Cleveland Indians


Go Bold Or Go Home: Justin Masterson, Top-15 Pitcher

Among all qualified starters in baseball last season, only five pitchers threw 193 or more innings, struck out at least one batter per inning and had a SIERA of 3.32 or better.  Four were Yu Darvish, Felix Hernandez, Chris Sale and Max Scherzer; the fifth was Justin Masterson.  So by that metric, Masterson is actually a top-FIVE pitcher in the big leagues, so I not only proved my "top fifteen" point, I went above and beyond!  That was easy!  See you next week, folks!

.....okay, fine, it'll take more than some statistical cherry-picking to get the job done.  Fair enough.  There seems to be some inherent resistence to acknowledging Masterson as a top-tier fantasy pitcher, given his modest 218.80 average draft position (hat tip to Mock Draft Central) that ranks him as the only 56th-highest pitcher taken in this year's drafts.  Even if you don't agree with me that Masterson is on the verge of a major breakout, I think it's safe to say that there aren't 55 guys better than the Indians ace.

In fact, forget being 'on the verge,' it's possible Masterson took his big step forward last year.  Masterson has always been known as an elite groundball pitcher --- he led the league with a 58% ground ball rate in 2013 and he has the sixth-highest GBR of any pitcher in baseball over the last four seasons.  What changed Masterson's game last year, however, was his ability to miss bats.  Masterson had a career 7.1 K/9 over his first five seasons but he bumped that up to a career-best 9.1 K/9 in 2013.  In the Roto Authority starting pitcher rankings, Alex Steers McCrum even lumped Masterson into his group of "strikeout pitchers with too many walks." a designation that would've seemed unlikely a year ago.

There's a terrible pun coming in a few paragraphs, just so you know.  Be ready.

It seems like Masterson was able to goose his strikeout numbers by cutting back on the use of his sinker.  Masterson used his sinker a whopping 58.3% of the time in 2012, well above his career 44.5% mark, and it's perhaps no surprise that Masterson changed things up given how he struggled that season.  In 2013, however, the righty cut his sinker rate down to 49.4% and increased the use of his slider to 26.9%, by far the most Masterson has thrown the pitch in any of his four full Major League seasons.  If Masterson keeps the sinker in check, there's no reason he couldn't have another season of averaging at least one strikeout per inning. 

So that's the strikeouts accounted for, and Masterson should still get his fair share of wins given that the Tribe projects to be a pretty good team this season.  My only concern is that his ERA and WHIP could be slightly above what you'd want from the ace of a fantasy rotation.  Ideally you'd like a pitcher with a sub-3.00 ERA and a sub-1.20 WHIP, but with Masterson it could be more likely that he'll post something in the neighborhood of a 3.30 ERA and a WHIP in the 1.20-1.30 range.  This comes with the territory of having an ace groundball pitcher and an infield defense that includes UZR/150 nightmares Asdrubal Cabrera and Jason Kipnis, not to mention the possibly-comic stylings of Carlos Santana as a regular third baseman.  Still, while grounders are still Masterson's bread and butter, his increased strikeout prowess will help him overcome his infield's miscues.

Seriously, it's one of the more obvious, no-creativity puns you could imagine when discussing Justin Masterson, so of course Mark can't help but make it.  Brace yourself.

Between the flaws of a poor infield defense and a too-high walk rate (his 3.54 BB/9 ranked a mediocre 73rd amongst all qualified starters), Masterson definitely has a few warts, but I have a couple more reasons why I think he'll end the year as a top-drawer fantasy starter.  Injury concerns aren't really a factor given how Masterson is averaging 199 innings over the last four years, plus there's the ever-popular "contract year" narrative.  The Tribe had been talking to Masterson about an extension but talks have fallen through, so it's very likely that the right-hander will test free agency next winter.  Not that Masterson isn't a motivated guy anyway, but he'll have all the more incentive to perform well, as he'll have a $100MM+ contract waiting for him if he duplicates last season's numbers in 2014.

As noted, Masterson is way off the radar of many fantasy owners, so even if you missed him in your draft, there's still a chance to acquire him in a trade before Opening Day.  If you have a promising but unproven arm like Zach Wheeler or Tony Cingriani (to name a couple of pitchers ahead of Masterson on the ADP list), I'd certainly see about unloading either for Masterson.  Your rival manager may think he's getting a steal in picking a hot young arm while you can sit back and take comfort in a more reliable option.

Are you ready?  Here it comes.

All things considered, owning Masterson could end up being a masterpiece of fantasy roster move.

...wow, could that have been shoehorned in any more?  Brutal.



