We continue our series of MLB fantasy previews, wherein we consider 4-5 key questions surrounding each team. Baseball is coming, gamers. Pitchers and catchers report soon. Fantasy owners report immediately...
The Los Angeles Dodgers head into '14 on the upswing. After winning the NL West in '13 – the third time in the past six years that it has accomplished that feat (losing in the NLCS each of those seasons) – LA sits as a frontrunner to claim World Series hardware this upcoming season. In fact, the general consensus in Las Vegas has the Dodgers as the favorite to win it all. The Yahoo sports baseball crew likes the St. Louis Cardinals as the top team for '14, but lists the Dodgers at No. 2 overall in its preseason countdown of MLB top teams.
[Baseball 2014 from Yahoo! Fantasy Sports: Join a league today!]
Of course, for our purposes here, we don't care about wins and loses. We only care about individual statistics, and in that department, there should be no shortage of fantasy production to mine from this SoCal roster. Based on average live draft data from Yahoo, so far, four Dodgers players can be expected to come off the board among the top 50 selections, including three in the top 30. And that doesn't include closer Kenley Jansen, who had the fourth-highest K/9 rate (min. 50 IP) in MLB last season (13.03). With a full season opportunity ahead as the Dodgers' stopper, you could make the argument that he deserves to be the No. 1 closer selected (though Atlanta's Craig Kimbrel probably makes a slightly better case). And also not in that top 50 mix is outfielder Matt Kemp, who has proven his No. 1 overall upside in the virtual setting when he's been able to stay healthy. Of course, his health is a huge question mark these days. No doubt, it's the most Pressing Question for this team as it gears up for a World Series run in '14. Let's start with a deeper dive into Kemp's situation.
Q: Kemp - love him or leave him alone?
A: Kemp is only 29 years old and, as I alluded to above, is just a couple years removed from being the top player in the fantasy game – .324, 39 HRs, 126 RBIs, 115 Runs, 40 SBs in '11. In the two seasons since, Kemp has missed an average of 72.5 games because of a myriad of injuries (ankle, shoulder, hamstring, knee). The ankle and shoulder are the ailments that wreaked havoc on his '13 campaign, and they have lingered into this spring after he had surgery to repair both injuries this past October. Manager Don Mattingly recently stated that he has doubts that Kemp will be ready when the team opens the '14 campaign with a series in Australia against Arizona starting March 22nd.
Now that Kemp has clearly established that he's highly susceptible to injuries, there's a high likelihood that we'll never see him blaze a trail on the base paths as he he once did – averaged 32 steals from '08 to '11. In fact, we've already witnessed the curbing of his steal attempts, as he's just 18-for-22 on the bases over his past 179 games. Even if he were to be relatively healthy for the entirety of the upcoming season, expectations for his SB tally should be set in the 12-15 range.
Assuming surgery clears up his shoulder issue, Kemp's power should rebound from the nosedive it took in '13 when he hit just 6 HRs in 63 games. But again, expectations need to be tempered. His '11 spike in power came in the heart of his prime, back when he appeared he was heading for iron man status, logging his fourth consecutive season with at least 155 games played. Since then, his body has broken down in a big way, and it's really hard to fathom that Kemp could a.) avoid the DL entirely in '14 and b.) boost his power all the way back to '11 levels. Think 20-25 home runs as his ceiling.
Kemp went No. 57 overall in the January Yahoo mock draft, which is very close to where he currently resides (No. 62 overall) in the Yahoo top 250 player rankings. But, that's, admittedly, on the optimistic side. If I'm being pragmatic, I'm putting expectations for Kemp's '14 fantasy line at something around .280/22/80/70/12. And if he delivers in that ballpark, that's basically Alex Gordon-type numbers, who is ranked 20 spots lower than Kemp despite the fact that he's a more bankable commodity at this point.
My colleague Scott Pianowski always preaches to draft floor early and ceiling late. In Kemp's case, it's hard to ignore his near 40/40 '11 campaign. But ignore it you should, because if he goes 20/20 this season, it'll be a major feat given the givens. In 12-team standard mixers, your target should be anytime after the first five rounds are in the books. And if he doesn't make it that far, well, don't sweat it, I'm sure Alex Gordon will still be around.
Q: What about the Cuban Missile, Yasiel Puig - should we buy his smashing '13 debut?
A: Ah, yes, Yasiel Puig indeed took MLB by storm in his '13 rookie campaign, hitting .319 with 19 home runs and 11 steals in 104 games. From his MLB debut (June 3rd) through the end of the season, Puig ranked as the No. 15 fantasy player in the virtual game. He did finish the season on a downturn, hitting just .214 in September, but picked things back up on the game's biggest stage, hitting .333 in 10 postseason contests. Because of his blend of power, speed and bravado, Puig intrigue was through the roof in his rookie season and it's carried over into early '14 drafts, as he sits as a top 30 overall pick, on average, in Yahoo live drafts, just ahead of Jason Kipnis, Evan Longoria and Jose Bautista.
