Draft Round Battles


Draft Round Battles: Stanton Vs. Harper

Fantasy baseball is very much an expectations game, which is why both Giancarlo Stanton and Bryce Harper were considered by several owners to be disappointments in 2013 despite putting up solid numbers.  "Solid" doesn't cut it when you're a young burgeoning superstar tasked with carrying the hopes untold fantasy franchises --- anything short of a Trout-ian season will be seen as coming up short.

This logic, of course, is nonsense.  Stanton and Harper both performed quite well in 2013, with one big caveat.  Stanton was ice-cold in April, then went on the DL until mid-June, and after that resumed his usual course of destroying baseballs.  Stanton's .870 OPS and 21 homers from June 10 to the end of the season helped him end up with a final tally of 24 homers and a .249/.365/.480 slash line.  It's a big comedown from his absurd .969 OPS season in 2012 but still, The Man They Used To Call Mike was hardly a bust.

Harper, if anything, was even better.  Despite making only 497 plate appearances due to a variety of ailments (chief amongst them knee and hip injuries), Harper still hit 20 homers, scored 71 runs, stole 11 bases and hit .274/.368/.486.  That's a good season for anyone; for a 20-year-old, that's a ridiculous season that proves Harper is still very much deserving of his "phenom" tag. 

I can't help but think that our perception of both players' seasons was impacted by the overall downcast fortunes of their teams.  The Marlins, of course, hit the reset button after their offseason fire sale and were a miserable 62-100 last season, with Stanton himself openly upset about how the team had so quickly reverted back to rebuilding mode.  Stanton's discontent was public enough that he's been the subject of a thousand trade rumors himself, though Miami seems firm about keeping him in the fold.  The Nationals, meanwhile, were preseason darlings and World Series favorites, but they got off to a poor start and simply couldn't catch up enough despite playing some good ball down the stretch.  Washington still finished 86-76, which is a pretty good record for a team that considered the season to be an epic failure.

That caveat I mentioned?  This was the real problem with both players last season --- they fell victim to the injury bug.  Stanton only played in 116 games, and at least he had the fantasy team decency to restrict his hamstring pull to one specific month.  Harper's various injuries nagged him and cropped up all season long, taking him out of your lineup for a game here, a few games there, and more than one DL stint, ultimately limiting him to 118 games.  It's easy for me to point out that the two outfielders posted numbers worth of a second-round pick when they played, but obviously it doesn't help your team when one of your so-called cornerstone players missed a quarter of the season.

We've established that Stanton and Harper were both very good (when they weren't on the DL) in 2013, and now the question remains, who will be the better option in 2014?  Trust me, neither player's reputation was tarnished enough to lower their fantasy value; it'd be shocking to see either man still be on the board by the third round of any 12-team league draft.  Expectations will still be high and the question is, which player will come closest to achieving them?

In a vacuum, I would favor Harper.  He topped Stanton in every 5x5 and slash line category last season save for one (Stanton had 62 RBI to Harper's 58) and he's still only going into his age-21 season.  Consider that Harper did all this while playing in pain for most of the year and you have to wonder if Harper is simply just one of those truly special players. 

It also helps that Harper will get a lot more RBI and run-scoring opporunties hitting amidst the solid Nationals lineup, whereas Stanton is still far and away the biggest (only?) threat in Miami.  The Marlins' travesty of an offense posted a cumulative -0.7 offensive WAR in 2013, according to Fangraphs.  While a full season from Stanton, growth from young stars like Christian Yelich and offseason additions like Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Rafael Furcal will add a bit of batting potency next season, it's still one of the league's worst lineups.  If your league tracks walks, then hey, Stanton might be a better bet than Harper after all given that Stanton will be getting intentional walks by the boatload.

Given how both men are coming off shortened seasons, health is perhaps the biggest draft question.  Much has been written about whether Harper's intense playing style will lead to further injuries, though I'd argue that getting hurt from crashing into walls is the type of "intensity" that Harper will eventually grow out of as he learns more about fielding and positioning.  Also, let's not forget that Stanton is actually coming off back-to-back shortened seasons; he played in only 123 games in 2012 thanks in large part to midseason arthroscopic knee surgery.  You can't knock Harper for being a potential injury risk and overlook the fact that Stanton has much more documented injury history.

It wouldn't shock me at all if both players make the proverbial leap in 2014 and deliver the kind of powerhouse seasons that make them first-round picks in 2015 fantasy drafts.  In terms of who I think is better prepared to make that leap (or who will leap just a little bit higher), I'll recommend drafting Harper.  If he plays a whole season and still posts "only" an .854 OPS, however, hopefully you won't be too disappointed.

Let us know in the comments: Stanton or Harper in the first round this year?



Draft Round Battles: Brandon Belt Vs. Eric Hosmer

We're back for another year of Draft Round Battles, the series that pits players likely to be taken in roughly the same part of your fantasy draft against each other in a Sherlock-and-Moriarty-esque battle of wits a steel cage death match an analytical look at which will perform better in 2014.  We begin this year's battles with a typical Hollywood sports story...the golden boy against the out-of-nowhere prospect. 

Eric Hosmer has been Mr. Everything since the Royals took him third overall in 2008.  He tore up the minors and debuted in the bigs at age 21, hit a rough patch in his sophomore season at age 22 and then rebounded with a 17-homer, .302/.353/.448 campaign in 2013 that puts some of the worries to rest.  Even his slow start last season has a movie script twist to it --- Hosmer's came alive under the tutelage of the greatest Royal of all time.  The next act in the film would apparently be that Hosmer fully breaks through, becomes a superstar, and leads his misbegotten franchise back into the playoffs.

The out-of-nowhere guy, however, wasn't taken until the fifth round of the 2009 draft.  Brandon Belt wasn't on anyone's radar as a prospect but he proceeded to obliterate minor league pitching so fully that the Giants had no choice but to recall him after just 825 PA on the farm.  Since Aubrey Huff (the surprise hero of the Giants' 2010 World Series run) was locked in at first, Belt had to toil in left field and struggled to receive regular playing time until Huff's decline became too much for the Giants to ignore in 2012.  Belt took over as the everyday first baseman and played a big role in San Francisco's next World Series title.

