Jake Arrieta and the Disappearing Cutter
Over the last several years, Jake Arrieta's success has been directly linked to the usage of his cutter. While pitching in Baltimore, Arrieta was discouraged from throwing the pitch thanks to GM Dan Duquette's bias against the cutter. After he was traded to the Cubs, however, Arrieta's usage of the pitch jumped up to 28% in 2014 with a great 2.20 wCT/2. He followed up that season with his Cy Young performance in 2015 while maintaining a 29% usage rate with an even better 2.35 wCT/c pitch rating. But something changed in 2016 and with it, so did the results. Jake Arrieta started throwing his cutter less (18% usage rate) and alarmingly, his pitch rating dropped all the way down to 0.01 wCT/c in 2016. Arrieta struggled with his release point last season, which might explain some of his troubles with the effectiveness of the pitch, and might even help explain some of the command issues he had during the season. The question this spring is going to be how well (and often) he throws his cutter. If he can get the cutter working, there's no reason to think that the walk rate won't drop back down and then subequently, the rate stats will also improve to be closer to his 2014/2015 baseline.
Does Javy Baez Deserve a 16th Round ADP?
The hero of the Cubs postseason won't even open the year as the team's starting second baseman. Thanks to his plus defensive skills and hot bat in October, Baez pushed Ben Zobrist into the outfield so he could man second base. Unfortunately, the return of Kyle Schwarber will force Baez to start the season on the bench. Given Baez's multi-positional ability, he should become Joe Maddon's new "jack-of-all trades", filling in for players all around the diamond. The big question will be how many at-bats will that type of role generate? In a similar role a season ago, Baez managed to play in 142 games (some via pinch hit), but he still saw 450 plate appearances with 14 home runs, 59 RBIs and 12 SBs. A three year improvement trend in strikeout percentage (41.5% in 2014 to 24% in 2016) along with an equally impressive improvement in contact percentage (57% in 2014 to 72% in 2016) points towards continued development for a player with one of the fastest bat speeds in the major leagues. Unfortunately, his 16th round ADP feels a little high and that's likely due to the helium left over from the successful playoff run he led the Cubs on in October. I love the player, I'm just not in love with the role he will play and the price tag associated with him.
Kansas City Royals:
Eric Hosmer Flying Under-the-Radar?
Despite setting career highs in both home runs (25) and RBIs (104) in 2016, many saw Eric Hosmer's performance as a step back last year. While his added power numbers are nice, they came at the expense of 30 batting average points and yet another disappointing 5 stolen bases. After posting three straight seasons with double-digit stolen bases to begin his career, Hosmer has failed to steal more than 7 in any of the last 3 seasons, making it seem like that category will no longer be part of his game moving forward. Hosmer's home runs were boosting by a 6% jump in HR/FB rate in 2016, but with just a marginal 1.5% increase to his hard hit% year-over-year and virtually no change in his pull %, it seems unlikely that high HR/FB rate will be sustainable. His GB/FB ratio remains really high at 2.38, so it 's possible he'll luck into returning some of those homeruns if he can shift away from his extremely heavy groundball tendencies next year (58%) because while his hard hit % didn't materially change from previous seasons, it's still a very strong 34%. Hosmer's lower runs scored and potentially part of the lower batting average can also be attributed to playing much of the season without adequate protection from Lorenzo Cain or Mike Moustakas. Both of the latter two players are expected to be healthy and starting to begin the year. From a narrative perspective, Hosmer is entering into the final year of control by the Royals, making this the ever-important season before free agency. With extra motivation and a generally down outlook on him by the industry, Hosmer could return value.
