Archive for February, 2010

Hot Stove U: Stress Pitches vs. Pitch Count

The Setup

On June 2 of last season, heading into the top of the ninth inning with the Toronto Blue Jays up 6-4 over the visiting Los Angeles Angels, Toronto manager Cito Gaston sent Roy Halladay back to the mound. Halladay already had thrown 116 pitches in the game.

Modern pitch-count orthodoxy would have had Halladay out of this midseason game at least 10 pitches earlier. So the question stands: Why would Gaston send him back out?

Obviously, Halladay is not some young pitcher who needs to be babied, but even so, 116 pitches is a lot. Why tempt fate with one of the game’s best pitchers and potential trade bait (with the trade deadline less than two months away) for a team that almost certainly would not be making the postseason?

In the end, Halladay closed out the game with 133 pitches, giving his team the victory. Did Gaston put Halladay’s arm at risk, or did he realize that not all pitchers are the same?

Those questions are relevant, but we’re here to demonstrate something else: Not all pitches are created equal.

The Proof

There is a growing belief that high-stress at-bats are more taxing than those in relatively low-pressure situations — and therefore that pitch counts from the two scenarios should not be treated the same. If a pitcher can breeze through easy innings in one gear and then kick it up to another gear when needed, raw pitch counts might not be the best tool to assess workload, either in an individual game or over the course of a season.

To test this theory, we need some measure of what we mean by pressure. We use a metric called Leverage Index, developed by statistician Tom Tango. Leverage Index (LI for short) quantifies the impact of every situation based on how the outcome will affect a team’s odds of winning a particular game. It is scaled so the average situation is always 1.00.

For example: An at-bat in the bottom of the ninth with two runners on and one run separating the teams will have a huge LI; the outcome of the at-bat will greatly affect the likelihood of either team winning the game. On the other hand, an at-bat in the middle of a 10-0 game with two outs and no runners on has a minuscule LI.

Let’s return to Halladay’s game against the Angels. Heading into the seventh, the Jays were up 6-0. Through those first six innings, because of the big lead and a dearth of Angels baserunners, Halladay faced just two at-bats with an LI of more than 1 and many with LIs less than 0.5. The 75 pitches Halladay threw through those six innings overwhelmingly occurred during low-leverage at-bats.

That all changed in the seventh inning, when the Angels managed four runs off him; as a result, his pitching changed drastically. He started throwing his curveball much more (19 times in 58 pitches in the seventh through ninth innings, compared to just 14 times in 75 pitches through the first six frames). It worked, as the contact rate on his pitches dropped from 72 percent to 60 percent and he struck out five batters in the final two innings, slamming the door and preserving the victory.

Those last 58 pitches likely were more taxing on Halladay than the first 75. With the game close in the late innings, Halladay shifted from pounding the zone with sinkers and cutters to get weak contact to throwing his breaking ball and trying to hit the edges of the zone to get strikeouts.

Halladay is not alone in shifting his strategy in high-leverage situations, although most pitchers respond by increasing the speed on their fastballs. In 2009, the average starter threw his fastball half a mile per hour faster in high-leverage situations. This might not seem like much — but most of these higher-leverage pitches come in late innings when most pitchers have lost a couple mph off the fastball. Somehow they are able to dial it up and get that speed back and then some. Justin Verlander threw his fastball more than 2 mph faster in high-leverage at-bats than when the game was not on the line. Ted Lilly, Aaron Harang and Pedro Martinez, among others, threw it more than a full 1 mph faster.

It makes perfect sense: When the game is not close or there are no runners on, a pitcher’s best stuff is not necessary, but when the game is close, it’s time to shift to another gear. These higher-leverage pitches almost certainly take more out of a pitcher than when he is cruising.

The Conclusion

Raw pitch counts do not account for the stress a pitcher has experienced over the course of either a game or a season. It is important to track high-leverage pitches separately since pitches in those at-bats require more effort. Here are the 2009 leaders for the number of pitches thrown in high-leverage at-bats:

These guys threw the most stressful pitches in the game in 2009.

Pitcher		Total Pitches	Total High-Stress Pitches
Justin Verlander	3,937	408
Chad Billingsley	3,203	385
Felix Hernandez		3,632	337
Ubaldo Jimenez		3,570	331
Adam Wainwright		3,614	331
Javier Vazquez		3,315	296
Carlos Zambrano		2,843	276
Jon Garland		3,255	271
Barry Zito		3,204	268
Matt Garza		3,421	261

Verlander threw more pitches in 2009 than any other pitcher — and threw the most high-stress pitches. Interestingly, he also was the pitcher with the greatest increase in fastball velocity when the game got tight, which suggests he really worked hard to get out of those situations. A bit worrisome is Chad Billingsley, who ranked only 33rd in total pitches in 2009, yet threw more high-leverage pitches than any pitcher besides Verlander. He might have very well put more strain on his arm than his raw pitch count would suggest.

On the other end of the spectrum are workhorses Cliff Lee and Zack Greinke, ranked sixth and seventh in pitches thrown, respectively, but just 42nd and 35th on the high-stress leaderboard. They likely put less strain on their arms than you might conclude by just looking at their total pitch counts.

Hot Stove U: Is Clayton Kershaw Already Declining?

The Setup

There are a lot of things to like about Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw. His fastball averages 94 miles per hour, yet he also can make hitters look foolish with a knockout breaking ball. He struck out 185 batters in just 171 innings a year ago, posting a K/9 that was the seventh-highest of any starter in baseball. He’s left-handed in a sport that covets southpaws. Oh, and he doesn’t turn 22 years old until halfway through spring training.

Even though Kershaw still struggles with his command and lacks experience, his ERA last season was even with Roy Halladay’s, and better than Johan Santana’s and Cliff Lee’s. When a pitcher is this good and this young, it is easy to dream about what the future may hold. If he’s already one of the best pitchers in the game (in this case, he is), what will happen when you give him some time to mature, learn how to pound the strike zone, mix his pitches and study hitters’ tendencies?

Unfortunately for Kershaw and Dodgers fans, history suggests that this may be as good as it will ever get for the young lefty. In fact, given the success he has had in the majors at such a young age, he may have already peaked.

The Proof

Hitters are fairly predictable, as a group. They will show flashes of potential in their early 20s, add strength and hit a physical prime in their late 20s, and then decline in their 30s. The peak age of a position player has been shown to be around 27, with most offensive players following in this same general pattern. When you find a 21-year-old who is already a good hitter, there is a good chance greatness is in store when he gets older.

The same is not true of hurlers. They do not follow an arc-shaped career path; instead, the normal career trajectory for a starting pitcher heads downward.

There are various reasons for this observed phenomenon, the most obvious one being injury. It doesn’t take a baseball historian to rattle off the names: Mark Prior, Kerry Wood and Rich Harden are just this decade’s reminders of greatness at a young age cut short by surgery. Every pitcher, no matter how talented, is just one pitch away from the office of Dr. James Andrews on any given day.

Even putting aside the possibility of attrition, pitchers still defy conventional growth curves. While improvements are made in throwing strikes and pitching more intelligently, these marginal gains are more than offset by a bigger problem — a loss of velocity.

Scott Kazmir was the last version of Kershaw when he made his debut in the majors in 2004, throwing 94 mph at the age of 20 and racking up the strikeouts. He would develop into one of the better pitchers in the American League by age 22, but his fastball and slider began to slow down. Last year, his fastball averaged just 91.1 mph, and the Tampa Bay Rays dumped their once untouchable ace on the Los Angeles Angels in order to escape his long-term contract.

Before Kazmir, there was Oliver Perez in 2004, who broke through as a 22-year-old for the Pittsburgh Pirates. His 93-mph fastball allowed him to pile up the K’s and give Pittsburgh hope that it had an ace in the making. Two years later, with his fastball down to 91, the Pirates admitted that he wasn’t fixable and shipped him to the New York Mets.

Even the best young pitchers in the game, Felix Hernandez and Tim Lincecum, have lost 2 mph off their fastballs since arriving in the big leagues. Throwing hard is a young man’s game, and one that is very hard to sustain as the workload piles up. As young pitchers learn that they have to pace themselves to get through a six-month season, they find their radar readings less impressive than they used to be.

Unlike hitters, who tend to gain power as they age, pitchers lose it. In the past 30 years, 11 pitchers have rang up at least 180 strikeouts in a single season when they were 22 or younger. The list is not full of guys on their way to Cooperstown. Instead, it stands as a sobering reminder of just how great starts to a career can go very, very wrong. Other than Fernando Valenzuela, whose age has been the subject of much speculation, the most successful pitchers of the group: Sid Fernandez, who only three times managed to throw 200 innings in a season, and Dwight Gooden, who should have been so much more than he turned out to be. Beyond those guys, there are names such as Edwin Correa and Floyd Youmans, who were out of baseball before they could even rent a car.

The Conclusion

Some pitchers can make the necessary adjustments and have long, great careers — but most don’t. More often, the next big thing on the mound becomes a sad story of what could have been. For every Lincecum or Hernandez, there’s a Rick Ankiel, a Dontrelle Willis, a Prior or a Kazmir. Whether it’s injury, pressure, or more often a fastball that decides not to show up to spring training one year, young pitchers are often the biggest disappointments.

Kershaw is a remarkably talented pitcher, having already accomplished quite a bit in his first two years in the major leagues. His arm is golden, his upside seemingly unlimited. But the reality of history shows that he’s more likely to get worse than to get better, and fans counting on Kershaw to win a Cy Young or two are likely to be disappointed.

Put your faith in young hitters like Justin Upton or Matt Wieters, who are on a career path that should lead them to better things in the future. Pitchers like Kershaw will break your heart.

Hot Stove U: Why Nyjer Morgan Rules the Outfield

The Setup

It took Nyjer Morgan just three games with the Washington Nationals to confirm to his new fans that the organization had made the right move in acquiring him. Although he recorded his first three hits as a National that day, the real attention would be paid toward his defensive efforts against the Braves.

It was July 5, to be exact, and young Washington starter Scott Olsen was struggling with his command. Nerves were high as Chipper Jones strode to the plate, following a lead-off walk to Martin Prado. Olsen made his first pitch to Jones and watched in horror as it caught far too much of the plate. Jones reacted swiftly and, just like that, a bullet was heading deep into straightaway center field.

On an ordinary day, Jones reaches second base easily, Prado scores, and the Braves have the tying run in scoring position with nobody out. However, this was no ordinary day, and Morgan is no ordinary centerfielder. Upon launch, a blaze of red set into motion, stampeding towards the wall and then suddenly extending a lone arm. The ball tucked firmly into his glove, Morgan twirled and fired it back into the infield.

Two groundouts later, the threat was over. Prado was stranded on the bases, the Nationals’ lead was secure, and Washington would hold on for a 5-3 win. It was then that fans in the nation’s capital realized that their new centerfielder might just be the best defensive player in the game.

The Proof

It isn’t just Nationals fans who think highly of his abilities. Ultimate Zone Rating, one of the most accessible advanced defensive metrics that baseball has today, is in love with the man who calls himself “Tony Plush”. Developed by Mitchel Lichtman, a statistical analyst who once served as a consultant for the Cardinals, UZR produces an above- or below-average rating, measured in runs saved, for each player drawn from multiple defensive aspects — including range, throwing arm, and errors. By this metric, the 29-year-old Morgan is off the charts.

Morgan started last season with Pittsburgh (where he played left field), but was traded to Washington (where he played center) on July 1. Over the course of the season, his total UZR was an absurd +27.8 runs above average. Many analysts agree that Franklin Gutierrez was the best full-time defensive centerfielder in baseball last season, with good reason: his centerfield UZR was +29.1, but in nearly 400 more innings than Morgan played in center. For cases like these, we can use UZR/150, a playing time-adjusted figure which calculates the player’s defensive contributions pro-rated to 150 games, and therefore gives a fairer outlook to players with disparities. Gutierrez’s UZR/150 of +27.1 is just fantastic, but doesn’t look quite as impressive when compared to Morgan’s absurd +40.5 UZR/150 in his half-season in center. A half-season’s worth of data is not enough to definitively judge a player, but Morgan’s career numbers tell a similar story. For his career, Morgan’s UZR/150 in center is 39 runs better than average.

Don’t trust UZR? No problem. Baseball analyst Tom Tango organizes the Fans Scouting Report on a yearly basis, getting input from those who watch the players on a daily basis. In 2009, fans voted Morgan as the best defensive left fielder in the game by a fair margin, and he earned an even higher rating than Gutierrez did in center. And in case you think that this was the result of playing for teams with rabid fan bases, remember that Morgan suited up for the Nats and Bucs.

Need more proof? Morgan made a substantial impact on both his current and former teams. Through the time he was traded, the Pirates had allowed 16 unearned runs and had a 4.24 ERA against. In the 82 games thereafter, they allowed 29 unearned runs scored and the team ERA bloated to 4.92. Conversely, Washington allowed 43 unearned runs and held a 5.21 ERA through its first 77 games. Those numbers shifted to 40 unearned runs and a 4.80 ERA after Morgan’s arrival.

If his UZR is to be believed, and Morgan is the best defensive player in the game, then he should be expected to take between 15 and 25 runs off the scoreboard per season compared to an average centerfielder. On the high end, that would be the pitching equivalent of going from Braden Looper’s 5.22 ERA down to Chad Billingsley’s 4.03 ERA.

The Conclusion

Whether you’re a fan of numbers, a casual observer or both, there’s no doubt Morgan is magnificent with the leather. After some brutally tough seasons, Nationals fans have found hope in phenom pitching prospect Stephen Strasburg, but they should not overlook another terrific player who has arrived in their town.

Nyjer Morgan, Tony Plush, no matter what you call him, he’s a defensive wizard beyond compare.

Hot Stove U: WAR: What is it Good For?

The Setup

It’s generally pretty easy to tell who is good at baseball. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to realize that Joe Mauer’s .365 batting average last year was tremendous, especially for a catcher. Likewise, pretty much anyone can recognize greatness in Prince Fielder’s 46 home runs, Zack Greinke’s 2.16 ERA or Tim Lincecum’s 261 strikeouts.

However, as baseball fans, we were born with the desire to argue over whether one player is better than another, and these numbers do not lend themselves to easy comparison. Mauer doesn’t have an ERA, because he’s not a pitcher. The Giants don’t care that Lincecum failed to hit a home run last year. Even comparing offensive players to other hitters can be a problem; Fielder would be a disaster at shortstop, so stacking his numbers up against Troy Tulowitzki’s is comparing a massively large apple to oranges.

Thankfully, we now have a metric that allows for comparison among players across positions, and even between pitchers and hitters, totaling up all the things each does to help a team win, no matter what his particular skill is. Hitters, defenders, pitchers — everyone is graded on the same scale. This is why we love Wins Above Replacement.

The Proof

WAR, as it is often abbreviated, is fairly simple in theory. The idea is to take a player’s total contribution in creating runs (hitting and baserunning), as well as preventing them (pitching and defense), and then compare those totals to what a team would have expected to get if they had spent the league minimum on some randomly available Triple-A player (the so-called “replacement player”).

By measuring all contributions by the run value they create (or save), we can measure widely different things, such as strikeouts and home runs. For example, a single is worth, on average, about half a run, a stolen base is worth about 0.2 runs, and a strikeout takes away approximately 0.3 runs. So, if Derek Jeter is 2-for-4 with two singles, a stolen base and two strikeouts in a particular game, he has created approximately 0.6 runs on offense.

Because every action on the field affects run-scoring to one degree or another, we can then compare that total to other players’ performances, even if they didn’t have any singles, stolen bases or strikeouts. For example, if Mark Teixeira went 1-for-4 with a home run in that same game, he would create a very similar offensive value to Jeter’s, even though he had one fewer hit and made an extra out. His long ball was more impactful than any one thing that his speedier teammate did, and the trade-off between quantity and quality essentially cancels out.

We can apply this concept to all aspects of the game, not just offense. Each out created by a pitcher or defender also saves runs, and once we translate their numbers into a total of runs saved, we can then compare those numbers across positions. (Due to the particular challenges of quantifying a catcher’s defensive value, all catchers are assumed to be equally average behind the plate, so your favorite good defensive catcher will be underrated by WAR. This is the stat’s biggest flaw.)

Without getting into all the of the calculations — you can find a 14-part, in-depth series on how WAR is calculated in the glossary at FanGraphs if you’re curious — WAR then takes those total values of runs saved and created, adjusts for relative scarcity between different positions, and converts runs into wins over what a team would expect to lose if that player got hurt and had to be replaced by some veteran minor leaguer or journeyman bench guy.

That guy is the baseline because he represents the expected value that could be had for no real cost. For instance, a year ago, the Mariners signed Mike Sweeney to a minor league contract and gave him a part-time job as their designated hitter against left-handers. He made no real money, produced just a fraction of a Win Above Replacement, and is now looking for work again. At this point in his career, Sweeney is the epitome of a replacement-level player. He costs nothing, produces at a level good enough to hang around without being overly useful, and bounces from one club to another looking for work each year.