Go Bold or Go Home: Yan Gomes Can Be Your Hero Too

 You know Yan Gomes is a hero. Everyone knows. Well, okay, maybe you don't, but he’s a hero in Brazil. In America he plays for Cleveland, so maybe you didn’t know about his heroic deeds.

But you’d better find out before this year’s draft day, because Gomes is the catcher for you.  Those of you who actually read the article I linked above (not most of you) know that Indians manager Terry Francona wants Gomes for his starting catcher next year, over lead-gloved superstar Carlos Santana. Plus, Cleveland can actually put a better lineup on the field that way, with Santana going to first (or third?) and Nick Swisher to the outfield.

Before we dive into the Gomes’s stats, let’s just think about that and let it sink in. The Indians have one of the best hitting catchers in baseball. But they move him to first base. They have a decent hitting first baseman, but they move him into an outfield corner. New guy comes in to play catcher. And the offense gets better?

That’s not how it usually works, and it tells us something special about Gomes: the Indians think he’s better than any of their options to play corner outfield, first base, or third base. That may say bad things about the Indians’ hitting options…or it may say some very good things about Yan Gomes. I’m sure defense comes into play here as well, but that didn’t stop Cleveland from splitting the difference and giving Santana half-time work at catcher the last few years. At very least, Gomes’s management believes in him, and that’s a good place to start. 

I mean, what if Mike Napoli’s management had believed in him when he was an Angel? He would have been fantasy gold. Gomes is too.

My Mike Napoli comparison isn’t exactly fair. For one thing, it looks like Gomes can play catcher effectively—hence the increasing playing time. For another, it looks like he can sort of hit for average, as he batted .294 in 88 games last year. He did this with a lofty .342 BABIP, but the result was good enough that if his BABIP regresses to the mean, he shouldn’t kill your average. 

But you aren’t drafting Gomes for his average—I mean, that’s not why anyone drafts Napoli. You’re drafting Gomes—and you are, I know it—for his power. His .481 slugging was behind only Wilin Rosario and Jason Castro among catchers with at least 300 PA. For those keeping score, that’s better than Joe Mauer, Buster Posey, and his own teammate, Carlos Santana. 

Like I was when I first investigated Gomes, I know you’re thinking, “Small sample size!” And you’re right to do so. But Gomes has been doing this for a while. In 2012, he crushed the ball in AAA. The year before, he did the same thing in AA, and the year before that…well, you get the picture. He’s got three years in a row of .200-plus ISO’s in the minor leagues under his belt, which is to say that his Major League success isn’t really a surprise. It’s more like the logical next step in his development.

Now, one caveat is that he was old for each of those levels when he played at them and he doesn’t come with any kind of top-prospect pedigree. I don’t know if Gomes will be a great catcher for years and years to come; he might be one of those guys who comes up a little late and doesn’t last all that long.

Who cares? (Except, you know, Gomes, the Indians, and every incipient baseball fan in Brazil.) Unless you’re drafting for a dynasty league, we could care less what happens to Gomes after 2014 and all the indicators seem to say that right now, this year, his talent is ready to play at a high level in the Major Leagues. Gomes can catch and he can hit for power and that’s a great fantasy combination. 

If you’re in a single-catcher league, you can safely wait quite a while to snag Gomes. There are a lot of more exciting name-brand options out there, and frankly, all but the last couple teams to draft a catcher in that format will probably be happy with their production. If you target Gomes, you won’t need to break the bank on Yadier Molina or Brian McCann, but you won’t need to settle for Evan Gattis or Jarrod Saltalamacchia either.

In two-catcher leagues, the stakes get higher, but that’s all the more reason to nab Gomes. He’ll produce like a number one catcher if you need him to, but you should be able to draft him late enough to pair with one of the elite options and get a serious advantage in the catcher slot. 

Whatever your format, whatever your strategy, I’m prepared to boldly predict that Yan Gomes will have a great year, and slug over .450 in full playing time. (By the way, that’s exactly .001 points better than Steamer projects him for. Thanks for the support, Steamer.) In a better-than-you-think Cleveland lineup, Gomes ought to be pretty helpful in the counting stats as well. With some BABIP luck, he could be a four-category guy.

Gomes is a national hero in one of the world’s biggest countries. And he can be a hero on your fantasy team too.



Closer Updates: Committees, Injury Returns, Strugglers, and the Early Trading Block

Jason Grilli might have blown his first save, but that doesn't mean he's in hot water. Arguably the season's best closer so far, he won't be making it into any of this week's categories of concern--not even as a trade target, with the Pirates nestled into the second NL Wild Card. Grilli's owners may be lucky, but below are four categories of closers worth worrying about.

