If there has been one overarching theme to the 2014 MLB season so far, it’s been players missing time. Whether it’s been because of (asinine) draft pick compensation rules, attending the birth of one’s child (goodness me was that David Murphy-related ‘controversy’ farcical), or as in the vast majority of cases, due to injury, far too many players have been off the field, their absences spoiling the game we all love.
The month of June is off to a promising start however. After the spate of Tommy John surgeries necessitated in April and May, as far as I’m aware, we’ve now gone three days without one being announced (It’s my understanding that Chris Withrow of the Dodgers was the last player to have been announced as going under the knife). Even better, a host of players are making their returns this week – all carrying some relevance. Let’s break them down quickly;
– Stephen Drew, who was only absent by his own/Scott Boras’ doing after turning down a qualifying offer over the winter, finally made his season debut for Boston last night, going 0-2 with a walk in a defeat to the Cleveland Indians. Having played in the minors since May 21st having finally signed a pro-rated contract for around $10 million this year, the left-handed Drew batted eighth in the Red Sox lineup and instantly slotted in at shortstop, pushing Xander Bogaerts to third base, and with both Mike Napoli and Mike Carp out, the surprisingly effective Brock Holt across the diamond to first. While there were certainly more ideal landing spots out there (Detroit have a more glaring need, and less infield competition), landing back in Boston can only be considered a good thing for Drew. Sure, he probably could have gone to the Mets, but their stinky offense and the Wilpon Quagmire of Financial Despair (H/T to Jonah Keri) would likely have ensured a less than happy tenure in Queens. He won’t be anything special for the Sox, but in need of some stable production, he’ll fill a role nicely – the same attitude with which he should be approached in terms of fantasy pick-ups. He’ll be a stable middle infielder, a low-upside, high-basement type, perfect for a team ravaged by injury or simply short of middle infield depth. Just don’t expect Drew to be a savior, both in reality or fantasy.
– Jose Abreu on the other hand, woah boy. This fellow’s return might be make-or-break for your fantasy squad. After two weeks on the disabled list and a couple of simulated games at U.S. Cellular Field, the Cuban slugger, who even after being out since May 18th still led the White Sox in home runs (15) and RBIs (42), was activated in time for the start of a three-game set against L.A. at Dodger Stadium. With no DH hole to be stashed in, Abreu jumped right back into the thick of things playing first base, and picked up where he left off at the plate, muscling out a two-run shot off of Clayton Kershaw in his second at-bat, Chicago’s only runs of the game. And this was after being struck in the chest by an overthrown ball while stretching during pre game warm-ups! The Sox have been treading water without him, but with the AL player of the month for April back in the mix, they could yet put a run together in the disastrous AL Central for second-place behind Detroit. He should immediately be back in fantasy starting lineups too, though it will be worth paying attention to whether he perhaps gets a day of rest from playing the field at some point in this interleague series.
– Elsewhere, Josh Hamilton is slated to make his return to the Angels lineup today in a game against the Astros, in which first base prospect and recent contract signee Jon Singleton will also be making his debut for Houston. Hamilton has been out since April 9 with a torn ligament in his left thumb having (rather rashly) slid into first base headfirst, but was hitting .444 with two home runs in the tiny sample size prior. His return will likely spell trouble for the 42-year-old Raul Ibanez, who has been god-awful in 2014, though I’d be concerned if you were starting him in your league anyway. Hamilton should probably reside on your bench for at least a couple of days while you evaluate his return; thumb injuries can be tricky, and Hamilton is prone to streaks even when fully healthy. Resting him is probably the safe play, unless you don’t have any other viable outfield options. Of course, slotting Mike Trout straight back in after he missed Sunday’s game with back stiffness is a no-brainer.
– Stay away from Yordano Ventura though! After a disastrous May 26th outing in which his velocity noticeably dropped and he was forced to exit in the third inning, the 23-year-old flamethrower dodged the Tommy John bullet and was instead diagnosed with “lateral elbow discomfort.” After successfully completing a bullpen session, Ventura will be thrown back in on Thursday to face the Cardinals in the Battle For Missouri. In addition to his prior inconsistency, not only do I dislike the match-up, but I’m worried about Ventura’s long-term outlook; elbow injuries don’t normally solve themselves this quickly, especially ones which cause such an appreciable velo decline. Though he’s officially returning, don’t be surprised if Ventura heads straight back to the trainer’s room in a month or so.
