Draft Round Battles

Draft Round Battles: Alvarez Vs. Seager

Go big or go home.  This is my mantra every time I go to an all-you-can-eat pasta buffet, and it's the mantra many fantasy managers take when putting together a team.  Everyone has one or two managers in their league (or you're one yourself) who load up their rosters with players who are injury risks, coming off poor seasons, youngsters looking to break out into stardom, etc.  For managers like these, Go Bold Or Go Home isn't just a feature column, it's a way of life.

These types of managers love Pedro Alvarez.  "Look at that raw power!  He hit 36 homers last year!  With 100 RBI!  I don't care if he strikes out more often Mark did at finding a senior year prom date, Alvarez is my guy!  If he gets his average up even just a bit, look out!"  First of all, I didn't appreciate the cheap shot, fictional straw man fantasy manager.  Secondly, while said managers can cut right to the bone by bringing up painful high school memories, they may have a point.

Alvarez hit .233/.296/.473 in 614 PA last season, and it's of no small concern to the Pirates and their fans that Alvarez's walk rate dropped to a career-low (7.8%) after, ahem, "peaking" with a career-high 9.7% in 2012.  The slugger still hasn't surpassed the .326 OBP he posted over 95 games in his 2010 rookie season so forget about Alvarez inheriting Adam Dunn's title as the Three True Outcomes King; Alvarez's only two outcomes seem to be "hit a dinger" or "strike out."

That said, walks don't account for much in a 5x5 fantasy league.   Sure, a guy who gets on base less often will score fewer runs (Alvarez only crossed the plate 70 times last year) but by and large, if a guy is able to give you 36 HR/100 RBI from the third base position, you don't mind if he underachieves a little bit in the run category.  And, like Dunn, you also don't mind trading off lower batting average for that kind of extra pop.

Alvarez currently holds a 73.06 average draft position in Mock Draft Central's latest ADP report, putting him just in front of his 77.5 ADP doppelganger.  This third baseman is also a left-handed hitter who can't hit southpaws at all, plays in a pitcher-friendly ballpark and yet enjoyed a pretty solid power season in 2013.  This player also topped Alvarez in rWAR, fWAR, wRC+ and OPS+, and I can probably stop being coy with his name since it's right there in the post title --- it's Kyle Seager

The Silver Bullet Man hit .260/.338/.426 with 22 homers, 69 RBI, 79 runs and even nine steals over 695 PA last season.  If Alvarez is the new Dunn, maybe Seager can take over from Chase Headley as the player whose value is most limited by his home ballpark.  Over his three-year career, Seager has an .836 OPS in road games and only a .645 OPS at Safeco Field, so it's quite possible that Seager would be a top-five fantasy third baseman if he played anywhere but Seattle.  (Alvarez, for the record, also enjoyed a big edge in away games in 2013 but his home/away splits are almost identical for his career.)

Both players definitely aren't the kind you can just stick in your 3B slot and happily forget about for the rest of the year.  Neither Alvarez or Seager can hit left-handed pitching, and in Seager's case, he's a poor play for the home half of the schedule.  From a 5x5 perspective, however, Seager may have the edge....

  • Runs.  Seager gets on base a bit more and thus will score more.  Also, since the Mariners actually have some quality Major League hitters in the lineup this year, Seager should theoretically score more often.
  • RBI.  Alvarez had the big edge last season but Seager had 86 steaks in 2012.  The improved Seattle lineup should also lead to more opportunities for Seager to drive in runs, so I'll still give this one to Alvarez, but only slightly.
  • Steals.  Seager stole 13 bags in 2012 and nine last year, so he can at least hit the double-digits in the category.  Alvarez has four career steals in four seasons so he's nada in this category.
  • Average.  While Seager's .260 career average is nothing to write home about, it's still better than Alvarez's .235 mark.  Even when Alvarez was ripping up the minors with an .888 OPS, he only had a .278 average (and a .270 in Triple-A).  His contact rates have dipped in each of the last three seasons, so it's hard to see where the "he just needs to get his average up a bit!" argument holds much sway aside from a BABIP spike.
  • Home runs.  While 22 homers counts as a major power surge for a Mariner, there's no question Alvarez holds the edge here.

I've got to confess, I'm not much of a "go big or go home" kind of fantasy manager.  I always hesitate to have players who are utter sinks in a category (besides steals) since adds a bit more pressure to find another player who excels in that category to balance things out.  It's for this reason that I prefer Seager to Alvarez, because while I think Seager also has a better chance of breaking out in 2014,  at the end of the day he's just a less-frustrating pick. 

If you're in a league that goes beyond the 5x5 numbers, Seager becomes even a better pick.  If you track OBP or walks, Seager has the edge (though not by a wide margin, given his career .325 OBP).  Tracking doubles again favors Seager, since doubles aren't a True Outcome.  And if you're in a league that counts negative stats like strikeouts, then Alvarez becomes a burden.

As opposed to when I'm deciding on a fourth plate of spaghetti as a pasta buffet, I'm going to show restraint here and recommend Seager over Alvarez.  While power is an increasingly rare commodity, Alvarez is just too streaky for my liking.

Draft Round Battles: Miller Vs. Teheran

This week's draft battle features two 23-year-old right-handers who stand out as aces of the future, even while being somewhat underrated just because they happen to play for teams who churn out quality pitchers even more often than I churn out quality columns on a near-annual basis.  If Shelby Miller or Julio Teheran had come up in the systems of a somewhat pitching-bereft team, they'd probably get a *little* more hype just for being unique -- as members of the Cardinals and Braves, however, even some great arms tend to get a bit lost in the crowd.

