Waiver Wire Offseason: NL

Adam Kennedy | Washington | 2B
2009 Final Stats: .289/.348/.410

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In 2009, Kennedy went from failing to crack the Rays’ Opening Day roster to starring for the A’s, putting up his best numbers in years. It’s tempting to see this as a case of an older player enjoying a youthful resurgence after being challenged, and the Nationals certainly bought into this when they signed Kennedy. Despite having Cristian Guzman and Ian Desmond as infield options, Washington shelled out $1.25M to Kennedy to be their starting 2B in 2010.

Having Desmond and Guzman in hand may be the key to understanding this signing, as Desmond is expected to slide into the SS role at some point this season, at which point either Guzman or Kennedy would emerge as the starter, or even share the position in a platoon. Though a switch-hitter, Guzman has always hit better against LHP (43 points better than vs. RHP), while Kennedy hits 111 points better against RHP. Why platoon a 2B who had a .758 OPS in 2009? Well, for one thing, he’s a 34-year-old, and they don’t tend to break out suddenly. His H% spiked, particularly at the start of the year and the end of the year, two months when his production also soared. In between, he was the same old Kennedy we’ve seen before, putting up a .246/.294/.343 line that’s more like what we’d expect.

The other spike was in SB, cracking 20 for the first time since 2003. But that only stands out in comparison to his weak numbers the past two seasons, in a part-time role playing for Tony “What, Me Steal?” LaRussa. The fact is, he had just as many opportunities in 2009 as he had in 2006 (before he joined the Cards), but he just made more of those chances last season. That’s probably equal parts luck and veteran savvy; given decent PT, I’d expect around 15 SBs, but probably not 20+ again.

And that PT is definitely an issue. If Kennedy or Guzman struggles, Riggleman may not wait long before inserting Desmond into the lineup, assuming he’s not already there at the end of spring training. Even if Kennedy does stay in the starting lineup all year, long, GP sees him putting up numbers just like he did in 2008, which are not that impressive. A full-time gig will add to Kennedy’s counting stats, which could push his value into the double digits, and since he can play 3B, he could sneak in some starts there if Zimmerman has a minor injury, but he’s not a long-term replacement there.

Even if everything comes together for Kennedy and he plays all (or most) of the time, he’s still not going to be much of an option in mixed leagues. Deeper NL leagues can use him as a MIF option, but he’s not starting 2B material in your fantasy league, which could also be true of his time with Washington. He’s a late-round, low-dollar gamble at best for you; don’t believe his feel-good story from 2009.

Chien-Ming Wang | Washington | SP
2009 Final Stats: 6.2 K/9, 1.5 K/BB, 9.64 ERA

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A season and a half lost to injury can make you forget how incredible Wang was in his first three Yankee seasons. He won 50 games in 85 starts, the fastest Yankee ever to that mark, and recorded the first back-to-back 19-win seasons since Tommy John in 1979-80. Then he hurt his foot running the bases in interleague play, demonstrating one good baseball reason to nix the popular scheduling twist: AL pitchers aren’t used to running the bases. He rushed his rehab, screwed up his mechanics, and spent 2009 stinking it up on the mound before going under the knife for shoulder surgery.

Teams were interested in signing Wang, however, even though he still hasn’t thrown off a mound, and won’t do so until April or May. When he does, the Nats (and everyone else) will see if Wang can return to the form he showed in New York, as a devastating sinkerballer who could keep the ball in the yard better than any pitcher in baseball. As you see in his mini-browser, he’s got unimpressive K and BB rates, but those groundball rates are amazing. When you combine that with HR/9 rates that were the best in MLB in 2006 and the best in the AL in 2007, you get the kind of seasons Wang had with the Yankees.

Sinkerballers manage to succeed despite those low ratios and other warning signs—his elevated LOB% rates would suggest regression, but when you induce as many ground balls as Wang, you can escape more situations with men on base. With all the balls that get pounded into the ground when he’s on the mound, he can maintain that 4.4 HR/FB% he had before the injury. It’s also hard to predict someone with these kind of peripherals, which is why GP and other projection systems are so pessimistic about him; from a statistical perspective, everything screams “regression,” but I don’t think most systems correct for extreme groundballers like Wang.

The truth is, his skills and his injuries make him difficult for anyone to get a handle on how he might do after nearly 18 months of being off his game. The Nationals did about as well as can be expected, given the circumstances, as they paid just $2M to find out what he’ll do. The story about his signing indicates there’s “no timetable for his return,” which is never a good sign, and all the more reason why you should take extreme care with Wang. He’s moving to a new town, a new league, and a new ballpark, an awful lot of variables to throw on top of a guy who’s also coming back from injury.

The ballpark may not be too important, given Wang’s ability to hold down the home run, and the league is also less important when you’re looking at a guy who throws his sinker 75% of the time (“Scouting report? We don’t need no stinkin’ scouting reports!”). What’s more important is the defense behind him. New York’s defensive efficiency in 2006-7 (when Wang was with them) was among the best in the league, while Washington’s was third-worst in the NL in 2009. The UZR/150 of the 2006 Yankees (-10.9, worst in baseball) was significantly lower, but their 2007 rating at least got them into positive territory (1.1)—the 2009 Nats (-3.2) fell somewhere in between.

