Potential Difference Makers for the Stretch—National League

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Yesterday I talked about players who could make a difference to contenders down the stretch from the American League. Now let’s look at the National League.

Jason Bay, LF—New York Mets

I know he’s been about as bad as bad can possibly be and is owed $19 million next year, but if someone gets him out of New Yor…I’m sorry. I thought I could get through it and make myself sound convincing. But I can’t.

It was worth a try.

Francisco Rodriguez, RHP—Milwaukee Brewers

K-Rod was awful after he took over for John Axford as Brewers’ closer and it was his poor performances against the Phillies in helping blow two games that led to the Brewers tossing in the towel on the season and trading Zack Greinke. But he’s a veteran who’s got post-season experience and is a free agent at the end of the season. A contending team could get him for nothing. I’ve thought for awhile that he’d wind up back with the Angels and it’s still a fit.

Alfonso Soriano, LF—Chicago Cubs

The speculation has already started up again that the Giants would be a landing spot for Soriano now that Melky Cabrera has been suspended for 50 games for using a banned substance. Soriano can still hit the ball out of the park and the change to a new venue and a contending team could wake him up. Soriano’s owed $36 million in 2013-2014, so the Cubs would have to pay a chunk of it. They probably would to get him out of town and get a decent prospect or two.

Wesley Wright, LHP—Houston Astros

He’s a lefty specialist who’s held lefty bats to a .221/.295/.314 slash line with 30 strikeouts in 96 plate appearances. I can’t see the Astros being too demanding in trading him.

J.J. Putz, RHP—Arizona Diamondbacks

The Diamondbacks are 5 ½ games out of first place in the NL West behind both the Giants and Dodgers; they can forget about the Wild Card with the Braves rolling the way they are and the Pirates, Cardinals and one of the two teams in their division still fighting for one of the two extra playoff spots. Putz has a $6.5 million club option with a $1.5 million buyout. David Hernandez will be closing for the D-Backs next year and they’re not going to pick up Putz’s option. It makes sense to trade him and save that buyout money while getting a prospect or two from a contender, which they are not.

Luke Gregerson, RHP—San Diego Padres

The Padres aren’t selling. In fact, they’ve signed several players who might’ve been available—Huston Street, Carlos Quentin, Mark Kotsay (?)—to contract extensions; but they reportedly offered Gregerson to the Mets for Daniel Murphy. I’ve always liked Gregerson and if he’s available, he can help someone. I doubt they’re trading him though. He’s under team control for two more seasons.

Rafael Betancourt, RHP—Colorado Rockies

Betancourt could help multiple teams a great deal as a set-up man, but the Rockies haven’t shown the willingness to make any trades of their veterans and with the change in the power structure from Dan O’Dowd as the GM to Bill Geivett taking charge of the big league operation, it’s still unclear as to what’s going on in Colorado. I doubt they’ll do anything significant until the season’s over. Betancourt is signed for 2013 with a reasonable option for 2014 and unless an interested team gets crazy with an offer, they’re not moving him.

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National League Fantasy Sleepers

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Let’s look at some fantasy sleepers in the National League.

Mike Minor, LHP—Atlanta Braves

He got a lot of grief for what was perceived to be a “play me or trade me” demand that he start the season in the big leagues in the Braves’ starting rotation.

It wasn’t that kind of demand at all, but that’s how it was taken.

Putting that aside, with Tim Hudson recovering from back surgery Minor is going to have to start the season in the big leagues. He’ll want to get off to a good start to stake his claim in the rotation and validate his assertion that he belongs.

He racks up the strikeouts, hits hits/innings pitched ratio is great and he doesn’t allow a lot of home runs or walks.

John Mayberry Jr., OF/1B—Philadelphia Phillies

Mayberry has never gotten the chance to play regularly from the start of the season onward, but will in 2012.

With Ryan Howard’s return date increasingly uncertain after the procedure to clean up the infection in his surgical wound, there’s even more reason to pick up Mayberry. The Phillies’ situation in left field is in flux and he’ll also play some first base.

He has 25-30 homer potential.

Chase Utley, 2B—Philadelphia Phillies

Looking at his basic stats, it appears as if he’s on the decline due to age and injury.

It’s nonsense.

Utley has hit in notoriously bad luck in the past two seasons. His BAbip was .288 in 2010, .269 in 2011. He stole 14 bases without getting caught after returning from his knee injury. His power numbers were right in line with what he normally produces.

Utley’s going to have a big comeback year.

Chris Coghlan, INF/OF—Miami Marlins

He may have worn out his welcome with the newly star-studded Marlins, as injuries and bickering with the front office have diminished the former NL Rookie of the Year to a forgotten man.

The Marlins don’t have a prototypical centerfielder on the roster (they’re intent on going with Emilio Bonifacio), Coghlan can play the position defensively and his bat can rebound. He’ll get one last shot with the Marlins; otherwise he’s trade bait and is worth the risk in the hopes of a return to what he once was.

Frank Francisco, RHP—New York Mets

He’s not a great closer, but he strikes out over a batter an inning. If you need someone to get you some saves and don’t want to pay for them, he’s going to be cheap.

These are the Mets and fantasy mirrors reality.

Or reality mirrors fantasy.

Or both reflect a nightmare. Or circumstances.

Or all of the above.

Jonathan Lucroy, C—Milwaukee Brewers

Lucroy has a career minor league OPS of .838 and an OBP of .379. He’s hit 20 homers in a season in the minors and hit 12 in the big leagues last season.

He’ll be cheap and there’s major room for improvement.

Alex Presley, OF—Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates’ outfield situation flanking Andrew McCutchen isn’t set. Presley can run and had an .804 OPS in 231 plate appearances in the big leagues last season.

