Matt LaPorta | Cleveland | 1B/OF | 13 percent Yahoo! ownership
Oliver ROS: .244/.321/.417
Playing second fiddle to another American League Central post-hype sleeper, Alex Gordon, Matt LaPorta has started the season quite nicely himself. The two most noticeable changes for LaPorta’s game to begin the year are a slight increase in his walk rate from his career mark and a dramatic change to his batted ball profile.
He’s now taking to the air and, as one would expect, he has seen his power output increase (.204 ISO this year compared to .160 for his career) because of the change. Power has always been his calling card, so if he’s able to continue to loft the ball, he’s going to be a useful source of power. His contact rate isn’t great, but he doesn’t strike out an obscene amount for a slugger, so there is some hope for a slightly higher average than the one he’s sporting at the moment.
That said, non-home run fly balls have a lower average than ground balls and line drives, so temper the optimism in projecting an average much higher than it is currently and simply enjoy the power with anything beyond that being gravy. Hitting in the bottom third of the Indians’ lineup is likely to stifle his run and RBI totals, but the potential for injury or ineffectiveness from Travis Hafner leaves open the possibility of a move up as the season progresses.
Recommendation: Should be owned in most large mixed leagues, and should be owned in all AL-only leagues.
Derrek Lee | Baltimore| 1B | 46 percent Yahoo! ownership
Oliver ROS: .273/.353/.465
One could be excused for wondering if Derrek Lee’s early struggles are the signs of a cliff season, but there are a variety of reasons to hold off on such a rash judgement just yet. For starters, his plate discipline and strikeout rate largely fall in line with his career mark, and are actually both slightly better this year. A second reason to hold out hope for a useful season is his miserable .245 BABIP in spite of a strong 24.0 percent LD rate.
Also, unless he’s completely devoid of power, his HR/FB rate should improve from its current 5.0 percent to something approaching, at the least, last year’s mark of 12.1 percent. Hitting exclusively third in the Orioles’ lineup should lead to solid run and RBI totals when he heats up. If you currently own him, practice a bit of patience. If he’s available in your league and you have a roster spot to work with, consider adding him. Finally, if your in a league that he’s owned, kick the tires a bit and see if you can pluck him away at a bargain basement price.
Recommendation: Should be owned in all but the shallowest of leagues.
Erick Aybar | Los Angeles (American League) | SS | 15 percent Yahoo! ownership
Oliver ROS: .274/.315/.370
Starting the season on the disabled list, Erick Aybar saw his first major league action March 31. Not an exciting option at shortstop or middle infield, but one with his uses, Aybar broke the 20 stolen base threshold for the first time last year and chipped in five home runs. He only hit .253 and is a non-contributor in the RBI category with little reason to expect him to morph into an RBI machine hitting near the bottom of the Angels lineup, but he is a career .275 hitter, so he could see an improvement there. He’s the guy you’ll always be looking to upgrade, but owners could do much worse than plugging a 20 stolen base threat into their MI spot as a stopgap in deep leagues.
Recommendation: Should be owned in some large mixed leagues, and should be owned in all AL-only leagues.
Justin Smoak | Seattle | 1B | 18 percent Yahoo! ownership
Oiver ROS: .239/.337/.389
There are exactly zero positives for a hitter when their home ballpark changes from Rangers Ballpark in Arlington to Safeco, but that doesn’t mean Justin Smoak is a completely lost cause. The prime piece going to Seattle in return for Cliff Lee, Smoak was a major disappointment last season, his first in the majors.
Drafted as a polished and disciplined college bat who should reach the majors in short order, Smoak was able to deliver on that prognostication. His plate discipline has followed him on each professional stop and helped make him a sneaky option in leagues using OBP in place of, or in addition to, AVG. A high OBP should also help his runs scored totals, for those only concerned with his contributions in standard 5×5 formats.
As a switch hitter, Safeco won’t be as daming to his home run potential as if he were a right-handed hitter, but expecting more than 20-25 home run power will lead to disappointment for fantasy owners. He’s a career .288 minor league hitter, so as he gets further acclimated to the major league level, expecting an average in the .280s is completely reasonable.
