January 2013

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How to Win: Strikeouts

Last Week on How to Win, I discussed a category in which I did particularly well last year: Stolen Bases. We'll do the same this week, with Strikeouts, before we go on to the categories in which I need to improve as much as anyone else: all the others.

Quick Overview
I love me some strikeouts. Last year, my fifth place Silver League team ran away with this category (so yeah, my other categories had some rough times). Part of that might have been amassing enough innings to eclipse our 1500 max a little early (and that after dumping every starter but David Price at some point in September), but that wasn't the whole story. Volume is half the story, though, the rest comes in the rate. Below we'll examine both halves of a winning strategy--and how going overboard isn't necessarily great for your ERA and WHIP.

2012's Top 24

1. Justin Verlander               239
2. Max Scherzer                     231
3. R.A. Dickey                         230
4. Clayton Kershaw               229
5. Felix Hernandez                223
5. James Shields                     223 
7. Yu Darvish                           221
8. Cole Hamels                        216
9. Gio Gonzalez                        207 
9. Cliff Lee                                 207
11. David Price                         205
12. Yovani Gallardo                204
13. Zack Greinke                      200
14. CC Sabathia                        197
14. Stephen Strasburg            197
16. Jake Peavy                           194
17. Matt Cain                            193
18. Chris Sale                            192
19. Madison Bumgarner        191
20. Tim Lincecum                    190
21. Ian Kennedy                       187
22. Mat Latos                            185
23. Adam Wainwright            184
24. A.J. Burnett                        180
24. Lance Lynn                        180
24. Jeff Samardzija                 180 

Most of baseball's best pitchers show up on this list and it's easy to say that the best way to help yourself in strikeouts is to get at least two of these guys. That's what I was trying to do when I drafted Price and Dan Haren. The only reason it worked out, of course, is because I soon flipped Haren for Scherzer, among others. So there was a bit of good luck. None of the rest of these guys made it onto my team, though, leaving me with a need fore a little more creativity.

High K/9 Pitchers
Not every pitcher on the list above put up huge K/9 numbers, but all had good ones--in fact, only Peavy, Cain, and Latos were under 8 K/9 and all three sat in the 7.90's. Of course, not every pitcher with a high strikeout rate pitches enough to make it onto this leaderboard. Getting those guys (and hopefully for longer stints in 2013) is a great way to patch up a fantasy rotation with a bunch of strikeouts. The way I figure, is that if I have to have some non-aces on my team, they better be handy with the whiffs. Here are a few pitchers who missed the cut when it came to innings last year but might still pad your K's next year. Everyone below pitched at least 100 innings last year and struck out at least eight batters per nine IP.

Francisco Liriano        9.59
Mike Fiers                      9.52
Felix Doubront             9.34
Marco Estrada              9.30
J.A. Happ                       8.96
Matt Moore                    8.88
Bud Norris                      8.82
Carlos Villanueva         8.76
Jason Hammel             8.62
Edinson Volquez          8.57
Jake Arrieta                   8.56
Johan Santana             8.54
Erik Bedard                    8.45
Matt Garza                     8.33
Tommy Hanson           8.30
Ivan Nova                      8.08 

As you can see, results and potential fantasy value vary wildly on this list, from the misery that was Francisco Liriano, to the health-restricted performences of Santana, Hammel, and Garza, and to the late callups of Fiers and Estrada. There are a lot of ways to get a lot of strikeouts when you're pitching, without making it to the leaderboard. (To be fair, Moore and Volquez literally just missed the cut.) It might be worth noting that my own team featured Estrada, Doubront, and Villanueva from among this group.

Not only are these players interesting draft targets (from a strikeout perspective anyway, your ERA and WHIP stats certainly cringe at some of them), you can utilize 2013's versions of them, whoever they might end up being. Of course, several of these were mid-season surprises, so there's no real knowing which injury replacements might come up and help your fantasy team as much as their real team. Here's a couple fairly drowsy sleepers, though: Chris Narveson and Scott Baker. The Brewers and Cubs are both linked to more than one name on this list, which tells me how they feel about pitchers who can get strikeouts, and both Narveson and Baker have generated their share of whiffs during their oft-interrupted stays in the Majors. Don't forget about stashable pitchers coming back from injury part way through the season, like Brandon Beachy, Cory Luebke, and Danny Duffy.

High IP 
There's another route you can go, though, and this one's group of pitchers is somewhat less volatile than the group above. Finding pitchers who pitch a lot, whether they have high strikeout rates or not, can let you rack up strikeouts in bulk. This option is much better for those in head-to-head leagues, however, since heaping on the innings can hurt you badly when you start facing the IP cap. The nice thing, though, is that pitchers that teams entrust with tall innings counts year after year are usually a bit better than average, and (seemingly) much healthier--though obvious exceptions will apply. Here are the last three years' top innings eaters not found on the previous lists. All have pitched at least 600 innings since 2010.

Dan Haren                    650
Jared Weaver                648.2
Roy Halladay                640.2
C.J. Wilson                   629.2
Ervin Santana               629.1
Tim Hudson                  622.2
Hiroki Kuroda              618
Mark Buehrle                618
Bronson Arroyo            616.2
Ricky Romero               616
Jason Vargas               611
Jon Lester                     605
Trevor Cahill                604.1
Justin Masterson        602.1

Some of these guys fell off the list above--and out of fantasy's most valuable pitchers--last year through injuries, like Halladay, or a mysterious plunge in K/9 rate, like Weaver. Others, though, just don't generate that many strikeouts in a per inning basis. They can all be pencilled in for 200 IP, though, which means that they'll be of some help in those strikeouts.

It also seems worth noting that Edwin Jackson just missed being part of this group, with 598.2 IP, and he just missed the High K/9 group, with a 7.97 mark. To me, that makes him a really useful asset.

 
Relievers
Relief pitchers are a great way to pad your strikeout totals if you're worried about an innings limit. They get a lot more bang for their buck with their high rates than all but the best starters. Though they don't add a huge amount in raw total, using two or three in concert can be a sort of cobbled-together ace, Frankenstein-style. Of course, they eat up more roster spots than starters and tend to make small (or catastrophic) impacts on your rate stats without helping much at all in wins or, unless they're actual closers, saves. Since everybody's going to be snatching up closers, good or not, we'll only look at relievers not projected to close in 2013, regardless of what they used to do.

Antonio Bastardo        14.02
Ernesto Frieri               13.36 
Jim Henderson            13.21
David Hernandez        12.91
Steve Delabar                12.55
David Robertson          12.02
Tim Collins                    12.01
Jake McGee                   11.87
Jake Diekman              11.52
Jeremy Horst                11.49
Louis Coleman             11.47
Alex Hinshaw              11.44
Sean Doolittle               11.41
Andrew Miller              11.48
Joel Peralta                   11.38
Jesse Crain                    11.35
Alberto Cabrera            11.22
Wade Davis                   11.13

I made 11.13 the cutoff point, since that was Stephen Strasburg's mark last year--the best of any starter. The list goes on and on, though. Anyone on this list--or among the next large number of names with even a hint of the occasional save bears watching. Those at the very top of the list might deserve drafting even if they end up with no saves or wins at all.

(I don't know if Frieri or Ryan Madson will be closing for the Halos, so I'll include him here just in case.)

A Few Last Words
There are a lot of ways to go about succeeding in the strikeout category. One nice thing, is that, like steals, whiffs seem often to be available on the waiver wire. There are a number of less-than-excellent pitchers who rack up strikeouts and they can help your team if used right. Plus, real teams are always excited to call up a hard-throwing prospect and they can light up the real and fantasy baseball worlds long enough to help your team, even if they end up fizzling out. I do recommend a staff ace (actually, I try for two) who strikes people out in a big way. Think of Stephen Strasburg as a power/speed threat but for pitchers. If you play in a league with an IP cap, I'd avoid the innings-eaters altogether. If you don't, however--and especially if your league has barriers against streaming--I'd grab several. Strikeouts come from all kinds of places, and mixing several sources is always a good way to go. 