Committees

The pernicious closer-by-committee might be favored in sabermetric circles, but it never gets much love from the mainstream media. Why? Because of those of us who play fantasy baseball, I bet. We might have been part of the "sabermetric revolution" at its beginning, but there's nothing we hate more as a group than the closer-by-committee. All those saves going to waste, spread out across three or four fantasy teams....

Brewers

Last week, Jim Henderson made it back to the Majors from the DL, but he didn't slide right back into his old role. Instead, Francisco Rodriguez was allowed to chase the 300-saves milestone. Well, K-Rod is still chasing it, stuck as he is on number 299. Not that Rodriguez hasn't pitched well, but it'd be nice to get this situation down to a single closer. More than likely, Henderson reclaims the job after K-Rod finally gets that big save, but there's no way to be sure. Keep running both pitchers out there for now, as neither will hurt your ratios in the eighth or ninth innings, despite Henderson's eighth inning blown save.

Tigers

Jose Valverde didn't have to fall very far to fall out of favor in the Motor City. The good news is that none of us spent a high draft pick on him. Other than that, it looks like manager Jim Leyland will play whatever matchups suit him, at least until he gets so tired of reporters' questions that he just names Bruce Rondon closer out of frustration. The committee cast has changed a bit since the beginning of the season, with Rondon and Al Alburquerque in AAA, and Octavio Dotel on the 60-Day DL. Expect Valverde to continue getting a few saves, while Joaquin Benoit, Drew Smyly, and Phil Coke share the job with him. Benoit is the group's early leader and a good choice for a pickup, the Tigers seem likely to have a closer high on their spring shopping list. In fact, it wouldn't be a shock to see them swing deals for more than one reliever before the deadline.

Mariners

This is easily the ugliest of the committee situations. Tom Wilhelmsen is no longer the team's closer, though they seem to hold out hope that he'll sort out his struggles. In the meantime, he's already blown a save as a committee member. Other possibilities for saves include Carter Capps, Charlie Furbush, and Oliver Perez. (Yes, the Oliver Perez who was once a promising lefty strikeout pitcher who completely imploded, signed a big contract with the Mets, imploded again, and threw a temper tantrum about going to the bullpen.) None is a great option, though Capps is likely to get the most save opps going forward, thanks to his right-handedness, though he coughed up a pair of runs without recording any outs in yesterday's brutal loss to the Angels. Any pitcher who does emerge from this quagmire with a closing gig is a decent investment, because the Mariners aren't in the position to seek outside help in relief. In fact, they're probably just frustrated that Wilhelmsen couldn't stay good long enough to get traded.

Injury Returns

It's never exactly clear what will happen when a closer returns from the DL. Sometimes the replacement keeps the job, sometimes the old guy takes it right back, sometimes the old closer is eased back into his role, and sometimes a committee develops. The plan for the teams below seems to be to reinstate the old closer, but you never quite know for sure.

Indians

I bet you never thought you'd be excited for Chris Perez to come take his job back from Vinnie Pestano. The Indians have scuffled hard since Perez's injury, though Pestano finally recorded his second save of the year. Perez won't be coming back immediately, following a terrible rehab appearance and flawed mechanics. If he gets his delivery sorted out quickly, he'll be back in the ninth just as quickly. If he happened to get dropped in your league, snatch him back up.

Rockies

Rafael Betancourt is inching his way back to the Majors and is scheduled to face hitters today. If everything goes well, he could be back relatively soon. It's far too early to drop Rex Brothers, but don't expect him to keep Betancourt from getting his job back when he does return. And it's advisable to hang onto Brothers after that, though, as he's pitched to a great ERA and Betancourt isn't exactly the healthiest closer in the ninth.

Diamondbacks

Heath Bell has been surprisingly good for Arizona. Not, you know, great, but better than we expected. The homers have given him trouble, and his job could be in danger if J.J. Putz comes back. And Putz might just be back soon, as he began his rehab assignment yesterday--a lot earlier than was initially expected. While he may take a little while in the minors, he could also be back in the Diamondbacks' closer role quickly. He was dropped in many leagues, but I'd advise picking him back up if you've got the room to stash him.

Strugglers

A couple of the early season's best closers have hit some serious rough patches and owners should monitor their situations.

