Articles by Rob Leibowitz

A listing of all the articles written by Rob Leibowitz for the RotoWire Blog.

MLB Player Breakdown

As we all well know by now, the Cubs called up their top prospect, Starlin Castro the other day,  shifting Theriot to short and the second base platoon to the bench. Castro just turned 20-years of age in late March and at this point will likely benefit the Cubs most for his defensive prowess. As for fantasy impact, he is an excellent contact hitter (90|PERCENT| of the time this year) with an improving batting eye though he is not likely to walk much more than 8|PERCENT| or so of the time. Note that he is not a base stealer – 69|PERCENT| career success rate and 44|PERCENT| of the time in 9 attempts this season. Instead, I think of him as perhaps being a Placido Polanco who can steal 5 to 10 bags, maybe 15 or so home runs at his peak, and hit over .300. Keep in mind t hat thus far he has been predominately a ground-ball hitter at 50|PERCENT| of the time while hitting fly balls just 31|PERCENT| of the time. So do not break the bank trying to get him. At his age his power is not fully developed and it is possible in coming seasons that he may add loft and power to his swing. For this season, however, he could be easily be something like a player Cubs fans are sure to recall– Rey Sanchez, just with greater long-term upside.

I was taking a peak at Andy LaRoche‘s performance and it is possible we may finally seeing some hints of the player he was originally expected to be. Actually LaRoche translated much of his skills to the Majors last season – good contact making skill, decent patience, and a pretty good glove. What did not translate was the power and what we found was a high percentage of ground balls placing a possible cap on his long-term power potential. The result was a decided lack of enthusiasm for him at the draft table this spring. Well so far this season LaRoche has shown more patience (over 10|PERCENT| of the time), is making more consistent contact, and .hitting a majority of fly balls at 39|PERCENT| while turning over 11|PERCENT| of those fly balls into home runs. There has been speculation that he could move over to second base in the long run to make room for Pedro Alvarez, but if the fly-ball skills stay, that is something we could well be cheering on to happen.

And finally if you are a Joel Pineiro, do not give up on him just yet. Of course no one expected him to repeat last season, but his peripheral numbers are in fact right in line with rest season even if his ERA is not. He is still getting ground balls 57|PERCENT| of the time, walking 2 batters per nine innings pitched, and has even raised his K/9 to over 5.0. What has happened is – a .351 BABIP and a 15.6|PERCENT| HR/FB. That’s a ton of home runs for someone who allows less than a quarter of his balls in play to go as fly balls. While he is still an inning eater type likely to have an ERA over 4.00, he is not nearly as bad as he has been.


Thoughts on the Chris Davis|FRONTS|Justin Smoak Changeup

Now I’ve never been a Chris Davis fan and I’ve consistently warned against drafting him, but even I did not expect the Rangers to say “dayenu” quite this quickly, but quite frankly it was time. He was striking out over a third of the time and flailing at pitches outside of the strike zone over a third of the time too. Unless Justin Smoak, his replacement, falls on his face, it is possible Davis may not resurface again in a significant role for the Rangers. In fact, be prepared for the possibility that he could be starting a new career as Triple-A roster filler unless he goes about restructuring his approach and improving pitch recognition.

Justin Smoak is what Davis is not – disciplined. Last season at three minor league stops he walked no less than 14|PERCENT| of the time. His strikeout rates increased with each promotion but still stayed in the low-twenties over 237 at-bats in Triple-A. This year he has walked twice as often as he has struck out (yes teeny sample size), making contact 84|PERCENT| of the time while walking 24|PERCENT| of the time and hitting .300. So there is good reason to believe Smoak will make good on his pedigree as someone who will hit for average. My one remaining question is “to what degree will he hit for power”. Last season was a disappointment in that respect with ground balls over 40|PERCENT| of the time and close to 50|PERCENT| at Triple-A while hitting fewer than 30|PERCENT| fly-balls. He has shown more power in the early goings this year and keep in mind that he missed significant time due to a ribcage injury which surely played a significant part in his ability to drive the ball. Provided the Rangers do not react badly to small sample sizes or get frustrated when he goes through some rookie adjustment periods, Smoak could easily be here to stay.

Some Opening Day Observations

The Marlins are utilizing Cameron Maybin n the second slot and played Gaby Sanchez in the 8th slot. This may have been a lefty/righty match-up lineup. Regardless having someone who strikes out over 30|PERCENT| of the time (and he struck out in 3 of 4 at bats to boot) in your number two slot, even if he has blazing speed, is not a formula for scoring runs when you have a superior contact hitter like Sanchez, with equal or better patience, as an option to use in that spot.

