2014 Fantasy Baseball Preview

by TIM MCCULLOUGH

In the last edition of Offseason Musings we explored the major transactions that occurred during the first few days of the MLB Winter Meetings as well as the days leading up to annual gathering of general managers, agents and players looking for a contract.  More than 30 players were involved in a transaction of some sort at that point, but there remained scores of other players without a contract for the 2014 season. In the days since, there have been a few trades and many more signings, yet there remains a significant pool of available talent waiting for a deal. That means there will be several more editions of Offseason Musings dedicated to transactions and their Fantasy implications.

For now, we’ll look at the major transactions that have occurred to date, concentrating on those that are most significant within the Fantasy Baseball realm. Since we really don’t care how players ended up on their new team (or remained with their old one), we will not bother with the transaction details. Instead, we’ll concentrate on the impact of the deal in Fantasy play, try to gauge how the transaction will affect the player’s Fantasy value and whether there are implications for other players on the new or former team of the player in question. Therefore, in no particular order, these are the more significant player address changes of the past few weeks.

Doug Fister & Nate McLouth – The Nationals bolstered their already formidable starting rotation with the addition of Fister, who has been a very consistent pitcher over the last four major league seasons, two each spent with Seattle and Detroit. Fister isn’t a strikeout artist by any measure; he’s averaged 6.28 K/9 IP with a high water mark of 7.63 K/9 in 2012. He has superb control, averaging just 1.81 BB/9 over the last four seasons. Fister excels at pitching to contact, generating a groundball rate of 54.3 percent in 2013, a career best. While the Nationals’ infield defense is a bit below league average, there is little doubt that Fister’s new team is defensively stronger than the Tigers. (Although, that will likely change in 2014 with Jose Iglesias as the full time SS.) The combination of a stronger infield defense, a less HR-friendly home park and the move to the National League should show up as a positive influence on Fister’s pitching ratios (ERA, WHIP). Overall, the low strikeout numbers will keep Fister from joining the elite Fantasy pitchers, but he’ll certainly have significant value in NL-only leagues, and mixed leaguers will value him as a back end starter for his low ratio statistics.

Drew Smyly has a rotation spot now that Doug Fister is gone. Photo Credit: hueytaxi

Drew Smyly has a rotation spot now that Doug Fister is gone. Photo Credit: hueytaxi

One major implication of Fister’s move to the Nationals is that it finally opens up a starting rotation slot for lefty Drew Smyly. During Smyly’s very brief minor league career (143 IP over parts of two seasons) he was used exclusively as a starter. He posted terrific numbers (2.57 ERA, 9.7 K/9, 1.18 WHIP) that have largely translated to the major leagues. There may be an issue with innings totals as the 2014 season wears on, because Smyly has been used almost exclusively out of the bullpen and hasn’t exceeded 95 innings over the last two years. However, he must be considered a true sleeper candidate for 2014, given his solid strikeout numbers and ratio stats. Don’t overpay or reach for him early in drafts, though, because he could have his workload curtailed or even be shut down at some point late in the season.

Nate McLouth showed some resilience in 2013, looking more like the productive player he was for the Pirates in 2007 and 2008 than the disastrous, out-of-sync waste of a lineup spot player he was for the Braves from 2010 – 2012. McLouth reportedly adjusted his batting stance and approach at the plate, resulting in a nice bump in Contact rate from 84 percent in 2012 to 87.9 percent in 2013. His batting average rose to .258, his best since hitting .276 in 2008, and he stole 30 bases (a career-high) while contributing 12 HRs, the he’s contributed in a season since hitting 20 in 2009. He still hasn’t regained his once elite BB rate (13.7 percent in ’09) but he settled in right around nine percent and posted a .329 OBP in 2013, an improvement over his .314 mark of the previous year. McLouth also pared down his strikeout rate, which reached a peak of 20.5 percent in 2012; he slashed it down to 14.5 percent, his best mark since achieving a 13.6 percent K rate in 2008. Overall, it appears his rediscovered approach is real and sustainable, which makes him a good player to target in the later rounds of drafts in the spring.

However, as of this writing, McLouth is the fourth outfielder for the Nationals behind Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper and Denard Span, although, Span struggled for much of 2013 and a platoon is certainly a possiblility. Span has been the subject of numerous trade rumors of late, as the Nationals have looked to move on from him after a disappointing 2013 season. If they should be successful in trading Span, McLouth could be in line for a significant increase in playing time. If McLouth suddenly becomes the starting centerfielder for the Nationals in 2014, he will have significant value in mixed Fantasy leagues. Without that regular starting job, McLouth will be relegated to a bench depth/stolen base source role in all formats.

