Mastersball

NL Beat


NL By the Numbers
NL Beat
Written by Christopher Kreush   
Wednesday, 13 June 2012 10:05

Anyone who has watched for any amount of time would agree that baseball is a funny game.  We do our projections for teams and individual players but rarely do things work out as we envision them before the season.  There are always those that underperform and those that outperform what they are ‘supposed’ to do.  The fact that this happens year in and year out is the only thing that is constant from one year to the next.

So the fact that things don’t always play out the way they are supposed to in our minds isn’t what surprises us.  Rather, what catches us off guard are the specific players to the unfolding drama.  For instance, in 2011 Jose Reyes led the National League in batting with a .337 average even though he had a career .285 mark entering the season and only one year at the .300 level.  Matt Kemp (39) had more homeruns than Prince Fielder (38) and Albert Pujols (37).  Ian Kennedy was tied for the league lead in victories with 21 and John Axford and Craig Kimbrel shared the league lead with 46 saves apiece.

This year is proving to be just as interesting or topsy-turvy, depending on which way you prefer to look at it.  Let’s take a look at some of the more notable aspects of the season to this point.

After finishing third in each of their respective divisions, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals are in first place and have the top two records in the league.  The San Diego Padres, who finished 20 games below .500 in 2011, are already at that mark this point in the 2012 season.  After finishing 42 games above .500 last year, the Philadelphia Phillies (who had the best record in all of baseball) have quite a way to go to catch up as they are presently five games below break even.

Phillies starting pitchers recorded 76 victories in 2011 but are on a pace to finish with only 56 this year.  The big three of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels had 19, 17, and 14 wins respectively in 2011. So far in 2012 Hamels has eight, Halladay has four, and Lee has zero wins.  Joe Blanton with five has more than Halladay and Lee combined.

The Washington Nationals lead the league in ERA with a 2.96 mark.  With their starters at 2.94 and relievers at 3.05, you can’t ask for more consistency.

The National League leaders in wins are none other than R.A. Dickey and Lance Lynn with nine each.  Combined they had nine in all of 2011.

The 2011 NL leaders in ERA were Clayton Kershaw, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Ryan Vogelsong, and Tim Lincecum.  All five had ERA’s below 2.75 for the season.  Only Kershaw and Vogelsong are below that mark in 2012.  This year’s top five are Brandon Beachy, Vogelsong, Ryan Dempster, Gio Gonzalez, and James McDonald.

Lincecum’s ERA, which was 2.98 for his career entering 2012, is now at 6.00 for the year.

McDonald’s ERA, which was 4.04 for his career entering 2012, is now at 2.39 for the year.

Melky Cabrera, owner of a career .275 batting average entering 2012, is now at .366 for the year and leads the league.  This after hitting .305 for the Kansas City Royals in 2011, which many said he couldn’t sustain for the entire year.  He won’t sustain .366 but I believe he is a .300+ hitter.  What does Ron Shandler say – once you display a skill you own it?

Two of the top five batting average leaders in the NL are catchers – Carlos Ruiz and Yadier Molina.  Average leaders are normally those that can outright rake or speedsters who can leg out a good number of infield hits.  Ruiz and Molina are neither.

Kimbrel again leads the league in saves with 18.  2011’s leaders along with Kimbrel were Axford, J.J. Putz, Heath Bell, and Drew Storen.  If we needed any further demonstration how volatile the saves category can be, this year’s leaders after Kimbrel are Santiago Casilla, Joel Hanrahan, Jonathan Papelbon, and Brett Myers and Frank Francisco tied.

Carlos Beltran leads the NL with 18 homeruns (and has even added six stolen bases after most thought his running days were over).  Carlos Gonzalez, Ryan Braun, and Giancarlo Stanton round out the leaders.  Pujols and Fielder, who defected to the American League, would barely crack the NL top 20 with their totals this year.

It’s no coincidence that Beltran, Gonzalez, and Stanton are also in the top five RBI getters in the league.  Andre Ethier leads the league with 54 while Adam LaRoche, who is having a resurgent year, rounds out the leaders.

Tony Campana leads the NL speedsters with 21 stolen bases.  Right on his heels are Emilio Bonifacio and Dee Gordon, each with 20 swipes.  Of all the NL players with at least ten stolen bases, only Gordon at .284 has an on base percentage lower than 300.  Campana’s 21 steals have come in only 118 at bats.

Washington’s Danny Espinosa leads the league in strikeouts with 74 which put him on a pace for 202.  He had 166 in 2011.

Drew Stubbs, who led the NL with 205 strikeouts in 2011, has improved in this area.  Stubbs, who struck out 30% of his plate appearances last year, is striking out only 26% of PA in 2012.

Numbers are always interesting to look at and baseball certainly doesn’t have a shortage of them.  We could actually say that the numbers in baseball are, well, innumerable.  They can be either looked at casually or analyzed ad nauseum.  That is one of the things that make this game so great.  Here’s hoping the numbers have been good to you so far in 2012 and that the rest of the year will be even better (unless you happen to play in one of my leagues).
 
Let’s Go To the Video Tape
NL Beat
Written by Christopher Kreush   
Thursday, 07 June 2012 00:00

When the final out of the New York Mets versus the St. Louis Cardinals game was registered Friday, June 1, the Metropolitans finally had the first no-hitter thrown by one of their pitchers. Johan Santana used 134 pitches in recording this feat – 134 pitches that put to an end a streak of 8019 games without a no-no. That was 8019 games of frustration as the Citi Field residents were the owner of the longest current streak without spinning a no-hitter in the major leagues. The San Diego Padres now succeed the Mets as the unwilling owners of that particular statistic.

To put it in a little bit more perspective, 8019 games is more than 50 full regular season’s worth of games - half a century. It is the equivalent of approximately 68,000 innings of play. When that streak first started on April 11, 1962 Richard Nixon was the President of the United States. That’s a long time to go without someone on your team chucking a no-no. The Mets came close many times during that period with 35 one-hitters thrown by their pitchers. In that time there have been six no-hitters thrown against the Mets.

The frustration felt by New York Mets fans was building year-by-year as it seemed as if the baseball gods were against them despite Bill Buckner. Their angst was only heightened as seven ex-Mets threw no-hitters for other teams. This list included Mike Scott, Hideo Nomo, and Phil Humber who threw a perfect game a little over two months before Santana’s game. Others include Tom Seaver, the keystone starting pitcher in franchise history, who had his the first year away from the Mets. Nolan Ryan had seven no-hitters in his career after he and three other players were traded by the Mets for Jim Fregosi. But probably the worst of all was Dwight Gooden and David Cone both of whom got theirs while playing for the cross town rival New York Yankees. Further adding insult to injury, both of them came while the Yankees were at home playing in Yankee Stadium - just across town - as opposed to being on the road away from New York and Cone’s was a perfect game.