– Aramis Ramirez is back in the Milwaukee lineup tomorrow after sustaining a strained left hamstring on May 13. He’ll be able to DH too, given how the Brewers are visiting Target Field for an interleague series. A notorious slow starter, Ramirez should be a more than viable third base option the rest of the way should he avoid re-aggravating that hammy… Andrew Cashner, after an elbow scare, is scheduled to rejoin the Padres’ rotation on Saturday against the Nationals. Unless you’re in absolute need of gaining ground over the weekend however, it’s probably best to let this one play out with the hard-throwing righty on your bench however… Ryan Zimmerman should be appropriately settled back in to the Washington lineup by then – the 29-year-old has been cleared to return on Tuesday after breaking his thumb on April 12th. Where he’ll play however, remains intriguing; the right-hander has been playing left field during his rehab stint at Potomac, so Ryan Zimmerman: ML Outfielder might be a thing now… In obligatory Reds news, Joey Votto (quadriceps) is nearing a rehab assignment, and Mat Latos threw 4 2/3 scoreless innings in his latest Triple-A start. He should be back next week.
By the metrics, Jeff Samardzija has been one of the best pitchers in all of baseball this year. After Johnny Cueto gave up six earned runs in his Tuesday start, the ‘Shark’ leads all qualified starters in ERA with a mark of 1.46. Through his 68 innings pitched, the 29-year-old has an obscene ERA+ number of 266, a figure 68 points better than his nearest competition (Mark Buehrle, if you were wondering). He’s tied for first with Cueto in pitcher WAR, both NL Central righties holding a 2.7 value above replacement. Though his strikeout rate is at its lowest since he became a full-time starter back in 2012 (7.1 K/9 in 2014, compared to a 9.1 average the prior two seasons), he is walking fewer batters (2.8 BB/9 in contrast to 3.1), and inducing more ground balls then ever before (after a 0.90 GB/FB ratio in 2012/3, Samardzija is currently inducing grounders at a 51.6% clip – good for a 1.06 ratio). Never before has Jeff Samardzija been as good as he is now.
And yet after 10 starts, as good as he has been, Samardzija still has a big fat zero in the win column.
In the grand scheme of things, the fact that the Cubs have gone 1-9 in games he has started this year, doesn’t especially matter anymore; it seems most people associated with the sport have recognized that wins are driven by run support, good defense, and a solid bullpen. It’s now not completely unusual for stud pitchers to endure wonky looking seasons by record – just ask Cliff Lee (6 wins in 2012), or Cole Hamels (8 wins last year). Samardzija’s brilliance this year in fact, has perhaps only been shoved further into the spotlight by the fact that his team can’t muster up any support for him; nuggets like this, “Going back to last year, Samardzija has now gone 13 consecutive starts allowing two or fewer earned runs. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, that’s the second-longest streak since the league started compiling earned runs in 1913,” via Jesse Rogers of ESPNChicago.com, and this from Ted berg of usatoday.com, “Samardzija became the first pitcher in the live-ball era — and one of only two since 1917 — to open a season with seven straight starts of at least five innings with fewer than three earned runs and record no wins in the process,” have ensured Samardzija’s infamous dominance has gone down in lore.
The Indiana native’s 0-4 record doesn’t seem to be hurting his trade value either. After being unable to come to an agreement with the team in regards to a long term contract this past offseason, articles linking Samardzija with trades to the Rockies, Blue Jays, Marlins, and of course the Yankees, have been abundant. Former Cub Matt Garza added fuel to the fire too, when he advised Samardzija to “pitch your way out of there.”
So why then, do standard fantasy leagues place so much value on the win ‘statistic’? Despite his high standing in all of the aforementioned metrics, Samardzija’s excellence lands him… 31st among pitchers on the ESPN Player Rater? While his closest comparisons in terms of underlying stats – Cueto and Adam Wainwright – rank first and second respectively, Chicago’s ace finds himself in the same fantasy realm as Aaron Harang, who is about to turn back into a pumpkin. Heck, he’s only six spots and .20 ahead of Giants reliever Jean Machi, who has somehow walked his way into five wins already this season. The importance attributed to the win category is quite frankly, baffling.
Now I’m not advocating the win be erased from baseball altogether – like with the inherently unreliable RBI statistic as a harbinger of offensive excellence, if the win were to be erased fans of records would most likely march on Cooperstown and riot. But seriously, can it be done away with in fantasy leagues at least? Use another category, quality starts for instance – of which Samardzija has 8 already – when it comes to rewarding quality starting pitching. Every year otherwise, there will be another unlucky Lee, Hamels, or Samardzija type, plugging away on a crappy team while some fluke soft-tosser, or God forbid, a reliever, steals in a few wins and jumps ahead of them in value. I don’t even own Samardzija and am infuriated by the prospect of such an outcome occurring!
Next year then, do away with the win. Jeff Samardzija might be racking them up on another team by then, but some ace out there will be getting shafted. Make sure you aren’t going to be stuck owning their misfortune.
