December 2010

Cliff Lee Finally Signs…with the Phillies

By R.J. Anderson //

Jayson Werth signing a $126 million deal with the Nationals figured to be the surprise of the off-season. Instead, Cliff Lee has outdone his former teammate by signing with the team they once shared. For all the talk about the Rangers and Yankees dueling over the ace’s services, in the end Philadelphia walked away with the biggest catch of the off-season.

Lee joins Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, and Cole Hamels to form possibly the best rotation in modern history (as Dave Cameron showed here, this rotation is comparable to the Atlanta Braves of the early-to-mid 1990s). Of course, fantasy owners are more interested in how Lee fares rather than the foursome as a whole. In particular, there’s a thought that looking at Lee’s time in Philly represents an accurate projection of what to expect from the 32-year-old.

Those stats include 12 starts in 2009, with 79 innings pitched (roughly six and a half innings per start, even though that’s impossible), a 3.39 ERA, a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 7.4, and a win-loss record of 7-4. Believe it or not, Lee is probably better than some of those stats suggest. Over the past three seasons he’s compiled a 2.98 ERA, a 48-25 record, and a 5.64 strikeout-to-walk ratio between four different teams.

A stretch of dominance like Lee’s is hard to replicate for too long. Even Greg Maddux couldn’t keep up the frantic pace he posted from 1995 to 1997 (96 starts, 687 innings pitched, 53-17 win-loss, 2.21 ERA, and a 7.46 SO/BB, while walking fewer than one batter per nine innings pitched); Maddux’s 1998 included a 2.22 ERA, 18-9 record, and a 4.53 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Fall off? Hardly, but expecting a slight stepback is safer for expectations than holding Lee to his own superhuman track record. The table below shows how each of the top five pitching seasons (as determined by K/BB ratio) fared in K/BB and ERA the next season. Each pitcher saw his strikeout-to-walk ratio decline and his ERA increase (with one exception), a sign that Lee probably won’t upon his historic 2010 season:

lee1.png

Double-digit wins (wins are heavily influenced by factors beyond a pitcher’s control), 200-plus innings, and a sub-3.50 ERA seem reasonable enough. And given that it’s Lee, there is a chance he might blow those conservative projections away. He’ll be one of the first pitchers off the board come draft time – as will three of his rotation mates. Deservedly so.

Chicago White Sox (Finally) Acquire Adam Dunn

By Tommy Rancel //

Following what seems like years of courting by the Chicago White Sox, as well as years of resisting becoming a designated hitter in the American League, Adam Dunn signed a four-year deal, $56 million to slug on Chicago’s South Side. Whether it was a change of heart or the $56 million being waved in front of his 31-year-old eyes, Dunn now says he’s not only willing to DH, but play whatever position the White Sox ask of him.

Dunn could be asked to use his butcher’s knife glove at first base along with his time at DH. Luckily for fantasy owners, his defense is not a factor. He’ll keep his first base eligibility for 2011 at least; his offensive game is so strong that he’s well worth a spot in mixed league lineups even if he eventually loses that eligibility.

In seasons past, Dunn has been one of the more underrated hitters in the game. This is largely because his batting average has been mediocre (or worse), despite the many home runs launched from his bat. Dunn also walks a lot and strikeouts a ton. The walks are underrated in many circles and the strikeouts are seen as a huge negative to some. Still, the total package is a valuable one, in fantasy and even more so in real life.

The Big Donkey has hit at least 38 home runs in each of the last seven seasons. He is the only major leaguer who can say that. Over those seven seasons, he’s averaged 40 bombs a season with 101 runs driven in. Even though he is as slow as his nickname would suggest, his fantastic on-base skills (.381 career OBP), frequent homers and underrated durability (he’s missed 10 games or less in each of the past seven seasons) have helped him average 94 runs scored a year since 2004.

Also working in Dunn’s favor this season will be a switch to one of the more hitter-friendly parks in the AL. His new home, U.S. Cellular Field, rated as the top home run ballpark in 2010. Nationals Park ranked 15th last season.

