Nationals Boost Their Pitching To The Max, And Other Trade News
The Nationals Sign Max Scherzer
The Nationals emerged from seemingly nowhere to execute the bold move that nobody else dared to, signing ace starting pitcher Max Scherzer to a seven-year deal reportedly worth in excess of $180 million dollars. If that unconfirmed figure is correct this will be a record-setting contract (latest is $210 deferred over 14 years). The signing of this deal gives the Nationals what is arguably the deepest starting rotation in Major League Baseball, and they instantly become the prohibitive favorite to win the National League East division with Max Scherzer on board.
Scherzer has been one of the top pitchers in the American League since the Diamondbacks traded him to the Detroit Tigers in 2010. Over the past five seasons, he’s compiled a record of 82-35 with a 3.52 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, and a strikeout rate of 9.6 K/9 IP. However, he’s been brilliantly dominant over the last two seasons with a record of 39-8, a 3.02 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and a strikeout rate of 10.2 K/9 IP. Plus, he won the Cy Young Award in 2013, was among the Top 5 vote getters for it in 2014 and was an All-Star in both seasons.
The move to the National League couldn’t come at a better time for Fantasy purposes, as he will very likely maintain, if not bolster, his strikeout rate with the more generous strike zone in the Senior Circuit. In the NL East, he will also be pitching to some of the weaker teams in the NL more often than not, as the Braves, Phillies and Mets are all in some stage of rebuilding as we enter 2015. Scherzer would have been a top pitcher if he had remained in the AL; his status only gets better in the NL. One need only look at teammate Doug Fister to see what the NL can do for a former AL pitcher. Scherzer should be picked somewhere among the Top 5 pitchers in drafts again this season, and he could battle with Clayton Kershaw for the mantle as the top pitcher in the NL this season.
One note about the Nationals that is worth mentioning here; on paper, at least, they may have the deepest starting rotation in baseball right now. However, there have been whispers that either Fister or Jordan Zimmermann could be traded from the team sometime before Spring Training opens. Both pitchers will be free agents after the 2015 season and the Nationals are thought to need to clear payroll to fit Scherzer into their budget for this season and beyond. Zimmermann makes the most sense since he is likely to have the higher value in the trade market. The latest word is that the Nationals want to keep Zimmermann and re-sign him but there are least nine teams that would have some interest in trading for him right now.
Trades Over The Past Week
In addition to this signing, the trade market continued to roll right along, with several moves taking place over the past week. The Braves continued their rebuilding process by sending C/OF Evan Gattis to the Houston Astros for three minor league prospects – RHP Mike Foltynewicz, 3B Rio Ruiz and RHP Andrew Thurman. Also, the Oakland A’s flipped SS Yunel Escobar, whom they acquired just 10 days ago from the Rays, to the Washington Nationals for RHP Tyler Clippard. Let’s examine the Fantasy implications and break down the deals and their impact.
If it wasn’t clear before, it should be now that the Astros envision themselves in “win now” mode. The acquisition of Evan Gattis brings another power bat to their lineup and adds to their core team of players for several years, as he will remain under team control for the next four years. He joins Jose Altuve, Jason Castro, Chris Carter and young stars George Springer and Jonathan Singleton to form the nucleus of a team that could contend for a playoff berth in 2015 if the Astros can cobble together a decent starting rotation.
Gattis was a man without a job in Atlanta despite the earlier trades that sent Jason Heyward and Justin Upton elsewhere. The signing of Nick Markakis and the continued presence of B.J. Upton (aka Atlanta’s albatross) left Gattis with left field as his only potential position. The catcher position is locked up with Christian Bethancourt and A.J. Pierzynski, and Freddie Freeman has a death grip on the first baseman’s job. Oddly enough, Gattis has a similar problem in Houston, but the left field job is wide open and his bat will play much better in Houston than it did in Atlanta. There is no question that Gattis has tremendous power; he’s hit 43 HRs in just 783 PA over two seasons. However, he strikes out quite often (24.7 percent K% in 2014) and doesn’t walk all that much (5.5 percent BB%). Still, he’s had a batting average of .253 over his two seasons, and there is nothing in his batting profiles that indicates a significant drop or change in batting average on the horizon. Given the hitter-friendly nature of Minute Maid Park and the fact that the Astros’ lineup around Gattis will be better than last year’s dismal Braves lineup, he should hit a few more dingers and see a nice little bump in overall production.
With Castro getting the majority of the starts behind the dish, plus C/1B Carlos Corporan and C Hank Conger also expected to be on the roster, Gattis may not catch often, if at all. Of course, that assumes the Astros are done shaping their team, and it’s quite possible they’re not done. Castro’s name has come up in trade rumors since the end of the 2014 season, although, the Astros are thought to be enamored with his bat despite the 50-point drop in batting average and general step in the wrong direction he took at the plate last season. Jonathan Singleton is thought to be the primary first baseman, so Gattis could lose two of the three positions he qualifies at for Fantasy purposes, but that won’t affect his value until 2016; we’ll just have to wait and see. Overall, Gattis is one of the few players that changed teams this winter, who is actually moving to a more favorable situation. His overall Fantasy ranking for 2015 should remain among the Top 10 catchers and just inside the overall Top 130 in mixed leagues.
The Braves continued tearing down and rebuilding their roster with the trade of Gattis, which comes on the heels of trades that sent Jason Heyward and Justin Upton packing as well. Of the three players they received from Houston, Mike Foltynewicz has to be considered the closest to Major League ready and the centerpiece of the deal. Foltynewicz is a hard-throwing right-hander, who has the pitch repertoire to be a starter. He can hit triple-digits with his fastball and regularly throws in the 96-97 mph range; he also throws a slider, a curve and a changeup, though his command of all four pitches is somewhat sketchy. He’s a classic high risk/high reward type of prospect at age 23. The Braves will hope he can get his command and control harnessed, but whether his future is as a starter or a reliever is an open question. Foltynewicz threw over 100 innings in Triple-A for the Astros last season, so that’s where he is likely to begin the 2015 season for the Braves. He could be in Atlanta’s bullpen before the season ends, so he’s worth keeping an eye on as the season progresses.
Rio Ruiz is a young third baseman, who has excellent plate skills and good control of the strike zone but he has yet to show any sort of appreciable power in his swing. At age 21, there is still plenty of time to see whether the power will come as he continues to grow into his body, but he could easily end up as a corner infielder with warning track power. The Braves will probably start him in either High-A or Double-A ball in 2015; he’s still several years away from making an impact at the Major League level. Andrew Thurman is a 23-year-old right-hander with decent stuff but command issues. He isn’t as developed as Foltynewicz and is slated to spend 2014 in A-ball somewhere. Thurman is a throw-in in this deal, as he is the farthest from a sure thing among the three players. Fantasy owners can safely ignore him for the time being.
The acquisition of Yunel Escobar fills a dire need for the Nationals, who needed bolster their middle infield depth and get an upgrade at second base. Although Escobar is primarily a shortstop, the Nationals will likely slot him in at the keystone, keep Ian Desmond at shortstop and move Danny Espinosa into a utility role. Escobar doesn’t have much in the way of pop; the low double-digits are about the most you could hope for in terms of HR production. He doesn’t have any speed either; he’s never cracked double-digits in stolen bases in any season. As he’s aged (he’s 32 entering this season), his batting average has settled into the .250-.255 range and there is nothing in his peripherals to indicate that he’ll ever see the .280-.290 averages of his prime again. He doesn’t strike out much but he doesn’t walk much either, so he’s a BABIP reliant punchless hitter, with no power and little upside. Even so, since he’ll be hitting in a decent lineup, if he can get on base anywhere near the .350 OBP range (something he hasn’t done since 2011) he could produce some decent run totals. That’s about all the upside Escobar has. Whether or not you should draft him and hope he fulfills that upside is a whole different question. Personally, I don’t see Escobar cracking the Top 20 second basemen this season, even with the strong lineup around him.
Nobody really believed that Billy Beane wanted Yunel Escobar. After all, Escobar doesn’t look anything like a prototypical Beane ballplayer. He has poor on-base skills, no power and no speed to speak of, and his hustle and attitude have been questioned just about everywhere he’s played. So it wasn’t a surprise to see Beane flip Escobar to the Nationals. However, it was a surprise to see him get Tyler Clippard in return. After all, Clippard has been one of the top setup men in MLB over the past few seasons. Aside from six starts with the Yankees in 2007 and two starts with the Nationals in 2008, Clippard’s entire MLB record has been as a relief pitcher. All told, he’s pitched 491 innings with a 2.88 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and he’s struck out 27.6 percent of batters faced while only walking 10 percent. Clippard has pitched at least 70 innings in each of the past five seasons while maintaining some of the best peripherals among relievers. He has 147 Holds during the past five seasons, the most among all relievers with the next pitcher (Luke Gregerson) on the list having 20 fewer during that time period.
Clippard also has 37 saves during that time, and in fact, he could end up competing for that role with the A’s. Sean Doolittle was the closer for the A’s last season, but let’s not forget that he got the job after six other pitchers were given chances to nail it down. Doolittle may get the job right out of Spring Training, but you can bet he’ll be on a short leash, and Clippard will very likely be the next in line. So, Clippard will have value in Fantasy leagues that use Holds as a category and he’ll also be on several rosters for his strikeout ability and for those speculating for Saves. He won’t be among the Top 30 relievers but he’ll certain make the Top 35.
Deal Clears Rays MI Logjam, Makes A’s Roster Versatile
Billy Beane’s tenure as the GM of the A’s is dotted with examples of bold moves that usually include veteran players being traded away to load up on prospects. However, Beane has also shown that when he thinks there’s a chance for the A’s to make the postseason, he isn’t afraid to turn the tables and bring in veteran talent in exchange for some of his precious prospects. We saw this prior to last season’s trade deadline when he traded numerous young players to load up his starting rotation with veterans like Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammel and Jon Lester. This time, Beane surprised many folks by acquiring veteran middle infielders Ben Zobrist and Yunel Escobar from the Tampa Bay Rays for John Jaso and two young prospects – SS Daniel Robertson and OF Herschel Powell. This trade has a trickle-down effect on the Rays’ lineup and roster more so than anything else, but it’s also makes for some interesting changes for the A’s. So we’ll look at this from a team perspective rather than a player-centric perspective because the trade doesn’t affect the Fantasy value of the players involved all that much.
