The First Week in Tout

There's nothing more boring that listening to someone else talk about their fantasy team.  So I'm not going to do that. 

However, there is some value in listening to the thought process behind what other people do in similar situations.  With that in mind, here are a few thoughts, based on my situation in AL Tout, about replacing some notable injured players.  Keep in mind the context of my situation: a deep AL only league with 6-man reserve squads.  So if you are in a 10-man mixed league, this column might only have passing relevance to you, although the conclusion might be useful, so scroll on down.  With that said:

Scott Spiezio - Third Base
It was only 2 days after the draft that Scott Spiezio came up lame with back problems.  At first they were considered a day-to-day injury, but as the week wore on and more doctors were called in, it developed into a serious concern, with one diagnosis being as dire as a serious disk problem with possible limited paralysis as a result.  Fortunately, the Mariners and Spiezio sought more opinions on the matter and his ailment was finally diagnosed as muscular in nature.  His subsequent rehab has had positive results.  So for roto-owners who went from thinking "he'll be out a couple of days" to "I am now stuck with a gaping hole where my third baseman used to be" to "there's a good chance he'll be back by May", it really has been a roller coaster season already.  But what to do about Spiezio and that vacant spot on the active roster?

For most, the answer was his temporary replacement in Seattle, Willie Bloomquist.  The problem is Bloomquist has never been a very good player, on any level.  His career .280 average in the minors is largely a result of one great half season in Lancaster when he was older than most of his competition.  He's got a decent eye for balls and strikes, but he really grades out to be a .265-.270 hitter... with zero power.  He does have a little speed, but his success rate is a little better than the break even point for his career (73%), so he might not have much value as a basestealer either.   Even if Spiezio is out longer than a month, it's unlikely that Bloomquist will have a significant impact on a fantasy team, even in a deep AL-only league.

Especially when Jolbert Cabrera is around.  In no way am I suggesting that Cabrera is the cat's pajamas, but he has more power, roughly equivalent speed and according to last year's Bill James Handbook, significantly better range at third base (2.67 to 2.18).  He's simply a better player.  The fact that the Mariners traded for him after Spiezio went down also lends some credibility to the idea that they'd like to see him play a little there.  So while Bloomquist is getting the at bats now (.231 with 7 strikeouts in 13 at bats), it will be Cabrera who will end up with the majority of at bats at third while Spiezio is out.

Unless, of course, Justin Leone gets white hot in AAA.  Leone is older than most prospects (27), but he's averaged nearly 20 homers and 30 doubles the last 4 years in the minors and he has a very good eye for balls and strikes.  Did I mention he steals bases too (20 in 26 attempts last year)?  If Seattle has an heir apparent at third, it is Leone.  And his time will come in the next year or so.  John Olerud's career is winding down, so at some point fairly soon Spiezio will likely be moved across the diamond to take over at first and Leone will be installed at third.  If Spiezio doesn't come back before the break, the Leone era could begin this year.

With so much potential flux at the position, my thinking was to avoid it altogether because whoever I bid on could be a waste of FAAB.  It doesn't hurt to throw 1 or 2 out there for each one in case no one is paying attention, but paying any significant amount for any of these three at this point is a huge risk.  And even if you get one, unless Leone gets called up in May or June, the payoff will be limited.

So I looked in another direction.  Specifically, Toronto.  Currently, the Blue Jays have Reed Johnson in the outfield everyday.  Johnson is a decent stopgap until Alexis Rios and/or Gabe Gross are ready.  But neither of the Jays' top prospects looked ready for major league duty this spring, so their debut could be postponed until September or even next season.   Which begs the question: is Reed Johnson good enough to hold the job for the full season?  If the Jays had no other alternative, I'd say yes.  But they have Simon Pond

BATTERS         AVG  SLG  OBA   G   AB   R  H   2B  3B  HR  RBI  BB  SO  SB  CS 
Johnson MLE    .297 .426 .326  140 510  92 151  25   3  12   67  23  81   5   3  
Pond MLE       .299 .451 .360  124 461  64 138  38   1  10   71  44  79   2   2

That is what they did last season.  While the two players have a lot of similarities there is one difference that stands out, particularly to a new school team like Toronto: on base percentage.  Pond holds a huge advantage in on base and over the course of a full season, that means extra runs scored.  The guys in the Blue Jay front office know this, so if Johnson struggles in the first month, Pond will get his chance to play outfield.  So why is this important in a discussion about replacing a corner infielder?  Because Pond was primarily a third baseman last year - although he did get a few games in the outfield - and didn't play any games in the majors last season.  In most leagues, that means he's eligible to be placed at the corner position.

Currently, Johnson is batting .235 with an on base of .381, courtesy of 3 hit by pitches.  While HBPs are part of Johnson's game - he had 25 last year split between AAA and the majors - it's probably not the best way to impress your boss.  Who knows, maybe it is.  Regardless, sans HBPs Johnson's on base this season is .278.  If Pond gets his chance, he'll keep it until the Jays are ready to promote Rios and/or Gross.

So why take a chance on Pond rather than get one of the Seattle corners?  Because if I'm right about Pond, I get a guy who can produce decent numbers over the course of the full season.  If I get either Cabrera or Bloomquist and they end up the full season replacement, I get... Cabrera or Bloomquist.  Bleh.  If I'm going to spend FAAB to get a replacement who, in the worst case scenario, ends up playing the whole season, I might as well get the one who will produce the most.  In the best case scenario, the replacement won't get significant at bats anyway, so why worry about that.  There's still a risk involved, but the potential from Pond seemed like the best payoff for the risk involved.

