Injuries to starting pitchers have been one of the bigger storylines for fantasy players to start the year, with the list of pitchers succumbing to season-ending surgeries growing weekly. Matt Moore is the most recent victim, joining Jarrod Parker, Patrick Corbin, Brandon Beachy, Kris Medlen, Bobby Parnell and last year’s poster-boy, Matt Harvey on a list you just don’t want to land on. It has gotten so bad that it makes you almost not want to click over to the news wires for fear of seeing that another one of your pitchers went down. But, with so many arm injuries predominating the news these days, it creates opportunities to speculate on who could be next in line should more injuries or ineffectiveness strike. Today, we’ll take a look at the American League East, and some names for you to consider grabbing and stashing in deeper leagues.Baltimore Orioles
Kevin Gausman - It really is only a matter of when the Orioles decide to promote their prized prospect at this point, as he is ready for primetime now. I personally am stashing him in a number of places in anticipation of his eventual arrival. The rookie has been on a strict pitch count to start the year, which shows that the team is monitoring his innings early on to ensure he will be able to help them make what Buck Showalter surely hopes is a return to the playoffs.
Helping Gausman’s cause are the early struggles of Ubaldo Jimenez and Miguel Gonzalez. Jimenez has been brutal to start the year, allowing 13 runs on 23 hits over his first three starts, all losses. Gonzalez has been hit hard as well, sporting a 9.64 ERA after two rough road starts against the Tigers and Yankees. Once Gausman hits the Majors, he should be here to stay. The only remaining question will be if he can find more success than he did in his first run as a starter last year.
Boston Red Sox
Brandon Workman - Workman will likely be the first name called upon should injuries hit the Red Sox rotation this year. John Lackey and Jake Peavy are locked into the rotation as long as they stay healthy, but both have battled injuries in recent years. Clay Buchholz's season has also gotten off to a rocky start, as he seems to still be building up his arm strength, coming off a 2013 that saw him end the year battling a shoulder injury. Workman makes a nice target for AL-only owners because even if he can’t crack the rotation, he can be a useful piece out of the bullpen for the Red Sox. He has already demonstrated the ability to handle the pressure of pitching out of the pen in last year’s World Series.
Henry Owens - The 21-year-old is off to a blistering start at Double-A to open the year, and he created some buzz by hurling a rain-shortened, six-inning no-hitter in his first start. He followed that up with another 6.2 innings of scoreless pitching in his next start. The express train hit a bump yesterday, as he finally showed his age by giving up a pair of two-run homers in the third inning, which pushed his ERA up to 2.04 on the year. The Sox aren’t going to rush their top pitching prospect to the Majors, but if he can make a smooth transition up the ladder, he should be in line for a late-season arrival.
New York Yankees
Dellin Betances - The Yankees don’t really have too many high-level starting pitching prospects in their system at the present time. That fact was a driving force behind their decision to do whatever it took to sign Masahiro Tanaka this off-season. Still, the Yankees do boast some intriguing power arms that could make some noise in the bullpen and provide some useful stats for those in leagues that value relievers or count holds. Betances was once one of the jewels of the Yankees system, hyped along with Manny Banuelos as part of the rotation of the future. The team finally has moved the hulking 6'8" Betances to the bullpen, and all that is left is for him to gain Joe Girardi’s trust to be used in more important situations. The injury to David Robertson has shuffled the bullpen roles for now and has gotten the former top prospect some extra work. He has responded by delivering 4.1 innings of scoreless pitching over five outings while sporting a K% of 16.62 out of the gate. His cutter, the pitch that Mariano Rivera built his career around, is averaging a touch over 95 mph. He still walks more people than you would like to see, but if he keeps racking up the strikeouts, he can be a useful middle reliever for AL-only owners.
Tampa Bay Rays
Nate Karns/Mike Montgomery/Enny Romero - No team in the AL East has been hit harder by injuries to their rotation than the Rays in the early going. As we mentioned at the top, Matt Moore has been lost for the year, as he will undergo Tommy John surgery later this month. Alex Cobb suffered an oblique strain in his last start and could miss up to a month recovering. Add in the fact that the team was already missing Jeremy Hellickson, who won’t be back until June at the earliest, as he rehabs from his own elbow surgery. The Moore injury has dealt a serious blow to the Rays' hopes to contend for the title in the division, and the injury to Hellickson had already forced the team to open the year with top prospect Jake Odorizzi in the rotation. For now, Erik Bedard and Cesar Ramos will fill the holes in the rotation, but Ramos got rocked in his first start, lasting only two innings while giving up four runs against the Reds the other day. Bedard has struggled badly the last few years, and I personally have no interest in adding him to any of my teams.
So that brings us to Karns, Montgomery and Romero as the next candidates to get pressed into action if or when the Ramos and/or Bedard experiments fail. Karns, 26, came over from the Washington Nationals in a trade for Jose Lobaton. His career was stalled by shoulder surgery early on, but he pitched well at Double-A last year and even made three starts last season for the Nats, with pretty mediocre results.
Montgomery is a former top prospect for the Royals who came over in the James Shields trade. He has always battled control issues, and his velocity isn’t what it used to be when he was highly touted by Kansas City, but he has gotten off to a solid start so far, going 2-0 with 12 strikeouts in 10 innings of work at Triple-A.
Romero is considered by many the top pitching prospect left in the Minors, and he may get the first crack via a spot start this week. He was scratched from his start Monday in case he is needed as a fill-in for Jake Odorizzi, who was suffering from the flu as of this writing and may not be able to make his scheduled start on Tuesday. Romero, a lefty, got a cup of coffee with the Rays last year after a solid season at Double-A and a brief stint at Triple-A.
Toronto Blue Jays
Marcus Stroman - The Blue Jays rookie was a popular sleeper pick for AL-only drafters this spring, since it was easy to see a clear path to a rotation spot at some point in 2014 with injury-prone names like Brandon Morrow and Dustin McGowan ahead of him. So far, the veterans have looked pretty solid, along with fellow rookie Drew Hutchison, so there is no need to rush Stroman’s development at this point. Ideally, they can keep him down until June for service-time considerations, but if Toronto is in striking distance of a playoff spot at that point, I think the team will not hesitate to throw Stroman into the mix.
Everyone has had the phrase “patience is a virtue” lobbed their way at various times, almost always by someone who has our best interest at heart, and only hopes to instill in us the ability to wait. The problem is that usually when someone pulls this old gem out and dusts it off, it means that they are telling you in the most polite way possible to stop pestering them with incessant questioning. Anyone who now has kids of their own comes to understand the simple utility of those words, and will no doubt recognize the inevitable rolled eyes that are the most common response of anyone who has been told they have to wait for something good to come their way. So, go ahead, roll your eyes and get it over with.
Nothing amuses me more in the early stages of the fantasy season than the predictable impatience of people with regards to their fantasy teams. Just a quick look at Twitter during the initial week of action gives all the evidence needed to illustrate the point. You see countless questions such as “Should I cut Albert Pujols for Chris Colabello?” or “C.J. Wilson got rocked in his first start, should I cut bait?” Anyone who fields fantasy questions as part of their routine could fill up the comments section with countless more examples of the impatience of fantasy owners. We all want results, and what’s more we want them now.
The key to being successful at fantasy baseball is to not only understand, but embrace the fact that this game of ours unfolds over the course of six months. That means you have to accept that while it is always preferable to get off to a fast start, and you always want to look for ways to improve your squads, you don’t want to let impatience be the driving force behind any moves you make. And nowhere is this more important than during the season’s opening weeks. You just spent months and months forming opinions on players and implementing complex draft plans. Do you really want to chuck everything because your team is languishing in last place after Week 1?
I mentioned last week that one of my favorite exercises each and every season is to track the transactions sections of my leagues daily for bargains. Just because we are going to practice patience with our slow starters doesn’t mean that others won’t fall prey to the trap. Everything in fantasy comes within the context of the league in question, but it bears repeating that often the best early-season pickups are the guys your competitors kick to the curb. The more shallow the format, the better the chances are that someone will drop a player you like more than someone currently on your roster. For instance, in one of my 12-team leagues, I scooped up C.J. Wilson for nothing off waivers after his owner dumped him after he got shelled for six runs in his first start. I promptly inserted him into my lineup for his two-start week, which began with a victory against the Astros on Monday, where he went eight innings, struck out seven and gave up one run, cutting his ERA from 9.53 to 4.61 to start the year.
I have heard others advocate not even looking at the standings for the first month of the season as a way to combat the need to tinker with our squads. I personally have not figured out how to do this, but I do understand the concept, so I instead have just tried to train myself to let the dust settle as much as possible before hitting the panic button on any of my players. You just don’t want to make determinations based on one week of statistics, good or bad. We go through this every year, and while I can’t fault anyone for grabbing a guy off to a blistering start like the aforementioned Colabello, I am pretty confident when I say that the odds of him leading the AL in RBIs at season’s end aren’t that much different than they were when we all were avoiding him at the draft table.
Now that I have convinced you all to at least take a step back and let your fantasy teams breathe a little in the season’s opening weeks, let me try to point you in a smarter direction. Being patient doesn’t mean to be complacent. You still need to manage your lineups and build depth whenever you see the opportunity. If injuries ravaged the team you came out of the draft with, by all means take action, but make sure you analyze your needs so you can try to address any perceived weaknesses. If your league allows trades, you may want to track players who are off to slow starts and target those you think are ripe to be plucked at discounted rates. If your team has for the most part avoided injuries to start the year, don’t be afraid to use that to your advantage by stashing an injured player at the back of your bench.
