He's Catching, He's Leading Off, He's.....Kyle Schwarber?
Cubs fans in Mesa were given a nice surprise on Friday when Kyle Schwarber was spotted catching a bullpen session for John Lackey. Schwarber, of course, missed most of the 2016 regular season when he suffered a complete tear of the ACL in his left knee after colliding with teammate Dexter Fowler while chasing down a flyball in the second week of the April. While manager Joe Maddon has declined to commit to allowing Schwarber to catch games in the regular season, the slugger has been medically cleared to catch 1-2 games per week during spring training. Depending on your league rules and position eligbility requirements, Schwarber likely does not currently have catcher eligibility heading into the season, but he could stand a chance to gain it sometime during the year. As we heard from manager Joe Maddon last week, Schwarber will be an option to bat leadoff for the Cubs against right-handed pitchers, meaning he would hit directly in front of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. That opportunity would likely create plenty of run scoring opportunities and more plate appearances, but it would come at the expense of RBI totals. Nonetheless, it appears Schwarber is going to be a big part of the Cubs offense this year and all this newsflow just points to Joe Maddon's desire to creatively find the slugger at-bats. It should be noted, however, that our software is currently projecting his value as solely an OFer. If he does gain catcher eligilbilty, Schwarber would create significantly more value for his owners, making him an elite option at the catcher position versus just an above-average option as an outfielder. Regardless where he plays, Schwarber's 40% hard hit rate will play just about anywhere and his solid 13% career walk rate helps to offset the ugly 28% strikeout rate and measly 68% contact rate.
Carry On My Heyward Son
While Heyward's World Series rain delay speech contributed to the shift in momentum that allowed the Cubs to "break the curse", will his overall poor 2016 performance cause him to lose playing time in 2017? With the rise of Willson Contreras and Javier Baez and the return of Kyle Schwarber, at-bats may be difficult to find for all of these players this season. In anticipation of this, Jason Heyward spent the off-season working out at the team's Arizona-based training facility to revamp the offensive prowess he once possessed when Bobby Cox compared him to Hank Aaron. Unfortunately, since his breakout 2012 campaign when he hit 27 homeruns, his offensive performance has gone on a downhill spiral. The interesting thing to remember, however, is that 2012 season came on the heels of his previous career-worst 2011 season. After his disappointing sophomore year, he spent the off-season living in the Braves' training facility, much like he's doing this season with the Cubs. Fast forward to present time, Heyward says he feels great and he thinks he has figured things out. Is this just another case of being "in the best shape of my life", or is there really something to this intense focus and preparation? The Cubs aren't necessarily looking for him to hit 27 homeruns again, in fact, they probably don't even need him to hit 20. What they do need is for him to stop guessing at the plate so he can get back to an on-base percentage closer to .350. Heyward's underlying statistics that support his approach at the plate showed little, if any, variation in 2016 versus recent years, yet he managed to hit just .230 after hitting .293 in 2015 and .271 in 2014. The low BABIP of .266 stands out, especially when considering he's a career .302 BABIP hitter and hadn't posted a BABIP that low since his sophomore season when his batting average was also an abysmal .227. So what caused the dip? Heyward's hard-hit rate remained depressed at just 26%, but his career average is just 30%, a mark he has failed to reach since 2012. His infield fly percentage also jumped up to 14%, the highest mark since, you guessed it, 2011. With slight headwinds due to lower hard hit % and IFFB%, it makes sense the BABIP would have dipped a bit, but not by the magitiude of which it happened last year. The similarlities between Heyward's 2011 season and his 2016 season as certainly recordable, but only time will tell if his added work this off-season will also translate to similarities between 2012 and 2017.