I am a daily listener to ESPN’s Fantasy Focus Baseball podcast. Along with the B.S. Report, Freakonomics Radio, and good ol’ Kanye West, it’s my regular soundtrack at the rec center while I rehab my knee. Too much information about me, you’re not here for that – anyhow, the point is, that a standard segment of the FFB podcast involves Eric Karabell and Tristan Cockcroft playing what’s fondly known as America’s Favorite Game – ‘Bona fide, or Bonifacio’ (Olé!). Though it’s been a tad confused this season by a change in show hosts, the premise is basically thus; Player X gets off to an unexpectedly hot start. If Eric and Tristan believe his performance is legitimate, i.e. something has clicked, he’s going to enjoy a breakout, this is not just a fluke – Player X is bona fide. If they believe his play will regress on the other hand, or just generally don’t believe for some other reason (injury, opportunity etc.) – Player X is Bonifacio*.
Which (finally) brings me to Melky Cabrera.
Heading into 2014, there was little certainty surrounding Cabrera. After being a .280/.360/.391 hitter, and 2.7 WAR player in his first full season as a Yankee in 2006, he mixed underwhelming performance with injury for the next four years (3 of which he spent in New York, the other as an Atlanta Brave), accumulating just 1.8 WAR along the way. Suddenly though, in 2011 the Melk-man was good again; with the Kansas City Royals that year, the Dominican Republic native appeared in 155 games and hit .305/.339/.470, good for a 4.1 WAR value. Things would start even better the next year, this time in San Francisco. Cabrera would rake .346/.390/.516, win the All-Star MVP trophy, and garner 4.6 WAR before his season was abruptly ended after just 113 games. The reason for his shortened campaign – a 50-game PED suspension (and hilariously awful attempt to mask it with a fake website).
Left off of the Giants’ 2012 World Series team, Melky was controversially awarded a two-year, $16 million contract by a Toronto Blue Jays organization desperately hoping to rebound from a woeful 73-89 season (he signed just a week after the Jays pulled off the blockbuster trade with Miami that netted them Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, and the then-valuable Josh Johnson). A putrid season followed, during which Cabrera played just 88 games, hit .279/.322/.360, and was a disaster defensively. His struggles were further amplified by a raging narrative – off the juice, Melky was nothing but an average ballplayer.
Subsequently, little was expected of 29-year-old both in terms of on-field and fantasy value this year; even with a spot in the Jays outfield alongside Colby Rasmus and Jose Bautista pretty much guaranteed, as put by Chris Cwik of Fangraphs way back in February, “Unless Cabrera gets back to hitting for ridiculous averages, or rediscovers his power, he’s nothing more than a late-round flyer at a deep position.” Well, as it turns out, the leftie so far has hit for ridiculous average, .338 in fact. He has rediscovered his power, having hit 6 home runs already. That “late-round flyer at a deep position” is currently the 22nd ranked player in all of fantasy baseball per ESPN’s Player Rater. His 7.98 rating makes him the 8th best outfielder, and is tied with Mike Trout. By all measures, he’s been excellent for the Jays thus far, and a big part of the team’s early offensive success.**
Given his history however – the fluctuating performance, the drug suspension, the injuries – in combination with the small sample size, it seems more than fair to ask the question – is Melky Cabrera bona fide, or Bonifacio?
I’m inclined to lean bona fide, and mainly because of one factor: his health. Lost in the gruesome horror show that was the Blue Jays’ injury-marred 2014, Cabrera had perhaps the most serious ailment of all. As first written by Mike Petriello, “In Cabrera’s case, he didn’t injure a shoulder or a knee or a foot. He had a tumor in his back, and as unbelievable as it seems to say, somehow that seemed to fly completely under the radar.” Doctors legitimately wondered how he had been able to play at all, let alone appear in 88 games, and the subsequent coverage of his recovery illustrated just how affected Cabrera was. Robbed of all power in his lower half, Cabrera was not only a stiff in the field, but at the dish. Just look how painfully inflexible Cabrera looks batting here:
Ouch. Now compare that to a cut from earlier this season:
That’s Masahiro Tanaka pitching there, and that’s also a home run.
The difference in Cabrera’s approach when healthy is remarkable then. Able to turn on and drive the ball once again, it looks like he’s back in his 2011/2 form – and at just 29, is feasibly at his peak. Now, the power will almost certainly regress – his current HR/FB rate of 17.6 % is far above his career average of 7.3% – but thanks to his quick start, he’ll likely end up with around 16 (his previous career high is 18). His ability to hit for average however, isn’t going anywhere. Though he has a BABIP of .372, Cabrera is roping line drives 24.4 % of the time he puts the ball in play, and popping up just 5.9% of the time – good signs that he’ll be able to maintain such a high BABIP. Additionally, he’s done it before, back in 2012, when he had a .379 mark. Even with such an abbreviated season, that year Melky finished 15th among all outfielders on the Player Rater.