It’s hard to compare the 2009 and 2010 Nats, as the 2009 version had 115 different lineups, but looking only at his future infield, so important to a sinkerballer, Dunn-Kennedy-Guzman-Zimmerman comes out to a career 9.5 UZR/150, largely on the shoulders of Zimmerman’s 12.0 rating (Dunn is an unsurprising -17.9). And it should be noted that Kennedy’s rating over the last four years at 2B was 1.8; he gets a big boost from his younger years.

That’s not too bad and could help Wang overcome some of the other changes he’ll be facing in 2010. The injury recovery is clearly the biggest issue, and his late start will also detract from his value. His history makes him a great late-round pick or low-dollar gamble, but let other owners throw more than a buck or two away on him. If you’re in a straight draft league, Wang is one of those shrewd DL picks you can grab at the end of the draft or early in the season to stash until you see whether he returns to his old ways.

Elijah Dukes | Washington | OF
2009 Final Stats: .250/.337/.393

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The clock’s running out on Dukes, who managed to once again disappoint. Between injuries and a general tendency to cause more fireworks off the field than on it (remember the foofaraw in ’06 about his declaration that he was quitting baseball?), Dukes has failed to deliver on his considerable promise. He didn’t build on his impressive 2008 performance in 2009, a season highlighted by a little of Everything Dukes from him: a DL stint for a strained hammy, a court-ordered $40K settlement paid to his ex-wife for child support payments, and a month-long trip to Triple-A in July, when he became the odd man out after the Nats dealt for Nyjer Morgan.

With that kind of sporadic playing time and off-field distractions, it’s not surprising that Dukes would regress from 2008, when he had much more consistent playing time. He did so poorly that when the team reportedly tried to deal Dukes midseason, they found no takers, so he enters 2010 as their starting RF, basically by default. But it’s hard to imagine Dukes getting through a season without more bumps and bruises, either to his body or his psyche. If he can, he’s still relatively young, and has speed and strength to burn.

In the minors, he has 49 HRs and 19 3Bs in six seasons, as well as 98 SBs in 134 chances. His .51 batting eye—200 walks and 389 strikeouts—isn’t too impressive, but he improved on that each season in the minors, topping out at a .94 in Triple-A in 2006, his last lengthy stretch there. He’s shown those same skills in the majors, more or less. His 970 PAs include 39 doubles, 8 triples, and 31 HRs, while his .64 BB/K ratio has fallen each year in the majors.

Fangraphs’ breakdown reveals some interesting trends among that blur of numbers. His BB% and K% both dropped last season, thanks to a more aggressive approach at the plate. His contact rate improved slightly, as you can see from the mini-browser, though he’s swinging more at everything in and out of the strike zone, mostly those inside the zone (78.4% of them, in fact). That hacktastic approach could come from his inability to handle the breaking ball, a weakness he’s confessed to. He seemed to handle the curve fairly well in 2008 (5.47 wCB/C), then gave back those gains in 2009 (-1.74), but he’s never handled the slider (-1.08 wSL/C career). As a result, he’s seeing fewer fastballs than ever (49.1%) while more than a fourth of the pitches he sees are sliders. Maybe he needs Pedro Cerrano from Major League to sacrifice a chicken for him.

Until Dukes can straighten out his plate approach, pitchers are going to exploit that increasing aggressiveness, when coupled with the futility against a breaking ball. Barring a trade, there’s not any competition for him within the organization, and Washington’s unlikely to be terribly competitive, so he should get the chance to work out those kinks. This might be the last season he gets to see if he can straighten out his life, however, on and off the field.

If he can, his walk rate bodes well for a decent BA and his power-speed package is enticing. Other owners are likely to be soured on him (check out that -47 Sentiment), so he could turn out to be a good gamble. But with his track record, a gamble is certainly what he is, and hardly a lock even for the modest totals predicted by GP and most other scoring systems. An outfielder who hits in the .260s without cracking 20 HRs and barely registering double-digit SBs isn’t too valuable outside an NL-only league. He could be worth a late-round flyer or lowball bid, but you’d better have a backup plan.

Josh Willingham | Washington | OF
2009 Final Stats: .260/.367/.496

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Like Dukes, Willingham fought through some injury and off-field issues, but with Willingham, at least the latter don’t seem endemic to him, and neither seem to be his fault. He’s had some injury problems in the past, and this year those visited him in the form of a stomach virus, which combined with PT issues to slow his start considerably. A few days after the virus went away, his brother died, knocking him out for another week. When he returned, however, he stuck in the starting lineup, hitting .261/.358/.481 the rest of the way.