Frankly, I'm on board with that valuation, and I'd even pay something slightly higher than a top 20 pick for his services. Sure, there's some concerns when you check under the sabermetric hood. For instance, his .383 BABIP, his high Ground Ball percentage (50.2%) or the fact that he was among the most eager to swing at pitches outside the strike zone (38.9%). But, despite all his flaws, you can't help but be blown away by his athleticism and his confidence. And, as FanGraphs' Eno Sarris illustrated, Puig showed that he's capable of making necessary adjustments.
A 20/20 campaign with a batting average north of .280 and 100-plus runs leading off for, possibly, the best lineup in baseball seems like a reasonable projection. For comparison's sake, that lands him somewhere between what Andrew McCutchen (No. 8 in the fantasy game) and Shin-Soo Choo (No. 37) did last season.
Q: Let's talk about the other Cuban import – Alexander Guerrero. What kind of value does the frontrunner for the 2B job bring to the table?
A: The small but solidly-built 27-year old Guerrero is going to have to earn the 2B starting gig in the spring but, after signing a four-year, $28 million deal, the Dodgers are certainly hoping he stakes his claim right away. In the Cuban Leagues, Guerrero hit .290 or better in each of the past six seasons, with a nearly even K/BB rate. He also averaged 20 home runs over the past four seasons, made more impressive when you consider that he averaged just 289 at bats in that span – though the level of pitching and outfield fence distances in the Cuban League often pale in comparison to MLB standards. That said, there's some definite pop to go with a contact-adept bat.
Detractors of Guerrero's game point to the stiffness of his swing and have serious reservations about how that will translate against quality MLB pitching. The counter to that argument is that he does have little wasted movement to his swing – it's compact, and he keeps his hands in on his body.
Just based on what little video is available and reading up on the various scouting reports being offered by those deemed to be credible, I'd go into a draft with the idea that Guerrero will contribute something in the ballpark of a .250-.260 batting average with 12-15 home runs and a handful of steals (speed isn't a big part of his game). In deeper mixed leagues, he's not a bad late-round MI flyer as we've seen Cubans like Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig come into the league in the past couple seasons and blow by their projections. Instead of .250 and 12 home runs, maybe he'll be a .275/18 contributor, and that would be a handsome reward for a late draft dice roll. And if he doesn't pan out, he's easily expendable. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as they say.
Q: Is offseason acquisition Dan Haren going to rebound from a lousy '13 campaign?
A: The 33-year old Haren set full-season career highs in losses (14) and ERA (4.67) last season. But most of the damage was done early in the season as he posted a 5.61 ERA before the All-Star break and a solid 3.52 mark after the break. That in-season rebound alone is reason for optimism heading into '14. So is the fact that he finished with a 8.01 K/9 rate, the fourth-best mark of his career. Mix in his typical low walk rate and you get a pitcher that finished with the sixth-best K/BB rate among starters in '13.
All of this is not to say that owners should expect Haren to return to the dominating levels of the mid-aughts. But if you consider that he was able to right the ship in '13, and he's now back home on the West Coast, incentivized by a one-year deal and backed by what should be one of the top offenses in the league, it's hard to argue that a strong sleeper case can be made for Haren. At the very least, you have to give him a reasonable shot to finish as a top 50 fantasy pitcher, and that would make him a nice bargain considering that industry ADP has him slotted just outside the top 70 starters.
More LA stories: Here's a quick take on some other items of interest
• As the No. 12 first baseman according to industry ADP and a player that can often be had outside the top 70 picks overall, it's not a bad idea to circle Adrian Gonzalez on your draft list. He' sitting in the catbird seat of a loaded Dodgers lineup, hitting cleanup behind Puig, Carl Crawford and Hanley Ramirez. Those are guys that can get on base and get around them in a hurry. So, while the days of hitting 30-40 home runs have come and gone (think low 20s now), he's still a low-K, line-drive machine that should be a shoo-in to drive in 100-plus runs and hit above .290 for the fifth consecutive season. I'm taking him as my No. 10 first baseman, just ahead of Eric Hosmer and Albert Pujols.
• Since I made mention of Carl Crawford, it's worth discussing where things sit with this former perennial first-round fantasy pick. That value went by the wayside at the same time that he left Tampa to sign a free-agent mega-deal with Boston. In the three seasons since, he hasn't hit more than 11 home runs or stole more than 18 bases. Injuries have been a major part of the recent narrative as he's missed an average of 70 games since '11. But Crawford left us with a glimmer of hope in '13, as he collected a hit in all 10 postseason games, including four home runs (he also hit a home run in his second-to-last regular season game). And you have to like all the quality company he's surrounded by at the top of the Dodgers lineup. It's not unreasonable to think that he's capable of a .280/15/15 season. And if he can manage 140-plus games for the first time since '10, 80-plus Runs would almost be a certainty.