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Charging the Mound: Where are You Headed?

Derek VanRiper

Derek VanRiper

Derek is the Senior Baseball Editor for RotoWire.com, where he's been a two-time finalist for the FSWA's Baseball Writer of the Year award, and winner of the Best Football Article on the Web (2009) and Best Baseball Article on the Web (2010) awards. Derek also co-hosts RotoWire Fantasy Sports Today on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio (XM 87, Sirius 210) from 11a-2p ET on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Jeff Erickson

Jeff Erickson

Jeff Erickson is a co-founder of RotoWire.com and the only two-time winner of Baseball Writer of the Year from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. He roots for the Reds, Bengals, Red Wings, Pacers and Northwestern University (the real NU).

-----Original Message-----
From: "Derek VanRiper"
Sent: Tuesday, June 1, 2010 6:47pm
To: "Jeff Erickson"
Subject: Charging the Mound

After two months of the regular season, you really have a feel for where your teams are headed, and what you'll need in order to move up in the standings (or to hold a lead). It's this time of year where I make my first wave of large-scale changes to the keeper league cheat sheets since the initial wholesale changes leading into draft time in early March. Sure, minor adjustments have been made here and there, but a long-term view shouldn't be altered much based on a small early-season sample, the easiest way to avoid overreacting to the April surprises is to wait until May is over before passing judgment.

With these rankings, I try to stay focused on the next two years, essentially where I think players belong based on their production for the rest of this season, all of the next one, and their upside beyond that. Arbitrary? Only a little. As the readers may already know, changes are made very regularly throughout the season on the one-year cheat sheets. Take the thousands of tweaks we've made to those sheets and sum them up in a meaningful long-term way, and you've got your big-picture movers. It's easy to bump Javier Vazquez down in a one-year league, but it sure is a lot more to think about when you consider the likelihood of a return to the National League before the start of 2011.

All in all, it takes about a week for those changes to fully take shape, especially since there are an infinite number of variables (contract lengths, salaries, league size, etc.) than can significantly alter the value of a particular player in any given league. Now that I've flipped my calendar to June, I feel more enlightened than I did even a week ago. This is despite knowing full well that the events that have shaped my knowledge of the player pool have transpired over the course of the last 58 days. Let's just say I'm more comfortable re-working the clay now than I was on Day 52.

Anyway, let's dive right into a few of my revelations.

Ubaldo Jimenez is a top-five pitcher in keeper leagues

The top-five pitcher part isn't earth-shattering, it's the "keeper" aspect of this. Jimenez has been historically good to this point, Walter Johnson or Juan Marichal good by some measures. Is the leap from 16th-ranked starting pitcher before the season to third on June 1 too much? At 26, he's entering his prime, the Rockies are in a much better position to succeed for the next couple of seasons than say, Zack Greinke's Royals, and he's lowered his walk rate for the second straight season (2.91 BB/9IP). He keeps the ball in the park, gets a lot of outs on the ground, misses plenty of bats, and when hitters do make contact, they rarely square up on his pitches (13.3 line-drive percentage). All other factors even, the only two pitchers I'd rather own than Jimenez right now are Tim Lincecum and Roy Halladay.

Andrew McCutchen is almost a top-five outfielder

"Almost" may disappear after I sleep on this, or hear a persuasive argument to suggest that he should in fact, be valued more highly than Matt Holliday. Currently, I've got McCutchen sixth, and he's still got room to grow and produce better numbers as the Pirates' lineup eventually will improve around him. He's showing some pop, stealing a lot of bags, and hitting for a good average. As for Holliday, I can't help but feel like he's slightly overvalued right now. Anyone pat Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd on the back lately? Holliday's replacement from the pre-2009 trade that sent him to the A's was Carlos Gonzalez, and through the first two months of the season Gonzalez has been as good as or better than Holliday in all five rotisserie categories.

Nick Markakis needs to show me something, and fast

I used to think of him as a potential top-five outfielder. Granted, he's only 26, so it's easy to forget that he's already in his fifth big league season, but I can't be the only one wondering when he's going to tap into his power potential (three homers in 189 at-bats simply isn't going to cut it). I still like him, but the O's offense is brutal and there's not really a light at the end of the tunnel right now. He's holding on as a top-20 keeper league outfielder, but I would be very tempted to take Colby Rasmus ahead of him if all costs of ownership were equal.

