Waiver Wire:  AL, preseason special

Welcome back to The Waiver Wire everyone. Those who read these weekly columns last year may have noticed that I am now covering the American League, and my counterpart, Jeffrey Gross, will be covering the National League. We hope that by switching league coverage we can offer fresh insight on players. In this special preseason edition, the focus will be on undervalued draft day assets. To qualify, a player has to fall outside the top 200 in Mock Draft Central’s most recent ADP index. (Thus I’ll be referencing a player’s index, not his ADP, i.e. Albert Pujols index is 1 while his ADP is 1.05).

MDC Index as of March 8.

Matt Thornton | Chicago (AL) | RP | 90 percent Yahoo! ownership | MDC Index 209
2010 Stats:8 SV, 2.67 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 12.02 K/9, 4.05 K/BB, 39.6 GB
OLIVER:36 SV, 3.04 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 9.8 K/9, 3.62 K/BB

The favorite to close games for the Pale Hose, Thornton, is a solid value at his current average draft slot. Many may be shying away from him for fear that manager Ozzie Guillen opts to use Chris Sale in the ninth inning, but with a solid record and the ability to eat up both lefties and righties Thornton should get the first crack at the closer gig. With his three consecutive seasons of ERAs and xFIP south of 3.00, I see no reason to doubt his ability to hold onto the role.

Using a blazing fastball that averaged 96.1 mph (his best velocity dating back as far as FanGraphs tracks, 2004), Thornton made hitters look silly last year, racking up strikeouts by the boatload. His high strikeout rate was firmly supported by a career best 14.9 percent swinging strike rate (8.5 percent league average) and a contact rate against his pitches of just 71.4 percent (80.7 percent league average). Toss in the fact that hitters were fishing out of the zone at 34.1 percent of his pitches (29.3 percent league average) and coming up empty often with just a 61.4 percent o-contact rate (66.5 percent league average) and it’s easy to see how he was able to accumulate so many punchouts. Take advantage of others’ hesitance to take an “unsecure,” closer and draft a reliever capable of posting elite numbers outside the top 200.

Recommendation: Should be owned in all formats.

Travis Snider | Toronto | OF | 72 percent Yahoo! ownership | MDC Index 247
2010 Stats: .255/.304/.463, 319 PA
OLIVER: .253/.315/.461, 623 PA

At just 23, Snider’s swing already packs punch. In 319 plate appearances last season he ripped 14 homers. It appears the only thing he needs to accumulate 20-plus home runs is playing time. Little appears to be in his way this season, so regular at bats are on the horizon if he remains healthy.

Like most young sluggers, Snider has a propensity to strikeout frequently—26.5 percent strikeout rate in 2010. However, his strikeout rate took a step in the right direction last year; it was 32.4 percent in 2009. Last year’s healthy line drive rate of 24.3 percent coupled with his growth in making contact (75.0 percent in 2010 as opposed to 70.8 percent in 2009) lead hope to him being more than a low-average slugger type. Those hoping to see him eclipse 30 home runs this season should be rooting for Snider to turn some of his ground balls (or his ridiculous 10.5 percent pop-outs) into fly balls.

Since he’s playing in a home ballpark that amplifies home run production, more flyballs are Snider’s ticket to being an elite power source, as the raw pop is already evident with 18.4 percent HR/FB rate. Likely opening the season in the bottom third of the Blue Jays order, he may leave a bit to be desired in the run and RBI categories until he’s able to move up the order, so draft him as a source of power for the time being and anything extra will be gravy.

Recommendation: Should be owned in all league formats.

Frank Francisco | Toronto | RP | 54 percent Yahoo! ownership | MDC Index 248
2010 Stats: 2 SV, 3.76 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 10.25 K/9, 3.33 K/BB, 39.4 GB
OLIVER: 28 SV, 3.48 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 9.8 K/9, 3.23 K/BB

With three consecutive seasons of strikeouts per nine innings over 10.0 (10.25 2010) and reasonable walk rates each season (’10: 3.08 BB/9; ’09: 2.74 BB/9; ’08: 3.69 BB/9), Francisco is the leader in the clubhouse for Blue Jays closing duties. Octavio Dotel should offer zero competition for the role; he’s worthless against left-handed batters and better suited to be used only situationally against righthanders. Jason Frasor has a skill set that would make him a passable closer, but the fact that he strikes out fewer hitters and walks more than Francisco also make him more likely to see seventh and eighth inning duty.