For example, I drafted Nate Jones in a ton of places this off-season. Generally, he was drafted as a third closer, so while it stinks that not only did he not get the gig to start the year but landed on the DL to boot, I haven’t cut Jones yet in any of the leagues in which I drafted him. In fact, I was able to pick him up off waivers in a couple spots and stick him on the DL. For now, I will stick by the analysis that made me draft him in the first place, and then I will weigh the cost of hanging onto him. He’s going to pitch again at some point, so how long I wait has yet to be determined. For now, all I can do is be patient and remind myself it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. With that in mind, let’s take a quick stroll around the league and look at some of the storylines that are creating playing time ripples in the early going:
David Robertson, NYY - The Yankees closer suffered a groin strain and will be sidelined for at least two weeks. Setup man Shawn Kelley will take over for as long as needed with Matt Thornton a possibility for a save chance or two depending on matchups. Grab Kelley as a short-term add, but don’t go crazy. It’s Robertson’s job as soon as he is healthy again.
Omar Infante, KC - Infante took a 2-2 pitch from Heath Bell off the jaw on Monday, and while he seems to have avoided serious injury, a DL stint hasn’t been ruled out. Danny Valencia will pick up the slack for now, but Johnny Giavotella will likely get the call if Infante suffered a concussion.
Mark Teixeira, NYY - Teixeira suffered a calf strain and will be sidelined for two weeks. The Yankees will use a combination of Kelly Johnson, Yangervis Solarte and Francisco Cervelli at 1B/3B while he is out. Both Solarte and Johnson will get value boosts thanks to added positional versatility. Tex owners can at least be grateful this injury isn’t related to his wrist injury from a year ago.
Oswaldo Arcia, MIN - Arcia has been battling an ailing wrist, but an examination showed no major damage. He will give swinging a bat another go today and the team hopes he can avoid a trip to the disabled list. The nagging injuries to Arcia and Josh Willingham have allowed the Twins to avoid the playing time battle at DH between Colabello and Jason Kubel, but eventually something will have to give. The smart money points to the 30-year-old journeyman coming back to earth and sliding back into the bad side of a platoon with the lefty-swinging Kubel. Feel free to ride Colabello while he is swinging a hot bat, but be ready for the ride to come to an end.
Will Middlebrooks, BOS - Middlebrooks’ supporters were relieved when the Red Sox finally put the Stephen Drew rumors to rest, paving the way for the young slugger to stake his claim to the everyday third base job. A calf strain will cost him two weeks, and put any breakouts on hold for at least a few weeks. The Red Sox signed Ryan Roberts off the scrap heap to help Jonathan Herrera fill the void after the team declined to promote top prospect Garin Cecchini.
Dayan Viciedo, CHW - The Cuban slugger got caught up in a numbers crunch in the outfield and lost his starting job once the team acquired Adam Eaton in the off-season. Eaton, Avisail Garcia and Alejandro De Aza have collectively struggled out of the gate, which has opened the door for Viciedo to see some action, a trend that could continue as the White Sox search for offense. Seeing as De Aza is still an option to be dealt at some point, Viciedo is a decent stash candidate for those in deeper formats.
Eduardo Nunez, MIN - The Twins worked out a deal with the Yankees for the utilityman, and it’s not a bad landing spot. AL-only owners (like me) are happy he stayed in the AL at the very least. The Twins have weak-hitting Pedro Florimon and Eduardo Escobar as their best options at shortstop, and could use someone to give Trevor Plouffe some relief at third base as well. Nunez will see some action at some point, so AL-only owners can hold him for now.
Josh Fields, HOU - Houston’s closer carousel will likely keep us guessing for the time being, but if I had to pick one guy to own for now, then I think Fields is the guy you want to own. Chad Qualls will get some looks as well, but Fields has a better arsenal and more upside. My own darkhorse candidate is still Jesse Crain, but he has yet to throw a pitch in his extended spring training and won’t be ready to get into the conversation until likely May at the earliest.
Matt Moore, TB - Moore was lifted from his last start with elbow soreness, which are two words nobody wants to hear about a key starter this early in the year. Hopefully, rest will take care of the issue, but with the team likely to exercise caution here, he could get shut down for a couple weeks. With Jeremy Hellickson already sidelined, the Rays could promote Cesar Ramos from the bullpen or turn to Erik Bedard in the short term.
Michael Bourn, CLE and Shane Victorino, BOS - Both players are recovering from hamstring injuries, with Bourn looking a little closer to getting back on the field. Bourn will push Nyjer Morgan back onto the bench. For the Red Sox, Victorino’s return will more than likely force Jackie Bradley Jr. back to the Minors, where he can play every day and wait for the next injury to strike.
Now that the season has finally started, the focus shifts from who to draft to who to pick up off waivers. Rob Leibowitz did a nice job breaking down the news of Matt Lindstrom opening the year as the White Sox closer, over Nate Jones. And Sergio Santos will fill in for Casey Janssen, and could easily keep the job all year if he pitches well. I would spend more on Santos if I was searching for early saves, since unlike Lindstrom, I truly believe he can keep the job long-term. Beyond the two new closers from the AL, there are not so many slam dunk waiver picks to open the season. One thing I do know is that fantasy players are an impatient lot, so often the best pickups come from other teams' drops. So make sure to keep an eye on your league's transactions in the early going, because often other teams will drop players that will be an upgrade for your squad. Many of the players listed below are guys I talked about at different points in the preseason, and in some cases, when I did, steady playing time may still have been an undecided question. Here is a quick second look at a bunch of position players from the American League that are worth taking a second look at for deep leagues and AL-only leagues. Sometimes the best early season pickups aren't the most costly ones. They are just guys who have the opportunity to succeed. The rest often comes down to the ability to hit a curve or play solid defense. Still, with so many leagues and so many different formats that I play in, I expect to be grabbing a lot of these guys in the coming days to fill out my various rosters.
Josmil Pinto, MIN - The rookie catcher made the Opening Day roster as the backup to Kurt Suzuki. The latter is the starter, and somehow found himself hitting in the two-hole on Monday night, but Pinto is clearly the player with the bigger upside here and is worth stashing in hopes that his defense is solid enough that he can at least earn a 50/50 split with Suzuki right out of the gate. Pinto has to improve with his work behind the plate, but the fact he is in the Majors to start the year puts him one step closer to eventually taking over as the everyday starter by mid-season.
Adrian Nieto, CHW - Nieto was a sneaky grab by our own Lawr Michaels in AL Tout Wars, and he landed the backup catching job to Tyler Flowers to start the year. The interesting thing about Nieto is he is a Rule-5 pickup, meaning he must remain on the major league roster all year or be offered back to his original club. So if he shows he can handle backup duty, he’ll stick around all year. Seeing as Flowers is a career .199 hitter, Nieto likely has a bigger opportunity to make an impact than most Rule-5 picks, and if he hits, it isn’t that hard to see him winning the starting job outright at some point this year.
Justin Smoak, SEA - Smoak has let down his believers so many times that his stock was at an all-time low heading into this season. But there he was on Opening Day, starting at first base and batting cleanup for the Mariners. He went 2-for-4 with a home run, three runs scored and three RBI. I couldn’t blame anyone for not wanting to take a chance on the former top prospect, but having Robinson Cano hitting in front of him can only be a good thing. He has always had the pedigree, but all that has been missing is consistency. He has always been a streaky hitter and should benefit from an improved lineup around him.
Jonathan Schoop, BAL - I wrote the Orioles rookie second baseman up in this column a couple weeks ago, as he was the talk of camp for the team. Sure enough he made the team and was starting at second base, while Ryan Flaherty filled in for the injured Manny Machado at third base. I personally believe that Schoop is here to stay and will take hold of this job and keep it all year, even after Machado returns. Baltimore is in win now mode, and as the ninth place hitter in a potent offense, anything he brings to the table with the bat will be a bonus.
Alex Gonzalez, DET - The 37-year-old was the unlikely hero for the Tigers on Opening Day, driving in the winning run with a single in the ninth against Greg Holland. The injury to Jose Iglesias prompted the Tigers to grab the veteran off the scrap heap, mainly due to doubts that the other in house options, Andrew Romine and Hernan Perez, were ready for full-time duty, at least to start the year.
Yangervis Solarte, NYY - The 26-year-old Solarte won the utility job for the Yankees over Eduardo Nunez, thanks to a hot spring as well as the fact he is a much more versatile defensive player than Nunez. Still, it was somewhat surprising to see Nunez DFA’d by the Yankees, seeing as just a few years ago he was being talked up as the heir to Derek Jeter at shortstop. Solarte can play second, short, third and even the outfield. But the fact is the team had soured on Nunez's defense enough to give Solarte a longer look. With Brian Roberts and Jeter both injury risks, Solarte should get more playing time than your average utility man. As for Nunez, he should find another home, maybe in place of Gonzalez in Detroit or backing up the already injured Jose Reyes in Toronto.
