By R.J. Anderson //
Replacing Adrian Gonzalez’s production is nearly impossible, because the population of ballplayers who can hit like him is limited. Replacing Adrian Gonzalez’s body at first base is not as difficult, since just about any player can play first. With newly-acquired first base prospect Anthony Rizzo not yet ready for the big leagues, the Padres took a step to sure up their first base vacancy over the holiday weekend by signing Brad Hawpe.
What Hawpe does is this: He walks (12.9% career, 12.1% last year), usually hits for power (four straight seasons of 20-plus home runs until last season), and strikes out a lot (career 26.8%, 28.5% last season). What Hawpe does not do is field. That’s less of an issue with a move from the corner outfield to first base (and a non-issue in fantasy), but something to keep in mind nonetheless, as Hawpe attempts to adjust to the new position full-time, for the first time in his career.
The biggest difference between last year and the ones before was Hawpe’s home run per flyball percentage. In 2010, it plunged to 10.5%; from 2007 to 2009, it ranged from 17.6% and 17.9%. His career average is 16%.
The biggest obstacle for a Hawpe comeback is his home park. Petco Park is extremely pitcher-friendly, and it’s notoriously difficult on left-handed sluggers like Hawpe (which amplified Gonzalez’s accomplishments even more).
At least Hawpe is guaranteed the lion’s share of playing time at first base, but don’t necessarily bank on 600-to-650 plate appearances. The National League West is loaded with southpaws, and the Padres might add a right-handed option at first base too to form a platoon, or at least a semi-platoon. Late-inning pinch-hit appearances by right-handed bats are also possible.
Hawpe is unlikely to reach his career slash line of .279/.373/.490, but he has a chance to top last season’s meager .245/.338/.419. From a fantasy perspective, though, he’s still a batting average risk, and expecting a bunch of home runs in that park is asking a lot. Draft Hawpe in NL-only and deep mixed league, but stay away in standard, 12-team mixed formats.
By R.J. Anderson //
Brandon Webb averaged 33 starts a season from 2003 until the 2009 season. He’s made one start since (on Opening Day of the 2009 season), as a shoulder injury sidelined him for the duration of the 2010 season. After 199 appearances with the Arizona Diamondbacks, number 200 and beyond will come as a member of the Texas Rangers. Webb signed a one-year deal with Texas, heavy on incentives, over the holiday weekend.
Webb threw for scouts late last season, and the reported velocity readings were disappointing. Webb has never been someone to toss fireballs at batters – his fastball has sat around 87-89 for his career – but low-to-mid 80s is a whole other beast. Webb has been one of the most extreme groundball pitchers in the game throughout his career, which could lead you to wonder if he could, in fact, get by with a fastball of 85 mph or lower. If he does, he’ll be in rarefied air. Below is a list of right-handed pitchers with velocities under 86 miles per hour on their fastballs last season, along with the usage rate and their ERA:
R.A. Dickey (83.9 MPH, 16.1% usage): 2.84 ERA
Livan Hernandez (84.3 MPH, 61.4% usage): 3.66 ERA
The accompanying peripherals suggest both Dickey and Hernandez weren’t as good as their ERA suggests. Next, comparing Webb to Dickey is a bit ridiculous. Dickey lives and dies with his knuckler – which makes him odd. Even odder is that he lacks a UCL in his throwing arm – i.e. the ligament operated on in Tommy John surgery. Comparing Webb to Hernandez is imperfect as well. Hernandez is notorious for his pacing and relative lack of stuff, getting by for years on guile and durability.
That Webb fits into his own category isn’t surprising. What that means, though, is that he should be approached carefully. Depending on spring reports, he could become borderline rosterable in deep AL-only leagues,. But for now Webb is not a suitable fantasy option, until proven otherwise.
by Eno Sarris //
You won’t find many fantasy baseball articles about the implications of Bill Hall joining the Houston Astros this off-season. That’s for good reason: Hall’s faults are well-defined, his upside muted, and his strengths not the kind that lead to fantasy dominance. What might be most notable about the acquisition is how well he will fit in that Astros infield.