On the other hand, there are some concerns about Dunn going into next season. He will be playing in the AL for the first time and will also be DHing for the first time on a regular basis. Add in the fact that old-player skills (walks, strikeouts, home runs) do not tend to age gracefully, and there are some concerns about a Pat Burrell-like slide.

Still, we must give Dunn the benefit of the doubt. His durability and colossal power – in conjunction with a move to “the Cell” – put him among the game’s top projected sluggers in 2011. His position in the field and lineup are to be determined; however his status as a top fantasy option remains intact as a member of the Chicago White Sox.

MLB Season in Review: Baltimore Orioles Pitchers

By Eriq Gardner //

Biggest Surprise & 2011 Regression Alert: Jeremy Guthrie
Forgive us, we’re grading on a curve on this one. Truth is, no Baltimore Orioles pitcher surpassed expectations this past season. Forced under gunpoint to pick, we’ll grudgingly give the honor to Guthrie, who notched a season with an ERA under 4.00, thanks to both a sparkling walk rate of 2.15 BB/9 IP and some good luck (.263 batting average on balls in play, vs. league average of around .300). More broadly, Guthrie doesn’t strike out too many batters and his ability to keep the ball on the ground is nothing special. Don’t bid on him next year, except in very deep mixed leagues or AL-only formats.
Biggest Disappointment: Mike Gonzalez
Last December, the Orioles signed Gonzalez to a two-year contract worth $12 million, hoping to finally find a closer after years of searching for one. Almost from the moment that Gonzalez signed the deal, it was a big mistake. In spring training, he couldn’t even muster 90 MPH on the radar gun and spent about half the season in rehab, attempting to recover the ability to dominate batters with strikeouts. He finished the year with just a single save.
2011 Keeper Alert: Brian Matusz
Certainly, Matusz was also a disappointment this season. Entering 2010, many considered him to be the leading favorite for Rookie of the Year. With just 10 wins and a 4.30 ERA, he didn’t come close. Still, the left-hander has a pretty bright future, as evidenced by a strong close to the season. In 56 innings of work during the final two months, Matusz had an ERA around 2.00 and 43 strikeouts to just 14 walks.

Carlos Pena, First Base Bargain?

By Tommy Rancel //

Despite being the Tampa Bay Rays all-time home run leader, Carlos Pena was the second-most important Rays player to sign with a new team at the winter meetings. Carl Crawford got the big bucks from the Boston Red Sox, and Pena is looking to make a big comeback with the Chicago Cubs in 2011.

A crown jewel in the Andrew Friedman collection, Pena went from first-round bust to MVP candidate in the span of one season. In his first year (2007) with the (Devil) Rays, the first baseman smashed 46 home runs and drove in 121 runs – both single-season franchise records. Unsurprisingly, he was unable to top those numbers in any of the next three seasons, but still managed an impressive OPS of .884 in his time with the Rays.

Pena became the franchise all-time home run leader this past season. His 144 home runs in a Rays uniform also rank as the sixth highest total in baseball since 2007.

For all the good done – on and off the field - during his time with the Rays, Pena ended his career with the Rays on a down note. Just three years removed from his breakout campaign, Los hit just .195/.325/.409 in 2010.

Aside from the massive number of strikeouts which are typical for a three outcome hitter (home runs, walks, and strikeouts), groundball outs were also a problem for Pena this past season. His 44.9% groundball rate was his highest total in any full-season.

The last thing you want from primary home run hitter is nearly half the balls he puts in play staying on the ground. His slash line (AVG/OBP/SLG) on grounders was an abysmal .137/.137/.151. The .137 BA represents the second-lowest average on groundballs (min. 100 PA) in the majors, owing to Pena’s lack of speed, and teams shifting on him to prevent right-side grounders from scooting through the infield.