When Mike Moustakas tore his ACL in May last year, the third baseman had already hit 7 homeruns in 27 games and was well on his way towards setting a new career high. The breakout didn't come out of nowhere, and in fact, his .284/.348/.470 slash line with 22 home runs and 82 RBIs in 2015 was strong enough to squarely put him on the map as a starting 3rd baseman option heading into 2016. Moustakas has seen positive growth in his batting EYE over the last several seasons (31% in 2012, 38% in 2013, 47% in 2014, 57% in 2015, and 69% in 2016), an indication that his development as a hitter has been linear and he's getting more comfortable while standing in the batters box. In the small sample last year, "Moose" saw sizeable jumps in hard hit rate (37%), HR/FB rate (19%), and contact rate (86%). Interestingly, despite all these positive indicator jumps, his BABIP actually saw an 80 point drop, which translated to a 60 point drop in batting average. Heading in 2016, Moustakas and the Royals appear to be taking a cautious approach and want to ensure he's ready to go for opening day. That cautious approach may mean fewer at-bats for him in spring training. For a player that hasn't seen in-game major league pitching in over 9 months, fewer at-bats might be a little concerning because he may not have enough at-bats to "shake off the rust". On the bright side, his current ADP is factoring in this downside risk and that might actually mean he could be a profit center for you, if you end up waiting at the 3rd base position.
The tragic death of Yordano Ventura left the Kansas City Royals with a need for 3 new starting pitchers to round out their rotation. General Manager Dayton Moore's solution? Harvest the misfits of the Chicago Cubs. The Royals signed both Jason Hammel and Travis Wood, the latter being most recently used as a long-reliever for the World Champions, but they also made a trade with Seattle shipping Jarod Dyson to the Mariners in return for high-upside arm Nate Karns. Those three join Danny Duffy and Ian Kennedy, along with a slew of other potential 5th starter options like veterans Jason Vargas or Chris Young. So from a fantasy perspective what should we expect? In a standard 5x5 mixed league, the only player you're probably interested in drafting is Danny Duffy. Duffy enjoyed a really strong 2016 season on the whole, but there are some very real concerns about how effective he will be in 2017. Most notably, Duffy appeared to have the wheels fall off in September when he posted a 5.50 ERA and just a 3.55 strikeout-to-walk rate (compared to 4.48 for the full year). The 179.2 innings he threw in 2016 was a career high by 30. If you're drafting Duffy at his current ADP, you have to be concerned about how he will hold up in the second half this season. With another year and more innings under his felt, I fully expect improved long-term endurance this year, but owners in a head-to-head leagues may want to think twice due to the nature of the timing of head-to-head playoffs.
Wil Myers - 40/40 Club This Year?
Near the end of last week, the San Diego Union-Tribune ran a story about Wil Myers and buried at the end was a goal by the first baseman to hit 40 homeruns and steal 40 bases in 2017. Last year, Myers hit 28 homeruns and also stole 28 bases in 157 games. With that said, he battled nagging injuries to begin the season and didn't get red-hot until June. So is 40/40 achievable? The answer to the question is two-part. Is it possible? Absolutely. Is it probable? No, probably not. Myers was 28-for-34 in stole base attempts last season, or 82%. That's not a bad steal % overall and when you consider that he's a first baseman, it's actually quite impressive. With that said, assuming the same steal % in 2017, he would need to attempt 49 steals to reach the 40 steal plateau. That's a really big number and to put that in perspective, only 3 players had at least 49 stolen base attempts in 2016 - Jonathan Villar, Starling Marte, and Eduardo Nunez. Myers' strong hard hit rate (34%) can certainly put him in the conversation for 40 homeruns, so it's mainly the 40 stolen bases that make his goal seem lofty. Nonethek
Hunting for a Renfroe
September call-up Hunter Renfroe showcased his impressive raw power in a handful of games at the end of last season. Thanks in part to his impressive showing at the end of last season, the Padres are giving the rookie the opportunity to start in right field this year. Renfroe put up impressive numbers in the hitting friendly Pacific Coast League a season ago, hitting 30 homeruns and notching 105 RBI while posting a slash line of .306/.336/.557. These numbers are going to be really difficult to duplicate at Petco Park, particularly the rate stats. His batting EYE was a miserable .191 at Triple-A last season, so there's still plenty of work that needs to be done with his approach at the plate. He's a worthy late round flier for his power, but it's important to not overdraft him.
