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Circling the Bases: Sleepers & Busts

Ray Flowers

Ray Flowers

The co-host of The Drive on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio (Sirius 210, XM 87: M-F at 5-8 PM EDT), Ray Flowers has spent years squirreled away studying the inner workings of the fantasy game to the detriment of his personal life. You can follow Ray on Twitter (@BaseballGuys), he never sleeps, and you can also find more of his musings at BaseballGuys.com.

Sometimes a player is given a chance to shine and they step bravely into that void, take the reins, and drive the bus to glory. Other times, passengers on that bus are patiently waiting for their chance to pilot the ship. Here are six names that took the wheel last year that may have a hard time navigating the road again this year, as well as six others who could be ready to ascend from first mate to captain in 2012 if they’re simply given the chance.

Doomed to Fail?

Alex Avila – Catchers are always risky – hello, Joe Mauer – because they get beat up more than Rocky Balboa in a title fight against Apollo Creed. Beyond that, here are a few other issues that Avila will need to overcome. Avila posted a BABIP of .366, the sixth-highest mark in baseball. Given that he has no foot speed at all he’ll find it impossible to repeat that number. Given that he also struck out 24 percent of the time he’s just not a threat to hit .300. The power is sustainable, though 82 RBI is a large number for a backstop (there isn’t a single catcher in baseball that had 82 RBI each of the past two years). Are you willing to pay top dollar for a catcher who could post a season in the range of what Wilson Ramos provided last season (.267 with 15 homers and 52 RBI)?

Asdrubal Cabrera – Every year some guy comes out of nowhere to lead a team to a fantasy championship. It was Cabrera in 2011 (.273-25-92-87-17). Still, there are reasons for concern. Some may not have noticed but Cabrera slumped in the second half to finish with a batting average eight points below his career mark. Cabrera, who had hit 18 homers in his first 1,415 big league at-bats, belted more than that in 604 at-bats last year as his flyball rate went up seven percent. He nearly doubled his career HR/FB rate (never previously posting a mark of seven percent but reached 13.3 percent in 2011). Are those rates sustainable? As a result of all the flyballs his GB/FB ratio plunged from 1.60 to 1.13 as Cabrera morphed from an solid middle-infield bat to Troy Tulowitzki in six months. You can’t think he’ll duplicate that effort in 2012, can you?

Melky Cabrera – Cabrera nearly went 20/20 last year (he was two homers short), had 201 hits, scored 102 times and knocked in 87 runs. The effort was nowhere near as impressive as it seemed as Cabrera had a whopping 706 plate appearances, which fueled his production. More to the point, Cabrera’s effort wasn’t that impressive when compared to his career norms. His strikeout and walk rates reached career worst marks. His strikeout rate was a career worst. His OBP (.339) was only eight points better than his norm. His GB/FB ratio was within one-tenth of his career mark and his BABIP (.339) was over .300 for the first time since 2006. Cabrera is like that mildly attractive girl at the bar at 1 AM on a Friday night. She’s nothing special, but she’s serviceable when you need to fill out your lineup.

Jeremy Hellickson – The American League Rookie of the Year will regress in 2012. It should be obvious to all as Hellickson simply didn’t deserve his ratios last season. He was saddled with a hideous 0.78 GB/FB ratio that will lead to a lot of homers, and runs, if it doesn’t improve. He was also very fortunate with an 82 percent strand rate, the second best in baseball. That mark could, given his real world performance, drop by 10 percent in 2012 causing his ERA to skyrocket. A noted strikeout artist in the minors, Hellickson had a meager 5.57 K/9IP last season, a batter an a half below the league average. He offset that number by keeping the walks down (1.98 BB/9IP), but we need strikeouts in the fantasy game and he simply didn’t provide them. He’ll be solid, but a regression is more likely than a repeat with those underlying ratios.

Ivan Nova – Nova pitches for the Yankees and he won his last 12 decisions. That’s all that many will see on draft day when they call out the lanky right-hander’s name. What you should notice is that he really didn’t pitch as well as you thought he did (especially given the variability of wins). It’s really pretty simple. Nova’s 3.70 ERA was barely better than the league average of 3.94 (his xFIP was 4.16). His WHIP of 1.331 was ever so slightly worse than the league average of 1.320. He had 98 strikeouts last season (closer Sergio Santos had 92). Nova also carried a 3.10 BB/9IP, just 0.01 better than the league average. Actually, if you compare his strikeout rate, walk rate, WHIP and GB/FB to Paul Maholm there was no difference. Tread carefully with Nova.

