Baltimore Orioles


Draft Round Battles: Machado Vs. Lawrie

Let's get this out of the way right now --- if you play in one of the rare fantasy leagues that includes defensive statistics, then Manny Machado is your guy, end of story.  Brett Lawrie was a pretty strong defender himself in 2011-12 before posting a -0.1 UZR/150 in 2013, but yeah, Machado ran streets ahead with the glove last season thanks to a whopping 31.8 UZR/150 and a record 35 runs saved, earning himself both a Gold Glove and a Fielding Bible Award.

But, that's fielding.  Odds are your league won't be decided by runs saved or RZR but rather by the standard 5x5 stats.  That makes this matchup of AL East third basemen all the more interesting.

Lawrie has the early lead in average draft position, according to the good folks at Mock Draft Central.  Lawrie's 151.71 ADP tops Machado's 167.67 ADP, which is perhaps surprising given how much hype Machado received for both his bat and his glove last season, while Lawrie was alternately injured, in the minors or terrible for almost the entire season.  I'd suspect that some early drafters are worried about Machado's offseason knee surgery, which could keep him sidelined until late April.  I'm not counting Machado's knee as a major factor in this draft battle, as while he is likely to miss at least a bit of time, Lawrie has been prone to injury himself over his first two full Major League seasons.  Call the health question a wash for now, at least until we know more about Machado's rehab process.

Durability obviously wasn't a question for Machado in 2013, when he made 710 plate appearances (and a league-high 667 at-bats) and finished the campaign with 14 homers, 71 RBI, 88 runs and a league-best 51 doubles.  Good counting stats to be sure, except for the fact that almost all of Machado's damage came in the first two months.  Machado had an .892 OPS going into May 31, but over the Orioles' final 102 games, he managed just a .666 OPS (yikes, there's a bad omen).  He hit .283/.314/.432 overall, a line that his 99 OPS+ would indicate as slightly below even league average at the plate.

Of course, I note these stats with the giant caveat that Machado only turned 21 last July, so even slightly below-average offensive numbers are pretty impressive for a guy that young.  We may not have even scratched the surface of what Machado can do at the plate, so I expect an improved performance in 2014.  The question is, how much improvement will we see, given that even in his (albeit brief) minor league career, Machado only hit .263/.344/.432 with 23 homers and 114 RBI over 928 PA.  Those numbers are perfectly fine for a shortstop and they're not even bad for a third baseman, though they pale next to some of the big boppers available at the hot corner. 

While much of Machado's prospect hype came from his glove, his offensive prowess in early 2013 (especially in hitting doubles) showed a new dimension to his game.  Ironically, Lawrie's career has begun in the opposite way --- he was a ballyhooed minor league hitter who has instead drawn notice for his glove in the bigs.  After bursting onto the scene with a .953 OPS over 171 PA in 2011, Lawrie has hit a much more modest .265/.320/.401 over 978 PA in 2012-13.  Injuries certainly played a part, as did some maturity issues that Lawrie reportedly put behind him after his terrible first half forced him to overhaul his swing.  Those swing changes led to an .892 OPS in August but another fade in September.

Lawrie finished his year with 11 homers and a .254/.315/.397 slash line, one of many disappointing campaigns amidst the epic fail that was the 2013 Blue Jays season.  Still, as bad as Lawrie's season was perceived to be, he still finished only 34 OPS points and three homers behind Machado, despite the Baltimore phenom's 268 extra PA.  Lawrie also had a higher walk rate and lower strikeout rate, so if you factor in the BABIP gap (Lawrie had a .280 BABIP, Machado had a .322), you can make the case that Lawrie was actually the better hitter last season.

The age question also factors in Lawrie's evaluation, as he's only entering his age-24 season.  There's still plenty of time for him to display the prodigious hitting stroke he showed in his minor league career.  A healthy and focused Lawrie should, on paper, dwarf Machado at the plate.  Provided both men play roughly the same number of games, I'd expect Lawrie to comfortably top Machado in homers and steals, probably top him in RBIs and the runs/average categories are up in the air.

Assuming that Lawrie can avoid the injury bug and general malaise that has plagued the Jays franchise over the last two seasons, he stands as a strong fantasy breakout candidate for 2014.  While I hope Machado returns from his surgery at 100 percent and we get to fully enjoy his eye-popping talent, I tend to agree with my RA colleague Andrew Gephardt that even a fully fit Machado might still not be due for his proper breakout.  Let's take Lawrie in this draft round battle and let's hope that both guys reach their potential so we can revisit this matchup for several years down the road.



Closer Updates: Riding the Trade Winds

Rumors continue to swirl around baseball this time of year, and no position receives more attention than relief pitchers. Why? Even the best are expendable on a bad team, and even pitchers of marginal greatness are assets on contenders. Everyone who spent the last two decades watching playoff baseball knows how important strong bullpens are for the October teams. For fantasy owners, this can be a mix of good and bad news. How your team fares is all about how prepared you are for the upcoming month. After all, a fantasy team doesn't need to be on the top of the standings to need more saves...or on the bottom to profit from trading away relievers.

