PAINTING THE BLACK: 4 NL players to watch
My short tenure through the National League taught me a few things: 1) I can still bunt and 2) I've never done so many pick-off moves to EVERY BASE in spring training EVER! I credit Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson with putting a ton of stock in shutting down the running game, but making the pitcher priority #1 in the chain of command to do so. There's no question the game is played differently from the American League to the National League. A big concentration centers on the running game as well as late-inning execution from pinch-hitters. What does all this mean for fantasy GMs? Extra-base hits, stolen bases, and on-base percentage become even more magnified when considering your NL position players. Strikeouts, WHIP, and high-velocity closers make up an impressive NL stable of arms too. Ultimately, four National League players stand out for me that will be difference-makers for their respective teams.
Justin Upton, LF, ATL
Upton began the 2013 season with a Ruthian-pace, hitting 12 homers in April. Unfortunately, the bottom fell out of his season shortly afterwards, causing fantasy GMs to shake their heads in disappointment. He finished with 27 HR's, tops for the Braves, but something seemed amiss with Upton's approach and swing through the middle months of the season. Watching him during my time with Arizona in 2012, the one thing that impressed me was his efficient hand path towards the ball: short, sweet, compact. He produced so much extra backspin on balls to the opposite field, a strong indication of why he clobbered a career-high 31 HR's in 2011. Fast forward to 2013 and I kept coming back to one common denominator: long swings produce plenty of air-conditioning. Regrettably, Upton's 161 K's in '13 were a career-high too.
So why do I peg him as a difference-maker for the 2014 campaign? Simple analysis will show that every good player goes through a bad season at some point. I'm betting Upton's came last year. From 2009-2012, he produced an average in the high .280's to go with double-digit HR totals and finished each season with at least 67 RBI's and 18 SB's. Those aren't eye-popping numbers, but he also didn't have any lineup protection in Arizona for those years. Freddie Freeman is firmly in place now, forming a valuable fantasy 1-2 punch with Upton. It stands to benefit the Atlanta left fielder more so because he's got nowhere to go but up. At 26-years old and coming into the prime of his career, long-term deal locked in to boot, Justin Upton will make Braves fans remember the MVP-contender form of 2011 that put him on the map.
Mark Trumbo, LF, AZ
The solar system atmosphere of Arizona certainly has appeal to power-hitters. It will be no different for Mark "Light Tower Power" Trumbo. If you've never seen him in batting practice, shades of Mark McGwire creep in your mind, watching every majestic swing and soaring flight of each ball he sends skyward over the fences. Put him in a lineup behind slugger Paul Goldschmidt and NASA should get in on a sponsorship deal of round-trippers in Dback land. However, I know what you critics are coming with - isn't he going to supply plenty of summer breezes too? Sadly, I can't disagree. The National League version of Adam Dunn is probably the best comparison to Mark Trumbo. Yes, he's going to probably hit 30+ HR's and drive in 100+ RBI's. And yes, he's going to strikeout close to 150+ times too.
Ok, here's the gist of my argument. Instead of a fantasy win-win situation, I'm going to call it a win-tie condition. You're not going to get Trumbo hitting for anywhere near .300 and challenging for a Triple Crown. But you're going to get a slight increase in the big fantasy categories that can put you over the top in many leagues. Since his first full season in 2011, Trumbo has an incredible back-of-the-baseball-card, averaging more than 25 doubles, 30 homers and 95 RBI. I see those numbers inching upward in the thin air of Chase Field and playing in a division where he'll get the chance to hit in 9 games at Coors Field too. That's enough for me, and don't be surprised to see him shock many others around the league.
Jeff Samardzija, SP CHC
I'd heard all the rumors about "the Beast" from fellow former teammate Shawn Camp. The Samardzija kid is just that - an absolute animal. At 6'5", 225 lbs, armed with a mid-to-high 90's fastball, power slider and nasty split-finger, he's got everything you'd envision in a front-line starter. Only problem - he played in front of one of the worst offenses to take the field the past couple seasons. A reliever early in his MLB career, the 2013 season saw him break the 200 IP barrier as a starter for the first time, compiling an 8-13 record, 214 K's, 78 BB's, WHIP of 1.35 and a 4.34 ERA. If you didn't watch a lot of Cubs games last year, let me tell you this - the guy deserved to win a heck of a lot more games than he did.
What's changed for 2014? Knowing Jeff and talking with him through camp this past season, his maturity exuded openly in our conversations. It seemed he really embraced being the ace of an inconsistent Cubs rotation and wanted to show it every fifth day. The competitive fire is strong with this one. Not going over the middle for passes from a quarterback anymore didn't change him a bit on the mound. He's got a menacing presence, and he's not afraid to let you know about it. I'm convinced Samardzija figured out what makes it all click, both mechanically and mentally. His execution from start-to-start in 2013 improved significantly and he's primed to put all the pieces together in 2014. If you're looking for a sleeper starting pitcher in this year's draft, "the Beast" is worth adding to your roster.
Matt Garza, SP MIL
When we were young lads just coming up in the MLB ranks in the mid-to-late 2000's, I met Matt Garza while we played in Minnesota, during BP at the Metrodome. He wasn't pitching against us during the series, but an immersive energy radiated from him. "Garz, you're a Wildman," I told him. "Hell yeah man! No other way to be!" he shot back. He's got personality for days, that's been a constant ever since I've known him. What he must do is rid himself of some injury hiccups seemingly derailing him year in and year out. When healthy, Garza can fully take over a game with a power fastball, power curveball and whiff-able change-up. He's giddy when he's on - sometimes too giddy, overthrowing and getting himself into trouble with walks. But Garza compensates with some of the best swing-and-miss stuff in the game.
Garza remains in the NL Central after signing with Milwaukee on a four-year deal. He enters a rotation with Kyle Lohse and Yovani Gallardo in tow. He also knows the division soundly and his stuff plays exceptionally well against most of the Central lineups. It's all about staying healthy for the right-hander. What's nice about Miller Park is the spaciousness in the outfield that surely plays into Garza's approach. He's going to have plenty of K's with a reasonable ERA in the higher 3.00's, but a very manageable WHIP and many chances to get W's with Ryan Braun back in the Brewers lineup. The NL Central will be competitive from Opening Day through the final week of 2014. I like Matt Garza to put a full, dominant season together and shake up the fantasy baseball world in a big way.