Rajai Davis & Joba Chamberlain – Since the Tigers missed out their chances to land either Jacoby Ellsbury or Shin Soo Choo it appears their solution to Austin Jackson’s issues against lefties was to sign speedy outfielder Rajai DavisDespite his rather poor on-base skills and limited playing time, Davis has managed to steal 40-plus bases in four of his last five campaigns. It appears the Tigers want to use Davis’ career .294 batting average against left-handed pitching in a platoon with Austin Jackson, whose paltry .213 against southpaws made him a liability from the leadoff spot. Jackson has a career .291 average against righties and batted .291 against them in 2013. In general, platoons don’t square up well with Fantasy play, except in with daily lineup changes. So both players will be affected negatively if the Tigers go through with these plans. However, give Davis’ speed ability, those in daily leagues can probably get some value out of him, especially if he can swipe another 40 bags.

Joba Chamberlain is several years removed from effective work out of the bullpen for the Yankees. The Tigers are hoping that a change of scenery can return him to being at least a useful arm in their bullpen, which was easily their most glaring weakness in the 2013 post-season. He still has decent velocity on his fastball, though; it’s nowhere near the 97 mph that at one time made him a feared reliever out of the pen. If he can harness his command and control again to bring his strikeout rate back up into double-digits, they may get some decent value from Chamberlain. In Fantasy play, however, it’s very unlikely that he’ll have any value whatsoever.

Jim Johnson & Drew Pomeranz – The A’s have been among the most active teams this offseason, likely because Billy Beane’s reading of the tea leaves is telling him that his team as currently constructed is not far from contending for a World Series title. One component that made last year’s team so successful was the stability at the end of games that Grant Balfour provided. With Balfour gone to free agency, Beane wanted an established closer to replace him, so he traded for Jim Johnson. While Johnson has saved 101 games for the Orioles over the last two seasons, he’s done so with just middling strikeout numbers and superb control. Johnson thrives on generating groundballs and letting his defense handle the rest. Whether the A’s have the defensive strength to keep Johnson successful is a matter of some question, but he’ll be given every chance to claim and keep the closer’s job in 2014. If he fails, the A’s also have Luke Gregerson on board.

The A’s are hoping a new pitcher-friendly home park is just the thing to finally get Drew Pomeranz’ career rolling. After several unimpressive showings in the bigs, the 25-year-old Pomeranz will need to prove he is still worth his roster spot. Pomeranz isn’t a lock to make the A’s starting rotation. He doesn’t strike out a ton of batters for such a big pitcher, but the southpaw has shown improvement in his secondary pitches and there is a chance he’ll provide some value in AL-only leagues. Mixed league players should wait and see.

Norichika Aoki & Omar Infante – The Royals had difficulty scoring runs, mainly because they used Alex Gordon (.327 OBP) in the leadoff role; he’s much better suited to hit somewhere in the heart of the lineup given his power potential. So, the trade for Norichika Aoki makes a great deal of sense just for his OBP skills (.356 OBP in 2013). Aoki has stolen 50 bases over the last two seasons, 30 in 2012 and 20 in 2013, so he is perfectly suited for the leadoff job in Kansas City. The only problem may be that decline in steals, as Aoki is no spring chicken at age 34 entering the coming season. Assuming his legs are still healthy and the decline in steals is more a function of the Brewers’ lack of aggression on the basepaths, Aoki should be able to swipe 30 bags again and provide decent value as a source of steals and runs scored in Fantasy play. He’s a solid third or fourth outfielder in mixed leagues with the potential to be quite valuable if the Royals give him full-time work.

Second base has been a black hole of production for the Royals, with their best keystone player being Chris Getz. The signing of Omar Infante certainly gives them a much more productive starter at second. Infante’s numbers are very BABIP driven, though, which makes him a somewhat risky proposition for Fantasy use. His production in the various counting stat categories fluctuates greatly from year to year, mainly because of the volatility of his BABIP, which is not uncommon. He has some power, can give you some speed and he is capable of producing serviceable numbers in all five major Fantasy categories. However, keep in mind that he is also quite capable of putting up a dud of a season if his BABIP sinks. He is certain to have value in AL-only play, but mixed leaguers should monitor his BABIP closely if they choose to gamble with Infante in 2014.

