Waiver Wire Offseason: AL

Mike Cameron | Boston | CF
2009 Final Stats: .250/.342/.452

Brian Joseph at Baseball Daily Digest had a very cynical look at how public opinion (at least on the Internet) of trades is often highly shaped by the teams involved, and how well-respected the GMs are. The same could be said of free-agent signings sometimes. If anyone other than one of the best GMs in the game had inked a soon-to-be-37-year-old Center Fielder who had hit just .250/.342/.452 (and his best season among the past 3) in a good home-run park in the easier National league… suffice it to say most people would have been a bit skeptical.

Depending on which fielding metric you trust more, Cameron has either been a slightly above-average defensive CF consistently the past 5 years (ranging from +1 to +7 runs saved per season according to the +/- system at billjamesonline.com), or he was slightly below average from 2005-2007 before becoming dramatically better (+10 runs saved per season) in 2008-2009 (UZR as published on fangraphs.com). Fortunately, using either system, the average runs saved per season is slightly positive over the past 5 years, and under the auspices of trusting higher sample sizes, we’ll believe that. Call it +2 to +3 runs saved/yr compared to an average CF. But this is a fantasy-based article, so why mention defense? Well, the highest correlation with value of any stat is playing time in most systems. And naturally, we start to worry about a guy’s defensive skills when he’s over 35, especially in a position where so much range is required. Anyway, even assuming a large deterioration in fielding skills due to age, his glove should play if he hits – “average” for an MLB CF is still very good.

Will Cameron have a Mike Lowell-esque improvement by coming to Fenway? If hit tracker results for his fly outs and extra-base hits are examined, it’s clear that Cameron pulls a lot of fly balls, and that many of the fly outs in Milwaukee would be off or over The Monster in Boston. That’s the good news.

Cameron was complaining that he was being prevented from stealing in Milwaukee. And that seems consistent with how Ken Macha has managed in the past. He was averaging about 20 SB per 600 PA the three years before 2009, and if a modest decline in speed and on-first-base percentage is assumed, he should still easily be good for 15+. That’s more good news.

Okay, now to the clincher… how will he hit? We’ve already concluded that he’s going to play a lot, probably get more “ball park” home runs due to being such a pull hitter (on fly balls), and steal more bases. But when CHONE (baseballprojection.com) has him projected to hit just .231/.314/.401, his defensive abilities, aid from The Monster in home games, and steals won’t really matter, because he’ll lose his job and become a platoon partner for Jeremy Hermida or something. But if he hits .252/.339/.442, as the ZiPS system at baseballthinkfactory.com projects, that’s a whole different ballgame! Our guess is that in most leagues, there will be at least one True Believer who will drive the price up in auction, or take him 2 rounds before anyone else is considering him. But if not, he’s an interesting “gamble” pick for a team which can afford a batting average hit and wants a guy who can contribute in the other 4 categories.

Garrett Atkins | Baltimore | 3B
2009 Final Stats: .226/.308/.342

Not as physically old as Mike Cameron, Atkins’ bat looked about 50 last season, and that’s not on the 20-80 scouting scale. Every part of his game has been in free fall since his impactful 2006 season (.329/.409/.556). Hitting just .226 or slugging just .342 is bad enough. When your home park is Coors Field – still among the best at boosting batting average and slugging – it’s time to send a search party. Atkins actually continued to hit LHP in 2009, though not as mercilessly as he had in the past (.268/.363/.428), but in 239 PA vs. the “normal” pitchers, he was beyond bad, costing the Rox several wins with his anemic .199/.272/.287 stat line. Why would the Orioles risk $4-$5million to give this guy a shot in the harder league and the hardest division?

We’ve mentioned before that batters who make “hard contact” are often some of the best fantasy players, sometimes even moreso if they don’t walk as much as their real-life managers would prefer. Well, Atkins sort of fits that mold, though he was obviously aided by Coors. He has a fine 85% Ct% for his career, and a .169 ISO. Don’t expect Atkins to suddenly rebound to doing his Aramis Ramirez impersonation, but he’s been enough of a hitter in the past that it seems reasonably likely that he’ll be able to post numbers to make him a decent AL-only league option. The conundrum here is that the less often he faces RHP, the better his numbers will be, but then if his numbers are good, he may earn more playing time.

With somewhat-similar Ty Wigginton still around, we expect Atkins to bounce around some, as “Wiggy” did last year, playing both corner spots, DH, and perhaps some outfield too (though if he qualifies there, it won’t be until later in the season). But, unless his hitting is awful and Bell is tearing up AAA, he should get over 500 PA in 2010.