Lorenzo Cain - Undervalued Speed
In a season where speed is going for a premium, Lorenzo Cain seems to continue to be undervalued. Before missing nearly a third of the season with a hand injury last year, Lorenzo Cain had banked two straight seasons of 28 stolen bases and even managed to hit 16 home runs to go along with a batting average over .300. We saw regression across nearly all categories in 2016, but the underlying skills remain there to hope for a bounceback. Cain enjoyed a great breakout 2015 campaign after he jumped out with a 9% increase in hard hit rate, but he was mostly able to maintain that in his shorted 2016 season. That's good news for the continuation of the power numbers and high batting average, but what remains to be seen is if he'll be able to return to the stolen base levels where he was at in 2014/2015. The injuries he had in 2016 shouldn't impact those, but he is now on the wrong side of 30 years old and some natural age-related regression to his speed should be anticipated
San Diego Padres:
Carter Capps In The Mix For Saves?
One of the relievers that I wrote about in my closer briefing last week was Carter Capps. "The guy with the crazy delivery" is now a member of the San Diego Padres after spending a year off recovering from Tommy John surgery. Entering camp in 2016, Capps had been viewed as a favorite to be the closer for the Marlins before being diagnosed with a tear in his UCL. Fast forward a year, he's now a darkhorse candidate to lead San Diego in saves by the time the season is all said and done. He's still recovering from the surgery, so his workload is still being carefully watched, but the team insists he's on pace to be ready by opening day. If he proves he's healthy and as effective as he was pre-injury, he will be the first in line for saves once Brandon Maurer falters (and he will).
Finding Value In the San Diego Outfield:
One of the more intriguing position battles this spring is going to be the centerfield job in San Diego. Scratch that, maybe we should call it the race back from the trainer's room. The surprising Alex Dickerson and highly touted rookie Manny Margot both entered camp with the possibility of winning a starting outfield job for the Padres. Unfortunately, a back injury to Dickerson and a knee injury to Margot has sidelined both players thus far. The injuries are equally concerning because a back injury to a power hitter like Dickerson has been known to sap power, while a knee injury to a base-stealer than Margot can adversely affect his biggest source of value. Dickerson fared reasonably well in a half season in 2016, slashing .257/.333..455 and showing some promise with 10 homeruns supported by a reasonable 12% HR/FB rate and 34% hard hit rate. His above average 82% contact rate and solid 8% SwStr% also point towards his ability to main the .59 batting EYE from 2016. Meanwhile, rookie centerfield Manny Margot showed plus speed and plus on-base skills in the minor leagues. We need to monitor each player's injuries in the coming weeks, but whoever wins the job will fall into regular at-bats and consequently, solid value for fantasy leagues.
Around the League:
Corey Seager (LAD) - The Dodgers star shortstop has already missed a week of action with an injury to his back/oblique and was originally slated to return yesterday. Unfortunately, that return has been pushed back and as of right now, there's currently no timetable for return. On Friday he was quoted that he had high confidence he would be available for opening day, but obviously the delay in his return is certainly concerning. With the information we currently have available, it's too soon to start discounting him at the draft table, especially since the elite power/batting average combo that he possess in the middle infield is so rare. Seager's hard hit rate of 40% remains one of the highest in the league and fully supports his .300+ batting average. He saw a drop in his GB/FB rate from 2.00 in 2015 to 1.58 last season, but if he can continue to lower that number, there's even more homerun upside from his bat.
Zach Britton (BAL) - Arguably the best closer in the game has been sidelined most of the spring with a strained oblique, but he was able to throw another bullpen session on Friday and looks to be ready to return to game action soon. Britton is being drafted in the early rounds this spring and rightfully so. His 80% groundball rate from a season ago is the best of all-time (since GB% began being tracked) and his above average strikeout rate makes him one of the safest pitchers in all of baseball. He has the highest floor among all closers, but while his ceiling is high, Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen each likely have higher ceilings due to 100 strikeout upside.
Matt Harvey (NYM) - Matt Harvey made his second start of the spring, this time lasting three innings. After a tough first outing, Harvey remained a little shaky, allowing 2 hits (one HR), 1 earned run, 1 walk and also struck out a couple of batters. Harvey is still shaking off the rust and seems to be taking it slow ramping back up to his mid-season form. The velocity is still sitting in the low-90's, which we'd ideally like to see it bounce back into the mid-90's before we're totally comfortable deploying him in the regular season. He remains a fascinating player to track this spring.