Around the League:
Josh Donaldson (3B - TOR) - According to the Toronto Star, Josh Donaldson tweaked his calf on Saturday and was seen using crutches on Sunday. The injury is officially being called a calf strain and initial estimates have him missing 2-3 weeks. If he ends up hitting that timeframe, he'll be ready for opening day. Donaldson is being drafted as a first rounder this year after he slugged 37 homeruns and drove home 99 RBI. He also made great strides in improving his batting EYE to be an elite .916. Losing Edwin Encarnacion in this lineup will hurt a bit, but there's still plenty of protection present to ensure he can continue to return value for fantasy owners.
Charlie Tilson (OF - CWS) - It was revealed on Sunday that speedster Charlie Tilson would be shut down for 10 days with a stress reaction in his right foot. Catching the injury this early (before it develops into a stress fracture) is a positive sign, but the missed time could be detrimental to the youngster's chances of opening the season as the White Sox primary centerfielder. Tilson was going to a go-to target for late steals in this spring's drafts, but with the uncertainty surrounding his injury, we may be forced to look elsewhere for speed.
Adrian Gonzalez (1B - LAD) - The 34-year old first baseman is dealing with tendonitis in elbow and is officially out for 2 weeks. The current expectations are that he will be ready to go by opening day, but tendonitis tends to be an injury that lingers. Gonzalez is showing definite signs of age decline with a drop hard hit percentage (-3%), ISO (-0.055 points), and water contact rate (-1%), but he should have enough gas in the tank leftover to provide respectable numbers. The Dodgers will continue to involve A-Gon in scoring opportunities, so the overall floor for him is there, he just lacks the ceiling to his stat line that would have existed a mere 2-3 year prior.
Jed Lowrie (2B OAK) - Jed Lowrie is expected to report to camp fully healthy and healed from the two off-season surgeries, one to fix foot pain and another to fix a deviated septum. Lowrie doesn't contribute much from a fantasy baseball perspective, but he has shown the ability to run into one when Oakland is on the road. As discussed on Sunday's Sirius XM show, Lowrie possesses some pretty significant home/away splits, with him becoming a bit more of a power hitting threat in cozier ballparks on the road and more of a opposite fielder slap-type hiter in October. This difference in approach is seemingly to fit the ballpark of which he's playing, a move that a seasoned veteran would do. Lowrie makes for a fine back-up second baseman, but his extensive injury history is certainly something that keeps him out of starting lineups.
Jared Weaver (SD - SP) - After spending his entire career in LA, Jered Waver is moving to San Diego to take over a rotation position for the Padres Weaver's pitch-to-contact approach has left him very vulnerable to opposing offenses over the last several seasons, but the move to Petco Park shouldn't be as drastically bad as some ball parks. Weaver can probably be safely ignored in all mixed leagues, with just certain NL-only leagues popping out as potential spots where he would conceivably be rostered. While conventional wisdom would normally cause you to look elsewhere due to Weaver's low strikeout rate (13%), the name recognition could drive some owners to draft him. Unfortauntely, with a similarly low groundball rate (28%), Weaver relies heavily on flyballs to get him out of jams. Playing plenty of games on the West Coast with the marine layer that comes in off the ocean at night will continue to aid Weaver, it seems extremely risky to utilize Weaver this year in any format.
Cody Allen (CLE) - Manager Tony Francona confirmed with the media on Saturday that Cody Allen will once again serve as the team's closer. During last season's playoffs, teammate Andrew Miller was utilized in save situations in certain games, making some question who would actually serve in the 9th inning. Getting clarity in the situation this early in the spring is excellent news, but don't expect Miller to be left out of the game of saves completely. Allen's pitch repertoire consists of a fastball and a curve, but with an overall swinging strike rate of 14% from a season ago and a big boost up in his groundball percentage to 46%, Allen possesses the rare ability to not only miss bats, but also limit the type of damage done by balls in play. He's locked in as the closer for the best team in the American League and is easily a top-5 option at the position this year.
