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Gearing Up Again

Time to get back into writing gear, though I do have some under my belt already for the 2020 season. The Fantasy Baseball Guide 2020, now on newsstands near you, featured a few articles by yours truly.

We changed things up for the prospect section focusing not only on impact prospects for 2020 but rankings for keeper/dynasty leagues too! I pieced together the article, wrote a few of the profiles, and all the long-term prognosis. I also wrote the Prospect Retrospective piece and an article recapping my 2019 AL Tout Wars victory “Six Degrees of Fantasy Baseball Victory”. You’ll be able to buy it online in PDF or physical edition soon at thefantasyguide.com soon!

Enough advertising, time to take a glance at the Cardinals and Rays deal.

The Cardinals moved Jose Martinez and Randy Arozarena to the Rays for Matt Liberatore, Edgardo Rodriguez and swapped competitive balance picks with the 38th overall pick going to the Rays and the 66th coming back to the Cardinals.

Cardinals outfield for 2020 is now up in the air with one less veteran to take up playing time. Dexter Fowler, Harrison Bader, Tommy Edman, Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas, and Justin Williams are all in the playing time mix with Dylan Carlson poised to possibly take spring training by storm and maneuver his way into the starting lineup as a 22-year old with fewer than 100 plate appearances of experience in Triple-A.

Liberatore is a well-regarded left-handed pitcher and former 2018 first-round pick of the Rays, drafted 16th overall and is instantaneously one of the Cardinals top five prospects or better. He more than held his own as a 19-year old at A-ball showing a four-pitch arsenal with an already plus fastball, but his calling card will be his plus to plus-plus curve. The changeup and slider are both still works in progress, but that’s to be expected for a 6’6” pitcher who just turned 20 this past November. He is at least two to three seasons from the Majors and at this moment time looks like a middle of the rotation starter. The feel-good here has childhood friends Liberatore and third base prospect Nolan Gorman reuniting and cheering them on to both reach the Majors together as starters are something to embrace.

Edgardo Rodriguez is currently listed as a catcher, but it remains to be seen whether he will be able to stay there defensively. That said, despite missing most of 2019 due to injuries, his hit tool remains well regarded as a disciplined contact hitter with some power potential. He’ll likely move up to full-season A-ball this year but could also see more time in rookie ball given his minimal experience and age. While he is unlikely to ever be regarded as highly as Liberatore as a prospect, there is a chance he ends up having a more productive career. That is not an endorsement, just a brutal consideration given the youth of these two players and the variability of what may befall them between now and the time in which they shot at the majors.

On the Rays side, their decidedly left-handed hitting outfield needed another right-handed compliment. Neither Kevin Kiermaier nor Austin Meadows has extreme righty/lefty platoon splits. It is more that Martinez has an extreme bat against righties including a career .331/.405/.570 line when contrasted against his new teammates’ more modest abilities. Arozarena should also be a factor at the MLB level this coming season and is something of a dark horse candidate as an impact prospect. A later bloomer, the 24-year old is a good defender who can handle all three outfield positions, above-average foot speed, and a quick bat, but high single to low-double-digit homerun power. His upside is likely that of a fourth outfielder but has enough skills and tools to potentially be a right-handed centerfield compliment to Kiermaier.

Prospect Fever

Teams are not at all being shy this season. They are calling up their prospects and plugging them right into their rotations and lineups with little hesitation once they show they’re ready.

Indians’ Outfield

An injury to Cleveland’s Tyler Naquin opened the door for Oscar Mercado to get at least a cup of coffee as an everyday player. The righty had produced a .296/.396/.496 line in Triple-A to date. The Indians outfield has consisted of Carlos Gonzalez, Leonys Martin, Naquin, and Jordan Luplow (platooning with Gonzalez). None are noted for their on-base skills and only Luplow is slugging over .500 albeit over a small sample which includes a near-36% strikeout rate and .370 BABIP so take that level of performance with lightly. Enter Mercado. A former Cardinals farmhand, he has stolen at least 30 each season since 2005 and has already racked up 14 in Triple-A in little over a month. That alone, without any further discussion, makes him worth at least a flier in any format. Previous scouting reports had him pegged as a fourth outfielder type due to his speed and defensive abilities. Over the past two seasons, he has started to become more patient at the plate walking around 11% of the time but has had difficulty keeping his strikeout rates under 20%. Were he a pure, power-devoid standard speedster, that might be the death bell, but Mercado has gap power, capable of putting 5 to 10 home runs out of the ballpark per season. If he shows anything while Naquin is out, this could easily turn into a longer stay. The true test will be to see how Mercado handles right-handed pitching to verify whether or not he can be more than a platoon player.