Mid-season trades can create quite a lot of upheaval, often leaving two teams with new closers. Whenever a closer is traded away (except for other closers, hypothetically) a new one is created to fill the void he left and everyone scrambles to the waiver wire to get him. Better yet, stay on top of the rumors and try owning a new closer before he gets the job. The downside of this is that the best trade candidates don't usually have great backups.

The other trade fallout happens on the team that acquires the new closer: either that team's old closer is deposed (bad news for his owners), or the new pitcher is suddenly the setup man (bad news for his owners. Most often, good teams have an established closer by this point in the season, and they're looking to use bad teams' stoppers to shore up their 'pen. Yes, you should trade away any closers at risk for this situation.

At-Risk Closers

Keep in mind that trade rumors can change quickly and that not all of these closers will get dealt into setup situations. Why do you think we link to MLB Trade Rumors right at the top of the page? Here are just a few of the storylines circulating as I write this: Steve Cishek and Mike Dunn are drawing interest for the Marlins, who don't want to deal themthe Yankees are pushing to deal Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughesthe Mets probably want to keep Bobby Parnell and are releasing setup man Brandon Lyonthe Phillies would rather buy than sell Jonathan Papelbon; and all the Brewers' relievers are drawing interest. So, seriously, refresh MLBTR all day long and a couple times during the night just in case, because all these could have changed by the time you read this.

Steve Cishek and his setup man Mike Dunn could get dealt, but odds are they won't both be traded away. And since Cishek is under team control until 2017, the lowly Marlins could rationally think of him a piece on future good teams. He's one that I'd take a risk and trade for at low cost. His value won't be that high, as the Marlins don't do much winning, but it's looking pretty unlikely that he gets traded away. That's good, because he wouldn't be closing anywhere else (except maybe Detroit).

Jose Veras is a pretty good reliever. Not amazing, so if he gets traded, don't expect him to take over the ninth inning reins. In head-to-head leagues, I'd trade him away, but hold onto him in Roto-style. Wesley Wright might get the save opps if Veras is dealt, but there's no need to pick him up until that happens. Frankly, it'd probably be an open audition anyway.

Francisco Rodriguez has had a resurgent closing experience with Milwaukee. As a guy with playoff-tested moxie and at least some leftover brand name, I'll make the bold prediction that he gets traded to Detroit and closes for them. He's on the fringe of being good enough (in reality and appearance) to close on other contending teams in the event of a trade, so I'd hold on him. If he is traded, expect Jim Henderson to get his closing gig back.

Like Rodriguez, Glen Perkins has a good chance of beating out incumbent closers for the ninth inning. He's even less likely to be traded in the first place, so hold him if you got him. Your risk is relatively low if you trade for him, but it isn't nonexistent.

It almost seem taken for granted that Kevin Gregg will be dealt, and that Blake Parker, James Russell or Pedro Strop will take over the ninth. Maybe, maybe not. Gregg might close for the Tigers, but I don't think any other contender will let him close unless someone gets injured. If you can get any return for him trade him away, in head-to-head formats, and probably in Roto too.

Bobby Parnell's trade rumors might say he's staying now, but the Mets don't have any real need for a competent closer, and you have to think they'd move him for a decent prospect. Parnell doesn't have the raw saves totals or the history of closing to push other closers out of a job; for that reason I'd trade him away.

The Mariners don't look likely to find a partner willing to overpay for Tom Wilhelmsen, so he may stay with the club and close for the rest of the year. Or he might continue his periodic implosions. If you find a fellow owner willing to value him like Seattle does, trade him away. Most of us, however, will just have to hold on. If he's dealt or demoted...we'll, we've examined this mess before.

With the Blue Jays presumably expecting to have a better 2014 than this year, they probably don't want to deal Casey Janssen. If the tea leaves swirl in a new direction, I still wouldn't be worried, as Janssen is good enough to continue closing for several contenders. Unless he starts getting connected with teams like the Yankees and Rangers who have well-established closers, I would hold, or even trade for him. If he is dealt, perhaps final All-Star balloter Steve Delabar would take over.

Jonathan Papelbon seems less and less likely to get dealt in real life. I suggest you trade for him while the rumors are still lingering, and he's still got a low saves total, and the stigma of his blown saves is still recent. On the off chance that he's dealt, Antonio Bastardo is a good pitcher to own.

Greg Holland hasn't seen his name come up in the rumors, but the Royals are always in danger of seeing their season fall apart. You can safely hold him for now, but keep an eye on the news. Kansas City actually has several capable relievers, so it's hard to know who to pick up.

Potential Buyers

Everyone knows the Tigers are buyers. Joaquin Benoit may be on the final All-Star ballot, but that might not be enough to convince the team that he's their stopper. Obviously, keep Benoit around, but be ready for him to be replaced before the first of August.