Red Sox

Andrew Bailey has pitched horrifically in his last few outings, to the tune of an 11.25 ERA in his last four appearances. Manager John Farrell says that Bailey has "some work to do," but "for the time being...is definitely our closer." Well, doesn't he sound excited to keep Bailey in the ninth, and admits that he would consider other options, "at least temporarily." Bailey is clearly on a short leash, so Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara might be good choices for anyone speculating on saves. Update: Bailey has used up his short leash and is out as closer for now. Pick up Tazaway or Uehara.

Phillies

Jonathan Papelbon is the sort of name you don't expect to have to write very often in a column like this, but he's blown two saves over the course of three days. They're just his first two blown saves of the year, but keep an eye on him. Fortunately for Papelbon and his owners, he should have a long leash given his contract and track record. Though the Phillies appear not to be contending this year, they say they aren't considering dealing Papelbon or their other expensive players.

Early Trading Block

Major League teams aren't likely to be making trades for almost another month, but fantasy owners need to be quicker with the trade trigger. After all, when a closer is traded into a setup job in the real world, his fantasy trade value pretty much hits zero. Any closer on a non-contending team is a good candidate to get traded away, though teams with 2014 ambitions are more likely to hang on to their relievers if they're young and inexpensive. Right now, two closers are generating the most trade buzz.

Marlins

Shockingly, the Fish aren't contending this year for anything but worst team in baseball. They might even beat the Astros for that one. Steve Cishek has been pretty good for them as their closer, but a team playing under .300 doesn't need a good closer. Expect Cishek to get dealt to a contender. Unfortunately, he's unlikely to close for any of them. If you've got him, it would be a good idea to deal him early, even for a mediocre return.

Twins

Glen Perkins is a little more complicated than Cishek, as there are contending teams for which he might close. Like the Tigers. The Red Sox could hypothetically be interested in his ninth-inning services too, but if he is dealt, he's most likely going to set up. He should command more than Cishek on the trade market, but he's also a good one to deal. 

Dont' forget to check out @CloserNews on Twitter for all up-to-the-minute updates on closers around baseball.



Shutdown Corner: AL Central Closer Roundup

Baseball players are showing up at Spring Training sites, everyone! And as spring gets within reach, I'm posting closer roundups for every division in baseball. This week, it's the mysterious, murky, up-for-grabs American League Central on the hot seat. As always, you can check back in on our previous roundups: AL WestNL East, AL East and NL Central.

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.

Chicago White Sox: Addison Reed

Last season, Addison Reed -- a guy who was highly hyped as a sleeper closer by many fantasy mavens -- made good on most of his promise and held down the White Sox closer job for most of the season. While he turned in 29 saves, the rest of his numbers weren't quite as stellar as owners would have hoped: a 22.7% strikeout rate was lower than anything he'd posted in the minors by a fair bit, and his ERA sat at an ugly 4.75, despite peripherals that gave him an FIP of 3.64.

On the bright side, Reed is still young for a closer at 24, and will have the ninth inning all to himself this season. He's ensconced in his position now, and he still projects to improve upon last season's rate stats and K totals. This is a guy who just doesn't have the actual performance to move up to Tier 2 yet, but is on the leading edge of Tier 3 closers. He could have a big season.

Projected Tier: Tier 3 (needs more strikeouts / consistency to be a upper-echelon closer)

Next in line: Jesse Crain

Cleveland Indians: Chris Perez

After 2011, I swore I'd never draft Chris Perez again. The Cleveland closer has a history of cardiac saves, and Perez had more meltdowns in 2011 than the Springfield nuclear power plant. So you can imagine my surprise when 2012 was a pretty great season for Perez. Last year, Perez was actually pretty reliable, posting solid rate stats (3.59 ERA and 1.13 WHIP), watching his strikeout rate rebound (up to 24.4%) and grabbing a career-high 39 saves.

Nevertheless, I'm still a little wary about drafting Perez again this season. While he's a good bet to grab you saves, his performance is still a bit too up-and-down for my taste, without some of the upside of other closers. And, of course, the Indians don't look to be contenders this season, and could very likely trade their expensive closer to a team closer to the playoffs. When factoring in Vinnie Pestano's readiness to close, Perez might only be a closer for half the season.

Projected Tier: Tier 3 (Perez is unstable, and always close to being traded)

Next in line: Vinnie Pestano

Detroit Tigers: Bruce Rondon

In truth, Bruce Rondon's name is here as a placeholder, because the Tigers are really giving no strong indication who will close for the team in 2013. With Jose Valverde (likely) leaving via free agency, Jim Leyland has yet to commit to a new stopper for the team in 2013. With plenty of decent-but-not-great options in the bullpen, trying to guess on the Tigers' closer before Spring Training kicks off seems like a fool's errand.