All of which is to say, that yes, you should believe. With an average draft position of 220.5, Cabrera looks set to become one of the biggest steals of the 2014 fantasy season, and will also present a conundrum for the Jays this offseason. In the last year of that original two-year pact, Cabrera’s current output is steadily increasing his winter price tag. He’ll be 30 then, and as detailed, not without baggage. His 2014 though, will have been bona fide.
* eponymously named after Emilio Bonifacio years ago after previous hosts Matthew Berry and Nate Ravitz first debated the legitimacy of his April showing.
** Though the Jays stand fourth in the AL East at 16-17, they are only 1.5 games back for the division lead, and are the only team with a positive run differential (+4).
We’re three-plus weeks into the Fantasy Baseball season, and aside from Alexei Ramirez, Charlie Blackmon, and Chris Colabello, no one, it seems, is hitting. Fine, that’s a tad of an overstatement – but perusing the ESPN Player Rater in search of some trade targets, I couldn’t help but notice the abundance of highly-thought-of first basemen who are s-t-ruggling so far in 2014. Given their propensity, darn near every owner must currently have a flailing first bagger – the question is, should they be panicking, or remaining patient?
It’s probably best to address the elephant in the room first; Miguel Cabrera – who if not first overall, was drafted only behind Mike Trout – is currently 376th on the Player Rater, the closest hitter to him thus far being… Lonnie Chisenhall?! After inking his mammoth extension with Detroit, the 31-year-old has scuffled his way to a .235-4-2-10-0 fantasy line and struggled to make hard contact consistently; as Tristan Cockcroft pointed out in an excellent piece yesterday, Cabrera’s .159 well-hit average falls well below the average .307 mark he hit during 2011-13. Furthermore, there are concerns over the lingering effects of offseason core surgery – the Venezuela native last week admitting he’s still working towards full strength. Miggy owners shouldn’t push the panic button on their high-price investment yet however; Cabrera did yesterday produce his first game with two extra-base hits (and just his third multi-hit game of the season), hinting that he might return to his planet-eating, healthy self soon. Furthermore, he has experienced slumps before – in the same article, Cockcroft cited a 16-game stretch in 2012 (y’know, when he won the Triple Crown), during which he scraped a 219/.296/.406 line, mostly thanks to some horrible peripheral stats (.266 WHAV, 22.8 Miss%, 59.3 GB%). His slow start is almost certainly just a momentary blip in his excellency, and definitely has nothing to do with a lack of ‘lineup protection’ now that Prince Fielder has been sent packing.
Speaking of which… I’m guessing the Rangers are searching for the receipt on that one. Acquired in exchange for Ian Kinsler, the hefty Fielder has got off to a uninspired start in Texas, barely hitting above the Mendoza line after typically being drafted just outside the first round (13.1 ADP). More than simply his .208 average though, despite being known for his tremendous power and the move to the home run-friendly Globe Life Park in Arlington, the first baseman has so far only hit two long balls. He has shown some recent signs of awakening (he’s now 8-for-26 over his last eight games, with two home runs, three doubles and eight walks), but the decline in his numbers seen during the last couple of years are looking more and more than simply an aberration, and likely the beginning of an ungraceful fall. Throw the injury-ravaged Texas lineup into the equation too, which may well limit his counting stats, and Fielder owners are likely to be underwhelmed this season. Not that too many other slugging 1B out there are faring too well either…
Drafted just ahead of Fielder (11.1 ADP), Toronto 1B/DH Edwin Encarnacion has similarly struggled out the gate – ranking 28oth on the Player Rater after finally hitting his first home run of the season against the Orioles yesterday. Though offseason surgery on his left wrist can’t yet be completely ruled out in factoring into his struggles, Encarnacion’s early-season impatience is likely at the heart of his problems; by his recent standards (10% in 2013, 14.5% and 14.6% the two years prior), he has unusually high K% (22.9) so far, suggesting that it’s his pitch selectivity undermining his production rather than any issues with the wrist. Given his consistency over the past couple of years, I’d expect to see him circling the bases (parrot and all) more frequently in the imminent future.
