Spring Christmas

April 5, 2016

 

 

A couple of years ago I wrote a column comparing the spring draft season to Christmas because itís always such an exciting time of year and you never know what youíre going to get. The difference is that you pretty much know which Christmas gifts are awesome and which ones are underwhelming when you open them. The picks in spring wonít reveal their true value until six months later. But still, itís a fun time of year filled with anticipation and rationalization.

 

This yearís XFL spring draft had a special feel for me in part because this is the first year since 1997 that I am playing in only one league. Another reason is because last year had such a close race for most of the season with seven teams in contention until August that there was very little roster consolidation for the stretch run; no ďsuper teamsĒ were created with massive dump trades. This yearís race would be wide open from the start.

 

Here are the rosters after the fall auction. As you can see, I went into the spring draft in need of another closer (at least one), some outfield depth and a utility player, preferably one with some power. I also needed to find a shortstop for the first month or so of the season while Jung Ho Kang heals, and probably another starting pitcher to fill a similar role until Yu Darvish returns. The big obstacle to doing that was that I had traded away three of my first four picks in an effort to win in 2015. I donít regret my decision to trade those picks. Had I not done so I would have likely finished in 10th rather than 3rd, which would have left me mediocre picks anyway. That said, the decision did actually cost me my top choice; Iíll elaborate in a moment.

 

First, let me lay some groundwork for my draft philosophy. I believe this year will seem very much like an expansion year, particularly in the NL. There are five teams that are rebuilding in a big way, meaning they could well lose more than 95 games: Phillies, Braves, Reds, Brewers and Rockies. It would not surprise me to see a starting pitcher on one of the better teams (Kershaw, Greinke, Scherzer, Strasburg, etc) come close to 30 wins and we might have more than one net 300 or more strikeouts.

 

What this means in terms of fantasy is that there are going to be a disproportionate number of high dollar players on a few good teams and virtually no one worth more than $20 bucks on the bad teams. Even the good hitters will see their value dinged on bad teams because they wonít get a lot of run/RBI opportunities. Likewise, pitchers on those teams wonít get a lot of wins or saves. Itís possible a closer could get 40 saves on a bad team, but it doesnít happen that often. For those going into an auction, thatís probably a good thing because those players will be undervalued because the tendency in group think is to go too far in one direction or another. But for those like myself who are merely filling out reserve spots on a roster already filled with active players, there is as much value in the back-ups on good teams as there is with the starters on the bad ones.

 

For example, Gerald Williams was a 4th outfielder on the 1998 Braves and in just 289 at bats managed to hit 10 homers, steal 11 bases and drive in and score a combined 90 runs. That same year, 4th outfielder Tim Raines totaled 100 combined runs with 5 homers and 8 steals in 382 at bats for the Yankees. Those numbers are only slightly inferior to Mark Kotsayís that year with the Marlins who was their starting right fielder and better than those of their starting center fielder, Todd Dunwoodyís. In the Piratesí outfield that year, only Jose Guillen posted significantly better numbers and the same can be said of Devon White in the D-backs outfield. The Expos also had a 90+ loss team but had the good fortune of having two good fantasy outfielders Ė Vlad Guerrero and Rondell White Ė but their third guy (FP Santangelo) was largely unrosterable. So the fourth best outfielder on two good teams was a better fantasy choice that seven of the twelve starting outfielders on the four bad teams. This year there will likely be five such teams.

 

So I went into this draft with a significant preference for players on good teams even if their position or path to playing time wasnít clear.

 

Strategy came into play immediately during the draft as Doug Dennis had a number of high round picks that he acquired last year and used them all to select prospects. Normally, between 10-12 prospects are taken in the first three rounds. This year, 25 such players were taken and many of them had not seen action above A-ball. It was my sense that Dougís gambit fomented a stampede of prospect selection because no one wanted to get locked out of getting the best young talents. And it was during this panic that my top choice, Victor Robles, was taken before I even had a chance. However, with any action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Since so many prospects were taken early on, a large number of useful major leaguers were available in the middle rounds that otherwise would not have been.

