The Pick of the Litter

March 24, 2017



Chess is an infinitely complex game. Perhaps not literally, but after two moves there are more than 72,000 possible game variations that can be played. After three moves that number increases to more than 9 million. And after 4 moves there are more than 288 billion potential outcomes. After a few more moves the number of possibilities becomes so large that it might as well be considered infinite. In this way, the XFL is similar. It is both a dynasty and keeper league, meaning that one can play it for a short-range future or take the long view in developing talent. Or one can play it as a year-to-year game. All of these strategies have been successful enough to yield championships. And still another successful strategy has been to trade not players, but draft picks to achieve championship goals. So when the spring supplemental draft rolls around, fifteen owners probably have 15 different views as to how best to win. And as each pick is taken, that view changes, sometimes slightly, sometimes seismically.


It is with that as a context that a significant amount of chatter was generated surrounding the first overall pick this year, which would be selected by two-time champ Steve Moyer. He came ever so close last year to winning and this year it appeared all he needed for another championship run was a closer or two, as he came away from the November draft without one reliever. Still, Steve has never been one to place a great deal of value on a position which, in his own words, “might change by May”. Adding further subtext was the arrival of Eric Thames to the major leagues this winter. He was not available to be drafted in November because he was not already on a major league roster, but there are many who project him to be a major source of power this season. He authored several 40-homer seasons in Korea along with OPS numbers north of 1.100. So which one would Steve take?


I didn’t think he would take either.  Both Steve and I have a pretty well-documented history of taking off-the-radar players early in the draft because once they get on the radar of prospecting publications like Baseball America, there is very little chance of rostering them. Once they get listed, it becomes a 15-way battle-royale cage match to get those guys.  Despite that, sometimes the better talents are not already in the minors, which is one of the significant limits of those publication lists. Players from Japan, Cuba and the college ranks do not appear there.  I felt certain that Steve would be looking here for his pick, likely taking the latest Cuban phenom, Luis Moiran Robert, because last year he took two other highly-prized Latin prospects, Delvin Perez and Kevin Maitan, early. I even offered a trade for his first overall pick, but he would have none of it. He had his mind set on the player he wanted. So naturally, I thought my chances were doomed.  And once I realized he wasn’t trading that pick, all of my other trade negotiations were pointless because I figured he would be taking the guy I wanted. As it turns out, I was wrong. He took a different guy. So when it was announced that the first overall pick was Clemson outfielder Seth Beer, who by the way has ridiculously good strikeout/walk rates, it was the first time in fantasy baseball history that nearly everyone in an entire draft room exclaimed “Beer!?” without any pleasure on their faces.


That didn’t give me much relief because there were still another 28 picks before my first opportunity, and some of the other owners have shown in the past a propensity to reach beyond the prospect lists for undocumented talent. As it turned out, though, Robert was there for me and he was the first name to be placed on my taxi squad for this year’s XFL competition. Here’re my reasons for him and the others I chose:


Luis Moiran Robert

I’m not sure if it’s pronounced like the English first name or more like Steven Colbert’s show-biz French pronunciation… all I know is that his name means “talent”. As a 19-year old he led the Cuba Serie Nacional (The Cuban National League) in homers, runs and slugging, and was top 5 in batting average and steals. He also drew more walks than strikeouts. Granted, the Cuban Leagues aren’t as rife with major league talent as they once were but Robert is a talent that even Yoenis Cespedes’ agent thinks is as good as the country has ever produced.  I believe this year we will finally see how good Yulieski Gurriel is when he gets a full-season in Houston to show what he can do. We already know what a good hitter Jose Abreu is. Robert’s production so far indicates he could be better than any of them. The first question to be answered is ‘where will he sign?’ Early indications are that the St. Louis Cardinals have the inside edge, especially if he is green-lighted before the July deadline. If MLB delays him beyond that, it could be just about anyone. Either way, some team is going to be very happy and there are at least a few scouts who believe he is already the second best player in the world – behind Shohei Otani – who isn’t already in the majors.