Hall is who he is. Almost 3500 plate appearances into his career, we know he’ll take walks at about an average rate (7.8% career, 8.9% last year, average hovers around 8.5%), strike out way too often (28.7% career, 30.2% last year, average hovers around 20%), and put a charge into the ball (.193 ISO career, .209 last year, average hovers around .150). He’s versatile – in that he can play most positions without embarrassing himself, though he’s great with the glove. He’ll most likely start at second base for the Astros, but his history suggests he’ll rack up some games elsewhere by the end of the season.
Of course with that package, Hall’s usual place in fantasy baseball becomes clear. The lack of contact keeps his batting average too low to be a sought-after solution in mixed-league drafts (.250 career, .247 last year) but his ability to hit home runs and fill in at tough positions (Hall played 20+ games at LF and 2B, 5+ games at SS, CF, 3B, and RF) often becomes interesting at some point in the year. He’s mostly a waiver-wire, plug-in type. Maybe a late-round pick.
Remarkably, you might use that tag to describe each member of the Astros’ infield as presently constructed. On that infield, only Clint Barmes struck out less than 30% of the time last year, nobody walked
more than 9% of the time, and Hall’s 18 homers led the group. Dan Symborski’s well-respected ZiPs projections just came out for the Astros, and the projections for Brett Wallace (.261 BA, 17 HR, 59 RBI), Barmes (.245 BA, 11 HR, 8 SB), Hall (.234, 16 HR) and Chris Johnson (.269, 17 HR, 73 RBI) paint an ugly picture: The Astros are a good bet to field the worst fantasy infield in the game next year.
Caveats apply. The average qualifying second baseman put up a .276/.345/.414 line in 2010, and that resulting .138 ISO means that Hall will show well above-average power among his peers at that position. He could keep the starting second base job all year and hit 25 home runs with that short porch in left field, though he’s only once before hit more than 20 home runs. Even if he does top that power mark, the question remains how much losing those 30+ points of batting average will hurt your team.
If your league has corner infield spots, or you took a flier on a young or inconsistent third baseman ahead of Johnson, he could be a late-draft handcuff possibility – but in that case, there’s a chance that someone sees his batting average from last year and likes him better than they should. Wallace and Barmes – well, a wait-and-see approach is best for those two.
by Eno Sarris //
When planning your draft for the 2011 season, there are a few different ways to consider positional scarcity. While introducing us to Tsuyoshi Nishioka recently, Eriq Gardner showed us the relative run production for each position on the infield, which demonstrated how terrible shortstop can be. That graph is certainly one way to consider the relative strengths of each position.
But for the most part, only the 12 to 18 best (including CI/MI/UT) at each infield position are relevant in regular mixed leagues. Another way to consider your approach would be to take a look at the projections and rankings at the position and highlight some tiers. A tier-based approach allows you to know when to leap, and when to wait.
Let’s take a look at third base. If you strike early for a first-tier third baseman, you’re looking at Evan Longoria, David Wright and Ryan Zimmerman. Those are fine selections, and there’s no reason not to take any of these three early in your draft.
But only three members of your league will leave the early rounds with an elite third baseman, and the names that follow are fraught with uncertainty. Alex Rodriguez (age-related decline), Adrian Beltre (home park, lineup and some consistency issues), Jose Bautista (batting average, limited track record), Michael Young (muted power), Aramis Ramirez (health) and Mark Reynolds (batting average) all have question marks as large as their relative upsides. You could reasonably lump these players into one tier, which means that as you fill your other positions, your leaguemates will be spending picks on this tier.
Now we’re nine third basemen into the rankings, and only two other managers have a hole at the position – with possibly a few more willing to speculate on a CI or UT third base option. You could define scarcity at the position as the quality of this final tier. How does third base rank in this situation? Well, left on the board are Pablo Sandoval, Casey McGehee, Chase Headley, Pedro Alvarez and Ian Stewart. Take a look at the projections I’ve cobbled together for these players, and you’ll see that while there’s plenty of risk here, there’s also a decent amount of upside.