With the struggles that Jim Johnson has had, I wonder if the Orioles will be in the relief market this month. There hasn't been much noise about that, but maybe they're just playing it quietly. Johnson would probably have to struggle after a trade is made to lose his job, but he's used a lot of a long leash this season.

The Red Sox may have two of the best Japanese relievers in the world in Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa, and an ex-closer in Andrew Bailey, but that might not stop them from loading on more arms for the pennant race. If they add someone with more closing clout than Uehara, don't expect them to hesitate to make (another) change.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again (all month long, probably), but the best way to come out of the trade crucible ahead is to keep up with the rumors on MLBTR and to follow @CloserNews on Twitter.



Closer Updates: Orioles, Rays, Dodgers, Nationals, Rockies, Red Sox, Angels

As you can see from the title, there's been a little bit of closer news this week, so we'll get right down to business. Speaking of which, check out @CloserNews for up-to-the-minute info. Also, take a look at our Closer Depth Chart for a league-wide overview of the ninth inning. But anyway, on to business.

Orioles

Jim Johnson didn't have his best week ever. Three consecutive blown saves are enough to cost many closers their job, but Johnson earned his leash last year and manager Buck Showalter trusted him enough to hand him the ball in extra innings. Johnson earned the win, and there seems to be good reason to think this rough patch was just that and not a sign of impending doom.

For one thing, while his HR/9 rate and his HR/FB rate are much higher now than last year, a reliever's sample size is so small that that includes a whopping three homers allowed, two of which came during his three blown saves in a row. Moreover, while his BB/9 rate has also increased, it was already so low that it had wiggle room. Since his K/9 has increased since last year as well, he still maintains a 3.00 K/BB and is adding value with nearly two extra strikeouts per nine. All in all, he doesn't look like someone about to go Axford on us.

Rays

Speaking of impending doom and John Axford, Fernando Rodney appears to be turning into the proverbial pumpkin. His magical season last year has rightly earned him a lot of room for error, but at some point even that will have to be considered used up. Rodney has had bad results recently: he's blown three of his last four saves and looked bad doing it. Rodney has a bad process: his 8.35 BB/9 is rough to look at, let alone experience in the ninth inning. Not only is it worse than the sparkly but unbelievable 1.81 mark he put up last year, it's worse than any of the once-and-again wildman's previous ML rates, including the one that got him demoted by the Angels in 2011. Unless he gets his control under control, Rodney is probably on the way out of the ninth inning, at least temporarily.

Setup man Joel Peralta has gotten the most mention as a possible replacement, while neither Jake McGee nor Kyle Farnsworth have been obviously better than Rodney. Don't expect the Rays to go out of the organization, but don't be shocked if they do opt for a committee.

Dodgers

 The great and tragic drama of Brandon League and Kenley Jansen continues to play itself out, as manager Don Mattingly won't commit to "annointing" a closer. I guess that's technically a demotion for League, as he had already been annointed as closer (which apparently makes you some type of king by fiat). It's mitigated good news for Jansen owners and plenty of reason to pick him up if he's still unowned. Perhaps more reason to grab Jansen is that Mattingly may well play things as close to "the book" as he can while he flails around trying to keep his job. If he is fired, expect the new manager to make the obvious choice and officially install Jansen in the ninth, if only to earn some cheap points with the masses. As this situation begins to resolve itself, you're probably safe to drop League in most (a-hem) leagues. 

Nationals

Rafael Soriano came into the year as a top closer, and his 2.14 ERA suggests he still is. Though he blew two saves in a row this week (and tossed teammate Bryce Harper under the bus after one of them), he's firmly entrenched as the Nats' closer. There's trouble under the hood, however, as Soriano's FIP is 3.41 and his xFIP an even worse 4.23--Soriano isn't really pitching all that well. Perhaps more pointedly, his K/9 is sitting at just 6.43--the worst since his rookie season in 2002. As a starter. Now, he's got plenty of time to ratchet up the K's, but it might be a good idea to sell him while his ERA still shines as well as it does. Though he's not in imminent danger of losing his job, these things can shift quickly and the Nationals have other quality options in their bullpen.

Rockies

First, the rumor was that Rafael Betancourt was going on the DL, now it's that he won't. The facts are that Betancourt is having a very nice season (albeit with too many walks) and won't be supplanted by a quick injury, DL trip or no. The other facts are that Rex Brothers is having an even better season (also with more walks than are preferable) and saved the game for Betancourt on Wednesday. While the 38-year-old Betancourt will probably be just fine, this isn't a bad time to add Brothers, just in case. It isn't every team that can replace their closer with someone pitching at least as well, but the Rockies are one of them. In the event something bad happens, Brothers would be a quality setup man. If all stays well, he's still a usable non-closer in many leagues.

