By R.J. Anderson //
The Washington Nationals have played Ian Desmond at shortstop for most of the season. A high error rate notwithstanding, Desmond appears to be a fixture in the Nationals’ plan for the next three-to-five seasons. September’s roster expansion has brought it with the man who could be his double play partner for that time frame. But with Desmond battling injuries, Danny Espinosa has filled in at shortstop, instead of his projected position of second base.
So far, he’s been a revelation. Espinosa has gone 9-for-16 in his first exposure to the majors. He’ll likely remember his Labor Day performance for the rest of his life: two home runs (including a grand slam), and six RBI.
Espinosa played shortstop for Long Beach State University. In terms of recent infield professional production, not many colleges can match LBSU. Bobby Crosby, Troy Tulowitzki, and Evan Longoria represent the most recent of Dirtbag shortstops to make the leap from collegiate competition to the major leagues. Espinosa doesn’t carry with him quite the prospect billing that those three did. For one, he doesn’t have the build of those players, who each stand around 6’3″ — whereas Espinosa is listed at an even 6′. His minor league career comes up short by comparison too:
Nevertheless, Espinosa figures to get regular playing time for the rest of the Nationals’ season, whether at shortstop or second base. Veteran Adam Kennedy, signed in the off-season, has underachieved, hitting only .252/.322/.336. Other Nats middle infielders, like the now-departed Cristian Guzman also failed to hit; the collective .679 OPS from second base ranks as the Nationals’ worst non-center field or catcher position.
Espinosa is no guarantee to outperform that during the final month, but it’s hard to see him doing much worse – especially if his early returns are any indication. The only question that remains now is whether this will be a flash in the pan or the beginning of a beautiful relationship. Either way, Espinosa is worth a long in keeper leagues. And if you’re trying to nail down a championship in your deep league this year, he’s also worth a shot.
by Eno Sarris //
We already talked about what happened in Octavio Dotel’s wake in Pittsburgh. Now it’s time to examine the new closer situation in D.C.
Matt Capps left for Minnesota and left an open job behind him. It’s not entirely clear who will assume the mantle there, though there is an early favorite. Drew Storen is thought to be the guy to become the closer in Washington, because he was drafted in the first round and was given the title of Closer of the Future. Was the hype warranted?
Yes and no. The no first: Storen is not currently showing any elite results. His strikeout rate (7.62 K/9), walk rate (3.84 BB/9) and groundball rate (37.9%) are all below average. He does have what might be described as a ‘closer’s arsenal,’ with a 94.5 MPH fastball, an 84.4 MPH slider, and an 82.5 MPH curveball. All three pitches rate as net positives according to the Pitch Type Values at FanGraphs.com, which use changes in the state of a game to evaluate each type of pitch. It’s also important to remember that Storen is only 33 innings into his major league career, and had a double-digit strikeout rate in the minor leagues (10.7 K/9).
Elsewhere, Tyler Clippard has finally turned a nice strikeout rate from the minor leagues (9.2 K/9 career, with most of it starting, higher as a reliever) into good numbers in the major leagues this year (10.18 K/9). On the other hand, he has a scary walk rate, both this year (4.24 BB/9) and for his career (4.80 BB/9). Also, if Storen is a slight flyball pitcher (and this at risk of giving up deadly home runs) Clippard is ridiculously so (55.1% flyballs this year, 56.3% for his career).
Last but not least is the man that actually garnered the first post-Capps save: Sean Burnett. Burnett has no obvious flaws – his strikeout rate (8.38 K/9), walk rate (3.26 BB/9) and groundball rates (56.6%) are all better than average for a reliever, and passable for a closer. On the other hand, there’s the fact that his career rates (6.05 K/9, 4.17 BB/9 and 52.6% groundballs) are all below his current performance. Also worth noticing is his handedness. Southpaws are sometimes shunned by managers when it comes to picking a closer – there are only two lefties in the top 25 in saves right now. It probably has to do with the fact that lefties are more often used as specialists. Burnett’s platoon splits are also troublesome: In his career, he has struck out 11.15 per nine innings against lefties, but only 6.56 per nine against righties.
This is not an open-and-shut case. Storen doesn’t have the obvious flaws that Clippard does, and he also doesn’t have the platoon split that Burnett has shown so far. Those factors, plus Storen being the 10th pick in the draft and thus someone the club would more likely lean on, make him the man to pick up. Burnett may steal the odd save when a lefty-heavy lineup comes up in the ninth, but Storen should get most of the Nationals’ saves for the rest of this season, and in future seasons.
