Waiver Wire Offseason: NL

Jason Bay | New York | OF
2009 Final Stats: .267/.384/.537

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Bay, always a pull hitter, put some loft on his swing in 2009 to clear the Green Monster, with somewhat predictable results. He recorded a career low of .68 in GB/FB and, not coincidentally, a career high with 49.1 FB%. Aided by a 19.7% HR/FB, his highest since 2004, he put up his best SLG since 2005, and set a career high in HRs, while also exceeding 2.00 Bash. On the downside, his BA dropped to its second-lowest level ever, right behind that awful 2007 you see in his mini-browser. You can also see his poor contact rate in 2009, which is partly to blame for that low BA; the rest is likely due to that new approach at the plate.

Much of his other skills are pretty much where you might expect them—his K% was higher than it has been lately, as was his BB%, but both are in line with his career averages. He was better in both departments with the Pirates, so his return to the NL might see him reverse some of those trends. Of greater importance would be the new environment he finds himself in: Citi Field. Gone is the Green Monster, 310 feet from home (and 37 feet high), and in its place is a fence 335 away and 15 feet high. The Mets announced this week that they’re cutting the center field wall in front of the Home Run Apple in half, but that won’t do much for a righty pull hitter like Bay.

The changed LF dimension could encourage him to try and lift the ball a bit less, however, even as it cuts back his power numbers. Fenway gave him more doubles (18 vs. 11 away from home) while it took away his homers (15 at home vs. 21 away), combining to drop 11 points of SLG at home, not all that significant. That says to me that it’s unlikely that power shift in Citi will be all that dramatic, but it should still happen.

His counting numbers should drop somewhat with the Mets, who scored a massive 201 fewer runs than Boston did in 2009. New York will have a healthy Jose Reyes and (post-surgery) Carlos Beltran, while David Wright should have a better year, so it’s not as bad as it looks at first blush, and they’ll give him chances to drive runs in. He might not score as many runs, but getting into that 100-R/100-RBI neighborhood in his mini-browser isn’t too much of a stretch.

GP also sees more steady production from Bay, though that low contact rate keeps us pessimistic that he’ll crest .300, as he did in 2005. Combined with his modest HR potential, that drops his value in most leagues, counteracted a bit by the just-double-digit steals he’ll bring you. He remains a top-flight option in OBP or other sabermetric leagues, where having a .900+ OPS outfielder is a great asset. For most owners, however, he’s an excellent bet to return that $25 investment GP recommends—just don’t go too much higher than that, as he remains just on the fringes of elite OFs, but is a solid investment nonetheless.

Billy Wagner | Atlanta | RP
2009 Final Stats: 14.9 K/9, 3.3 K/BB, 1.72 ERA

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The Braves replaced the talented but injury-prone lefty-righty endgame combo of Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano by signing the talented but injury-prone lefty-righty endgame combo of Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito. Saito’s elbow scared everyone but Boston off before the 2009 season, while Wagner woke up from 2008 Tommy John surgery to find that K-Rod had taken his closer’s role in New York.

Unlike the Gonzo-Soriano combo, Wagner is clearly the closer in Atlanta, with Saito as the righty setup man and closer-in-waiting they hope they’ll never have to use. And the one question that can’t be definitively answered with Wags is how he will rebound from that TJS. The good news is that he got to work his way back with about 22 innings of work last year, some of it at the minor-league level, and he’s had the offseason to recover.

There isn’t much bad news here, since Wagner looked strong in the short time he was on the mound in 2009, even if almost none of it was in high-leverage situations. We can’t draw too many conclusions, as most of the work was with an AL team in Fenway, a rather idiosyncratic park. Still, what little we saw looked good, with strong strikeout numbers, and a 94 mph fastball that’s consistent with the mild velocity decline he started showing in 2007. He threw the slider, too, which probably tells us the elbow is OK.

One way to project his potential in 2010 is to look at the team and park he’s going to. Atlanta was below average in defensive efficiency in 2009 (their .685 was 5 points below NL average, and only four teams did worse), and (as I detailed in my Tommy Hanson writeup), the Braves’ defense will be largely the same in 2010. He does move to a slightly more pitcher-friendly park, at least when compared to his time in Philly—Shea is nearly identical to Turner Field, both in terms of Park Factor and actual dimensions. Atlanta plays in a tough division and may not win a ton of games, but there’s not always a direct correlation between saves and victories. If anything, their somewhat-tepid offense may lead to more close games.

The health question is the overriding one, undoubtedly why the Braves felt the need to sign both Saito and Wagner. Wags passed a physical, and TJS recovery has become so mundane as to be a virtual ritual for young pitchers. Wagner, however, is not a young pitcher, and surgery recovery combined with the natural aging process of a guy who’ll turn 39 midseason raises a moderate red flag.

