Archive for ‘Top 15’

Thursday: 09.8.2011

Fight for 15

I mentioned in part one of my top 15 starting pitchers for 2012 that deciding on the 15th guy was a bit of a task.  I had several guys who I felt could have reasonably been slotted there and eventually landed on Johnny Cueto.  There is no denying the fact that he hasn’t really earned his 2.05 ERA this year, as evidenced by his 3.87 xFIP and 3.78 SIERA.

That said, he is far from a shlub at the same time.  He has seen an 11% increase in his groundball rate to 53% with only some deterioration to his strikeout rate (down from 6.7 to 6.2 K/9).  In fact his strikeout rate has been up and down all season, but it was at a very impressive 8.1 per game over the last month.  The great part is that the uptick came without any damage to his groundball (held at 53%).

The 40-inning sample over the last month is small in the grand scheme, but I do believe Cueto can hold the groundball gains while also working his way into a consistent strikeout rate between 6.7 and 7.2.  I wasn’t merely blinded by the shiny ERA when I ranked him 15th, rather I believe in his talent and have been impressed in the starts of his I have seen this year.  That said, I stand by the fact that there were many candidates for the spot and I wanted to address them for those who were wondering.

Here they are in reverse order:

Jaime Garcia (STL) – It was more of a cursory thought to put him in at the 15-spot.  The quickness of the thought has nothing to do with the fact that he had a poor stretch in August.  If I was going to put him there, a bad month wouldn’t have dissuaded me, just as a great month wouldn’t elevate someone undeserving like Mark Buehrle into the discussion.

In the end, Garcia just didn’t stack up against a host of his peers.  He did have some modest gains on his breakout rookie season toting a near-3.0 K/BB while sustaining most of the 56% groundball rate we saw last year.  The WHIP is still problematic at 1.36, but the climb in hit rate might be linked to a worse infield defense for the Cards which they will hopefully address this offseason given their rotation.

Josh Beckett (BOS) – Beckett was easily identifiable as a regression candidate who in turn could be a fantasy star because of how much last year’s 5.78 ERA depressed his value.  He has exceeded even my wildest expectations with a 2.49 ERA and 0.98 WHIP in 174 innings, but a lot of it has been his BABIP, LOB% and HR/FB rates swinging all the way back to the opposite end of the spectrum this year.  For as unlucky as he was last year, he has been equally as lucky this year.

That said, the skills remain strong (8+ K/9 yearly saved 2006’s 7.0; K/BB below 2.6 just once in career) and as a part of the Boston Red Sox he should always have a shot at a nice win total as long as he stays healthy and makes 30+ starts.  But he is also a perpetual risk for at least a spell on the disabled list or a skipped start or two and his wildly inconsistent BABIP, LOB% and HR/FB rates in the face of the solid skills make it hard to put him in the top 15.

C.J. Wilson (TEX) – Who had this one pegged?  Just as he appeared to be coming into his owner as an ace late inning reliever, it was announced that Wilson would shift to the rotation and become a full-time starter.  Few, if any, had high expectations for this experiment yet he put together an impressive 204-inning debut as a starter last year with lone wart being his league-leading 93 walks.  Alas many remained skeptical, myself included calling for a 4.00ish ERA, for various reasons.  Wilson made significant improvements across the board and he is now a strong option atop a fantasy staff, but at 30 he lacks both the skill and upside of top 15ers.  However, that is a more of a commentary on how strong the pitching pool is these days as opposed to a knock on Wilson.

Yovani Gallardo (MIL) – Often when you see a young flamethrower fanning one or more batters per inning, his walk rate is around four or five a game.  While he may have electric stuff that can fool even the best big leaguers, he rarely knows exactly where it is going himself resulting in plenty of free passes, too.  If this type of pitcher is to become a reliable frontline starter and reach his true potential, you will see that strikeout rate tick down yet remain strong, while the walk rate sees major improvement.

This profile explains Gallardo who saw his strikeout rate dip to 8.2 after marks of 9.9 and 9.7 in his first two seasons.  His walk rate has improved drastically year to year, too, starting at 4.6 in 2009 before dropping to 3.7 last year and a much more palatable 2.7 this year.  At 25, Gallardo hasn’t yet reached his ceiling and we could still see him jump another level or two.  He’s getting better, but the best is yet to come.

Shaun Marcum (MIL) – I have nicknamed him “The Anti-Booster” as he has seen his strikeout and walk rates both erode despite leaving the hardest division on the planet for the much cushier NL Central.  The losses have been marginal (0.3 K & 0.5 BB), but it still interesting to someone with his skill get away from the AL Beast and not experience a spike in performance.  Sure, his ERA improved over a half of a run, but that’s clearly artificial when you look at the complete picture.  He strikes me as someone who will chronically be underrated and while he may never have that transcendent season that would bring deserved respect, he will continue to be a strong #2 fantasy asset coming at the price of a #3 or at least at the very end of the #2s.

Ian Kennedy (ARI) – After showing last year why he was so hyped as a Yankee farmhand, Kennedy has shown incremental improvement in his skills, but monumental improvement in his results.  Flyballs and specifically the home runs that result from them were his big issue last year, but he sliced 5% off of his flyball rate this year and with that his HR/9 dropped by 25% to 0.9 per game.  He has no doubt advanced a bit in 2011, but he can’t quite be relied upon for a sub-3.00 ERA going forward just yet.  He might not even be the top choice on his team for 2012.

