Spring Notes
March 30, 2011

Haven't posted anything in a while, but I have been watching the spring games and thought now would be as good a time as any to share.
I like Derek Holland quite a bit this year.  I wanted to take him in my own XFL draft but I had other spots to fill before I could get to him.  Hopefully he'll get off to a slow start so I can trade for him.  Anyway, I watched a couple of his starts this spring and in the last one versus the Rockies he got hit around pretty badly.  At least that's what the box score says.  However, if you were watching the game, you would have seen through the first four innings that:
Julio Borbon misread a line-drive that nearly hit him in the foot;
Josh Hamilton lost a flyball in the sky;
Rather than flip the ball to the shortstop to start an easy double play, Ian Kinsler decided to run toward first to tag the runner, which forced an awkward throw that sailed past the first baseman;
Elvis Andrus grabbed a fairly routine grounder up the middle and rather than stop and set himself with plenty of time to throw out the pitcher, he airmailed the ball offbalance while running;
Yorvit Torrealba mishandled the exchange on a stolen base attempt;
Ron Washington inexplicably brought the infield in down 4-1 with men on 2nd and 3rd in the 4th inning with Carlos Gonzales at the plate.  Result: easy grounder that would have been an easy out turned into a 2-run scoring single;
David Murphy dropped a fairly easy pop-up;
All of these were ruled as regular plays - hits and non-errors.  That's five extra hits on Holland's ledger, three of which would have ended innings, and an additional play that cost him an out.
But going back a little further: before his three-walk meltdown in his first World Series appearance, he had been on somehwat of a roll.  Beginning with his second start in August after his return from the minors and going through the first two rounds of the playoffs, he pitched 44 innings, struck out 38 while walking 17, with a 3.068 ERA and a 1.2727 WHIP.  Those are pretty good numbers down the stretch.  Before this last outing this spring, his line was 14 innings, 12 Ks, 3 walks, 3.21 ERA and a 1.428 WHIP.  The WHIP isn't good obviously but what is good is that he had not given up a home run.  During his nice run last season he gave up only one home run.  The long ball was one of his trouble spots but it appears he's learned to pitch down in the zone, thereby keeping the ball in the park.  He's obviously not a finished product, but with Mike Maddux instructing him, he's doesn't really appear to be that far away from becoming a very solid starter.   

Some fantasy commentators have wondered if Justin Upton would ever reach his considerable potential, suggesting that based on his shoulder injuries the last two years and his high strikeout totals, that what he's produced so far is all he'll ever be.  While that's certainly possible, let me toss out something to think about.  Upton just turned 23 late last year, so 2011 will be his age 23 year.  Let me compare three players through their age 22 seasons:
Player A - .245/.329/.460 - 41 homers, 68 steals
Player B - .272/.352/.471 - 60 homers, 41 steals
Player C - .254/.340/.487 - 52 homers, 46 steals
Player B is Justin Upton.  Player A is Barry Bonds and Player C is Darryl Strawberry.  Another thing to consider: the only players in history who posted career slashlines of .250/.350/.450 with at least 60 homers and 20 steals through their age 22 season are Mel Ott, Alex Rodriguez, Al Kaline, Ken Griffey Jr, Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson and Justin Upton.   So you tell me: have we seen the best Upton has to offer?  Even close?

Mike Morse has had a great spring and has many excited about a potential breakout season.  While that is a possibility and he does have the kind of power to hit 25+ homers, one of the things I take as a warning flag is that his strikeout rate started climbing and his walk rate has flat-lined late this spring.  It might be just spring numbers but under other circumstances that would be a signal that says he's one cold-streak from a potential platoon.  He could still remain hot for a while, but between that and his unusual batting stance that leaves him vulnerable to hard stuff inside, I'm not convinced he has long term value. 

