Why’d I Get These Guys? (9th edition)

November 5, 2017


This is my annual summation of the XFL draft. For those who might be unfamiliar with it, it’s the only industry expert keeper league. It’s an on base league and it is held in November with a supplemental draft in March to fill out the reserve squad. Fifteen players from the previous year are allowed to be kept (including minor leaguers and foreign players).


After last year’s XFL draft, I made some hopeful predictions about my new roster:

Jurickson Profar ($6) – I thought he would get 450-500 at bats and produce 10 homers, 20 steals and solid rate numbers. The reality was that he was a complete bust and is probably getting traded this offseason for a carton of rosin bags

Matt Holliday ($1) – I thought he might get 450-500 at bats as the Yankees DH and hit 20 homers and drive in 75. He was great for the first month and then bottomed out with injuries. Over the second half of the season he was replaced in the line-up by a tackling dummy. Another bust.

Nick Markakis ($2) – did a little less than I expected which wasn’t enough to help. Another bust.

Andrew Toles ($1) – started out with 5 homers and no steals in the first few weeks and then got injured for the remainder of the year. Intriguing possibility going forward but another bust.

Kolten Wong ($2) – Another intriguing possibility moving forward but in 2017 about the only thing he provided was surprising on base skills. No power, no speed. Lots of bust.

Miguel Montero ($1) – started out hot and might have been able to do something impactful but talked his way out of Chicago and onto Toronto’s bench. There’s little hope he’ll be anything but a part-time back-up. Bust.

Danny Espinosa ($1) – Drove in a surprising number of runs during the first month but then reverted to being Danny Espinosa. He was worth about what I paid for him: bust

Jon Gray ($1) – got injured in spring training but was just as effective as expected when he returned. Unfortunately I had traded him by the time he returned. Fortunately, he was part of a deal that brought me Dee Gordon. Still, he is the first guy who did something for me, even though it was only in trade. He looks strong going forward… for someone else.

Robbie Ray ($2) – Finally, whatever you want to call it, Ray was a certified win. He was one of the best starting pitchers in baseball, even with missing time due to taking a line-drive off his head. I like his future, too

Ryan Madson ($5) – Apparently he told his manager he did not want to close out games anymore, which is why Santiago Casilla muddled through as the closer in Oakland until Madson was traded to Washington where he again set up another former Oakland reliever, Sean Doolittle. He provided solid innings for a reliever but that’s it and that’s not enough. Bust


OK, that was pretty terrible. Ten opportunities to roster players yet only one and a half panned out. It’s kind of surprising that I finished second in the league. Ah, what might have been had I been competent last November…


Before I get to the meat and potatoes of this year’s picks, I should preface this with my two rules of fantasy baseball:

1)      Value is where you find it – meaning you can never predict which players will come at a bargain price. You can only be positioned to grab the bargain when the opportunity presents itself,

2)      Never pay or play for last year – I don’t expect any player to repeat last year’s results unless the underlying indicators strongly suggest it. I do my best to understand why any surprises happened and to gauge the likelihood of them happening again.


As noted in a previous column, before going in I had traded for Edwin Encarnacion to be my first baseman, already had Anthony Rendon as my third baseman, Dee Gordon at second and Giancarlo Stanton and Justin Upton in the outfield. On the mound were Stephen Strasburg, Yu Darvish, Carlos Martinez, Robbie Ray and Felipe Rivero. It was a pretty solid starting staff, pretty good power on the hitting side and Gordon should provide enough SBs that I didn’t have to hunt for steals. However, all of that cost me $195, which meant I had only $65 going in. One caveat is that on the farm I had Shohei Otani, Scott Kingery and Tetsuto Yamada, all of whom could contribute in 2018 assuming Otani and Yamada decide to leave Japan. That also means that the pitching staff could be even deeper, and that the middle infield isn’t quite as barren as it appears at first glance. My strategy going in was to spend no more than $8 on the four remaining pitching spots, grab a couple of cheap catchers, and spend the rest ($55) on getting the best possible hitters available. Last year I made the mistake of waiting to spend my money and ended up leaving $10 on the table plus wasting $5 on Ryan Madson. I swore I would never do that again.


Standing in my way were fourteen other teams, eight of which had at least $130 to spend, including one with $192.