That's not the only way that Miller and Teheran are similar.  If you look at their career numbers from 2012-13,* it makes you want to chew some Doublemint gum.  Miller gets a few more strikeouts, Teheran walks a few less batters and Teheran's ERA is a third of a run higher, a difference that I'd argue is negligible looking at their closer peripherals.

* Teheran debuted a year earlier than Miller and didn't pitch well in his 19 2/3 IP (three starts and two relief appearances in 2011).  Even though we're dealing with sample sizes anyway, I feel okay with not counting Teheran's veritable cup of coffee in the bigs as a 20-year-old.

So their career numbers are basically identical, they both have good defenses behind them and good lineups supporting them, and their average draft positions (142.52 for Teheran, 148.97 for Miller) are virtually identical according to Mock Draft Central's latest mock draft reports.  So how are you supposed to choose between the two?

This matchup is somewhat similar to the Chris Sale vs. Max Scherzer draft battle from a couple of weeks ago, when I called it for Scherzer with the logic that he'd likely have a big edge on wins since the Tigers should be much better than the White Sox in 2014.  Wins are a nebulous stat anyway, and they don't apply in our present battle since (as mentioned) Atlanta and St. Louis are projected to be awesome again this year.   Still, Scherzer also had an edge over Sale in strikeouts, and since Miller records more K's than Teheran, is that enough to put the Shelbyville Shark over the top?

Not in this case.  I'm swayed towards Teheran by a more glaring metric, namely home/away splits.  Teheran missed fewer bats on the road (6.1 K/9) than he has at Turner Field (9.5 K/9) over his career, but besides the K's, he basically the same pitcher no matter where he's throwing.  Miller's home/away strikeout totals are consistent, but everything else is off --- Miller has a 4.48 ERA and 2.33 K/BB in 86 1/3 career road innings, as opposed to a sterling 1.61 ERA and 4.04 K/BB in 100 2/3 IP at Busch Stadium.  Opposing batters have a .775 OPS against Miller in their ballparks and only a .542 OPS against him in St. Louis, while Teheran is more stable, holding batters to .688 OPS in Atlanta and a .724 OPS on the road.

Is this a small thing to nitpick about an otherwise excellent young hurler?  It sure is, gang!  Yet this is all it takes to make me prefer Teheran over Miller, by a tiny margin.  I'm happy starting Teheran anywhere, whereas if Miller was on my fantasy roster, I'd certainly think twice about starting him in a tough opposing ballpark.

A note about innings, since there's increased focus on Miller's arm strength after the Cardinals essentially sat him out for the entire postseason.  I'm not worried --- Miller's combined innings counts in the majors and minors aren't increasing by leaps and bounds and I fully expect he'd be able to throw at least another 173 IP in 2014 and probably a full postseason if (when?) the Cardinals make another deep playoff run.  The Braves, by the way, have been similarly cautious about Teheran's innings and given how Teheran was torched in his lone playoff start last year, we could well be sitting here asking "why'd Atlanta shut down Teheran?" had they made a longer run.

So yeah, even the innings-increase is just about the same with these guys.  Talk about identical; I'm seeing four Krustys here!

Draft Round Battles: Montero Vs. Saltalamacchia

If it's all the same to you, I'll just go ahead and refer to Jarrod Saltalamacchia as "Salty" for the remainder of the column.  It will save ever so many keystrokes and give my poor fingers a break.  In fact, with Lloyd Moseby's blessing, I'd like to propose that we officially hand the "Shaker" nickname over to Salty and then refer to him solely by that nickname AT ALL TIMES in all media (a la nicknames given to Brazilian soccer players).

* = you know, as in salt shaker?  I probably didn't need to explain that joke.  This footnote is pointless.

Okay, so one thing has been settled already.  Now we'll move onto the larger matter of this week's draft round battle, which pits two catchers who had very different 2013 seasons up against each other as we try to predict who will be better in 2014.  I also really wish that Miguel Montero's last name somehow involved the word 'Pepper' so I could make no shortage of terrible puns, but c'est la vie.

Let's start with Saltalam....uh, Salty, who was a cheap power source for fantasy owners in 2011-12 but became a much more solid all-around hitter last season.  Salty only hit 14 homers (a major drop from his 25 dingers in 2012) but put up a .273/.338/.466 slash line along with 65 RBIs and 68 runs for career highs in all those categories. 

Of particular note was that OBP, as Salty had a meager .289 OBP from 2009-12 but was able to get on the basepaths with much more frequency in 2013.  The backstop had a 60.4% contract rate on pitches outside the strike zone and a 28.6% line drive rate overall, easily topping his career numbers by almost six percent in both categories.  So while the next paragraph is going to cast a doubt on Salty's performance from last season, there's no doubt that he did take at least some step forward in his development as a Major League hitter.

And now, the bad news!  It begins with Salty's .372 BABIP, so while he was certainly hitting the ball harder, that 60.4% number tells me that he was less selective at the plate but was bailed out when his hits found a lot of holes.  Despite his overall stronger numbers, 2013 didn't solve Salty's problems from the right side of the plate, as the switch-hitter continued to perform much better against right-handed pitching (.873 OPS in 334 PA) than he did against southpaws (.628 OPS in 136 PA).  This was actually a bigger OPS gap than his career splits (.795 to .599). 