GP remains rather bullish on his prospects, and most projection systems see him with an ERA around 3 and a WHIP in the 1.15 territory, both excellent marks. His reduced velocity will likely lead to fewer strikeouts, and a rise in walks is also possible. Considering the injury factor, Wagner certainly drops from the top tier of fantasy closers, but he’s still a very strong option with an outstanding track record. I’d call him a good buy, particularly if other owners are scared off by his TJS.

Carlos Gonzalez | Colorado | OF
2009 Final Stats: .284/.353/.525

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Two different teams—Oakland and Arizona—gave up on CarGo’s massive potential before Colorado finally saw him blossom. After getting called up in June, he took a little while to get going, and then exploded in August, part of the Jim Tracy Revival that launched the Rockies into the postseason. Gonzalez hit .371/.432/.714, vaulting to the leadoff spot, where he hit a tidy .300/.379/.573, including a whopping .333/.409/.654 leading off an inning and .391/.481/.913 as the first batter in the game.

While he’s obviously a lock for a starting role as Colorado’s left fielder, it’s unlikely he’ll lead off in 2010. As I discussed in December, that honor probably belongs to Dexter Fowler, who has better wheels than CarGo (54 SBs in 83 attempts over seven minor-league seasons) and a better batting eye. Tracy has yet to tip his hand about his leadoff man, and he could stick with what worked last season and leave Gonzalez there. But his power-hitting abilities (.484 minor-league SLG, including 161 2Bs and 88 HRs in 2729 PAs) and those aforementioned slow wheels (relative to Fowler, anyway) should put him lower in the order in the long term.

Of greater concern should be his plate discipline, as well as the small sample space we’re looking at. He was certainly excellent in the last two months of 2010, but those represent just 209 PAs, and the 38% hit rate shows that a few balls fell his way. As for his aggressiveness at the dish, that 8% walk rate is an improvement over his career averages, as is his 25.2 K%, but neither are much better, and both spell a fair amount of streakiness for Gonzalez. Putting up contact rates in the mid-70s will also suppress any rise in batting average.

GP, as ever, is restrained in its estimation, and it’s easy to see why with these markers. Decent power, decent speed, and decent batting average all add up to that $12 valuation, which is likely to seem like heresy to Rockies fans. That’s because his breakout has been so long expected that when it arrived, people expect it to just continue. But experience with other prospects, as well as supporting stats like this, says that you should expect some struggles from Gonzalez in 2010.

That he’s been so highly touted and had such a great finish to 2010 means other owners will overpay. Let them waste their money and save yours for more profitable investments. If you can get CarGo at a discount, do so, while keeper owners will have to exercise patience through the inevitable ups-and-downs of 2010. Gonzo’s going to be good, but that trajectory’s going to be a bit flatter than most people expect.

Ricky Nolasco | Florida | SP
2009 Final Stats: 9.5 K/9, 4.4 K/BB, 5.06 ERA

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Nolasco could be the poster child for FIP and its limitations. After extremely solid ratios in many areas, Nolasco ended 2009 with a 3.85 FIP, yet he had that awful ERA you see above. By all accounts, he had a fine year, but ERA, the metric that so many baseball fans (and fantasy leagues) use to measure pitchers completely failed to reflect that. But FIP tells you how good (or bad) a pitcher was, not what his ERA should have been, if only because ERA is based on lots of factors.

As always, luck is one the factors in Nolasco’s 5.06 whopper—his career-worst .336 BABIP was well north of where it should have been. His 61 LOB% was another career low, and a further indicator that he ran into some bad luck. Fortunately, that kind of lowball LOB% performance usually indicates a rebound the following year. Because strand rate can indicate poor pitching as well as bad luck (bad pitchers are bad whether the bases are empty or full), it’s not a lock that he’ll improve, but it’s very likely.

That he should do better is shown by those very nice strikeout and control rates you see in his GP mini-browser, which also tells you that both have been improving the past few years. His Fangraphs pitch data shows the improvement coming from his offspeed stuff, including a better slider and a new splitter. His fastball was actually his worst pitch, plummeting from 4.7 runs above average in 2008 to -15.5 in 2009. That could point the finger at John Baker; batters had an OPS 108 points higher with him behind the plate in 2009. Maybe he’s calling for the fastball when he shouldn’t, something we’ll find out in 2010, when he’s behind the plate again.

Another sign of caution comes from his weak home run rates, a result of being a borderline flyball pitcher with a slightly above-average HR rate in a home-run friendly home park. That’s not likely to change, which gives his ERA a fair amount of instability. But if you’re looking for a bargain pitcher with a very good upside who will deliver strikeouts and keep the WHIP down, Nolasco fits that bill.

Other owners might be scared off by that 5.06 ERA, or lose him in the long shadow of Josh Johnson, but Nolasco represents a great investment opportunity for you. The risky home run rates in one of baseball’s toughest divisions should warn you against overbidding, but unless the other owners in your league read this column, you may not have to.