Red Sox

Andrew Bailey is back from the DL and back into the closer's role. Sort of. The Red Sox won't use him on back-to-back nights for an while as they let their fragile pitcher reacclimate. That means that Junichi Tazawa (who wasn't exactly a useful pickup during Bailey's absence) may still have the chance to grab some saves--more, certainly, than most setup guys. Keep him rostered until the Sox show us that Bailey is ready for a full workload. Considering his 25:3 K:BB ratio and Bailey's tendency to get hurt, Tazawa remains one of the better setup men to keep on your team.

Angels

Bad news for Ryan Madson is good news for Ernesto Frieri. Frieri will need it, as he's issued a ton of walks (6.75 BB/9) in April and May. He strikes a lot of people out too, which is good, but his ERA (2.25) doesn't match his FIP (4.58) or his xFIP (4.71). As long as Madson keeps having setbacks, however, expect Frieri to keep getting the call in the ninth inning. At least until those walks start costing him saves....

Add-Vice

Obviously, Kenley Jansen should be owned in all leagues at this point. If you own Fernando Rodney, I'd strongly suggest picking Joel Peralta up as backup (though the Rays do unconventional things whenever given an excuse). In fact, he's the top guy out there as far as speculative closers. If Junichi Tazawa's owner dropped him when Andrew Bailey came back from the DL, pick Tazawa up as he's in a great save-vulturing position. The same is true for Rex Brothers, but less so. Everyone else seems to be staying the course for now, so there isn't any real need to gobble up Orioles, Nationals, or Angels setup guys.

 



Shutdown Corner: AL East Closer Roundup

Welcome back to Shutdown Corner, folks. We're rolling through closer roundups for every division in baseball, this week focusing on the five teams in the AL East. We've previously reviewed the AL West and NL East, if you're interested in that sort of thing.

And, if you haven't been following along at home, here's our closer 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.

Baltimore Orioles: Jim Johnson

Jim Johnson was the major-league leader in saves for 2012, racking up 51 for the surprising Baltimore Orioles during their playoff run. But despite the gaudy save numbers and 2.49 ERA, Johnson's a nice candidate to turn into a pumpkin next season. Johnson doesn't strike out nearly the amount of hitters that a closer needs to in order to be effective. Johnson had just a 15.3% strikeout rate, not an exciting number, and the fourth-worst of all qualified relievers. He was almost the worst strikeout reliever in baseball. Don't draft him for Ks.

Fortunately for Johnson and the folks who draft him, Pedro Strop isn't exactly banging down the door to take Johnson's job. Buck Showalter is probably locked into Johnson, so he'll get all the rope in the world with which to hang himself. If you want saves, and care less about strikeouts and rate stats, Jim Johnson's your man.

Projected Tier: Tier 3 (low strikeout rate, settled into role)

Next in line: Pedro Strop

New York Yankees: Mariano Rivera

I know, I know, he's the greatest closer in baseball history. His peripheral stats are phenomenal, and he's racked up nearly 40 wins above replacement despite only throwing 1219 and 2/3 innings over his career. Then you can toss in about 15 more RA9-Wins because the guy gets weak contact and can bear down with runners on.

This year, Mo is coming off a missed season, thanks to a brutal knee injury. Word is that he's about ready to return, and he's likely to be elite when he comes back. He's basically always been elite. However, if there's any chance that Rivera is still dealing with injury, or if the knee trouble causes an injury cascade, then Mo may not be as effective as we're used to ... or he may be out and David Robertson will be owning the ninth.

That having been said, Mariano is still an elite closer, based on prior body of work. Actually, I'm only giving out one Tier 1 grade this pre-season, and it's going to Craig Kimbrel. But, if anyone else was close, it was Mo. He is a monster, and while his K-rate dipped in 2010, it rebounded nicely in 2011 and what little 2012 he pitched.

Respect Mariano, everyone. Ignore him at your own risk.

Projected Tier: Tier 2 (phenomenal skill, injury risk)

Next in line: David Robertson

Toronto Blue Jays: Casey Janssen

Important news: Casey Janssen is probably better than you think. More than a few roto heads got a nice boost in the middle of the season thanks to Casey's solid performance and 22 saves as the closer after Sergio Santos flamed out before the season even started. Janssen checked all the boxes for solid closer performance, with only a few blown saves (three all season), high strikeout totals (27.7% k-rate), and a sparkly 0.86 WHIP.

So why aren't I rating Janssen higher?

The important thing about Janssen's status as closer is that the Jays have other options in the 'pen. Esmil Rogers, Brad Lincoln, Sergio Santos, all these guys could have strong seasons, and the Jays may be looking to make a quick change if the team isn't getting good closer production. If Janssen were on a different team, he'd probably be up a tier, maybe even two. But on the win-now Jays, the team may look to add another reliever, or move Janssen out of the ninth if he hits a rough patch. Plus, it's not like he has the track record that would give his skipper irrational confidence in his abilities going forward. There's always the possibility of performance decline, especially on the wrong side of 30.