The best part about this group is that they are a diverse bunch. Need some steals? Headley has swiped double-digit bases in each of the past two seasons, and considering his total last year (17), he may have upside to better his projection in that category. He’ll likely either steal the second- or third-most bases at the position. Need batting average above all else? Might as well take the leap that the Kung Fu Panda will return to his hit-filled ways. The good news is that Sandoval has lost 10 pounds already this off-season, and that some positive regression should be expected after such a huge year-to-year drop from 2009 to 2010. Want a safe player after filling your team with risk? McGehee has been solid the past two years and seems like he could easily hit these projections even with a step back. Need power upside no matter what? Take your pick between the young and exciting Alvarez, and Stewart, or take both to spread out your risk.
Looking at the position as a whole is important – that’s the easiest way to see the overall offensive strengths around the diamond. But looking at the particular personnel and the particular strengths and weaknesses of the players near the bottom of your rankings is also a good way to plan your draft.
By Tommy Rancel //
Following weeks of speculation, requests, and an agent change, Zack Greinke finally got his wish. The Kansas City Royals traded their ace to the Milwaukee Brewers for a package of players including: outfielder Lorenzo Cain, shortstop Alcides Escobar, and pitchers Jake Odorizzi and Jeremy Jeffress. The Brewers will also receive shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt and $2 million in cash.
Going by both traditional and advanced metrics, Greinke took a step back from his Cy Young season of 2009. He went just 10-14 with a 4.17 ERA after going 16-8 with a 2.16 ERA the year before. Meanwhile, FIP (fielding independent pitching) and xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching) – two metrics that strip away luck and defense from a pitcher’s performance – suggest that Greinke was closer to a run worse in 2010 and not the full two runs that his ERA showed.
While Greinke pulled back from 2009, he regressed toward his career level, which is still that of a really good pitcher. His strikeout-to-walk ratio (K/BB) of 3.29 was nearly identical to his career 3.33 K/BB. His home run rate was also within striking distance of his career number.
Discounting bad luck from the equation, his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .314 was basically identical to his .315 career average. That said, his strand rate or LOB% (percentage of base runners left on base) was just 65.3%. That’s about 7% lower than the league average and his career rate. Strand rate often depends on factors such as relief pitchers’ support; the sharp drop in Greinke’s rate suggest bad luck more than a big drop in skill.
A large part of Greinke’s 2009 success was fueled by strikeouts. His K/9 (strikeouts per nine innings) topped 9.0 for the first time in ’09. That number dipped to 7.40 in 2010, but again was in line with his career 7.56 K/9. Not surprisingly, his percentage of swinging strikes also dropped, from 9.9% to 7.5%.
Another change for Greinke was groundballs. A historically neutral pitcher, his groundball rate was an even 46%. According to Baseball Info Solutions, he threw more change-ups and fewer breaking balls than usual, which could explain the shift in batted ball data.
Unlike last season, Greinke will not be saddled with the expectations of repeating 2009’s performance next season. Instead, look for double-digit wins, 200+ innings, and an ERA of 3.75 or lower (possibly much lower). Like the recently acquired Shaun Marcum, moving from the American League to the National League should also help. Some will shy away from his 2010 numbers, but you shouldn’t make that mistake. Treat Greinke as a true SP1 option, even in mixed leagues.
For Kansas City, Alcides Escobar will become the team’s everyday shortstop, while Lorenzo Cain should roam center field on most days. Escobar’s slash line of .235/.288/.326 ranked among the worst by any full-time hitter. A lower than expected BABIP (.264, vs. league average of about .300) does suggest some bad mojo involved. The Brewers did not let Escobar run much (14 attempts, 10 steals), but he showed a lot of speed with 10 triples. If the Royals let him roam free, he could post 25-30 extra-base hits, with matching steals. His weak batting eye could harm his batting average and also runs scored, though.