A hitter whose numbers haven't been good this spring yet I'm optimistic about is Rick Ankiel.  Rick Eckstein is a pretty good hitting coach and Ankiel has made some significant strides this spring to shorten his swing and be more selective at the plate.  It may take a month or two for that to bear fruit but I like Ankiel's chances to surprise this year.  Over these last two weeks when spring starts to look more like the regular season, Ankiel has hit .286 with a homer and 6 RBI.  More importantly, he's walked 3 times against only 6 strikeouts in 35 plate appearances.  So if you're looking for a surprise 25-homer hitter in the Washington outfield, I might give Ankiel a try if Morse is gone.  (Full disclosure: I do have a blind spot for Rick Ankiel, so this could all be wishful thinking on my part.  Just letting you know this so don't go pinning the success of your fantasy draft on getting him). 

Pat Burrell is another hitter about whom I'm becoming more optimistic.  He's not had a terrific spring statistically, and there's the looming threats to his playing time from Brandon Belt and Mark DeRosa.  Three things that make me think he'll get 400-450 at bats this year.  First, Belt might not be quite ready for the majors.  He started out spring like a house afire but as the exhibition season has progressed, pitchers have exposed some things he needs to work on.  He might do it in the minors or in the bigs but I'm guessing if he sticks he'll start out slowly.  Either way, whether he's demoted or not, Burrell probably won't be the guy in the field or the line-up he replaces.  With Cody Ross out for a while with injury, Aubrey Huff moves to right field and Ross might not get back out there for a month.  In the meantime, Burrell gets a chance to prove he's back to being Pat the Bat.  Secondly, DeRosa's greatest value, if and when he ever gets healthy, will be as a utility man.  Thirdly, and this was the big one, perhaps for the first time in his career this spring Burrell has been looking to go the other way on pitches outside.  Earlier in his career, he was always pull-happy.  His willingness to go the other way, trusting he has the power to knock the ball out opposite field will be a big boon to his stat line. 

Two catchers that have interested me this spring are JR Towles and Jarrod Saltalamacchia.  Both guys have struggled for several years to hit major league pitching yet both guys were pretty good minor league hitters.  Through 1233 minor league at bats, Towles hit 75 doubles, 39 homers with a .297/.390/.470 slash line.  Salty had a similar line, mashing 111 doubles and 60 homers with a .269/.363/.453 slashline through 1679 minor league at bats.  I think both of these guys will be useable in single league formats and possibly produce enough to be rosterable in mixed league.  Regardless, neither guy will come at a high price.

I like where Alex Gordon is going this spring.  It finally appears as though he's letting the game come to him and giving his talent an opportunity to shine.  I doubt he'll ever live up to the hype that accompanied his draft selection, but I do think he can be a good major league regular, perhaps even an occasional All-Star.

Of the surprising big bashers this spring : Jake Fox, Mike Morse, Chris Davis, Mark Trumbo, Luke Hughes, John Mayberry, the only two I think will have a regular job after the All-Star Break will be Morse and possibly Mayberry.  The other guys will be bats off the bench.  The power is real but with as much as they strikeout out and as rarely as they walk I just don't see anything more than short-term success.  One guy I like in the D-back minor league system, Paul Goldschmidt, has the same deal: tremendous power, poor strikezone judgment.  The difference for him is that he's still young (22) and has some time to develop.

One final hitter I like to find significant at bats this season is Andy LaRoche.  He's always had talent but for one reason or another it has never translated.  I know Daric Barton is stationed at first and Kevin Kouzmanoff at third in Oakland, but I think LaRoche finds his way into the regular line-up by the All-Star break and delivers production worthy of his minor league pedigree.
Brandon McCarthy was a fantastic pitching prospect at age 20 but his home park once he reached the majors was Comiskey, a terrible park for a flyball pitcher like McCarthy.  His next home was Arlington Texas, arguably a worse park for his style.  Now he'll be pitching in Oakland which has a great park for flyball pitchers.  It wouldn't surprise me for him to be one of the leaders in fantasy value from that rotation by the end of the season.  He's got good strikeout potential, only minor risk of injury and a pretty good outfield defense to chase balls down as long as Coco Crisp can stay healthy. 

