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Fantasy Baseball Preview: AL Central

RotoExperts Staff February 26, 2015 8:10AM EST
Every week, I will be bringing you divisional breakdowns and offering my take on how each team projects from a Fantasy perspective. I’ve already taken you through the NL West, the NL East, the NL Central, the AL West, and the AL East exploring the strong value plays along the way. Last but not least, I bring you the AL Central preview.

Detroit Tigers

Projected 2015 Batting Order:

2B – Ian Kinsler

OF – Rajai Davis

1B – Miguel Cabrera

DH – Victor Martinez

OF – Yoenis Cespedes

OF – J.D. Martinez

3B – Nick Castellanos

C – Alex Avila

SS – Jose Iglesias

Recap: Positioning of hitters will be something to watch as this season progresses, but as things stand now, Davis appears to be an undervalued asset. His speed is his calling card, but by batting second, there is more RBI upside than he has possessed in the past, especially with Cabrera batting behind him and forcing opponents to attack him from the onset (Davis has a .300 batting average on the first three pitches of an at-bat over the last three seasons). The speed is still there (at least 34 steals in six consecutive seasons) and Fantasy owners should be encouraged by his career-high GB/FB rate from last season, as that approach should maximize his value. Kinsler’s skill set (a 20/20 threat with a helpful batting average) is rare at the second base position and since he’s been able to stay healthy over the last four seasons (39 total missed games) you confidently rely on him to provide Top 5 numbers. Cabrera’s ranking is down from years past, and while I think it is justified given his recent surgery and age, I would caution against completely avoiding one of the best hitters of this generation. If his 10 appearances at the hot corner last season are enough for him to qualify at 3B in your league he is a first round option, but assuming he only qualifies to play first base, treat him as a very nice second rounder whose downside is more perceived than proven at this point. The Martinez pair makes up the greatest ranking disparity in this lineup for me, as both are coming off of surprisingly strong campaigns. The elder (Victor) laughed in the face of Father Time while taking advantage of a DH role to stay healthy and the protection offered by Cabrera. However, are you comfortable paying top dollar for a 36-year-old who displayed a never before seen skill set? His ISO didn’t reflect that of a strong power hitter before the ACL tear of 2012 (his .141 ISO ranked 92nd among qualified hitters in 2011, just behind Erick Aybar) and things only declined in his first post-surgery season (his .129 ISO ranked 108th among qualified hitters, just behind James Loney), so expecting him to even come close to repeating his .230 ISO (10th among qualified hitters, just behind Jose Bautista) isn’t wise. Also, don’t overlook that he hit a remarkable .337 in two strike counts, a 104 point improvement over 2013. He’s a solid hitter, but if the power regresses VMart could finish outside the Top 12 at his position and closer to the 100th best player than the elite option he was 12 months ago. The “other” Martinez is worth your time, however, as 27-year-old J.D. was a consistent threat in his first season in Detroit. The nice part with this Martinez is that your risk is still low (he’s being ranked in the neighborhood of Brandon Moss and Wil Myers), but the upside is there given his breakout 2014 and his spot in a loaded lineup. He’s an aggressive batter (He had a .423 batting average on the first two pitches last season) that should often see the bases crowded, making him a decent volume play at the very least. I’d expect him to far exceed his draft day rank and finish 2015 as a reasonable OF3 in standard formats.

Projected 2015 Pitching Rotation:

SP1 – David Price

SP2 – Justin Verlander

SP3 – Anibal Sanchez

SP4 – Shane Greene

SP5 – Alfredo Simon

RP – Joe Nathan

The Tigers rotation has a pair of Cy Young winners, but neither offers the value of Anibal Sanchez. Photo: Cbl62 http://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=User:Cbl62&action=edit&redlink=1

The Tigers rotation has a pair of Cy Young winners, but neither offers the value of Anibal Sanchez.       Photo Credit: Cbl62

