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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.

2019 AL Tout Wars Recap

This past weekend I made my 19th annual pilgrimage to Tout Wars.

For the second straight year, it was a bittersweet event after Steve Moyer’s passing last we lost my friend and former colleague back in my Mastersball.com days, Lawr Michaels. I met Lawr at the Arizona Fall League in 2000 and in 2001 we both participated in our first Tout Wars event in Steve Moyer’s basement, in Bethlehem, PA. I always looked forward to seeing him and catching up with him at events and certainly drafting against him, talking about our families, discussing our Strat league and music. His presence was missed even more so after having sat next to him at last year’s auction as we chatted throughout it.

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Ok, you came here for what, why, and the how of what I did. Overall, I am reasonably pleased with the results.

Pre-Draft Strategy:  After finishing last season, I am keen to redeem myself. To that end I budgeted $180 to $190 on hitting with the remainder on pitching with the idea that I would anchor my staff with an ace and closer and to draft a corps of hitters that were balanced in categories across the board. Mostly I just wanted to be patient and strike wherever I felt bargains were to be found. I’ve found in recent years that prices on players have been going higher than bid price more frequently and that even more discipline is required to stay true to your game plan. I also, per usual, but budgeted out my roster slots with the expectation that they would change and vary depending on where I could unearth value.

Draft Day Results: (Full Draft Day rosters can be found here.)

C: Mike Zunino $8
C: Jonathan LuCroy $7
1B: Edwin Encarnacion $24
2B: Dee Gordon $21
3B: Carlos Santana $25
SS: Jonathan Schoop $15
CI: Albert Pujols $5
MI: D.J. LeMahieu $9
OF: Aaron Hicks $23, Brett Gardner $15, Jacoby Jones $2, Willie Calhoun $1
UT: Nelson Cruz $25
Swing: Steve Pearce $3

Starters: Justin Verlander $36, Tyler Skaggs $9, CC. Sabathia $3, Mike Minor $7, Jamie Barria $2, Gio Gonazalez $1, Adam Ottavino $2, Blaine Hardy $3.

The Rundown
I didn’t purchase any players until the 21st player – Justin Verlander was nominated, rostering him at $36 which I felt was right around value. In retrospect, I could be have been more aggressive with my bids on Cole or Kluber who went for $35 and $34 respectively earlier and saved myself a $1 or two if I got to those numbers first, but on the other hand pitchers below this tier ended up being pushed higher than expected with both Ian Snell and Trevor Bauer hitting $30 and Jose Berrios hitting $25.

Closers: The upshot of spending $36 on Verlander backed me off a bit on going over $20 on a closer, though, spending $14 on Cody Allen. No closer is what I would define “a rock of stability” and Allen heads into the season as the Angel’s closer though I regret not having then highlighted $3 or so to target Buttrey later to lock down the save situation there. Allen, at least, has saved no fewer than 24 games the last five seasons and is still posting strikeouts well more than 10 per nine innings pitched. His walk rates, however, were well out of context with the rest of his career. Provided there is no hidden injury, I am banking on him rebounding to his career norms and mid 3’s walk-rates. If that happens, 30 to 35 saves is very attainable. The only other reliever I selected was Adam Ottavino who could have been a closer had he chosen to sign with a team looking for one, but instead opted to join the Yankees to win and is now quite some ways down on the pecking order despite his talents. He could still get a few saves, but I am mostly here for the extra strikeouts and good ratios. Blaine Hardy meanwhile will start the year in relief but was effective as a starter and I selected him with the potential to pick up innings in a swing capacity.

Catchers: I came in to this draft budgeting $5 and $3 for my two catchers., but once the early push for catchers and spending was over, they started to fall at reasonable prices, and I rerouted $8 to Grab Mike Zunino who I would’ve gone as high as $10 at the time on and Jonathan LuCroy at $8. While it is difficult to get excited about either player, I do not have two empty roster slots thought I’d be nice if either of these two gentlemen would make more consistent contact or draw a few more walks.

The Sweet Spot: At some point in every auction I tend to find a spot that seems me throw down quite a bit of cash in a short period of time. It comes as I start to find some bargains and players I have been waiting to be nominated finally come up. This happened between nomination 73 and 78 4 of the six players nominated. By this point I had decided that Edwin Encarnacion and Carlos Santana would be my 1B/3B combination and got them within moments of each other. Encarnacion I felt was a several dollar bargain, so it let me go a $1 or so over what I thought I wanted on Santana to secure the duo which I believe at the time were the last of the $20+ rated corner players available at the time. I chased John Hicks within that spot but couldn’t bring myself to go $7 on a part time player. I also grabbed Tyler Skaggs at $9 (valued around $11) and Aaron Hicks at $23 (valued around at $25). Both are players who enjoyed breakout seasons last year with Skaggs having an elevated BABIP despite superior strikeout and control skills and improvement to make him a $15 or more pitcher next year could be in the works. Meanwhile, always blessed with good OBP skills, stayed healthy and showed off his five-tools even though the 20-20 season once projected of him is no longer going to happen.

