2014 Free Agents

RotoAuthority Unscripted: Tanaka, Garza and Other Stories

 What is RA Unscripted? Well, imagine it like this. You’re a reporter and you stick a TV camera in my face. “Fantasy Baseball: go!” you say. And I start talking. 

Well, it’s kinda like that. Except that I type instead of talking and I can look up statistics instead of trying to pass off wild guesses as facts. 

Last week, we examined some players who might be gaining or losing value in their new homes—or who might not be. Then I realized I was going overlong and you (proverbially) switched off the TV camera. Then we had some big news, preceded by even bigger news.

Masaharo Tanaka: Bust

Luckey Helms made the Bold Prediction that Tanaka is the next great fantasy import, and I’m not saying he’s wrong by predicting Tanaka to bust. Really!

But we have new information, and it shapes up to make Tanaka a great bust candidate. The key to providing fantasy value is expectations. They were high before, and I do think Tanaka will provide a very good fantasy season—but they are crazy-high now, and it will be very hard to get him for a good price. 

Signing with the Yankees, the expectations have risen. Now, I don’t think the pressure will get to him—the expectations that have changed the game are those of your league-mates. And it only takes two or three. Tanaka will be all over ESPN and every fantasy website and magazine…and I just think he’s going to cost too much to be worth it.

Yankee Stadium won’t do Tanaka any favors, and Major Leaguers hit with distinctly more power than do their Japanese counterparts. I would not be shocked if he had some homer troubles. It won’t help that he gets to face tough offenses and tough away parks in the AL East. What’s more, his career K/9 in Japan is just 8.5. Good-but-not-elite territory, and likely to move down a bit more as he faces a tougher level of competition for the first time.

Will he be good? Yeah, I totally think so. A number two or three fantasy starter. But I’m guessing he ends up being someone’s ace or co-ace, and I don’t think that’s a role he’s going to live up to this season. Draft him next year, when the disappointment wears off.

Matt Garza: Boom

Milwaukee is a good situation for Garza’s fantasy value. The park is actually somewhat similar to Yankee Stadium in that it adds homers, but it plays pretty neutrally overall. More importantly, the other external factors are very good: small market means your fellow drafters won’t be inundated with his Spring Training highlights (see Tanaka, above), decent lineup for generating wins, middle-of-the-road competition in the division, playing in the NL, and facing pitchers! There is nothing better than pitching to pitchers. Maybe that’s why Garza seems to generate more strikeouts in the NL.... 

The biggest question mark with Garza is health, as he’s gotten a label of un-durability thanks to back-to-back incomplete seasons. But that was all from the same injury, and before that he gave his teams four consecutive 30-start seasons. Maybe he’s fragile and maybe he’s not—we can decide that when his career is over—but there’s good reason to think his health question is overblown. Right now, his good situation and low expectations make him a great number three fantasy starter.

Grant Balfour: Boom

There is something the Orioles don’t like about Balfour. Maybe it’s the harbinger of doom that is his name. Seriously, this guy should really have control problems, Carlos Marmol-style. He doesn’t, though, and was one of fantasy baseball’s better relievers last year, with 38 saves and a 10.34 K/9. He did that in a pitchers’ park, with a good pitching staff, and a decent lineup to put him in save situations. Now Balfour is going to the Rays, who also have a pitchers’ park, a good pitching staff, and a decent lineup to put him in save situations. Don’t be the Orioles here.

Mark Trumbo: Boom

Trumbo is the new Adam Dunn. Not the current Adam Dunn, but the old one. And not as good in real baseball, because he doesn’t walk. But he is that Adam Dunn that hits homers and sucks away at your batting average—and you know you can count on the good and the bad, and you can plan for it.

Trumbo has hit 29 homers or more in each of his three full Major League seasons. Not bad. Now he’s leaving the tough hitting environment of the AL West and going to the hitters’ haven somewhat better situation that is the NL West. The difference is most pronounced at home: while Angel Stadium suppressed homers by five percent last year, Arizona increased them by three percent. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’ll be worth a few longballs—and so might avoiding Felix Hernandez, Yu Darvish, and the rest of the AL West pitching crew. Sure, he won’t get to face the Astros, but he’ll get some away games in Coors Field.