Jeff Samardzija, RHP—Chicago Cubs

The Cubs are going to trade Carlos Marmol at some point and someone—either Samardzija or Kerry Wood—will have to take over as closer. It makes no sense to use Wood at this stage of his career.

Samardzija overcame his control issues for the most part and struck out 87 in 88 innings last season.

Bud Norris, RHP—Houston Astros

Norris isn’t going to win many games for the Astros, but he strikes out close to a batter per inning and has had excellent hits/innings pitched ratios at every level.

David Hernandez, RHP—Arizona Diamondbacks

I don’t trust J.J. Putz to stay healthy and Hernandez saved 11 games in Putz’s absence last season.

Hernandez struck out 77 in 69 innings and allowed 49 hits.

Cory Luebke, LHP—San Diego Padres

Luebke struck out 154 in 139 innings last season and allowed 105 hits.

He began 2011 in the bullpen, but moved to the starting rotation in the second half. He’ll be a full-time starter in 2012.

Jerry Sands, OF—Los Angeles Dodgers

The Dodgers circumstances in left and right field aren’t settled. Juan Rivera is slated to start in left and Andre Ethier is a free agent at the end of the season and is a good bet to be traded.

Sands has posted huge power numbers in the minors—stats—and has the speed to steal 15-20 bases.

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The 2011 Diamondbacks And The Towers Of Credit

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The Diamondbacks turnaround and success under first-year GM Kevin Towers has cemented his supposed brilliance. A brilliance that became more pronounced while he wasn’t a GM and had his name bandied about as a “perfect” choice for any number of GM jobs. Like a backup quarterback in football, Towers could do no wrong as long as he wasn’t specifically doing anything. It’s a safe place to be.

After being fired by the Padres, Towers was an assistant to Brian Cashman with the Yankees for the 2010 season; as various jobs opened up, he was a candidate for all of them. He was hired by the Diamondbacks and took steps to improve the club’s woeful strikeout rate by trading Mark Reynolds and in the process acquired a valuable bullpen arm in David Hernandez.

Among other moves Towers made like signing J.J. Putz at a reduced rate and retaining manager Kirk Gibson, there’s little he’s had to do with this current club—a club that’s in first place, streaking with 7 straight wins and has opened some daylight between themselves and the reeling Giants. They now lead the NL West by 5 games.

But does Towers deserve all the credit he’s getting?

Much of the foundation of this club was already in place and it’s been there for awhile. The two prior regimes acquired many of the players on the team now.

Joe Garagiola Jr. was a highly underrated GM who won a World Series, dealt with a micromanaging organizational gadfly, Buck Showalter; and an empty uniform, Bob Brenly.

Garagiola’s replacement, Josh Byrnes, contributed as did interim GM Jerry DiPoto. In fact, DiPoto warrants accolades more than Towers; he’s still with the Diamondbacks as an assistant and is a top GM candidate himself.

Garagiola acquisitions:

Stephen Drew, SS—1st round draft choice, 2004.

Justin Upton, OF—1st round draft choice, 2005.

Miguel Montero, C—amateur free agent from Venezuela, 2001.

Gerardo Parra, OF—amateur free agent from Venezuela, 2004.

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Byrnes acquisitions:

Chris Young, CF—acquired from the White Sox for Javier Vazquez in December 2005.

Ian Kennedy, RHP—acquired in a 3-way trade with Edwin Jackson for Daniel Schlereth and Max Scherzer.

Ryan Roberts, INF, OF—signed as a minor league free agent in November, 2008.

Josh Collmenter, RHP—15th round draft choice, 2007.

Paul Goldschmidt, 1B—8th round draft choice, 2009.

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DiPoto acquisitions:

Joe Saunders, LHP—acquired from the Angels in the Dan Haren trade in July 2010.

Daniel Hudson, RHP—acquired from the White Sox in the Edwin Jackson trade in July 2010.

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Towers acquisitions:

J.J. Putz, RHP—signed as a free agent for 2-years, $10 million.

Zach Duke, LHP—signed as a free agent for 1-year at $4.25 million with a club option for 2012.

Henry Blanco, C—signed as a free agent for 1-year at $1.25 million with a mutual option 2012.

Willie Bloomquist, INF—signed as a free agent for 1-year, $900,000 with a mutual option for 2012.

Brad Ziegler, RHP—acquired from the Oakland Athletics for Brandon Allen and Jordan Norberto in July 2011.

Then there’s the deal of Kelly Johnson to the Blue Jays for Aaron Hill and John McDonald; its results remain to be seen.

There are certain things that Towers is good at. He builds excellent bullpens on the cheap; he loads his bench with versatile, leader-type players; and he can clear salary. But to suggest that the Diamondbacks are a product of Towers is the same fractured logic that led to him being so widely feted during the time that he wasn’t even a GM.

The one superiorly smart thing he did was to retain Gibson as his manager. Gibson lobbied hard for the job and said that his team was not going to be a pleasant opponent; they’d take people out on the bases; pitch inside; and retaliate when needed. And they have.

This Diamondbacks team is more than the sum of their parts; they play very, very hard and on the edge—like their manager did. He brought the football mentality to baseball when he was a player, took everything seriously and was more interested in winning over personal achievement; that’s how this Diamondbacks group plays.

Did Towers see that in Gibson? Was he enamored of the intensity that Gibson was going to instill? Or was it more of a, “he’s here and he’s not going to cost a lot of money” for a team that wasn’t expected to come this far, this fast?

Maybe.

Towers is a good GM.

In public perception Towers is responsible for the rise of the Diamondbacks; how much he’s owed in reality is limited because a large portion of this club was in place on his arrival and is succeeding as a matter of circumstance rather than grand design on the part of the GM.

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