As for how I targeted players, I wanted hitters who had suffered bad luck on balls in play because unless there was some other factor dragging their performance down, they seemed like strong candidates for a rebound. Likewise, I wanted pitchers who endured the same travails. Additionally, I wanted to roster at least a few hitters who had some position flexibility and pitchers who had good velocity on their fastballs and had demonstrated an ability to induce swinging strikes.


The results:


Jason Kipnis ($8)Kipnis was the first player I rostered and checked all the boxes. He suffered through a surprisingly low BABIP, and lost a little playing time due to injury. But by the end of the season Cleveland needed help in the outfield so he gained position flexibility. He’ll only be 31 next year and despite the lower power numbers, his isolated power indicates he’s still capable of posting a 20+ home run season.  


Brian McCann ($9) – This was a case of trying to price enforce that didn’t work out. In previous years catchers had gone for exorbitantly high salaries but it became clear to me too late this year after Buster Posey was rostered (for $31) that wasn’t going to be the case. Still, this is not a completely terrible pick but it was obviously way more than I wanted to pay for any catcher. McCann will be 34 next year, which is old for a catcher. But since he’s the best they have behind the plate he’ll be the Astros’ primary catcher for at least another year. There don’t appear to be any strong indicators that he’ll decline significantly.


Jose Martinez ($9) – This get comes with significant risk considering the logjam of talent in St. Louis. But I have to think the Cards realize that if they hope to compete with the Cubs, they need an impact bat and will trade one or two of Piscotty, Grichuk, Pham, Gyorko, Martinez or Carpenter to get what they need. Sure, he’s a career minor leaguer who will turn 30 next season but he has a terrific eye at the plate and is just learning to lift the ball. Jose Bautista was 29 when he first broke out as a major source of power and J.D. Martinez was 28 when it happened for him, so a big power breakout late is not unprecedented. Just this past season, Pham (Martinez’ teammate) had his breakout season and he’ll turn 30 next spring, so it’s not as if the Cardinals shy away from older players who could produce. If Martinez gets 450 ABs, he's a good bet to hit 20 homers. If he gets a full-time opportunity he could hit 30+. He’s not a good defensive player anywhere on the diamond but he qualifies in the outfield and first base, which is a bonus for my purposes.


Carlos Gonzalez ($7) – This was another case of a price enforcing gone wrong. Gonzalez has never been a great hitter away from Coors and 2017 was supposed to be his walk year, so he had to pile up big numbers to convince other teams he was capable anywhere. Last season could have gone worse but not by much. By August, his offensive production was among the worst in baseball for a regular player. However, as bad as he was for the first five months, he showed a dramatic improvement in September (.377/.484/.766), which he attributed to a sleep specialist. Had he hit that way all season he a) would not have been available for $7, and b) would almost certainly be sorting through a bunch of multi-year deals at top dollar to play elsewhere, which actually might have been a bad thing. It might still be. He might still get a deal that leads him away from Coors. However, as is, there’s a chance that the Rockies will offer him a qualifying offer and - given the year he had it’s possible that no team offers him the kind of deal he is looking for – he accepts the Rockies’ bid in order to rebuild his value for one year. That would be the ideal. The downside is that he gets the deal he’s looking for anyway and ends up in a park that’s a lefty hitter’s nightmare. So this pick could either end up as a steal for a $30+ player (his average salary the last three years in XFL was $37) or an overpay for a fungible outfielder that could have been had for a buck.


Mikie Mahtook ($3) – His swing isn’t as ugly but I see Mahtook as a younger version of Hunter Pence. Last year he finally rediscovered his natural swing and produced pretty decent numbers after he was given a chance to play full-time. He plays good enough defense to guarantee regular playing time and Detroit doesn’t seem to be in a position to spend money to replace him. Given that, he’s a pretty solid bet to hit 20 homers and maybe steal 15 bases. The concern for many is that his BABIP was high but because of his speed and his slashing style, I suspect he’s one of those players who will naturally produce a higher than average BABIP.