Daniel Hudson (ARI) – His season is all the more impressive when you consider that he had a 5.30 ERA on May 1st after he allowed three runs in seven innings against the Cubs.  Since then he has gone 157 strong innings with a 3.10 ERA still hitting some bumps in the road which is what you would expect from a 24-year old in his first full season in the majors.  Some fantasy managers might be upset with the loss of a full strikeout down to 6.9, but the savvier manager is happier about the sub-2.0 walk rate.  An 8% dip in flyball, 7% of which went directly to his groundball, is arguably the most impressive development for Hudson this year.  For now he simply doesn’t have the track record to merit a top 15 position just yet, but this is a growth stock that is definitely worth buying into for the immediate future.

Ricky Romero (TOR) – Despite the huge dip in ERA from 3.73 to 3.01, Romero has essentially been the same pitcher in 2010 and 2011.  The main differences in his season have been a 40-point drop in BABIP and a massive 11% jump in LOB%.  That LOB% jump more than covered his 3% in HR/FB resulting in the improved ERA.  I am still a huge fan of the 26-year old lefty and feel that he has plenty of growth potential going forward.

Whether he deserved it or not, the improved results have paid huge dividends especially since he was underrated coming into the season.  I mentioned in my SP Guide that he was being listed behind the likes of Trevor Cahill, Jhoulys Chacin and Jeremy Hellickson at ESPN and he has thoroughly outclassed all three with Hellickson being the only one anywhere near him in results thanks to a wholly undeserved 2.90 ERA (4.24 FIP, 4.51 xFIP & 4.42 SIERA).

Matt Garza (CHC) – I may have reacted like a jilted lover when it came to forecasting Garza for 2011.  After diving headfirst into the front seat of his bandwagon for 2010 and projecting an elite season, I was left cold and unimpressed by essentially a repeat season (0.04 ERA & 0.01 WHIP improvements) replete with a nearly two strikeout dip and a third straight year of declining groundball rate.

I was worried about the new flyball-heavy Garza heading into Wrigley Field, even in light of the inherent National League strikeout boost.  Two straight years of 1.1 or worse HR/9 and a rising flyball rate would spell trouble in the Windy City especially when combined with Garza’s fiery attitude.  But he changed.  He has seen a major uptick in strikeouts with a career high 9.3 mark, but most importantly his groundball rate skyrocketed up 11% to 46%, a career high for a full season, yielding career-best 3.52 ERA that isn’t even as low as it should be given how well he has pitched.

Career worst BABIP and LOB% rates have teamed up to keep his ERA nearly a half run higher than his components suggest (3.16 xFIP & SIERA).  He had displayed little variance in his year-to-year BABIP and LOB% during his first three full seasons which is why this year screams aberration.  If his strikeout and groundball rates aren’t also aberrations, he might finally be in line for that huge season I saw coning in 2010.

Zack Greinke (MIL) – His was the name I heard most when it came to that 15 spot or being included somewhere within the top 15.  I definitely understand it and he was on the list during various iterations.  I made the move to Cueto late leaving Greinke on the outside, but the more I look at it the more I think a change may be in the offing.  I didn’t just look at his ERA and slot him 16th, I am well aware of the fact that he has been much better than his 3.93 ERA.

All of his component skills scream a sub-3.00 ERA, but he has struggled with runners on for a second straight season and his four years of HR/FB fortune seems to have bit back hard all at once this season with a 14% mark.  In the end, 10.4 K/9 and 5.1 K/BB rates are downright nasty and they carry the day as he should definitely improve going forward just as did as the 2011 season wore on.

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Wednesday: 08.31.2011

Top 15 Starting Pitchers for 2012: 10-1

Continuing the top 15 for 2012, let’s go 10 to 1:

10. Jered Weaver, Los Angeles Angels – While I was higher on his teammate Haren, I wasn’t down on Weaver by any stretch still ranking him 14th and believing almost entirely in his newfound strikeout ability.  Alas the strikeouts were a bit fraudulent (back down 7.5 K/9), but he has improved tremendously on his 2010 rate stats.  His league-best 2.28 ERA continues a three year trend of improvement while his 1.00 WHIP marks a fourth straight year of improvement.

Last year’s 3.01 ERA was greeted with a 3.32 xFIP and 3.15 SIERA suggesting he great, but not quite that great, but this year’s mark is met with great skepticism as shown by his 3.73 xFIP and 3.52 SIERA.  A 6% rise in LOB%, a 2% dip in BABIP and a 3% improvement in HR/FB rate have all combined to deliver the gaudy ERA figure.  He is on pace to finish top three among starting pitchers this year, but I don’t think it is sustainable so while I will remain high on him as a top 10 guy, I’m not sold as top 5.

9. David Price, Tampa Bay Rays – In each of his three full seasons, Price has improved his strikeout and walk rates reaching 8.7 K/9 and 2.2 BB/9 in his 191 inning so far this year. The 2007 #1 overall pick is panning out about as well as you could hope for a top pick.  In his first full season you saw the skills, but the results were so-so.  He bounced back with improved skills and great results, though they were a bit undeserved.  And finally this year his skills have ticked up yet again and the results are good, but looking at his xFIP & SIERA, they could be even better.

I have Price 9th, but I understand taking him a bit higher based on his potential for more because while the upcoming guys have unimpeachable track records, but they have plateaued a bit.  He has two and 2/3rds (threw 128 IP in 2009) seasons under his belt and his talent is unquestioned, but his age and lean track record land him below these upcoming veterans.