Zobrist figures to be the everyday second baseman for the A’s, but since he can play just about anywhere including shortstop, the outfield and third base if need be, you can expect to see him deployed wherever manager Bob Melvin needs him most. Another strong possibility, though, is that the A’s use him as their everyday left fielder and keep Marcus Semien in the lineup at second base. Semien struggled against right-handed pitching in 2014, but we are talking about a sample too small to draw any real conclusions about his abilities. When considering Semien in drafts this spring, keep in mind that Brett Lawrie can also play second base and Eric Sogard also figures to be in the mix. So it’s a bit of a mixed bag in the Oakland infield right now. That’s why Zobrist could end up in the outfield. Overall, his Fantasy value remains static; he’s a solid early middle round draft choice at second base as long as he remains eligible there. If he’s strictly an outfielder, which could be the case in 2016 assuming he stays in Oakland, his value takes a hit. He is a free agent at the end of the 2015 season, so a mid-season trade is possible if the A’s don’t contend, which only muddies the 2016 outlook further for Zobrist.
Yunel Escobar could end up as the everyday shortstop, although, his below-average fielding and hitting could mean that Melvin uses him off the bench instead of as a regular. However, if he hits anything like he did several years ago with the Blue Jays, Escobar could certainly play his way into the lineup on a regular basis. The numbers don’t indicate a renaissance for Escobar, who is 32 years old now, but all it would take is a little bump in his walk rate and a little BABIP luck to make him Fantasy-worthy at the thin SS position. Overall, Escobar remains a third or fourth tier SS, mainly because he provides so little in terms of power or speed.
The loss of John Jaso and Derek Norris (in a different deal) opens the door for a platoon at catcher with Stephen Vogt and Josh Phegley. Vogt had some surprisingly good value last season in a fairly strict platoon that deployed him almost exclusively against right-handed pitching. He managed a stout .279 batting average and hit nine home runs in 287 PA, making him a value play in deeper AL-only leagues. He should have similar value in 2015, assuming he can stay healthy, something that was a bit of a problem in 2014. Phegley also figures to have some value in two-catcher leagues and deeper AL-only play because of his raw power. He’s struggled to hit for average in the majors (.207 in 251 PA over parts of two seasons) but his 23 dingers in Triple-A last season are indicative of some potential for Fantasy goodness if he can smooth out his plate discipline issues a bit.
Tampa Bay Rays
The logjam that was the Rays’ middle infield is now gone, clearing the way for Asdrubal Cabrera to become their everyday shortstop. Cabrera clearly isn’t the power hitter he was thought to be, as his 25 HR season in 2011 remains an outlier among his statistics. There is reason to hope, though, that he can provide 15 HRs and 15 stolen bases as a shortstop with the Rays. However, he’s lost a good 30 points off his batting average over the last few seasons and there is little reason to think he can turn that around. Still, given the dearth of talented shortstops out there, Cabrera will hold solid value in AL-only play with a chance to be among the Top 15 in mixed leagues if he can regain any of that batting average at all.
The Rays have both Logan Forsythe and Nick Franklin on the roster as their potential second basemen. Franklin disappointed many during his time with the Mariners, during which he hit for decent power but struck out far too often and didn’t show the patience and skill at the plate that marked his time as a highly touted prospect in Seattle’s minor league system. Still, Franklin figures to be the better of the two if he can again show the skills he once had. Forsythe doesn’t have anywhere near Franklin’s power potential and he also struggles with batting average, which marks him as more of a utility player than anything else. This is a position battle to be watched closely in Spring Training, as Franklin can be considered a sleeper candidate at the keystone if he wins the job outright.
Where John Jaso fits in the Rays’ plans is a bit of a mystery. He could return to catching this season but the Rays seem to prefer pitch framing and defensive skill over offense from their men behind the dish. As part of an effective platoon, Jaso showed some very good hitting skills and even a little pop. However, he’s nobody’s idea of a power hitter, even for a platoon catcher. The Rays could also deploy him as part of a DH platoon or even in the outfield. However, Jaso is probably the fifth-best OF on the Rays’ roster at the moment, with youngsters like Stephen Souza and Kevin Kiermeyer probably ahead of him on the depth chart. So, where Jaso ends up playing and how much will probably depend on how much Kiermeyer and Souza hit during the spring and early part of the season. Brandon Guyer also figures to be in the mix for both outfield and as the DH, and to crowd things even further, David DeJesus is also still present. Overall, we just won’t know how valuable Jaso will be or even where he’ll play until things shake out during the preseason.
A Thin Market For Available Closers
As the countdown to Spring Training winds down towards the final weeks, one of the few positions that are nearly set for a majority of teams is the closer spot. While there are still quite a few relievers with closing experience still available in free agency, there are really only four teams with closer issues that are likely to be in the market for a front line fireman. Of course, most teams are still looking for relief help, or at least bullpen depth, so many of the remaining free agents are likely to get some sort of offer to come to spring training to compete for a roster spot. However, very few, if any of them, are in the mix to be signed and handed the ninth inning duties right away. Let’s examine the four teams that should be looking to sign a closer and see what might be available to them in-house.
The Rangers’ bullpen allowed the second-most runs per game in the AL (4.77 R/Gm), only the Minnesota Twins were worse (4.80 R/Gm). The Rangers also offered the fewest save opportunities (47) but had the fewest blown saves (14) in the AL. They currently have three pitchers on the roster with closer potential.
Neftali Feliz had a roller coaster of a season in 2014. He began the year in Triple-A, where he continued his rehab from the Tommy John surgery he had in 2013. Feliz pitched fairly well there, all things considered, but he hardly had the same type of stuff that previously blew hitters away. Over 28.2 IP, he saved seven games and pitched to a 3.14 ERA with a very telling 4.90 FIP. Overall, he struggled with his command and coughed up six HRs, not a good thing for a closer. His record once promoted to the major leagues was much the same. His ERA was a good looking 1.99, but his 4.90 FIP once again reflected trouble with his command and problems with the long ball. He would eventually find a groove over his final 11.1 IP, in which he didn’t allow a run and seemed to get his command and control back. He enters 2015 as the current in-house favorite to close games.
Tanner Scheppers had an injury-plagued campaign in 2014 marked by elbow inflammation that limited him to just 28 innings pitched between the minors and majors. He didn’t look good at all during his limited run with the Rangers in 2014, as his 9.00 ERA, 6.65 K/9 and 3.91 BB/9 will attest. If he can come back healthy and regain his lost stuff, he could regain his status as the closer of the future for the Rangers. But that’s a lot of “ifs,” so I wouldn’t get too excited on Scheppers until we see what he looks like this spring.
Kyuji Fujikawa briefly held the closer’s job for the Cubs in 2013, but just 12 innings into his season there, he was derailed with elbow problems that led to Tommy John surgery. Fujikawa only pitched 20.2 innings in the minors and majors combined for Chicago in 2014, showing the typical command and control problems often seen in the early stages of pitcher’s comebacks from TJ procedures. He signed a one-year deal with Texas and will enter spring training with a shot at a bullpen spot. Consider him a dark horse candidate for saves with the Rangers if he can harness his stuff again. Remember, he notched 220 saves in the Japanese leagues from 2005 to 2012.
Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays’ trade to acquire Josh Donaldson makes it clear that they still believe they can contend with the offense they’ve built around Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, among others. However, they still need to bolster their starting rotation and without Casey Janssen, whom they are not expected to re-sign, their bullpen is in disarray at best. They could be looking at one of three in-house options to close out games.
After a couple of seasons struggling to become a starter, Brett Cecil was finally nudged into the bullpen to stay in 2013 and he’s responded well so far. He relies very heavily on his curveball (thrown 44 percent of the time in 2014) and his newly developed cutter to deceive hitters. As a result, his strikeout numbers spiked all the way to 12.8 K/9 in 2014 but his walks have also increased significantly (4.56 BB/9 in 2014). The good news is he’s finally found a way to contain the long ball, which was what ultimately undid him as a starter. Still, even with the impressive strikeout numbers, Cecil doesn’t profile as a closer and there aren’t many analysts that believe he really has the stuff for the job. He’s certainly not someone you’ll want to draft for saves, as his tenure in the role, if he even gets it, could be very short.
Aaron Sanchez saw his first action in the majors in 2014, pitching 33 innings out of the bullpen and notching three saves and seven holds after he was called up on July 22. It’s not clear whether the Jays intend to keep him in the bullpen or continue to try and groom him as a starter, a role in which his control issues have held him back. He’s a hard thrower with a limited pitch repertoire, so the bullpen could be exactly what the doctor ordered for Sanchez, who relied very heavily on his fastball during his limited sample in the majors. Given the lack of movement in the free agency market by the Blue Jays, they could very well be planning to audition Sanchez in the closer’s role. If that’s the case, he’s well worth a late-round gamble or one dollar flier, as he has the makeup to be successful in the job.
Aaron Loup struggled through a difficult 2014, at times losing command of his off-speed stuff, which led hitters to sit dead-red on his fastball. He had a lot of trouble throwing strikes to right-handed hitters and lefties teed off on his fastball when he couldn’t get his off-speed stuff over the plate. However, the main problem with using Loup as a closer is that he tends to struggle most with runners on base and in high leverage situations. That has to lead the Blue Jays to conclude that he just may not have the makeup or the stomach for that kind of role. As a lefty, he’s probably best suited to set up work or as a LOOGY.
Across the board, the Brewers were just a cut below league average in most relief pitching metrics last year. They relied upon a rejuvenated Francisco Rodriguez as their closer for the entire season and he didn’t disappoint, converting 44 of 49 save chances despite a somewhat high 3.04 ERA. The main problem was home runs, as his 1.85 HR/9 will attest. He didn’t allow a single HR through his first 19 appearances and just three dingers over his first 26 IP. However, beginning with an appearance on June 17 and running through 33.1 innings to the end of the season, he allowed 11 HRs and pitched to a 4.01 ERA. So when it came time at the end of the season to decide whether or not to re-sign K-Rod, the Brewers let him go. He remains on the free agent market with the White Sox thought to be potential suitors. As of right now, the Brewers haven’t been active in free agency or the trade market, so it appears they will look in-house for a closer.
Jonathan Broxton certainly has history on his side as a closer choice. He has notched 118 saves during his 10-year career, including seven saves for the Reds last season while Aroldis Chapman recovered from his brutal beaning and before Broxton was traded to Milwaukee. Despite the pedigree, Broxton is no longer the power pitcher he once was. Whereas he used to throw around 97-99 MPH, he now throws closer to 92-93 MPH, and he no longer throws a cutter due to elbow soreness troubles that cropped up in 2013. Essentially, he throws the heater and a slider; those two pitches accounted for 98 percent of his offerings last season. So it is questionable whether Broxton really has the stuff to close long term. It looks like the Brewers intend to give him a shot at the job in 2015, but if they’re not in contention he could be moved in a trade by the deadline. Broxton will be a free agent at the end of the season.