Johan Santana was pretty much breezing along when Carlos Beltran came to the plate to begin the sixth inning. During the at-bat, Beltran lined a ball down the third base line which kicked up a cloud of chalk as it landed. In an instant the air came out of the Citi Field balloon as the Mets faithful felt the curse of the baseball gods once again. But this time was different as umpire Adrian Johnson inexplicably ruled the ball foul and the at-bat continued with Beltran eventually grounding out to third base. Mets’ fans still had hope and after Mike Baxter made the obligatory highlight reel play in the field for every no-hitter in the seventh inning and Johann threw his 134th pitch of the day, no-hitter destiny finally sided with the home town and Santana and the Mets had their first.

But once again a game has been tainted by an umpire’s bad ruling and the calls for replay in baseball are again going up. In many respects I consider myself to be a baseball purist but that is changing. For one, I like the designated hitter. Something about watching a pitcher go to bat and most of the time looking as foolish as I would facing major league pitching. Besides, who cares what a pitcher does at the plate since it doesn’t count in fantasy. For the second time in two years we’ve had an umpire’s bad call decide whether a game was a no-hitter or not. It was almost two years to the day prior to Santana’s effort that Armando Galarraga was robbed of a perfect game by umpire Jim Joyce. I'm now believing some form of instant replay is needed.

I readily admit that the umpires are doing their best for the game (with the exception of some of them injecting too much of themselves and their ego being bigger than the game itself). But they are still human and make mistakes. And sometimes those mistakes are the story instead of the game being the story. As baseball players have gotten bigger and stronger some plays in the game have gotten quicker and it’s time the umpires get some help. There was supposed to be more instant replay this year but the umpires union wouldn’t agree to what MLB and the players agreed to. So here we are with another blown call by an umpire and the national spotlight on them.

The umpires and their union need to get off their high horse for the better of the game. The National Football League has instant replay and, while not perfect, it has succeeded in getting the call right the vast majority of the time. Many felt that it would show-up the NFL referees but that hasn’t happened. If a bad call is made and replay reverses it the referees aren’t the story for making the wrong call to begin with. The game continues with the right call made and no one second guesses the refs afterwards.

Major League umpires need to understand that first, they are not above the integrity of a properly called game and secondly, that replay will help them. It will succeed in taking the umpires out of the spotlight of a bad call unless the umpires and their leaders really want to be in that spotlight whether it be good or bad. I don’t think that’s the case with the umpires. The tears that Jim Joyce shed after blowing that call in Comerica Park tell me that. So the umpires need to put pressure on their leadership to approve the use of instant replay for their benefit.

I don’t want to put an asterisk after Santana’s no hitter the same as I don’t want to put an asterisk after the Jeffrey Maier game. But it’s a shame to Mets fans that the first no-hitter in franchise history is being overshadowed by a bad umpire’s call and the call was taking so much of the spotlight away from the game itself. When replays of the ball hitting the chalk line vastly outnumber replays of Baxter's catch, that is a fundamental problem that needs to be fixed now - not tomorrow.
 
Ouch, That Hurts
NL Beat
Written by Christopher Kreush   
Wednesday, 30 May 2012 09:59

In baseball, injuries come and injuries go and in this see-saw the fate of real baseball teams and their fantasy counterparts often rests.  Every team experiences injuries to some extent or another and how well a team copes with them often determines the outcome of the season.  When the inevitable injury hits, you (and your major league equivalent) hope the replacement player provides enough production to at least maintain the place in the standings – often times this actually becomes a case of not hurting the team too much.

One high profile injury occurred earlier this month when Matt Kemp of the Los Angeles Dodgers strained a hamstring and was placed on the disabled list May 14.  At the time the Dodgers were in first place in the National League West six games ahead of the San Francisco Giants with a 24-11 record.  Kemp was a big part of their success batting .359 with 12 homeruns and 28 runs batted it.  After their star centerfielder went down, Los Angeles put up an 8-6 record and only lost one-half game off their lead in his absence.

The 27 year old MVP runner up was obviously off to a hot start for his real team and his fantasy owners.  His disabled list stint quite possibly could have hurt the latter more.  This is often the case with injuries as the real team and fantasy team aren’t affected equally in most cases especially since you might not be able to get the same replacement player the team uses.  Kemp returned to action last night and went one for four and everyone – real and fantasy alike – are glad he’s back.  Except me, of course, as I’m in second place in my home league and the team I’m chasing has him.

But it seems many times the injury gods giveth and they also taketh away as just happened to the Dodgers as Kemp was coming and Ted Lilly was going with an as of yet undetermined shoulder injury.  This one personally hurts as I have him on more than one team, including the aforementioned home league.  To be sure, the thirty-six year old isn’t a Cy Young candidate, but he’s pretty dependable in putting up a lot of innings with the kind of stats that wind up helping your team in the long run because he doesn’t hurt you – not flashy but useful.

As for Lilly’s replacement, the Dodgers don’t have much that’s ready in the minors except for Nathan Eovaldi who gets the nod and pitched well last night against the Milwaukee Brewers.  The youngster had been pitching in Double A at Chattanooga presumably because they wanted to keep him away from hitter happy AAA and the Pacific Coast League.  Eovaldi missed bats in the minors but didn’t miss too many when he was called up late last year.  He should be fine for the short haul but isn’t as refined as Lilly obviously is at this point.  His next start comes at Coors Field so temper expectations a bit.

Losing Kemp and Lilly back-to-back certainly hurts but the team that has been bitten hardest by the injury bug is the Philadelphia Phillies.  The Phils knew they would be starting the season with slugging first baseman Ryan Howard on the disabled list due to a ruptured Achilles tendon that required surgery.  At this point there still is no definite timetable for his return to big league action.  On top of that, second baseman Chase Utley – arguably their best offensive player – has also been out all season with recurring issues from the patellar tendinitis that sidelined him a good portion of the 2011 season.  Utley still doesn’t have a timetable for his return either but has been working a bit in left field as well as taking ground balls at second base which has some Philadelphia outlets predicting some playing time in the outfield to try to minimize some of the wear and tear on his knees.

As bad as starting the season without Howard and Utley was, the Phillies have now been hit with another huge bite from the injury bug with the news that Roy Halladay has been placed on the 15 day disabled list.  Todd Zolicki of MLB.com is reporting that the 35 year old has a strain to his lat muscle (latissimus dorsi for you anatomy fans).  The part that really hurts is the 15 days is likely to be six to eight weeks.  (Update – CSNPhilly.com is now reporting Roy will be shut down for three weeks then begin a strength and rehab program. The six to eight week total timetable is still projected).  The Phillies have only been about middle of the pack in NL pitching so far this season but it was pretty obvious they were going to rise or fall on the arms of their hurlers.

Halladay hadn’t been his normal dominant self the past month after starting off the season in typical Doc fashion with a .950 WHIP and 1.95 ERA although a 5.84 K/9 wasn’t typical.  The past month has been rough, however, with a 1.36 WHIP and 6.12 ERA even though at 8.16/9 the strikeout rate was much improved.  Maybe his performance had something to do with the shoulder but no one is saying right now and it doesn’t matter at this point.

