Waiver Wire Offseason: NL

Andre Ethier | Los Angeles | OF
2009 Final Stats: .272/.361/.508
2010 THTF Projected Stats: .284/.360/.494

Except for his miserable May, Ethier built on his .335/.409/.583 second half of 2008 to show that he’s finally arrived. For the first time in his career, he broke the 30-HR (the first Dodger to do so since Adrian Beltre‘s 48 longballs in 2004) and 100-RBI barriers, playing in all but two games for the Dodgers. The mysterious May slump likely came from his 26 H% and the split toenail that limited him for the last week of the month. But he came back with a vengeance in June, putting together a nine-game hitting streak that included four homers in three games, bringing his OPS up 100 points.

That kind of clumping was typical of Ethier, who hit more than a third of his 31 HR in six multi-homer games. Shockingly, all of those multi-dinger games came at home, where he hit 22 HRs. That’s surprising for Dodger Stadium, one of the stingiest HR parks in the league (only Busch surrendered fewer HR/G in 2009), but a good sign for Ethier owners going forward—he has a .915 OPS at home.

One stat that wasn’t shocking in 2009 was Ethier’s platoon splits. His career OPS is 203 points higher against RHP than LHP, and that gap widened to 331 points in 2009. While that makes his overall line that much more impressive, it’s a worrying trend, following four straight years of declining OPS against southpaws. It’s too soon to call for a platoon, but Ethier could be headed that way if he keeps this up.

Another trend to note is that Ethier started hitting more fly balls last year, with a career-high 41.5% in that department. His HR rate seems to be settling into the 14-15% range, so he’s a good shot to keep his power up if this continues, though more fly balls would also depress his BA. Since this came after three straight seasons of declining FB%, it’s a good question as to whether this is a permanent shift or not.

THTF predicts a reversal in this trend, boosting his BA at the expense of his SLG, and sees him falling back to HR levels in the mid-20s (he’s predicted for 23). That puts them right in line with other projection systems, which only differ by giving him a slightly higher SLG. Consistent contact rates in the low 80s mean that he’s a solid BA bet, especially with four straight seasons of rising walk rates. Those platoon splits are worrisome, but Ethier’s still going to deliver very good value for you. He’s not a top-flight OF in mixed leagues but gets close in NL-only leagues, and should be someone you can safely bet on for another OPS in the high 800s, even throwing in a few SBs to boot.

Rafael Soriano | Tampa Bay | RP
2009 Final Stats: 12.1 K/9, 3.8 K/BB, 2.97 ERA
2010 THTF Projected Stats: 9.8 K/9, 3.1 K/BB, 3.51 ERA

Soriano is the ultimate risk-reward guy at the back end of a bullpen. When he’s healthy, he throws a tidy fastball-slider combo that helps him rack up the Ks. But when he’s not healthy, the loss can be catastrophic—he’s missed nearly all of two different seasons in the past five years, and 2009 was only the second time he’s broken the 70-IP mark, setting a career high with 75.2 IP.

Last year, Atlanta had Mike Gonzalez as insurance—they were nominally co-closers to start the season, but the sharing project quickly fell away as Soriano asserted himself, and Gonzalez only recorded one save after July 1. With Tampa Bay, there’s J.P. Howell and Grant Balfour to step in if Soriano goes down, so they’re well-protected, and Soriano’s fantasy owners should be, too.

If he remains healthy, however, Soriano will deliver you some excellent numbers. Since his rookie year, he’s only once failed to register at least a strikeout per inning when pitching more than five innings, and that was his 8.8 K/9 in 2007, which is darn close to that magical mark. Soriano’s BB/9 have been equally good in his career, typically around 3 BB/9 (2008′s injury-shortened 14-IP 5.8 BB/9 is a clear outlier). He’s relied less and less on off-speed stuff in recent years, but that’s typical for an endgame power pitcher. And while his fastball has improved a bit in effectiveness, slipping from 1.06 to 1.42 wFB/C since 2006, his slider has declined a bit, going from 1.82 to 1.39 wSL/C in that same period. Those aren’t slides to worry about unless they continue, and show that he’s still got the same stuff as before his 2008 elbow problems.

Moving back to the AL shouldn’t hurt Soriano, since that’s where he began his career, and he moves to a team with one of the best defenses in baseball. Tampa Bay ranked second in UZR/150 in 2009, while placing fourth in Defensive Efficiency and third in Total Fielding Runs Above Average. Soriano’s more of a flyball pitcher, averaging 0.62 GB/FB in his career, but having guys like Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton chasing down those flies will make him even better.

Don’t take him without an insurance policy, and don’t overspend for those saves, but Soriano is a very good gamble if you’re the guy who likes good payoffs, as he should help you in multiple categories. His health history will scare off other owners, depressing his value, but he could make a great second or third closer for you, especially if you can get Balfour and a healthy J.P. Howell as a handcuff.

