This Year in the XFL
April 10, 2010

When I wrote the piece about the XFL last November, I felt pretty confident about my team, particularly my pitching staff.  Reality however, as it often does, had a different idea. Two weeks into spring training, Roy Oswalt was experiencing pains that might or might not be related to the back troubles that affected his performance last season, Ervin Santana bumped his elbow and was on the shelf for a couple weeks and Kerry Wood's back was acting up, pushing him to the shelf for the first month or two. Add that to Jordan Zimmerman missing the first half (at least) and I suddenly had to find a ton of pitching in the spring draft. That was in addition to the concern I expressed last time about the demand for future talent.

Just to get a handle on how intense the demand was for the prospect population, I compiled my own top 100 list comprised of an average of the 8 most reputable top prospect lists, each one ranking at least 100 players. In addition to those, I included a number of players who had been mentioned in a number of other lists. My final list included 518 prospects. Before the draft began, 47 of them were already on protected lists. By the time it concluded, 118 were rostered including 82 of the top 100.

So the challenge was to re-build a pitching staff while grabbing some good prospects... and, oh yeah, getting some decent back-ups for the position players in case they get injured.

OK, first, the pitching staff. I'm a big believer in the predictive value of spring training Ks. Every year, a high number of pitchers emerge as surprise performers after impressing the training camps with high strikeout totals. It's obviously not a perfect predictor of performance, but enough guys do well that's it's worth paying attention. I wrote about this a few years back and it's held true every year since. So for this season I had targeted Gio Gonzalez, CJ Wilson, Nate Robertson, Dana Eveland, and David Hernandez as guys I thought were not highly regarded yet might have breakout years. Of that group, I have the least confidence in Hernandez who has been prone to both the walk and the home run, but his stuff is quality and one never knows when/if the light will go on. Gonzalez, Wilson and perhaps Robertson have the best potential for a high rate of strikeouts so they were highest priority. Some might chuckle at Robertson being considered a potential good strikeout pitcher, but historically left-handers coming to the NL have fared pretty well their first season.  Check out the improvements Cliff Lee, CC Sabathia, Al Leiter etc experienced when they made their NL debuts.  I already had Nolasco and Hughes (who also had big K springs) so the object was to get at least two off that list. One guy who had a big spring who I wasn't buying was Ramon Ortiz (yet) because he always seems to pitch well in spring only to melt by May.

The drawback of many high K pitchers, especially young ones, is that tend to throw a lot of pitches and are thus prone to walks, negatively affecting the team WHIP. So I also felt I had to pick up some semi-veteran ballast to counter that potential problem. In addition to spring Ks, my other tenet when it comes to fantasy pitching is that you always trust good pitching coaches. Not false ones, like Leo Mazzone, who was always more the product of good scouting and great talent on hand than anything he ever did, but real pitching coaches like Dave Duncan and Mike Maddux, who year after year turn sow's ears into silk purses. So Brad Penny and Colby Lewis, both of whom have decent talent, struck me as having great potential to both post good WHIPS and acceptable strikeout rates.

Of the guys I targeted, I ended up with Penny, Lewis, Robertson and Eveland. I still believe in the other guys, though.

To fill in for Wood, I took a couple of relievers who have the talent to be closing by the end of the year: Sammy Gervacio and Joel Zumaya. The Astros will be one of the worst teams in the majors this year so it doesn't take a soothsayer to see them trying to move their closers for prospects by mid-season. The Tigers chances of contending all year are heavily dependent on the returns of Dontrelle Willis and Jeremy Bonderman, as well as the continued emergence of Rick Porcello. If that doesn't happen, I don't think they have the offense to avoid selling off their closer for prospects, thus opening the door for Zumaya. Regardless if any of that happens, both guys should put up quality WHIP, ERA and Ks (health-willing).

My annual wild hair this year was filled by Scott Olsen. Normally it's Rick VandenHurk that I have the irrational attraction to and this year was no different; I still think he will do good things. But Scott Olsen caught my eye with his last two starts of spring against real major league line-ups. Granted, he hasn't been good the last three or four years but he has a good pedigree, posting good/great numbers as a prospect who was young for his level, and his first full season in Florida was quite good. So the talent is there; it just hasn't been unlocked. And then in his last two spring starts, he combined to throw 10.1 innings, allowing 12 hits, 1 walk, 2 earned runs while striking out 11. Yes, it was spring training, but maybe that was the sign that something finally clicked for him. Given the state of their pre-Strasburg rotation, the Nationals will certainly give him every chance to prove it so for me it was worth taking a chance on.

OK, so now for the positional back-ups. I felt pretty good about my team's offense so I had some leeway to take chances on upside guys. It didn't occur to me until the round where I selected him (the 5th) that Jeff Clement qualified at catcher in our league this year and that he could also fill the corner spot. I feel very lucky he fell as far as he did. If he finally lives up to his prospect billing as a power-hitter with a plus eye at the plate, all the better. I also took chances on two guys looking to rebound, both of whom have plus power and very little pressure to live up to their once lofty expectations: Rick Ankiel and Andruw Jones.

