Fantasy Waiver Wire: Week 5, Vol. I

Here at The Hardball Times’ Waiver Wire desk (located in the basement of the very fine THT building), my compatriot Karl de Vries and I spend a lot of time looking at trends. We scour countless player profiles for something unusual, something unexpected, something that has been overlooked for one reason or another.

It seems helpful, then, to offer a reminder about some of the trends we talk about, and when those statistics will stabilize. There are good pieces on this here, here, and here, that expand upon previous work by Russell Carleton and Harry Pavlidis.

At this point in the season, everyday players have crossed the 100 plate appearance threshold, and many of the platoon players I mention in this space are around the 60 PA mark, which means right now the data regarding swing rates, contact rates, strikeout rates, walk rates and home run rates are either fairly trustworthy or getting close to that point. (Note: this is way more true for hitters than it is for pitchers, those fickle beasts).

So, yes, it’s still early in the season, and a lot of the trends Karl and I dig up still are to be taken with a large helping of salt, but they aren’t complete flukes anymore, either. Just a friendly reminder as the season’s first month comes to an end. As always, let’s take a look around the league at some players we’ve featured here, which we always nail sometimes get right:

Saturday brought news regarding Red Sox relievers Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey. It seems Hanrahan is nearing a return, and Peter Abraham of The Boston Globe states that Harahan is expected to resume closing when he rejoins the team. I’m skeptical for now, mostly because Bailey has been very good, and Hanrahan was pretty bad before getting shut down.

If you were smart and listened to Karl when he promoted Bailey earlier this year, now is not the time to drop him. Instead, wait to see how this actually plays out. It seems unlikely the Red Sox will continue propping up Hanrahan if Bailey continues to excel.

Elsewhere in the world of teams named after foot apparel, the White Sox placed starter Gavin Floyd on the disabled list Sunday. Dylan Axelrod was featured here just before the season, and while he wasn’t strongly recommended, he’s been quietly solid for the pale hose. John Danks is on a Triple-A rehab assignment and seems close to returning, so Floyd’s injury will keep Axelrod in the rotation for longer than originally anticipated.

Axelrod still is the guy to get jettisoned when the White Sox are fully healthy, but for the time being, he can be used in a pinch or as part of a plan to stream starters in good situations. He’s been decent across the board, so while he is still not a big upside play, you could do worse for a guy who is still widely available.

Jake Westbrook has made four starts for the Cardinals and currently has an ERA below 1.00. Given the good fortune he’s had in a number of areas (strand rate and home run rate chief among them) and the fact that he’s walked as many hitters as he’s struck out, I wouldn’t expect that to continue.

On to today’s victims featured players, shall we?

Luis Valbuena | Chicago Cubs | 3B | ESPN: 0.6 percent ownership; Yahoo!: 1 percent; CBS: 7 percent
YTD: .237/.338/.475 in 68 PA
ZiPS Updated Projection: .245/.323/.398 in 538 PA

Ian Stewart | Chicago Cubs | 3B | ESPN: 0 percent ownership; Yahoo!: 0 percent; CBS: 3 percent
YTD: .100/.243./.133 in 37 Triple-A PA
ZiPS Updated Projection: .210/.296/.376 in 328 PA

I’m choosing to highlight the Cubs’ third basemen for three reasons:

1. Luis Valbuena has been outstanding thus far, but nobody seems to care.
2. Ian Stewart is on his Triple-A rehab assignment and seemingly will be back in the majors soon.
3. I need to work out my thoughts on how this will all play out. So let’s enjoy the journey together.

Stewart is the bigger household name, and he’s had more major league success than Valbuena by a wide margin. The problem is, most of that success came before a rash of injuries derailed his career, including wrist surgery last season and a quadriceps injury that has him yet to play in the majors this year. These setbacks unfortunately leave us unsure about what he has left, how far his skill has diminished since he was last healthy (assuming there was a time when he was healthy), and what kind of player he will be going forward.

It’s mostly impossible to answer any of those questions, so a lot of how this all shakes out depends on how Stewart looks at Triple-A (not very good, thus far) when/if he gets called back up to the big club, and what kind of role the Cubs give him when/if he does indeed make it back. Manager Dale Sveum has said Stewart will have to earn his starting gig back, and that might be harder to do than some would make it seem.

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First the major league stuff. Yeah, Valbuena’s numbers at the game’s highest level are not good, this is true. He has a career .225/.295/.350 line in 337 games spread across six seasons (including the current one), but that’s precisely my problem with writing him off. He’s in his sixth big league season, and he’s still just 27 years old. Despite varying degrees of solid numbers in the minor leagues, he’s never been given a real shot to be an everyday player.