Apparently the Mets are not interested in scoring runs either – opting to leadoff with Alex Cora. Also known as "he of the career .313 OBP". This will be a continuing theme until/if the return of Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran. Actually it will continue to be an issue even after that as long as Mike Jacobs, Francoeur, and Barajas continue to darken the lineup. In other words, wins may be scarce for those of you who own Mets pitching as run support like yesterday is likely to be an outlier.

Mark Kotsay may, longshot here, be quite the bargain this year as he finds himself as the left-handed portion of a DH platoon. While it begs the question – “why did the White Sox forego the opportunity to have a Thome/Jones platoon instead”, Kotsay is still a disciplined contact hitter who hits plenty of line drives and can hit for average. While he hits grounders in the mid to high forties, he is not completely without loft in his swing and is a mid 30’s fly-ball guy who has pretty consistently converted about 5|PERCENT| of his home runs into fly balls. Playing DH might even keep him healthy for a change. He also qualifies at OF and 1B. It is conceivable that he could achieve 350 or more at-bats. Well worth a look in FAAB in AL only leagues or in the end-game if you are in a traditional, after the first week of the season, drafter.

Nothing like starting your lineup with a career .238 .329 guy in Jose Bautista to strike fear into the hearts of your opponents. The key item here though is that Bautista, for now, looks like he will be the everyday right-fielder with Lind DHing and Ruiz limited to platooning with Overbay at first base.  Bautista’s underlying numbers are far from awful – he has good patience, hits fly balls, and has legitimate home run power. The issue – he is miscast as an everyday player. A right-handed hitter who strikes out a quarter or so of the time is platoon player. Bautista is a career .227 hitter against righties and a  .265 hitter against lefties. He’d be more valuable for fantasy purposes if he played less often.

One has to love Placido Polanco in the number two spot for the Phillies, sandwiched by Rollins and Utley. Surprised he did not get more pre-season hype, though of course one cannot expect 6 RBI everyday from him.

Drew Stubbs owners should note that the Reds will try to stack their lineup against tough righties – Laynce Nix got the start over him, but Stubbs came in as soon as Carpenter was lifted. They’re calling it a semi-platoon.

Jim Edmonds did indeed get the start over Corey Hart in right field against the right-handed Ubaldo Jimenez. Hart is getting a start tonight against Greg Smith, a lefty. Hart owners cannot be happy about him being on the wrong side of a platoon which could continue over the next few weeks or months if it proves successful. Considering Edmonds is nearly forty and Hart, still a part of the future of the organization at just 28 years of age, that this situation will not last in the long run.

In other platoon player notes – Dexter Fowler and Seth Smith are in one with Smith getting the opening day nod. The Brewers are sending out a pair of lefties in the next two games, so Fowler will pick up some starts then.

AL Tout Squad

This past Friday evening over in Flushing, NY at Citifield AL Tout Wars 2010 was held.  

This is my tenth season in Tout Wars, but it was my first time in the AL after 9 seasons over in the NL. Tout Wars plays like a local league. We all know each other rather well and despite the fact that I have never played in the AL, I have played against most of the competitors over the years, so it was easy to slide right in and have a good time.

For those unfamiliar with Tout Wars, the one major difference I really find between Tout Wars and your local league is the pace of the auction. The pause between nominations is very limited and the pace of the auctioneer is consistent and quick too. Generally speaking there are also not a lot of bids starting at $1, with players being pushed to their projected value quite quickly. All things I appreciate a great deal. You can get a sense for this in the video of the opening on Tout which you can find here.  

Onto the results:

You can find the complete AL Tout Wars rosters here. Note that there is an error on their sheet. I bought Frasor at $10, not $4 and didn’t leave any money on the table.

Jorge Posada                   14
Gerald Laird                      3
Kendry Morales                25
Kevin Kouzmanoff           16
Jose Bautista                    3
Dustin Pedroia                 26
Marco Scutaro                  16
Alex Gonzalez                   3
Bobby Abreu                     24
Torii Hunter                       23
Johnny Damon                 19
Luke Scott                           9
Jose Guillen                       7
Jim Thome                          1
Javier Vazquez                  21
Ben Sheets                         6
Joel Pineiro                         6
Mike Gonzalez                  14
Jason Frasor                     10
Jon Rauch                          10
Daniel Hudson                   1
Jeremy Guthrie                   2
Brett Cecil                           1
Kevin Millwood                 Reserve
Pat Neshek                         Reserve
Hector Rondon                 Reserve
Aaron Crow                       Reserve
So heading into AL Tout I put together a pre-draft split of $205/$55. The premise behind it was to stack my lineup, avoid some of the dregs in the lower echelons of hitting, if possible, and concentrate on the pitchers with upside in the under $10 range with one $20 slot for a closer or anchor.