Sleepers & Busts: Snakes And Rays Starters

Last week I looked at a trio of former Twins center fielders whose draft positions could stand to be adjusted. This week, I'm tackling a trio of young starters who put together pretty good fantasy seasons last year.

Wade Miley, ARI – ADP 156

On the surface, Miley’s rookie season was remarkable. He tallied a strong 194.2 innings and posted a terrific 3.33 ERA. He controlled the zone fantastically (1.71 BB/9), which contributed to his impressive 1.18 WHIP. Add in 16 wins, and Miley was a strong three-category pitcher. His strikeout rate of 6.7 per nine innings isn’t a fantasy asset, but it’s not a complete anchor on a staff either.

A closer look at Miley reveals that a repeat isn’t necessarily something to bank on, though. Miley’s season was fueled by a 6.9% HR/FB mark. Miley plays in a small park and doesn't limit fly balls all that well (43.3% ground-ball rate, 33.7% fly-ball rate), so regression toward 10% seems likely.

His xFIP of 3.75 (which normalizes HR/FB to the league average of around 10%) serves as a better predictor of what to expect in 2013. SIERA (3.84) agrees that his 2012 ERA will be difficult to repeat.

If Miley finds himself on the wrong side of the league average for  HR/FB as he did in his brief 2011 cup of coffee (15.4%), he could very well end up being a fantasy detriment in standard mixed leagues. Considering he averages just under 91 mph on his fastball, it wouldn't be shocking to see him in that territory.

In general, drafting low-strikeout pitchers whose value is dependent on a low HR/FB isn’t a good recipe. Miley is coming off the board ahead of Anibal Sanchez, Mike Minor, Brett Anderson, Jake Peavy and Matt Harvey. There’s starting pitching value beyond his current ADP – a lot of it with significant upside.

Final Ruling: Bust

Matt Moore, TB – ADP 116

Moore burst onto the scene in dominant fashion late in 2011, leading to lofty expectations and a lofty ADP in 2012. A dismal first half led many to lose faith in the flamethrowing lefty, but those who enjoyed his second half are aware of the type of talent Moore has.

Moore had a 3.01 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 79 punchouts in 77.2 second-half innings, and that’s with a late-season swoon in September. In 14 starts from June 15 through August 30, Moore tallied a 2.78 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 81 strikeouts in 87.1 innings. I’ll be the first to admit these endpoints are arbitrary, but I use them merely to demonstrate Moore’s ability to dominate over a sustained period of time.

Moore needs to illustrate better command (which he did as the season progressed), and as that comes so will his success. Just one year ago, Keith Law, Kevin Goldstein, Baseball America and Jonathan Mayo all agreed that the game’s top three prospects were Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and Moore. His overall numbers might not look it, but for an extended stretch late in the season, Moore showed he’s capable of reaching that hype.

His current draft position has him coming off the board after names like Ryan Vogelsong, Jonathon Niese, Ian Kennedy and C.J. Wilson. I prefer Moore to each and would be comfortable drafting him inside the Top 100 if the alternative was hoping he’d be there for me at the end of the tenth round.

Final Ruling: Sleeper

Alex Cobb, TB – ADP 240

Cobb certainly didn’t come with as much hype as his teammate, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to like about the 25-year-old. His 4.03 ERA and 1.25 WHIP don’t leap off the page, nor does his 7.0 K/9, but improvement seems to be in the cards.

Cobb’s 58.8% ground-ball rate ranked third among pitchers with 130 innings. For a guy whose infield defense is going to consist of Evan Longoria, Yunel Escobar, Ben Zobrist and James Loney – with Ryan Roberts in a utility role – that’s a great trait to have. Last year, the team struggled as a whole at shortstop (-8.5 UZR, -4 DRS). With the addition of a solid glove in Escobar and a premium defender at first base, the Rays should be among baseball’s best defensive infields, which will play to Cobb’s strength.

Beyond that, Cobb’s HR/FB was as much above average as Miley was below, and Cobb stranded just 68.5 percent of his baserunners in 2012. That’s four percent below league average, and it’s not a problem he experienced throughout the Minors for any extended period of time. From 2008 forward, he was only below 72.5 percent once – his small 41-inning sample in 2012. FIP (3.67), xFIP (3.54) and SIERA (3.51) all suggest that there’s a step forward coming for Cobb. And, with 242 strikeouts over his previous 228.1 Minor League innings, there’s room to project an uptick in K’s. He’ll need to improve a pedestrian 7.7 swinging strike rate to do so, but even if he simply maintains the status quo he can outperform his ADP.

Cobb doesn’t have ace upside, but he’s a solid K/BB guy with an elite ground-ball rate who was plagued by a previously unproblematic strand rate. In spite of this, he’s coming off the board behind Ervin Santana, Edinson Volquez (who led the NL in walks), Jason Vargas, Gavin Floyd, Ricky Romero and several other pitchers who are likely to post inferior 2013 seasons. Cobb could be going a full 2-3 rounds earlier, and you’d hear no complaint from me.

Final Ruling: Sleeper

ADPs courtesy of MockDraftCentral.com. Advanced stats courtesy of FanGraphs.com.



Shutdown Corner: NL East Closer Roundup

Last week, we started rolling out closer roundups for every division in baseball. This week, we're heading to the National League East, to look over the projected closer situations for all five teams. If you missed last week's review of the American League West, here's a link.

We're rating each closer on a tier, and here's the tiering system for the pre-season:

  • Tier 1: World-class reliever, capable of putting up a season for the ages.
  • Tier 2: Very good closer, both stable and effective.
  • Tier 3: Average closer, may be lacking either stability or effectiveness.
  • Tier 4: Poor closer, either completely ineffective but stable, or very unstable.

Washington Nationals: Rafael Soriano

The big closer news from the past week is Rafael Soriano (finally) signing a two-year, $28 million deal with the Washington Nationals, ostensibly to be their new closer. Soriano had been linked to the Tigers and a few other teams, but the Nationals ponied up the big bucks to bring him on. It's very likely that he displaces former closers Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard ... in fact GM Mike Rizzo said as much when introducing Soriano in a press conference.

Soriano brings closer experience and, best of all, real skill to the Nationals, who now have a pretty scary bullpen. After a dismal 2011 with the Yankees, one that included DL time, Soriano did well as the only non-Mariano Rivera full-time closer for the Bombers since about 1996. He saved 42 games, and did so posting a 2.26 ERA and 24.7% strikeout rate. Not too bad.

The minor problem here is that Soriano probably wasn't as effective as he looked in 2012. FIP (or Fielding Independent Pitching) says that Soriano didn't do the strikeout-walk-homer thing quite as well as his ERA indicated, giving him a 3.32 FIP for the season -- a big difference. Soriano benefitted from a great LOB% (88%), which helped him limit runs despite a high walk rate.

Still, Soriano was paid a lot of money to be the last line of defense for the Nationals, and we should expect him to thrive in the ninth. He's not a top-tier closer at this point, but he is likely to have a good season, especially outside of the tough environment of Yankee Stadium and the AL East.

Projected Tier: Tier 2 (moderate-to-high effectiveness, high cost to bring in / stability)

Next in line: Tyler Clippard or Drew Storen

Atlanta Braves: Craig Kimbrel

I wrote quite a bit about Craig Kimbrel in an earlier edition of Shutdown Corner, and the news hasn't changed in the past two weeks.

He's the best closer in baseball.

He's coming off what may have been the best season by a closer in modern history.

He strikes out everybody.