What does matter is who will replace Halladay in the rotation.  Philadelphia missed the boat in re-signing Roy Oswalt so there is now a gaping hole. With Vance Worley already on the DL, they may have to turn to the likes of Dave Bush, Tyler Cloyd, Scott Elarton, or Pat Misch as possible replacements.  We could very well see Philadelphia forced into a revolving door situation.  Either way, their prospects aren’t that good (pun intended) and any fantasy owners of Roy Halladay are in a very tough position for the next couple of months.  This is the kind of thing that can break it for one fantasy team and make it for another.
 
The Beasts of the East
NL Beat
Written by Christopher Kreush   
Wednesday, 23 May 2012 00:00

Here we are coming into the first turn of the season and, as we mentioned in the last installment of the NL Beat, the divisions are starting to take shape.  The Central Division is being led once again by the St. Louis Cardinals and the West Division has the Los Angeles Dodgers, last week’s focus, occupying the top spot.  Both of these are slight surprises to me but the division that is the most surprising to me is none other than the East Division.

Prior to the season, the Philadelphia Phillies, in most circles, were expected to once again win the title.  Even though there were injuries to slugger Ryan Howard and standout second baseman Chase Utley, the team was expected to rise to the top based on the strength of their starting pitching led by the big three of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels.  Add in free agent acquisition Jonathan Papelbon to anchor the ninth inning and the Phillies were poised to repeat as division winners.  But things haven’t gone as planned for Philadelphia as, surprisingly, they are languishing in last place in the division five and one-half games out of first and two games under .500.

Just ahead of the Phillies in the standings are the New York Mets, only three games out of first place and three games above the break even mark.  They have gotten to this point led by David Wright’s .403 batting average and R.A. Dickey’s six victories – tied for the most in the National League - out of seven decisions.  Daniel Murphy and Kurt Nieuwenhuis have been key contributors as well.

Next up the standings ladder in third place are the Miami Marlins.  Moving into a new stadium, they were big players in the free agent market this year in an effort to be winners and attract a lot of fans to the ballpark.  The Marlins are five games over .500 and only two games out of the lead.  The team started out slowly going 8-14 in the month of April but has turned that into a 16-5 record so far in May.  Omar Infante is hitting .326 with six homeruns; Emilio Bonifacio has 20 stolen bases, and Giancarlo Stanton now has nine homeruns after breaking the scoreboard with one of his blasts.  Miami has gotten good pitching from Carlos Zambrano, Anibal Sanchez, and Mark Buehrle.  Especially of note is Ozzie Guillen has managed to keep Zambrano’s temper in check.

Second place is occupied by the Atlanta Braves, eight games over .500 and only one-half game out of first.  Brandon Beachy is quickly becoming one of the best starting pitchers in the league even though he isn’t a big strikeout pitcher.  Tommy Hanson has struggled a bit walking more hitters while striking out fewer.  Craig Kimbrel hasn’t been the monster he was last year but has still been very good.  Freddie Freeman is leading the team with seven homeruns; Michael Bourn is doing what he’s supposed to – getting on base, hitting for average, and stealing bases; Martin Prado is providing a good batting average and has hit three homeruns and stole four bases, his total for all of last year.

This brings us to the Washington Nationals – the leaders of the East Division and the only team besides the Los Angeles Dodgers with a better than .600 winning percentage.  That’s right, the Washington Nationals.  The same Washington Nationals that haven’t had a .500 season since 2005 (their first year as the Nationals) or a winning season since 2003 when they were still the Montreal Expos.

Washington is leaning heavily on its pitching to get them to where they now are.  They are the only NL team with a sub 3.00 ERA (2.87) and lead the league with 275 strikeouts.  The team also is tops in the league with a .615 OPS, .217 BAA, and have allowed the fewest total bases.  The starting rotation of Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman, Edwin Jackson, and Ross Detwiler has been superb.  Gonzalez has an 11.36 K/9 and 1.98 ERA, Strasburg a 10.87 K/9 and 2.21 ERA, Zimmerman a 2.47 ERA, Jackson an 8.01 K/9 with 0.97 WHIP.  Even Detwiler has contributed a 3-3 record with 1.20 WHIP and 3.65 ERA, not bad for a number five starting pitcher.  Gonzalez and Strasburg have done what a one-two punch should do with a combined 10-2 record.

On the hitting side Ian Desmond has been better than expected as he’s hit for a solid .280 average and has already smacked eight homeruns, his total for all of 2011, and has stolen five bases.  Jayson Werth has raised his batting average over 40 points to .276.  Adam LaRoche is hitting .298 and has seven homeruns after an abysmal injury shortened 2011. Prospect phenom Bryce Harper was called up and hasn’t been totally overmatched at just 19 years of age, hitting .264 with two homeruns and two stolen bases.

But there are definitely some things to worry about for Washington.  Werth, who was having a nice bounce back season, is now out until at least early August after breaking his left wrist making a play in the outfield.  Catcher Wilson Ramos is done for the season with a torn ACL.  Michael Morse is still on the DL and hasn’t played in a game yet this year for Washington.  Ryan Zimmerman, who missed time earlier this year to the DL with a bad shoulder, is again having problems with the joint.  Brad Lidge is on the DL after surgery for a sports hernia.  Closer Drew Storen has been out for the year and had surgery to remove a bone fragment from his right elbow (especially troubling since replacement closers have blown six saves to date).  Then there’s the innings limit that management says Strasburg will have after coming off Tommy John surgery.

So while it is good to see the Nationals back in the winning column, they have had to contend with quite a few obstacles and bumps in the road in getting to this point and there are still some ahead.  But Washington has put themselves in the position of possibly being buyers instead of sellers when we start talking trade deadline and that’s a good thing.  I think they’ll be buying.
 
Dodger Magic
NL Beat
Written by Christopher Kreush   
Wednesday, 16 May 2012 04:26

The 2012 Major League Baseball season is just over 20 percent in the books and the races have started to take shape.  Time will tell if the three teams at the top of each National League division will be there at the end.  I have my own feelings on each and since the season is so young, there is still plenty of time for the division winners to turn out how I thought – none of which are currently in first.  In the meantime, it is fun to try to speculate on how each team will do based on its performance to this point.

But of all the teams at the top of their respective division, there is one that interests me the most and that is the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Not only are they in first place, they have the biggest lead of any team – National or American League.  With the Frank McCourt mess behind them and under new management of Guggenheim Baseball Management (with former Los Angeles Lakers Magic Johnson), the Dodgers certainly aren’t being distracted by off the field shenanigans.  To be sure, that’s what they were dodging last year – not trolleys.

The question of whether Los Angeles will maintain their top spot in the standings depends a lot, of course, on Matt Kemp.  But the team will have to do without their star center-fielder for the next couple of weeks as he is on the 15 day disabled list with a strained hamstring.  All the 2011 Most Valuable Player runner-up has done is smash 12 homeruns and hit to the tune of a .359 batting average, leading the Dodgers to one of the top offensive spots in the league.  About the only thing his fantasy owners have to complain about is the lack of stolen bases.  With only two at this stage, Kemp is on a pace for about 10, well short of last year’s total of 40.  If Los Angeles hopes to remain at the top of the West Division, they are going to need their 27 year old offensive leader to return healthy and play at the level he was before going down.

