January 2013

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Fantasy Stars: Top of the First (Round)

Each week in Fantasy Stars we'll be looking at a different segment of the fantasy baseball population. Instead of giving you our analysis of who you should draft with the week's range of picks--don't worry, we'll be talking about that all over the place--we'll look at who is being drafted there. Know your competition, I say, and the competition is all those people so excited for fantasy baseball that they've already drafted at MockDraftCentral.com.

I was a little surprised to see that a pretty robust 61 mock drafts have already happened since the calendar turned to 2013, so the sample size isn't as small as I had worried about. It's still small, though, and where players are being drafted at the end of Spring Training will have shifted plenty. That's why we're starting at the top, even at the risk of talking way too much about Mike Trout.

Top Players 1-6 by ADP

Miguel Cabrera 3B             ADP 1.36
Ryan Braun OF                  ADP 2.90
Mike Trout OF                       ADP 3.87
Carlos Gonzalez OF        ADP 4.69
Robinson Cano 2B           ADP 5.11
Matt Kemp OF                   ADP 5.92 

It's pretty clear that these players are the first six picks in the majority of drafts, as the seventh player on the list is Albert Pujols, with an 8.08 ADP. We'll have to wait till next time to look at his tier, though, as he isn't a risk to unseat any of these players...yet.

For me, two things spring right to mind when looking at these players: first, two of them spent a significant portion of 2012 on the DL (Kemp and Gonzalez), and only two play in the infield. As a bonus, somehow none of them are 1B-eligible, something that hasn't happened in recent memory, though you can thank the fact that the Tigers don't care about defense any more than your fantasy team does for Cabrera's presence at 3B.

It looks like the mock drafters are making two main choices when they draft, and you'll be doing the same on draft day if you get one of the top six picks: play it safe or take a risk, get an elite OF or take the best player  by far at a scarce position.

Safe choices:                        Risks:
Miguel Cabrera                   Mike Trout
Ryan Braun                         Carlos Gonzalez 
Robinson Cano                  Matt Kemp

Whether or not the risks are truly risky is tough to be sure of (for instance, I don't think the negative risk of taking Trout is all that high...but that's another article), since last year people were worried about Ryan Braun's potential suspension and nobody was worried that Matt Kemp would get hurt and miss a third of the season. Every pick is a risk, but we never know by exactly how much.

Still, three of fantasy baseball's safest names are definitely Cabrera, Braun, and Cano. At the very least, they are the most traditional choices. But are they the right ones? Are the risks smart ones to make? Let's look at each player individually. (Stats presented: BA/HR/R/RBI/SB)

Miguel Cabrera .330/44/109/139/4

So, Miggy's clearly a four-category beast and a near-zero in steals. We already knew that and the lack of steals is really the only mark against taking him first. I might argue elsewhere that (spoiler alert) Trout is a better pick, but if you're confident in getting steals later on, maybe Cabrera is for you. If you do get him, I suggest tempering your homer expectations, as last year's 44 were a career best by seven.

As great as his power is maybe the best thing about Cabrera is the batting average: he's been incredibly consistent in what's usually a very unpredictable category, with .320 averages or better in seven of his nine full seasons in the Majors. His career BABIP is .331, so that seems to clearly count as a skill. Indeed, his worst averages have still been in the .290's. 

All this would make Cabrera an easy top pick even if he played OF or 1B, but the pool isn't so deep at 3B. (Though it's not as shallow as it could be, with David Wright, Adrian Beltre, and Evan Longoria in the next three spots on the list.) 

Ryan Braun .319/41/108/112/30

Braun is a fantasy machine, with MVP numbers in four categories and All-Star numbers in steals. His average, while not in Cabrera's territory, sits at .313 for his career, so he's much more likely than not to provide a good return again there. The runs and RBI's shouldn't be going anywhere either, though a dip in homers is likely: again like Cabrera, he set a career high and he's usually closer to 30 bombs than 40. Fortunately, that's still good enough to make him one of fantasy and real baseball's best players.

The steals are more interesting, as the 29-year-old seems to have added them to his repertoire just for fun two years ago. After hanging around the 15 mark for most of his career, he jumped up to 33 in 2011 and stayed near that last year. Since he isn't being counted on to steal bases for his team, they could theoretically dry up at any time. The good news is that he's adding runs to the Brewers with an 83% success rate for the past two years, so they don't have any reason to tell him to slow down. My only caution is that things that come quickly seem to go quickly too.

Mike Trout .326/30/129/83/49

If Braun's steals came quickly, Trout's home run power came like lightning. Plenty of people are going to be wondering two things: was Trout's rookie season too good to be true, and is his power for real?

To the first question: he's too good not to be true. Plenty of rookies take the Majors by storm their first year and peter out into nothingness sometime thereafter. None of those rookies were position players as good as Trout. He could regress in a meaningful way and still be one of the top five players in baseball. If he stays exactly the same, he'll still be the best in fantasy, thanks to his power/speed combo.