While no catcher is a true "everyday" player in either actual baseball or fantasy baseball, having Salty on your fantasy roster means you need to liberally platoon him and have another solid option on hand as a backup.  If you're in a weekly league, throwing Salty out there every game will cost you any time the Marlins find themselves facing a number of left-handed pitchers in a row.      

And, oh yeah, the Marlins.  Salty is no longer plying his trade at Fenway Park, but rather Marlins Park.  In its two seasons of existence, Marlins Park has been rated as one of the game's worst stadiums for home run hitters, according to Park Factor.  Fenway, interestingly, has been middle-of-the-pack in terms of Park Factor over the last two seasons but needless to say, the last century has told us that Fenway is a pretty hitter-friendly stadium.  Since power is the cornerstone of Salty's game and homers have generally been his only standout feature as a fantasy catcher, his move to Miami could well be enough reason to knock him down a few draft boards.

In fact, Salty has a 269.72 average draft position according to Mock Draft Central's latest ratings, so in a standard 12-team league, nobody is reaching for the Salt until the last round of some drafts.  Just barely ahead of Salty is Montero (269.13 ADP), which seems a bit of a surprise given that Salty is coming off a semi-breakout year and Montero is coming off a disastrous 2013.

After hitting .283/.361/.457 with 58 homers in 1927 PA from 2009-12, Montero was firmly in the second tier of every fantasy manager's catcher rankings, behind only the Poseys and Mauers of the world.  Last year, however, the bottom fell out --- Montero slumped to a .230/.318/.344 slash line, 11 homers, 42 RBI and 44 RBI over 475 PA.

Why this dropoff happened is still a matter of conjecture.  It could've been injury (Montero spent some time on the DL with a bad back), or it was just hard for the slow-moving catcher to beat out the increased number of balls he hit on the ground, given his career-high 1.51 grounder-to-fly ball ratio.  But overall, Montero's peripheral metrics were largely the same as they were during his impressive 2012 season...

...though maybe the problem was that 2012 was an outlier anyway, given Montero's .362 BABIP and his much-improved performance against left-handed pitching.  Montero, like Salty, has also traditionally struggled against southpaws, but in 2012 Montero delivered a solid .767 OPS against lefties to go along with his .859 OPS against righties.  In 2013, however, Montero's BABIP dropped (.282) to below-average levels and his production against southpaws cratered to a .492 OPS in 118 PA. 

Essentially, given the limitations of both catchers, it's a risky proposition to have either Montero or Salty as your primary backstop.  In fact, if you're in a league with just one starting catcher slot, it wouldn't be a bad move to wait until the end of your draft and then try to get them both for a platoon, sitting whichever catcher is facing a lefty on any given day. 

If you're in a two-catcher league and you want only one guy as your C #2, so to speak, then I'd hesitantly take Montero.  He's two years older and he has more miles on his catching odometer than Salty, but since Montero was hands-down the better player over the rest of their careers before 2013, I'll still go with the more proven catcher.  With more BABIP luck and the boost of playing at Chase Field, I prefer the odds of Montero rebounding to the chances of Salty having another "everything goes right" season at Marlins Park.

Draft Round Battles: Scherzer Vs. Sale

As the late, great Gorilla Monsoon used to say, "six of one, half a dozen of the other."  Okay, I'm pretty sure that saying existed well before Monsoon used to bust it out on old pro wrestling broadcasts, but still, it's a pretty sound way of describing two virtually identical items, be they Hulk Hogan vs. the Ultimate Warrior or two AL Central star pitchers.

If you wait until the fifth round to draft your first starter, you're more than happy with Max Scherzer or Chris Sale as the ace of your fantasy rotation.  Scherzer has a 56.87 ADP on Mock Draft Central's latest average draft position reports, while Sale is projected to go only slightly later (a 57.8 ADP).  Since Sale has only been in the White Sox rotation for two years, let's check out how both men performed in 2012-13 as per the 5x5 stats and some other key metrics...

Sale: 3.06 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 28-22 record, 418 strikeouts, 406 1/3 IP, 4.31 K/BB rate, 3.22 FIP, 3.09 xFIP, 3.09 SIERA, 9.9 fWAR, 12.8 rWAR

Scherzer: 3.29 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 37-10 record, 471 strikeouts, 402 IP, 4.06 K/BB rate, 2.99 FIP, 3.19 xFIP, 2.98 SIERA, 11 fWAR, 10.8 rWAR

You have to call the 2012-13 race for Scherzer given his edges in strikeouts and wins.  The latter can be chalked up to team performance --- Scherzer was definitely helped by a strong Tigers squad, while Sale actually went only 11-14 last season thanks to the putrid White Sox lineup.  Since Detroit is expected to contend for the pennant again and the Sox will be thrilled with even a .500 record, Scherzer's wins edge will almost certainly continue.  Heck, he could even pick up more wins now that Joe Nathan is closing games instead of the revolving door of mediocre stoppers the Tigers have rolled out in recent years.

Looking at just the last two seasons limits Scherzer's case, as he put up decent-to-very good numbers from 2009-11 for the Diamondbacks and Tigers.  The knock on Scherzer in those years was that he was always just a step away from really getting it all together, but he was a perfectly solid #4 type of fantasy starter in those years.  He began racking up more strikeouts in 2012 to take a leap forward, and then got even better last season, culminating in the AL Cy Young Award.