John Lackey | Boston | SP
2009 Final Stats: 7.1 K/9, 3.0 K/BB, 3.83 ERA

John Lackey has a career xFIP of 4.00 (thanks to fangraphs.com), and that’s who he’s been. He’s never been below 3.57, nor above 4.31, and the xFIP hasn’t changed much with the passing years. And, of course, Theo Epstein is getting Internet-wide praise for this big acquisition, since you know what you’re getting with this guy, and it’s good. It seems very reasonable to assume the competitive nature of the multiple “ace” pitchers in Boston will drive them all to do their best (as if they needed any extra motivation), ala the 90’s Braves.

That said, it is rather a confusing signing on some levels. Lackey has been “flat” in his career, allowing about as much offense vsR as vsL. He’s not as great stopping the running game as one would hope from a quick-working righty without a big leg kick (and with the speed in Tampa Bay especially, that’s important in this division). He’s not really a ground ball pitcher, and – coupled with the fact that he doesn’t annihilate RH hitters, fans in Fenway can be expecting many balls off or over the wall. Then there’s the difference in divisions. Lackey posted those 4.00 xFIP seasons in the weaker AL West, and in 2009 he faced an average OPS of .755 (thanks to baseballprospectus.com), compared to .761 and .768 for Lester and Beckett.

Lackey will be an interesting case in “hype” and “reputation”, as we discussed last week. He’s been a fairly anonymous star for years in LA, if that’s possible. He won one ERA title, but never logged 20 wins, and doesn’t strike out enough batters to be “sexy”. So, how will he be perceived now that he’s on one of the two highest-profile teams in the game? For fantasy purposes, the Red Sox should give him tons of run support, though some of the names in the lineup are still TBD. Based on the above reasons, we foresee a slight-but-significant drop in his effectiveness, so it’s not clear that he’ll help either ratio stat in a mixed league, though a 4.00/1.35 pitcher shouldn’t hurt too much, either. The innings totals may drop somewhat, due to better and more patient offenses in his division. All-in-all, since wins are so important, his fantasy value should remain similar to previous years, though taking a different “shape” in terms of categories aided.

Cliff Lee | Seattle | SP
2009 Final Stats: 7.0 K/9, 4.2 K/BB, 3.22 ERA

A lot has been written about Cliff Lee the past two years, from Derek Carty’s great 2-part Pitch F/X breakdown of him earlier this year to the volume of stories written about him after this historic trade on every site possible. In short, it doesn’t take Bill James to figure out that pitching in Seattle – for an organization which has placed enormous value on defense – will be a fantastic opportunity for Mr. Lee to rack up some more imposing stats en route to the free-agency bonanza he appears to be seeking.

The Incompleat Starting Pitcher
The end of the nine-inning start and how we got here.

But what will Seattle mean to him in fantasy terms. The ERA and WHIP will be reduced by the park and defense. Counterbalancing that is the fact that – while not the AL East – the West is tougher than the Central, and Lee has faced the easiest competition in the majors over the past two years (last among 100-IP pitchers in AL in 2009 with Cleveland at .743 OPS against, and only Kenny Rogers faced an easier slate in 2008 (.735 for Lee). Meanwhile, Seattle starters – not getting to face the popgun assault the M’s have had recently, have had a more typical collection of OPS’s seen (.759 for both Washburn and Felix in 2009, for example). So, that’s an expected increase in opponent quality of about 20 OPS points, not insignificant at all. The good news for Lee and his fantasy owners is that Oakland appears to be the AAA’s now, instead of the Athletics, and it’s not clear who the Angels will have in their lineup now that Figgins has changed sides.

Another, more subtle point of concern is this – being a smart pitcher, it’s plausible that Lee will worry even less about punching out hitters than he did in Cleveland. The Indians were never known for their defense, running guys like Jhonny Peralta out there. But with a good defensive left side (LF is still TBD, apparently, but Wilson is a wizard and Figgins is very good), Lee can allow even more contact, and probably has the precision to do just that if he chooses. The flip side of this is that it could mean even MORE innings for a guy who’s posted 450 in the past two regular seasons. And those extra innings should really help fantasy ratio stats, and may allow enough more K’s to make up for a slightly reduced K/9.

It’s hard to figure out how much run support Lee will receive. The M’s currently have Mike Carp at first base and Michael Saunders in LF, but expectations are that the M’s didn’t trade for 1 year of Cliff Lee to play the “experimental” team in 2009 – and that they will grab veterans for those two holes and perhaps DH also (Griffey/Sweeney at present – Nick Johnson would have been a nice fit for the OBP-starved M’s, but he’s in NY now). For now, the M’s again look like a terrible offensive team, however. Figgins will help, but Branyan hit 31 HR in that big park in 2009, and that sort of power will be sorely missed if not replaced. For now, we’d place Lee in the 14-15 win range, but add up to half any additional WAR the M’s import to his win total – so, if they add 2 4-WAR players to play 1B and LF, count on another +4 (statistically expected) wins for Lee… he’s in a high-slope portion of the Pythagorean curve.

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