- Tristan H. Cockcroft, Fantasy
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Everyone has likes and dislikes. Everyone has an opinion.
Sure, one can dream of a world in which everyone agrees. We'd have world peace, a flawless political system, one TV channel with great, original programming 24 hours a day, and, of course, the perfect doughnut.
Our fantasy leagues, unfortunately, would stink.
What fun is this game, after all, if we all agree? A fantasy league in which everyone involved has an identical playbook is pointless, and if you cannot develop a playbook of your own -- meaning any, however slight, adjustment from our consensus rankings -- you are not going to enjoy this game. While we constantly advise you not to allow personal bias to come into your fantasy baseball evaluations, that's a recommendation to keep it in check, not shut it down entirely. Some opinion is mandatory. Otherwise, it's like doughnut Tuesday with nothing but old fashioned in the box.
This is the space where I share my most extreme opinions on players. It is opening my playbook, if you will, revealing my list of players I'm frequently targeting in drafts or who I deem considerably more valuable than indicated by our consensus rankings or Live Draft Results report, or by my experience in drafts so far this preseason. They are "Tristan's Twenty."
They are the players I expect to have on a majority of my teams come draft day, with the standard caveat that, because I've now published them -- "opened my playbook," if you will -- there's a chance I might not get as many of them as I want. Yes, it has become common for my competition to print such lists, bring them to the draft and deliberately bid me up on every name. (You guys know who you are. Don't think I'm not onto you.)
Now, the 20, in no particular order
Matt Garza, SP, Chicago Cubs
If Zack Greinke, who would've made this list if he wasn't already garnering top-50-overall support, is the "sabermetric dream" going strictly off 2011 stats, what does that make Garza, the sabermetric daydream? Greinke might have led all ERA qualifiers in Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (2.56) and strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio (10.54), but Garza ranked 11th in xFIP (3.19) and 10th in K's per nine, effectively painting him as the "lite" version of Greinke. Garza, however, is going seven rounds later than Greinke in standard ESPN drafts. If not for win potential -- pitching for the Cubs is not a positive in that department -- Garza would get more love, but if you know my drafting tendencies, you know wins predictions are not what motivate me. I say get your ERA, WHIP and K's, and hope the wins come.
Let's get the other highlight member of my "Kings of Command" preseason piece out of the way, lest this quickly morph into a repeat of that column. (Hey, there are worse facts to regurgitate, such as Ian Kennedy's 2011 win total.) Everything about Niese's game looks like a pitcher who through two-plus seasons of misfortune in the bigs might be ready to break out. He has superb command numbers, exemplified by his 3.28 xFIP and elite ground-ball rate (53.6 percent), and a diverse enough arsenal to avoid a steep lefty-righty split. Niese was one of the few pitchers I was displeased not to land in the annual League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) draft; the only reason I didn't is because I wasn't going to pay the same rate to get him ($9) as Anibal Sanchez.
"Third base" is merely his eligible fantasy position (for now); Gamel is going to be the Brewers' starting first basemen this season.
You heard me: I said going to. You might be familiar with Gamel's name, perhaps inclined to make dismissive analysis like, "Oh, wasn't he that prospect who stunk for the Brewers three years ago?" The truth is that the only aspect of Gamel's game that truly stunk was his defense; he has a ghastly .881 fielding percentage and minus-17.9 UZR/150 (Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games played) in his big league career at third base, which encompasses all of 224 innings. It is that, not his bat, that has been the primary obstacle standing in his way of regular at-bats with the Brewers, as he has outstanding, .301/.374/.512 triple-slash rates in Triple-A ball. This will be the first time the team gives him a chance to succeed with his bat without sweating the damage done by his glove. Considering he'll do it while qualifying at third base, he's an excellent late-round target, even in mixed leagues.
This is not the easiest thing to say about a player on a Dusty Baker team, but as a fantasy owner, you should draft skills, not roles at least in the late rounds. Heisey deserves a chance to play regularly, and Baker is going to quickly realize that once he gets an extended look at Ryan Ludwick, who really hasn't hit since the St. Louis Cardinals traded him in July 2010. Heck, Heisey isn't even your prototypical platoon candidate; he's more of a reverse platoon player; the righty swinger has an .885 lifetime OPS versus right-handers, but a .548 mark versus left-handers. And he's 27, which isn't saying he's at that "magical breakout age" (that's hogwash, I say!), but rather says that he's a prime-years player who deserves a better shake of the at-bats.
To find out why I love Sale so much, you're simply going to have to check out my dissertation on him as part of our "30 Questions" series.