Matt Davidson, CHW - The rookie, who came over to the White Sox in the Addison Reed trade, got caught up in a numbers crunch and was sent to Triple-A to start the year. It wasn’t the news people who took a chance on the youngster wanted to hear, but the reality is Conor Gillaspie was out of options, and with Jeff Keppinger and Gordon Beckham hurt to start the year, the team couldn’t find room for their third baseman of the future. Gillaspie is an average talent who won’t be able to hold off Davidson for long. If you drafted him in a deep league, my advice is to hold him and wait.
Grady Sizemore, BOS - We first took stock of Grady’s comeback story a couple weeks ago, when the former fantasy standout was making waves in Red Sox camp. Well, he won the starting job and then went out and smacked a home run on Opening Day off Chris Tillman. He hit sixth in the lineup, which makes sense, since he was never a big OBP guy in his years in Cleveland, when he regularly lead off. Look, if you drafted him, it didn’t cost you much. Odds are his body won’t hold up and he will give way to Jackie Bradley Jr. at some point, but what if he does manage to stay healthy? 20 home runs seems like a reasonable bet, even if the stolen bases are a thing of the past.
Abraham Almonte, SEA - Almonte was one of my outfield bargains back in February, and there he was leading off and playing centerfield for the Mariners to start the season. He has enough speed to steal 20-30 bases with regular playing time, so he is still worth grabbing if he is on waivers in your deep mixed or AL-only league. The guys battling him for playing time have plenty of injury concerns, so he could stick as the starter in centerfield all year.
Aaron Hicks, MIN - Hicks was another player we targeted as a bargain back in February, and sure enough he did enough to convince the Twins to hand him the starting centerfield job to start the year. They waived Alex Presley and sent Darin Mastroianni to Triple-A, so Hicks will get the chance to show he deserves to be part of the club's future.Moises Sierra, TOR - Anthony Gose was the trendier pick to win the fourth outfielder job, but he was sent to the Minors to open the year. Sierra was out of options and hits from the right side, which further helped his case. The Jays needed a right-handed bat to platoon with Adam Lind, and Sierra fills that void. Gose had options left, and the team wants him to play every day in the Minors to start the year. Sierra will get those at-bats at DH when Lind takes a seat against lefties, so he can have some value in AL-only leagues.
They have already apparently ruled out 20-year-old Rougned Odor as an option to start the year, instead sending him down to Double-A for more seasoning. It’s the right move for the organization, but if he can make the jump to Triple-A and show that he can handle that transition, then he could be an option down the line, especially if Profar hits any snags in his recovery process or whatever platoon option the team comes up with struggles badly, which is a distinct possibility.
Unless they make another move, they will employ some combination of Josh Wilson, Kensuke Tanaka, Adam Rosales and Brent Lillibridge to fill the void. None of these guys are worth touching in mixed leagues, and AL-only owners might actually be better served by taking a shot on Odor and hoping he gets an early promotion rather than rostering any of these tepid options. Wilson is the current leader in camp to take over, since he was slated for the utility job and Ron Washington loves his defense.
If I had to choose, I guess I might take a shot on Tanaka to emerge as the best short-term option. He is the only left-handed bat of the four, and since he was a teammate of Yu Darvish’s in Japan, at least he can help keep his countryman loose in the clubhouse and on the road. He was recalled from the Minors and played the entire game at second base in the team’s 6-2 victory on Monday, going 1-for-3 with a run scored while hitting ninth.
The 32-year-old made his major league debut with the Giants last year, hitting .267 in 15 games with the team in July. He spent the rest of the year at Triple-A, where he hit .329 (111-for-343) with one home run, 54 runs, 32 RBI’s and 22 stolen bases in 107 games. Also in Tanaka’s favor is the fact that he can play in the outfield as well, something that could help his case since the team also lost backup outfielder Engel Beltre to start the year with a fractured tibia.
The dark-horse option of course could be the one no one, outside of die-hard Rangers fans, is really talking about yet. Yes, I am talking about former All-Star and Rangers all-time hit leader Michael Young. It would take a little coaxing, since he announced his retirement in January. But I have to believe that if Jon Daniels came calling, Young might seriously consider coming back to bail out the team he basically spent his entire career with. If I was drafting in an AL-only league with deep reserves, I might just throw my last dart his way.
Unfortunately, the bad news on Sunday didn’t end with Profar. Later that day, starting catcher Geovany Soto tore his meniscus, will undergo surgery and miss three months. Soto had clearly won the starting job this spring, and was slated for the bulk of the work behind the dish after serving as the backup last year to A.J. Pierzynski, who was allowed to leave via free agency. While Soto has been no great shakes with the bat the last couple of seasons, he was at least looking like a cheap power source at catcher for fantasy owners due to the bump in playing time.
Now the team will be forced to move forward with J.P. Arencibia and Robinson Chirinos, or look outside the organization for more help. One might assume that the Rangers will just hand the everyday job over to the veteran Arencibia, but Chirinos has outplayed him in every facet so far this spring and there was talk he was on the verge of winning the backup job outright. So while Arencibia looks like he will get enough playing time now to be worth the $2 I payed for him in my CBS auction a few weeks back, I am tempering my excitement based on the fact that this looks like a straight platoon at best for the power-hitting backstop out of the gate. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the Rangers kicked the tires on other backstops around the league as well. Arencibia will have the chance to seize control of the job, but he is going to have to earn it.
This truly has been a spring training to forget for the organization. The ominous tone was set back in January when their projected No. 2 starter Derek Holland got knocked down on the stairs by his dog and tore up his knee, knocking him out of action indefinitely. There has been some talk that he could be back on the mound in July, but it is unlikely, as he is coming off microfracture surgery. Aside from the more serious injuries, there has also been a rash of nagging injuries up and down the roster. Mitch Moreland has battled an oblique strain all spring, Elvis Andrus has been sidelined with a tender elbow and Shin-Soo Choo has been battling a myriad of minor aches and pains.
The injury to Holland was the initial domino that has caused reshuffling of the Rangers' rotation plans, but it hasn’t been the last. Matt Harrison, who is returning from multiple back surgeries, re-injured his back while sleeping (I am not making this up) and will not be ready to start the year. Even once he is healthy, there has to be some serious doubt that he will be able to withstand the rigors of pitching every fifth day. Alexi Ogando was the early favorite to take over for Holland, but he has struggled badly this spring, and will instead be sent to the bullpen where he will apparently work in long relief for the time being. There are already rumblings that he may be injured as well. And the bad news hasn’t been limited to the prospective starters. Neftali Feliz, who many were betting on as the best bet to emerge as the closer this spring, has struggled with his velocity and not only will he not open the season as the closer, there is talk that he may not even start the year in the Majors, since he still has options remaining.
Yeah, it’s been that bad so far, but as any good fantasy player can tell you, when misfortune strikes it also means opportunity knocks somewhere else. Ogando’s struggles have opened the door for Tanner Scheppers to claim a rotation spot, giving him much more value than he had as a setup man. Martin Perez has survived the carnage around him, and has looked very good in camp so far, and appears ready to prove he is up to the task of being the No. 2 starter behind Darvish. His stock is clearly on the rise with the spate of injuries around the league. Joe Saunders seems like the leading choice to fill in for Harrison, but he is not someone I advocate drafting if you can avoid it. That leaves Colby Lewis, Robbie Ross, Tommy Hanson and Nick Tepesch battling for the final spot. If I am betting on one of these guys to start the year, then I am taking Ross, who has pitched better than anyone else, and even if he doesn’t stick in the role, he can still help you as a reliever.
After a column full of doom and gloom, we can at least finish on a relatively high note. Joakim Soria has been one of the best stories in camp, as he has taken advantage of Feliz’s struggles to lock up the closer role to start the year. While he doesn’t have the strikeout upside Feliz does at his best, he has been an accomplished closer in the past and should be a quality source of saves for as long as he holds the job, which could be for the entire year if Feliz can’t find his fastball.There have been other injuries and position battles that have changed the landscape for fantasy drafters this spring, but no one, except possibly Atlanta, has been hit harder than the Rangers. You can’t really prepare for or predict these things. The best you can do is roll with the punches and adjust your rankings. But I have to admit, when I found out today that Derek Holland’s dog was named Wrigley, it not only made me laugh, but also made me decide to avoid Elvis Andrus in my drafts this week. I generally don’t believe in curses, but the way things are going, I’ll just let someone else take the chance instead.
Everyone who plays fantasy baseball loves breakout players and sleepers. We spend a good portion of our pre-season preparation evaluating which players we think are poised to take their games to the next level. Content providers understand this well, and as such, articles that look to predict this year’s breakout players start popping up not long after the champagne gets popped at the World Series and continues in earnest right up until Opening Day. Easily one of the most popular forms (I dare say, the most popular) is the seemingly obligatory Age-27 breakout article. You have no doubt read a bunch of articles already this year that use this magical age filter as a starting point. There will be countless more times, in podcasts and over the airwaves, you will hear some analysts say, “He’s entering his Age-27 season!” The phrase has become so ubiquitous that people who base their arguments on it don’t even think twice about qualifying what it means anymore. It is almost assumed that everyone knows that 27 is the magical year for fantasy baseball players to break out, right? If the previous statement seems a touch ridiculous, it is because it is, of course.