Brandon Beachy never garnered much attention as a prospect but his career numbers, particularly last year and this spring, suggest he will be a pretty nice arm to have.  He doesn't possess the kind of stuff that will translate his minor league success to major league performance - that is, he won't become a dominant ace - but he should be a nice pick-up in an NL-only league.  Given the lack of familiarity with him, it would not surprise me to see him get out of the gate quickly. 

Lightly regarded starting pitchers I like this year: Fausto Carmona, Edwin Jackson, McCarthy, Tim Stauffer, Tom Gorzelanny and I look for a rebound from Randy Wells.  All of those guys enjoyed some short term success early on and have been knocked around a bit since then trying to adjust as the league adjusted to them.  This year I think they get back some of their original shine.  I also like a really big season from Jordan Zimmermann.  He has four above-average/good pitches and only needs good health to be a Tommy Hanson-type frontline starter.   Chris Young, provided he can stay healthy, should be very good at Citi Field.  I'm just not incredibly optimistic given his shoulder issues but he's definitely worth a flyer. 

For the same reason, as much as I am a fan of Brandon Webb and Johan Santana, I'm just not optimistic about them coming back this season  Likewise, I'm very leary of Mat Latos pitching a complete season.  I haven't seen Erik Bedard pitch this spring but his results have been pretty spectacular.  That said, if he's not back to his old velocity I'm leary of him, too.  If given a choice of pitcher injury, give me elbow soreness over shoulder soreness every time.  There's a high success rate for repairing elbows if they require surgery; with shoulders, not so much. 

There are two hurlers under the radar in Colorado I like this season.  Jason Hammel has been on the cusp of realizing the star potential he flashed while in Tampa's minor league system.  Batting average on balls in play has been unkind to him the last two years and moving Carlos Gonzalez to left field will improve the Rockies' outfield defense.  With any sort of luck, Hammel's numbers will improve just on the boost in glovework behind him.  Any progression he makes due to his maturation and increasing familiarity with the league is just bonus.  The other surprise Rockie pitcher I like is Esmil Rogers.  I'm a little concerned his change-up isn't very good, but he's got a live arm, a nifty slider and a very good pitching coach in Bob Apodaca.  When in doubt, buy the pitching coach.  Ask any Cardinals fan.

As for sleeper closers, I like Joel Peralta in Tampa although Jake McGee should push for the permanent job by the end of the year, and I like Jim Johnson in Baltimore.  I just don't believe Kevin Gregg, Mike Gonzales and Koji Uehara can fool hitters for one more year.  Back to McGee for a second, I went back and looked at the spring performances of successful rookie closers, and without exception they all posted excellent strikeout rates in the spring, dating back to the days of Gregg Olson and Todd Worrell.  Walk rate, hit rate, even home run rate didn't seem to matter, but they all struck out opposing batters at near or better than one per inning.  McGee certainly could become the exception that proves the rule but he wasn't that impressive in that regard this spring.  And given that Peralta was a pretty successful closer in AAA last year and Kyle Farnsworth was solid when given the opportunity in Detroit and in Atlanta, I see no reason to force the issue with McGee until he proves he's ready to be the main man. 

In the NL, I was doubtful Drew Storen could hold onto the job in Washington once he was annointed but two of this last three outings this spring left me with some optimism that he will do a decent job.  If it doesn't work out, however, I expect that his successor will not come from the current group in the pen - although manager Jim Riggleman has said he won't hesitate to use Sean Burnett - but from Triple-A closer Cole Kimball.  From what I saw last year in the AFL and this spring, he's got the stuff and the mentality to be a solid big league closer.  Besides, Burnett has more value as a lefty set-up man who can get righties out.  One other guy in the NL I like but it may take him a while to get the job is Kam Mickolio.  He's a hard thrower from Baltimore that went in trade to Arizona this past winter and the current incumbent, JJ Putz, does not have a great track record of staying healthy.  After Putz, the competition is pretty meager so with a strong showing out of the gate, Mickolio could be in line for bigger things.