Rafael Furcal, Brian Bogusevic, Garrett Jones & Jarrod Saltalamacchia – Once again, the Marlins are adding an assortment of castoffs and retreads to their mostly Triple-A team, masquerading as an effort to build a competitive squad without actually spending any real money. Rafael Furcal missed all of 2013 recovering from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, the latest in a long history of injuries suffered throughout his career. If you aren’t skeptical about how much Furcal can contribute to your Fantasy team at age 36 then you absolutely should be. He hasn’t had a Fantasy-worthy season since 2006. Since then he’s gone from a perennial double-digit HR/30 SB machine to a light-hitting/sometimes productive (read: when healthy) roster filler. I wouldn’t recommend gambling on Furcal in any format this season and would suggest you leave him on the waiver wire to see if he shows any sign of his formerly productive self.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia has turned into a “three outcomes” sort of player that hits for power but spends the rest of his plate appearances either walking (career 8.3 percent BB rate) or striking out (career 29.4 percent K rate). The Red Sox finally figured out that the best way to use Salty is exclusively as a left-handed hitter against right-handed pitching (.294 vs. righties in 2013, career .263). The Marlins still have Jeff Mathis, who can’t hit anything, and Rob Brantly, who profiles similar to Salty as a hitter. So it’s not completely clear how the Marlins intend to deploy any of them. Given Salty’s strikeout numbers and lack of production in all but the HR category, it’s hard to recommend using him for Fantasy play as anything but a second catcher in the very deepest of NL-only and mixed leagues. Meanwhile, Brantly, who many thought had some potential to be a Fantasy commodity, will sure lose major amounts of playing time with Salty on the roster. A trade is certainly possible, but we’ll have to wait and see what the Marlins do this spring.

Garrett Jones figures to be in the mix to start at first base for the Marlins. However, the signing of Jones is another head scratcher, given that they already have Greg Dobbs, who profiles as a similar type of hitter because like Jones, he can’t hit left-handed pitching. So, once again the team has signed a platoon player without having a complementary player on the roster to fill the platoon. As a left-handed hitter, Jones hits righties fairly well and with a decent amount of power; he’s put up double-digits in HRs in all but one of his big league seasons, peaking at 27 dingers in 2012. Jones should have value in NL-only and deep mixed leagues based on his power. The only problem is that he’s more likely to hit .230 than he is to bat .270, so you’ll have to be able to withstand the batting average hit to have him on your Fantasy roster.

One might look upon Brian Bogusevic’s numbers in Triple-A last year and find some hope that he could be a useful player. However, his status as a prospect is long gone at age 30 and that is highly unlikely to happen at this point. He’s a fourth or fifth outfielder in MLB, providing depth in the event of an injury to a starter, but there is little or no chance we’ll care about him in the Fantasy game.

Brian Wilson – Brian Wilson pitched well enough in a dozen innings for the Dodgers last year that they’ve added him for 2014. If Kenley Jansen has the kind of year he had in 2012, when he blew seven saves, or he becomes injured, we could see Wilson return to a closer role. For that reason, he should be on your radar next season. Jansen was pretty solid last year (only four blown saves) but there’s no guarantee he’ll be consistent and repeat this year. I wouldn’t draft Wilson during the preseason but I would certainly have him dialed up as a waiver wire addition if Jansen struggles even a little. The pressure will be on for the Dodgers to win in 2014, and Jansen will feel the heat more than most.

Curtis Granderson & Bartolo Colon – Curtis Granderson’s 2013 season was a disaster for all intents and purposes, and during the brief time when he was healthy he didn’t look so hot either. His contact rate was ridiculously low at 69.5 percent and he struck out a whopping 28 percent of the time, mainly due to a very high swinging strike rate of 13.6 percent. Unless he pulls those numbers up considerably, I expect him to continue to post batting averages down in the .230 range with less power than he showed in Yankee stadium’s friendly confines.

Given Bartolo Colon’s history with PEDs and his “miraculous” return to effective pitching, I have to remain skeptical about his chances of repeating his 2013 performance with the A’s. From a purely statistical standpoint, his Expected Fielding Independent Pitcher (XFIP) was 3.95, which was well above his actual ERA of 2.65, an indication that much of what he did was driven by luck (80 percent Strand Rate), smoke and mirrors. I guess that’s fitting for a pitcher at age 40 with a connection to banned substances. Don’t buy into last year’s “miracle,” as he isn’t going to do it again with the Mets.