He had some definite fantasy highlights along the way, like the two grand slams on July 27 (part of a stretch where he hit in 15 of 16 games), his 2-HR, 6-RBI night on August 25, or a 2-HR, 4-RBI performance on July 11. That likely won a few head-to-head games for his owners or made the difference in some fantasy championships, and it certainly made a difference to his owners in Washington. They repeatedly entertained deals for him, which evidently involved a tap dance and maybe a few slow-dance numbers, since they did no more than entertain them—Willingham remains a Nat, with the starting LF job his going into spring training.

That’s not to say that Washington won’t deal him for the right package before Opening Day, since he’s got definite value, and his mini-browser shows a guy with consistent and marketable skills. His contact rate has dropped a touch, but his walk rate has risen alongside it, keeping his BA in the mid-.260s. Last year’s HR total was partly the product of a 17% HR/FB rate, but he’s always had a fairly high HR rate in his career. That could mean a slight dip in his SLG next year, but full-time play should keep his home run totals steady, too.

GP agrees, giving him an RBI boost from a combination of full-time action and a slightly luckier HR situation—as GP’s Nationals writer Paul Bugala points out, 15 of his 24 homers were solo jobs. He won’t dazzle you with a sudden breakout at age 31, but more of the same would be just fine from Willingham. That’s what makes him a nice mid-round selection worth that $16 projection, though not a lot more than that—note how he’s been in that same neighborhood three of the past four years. And if he brings you a few of those awesome fantasy performances, so much the better.

Yovani Gallardo | Milwaukee | SP
2009 Final Stats: 9.9 K/9, 2.2 K/BB, 3.73 ERA

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Gallardo broke Brewers’ fans hearts in 2008 when he came roaring out of the gate, only to blow out his knee in his fourth start of the season—that he’d already come back earlier than expected from arthroscopic surgery on his other knee in February only made it worse. But he certainly looked impressive in 2009, with a 3.76 xFIP that almost makes you forget he’s just 23, and an awesome strikeout rate that’s second only to Tim Lincecum in the NL. A strong groundball rate adds an extra dimension to his skills, while the home run rate has more to do with bad luck (his HR/FB was 12.3%) than poor pitch placement. A little bit of luck helped in his hit rate as well, as a .288 BABIP should see some correction in the future.

The one big blemish on Gallardo’s mini-browser is his 4.6 BB/9 rate, which isn’t all that surprising from a young power pitcher, but it is a blemish nonetheless and one of the reasons why his ERA and WHIP are elevated. Looking behind the numbers, his 78 LOB% points towards potential ERA regression, possibly by as much as a run. That’s mitigated a little bit by that groundball rate, but it’s also cause for mild concern. GP sees this as being a bit of a wash, with a year almost identical to the one he had.

The great thing about Gallardo is his age, which will allow him to improve and adjust and refine his skill. He should learn control and bring down that walk rate, possibly at the cost of some strikeouts, but it’s a tradeoff that his new pitching coach Rick Peterson is likely to encourage. And his age also helps his health profile, which is only marred by his knee problems. Fortunately for him, those knee surgeries shouldn’t concern a young pitcher, and the Brewers wisely shut him down early last year instead of pushing the limits of his arm.

As for his 2010 prospects, he plays in a good pitcher’s park, and has strong defense up the middle from Escobar and Gomez, though Weeks and McGehee could use some help. Elsewhere on the diamond, Hart and Fielder hold their own, while Ryan Braun has been fairly miserable from a UZR perspective; if Mat Gamel ends up at third, he might compete with Braunie for Worst Mitt in Milwaukee.

This still makes Gallardo an excellent keeper choice, and a very good value for next season for redraft leagues. Some regression is certainly possible, particularly with that defense, but so is a nice step forward for a kid who’s shown guts and determination on his fast path to stardom. That $15 return seems very reasonable, and I see no reason to not go a few bucks beyond that if you really love this guy. Just keep in mind he’s still pretty green, and some bumps are quite likely.

There’s still time to download a 16-page sample of Graphical Player 2010 and buy a copy to prep for the season. And don’t forget to check the 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. starkweather said...

    What, no Strasburg in and among all this Nats detritus?  At some point I’m expecting one big campaign from Eli Dukes followed by 3 or 4 years of not living up to big money contracts before fading into Bolivian.  I wanted to believe Dukes was the second coming of Gary Sheffield a few years back but it isn’t even close to the truth.  A slightly faster, slightly wilder Milton Bradley seems like his ceiling.  Ugh.

  2. Michael Street said...

    starkweather—

    I figured the Strasburg-commentary market was pretty much saturated; plus, he’s not likely to have a big-league impact in 2010, assuming they allow him to even pitch there at all. Rushing him seems like a mistake, and I want to see more pro innings from him before believing all that hype. Brighter talents have burned out before reaching MLB.

    Love the Sheff/Bradley comparison with Dukes, as he seems to encompass both of their head-case tendencies, while not yet showing a fraction of their upside. We’ll see if he can even produce enough to cash out on a career-year-based contract. I’m not convinced he will, but if he does, a short career arc would certainly seem likely.

    Thanks for the comment!

    Mike

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