NL Beat

Cliff Who?
NL Beat
Written by Christopher Kreush   
Thursday, 24 July 2014 00:00

There’s no worse feeling in the fantasy world than drafting your team and expecting big things only to have one of your top players not perform up to standards – whether it be because of injury or just a crappy year. When this happens, the inevitable response is a bunch of words not fit for print here directed at said player to go along with much gnashing of teeth. If a player gets off to a bad start, the usual reaction is to hold onto him, hoping he’ll work it out. If things don’t turn around, the next reaction could be to try to dump the player on someone else based on name value. If, however, you wait too long, then you need to take a deep discount or be stuck with the player for the duration of the season. If I’m in that position, I’m loathe to actually just cut the player because I’m afraid the next owner to pick him up will wind up getting what I had banked on.

One such player many fantasy players were counting on for this year was Cliff Lee. The 35-year-old has been fantasy gold for most of the past six years and has anchored many a team’s pitching staff. Coming into the season, the southpaw was in the top-3 of starting pitchers in the National League. His auction value was in the $30 range and he went for more than that in some leagues. At that price, it was expected he would easily attain double-digit wins, an ERA close to 3.00, WHIP in the low 1.00 range and strikeouts north of 200. It looked like Lee was going to have another typical Cliff Lee season after spring training when he put up a 2.55 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, more than a strikeout per inning and less than a hit per inning.

But then the regular season started. Lee’s first start was in Texas against the Rangers. He lasted only five innings and was tagged hard. After the smoke had cleared, the box score showed eight earned runs, 11 hits allowed and only one strikeout in five innings of work. That equated to a 14.40 ERA and 2.40 WHIP for him and his owners – a very inauspicious start to the season to say the least. In his next three starts, he allowed zero, three, and one earned run but still gave up more than a hit per inning.

His best game came in his fifth start of the year against the Los Angeles Dodgers. In that game, Lee went eight innings and only allowed four hits, zero walks, and struck out ten. His owners must have thought the train was back on the tracks, but he followed that with an eight hit and two walk effort against the Arizona Diamondbacks in which he surrendered three earned runs and only struck out two.

After that, Lee kind of had an up and down performance for the next four starts. After allowing two earned runs on May 18 to the Cincinnati Reds in a game in which he gave up nine hits and only struck out three, Lee was sent for an MRI due to a sore throwing elbow – never something real or fantasy GM’s like to hear. The report came back that it was a strained flexor tendon and not something that would require the all too familiar Tommy John surgery that was running rampant during the early part of this season. The Phillies were saying he might only miss two weeks with the strain and he was placed on the 15-day disabled list.

Two weeks later, however, the ace still had not been cleared to begin throwing and his owners started to worry even more. On June 10, he participated in some light tossing – just to get a feel for how the elbow felt. Things seemed OK and the schedule was pushed to light throwing every other day. On June 16, things were moved to a mound where he threw only fastballs on a very limited pitch count to see how the arm felt. The schedule was moved to throwing bullpen sessions in increasing pitch increments with a simulated game forecast for sometime during the last week of June. On July 1, he progressed to throwing 60 pitches against live batters and a minor league rehab trip would be next – Philadelphia was certainly taking it slow and easy with their star. In the first of these, he was limited to just two dozen pitches for High A Clearwater in a game that was cut short by rain. This start covered two shutout innings with one hit and two strikeouts.

The next start was again for Clearwater in which he allowed three runs in four innings but he did throw three quarters of his pitches for strikes. This now brings us to July 15 and his last rehab start. Things didn’t go well in this game as he was roughed up for eight runs, albeit only three earned, in 4 2/3 innings with only two strikeouts. This certainly wasn’t what Lee owners were hoping for.

He was activated from the DL this Monday and pitched against the San Francisco Giants at home. In his first start back, the Giants treated him roughly, with 12 hits, six earned runs and only three strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings. Not good at all and Cliff Lee owners are officially worried again and certainly wondering if there is a more extensive issue with him this year. I’ve heard more than a few wondering if he’s hit the wall and the slide is here.

I don’t have the answer to that but am glad I don’t have any ownership in him this year. It doesn’t look good but there isn’t much those with some stock in him can do at this point but wait and hope. With the way things have been going, however, Daisy Duke would rather be riding in a Pinto than this Lee.
A Tour Around the Senior Circuit
NL Beat
Written by Todd Zola   
Thursday, 17 July 2014 00:35

Let’s take a tour of the Senior Circuit with an eye on what we can expect fantasy-wise after the break.

Arizona Diamondbacks: With the return of Mark Trumbo, something has to flesh out in the outfield. Early indications are Ender Inciarte and Cody Ross will lose the most playing time while David Peralta will continue to play, mostly in centerfield. Trevor Cahill is back but he’s still a risk as he walked 20 hitters in 28.1 innings at Triple-A Reno.

Atlanta Braves: The prognosis for Evan Gattis improved over the break as he’s taking batting practice with the hope of returning the last week of July. Backs can be tricky, so counting on any more than 150 AB the rest of the way is optimistic.

Chicago Cubs: The next 10 weeks could be very interesting in Wrigley Field. Playing time is not guaranteed for Arismendy Alcantara but it’s certainly there for the taking. There’s a good chance Javier Baez and Kris Bryant get a cup of joe before season’s end. What’s really scary is with all the focus on the infield prospects, Jorge Soler and Albert Almora are ignored. From a fantasy sense, so long as you don’t need to chase wins, Tsuyoshi Wada and Kyle Hendricks are intriguing arms to monitor. The strikeout potential can certainly help an NL-only team and they could even be streaming options in mixed leagues.

Cincinnati Reds: The news Joey Votto will only be out a couple weeks means the Reds can use Brayan Pena (again) to cover and focus on a replacement for Brandon Phillips. At least short term, Zack Cozart gets a little boost hitting second. As an Aroldis Chapman owner in multiple leagues, I’m a bit concerned how he left the field after his All-Star stint. Supposedly he tweaked a previous injury and should be OK, but until I see him blaze a 100 mph heater over the weekend, I reserve the right to be concerned.