You might not know what exactly happened next since the Giants fell off everyone's radar last season, but basically, Belt kind of went off.  His counting numbers (17 HR, 67 RBI, 76 runs) and slash line (.289/.360/.481) were solid but nothing too special for a first baseman but consider this --- Belt's 142 OPS+ ranked 17th amongst all MLB players.  His 24.3% line drive rate (topped by only 23 players last year) also helped Belt collect 39 doubles (tied for 11th-most in baseball), showing that he can still generate power despite playing at AT&T Park.

In short, Belt took the big step forward from 2012 to 2013 that Kansas City is hoping Hosmer takes from last season to the next.  The question is, do you presume it's all onward and upward for Hosmer from here on in, or do you perhaps go with the underrated guy in San Fran who's entering his prime age-26 season?

My instinct is to take Belt, and that's not just because I'm prone to backing the underdog.  You could argue that playing at AT&T Park will suppress Belt's power numbers...except it's not like Kauffman Stadium is exactly homer-friendly.  You could make the salient point that Belt was helped by a .351 BABIP last season...except then you'd also have to acknowledge Hosmer's .335 BABIP.   The .870 OPS that Hosmer posted over his last 461 PA, making everyone believe he'd turned the corner?  Belt quietly posted an .893 OPS over his final 462 PA of 2013.  The only true positives in Hosmer's favor are that he records far fewer strikeouts than Belt and his splits were pretty even, whereas Belt had more trouble against left-handed pitching (.755 OPS vs. LHP, .867 OPS vs. RHP).

The question, of course, is ceiling.  It's possible Belt has already hit his peak, and while a repeat of his 2013 performance would be nothing to sneeze at, it could pale in comparison to what Hosmer could put up if he makes The Leap into the superstardom that has been long predicted for him.

Taking nothing away from Hosmer's potential, however, it should be noted that over-valuing potential has led to the downfall of many a fantasy owner.  It can't be ignored that Belt, despite receiving almost 600 fewer PA, has outperformed Hosmer as a Major League player.  He could well continue that trend in 2014 or even take a leap in performance himself. 

I kind of cheated in making this my first Draft Round Battle of the year since I suspect Hosmer's pedigree will mean he gets picked a few rounds ahead of Belt in most fantasy drafts.  That doesn't mean you should jump to take Hosmer early just because another owner will snap him up, however.  Keep an eye on the undervalued guy out in San Francisco --- you could easily pass on Hosmer and find superior production later in your draft.



Draft Round Battles: Verlander Vs. Kershaw

There is definitely an argument to be made that Stephen Strasburg should be the first pitcher taken in your fantasy draft.  It's very possible that by October, Strasburg will have delivered a season that will make him the undisputed top starter for the 2014 drafts...but we're not there yet.

As Mock Draft Central's latest ADP report shows us, Strasburg is the consensus #3 pitcher taken while Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander are locked in a pitched (no pun intended) battle as the first starting pitcher selected.  Kershaw has the current edge with an 18.47 ADP and Verlander just behind at 22.85, making them the 17th- and 19th-drafted players overall.  So really, there's room for the pro-Strasburg camp within this draft battle --- even if some bold soul takes Strasburg as the first pitcher, you'll still be faced with the Kershaw vs. Verlander decision later on.

Neither ace is a wrong move.  Six of one, half a dozen of the other.  Some past draft battles have featured players who I felt were going to decline in 2013 or were at best risky, but in this case, you're getting a superstar no matter if you take the Claw or if you take JV.  In fact, I've taken both pitchers in a couple of different league drafts within the last week and I feel (knock on wood) I'm sitting pretty.  While I have a preference between the two aces, I never like to take the same guys in multiple leagues since that's just inviting bad karma in the form of a freak injury or drop in performance.  I had Matt Cain on all four of my fantasy teams last year and that worked out great, but what are the odds of that happening again?  Can't fight the universe, man.

So, Kershaw vs. Verlander.  Let's look at both men over the last four years, with a focus on the 5x5 stats.  WHIP is essentially equal and saves aren't an issue, unless the Tigers' closer situation gets so desperate that Jim Leyland just throws all caution to the wind and has Verlander in the bullpen during his rest days (it's either this or else Mike Ilitch funds a human cloning project to create a new Mike Henneman).  Anyway, let's stick to the other three universal pitcher stats...

Kershaw: 2.60 ERA, 147 ERA+, 874 strikeouts, 3.02 K/BB, 9.4 K/9, 56 wins, 1.09 WHIP

Verlander: 2.95 ERA, 144 ERA+, 977 strikeouts, 3.89 K/BB, 9.2 K/9, 78 wins, 1.076 WHIP

Strikeouts.  As noted, Leyland generally tends to pitch Verlander like he's a modern-day Old Hoss Radbourn, which is why Verlander has 117 more IP than Kershaw has over the last four seasons.  While they strike out batters at roughly the same rate, Verlander simply has more punchouts by sheer dint of the fact that he generally pitches deeper into games and thus has more opportunity to rack up the K's.  This is where the NL setting actually hurts Kershaw a bit since he is more apt to be lifted for a pinch-hitter in the late innings.       

ERA.  Verlander had a 3.45 ERA in 2009 and a 3.37 ERA in 2010, accounting for the 0.35 gap between he and Kershaw.  Of course, Verlander had some bad luck in those seasons --- he posted FIPs of 2.80 and 2.97, respectively, so his final ERA should've by all accounts been better.  As noted by the ERA+, both pitchers were virtually identical in this category all things being equal, and yet Kershaw gets the nod since your fantasy league doesn't track in could'ves and should'ves.  I also can't help but think Kershaw is helped by Dodger Stadium in keeping runs down in general, plus you wonder if the Tigers' horrid infield defense may catch up to Verlander this year.