 

Without further adieu, here are the players I took and why:

 

1)      Lazarito Armenteros

With as much hype as he generated early this spring I was very surprised to find Lazarito available with the 29th overall pick, especially given how the first few rounds played out. If given a choice I would still take Victor Robles over him because I feel confident heíll make an impact in the majors a year or two sooner, but this might be a case where I was saved from myself. Armenterosí tools are truly impressive but thereís a lot of uncertainty with anyone that young. That said, the guys in this league hunt talent better than any other league I have been in so thereís a very good chance that if you donít take a top talent guy early in his career, you wonít get him. Bryce Harper was 16 when he was taken in this league, and there are a number of players who were taken while in high school. If Laz takes the Harper path, Iíll only have to wait until 2019 for his major league debut. The difference is that Harper couldnít play in the minors for another two seasons after he was taken in the XFL whereas Lazarito will be in the minors the day after he signs.†††

 

2)      Alex Colome

Colome was my first attempt to snag a closer. By the time my second pick came around 61 players had been taken, including Fernando Rodney, Jeremy Jeffress, Steve Cishek, Hunter Strickland, JJ Hoover, Keone Kela, Kevin Jepsen and Jason Grilli. So the number of guys who had a chance at saves early on was pretty limited. Colome profiles as a closer and with Brad Boxberger out with injury after struggling last year, he has a chance to take the position if he can get out to a fast start.

 

3)      Jake Lamb

With a need for a utility player, I took Lamb with the 77th pick overall. He should be a full-time player on a good team and has a pretty good track record in the minors. Last year was his first chance to prove himself as an everyday big leaguer, but early on his season was derailed by a foot injury. Before that occurred, he was off to a very fast start, hitting .414/.514/.690 with more walks than strikeouts. Recovering from foot injuries can be tricky with hitters and he clearly wasnít the same afterwards. He had a strong spring this year and hopefully can stay free of production-killing injuries.

 

4)      Tommy Pham

I honestly donít know why I took Pham; I should know better. Sure, heís an incredibly talented player but I donít think heís completed a single season in his professional career without missing time due to injury. Maybe thereís just too much fast twitch in his fast-twitch muscles. If he ever manages to stay healthy for 550 at bats, I have no doubt heíll be an All-Star with 20+ homers and 30+ steals but I suspect the only world in which that could happen is in a computer simulation that has run 10,000 seasons. And he does it in only one of them. Still, he can be very useful if he happens to be healthy when/if there are other outfield injuries.

 

5)      Tom Murphy

There were about five catchers I would have been comfortable with who were available going into the draft. Two of them Ė Dionner Navarro and Alex Avila Ė have the starting gig right out of the gate but I felt that they were pretty much known quantities and that their upside was pretty average. Perhaps this was a case where I should have been content with average. But Murphy was still there and anyone who hits in Colorado has some significant upside, even if they arenít starting the season there. Nick Hundley has the starting gig but has been nicked up the last few years, which could give Murphy a nice opportunity. So for now Iíll start with Caleb Joseph and Buster Posey and hopefully by mid-season be able to replace back-up Joseph with starter Murphy.

 

6)      Jimmy Rollins

With Kang out for a month or so, I only needed a full-time starting shortstop to be good in April. I figured Rollins had plenty of incentive to start out hot and that his competition for the job wasnít nearly as daunting as it was last year (Corey Seager), and that his home ballpark would help. Plus, and for whatever reason this is I have no idea, but former All-Star players often have one last big season in their age 37 year.I first noticed this with Gary Gaetti many years ago but to give you a few examplesÖ Hank Aaron notably had his biggest home run season at that age, Tony Gwynn had 220 hits at age 37, Rafael Palmeiro hit 43 bombs at the same age, Carlos Beltran, when he was healthy, was very productive last year, Alfonso Soriano had one last hurrah at the same age a couple years agoÖ it seems to happen frequently enough to take the risk and Rollins turned 37 in November.

 

7)      Chris Owings

Chris Owings was not on my radar until this spring. Sure, he had an impressive minor league resume but I didnít see any clear paths to playing time after the D-backs acquired Jean Segura. Itís not that I didnít think he could outhit him and Nick Ahmed, but that it might take a month or two for the front office to realize it. I needed a back-up plan right now at short if Rollins didnít pan out and Kang took longer than expected to return. But Owings big spring and the injury to AJ Pollock gave him opportunity right now to play and definitely put him on the radar for more playing time should either of the middle infielders ahead of him falter.

 

8)      Ryan Madson

Madson was my second possible closer. Reports on Sean Doolittle were mostly positive this spring but his velocity is still down a couple miles an hour from where it was a couple of years ago when he was such a lights out ninth inning man. Enter Madson, who has closer experience and pitched extremely well last year with Kansas City. In fact, had Wade Davis not been so phenomenal I suspect Madson might have been given the chance to close for the World Champions as they appear to prefer Herrera in the 8th inning regardless of what they need in the 9th. Madsonsís velocity has been good this spring and, unlike Doolittle, there is no ongoing concern about his health.