2006 19 Abreu Cienfuegos CNS 85 325 283 39 83 11 3 9 42 0 1 20 47 0.293 0.382 0.449 0.830 127 9 21 0 1 3
2005 19 Cespedes Granma CNS 88 398 339 89 119 24 4 23 78 8 3 44 43 0.351 0.442 0.649 1.091 220 16 13 0 2 1
2003 19 Gurriel Sancti Spiritus CNS   241 215 49 77 14 7 9 42 7 3 19 25 0.358 0.419 0.614 1.033 132   4 5 0 2
2016 19 Robert Ciego De Avila CNS 52 232 182 46 73 12 2 12 34 11 6 38 30 0.401 0.526 0.687 1.213 125   11 0 1 10


As you can see, there is some data that’s missing but most of the pertinent information is available and shows that the comparisons are valid.


Jarrett Parker

I’m not particularly high on Parker but it’s hard to disagree with what he has done so far. He’s a bit old to be considered a prospect, and has already spent a little time in the majors, but in an on-base league he’s actually a pretty compelling hitter. In 176 major league at bats, he’s hit 11 homers and posted a .371 on base. He still strikes out at an uncomfortable rate and doesn’t make enough contact to realistically believe he could develop into an all-star, but he has enough game to keep a regular job. Even in San Francisco’s unfriendly confines, he could be a very solid addition and at this point has the edge on Mac Williamson for the full-time job in left field.


Shelby Miller

I have secretly coveted Shelby Miller for years, ever since he was drafted by the Cardinals, really. But the circumstances never made it favorable to roster him in this league because he was either owned by someone else or, in the case of last year’s debacle, simply terrible. Last year’s results have made others gun-shy to take a chance on him, but at times this spring he has looked very much like the pitcher the Cardinals had hoped they were getting back in 2009. Throughout his minor league career he struck out better than 11 batters per 9 innings, and even as late as 2015 posted very respectable ERA and WHIP rates. Despite the sense that’s been around forever, he’s only 26. Defensive upgrades in center and at catcher should also help him rebound.


Along those lines, I think this is the year Dave Stewart will be vindicated for the trade that brought Miller to the D-Backs. I have no doubt that Dansby Swanson will be a fine player, but I don’t think he’ll be the second coming of Barry Larkin. He’s a good complimentary piece. Ender Inciarte is a good centerfielder but how many All-Star games are in his future? I’m not sure he’ll ever put up the kind of exciting stat totals that will motivate people outside Atlanta to vote for him. Aaron Blair is a solid middle of the rotation arm. On the other hand, Shelby Miller has the stuff to be a legitimate ace of the staff. Granted, Stewart gave up a lot in order to get potential but there simply aren’t that many teams that have a legit ace. So if Miller does become that caliber of player, then essentially Stewart was fired because AJ Pollock got injured because the collapse of the pitching can be strongly tied to the collapse of the defense, which starts with Pollock. So how was that Dave Stewart’s responsibility?  That’s one of the dangers of making a final evaluation of a trade while the players are still playing, especially after only one year.


Matt Duffy

As with Parker, I’m not necessarily a huge fan of Duffy, but the minor league pedigree is pretty solid and the major league exposure he’s had has been relatively positive. I’m concerned he hasn’t returned from Achilles surgery yet, especially since he’ll be playing his home games on the turf of Tampa but I assume he will play for a large part of the season. He is also only 26 with nearly 1000 major league at bats under his belt so there’s a decent chance that when he returns we could see an uptick in his production. I’d still consider it a successful pick if I only got five plus months of production at his previous rate.