Thoughts on Dee Gordon
I went on air on SXM Fantasy Sports Radio while on break from the draft and thankfully I did as the draft board said I bought Justin Verlander at $38 and I got that corrected before running into issues in the end game. I also got heavily quizzed about Dee Gordon who I had just bought at $21 despite his OBP struggles the previous season. I put my faith once again in career context in this case. Gordon is still an elite base runner who puts the ball in play frequently, but his 1.5% walk rate was less than half his career average and he’s typically in the mid three-percent range. When he is healthy, his BABIP which was .304 last year, is typically in the .340 to .350 range. If he does indeed bat ninth, he’ll see fewer plate appearances, but 30-plus stolen bases are still within his capabilities.

Other Hitters: Tout Wars rules allow players to qualify at positions if they play at 15 or more games. I had roughly around $15 to budget for my shortstop slot with having taken D.J. LeMahieu for my middle infield spot already at $9, so I was pleased to include Jonathan Schoop in my shortstop hunt and hopefully a fourth year straight of 20-plus runs and another player whose BABIP was suppressed compared to his career norms (.261 compared to .296 career) who could bounce back given no other significant changes in hitting skills/stats from his previous seasons. Willie Calhoun and JacCoby Jones were both low-cost options on players with some upside. While Calhoun has no spot to play and will star the year in Triple-A, he’s just an injury away form a starting job. Jones, meanwhile, will be the Tiger’s opening day centerfielder. The 26-year old lacks plate discipline, but power/speed skills that should justify the price tag alone, but also remains fungible given the investment.

Pitching Bargains Begin to Fall

After the initial high-pricing of the pitching market, the prices on some pitchers began to come back to earth as I was particularly pleased to purchase Minor at $7 and Jamie Barria at $2 who I had pre-draft values of $12 and $6 on. Minor will once again be in the Rangers rotation showing swing and miss skills as well as above average control. His fly-ball ways in Arlington, however, hold him back from getting to the next level. Barria will be a full-season member of Angel’s rotation this year. Some regression will happen given his 82% left-on-base rate, but he still has inning eater potential.

Reserve Rounds:
Mark Canha – He’ll be in a backup role for the A’s. Drafted to serve as a short-term Willie Calhoun replacement until someone better comes along though to be fair Canha performed quite adequate in a part-time role with 17 homers and a .328 OBP for the A’s last year and has the skills for a repeat or better if called into service again.

Speaking of something better, I am hoping that Alex Kirilloff is one of those things. One of the top outfield prospects in baseball, Kirilloff is a left-handed hitter who can already hit for power and for average at just 21 years of age. He’ll begin the year in Double-A. He’s the type of talent that could move to the Majors if he does his part and his team is contending and looking for some extra fire power.

I got by far the most grumbles for my drafting of Clay Buchholz. He’ll start the season in extended spring training and is with an organization in need of his talents. I am not expecting last year’s results, but someone I can swap into the rotation to that could allow me to play whoever is the hot hand.

My final selection was Sean Murphy. Perhaps the best upper-level catching prospect now with Danny Jansen in a full-time job, I thought it was wise to grab Murphy given the state of catching in the American League. His plus glove and arm will get him to the big leauges, but he also features good contact making skills and 15 to 20+ raw homerun power potential. Not expecting that this season, but a good start at AAA could have him push Nick Hundley out of the job.

To wrap things up I think I have a very competitive, solid core of players. My lineup mostly consists of proven veterans and my pitching is likewise similarly anchored that should keep me anchored. Last year’s squad was not nearly as balanced statistically and incorporated a much higher level of risk. This year, my odds of being competitive and challenging for a possible title I believe are much better.

Free Agency Outlook: The New York Mets

While a few teams remain in the post-season it is time, for most teams, to start looking at 2018. With that in mind, I am kicking off a series that looks at each team’s potential free agents and their associated fantasy baseball impacts starting with my hometown Mets. The Mets will not have many, if any, free agent departures of note this off-season primarily due to the fact their most attractive pending free agents were already dealt amidst the season.

Free Agents
Tom Gorzelanny: Gorzelanny never actually suited up for the Mets in 2017 and spent much of the season dealing with shoulder injuries. He pitched a combined 7.2 innings at three different levels of minor league ball. The 35-year old will likely sign a minor league deal this off-season in an effort to come back as a long reliever or left-handed specialist.  Sadly he has not been relevant for fantasy sports purposes since 2013.

