Mastersball

NL Beat


What’s Going On?
NL Beat
Written by Christopher Kreush   
Thursday, 17 April 2014 00:00

It always takes awhile for things to settle down in a new baseball season. That’s why we’re always preaching patience with fantasy squads. But things are even more unsettled this season. For one thing, it seems like every other player has gotten hurt and there should be a MASH unit outside each ballpark.

Many a player got a big scare this week when the Atlanta Braves’ closer elite Craig Kimbrel came up with shoulder soreness. It's one thing for a pitcher to have an elbow injury that requires Tommy John surgery since the success rate nowadays is in the 80 percent range of a pitcher returning to play their trade at a level comparable to pre-surgery. It’s a totally different story, however, with shoulders as the success rate for a pitcher returning to any semblance of previous performance after shoulder surgery tops out at about 50%. It figures something like this would happen a mere week after I was extolling the virtues of owning one of the top closers rather than those in the second and third tiers. But the 25-year-old threw 15 pitches in a side session Wednesday and proclaimed the shoulder was good to go. That’s little solace for me though as Kimbrel isn’t an orthopedic physician and he admitted that he’s had problems with the shoulder since spring training began. This is obviously a situation that will require close monitoring.

Out on the west coast, the Los Angeles Dodgers have lost the services of first string catcher A.J. Ellis to knee surgery that will keep him sidelined until at least the middle of May. Tim Federowicz has gotten the bulk of the work behind the plate so far for the first-place Dodgers but only has one hit in five games since being recalled a week ago Tuesday. Drew Butera isn’t much of an option as the 30-year-old is only hitting .183 for his major league career.

The Miami Marlins' Jacob Turner was placed on the 15-day DL last week and a subsequent MRI showed a shoulder strain. The Marlins' young starting pitcher was able to throw Tuesday off flat ground and was scheduled to throw again Wednesday. Depending on how that goes, he could proceed to throw off a mound this weekend.

After losing closer Bobby Parnell to season-ending Tommy John surgery, the New York Metropolitans got a scare when their right fielder Curtis Granderson crashed into the outfield wall and hurt a combination of his knee, forearm, and ribs. He is unofficially considered day-to-day and could return at the end of this week. Further complicating things, centerfielder Juan Lagares was placed on the DL after pulling his hamstring. He is eligible to return the end of April. As if that wasn’t enough, starting pitcher Jenrry Mejia suffered a blister on his throwing hand during Tuesday’s game against the Arizona Diamondbacks. He should have a throwing session Friday that could determine when he might be able to return. The Mets are hoping the 24- year-old will miss one start at most. Bartolo Colon allowed nine runs in five innings last Sunday to the Los Angeles Angels and blamed the horrible performance on a bad back. He is still supposed to make his next start this Saturday against the Atlanta Braves but this bears watching.

The Washington Nationals lost third baseman Ryan Zimmerman for four to six weeks with a broken thumb he sustained while sliding back into second base on a pickoff attempt. He joins catcher Wilson Ramos (wrist surgery) and outfielder Denard Span (concussion) on the sidelines. Phenom outfielder Bryce Harper is day-to-day with left quad tightness.

Jose Tabata pulled a Curtis Granderson as he slammed into the outfield wall during the Pittsburgh Pirates' game with the Cincinnati Reds on Wednesday. He will be examined on Thursday for a possible concussion after which he could be put on the 7-day DL.

The Cincinnati Reds’ Mat Latos was already on the DL with a knee injury when he was scratched from a rehab start a week ago Tuesday due to elbow irritation. He had continuing discomfort in a bullpen session last Friday and his activation from the DL on Monday was postponed. A subsequent MRI revealed no structural damage and rest, not surgery, is the prescription. The 26-year-old starting pitcher won’t throw for the next couple weeks.

Brett Anderson of the Colorado Rockies was taken out of last Saturday’s start against the San Francisco Giants after he hurt his throwing hand during an at-bat. An X-ray the following day revealed a broken finger and the 26-year-old southpaw was placed on the DL and will miss four to six weeks.

Usually, pitchers kind of take it easy when at the plate, but Joe Kelly of the St. Louis Cardinals apparently doesn’t subscribe to that approach. He injured his left hamstring attempting to run out a bunt and had to be removed from the game. He will return to St. Louis Thursday to have the strain evaluated and graded before the team decides if he will miss any time.

The injuries are certainly piling up but I want to take a quick look at a couple players for a different reason. After pooh-poohing Tim Lincecum last week, The Freak had a no-decision in pitching five strong innings against the Los Angeles Dodgers Tuesday. The lanky right-hander only allowed one earned run in five innings on five hits and no walks. He also struck out five as he lowered his ERA from 9.90 to 7.20 on the season. Tim did, however, allow another home run and his total now stands at five on the young season. His fastball velocity is still down below 90 MPH and I’m still not buying.

The other player I want to look at is Lincecum’s teammate Brandon Belt. The first baseman was everyone’s darling (I was heavily invested) when he first came up and it didn’t look like he would meet expectations. The 25-year-old had a mini-breakout last year when he batted .289 and cracked 17 homers.  Belt is hitting .293 so far this year but has already hit five home runs in 57 at-bats. While he obviously won’t continue this pace, it looks as though Brandon might live up to some of what was expected of him. The one thing that concerns me at this point is he has a 17:2 K:BB ratio in 13 games. He will need to be more judicious at the plate if this early success is to continue to any extent.
 
NL Mixed Bag
NL Beat
Written by Christopher Kreush   
Thursday, 10 April 2014 00:00

We are now in the second full week of the season and while still a relatively small sample size, we can just start to get a feeling for individual players and assess where the year might take them. Or at least where we hope the season will take them and, thereby, our fantasy fortunes with them. Some of these will be good places and others will be not so good. But the game would be boring if everyone performed the same and everybody won. It’s our job to try to ascertain who to believe in and who to treat as a pretender.