Jose Reyes

There was a time when Reyes was arguably the most valuable player in baseball. That’s not the player he is today because he’s unlikely to steal 60+ bases at age 34. However, last year over 255 at bats he posted a solid .267/.326/.443 slash line and with David Wright’s health still in question and Reyes getting some time to learn the outfield this spring, he could find his way into 500 or so at bats spread between third base, shortstop and outfield. That would extrapolate into a 15-18 homer, 15-20 stolen base utility man who qualifies in middle infield, corner and outfield. With the new 10-day DL rule now in play, position flexibility has become far more valuable as teams are likely to place hurt players on the shelf for the full 10 rather than on the bench for a few days.


Chris Iannetta

Iannetta gained a good part of his reputation as a very solid backstop but the framing metrics have not liked him for the last couple of years. I find it hard to believe that a veteran catcher is getting dumber behind the plate so I am guessing there is some aspect of pitch framing that is being missed. One of the reasons the D-backs let Welington Castillo walk this winter and signed Iannetta to replace him was because of defense so I have to believe he will get his fair share of at bats simply because the D-backs value his leadership and handling skills for a relatively young staff. Maybe he splits time with Chris Hermann because of it. Who knows. More concerning to me is the two year drop-off in offensive production, but that was driven in large part by an extremely low BABIP in 2015 and an uncharacteristic spike in infield pop-ups last year. Assuming those outliers spring back to his career averages, he should be able to draw enough walks and hit enough flyballs in the thin air of Phoenix to be a serviceable option at catcher.


Tetsuto Yamada

The 24-year old second baseman has posted back-to-back 30-30 years in the Nippon League and is a strong candidate to be posted sometime in the next two or three years. He has a strong eye at the plate, walking nearly as often as striking out and posting .400 on base in each of the last three years. When he does arrive in the US, he will likely be the most decorated and celebrated Japanese hitter since Hideki Matsui.


Tyler Saladino

As with Jonathan Villar last year, most people assumed that the hotshot prospect he was place-holding for would be up before the end of May. Orlando Arcia was in fact called up in August after an unexpectedly so-so performance in Triple A. Admittedly, Yoan Moncada is a much better prospect than Arcia but the same caveat applies: he does have weaknesses to address and it might take a little longer than anticipated to get them ironed out. Like Villar, Saladino is in a position to make management’s decision difficult. Unlike VIllar, the White Sox don’t have as much flexibility as to who they should play given that they still have Todd Frazier at third and just signed Tim Anderson to a six-year extension. Still, if Saladino hits, I imagine they’ll find a place for him to play. He doesn’t have nearly Villar’s speed but he’s got some (three seasons in which he has stolen at least 25 bases with a high of 38) and more power.


Matt Joyce

Joyce’s walk rate nearly doubled last year with the Pirates, which turned a .240-ish hitter into a very serviceable player in on-base leagues. He also showed a dramatic increase in home run power but that was driven by a 22% home run to fly ball rate, which he has done before in his career but it’s almost twice his career rate. I expect that to go down. However, since the Pirate’s outfield was so crowded already last year he didn’t get much playing time. He’ll now call Oakland home where he’ll be able to push his way into the line-up as a lefty-platoon in the outfield or at DH. I expect we’ll see a significant increase in playing time, so the home run numbers might actually go up. His strikeout rate is still stable so he should at least be a serviceable fill-in when injuries necessitate it.


Jeanmar Gomez

Gomez is still the closer in Philadelphia despite the shaky finish to last season. He’s looked pretty rock solid this spring so at least initially he’ll be in line for saves. This year he’s got established competition in Hector Neris and Joaquin Benoit so he’ll have to stay at the top of his game to keep the job. That extra pressure might cause him to cave or might keep him sharp all season. One never really knows until it plays out. But at least he’s a good bet for April, if nothing else.


Felipe Rivero

Rivero’s case is kind of the opposite of Gomez’ in that he’s the set-up guy (like Neris) for a closer who is on shaky ground (Tony Watson). Rivero has always been thought of as a closer of the future and Pittsburgh is a great park for lefty pitchers in general. If Watson falters, or if Pittsburgh falls out of the race early and deals their closer to a contender for farm help, then Rivero is likely to be his replacement.