In reality, WAR could be named “Wins Above Mike Sweeney,” because players just like him are the baseline against which all players are compared.

The Conclusion

Bill James once said that if a metric always gives surprising results, it is probably wrong, and if it never gives surprising results, it’s useless. WAR succeeds marvelously on this account. In 2009, for example, it matches quite well with the players we would expect to have been the best (Zack Greinke, Albert Pujols, Tim Lincecum, Joe Mauer) and worst (Yuniesky Betancourt, Jose Guillen, Aubrey Huff), while surprising us enough to be useful (Ben Zobrist’s outstanding season, Jermaine Dye’s decline). Of course, given the small difference in WAR between Zobrist, Pujols and Mauer, along with the catcher-defense flaw in the stat, it is reasonable to conclude that Mauer was the most valuable every-day player.

WAR is not perfect, but it does a very good job of grading an individual player’s contribution, crediting him for what he produces on the field. Replacement level is a good baseline that accounts for how the baseball market actually works, and it enables teams and fans to better evaluate contracts and trades. It takes into account all aspects of a position player’s game rather than just his obvious strength or weakness. And finally, it is measured on the scale of wins, which every fan can understand is the whole point of playing the game in the first place.

Hot Stove U: The Perils of Pinch-Hitting

The Setup

Game Two of the American League Division Series between the Minnesota Twins and New York Yankees is remembered most for Mark Teixeira’s dramatic walk-off homer in the 11th inning. However, what happened in the top of that inning is more interesting.

After three consecutive singles loaded the bases with no outs, Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire elected to let Delmon Young and Carlos Gomez try to drive in the go-ahead run — despite the fact that they were each among baseball’s worst hitters in 2009. Both failed, as did Brendan Harris, and the inning ended without the Twins putting any runs on the board. They would promptly lose before getting another chance to hit.

Gardenhire’s reluctance to pinch-hit in such a critical situation, especially for Gomez, drew the ire of the Minnesota fans. But based on years of researching historical performance of pinch-hitters, it turns out that they’re not much good either. In fact, pinch-hitting is quite often the wrong idea, and Gardenhire was likely correct to discern that Gomez was his best chance to get the run home in that situation.

The Discussion

In 2009, major league pinch-hitters hit a combined .225/.315/.353, significantly worse than their starting counterparts, who hit .264/.334/.421. That’s not a one-year fluke or a recent development, either. In 1990, guys coming off the bench hit .224/.302/.316. In 1970, they hit .226/.313/.323. Way back in 1954, their performance was a pitiful .220/.315/.323. It’s not just that the average pinch-hitter is worse than a starter, but instead, there is evidence that pinch-hitting is just really difficult. Matt Holliday has a career .552 OPS as a pinch hitter compared to a .933 mark when he starts. Joe Mauer has a .693 OPS off the bench. Even Derek Jeter is hitless in his five attempts.

Baseball consultant Tom Tango, now in the employ of the Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays, went through historical pinch-hitting situations in his book (appropriately titled “The Book”) and found that, even after accounting for the average pinch-hitter being of lesser ability and facing tougher pitchers in more important situations, pinch-hitters performed at a level roughly 10 percent lower than expected. That’s huge; a 10 percent penalty turns a .300 hitter into a .270 one. That reduction in performance would turn Evan Longoria into Skip Schumaker.

Pinch-hitters don’t share this fate alone. Designated hitters, who also spend a significant amount of the game spectating, suffer at the plate as well. Studies have found that regular starters relegated to the DH role end up hitting at a level about 5 percent worse. That’s better than pinch-hitters, but it does indicate that not being out in the field hurts players when they step up to the plate. Jim Thome, Frank Thomas and Jason Giambi, for example, all had significantly worse numbers than expected while at DH rather than first base, even after adjusting for the age at which they played both positions.

What makes pinch-hitting so hard? Repetition and routine are common agents to help calm nerves. It’s why you’ll see some ridiculous things in the batter’s box, such as Nomar Garciaparra’s infamous batting glove routine. It’s why coaches in golf stress pre-shot routines, and for every disturbance to mean a complete do-over of that routine. It’s why any athlete anywhere spends countless hours practicing. They are attempting to train their muscle memory and to develop grooves in the brain that focus on the specific task at hand and let them forget about anything else.

Pinch-hitters do not get the benefit of routine. Unlike relievers who first get to warm up in the bullpen, then warm up on the mound, and who dictate the action in the first place, pinch-hitting opportunities tend to spring up with less warning. At best, a player on the bench might get a heads-up in time to go into the cage and take a few hacks, but for the most part, he gets thrust right onto center stage sans warm up. That’s not a recipe for success, and the evidence suggests that even the best hitters in the world struggle to succeed in that situation.

The Conclusion

That’s not to say pinch-hitting is always a bad idea. Pitchers are notoriously terrible hitters — to the point where nearly any capable major league position player will still be more likely to get a hit, even accounting for the pinch-hitting penalty. Had Gardenhire carried even a league-average hitter to come off the bench in the ALDS, that guy would have been a better choice to hit than Gomez, as the gap in talent would have overcome the expected decline in performance from the pinch-hitter. But Gardenhire did not have that guy on his bench, so as frustrating as it may have been for Twins fans, he made the right call.

Pinch-hitting is one of the most difficult things to do well in all of sports. Even good hitters fail routinely when asked to come off the bench and get a big hit late in the game. It isn’t as simple as comparing the batting averages of the two available options and going with the higher number. While inaction is always tougher to watch — and easier to criticize — it is often for the best. Pinch-hitting for the pitcher? Good idea. Pinch-hitting for your starting shortstop? You’d better have a legitimately good hitter available, and it still might not be the right call.

Hot Stove U: Changing their Sox

The Setup

Since Michael Lewis penned “Moneyball” in 2003, franchises have been branded either by their support or disdain for the philosophies that the book espouses. The Oakland Athletics were held up as the model organization, the team that won by ignoring the traditions of baseball and finding value in underappreciated assets — the most prominent of those at the time being slow, unathletic, career minor leaguers who draw walks to avoid making outs.

A’s GM Billy Beane was winning with teams full of players that old-school scouts had hated. From John Jaha to Matt Stairs, the A’s were the destination of choice for guys who could run about as well as the average fan in the seats. Where other teams saw a lack of bat speed, an inability to play defense and a body that would break down by age 30, Beane saw the ability to construct an offense that would score runs by stringing together a few walks and a home run.

This particular brand of baseball, dubbed the “Moneyball” style, was despised by those who had been taught that the game should be played by fielding your position well, bunting runners over and doing the little things that help your team win. But now, in an attempt to chase the current undervalued assets, the tables have turned. Teams that are using the nerd-stats approach that the A’s made popular have abandoned power-hitting oafs in favor of athletic defenders who can run like the wind.

The “Moneyball” teams are now building rosters that would fit perfectly into pre-spreadsheet baseball. Perhaps no team exemplifies this shift as well as the Boston Red Sox.

The Proof

With an Ivy League-educated general manager who hired stat maven Bill James as a consultant, the Red Sox have been one of the most visible sabermetric teams in baseball recently. They built teams around David Ortiz, J.D. Drew and Kevin Youkilis, showing that they valued the same traits the Athletics had earlier in the decade. When the Sox finally tired of Manny Ramirez’s antics, they devised a three-way trade to bring them Jason Bay, another player who fits that particular mold.

However, when GM Theo Epstein evaluated how to improve a roster that finished in second place in the AL East and lost in the first round of the playoffs in 2009, he did not conclude that the team needed more power hitters to supercharge the offense. Instead, he let Bay sign with the New York Mets and then reallocated the money to Mike Cameron and Adrian Beltre — despite the fact that the duo hit fewer home runs combined than Bay hit a year ago.

Neither Cameron nor Beltre can match Bay’s production at the plate, but they can run circles around him in the field. Defense is where Epstein saw an opportunity to improve in the most cost-efficient way, so out went the burly slugger with bad range and in came a couple of average hitters whose stardom is measured in Web Gems.

Epstein and James have traded on-base percentage for ultimate zone ratings, believing that the market has over-corrected and is now undervaluing a player’s ability to save runs in the field. They aren’t the only ones — the Tampa Bay Rays, Seattle Mariners, and yes, even Billy Beane’s Oakland Athletics are also on the bandwagon.

The results of this shift toward run prevention? The “Moneyball” teams are targeting the type of fast, athletic, fundamentally sound players that scouts have been drooling over for years. Tampa Bay, Oakland and Boston were all in the top five in stolen bases among American League clubs in 2009. Seattle finished eighth and then outbid everyone else in the league for speed-and-defense specialist Chone Figgins this winter. The Mariners also led the league in sacrifice bunts, and that doesn’t figure to change now that Figgins has joined the club and the team replaced power-hitting first baseman Russell Branyan with glove-man Casey Kotchman.

Likewise, the A’s should feature a mostly small-ball offense, especially with the addition of Coco Crisp to an outfield that already featured Rajai Davis and Ryan Sweeney. Beane now believes that having three center fielders tracking down every fly ball hit will make up for the fact that his three starting outfielders combined to hit 12 home runs in 2009.

The Conclusion

The age of the Giambi brothers is over. Sure, these teams would still love to have a middle-of-the-order thumper who can get on base and hit the ball 500 feet with regularity, but they aren’t going to pay the market price for power when similar value comes at a discount in another package. The value purchase now is to re-create the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals, a tremendous defensive team led by speed merchants who ran their way into the World Series despite a glaring lack of home run hitters.

Whitey Herzog, who managed that Cardinals team, would never be mistaken for a “Moneyball” disciple. But if Herzog were still putting together rosters in 2010, the teams that would most resemble what he would want are the teams that use statistical analysis to help inform their decisions. What was old is new again, and 2010 will be the year that the scouts and statheads finally come to an agreement on how a team should be built.

Johnson’s Place Among Best LHPs

At 6-foot-10, Randy Johnson always has stood above the crowd. He doesn’t stand out just because of his height, though. When we line up all the left-handed pitchers the game has seen, Johnson is the first one we notice. His career is unmatched by that of any other left-hander, and he is the most dominant lefty ever to take the mound.

The career strikeout leaderboard for left-handed pitchers drives this point home. Johnson is the leader (and second among all pitchers behind right-hander Nolan Ryan) with 4,875 strikeouts. Steve Carlton is second, trailing Johnson by 739 punchouts despite pitching nearly 1,100 more innings than the Big Unit. In third place stands Mickey Lolich with 2,832 strikeouts, a mere 58 percent of Johnson’s career total.

There isn’t another MLB category in which one guy stands so far above his peers. Baseball has literally never seen anything like Johnson, a power left-hander who blew hitters away and single-handedly won games for his team. There had been some great left-handers before him, but none matched his dominance.

Carlton is within shouting distance of Johnson in career strikeouts only because of the number of innings he pitched. He never averaged more than a strikeout per inning in any season and led the league in K/9 only twice in his 24 seasons of big league action. Johnson, on the other hand, led the league in K/9 on nine different occasions and has the highest career strikeout rate per nine innings (10.61) of any starting pitcher in baseball history.

Sandy Koufax won’t show up on many career leaderboards because arthritis abbreviated his career, but he certainly had a great run of dominance from 1962 to 1966. In that five-year span, Koufax won 111 games, had an ERA 67 percent better than league average, struck out 9.4 batters per nine innings and won three Cy Young Awards.

If we are going to focus on Koufax’s best five years, though, we also must look at the best five-year run that Johnson had. From 1998 to 2002, the big man won 100 games, had an ERA 75 percent better than league average and struck out 12.3 batters per nine innings while winning four Cy Young Awards. Johnson’s peak was just as high as Koufax’s, but he had 22 years of longevity as well.

Warren Spahn, great as he was, was never the dominant force that Johnson was. He simply compiled tremendous career statistics through endurance, throwing 5,243 innings over 21 seasons. His career 3.09 ERA is nice, but only 18 percent better than the league average given the era in which he pitched. He had two legitimately tremendous seasons (1947 and 1953), but was more often just a good, healthy starting pitcher. Longevity is terrific, but it isn’t dominance. Spahn can’t hold a candle to Johnson’s peak.

Lefty Grove’s career is generally held up as the pinnacle by which all left-handers have been measured. With 300 wins and a career ERA that’s 48 percent better than league average, he’s certainly in the discussion for the best lefty of all time, but Grove got a lot of help from his defenders. He averaged just 5.2 strikeouts per nine innings for his career — above-average for the time, but not historically great.

Johnson dominated at a time when even flimsy middle infielders were driving balls out of the park with regularity, and he did it by sending them back to the dugout shaking their heads. The Big Unit stands alone as the best left-handed pitcher the game has seen.

Decade’s More Recent MVP

Albert Pujols’ greatness is unquestioned. He won his second consecutive National League MVP award this year (his third overall), and this time around, he took home every first-place vote. He’s finished in the top four in MVP voting in eight of the nine years he’s been in the majors, and he hasn’t even turned 30. Yet there is another National League player who is just as valuable, if not more so, and receives none of the accolades. Seriously.

Chase Utley, the Phillies’ star second baseman, has never finished higher than seventh in the MVP voting since he arrived in Philadelphia, but has contributed more bang for the buck than any other player in baseball. At FanGraphs, we have a metric that encompasses a player’s total contribution on the field, called Wins Above Replacement. WAR, as it is often abbreviated, combines a player’s value at the plate and in the field to give a better overall picture of a player’s worth. (In layman’s terms, “replacement,” as defined by stat guru Tom Tango, represents “the talent level for which you would pay the minimum salary on the open market, or for which you can obtain at minimal cost in a trade.” Mike Sweeney, who signed a minor league deal in early 2009 and produced 0.2 WAR for the Mariners, is a good example of a replacement-level player.)

By putting all players against a similar baseline, we can compare their value side by side, pitting defensive wizards against burly sluggers and finding out who actually contributes more to helping their team win. Since entering the league in 2005, Utley has added 37.9 wins above what a league minimum player would have provided, which is a tremendous total that represents his offensive prowess and Gold Glove skills at second base. Middle infielders who can hit as well as Utley are rare breeds indeed, and when you factor in his incredible baserunning — 23-for-23 in stolen bases last year! — he grades out as the most complete player in baseball. From that Wins Above Replacement total, we can use a wins-to-dollars conversion based on how teams have historically valued wins in the free-agent market on a yearly basis. Considering how good Utley has been since the Phillies gave him the second-base job, his performance on the field has been worth $154 million. That’s about $31 million a year in production.

Top Value Since 2005

Player	        WAR	Value	Salary	Net
Chase Utley	37.9	$154M	$25M	$129M
David Wright	29.6	$119M	$14M	$105M
Hanley Ramirez	24.9	$106M	$7M	$99M
Grady Sizemore	27.3	$108M	$10M	$98M
Albert Pujols	40.4	$164M	$66M	$98M

In exchange for that performance, the Phillies have paid Utley a meager $25 million in salary, leaving $129 million in surplus value. Pujols has been ever so slightly better on the field, producing 40.4 wins and $164 million in raw value, but St. Louis has paid him $66 million over the past five years. The $41 million difference in salary more than outweighs the 2.5 difference in wins produced on the field, allowing the Phillies to extract more value from Utley than St. Louis got from its superstar. And remember, Utley didn’t land a permanent job in the majors until 2005. He has had 2,269 fewer plate appearances to work with, and still managed to get himself within shouting distance of Pujols’ value for the decade. Once you adjust for games played, in fact, Utley grades out slightly higher. Utley has produced a net value of just over $35,000 per plate appearance, compared to $28,000 per trip to the plate for Pujols. While Utley hasn’t been at the top of the game for quite as long, once you account for salary, he’s been the most valuable player in baseball since his arrival in the big leagues.

The difference may only grow over the next few seasons. Pujols has two years remaining on the seven-year, $100 million contract he signed in 2004, but you have to believe that the Cardinals will give him a massive extension before his contract expires. He is due $16 million in each of the next two years, and the average annual salary of his next deal will surely exceed that. Utley, meanwhile, is under contract through 2013 at $15 million per year — less than half of what he’s worth on an annual basis. He may not have the trophies or the gaudy home run totals of players like Pujols or Alex Rodriguez, but Chase Utley is right there with the very best players in the game. When you factor in that the Phillies have him under contract at rates that don’t even come close to his true value, he rises above the rest as the real Most Valuable Player in baseball.

An All-Decade, All-Value Lineup Card

Over the past decade, fans have witnessed some astonishing offensive performances. We’ve been spoiled by Joe Mauer’s 2009, which was one of the best seasons by a catcher ever. Alex Rodriguez hit more than 50 home runs as a shortstop — twice. We’ve seen the crowning of a new home run king. Historic stuff. You could assemble a dream lineup from some of these single-season achievements, so why not indulge in a little fantasy?

There are plenty of stats we could look at to determine who had the best season at each position, but a good catch-all number is weighted Batting Runs above Average. It’s based on a FanGraphs stat called wOBA, which sums up a player’s production in a single number.

