Jake Fox | Chicago | CIF/OF
2009 Final Stats: .259/.311/.468
For all the things that went wrong with the 2009 Cubs, count Jake Fox among the few things that went really right. A power prospect with six years of minor-league experience, Fox started 2009 by leading Triple-A in every offensive category. Many critics pointed to his long road through the minors, his defensive inconsistency, and his whiff-tastic tendencies (479 Ks in 2,355 minor-league ABs) as reasons he’d never make it in the majors.
Despite this, his absurd .423/.503/.886 Triple-A line through the end of May, combined with a slow start by the Cubs, made Fox’s call-up a no-brainer, though there was no real room for him on the field. Drafted as a catcher, Fox has since been moved to 1B, where his glove is barely competent, and where he’s blocked by Derrek Lee, who had a resurgent 2009 season. Fox has played a bit of 3B and LF to give him a better avenue to the bigs, but he hasn’t impressed at those positions, either.
When he did play in May and June, Fox was dynamite, hitting .320/.350/.528 in 53 ABs and just 11 starts. But even when Aramis Ramirez went down, Fox still couldn’t get on the field regularly; he played a mix of 3B, DH and the corner outfield spots during those first two months. Fox continued to spot-start at 3B and the OF through July and kept hitting to the tune of .300/.339/.660, and it seemed that he’d really arrived. By the end of July, his overall slash line was .311/.345/.592, leading to ramped-up playing time in August.
At this point, however, Fox started to slide back down to more expected levels. Over the final two months of the season, he hit just .212/.280/.354 and, more significantly, his plate patience evaporated. In his 103 ABs through July 31, Fox displayed unusual patience, striking out just 14 times against six walks. But in 113 August through October ABs, he struck out 33 times, with eight walks. The seven HRs and eight 2Bs he’d clubbed before that point diminished to four HRs and four 2Bs.
This, along with an uncertain PT situation, makes his future very shaky. Neither Lee nor Ramirez is going anywhere, nor is LF Alfonso Soriano. Though Bradley has been the subject of trade rumors, the Cubs are saying they want a CF, meaning current CF Kosuke Fukudome would slide into Bradley’s spot in RF.
The Cubs’ new ownership has given no indication that they’ll make any big lineup changes (which might make room for Fox), but they say they’ll remain very active in the trade market. And that’s where Fox is likely to have the most value.
His atrocious glove and roadblocked path to a starting job make him an excellent DH candidate, though he could also go to a team like the Giants, who are looking for a power-hitting first baseman. The Cubs would be foolish to hang onto Fox if they can get something in return for him; the team that might deal for him, however, would be equally foolish to assume that he’s going to continue to produce at this rate.
Fox’s history of hacking has followed him to the majors. His career BB/K ratio of .38 slipped to .29 in MLB, showing how little that part of his game has changed. The other knock on him has been that he can crush a fastball, but can’t hit offspeed stuff. Fangraph’s Pitch Type Values shows that’s true—against fastballs and cutters, he scored 1.9 and 3.7 runs above average, respectively. But against sliders, curves and changes, he hit -3.8, 0.0, and -2.6, respectively.
Most likely, pitchers figured that out in the second half and started feeding him offspeed stuff. He could still learn, of course, and the right hitting coach combined with playing time could reverse those trends. But it doesn’t bode well for a 27-year-old entering only his second full major-league season, and strike zone knowledge isn’t a skill he can develop at that age.
Fantasy owners will want to see where he ends up in 2010; with the Cubs, he’s practically worthless, barring an injury or blockbuster trade, but he could be a good power gamble as a DH or 1B with the right team. He’s not as good as he seemed in the first half of 2009, but he might not be as bad as his second half indicates, either. Just don’t pay too much to find out.
Jordan Zimmermann | Washington | SP
2009 Final Stats: 9.1 K/9, 3.2 K/BB, 4.63 ERA
Zimmermann rocketed through the minors as their top pitching prospect, before a visit to The Dreaded Dr. Andrews ended his season this past August. Tommy John surgery will keep him from returning to full strength until 2011, and he might not even toe the slab for all of 2010.
That’s a shame, since The Other Zimmermann (note that extra “n” to distinguish him from All-Star teammate Ryan) had impressed coaches and scouts at every level. Already gifted with a sinking two-seamer and four-seam fastball in the mid-90s, Zimmermann has worked on perfecting his curve and slider, while trying to develop a changeup. Right now, just those first four pitches are above-average, but imagine if he can develop a fifth plus pitch for his repertoire.
He was drafted as the third player in the second round of the 2007 draft, and quickly served notice to the other teams who passed him by. In short-season A ball, he racked up 12.1 K/9 and 3.9 K/BB rates, en route to a 2.38 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP. He continued to average better than a strikeout per inning as he rose to Triple-A over the next two seasons, throwing just 5.1 IP in the minors in 2009 before earning his call-up.
His overall minor-league numbers were equally eye-popping, with that gaudy 9.9 K/9 leading the way, followed by a 3.2 K/BB, 0.7 HR/9, 2.81 ERA and 1.14 WHIP. With barely 195 pro innings under his belt, he got the early call from Washington, joining the pitching-hungry big-league club in time for his April 20 debut against the Atlanta Braves.
He won that start, as well as his next one against the Mets, for a 2.39 ERA, 6.4 K/9 and 2.7 K/BB. Zimmermann wouldn’t win another start until June, after a rocky May when he only gave up fewer than fewer earned runs once in six starts, for a 7.27 ERA, 10.1 K/9, and 3.54 K/BB.