Sean Doolittle ($7) – Even more that the catcher market in this draft, the closer market absolutely collapsed. After Kenley Jansen and Corey Knebel went for $20+, the prices on closers teetered with Aroldis Chapman and Wade Davis each going for $17. But after them, no other closer went for more than $11. Ken Giles went for $9, Cody Allen for $11 and Edwin Diaz for $10. Doolittle was in that mix but the death knell came when Mark Melancon went for $1. Why? Because we are still four months away from teams actually naming who their closers are so there could be a great deal of roster churn. Another problem is that the position is so volatile. Entering the season last year, Zach Britton was one of the most relied upon closers, as was Melancon. Sam Dyson was supposed to be a lock in Texas and was dominating in the WBC. All of them struggled last season. Even Chapman lost a month of opportunities to fixing some mechanical issues. So no one wants to pay for a player who might lose most of his value even without the risk of injury. As for Doolittle, he nailed down nearly every closing opportunity he was given once he was traded to Washington and with that team he should get plenty of opportunities in 2018. For $7, I could not resist.


Chris Iannetta ($3) – This was another case of price enforcement gone wrong and I’m not as optimistic about this one working out. Iannetta has a good skills set but he’ll be 35 and is coming off a season in which his BABIP was .308 (.326 in the second half). For a career .278 BABIP hitter, that’s likely to regress. Also not working in his favor is the probability that despite the good year he won’t get more playing time. I suspect it was precisely because he only got 316 plate appearances that he was able to stay fresh and strong throughout the season. He’ll be in a good line-up so there will be opportunities to produce but I’ll definitely have to look for more catching options in the March supplemental draft.


Jose Reyes ($1) – I know it sounds crazy but Jose Reyes was a player I really wanted to get. Why would I want a 34-year old shortstop with declining defensive skills and a .314 on base last year? For all the talk about his defensive limitations, his numbers indicate he was no worse at shortstop in 2017 than he was when he was the everyday shortstop for the Mets in 2009-1011. His heir apparent, Amed Rosario, will be a defensive wiz one day but last year his defense was lackadaisical more often than was comfortable for the pitching staff and it was clear that his bat was not ready to be in the line-up everyday. The Mets will need insurance at short. They just picked up the option for Asdrubal Cabrera (which was a forgone conclusion anyway) but even if he’s the guy they still have questions at third, second and first. Dominic Smith did not look ready to take over at first, so Wilmer Flores might be an option there or back at second. They may opt to go out and pick up a free agent for one or both of the corners. But Reyes has said he would like to come back to the Mets and would accept a discount to do so. That is music to most GM’s ears. He also became Rosario’s mentor after the prospect’s call-up so he’d be a natural fit to help groom him for stardom. Reyes also showed that he’d be willing to play just about any position (which is great for his fantasy value being eligible at three infield positions). As for the .314 on base? That was largely due to a tremendously unlucky first half where he posted a .222 BABIP. For a career .308 BABIP hitter, that was completely unsustainable and in the second half it rebounded in a big way (.323 BABIP with an on base of .356). In fact, over the second half of the season, Reyes was one of the most productive shortstops in the majors at the plate and was in the top five among all players in stolen bases. There seems to be something left in the tank. Since division play began there have been three shortstops 35 or older who have hit at least 10 home runs and stolen 20 bags in a season (Barry Larkin, Derek Jeter and Jimmy Rollins). A fourth (Omar Vizquel) missed the cut by 2 steals. For more than a decade, offensively Reyes has been nearly as good as they were. There’s a chance he still is and for $1, I didn’t mind taking it.   


Lucas Duda ($1)Duda was another bet against a low BABIP. After being traded to Tampa his BABIP was an abysmal .173. Granted, there is nothing in his game that would indicate his BABIP would be even average but that’s pretty low by any standard. Despite the horrible luck, he showed that his power is still there, hitting 13 homers in 200 plate appearances with an ISO of .269. That’s plenty good to get a contract somewhere. What’s especially encouraging was that his defense at first was above average in Tampa so he’s a viable option to play in the field for 30 teams. I have no idea where it will be but he’s not too old to have at least one more solid year. 


Mike Foltynewicz ($5) – What first caught my eye about Folty was that he and I share the same birthday. Just kidding… we do but the 100-mph fastball was the first thing that caught my eye. He doesn’t throw 100 any more (merely 99 and averaging over 95) but he’s learning the fine craft of pitching where he doesn’t have to throw 100 to be effective. Over the last three years, hitters are decreasingly making contact in the zone against him and when they do make contact they aren’t pulling it as much or hitting it as hard. All are very good signs. All he needs now is to figure out how to get through the order a second and third time. That said, he was relatively unlucky on balls in play so part of that figuring out might just be getting things to break even. Looking game by game, most of the damage to his final totals occurred in four horrible outings. Without those outings, his final ERA would have been a much more palatable 3.39. There are still plenty of things to work on, but there is a decent pitcher here somewhere.


