Offseason notebook: Arms on the move
Morrow, Marquis, Capps, Gonzalez, Rodney among pitchers finding new homes
For every great Christmas present -- your Wiis, iPods or plasma HDTVs -- you've got your more forgettable gifts -- like tube socks.
There's a certain practicality, though, to a gift of tube socks. They might not be exciting to find under your Christmas tree, but make no mistake you'll use them just the same -- like that cold, February morning when you poke a hole through an old pair. On that morning, you're glad you got a fresh, new bag of tube socks for Christmas, right? (Or even if you forgot where you got 'em, boy, you're thankful you don't then have to run out to buy a bag wearing a pair of holey socks.)
It follows, then, that if Javier Vazquez was this week's "Wii" of fantasy baseball transactions (see here for a detailed analysis of the deal), the ones listed below are our "tube socks." You might scoff at the idea they're that meaningful, but rest assured, on that fine day in March when you're engaged in the late rounds of your 2010 draft, you'll be happy you studied up on them as opposed to settling for a big, gaping hole at the end of your roster.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, everyone, and while I wish each of you a Wii under your tree, I wish you a bag of tube socks right next to it after all, what better way to scamper across the floor playing Wii than in a fresh pair of tube socks?
Let's get to the week's moves
Toronto Blue Jays acquire Brandon Morrow: Sometimes, a change of scenery is all a young, mishandled prospect needs to get his career back on track. Remember Phil Nevin? He finally blossomed once the San Diego Padres acquired him and made him their everyday third baseman in 1999 -- his fifth big league season. Morrow might benefit from a clearer career path in Toronto, as while it's currently unclear whether the Blue Jays regard him as their future closer or a starter to help plug the hole created by the Roy Halladay trade, they'll surely make that decision before spring training and stick with it.
Chances are they'll make him a starter, because he's more likely to make a greater career impact that way. Plus the Blue Jays, who are playing for the long term, hardly need to be harvesting a closer right now. Morrow will get a chance to make the team, but as much as he was bounced back and forth between roles by the Seattle Mariners, he might need to begin the year honing his craft in the minors. That's a good reason not to overinflate your expectations; Morrow's best-case scenario has him posting an ERA in the threes with about a strikeout per inning in 30-plus starts, but even then he might not be a big winner and his WHIP could still reside in the 1.30 to 1.40 range.
Brandon League, one of the players acquired by the Mariners in the deal, should take over as one of the primary set-up men to David Aardsma. AL-only owners might find a certain degree of sleeper value in League, as while he did have a 4.58 ERA in his first full big league season in 2009, he also had a 1.25 WHIP and 3.62 strikeout-to-walk ratio, both impressive numbers. He's also a noted ground-baller, with 62.0 percent of his career batted balls that type, while Aardsma is a fly-baller (53.9 percent in 2009) with a high walk rate (4.3 per nine). Considering the turnover at closer around the majors, it's not unthinkable that League might see some save chances in-season should Aardsma fail to repeat.
Washington Nationals sign Jason Marquis and Matt Capps: Fantasy owners tend to have a bias against Marquis, and understandably; he typically has a low strikeout rate and his ERA/WHIP numbers are never among the league leaders. Owning him is effectively chasing wins, meaning he's a poster boy for "matchups type," and that's really only when he's pitching effectively enough that a team wants to have him in its regular rotation. From that angle, one good thing about his two-year, $15 million deal is that the Nationals want him as an innings eater more than anything, so unless he's horrible, he'll be in there for 30-plus starts to allow you to pick and choose those you like.
One bad thing, of course, is that the Nationals averaged 0.58 runs fewer per game than the Colorado Rockies in 2009, so one must wonder where the wins will come from. Don't immediately assume getting out of Coors Field will mean a drastic reduction in his ratios; he had a 3.92 ERA and 1.44 WHIP at Coors, compared to 4.16 and 1.32 on the road in 2009, so it's not like venues made much of a difference. Marquis (and I know my readers sometimes hate this phrase) "is what he is," an NL-only matchups option, and not one I'd expect more than a dozen truly useful starts. I'd bet, though, that if you hate when fantasy owners stream starters, he's probably the kind of guy you hate seeing constantly left available on the waiver wire.
