National League Breakout/Rebound Candidates (Or Cheap Gets For Your Fantasy Team)

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Last week, I looked at breakout/rebound candidates for the American League, some of whom will be very, very cheap pickups for your fantasy clubs. Now I’ll look at the National League.

Wilson Ramos, C—Washington Nationals

Ramos is coming back from a torn ACL in his knee and because the Nationals traded for Kurt Suzuki from the Athletics last season, there’s no need to rush Ramos back before he’s 100%. But he will eventually take over as the starting catcher and it’s not just because he’s a future All-Star and potential Gold Glove winner.

Suzuki is a competent everyday catcher who’s shown 15 homer power in the past. Even if he’s not hitting, the Nationals lineup is strong enough to carry one mediocre bat and Suzuki’s good with the pitchers.

There’s a financial component though. Suzuki has a club option in his contract for 2014 at $8.5 million. The option becomes guaranteed if Suzuki starts 113 games in 2013. Barring another injury to Ramos, that is not going to happen. Ramos will be catching 5 of every 7 games by the summer.

Freddie Freeman, 1B—Atlanta Braves

It’s easy to forget about Freeman due to the number of power-hitting first basemen around baseball, but he’s gotten steadily better every year as a professional and with the infusion of Justin Upton and B.J. Upton into the lineup, plus Brian McCann, Jason Heyward and Dan Uggla, teams won’t be worried about Freeman’s power leading to him getting more pitches to hit.

Lucas Duda, LF—New York Mets

Given the Mets on-paper outfield (Collin Cowgill, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Mike Baxter, Marlon Byrd, Marv Throneberry, George Theodore, Jan Brady, Cindy Brady, Gilligan, Barnaby Jones, Cannon), there’s plenty of fodder for ridicule. Duda is the butt of jokes because of his last name; that he’s a bad outfielder; because he seems so quiet and reticent. The criticism is missing an important factor: he can hit, hit for power and walk. If the Mets tell him he’s their starting left fielder, period, they’ll be rewarded with 25-30 homers and a .360+ on base percentage. So will fantasy owners.

Bobby Parnell, RHP—New York Mets

With Frank Francisco sidelined with elbow woes, Parnell has been named the Mets’ closer…for now. They have Brandon Lyon on the team and are still said to be weighing Jose Valverde. None of that matters. Parnell was going to get the shot at some point this season and with a little luck in Washington last season when defensive miscues cost him an impressive and legitimate old-school, fireman-style save, he would’ve taken the role permanently back then.

Jacob Turner, RHP—Miami Marlins

The Tigers were concerned about Turner’s velocity at the end of spring training 2012 and he wound up being traded to the Marlins in the deal for Omar Infante and Anibal Sanchez. He acquitted himself well in seven starts for the Marlins and will be in the 2013 rotation from start to finish. He has all the pitches, a great curve, command and presence.

Justin Ruggiano, CF—Miami Marlins

It’s natural to wonder if a player who has his breakout year at age 30 is a product of unlocked talent and opportunity or a brief, freak thing that will end as rapidly as it came about.

Ruggiano has been a very good minor league player who never got a shot to play in the big leagues. He took advantage of it in 2012 and will open the season as the Marlins starting center fielder.

Billy Hamilton, CF—Cincinnati Reds

The Reds have major expectations in 2013 and much of their fortunes hinge on their pitching staff; they’re functioning with Shin-Soo Choo playing an unfamiliar position in center field; at mid-season (or earlier) it may become clear that Choo can’t play the position well enough for the pitchers nor to bluff their way through to the playoffs. Hamilton is in Triple A learning center field after a shift from the infield and can make up for any educational curve with sheer, blinding speed that has yielded 320 stolen bases in 379 minor league games. He also provides something they lack: a legitimate leadoff hitter and an exciting spark that other teams have to plan for.

Vince Coleman spurred the 1985 Cardinals to the pennant by distracting the opposing pitchers into derangement and opening up the offense for Willie McGee to win the batting title and Tommy Herr and Jack Clark to rack up the RBI. The same thing could happen with Hamilton, Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Choo.

Jason Grilli, RHP—Pittsburgh Pirates

Grilli is a first time closer at age 36, but he’s a late-bloomer with a fastball in the mid-90s and a ripping strikeout slider. The Pirates starting pitching and offense are good enough to provide Grilli with enough save chances to make him worthwhile as a pickup.