One thing to be aware of before we get started with the actual lineup: All these guys are, for the most part, middle-of-the-order hitters. Don’t get too hung up on actual batting order. Most studies of batting order show that even using the optimal 1-9 slotting, you’re going to gain only one or two wins.

Here we go now with the ultimate all-decade, all-value, all-production lineup. In case you doubt its value before we begin, consider this: If we plug this lineup into David Pinto’s lineup analysis tool, we learn the dream team you’ll discover below would score an average of nine runs per game. That means a team with this lineup could have the woeful 2003 Detroit Tigers as its pitching staff and still win 115 games.

Ready? Let’s go.

Batting first: Carlos Delgado, 2000, 1B

Whew. This was a close one. Delgado’s greatest competition, surprisingly, was not Albert Pujols — it was Jason Giambi. Giambi won the MVP in 2000 and was slightly better in 2001, hitting for an insane .342/.477/.660 line. Giambi’s 2001 is just a sliver better than Delgado’s in terms of batting runs above replacement — 102.8 BRAR to 102.6 — but the edge goes to Delgado because he started every game at first base. Giambi played 17 games as the A’s DH. Delgado hit .344, drew 123 walks and slugged for an absurd .664; he would hardly be your prototypical leadoff hitter, but in 2000 he did have a healthy .470 on-base percentage.

Batting second: Sammy Sosa, 2001, RF

While Slammin’ Sammy is remembered best for the summer of ’98, this was Sosa’s finest season. Unfortunately, no one outside of Chicago seemed to notice, because of what Barry Bonds was doing in San Francisco. Not only did Sosa top 60 home runs for the third time, but he also enjoyed career highs in batting average (.328) and walks (116).

Batting third: David Ortiz, 2007, DH

When you think Ortiz, you probably think “clutch” first. This wasn’t his most clutch season, but it was arguably his most productive; he hit 54 homers in 2006, but in 2007 he hit .332 instead of .287 and posted a similar slugging percentage.

Batting fourth: Barry Bonds, 2001, LF

His single-season slugging, on-base percentage, walks and home runs from ’01 are simply untouchable, barring an unforeseen superhero coming onto the scene.

Batting fifth: Alex Rodriguez, 2007, 3B

A-Rod hit .314/.422/.645 with 54 homers and ran away with the MVP; he enjoys the distinction of setting single-season home run records for two different positions (shortstop and third base).

Batting sixth: Alex Rodriguez, 2001, SS

This certainly might pose a logistical challenge, as human cloning hasn’t yet reached this level of sophistication. Seriously, though, the only competition for A-Rod was A-Rod. 2002 Rodriguez and 2001 Rodriguez were very close. He hit more homers in ’02 (57) but hit for a higher average with more doubles in 2001. He had 82 batting runs above replacement in 2001, 80 in ’02.

Batting seventh: Joe Mauer, 2009, C

Mauer was like vintage Mike Piazza with the bat — and he won a Gold Glove to boot. Mauer finally had his long-anticipated power breakout (28 homers) and hit for an astounding .365 batting average. Babe Phelps is the only catcher to qualify for a batting title with a higher average, and he only had 319 at-bats back in 1936 for the Dodgers. One can only wonder what Mauer would have done had he not missed the entire month of April.

Batting eighth: Jeff Kent, 2000, 2B

Kent won the MVP, edging out his teammate Barry Bonds even though Bonds actually had the better season. Bonds had more wins above replacement, 8.7 to 7.9. Kent set personal bests in a number of different categories, including slugging (.596) and on-base percentage (.424). Even in this age of offense, you do not often see this type of production from a middle infielder. You could argue he was more of a first baseman posing as a second baseman, but regardless, this was quite a remarkable season.

Batting ninth: Jim Edmonds, 2004, CF

Edmonds, Scott Rolen and Pujols formed “MV3” in this year — each player had an MVP-caliber performance in 2004 and the Cardinals won 105 games, only to be swept by the Boston Red Sox in the World Series. Edmonds hit .301 despite striking out 150 times, but he slugged .643, drew 101 walks and won his fifth consecutive Gold Glove.

Big Questions Will Be Answered in 2010

Each team in baseball opens the year with half a dozen or more storylines that will determine how its season will play out. But some go beyond Player X staying injury-free or Player Y taking the great-leap-forward. So, here are some of the big-picture items to look at as the 2010 season unfolds.

How Will Target Field Play?

It is always exciting when a new ballpark opens. Frequently, we get a massive upgrade in facilities with the opening of a new park and that will certainly be true in Minnesota, as the Twins move from a dome to an open-air facility. For the past 28 seasons, the Twins have played indoors, sharing their park with the Vikings while playing in a stadium more suited for football.

As we saw last year with the two new parks in New York, one can never be certain of exactly how a new ballpark will play. How many people expected the Yankees’ new place to be the best home-run park in baseball? How many spectators predicted that Citi Field would spook David Wright and help cut his home-run output to one-third of what it had been previously?

Last year, Mall of America Field reversed a three-year trend of cutting both home runs and runs by playing as a hitters’ park. The Twins and their opponents combined to score 830 runs and hit 189 homers in Minnesota in 82 games, while in 81 road games the numbers were 752 and 168, respectively. The top five home-run hitters for the Twins – Michael Cuddyer, Justin Morneau, Jason Kubel, Joe Mauer, Joe Crede, and Delmon Young – combined to hit 145 homers. Eighty of those home runs came in their home park.

The dimensions are nearly identical between Target Field and Mall of America Field in right field and right center. The new park will be a few feet shorter from center over to left field. The wall in left will be eight feet high, a foot higher than in the old park. While the 23-foot high wall in the old park was located merely in right field, the new park will have a wall that high from right center to the right field foul pole. Officials expect the park to play “neutral,” but it remains to be seen how the Twins will do outside in their new surroundings.

Will the Red Sox Have a 30-Home-Run Hitter?

For years the Red Sox offense was defined by the 1-2 punch of Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. From 2003 to 2007, the duo averaged more than 77 homers per season. Last year, Jason Bay hit 36 bombs for Boston. But with Bay gone and Ortiz no longer a guarantee to hit 30 long flies, who will provide the big bat in the middle of the order for the Red Sox? Ortiz, Kevin Youkilis, Mike Cameron, and Victor Martinez are all capable of putting up a 30-homer season but none of them are predicted to reach 30 bombs by the Bill James Projections. The Red Sox won two World Series in the last decade and consider themselves contenders for another title. But no team has won a World Series this century without at least one player recording 30 or more home runs.

Will the Mets Fare Better in Year Two at Citi Field?

Shea Stadium was known as a pitcher’s park. But in its final season, the Mets hit 95 homers in Shea Stadium. Last year, in the first season at Citi Field, the Mets club managed just 49 bombs in its home park. Now, the Mets’ home run problems were not limited to Citi Field, as the club managed only 46 homers in road parks. But the perception of Citi as an extreme pitcher’s park in part influenced the team’s decision to make Jason Bay its primary offseason acquisition, even though a younger, better all-around player in Matt Holliday was also a free agent at the same position. Holliday had a 5.7 WAR last year compared to a 3.5 mark for Bay.

The Mets cited Bay’s home-run power and his pull tendencies as reasons for preferring him over Holliday. Will Bay be able to approximate either the 36 homers he hit overall last year or the .936 home OPS he posted in 2009? If he does, will the Mets continue to base offseason decisions on players they believe will “fit” their home park? And if Bay flops and none of the other players step up with a big home-run season, will the club alter the dimensions of its new park?

Will the Jorge de la Rosa-Ubaldo Jimenez Combination Become the Best in Baseball?

When the Mariners acquired Cliff Lee, many offered Lee and Felix Hernandez as the top pitching tandem in baseball. Others countered with Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter, or Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, or C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. But hardly anyone mentioned the Rockies’ duo of Jorge de la Rosa and Ubaldo Jimenez.

Last year, de la Rosa and Jimenez combined for 31 wins and 391 strikeouts, totals that stack up with any of the other tandems mentioned above. After the All-Star break, the two combined for a 19-5 record with a 3.26 ERA and had 191 Ks in 190.2 innings pitched. The duo helped lead the Rockies to the playoffs as Colorado won 45 games in the second half to claim the Wild Card.

Why are de la Rosa and Jimenez not considered as an elite tandem? Neither Rockies pitcher was considered top-shelf material while in the minors. Jimenez ranked 84th on Baseball America’s Top 100 prospect list in 2007, while de la Rosa never made any of the publication’s lists. Neither pitcher had much success until last year and, even then, de la Rosa’s ERA was 4.38 for the season. And many will contend that pitching in the heartland hurts when it comes to publicity.

But if de la Rosa and Jimenez can match their second half numbers for an entire season in 2010, no one will doubt them. And the Rockies club, which finished three games behind the Dodgers for the NL West title last year, will become the class of the division.

Will the Braves Have One Last Hurrah for Bobby Cox?

As a ballplayer, Bobby Cox was nothing special. In two seasons in the Majors he put up a .225/.310/.309 line. But as a manager, Cox will likely make the Hall of Fame. A four-time winner of the Manager of the Year award, Cox guided his team to 14 first-place finishes in 15 years. He was the skipper for five NL Pennants and one World Series championship. Overall, Cox ranks fourth among managers with 2,413 wins in 28 years.

The Braves have missed the playoffs the past four years, but last season’s 86 wins was their highest total since 2005. The club enters the season with a top-notch rotation and a revamped bullpen. Offensively, the Braves hope that Chipper Jones can shake off his late-season slump and that Troy Glaus can stay healthy for the majority of the year.

If Atlanta finds itself in the middle of the pennant race, will it make moves to acquire a veteran bat to give Cox one last shot at a World Series? For years, the Braves were known as an organization that made shrewd trades. But the big push for Mark Teixeira in 2007 really hurt the farm system and did not pay off in a playoff berth. If the Braves club finds itself in the hunt, will management be gun shy with the memory of the Teixeira deal or will it go all-in to send Cox out on a high note?

Who Will Dave Duncan Work Miracles on Next?

In 2009, Joel Pineiro was the latest pitcher that St. Louis Cardinals coach Dave Duncan transformed into a surprise winner. From 2004 to 2008, Pineiro was 35-47 with a 5.34 ERA. Last year, with the addition of a two-seam fastball, Pineiro won 15 games and posted a 3.49 ERA. He joined a long line of Duncan-aided success stories, including Kyle Lohse, Todd Wellemeyer, Jason Marquis, Jeff Suppan, Brett Tomko, and Darryl Kile, among many others. Which St. Louis pitcher will come out of nowhere to post a big season in 2010?

How Will the McCourt Divorce Affect the Dodgers?

The local media likes to give Dodgers owner Frank McCourt a hard time about making his fortune with parking lots. But under McCourt, the Dodgers advanced to the NLCS in back-to-back years for the first time since 1977-1978. The Dodgers organization had not even won a playoff game since 1988 when McCourt took control prior to the 2004 season. Since then the club has made the playoffs in four of six seasons and has maintained one of the top payrolls in the game.

But since the end of last season, when strains in the marriage between Frank and Jamie McCourt became public, it has been a different story. The Dodgers did not offer arbitration to any of their free agents, clearly afraid that someone would accept and win a big pay day while the team’s ownership status was in flux during the divorce proceedings.

While losing Randy Wolf, Jon Garland, Orlando Hudson, Mark Loretta, Jim Thome, and Will Ohman from last year’s club, the only moves the Dodgers have made so far has been to sign veteran utility man Jamey Carroll and deal Juan Pierre in a cost-cutting move. Right-hander Vicente Padilla was recently re-signed after coming over to the club in a mid-season trade in ’09.

Will the Dodgers make any moves to add more depth to its pitching before the start of the year? And if the team is in contention, will it be able to pull off a trade to add payroll? On the flip side, if the Dodgers fall behind early, will the club look to move Manny Ramirez or any other veteran making more than minimum wage? Will the unsettled ownership situation lead to a quicker decision on in/out of the playoff chase than normal?

Will the Yankees Be Able to Repeat Their Prolific Offensive Season?

Last year, eight of the nine regulars for the Yankees posted an OPS+ of 125 or more, as the team scored 915 runs – the most in the Majors. Only center fielder Melky Cabrera failed to reach that level, and he was hardly a slouch with a 99 OPS+. However, the Yankees organization replaced him with Curtis Granderson, who put up a 123 OPS+ in 2008 and 135 in 2007.

The Yankees lost DH Hideki Matsui, but have already replaced him with Nick Johnson, who posted an OPS+ of 122 last year and 124 in 2008. Johnny Damon also may not return, but the Yankees are likely to replace him with a bat, too.

New York enjoyed great health in 2009. Only Jorge Posada failed to get 500 plate appearances among expected starters and even he played in 111 games. Also, the Yankees enjoyed great rebound seasons last year from Robinson Cano, Derek Jeter, and Nick Swisher. Those three posted OPS+ numbers of 86, 102 and 92, respectively, in 2008. Can everything fall in place in back-to-back seasons offensively for the Bronx Bombers?

Can the Mariners Offense Catch Up to Its Pitching and Defense?

After five years of middle-of-the-road offensive performance, where he posted wOBAs ranging from .344 to .359, Raul Ibanez left the Mariners as a free agent prior to the 2009 season. The main outfielder imported was Franklin Gutierrez, who posted a .337 wOBA. Yet, Gutierrez was widely hailed as one of the reasons Seattle improved from 61 to 85 wins. Gutierrez took over center-field duties and posted a 27.1 UZR/150. Ibanez had posted back-to-back double-digit negative UZR/150 seasons his final two years in Seattle.

The Mariners led the American League with a .710 Defensive Efficiency Rating last year. In 2008, the club ranked 13th with a .679 mark. The outfield of Gutierrez, Ichiro Suzuki and a revolving door in left field, which included Wladimir Balentien, Endy Chavez, and Ryan Langerhans (who each posted double-digit UZR/150 marks in left), was one of the best fielding groups of recent memory. Among players who played at least 50 games, only shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt had a negative UZR/150. He was replaced with Jack Wilson, who notched a 14.3 UZR/150 in 31 games.

The improved defense undoubtedly helped the pitching, which led the AL with a 3.87 ERA. So the 2009 Mariners club was first in pitching, first in defense, but last in runs scored with 640 – 275 runs behind the AL-leading Yankees. The Mariners imported Chone Figgins to help the offense but must find a replacement for free agent first baseman Russell Branyan, who had a team-leading 31 homers and 76 RBI. Can a team with only two players likely to exceed a .350 wOBA – Ichiro and Figgins – make the playoffs?

Did the Phillies Make the Right Choice in Trading Cliff Lee?

The Phillies acquired Cliff Lee at the trading deadline last year and he proceeded to win seven games down the stretch and was the club’s best pitcher in the postseason. Lee went 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA in five playoff games last year and his two victories in the World Series were the only games won by the Phillies. But Lee was a free agent following the 2010 season and Philadelphia opted to trade him and acquire Roy Halladay in a multi-team, multi-player deal. The deal was contingent on signing Halladay to an extension, which the Phillies were able to do.

Meanwhile, after the trade, Lee expressed surprise that the Phillies dealt him, as he thought the two sides were closing in on a new contract. Philadelphia made the decision to spend the money on Halladay rather than Lee, but should they have kept both players for the 2010 season? With the Phillies’ offense, having Halladay and Lee at the top of their rotation would have been an imposing threat for other teams in the National League.

Now the Phillies are hoping that Cole Hamels can bounce back and be the club’s second starter behind Halladay. After out-performing his FIP in both 2007 and 2008, Hamels experienced some bad luck in 2009. His FIP shows him as essentially the same pitcher from 2006 to 2009, but the results were markedly worse last year than 2008. If Hamels posts an ERA that matches his career FIP of 3.79, will the Phillies be happy with that production from the second starter?

Philadelphia restocked its farm system by trading Lee. But is the haul of Phillippe Aumont, Tyson Gillies, and JC Ramirez better than a season of Lee and two draft picks? Conventional wisdom says that the Phillies made it to back-to-back World Series with just half a season of Lee. The Major League team is better off with a full season of Halladay and the minor league system is better with the prospects. But anything less than a World Series victory will leave fans wondering how things would have been with Lee still on the team.

Back from the Dead

Every year, there’s a slew of players that miss the entire season, or close to it, with injury problems. But 2009 was a different year. Not only were there low-level players missing time, but some high=profile players were among them. A Cy Young winner, an Olympic champion, and a couple of All-Stars were all out for most of the 2009 baseball season, but are ready to come back in 2010 and give it another run.

Injured players are always tricky to value on draft day. Chien-Ming Wang leaves a permanent scar in my mind as a player who seemed to be healthy, but was really covering up an injury and rushing back for the ’09 season. Fantasy owners have no way to know this, so injured players will always be drafted lower than their value dictates. If you make the right choice and find an injured player who returns to his previous level of performance, you could find yourself in the top of the standings come year’s end.