Colorado Rockies: We’ll know in another week if Michael Cuddyer has a chance to return this season (probably late-August if it happens). In the interim, Carlos Gonzalez will man right field, which may help keep him healthy. Who am I kidding – it’s CarGo, nothing can help keep him healthy.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Carl Crawford is back, which makes a crowded outfield a little more crowded. The problem is no one can really play centerfield as well as a playoff-bound team typically runs out there. Matt Kemp wants to play every day, which could push him back to center. Heck, the Lakers once won with Magic Johnson playing center, so who knows.

Miami Marlins: I’m not sure if the pheromones are obvious, but I’m developing a pretty serious mancrush on Christian Yelich. Last year, it was Kole Calhoun, this season it’s Yelich. Not only has Giancarlo Stanton stayed healthy, he’s piggybacking with the improved Marlin attack, as his RBI and runs total may both tip triple digits.

Milwaukee Brewers: The tragically sad death of Jean Segura’s infant son has Elian Herrera with the team while Segura is with his family. Obviously, there are more important considerations than when he’ll be back with the team, but the most recent news is the club is attempting to get in touch with their shortstop and will support whatever he decides.

New York Mets: Don’t look now but Curtis Granderson is heating up. The rest of the outfield is still transient but a healthy Juan Lagares is the closest they have to a regular. Daisuke Matsuzaka is heading back to the bullpen as Dillon Gee has returned and Jon Niese will soon follow.

Philadelphia Phillies: Cliff Lee will be back next week but for how long? The game “Who will close if Jonathan Papelbon is traded?” is sweeping the nation. Antonio Bastardo is possible but he’s also on the block. Jake Diekman and my choice Ken Giles are also possibilities.

Pittsburgh Pirates: The Bucs are a solid starting pitcher away from hanging in the wild-card race for the duration. It will be interesting to see if they take the plunge. The intriguing fantasy question will be how the Pirates continue to find playing time for Josh Harrison as when everyone is healthy, he’s the odd man out. His flexibility should keep his bat in the lineup fairly frequently.

San Diego Padres: Hopefully, not many of you followed my lead expecting a strong season from Everth Cabrera, but if you did, I’m sorry. The usual Huston Street/Joaquin Benoit rumors are running rampant again with Kevin Quackenbush as an intriguing speculative stash. Quackenbush has 27 whiffs to only eight walks in 26.3 frames, allowing just one homer.

San Francisco Giants: Angel Pagan’s return is about a week away. Marco Scutaro is back but expect Joe Panik to keep getting some decent playing time. In his last three outings, Sergio Romo has fanned seven with no walks and just one hit, covering 3.1 stanzas. Let’s just say I don’t think he’ll end the season with the same number of saves he has now.

St. Louis Cardinals: A white-hot Kolten Wong (.321 with five homers and three steals since July 6) has likely earned regular run at second. Oscar Taveras has pushed Allen Craig to the bench. Craig hasn’t forgotten how to hit; it’s just one of those years. A Lawr Michaels fave George Kottaras could supply some pop in Yadier Molina’s stead.

Washington Nationals: Adam LaRoche’s continued success is making it really hard for the Nats to move Ryan Zimmerman to first and Anthony Rendon to third. A decision on Jordan Zimmermann and his biceps strain should be made before Friday’s games begin. Blake Treinen and Taylor Jordan are possible replacements if the need arises.  I know they still have to get there, but if they do I really like the way Washington sets up for a playoff run.

Notes from the NL
NL Beat
Written by Christopher Kreush   
Thursday, 10 July 2014 00:00

We have less than a week to go to the All-Star Break when the American League will host the National League at Target Field, home of the Minnesota Twins. This gives me another chance to rant about one of my biggest pet peeves – the fact this exhibition game determines which league gets home field for the World Series. In my mind, this is one of the dumbest decisions Bud Selig has made. Now that I got that out of my system, let’s move on.

The various division races are tightening up. As of this writing, the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves are tied atop the East; the St. Louis Cardinals have closed to within three games of the leading Milwaukee Brewers in the Central; the Los Angeles Dodgers (minus a few million dollars due to a jury award in the Bryan Stow case) are one-half game up on the San Francisco Giants in the West.

The Colorado Rockies lead the league with 441 runs scored – not surprising considering where they play. At 482, the Rockies have also allowed the most runs – not surprising considering where they play. Milwaukee has the second most runs scored at 402. The San Diego Padres have the most anemic offense, having scored a mere 272 runs. Washington has the best run differential at +53 while the Arizona Diamondbacks have the worst at -64.

The Nationals, at nine games over .500, play the best at home while Arizona owns the worst home record at 14 games below break even. Los Angeles has the best road record, having won ten games more than they lost while Colorado has lost 14 more games than they’ve won on the road.

On the individual side, Colorado’s Troy Tulowitzki leads all National League players with a .350 batting average and 70 runs scored. Giancarlo Stanton of the Miami Marlins has the most home runs in the NL with 21 and most RBI with 63. Andrew McCutchen has worked the most bases on balls with 57 while B.J. Upton has struck out the most – 111 times. Dee Gordon leads in thievery with 42 stolen bases.

Among pitchers, Johnny Cueto of Cincinnati has thrown the most innings – 137 2/3 – and is on pace to accumulate over 250 innings. Washington’s Stephen Strasburg leads the league with 140 strikeouts and could top 250 for the year. Alfredo Simon of the Reds leads with 12 victories while Eric Stults of the San Diego Padres only has one fewer loss than Simon has wins. Atlanta’s Craig Kimbrel (not surprisingly) and Milwaukee’s Francisco Rodriguez (surprisingly) lead the NL with 27 saves.

