Did Back to the Future actually Predict the Future?
Part II of the classic movie franchise predicted that the Chicago Cubs would defeat Miami in the 2015 World Series. In 1989, the year the movie was released, neither Miami nor Florida had a major league baseball team. While it would be impossible for the Cubs to actually play Miami in the World Series since they're both NL, it's still pretty interesting that the film writers correctly predicted the addition of a baseball team in Miami. Can they also predict the Cubs winning this year? Judging by the attention the Cubs are receiving this off-season, it would seem the media would think so. In fact, I can't remember another team that finished sub-.500 in the preceding year receiving quite the amount of media attention and expectations that have been thrust upon the North Siders this "spring". As my Cardinal-fan brother-in-law eloquently put it, "let's go ahead and crown Kris Bryant the NL Rookie of the Year and let the Dodgers and the Nationals have a one-game playoff to determine who faces the Cubs in the NLCS". As a Cubs fan, I'm basking in the excitement that the Cubs are bringing to the table this season. However, do I actually believe they are one of the best teams in the National League right now? Not quite, but let's break down two of the intriguing acquisitions the Cubs made this off-season.
Jon Lester (SP - CHC) - Coming off one of the best years of his career, Lester entered free agency at an opportune time. Proving that his "chicken and beer" antics are a thing of the past, Lester pitched with a chip on his shoulder for most of the season last year with the Red Sox. Lester approached the strikeout rate he showed early in his career (24.9%) and he also boasted the lowest walk rate of his career (5.4%), walking just under 2 batters per 9 innings. Lester's improvements to his swinging strike rate (9.9%), chase rate (32.6%) and contact rate (78.6%) ranked him better than league average in all three categories and were large drivers to his nice strikeout improvements. The move to the NL allows him to see slightly worse competition but the NL Central has a good chance to be the best division in the National League and there's not much park improvement moving from cozy Fenway to windy Wrigley. Compounding this was his abnormally low HR/FB ratio from a year ago at just 7.2% while the league average sits closer to 10%. While that's a difference of just 6 flyballs leaving the park, consider that 6 additional earned runs would have raised his ERA 24 points, from 2.46 to 2.70. That's also assuming all these additional homeruns were solo shots meaning the effect to his ERA would likely be even more significant. The Cubs are thirsty for a leader and Lester fits that bill. If he embraces the situation in his first year reunited with his former bosses, he can put together another quality year similar to his final year in Boston. Unfortunately, the Cubs are probably still a year or two away from being serious contenders so his overall ceiling is somewhat limited in 2015.
Dexter Fowler (OF - CHC) - In a (somewhat) surprising move, the Cubs acquired outfielder Dexter Fowler from the Houston Astros this winter. The former top prospect has been plagued with injuries throughout his career and this move by the Cubs mirrors moves they have made recently by taking fliers on talented but injury-prone players (think Justin Ruggiano, Jason Hammel, Arodys Vizcaino, etc). It's a rather low-risk decision by the team and Fowler will fit in quite nicely on a Cubs team that struggles to find players to get on base at the top of the batting order. If all the pieces fall in the right way, Fowler could be the table-setter for one of the more dangerous middle-of-the-orders in the National League (think Rizzo-Bryant-Soler in the 3-4-5 holes). It remains to be seen the type of style Joe Maddon will employ this year but Fowler has decent splits from both sides of the plate (he's better against lefties but a .341 wOBA against righties will help him avoid being platooned) and Maddon has never been a stranger to the stolen base. Fowler has had double-digit stolen bases in 6 straight seasons and has had seasons with 27 and 19 steals apiece. If he can regain his threat on the base paths and the Cubs prospects develop as projected, Fowler will be a nice source of speed and runs late in drafts this spring.
Can the Padres' New Outfielders Allow Them To Challenge The Dodgers?
New Padres GM AJ Preller wasted little time putting his touch on the San Diego Padres. Over the course of several weeks, Preller executed several trades that revamped his outfield by bringing in Matt Kemp, Justin Upton and Wil Myers. The moves bring much needed fire-power to the middle of the Padres batting order but will it be enough to keep up with the free-spending Dodgers?