Michael Brantley (OF - CLE) - For owners of Michael Brantley who were hoping to have the former five category stuffer back in time for opening day, Indians manager Terry Francona squashed those hopes and dreams over the weekend. Brantley is recovering from an August 2016 surgery done to repair a torn biceps. That injury came on the heels of a shoulder injury that has kept him sidelined most of the last 2 seasons. Francona didn't necessarily indicate that Brantley has suffered a setback, he merely stated that he would likely not be ready for opening day. In a separate report by Jordan Bastien of MLB.com, Bastien reports that Brantley is moving through the rehab program and has advanced to the soft-toss portion of the rehab. Either way, it does not appear Brantley is anywhere near game ready at this point, so an opening day appearance seems like a longshot. The good news is that none of Brantley's injuries should have impacted his speed or his ability to steal bases. We'll need to see where the hit tool lies once he does hit the field, but he will likely have quite a bit of rust. Fantasy owners shouldn't be drafting him this spring with the expectation of receiving anything solid in return.
Yoan Moncada (2B - CWS) - AAs expected, White Sox phenom Yoan Moncada is currently projected to begin the year with Triple-A Charlotte according to Sot Gregor of The Daily Herald. In a cup of coffee last season, Moncada looked a little lost at the plate and at times, even overmatched as he struck out 12 times over 19 at-bats for the Red Sox. Long-term, Moncada projects to be an offensive dynamo for the White Sox and is a definite stash in all keeper formats, but for the casual fantasy player focusing only on a single-season contest, let someone else chase the shiny new rookie. It's possible we won't see Moncada with the big league club until after the All-Star Break.
Albert Pujols (DH - LAA) - According to reporters at Angels camp on Sunday, Albert Pujols is experiencing no pain related to off-season foot surgery to alleviate his multi-year battle with plantar fasciitis. An Opening Day return is still within the realm of possibility, but the Angels will likely be cautious to not rush him back a week or two too early to risk a re-injury. Pujols is a far cry from the type of producer he used to be when he was a member of the St. Louis Cardinlas, but he continues to be a source of power, with a reasonable expectation for homeruns in the upper 20's to lower 30's and around 100 RBIs. We're beginning to see a downward trend in his batting EYE over the last several years, something that could be an indication of age-related regression. Nonetheless, he continues to make hard contact at above average rates of 35% or more and his 85% contact rate remains one of the best in the league among power hitters. If the foot surgery truly resolves all of Pujols' pain, it will be interesting to see how much better the rest of his stats become. He could be a sneaky source of value, especially at a 1B position that gets thin in a hurry.
Keon Broxton (OF - MIL) - After suffering a broken wrist that cut is season short last year, Keon Broxton said his wrist has fully healed and he's ready for spring training. Broxton is one of the most intriguing players to evaluate this year because of his rare power/speed combination. Unfortunately, due to his less than developed approach at the plate, strikeouts are a major concern, which in turn puts pressure on his batting average. Broxton's 36% strikeout rate is 16% higher than league average, but it also comes with an interesting 15% walk rate. With an incredible 43% hard hit rate in 207 total at-bats last year, Broxton was able to hit 9 homeruns and nab 23 stolen bases. Based on his all-in profile, Broxton strikes me as a player who is very talented and can hit he ball a long way, but also a player who is lost at the plate and simply tries to guess pitches (which explains the brutal swing and miss rates, but the really strong hard contact rates when he does put bat on the ball). Until Broxton sees regular at-bats, we'll continue to see flashes of his greatness here or there, but he'll likely be unable to sustain the entire package until that time comes.