For more on Drew Storen and other closer candidates, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Tools.
By Tommy Rancel //
When the Nationals acquired Josh Willingham and Scott Olsen from the Marlins in exchange for Emilio Bonifacio and a pair of minor leaguers before the 2009 season, it was Olsen who was thought of as the key player in the deal. After all, he was a 24 year-old left-handed starter who had made at least 30 starts in each of the previous three years without a trip to the disabled list.
Willingham was a throw-in perhaps, a soon-to-be 30 year-old serviceable outfielder with some okay offensive numbers. Marlins President of Baseball Operations, Larry Beinfest admitted money was one of the reasons the deal was made as both players were entering their first year of arbitration.
Things turned out a little differently. Although he escaped the DL in Florida, Olsen has been bit by the injury bug in Washington. He has made just 19 starts since the trade – tossing 105.2 innings with a 4-6 record in two seasons. On the other hand, Willingham has become one of the best offensive players in the National League no one is talking about.
After posting a more than respectable slash line (AVG/OBP/SLG) of .260/.367/.496 with 24 home runs, 61 RBI and 70 runs scored in 2009, Willingham is turning in his best work in 2010. The former catcher is hitting a modest .273; however, he is slugging .502, and is getting on-base at a .405 clip. Both would be career highs for a full-season.
Whenever a player has a breakout season beyond the age of 30, some will assume it is a fluke or an outlier. In a lot of cases this is true. That said, Willingham is on a steady four-year OPS incline suggesting that he maybe nearing – or right at – his career peak.
If you are looking for fluke stats – good luck. His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .295 is lower than his career .299 number. His ISO (Isolated Power), which indicates raw power by taking slugging percentage and subtracting batting average, is .229, or within 15 points of his career .215 average.
The biggest change for Willingham in 2010 is better plate discipline. He is walking 15.8% of the time (up from 11.5% career), and is striking out slightly less (22.1% in 2010, 23.1% career).
Despite the .907 OPS and a .403 weighted on-base average (wOBA), an advanced metric that measures multiple offensive numbers and is scaled to mirror OBP, “The Hammer” is only owned in 55% of leagues according to hotboxsports.com.
Because of his age and contract status (one more year of arbitration), Willingham could be a trade candidate in both leagues should the Nationals choose to sell. That would make him a slight risk in NL-Only formats. Nevertheless, there is no reason to wait on grabbing him off of waivers – if you’re lucky enough – or through a trade in mixed leagues right now.
For more on Josh Willingham and other breakout candidates, check out Bloomberg Sports Fantasy Tools
By R.J. Anderson //
With all due respect to Brad Lincoln and Michael Stanton, the big debut of the week comes tonight in the form of Stephen Strasburg. His availability in most leagues is non-existent thanks to the hype and attention paid to his college and minor league performances alike over the last 12 plus months, yet it’s suffice to say most people who own 21-year-old have no idea what to expect from him except some variation of “good”. Let’s take a closer look through a pair of historical lenses at just what could be in store for Washington’s new ace.
21-year-old starting pitchers
Since 1947 – the beginning of the expansion era – 97 21-year-old pitchers have thrown at least 100 innings while starting 80% of their appearances. Of them, Vida Blue is the only one to finish with an ERA below 2.00. 18 more finished with an ERA below 3.00; 47 finished with an ERA between 3.01 and 4.00; and five more finished with an ERA over 5.00. The average ERA is 3.62, which is pretty good, all things considered, but when we modernize the sample and make 1990 the furthest year back, that average ERA raises to a touch below 4.00 (with the best case scenario being Clayton Kershaw’s 2.79 ERA and the worst being Zack Grienke’s 5.8 ERA).
Top college arms
Strasburg was qualified enough as a collegiate pitcher to go first overall, so it makes sense to compare him to his peers who were also good enough to go within the top five picks. Going back to 1985 and selecting only pitchers who were chosen in the top five out of the NCAA, we can create the following list to examine (Note: the statistics and age are from their first 100+ inning season):
Stripping away the guys who simply never made it or were relievers for most of their early career gives us a group of 20 arms. 15 of which either posted ERA above 5 or below 4; or in other words: these guys are usually either above or below average. The average ERA is above 4 with the high water mark being just shy of 5.6 and the low being in the 2.3’s. If we slice the pool smaller, and focus on the really hyped top arms similar to Strasburg – like Prior, McDonald, Benes, Price, and Benson – then the average ERA hovers around 3.5.
