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The Wheelhouse: Dust Off Your Trading Cards

Derek VanRiper

Derek is the Director of Media for, 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's shows on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio (XM 87, Sirius 210).

When I was 10 years old, I wanted to be a game show host.

Maybe it's because Pat Sajak always had the answers and he got to hang out with Vanna White every day. Even the losers on game shows walk away happy with their parting gifts.

Long before I knew what fantasy sports were all about, my childhood was a euphoric blend of Press Your Luck re-runs and baseball – Little League, sandlots, Tigers, Braves, Cubs, TV and radio.

Peter Tomarken was as much of a hero to me as David Justice or Ryne Sandberg.

My path into sports probably started well before I was consciously aware of it. As a kid, I was scraping together loose change for packs of baseball cards and Becketts. Back then, my exposure to hyped up prospects was as simple as chasing down their rookie cards. My 10-year-old self did not understand the importance of Alex Rodriguez's pedigree as the Mariners' first overall draft pick in 1993. However, that I could own a share of him worth at least $2.50 (in mint condition, of course) was more than enough of an incentive to have interest.

For every Rodriguez card I tracked down, there were plenty of duds over the years that in my eyes inexplicably lost value.

Many have probably been covered in the “What Ever Happened To...” section of Sports Illustrated over the last 20 years. Brien Taylor, anyone? The remnants of my collection are likely buried in a closet at my parents’ house, and are still comprised of Ben Grieve and Brooks Kieschnick rookie cards that were once expected to lead me to a stable financial future.

Back then, I only knew that the value of those Taylor or Grieve cards were tanking. I had no idea why, but that question has been a huge part of my professional endeavors.

In baseball, many of the “Why” questions require a formal scouting background. For those of us who have not received an opportunity to go that route, it is a careful analytical study of the factors deemed important by fellow statheads over time.

Somewhere, there is probably a 10 or 12-year-old kid wondering why his Pedro Alvarez cards have plummeted in value over the last four years. Fortunately, there is some reason to be slightly optimistic, as Alvarez has shown steady improvement at the plate throughout this season.

April – 4.8 BB%, 37.1 K%, .203/.242/.525
May – 9.5 BB%, 31.4 K%, .207/.276/.359
June – 11.5 BB%, 27.1 K%, .262/.354/.571
July – 25.0 BB%, 16.1 K%, .444/.583/.444

He has also shown us that there are many different paths to .234/.309/.475 with 15 homers. Are you buying the aggregate result to this point, or something in line with the improvement he's shown in June and the early days of July?

Since May 1, Alvarez is hitting .243/.329/.459 with 10 homers and 39 RBI (55 games). Over a 162-game pace, those numbers translate to 30 homers and 115 RBI. Lefties are still a problem for him (13-for-64, .203/.282/.375), but manager Clint Hurdle is giving him an opportunity to improve as Alvarez hasn't been on the bench against a lefty starter since June 10. Going forward, the post-May 1 line is a reasonable expectation.

This week, Jeff posted a series of players in Charging the Mound with a common theme. Here are my thoughts on what is wrong with...

Ricky Romero, SP, TOR – The numbers are terrible across the board. Romero's 6.38 K/9IP is a career low, his walk rate has jumped to a career-high 4.74 BB/9IP and he's been more susceptible than ever to the long ball (1.21 HR/9IP). A lower than usual LOB% (66.5) is partially to blame, but the FIP (5.15) and xFIP (4.53) suggest that his 5.35 ERA isn't simply the result of bad luck. The contact that hitters are making against Romero is much harder than last season (19.6% line drive rate) and his HR/FB is a career-high 17.5%. Batted ball data alone is never a reason to completely write off a pitcher, but when pitch f/x shows that velocity is also down, the likely explanation is an undisclosed injury.

Ian Kennedy, SP, ARI – In a word, nothing. His home-run rate has settled in just between his 2010 and 2011 numbers, the strikeout rate is right in line with his career norms and the walk rate has actually improved. Our resident scout Bernie Pleskoff mentioned during the XM show this week that Kennedy is not a power pitcher and that a great deal of his success comes from the chess game played against opposing hitters, locating and sequencing his pitches appropriately. View him as a viable top-25 starting pitchers going forward.

Cliff Lee, SP, PHI – Now that he's proven he's a winner again, it's safe to assume that Lee is the same pitcher he's been for the last three-plus seasons. Hopefully the calls, tweets, e-mails and hammergrams asking if Lee should be traded for 70 cents on the dollar “because he can't win anymore” are over. Was anyone banking on the 2.40 ERA he carried last season? Lee had an 81.4 % LOB mark a year ago (his career rate is 72.9, and it's back down to 71.6 percent this season), which was a huge factor in the elite 2.40 output, but the metrics that matter – K/9IP, BB/9IP, GB%, HR/FB – are nearly identical to 2011 thus far.

Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, BOS – Earlier this season, Gonzalez revealed that his shoulder was bothering him throughout Year 1 in Boston. The results were only a slight step back from his final season in San Diego, as he still managed a .338/.410/.548 line with 27 homers and 117 RBI over 159 games. By his own admission, the shoulder feels better than it has in years, but the results through 82 games have been dismal (.275/.323/.404, six homers, 44 RBI). Strangely, the batted ball profile doesn't show much to coincide with Gonzalez's power outage, as he's traded some of his groundballs for a few extra line drives and an increased flyball rate. The outlier here is a 6.4% HR/FB, a full 10% lower than the mark he's delivered in each of the last two seasons. Further, Gonzalez's walk rate has dipped to 6.5% (last year: 10.3%), while the isolated slugging has tumbled from .210 to .130. Buying in depends entirely on how much the price has come down, but the ceiling might be .300 with 10 homers and 50 RBI in the second half.

Justin Smoak, 1B, SEA – To the kid with a pile of Smoak rookie cards, I regret to inform you that this article will not include good news for you. The former No. 11 overall pick and centerpiece of the package Seattle received from Texas in the Cliff Lee deal is probably a bust at this point. This is coming from someone who purchased a first-class seat on the Smoak bandwagon during the winter. Perhaps if he gets out of Seattle (which shouldn't hurt him as much batting left-handed against righties), Smoak will be worth a look again as he's hitting .239/.304/.413 with eight of his 11 homers outside of Safeco this season. Part of the willingness to write him off comes from the fact that Smoak never really showed the ability to hit for power with wood bats outside of a seven-week stretch last season.

Brian McCann, C, ATL – Just 28, McCann's “regression” through 65 games comes as something of a surprise considering the elite skills he's displayed while piling up 20-plus homers in five of the last six seasons. The plate discipline has slipped from last season, but even with an 8.9 BB% and 13.4 K%, the numbers are very close to his career averages (9.6, 14.5) since entering the league in 2005. Very strangely, McCann's swinging-strike percentage is at a career-low (5.3%), and he's making contact at a higher clip than ever, swinging at fewer pitches both inside and outside of the strike zone. It really doesn't appear to be a case where something is wrong with the Braves' backstop heading into the All-Star break.

Dustin Ackley, 2B, SEA – Ackley is hitting more groundballs this season, losing a few line drives and a decent number of flyballs in the process. Not surprisingly, his slugging percentage has fallen from .417 to .334 through 79 games. With just 715 plate appearances under his belt, Ackley shouldn't be considered a finished product at the big league level, but evaluating his second-half expectations is tricky because there were varying opinions on the type of hitter he would become from the start. Our projection at the start of the season isn't completely out of reach (.279/.366/.435) in the second half given that his contact skills haven't depreciated, but expecting anything more than doubling up in the home-run department is probably wishful thinking.

Lightning Round

Going the opposite way, how should players that have exceeded their preseason expectations be valued as we move into the All-Star break?

Mark Trumbo, OF, LAA – After walking nearly 10.0% of the time in April, that number has hovered around 6.0% ever since. The raw power is legitimate and 35-40 homers over a full season are within reach, but the .306 average and .355 OBP are likely coming down.

Edwin Encarnacion, 1B, TOR – All of the pieces have finally come together. Kudos to Dwayne Murphy, who should win an award for his work as the Jays' hitting coach just as Steve McCatty should take home something for his work with the starting pitching in Washington.

David Ortiz, DH, BOS – Underrated. May be an indication that the industry over adjusted his value for clogging the utility spot.

Jason Kipnis, 2B, CLE – The strikeout and walk rates have improved from the numbers Kipnis is posted during his rookie season. Although the .415 SLG is a step back, 25 home-run power seems like a better long-term bet from him than the 40-steal pace he's currently on.

Chris Capuano, SP, LAD – If he's treated as a top 40-50 range starter, there's no problem here. With Tommy John surgeries in his file, health concerns will never dissipate.

Chris Sale, SP, CHW – Long term, he's more than moved the needle with his performance as a starter. A top-20 starter next year if he's healthy, but workload concerns in the second half lead me to value him below that level for the rest of 2012.

Lance Lynn, SP, STL – Doesn't have the elite skills/upside of Sale, but similar concern about late-season effectiveness. For the rest of the season, would treat him like a 35-40 starter.

Matt Harrison, SP, TEX – Ability to induce grounders and limit walks is legitimate, but career big league strikeout rate (5.46 K/9IP) will always put a damper on his rotisserie value.

Unofficially, I finished sixth among the applicants when Drew Carey was chosen to replace Bob Barker as the host of The Price is Right in the summer of 2007.

At that time, I was fortunate enough to have recently turned an 18-month internship at RotoWire into a full-time job writing and talking about fantasy sports.

It has been a blast trying to answer the Why questions ever since.

Follow me on Twitter @DerekVanRiper.