Waiver Wire Offseason: NL

Lastings Milledge | Pittsburgh | OF
2009 Final Stats: .279/.323/.373

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2009 started out horribly for Milledge, who began as the leadoff hitter for the Washington Nationals but quickly rubbed management the wrong way and earned a demotion to Triple-A Syracuse to straighten out his attitude. A few weeks later, hitting just .253/.277/.316, he broke his finger trying to lay down a bunt, an injury that required surgery and knocked him out of action for six to eight weeks. Then, a few weeks after that, he found himself traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates as part of a package with Joel Hanrahan, for Nyjer Morgan and Sean Burnett.

With the Pirates, however, Milledge started to turn it around. After a few weeks of minor-league rehab, he came back up and Pittsburgh quickly inserted him in the starting lineup, hitting in the middle of the order. Milledge responded by hitting .291/.333/.395, including a three-week stretch between August and September when he hit .406/.458/.578 in 19 games. He’s now saying that the finger injury held his power back, something that’s always been part of the Milledge package (.470 minor-league SLG, with 100 2B and 38 HR over 1559 PAs), along with speed (90 SBs in 131 chances and eight 3Bs in that same time).

Unfortunately, attitude is also part of the Milledge package, which is why he’s already with his third organization, in spite of the hype about him. Another part of the Milledge Package (it’s got a nice ring, doesn’t it?) is a strikeout rate over 20% and a 6% walk rate—not awful, but not predictive of a great BA, particularly not with his career contact rate of 78%. He’s improved in each of those statistical areas over the past four seasons, however, except for his walk rate, which has held steady. The attitude is a bit harder to measure, but there weren’t reports of problems with the Pirates after he joined them; whether that’s a honeymoon or not remains to be seen.

These rising trends are good signs, and no doubt why GP is cautiously optimistic for next season, even if a .767 OPS isn’t terribly impressive for a corner OF. Milledge’s value comes from his multi-category contributions; those same GP predictions have him making adequate (if not overwhelming) contributions in HR, SB, R and RBI. Most owners will focus on those hard-to-collect steals, which are, as ever, a function of opportunity, both in his own ability to get on base and how often the manager cuts him loose.

The latter part of the equation depends on manager John Russell, who brought Pittsburgh from a team with one of the lowest steal totals in 2008 to the middle of the NL pack in 2009. That could have been a function of new talent like Milledge and Andrew McCutchen as much as anything else, but it looks like he’ll allow Milledge to steal in the right situation. The situation may not come up as often if he’s hitting fifth or lower in the lineup, where he’s currently expected to hit. And the ultimate question is whether a guy with a frozen walk rate and a below-average contact will get on base; if he does, it’s likely to be behind either Garrett Jones or Ryan Doumit, who could jam up the bases (Jones has some speed, but I don’t see too many Jones-Milledge double steals coming). This all makes those 21 SB projected by GP seem a bit elevated.

So fantasy owners should consider Milledge a mid-round choice—that $19 value is nice, but it’s tied to those swipes, so I wouldn’t speculate too high above that. Your fellow owners may be bearish, as indicated by that negative Sentiment number in his mini-browser, so he could come at a discount. Keeper owners will like the fact that he’s only 24, and a breakout is possible—but so is a reemergence of his attitude problems. Bid with caution.

Felipe Lopez | St. Louis | 2B
2009 Final Stats: .310/.383/.427

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Among his sleeve tatoos, which are all baseball-related, Lopez ought to fit one in of Rodney Dangerfield, since he sure doesn’t seem to get much respect. He’s played for nine teams in as many seasons, and sat at home during much of this past offseason, waiting for teams to come calling. He finally came to terms with St. Louis last week on a one-year, $2M deal, as one of the last big-name free agents to find a home. (That lack of respect could have come from being a client of Scott “Show Me More Money” Boras, whom Lopez fired about a week before inking that Cards deal.)

While he hasn’t been amazing in his career, Lopez has been steady, and steadily improving. His career line is just .269/.338/.400, but it’s gotten better since becoming a full-timer in 2005, rising to .280/.349/.407, while averaging 12 HR and 19 SB per season. His BB/K is only .50 for his career, but in those same five seasons, it’s grown to .57, averaging .63 over the last two years. He’s also been dependable, appearing in 140+ games in each of those four seasons.