As good as Matt Kemp is, the Dodgers have been getting good performance from a number of other players on the hitting side.  Andre Ethier has been solid batting .308 with eight homeruns and leads the team with 33 runs batted in.  As good as he’s been, the thirty year old right fielder will have to pick up some of the slack during Kemp’s absence.

A pleasant surprise has been catcher A.J. Ellis.  At 31 years old, Ellis isn’t a spring chicken in baseball terms.  The most playing time he’s had in the big leagues is the 108 at bats he had in 2010, a total that will surely be surpassed this year by the primary backstop.  Ellis has hit for a solid .314 average and has contributed three homeruns, 15 RBI and scored 11 runs.

On the other side of the coin is the light hitting James Loney.  The first baseman is still hitting a lowly .236 even after a .375 clip the past week.  But the six year Dodger still only has one homerun on the year and has never hit more than 15 in a single season and that was way back in 2007.  This lack of pop from a position that teams like to get a good amount of power from.  Reportedly, manager Don Mattingly is not very pleased with Loney’s production and there is the real possibility of a change occurring there.

Then there’s Dee Gordon.  The second year Dodger is arguably the fastest player in Major League Baseball and is tied for second in the league with 12 stolen bases.  Gordon is still learning his craft at the big league level and needs to improve a bit on his 70% success rate.  But the problem with the shortstop is a .212 batting average and .250 on base percentage.  Even at those anemic levels, Mattingly is sticking with the 24 year old at the top of his batting order.

On the pitching side, Los Angeles is led by 2011 Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw.  The fifth year Dodger has picked up where he left off last year, compiling a .911 WHIP and 2.22 ERA in posting three wins against one loss.  The only blemish so far is his strikeout rate has slipped from 9.57/9 last year to 8.03/9 in 2012.

After Kershaw in the rotation comes Chad Billingsley.  Even with just a 2-2 record, Chad is pitching better this young season than any year since his 16-10 2008 campaign.  The strikeout rate is up from last year while the walk rate is down.  Combined with a BABIP that is the lowest of his career, the 27 year old is sporting the lowest WHIP and ERA since 2008. Billingsley’s Achilles ’ heel has been the long ball – double last year’s level.

Chris Capuano has been nothing short of fabulous in his seven starts, putting up a 5-0 record with a 1.03 WHIP and 2.06 ERA.  The 33 year old is striking out better than eight batters per nine and walking just over three.  An alarm could be a .236 BABIP which is well below any he has posted in his career.

Ted Lilly was rewarded this past off-season with a new three year $33 million contract.  He has responded with five victories against no losses and a fantastic .965 WHIP and 2.11 ERA.  But the strikeout rate has slipped 2.21 to 5.17/9 and the walk rate has increased by almost one to 3.29/9.  As if that wasn’t alarming enough, even though the 36 year old starter has historically pitched to a BABIP under .300, his .204 mark so far is absolutely unsustainable.  The staff senior citizen has a correction coming.

Rounding out the rotation is newly signed Aaron Harang.  Even though his record is 2-2 he hasn’t continued the resurgence he had last year with the San Diego Padres and is pitching to a 1.42 WHIP and 4.46 ERA.  These are certainly not numbers the Dodgers were counting on when they gave him a new two year contract.

This has been the Los Angeles Dodgers in a nutshell.  There are obviously very good performers and some not as good as the team would like.  I picked the Arizona Diamondbacks to finish tops in this division and still think Kirk Gibson will rally the troops and come away with first place.  But the Dodgers won’t go quietly and Donnie Baseball (with a bit of Magic) will have his team in the thick of things right until the end.
 
Who Are These Imposters?
NL Beat
Written by Christopher Kreush   
Friday, 11 May 2012 00:00

It’s rare that a fantasy owner comes out of their draft or auction saying they blew it.  Rather, most of the time we’re beating our chest and proclaiming how much of a genius we were in constructing our latest fantasy team.  We picked the perfect combination of aging superstars and young studs; steady but unspectacular producers and monster sleepers and the season’s as good as over.  All other teams should give up, proclaim the new champion, hand over the trophy (and cash) and give you the Yoo-Hoo shower.  But then a funny thing happens – real baseball games begin and you incredulously see your team languishing near the bottom of the standings as you try to comprehend how the natural order of things became so topsy turvy.

This is just the reality of fantasy setting in.  Our teams are not made up of a bunch of autobots that are programmed to perform to a preset level.  They are flesh and blood like you and I, although in much better shape and with a natural gift that enables them to be professional ballplayers.  Each of them has to deal with injuries, personal travails, lapses of imperfection, and sometimes plain old-fashioned bad luck that affects their performance on the field and their ultimate stats.  It is extremely rare for a fantasy team to complete the season without a couple or few of these sprinkled throughout their roster.

Let’s take a look at some of these culprits.

Jose Reyes – I was one of those thinking he would have a good year in Miami with Ozzie Guillen but it hasn’t materialized yet.  The first year Marlin is batting .226 with a .308 on base percentage.  I felt Jose could swipe close to 50 bases if he stayed healthy.  He has eight so far which puts him on a pace for about 40 so another ten isn’t out of the question yet.  But I also counted on him batting in the .300 range, not the Adam Dunn range.  While it could be just tossed up to bad luck and a .252 BABIP, there might be other things at work here.  An elevated BB rate (11.6%) means he’s getting fewer pitches in the zone to put into play and the way the Marlins are hitting as a team, there’s no reason for opposing pitchers to give him anything good to hit.  Looking further, the shortstop is seeing a good deal more sliders and fewer fastballs and isn’t getting good wood on the ball.  I look for Jose to adjust going forward (especially when the Marlins start to hit as a team) and get back in the range expected of him.

Tim Lincecum – No one expected a losing record (two wins against three losses) after seven starts but that’s exactly what Lincecum owners have gotten.  The bad news, however, goes a lot further than The Freak’s win/loss record as evidenced by a 1.58 WHIP and 5.89 ERA.  The 27 year old has gone more than six innings just once, averaging just over five innings per start when he has averaged better than six and one half innings in his career.  In addition, in five of those seven starts Tim has allowed at least three earned runs so it’s not just one bad game that has done him in.  While the strikeout rate is up over ten per nine innings, the walk rate is also up by better than one per nine innings to 4.66.  With a strand rate of better than 75% in every year but his first, Lincecum is now struggling with a 60.5% rate so far this year.  Translated, he’s letting more runners on base and allowing more of them to come around to score.  Fly balls (which have the tendency to land in outfielders’ gloves) have decreased from a career average of 33.6% to 26.9% while line drives (which have more of a tendency to result in something bad for a pitcher) have increased from a career average of 19.3% to 26.0%.  Looking at pitch types, fastball velocity is down about 2.5 MPH to 89.8 MPH and slider velocity is down about the same amount.  Much has been said about the two-time Cy Young Award winner throwing a third fewer sliders than he has in the past but combining that with a velocity decrease in both his primary pitches raises all kinds of red flags for me that I’m not confident Lincecum will overcome.