Eddie Butler

Given that he has a career ERA of 5.31 over three major league seasons, I have no doubt people were wondering if I had lost my mind when I took Butler. My thinking is based on the fact that the Rockies, in an effort to make him a better pitcher at altitude, scrapped Butler’s sinker and changed his arm-slot that made him such a highly-prized draftee. The Cubs picked him off waivers and immediately re-instituted the old form and we’re seeing a different pitcher this spring because of it. There’s never been anything wrong with his velocity (averaging 93 mph for his career) but now he’s pitching with more confidence in his curve and slider because he doesn’t have to worry about the impact of altitude on them. The Cubs rotation has three starters who are at least 31 years old and Jon Lester and John Lackey are 34 and 38 years old respectively so it’s unlikely that all of them will make 30+ starts again this year as they did in 2016. In addition, the Cubs are counting on Brett Anderson and/or Mike Montgomery to fill in another 25+ starts. Montgomery might be able to handle that workload but Brett Anderson has made 25+ starts in a season twice in an eight year career.  Butler should get an opportunity at some point this season to prove himself. Hopefully it won’t be in Colorado.


Scott Kingery

Kingery is not a name on anyone’s top 100 list but from what I saw this spring he will be soon. I’m not a big fan of Cesar Hernandez at second because he has almost no power, only moderate speed and his entire offensive value is based on an inflated BABIP. Kingery, on the other hand, has decent power, as much speed, plus based on his college career and early minor league returns, excellent bat control. All three have been in evidence this spring. I just believe he is more the Phillies’ future at second than Hernandez and if the latter struggles early in the season, the former will get his chance.  It’s obviously hyperbole comparing a prospect to a Hall of Famer but he reminds me a lot of Craig Biggio in both the way he plays and his talent/skill set.


Matt Manning

I am a little surprised that the Tigers have not been given more credit for developing starting pitchers. Maybe people don’t think cold weather cities are capable. But with Jason Verlander, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, Rick Porcello, Drew Smyly, Robbie Ray, Michael Fulmer and Daniel Norris all learning a significant portion of their craft in Detroit, one has to start looking at that organization as a place to mine pitching talent. Matt Manning could be the next big thing from the Motor City. He’s still a couple years away but just about everyone sees his future as a top of the rotation arm with plus velocity and a hard curve.  If he develops a passable change-up, he will move quickly.


Pete O’Brien

No one questions whether Pete O’Brien can hit. Well, actually there is some question given that he strikes out so much. But his power is fascinating. His biggest problem has been finding a place to play since he’s not a very good catcher and an even worse outfielder. Kansas City solved that problem by trading for him and thereby giving him a path to at bats in the DH spot. Currently the best he can hope for is sharing the slot with Brandon Moss, but if Moss starts this year the way he finished last year with 9 hits in his final 91 at bats, O’Brien might find himself with the job full-time. The last three years combining his major league and minor league ledgers he’s hit at least 27 homers in each season. In 74 major league at bats he’s hit 6 home runs; that’s a rate of 44.6 homers per 550 at bats. His BABIP in the majors is an unsustainably low .184 over those appearances. Assuming he rebounds to near-major league average on balls in play, we could be looking at a hitter with a .270/.325/.550 slashline. That’s a huge get in exchange for a minor league reliever, and potentially a very profitable fantasy player.


So that is how my reserve squad filled out, joining Shohei Otani and Lazarito Armenteros from last year’s squad. Honestly, a good number of these players aren’t that exciting as far as upside but I think they have a good chance at being productive roster filler. With Jung-Ho Kang, KoltenWong, Miguel Montero, Danny Espinosa and Nick Markakis all somewhat questionable to provide production for this team, productive roster filler was an extremely attractive profile to have. Time will tell if that was a winning strategy this year.