Commentary

Notebook: A's get Matsui, Willingham

Pirates bolster lineup; many relievers switch teams

Updated: December 17, 2010, 9:31 AM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Two games.

That was the number Hideki Matsui fell short of qualifying as an outfielder in 2011 fantasy leagues that use a 20-game minimum; he'll be eligible only as a designated hitter in many, many leagues. The "DH-only" label, unfortunately, has been a black mark on a hitter in fantasy in recent seasons, and as a result, Matsui might be somewhat less desirable a draft-day target.

[+] EnlargeHideki Matsui
William Perlman/The Star Ledger/US PresswireHideki Matsui's numbers fell off a bit in 2010 but he's still got enough in him to have fantasy value in 2011.

Here's another reason Matsui might seem less desirable: He's one of the newest members of the Oakland Athletics, his power bat landing in the spacious confines of Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. If we know anything about fantasy owners' instincts, it's that they don't like power hitters in pitching-friendly venues.

Sometimes, however, perception has a way of tricking us, artificially deflating a player's value, and that's why Matsui could wind up a bargain, at least if he's picked significantly beneath his 164.1 average draft position (161st overall) of a year ago. In addition to the aforementioned two factors, there's also a perception that Matsui's 2010 was a huge disappointment. In reality, he batted exactly the same as he did in 2009 (.274), had only six fewer RBIs (84-90), scored seven fewer runs (55-62) and finished six points lower in on-base percentage (.361-.367), the primary differences being he hit seven fewer home runs (21-28) and slugged 50 points lower (.459-.509). Considering the ballpark factor -- he left homer-friendly Yankee Stadium for pitching-friendly Angel Stadium of Anaheim -- Matsui's 2010 actually fell right within reasonable expectations.

Now Matsui heads a half-day's drive north to Oakland, into what most believe is an even more pitching-friendly venue than the one in Anaheim. Not necessarily so: Our 2010 Park Factor page reveals that the Coliseum was less homer-friendly than Angel Stadium, yes, but a better run-scoring environment. My most recent ballpark analysis column also showed that, at least for left-handed hitters, the Coliseum was basically Angel Stadium's equal for homers; they ranked 23rd (0.902 park factor) and 22nd (0.903), respectively.

That number for lefties is significant, because if you know anything about Matsui, you know his power is almost exclusively to right field. Hittrackeronline.com, in fact, shows that in the past five seasons combined, Matsui has hit 86 of his 91 home runs (94.5 percent) to the right of dead-center field, and 65 of those to right field (71.4 percent of his homer total). So if you have any worry about Matsui's power declining, it should be related more to his age -- he's 36 and turns 37 in June -- than any impact of the ballpark switch.

As for run production, be aware that with the acquisition of David DeJesus, as well as the continued development of young first baseman Daric Barton, the Athletics could conceivably bat Matsui cleanup behind three players who had at least a .358 on-base percentage in 2010 (Mark Ellis being the third). More likely they'll go Coco Crisp-DeJesus-Barton-Matsui, but that's still a strong enough order to keep Matsui productive in the RBI category, despite his hopping onto a roster that scored the fourth-fewest runs in the American League last season.

In other words, Matsui still has a chance to match 2010's No. 182 finish on the Player Rater, which was actually only 19 spots lower than his 2009 finish. DH-only or not, he's still a mid-to-late round pick, even in shallow mixed leagues.

Oakland Athletics also add Josh Willingham, Rich Harden, Brandon McCarthy

Harden
Harden

McCarthy
McCarthy

Willingham
Willingham

Willingham is the other primary candidate to take over the cleanup duties, but wherever he or Matsui winds up, there'll be a surprising number of RBI opportunities for both. Willingham might actually be the more productive hitter at this stage of his career than Matsui, with five consecutive seasons of greater than an .800 OPS, but he's also the greater health risk; he hasn't appeared in more than 144 games in a season in any of his five full major league seasons, and spent more than a month on the disabled list in both 2008 and 2010. Here's the other drawback to his move to Oakland: He's leaving Nationals Park, only a slightly beneath league average ballpark for right-handed power, for the Coliseum, which is one of the worst for right-handed power in baseball (27th in my aforementioned July rankings). Willingham's primary advantage over Matsui is that he's younger and outfield-eligible, but unless he's slotted ahead of Matsui and can stay healthy for 140-plus games, there's a good chance he'll finish with lesser numbers of the two.