8. Dan Haren, Los Angeles Angels – Haren is kind of the forgotten ace these days.  Maybe it because he is boring as a 30-year old with absurdly strong skills and consistency.  He has gone 216 innings or more yearly since 2005 and he’s easily on pace to do the same again this year.  Outside of his debacle of a first half last year, he has posted a 3.33 ERA or better in four of the last five years.  Even if you include last year’s 3.91, he has still been an above average pitcher.  He is on pace to win his league’s K/BB title for the third time in four years (the “off” year was last year’s 4.0) by topping 5.0 with ease and hitting 5.9 in 2009 and 2010.

I love his reliability and lengthy track record.  Add in that he usually goes a cut below these guys he is included with and it is easy to be sold on Haren as your #1 pitcher.  The only downside is that despite logging no fewer than 33 starts in each of the last six years and on pace for a seventh, he has yet to top 16 wins despite how good he has been yearly.  Since this is a ranking of fantasy viability, wins matter and it is why I have him ninth, down two spots from his preseason rank.

7. Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants – Remember when there was mass hysteria over Lincecum earlier this season?  Let me refresh your memory.  In a four start stretch from May 27th to June 11th, Lincecum pushed his ERA from 2.06 to 3.41 walking seven across the final two starts of that stretch and five during the outing just after the run.  Since then he has been one of baseball’s best with a 1.75 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and 99 strikeouts in 93 innings.

He is backed by an anemic offense that caps his otherwise substantial fantasy value.  He won 18 during his first full season, but he hasn’t topped 16 since so they gaudy strikeout rate is merely putting him back on par with someone who can be relied on for wins yet with a slightly lesser strikeout rate.  However, he does have a 2.78 ERA and 10.1 K/9 in 850 innings over the last four seasons so I can deal with getting wins elsewhere.

6. C.C. Sabathia, New York Yankees – The definition of “workhorse”, Sabathia is about as bankable as a pitcher gets.  After a couple seasons of skills erosion, he has roared back with a huge 2011 including a full strikeout more than last year up to 8.6 K/9 and his best walk rate since 2008.  Sabathia’s penchant for going deep into games combined with the backing of a perennially prolific offense have led to win totals of 19, 21 and 18 (and counting) during his three seasons with the Yankees.  While he will likely opt out of his current contract to improve his financial standing, it will almost assuredly come from the Yankees leaving that win potential high.

5. Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies – If you don’t like the Phillies for some reason, you might want to quit reading now because as you may or may not have noticed this is our first Phillie in the list, but hardly our last.  Like Lincecum, there was some panic surrounding Lee earlier this season.  After all, he ended April with an ERA of 4.18 and a month later it was only down to 3.94 after he closed the month allowing 6 ER in 5.3 innings.  That said, his skills were nearly flawless and I couldn’t recommend buying him enough.  Most fantasy managers weren’t selling, but those who were regretted it.

Since May 31st, he has gone 10-2 in 14 starts spanning 106 innings with a 1.78 ERA, 0.92 ERA, 8.6 K/9 and 5.1 K/BB.  Without the benefit of a “Since 5/31” leaderboard, I am willing to bet he is no worse than the second-best pitcher in baseball with only a certain Detroit Tiger possibly outclassing him in that timeframe.

4. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers – When it comes to this top 5, there is virtually no separation between the group because it so hard to decide who is more great.  At this point it becomes personal preference.  I went back and forth between Kershaw and Lee for these two spots.  Do you prefer a proven track record or someone on the come up who could legitimately improve or possibly regress due to age and a lack of experience (by comparison)?

Kershaw has been one of just a few bright spots in LA this year with his excellent season on the mound.  His stuff is so filthy that it is hard to believe we have already seen the best of the 23-year old.  He is pacing toward his third straight season of 7.0 hits per game or less allowed including a 6.3 in 2009 that was MLB’s best.  He is also on track for his third straight season of more than a strikeout per inning, but this year he took a major step forward in control resulting in a 4.2 K/BB.

Unlike with hitters, I’m often willing to lean toward the older player when it comes to pitching, but you can’t deny how great Kershaw is at the ripe age of 23 and given that this is him merely meeting and exceeding the hype he got in the minors and early on in his major league career, I expect more greatness from the young southpaw in 2012.

3. Cole Hamels, Philadelphia Phillies – The Phorgotten Phillie.  A lot of the attention this year has gone to Lee and teammate Roy Halladay leaving Hamels somewhat neglected given how well he has done.  He is every bit an ace yet he is viewed as a cut below the other two.  I don’t quite see it that way and didn’t before the season, either.  I had Hamels fourth overall this March ahead of Lee and Jon Lester among others and he has backed that up with an excellent season.

In the second half of last year he displayed a never-before-seen groundball skill that I thought, if legit, could transfer him into a bona fide fantasy ace made better by the fact that he wouldn’t have fantasy ace cost as somewhere between the 13th and 17th arm off of the board.  His secondary numbers show that his 2.58 ERA is almost entirely deserved with a 2.90 xFIP and 2.80 SIERA backing up his entrance into fantasy acedom.

2. Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers – There is no denying how great Verlander’s season has been and he has finally emerged as a true fantasy #1, but this is still just his first season with an ERA under 3.37 and WHIP under 1.16.  The strikeouts, the sheer volume of quality innings and the no-hit stuff literally every fifth day are incredible assets he does possess, but one fantastic year isn’t enough to remove the king from his perch atop the starting pitcher list.

His ability to go deep into just about every game he is in has allowed him to pile up 17+ wins in five of six seasons, but I want to see another season of consistently excellent outings before I give him the top spot.  As a diehard Tigers fan, I have long been aware of Verlander’s potential for a season like this, but I remained puzzled by how it continually eluded him.  He is finally having it and I wouldn’t be surprised if it is the start of a series of them.