Travis Snider: A much-traveled former first-round pick has not touched the Major Leagues since 2017. He performed solidly, but unspectacularly, at two hitter-friendly PCL Triple-A franchises this past season, but showed only modest power (10 combined home runs), but respectable plate discipline skills. He will be thirty on opening day and will try again to win a backup role with an MLB club and will most likely find himself as organizational filler at the Triple-A level.

Desmond Jennings: Former Rays’ starting outfielder Desmond Jennings spent some time with the Mets in a minor league capacity failing to do much of anything of note, despite the friendly hitting confines that can be found in Las Vegas (.237/.301/.415). Technically the Mets released him in June and he has been a free agent since that time. He has now been released in two successive seasons after earlier in his career being one of the most highly-coveted young players in the game given his power/speed combination and minor league plate discipline skills none of which really fully materialized at the MLB level and then injuries started to rear their ugly head. Jennings will be 31 on opening day and it remains to be seen whether or not he’ll even try to sign with a club. If healthy, there is a chance there is something left in the tank as the skills he showed as a Ray are still lurking, but that is a significant “if”.

Team Options: The Mets have only two players with options on their contracts and both of them are team contracts of “reasonable” amounts in baseball terms and are likely to be picked up.

From an offensive standpoint, Asdrubal Cabrera, has been a generally successful addition on the offensive side of things in each of his two seasons with the club, showing solid power for a middle infielder. 2017 was one of the more useful seasons of his career, in fact, as he showed improved plate discipline, making contact about 85% of the time while walking 9% and posting a career-high .351 OBP along with 14 home runs. This is a very acceptable production level for a middle infielder, but mediocre at best should the Mets opt to shift him to third base in 2018. Given the context of his career, his overall fantasy stat line should remain similar, but a regression in his OBP should be expected. Defensively it is about time the Mets accepted that despite the fact that he has played a number of positions over his career, that does not mean he should be as he continues to be one of the least effective defenders according to advanced fielding metrics on the left side of the infield. In fantasy terms, he is still a fairly valuable player, but in terms of real baseball, we are talking about a player who had a lower WAR (Wins above replacement) than Jose Iglesias who had a .288 OBP in 2017. He showed an ability to be at least adequate at second base and capable at first, is blocked thereby Dominic Smith who will be given every chance to hold down the everyday job in 2018.

Loogy Jeremy Blevins has pitched in now fewer than 73 games each of the last two seasons for the Mets, posting a sub 3.00 ERA and striking out batters at 11.1 and 12.7 K/9 respectively. On the open market his services would be highly contested and his salary, even at 34 years of age, could easily be higher heading into 2018 ($7 M) if allowed to enter the open market. Last year he allowed a .195 batting average against left-handed batters along with a .250 OBP with 48 strikeouts in 34 innings. Righties, unsurprisingly, smoked him with a .288/.447/.545. line and his career numbers against him of .242/.343/.400 contrasted against his .206/.264/.304 against lefties make his role quite clearly defined. His real utility is in leagues that count holds as he nailed down 16 and 19 the past two seasons.

Non-Tender Candidates
Despite the fact that he will be 36 years old come opening day Norichika Aoki is still arbitration eligible, albeit for the final time, this year. He has earned the same contract ($5.5 M) each of the past two years and continues to display the same tools and skills that obtained him those contracts. The Mets could conceivably keep him as a semi-regular especially considering Michael Conforto may not be ready to return on opening day or could let him walk while simply let him walk and take their chances in the free agent and trade markets instead. That aside, Aoki remains a tweener with consistent plate discipline skills and above average speed that allow him to hit for a solid batting average and respectable OBP while stealing a few bags. His extreme ground-ball tendencies and limited power will keep him from ever being more than a low single-digits homerun hitter. It should be noted that the lefty is having an increasing spread in his platoon splits, failing to muster much of anything against his left-handed counterparts the last two seasons. His defense also appears to be in decline the last few seasons as well upon a closer look. Aoki still has value as a fourth outfielder for contending teams. If the Mets bring him back, similar playing time and production levels as a platoon player should be expected.

Tommy Milone was awful for the Mets and has always been considered a back end of the rotation starter, but at least having bone spurs to blame for his 7-plus ERA makes some sense. It remains to be seen whether or not he will undergo surgery for the issue which typically has no long-term effect on a pitchers’ career. When at his best, Milone is a fairly soft-tossing lefty known for allowing fly-balls and subsequently home runs at fairly high rates. He owns a career 12.3 HR/FB and a FIP well over 4.00 making him a non-recommended option on draft day in all formats.