Entering this year, there were many a pretender in the closer ranks in the National League. Out of 15 NL teams, only seven closers have what I would consider a safe hold on the job and are likely to keep it long term. That is less than half the teams in the senior circuit. This list would include Craig Kimbrel, Kenley Jansen, Steve Cishek, Jonathan Papelbon, Jason Grilli, Sergio Romo and Trevor Rosenthal. It also would have included Aroldis Chapman if he hadn’t taken a screamer off his head on March 19. Unless you are playing in a super shallow league, there aren't many safe closers to go around. As if we even needed it, Chapman’s injury is further proof that this is a very tenuous position in many fantasy lineups.

Out of the seven relievers previously listed, Kenley Jansen has had some problems even though he has two saves and eight strikeouts, walking nearly a batter an inning and allowing more hits than innings pitched. Jonathan Papelbon was blown up in a game at the Texas Rangers in which he surrendered three earned runs, four hits and two bases on balls in one-third of an inning. That game was sandwiched in between two good appearances, in which he didn’t allow a hit, walk, or run and struck out a batter each time. Sergio Romo has allowed one home run in two innings, which has inflated his ERA, and Trevor Rosenthal had one bad appearance out of four.

The bottom line is out of the seven safe closers, only three of them have acceptable performances with Kimbrel clearly in a class by himself so far. Over the past years, I’ve listened to many experts say how it was wise to wait on closers because they were so volatile. And to be honest, I subscribed to that theory for awhile. But then I got burned with too many second and third tier closers and waiting for that closer-in-waiting or the next guy to get the job only to be beat to him in FAAB or as a free agent pickup, so I've changed my stance. I am now very willing to pay for the top guys, and to that end, I own Atlanta’s closer in half of my leagues, including the CBS Analysts NL League and a NFBC Draft Champions League.

As I was gathering my thoughts for this week’s piece, I was reading through the past week’s postings by my Mastersball brethren and was very interested in Todd Zola’s essay from April 3 where he talks about the same thing about two-thirds down. I certainly don’t think I stumbled onto some contrarian strategy before the esteemed Lord Zola but felt good about myself that he was of the same mindset.

How many of you were feeling pretty lousy about the start to the season that Ryan Braun has had? After his first four games, the 2014-reinstated Milwaukee outfielder was hitting a robust .150 with zero extra-base hits. Combine that with the reports of a recurring thumb injury that had to do with a nerve issue that was causing the former MVP much pain and problems gripping the bat, and quite a few owners were getting panicky. The fact that he missed two games was only compounding the anxiety. Then comes Tuesday’s game against the Philadelphia Phillies in which the 30-year-old Braun smashed three home runs and had seven RBI. As a Ryan Braun owner, I have to admit that I was a little uneasy before that game and definitely felt some relief afterwards. This is something I think we’ll be keeping an eye on for the rest of the season, and many owners will be on the edge of their seat as a result – myself included.

The Los Angeles Dodgers' Matt Kemp certainly has had his share of injuries over the past couple of years. As a result, his stock has dropped in many drafts as owners were very leery of acquiring the former MVP runner-up. I did take the plunge in one league as I was able to roster him at a discount. The outfielder doesn’t have a good batting average to this point, but I’m encouraged by the fact that he has averaged a run scored and RBI through his first four games with two home runs.

Tim Lincecum has been on my pan list for the past two years, so I didn’t want to pile on by including him in this year’s version as well. I know there were some analysts in the pre-season that were predicting a return to some form of previous versions of The Freak, but I wasn’t buying. Not many in the aforementioned CBS Analysts NL League were buying either as the price was only ten dollars. The strikeouts are still there, but so are the home run tendencies and the diminished velocity. I’m not optimistic for a turnaround this year either.

That’s about it for some random thoughts…there are three late games; time to watch some baseball.
 
First Week Fits
NL Beat
Written by Christopher Kreush   
Thursday, 03 April 2014 00:00

Draft month is now behind us and the real opening day finally arrived even as the last vestiges of winter still had a stranglehold on part of the country. It was with excitement that fantasy players eagerly checked the box scores to see the first returns of real baseball games. Some owners were pleasantly surprised and yet others were lamenting the performance of the players they drafted. I don’t have to tell you it’s a marathon, not a sprint, yet it never hurts to say be patient – especially when there have been too many calls in my estimation to SiriusXM shows from fantasy players asking if they should trade or drop a slow starting player.

It’s not always as simple as looking at the box score, however. One has to perform due diligence in researching the underlying reason or reasons for bad games. In today’s age of statistical overload, there are many resources a fantasy player can use to get the information that is needed as opposed to the dark days of fantasy when the only places to turn to were beat writers and broadcasters. Obviously, that was before the dawn of Sabremetrics and any other metrics you can think of that we have at our disposal in this advanced fantasy age. Sometimes, we just have to swallow a bad performance and other times it’s just plain bad luck.

In many drafts, Clayton Kershaw was obviously the first pitcher off the board. He lived up to his draft position by pitching very well in the Dodgers' first game of the season down under in Australia and his owners were thinking ahead to another dominating season. Those hopes were dashed a mere four days later when it was announced the 26-year-old ace would miss his next start with inflammation in his back, and the news got exponentially worse when he was placed on the DL a few days after that. Initially, it was expected Kershaw would miss only a game or two, but that has changed since he was shut down after resuming throwing at the end of last week. Understandably, Los Angeles is going to be extremely careful with their star, who will be on a rehab program for two to three weeks. Since Don Mattingly said Kershaw would need some minor league rehab starts before returning, the best current estimate for his second start of 2014 seems to be the second or third week of May at this point. That would subtract about ten starts from his season total, which would be a very big hit to his real and fantasy teams since not only would they be missing his production but would have to replace those stats with something of much lesser quality.

Moving across the country, we get to the Big Apple, where the New York Mets were playing host to the Washington Nationals. When you’re facing a team in the Mets that finished 22 games out of first place and 12 games behind you in the final 2013 standings and you have your ace going to the mound, you’d think your chances would be pretty darn good for an overpowering performance. However, that’s not how things worked out for Stephen Strasburg and the Nats even though Washington pulled the game out in ten innings. The hard-throwing right-hander tossed six innings, allowing four earned runs even though he only surrendered five base hits and two bases on balls, including a 424-foot bomb off the bat of Andrew Brown. His velocity was down from last year, but it is much too early to make any claims of this being a trend. After allowing all four runs in the first two innings, the 26- year-old settled down and was lights out the rest of the way with seven of his ten strikeouts coming in innings 3-6. It would seem that this was just a case of Strasburg not hitting his stride early in the game and he should be fine going forward.