1. Roy Halladay, Philadelphia Phillies – I don’t care if he is going to be 35 years old next year.  He was 34 this year and he is on track to put up his fourth straight sub-2.80 ERA season.  He has topped 1.4 BB/9 once since 2004 and hasn’t been above 1.3 in the last three years.  The strikeout boost everyone was expecting to come last year never really panned out, instead arriving this year as he upped his mark for the third straight year to 8.7 K/9 (the gains were incremental in 2009 and 2010).

He is getting older, there is no denying that fact, but you also can’t deny the fact that is somehow getting better at the same time.  He is already on pace to improve his strikeout, walk, home run and hit rates (as well as his WHIP) and there is an outside shot that he could actually improve on his 2.44 ERA from last year, too.

I can’t see any legitimate reason to remove him from the top spot when he continues to perform like the best pitcher in baseball.  Sure, he is 4th on ESPN’s Player Rater for SPs this year, but you don’t put a guy #1 expecting him to finish there yearly, rather you put a guy #1 because there is a damn good chance he will be the top guy and his floor is also significantly better than everybody else’s.

Saturday: 08.27.2011

Top 15 Starting Pitchers for 2012: 15-11

Back in late June, I presented my first run at a top 15 for 2012 and as I looked back on the list two months later, I don’t hate it.  There will be changes in the next iteration, but I don’t think it was reactionary to the 2011 season through three months while at the same time accounting for some of the emerging stars from this season.  I will post a second run through of that list soon, but today I wanted to perform the same exercise with starting pitchers.

As we head into September, there is a lot of talk around a pitcher who might be an MVP candidate, not to mention ridiculously deep candidate pools for each league’s Cy Young.  The Year of the Pitcher, Part II has continued in earnest after a hot start to the season with each league lowering its as compared to last year.  As it stands right now, both leagues are toting sub-4.00 marks for the first time since 1992.

The American League’s tenuous grasp there at 3.98 makes it unlikely that the leagues will set 20-year lows, but at 3.98 and 3.85, respectively, there is a good chance the leagues will improve on last year’s 4.14 and 4.02 marks.  Better overall pitching mitigates the impression that some of the year’s surprising performances has made, but the environment can’t change the fact that the top level performances are incredibly stunning.

With a commitment to the fast start that has consistently eluded him (career 4.75 ERA in April), Justin Verlander has taken center stage as the league’s breakout superstar at starting pitcher.  His stuff has never been questioned, but it has been as sharp as ever and seemingly getting better as the season wears on.  Talk of him as an AL MVP candidate has started to pop up, though the list of worthy candidates might be too long for him to pull off the feat for the first time since 1992 when Dennis Eckersley inexplicably won both by a landslide despite deserving neither.  At least if Verlander did it, his case would be airtight for both.

In the National League, Roy Halladay has hardly ceded his perch atop the league checking in behind only Clayton Kershaw in most rankings, but the bar has been set so high for him that a 2.56 ERA/1.05 WHIP season with an improved strikeout rate (8.6, up from 7.9) and no change in his league-leading walk rate (1.1) has been more expected than impressive.  Make no mistake, he is still jaw-dropping and amazing, but Kershaw is right there matching him in innings (190 apiece) then besting him in ERA (2.51), WHIP (1.02), strikeouts (9.8) and wins* (16 to 15).

*Since we’re talking about fantasy value, wins matter.  I’m not using them to say Kershaw is, has been or will be a better pitcher, but the miniscule edge does add to his lead in overall fantasy value. 

As with my top 15 overall players for 2012, I don’t plan on overreacting to anything we have seen in 2011 counter to a player’s history.  They will be credited for it, of course, just not overly so.  An example of this would be Ian Kennedy.  He ranks 12th on ESPN’s Player Rater among starting pitchers and while I was high on him this year (ranking him 41st and in tier 2), I still undershot the mark.  His significant flyball tendencies combined with a park conducive to home runs had me feeling he’d be good, but not great.

He’s been great.  In part due to the fact that he cut his HR/FB rate from 10.8% last year to 9.0% this year.  His xFIP of 3.62 and SIERA of 3.48 are more in line with what I had him down for and as such, he will be ranked accordingly and not in this top 15 for 2012.  So who actually made the first cut?

15. Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati Reds – His 2.03 ERA has been remarkably impressive, but he hasn’t backed it with skills conducive to such a mark.  However, I firmly believe he has the talent to do consistently post a mid-3.00 or lower ERA.  This year he has had a significant spike in groundball rate (53%) combined with a barrage of good fortune (5.6% HR/FB rate & .226 BABIP) leading to the shiny ERA that is nearly two runs lower than his xFIP and SIERA.

His hefty groundball rate earns some of the HR/FB and BABIP goodness, but not that much.  Beyond that, his strikeout rate has dipped from 6.7 to 5.8 while his walk rate ticked up to 2.9 per game.  He still has strikeout stuff (as evidenced by his 7.2 K/9 in the last month) but he is learning how to combine it with his newfound groundball abilities.  If he can combine the two, he could legitimately acquire an ERA around this year’s 2.03.

I will admit right away that there were several candidates for the 15-spot so I wouldn’t be surprised if Cueto is bumped out in subsequent iterations.  That said, he has definitely improved his stock.  I will know more after I watch more games of Cueto and the other contenders this offseason, for now he gets the nod.

