January 27, 2011
Finding water during Arizona’s hellish summer months has always been a difficult task, but the opposite is true when scouring the scorched landscape for fantasy gems. For followers of imaginary baseball, the desert has yielded an oasis of statistical riches. From Jay Bell to Junior Spivey to Mark Reynolds(notes) to Kelly Johnson(notes), surprise sources of production have always sprouted from the Sonoran. This year’s D’Backs, an interesting concoction of young rising stars (Chris Young, Justin Upton(notes), Daniel Hudson(notes)) and nomadic veterans (Xavier Nady(notes), Melvin Mora(notes), J.J. Putz(notes)), won’t be any different.
“Change” has been the central theme in Phoenix this offseason. After totaling an NL West-worst 97 losses a season ago, the D’Backs boast a new GM, spring training facility and several fresh faces. Offensively, the Snakes should pack a venomous bite, but without a true frontline starter, pitching will likely again hamper Kirk Gibson’s club. Despite Arizona’s bleak outlook, many players, including the likes of Upton, Young and Putz, will be lineup staples in virtual leagues. Other less notable names could also step to the forefront over the course of the season.
Here are questions about Arizona (Inquiries over who will QB the Cardinals in '11 not included) that need immediate answers:
Are owners still overpaying for Justin Upton?
Owners have sacrificed limbs/organs/briefcases of cash to acquire Upton in early drafts. Though discounted compared to this time last year, the ultra-hyped outfielder is still highly regarded going around pick No. 33 overall in standard snake drafts and between $25-$30 in auctions. That’s rather expensive considering he was the fourth-best fantasy producer on his team and the 120th-best player overall a season ago.
Upside is often very seductive. Upton, a former No. 1 pick, has always had the physical tools to be a Hall of Fame caliber performer. When he entered pro-ball many scouts compared to him to Ken Griffey Jr.(notes) After exploding in 2009, many expected the next step to be momentous and career-defining. However, the explosive season most prognosticators forecasted never manifested. Shoulder problems plagued him in September, but, for the most part, injuries played a minor part in his sharp regression. His mental approach, however, was a different story. Overanxious at the dish, he struck out a whopping 30.7 percent of the time, sinking his contact rate below 75-percent. Off-speed pitches, which he had success against previously, baffled him. By year’s end, the learning curve appeared steep. Newly appointed GM Kevin Towers even dangled him to prospective buyers during the winter meetings in December.
Now entering his third full season, many expect the 23-year-old to have a dramatic turnaround. As a result, his price-tag has remained exorbitant. Though a rebound back to ’09 isn’t out of the question, the fantasy community should temper expectations. There are players of similar capabilities that can be drafted much later. Check out the player comparison, using projections from Bill James, below:
Player X: 611-.285-26-90-87-16
Player Y: 534-.288-23-82-86-18
It’s hard to imagine two pitchers who performed so well late last year garnering less attention than Hudson and Kennedy. The former was absolutely radiant over the final two months, notching a minuscule 1.76 ERA, 0.88 WHIP and 8.34 K/9 over 71.2 innings. Only rotation anchors Felix Hernandez(notes) and Roy Oswalt(notes) were more valuable to fantasy owners after August 1.
The latter also sparkled after the break. Over his last 82.2 innings, he tallied a 3.38 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 7.45 K/9, good for a borderline SP3/4 ranking among starters in 12-team mixers. Despite their glowing finishes, both, perplexingly, are going well into the double-digit rounds in standard drafts (Hudson: 182.3, Kennedy: 272.9).
The reason why owners are bypassing the tandem: BABIP.
Undoubtedly, luck played a factor in the pair’s success last year. Hudson sported a .245 BABIP, Kennedy .256. FIP data suggests both should have finished with higher ERAs, especially given their GB/FB shortcomings. Though the law of averages will likely catch up to them, owners shouldn’t overrate the stat's damning impact. Each showed terrific command down the stretch, indicative in their laudable BB/K splits. With an above average offense behind them, Arizona’s top two starters are very capable of finishing with strong SP2/3 numbers in mixers. Steal them.
If you’re looking for a late-round difference-maker who could emulate Bautista’s rise from obscurity, Miranda is your guy. Trapped behind Mark Teixeira(notes) in New York, the Cuban import had little to no hope of breaking in with the Yanks. Towers, who worked alongside Brian Cashman last year, saw potential in the first baseman, acquiring him for pitcher Scott Allen in November.
Scouts have raved about the aging prospect’s raw power. Though he’s barely flexed his muscle at the big league level, Miranda launched 15 bombs in just 295 at-bats at Triple-A Scranton in 2010. He also tallied an impressive .371 OBP.
The late twenty-something (Reports dispute his age) is the frontrunner for everyday at-bats at first base. If the lefty can fend off Brandon Allen(notes) this spring, he could replicate what Adam LaRoche(notes) accomplished in the desert last year (.261-25-100-75). Go the extra buck, deep leaguers.
The acquisition of J.J. Putz added much needed stability to a bullpen that ranked near the bottom in MLB last year. Can the journeyman regain his Mariners form?
Those who suffered through Juan Gutierrez(notes), Aaron Heilman(notes) and Chad Qualls(notes) a season ago likely experienced permanent brain damage. The cerebral stain left by the trio’s numerous late-inning implosions may never be wiped clean.
Working almost exclusively as a setup man over the past two seasons with the Mets and White Sox, the former 40-save closer in Seattle will again be called upon to shut the door. Based on his strong underlying ’10 profile (10.83 K/9, 1.25 GB/FB), he should regain his dominant form. Drafted on average around pick No. 146, he’s a prime example why you never slap the wallet for saves. Expect him to finish as a top-10 RP this year.
Separated by roughly 15 picks in early drafts, it’s conceivable a Snake-sympathetic owner could confidently draft an all-Arizona middle infield. It wouldn’t be an unwise move. Johnson and Drew finished fourth and sixth at their respective position’s in 2010.
Though shortstop is a tougher-to-field slot, Johnson is the more undervalued D’Back. Position scarcity is often overvalued in virtual baseball. Total numbers, not depth, deserves to rule the day. In terms of overall worth, Johnson bested his teammate by 80 spots according to Baseball Monster. A slight downswing is possible, but in his power prime at 29, it’s highly unlikely the second baseman will undergo a substantial decline.
As the tenth 2B off-the-board in average drafts, one spot behind heaping pile of Mariner Moose manure Chone Figgins(notes), Johnson is a superb bargain (ADP: 112.9). In stat speak, he’s essentially a generic version of Rickie Weeks(notes).
Image courtesy of Getty