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The Top 50 Rookies for Fantasy

Rookie players in Major League Baseball either can warm your heart or turn it blacker than coal. For every Jose Abreu who challenges for the MVP award there is a Jon Singleton who strikes out almost 40% of the time and looks lost at the plate. As we enter a new season, hope springs eternal for the Freshman Class of ’15 — a large collection of overachievers (at least until now) that could make or break your upcoming fantasy season, much like Abreu (who was celebrated for his achievements) and Singleton (despised for his) by respective owners.

Below, you’ll find the annual FG+ rankings of the potential top rookies at each position — based on their potential to impact in 2015 in a vacuum, and without considering future seasons or ultimate ceilings. Enjoy, and may your rookies’ 2015 contributions be more Abreu than Singleton.

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Top Fantasy Prospects for 2014

The 2013 season saw a number of rookies play key roles for their respective clubs and, in the process, significantly impact fantasy baseball. Arms like Jose Fernandez (Marlins), Julio Teheran (Braves), Hyun-Jin Ryu (Dodgers) and Trevor Rosenthal (Cardinals) made names for themselves while providing important innings for their respective clubs and fantasy managers alike. Hitters such as Yasiel Puig (Dodgers), Nolan Arenado (Rockies), Jedd Gyorko (Padres) and Wil Myers (Rays) set the foundations for future successes and look like future fantasy studs.

With each new fantasy season comes a new group of impressive — yet volatile — prospects. Barring injuries, star athletes’ performances are somewhat predictable. Rookie performances, though, are often much hard to pin down but, if you guess right, they can have a huge impact on a fantasy team’s season.

This article will endeavor to (somewhat accurately) recommend the key rookie players to target at each position based on both expected playing time and overall statistical impact for the coming season. It’s important to note this article ranks players based solely on projected 2014 impact, not future impact or overall ceiling…

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Impact Fantasy Rookies for 2013

It’s not often that you have a rookie make an impact like Angels outfielder Mike Trout had on in the major leagues in 2012. Rookies can usually be counted on to help round out a fantasy roster, fill in temporarily during injuries and, at times, provide an unexpected above-replacement-level contribution that pushes your team into contention. Drafting prospects — or claiming them off the waiver wire at the appropriate times — can be one of the toughest things a fantasy manager has to face each year thanks to their volatility and the fact that their playing time often hinges on injuries and disappointing performances from veteran incumbents.

What this article attempts to do is rank rookies based on their potential impact on 2013 alone. It does not take into consideration their future potential or ceiling. Some mid-range prospects will be ranked higher than top prospects simply because they’re more advanced at this point or have a clearer path to regular playing time during the upcoming season.

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Austin Jackson’s Fatal Flaw

Austin Jackson is an interesting ballplayer. The Detroit Tigers center fielder is hitting .330/.394/.468 out of the leadoff spot. And thought the ultra-athletic rookie is far from a finished product, you can’t argue with his numbers thus far. But how about this one: 34 percent. As in, the 23-year-old is striking out in 34 percent of his plate appearances. That’s Mark Reynolds‘ territory. Jackson is being talked about as a rookie of the year contender, but can he sustain his excellence with his current strikeout rate?

The most obvious reason to doubt Jackson is his batting average on balls in play, which currently sits at .492 and is the highest in baseball. Last year, the league leader in BABIP was David Wright at .394, so we can expect Jackson’s BABIP to come crashing down. But it appears his high BABIP is a little more than just luck, and is a byproduct of the way he is being pitched.

Like a lot of young players, Jackson clearly enjoys hitting the fastball. A look at his pitch-type values shows that he’s 0.93 runs above average (per 100 pitches) against the heater. Compare that to a -1.68 against changeups, and you suddenly have a pretty good idea of what to throw to Jackson. In his column today, Tim Kurkjian discusses the fundamental failings of some of the game’s top young players, and Jackson’s inability to hit off-speed stuff fits that topic. So far this season, Jackson has been seeing a large number of fastballs, as pitchers are no doubt testing the young hitter. He’s been challenged with the heat 68 percent of the time. In contrast, teammate Miguel Cabrera — a proven fastball hitter — has seen 56 percent fastballs. Jackson has been thrown changeups 11 percent of the time, and we should see that number continue to rise as opponents figure out his weakness. Also, Jackson swings at pitches outside the strike zone just 1.0 percent more often than the league average. However, he has a significant issue with making contact on pitches outside the zone: 57.9 percent compared to an average of 64.5 percent.