Wins.  We sabermetric types can scoff at wins all we want, but they're still a big part of the fantasy game and Verlander's 78-56 edge in his category can't be ignored.  Part of that is luck, part is Detroit being a slightly better team than L.A. (by seven wins) over the last four seasons, part is due to Verlander pitching in the easier AL Central, and part could be due to the fact that the Tigers had Jose Valverde protecting those leads while the Dodgers shuffled through Jonathan Broxton, Javy Guerra, Kenley Jansen and even a little bit of Ramon Troncoso at the end of games.  Of course, the shoe is on the other foot going into 2013 now that the Dodgers will have Brandon League and Jansen waiting in the wings, while the Tigers are rolling the dice with Bruce Rondon.

Does that mean Kershaw is in for more wins?  Not necessarily, since frankly, I think the Dodgers are in real trouble as a team this year.  Forget the World Series talk --- I'd be impressed if the team even finishes above .500 given all the injuries and major holes they have up and down their roster.  Detroit, meanwhile, is the big favorite in the AL Central and has a good chance of another deep playoff run.  You could be a lot more optimistic about the Dodgers' chances (or maybe the chances of the White Sox, Indians or Royals) than I, but in terms of sheer results, I see the Tigers being the better team, which might well translate to Verlander having the edge in the win column.  It's such a random category to predict but judging by past history, I've got to give Verlander the duke here.

Add it all up and that's a 2-1 lead for Verlander, making him my pick over Kershaw.  As I said before, either man would look great atop your fantasy rotation so if you prefer Kershaw, go for it.  It's basically a no-lose draft battle here, and unless either man signs a contract extension, maybe they'll battle again in the 2014-15 free agent market



Draft Round Battles: Cespedes Vs. Ellsbury

Admit it, Yoenis Cespedes kind of seemed like a modern Sidd Finch hoax, didn't he?  It was hard to watch Cespedes' legendary workout video with a straight face; sure, he's an impressive athlete but really, who uses "Sailing" as their background music without being ironic?

As luck would have it for the A's, however, Cespedes wasn't a viral marketing creation but an actual legitimate talent.  The Cuban outfielder hit .292/.356/.505 with 23 homers to help lead Oakland to the AL West title and Cespedes would've been a slam dunk Rookie of the Year in any normal, non-Mike Trout season.  To very weirdly paraphrase Teri Hatcher here, Cespedes was real and he was spectacular.

While Cespedes emerged from a fog of uncertainty and rose to Major League stardom, the question now is whether or not he can sustain his performance.  This was a question the Red Sox faced on a lower level about a year ago, when Jacoby Ellsbury was about to follow up his monster 2011 campaign.  Ellsbury had already been a good average/OBP and especially steals kind of player before exploding with a monster 32-homer, 39-steal, .321/.376/.552 season in 2011 that earned him a second-place finish in the AL MVP vote.  The power came completely out of nowhere for Ellsbury so the question was whether 2011 was an outlier or whether he could be counted on as a legit 30-30 threat for the future.

The Red Sox are still asking that question.  Ellsbury missed more than half of the 2012 season with a shoulder injury, finishing with a .271/.313/.370 line and four homers over 323 PA.  Given that he missed virtually all of the 2010 season, Ellsbury presents a real conundrum for both the Sox and his fantasy owners --- how much should you rely on a guy who has sandwiched an elite season in between two total washout campaigns?

Every team (both real and fantasy) obviously loves the five-tool player, but such a player perhaps has even more value in fantasy baseball.  Stolen bases are a unique category in that being able to swipe bags doesn't have any bearing on the rest of your hitting stats; as such, fantasy managers often have to grin and bear it by keeping a terrible hitter in their lineup simply because they can provide some much-needed steals.  When you can find a player that can slug and steal with equal aplomb, it's like striking gold, which is why Trout was unquestionably the player who swung the most fantasy leagues in 2012 and Ellsbury's surprise breakout in 2011 probably decided almost as many fantasy championships.

Of the 48 players who stole 20 or more bases in 2012, only eight (Carlos Gonzalez, Andrew McCutchen, Jason Heyward, Ian Desmond, Shin-Soo Choo, Alex Rios, Ryan Braun and Trout) had an OPS of .800 or better.  Cespedes chipped in 16 steals to go with his .861 OPS last season, and of players with an .861 OPS or better, only five (Braun, Trout, McCutchen, Gonzalez and Chase Headley) topped the 16-steal mark.  While 16 steals won't decide the SB category, if you can get that kind of production from a big bat, you're laughing.

I would argue that Cespedes isn't likely to suffer much of a dropoff in his sophomore season.  Though he's still something of an unknown quantity, the fact that he improved his numbers as the season went on and the fact that Cespedes hit so well in the pitcher-friendly Coliseum (he actually had a .937 OPS in home games, as opposed to a .791 OPS on the road) both stand out as positives.  Also, don't forget that he had his own injury problems early in the year and only played in 128 games, so had Cespedes been healthy all the way, he might've given Trout a run for his money.

So if Cespedes will be roughly the same player in 2013 that he was in 2012, can Ellsbury top that impressive plateau?  My guess is no.  Presuming he's healthy the whole year, Ellsbury will hit around .300, score 95-105 runs, and steal at least 40 bases (manager John Farrell loved to give runners the green light in Toronto so 40 steals for Ellsbury may be a conservative estimate).  Those are valuable fantasy numbers in themselves but where Ellsbury will suffer is in the power department.  I don't see him getting anywhere near his 105 RBIs from 2011 given that he'll be hitting leadoff and that Boston's lineup isn't as deep as it was two years ago. 

As for the homers, I'm tempted to suggest that Ellsbury's 32-HR outburst in 2011 was indeed an anomaly.  Consider that his .552 SLG in 2011 dwarfed his previous career totals and even the .426 SLG he posted in his minor league career (1223 PA).  My favorite "Ellsbury pulled this season out of thing air" stat is that he had 32 homers in 2011 and only 35 homers over the rest of his pro career, including the minors.  There's nothing in the advanced metrics that explains why Ellsbury suddenly dug the long ball that year --- the closest hint of evidence could be a career-best 22.9% line drive rate but Ellsbury had posted other line-drive rates close to that (20.3% both last year and in 2008) without showing nearly the same rise in power numbers.