Moving just across the diamond on the same day brings us to Bobby Parnell of the Mets. After being given the closer’s role in 2013, Parnell’s season was cut short at the end of July due to a herniated disc in his neck that eventually required September surgery. The 29-year-old reliever was again anointed the Mets’ closer for 2014 and entered the same game in which Stephen Strasburg allowed four earned runs in the first two innings – opening day. With a one- run lead, he blew the save, allowing the tying run to score. The velocity on his pitches was down during the spring and was during this game as well. It was reported the following day that he had tightness in his forearm and a visit to a doctor revealed a partially torn MCL in his right elbow. The right-hander will rest the arm for a few weeks in the hopes that rest will take care of the problem, but the threat of season-ending Tommy John surgery is a definite possibility. After touting Parnell as one of my sleepers just one week ago and personally owning him in a couple leagues, the likelihood of Parnell being a personal fail is quite high.

These are just some of the examples of what makes fantasy so utterly frustrating and alluring at the same time. Frustrating in that we have to deal with the unknown injury factor as we go through our drafts and the games start. Alluring in that if we manage our way through the injuries and poor performances, the gratification of having a successful fantasy season is that much greater.
 
Senior Circuit Sleepers
NL Beat
Written by Christopher Kreush   
Thursday, 27 March 2014 00:00

So we’ve gone through picks and un-picks. So what’s left? Sleepers, what else? The term normally means players who many people don’t expect anything from and so they come out of nowhere to be pretty solid fantasy producers. Not necessarily at the top of the list, but someone who is very useful at the price they came at. Usually, these are guys that can be gotten late in a draft or for a few dollars in the end game. But I’m not limiting my definition to those guys. I’m thinking of any player who could surprise and outperform their cost. So without further adieu……

Travis d’Arnaud – Yeah, he’s had injuries the past couple of years. Yeah, he’s struggled offensively in the big leagues. But the New York Mets backstop is still one of the top catching prospects in the game. You don’t get traded for two different Cy Young Award winners if you’re chopped liver. Due to the injuries and offensive struggles, the 25-year-old d’Arnaud can be gotten later in your draft or for a fraction of what the top catchers will cost you. He’s shown he can hit for average and power in the Minors and could be a cheap source of home runs in NL-only leagues. If he gets the plate appearances, he could surprise with near 20-home run power.

Ryan Howard – Whoever thought a one-time MVP could be called a sleeper? Well, maybe not in the traditional sense of the name. But the Philadelphia first baseman is coming off two very disappointing seasons in which he hit a total of 25 home runs. He used to hit almost that many in half a season and is only two years removed from 33 jacks. The past two years and the fact the hefty Howard is now 34 years old could signal a buying opportunity. Sluggers oftentimes have a resurgence in their career and I’m thinking 2014 could be Ryan’s year.

Taylor Jordan – The Washington Nationals’ Jordan has been battling Tanner Roark for the final starting pitcher spot. Even if Taylor doesn’t get the nod out of spring, keep an eye on him. He pitched well in 2013, his major league debut, and his penchant for inducing many ground balls was evident – well over 50% of the time. While not a strikeout machine, the 25-year-old has a hard breaking slider that results in a lot of swings and misses. If he can generate more swings and misses with his fastball, his K/9 could improve. Combine that with very good control (only 11 bases on balls in 51 2/3 innings) and we could have the makings of something special for very little cost.

Devin Mesoraco – With Ryan Hanigan traded and Dusty Baker now gone, Mesoraco is the catcher for the Cincinnati Reds in 2014. It was only a few years ago that he was in the top-15 prospects in baseball. The 25-year-old doesn’t strike out excessively and exhibited the ability to hit some home runs in the Minors. He was limited by a .269 BABIP in 2013 and a slight improvement here should put his batting average in acceptable range for a catcher. Toss in a chance at maybe 15 home runs and I’ll take that for a couple dollar investment.

Chris Owings – The Arizona Diamondbacks' shortstop situation is still unsettled with Didi Gregorious and Owings battling it out. Gregorious had the position in 2013 but turned it into a competition with a .229 batting average after the middle of May. Meanwhile, Owings hit .330 with 12 home runs and 20 stolen bases at Triple-A Reno and got a chance at a call-up late in the year, batting .291 over 55 at-bats with two stolen bases. While Didi is considered the better defender, the 22-year-old Owings is considered the better hitter and can play both middle infield spots. While he may not be projected for many plate appearances at this point, there is a lot of talk about Gregorious being traded, which would open the door wide for Owings.

Bobby Parnell – The closer for the New York Mets didn’t pitch after the month of July last year due to a herniated disc in his neck that required September surgery. As such, he’s not in the top group of closers for 2014 and he will be priced accordingly. Further in his favor is he doesn’t have much in the way of anyone supplanting him in the ninth inning spot with Jose Valverde and Vic Black behind him. The cost for 25 saves shouldn’t be high coming off injury and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him approach 30 saves.

Wily Peralta – It was a tale of two seasons in 2013 for the Milwaukee Brewers’ Peralta. In the second half, he lowered his ERA from 6.00 to 3.05, increased his K/9 from 5.1 to 7.3 and lowered his hits against from 11.4/9 to 7.5/9. While his 7.5 K/9 isn’t great, the 24-year-old showed much more potential in the minor leagues and does have some heat in a 95 mph fastball. He has shown improvement in his control this spring, walking only four while not yielding a home run. If he can keep that up (and I think he could), Peralta will better his 11-win 2013 campaign.

