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Charging the Mound: Liss and Erickson Talk Baseball

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: Monday, February 14, 2011 11:30 pm
To: "Jeff Erickson"
Subject: Charging the Mound, Bat in Hand

Pitchers and catchers reported today which means nothing to me because I'm already in baseball mode, but maybe something to readers emerging from their offseason hibernation, sniffing around for some baseball content.

Personally, I'm still not up on all the particulars as I haven't gone through the painstaking process of building my cheat sheets yet, but I have a few observations about what's transpired since the last time we made the 60-foot, six-inch sprint to vengeance. In no particular order:

As Seth McClung mentioned on our Sirius XM Show, the departure of Ken Macha likely means the Brewers will run. Rickie Weeks might steal 30, Ryan Braun 20-25, Corey Hart 15-20 and Carlos Gomez could go nuts if he ever gets on base (and keeps the job).

Rafael Soriano or some other setup guy (like David Robertson) could flirt with double-digit wins if he stays healthy because the Yanks have big holes in the rotation and an offense that can still score a lot of runs. It's possible the Yankees have some master plan to acquire more pitching, but it almost seems like they're in denial.

Geovany Soto, who incidentally led all catchers in OPS (.890) last year (including Joe Mauer, Victor Martinez and Buster Posey), should see far more than the meager 322 at-bats in 105 games afforded to him by the departed Lou Piniella. Soto logged 494 his rookie year, and if he gets there again, he should be looking at 25-30 HRs.

I'm going to own Alex Gordon, Matt Wieters, Rick Porcello, Gordon Beckham and Homer Bailey wherever I can. Disappointing blue-chip prospects are usually good values.

I'm also going to own as many "last year's bums" as I can like Javier Vazquez, Aramis Ramirez, Josh Beckett, Derrek Lee, Manny Ramirez, Jimmy Rollins, Alex Rodriguez and even A.J. Burnett. Usually, they're underpriced, too.

I'll usually pay the sucker price for super prospects like Justin Upton and Jason Heyward, but Upton's dealt with a shoulder problem, and Heyward seemed to miss games every month with one nagging injury or another. Barring a setback for them, I'll probably still be in on the bidding, though.

Target Field sapped the pop from Joe Mauer (1 HR at home/8 on the road), Justin Morneau (4/14) and Jason Kubel (8/13) last year and was the worst park (65 park index for homers) in the majors for power. (Safeco was second at 68, league average is 100). It's only a one-year sample, but it's hard not to dock the entire lineup about 10-15 percent of its park-neutral home run totals. Of course, it was a modest 96 for runs scored, so there's no reason to go crazy targeting their pitchers, either.

Adam Dunn gets a huge boost going from Washington (94 Park Factor for lefties from 2008-2010) to Chicago (117). But keep in mind the Sox home park plays much better for righties (145), and Dunn's old park in Cincinnati (111 for lefties) isn't much different than US Cellular. In other words, book him for 40, but it would be surprising if he greatly exceeded his totals with the Reds.

Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum get massive bumps from the move to Milwaukee. Both move to the NL where ERA on average is about half a run less, and you get to face the pitcher 2-3 times per game, which means more easy strikeouts, Greinke gets newfound run support and Marcum gets out of the AL East. Moreover, Miller Park had a runs scored index of 94 the last three years while Kaufmann Stadium was 101 and the Rogers Centre was 98.

Adrian Gonzalez obviously benefits a lot from the move to Fenway from Petco due to the park and also the lineup around him, but Fenway (88 the last three years) is also tough for home runs from the left side (though Petco is an ungodly 59), and Gonzalez could start slowly due to his recovery from shoulder surgery. Carl Crawford, another lefty, could see his power drop slightly as Tampa (92) was a little better than Boston.

But as I said, I'm just starting my deep research and should form views on a lot more players over the next few weeks. I imagine since you created the projections and edited the outlooks for the entire player pool on RotoWire, you're further along in your process than I am. Anything jump out at you so far?

-----Original Message-----
From: Jeff Erickson
Subject: Re: Charging the Mound, Bat in Hand
Date: February 16, 2011 12:22 PM PST
To: Christopher Liss

I love the "last year's bum" theme, because as much as we like to embrace the concept of finding undervalued players and avoiding paying sticker price for guys coming off their best seasons, it's hard to do in practice unless you identify those buy-low targets. It's easier to do that with veterans that already have a performance level in the big leagues than it is with rookies that had a bad season or second-year players that regressed from their rookie levels. You listed a handful of post-hype sleepers here and more in your blog on Tuesday, but the vast majority of players there are veterans that previously had established levels of performance. That seems appropriate to me, too - in many cases, guys that invest in young players are more likely to take another shot the following year even if the player let them down. Further, it's safer to go after the veterans than the young guys as the former usually have a stronger hold on their playing time.

That said, here are a few more on the struggling young guy theme that I'll be going after:

C: Chris Iannetta (again); Alex Avila
1B: Justin Smoak; Brett Wallace
2B: Sean Rodriguez
3B: Ian Stewart; Mat Gamel
SS: Alcides Escobar (you mentioned the ex-Ken Macha effect with current Brewers, don't forget about Escobar getting his chance in KC); Asdrubal Cabrera; Yunel Escobar
OF: Travis Snider; Cameron Maybin (though when he puts it all together, it'll be masked by Petco); Julio Borbon; Peter Bourjos.