Heath Bell – It’s no coincidence there’s a second Miami Marlin here considering the disappointing start the team has had after all the free agent dollars they handed out.  One of the big off-season acquisitions who got some of those dollars, Bell has been so absolutely horrendous that Ozzie Guillen “temporarily” removed him from the closer’s role this week.  The ex-San Diego Padre has allowed eleven earned runs on 16 hits and ten walks in only nine and two thirds innings in 2012.  That equates to a 2.69 WHIP and 10.24 ERA with three saves and four blown saves.  The banished closer’s strikeout rate, which dropped precipitously from 11.06/9 in 2010 to 7.32/9 in 2011 has fallen even further to 6.52/9 with 2012’s small sample size while his BB/9 has more than tripled to 9.31/9.  Want more numbers?  Bell’s BAA is .356 while his BABIP is a robust .405.  That has nothing to do with bad luck when seemingly everything he throws either gets hit hard or is out of the strike zone.  With a fastball still within one mph of the past couple years at 93.1MPH, velocity doesn’t seem to be the issue.  His secondary pitch speeds are also right where they were in the recent past.  Bell has been throwing his fastball only about four percent less while his curveball and change-up usage are both up slightly.  So there doesn’t seem to be much different on the surface from preceding seasons.  Since he is pretty much maintaining his velocity, it doesn’t look like he’s hiding an injury.  The percentage of pitches batters are swinging at outside the strike zone are down by over ten percent while the percentage hitters are swinging at inside the strike zone are up by seven percent.  And when hitters swing at Bell’s offerings they are making overall contact at an 88.5% clip, seven percent higher than last year.  For some reason, opposing batters are getting a much better look at what he is throwing them and are hitting it well.  The Marlins are hoping he rights the ship and, in fact, he had a good inning against the Houston Astros yesterday.  There’s a long way to go, however, before he gets the closer’s role back and I’m cautiously optimistic.

These are just a few of the players – one hitter, one starting pitcher, and one closer - giving fantasy players agita so far this year but there are many more.  Each has to be analyzed by their respective owners carefully to try to figure out what is going on and if there is hope of them improving the rest of the year.
 
Harper’s MLB Bazaar and More
NL Beat
Written by Christopher Kreush   
Thursday, 03 May 2012 02:54

There’s hardly a fantasy player around who doesn’t want the next big thing; that can’t miss hot shot prospect.  But what history mostly tells us is there really isn’t such an animal.  Most rookies tend to struggle when they are first brought up – especially when they are brought up at a very young age.  Robin Yount was brought up when he was only 19 years old.  Everyone knows he’s a Hall of Famer who had an outstanding career, winning two Most Valuable Player Awards along the way.  What most don’t realize is he struggled for quite a few seasons.  While the Milwaukee Brewers shortstop wasn’t downright horrible, he only managed to hit for a .250 batting average his first season with three home runs.  In fact, Robin didn’t hit for an average above .290 until his fifth year with Milwaukee and didn’t crack double digit home runs until his seventh season.

Another big rookie who got the call at age 19 was B.J. Upton.  The then Tampa Bay Devil Rays drafted the infielder/outfielder in the first round of the 2002 draft, second overall.  And we’re still waiting for that big breakout 30/30 year with a high batting average everyone is sure is coming.  Any day now; any day.

Darryl Strawberry was all of 22 when he made his major league debut.  The New York Mets first round pick won the Rookie of the Year award after hitting .257 with 26 home runs and 19 stolen bases in 1983.  But for every Darryl Strawberry there is an Alex Gordon or a Brandon Belt, guys who don’t live up to all the hype.

One of the biggest prospects in the game entering 2012 was the Washington Nationals' Bryce Harper.  Harper was picked first overall in the 2010 amateur draft out of the College of Southern Nevada.  From the get go there were all kinds of expectations for the young outfielder.  Some were even wondering if the Nationals would bring Bryce up in 2010 or 2011 when he would have been only seventeen or eighteen.  Now nineteen, the left-handed hitter was called up last Friday after struggling in only 72 Triple-A at-bats and made his first game appearance on Saturday against the Los Angeles Dodgers on the road.

In his first three games Harper managed only two hits in nine at-bats with one double and one RBI.  In his fourth big league game, Bryce got three hits in four plate appearances, doubling his doubles and RBI totals while scoring his first two runs.  While this was a good game, fantasy players need to resist the urge to think that this is what to expect.  Harper may very well wind up with the Rookie of the Year Award in the National League, but history tells us that the odds are against it and we need to temper our expectations.

Fantasy expert Lenny Melnick likes to say “a rookie is a rookie is a rookie.”  While I don’t necessarily agree that Harper is like most other rookies out there, he still is a rookie and the point is well taken.  There is a tremendous amount of upside for keeper leagues but there will be growing pains for redraft leagues and the ROI for what it cost in FAAB or a draft pick might not pay off in these single-season formats.

Sticking with the Washington Nationals theme, they are leading the National League East with a 15-9 record.  Near the bottom in team hitting, the Nationals have been doing it with pitching.  They lead the senior circuit with a 2.40 ERA and .211 BAA.  Washington is also tied for the league lead with 202 strikeouts.  Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman, Gio Gonzalez, and Ross Detwiler all have ERAs of 1.89 or lower.  Edwin Jackson is the only starting pitcher for Washington with an ERA over 2.00 at 3.69.

The Los Angeles Dodgers lead the NL with a 17-8 record, led by the torrid hitting of Matt Kemp.  I must admit I was a little skeptical of the 2011 MVP runner-up repeating his performance.  Kemp currently leads the NL in home runs and batting average and is second in RBIs to teammate Andre Ethier (who is putting together a fine year of his own), but talk of a Triple Crown is premature considering we still have 85% of the season ahead of us.

Los Angeles ace Clayton Kershaw has shown some chinks in the armor his last two starts, allowing seven earned runs in 15 1/3 innings.  The Dodgers and fantasy teams need Kershaw to pitch like the Kershaw of 2011 if hopes of winning a title are to be realized.

Speaking of pitching and title hopes, Wednesday was a rough day for yours truly in the CBS Analysts NL league.  My line for the day from three pitchers was nine innings pitched, 26 hits, two walks, 23 earned runs, 3.11 WHIP, 23.00 ERA and one loss.  That’s going to leave a scar.  The pitchers were Eric O’Flaherty, A.J. Burnett and Roy Halladay.  It was so bad I couldn’t even get mad.  Go figure.
 
To Buy or Not To Buy
NL Beat
Written by Christopher Kreush   
Thursday, 26 April 2012 03:26

We’re about three weeks into the 2012 season and things are beginning to take shape, although some things might not last to the official start of summer, never mind last the rest of the season.  Looking at the standings we find the Washington Nationals, St. Louis Cardinals, and Los Angeles Dodgers atop their respective divisions.  Personally, while I do think the Nationals will be an interesting team this year, I’m not a believer in any of these teams to actually win their division.  I’m sure at least some fans of these teams would disagree with me.