The only question with Kimbrel is whether he'll look like a "normal" closer in 2013, or if he's got another season of sheer dominance left in his right arm. I'm guessing that it will be something in between 2012 and a regular elite closer season. But it's unlikely, especially with Aroldis Chapman moving to the starting rotation, that any closer is as good a bet as Kimbrel.

Projected Tier: Tier 1 (coming off an world-class season, no sign of slowing down)

Next in line: Jonny Venters

Philadelphia Phillies: Jonathan Papelbon

Again, I waxed poetic about the power of Papelbon two weeks ago, and precious little has changed since then. Jon was very consistent (for the most part) in his time with Boston, and little changed in a move to Philly. He threw 70 high-quality innings, striking out a beastly 32.4% of batters faced and racking up just a 2.44 ERA and 1.06 WHIP. While a higher percentage of his fly balls left the park, he's dealt with pitching in hitters' parks before, and this didn't seem to slow him down much in terms of FIP (2.89).

Papelbon already has 257 saves in just seven years closing, which is remarkable. It speaks to his consistency and durability in a position not known for either. Homers and age threaten to bring down this bastion of beatdowns, but I think there's at least another high-end season waiting in the wings for Paps.

Projected Tier: Tier 2 (high reliability, high performance, age could be an issue)

Next in line: Antonio Bastardo

New York Mets: Frank Francisco

Last season, the New York Mets bullpen was pretty ugly. Frank Francisco, who suffered through injuries and ineffectiveness, was pretty ugly too. Frank^2 did score 23 saves in just 48 games, which isn't too shabby, but his ERA of 5.53 and WHIP of 1.61 made things pretty scary. Worst of all, Francisco had surgery in December to remove a bone spur from his pitching elbow, so he may need time to recover from the surgery.

Dan Syzmborski's ZiPS projection system sees Francisco as a reasonable option, posting a 3.78 ERA with a 25.6% strikeout rate, which would be a nice improvement from his 2012. Me, I'm not quite so bullish. Bobby Parnell is probably the better reliever at this point, and he isn't dealing with elbow surgery issues. Much like Ryan Madson in Anaheim, I think that Francisco will get the manager's benefit of the doubt if he starts the season healthy, but by the end of the season the younger arm (in this case Parnell) will own the ninth.

Projected Tier: Tier 4 (low reliability, low-to-medium performance, stiff competition)

Next in line: Bobby Parnell

Miami Marlins: Steve Cishek

Though the Marlins are projected to be one of the worst teams in baseball history next season, they actually are pretty set at the closer position. Steve Cishek inherited the job last season, and acquitted himself fairly well. He only notched 15 saves in his 68 appearances, but he posted a 2.69 ERA and a career-high 24.7% strikeout rate.

Cishek has a career 2.57 ERA and 2.85 FIP, and does two things very, very well. Cishek gets strikeouts at a serious clip (24.3% over his career), and he keeps the ball in the park (0.29 HR/9 over his career). Walks can be an issue -- I know, stop me if you've heard this before about a closer -- but if his walk rate is closer to his 2011 performance than his 2012 performance, he'll be a very solid option in the ninth.

He, along with Giancarlo Stanton, might be the only solid pieces on this Marlins team.

Projected Tier: Tier 3 (moderate performance, little competition, awful team)

Next in line: Ryan Webb (?)

As always, check out @CloserNews on Twitter for up-to-the-minute closer updates, and find me at @bgrosnick for everything baseball. Shutdown Corner will return next week with a look at the AL East.

All data from FanGraphs.



Fantasy Stars: Bottom of the First (Round)

Last week, on Fantasy Stars, we looked at the players who were getting the most love at MockDraftCentral by Average Draft Position (ADP): Mike Trout, Ryan Braun, Miguel Cabrera, Matt Kemp, Carlos Gonzalez, and Robinson Cano. Fast forward a little and CarGo is off that list (as he should be), replaced by Andrew McCutchen (ADP 5.93) in the 6th spot. We'll take a look at his case, and then the rest of the first round picks. (Even poor Carlos Gonzalez!)

As always, the stats by the name of each player are the Big 5: AVG/HR/R/RBI/SB

Andrew McCutchen OF .327/31/107/96/20

Based on hearsy, chatter, and a climbing ADP, McCutchen seems to be a trendy early pick in fantasy drafts. (I mean, where else would he be?) With power and some speed, he's got the rare combination that 5x5 leaguers love to death. He hit for a killer batting average, he's young (26), and his surface stats keep trending upwards. Can you say superstar?

 Maybe you shouldn't. Yeah, I said it. I'm down on Andrew McCutchen. I'm that guy. You should be too. (Or girl, as the case may be.) I'm not so down that I wouldn't draft him, but I wouldn't draft him in the first round, so I'm way down on him compared to most people. The first reason is this: while he's been trending upward as a player for the last three years--as we should expect from someone his age--the speed has been going the opposite way. This is pretty common--a player focuses more on power and less on speed, even as the body's natural aging curve slows him down. It's fine in real baseball, but you're gonna miss the steals on your fantasy squad. But wait, there's more! Not only is he stealing less, he's getting caught more. As a rookie (in just 433 AB) he was 22/27 in steals. Then he bumped his total to 33/43, but it dropped to just 23/33, and last year just 20/33. I labeled him a bust candidate in steals just a couple days ago, and that still holds. He's getting caught more and running less. He's probably slower, and his team isn't running him as much. I'd bet a lot that his steals go down in 2013, taking some of his value with them.

The steals aren't the only place where I'm skeptical that he'll retain all his gains. Last year he put up a BABIP of .375--way above (and inflating) his career mark of .326. Some of that could have been added by a real increase in talent, but I don't imagine it was much. Two years ago, with a very average .291 BABIP, he was a liability in batting average. I'm not saying don't draft McCutchen--for instance, I think the power increase is real--but sixth overall is a reach, for a guy of diminishing speed and an inflated BABIP.

Here are the next six first rounders:

Albert Pujols 1B                ADP 7.02
Joey Votto 1B                     ADP 8.94
Carlos Gonzalez OF           ADP 10.12
Buster Posey C                ADP 10.20
Clayton Kershaw SP    ADP 12.64 
Prince Fielder 1B          ADP 13.96

So, we've finally made it to some 1B, plus we get the unusual sights of a C and a SP in the first round. Weird!

 Albert Pujols 1B .285/30/85/105/8

How the mighty have fallen! From having to arm-wrestle Hanley Ramirez for first overall every year to just the second player drafted out of his own lineup. Poor Albert. There is good news: without Cabrera, Pujols is back to being the top 1B in baseball. The move to Angel Stadium and the AL in general seem to have hurt Pujols's overall numbers, but if the line above is your bad season, I'd say you're still pretty good. If I get Pujols in the middle of the first round, I'll be ecstatic. Maybe the down turn is due to nothing more than simple ageing, and therefore here to stay, more or less. I'll still take him. At 33 (today, oddly enough--happy birthday!), he seems in line for a pretty graceful ageing curve.

For 2013, I'd be willing to bet that last year's line is closer to the lower-case scenario than the midpoint. Take out his April doldrums and you've got a much better season. One thing you shouldn't get your hopes up about is a big rebound in batting average: the .282 BABIP he put up last year was his fourth consecutive number below .300. I'd say we're looking at the new normal.

Joey Votto 1B .337/14/59/56/5

If last year's injury is behind him, and his power is back to form, Votto will be a great pick in the middle of the first. Those are some big if's, though. Without delving into his precise health status (check him out in Spring Training), it's worth noting that last year's .230 ISO was actually better than the .222 he put up in 2011. And that's counting the total power outage of his few second half games. So, maybe the 37 bombs of 2010 are more like the outlier.

Speaking of outliers, that .404 BABIP certainly is one. The good news is that his career mark is .359, so there seems to be some kind of skill going on there. Expect the BA to go down, but not to go from great to bad, as some players above might be seeing. More like, from great to just really good.  