On the flip side, Cain’s positive slash line of .306/.348/.415 was largely influenced by his .370 BABIP. That number will likely regress in 2011. Like Escobar, though, Cain should be another decent speed option, especially in AL-only formats.
by Eno Sarris //
Josh Willingham will be 32 next season and in his final year of arbitration, but the Oakland Athletics saw enough there to trade two fringe prospects for him on Thursday. Perhaps they liked his consistency at the plate.
For the last four years, the Hammer’s full-year statistics in some key categories have not wavered much. Check out his walk rate – it has gone from a ‘low’ four years ago at 10.9% to a high of 14.9% last year. His strikeout rate has stayed in a tight range, 23% to 24.3%, and his isolated slugging percentage has been between .192 and .237 over the past four years. The overall package is one that doesn’t wow anyone from a fantasy perspective (he’s never hit more than 26 home runs or better than .277). But Willingham works well as a late-round mixed league outfielder or a stable deep-league bat. He’s predictable.
How will he fare in his new digs? His FanGraphs splits show that he’s a pull hitter – he has a .810 career slugging percentage to left field (compared to .320 to right field). The Nationals’ park was 337 feet to left field and 377 feet to left-center, so it counts as good news that the Oakland Coliseum is 330 feet to left and 367 to left-center. However, dimensions aren’t everything – the Nationals’ park had a 100 park factor for home runs by a righty last year, and the Coliseum a 77 in that category (ESPN’s three-year park factor for all batters was .872). Whether it’s the weather or some other factor, it was definitely difficult for righties to hit it out of the Coliseum last year. So it’s not likely that Willingham will set a career high in home runs at his age and in that ballpark.
In return for Willingham, the Nationals will receive two prospects who were not among Baseball America’s top 10 for the Athletics. Right-handed reliever O’ Henry Rodriguez throws gas (98.8 MPH on the fastball, career) and can strike batters out (more than a strikeout per inning every stop). But he’s also had some trouble with control (4.26 BB/9 IP in his short MLB career, 6.6 BB/9 IP in the minor leagues). If his high but manageable major league walk rate holds, he could be a force at the back of a pen. Drew Storen will likely get most of the save chances for the Nats to begin the season, though.
Minor league outfielder Corey Brown projects as a fourth outfielder and injury fill-in, though with some potential to eke out a starting corner outfield job at some point. As a three-year college hitter, his numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt, but he’s done well at Double-A in a mostly-neutral run environment for two years now (.269/.348/.488 and .320/.415/.502 in 2009 and 2010 in the Texas league, respectively). He walks (11.3% career), has power (.225 career ISO), and speed (48 stolen bases against only eight caught stealing). The problem is that he doesn’t make great contact (31%), so don’t bet on a good batting average. He’s improved that number recently (it’s hovered around 28% the last two years), but the major leagues will boost those strikeouts and keep Brown from being a mixed-league option, at least for now.
With Willingham’s muted upside, Rodriguez’s control issues, and Brown’s strikeouts, each player has a flaw that makes for a tough draft decision. Pick up Willingham late in standard mixed leagues; take a wait-and-see approach on Rodriguez and Brown.
by Eno Sarris //
Perhaps the title provides a little clue about the probability that this move works out well for St. Louis. While the deal was short (one year), the dollars were perhaps surprisingly high ($8 million) for a move that flies in the face of some poor trends in Lance Berkman‘s production over the past few years.
Age is a bitter beast that comes for us all. Since Berkman turned 32 in 2006, he’s turned south in a pronounced way. He had 665 plate appearances that year, right in line with his career production. Then, in 2009, he stepped to the plate 563 times. Last year? 481 times. Along the way, he had knee surgery and had some arthritic changes in the joint that don’t bode well for his mobility in the outfield.
Though defense doesn’t factor in to fantasy numbers directly in most leagues, it can have secondary effects. Berkman may find that he can’t play daily in the outfield on that knee – he hasn’t patrolled the outfield regularly since 2007, and that was only for 31 games. He also hasn’t been rated as a positive defender in the outfield since 2003 – what happens when Tony La Russa gets tired of watching Berkman muff fly balls?