Really, the one bad spot in that four-year span is his time with the Nationals, where he averaged .250/.320/.344. Everywhere else, he had an OPS 100 points or more higher. It’s worthwhile to note that his 43 games with St. Louis in 2008 were his best; he clobbered .385/.426/.538 over 169 PAs. 2009 seemed awfully solid, too, but the mini-browser shows you some of the reasons: a rise in his walk rate and a 37 H%, helped further by a career-low 17% strikeout rate. That’s why he’s predicted for a line somewhere in between 2008 and 2009—nobody sees him cracking .800 OPS again, not even with the Cards.

But that prediction is also a very good bet; everyone sees him with an OPS in the .730-.760 range, a good place for a MIF to be. It’s a good bet because of his very nice 80+ contact percentage, including 92% inside the zone, both of which he’s maintained steadily since that promotion to the starting lineup in 2005. And when he connects, he only hits about 30% fly balls, helping his BA but reducing his HR output. Though his breakout 2005 season featured 23 longballs, that had more to do with a ridiculous 18.1% HR/FB than any underlying skill. Double-digit dingers is an accomplishment for Lopez these days.

His modest power, speed and batting eye combine with his contact rate to create a solid leadoff guy, where he’s hit for Washington, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Milwaukee and Arizona, and where he should hit once again with St. Louis. The Cards didn’t have a good leadoff guy in 2009, and Lopez should score plenty of runs ahead of Pujols and Holliday. Though the ratios look good, his GP values were calculated as if he’d remained in Milwaukee, splitting time with Rickie Weeks (the only assumption we could make at presstime).

This PT situation, as well as the lineup he’s sitting on top of, means you can double those PAs and all his counting stats to make him worth at least twice as much as that $5 projection—I’d put him closer to $13. His veteran experience and good peripherals make him a very nice MIF option for mixed leagues and an excellent NL-only option. Like Milledge, he’s one of those guys who gives a bit in every category, particularly BA, and should get more respect in your fantasy draft than he did in the 2009-10 offseason.

Homer Bailey | Cincinnati | SP
2009 Final Stats: 6.8 K/9, 1.7 K/BB, 4.53 ERA

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Among all the promising young starting pitchers for the Reds, Bailey has been the disappointment. The No. 7 overall pick in 2004, he became the Reds’ top prospect for the next three seasons (at least according to Baseball America), but he’s consistently failed to live up to expectations. Other than a groin pull that set him back in 2007, the problem has been his own, though it’s typical for a power pitcher: finding the strike zone, at least in the majors. Featuring a fastball that touches the high 90s and a baffling curve, Bailey’s minor-league K/BB ratio sits at a respectable 2.37. But he’s only averaged 1.36 K/BB in MLB, thanks to a strikeout rate that sits a shade over 6 K/9, combined with a 4.5 BB/9.

In 2009, this trend continued. He started the year in Triple-A, earning a call-up after Edinson Volquez went down. But he was thrashed soundly in his one appearance, a 6 ER, 4.1 IP outing against Cleveland when he walked six and struck out only three, needing 95 pitches to get even that far. And so back down he went, dominating Triple-A hitting so thoroughly that he won 4 of 5 starts with a 0.47 ERA, reportedly developing a splitter in the process.

When he returned to the bigs in late June, he again lost the strike zone for his first 10 starts, striking out 1.4 batters for each one that he walked, thanks to a 5.3 K/9 and 3.8 BB/9. He also gave up 1.6 HR/9, all en route to a 7.11 ERA and a 1.60 WHIP, and a predictably poor 3-7 record. Then he found himself—and the strike zone—over his final nine starts of the season, reflected by his 2.2 K/BB, 8.2 K/9, and tiny 0.3 HR/9 rates, though he still walked batters at a nearly identical 3.7 BB/9 clip. Unsurprisingly, he went 6-3 over that stretch, with a 1.70 ERA and 1.33 WHIP.