The same optimistic outlook can’t be applied to Billy Butler. After finishing just 152nd on the Player Rater in 2013*, the 28-year-old has continued to underwhelm fantasy owners who perhaps thought he was a buy-low candidate entering 2014 – currently sitting at 567 on the Player Rater. Not only has Butler failed to hit for average (.217), but his power seems to have evaporated; from its .197 peak in 2012, Butler’s ISO mark fell to .124 last year, and is a paltry .029 (!) so far in 2014. Billy Hamilton, for comparison’s sake, has a mark of .058, twice as high as Butler. The loss of power is only part of a worrying trend in peripherals for Butler however; always a groundball guy (he has a career rate of 48.4%), Butler has taken his worm-burning to a ridiculous level thus far in 2014, hitting grounders at a 63.2% clip (as David Temple proposed on Fangraphs, a swing change might be to blame). Not too drastic a problem if you’re the aforementioned speedy Hamilton, who stands a fair chance at gaining routine infield singles, but at 6-1, 240lbs, a significant one for the plodding Butler. Now at 72.3% ownership, Butler has been one of the most dropped players in leagues thus far; if you’re not one of the growing number already, join the bandwagon and cut Butler.
Continuing the trend of light-hitting Royals – which isn’t very specific, continuing the whole team is making Dee Gordon look like Barry Bonds in terms of power at the moment – Eric Hosmer has unfortunately failed to continue the power surge he exhibited at the end of the 2013 season. There’s no problem with his average (.311), but his blank in the home run column and lack of counting stats (S/O to the anemic Kansas City offense!) have Hosmer languishing at 351st on the Player Rater (only 2 spots ahead of B.J Upton!) after achieving an ADP of 52.7. He’s still not doing quite as badly as Allen Craig though, who after roping line drives instead of homers through most of 2013, has continued the same approach in 2014 – except minus all the line drives. Drafted just six spots after Hosmer (58.5 ADP), the oft-injured Cardinal has just one jack and a horrid .184 average three weeks in. Given his spot in the potent St. Louis lineup however, he probably stands a better shot than Hosmer at accruing some solid counting stats by the end of the year; without any health problems reported, and no trade value, Craig is worth hanging with and waiting on for his bat to heat up.
God only knows my team could do with Craig doing so. And don’t get me started on his fellow 1B-eligible struggler, Carlos Santana (I own him and his 136 BA on 2 teams). It can’t be just me feeling aggrieved however; what with all the high-profile names mentioned, if you’re getting production from your first baseman (hello to all the surprised Albert Pujols owners out there), you’re one of a lucky few.
* I’m assuming the fact that his DH-only eligibility contributed more to his 2014 ADP of 121.5 than his disappointing performance the previous year.
A hot topic ever since his one-man assault on Kyle Kendrick and the boo-birds of Philadelphia just over a week ago, what to expect from Ryan Braun in 2014 is a true quandary for the fantasy baseball community, and one which shows no signs of being answered soon. The volatile combination of sensational past performance, a lingering injury, and his return from a 65-game PED suspension that ended his 2013 have all contributed to make the 30-year-old Braun one of the most intriguing names out there in fantasy circles this year – and an absolutely infuriating player to own (I should know – more on that later). Consider this then, frustrated owners, your Braun-primer, recapping what there is to know about Braun’s current situation, and (hopefully) helping in answering that nagging question; just what the heck do you do with Ryan Braun?!
Let’s start with some history. Pre-2013 – whether artificially aided or not – Braun was one of the most dependable first-round selections around, averaging a .312-34-109-22-105 line in his first full five seasons in the majors (2008-12), twice securing a top-3 finish on ESPN’s Player Rater. Furthermore, he played 150 games or more in every one of those five seasons – a necessary component to being a true fantasy stud.
2013 however, drastically altered the perception of Braun (in more ways than one); a thumb injury landed him on the DL for the first time in his career, and would eventually cost him 38 of the first 97 games of the Brewers’ season. Then came the unexpected hammer blow to owners everywhere – the season-ending suspension which ensured the righty slugger a final finish of 369th overall on the aforementioned Player Rater (89th among outfielders). Typically drafted third overall behind only Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera, there was perhaps no bigger bust than Braun (though the injury-plagued Matt Kemp and his 388th place Player Rater finish might have run him close).
The concerns over his thumb (and the presumably lost effect of the PEDs – a factor I personally never bought into*) led to his stock dropping over the winter, with many critics doubting his previously unparalleled combination of hit-for-average, hit-for-power and base-stealing ability to still be fully present. A solid spring (he launched three home runs and had a .806 slugging percentage in 16 Cactus League games), eased doubt though, the Hebrew Hammer eventually securing an average draft position of 15.3 – his ADP only .1 behind 5th-ranked outfielder Adam Jones, and considerably higher than the previously mentioned Kemp (72.0).
Which brings us to the present. Milwaukee’s no.3 hitter is currently rocking a .269-3-10-2-9 line, good for a 6.43 value and 25th place ranking on the early Player Rater; no great shakes then, the consensus second-rounder performing slightly below expected, but superficially at least (and especially when considering how young the season is – Alexei Ramirez, Dee Gordon, and Charlie Blackmon are ranked in the top 5 two weeks in) far from a disaster. The real trouble though – and the cause of the Braun dilemma – comes when you look beyond the simple 5×5 stats.