Turning to the rotation, after striking out on a deal for Japanese right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma, the Athletics were forced to scramble for a fifth starter, having traded Vin Mazzaro to the Kansas City Royals in the DeJesus deal. Both McCarthy, signed to a one-year, $1 million contract, and Harden, the former Athletics ace, become prime contenders for that role; they'll battle Bobby Cramer, Josh Outman and Tyson Ross during spring training. Harden is the most logical pick, as the most experienced of the bunch and a pitcher with a 2.98 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in 51 career games (49 starts) at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. He's also every bit as risky as the competition, coming off easily his most disappointing statistical season, one in which his fastball velocity dropped to a career-low 90.5 mph average and his fly-ball rate soared to a career-high 51.2 percent. Harden will need to recapture a few of those ticks on the radar gun to make a full comeback -- he averaged 94.3 mph in his last fully healthy season in 2004 -- and while that might not be impossible for a 29-year-old, he'll have a lot to prove during spring training before becoming a viable fantasy pick.

McCarthy, formerly a top prospect in the Chicago White Sox and Texas Rangers organizations, has also had his career sidetracked by injury, but he rebounded from shoulder problems late last season to post a 3.36 ERA and 1.10 WHIP in 11 games (nine starts) for Triple-A Oklahoma City, then a 1.96 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in four starts in the Dominican Winter League. If he's truly healthy, he might yet factor into AL-only leagues, as the Athletics present one of the better destinations for him to make a comeback. McCarthy is an extreme fly-baller (44.6 percent career fly-ball rate) and Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum can be forgiving of those types, so keep tabs on him come March, because a strong showing in camp could earn him a job and late-round consideration. It might sound crazy, but consider this: McCarthy could conceivably be the smarter pick of the two.

Magglio Ordonez re-signs with Detroit Tigers

Ordonez
Ordonez

Despite the addition of Victor Martinez, locking up the designated hitter role, the Tigers re-signed Ordonez to a one-year, $10 million contract. He'll return to right field, an odd choice for the team considering he'll turn 37 years old next month, is coming off ankle surgery and has experienced a drop-off in production in recent seasons. Though he recaptured some of his lost power before getting hurt last year, turning in a .170 isolated power, 52 points higher than in 2009, keep in mind that some of that was fueled by a hot first two weeks. In his final 73 games, for instance, Ordonez batted .297, hit eight home runs and had a .147 isolated power. At this stage of his career he's more batting-average/RBI contributor than anything, capable of batting .300 with 90 RBIs per 150 games played, but perhaps capped at a home run total in the low-to-mid teens. Ordonez is also a candidate for the disabled list, though his lofty salary at least diminishes somewhat concerns that he might not be ready for the start of the season. In mixed leagues, he'll be an unexciting, late-round fourth or fifth outfielder, but that's not a bad thing to be.

Pittsburgh Pirates sign Lyle Overbay, Matt Diaz

Diaz
Diaz

Overbay
Overbay

Odd, odd moves by the Pirates, as they added a league-average first baseman in Overbay, then set themselves up (most likely) a straight platoon in right field, with Diaz playing against left-handers, and Garrett Jones shifting from first base to get the right-field at-bats versus right-handers. Let's talk Overbay first: His 2010 rates (.243/.329/.433) actually resided beneath the major league average for first basemen (.263/.349/.451), and his career rates (.274/.358/.447) fall right in line with them. Nevertheless, he'll be the Pirates' everyday first baseman, and considering his penchant for streakiness, he'll be a decent NL-only corner infielder, and perhaps even a ride-the-streaks mixed-league option. Keep this in mind: He has turned in 20 months of an .850 OPS or greater, May the only month in which he's done it more than three times (in six of his eight career Mays).

Jones' fantasy value suffers as a result of the arrivals of Diaz and Overbay. While it makes sense to take him out of the lineup against left-handers -- he's a .210/.249/.381 career hitter against them -- it also bears noting that he hit six home runs versus southpaws in each of the past two seasons, and that 28.6 percent of his home run production and 31.4 percent of his RBI production in 2010 came against that side. Jones' batting average should benefit as a result of the platoon, but his counting numbers are destined to suffer, more than offsetting any advantage. Looking at Diaz's .335/.373/.533 career numbers versus left-handers, in fact, it seems likely both players will have their values limited primarily to spot-start status. They're fine in daily formats, but you'll have to pick and choose your matchups with them in weekly leagues.

One more note about the Pirates: Barring a trade -- which has been rumored -- Ryan Doumit's fantasy value would suffer most as a result of the above moves. Chris Snyder at catcher, Overbay at first base and Jones/Diaz in right field would appear greater priorities to the Pirates on an everyday basis, and those are Doumit's three most realistic positions. He might also settle into a bench spot on another team, so while his bat might make him a viable No. 2 catcher in deeper leagues, right now he's looking like a shaky selection, even in the late rounds.