One of the biggest surprises so far has been the Cincinnati Reds’ young outfielder Billy Hamilton. Many projections had Hamilton struggling in the batting average department to the extent he might be demoted and lose a lot of playing time. While the 23-year-old speedster did struggle mightily for the first month, he has steadily raised his average to .280 with a .312 OBP. This has enabled him to steal 37 bases, although he needs to improve his percentage after being caught 12 times. Hamilton has even added five home runs and 36 RBI from his spot atop the Reds lineup.

The comeback player of the year so far is Justin Morneau of the Rockies. After a 2013 season in which he batted .259 with 17 home runs and 77 RBI for the Minnesota Twins and Pittsburgh Pirates, the Colorado first baseman is batting .313 with 13 home runs and 59 RBI – on pace for 22 home runs and 103 RBI. Teammate Troy Tulowitzki is the leading MVP candidate with his aforementioned .350 average and 20 home runs, 70 runs and 49 RBI. A few pitchers, including Adam Wainwright, Cueto and Clayton Kershaw, are in the running for the Cy Young. Wainwright has an 11-4 record with a 0.92 WHIP, 1.79 ERA and 111 strikeouts in 131 innings pitched. Cueto is the owner of a 9-6 record with a 0.88 WHIP, 2.03 ERA and 134 strikeouts in just over 137 innings. Kershaw of the Dodgers has a 10-2 record with a 0.87 WHIP, 1.85 ERA and 115 strikeouts in only 87 innings due to missing about six weeks of the season with a bad back.

There’s been one major trade so far with Theo Epstein sending Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Oakland A’s for starting pitcher Dan Straily, minor league shortstop Addison Russell (a highly rated prospect) and minor league outfielder Billy McKinney. With Javier Baez already in the organization – another top shortstop prospect – someone figures to be changing positions.

The season hasn’t disappointed so far with some surprises (good and not so good) both in real baseball and for fantasy teams. The rest of the 2014 version of MLB figures to be just as exciting and full of surprises and I’m eager to see it play out. I just hope the announcers at the mid-season classic don’t set me off by reminding me what’s at stake in that game.
Halfway There
NL Beat
Written by Christopher Kreush   
Thursday, 03 July 2014 00:00

Even though we haven’t reached the unofficial midway point of the baseball season – the All-Star break – the 2014 season is more than halfway in the books with the vast majority of major league teams having played at least 82 games. It’s a good time for teams to take a look at their lot in the standings and start to plan for the dog days of summer.

As we enter play Wednesday, the Atlanta Braves, Milwaukee Brewers and San Francisco Giants are in the lead in their respective divisions. The Braves have a one-half game lead over the Washington Nationals with the Miami Marlins hanging in there five and one-half games out. The Giants also have a one-half game lead in the NL West over the Los Angeles Dodgers. All the other teams in the division are behind by double digits. If the Dodgers get their act together at home (on the road they are ten games over .500 but just playing break even ball at home), they could really make some hay in the standings. The Brewers are the biggest surprise of the three division leaders with a six and one-half game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals and the best winning percentage in the National League. In fact, only the Oakland A’s have a better record than the Brew Crew in all of baseball.

Teams now have a pretty good idea whether they are pretenders or contenders. The pretenders will be looking to set themselves up for the future by adding prospects, trimming salary, or both while the contenders will be looking to add that final piece or two for the run to October. In this regard, both sides will find something they can come together on. What remains to be seen are which teams will be willing to deal and which will be willing to make any additions. Either way, there are some options that might be available for the frontrunners that I will go through. Many times, this is a crapshoot to try to predict, and more often than not, most names we think could be moving wind up staying put but it’s fun to speculate.

Ryan Howard is in the middle of a contract extension he signed in 2010 that will take him through the 2016 season plus a club option for 2017. The first baseman will make $25M through the end of 2016 with the 2017 option being another $23M with a $10M buyout. Ryan’s contract gives him the right to block deals to 21 teams, but with the Phillies getting long in the tooth (Howard is 34) and their window now closed, he might be willing to go someplace else for a playoff run.

In the same boat with Howard but a year older is Cliff Lee. The big left-hander has been nursing a strain to a tendon in his throwing elbow but seems set to start a minor league rehab assignment. Naturally, anyone coming off an injury – especially a pitcher with a hurt throwing arm – has an uphill climb when it comes to possibly being dealt. But Lee isn’t just anyone. He’s the type of pitcher who could make a huge difference in the battle for the playoffs.  The southpaw is under contract through the end of 2015 for $25M each year and a $27.5M club option for 2016 with a $12.5M buyout. Like Howard, Lee’s contract enables him to block any trade to 21 teams.

The Chicago Cubs aren’t going anywhere fast and could be willing to unload some pieces. One of those pieces is Jason Hammel. The 31-year-old is having a nice year with seven wins and a 2.98 ERA for the lowly Cubbies. He’s in a contract year as Chicago signed him to a one-year deal this January that will pay him $6M for the season with an additional $1M in performance bonuses possible. Due to the contract, he would be very attractive to other teams looking to add someone without having to take on a huge amount of salary for multiple years. If President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein is willing to part with Hammel, there could be a bidding war involving several teams.

Another interesting chip the Cubs have is right-hander Jeff Samardzija. Although he only owns a 2-7 record, the big starting pitcher has a 2.83 ERA with 103 strikeouts in 108 innings with only 31 walks. Just as attractive as his peripherals is the 29-year-old's contract – one year for $5.345M. The suitors will be lining up at Theo’s doorstep for the services of Samardzija.

Going out west, the San Diego Padres have a couple pieces of their own that other teams might be interested in. First is 30-year-old Huston Street. The closer is having a superb year with a 0.77 WHIP, 0.90 ERA and 32:7 K:BB ratio in 30 innings pitched. The veteran right-hander has converted 22 of 22 save opportunities in 2014. Street is affordable at $7M for 2014 with a club option for 2015 at another $7M.