I'll open the floor for your thoughts on these guys, as well as any other players that have significantly elevated or dropped their stock in your book during the first two months. Where does Alex Rios stack up on your keeper rankings for 2011 and beyond? How about Jason Heyward? Is it too soon to consider him a top-15 player at his position?

-----Original Message-----
From: jeff@rotowire.com
Sent: Thursday, June 3, 2010 1:48am
To: "Derek VanRiper"
Subject: RE: Charging the Mound

Let me play the role of Devil's Advocate for moment on Jimenez. He might very well be a top-3 or top-5 pitcher in keeper leagues, but there are a few mitigating circumstances. The first and most obvious constraint is Jimenez's home park. Yeah, he can beat it, or at least has so far, and not just this year (in fact, his career home ERA is 3.20, his road ERA 3.57). But Coors Field is always going to loom as problematic, humidor or not. His ability to prevent homers beyond the average HR/FB rate I think is for real - in fact, Chris and I discussed that in Charging last year. But that said, he's in surreal territory right now, having allowed just one homer - good for a miniscule 1.6% HR/FB rate. A rate *that* good is not sustainable. His strand rate is 91.5% - as good as Jimenez is, that is also nowhere near sustainable, even with the Rockies getting reinforcements to their bullpen. Finally, I'm worried at least a little bit about Jimenez's workload. Among his last 10 starts, he's had pitch-counts of 130, 129 (his no-hitter against the Braves), 122, 120, 116 and 115. (Invoking Caveat Here)Pitch counts aren't the be-all end-all - some pitchers are built to go longer, stressful pitches matter more than total count, and at age 26 Jimenez isn't as vulnerable to injury due to overuse as younger pitchers might be (/Caveat). The effects might not be felt now, or at all this season, or even ever. But I'm watching this to see if there any effects down the line.

But there's a non-Jimenez-specific reason to think that he won't be a top-five guy. For lack of a better phrase, it's the concept that this is Jimenez's peak year, and he's unlikely to repeat it. We've seen it to a certain extent with Zack Greinke and Felix Hernandez this season, and plenty others in previous years (Cole Hamels comes to mind last year). Maybe Jimenez's "come-down year" will still make him a top-five starter, but we don't know that yet. We're sort of living in the moment right now.

As for McCutchen, I think the argument rests on how much power he projects to have. Thinking about my top-five for keeper leagues, I'd rank Ryan Braun, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and probably Carl Crawford ahead of him (yes, I know that he doesn't hit for power, but his year-to-year performance has to be considered more reliable than McCutchen, no?). Then I think it's a matter of preference - you could make cases for Justin Upton, Nelson Cruz, Carlos Gonzalez and Jason Heyward ahead of McCutchen going forward, in addition to Holliday. Right now, I actually think that Holliday is a little undervalued, but perhaps that's because I follow so many STL beat writers on Twitter, and witness them having to defend Holliday's contract because of his low conversion rate on RBI this year. Anyhow, I agree with you that McCutchen is in the conversation, but I think that he's more like a top-10 guy than a top-5 guy.

Because of what he's made his fantasy (and real life) owners suffer through the last two years, we have to discount him, but what do I make of Alexis Rios? He's displayed the skills of hitting for power and stealing bases before, just usually not at the same time. What happened to him the last two years? Was it all injuries, like Vernon Wells, or was there something else? I tend to think it's health after all. I think he has to be considered a top-20 OF going forward, but I probably wouldn't slot him higher. Where do you slot him among outfielders for this year? How about in keeper leagues?

You're right to give O'Dowd kudos on the Gonzalez acquisition. He was able to see through his lack of performance in his rookie year with the A's (4% walk rate, 27% K-rate) and count on his ability to develop. His walk rate did indeed jump, both at Triple-A and the major league level last year (though in fairness, he's back to walking at a 4% clip so far this year). Moreover, he's been a negative hitter on the road so far this year (.267/.284/.362). I didn't intend to make this a negative comment on Gonzalez, but the more I look at him the more I'm a tiny bit concerned. Funny how that works.