Jim Henderson did a nifty job as the closer for the Brew Crew during 2013. He racked up 28 saves with a 2.70 ERA during that season and entered 2014 as the odds on favorite for saves. However, shoulder problems limited him to just 11 innings and he ultimately had shoulder surgery in September of 2014 to repair a torn labrum and debride the shoulder. He is expected to be healthy for spring training but it’s anyone’s guess whether he’ll be completely rehabbed and effective. It would almost seem a foregone conclusion that the Brewers will be looking for bullpen depth at some point soon; especially when you consider that they have few, if any, prospects in the system that might be options down the line.
I mentioned that there were four unsettled bullpens, though some might argue that the Detroit Tigers are all set with Joe Nathan returning. They also have Joakim Soria and Al Alburquerque waiting in the wings to step in to close games. At this point, it appears the Tigers are happy to give Nathan the chance to prove that last season’s roller coaster ride was a fluke and that he’s fully healthy and ready to be a dominant closer again in 2015. Of course, the fact that Nathan will enter this season as a 40-year-old and that his velocity has dropped significantly over the past two years makes it almost laughable to assume he’ll be effective. However, everybody assumed he was done after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2010 at the age of 36, yet he came back to save 129 games after missing an entire season. So anything is possible with Nathan, who will likely start the season as the Tigers’ closer but will also be on a very short leash. At least, that’s what I think.
Soria and Alburquerque are both solid options should Nathan fall apart early. Soria has plenty of history as a closer, with a total of 178 saves over his seven year career. He saved 17 games for the Rangers last season before he was traded to Detroit, where he only notched 11 innings due to a strained oblique muscle. Soria will likely get the first shot to close if Nathan falters, so he’s the guy to target in drafts this spring, especially if you draft Nathan. Alburquerque has the stuff to close, but the home run ball and problems with his control make him a prohibitive choice unless he’s changed his ways over the winter. Even with all these options, if the Detroit Tigers want to seriously contend in 2015, they are going to need more bullpen depth. Look for them to add at least one more legitimate arm to their bullpen over the next month and don’t be surprised if a former closer is among the pitchers they sign.
A Look At The Top 5 Available Free Agents
It’s been a pretty active offseason thus far, with 64 free agents signed by MLB teams to date, two players (Hiroki Kuroda, Daisuke Matsuzaka) signing with Japanese League teams, Jack Hannahan signing to play in the Korean League and Josh Willingham electing to retire. However, there are another 76 players that were on major league rosters last season that remain available on the free agent market, so there is still a lot of players that will likely change addresses in the coming week, and there are a scant 52 days until spring training officially begins. Not much is likely to happen until the holidays are completely over, so let’s take a peek at some of the Top 5 remaining free agents and see if we can’t make a few predictions or at least perpetuate a few rumors.
There is little doubt that Scherzer is the top pitcher still available as a free agent. Scherzer is rumored to be seeking a deal worth somewhere in the $200 M range covering seven or eight years, at which point he will be nearly 38 years old. The Tigers remain likely to re-sign Scherzer, especially since they’ve traded away Rick Porcello and have only added Alfredo Simon and Shane Greene to bolster their starting pitching depth thus far. With Justin Verlander seemingly entrenched in a decline phase and questions about the health of Anibal Sanchez’s shoulder, it almost seems like getting a deal done with Scherzer should be a priority for them. Scott Boras is more than happy to wait as long as necessary for Scherzer’s market to develop and peak, so we could be looking at a rather long wait before we have an answer about his final landing spot. The Red Sox and Dodgers have been linked to Scherzer, and you should never count the Yankees out, despite Brian Cashman’s assertions that they are not interested. Given the Red Sox’s need for an ace, I’m willing to wager that Scherzer ends up leading Boston’s starting rotation. Sox owner John Henry has made it clear that the team can exceed the luxury tax payroll threshold for one season, so don’t be surprised if Scherzer signs with Boston.
Shields has been one of baseball’s most durable workhorses over the course of his career. He’s thrown 200 or more innings in each of the last eight seasons, made 33 or more starts in all but the first of those eight and he’s never been on the disabled list. Most pitchers lose velocity as they age, but as a 32-year-old in 2014, Shields’ velocity was a career-high average 92.4 mph. Basically, the same teams that are thought to be in on Max Scherzer are expected to go after Shields as the consolation prize should they lose out on the righty ace. Shields’ contract demands are considerably lower than Scherzer’s, making him a bargain by comparison. He is rumored to be looking for a four or five year deal in the neighborhood of $100 M. That seems a bit low for such a durable, innings eating quality pitcher. He could end up with more money or more years if Scherzer’s contract is signed first and resets the market. Regardless of where he signs, Shields’ Fantasy value is somewhat limited because of his relatively low strikeout rates. Last season, his strikeout rate was just 7.14 K/9 IP, the lowest K rate he’s posted since 2009. Still, even with the low K rate, his fine ratio stats and solid winning percentage will keep him among the Top 30 starting pitchers. If he happens to land in the National League (SF Giants, LA Dodgers?), he could see a little bump in strikeouts, which could push him into the Top 20 starting pitchers.
As I’m writing this, the news wires are humming with word that Cabrera has a deal pending with the Tampa Bay Rays pending a passed physical. Assuming he passes his physical, Cabrera’s Fantasy value will remain pretty much where it’s been for the past couple of seasons, albeit on somewhat of a downward trajectory. After two very solid seasons back in 2010 and 2011, Cabrera has taken several steps in the wrong direction during the past two years. In 2010, he hit 25 HRs, batted a solid .273 and had an above average Isolated Power (ISO) of .187 and 17 stolen bases; all of which made him a Top 10 shortstop in the Fantasy realm. Unfortunately, the power and the speed both dropped off in 2012, though, he still had a solid batting average. Not surprisingly, his runs scored were trimmed significantly, but it was his RBI totals that were cut dramatically, as they dropped around 30 percent between 2011 and 2012. Cabrera never did regain his elite level status in either 2013 or 2014, and his batting average deteriorated during these two seasons as well, dropping 30-odd points down to .241 over the last two seasons. In fact, Cabrera’s numbers over the last two seasons are nearly identical across the board, which I guess can be seen as a positive for being consistent. He will probably bat somewhere near the top of the Rays’ batting order, so the possibility that he returns to double-digit stolen bases along with solid runs scored numbers remains. He’ll have to raise his OBP back up towards his career .330 mark after two years below .300 but he still walks at a decent rate (eight percent BB% in 2014), so the tools are still there. Cabrera is certain to be a Top 10 SS in AL-only leagues but he’ll have a tough time cracking the Top 15 in mixed league play. One other item of note is that the signing of Cabrera could signal that either Ben Zobrist or Yunel Escobar could be on the trading block. Zobrist has been mentioned as a potential trade target of the San Francisco Giants, who desperately need a second baseman. The Nationals may also have an interest in Zobrist, with Ryan Zimmerman moving across the diamond to first base and Anthony Rendon playing third, where he spent a good portion of 2014.
It’s a bit of a surprise to see Aoki still available. He’s been a consistent performer at the plate every season, as his annual numbers over the past three seasons have been within a few points of his career triple slash of .287/.353/.387. Put more succinctly, there are no outliers in his three season career. Just about the only complaint about Aoki’s production is the drop off we’ve seen in his stolen base totals; he’s gone from 30 steals in 2012, to 20 in 2013 and down to just 17 in 2014. His stolen base success rates have been all over the place in those three seasons; it was 79 percent in 2012, a disastrous 63 percent in 2013, and an improved but far from his best 68 percent with the Royals in 2014. He missed 18 games with a groin strain last season, his first stint on the DL in the major leagues, but aside from that he’s been fairly healthy, so injury has little or nothing to do with his declining steal numbers. Of course, it could be that the manager played a major role in the stolen base numbers. The Brewers had more power hitters in the lineup in 2013, which could explain the drastic drop off during that season. However, last year’s Royals lineup was among the league’s worst power hitting lineup, so the reduced stolen base numbers there are not the result of trying to keep Aoki on base. In fact, my tendency here is to believe that Aoki’s poor overall success rate after his first season in the majors is probably due to a lost step or two of speed and the fact that his overall steal production continued to freefall in 2014 bears this out. The Royals were one of the more aggressive teams on the base paths; the led the AL in stolen bases with 153 thefts, 31 more steals than the next team. Aoki was the leadoff hitter in 108 games of the team’s 162-game regular season. Still, there is undoubtedly a job out there for a leadoff hitter with Aoki’s skill set. He still plays a solid defensive outfield, still gets on base at a good clip and can help any team in MLB whether as a starter or off the bench. In Fantasy, his stolen bases are where his value is derived, so the declining steals means his Fantasy value is also declining. This will be true regardless of where he ends up signing. The team he lands with and his role for them will determine his ultimate Fantasy value. For now, he is no more than a Top 50 outfielder.
Rasmus has to be one of the more disappointing over-hyped players of the past five years. While he’s had some good seasons with fairly good power production, he’s just never put it all together to have the kind of great seasons that many projected him to have. You have to go all the way back to 2010 to find what was probably his best season. With the Cardinals back then he batted .276/.361/.498 with 23 HRs, 72 runs, 52 RBI and 12 stolen bases. Since then, he has just one season with a batting average above .225 (.276 in an injury plagued 2013), one season with 23 HRs (2012) and a combined 13 stolen bases in over the last four seasons. Injuries have been a real problem, especially over the last two seasons, in which he played 118 games (2013) and 104 games (2014). Yet, he is just 28 years old and ostensibly still in his prime production phase. Strikeouts have been a major problem for Rasmus throughout his career but he whiffed at the prodigious rate of 33 percent during 2014; that’s 124 strikeouts in just 376 PA. Only four players with a minimum of 350 PA struck out at a higher rate than Rasmus in 2014, and all but one of those four played at least 10 more games during the season. One possible landing spot for Rasmus could be with the Baltimore Orioles, who are seeking a replacement for Nick Markakis, who signed a contract with the Atlanta Braves recently. Rasmus would have to move from his usual centerfield position since Adam Jones is firmly entrenched there for the Orioles, but that shouldn’t be a problem. Right now, Rasmus is just about the only outfielder on the free agent market that offers any real power hitting potential. In the right park and with the right team, Rasmus could finally reach 25 HRs, but he’ll have to get his strikeout issues under control again to approach anything near a .260 batting average. If he can’t get the average about the .225 it’s been at over the past couple of seasons, his overall Fantasy value will remain stagnant.
