Waiver Wire Offseason: NL

Joey Votto | Cincinnati | 1B
2009 Final Stats: .322/.414/.567
2010 THTF Projected Stats: .290/.373/.488

Despite dealing with vertigo and depression in 2009, Votto added more than 100 points to his 2008 OPS, while matching many of his counting numbers in 45 fewer PAs. 2009 actually looked a lot like his small-sample 2007, but with double the walk rate and slightly more strikeouts. Compared to 2008, on the other hand, Votto’s 2009 production is much more similar; the difference is the hit rate, which shot up five points from 2008 to 2009. His BABIP, which doesn’t measure HR, shot up a whopping 44 points over the same span, which explains why his BA rose 25 points.

That tells us that luck on balls in play and a rise in home run rate can explain the production difference, and at least some of the 61-point rise in SLG. Because he’s a line-drive hitter with moderate power, Votto tends to have higher BABIP and hit rates than your average bear, though 2009 was far luckier than expected. Where we see the real shift in his plate approach is in that home run rate. He converted fly balls to dingers at a slightly lower clip in 2009 (17.5%) than 2008 (18.5%), but he applied those rates over a great percentage of fly balls: 31% in 2008 became 39% in 2009. More of that came at the cost of groundballs than line drives, but both were affected.

Because he’s so young, it’s hard to know what this means for Votto—is he becoming more a power hitter? His minor-league splits validate the shift in flyball rates, so if those continue, his contributions to batting average are going to drop. On the other hand, he may shift his approach at the plate back toward line drives, something that’s advisable from a guy hitting in Cincinnati’s three-hole, giving up those SLG gains. Neither one is particularly worrisome from a fantasy perspective, as his underlying ratios look solid. With a year away from the problems of 2009, he should establish career highs in counting stats, regardless of which way those ratios shift.

THTF sees the shift as moving away from HR, with the H% correction also eroding his BA. Both are lower than most other projections systems, and I think they’re unduly pessimistic. Oliver’s forecasts of 24 HR and 88 RBIs look right, but the 32 doubles is where some of that low SLG comes from. Barring further emotional and inner-ear complications, I’d expect Votto to beat those ratios, though not by as much as other owners may think. Bid carefully here, because every projection sees him backsliding, and other owners will want to pay for those inflated 2009 numbers. Unless you’re in a keeper league, don’t overpay for a guy who’s still not a true power hitter at a power position.

Francisco Cordero | Cincinnati | RP
2009 Final Stats: 7.8 K/9, 1.9 K/BB, 2.16 ERA
2010 THTF Projected Stats: 8.5 K/9, 2.1 K/BB, 3.74 ERA

His 2009 ERA looks awfully nice, but Cordero’s 3.10 FIP shows that he had a bit of Lady Luck on his side. That’s verified by his .301 BABIP, his second-lowest ever, and two years after 2007’s .241, when he somehow managed a 2.98 ERA anyway. He’s also had two straight years of elevated LOB% rates, typically a sign of ERA regression, even if he dodged that bullet in 2009.

2009 also featured a very small 3.0% HR/FB rate, low even for a guy with Cordero’s unusually low career 5.9%. That’s why his xFIP has risen the past two years to a career-worst 4.06, a sign that something is going to give in his production. Cordero keeps his HR rate down by also keeping the ball down, and last season saw him with a 1.15 GB/FB rate, his second-best ever and his second straight year goosing that into more ERA-protective territory. When you pitch at Great American Home Run Park, that’s a good thing, and may come from a change in his repertoire.

In that same 2007-2009 period, Cordero’s clearly changed his makeup on the mound, as his strikeout rate has plunged from a career-best 12.2 in 2007 to last year’s 7.8, his lowest level since 2001. That, in turn, comes from a shift in his pitch selection—Cordero has a heater that sits around 95, complemented by a change in the mid-eighties and a wicked slider. In the past, he used his slider a lot more, peaking at 46% in 2007, but in the past two years, that’s dropped significantly, down to 26.3% last year. At the same time, he’s upped his use of his heater from 51% to 64% since 2007.

Using his slider less could mean elbow problems, or might explain why his walk rate has been above 4.0 BB/9 for the last two years. These are all worrisome trends for Cordero, which is why everyone sees him giving up his ERA gains in 2010. THTF is more pessimistic than others I’ve seen, though the strikeout ratios and control ratios are similar. He’s managed to avoid significant payback for his high strand and BABIP rates, and he may keep dodging those bullets if he keeps the ball down in the zone. If he doesn’t, he may get that statistical “adjustment” with precisely the vengeance that THTF predicts.