Hiura Time in Milwaukee

With Travis Shaw going on the shelf for at least ten days, the Brewers elected to bring up 2017 first-round pick Keston Hiura from Triple-A. Shaw owners should be quite worried on several levels. First, wrist injuries often sap power and can take a fair amount of time from which to recover. Second, his struggles so far and Hiura’s Triple-A domination (.333/.408/.698) might consign him to a bench role regardless. Clearly, Hiura will not be maintaining a .405 BABIP at the MLB level and a significant degree of his level of production will be lost in translation to the Majors. Hiura’s bat speed and ability to make hard, line-drive contact are his calling cards which have long had him projected as a potential .300 hitter with mid to high teens home run power and single-digit stolen base skills. This year, however, he appears to be selling out for more power with 11 longballs already on the season and a strikeout rate (27%) to match. This has worked in Triple-A, but it will be interesting to see if he returns to his previously established norms or continues with this more power-conscious approach which is contrary to being a .300 hitter in the majors.

Today was just a brief taste of a few of the prospects and recent transactions. More tomorrow!

Throwing Darts with the O’s

The Baltimore Orioles are perhaps already on a pace for a high-fifty to a mid-sixty-win season and they haven’t even played their first game. While it is going to be rough for years for Orioles fans, it presents a fascinating situation for fantasy players. A team laden with borderline MLB players means opportunities will abound for players within and without the Orioles system as they try to find something that will stick.

The Orioles willingness to not only dive head first into the Rule-5 draft but to keep not one but potentially three Rule-5 draftees on their opening day roster is a true indication that they need to find talent and harness talent wherever they can find it.

Two of the Rule-5 picks are players who have a history of issues with their hitting prior to 2018, but both enjoyed break-through seasons after getting new contact lenses. Any modest level of excitement should be tempered against the context (ineffectiveness) of their previous seasons as a hitter and the likelihood that they will regress particularly as a result of a two-level jump.

Richie Martin will be the primary beneficiary of this with the cut of Alicedes Escobar last week. The 24-year old shortstop was somewhat buried in the A’s season and would have been their Triple-A shortstop this year after enjoying a break-through season in Double-A with a .300 hitting, 25 stolen base campaign. Fantasy players, however, should consider any offense whatsoever a bonus. He is there first and foremost for his all-around plus defense where he has soft hands, good range, and a plus throwing arm. The speed tools are there, but there is little punch behind his bat, and really needs to concentrate on selectivity and making contact. As a player who puts the ball on the ground nearly 60% of the time, he’ll need to leg it out a lot of infield hits to be truly useful for fantasy players. He’s only an AL-only league find now and even should be a sub $5 draft day buy depending on when he’s nominated.

Drew Jackson looks to be his backup and like Martin was selected as a pure upside/talent play because of his raw natural tools. The former Dodger is a bit more intriguing as he tapped into some power (15 home runs), stole 22 bases, and has a history of walking (11%) last year. Right now, he is on the utility-player career path, but his broad array of talents makes him noteworthy if opportunity arises.

Matt Olson Injury
In other news, Matt Olson had hamate encision surgery. I found a medical abstract that indicates the median return to play time is about six weeks, but could be longer in some cases. The fact that he had the surgery almost immediately after having the injury and is an athlete, may improve his chances for a quicker return, but he could be out to late May or June if there are any complications and it remains to be seen how it will impact his power for the remainder of the season.

Mark Canha, will get first crack at replacing him. The 30-year old has no career-length platoon splits, but that does not mean it is a good thing as a .237/.240 hitter against lefties and righties over his career. Last year though he did do damage against lefties, batting .282/.337/.604 while continuing to struggle against righties. In other words, the A’s would be better off if he was the short-side of a platoon. Fine as a short-term fill-in in AL-Only leagues, but intriguing as a possible, situational, DFS play against lefties.

Fulmer Fallout

Heading into Tout Wars weekend the Tiger’s Michael Fulmer the consensus had him projected to throw between 160 and 180 innings with a low 4’s ERA and 140 or so strikeouts. Tommy John surgery changes that projection to a round 0 for all statistical categories leaving the Tigers and the rest of us trying to figure out how they will fill those innings. Fulmer averaged about 6.1 innings per start over his career, so immediately we all must upgrade the innings in the bullpen unless someone emerges who can go 6-plus innings a start.