With all this bad news, why do I still like Votto? For one thing, his 2011 was still pretty darn good, and in these days of lighter offense, they'll do just fine. The remote possibility that a season more like 2010 could be in the cards adds a nice bit of upside to balance out the risk. Just make sure you pay attention to his Spring scouting reports.

Carlos Gonzalez .303/22/89/85/20

CarGo is the same as he was last week, except that he's now being picked ninth overall. Believe it or not, it's a pretty big difference. It's not enough to make me really want to get him in the first--his health keeps his counting stats below the elite level. Sure, he could stay healthy and be truly elite, but he hasn't done it yet. As it is, he's splitting the difference between a great power hitter and a great base stealer and I'd much rather take one of the all-power 1B or OF drafted near him, and then grab a speed demon like Coco Crisp later on. Drop him into the second round, though, and you've got a different story. All the way to the third and you know I'm snatching him right up.

 Buster Posey C .336/24/78/103/1

Is it as weird for you as it is to me to consider a catcher in the first round? Well, I'm not about to toss him out just for the sheer strangeness of it. Winning the MVP and all, he really was great last year. How about next year? Let's examine his BA. Admitting, for a moment, the inherent uncertainty in the category, Posey's BABIP was a great-but-still-reasonable .368. As in, it wouldn't be the most shocking thing in the world if he did something similar again. All the better, his career BABIP is .339, so his odds of helping in the BA department seem pretty high.

His homers look similar, in that he ought to have great power, for a catcher. One potential red flag, however, is that his HR/FB rate spiked pretty high last year--to18.8%. It's tough to know his true talent level, though, since he's played so few seasons and he's young enough that he could still be making improvements as he cruises through his prime.

Examining him next to his competition (Yadier Molina and Joe Mauerfor instance, let alone Miguel Montero, Matt Wieters, A.J. Pierzynski, Carlos Santana, Brian McCann, Mike Napoli, and everyone else) makes him look even better. No one touches his awesomeness. At least, not any catchers.

And that's where the problem lies. How badly do you want a catcher as your team's anchor? Posey is by far the best catcher available, but he's not nearly as productive as a tater mashing 1B or a power-speed OF. What makes Robinson Cano so great is that he does produce like a 1B. Posey doesn't, and, as a catcher, can't. Add the extra injury risk of the position and I have a hard time calling his name in the first round. Of course, if I do that, I'm all but guaranteed a sub-par player behind the plate.

 Clayton Kershaw SP (stats in IP/W/K/ERA/WHIP) 227.2/14/229/2.53/1.02

Kershaw is undoubtedly among the top starters, but as I've written before, I don't think he's far above some of the other elite pitchers--certainly not the way that Cabrera and Cano are above 3B or 2B, or even close to how much better Posey is than his fellow catchers. In fact, I'd call Kershaw the number two starter at best, behind Stephen Strasburg, so I definitely take issue with this pick. If you're taking a starter in the first, make it Strasburg.

That said, Kershaw is a boss. His K/9 ranks with the league leaders (except those named Strasburg, Darvish, and Scherzer) at 9.05--and his career numbers show he's capable of even more. He's been an innings horse since the kid gloves came off (three years in a row of 200+ IP, two in a row over 220 IP). His team should be a winner next year, so he's not at a disadvantage in wins like some aces (cough, cough Felix Hernandez). His K/BB rate is a great (if not elite) 3.63. His fastball even hits 93 mph on the radar gun.

The trouble with Kershaw in the first round is that, while everything in the paragraph above is true, it's true of several pitchers. If you get Kershaw in the first round and a position player in the second, while someone else takes Strasburg or Justin Verlander in the second, who got a better position player to anchor their lineup? How about someone picking in the third that takes Cole Hamels, Jared Weaver, Zack Greinke, CC Sabathia, King Felix, Cliff Lee, R.A. Dickey or...you get my point. 

 Prince Fielder 1B .313/30/83/108/1

Prince's stock is up this year, even after his production went down last year. Why? Ask Adrian Gonzalez and Mark Teixeira. First base is suddenly shallower than it has been in a long time. Given Fielder's age (still just 29), it isn't unreasonable to think that he could get more comfortable with his league and park and increase on last year's numbers. Even if he just holds the line, he's still clearly in the top tier at 1B, with only Pujols and Votto for company. If you can nab him the bottom of the first round of your draft, do it. The next chances to shore up your 1B slot aren't going to be very pretty.

Of course, it's not really position scarcity that makes Fielder a great pick, it's his own excellence. Last year's mild BABIP spike will probably even back out, leaving him with an average closer to his .287 career number than last year's mark, but that won't hurt. Especially if it comes with even a small bump in his homers. More in Fielder's favor is his health: he's played 157 games in every full season of his career--since 2006. Freak injuries can hit everyone, but Prince has a track record that embarrasses players like Votto, Kemp, and Gonzalez. Fielder is the sort of solidly excellent, low-risk player that I usually prefer in the first round. He'll anchor your offense in four categories and leave you free to take a risk in the second.

I'd reorder the whole group of players like this: Trout, Cabrera, Braun, Pujols, Cano, Fielder, Votto, Posey, Gonzalez, McCutchen, Kemp, Kershaw. Depending on their Spring Trainings, Kemp could move way up or Votto way down. In the fog of uncertainty, though, this is how I'd draft. A couple players that I think should be in the first are: Strasburg, Jose Bautista, maybe Adrian Beltre, and possibly even Curtis Granderson. Tune in next week for the Top of the Second (Round).



Go Bold Or Go Home: Don't Draft Josh Hamilton

Since outfield is traditionally the deepest fantasy position, there are a number of different strategies you can take in your draft in regards to filling your outfield.  Some managers choose to fill their thinner positions early and not draft any outfielders whatsoever until after the 10th round; others take advantage of managers who use the first tactic and load up on the elite outfielders early; yet others take one elite guy in the first round or two as their 'cornerstone' outfielder and then wait until later, confident that they have at least one top outfielder already in the fold.

If you're employing either of these last two strategies, then my message is especially important --- stay away from Josh Hamilton.  If you're counting on him as a cornerstone that allows you to take risks and experiments with your other OF spots, it will backfire since Hamilton himself is a big risk.  If you're going to take Hamilton as one of several elite OFs early, it's a waste of an early draft pick. 

Why am I so down on Hamilton?  After all, on paper he's the third-best outfielder available in fantasy, after Ryan Braun and Mike Trout and at least tied with Matt Kemp and Andrew McCutchen.  Hamilton is moving into a loaded Angels lineup that includes Trout, Albert Pujols, Mark Trumbo and Howie Kendrick, so he'll have every opportunity to see good pitches and drive in runs.

All that said, if Hamilton comes in your draft queue early, I suggest you take a pass.  And, if you have Hamilton in a keeper league I'd suggest selling high on him right now.  I'm not saying Hamilton will completely nosedive a la Adam Dunn in 2011, but there is evidence to suggest that Hamilton's downhill slide could come sooner rather than later...

* Age.  Hamilton turns 32 in May and you don't need me to tell you how common it is for players (even elite talents) to fall off a cliff as they get deeper into their 30's.  The argument has been made that Hamilton is a "young 31" given how his career started late due to his substance abuse issues, and Hamilton is coming off a season in which he had 636 PAs and appeared in 148 games.  During the previous three seasons, however, Hamilton spent significant time on the DL.  Every passing year leads to a bit less confidence that a player can keep up his performance, and I simply think that an early fantasy pick would be better used on a player already in his prime or just entering it, rather than a player whose prime is, theoretically, already over.