Given the majority of the playing time at third base to start the year with the Cubs, Valbuena has posted strong results despite some poor luck. His average is low, but assuming his BABIP of .233 trends up going forward, I’d expect his average to do the same. Valbuena’s walk rate and ISO have been superb as well, 11.8 percent and .237, respectively, and they have not been far outside his results in the minor leagues.

At every stop of his minor league career, Valbuena has walked. He’s generally been around 10 percent while striking out around 15 percent. He’s also flashed impressive power, with a career minor league ISO of .157, but with stretches of brilliance, including a .218 mark in 2009 at Triple-A 2009 as a 23-year-old, and a .292 mark the following year at the same level. Granted, we’re talking about sample sizes of 95 and 119 plate appearances, but still, the skill is there, and now he’s getting enough playing time to put it on display. Whether or not that continues to be the case depends in large part on what’s happening with Stewart.

Either one of Valbuena or Stewart can have value, but not both. This is not a case where the Cubs will work out a useful platoon using these two players. If Stewart proves healthy, it’s likely he will come up. If he’s playing well, he’s the guy for the Cubs, and Valbuena likely will be relegated to super-sub duty, splitting time between third base and second.

It’s worth mentioning that Valbuena does not have the kind of platoon splits that mean he needs to split time at third base. In fact, if anything, it might be fair to make the case that he has a reverse platoon split, despite the fact that the Cubs have been sitting him against lefties lately. So if Stewart fails to regain the ability to hit like he did during his best days in Colorado, and if Valbuena keeps up his current production, it stands to reason that the seemingly woeful situation at third base in Chicago has found an unlikely answer in Valbuena.

I suppose Josh Vitters merits a mention here, if only because some might wonder where he factors into this equation. If you ask me, he doesn’t. I’ve never been a big fan, and he’s been on the disabled list most of the season with back soreness. For now, there’s nothing to see here.

Recommendation: It’s a bit of an unsatisfying conclusion that much of Valbuena’s value depends on what Stewart is doing, but as someone who is skeptical of Stewart after wrist surgery and a delayed start to this season, and someone who has always kind of liked Valbuena, I’m inclined to recommend the current Cubs’ third baseman.

He’s a great addition for the time being until the Cubs do something with Stewart, and Valbuena bears watching after that point as well. If Stewart comes up and starts hitting like the good old days, it’s worth remembering that he’s just 28 years old and can be a wonderful waiver wire find if healthy. I’m just skeptical about that last part.

John Lackey| Boston Red Sox | SP | ESPN: 6.5 percent ownership; Yahoo!: 9 percent; CBS: 17 percent
YTD: 4.1 IP, two earned runs allowed, one walk, eight strikeouts
ZiPS Updated Projection: 5.26 ERA in 104.3 IP

One of the best ways to achieve fantasy success is to capitalize when a players’ narrative overshadows his actual resume. That might be happening right now with John Lackey.

The narrative is well known. Lackey signed a huge five-year, $82.5 million deal with the Red Sox before his age-31 season in 2010, and the on-field results have not been good. He posted 3.9 WAR in that 2010 season, but mostly because he racked up 215 innings. On a game-by-game basis he was merely average, and that season was by far his best in Boston to date.

In 2011 Lackey had an ugly 6.41 ERA (which admittedly was unlucky, but he still was not very good), and he missed all of 2012 after having Tommy John surgery. Throw in off-field issues with the media, and you have a player whose name invokes more eyerolls than analysis.

The thing is, Lackey was once very good, and he’s still not that old. He made his season debut April 6 against Toronto and looked sharp, touching 94 miles per hour with his fastball and striking out eight batters over 4.1 innings. I was getting set to recommend him, right when he suffered an injury that looked terrible but turned out to be nothing more than a cramp.

Lackey is back again, tossing six strong innings Sunday against the Astros, allowing one run and striking out four while walking two. Maybe most importantly, he looked plenty healthy. If he is, he can provide value for mixed-league owners.

Recommendation: Worth adding in mixed leagues while he’s healthy. He won’t be a game breaker, but guys who can provide wins and toss league-average numbers across the board don’t grow on trees.

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Bud Selig
Bud Selig

I enjoyed last year’s Waiver Wire format better.  This year’s format isn’t as useful.

Jack Weiland
Jack Weiland

@Bud Selig – Sorry to hear that. Can you be more specific? I assume you mean the fact that our columns are not AL or NL specific now? That seems to be the only change, really, besides having content three times a week vs. two times a week. The split amongst those three columns has been pretty even as far as NL vs. AL goes, though.