The New Look Padres Outfield
The Padres completed a trifecta of offseason trades to completely remake their outfield, acquiring Justin Upton from the Atlanta Braves for a package of prospects including pitcher Max Fried, centerfielder Mallex Smith, left fielder Dustin Peterson and infielder Jace Peterson. This trade comes on the heels of a three-way trade with the Tampa Bay Rays and Washington Nationals to acquire outfielder Wil Myers and the deal with the Dodgers that netted them veteran outfielder Matt Kemp. The Padres have been very active during this offseason, essentially tearing down their roster and remaking the team into a potential contender in 2015 under newly minted GM A.J. Preller. Of course, as Fantasy owners all we really care about is what the future Fantasy value of the new Padres outfield might look like, so that’s what we’ll focus on here.
There were some very encouraging signs from Kemp during 2014, as we saw the return of at least some of the power we came to love during his early career. It was also good to finally see a mostly healthy season from Kemp, who played 150 games this past season, the most he’s played in a season since 2011. The first half of the year initially looked like a continuation of the past few seasons, as Kemp only managed a .269/.330/.430 triple slash with eight home runs in 336 plate appearances. However, as summer heated up so did Kemp, and over the second half he bashed 17 round trippers and bolstered his numbers to .309/.365/.606 to finish the season at .287/.346/.507, which very closely mirrors his career averages.
Of course, Petco Park carries the reputation of being a terrible park for hitters, but Kemp has hit fairly well as a visitor in San Diego over the course of his career with a .322/.372./.495 line and seven home runs in 234 PA. However, it is notable that he has zero home runs there over the last two seasons. Still, using the Home Run Tracker tool and overlaying all 25 of Kemp’s True HR landing spots within the dimensions of Petco Park, he would still have ended up with at least 23 dingers last season. So Kemp’s power should continue to play well in San Diego. Now that his once ailing shoulders have healed completely, it appears we can be confident in his power going forward. Unfortunately, his days as a prolific base stealer are over, which shouldn’t be a surprise given his age (30) and the many injuries he’s had to his hamstrings and ankles. He did manage to steal eight bases in 2014, though, so we might see 10-12 from him in 2015 if his good health continues and his ankles are strengthened further during this offseason. Overall, his value probably remains about the same next season, especially if the Padres’ makeover successfully builds the lineup around Kemp.
Depending on how Wil Myers continues to develop as a power hitter, he could end up being the real gem among this new trio of Padres outfielders. All through his minor league career, it was Myers’ raw power that made him the top prospect he once was. However, it’s now been a couple of years since we’ve seen him truly display elite level power. His rookie season was quite good. He put up a .293/.354/.478 triple slash and hit 13 HRs in just 373 PA in 2013. Injuries galore completely derailed his development in 2014, and his six HRs in 361 PA along with his .222/.294/.320 line was a disappointment across the board.
The good news is that he is still just 24 years old, so there is plenty of opportunity and time for him to rebound from his lost 2014 and regain his status among the elite. Myers has been compared favorably to Matt Kemp in terms of raw power and hitting talent, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he assumes Kemp’s former mantle as a premier power hitter despite the move to Petco. As we saw with the above Home Run Tracker tool, right-handed power plays pretty well in Petco Park. It’s too soon to say whether Myers will be a 30 HR hitter and he doesn’t have Kemp’s speed, but there is no reason to think he won’t be among the top outfielders in the not too distant future. The only question is whether it will happen in 2015. I really liked Myers as a breakout candidate in 2014 and he disappointed me. However, if he hits the road running and hits well in spring training, I won’t hesitate to project that breakout season again. Myers is already a Top 30 outfielder but the potential is there to be an overall Top 30 player.
As recently as 2012, Justin Upton was a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Now he returns to the NL West division as a member of the San Diego Padres. The knock on Upton when he was with Arizona was that he underachieved and easily should have batted .300 with more than 30 HRs every season. Yet, he batted .300 just once (2009) and exceeded 30 HRs just once (31 in 2011) during his five seasons there. The Braves traded for Upton in 2013, hoping that a change of scenery and being united with his brother B.J would motivate him to realize his vast potential. While he put together two very solid productive seasons in Atlanta, he still fell well short of expectations. Over those two seasons he amassed a .267/.348/.478 triple slash with 56 HRs, 172 RBI and 171 runs scored in 1284 PA. However, he is set to become a free agent at the end of the 2015 season and the Braves decided that he wasn’t going to be in their long term plans, so they traded him to the Padres for a haul of four prospects.
It’s apparent that the Padres did a solid job of targeting players whose bats will play well at Petco because Upton has enjoyed a career line of .291/.359/.541 there with 10 HRs in 172 PA. Once again, using the Home Run Tracker tool and overlaying Upton’s 56 HRs over the last two seasons on the dimensions of Petco Park, we find that at least 54 of those dingers would have cleared the fences there. So again, there is no reason to think that Upton will see a drop off in production with the move to San Diego. When you consider that he is in the midst of his prime hitting years as a 27-year-old, it’s apparent that we can expect another very productive season from Upton, who is already among the Top 30 hitters in Fantasy Baseball. Upton’s Fantasy value remains solid with this move.
The bottom line here is that the Padres have acquired two hitters with a solid resume of being among the better hitters in the game and a third with the potential to join them as soon as this coming season. Fantasy players have typically shunned Padres’ outfielders due to Petco Park’s reputation for suppressing power. Yet the data clearly shows that the right-handed power that all three of these outfielders possess will be well supported in San Diego, making them all players to be targeted in drafts in the spring. Fantasy owners should try to perpetrate the Petco power suppression myth, though, in an effort to convince their opponents otherwise. That will set them up to reap the benefits that the Padres clearly expect to realize.
Fantasy Baseball: Winter Meetings Fallout
Boston Red Sox
Rick Porcello: He’s been around forever, hasn’t he? Well, he’ll be just 26 years old come Opening Day, meaning he theoretically has his best days ahead of him. Porcello had his finest Fantasy season in 2014 (career bests in ERA, WHIP, and wins) and that was in a similarly favorable hitter’s park, something that should alleviate the fear that is typically associated with calling Fenway home. His groundball style (no pitcher has more wins and a higher groundball rate over the last four seasons) travels well (2.40 ERA and 1.11 WHIP when starting in the Top 10 hitter’s parks last year) and he figures to get more help from his bullpen, as the Red Sox’ relievers owned the seventh-best strand rate (LOB%) in 2014, a vast improvement from the Tigers, who ranked as the seventh-worst set of relievers. He also gets relief from the third-worst fielding team and should enjoy pitching in front of 2014’s fourth-most effective glove-handlers. However, there are some red flags that point towards regression in his ERA. For starters, his expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP) was 15.4 percent higher in 2014 than 2013, but his ERA managed to drop by 20.6 percent. He also caught some luck, as his fly ball percentage (FB%) increased for a second straight season (up 22.4 percent from last season!) but didn’t come back to haunt Fantasy owners, as his homerun-to-fly ball rate (HR/FB) was at a career-low. As a contact pitcher, there is no greater concern than an elevating fly ball rate, especially when pitching in a hitter’s park.
Justin Masterson: After a bumpy 2014 that saw him struggle with the Indians (5.51 ERA) and get worse after joining the Cardinals (7.04), it is easy to forget that Masterson averaged better than 205 innings and owned a 3.86 ERA over the previous three seasons. That’s not great, but it’s better than what we saw last season and would make him a reasonable roster filler if he can rediscover that form. If you were going to build the perfect Fantasy pitcher you’d probably want a starter that keeps the ball on the ground in front of a strong defense, strikes out a fair number of hitters and has the support of a strong lineup, right? That would at least be part of the equation, no? Well, no pitcher, not one, has a greater groundball percentage (GB%) and strikeout percentage (K%) than Masterson since 2010, his first season with better than 150 innings pitched. Despite his struggles in 2014, his GB% increased for a third consecutive season but his Fantasy numbers were undone by the second highest HR/FB rate among starters (minimum 120 innings pitched). Numerically speaking, there was nothing to show for a groundball pitcher that had a better than career average K% and the lowest FB% of his career. Listen, I’m not suggesting you build a staff around Masterson, but don’t forget about him, as his 2013 stat line (14 wins, 3.45 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, and 195 strikeouts) is a near clone of Porcello’s 2014 (15 wins, 3.43 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, and 129 strikeouts).
Jon Lester: He’s good, maybe even really good. But is he great? Consider this: entering June 2014, he owned a 3.74 career ERA in 1,449.1 innings pitched (for reference, Matt Garza owns a career 3.81 ERA in 1,345.2 innings pitched). Why is that worth mentioning? First, it is easy to remember what we saw last, and that was Lester with a sub 2.00 summer ERA. Also, all of those career numbers came while calling Fenway Park home, a ballpark owns a Park Factor score nearly identical to Wrigley Field. I’m not suggesting that his great 2014 season was simply a product of the large dimensions in Oakland, but it certainly didn’t hurt his status as a Fantasy ace. His improvement goes well beyond the impact of the park, and his consecutive seasons with improvements in K%, BB%, and HR/FB is no fluke; neither is his repertoire, which features three pitches (fastball, cutter, and curveball) that earned a 6.0 pitch value or better, something Clayton Kershaw hadn’t done until last season. The increasing K% is a very promising trend (for those who haven’t read my material before, I believe in building a Fantasy staff around Ks), but the downward trending GB/FB is a concern with the move to Chicago. As long as you enter this season with reasonable expectations (think 2008-2011 Lester), the newest Cubbie will provide value. My concern here is that there will always be an owner chasing the 2014 numbers, meaning I won’t end up with him.
Chicago White Sox
Jeff Samardzija: In obvious news, moving from the seventh-most friendly pitcher’s park to the second-most friendly hitter’s park is not an ideal move for a pitcher like Samardzija, who is coming off a season with his highest contact rate (Contact %) since becoming a full-time starter. While the contact rate was a bit high for my liking, give the former tight end credit for limiting the damage of those balls that were put in play (he continued his downward trending FB/GB rate and his line drive percentage (LD%) was below his career average). My major concern here has less to do with the ballpark that he now calls home, and more to do with the division and his likely control regression. Within the AL Central there were three teams that finished 2014 among the Top 8 offenses in all of baseball when it comes to on base percentage (OBP) against right-handed pitching and the lowest K%. That type of batting eye scares me off Samardzija a bit, as three of his four most-faced opponents last season ranked in the bottom third of the league in OBP, thus helping him have a career-low walk rate (BB%). I worry that if his walk rate reverts to the mean (he essentially cut his career average in half last season), the home run ball will once again become an issue (20-plus allowed in three straight seasons) as a result of unfavorable strike counts. Did you know that only two pitchers (minimum 500 innings pitched) have a higher BB% and have allowed more round-trippers than Samardzija over the last three seasons? That’s not a trend I see traveling well with half of his games being played at US Cellular and more than one-third of his games coming against very patient offenses.