Ellsbury currently holds the edge over Cespedes on Mock Draft Central's latest average draft position report, as Ellsbury's 46.00 ADP makes him the 15th outfielder taken and the 45th player taken overall, on average.  Cespedes is right behind as the 16th OF, the 50th player overall and he owns a 50.15 ADP. 

Other fantasy owners may think Ellsbury's speed and power potential merits a higher selection but if I'm looking for outfield help come the end of the fourth/start of the fifth round, I'm going with Cespedes.  He's going to help in all five categories, whereas Ellsbury is likely only going to help in three.  Put it this way --- 16 steals may be the bare minimum of what Cespedes can do on the basepaths, whereas based on all the evidence I've seen in Ellsbury's career, I'd be pleasantly surprised if he manages even 16 homers this year.  Drafting Cespedes over Ellsbury will better help you, ahem, "sail" your way to fantasy success.



Draft Round Battles: Starlin Castro Vs. Jose Reyes

"Mark, is this seriously your matchup?"

Yep.

"Geez, this column will be pretty short.  It's Jose Reyes, man!  All-Star staple, centerpiece of the offseason's biggest trade, playing in a stacked lineup in Toronto...heck, if Troy Tulowitzki struggles coming back from injury or Hanley Ramirez's career continues to stall, Reyes is probably the best shortstop in the game.  This one is a no-brainer!"

Or is it, imaginary straw man character I invented for the purposes of this post?

"Wait, I'm imaginary?"

Well, yes, but... 

"AHHH, I'M FICTIONAL!  OH, THE UNIMAGINABLE SORROW OF LEARNING THAT ONE'S EXISTENCE IS A LIE!"

Huh.  Who would've thought that a fantasy baseball column would contain such existential pathos?  Then again, for all the Cubs fans reading this, you're used to questioning the meaning of life, right?  #1908 #BillyGoat #Cheapshot 

Anyway, let's end this little skit and get down to business.  (Plus, as a Maple Leafs fan, I have no right to mock another team's championship drought.)  This is a matchup that, as noted, seems pretty clear on paper.  Reyes has been a good-to-superb fantasy option for a decade while Starlin Castro has had a very good start to his Major League career but, in the words of Roto Authority's own Alex Steers McCrum, is "a little bit overrated" in terms of what he brings to the table, fantasy-wise.

So, it may surprise you to learn that Castro and Reyes are neck-and-neck on Mock Draft Central's latest average draft position reports.  Castro has a 36.57 ADP, making him the third shortstop and 35th player taken overall.  Reyes is literally right behind, as the 36th player taken overall and the owner of a 36.91 ADP. What gives?  Is this a case of fans continuing to "overrate" Castro or thinking Reyes is going downhill since he didn't duplicate his all-world 2011 season?

It might not be that stark but rather simply a case of fantasy managers drafting for the future rather than the past.  In picking Castro over Reyes, you're picking a shortstop who has put up a .297/.336/.425 line over his first three Major League seasons, with 162-game averages of 10 homers, 67 RBI, 81 runs and 21 steals. Castro doesn't even turn 23 until later this month, so it's possible he's only just scratched the surface of his potential. 

Castro does indeed get a lot of hype as the Cubs' next great hope and star of the future, so fantasy owners who draft him on that basis tend to be let down since they're expecting the second coming of Derek Jeter.  Yet, as noted, Castro has been pretty good; this isn't an Alex Gordon or Eric Hosmer case, when you have a guy that's dead weight in your fantasy lineup while you're waiting for the breakout to happen. Castro has helped many a fantasy squad and could become a cornerstone player if he makes the leap in 2013.

And even if the leap doesn't happen quite yet, there's a certain stability in Castro since you know what he'll bring to the table.  He might not get significantly better but I highly doubt he'll get worse --- at a minimum, he'll repeat his .753 OPS, 14 HR, 78 RBI, 25 SB season from 2012.  Castro still has Wrigley Field to work with, he has the security of a long-term extension and he'll have a full season of Anthony Rizzo hitting behind him, even if the Cubs lineup isn't so hot overall.

Compare this stability to Reyes' situation heading into 2013.  I should note that, despite my forthcoming devil's advocate arguments, I still expect Reyes to have a very good season; it's just that more things could go wrong for Reyes this year.  His move to Toronto indeed puts him atop a deep batting order so there's plenty of room for run-scoring opportunities, but it's also a move to a brand new league and an artificial surface, so Reyes could have trouble adjusting.  While Reyes has spent his career hitting in pitcher-friendly ballparks in Queens and Miami, he'll be moving to a good hitters' park in Toronto but it's worth noting that Reyes' game (based around gap power and speed) was very well suited to his past stadia and he has only a career .748 OPS in away games.

Perhaps the most worrisome number associated with Reyes, however, is the fact that he'll turn 30 years old in June.  It's a red flag age for any player but particularly a player like Reyes whose game is so reliant on his legs.  According to Fangraphs, Reyes had the lowest full-season speed score (7.1) of his career in 2012.  Reyes' base-stealing is his biggest edge over Castro (40 SB to Castro's 25 last season) but if that gap continues to narrow, then they're basically the same offensive player, with Reyes holding an edge in runs but Castro ahead in the power numbers.  And of course, Castro's power numbers are likely to only go up, while it's not like Reyes will suddenly get faster as he ages.

As I said, I still think Reyes will be a good player in 2013.  While I hate to dabble in intangibles, he could be energized by playing for a Jays squad that should be in the playoff hunt all season long.  If both he and Castro are on the board when you're picking at the end of the third/start of the fourth round, however, I might bite the bullet and draft Castro just for pure ceiling reasons.  I submit that Reyes is unlikely to revert to his .877 OPS form from 2011 and will probably resemble the player he was last year with the Marlins.  Castro, on the other hand, already came close to matching Reyes' numbers and has nowhere to go but up.

"WAIT, SO NOT ONLY WAS MY REALITY SHATTERED BY MY DISCOVERY THAT I'M A FICTIONAL CONSTRUCT, BUT I PICKED THE WRONG SHORTSTOP FOR MY FANTASY TEAM?!?!"

Well, not the 'wrong' shortstop, just maybe the slightly riskier....