Francisco’s batted ball profile slants heavily toward allowing flyballs, so he’s likely to yield a few more homers than his groundball inducing contemporaries, but that’s little reason to shy away from him at his current going rate in drafts. Those who like to wait on their closers should scoop up Francisco; his talent should allow him to post respectable ratios and strikeout numbers while compiling saves, unlike the typical late closers drafted just for saves (see: Fernando Rodney).

Recommendation: Should be owned in all league formats.

Carlos Carrasco | Cleveland | SP | 2 percent Yahoo! ownership | MDC Index 252
2010 Stats: 2 W, 3.83 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 7.66 K/9, 2.71 K/BB, 56.8 GB
OLIVER: 7 W, 4.82 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, 7.1 K/9, 2.09 K/BB

May I Have Your Autograph, Please?
The payoff of being polite.

After a solid finish to his 2010 season, Carrasco (one of the pieces in the thoroughly underwhelming Cliff Lee package of 2009), is poised to start the season in the Indians rotation. Ranking as the top prospect in the Phillies farm system according to Baseball America in both 2007 and 2008 and the No. 2 prospect there in 2009, he certainly has the tools scouts look for in a successful major league hurler.

To date, consistency has been Carrasco’s undoing, but last season saw him string together a full season of solid performance spent in both Triple-A and the majors. In 44.2 major league innings last year, Carrasco demonstrated all the controllable skills necessary for a potential breakout this season, posting a solid 7.66 K/9, a 2.82 BB/9 and a superb 56.8 percent groundball rate. Armed with a four-pitch mix that includes a fastball that averaged 92.9 mph, a slider, curveball and change-up, he has the goods to face a lineup multiple times through and get hitters of each handedness out.

If he has a little more BABIP and HR/FB luck, Carrasco is capable of posting an ERA in the vicinity of his 3.55 xFIP last year, which coupled with his stellar strikeout rate makes him intriguing and a prime candidate to outperform his current draft slot, in 2010 Gio Gonzalez fashion.

Ryan Raburn | Detroit | 2B/OF | 75 percent Yahoo! ownership | MDC Index 265
2010 Stats: .280/.340/.474, 410 PA
OLIVER:.274/.335/.472, 554 PA

After a torrid finish to the 2010 season (.315/.366/.534 with 13 home runs in 251 at-bats post-All-Star break), Raburn is slated to see full time a- bats starting in left field for the Tigers. Thanks to playing 18 games at second base, Raburn makes for a sneaky solid play there or at middle infield. With a strikeout rate of 24.8 percent last year and a .333 BABIP, he may see his average drop a bit below last year’s .280 mark, unless he can cut back a bit on the strikeouts or continue to post a higher than average BABIP (his career mark is .330 in 1,079 plate appearances, so certainly possible). Regardless, he shouldn’t be an anchor on average and offers 20-plus home run power potential at a power-devoid position.

With the return of a healthy Magglio Ordonez and the addition of Victor Martinez, Raburn looks primed to slot second in the Tigers order. Hitting second should allow him to accumulate a ton of plate appearances and with it a healthy number of counting stats. While I’d be a bit uneasy with Raburn as my starting second baseman without a solid backup plan, he is a well above-average target as a middle infielder. He’s a good gamble for those not looking to pay a position-scarcity draft tax on the upper echelon second base options but looking for a potential big payoff a la Kelly Johnson of last season.

Recommendation: Should be owned in all league formats.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka | Minnesota | 2B/SS | 67 percent Yahoo! ownership | MDC Index 280
2010 Stats: .346/.423/.482, 692 PA (Japan’s Pacific League)
OLIVER: .285/.343/.400, 623 PA

A bit of an unknown, but eligible at both second base and shortstop in Yahoo!, Nishioka (who shall affectionately be referred to as Yoshi going forward in honor of this character), presents a rock-solid gamble at his current draft position. The Japan Pacific League 2010 batting champ with a .346 average also possesses a solid eye with 79 walks in his 692 plate appearances helping him reach base at a .423 OBP. It remains to be seen how his average and on-base skills translate to the majors, but if he’s able to get on at a healthy clip, he looks to be a decent speed and runs scored source, He stole 22 bases last year and 26 in 2009 (though also caught stealing 21 times over the same time frame, so he’ll have to shore up the success rate if he expects to be given the green light regularly).

Playing at Target Field, and having a career high of 14 home runs in a season in Japan, means his modest power is likely to be muted for the most part. Those looking for insurance at either second base or shortstop, or the truly foolish bold folks who own injury-prone players at both positions can kill two birds with one stone drafting “Yoshi,” late.

Recommendation: Should be owned in all but the shallowest of league formats given the dearth of talent at second base and shortstop.