Mostly this worked – Abreu, Hunter, Pedroia, Morales, Posada, Vazquez, Kouzmanoff, Scutaro were all pre-draft slot prices. Note that I try to slot on a by hitter basis, trying to avoid to assign dollars to specific positions as that can lead to confusion and reduce flexibility in readjusting your budget in mid-auction. I bring a spreadsheet of my own design to the draft and use a draft-grid/tier to look at the player pool as a whole.

While generally speaking, I was pleased with the draft, I let a few players go by when I had money slotted for them (Juan Rivera went for $13, Nick Johnson for $12, Podsednik for $12, LaPorta for $11) where I should have gotten too. Instead I landed Scott and Guillen, both under projected value, along with Thome at $1, left me with more money remaining to spend elsewhere than I had originally intended. So with it being that late in the auction, I set about targeting what remaining players still held some value. Noting both Rauch and Frasor were available and that they were favorites to land their teams’ respective closer jobs, I resolved to make sure I got both of them with only $28 remaining. Now I just have to cross my fingers and hope that they do indeed end up with the lion-share of saves and offer a potential strength to trade from in the mid-season. So my split ended up being 195/65 or 75|PERCENT| on hitting rather than my intended 79|PERCENT|.
In the reserve round I focused on pitching from two different perspectives – needed two pitchers to step in immediately (Millwood and Neshek) with Hudson going to the minors and Cecil a possible demotion candidate too. Neshek gives me a back-up of Rauch too in terms of saves. So that leaves me with Cecil, Hudson, Rondon, and Crow as all possible mid-season breakthrough rotation candidates/reinforcements.

Other fun things of note: a complete round around the table of White Sox players – just for White Sox’s fan, Dean Peterson. There were also several failed attempts to start a Royals player run. At one point Charlie Wiegert of Fanball came in and asked if anyone was driving a Coca Cola truck. It was about to be towed as Citifield is a Pepsi-facility. Alas, that truck is impounded somewhere now.

Quick Thoughts on Some Rotation Candidates

I have seen Hisa Takahashi pitch a few times now and have been impressed. He is as advertised, a lefty who tops out in the high eighties, but he does a very good job of spotting his fastball and changing his speeds. The change looks like a plus pitch to me and his slow curve looks like at least an average offering too. He repeats his motion well and it has a bit of a pause in it which should help to serve fool batters too. Also like that he isn’t afraid to throw that 88 mph fastball inside to righties. While it looks like he may start the year as a second lefty in the pen and could do an excellent job at it, it would not surprise me at all if he ends up in the rotation and making more than double digits in starts depending on the health of the Mets rotation.  My questions with Takahashi are – “will he keep the ball on the ground” and “how long can he fool them?” While I think he has what it takes to stay in the majors, his stuff and talent still says “end of the rotation, inning eater”.

Speaking of Mets starters, you may have heard or read that Mike Pelfrey has added a new pitch – a split-finger fastball. The last time I remember a veteran adding that pitch, it was J.J. Putz. Putz had been a right-handed specialist reliever known for his plus fastball and slider, but lacked a changeup to combat lefties. It was the reason he converted from a minor league starter to reliever in the first place. The splitter, as well as improved command, gave him the ability to be an elite closer for a few years prior to injuring his elbow.

Pelfrey has already shown improved control the past two seasons with BB/9 of 2.9 and 3.2, but he has never had an out-pitch to go with his plus fastball and has two consecutive years of K/9 just on either side of 5.0. One of the major reasons for the lack of K/9 improvement – the hitters know what’s coming. He has thrown his fastball close to or over 80|PERCENT| of the time each of the past two seasons and has thrown his change less – under 5|PERCENT| of the time while throwing his slider over 13|PERCENT|. If he can continue to show the same control of the past two seasons and greatly change how often and when he throws certain pitches, we might have something here, though I will continue to remain skeptical until he shows he can command both the splitter and his slider with some consistency.

Nathan Injury Fallout

Joe Nathan, one of the most reliable closers in the game (though there really is no such thing as a reliable reliever), has a tear in his UCL and is going to rest for two weeks before deciding whether to undergo surgery or not. Given the history of pitchers trying to rest and rehab, the odds are not on his favor. Tommy John surgery will very likely be in his future.