According to MLB.com’s Adam McCalvy, the same thumb injury that so affected his pre-suspension playing time last year (numbness in the thumb that affects his grip and in turn leads to blisters), is back. The different tactics employed by Braun and the Brewers’ medical staff (per the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, padding on the bat or in his batting glove), haven’t apparently worked; his trouble not just swinging the bat effectively, but throwing the ball without issue had already kept him out of one game before it was earlier announced he would be rested for today’s tilt against the Cardinals. Throw in his slow start to0 – aside from that Philadelphia game, the Milwaukee man’s fantasy line would be just .234-0-3-2-6 – and there are very legitimate reasons for Braun owners to be worried about their investment.
Now if it weren’t for the thumb, I wouldn’t be so worried about Braun’s slow start – we’re two weeks in remember, and with a potent Milwaukee offense around him (Carlos Gomez and Jonathan Lucroy have been particularly great so far) the counting stats would almost certainly come around. But the lingering effect of that ailment, aside from likely cutting into his offensive output, will almost certainly also effect the newly-converted left fielder’s playing time – much like in 2013 – and thus dent his overall production. What with his problem sounding like a classic sort of daily-maintenance and eventual surgery injury too, the occasional off days, designated-hitter games, and likely DL stint will make Braun a fantasy nightmare for those in weekly leagues, and someone whose everyday availability will require constant surveillance in daily leagues.
It’s unclear then, whether Braun is worth the hassle. On the one hand, he might find a solid management option, play most-everyday, and provide tremendous statistical worth. More likely, at least in my opinion – I traded Braun in one of my leagues this week – he’ll be in and out of the lineup, and provide merely above-average value on a per-game basis. That’s not bad by any means, but not what you paid for, and a real pain in the proverbial. I would suggest then, that if there’s any residual buzz in your league left to be exploited from that Philly outing, you swing him – but for no less than 70 cents on the dollar.
80% of Braun is still valuable after all, no matter how frustrating he is. But if you still can, let someone else ponder that annoying fantasy thought every morning: ‘I wonder what I’ll get out of Ryan Braun today…’
*I’m no doctor, but I doubt the PEDs had much actual impact on his on-field performance, ie. I find it hard to believe Braun is actually a 15 HR guy who was merely masquerading as a power hitter. More likely, the drugs allowed him to recover quicker from the niggling injuries he naturally picked up over the long 162 game season, and possibly allowed him to push through a couple of games when he would have otherwise been unable to play. Again though, I’m no doctor – just a humble English literature student.
With the (non-Australia games) regular season just a couple of days away, the last thing a team needs now is an injury to a key contributor. Tommy John surgery knock out two of your starters? An inconvenience sure, but if it happens fairly early on in Spring Training you still have time to stretch out a bullpen arm, or go out and bring in a free agent alternative like Ervin Santana. It’s when the injuries hit late that they really become a problem – see how Detroit has handled the Jose Iglesias situation, hastily trading away the newly acquired Steve Lombardozzi for Alex Gonzalez, a 37-year-old who was on the scrapheap less than two months ago.
The poor Texas Rangers have been particularly besmirched by injuries so far this spring, projected starters going down one after another. First it was starting pitchers Derek Holland and Matt Harrison, pushing up Tanner Scheppers and Joe Saunders into the starting rotation (Scheppers is now due to become the first pitcher since Fernando Valenzuela to make his first career start on Opening Day by the way). Then it was Jurickson Profar – a lot more on him in a bit. Next up (down?) was catcher Geovany Soto, who will be out for 10 to 12 weeks with a torn meniscus in his right knee, leaving J.P. Arencibia – he of the .227 OBP in 497 PAs last year – as the regular backstop. Starting shortstop Elvis Andrus is still experiencing soreness in his shoulder and elbow after not throwing this offseason, making his presence against Philadelphia next Monday unlikely. And if that weren’t enough, Yu Darvish has now too caught the injury bug, his stiff neck also preventing him from making the Opening Day start.
If you weren’t counting, that’s six guys out, all of whom would normally be heavily relied upon by Texas. Of course, if you’re not a Rangers fan you might be a little bummed, but probably don’t especially care; their loss might well have helped your squad’s chances after all. You might only be concerned if you were to own one of the downed half-dozen on your fantasy team. Returning to my original point, when a player gets injured early, it’s manageable; the same applies in fantasy. You simply avoid Cole Hamels and his sore shoulder on draft day, or pick up Hisashi Iwakuma a few rounds later than normal on account of his hurt finger. It’s once you’ve drafted when you have a problem, especially if your disabled starter happens to be a middle infielder. Enter the aforementioned Profar.