Don’t forget that Cordero’s 35, so more velocity dropoff and overall decline is to be expected, and he pitches in a park that doesn’t forgive many mistakes. He’s got skills, but the red flags of walk rates and declining slider usage could mean problems. So you can still bid on him, but be cautious, and don’t go the extra dollar on a guy who’s on his way down, not up.

Brian McCann | Atlanta | C
2009 Final Stats: .281/.391/.486
2010 THTF Projected Stats: .283/.348/.501

Fantasy owners were contemplating swan dives from their office windows when McCann started out 2009 with a .195/.333/.415, seeming lost at the plate. As it turned out, it was all in his eyes (specifically, his left eye), a complication of offseason LASIK, and Oakley created a custom pair of stylin’ frames (and lenses) for him to adjust his vision. McCann adjusted more than that, hitting .289/.350/.492 the rest of the way and coaxing his owners off their metaphorical high-rise ledges.

The rest of the season wasn’t all wine and roses for McCann—like many catchers, he wore down as the season went along, hitting .246/.309/.440 from July 28 to the end of the season. Other catchers would love to get these kind of numbers, of course, but McCann owners had to feel a bit more like climbing back out on that ledge in August, given where they drafted him (or how much they paid). Those same owners have to wonder if this late slump will continue for McCann in 2010, and whether they’ll find themselves on Fantasy Suicide Watch again.

The Oakleys will be gone in 2010, as McCann underwent LASIK surgery again in October to fix that left eye, which might help the one cause for concern in this 2009 season: his plate discipline. McCann’s career K rate is 14.2%, but he whiffed at a 20% clip in the final two months of the season, possibly a product of his late-summer fatigue, or steamed-up Oakleys. He walked less, too, albeit slightly less, at an 8% rate that was a dropoff from the 9.9% he logged the rest of the season, a number that happened to be identical to his 2008 levels.

Except for this, however, much of his 2009 performance echoed his 2008 results. His 34% hit rate was the same, and his powerful 20% line-drive rate was nearly equal; he tweaked his flyball rate down by 2%, keeping his HR/FB rate steady. If you take away his early struggles and late fade, he hit a robust .325/.386/.538, very similar to his 2008 numbers. THTF sees his strikeout and walk rates continuing to decline slightly, which comes at the cost of OBP; his power is clearly due for a rebound, right in line with other projections. Overall, this seems like a very good assessment of his 2010 outlook.

Retroactive Review: Ace
Looking back at some of Justin Verlander's most interesting moments.

The 2009 late-season fade will—and should—have some fantasy owners a little spooked. There’s a reason why catchers have a short shelf life in MLB, and McCann’s caught 130+ games for three straight seasons. He’s only 26, so it’s not like he’s turned into Crash Davis, but it might not be unusual for McCann owners to see him decline down the stretch like this in the years to come. He’s still valuable when he’s slipping, but it could drag down his value come Draft Day.

Wandy Rodriguez | Houston | SP
2009 Final Stats: 8.4 K/9, 3.1 K/BB, 3.02 ERA
2010 THTF Projected Stats: 7.8 K/9, 2.5 K/BB, 4.01 ERA

At the core, Rodriguez’s 2008 and 2009 were nearly identical, with 2009 showing a slight improvement in xFIP from 3.75 to 3.63 that came from similarly small steps forward in walk and strikeout rates. But the real difference comes from strand rates and BABIP, two factors largely out of a pitcher’s control, and which underlie his career year in 2009.

In 2008, batters had a .326 BABIP against Rodriguez, who had a 73% strand rate, the former elevated and the latter about at league average. Rodriguez has put up low (unlucky) strand rates throughout his career, though they’ve been creeping upward each year. While strand rates often reflect luck—pitchers can’t always control who’s on base when they give up hits or home runs—they can also reflect the ability of a pitcher to concentrate on the batter and not the baserunners, or to bear down in tight situations.

So it could be argued that Wandy has learned to pitch under pressure and work from the stretch. But his BABIP fell to .306 in 2009, closer to league average, but low by Wandy’s standards. Like all groundball pitchers, Rodriguez has a higher BABIP than average in his career, so anytime he’s close to league average, luck is breaking his way. That portends a regression in ERA next season, much as THTF (and other systems) predict, along with a dropoff in strikeout and walk rates that will drop his value further.

His strikeout rates will continue to deliver points to fantasy owners, and he’s certainly turned a corner in his career by showing great improvement, so there’s nothing to worry about in the grand scheme of things, fantasy-wise. But his career 2009 and probable slippage in 2010 will make him overvalued on Draft Day, and you should bid accordingly.