So this of course means without Nathan, the Twins bullpen roles are now up in the air. Instead of seeing Joe Nathan go in your auction in the $20’s, you will see several pitchers go for more than they had in the past on the speculative chance they might get save opportunities. Let’s consider the Twins options.

Jon Rauch is the favorite to take the job at this time. He has some closing experience under his belt and also has pitched in at least 74 games in each of the past four years. However, the cost of his 85 and 88 game seasons in 2006 and 2007 have taken their toll. His K/9 was the lowest of any full MLB season in his career at 6.3 0- not typically a closer-worthy mark. In addition, his BB/9 last season of 2.9 was solid; but it was a decline from his two previous seasons. Furthermore his home runs on fly balls stood 6.3|PERCENT| compared to his career average of 8.2|PERCENT| and his over 11|PERCENT| mark in 2008. He is a fly-ball pitcher, so I would expect some regression in this area. Before I get too depressing, there is some cause for optimism– over his very small sample size in Minnesota (15.2 IP) he did manage 14 strikeouts. So it is possible that moving from a non-contender to a contender reignited something within him, but I hate to come to any strong conclusions over such a sample.

Looking at his splits we have a pitcher who has typically been more effective against righties than lefties. This can be seen in his wide BB/9 splits (1.9 vs. righties and 4.1 BB/9 vs. lefties for his career). While the control issues remained static in 2009, he actually produced a higher K/9 against lefties than he did against righties and was perhaps the result of the development of a cut fastball. His K/9 against righties stood at sub 6.Given his history and no significant change in velocity or pitch selection, I suspect he can bounce back against righties in 2010.

In summation, we have a pitcher whose peek we have most likely already seen, but also a pitcher with enough skills and talent to repeat a sub 4.00 ERA. Just keep in the back of your mind his workload history and his command issues with lefties. The former could push him towards further decline and the latter could get him moved back into a setup/specialist type of role.  In AL only formats I would not be chasing him if the bidding gets into the mid to upper teens.

If you look back on Jesse Crain’s career and pedigree, the closer job was supposed to have been his already.  Injuries have robbed him of this chance, but with Nathan gone there is opportunity. While he has reestablished himself as a fairly consistent 7+ K/9 pitcher, his once excellent control looks like a thing of the past. His BB/9 has declined for each of the past four seasons to an unacceptable 4.7 BB/9 last season. Crain looks like a strict right-handed specialist after posting an 8.4 BB/9 against lefties last season. He also has a career 4.7 BB/9 and a 5.8 K/9 for his against them. Interestingly he has posted an 8+ and 9+ K/9 against lefties each of the past two seasons, but his overall effectiveness against them has not improved. Like Rauch, Crain appears to be another pitcher who is already past his peek.

Matt Guerrier is another candidate to slide into the closer’s role. In a continuing theme, Guerrier has been more effective against righties than lefties with a career 2.7 K/BB ratio against righties and a 1.6 K/BB against lefties. His K/9 against lefties has not been above 6.0 since 2005 and his BB/9 has fluctuated up and down a point or more on a yearly basis. Overall, his control was excellent last season at a 1.9 BB/9 and his 4.4 BB/9 from 2008 sticks out as an outlier when compared to career. Of concern, though was the decline of his overall K/9 from a 7.0 to a 5.5 from 2008 to 2009. This may be related to the strain of having pitched in an increasing number of games each of the past three seasons. Also, his 2.36 ERA from last year is sure to rise at least a point after producing an 86|PERCENT| left on base percentage and .222 BABIP over that same time period. For a third pitcher in a row we are once again seeing someone who is post-peek and is someone who could hang onto the closer’s job if the opportunity occurred, but not someone who is a long-term solution.

Pat Neshek is the reliever on the Twins to most closely watch in spring training. From 2007 to 2008 he was a dominant setup man, but then ended up requiring Tommy John surgery which cost him all of 2009. He is now almost 16 months removed from the surgery and is once again pitching in spring training games. As with all pitchers coming back from Tommy John surgery, how well recovered he is can be assessed by noting his BB/9 and is what you need to watch this spring and into the early season. Neshek’s control has been a strong part of his game throughout his career – 2.5 BB/9 in the minors and 2.8 in the majors – so use that as your baseline. Just also keep in mind that he is yet another Twin who has been more effective against righties than lefties – not surprising considering he is a sub-mariner. In his one full season of MLB duty, he produced an 11.0 K/9 and 2.9 BB/9 against righties, but just a 7.0 K/9 and 4.3 BB/9 against lefties. While it is possible he could be the Twins best option to close, it would once again be appropriate for them to use a lefty specialist in high leverage situations instead.

