NL Waiver Wire: Week 23

Dear (loyal) fantasy followers of The Hardball Times:

After a five and half months of baseball, we enter the final stretch of the season. With so few games remaining, close races will be decided by the smallest of remaining sample sizes.

Unfortunately, our advice can only go so far at this point. With rosters expanded, many out-of-contention teams are giving rookies their cupS of coffee, while many of the in-the-playoffs teams are resting their regulars. This makes playing time hard to predict, and it makes recommending who to pick up and which players can help you that much harder. So this will be the last National League Waiver Wire article for the 2011 season. Next week, I will try to identify some unowned pitchers who may be able to help your fantasy team down the stretch with a spot start, along with some fantasy player analysis; e.g., did you know that Edwin Encarnacion’s career strikeout rate is only 17.3 percent?

We at The Hardball Times greatly appreciate your continued readership. We hope you continue to tell your friends, family and colleagues about our services, and spread the word about the analysis we provide. This year, our fantasy following on Twitter expanded six-fold (for those not yet following us, please do so by adding @THTFantasy to your Twitter following), and we hope to eclipse 1,000 followers before the start of the 2012 baseball season.

I encourage everyone continue to check The Hardball Times website regularly during the baseball offseason for continued insightful analysis.

All statistics current through at least Sept. 5.

Taylor Green | Brewers | 3B | 0 percent Yahoo ownership
YTD (minors): .336/.412/.580
Oliver ROS: .272/.330/.436

In trading away Brett Lawrie and the rest of their farm system for two-years of Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, the Brewers signaled to fans that they were ready to win now. As a result of the trades, the Brewers’ farm system was near-universally crowned as one of baseball’s worst, along with the Chicago White Sox. They had no post-trade prospects ranked in either Keith Law’s or Baseball America‘s preseason top 100 prospect lists. Accordingly, Taylor Green’s re-emergence as a relevant prospect is exactly what the Brew Crew’s decimated farm system needed.

After an encouraging showing in A ball in 2007 (.328/.407/.514 triple-slash line over 110 games) and A+ ball 2008 (.289/.382/.443 over 114 games played), a wrist issue limited Green over the past two seasons. In only 93 games, almost entirely at the Double-A level, in 2009, Green slumped to .258/.330/.356 production that entirely lacked power (.098 ISO). He was not much better repeating Double-A in 2010, batting .260/.336/.438, though his power potential encouragingly returned (.178 ISO).

In 2011, however, Green returned to his earlier form. Over 120 games in Triple-A this season, Green hit .336/.413/.583 with 22 home runs and a .248 ISO. Green has great command of the strike zone, evidenced by a strong career minor league walk rate of 11 percent and an elite minor league strikeout rate of 13.5 percent.

As a power hitter with a slap hitter strikeout rate, Green, 25, has the tools to succeed at the major league level. Oliver’s MLE for Green’s 2011 is a robust .309/.366/.508, and Oliver’s ROS projection is encouragingly strong for a rookie with minimum major league experience: .272/.330/.436. Green’s batting profile says that he’s capable of launching 20 home runs with a batting average above .280.

Playing time is the only thing standing between him and fantasy relevance. Casey McGehee is Green’s primary hurdle to a full time job. Though McGehee has batted better of late (.260/.324/.480 in August, .530 wOBA through three September games), he may be a non-tender or trade candidate this offseason for reasons highlighted a couple of weeks ago.

Green is also capable of playing second base, having played 15 percent of his minor league career at the position. The Brewers could play Green at second until Rickie Weeks returns, especially given the paucity of production out of Weeks’ stand-ins this season. Second base, however, will not be a long term solution for Green to get playing time given Weeks’ four year extension (with a fifth option year) this past offseason. Prince Fielder will be a free agent this offseason, and a move from left field to first base may actually improve Ryan Braun‘s real-life value, so a move to left could be possible for either McGehee or Green, though neither has played anything but infield positions in their major and minor league careers.

How the Brewers plan to use Green will be an interesting story to follow, and it is one fantasy owners need to monitor closely. If Green gets any semblance of regular or predictable playing time with the playoff-bound Brewers this September, you are going to want to pick him up. Green could be a really under-the-radar 2012 sleeper.