It’s clear that Jackson needs to make some adjustments if he’s still going to be in the AL Rookie of the Year race in September. As a leadoff catalyst, his job is to get on base and into scoring position for the club’s run producers. A player with a strikeout rate of more than 30 percent is not going to get the job done over the course of a full season. If we regress Jackson’s BABIP to a still-high .380, he’s going to produce an on-base percentage around .323. If we lower his BABIP to the current league-average of approximately .300, his OBP suddenly becomes a welcome-back-to-the-minors .276.

The scouting report on Jackson is no doubt filtering through the league as we speak: Changeups, preferably out of the zone. It will be up to the rookie to adjust. If he doesn’t, the next five months of the season will be rough when his BABIP comes back down to earth.

Hanson, Wells, do it Differently

It was a treat to watch a matchup Thursday night between two sophomore hurlers: the Atlanta Braves’ Tommy Hanson and Chicago Cubs’ Randy Wells. Hanson finished third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting last season, while Wells was sixth. Clearly, both pitchers have the potential to play large roles in their respective organizations’ futures. However, when they take to the mound, these two hurlers employ very different, yet effective, approaches.

Last season, Hanson’s fastball sat at 92 mph, while his slider came in at 83 mph, his curve at 75 mph and his seldom-used change-up at 83 mph, according to Pitch Type velocities at FanGraphs. In the first inning of last night’s game, the 23-year-old came out like a man possessed and was throwing his fastball 96-97 mph, his slider 89 mph and his curve 75 mph. The Cubs hitters were simply overmatched, and Hanson struck out the side (with a walk of Derrek Lee mixed in).

Hanson came out in subsequent innings and took a little off his pitches; the adrenaline had clearly drained a bit. Even so, he was still pumping his pitches in at a higher velocity than last season’s averages. When all was said and done, he had struck out seven batters in 5 1/3 innings, while issuing three walks and two solo homers. Along with the seven K’s, another seven of his outs came on fly balls and two were via the ground ball.

A former minor league catcher who couldn’t hit, Wells is already 27 years old. The late bloomer came into the first inning of last night’s game showing respectable velocity at 88-92 mph. His approach, though, was to induce contact with his heavy sinker. Wells’ ground-ball rate was just shy of 50 percent in 2009 (while Hanson just scraped 40 percent). The Cubs pitcher had his good sinker working Thursday, and he made the Braves hitters look like they should all take up new careers on the mound. And he did it without mid-to-high-90s heat.

Wells induced 13 ground ball outs; that’s important because it means none of those batted balls were a threat to go over the wall for a home run, or to split the outfield defense for a bases-clearing triple. Just two of his 18 outs came in the air. When Wells did get into trouble, he was able to defuse the situations with three double plays. Jason Heyward, Atlanta’s rookie phenom, was rendered impotent by Wells’ approach. The right-fielder could not get any lift on the ball. He rolled into a force play in the second inning and then, after breaking his bat, grounded weakly back to Wells in the fourth. All the Braves hitters shared his frustrations.

In 27 starts in ’09, Wells posted a WAR (Wins Above Replacement) of 3.0, while Hanson came in at 2.6 WAR in 21 starts. While the Braves right-hander is clearly a crowd favorite for his radar-busting velocities and eye-popping counting stats, Wells has shown that he can be an equally effective big league pitcher — albeit with a lower overall ceiling — by pounding the lower half of the strike zone with sinkers and pitching to contact.

2010 Arizona Diamondbacks Preview

Brandon Webb, RHP
Dan Haren, RHP
Edwin Jackson, RHP
Ian Kennedy, RHP
Billy Buckner, RHP

Closers and Setup
Chad Qualls, RHP
Juan Gutierrez, RHP

Starting Lineup
Kelly Johnson, 2B
Stephen Drew, SS
Justin Upton, RF
Mark Reynolds, 3B
Adam LaRoche, 1B
Conor Jackson, LF
Chris Young, CF
Miguel Montero, C

Player in Decline
It’s hard to think of Conor Jackson in decline at the age of 27, but it’s more his role that’s in decline than anything else. With the presence of Parra in the fourth outfielder’s role, Jackson is likely to see a reduction in his playing time in left field.

Player on the Rise
As mentioned, the move from the AL East to the NL West should certainly do Ian Kennedy some good. His durability is in question to some degree but he should prove a good WHIP, respectable ERA and a modest K-rate.