Though he may be on the downside of his career, Pena’s power is still a threat. Aside from the terrible slash line, the strikeouts, and high number of grounders, Pena still managed to hit 28 home runs last year. Also consider, he is moving from a below-average hitter’s park for left-handed batters to one of the friendlier parks for lefties. According to statcorner.com, Tropicana Field had a home run park factor of 89 for LHB (neutral is 100). Wrigley Field, on the other hand, had a park factor of 119. NL Central pitching is likely to be easier to handle than that seen in the AL East too.

After whiffing (literally) on his chance of a big payday this off-season, Pena gets another chance with this one-year, $10 million deal with the Cubs. With contract motivation, a ton of natural power, a home run friendly environment, and even reuniting with hitting guru Rudy Jaramillo, Pena could be poised for another 30-plus home run campaign.

For fantasy owners who don’t want to pay premium prices for a first baseman, Pena could be a good sleeper. At a stacked position, and coming of a down year, he could get lost in the shuffle in some leagues. While Adrian Gonzalez, Albert Pujols, and Joey Votto go early, you can focus on a weaker position (say, shortstop Troy Tulowitzki) in the first few rounds and target Pena as a mid-to-late-round selection in mixed leagues.

Jason Bartlett to San Diego

By R.J. Anderson //

Jason Bartlett’s name popped up in trade rumors more than nearly any other ballplayer in the land. No longer will that be the case, as the Tampa Bay Rays have reportedly traded Bartlett to the San Diego Padres for relief pitchers Adam Russell and Cesar Ramos.

Let’s begin with the fantasy implications for the Padres. Bartlett immediately steps in as their starting shortstop, diminishing whatever value Everth Cabrera may have held. The 31-year-old Bartlett hangs his fantasy hat on a strong 2009 (.320, 14 HR, 66 RBI, 90 R, 30 SB), when he benefited from an inflated batting average on balls in play (.364 – league average is typically near .300). His 2010 season (.254, 4 HR, 47 RBI, 71 R, 11 SB) represented a hasty step-back, one that resembles what folks should expect moving forward.

Stepping into an arctic offensive environment at Petco Park is unlikely to help. There are some slivers of good news, though: Petco is harshest on left-handed power hitters (Bartlett is neither left-handed nor a power hitter) and a bounceback in steals could be in the works (Bartlett stole at least 20 in three straight years before only taking 11 bags in 2010). A hidden source of upside with Bartlett in the National League West is the large number of left-handed starting pitchers; Bartlett typically feasts off lefties. He struggles against righties, though, and is a good bet to miss two weeks a season with a lower body injury.

In Bartlett’s place, the Rays will insert one-time top prospect Reid Brignac. A left-handed hitter with a better glove and more power potential than Bartlett, Brignac hit .256/.307/.385 with eight homers in 326 plate appearances last season. Brignac becomes an intriguing option in AL-only leagues and potentially a mixed league option if he improves on his plate approach.

As for the pitchers: Ramos is the less interesting of the two. He could be nothing more than a middle reliever or a situational lefty. However, Russell could be a sleeper candidate for saves, given that most of Tampa Bay’s bullpen graduated to free agency, including all of their set-up men and closer Rafael Soriano. Russell is a big guy (6’8″) with a mid-90s fastball that sinks. In 54 career big league innings he’s struck out 54 batters, and his minor league track record also augurs well in that regard.

Russell’s exact role will be determined later this off-season, and might not be solidified until the 2011 season has begun. But he might very well provide the most fantasy value next year among players involved in this deal.

Miguel Tejada Heads Back To NorCal

By Tommy Rancel //

San Francisco Giants’ general manager Brian Sabean has a type: aging middle infielders. From Omar Vizquel and Ray Durham to Juan Uribe and Edgar Renteria, Sabean always seems to find a past-his-prime infielder that puts a little twinkle in his eye. His latest move follows that blueprint: the signing 36-year-old Miguel Tejada to a one-year deal worth $6.5 million.