Recommendation: Given the dearth of production and that position’s proclivity for injury this season, Green is a must-monitor third baseman in mixed leagues with 12 or more teams and corner infield requirements.

Homer Bailey | Reds | SP | 14 percent Yahoo ownership
YTD: 4.57 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 6.7 K/9, 3.0 K/BB, 38.9% GB%
Oliver ROS: 4.17 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 6.4 K/9, 2.5 K/BB

The “R” in WAR
How a person can be a hero by being a zero.

Given his 4.57 ERA on the season, routine trips to the disabled list under Dusty Baker, and a strikeout-per-nine rate below 7.0, a 14 percent ownership rate may seem high. Homer Bailey may seem like a bust at this point in his career, having formerly been a top-notch pitching prospect, but as a fourth starter type in mixed leagues, Bailey still has value.

Despite Bailey’s struggles, there are strong positives to his 2011 campaign. For one, he has both sustained and improved his walk rate this season (career best 2.20 BB/9). With a career-high F-Strike rate (61.5 percent, 59.3 percent major league average), Bailey has continued the trend of cutting his career walk rate (currently 3.58 BB/9). Bailey has done this while steadily improving his whiff rate against batters over the past four seasons—his 9.0 swinging strike percentage is a career high.

Despite a decline in groundball percentage this year, even accounting for the improvement in pitching across the league, Bailey has taken a step forward with his game. A seemingly low left-on-base percentage and seemingly high HR/FB and HR/OFFB rates may have masked Bailey’s improvements.

So what should we make of Bailey’s 6.7 K/9, a three year low? Should we expect it to go up, or discount Bailey’s fantasy potential (and improved pitching game) going forward?

On one hand, we could attribute it to a change in pitching style. Bailey used to lean heavily on his mid-90s fastball,but he is increasingly using a slider and curveball. Given the expected strikeout rates for plus-speed fastballs and sliders, however, this seems unlikely. Perhaps qualifying Bailey’s increased reliance on a curveball and slider by calling them “developing” pitches could explain the decreased strikeouts.

Another plausible explanation, however is bad luck. Strikeout rates tend to be more stable over smaller samples than other statistics, such as walk rates and ERA, but in half season samples, they still tend to have much variance. Bailey has pitched only 106 innings this season, so it’s plausible that his improved whiffs just have not translated into strikeouts yet.

Over the past 30 days, Bailey is supporting a robust 8.5 K/9 (22.5 percent strikelout percentage) and stellar 6.2 K/BB ratio. Despite a 5.18 ERA over that span, Bailey’s xWHIP of 3.15 and SIERRA of 3.00 rank among baseball’s elite. Despite his ERA, Bailey’s WHIP is still strong at 1.27. If Bailey’s seemingly bad luck this season were to neutralize, or even swing in favor of the good luck dragons, Bailey could post a mid-3s ERA and low 1.2s WHIP down the stretch despite his home ballpark.

With the Reds’ season collapsing, Bailey’s further development as a pitcher may be a bright spot in an otherwise disappointing season for the franchise.

Recommendation: Bailey is worth spot starting in 12-team mixed league formats, and worth a pickup in deeper/NL-only formats.

Yonder Alonso | Reds | 1B/OF | 3 percent Yahoo ownership
YTD (AAA): 296/.374/.486
Oliver ROS: 271/.334/.445

If you can fathom it, Yonder Alonso was once talked up as having enough potential as a first baseman to relegate Joey Votto‘s career to left field. Of course, since those days back in 2008, Votto has developed his power stroke while maintaining his elite walk rate and batting average and line drive rates, all the while keeping the strikeouts in check. Alonso, on the other hand, has developed nicely, but not nearly as exponentially as projected as he’s advanced through the minors.

Alonso is a DH masquerading as an outfielder. Scouts near universally agree his left field defense is Dunnian. But Alonso is not known for his glove; he’s known for his bat. At least he was for a while, and after a lackluster 2010, is again.