I can raise just two minor red flags in regards to Scherzer's performance last year.  One is a .259 BABIP and the other is a career-low 7.6% home run rate in combination with a career-high 44.6% fly ball rate (only Oakland's A.J. Griffin had a higher fly ball rate among all qualified starters).  Scherzer was making them put it in the sky more often than ever in 2013, yet comparatively few of those balls left the park.  It wouldn't surprise me to see that stat correct itself closer to Scherzer's career norms in 2014, so his ERA could be due for a boost into the 3.15/3.20 range, which still isn't exactly anything to get worried about.

If Scherzer does regress just a bit, however, does that allow Sale room to even the score?  What we saw in 2013 was likely Scherzer at his peak, so now it's only a question if he can sustain it.  Sale, on the other hand, is only entering his age-25 season and still has room to grow.  He can't do anything about his win total but could his ERA, WHIP and strikeouts get even better? 

While it must be noted that Sale's first two seasons came out of the bullpen and Scherzer has over twice as many career innings, Sale's career 9.5 K/9 is actually higher than Scherzer's 9.4 career K/9.  Sale was clearly the better pitcher over his first two full seasons as a starter than Scherzer was in his first two full SP years, so it wouldn't be shocking to see him continue this upward trend.

This is one of those situations where I'm pretty confident that Sale will be the better pitcher than Scherzer in 2014 when we look back at the overall numbers and the advanced stats, yet in terms of pure 5x5 fantasy value, I still have to favor Scherzer.  Sale may have the lower ERA and WHIP, though not by a particularly large amount, while Scherzer should have a solid advantage in strikeouts and a potentially massive advantage in wins.  I hate putting this much stock in wins since they're such an arbitrary stat, but just looking at the difference in talent between the Tigers and White Sox rosters makes me pretty confident in saying that Scherzer will get more chances at earning the W's.

In this battle of six vs. half a dozen, it's too close to call, it's an even fight--but consider the Tigers' lineup to be like the ringside manager who illegally interferes behind the referee's back.  It might be a "miscarriage of justice" to ol' Gorilla Monsoon, but all's fair in love, war and fantasy baseball.  That's all Scherzer needs to claim this one.

Draft Round Battles: Reyes Vs. Segura

This is another one of those battles where, if you're in a legacy league, it's no contest.  Take Jean Segura as a keeper for the next several years without thinking about it, no worries.  Just looking at 2014, however, it's much more of a question between Segura and the player to whom is he often compared, Jose Reyes

Segura didn't quite make "the Leap" to superstardom last season but he at least made "the leap" (ah, lowercase!) to being a productive Major League regular in his first year as an everyday player.  Segura hit .294/.329/.423 with 12 homers, 49 RBI, 44 steals and 74 runs in 2013 --- solid numbers, sure, but if you were Segura's fantasy owner last season, you felt the pain from June 1 onward.  Segura hit .354/.393/.550 with eight homers and 31 runs scored over 224 PA in April-May.  Afterwards, he was borderline unplayable, hitting just 261/.292/.354 with four dingers and 43 runs over the last four months.  Even his speed took a hit; Segura was 15-for-16 in stolen base attempts in the first two months and then only 29-for-40 after June 1.

So basically, if you value Segura as a top 50 pick,* you're doing so on the basis of two hot months.  As my Roto Authority colleague Andrew Gephardt recently noted, Segura's power numbers may also have been slightly deceiving, so another 12-homer season could be asking for much given that Segura never even hit as many as 11 dingers over a full minor league campaign.  (Though it's not like he was a poor hitter on the farm, judging from Segura's .313/.367/.439 slash line over 1755 minor league PA.)

* = as Mock Draft Central just barely does in their latest average draft position reports, with Segura clocking in at a 50.03 ADP.  Reyes is right behind at 51.46.

Consider that Reyes' numbers last season (10 homers, 37 RBI, 58 runs, .296/.353/.427) were comparable to Segura's and Reyes did his damage in 204 fewer PA.  So with that in mind, it seems pretty clear that Reyes wins this draft battle.  Boy, that one took much shorter than usual, eh?  I guess I'll fill the rest of the space by listing my Oscar predictions.  It's anyone's guess as to whether 12 Years A Slave or Gravity will take the Best Picture prize, as both films...

...what's that?  Oh yeah, I forgot the big elephant in the room when discussing Jose Reyes.  The reason he only made those 419 PA is because of a badly-sprained ankle that cost him almost two and a half months of the season.  Reyes missed just 15 games total between 2005-08 but his durability has since taken a major hit.  Over the last five seasons, Reyes has appeared in 36, 133, 126, 160 and 93 games, respectively.  It's hard to like his chances of staying healthy as he enters his age-31 season and spends his home games on the Rogers Centre's artificial surface.

On the bright side for Reyes, playing in the Rogers Centre does help his power profile, as his home run rate jumped to 9%, his highest total since 2006.  While he only stole 15 bases last year, that's actually not a bad total over 93 games for a guy who played most of his season in the wake of a severe ankle injury, so I'd pencil Reyes in for his usual 30+ steals in 2014.

If you could guarantee me that Reyes would be healthy for all of 2014, I'd have no trouble taking him ahead of Segura.  Heck, even if you think Reyes will miss 20-30 games, there's still a case for taking him over Segura given the veteran's comparable offensive stats despite the fewer PA last season.  With the lack of depth at shortstop, however, having Reyes on your team means that you'll also likely have to factor in the replacement-level production of whatever dude you pick up off the waiver wire to fill in at short when Reyes makes his usual stints or one extended stint on the DL.  If you're able to get another solid shortstop for your bench as a semi-handcuff then that's great, though that's one fewer roster spot you'll have to work with for the rest of your draft. 

