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Charging the Mound: Next Year's Breakout Players

Chris Liss

Chris Liss is RotoWire's Managing Editor and Host of RotoWIre Fantasy Sports Today on Sirius XM radio.

Jeff Erickson

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

-----Original Message-----
From: "Christopher Liss"
Sent: Tuesday, August 17, 2010 4:02am
To: "Jeff Erickson"
Subject: Charging the Mound

Last week we discussed next year's cheat sheet, but now let's move on to next year's breakout players. Who's 2011's Ricky Romero, Trevor Cahill, Rickie Weeks and Delmon Young? What about veteran breakout candidates like Adrian Beltre, Angel Pagan, Troy Glaus, Scott Rolen, Chris Young (AZ), Alex Rios, Jose Bautista and Alex Gonzalez? Which 2010 bums are going to bounce back and deliver value like Josh Hamilton, Geovany Soto and Francisco Liriano?

Let me start by throwing out a few names:

- Brian Matusz - 51 walks, 15 homers allowed in just 129.2 IP and a 5.28 ERA and 1.504 WHIP should bring his price down, and as long as he stays healthy, it should just be a matter of time, given his pedigree and raw stuff.

- Rick Porcello - the K rate is the issue, but if he doesn't have a monster stretch run, he could be a nice post-hype sleeper. And K-rates don't stay the same year to year - for an indication, take a look at Justin Verlander's jump from 2008 to 2009.

- Jay Bruce - I have no idea what's wrong with him, but I take a power hitter of his pedigree in that park on faith. He's still just 23 years old.

- Alex Gordon - he might ruin his value if he hits over the next six weeks, but so long as he keeps the average below .250 and hits more doubles than homers, he could still fly under the radar.

- Gordon Beckham - he's already started to turn it around, but his start was so abysmal, the year-end numbers won't look good.

- Felix Pie - starting to run a bit and hitting for average. Never going to have great plate discipline, but he was serviceable last year and should only get better as he nears his prime.

- Pablo Sandoval - he owns those skills he showed at age 22.

- Dexter Fowler - good plate discipline, could be a monster if he improves his steal percentage a bit.

- Michael Brantley - if he finishes strong, the Indians won't jerk him around next year.

- Matt Wieters - he still won't go at a major discount, but who cares. He's getting to that sweet spot of 700-1000 at-bats where players typically "get it." I expected more sooner from a prospect of his stature, but I'm going back to the well again.

- Desmond Jennings - he's had a bit of an off year, but he'll likely start from Day 1 next year and steal 40 bags.

- Travis Snider - he's shown signs this year, but has been nicked up. Next season he puts it all together.

- Ian Stewart - he's made strides this year, but hasn't been the breakout star many expected (and paid for). I think he could be a bit overlooked as he progresses toward his prime.

- A.J. Burnett - I don't know what his problem is this year, but I'd gamble on him next year at his likely price.

- Homer Bailey - trust Albert Pujols on this one.

- Jorge de la Rosa - trust Jake Fox and Jerry Hairston, Jr. who independently named him as the pitcher they faced with the nastiest stuff.

I could probably name 10-15 more, but let's start here. Anyone you disagree with? Is the list too obvious with so many former top-prospects who struggled initially? Or is that basically just a good way to draft - taking players whose skills made them top prospects but who will be undervalued due to their recent performance?

I'm not going to mention Jeremy Hellickson (three dominant starts) or Brandon Morrow (17 Ks in his last outing) because everyone will be on them. Same goes for hitters like Mike Stanton and Jason Heyward.

-----Original Message-----
Sent: Wednesday, August 18, 2010 2:31am
To: "Christopher Liss"
Subject: RE: Charging the Mound

I think that this is a really good concept, and a pretty good list. If you nail enough of these sort of guys at the draft, it'll give you a nice buffer against the inevitable injuries that you'll suffer among you blue-chip draft picks. When seeking these guys out, more often than not we're looking among those that are either underperforming young players with a high pedigree, or otherwise established players that have deviated from their norm. In the latter case, the vast majority of the time they have been injured or playing hurt.