What about that power? Well, think about it this way: ESPN's Hit Tracker counted just eight of Trouts homers as "just enoughs." If you want, take all those homers away, but give him another three weeks of playing time. Now instead of a 30HR/49 SB player, you're looking at about a 25/60 player. That's probably worth the risk.

Carlos Gonzalez .303/22/89/85/20

Maybe it's just that I can't get the 1990's out of my head, but I'm not too impressed by CarGo. He's good, don't get me wrong. I mean, he's great. But top of the first round? I'm not buying it, for a couple of reasons. The biggest reason is his health. Clearly, he's a great ballplayer and a power/speed cornerstone for a fantasy team. But what about all those days when he's sitting on the DL, or when he's playing at less than full strength? In his three years as a superstar, Gonzalez has yet to play more than 145 games. Last year he made it into 135, in 2011 it was 127. Whatever the reason, Gonzalez misses time, and you have to temper his stats with whoever you get to replace him off the waiver wire, even it's only for a couple weeks. What's more, someone who frequently misses a little time, might be expected to miss larger periods of time.

Health alone isn't the only issue: he's just significantly less good than some of the players around him: he's broken the 30-HR barrier just once and he holds a .298 career average. He's not an elite stealer either, with a career high of 26. He's not bad at all; he's even great. But he doesn't belong at the top of the draft either. I'm guessing other people will notice and we'll see him settling in nearer to the end of the first round or the beginning of the second. If he doesn't, you won't see him on any of my teams.

Robinson Cano .313/33/105/94/3

Cano seems to me to be moving his way up fantasy depth charts by default, as more and more players around him see their games slip. Maybe that's so, or maybe not, either way Cano is a clear cut above anyone else at his position, with Ian Kinsler his only real competition. As one of my "safe" choices, Cano has proved consistency, and that's what lands him in the top of the first, and why he should be drafted far ahead of anyone else at 2B. Ahead of plenty of OF's too.

Like Cabrera, he's a four-category stud who does nothing in steals. Oh well. Since 2009 he's hit at least 25 homers, batted at least .302, and scored at least 100 runs, each year. In the Yankee lineup (even if it isn't quite what it used to be), and in Yankee Stadium, there's plenty of reason to think the runs and RBI's will keep coming. Unlike Trout (and perhaps Gonzalez) he doesn't carry much upside, but he doesn't need to. Even at 30 years old, he's still in his prime and should be treated like an elite 1B. At 2B.

Matt Kemp .303/23/74/69/9

Kemp is another player that I'd rather leave to someone else. Taking a little risk for a lot of reward in the first few picks of a fantasy draft is one thing. Drafting a player who missed a full third of last season, and whose injuries may remain (he had surgery in October that should be fully healed by Opening Day) is not good risk/reward strategy. The reward (a season like his 2011) is immense, but the risk (more of 2012, including the decrease in stolen bases) is too great. Like Gonzalez, the upside here is truly impressive, worth taking. But not worth taking in the first few picks, when the opportunity cost is so high.

At his best, Kemp is one of fantasy baseball's power/speed heroes, but how sure can we be that we'll be getting Kemp's best in 2013? Thanks to what happened last year, less sure than we can for most players. I believe in taking bold risks throughout a fantasy draft, but some risks are better to leave in the hands of your opponents. 

A caveat to all this pessimism is that we still get to watch Spring Training. How will Kemp perform in Florida? If he's all running on all cylinders in the Spring, then maybe this worry is for nothing and you'll be taking advantage of owners who want to play it safe by nabbing him. Great! But if he isn't stealing, taking extra bases, or generally looking fast and athletic, I'd place my money elsewhere.

For the top six picks, I really like four of them. I'd reorder them all like this: Trout, Cabrera, Braun, Cano...Gonzalez and Kemp somewhat farther behind, but probably still in the first round.

Editor's Note: ADP may have changed somewhat since this article's first draft. Not to worry, the analysis still applies and any players who might have skipped ahead won't be missed next time around....



Go Bold or Go Home: Stephen Strasburg is the New Pedro Martinez

Stephen Strasburg is the new Pedro? What do I mean by that? Simply this: back in the day, Pedro was worth a first round pick, sometimes the first pick, and no other pitcher was all that close. I'm talking about Pedro before he threw Don Zimmer to the ground by the head, before he headhunted unsuspecting Devil Rays. I'm talking 1999-2001 Pedro, that's who Strasburg can be. Don't let him slip through your fingers in the first round, and whatever you do, don't waste a pick on some other pitcher instead.

As far as I can guess, there are three possible responses to this idea, and I'll deal with each one in turn.

1. Duh.
Fair enough, you're already on the Strasburg bandwagon. Go win your league. Better yet, finish reading this article just to be more sure.