His control wasn’t a problem, but his 1.6 HR/9 clearly was, along with the defense behind him. Overall, his FIP ERA for 2009 was .99 lower than his actual ERA, not surprising from a team that scored dead last in the NL in R/G, fielding percentage, errors (their 143 muffs led 15th-ranked Arizona by 19, or about 13%), and 15th in defensive efficiency.
Zimmermann righted the ship in June, giving up two or fewer runs in all four starts, for a 1.90 ERA, 8.4 K/9 and 3.7 K/BB. For all that Washington fans had to moan about, this was something that gave them hope for the future. That is, before July.
In that month, he started four times and gave up two or more runs in each outing. His strikeouts were still strong—9.6 K/9 brought him back over a strikeout per inning—but his walks were up, to 3.75 BB/9 to bring that K/BB down to 2.6. Worse, his elbow was bothering him, so the Nats pulled him from the rotation. A short rest and rehab didn’t help, and when they sent the MRI results to Dr. James Andrews, Nats fans braced for the worst.
They got it. Zimmermann is out for the usual TJS timeframe of 12-18 months, so you can safely ignore him entirely in next year’s draft and monitor him for 2011. Keeper owners will have a tough call to make, as he looked excellent, and is still just 23 years old. Whether you want to hang onto him all next year will depend on your league’s depth, whether you have an open DL slot, and whether you’re building for the future or the present.
TJS is more of a rite of passage these days than a cause for long-term concern, but it’s got to diminish his rising star significantly, at least until 2011 or 2012. The good news is that he might return in two seasons to an improved team, sort of like waking up from cryogenic sleep to find that all the world’s problems have been solved and everyone finally has those jet packs they’ve been promising us since the 1950s.
Hey, it could happen, and it’s only slightly less likely than Zimmermann returning to a competitive Washington team. You never know.
Mat Latos | San Diego | SP
2009 Final Stats: 6.9 K/9, 1.7 K/BB, 4.62 ERA
Like Zimmermann, Latos was his team’s top pitching prospect before shooting through the minors to earn a hasty promotion by a crummy team wanting a sneak peek at its future. Unlike Zimmermann, Latos is two years younger and finished the season hale and healthy. But there are other differences, too.
The Padres didn’t take Latos until the 11th round, not because of his skills, but because of his reported attitude problems—according to BA, he’s got a poor work ethic and “rubs teammates the wrong way with his flippant attitude.” But those skills are something else. He’s got a 95-plus mph heater, tight curve and hard slider, and has averaged more than a strikeout per inning throughout the minors, along with increasingly sharp control.
As a 19-year-old in short-season A-ball, Latos struck out 74 and walked 22 in 56.1 IP, giving up just pne HR. Those 22 free passes would represent the most he’d give up in the minors, and he would continue to strike batters out while keeping the baseball in the yard. At three levels in 2008, his K rate would dip slightly from 11.8 to 11.1 K/9, while his K/BB grew from 3.4 to 5.3; only his HR/9 rose to 0.6 from 0.2. His 2.57 ERA and 1.11 WHIP confirmed his dominance.
Amazingly, almost all would continue to improve in 2009. Though his strikeouts fell to 9.1, his K/BB continued to rise to 6.1, his HR/9 fell to 0.1 (1 HR in 72.1 IP), and his 1.37 ERA and 0.75 WHIP were at elite levels. The Padres could wait no longer and promoted him straight from Double-A for his July 19 start against Colorado.
He lost that first start, despite giving up only two ER in 4.1 IP, but such is the fate pitching with the Padres’ offense behind you. But he won his next two starts, ending the month with 7.0 K/9, 3.3 K/BB, and a 2.70 ERA. His problem, though, was the longball, as he gave up four for the month. This trend continued through August, as he would ultimately give up at least one HR in each of his first six starts.
He also began to struggle finding the strike zone; after just four free passes in his first three starts, he walked 12 in his next four. The bottom fell out in a loss at Chicago, when it took him 92 pitches to get through just 3.2 IP, coughing up five ER on seven hits and four BBs against just five Ks.
It speaks very well of Latos’ makeup and perhaps his improved maturity that he rebounded from this to pitch seven scoreless frames against the Braves, needing only 89 pitches to shut down 23 hitters (two more than his brief performance against the Cubs), striking out four, while walking none and surrendering just two hits.
The Padres shut Latos down two starts later to preserve his arm, since he’d thrown 120 IP at both levels and—lest we forget—this kid’s only 21. In those two final starts, he again regressed, giving up six ER in 6.1 total IP against the Marlins and Dodgers, striking out six, walking seven and giving up seven hits. Possibly, he was getting tired, physically or mentally, but San Diego made the right call regardless.
Though his numbers don’t look great for the year, Latos showed the stuff to cement his status as one of the top young pitchers in baseball. He’s slotted for the Padres’ rotation next year, and PETCO Park, plus the team’s solid defense, should help smooth out the expected rough spots in his performance.
What those can’t help, of course, is the battle that goes on between Latos’ ears. It’s one of the cruel ironies of baseball that a hard-working team player like Zimmermann goes down for TJS, while a reputed head case like Latos soldiers on. I couldn’t find any reference to clubhouse problems with the Padres, so it might be that Latos has reformed—or it might be that he takes a while to get under his teammates’ skin.
Just like the Padres, fantasy owners should be cautious about drafting Latos too highly, at least until he’s got more MLB innings under his belt. But his talent is undeniable, and keeper owners should hang on to him, while everyone else should consider him a good mid- to late-round pick or moderate gamble with a decent bid.
Why am I being so cautious? Young pitchers can implode for a variety of reasons, and a pitcher with a reputation for irritating teammates and shirking a disciplined approach to the game has more red flags than most. Bid appropriately.
Keep offering your suggestions for players you’d like to see covered below. Next week is Brewerfest, with Corey Hart, Matt Gamel and Ben Sheets.