Offseason notebook: Outfield shuffle
Fantasy impact of Matsui, Cameron signings, Pierre, Bradley trades
A busy week, this one was. Seems the winter meetings did serve one critical purpose -- they helped teams set up some of the big dealings of this week!
But Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and John Lackey weren't the only ones changing hands; lesser role players did swap uniforms, but did so more under-the-radar than those star-caliber names. No matter, as fantasy owners love even the minor moves, because that's so often where the sleepers can be found.
Here's a rundown of some of the other moves that have recently gone down:
Los Angeles Angels sign Hideki Matsui: Matsui played a key part in the New York Yankees' World Series championship, earning Series MVP honors, and when the championship banner is raised (and possibly also rings handed out) in April, he'll be there for the ceremonies. He just won't be wearing pinstripes at the time.
The veteran slugger signed a one-year, $6 million contract to join the Angels on Wednesday, joining the very team his Yankees defeated in the American League Championship Series in 2009, and the one that will be the Yankees' opponent in their 2010 home opener. Matsui presumably takes over as the Angels' designated hitter, replacing Vladimir Guerrero, a free agent himself this winter.
Fantasy owners might think of such a swap sheer lunacy, especially accounting for the fact Matsui is actually eight months older than Guerrero. The numbers back it up, however: In 2009, Matsui had the better of his predecessor in terms of on-base percentage (.367-.334), slugging percentage (.509-.460), at-bats per home run (16.3-25.5), plate appearances per walk (8.2-21.4) and games played (142-100). Guerrero topped him primarily in two "ratio" categories, batting average (.295-.274) and at-bats per strikeout (6.1-6.8). Even if you adjust for home ballparks -- Yankee Stadium was the most homer-friendly ballpark in baseball in 2009 (1.261 Park Factor) -- and use only road statistics, Matsui still bested Guerrero in all of those same statistical categories.
How is that possible? Matsui, who has battled knee issues in recent seasons, seemed to warm to the full-time designated hitter role, a spot that preserved him over the course of a full 162-game schedule. He's also better at working the count (3.93 pitches per plate appearances in 2009, 3.85 in his career) than Guerrero (3.23 and 3.24), and lacks any sort of platoon split, having tied for the major league lead in home runs by a left-hander versus left-handed pitching (13) and finished second only to Raul Ibanez in slugging percentage versus southpaws among those with 100-plus plate appearances (.618). Those who wrote Matsui off in recent years due to lingering concerns about his knee -- myself included -- wound up dead wrong, and chances are he might actually approach his 2009 production in L.A.
Matsui was my No. 160 player overall in my recent rankings, compared to 96 for Guerrero, but expect those numbers to edge closer together mainly because I overestimated Guerrero in the first run. More likely Guerrero will simply plummet in the next run this week, while Matsui should remain a top-150 player, well worth your consideration once you reach the double-digit rounds in your draft.
Boston Red Sox sign Mike Cameron: Having already determined they would not pursue Jason Bay to continue patrolling left field at Fenway Park, the Red Sox on Tuesday signed Mike Cameron to a two-year, $15.5 million contract.
If that sounds like a potentially significant downgrade, that's because it is; the Red Sox go from Bay's .267 batting average, .384 on-base percentage and .537 slugging percentage in 2009 (.280/.376/.519 career) to Cameron's .250/.342/.452 (.250/.340/.448 career), and they get older by nearly five years. Plus, while Bay shuffled between the Nos. 4, 5 and 6 spots in the Red Sox's lineup, Cameron more likely will occupy a lower spot in the order.
So what's the rationale behind the deal? Defense, of course, which helps it make a heck of a lot more sense. By most accounts, Cameron will take over for Bay in left, a position he has manned precisely three times and for 9 2/3 innings in his career. He could also play center field, with Jacoby Ellsbury shifting to left, a move that might be wise considering that by any defensive metric, Cameron had better range and was above-average in center in 2009, while Ellsbury was oddly below-average (ranging to poor depending on the source). Of course, those defensive factors mean little to fantasy owners of either Cameron or Ellsbury, but owners of Red Sox pitchers should care -- especially a noted fly-baller like Daisuke Matsuzaka.
In terms of draft value, Cameron might make a case as a fourth/fifth mixed-league outfielder, but potentially an overrated one as a lower-half-of-the-order Red Sox hitter. His speed is dwindling -- his seven steals and 10 attempts were by far his worst numbers in either category in any full season -- and he's a batting-average drain, having failed to hit better than .250 since 2006. Picking Cameron means chasing 25 homers and potentially 75-80 RBIs and runs, but he's actually likely to do at least as much helping the pitchers than he will fantasy teams with his bat.