Recap: Price is an unquestioned ace, but is he the lock to finish within the Top 10 starting pitchers? The early rankings seem to be assuming that but I’m not so sure. You have to like his ability to strike out batters in an efficient manner (third-highest first pitch strike rate and the league-leader in three-pitch punch outs last season) and he is just entering his physical prime, but his increasing fly ball rate and Swing% are a concern of mine that is being overlooked. Given the consistency with which he attacks the strike zone, the high swing percentage is eventually going to lead to increased contact numbers, something that will hurt his Fantasy value (even if the contact doesn’t do damage, it lowers his strikeout ceiling). Verlander has been trending downward, a pattern that was magnified by his awful 2014. He is no longer an ace and he may not be a good pitcher anymore, but I’m willing to roll the dice on a sparkling resume like his: the reward simply outweighs the risk heading into 2015. Sanchez, from a value standpoint, is the Tiger to target. After all, he joined Clayton Kershaw as the only pitchers to strike out 200 batters with a sub-2.80 ERA in 2013, and he was better than you think last season if you subtract a poor month of July (2.57 ERA and 0.98 WHIP). The combination of strikeout upside and pitching in a spacious ballpark is one worth targeting, especially for a soon to be 31-year-old who has posted solid ratios over the last two seasons in Detroit (2.92 ERA, 3.60 strikeouts per walk, and only one home run allowed per 23.2 innings pitched). Sanchez has been a wild card in early rankings, but I’ll take his upside over pitchers like Hyun-Jin Ryu or Doug Fister, players I like, but who lack enough strikeout potential to rank inside my Top 20 pitchers. Greene is a name to monitor, but you don’t need to take a chance on him in your draft. Simon is a player to avoid, as there might not be a starter who gained more Fantasy value with less talent last season. In fact, despite there not being another great option on the roster, I don’t think Simon is a lock to stick in this rotation for the entire season. Nathan is a veteran closer and for some reason is being trusted with the role again. His 2014 was about as bad as it gets, but the Tigers stuck with him for the most part, loyalty that like it or not results in value. Ratios are a bit overrated from closers given their minimal inning impact, so I am willing to draft Nathan after he is passed on during the first, second, and possibly third run on ninth inning men takes place in the draft.

Kansas City Royals

Projected 2015 Batting Order:

SS – Alcides Escobar

OF – Alex Gordon

DH – Kendrys Morales

1B – Eric Hosmer

C – Salvador Perez

OF – Alex Rios

2B – Omar Infante

3B – Mike Moustakas

OF – Lorenzo Cain

Recap: If you’re looking for flashy talents, this isn’t the roster for you, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t value to be had here. Specifically, I’m looking at my pick for the next Yadier Molina in Perez and the post-prime sleeper in Rios. Perez offers reasonable power with an ISO above .140 in every season of his career and is currently slotted into a run-producing spot in the lineup, a spot he thrived in last season with a .292 batting average in the fifth and sixth lineup slots and a .228 average elsewhere. While Perez’ star is on the rise, Rios’ may be on the decline, but not to the extent that we saw last season. Only Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen stole at least 45 bases and hit more homers than Rios from 2012-2013, a versatile skill set that I’m not ready to declare gone after one poor season. Yes, I’m worried about the elevated SwStr% and GB/FB, but those metrics appear to be accounted for in his dirt cheap price tag. He’s a steady option to fill your OF3 spot that comes with modest five-category production and minimal risk in the double-digit rounds, something that is difficult if not impossible to find. Gordon is going to be the first Royals hitter selected in your draft, and while I don’t really have a problem with that, I worry that the wrist surgery he had this winter may limit his power upside. He has averaged 31.5 homers-plus-steals over the last four seasons. I’ll take the ‘under’ in 2015 and say he finishes outside of the Top 100 Fantasy players this season.

Projected 2015 Pitching Rotation:

SP1 – Yordano Ventura

SP2 – Jason Vargas

SP3 – Jeremy Guthrie

SP4 – Danny Duffy

SP5 – Edinson Volquez/Kris Medlen

RP – Greg Holland

Recap: Normally stamina is a concern for a young fireballer like Ventura, but the 23-year-old dismissed that notion last season by recording a 2.49 ERA in his last 15 starts of the season. His strikeout rate during that stretch (7.47 K/9) was nearly identical to the figure he posted during the first four months of the season (7.50), indicating that he was able to stay consistent with his mechanics and pitches for an entire season (including the playoffs, he pitched 208.1 innings). The sample size is small here, but there is plenty to like (a .220 batting average against with runners in scoring position speaks to his ability to perform under pressure) and I prefer his upside to a fading veteran like Jered Weaver who owners are hoping they can squeeze one more reasonable season out of. His high-end fastball and postseason success put him on the national radar, the best case scenario for those of us looking to buy stock in Duffy this season. Let’s not forget that over the last two seasons (36 appearances, 30 starts), he has posted an impressive 2.44 ERA. He doesn’t come without flaws, although I wouldn’t fret his high fly ball rate as too much given the dimensions of his home park and ability to suppress his HR/FB rate, but FantasyPros has him ranked next to Wily Peralta and ESPN has him alongside CC Sabathia … I’ll take my chances in every single draft if that proves to be the company he keeps in ADP. There are a couple of relief pitchers that generate more hype than Holland, but he’s second to only Craig Kimbrel in saves over the last two seasons and he actually ranks favorably to the Braves stud in most statistical categories (K-BB%, ERA, HR/FB, and LD%). I’m not spending on closers, but if I was, I’d consider Holland in that elite class and gladly pick him up a round later.

