Waiver Wire Offseason: NL

Derrek Lee | Chicago | 1B
2009 Final Stats: .306/.393/.579
2010 THTF Projected Stats: .286/.365/.486

Cubs fans and fantasy owners who were ready to write off Lee after his .291/.361/.462 in 2008 got a rude (or pleasant) awakening with Lee’s 2009 production. He had the second-highest HR total in his career and drove in a career-best 111, hitting triple digits in that department for just the second time ever and the first time since 2005. The 149-point OPS rise can be partly explained by a return to health, since he had back and neck problems throughout 2008; this idea is reinforced by the .189/.253/.284 line that Lee put up in the first month of the 2009 season. He could have been just shaking off rust or the lingering effects of those bulging disc issues, or it could just be a 33-year-old starting to feel the spring chill in his bones.

Whatever the cause, Lee rebounded from that slow start to hit .325/.415/.627 the rest of the way, to the delight of fantasy owners. Cubs fans might have noticed, if not for the antics of Milton Bradley, the slump of Alfonso Soriano, and Aramis Ramirez‘s dislocated shoulder. It’s an encouraging sign that the Cubs’ first baseman has returned to form. Or has he?

Really, there’s not a ton of luck involved in Lee’s 2009 numbers. His .327 BABIP was actually lower than 2008′s .330, and consistent with his career .323 average. He saw a spike in HR rate between 2008-09, converting flies to longballs at a 17.9% rate last year as compared to 11.7% in 2008. But since 2008 was a career low and his career average is 17.0%, 2009 was more a return to form than a lucky spike.

One significant difference in 2009 was his approach at the plate, as he reversed a four-year trend toward grounders to lift a career-high 45.7% fly balls. Since some of those came at the cost of line drives—his 19.2% was second-worst in his career—it could indicate that he was just getting under the ball more than hitting it square. But a spike in HR and FB rate tends to produce outsize power numbers, which certainly happened to Lee in 2009.

If this is an ongoing trend, it should mean he’ll continue to produce HRs at a greater rate than before, perhaps necessitating a slide into the cleanup spot (this makes even more sense if Ramirez continues his slide in SLG). It could also hurt his BA, something that’s been bolstered in the past three seasons by a contact rate around 80%. His neck and back issues are also further concerns as he ages, since these problems tend to be nagging and can sap the strength of a power hitter.

The projections from THTF see this affecting him rather seriously, with a dropoff to 23 HRs and 89 RBIs. I think that’s a bit too pessimistic, particularly in SLG, but most systems agree a correction is likely. This will moderate his value heading into 2010, but with good health, he should be back to more productive ways. Don’t expect 2005 again—ever—but more seasons where his OPS tickles .900 would be welcome, and would cement him into the middle of second-tier 1B.

Johan Santana | New York | SP
2009 Final Stats: 7.9 K/9, 3.2 K/BB, 3.13 ERA
2010 THTF Projected Stats: 8.0 K/9, 3.1 K/BB, 3.75 ERA

The final straw in the Mets’ miserable 2009 came when they learned their ace was being shut down for the season due to elbow problems. Though Santana had a decent year, it wasn’t up to his usual standards, and was a downer after a bounceback 2008. But his secondary stats looked solid, and showed slight, if any, regression. His strikeout rate slipped by .03 K/9 and his walk rate rose by .06 BB/9, but neither of those are particularly worrisome.

His uptick in HR rate, from 0.9 to 1.1 HR/9, on the other hand, seems small, but it points to one troubling trend in Santana’s 2009: his hit trajectories. His 0.75 GB/FB was his lowest in six seasons, coming from a career-worst 47.5 FB%. That’s why his HR/9 rate rose even though his HR/FB rate dipped a tad from 2008-09; if his 8.5% HR rate in 2009 rises to more expected levels, and his FB rate stays high, his ERA is definitely going to rise. And those strikeout and walk numbers might be of less concern if it weren’t for the overall trend in both areas—his walk and strikeout rates have both regressed steadily in the past three seasons, and his WHIP has also risen alongside them, a trend that goes back six seasons.

This all may be because he’s losing his stuff. Fangraphs’ pitch tools show that Santana’s fastball has been losing velocity since 2006, though that may have actually led to better movement on it, as he’s also become more effective with it. The bigger problem comes from his slider, a pitch that’s gone from way above league average (2.26 wSL/C) in 2006 to well below it (-0.88 wSL/C) in 2009. The slider (like any breaking pitch) is tough on the elbow, so cleaning the bone chips out could help the life return to his slider. But whether it’s this or age-related regression (Santana’s only 30), it’s definitely cause for concern.