"AAAAHHHHHHHH!" 



Draft Round Battles: Rodney Vs. Axford

Here's my working theory for Fernando Rodney's 2012 season.  When Mariano Rivera blew out his ACL on May 3, he decided to bestow the Closer's Matrix Of Leadership on to Rodney since...well, I don't know, maybe Mo has a soft spot for Joe Maddon.  Anyway, after taking the Matrix in a ceremony that presumably involved both men singing "The Touch," Rodney turned into Rodimus Prime and proceeded to dominate the ninth inning as few closers ever have, posting an 0.58 ERA over 62 1/3 innings after May 3.

Granted, the theory has a few holes.  For one, Rodney already had an 0.73 ERA in 14 games before May 3.  Secondly, the Closer's Matrix Of Leadership may be (MAY BE) completely fictional.  But still, I'm at a loss to think of any other reason for Rodney's incredible, improbable all-timer of a 2012 season.  The longtime journeyman reliever suddenly exploded with one of the best relief seasons in baseball history and became the best example yet as to why nobody is better at bullpen reclamation projects than the Tampa Bay Rays.

Of course, the problem with a Cinderella season is that everyone presumes midnight is about to strike.  On Roto Authority alone, Bryan Grosnick has called Rodney's season "somewhat of a mirage" while Steve Adams labelled Rodney as a bust simply because there is so little chance that Rodney has suddenly eliminated all his bad habits and turned into an elite pitcher at 35 years old.  Most notably, Rodney carried a career 4.9 BB/9 from 2002-11 and then posted only a 1.8 BB/9 in 2012 --- does anyone think that will happen again, or that Rodney will be helped by another .220 BABIP?

Let's compare Rodney's advanced metrics with those of his Draft Round Battle opponent, Brewers stopper John Axford...

Rodney: 2.13 FIP, 2.67 xFIP, 2.24 SIERA, .220 BABIP, 9.2 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, 27% strikeout rate, 57.9% ground ball rate

Axford: 4.06 FIP, 3.29 xFIP, 3.10 SIERA, .307 BABIP, 12.1 K/9, 5.1 BB/9, 30% strikeout rate, 46.3% ground ball rate

Rodney is clearly better overall but it's a closer gap than you would at first suspect given Rodney's all-world season and that Axford temporarily lost his job as Milwaukee's stopper.  Axford posted a 4.67 ERA but, as the metrics show, he didn't really pitch that badly aside from a bump in walks, and Axford had been a bit prone to free passes (3.7 BB/9 from 2009-11) even before 2012.

Of course, the one metric I left off that list was Axford's achilles heel for 2012 --- the long ball.  Axford's HR/9 jumped from 0.3 over his first three seasons to a 1.3 HR/9 in 2012 and a whopping 19.2% of his fly balls allowed went for homers.  Oddly, Axford's fly ball rate (29.7%) was a new career low, so it's possible he may have been a victim of his home turf; by the park factor metrics, no stadium was more homer-friendly than Miller Park in 2012. 

After breaking out in 2010 and delivering a strong 2011 season, it seemed like Axford was establishing himself as one of those reliable closers you could pencil in for 30+ saves and strong peripherals every year.  He certainly took a step back last year but it hasn't hurt him greatly in this spring's early fantasy drafts.  Mock Draft Central's latest average draft position report places Axford as the fifth closer taken and the 105th player drafted overall (108.89 ADP). 

He is one spot behind, you guessed it, Rodney, who checks in as the 89th overall player drafted with a 92.53 ADP.  I was a bit surprised to see Rodney that high given the seemingly universal reservations that everyone has about him for 2013.  MDC's numbers, however, are generated by mock drafts that feature pretty hardcore fantasy managers, so this isn't a case where Rodney's draft spot was boosted by auto-drafting or newbies who are dazzled by an 0.60 ERA.  It speaks to the overall volatility of the closer's position that, for as many question marks as these guys have, every closer behind them on the list also carries a lot of uncertainty headed into next season.

So our choice is between a guy with a long history of being average coming off one magnificent season against a guy with a short history of brilliance coming off a pretty average season.  It's a tough call.  For as much as critics cite Rodney's past, don't forget that Axford is still very much an unproven entity.  His rise from bartending and cellphone sales to a Major League closing job is a great story but it wouldn't be surprising if Axford joins the long list of closers who ended up on the scrap heap after one or two good years.

That said, I would recommend Axford as the better pick on draft day because, while we've seen both he and Rodney pitch at their best, I'd prefer to have Axford if he pitches at his "worst."  Even if Axford duplicates his 2012 season, he'll still help your team by racking up K's and collecting his share of saves.  If Rodney pitches to his low (such as his 2010-11 seasons) then he's not worth having on your fantasy roster.  There's also the fact that if Axford struggles a bit, he's not likely to lose his closer's job against since Francisco Rodriguez isn't there as a backup option for the Brewers.  Rodney doesn't have that luxury in Tampa Bay as Maddon won't hesitate to make a switch at closer if things are going awry. 

After Craig Kimbrel goes, your draft is likely going to see four or five rounds go by before managers start dipping back into the closer pool.  Past Jonathan Papelbon and Jason Motte, any of the six next guys on the ADP list (Rodney, Axford, Joe Nathan, Rivera, J.J. Putz, Sergio Romo) could be the next closer taken and it wouldn't be a surprise.  A healthy (and presumably re-Matrixed) Rivera, for instance, has more fantasy value than Rodney or Axford.  If you get the chance to pick between Rodimus Prime and the Ax Man, I would take Axford since there's less chance that the bottom will fall out on his performance. 

Also, if I'm nice to Axford, he might randomly show up at my apartment and teach me how to grow a sweet mustache.  You can't put a fantasy value on that.



Draft Round Battles: Swisher Vs. Sandoval

All of our Draft Round Battles thus far have focused on two players who play the same position, with the thought being that if you reached a point in your draft when you're specifically looking for that position, you have an either-or proposition.  This week, however, we're going to branch out a bit and compare first baseman/outfielder/arbiter of marital toothbrush etiquette Nick Swisher with third baseman/Bay Area headwear craze catalyst Pablo Sandoval.