A surface glance at his ERA/WHIP numbers might have you skeptical he belongs in the "elite" class of relief pitchers, but Hernandez's statistics don't do justice to how brilliantly his arsenal suits the role. He brings a mid-90s fastball, one of the filthiest sliders in baseball (.326 OPS allowed with it, sixth-best in baseball among pitchers who threw at least 250 sliders), and a changeup juuuuuuuust good enough to keep left-handed hitters honest. Hernandez also has the makeup to close, having notched 11 saves in 2011, and he's pitching behind a closer who has made trips to the disabled list in four consecutive seasons. I like J.J. Putz quite a bit; the problem is that if Putz is sidelined for, say, a 30-day period, that's plenty of time for Hernandez to jump in, pitch well in the role and then never give the job back.
Speaking of cheap saves, I'd like to present one Mr. Jim Johnson. Early-spring back problems, as well as his being a member of the lowly Orioles, might scare off many owners, but Johnson has similarly good stuff to another underrated closer, Brandon League. And League was the No. 14 reliever on our Player Rater last season.
Doumit is finally a member of the American League, which is for the best, because during his time as a National Leaguer, he was a catcher only in name.
Doumit's skills are all on the offensive side of the ball, and the switch hitter is a righty-killer, having posted a .282 batting average or better, and an .802 OPS or better, versus right-handers in four of the past five seasons. That's a nice plus, considering a majority of the pitchers in baseball are right-handed. He also provides the Twins options: If Joe Mauer can handle the chores of catching daily, Doumit can slide in at designated hitter on an everyday basis, perhaps sparing him the health risks that have cost him six career trips to the DL, most of those for extended periods. If Mauer can't catch, Doumit can spend some of his time behind the plate, while getting the occasional off-day start at DH or first base. Either way, Doumit might be 2012's best example of the catcher-eligible player who pads his at-bat total at other positions.
Ike Davis, 1B, Mets
I'm either going to be very right or very wrong about Davis, especially now that we've heard the early-spring news about his valley fever. The Conor Jackson comparison might terrify Davis' prospective fantasy owners, but I'll say that from what I've seen in two games from Davis since his diagnosis didn't raise any red flags. (To restate: That's two games. But it's the spring, and sometimes that's all we'll get to assess a situation.) He might well be the Mets' cleanup hitter come Opening Day, and so far in the majors he has .271/.357/.460 triple-slash rates, with an average of 23 home runs and 85 RBIs per 162 games played. Oh, and the Mets moved the Citi Field fences in. Let's remain optimistic -- for now.
Lucas Duda, 1B/OF, Mets
If Davis isn't going to benefit from the smaller Citi Field dimensions, surely Duda will. He has two skills that fantasy owners should love: He can draw walks, as evidenced by a career 12.5 percent minor league walk rate and 8.9 rate so far with the Mets, and he can hit for power, evidenced by his .296 isolated power at the Triple-A level (in 108 games from 2010-11) and .195 so far with the Mets. Isn't it remarkable that players from a team in New York are actually underrated for once?
He does a good Arnold Schwarzenegger impression, and that has to count for something in fantasy, right? Wait, what? It doesn't? OK, how about this: He managed an 8.15 K's-per-nine and 2.65 walks-per-nine ratio, a 3.06 ERA and a 1.21 WHIP after the All-Star break last season, primarily because his fastball command improved to the point where he threw it for strikes 66 percent of the time, generated swings on 19 percent of swings against it and limited foes to .237/.310/.308 triple-slash rates with it during that span. Compare those to the major league averages of 65, 15 and .278/.354/.443, and that's pretty impressive. And he's a command pitcher. Holland appears ready to take the next step.
As with Heisey, Mayberry is a player who deserves a chance at everyday at-bats, considering the righty swinger was a .250/.330/.455 hitter versus right-handed pitchers in 2011, noticeably better than the major league averages of .248/.308/.387 his fellow righty hitters had versus righty pitchers. The Phillies have openings at both left field and first base, and Mayberry could handle either. He also has averaged one homer per 16.0 at-bats so far at the big league level, so this one's a no-brainer.
Juan Pierre, OF, Philadelphia Phillies
Liking Mayberry Jr. is not to say I have anything against Juan Pierre. Statheads can't stand him, but fantasy owners appreciate him because of the value of his most marketable skill: speed. Pierre probably will make the Phillies; that he's on a non-guaranteed deal will suppress his draft value. Heck, he was a $1 player in LABR. I'd have spent $4 more for what's sure to be a bargain-bin 20-plus steals.