Projected Tier: Tier 4 (small room for error, doesn't have "proven closer" title, only two years of above-average performance)

Next in line: Sergio Santos

Boston Red Sox: Joel Hanrahan

Do you want to know a secret? Joel Hanrahan was actually pretty terrible in 2012. I know, the guy had a 2.72 ERA and stacked up 36 saves for the Pirates. But when you dig a little deeper, a few very concerning peripherals speak to a poor season. Hanrahan walked 14.2% of the batters he faced, which is a HUGE number. That's more than five walks per nine innings, and completely unacceptable.

Hanrahan also gave up a host of homers (1.21 HR/9), and that works out to a 4.45 FIP. By FanGraphs' WAR metric, Hanrahan was actually worse than a replacement-level reliever. That's not what anyone wants from a closer.

Now, I don't think Hanrahan will be quite as bad as he was last season, his BB% and HR/FB numbers should regress closer to his true talent level. At the same time, Fenway isn't exactly the best place to try and 

Projected Tier: Tier 3 (big strikeouts, high walks and home runs, huge potential for performance variance)

Next in line: Andrew Bailey

Tampa Bay Rays: Fernando Rodney

Probably no player -- and definitely no closer -- was as much of a surprise last season as Fernando Rodney. Rodney really hadn't been a good reliever since the '06 and '07 seasons, but in his first season in Tampa, Rodney was the best reliever in the AL. The strikeouts jumped up (27% strikeout rate), the walks dropped down (5.3% walk rate), and he stranded almost every runner who hit the bases. The result: an otherworldly 0.60 ERA.

But let's be real, this had to be somewhat of a mirage.

First of all, Rodney is entering his age-34 season, and has literally no history of performance at this level before this big season. Second, his peripherals led to a 2.13 FIP, which is still great, but doesn't reflect 48-save, under-one-ERA performance for next season. I just can't imagine he'll have another elite season, and the Rays have a whole host of solid relief options surrounding him (Jake McGee, Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta), so don't draft him too early.

Projected Tier: Tier 3 (lots of competition, 2012 performance doesn't appear to reflect prior performance)

Next in line: Jake McGee and Kyle Farnsworth

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 NL Central.

All data from FanGraphs.



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.



Orioles Give Bundy A Late Season Promotion

The Orioles are right in the thick of the AL East race, and last month they decided to bolster their roster by calling up infielder Manny Machado. He hasn't been great in his 153 plate appearance sample (.264/.276/.426 with four homers), but he has solidified what was an ugly third base situation. Baltimore took things one step further yesterday, calling up right-hander Dylan Bundy to pitch out of the bullpen during the final two weeks of the season. Monday's marathon 18-inning game against the Mariners stretched the Orioles bullpen thin, prompting the call-up.

At just 19 years old and one year removed from being drafted out of high school, Bundy is the youngest pitcher on a big league roster at the moment. He is the game's top pitching prospect and arguably the best prospect in baseball overall, regardless of position. Baseball America had him in the top spot of their midseason top 50 while ESPN's Keith Law had him second behind only Jurickson Profar in his midseason top 25 (Insider req'd). Bundy's minor league numbers are off-the-charts good, including a 2.08 ERA in 103 2/3 innings while climbing three levels from Low Class-A to Double-A. He struck out 119 (10.3 K/9) and walked just 28 (2.4 BB/9) while surrendering only 67 total hits and six homers. The scouting report backs up the performance as well. From Baseball America's preseason subscriber-only scouting report...

Tick off everything scouts want in an ace, and Bundy has it. Fastball? He pitches at 94-98 mph and touches 100 with his fourseamer, which features explosive life. He also uses a low-90s two-seamer to get groundballs and also has a cutter in the same range that essentially gives him a third plus fastball. Complementary pitches? In addition to his cutter, his upper-70s curveball already grades as a plus pitch, and he shows good feel for a solid changeup. Mechanics? Bundy is a great athlete with good body control, so his mechanics are clean and balanced and he repeats his delivery well. That should give him good command, and he also shows a great feel for his craft.

Bundy has yet to appear in a game with Baltimore (hey, it's only been one day) and it's very unclear how the Orioles will use him going forward. Manager Buck Showalter hinted that the right-hander was going to be the first out of the bullpen last night, but instead he turned to his core relievers like Darren O'Day and Pedro Strop in the tight game. Given where we are in the season, how Showalter uses Bundy is going to be the driving force behind the youngster's fantasy usefulness. If he's not going to pitch, he's not worth a roster spot. It's that simple. Despite his age, he has the potential to be absolutely dominant in short bursts (one or two or three innings at a time) out of the bullpen, enough so that he will have fantasy value despite a presumed lack of saves. We just don't know how often we're going to see him.

Long-term, Bundy is one of the top keeper pitching prospects in baseball. In the short-term though, it's tough to consider him worth a roster spot in fantasy crunch time. The Orioles have a great bullpen and a lot of established relievers that will get the call ahead of him, so his usage figures to be too sporadic to count on. You're definitely better off keeping a reliever, even just a strong setup man, who you know is going to pitch down the stretch. Bundy is a great young pitcher and will be a fantasy factor for years to come, but his time is not now. Enjoy his appearances as fan, but don't put yourself in a position to obsess over them fantasy-wise.



