Waiver Wire Offseason: AL

John Danks | Chicago | SP
2009 Final Stats: 6.7 K/9, 2.0 K/BB, 3.77 ERA

John Danks had a true breakout season in 2008, knocking a full point off his xFIP, which led to two points off his ERA. He has good stuff despite a fastball which isn’t overpowering, and had very good control in 2008, walking just 2.6 batters per game. He’s also smart, allowing himself to be “mentored” by cagey veteran Mark Buehrle. Given the paucity of other top-tier talent on the White Sox entering 2009, he was clearly their most valuable asset in terms of price vs. performance. So, things looked dire indeed for Chicago when his ERA stood at 5.10 on June 10. He posted a 3.21 mark thereafter (virtually identical to his 2008 ERA), but his peripherals showed a weakening in 2009, as his xFIP was up to 4.65. Unlike Buehrle, he uses a big overhand curve sometimes, and—partly for this reason—his ability to prevent the running game is nowhere near as good as Buehrle’s. We expect some improvement in peripherals, but the ERA was somewhat “lucky” in 2009, so don’t look for much improvement there.

Gio Gonzalez | Oakland | SP
2009 Final Stats: 9.9 K/9, 2.0 K/BB, 5.75 ERA
This may be the cheapest you’ll ever find a 10.0 K/9 starting pitcher entering his age-24 season. That’s right, 24. It only seems like he’s been around as long as Mike Gonzalez. In 2009, he was awful in two starts early, and demoted to Triple-A. He proceeded to destroy Triple-A hitters, reminding everyone why he was so highly regarded as a White Sox prospect. Then as a Phillies Prospect. Then—again—as a White Sox prospect. Then as an Oakland prospect… (you get the idea).

Anyway, upon his recall, his first five games (four starts) were even worse, as he allowed a .405/.463/.738 batting line against en route to a 10.31 ERA over these games. But this was July, not April, and the A’s had had their delusions of competing in 2009 dispelled, so he was left in the rotation. Maybe he was shocked into effectiveness after absorbing 11 earned runs in a July 20 start against the Twins, but he was a significantly better pitcher after that, allowing a 4.40 ERA in 13 starts the rest of the season, and holding hitters to a .248/.342/.398 batting line. It’s still not what you’d want from a starter long-term, but with the overwhelming strikeout totals, his xFIP was just 4.16 on the season, and that is something to build upon. There’s little doubt that he had a hand in his ultra-high BABIP (.369!) and HR/FB (14 percent). But a lot of those “hittable” pitches were coming early in the year, when he had no confidence, and his stuff abandoned him (or did the egg come before the chicken?) With the A’s subpar offense and his control problems, we wouldn’t go gung-ho bidding on him, but he’s on the short list of guys who could vault into preeminence with just a minor improvement in control.

Brandon Morrow | Seattle | SP
2009 Final Stats: 8.5 K/9, 1.8 K/BB, 4.64 ERA
From Wikipedia, “Morrow is an English word meaning ‘the next day’ (the morrow of the feast) or ‘tomorrow’”. Seemingly, that’s about as far ahead as the Mariners want to commit to planning for the big righty, as well. After his final start of the season, it was reported that, “Brandon Morrow tossed eight innings of one-hit shutout ball in a 7-0 win over the Athletics on Wednesday night.” And the conclusion drawn by the rotoworld.com analyst was, “Hopefully the former first-round pick will have a clear role headed into 2010.”

Morrow entered 2009 poised to be the full-time closer for the M’s. He blew a couple saves early, and was officially pulled from the role on May 15. On May 18, manager Don Wakamatsu said, “I talked with Brandon today. We’re going to keep him in the bullpen but not in the closer role. We’re going to get him some innings and get him to where he feels like he can command the baseball.” On June 10, he returned to a starting role, and was expected to get optioned to Tacoma. Instead, he struggled in the Seattle rotation for a month before his July 11 demotion. He was okay at Triple-A, and posted a 40 strikeouts, 23 walks and two homers in 55 innings. He was called up again on Sept. 12, and had a 2.66 ERA (with 18 strikeouts, 13 walks and one home run) in 23.2 innings over four starts. But with his final game of the season against the hapless A’s being his only game score over 53 all year, don’t be shocked if Morrow is a reliever on the morrow in Seattle. He’s getting the winter off, and will be preparing for a role in the rotation. But at this point, it would take a major breakthrough for him to have much fantasy value in 2010. Perhaps an excellent Spring Training would auger such a breakthrough, but keep in mind that even Seattle’s park and defense can’t save him from his wildness.