Yeah, I'm with you on Markakis. The power just hasn't developed like we thought it might. He's still better in real life than roto, because of his walks and because of his throwing arm. But yeah, in a keeper league, I think I value Rasmus higher. I'd definitely value Heyward higher than Markakis.

Let me throw two second basemen at you and how you'd rate them for the future, one fast-starter and one slow-starter:

- Kelly Johnson (Mock Draft Central ADP 325, current Yahoo rank: 44) - hitting .269/.368/.555 with 12 homers and five stolen bases before Wednesday's 14-inning snore-fest against the Dodgers.

- Gordon Beckham (Mock Draft Central ADP 89, current Yahoo rank: 1004) - hitting .201/.291/.246 with one homer and three stolen bases entering Wednesday's play.

Some folks were on Johnson after a good spring, but certainly not to this extent. Beckham seemingly was everyone's darling in March this year, but it hasn't worked out yet for him (or for many of his teammates not named Rios). Was it just a case of Johnson getting healthy and moving to a friendly ballpark? Is Beckham slumping because of the position change? What's your take here?

-----Original Message-----
From: "Derek VanRiper"
Sent: Thursday, June 3, 2010 11:52am
To: jeff@rotowire.com
Subject: Re: Charging the Mound

This is Jimenez's "Grienke Season", no doubt about that. You raise an interesting point about him with the pitch counts, and I'd also like to get Bernie Pleskoff's take on the wristy release that gives him so much movement on all of his pitches. Does that also make him more of an injury risk? His skill set is one that tames the Coors Field beast. That is, he appears to be immune of the park's ability to wreak havoc on many pitchers' stuff. A career 3.20 ERA at Coors is enough for me to write off where he makes his home starts, at least during his prime. There's going to be a point after his prime where he's unable to get the same combination of velocity and movement that he brings now. When that happens, perhaps his regression will be a quick and painful one?

In addition to being happy about Rios' season because Liss gets ticked off every time we talk about him on RotoWire Fantasy Sports Today, I think it was something along the lines of an injury that limited his production in Toronto over the last two seasons. The home runs, to an extent, are inflated by his 14.3% HR/FB mark, but he's traded groundballs for more flyballs and line drives, which bodes well. Plus, hitting a lot of flyballs at U.S. Cellular Field will lead to a higher HR/FB than any other AL park, it's just that he's increased more than five percent from his 8.9% career rate. The speed shouldn't come as any surprise, as manager Ozzie Guillen made no secret about his plans to give Rios the green light often this season. At age 29, I think we can see similar production from him for the next season or two. As a result, he's hovering just inside of the top-20 outfielders.

Rios' placement there right now is next to B.J. Upton. What do you make of him? Major shoulder surgery can have long-term effects, but he's still just 25 and the power isn't entirely gone. Plus, he's going to steal a lot of bags and score plenty of runs in that Rays' offense. Do you still consider him a top-20 keeper in the outfield? Would you rather own him in a keeper league, or Rios?

Kelly Johnson is exactly the type of player you would have liked to trade back in early May, but nobody in our leagues was going to buy into him as an Aaron Hill type. Given his home park and his fast start, he could still reach the 25-homer mark, but .243/.351/.418 with three homers in May is a far cry from the .300+ and nine homers he delivered in April. The D-Backs seem to be pretty high on Tony Abreu, but Johnson isn't going to be squeezed for playing time right now with Abreu on the DL. Last week, we listed off clubs that might be sellers, and the D-Backs' recent skid (10 straight losses, 20-34) could put them far enough behind in a competitive NL West where the changes start to roll in. Johnson is a candidate to be moved, as is Adam LaRoche, and possibly Dan Haren.

In a keeper league, there are still 15 other 2B-eligible players I'd rather own than Johnson. It doesn't mean he's a bad player, it's more a reflection of the depth at the position when everyone is healthy.

