Why I Picked These Guys, 8th Edition

November 10, 2016

 

 

I donít think many will argue that the 2016 MLB post-season was one of the most memorable in the history of the sport. I would put it above the Red Sox breaking their curse because as improbable as their come-from-behind victory over the Yankees was in the ALCS, the World Series that year provided little drama with a four-game sweep. As a series of games, this yearís was probably behind the 1991 Series in which every game was decided by a run or two, and featured two worst-to-first franchises. But for sheer drama, improbability and history, matching the Cubs against the Indians was about as good as any story writer could ever want, and the final game was as thrilling as baseball gets. It was ultimately decided in favor of the Cubs because the Indians simply ran out of viable hitters to send up to the plate.

 

So with that as context, for me personally this yearís XFL draft was even more dramatic. Last year I came to the draft with only $49 to spend and thought I left with a pretty decent team. Unfortunately, it didnít work out that way. Getting nice seasons from Neil Walker and Michael Saunders was not enough to offset getting only half seasons from Stephen Strasburg, Yu Darvish, Jung-Ho Kang and Giancarlo Stanton and as well as subpar years from Anthony Rendon, Brandon Belt, Buster Posey, Paul Goldschmidt and Justin Upton. Still, I liked the core of that squad, so I kept all of my star under-performers with the idea that there would be a strong probability of bounce-back seasons. Admittedly, Strasburg is still a question mark entering 2017, and Kangís continuing legal issues are a huge concern, but the others should progress toward their career means in the case of veterans, with the younger players fulfilling their promise. But taking that path had a huge cost: I went into this yearís auction with only $32 to spend, which meant I wasnít going to be acquiring any star free-agents and would have to hope for some luck around the periphery.

 

Working in my favor was that many of this hitters I kept have a solid history of getting on base, which is a pretty nice foundation in a league where that is a category. This luxury would afford me the ability to roster low-on base hitters without suffering too much damage, and given that they do have a negative impact in that regard, should come cheaper than other players. I targeted a number of power hitters that would be viable and refined that list further still by highlighting those that had down years in 2016, or simply underperformed expectation in metrics like BABIP (especially when their xBABIP was much higher).

 

Unfortunately, my plan didnít work out as expected. Many of the hitters I targeted went for premium dollars in the auction because consistent elite power was in short supply which also drove up the prices on players who had once shown power or who have the reputation of having that potential. Also, early on I lacked the courage to go the extra few dollars on players I wanted for fear that I would not have enough money at the end to acquire the other players on my list. For someone who went in needing only to spend $32, that was a big miscalculation as I ended up with $10 unspent. As odd as it sounds, sometimes itís easier to spend a large sum of money than it is a small one. My consolation is that itís only November and there are four months of real-world transactions to process that can radically change the way this draft will look when spring rolls around. Someone who is speculative today can become a lock for playing time with just one trade or a free-agent signing. So without further guilding the lilly, here they are and why I chose them:

 

Jurickson Profar ($6)

Five years ago he was a canít-miss prospect but a severe shoulder injury put his career on hold for almost two years. Injuries like that often take more than a few months to fully recover from even after the player returns to the field. We should see a fully healthy Profar in 2017. With positional flexibility on the horizon, and a decent chance to see additional playing time at first base until Joey Gallo is ready, I would not all be surprised to see Profar get 450-500 at bats and post numbers similar to the ones that earned his top prospect status in the low minors i.e. 15 homers, 25 steals with a .360 on base. Although it seems like heís been around forever, Profar will still only be 24 years old when next season starts, so there is plenty of room for growth in his game.

 

Matt Holliday ($1)

Holliday was not my first choice Ė in fact he was not even on my list of choices to begin with because he had always gone for $20+ in this league. So I threw him out expecting others to bid on him. That obviously didnít happen. However, there are some things to like here. For one, he will be looking for a new home, likely in an AL park because of his declining ability to play in the field. That should make it easier for him to stay healthy, and given that the Cardinals play in a pitcher-friendly park, also makes it at least 50/50 that heíll play in a better home park for hitting. Despite missing a significant amount of time due to a thumb injury, he still hit 20 homers and his BABIP was roughly 60 points lower than his xBABIP, so we should see a significant rebound in batting average and on base. He played through a grade 2 quad strain in June and July which depressed his numbers significantly; becoming either a full- or part-time DH should alleviate some of that risk. Also notable is that he turns 37 next season, which in recent years has been especially good for star players like Carlos Beltran, Alfonso Soriano, Adrian Beltre, Moises Alou, Edgar Martinez and Raul Ibanez, who all posted near career-best seasons at that age. Sometimes itís better to be lucky than good and in my case I hope my dumb luck pans out here.

 

Nick Markakis ($2)

I actually targeted this guy because it is an on base league. In 2015 he was returning from significant surgery so itís probably safe to call that yearís production an outlier. For much of his 11-year career heís been a 30-40 double, 10-15 homer hitter with a .360-.370 on base. There donít appear to be any obvious reasons why he should not repeat that production next year and might even do slightly better in the team stat categories like runs and RBI as the Braves will be getting full seasons from Matt Kemp and Dansby Swanson.

 

Andrew Toles ($1)

I was very impressed with Toles in the playoffs. I know itís a small sample but he did not seem like the slap hitter he used to be in the low minors. He hit the ball with some authority which makes me think that double digit home runs is a real possibility, especially if the Dodgers clean house in their outfield. There has been talk of a Puig/Braun trade, and Andre Ethier only has one more year on his contract, making him somewhat tradable.At worst, Toles is a fourth outfielder for them and at best a solid outfielder playing every day. If the latter, then heís a decent bet for 25-30 steals as well.