Tejada is familiar with the Bay Area, having spent the first seven years of his career with the Oakland Athletics. Unfortunately, the production he put up as a member of the A’s is just a memory.

In recent seasons, he has transformed from a slugging run-producer to a contact-driven, league-average hitter with a little pop left in the bat. From 1998 to 2006, Tejada averaged 26 home runs and 105 RBI a year. Since then, he’s averaged just 15 home runs and 76 RBI per year.

On the other hand, 15 home runs, 75 RBI, and 80 runs scored would be a pretty solid season, given the weak current group of MLB shortstops. The only two players to top those marks in 2010 were Hanley Ramirez and Troy Tulowitzki - the two best offensive shortstops in the game.

Also working in Tejada’s favor is durability. He’s averaged 151 games played over the past four years, while averaging more 40 extra-base hits a season. The question for the Giants is, can he handle 140 games at shortstop? But as a fantasy owner, he’s also earned his SS eligibility for 2011.

After the top tier of Ramirez, Tulowitzki, and the second level of Stephen Drew, Starlin Castro, and Jose Reyes, the remaining NL options have as many – if not more – offensive question marks than Tejada in 2011.

If you are unable to land one of the top guys early on draft day, sit back and wait. Odds are the latest Sabean Special will be available later as a potential starter. The risk of Tejada completely deteriorating is real, but the minimal cost in terms of a draft pick with the likelihood of league average production should be worth it in NL-only leagues; his counting stat potential even makes him a decent choice at the end of a mixed-league draft.

Brewers, Blue Jays Swap Shaun Marcum for Brett Lawrie

By Tommy Rancel //

Tucked behind the announcement of Jayson Werth‘s monster contract with the Washington Nationals, the Milwaukee Brewers acquired starting pitcher Shaun Marcum from the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for top prospect infielder Brett Lawrie.

Marcum returned in 2010 after missing the entire 2009 major league season due to Tommy John surgery. Once a death sentence for pitchers, Marcum is the latest in a long line of post-Tommy John success stories. He made 31 starts for the Jays, tossing 195.1 innings – both career highs. He never had much of a fastball to begin with, but his velocity returned to the high 80s.

Had Marcum been able to make 30 starts and toss 200 innings with mediocre results, it would’ve still been considered a successful comeback. Meanwhile, he not only returned healthy, but very effective. After posting a 3.39 ERA in 25 starts back in 2008, he went 13-8 with a 3.64 ERA in 2010. The 13 victories also qualify as a career high.

Without the natural ability to blow hitters away with a blazing fastball, Marcum has relied on one of the best change-ups in the game to get hitters out. While throwing the pitch more than 25% of the time in 2010, he was able to get a swing and a miss a jaw-dropping 28.1% of the time.

Because of the pitch’s effectiveness, Marcum has been able to have great success against left-handed batters, defying the usual platoon disadvantage. Last season, LHB hit just .190/.233/.299 against him. So pronounced was Marcum’s reverse split that Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon employed a reverse-platoon lineup against him that featured mostly right-handed batters.

In addition to the unhittable change-up, Marcum exhibited above-average control. His strikeout rate near 7.5 strikeouts per nine (K/9) was slightly above the league average (7.13) while his walk rate of 1.98 was well below (3.28).In fact Marcum posted the 6th-best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the league, topping even the likes of Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez – while pitching in a tougher ballpark, in a tougher division.

Marcum, 29 as of opening day, should be on your list of #2 starters headed in 2010 – he’s that good. The recovery from surgery looked complete last year. Also, consider that the shift to the National League – more specifically the NL Central – should benefit Marcum going forward.

On the Toronto side, it is unknown who replaces Marcum in the rotation; in Brett Lawrie, they did receive Milwaukee’s top prospect. Last season as a 20-year-old in Double-A, Lawrie hit .285/.346/.449. He hasn’t shown much home run power, yet still smacked 59 extra-base hits last year.