Jose Mijares is the Twins’ one left handed reliever and as such will be utilized more in a setup/specialist role. Given the limitations of the others in the pen, he could also easily find end up in some crucial ninth inning situations. I would use a base of two or three saves as my starting point with him topping out in the high single digits when valuing him. In his rookie season he produced an 8.0 K/9 and 3.4 BB/9 while being used in less than inning per appearance, as expected of a situational lefty. His splits speak to his role with a 9.1 K/9 and 2.9 BB/98 against lefties , but with a still respectable 7.0 K/9 and 3.8 BB/9 against righties. Just be wary there is likely to be a correction upwards in his ERA and WHIP after producing a .266 BABIP and 89|PERCENT| left on base rat. It would not be surprising to see his ERA rise to the high 3’s, if not the 4’s. Adding to that fire – he is an extreme fly-ball pitcher (50|PERCENT| of the time) and only allowed 8.1|PERCENT| of his fly balls to turn into home runs, so that could correct upwards easily too.

Clay Condrey is the last MLB experienced option to discuss, but can be summed up quickly. He is a pitch to contact pitcher who posted a  .261 BABIP in 2009. He is also a clear right-handed specialist with splits of a  4.30 K/9 and 3.8 BB/9 vs. lefties compared to 6+ K/9 and 2.5 vs. righties. It is most likely he is intended to be used in long relief and for mop –up work.

So Nathan’s injury leaves the Twins in a closer by committee situation. Key pitchers like Rauch and perhaps Neshek, if healthy, may be handed the reigns at different points in the season, but it strikes me that if the Twins are in contention, that they have shown in the past the willingness to trade for high profile relievers. To me it is more a question of when, not if, they will shop for another reliever. That adds even more risk when considering the Twins closing options this spring and ought to temper your bids accordingly too.


Two Potential Call-Ups

The Diamondbacks made a stop-gap maneuver giving Adam LaRoche a $6 million dollar deal with a reasonable $7.5 million dollar 2010 mutual option for 2011. This, in theory, is an easy contract to move except for the fact that the 2011 buyout becomes $9.5 million dollars if he is indeed traded. (Thanks Cots MLB contracts!) Even with that clause I believe he will still be fairly easy to move given the reasonableness of the option year and then of course, money can always change hands between teams in a trade.

Where I am going with this? Well as I mentioned this is a stop-gap maneuver – well at least the Diamondbacks hope it is as Brandon Allen, acquired from the White Sox last season, is rather close to the majors. If and when he is ready, the Diamondbacks have the choice of moving the oft-traded LaRoche to a contender. If not he’s an inexpensive and stable option to keep on their team.

Allen, meanwhile, struggled in his MLB debut, but that’s not surprising for a slugger with 30-plus home run potential, especially over such a small sample. In the minors he’s struck out about a quarter of the time over his career but jumped to 38|PERCENT| of the time during his stay in the majors. On the positive side, he translated his good patience to the majors walking over 10|PERCENT| of the time. Over the past two seasons in the minors Allen has made some good strides in the development of his plate discipline, walking no less than 10.9|PERCENT| of the time at any of his minor league stops during that period. He has also reduced his strikeout rate, fanning fewer than 20|PERCENT| of the time at two minor league stops in 2009.

One area of concern, though he did actually hit better against lefties than righties in the minors this past season, is whether he’ll keep that up, as his splits in 2008 were quite the reverse – just .225 against lefties, .304 against righties. Right now the 24-year old has less than half season’s experience at Triple-A so he’ll start there. Long-term it wouldn’t surprise me to see him have a career very much like the player he may replace, Adam LaRoche – .270’s hitter with 25-30 home runs.

Baltimore’s rotation is flush with young talent in its rotation. Both Chris Tillman and Brian Matusz will have opening day spots. Still more spots are likely to open up as the season progresses. Enter Jake Arrieta who made 28 starts last season – 17 at Triple-A – and who first turns 24 later this week. While some may like him better as a reliever, he’s got four major-league potential pitches – two of them being rated “plus”. His control also improved last season – 3.5 BB/9 in Double-A and a 3.2 BB/9 in Triple-A. However, his K/9 did drop from a 10-plus in Double-A to a still solid, but not as exciting, 7.7 in Triple-A during that same time period. While he’s still learning to command and throw his pitches more effectively, Arrieta has the upside to be a middle to upper end of the rotation starter and is worth a look during your AL-only keeper-league drafts.