As for the more surprising players I'd still rather own than Johnson, how about Gordon Beckham? He's been atrocious this season, but the White Sox have stood by him for the most part, giving him an opportunity to play his way out of a terrible start. His contact rate has dipped slightly, but he's still walking in 10 percent of his plate appearances, he's still in an excellent home park for hitters, and he's still well under 1,000 career at-bats (548) after being fast tracked to the big leagues last season with a mere 233 at-bats in the minors. I would like to see a collection of data for players changing positions and how it may potentially affect their performance at the plate. My guess is that there's more of an impact on younger players, but that could just be a result of the usual adjustments pitchers make to hitters after getting a scouting report against them.

Before you close this one out for the week, I'd like to get your long-term view on a few more players. Where do you think Martin Prado belongs as a keeper at second base? He's only 26, but his strengths are hitting for average and scoring runs, the two most overlooked hitting categories, in my opinion. He's slugging .450 in his career, (just over 1,000 at-bats) so do you think he can still turn some of those doubles into homers? How about Billy Butler? I swear he looks like a left tackle on a baseball field, but how can a good hitter with that much size not be delivering more power? Is he really going to plateau as a 20-25 homer guy rather than a 30-35 one? Finally, when can we say that Johnny Cueto has arrived? I thought May was very encouraging for him (37:7 K:BB, 34 IP). but the Cards completely abused him in his last start on Tuesday night. He didn't exactly run the gauntlet in May, facing the Mets, Brewers, Indians and Pirates (twice), but was I wrong to think that he showed signs of growth?

-----Original Message-----
From: jeff@rotowire.com
Sent: Thursday, June 3, 2010 4:13pm
To: "Derek VanRiper"
Subject: Re: Charging the Mound

Yeah, I think that B.J. Upton still has enough talent to be a top-20 outfielder. Even in a down year like this one, he's got 15 stolen bases already and he's on pace to end up with about 20 homers. The problem for him could end up being batting average - his contact rate still hasn't improved and in fact may have gotten worse this year. That can't be blamed on the shoulder injury recovery, unless there are problems there that he or the team aren't letting on about. But anytime you have a player with that sort of pure talent, it's difficult to dismiss him as a potential elite. My only caution is that he probably won't have the high-power upside we once believed that he had - 25 homers again is possible, but 35 seems unlikely now.

It would be a little strange to see the Diamondbacks sell off Haren given the big price in prospects that they traded (Carlos Gonzalez, Brett Anderson, Chris Carter, among others). On an aside, let that Haren trade be yet another example when you hear about a trade this summer. If the analyst dismisses the package that a team gets as "... just a couple of prospects ..." or "... for three minor leaguers ...", look elsewhere for your substantive analysis. But it's clear that the Diamondbacks aren't especially close to contending. Would a Haren trade be the best way for them to restock the system to make a legit run later on? Maybe so - but then again, this is the same administration that couldn't work out a way to get something for Doug Davis last year, so color me skeptical that they pull off a Haren trade.

You brought up a good point with Beckham that I think can be easily forgotten - that he was fast-tracked to the majors by the White Sox. Now I think that college draftees can succeed with brief minor league experience, but I tend to believe they need more developmental time in the high minors than some get. Some back-tracking this year could have been expected even without the position change. I'd rather own Johnson for the rest of 2010, but yeah, I want Beckham's career.

Prado - if he ran more, I'd be more sanguine about his keeper potential. As it stands, he has to be an extreme high-average hitter to continue to be this valuable. He'd probably make my top-15 at the position, but he would be in that 11-15 range. I don't see much of an upside beyond that.

Butler - I still think that the power will come, but one thing concerns me. He also has a huge home/road split, which caught me off-guard, as I thought that if anything Kauffman wouldn't do much to help out his power numbers. But patience has to be applied - he's still just 24. If you believe in peak ages at all, there's at least one more level left for him.

Cueto - He had some bad luck in that Cardinals start, giving up a few bloop hits. Yes, absolutely, he benefited from the cushier schedule. But there's a tendency to easily dismiss a pitcher because he's faced weaker competition - in fact, I have done it frequently. But good pitchers are supposed to beat up on the weaker competition, and in the case of Cueto, there's more of that on the horizon. I could see a lot of Ervin Santana in him - a guy that's very good at his best and pretty spotty when he's not at his best.

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