Daniel Hudson (PIT) - Daniel Hudson looked terrific again on Friday, tossing yet another perfect inning of relief and striking out 3 batters. Hudson is quickly closing the gap between himself and incumbent Tony Watson for the closing gig in Pittsburgh. Since Hudson is a right-hander and Watson is a left-hander, that may further give Hudson another boost. Watson was excellent as a middle reliever last season, but he has struggled in the closing role, so it may be a natural swap for the two relievers. Hudson is a great high upside target in the late rounds of all formats.
Jim Johnson (ATL) - Jim Johnson continued his perfect spring on Friday by keeping the Mets scoreless in an inning pitched. Johnson has done nothing to lose the title of closer heading into the season and it actually makes sense for the Braves to open the year with him in the role. Johnson's skillset is inferior to that of Arodys Vizcaino, but he could be a valuable trade commodity in the middle of the season if he can manage to be an effective closer. With the team in rebuilding mode, he could bring back a prospect or two and it would make good business sense to try to build his trade value. He's still in the bottom 5 of my closer rankings, but he's not a sexy pick and will likely be overlooked in drafts. A save is a save.
Devon Travis (TOR) - The Blue Jays second baseman is still sidelined as he recovers from off-season arthroscopic knee surgery, but earlier this week manager John Gibbons expressed disappointment over the lengthy recovery process saying "I expected him, to be honest, to be a little further along...we're going to be cautious" to beat writer Ben Nicholson-Smith. We're getting into crunch time for Travis to return to the field if he's going to be ready for opening day. He's been hit with injuries off-and-on in his short career and he's doing little to shake the "injury-prone" tag this spring. The longer he's out, the lower the chance he'll be ready for opening day, but it also means he'll come at a steeper discount. His .358 BABIP was pretty fortunate when considering his 29% hard hit rate, but the skillset is there for double-digit homeruns and stolen bases at a barren second base position. Look for the .300+ batting average to come down this season, however.
Lucas Duda (NYM) - Lucas Duda hit his first spring home run and 5th his of the spring on Friday. Duda is now battling a sizzling .500 with all hits going for extra-bases. It's a great start for the first baseman as he looks to bounce back from a disappointing 2016. The underlying skillset and batted ball profile has always been there for the slugger to be a perennial 30-homerun hitter, but his heavy pull tendences and below average contact rates will continue to weigh on his batting average. Health is the key question here.
Devin Mesoraco (CIN) - It's been a long wait, but Devin Mesoraco will finally make his spring training debut tomorrow. Mesoraco had a wasted 2016 campaign after a strong 2014 throttled him near the top of the catcher position in last season's drafts. He's a decent 2nd catcher flyer option in fantasy leagues, but he's going to need to prove that his hip can hold up under the stress of a full-season. He certainly holds intriguing upside thanks to his hitter-friendly home ballpark.
Bryce Harper (WAS) - Bryce Harper crushed his 4th spring homerun on Friday. Harper is red-hot this spring as he tries to improve upon his highly disappointing 2016. Currently going near the end of round 1, Harper still has the skills to finish as the top player in fantasy leagues and remains one of my favorite "reaches" (if there is such a thing) in the first round. Battered by an unusually low .264 BABIP (on a 34% hard hit rate, nonetheless), Harper's batting average plummeted to .243. Look for that to come back up closer to his career .279 mark with an opportunity for even more RBIs and runs scored with an improved Nationals lineup around him. His .92 batting EYE remains elite and helps build confidence that he's still seeing the ball well, just got a little unlucky.
Lance McCullers (HOU) - Lance McCullers made his spring debut on Thursday and pitched a squeaky clean two innings with three strikeouts and no baserunners allowed. McCullers is recovering from elbow soreness that plagued him in the second half of last season, but he looked to be in mid-season form on Thursday. We love the elite swinging strike rate (13%) paired with his absurd 57% groundball rate. His ADP is primed to skyrocket in the coming weeks and he could quietly become one of the best starting pitchers in the league this year.