Here is a look at some of the top players coming back from a severely shortened, or non-existent, 2009 campaign.

Justin Duchscherer, SP, Athletics

From 2004 to 2006, Duchscherer was an outstanding bullpen arm for the Oakland A’s. In 2007, he hit the DL in May with a right hip strain and did not pitch again for the rest of the season. Duchscherer’s first real season as a big league starter in 2008 put him on the map for fantasy owners. He made an All-Star game appearance and was in Cy Young talks until his hip flared up again and he was forced to miss the last month of the season. During spring training of 2009, Duchscherer went down with an elbow injury and did not pitch in the Majors during the 2009 season. However, most of his issues did not stem from his elbow, but from a bout with depression. He made three rehab starts in late July and early August, so the elbow should be fine going into the 2010 season. He seems to have gotten control of his demons, so another strong season from Duchscherer seems in order. He is a great sleeper candidate going into drafts, as he will give you ace-like production from a late-round pick.

Troy Glaus, 1B/3B, Braves

After a nice first season with the Cardinals in 2008, Glaus missed all but 14 games in the 2009 season. He underwent surgery on his right shoulder in late January and began a minor league rehab stint in July. He stayed in the minors until September, when he was taken off the DL and placed on the big league roster. He didn’t exactly shine in the month of September, making his brief 2009 season a forgettable one. He looks to be completely healthy heading into 2010 and will be holding down the first-base job for the Braves. While he probably won’t have first-base eligibility heading into drafts, Glaus will be able to play at both corner infield spots soon after the season begins, helping his value. A year like he had in 2008 (.270/27/99) isn’t out of the question, but the best bet is that he will regress a bit due to his age (33).

Shaun Marcum, SP, Blue Jays

After his first season as a full-time starter in 2008, Marcum had Tommy John surgery on his elbow and was scheduled to miss all of the 2009 season. However, his progress was well ahead of schedule and there was talk that he may have been ready to return to the big leagues late in the 2009 season. However, he stayed on the sidelines and now appears ready for the 2010 season. In 2008, Marcum started 25 games and compiled nine wins, a 3.39 ERA and a 7.31 K/9. Marcum was a nice surprise in 2008, and he should slip to a nice value pick in 2010 drafts.

Xavier Nady, RF, Free Agent

After playing for the Yankees in the second half of 2008, Nady was forced to battle Nick Swisher for the starting right-field job in New York. He won the job and started for the Yankees during his 2009 season. All seven games of it. Nady went down early with an elbow injury, and ended up having Tommy John surgery in July. Nady thinks he’ll be ready to go to start the ’09 campaign, but that is an optimistic approach. When healthy, Nady hit 25 homers with a .305 average in 2008; however, his average was inflated due to a high BABIP in Pittsburgh, so if he is back to normal, expect it to fall closer to his .280 career batting average. Because his offensive production is only good and not great, couple that with an injury issue, and you have a player to stay away from.

Ben Sheets, SP, Oakland

In what should be a surprise to no one, the oft-injured Sheets missed the entire 2009 season after undergoing surgery on his right elbow. The 2008 season was the first one since 2004 that Sheets made 30 or more starts. His strikeout rate was down to 7.17 K/9 in ’08, which surprisingly was up from his 6.75 K/9 in 2007. Everyone thinks of Sheets as a big strikeout pitcher, but that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. However, he doesn’t walk hitters, either, as witnessed by a 1.15 WHIP in his last season of work. Everyone knows Sheets’ injury history and most aren’t scared off by it. Combine that with his lower than assumed strikeout rate and you have a pitcher to stay away from.

Brandon Webb, SP, Diamondbacks

After winning the NL Cy Young award in 2006, Webb finished second in the voting in 2007 and 2008, and seemed primed for another Cy run in 2009. Starting on opening day for the Diamondbacks, Webb left after four innings with soreness in his throwing shoulder. Webb and the team originally thought it was nothing serious, but he ended up missing the entire season and had surgery in early August. Webb pitched at least 200 innings every year since 2004, and has been an absolute workhorse for the D-Backs. If he is truly healthy, he should be in line for another great year due to his outstanding sinker. If he can pitch another full season, 15 wins to go along with a sub 3.50 ERA and 180 strikeouts are more than possible, they are likely. He should be great value on draft day, but his shoulder will always be a concern.

Other notable players like Jeff Francis (SP, COL), Joey Devine (RP, OAK), and Jake Westbrook (SP, CLE) are all good players to take a chance on in deeper leagues, as they will be back for the start of the year or shortly thereafter. Blue Jays pitchers Dustin McGowan and Jesse Litsch are both going to miss the first month of the year or more, so wait to see if they are healthy before picking them up off the waiver wire.

Be smart when drafting the aforementioned players. Know their injuries and protect your roster by drafting dependable players around them. If you get it right, the rewards will be great. If you get it wrong and don’t protect yourself, your team will crumble.

Sifting Through the Sophomores

It’s time to look at last year’s rookies. Because the player caps for each of these players will provide you more in-depth detail than we can hope to provide in an overview, this article will attempt to quickly point out one or two pieces of evidence that might predict an improvement or a decline in the stats of the following 2009 rookies. Once you spot an opinion you don’t agree with, check the player capsule, the FanGraphs stats, and come join us at the website and the boards for what will surely be a lively discussion about the future of these (mostly) young players coming off their debut seasons.

National League

Tommy Hanson: Though his strand rate (80.3%) and BABIP (.280) could regress a little and provide him some problems, Hanson had serious strikeout ability (8.18 K/9) and his minor league numbers seem to suggest that even better performances are on the way. It helps that he plays in the inferior league and that his arm has been built up reasonably gently. Best bet: improve.

Andrew McCutchen: The wheels and the batting average are legit, and the only question is whether McCutchen will show the same pop in the future. True, his ISO last year (.185) bested every minor league seasons save one, but McCutchen put more balls into the air (39.1%) and over the fence (8.8%) than a pure speedster might. As his frame fills out, the power may prove legit. Best bet: improve.

Colby Rasmus: Last year Rasmus showed reasonable power (.156 ISO), but lacked the speed we saw in the minors (74 stolen bases, 81.3% success). Perhaps the speed won’t be as nice as we thought it would be, but Rasmus had legitimate full-season ISOs over .200 in the minor leagues, so the power is for real. With a little better luck on batted balls (.284 BABIP), Rasmus has the chance to put together a nice power/speed year in the mold of (less speedy) Grady Sizemore. Best bet: improve.

Chris Coghlan: Because of his luck with the batted ball (.366 BABIP) and his probable position eligibility change, Coghlan won’t provide the same batting-average burst for your infield in 2010. It’s also hard to glean his true power level, as his ISOs have ranged from last year’s mediocrity (.139 ISO) to something more powerful (.200+ ISOs in the minors) over his career. He didn’t steal efficiently last year, either (61.5% success rate), but was better in the minors (80%), so he could improve there. Best bet: about the same, but with only outfield eligibility for now.

Everth Cabrera: This infielder is fast (7.9 speed score) and has a limp noodle bat (.106 ISO) – that much we know. A player like this is useful when he can pair that combination with a strong batting average, which is the largest question in regards to the diminutive (5’10”, 176 lbs) former Rule-5 shortstop. His BABIP doesn’t point to a bounceback (.328), and his meager contact rate (81.9%) doesn’t point to a great batting average either. Best bet: about the same.

Alcides Escobar: Another speedy infielder, Escobar has some of the same skills, but a better contact rate (83.3%) and a history of better strikeout rates in the minor leagues than Cabrera (21% for Cabrera, 15.8% for Escobar). With sub-.100 ISOs in the minor leagues, Escobar won’t develop any power, but more help in the batting-average and stolen-base categories is a strong bet. Best bet: about the same, just more of it.

Dexter Fowler: Fowler showed the speed (27 stolen bases, 72.9% success) and some repeatable power (.141 ISO, .152 minor league ISO), but the thing that Fowler really needs to work on is his strikeout rate (26.8% in 2009). It’s a good thing that his minor league numbers (23.7%) seem to suggest he can cut the strikeouts. On the negative side, if the Rockies hold on to all of their outfielders, Fowler will have to fight for playing time. Best bet: about the same.

J.A. Happ: The luck stats are not kind to Happ. He stranded more runners than he should have (85.2%) and his BABIP was also not sustainable (.270). When those return to normal, his mediocre strikeout rate (6.69 K/9) won’t play as well. Perhaps he needs to throw his secondary pitches more because, had he qualified, he would have thrown his fastball ninth-most in the Majors last year (69.9%). Best bet: decline.

Randy Wells: It’s easy to root for the unheralded 27-year-old rookie, and some might get excited about his relatively neutral luck stats (.294 BABIP, 76% BABIP), but fundamentally, it’s important to retain your senses when it comes to a pitcher with a below-average strikeout rate (5.66 K/9). His good ground-ball rate (47.9%) might help explain his 3.88 FIP, but his xFIP (4.24) is a better predictor for his true ability. Best bet: decline.

Casey McGehee: Be suspicious. Be very suspicious. Not only did McGehee get a little lucky with the batted ball (.335 BABIP, .305 xBABIP), but he showed an ISO (.197) that was above and beyond the power he showed in the minor leagues (.130). Don’t pro-rate out that power in your projections next year, and don’t depend on the batting average to last. Best bet: decline.

Garrett Jones: Had he qualified, Jones’ 21.2% HR/FB percentage would have tied for eighth-best in the entire league (with Nelson Cruz) – this, despite a minor league ISO that was only okay (.192). Of course, Jones has been better more recently (.800+ OPS at his last three minor league stops), but you always have to be suspicious of older rookies – especially ones with a .327 BABIP and a career .258 batting average in the minor leagues. Best bet: decline.

American League

Brett Anderson: Perhaps because his ERA started with a four, many people didn’t notice how nice of a season this rookie had. He struck out 150 batters and paired that with only 45 walks in 175+ innings. He had a ground-ball rate more than 50%, and his FIP was 3.69 – all great numbers for a freshman. The even better news is that his strikeout rate, though okay in 2009 (7.70), has room for improvement when seen through the prism of his minor league strikeout rates (9.7). Make sure to take a look at his plus slider (+22.1 runs), because it’s a doozy. Best bet: improve.

Elvis Andrus: The Texas shortstop got more attention than his fellow rookie all-speed shortstops, and perhaps there is a reason for the excitement beyond the plus defense. His contact rate (87.3%) easily bested that of the shortstops in Milwaukee and San Diego, even if his ISO was equally weak (.106). With a reach rate (19.6%), strikeout rate (16%), and line-drive rate (21.9%) as reasonable as Andrus showed, it’s reasonable to think the speedster can add to his BABIP (.307) and improve his batting average next year. Best bet: improve.

Gordon Beckham: Beckham is already a solid player, as his walk rate (9.8%), strikeout rate (17.2%), and ISO (.190) can attest. If he can up his contact rate (80.1%) and his line-drive rate (16.6%), then the consistency and overall improvement that the projections seem to expect will come. Even if you “only” pro-rate out his stats from last year to a full year, you are talking about a 20/10 infielder with a passable batting average. With the acquisition of Teahen, you may even be talking about a dark-horse top-three second baseman next year. Best bet: improve.

Matt Wieters: A debut that had Wieters put forth the run production of an average Major Leaguer (101 wRC+) was considered a poor effort after some projections had him starting his career with a bang. Perhaps his ISO (.124) or walk rate (7.4%) were the most disappointing aspects of his game given his minor league numbers in those categories (.233 and 14.7% respectively). His .362/.425/.511 September lends some credibility to the generally held idea that he will move his numbers towards his stellar minor league level (1.014 minor league OPS). Best bet: improve.

Rick Porcello: Though there was a lot of support for Porcello’s ROY candidacy, his season was actually a mixed bag. The good included his ground-ball rate (54.2%, fifth best among qualified starters) and walk rate (2.74 BB/9). Though that’s a good foundation, Porcello may need to start throwing his secondary offerings a little more (77.1% fastball usage, second-most in the league) in order to improve his below-average strikeout rate (4.69 K/9). The ERA may look worse next year as some of his luck stats regress (.287 BABIP, 75.5% LOB), but the overall package should improve. Best bet: improve, though possibly only marginally.

Andrew Bailey: This ROY had such a great season that he’s probably likely to decline. His luck stats will regress some, for sure (.234 BABIP, 84.9% LOB). But there’s so much good in his bag of tricks (9.83 K/9, 2.59 BB/9) that even with some regression he’ll be a solid closer in 2010. Look at how often batters reach (27.4%) and how seldom they make contact outside the zone (56.4%) and you’ll see he has nasty stuff. Best bet: more of the same, even with a little regression.

Travis Snider: The story of Travis Snider is the story of striking out. So far in his short career (356 PAs), Snider has struck out in a whopping 32.2% of his plate appearances and given his contact rate so far (71%), he doesn’t look to be poised to change his whiffing ways. Even with that said, his athleticism alone should allow Snider to best his .241 batting average last year. His power is still strong (.175) and inching its way to his minor league heights (.229), so he has that going for him. He has the tools and the pedigree to back up his projections. Best bet: improve, even if the batting average won’t be stellar.

Julio Borbon: Ron Washington already declared center field and leadoff Borbon’s to lose during the spring training, and Marlon Byrd’s signing with the Cubs helped cement Borbon’s new, expanded role with the Rangers. He stole 19 bags in just 179 plate appearances last year, and that speed will be the reason you take a shot of Borbon in 2010. He’ll also be a good bet for a .300 average given his speed (6.3 speed score) and ability to make contact (86.2%). Best bet: improve.

Nolan Reimold: Already sporting nice power (.187 ISO) and some speed to boot (8/10 stolen base attempts), Reimold is one of the best outfield sleepers for the upcoming year. With a HR/FB percentage like he sported (14.2%), all he needs to do is get the ball in the air a little more (37.3% FB) to start racking up the home runs. He consistently showed more power in the minor leagues, and with his nice walk (11.6%) and strikeout rates (21.5%), there’s a lot of reason for excitement about this young man’s future. Best bet: improve.

Jeff Niemann: The good news about Niemann is that last season was not ostensibly a result of his luck. His BABIP (.304) and LOB% (73.7%) were both reasonable, and his 4.07 FIP reflected those facts. But the bad news is that many of his stats were just slightly above average (walk rate, home run rate) or slightly below average (strikeout rate, ground-ball percentage). His curveball and change-up were better-than-neutral pitches, so perhaps he should use them more often (71.9% fastball usage). Best bet: more of the same, even if some of the traditional statistics look less exciting.

Top Five Off-Season Trades That Impact 2010

SS J.J. Hardy to the Minnesota Twins for OF Carlos Gomez

Hardy had a down year in 2009, hitting .229/.302/.357 and getting demoted to the minors at one point. But there’s hope for a rebound: his 2009 BABIP was about 40 points below his expected BABIP, which is based on his batted-ball profile. Hardy didn’t show as much pop as in years past with a .128 ISO (.166 career average). But there’s little reason to think the 27-year-old suddenly lost his power stroke. Minnesota’s new shortstop could be quite the bargain if he matches his 2007-2008 production.

Gomez possesses top-shelf speed, but he’s very much a work in progress. The 24-year-old outfielder showed modest improvement in his plate discipline in 2009, increasing his walk rate from 4.2 to 6.5%. However, he hasn’t been able to handle big league heat: Gomez has been -1.33 runs below average against fastballs during his short career. That has led to lots of weak contact, as Gomez popped the ball up nearly 20% of the time in 2009. He’s raw on the bases, too. After swiping 33 bags in 44 attempts in 2008 (75% success rate), Gomez stole just 14 bases in 21 attempts in 2009 (67%).

Hardy’s departure in Milwaukee opens the door for top shortstop prospect Alcides Escobar. The wiry Escobar is a burner, having swiped 42 bases in 52 tries at Triple-A. His bat has shown signs of life recently, though he’s a free swinger who doesn’t project to add much extra-base punch. Speaking of free swingers, Gomez’ departure from Minnesota gives former star prospect Delmon Young a little more rope, with Denard Span shifting to center field. Of course, Young might just hang himself that with that rope if his strike zone remains the size of Lake Superior.

RHP Javier Vazquez and LHP Boone Logan to the Yankees for OF Melky Cabrera, LHP Mike Dunn and RHP Arodys Vizcaino

The well-traveled Vazquez won’t replicate his 2009 production in the Bronx, as the fly-ball-oriented starter is headed from an NL park that depresses home runs to an AL venue that inflated tater-production in its inaugural season. That being said, Vazquez should still be high on your draft board. Over the past three seasons, the righty has the fourth-best K/BB ratio among starters (4.2), with a top-10 WHIP (1.15) and a top-20 FIP (3.74), as well. Vazquez is as durable as they come, too: he topped the 200-inning mark every season from 2000 to 2009, save for his 2004 campaign with the Yankees. As a bonus, he’ll be backed by the most potent offense in the game. Expect a high-3.00 ERA with a great WHIP.