14. Matt Cain, San Francisco – He continues to significantly out-produce his xFIP totals, but it’s not like his peripherals are a complete mess, either.  His dwindling home run rate is something to behold bottoming out at a barely-visible 3.9% this year (down from 7.4% last year and having never topped 8.4%).

His strikeout rate has been remarkably steady since 2007 fluctuating between 7.1 and 7.7 in the five year period while his walk rate is on a three year decline since 2008.  His groundball rate has climbed to a career-best 41% this year, an interesting development if it sticks.  He has already notched six strong years under his belt yet he will be just 27 years old in 2012.

13. Jon Lester, Boston Red Sox – If his 2011 feels like a disappointment, it is only because it seems like everyone had him as their preseason favorite for American League Cy Young and he has “only” been the 11th best pitcher in his league according to the ESPN Player Rater.

When compared against more realistic expectations, he has remained an excellent fantasy option.  His ERA peaked after a June 7th start when he gave up three in six innings and bumped it up to 3.98, but since then he has posted a 2.23 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and 8.3 K/9 in 73 innings of work.

12. James Shields, Tampa Bay Rays – This was my guy for 2011, I loved his prospects to pay huge dividends coming off of an abysmal seasons results-wise yet toting a rock solid skill set ripe for a major comeback.  As someone who never jumps on the superstar pitchers in snake drafts because of their cost, I rely on Shields types to make up ground and he did not disappoint.

In fact, he impressed beyond even my lofty expectations.  It’s no fluke, either.  His skills remain elite and he might finally put together a few consecutive seasons commensurate with those skills.  The only thing that might change for 2012 is his zip code.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Rays deal him.  I’m not sure any destination would remove him from the top 15 while a favorable move might bump him up a spot or two.

11. Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners – For anyone wondering what’s “wrong” with Hernandez, and there has been talk of it on podcasts, radio shows and in articles at various sites, I’d answer with a resounding “nothing!”.  His ERA has risen more than a run from 2.27 last year to 3.37 this year, but his base skills have been nearly identical.  His strikeout rate has actually bumped up from 8.4 to 8.8 while his walk rate has moved up a mere 0.3 to 2.8 this year.

His xFIP totals the last two years are almost exactly the same.  Last year he was at 3.14 and this year he is at 3.16, so looking only at his ERA and WHIP as compared to last year and trying to squeeze a narrative about how much the Mariners’ lack of success is wearing him down is foolish.  They were god-awful last year, too, and he had an amazing season.  He has been the same, only a little less fortunate.  The only reason he is down here is because that team is so pathetic.  Predicting wins is very difficult, but it has become quite clear that they are far less plentiful for pitchers in Seattle.

I’ll have 10-1 up next.

Tuesday: 06.28.2011

The Top 15 for 2012 Right Now, Part II

Last time out, I covered 11 names I legitimately considered for the top 15 for 2012 and I am sure there were a few names that you were surprised to see on the outside.  Let’s see who actually makes the top 15 as it stands right now:

15. Jacoby Ellsbury (BOS, OF) – On a Carl Crawfordian pace this year of 51 SB, 19 HR, 83 RBI, 118 R and .304 AVG.  So they added a Crawford-like line to the lineup, just not from the guy they paid all the money to in the offseason.  Ellsbury is more of a .285 hitter, but that’s a difference of 13 hits for his at-bat total which isn’t too much to a fantasy team’s bottom line.  He is just one home run from a new high watermark in home runs, but I’m not sure he can be counted on for high-teens power just yet.  Even still, he can almost singlehandedly win you the stolen base category while getting you a nice head start in runs at the same time.  The power production is an added bonus.

14. Prince Fielder (MIL, 1B) – Fielder is a tremendous power source who has just entered his prime.  I might be alarmed by the on-off pattern of his OPS totals (sub-.880 in even years, 1.010 or better in odd years) if those kind of staggered patterns had any predictive value whatsoever.  The fact is that even in his “down” years, he is a still 30-home run hitter.  I put a lot of stock in his 157+ games played record from 2006-2010.  My goal in the early rounds is bankable production as nothing kills a team more than missed time.  You can’t predict injuries, but Prince sure hasn’t shown any propensity for getting hurt so with him you are playing the favorable odds.

13. Alex Rodriguez (NYY, 3B) – Are you ready to write him off?  I’m not.  He is on pace for another 30-100 season, marks he hasn’t been below since 1997.  And he would have a streak of 30-100-100 just as long if it hadn’t been for some injuries the past two seasons.  Third base is painfully thin which boosts his value even though his numbers don’t really “overwhelm” anymore.  That he was able to reach 30-100 the last three years despite games played totals of 138, 124 and 137, respectively, only tells you the kind of transcendent talent he is even in his mid-30s.

12. Robinson Cano (NYY, 2B) – “Oh hey guys, don’t mind me, I’m just Robinson Cano and I’m on pace for .290-30-100-100-13.  Yeah, I have added some speed to my game this year already setting a career high in June (6), no bigs.  Yes, I started the first half of May on a .186 slump and I was even hitting just .273 as of June 9th, but that didn’t suit me so well so I have been hitting .420 since putting to rest any fears about me.”  Thanks, Robbie.  The counting stats are pretty much locked in because of his teammates and nothing in his profile suggests you can’t count on mid-20s to low-30s home runs totals with a .300-.320 average.  Oh and he’s played 160-159-161-160 games the last four years and he’s on pace for 160 this year.  Consistency, embrace it!

