Breakouts and Breakdowns
As spring training approaches, one of the most fun things to do as a fan is to project which players are the likeliest to breakout or regress in the coming season.
Let's face it, you can write down what Albert Pujols is going to do now. When it's all said and done, he's going to be right around .330/.420/.620 with 40 HR and 125 R and RBI.
If you have the first pick in your fantasy pool, take Pujols. Heck, that's a no brainer. But who should you take when rounds 11-20 roll around? Anybody can identify Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, David Wright, and Mark Teixeira as the best, young hitting studs in the game. But which lesser-known players have the potential of stepping up and making a difference for their big league club or your fantasy league team in 2006?
Conversely, which well-known players have the potential of imploding, causing anguish for the owners of those teams--real or make believe?
Well, we've decided to take the plunge. Each of us is going on record by naming two players who have it in them to take it up a couple of notches plus two more who could fall off the cliff.
Rich: I'm going to stick to two players who I have already identified in the past as players I believe are going to make the greatest advances from one year to the next. My first pick is a pitcher. He's a big pitcher in stature, and I think he is going to put up big numbers as well. His name? Daniel Cabrera.
I've extolled Cabrera's virtues a few times since last summer when he began to give us a glimpse of the pitcher he is capable of becoming. If there is one combination of pitching stats I like more than any other, it is strikeouts and groundballs. Show me a guy who can whiff batters and induce grounders and I will tell you about Chris Carpenter, A.J. Burnett, Carlos Zambrano, Roy Halladay, and...Daniel Cabrera.
There is no doubting the Baltimore right-hander's stuff. His fastball sits in the mid- to high-90s and has been known to reach the triple digits. In fact, Cabrera threw more pitches that hit 100 or more on the Stalker Sport radar guns than anyone else. He was second in the majors when it came to hitting 95+. Number one? Mr. Burnett, the $55 million man. Just for fun, I'll tell you who was #2 in the NL -- Carlos Zambrano.
Have you noticed a pattern here? Big, strong pitchers who can throw heavy gas tend to get their fair share of strikeouts and groundballs. And when pitchers do that, they generally don't give up very many home runs. Carpenter and Halladay have won Cy Young awards. Don't bet against either Burnett, Zambrano, or Cabrera taking home the hardware this year.
My second pick is a hitter. He just happens to play on the same team as Cabrera. Call me an Orioles fan if you'd like, just be sure not to take these two players ahead of me in my fantasy league draft.
As I wrote in Digging Deeper Into The Handbook in December, "If you're looking for someone who might take it up a notch or two next year, consider Jay Gibbons. He was the only [player other than Vladimir Guerrero] who hit more than 15 HR (26) and ranked in the top ten in lowest strikeout rate per plate appearance (.108). The Baltimore OF/1B/DH doesn't field or run all that well, but he still has further upside when it comes to mashing the ball. Consider this: Gibbons was 31st in the AL in RC/G with just a .268 batting average on balls in play. You have to go all the way down to the 63rd batter (Nick Swisher) to find someone with a lower BABIP."
Look for Gibbons to hit .280-.290 with about 40 doubles and 30-35 home runs. He'll make a nifty mid- to late-round draft selection in your fantasy draft. You can thank me after he puts up those numbers.
Bryan: Good picks, Rich. If you're right, and the Orioles have two big players break out, the AL East could be (again?) the most difficult division in baseball. And, of course, you forgot to mention that Cabrera has another plus on his resume: Leo Mazzone. As J.C. Bradbury showed on our site, the great pitching coach tends to have a positive effect on pitchers. With a little bit of the fastball control that Mazzone teaches so well, I think you're right, Cabrera should have a big 2006.
One other problem that Mazzone has to deal with is finding a closer amidst a group containing Chris Ray and LaTroy Hawkins. And they will be one of many teams shuffling between ninth-inning pitchers during Spring Training. Given the importance of saves on a fantasy team, finding a sleeper closer is much like having drafted Willie Parker in fantasy football this year. Therefore, my break out choice is Blaine Boyer of the Mazzone's old team, the Atlanta Braves.
Last year, Bobby Cox was forced to shuffle between the likes of Danny Kolb, Chris Reitsma and Kyle Farnsworth to close out games. Don't expect him to take long to make a decision this year. The candidates? Reitsma, again, Joey Devine and Boyer. Given Reitsma's lack of success in the role, Davine's lack of success in any role, and Boyer's good stuff, he should get the job. Then, watch as his 95+ mph fastball and hammer curve gains a lot of saves and a good enough ERA, WHIP and K/9. Even if he doesn't repeat a 3.11 ERA, his fantasy profile will improve that much more when he adds 25 saves.
My second pick should be a very good bench choice for keeper leaguers this year. The Padres outfield situation is very clouded this coming year, but they have shown confidence in Ben Johnson in the past. While Johnson is infamous within Padre crowds for a bad playoff performance last year, the focus should really be on Bruce Bochy's confidence to play the then 24-year-old. This season Johnson currently stands behind Dave Roberts and alongside Terrmel Sledge, but with a trade of Roberts, it isn't hard to conceive the idea of Johnson getting 500 AB.