Shin Soo Choo & J.P. Arencibia – The Shin Soo Choo signing was a brilliant move on the part of the Rangers, who desperately needed his on base skills (.423 OBP in 2013, .389 career) at the top of their batting order. With Prince Fielder and Adrian Beltre in the heart of the order, there’s a very good chance that Choo will be the top run scorer in the AL in 2014. There is no reason to expect anything less than Choo’s 2013 production again, and perhaps even a slight improvement given the slightly better run environment of his home park. Choo is on my short list of targeted players in this season’s drafts.

The Toronto Blue Jays ran J.P. Arencibia out of town. They simply could no longer wait for him to become the hitter they were expecting when they drafted him.  Arencibia should thrive with the Rangers; although, it appears that Geovany Soto will be the primary catcher. The split stats don’t favor one catcher over the other, as neither of them hits for a decent average. Arencibia has the edge over Soto in power, but Soto is the better defensive catcher by far. In the end, neither catcher is going to have great value in Fantasy play, as Soto will likely be ranked somewhere in the mid-twenties among the Top 30 at the position and Arencibia might not make the Top 30 at all.

Adam Eaton & Matt Davidson – Given the poor performance put forth by the White Sox in 2013, who can blame them for blowing up the roster and adding some youth to their aging group of players. Adam Eaton was riddled with injuries that ruined his coming out party in 2013, but he’ll get a second chance to shine in Chicago, likely grabbing the leadoff spot and becoming the starting centerfielder on the South Side. The addition of Eaton has a trickle-down effect on several other players, most notably Alejandro De Aza, who moves over to left field in a platoon with Dayan Viciedo. Eaton’s arrival also virtually guarantees that prospect Jordan Danks will spend another season in the minors and will likely move to a corner outfield slot if/when he does make the Show. Of course, a big Spring training by any or all of the aforementioned could change this scenario, but that remains to be seen. It also remains to be seen whether Eaton delivers on his once promising projections of 50-plus stolen bases and runs by the score.

There is a lot to like about Matt Davidson, primarily his big time power swing, which should guarantee plenty of home runs. However, defensive problems and problems with striking out could conspire to derail his progress in the majors. The White Sox will likely have to be patient while Davidson goes through his growing pains, and Fantasy owners will need to exhibit equal amounts of patience because Davidson will look very much like the second coming of (pencil in your favorite three true outcome power hitter here). The White Sox would be foolish to give him anything less than a full season, especially since they are going nowhere in 2014, so if you draft Davidson you can likely do so with confidence that he’ll play all year. Of course, just what that will look like on the stat sheet may not be pretty, so draft for the power and hope that he figures out how to close some of the holes in his swing.

Mark Trumbo & Addison Reed – The acquisition of Mark Trumbo is a real head scratcher for me. I thought the Diamondbacks learned their lesson with Mark Reynolds. You know, the one that says, “DH types rarely succeed in the National League, and their great power is diminished by the many, many whiffs they pile up.” I mean, they traded away Matt Davidson, jettisoned Jason Kubel and set their sights on players with better overall hit tools. So, adding Trumbo just doesn’t seem to make sense. Since they don’t have room at first base with Paul Goldschmidt not going anywhere, Trumbo will have to play in the outfield where he’s a defensive liability. However, he will be in a home stadium that should favor his hitting style, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see an uptick in HR production, but I would also expect his batting average to remain somewhere in the .230-.250 range because of all the strikeouts. Even the change of league won’t help him make better contact.

Addison Reed notched 40 saves for the hapless White Sox in 2013, but he also blew eight saves and his 3.79 ERA was less than desirable in Fantasy and regular baseball terms. Put another way, Reed was no more than an average reliever for the White Sox. He joins a bullpen that sorely needed someone to be healthy and step up last season, so he has a shot at being the closer for the Diamondbacks. Odds are that J.J. Putz gets the first chance at the gig, but given his track record as far as health is concerned, Reed could have the job before April is over. No matter how it plays out, Reed will likely end up with at least 20 saves before all is said and done. Of course, his erratic performance in 2013 doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, so David Hernandez could also be in the mix. Having said all that, I think it’s best to avoid the Diamondbacks pen altogether and look for your closer elsewhere.

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