Ryan Rowland-Smith | Seattle | SP
2009 Final Stats: 4.9 K/9, 1.9 K/BB, 3.74 ERA
We counted “RRS” among the best “hits” on the year-end review of “hits” and “misses”, and the reasons can’t be repeated often enough… fantasy baseball is NOT real baseball. In real baseball, a “chuck and duck” pitcher like Rowland-Smith is a reasonable innings-eater for a team like Seattle. In fantasy, he has a chance to be a force in the WHIP category, while helping ERA some also. While you’ll need to go elsewhere to find wins and strikeouts, a full-time SP with a sub-1.20 WHIP and a 4-ish ERA is always nice to have. And the fact that he should still be available in the later rounds (or for nearly minimal dollar values) is just gravy. Some may point to his .253 BBIP and suggest that it will rebound to .300. Why? He allows a lot of fly balls, which inherently have lower BABIP rates, and Seattle has assembled a suffocating outfield defense, which cuts that rate even more. Don’t get into a bidding war, since you can probably get nearly as much utility from a top-notch non-closing reliever, but keep him in mind.

Carl Crawford | Tampa Bay | OF
2009 Final Stats: .305/.364/.452

With each increase in OBP being so much more important for someone who is such a threat to score, it can be argued that Crawford had his best season in 2009, topping his .315/.355/.466 rate stats from 2007. His 60 steals were a career high, as was his .366 OBP. The 16 times he was caught mitigate the impact somewhat, but don’t expect Joe Maddon to stop giving him the “green light” anytime soon.

Stolen bases disproportionately valuable in fantasy baseball. As game-players, we can’t afford to be “baseball purists”, and instead must figure out how to work with them. Most valuation systems start by assuming that a “replacement player” would get X stats in a category, and—as the adage about “get steals in the auction” implies—replacement level for steals is very nearly zero. Sure, one owner can get lucky and snag a Pedro Borbon when he’s promoted, but banking on a guy like that appearing on your waiver wire is about as dicey as a bank extending bad mortgages. Better to lock up steals when they are available. Crunching the numbers for the past few seasons, “replacement value” for most positions indeed shows almost zero stolen bases (2.4 for outfielders) in AL-only leagues, and the stats-per-SD rate is about 10. If you figure that each Standard Deviation nets about $2.50 (based on a 70/30 hitter/pitcher allocation of auction money), Crawford’s 60 SB were worth about $15 all by themselves.

But here’s where SB are so tricky. For most players, the variance from year-to-year on steals is quite large. And higher variance is why fewer dollars are generally spent on pitching stats, so why would it be good advice to lock them up in the auction? The answer is that the top stolen base contributors do nothave higher variance in steals than in their other stats. Crawford (remember him?) is perhaps the best example, despite his jump from 25 stealsin 2008 to his lofty 2009 total. Crawford has now played seven full seasons (counting his injury-plagued 2008 as “full”), and has averaged 50 steals per year, with a standard deviation of 12. That’s the equivalent of a 25-home run player having a standard deviation of 6 home runs perseason … and about as reliable as you’ll find.

So, for 2010, we think Crawford will generate between $10 and $13 in value from his steals alone (we don’t think 60 again is likely), and we like the uptick in OBP without a huge BABIP increase (.346 vs. career BABIP of .332), and think he’s likely to again generate something akin to $15 in non-SB value, making him a good bet to approach $30 in value again.

Jacoby Ellsbury | Boston | OF
2009 Final Stats: .302/.355/.415

It would be easy to focus on Ellsbury’s similarities to Crawford, as both are exceptionally fast left-handed outfielders who have shown just enough power to make people expect a lot more of it. Ellsbury now has 129 steals in just over 1400 plate appearances, which is essentially two full seasons for a healthy leadoff hitter. At 70-for-82, his success rate has been significantly better than Crawford’s, and he’s two years younger (the great basestealers in history have all had their best SB seasons pre-27, though they tend to lose speed “gracefully,” by getting on base more and getting more chances to steal).

Because he is an historical anomaly, it’s hard to discern what the future portends for Ellsbury’s steals. Looking at Boston’s top-10 SB seasons, Ellsbury has two of the top four, with the only others of recent vintage Otis Nixon’s 42 in 1994 and Tommy Harper’s 54 in 1973. In Fenway’s high scoring environment, steals just aren’t all that important. But stealing at an 85 percent rate helps a team, regardless of offensive environment (even after adding in the seven pickoffs, he was still successful 79 oercent of the time in 89 opportunities).

With speed like his, we don’t think there’s much reason to worry about him not stealing a ton of bases. The worry with Ellsbury is that his OBP isn’t great (just .346 vs. righties, with three of his 32 walks coming as IBBs), and advanced fielding stats suggest he’s really killing Boston afield. So, there’s some danger of one of two things happening with him, each of which would harm his fantasy value. Boston could replace him, trading him to a team in a pitcher’s park which could “make better use of his speed” (depending on treatment of players departing for the NL, this could end up helping a fantasy team if he steals more); or he could end up batting deeper down in the order, which would reduce his plate appearances as well as his runs scored totals. Granted, these aren’t huge concerns, and he should still be near the top of any AL draft list. I expect another gradual advance in his batting rate stats (if he stays in Boston), and another league-leading stolen base total, though 70 again would be a surprise.