One thing that's a shame: Jeremy Hermida, a sleeper at the time of his acquisition from the Florida Marlins, now seems destined for a fourth outfielder role. In an outfield with aging injury risks like Cameron and J.D. Drew, Hermida still has some appeal in AL-only formats, but his playing time takes a noticeable hit.
New York Yankees sign Nick Johnson: Looking to patch the holes created (or potentially created) by the free-agent departures of Hideki Matsui and (possibly) Johnny Damon, the New York Yankees signed Johnson to a one-year, $5.5-million contract with incentives, pending a physical, reports ESPN The Magazine's Buster Olney. It might seem a redundant signing for a team with a strong defensive everyday first baseman already on the roster, but Johnson makes a lot of sense for the Yankees. He's an injury risk, having averaged 93 games per year since 2002 and appeared in as many as 130 only three times, but as the Yankees' primary designated hitter, replacing Hideki Matsui, he might be comparably preserved over the 162-game season to Matsui in 2009.
It's the first time Johnson will occupy the DH role regularly and he's one of the most patient hitters in the game, with a .426 on-base percentage and an average of 4.36 pitches per plate appearances, both of which ranked him third in the majors in 2009. He might be a perfect fit for the No. 2 hole in the Yankee lineup, potentially left unoccupied due to Johnny Damon's free agency, and fantasy owners surely have to know that a player with a .400-plus OBP batting ahead of Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez is going to score well over 100 runs. Plus, if you recall my column about the Curtis Granderson trade, Johnson's installation as the No. 2 hitter would alleviate any worries about Derek Jeter's base stealing opportunities, not to mention maximize Granderson's potential as a heart-of-the-order hitter, not a table-setter.
Fantasy owners can't draft Johnson expecting huge numbers because of the high levels of injury risk, but he might be a .290-hitting, .410-OBP, 125-run player (Yankees No. 2 hitters managed 128 runs thanks to a .365 OBP) if he can stay healthy. Granderson, meanwhile, becomes a stronger bet for 30 homers, 100 RBIs and 20 steals if he's more of a Nos. 5-6-7 hitter than No. 2.
Chicago Cubs, Seattle Mariners swap Milton Bradley, Carlos Silva: It's a trade of two headaches for their former teams. The Cubs dealt Bradley due to his antics, not to mention his bloated contract, while the Mariners dealt Silva due, well, simply to his bloated contract. Don't let those comments convince you the Cubs pulled off a heist here; the opposite is the truth. Silva finished his Mariners career with a 5-18 record, 6.81 ERA and 1.62 WHIP in 36 games (34 starts), shaping up as one of the worst players in fantasy baseball the past two seasons. He'll get a fresh start in Chicago, and in the National League, but if he's even a matchups consideration against bad teams, it should be considered a surprise.
Bradley, meanwhile, presumably takes over in left field and a middle-of-the-order role for the Mariners. Though his 2009 was a rocky one marred by injuries, and certainly a huge letdown compared to his 2008, he did provide some hidden value. He had a healthy .378 OBP and batted .282 with a .429 slugging percentage in 96 games from May 1-Aug. 31, really the only times he ever seemed comfortable in the Windy City. With a fresh start in Seattle, he might capitalize upon being one of the few run producers in the heart of a lineup with a much-improved upper third, perhaps capable of another 20-homer, 75-RBI season if he stays healthy. Of course, like Johnson, fantasy owners can't necessarily draft him as such due to the risk.
Chicago White Sox trade for Juan Pierre: A significant move in fantasy, because Pierre steals bases, hits for a decent batting average and bats high in the order, meaning plenty of runs scored, and all of those things have a profound impact in our game that's not quite paralleled on the diamond. Most significant: Pierre is the kind of player who is actually more effective at his trade given regular at-bats, something he was never guaranteed when the Los Angeles Dodgers had a healthy Manny Ramirez on the field. During Ramirez's 50-game suspension, for instance, Pierre batted .318 (.381 on-base percentage) with 21 steals (in 28 tries) and played all but two innings, averaging one steal attempt per 8.57 plate appearances or 3.21 times on base by hit, walk or hit by pitch. The rest of the season, he batted .295 (.344 OBP) with nine steals (in 14 tries) and started as many as three games in a row only once, averaging one steal per 13.21 PAs or 4.43 times on base.
