with his style of play and physical conditioning, this could be something to monitor. Puig is going as the 21st player off the board in NFBC drafts, and while the upside is undeniable, I see it as too pricey for such a risky player. A .319 AVG with 18 homers and 11 steals in 104 games looks fantastic on the surface from 2013, but I have some concerns. Puig was caught stealing 8 times. And he had a .383 BABIP despite a below AVG 19% linedrive rate and 68% contact rate. I'm not avoiding him, but unless he falls into the 3rd round, I don't see the utility in drafting him so high in re-draft leagues.
Alex Guerrero (2B-LAD): Guerrero hit a grand slam yesterday to continue his solid spring at the plate. While stats are difficult to gauge coming from Cuba, Guerrero showed a disciplined approach there with plenty of pop. In fact, he ripped 21 homers in 269 ABs with a 39:30 BB:K ratio in his last season in Cuba. The questions surround his defense at second base, where reports have been mostly negative, prompting the Dodgers to give Dee Gordon a long look in the spring. I see Guerrero as likely starting the season in the minors because of the glove, but he shouldn't be there past May. And once he's up, provided he isn't a defensive liability, his bat could prove very valuable at the MI position in all fantasy leagues. If you have the room, stash him. Interestingly, an improved Gordon has been playing the OF as well, and could stick around for the entire season as a super-utility guy once Guerrero is installed.
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