Orioles Make Manny Machado A Surprise Call-Up

Despite having the fourth worst run differential in the American League (-47), the surprising Orioles remain right in the thick of the AL East race thanks to their insane 22-6 record in one-run games and 12-2 record in extra-inning games. They're 4.5 games back of the Yankees in the division and tied for one of the two Wild Card spots because their dynamite bullpen (3.04 ERA) keeps them in every tight game.

The Orioles are not without their faults though, and through yesterday's game they had received some of the worst third base production in the league at .246/.319/.406. Wilson Betemit has seen the majority of the action at the hot corner, but Mark Reynolds, Robert Andino, Ryan Flaherty, and Steven Tolleson have also gotten some reps at third. With their first winning record since 1997 staring them in the face, Baltimore decided to recall top shortstop prospect Manny Machado from Double-A after last night's game with the idea of installing him at third. He's expected to be in today's lineup.

Machado, 20, was ranked as the 11th best prospect in the game by Baseball America this spring before placing ninth in their recent midseason update. The third overall pick in the 2010 draft has played exactly two games at third base in his minor league career, both this year at Double-A. The rest have been at shortstop with a few DH starts sprinkled in. The kid's going to be learning the position on the fly in the big leagues, which isn't an easy thing to do.

Furthermore, this isn't exactly a case of a player forcing the team's hand. Machado was having a very strong season in Double-A for a kid his age - .266/.352/.438 with 11 homers - but it's hardly a performance that screams "call me up, I'm big league ready!" That's why the move is very aggressive on the part of the Orioles, but they do deserve some credit for being gutsy enough to do it. New GM Dan Duquette seems intent on winning this year.

Machado is already shortstop-eligible in most fantasy leagues and will pick up third base eligibility soon enough. He's a legitimate power bat with some stolen base ability, but he's more of a middle of the order guy than a tablesetter, or at least he's expected to be in time. Dan Syzmborski's ZiPS projection system considered Machado a true talent .248/.303/.389 hitter (with 13 homers) at the big league level coming into the season, which is just a snapshot in time. That's the expectation for the 20-year-old kid jumping right into the show, not the 27-year-old future version in the peak of his career.

As excellent as Machado is as a prospect, he's not Mike Trout (or even Bryce Harper) and expecting that kind of immediate impact would be a setup for disappointment. He could always smash his way to a .300 average with eight or ten homers the rest of the way, but that would be the best case scenario in a relatively small sample. Expecting even a repeat of his Double-A effort might be asking too much. Shortstop is a pretty thin fantasy position however, and if you're willing to gamble on upside there are few better players to do it with. Unless you're in a long-term keeper league, I can't advise dropping an established producer for Machado this season, especially if you're in contention. It's easy to overlook the risk part of the high-risk/high-reward moves.



Stealing Steals With Xavier Avery

The Orioles are one of the biggest surprises in baseball this season, sitting atop the AL East with a 24-14 record and a +16 run differential. Most of that success stems from a pitching staff that owns the second best ERA in the American League (3.42), but they've also received larger than expectated offensive contributions from players like Adam Jones (12 HR), Matt Wieters (.851 OPS), and Nolan Reimold (.960 OPS). Reimold has been on the disabled list for the last two weeks though, and he recently told Peter Schmuck and Dan Connolly of The Baltimore Sun that he's made very little progress coming back from a neck problem.

β€œIt's frustrating,” said Reimold, who is on anti-inflammatories and recently received an epidural that may be the first in a series of three injections. β€œI don't know if I'll have a little improvement every day or wake up one day and have it be gone.”

Reimold was eligible to come off the 15-day DL yesterday but that obviously didn't happen. Sometime in June is a more likely target according to Schmuck and Connolly, creating an opening in the outfield. Players like Endy Chavez, Wilson Betemit, and Bill Hall have gotten reps in left field during Reimold's absence, but the recently recalled Xavier Avery has settled into the job of late. The 2008 second round pick was called up over the weekend and has five hits and a walk in 20 plate appearances so far (four games), but his fantasy value lies not in his bat, but his legs.

Baseball America ranked the 22-year-old Avery as Baltimore's ninth prospect before the season, saying he's "an above-average runner" who "has improved his bunting to make better use of his speed" in their subscriber-only scouting report. He has yet to swipe a bag as a big leaguer, but he did steal eight (in eight attempts) in 33 games at Triple-A before being recalled. Avery has stolen at least 30 bases in each of the last three seasons in the minors, including 36 and 38 steals in the last two seasons. It is worth noting that he's not the most efficient base-stealer, with a 75.3% success rate that is above the break-even point (68-70% these days) but on the low side for most true speed threats.