The best news for Trumbo’s fantasy value, though, is his consistency. You can plan around his bad batting average and either strategically sacrifice points in the category, or pair him with underpowered high-average hitters. More good news is that the Diamondbacks got some pretty bad press for trading for him—giving other fantasy drafters more of an impression about his real-life value and less about his fantasy value.

Jhonny Peralta: Bust

Peralta is pretty much the opposite of Trumbo: the good defense and OBP he brought to the table in two of the last three years are a lot better in real baseball than in fantasy. Plus a “Known Smart Team” with a strong national brand threw a bunch of money at him as a free agent. It takes a lot to shake off the stigma of a PED suspension, but I bet that will. He’s been hailed as a good pickup this offseason, and that’s fine for the Cardinals.

It’s not so fine for your fantasy team. Peralta’s value came largely from his quality .303 batting average…which was fueled by a .374 BABIP. St. Louis appears to have been somewhat more suppressive to offense than Detroit last year, so don’t expect a big help from his new park. While playing in the NL might help a little, he wasn’t facing the world’s best pitching in the AL Central. (It helps when you play for the Tigers.) Even in the thin shortstop market, Peralta’s best category is the least predictable. Consider him no more than a low-end starter at best.

RotoAuthority Unscripted: Free Agent Boosts and Busts

If you’re like me (and you’re reading this, so you are) you’ve spent most of the offseason repeatedly and compulsively hitting the refresh button at MLBTraderumors.com. It’s open in another tab right now, and as you’re deciding whether or not to finish this article, the need to get the next Masahiro Tanaka update is starting to creep in. See, you don’t just want to find out if Tanaka is right for your fantasy squad, but you’re eagerly awaiting any sliver news on Matt Garza, Ervin Santana, and Ubaldo Jimenez

But take a step back. There’s plenty of time for those guys to find new homes that make or break their fantasy value. What about those guys who already did find new homes? What will you do with them?

Me, I’ll break ‘em down into three groups: Busts, Boosts, and…Neutrals, because I couldn’t think of something clever or alliterative that means the same thing.

Prince Fielder: Neutral

Someone in your league is gonna reach for the Prince. “Prince Fielder in Texas!” that person shouted some months ago, “Fantasy gold! First round pick!” Go ahead and let someone else be that excited. Now, I’m not down on Prince, but I don’t think the Ballpark in Arlington is going to be his savior. 

Let’s check out a couple basic park factors. According to ESPN, Fielder’s 2013 home of Detroit had a 1.139 factor last year good for third-friendliest in baseball. His famously hitter-friendly new home? Texas had a 0.985 factor, good for 17th in baseball. Putting it two slots behind Safeco Field in Seattle! Now, I know a single year’s park factor can swing dramatically…but that’s kind of my point: you can’t bank on Ballpark in Arlington to help Prince, because you can’t even count on it being a hitters’ park in any given year!

Homers were no better, as Detroit added a few homers (1.013) and Texas suppressed a few (0.903). The biggest take-away is that a new park is not a sure thing. There is some good news, though: according to Fangraphs, Texas did manage to add homers for lefties, compared to Detroit’s neutrality. Less than good news, is that the ballparks in three of Fielder’s four new top opponents all suppressed lefty homers. 

To me, the ballpark change is a neutral one. It might help a little, but that will probably be offset by the road parks he plays in. I didn’t delve much into the lineups, but he’s leaving one good offense for another. Fielder is a quality hitter, but one who’s transitioning from elite to good and even the Ballpark in Arlington can’t stop that. He’s more of a third-rounder than a first-rounder.

Ian Kinsler: Bust

What about the man Prince was traded for? I’m calling bust, but it has more to do with the player than the park. As we saw above, the park factors for Texas and Detroit aren’t that different, and they’re even closer for right-handed homers—which means they won’t be able to stave off a decline that’s been pretty steep over the last couple years.