David Robertson: I’m not worried about the 3.08 ERA from a season ago (tenth-highest ERA among the 12 closers with more than 35 saves), as his HR/FB rate of 15.6 percent was a career outlier and was the ninth-highest rate among pitchers who threw at least 60 innings last season. Not surprisingly, he struggled at home, where 23.8 percent of the hits he allowed resulted in round-trippers. That’s not to say the gopher ball isn’t an issue, especially against right-handed hitters (82.4 percent of homers hit off of Robertson over the last three seasons have come courtesy of righties), but it’s hard to imagine them being as much of a value killer as they were a year ago. His 2.13 xFIP reflects what could have been with a normalized home run rate, an ERA that would have put him among the Top 5 ninth inning Fantasy options in 2014. The aforementioned statistic about the AL Central’s propensity to get on base against RHP doesn’t scare me off of Robertson, as he simply doesn’t give up a ton of base runners (1.05 WHIP over the last two seasons). Heck, subtract Robertson’s struggles against the ChiSox and you’ve got a closer with a combined ratio (ERA plus WHIP) similar to Kenley Jansen’s. Lastly, don’t rule out the slight value bump that comes with two workhorse starting pitchers in Chris Sale and Samardzija, as they often pitch deep into games and could hand the ball directly to Robertson with consistency (a major plus when you consider that Chicago had the third-worst reliever ERA in 2014).
Melky Cabrera: I love switch-hitters and I’m not shy about it. Why not? Baseball is a game of matchups and a switch-hitter always has a statistically favorable matchup. The one thing I like more than switch-hitters are switch-hitters that can actually hit from both sides. We often see tremendous statistical splits from one side but not from the other, which speaks to the value a switch-hitter has as he continues to take at-bats from a clearly less comfortable position, but that is not the case with the Melk Man. In fact, I have no idea which side he prefers because he has hit .311 from both sides of the dish since 2012. Nobody is going to confuse this M. Cabrera for the other M. Cabrera in terms of power, but his .164 isolated power (ISO) over his last three seasons with at least 100 games played indicates that a 20 home run season is an obtainable upside (Curtis Granderson hit 20 bombs last season with a .161 ISO) in a park that ranks ahead of the hitter-friendly Rogers Centre. The slight bump in Park Factor could also help turn an extra line drive or two into a round tripper, a trend worth buying into, as Cabrera owns a very stable LD% (at least 20 percent in four consecutive seasons). For most players, moving teams is not just about the environment, but also about the new teammates. While the names around him are a bit different, Cabrera walks into a situation that will feel very familiar, as he projects as the number two hitter in an offense that offers supreme power in the 3-4 spots (Jose Abreu and the newly acquired Adam LaRoche). Simple logic would tell you that he will see his fair share of pitches to hit early in the count due to most pitchers opting to attack him instead of the Rookie of the Year, a game plan that should put a sheepish grin on the face of Cabrera owners. His low swing-and-miss rate (SwStr%) makes contact a near certainty, and considering that he hit .347 in non-two strike counts last season (.243 with two strikes), swinging early in the count is a strength for the 30-year-old outfielder.
Yoenis Cespedes: First, it is important to acknowledge what we have in Cespedes as a player before attempting to project how his third address in two seasons will affect his Fantasy status. He joins Carlos Gomez as the only players to hit more fly balls than groundballs, steal at least 30 bases, and record an ISO greater than .200 over the last three seasons. Cespedes may not have the counting stats that Gomez had over that stretch; but he does hold the slight edge in Contact %, and hitting the ball with consistency is the best way to produce Fantasy numbers. His groundball numbers have consistently declined during his three-year MLB career, while his fly ball and Contact % have increased with regularity. Detroit’s Comerica Park is somewhat of a middle ground when discussing the Park Factor difference from Fenway and O.co, but it is considered a slightly favorable hitter’s park. The ballpark, however, figures to have less of an impact on Cespedes’ Fantasy value than his new set of teammates. Early projections have him hitting fifth in one of the most potent lineups in all of baseball, a perfect spot as far as Fantasy owners are concerned. How good is that five-spot? Well, he is surrounded by Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, and J.D. Martinez, who combined to bat .321 last season and knock in 288 runs with 23.4 percent of their hits going for extra bases. The only concern I have for the 29-year-old is a batting average that has been volatile over his first three seasons, but the advanced metrics suggest that his .260 average from a year ago is a reasonable projection. In fact, one could argue that the .260 projection may be a bit low, as he was able to get there despite struggling to hit the fastball, a pitch he crushed during his first two seasons. He was able to maintain the reasonable batting average (.253 was league average in 2014) as a result of career-best production against both the curveball and the slider. Consider his 2014 stat line (89-22-100-.260) as a floor, with the potential to rattle off a season similar to what Adrian Gonzalez did a year ago (83-27-116-.276).
Alfredo Simon: If you play Fantasy Football, you are aware of the cautionary tale that is Matt Flynn. To make a long story short, he parlayed one strong game into multiple contracts, “earning” big-time NFL money without actually being a very good player. I’m not saying Simon isn’t talented, but his first season as a starter has more red flags than sustainable metrics, and he is due for a very difficult season if the Tigers elect to use him in their starting rotation (I’m operating under that assumption because as a middle relief guy, he obviously holds no value in standard leagues). Consider these two stat lines:
Player A: 4.20 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 5.83 K/9, and one win every three starts
Player B: 4.48 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 8.97 K/9 and one win every 2.91 starts
Which would you rather? Pretty close, right? Player A is Alfredo Simon’s season stat line without the aid of two outlier months (April and June) that saw him produce at essentially Clayton Kershaw levels (8-1 with a 2.18 ERA). Player B is the season stat line of Drew Hutchison, the 93rd ranked SP on ESPN’s Player Rater and a Fantasy afterthought for the majority of 2014. Furthermore, Simon’s season numbers (a very respectable 3.44 ERA) were in large part due to his ability to shut down some of the worst offenses in the league. In 74.2 innings of work against teams that scored less than 620 runs and hit .250 or lower for the season, Simon registered a 1.69 ERA. Nobody is going to make him apologize for beating up on these teams, but if I’m buying into a breakout campaign, I want proof that the pitcher can have success against the best in the game, something Simon simply didn’t do last year. As a pitcher who doesn’t miss many bats, Simon’s success relied heavily on his unrepeatable .265 batting average on balls put in play (BABIP), the fifth-lowest mark of any pitcher that threw at least 190 innings. The move to a more pitcher-friendly park doesn’t make his 2014 numbers any more sustainable, as he relied on balls being hit at defenders, a pitching style (like Rick Porcello’s) that isn’t affected much by the environment. In short, Simon showed glimpses of greatness, but he was a bad pitcher more often than his season statistics would seem to suggest, and I’m not betting on a pitcher who needs luck in order to be a Fantasy asset. Don’t be like the Seahawks or the Raiders and give the Matt Flynn of MLB a chance to earn your trust: show restraint and make Simon prove that he has what it takes to consistently produce at a reasonable level.
Kansas City Royals
Kendrys Morales: He doesn’t have any batting titles on his mantle, nor has he been a staple on Fantasy champions lately, but don’t let this signing fly under your radar. Your instant impression of Morales is likely “a reasonable power option that offers little else and really struggled last season.” While that is mostly accurate, it comes with a stigma, one that figures to drop him much further in preseason ranks than he should. Let’s look at the facts and take the emotion out of it. Ignoring an odd 2014 in which he never had stability, didn’t have spring training, and was moved mid-season after finally finding a landing spot in Minnesota, Morales’ numbers from 2009-2013 were essentially that of Anthony Rizzo in 2014. Per 550 at-bats, the 31-year-old slugger averaged 72 runs, 27 home runs, 89 runs batted in, and a .286 batting average, a near carbon copy of the Cubs first baseman (78-32-89-.286). Sure, he doesn’t come with Rizzo’s high ceiling, but he also won’t come with the price tag; so in non-keeper leagues it is hard to argue that he doesn’t at least have the potential for a similar stat line. The reasonable career Contact % and K% (his career rate mirrors what Andrew McCutchen did last season, a player who is not seen as strikeout prone) make Morales more than an Adam Dunn prototype and raises his floor. Kansas City isn’t a paradise for hitters, but its’ Park Factor does rank as more favorable (or less unfavorable) than Seattle or Los Angeles (Anaheim), the two stops Morales made during that 2009-2013 run. Add in the protection of Eric Hosmer, the combination of speed/upside sprinkled throughout this order, and the consistency of at-bats that come with being the primary DH (with 1B eligibility in most Fantasy leagues) now that Billy Butler is in Oakland, and you’ve got yourself a sneaky source of power that will cost next to nothing on draft day.
Alex Rios: The move from Texas to Kansas City would seem to be an unfavorable one as far as Park Factor is concerned, but considering that health issues never let Rios fully exploit the positives of Arlington, he will likely be undervalued entering the 2015 season.
Mike Trout. Where did that come from? Well, that’s the only other player in professional baseball with a .280 batting average, 40 homers, and 60 steals since 2012. Just the two of them. I’m not saying that they are in the same Fantasy class, but that’s some pretty impressive company. Rios’ high career LD% gives me confidence that, if healthy, he should be able to produce for the Royals, and his uncharacteristically microscopic HR/FB (2.9 percent) rate is a longshot to be repeated, thus hinting at a power rebound. If the power does return (we aren’t talking about a 30 home run player, 20 would be huge), there is high-end RBI upside here as he is projected to bat sixth for the Royals (behind Morales, Hosmer, and Salvador Perez) and is batting .290 over the last three seasons with runners on base. Yes, I’m a bit concerned that this will be the first time in his 11-year career that he is playing in a pitcher-friendly park, but in a strong lineup he should still be viewed as a stable source of Fantasy production for your outfield.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Yasmani Grandal: A switch-hitting 26-year-old that crushes right-handed pitching (his slugging percentage was 263 points higher vs RHP than vs LHP last season) is going to have a nice role, one that could potentially make him a back end C1 option in a deep lineup. His .175 ISO from a season ago should translate well as he moves from power-preventing Petco, but he projects as more than just a swing-for-the-fences type. Over his career he has offered at just 24.5 percent of pitches outside of the strike zone (O-Swing%), ranking him favorably with the 2014 rates of contact specialists like Michael Brantley and Denard Span. Baseball is a difficult game but not a complicated one; swing at pitches that you can handle and drive them. Grandal isn’t a must-own, but the signs are there that he could be a nice sleeper option for those of us that wait on catchers, as he should produce better numbers simply due to a more advantageous setting.