Chris Young | Arizona | OF
2009 Final Stats: .212/.311/.400

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Chris Young nearly joined the 30-30 club as a rookie in 2007 (one double and three steals away from a 30-30-30 season, in fact) and placed fourth in ROY voting. That made 2008 a letdown for Young, when he failed to exceed 20 SBs or 25 HRs, even as he cracked 42 doubles. But that 2008 letdown seemed like a miracle next to 2009, in which Young did so miserably that he was sent down to Triple-A to straighten himself out. This seems insulting, except when you see that he was hitting .194/.297/.359 at the time, with 95 strikeouts, 45 walks, just 7 HRs and 11 steals. Young spent two weeks in Triple-A, and did well enough when he returned (.263/.351/.508) to bring his final BA to the still-sad state you see above.

So what happened to Young in 2010?

His swing, for one thing. Whether he wanted to reach that 30 HR plateau again or just wasn’t seeing the ball well (or both), he started hitting the ball in the air more than ever before. His fly ball rate rose from 43% to 56%, pushing his infield fly rate to an absurd 22.4%. A guy with wheels like his should be hitting the ball on the ground more. A lot more.

His batting eye is clearly off, too. His strikeout rate has risen for the past four seasons, even as his walk rate has risen. That’s happened while he’s actually become more selective in his swings, taking cuts at fewer pitches outside the strike zone while maintaining excellent contact rates (85%) on those pitches inside the strike zone. From a statistician’s perspective, that’s not just contradictory, it’s worrisome. If a hitter becomes less aggressive, and makes better contact, but his strikeouts continue to rise, that suggests he’s losing confidence.

Another troublesome part of Young’s skill set are his platoon splits. In his career, he’s hit just .223 against RHP, which hovered around .235 in 2007-8. That plunged to .196 in 2009, while his .262 performance against LHP was only 9 points off career norms. And looking at some of the 2009 trends through the platoon lens yields even more interesting results. While an insane 63% of the balls he hit against lefties are fly balls (compared to just 53% vs. RHP), 25% of those fly balls vs. RHP became infield flies, and just 8% turned into home runs. Against lefties, 15% of those fly balls stayed in the infield, while 11% of them left the yard. This is no doubt why his 2009 BABIP against lefties was .319 (8 points higher than usual), while his 2009 BABIP against righties collapsed to .254, 14 points below normal.

Those are the most severe splits in those areas of his career, indicating a much different approach depending on who he’s facing—or at least, radically different effects. That’s got to mess with a guy’s swing, and it may also mean that Young is just thinking too much, often the worst thing a batter can do. In any case, Young was clearly a mess in 2009, and that small 135-PA sample at the end of the season does little to inspire confidence.

BP sees a rebound coming, and that kind of dead cat bounce isn’t too surprising—Young’s got nowhere to go but up. Assuming that happens, he’ll bring some SBs and HRs, while punishing your batting average. I don’t like his skill set to beat that GP projection; even reaching it would seem like a triumph. The D-backs are on the hook for Young until 2013, and the poor return they’ve gotten on their investment makes him utterly unpalatable as trade bait. Still, Gerardo Parra could step in at any time, and A.J. Hinch has shown no compunction about removing struggling starters.

About the only advantage to Young is that other owners will be so sour on him that you could pick him up at a bargain price. In spite of how awful his 2009 season was, and how his skills are failing to coalesce, he could end up being a steal at the right price. You may find him available for much less than that $16 valuation, and he makes a great late-round gamble in snake drafts. Just don’t push your luck, or that auction price, very much.

Pitchers and catchers report next week, but you can still download a 16-page sample of Graphical Player 2010 or buy a copy to prep for the season. And don’t forget to check the new index for all the players I’ve covered this offseason, and leave suggestions for other players to cover in the comments below.

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Comments

  1. DMC said...

    Michael—

    Good stuff as always.  What is the denominator in the H% number?  Is hit rate the traditional BABIP formulation or is it something else?

  2. Nate said...

    Can I suggest Chris ‘Crush’ Davis.  I either get him last round or he goes undrafted in most of the mock drafts I’ve been a part of.  I’m expecting a bit of a rebound, since he seemed to move in the right direction (however slightly) after being sent down last year.

  3. Michael Street said...

    Thanks to all for the compliments!

    @DMC—

    We use H% = H/(AB-K)for hitters, which doesn’t penalize the hitter for HR or SF.

    @Nate—

    I’ll forward your request for Chris Davis to Rob McQuown, my Awesome AL Counterpart. I’ll be anxious to hear what he has to say about Davis, too.

    @Jason—Couldn’t agree more. That’s the first time I’ve had messageboard spam on the site, and it took me a bit to figure out how to delete it.

    Schilling I don’t mind as much, though he most properly belongs on the AL side, too, notwithstanding an NL comeback (or an AL one, for that matter). And if Schilling is shilling, he doesn’t belong anywhere near THTF. Unless he’s shilling for Waiver Wire :D

    Thanks again all! I’m out of town this weekend, so response time will be longer than usual, but I’ll respond to all comments, as always!

    Mike

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