Mid-teens numbers in homers and steals is okay…but not all that special. Neil Walker pretty much does that. Okay, he doesn't steal, but you get my point. With essentially unchanging surroundings, Kinsler isn’t going to live up to his name brand next year. 

Robinson Cano: Neutral

Yankee Stadium is a great place for power hitters. Safeco Field is not. That much we know, and it’s already priced into what you’ll be paying for Cano. The Yankees have a good lineup (though last year, not so much) and the Mariners do not. Also priced in. And neither one matters.

You see, Cano is still so much better than the next best second baseman that he’s still worth a first round pick. He doesn’t have to outhit nearly all first basemen to be worth one of the top twelve draft picks…but he does that anyway. Even if you took away ten homers from Cano’s total, he wouldn’t slip down to the tier of mortal second basemen. Yeah, the power is probably going to be lower, but everything else should be close. Given the sour impression your opponents may have about playing in Seattle, Cano might slip to the end of the first round or the beginning of the second…in which case, you’ll be glad he found a new home.

Justin Morneau: Boost

I’ve been thinking about this one for awhile, and, honestly, it’s one of my favorite free agent moves of the offseason. How recovered Morneau is from his concussion and the effects thereof, I can’t say. But I wouldn’t be able to guess at that no matter where he ended up. He’s a gamble, and one you shouldn’t bet the farm on. (Certainly, the Rockies aren’t risking that much on him.) But Coors Field gives him a fighting chance at fantasy relevance, and that’s all I ask for.

Last year, Morneau played in two of the worst parks for homers: Pittsburgh’s PNC Park, and Minnesota’s Target Field. By ESPN’s numbers, Minnesota suppressed homers by nearly 20%, and Pittsburgh by over 30%. (But note that Fangraphs agrees in principle but not extremity.) Colorado added about 15%.  By some pretty rough math, that takes Morneau’s 17 homers and makes them 22. That isn’t bad, but it isn’t why you draft him. You draft him (and late, mind you) because combined with the chance of getting back into the regular swing of baseball with another year removed from his concussion, there could be a spark of his former greatness. And if it doesn’t work…well, you’ve got someone you can use when he plays at home.

Curtis Granderson: Bust

Before his injury last year, Curtis Granderson was in my projected second round. See, I love power hitters, especially the more scarce they get. I figured him for a 40-homer threat, and maybe he was. Not anymore.

In a lot of parks—and definitely Yankee Stadium—I could excuse a player’s decline. I don’t care if you’re worse than last year so long as you give me value for draft position. But not in CitiField. Grandy might only be moving across town, but he might as well be moving to the Dead Ball Era.

It’s not all about the park, which is more like going from excellent to neutral, than it is a real killer. It’s that, plus the whole situation. His park effect gets worse, his lineup gets worse (way worse), and his competition gets better. Forget for a moment how good the AL East is and think of how good the NL East pitching is. Think about the rotations the Braves, Nationals, and Phillies have. (Okay, only think about half of the Phillies’ rotation.) Mix that environment with Granderson’s inability to hit lefties and his overall declining trends and I’m staying away.

Scott Kazmir: Boost 

Why Scott Kazmir became horrible, I don’t know. Why he turned back to good, I also don’t know. What I do know, is that he did, and that his 2013 performance was impressive. I’d draft him next year if he were still pitching for Cleveland, but the A’s cannily swooped in and signed him for a couple years. He’s a risky guy because you don’t get to fall off the map with control issues for years at a time and not be risky. But the upside is tons of strikeouts and decent rate stats and wins. 

Kazmir had a pretty rough ERA last year, at 4.04, but his FIP (3.51) and xFIP (3.36) suggested that a little luck and maybe different scenery could help. And Oakland is pretty much the perfect place for him to end up. First of all, his team defense (provided it remains similar to last year) goes from a significant negative, as Cleveland was 25th in the Majors in UZR, to a slight positive, as the A’s were 12th.

