Waiver Wire Offseason: NL

Eugenio Velez | San Francisco | 2B/OF
2009 Final Stats: .267/.308/.400

In his second full season in the majors, Velez endured a bumpy ride. A slow start that had him hitting .216/.222/.438 through the first two months of the season earned him a ticket back to Fresno, where he hit .297/.340/.451 before returning to the Giants (lest you think that minor-league line is all that fantastic, he hit .310/.372/.509 there in a nearly identical number of games and ABs in 2008).

Still, this seemed to energize him, and he finished the year with a .277/.321/.426 final two-plus months, largely due to the 14-game hitting streak he began immediately upon his return, which saw him post a .417/.444/.633 line. After that point, he hit .233/.283/.360, a lower OPS than he’d had before his demotion. Even worse for his fantasy owners, he only collected 11 measly steals, the source of much of his fantasy value.

The team as a whole had its worst SB totals in several years; the Giants’ 78 swipes were their fewest since 2006 and the lowest in the Bruce Bochy Era. The 2009 Giants weren’t a team built for speed, with Velez, Randy Winn and Emmanuel Burriss the nominal speedsters, and none of them cracked 20 steals, with Winn’s 16 leading the way. With a team that was fourth-worst in the NL in runs per game, and had the lowest OPS+ in the league, it’s likely that Bochy didn’t want to risk runners when he had them.

Of course, as the Giants and Velez both know, to steal a base, you’ve got to get on base, and neither did so very well. As a team, the Giants had a horrific .309 OBP—also last in the NL and further evidence of their amazing pitching in ’09—but even Velez, their most frequent leadoff hitter, couldn’t beat that awful number. This, however, shouldn’t be too surprising, as Velez hasn’t shown the plate discipline in his career to be a leadoff hitter.

In the minors, he showed a .36 BB/K ratio; even though that peaked at .53 in 2008, that’s still not leadoff-worthy. And in the majors, it’s been as bad or worse, with last season’s .35 dropping to .29 in 2009. He was a leadoff hitter in San Francisco because of his contact skills (.81 in the minors, .83 in the majors) and his speed (164 SBs in seven minor-league seasons). It should be noted, however, that those minor-league speed numbers are inflated by 113 SBs in Single-A and Double-A; he’s only got 28 SBs above that level.

There’s no doubt he’s got speed, but it looks like it’s more likely to manifest itself in doubles and triples (he has 29 doubles and 14 triples in the majors, and 24 doubles and seven triples in Triple-A). His batting average should ratchet up near .300 because of his foot speed and contact ability, but he doesn’t bring significant power, dragging his value down further.

Velez’s problematic future in San Francisco is compounded by the issue of where to play him. The Giants inked Freddy Sanchez to a two-year deal at the end of October, blocking Velez’s best fit at the keystone. As an outfielder, he’s a classic ‘tweener—not enough leather for center, not enough wood for the corners.

Plus, the Giants are likely to sign a free-agent outfielder next season, and are stuck with Aaron Rowand’s whopper of an unloadable deal through 2012. Randy Winn’s undoubtedly gone and Fred Lewis has disappointed, but both Nate Schierholz and John Bowker have to be ahead of Velez in any outfield depth chart.

At this point, his future looks to be as a fourth outfielder and backup second baseman, who might bring you a hollow BA with the possibility of some steals. He had some nice moments in 2009 and could reel off another hot streak if he’s in the lineup, but if you can predict the two-week stretch when he’s going to do that, you ought to be betting on things more lucrative than fantasy baseball.

Ian Desmond | Washington | SS
2009 Final Stats: .280/.318/.561

It’s taken Desmond five years to claw his way up through the minors, as the Nats have waited for his bat to catch up with his glove. The glove’s significant, though his tendency at every level has been to make the highlight reels while muffing the easy ones. That’s common with a young player, and he’s got the defensive talent for that to settle down eventually.

But what fantasy owners want to know is whether that batting line is for real. Twenty-one games and 89 PAs is an awfully small sample space, and 13 of those games were against the Braves and Mets, teams playing out the string. It’s much more instructive to look at his much lengthier minor-league record.

The closest he came to that a .561 slugging percentage was actually this year, when he slugged .494 in Double-A—his third crack at that level. His overall numbers in the minors are .259/.326/.388, although scouting reports give him decent power and good bat speed. As testament, he’s got 39 doubles and 19 homers in the past two seasons, and has thrown in 127 career minor-league steals for good measure.

What he doesn’t have is particularly good pitch recognition (.39 BB/K) or contact skills (.78). Some of that is dragged down by his earlier, younger years—though his contact rate has remained steady, he’s recorded a .50 BB/K over the past three seasons and .44 BB/K over the past two. In the brief debut he’s had, those stats have remained fairly steady, with a .36 BB/K and a .83 CT in that short time. Still, nobody expects him to keep plugging along with an OPS of .879.

Desmond, however, has the advantage that Velez doesn’t: playing time. The Nats are going to shift Cristian Guzman over to second to accommodate Desmond, something that should benefit both of them, as Guzman’s not the defender he used to be. And there’s nobody significant lurking in the minors to breathe down Desmond’s neck; their better SS prospect, Danny Espinosa, won’t be in the bigs for another year or two, at least.