Thus far, Lawrie has played second base exclusively in the minor leagues. That said, there are some who say he is destined for the corner outfield in the future. There is also some speculation that Toronto may have acquired the native Canadian in order to flip him in a package for another piece. In any event, there is little chance that he has a significant fantasy impact in 2011 – outside of a potential September call-up.

Werth to Washington

By R.J. Anderson //

Separating current value from future value is a must in the world of transaction analysis; less so in the fantasy world, where so many leagues go with limited (or no) stability from year-to-year. Understanding that is paramount to understanding the negative reaction to Jayson Werth’s signing in the real world. The common critical points arising are that seven years is too long for someone Werth’s age (31), that $126 million is too much, and that the Nationals will not benefit from this deal when they are nearing competitor status. And yet, none of that matters in the fantasy world.

Werth is one of baseball’s best right fielders offensively or defensively. Over the last three seasons he’s hit .279/.376/.513 while averaging 29 home runs per season, 84 runs batted in, and 8 steals. His ability to steal bases and play defense is important to note. Whereas a player like Adam Dunn – whom Werth ostensibly replaces in the Nationals’ lineup – derives much of his value from hitting home runs and drawing walks – like Werth — receives criticism for his skill set that ages poorly, Werth is more athletic and should age better. That does not mean Werth will live up to that line this season, though, it just means don’t expect a sudden collapse.

What everyone should expect is for Werth’s new ballpark to limit his home runs. Not egregiously, but a few here and there. Citizen’s Bank Park is one of the kindest to right-handed batters in the game. Nationals Park isn’t mean to them, but it’s not nearly as charitable. The other aspect of the Nationals’ organization that may affect Werth is the talent around him. Werth batted behind Chase Utley and Ryan Howard last season, sometimes far enough behind that he didn’t benefit fully from their ability to reach base. With Washington, he figures to bat ahead of or directly behind Josh Willingham and Ryan Zimmerman, who both got on base roughly 39% of the time last season.

With young talent like Danny Espinoza, Ian Desmond, and of course Bryce Harper potentially filling out the Washington lineup sooner than later, there’s a chance Werth can continue to knock in 85-plus a season to along with 25 or so home runs and a .275 or so batting average. He shouldn’t rise up your charts because of this signing, but he shouldn’t fall either.

For more on Jayson Werth, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Front Office.  

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How the Adrian Gonzalez Trade Shakes Up the Rankings

By Eriq Gardner //

Quick brain tease — Now that Adrian Gonzalez has been traded to the Boston Red Sox, how does his prospective value in fantasy leagues compare to Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto, and Mark Teixeira?
A week ago, Gonzalez would clearly be somewhat behind those players in the rankings. Now? It’s not so clear. And the ambiguousness could make a major impact on fantasy baseball, influencing not only Gonzalez’s stock, but also valuations on Troy Tulowitzki, Robinson Cano, and pretty much all superstars heading into the 2011 season.
But first, let’s take a quick look at Gonzo himself.
For the past several seasons, Gonzalez has been one of the most consistent players in baseball — a 30-plus HR slugger with the ability to hit for average and get on base. If he’s never ranked in the top 5 among 1B, it’s largely because of environmental context, playing in the most pitcher-friendly ballpark in the majors with teammates who struggle to get on base and knock him in. Despite the handicaps, Gonzalez has averaged around 100 RBI and 100 runs scored for the past four seasons.
During that time, Gonzalez has 90 homers in road games — more than anybody else in the game. Only Albert Pujols during that time had a better road OPS. 
Gonzalez is not just moving away from a pitcher-friendly ballpark; he’s moving to a home stadium that will be kind to his talents. According to Baseball-Reference, he’ll be moving away from a ballpark in Petco that depresses production by left-handers by 10% and moving to a ballpark in Fenway Park that boosts production by left-handers by 6%. The parks factor difference between the two stadiums was enough to cut his HR total by roughly six homers per season. Adjusting his batting average to the new environment also yields shockingly great results — his .298 average in San Diego would have translated to a .323 average in Boston.
Gonzalez will also be playing in a superior lineup in Boston. Last season, he led the NL with the highest batting average (.407) with runners in scoring position. One has got to figure that the move to Boston will boost his RBI totals. Dan Syzmborski, who runs ZiPS projections at Baseball Think Factory, recently credited Gonzalez with an extra 14 RBI in his forecast for the upcoming season, which may be a conservative assessment.
In sum, it’s easy to imagine, assuming good health, that Gonzalez could be good for 35-plus HR, 115 RBI (or more), and a .300-plus AVG. That certainly puts him in the same ballpark of value as Miguel Cabrera and Joey Votto.
Many people still prefer those latter two, but for what legitimate reasons? Gonzalez’s off-season shoulder surgery? The fact that he hasn’t yet shown he can handle Boston fans and media? Perhaps, but almost everyone around baseball thinks that Gonzalez is a hard worker who won’t fold under pressure, and he recently passed a physical that was a prerequisite to the transaction.
Regardless of where exactly he ranks, it’s clear there’s more depth at the top-end of the 1B pool, and basic economics state that more supply translates to falling prices.
Let’s take an example.