Right now the projected rotation will feature:

Matthew Boyd

Jeff Zimmermann

Tyson Ross

Matt Moore

Daniel Norris

Veterans Boyd, Zimmermann, and Ross were all already penciled in the rotation and are expected to carry their loads without impact from the injury fallout. The wild cards are Matt Moore and Daniel Norris. Two pitchers once considered among, if not the best pitching prospects in the game at their respective times who have battled through injury and ineffectiveness.

Current Top Options
Moore to his credit has improved his control a great deal over the past four seasons while at the same his strikeout rates have trended downwards and it has been over 6 years since he averaged 94 to 95 on his fastball, now in the 92-mph range. He is not quite as bad as his 6.79 ERA of last year and should see some regression in his HR/FB (14%), BABIP (.341), and left-on-base rate (62%), but still posted an xFIP of over 5.00.

Daniel Norris, at 25, offers slightly more hope after posting a 10.4 K/9 and 3.9 BB/9 last year even though his velocity was down 3 mph last year and so far, this spring has not bounced back in that regard.

Spencer Turnbull is currently Norris’ main competition. A 26-year old former second round pick back in 2014, he pitched at FIVE different levels of professional ball last year culminating in 4 games at the MLB level. The righty throws hard, but does not have a fully developed repertoire and is likely to struggle against lefties without even an average changeup or curve. He profiles as a number-five type starter and given that the Tigers have some better minor league options, he may not get too long a look.

Blaine Hardy, 32, worked as a swing-man for the Tigers last year and that seems to be his role for this one too. As a starter last year, he threw 67.2 innings and managed a respectable 6.3 K/9, 2.1 BB/9. As a reliever though he posted a 9.3 K/9 and 2.95 BB/9. It is pretty clear he becomes quite hittable the more he is seen, so the rotation is not a long-term solution for him either.

Long-Term Options
All the above means one better familiarize yourself with the Tiger’s minor league system because likely more than one of them will get a shot to claim a rotation spot without considering potential injuries to their top three starters. Unfortunately, most of the talent we want to see will start the year in either Double-A or Single-A+ ball.

Triple-A
Journeymen Ryan Carpenter and Matt Hall are both on the 40-man roster. Carpenter has pitched in three different organizations and made it to the show with the Tigers last year. The lefty throws strikes consistently and the hitters like to hit them to be blunt. Both pitchers are emergency options and Triple-A roster filler types who are best avoided in even AL-only leagues.

Beau Burrows, a 2015 first round pick, will also be at Triple-A, and is a more intriguing option. After one and a half seasons in Double-A he moves up a level, but only has one true plus pitch in his upper nineties fastball. He struggles with his command and without a good secondary pitch his 8.5 K/9 is going to move down a bit in Triple-A and might not top the 7.0 K/9 range as a starter in the Majors now. Relief might be his long-term home.

It is tempting to draft Kyle Funkhouser for having his name on your roster alone. The righty has a deeper repertoire than Burrows, but nothing that screams an out pitch and is very average across the board. He might be the better short-term option given a rotation spot than Burrows but does not have the long-term upside of others in the system that will keep him there this season and beyond.

Double-A
This level is where things get quite interesting for the Tigers featuring Matt Manning, Franklin Perez, and Alex Faedo. Manning pitched at three levels in 2018 but made just 2 starts in Double-A. Although he was the ninth overall pick in the 2016 draft, he does not project as an ace and is more of a middle-of-rotation type with 2 plus pitches and a developing change with fair command.  Faedo, their 2017 first round pick split his season between A+ and Double-A with 12 stars a piece at each level, increasing his strikeout rates with his promotion a full point, but had tremendous difficulty with the long ball and was not quite fully recovered from injuries and had diminished velocity which may or may not come back. Perez could easily be the best of the trio but has had difficulty staying on the field. The former Astro has three to four possible pitches of plus quality and has flashed plus command as well, but has yet to show much since 2017 after making just 7 starts all last year.

Single-A+
Normally I would not include going quite as deep as single-A when looking for current season rotation options, but it is unwise to discount 2018 #1 overall amateur draft pick Casey Mize who has the potential to skyrocket through the minors. Of the bunch, Mize is the one who profiles as a possible #1 starter with above average command of multiple plus, if not plus-plus pitches including his fastball and splitter. He has enough weapons to handle righties and lefties alike.

And with that, provided the Tigers don’t see a trade or sign another veteran, you should be well armed with information to navigate you through the turmoil that could be the Detroit rotation this coming season. Mize, Manning, Faedo, Perez, and even Burrows all have upside and potential to be rotation regulars, but not all will make it. There is no such thing as a “sure thing”. At least the Tigers have a number of darts to throw at the problem.