Matt Kemp (OF - SD) - Injuries, injuries, injuries have been the driving force behind Kemp's fall from stardom the last several years. However, Kemp's really strong second half performance has brought on optimism that a change of scenery might serve him well. In 64 games after the all-star break last year, Kemp hit 17 HRs, 54 RBIs and slashed a cool .309/.365/.606. While these numbers look great on the surface, it was fueled by a ridiculous 26.2% homerun-to-flyball ratio that will almost certainly come back down closer to his career average of 16.5%. The good news was a healthy 27% line drive rate in the first half and an equally impressive 24% rate in the second half. Both numbers more than support the .345 BABIP he posted (which was actually 6 points lower than his career levels for that stat). Lower body injuries have robbed Kemp owners from the stolen bases he used to get but there's definitely some opportunity for nice batting average and above average power from the outfielder this year. Just don't extrapolate his 17 homeruns over a full season and expect to get 34 dingers from an oft-injured 30 year-old playing in Petco Park.
Wil Myers (OF - SD) - After posting nearly identical strikeout and walk rates, Myers saw his BABIP sharply drop from .362 in 2013 to just .286 in 2014, largely brought on by a lackluster 15% line drive rate in 2014. Wrist injuries are historic for zapping a player's power numbers so it's not surprising his HR/FB ratio was just 2.9% when he returned in August. He has now had several months to rest and rehab so we'll hopefully see Myers regain his wrist strength this spring training. Tread carefully in drafts that take place before exhibition games begin, but if he looks fully healthy in early spring training, there's no reason to discount him just because he's now playing in San Diego. He remains of the best young pure power hitters in the game.
Can The Royals Repeat?
The Royals took the baseball world on a wild ride last October. After losing their ace, Kansas City will need Yordano Ventura to take another step forward to fill the void left by James Shields. It's also make-it or break-it time for many of the Royals younger players, including Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas. With a re-vamped White Sox team and a great young pitching staff in Cleveland, the Royals have more competition than just the Tigers if they want to return to the World Series this year.
Yordano Ventura (SP - KC) - With one of the fastest fastballs among starting pitchers in the majors, you'd expect Yordano Ventura to post a strikeout rate better than league average. Unfortunately, his strikeout rate came in at 20.3%, just under the league average of 20.4%. While his fastball is certainly his best pitch, his downfall comes because he lacks secondary pitches that fool hitters. As a result, he throws his fastball 65% of the time, allowing batters to sit back and wait for him to throw it. Further causing him issues is his tendency to throw the pitch too straight and without but life at the end. As long as hitters can catch up with the heat, and most all major league hitters can, they will eventually burn Ventura. On the positive side, he does boast a 10 MPH difference between his fastball and change--up so if he can further refine his change, there's definitely upside to his current talents. To me, he doesn't look like he has the stuff to be a dominant ace but he has the talent to be a solid SP-2 or SP-3 on your fantasy team.
Eric Hosmer (1B - KC) - Despite a few nice performances in the post-season, Eric Hosmer ended up being on the most disappointing Royals in 2014. It's becoming evident that Hosmer lacks the true power that is needed to be considered among the league's power hitters and his awful 51.8% career groundball rate is doing nothing to change this fact. After posting a promising .172 ISO in his rookie year, Hosmer has failed to exceed .150 in any season since. His home ballpark does him no favors but a middle-of-the-order hitter cannot hit ground balls over half the time if he expects to drive in runs. His low 6.8% HR/FB rate from 2014 suggests there may be upside to his totals from 2014, but no longer can he be considered a candidate to surpass 20 homeruns at a first base position that is typically a key source of power for fantasy owners.
Around the League:
Josh Hamilton (OF - LAA) - News came out on Friday that Josh Hamilton would might actually be out for 12 weeks, which is nearly 4 weeks longer than what was originally estimated as he recovers from surgery on his AC shoulder joint. It's a big blow to his fantasy value because the entire first month of action is now in serious question. Since signing with the Angels, Hamilton hasn't been the same type of producer as he was with the Rangers. Most notably, Hamilton's batting average has plummeted to .250 and .263 the last two years, respectively. Typically, one would point to the terribly high chase rates (41.2% and 40.7%) or the extremely poor swinging strike rates (16.2% and 18.9%) but that has been Josh Hamilton his entire career. The only logical explanation that one can make for Hamilton is just that he hasn't been able to hit the ball quite as hard as he once did. His HR/FB ratios have plummeted the last two years and his batted ball speed on his homeruns have dropped from 105.9 in 2012 to 102.2 in 2013 and all the way down to 100.8 in 2014. At 33 years old, Hamilton is reaching the end of his useful life as a fantasy player and needs to be treated with kid gloves for the rest of his career. All signs point to danger ahead.