Before the advent of fantasy, most baseball observers were only interested in how their favorite team was doing within their division and the statistics of their favorite players on their favorite team.  It wasn’t really commonplace to come across someone who knew day-to-day what other teams were doing.  And it was even rarer if someone regularly knew how individual players on other teams were performing.  Nor did most fans really care about players on other teams unless that team happened to be their current or upcoming opponent.

Fantasy changed all that forever.  Now more people than ever know the stats not only of their favorite players, they know the stats of many of the starting players in the major leagues.  There are even those who can rattle off the statistics of literally hundreds of players – major and minor leaguers.  That’s what fantasy has done for baseball.  Casual observers have become rabid fanatics and the sport of baseball – as lucrative as it was – has become even more lucrative and has spawned a separate, yet dependent multi-million dollar industry.

Fantasy team owners are constantly looking at how individual players are doing and assessing their performance, trying to predict how those players will do.  Rosters are gone over with a fine tooth comb trying to maximize team makeup and the points that are derived from it.  Every owner has a player or players that are either underperforming or are off to a hot start.  I want to look at some of these players from the Miami Marlins and put my take on whether or not they are buy candidates going forward.

Anyone owning Mike Stanton in 2011 was likely very happy with his output.  Here was a young up and coming power hitter whose batting average didn’t help you much but didn’t drag your team down into the basement either.  Many looked at the 34 home runs in 516 at-bats last year and predicted 40+ this year.  Well here we are near the end of April and Giancarlo has yet to hit his first ball out of the park.  The 22-year-old was seeing 53.5% fastballs in 2010 and 2011.  That has decreased to 4.1% this year with the difference going to cutters predominately but some to curve balls and sliders.  At the same time, the Marlins' outfielder has seen balls he hits wind up with more line drives and ground balls and about 10.5% fewer fly balls.  Obviously, you can’t hit home runs if the ball doesn’t get into the air.  Additionally with Stanton, there is the knee injury, the effects of which are still lingering.  The longer this plays out, the worse it will be for the outfielder and his owners.  This is not a risk I want to take and I will not be buying on Giancarlo Stanton this year.

Omar Infante is off to a flying start in 2012 for the Marlins.  Where Stanton is falling short as far as home run output is concerned, Infante is exceeding expectations.  In 44 at-bats, the second baseman has four round trippers, giving a boost to his owners from a position not normally known for power hitters with few exceptions.  Not that I’m saying Omar has all of a sudden morphed into a power hitter.  Au contraire.  When he was with the Detroit Tigers in 2004 he hit 16 home runs but never hit more than nine in any year since then.  Now thirty years old, he has hit a home run every 11 at-bats.  For his career, the long ball has come every 57 at-bats.  He could provide a useful batting average but I don’t believe anything other than that.  Hence, I won’t be buying Omar Infante for the rest of 2012.

The biggest acquisition for the Marlins this off-season was shortstop and leadoff hitter Jose Reyes.  He was such an important piece for the Marlins that they moved Hanley Ramirez from shortstop to third base to make room for him defensively.  Reyes was coming off a season in which he batted .337 with seven home runs, 101 runs scored and 39 stolen bases.  The National League batting champion was slowed in the second half by a hamstring strain but was healthy entering this season and there were high hopes for 50+ stolen bases with Ozzie Guillen as the manager.  However, Reyes has been mired in a slump since the start of the year, hitting only .215 with zero home runs, six runs scored, and four stolen bases.  This is definitely not what the Marlins were bargaining for when they signed him.  But the ex-New York Met has two triples and hasn’t shown any sign of an injury.  If this stretch came in the middle of the season instead of the beginning, it would hardly be noticed.  Lacking any kind of an injury report, I have no doubts that Jose will bounce back and will still swipe over 50 bases, so I will be looking to buy.

These are but a few players that are performing at the opposite end of the spectrum that they were predicted to be.  If none of them are on your team there are certainly others like them that are.  It is sometimes hard to avoid knee-jerk reactions to these types of performances.  We tend to want to fix things ourselves without letting things even out.  Water finds its own level and sooner or later most of these anomalies will right themselves.   In the meantime, try to avoid falling into the trap of dealing an under achiever for an over achiever.
 
Closer Watch
NL Beat
Written by Christopher Kreush   
Thursday, 19 April 2012 03:31

If there’s one position that fantasy players fret over more than others it usually is the closer if the league counts saves as a category.  While some owners punt the category and it has worked at times, I don’t particularly like using that strategy.  There are others who don’t chase saves during a draft or auction because the position is so volatile and prefer to get saves through FAAB or the waiver wire during the season.  Due to the fact that closers are such a limited commodity and in high demand, I don’t like this strategy either.  I don’t see much difference in chasing saves in the draft or chasing them during the season with waiver position or FAAB dollars.

I believe getting your closers before the season is the better option since it offers you more flexibility in how you build your overall roster.  Since closers usually tend to go earlier or towards the middle of the draft rather than the end, I like that I can still take different roads to get to my final destination in creating my team.  Waiting for in season acquisitions could tend to take resources from other spots where they are needed due to injury or poor performance.  I don’t have to acquire the top end closers necessarily, but I want to try to leave the draft with two or three closers in tow.  While it is still very early in the year, let’s take a look how these much sought after game enders are faring.

Arizona Diamondbacks – J.J. Putz has appeared five times this season and has four saves in those five chances.  The big right-hander has allowed three runs in 4 2/3 innings for a 5.79 ERA.  Two of the three runs against came off a gopher ball.  Still, his job is very safe.

Atlanta Braves – Craig Kimbrel hasn’t allowed an earned run yet this year and is four for four in save chances.  The second-year closer has struck out six hitters in four innings pitched but is a little rusty having issued four bases on balls to go along with four hits against in the same four inning span.  There is nothing for Kimbrel owners to be concerned about at this time.

Chicago Cubs – Carlos Marmol has pitched in five games this year with one save, one blown save, and one loss to show for it.  The wild throwing righty has four strikeouts in 3 1/3 innings but also has allowed four walks.  This isn’t a good start considering he’s always fought with his control.  A 2.40 WHIP and 8.10 ERA should have Kerry Wood owners licking their chops as long as he stays healthy.

Cincinnati Reds – Sean Marshall took over the role from Ryan Madson who is one of the latest victims for Tommy John surgery.  Marshall has struck out four in his 3 1/3 innings of work and has a loss and a save to his record as well as better than a strikeout per inning.  The left-hander has the job of finishing off games in his control.

Colorado Rockies – Rafael Betancourt is three for three in save chances.  Colorado’s closer has appeared in five games and has allowed only one earned run which came off a home run.  Betancourt has four strikeouts and sports a 1.20 WHIP and 1.80 ERA.  No distress for his owners.

Houston Astros – With only two innings of work in two games, Brett Myers certainly isn’t being overused this year.  However, that’s due more to how bad Houston is as opposed to Houston not having faith in the right hander’s ability to finish games.  Myers does have two saves to go along with a .143 BAA.  Even still, one has to believe Brett could be a trade candidate sooner rather than later.