Top 5 Fantasy Players
Justin Upton – Elite
Dan Haren – Elite
Mark Reynolds – Elite
Brandon Webb – Average
Edwin Jackson – Average

Top 10 Prospects
1. Jarrod Parker, RHP
2. Brandon Allen, 1B
3. Bobby Borchering, 3B
4. Mike Belfiore, LHP
5. A.J. Pollock, OF
6. Chris Owings, SS
7. Marc Krauss, OF
8. Matthew Davidson, 3B
9. Cole Gillespie, OF
10. Collin Cowgill, OF

Team Outlook: The return of its ace will certainly help the club, and the team has a shot at the NL West title based on the starting rotation. However, the offense is nothing to write home about. On the plus side, though, none of the teams in the division are overly improved, and the Dodgers organization has never been more vulnerable, thanks to the ongoing storyline away from the diamond.

The Rotation: A healthy Brandon Webb, returning from shoulder surgery, will help anchor a rotation that sees some new, youthful faces join the fray. Webb is expected to be at full strength in April, but it remains to be seen how durable he’ll be over the course of the season. Dan Haren is one of the best No. 2 starters in all of baseball. He’s also one of the safest bets for both 200+ innings and strikeouts. Edwin Jackson comes over from Detroit and he should find the National League more to his liking. You can’t argue with his pure stuff, but Jackson is still searching for consistency and command of his heater. Ian Kennedy is a perfect sleeper for 2010, as his stuff will play much better in the NL and he appears to be over his health issues. The fifth spot is still open, but Billy Buckner is the favorite for the spot.

The Bullpen: After saving 24 games with a 3.14 FIP in ’09, Chad Qualls enters 2010 as the early favorite for saves if he’s recovered from knee surgery. He has a good chance of saving 30+ games. If he falters, the club’s options are limited after trading prospect Daniel Schlereth to the Tigers. Juan Gutierrez filled in for Qualls when he hurt his knee (nine saves in 10 tries), so the right-hander is probably first in line. Veteran right-handers Bob Howry (66 career saves) and Aaron Heilman were both brought in during the offseason to help solidify the relief corps. Clay Zavada, a second-year player, should be the go-to southpaw.

The Starting Lineup: The club lacks a true leadoff hitter at this point. Both Chris Young and Stephen Drew could hit near the top of the order, but neither is well-suited to the role due to their poor on-base numbers. Young also strikes out far too much to be an effective leadoff hitter, but he does have some speed. The club might try Kelly Johnson near the top of the order, too, although he’d probably benefit from hitting in the No. 8 hole. The heart of the order will consist of Justin Upton, Mark Reynolds and Adam LaRoche, a free-agent acquisition. It remains to be seen where Conor Jackson fits in to the lineup. Both LaRoche and Jackson should provide a little more protection for Reynolds than he received in ’09. The club should receive above-average offense from the catching tandem of Miguel Montero and Chris Snyder. However, it’s also possible that, if Snyder can prove himself healthy in the spring, he’ll be traded, which will clear the way for John Hester to assume the back-up role. Reynolds and Upton provide the bulk of both speed and power in the lineup; a rejuvenated Young could also be tossed into that group.

The Bench: As mentioned, Montero and Snyder should split the catching chores, with Montero receiving the bulk of the work. Ryan Roberts was earmarked for the second-base job before the club brought in Johnson, so the former Jays prospect should now serve as an offensive-minded utility player. Veteran Augie Ojeda was also retained and should have the other infielder job, but he’ll be pushed by both Tony Abreu and Rusty Ryal. In the outfield, Jackson’s return will likely shift Gerardo Parra to a fourth outfielder’s role, but he should play all over the outfield and receive significant playing time.

2010 Toronto Blue Jays Preview

Ricky Romero, LHP
Shaun Marcum, RHP
Brandon Morrow, RHP
Marc Rzepczynski, LHP
David Purcey, LHP

Closers and Setup
Kevin Gregg, RHP
Scott Downs, LHP

Starting Lineup
Alex Gonzalez, SS
Aaron Hill, 2B
Adam Lind, LF
Vernon Wells, CF
Lyle Overbay, 1B
Edwin Encarnacion, 3B
John Buck, C
Randy Ruiz, DH
Travis Snider, RF

Player in Decline
As mentioned in the Jays team review, Lyle Overbay could be motivated in 2010, as it is his walk year. But his strikeout rate has also increased each of the past three seasons and hit his highest mark in six years (22.5%).

Player on the Rise
Marc Rzepczynski doesn’t blow you away with his stuff but he has good command of his pitches (His control needs work, though) and induces an above-average number of ground-ball outs. Add in the fact that he throws left-handed with some deception, and you have a perfect breakout candidate.