Jimmy Rollins: He continues to age (for those keeping track at home, he turned 36 in November), but you really wouldn’t know it from his Fantasy value. Before diving into the specifics of this move, let’s call the shortstop position for what it is in Fantasy Baseball: a mess. Look atop your rankings, who do you feel good about? I like Hanley Ramirez, but there is no denying that there is significant risk involved up-and-down the Top 15, thus giving the stability of a player like Rollins more value than meets the eye. There is a minor decline in Park Factor, but not a steep enough drop off for me to assume that this is the season that Rollins finally fails to produce nice value for his ADP. I’m more worried about his four year decline in Contact%, but it is possible that the decline in talent he will be facing could well negate slightly deteriorating skills. As a member of the Phillies, Rollins played nearly 40 games against two pitching staffs that finished 2014 among the Top 5 in team ERA, but as a member of the Dodgers those 40 games will come against two staffs that finished last season in the Bottom 5 in team ERA. He is a good bet to once against hit at least 10 homers and swipe 15 bags, something only two other shortstops did in 2014, and that has value as the leadoff hitter in a loaded lineup.
Howie Kendrick: Take the “over.” That’s my feeling on the 2015 season, when comparing it statistically to Kendrick’s 2014. The move isn’t a far one, but we are seeing a hitter that is improving and will be in the most favorable Fantasy spot of his career. Before I wax poetic about his upside, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the few warning signs that do exist. His .341 career BABIP is awfully high and could well be seen as a statistic bound to regress. Although, it is possible that eight years into his career Kendrick just has a gift for finding holes. His up-and-down ISO makes pinning down a power projection a bit difficult, as he clubbed 13 homers in 2013 (122 games) but sandwiched that performance by two seasons with a combined 15 homers (304 games).
Alrighty, now we’ll move onto the good stuff. His high career BABIP, one that appears unsustainable on the surface but has been sustained for nearly a decade, has the potential to give Kendrick his first .300 (minimum 100 games played) season given his upward trending GB/FB ratio (career-high in 2014) and Contact%. While fly balls result in runs, grounders are the best way to support a batting average, and at the end of the day, hits drive Fantasy value. As previously stated, it is awfully hard to hit a baseball but the odds of success decline dramatically if you’re swinging at pitches outside the strike zone. In 2014, Kendrick displayed a vastly improved sense of the zone, as his BB/K ratio was not only the best of his career, it was the best by 46.7 percent! That level of improvement is no fluke, and if it proves to be a strength, this is going to be a great season for owners that spend a mid-to-late round pick on Kendrick. He is expected to bat behind Rollins but ahead of Yasiel Puig and Adrian Gonzalez, a position that should net him plenty of good early pitches to swing at. That is a positive given his batting eye, but he is at his best when being aggressive early in the count (he’s hit .344 when putting one of the first three pitches in play over the last three seasons). So, he’s not going to get himself out, he will be pitched to as a result of his spot in the lineup, he has 15/15 upside, and moves to a more hitter-friendly ballpark. Yea, Mr. Kendrick, you can man my second base spot this season.
Brandon McCarthy: It was a rollercoaster ride for McCarthy in 2014, as he was unlucky beyond belief while in Arizona, and then unsustainably great while in the Bronx. When all was said and done, his style of pitching in 2014 was enough to convince me to target him in the later rounds to fill out my rotation. Here’s a fun fact: only one pitcher owned a GB% of at least 52 percent, pitched 200 innings, and had a higher K% than McCarthy. His name? King Felix Hernandez. Not too shabby, and his “stuff” looks good on paper, as opponents swung more often last season than in years past, but they made contact at a lower rate. Dodgers Park is viewed as a neutral stadium (technically it slightly favors pitchers), an upgrade for McCarthy, who gave up a career-high 25 bombs last season, from both Arizona and New York. In fact, McCarthy’s only two seasons (2011-2012) spent in a pitcher-friendly park saw him deliver a strong 3.29 ERA supported by a 3.31 FIP. The park should help and the quality of divisional opponents certainly won’t hurt. The average seasonal run production of teams in the two divisions he pitched in last season was 668, a rate that was 4.0 percent higher than the non-Dodgers teams in the NL West. Durability has been an issue in the past, but given his expected ADP this spring, that risk shouldn’t hinder your willingness to take a chance on him.
Dee Gordon: Speed kills, so the environment shift shouldn’t hinder Gordon’s Fantasy game in a big way. Having Giancarlo Stanton in the middle of the order is an obvious plus when it comes to Gordon’s run-scoring upside, but is Stanton too good a hitter? That is, could the Marlins elect to keep Gordon on first base, knowing that Stanton is more than capable of driving him in from there? It’s just a thought. I like Christian Yelich batting behind him, as the 23-year-old showed some positive signs last season and hit his stride in the later months. A high BABIP (.346) and low BB% (4.8 percent) aren’t good signs, but the fact that his O-Swing% has been trending downward since putting on a major league uniform hints that his plate discipline/pitch recognition isn’t the issue. Ideally, we see an increase in walk rate to balance the inevitable drop in BABIP, thus allowing his OBP (and directly correlated stolen base attempts) to be sustained. Did Miami have the fourth-fewest stolen bases last season (only two players stole more than seven bags), because a lack of speed or management? I’m not overly concerned about this game plan, as I believe you adjust to the roster, but it is at least a thought, something that wouldn’t have been the case in Los Angeles, as they proved to have the confidence to give Gordon the forever green light. I’m in the camp that believes his OBP declines this season, thus making a reduction in both stolen bases and runs scored a very real possibility. A nice season is in store, but 45-50 steals and 70-75 runs scored is a more realistic projection for Gordon.
Mat Latos: Early in his career, he was successful in San Diego (3.37 ERA and 1.15 WHIP), but as with all Padres’ pitchers we were unsure of how much of that production was Latos and how much was ballpark aided. He laughed at his detractors by recording a 3.31 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in his 81 starts as a member of the Reds, proving to all of us that he is a true Fantasy asset. Latos showed no signs of being affected by the ballpark, as his numbers at home were actually better while in Cincinnati than they were on the road. Albeit in limited action, he recorded a career-best BB% last season, a level of control that is encouraging. BEWARE: His LD% has increased in four consecutive years, a serious concern since those hard hit balls will catch up to you sooner or later. Even with that knowledge, I’m a fan of his pitching repertoire (he threw six different pitches at least 3.7 percent of the time last season, the third consecutive season he has done so) and the move away from a hitter’s paradise.
Dan Haren: In the first nine years of his career he had one season with 30-plus starts and a 4.00 (or worse) ERA. Well, he’s produced that stat line in three consecutive seasons for three different teams and appears to be aging rather quickly. His HR/FB ratio has been the primary culprit of his steady decline, as the two worst seasons of his career and his three worst since 2007 have come during that stretch. Haren’s declining velocity likely has something to do with that and it is difficult to imagine this 34-year-old rediscovering it after setting career-lows for every pitch last season. He’s not a groundball specialist (essentially as many groundballs as fly balls over the last five seasons), but his contact percentage was in the same ball park as pitchers like Rick Porcello and Mike Leake in 2014. I would suggest that the high home run rate could see a decline given the slight edge to pitchers that Marlins Park gives, but he’s given up 83 homers in his last 92 starts, most of them while pitching in Los Angeles (spilt the difference between the two Los Angeles stadiums and the Park Factor is basically the same as Miami’s Park). I hate to say it because Haren was a strong Fantasy play for nearly a decade, but the 2015 upside might be a repeat of 2014 (13 wins, 4.02 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, and 7.02 K/9), which resulted in him being ranked as the 63rd most valuable SP (ESPN Player Rater).
Billy Butler: Remember when the fightin’ Billy Beanes were the best hitting team in the big leagues? Yeaaa … about that. The train fell of the tracks as the season wore on and moving Josh Donaldson/Brandon Moss probably isn’t going to help this franchise rediscover their high-scoring ways. Butler was added and will likely be counted on as this team’s three-hole hitter, a role that typically comes with Fantasy value, but I’m not taking my chances. The batting average should rebound a bit, as his LD% and Contact% are stable enough to bank on, but without any metric indicating that the power will approach the 2012 level (29 homers and a .510 slugging percentage), is he really anything more than James Loney? The ISO and HR/FB rate has fallen off a cliff over the last two seasons and moving to Oakland isn’t where hitters go to regain their power. At 28 years of age there is still the potential he can improve, but he’s not the type of player that I’m drafting and hoping for, rather he’s the type you let sit on waivers until he proves worthy of a roster spot. If there is a silver lining, he does play just about every day (19 missed games in his last six seasons) and has a firm grasp on the Athletics’ DH role.
St. Louis Cardinals
Mark Reynolds: He isn’t Fantasy relevant, but I wanted to include him here, as the signing has sparked some concern regarding the Fantasy value of Matt Adams. It is no secret that Adams has struggled in a big way against LHP during his career (.197/.227/.326), but Reynolds’ numbers against southpaws aren’t much better (.212/.319/.366) over that stretch, not to mention that he doesn’t hit righties any better. Is it possible that we see a pinch hit appearance here and there? Or maybe a day off if Adams is a bit banged up and/or struggling? Sure, but I’m not downgrading Adams in a big way as a result of this signing; Reynolds projects as more of a handcuff than a platoon.
San Diego Padres
Matt Kemp: The name value is still there, but will the production be? I’m not going to harp on the move to San Diego, everyone is aware that Petco Park limits power upside, and instead focus on what else Kemp can (or can’t) bring to the table. After swiping 40 bags in 2011 (602 at-bats), the 30-year-old Kemp has stolen just 26 bases over the last three seasons (1,207 at-bats), a concerning trend for a player who really has never been an overly successful player on the bases (65.2 stolen base success rate since 2010, not including the outlier season of 2011). The Padres were a station-to-station offense last season and while part of that was roster based, it is difficult to imagine them running their projected cleanup hitter with any sort of regularity. The fact that his LD% was at a career-high level last season provides me with some confidence that he can drive in runs, but expecting his power to translate (his HR/FB rate has been at least 20 percent in each of his last three seasons with 100-plus games played) to San Diego simply isn’t the percentage play. Consider this: subtract a handful of homers and you’ve got 2014 Torii Hunter. A nice Fantasy play, but worth the risk where he is sure to be drafted given his injury riddled past and a lack of lineup protection?