After batting a relatively lackluster .282/.380/.432 without (much) power in Double-A after a promising showing in A-Ball (.304/.389/.485), Alonso has rekindled most of his “Matt Kemp power*” (.174 ISO) in Triple-A this season. Alonso’s best asset is his ability to drive the ball well with good gap power and low strikeout totals to go with a fair number of walks, like teammate Votto. In fact, Votto’s 2008 season comes to mind as the fairest comparison to what Alonso is likely capable of producing. Oliver’s MLE for Alonso’s 2011 season in the minors is a .285/.355/.476 triple slash line.

He has also held his own thus far into 29 games (sample size!) of 2011, walking seven times and hitting .389/.459/.685 with four home runs in 54 a- bats. Alonso could easily develop into what Billy Butler‘s been billed as, promised as, for the past several season.

*Matt Kemp power is an old coinage of mine from 2008 that refers to guys with ISOs ranging between .170 and .185; hitters with enough power to be capable of consistently posting 20 HR/60 extra-base-hit seasons.

Dusty Baker has used Alonso pretty regularly over the past week. If his playing time becomes regular or predictable, he could be worth owning. Alonso currently has eligibility at first base and outfield, but Baker has already used him once at third this year. Juan Francisco (see below) figures to get the bulk of the Reds’ playing time at third if any rookie is to get it, but on the off chance that Alonso gets third base eligibility this (or next) season, that would greatly boost the fantasy value of a player many see as breaking camp as a starting outfielder for the Reds next season.

Recommendation: Yonder Alonso is worth a bench spot to stream as a corner infielder or fifth outfielder in NL-only and deeper mixed leagues.

Juan Francisco | Reds | 3B | 0 percent Yahoo ownership
YTD (minors): .318/.345/.557
Oliver ROS: .275/.308/.492

If you have a hole at third base—e.g., you’ve held on to Casey McGehee—or are in need of cheap power, Francisco may be your man. OBP leagues should be strongly cautioned: Juan Fran walks rarely. On a plus note for batting average leagues, however, Francisco tends to drive the ball well, despite a poor strikeout rate and walk rate, kind of like how Alfonso Soriano did in his prime. Hence, while he may not hit .300, he can likely hit in the .270s. Francisco, in this regard, is a bizarro Jack Cust: cheap power guy, semi-useful in batting average leagues, but a strong category liability in OBP leagues.

With Scott Rolen done for the season, Francisco may be getting an extended chance to audition for the 2013 starting third base position (Rolen is signed through 2012), though that role is likely Todd Frazier’s long term.

Since his recall on Sept. 1, he has been used in all but one of the Reds’ games as their primary third baseman (pinch hitting in the other). Four and a half games is an incredibly small, inconclusive sample, but it is nice to see him hit the ground running after struggling for a handful of games in April, batting 6-for-18 with a home run and five RBI since his return. Granted, that has come with only one walk to six strikeouts, so perhaps those numbers need to be looked at with a grain of salt.

Francisco clearly has his flaws, but in September the waiver wire tends to be slim pickings. Take your value and strategic usefulness where you can find it.

Recommendation: As a starting third baseman, Juan Francisco is worth streaming in 12-plus-team mixed leagues, and NL-only formats.

Collin Cowgill | Diamondbacks | OF | 0 percent Yahoo ownership
YTD (AAA): .354/.430/.554
Oliver ROS: .271/.329/.424

Cowgill is a “polished” (code for older, college-drafted) prospect who steadily ascended through the minors, only to truly break out in Triple-A this year. After posting a relatively bland .819 OPS in A+ ball in 2009 (.168 ISO, six home runs in 61 games), and an .825 OPS in 2010 (.179 ISO, 16 home runs in 131 games), Cowgill posted a .984 OPS this season, blasting 13 bombs with a .200 ISO in less than 100 games for the Diamondbacks’ Triple-A affiliate.

That .200 ISO power may not be particularly special coming out of the Pacific Coast League, ranking outside the top 35 for players with 300 or more plate appearances in the league this season. But when combined with 20-30 stolen base ability, a solid strikeout rate of 16.2 percent and an above-average walk rate of 10.7 percent, it means that Cowgill may have major league potential as a 15-home run capable, gap-powered hitter with respectable batting average totals and a good number of stolen bases.

Oliver says that Cowgill’s 2011 campaign in the PCL is the equivalent of a major league line of .290/.343/.434, and it forecasts him capable of doing the same down the stretch for the Diamondbacks if they keep giving him semi-regular playing time. The ceiling is limited with Cowgill, but he should provide solid production all around. Three home runs and five stolen bases with a .275-.280 batting average in September is entirely in the cards.