Los Angeles Dodgers – Javy Guerra has made seven appearances and has five saves with one blown save for the year.  Before the season, many people thought it would only be a matter of time before Kenley Jansen took over the closer’s role in Dodger-town.  But Guerra hasn’t given anyone a reason to move him out of the role he currently has and his job is safe for the foreseeable future.

Miami Marlins – Heath Bell has been a major disappointment for his fantasy owners up to this point.  One save, two losses, two blown saves along with a 2.75 ERA and 9.00 WHIP are very good reasons not to be happy with Bell’s performance.  Despite the poor display, the Marlins are committed to the free agent signee.

Milwaukee Brewers – John Axford has started off 2012 a bit shaky.  The tall right-hander has pitched 3 2/3 innings, allowing three earned runs on three hits and five bases on balls.  On the encouraging side, Axford is two for two in save chances and the eight hitters he has retired have all been via strikeout.

New York Mets – Frank Francisco has been a bit of a surprise as have the Mets in general.  The 32-year-old has thrown five innings allowing six hits without a walk and two earned runs.  Francisco has converted three of three save chances, striking out seven batters along the way.  He needs to stay at the top of his game because the Mets do have other options if he falters.

Philadelphia Phillies – Jonathan Papelbon has pitched in five innings, allowing one earned run on a long ball and has been perfect in three save chances.  The Boston Red Sox refugee hasn’t been overpowering, allowing more hits than innings pitched with fewer strikeouts than innings.  Still, he has the job all to himself in Philadelphia.

Pittsburgh Pirates – Joel Hanrahan has one win and one save on his record so far.  The 30-year-old is in what would be his second full season as the Pirates' closer but has been battling a hamstring injury.  As a result, Hanrahan only has one victory and one save on the year.  A little disconcerting is four bases on balls in only four innings of work, although his role as closer is very safe.

San Diego Padres – Huston Street only has one save on the year but has pitched magnificently.  In four innings of work, the Padres' right-hander hasn’t allowed any runs on only one hit against and zero bases on balls.  There are no concerns about Street at all at this time.

San Francisco Giants – Brian Wilson has succumbed to an elbow injury and will have the second Tommy John surgery of his career.  Santiago Casilla seems to be the pitcher for the moment that will get the save chances and he has pitched very well although this could turn out to be the dreaded closer-by-committee.

St. Louis Cardinals – Jason Motte saved nine games at the end of the 2011 season and was anointed the closer for 2012. Motte has solidified his role with only one earned run off a home run in five innings.  The Cardinals’ right hander has one win and two saves and has struck out seven hitters.  If you have Jason Motte as one of your closers, you have no concerns.

Washington Nationals – Drew Storen had elbow surgery to remove bone chips in his throwing arm.  Brad Lidge and Henry Rodriguez are sharing the save chances.  Lidge has two saves and one blown save while Rodriguez has three saves and one loss.  Both have pitched well with Rodriguez having the edge.  But if there’s one thing we have learned over the years, it’s not necessarily who the better pitcher is, but rather who has the better opportunity.

 
Random Thoughts
NL Beat
Written by Christopher Kreush   
Thursday, 12 April 2012 03:17

It always amazes me how many fantasy players have to be talked off the ledge this early each season.  I regularly listen to the fantasy sports channel on Sirius and can’t believe how many callers are asking if they should ditch their slow performing players.  Or trade them for some hot starting flavor of the week.  It has always been preached here that the season is a marathon, not a sprint.  And, to give them credit, all the hosts on Sirius spout the same message but still field many questions that deal with making bad early trades.

I don’t even look at the standings for the first month of the season.  To take it even further, I ditched the use of draft software this year which tracked categories and showed the league winner – which I always thought was the kiss of death anyway.  I replaced this with my own spreadsheet to keep track of the draft and auction and combined my budget sheet within.  An added benefit of this was learning a bit more about Excel and the things you could do with it – vlookup, etc (you can teach old dog new tricks).  All I do this early is look to replace injured players and make sure I have the players active each day or week that I want.  In my keeper leagues I start to look for any minor league players I might want to add if I have room for them.

If you made decisions for your teams based on what has happened this early in the season you’d go out and trade for every Houston Astros player you could get your hands on.  After all, they are in second place and have the second highest batting average in the National League.  Maybe loading up on Pittsburgh Pirates pitchers is the key to success this year since they lead the NL with a 1.50 ERA.  Obviously, I am saying this in jest.  But there are some interesting things out there in the baseball world.

The Washington Nationals will be an improved and competitive team that I’m going to like watching.  The New York Mets not so much, in my opinion, as I took the under for total wins for them this year.  But the Nationals and Mets are at the top of their division with the Philadelphia Phillies, Atlanta Braves, and Miami Marlins bringing up the rear.  I do think the Braves and Phillies will struggle with scoring runs this year but you can’t complain about either team’s pitching.  The Marlins should be in the thick of things as long as they don’t get too distracted by Ozzie Guillen’s off the field ridiculousness.

In only one week, Omar Infante has hit about half of his projected home runs for the year.  He has hit more round trippers for the Marlins than Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes, Giancarlo Stanton, Gaby Sanchez, and Logan Morrison combined.  As of this writing, no NL hitter has more home runs than Miami’s second baseman.  Players like Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano, Ryan Zimmerman, Dan Uggla, and Justin Upton have yet to smack their first of the year.

The St. Louis Cardinals have surprised me with their hitting thus far.  They lead the league in hits, HR, runs, batting average, total bases, and OPS, among other things.  Their team OPS of .913 is higher than the OPS Matt Holliday, Albert Pujols, Carlos Gonzalez, and Mike Stanton had in 2011.  It is also higher than Troy Tulowitzki, Joey Votto, and Hanley Ramirez in 2012.

Starlin Castro leads the league with five stolen bases in five attempts.  The only other Chicago Cub with a successful attempt is Jeff Baker.  The Miami Marlins as a team have the most swipes with seven.  The Philadelphia Phillies are second with five and haven’t been caught yet.

The man many say is the fastest in the big leagues, Dee Gordon, has four stolen bases in five attempts. His .238 average is a drag so far but he is taking some walks.  I am taking the over on 60 total for the year working with Davey Lopes.

David Freese is continuing his torrid play from the 2011 postseason.  In six games, the Cardinals' third baseman is batting .427 with three home runs and 10 RBI.  All of his extra base hits have been of the over the wall variety.  What has me a bit concerned is an early 7:1 strikeout to walk ratio. Although a very small sample, it is more than twice his career mark.

In the first three games started by Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels the Phillies have come away victorious in only one of them.  Their opposition scored a total of four runs off the troika in those games but Philadelphia hitters only managed to plate the same number in support of them.

Every year there are differing opinions about drafting or obtaining closers or potential closers in an auction due to their volatility.  2012 hasn’t been a disappointment in this regard.  Antonio Bastardo, Javier Lopez, Rex Brothers, Heath Bell, David Hernandez, Carlos Marmol, and Kerry Wood have already blown saves this year.  On top of that, Ryan Madson and Drew Storen have already been sidelined with injuries – Madson out for the season with Tommy John surgery.