Wil Myers: I’ll admit it; I’m stubborn when it comes to Myers. I think the .185 ISO (similar to the power rate that Adam Jones and Ryan Braun produced in 2014) that we saw in the half of season he played in 2013 is just the beginning of what this 24-year-old is capable of and I had him pegged as a player that was going to be on every one of my teams in 2015, banking on people forgetting about the impressive 2013 power display and focusing on an unproductive and injury plagued 2014. Well, that theory is out the window … for now at least. The move to San Diego is obvious a step in the wrong direction for a player whose value depends on the long ball (although don’t sleep on his 11 career steals in 175 games or his.293 batting average from 2013), making a young player who has never really “done it” a tough sell coming off of a broken wrist. Is he an overhyped prospect that is destined to be the next Dom Brown? Or was the beginning of 2014 a sophomore slump that was magnified by an injury? It won’t cost you much to find out and it is possible that he becomes a sell-high candidate early in 2015 before he and the rest of his Padre teammates (namely Kemp and Carlos Quentin) have a chance to get injured. Believe it or not, a healthy San Diego lineup might actually be an improvement over Myers’ former situation in Tampa Bay, but the best ability is availability in baseball, and there is serious concern from that point of view for the Padres.
Toronto Blue Jays
Fantasy Baseball Value Tracker
Anybody can give you their ranks (and I have), so let’s evaluate value change as a result of changing addresses. Below are the players ranked in order of improvement from their 2014 performance (includes expected regression).
The Chicago Teams Breeze Through Winter Meetings
This has been a very active week at the MLB Winter Meetings with several teams making significant trades and free agent signings. We’ll begin with the players acquired by the White Sox and Cubs in the first days of the meetings and break down what the change of scenery might mean for their Fantasy value in 2015.
The South Side Shuffle
The White Sox kicked things off with the announcement that they signed free agent reliever David Robertson to a four-year $46M contract, somewhat close to what Jon Papelbon received from the Phillies in 2012 (four years, $50M, although, it appears that closer values have softened a bit since then, and justifiably so. Still, it’s a considerable investment in a reliever who will turn 30 shortly after Opening Day 2015. However, when you consider how poorly the White Sox bullpen performed in 2014, you can understand why they would look to solidify the closer’s spot. The team had 21 blown saves and the bullpen as a whole posted an AL-worst 32 losses in relief. Only two AL teams (Texas & Minnesota) allowed more runs in relief than the White Sox’ 4.68.
Robertson should have the ninth inning duties all to himself, as long as he can maintain some sort of stability in the ninth inning. Aside from Daniel Webb and perhaps Jake Petricka, there isn’t really a viable alternative for closing duties. If Robertson can continue the dominance he’s shown over the last four years, he should have no trouble running up annual save totals in the 40s. His combination of a 92 MPH fastball, a cutter with exceptional horizontal movement and a nasty knuckle curveball has consistently produced strikeout just below 12 K/9. That’s good enough to put him in the discussion among the top relievers in the game right now. Command can be a problem at times, as he sometimes struggles with walk rates above 3.00 BB/9, but his FIP (2.74) and xFIP (2.85) are consistent with his ERA (2.81) and he’s regularly posted groundball rates right around 44 percent. He is a very consistent pitch with good stuff, and he doesn’t rely on smoke and mirrors to get results. Overall, he has the makings of a Top 10 closer for 2015.
The White Sox also made a trade with the Oakland A’s to acquire SP Jeff Samardzija and P Michael Ynoa for IF Marcus Semien, C Josh Phegley, 1B Rangel Ravelo and P Chris Bassitt. Samardzija had one of his best seasons in 2014 despite making half of his starts for the lowly Chicago Cubs, where he couldn’t buy a win. His 2.83 ERA and corresponding 3.09 FIP were wasted with the Cubs, who offered him next to nothing in terms of run support. Things improved a bit with the move to Oakland; though, his ERA raised a tad (3.14) while his strikeout rate dipped slightly. The main worry with the move to Chicago’s U.S. Cellular Field is that it plays as a very home run friendly park, which is bad news for a pitcher with an above average HR/FB rate throughout most of his career.
The good news is that Samardzija’s groundball rate has been steadily rising over the last three seasons, topping 50 percent in 2014. This is a reflection of his reliance on the cutter a bit more last season but a good trend to watch in the early going in 2015. If home runs become a problem early on, anyone who drafts Samardzija in the spring will want to bail on him quickly, as the home run ball dogged him earlier in his career and could always do so again, especially in such a home run-friendly environment. Overall, Samardzija’s Fantasy value takes a hit with this move, though it may be minimal if his groundball tendencies continue and the long ball problem doesn’t rear its’ ugly head.
Chicago Becomes Lester’s Sweet Home
Jon Lester chose to follow Theo Epstein to Chicago’s North side, where the Cubs have now announced their intention to reinvent their “loser image” beginning in 2015. If you believe that the offensive pieces are already in place, then the addition of Lester as a staff ace effectively begins their pursuit of a post season berth next season. They also reacquired Jason Hammel to rebuild their starting rotation which now shapes up as: Lester, Hammel, Jake Arrieta, Travis Wood and Kyle Kendricks.
The move to the National League’s Central division should be a positive one for Lester, who had an excellent season for the Red Sox and A’s in 2014. He should be able to maintain his strikeout rate somewhere around 8.22 K/9 he’s produced on average over his career in the more strikeout-friendly NL; though, I’d be surprised if he approached the 9.01 K/9 of 2014. Injuries haven’t been a problem since the early days of his career, when cancer threatened to end it before it even began in earnest. He’s started at least 31 games and thrown roughly 200 innings per season in each of the last seven years.
Along those lines, it is worth noting that Lester all but abandoned his changeup in favor of cutters and curveballs in 2014. In fact, Lester threw his cutter nearly 30 percent of the time last year, a pitch that torques the elbow in ways it wasn’t meant to be torqued. Cutters, splitters and sliders are generally thought to be contributors to pitcher injuries. Add to that the fact that Lester has thrown more than 1500 innings of baseball in eight years (without injury) and one has to think that there might be trouble ahead for the lefty. Aside from that, there is no reason to worry about Lester in Chicago or the NL. His Fantasy value gets a positive bump from this move, which could help prolong his effectiveness as a pitcher. I have my doubts about whether seven years or $155M dollars was a good idea, but that seems to be the market now. I’ll bet Max Scherzer is dreaming about the Benjamins these days.
The Quest For Arms At The Winter Meetings
The fun part of the Hot Stove Season is sifting through the various rumors that tend to float around during this time of year. Some of the rumors have some merit and are based on realistic possibilities but most of them seem to be completely frivolous nonsense. Thus, some folks have taken to calling this time of year the silly season. The truth is that very little tends to get done in the trade market prior to the Winter Meetings, which this year are scheduled to begin on December 7 in San Diego, California. It is there that we may begin to see a few trades made, but the more common happenstance is that the groundwork for trades is laid during the meetings with the real McCoy beginning in earnest in the days after the meetings end.
So, with the Winter Meetings right around the corner, I thought this might be a good time to sift through some of the more realistic sounding rumors to see if we can come up with a few things that might actually happen. A great place to begin is with the one team that has actually already made a major deal or two, the Boston Red Sox.
The Quest for Arms
The general consensus among most MLB analysts is that the Red Sox will be very active in their pursuit of pitching. I agree with this line of thinking, especially in light of their recent major signings of Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez, which solved two major problems that the team needed to address this winter. They needed to find a third baseman since it became clear that Wil Middlebrooks was not going to be the long-term answer at the hot corner after his dreadful 2014 season. The second need was for another impact bat in the lineup to pair up with David Ortiz. The signing of Hanley Ramirez gives the Sox another middle of the order hitter with power, who could also replace Big Papi as the designated hitter for the team whenever the latter finally hangs it up.
However, since Ramirez won’t be playing shortstop and Sandoval has third base locked up, it appears that left field will be the position where the new Red Sox signee will play. That creates a bit of a logjam in the Red Sox outfield, as they now have Yoenis Cespedes, Shane Victorino, Jackie Bradley Jr., Allen Craig, Mookie Betts, Rusney Castillo and Daniel Nava along with Ramirez for, at most, five roster spots. If Ramirez plays left field and some combination of Castillo and Betts will cover centerfield, then that leaves two spots for Cepedes, Victorino, Craig, Bradley Jr. and Nava. Three of those five players and Middlebrooks are the trade chips the Red Sox will use to pursue starting pitching at the Winter Meetings.
The Sox are among the many teams negotiating with Jon Lester for what will likely be a five- or six-year contract at roughly $20-25M per year. They appear to be the front runners to get Lester but the Chicago Cubs, San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers are all in play and you can never count the New York Yankees out on any high profile free agent. In addition to Lester, the Red Sox are thought to be in pursuit of Cole Hamels of the Philadelphia Phillies. There is no question that the Red Sox have the chips to get a deal done for Hamels. The only problem may be that the Phillies may be asking for a bit too much in return. There are a number of prospects in the Red Sox farm system that the Phillies covet, but with all the seasoned players they have to use as chips, they may not be willing to trade away those younger players for Hamels. Besides Hamels, the Red Sox are also thought to be interested in Jeff Samardzija, Jordan Zimmermann and Rick Porcello. A deal for any of those pitchers could happen any time after the Winter Meetings get underway.
On The Market
Brandon Moss could be on the move to the Cleveland Indians according to John Hickey of the Oakland Tribune. The A’s have Cleveland second base prospect Joe Wendle in their sights along with another middle infielder (either Jose Ramirez or Erik Gonzalez). Moss had a down year for Oakland in 2014, but he had offseason hip surgery to correct the problem behind the troubles with his swing mechanics. Moss could play in the outfield for Cleveland so that Nick Swisher can become a full-time DH. Moss is a candidate to rebound at the plate if his hip problems are now behind him. A move to Cleveland would put him in a much more hitter-friendly division and home park.
Matt Kemp’s name keeps popping up in trade rumors, most recently with the San Diego Padres. The Dodgers would likely want catcher Yasmani Grandal to be part of any deal for Kemp, and the Dodgers would almost certainly have to eat some of his considerable salary. The Rangers, Mariners and Orioles have also been among the teams connected to talks for Kemp. Fantasy-wise, Baltimore and Texas would obviously be better destinations for the right-handed hitting outfielder, who started to hit more like the Kemp of old in the waning months of 2014. Robinson Cano’s limited HR production highlighted the problems associated with power hitting in Seattle’s cavernous stadium.