It certainly looks like Bailey turned a corner in those final nine starts, and his xFIP shows that Bailey’s been getting marginally better each year. 2008 was so awful in part due to an anomalous 18.6% HR/FB rate, as well as a .376 BABIP. That’s bad luck, possibly combined with a tendency to groove his fastball—when you’re walking 4.2 per 9 while striking out only 4.5 per 9, you’re gonna have to throw a lot more down the pipe. Sure enough, batters had a 94% contact rate against Bailey’s pitches in the zone, a sure sign that he was awfully hittable.

This year reversed many of those trends, with a much more normal 9.4 HR/FB% and a .306 BABIP. With Bailey working ahead in more counts, he dropped that Z-contact rate to 89%, while the contact rate on outside the zone fell 10 points from 2008 to 2009. That could have a lot to do with his splitter, which Fangraphs’ pitch breakdown shows he threw anywhere from 7-19% of the time (there’s a mystery pitch that gets thrown 11%, which seems to me most likely to be his splitter); it’s also his least effective pitch (-2.75 wSF/C). But even if it’s getting hit, it could be setting up his fastball, which also picked up a few mph since 2008; these increased the effectiveness of his heater by nearly 2 runs per 100 pitches. His slider and curve also showed dramatic improvement, picking up nearly 10 runs between them (also per 100 pitches).

This does suggest that Bailey should build on that second-half step forward he took in 2009, but there’s plenty to suggest caution, too. Taking nine starts as evidence of a pitcher suddenly putting it all together is betting on an awfully small sample space, especially considering his youth and his MLB history. His walk rates are still too high for him to be completely effective, even in that short stint of success. GP reflects this caution in its particularly bearish outlook, though it’s not that much more pessimistic than other systems. He remains a talent to watch early in the season, but I’m not yet convinced enough to take him on more than a flyer, even in keeper leagues. He’s got a lot of upside, particularly in strikeouts, but he remains a risk to your ratios—consider other Cincinnati arms before this one.

Rickie Weeks | Milwaukee | 2B
2009 Final Stats: .272/.340/.517

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You have to like Weeks’ swagger at the plate, his aggressive posture, his defiant, Sheffield-like bat waggle … but that same waggle may be responsible for the multiple wrist surgeries that have derailed Weeks’ young career, and the aggressiveness has made him a difficult fit as leadoff hitter in front of Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun. The health question isn’t one that can be definitively answered, but the aggressiveness could make the difference in whether he reaches his power-speed potential or not.

Last season’s numbers looked awfully good, but a glance at the mini-browser shows they were held up by a 37% hit rate, and that SLG comes from career highs in fly ball rate (43.5%) and HR/FB (19.1%). Had his wrist sheath not sent him to the DL after just 162 PAs, his year would have looked a lot different. How different is hard to say, but his 7.4% walk rate was his lowest since 2006, and his strikeout rate had regressed two points to 26.5%, falling somewhere between his 2007 and 2008 numbers. Both of these combined for his worst BB/K ratio since his 14-PA first season, not a good indicator, especially for a leadoff guy.

He continues to be a great fastball hitter, and his 2.39 wFB/C was his best ever, but he struggles against the offspeed stuff—both changes (-5.86 wCH/C) and splitters (-5.22 wSF/C) befuddled him in 2009 more than ever. The changeup trend continues a drop from 2008, while his futility against the splitter was his second-worst season, performing worse against them only during that 2003 cup of coffee. Those aren’t encouraging trends, and he’s not really dominant enough against fastballs to offset those problems.

So for every favorable glimpse we see of Weeks in 2009, there’s another trend that’s equally disturbing. Either one can be written off to the relatively brief season he had, another trend that’s been all too familiar to Brewers fans. Weeks has yet to play 130 games or more in his five MLB seasons, only twice playing more than 100 games. He’s missed time in each of the last four seasons to various dings and dents, and three of those times have been to his troublesome wrists.

The bright side is that he’s recovered from this exact same wrist surgery before, in 2007. He missed a bit of time during that season to tendinitis in the same wrist he’d had surgery on, then went on to a good, if not great, season, as you can see from the mini-browser, with a much better second half than first. He’s had more time to recover this time around, and has had no wrist issues reported from camp so far. Nobody knows whether (or where) he might be injured again, and he has refused to stop that Sheffield waggle, even if it’s been the source of his wrist problems.