Cleveland Indians

Projected 2015 Batting Order:

OF – Michael Bourn

1B – Nick Swisher

OF – Michael Brantley

3B – Carlos Santana

C – Yan Gomes

2B – Jason Kipnis

OF – Brandon Moss

DH – Lonnie Chisenhall

SS – Francisco Lindor

Recap: Is Kipnis any worse at the sport of baseball now than he was 12 months ago? He was a Top 30 overall player in most ranks heading into the 2014 season, as we all drooled over his 20/30 upside at a tough to fill position, and now he’s in the middle of the second tier at second base and nobody is drafting him with confidence. What’s up with that? JKip will turn 28 in April and this Indians lineup is only going to improve with experience. Hitting a bit down in the lineup is not ideal, but even at the sixth spot in this lineup, he has decent protection in the newly acquired Moss and Chisenhall. I’ll take my chances on a healthy Kipnis seeing a significant rebound in HR/FB ratio, as his 2014 rate was 52 percent lower than his career average and 61.3 percent lower than his 2014 mark. Also, don’t rule out him swapping spots with Swisher in this lineup, a move that would raise his ceiling. Santana won’t be catcher eligible in most leagues after making just 10 starts in 2014, but the third base eligibility should more than make up for any value lost in that respect given the state of the hot corner these days. He was awful in the first half of 2014, but considering that the second half of last season was nearly identical to the two previous seasons, I’m willing to overlook his 299 at-bat struggle in favor of his 1,290 Fantasy helpful at-bats over the last three seasons and buying into him as a starting third baseman in all formats. He is in a prime lineup spot to produce a well-rounded stat line and don’t forget that even with the struggles that he experienced last season, he still managed to set a career-high in RBI. He hasn’t missed more than 19 games in any of the last four seasons, a trend that should continue as he moves out from behind the plate. Gomes’ profile fits that of a budding power star, putting him well within the Top 10 at his position. I wouldn’t be surprised if he cracked the Top 5, as his ISO and LD% are pointing in a direction that suggests he could be a sneaky threat to hit 25 homers. Bourn could fall into decent value, but I am not encouraged by him (61 steals in 2011, 42 in 2012, 23 in 2013, and 10 in 2014) and will look elsewhere for cheap speed.

Projected 2015 Pitching Rotation:

SP1 – Corey Kluber

SP2 – Carlos Carrasco

SP3 – Trevor Bauer

SP4 – T.J. House

SP5 – Danny Salazar

RP – Cody Allen

Recap: Kluber’s breakout 2014 wasn’t a fluke, and as a result will not come cheap. He possesses the combination of constant groundball contact and strikeout upsidethat is enticing and he is someone you can count on as your ace. That said, if you think you can get a Zack Grienke or a Yu Darvish in the next round, I’d go that route. Carrasco finished last season with tremendous success in the rotation, and while I think the 1.72 post All Star Break ERA is a bit optimistic, his upside puts him in the SP3 conversation. Personally, I would still prefer Andrew Cashner or Zach Wheeler, but Carrasco is in that class of pitcher and should have a stellar encore performance. If you’re chasing upside, Bauer and Salazar are two pitchers worth a flier in the later rounds. Both were highly touted prospects, and while neither burst onto the Fantasy scene last season like we had hoped, both possess the type of strikeout potential that is worth a roll of the dice. They are talented pitchers on a good team that can punch out a batter per inning, good luck finding many players with that description after the first 200-250 players are off the board. At this point in the draft, it is all about “what can a pitcher possibly be” as opposed to “what has a pitcher already been”. Go ahead and draft John Lackey, Tim Hudson, or CC Sabathia over these unproven options; I’ll play the upside and simply adjust in May if things aren’t working out. It’s a risk-reward business, and with minimal risk, these are two names to highlight on your cheat sheet. Allen has no real competition for the ninth inning duties, and after a solid campaign in 2014, he deserves the job security. His metrics improved across the board and he got stronger as the season wore on: if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Playing for a contending team and the lack of other options make Allen an unquestioned Top 10 closer that you can feel good about as your RP1.