Mookie Betts (OF - BOS) - The Mookie Betts fever may finally be going down. Red Sox Manager John Farrell was quoted on Friday saying that the starting Right Field job will be Shane Victorino's as long as he's healthy enough to play. The youngster's stock has been sky-rocketing over the last several weeks after there was speculation that he would be the Red Sox starting right fielder with fellow rookie Rusney Castillo drawings starts in centerfield. It now looks like Betts will be challenging Castillo for playing time this spring with the possibility of also beginning the year in Double-A. If you are already a Betts owner, don't fret. With both Hanley Ramirez and Shane Victorino starting in the outfield, it's only a matter of time before one of them gets hurt. Betts cruised through the minor leagues in 2014 before getting promoted and flashing the same skills that made him excel in the minors - getting on base and stealing bases. Through 52 games, Betts managed a solid slash of .291/.368/.444 with 7 steals. He also showed some nice pop from a guy with his small frame, posting an ISO of .153 with 5 HRs and 12 doubles. With Rusney Castillo being considered a more polished player, it'll be unlikely that Betts will beat him out for the centerfield job out of camp. That leaves him without a job and takes a significant amount of luster out of his shine. He's a nice prospect but he was probably being a bit over-drafted in the 12th round anyway.
Jordan Walden (RP - STL) - The Cardinals brought in former closer Jordan Walden to set-up for inconsistent closer Trevor Rosenthal. After struggling with his command for most of the year, St. Louis decided to sign a true back-up as insurance going into 2015. When he's healthy, Jordan Walden can be very good, touching the upper 90's with his fastball and then slowing things down with a change-up and slider that are each about 10 MPH slower than his four-seamer. Walden's 14.3% swinging strike rate was one of the highest in the in the league last year and his 69% contact rate was even more impressive. Health is always a concern with Jordan but he has the skillset to succeed in the closing role should Rosenthal stumble again this year. He's a great stash in save-only leagues and a must-own in leagues that track holds.
Dylan Bundy (SP - BAL) - Hey, remember him? Bundy underwent Tommy John surgery on June 27, 2013 to repair a tear in his UCL. Now 19 months removed from surgery, Bundy is an intriguing name to remember late in drafts as he gets overlooked by many owners chasing the hot, new prospects. Bundy returned to the mound late last year and predictably struggled with his control. It's not uncommon for pitchers to have difficulty commanding the strikezone when they first return after undergoing TMJ, especially when they return prior to having 18 months of recovery time. The good news is that Manager Buck Showalter said Bundy will have not restrictions in Spring Training and he left the door open for the possibility of Bundy competing for a rotation spot. Pre-surgery, Bundy had a low-to-mid 90's fastball that he primarily used while occasionally mixing in a very good cutter and a change-up. He was known for his high strikeout ability and above average command of the strikezone. It's likely he'll begin the year in the minors but he's probably not far from returning to the major leagues and is a must stash in all keeper formats.
Gregory Polanco (OF - PIT) - Totally flying under the radar this spring has been Gregory Polanco. Despite struggling mightily in half a season with the Pirates last year, Pittsburgh dealt fellow right fielder, Travis Snider, this offseason. This creates a nice opportunity for Polanco in the starting line-up every day to prove that he's the type of player we saw in the minor leagues and not the player he was at the major league level. Polanco suffered from bad luck on balls in play last season, posted just a .272 BABIP while managing a 19% line drive rate. With this line drive rate, I'd expect his BABIP to be closer to .310, although his 50% groundball rate does naturally drag down the balls in play average. Regardless, I was still impressed with his approach at the plate, managing a respectable 18.9% strikeout rate and strong 9.6% walk rate in his first year. Growth and maturity will be needed, however, especially when it comes to handling the basepaths. Polanco was caught stealing in 5 of his 19 total attempts at the major league level last year but his minor league track record has been plagued with poor steal percentages. He'll probably hit in the bottom half of the Pirates batting order until he can prove that he's the player who everyone expected him to be, not who he was in 2014.