Those steals differentials weren't limited to only 2009, either. In 2008, Pierre averaged one steal per 7.47 PAs or 2.42 times on base in 79 games before Ramirez was acquired, compared to one per 9.44 PAs or 3.00 times on base in 40 games with Ramirez on the roster. Pierre simply plays his best when he's in there regularly, and considering the White Sox got a combined .302 OBP from leadoff hitters not named Scott Podsednik in 2009, he's going to be in there regularly. A return to his .290-hitting, 50-steal, 100-run days is not unthinkable, though he's 32 years old. It's probably smarter to target him as more of a middle-to-late rounder than the price tags of his prime, which were a lot closer to top-50 worthy.
A-Rod won't need second surgery: Huge news for Alex Rodriguez, as the concern back in March at the time he underwent surgery for torn cartilage in his hip was that eventually he was going to require a more extensive procedure to finish the job, presumably done during this winter (if he could hold off for that long). But after meeting with the surgeon who operated on him in March, A-Rod learned that his hip had already properly healed. He's ready to begin his offseason workout program, and considering the guy batted .294 with 36 home runs, 118 RBIs and 16 stolen bases in 139 games combined between the regular season and postseason in 2009, he's sure looking like a safe top-five overall pick.
Notable non-tenders: Baseball's deadline for tendering a 2010 contract to players arrived this past Friday, and with it some notable non-tenders (players now fresh to the free-agent market). Among the notable names, along with the brief fantasy implications of the decisions: Mike MacDougal of the Washington Nationals, a move somewhat expected with closer candidate Brian Bruney now on board; Matt Capps of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who had 27 saves but a 5.80 ERA in 2009 and might lose all of his fantasy value if he's forced to settle for a setup job elsewhere; Jack Cust of the Oakland Athletics, a poster boy for the "three true outcomes" hitter (home run, walk or strikeout) who might do well to escape that spacious ballpark yet will always be more valuable in fantasy leagues that use OBP over batting average; and Chien-Ming Wang of the New York Yankees, a former 19-game winner who might be an intriguing sleeper so long as his spring health reports are positive and he signs with a team with good infield defense.
Kansas City Royals sign Jason Kendall: It's a frightening prospect that the Royals might go into Opening Day with Kendall their starting catcher. Not that fantasy owners should be excited. Kendall has batted under .250 in each of the past three seasons and hit two home runs in 2009, whereas the major league-average catcher with as many PAs as Kendall (526) had 13 home runs, 59 RBIs and 53 runs scored. Kendall, by comparison, had two, 43 and 48.
Chicago White Sox sign J.J. Putz: He'll take over as Bobby Jenks' primary set-up man, a significant role in that Jenks, who is arbitration eligible, has been linked to trade rumors in the past. Putz is coming off an awful season cut short by surgery to remove a bone spur from his elbow, but when healthy he's a better-than-strikeout-per-inning reliever. Here's your handcuff, Jenks owners.
Dioner Navarro remains in Tampa Bay: I alluded to the possibility of the Tampa Bay Rays non-tendering Navarro after acquiring Kelly Shoppach a few weeks back, but as the deadline approached he and the team agreed to terms on a one-year, $2.1 million contract, an identical amount to what he earned in 2009. It's still possible the Rays might deal one of the two, especially since neither one hits right-handers well, but if both remain it's going to adversely affect both their fantasy values. Pressed to pick I'd prefer Shoppach, because as the right-handed hitter of the two (Navarro switch-hits), he might play only against lefties with Navarro battling righties, a good arrangement for Shoppach but a poor one for Navarro.
Toronto Blue Jays sign John Buck: He could wind up the Blue Jays' starter, or more likely will be paired with another catcher in a straight split of the role to allow prospect J.P. Arencibia to break in at his own speed. Buck, a .235 career hitter, isn't a worthwhile fantasy choice outside of deep AL-only leagues.
Philadelphia Phillies sign Ross Gload: Expect Gload, who batted .318 as a pinch hitter in 2009, to occupy the Matt Stairs role, coming in mostly as a pinch hitter but occasionally earning a start at first base or the corner outfield spots. Unfortunately, Gload isn't quite as attractive a spot-start candidate for fantasy owners, as he's a .279/.330/.414 hitter in his career against right-handers. Stairs, by comparison, is a career .270/.364/.494 hitter against that side.
Los Angeles Dodgers sign Jamey Carroll: He's currently the Los Angeles Dodgers' top man at second base on the depth chart, but come Opening Day, Carroll more likely will slide into the Ronnie Belliard role, filling in at second and third base. Unfortunately, Carroll isn't an especially attractive spot-start type, either, as a .284/.359/.357 career hitter versus left-handers. He'll serve more value as a defender, which unfortunately means little to most fantasy owners.
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.