Chicago White Sox

Projected 2015 Batting Order:

OF – Adam Eaton

OF – Melky Cabrera

DH – Jose Abreu

1B – Adam LaRoche

OF – Avisail Garcia

SS – Alexei Ramirez

3B – Conor Gillaspie

C – Tyler Flowers

2B – Emilo Bonifacio

Recap: Cabrera may not be a big name or inspire envy among league mates, but unless you play in some sort of format that I am unfamiliar with, neither one of those traits bump your team up the standings. Cabrera owns an 88 percent career contact rate, a key statistic given his responsibility in this offense. As the number two hitter in front of two strong power hitters, he will be attacked by opposing pitchers in an effort to face the run-producers with the bases empty, a role that his .363 batting average with fewer than two strikes on him over the last three seasons suggests he should be more than comfortable in. I also think LaRoche can thrive in this hitter friendly environment, as his .208 career ISO reflects reliable power and his improving batting eye makes him a run producing option, even at the age of 35. The hitter between the two new ChiSox is the one I am concerned about from a value standpoint. Yes, he is still going to be a very good Fantasy weapon, as the power is legitimate, but I would caution against using his rookie campaign as a floor and rather use it as a ceiling. He didn’t hit that rookie wall last season but I could see a situation in which he hits a tough patch this season, thus making a repeat performance a long shot. The power is going to continue to be an asset, but the batting average (.356 BABIP and 26.9 percent HR/FB) isn’t likely to be among the best in the game. There is nothing wrong with a 30-100-.290 stat line on the surface, unless you’re paying for a repeat of 36-107-.316. Nit-picking? Maybe, but we are talking about a first round pick in most leagues and therefore nit-picking is a necessity. Give me Robinson Cano or Jose Bautista instead, as I prefer the level of safety that they offer. Hopefully this doesn’t need to be said but … Bonifacio is probably going to be a Top 10 player for a stretch of 15 games at some point this season: don’t buy in.

Projected 2015 Pitching Rotation:

SP1 – Chris Sale

SP2 – Jeff Samardzija

SP3 – Jose Quintana

SP4 – Hector Noesi

SP5 – John Danks

RP – David Robertson

Recap: Chris Sale is among the best in the game and he is on the short list of starters that have a shot to unseat Mr. Kershaw atop the end of season ranks. Spend time before your draft trying to worry your opponents about the funky arm motion, but if I’m looking for a SP with my second or third pick (which I generally am this season), I’d be thrilled to land the lanky lefty. Samardzija is looking to be the White Sox stabilizing force after Sale, and while he is far and away the next best option, I’m not sure Fantasy owners should invest in the former tight end. 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? Pitching in Chicago may result in more run support than Samardzija has seen in seasons past, but don’t blindly assume similar ratios, as the hitter-friendly environment figures to drag his numbers through the mud a bit. In the right spot, he’s a decent option, but I’m not feeling great about a rotation that features him as my number two. Quintana had a strong season that was supported by an even stronger FIP, but I’m not buying the sudden excellence when it comes to limiting home runs. His HR/FB rate dropped 50 percent from 2013, allowing his career-high LD% to not be reflected in his final ratios. I’d give him the benefit of the doubt if he was in a pitcher-friendly, or even neutral, park, but with U.S. Cellular Field ranking as the second most advantageous ballpark over the last three seasons, I fear serious regression. His ERA figures to be under 4.00 and he should be able to squeak out more than the nine wins he had in 2014, but projecting much more growth than that is risky business. Robertson proved himself worthy of closing duties as a Yankee last season and was handsomely rewarded with a new contact from the White Sox. I trust his talent, but I also trust the money invested in him, so it is safe to expect a long leash from his new employer. Drafter Robertson as a 30-plus save candidate and one that should have a strong hold on his role for the entirety of the season.