Cabrera isn’t an exciting fantasy option, but the 25-year-old switch-hitter did manage a decent .274/.336/.416 line in 2009. He reversed a three-year decline in his walk rate, and posted the best ISO (.142) of his career. Melky’s no speed demon, but he did nab 10 bases in 12 tries. The question is: can he do more? Cabrera had a career .296/.349/.420 line in the minors, with a mild .124 ISO. He makes a lot of contact and isn’t punch-less, but he will have hit the ball with more authority to be relevant outside of NL-only leagues.

LHP Cliff Lee to the Seattle Mariners; RHP Roy Halladay, RHP Phillippe Aumont, RHP J.C. Ramirez and OF Tyson Gillies to the Phillies; RHP Kyle Drabek, C Travis d’Arnaud and OF Michael Taylor to the Blue Jays (Toronto later traded Taylor to the Athletics for 3B/1B Brett Wallace)

Over the past two years, Lee has established himself as a top-five starting pitcher. From 2008 to 2009, the lefty has the third-best FIP and K/BB ratio among starters, with the 10th-best WHIP. Now, Lee will be pitching in the best possible spot for a southpaw pitcher with fly-ball tendencies. Safeco Field has been brutal to right-handed power hitters, and has decreased home runs by 7% compared to a neutral ball park since 2007. Even better, Lee will be backed by perhaps the best defensive unit in the big leagues.

Halladay, meanwhile, is just about the safest bet among all pitchers. Roy’s K rate has increased four years straight, climbing from 5.4 K/9 in 2006 to 7.8 in 2009. The whiffs have cut into his ground-ball rate (from 61% in 2006 to 50% in 2009), but Halladay still burns plenty of worms. The 6’6’’ righty will be moving to a park that has inflated home runs by 14% over the past three years, so the grounder rate bears watching. But it’s easy to envision Halladay mowing down NL lineups and adding another Cy Young to his trophy case.

Wallace’s lumber is nearly big league ready – the lefty batter works the count well and has above-average-power potential. He’ll be more valuable if he can stick at third base, but they don’t call him “The Walrus” for nothing. Wallace will likely shift to first base at some point. Drabek, whose low-90s heat and power curve punched out 150 hitters in 158 innings between High-A and Double-A, could be a top-of-the-rotation arm. Aumont, a 6’7’’ righty with a sizzling fastball, looks like a closer-in-waiting if he improves his control and stays healthy. A hulking right-handed batter, Taylor has an intriguing combination of plus power (.229 ISO between Double-A and Triple-A) and deceptive athleticism (21 combined steals).

OF Curtis Granderson to the Yankees; RHP Max Scherzer, LHP Daniel Schlereth, LHP Mike Dunn and OF Austin Jackson to the Tigers; RHP Edwin Jackson and RHP Ian Kennedy to the Diamondbacks

Granderson’s .249/.327/.453 line in 2009 looks middling, but he’s a great bounceback candidate. His walk, strikeout and ISO figures were similar to 2008, when he hit .280/.365/.494. What changed? Granderson’s BABIP fell to .276, compared to his career .323 average. The lefty batter does scuffle against same-handed pitching (career .614 OPS vs. lefties), but he’s a good bet to go 30/20 again in 2010.

Scherzer’s first full year in the rotation was a rousing success, with a 9.2 K/9 rate and a 3.87 FIP. His blistering fastball, sharp slider and hard change-up led to a 77% contact rate, a top-15 mark among starters. About the only thing that can derail Scherzer is health; he has a troubling history of shoulder ailments.

Schlereth, a lefty reliever with a power fastball/breaking ball combo, could soon become Detroit’s closer. He’ll need to sharpen his control, though. Austin Jackson has a well-rounded skill set, though none of his tools stick out. He stole 24 bases in 28 tries in Triple-A last year. However, Jackson’s plate discipline has declined with each promotion, and his power is average.

Edwin Jackson made a good deal of progress in 2009, raising his K/BB ratio from 1.4 to 2.3 and lowering his FIP from 4.88 to 4.28. The former Dodgers prospect has a great slider (+1.89 runs per 100 pitches in 2009), but his fastball remains a batting practice pitch (-0.41 runs/100). Getting a better handle on his heater would allow Jackson to improve upon his poor 54% rate of first-pitch strikes. Jackson is good, but his 3.62 ERA might make him overvalued on draft day.

A former USC star with a career 2.69 FIP in the minors, Kennedy has yet to taste success in the Majors. His stuff (high-80s fastball, plus change-up, decent slider and curve) isn’t as good as his numbers would suggest, though the D-Backs still have high hopes for the 25-year-old. Kennedy’s 2009 season was derailed by surgery to remove an aneurysm in his right armpit. However, he did help his stock with a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League.

RHP Brandon Morrow to the Blue Jays for RHP Brandon League and OF Johermyn Chavez

Morrow was handled terribly by Seattle’s previous regime. The fifth overall pick in the 2006 draft was shoved into the M’s bullpen in 2007, instead of being given time to develop his secondary pitches and build stamina as a starter in the minors. After two more years of bouncing between starting and relieving, Morrow is now 25 and pitches like a live-armed Low-A hurler. His talent is obvious, as the righty has punched out 9.3 hitters per nine innings in the Majors. Unfortunately, his control (5.8 BB/9) is abysmal. Morrow’s mid-90s fastball (+0.5 runs per 100 pitches thrown) and occasional mid-80s change-up (+0.2) have been effective, but his mid-80s slider (-0.5) often misses. He’s a project, but Morrow could provide value as either a starter or a closer.

League is fresh off his best season, having posted a 3.58 FIP out of the bullpen. The 27-year-old right-hander struck out 9.2 batters per nine frames, well above his career 6.9 average. He did so by trading some mid-90s sinkers for mid-80s change-ups. League’s change-up was worth +2.7 runs per 100 pitches, which helped him lower his contact rate from 82% to 71%. He still induced plenty of grounders, with a 56% ground-ball rate. There has been some rumbling that League could get some starts with his new team, but he has never started in the Majors and last took regular turns in a rotation at High-A in 2003.

Closing it Out

The closer is the strangest fantasy position. Closers provide some value with their (usually) great ERA and WHIP, as well as high strikeouts-per-inning numbers, but because they pitch maybe a third of the number of innings of a starter, this impact is hardly noticed on a fantasy squad. Instead, the lion’s share of their value is from saves. Saves, in traditional fantasy baseball, carry the same weight as any other category, but at any time just 30 pitchers – the closers – will get the vast majority of those precious commodities. Those closers will change over the course of the season – due to injuries, trades, or ineffectiveness – and when this happens players lose or gain almost all of their value.

Because closers get almost all of their value from saves, even if they post great ratios and strikeout numbers, the best fantasy closers are the ones who have the best likelihood of maintaining that role for the whole season. This likelihood depends on a number of factors: his skill, his durability, and his reputation weighted against how fast his manager will replace him, which, in turn, depends on the quality of his replacement.

Here, I assess the probable closers based on the above factors. Instead of a strict ranking, I break them up into three groups: the best nine closers, which I then slice into two sub-groups; a large middling group, from which I highlight a handful of closers; and the four team-closing situations that I see as the worst.

The Top Closers

Tier 1: Jonathan Broxton, Joe Nathan, Jonathan Papelbon, and Mariano Rivera

These guys are undisputedly the class of the closer crop: none has ever posted an ERA above 3.15 in a full year of closing. All four have been very healthy over the past couple of years and have the closer’s roll locked down as tightly as possible. It is hard to argue for any one of these guys over the others. Broxton will probably give you the most strikeouts – his 13.5 K/9 in 2009 was the highest by any pitcher since Brad Lidge in 2004. On the other hand, Papelbon’s performance was down a little last year by giving up more walks and fly balls than normal. But all of these guys should provide at least 30 saves and have a shot 40 or more.

Tier 2: Jokiam Soria, Heath Bell, Huston Street, Brian Wilson, and Andrew Bailey

Outside of the Tier 1 closers, these are the guys I would be most confident in holding the closer’s job for all of 2010. Soria and Bell are the class of the group: outside of Tier 1, they have the best three-year average FIPs amongst relief pitchers. They play for small-market teams that probably won’t win a ton of games in 2010, but still should provide the opportunity for a good number of saves (thanks to playing in a lot of close games). The only concern is that either pitcher could get traded as their teams continue to rebuild, but even if one is traded, he will, most likely, retain his closing role.

Street and Wilson also have a number of years of very good performance behind them, and each has a firm hold on the closing duties for their NL West teams. Street is an extreme fly-ball pitcher in Colorado, which is a slight concern, but his strikeout and walk numbers are solid. Wilson walks more batters than any closer mentioned so far, but he gets enough strikeouts and ground balls to compensate.

Finally, Bailey does not have as long of a track record as the rest of this group and is definitely due for some regression (his ERA of 1.84 was in spite of a xFIP of 3.25, because of a lucky .234 BABIP and a 5.6% HR/FB), so I think he is right on the boundary of the top closers and the middling groups. Still, his youth, the patience of the A’s management with brief periods of poor performance, and underlying skills (an xFIP of 3.25 is still quite good) pushed him over as the last member of the top-closers group.

The Middle Tier

I put the majority of closers in the not the best, but not the worst group. Instead of explicitly ranking all closers in this group I will highlight two groups: one I think will be undervalued in some leagues and the other that I would be wary of drafting.

Potentially Undervalued: Rafael Soriano, Mike Gonzalez, and Frank Francisco

Soriano is a very good pitcher, posting ERAs of 3.00 or less in every year since 2006. But he has done so quietly and even last year shared closing duties with Mike Gonzalez. Now with the Rays, though, he should get almost all save opportunities to start the season. Gonzalez is a solid reliever with a career ERA of 2.57. He will start the year first in line for saves for the Orioles, his new organization. Both of these guys have a history of great numbers, but have never really had the starting closer’s job as firmly as they do now. This could make them undervalued.

Frank Francisco is also a solid reliever with xFIPs of 3.34 and 3.53 the last two years. He should have a solid shot at 30 or more saves for the Rangers, but he also tends to fly somewhat under the radar.

Guys I would be wary of: Francisco Rodriguez, Brian Fuentes, Ryan Franklin, and David Aardsma

Absent from my best closers list are Rodriguez and Fuentes. Both of these guys have a history of posting large numbers of saves for big-market teams, but each pitcher has had very poor performances as of late. Fuentes has only once had a FIP under 3.00, and in two of the last three years, he had a FIP over 4.00. Last year, his strikeouts fell to a career worst 7.53 K/9, while he still gives up a lot of walks (3.9 BB/9) and does not get many ground balls (36%). Rodriguez’ strikeout rate has fallen every year since 2004, while his walk rate last year was a career high 5.00 BB/9. Both of these guys could rebound in 2010, and maybe they are better pitchers than their 4.00+ FIPs of 2009 would suggest. With that said, they could very well keep the end-game jobs on their teams based on their history. Still, I would be wary of both of these guys, as they will be overvalued in many drafts.

Franklin and Aardsma were the beneficiaries of some serious luck in 2009. Franklin had an ERA of 1.92, but an xFIP of 4.27 (thanks to a BABIP of .269 and a HR/FB of 3%), while Aardsma had an ERA of 2.25 versus a FIP of 4.12 (BABIP of .271 and a HR/FB of 4%). They are both okay closers, but don’t expect – or pay for – an ERA below 2.50 from either of these guys in 2010.

The Bottom Group

Finally, we have the bottom group of closers and the team closing situations that include the worst closers and poor late-game options. These closers are most likely to lose their closing jobs due to ineffectiveness. To be clear, these are not bad pitchers, but bad when compared to their peer group of other closers.

Guys I would avoid: Brandon Lyon/Matt Lindstrom, Joel Zumaya/Ryan Perry/Daniel Schlereth, Leo Nunez, Chad Qualls/Juan Gutierrez

Nunez is not a particularly good pitcher; he has a career ERA of 4.66, which is in line with his xFIP of 4.79. He had an ERA under 3.00 in 2008, but that was the result of a lucky 3% HR/FB. In every other year his ERA has been above 3.90.

Lindstrom and Lyon are the most likely candidates for the Astros’ closer’s job: both have career xFIPs above 4.00. Either pitcher could very easily have an ineffective month, then blow some saves and lose his job.

For the Tigers, Zumaya, Perry, and Schlereth will compete for the job. All three get tons of strikeouts, but each also gives up too many walks. Even the one who emerges from spring training with the job will be far from a lock to hold it for the season.

In Arizona, Qualls is a solid pitcher, having had two straight years with xFIPs under 3.00 on the strength of his low-walk, high-ground-ball ways. However, he had serious knee surgery in September and will not be at full strength for spring training. Gutierrez received Qualls’ save opportunities after the latter’s surgery, so the younger pitcher figures to be the other option going into spring training. Gutierrez is not a great pitcher for a closer, thanks to a career xFIP of 4.22. The combination of a big health question mark in Qualls and relatively poor expected performance from Gutierrez makes this a dangerous closing situation.

Impactful Prospects for 2010

Not every season goes perfectly as planned and, at some point or another, teams will need to dip into their farm system for help at the big league level. Or some clubs may opt to start the season with a highly touted prospect in the lineup or rotation. Below, you can find prospects to know from each organization that have a good chance of making an impact at the Major League level in 2010 – and at the fantasy level, too. Keep this list handy as the season progresses…

Arizona Diamondbacks- 1B Brandon Allen

Why? Allen thrived in Triple-A Reno after a mid-season trade from the White Sox. The hulking 6’2’’ and 235-pound slugger hit .324/.413/.641 with 12 home runs in 145 at-bats with Reno after the trade. In a system short on talent in the upper levels of the system, Allen will be given an opportunity to conquer the starting job at first base this spring after he was extremely overmatched in his Major League debut (.288 wOBA). In 104 big league at-bats, Allen struck out in 38.5% of them. He’ll have to improve upon this to make a positive impact in 2010, especially now that the organization has signed free agent Adam LaRoche to a one-year deal. An injury to LaRoche (or, at the very least, a mid-season trade) may now be Allen’s best chance for playing time in 2010.

Atlanta Braves- OF Jason Heyward

Why? Heyward is the Braves’ top prospect and one of the best in baseball. The five-tool player ripped through High-A and Double-A last year and finished the year with a three-game cameo in Triple-A. A minor injury cut his time short in the Arizona Fall League, but with the departure of the aging and overrated Garrett Anderson, the Braves could be in need of Heyward’s services soon. He has an outside shot at being an opening day outfielder for Atlanta, but expect him to get a little Triple-A seasoning first. The 20-year-old should make a big impact soon.

Baltimore Orioles- LHP Brian Matusz

Why? Matusz breezed through the Orioles’ minor league system in his first full season with the organization. The former first-round pick has impeccable command of his pitches and knows how to pitch. He’s expected to start the season in the big league rotation after he posted a 4.08 FIP in 43 big league innings to finish up last year. He’s got some Major League experience and this will suit him well in 2010; he just managed to maintain his rookie eligibility. He’ll be a key cog in Baltimore’s rotation for years to come and could be a solid force on your team in 2010.

Boston Red Sox- OF Josh Reddick

Why? This one’s tough and it’s very possible Reddick has a minimal fantasy impact in 2010. Someone had to be chosen and most of the Red Sox’ top talent on the farm is quite young and at least a full season away from potential Major League playing time. Reddick strung together good numbers in Double-A (.382 wOBA in 63 games) and was overmatched in his big league debut and in 18 Triple-A games. He figures to spend much of his season in Pawtucket. He could be forced into big league playing time if injuries haunt the creaky J.D. Drew, nor is Jeremy Hermida a sure bet to stay on the field if he receives consistent playing time for some reason. Mike Cameron isn’t young anymore and some injuries could push Reddick and his plus power into the big league picture. But don’t bank on Reddick by any means.

Chicago White Sox- RHP Daniel Hudson

Why? Hudson blazed through the White Sox system and played for five different teams in 2009 and finished the year with the big league club. Hudson projects as a mid-rotation starter and his bread-and-butter pitch is his sinking fastball. He’ll only provide fantasy value in 2010 if he’s given the opportunity to start. He’ll have to beat out Freddy Garcia for the fifth rotation spot but even if he doesn’t, he’s next in line for starts if anyone suffers an injury.

Chicago Cubs- RHP Jay Jackson

Why? Like Boston, the Cubs system also lacks upper-level talent close to the big leagues. This makes the pick quite tough but if there’s a guy to keep a close eye on, it’s Jackson. The power arm displayed good peripherals in the minors last year. He needs to work on command, as evidenced by his 4.25 BB/9 rate in 16 Double-A starts. Jackson figures to start the year in Triple-A Iowa’s rotation and could see big league action if Randy Wells has a lackluster sophomore campaign or if injuries strike the Cubs starting rotation.