* Off-the-field concerns.  It's the elephant in the room when it comes to Hamilton and it can't be ignored entirely, though I hesitate to bring it up since a man's life shouldn't be fodder for a fantasy column.  Hamilton unquestionably has baggage but it isn't damning baggage --- it's not like Miguel Cabrera is seen as any less valuable due to his battles with alcohol or (to cite a different kind of drug) it's not like Braun is any less of a frontline fantasy pick due to his connection to PEDs.  We saw last season how Hamilton's difficulties with a comparatively low-level addiction can impact his play, as his slump through June and July (a .202/.288/.399 line over 47 games) was largely attributed to Hamilton trying to quit chewing tobacco during that same period.

* Swings and misses.  Hamilton struck out in 25.5% of his at-bats last season, a heavy increase over his previous career high of a 21.6% K-rate in 2009.  This spike was due to Hamilton becoming increasingly susceptible to pitches thrown outside the strike zone, particularly sliders and curveballs.  As noted by Pedro Moura in that first linked article, what makes Hamilton's strikeout rate so problematic is that he doesn't take enough walks to compensate.  If he can't walk and is prone to striking out, Hamilton becomes over-reliant on his power, which brings us to....

* Park effects.  Like most batters, Hamilton loves Rangers Ballpark, boasting a massive .965 OPS over 1439 career PAs in Arlington.  He'll lose that homefield advantage in 2013, however, as he moves from one of baseball's most homer-friendly parks to one of its least-accommodating for sluggers.  (Hamilton has a .765 career OPS over 166 PAs at Angel Stadium, but that's far too small a sample size to use as a predictor of what Hamilton will hit next year.)  We just need to look at Pujols last year to see how it can take even the best of hitters time to adjust to The Big A, though in fairness, Pujols recovered pretty nicely over the last four months of the season and Hamilton has much more experience hitting in Anaheim than Pujols did.  I'd be stunned, however, to see Hamilton post another 43-homer season in that stadium; he may be hard-pressed to even crack the 30-homer plateau as many of Hamilton's big fly balls will turn into long outs in the Pacific air.

The Halos looked at Hamilton and saw red flags --- literally, as in pennants flying in the outfield at Angel Stadium.  I look at Hamilton and see red flags in the colloquial sense, and I wouldn't spent $12.50 on him in a fantasy auction, let alone $125MM in real-world money.  There are just simply safer, more predictable and very likely better choices out there for your fantasy outfield.  While Hamilton may post a month or two that makes you regret passing on him, his final 2013 numbers will make you happy you didn't spend a first- or second-round draft choice on what I think will be an increasingly flawed player.



Draft Round Battles: Yadier Molina Vs. Joe Mauer

As they say in boxing, the game plan goes out the window as soon as you're punched in the face.  The same is true, albeit in a less physically painful way, when it comes to fantasy drafting.  You can make up spreadsheets, plan for every scenario and have Nate Silver and Bill James on speed-dial, and yet even the most prepared fantasy managers tend to panic once the dreaded 'run' on a position gets underway.

You all know the feeling.  After someone takes one of the top players at a thin position, the next manager up may select the next-best option at said position and suddenly uh oh, the pickings are even slimmer.  That can begin a frenzied rush and before you know it, you've spent on a sixth-round pick on a catcher who was probably better-suited to the 16th round.  Nothing will ever top the fiasco in one of the my earliest fantasy drafts, around the year 2000 or so, when the run on catchers started in the FIRST ROUND, leading to the spectacle of Todd Hundley and Darrin Fletcher being selected with the 11th and 12th overall picks.  (Needless to say, the guys who took Hundley and Fletcher didn't win the league.)

I use catcher as my example since it's by far the position most susceptible to "runs" (honorable mention goes to closers and the non-first base infield positions) due to the relatively consistent lack of depth and the fact that some leagues require two starting catchers, which even further thins the pool of candidates.  And so, in this first edition of Draft Round Battles, I'll hesitate to put an actual round number on when this particular choice might take place since the run on catchers could very well begin soon after that first manager snaps up Buster Posey.  In general, however, I'd say that Posey will go very early and then you can probably wait until the fifth or even the sixth round to dive into the catcher pool.

Posey, needless to say, is the clear No. 1 catcher in 2013 fantasy drafts, but things get fun once the NL MVP is off the board.  Yadier Molina and Joe Mauer were the next best catchers in 2012 and I'd expect them to retain those positions in 2013 (with a tip of the cap to Carlos Santana, Miguel Montero and Matt Wieters).  You'll be breathing easy at catcher no matter which of Molina or Mauer you take, but forget that "six of one, half-dozen of the other" equivocating, you want to know which is better.

This would've been a hard debate to believe two years ago, when Mauer was putting up MVP numbers and Molina was known for a superb arm and game-calling abilities but an average bat.  Over the last two seasons, however, Molina has posted a .310/.362/.484 line with 36 homers in 1081 PAs, while Mauer has produced a slightly lesser .308/.397/.419 line and only 13 long balls in 974 PAs.  Mauer did miss about half the 2011 season due to injury but even still, it's stunning that Molina is now producing as much value with his bat as he is with his league-best glove.

While most point to Target Field as the reason for Mauer's power "outage," his home/away power numbers are quite similar since the Twins moved to Target before the 2010 campaign.  It's far more likely that Mauer's 28-homer outburst in 2009 was the real outlier, given that he hasn't hit more than 13 bombs in any other season, and has only reached double digits in home runs three times in nine seasons.  What Mauer is now is likely what he'll be for the remainder of his prime, a consistent threat to post .400+ OBPs and batting averages in the .300-.325 range.  If you have a catcher who can do that, then a lack of power is not a big deal.

So Mauer brings consistency to the table and he's also predictable in the sense that he was supposed to do this; he's a former #1 overall pick, of course.  As long as Mauer stays healthy, you know what you'll be getting from Kevin Butler's nemesis.  When it comes to making a high pick at catcher, that predictability is welcome, since when you have a high-drafted catcher struggle, then you have to dive into the muck that is the catcher waiver wire.

With Molina, then, the question is why did he suddenly learn how to hit over the last two years and can he keep it up? If he can, then he's an overall better fantasy choice than Mr. Well Played.  Molina's 2011-12 peripheral numbers are very similar to his numbers earlier in his career with one simple exception --- he is just hitting more balls in the air and hitting them harder, as evidenced by his career-best 24.8% line drive percentage in 2012 and fly-ball percentages of over 35% in each of the last two seasons.  By that token, if Molina's power suddenly vanishes or just gets muted, his value drops significantly, though there's no evidence to suggest this will happen.  Molina may not hit 22 homers again but I highly doubt he'll suddenly swing back into the single-digits.

I mentioned Mauer's health earlier but it probably deserves more focus.  Mauer, of course, was hampered by "bilateral leg weakness" in 2011 and it seems just a matter of time before the Twins move Mauer out from behind the plate for good, though that's still at least a few more seasons away from happening.  Molina, by contrast, hasn't been on the disabled list since 2007 and has been solidly durable despite not having the luxury of a DH rest day in the National League.

All things being equal, however, and if both men stay on the field for all of 2013, I'd slightly favor Molina as the pick in a standard 5x5 league and Mauer if your league has a 6x6 or 7x7 format that includes OBP.  Going by the standard 5x5 statistics, Molina has a clear edge in homers, Mauer the clear edge in runs scored and both are even in steals.  Mauer has traditionally held the edge in batting average in his career, though over the last two seasons Molina has drawn to within a few percentage points, so that category is basically a wash too.  So it comes down to RBIs, and while Mauer has traditionally driven in more runs than Molina, you wonder if this will change in 2013 given that the Cardinals' lineup is as strong as ever and the Twins are already without Denard Span and perhaps could be without Justin Morneau and/or Josh Willingham before the trade deadline.  This lackluster Minnesota lineup, however, could also add to Mauer's value if your league counts walks or OBP.  Mauer collected a career-best 90 free passes last season and now opposing pitchers may have even less reason to pitch to him if Willingham or Morneau leave town. 