I'm focusing the draft battle argument so much around Reyes' health that it's worth noting that Segura is certainly capable of improvement himself.  Don't forget about Segura's minor league numbers or his solid pedigree as a prospect --- while he likely isn't as good as he was in April/May of 2013, he also clearly isn't as bad as he was in the last four months of the year either.  If he continues to develop as a Major Leaguer, it's not hard to see Segura posting numbers that Reyes will need a full season to reach.

It's a very tough call between 12 Years A Slave and Gravity the two players but, as I did in another veteran vs. youngster middle infield draft round battle, I'll go with the younger option as the better prospect for 2014.

Draft Round Battles: Gonzalez Vs. Pujols

It's easy to form an attachment to one of your fantasy team's former stars, and since Albert Pujols has undoubtedly swung countless leagues over his 13-year career, this built-up affection might explain why Pujols is getting a lot of draft cred.  Mock Draft Central's latest average draft position reports are showing that Pujols is still going in the third round (35.17 ADP) of most mock drafts, a generous showing for a 34-year-old who played only 99 games in 2013 and is coming off the worst season of his career.

I use the term "worst" accurately, though somewhat lightly.  Pujols hit .258/.330/.437 with 17 homers, 64 RBI and 49 runs scored over 443 PA.  That was still good enough for an 111 wRC+ and, if projected over a full season, those counting numbers start looking a lot more Pujolsian.  While there are certainly reasons to be concerned about how Pujols will perform in 2014, maybe you can add me to the "he's still Albert!" club since I'll defend that late-third round ADP placement, even to the point of preferring Pujols ahead of another certain Los Angeles first baseman in Adrian Gonzalez.

Gonzalez's own ADP is 67.67, and while there are a lot of first basemen hovering in that sixth round position, I'm a little stunned that A-Gon is behind Chris Carter (62.58), Jose Dariel Abreu (64.64) and Brandon Moss (67.58).  Seriously?  Mock drafters prefer Captain Strikeout, a rookie prospect with holes in his swing and a platooner ahead of one of the most durable and productive hitters of the last decade?  I certainly think Gonzalez merits a higher draft placement than that....though not ahead of Pujols.

Let's start the draft battle by acknowledging the elephant in the room, durability.  Since 2007, Gonzalez has averaged 160 games per season.  Pujols had a strong record of durability himself before last season, when he was hobbled by (and eventually shut down early because of) plantar fasciitis in his left foot.  Pujols had been bothered by the injury for a decade with little effect on his play, though the pain intensified in 2013 and he partially tore his plantar fascia in July.  That small tear, however, may have spared Pujols from surgery and now he says he's ready to go for Opening Day.

Since plantar fasciitis can be the kind of injury that never goes away, you have to wonder if Pujols' health will really hold up for the majority of a season.  Even if the foot is totally fine, you still have to consider Pujols' age (34) and a couple of knee injuries in recent years.  If you're drafting solely on having a first baseman for as many games as possible, Gonzalez is the safer pick.

If both men are healthy, however?  Well, if both players end up with roughly the same number of plate appearances, I'll go with Pujols.  While there's no doubt that Pujols' performance has been in decline over the last two seasons, I can't help but feel that his struggles have been somewhat exaggerated by all the hype over Pujols' ten-year, $240MM contract and the fact that his decline began basically as soon as he put on an Angels uniform.  Check these numbers out from 2012-13...

Pujols: 1113 PA, 134 runs, 47 homers, 169 RBI, .275/.338/.485, 130 OPS+

Gonzalez: 1325 PA, 144 runs, 40 homers, 208 RBI, .296/.343/.462, 121 OPS+

Despite the additional 212 PA, Gonzalez still falls behind Prince Albert in homers and OPS+, and you have to figure that with equal playing time, Pujols would've caught up in runs.  Despite all the bad press and the contractual albatross label hanging around his neck, Pujols has still been the best first baseman in L.A. over the last two seasons.

Gonzalez, of course, has been dealing with some physical issues himself in recent years.  He underwent shoulder surgery prior to the 2011 season and, as Fangraphs' Jeff Sullivan has illustrated, Gonzalez has since become primarily a pull hitter and his power has greatly diminished.  A-Gon's .166 ISO in 2012-13 was well below his .207 career average, and it's possible Gonzalez's overall hitting numbers would've been lower were it not for a .325 BABIP over the same period (Pujols has a .273 BABIP over the last two seasons, by the way).

Also, Pujols' critics have noted that he's posted the three lowest walk rates of his career over the last three seasons, and since 2010, Pujols has recorded three of the three highest strikeout rates of his career.  To recap, that's an 8.7% walk rate and a 10.7% strikeout rate from 2011-13 for Pujols --- that still tops Gonzalez's 8% walk rate and 16% strikeout rate over the same span.  While those three-year percentages represent a bigger drop from previous career norms for Pujols than they do for Gonzalez, let's also remember that Pujols was putting up ridiculous, all-time great numbers from 2001-10.  Naturally he has further to fall since he's coming from a greater height, and yet even the 2011-13 beta version of Pujols is still getting on base more and striking out less than Gonzalez.

To steal a line from Mark Twain, rumors of Pujols' fantasy demise have been greatly exaggerated.  With a little more batted-ball luck (and less plantar fasciitis pain) over the last two years, Pujols might've made the Angels feel less terrified a bit better about that long-term investment.  If Pujols really has put his foot issues behind him, it's hard to argue that Gonzalez is the better option.  While there is certainly no shame in being considered "a poor man's Albert Pujols," it doesn't look like Gonzalez will escape that label even at this late date in Pujols' career.