2. But pitchers NEVER belong in the first round!
Never is such a scary word to throw around, but usually I agree with this idea. Whenever someone in my league nabs a starter in the first round, I always get excited, thinking they've wasted their pick. There are a couple reasons for this to usually be true, but they don't hold water this year.

The biggest reason is that pitchers are risky, moreso than position players and thus should not be given a first round pick. The problem with that this year is that there are an unusually rare amount of risky players on the first-rounder suspect list. Players like Matt Kemp (ADP 4.43) and Joey Votto (8.60) who missed significant portions of last season are there, not to mention garden variety injury risks like Carlos Gonzalez (9.75). On top of that, players like Justin Upton (15.07) and Adrian Gonzalez (32.16) who we counted on last year to provide big impacts failed to do so. Other first rounders that we've grown accustomed to seeing have dropped out of the top slots after injury marred (or ruined) seasons include Jose Bautista (14.11) , Troy Tulowitzki (16.15), and Evan Longoria (32.59). Someone has to take those spots over, but there's a lot more risk in the first round than there is in most years. So maybe taking a pitcher isn't so bad.

Along with the higher risk of some of the best potential first rounders this year, I think it's fair to say that, outside of the top four or five, the actual quality of this year's potential first rounders is lower than usual. A lot of those first round picks are providing the same (or nearly the same) value as players that can be found in the second round. Like Albert Pujols (7.18)? Try Prince Fielder (14.48). Like Carlos Gonzalez (9.75)? Try Adam Jones (25.41). Let's face it--a lot of first round picks are looking a lot like second round picks this year.

 The rule against taking a starter in the first round is a good one. This year just happens to be a great year to break it.

3. Strasburg isn't even the best pitcher in baseball, let alone as much better as Pedro Martinez was ten years ago! Give me Clayton Kershaw or Justin Verlander instead.

In all fairness, yes Strasburg is, for all it matters for your fantasy draft. In all but one respect, Strasburg is significantly better than Kershaw or Verlander than they are better than the others. That is to say, Kershaw and Verlander are great, but not very much greater than these pitchers: Cliff Lee, David Price, Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay, Zack Greinke, Jared Weaver, Felix Hernandez, CC Sabathia and others, in no particular order.

For the time being, I'm prepared to ignore any argument made that Kershaw will win more games in the shiny new Dodgers, or that Verlander will on the Tigers. Washington is a good team, and their offense will be good enough to keep Strasburg in plenty of games. With normal luck, he should be among the league's leaders in wins. Too bad you never know when someone will get normal luck with wins and when he won't. So call that one even, or insufficiently predictable.

The difference is in the strikeouts. Those of you who followed me in last year's Silver League Updates, will know that I love my strikeouts. So I'm admitting that bias. But they're a category, and they're decent at giving us information about two more categories (ERA and WHIP, obviously). We can learn even more when we add walks to the equation. Let's see how Strasburg (ADP 23.77) stacks up with the three pitchers being drafted before him: Kershaw (12.64), Verlander (15.56), and Price (23.59). Just for fun, let's check out the next three pitchers after him too: Lee (30.67), Hernandez (35.10), and Yu Darvish (36.95).

Here they are in K/9:

Strasburg    11.13
Darvish        10.40
Kershaw       9.05
Verlander    9.03
Lee                 8.83
Price              8.74
Hernandez  8.65

 All seven put up great numbers, but only Darvish came within two strikeouts per nine innings of Strasburg's total. And Darvish put up an ugly 4.19 BB/9 rate that didn't exactly help his ERA or WHIP.

Maybe you prefer K%, fair enough. How about this list:

Strasburg       30.2%
Darvish           27.1%
Kershaw         25.4%
Verlander      25.0%
Price                24.5%
Lee                   24.4%
Hernandez    23.8%

If anything, Strasburg looks even better here, blasting the competition out of the water. (In all fairness, Max Scherzer looks pretty good here too, at 29.4%.)

What about K/BB, then? That's the one that gives a really good indication of next year's ERA and (especially) WHIP. (Spoiler alert: Cliff Lee reigns supreme.)

Lee                   7.39
Strasburg      4.10
Verlander     3.98
Hernandez    3.98
Kershaw        3.63
Price               3.47
Darvish          2.48

Two names stand out here as outliers. In fact, Lee's rate is more than 2.5 BB/9 better than the second best pitcher by this measure, none other than Joe Blanton. Yeah, him. (Sleeper? Maybe...) The other outlier, of course, is Darvish. So here's more confirmation not to take him over Strasburg, or anywhere near the other six pitchers on this list, if you were thinking about it. 

That leaves us with five names, and, once again, Strasburg is on top. But maybe he's striking out so many batters that he can walk a few too many and still look good. Maybe a lousy walk rate could take his ERA and WHIP down like Darvish's did.

Or maybe not: his walk rate sat at 2.71 last year. Five of the other six pitchers we compared him too had better rates, but not by a huge amount. Discounting Lee's ridiculous number (1.10!), King Felix was the best, with a 2.17 BB/9 rate. Price, Verlander, and Kershaw all fell in between.