Recommendation: Cowgill should be a solid contributor as a semi-regular fifth outfielder for deeper (12+ team) mixed leagues and NL-only formats, though owners should inquire into the availability of John Mayberry first.

Bryan LaHair | Cubs | 1B | 0 percent Yahoo ownership
YTD (AAA): .331/.405/.664
Oliver ROS: .272/.332/.499

Beyond the fact that they are way out of the division/pennant race, Bryan LaHair is the reason the Cubs should-and-could have traded Carlos Pena in July to the Pirates before their epic collapse*.

*This is not to say that the Pirates were a particularly good team that should have invested prospects to attempt a “win-now” strategy a la Andy McPhail’s 1998 Chicago Cubs team. But with Pittsburgh facing the pressure of being a “dying” franchise losing its fan base and respectability, the Cubs probably could have leveraged some kind of deal to save cash and bring in (fringe?) prospects with the Buccos.

LaHair, like many Cubs prospects of the past decade, is 28 years old and on his fifth tour of duty in Triple-A. The Cubs, however, did not draft LaHair. This should be evident by the fact that he draws walks. A long-ignored prospect of the Seattle Mariners for nearly half a decade following a useless 150 plate appearances in the majors in 2008, LaHair signed with the Cubs in 2010, and he has done pretty well in Iowa since.

In 254 games for the Cubs’ Triple-A affiliate, LaHair swatted 63 home runs and drew 111 walks (11.1 percentage). His batting line was a robust .320/.396/613, albeit with a BABIP near .350 and a strikeout rate just north of 20 percent (20.5 percent, not bad at all for a power hitter).

Oliver thought LaHair’s 2010 performance (.289/.385/.557) was worth a respectable .267/.331/.453 (.340 wOBA) triple-slash line in the majors, but Oliver has fallen even more in love with LaHair this year, considering his minor league line worth a .286/.348/.546 (.378 wOBA) major league line over more than 500 plate appearances. Among all major league hitters with 500 or more plate appearances this season, LaHair’s .378 MLE wOBA would just barely rank in the top 20, and it would dethrone the Cubs’ current wOBA king Aramis Ramirez* (.372 wOBA).

*Technically, the Cubs’ true wOBA king this season has been Reed Johnson (.378 wOBA), but Johnson does not have even 250 plate appearances.

Since getting recalled earlier in the week, LaHair has hit the ground running for the Cubs, batting .385/.385/.692 with a home run and double over 13 plate appearances. LaHair is a first baseman, but the Cubs have not been afraid to use him as a corner outfielder. Presuming the Cubs are “in” on the Albert Pujols derby (which has Prince Fielder as the runner-up, consolation prize), one has to presume that means that the Cubs likely intend to play him in the outfield corners along with Soriano (under contract forever) and Marlon Byrd (under contract one more season). This would presumably push Brett Jackson‘s debut back until mid/late 2012, with an eye on Jackson taking over center field, if ready, in 2013.

LaHair is not getting any younger, so one would have to imagine he has to be in the Cubs’ short term plans for 2012. He is not a marketable prospect, so it is unlikely they could use him as a trade chip to return anything of interest. LaHair is also insurance in case the Cubs cannot or do not want to sign Pujols or Fielder this offseason. Some Cubs fans may have flashback nightmares of Micah Hoffpauir when they think of LaHair, but LaHair is much more than a mere flash-in-the-pan late bloomer; he’s someone to be moderately enthused about—a potentially useful major leaguer.

Recommendation: LaHair is unlikely to get regular playing time down the stretch, but is worth owning as a corner infielder if he does get predictable playing time. More realistically, LaHair’s September should be monitored as a fantasy audition for 2012.