You see that caution reflected in the THTF projections, which are higher than other systems (CHONE likes him even less, while Bill James sees a huge turnaround) but seem reasonable, given the slippage outlined above. Keeper owners have to be gnashing their teeth that he’s fallen so far, but there is some reason for hope. The surgery could lead him to the Jamesian turnaround you can find elsewhere, and he’s looked healthy and occasionally dominant in the little Spring Training action he’s seen. And the Mets, who finished dead last in the NL in UZR/150, should be improved in that department in 2010, helping reduce Santana’s BABIP, which rose 9 points from 2008-9.

The fact remains, however, that Santana is no longer the top-flight starter he once was. Don’t pay for the name on draft day, and keep in mind that others will. He’ll bring you strikeouts and his ERA should be at least decent, if not better than THT sees. But this isn’t the Twins’ Johan Santana by any stretch, and keeper leagues in particularly should take notice of that.

Brad Hawpe | Colorado | OF
2009 Final Stats: .285/.384/.519
2010 THTF Projected Stats: .266/.365/.480

Hawpe’s final line for 2009 doesn’t look too bad, but his fantasy owners know how frustrating last season was for them. Through the first half of the season, Hawpe was producing at an awesome .320/.396/.577 rate, headed for a 30-HR, 100+ RBI season. And then, after the All-Star break hit, Hawpe couldn’t—he managed just a .240/.370/.442 line the second half of the season, even finding himself dropped to seventh in the batting order and getting yanked from the lineup down the stretch.

Luck can explain a bit of the slide—his BABIP dropped 24 points in the second half—but his impatience took its toll, too. His contact rate was already slipping in June, down to 71% from 83% in May, before his production started to follow suit. In fact, from June onward, his contact rate was an awful 66%, and his walk rate fell from 15% to 12%, too. He’s never been a particularly savvy or selective hitter, as his career 0.57 BB/K average shows, but 2009 saw him post his lowest ratio (0.54) since 2005, his first real season in the bigs.

The other area of regression was in his hit trajectories, as he hit more ground balls than he had since 2005, never a good sign for a guy with power and marginal speed. He still maintained his normal FB/HR rates, but that was applied over fewer fly balls, hence his lowest AB/HR rate since 2006. His GB/FB rate has been creeping up since 2007, so this could be a taste of things to come.

One area that did follow career patterns was his platoon splits. Fellow southpaws have always been his Achilles heel; he averages an OPS 152 points lower against them. In 2008, he narrowed that gap to just 71 points, his best rate since that same 2005 season, a year that doesn’t really count, since he was in a platoon. 2008, as it turned out, was also an outlier, as he returned to career norms with a vengeance in 2009, displaying a 180-point OPS differential. That’s what got him pulled out of the lineup so often toward the end of the season, and leads many to believe he’s headed towards a permanent platoon. If he hasn’t figured out lefties in 568 PAs, he’s unlikely ever to do so.

Rumors surrounding a Hawpe trade have come and gone, and GM Dan O’Dowd has knocked them down, but their very persistence suggests at least a grain of truth. The Rockies have tons of OF talent right now, and holding onto a guy who can only play there effectively 60-70% of the time clearly isn’t worth it. Seth Smith is the odd man out in the OF rotation in 2010, but he could easily leap into RF if Hawpe looks like he did in the second half of 2009.

Hawpe’s in the final year of his deal and, depending on how you feel about these things, it could motivate him to new heights of productivity. But THTF isn’t buying it, and neither am I. Though the projection may be a bit low compared to other projection systems, I’d expect a Hawpe closer to the second half of 2010 than the first. If he starts out hot and you own him, I’d look for a trade partner, because the production won’t last. He’s always been streaky, registering .900+ OPS in April, June and August, while posting OPS in the .780-.860 range in other months.

While the validity of monthly splits are subject to debate (I’d add the investment-advertisement caveat here of past performance not indicating future earnings), Hawpe definitely runs hot and cold. If another owner drops him, you can wait for the hot streak to pick him up off the wire, but he shouldn’t play full-time on your team, any more than he should in Colorado. Bid accordingly in your draft and, if you already own him, look for a replacement for those inevitable cold spells.

Clayton Kershaw | Los Angeles | SP
2009 Final Stats: 9.7 K/9, 2.0 K/BB, 2.79 ERA
2010 THTF Projected Stats: 9.6 K/9, 2.1 K/BB, 3.23 ERA

At the other end of the age spectrum from Johan Santana is Kershaw, one of the most promising young arms in the game. Not many pitchers end up with a 4.08 FIP in their first year in the majors—at age 20. Kershaw built on that to the 2009 season you see above, when his FIP fell to an awesome 3.08 on the strength of those peripherals. Only missing a few weeks with a bruised shoulder (sustained while shagging flies, proof that even practice can be dangerous in baseball) put a blemish on an otherwise excellent season. Heading into Spring Training, it now seems that Kershaw is the ace of the staff, accorded the honor of starting Opening Day, as it appears the Dodgers will do.