Brandon Phillips | Cincinnati | 2B
2009 Final Stats: .276/.329/.447
2010 THTF Projected Stats: .264/.313/.424

Even a bum wrist didn’t keep Brandon Phillips down in 2009, as he put up a year almost identical to 2008, despite the fact that he’d been dropped into the cleanup spot. Phillips initially said the wrist had a hairline fracture, frightening some fantasy owners into dropping him (like an owner in one of my leagues), but the Reds said that it was just a deep bone bruise. Whatever it was, it happened when he was hit by a pitch on Aug. 15, and Phillips hit .301/.341/.438 from that point until the end of the season, so it couldn’t have been much. That line could have had more to do with luck than a healthy wrist, as he enjoyed a 36% hit rate over that span, as compared to the 30% he enjoyed the rest of the season.

Overall, however, Phillips didn’t enjoy too much luck, since his HR/FB rate dipped a few points from 2008. That might seem like he could pick up some SLG in 2009, but his FB rates have been slowly slipping over the past three years, so that could cancel out any return to statistical HR/FB norms. Two other complementary trends show why his THTF projection sees a correction coming. His walk rates have generally improved a bit since 2006, rising from 6.0% to 6.8%, while his strikeout rate plunged from a three-year average around 16% to 12.8% in 2009. A sudden leap forward like this is unusual in a player with his experience, and he could give those gains back in 2010. Phillips is too young to fall off the table suddenly in any direction, however, and only THTF doesn’t see him joining the 20-20 club again (THTF projects 18 HRs, though his 21 SBs are in line with other systems).

He’s an odd placement in the cleanup spot, with his modest SLG, but that’s where Dusty Baker will probably place him in 2010, too. He still swiped more than 20 bags despite that unfavorable positioning, so there’s no reason to think he can’t do it again. If Dusty does see the light and puts Jay Bruce, for example, who has more raw power, there instead, that could shift Phillips’ HR/SB mix even further in favor of speed.

Either way, however, Phillips will continue to provide a very good power-speed blend that’s valuable for a MIF. His walk rates and modest contact skills will keep him from being a great BA boost, but he shouldn’t hurt you there, either. The persistence he showed in playing through his wrist problems last season show how gritty he is, and so long as he remains healthy, he’ll remain a top-notch 2B option in mixed or NL-only leagues.

Ubaldo Jimenez | Colorado | SP
2009 Final Stats: 8.2 K/9, 2.3 K/BB, 3.47 ERA
2010 THTF Projected Stats: 8.2 K/9, 2.0 K/BB, 3.64 ERA

You’ve got to like a young pitcher with a 95+ mph fastball, even if Coors Field is his home. You like him even more, however, when that guy pitches better there, as Jimenez did in 2009—his ERA and WHIP were both better at home than away, even if his control was slightly poorer there (2.2 K/BB vs. 2.5 K/BB away from Coors). His BABIP was also a touch worse at home, but when it’s .285 vs. .288 it didn’t make much of a difference, and shouldn’t change much going forward.

Overall, Jimenez solidified his skills in quite a few areas in 2009, with results that reflected that growth, and not mere luck. For starters, his 73% strand rate was solid, but his peripheral ratios showed improvement, too. His strikeout rate improved from 2008′s 7.8, but his biggest step forward came in his control, as he went from a 4.7 to 3.5 BB/9. That’s the most important area of improvement for a young power pitcher, and Jimenez barely got into acceptable walk rate range with that 2009 performance. As a power pitcher in Colorado, his flyball rate might be an area of concern, but Jimenez has shown growth there, too, over the last three seasons, dropping from 37% to 28% since 2007. Combine that with his slightly below-average HR rates in the past two years, and you’ll see that even a correction from 2009′s 7.8% HR/FB back to league norms isn’t much to worry about.

Jimenez has also broadened his repertoire, using his slider more, and using it more effectively. Since coming to the Rockies, he’s increased his usage of it from 10.2% to 17.8%, while it’s gone from 0.99 to 2.39 wSL/C. His heater, too, has gotten better, from a -4.7 to 11.4 wFB/C in the past three seasons. He was touted for having four pitches, and his changeup remains strong, but his curve still needs work, as it’s been inconsistent. Jimenez has compensated by throwing the curve a bit less, possibly because Colorado’s thin air doesn’t allow it to break like it should.

THTF sees some slippage in Jimenez’s production in 2010, largely due to a regression in his walk rate to 4.2 BB/9. Even if that happens, those numbers remain solid, and unless he suddenly reverses those groundball gains, he’s a very strong SP option for 2010. He’s still a young power pitcher, and bumps are possible, but it’s hard to match his strikeout potential. Keeper leagues have surely snapped him up already, but he’s a very good SP option for redraft leagues of all kinds.

Michael Bourn | Houston | OF
2009 Final Stats: .285/.354/.384
2010 THTF Projected Stats: .254/.319/.338

Bourn is one of those one-dimensional fantasy anomalies, where owners tolerate his punchless offense because he can seal up the SB category for you singlehandedly. In leagues that don’t count steals, on the other hand, he can bring some value from the runs he scores, but he’s a marginal talent otherwise. In 2009, though, he also brought BA and enough SLG to make him tolerable in non-SB leagues, and those 97 times he crossed home plate were nothing to sniff at, either.