 

9)      Felipe Rivero

My guess is that if/when Jon Papelbon impodes in Washington it will be Rivero getting the call to finish games. He was the one who got the call in September when Papelbon was suspended and none of the other options in the pen are that re-assuring. Shawn Kelley has been really good the last couple of years but has never had solid control. Blake Treinen has the stuff to close but canít seem to seal the deal in big situations. Oliver Perez is situational and Matt Belisle and Yusmeiro Petit are better suited for earlier in the game. So by default and because he has talent, I went with Rivero.

 

10)  Dustin Ackley

Currently the Yankees have no place to play Ackley with the acquisition of Starlin Castro to play second. However, Carlos Beltran, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Jacoby Ellsbury all have recent history of injuries and are old enough that itís not unreasonable to expect each of them to spend time on the DL this year. Enter Ackley, who can play first, second and two outfield positions and has the appealing short porch in right field at Yankee Stadium to turn a few more fly balls into dingers. A speculative pick, for sure, but Ackley can hit and if given a chance heíll prove useful.

 

11)  Jarrod Dyson

With Alex Rios gone, Dyson was slated to go into the season as the good part of a platoon in Kansas City. In each of the last four years he has stolen at least 26 bases despite not getting more than 300 at bats in any season. Now heís slated to nab as many as 450-500. Of course, that plan was delayed by a few weeks when Dyson suffered an oblique strain in the spring but as long as he can avoid further injury he should be a decent source of stolen bases for the rest of the season. If he does reach 450 at bats, it would not surprise me to see him steal 40.

 

12)  Chris Tillman

This pick was part gut feeling, part ďnothing to loseĒ and part watching a guy find a groove in his last start of the spring. Chris Tillman is not nearly as bad as he looked last season so there was almost certainly going to be some kind of rebound. The Orioles have a brilliant manager who knows how to manage a bullpen and quite possibly the best closer in the majors at the back end. So anyone who can hold a lead through the sixth inning is probably going to get a win. The Os have an offense that can mash with anyone south of the Canadian border and very good defense around the diamond. So Tillman is going to have all kinds of support. In his last start of spring he was hitting his spots and his fastball was touching 96 mph. He just looked like a pitcher who had turned things around and was pitching with confidence. And he was there in the 12th round soÖ

 

13)  Alex Lange

As good as Carlos Rodonís slider is, Langeís curveball is probably better. Rodonís slider got him a top three pick even in a down year for him and expectations are pretty high for him in Chicago. Lange has similar velocity on his fastball and even though heís having a down year, he wonít be eligible for the draft until next year, which gives him another season to bolster his draft status. I expect that he will and be among the first few players taken. As I posited in the Laz note above, if you donít get high talent guys early in this league, you wonít get them.

 

14)  Phillip Ervin

This was another gut pick. Ervin looked really good this spring in his brief exposure, has solid tools across the board and Cincinnati will be looking to deal this summer which will open up at least one outfield spot. I donít see Adam Duvall or Scott Schebler being huge obstacles should Ervin prove to be ready for the show, so unless Jesse Winker sets the world on fire he should get a chance to show his stuff sometime this season. It seemed like a safe play for long-term upside.

 

15)  Stephen Drew

Thereís no question that Trea Turner is the future at shortstop in Washington. What was also made clear in September and this spring is that he is not ready yet to handle major league pitching. That process might take a year. Wilmer Difo is quite talented but he carries some of the same concerns. That leaves Danny Espinosa and Stephen Drew to man shortstop. Espinosa is probably the best fielding shortstop the Nats have ever had. He has more range than Ian Desmond or Christian Guzman and a better arm than Felipe Lopez. Royce Clayton might have been as good or better but thatís quite a while ago. However, Espinosa is not nearly as good at the plate. In fact, generally heís quite bad. He showed about two months of discipline at the plate a couple of years ago but he simply canít help himself from swinging for the fences regardless of the situation. He has huge holes in his swing and the book is fairly well known on him. Enter Stephen Drew. Heís an above average gloveman at short and has at least had some history of competence at the plate. Heís had some health issues the last several years but comes into this season with a clean bill. I canít see Espinosa hitting enough to keep the job especially if Dusty Baker has a veteran alternative. Whoever has the job will have plenty of opportunities to drive in and score runs in a very good Nationals line-up.

 

So there it is. Hopefully this was as useful for you as it was cathartic for me.