Using all of that information, we still have an incomplete picture from which to draw conclusions. One could argue that Strasburg is just another class of pitcher. One with more velocity, better control, a more polished feel for the game, and an enhanced sense of observation; you know, a lot of things that aren’t entirely quantifiable but sound good and intensifies the myth of Strasburg. Betting that Strasburg will be average or better is one thing; however do not fall into the trap of expecting a legendary performance from him. History simply isn’t on his side.
By R.J. Anderson //
Livan Hernandez has a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 1.06 and an ERA of 1.62. Having a good strikeout-to-walk ratio doesn’t guarantee a low ERA; evidently having a low ERA doesn’t always mean you need a killer K:BB rate either.
Still, recent history tells us that Hernandez is playing with fire. Twenty-five starting pitchers have posted full-season strikeout-to-walk ratios between 1.00 and 1.10 since 1990. Of those, exactly two finished with an ERA below 4.00. For the wave-riding owners of Hernandez’s shiny ERA, that’s bad news, unless the belief is that Hernandez can replicate Kirk McCaskill’s 1990 or Pat Rapp’s 1994. The cumulative ERA of those 25 pitchers is a less-than-stellar 4.79.
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of those pitchers is some of the win totals racked up. Hernandez currently has four wins, but there’s a chance he could join the 17 of 25 who won double-digit games. Kevin Ritz won 17 games in 1996. Omar Olivares, Scott Erickson, and Steve Trachsel won 15. Three others won 13; two more won 12; three won 11; and then the rest won 10 games.
Granted, by restricting our search to pitchers who lasted a full season, we’re sure to see higher win totals than you’d expect from pitchers with lower innings totals. Those innings totals, the ability of teams to overcome iffy starting pitching, and the questionable real-world value of Wins as a pitching stat, say more about these pitchers’ ability than any dubious claims of pitching to the score ever could.
Dave Cameron of FanGraphs recently pointed out that Hernandez’s performance with runners on base isn’t even that good, yet somehow runs just aren’t being piled on…yet.
If you own Hernandez and can get any type of return on him, do it, and do it now. It’s a very safe bet to make that he will not continue to have this level of success with the way he’s pitching. If you can’t find a fool on the market, then the choice to attempt and milk out one or two more solid weeks is up to you. But be warned, when regression catches up, it will take no prisoners.
For more on Livan Hernandez and other lucky dogs, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Tools.
This division will likely a two-team race. The Phillies are the favorites, but Atlanta is better than most people would like to acknowledge. Don’t be surprised if both of these clubs make the playoffs, and be prepared for a possible National League Championship Series match-up.
Jason Heyward is already ahead of schedule, and the season just started. We wrote about him at Bloomberg Sports, calling him a shiny toy, and fretting that he might get sent to the minors. Clearly that last part was a little less than prescient. Heyward made headlines this week by hitting a home run in his first career at-bat, and has become a hot commodity; so much so that he’s probably overpriced as a trade target right now. Brian McCann, Nate McLouth, Yunel Escobar and Martin Prado project as less-hyped but still solid producers who are worth discussion, if you don’t already own them.
The starting rotation offers several interesting storylines. Can Jair Jurrjens repeat his amazing 2009 season? Will Tommy Hanson emerge as a 200-inning ace in his first full big league campaign? The biggest question mark is Tim Hudson. Prior to missing most of 2009 and part of 2008, Hudson had made 25+ starts in every season since 2000. He’s back and looked good in the spring, but he’s no sure bet to stay healthy all year. If his price is reduced due to injury concern, inquire about him; if he’s being priced like the Tim Hudson of old, pass.
Cole Hamels might be the only player on the two-time defending National League pennant winners who qualifies as a sleeper. Though his won-lost record and ERA turned much worse in 2009, his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) shows identical 3.72 marks in both seasons, making him a potential value pick. Everyone else is a known commodity, including newly-acquired ace Roy Halladay, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino and Jayson Werth.
Ryan Madson is the man in waiting if closer Brad Lidge stumbles once more. Madson has typical closer velocity, checking in last season at 95 MPH, but also uses a cutter and change-up as his secondary pitches, rather than the commonplace slider. Raul Ibanez‘s hot entrance to the National League fraternity is what people will remember from last season, rather than his quick descent back into the real world. A year older, Ibanez has bust potential written all over him. Avoid.
The Marlins are in the running for the most top heavy team in baseball. Hanley Ramirez is one of the best players in baseball. Last year, Josh Johnson appeared to be one of the best pitchers in baseball. Bloomberg Sports also loves number-two starter Ricky Nolasco.