Chone Figgins | Los Angeles? | 3B?
2009 Final Stats: .298/.395/.393

Figgins has played 274 games in the past two years, 259 of these have been at third base. While this seems to have had an agreeable effect on his play on the field, the lost versatility is no good for fantasy owners. Figgins had 62 steals in 2005, in just 259 steal opportunities, but was down to just 42 steals in 59 tries (with 11 pickoffs) in 313 SBO in 2009. Both his BABIP and OBP were career bests, as was his runs scored total of 114. The latter stat was a function of the best Angels offense in years, and a totally healthy season from Figgins.

I see this as a classic case of numerous indicators pointing to a big crash in 2010. First off, expecting more than 625 plate appareances from Figgins is optimistic, so more than 10 percent of his value evaporates. The Angels are unlikely to repeat their offensive heroics from 2009, or Figgins may be on a team with a less-potent offense, eating into his run (and RBI) totals. His speed shows numerous indicators of being in steep decline. The quick take is that he’s had 34-plus steals for six straight seasons, up to 42 in 2009. But there are enough yellow flags that counting on even 30 steals is optimistic for 2010, as would be counting on his rate stats to stay at such high levels.

Nolan Reimold | Baltimore | OF
2009 Final Stats: .279/.365/.466

One of the first Waiver Wire subjects, back on May 15, we predicted Reimold would “match Luke Scott’s production, with a few steals thrown in.” Since Luke Scott is a career .264/.350/.495 hitter, Reimold was very comparably valuable in terms of rate stats, and stole eight bases in 411 plate appearances, making that prediction seem spot-on. The next question concerns what the to-be-26-year-old Reimold will do in 2010.

Opinions vary on this, with the Bill James Handbook suggests a .292/.373/.524 season (29 home runs, 84 RBIs), while Heater’s “True Talent” feature thinks he’ll hit just .254, with only enough at-bats to hit 18 home runs and drive in 61 runs. BJHB has a long track record of over-projecting hitters, especially if they’ve had a great Triple-A experience the previous year (even if it’s too small of a sample size to have much statistical significance); but the “True Talent” projection is unduly pessimistic. With a contact rate that should approach 80 percent, a respectable walk rate, and decent athletic ability, there seems every indication that Reimold will be able to keep his average around .280 while pushing his slugging closer to .500 as he matures. A .280-25-80-10 season from him is possible, and (with a healthy Adam Jones) would give the O’s a great outfield trio with the potential to mature into the game’s best (with a good No. 4 in Pie as well)!

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  1. Scott said...

    For some reason I thought Ellsbury’s defense was above-average. And I’m assuming this his low OBP was a hiccup as he gets used to being at the top of the order. He was much more comfortable in the second half, after he’d been moved back up to the top spot.

  2. R M said...

    I would believe you about Figgins, except for the fact that everyone said that in 2009 too.  His speed score was 6.7 this year, which is below career average, but above his injury-riddled 5.6 of last year.  Not sure what makes you say his speed is in “sharp decline”.

  3. R M said...

    Dave Cameron wrote a good article about it on Fangraphs a while back….the gist of it was basically that we shouldn’t leave a player for dead until we’re sure of it.  I don’t think predicting a player will fall off a cliff is ever a safe idea…similar to projecting huge breakout seasons for prospects. 

    Another note:  His BABIP in 2007 was .399, so 2009 (.359) was not his career high.  Plus, his career BABIP is .345, so even if it does regress to his career average, that still comes out to low-mid .280’s.

  4. Rob McQuown said...

    As far as Dave Cameron’s article (was it called “Don’t Bury the Dead” or something?), I’d quip that this is the same writer whose annual “Offseason Plan” for the Mariners has included paying more-than-they-got-in-real-life salaries to Geoff Jenkins and Scott Hatteberg in the years when they flopped completely.

    Now, there’s obviously a kernel of truth to the sentiment, and a few years ago Ron Shandler did well in an expert roto league with an all-35+ strategy, suggesting that for the most part the “ageism” bias of fantasy owners outstrips the actual decline we can expect.

    I do think that whenever “everyone says” that something will happen and it doesn’t – such as Figgins going into decline in 2009 – it’s a good time to review the analytical tools which are being used.  Maybe some other correlations exist which are much more impactful to certain player types than others.  Good thought question.

    Tony Phillips was another switch-hitter without much power who started walking a LOT more in his 30’s, though obviously he hadn’t nearly the speed that Chone has.  I will stick by a prediction that his SB look very shaky for the future, and expect that he’ll be overbid in many leagues based on his 2009 SB total.

  5. Rob McQuown said...

    Gack! How embarassing… I don’t even know for sure how that got in there, I just re-checked my Word version of the article, and I had “Borbon” (with no first name), I must have edited it in while scanning it for “errors”…  “Kwality Assurance” at its worst. :( 

    Anyway, yep, it’s Julio.  Pedro probably wouldn’t steal many bases for you.

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