11. Troy Tulowitzki (COL, SS) – He is currently on pace for .276-30-107-85-13 with just one of his patented “cannot-get-him-out-for-two-weeks” streaks which he started the season with back in April.  I would be willing to bet that he has at least one more of those which will surely boost his season pace.  He is an across the board star at shortstop and posting three 24-32 HR/92-99 RBI seasons in the last four has earned him first round credibility.  Though the one chink in his armor is the streakiness.  This applies to head-to-head leaguers, but while he can win two weeks going away during one his streaks, he will disappear for weeks at time shortly thereafter.  In roto you set it and forget it, but in H2H I would push his ranking down a bit.

10. Hanley Ramirez (FLO, SS) – Barring an insane second half, he is in line for the worst year of his career, but it still somewhat salvageable.  Despite the busted year, it would be foolish to overreact and downgrade him too much.  This is still a guy with five elite years under his belt at the thinnest position on the diamond.  You want to pass him over?  Good, more for me.  It will depend how his final line looks, but there is a good chance it will look pretty lame for Ramirez’s standards and that will drive his value down too much in a lot of leagues.

Those owners who benefit from his drop will be like the owners who have Jose Reyes this year, in other words, they will have a great value on their hands.  I still bumped him down a bit from where I had him this preseason, but that is based more on guys who emerged than a pure downgrade of Ramirez.  I could still envision a scenario where I take him in the top 5-7.  There aren’t major gaps in talent between these elite players.  I think it is as close between 1 and 15 as it’s ever been.  Or least as I ever remember.

9. Evan Longoria (TB, 3B) – Injuries have derailed the huge year I thought we would see from Longo in 2011 and there is a growing chorus that believes he is overrated as a first round fantasy pick.  I’m steadfastly in the Longoria camp and I don’t plan on leaving for 2012.  He is one of six players to start his career with three straight seasons with a .500+ SLG in 500+ PAs*.  The others are Albert Pujols, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Earl Averill and Paul Waner.  For those of you scoring at home, that’s five Hall of Famers (yep, I’m putting Pujols in as an active player).  He will need to do some work to notch a fourth (which all the Hall of Famers achieved), but either way this is a superstar in the making.  Like Ramirez, there is still time to salvage his season this year.  His skills profile is worth betting on, especially at 26 years old playing a thin position.

(*the one flaw in this is that Baseball-Reference’s Play Index doesn’t delineate between first season and rookie season so any player who may have had a cup of coffee one year and then went on to three straight 500 PA/.500 SLG seasons won’t be captured in this study.)

8. Carlos Gonzalez (COL, OF) – CarGo’s 2010 has a good chance to end up as his career year, yet many believed it was a sign of things to come and elevated him as the top outfielder in the game.  Gaudy BABIP and HR/FB rates propped up his batting average and home run totals meaning it would take a unique streak of luck to see 34/.336 again in 2011.  That doesn’t mean I thought he would stink, but I preferred him a little later in the first round than most and third amongst outfielders.  Let’s not forget that he will be just 26 years old next year.  Not only is the elite talent bunched together as we head into 2012, but a lot of the key pieces are still very young.

7. Jose Reyes (NYM, SS) – This is about where he would have ranked this preseason had his health been guaranteed and he wasn’t coming off of his two worst seasons including one in which he played just 36 games.  He has more triples in 73 games this year (13) than he had in his 169 games the last two years (12).  His pace for 57 stolen bases would eclipse the two year total by 16.  In other words, he is back to being superstar Reyes.  He isn’t on pace for the double-digit home run total we saw in four out of five years from 2006-2010, but he is still raking the ball as evidenced by the triples count and the pace for a career-high of 42 doubles.  This season is well in line with the track record he established from 2005-2008 and if you favor positional scarcity, Reyes is worth a pick anywhere between here and the top of the draft.

6. Matt Kemp (LAD, OF) – Back in November of 2010, I ranked Kemp 23rd in my top 24 and by the time draft season rolled around, I was taking him anywhere in the second round even if it was the 13th pick overall (1st pick in the 2nd round of a standard 12-teamer).  In that piece I said he could rebound for a big 30-30 season in 2011.  Jeez, I may have severely undersold him.  He is on pace for a 44-44 with 125 RBIs, 104 Rs and a .324 batting average.  Even as bullish as I was on Kemp, I didn’t necessarily see this.  There is still more than half the season so nothing is set in stone, but one thing we do know is that Kemp is a fantasy star.  Sure his .249 batting average hurt those who took him in the first round in 2010 (*raises hand*), but he still played EVERY game and delivered pretty big numbers in the other four categories.  The Bison is a beast… and he turns all of 27 next year.

5. Adrian Gonzalez (BOS, 1B) – Remember how many times you thought, “what would Gonzalez do if he wasn’t stuck in Petco?”.  The answer is: this!  Gonzalez has been downright elite and he is on pace for a .356-34-151-119 season doing exactly what we all thought he might with the Green Monster (peppering it with a league-high of 25 doubles; on pace for 53).  He would merit some first round consideration from 2006-2010 (a period during which he played fewer than 160 games just once and it was 156), but his home park and weak supporting cast would always hold him back.  Coming in this season, he was a first round pick in a lot of leagues, but not quite a consensus first rounder.  Now everything sets up in his favor and at 30 next year, he is still in his prime.  Even if he falls off of his absurd paces (especially the .356 & 151), he will no doubt be elite and finally be a no doubt first rounder.