This has been a lot of stats, but it boils down to a pretty simple point: Strasburg's strikeouts are significantly better than his competition for the top pitcher in (fantasy) baseball. It isn't even close. His walk numbers are similar to the competition, and not different enough to give them significant value over him. Other factors, like his team, just aren't as big of a deal.

The only reason I can see to take Verlander or Kershaw or anyone else over Strasburg is their experience, which is really just cover for the fact that we're comfortable taking those guys off the board first. I don't think you'll find very many people willing to say inexperience is going to cause Stephen Strasburg any trouble in the near future. As a rookie, Strasburg wasn't a normal phenom. As fantasy's best pitcher, he isn't any more normal. The difference between him and the next best pitchers is noticeably bigger than the difference between them and all the other ace pitchers.

By the way, looking at last year's data is kind of like assuming that Strasburg has peaked in his age-24 season, and that he doesn't have room to improve for next year. How often do great 24-year-olds not become better 25-year-olds?

Between the higher risk and lower quality in this year's top position players and Strasburg's own dominance over his competition there is a lot of reason to reach for him. Like Pedro Martinez before him, Strasburg is worth a pick in the middle of the first round in a way that no pitcher has been in a long time. Next year, this idea won't make it into an article like Go Bold or Go Home because everyone will agree. Get ahead of the game.



The Next Big Thing: Waiting On Top Prospects

The 2012 season was the year of immediate impact. All across the league we saw rookie players come up and contribute more than expected, and it started right in April with reigning Rookies of the Year Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. It extended far beyond those two, of course. Wade Miley was an All-Star for the Diamondbacks, Rob Brantly hit .290 with a .372 OBP in a month's worth of games for the Marlins, Manny Machado hit two homers in his second game with the Orioles, the division-winning Athletics had an all-rookie rotation at one point, the list goes on and on. Todd Frazier, Yoenis Cespedes, Will Middlebrooks, Anthony Rizzo ... there were impact rookies everywhere.

Fantasy owners are looking for that next big thing every season, and that search figures to be a little more intense in 2012 after the banner rookie class of a year ago. Top prospects are always a great place to start, but some are blocked or simply two far away from the majors to have real fantasy value. Some are the victims of their own success as clubs will keep them in the minors in April and May to ensure an extra year of team control down the line. Here's a look at some of the game's best up-and-coming big leaguers who could be this season's Trout or Harper.

Arizona Diamondbacks: LHP Tyler Skaggs
The D'Backs have a strong rotation fronted by Miley, Ian Kennedy, Trevor Cahill, and Brandon McCarthy, but that fifth spot is up for grabs. Patrick Corbin handled himself well enough last year (4.54 ERA in 107 IP) and Josh Collmenter is lurking, but the 21-year-old Skaggs will get a chance to make the team out of Spring Training as well. He got hit pretty hard in six late-season starts (5.83 ERA and 1.50 WHIP) but that's not the end of the world. His minor league performance is dynamite (2.87 ERA and 8.5 K/9 in 2012) and his curveball is a true out-pitch. The trade that sent Trevor Bauer to the Indians removed one fifth starter candidate from Arizona's equation, but my guess is Corbin will get the first shot with Skaggs waiting in Triple-A for someone to get hurt or underperform.

Baltimore Orioles: RHP Dylan Bundy
The Orioles made a bold move late last season by calling up baseball's best pitching prospect for the stretch run in September even though he was still a teenager at the time. Bundy, who has since turned 20, made two short relief appearances and is slated for more time in the minors in 2013. He has just 103 2/3 total minor league innings under his belt, only 16 2/3 have come above the Single-A level. Baltimore has already shown a willingness to use Bundy in the big leagues, but I highly doubt using him as a starter right out of Spring Training is in the cards. If anything, the young right-hander is a second half call-up.

Houston Astros: 1B Jonathan Singleton
No team is rebuilding quite like the Astros, though they recently signed Carlos Pena to caddy with Brett Wallace at the first base and DH spots. The first base seat is just being kept warm for the 21-year-old Singleton, who hit .284/.396/.497 with 21 homers in Double-A last season. He followed up the season with an impressive showing in the Arizona Fall League. Houston has every reason to play the service time game with Singleton, who they acquired from the Phillies in the Hunter Pence trade two years ago. After a few hundred Triple-A at-bats to start the season, expect to see he young left-handed hitter in the middle of the big league lineup.

New York Mets: RHP Zack Wheeler & C Travis d'Arnaud
Matt Harvey deserved a mention in my quick list of impact rookies in the intro, and he figures to have some running mates in 2013. Like the Astros and Singleton, the Mets have every reason to manipulate Wheeler's and d'Arnaud's service time next season. Wheeler, 22, is arguably the second best pitching prospect in the game but I do not think the team will want to keep him in Triple-A Las Vegas very long. It might the best hitter's environment in professional baseball and could wreck a pitcher's confidence over the full season. Since he needs a challenge after overwhelming the Double-A level this past season (3.27 ERA with 8.5 K/9), expect to see the right-hander in New York's rotation come June.