Kyuji Fujikawa, RHP—Chicago Cubs

Fujikawa was a strikeout machine as a closer in Japan and history has proven that Japanese closers tend to transition to North America much better than starters without the fanfare. Takashi Saito and Kazuhiro Sasaki are examples.

The Cubs are in full-blown rebuild and will trade incumbent closer Carlos Marmol during the season. They’ll let him close at the outset to boost his value, then dump him, handing the job to Fujukawa.

Dale Thayer, RHP—San Diego Padres

Closer Huston Street is injury prone and the Padres, for whatever reason, don’t think much of Luke Gregerson (they tried to trade him to the Mets for Daniel Murphy and when Street was out last season, they let Thayer take over as closer.)

Thayer has a strikeout slider that leads stat-savvy teams like the Rays, Mets, and Padres continually picking him up. If Street gets hurt, Thayer will get closing chances.

Yasmani Grandal, C—San Diego Padres

His PED suspension has tarnished his luster, but he’s still a top catching prospect and once he’s reinstated, there’s no reason for the Padres not to play him with Nick Hundley and John Baker ahead of Grandal. Neither of the veteran catchers will be starting for the Padres when they’re ready to contend; Grandal will. He hits and he gets on base.

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Stereotypical Stupidity and Yu Darvish

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If teams shied away from making a posting bid on Yu Darvish because they didn’t want to spend the money on the fee and then to sign him to a contract, then okay.

If they weren’t impressed with his abilities, fine.

If they were legitimately concerned that he wouldn’t transition well, fair enough.

If they examined the past successes and failures of big name pitchers who came over from Japan—Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hideki Irabu and even Kei Igawa—and decided the risk wasn’t worth the reward, I won’t quibble.

But if teams came up with the simplistic argument that because Darvish is coming over from Japan and the aforementioned pitchers were disappointing that he wasn’t worth a serious look, it’s a ridiculous and illogical case doomed to haunt those who, like me, believe strongly in Darvish’s potential.

Would any GM or scout in his right mind look at a pitcher from Ohio and say he wasn’t interested in him because of the failure of a pitcher from Florida if there were no similarities between them other than they were from the United States?

No. It would be seen as ludicrous and they wouldn’t be in their jobs for very long.

But that’s exactly the argument given when the Yankees–for example—are said to have been stung by Irabu and Igawa and weren’t going to go crazy for Darvish because of those pitchers.

Irabu was a pet project of George Steinbrenner who forced his way to the Yankees; he was hyped incessantly and the expectations were so stifling that no one could’ve lived up to them; Irabu had talent, but he needed to be allowed to grow accustomed to the big leagues without pressure from the media and ownership if he wasn’t spectacular immediately.

Igawa was a response by the Yankees to the Red Sox getting Matsuzaka. I’m convinced that they heard his name, maybe—maybe—looked at his stats and some tape and signed him without knowing what they were getting.

I’d hate the think the Yankees were employing talent evaluators who saw Igawa and decided to invest $46 million in him.

Yu Darvish is not Matsuzaka; he’s not Irabu; he’s not Igawa.

It’s the same thing as saying that because Francisco Cervelli and Wilson Ramos were both born in Valencia Carabobo, Venezuela that they’re the same talent and shouldn’t be viewed as anything other than that.

It’s idiotic.

Why compare Darvish to the pitchers that came over and failed? Why not compare him to Hiroki Kuroda? To Takashi Saito? To other Far Eastern players Chien-Ming Wang and Chan Ho Park? Pitchers who’ve done well?

His pitching has nothing in common with them either, but at least they were good.

Staying away from Darvish makes sense if that’s what scouts and financial freedom say is the smart thing to do, but to dismiss him because of his Japanese League pedigree is stereotypical stupidity at its lowest.

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World Series Preview—Texas Rangers vs St. Louis Cardinals

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Texas Rangers vs St. Louis Cardinals

Keys for the Rangers: Knock the Cardinals starters out early, hit the bullpen; maintain their hot hitting; continue the quick hook with the starting pitching; don’t put their manager in a position to make a gaffe.