We all understand the concept of the Age-27 theory, that being that players hit their physical “peak” at the age of 27. The problem lies in the fact that many cling to this idea as if it were a rule backed up by the statistics we are all chasing at the draft table, thus we all end up missing the forest for the trees. There have been many other fantasy writers smarter than I am who have taken turns attempting to deflate the idea, and there is plenty of evidence that true “breakouts” usually occur earlier in a player's career. So why are we seemingly stuck with this narrow outlook year after year?
Perhaps the perpetuation of the myth of the Age-27 player is just the result of legions of fantasy writers dusting off the template for an easy article that we already know our readers are almost expecting. Just run a simple age filter on your favorite spreadsheet, compile your list of qualifying players and the article can almost write itself the rest of the way. All that changes are the names in front of that mythical number 27. Of course, ask these same writers for a general list of “sleepers” and “breakout” players, and often their favorites will be players between the ages of 23-26. If it isn’t more prescient to predict success based on a player's age than it is other underlying factors, why do we all do it and shouldn’t we stop?
The problem, of course, is that everyone, including writers, has varying definitions of all of the over-used terms that we use to identify players who essentially should see their performance increase in the upcoming season and thus provide us with profit at the draft table. Your idea of a breakout could be last year’s poster-boy of the Age-27 club, Chris Davis. Proponents will look at the 53 home runs as evidence to support their cause, but I might counter by saying he actually broke out a year earlier at 26, when he hit 33 home runs, topped 500 at-bats for the first time and showed that he was figuring it out at the plate by hitting .270. See, we are both correct, depending upon our point of view. You see a player who broke out last year while I see a player who continued to grow, and in Davis’ case, maybe even “peaked.”
Not convinced yet? Okay, I will present you with two headliners of this year’s Age-27 class from the American League: Yu Darvish and Jason Kipnis. Two very good players who are both firmly entrenched inside the top-25 mixed league rankings heading into 2014. Those lofty rankings clearly illustrate that in both instances the breakout has already occurred. Does the fact they will turn 27 this year mean they will have a better chance to live up to their lofty ADP’s? Perhaps, but there is just as much chance they deliver a season like Billy Butler did a year ago, when rather than continue to higher peaks at 27, he instead regressed to post a season that was arguably worse than his 2009 season, when he “broke” out at the tender age of 23.
Butler embodies the type of player no one wants to talk about the following year. The guys who came up short, despite their birthdays forcing them on to the list. For every Jason Kipnis on the list, there is a Gordon Beckham. You can point out Jason Castro and I can counter with Alex Avila. And what about the guys who just turned 27 last year but will still be at that magic number for most of this year? Do we only look at those who turn 27 during the current season, which is the usual norm, or do we finally admit that the actual difference between these “peak” years is insignificant enough to stop being so myopic about it? What would you say if I told you the jump in performance in these years is likely at its lowest points from 26-28, or in other words the exact years we tend to gravitate towards when looking for this year’s breakouts?
Count me firmly in the camp of those who do not believe in the idea that there is a particular time in a player’s career that is optimal for a breakthrough. If anything, I think you could build a pretty convincing case that if there is a trend to be exploited, it would be that just as many players will break out in any given year from the earlier age groups. Going the other way, it wouldn’t surprise me at all for an equal number of 28-year-olds to make a splash as well, and often they make for solid buys, often based on the fact that they came up short at 27. As the example with Kipnis and Darvish shows, good players who happen to be hitting 27 were already good. Does it mean that 27-year-olds Trevor Plouffe and Michael Saunders are suddenly going to make a leap this year? Or will they just continue to be maddeningly inconsistent?
The answer to finding the true breakouts is to widen our scope and instead put more focus on younger skilled players who actually have as much of a chance of seeing a jump in performance as those further up the ladder. The difference is that the younger the player, the greater the opportunity is to take advantage of a wider gap in expected performance when they do break out. To bring the argument full circle, here is quick look at some of my favorite AL names from up and down the age scale to consider as potential breakouts this season:
Myers is the clear headliner here and helps illustrate the point well. This year could very well be the one that will see him post the largest performance gains he ever will across the board. The problem, of course, is no one is sleeping on him. That train has left the station. Garcia and Arcia are two players I have personally profiled as sleepers. Their age and relative lack of experience has kept their prices reasonable, but they both flashed intriguing skills last year. Franklin’s stock is somewhat muted due to his lack of an everyday job thanks to Robinson Cano. Semien is already making a strong case for playing time and has only Gordon Beckham blocking the way.
This is a very interesting group here. In Perez, Hosmer and Altuve, we have three players generally ranked inside the top-10 at their positions, but not often in the top-5. All three have multiple years of service and could be ready to take the next leap up lists. Hosmer in particular seems poised to take a big step in the power department. In Lawrie, we have a guy who has under-performed against expectations, but his age at least hints to the fact that maybe it was the expectations that were out of whack. We also have a classic overachiever in Grossman, a shiny prospect in Bradley and two post-hype names in Hicks and Montero who won’t cost much to take a chance on.
Andrus has already pretty firmly established what he is, but Moustakas and Middlebrooks have shown flashes of real talent and pretty nice ceilings. Pinto only has Kurt Suzuki in the way for regular playing time. The latter names all have playing time questions but could all make gains this year.
Seager backed up his 2012 with a similar season a year ago. Perhaps the bump comes this year. Hitting in front of Cano is a nice place to start. If Gomes gets more playing time, the popular sleeper can deliver career highs across the board. It took Martin a little longer than expected to make an impact, and Choo steals the leadoff job, but he can still add some more power to the speed this year. Calhoun is a classic late-bloomer who will get a big bump from regular playing time alone. Ackley fits the bill of many who reach this age. Time may be running out.
Okay, so maybe this is why we like 27. It tends to produce the largest list of everyday players. Even after taking Kipnis away, Jennings, Jackson, Reddick and Brantley head an intriguing group, since I don’t really think we have seen the best out of any of these players yet, and a few have some very nice ceilings if they come through. But no one up top is really trying to establish themselves as major league players anymore. The question for all is if they can take the next step. On the flipside, there are also guys like Smoak and Beckham, who despite still clinging to sleeper status for yet another year, are becoming less and less compelling bets in spite of their age.
Even eliminating last season’s biggest names from this level like Davis, Evan Longoria, Josh Donaldson and Adam Jones leaves us with some interesting names. Santana and Wieters wouldn’t be the first catchers to peak just a touch later, especially when it comes to hitting home runs. Cabrera and Butler, for that matter, are guys who have done it before 27 that we have to decide if they can reverse the curve. Cespedes might be the most intriguing option here, heading into his third full season at an older age than most thanks to his time in Cuba.
And that’s just the bats. I didn’t even get into the host of exciting arms. Just cherry picking under-27 starters might yield: Chris Sale, Alex Cobb, Danny Salazar, Sonny Gray, Chris Archer, Chris Tillman, Dan Straily, Rick Porcello, Hector Santiago, and of course Drew Smyly. Not too shabby, right? And these are just the young guns from the AL.
It shouldn’t really come as a surprise that in the post-steroid era where power is down, pitching ERA’s are tumbling and players can’t extend their careers as easily, that more and more big league teams are turning to young players and asking them to hit the ground running and learn on the job. That means even more players will have those breakouts even sooner than expected. The best fantasy players out there are ahead of the curve on this and have already made the adjustments in how they assess the player pool, so don't be afraid to go for some younger bets this year. If you don't, you risk missing the boat to this year's real breakout stars.
Follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanpcarey
Over the next few weeks, you will hear over and over again not to buy into spring training statistics too much, since in the grand scheme of things, they mean very little when it comes to evaluating how guys will perform once the real games begin. Still, it is hard to not take notice of guys who take the opportunity that these games provide to gain their respective managers' attention and possibly force their way not only onto the Opening Day roster, but also onto the fantasy radar. While early stats must always be taken with a grain of salt, injuries are another aspect of camp that will alter depth charts and rankings lists, and with so many of the top fantasy players drafting earlier than ever before, the chances that you draft multiple players whose stock will shift, sometimes quite drastically, are bigger than ever.Just last week, I wrote about my own personal affinity for Yordano Ventura and how I was drafting him late in hopes that he would emerge as the Royals' fifth starter when all was said and done. The very next day, Luke Hochevar was diagnosed with an injury and will undergo Tommy John surgery, wiping out his entire season. He was a key part of the Royals bullpen last year, and now with him out of the picture, the path for Ventura gets just a little clearer. With that in mind, let’s take a quick look around the junior circuit at some other players whose stock is headed up over the past week.