Currently being selected 12th among second basemen per ESPN’s live draft results (and 24th among middle infielders, marginally behind Andrelton Simmons), a tear to the teres major muscle in his right shoulder, though not requiring surgery, will keep Profar off the field for 10-12 weeks – approximately half of your fantasy season. Let’s be clear, Profar wasn’t expected to be a fantasy stud in 2014 – ESPN’s 5×5 projection of 49/8/35/10/.269 proves as much – but his ceiling to potentially be among the 10 best middle infielders meant he was being drafted as a starter in standard leagues. Guaranteed playing time at second base thanks to the Rangers trading away Ian Kinsler during the winter, many owners were banking on an improvement from the part-time line (.234, six homers and 26 RBIs) the 21-year-old top prospect put up as a utility middle infielder last year; now though, they’ll have to hit the waiver wire in search of a replacement.
All well and good, but middle infield gets very thin, very quickly, meaning viable replacements are extremely hard to come by, let alone plug ins with any huge upside. Among second basemen, 20th ranked Anthony Rendon would represent the best replacement option, at least if you’re in one of the 28.1% of leagues where he isn’t already rostered; playing everyday in what could be a fairly potent Nationals lineup, the righty should at least accrue decent enough counting stats, and possesses the tools to hit for a plus average with middling pop. More likely available, the likes of Neil Walker (26.4% owned) and Omar Infante (17.%) both qualify for the category of less sexy stand-ins, but are at least somewhat dependable. Both veteran keystoners will, barring injury, play everyday for Pittsburgh and Kansas City respectively, and most likely rack up 50-60 Rs and RBIs apiece, with Walker offering more power and Infante a better average. Neither will contribute in terms of stolen bases, but project to be solid contributors, if below average in comparison to the rest of your league. Dustin Ackley, at only 11.1 owned, would perhaps represent the alternative with the highest ceiling – the much-maligned left-hander hit .304/.374/.435 after the All-Star break last year, and after a strong Spring Training showing, should be playing left field (but with 2B fantasy eligibility left over from last year) everyday for the Mariners this season. His likely spot in the lineup however, will limit his capability to put up above-average counting numbers, and with marginal speed, his value will hinge upon his ability to hit for power and average.
If you’ve the middle infield spot available, picking up a shortstop might actually be the better way to go. Even coming off his PED suspension in 2013, Jhonny Peralta would be a nice play if he’s available; the Dominican Republic native put up a 50/11/55/3/.303 fantasy line last year in just 107 games played in 2013, and despite his winter move away from the great offense of Detroit, St. Louis will provide ample opportunity to continue such production, meaning those 2013 rates aren’t at any real risk of decline (though his batting average will almost undoubtedly regress somewhat.) Somehow, Peralta is still only 63.8% owned, and being drafted behind Asdrubal Cabrera, Derek Jeter, and Jimmy Rollins, all of whom seem (in my opinion at least) bound to provide less fantasy production in 2014, and are being drafted on name-value alone. Right behind Peralta in the SS rankings at 18th, Brad Miller is much more likely to be available (20.5%), and having beaten out Nick Franklin for the Seattle job, has a good shot to improve on his promising 2013 debut, in which he displayed a serviceable little combination of power and speed. Given full-time duty, Miller might give you a combined 25 HRs and steals over the season, but like Ackley, might struggle for the more traditional counting stats in a questionable Mariners lineup. Other functional substitutes (ie. players locked in to playing time in an at least average offense) include the Rays’ Yunel Escobar and Cincinnati SS Zack Cozart – though neither have much capacity to provide surprise output.
As put by Brett Talley on Fangraphs “The list of candidates to replace Profar is fairly long and uninspiring at this point.” There are options out there though, albeit boring ones. Just remember, while less attractive names such as Walker or Infante won’t win you your league, they’ll keep you afloat in the interim – either before Profar returns, or you can swing a trade.
It’s an annual tradition at this point. With two weeks of Spring Training in the books, the exciting young prospects are mostly cut, the superstars are going through the motions, and most everyone just wants the regular season to get underway. With little else to focus on then, the number of stories focusing on potential breakout performers increases exponentially, most of which are based off a ridiculously impressive, but ridiculously small sample size of Spring Training statistics. Yesterday, I added to that already large number, looking at the hot starts of Mike Moustakas and Tommy Medica in addition to the battle for Colorado’s final outfield slot. Today, I continue on with some more of Spring Training’s offensive leaders, and whether anything meaningful can be gathered from their performances so far.