Off The Market
The Yankees’ signing of left-handed reliever Andrew Miller sets up their bullpen to be a source of all kinds of strikeout goodness next season. Miller signed a four-year, $36M deal with the Yankees, an exceptionally large contract for a relief pitcher in terms of both dollars and length. Miller, who will turn 30 in May 2015, had a breakout season pitching out of the bullpen for the Red Sox and Orioles, where he was traded before the deadline last season. He set an AL record for strikeouts per nine innings with 14.87 K/9 IP in 2014, which was second only to Aroldis Chapman (17.76 K/9 IP) in MLB. Couple Miller with Dellin Betances 13.50 K/9 IP and suddenly the Yankees have a solid one-two punchout team at the back end of their bullpen.
What remains to be seen is whether the Yankees will re-sign David Robinson, who saved 39 games in 2014, more than filling the shoes vacated by the retirement of Mariano Rivera. GM Brian Cashman has been mum on the subject of Robertson, who was last thought to be on the radar of the Houston Astros of all teams. Of course, either Miller or Betances, or some combination of the two could be used in the closer role, but even if neither ends up closing games, their value in Fantasy will be primarily for their strikeouts and typically low ratio stats.
Heyward/Miller Swap Offers Minor Changes In Fantasy Value
This second edition of Offseason Musings was slated to be about some of the many trade rumors that have cropped up since the season ended a couple of weeks ago. However, a major trade required a change of plans. The Cardinals and Braves swapped four players in a deal that makes perfect sense from a baseball standpoint but has only minor implications for Fantasy purposes. The Braves shipped OF Jason Heyward and RP Jordan Walden to the Cardinals for SP Shelby Miller and minor league pitcher Tyrell Jenkins.
Miller is a power pitcher with a plus fastball that he struggles to command at times. His secondary offering is a curveball that worked quite well as a strikeout pitch in his breakout rookie campaign, but he lost the feel for it early in the 2014 season and had a tough season as a result. He lacks any sort of effective third pitch, though he’s tinkered with a changeup and a two-seamer with mixed results, never sticking with either pitch long enough to make a difference. So, essentially he’s a one pitch wonder at this point, but at 24 years old, he’s far from washed up and makes for a great reclamation project for pitching coach Roger McDowell.
McDowell has some great successes on his resume, in particular, he made a winner out of Aaron Harang in 2014 and he helped Ervin Santana recapture some of the magic that faded away in his final year with the Angels and lone season with the Royals. If McDowell can help Miller regain his feel for the curveball and perhaps help him develop an effective third pitch, then there is certainly some promise of regaining the dominance he showed in 2013. A quick look over Miller’s stats show significant drops in Swinging Strike Percentage (SwStr%) and Swings outside the hitting zone (O-Swing), which indicates fewer swings and misses on both strikes and non-strikes, particularly on his curveball. He also experienced a significant drop in strikeouts and an increase in walks due to his command issues with the fastball. In other words, McDowell will have his work cut out for him.
The change in home park is a slight negative for Miller, who is moving from the more spacious Busch Stadium to the more favorable home run environment of the Braves’ Turner Field. As a fly ball pitcher, he may see an uptick in HRs allowed, however, it may not make that much of a difference in his overall HR rates. There is also an issue with OF defense, as the Braves are losing one of the best defensive outfielders in Hayward and ostensibly replacing him with Evan Gattis, who represents a significant downgrade for a fly ball pitcher. In terms of Fantasy production, Miller in 2014 was a far cry from the dominant pitcher he was in 2013. As we look ahead to next season, there is certainly a chance he can regain some of that dominance, but that will rest upon his development of those secondary offerings. In drafts next spring, Miller will be more of a late round flier than anything else with the upside to be a SP2 or even an ace if McDowell has some success in turning him around.
The other pitcher the Braves acquired in the deal is yet another reclamation project for the organization, with the difference being that Tyrell Jenkins is working his way back after shoulder surgery and has yet to throw in the major leagues. Jenkins is a hard thrower who consistently works in the 93 mph range with easy and smooth mechanics. He projects as a future starting pitcher but is still quite raw and has a long way to go in his comeback from shoulder surgery. Command was an issue prior to the surgery and remains so today. He’ll probably start in the Braves’ High-A affiliate in 2015 but could work his way to Double-A before the season ends. Either way, he won’t make an impact in Fantasy next season but should be on the radar for dynasty owners looking ahead to 2016.
From a Fantasy perspective, Heyward has been a disappointment mainly because he set the bar high with his breakout 2012 season but has failed to live up to that standard ever since. However, if we look at 2012 as a power outlier and compare the rest of his career numbers, he’s still an elite level player with fairly consistent production across the board. Ultimately, that’s the sort of player the Cardinals are banking on getting, and Heyward couldn’t be moving to a better overall environment as a player. As a top of the order hitter, Heyward’s counting stats were victimized a bit by the conservative style of Manager Fredi Gonzalez in the running game and the lack of punch below him in the batting order. Indeed, the Braves were just a cut above the lowly San Diego Padres in run production this past season at 3.54 runs per game. Heyward got on base often with a solid .351 OBP, but the lack of support in the heart of the Braves’ batting order left him stranded more often than not, resulting in just 74 runs scored, despite him playing a career second-best 149 games and making 649 plate appearances.
The Cardinals had their own problems with run production in 2014, mainly due to their league low 105 HRs, yet they still produced 3.82 runs per game. The addition of Heyward atop their lineup along with Matt Carpenter, regardless of where each hits, will give the Cardinals an elite pair of table setters for their middle order hitters to drive in. Heyward should get a bump in runs scored next season, and manager Mike Matheny will almost certainly capitalize on his speed, a luxury the Cards have not had much of in recent years. We may never see 20-plus home runs from Heyward while playing half his games in Busch Stadium, but he’ll still hit double-digit HRs if he can stay healthy. Overall, this is a somewhat lateral move for Heyward’s Fantasy value, though, the potential for more run production and a more aggressive base running attack could bump his value somewhat on draft day. He’ll still be a Top -25 outfielder, likely picked somewhere in the low middle rounds.
Walden is a prototype power armed reliever, who regularly throws around 95 mph and can reach 97 mph when he rears back for a little extra. He also throws a nasty slider and a show-me changeup, but neither of those pitches achieve the kind of swing and miss rates of his fastball. However, like many pitchers of his ilk, Walden often has difficulty with command and control, which sometimes results in more walks than one typically likes to see. His overall Fantasy value actually gets a bit of an uptick with the move to the Cardinals because their bullpen is likely to thin through free agency. Both Pat Neshek and Jason Motte are expected to move elsewhere during the offseason, which would put Walden in line for the closer role if current closer Trevor Rosenthal struggles (again) or gets injured for any period of time. Walden has some closing experience; he notched 32 saves for the Angels back in 2011. That is likely why the Cardinals brought him aboard, especially given Rosenthal’s struggles this past season. Rosenthal is certain to start the season as the Cardinals closer but Walden will be the most likely choice for second in line for saves unless other candidate pitchers are signed. That makes Walden a good late round flier, or at the very least, a pitcher to monitor right from the start of the season as the possible replacement for Rosenthal.
Mets Sign Michael Cuddyer
Welcome to the inaugural edition of Offseason Musings, RotoExperts’ MLB Hot Stove news and analysis column. Throughout the Hot Stove season, we’ll look at the latest free agent player signings, trades and trade rumors and how they will affect the Fantasy value of the players involved. It’s never too early to begin your preparation for the 2015 Fantasy Baseball season, and this is where you can start gathering the intelligence that you’ll need to make wise draft day decisions. The decision to write this first edition was prompted by the first major free agent signing of the offseason, so that’s where we’ll begin today.
The NY Mets Sign OF/1B Michael Cuddyer
The Mets announced the signing of Michael Cuddyer to a two-year $21M contract that will also cost the Mets the 15th pick in next year’s amateur draft. In general terms, this is seen as a good baseball move, as Cuddyer has a solid reputation as a good clubhouse and team guy. Cuddyer is also good friends with team captain David Wright and he’s been a good hitter for the larger portion of his career. From a Fantasy perspective, though, this may not be a great move for Cuddyer, who has clearly enjoyed a resurgence hitting in the friendly confines of Coors Field over the past few seasons. However, Citi Field did play better for right-handed power after the fences were moved in back in 2011, and work has begun to move the fences in yet again for the 2015 season, which may lessen the blow to Cuddyer’s Isolated Power with the move to NY.
Overall, Cuddyer put up a .307/.362/.525 line over the last three seasons as a member of the Colorado Rockies. His home/road splits tell a familiar narrative normally associated with Rockies players; it’s no surprise that his home numbers (.329/.393/.591 in 555 PA) are considerably better than his road numbers (.286/.332/.463 in 584 PA). Even so, Cuddyer is a very productive .280 hitter with above average power, who instantly becomes the best hitting outfielder on the Mets. However, aside from the drop in average we’re likely to see from Cuddyer, there are two other concerns about the move to NY.
First, and more of a baseball concern than a Fantasy issue, is that Cuddyer is a defensive liability in the outfield. His overall defensive metrics put him somewhere between Manny Ramirez and Ryan Howard in terms of runs allowed etc. That’s, ummm, not good. Fortunately, we don’t care about defense in Fantasy, except that it might affect the way the Mets use him. He could play some first base, especially against lefties, whom Lucas Duda seems unable to figure out at all. But the Mets learned that Duda does best without the threat of losing his job hanging over his head, so Cuddyer will probably play left field, where they need a steady presence, something Cuddyer might be able to give them.
I am deliberately saying “might” because of concern number two – health. Cuddyer has a long, long injury history dating back to his early career with the Minnesota Twins. Over the last three seasons he managed to play just 280 games, or about 58 percent of the schedule. He reached the 500 PA plateau exactly once in the last three seasons. This, of course, is a major concern to the Fantasy community, especially with Cuddyer playing primarily in the outfield, where the need to run and the presence of walls to run into and players to collide with is much more of a problem. If he can’t stay on the field, then he can’t be of much help to Fantasy owners.
So, Cuddyer still has the hitting capability to be a Top 30 outfielder in Fantasy but his health history makes him a high risk draft choice regardless of when he is picked. The shorter fences at Citi Field could help preserve some of his power numbers and he’s still an above average hitter, even as he enters his age 36 season. His overall ranking is likely to be somewhere just inside the Top 150, making him a Round 12 (approx.) draft pick in 12-team leagues heading into the 2015 season. It would be nice to see the Mets make him just the first salvo in an attempt to beef up the roster, but given their spotty recent history with signing and trades, that may be wishful thinking at this point. We’ll explore the rumor mill surrounding the Mets possible future moves and the rest of MLB in the next edition of Offseason Musings.