Why compare these two?  Both are currently closely linked* on Mock Draft Central's latest average draft position rankings; Swisher is being taken 111th overall (115.18 ADP) while Sandoval is close behind at 116th (119.98 ADP).  Both come around that tenth round position in the draft, when you've already taken the elite bats you hope will be your lineup cornerstones and are now shopping for some solid, second-tier options.

* = Victor Martinez is the only other position player between the two but since he's a big injury red flag for me, I'm ignoring him completely.  Sorry, V-Mart shoppers!

Another reason for this comparison is to revisit one of my cardinal rules of fantasy drafting --- don't be swayed by October results.  Sandoval, of course, is coming off a monster postseason in 2012.  The Panda hit .364/.386/.712 in 70 postseason PA, capped off by his three-homer performance in Game 1 of the World Series.  Sandoval joined such immortals as Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson and Albert Pujols as the only authors of a three-homer performance in the Fall Classic, and while nobody is suddenly putting Sandoval on the level of those guys, just being in that company tends to raise one's profile.  As the ADP chart indicates, Sandoval has been taken as high as 66th overall in some drafts, which could be a case of an overzealous Giants fan, or maybe a sign that more than a few fantasy managers are now putting Sandoval in the top tier of third basemen.

That said, Sandoval has also been drafted as low as 179th overall in some drafts, which is comically low but also indicative of managers being attentive to his faults.  Sandoval has been an inconsistent player over his five-year career, posting a .943 OPS in his first full season in 2009, slumping to a .732 OPS in 2010, bouncing back up to a .909 OPS in 2011 but only playing in 117 games due to a broken right hamate bone, and then posting a .789 OPS while only playing in 108 games due to breaking his LEFT hamate bone.  

Granted, the net result is still a third baseman with a career .844 OPS at AT&T Park, so it's not like Sandoval is completely falling off the map in his "bad" years.  Even his injuries, while wrist-related, aren't terribly serious since both hamate bones have been outright removed so there's no threat of a recurrence.  Health-wise, Sandoval's weight again looks like an issue, but as Prince Fielder and David Ortiz have shown us, big guys can still produce big numbers without breaking down.*  At age 26, Sandoval is just entering his prime so while I'm being a nitpicker here, there's also plenty of evidence to suggest that Sandoval could be on the verge of his best season yet.

* = also, I'm eating a giant meatball sub as I write this, so I'm the last person to be criticizing someone else's weight issues.

But is he a better draft option than Swisher?  That's the rub.  For a guy who has played four seasons with the Yankees, makes sitcom guest appearances and is married to a well-known actress, Swisher's actual abilities on the field almost seem underrated.  Swisher was a model of consistency for the Yankees, with an average seasonal performance of .268/.367/.483 with 26 homers, 86 RBI and 83 runs in 625 PA from 2009-12.  There's no reason to believe that leaving the Bronx for Cleveland will impact these numbers, as Swisher actually had a higher OPS on the road than he did at Yankee Stadium in three of his four years in New York.

Sandoval has both the higher ceiling and lower floor, while Swisher is steady Eddie year in and year out.  While it's very possible Sandoval has a better season than Swisher in 2013, however, I'd actually still advise taking Swisher in a draft for two strategic reasons.

* Positional versatility.  One of the underrated joys of the fantasy season is when a player is installed at a new position and you happily count down the games until he gains eligibility at that new spot on the field.  I look forward to telling my grandkids one day about the Great Ben Zobrist Shortstop Push Of 2012.  This might be a personal preference of mine, but I love having multi-position players since it allows for so much flexibility when drafting or managing lineups throughout the season.  Even when it's two theoretically deep positions like OF and 1B, the fact that Swisher plays both allows you to mix and match things on draft day.  Now, you might argue that Swisher's .850 OPS (from his Yankee years) is a bit low for a fantasy first baseman, but that brings us to...

* Positional depth.  If you filter the ADP list to look at just the third basemen, there aren't any weak names ahead of Sandoval on that list.  Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Beltre, David Wright, Evan Longoria, Aramis Ramirez, Ryan Zimmerman, Chase Headley (two former Draft Round Battle opponents) and Brett Lawrie all project as solid-at-worst for 2013.  Even behind Sandoval, it wouldn't surprise me to see David Freese break out, Mike Moustakas or Pedro Alvarez stay consistently productive over a full year or young stars like Will Middlebrooks, Manny Machado or Todd Frazier come up big in full seasons.

Call me crazy, but I like the depth at third base more than I like the depth at first or even in the outfield.  Many of the top names at 1B (Pujols, Votto, Encarnacion, Goldschmidt) are kind of questionable due to age or decline, injury, or being unproven either because they're just young or because they could be one-year wonders.  There may be even fewer sure things once you get into the outfield.  I feel like you can get away with passing on Sandoval in a hypothetical tenth round and still find a very good third baseman later, whereas if you pass on Swisher, you may find yourself rolling the dice on more than one outfielder.  You're likely not going to use Swisher every day at first anyway, but the ideal scenario would be that you draft a big-hitting 1B early and then snatch Swisher later to bulk up your outfield.

It's an unconventional move to pass up a powerful third baseman, but I just think Swisher can fill more holes in a lineup and is a safer choice.  Even if Sandoval ends up with better overall numbers than Swisher, hopefully you've made up those numbers at your hot corner by taking another good third baseman. 



Draft Round Battles: Alex Rios Vs. Hunter Pence

Alex Rios was considered to have one of the best bounce-back seasons of 2012, and Rios' "bounce" actually took him to some of his highest levels yet in terms of 5x5 productivity.  Rios posted career highs in batting average (.304), homers (25) and RBI (91), and scored the second-most runs (93) of his career while also adding a healthy 23 steals.  Keeper league owners who hung onto Rios through gritted teeth after his terrible 2011 season were nicely rewarded for their loyalty.

Hunter Pence owners see Rios' situation as a best-case scenario for their guy.  Pence's 24 homers, 104 RBI and 87 runs in 2012 actually topped his 2007-11 career averages but he hit only .253/.319/.425 for the lowest OPS of his six-year career.  This number was largely fueled by the .671 OPS he posted in 248 PA after being traded to San Francisco, plus a lackluster postseason that saw Pence produce more in clubhouse motivation than he did at the plate.  