4. Jose Bautista (TOR, 3B/OF) – It is a big statement to rate him this high based on 229 games, but does anyone really still see him as anything close to fluke at this point?  He has actually improved on a career year and significantly so taking his game from a power-only to well-rounded with a gaudy .328 batting average, an absurd .473 on-base percentage and a pace for double-digit stolen bases.  Not only that, but a recent move back to third base all but guarantees his eligibility there for 2012 which adds a lot to his value given the dearth of talent at the position beyond the small tier of elite options.  He has given us every reason to believe his surge into stardom, but I still couldn’t rank him above the legend.  His third base/outfield eligibility is definitely a huge plus and I could see someone taking him #1 overall or at least ahead of this next guy, but I had to go with the insanely long track record of excellence.

3. Albert Pujols (STL, 1B) – Even in the midst of what was considered a “down” year, Pujols was on pace for .279-36-95-110-11 before going down with a major injury.  In fact he was adding to his pace almost every day in June and it isn’t unreasonable to believe that he would have continued to stay hot and get back near the paces we are used to from Prince Albert.  Alas, Pete Kozma has no idea how to throw a ball.  Pujols has been knocked from his #1 perch, but I certainly wouldn’t blame someone for keeping him there, even at 32 years old.  He is as reliable as a player gets and even his “bad” year was a very good season (currently ranked 17th amongst hitters on ESPN’s Player Rater, 22nd overall) before it was derailed by a major injury.

2. Ryan Braun (MIL, OF) – I had Braun 5th coming into the season so this isn’t a major leap for the 27-year old outfielder who is kicking off his “prime” with a bang.  He is displaying some newly discovered speed that may or may not be totally legit, but regardless of that he earns this high ranking for his remarkable consistency, the same reason he check in 5th for me in 2010.  Remember the .500 SLG stat about Longoria?  The only reason Braun wasn’t on it is because he missed the threshold of 500 plate appearances by eight in his rookie year.  I think we can let him slide since he posted a .634 SLG that year.  Since then he has three straight years of 663 or more plate appearances with .500+ SLG (including seasons of .553 and .551).  It just doesn’t get much better or more reliable than Braun.  And given his age, there is reason to believe he can do more than the .307-32-105-99-16 average we have seen in his first four full seasons.

1. Miguel Cabrera (DET, 1B) – I don’t care if he plays the deepest position on the diamond, I am building my team around a guy who has seven straight years averaging .317-34-117-100 in 158 games.  And he is well on his way to an eighth season right in line with those averages.  During the stretch, he has been below the batting average mark just twice (.292, .294), the home runs three times (26, 33, 33), the RBIs three times (103, 112, 114) and the runs scored three times (85, 91, 96).  In other words, even when he strays from the average, he remains elite.  None of the deviations would leave fantasy owners disappointed in Cabrera even in the seasons where he combined two “below average” categories together.  He will be just 29 years old next year and with his ridiculously strong skills profile (he’s actually on a four year decline in strikeout rate from 22% in 2007 to 16% so far this year), I have him as the #1 overall pick for 2012.

I would love hear your thoughts on the rankings, if you thought there were snubs and who you’d take #1 if not Cabrera.  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Monday: 06.27.2011

The Top 15 for 2012 Right Now, Part I

The 2011 draft season was seen as one of transition for the upper tier of players as there wasn’t much agreement beyond the top two players on how the rest of the first round should play out.  Hell, there was even some dissent against Hanley Ramirez as the #2 (some had him #1, others had him #3 or #4), though that was more of a vocal minority.  He and Albert Pujols were pretty clearly the first two picks in most drafts.

After those two, any combination of about 15-18 names could make up the remaining 10  picks in the first round of a 12-team mixed league.  Expanding it to a 15-team league opens the pool up to about 20-24 names depending on the preference of the drafters in that league.  Now there is always going to be some shifting from draft to draft, but in 2011 you could see someone taken sixth overall in one league who wouldn’t crack the first round of another.

And the 2011 season isn’t likely to change things for the 2012 season.  Just as the MLB as a whole has tightened up with fewer great teams, so, too, has the player pool as there are now several guys in contention for the #1 spot with Pujols looking mortal throughout 2011 and now shelved for at least month, likely two.  Several contenders for #1 means a lot of uncertainty after that as you could feasibly have a draft where the top five teams all get their #1 guy; that certainly hasn’t been the case for several years.

Despite the clutter at the top, I am going to do my best to outline the top 15 as I see it for 2012 at this point.  This isn’t just going to be a ranking of the best players through nearly three months of 2011, that does us no good.  We have to take what we have seen so far and properly weigh it into the thoughts we had coming into the season about these players.  You have to be careful not to overrate or underrate the most recent season.

Jacoby Ellsbury was at worst a 2nd-round pick heading into 2010 after a pair of excellent seasons.  He sat out through most of an injury-riddled season during which he played just 18 games hitting .192 with a .485 OPS.  His skills hadn’t eroded, it was all injury.  I always say you can’t put a lot (any?) stock into Spring Training stats with the lone caveat being guys returning from injury.

The hard numbers still don’t mean a lot even in these cases, but you want to see that they are playing and appear as healthy as is being reported.  Ellsbury led the team in ST at-bats with 62 and performed really well suggesting he was ready to go.  Even still, he was going no earlier than the 4th round in most drafts.  Of course, Jose Bautista had a season for the ages in 2010 and he was going just a handful of picks before Ellsbury.

I understand the skepticism with Bautista and while I did believe he would remain a major force, I never saw him doing this.  I thought he could be a 37-42 HR hitter with a great on-base percentage and decent batting average.  I found the Ellsbury skepticism a  little more peculiar.  He had a track record of excellence, he had crept into first round consideration just a year ago and while he was injured throughout most of 2010, all signs pointed to a full rebound for 2011.