Before the playoffs last year, Johnson had just 88 plate appearances. His .213/.310/.467 line wasn't exactly awe-inspiring, but beneath the surface, there is certainly reason for optimism. For one, Johnson's line drive percentage was an astounding 26.4% in his cup of coffee last year. The Hardball Times has done loads of research on line drives, but the general conclusion is that the more lines drives, the better. And to put Johnson's number in context, had he qualified for the NL, his mark would have ranked second overall.
Conversely, Johnson's BABIP last year was just .267. When considering his line drive percentage, it's shocking to have a BABIP rate that low, especially given Johnson's plus speed. In fact, only 37 players in the National League had LD% over twenty last year, and just seven had BABIP rates below .300. Of those seven, just two (David Bell, Mike Lowell) were under .270. So not only does Johnson's hit rates mean he should hit for increased power, but his average should go up as well.
If your league uses OBP as a statistic, Johnson is an even better selection, given his high walk rate. As is, I think Johnson is very (optimistically) capable of a batting average around .280 and 20 home runs given the opportunity. The question remains, however, will Johnson have an opportunity? Those are my far out choices, Rich. Who do you think might regress in 2006?
Rich: On the downside, I'm going to once again pick one pitcher and one hitter. Both players are changing teams this year. One is going to a more favorable ballpark and the other is going to a less favorable environment. My first choice is Jarrod Washburn. He is the opposite of Cabrera. Washburn is a lefty, Cabrera is a righty. Jarrod doesn't strike out many hitters nor induce a lot of groundballs, whereas Daniel makes a habit of doing both.
One would think that Washburn, coming off a year in which he had a 3.20 ERA and moving to pitcher-friendly Safeco Field, would be a good bet to become one of the top hurlers in the game. Wrong. His stats last year were very deceiving. His DIPS ERA was 4.55. The ratio of DIPS ERA/actual ERA (1.42) was the highest in the AL. I wouldn't be surprised if he won more games this year--it would be hard not to exceed his eight victories with the Angels--but his ERA is going to top 4.00 in 2006.
I feel guilty choosing Alfonso Soriano as my hitter. It's no secret that the second baseman (outfielder?) is going from one of the best to one of the worst ballparks for hitters. But, hey, I'll take a lay-up when I can get it. No use trying to tomahawk a slam dunk just to get on ESPN when I can kiss it off the glass and into the net nice and easy.
Besides, anybody making $10M-$12M per year who hits just .260/.300/.450 with 15-18 HR (as I predict) deserves to be recognized for his ineptness as much as the general manager who traded for him. You know, the same guy who acquired Vinny Castilla and Cristian Guzman last year and the 36-year-old Royce Clayton a few days ago because he wants to be sure he's got a backup in case his starting shortstop goes .219/.260/.314 again.
Bryan: I'm going to stick in the middle infield with the first of my selections: Carlos Guillen. After leaving Seattle for Detroit before the 2004 season, Guillen broke out in a big way: .326/.391/.562. Last year, I was pretty sure Guillen would take a big step backwards and fall apart. I was wrong. While Guillen was injury plagued for much of the season, he did manage to hit .320/.368/.434 in 334 at-bats.
Next year, Guillen will be 30 years old. He will be coming off a second half in which he hit .255/.317/.364. He will have to deal with the rigors of not having a BABIP of .360. The signs are there: Carlos is going to regress. PECOTA, the genius prediction system of Baseball Prospectus, doesn't see a lot of optimism for Guillen next year. BP sees Guillen hitting .286 next year with nine home runs and 50 RBI in 438 plate appearances. More importantly, the Tiger is given only a 6% chance to "breakout" of those numbers against a 36% chance to "collapse." Without going into detail on what those percentages mean, I can tell you that it isn't good. Despite his shortstop eligibility, stay away from Guillen in your fantasy draft.
By signing Billy Wagner this winter, the Mets not only made themselves better, but they also worsened a division rival in the Philadelphia Phillies. With Wagner heading off to greener pastures, the Phillies looked to the next-best option available, and thus signed Tom Gordon. This move is certainly seen as a step backwards already, but I predict that in three years, it will be an atrocious trade off. After years of being among the best set-up men in baseball, I'm predicting Gordon falls apart in his first year back in the closer role.
Before joining the Yankees in 2004, Gordon was hardly a staple of health. In the five years prior, he had just two full seasons in relief, two seasons in which he pitched under 45 innings, and one more in which he was under 20 IP. With the Yankees the last two seasons, Joe Torre rode Gordon as hard as any reliever in baseball. The writing is on the wall: Gordon is not a dependable closer. Furthermore, Gordon has three straight years with a falling K/9 rate. He's moving to a smaller stadium. He has a worse team behind him. His FIP last year was 3.72. Again, don't be the one caught in drafting Tom Gordon, the results can't be good.
Do you agree or disagree with our choices? If the latter, who would you pick?