Mauer's edge in walks is so large over Molina (though a .373 OBP is still terrific) that the Twins backstop becomes the pick if you're in a 6x6 or 7x7 league.  It's just a good general rule of fantasy that you draft according to your league setup --- you're trying to win YOUR league, not just draft in a vacuum and win a theoretical game of "who is the better player."  To wit, I'm in a league that tracks pitcher complete games, which is why Roy Halladay has been the easy choice as the first pitcher taken for the last several years, including one season when Halladay actually went first overall in the entire draft.  So, our first draft battle really has two results depending on the parameters of the battlefield, but if you play by old-school fantasy rules, Molina's newfound power gives him the edge.



Offseason Injuries: To Stash Or Not To Stash?

There is no bigger wildcard throughout a season than injuries. A bad hamstring or a sore elbow can sink an entire fantasy season almost instantly, so there's always a lot of finger-crossing going on. At the same time, fantasy owners always try to take advantage of their DL spots early in the season by drafting an injured player and stashing him until he's healthy. Carlos Quentin, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Mike Morse, Salvador Perez, Brett Anderson, and Drew Storen were among the most popular "draft-and-stashes" a year ago. Some worked better than others, obviously.

Spring Training will surely bring a wave of injuries that carry over into the season, but there are already plenty of players who we know will miss the start of 2013. Some are worth grabbing late in the draft and hiding on the DL for a few weeks while others are just a waste of time. It's the same story every year. Here are a few players who will miss the start of next season and could prove useful in the second half.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Daniel Hudson
Hudson, 25, battled elbow trouble last April and May and it eventually blew out in late-June. He had Tommy John surgery and is expected to return sometime after the All-Star break. Hudson became incredibly homer prone last summer (1.79 HR/9), which can be atrributed both to the injury and simple regression -- only 6.4% of his fly balls left the yard in 2011, which is very low for a fly ball pitcher (career 39.1% grounders) who makes half his starts in Chase Field. In 2012 that jumped up to 16.7%, which is a bit high but more in line with expectations. His strikeout (7.35 K/9) and walk (2.38 BB/9) rates barely changed, however. When he returns with a healthy elbow, Hudson is someone worth carrying because he'll keep his ERA down and chip in some strikeouts. I'd go ahead and stash him if he's sitting there in a late round.

Atlanta Braves: Brandon Beachy
Like Hudson, the 26-year-old Beachy blew out his elbow in June and required Tommy John surgery. Unlike Hudson, Beachy was absolutely dominant before getting hurt: 2.00 ERA with 7.6 K/9 and 3.2 BB/9 in 81 innings. The Braves have plenty of starting pitching depth but they'll surely clear a spot when their young right-hander is healthy and ready to rejoin the rotation. Beachy is definitely someone worth stashing on the DL in the first half, no doubt about it.

Kansas City Royals: Danny Duffy
Duffy, 24, had Tommy John surgery in late-May and is expected to return a few weeks before Hudson and Beachy. He showed big strikeout ability (9.1 K/9) in six starts before getting hurt, which is on par with his minor league performance. Assuming the uncharacteristic walk problems (5.9 BB/9) stemmed from the elbow injury, Duffy is an intriguing young starter with whiff potential for next season. I don't believe there's enough track record here to warrant a DL stash in typical 12-team mixed leagues, however.

New York Yankees: Alex Rodriguez & Michael Pineda
It has been five years since A-Rod made it through a full season without visiting the DL, and that streak will reach six years following his left hip surgery later this week. He's expected to be out until the All-Star break, though Dr. Bryan Kelly recently acknowledged it could be even longer. They won't know the extent of the cartilage damage until they actually cut him open. A-Rod, 37, is no longer the best fantasy producer in the game, but he's not useless either. He hit 18 homers in 122 games last season and has consistently produced a batting average in the .270s over the last three seasons, plus the lineup around him ensures plenty of RBI opportunities. I'm on the fence about this one, I can see the argument to both stash and not stash New York's third baseman.

Pineda, 23, has yet to throw a pitch for the Yankees after being acquired from the Mariners one year and one day ago. He had shoulder surgery in May and is expected back in June, but the club has admitted they will play things very carefully. Pineda wasn't far off from a fantasy ace in 2011 -- 3.74 ERA with a 9.1 K/9 and 1.09 WHIP -- but labrums are not UCLs. If he had Tommy John surgery instead of shoulder surgery, he'd be a slam-dunk draft-and-stash. Because his trademark velocity may never return, the uncertainty is much greater. Factor in the tough division and hitter friendly park, and Pineda is someone who is more worth a midseason waiver pickup than a draft slot. I'm watching this one play out from afar.

San Diego Padres: Cory Luebke
The 27-year-old Luebke starred after moving into San Diego's rotation in late-June 2011, pitching to a 3.31 ERA with 9.9 K/9 in 17 starts to close out the season. Expectations were fairly high coming into last year, but he instead lasted just five starts (2.61 ERA) before undergoing reconstructive elbow surgery. He's due to return in late-May/early-June and will be expected to get back on the path he appeared to be carving 12 months ago. Luebke misses bats, has a history of limiting walks, and pitches half his games in a super-friendly ballpark (even with the walls coming in at Petco Park). He's definitely someone I'm looking to stash for a few weeks, no doubt about it. He and Beachy are the gold standard.

Texas Rangers: Joakim Soria, Colby Lewis & Neftali Feliz
The Rangers have three pitchers due to return from elbow surgery at midseason, with the 28-year-old Soria likely to join the bullpen before Lewis and Feliz rejoin the rotation. The presence of Joe Nathan means Soria is unlikely to see save chances, but he would be a prime holds candidate as Mike Adams' replacement. It's worth noting that he's coming off his second Tommy John surgery, which is much more risky and unpredictable than the first. I wouldn't expect the Royals version of Soria, at least not right away.

Lewis, 33, is more of a solid fantasy option than a standout, but he is guaranteed a spot in the Texas rotation when healthy. Feliz, 24, could wind up back in the bullpen depending on how Soria and Lewis recover. GM Jon Daniels has already hinted that a return to relieving could be in the cards, if not likely at this point. With Nathan entrenched in the ninth inning, Feliz's fantasy value would take a hit with a move back into the bullpen. I don't think I would stash any of these three Rangers, but I'd prefer Lewis over the other two given his role and playing time certainty.



How to Win: Stolen Bases

Each week on How to Win, we'll be taking an in-depth look at a single category from the standard 5x5 league format. We'll feature draft and season strategies, league leaders, category sleepers, potential busts, and much more. This week, we center on stolen bases. Last year I drafted Jacoby Ellsbury in the first round, because I was sure getting that one great thief would be enough to win. It...um...wasn't.

Quick Overview
When many of us started playing fantasy, it was in the middle of a power heyday, stolen bases and the thieves who stole them were a rare and hot commodity. Things have changed, though, and the best advice I can give is not to go too crazy over steals for one simple reason: bad players can steal bases. Fringe major leaguers can give a lot of value in this category, which means that even fantasy leagues that snap up anyone with even a little power frequently have some emergency base-stealers waiting on the waiver wire.

2012's top 24
1. Mike Trout OF                     49
2. Rajai Davis OF                    46
3. Everth Cabrera SS               44
4. Michael Bourn OF              42
5. Ben Revere OF                     40
5. Jose Reyes SS                       40
6. Coco Crisp OF                      39
6. Shane Victorino OF           39
9. Juan Pierre OF                    37
9. Carlos Gomez OF                37 
11. Alcides Escobar SS           35
12. Jose Altuve 2B                   33
13. Dee Gordon SS                   32 
14. Jason Kipnis 2B                 31
14. B.J. Upton OF                     31
14. Desmond Jennings OF    31
17. Ryan Braun OF                 30
17. Norichika Aoki OF          30
17. Jimmy Rollins SS             30
17. Drew Stubbs OF               30
17. Jarrod Dyson OF             30
17. Emilio Bonifacio OF       30
23. Angel Pagan OF              29
23. Ichiro Suzuki OF             29
24. Jordan Schafer OF         27

Worth noting: Carlos Gonzalez and Andrew McCutchen  are counted as 5-category stars, but missed the cut with 20 steals each. Justin Upton slumped to just 18, while the injured Jacoby Ellsbury managed just 14 and Matt Kemp stole just 9.