Minnesota Twins

Projected 2015 Batting Order:

OF – Danny Santana

2B – Brian Dozier

1B – Joe Mauer

DH – Kennys Vargas

OF – Torii Hunter

3B – Trevor Plouffe

OF – Oswaldo Arcia

C – Kurt Suzuki

SS – Eduardo Escobar

Recap: Mauer has the name and used to be Fantasy gold, but it is important to acknowledge that those days are a thing of the past, and with hardly any power, he is a very tough sell at first base. The batting average should be useful once again, but I’d really need to be secure in my home run count and insecure about my team’s potential to hit over.250 to even take a flier on the one-time Fantasy stud. The 2015 Twins lineup is a story of two players: Plouffe and Dozier. The former is occupying the “relatively unknown player at a tough position” role that the latter filled last season and should offer strong value in the coming season. Fun fact: Plouffe ranks as a Top 10 home run hitter over the last three years among players that will start the 2015 season at third base. Now, that has much to do with the lack of production at the hot corner, but that has the potential to make Plouffe’s marginal skill set more useful than you’d expect. Over that period of time, he has five more homers than David Wright in 18 fewer games, 10 more than Pablo Sandoval in 22 fewer games, and a greater ISO than Kyle Seager. Critics will point to his less than stellar batting average, but it has increased in back-to-back seasons and his approach at the dish is reason for optimism. His percentage of pitches swung at outside the strike zone (O-Swing%) has dropped in each of his professional seasons, a very positive trend when you consider that his career contact percentage on pitches inside the strike zone is higher than that of Miguel Cabrera. Even if you’re not buying what I’m selling as far as the potential increase in batting average is concerned, don’t forget that a .250-.260 average isn’t going to hurt you nearly as much as it did even five seasons ago. At the bare minimum, he is a player you should consider in DFS or as a platoon option in an annual league, as his slash (.273/.353/.483) over the last three years against lefties isn’t all that different than a star like Ian Desmond (.285/.330/.478). Dozier, on the other hand, is not a player I’m willing to pay sticker price for. Is the power speed combination nice? Of course it is, but I just am having issues seeing the big gap in skills between him and the next handful of second basemen being selected. Is he that much different (separated by 35-40 picks in most ranks) than Kolten Wong? For that matter, is he really 50-60 picks more valuable that the steady Daniel Murphy or upwards of 100 picks better than Howie Kendrick. I do think Dozier’s 2014 decline was foreshadowed by his second half struggles last season, but even if you think he repeats, why use the high pick when players with a very similar skill set are going off the board so much later? He spent half of last season as the Twins leadoff hitter, so the fact that he is moving down in the lineup could suppress the run total that drove his value last season. His seven April home runs were two more than he hit in the entire second half of last season, a power regression that would also make a major dent in his Fantasy value. On the bright side, his power/speed combination has been displayed in consecutive years, but the hints of regression scare me more than the upside entices me. I’m likely to either be one of the first three owners to fill my second base position or dead last, a strategy that will take me out of The Dozier Dilemma by design.

Projected 2015 Pitching Rotation:

SP1 – Phil Hughes

SP2 – Ervin Santana

SP3 – Ricky Nolasco

SP4 – Kyle Gibson

SP5 – Tom Milone/Mike Pelfrey

RP – Glen Perkins

Recap: Hughes overachieved last season (the best K/BB rate of all time?), but it is entirely possible that his poor years in New York still are on the minds of owners in your leagues. I’m not reaching for him, but I will gladly take him at his current asking price (the 54th ranked pitcher and 184th ranked player at ESPN.com). He gives up far too many fly balls, so I’d sit him when he’s pitching in Chicago against the White Sox, but the rest of the division plays in neutral to pitcher-friendly parks, thus making that flaw a little less damning than you’d assume. Hughes is your standard spot-starter in Fantasy, one who should mow down average to inferior opponents with consistency, but may struggle against the elite offenses due to his proximity to the strike zone. Again, don’t overpay, but a pitcher who takes care of business when he should is one worth rostering. Other than that, I’m not in a hurry to roster pitchers from this staff. Perkins is a non-elite closer that should hold his job, making him a worthwhile investment in the later rounds of your draft. There is nothing sexy about him, but for those of us who wait on closers and chase saves, he’s not a bad option.

AL Central Most Valuable Hitter: Adam LaRoche

AL Central Most Valuable Pitcher: Anibal Sanchez

Trying to get smarter and win a Fantasy Baseball title in 2015?

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