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Crawford or Werth in 2012?

Last winter, Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth both hit the free agent market, signed with East division rivals and received lavish seven-year deals securing them enough cash to make like Scrooge McDuck and dive into their own personal swimming pools filled with gold coins. Crawford got $142 million to trek from Tampa Bay to Boston, and Werth left Philly for Washington for a cool $126 million. Crawford’s average draft position in ESPN leagues entering 2011 was fourth overall, and Werth’s ADP was 47. Both were prime picks expected to anchor fantasy lineups.

Unfortunately, both landed in their new digs with a Peter Griffin-like thud. Crawford posted the lowest batting average (.255) and OBP (.289) marks of his career while stealing just 18 bases, nearly 30 bags fewer than he nabbed with the Rays in 2010. Werth hit .232 and slugged .389, popping a disappointing 20 home runs.

Suffice it to say, neither will be drafted as high in 2012. But which is the better bet to bounce back? Let’s take a closer look at pros and cons of each high-price fly catcher.

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Pedro Alvarez = Pedro Cerrano

Pedro Alvarez was supposed to be a middle-of-the-order force by now, threatening to sink boaters in the Allegheny River with each mighty cut and working walks with his keen eye. Instead, the second overall pick out of Vanderbilt in the ’08 draft was the second-most valuable infielder named Pedro on his own team in 2011 (Ciriaco: 0.2 Wins Above Replacement, Alvarez: -0.8 WAR). Through a little less than 650 plate appearances in the majors, Pittsburgh’s $6 million man has a .230 average, a .304 OBP and a .392 slugging percentage. The main reason is his resemblance to another, albeit fictional Pedro. Pedro Cerrano.

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Which Rookie Pitcher Has The Brightest Future?

On Monday, Tampa’s Jeremy Hellickson and Atlanta’s Craig Kimbrel took home Rookie of the Year honors in the AL and NL, respectively. Both Hell Boy and Kimbrel (this fellow needs a menacing, pee-your-pants-upon-hearing-it nickname) seemingly have very bright futures ahead of them. But winning ROTY doesn’t always mean that a player is destined for long-term stardom (Jason Jennings and Angel Berroa say hi!)

Today, I want to hear you opinions on a different question: which rookie pitcher (minimum 50 IP in 2011) has the most long-term value? In other words, if you could only have one rookie hurler, which would you choose? Below I’ve listed 15 rookie pitchers who are likely to garner consideration, as well as a quick case for and case against choosing each rookie.

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Moustakas, Chisenhall and Hacking

Kansas City’s Mike Moustakas and Cleveland’s Lonnie Chisenhall are supposed to be the future of third base in the AL Central. Both are former first-round draft picks, as Moustakas was taken second overall out of Chatsworth (Ca.) High in 2007 and Chisenhall was popped at #29 out of Pitt (N.C.) Community College in 2008. And both lefty hitters ranked among Baseball America’s top 25 prospects entering the 2011 season, with Moose placing ninth and Chisenhall coming in at 25.

Unfortunately, both are also coming off pretty lousy first seasons in the major leagues. Moustakas batted .263, got on base at a .309 clip and slugged .367 in 365 plate appearances for the Royals after getting the call in June. Chisenhall, meanwhile, slashed .255/.284/.415 in 223 PA following a late-June call-up. That’s despite the Royals and Indians spotting for them against lefties: Moustakas had the platoon advantage in 73 percent of his PAs, and Chisenhall 77 percent.

A rough rookie start isn’t cause for panic for either 23-year-old. Plenty of hitters have scuffled at first in the majors before finding their footing. But for Moustakas and Chisenhall to make good on their glowing scouting reports, they’ll have to drastically improve their strike-zone judgment.

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How Good Is That Top Pitching Prospect?

Few things excite fans more than mega pitching prospects. Sizzling fastball velocity, sinister breaking pitches, off-speed stuff that makes grown men look like dizzy, blindfolded kids slashing at a pinata. Every spring, there’s a short list of elite starting pitching prospects on the cusp of the major leagues who are considered must-haves. It’s hard not to get swept up in the quest to draft The Next Big Thing. Hit on one of these picks, and you’ll not only climb the standings, but you’ll also look cool, trendy and sage. Prophetic, even. I knew he’d be a star right away, you brag to your friends as your young ace crushes their dreams of victory and empties their pockets.

That’s if putting down a high pick on that top starting prospect works out, however. And, as anyone who once saw stardom for the likes of Nick Neugebauer, Carlos Hernandez or Adam Loewen can tell you, young arms are anything but predictable. For every Stephen Strasburg, there are dozens of Jesse Fopperts and John Van Benschotens.

To add some clarity to the top pitching prospect conundrum, I sought to answer the following question: Just how good are these young guns during their first extended run in the major leagues? Do they tend to dominate from Day One, or are they merely average? Answering that question goes a long way toward determining when to pop that elite pitching prospect.