Weeks offers speed as well as power, and he can steal bases with no wrists (or arms, for that matter). Even if he only delivers modest power, those SBs should help keep his value up, assuming he continues to get on base at a moderate clip. His middling contact rate means he’ll drag at your BA, but his OBP puts him on at a decent 34-35% rate, so long as the worrisome K and BB trends he exhibited at the start of last season don’t continue.

Another aspect that may affect Weeks’ SB total is Alcides Escobar, the speedy shortstop for the Brewers. Escobar is expected to hit eighth—or possibly ninth, as Macha has said he’ll try hitting the pitcher eighth in Spring Training—but Escobar should eventually hit first. That would presumably push Weeks to second in the lineup, ahead of Ryan Braun, which could allow him to see more fastballs, his favorite pitch. He might not steal as many bases for you in the two-hole, but he’ll more than compensate in other areas, like driving Escobar home (something he could still do, of course, if Macha bats Escobar ninth).

GP’s predictions were based on a half-season (see the Lopez writeup above for an explanation for that), so there’s no reason Weeks can’t reach at least the 20-20 club, if not better, if he can stay healthy. His projected value will, of course, increase along with his PT, and only more injuries will keep him from doubling that $7 projection. You’d be wise to have a backup plan if you draft Weeks, who slips to the second tier of 2B mainly due to the BA and health risk. Brewers fans and fantasy owners would love to see him beat that projection and rise into the first tier, but the 27-year-old still needs to prove himself, despite being in the league since 2003.

Jason Hammel | Colorado | SP
2009 Final Stats: 6.8 K/9, 3.2 K/BB, 4.33 ERA

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How many pitchers can say that it took getting traded to Colorado for them to solidify their skills? Not many, and Hammel is one of those select few. Three years with Tampa Bay weren’t enough for him to put it together, and so the Rays swapped him to the Rockies early in the 2009 season when he looked like someone they couldn’t use in their rotation. Colorado didn’t think they could use him as a starter, either, but then Franklin Morales went down with a strained shoulder. Hammel got into the rotation on May 3, pitched six shutout innings against San Francisco, and never left it.

That doesn’t mean Hammel had an easy ride on the mound. He lost his next three starts, and didn’t have another shutout outing until the last game of the season, when he threw two scoreless innings of relief. He gave up four or more ER in seven starts during the season, and failed to get out of the fourth inning in three starts, one of them a 1.1 IP, 5 ER thrashing at the hands of the lowly Mets in Shea Stadium. But Colorado was no sanctuary for him, either; his home ERA was 5.73 and he gave up 12 of his 17 home runs there.

Still, despite the bumps, Hammel definitely showed improvement last season. He doesn’t have an overpowering repertoire, but it is broad, with several arm angles and four pitches he throws with regularity. He found his success as a groundballer, increasing his GB% each year in the minors, until he topped off at an impressive 51.2% his final year in Durham. He hasn’t done quite as well getting major-leaguers to pound the ball into the ground, but he still managed a 46.2 GB% and the very nice GB/FB ratios you see in his mini-browser.

He also controlled his walks better than ever in 2009, slicing his walk rate in half. And he got better as the season progressed; though he struggled in July, from July 1 onward, he walked just 1.9 per 9 IP. Walks mean a bit less to a groundballer, who can induce more double plays than your average bear, but it’s still a good thing to keep runners off the bases in a park like Colorado. Hammel also ramped up the K rate over that same three-month span, striking out 7.1 per 9.

Even better, 2009 reflects a bit of bad luck, as you can see from both his 3.71 FIP and the .327 BABIP against him. That’s a bit of a surprise, because most of the Colorado infield (so important to a groundball pitcher) was well above average in UZR/150, even if the team as a whole is below average in defensive efficiency. The 2010 Rockies will have a very similar infield defense, with Ian Stewart (8.3 UAR/150 in 2010) getting a crack at 3B and Clint Barmes (7.5 UZR/150 in 2009) in the early lead for the 2B slot. That would portend the ball bouncing Hammel’s way a bit more in 2010, and a corresponding ERA drop. The other bad luck area for Hammel was in strand rate, which was a subpar 69.5% last season, also portending a downward correction in ERA, albeit a slight one.