Cincinnati Reds- OF Chris Heisey

Why? Heisey had impressive stints in Double-A and Triple-A last year. He’s knocking on the big league door and with the departure of Jonny Gomes he should find some big league time in 2010. Heisey has been coined a, “cheap five-tool player” because he can do a little bit of everything. He may not open the season with the Reds and will likely have to earn playing time over Chris Dickerson and Wladimir Balentien, among others. Each of those players have limited and flawed skill sets so don’t be surprised if Heisey comes to the rescue at some point next season in Cincinnati.

Cleveland Indians- C Carlos Santana

Why? Santana assaulted Double-A pitchers in his first full season at the level. He had a .418 wOBA in 130 games. Santana will start the year in Triple-A behind Mike Redmond, Lou Marson, and Wyatt Toregas on the temporary depth chart. Scouts believe Santana’s impact bat is ready for the Majors but would like to see him improve his defense behind the plate first. Santana should arrive in Cleveland at some point next year and, if Marson struggles, it should happen sooner. Santana could make a lot of noise if given the opportunity. The bat is special.

Colorado Rockies- 2B/OF Eric Young

Why? Young is ready for the Majors after a successful Triple-A showing. In 119 games, he posted a .381 wOBA and swiped 58 bases. After getting his feet wet late in Colorado last year, he’ll fight incumbent Clint Barmes for time at second base in 2010. If he’s permitted to play, he could help your team in the batting-average and stolen-base departments. He won’t hit for much power but he also figures to become eligible in the outfield at some point in the season, too.

Detroit Tigers- 2B Scott Sizemore

Why? Sizemore played well in the upper levels of the Tigers system in 2009 and looks to be ready for the big leagues. With Placido Polanco’s departure to the Phillies, the door appears to be open for Sizemore to the starting second base job. He looks like an above-average second baseman in the future, but he suffered an ugly ankle injury in the Arizona Fall League. He should be ready for spring training, but it’ll be best to monitor his health as the season approaches. He could be a solid contributor if he’s healthy and claims the starting job.

Florida Marlins- 1B Gaby Sanchez

Why? After failing to secure the starting job at first base last year this may finally be Sanchez’ year. The 26-year-old had a .378 wOBA in Triple-A last year and played in 21 big league games towards the end of the season. The first-base job appears to be his for the taking and Sanchez’ blend of contact, raw power, and on-base abilities make for an intriguing package.

Houston Astros- RHP Sammy Gervacio

Why? Gervacio made his big league debut in ‘09 and overpowered hitters. He had a 2.62 FIP in 21 innings and a 10.71 strikeout-per-nine rate. He’ll likely begin the season in the Astros’ bullpen and may have the opportunity to close games. Recent acquisitions Brandon Lyon and Matt Lindstrom have first dibs on the closing job, but if the club realizes that Gervacio is the better option – or once Lyon and/or Lindstron implode – Gervacio could become very valuable in all fantasy formats.

Kansas City Royals- 1B Kila Kaaihue

Why? Kaaihue was trapped in Triple-A last year despite a breakout 2008 season. Mike Jacobs wilted with the big league team and was released this offseason. Kaaihue will be 26 years old at the outset of the season and he may finally be awarded a big league starting opportunity. He had a .368 wOBA in Triple-A last season and could prove to be quite valuable if he discovers his 2008 power levels, where he had 38 homers between three stops. Kaaihue slugged only 17 homers last year (.181 ISO) but is a walk machine (18.8% walk rate). He’s a nice sleeper entering 2010.

Los Angeles Angels- IF Brandon Wood

Why? Technically, Wood isn’t a prospect and shouldn’t be eligible for this list. But I’ll bend the rules a little here with such limited options at the upper levels of the Angels farm system. With Chone Figgins signing with the Mariners, Wood may be allowed the opportunity to start in the infield, despite floundering in each taste of the big leagues he’s had over the past three seasons. Wood has plus power and can mash homers at the expense of big strikeout numbers. Is this the year that some of his abilities finally transfer from Triple-A to Los Angeles?

Los Angeles Dodgers- RHP John Ely

Why? The cash-strapped Dodgers need some help at the back end of their rotation, and it doesn’t appear that they’ll make a big move to improve their rotation with limited financial resources. The organization may take a flier on a cheap veteran if the opportunity presents itself, but don’t be surprised if Ely is thrust into the starting rotation during the season. He has plus command and a plus-plus change-up that serves as his outpitch. However, he lacks a consistent third offering. The environment in Dodger stadium can only help him.

Milwaukee Brewers- SS Alcides Escobar

Why? The Brewers paved the way for Escobar this past winter by dealing former shortstop J.J. Hardy to the Twins. Escobar hit .304 in 125 at-bats to wrap up 2009 with Milwaukee, but he only had a .311 wOBA. He doesn’t have much home-run power nor does he exhibit good plate discipline. The plus defender wreaks havoc on the bases. He stole 42 bags last year in Triple-A and will be a valuable source of steals in all fantasy formats in 2010. Escobar should be a solid source of batting average accompanied with great stolen base numbers next season.

Minnesota Twins- 3B Danny Valencia

Why? Valencia handled Double-A very well (.380 wOBA) in 57 games, which earned him a promotion to Triple-A. There he held his own with a .326 wOBA but had to go through an adjustment period over 71 games. Valencia still hit .286 in Triple-A but saw his walk rate go from 12.4% in Double-A to a meager 2.9% after the promotion. He may need some more seasoning in the minors, but Valencia has a shot at cracking the Twins’ opening day roster with the departure of former third baseman Joe Crede. Valencia will have to battle Brendan Harris for playing time at third, but, with Harris coming off a poor year, the Twins may opt to give the newer blood a shot.

New York Mets- OF Fernando Martinez

Why? Martinez’s raw talent and tools are just overwhelming. Some may forget that he’s still just 21 years old despite making his Major League debut last year before injuries sidelined him. Martinez finally started hitting for some power to start 2009 in Triple-A (.382 wOBA with a .540 slugging percentage in 45 games) before falling on his face (.240 wOBA) in 29 big league games. He’s healthy now and set to start the year in Triple-A, but he will be banging on the Mets’ door. If the Jeff Francoeur rollercoaster starts hitting too many lows, Martinez should get his shot with the Mets in the middle of the season, and he may be ready to arrive in a big way.

New York Yankees- C Jesus Montero

Why? The Yankees are so stacked at the big league level that it’s plausible the organization will not need to rely on any rookies in 2010. A fractured middle finger robbed Montero of the last six weeks of his season, but he downright assaulted High-A (.446 wOBA) and Double-A (.406 wOBA) pitching in 2009. Montero’s defense is pretty brutal behind the plate, so he doesn’t have the best odds of sticking at the position and Jorge Posada isn’t going anywhere soon. Montero won’t supplant Mark Teixeira at first, but the 20-year-old Montero’s bat is ready for The Show. He could find himself at DH for the Yankees at some point next year if the injury-prone Nick Johnson gets hurt. If this happens, you can expect production from Montero; also, keep in mind he’s valuable trade bait for the Yankees if a need arises for the team at the big league level. Any team acquiring him would likely want to see how he can mash in the Majors right now.

Oakland Athletics- 1B Chris Carter

Why? Carter hit for an ungodly .450 wOBA in 125 Double-A games last year, which earned him a promotion to Triple-A, where he spent 13 games. Carter will likely start 2010 back in Triple-A but he’s going to push for the big league first-base job soon. If Carter continues his power hitting ways in Triple-A, the team may opt for him over the lesser-power-hitting Daric Barton. Carter’s .406 BABIP in Double-A won’t translate to the upper levels and Majors but his plus-plus power is some of the best in the minors. He’ll hit for big power and strike out a lot.

Philadelphia Phillies- LHP Antonio Bastardo

Why? The Phillies are like the Yankees in that they won’t need to rely on any rookies in 2010. The farm system has changed a lot with the Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay trades and uber-prospect Dominic Brown doesn’t figure to get any big league time in 2010. Bastardo made five starts for the Phillies before the Cliff Lee acquisition and he did well in Double-A and Triple-A. He appears ready for Major League action and it may first come in the bullpen where he’d offer little-to-no fantasy value. However, Bastardo may get a shot at the last rotation spot if injuries arise after the J.A. Happ/Jamie Moyer fifth starter situation is settled. But Bastardo’s a long shot to make any significant impact in 2010.

Pittsburgh Pirates- LHP Brad Lincoln

Why? With superior prospects Pedro Alvarez and Jose Tabata destined for more Triple-A seasoning and no immediate opening with the big league squad, Lincoln figures to have the best chance to play in the big leagues. He may have to wait for an opportunity to arise in the Major League rotation, but Kevin Hart might be destined for the bullpen and Daniel McCutchen may not hold down the fifth rotation slot for very long. Lincoln’s Double-A performance (2.96 FIP in 13 starts) was impressive and he looked solid in Triple-A, as well (3.85 FIP in 12 starts). Lincoln exhibited good peripherals in Triple-A and his .332 BABIP should be due for some regression while his 62.8% LOB rate should increase, thus helping his ERA. If the former first-rounder performs well in Indianapolis and a need arises for him in the Pirates rotation, he has the makings of a pleasant surprise to fantasy owners.

San Diego Padres- OF Chad Huffman

Why? The Padres system doesn’t have much talent ready for the big leagues and Huffman is going to have trouble cracking many top-10 prospect lists. He’s likely maxed out and he’ll be 25 years old this season, but he’s had success at every minor league level in the Padres system. Last season with Triple-A Portland, he had a .367 wOBA and 20 home runs. He may crack the opening day roster as a fourth or fifth outfielder but could receive playing time if one of the Padres’ starters goes down with an injury. In that situation he may surprise and be a solid contributor, as he’s been throughout the entire Friars’ farm system.

San Francisco Giants- C Buster Posey

Why? Posey was the Giants’ starting catcher prior to the re-acquisition of Bengie Molina, which allows Posey more time in Triple-A (likely whether he needs it or not). Posey destroyed pitching in Double-A (.433 wOBA) and Triple-A (.390 wOBA) in ‘09. He also received 17 big league at-bats in September and some were disappointed that he did not take more at-bats from Molina during a tight play-off run. Posey projects to hit for a high batting average, as well as average to above-average power at the big league level, and if granted regular playing time in 2010, he could help all fantasy players in all formats.

Seattle Mariners- OF Michael Saunders

Why? Saunders’ path to the big leagues got a little murkier with the Mariners’ acquisition of Milton Bradley, but the former prospect no longer has anything left to prove in Triple-A, where he had a .400 wOBA last season. Saunders didn’t do much (.244 wOBA) with 122 big league at-bats and he will likely start 2010 back in Triple-A, where he should just continue to do what he did last year. Saunders should be one of the first in line for a call to the big leagues if a regular outfielder suffers an injury, or if the Mariners organization decides it needs more punch from the DH slot, which figures to be shared by the elderly Ken Griffey Jr. and Bill Hall. The 2010 season may be the time that Saunders puts it together at the MLB level.

St. Louis Cardinals- 3B David Freese

Why? Freese will be 27 years old in 2010 and he’ll have a big opportunity to win the starting job at third base for the Cardinals in the spring. He’ll need to put his recent drinking issues behind himself, though. He overcame a foot injury in 2009 and had a .388 wOBA in 200 Triple-A at-bats. He also had a .351 wOBA in 31 big league at-bats. This could be the year that he’s a solid, and well-rounded, contributor at the big league level.

Tampa Bay Rays- RHP Wade Davis

Why? This was a tough pick because the Rays club has a number of potential big league contributors that will be loitering around in Triple-A. But after a fine Major League debut (2.90 FIP in six starts), Davis should have first dibs on opening the season with Tampa’s rotation. He had strong peripherals in Triple-A and during his six start trial with Tampa Bay. Davis has a good chance at 10-15 wins next season with an ERA south of 4.00. As such, he looks like a very solid rookie option in all fantasy formats in 2010.

Texas Rangers- RHP Neftali Feliz

Why? Feliz has a downright electric arm and he cruised through the Rangers’ minor league system. Some believe he’ll be an ace in the Majors soon, and last year he had a 2.48 FIP in 31 relief innings. Feliz is expected to be shifted back to the starting role in 2010, and he’s going to play a big role in determining the Rangers’ playoff odds in the American League West. The Rangers will closely monitor his innings count, but he has the stuff to post a very impressive season. He’ll be an AL Rookie of The Year contender.

Toronto Blue Jays- 3B Brett Wallace

Why? Wallace has been traded twice over the past year, but it looks like he’ll be a Blue Jay for a while. Wallace has one of the best pure bats in the minors and he appears to be ready for big league action after he handled Triple-A well in the Cardinals (.340 wOBA) and Athletics (.372 wOBA) organizations. He has an unusual body type and isn’t praised for his defense at the hot corner, which may move him to first base, but his bat should play there. The Jays organization is shopping incumbent first baseman Lyle Overbay, and the door may open soon for Wallace at the big league level. When it does, he should become a solid contributor almost immediately.

Washington Nationals- RHP Stephen Strasburg

Why? Perhaps the question should be why not? Strasburg’s repertoire is phenomenal and he’s got ace and multiple Cy Young award-winner written all over him. After setting an amateur signing bonus record, Strasburg is destined towards big things in Washington, and people are looking at him as the franchise’s savior. After two 59-win seasons, Nationals fans need something big to cheer about and the dynamic Strasburg is going to be it. He will be allowed to compete for a rotation spot this spring, but it’s likely that Washington eases him into pro ball with as assignment to the upper-minors to start 2010. But it’s just a matter of time before he’s deemed big league ready and the pressure will be on Washington to call him up if he mows down minor league hitters as expected. He may be worth a late-round draft pick to stash on your bench because when Strasburg arrives, he’s going to arrive in a big, big way that you don’t want to miss.

Fringe Benefits (Basic Questions Remix)

In the 1991 edition of his Baseball Book, Sabermetric Baby Daddy Bill James includes a long section called Basic Questions. Here’s how he introduces it:

What I’ve tried to do… is talk about, write about, as many of the things which are on the minds of the average baseball fan as I can. For each player, I tried to find the basic questions about each major league player. The basic questions about Daryl Strawberry: How’s he going to do in Los Angeles? How will he hit in Dodger Stadium? How much will his loss hurt the Mets? How much will he help LA? What are his career totals going to be? Is he going to hit 500 home runs in his career? 600? How many?

He then proceeds, for 180 giant, three-columned pages, to do just that. The product is excellent, vintage James, whether he’s warning us to appreciate Eric Davis, almost pinky-swearing us that Lance Dickson will be a star (he pitched 14 innings in the majors), or referring to Luis Encarnacion of Kansas City as “the Rodney Dangerfield of the Royals’ organization.”

There are also kinda mean entries, such as this, in re Jerry Kutzler of the White Sox:

Who is he?

Right-handed starting pitcher, pitched well for Tampa in 1988. I don’t expect him to be a major league starting pitcher, ever.

Ever. Ouch.

And then there’s this in re Baltimore’s Jose Mesa, which is just awesome:

Can he pitch in the major leagues?

Can a bear perform heart surgery? I guess you never know unless you give him a scalpel and stand back.

In what follows, I’ve stolen James’s Basic Questions format to look at some players on the periphery of baseballing relevance. Most of the players here would likely make decent fantasy plays given the opportunity, but that hasn’t been my only concern in composing this list. For example, I don’t look at some of the standard metrics. And I don’t even pretend to guess at something like pitcher wins. This might be a case of wanting my cake and eating it, too. But to that I say: why else would a person want cake besides for eating it? Cake is good for little else.

A couple notes before I begin. First, where James writes that he is attempting to address questions that the “average baseball fan” might have, I have attempted, in what follows, to anticipate and answer questions that a FanGraphs reader might have. Basically, what that means is I use some metrics (wOBA, wRC+, xFIP) that are used pretty commonly on FanGraphs. Also, it means that I take for granted that names like Garrett Jones and Matt Thornton – that is, players without much public exposure – are at least somewhat familiar.

Second point: While I’d guess that most fans share an intuitive understanding of “fringe,” let’s say, for the sake of clarity, that “fringe” players are those who:

(a) had something like a starting job but underperformed their probable skill levels pretty badly, or

(b) had something more like a part-time role but would probably play well in an expanded role, or

(c) are minor leaguers but, for one reason or another – age, draft pedigree, injury, failures at the Major League level – aren’t exactly what you’d call prospects.

For whatever reason, pitchers seem to skew younger among this category of player. I don’t know why that is, exactly, but were I forced, at gun-point, to hazard a guess, I’d say (a) why is this such an important question that you feel the need to threaten me with violence, and (b) maybe it’s because starters who fail are generally regulated to reliever status.

Finally, in a bow to the roto-minded, I’ve organized the players according to the standard fantasy roster: C, 1B, 2B, 3B, SS, OF, OF, OF, SP, SP, RP, RP, P, P, P. Here’s the result:

C: Brayan PENA, Kansas City

What sort of name is Brayan?

I’m sure I’m not qualified to answer that sort of question.

Okay, then, how about this one: Who the flip is Brayan Pena?

Last year, he was back-up to the back-up catcher in Kansas City.