You have a lot of good underperforming blue-chippers here. I'm still a Wieters-believer, and unless he goes nuts over the last six weeks, he's finally going to come at a reasonable price. Likewise, Snider's injury and slow start and spotty playing time even now (seriously, Cito, what's up with that? How come Snider isn't playing every day?) should make him a fairly cheap acquisition target.

Sandoval deserves special mention. He's been going through a divorce this year, and he appears to have added weight this season. If there's a player here that's slumped but has a perfectly explainable reason for that slump, it's him. Now I can't guarantee that he's going to suddenly become a workout warrior this offseason, but knowing what a few people close to me have gone through or are going through in the case of divorces, it's an incredible burden to shoulder. I don't know the particulars of his failed marriage, but it's sensible to think that once the divorced is really finalized, he'll have a bounce.

If I had a critique, it might be that you didn't scrape low enough on the bottom of the barrel - some of these players have already demonstrated an upward arc this year. We've often talked in this space about "buying lowest," and certainly with someone like Michael Brantley we're still doing that, but with others, as you've mentioned, they're already showing signs of their potential. You axed the likes of Hellickson and Stanton, so you're already cognizant of the concept. I know that this isn't strictly a buy-low list, but at the same time, I think we want to avoid having too many already-ascendant players on this list, guys that were like Brett Anderson heading into this year's drafts.

Do you think that we as analysts and as fantasy owners tend to overvalue strong second halves, particularly when they come from young players that might have struggled over the first half of the season? The mindset here is that we believe in the player, they start to produce after struggling early, and we look at the "good" numbers and think that this is his new level, and there might be an improvement atop that. When instead the reality is that a player develops in fits and starts. Pitchers start to adjust to hitters that rake first-pitch fastballs and throw more junk at them. Hitters learn to lay off a pitcher's out-pitch early in the count. And so on. Some of these players will adjust quicker than others, but they will have to adjust, and while they are adjusting, they might struggle. Some might never fully adjust - a hitter like Jeff Clement or Corey Patterson comes to mind. But others just take longer to adapt, often in another organization, like Brandon Phillips.

Anyhow, here's a few more names to add to the pile:

Cameron Maybin - Both of use have been burned by this one, and he's seemingly a forgotten man with both Michael Stanton and Logan Morrison up with the Marlins now and Gaby Sanchez holding his own all year. But make no mistake, Maybin is still a very important part of the Marlins' future and he's still just 23. I still think he's capable of being a 20-20 player.

Chris Davis - Is Davis a Quad-A player like Jeff Clement (and for that matter, is it really clear that Clement won't eventually get it? Can we tell merely by his stats, or is the scouting case so definitive on him as to shut out the possibility that he'll emerge?), or do we need to exercise an extra measure of patience with Davis? For all of his major league struggles this year, Davis had just 101 major league at-bats. He's now at 787 for his career - could this be the time that the light clicks on for him?

Scott Sizemore - It's hard enough to break in as a rookie in the majors, but it's got to be a lot tougher when you're doing it at some level less than 100% as Sizemore did, coming back from his broken ankle suffered in the Arizona Fall League.

Brandon Wood - Just kidding, I think Wood is toast. He's somehow found a way to go backwards this year (4:52 BB:K), which I didn't think was possible. The Angels are paranoid that he might go and pull a Brandon Phillips on them, but he's a waste of a roster spot right now, only up because he's out of options. I don't think a change-of-scenery will matter with Wood. Do you feel differently?

J.J. Hardy - So much has been said about Target Field's ability to depress power, but I'm not going to elevate that ballpark up to the likes of Petco just yet, not after one season. Hardy has had his second bad season in a row, but this time his wrist injury explains most of his fall-off. This is a player who hit 26 and 24 homers in back-to-back seasons - why can't he hit 15-20 next year?

Chris Iannetta - Only because the year I give up on him will be the year that someone else cashes in on his breakout season.

Chris Tillman - For the Signature Significance fans out there.