Since he’s a young player, it’s difficult to know if Bourn is establishing tendencies or breaking them with his 2009 performance. He had a 19% strikeout rate in the minors, which ballooned to 23% over the past two seasons. His 13% walk rate in the minors sunk to 9% in 2009, though that was better than the 7% he put up in 2008. He pounced on fastballs in 2009, devouring them at a 1.35 wFB/C rate, but couldn’t figure out sliders (-2.32 wSL/C) and went from awful against changeups (-4.03 wCH/C) in 2008 to merely bad (-1.29) in 2009. And his hit rate jumped from 30% to 37% between 2008 and 2009.

Which way is he going? Hard to know for sure, but THTF sees him giving some of those gains back, not really surprising with a young player like this. It’s lower than other projection systems, but the best of those still peg him as declining from his 2009 season. Unless they improve, Bourn’s strikeout rates are still too high for a stable batting average, while his walk rates are barely in good territory. But if pitchers figure out his weakness to offspeed and breaking stuff, his ratios may not matter. The good news for fantasy owners is that his speed will remain consistent—as long as he gets on base. His groundball hitting style (57.8 GB% in 2009) and footspeed should help him reach base, even if his other trends push his hitting downward. There’s no stopping the steals, even if THTF sees him getting 50 swipes, and nobody sees him repeating a 60+ season.

A final concern is his health in spring training, as he’s missed more than a week with an oblique strain, and should return today. Both Bourn and the Astros insist that he’s fine, but oblique injuries have a way of lingering, and could sap his power and BA further. This isn’t enough to drop him off of draft charts, but it could slide him a few spots, and certainly bears watching.

Regardless, Bourn remains someone who will be drafted high in standard roto leagues and ignored in others, and if you draft him for your team, he’s going to be a two-dimensional contributor, neither helping nor hurting your BA while not contributing at all, or even hurting you, in power. If he could bring more than that, he’d be a much higher pick. As it is, however, you shouldn’t be seduced by those tasty SBs enough to overpay for or overdraft him. I’m never a fan of filling a spot with someone who can just contribute in one category, whether it’s a closer with awful peripherals or a hitter who only delivers you steals. Unless you can get Bourn for a reasonable price, look elsewhere for guys to fill out your SB category.

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Comments

  1. Jeff W. said...

    In re: U. Jimenez, you write “THTF sees some slippage in Jimenez’s production in 2010, largely due to a regression in his walk rate to 4.2 BB/9.”

    I’m not trying to nitpick or to pick a fight *(nitpick a fight (C) 2010, Jeff W.)— I’m just trying to peek behind the forecasting curtain.

    Hence this question: why would there be such a substantial regression in UJ’s walk rate?

    Arguments for a greater regression: UJ’s first-pitch strike % did drop a bit from 2008-09. Plus, his minor-league walk #s are a bit higher than they were in the bigs last year, so I get the whole “regress to the mean” argument.

    Arguments against: UJ, however, also increased the variety of his pitches from 2008 to 2009. As a % of total pitches, he threw more sliders, curves, and change-ups from 2008-09, and he threw a lot of them for strikes. This is evidence that he is increasing his repertoire, which could allow him to pitch more effectively to more kinds of batters and to keep them off balance.

    Plus, if I had to wager, I’d guess that UJ’s first-pitch-strike % might increase from his 2009 numbers (just under 56%) to closer to the league average (nearly 59%) this year, because there is relatively little variation in this number, at least according to the statheads over at FanGraphs.

    So if we assume that he has an increasing arsenal of pitches, more experience, and a closer-to-league-average first-pitch strikes %, I would guess that his BB/9 regression won’t be as great as THTF suggests.

    Or am I looking for rainbows while it’s still too cloudy?

  2. Michael Street said...

    Jeff W—

    You’ve got some great thoughts here, but I’ll be honest and say I don’t generate the THTF projections, and I’m not familiar with all of the mechanisms used to create these.

    But I would say that, from a sheer numbers perspective, he dropped from 4.7 to 3.5 BB/9 between 2008-2009. A return to 4.2 isn’t so much a “substantial” regression as a number that’s smack in the middle of those two.

    I’m sure OLIVER is more sophisticated than just averaging his last two seasons, but it’s pretty unusual for a guy to suddenly find this much control, so slipping backwards isn’t as weird or fluky as it sounds.

    If you look at his FG page, pretty much everyone not named “Fans” sees him giving those gains back, while some dude named “Bill James” sees an even greater return to his 2008 form :D

    I’m with you that he’s shown some nice steps forward, though I don’t agree that he’ll necessarily increase his first-strike percentage after three years in the 55-56% range. A return to his more historical norms is more likely than seeing a young pitcher solidify a big drop in BB rate like this.

    Thanks for the excellent analysis here!

    Mike

  3. Rob McQuown said...

    AL Version of WW was cancelled this week due to health issues.  Will be happy to reply to comment/email/Twitter requests.

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