Justin Upton | Arizona | OF
2009 Final Stats: .300/.366/.532
2010 THTF Projected Stats: .280/.355/.515

Upton’s 2009 puts him in some pretty heady company: The other players to have a .250+ ISO season before age 22 include names like Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Willie McCovey, Jimmie Foxx, and A-Rod. Of course, it also includes injury-riddled flameouts like Bob Horner and Hal Trotsky, or the injury- and drug-riddled Daryl Strawberry. Regardless, it’s excellent company, and few are questioning Arizona’s wisdom in locking him down to a six-year, $51.5M contract.

As with many other young players, it’s hard to spot definite trends in Upton’s career. His walk rate bounced up from 7.2% in 2007 to 12.9% in 2008, then fell back down to 9.4% last year. Is that a rising trend, with 2008 as the outlier, or is 2007’s 152 PAs a small sample space, and this is a downward trend? His strikeout rate did the same thing, starting at 26% in 2007, shooting up to 34% in 2008, then falling back to 26% in 2009. That’s hopefully a downward trend, but it’s hard to be confident. THTF sees him as probably slipping some in his batting average, though .280 is still rather nice, and Upton is working towards the skillset that can consistently deliver a .300 BA.

Another stat that could indicate a bad trend for a power hitter is his rising GB rate, which went from 36.0% to 37.2% to 45.5% in the past three years. What’s helped J-Up is his rising HR rate, which went from 4.2% to 15.3% to 18.8%, getting into elite territory. Given his clear ability to hit the snot out of a baseball, it’s hard not to think that the latter will continue to rise, but if he keeps sliding backwards in his fly ball rate, that snot-knocking won’t be quite as effective. THTF thinks that should undercut his SLG, on the low end of other systems, but hardly a lowball, and certainly very good value.

Another set of crossing trends involve his pitch recognition, as he’s killing pitches without movement—his wFB/C rose from 0.06 to 2.58 and his wCH/C stayed strong at 3.65 and 3.27 between 2008 and 2009—but scuffling against breaking stuff in the past two seasons—his wSL/C plunged from 1.06 to -2.43 while his wCB/C improved into more acceptable territory, from -1.57 to 0.81. Pitchers will notice this, too, and he’s going to see less of the straight stuff and more sliders in 2010, at least until he figures those out, too.

Fantasy owners know that Upton’s more than just a great hitter, however. He’s got wheels, and he’s going to swipe somewhere around 20 bases, further adding to his value. The good thing is that AJ Hinch likes to run, so J-Up should get the greenlight more often than not. Hitting third might not seem like he best place to swipe bags, but that’s where he hit last year, and did just fine with 20 steals. So no matter how much he might scuffle with the bat—and I’m not saying he will—he’s still going to bring value with those SBs.

Bidding on Upton depends on whether you’re in a keeper or redraft league. Keeper owners (those in a first-year league, anyway, since J-Up’s long gone in existing keeper leagues) should think like the D-backs and pay for his future production. One-year league owners should see that correction coming and don’t overpay for the hype of Upton’s HOF 2009—he’s still a young hitter, and regression is definitely likely. Add that to the overpaying tendency of other owners, and you may be able to find better value elsewhere in the outfield.

This is Rob McQuown and my last week writing Waiver Wire for The Hardball Times, and Tommy Rancel and Josh Shepardson, two talents you know from “Buy On the Rumor,” will be taking over to start the regular season. I just want to thank the THT staff—particularly Dave, David, and Derek—for all their help, as well as the awesome THTF readers who constantly challenged me to produce the best product each week, and with whom I had some great fantasy baseball and stat discussions. I’m going to miss all of you, and I hope you’ll keep reading me at some of my other writing venues. Have a great season, and let’s Play Ball!

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Kevin (MadMaxScherzer)
Kevin (MadMaxScherzer)

Thanks for all the amazing advice, attentiveness to detail, and quick responses to inquiries Rob. Best of luck in all your future endeavors! Where else will you be writing?

Kevin (MadMaxScherzer)
Kevin (MadMaxScherzer)

Thanks for all the great insights and advice Michael. You really helped me pan through waver wire fodder to find the golden nuggets. Best of luck in all your future endeavors! Where else will you be writing?

Michael Street
Michael Street

Thanks, Kevin! I’ve appreciated your comments and thoughts as well.

You can still find Rob and me writing for Heater, Baseball Prospectus, and Baseball Daily Digest. I also have a blog on Asian-American Sports at http://www.aasportsexaminer.com.

Hope to see you there!