And now for the prospects: there were obviously some very good hitting prospects to be had - Domonic Brown, Dee Gordon, Starling Castro, etc.- but I didn't feel like any of them had the kind of upside that made them no doubt superstars. Brown and Gordon are still pretty raw and even though they have high ceilings they are far enough away from it to think it may take a while. I like Castro a lot, but from what I have seen he seems more likely to become the next Edgar Renteria (a very good player) than the next Hanley Ramirez (a great player).  The difference between the two in fantasy terms (especially for this league) is $10-15 in annual peak value. That equates to 3 to 5 years of keeper value. My philosophy when picking prospects is that I only want to target guys who have $30+ potential. Granted, it's still long odds that a prospect will reach that level, and there is plenty of value, particularly for trading purposes, of taking lesser talents, but in my view roster spots are simply too valuable to be taking guys who will probably only turn a profit for two or three years. Most prospects take two or three years to reach their peak value which means their salary will be $7-$10 before they reach it.  If their peak is $15-$17, they really don't offer much for what they cost in total when you account for the number of years they occupy a roster spot.  I apply my philosophy to pitching prospects too, who are even more difficult to predict.  Still, I felt there were three young pitchers who had the talent to develop into top tier #1-type starters: Martin Perez, Chris Withrow and Kyle Gibson.  I managed to snag the first two, but was disappointed that I didn't get the third because Gibson seems to me like the one who will reach his potential value the quickest.

The final guy was actually the first guy I took overall. As mentioned earlier, there were a number of excellent hitting prospects available as well as some very good major leaguers but I really wanted Anthony Rendon, third baseman from Rice University. He won't be drafted until 2011 but ask any prospect evaluator who they'd rather take - Rendon or Bryce Harper - and I'm willing to bet that you won't get an overwhelming consensus either way. And since Harper is already rostered in XFL, I felt that Rendon was a must draft. For me, he has the potential to be the best hitter who was not already in the majors before this season began, and yes, I'm including Jason Heyward and Mike Stanton. I think Rendon will be better all-around. He doesn't quite possess the raw power of a Stanton, or the contact ability of a Heyward, but his numbers and scouting reports suggest a nice blend of the two. He reminds me a lot of Pat Burrell and Carlos Quentin when they were in college but what separates him from those guys is his eye at the plate and the how rarely he swings and misses. Already, in his sophomore year, he's walking three times more often than striking out. The fact that he plays third base extremely well means he'll likely stay at the position long-term, leaving me plenty of room to fill the back end of my outfield every year behind Upton, Sizemore, Bruce and Stanton with a cheap upside play. It'll also save me from the annual dogfight over premium third basemen in the November auction. Granted, he won't have any impact on that situation until 2012 at the earliest, but it's never too early to take a great talent.

Obviously, there were plenty of other guys I liked coming into this season who I didn't get to roster, but I'd kinda like to keep them in my pocket for now in case I need to pick one or two of them up in the next monthly waiver draft.  I'd also like to avoid giving my considerably knowledgeable competition less information about who I'm interested in acquiring from them.  But two guys I will say that I REALLY liked coming into this season but I won't go anywhere near are Mike Leake and Aroldis Chapman.  I really like Mike Leake because his baseball intelligence/savvy is so great that he could significantly outpitch his talent the way Tim Hudson and Greg Maddux did in their heyday.  I'm not saying he's the next Greg Maddux; just that he'll be much better than contemporaries who have similar raw stuff.  And I really like Chapman because he has incredible talent.  But I won't go anywhere near either of them because Dusty Baker is their manager and he will ruin both of them before this year is out.  Dusty Baker has been a major league manager for 17 years and there has never been a pitcher who was better for it.   Whenever he had a pitcher that showed any talent, he rode him to either the operating table or out of baseball.  You'll know the Cincinnati Reds are finally serious about winning the day they change managers. 

One other team that will have to consider changing managers if they ever want to win is Cleveland.  If you have a Cleveland starting pitcher or a reliever on your fantasy roster (other than Kerry Wood who I believe is established enough that Manny Acta won't screw with his role once he returns) I would seriously consider trading him for as much value as I could get.  Acta is notoriously awful when it comes to handling a bullpen and isn't much better when it comes to handling young position players.  If you have Michael Brantley or Mat LaPorta, don't count on either getting more than 300 at bats this year because Acta will find a way to get Austin Kearns (or similar veteran player whom he is partial to because he "plays the game the right way") 250-300 at bats at their expense, regardless of how ineffective he is.  And if you have a Cleveland starting pitcher, expect about half as many wins as your think will get into their column because Acta will wear out the bullpen - getting guys up and not using them as well as using guys to get one or fewer outs - before June, making it impossible to come out of a game before the eighth inning and still expect a win.  Even the best draft can be undone by the guys calling the shots on the field.