Mike Trout could be the biggest catch in this year's fantasy draft pool (Getty)This week, we continue our usual series of MLB fantasy previews, wherein we consider 5-6 key questions surrounding each team. Baseball is coming, gamers. Pitchers and catchers report next month. Fantasy owners report immediately...
For the second consecutive year, the Angels landed the offseason's biggest free agent prize. In signing slugger Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols, the team has committed over $220 million over the next five years. Clearly the Angels were undeterred by the Vernon wells experience – who'll make nearly $50 million over the next two seasons while riding the pine. Like their geographical neighbors, the Dodgers, money is no object for former billboard magnate Arte Moreno – the Angels owner has a boatload of TV money headed his way.
But for all the big dollar contracts that have been shelled out recently, the Angel that should garner the most attention come draft day is a guy making roughly the major league minimum. And that's where we start the Angels Pressing Questions for '13 …
Q: When is it open season on Mike Trout in fantasy drafts?
A: This could be the most hotly debated fantasy topic throughout the spring: Should Mike Trout be the No. 1 pick? I'll go on record right now with a bolded affirmative to that question – I'm an unabashed believer. But, in mingling with colleagues in the fantasy industry this past week at the Fantasy Sports Trade Association conference in Las Vegas, I was a bit surprised to find there's many who won't consider him nearly that high. He went No. 4 overall in the FSTA draft event (behind Ryan Braun, Miguel Cabrera and Robinson Cano), and I talked to a few that felt like that was even too high for Trout, that he more appropriately belonged in the back-end of the first round.
So let's examine the pros and cons of the game's brightest young star. On the positive side, and perhaps most importantly, he's already proven he can play at a No. 1 overall level, having paced the Yahoo! game in fantasy value last season despite spening the first month of the season in Triple-A. And although he missed 23 of a possible 162 games, he finished one steal shy of a 30/50 club that has seen just two members in MLB history (Barry Bonds and Eric Davis), and he still scored 21 more runs than any other player in MLB.
Detractors will tell you that the Batting Average on Balls in Play (.387), which was third-highest in the league, suggests a heavy amount of luck, and one industry expert told me that he's projecting a batting average drop of 46 points (down to .280), mentioning his lofty 22 percent K rate as another part of that argument. Nevermind that this is a player that hit .342 over 1,117 minor league ABs, including a .326 mark at Double-A and a .403 clip in a short 77-AB stint in Triple-A.
As for other reasons for caution, Fangraph's Jeff Zimmerman has laid out an excellent case. He puts a lot of focus on Trout's change in batted ball profile in the second-half of last season, and what might have been the cause for that. To summarize, his biggest concern also comes in batting average. But he's buying Trout's power and speed.
Frankly, as a frequent viewer of AL West action, I'm convinced there's not a more dynamic, game-altering commodity in baseball today. And he's only been able to buy beer for the past six months. Trout draws walks (26th-best BB rate in MLB) and is one of the fastest players in the league. Combine that with incredible natural baseball instincts (good luck trying to make this guy go station to station on the base paths) and some premier table clearers in Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, and there's an argument to be made that Trout could score 140-plus runs this time around – and another 50-plus steals seems a foregone conclusion.
I think a projection of .290/25/100/125/50 is conservative. And that makes him a slam dunk top 3 pick (in the company of Braun and Cabrera). But, as I mentioned off the top, I'm willing to go all the way to the top with this guy. He's an incredibly special talent, and plugged into this Angels lineup, the potential for an incredibly special fantasy line in '13 is ripe.
A: Sure, I'd be remiss if I didn't bring up the choir of Angels that compose perhaps the most formidable 3-4-5-6 combination that any MLB batting order can boast (Trout, Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, Mark Trumbo). That foursome combined for 135 home runs last season, although 43 of them came from Hamilton while with the Texas Rangers. As far as the impact of Hamilton moving to Los Angeles, I don't think it should change his perceived fantasy value much. Sure, Texas is a better hitter's park, but with Trout and Pujols in front of him in the lineup, he's never had it so good from a run producing perspective, and he had it pretty darn good in that regard in Texas. So, as usual, it really comes down to your belief in how well he'll hold up physically. Even though he faded after a torrid first half last season, his production track record speaks for itself. I think DL stints are the only thing preventing him from turning in another top 20 fantasy season. If he falls out of the top 20 picks, I'll bite.
As for Pujols, you'd better forgive him of his struggles the first couple months with the Angels after jumping leagues last season. After hitting just one home run prior to May 15, Pujols hit 29 home runs in the final four and a half months of the season. In that span, he ranked as the No. 8 fantasy player. If you don't have him valued that high entering your '13 draft, you're very unlikely to land him.