Ryan Vogelsong – The last time that Vogelsong got a major league victory Kelly Clarkson was 30 pounds lighter and belting out “Since U Been Gone” (2005). Vogelsong returned from the abyss last season to post a fantastic effort highlighted by a 2.71 ERA. Unfortunately, his campaign really didn’t support that ERA as his pitching line was filled with tons of “normal”- 6.96 K/9IP, 3.06 BB/9IP, .280 BABIP, 20 percent line drive rate. So how did he post such a low ERA? His strand rate was ginormous at 80.4 percent (fourth-best in baseball), and he added more than five percent to his career groundball rate. The odds of him repeating those last two numbers are about as high as Vogelsong writing a No. 1 pop hit in 2012.

Waiting For An Opportunity

Tyler Clippard – Everyone knows who Clippard is, but do people realize how amazing he has been the past three seasons? Clippard has thrown 239.2 innings during that span and he’s won 18 games, struck out 283 batters and posted a 2.52 ERA with a 1.051 WHIP. James Shields had a fantastic season in 2011, right? Compare his numbers to those of Clippard and you won’t notice any difference: 16 wins, 2.82 ERA, 225 strikeouts, 1.043 WHIP in 249.1 innings. Clippard is as good as it gets, and with his 10.63 K/9IP rate the past three years, not to mention a major league leading 38 holds in 2011, Clippard should have his name called out in nearly all 12-team leagues in 2012 even without saves being a major part of his game.

Matt Downs – Once labeled a weakhitting infielder (he hit .200 with two homers in his 150 career at-bats), Downs exploded in 2011 to hit .276 with 10 homers and 41 RBI. Those are moderate numbers until you realize that he had only 199 at-bats meaning that a 500 at-bat season would have resulted in 25 homers and 103 RBI, totals that only one second baseman in the game reached (Robinson Cano). Unfortunately, Downs isn’t likely to keep up that pace, though he did have a higher runs created per game mark last season than Cano, Albert Pujols, Victor Martinez and Andrew McCutchen to name a few. Downs isn’t likely to start the season as a regular, but for those in NL-only and deep mixed leagues, Downs could be a valuable member of your club if he can hold onto 80 percent of the per at-bat level of production that he flashed last season.

Lucas Duda – Duda ended the 2011 campaign on the shelf with concussion related symptoms ending an epic second half to the season (.322-13-38 with a .957 OPS in 64 games). Duda has plenty of pop in his bat, there’s certainly solid 20-plus home-run power here, and he made some major strides last year in pitch recognition allowing him to drop his strikeout rate down to 16 percent. Duda didn’t exactly hammer lefties (.715 OPS and zero homers), and that might lead to some time on the bench when the Mets face those portsiders, but with a young team in need of a middle-of-the-order presence, Duda profiles as a player who could post a season akin to what Gaby Sanchez provides for the Marlins.

Chris Heisey – Jessica Simpson can sing the hell out of it. Oddly though, her younger, less attractive, nowhere near as accomplished sister sells more records. It’s kind of like the same situation that Chris Heisey is dealing with. I have no idea if he can sing, but the guy can hit. In 480 career at-bats he has hit .254 with 26 homers, 71 RBI and 77 runs scored. Compare those numbers to the efforts of Nick Swisher (.260-23-85-81), Corey Hart (.285-26-63- 80) and Michael Cuddyer (.284-20-70-70) in 2011 – is there a substantial difference? You might like the rocker status of those three, but the numbers don’t lie – Jessica, I mean Heisey, has been just as effective when given the chance to play.

Mike Minor – Last season, Minor was supposed to be the breakout star of the Braves on the hill but that title went to Brandon Beachy. In 2012, the spotlight will be focused directly on Julio Teheran who is one of the elite young arms in the game looking to breakthrough to big league prominence. Where does that leave Minor? In mixed leagues Minor is going to be extremely cheap on draft day presenting a strong buy-low opportunity. In 2011 Minor had a higher K/9IP than Josh Beckett (8.38 to 8.16), a better K/BB than Tim Lincecum (2.57 to 2.56) and the same xFIP as Jon Lester (3.62). If he’s given 25 starts in 2012, Minor is likely to provide an impressive return on investment.

Eric O'FlahertyCraig Kimbrel set an all-time rookie record with 46 saves and Jonny Venters was arguably the best left-handed setup man in the NL (5.29 GB/FB, 9.82 K/9IP). Sometimes though, supporting actors steal the show like Christian Bale in The Fighter. Though few recognized it, O’Flaherty was every bit as effective a hurler in 2011 as his two Braves teammates. O’Flaherty had the best ERA of the trio (his 0.98 mark was the best of any pitcher in baseball since 2003, minimum 70 innings), he posted a 1.086 WHIP, allowed batters to hit a mere .221 off him and struck out 67 batters in 73.2 innings. Obviously his fantasy value is muted except in single leagues since he has no chance at racking up saves, but those in non-traditional leagues will want to pay attention – O’Flaherty had only three fewer holds (32) than Venters.