D'Arnaud, 23, was the centerpiece of the R.A. Dickey trade. He hit a stout .333/.380/.595 with 16 homers in Last Vegas last season (the Mets and Blue Jays swapped Triple-A affiliates this offseason) but did not play after late-June due to a knee injury. After another few hundred at-bats in Triple-A, expect to see d'Arnaud replace John Buck behind the plate at the big league level. He, Wheeler, and Harvey are the team's high-end battery of the future.

Seattle Mariners: RHP Taijuan Walker, LHP James Paxton & LHP Danny Hultzen
Perhaps no club has as many high-end pitching prospects as Seattle, especially if you want to factor in closeness to the majors. Walker, 20, is the best of the bench despite some hiccups at Double-A in 2012 (4.69 ERA). He did skip right over High-A High Desert to avoid the hitter friendly California League, so we'll cut him some slack. There is true ace potential in the young righty, but he's unlikely to see a meaningful amount of big league innings this coming season.

Paxton, 24, is probably first in line of the big three after pitching to a 3.04 ERA (9.3 K/9) at Triple-A last season. He'll get a long look in Spring Training and at the moment, his main competition for a rotation spot is the right-handed trio of Blake Beavan, Erasmo Ramirez, and Hector Noesi. I would expect to see Paxton sooner rather than later in 2013, perhaps even as a member of the Opening Day rotation. Hultzen, 23, has quite a bit of work ahead of him after walking 43 batters in 48 2/3 Triple-A innings last season, including 14 walks in his final 7 1/3 innings of the year. I wouldn't count on him for fantasy purposes next season.

St. Louis Cardinals: OF Oscar Taveras, RHP Shelby Miller & RHP Trevor Rosenthal
The Cardinals have arguably the best farm system in baseball, and they seem to produce productive players at an extraordinary rate. Jaime Garcia got hurt? Here's Joe Kelly (3.53 ERA in 107 IP). Need a versatile bench player? There's Matt Carpenter (.828 OPS while playing five positions). Rafael Furcal blew out his elbow? Don't worry, Pete Kozma will save the day (.952 OPS late in the season). I wouldn't count on Kozma ever doing that again, but the point stands. The Cardinals are an exceptional player development club.

Taveras, 20, is arguably the best pure hitting prospect in the minors. He managed a .321/.380/.572 line in Double-A a year ago and following up with a dominant winter ball showing. He's slated to open the season back in Triple-A and although St. Louis has a superb big league outfield, Taveras figures to make his debut in the second half either as an injury replacement or by simply forcing his way into the lineup a la Allen Craig. Miller and Rosenthal, both 22, made their MLB debuts late last year and pitched well enough to earn at least a real shot at making the team out of camp. Rosenthal in particular dazzled in relief, especially during the postseason (15 strikeouts and four baserunners in 8 2/3 innings). The Cardinals have rotation depth with Garcia, Kelly, Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, and Lance Lynn, but Garcia and Carpenter are injury concerns at this point. I believe Rosenthal will open the year in the bullpen (and be a force) while Miller bides his time as a starter in Triple-A.

Tampa Bay Rays: OF Wil Myers, RHP Jake Odorizzi & RHP Chris Archer
The Rays play the service time game as much as anyone, though they didn't play it well enough with David Price. He qualified for Super Two status by approximately two weeks. Desmond Jennings, Matt Moore, and Jeremy Hellickson all had to wait their turn in recent years. The most notable exception is Evan Longoria, who was recalled a handful of days into the 2008 season only to be given a long-term contract extension (giving the team cost certainty) a few days later.

Myers, 22, was the centerpiece of the James Shields trade and could easily be in line for a Longoria-esque quick promotion and extension, but a return trip to the minors to start the season after striking out 140 times in 2012 seems like a safe bet. Tampa has enough outfield depth with Jennings, Matt Joyce, Ben Zobrist, Brandon Guyer, and Sam Fuld to cover. The 24-year-old Archer and 22-year-old Odorizzi are at the mercy of the team's rotation depth. Even after moving Shields and Wade Davis, they still boast a starting staff that includes Price, Hellickson, Moore, Alex Cobb, Jeff Niemann, and possibly even the recently-signed Roberto Hernandez. Archer made six big league appearances last season (4.60 ERA) and is a) first in line for a promotion, and b) more fantasy useful given his elite strikeout rate (11.0 K/9 in MLB and 9.8 K/9 in the minors).