All of this is before we even look at Berkman’s offensive statistics, which have also shown decline. Since 2008, Berkman has seen his isolated power decline (.255 ISO down to .166) while his BABIP has also dropped (.341 down to .282). While BABIP is often used as a stat to suss out luck on batted balls, players do have some control over the number, usually tied to their speed and their ability to rack up line drives. The numbers, in this case, line up with what we can see with our eyes: Berkman has lost a step and a little bat speed.
We shouldn’t be surprised. Only 18 first basemen over 35 have put up better than an .800 OPS since 1975, and only Mark McGwire, Andres Galarraga, Jeff Bagwell and Carlos Delgado hit more than 30 home runs beyond that age. Berkman failed to put up an .800 OPS for the first time since he’s become a major league regular, so he’s in danger of repeating that feat. As for the second part, he’s only managed 30 home runs five times in his career – the last was in 2007. He probably won’t make that group a quintet.
The Big Puma has always had a great approach at the plate, so in leagues that count on-base percentage, he may still be a boon this season. More traditional leagues should spend no more than a late-round pick on Berkman.
by Eno Sarris //
The man with a lot of names is bringing his game to River Avenue: Russell Martin has agreed to a one-year contract with the Yankees. He’s not much of a consolation prize for losing out on Cliff Lee, but Martin still fills a need, and may even enjoy a bit of a bounceback in the Bronx. The move also means a lot for the organization, as minor as the signing might seem.
The team had already announced that Jorge Posada would function mostly as the designated hitter in 2011. He hasn’t hit well as a DH in the past (.223/.336/.361), but being relieved of the rigors of catching might allow him to play more often and have a mini-resurgence of his own. At the very least, it rids the Yankees of Posada’s subpar defense behind the dish. By announcing the move early, the Yankees basically admitted that they would spend the off-season looking for a solution at the position.
The speculation to date had been that the team would play Jesus Montero for the lion’s share of the at-bats at the position – speculation based on the strength of Montero’s bat. That bat is impressive: Montero just hit .289/.353/.517 in Triple-A, with 21 home runs…as a 20-year-old. That’s made even greater by the fact that the International League is one of the minors’ toughest places for offense.
Unfortunately, Montero isn’t known for his work behind the plate, and even after four years spent shoring up his footwork and receiving ability, he may not be long for the position. Some prospect gurus, like Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus, are more blunt about his flaws. Goldstein has also pointed out that Montero would be larger than any other catcher in the game. Now with Lee in Philadelphia, Montero might actually be the main chip in a trade to net another starter for the Yankees. He’s gone from Opening Day starter to a possible trade candidate in the span of a month or two.
Cue Russ Martin. After peaking with a .293/.374/.469 line (with 19 home runs and 21 stolen bases) in 2007, Martin has seen his statistics wither away – down to last year’s .248/.347/.332 with five home runs and six stolen bases in a career-low 387 plate appearances. The good news is that Martin has retained his excellent eye at the plate – he continues to walk (12.9% career) and not strike out too much (15.8% career).
Mostly, he’s lost his power and speed. His speed may not return – it’s rare for a catcher to continue stealing bases long into his career, and Martin is coming off of a leg injury. Martin never had much power: At his peak (.176 ISO in 2007) he was only slightly above average (.150 most years). The last two years, his power has been middle-infield-esque, though (.079 and .085 ISO respectively).
Can he return to respectability in that category? Maybe. The park factor for right-handed home runs in Los Angeles was 92 last year, and in New York it was 110. To take advantage of the friendly confines, Martin will have to get more balls in the air. If he, perhaps, puts up a flyball percentage like the one he showed in 2007 (34.1%) rather than the one he had last year (28.3%), he could see a few more big flies in 2011.
With a little step back in strikeouts (last year’s 18.4% was a career high), and slightly better luck on balls in play (.287 BABIP last year, .302 career), Martin’s batting average might also improve in 2011. With his walk rate as it is, he’s still a boon in leagues that count on-base percentage. And even with reduced speed, he should steal a handful of bases. Martin is a decent bet for a slight bounceback. He’s a worthy late-round flyer in mixed leagues.