Moving from the bullpen to the starting rotation, we come upon right-hander Ian Kennedy. The 29-year-old doesn’t have eye-popping numbers (3.87 ERA, 1.23 WHIP), especially considering he pitches in Petco Park, but his peripherals are pretty darn good. First off, Kennedy’s velocity is up almost 1.5 MPH over 2013 with a reduction in BB/9 and increase in K/9 which gives him a K:BB of 4.14 – an 86% increase over last year’s 2.23 mark. His BABIP is .338 compared to his career .299, which may signify he’s been a little unlucky. Further evidence of this is Kennedy's 2.97 FIP. Finally, he is third in the National League in strikeouts. With a contract of $7M for 2014 with a club option for $7M in 2015, Kennedy is certainly affordable as well. Definitely someone some teams wouldn’t mind having in the middle of their rotation.

While this is certainly not a complete list of who might be traded as we approach the non-waiver trade deadline on July 31, it at least whets the appetite. There are sure to be many other names bandied about between general managers over the next few weeks and, as is usually the case, the talk of trades will vastly outperform the actual consummation of trades. But it gives me something to write about and baseball fans in general something to talk about as the dog days of summer set in.
Remember Me? Second Half Stashes
NL Beat
Written by Todd Zola   
Thursday, 26 June 2014 00:00

Sometimes the best way to get ahead is to stay two steps ahead of the pack. Depending on your league rules, stashing players that can make a difference in the second half is one way to accomplish this. What follows is a list of some names that could help decide NL-only and Mixed leagues, depending on the depth of the player pool.

Andrew Lambo, 1B/OF, Pittsburgh Pirates: Lambo almost broke camp with the Bucs but was sent back to Triple-A Indianapolis in April. He played 26 games, slashing .344/.430/.570 (1.000 OPS) before having surgery on the ulnar-collateral ligament of his right thumb. He’s due back sometime in late July/early August which could give him about six weeks of MLB time if he shows any sort of pop when he returns. His spot will have to be first base, where Ike Davis and Gaby Sanchez are currently splitting time. If Pittsburgh falls out of the wild card race, they may look to see what they have in Lambo down the stretch.

Darin Ruf, 1B/OF Philadelphia Phillies: Ruf is also presently on the shelf but should be back in a couple of weeks. He’s got a hairline fracture in his left wrist and a banged up knee, both suffered from trying to run through a wall earlier this month. If the Phillies are sellers, a corner outfield spot may open up. As Ruf exhibited after the All-Star break last season, he’s got some pop (14 HR in 293 PA) and can take a walk (11.3 percent BB%) but struggled with contact (31.3 percent K%). He did it once, why can’t he do it again?

Javier Baez, SS, Chicago Cubs: Kris Bryant is deservedly capturing all the attention as Baez is struggling to make consistent contact at Triple-A Iowa, but 11 HR and 14 SB reminds us just how much of a fantasy monster Baez will be when he does mature (he’s only 21). The Cubs would have to use him at second as Starlin Castro is having a nice comeback campaign. Baez has fanned 91 times while drawing only 18 walks, so there’s work to do. But if he can show any sort of improved discipline on the farm, a second-half promotion is not that much of a stretch.

Maikel Franco, 3B, Philadelphia Phillies: Yeah, yeah I need to let this go but Franco is the future at third in Philly, not Cody Asche. Though, @cody_smasche is one of my favorite Twitter handles. It’s not as good as @BringerofRain (Josh Donaldson), @El_Coffee (Gregory Polanco) or @FlavaFraz21 (Todd Frazier) but it’s cute. Back to Franco, his decimals at Triple-A Lehigh are just .212/.268/.326 for a paltry .594 OPS, but he’ll be playing in the Future’s Game, which is a reflection of his still top-prospect status. While his 48:21 whiff to walk ratio isn’t great, it isn’t completely horrible. If Franco can get hot early on in the second half, there’s still time to do some damage in the Senior Circuit.

A.J. Pollock, OF, Arizona Diamondbacks: Pollock isn’t a stranger to NL followers, but if your league has limited reserve and/or DL spots, he could be available since he’s going to be out until at least mid-August, maybe longer. Ender Inciarte has had his moments filling in, but Pollock’s combination of hitting and defense is sorely missed in the desert.

Marco Scutaro, 2B, San Francisco Giants: Okay, we’re stretching here, but Scutaro is a veteran and if Joe Panik slumps, the Giants may prefer Scutaro for their playoff push. The best that can be said about the veteran is he may not hurt you in average and could score a few tallies. Hey, it’s better than nothing.

Joe Kelly, SP, St. Louis Cardinals: The Redbirds can seemingly pluck an able arm right off the Arch but they’ll soon have an old friend return as Kelly is slated to start a rehab assignment soon. Assuming there’s no setbacks with his hamstring, the recent loss of Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia clears a path for a big league return. Don’t be concerned that Kelly was recently put on the 60-day DL; it was simply procedural to open up a spot on the 40-man roster.

Robbie Erlin, SP, San Diego Padres: While the cause of Erlin’s sore throwing elbow is still a bit sketchy, he’s pain-free and the MRI’s are clean, so he’s throwing again with the hopes of returning a bit after the All-Star break. But with Odrisamer Despaigne holding down the fort, Jesse Hahn looking good but still raw, Andrew Cashner a health risk and Eric Stults being, you know, Eric Stults, the fire-balling southpaw will have a spot waiting for him when he’s ready.

Burch Smith, SP, San Diego Padres: Speaking of the depleted Padres staff, Smith still looms as a second-half savior. He’s been out since early April with a sore forearm, but if he can make it back and show any modicum of control, he’s a strikeout machine.

Taylor Jordan, SP Washington Nationals: Tanner Roark has laid claim to the fifth rotation spot in Washington and is doing all he can to keep it, so it will take an injury for Jordan to get retribution for his April shortcomings before being sent to Triple-A Syracuse. Jordan isn’t exactly lighting it up on the farm, but his 28:8 strikeout to walk ratio in 31 frames is encouraging.