Brian Jordan - Outfield
I knew going into this season that Jordan is a big injury risk.  I also knew that when he does play, even if it's only 350 at bats, he produces solid numbers.  The last two years have been the injury-plagued ones (however, the previous four years he averaged 548 at bats a season) but have still been reasonably productive: .289 average, 24 homers, 36 doubles, 93 runs, 108 RBI in 695 at bats.  So for $8, I thought he was a worthwhile gamble and it wouldn't come as a surprise that Jordan would spend some time on the DL. 

The problem is the timing of the DL time.  Had he been injured in the middle of the season, there would have been a number of minor league options to choose from, the most prominent (from my perspective) being Grady Sizemore, who currently sits on my reserve list.  But Jordan is injured now, when no 4th or 5th outfielder is getting many at bats.  Divining who the best choice is basically a shot in the dark.  There really weren't many options in Tout because the league is so deep.  Even players like Lew Ford, Dave McCarty, Ramon Nivar, Eduardo Perez, Quinton McCracken and Jayson Werth had been gobbled up during the reserve rounds of the draft.  Like I said, it's a deep league.

My options were mostly 5th outfield options like Bubba Crosby (who I like to get playing time this year because the Yankees outfield is so brittle), Michael Ryan and Jason Romano.  Not much to choose from really. 

One player who caught my eye this spring was KC's Rich Thompson.  The guy is not much of a hitter (.287 career in the minors) and has no power whatsoever (4 homers, 46 doubles in 1716 career at bats), but he does have an adequate knack for getting on base (28 walks and 17 HBPs in 431 plate appearances last year) and crazy speed.  He steals 9.6 bases for every 100 at bats he gets and has a career 89% success rate.  In addition to the 7 bases he stole this spring (in 45 at bats!) he's a decent gloveman, making him an ideal late-inning replacement.

What makes him more attractive are the guys he'll be replacing in the late innings: Juan Gonzales and Aaron Guiel.  Neither are candidates to win a gold glove and Gonzales has one of the most notorious injury histories of any player in the league.  While I like David DeJesus as the long term solution to either Guiel or Gonzales, Thompson makes a productive (at least in fantasy terms) stopgap.  He'll also be the primary pinch runner for the Royals, so in addition to the steals, he could score a few extra runs as well.  The bonus is that because he's the late inning replacement/pinch runner, he'll get enough opportunities to make use of his speed, but not enough at bats to affect your batting average negatively.

Jon Lieber - Pitcher
Lieber is out with a groin pull until early May.  Even then, it may take him a few starts to get back to full strength from his 2002 Tommy John surgery.  

Starting pitching is always in flux the first month of the season, with veterans getting the first opportunities to impress, then the rookies.  The AL team that has the least going for it with veteran replacements but the most upside with young pitchers is the White Sox.  Maybe Scott Schoeneweis and Dan Wright will fare ok this season.  But given their track record, I'm much more inclined to bet on Neal Cotts and Jon Rauch. 

Cotts has been a little more consistent the last couple of years than Rauch, and is therefore more likely to get the first shot if/when either Schoeneweis or Wright falter.  He dominated the Southern League before his promotion, posting a 2.16 ERA in 21 starts and striking out 133 batters in just 108.1 innings.  He can still be wild (as evidenced by the 56 walks in Birmingham and the 17 in 13 major league innings in 2003) but his deceptive delivery kept hitters from taking a full swing at his offerings: he allowed just 3 homers in 121.2 innings last year. 

It's not clear how he'll be used, whether he'll have an exclusive role or not, but even if he doesn't start, it's likely he'll be facing mostly left-handed batters (which plays to his strength) in a division that is not fraught with dominating hitters like the AL East and West are.  So regardless of how it plays out, it looks like a win-win situation with Cotts.

While injuries are always a nuissance, early in the season is probably the best time to get them.  The rosters, both in the major leagues and in fantasy, are not so firmed up that quality replacements aren't available on the free agent market. 

While some advocate making trades early in the season to shore up weaknesses, I'm of the mind to scour the waiver wire for solutions, especially if your team looked competitive out of the draft.  There's simply far less risk cycling through the wire than there is trading this early.  Unless you've found someone who's panicked because Roy Halladay is 0-2, there's no incentive to dramatically change the team you were happy with two weeks ago.  Even if you drafted to trade, the strength from which you intend to trade hasn't had enough time to build up a substantial supply of the commodity you intend to trade, so trading now undermines your strategy.

But the best reason to focus on the waiver wire now is that the players you get now for virtually nothing have a whole season to be productive.  The $10 in FAAB you spend on players this week can be far more valuable than $10 you spend in June or July because, if you've chosen well, you get 2-3 months more of virtually the same production at the same cost. 

So look around, gauge the major league situations and most importantly, don't panic.  Just as they did last year (and every year) injuries now can provide the opportunity you need to grab the next Jeff DaVanon, Scott Podsednik, Brandon Lyon, Julio Mateo, Joe Nathan, Rob Hammock, Jose Guillen, Dontrelle Willis, Brandon Webb, etc, etc, etc.