Pedro Strop – After the trade from the Baltimore Orioles to the Chicago Cubs, Strop was a different pitcher. The reliever had a 7.25 ERA with a 9.67 K/9 pre-Cubs and a 2.83 ERA and 10.80 K/9 post-Cubs. With a fastball that touches 96, the 28-year-old Strop has the tools to punch out hitters. With only Jose Veras ahead of him in the bullpen, I believe Strop will be in line for a good amount of save chances entering 2014. All it will take is a Veras implosion or trade, and I think either is pretty likely.

I’m putting my money where my mouth is as I already own a few of these players and will almost certainly own more of them before draft season is finished.
 
NL Un-Picks
NL Beat
Written by Christopher Kreush   
Thursday, 20 March 2014 00:00

Last week, I looked at some players I like in the National League for fantasy purposes this year. This week, it’s only fitting that I look at some players I don’t want on my teams. However, I’m going to refrain from the usual moniker of something you cook in because I just don’t want to use it. The downside of that is I’ve never been accused of being very creative so I’ll just go with what seems to be popular these days. I’ve seen so many commercials about zombies and the like so I’m going with Un-Picks, as in the un-dead. Enough of that, on to the Un-Picks.

Yonder Alonso – When I think of the prototypical first baseman for my fantasy teams, I think power. Bases emptying, wall clearing, and awe inspiring power. Well, the 26-year-old Alonso has none of that. Since he only hits about one home run every 60 at-bats, that projects to around ten for the season.  The handful of stolen bases I’ll get isn’t nearly enough to make up for the power void. I’ll pass and look for a decent average elsewhere.

Rex Brothers – Although he is being touted as the heir apparent to LaTroy Hawkins, the 26-year-old Colorado Rockies relief pitcher is off my radar this year. Sure, he can strike out hitters to the tune of a little better than one per inning; he also allows too many base runners at this point in his career to depend on as a closer. And allowing base runners in Coors Field isn’t a good thing any time. Since he’s not even going to have a full-time closing gig, at best he’s a third closer for me in mixed leagues and a low-level second option in NL-only play. He might turn out to be a good one; it’s just not going to be this year.

Curtis Granderson – I’m not sour on “The Grandy Man” (as John Sterling called him) because he’s with the cross-town rival New York Mets now. I actually soured on him when he was a part of my beloved Yankees. He had a very good year in 2011 with 41 home runs and 25 stolen bases but followed that up with 43 home runs and ten stolen bases the next year and only seven home runs and eight stolen bases last year, albeit in an injury-filled season.  Also working against the 33-year-old outfielder is he is now 33 and his batting average has gone from .262 to .232 to .229 as more and more teams employed the shift against him and he was powerless to solve it. He seemed to try to hit the ball through or over the shift every plate appearance and that led to his strikeouts going from 169 to 195 to 69 in only 214 at-bats last year. Now that he doesn’t have the comfortable confines of Yankee Stadium’s right field fence to aim for anymore, things could get much worse.

Zack Greinke – The righty throwing Greinke had one of the best years of his career in 2013. Was it the move to pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium? Time will tell but I’m not going to be one to find out most likely. While everyone will be spending the type of draft pick or SP1 dollars for a repeat of last year, I don’t think it’s going to happen. I’m not saying I don’t like the 30-year-old, just that the price will be too high for me and won’t be justified by the ROI.

Chris Johnson – Another corner infielder without much pop; strike one. Doesn’t run to make up for the lack of power; strike two. A .321 batting average that was fueled by a gaudy .394 BABIP that surely will regress; strike three, you’re out.

Brandon McCarthy – He came into the big leagues with a lot of fanfare way back when and I was one of those weighing the band wagon down. But in eight major league seasons, the now 30-year-old starting pitcher has only had two seasons with an ERA under 4.00! Both of those seasons were in Oakland, which is friendlier to pitchers than Texas or Arizona. I know wins are finicky but you would think he’d have at least one season of at least ten victories? Nada. Add in all the injury risk and I'll pass.

Justin Morneau – Some people are touting a move to Coors Field and a bounce back in the power department. Color me skeptical. I’ll take a chance rostering the now 33-year-old as a corner man but not as my primary first baseman. Name recognition and the move to the thin Colorado air will most likely push the asking price too high for me and the chance of one errant pitch or hard bump on the field ending his career means I won’t be an owner.

Pablo Sandoval – Despite quite a bit of heft, another corner infielder that doesn’t hit for much power. Do you sense a trend here?

Dan Uggla – There was a time that I was very willing to roster a light batting average hitting middle infielder who could mash 30-something bombs. But now the average is at or below Mendoza line territory and the home runs have shrunk to maybe 20 - if you’re lucky. Too little to absorb the batting average hit – just plain ugly in my eye.

B.J. Upton – Playing in Atlanta with his brother was supposed to rejuvenate his career and push the elder Upton to unleash his potential. Instead, 2013 turned out to be an unmitigated disaster for the 29-year-old as he finished with a .184 batting average, nine home runs and 12 stolen bases. I’m not willing to pay to find out if he rebounds at all and am not betting he will. It won’t (can’t?) be as bad as last year or will it? Do you feel lucky punk?

That’s it for my NL Un-Pick list for this year. Hopefully, I won’t be forced into owning many of these characters.
 
NL Picks
NL Beat
Written by Christopher Kreush   
Thursday, 13 March 2014 00:00

One of the things I always looked forward to (and still do) is to read different writer’s picks and pans to kind of try to figure out which players are maybe trending upwards and which are heading for the basement. While we all know what opinions are like, it’s still quite interesting to me to read different people’s perspectives about who they like and who they don’t like. As far as I’m concerned, you can never have too much information or differing points of view. Someone’s bound to be right about a certain player and I like to try to figure out who it is. So I’m going to throw my two cents worth out there and give my opinion on NL picks this week.

Pedro Alvarez – At 6’3” and 235 pounds, the Pittsburgh hot corner man is a big boy to say the least. What Alvarez does best is what you’d think big boys would do and that is hit the ball a long way. After hitting 30 home runs in his first full season, he followed it up with 36 in 2013 to tie for the league lead.  Yeah, I know he struck out 186 times and only batted .233 and can’t hit lefties, but I’m not drafting him for that. He can still hit home runs and there are not many players who could hit more than he could from a position I want to get a lot of power from. While the rest of the league is chasing David Wright, Aramis Ramirez and Ryan Zimmerman, I’ll take Alvarez and make up the batting average elsewhere. Plus, this is his magical age-27 year, if you put any stock in that.