Goodbye to a Gentleman
NL Beat
Written by Christopher Kreush   
Thursday, 19 June 2014 00:47

Death. It’s the most inevitable thing of this journey we call life. It is the one thing that everyone will eventually be able to claim as personally touching them. Everybody can’t even say that about birth because not everyone has their own children. Yet every one of us has or will eventually lose someone very close to them. It is lurking – sometimes even seeming to be stalking – in each and every one of us. The older we get, the less indestructible we feel. When we’re younger, that’s exactly how we feel. We don’t think about death because it seems to be so far in the future. But when we get to the age I am and you hear of people passing at a younger age than your own, it gets you thinking you’re not as invincible as you once thought.

That’s how the passing of Anthony Keith Gwynn Sr. felt to many people. There are many more than just myself who watched Tony ply his trade in the big leagues. He was the consummate professional and a feared hitter. He didn’t play on many winning teams but when he came to the plate against your team, you still felt some trepidation. And dare I say maybe you even hated him – if just for a moment – when he got a hit in a critical spot in a tight game.

But you couldn’t hate Tony for long. More than being a great ballplayer, he was a gentleman to everyone he met. I never had that opportunity but I read plenty about him through the years and never read a bad word about him. It was said that he treated the clubhouse boys as well as he treated the owner of the team. And it was never disingenuous. Except for during the heat of battle of a game, he always seemed to be smiling. Not just a little grin, but a big wide grin that made him seem warmer than the summer days of San Diego.

Tony Gwynn was a point guard at San Diego State and is the all-time assists leader for the school. He also played baseball and became an All-American. Gwynn wound up being drafted by the San Diego Clippers of the NBA in the tenth round of the 1981 draft. The same day, he was drafted by the San Diego Padres in the third round of the amateur draft. Thank goodness he decided to play baseball professionally.

Gwynn himself admitted that he wasn’t a real good defender, couldn’t throw and wasn’t a good base runner. He had to work at it. And work at it he did. He was one of the first to utilize video tape as a way of improving himself and used it so much was given the nickname Captain Video.

Captain Video worked so hard off the field to improve himself it showed to the tune of 19 consecutive seasons of batting over .300 and eight National League batting titles. Davey Lopes quipped that a slump for most players would be 0-for-35 but a slump for Tony Gwynn was like 5-for-15. Tony didn’t just work hard on his swing but on all other facets of the game. He had five seasons with over 25 stolen bases, including a career high 56 in 1987. His career ended with a total of 319 swipes and a career batting average of .338 – the second highest in the post World War II era – and five Gold Gloves. All a testament to his hard work.

Mr. Padre (as he is also known) appeared in six postseason series in his career, including two World Series appearances in 1984 and 1998. As the pressure mounted, he got better, batting .250 in the NL Division Series, .289 in the NL Championship Series and .371 in the World Series. Most of the World Series damage was done in the 1998 matchup against my New York Yankees. In that series, Gwynn hit .500 (8-for-16 including one home run) against the likes of David Wells, Orlando Hernandez and Andy Pettitte. There was no other Padre who struck fear in Yankee fans' hearts the way he did, including Greg Vaughn and his 50 regular season home runs.

In 2007, Tony Gwynn was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. During his induction speech, he said “And when you laugh and you can laugh at yourself and laugh at others, that makes the game a whole lot easier to play.” That says a lot about his overall outlook on things. He was a simple and humble man whose favorite moment in the game was to be the last man standing out there with Ted Williams as he threw out the first pitch of the 1999 All-Star Game. This from a man who had many career highlights, including joining the 3,000 hit club in only 2,284 games.

In 2010, Tony Gwynn was diagnosed with salivary gland cancer. It was removed surgically and he underwent radiation treatments but it kept recurring. Gwynn blamed it on his use of chewing tobacco. Tony fought long and hard but lost his battle with cancer on June 16. Baseball has banned smokeless tobacco entirely in the minor leagues since 2001 but the MLBPA has resisted the same at the highest level. Maybe it’s just talk of a cancer survivor but it's high time MLB did the same in the big leagues – in Tony Gwynn’s memory.

Tony Gwynn is gone but he will long be remembered. Baseball and the world could not have had a finer gentleman. Thanks to the fact we live in such a technologically advanced age, we don’t have to go far to replay some moments in the life of Captain Video.
Two for Super Two
NL Beat
Written by Christopher Kreush   
Thursday, 12 June 2014 00:00

We’re at the point in the baseball season where everyone’s attention turns towards the minor leagues and when the next shiny prospect will be called up. Real baseball fans want to see their top prospects at the big league level because they represent hope for the future. Fantasy owners want to see the same prospects promoted because there’s a widespread belief they offer the path to a championship in the year the call-up is made.

Adding to the angst is that both groups are at the mercy of MLB and the MLBPA (MLB Players Association) due to a clause in the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) known as “Super Two”, but not many people know what it means. In the CBA, a player with more than three years but less than six years of service is eligible for salary arbitration. “Super Two” says that if a player has at least two years of service but less than three he can be eligible for arbitration if they have at least 86 days of service the preceding year and ranks in the top 22 percent in total service in the entire group of players having at least two but less than three years of major league service.

So why should we care and what does it mean? For MLB owners, it means they could save a bundle of money by delaying the call-up of the aforementioned shiny prospects. It’s a guessing game, however, because due to the way a Super Two is calculated, there is no hard date during the year for the cutoff. So the owners play a guessing game and try to delay the call-up as long as possible.

What it means for the players is if they qualify for Super Two status, they get an extra year of salary arbitration, which amounts to more money for the player. One of the best examples of what this means is Tim Lincecum qualified for Super Two status and made $9 million during his first year of arbitration while Clayton Kershaw didn’t qualify and only made $500K in his fourth year after being called up. Kershaw wound up making $19.8 million over his first five years while The Freak earned over $42 million his first five seasons. That’s the business of baseball.