Johan Santana | Mets | SP | 23 percent Yahoo ownership
YTD (A+ rehab): 2 GS, 5.0 IP, 5 K, 0 BB, 0 HR, 0 ER
Oliver ROS: 3.78 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 7.5 K/9, 1.9 BB/9

Santana has had more than his fair share of injuries over the past few seasons, and his 2011 has been entirely lost to injury thus far, but in terms of potentially elite gambles on the waiver wire two and a half weeks before the end of the season, Santana may be an ace in the hole. Though an experienced pitcher rehabbing in A ball, Santana’s first two rehab starts have been pretty encouraging. He’s thrown five innings with five strikeouts and zero walks. I have not read any reports of velocity concern or setbacks since his last one. If Santana stays healthy, he could get a start or two in the majors for the floundering Mets. They could be worth streaming him for.

Recommendation: Santana is only a deep mixed league and NL-only play.

Trayvon Robinson | Mariners | 1 percent Yahoo ownership
YTD: .274/.319/.464
Oliver ROS: .251/.316/.411

What is Trayvon Robinson doing in a National League-oriented Waiver Wire column? It is a good, fair question. The answer is that I was writing about him in a lengthy email response to a reader’s question, and I figured I might as well share my thoughts with others.

Trayvon Robinson is something of a fantasy value enigma. From his debut in 2006 through 2008, he was not much of anything. He struck out a lot (almost a quarter of the time), walked very little, and though he stole about 20 bases, he was caught stealing in roughly one-third of his attempts.

Then, in 2009, Robinson upped his game. He added a little more pop (.193 ISO), started walking, and really started stealing bases. In fact, in 2009, he doubled his previous stolen base total record of 22 with 47 (though he was still caught 20 times). Robinson’s 2010 in Double-A built upon his advanced speed game and newly found walking ability, swiping 37 bases, but his power evaporated (.138 ISO) and the strikeouts and caught-stealing propensity (15 caught stealing in 52 attempts) remained a problem. Robinson seemed doomed to a career ceiling of Julio Borbon.

But in Triple-A in 2011, Robinson’s “game” took a whole new direction. Presumably ordered to quit wasting precious outs while on the bases, Robinson saw a huge boost in his power, launching 26 home runs with a .269 ISO over 100 games for the Dodgers. His previous single-season high in home runs was 17, over 136 games played. Strikeouts continue to be a problem, but Robinson has kept up an improved walk rate for three seasons now, which, paired with power, greatly offsets the harm of his strikeout propensity. Robinson’s 2011 for the Dodgers was so good, in fact, that he was included as the Mariners’ prized return in the three-way deal among Seattle, Boston and Los Angeles that sent Erik Bedard to the Red Sox.

Caution says, however, that high strikeout totals in the minors tend to mean atrocious strikeout rates in the majors. Oliver gives Robinson credit for only a .246/.314/.442 MLE (with 21 home runs). Despite this caution, Robinson has held his own in the majors through his first month. Over 25 games, Robinson has batted .274/.319/.464 despite a humongous strikeout rate (35.9 percent) thanks to a combination of good power (.190 ISO) and what would be the major leagues’ highest BABIP (.420) if Robinson qualified for the batting title.

Oliver’s ROS projection for Robinson is a substantially more reasonable expectation for him the rest of the way. Robinson may be cheap power (though most of it has been gap power at Safeco), but he’ll likely carry a big batting average liability. He’s not nearly the “rookie keeper” his major league numbers this season may indicate.

Recommendation: Travon Robinson should not be trusted as a reliable source of production down the stretch except in AL-only and very deep (14-plus team, five-outfielder) formats.

Dee Gordon | Dodgers | SS | 9 percent Yahoo ownership
YTD: .277/.288/.336
Oliver ROS: .269/.298/.342

With Hanley Ramirez out for the season, many owners have been scrambling to find some ghost of a replacement out of a group of players shallower than the kiddie pool. The Dodgers activated Dee Gordon from the disabled list on Sept. 1 and in the six games he’s played since, he has swiped four stolen bases. Gordon will not offer any power or on-base ability for owners, but he should be able to hit .275 or higher with Eric Young Jr.-like stolen base attempts per opportunity. He needs to instantly be owned in more leagues.

Recommendation: Gordon should be owned either to use, or block another owner from using him, if you have the space. His speed could be a game changer down the stretch.

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Jeffrey Gross is an attorney who periodically moonlights as a (fantasy) baseball analyst. He also responsibly enjoys tasty adult beverages. You can read about those adventures at his blog and/or follow him on Twitter @saBEERmetrics.

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