Allen Craig – The St. Louis Cardinals 1B/OF isn’t your consummate power hitting first baseman, but he can hit for a very good average. While some may pooh-pooh his .454 mark with runners in scoring position, he still hits nearly .400 for his career in those circumstances. Keep in mind he still had 97 RBI despite missing most of the last month of the season after hurting his foot. In a draft where I don’t get any of the big players at first base, I’ll gladly take the diminished power from Craig to match up as a good compliment to Alvarez across the diamond. In an auction, I might toss him out early while many other players are waiting for the big guns at the position to come up and try to sneak a bit of a bargain in. Oh, the dual eligibility at outfield would be nice as well.

Evan Gattis – In a one-catcher league, I’d rather have someone else. But in a two-catcher league, sign me up for Gattis as my second backstop. With the departure of Brian McCann to the Big Apple, the 28-year-old catcher stands to get more time behind the plate. While an average in the .240 to .245 range isn’t ideal, you could do worse, and I want him for his pop; he led all NL catchers with 21 home runs in 2013 along with Wilin Rosario.

Paul Goldschmidt – You might think that’s an obvious choice buckaroo, but this is a list of picks, not sleepers. Everything about his 2013 is legitimate – 36 home runs, 125 RBI, 103 runs scored. While I think he might lose a bit from his .302 average, it won’t be much – pencil him in for .290 plus. And 15 stolen bases from a first baseman with his other credentials? Sign me up! But, realize that the cost is going to be steep.

Jedd Gyorko – Although he is coming off his rookie season, Gyorko is 26 entering his sophomore year. So while you might think he’s not as young as you’d like a rookie to be, I think you can say he has a leg up in the maturity department as a result. Evidence his move from third base to a brand new position last year without taking his less than stellar defensive game to the plate with him. The second-round 2010 draft pick led all rookies with 23 home runs – the majority of which came in no-so-little Petco Park – and that’s including missing a month to injury. I look for him to improve some on last year’s .249 average. But the selling point is the 25 or so home runs you’ll get – where else are you going to find that at the keystone position?

Ben Revere – Even I like stolen base specialists under the right circumstances – and I think the 25-year-old Revere fits that bill. The Philadelphia outfielder will hit for a very respectable average and can steal in the mid to upper 30’s bases. Given his injury and the fact he’s not as shiny as Billy Hamilton, Everth Cabrera or Jean Segura in the base stealing department, he could fly a little under the radar, and that’s fine with me.

Andrew Cashner – The 28-year-old started 2013 in the bullpen but was soon put into the starting rotation and responded very well in the second half of the season when he put up a 2.14 ERA. His strikeout rate increased while he also allowed fewer bases on balls during this period. Cashner allowed more fly balls than he used to but that’s not necessarily a bad thing in Petco Park – actually helping his BAA if they stay in the yard.

Alex Wood – It always seems like the St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves do a great job producing frontline starting pitchers, and I believe Alex Wood fits perfectly into this category. He’s still young and developing but I believe this will be the last year you can get the 23-year-old southpaw at any sort of a discount. A ground ball pitcher that can also strike out batters is a great asset to have – in real baseball or fantasy.

Next week, I’ll list some pans.
 
Don’t Spring Ahead
NL Beat
Written by Christopher Kreush   
Thursday, 06 March 2014 00:00

This is always a favorite time of year for me. Winter is winding down (or is it?) and the light of spring can be seen at the end of the tunnel. So what makes this so special? Two things – the start of baseball and golf seasons (not necessarily in that order). Especially after the winter we’ve had this year, I’m ready for the warmth and to hit a little white ball and hear the sounds of a ballpark. To that end, my buddy Tony and I already have our tickets for our first game of the year – Yankees vs. Red Sox in Fenway Park April 20.

But until then, there’s still a lot to do as far as getting prepared for the fantasy season. I, like so many others, have one draft already under my belt (the CBS NL Analyst League) and am working through a NFBC 50-round slow draft in which 38 rounds are in the books. Still to come are two more mixed league auctions to round out my portfolio for the year at four leagues. A manageable number for me at this point but a drop in the bucket for many other players I realize as I remember my own years of a dozen or more leagues.

Even though my other two leagues don’t have their auction until the last weekend before the regular season starts (as do many a fantasy player), there doesn’t seem to be enough time to complete preparation. There are spreadsheets to build, games to watch, information to absorb and many a stat to pore over.

While doing this, it’s very important to keep your head on straight and not get caught up in the moment. You might say “what do you mean by that?” It’s easy to become enamored with a player’s spring performance but remember to keep things in perspective – the biggest part of which is, it’s only spring training.

I’ve seen many players over drafted because of a hot spring only to be disappointing during the regular season. For every Ryan Howard of 2010, who swatted ten spring home runs in 75 at-bats in leading the league, there’s a Craig Monroe. The Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder was second the same year and had eight home runs of his own in 71 at-bats but only hit three home runs in 79 regular season at-bats that year and was out of baseball by June 16.  There’s Rickie Weeks, who batted .429 during the 2011 spring season but all he could manage was a .269 mark during the regular season. Weeks had never hit above .279 in any major league season but there was more than a few people talking about a year that Weeks would put everything together.

On the pitching side, who can forget the 2010 spring Russ Ortiz of the Los Angeles Dodgers put together with a 0.96 ERA and 22 strikeouts in 18.2 innings only to throw seven innings for Los Angeles that year with a 10.29 ERA? Keep in mind Ortiz had only one year in 11 previous big league seasons with an ERA lower than 3.61. Yet he was drafted in places as if he’d all of a sudden become the next coming of Sandy Koufax.