So now we come back to this year. The Houston Astros didn’t hesitate (to many people’s surprise) in calling up outfielder George Springer in the middle of April. That only whet the appetite of National League fans and set many fantasy players chomping at the bit for the first NL call-ups. The most anticipated names were shortstop Javier Baez of the Chicago Cubs, outfielder Oscar Taveras of the St. Louis Cardinals and outfielder Gregory Polanco of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Taveras was brought up on May 31, Polanco got the call June 10, and we’re still awaiting the arrival of Baez.

So with the news that Taveras and Polanco would be up with their parent clubs, the waiver wire was buzzing and FAAB was being spent in bunches in many leagues. But is that normally money well spent? In most cases, it isn’t. There aren’t many Ryan Braun-like performances in a player's first year. As good as these players are in Triple-A, things are much different in the Majors.

The 21-year-old Taveras had a .325/.373/.524 slash line at Triple-A Memphis before St. Louis gave him his debut. In ten games with the Cardinals, his slash line is .194/.231/.306 – certainly not a good ROI on a big FAAB investment. Those who took the leap were surely salivating after he smashed his first big league home run in his first big league game, but he has only managed six hits and two walks in nine games since then. An average projection for the rest of the season for Taveras has him hitting eight home runs, batting about .275 and stealing five or so bases. These numbers aren’t much different than what Nate Schierholtz, Andrelton Simmons, Seth Smith, Martin Prado or Gerardo Parra will accumulate the rest of the way.

Polanco, at 22, is one year older than Taveras and has two hits in his first two major league games. His average projection for the rest of the season is eight home runs, a .285 batting average and mid teens in stolen bases. Not too far off from what guys like Carl Crawford, Daniel Murphy, Angel Pagan, Christian Yelich and Jimmy Rollins will give your team.

If you are in a redraft league, you have many different options at your disposal in the way of trades and waiver wire acquisitions than spending the amount of FAAB it would cost you to get either Taveras or Polanco or any other shiny prospect that will be called up. In a keeper or dynasty league, the factors are different and you have to put more thought into what you’re going to do depending on if you are playing for this year or acquiring talent for the future. In either case, temper your expectations for what any rookie will do for your team in their first season. Pittsburgh could arguably have the best outfield in baseball with Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen and Polanco. But it almost assuredly won’t be in 2014.
Big Trouble at the Great American Small Park
NL Beat
Written by Christopher Kreush   
Thursday, 05 June 2014 00:00

Even after finishing with a 90-72 record, I considered 2013 a disappointing season for the Cincinnati Reds if for nothing else than I picked them to win their division. Based on that, the current year is an even bigger disappointment as they are languishing in fourth place in the National League’s Central Division, two games below .500 and six and one-half games behind the division leading Milwaukee Brewers.

While six and a half games out of first place doesn’t seem like much of a deficit with four months left in the season, there is more to the Reds’ situation than meets the eye. For starters, their home park isn’t very friendly to the team as they are barely playing break even ball there. Life on the road isn’t any better either with a losing record away from Cincinnati and home cooking. The move from Dusty Baker to Bryan Price hasn’t achieved the desired effects.

There are some big problems on the offensive side with the team batting just .241 overall and .248 at home, which is below the league average. The two top hitters are both catchers – Devin Mesoraco (.347) and Brayan Pena (.283) – a problem with some of the more recognizable names on the team. Todd Frazier is leading the team with 11 home runs, which is about half his projected total for the season. The nine homers that Mesoraco has already jacked puts him way ahead of pace for his projected season total of about a dozen. Even at this torrid pace, it’s still hard to believe he’ll actually wind up with the 25 or so total prorating would put him at.

The big name on the team is obviously Joey Votto. But his big name hasn’t translated into big stats for his fantasy owners. The 30-year-old Votto currently has a slash line of .257/.410/.449, which is well below his three-year average of .313/.437/.521. Battling a quad injury since May 16, the first baseman has only managed six home runs. Making matters potentially worse for the Reds and Joey’s fantasy owners is the just announced news from General Manager Walt Jocketty, who said it was a strong possibility Votto could be playing at less than 100 percent for the rest of the season. With that statement, the Cincinnati GM pretty much squashed any chance of getting full value for Votto in a fantasy league trade.

Adding to the Reds’ woes has been outfielder Jay Bruce. With a three-year average of 32 home runs, Bruce has added to the power deficit in Cincinnati with a meager three on the year. Granted, while he could be a very streaky hitter, the current long ball total only projects to eight for the year compared with an average of 32 for each of the past three seasons. Since the season is now one-third done, Jay will have to get really streaky over the final four months to come close to the three-year average in dingers. The 11 home runs by Frazier are more than Votto and Bruce combined. Chris Heisey, Ryan Ludwick, Brandon Phillips and Pena all have a higher OPS than the right fielder. This isn’t to say that they’ve been good, just that Jay has been that bad. Anyone putting stock in 27-year-old players having magical years have so far only pulled a skunk out of their hat with Bruce.

When looking at Jay Bruce’s OPS, even Billy Hamilton has a higher mark on the year. Yes, this is the same Billy Hamilton that some were saying wouldn’t last past the first month or so because of his lack of skill in getting on base. They said "Yeah, he can run, but you can’t steal first base." Those who didn’t listen to the naysayers have been rewarded for their faith in the speedster to the tune of 22 stolen bases. While a .256 BA and .293 OBP won’t reap any batting awards, it’ll be enough to keep the 23-year-old Hamilton in the lineup and doing what his owners drafted him to do – steal bases. Further, if Cincinnati continues to struggle offensively (they are the third worst in the NL at scoring runs) and Hamilton continues to get on base anywhere near the rate he currently is, he will be given the green light any time he gets on and his fantasy owners will reap the rewards.