Buck Showalter seems committed to playing Avery early on, even starting the left-handed hitter against CC Sabathia earlier this week. With Reimold out for another few weeks, Avery's spot in the lineup seems secure for the time being and should allow him to provide fantasy value as a temporary but cheap source of stolen bases. A 30-steal pace works out to something like three steals for every two weeks for most everyday players, so another month on the shelf for Reimold could mean another 6-8 steals for your fantasy club. Don't expect many homers or a great batting average, Avery figures to be a one-category contributor for the next few weeks. Keep his relatively low stolen base success rate in mind if you place in a net steals league.



Closer Updates: White Sox, Rays, O's, Royals

It's been a dizzying few days if you've been trying to keep tabs on the murky bullpen situations in hopes of emerging with an extra closer or two on your roster. No fewer than several teams waltzed into Opening Day without a clear-cut stopper, and while some of those situations may have been resolved for the time being, there's still plenty to keep an eye on.

Let's get to it ...

White Sox
Count me among the sad, sappy suckers who are feeling jilted after burning a draft pick on Matt Thornton. Based on his experience, stuff and salary, I assumed he'd emerge the South Siders' closer by Opening Day. But new manager Robin Ventura apparently isn't afraid to try something different, instead calling upon darkhorse Hector Santiago for Chicago's first two save opps, both converted successfully.

Santiago is a tough nut to crack at this point. He split last season as a starter in high Class A and Double-A, and frankly, his peripherals there weren't all that impressive. That being said, Ventura has stated that Santiago is his guy, so we can't afford to be too picky about his minor league stats or how he projects; he's worth an immediate add if he's still on your wire.

Unfortunately, if you're skeptical of Santiago's long-term odds of holding the gig, as I am, there's little recourse you can take at this point. Thornton would seem to be the next in line if Santiago were to falter, as he was with eighth-inning setup man in Santiago's two saves, but Ventura has already proven that he's got his own way of doing things, and it doesn't necessarily fall in line with the type of linear thinking that we fantasy owners typically prefer. Plus, don't forget that the Sox have other good arms at the back end of their 'pen in addition to Thornton, such as Addison Reed and Jesse Crain, who could just easily be next to claim the throne.

The bottom line is, Santiago is the must-own right now, but I'm not sure we can divine an obvious handcuff for him at this point, so this is a situation save-needy owners should watch closely but not necessarily act on.

Rays
If you're feeling queasy, it might be time to ditch the stale Easter candy -- but it's more likely that the prospect of adding Fernando Rodney is making you ill. Though the circumstances are worth examining closely, the fact is that Rodney emerged from the Rays' supposed closing committee with a win and two saves this weekend. Ugh.

On Saturday, the Rays were cruising to an easy win until the trio of Josh Lueke, Joel Peralta (the presumptive closer by many, including yours truly) and Jake McGee slogged the trail of tears to varying degrees of ineptitude through an ugly ninth inning, creating a one-out save opportunity for Fern-Rod, who converted. Similarly, Joe Maddon was trying to wrangle a complete game out of starter Jeremy Hellickson on Sunday until the right-hander ran out of gas -- and with Peralta apparently off-limits after racking up too many pitches on Friday and Saturday, Rodney again got the call, converting for another one-out save.

On one hand, we see two saves in Rodney's column. On the other, we see a guy who wasn't really intended to earn either save.

I say, add Rodney if you can, but don't dump Peralta yet if you own him, and don't break your neck to make roster space if you're in a bind. It may be wishful thinking on the part of this Peralta owner, but something tells me that either the Rays aren't ready to anoint Rodney their undisputed closer, or that he won't be able to the job in the unlikely event that they do. We've all seen Rodney's act before, and while I wouldn't entirely rule out the possibility of the Rays guiding him to some kind of career rebirth, a la Kyle Farnsworth, I'll bet against that one for now.

Don't overinvest in Fern-Rod, and don't entirely count out Peralta.

Orioles
There was never much of a question as to whether Jim Johnson faced any legitimate competition from within his own bullpen -- however coy Buck Showalter might've wanted to play it -- so much as there were some disconcerting reports about him dealing with back pain and diminished velocity in Spring Training. Thankfully, the O's announced the inevitable on Opening Day, officially naming Johnson their closer, and more importantly, he's coming out throwing well in the early going, recording a pair of saves.

Perhaps all he needed was for the lights to come on.

While I sense some overall reluctance among fantasy owners to embrace Johnson as little more than an also-ran closer type, I'm a proud Johnson owner and think he's better than he's given credit for. He posted a 2.39 SIERA last year, preceded by solid a 3.05 in 2010 and 2.91 in 2009. If you own Johnson, enjoy the ride. I'm thinking his upside is something like what Brandon League did a year ago -- not a ton of strikeouts, but solid ratios and plenty of saves. If you're in need of a closer, consider acquiring Johnson at a fraction of what you'd have to pay for an elite or even second-tier closer. 