So how do we approach spring training and analyze player performance? For one thing, many pitchers tend to use the spring as a testing ground. They may be testing a new pitch or tinkering with their delivery or a different arm slot. There are more than a few times this testing and tinkering leads to inflated stats for a hitter who is going up there to rip away and impress the manager (and fans) with their gaudy statistics while trying to win a full-time gig. If a pitcher has good and improving results with a new offering over the course of the spring, they may add it to their repertoire for the regular season to give them a different weapon to use in certain instances.  If the results don’t show any promise, they dump the trial pitch and go with their normal arsenal. But spring is where they do their experimenting and it’s important to keep that in mind when it comes to statistics watching. Inevitably, what a pitcher does also affects the hitters – either positively or negatively.

Another thing to keep in mind is spring training is a small sample size and anything can happen when you’re looking at statistics in bite-sized pieces. Most starting pitchers stay under 30 innings during the spring, which is about four games worth during the regular season. Pitchers are always having four-game stretches of good or bad performances during the regular season. Hitters are getting at most about 80 at-bats and they’re not always seeing the better pitchers. Those 80 at-bats are less than a month's worth during the regular season and hitters are always having hot and cold months.

So instead of looking at just statistics, which can be very jaded, it’s better to look at position battles, players coming off injury and how minor league players are seeming to fit into the big picture. So I’m keeping an eye on players like Brandon Beachy of the Atlanta Braves, who is coming off shoulder surgery and threw three hitless innings, albeit with only one strikeout. Or San Diego’s Josh Johnson, who tossed two innings without allowing a hit and striking out two in his spring debut after elbow surgery. Or the New York Mets’ Noah Syndergaard, who pitched two scoreless innings while striking out two with his fastball topping out at 98 mph. The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Carl Crawford strained a quad – and has a history of leg injuries - and has only had five at-bats thus far. It’s obviously still very early, but these are the types of players and performances to take note of.

So the moral of the story is keep your eyes and ears open during spring training but don’t necessarily look at just surface statistics and spring at them blindly. And, enjoy the fact that baseball (and golf) is back.
 
NL in Decline?
NL Beat
Written by Christopher Kreush   
Thursday, 27 February 2014 00:00

One of the age old questions among fans of the national pastime is whether the American or National is the superior league in Major League Baseball. Over the years, there has been many a disagreement – to put it politely – regarding this between friends and family members. I have even heard of friendships that were severed because of how fanatical some have gotten defending whichever league is their favorite.

When looking at this objectively, the question invariably comes up, “What is the definitive way to get an answer to which league is the best?” Some are quick to point to World Series results as the proof. When we look at this, you could possibly say that the American League has been the superior league since 1990, having won 13 of 20 (with none being played in 1994 due to the strike). I would think that comparing only the two teams to make it to the Fall Classic is a poor way to render a sound judgment on the question; especially considering anything can happen in a short series of seven games. I would think Todd Zola as a scientist would concur that drawing any kind of conclusion from an experiment only run seven times would not amount to a credible basis of fact.

Others want to point to the All-Star game, believing that since it takes in players from every team, it is a much more reliable barometer of the quality of both leagues. I personally feel that could have been pretty accurate in the period from 1963–1987 when the NL won 22 of these games compared to three for the American League – certainly an embarrassing record for the junior circuit. I think that because, speaking purely in anecdotal terms, it seemed like the players on both sides really had a much stronger desire to win the game. Now, even with the league winner getting home-field advantage for the World Series, it doesn’t seem to me like that desire to win is near as strong as a few decades ago. Strictly speaking as a viewer (and yes, it might be because I need new glasses), there isn’t the hustle or strong emotion over this game like there used to be, so I don’t think it’s a good decider of which league is better even though the American League has won 19 of the 26 games (one tie) since 1988. Going back to Todd and his experiments, if seven times doesn’t amount to a without a doubt statement of fact, how possibly could one?

So where could we find an answer to the question of which league is better? Well thankfully (or regrettably if you’re a baseball "purist" and like the way things used to be), Bud Selig provided us with a vehicle for this when he introduced interleague play in 1997. It started with 214 games between the two leagues in the first year then jumped to 224, 251 and then 252 in 2001 and stayed that number until 2013, when it jumped to 300 games. Since it was instituted, there have been a total of 4,264 games played with the American League victorious in 2,235, good for a .524 winning percentage. The AL has won the season series in 13 of the 17 years. You might think with the Houston Astros moving from the NL to the AL starting last year, the gap would have closed, and it did with the lowest winning percentage (.513) since 2004 even though the American League actually equaled the most number of wins they ever had with 154 for the year thanks to the additional 48 games. The large number of games played over this period is certainly a much better quantifier as to the American League being the better of the two.

So what does this mean for the National League? Is it forever doomed to the fate of being second fiddle to their younger brethren, the AL? Absolutely not. Anyone who has followed or knows about the history of baseball (and many things in life, in general) realizes that things have a tendency to run in cycles and even out over time. It just so happens the present time seems to be tilted to the side of the American League.

But there could be some evidence of a change on the horizon if we look towards the minor leagues. Looking at the ratings of various outlets, the top-10 minor league systems are pretty evenly split 50/50 between the two leagues. When you expand that to the top-15 or top-20 systems, the National League has the advantage roughly 60 percent of the time.

To be certain, while that’s not a sure thing in this day of trades, free agency and the more often than not fickle science of projecting minor league players, it’s certainly better to have the higher consensus of minor league rankings. At least it’s something National League fans can hang their hat on, and especially because of trades and free agency, the pendulum could certainly start to swing back to the NL side sooner rather than later. Until then, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” with your best argument for your favorite league, even if it is anecdotal and not scientific.
 
NL West Notes
NL Beat
Written by Christopher Kreush   
Thursday, 20 February 2014 00:40

In some regards, the National League West was the easiest division in the Senior Circuit. There was only one team that played over .500 ball and one team at the break even mark. Every other team was at least ten games below.