Draft Round Battles: Cuddyer Vs. Werth

Every fantasy manager wants to find the next big thing but finding a young star to carry your team (while giving you a late-round or auction draft bargain) doesn't quite provide the bragging rights extravaganza that it once did.  Thanks to prospect rankings, scouting reports, readily available minor league stats and plain ol' media hype, it's easy to see the next Mike Trout or Wil Myers coming long in advance.

Rather than finding the next big thing, then, a bigger challenge for fantasy owners is finding the "Still Big Thing."  This would be the old veteran who fights off Father Time for another year and delivers another big season.  Such a player is just as valuable in a single-season fantasy format as a young star, and in many cases, there is much less of a draft fight for the veteran's services.  No manager wants to be the one holding the decline phase hot potato when an older player completely falls apart.  This is why Michael Cuddyer and Jayson Werth were both likely very available in your league last spring, as there wasn't exactly hot demand for two players coming off injury-shortened 2012 campaigns and going into their age-34 seasons.

If you took Cuddyer or Werth, of course, you had the last laugh.  Cuddyer hit .331/.389/.530 (all career highs) with 20 homers, 84 RBI, 74 runs and even 10 steals in 540 PA for the Rockies, even picking up the NL batting title in the process.  Werth was even better, hitting .318/.398/.532 with 25 dingers, 82 RBI, 84 runs and 10 steals over 532 PA, and he posted the seventh-best OPS+ (154) in all of baseball.

Needless to say, both players have improved their draft profiles for 2014.  Werth has a 71.45 average draft position (tip of the cap to Mock Draft Central's ADP reports) while Cuddyer is going about a round lower with a 86.06 ADP.  You could argue that both of these ADPs will end up being too high, as the decline phase monster could still rear his ugly head and bring both guys back to earth.  You wouldn't be wrong in passing on Werth or Cuddyer under the logic that they're unlikely to repeat their 2013 success, though geez, didn't you just read what I said about undervaluing veterans?  Why does nobody listen to me?!  *pouts*

The trick with Cuddyer and Werth, then, is in trying to figure out which player's 2013 season was more of a mirage and which has the better chance of success going forward.  Let's look at some of the factors...

* Health.  Cuddyer has averaged 123 games over the last three seasons, while Werth missed a month of 2013 with a hamstring injury and missed half of 2012.  Call it a wash health-wise, as you can't really count on a full season from either guy. 

* BABIP Blessings.  Cuddyer's .382 BABIP was the third-highest in all of baseball last year, while Werth's .358 mark was 11th-highest.  Both enjoyed enough batted-ball luck that I'll call this factor a wash as well, though it's worth noting that Werth has a .331 BABIP for his career, so this isn't necessarily new for him.

* Park Factor.  All things being equal, I'd give a hitter playing in Coors Field an edge over a hitter playing at Nationals Park, so Cuddyer gets a bump here.

* Peripherals.  After posting a 24.7% strikeout rate over his first nine Major League seasons, Werth cut it back to just an 18% K-rate in 2012-13.  He also has a .357 BABIP over that same span, so putting the ball in play more often is clearly paying off for Werth.  Two 2013 metrics that really jump off the page for Werth are his line drive rate and home run rate.  Werth's 26% line drive rate was well above his 21.1% career average and even further above his 18.9% mark in 2012, while his 18% home run rate was the second-highest of his career in a season with so many plate appearances.

Cuddyer, by contrast, had only one peripheral stat that was far out of whack with his career norms: a miniscule 1.7% infield fly ball rate, the eighth-lowest of any qualified player in MLB.  (Essentially, whenever Cuddyer hit the ball in the air last year, it flew a fair distance, which is a helpful thing at Coors Field.)  While that was the only advanced metric that stood out for Cuddyer, you just have to look to his splits to notice another unusual aspect of his 2013 campaign --- his inexplicably became a righty-killer, posting a .954 OPS against right-handed pitching.  This was a huge leap over the .780 OPS that Cuddyer (a right-handed batter) had posted against righties in his 12 previous Major League seasons.

Cuddyer's boost against righty pitching is such an anomaly that I have to give the peripherals edge, and the overall draft round battle, to Werth.  While I suspect Werth's home run rate will come back down to earth, I can see Cuddyer's success against right-handers taking a much more severe drop and bringing him back to his usual .800 OPS self...which still isn't bad, of course, but not werthy of taking him ahead of Jayson.  Come on, you have to know I'd make at least one terrible worth/werth pun in here somewhere, right?

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.

Draft Round Battles: Nationals' SP Battle Royale

It's hard to have a fantasy draft without at least one position run.  I've written about this before on Roto Authority, but about 13-14 years ago, I was in a fantasy draft that saw the run on catchers take place in the very first round, giving us the spectacle of Darrin Fletcher and Todd Hundley as first-round draft picks.  No, this wasn't in a league with members of the extended Fletcher or Hundley families, so I can't explain it either.

The point is, while position runs are a known variable to plan for, "teammate runs" are a lesser-known phenomenon that occur with some regularity, yet they aren't commented upon since they don't really have the impact on draft strategy of a position run.  A teammate run, as you might guess, is when you have multiple players from one team taken in quick succession.  It's as if after the first player goes, the rest of the league thinks, "oh yeah, Team X is supposed to be pretty good this year.  Hmm, well, their second baseman and the second baseman I had queued up next are pretty similar, I guess, so let's go with the guy on the good team instead." 