Vance Worley, SP, Philadelphia Phillies
Hey, a Phillies theme! The Phillies should seriously consider taking last year's leftover batch of "Four Aces" T-shirts, pasting Worley's name and image over Roy Oswalt's, and putting them back up for sale. Frankly, they might not only sell as well the quartet's performance this season might match the expected output of last year's, considering Oswalt disappointed in 2011.
Worley was a sensation as the team's No. 5 starter a year ago, and his arsenal is following in the footsteps of the three men ahead of him in the rotation: He's dabbling with a cutter. Heck, the Phillies as a team threw more cutters (2,670) and a higher percentage of them (11.7 percent) than anyone else in baseball, so there's seemingly a camaraderie, perhaps a mentor-protégé culture, among their pitchers. Look at Cole Hamels' career progression: He introduced the cutter in 2010 and rebounded from the worst year (2009) of his career, then perfected it in 2011 and posted his all-time best season. Worley introduced his cutter in 2010, continued to hone it in 2011 and might take it to the next level this season, a la Hamels. That's not to say Worley is Hamels' equal in terms of talent. It merely supports his case as a pitcher more likely to take another step forward then endure a sophomore slump.
I cannot explain how a player as quick as Fowler, and as adept at getting on base -- he has a .355 on-base percentage and 11.9 percent walk rate so far in the majors -- has so much trouble being an efficient base stealer; he has been successful in only 66 percent of his steal attempts. I merely look at a player with his skills and say, for the price he'll cost you, it's a leap of faith you need to take.
Trevor Bauer, SP, Arizona Diamondbacks
There needs to be at least one rookie on this list, right? Bauer is my choice, and no, it's not just because his last name is "Bauer." (Speaking of which, how is that "24" movie coming?) You might regard Bauer more of an August call-up, but by all rights he might actually break camp with the Diamondbacks. Remember, this is a rotation that rounds out with soft-tossers Joe Saunders and Josh Collmenter, both of whom are currently injured. Bauer has better stuff than either; the Diamondbacks should take this opportunity to test the kid.
Guess I'm going down with the ship on this one; those who have followed me for years know my fondness for Young back in the day. That said, he's not on this list for blind love, he's on it because everyone has apparently given up on him again despite the fact that he's only 26 years old and in a much better situation than he was a year ago. Don't get me wrong; Young has flaws. He doesn't draw walks, and he's atrocious in the field. But in his defense, he's a .288 lifetime hitter. He had 21 homers in 2010, and 13 in 55 games for the Tigers last season (playoffs included). If your league counts on-base percentage, you don't want him. If it doesn't
Brandon Belt, 1B/OF, San Francisco Giants
The Giants need to give this kid a place to play every day. If they can't, they need to trade him. Heck, maybe we'd all be better off if it's the latter.
Matt Wieters, C, Baltimore Orioles
Like Young, I've always been a Wieters fan; unlike Young, Wieters is going to realize the full potential predicted for him at the time of his 2009 major league debut, whereas Young's "peak-potential" projections require some adjustment. Wieters merely has taken more time than expected to get there; the toils of catching have slowed his progress, which isn't shocking, and at least I've got plenty of good company in having been a couple seasons too early on this curve. The 2012 season, however, is not the time to give up on Wieters, who clubbed 12 home runs the final two months of last season, set a career high with his 83.2 percent contact rate and finally mastered left-handed pitching (.339/.430/.694 triple-slash rates against them), which had previously been a significant weakness of his. I'm a Carlos Santana fan, and think Mike Napoli's power potential, plus ballpark, are outstanding, yet Wieters' career trend projects him on a track that might well earn him the No. 1 spot at his position this season.
Madison Bumgarner, SP, San Francisco Giants
I know what you want when it comes to my final player. You want to know, "Who is 2012's Jered Weaver?" As in, who is the current top-25 ranked starting pitcher with the best chance at finishing as a top-10 starter season? Bumgarner is my answer. The strikeouts are legitimate, as the reason he increased his strikeout rate by more than 1.5 per nine last season was his reliance upon his slider as a swing-and-miss pitch. He threw it 38 percent of the time with two strikes, 35 percent in any count after the All-Star break, and recorded 85 of his 191 whiffs with it all season. If Bumgarner whiffs more than 200 in 2012, don't be at all surprised.
Finally, since this is a "my opinion" column sprinkled with doughnut talk, no such piece would be complete without a list of my top three all-time doughnut flavors: Boston crème, blueberry cake and sugar (non-powdered; if you're ever in Nantucket, Mass., try this one at the Downyflake).
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com, a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league, and a 2011 FSWA award winner for Best Baseball Article on the Web. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.