All of his at-bats have come 5th in the order, directly behind Milton Bradley and Three-True-Outcomes hero Jack Cust. Neither hitter, nor the rest of the Mariners bats for that matter, strikes much fear in opposing pitchers, but both batters should provide ducks on the pond for Smoak to drive in. Those looking for help at their CI slot should give Smoak an extended test run to see if he’ll cure what ails that position.
Recommendation: Should be owned in most large mixed leagues using a CI, and should be owned in all AL-only leagues.
Brandon McCarthy | Oakland | SP | 11 percent Yahoo! ownership
YTD: 2.45 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 5.73 K/9, 0.82 BB/9, 47.9 GB
Oliver ROS: 4.29 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 5.9 K/9, 2.9 BB/9
A former hot prospect in the Chicago White Sox organization, Brandon McCarthy has had to reinvent himself in order to stick with the Oakland A’s this spring after years of injuries and inconsistancy. Now focused on inducing ground balls, McCarthy is largely relying on a sinker and cutter in place of his four-seem fastball, and the results have been promising as his groundball rate is over 10 percent higher than his career rate.
His new approach will limit his strikeout rate, meaning his roto league owners with a reachable innings cap will need to find another source for strikeouts. All isn’t bad about his pitch-to-contact approach, as his walk rate has been elite, and coupled with his high groundball rate, has allowed him to post a 3.00 xFIP that helps support his low ERA. If your looking for a best-case scenario comp, Chris Carpenter immediately comes to mind, making McCarthy a player worth speculating on.
Recommendation: Should be owned in most medium-sized mixed leagues, all large mixed leagues, and all AL-only leagues.
Fausto Carmona | Cleveland | SP | 23 percent Yahoo! ownership
YTD: 4.74 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 7.30 K/9, 2.55 BB/9, 60.8 GB
Oliver ROS: 4.50 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 5.2 K/9, 3.6 BB/9
Admittedly, I am still skeptical of Fausto Carmona’s leap in strikeouts and improved control this year, but should it be a continuing trend, he becomes a pitcher of great interest. Carmona’s ERA is largely bloated by a disasterous 10-earned-runs, three-innings-pitched clunker against the White Sox in the Indians’ season opener. Since that start, he’s had three straight quality starts, going at least seven innings and allowing two or fewer earned runs in each.
A leap in swings at pitches outside the strike zone, a drop in contact made against his pitches, an increase in his swinging strike rate, and greater usage of his slider all support his nearly two full strikeouts increase in K/9. One cause for concern for sustained success is a first pitch strike rate of just 48.5 percent, a full 10 percent lower than league average.
Would it surprise me if Carmona reverted back to the low-strikeout, passable control, innings eater he has been to date? No, not at all. However, this is the time of year to take a few gambles at the bottom of your roster, hoping early-season skills growth is reality and not a mirage.
Recommendation: Should be owned in some medium-sized mixed leagues, most large mixed leagues, and all AL-only leagues.
Andrew Oliver | Detroit | SP | 0 percent Yahoo! ownership
YTD: 3.50 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 11.0 K/9, 3.00 BB/9 (Triple-A)
Oliver ROS: 5.12 ERA, 1.54 WHIP, 6.7 K/9, 4.5 BB/9
Having recently written about Andrew Oliver elsewhere, it is safe to say I’m a bit infatuated with the young southpaw. His Triple-A results have been fantastic so far this season, and if he’s able to continue pitching at a high rate, he’ll almost certainly receive a promotion.
Brad Penny ‘s return to the American League has been poor, and Phil Coke is a converted reliever who has more walks than strikeouts this year, making the back end of the Tigers’ rotation tenuous and potentially creating an opening for Oliver.
His results last year were miserable, but in fairness to him, his promotion was premature. The key to success for Oliver will be effective usage of his secondary offerings to compliment his low-to-mid 90s fastball and limiting walks. He’s not a player that needs to be stashed in most leagues; Oliver is more of a player that needs to be watched closely by those in deep leagues and AL-only formats.
Recommendation: Should be monitored, but unowned, in all but dynasty leagues.