The No. 2 overall pick from the 2009 MLB draft, Dustin Ackley has thoroughly disappointed in his brief tenure with the Seattle Mariners. After posting a combined .669 OPS at the dish while also failing to stick defensively at either second base or center field during his first three years with the team, Ackley will be starting in left for the Mariners in 2014, pretty much by default (S/O to Seattle GM Jack Zduriencik on his outfield construction). Much like Mike Moustakas, the lefty’s status as a regular figures to be in serious jeopardy should he again fail to hit, especially so given Seattle’s soon-to-be deep pockets could presumably quickly source an alternative. His strong .441/.472/.735 Spring Training line though, rather than a fluky aberration from a busted prospect, might actually have some real significance in regard to Ackley’s long-term future with the club.
After batting just .205, Ackley was demoted to Triple-A Tacoma in May last year in order to re-work his swing and learn how to play the outfield again. With the Rainiers, the former top prospect not only raked .365 in 25 games, but apparently got his mindset right again – an epiphany he credited to Raul Ibanez’s book recommendation. Upon his return to the Majors after the All-Star Break, the 26-year old hit .304/.374/.435 in 53 games, looking just as comfortable as in his 2011 rookie season, after which stardom was expected. His numbers so far this spring then, though admittedly a small sample size, might be seen to indicate that the oft-maligned North Carolina product has legitimately turned a corner in his development, and is ready to contribute in a meaningful way this season.
The organization’s first round pick in 2009, A.J. Pollock began 2013 behind Adam Eaton on the Diamondback’s depth chart, but quickly assumed the starting role when Eaton’s troublesome elbow held him out of action. In 131 games, Pollock proved himself to be a roughly league average hitter, but a tremendous defender – ranking fourth in the NL in Fangraphs UZR and UZR/150 fielding ratings. He was so impressive in fact, that Eaton was traded away (at his lowest value – S/O to Kevin Towers) this past offseason, leaving the 26-year old Pollock Arizona’s center field job all to himself.
Rather than being content in his new role, Pollock so far seems out to prove that Towers made the right decision in keeping him over Eaton. His Spring Training stat line – .417/.475/.778 – though a small sample size, certainly would suggest that the former No. 6 prospect of the D’Back’s system is ready to bust out from his under the radar status. After all, it’s hardly unexpected for 26-year olds to suddenly make the leap – so his spring showing can’t be taken with the usual pinch of salt. If his bat ever comes close to matching his glove, Arizona might have a future star on their hands in Pollock. He’s making a valiant case for such a designation anyway.
As a brief aside, fellow Spring Training batting champion contenders Marwin Gonzalez (.462/.442/.654, 26 ABs), Matt Long (.455/.486/.667, 33 ABs), and Rajai Davis (.393/.469/.500, 28 ABs), are all undoubtedly doing it with smoke and mirror shows at the moment. Davis though, with Andy Dirks sidelined to begin the year, will be Detroit’s Opening Day left fielder, and a fantasy sleeper if there ever was one. If he can keep up some level of average production at the plate to go with his blazing speed on the basepaths and increased opportunity for counting stats in the potent Tigers lineup, he’ll be worth much more than a late-round selection by seasons end.
Acquired from Oakland last August in exchange for Alberto Callaspo, Grant Green hit .280 with a .720 OPS over 40 games down the stretch for the Los Angeles Angels, filling in more than capably for an injured Howie Kendrick at the keystone. That he had a BABIP of .391 in doing so however, made the winter speculation about Kendrick’s future with the club seem ridiculous. Green has so far posted another seemingly impressive .387/.364/.548 slash line this spring, but once again, the superficial numbers are undermined by poor peripherals; Green has yet to draw a walk against pitching judged 7.9 on the OppQual scale (for reference, a rating of 10 is ML level opposition, 8 is Triple-A), but has struck out 6 times. Green’s performance thus far is giving off all the signs of an impending regression should he face better pitching, and with better infield incumbents, it would be foolish for Los Angeles to talk themselves into Green as a more valuable asset than a utility infielder at the present moment.
After putting up a -7 DRS season at second base last year though, even that might be a stretch; his weak glove is an additional reason for Green not to receive time over Kendrick, Erick Aybar at short, or newly acquired David Freese at third base. A man without a position, and relying on inflated offensive stats then, Green’s status with the Angels is a troubling one. Still just 26, there’s still time for the USC product, but his immediate future will consist of bouncing between Triple-A and the Angels’ bench – especially if they’re intent on carrying an additional relief pitcher to back up their shaky rotation.
And so wraps up my weekend of looking at Spring Training’s early offensive leaders. I think we can all safely judge that early statistics are far from truly reliable in terms of indicating future performance, but sometimes, just occasionally, something meaningful can be taken from them. Either way, I’ll be glad when this time next week we’ll have a real regular season game to overreact to, and I can stop writing about mostly insignificant Grapefruit/Cactus League matchups. Bring on the season already!