Top 5 Fantasy Players
Adam Lind: Elite
Aaron Hill: Average
Ricky Romero: Average
Scott Downs: Average
Travis Snider: Average

Top 10 Prospects
1. Brett Wallace, 1B/3B
2. Kyle Drabek, RHP
3. Zach Stewart, RHP
4. J.P. Arencibia, C
5. Chad Jenkins, RHP
6. Moises Sierra, OF
7. Brad Mills, LHP
8. Travis d’Arnaud, C
9. Jake Marisnick, OF
10. Henderson Alvarez, RHP

Overall Team Outlook: Based on some projections circling around the Internet, it could be a very bad year in Toronto, with three very strong clubs in the division (Boston, New York, and Tampa Bay). The club is in rebuilding mode, so fans will just have to enjoy watching some talented young players learn the ropes with an eye to 2011 and beyond. It should be particularly fun to watch some of the hitters, including Adam Lind, Aaron Hill, and Travis Snider.

The Starting Rotation: No matter how you slice it, the rotation took a huge hit with the loss of ace Roy Halladay and his 220+ innings of work. Sophomore Ricky Romero is suddenly the No. 1 guy and he’s struggled with his confidence in the past, so it remains to be seen how well he’ll respond to the added pressure. Shaun Marcum, returning from Tommy John surgery, is earmarked for the No. 2 role, although he’s more of a No. 3 or 4 starter. He’s expected to be at full strength for spring training, but expecting 200 innings from him is probably foolish.

Brandon Morrow was acquired from Seattle during the offseason and the club is hoping that the former No. 1 draft pick can finally establish himself as a MLB starter, but his control needs to improve quite a bit. Marc Rzepczynski zoomed through the minor league system in ’09 and made 11 starts in the Majors. His heater is average, at best, in terms of velocity but he induces a crazy number of ground-ball outs, which increases his value. The fifth spot in the rotation will be highly contested between the likes of Brett Cecil, Scott Richmond, David Purcey, and (if healthy) Dustin McGowan. Purcey may get the nod if he shows improvement in his command in the spring. He’ll turn 28 in April and the former first-round pick has yet to establish himself at the MLB level. He’s almost out of chances.

The Bullpen: The closer’s role was split between Scott Downs and Jason Frasor in ’09 and both players had their moments. Downs will likely receive first crack at the gig since he only lost the role due to an injured toe. Frasor will be waiting in the wings as the eighth-inning guy. The club lost reliever Brandon League in the Morrow trade, but the club still has immense depth with the likes of Shawn Camp, Jeremy Accardo, Dirk Hayhurst, Jesse Carlson, Brian Tallet, Zech Zinicola, Josh Roenicke, Merkin Valdez, and Casey Janssen. Tallet has an outside shot at the No. 5 starter’s role, while Roenicke has the best chance at being the future closer on the club.

The Starting Lineup: There is not a lot of turnover in the lineup from ’09, although one particular change is sure to have a major impact. The loss of on-base machine Marco Scutaro to the rival Red Sox will definitely hurt the team’s ability to score runs. New shortstop Gonzalez does a much worse job of getting on base (.279 vs .379 OBP). Edwin Encarnacion, a former teammate of Gonzalez’, will look to rebound from a season filled with injuries and inconsistencies. He has the potential to be a very good offensive player, but his defense tarnishes his overall value. Aaron Hill is looking to build off of a breakout offensive season, but the reality is that he’s not likely to repeat his 36-home-run outburst.

Adam Lind, on the other hand, has a good chance of duplicating his .305-35-114 season and could be the club’s long-term No. 3 hitter. With another year of experience under his belt, Travis Snider will hopefully make the necessary adjustments to grow as a hitter and reach his immense talent level (which rivals or exceeds Lind’s). The club will likely look to deal Lyle Overbay at the first chance, and he should be extra motivated as he’s a free agent at year’s end. Now healthy, it remains to be seen what the club can expect from Vernon Wells. A rebound season from him, though, could have a profound effect on the entire lineup.

The Bench: The club retained John McDonald in the offseason even though his much-lauded glove took a step back in ’09, according to UZR. Jose Bautista will provide pop (but a poor batting average) at a variety of outfield and infield positions. Raul Chavez is currently earmarked for the back-up catcher’s gig, although the club is still looking at other options and could make a trade in the spring. The final spot on the bench will likely go to one of two non-roster candidates: Joey Gathright or Jeremy Reed. Gathright is the better bet to help fantasy owners thanks to his speed.