He’ll be Colorado’s fifth starter, a further incentive to greatness, at least from a matchup perspective. It will diminish his IP and Wins, and his Coors splits and narrow margin for error are also a concern, amid all the other good news. Along with other projection systems, GP is pessimistic overall, largely because this was his first good season, but he’s got a really good shot to beat those projections. He’s well worth a late-round flier and a bid of $1 or $2, and could fill the back end of your fantasy rotation nicely.

Graphical Player 2010 is SOLD OUT, so I hope you got yours! But you can still get an edge up on your fantasy league with a subscription to HEATER magazine, with detailed stats and predictions like this twice a week!

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Comments

  1. Joey D said...

    Does anybody else find these projections nearly useless?  If Homer Bailey is gonna have a 5.00 ERA and a 1.50+ WHIP, why bother giving me a projection?

  2. Skip said...

    @ Joey D: Do you want to see only good projections?  How is a projection of a 5 ERA and 1.5 WHIP useless?  Perhaps it is useful to someone who either has no idea what to project Homer Bailey to or to someone who was thinking that Bailey would be a 3 ERA and 1.2 WHIP kind of pitcher this year.

    SKIP

  3. Michael Street said...

    Joey D—

    What Skip said :D

    Seriously, we offer projections, good and bad, both of which have value to readers. Homer Bailey was, in fact, a reader request, which I honor whether I agree with covering them or not.

    In Bailey’s case, I agree with that he’s important to cover. He’s been atop the Reds’ prospect list for so long that he’s a “name” player. Knowing whether (or how much) he turned a corner is important intel. Otherwise, how do you know how much (or whether) to bid on him at your draft? If you do take him, do you believe a hot start from him?

    I think I did a pretty good job of explaining the optimism and pessimism behind Bailey, but if you’ve got specific questions about it, I’d be happy to explain further. Instead of merely throwing a number at you and walk away, I take the time to explain the rationale behind the number. That way you (hopefully) learn something, even if you don’t like (or don’t need) the result.

    Thanks for your comment, Skip, and I hope you understand why we do these things, Joey D!

    Mike

  4. John K said...

    I agree with Skip, Homer Bailey is on my target list of pitchers.  Perhaps your league isn’t deep enough that you’d have to consider using pitchers like that, but knowing the difference b/w Bailey and Hammel is important to many players.

    Separately I just skim past Weeks’s name whenever I read it.  High risk, high reward I guess, but too rich for my blood.

    Re: Homer, how much of that late success was due to weak Sept. lineups?  Is there some way to quickly quantify this effect?  I always struggle with that.

  5. Jimbo said...

    I really like Bailey for 2010, and will likely have him on my team. That said, my optimism for him is largely projected growth and upside.

    Knowing the worst-case scenario for Bailey will be good to temper expectations.  Without that sobriety check it is easy to overdraft an all-upside team and then wonder why so many don’t hit their ceiling.

    There comes a point in the draft where it DOES make sense to draft upside…and if they don’t work out, they’re cheap enough to drop without regret. What this tells me is that Bailey should be in that range of draft picks…NOT that he’s undraftable.

    Great writeup IMO.

  6. Michael Street said...

    John K—

    I’ve never found a good way to easily quantify opposition strength on a game-by-game basis. If I want a general sense of the strength of opposition, I usually look at the game logs at Baseball-Reference.com to see who he’s facing.

    That’s a real shoot-from-the-hip method, but for Bailey, it could be fruitful: of those final nine games, 4 were against the Pirates (all four were Ws), though he also shut out the Dodgers (8 IP) and Marlins (7 IP). The other three games were against the Cards, Cubs, and Rockies (W, L, ND, respectively).

    The ‘09 Pirates weren’t pushovers towards the end of the season, but they were still much weaker than average. Great question that could further cast doubt on Bailey’s “turnaround.”

    Jimbo—

    You make some great points, particularly about drafting upside and remaining aware of downside. You could draft Bailey and leave him on the bench at first, or watch him carefully on the waiver wire. My leagues tend to undervalue SP, which means that good values can often be found post-draft (or even midseason).

    As much as he’s scuffled, Bailey’s got much more upside than an aging vet or a guy whose mediocre value is proven by years of MLB performance. He’s a good flyer or $1 bid, but any keeper owners who have held on to this guy are probably finding themselves with self-bruised behinds :D

    Thanks for the compliments and comments, guys!

    Mike

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