Robinson Cano (2B - SEA) -Is Robinson Cano still worth a second round pick? It's no secret that the 32 year old Cano is trending downward on his career but just how significant has it been? Two years of declining home run totals is supported by batted ball speed on his homeruns provided by ESPN. Since 2012, Cano has seen his batted ball speed drop from 104.3 to 103.8 to just 101.2 last year. Many people point fingers and say the drop in homeruns is all home stadium driven. That's 100% not the case. Cano would have actually have 1 fewer homerun had he been playing in Yankee Stadium than he had playing in Safeco when overlaying Yankee Stadium over his 2014 homerun spray chart. Outside of the power dipping, Cano is also hitting far more ground balls. Lower batted ball speed and more ground balls is never a good combination for a hitter. His approach at the plate looks largely unchanged and he remains one of the most dependable players in the game. Unfortunately, all good careers have to come to an end and with little power upside and almost no speed upside, it's difficult to recommend him as a viable option in the second round.
Danny Salazar (SP - CLE) - A year ago, Danny Salazar was the buzzword in almost any fantasy baseball draft. After getting off to a brutal start and being sent down, Salazar returned in the second half and put up a performance reminiscent of his 2013 stats. Fortunately for value seekers, his breakout came later in the season and his full year stats don't look too impressive. That's great news for you because Salazar still possesses a 95 MPH fastball with pinpoint control and the raw skills to be an ace atop the rotation. So why isn't he owned right now? Salazar's line drive and groundball splits were brutal last year, giving up line drives 24% of the time and groundballs only 34% of the time. Opposing hitters obviously have higher batting averages on line drives than groundballs so ideally we'd like to see the line drive rate as low as possible. Going in the 20th round of drafts at the moment, Salazar offers huge profit potential especially in the area of strikeouts.
Mike Fiers (SP - MIL) - Another type of arm I like to target in the pre-season are those players who came up late in the year and performed extraordinarily well in the short sample size. There's a lot to like about Fiers, beginning with his super solid 21.5% K%-BB% ratio. He also took another step forward in 2015 by increasing the number of flyballs he had given up and conversely reduced the amount of line drives. While this might just sound like the case of a small sample size, it's important to remember that Mike Fiers has done this in the past and could do it again. Fiers came up in 2012 as a fill-in starter and performed tremendously well. Now that Gallardo has been traded, Fiers has a great shot at getting his own rotation spot from the beginning of the season to the end.
Michael Wacha (SP - STL) - All indications are that Michael Wacha is fully recovered from the shoulder injury that plagued him last year. Pre-draft last season, Wacha was easily going in the top-100 players off the board. Now with the injury concerns, he has fallen closer to the top 150 players. Wacha's biggest attribute is his ability to limit baserunners, which consequently limits runs allowed. As Anthony Perri pointed out in our player software, Wacha didn't have a WHIP above 1.00 in any of his minor league stops. The most attractive thing to me about Wacha is his low walk rate but I also wouldn't be surprised to see him get back closer to a strikeout rate around 25% this coming season, similar to his rookie year. His underlying indicators that I look at for strikeout rate are all in line with his rookie year - chase rate, swinging strike rate, contact rate, velocity. This gives me hope and optimism that he will be able to return top 10 round value from well within the middle rounds of the draft this season.
Homer Bailey (SP - CIN) - Back in September, Homer Bailey had surgery to repair a flexor tendon in his forearm. It sounds scary and a recent news report stated that he's a little behind on the recovery. Even if he misses the first few weeks of the season, Bailey is a tremendous value in the 19th round, his current ADP at the moment. It's hard for me to believe that Homer Bailey is still just 28 years old. It seems like we've been hearing about him forever but he developed slower than most, but has shown steady improvement over the last several years. In fact, I love the fact that he has had a steadily increasing fastball velocity while his walk rate has remained steady around 6-7%. I also believe there's upside to his strikeout rate when taking into account his 11% swinging strike rate and chase rates between 32% and 35% the last two years. Both indicator stats are better than league average yet, his 20.5% strikeout rate is still below league average. I'd expect to see this changed this year and he's a nice flier to reach for late in drafts.