Texas Rangers: 3B Mike Olt & SS Jurickson Profar
Baseball isn't fair some times. Quality players at shortstop and third base are in short supply these days, yet Texas boasts an elite left side of the infield both at the big league level (Elvis Andrus and Adrian Beltre) and in the upper minors (Profar and Olt). I'm convinced the 24-year-old Olt will be traded before the season (Justin Upton?), especially since Lance Berkman will take most, if not all of the DH at-bats. Depends on where he ends up, Olt could either open the season in the show or back in Triple-A. That's a situation worth monitoring given all of the current injury-prone and unreliable fantasy third base options.

Profar, 19, is baseball's top prospect, and GM Jon Daniels recently told Richard Durrett of ESPN Dallas that he doesn't envision using him as a bench player. "It doesn't necessarily make sense ... I don't see (Olt and Profar) as bench players. It doesn't make sense," said the GM. There had been some rumblings Profar could open the season with the MLB club as a second baseman with Ian Kinsler sliding over to first (or the outfield). Either way, he's the only prospect in the minors with a chance to have a Troutian level of impact, meaning power and speed and run-production. That's impossible and unfair to expect from any prospect however, especially someone so young. Profar will definitely play in the big leagues next season after receiving a September call-up last year, but the "when" part is a total wildcard right now.



Shutdown Corner: Old Closers

Hello, fantasy players and baseball fanatics. I'm Bryan Grosnick, and you may remember me from last season's Injury Watch column here at RotoAuthority. I also write about non-fantasy baseball at a host of other sites, including Beyond the Box Score, The Platoon Advantage, and Amazin' Avenue. But, enough about me. I've been tasked with filling the impressive shoes of the talented Dan Mennella, who handled the Closer Watch updates with aplomb at RotoAuthority last season.

On Fridays, now you can expect a new closer-focused column: Shutdown Corner. At SC, I'll be breaking down the fantasy implications for all late-inning relievers, and I'll be taking a slightly sabermetric tack. We'll use observation, inside info, and the best advanced stats to help you make the best decisions about who to draft, trade, add, and drop for your fantasy bullpen.

So, to get us started, I'm going to pick the top five closers who hold the same position they did last season, with the same team. These are the guys that you (probably) can rely on to give you a host of saves, just as long as they stay healthy and effective. But I see these five as pretty safe bets.

#5 - Tom Wilhelmsen, Seattle Mariners

You can consider this my "dark horse" candidate, but Tom Wilhelmsen was quite a revelation as the Mariners' closer in 2012. The former bartender logged 29 saves in 73 games, posting a 2.50 ERA and 2.89 FIP. A major contributor to his success: a nifty 26.7% strikeout percentage.

So why Wilhelmsen as a solid pick for 2013? Well, that strikeout rate played in both his limited 2011 and in 2012. And I don't see any reason for the Mariners to replace him. Perhaps they could move him in a trade if the price is right, but Wilhelmsen is both cheap and effective, someone that the Mariners would enjoy keeping. He'll be a nice fit for any fantasy squad.

#4 - Jason Motte, St. Louis Cardinals

I don't know about you, but to me it seems that Jason Motte has been the Cardinals' closer for years now. In truth, 2012 was the first full season with Motte working the ninth inning, and it was his best to date. Motte scored 42 saves while striking out over a batter per inning, posting a 2.75 ERA. Homers were his downfall, as Motte gave up nine in just 72 innings of work. But even so, they didn't kill his fantasy line, and his rate of fly balls to home runs was high enough that it could drop for the upcoming season. If so, he could be even better than before.

Despite the Cardinals having other live arms (such as fireballer Trevor Rosenthal) in the bullpen mix for next season, Motte has done everything he's needed to do to hang on to his spot as stopper. His combination of relative youth, strikeout stuff, and cost control make him a valuable real-world closer, and one who's likely to be very solid in fantasy for next season.

#3 - Joe Nathan, Texas Rangers

Did you expect Joe Nathan to return to his pre-Tommy John form so quickly? Or ever? Me neither. During the first season back from TJ, a pitcher usually struggles to regain command and control. And Nathan wasn't exactly his old self in 2011, striking out fewer, walking more, and giving up a host of homers. 

But 2012, Nathan's first as a Ranger, was a different story. His control was stellar, walking just 5.1% of batters faced, a career low. His K% rebounded as well, to 30.4% in his 64 1/3 innings. So despite his advancing age, Nathan looks as sharp as he's had in years. He managed 37 saves in 2012, and I think that you could expect more of the same this season.

#2 - Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia Phillies

When the Phillies laid out $50 million over four years to sign Jon Papelbon away from Fenway Park, they were expecting someone consistent (and excellent) to hold down the ninth inning. One year into the deal, initial returns are very good. Papelbon had a season very much in line with his career norms and the Phillies' expectations, notching 38 saves.

It's worth noting that, while Papelbon has managed over 30 saves in every season since 2006, this season was a slight improvement over most of his career numbers. Almost everything seemed to break his way, from K% (32.4%), to ground ball percentage (41.5%), to left-on-base percentage (83.8%).