Rajai Davis, OF, DET - Back in January, longtime Mastersballer Steve Bradley e-mailed me to ask how I felt about Rajai Davis’ prospects and if I had any intention of highlighting him as a sleeper for AL-only drafters. We had a little back and forth over the speedster's merits, and I agreed that he was a nice target for anyone looking for cheap speed at the draft table. Now with the news that Andy Dirks will miss 2-3 months with back surgery, no one has seen their stock rise faster than Davis. He will more than likely open the year as the primary left fielder for the TIgers and the increased playing time makes rostering him less of a gamble than it was before. Davis stole 45 bases last year in just 360 at-bats for the Blue Jays. Before the Dirks injury, he was slated to be on the wrong side of a platoon, which would have limited his plate appearances, which meant his impact on the bases would be muted. Now, even if the team brings in another bat to platoon with him, he should get closer to 400 at-bats, with a bulk of them coming in the first half. The bad news, of course, is that he will no longer come nearly as cheap as he was in early drafts. I wonder if the Tigers are kicking themselves for selling so low on Doug Fister now, since they could have used him to get a viable replacement for Dirks and keep Davis in the role he was slated for. Don Kelly and Steve Lombardozzi are the best in house options to split time with Davis, barring a trade for someone like Mike Carp or Michael Saunders. I’m thinking that the TIgers will just roll with what they have out of the gate and see what Davis can do with the extra playing time. If you got him early and cheap, congratulations, you likely will be rewarded with 10-20 more stolen bases than you thought you were getting on draft day.Jonathan Schoop, 2B, BAL - A few weeks ago, I touched on the Orioles' rookie second baseman as a name to keep an eye on this spring in the battle for the starting second base job in Baltimore. The departure of Brian Roberts opened up a spot, and as such the battle between Schoop, Jemile Weeks and veterans Ryan Flaherty and Alexi Casilla has been one of the bigger storylines in camp. From the outset, Flaherty seemed to have a big edge on the competition to start the year, but Schoop in particular is turning heads this spring, going 8-for-15 with two doubles and a home run so far. Buck Showalter has come out and stated that he wants to take the best 25 guys to start the season, and that in turn has pointed the arrow toward Schoop. The biggest question is if the team wants to rush another of their top prospects to the Majors, but working in Schoop’s favor is the fact that both Weeks and Flaherty also have options left. Flaherty may also have to cover third base to start the year until Manny Machado is back, and that could be all the opening the promising rookie needs to take the job for good. Flaherty profiles better as a utility guy, so I believe Showalter won’t be shy about rolling with Schoop to start the year if he keeps up his hot hitting. I purchased Schoop for $2 in my CBS AL Auction a couple weeks back as my MI. It was one of those situations late in the draft where I was bargain hunting and sitting on a couple extra bucks. When Schoop’s name came out, I quickly hit $2 and waited for someone to snag him from me. I had to hedge my bet in the reserve round with Jeff Keppinger, but even if he doesn’t start the year in the Majors, I feel a lot more positive about that investment today and don’t see how the names ahead of him on the depth chart can keep the future of the position for the team down long in a season where a return to the playoffs is the primary goal.
Marc Krauss/Jesus Guzman, 1B/OF, HOU - I feel like every time I sit down to write these pre-season articles, I find new Astros to write about. I guess that is to be expected from a team that has lost over 100 games three years in a row and seemingly has position battles happening up and down the roster this spring. The team has some high-impact prospects coming up the ladder, but the fact is that until those guys are ready, there will be opportunities for other less heralded players to step up, and that means value at a deep discount. Opportunity and playing time are the keys, especially for deep-leagues, and the Astros have two guys in Krauss and Guzman that are flying way under the radar in the battle for playing time at 1B/OF/DH.Jonathan Singleton is struggling in camp and seems headed for Triple-A to start the year. His inability to impress so far has opened the door for those around him to stake a claim to more playing time. Krauss, a 26-year-old prospect, is having a great camp and as a left-handed bat, should make the team to start the year as a platoon option at both first base and DH. He is currently hitting .529 with two home runs in Astros camp. There isn’t a ton of upside here based on the fact that he has never been considered an elite prospect and that he struggled pretty badly in his 52-game stint last year. but he has good power and if he can squeeze out 300-350 at-bats, he could deliver 10-15 homers , which at least makes him a worthy reserve pick for AL-only leagues.
Guzman isn’t getting a lot of respect from fantasy drafters early this year, and AL-only owners likely aren’t too familiar with him since he spent the last three years as a part-time player with the Padres. He has been a sleeper candidate on these pages in previous seasons but never was really able to break out in San Diego after showing some promise back in 2011. So why am I talking about a guy who has never hit more than nine home runs in a season before and was traded for utilityman Ryan Jackson over the winter? Well, for me, the renewed upside that I see starts with the escape from Petco Park. Guzman was brutal at his home park last year, hitting a meager .164 with zero home runs. Away from Petco, he was much better with a .279 batting average and all of his nine home runs. Those are pretty big splits, and it’s not hard to see that he is going to like his new digs since Minute Maid Park is a much more friendly place to hit home runs. Guzman can also play the outfield, and until George Springer arrives, he will serve as an option behind Robbie Grossman and L.J. Hoes at the corners and brings more power to the table than either option, which could net him some additional at-bats if the team wants more pop in the lineup. Neither of these guys are going to take the league by storm, but both could be useful bench players, especially in very deep leagues.Grady Sizemore, OF, BOS - Everyone loves comeback stories, and there probably isn’t a better one this year than the former All-Star trying to make it back to the Majors with the Red Sox. It was a low-risk gamble for the World Champs, who had a void to fill in centerfield and atop their lineup with the defection of Jacoby Ellsbury to the Yankees. Sizemore was brought in to help push rookie Jackie Bradley Jr., but now it is starting to look like he just might make the team to start the year while the rookie would get sent back to Triple-A for more seasoning.
Manager John Farrell knows Sizemore well from their time together in the Indians organization, and as such has vivid memories of when he was electrifying fans with his stellar play in centerfield for the Tribe. It is hard to believe, but Sizemore hasn’t played a major-league game since late 2011 thanks to a litany of injuries and surgeries to his back and knees. He skipped all of 2013 after not being physically ready and rededicated himself to getting healthy enough to give it another go this year. He reportedly has shown flashes of the player he used to be, enough to start the talk that he may well indeed land a job on Boston’s bench. He was in the leadoff spot Monday and the next step for him is to show he can play in back-to-back games. At this point, I think Grady is worthy of a late-round dart just about anywhere. Like the Red Sox, if it doesn’t work out, you aren’t really losing anything. Count me as one of those who will be rooting for him to succeed.
There are not many things that are more satisfying in fantasy than getting a breakout season out of one of your late-round pitchers. In deep or single-league formats, every team is going to have to take more than a few shots for the back of their rotations or on their benches, and those teams that hit on their picks sometimes reap the rewards of ace-level stats for their faith. Just ask anyone who was lucky enough to land Jose Fernandez last year. I speak from experience as I was able to land Fernandez in a bunch of leagues, and he helped me bring home two titles and another money finish in three separate leagues. The difference of course is I had to spend a sizeable chunk of my free agent budget to get him in every case. While he was still worth it in the end, it would have been even sweeter to have used a reserve round pick on him instead.
I have already announced my affection for Drew Smyly this year as he slides into his new role as the TIgers' fifth starter. His price has been on the rise now that he has the job, and as such the odds of my rostering him on more of my teams goes down every day his draft stock rises. If someone in my league snipes me on Smyly, I will move along to some of my other sleeper picks in the American League. Here is a quick look at some of my other favorite arms that I think are poised to break out in 2014. I have drafted every one of these guys in at least one of my early leagues so far. Only time will tell if I hit the jackpot with any of my lottery tickets this year.
Carlos Carrasco, CLE - The Indians head into 2014 fresh off their first playoff berth since 2007 and with an internal belief that they can take the next step and even knock the vaunted Detroit TIgers off their perch atop the league’s Central Division. It may seem like crazy talk, but they only came up one game short of that unlikely goal a year ago. The biggest question mark for the team this spring is who will step up and claim the fifth starter’s job, vacated by the loss of Scott Kazmir in free agency.
Carrasco is my pick to emerge as the victor in a battle with Trevor Bauer, Josh Tomlin, Aaron Harang and Shaun Marcum for the coveted final spot. Carrasco is a former top prospect who came over from the Phillies in the Cliff Lee deal in 2009, and is the only one of the four players the Indians received in that deal still with the team. He showed some promise in 2011, before succumbing to Tommy John surgery and missing all of 2012. He made it back to the mound last year, and while he struggled with his control in seven mediocre starts, there were some positives for him to build on.
First and foremost was the increase in the velocity of his fastball, which went from an average of 92.5 mph to 95 mph. It is not uncommon for a player coming back from TJS to see an increase in velocity coupled with issues with control. This was certainly the case for Carrasco, who posted an ugly 6.75 ERA and 1.76 WHIP for the season last year. Were it not for some decent work out of the bullpen late in the year, those numbers would have been even worse.
On the bright side, he was pretty solid all year long in Triple-A, is still relatively young at 27 and will be two years removed from surgery. He also has always demonstrated a nice ground ball tendency, which should help him be successful if he can figure out how to harness his improved stuff. Since he is out of options, he’s almost a shoo-in to get first crack at the job, but it is nice to see him show up to camp in good shape (he reportedly lost 15 pounds) and motivated to earn Terry Francona’s trust. He has looked good early in camp, while Bauer is once again struggling with his control.Yordano Ventura, KC - I will state up front that I am pretty high on Ventura this year, as I have already drafted him in two early 15-team leagues. In both cases, I got him just prior to the reserve rounds, a price that I think will look pretty nice by the time the season starts. See, I fully expect the young flamethrower to win the Royals' fifth starter job outright this spring.
His main competition for the job is Danny Duffy, with Wade Davis, Luke Hochevar, Chris Dwyer and Brad Penny also in the mix this spring. Hochevar was dominant out of the bullpen last year, and seems headed for that role again this year. Davis regressed once he was moved back to starting last year, so I think he will start in the bullpen and hope to get another shot at some point this year.