Three different teams have won the division in the past three years and 2013 was the Los Angeles Dodgers' turn, as they captured the top spot for the first time since 2009. However, with their record, they would have only come in second in the East and third in the Central. The team decided not to pick up the mutual option on Chris Capuano, lost Ted Lilly to retirement and Ricky Nolasco to the Minnesota Twins on a four-year deal. Gone also are Nick Punto and Skip Schumaker, who went to the Oakland A’s and Cincinnati Reds respectively. Los Angeles did manage to hang onto Juan Uribe, I’m assuming since nobody else wanted the aging hot corner man. The biggest additions for the Dodgers were the signing of Paul Maholm and Dan Haren to one-year deals – not exactly addition by addition. Los Angeles was below the league average in home runs and just barely at league average in runs batted in and runs scored. They were also second in team ERA and strikeouts but none of their off-season moves figure to help with any of this.

The Arizona Diamondbacks finished a distant second to the Dodgers with 81 wins and 81 losses – 11 games out of first place. It was the second year in a row that Arizona went 81-81, this after winning the division in 2011. Willie Bloomquist departed for a two-year contract with the Seattle Mariners.  Outfielder Adam Eaton was traded to the Chicago White Sox and starting pitcher Tyler Skaggs went to the Los Angeles Angels in return for Mark Trumbo. Arizona was busy with trades as they also acquired closer Addison Reed from the White Sox to replace Heath Bell, who was sent packing to the Tampa Bay Rays. The Diamondbacks also signed starting pitcher Bronson Arroyo to a two-year contract.

After finishing 26 games over .500 and winning the division in 2012, the San Francisco Giants came in third place last year – losing ten more games than they won and ending 16 games behind league-leading Los Angeles. The Giants were second to last in the National League in home runs with 107 on the year – a paltry amount. The team was also below league average in runs scored. So I guess it makes sense the only offensive move of note San Francisco made was to bring in left fielder Michael Morse, who hit 13 home runs between the Seattle Mariners and Baltimore Orioles last year. The team also declined the option on outfielder Andres Torres. On the pitching side, the Giants were fourth best in the league in strikeouts and third from the bottom in team ERA. Tim Lincecum was re-signed to a two-year contract and, while he’ll help them with striking out opponents, his Cy Young days are a distant memory. Tim Hudson was lured from the Atlanta Braves with a two-year deal but he’s certainly not the pitcher he once was either. San Francisco finally broke ties with Barry Zito and his awful contract by not picking up his option. By the way, Zito finished his Giants career with a record of 53-80 along with a 1.44 WHIP and 4.62 ERA. Not bad for $126 million!

The San Diego Padres finished 2013 with an identical record as San Francisco. The team was the third worst in strikeouts in the league and just barely had an ERA lower than 4.00. Josh Johnson was brought in on a one-year contract to try to bolster the pitching staff. Luke Gregerson was traded and Joaquin Benoit was signed to a two-year deal with a vesting option for a third year to be the setup man/closer in waiting in case anything goes wrong with Huston Street. At the plate, Seth Smith was acquired for Gregerson but he figures in only as a backup. There haven’t been any other additions of note for a team that struggled offensively in 2013.

Bringing up the rear (like they did in 2012 as well) were the Colorado Rockies. The Rockies led the league in batting average and were second behind the St. Louis Cardinals in runs scored. They were even the fifth best National League team in swatting home runs. But offense was never really the bugaboo for Colorado. Even so, they added first baseman Justin Morneau, hoping he could regain some of the luster from his earlier years. Colorado also acquired Drew Stubbs from the Cleveland Indians. Stubbs figures to at least split the left field duties. Dexter Fowler was sent packing, which brings us to the pitching. Jordan Lyles was acquired in the Fowler deal and Brett Anderson was obtained in a trade with the Oakland A’s in which Drew Pomeranz left the mile high city. Jorge De La Rosa had his option picked up and will headline the starting rotation, which tells you something about the state of affairs there. Rafael Betancourt won’t be back as closer, being replaced by LaTroy Hawkins with Rex Brothers still in the mix. Boone Logan was brought in as a free agent to solidify the bullpen.

All in all, the Arizona Diamondbacks did well to improve themselves in the off-season while none of the other teams managed anything more than a drip, never mind a big splash. In fact, most of the marquee acquisitions this off-season came from American League teams as the NL apparently decided to sit this one out.
 
NL Central Notes
NL Beat
Written by Christopher Kreush   
Thursday, 13 February 2014 02:58

The toughest division in the National League in 2013 was the Central. In fact, the NL Central arguably could have been the toughest division in all of baseball (at least at the top) with three teams winning at least 90 games.

Leading the division was the St. Louis Cardinals with 97 victories, tied for most in MLB with the Boston Red Sox – the same team that beat them in six games to win the 2013 World Series. The Cardinals will be doing battle in 2014 without closer Edward Mujica, who opted to go to the Red Sox to be a setup man after losing his closer role to Trevor Rosenthal. 2012 closer Jason Motte will be back from Tommy John surgery and will be lurking if Rosenthal falters. Gone also is switch-hitter Carlos Beltran, who will be taking his left-handed swing to the comfortable confines of Yankee Stadium. New to St. Louis will be Jhonny Peralta, fresh off his 50-game suspension in the Biogenesis PED scandal. The Redbirds also completed a trade with the Los Angeles Angels that sent Fernando Salas and David Freese to the west coast in return for centerfielder Peter Bourjos, who missed much of 2013 with injuries. At this point, the Cardinals will be hard pressed to repeat their offensive performance from last year.

Just three games behind the Cardinals was the most improved team in the National League, the Pittsburgh Pirates, who were 15 games better than they were the previous year. The biggest loss for the Pirates undoubtedly is starting pitcher A.J. Burnett, who signed a one-year contract with the Philadelphia Phillies. All Burnett did was win 26 games over the past two seasons for the Bucs. Even though he had fewer wins in 2013 than the previous year, he arguably pitched better last year with a lower ERA and WHIP and better than a strikeout per inning for the first time since 2008. Gone also is first baseman Garrett Jones, who went from the high-flying Pirates to the lowly Miami Marlins for 2014. Justin Morneau was brought in from the Minnesota Twins in August in the hopes he would regain some of his earlier career form. He didn’t and now he, also, is gone. As far as additions, there haven’t been many, with the biggest one being the signing of Edinson Volquez to a one-year contract. Not much to write home about.