If we (as fantasy owners) are lucky, though, Bruce Rondon will be the guy for Detroit. Rondon has a big 10o+ mph heater, and if it plays up in Spring Training, the team may want to give him a shot at the ninth inning. We're still not entirely sure if Rondon can consistently get his big fastball over the plate, but if he can, he could be a huge strikeout machine in the mold of an Aroldis Chapman. And Rondon could certainly be a keeper for future years, provided he stays healthy.

But yeah, I wouldn't draft a closer from Detroit this year. I think it will take them a few months to figure out who owns the ninth, if they ever do.

Projected Tier: Tier 4 (too unstable to call at this point)

Next in line: Brayan Villarreal, Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, Al Alburquerque, Phil Coke

Kansas City Royals: Greg Holland

Without too much fanfare, Greg Holland has been one of the best relievers in baseball over the past two seasons. Last season was the first in which Holland was a "real closer" for part of a season, but the 27-year-old hurler did himself proud. A 31.5% strikeout rate puts him in the top tier of late-game hurlers, and a 2.25 FIP means that we can continue to expect big things going forward. While he's still prone to too many walks and hits (1.37 WHIP last year), he's probably one of your best bets when it comes to mid-level closers.

I'd be comfortable drafting him in the 5-10 range among closers for next season. Don't break the bank to add him (he's not going to put up a Craig Kimbrel season, most likely), but he's probably going to be better than most other late-inning options next season.

Projected Tier: Tier 2 (solid strikeout rate, not much competition, recent track record is great)

Next in line: Aaron Crow

Minnesota Twins: Glen Perkins

Many Minnesota fans must be breathing a sigh of relief that the Matt Capps era is over in the Twin Cities. Though Perkins was once another unremarkable Twins starter, he has reinvented himself as a reliever, one who features a solid fastball-slider combo able to get whiffs at an above-league-average rate. I know. It is weird to see that written about a Twins pitcher.

Perkins has posted very sharp rate stats over the past two years, with ERAs sitting right around 2.50 and a 2012 WHIP of just 1.03. Not too shabby. When you factor in the fact that the Twins don't have a strenuous competition for the job, and that the team doesn't seem likely to add another bullpen piece to oust him, Perkins looks to be sitting pretty for 2013.

The only tough question with Perkins is whether or not he'll get the number of save opportunities necessary to make him an upper-tier closer. My guess is that, well, that's tough to guess. But if Chris Perez got 39 saves last season for the lowly Indians, there's a pretty good chance that Perkins could get 30 for the Twins in 2013. Don't hesitate to draft him.

Projected Tier: Tier 2 (good strikeouts, good rate stats, homers can beat him up)

Next in line: Jared Burton

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 the last installment of the Closer Roundup series: a look at the NL West.

All data from FanGraphs.



Closer Updates: Balfour, Soria, Perez, Thornton

It's never too late to squeeze in an extra mock or 10, but for the most part, real draft season is finally upon us. Only about a week remains till Opening Day in Japan, and you'll want to have conducted your draft by then so as to account for the players who will partake in those ballgames. After all, every stat accrued counts.

Now that the drafts count, remember to study up on the latest in injuries and role battles. It seems obvious, but at some point we've all been part of a draft in which some slacker selects a recently DL'd type in the 12th -- to the snickers of everyone in the chat forum.

On that note, here's the latest on a few bullpen situations you'll want to be apprised of heading into the big day.  For up-to-the-minute bullpen updates, follow CloserNews on Twitter.

Grant Balfour, Athletics

Jon Heyman threw us a curveball, guessing incorrectly that Brian Fuentes would be named the Athletics' closer about 20 minutes before manager Bob Melvin announced Grant Balfour had the job.  Hopefully you weren't finishing up a draft during the interim of those two tweets.  Fantasy owners had been preferring Balfour slightly, but were avoiding the situation in general until the 19th round.  Balfour has only 10 career saves to Fuentes' 199, but is clearly the superior pitcher.  He now belongs in that uncomfortable closer-drafting period, around picks 170-210, and is as good a bet as Chris Perez, Kyle Farnsworth, Frank Francisco, Javy Guerra, Matt Capps, Matt Thornton, Jim Johnson, and Brett Myers.  - this paragraph by Tim Dierkes

Joakim Soria, Royals

Soria exited his latest ineffective Cactus League appearance mid-inning due to pain in his pitching elbow. Sure enough, he underwent an MRI, which revealed damage to his ulnar collateral ligament. That ligament, folks, is the one that can lead to Tommy John surgery, a procedure Soria's already had earlier in his career.