So that leaves Duffy and Ventura, and I think when the dust settles, the team just won’t be able to deny Ventura a rotation spot if they are serious about contending in the division this year. This isn’t so much a condemnation of Duffy’s skills, just more my belief that when you have a guy that can light up the radar gun like Ventura can, it’s tough not to want to unleash him on opposing lineups. As with any young pitcher, the usual warning flags are in play here, but Ventura has a very nice curveball to compliment his electric fastball, and also an improving changeup that is a work in progress.
The success of Jose Fernandez, Tony Cingrani and a host of other young pitchers last year should provide enough reasons to not be afraid to take a shot at some upside at the draft table this year. Ventura, even if he starts the year in the pen or at Triple-A, won’t stay in either spot long, and once he hits the rotation he will rack up strikeouts along with the league's best. Yes, he will get hit hard at times, especially if his change doesn’t improve, but I don’t see too many arms with his upside available late in drafts. The closer the season gets, the higher his price tag will get, so my advice is to try and get some shares in him while he’s still a bargain.
Hector Santiago & Garrett Richards, LAA - I am very intrigued by both Santiago and Richards as potential sleepers, enough that I have rostered both in a couple places already this year. I drafted Richards as a late reserve in Perry’s JBL league in January and recently ended up with both in my CBS AL Auction league.
In Richards, we have a case of a young pitcher who looks poised to take the next step, and finally take advantage of his plus fastball. He has always had great “stuff”, but he has lacked the poise and control needed to be consistently successful at the big league level. The funny thing is, he didn’t generate a ton of strikeouts last year despite the plus fastball. What he did do, however, was evolve into an elite ground ball pitcher. His GB% shot up to 57% last year, and if he can sustain those gains, he has a great chance of delivering an ERA under 4.00. Some have compared him to Justin Masterson, and I think it’s a fair comparison. I think he offers more upside for my AL-only team, but if he can figure out how to utilize his heater a little more effectively, without it affecting his groundball tendencies, then we could have a real breakout on our hands.
Santiago is a player that has grown on me as draft season has progressed, partly because of where some of my competitors were tabbing him in both real and mock drafts. I am always open to investigate further on a player that other owners whose judgement I respect seem to like more than I do. This is one of the best things you gain from doing early drafts and mocks. Santiago, who came over in the Mark Trumbo deal, is kind of lurking under the radar due to a solid, if unspectacular skillset. He doesn’t have an electric fastball, but he mixes up his pitches, including an improving screwball, and gets plenty of looking K’s. Perhaps the best thing working in his favor this year is his change of venue. Home runs have been his achilles heel, and he gets to leave U.S. Cellular behind and move into spacious Angel Stadium, which will help keep more of those long flies in play.
Some other starters that I like as late-round targets include:
Erasmo Ramirez, SEA - Ramirez will look to put his injury-plagued 2013 behind him and take advantage of injuries to Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker to lock down his place in the Mariners' rotation. His stock is down, but this is the same guy who turned heads two years ago in his initial callup in 2012.
Kevin Gausman, BAL - The Ubaldo Jimenez signing has put a little damper on the prized rookie's stock, since he now looks headed to the Minors to start the year. He was one young gun who didn't eaxactly hit the ground running last year, but he has as good a pedigree as any prospect who made his debut last year. He will get a chance in the rotation at some point this year and will hope for better results the second time around.
Nick Tepesch, TEX - Tepesch won the first round in his battle with Colby Lewis to win the fifth starter job for the Rangers. He profiles better as an AL-only option, but could make for a nice reserve arm that you stream in for favorable matchups.
Brandon Workman, BOS - Workman got roughed up in his first spring start, and likely will start the year in the Minors. Still, the departure of Ryan Dempster has created an opportunity at the back of the World Champions' rotation and Felix Doubront will give way to the prized prospect at some point. He has great potential and should be stashed in AL-only leagues.Sano To Miss Entire 2014 Season
Miguel Sano, one of the top power-hitting prospects in all of baseball, got some bad news last week when it was revealed that he will undergo Tommy John surgery on his right elbow and likely miss the entire 2014 season. It is a tremendous blow to the Minnesota Twins, and they will have to pray that the 20-year-old can pick back up where he left off when he eventually returns from a long rehabilitation process. The burgeoning slugger hit a combined 35 home runs between High-A and Double-A last season, and had hopes of mashing his way into the Majors at some point this season. The rumblings on the young third baseman’s elbow had been swirling around since he got shut down in winter ball, but the Twins were hopeful that rest would heal the ligament and allow Sano to avoid surgery. It didn’t work out that way, unfortunately, for either the team or the player, but the organization is putting the best possible spin they can on the terrible news. For anyone who already drafted Sano in an early league, that’s one lottery ticket down. All Dynasty owners can do is wait for 2015.Tanaka Impressive In His Spring Debut
Masahiro Tanaka received rave reviews after his spring training debut for the Bombers in Tampa over the weekend. Pitching before a host of assembled media, in a game that was televised on major Japanese stations as well as on the MLB Network, the prized free agent lived up to his billing, hurling two scoreless innings, with three strikeouts. He threw 32 pitches, 22 of them for strikes, his fastball topped out at 94 mph and he even unveiled his signature splitter, which was as nasty as advertised. He used the pitch to punch out Ben Revere for one of his strikeouts with a splitter that dived late into the dirt. He will make his second appearance this Thursday against the Phillies.
This coming weekend, the participants in this year's Leagues of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) will meet in Arizona to both draft and celebrate the 20-year anniversary of the original fantasy baseball experts league. The annual auctions, and the resulting player prices, are an annual yardstick for auction drafters around the country who will scrutinize the results looking for clues to this year's bargains. I have spent much of the preseason looking at varying levels of sleepers and some of my favorite players I believe are poised to break out this year, but with these premiere auctions coming our way this weekend, today I want to dig a little deeper. The key to a successful auction is often in the bargains found late in the draft, when everyone is short on cash and looking for players who can give them the most bang for the precious buck. Since more outfielders are drafted than any other position, this is a prime place that I like to mine for gems. If you are patient, there are always useful outfielders that slide down in auction drafts, as owners tend to scramble to fill up the scarce positions first. I like to try and budget enough extra cash for my last few roster spots so I have a better chance of getting the guys I want even if it means going to $3 on some of them. Having that ability can often be the difference between getting an everyday player at a nice discount and being forced to take a $1 flier on a guy whose playing time is less secure, and as anyone can tell you, in single-league formats, playing time is everything. After the auction is completed, the reserve draft usually takes place immediately. I always try to have a general list of guys I want to target in the reserve rounds going into the auction, and will add to it as the auction comes to a close. The reserve round is a great place to hedge some of your purchases as well as grab a few lottery tickets. With that in mind, here is my short list of outfielders from the American League that I think make either great late targets or reserve round darts.
Robbie Grossman, HOU - There were not a lot of bright spots for the Astros last season, but the performance of Grossman certainly qualified as one of the few positives to emerge from a long 111-loss season. Injuries opened the door for the rookie early in the year, but he flopped in his initial stint in Houston, hitting a measly .198 in 28 games before getting sent back down to Triple-A. He got a second look from the team in late-August, and looked like a different player by ripping off a ten-game hitting streak upon his return, which got him promoted to the leadoff spot. A few days later, he reeled off another hitting streak of 14 games and was hitting a robust .322 in the second half when an oblique injury finished his season on September 3rd. He will enter the year as the team’s starting left fielder and will be given every chance to show that he can carry over the improvements he made to his game late last year. He doesn’t bring a ton of power to the table, but with regular playing time he could easily hit double digits in both home runs and stolen bases. George Springer is getting all of the hype this year, and deservedly so, but all that has done is knock the hometown boy’s stock down even further, making him even more intriguing for bargain hunters. Naysayers will point to an over-inflated hit percentage and a propensity for the strikeout as reasons to be leery of buying into his second half numbers. While it is very unlikely he could sustain that level of production for an entire year, I personally love seeing a young player make the adjustments that Grossman did last year, and I expect his manager did as well.
Abraham Almonte, SEA - Almonte was quietly acquired by the Mariners prior to last season from the Yankees in a deal for reliever Shawn Kelley in a roster-clearing move for newly signed Kelly Shoppach. He didn’t even get an invite to the major-league camp last spring, and opened the year in Double-A, where he hit a modest .255 with four home runs in 29 games. He was promoted to Triple-A and suddenly blossomed, hitting .314 with 11 home runs, 50 runs batted in and 20 stolen bases in 94 games. The Triple-A numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, since they came in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, but it is easy to see why the Mariners were excited to see what they had in the speedy outfielder from the Dominican Republic. He was given a September call-up and more than held his own with a .264 average, two homers and nine runs batted in. The one thing missing were the stolen bases, which was somewhat surprising since speed had always been a big part of his game at every professional level. Now that Nelson Cruz has landed in Baltimore, Almonte has a much clearer path to earning a spot on the Opening Day roster as the fourth outfielder, and it doesn’t take much imagination to see a path to a decent amount of playing time. The team has plenty of bodies to sort into their 1B/OF/DH situation, but it can be argued that none of them possess the speed or athletic ability of the young speedster. Dustin Ackley is a perpetual disappointment playing out of position, Corey Hart and Logan Morrison have one good knee between them and Michael Saunders can be maddeningly inconsistent. The team could certainly use his speed at the top of their lineup, and if he hits, he could eventually push Ackley off the roster. He’s a nice power/speed flier whose stock should continue to rise this month.