The only real concern for JP is the longball, especially in cozy Citizens Bank Park. In his first year with Philadelphia, Papelbon gave up homers on 12.1% of fly balls, which is a career high. So long as Jonathan can keep the ball in the park at this rate or lower, while still racking up the Ks and limiting walks, he'll be worth that massive contract.

... at least for one more year.

#1 - Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves

It's rare for a closer to have a "historical" season, but that's exactly what Craig Kimbrel of the Atlanta Braves did in 2012. In addition to posting over 40 saves for the second straight season (42 if you're counting, and I am), Kimbrel struck out an unreasonably large amount of hitters. To be specific, Kimbrel fanned 116 in just a hair under 63 innings. By strikeout percentage, that means Kimbrel fanned 50.2% of the batters he faced, or just over half!

Here's a quick list of all the relievers who've put up better strikeout percentages in baseball history:

That's right, no one. The next guy up on the leaderboard is Eric Gagne's 44.8% K-rate from his otherworldly 2003 season. Kimbrel just annihilated the old record. And when you post a strikeout rate like that, the other stats just fall into place. 1.01 ERA? Check. 0.65 WHIP? Check.

You cannot stop him. You can only hope to contain him. Craig Kimbrel probably won't be this good again in 2013, because, really, no one ever has been this good before. But he'll still likely be the best closer in baseball for a second straight season. The only question you should have is will he be worth a premium pick in your draft, even though he's only a closer.

Throughout the 2013 season, you'll be able to find all sorts of articles about late-inning relievers here at Shutdown Corner, posting each Friday. But if that isn't quite enough for you, don't forget to check out the @closernews Twitter feed. I'll be helping to manage that feed, which will help you stay up-to-date on all news related to your favorite stoppers. Oh, and you can also follow me at @bgrosnick, if you're so inclined. 

All stats come from FanGraphs.



Go Bold or Go Home: 79 Reasons to Catch Trout 1st Overall

"Your grace is wasted in your face,
Your boldness stands alone among the wreck...." -- Mumford and Sons

Mike Trout combined for 79 homers and stolen bases last year, winning fantasy MVP's in leagues all over the country and nearly winning the real AL MVP. He did it as a rookie, and he did it without playing more than three games in the month of April. And yet, he's only being drafted fourth overall in early mock drafts. Don't make that mistake--if you've got first pick, don't let Trout be the one that got away.

However many dollars your league title is worth are however many reasons you have to play bold when you draft. Most of us play in 12-person leagues, and playing the same safe strategies as everyone else probably isn't going to give you more than a 1-in-12 chance of taking home the trophy and the cash. Don't get me wrong, there are league formats that reward conservative play, but most don't. In many only the top three finish in the money and most of it goes straight to the top. 

I'll be perfectly honest: not every bold move that I made last year worked out, and not every one that I'll recommend this year will either. This is the guy that drafted Jacoby Ellsbury in the 1st round and Mark Reynolds in the 7th, so I know how these things go. Seriously, Mark Reynolds. But before you dismiss my advice as the ravings of a madman, ask yourself this: is that any worse than what happened to the people that snagged "safe" players like Adrian Gonzalez or "mostly safe" Troy Tulowitzki and Evan Longoria? Anyone who made those safe moves got dragged down too. People who made aggressive bets elsewhere survived that kind of luck. Who were the top picks of the RotoAuthority Silver League's first and second place teams? Justin Upton and the aforementioned Tulowitzki. You can recover from anything that happens in the first couple rounds of the draft. What you can't recover from is playing it safe.

The safe move this year is to take Miguel Cabrera first overall. And why not? The man won the first Triple Crown since Carl Yaztremski and he's eligible at the shallow-talent 3B position. You'd have to be crazy. Let him go and the second person to draft is going to love you. At least until Mike Trout outperforms him.

I know, I know. This move isn't that crazy. Trout's got an ADP of 4.14, so he's off the boards fast. It's not like I'm telling you to go out and get Alex Rodriguez because he's gonna bounce back big time, or to draft Bryce Harper because he was an even better prospect than Trout so he's sure to be a better player. Taking bold risks isn't the same as doing stupid things.

Speaking of stupid things, right now Trout is actually third among OF's in ADP, behind Ryan Braun and--for some reason--Carlos Gonzalez. I predict that will change. Before I can make the case that Trout should be number one, I should probably explain why he should go before all the other outfielders. All three add serious power and speed, and all three are sensible first-rounders. Gonzalez hasn't shown the durability that a top-5 pick deserves, and his 2012 wasn't nearly as good as Trout's. So toss him out for a moment. In fact, toss him out until quite a bit later in the first round. Bold and unnecessary risks aren't the same kind.