It was easy to predict some regression for Pence following his .361 BABIP-fueled 2011 campaign but still, this was a troubling drop for a player who had been a very solid fantasy outfielder over the previous five years.  Pence had just a .743 OPS with the Phillies as well, so you can't blame the move to AT&T Park on his down season...though I am going to use the ballpark as an excuse to avoid Pence in my 2013 fantasy draft.  With Petco Park and Safeco Field both moving their fences in next season, AT&T might cement its place as the most pitcher-friendly stadium in baseball.  Frankly, I'm hesitant to take any Giants hitter besides Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval, and even the Panda is a bit of a risk given how his consistency seems to yo-yo from year to year.

Pence will be a free agent next winter and has more incentive than ever to put up a big season, but I'm not really a big believer in the "contract year" phenomenon, especially when more evidence seems to exist that Pence might be starting his decline just before he hits the open market.  Pence struck out a career-worst 21.2% of the time in 2012 and he stole a career-low five bases.  Not that he was ever a big speed guy to begin with (he averaged only 12 swipes a year from 2007-11) but it's another sign that Pence might be turning into a one-dimensional player who relies on home runs to be successful, and that's not a winning formula for a guy who spends half his year trying to hit in a homer-dampening park.

Rios, in contrast, plays in hitter-friendly U.S. Cellular Field, so he's already got an edge on Pence from the get-go.  I'm admittedly not 100 percent sure on Rios in 2013 since he may be due for another one of his down years.  If Sandoval was kind of a yo-yo in terms of consistency, Rios is basically Harvey Lowe.*  Rios had put together three solid years in Toronto before plummeting to a .691 OPS in 2009, playing so poorly that the Jays just outright let Rios (and his hefty contract) go to the White Sox on waivers that August.  Rios rebounded for a .791 OPS/21 HR/88 RBI/34 SB season in 2010, then hit the skids again in 2011 before coming back in 2012.

* = if this isn't the most obscure link in Roto Authority history, then I give up

You simply don't know which player is going to show up from year to year when you draft Rios.  The outfielder just turned 32 yesterday, so it seems unlikely that he'll get better than he was last year, and all you can hope for is a repeat performance or only a minor dip.  Not only could there be a natural decline at the plate at Rios' age, but the advancing years will eventually take a toll on his speed; that'd be a big loss for a player whose fantasy value is given a nice boost from his stolen bases.

As indicated by Mock Draft Central's latest average draft position reports, Rios (82.12 ADP) is being taken roughly a round ahead of Pence (97.43 ADP) in most drafts, which seems fair given their 2012 numbers.  I tend to agree with the mock drafters.  Rios showed signs of growth as a batter, hitting more line drives (21.8% of all balls hit into play) and making more contact (86.9% of all swings) in 2012 than ever before in his career.  Those numbers allow Rios to take full advantage of his ballpark, whereas Pence will be hard-pressed to regain his stroke in San Francisco.  Since Barry Bonds left after the 2007 campaign, no Giants hitter has hit more than 26 homers in a season and only six Giants overall have reached the 20-homer plateau.  Pence has solid power but isn't a big slugger --- it's easy to imagine him failing to hit even 15 long balls in 2013.

I don't mind Rios as a second outfield choice and I like him a lot as the third outfielder, though most fantasy owners don't have their starting OF set by the eighth or ninth round.  While Rios certainly has his question marks, I wouldn't be worried if he fell on my roster on draft day.  I'd hesitate to take Pence altogether, and if I did end up drafting him through clenched teeth, he's the kind of player I would try to unload for an upgrade before Opening Day.  Unless Pence shows up at my front door and delivers a phenomenal speech to change my mind, Rios is the better option of the two.



Draft Round Battles: Jason Heyward Vs. Adam Jones

Taking a page from the Columbo book of storytelling, I'm going to remove the suspense early: I favor Jason Heyward ahead of Adam Jones in 2013 fantasy drafts.  My usual strategy is to take a more established player over a promising but semi-unproven one but in Heyward and Jones, I feel better taking Heyward's upside ahead of Jones' solid but not quite elite game.

It's a bit of a bold statement on my part since Jones projects as a stable bottom-of-the-second-round choice in most fantasy drafts.  The Orioles center fielder was an all-around fine fantasy performer in 2012, delivering career highs in homers (32), runs (103), batting average (.287), slugging (.505), steals (16) and he even threw in 82 RBIs to boot.

A lot of nice numbers, indeed, but there was one career-best that Jones couldn't top.  His .334 OBP in 2012 fell short of the .335 OBP he posted in 2009.  I don't care that he fell short of the mark; I care that in five seasons as a Major League regular, Jones hasn't been able to do better than a .335 OBP.  Walks have always been an issue for Jones and his career 0.25 BB/K rate may be the only thing holding him back from being a truly elite outfielder. 

It's almost a Moneyball cliche at this point but I always hesitate before drafting a hitter who doesn't have a solid OBP.  Heyward, to be fair, also had a .335 OBP in 2012 and only a .319 OBP during his 2011 season, a year marred by nagging injuries and perhaps just an old-fashioned sophomore slump.   What did catch my eye, however, was Heyward's .393 OBP over 623 PA in his 2010 rookie season, which was part of an .849 OPS that happened to top any of Jones' seasons.  Heyward only did it once, but a .393 OBP at any age is very impressive, and doing it in your age-20 season was off the charts. 

Fans and pundits had high expectations of Heyward in his rookie year and he delivered, though his mediocre 2011 and a Jones-esque 2012 have served to lower expectations slightly...if you call being the 32nd player taken overall in Mock Draft Central's latest average draft position rankings as "lowered expectations."  Still, there's just a bit of post-hype malaise surrounding Heyward, as is the fickle nature of fantasy owners towards any heavily-touted rookie that doesn't immediately start rattling off the Cooperstown-caliber seasons.

I referred to Heyward's 2012 year as Jones-esque because...