Jake Peavy | Chicago (AL) | SP | 72 percent Yahoo! ownership | MDC Index 314
2010 Stats: 7 W, 4.63 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 7.82 K/9, 2.74 K/BB, 40.6 GB
OLIVER: 9 W, 3.79 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 8.3 K/9, 2.84 K/BB

With each hurdle Peavy clears in his recovery from surgery to reattach the latissimus dorsi muscle, one should expect to see his draft stock rise. With a chance to break camp on the major league squad, and thus not open the year on the disabled list, and reported velocity readings in his first spring training action hovering in the low 90s, he presents a calculated risk with significant upside.

There is, however, significant downside as well. The surgery he had is unprecedented for a starting pitcher, so how he holds up remains to be seen. Also, before the injury last year, Peavy wasn’t his typical brilliant self, posting a 7.82 K/9 (still solid but more than a full strikeout down from his career mark) with a rather grotesque 4.63 ERA (4.08 xFIP so he wasn’t that bad, but still not vintage Senior Circuit Peavy). Keep tabs on him as your draft approaches, and if he continues to suffer from no setbacks, consider him a solid upside pick for a team with solid rotation depth.

Recommendation: Should be owned in most 12-team or larger mixed leagues, should be owned in all AL-only leagues.

Erik Bedard | Seattle | SP | 16 percent Yahoo! ownership| MDC Index Outside the top 386 players indexed
2010: Injured
OLIVER: 6 W, 4.06 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 8.0 K/9, 2.23 K/BB

Bedard missed all of the 2010 season, and hasn’t topped 100 innings pitched since his last year in Baltimore in 2007. To say he’s been a monumental bust in a blockbuster deal made under Bill Bavasi’s helm would be an understatement. All that said, none of that affects his potential fantasy impact in the 2011 season, and I remain intrigued. Signed to an incentive-laden contract this offseason to remain in Seattle, Bedard should be aided by pitching his home games in a ballpark, SAFECO Field, that suppresses home runs significantly.

Owning an 8.77 K/9 and a 3.88 xFIP for his career, Bedard presents a worthwhile $1 gamble in auctions or a late-round stab in the dark in snake drafts. For comparisons sake, I’d rather select Bedard than fellow American League West injury rebound candidate Brandon Webb.

Recommendation: Should be owned in some 12-team mixed leagues and most larger mixed leagues, should be owned in all AL-only leagues.

Jake McGee | Tampa Bay | RP | 17 percent Yahoo! ownership | MDC Index 345
2010:1.80 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 10.80 K/9, 2.00 K/BB, 54.5 GB
OLIVER: 4.41 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, 8.1 K/9, 1.93 K/BB

Armed with a hellacious fastball and what FanGraphs identifies as a slider, and The 2011 Baseball America Prospect Handbook describes instead as a power curve, McGee looks ready to claim the closer role in Tampa Bay. Also in competition for ninth inning duties are Kyle Farnsworth, he of the wilting in high leverage situations mold, Joel Peralta, and perhaps J.P. Howell when he is healthy enough to pitch. None of them has the upside and talent of McGee, who ranks as the No. 4 prospect in the Rays’ loaded farm system, according Baseball America.

In 621 minor league innings pitched, much of which came as a starter (129 games started of 140 games pitched) he has embarrassed hitters with a 10.44 K/9. His lack of a developed third pitch should be a non-issue in the bullpen, but if he’s able to further develop his change-up to even an average offering, consider that one more bullet to toss into his arsenal.

With the Rays’ pipeline of starting pitching prospects rather deep, it appears McGee’s future lies in the pen. With that in mind, now is as good a time as any to let the closer of the future earn the job now. Even if he opens the season in a closer-by-committee, or in a setup role, his juicy strikeout rate and helpful ratios make him rosterable until he is slamming the door in ninth innings.

Recommendation: Should be owned in all league formats.

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Does this take into account the injuries to Francisco and Peavy, as well as the fact that Maddon has indicated he’ll use a committee?

Josh Shepardson
Josh Shepardson
@ GTWMA Sorry about the delayed response.  I wrote this in advance of a trip to Las Vegas, so at the time, it appeared Francisco and Peavy would be healthy at the start of the season.  With Peavy’s setback, he becomes a riskier pick, and one I’m not likely to make.  I operated under the assumption of a closer-by-committee when discussing McGee, but believe his talent will ultimately allow him to wrangle the job for himself.  Kyle Farnsworth was terrible in high leverage situations, Peralta should be useful but just doesn’t have the upside of McGee and Howell is looking… Read more »