Why take Trout over Braun, then? After all, Braun is a proven competitor and had nearly as many homers plus steals as Trout. He was heavier on the homers, even, and they're arguably more valuable. The reason is upside. Braun probably hit his ceiling last year. A great ceiling, a high, vaulted palace-worthy ceiling. But a ceiling nonetheless, and at 29 it isn't exactly reasonable to expect his stats to get any better. In fact, those 41 homers represent a significant spike from his usual near-30 mark. His legs aren't likely to carry him any faster either. He's still elite, he's still a top-3 pick, but what he doesn't have is that slim margin of upside that makes Trout the right choice.

How about Trout versus, Cabrera, then? After all, Miggy seems to be the consensus pick so far. Cabrera, like Braun, has hit his ceiling. I guarantee you, that he will never have another year as good as his 2012. Really, how often is a Triple Crown win not a career high point? At 30, Cabrera is poised to age very well. Take him second, he's better than everyone else even when some regression is factored in. He can fall back to 30-35 homers and still be awesome.

And you'll still be forced to use an early-round pick on the likes of Michael Bourn, or worse, risk running guys like Ben Revere and Coco Crisp in your starting outfield. See, that's what's not safe about letting Trout slip by if you can get him.

If you're a big believer in position scarcity, take a moment to ask yourself if 3B really is that much shallower than OF. If you play in a 5-OF league you're gonna need...well, lots of outfielders. You can scrape by with just a single third-sacker if you want, but you need a deep outfield. I'm not saying that Cabrera's 3B eligibility isn't an advantage, but I am saying it's not as big as it looks. (In most leagues. If you roll with only 3 OF, maybe you should snag Cabrera first. Maybe.)

The power-speed threat of Trout, those 30 homers and 49 steals are a huge anchor for any fantasy team. Balance like that can allow the luxury of a second top-flight starter in the early rounds, or they can let you safely reach for an all-power slug at first base or a batting average minded sort in the middle infield. This is like the plan I had for last year with Ellsbury but better, because Trout doesn't come with the sort of injury risk that I ignored. Not only that, but Trout will be leading off in front of what ought to be an epically good top heart of the Angels batting order, with Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton just waiting to drive him in. What's more, Mike Scioscia and company love those stolen bases, so the thunder waiting in the three and four spots in the batting order won't keep Trout nailed uselessly to first base like some teams might. Last year, Trout led the Majors in runs scored with 129. With an extra month and an extra Josh Hamilton, don't you think that number might go up?

The last and best reason to take Mike Trout is this: he could get better. Think about that. Imagine it. Consider what a stronger, more experienced, 22-year-old Mike Trout might be capable of. I bet you can't do it. I can't. But I want him on my fantasy teams when I find out. Some realism should be applied, before we all just wish that Trout will improve and bet the farm on him. His 2012 season was so good, so incredibly good, that his odds of improving aren't the same as most players his age. Simply put, most 21-year-olds have a lot of room to improve. So they do, even the ones that never get good usually get better. But we shouldn't label Trout a regression candidate only because his 2012 was amazing. Some players are amazing, and Trout shows all the signs of being just such a player.

Even if you take his counting stats from 2012 and apply them to a whole season, they're still likely to be the league's best or close to it, and that's assuming he plays four more weeks and produces nothing in that time. That isn't the low case scenario, but maybe it represents the midpoint. He could also do exactly the same thing as last year, but do it for an additional 23 games. Great, small improvement even with no change in his skills. These scenarios, combined with all the chances for pitchers to figure him out, for him to hit the sophomore slump, or to make terrible life choices that ruin his career all add up to most of the possible outcomes for Trout's 2013. 

But not all of them. Unlike his competitors for fantasy's top spot, Trout has a small but significant probability of getting better. If he does, you get a bargain at first overall. If he doesn't, then you've probably still got a player no worse than the others you could have chosen. He could take a big step back or get hurt. So could anyone, and there's no way to be sure who it will be. Veterans and youngsters alike disappoint their owners every year. Catching Trout gives you the best odds to turn your first round pick into first place at the end of the year.


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Welcome Back to RotoAuthority

RotoAuthority is back a week early this year, and we're excited to roll out another season of great fantasy content. Here's a look at our all-new preseason lineup:

  • Mondays: Mike Axisa will start the position-by-position rankings in February--look for bonus content until then!
  • Tuesdays: Mark Polishuk  looks at players head-to-head in Draft Round Battles
  • Wednesdays: the team makes a bold prediction in Go Bold or Go Home and Alex Steers McCrum examines the top Fantasy Stars
  • Thursdays: Steve Adams projects some Sleepers and Busts
  • Fridays: Bryan Grosnick writes up closers in Shutdown Corner
  • Sundays: Alex Steers McCrum looks at each of the 5x5 fantasy categories

As the preseason continues, we'll be updating content with a mailbag, a mock draft, and more! Check out our Facebook, Twitter, and RSS feeds for articles, announcements, and places to drop questions or comments. Keep an eye on the Facebook page especially, as you can expect to see polls, questions, and more!


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