Note that this isn't a smart tactic or a reasonable one, as "playing for a good team" is only a limited factor in gauging fantasy value.  Maybe you can chalk it up to our brains' natural inclination towards order -- we still have a mild tendency to group similar objects like teammates together, even in the disordered world of a fantasy draft.

Teammate runs aren't usually a big factor in fantasy drafting since, unless you're a real superfan who was looking to take your favorites, it doesn't really matter if several players from one club are taken since, obviously, most of these players are at different positions.  The only positions* where it could present an issue would be outfield and starting pitcher, and for this week's Draft Round Battle, we'll focus on three options from the Nationals' rotation.  Stephen Strasburg will obviously be the first Washington hurler taken, but who would you rather take between Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann or Doug Fister?

* = and, possibly, relief pitcher in cases where a team is using a closer committee.  If one manager drafts one part of the committee, expect another committee member to be taken soon after.  You can also see teammate runs take place in leagues that counts holds; those leagues might've seen another Nationals "teammate run" last season when Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard went off the board in quick succession.

First, let's take the obligatory moment to gawk at the Nationals' rotation since, wow, there aren't many teams who can roll out a top four like that.  Now, with a tip of the cap to Fangraphs, let's break down how Fister, Gonzalez and Zimmermann have each performed over the last three seasons via the four relevant 5x5 categories and a few extra statistics...

Fister: 35 wins, 3.30 ERA (3.21 FIP, 3.48 xFIP, 3.54 SIERA), 1.19 WHIP, 6.78 K/9, 3.75 K/BB, 586 2/3 IP

Gonzalez: 48 wins, 3.12 ERA (3.29 FIP, 3.54 xFIP, 3.68 SIERA), 1.23 WHIP, 8.98 K/9, 2.45 K/BB, 597 IP

Zimmermann: 39 wins, 3.12 ERA (3.35 FIP, 3.67 xFIP, 3.74 SIERA), 1.13 WHIP, 6.91 K/9, 3.84 K/BB, 570 1/3 IP

The first thing you'll notice is that these guys are pretty similar pitchers.  Gonzalez and Zimmermann are outperforming their advanced metrics (particularly SIERA) more significantly than Fister is, and Fister and Zimmermann have better control than Gonzalez, but Gonzalez has a notable edge in strikeouts and wins.  Gonzalez also has the edge beyond the limits of my sample size -- I limited the sample to 2011-13 since Zimmermann has only been a full-time starter for three seasons.  Gonzalez, meanwhile, was impressive in 2010 (and Fister was pretty average).

All three men will have the same home ballpark advantage and the same solid lineup behind them, so predicting wins is a fool's errand even if that stat determined anything beyond a fantasy category.  ERA and WHIP are also essentially even, so that leaves strikeouts, making Gonzalez the clear favorite, right?

Well, over Zimmermann, yes.  Let me be clear, I fully expect Jordan Zimmermann to be a very good starter in 2014 and if he's the #2 starter in your rotation, you're in good shape.  My only beef is that he's evolving into more and more of a ground ball pitcher (his grounder rate has jumped by 4% in each of the last two seasons), which is making him a better pitcher overall in a real-world context but limits his fantasy value in terms of strikeouts.  Gonzalez has also improved his control since his wilder, younger days in Oakland but done so while still averaging just under a strikeout per inning over the last three seasons.

That's enough for me to give Gonzalez the slight nod to Zimmermann.  In terms of a pure "draft round battle," this is the decision that counts, as Mock Draft Central's latest average draft position report shows the Z-Man (102.68 ADP) slightly ahead of the Gio Dome (108.3 ADP).  Whatever the order, both guys are rated on roughly the same level, so if you're looking to anticipate a "teammate run," don't be surprised to see either Gonzalez or Zimmermann quickly follow the other around the ninth round of your fantasy draft.

This all being said, Fister might end up being the best pitcher of the trio.  Fister is currently projected to go a couple of rounds lower (135.54 ADP) though I wonder if the sleeper buzz will cause him to rise up the rankings.  Fister did, after all, post a higher WAR than either Gonzalez or Zimmermann from 2011-13, which caught me off-guard.  While he and Zimmermann are essentially the same pitcher in terms of low-strikeout grounder specialists, Fister is a step beyond when it comes to keeping the ball in the infield --- Fister's 54.3% GBR was the fourth-best of any qualified starter in baseball last season.

If Fister is only a slightly better version of Zimmermann and still lags behind Gonzalez in strikeouts, however, why should Fister be rated so highly?  In a word, potential.  Fister will get a regular diet of NL lineups for the first time, and moving from the Tigers' hands-of-stone defensive corps to the Nationals' infield* is a big boost for any ground-ball specialist.  As well, while Gonzalez and Zimmermann have enjoyed good BABIP luck over the last three years, Fister posted his strong 2013 numbers despite a .332 BABIP.  With the highest strand rate and lowest BABIP of the three since 2011, Fister's WAR edge could easily have been even greater.

* =  Ian Desmond and Anthony Rendon are tremendous up the middle, Adam LaRoche has traditionally had a good first base glove before falling to a -2 UZR/150 last season, and all you can say about Ryan Zimmerman's collapse as a defensive player is that at least Zimmerman's -14.9 UZR/150 was still better than Miguel Cabrera's -19.9 UZR/150 at the hot corner in 2013.