Nick Pivetta ($1) – Hopefully very soon people will remember that this was the pitcher the Nationals gave up to acquire Jonathan Papelbon. Talk about rubbing salt into the wound and with a division rival, no less. I like Pivetta quite a bit. He’s added some velocity over the last few seasons but he still leaves too many pitches over the fat part of the plate. Still, as rookie campaigns go, his wasn’t bad. He was a bit unlucky not only on balls in play but with fly balls leaving, and the Phillies bullpen was absolutely dreadful stranding runners so next year should be much better with even average luck. One thing that would help is a more savvy catcher behind the plate calling and framing pitches: Phillies catchers were among the worst at getting calls for their mound mates. Their best, Jorge Alfaro, was worth -5.3 runs on his framing alone.


Troy Tulowtzki ($1)Tulo was another player I wanted to get. Obviously he needs to stay healthy and in three of the last six seasons he hasn’t done that. Maybe a position switch will be the remedy but he has been adamant against it. Of course, no one thought ARod would switch positions either, especially in New York where he was clearly the superior choice over Jeter. But if the Jays bring in the right player he might change his mind. Either way, for fantasy purposes he’s a shortstop in 2018. As such, few have as much power: in the last 10 years only thirteen shortstops have hit as many as 25 homers in a season and only three have done it more than once. Tulo is at the top with four times and he has two other seasons in which he hit 24. His on base is not what it was in Colorado (obviously), but he’s been a little unlucky on balls in play so a healthy season and average luck should make it at least league average. There are some positive signs as well: his contact on balls in the zone has rebounded to near career highs and he’s swinging and missing at pitches less than he has in three years. The negative is that he spiked in groundball rate, as well as softly hit balls after pretty consistent performance for five years. That might be explained by the leg injuries he battled last year before the ankle sidelined him but only time will tell. If he can pull a Ryan Zimmerman and stay healthy (he’s certainly due), this could be a very nice $1 buy. The ankle injury occurred at the end of July, which means by the time spring training starts he will have had seven full months to recover.


German Marquez ($1) – Marquez was intriguing to me for a couple of reasons. The first is that he has premium velocity, and improved both his strikeout rate and walk rate as the season went along. So there’s a chance he’ll develop into a good starting pitcher in Colorado, especially given that he generates a fair number of ground balls. But the other reason is that there has been talk about moving him to a relief role and giving him a chance to close out games. So either way he has a chance to have decent value next year and going forward. This was a case of drafting the talent and hoping that the ideal situation finds him.


It seems odd to be enthusiastic about acquiring so many banged-up, older players but there is a method to my madness. Most players love the game and will do pretty much anything to play it for as long as they can. They will work even harder to be ready for the next season if they have a disappointing year. So even though they’ve made plenty of money and have little financial incentive because they can walk away and still live a comfortable life, players like Kipnis, Cargo, Tulo and Reyes will do whatever is necessary to make sure that next year isn’t as bad. I’m not betting on their talent; I’m betting on their will. And honestly, that’s all anyone ever bets on when it comes to professional sports. The level of talent at the major league level is pretty uniform. Sure, there are a few guys who are more genetically gifted, but what separates the good players from the truly great ones isn’t so much talent as it is drive, ambition and willpower. Betting on a player returning from injury the following year is one of the safest bets there is because you already know his talent level. The only risk is whether or not he still has the will to do whatever it takes to get back to where he was. The vast majority do. Of course, there are some injuries that are harder to return from, and once a player reaches a certain age the body simply can’t rebound… but if you are looking for a safe bet, in my view, that’s it, especially with players who have a long track record of success.


That’s it. I tried to spend my money, and in retrospect there were a few guys that I liked that I should have gone higher on: Greg Bird ($18) and Gregory Polanco ($21) come to mind. But they both went to teams that had much more money than I did so even had I gone an extra $5 on them there’s no guarantee I would have ended up with them. Still, I left money on the table again. I have to stop doing that. However, I don’t feel I wasted a substantial amount of money and I may have picked up a few bargains. As with any draft in November, the intervening four months can radically change the landscape so what might look like a terrible pick now might look great by spring and visa versa. I can only hope the hot stove season is kind and that I won’t have too many holes to fill in March.