Los Angeles Dodgers sign Matt Guerrier

Guerrier
Guerrier

Add a fourth closer hopeful to the mix in Los Angeles, as the group that included All-Stars Jonathan Broxton and Hong-Chih Kuo and catcher-turned-reliever Kenley Jansen last season returns all three and now tacks on Guerrier. The move west is a positive for Guerrier; he's a fly-ball pitcher shifting to a spacious Dodger Stadium, and into a more pitching-oriented division in the National League West. While he's not a strikeout artist -- his career K's-per-nine is 5.91 -- there's a good chance he'll match or even improve upon his 3.17 ERA and 1.10 WHIP of 2010, not to mention have a slightly greater chance at saves. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly told the Los Angeles Times in September that he planned to give Broxton every opportunity to reclaim the closer's role during spring training, but let's not overlook that Broxton's second-half ERA was 7.13 and he walked 21 batters in 24 innings during that time. The paper also speculates that second-half fill-in Hong-Chih Kuo probably isn't as serious a candidate to retain the role, being that he has four elbow surgeries on his résumé, meaning the pecking order for Dodgers saves might go Broxton-Guerrier-Kuo. Fantasy owners in deep NL-only leagues -- or going the dirt-cheap saves route -- should look at Guerrier late, and if you're a Broxton owner who can afford the luxury, Guerrier might be a smart handcuff.

Chicago White Sox sign Jesse Crain

Crain
Crain

Speaking of ex-Twins/closer hopefuls, Crain has every bit as good a chance at opening the season as the White Sox's closer as Guerrier does as the Dodgers', and probably much more so. Sophomore Chris Sale, who finished 2010 as the White Sox's closer, is considered the favorite for the role, but he might be stretched out for a possible shift to the starting rotation as well. Matt Thornton, also a former White Sox closer, might be more useful to the team as a setup man, where the team can deploy him picking and choosing its matchups. Crain is coming off a bounce-back 2010 in which he lowered his ERA to 3.04, WHIP to 1.18 and boosted his strikeout rate to 8.21 per nine. An improved slider was largely behind it; he threw it a career-high 46.3 percent of the time, per FanGraphs, and limited opposing hitters to .137/.196/.179 rates with it, per PitchFx. At the same time, Crain's fly-ball tendencies -- he allowed them on 44.2 percent of his balls in play -- make him a bit of an ERA/WHIP risk in Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field, so be prepared for an increase in his ratios. He's every bit as deserving of handling the closer's role as his competition, however, so keep him in mind as a late-round AL-only pick.

Boston Red Sox sign Bobby Jenks

Jenks
Jenks

Turning the focus to the White Sox's former closer, Jenks probably will have to settle for a setup role with his new team, the Red Sox. He provides them with three legitimate contenders for the closer role, including incumbent Jonathan Papelbon and young flamethrower Daniel Bard, so now it'll be interesting to see whether Papelbon goes on the trading block. So long as he remains in a Red Sox uniform, Papelbon should remain in the ninth, but keep in mind he's entering his walk year and the Red Sox can't afford to stick with him if he's any more erratic than he was in 2010, when he set career worsts in ERA (3.90), home runs allowed (7) and blown saves (8). Jenks actually isn't even a smart handcuff, or a "ratios" option for AL-only owners; he's probably third in line for saves behind the more talented Bard, and his career 3.40 ERA and 1.21 WHIP show he's not quite productive enough in the categories to make an impact in either. As a late-round AL-only choice you can stash on your bench, maybe he'd have some speculative value -- you just never know when a closer job might change hands -- but don't count on it.

Chicago Cubs bring back Kerry Wood

Wood
Wood

After a two-year stint in the American League, Wood is back with the team that originally drafted him, one with whom he first made a name for himself as a fantasy stud. A lot has changed since then; Wood has dealt with a barrage of injuries, reinvented himself as a reliever, developed into a closer, made stops with both the Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees, and now returns to the Cubs in the setup role, which he last occupied for the team in 2007. Wood was a revelation for the Yankees in that role late last year, posting a 1.06 ERA and 1.26 WHIP in 31 appearances, postseason included. There's little denying his ability when healthy, but he's been so rarely healthy, with 11 career disabled-list stints, including at least one in each of the past six seasons except 2009. Wood should serve as an ERA/WHIP/K's-helping middle reliever on NL-only fantasy teams, and he'd be the obvious choice to step in should anything happen to closer Carlos Marmol. Consider him one of the smarter handcuffs, if you have enough bench space to afford it.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.

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