These are just a few of the interesting tidbits from the first week of the 2012 season – some good and others not so good.  The challenge as fantasy players is not to overreact to results at either end of the spectrum at this point.  Forget about the standings for the first month and manage your team in relation to who you want to start from your roster or who you have to replace due to injury.  After that, you can start to worry about categories and where you are in the standings as there will be enough of a sample size to actually get a good grasp of how things are playing out.
 
Opening Week Musings
NL Beat
Written by Christopher Kreush   
Wednesday, 04 April 2012 03:35

The day we’ve long waited for is back.  I know there were a couple games in Japan last week, but how many people who didn’t have anyone from their fantasy teams playing really noticed?  My attention was still more turned towards the battles going on in the final week of spring training and preparing for the biggest draft weekend of the year.  But still, the games did count and the Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics split a pair.  Those in NL only leagues probably didn’t even bat an eye.

This week will be different, however, as every major league team will start their 2012 campaign.  Fantasy players will be hoping their top draft picks start to pay dividends from the outset.  While everyone knows this is a marathon, it’s still disconcerting to see ones fantasy team get off to a slow start, languishing in last place.  I resist the temptation to get overly confident if my teams start with a bang and, conversely, don’t get nervous if they start with a whimper.  I really don’t pay much attention to my fantasy teams except for planning free agent or FAAB pickups for players who might have gotten injured so I don’t have any dead roster spots going into week two.

Instead, I revel in the fact that real baseball is back and watch or listen to as many games as I can, trying to glean as much information as possible about teams and players in games that count.  I have a couple of things (more in my mind than written down) for each team that I am wondering about or concerned about as the 2012 campaign starts off and I’ll go through some of them here.

Arizona Diamondbacks – Not if but how much will Ian Kennedy regress from his Cy Young challenging 2011 season?  Which version of Aaron Hill will 2012 more closely resemble – the 2011 Toronto Blue Jay model that hit .225 in almost 400 at bats or the 2011 Arizona Diamondback model that hit .315 in 124 at bats.

Atlanta Braves – Jason Heyward had problems with southpaws in 2011.  Has he made the adjustments necessary to avoid a platoon again this year?  The Braves haven’t been shy about bringing up their youngsters.  Tyler Pastornicky was in line to be one of them this year but has really struggled at the plate this spring.  His job is safe for now but one has to wonder if Jack Wilson or Andrelton Simmons will be called upon if Atlanta gets tired of waiting for the 22 year-old to provide some offense.

Chicago Cubs – Bryan LaHair will start the season at first base but will he provide enough offense to keep Anthony Rizzo in the minor leagues?  Kind of an obvious one but does Starlin Castro – everyone’s up and coming darling - continue to build upon what he’s already done or have we seen the best he has to offer – not that that’s bad. There are some non-believers. I believe.

Cincinnati Reds – There certainly is enough offense here, but the question remains will this rotation – even with the addition of Mat Latos - be able to hold opposing offenses in check.  To complicate things even more, Ryan Madson had to succumb to TJ surgery and now Sean Marshall will be closing out games.  Will he be able to hang onto the role for the duration?

Colorado Rockies – Will Troy Tulowitzki stay healthy to produce enough to justify his lofty draft position – top five and first overall in some leagues?  Color me skeptical.  Early signs are very encouraging but does Juan Nicasio have the mental and intestinal fortitude to forget about his horrifying injury last year?

Houston Astros – How bad will this team be and will Brett Myers build up enough trade value as closer to be dealt before the deadline?  I’m sure Jed Lowrie would want to make the Boston Red Sox regret trading him but will he be able to?  That I’m not sure of but comparing the Astros to the Red Sox isn’t exactly comparing hot dogs to hot dogs.

Los Angeles Dodgers – With Ervin Johnson, et al, at the helm will ownership have enough money left over to actually run the team?  On the field, what is the over/under for saves before Javy Guerra gives way to Kenley Jansen (I say 13)?  Dee Gordon is reputed to be the fastest man in baseball.  How many stolen bases will he get the green light for – 50, 60, 70?  My vote is 60 but he’ll certainly be fun to watch whatever the number is.

Miami Marlins – Hanley Ramirez gets pushed to third base and reportedly isn’t real happy with it.  Will it spur him to another level or will he languish in self pity.  Many are predicting a career year for Jose Reyes but will he stay healthy enough?  It’s going to be very interesting to see if Ozzie Guillen can soothe the savage beast of Carlos Zambrano and channel his emotions to being a successful pitcher or will he again self destruct.  I’m betting Ozzie will reach something inside Zambrano.  In fact, I’m betting on Guillen to lead the Marlins to a division title.

Milwaukee Brewers – A couple things on my mind are will Ryan Braun perform well after the whole PED test thing and will Mat Gamel take a step up this year.  I stand in the affirmative for both of them.  Aramis Ramirez needs to help the Brew Crew forget Prince Fielder.

New York Mets – Will Johan Santana defy the odds and be a good pitcher over a full season?  Even though it’s for the cross town rivals, I’m hoping he does.  The fences of CitiField were lowered and brought in.  Will that result in more balls going out of the park for David Wright and Jason Bay?

Philadelphia Phillies – After being signed to a big free agent contract, will Jonathan Papelbon lead the NL in saves?  Me thinks so.  I do not believe Ryan Howard is a near 50 home run hitter anymore (even if he was healthy).  I even think mid 30’s is pushing it.  As a result, I have some real concerns for the Phillies offense this year.

Pittsburgh Pirates – Overall, I think this team is interesting and will be fun to watch – especially Andrew McCutchen and Alex Presley.  I believe McCutchen is a 30/30 player in the making.  Conversely, I’m concerned for Pedro Alvarez.  The number two overall pick from 2008 may be fighting for his career.  I’ll be pulling for him but don’t have much faith.

San Diego Padres – Some don’t believe in Cory Luebke but I do and I’m sorry I haven’t been able to roster him on any of my fantasy teams.  Pitchers like him are special – especially in Petco Park.  I’m just skeptical there’s enough offense here to enable him to have a .500 record.

San Francisco Giants – Will the Giants stop screwing around with Brandon Belt?  I hope so.  How long will management continue to allow Barry Zito to steal a roster spot?  Buster Posey has been working on swipe tags at home plate this spring.  It will be interesting to see if old habits are harder to break than his leg was.  He could benefit from watching film of Jorge Posada who never blocked the plate (sorry, pet peeve of mine).

St. Louis Cardinals – Not that anyone can, but who will pick up the mantle from Albert Pujols?  There is a serious offensive shortfall here that Carlos Beltran has no hope of filling.  There are huge question marks with Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter.  So much so that will the Cards be forced to accelerate the timetable of Shelby Miller?

Washington Nationals – This is another team I’m going to like to watch.  There are some promising positional youngsters and the rotation isn’t as barren as we’re used to seeing.  Everyone will be watching Stephen Strasburg’s comeback from Tommy John surgery and newcomers Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson to the starting five.  Then there’s the pool in every office in Washington when Bryce Harper will make his appearance.

These are just some of the things I’ll be looking at and for over the first part of the season.  What will you be on the lookout for in the National League?
 
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