There are lots of question marks in the Washington offseason, from the free agents they’re likely to sign to whether Jim Riggleman will return as manager. Washington probably will bring Riggleman back, and he’s already said he’s comfortable with Desmond as his starting shortstop. With all the other holes they have to fill, and with Guzman as a fallback plan, Desmond shouldn’t face any competition from free agency, either.

So it’s a good news-bad news thing for fantasy owners. Yes, he’ll be Washington’s shortstop, failing injury or utter collapse, for 2009 and probably 2010. And, no, he’s not going to produce at the levels he attained in that month-plus of major-league PT. A guy with good bat speed could run into a few longballs and a hot streak, and an OPS in the .725-.750 range with a handful of steals makes him a decent NL-only SS option. But don’t be fooled by a 21-game stretch.

Dan Runzler | San Francisco | RP
2009 Final Stats: 11.4 K/9, 2.2 K/BB, 1.04 ERA

I’ll be honest and say I didn’t even have Runzler on my radar, but requests are requests and Evan asked for a writeup—and I’m very glad he did. A third-round draft choice, Runzler is one of those guys who doesn’t make too many prospect lists but still holds some value.

Runzler is a 24-year-old lefty reliever who put up the above stats in just 8.2 IP with the Giants down the stretch. He rocketed up through the minors in just three seasons, rising all the way from Single-A to the majors in 2009. He sports a fastball in the mid-90s with late movement but had control problems early on in his career.

Clearly, he seems to have overcome those, a testament to the pitcher’s factory that is the Giants’ organization. In the minors in 2009, he racked up a 0.76 ERA and 0.80 WHIP in 59 IP, striking out 83 while walking just 24. As impressive, his 65% ground ball rate minimized any damage, although the .119 BA and .188 BABIP had to help, too. On the other hand, his 2.61 FIP suggests he was helped by his defense.

Runzler carried those stats over to his short stint with the Giants, albeit in slightly less dramatic fashion. Opposing batters hit only .188 against him, with a BABIP of .250, while he induced ground balls at a 48% rate, to go along with those pretty ratios you see above. FIP, too, was a bit pessimistic, as it gave him a 4.19 ERA, but the Giants did feature one of the best defenses in the NL.

The question is, as always: Will he continue?

The Giants seem to think so, as he’s already being mentioned as a bullpen fixture for next year. Even though he’s a lefty, his major- and minor-league splits were practically even against lefties and righties, so he’s not a specialist, and Bochy didn’t use him that way.

Where he did use him was in late innings, and he got better the later he pitched: batters hit .250 off him in the seventh inning and .154 in the eighth. That carried over from the minors, where hitters hit .160 in the seventh, .103 in the eighth, and .115 in the ninth.

That means he’s got the chance and the skills to stick in the majors, but in what capacity?

The Giants already have the back end of their bullpen nailed down, with Brian Wilson arbitration eligible until 2013 and Jeremy Affeldt signed through 2010. Runzler will be the seventh-inning guy ahead of them, ready to step in should either falter, and could occupy a more prominent role if the Giants move Wilson.

What that means to fantasy owners, unfortunately, is that Runzler’s unlikely to provide more than ratio help and holds, barring anything unpredictable. That, combined with the possibility he could regress after just one season of dominance, makes him a marginal pick at best, but still someone to keep your eye on. Thanks to Evan for putting him on our radar!

Next week, we’ll take a look at Jeff Francoeur, Kyle Blanks and Scott Elbert. The weeks following will feature Jake Fox, Matt Latos, Joe Blanton and Ben Sheets. Please offer other suggestions in the comments below.

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Comments

  1. John K said...

    Interesting about Runzler.  I don’t think this will be the case, but if he is SP eligible I will definitely keep an eye on him.  By the middle of the season I usually I love to have stud MRs in an SP slot instead of holding a bench hitter.

    Don’t the Nats have a former Dirtbag SS in their system who is supposed to be good?  I think he’s only played A ball so far, but it seems like he might be blocked – I didn’t realize that.

    Thanks again for the column. 

    If you’re askin, I’m givin: Gamel, Corey Hart (is his goose officially cooked?), Jordan Zimmermann (was useful until his injury), Bumgarner (I’ll need to go back and make sure he wasn’t done after that velocity drop)

  2. Michael Street said...

    John K—

    Thanks for the suggestions; I’ll add ‘em to the list. I cover Milwaukee for HEATER magazine, so I’ll have plenty to say on Gamel and Hart smile

    I don’t think Runzler will be SP eligible, as he has yet to start as a pro. But for leagues with generic “P” slots (as most of mine are) he makes excellent staff filler.

    Not sure if the dirtbag SS you’re referring to is Espinosa, who’s down at the bottom rung of the minor-league ladder (he played in the high-A Carolina league this year). I wouldn’t say that he’s blocked by Desmond, unless Desmo surprises everyone by exploding offensively.

    But Espinosa’s a year or two away, time for Desmond to cement himself as an everyday player (or, as I expect, to ultimately fall short of that). I think Ian’s going to be a utility guy eventually, but he could still overachieve. He’s definitely the starter for now, though.

    Thanks for the comment and the suggestions!

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