When I first made this list, it went all the way down to players with just 21 steals. Then I realized I had limited my player pool to all those qualified for the batting title. Big mistake. It's important to remember that some of the most productive base stealers might be part timers like Davis and Pierre, or otherwise low-impact hitters like Cabrera and Schafer. In a way, this makes those few players who produce at the plate and on the basepaths more valuable (but we all knew that) and less valuable--because those steals really can be replaced.

Just to add a little historical context, here are the last three years' top thieves. Not a lot of power at the top of that list....

2010-2012's top 12
1. Michael Bourn OF        155 
2. Juan Pierre OF              132
3. Rajai Davis OF             130
4. Coco Crisp OF               120
5. Ichiro Suzuki OF          111
6. Jose Reyes SS                109
6. B.J. Upton OF               109
8. Drew Stubbs OF           100
9. Angel Pagan OF            98
9. Brett Gardner OF      98
11. Shane Victorino           92
12. Elvis Andrus SS        90 

Good Players Who Also Steal
Getting a steals-only burner isn't the only way to rack up points in this category. Here are some players who won't show up on the lists above but add steals anyway: Paul Goldschmidt (18), Chase Headley (17), Yoenis Cespedes (16), Adam Jones (16), Eric Hosmer (16), David Wright (15), Aaron Hill (14), Edwin Encarnacion (13), Brett Lawrie (13), Kyle Seager (13), Yadier Molina (12), Austin Jackson (12), Chase Utley (11), Josh Reddick (11), Curtis Granderson (10). None of these guys really count as "power-speed threats," but all would we worth drafting even if their steals totaled zero. Instead, they just help you out.

Plus Ones
So many speedy players are only speedy players, that a player who's a threat to steal a base and do even one other thing has a lot of extra value. Here are some quality thieves you can count on reasonably hope for a good average (if not much else) from: Revere, Pierre, Altuve, Aoki, Ichiro, Alejandro De Aza, Jon Jay, Martin Prado, Denard Span.

If batting average isn't your thing, maybe you'll like these guys, who score a few runs to go with their steals (and, again, not much else): Andrus, Dustin Ackley, Victorino, Gomez, Escobar, Crisp, Cameron Maybin, Will Venable. Add anyone who starts leading off to this list too, whatever they did last year.  

Cheap Steals
Here are some players you shouldn't have to reach too far to get, but they'll add those steals nonetheless. All have an ADP of 100 or more and stole at least 20 bases last year -- and should again. De Aza, Aoki, Revere, Victorino, Crisp, Maybin, Pierre, Aybar, Michael Saunders, Stubbs, Cabrera. All these guys could provide useful value, but my favorite has to be Cabrera, with his 44 steals and his 239.30 ADP. If all the shortstops who can actually hit are gone, Cabrera makes a great alternative to guys like Andrus and Gordon.

Potential Busts
The easiest way for a base stealer to bust is to get pulled from the lineup or sent down to the minors. The next easiest, though, is to get caught a few too many times and convince their team take the green light off. Here are some guys we expect to get steals out of...but that maybe their manager should shut down: Starlin Castro, McCutchen, Wright, Andrus, Jackson, Ian Kinsler, and Justin Upton. Castro and McCutchen worry me especially, because they're getting caught a ton on the bases and they're both getting drafted very early. Someone taking McCutchen in the first round won't be thrilled if he turns into a four-category player next year. 

A Few Last Words
There are a lot of ways to win in stolen bases, but I think the best thing to do is to mix and match the strategies available. If you can get a power-speed guy in the first couple rounds, go for it. Drafting several good players who happen to steal bases can pad your totals without forcing you to use early picks on high-quantity base stealers. Nabbing a couple plus-ones toward the end of the draft is a great way to fill out your MI slot or your fourth or fifth OF. The most important thing you can do, though, is keep an eye on the waiver wire, because you can find a lot more steals there than homers. 



Shutdown Corner: AL West Closer Roundup

For the next six weeks, Shutdown Corner will be reviewing the closer situations for each division in baseball, one by one. I'll give you a brief breakdown of who the likely stopper is for each team, a little bit of statistical info, a projected tier to consider when drafting your stopper, and a name or two of who might be in line to pick up saves should the projected fireman falter.

And for what it's worth, here's the tier system I'll be using, pre-season:

  • Tier 1: World-class reliever, capable of putting up a season for the ages.
  • Tier 2: Very good closer, both stable and effective.
  • Tier 3: Average closer, may be lacking either stability or effectiveness.
  • Tier 4: Poor closer, either completely ineffective but stable, or very unstable.

Texas Rangers: Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan revitalized his career with a powerful 2012 performance in Texas, during which he saved 37 games and re-established himself as a top-tier closer. Nathan's command seems to have come back following a 2010 out of baseball and a weak 2011, and the veteran struck out 30.4% while only walking 5.1%, which is actually a career low. He is entering his age-38 season, which means that his skills could fall off in a hurry if his arm goes, but recent performance says that he could still be solid.

The Rangers did go out and sign another once-mighty closer coming off injury: Joakim Soria. Soria won't be back until May, at the earliest, and will look to recover his command after Tommy John surgery. If Soria's very sharp AND the Rangers are out of contention (not too likely), then the Rangers may look to move Nathan at the trade deadline. But I expect Joe to be a powerful weapon at the end of the Rangers' 'pen for the entire season, and a nice pickup for any fantasy squad.

Projected Tier: Tier 2 (high effectiveness, minor concerns about age, park and competition)

Next in line: Joakim Soria

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: Ryan Madson

Before the 2011-2012 offseason, things were looking pretty good for Ryan Madson. Coming off a very effective 2011 as closer for the Phillies, in which he saved 32 games, posted a 2.37 ERA, and proved that performance was no fluke with an underlying 2.25 FIP. But as the offseason wore on, Madson wound up with one a one-year contract with the Reds, for what was perceived to be much less than his market value. Then, before appearing in a single regular-season game, Madson blew out his UCL and missed the whole season with Tommy John surgery.

Madson may be ready to return at the beginning of the 2013 season, but he also may not. But when he's ready, I expect him to get the first look at closing for the Halos. While Ernesto Frieri, last year's closer, is still on the roster and lurking, I expect Mike Scioscia to give Madson first crack at the ninth, given his past resume. Frieri struck out a host of hitters in 2012, posting a sick 36.4% strikeout rate, but he gave up too many homers (nine) to make the Angels very comfortable.

Unfortunately, pitchers like Madson who return from Tommy John surgery tend to struggle in their first season back. Command, especially, can be tough to recover in the first season, so I'd expect that Madson won't pitch anything like his 2011 self right away. Given this -- and the fact that the fireballing Frieri is waiting in the wings -- you'd either want to handcuff Frieri to any draft of Madson, or avoid him altogether, in my book.

Projected Tier: Tier 4 (coming off major surgery, stiff competition from Ernesto Frieri)

Next in line: Ernesto Frieri

Oakland Athletics: Grant Balfour

Boy, oh boy, did Ryan Cook look good in his 71 games in 2012. But when 2013 starts up, it's most likely that Grant Balfour will be back as the first option to close in the Oakland bullpen. Balfour, a veteran strikeout artist, has been pretty consistent since his 2008 return to a full-time bullpen role with the Rays. Balfour has a career strikeout rate of 26.4%, a critical skill for a high-leverage reliever.