That doesn’t really sound like much of a distinction.

No, but you have to remember that, in Kansas City, every day is Opposite Day. Pena has a career line-drive rate of 20.5%. He doesn’t strike out too much. He’d probably hit 10-12 homers with something like a regular job. He’d probably post a league-average wOBA. Around .335 or so, at least.

I don’t care what you say. What’s the word from CHONE and ZiPS?

Pretty good, actually. CHONE says .282/.326/.415. ZiPS says .281/.328/.413. Confucius say… nothing. Not about baseball, at least.

1B: Garrett JONES, Pittsburgh

The career minor leaguer who raked for Pittsburgh last year?


He played well, but how do I know that wasn’t luck?

He posted a wRC+ of 147 (.396 wOBA) in 358 plate appearances, and only his home-run rate (21.2% HR/FB) was really out of place relative to his minor league numbers. Cut that down to 15% and you still have an above-average hitter, with maybe a .350 wOBA. CHONE and ZiPS agree.

You put him at first base, but he played more games in right field last year.

You’re right. He played 39 games in right versus only 30 at first last year. But I had three outfielders I wanted to pick and no first basemen. The Pirates have the same flexibility with both Jeff Clement and Brandon Moss hanging round.

2B: Ryan ROBERTS, Arizona

Remind me again who he is.

The guy who took over at second in Arizona after Felipe Lopez was sent to Milwaukee.

How’d he play?

Actually, a little bit better than Lopez. All told, Roberts finished with a .348 wOBA, while Lopez posted a .341 during his time in Phoenix. Consider, too, that Lopez posted a significantly higher BABIP (.350 versus Roberts’ .321), and there’s reason to believe that Arizona played its cards right.

Will he start this year?

Entering the offseason, it seemed like maybe not. But then it seemed like, yes, maybe he would. But then Arizona signed Kelly Johnson. So, probably not, no. Not right away at least.

3B: Edwin ENCARNACION, Toronto

Are you serious? He hit like caca for Cincinnati and Toronto last year.

Or did he? The only thing that really changed was his BABIP, which checked in at .249. Relative to his career mark of .290, that’s pretty low. Relative to his line-drive rate of 17.5%, it’s also pretty low.

So say he comes back with a .290 or so BABIP. What then?

Probably a wOBA of .355 or .360. Probably 20-25 homers.

Okay, that’s fine. But isn’t he a kinda sucky infielder?

Almost assuredly, yes. He’s got an UZR/150 of -12.3 for his career at third base. If you’re the club that’s paying him, that’s not so great. From a fantasy perspective, though, it’s not really a problem. The closest thing to competition at third base is from new acquisition Brett Wallace. By all accounts, Wallace is an even worse third baseman.

SS: Khalil GREENE, Texas

Khalil Greene? Is this a preview for 2010 or for 2004 I’m reading?

So far as I know, 2010. If not, something has gone horribly awry.

But Greene was terrible last year.

Actually, not really. His strikeout rate (20.6%) was lower than it’s been for a while, his walk rate (8.1%) was as high as it’s been for a while, and his infield fly-ball rate (2.9%) was almost non-existent. The problem was that he had .217 BABIP. That’s real low. Normalize his numbers for something like a league-average BABIP, and he becomes a league-average hitter.

Why did he have so few plate appearances last year?

Well, the perception of him playing poorly, for one. And for two, he had problems with social anxiety disorder. Still, he came back from the latter and hit .345/.368/.618 in 57 rehab plate appearances at Triple-A – with only a .319 BABIP, which suggests that he was making excellent contact, as opposed to getting super lucky.

OF: Seth SMITH, Colorado

What’d he do last year, again?

Hit, field, and do everything else like a starting Major League outfielder: .383 wOBA, 16.2 UZR/150 in about 80 games in left field.

Sure that’s a high wOBA, but wOBA’s not park-adjusted, and Smith plays at Coors.

You’re right, it isn’t, but wRC+ is, and he posted a 129 wRC+, which compares very favorably to starting right-fielder Brad Hawpe’s 130 wRC+. When you consider that Hawpe is a legitimately awful fielder (-21.6 UZR/150 since 2004), then there’s barely a contest in terms of overall value.

Then why isn’t he a starter?

A couple reasons. For one, the Rockies have legitimate outfield depth. Besides Hawpe, Carlos Gonzalez, Dexter Fowler, and Ryan Spilborghs all makes legitimate claims to playing time. For two, well… I don’t know. Regardless, it’s a fact: if he’s anything like a starter in 2010, he’ll put up great numbers.

OF: Andruw JONES, Chicago (A.L.)

Surely he doesn’t play baseball anymore.

Actually, he does, although you’re excused for thinking as much. Three years ago, he was bad. Two years ago, he was really bad. Last year, though, he was actually kinda good as a DH for Texas, posting a 104 wRC+ despite a horrifically low .224 BABIP.

Alright, but look: he faced lefties almost exclusively. Wouldn’t he be exposed in a larger role?

Well, for one, he actually faced more righties than lefties (181 PAs, versus only 150 against LHPs). For two, Jones’s career platoon split (.256/.331/.485 versus righties, .261/.361/.499 v lefties) is almost exactly what you’d expect from any sort of right-handed batter.

Can he really still play the field?

He’s declined, for sure, but on account of his peak being so high, he’s probably still league-average in a corner. He does seem injury-prone, though, so maybe he’s best as a part-time fielder.

OF: Jody GERUT, Milwaukee

Describe him in three words.

Here they are: the disappearing man. Now here are some other ones: Gerut played well in 2003-04, declined afterwards, and left baseball… until 2008, when he hit .296/.351/.494 while playing half his games at Petco. Then, last year, he appeared to decline again, batting .230/.279/.376 in limited plate appearances between San Diego and Milwaukee.

Why’s he on this list then?

Like many of the guys here, he was the victim of bad luck. In this case, a .243 BABIP. Other than that, he has the profile of a league-average hitter.

Why’d Milwaukee acquire him just to bench him?

[Insert sound of crickets chirping.]

What are his chances of playing this year?

Cameron’s gone from Milwaukee, but Carlos Gomez has arrived. Signs point to Gomez starting. He’s worth 1.5 wins afield, which is probably the reason why, but Gerut is a better offensive player.

SP: Felipe PAULINO, Houston

I’m not one for old-timey metrics, but come on: dude was 3-11 with a 6.27 ERA.

Dude had 93 strikeouts versus only 37 walks in 97.2 innings last year. Dude had a 4.10 xFIP. Dude also finished second among starters (50+ IP) in his rate of swings and misses outside of the zone – something that correlates highly with strikeouts.

Oh. What happened, then?

Take your pick: .368 BABIP. 16.9% HR/FB. 67.6% LOB (versus a league average of 71.9%).

What’s his role for 2010?

He was slated as the fifth starter until the signing of Brett Myers. It’s hard to believe that Houston likes Brian Moehler more than Paulino.

P: Sean GALLAGHER, San Diego

What’s the difference between him and Chad Gaudin?

Gallagher has never had absurd facial hair. Not recently, at least.

Why am I getting them mixed up, then?

Because each of them, despite being pretty young, has played for Chicago (N.L.), Oakland, and San Diego. Gallagher was also sent to Oakland in the deal that sent Gaudin and Rich Harden to the Cubs.

What’s Gallagher gonna do in 2010?

Benefit immensely from Petco, for one. Gallagher’s posted a 35.8% groundball rate in 150 Major League innings. In Petco, that equals fewer home runs and lot of outs. CHONE and ZiPS agree, projecting ERAs of 3.97 and 3.98, respectively.

RP: Luke GREGERSON, San Diego

Remind me.

He pitched 75 nutso relief innings for San Diego last year, finishing with 93 strikeouts, only 31 walks, and only three home runs-allowed. That was good for a 3.11 xFIP.

You say “three home runs” like it’s a big deal, but he pitched in Petco.

Petco obviously helps – nor should a fantasy owner ever lose sight of that fact. But Gregerson has a good sinker, too. He had a 45.7% ground-ball rate in 2009. His minor league ground-ball rate was almost 60% even.

How does he get all the strikeouts?

A nasty slider. Among the 214 pitchers who threw at least 70 innings last year, only Mike Wuertz and Carlos Marmol threw the slider more often. And Gregerson finished second among relievers in terms of runs-saved-above-average on the slider.

RP: Brandon LEAGUE, Seattle

He’s been around for a while without really impressing. Why do you like him for 2010?

The best three things a pitcher can do are (a) strike hitters out, (b) not walk them, and (c) force hitters, in the event that they do make contact, to hit the ball on the ground. League does all those things well – better than most people in the Major Leagues, as his 2009 line testifies: 74.2 IP, 76 K, 21 BB, 55.7% GB.

Those are the best things a pitcher can do?

Well, I guess not. The best things are probably, like, give blood or live an authentic life or something like that.

That’s deep, yo.

Duly noted.

P: Billy BUCKNER, Arizona

Billy Buckner, huh? Do the editors of FanGraphs know that you drink heavily while writing these articles?

First of all, “heavily” is a subjective term. Second of all, Buckner posted a 3.95 xFIP. CHONE has him with a 4.58 ERA in 2010 through 167 innings.

What’s the deal with last year’s 6.40 ERA then?

Same thing as Felipe Paulino, except almost even worse: .347 BABIP, 16.7% HR/FB, and a spectacularly unlucky 63.2% LOB.

Oh, and why do you only cite CHONE above? Is it because ZiPS says he bites?

No, it’s because his ZiPS projection wasn’t released before printing. I swear.

P: Garrett MOCK, Washington

I’m suspicious. Guess why.

Probably because, over the last two years, Mock has gone back and forth – between levels and roles. Also, his traditional numbers (like his 3-10, 5.62 in 2009) have been kinda meh. Also, because you’ve barely ever heard of Garrett Mock.

That’s pretty good. So why’s he here?

Because, regardless of where he’s been or in what role, his peripherals have always been promising. In 2008, he had an xFIP of 3.90, mostly in relief. In 2009, it was 4.49, mostly as a starter. He gets strikeouts and ground balls. Ta-da!

What’ll he do in 2010?

He’s slated to begin the season in the rotation, probably as the fourth starter. As a fantasy player, he may not produce wins (see: Nationals, Washington), but he can do some things.

P: Matt THORNTON, Chicago (A.L.)

What’s his deal?


OMG, stop shouting.

Okay, but he’s really good. In 2008? BAM!: a 2.75 xFIP. In 2009? BAM!: 2.46 xFIP. In 2010?

Don’t say “BAM.” Please.

Fine, but you get the idea. Basically, he profiles like a left-handed and more svelte version of Heath Bell. He’d be a great closer.

Splitting Hairs on 2009’s Performances

Everyone has players that they think are strong performers in either the first or second half. Hank Blalock is a notorious first-half performer while Adam LaRoche has made a career out of heating up after the All-Star break. In 2009, Blalock had a .854 OPS in the first half compared to a .585 OPS in the second. LaRoche posted a .784 OPS before the All-Star break and .915 mark afterwards.

But neither of those players made the list of top-five extreme fantasy splits for 2009.

To figure out who the hot and cold fantasy performers were by half, I took the dollar values from the RotoTimes Player Rater at the All-Star break and compared them to the numbers that the players posted for the entire season. Hitters needed to have 150 at-bats in each half in order to qualify, while pitchers needed 50 innings (or be a closer) on both sides of the break to merit inclusion.

Here are the extreme first half hitters:

1. Jermaine Dye – First half: $20.73; Final: $6:36; Difference: $14:37

1st Half – .302-20-55-55-0

2nd Half – .179-7-26-23-0

2. Justin Morneau – First half: $26.68; Final: $13.87; Difference: $12.81

1st Half – .311-21-70-59-0

2nd Half – .201-9-30-26-0

3. Brandon Inge – First half: $14.80; Final: $2.58; Difference: $12.22

1st Half – .261-28-58-51-2

2nd Half – .186-6-26-20-0

4. Luke Scott – First half: $16.31; Final: $4.69; Difference: $11.62

1st Half – .305-18-51-39-0

2nd Half – .208-7-26-22-0

5. Brad Hawpe – First half: $21.02; Final: $11.40; Difference: $9.62

1st Half – .320-14-59-50-0

2nd Half – .240-9-27-32-1

Here are the extreme second half hitters:

1. Troy Tulowitzki – First half: $10.78; Final: $26.84; Difference: $16.06

1st Half – .254-16-37-49-11

2nd Half – .342-16-55-52-9

2. Ryan Howard – First half: $15.02; Final: $30.33; Difference: $15.31

1st Half – .257-22-67-53-4

2nd Half – .304-23-74-52-4

3. Chris Coghlan – First half: -$5.35; Final: $9.89; Difference: $15.24

1st Half – .245-2-15-30-4

2nd Half – .372-7-32-54-4

4. Matt Holliday – First half: $10.32; Final: $25.52; Difference: $15.20

1st Half – .276-8-43-42-10

2nd Half – .356-16-66-52-4

5. Jimmy Rollins – First half: $1.14; Final: $16.31; Difference: $15.17

1st Half – .229-7-34-51-16

2nd Half – .272-14-43-49-15

Here are the extreme first half pitchers:

1. Edwin Jackson – First half: $18.77; Final: $8.90; Difference: $9.87

1st Half – 7 W, 2.52 ERA, 97 Ks, 1.060 WHIP

2nd Half – 6 W, 5.07 ERA, 64 Ks, 1.527 WHIP

2. Jarrod Washburn – First half: $11.19; Final: $3.25; Difference: $7.94

1st Half – 6 W, 2.96 ERA, 72 Ks, 1.086 WHIP

2nd Half – 3 W, 5.23 ERA, 28 Ks, 1.366 WHIP

3. Ryan Franklin – First half: $21.51; Final: $14.25; Difference: $7.26

1st Half – 2 W, 21 SV, 0.79 ERA, 27 Ks, 0.794 WHIP

2nd Half – 2 W, 17 SV, 3.33 ERA, 17 Ks, 1.704 WHIP

4. Frank Francisco – First half: $13.12; Final: $6.26; Difference: $6.86

1st Half – 2 W, 15 SV, 2.28 ERA, 32 Ks, 0.940 WHIP

2nd Half – 0 W, 10 SV, 5.82 ERA, 25 Ks, 1.338 WHIP

5. Francisco Rodriguez – First half: $17.41; Final: $11.09; Difference: $6.32

1st Half – 2 W, 23 SV, 1.90 ERA, 42 Ks, 1.242 WHIP

2nd Half – 1 W, 12 SV, 6.75 ERA, 31 Ks, 1.421 WHIP

Here are the extreme second half pitchers:

1. Bronson Arroyo – First half: -$16.02; Final: $7.46; Difference: $23.48

1st Half – 9 W, 5.38 ERA, 59 Ks, 1.482 WHIP

2nd Half – 6 W, 2.24 ERA, 68 Ks, 1.043 WHIP

2. Jorge de la Rosa – First half: -$10.38; Final: $8.48; Difference: $18.86

1st Half – 6 W, 5.21 ERA, 99 Ks, 1.448 WHIP

2nd Half – 10 W, 3.46 ERA, 94 Ks, 1.302 WHIP

3. Cliff Lee – First half: -$4.51; Final: $12.84; Difference: $17.35

1st Half – 4 W, 3.47 ERA, 93 Ks, 1.386 WHIP

2nd Half – 10 W, 2.92 ERA, 88 Ks, 1.070 WHIP

4. Ricky Nolasco – First half: -$11,05; Final: $6.17; Difference: $17.22

1st Half – 6 W, 5.76 ERA, 90 Ks, 1.390 WHIP

2nd Half – 7 W, 4.39 ERA, 105 Ks, 1.124 WHIP

5. Jon Garland – First half: -$16.27; Final: $0.13; Difference: $16.40

1st Half – 5 W, 4.53 ERA, 44 Ks, 1.500 WHIP

2nd Half – 6 W, 3.42 ERA, 65 Ks, 1.289 WHIP

Here were the top five fantasy hitters at the All-Star break:

Albert Pujols – .332-32-87-73-10

Carl Crawford – .309-8-39-58-44

Hanley Ramirez – .349-14-61-53-13

Ichiro Suzuki – .362-6-24-45-19

Chase Utley – .313-20-61-62-9

Here were the top five fantasy pitchers at the All-Star break:

Dan Haren – 9 W, 2.01 ERA, 129 Ks, 0.808 WHIP

Tim Lincecum – 10 W, 2.33 ERA, 149 Ks, 1.050 WHIP

Zack Greinke – 10 W, 2.12 ERA, 129 Ks, 1.076 WHIP

Jonathan Broxton – 6 W, 20 SV, 3.10 ERA, 65 Ks, 0.934 WHIP

Joe Nathan – 1 W, 23 SV, 1.31 ERA, 43 Ks, 0.728 WHIP

Finally, here are some second half lines that stood out and were not mentioned above:

Rajai Davis – .325-1-42-46-30

Paul Janish – .202-1-13-26-2

C.C, Sabathia – 11 W, 2.74 ERA, 102 Ks, 1.141 WHIP

Luke Hochevar – 2 W, 7.35 ERA, 80 Ks, 1.599 WHIP

2010 New York Yankees Preview

C.C. Sabathia, LHP
A.J. Burnett, RHP
Javier Vazquez, RHP
Andy Pettitte, LHP
Phil Hughes, RHP

Closers and Setup
Mariano Rivera, RHP
Joba Chamberlain, RHP

Starting Lineup
Curtis Granderson, CF
Derek Jeter, SS
Mark Teixeria, 1B
Alex Rodriguez, 3B
Nick Johnson, DH
Jorge Posada, C
Robinson Cano, 2B
Nick Swisher, RF
Randy Winn, LF

Player in Decline

This isn’t an easy choice with a roster as stacked as the Yankees but our candidate will be pitcher Javy Vasquez. His below- average fly-ball rate won’t help him in the new Yankee stadium and it’s going to be hard for him to come near his 0.82 HR/9 rate from last season.