Things certainly haven’t played out the way the Reds and their fans had hoped coming into 2014. With most of their prospects needing more time to develop in the Minors, there isn’t much hope of reinforcements coming this year - certainly no one to immediately replace the likes of Votto or Bruce. The current year is slipping away and if Cincinnati is to make any noise in their division, their hitters need to wake up and start hitting. Everyone having a Reds’ player on their fantasy team certainly hopes the prince awakens sleeping beauty soon.
Lookout Below
NL Beat
Written by Christopher Kreush   
Thursday, 29 May 2014 00:00

After writing last week about players I thought are good buy low candidates, I was asked by some league mates and acquaintances which players were on the opposite side of the spectrum – those that were at their peak value and due for a tumble. I wasn’t planning on broaching this subject but after the questions thought it was something that actually made sense. Kind of combining yin with yang; or Buffalo with wings.

So now the question is which players do I choose? In some regards, this is a more difficult list to put together. Not so much because many of the players are not any good and clearly playing over their head, but because some of them are good – and even very good – players who their owners don’t want to admit may experience any extent of a fall from grace.

One of the first things we heard when we became fantasy owners, however, is to buy low and sell high. But it’s often hard to avoid falling in love with players and to consider the glory days won’t last forever when the players should actually be nameless, stat producing pawns to be moved wherever and whenever they suit us best. Sometimes, that’s on the opponent’s side of the board. If it helps assure the accumulation of the most stats across the categories and a title in the long run, anything goes – as anathema as it might seem.

Choice number one on my list to seriously consider jettisoning would be none other than current National League batting leader Troy Tulowitzki. The thing isn’t that the Colorado Rockies shortstop stinks; quite the opposite. He is clearly the premier player at his position in all of baseball and his owners should use that to their advantage. The 29-year-old is on pace to play in 152 games (which would be the most since 2009) and get over 500 at-bats (which he hasn’t done since 2011). He’s not the picture of health and is usually dealing with some kind of injury which costs him time. So far in 2014, he’s only missed four games, and the odds are that won’t hold up over the rest of the season. While a .373 batting average and 14 home runs are very easy to take, there are some things to at least consider if not worry about. First, the former Rookie of the Year winner is a career .299 hitter. Second, Tulo owns a career .323 BABIP, and at .384 presently is over 60 points higher than that. Third, a career ISO of .220 is currently off the charts at .338. Toss his name out there and see what kind of king’s ransom he could reap in return.

The next name on my list is Chase Utley of the Philadelphia Phillies. The second baseman is currently sporting a .333 batting average – a lofty number he hasn’t seen since 2007. The 35-year-old is also on a pace to play in 152 games and accumulate 605 at-bats, numbers he hasn’t had since 2009 and 2008, respectively. The batting average is being fueled by a gaudy .375 BABIP which most certainly will correct. The biggest thing that concerns me is the four-time Silver Slugger award winner has a degenerative knee condition in both legs and at his present age doesn’t project to getting any younger. We’ve likely seen the best from the five-time All Star.

The third name that immediately came to mind when I was considering this topic is the Milwaukee Brewers’ Kyle Lohse. In fact, he was involved in a trade in one of my leagues where I just had to resort to my rough draft to e-mail off my thoughts on him. And basically, that is he’s just, well, Kyle Lohse. This is not to say he’s not a serviceable pitcher, but I don’t believe he’s what we’ve seen so far this year. On the surface, his 1.08 WHIP and 2.92 ERA isn’t out of line with his 2012 season-ending numbers, but that came after the tutelage of pitching coach Dave Duncan for five years. Nobody’s accused Brewers’ pitching coach Rick Kranitz of being an identical twin of Duncan. When you look deeper into Lohse’s performance, he still only possesses an 89 mph fastball and is throwing the same types of pitches for pretty close to the same amount of time he’s thrown them for the past six seasons – there hasn’t been a new pitch added to bolster his arsenal. Therefore, a K/9 of 7.18 shouldn’t be projected forward when his career average is a 5.7/9 mark.  When the strikeouts start to drop (and I believe it’s certain they will), everything else will regress upwards. Play up the increase in K rate and see what you can get in return.

This is not nearly a complete list but just a few players that stick out to me as trade bait. Again, sometimes it’s hard to part ways with the current batting leader, but we need to look at everyone on our roster in the light of how we can improve our team. After all, even the Belle of the Ball has some hidden pimples.
Roses On The Garbage Heap
NL Beat
Written by Christopher Kreush   
Thursday, 22 May 2014 00:00

Struggling players is nothing new to baseball. As long as teams have been going out on a diamond and competing – whether it be professionally or at an amateur level – there have been players on those teams who go through slumps. Players go through slumps all the time during the season and it’s always what it is – just a slump. But the funny thing about baseball is when a slump occurs at the beginning of the season, it’s not a slump. Rather, it’s called a bad, or slow, start.

Never mind the vernacular – it’s still a slump and that’s what fantasy players have to get into their heads. That being said, there are still slumps that I want a part of and slumps that I don’t. The ones I don’t are those I think will last most, if not all, of the season with little hope of improving. Those players I do want a part of are those I feel are most likely to turn something sour into something very sweet. These are also called buy low candidates and are the kind of players many of us are trying to acquire at this point.

So who are my buy low candidates? Funny you should ask…

One guy I would love to have on more teams is Pedro Alvarez. Now things haven’t been totally bad for the Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman as he does have eight home runs and four stolen bases at this point. But this is where the art of creative trade talk comes in. Point out things like his ISO is down 80 points from last year; batting average is down three years in a row; slugging percentage is over 100 points below last year. Steer clear of the fact his OBP is over .300 or that his BB% and K% are 52% and 29% improved, respectively. Granted, it still might be a hard sell, but someone’s bound to get him for less than full value.

The next player may come as a surprise since he was listed first in my NL Un-Picks (pans) write-up back in March. He is none other than Yonder Alonso of the San Diego Padres. Alonso has a rather ugly .193 batting average but a BABIP of .214 is rather unlucky also and better days are ahead. He has struck out slightly less than last year and already has the same number of doubles and half as many stolen bases. I’m still sticking to my “I want power at the corners” mantra, but the 27-year-old first baseman should help in the batting average department going forward and could be gotten for pennies on the dollar or as a toss in as part of a trade. Either way, I feel he’ll make a good replacement for an injured first baseman or as a corner man in an NL-only league.