The Cardinals overcame woeful starting pitching in the NLCS because the Brewers starting pitching wasn’t much better; a Cardinals bullpen that had been a relatively weak point earlier in the season was dominant against the Brewers. The Rangers are deep offensively with nary a break from 1-9 in the batting order; the Brewers were top-heavy with Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun and once those two bats were quieted after the first game, the Brewers had to rely on the background players who, in some respects, played over their heads (i.e. Yuniesky Betancourt), but weren’t enough.

With the blazing hot Nelson Cruz accompanying the professional hitters Michael Young, Josh Hamilton, Ian Kinsler and Adrian Beltre—plus their team speed and aggressiveness—the Rangers have more weapons and are smarter than the Brewers were.

You can make the case that the Rangers starting pitching isn’t all that important with the depth of the bullpen and that they have two starters—Scott Feldman and Alexi Ogando—who pitched tremendously in the ALCS; manager Ron Washington has yanked his starters at the first sign of trouble because of that depth; of course it would be preferable to count on C.J. Wilson rather than Feldman since Feldman wasn’t even a guarantee to be on the post-season roster, but they’re loaded up with arms who can get the outs, so why not use that advantage?

Washington’s main attribute as a manager is that the players play hard for him; if he gets into a mind-war with Tony LaRussa, he’s going to lose. Badly.

The Tigers were beaten up physically and exhausted by the time they got to the Rangers; the Cardinals aren’t; the Cardinals are far more patient and dangerous surrounding Albert Pujols than the Tigers were with Miguel Cabrera. The Rangers can’t give extra outs to the Cardinals and not expect to be made to pay by Pujols, Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman.

Keys for the Cardinals: Get better starting pitching; continue their hot hitting; continue their bullpen dominance; keep the Rangers off the bases via the walk.

Much is being made of the Cardinals getting past the Brewers with the starting pitching having not made it past the fifth inning in any of the 6 games, but that wasn’t really relevant against a Brewers team that was terribly flawed; in fact, the Cardinals were probably better off having the ability to mix-and-match with their bullpen against the two main threats in the Brewers lineup, Braun and Fielder, than staying with their starting pitcher in the middle innings simply because he was their starter and was pitching serviceably.

They can’t count on their bullpen to continue that trend against a deeper and more well-rounded Rangers lineup, so they have to get big-time performances from Chris Carpenter as they did when he took down the Phillies.

Mike Napoli is 3 for 3 with a home run in his career vs Carpenter.

The Rangers won’t be able to run wild on the Cardinals because of Yadier Molina, but stealing bases is only a small part of the Rangers offense; in fact, they really don’t need to steal bases at all with their power. If the Cardinals walk the Rangers, the Rangers will score a lot.

What will happen.

An advantage the Rangers have had with their organizational decision to push their starting pitchers deeper into games by reducing the reliance on pitch counts is that there’s no point in opposing offenses making the attempt at patience and to push their pitch counts up because they’re not going to get tired as other staffs do; with the Rangers depth in the bullpen, there’s not the prototypical “soft underbelly” and they have little to worry about if their starters don’t pitch well.

Wilson has been terrible in the playoffs, but it doesn’t matter much since the Rangers bullpen has the ability to quiet down any rally and give their high-powered offense a chance to catch up.

A problem the Brewers had with their construct became evident when their starting pitching struggled; their long relievers weren’t particularly good and unless they were able to hand the ball off to the late-inning relievers Takashi Saito, Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford, it didn’t help to have a deep starting rotation and shutdown bullpen. With an atrocious defense and lackluster offense behind Braun and Fielder, the Cardinals had advantages against the Brewers they will not have against the Rangers.

Because the Rangers can continually shuttle arms from the bullpen; hit the ball out of the park; and have an airtight defense, the Cardinals will find themselves getting into shootouts that they can’t win.

The Cardinals biggest advantage with pitching is that their ace, Carpenter, has come through in the post-season and the Rangers ace, Wilson, hasn’t. But that’s not going to make a difference if Wilson is pulled before any big innings occur. And Carpenter has had his share of gacks in post-seasons past.

Regardless of the tactical advantage the Cardinals will have if the mistake-prone Washington starts going move-for-move with LaRussa, the Rangers are too deep in the bullpen and on offense and too good defensively for it to cost them the series.

I thought they’d lose the ALDS and they didn’t.

I thought they’d lose the ALCS and they didn’t.

I think they’re going to win the World Series.

And they will.

This is the Rangers year.

PREDICTION: RANGERS IN SIX.

WORLD SERIES MVP: MIKE NAPOLI.

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