And yet, I really don't expect Grant to finish the season as A's closer. If the Athletics repeat their 2012 winning ways, the team might hold on to him and keep their 'pen strength high going into the playoffs. But, more likely, I see the team dealing Balfour before his contract expires at the end of season, with young fireballer Ryan Cook assuming the ninth inning duties. If you draft Balfour, have Cook on standby, in case of a slump or deal.

Projected Tier: Tier 3 (moderate-to-high effectiveness, moderate likelihood of eventual trade)

Next in line: Ryan Cook

Seattle Mariners: Tom Wilhelmsen

One of the best bullpen stories in 2012 was the emergence of Mariners closer Tom Wilhelmsen. Despite being out of baseball entirely between 2005 and 2009, Wilhelmsen climbed through the Mariners organization to become the team's closer in 2012. He posted 29 saves despite not even earning the full-time closer position until early June. He even got in on a six-pitcher no-hitter, putting a nice bow on his narrative.

The Bartender serves up a nasty fastball-curveball combination, and it helps him get the strikeouts that are so critical to a closer's success. In 2012, Wilhelmsen logged a 26.7% K-rate, buoyed by a decent 8.9% BB-rate, which isn't half bad. Best of all, Wilhelmsen is cost-effective and isn't really challenged by any other arms in the Seattle bullpen -- meaning that he's likely to keep his closer status all season long.

While some draftniks may be put off by Wilhelmsen's late-career rise to stopper status, I'm not one of those people. I expect him to be very solid in 2013.

Projected Tier: Tier 2 (high stability, high-to-moderate effectiveness)

Next in line: Carter Capps (?)

Houston Astros: Jose Veras

There's not much in the way of proven late-inning relievers these days in Houston, which isn't a great sign. Sure, the bullpen is probably the last concern of a rebuilding club, but the Astros' impending move to the AL West means tougher competition, and shorter outings for their admittedly weak rotation. The Astros will lean on their young bullpen, and especially new recruit Jose Veras, who's in line to close.

Veras has been pretty good these past two seasons, spending 2011 with the Pirates and 2012 with the Brewers. In each season, Veras's performance was pretty similar: huge strikeout numbers (25.9% and 26.3% strikeout rates), terrible walk rates (11.2% and 13.3%) that led to pretty decent ERA totals (3.80 and 3.63). 2013 will be Veras's age-32 season, so while it's unlikely we'll see big-time improvement, there are no outstanding indicators that his performance will tank either.

But if Veras is as good as he could be, he'll have a "proven closer" tag to him, and that will make him an attractive trade target by the deadline. The Astros aren't a competitive team yet, and they'll look to move him for value, the same way they have with Mark Melancon, Brett Myers, and Wilton Lopez in the past. Don't expect him to finish his season in Houston.

Projected Tier: Tier 3 (high strikeout totals, high initial stability, high likelihood of eventual trade)

Next in line: Josh Fields (?)

All stats from FanGraphs.



Sleepers & Busts: Former Twins Center Fielders

Welcome back to another year of Fantasy Baseball here at RotoAuthority everyone. Over the next couple of months, I'll be taking a weekly look at players whose average draft position (ADP) in mock drafts either isn't doing them justice, or merits that fantasy managers pump the brakes and taper their enthusiasm.

Being a "sleeper" doesn't necessarily mean that someone is a hidden first-round talent, nor does being labeled a "bust" mean that player won't be a perfectly useful, ownable player for the duration of the season. Rather, it means there's a large discrepancy between that player's current perceived value (ADP) and where his actual talent level lies.

That said, here's a look at a trio of former Twins center fielders whose ADPs don't really line up with their abilities...

Torii Hunter, DET, ADP 101

In terms of WAR, Hunter enjoyed his best season ever in 2012. Obviously that's not a fantasy stat, but it adds to the allure of his perceived value, as does his career-best .313 batting average. Hunter scored more runs than he has since 2008 and posted his highest RBI total since 2007 despite appearing in just 140 games. His triple-slash line of .313/.365/.451 looks appealing, as do his 16 home runs and nine stolen bases in a slightly shortened season.

Three numbers that don't look as appealing? .389, 6.5% and 22.8%. Those are Hunter's batting average on balls in play, walk rate and strikeout rate.

Hunter's BABIP is the seventh-highest mark any qualified hitter has posted since 2007. Of the five pre-2012 cases, hitters averaged a 42-point drop in their batting average the following season. The discrepancy between those players' BABIP-inflated batting averages and their career batting averages marks is, on average, 34 points (yikes, that was too many "averages" for one sentence).

Combined with his worst walk rate since 2002 and the worst whiff rate of his lengthy Major League career, it seems almost impossible for Hunter to repeat his average.

Finally, take a look at Hunter's home run chart over at Hit Tracker, and add the Comerica Park overlay. As you can see, his power to center and right-center will be tested by his new home park.

Hunter is a good hitter and should be drafted in most formats come Draft Day, but he's currently going ahead of several outfielders I'd prefer to him, including Carlos Beltran, Nelson Cruz, Mike Morse and Nick Swisher. Final Ruling: Bust

Ben Revere, PHI, ADP 125

Revere is a true speed demon, having swiped 74 bags in 254 career games. He was 40-for-49 (81.6%) in 124 games last season, which translates to 52 steals over the course of a 162-game season. Last year, he ran more often than in 2011 and upped his success rate as well.

Revere now moves to Philadelphia thanks to an offseason trade, and if he continues to improve his base-stealing skills, it's not inconceivable to think he could steal 55-60 bags if he stays healthy.

Revere should be useful in terms of batting average as well, given his blazing speed. Revere can bunt for hits at a high rate (36.4% success), and he finished second in the Majors with 32 infield hits despite having 35 fewer plate appearances than leader Norichika Aoki.

That's about the extent of Revere's fantasy value, however. If he ends up batting near the top of the lineup he should score a respectable amount of runs, but his lack of plate discipline (5.4% career walk rate) limits his OBP and run-scoring potential.

Revere may have the least power of any regular player in baseball, so another goose egg in the home run department is certainly possible (though he could sneak one over the fence at Citizen's Bank Park). That lack of power obviously limits his RBI potential as well.

Revere is a preferable option to fellow speedster Michael Bourn (ADP 61), but he's going ahead of burners like Shane Victorino, Carl Crawford, Cameron Maybin, Juan Pierre and Brett Gardner -- each of whom could steal 40+ bags with better supporting numbers at a cheaper price. Final Ruling: Bust.

Denard Span, WAS, ADP 233

"Span I Am," as a friend of mine affectionately coined him, was traded to the Nationals this winter and will take an average walk rate and above-average speed to the top of a lineup that features Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche, Ian Desmond and Jayson Werth behind him.

Health has been an issue for Span, but he proved in 2012 that he's over the concussion he suffered in 2011, which was the biggest threat among his previous injuries. His career .357 OBP is a bit misleading, as he no longer walks at the inflated rate he did in his first two seasons. However he's been right around league average for he past three years, and should be able to manage something in the .345 range.

Over the past three seasons he's gone 49-for-60 (81.6%) in stolen base attempts. A full season in the National League should see Span's total rise to the 25-30 range. That will pair nicely with an average in the .280-.290 range, and the host of strong hitters behind him could lead to 100+ runs.

Span doesn't pack much punch, having belted just nine homers since 2010, but he also has been playing his games in one of baseball's most vicious parks on left-handed power. Looking at Park Factors by handedness, you can see that Span will move from a brutal spot for left-handed power to a neutral lefty power park. That could mean 6-10 home runs, as he showed in his first two seasons when he played at the Metrodome rather than Target Field.

Span is being drafted in the 20th round of 12-team leagues, after the likes of Drew Stubbs, Michael Brantley, Carlos Gomez, Dayan Viciedo, Adam Eaton and Wil Myers. Final Ruling: Sleeper.




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