While a second TJ is not confirmed for Soria, this is obviously not an encouraging development. Even if he can avoid surgery, I would expect him to be out well beyond Opening Day, leaving the door open for Jonathan Broxton or Greg Holland to take the reins as closer (I'm omitting Aaron Crow for now, as it sounds like he will be splitting his season between the bullpen and rotation).

Of those two, I'd like to see Holland get a shot at closing. His surface stats were superb last season, and the peripherals (2.22 SIERA) suggest it was no fluke. With a booming strikeout rate and very solid control, Holland is more than capable of holding down the job. As for Brox, well, we all have that T-shirt. He was once an elite stopper, but he hasn't been the same guy since that outing -- you know, that 48-pitch debacle in June 2010. He was terrible in the second half that season and missed basically all of last season. Even if he's fully healthy -- which I hope he is -- is it fair to expect him to return to his old form?

In any event, we'll have to get official word from the Royals on Soria's status -- and his potential replacement -- but be sure you're up to speed before your draft.

Chris Perez, Indians

CP has recovered quickly from an oblique injury suffered early in camp. The right-hander threw a bullpen session this weekend, is slated to return to Cactus League action this week, and projects to be ready by Opening Day.

That's a net win, because injuries aren't cool, but for fantasy purposes, the Tribe could do far better. Perez was one of the worst closers in baseball last season by the peripherals, with very little daylight between his low strikeout rate and high walk rate. SIERA sure wasn't impressed: 4.65.

Vinnie Pestano is waiting in the wings, and he racks up Ks by the bunches, but for now, it looks like Perez is still the man. Don't make Perez anything more than one of the last -- if not the last -- closers off the board, but hey, we all need saves, and he has the job if he doesn't suffer any further injury setbacks.

Matt Thornton, White Sox

Sox skipper Robin Ventura (still not used to calling him that) tabbed Thornton as the tentative leader to close before camp even opened, and with Opening Day not far off, the first-year manager's word looks to be holding true.

Chris Sale, who vultured some saves from Sergio Santos last year, is now out of the picture because he's in the starting rotation. He was never expected to be a threat, though, because his transition has been in the works since last season. Instead, rookie Addison Reed was thought to be Thornton's stiffest competition, but his lack of The Experience seems to have earned him no favors with Ventura. Surprisingly, it's Jesse Crain who is also vying for saves, although he has been dealing with an oblique strain, presumably giving Thornton a leg up.

Thornton is the guy to target until further notice, and frankly, he could be a good value pick. After a disappointing start to 2011 (marred by some bad luck, too) that ultimately saw him demoted from the closer's role, the lefty pretty much bounced back to his career norms. If Thornton gets the job again out of camp, I wouldn't expect that to happen again. Draft with relative confidence.



Position/Role Battles: The Indians' C/1B/DH

There are a number of players swirling around the Indians' catching, first base and DH positions, but there is only one constant --- Carlos Santana.  The young slugger is coming off a 27-homer season and is the cornerstone of the Tribe's lineup, so the club's obvious priority is to keep him in the lineup every day.  While his bat plays best at catcher, Santana's defensive shortcomings and the Tribe's desire to keep him fresh and healthy will net Santana a lot of time at both first base and DH this season. 

It goes without saying that of the players listed in this post, Santana is clearly the best fantasy option.  You have the luxury of keeping him as your fantasy catcher all season along, but Santana's position in the real-life Cleveland lineup will have a domino effect on several other members of the Tribe.  I'll rank the rest in order of their fantasy value in 2012 ...

Lou Marson: If you're in a league with one starting catcher, it's very hard to find a backup.  If you're in a league with TWO starting catcher spots, then forget about backups; it's a stretch to find two productive starters at the shallowest position in baseball.  You've got to be on the lookout to fill that second starter or backup-catcher slot with part-time backstops who have good splits and are guaranteed to get regular playing time.

Marson fits this profile to a T.  He has a .285/.367/.395 line in 199 career plate appearances against southpaws; it's a relatively small sample size, but it aligns with the .750 OPS Marson posted in his seven minor league seasons. Marson is also just 25 years old, so his bat could even still improve.

As a right-handed hitter, Marson is a rare commodity on an Indians roster dominated by lefty bats.  His production against southpaws will net him most, if not all, of the starts when the Tribe faces a left-hander, while the switch-hitting Santana (who destroys lefty pitching) will move to DH or first.  Even if Marson just gets 260-270 plate appearances in 2012, a .750 OPS is pretty solid for a second catcher, or even for a backup that you can rotate into the lineup if your full-time starter has a splits problem of his own.