Jones: 697 PA, 32 HR, 82 RBI, 103 runs, .287/.334/.505, 16 steals,, 125 OPS+, .361 wOBA, 126 wRC+

Heyward: 651 PA, 27 HR, 82 RBI, 93 runs, .269/.335/.479, 21 steals, 117 OPS+, .351 wOBA, 120 wRC+

Jones had the better season but the gap was closer than you might have thought.  Heyward's rebound from his tough 2011 campaign somewhat flew under the radar, while Jones leading the Cinderella Orioles back to relevance understandably drew a lot more attention.

Now, I will freely admit that the "post-hype malaise" I mentioned earlier could also easily apply to Jones as well.  He was a former first-round sandwich pick in the 2003 draft and ranked 28th on Baseball America's list of the game's 100 best prospects heading into the 2007 season.  Jones, though, is only breaking out now, at age 27.  It's possible this is his ceiling, or it's also possible that he's already hit his ceiling and he'll perform closer to his pre-2012 norm (a 101 OPS+) in 2013.

What it all boils down to is that I just think we've yet to see the best of Heyward, whereas I think Jones may have already peaked.  If the two players produce the same offensive numbers in 2013, I really believe that would represent a worst-case scenario for Heyward.  It's easy to see him exploding for a .900 OPS or better, whereas I'm not sure what more Jones can do to improve unless he suddenly gains a lot more plate discipline.  They may have a 10+ point gap in ADP now, but I see Jones and Heyward both still sitting on a lot of draft boards by many a third round, and if you're faced with a choice between the two, go with the younger option in this case. 



Draft Round Battles: Headley Vs. Zimmerman

Washington D.C. is about 2700 miles from San Diego but the two cities' star third basemen could hardly be closer.  In Mock Draft Central's most recent average draft position report, Chase Headley's 50.84 ADP narrowly edges out Ryan Zimmerman's 51.55 ADP and the duo are ranked 48th and 49th overall among all players.  It's basically about as close as it gets between the two third baseman heading into 2013 and when you hit that late third round/early fourth round, you'll probably still have both of them on the board.  Who do you take if you're looking for a big bat at the hot corner?

Let's take a look at both players' 2012 numbers.  As we see, Headley had the clear edge...

Headley: 699 PA, .286/.376/.498, 31 HR, 115 RBI, 95 runs, 17 steals, 144 OPS+, 145 wRC+

Zimmerman: 641 PA, .282/.346/.478, 25 HR, 95 RBI, 93 runs, 5 steals, 121 OPS+, 121 wRC+

You really struck paydirt if you were a Headley owner in 2012.  The Padres third sacker took the big step from underrated fantasy option to superstar, providing consistent production all year long and taking it to another level in the second half.  Headley posted a .984 OPS over his last 74 games and no doubt swung many a fantasy playoff race.  

Going into 2012, the line on Headley was that he was a Petco Park victim, putting up big numbers on the road but mediocre stats in his very pitcher-friendly home ballpark.  Headley still had significant home/away splits last season but he definitely turned a corner at Petco, posting an .812 OPS at home and a whopping .975 OPS on the road.  He can hit, he can steal you some bases and he's just going into his age-29 season, so Headley should be right in the middle of his prime.

Headley's big 2012 bore quite a resemblance to Zimmerman's big 2009-10 campaigns, when Invader Zim averaged a .299/.375/.518 slash line, 29 HR, 96 RBI and a 137 OPS+ over those two seasons, no small feat considering that Nationals Park is also pretty pitcher-friendly.  Zimmerman was hampered by injuries in 2011 (yet still posted a .798 OPS in 440 PA) and was also bothered by a shoulder injury at the start of 2012, spending some time on the DL and owning a measly .590 OPS and three homers through his first 55 games.  Like Headley, however, Zimmerman caught fire in the second half, hitting .321/.383/.584 over his last 90 games.  Zimmerman has undergone surgery this offseason in an attempt to fix his shoulder issue once and for all, and he is on pace to be ready to go on Opening Day.

A healthy Zimmerman and a "new normal" Headley are basically the same player, so fantasy owners have to ask themselves what's more likely to happen --- Zimmerman going back on the DL or Headley coming back to earth.  All things considered, I'll consider Zimmerman to be the slightly better fantasy option.  Here's my reasoning...

* Past history.  Put me in the camp that believes Headley is probably due to produce something closer to his .773 OPS performance from 2011 than repeat his 2012 performance.  Fangraphs' Chris Cwik recently noted that most players who had similar jumps in production (as measured by wOBA) over a single season regressed the following year, in some cases drastically.  An explainable dip in production can be more comforting to a fantasy owner than an unexplainable surge in production, and I put more faith in Zimmerman getting over his shoulder than I do in Headley suddenly putting up Adrian Gonzalez numbers on a consistent basis.

* Surroundings.  I actually think the Padres lineup could be underrated next season, especially since they're moving the fences in at Petco Park.  Headley has some talent around him and his ballpark will be at least slightly more hitter-friendly, and yet that said, Zimmerman clearly benefits more from hitting in that stacked Nats lineup and playing in Washington.

* Luck.  This is kind of a minor thing since Zimmerman owns a career .313 BABIP himself, but Headley's career BABIP is an eyebrow-raising .339.  Unless Headley was given a lifetime blessing by the BABIP fairy (or maybe just really knows how to hit 'em where they ain't in his spacious home stadium), surely you have to figure that sooner or later, Headley's luck will turn.  Also, Headley is due some bad karma for not adopting this classic as his walkup music.  C'mon, he actually plays in San Diego and his first name is actually Chase!  It's a no-brainer!  If a member of Petco Park stadium operations staff happens to be reading this, at least start using the "ooooo, the Chaaaaaase" sound clip after Headley's base hits.

I reserve the right to change my opinion if Headley is dealt before the trade deadline, though it seems the Padres are eager to work out a contract extension with him even if talks aren't taking place at the moment.  As it stands now, however, I see Zimmerman carrying a minor edge over his fellow third baseman.  While Headley is still a strong option and I'd be happy to have him on my fantasy roster, I just think Zimmerman's track record makes him the safer option. 




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