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Yadier Molina, Offensive Threat

When you think Yadier Molina, you probably think snap throws that send runners sprawling back to first base, balls expertly blocked in the dirt and perennial Gold Glove love from managers and coaches. His bat rarely gets much attention. That should change, though, following Molina’s big 2011 season for the NL’s best offensive club and eventual World Series champion.

Yadi batted .305 for the Cardinals, posting a .349 OBP and a .465 slugging percentage in 518 plate appearances. For comparison, the cumulative line for MLB catchers in 2011 was a measly .245/.314/.390. Molina’s .349 Weighted On-Base Average established a new career high and ranked sixth among catchers logging at least 300 plate appearances (sandwiched between Carlos Santana and Brian McCann). How did the Flying Molina Brother do it? By taking to the air, of course.

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Ground Balls Aplenty in Cleveland

If you want to follow the action when Cleveland’s starters are on the bump in 2012, keep your eyes glued on the infield. The Indians exercised Fausto Carmona‘s $7 million option for next season and then swung a trade with Atlanta for sinkerballer Derek Lowe. With Lowe joining Carmona, Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez, Cleveland’s starting rotation will wage one serious ground war. Lowe, Masterson and Carmona ranked in the top 10 among qualified starters in ground ball percentage, and all four have a career ground ball rate north of 50 percent:

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Is Heath Bell Still A King Among Closers?

Since arriving in San Diego via Queens prior to the 2007 season, Heath Bell has put up Playstation-like (or should I say, Wii-esque) numbers. He ranks sixth among all relievers in Wins Above Replacement and leads the league in primal screams, bullpen sprints, pitching mound stolen bases and Elvis impersonations. The 34-year-old seemingly had another vintage season in 2011, rocking a 2.44 ERA and nailing down 43 saves. But look a little closer, and you might begin to wonder if there was a Bell impostor on the mound for the Padres this year.

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Prince Fielder’s Best Landing Spots

Prince Fielder is gonna make some serious bacon (er, soy) this winter. The meaty first baseman hits free agency as a 27-year-old boasting the third-highest home run total and tenth-best Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) among hitters since he became a full-time starter in 2006. Prince will be a premium fantasy pick no matter where he plays in 2012, but some parks are certainly more suited to his all-fields slugging than others.

To determine Fielder’s best landing spots, I identified potential suitors, found StatCorner’s left-handed home run park factors for those clubs’ stadiums and then used Baseball-Reference’s Play Index Tool to find what Fielder’s 2011 batting average, OBP and slugging percentage would have looked like if he had played in those stadiums instead of Miller Park (more details here).

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Superman’s Quiet Progress

Matt Wieters was supposed to be a switch-hitting Joe Mauer with power. He ranked as the top prospect in the game prior to the 2009 season, and he inspired a Matt Wieters Facts page with gems like, “Scott Boras Hired Matt Wieters As His Agent” and “Matt Wieters Took Batting Practice This Morning. There Were No Survivors.” Given that backdrop, anything less than MVP-caliber performances from Wieters wouldn’t satiate the masses. And that’s a shame, because Wieters has quietly become one of the better catchers in the game while attention has been fixed on finding the next Next Big Thing.

Take a look at Wieters’ offensive performance over the period of 2009-2011:

2009: .288/.340/.412, .330 Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA)
2010: .249/.319/.377, .303 wOBA
2011: .265/.324/.417, .326 wOBA

Some people might look at those lines and say that Wieters had a promising rookie year, tanked in 2010 and is hitting slightly worse in 2011 at 25 years of age than he did as a 23-year-old. Viewed through that prism, Wieters looks like a disappointment. But that thought process is flawed because it doesn’t frame those numbers within the context of changing run-scoring levels across baseball.

In 2009, major league teams scored an average of 4.6 runs per game. That total fell to 4.4 runs per game in 2010 and is down to 4.2 runs per game in 2011. Look at the effect that drop has had on the collective MLB line for hitters over the years:

2009: .262/.333/.418, .329 wOBA
2010: .257/.325/.403, .321 wOBA
2011: .253/.319/.391, .315 wOBA

The line for catchers over that time frame has nosedived from .254/.320/.395 in 2009 to .249/.319/.381 last season and .242/.314/.379 this year. With teams scoring fewer runs, comparing a hitter’s line in 2011 to years past is an apples-to-oranges exercise.

Put in proper context, Wieters’ 2011 season is indicative of a young player making solid offensive progress. At a time when hitters are faring worse as a whole, Wieters is showing more power, hitting fewer ground balls and striking out less. His park-and-league-adjusted line this year is two percent better than average (102 wRC+), while his rookie season was five percent below average (95 wRC+). But it might not feel that way to some fantasy players, given Wieters’ gargantuan expectations and the difficulty in mentally adjusting to the lower run-scoring levels in the game over the past several seasons.

Wieters has the sixth-highest wOBA among catchers qualified for the batting title, and his rest-of-season ZiPS projection ranks in the top 10 among backstops who figure to get frequent playing time. Yet, he’s still on the waiver wire in 13 percent of Yahoo! leagues. Some owners waiting on Superman are missing out on a quality, mid-twenties catcher with upside remaining.