Capps, inked to a one-year, $3.25 million deal, according to ESPNChicago.com, presumably steps ahead of Brian Bruney in the Nationals' pecking order. That might yet be a spring battle, but "closer experience" often goes a long way toward making managers' decisions, and Capps does have 66 saves the past three seasons combined. Of course, he had an awful 5.80 ERA and 1.66 WHIP in 2009, perhaps a product of an elbow issue that cost him a few games in May. Capps gets a fresh chance with a team with a clear path to the ninth-inning role, and if his command looks improved upon this past season (career-worst 2.8 walks-per-nine innings ratio) during spring training, he could be a sleeper for top-20 closer value.
Baltimore Orioles sign Mike Gonzalez, Garrett Atkins: Gonzalez is the clear prize, as he's the probable closer for the Orioles after saving 10 games with a 2.42 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 10.9 strikeouts-per-nine innings ratio for the Atlanta Braves in 2009. He's certainly capable, with health the primary obstacle to his being a top-20 (perhaps even top-15) closer; he had stints on the disabled list in each season from 2005 to 2008 and missed a small handful of games this past year due to back and elbow issues. If the Orioles manage him well and are fortunate enough to get another 74 1/3 innings out of him, he could top 30-plus saves with a three-ish ERA (remember, he's now pitching in the loaded American League East) and 80-plus strikeouts. Of course, fantasy owners probably shouldn't draft him as that, but more a mid- to late-round pick with upside. If you're going to handcuff him -- and AL-only owners should -- ground-baller Jim Johnson, who finished 2009 in the role, is your man.
Atkins fits the description of a guy getting a fresh start coming off a miserable year, but remember that it was a particularly miserable year. Despite his Rockies status, he managed a .650 OPS -- 137 points higher than starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez. One worry: Atkins' career batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage at Coors is .327/.385/.507, but on the road it's .252/.324/.411. He picked a decent enough offensive ballpark to hop to, but also the tougher league and the game's toughest division. Atkins could always rebound and have a good share of AL-only value, but he's not an elite power source and it's more likely he's a .275 hitter than anything close to .300. In fact, he's probably closer at this stage of his career to being a platoon candidate than All-Star.
Oakland Athletics sign Coco Crisp: If you're a Rajai Davis owner in a keeper league, don't fret, because Crisp probably will either occupy a fourth-outfielder role, spelling the starters at all three positions, or man center field with Davis shifting to a corner. Crisp's $5.25 million, one-year deal ensures he'll probably play enough to be helpful in AL-only formats, but monitor his spring, as he's coming off surgery on both shoulders. He's actually more of a boon to the pitching staff -- outfield defense -- than as a fantasy option himself, but a .280-hitting, 20-steal season is possible (hey, Davis just stole 41 for a Billy Beane team). If there's any drawback, it's that Crisp's presence makes it less likely recently acquired Michael Taylor will make the team.
Los Angeles Angels sign Fernando Rodney: In a classic case of overrating the save, the Angels signed Rodney for two years and $11 million, reports ESPNDeportes.com's Enrique Rojas. Rodney presumably will take over the eighth-inning role behind closer Brian Fuentes, though if Fuentes is as erratic as he was at times in 2009, Rodney will surely get some save chances, deserved or not. The problem for fantasy owners, of course, is that if Rodney isn't getting save chances, then he's not at all valuable except as an on-your-bench handcuff, mostly in AL-only formats. Consider that of the 89 pitchers with at least 60 innings pitched in relief, Rodney's ERA ranked 77th (4.40) and WHIP 75th (1.47). Even Fuentes -- who pitched only 55 frames -- had better ratios (3.93 and 1.40). Rodney's arrival is a hit to Fuentes' fantasy value and Fuentes' presence is a massive hit to Rodney's, but one reason to keep tabs on who's closing all year: The Angels finished second in the majors in save chances in 2009 (70) and first in 2008 (89).
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.
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