After that, things get murky. Jorge Cantu provides some pop. Chris Coghlan is a decent sleeper. Dan Uggla had his name floated in trade rumors for what seems like the umpteenth year without a move happening; he’s a good bet to 25-30 home runs, but his low-batting average/solid on-base percentage is a lot more valuable in real life than in standard 5×5 fantasy leagues. The Marlins do have some strong outfield prospects on the rise. Cameron Maybin and his blend of power and speed potential are already on the major league roster, and Mike Stanton has Jason Heyward-like power potential.
Well, there’s Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn, Nyjer Morgan and … well … have you heard about Ryan Zimmerman? The good news about teams like the Nationals is that literally everyone besides the superstars qualify as sleepers Ian Desmond can sneak through the cracks. Desmond is the 24-year-old rookie shortstop who had a coming out party last season in Double- and Triple-A, with a .354 batting average in 55 Triple-A games. In National League-only leagues, he’s an intriguing upside play at shortstop – even more so in keeper leagues.
Brian Bruney is someone else we’ve profiled as a potential sleeper, but again, only in deep NL-only leagues, as he’s the closer in waiting for now.
Jose Reyes could be a good target is his asking price has crashed due to injury concerns. David Wright will probably cost full value though: Bloomberg Sports and other projection systems expect a full recovery, despite last year’s career-low 10 home runs. Assuming Citi Field doesn’t become a wasteland for hitters, Jason Bay should put up solid numbers too. Manager Jerry Manuel’s lineup fetishes will ding his RBI totals, though. Manuel had Bay batting fifth on Opening Day, behind an ugly collection of bats that included Alex Cora, Luis Castillo and Mike Jacobs.
On the pitching side, Johan Santana‘s value depends on his valuation: Do your leaguemates still see him as one of the top three starters in the game, or can he now be had at a discount? Santana’s rotation mates are avoidable in shallower leagues. Meanwhile, Francisco Rodriguez isn’t the dominant closer he used to be; don’t overpay.
For more on Hanley Ramirez and the rest of the NL East, check out Bloomberg Sports’ fantasy baseball kits.
By R.J. Anderson
The Nationals’ acquisition of Brian Bruney wasn’t the most glamorous transaction of the off-season. But it could pay some serious dividends.
Former Pittsburgh Pirates’ closer Matt Capps figures to start the season with the 9th-inning job for the Nats. But Capps ranks among the shakiest closers in the game, following his ugly 5.80 ERA last year with more struggles in spring training. That could leave the door ajar just enough for Bruney to land some save opportunities. Bloomberg Sports projects Capps to finish with 23 saves and Bruney with 11. The realty is Bruney, who B-Rank suggests is the 33rd most valuable fantasy reliever in baseball, could find himself in the position of being the 2010 version of David Aardsma.
Last spring, Aardsma entered Mariners camp alongside a number of other relief pitching options, competing for the closer’s job. He won the job, stormed through the season, and posted a 2.52 ERA and 38 saves. Like Aardsma, Bruney has a blazing fastball that sits in the mid-90s, and a history of control problems. For his career, Bruney has averaging nearly a strikeout per inning, but with a sky-high walk rate of 6.2 batters per 9 IP. Compare those numbers to Aardsma’s career averages of 9.1 and 5.2, factor in their reliance upon flyball outs, and you can see the similarities.
Last season, Bruney struggled under the weight of a tough division, tougher park, and even tougher string of performances before the All-Star break, as his ERA ballooned to 4.86. After the break, Bruney’s luck improved and he posted a 3.22 ERA. A move from the American League East to the National League East would help anyone; Bruney is no exception.
Eight different pitchers recorded saves for the Nationals last year, including Mike MacDougal and Joel Hanrahan – two similar-profiled pitchers. All told, there were 33 saves to be had. The common concern when drafting closers on bad teams is whether they’ll receive enough opportunities to be worth the slot. This logic is sound, and seemingly supported by research. The majority of those eight relievers have moved on, leaving Bruney and also-ranks like Tyler Walker and Sean Burnett around to scrap over extra opportunities.
What you do with Bruney depends on the depth of your league. In a 10-team mixed league, even drafting the Nationals’ actual closer is iffy, let alone drafting a potential backup. But in deeper leagues, Bruney’s upside and surrounding situation in D.C. sets him apart from most others closers-in-waiting. At the very least, get him on your watch list, and be ready to pounce.