Pretend we’re in the middle of the first round and an owner has the choice between Votto and Tulowitzki. A week ago, the consensus would be for Votto. Now? Does a drafter choose Votto when his competition can take the roughly equal Gonzo a few picks later? Does choosing Votto make sense when other 1B like Teixeira and Ryan Howard may now be available in the 2nd round, as a result of being pushed down in the rankings? Tulo’s edge over other shortstops should be given more credit given the increased strength and depth at first base.

In other words, we’ve just seen a major shakeup in talent scarcity. And it’s not just at the 1B position either. 
The fact that Gonzalez will be manning 1B means that Kevin Youkilis will be playing 3B — which is a big boost to a position that’s been suffering in recent years. Now, all those considering Alex Rodriguez at the end of the 1st round will have to consider the possibility of getting Youkilis a couple of rounds later. We’ll speculate that someone like Robinson Cano may begin to look more appealing at the end of the 1st round with drafters seeing more options at 1B and 3B and looking to fill out the rest of their lineup first.
In short, the move by Adrian Gonzalez from San Diego to Boston is a big rock thrown into an unsettled pond. It’s going to take several months to really measure the impact of this move on fantasy baseball valuations heading into 2011.

Juan Uribe Joins the Dodgers

By R.J. Anderson //

The Dodgers have been one of the most active teams this off-season. All of their moves to date had focused on bolstering their rotation: re-signing Ted Lilly and Hiroki Kuroda, then signing free agent Jon Garland. Their latest is an attempt to solidify their middle infield (specifically second base) while weakening a division rival. They believe they’ve done so by signing Juan Uribe to a three-year deal worth $21 million.

The shift away from shortstop and to second base actually limits Uribe’s real world value. Uribe’s defensive skill set is the opposite of David Eckstein’s. His arm gives him the ability to make long, tough throws, meaning he should be playing on the left side of the infield.

Uribe’s offensive value should be unaffected by the park change and he remains a safe bet to hit 15 to 20 home runs during any season where he amasses 500-plus plate appearances. Not everything in Uribe’s offensive game is that dependable or worthwhile, though, as his slash line over the last three seasons is a combined .261/.312/.443. That batting average and on-base percentage are weak, even for a middle infielder.

Making matters worse is Uribe’s unpredictable aging curve. He turns 32 in July and carries a history of problematic conditioning. Now, those issues were a few seasons ago, and perhaps it is unfair to place the sins of a younger (and possibly less dedicated) Uribe upon this version. Being this is the first comfortable contract Uribe has bagged in a while, though, the possibility remains that he could become a little too relaxed about his work ethic.

Nevertheless, Uribe remains a decent mixed league option for 2011 at shortstop and second base (he also qualifies at third base), thanks to his steady power output. Just don’t expect much if your league values on-base percentage in any form.

For more on Juan Uribe, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Front Office.  

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