Those are two clear cases on each end of the spectrum, one overrating the most recent season and another underrating it.  If I had to do one, I would rather underrate the previous season as with someone like Bautista.  I don’t want to be in a position where I ignore or at least diminish a guy’s track record (whether it be Ellsbury, Matt Kemp or Jose Reyes) just because he didn’t exactly display those skills at their peak in the most recent season.

Let’s start with some honorable mentions.  I think it so tightly packed with the top 25 or so that you could reasonably make a case for any of these guys to be in the list of 15, alas they were just out of mine:

Rickie Weeks (MIL, 2B) – It has never really been a question of talent with Weeks, rather health and he is en route to a second straight healthy season which are producing the kind of numbers we had hoped to see in his early-to-mid 20s.  He might almost be a bit underrated at this point as people are still afraid of his given the health issues that plagued the early part of his career.

Drew Stubbs (CIN, OF) – He was one of those sleepers who got so much run that it almost sapped his sleeper value.  He will be a batting average black hole as long as he continues to pile up the strikeouts and this year’s pace is even crazier than last year’s 168 (tracking toward 214).  As such that puts his AVG & OBP at risk which in turn could cut into his runs scored and stolen bases adding risk despite the juicy fantasy numbers.  See also: Young, Chris B.

Nelson Cruz (TEX, OF) – He has top 10 talent when performing at his peak potential, but injuries have undercut that potential significantly and he just can’t be trusted for a full season of production.  He may also be running less as a means of body conservation (4 SB in ’11 after 20 & 17 the last two years).

Kevin Youkilis (BOS, 3B) – Another season in line with his 2008 & 2009 (his 2010 was injury-shortened) seasons with good power and excellent run-based stats thanks to being a part of that elite offense in Boston.  The dearth at 3B would probably be enough to boost him into the top 15 of OBP-leagues.

Curtis Granderson (NYY, OF) – As my favorite Tiger who has now become my favorite non-Tiger, I would love to believe blindly in this surge in performance, but I have to be realistic.  Many predicted a power spike for him in his new home environs last year, but injuries cut his season short for a career-low in games played.  He is making up for the lost time with a 45-home run pace in 2011.  I am not sure he will make that this year or become a consistent 40+ HR guy if he does keep this dream season going.  So while he does get elevated as compared to his 2010 preseason value, he’s not quite first round material even as a power-speed combo with plenty of lineup support for R and RBI.

Mark Teixeira (NYY, 1B) – The dissipation of the batting average that was present in his mid-to-late 20s pushes his value down a bit especially in the fantastically deep first base pool.  He hit .295 from 2004-2009 before hitting .256 a year ago and following it with a .244 mark so far this year.  Still, a lengthy track record 100+ runs scored and driven in with 30+ home run power (including a 48 HR pace so far this year) earn him consideration for an early round pick in any draft.

Mike Stanton (FLO, OF) – Sometimes I forgot that this guy is just 21 years old.  That’s insane when you consider his talent.  The growth of players this young is not linear so we can’t guarantee he will show more development year over year, just ask Justin Upton, but still it is nice to see incremental improvement in strikeout (down 3% to 31%) and walk (up slightly from 8.6% to 9.3%) rates this year.  He will be a high draft pick throughout 2012, but he’s not quite first rounder for me.

Andrew McCutchen (PIT, OF) – He’s a better Drew Stubbs, way better in fact, trading a bit of speed for stronger foundational skills (strikeout & walk rates).  He is also hitting in the middle of the lineup for the Pirates so his RBI opportunities are much greater than Stubbs and as the Pirates continue to improve he will has some 100-RBI seasons.  Until that point, he is just outside the top 15, but another big season jumps him up from the 35-45 range he occupied this preseason.

Jay Bruce (CIN, OF) – Another player on the rise, Bruce offers incredible power potential and should see his value come up from the 65-75 range he was in this past year.  Some wonder if his .281 batting average from 2010 is a peak, while others believe he can be a .300 hitter one day without affecting his power.  Though it will be his fifth season, he will be just 25 years old next year and the best of Bruce may still be on the way.

Joey Votto (CIN, 1B) – This is less an indictment on Votto and more a commentary on the depth of quality players.  I was really high on him for 2010 and it paid off even more than I expected with the 37 home runs which were propped up by an unsustainable HR/FB of 25%.  Given that, I couldn’t understand why people saw him as high as the 3rd or 4th overall pick.  His ADP ended up in the 7-10 area, but I think he is a bit lower than that for 2012.  Barring unpredictable HR/FB surges, he is a high-20s/low-30s home run hitter.  He makes up for the power deficiency with a great batting average (career .314) and the chance of some speed (which could dry up if he doesn’t improve his 60% success rate this year).  That is still worth an early round pick, but not a first rounder.

Justin Upton (ARI, OF) – Upton has an absurd amount of talent, but we have yet to see it all come together.  We could be seeing most of it this year, but if he stays healthy for the whole year, it will be a first.  He has played 108, 138 and 133 games in his first three full seasons with varying degrees of success yielding 106, 129 and 110 OPS+ marks.  He has a .300-20-20 season in there, but he has yet to top 90 runs scored or driven in (which isn’t all his fault as those are team-dependent) and he is only pace to check the runs scored one off of his list this year.  He is a huge name, a great centerpiece for a dynasty team (23 years old) and loaded with potential, but he hasn’t yet earned my trust as a bona fide first round fantasy pick.

Those are the guys who just missed.  I’ll break this up into two parts to keep the length reasonable.  Up next is the top 15 for 2012… at this point.  Subject to change before the 2012 season starts.