Aaron Hicks, MIN - There is no way to sugarcoat the disaster that 2013 was for the former top prospect. Hicks was handed the Twins' centerfield job last year after the team traded both Denard Span and Ben Revere prior to the season which paved the way for the toolsy outfielder to become a trendy sleeper pick this time last year. He hit well in spring training, won the job outright and looked poised to break out as the new leadoff hitter in Minnesota. Unfortunately, he hit .113 in the season’s first month and never really recovered. He flashed a little power in May, hitting six home runs that month, but was back in the Minors by June. He got one more look in July and showed some improvement, hitting .230 and stealing five bases, but another bad slump forced another demotion, while a late-season trade for Alex Presley kept him there the rest of the year. With Byron Buxton breathing down his neck as the next big thing in town, Hicks will get one more chance to show that he belongs in the Twins' long-term plans. It is clear now that the team made a mistake in rushing him to the big leagues last year with nary a game at Triple-A, especially when he had a history of struggling in his initial steps up the ladder. But, he is still only 24 years old, and he should be given every chance to play his way back onto the big league roster. Darin Mastroianni and the aforementioned Presley will likely form an uninspiring platoon in centerfield to start the year, while Josh Willingham is both injury-prone and a prime trade candidate. The Twins won’t want to rush Buxton if they can help it, and can’t give up on Hicks yet. He is worth a reserve pick in AL-only leagues to see if he can show up motivated to put last year behind him and get his career back on track.
Jackie Bradley Jr., BOS - Hicks wasn’t the only rookie who turned heads in March only to struggle badly once the season began. Bradley tore the cover off the ball in Red Sox camp and forced his way onto the major league roster to begin the year. Once the real games started, however, he was overmatched and was sent back to the Minors after hitting only .097 in his first ten games. He was up sporadically the rest of the year until a September call-up where he fared a little better, hitting .243. The departure of Jacoby Ellsbury opens up an opportunity for the youngster to claim the starting centerfield job this spring, but the world champions aren’t just handing it to him. They went out and signed Grady Sizemore in free agency to push the rookie this spring, and he will be in camp hoping to prove he has something left in his surgically repaired knees. Despite bringing in the former All-Star, the centerfield job looks like Bradley’s to lose. While it is never easy to replace an All-Star caliber player, Bradley has the benefit of playing for the best offense in the American League, and as such there will be less pressure on him to produce offensively. He will likely bat ninth, which in this lineup is still a spot that can produce useful numbers.
David Lough, BAL - Lough actually benefits from the team’s recent signing of Nelson Cruz in my opinion. Since Cruz is a lousy defender, he will more than likely see most of his action at DH. That likely pushes Henry Urrutia, Lough’s toughest competitor for significant playing time, to the Minors to start the year since he still has options remaining. Lough is no great shakes, but he should be able to hold off Nolan Reimold, Delmon Young and others to start the year and can provide modest power with decent speed, with a little upside if he can somehow manage to win the leadoff job to boot.
Michael Choice, TEX - Choice came over to Texas in a December deal for Craig Gentry and looked like he had a chance to earn some real playing time until the team went out and signed Shin-Soo Choo to join Alex Rios and Leonys Martin in the Rangers outfield. He could still stick as a fourth outfielder and right-handed platoon mate with Mitch Moreland at DH, and has the power pedigree and home ballpark to be worth taking a $1 flier on in AL-only leagues.
Jarrod Dyson, KC - Dyson will once again likely be the odd man out in the Royals outfield, at least until Lorenzo Cain succumbs to his yearly injuries. Even if relegated to backup duty, Dyson can still provide value as a speed source to hide on your reserves, then plug into your lineup when the playing time materializes.
Ubaldo Jimenez has been anything but a safe bet for fantasy owners since he came over to the American League in the middle of 2011. He struggled with his command and declining velocity, and in 2012 his game really seemed to hit rock bottom as he went 9-17 with a 5.40 ERA.
It wasn’t much better for the better half of last year as well, as he opened with a lousy April and a rocky May that likely had people who took a shot at him sending him to the bench. He started to make some strides in June and July, but he was far from dominant as he only made it out of the fifth inning three times in 11 starts in those months. Then as the dog days of August arrived, something began to click for the enigmatic right-hander. In his final nine starts of the year, with the Indians fighting for a playoff berth, Jimenez reeled off nine straight stellar starts, striking out 79 while walking only 15. After basically two seasons of torturing Indians fans and fantasy owners alike, he was finally pitching like the ace he was supposed to be. Granted, six of those starts came against the Twins (2), Royals, White Sox (2) and Astros, but it doesn’t change the fact that all of the tinkering and adjustments that the Tribe had been working on with him finally translated to the mound.
After he declined the Indians qualifying offer, the question of which team would take the gamble to sign the 30-year-old to the long-term contract he was seeking lingered longer than he or his agent would have liked. It was pretty clear that a return to Cleveland was a long shot at best, but once the Yankees signed Masahiro Tanaka, teams still in the market for a starter started kicking the tires on possibly the biggest wild card in this year’s free agent class. The Baltimore Orioles finally emerged as the leader in the race to sign him, and it was just announced earlier this week that the O’s had agreed to a four-year $50 million deal, pending a physical. The team seemingly felt pressure to add the fourth year to the deal out of fear that AL East rivals Boston and Toronto were also pursuing the right-hander, as well as a desire to upgrade the top of their rotation to take advantage of a lineup that is ready to compete now.
Now that we finally know that Jimenez will not only be staying in the American League, but also taking his game to the toughest division in the league, we can turn our focus to determining how he might perform in his new digs and whether or not to invest in him for the upcoming fantasy season. The first thing we have to examine is what really drove the late-season turnaround. Was it just another player sensing his upcoming free agency digging deep to ensure a big payday in the off-season? Or did he finally figure out how to deal with the fact that he couldn’t throw it by hitters like he had in the past?
If we look at the numbers, then the answer seems to lean towards the latter. He cleaned up his mechanics and relied on his slider and split-fingered fastball more than he had in years, and those two pitches were at the center of his increased strikeouts. The decision to take a chance on Jimenez in your drafts this season comes down to how strongly you feel he can continue to harness his control, retain his reworked mechanics and continue to rely on his secondary pitches. For me, it isn’t an easy decision, and as such I have generally shied away from him in my mixed league drafts so far this season, even though the price to take a chance on him has been more than reasonable for a player with the upside that he arguably possesses.
There are many pros and cons that can be used in arguments for or against his chances of success this year. The Orioles, as we stated above, have a great offense that will score plenty of runs as well as the best defense in the league. On the flip side, the move to the the AL East from the AL Central is never considered a positive, as the entire division is stacked with potent offensive teams. His new home park, Camden Yards, is much less forgiving than Progressive Field and now there will be extra visits to Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park and the Rogers Centre to boot.
The safest number to project this year for me is his strikeouts, and that remains the best reason to chase him late in your drafts this year. I don’t have a ton of faith that he can consistently harness his control, or that he can continue to reinvent himself as a “crafty” pitcher. Still, there is plenty of upside here for solid production at a bargain price. Just be prepared for the inevitable bouts of wildness that he will endure and the chance that the end of last year was in fact just a mirage. I personally would be more inclined to take a shot on him in an AL-only league than I would in a mixed league, as I will likely throw my darts at someone else in the end. Regardless of what I think, there is one other thing that I feel confident saying. That is that Ubaldo Jimenez will be a difference maker in leagues this year. I just can't say with any level of certainty what side of the ledger that difference will be on.
I have spent the last few weeks profiling some of my favorite mid-to-late round position players from the American League for this season, so today I wanted to take some time to look at a few emerging arms from this year’s class. The key to a successful pitching staff is finding the right balance of elite anchors, underrated workhorses and breakout stars. One place we are usually compelled to mine for the latter is within the ranks of young starters who are on the cusp of greatness and can be slotted nicely into the meat of our staffs. With that in mind, here is a look at four pitchers poised to break out that could help propel you to victory as mid-round picks in your fantasy leagues this year.
Danny Salazar, CLE - The Indians rookie burst onto the scene late in 2013, making 10 second half starts before being introduced to the masses when the team handed him the ball in their first playoff appearance in six years. When he was promoted, he quickly got the attention of fantasy owners by striking out 17 batters in his first two major league starts. He enters the year as one of the more highly sought young arms in drafts, and much of the buzz around him surrounds his potential strikeout ability. With a fastball that averages 96 mph and a K-rate of 11.25, it is easy to see why people are excited to draft him. There is no denying that if he can continue to throw that hard, and learn to harness his control a little more, the sky is the limit. The interesting thing about Salazar is not only can he just throw the ball by you, he also happens to possess a nasty splitter that can make hitters look silly. Of course, as with any young pitcher, we have to expect some growing pains and Salazar is still figuring things out. In order for him to reach his full potential, he is going to have to figure out how to work further into games. He didn’t get past the fifth inning in over half his starts last year, and he will need to improve to at least bolster his win total. The team will have no choice but to take the reigns off this year, but even so he will still likely have a cap on his innings since he already has one Tommy John surgery on his resume. The other issue for fantasy owners when it comes to Salazar is his price. No one is sleeping on the flamethrower, so if you want him on your team it is going to cost you. I am obviously a fan, and have drafted him in a couple spots just to have some shares in him, but I would be lying if I said that I think that anything beyond gaudy strikeout numbers is a sure thing. Even so, depending on who you can pair him with, there is something to be said for getting those K’s at a discount and without much damage to the ratios.