 

Kolten Wong ($2)

Iím not sure I buy that Wong is a 20/20 player but Iím fairly certain heís not as bad as he looked last year. The Cardinals have mishandled both him and Grichuk but with Wong they were especially misguided when they sent him to the minors to learn center field Ė despite the fact that heís their best defensive second baseman Ė and upon his return, ready to man a new position, never gave him the opportunity. The team is clearly looking up at the Cubs in their division so itís time for them to see what they have in these two talents and give them a full season shot with no conditions. So I buy a rebound, maybe 12-15 homers and 25 steals. His walk and strikeout rates are both trending in positive directions and last year he was pretty unlucky on balls in play. Whether itís with the Cardinals or with another team I expect weíll see a much better version of Wong than we saw in 2016.

 

Miguel Montero ($1)

With David Ross retired, Montero should get enough at bats as a back-up to could contribute a little, and his production should see a bump in rates since he was pretty unlucky with balls in play. But now that heís spouted off about the Cubs handling his playing time and playoff usage, I would not be surprised to see him shipped off somewhere else, which opens the possibility of regular playing time. With Wilson Ramos looking for a multi-year contract yet starting the year on the DL I imagine the Nationals will be looking for some catching help. Derek Norris (one of the other catchers I had targeted) has some ties to Washington and will be pressed for playing time in San Diego so I can see them trading for him to replace Ramos. But his framing skills have not been highly-regarded, something the Nationals prioritize even above offensive potential from their catchers. Mike Rizzo is familiar with Montero from his days in Arizona but I donít know if he had a negative impression of him or a positive one. If the latter, Montero might make an attractive trade target for Washington. But I targeted him for my XFL team on the strength of his likely playing time uptick and BABIP rebound potential.

 

Danny Espinosa ($1)

This was my back-up plan to my back-up plan. Actually I donít mind having Espinosa because in each of the last two years heís shown signs early in the season of learning how to lay off bad pitches. Of course, by the second half heís been back to his few-swinging ways but maybe with one more year it will take for a full season. Heís an excellent defensive shortstop and unless the Nats trade for a standout centerfielder I canít imagine them putting Turner back at short. There really isnít any need. The free agent shortstop market is pretty weak and even if the Nats were considering Ian Desmond as a possibility to move back to short, heís not as good a defender as Espinosa and has some of the same swing-and-miss issues. Itís possible that the right trade will come up that changes the status quo of Turner in center and Espinosa at short, but I donít believe there is much urgency for change there, or at least not as much urgency for upgrades as there are for other aspects of that team, like in the bullpen and back end of the rotation.

 

Jon Gray ($1)

I know people tend to steer completely clear of Rockiesí pitchers but Gray is the first guy I believe can pitch effectively there. Last year might have been a fluke but he actually pitched better at home than he did on the road: better ERA, better strikeout rate and lower walk rate. That said, much of the damage he suffered last season came in two starts: a 3+ inning start in St. Louis and a similar 3+ inning disaster at home versus the Marlins. Without those two starts, his season looks like this: 10-8 in 27 starts with a 3.85 ERA, 1.180 WHIP and 179 Ks in 161 innings. Not bad for a Colorado pitcher who just turned 25 years old.

 

Robbie Ray ($2)

Ray was an interesting take for me. I picked him up as a mid-season free agent last year in order to get a boost in strikeouts, and he certainly helped in that regard. However, that came with considerable downside as his ratios were never that good and his ERA was inflated by a lot of flyballs leaving for home runs. Another concern is that he didnít really manage contact very well. When he missed his location he tended to miss in the heart of the zone. So while his FIP suggests a much better pitcher, part of his struggles can be explained by something other than bad luck. Donít get me wrong; there was plenty of bad luck. His home run to flyball rate was 50% worse than it should have been. That is likely to improve. And the D-back bullpen was dreadful when it came to stranding runners when he left the game. One would assume that would improve as well. One of the things that he probably canít count on in 2017 is the Dodgers being so anemic versus left-handed pitching. He held them to a .172 batting average and .590 OPS over 4 starts. What gives me reason for optimism is that he pitched better against good teams than he did against bad, suggesting that he can raise the level of his game. Hopefully that maturity Ė to treat all games as big games - will come sooner than later. One other reason to hope for better is that the D-backs defense, especially in the outfield, should be better with the return of AJ Pollock, assuming he can stay healthy. Not too long ago WHIP was thought to be one of the least volatile stats but with increased attention played to defense these days, it can change dramatically from season to season without the pitcher doing much at all. A full season of Pollock and the realization that Yasmany Tomas does not belong anywhere with a glove on his hand should dramatically improve Arizonaís pitching fortunes.

 

Ryan Madson ($5)

Honestly I did not intend to buy a second closer. I already had Alex Colome in the fold from my keeper list and was content with picking up a promising reliever here for $1 and then a couple more in the spring. But since I failed to spend my money earlier in the draft I decided I might as well spend it on one of the remaining closers. I know a lot of people are down on Madson particularly due to the way he finished the season with a September ERA of 6.30. However, there was nothing in his velocity readings that would indicate a future problem. The As donít usually spend on the open market to acquire closers so any competition would likely come from within. Liam Hendricks and Sean Doolittle pose some threat to Madsonís job, but Madson generated more groundballs than either, and in the second half that percentage wasnít particularly close. So Madson should come in as the favorite and has the skills to retain the job.

 

As I suggested before, we still have four months to go before meaningful games begin again and a lot can happen in that time to make some of these picks more appealing. Iíd like to think I bought low on all of them and either improved production and/or a better situation will increase their value. Iíll get another chance to add to their ranks in March which with some luck will produce a contending team. Until then, have a happy hot stove season!