Felipe Paulino - We still have to watch out for the rotator cuff inflammation that has Paulino sidelined right now, but he was really starting to click before he got hurt. The overall numbers don't look that great, but he's got the ability to miss bats and the Astros won't always fail to score for him.

-----Original Message-----
From: "Christopher Liss"
Sent: Thursday, August 19, 2010 1:23am
Subject: Re: Charging the Mound

It's true - I picked a lot of guys that will probably have a buzz heading into next spring, and while they'll come cheap in some circles, a lot of people will be on to them. As for your list, it's much uglier, and many of those guys will come dirt cheap, though it takes a little more work to get behind them. I thought about adding Sizemore, who didn't get a huge shot to play and hit at Triple-A. But Maybin and Davis had a little more time and haven't been able to stick. I guess they're like Felix Pie a couple years ago, though - and he's on my list now. Hardy's not a bad Alex Gonzalez 2010 pick, though he'll be more expensive than Gonzalez was in an AL-only. Paulino is a hard one to read. He had good peripherals, but terrible cosmetic stats last year, and this year his luck was a little better in terms of BABIP, but still bad, and he stopped giving up home runs, despite a slightly worse GB:FB rate. He also weighs 272 pounds on a 6-2 frame.

Catchers are strange - you'll get the odd power spike from them in their 30s, but they can also go several years without ever repeating a strong season. Iannetta's certainly an above-average hitting catcher with big-time power, but a batting average liability who won't run. He's essentially Chris Snyder in Coors Field. Maybe a poor man's Mike Napoli.

A couple other guys I left out are Michael Taylor - off year in the minors, but he'll be up next year for sure, Aroldis Chapman (though he might not come cheap unless he gets shelled down the stretch (which he might)), Justin Masterson - seems like the kind of guy who could turn the corner if he learns to pitch to lefties - Everth Cabrera (his season was derailed by injuries to a large extent, and now the Padres don't have any patience with him), Max Ramirez (wonder if he'll get out of Texas) and maybe Alcides Escobar.

-----Original Message-----
Sent: Thursday, August 19, 2010 9:55am
To: "Christopher Liss"
Subject: Re: Charging the Mound

It's funny how the fortunes have changed with the Texas catchers. Jarrod Saltalamacchia was nearly given away by the Rangers, though at least they got back in volume if not pedigree in terms of the prospects. Max Ramirez sort of stagnated last year and this, and they don't seem eager to give him much time behind the plate. Taylor Teagarden flopped when given a (brief) chance earlier this year, though he's running well right now. Like you said, catchers are strange - there's still a reason to believe in all three of these guys. Salty might be the full-time catcher for the Red Sox next year, pending what happens with Victor Martinez. Likewise, Bengie Molina is no long-term solution for the Rangers, so while it's possible that the Rangers will look outside the organization, maybe Teagarden or Ramirez can emerge next year. None of them rate as more than an endgame pick, especially in a mixed league, and only one that starts two catchers at that. But they'll be on my "follow" list in thinner leagues.

I like the Masterson mention. Mixed in among that awful ERA and WHIP are a few dominant starts. If I'm going to take a risk on a guy late, it's going to be on one that has demonstrated a high ceiling but has an identifiable flaw. The only question I think is whether Cleveland is the organization that can fix him. But coaching staffs can change, or in some cases work better with a pitcher over the offseason rather than in the heat of the regular season - though let's be fair, the Indians have no playoff race pressures nor really have had any at any point in the season.

Stalled prospects like Taylor always rate as a good possibility when sifting through the bargain bin. Mat Gamel might be another player cut in that mold. He missed the first couple of months of the season due to a shoulder injury and now has been moved off third base. The latter issue was inevitable - all along his defense at third was described as worse than Ryan Braun's when Braun was at third base. Still, Gamel can rake. He's got a .901 OPS at Triple-A Nashville this year in 270 at-bats. With the Brewers locking up instead of trading Corey Hart, maybe they'll end up trading Gamel this offseason for some of their badly needed pitching help.