Royals
It appeared the Royals were leaning toward Broxton to handle the ninth, and indeed they went in that direction. It may be worth filing away: It's my experience that for every Santiago situation, wherein a younger closer is given a shot, there are just as many of these, where a reliable vet with The Experience gets the nod. In this case, underdog Greg Holland remains in the eighth inning despite tearing off a terrific 2011 that saw him finish with a handful of saves, lots of strikeouts and tidy ratios.

Anyway, Brox has had two outings so far, one sketchy and the other pretty good. What can we make of that? Not a whole lot. Brox is the definitive own for now, and with Holland looking less than impressive in his first outing, there's no reason why the Royals should feel motivated to tinker with their roles.

At this point, it's pretty hard to argue Holland should be owned in standard leagues.

Red Sox
Boston's bullpen has gotten off to an horrendous start, with Mark Melancon and Alfredo Aceves both getting hit hard in the early going. Now, manager Bobby Valentine is even alluding to the possibility of returning reliever-turned-starter Daniel Bard back to the 'pen to close. Frankly, I don't think it's all that crazy, other than the potential inconvenience felt by Bard.

If you want to make a stealth add while your leaguemates fumble over one of the four White Sox in line behind Santiago, Bard is your guy. It's by no means urgent at this point, but it's something to consider.

Meanwhile, Melancon and Aceves owners should sit tight. Store 'em on your bench if you have to, but either right-hander could settle into a groove and run with the job, and you don't want to be the guy or gal who gave away a bunch of saves out of frustration.



Transaction Analysis: Guthrie, Hammel, Lindstrom

Jeremy Guthrie escaped the AL East this week and rumors swirl that A.J. Burnett may join him in the National League. It isn't often that a trade to the Colorado inflates a pitcher's fantasy value, but that's exactly the situation that Guthrie is in. Since he wasn't traded for prospects, both pitchers received by the Orioles are in position to find their way onto fantasy rosters. We'll take a look at all three, one by one.

Jeremy Guthrie

Guthrie may be going mile-high, but Coors Field isn't quite the terror it was in the 1990s. Homers are likely to be a problem, given Guthrie's 41% career flyball rate, but Camden Yards wasn't a great place for him either, and the difference may not be that drastic. Though he'll be going to the world's most feared hitter's park (and owner of second place on ESPN's park factor list) he'll be staying away from Boston, Toronto, and New York (the third, fourth, and sixth-most hitter friendly parks in baseball) on the road, replacing them with trips to San Franciso, San Diego, and Los Angeles, so the park change isn't as bad as it sounds.

Of course, that isn't counting the hitters themselves. Pitching for Baltimore is more than pitching for a bad team, it's facing four of baseball's toughest offenses night after night. The general quality difference between the AL and the NL should help, too. Overall, the change in environment should be a wash at the worst for Guthrie's rate stats and strikouts, and could well give them a boost.

The biggest thing this trade has going for Guthrie and his potential owners, though, is in the wins category. The Rockies weren't exactly a great team last year, but they were a lot better than the Orioles and finished second in the NL in runs scored (some of that might have been the park...). As a team that underperformed its pythagorean record and plays in a competitive division, the Rockies make sense as a bounceback team; it's easy to imagine improvement showing up in Guthrie's wins statistic.

Finally, pitching for the Rockies means you can maximize Guthrie's return by playing him when he pitches on the road and sitting him on the bench for home games. It's especially easy in daily leagues, though the strategy can be managed in weekly leagues, too. With an ADP of 350.53 (and a draft percentage of under two!), Guthrie is being drafted behind the likes of Bruce Chen and the shell of John Lackey. He won't make or break any fantasy leagues, but he deserves a lot more consideration than he's getting.

Jason Hammel

Hammel once showed enough promise to make him an off-again, on-again member of my primary fantasy rotation last year. I'm hoping not to make that mistake again, though the trade to Baltimore might give him what he needed: weaker competition for a rotation spot. With an abysmal 4.97 K/9, the 2011 Hammel didn't belong on anyone's fantasy roster. Two years ago was a different story, though, as he posted a strikeout rate over seven and a FIP of 3.70. The Orioles will have no choice but to give Hammel a long look, giving you plenty of time to see if the strikeouts come back. If they do, he could be a useful starter again. If not, stay away. Far away.

Matt Lindstrom

The nature of Lindstrom's fantasy value is simple and binary: he either closes for the Orioles or he doesn't. As of now, Jim Johnson is the favorite for the ninth-inning job, but it's one of the least secure in baseball. Spring Training will likely be an open audition, in fact, even if it isn't one in name. Importantly, Johnson is new to the job, and Matt Lindstrom is a Proven Closer (with partial seasons for two different teams) who Throws Hard (he averages about 96 mph on his fastball). Sure, you'd think the Orioles had learned their lesson with Kevin Gregg, but some teams never learn.

Finally, for those of you watching closers and setup men, note that this probably makes Rex Brothers next in line for Colorado's closer job should Rafael Betancourt fail or get hurt.





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