A few more notes about "last Year's bums" before I move on. Second base is loaded with potential candidates this year - you mentioned four of them in the blog in Beckham, Chone Figgins, Aaron Hill and Ben Zobrist. You could have also added Howie Kendrick to that list, along with all of the injured second basemen last year - Chase Utley, Dustin Pedroia, Ian Kinsler and Brian Roberts. A lot of people that didn't draft Robinson Cano last year lost money on the position, but it's really deep again this year - in fact deeper than third base, at least at the upper tiers. Sean Rodriguez may or may not fit into this class - in some leagues, he may be considered trendy. Finally, the list of younger outfielders that fit the "post-hype sleeper" classification goes even deeper than what we listed - it's the best position to bottom-fish, I think.

Do you try to cherry-pick a couple of names from your Bums list, or instead do you have these guys in mind and pounce whenever one seems undervalued? This goes back to your "genius" vs. "agnostic" construct that we've covered before. I think that the agnostic approach is probably best - we can try to pinpoint why a guy struggled last year, but how good are we in turning that explanation into a predictive tool? Sure, you can cite one guy on that list (say, for example, Josh Beckett) and say you won't end up owning him, but that's frequently how you let someone else get that benefit of the bargain. How many times do you hear in an auction or draft "... that guy killed me last year - you can have him... " - only to see said guy turn it back around the following year?

In auctions, I think it behooves you to nominate these guys, early on if you can. That's when the bidding for stars is at it's strongest, and more often than not other owners might be willing to overlook your guy because there are "better" alternatives out there. If you wait until there's a dilution of the talent in that position or in that category, he's less likely to go for a cut-rate price.

Turning to other topics, I'm glad you mentioned Greinke and Marcum, and the effect that takes place with pitchers moving to the NL. There's still a pretty pronounced effect, and there always will be as long as the leagues are structured the way they are. But I think the qualitative gap between the two leagues is starting to narrow some. Over the last 2-to-3 years, we've had a number of elite players come over to the NL via trades or free agency, more so than the other way around. Look at the crossovers this offseason - the NL added Cliff Lee, Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum and Matt Garza, among others. Granted, the AL added better hitters (Adrian Gonzalez and Adam Dunn come to mind), but I think the overall flow of talent has been stronger toward the NL.

I also want to talk about a player pool observation quickly before I send it back to you. I intend to address closers earlier in draft formats than I did last year, at least in terms of securing one of the elites. There's so much uncertainty in this pool I don't want to overpay for the middle-tier talent. You and I have frequently discussed how fragile relief pitcher value can be to begin with, but among the closing pool there are really 5-to-6 guys I'm really confident in. I want one of those guys and if I get him, I'll go after 2-to-3 bottom-tier guys later in the draft.

Thanks for getting this started - I'm looking forward to another season of writing with you.

-----Original Message-----
From: "Christopher Liss"
Sent: Wednesday, February 16, 2011 3:21pm
Subject: Re: Charging the Mound, Bat in Hand

I do think "last year's bums" fits the agnostic draft style - guys who you want simply because the market overcorrected for their poor seasons, but I'll always have my particular "genius" picks among them - players who I'll target even if they come at only a mild discount. I think I'll own a fair amount of Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter even if they're only 10-15 percent off their usual prices. Just playing in that park and that lineup every day is a major advantage, and Jeter plays 150-plus games every year at a scarce position. But for the most part, I'm like everyone else - I want no part of these deadbeats. I just know to override that sentiment as a matter of faith in regression (positively) to the mean and the tendency of the market to overcorrect.

I can see bringing Burnett or Beckett up early and hoping to get them for cheap, but I still like to wait until late in the auction when people are low on money, and I've saved a bunch for the end game. And because many of these guys will be available, and I'm not locked into any one in particular, I can usually wait until I get my price.

As for closers, I thought it was sketchy at first glance, but not so much anymore. I believe in Mariano Rivera, Joe Nathan (already throwing harder than usual at this point), K-Rod (not likely going to jail), Brian Wilson, Brad Lidge, Andrew Bailey (seems healthy), Jonathan Papelbon, Joakim Soria and a couple others. Not as high on Carlos Marmol as most are, but he's still reasonably safe despite his wildness. My usual method is to pay retail for Rivera and lock that down, then get one mid-level guy (would love it to be Nathan this year, but I expect his stock to go up by the time most of my drafts take place) and one gamble - maybe a Joel Hanrahan or Frank Francisco. Of course, all closers are sketchy because few other players can have 4-5 bad innings and lose 90 percent of their value, but this year's crop isn't any worse than usual.

-----Original Message-----
From: Jeff Erickson
Subject: Re: Charging the Mound, Bat in Hand
Date: February 16, 2011 5:38:50 PM PST
To: Christopher Liss

I have less faith than you in Andrew Bailey (injury, plus a ton of ready replacements in the A's bullpen, plus the A's history of trading closers when it's expedient for them), Lidge (though I agree with your point on-air that it's not a job security issue for him - Charlie Manuel is indeed loyal to him) or Papelbon. Perhaps Papelbon fits under that "last year's bum" rubric for that reason. Time to reassess on that.

Incidentally, I agree with you on Geovany Soto - I've upgraded his projection to give him more playing time, and the resulting rise in counting stats puts him right up with the likes of Carlos Santana and Brian McCann. My top 5 in catchers is now a top 6. I think there's a reasonably decent-sized drop after that at the position, with the next tier started by Matt Wieters and Miguel Montero.