Gonzalez would still be my pick of the trio, yet the canny manager might use Fister's under-the-radar status to his advantage.  Picture a ninth round where Gonzalez goes first, Zimmermann goes right after since the next manager is like, "oh yeah, Nationals pitchers.  Yeah, look at Zimmermann, 19 wins last year!  Boom, taking him!"  Then you can sit back in the weeds and collect Fister a few picks later.  Some of your fellow managers will be chirping you for making a so-called stretch, others will chide you for going on a teammate run, and a few won't say anything since they had Fister queued up themselves. 

Draft Round Battles: Kipnis Vs. Pedroia

The good folks at Mock Draft Central don't yet have a ton of sample size data to work with this early in the fantasy league drafting season, but I'd bet their current second base rankings are going to end up being pretty stable until Opening Day, even if a few overall average draft positions change.  Robinson Cano is still a no-brainer first round pick and easily the best 2B available, while on the next tier down, you have Jason Kipnis and Dustin Pedroia battling it out for the right to be the second second baseman baseman taken taken.  Kipnis holds a very narrow lead at this point (34.93 ADP to Pedroia's 36.12) but let's further explore which player you should be taking to lock up your keystone position.

On paper, we have a battle between a player entering his prime against a player who is in the middle of his prime, though since we're forecasting the future, we have to acknowledge that Pedroia (who turns 31 in August) could potentially start to decline.  I doubt that'll happen, however, since Pedroia "rebounded" from a slightly disappointing 2012 campaign to hit .301/.372/.415 with nine homers, 84 RBI, 91 runs and 17 steals over 160 games and a league-leading 724 PA. 

Now, I used the quote marks since the narrative surrounding the 2013 Red Sox was that they were able to storm back to glory since their free agent acquisitions all delivered and their incumbent veterans all turned things around from poor and/or injury-plagued 2012 seasons.  While Pedroia did spend some time on the DL with an injured right thumb in 2012 (an injury that continued to plague him last season as well), he still played 142 games and hit .290/.347/.449.  As you've probably noticed, that .797 OPS is actually higher than the .787 mark that Pedroia posted in 2013.

The culprit was a power shortage, as reflected by the drop in slugging percentange and Pedroia's career-low (over a full season) .114 ISO.  He also had a career-low fly ball rate (27.9%), though it didn't hurt his overall production much given that Pedroia's 21.6% line drive rate was above his career rate and his highest in three seasons.

Pedroia has always gotten a big boost from playing at Fenway Park --- an .880 OPS at home versus a .767 OPS on the road --- and those splits became even more pronounced in 2013.  Seven of Pedroia's nine homers came in Boston en route to a .867 career OPS, while he had only a .712 OPS and two of his homers in away games.  This stands out as a red flag to me, since it doesn't help your fantasy team much if your third-round pick only hits like a third-rounder or better for half of the schedule.

Kipnis has a similar red flag in that you're not really sure what player you're getting on a week to week basis.  In 2013, Kipnis hit .284/.366/.452 with 17 homers, 84 RBI, 86 runs and 30 steals, making him one of the better 5x5 threats in all of fantasy baseball.  Mighty numbers, sure, though those numbers were largely generated during a red-hot 11-homer, .333/.421/.618 stretch in May and June.  Minus those two months, and Kipnis was otherwise pretty average, with a .724 OPS over the last three months (and an ugly .555 OPS in April).  He also benefited from some major batted-ball luck in the form of a .345 BABIP.

In a standard roto league, Kipnis' production roller coaster wasn't too concerning, since at the end of the year, he still had more fantasy value than any second baseman besides Mr. Cano.  In a weekly head-to-head, though, Kipnis' peaks and valleys were a lot more frustrating unless you had the good sense to sell high in early July.

Breaking down the 5x5 projections for 2014, both players' RBI and runs totals will probably be a wash given that they both play in strong lineups.  Kipnis has the edge in speed, with back-to-back 30-steal seasons to his credit (though Pedroia isn't exactly a slouch in his category, with a career average of 19 swipes per year).  I'd give Pedroia a narrow edge in batting average, as he's still an expert at grinding out at-bats and finding holes in the diamond, and Kipnis' 2013 BABIP worries me.

So it basically all comes down to power, and that's where Kipnis has the slight edge at this time.  It could be that Pedroia's offseason thumb surgery will finally correct the injury that has been bothering him for two full years and he'll regain his old pop, though it's worth noting that his 2010-11 campaigns (when he had an 11.4% home run rate) both far exceeded his 7.7% homer rate, so those years may have been the power outliers rather than 2012-13.  And, Pedroia's "old pop" only once topped the 17-homer mark, so even if Pedroia returns to his average homer output, it wouldn't be surprising to see Kipnis keep developing and crack the 20-homer plateau.

I can see why the early ADP rankings are so tight between these two players, as it's hard to pick a clear winner.  If I was picking a better pure hitter I'd go with Pedroia, but pure hitting doesn't always translate to 5x5 counting stats, so I'll have to give the slight nod to Kipnis.  He's just entering his age-27 season so the best could be yet to come for the Tribe's second baseman, while it's possible (though unlikely) that Pedroia will start to decline and become a fantasy liability outside of Fenway. 

Kipnis also struggled in the second half of 2012, so yes, I realize I'm picking a player with basically four good months out of 12 as a Major League starter over one of the steadiest players in the sport for the better part of a decade.  I'm crossing my fingers that Kipnis continues to realize his potential or else I'll be the latest to be burned for underestimating The Muddy Chicken.

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