Travis Hafner: "Pronk" turns 35 in June, hasn't played in the field since 2007, and has battled injuries in each of the past three seasons. While the perception is that Hafner has fallen off the map since his huge years in 2004-06, he is still a dangerous (if limited) fantasy threat.  Hafner is strictly a platoon player now, only dangerous against right-handed pitching ... but boy, he's still very dangerous in that limited capacity, posting no worse than an .863 OPS against righties over the past three seasons.  

Personally speaking, I try to avoid DH-only players in fantasy baseball.  I enjoy being able use my utility spot on a bench player who's on a hot streak or having a breakout year, rather than locking it up with one DH for the entire season. If you have a DH-only player like David Ortiz that's worth playing every day, more power to you, but me, I prefer to have a bit of flexibility in my lineup.  That said, if you're going to draft a designated hitter, make it one with killer splits like Hafner so you can start him whenever the Tribe faces a right-hander. 

I'm placing Marson ahead of Hafner simply because Marson only has been ranked against other catchers, whereas Hafner has to compete against literally every other hitter in baseball as a utility player.  A .750 OPS in 270 plate appearances from Marson is more valuable than Hafner's .863 OPS in the same amount of playing time since that production from a catcher is harder to find than Hafner's production in the utility spot.  Marson is still a question mark early in his career, to be sure, but Hafner's injury question gives him a red flag of his own. When in doubt, always take the catcher with upside over the aging DH.

Casey Kotchman: After signing a minor league deal with the Rays last offseason, Kotchman ended up as one of 2011's biggest bargains, posting a .306/.378/.422 line as Tampa Bay's regular first baseman.  That performance may have saved his Major League career, and it resulted in Kotchman signing a one-year, $3MM deal with Cleveland in February. 

If you picked up Kotchman after his hot start last year, congratulations.  If you actually drafted Kotchman last year, then whoa, start playing the lottery. Big season aside, however, it would be almost as surprising if Kotchman were to repeat his 2011 performance in 2012.  Last season was Kotchman's first solid campaign since 2007, he has a wide gap in his splits (.838 OPS vs. RHP, .709 OPS vs. LHP in 2011) and the fact that his OPS dropped by almost 100 points in the second half indicate that he is probably best served as a platoon player.  A left-handed hitter, Kotchman will share time at first with ...

Matt LaPorta: The centerpiece of the package Cleveland received from Milwaukee in the C.C. Sabathia trade, LaPorta has thus far not delivered on the Major League level, hitting .238/.304/.397 in 1,007 plate appearances.  At age 27 and entering his prime years, this could well be a make-or-break season for LaPorta. Kotchman's presence means both that the team can ease LaPorta into a platoon and also give them a veteran fallback should LaPorta struggle again.

Fantasy owners have been picking LaPorta in the later rounds of the last few seasons' worth of drafts, hoping the vaunted prospect will finally break out.  With Kotchman on board this year taking at-bats, I'd guess LaPorta's draft stock could be reduced even further, though if there was ever a season for him to finally break out, on paper this should be the one.  He has demolished minor league pitching so he has nothing left to prove on that level --- either LaPorta produces in 2012 or else he gets tagged with the dreaded "Quadruple-A" label.

Shelley Duncan: The 32-year-old veteran will factor into the first base and DH mix, though his primary contribution to the Indians may come in left field.  Grady Sizemore's health is a question mark, and with the latest news that Sizemore will miss Opening Day due to a back strain, Michael Brantley will now probably start the year as Cleveland's center fielder, putting Duncan and several other outfielders in line for playing time in left. 

Duncan is out of options, but his right-handed bat is probably enough to keep him around anyway on the lefty-heavy Indians (though curiously, Duncan had a .918 OPS in 133 PAs against righties and a .679 OPS in 114 PAs against lefties, a large enough gap that it almost evened out his career splits). Duncan is not a viable fantasy option unless you're in a deep AL-only league or you're the same Nostradamus that saw Kotchman's 2011 season coming.

Fantasy Outlook: To recap, when the Indians face a right-handed starter, their lineup will likely feature Hafner at designated hitter, Santana catching and Kotchman at first.  When a southpaw is on the mound, Santana will DH, Marson will catch and either LaPorta or Duncan will play first.  (Or, one of those two is the DH and Santana plays first.)

While Santana will clearly be the first Indian taken and will be gone by the third round at the latest, Marson and Hafner should both still be around by the 19th or 20th rounds of most drafts.  Some fantasy owners could be swayed by Kotchman's 2011 numbers and select him around this time or even a couple of rounds earlier, but I wouldn't take him with anything but a last-round flier. The same goes for LaPorta, despite all of that potential. I wouldn't draft Duncan at all, but he could provide limited value off the waiver wire depending on how the Tribe's left field or first base situations develop throughout the season.