Alex Cobb, TB - There may have not been a more inspirational performer in all of baseball last year than Cobb. He was cruising along through a breakout season when a line drive knocked him out cold and sidelined him for nearly two months. When he returned, he was arguably even better than before the beaning, and he finished 11-3 with an ERA of 2.76 and a WHIP of 1.15. Now, while he was a popular sleeper this time a year ago, no one was quite predicting he would break out quite so dramatically. Cobb is not a hard thrower, with a fastball that averages 91 mph, but he has terrific secondary pitches and solid control. He also keeps the ball on the ground with a GB% of 55.8% a year ago. One key area of growth for Cobb last season was his strikeout ability, which saw a nice bump from his previous time in the Majors. It remains to be seen if he can sustain those gains this year, but you have to like a young pitcher entering his prime whose K-rate has increased three straight years and has the ground-ball profile that Cobb has consistently demonstrated. Add in the mental toughness that he showed last year and you got a budding ace on your hands. Don’t let the lack of electric stuff blind you to the upside here.
Sonny Gray, OAK - Gray in some ways was the West Coast’s answer to Danny Salazar in the American League last year, as the A’s rookie found himself in the Majors in the heat of a playoff race and then introduced himself to the world with a pair of epic battles with Justin Verlander in the ALDS. While he didn’t win either game, he pitched well enough to, but Verlander was superb as the A’s offense failed to score any runs in either contest. While Gray’s stuff can’t compare to Salazar’s, he can chuck it to the plate pretty nicely, and can reach back for a little extra juice when he needs to. His fastball averages about 93-94, and he has a nasty curveball that he isn’t afraid to throw for strikes. While he displayed elite strikeout capability last year, striking out 67 batters in just 64 innings, I have some concern about his ability to maintain that high K-level this year after major league hitters get a good look at his stuff. Still, there is a lot to like about Gray, especially when we compare him to other young arms in this year’s draft. First, he won’t cost you as much as Salazar or Michael Wacha and Gerrit Cole, to bring in some NL comparisons. In fact, the best course of action may be to sit back and wait for one or two of those names to come off the board and use that as you cue to get ready to pick your spot to swipe in and draft Gray. Just hope you aren’t in the same draft with our own Lawr Michaels, because the above strategy on drafting Gray will likely be useless.Drew Smyly, DET - I am going to take a little different approach in identifying my last arm on the list. Rather than diving into the stats and percentages, I’ll just pass on a little insider info and leave the numbers to my boss at a later date. That’s right gang, it’s a new season here at Mastersball, and once again we are selling memberships to the Drew Smyly fan club. The difference this year is he has a rotation spot all but assured heading into the season now that Doug Fister was shipped off to Washington in the off-season. Now that the LABR mixed draft is in the books, you can see once again that our fearless leader, Todd Zola, has staked his claim on Smyly, tabbing him as his SP4 with the first pick of the 12th round. Never one to pass up an opportunity to be mildly sardonic, he paired him at the turn with none other than Fister himself to close out the 11th. As some of you know, many of us here in the writing staff start our drafting season in early December. We continue on from then until Opening Day, drafting together enough that inevitably we can get attached to certain players through our proclivity to draft them. When this occurs often enough, they become “our guys.” We all have them and this year Smyly is once again one of Todd’s. When I was representing the site in the recent mock draft over at Baseball Prospectus, there inevitably came a point in the draft where I was looking for my SP4 and I looked at the board and there he was. It was the easiest pick of the draft for me. He was “our guy”, after all.
Everyone goes into their drafts with a list of players they hope to snag in the later stages of their drafts, and as such we compile our perfect lists of potential “sleepers” and some mistakenly even go so far as to attempt to script where they will be able to select them come draft day. But a funny thing happens when we enter the draft room. Suddenly, you realize that everyone has the same list of guys as you have, thus your odds of securing those late round gems decreases drastically since everyone is chasing them. This inevitably happens every year, as the buzz surrounding certain players elevates them often to a point that sometimes the best course of action is to let someone else overpay.
In deeper formats, the reality is that hype comes at a price, and whether it be dollars or draft picks, you simply won’t have the assets to get everyone you desire. The key to survive in these environments is to have fall-back plans at every position, since no matter the course you plot, you will have to make compromises somewhere. To that end, today we will profile some infielders whose current draft stocks are either trending downward or stagnant and who all possess the ability to deliver a profit at bargain basement prices.
C - Hank Conger, LAA - The 26-year-old Korean-American is coming off his first full season in the Majors, after sticking with the big club all year long and forcing his way into a platoon with starter Chris Iannetta. Conger is a switch-hitter and arguably better behind the plate than Iannetta, particularly when it comes to framing pitches. But truth be told, neither backstop is known for their defense, so Conger will also have to hit his way into more playing time. He struggled last year with plate discipline, striking out at a 23.9% rate, but I think he can get that down closer to his Triple-A rates this year. He showed some nice pop in stretches, particularly in the first half, when he clubbed six of his seven total home runs, and if he can find his way into 300-400 at-bats, then 15 dingers is within reach. Add in the fact that Iannetta has always battled the injury bug, and it’s easy to see a “best-case” path to even more playing time for Conger. Even if Iannetta does stay healthy, the switch-hitting Conger seems poised to steal more at-bats against righties this year and should also get some time at DH when Raul Ibanez needs a day off. He’s a nice guy to target as a second catcher, especially in AL-only leagues.
1B - Mitch Moreland, TEX - The acquisition of Prince Fielder has taken as much wind out of the 28-year-old’s stock as his ..232 batting average from a year ago already had. But just because he won’t be manning first doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t be in the lineup almost as often as he was a year ago. He is currently slated to be the primary DH against RHP, and since he is a much better defender than Fielder, you have to figure he gets the occasional start there as well. It is easy to forget that he smacked a career-high 23 home runs last year, and 20 of those came against righties. His batting average woes from a year ago seem a little fluky, as his BABIP dipped to .254 and simply cratered to .235 against RHP. Just a normal regression to his career norms would do wonders for his average. He is still young enough to bounce back and hopefully avoid the struggles that plagued him in the second half of last year. Regardless, he should still be a good bet for 20 home runs, so if you are looking for some cheap power late, keep Moreland on your short list.
2B - Emilio Bonifacio, KC/Alberto Callaspo, OAK - Versatility has its virtues, and here are two underrated commodities who bring that to the table, and profile best as second basemen, or preferably MI's on your fantasy squads this year. Bonifacio has more raw value, since he brings one standout skill, speed, to the table. It looked like he was on his way to some regular playing time this year until the Royals went out and signed Omar Infante, and as such he slipped down draft boards. However, earlier this week the Royals designated him for assignment to make room for Bruce Chen. The team has ten days to trade or release him, so you will want to track the situation and hope that he lands in a favorable situation. Hopefully, he can find a way to more consistent playing time, since he’ll continue to steal bases when he plays. Callaspo is a much less exciting option, but for those in AL-only leagues, there is something to be said for consistency from your $1 player, and you can seemingly pencil the veteran in for .265/50/10/50/4 and be reasonably sure of what you will get.
SS - Alcides Escobar, KC - The speedy Escobar failed to build on his breakthrough 2012 last year, as his batting average tumbled from .293 to .234 and his stolen bases fell from 35 to 22. For a player whose value hinged on these two categories, the result was a lousy return-on-investment. But as we enter a new season, it is time to use last year’s struggles to your advantage and use them as a buying opportunity, particularly if you like to chase speed with your MI slot. Escobar was done in last year by a combination of poor plate discipline mixed in with some bad luck. He swung at lots of bad pitches outside of the strike zone (38%) and put a lot of those hacks into play. That helped tank his BABIP from .364 in ‘12 to just .264 a year ago, so the road to a rebound is clear. He needs to reign in his over-aggressiveness at the dish so he can get that batting average back up to respectable levels as well as have more opportunities to unleash it on the basepaths.
3B - David Freese, LAA - It’s hard to believe that this time last year Freese was getting drafted ahead of Kyle Seager, but it’s true. He was coming off a 20-home run season, three straight seasons of a batting average North of .290 and many hoped for further growth. Alas, at 30, the opposite occurred, and he took a major step back, losing 30 points off his average and managing only nine long balls. As a result, the Cardinals shipped him off to the Angels in exchange for Peter Bourjos and he enters the season as the team’s starting third baseman. Health will always be an issue for Freese, but if he can manage to stay on the field there is at least some reason for cautious optimism. He is currently slated to hit fifth in the order, right behind Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols. If both of those sluggers rebound themselves somewhat, it would seem to present Freese with some nice potential to drive in runs this year. Freese was another BABIP victim last year, as he posted a career worst .320, which isn’t even that lousy. But considering he averaged about .360 the three previous years, it isn’t so unreasonable to expect a rebound here, which would at least bring the batting average back up to the .280’s. As for power, maybe split the difference between his peak and his valley and you’ve got a player who should have a good chance at turning a profit this year.