Player on the Rise

Whoever is awarded the fifth spot in the rotation has massive potential to put together a nifty 2010. Everyone has seen flashes of brilliance from Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes and it wouldn’t be surprising if either of them post top-of-the-rotation-like numbers from the fifth starter’s spot.

Top 5 Fantasy Players
3B Alex Rodriguez: Elite
SP C.C. Sabathia: Elite
1B Mark Teixiera: Elite
SS Derek Jeter: Elite
RP Mariano Rivera: Elite

Top 10 Prospects
1. Jesus Montero, C
2. Austin Romine, C
3. Zach McAllister, RHP
4. Manny Banuelos, LHP
5. Slade Heathcott, OF
6. Mark Melancon, RHP
7. Gary Sanchez, C
8. J.R. Murphy, C
9. Corban Joseph, 2B
10. Kevin De Leon, OF

Overall Team Outlook: After missing the postseason in 2008, the Yankees organization returned to championship glory in 2009. The Yankees will try to build off of its 103-win championship season and has made the necessary moves to put the club in the best position to do so. GM Brian Cashman was aggressive in adding superstar Curtis Granderson to his lineup and Javy Vasquez to the middle of his deep rotation. The Yankees roster is stacked and the club figures to make another run at a championship in 2010. Anything less would amount to a failed season.

The Starting Rotation: C.C. Sabathia will remain the anchor at the top of the Yankees rotation and is a top starting-pitching option in all fantasy formats. He posted his lowest strikeout rate (7.71 K/9) since 2006 and an uptick in that number wouldn’t be surprising and would only increase his already gaudy production. Sabathia is the Yankees’ horse and slated behind him will be the fire-balling A.J. Burnett. Burnett avoided the injury bug last year and made 33 starts. He gets plenty of strikeouts but his below-average control tends to hurt him. The Yankees reacquired Vasquez this offseason and he and Andy Pettite will battle for the third spot in the rotation.

The loser will wind up being the fourth starter but Vasquez is coming off a career year where he put everything together and even prevented the home run (0.82 HR/9), which contradicts his career pattern (1.16 HR/9). Expect some regression from Vasquez’s ace-like season (2.77 FIP), but he should still be a solid fantasy option that eats innings and records oodles of strikeouts. Pettite offers value, too, but lacks the upside of Vasquez. The fifth and final spot will either go to Joba Chamberlain or Phil Hughes. Chamberlain had bouts of inconsistency last year as a starter, but we all know what he’s capable of and his power arm is very tantalizing. Hughes was a nice contributor in the bullpen last year but came up as a starter. Whichever route the Yankees choose to go, the fifth starter deserves a mid-to-late round flier in your draft.

The Bullpen: Mariano Rivera just keeps defying time; he’s now 40 years old but a top closer option in all fantasy formats. His cutter keeps sawing off bats, he’s in a contract year, and he keeps racking up strikeouts while exhibiting impeccable command. It’s going to be awfully interesting to see how much longer Rivera will continue to want to play. His skill set is still remarkable. Barring injury, Rivera will be the saves man once again in New York during 2010. Either Joba Chamberlain or Phil Hughes figure to be one of Mo’s top set-up men in 2010. Whoever doesn’t start and is regulated to the bullpen has the potential to put together a dominant season as the bridge to Rivera.

The Starting Line Up: This lineup is stacked from one through nine. It’s no coincidence that the Yankees led the league in scoring last year. The club is the favorite to repeat that feat this season. The newly acquired Curtis Granderson figures to bat leadoff this season and he brings a nifty blend of power and speed to the center-field position. Expect a big 2010 from Granderson. His career-low .276 BABIP in 2009 screams for regression. His career BABIP is .323. Derek Jeter had one of his best seasons on many fronts last season; the friendly confines of the new Yankee Stadium only appeared to help him. He’s going to be in a contract year and one must figure that Jeter will finish his career in a Yankee uniform. Mark Teixiera and Alex Rodriguez are elite fantasy options at their respective corner positions and A-Rod should put up monstrous numbers now that he’s fully recovered from the hip surgery that cost him playing time early last season.

Jorge Posada bounced back from an ugly 2008 and is aging well. He’s a top-hitting catcher and is good for 20+ homers. Nick Swisher is slotted for right-field duty and he offers plenty of pop, walks, and strikeouts. The free-swinging Robinson Cano had some better batted-ball luck last season and returned to his power-hitting ways. He’s tough to figure out at times but his power from the second base position is a plus. Nick Johnson was brought back to New York to become the full-time DH, but he offers more real-life value than fantasy value if he can avoid injury and consistently stay on the field. If healthy, he’ll post one of the league’s highest on-base-percentages, but his homer ceiling floats around 15. Either Randy Winn or Brett Gardner will be the team’s left fielder and both of their fantasy values are limited. Gardner can steal some bases and Winn could in his heyday, but with Winn aging it’s not probable that he reaches his former peak performances, which consisted of higher batting averages and 10+ homers.

The Bench: Rule 5 selection Jamie Hoffmann has a shot at becoming the team’s fifth outfielder. If he doesn’t snatch up the job, recent waiver claim Greg Golson appears next in line. Defensive specialist Ramiro Pena will aid the Yankees’ middle infielders. Whoever doesn’t win the starting job in left field, Winn or Gardner, will be a big contributor off the bench. Winn could become Granderson’s platoon partner against lefties due to Granderson’s obvious inability to hit them.

2010 Los Angeles Angels Preview

Jered Weaver, RHP
Scott Kazmir, LHP
Ervin Santana, RHP
Joe Saunders, LHP
Joel Pineiro, RHP

Closers and Setup
Brian Fuentes, LHP
Fernando Rodney, RHP

Starting Lineup
Erick Aybar, SS
Bobby Abreu, RF
Torii Hunter, CF
Hideki Matsui, DH
Kendry Morales, 1B
Juan Rivera, LF
Howie Kendrick, 2B
Mike Napoli, C
Brandon Wood, 3B

Player in Decline

There is no obvious choice here but Abreu, who will be 36 when the season starts, posted a .142 ISO last year, a 34-point drop from 2008 and his lowest since being a part-time player in 1997.

Player on the Rise

The Angels have been expecting big things from Kendrick for years but he has been unable to stay healthy. Last year there were no injury problems and after the All-Star break he posted a .948 OPS with six homers in 165 at-bats.

Top 5 Fantasy Players
Kendry Morales: Average
Torii Hunter: Average
Bobby Abreu: Average
Brian Fuentes: Average
Jered Weaver: Average

Top 10 Prospects
1. Hank Conger, C
2. Jordan Walden, RHP
3. Mike Trout, OF
4. Trevor Reckling, LHP
5. Peter Bourjos, OF
6. Fabio Martinez, RHP
7. Trevor Bell, RHP
8. Mark Trumbo, OF
9. Tyler Chatwood, RHP
10. Chris Pettit, OF

Overall team outlook: The Angels have won the American League West five of the past six seasons. But the loss of key free agents, including leadoff hitter Chone Figgins and No. 1 starter John Lackey, leaves the division up for grabs this year. Each of the other three clubs in the division has made key updates, making the AL West the most competitive division in baseball.

The Starting Rotation: While the Angels lost Lackey, they still have a deep and talented rotation. While there is no true ace, recently acquired Joel Pineiro, along with holdovers Ervin Santana, Joe Saunders, and Jered Weaver have all reached the 15-win plateau in one of the past two seasons. And Scott Kazmir is no one’s idea of a fifth starter, with an ERA under 4.00 in four of the past five years. But there are questions surrounding each of them. Can Pineiro maintain his ground-ball rate, his pinpoint control, and his miniscule home-run rate without the aid of former pitching coach Dave Duncan? Is Santana fully recovered from the various arm injuries that ruined his 2009 season? Will Saunders continue to outpitch his peripherals, which gave him a 5.17 FIP last year? How will Weaver handle the designation as the team’s ace? Can Kazmir avoid the mechanical flaws that led to a drop in velocity and a 5.92 ERA with the Rays last year? But while there are some questions, the Angels also have good depth, with Matt Palmer, Sean O’Sullivan, and Shane Loux, who combined for 29 starts last year, available to fill in as needed.

The Bullpen: For years a team strength, the bullpen was not nearly as solid last year. Brian Fuentes, imported to replace Francisco Rodriguez as closer, racked up 47 saves but was erratic and struggled against right-handed batters to the point where manager Mike Scioscia went to matchups down the stretch in the ninth inning. Fuentes retains his closer job. But if he falters again, the club has newly acquired Fernando Rodney, who had 37 saves last year for the Tigers, as another option. The club hopes a return of Scot Shields, who missed most of 2009 after undergoing knee surgery, helps stabilize the pen. Also returning is veteran Jason Bulger, who excelled last year in his first extended stay in the Majors, featuring a curveball that was 12.8 runs above average.

The Starting Lineup: In addition to Figgins, the Angels also lost starting DH Vladimir Guerrero to free agency. The club will give long-term top prospect Brandon Wood the first shot at the third base job and imported veteran Hideki Matsui to replace Guerrero. The other seven hitters return from last year’s squad, which finished second in the AL with 883 runs scored. The big question is will the Angels be able to recoup the lost production at the top of the order? Last year, Figgins finished second in the league with 114 runs, thanks in large part to his .395 OBP. Shortstop Erick Aybar should get the first crack at the leadoff spot, but last year he had a career-best .353 OBP.

The Angels brought back Bobby Abreu, who was credited by many for the team’s more patient approach at the plate last year. Abreu posted a .390 OBP but did not lead off once last year and has done it just 30 times in his 14-year career. The Angels hope Kendry Morales can build upon last year’s breakout season, which featured a .382 wOBA. The club also needs repeat seasons from Torii Hunter, whose .379 wOBA last year was a career-best, and Juan Rivera, who established a personal high with 25 homers. Wood could be another source of power, if he makes enough contact (MLB K%: 33%) to keep the job. Second baseman Howie Kendrick may have to battle Maicer Izturis for playing time, but he finally started producing last year. After his recall from the minors, Kendrick batted .351/.387/.532 over his final 199 plate appearances.

The Bench: The Angels feature a quasi-platoon behind the plate, with Mike Napoli and his 122 wRC+ forming the offensive half and Jeff Mathis as more of a defensive-minded backstop. Napoli is a potent bat off the bench on days when he is not in the lineup, although he could see time at both DH and first base this year. The club re-signed Izturis to a three-year deal, giving them a quality reserve player who can play any of the infield positions. With the trade of Gary Matthews, Reggie Willits becomes the top outfield reserve.

2010 Oakland Athletics Preview

Brett Anderson, LHP
Trevor Cahill, RHP
Dallas Braden, RHP
Justin Duchscherer, RHP
Vin Mazzaro, RHP

Closers and Setup
Andrew Bailey, RHP
Brad Ziegler, RHP

Starting Lineup
Coco Crisp, CF
Rajai Davis, LF
Ryan Sweeney, RF
Kevin Kouzmanoff, 3B
Jack Cust, DH
Kurt Suzuki, C
Daric Barton, 1B
Mark Ellis, 2B
Cliff Pennington, SS

Player in Decline

Rajai Davis is a burner and should provide plenty of steals when he’s on base. That might not be as often next year, however. The former Pirates prospect doesn’t have much in the way of secondary skills, and he benefitted from a near .370 BABIP last season. Expect a batting average closer to the .270-.280 range, as opposed to Davis’ .305 mark in 2009.

Player on the Rise

Cahiill punched out 10 batters per nine innings in the minor leagues, displaying a plus curve and slider. If he can rediscover those pitches, his K-rate should improve considerably.

Top 5 Fantasy Players
Brett Anderson: Elite
Andrew Bailey: Elite
Kurt Suzuki: Average
Trevor Cahill: Deep League
Gio Gonzalez: Deep League

Top 10 Prospects
1. Chris Carter, 1B
2. Michael Taylor, OF
3. Jemile Weeks, 2B
4. Adrian Cardenas, 2B
5. Tyson Ross, RHP
6. Grant Green, SS
7. Pedro Figueroa, RHP
8. Max Stassi, C
9. Fautino De Los Santos, RHP
10. Sean Doolittle, 1B

Overall team outlook: The A’s broke in several high-upside starters and a shut-down closer in 2009, and a flood of position prospects are on the way. In the meantime, Oakland will give a few second-tier youngsters a chance to prove they’re deserving of inclusion in the club’s long-term plans.

The Starting Rotation: A pitcher can do three things to help himself: get strikeouts, limit walks, and keep the ball on the ground. Brett Anderson excels in all three aspects. Health permitting, Anderson has the skills to be a top-20 starter in 2010. Trevor Cahill didn’t have near the same smooth transition to the Majors as Anderson, as he struggled to fool batters, pitched away from lefties, and scrapped his breaking stuff. Keep in mind that he’s barely old enough to buy a beer and came into 2009 with little experience above A-ball. There’s a lot of potential here, but be wary for now. Dallas Braden’s season ended in August after a left foot rash led to nerve irritation. To avoid irritation yourself, take note that Braden had an ERA in the high 3.00s but had the peripherals of a pitcher with an ERA in the high 4.00s.

Justin Duchscherer missed the 2009 season while recovering from elbow surgery and a bout with depression. He won’t repeat his 2008 work, but The Duke’s useful if he still has plus control and a deceptive cutter/curve combo. Gio Gonzalez oscillates between enthralling and exasperating, possessing a big curve that leads to Ks and walks by the bushel. His FIP was much lower than his ERA last year. Vin Mazzaro has low-90s gas and a power slider, but doesn’t whiff as many batters as you would expect. As a sinker/slider righty with average command, Clay Mortensen has a limited ceiling.

The Bullpen: A former starter shifted to relief, Andrew Bailey used his mid-90s four-seamer, high-80s cutter, and high-70s curve to demolish batters during his rookie year. He did benefit from a very low BABIP and home-run rate, but Bailey has a rare combination of power and precision. The 6’3’’, 235-pounder belongs in the elite class of closers. A submarine pitcher whose fastball couldn’t tear through tissue paper, Brad Ziegler burns worms like few others but will never post huge K rates. Mike Wuertz, on the other hand, whiffed 11.7 batters per nine frames last year with his biting slider. His stuff is closer-worthy.

The Starting Lineup: Daric Barton finally showed signs of life last season. His plate discipline is immaculate, but Barton has limited pop at a position where power is a prerequisite. Mark Ellis was sidelined with a calf injury, after suffering a shoulder malady in 2008. Ellis has some doubles power, but he’s just an option in AL-only leagues. Cliff Pennington has a good eye and some speed, but he’ll have to prove he can avoid getting the bat knocked out of his hands. Kevin Kouzmanoff gets out of Petco, but the Coliseum constricts righty thump, too. Don’t expect a huge breakout in 2010.

Rajai Davis is highly unlikely to replicate his offensive performance from 2009, but he does have serious wheels and is a good bet to nab 30-40 bags if he has a full-time job. Coco Crisp’s shoulder went snap, crackle, pop last year, requiring season-ending surgery. He’s nothing special offensively, though he could offer 20 steals. It’s probably time to stop looking at Ryan Sweeney’s 6’4’’ frame and hoping he’ll turn into a power hitter. Jack Cust didn’t hit with the same authority last year, as his ISO fell nearly 70 points. Cust is still outfield-eligible, though A’s fans wish he wasn’t. Kurt Suzuki traded some patience for power last season, as he upped his ISO by 60 points but saw his walk rate dip three percentage points.

The Bench: Jake Fox can mash, but he’s ultra-aggressive and doesn’t have a defensive home. With Cust return, Fox’s playing time depends on how much the A’s can stomach his glove. Back, shoulder, and elbow injuries have sabotaged Eric Chavez’s once-promising career. Eric Patterson stole 43 bases at Triple-A last year. He’s buried on the depth chart, though. Travis Buck needs a healthy season to avoid falling into obscurity. Switch-hitter Landon Powell has better secondary skills than your average back-up catcher.