The park factor could be even bigger though. Here Fangraphs and ESPN disagree, with Fangraphs calling the parks nearly even last year. According to ESPN, however, Kazmir is leaving a hitters’ park for one of the most extreme pitchers’ parks in the league. It’s a logical fallacy to assume that the truth lies between points of disagreement, so I won’t tell you to split the difference…I’ll just say there’s a chance ESPN will be right, and if they are it’s very good news for Kazmir. And if not, well, the defense should help his ERA and WHIP anyway, and the bullpen ought to hang onto his leads. It’s a good situation.

Go Bold or Go Home: Masahiro Tanaka is the Next Great Fantasy Import

Yeah, I said it and I’ll say it again. The right-handed 25-year-old Masahiro Tanaka might just be the truth and is baseball's next great import. Now I understand, as do most MLB front offices, the risk in paying top dollar for an unproven international free agent like Tanaka is huge. For the risk-taking fantasy drafter, a big time ace in the later rounds can deliver you a championship (consider the frequently undrafted Hyun-Jin Ryu in 2013 – 14 wins, 3.00 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 7.22 K/9). Other imports, such as Yu Darvish, Koji Uehara, and Hisashi Iwakuma, have recently rewarded owners and came at a great value when they first arrived. This year, Tanaka offers savvy drafters that same opportunity.

Masahiro Tanaka has the pedigree of a stud and his historical performance in Japan just reinforces the notion. Keep in mind that there has to be a reason that MLB teams are falling over themselves to sign him. In high school, he led his squad to a national championship and broke Daisuke Matsuzaka’s 2004 strikeout record. Over the last two seasons in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league, Tanaka has dominated the competition and set a worldwide professional baseball record by winning 26 consecutive games. In 2013, Tanaka went 24-0 (1.27 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, and 7.8 K/9) and even appeared once as a closer - in order to seal his team’s first Pacific League pennant.

Considered by many MLB scouts to be a top-of-the-line starter, five teams have jumped through all of the necessary hoops to bid on Tanaka’s services (including a one-time, nonrefundable $20 million fee just to submit a bid). According to Nikkan Sports, the Yankees, Dodgers, Diamondbacks, White Sox, and Cubs have all submitted offers (each for more than $15 million dollars per year) and are hoping for the best. While Tanaka’s agent has yet to confirm any specifics about which teams are courting his superstar, the entire baseball world is certain that Tanaka will have until January 24, 2014 at 5:00 pm to decide where he’ll go. Should he choose the Yankees or Diamondbacks, Tanaka will be heavily leaned upon as the foundation of a thin rotation. On the other hand, the Dodgers offer Masahiro Tanaka an opportunity to complete an already potent staff (see Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, and the aforementioned Ryu). The White Sox and Cubs each offer uniquely the same thing – the chance to be the cornerstone and ace for a rebuilding Windy City franchise. It seems that if his heart were set on Chicago, he’d have his choice of American or National League.

While Tanaka may be immediately compared to Yu Darvish, that isn’t necessarily the best point for comparison because of the two pitcher’s differing styles. Darvish is a strikeout pitcher who wants everybody to swing and miss. Despite Tanaka’s high school strikeout record, he pitches to contact and prefers to force easy ground balls – only going for a strikeout when necessary. His approach may cause some early struggles because of Major League Baseball’s higher competition level, but expect him to adjust nicely and post a strong rookie season in America. While his 24-0 record and 1.27 ERA are unrealistic (even for a perennial all-star such as Justin Verlander), look for Tanaka to have a season slightly better than Hisashi Iwakuma when he first arrived.  While his number of wins will be subject to the offensive support of whichever team signs him, Tanaka can easily post a 2.80 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, and 8.0 K/9 in 2014. If he does and settles into the role of fantasy ace, you’ll be happy for taking him a round (or two) earlier than everybody else and if you’re in a keeper league, feel free to thank me in a few years.

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