Time To Drop Grady Sizemore?

THURSDAY: Sizemore is on the DL indefinitely due to the knee bruise, and surgery hasn't been ruled out.  I'd suggest waiting for further information before cutting him, especially if you have a DL spot available.

WEDNESDAY: Grady Sizemore was chosen in the second round of many fantasy leagues, so dropping him is a difficult pill to swallow.  Is it time to move on?

Sizemore is getting an MRI on his bruised knee today.  He'll probably miss at least several more games, so cutting him won't hurt in the short-term.  However, the bruise happened on Sunday.  It's not the cause of his 2010 struggles.  As recently as May 13th, Sizemore told Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain Dealer he's healthy despite coming off a couple of September surgeries.

Sizemore has been a huge detriment in fantasy leagues, with a 2010 performance worse than any month he had in '09.  In fact, he was pretty good in July and August of last year before going down in September for elbow and abdominal wall surgery.  On May 11th FanGraphs' Dave Allen worked his magic to explain the problem: "He is swinging at more pitches he shouldn't and at fewer pitches he should."  Sizemore has been uncharacteristically choosing the wrong pitches to swing at and take in his 140 plate appearances this year.

If you have the bench space, you should stash Sizemore.  Assuming his knee checks out, his only real problem is an old-fashioned slump.  140 PAs is a concerning sample, but the guy's 27.  He probably didn't completely forget how to hit.  Those who stick with Sizemore will probably be rewarded with a solid power/speed combo from here on out.



Closer Report: Cleveland Indians

Kerry Wood enters the 2010 season as the Indians' closer.  He's being drafted in the 21st round, which presumably reflects his past health issues and the possibility of a midseason trade.

I'm not too worried about Wood's health, as he managed at least 55 innings in each of the last two seasons.  One consideration is that Wood's $11MM option for 2011 vests with 55 games finished, and the Indians would probably prefer for that not to happen.  Wood finished 50 in '09 and 56 in '08.  The Indians can't get too cute with Wood's role or DL trips, though, or they'll risk a grievance.

There's a good chance Wood is traded midseason, and there's no way to predict whether he'd close for his new team.  While Tony Sipp and Jensen Lewis could merit consideration as his replacement, Chris Perez is my current favorite.  Perez, who came over in the Mark DeRosa trade, had a 10.7 K/9 in 57 innings.  He'll need to improve his walk and home run rates, however.



Garko To The Outfield?

Indians manager Eric Wedge revealed yesterday that Ryan Garko well be tested as an outfielder during Spring Training.

For Garko himself, I can see mild utility in mixed leagues in that he could hit 20 HR with 80 RBI given 500 or so ABs.

The effects on Kelly Shoppach and Victor Martinez are more interesting.  V-Mart can remain a 500 AB guy, which is huge for a catcher.  And if Shoppach gets 400 ABs, he's a threat to repeat as a 20 HR backstop.

It's also possible one of these players is traded.



J.J. Putz Trade Examined

Mets GM Omar Minaya pulled off a blockbuster trade Monday, adding J.J. Putz, Sean Green, and Jeremy Reed to the organization.  Let's take a look at the fantasy baseball ramifications.

Of the three players the Mets added, Putz should have 2009 mixed league value.  The common refrain in the fantasy mags next year might be that Putz lost all his value because he's become a setup man.  That's not true.  If healthy, Putz could be among the best setup men in baseball.  Based on his 2006-07 numbers, he's capable of striking out 80-100 with microscopic ratios.  Plus, he's moving to the NL.  There's also the possibility that Francisco Rodriguez gets injured or isn't available three days in a row, leaving save chances for Putz.  Pick him up in the late rounds and be rewarded.

The Mariners received Aaron Heilman, Endy Chavez, Mike Carp, Franklin Gutierrez, and three minor leaguers.  Heilman is intriguing - he could be squeezed into the rotation, or he could remain in the 'pen and even find save chances.  He could be useful if he rediscovers his control, but should be a bench pickup at best.  I'm not thrilled with the fantasy value of the rest of the package, though Gutierrez could have his uses if you spot-start him against lefties.  And he did toss up a .313/.389/.476 line in the season's final two months.  He should be the Ms' regular center fielder.

The Indians inserted themselves into the deal rather than go all-out to try to get Putz to keep.  Joe Smith and Luis Valbuena do not figure to have fantasy value in '09. 




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