Just to Alonso’s right on the infield is second baseman Jedd Gyorko. The second-year player is experiencing a sophomore slump so far. On the good side of things, he does have five home runs, although they’re coming at a pace a little more than half as good as 2013. The 25-year-old is seeing slightly more fastballs than last year but a good deal fewer curveballs and changeups, giving way to more sliders. The pitchers have obviously adjusted and Gyorko is having pitch recognition problems and now he needs to adjust. With a BB% identical to 2013 and K% just slightly higher, the issue is a BABIP of .186, which is driving his .163 batting average. A correction should be on the way. I was a believer coming into the season and still am.

Every team needs a jack of all trades and Martin Prado has been the darling to fill the bill the past few years for fantasy owners. However, the Arizona Diamondback has fallen on tough times this year. After averaging 12 home runs the past three seasons, the 30-year-old Prado has yet to hit his first in 2014. Pitchers are throwing him virtually the same kind of pitches but Martin is striking out at almost double the rate of 2013. BABIP is not an issue – he’s just not making contact at the same percentage. Maybe playing on an abysmal team is taking its toll (Arizona has the second-worst record in the NL and has only won six games at home – the lowest in the Majors). The Diamondbacks have shown the willingness to part with players such as Justin Upton, Adam Eaton, Ian Kennedy and Trevor Bauer and with new Chief Baseball Officer Tony La Russa in the fold, look for more of the same as he tries to re-stock the minor league system. Prado’s contract has him earning $11M/year through 2016 and he could be a prime candidate to be moved. A change of scenery could help and eligibility at second, third and the outfield in many leagues makes me a buyer. As far as I’m concerned, there are still plenty of miles in the tank and the cost per gallon should be attractive.

There were more than a few people touting Homer Bailey as a possible Cy Young candidate coming into 2014 after he showed some improvement in 2013. But a 1.58 WHIP and 5.44 ERA have tempered that talk quite a bit. Still, Bailey is worth targeting. While striking out slightly fewer batters and walking a bit more, the 28-year-old right-hander’s bugaboo has been a .348 BABIP and 1.58 HR/9 mainly pitching in the Great American Small park. Homer’s velocity is still there and he can’t continue being this unlucky with balls in play. Out of all the players listed, Bailey will certainly command the most in return, but he should still be gotten at a discount in many places.

While these players might not have been targets entering the season, the fact that they are playing poorly makes them attractive targets now as their prices certainly are better than they were during draft time.

This Is Past Being Ridiculous
NL Beat
Written by Christopher Kreush   
Thursday, 15 May 2014 00:00

Every spring, fantasy baseball players across the land are preparing for another season. Projections are pored over; position battles are analyzed; final rosters are digested – all this to be as prepared as possible for the draft season and to try to get a leg up on the competition. Due to commitments to family and jobs, most of us don’t have an unlimited amount of time to devote to this preparation so must get the most accurate information possible committed to memory as best as possible. After the draft, thoughts turn to how good the team is and look forward to the inevitable Yoo-Hoo shower after the season ends.

Depending on league size, however, teams only have a one-in-X chance of winning and most owners feel the same going into the season. After all, it’s their team and no one wants to admit defeat before the season plays out. Then the games begin and the truth of team composition starts to come to light.  There are cold and hot starts to deal with. A star player begins the season 5-for-40 while a lesser player gets 17 hits in the same number of at-bats. Punch and Judy hitters all of a sudden are home run hitting machines while soft-tossing pitchers have seemingly evolved into the next Bob Gibson.

As if this isn’t hard enough to overcome, next come the injuries. The best laid draft plans are laid to waste as important cogs start to go down with all sorts of injuries from hangnails to muscle pulls to broken bones. But the injury that causes the most concern year in and year out is the dreaded ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction; better known as Tommy John surgery. This medical procedure was pioneered by former pitcher Tommy John and orthopedic surgeon Dr. Frank Jobe in 1974. After the surgery and lengthy rehab, John went on to win 164 more games over 14 years. Thus, Tommy John surgery (as it came to be known) revolutionized the medical landscape and prolonged the career of countless major league players.

Even though many players are having the surgery and are able to go on to play quite a bit longer, it is very disconcerting for a real or fantasy team to learn that one of their pitchers has succumbed to a torn elbow ligament and is now done for the rest of the season at the very least. This year hasn’t been any different; in fact, the pace of players falling victim to this injury is happening at an alarming rate.

To date, the list of players requiring Tommy John surgery is: Cory Luebke, Luke Hochevar, Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy, Jarrod Parker, Patrick Corbin, Bruce Rondon, David Hernandez, Cory Gearrin, Bobby Parnell, Matt Moore, Josh Johnson, Ivan Nova, Pedro Figueroa and A.J. Griffin. Prospects Miguel Sano and Jameson Taillon – who figured to be important parts of their teams this year - have also undergone the procedure. And now we are waiting on word that Jose Fernandez will also require the surgery. That’s a total of 18 players to date compared with nine at this point last year.  At this point, the pace is slightly ahead of 2012, when 17 players had Tommy John surgery and a total of 46 underwent it by season’s end.

The numbers are staggering and anyone who has some of the more prominent names on this list has had a huge hole to fill – especially the latest name to pop up from the Miami Marlins. It is almost impossible to replace a player of this caliber without some kind of major trade. But this is what we have to deal with as fantasy players. It just seems that every other day we get word of another casualty and it’s back to the drawing board. It is frustrating and severely tests the mettle of general managers – both real and fantasy.

So as the season progresses, many of us will keep our fingers crossed and hope the fickle finger of fate doesn’t point in our direction. For me personally, it’s too late to try to duck. Hopefully, you’re having better luck.
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