Following the Pirates was the Cincinnati Reds, who despite dropping seven games from 2012 to 2013, still managed to win 90 games. Catcher Ryan Hanigan was traded to the Tampa Bay Rays, clearing the way for prospect Devin Mesoraco behind the plate. Cincinnati also lost right-handed starter Bronson Arroyo to the Arizona Diamondbacks. But the biggest impact difference is the loss of Shin-Soo Choo, who signed a big contract with the Texas Rangers after only one season in Cincinnati. Skip Schumacher was also brought in as a reserve outfielder and second baseman. All in all, not a good off-season for the Reds so far.

The Milwaukee Brewers were a distant fourth in the NL Central last year, seven games below .500 and 23 games behind the first-place Cardinals.  Milwaukee parted ways with leadoff hitter Norichika Aoki, who stole 20 bases in 2013 but otherwise had an empty batting average with only eight home runs and 37 RBI. Gone also is Corey Hart, who signed a one-year deal with the Seattle Mariners. Although he didn’t even have a single at-bat in 2013 due to injuries, the 31-year-old first baseman/DH still had five seasons of at least 20 home runs for the Brew Crew. Milwaukee did add starting pitcher Matt Garza, who they signed to a four-year contract. With the Brewers on the wrong side of the league average in many pitching categories, they’re hoping they get the 2013 Chicago Cubs version of the 30-year-old Garza as opposed to the 2013 Texas Rangers version.

In the cellar of the Central Division in 2013 was the Chicago Cubs, who would have been there in 2012 also if not for the Houston Astros. With only 66 wins on the season, Chicago was only four games better than the lowly Miami Marlins and finished a whopping 31 games behind division winning St. Louis. The problem with the Cubs can be summed up in the biggest off-season acquisition being Justin Ruggiano in exchange for Brian Bogusevic.  This certainly isn’t a recipe for success for the bottom dwelling Cubbies.

Overall, the Cubs have to be the big off-season losers so far in that they had to make a whole lot of good moves to improve their lot in the division but didn’t. As far as winners, I’d have to say the Cardinals, not so much for positive moves but since they were the division winners, other teams would have to do that much more to knock them off, and they didn’t.

Next up, the NL West.
 
NL East Notes
NL Beat
Written by Christopher Kreush   
Thursday, 06 February 2014 03:39

With the Super Bowl now history and the city of Seattle and their 12th man fans celebrating, the eyes of sports fans can now turn in earnest to the upcoming baseball season. The Hot Stove has been stoked up for a while now but many people weren’t paying close attention as the football playoffs built to their climax. Spring training opens next week and teams are trying to put the final puzzle pieces in place as fantasy commissioners are looking to fill any open spots in their league – something I personally am trying to do as well.

The Atlanta Braves finished in the top spot of the NL East in 2013 with a record of 96 wins and 66 losses but lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers three games to one in the first round of the playoffs. In the regular season, the Braves led the league in home runs but were almost 100 runs scored behind the St. Louis Cardinals. This can be traced in part to a team batting average of .249, which was below the league average of .251. Having both a B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla on your team would tend to do that. In off-season moves, Atlanta lost free agent Tim Hudson to the San Francisco Giants and added Gavin Floyd, who is coming off Tommy John surgery and may miss up to half the season. Paul Maholm is also gone, which leaves Kris Medlen as their senior starting pitcher at 28 years old. Gone also is All-Star catcher Brian McCann, who signed a five-year deal with the New York Yankees. McCann, who had eight consecutive seasons of at least 20 home runs, now leaves Evan Gattis as his heir.

The Washington Nationals were runners up in the East, ten games behind the Braves. It was a tale of two seasons for Dan Haren, who had a 6.15 ERA in his first 15 starts and a 3.29 ERA in his last 15 starts, but he has departed via free agency to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Nationals completed a trade with the Detroit Tigers which brought Doug Fister to the nation’s capital. The 30-year-old right-hander could benefit from the National League with a sub-3.50 ERA and a few more strikeouts. The other transaction of note was the signing of Nate McLouth to a two-year contract, but he will be stuck as the fourth outfielder. Gone are the 20 home run seasons but the 32-year-old outfielder can still steal 20 bases if the conditions are right.

The New York Mets finished in third place in the division (a surprise to me) with a 74-88 record. With the signing of Bartolo Colon, the Metropolitans have a new arm at the top of their starting rotation. Even though he’s not known as the most dedicated to conditioning and health, Colon could provide a voice of experience to some of New York’s younger pitchers. He’ll be OK with his new team and the move to the National League should help, but don’t expect anything near 2013’s 18 wins and 2.65 ERA. The other marquee move by the Mets was the signing of outfielder Curtis Granderson to a four-year contract after spending four years with the crosstown rival Yankees. Another move of significance is the team seems to be ready to give Travis d’Arnaud the starting catcher spot.

The Philadelphia Phillies finished 2013 one game behind the Mets in fourth place. The biggest news for the Phillies so far was the announced retirement of pitching ace Roy Halladay, who had a tough year in 2013, finishing with a very un-doc-like 6.82 ERA. The Phillies will now have to suffer with only two aces on their staff in Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee. The biggest addition for the Phils so far has been the addition of outfielder Marlon Byrd, who will man right field. Even though hitting 24 home runs for the Mets and Pirates in 2013 was a surprise, the 36-year-old Byrd could come close to repeating that in the bandbox known as Citizens Bank Park.

The basement of the National League East Division was, once again, occupied by the Miami Marlins, who either win the World Series or are one of the worst teams in baseball. The 2013 version of the Marlins managed to lose an even 100 games, which was surpassed only by the Houston Astros’ 111 losses for most in the major leagues. Miami seems destined for another lousy season after their moves so far.  Gone are the likes of Matt Diaz, Austin Kearns, Casey Kotchman, Logan Morrison, Juan Pierre and Placido Polanco. In their place will be Brian Bogusevic, Carter Capps, Garrett Jones and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Certainly not a recipe for success.

Next week, I’ll take a look at the NL Central.
 
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