That brings us to Mark Trumbo. He's averaged 31 home runs and 91 RBIs over the past two seasons, and no matter what you think of his distasteful K/BB ratio, he's at least managed to hit over .260 as an Angels regular, which plays given the power he offers. We have manager Mike Scioscia to thank for Trumbo's 3B-eligibility – the eight starts at the hot corner in '12 means he carries 3B-eligibility into this season, even though he'll mostly be a DH this season. And that makes him someone to be considered in the top 5-6 rounds.
Q: Enough about the offense. The real PQ for the Angels is how they plan on replacing Dan Haren, Ervin Santana and Zack Greinke in the rotation?
A: Yeah, no doubt, the back end of the pitching staff is a major question mark here. And the man slated to follow Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson in the rotation, Tommy Hanson, is the most intriguing of those question marks. Once considered a Cy Young candidate in the NL with the Braves, Hanson came to LA this offseason in exchange for power reliever Jordan Walden. Atlanta, in taking relief payment for someone who has been a top of the rotation starter, is telling the baseball world that it had serious concerns about Hanson's problematic shoulder. While Hanson has never had surgery on his shoulder, his 3 MPH decline in fastball velocity at least indicates that something isn't right for a player who is still a few months shy of his 27th birthday. One of the results of the reduced velocity is that the league hit .271 against him, the first time that number has reached above .239 in his career. He also allowed an ERA of higher than 3.60 (4.48) for the first time. If you factor in the serious questions about Hanson's ability to hold up physically in '13 along with his move to the (DH-enabled) AL, I would not want to be the guy in the draft that's paying an expectant price of a bounce-back campaign. Early drafters seem to be of the same mind, as Hanson has been selected, on average, outside the top 70 starters. At that point, there's little risk in rolling the dice.
I'm not going to waste much time talking about the other two members slated to be in the rotation, Jason Vargas and Joe Blanton. They are innings eaters with more real-life value than fantasy value. Vargas is coming off a solid season in which he won 14 games and turned in solid ratios (3.85/1.18), but he's not much of a strikeout guy (72nd among SP in K/9) and his ERA in three of his four seasons as a rotation fixture in Seattle was two runs better at home than on the road. As for Blanton, he turned in a respectable 7.8 K/9 last season, but he's a ratio killer. Stream these guys when a team like the Astros come to town, but don't burn a draft pick on them.
Q: Is Ryan Madson really going to close coming off Tommy John surgery? Where's the love for Ernesto Frieri?
A: Yes, assuming Madson's health progress remains on track this spring, the Angels plan to push Frieri, who saved 23 of 26 games last season with a 2.32 ERA and 98 strikeouts in 66 IP, back into a set-up role. Madson, recovering from TJ surgery performed last spring, is said to be right on schedule, having started throwing off the mound last week. That puts him on target to be ready for training camp in a few weeks. When healthy, Madson is a K-per-IP guy who typically posts respectable ratios and is stingy about giving out home runs. He also handles righties and lefties with nearly equal effectiveness. So, he's got the right stuff for the closer role, and he has a 32-save (in 34 chances) season in '11 with the Phillies to prove it.
As for Frieri, his volatility in regards to walks and home runs allowed hurt his chances of keeping the closer job, but I still think he's worth a late-round flyer, especially given the insane K rate – he'll have fantasy value even in a non-closer role. And it could be that Madson takes some time to get back to full strength, which was the case for Joe Nathan when he returned to the Twins in early '11 after missing '10 because of TJ surgery. Watch Madson's velocity throughout the spring. If he's a couple clicks or more below usual (93-94 mph), give Frieri a little bump. But, given the track record of TJ surgery, there's every reason to think Madson should ultimately return to the pitcher he once was.
Finally, are there any Angels prospects expected to earn their roto wings in '13?
A Thanks in part to some recent trades and major free agent signings (costing compensatory draft picks), the Angels now have one of the weakest farm systems in baseball. Power prospect C.J. Cron could, conceivably, somehow find his way to LA for a cup of coffee in '13, but he has major issues (health, defense and a distaste for walks, prominently among them). He doesn't belong on fantasy radars heading into this season, but he's probably the best the Angels have to offer the fantasy community right now.
That being the case, I'll close out this forum with a sleeper alert for Peter Bourjos. The speedy defensive dynamo will team with Mike Trout to basically put outfield gaps out of business for opposing hitters. And, while Bourjos isn't nearly as exciting on the offensive side of the equation, an expected regular role could have him pushing the 15/30 club in '13. With 552 plate appearances in '11, Bourjos produced a 12/22 line to go with a .271 batting average. Last season, the emergence of Trout combined with Torii Hunter squeezed his playing time options, but Hunter's off to Detroit, which puts Bourjos back in the mix of things. He's hit .293 in 472 games at the minor league level, showing serviceable pop along the way (.454 SLG%). But despite some solid past exploits, Bourjos is going outside the top 300 in early fantasy drafts, which means you can likely wait until the final round or two of your mixed-league draft to consider him. If he delivers to stat guru Bill James' expectations, Bourjos will return a .262/13/57/88/24 roto line this season, which would be a pretty sweet deal for the price.