Digging underneath that breakout 2009 season, we can see reasons to moderate any overly lofty expectations for him, however. As is often true with young power pitchers, Kershaw had trouble with walks, and his 4.8 BB/9 rose slightly from that 2008 debut. He also benefited from a .274 BABIP and 6.8 HR/FB%, although the latter can probably be explained by Chavez Ravine, where he only gave up one longball in 88.1 IP (Coors Field, on the other hand, saw him surrender 4 in 17.0 IP). His rise in FB% makes this a statistic worth watching, as he went from a 37.6% FB rate in the minors to 41.6% in 2009. He’s so young that it’s hard to determine tendencies like this, but it is something to keep an eye on. He also got support from an elevated 77.5% strand rate, which makes him vulnerable to a likely ERA correction of half a run to a full run.

On the plus side, Kershaw was fairly limited in how much work the Dodgers allowed him to do. They stuck as close as possible to the 100-pitch mark, something he exceeded in quite a few starts, but never by more than 12 pitches. The 171 IP he threw had a lot to do with his bruised shoulder, but they would have undoubtedly kept his innings low regardless. He’ll have a bit more latitude in 2010, which could allow him to build those impressive strikeout rates into a total that will help your team even more. And the potential ERA regression is still relatively minor, with THTF’s projections in the same 3.30-3.50 ballpark as other systems.

Other than the walk rate and the usual setbacks any young pitcher is likely to experience, there are few red flags for this rising young lefty, and little reason to underbid on him come draft day. Remember that he’s not going to give you the same numbers he did in 2009, but if he’s in the same neighborhood as the THTF numbers, he’s going to help your team immensely. Keeper leagues are undoubtedly all over him already (I’ve owned him for two seasons in one of my keeper leagues) and he’s got obvious added value in NL-only leagues. But nearly any owner should have no problem going the extra buck or two to put this young fireballing southpaw on his team.

Raul Ibanez | Philadelphia | OF
2009 Final Stats: .272/.347/.552
2010 THTF Projected Stats: .273/.340/.477

In his first year with the Phillies, Ibanez didn’t do all that bad. Sure, his batting average dropped more than 20 points, but he hit a career-high 34 home runs and had a .552 SLG, and his 110 RBIs were his second-best total ever. And, oh yeah, he did it all while playing through a sports hernia that required offseason surgery. His stint on the DL for a pulled groin was obviously much more serious than that, and Ibanez showed his character and grit by playing through it.

That hernia’s the best way to explain the dropoff in production from the first half of the season to the second, when his OPS plummeted 300 points along with his HR production. What’s perhaps more impressive is that his season didn’t turn out worse. His 23.8 K% and (therefore) his 0.47 BB/K were both his worst since 1998, though both worsened in the second half of the season, after he got hurt. Either because of his early-season success or his late-season tenderness (Fangraphs doesn’t split hit trajectories by month or half-season), he hit career highs in FB% and HR/FB rates, which certainly explains that prodigious HR total. He did this at the expense of line drives, however, posting his lowest rate ever and continuing a general downward trend in that department since 2003.

Raul is getting old, as we all are: he’ll be 38 this season, and his skills have been declining. Alongside that downturn in line drive rate, he’s increased how often he swings at pitches outside the zone, despite not showing a corresponding increase in contact rate on those pitches (2008′s 71.5% was a clear outlier). This, added to his other trends, indicates that more declines are coming.

He’s not going to hit like he did in the second half of 2009, when he could only muster a .232/.326/.448 slash line, but THTF sees him closer to that than his overall 2009 line. That could be a little pessimistic (despite his .143 Spring Training average) but some pessimism is warranted in this case. Age-related decline is to be expected, as are other injuries like the hernia, even though Ibanez has been a fairly healthy guy throughout his career—and, as we saw last year, he’s perfectly willing to grit his teeth and play through it.

Ibanez was never a top-flight OF in fantasy, but he was one of those guys you could count on for a steady clip of BA, HR, and RBI. He’s going to be a lot shakier going forward, but he’ll still be dependable for good contributions in all those areas, especially with the high-scoring Phillies. He might even have periods like the first half of 2009, though not for an entire season. That makes a very good play in NL-only leagues, a good play in mixed leagues, and a decent investment overall.

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