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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The Crawford-Reyes Comparison

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With each missed game due to the unpredictability (or predictability depending on where you sit) of Jose Reyes‘s hamstring, the Mets decision on whether or not to go all-out to keep the shortstop or let him leave becomes easier.

Reyes exited Sunday’s game against the Braves with “tightness” in his left hamstring; the same hamstring that sent him to the disabled list in early July. He was scheduled for an MRI on Sunday evening.

Now what?

The comparisons of Reyes to Carl Crawford has become a regular part of baseball vernacular. Reyes was set to sift through offers of “Carl Crawford money” meaning a contract that equals or surpasses the 7-year, $142 million Crawford received from the Red Sox.

Early in the season, when Reyes was the talk of baseball with his all-around play and boundless energy, that end looked inevitable.

Then he strained his hamstring and the questions started up again.

That was a month ago.

He’s hurt with some permutation of the same injury. The bane to his existence and obstruction to maximizing his potential has always been his troublesome hamstrings. No amount of bolstering of the true but someone inaccurate statements of his consistent health can eliminate that perception that he’s always one step away from going back on the disabled list for an extended period because of his penchant for hamstring woes that have sabotaged several seasons of his career.

Before that fateful day in July, the speculated dollar amounts were rising exponentially. Scott Boras was hotly pursuing Reyes as a client and was undoubtedly promising to get him more money than Crawford got. After the Jayson Werth contract, it’s foolish to doubt the ability of Boras to achieve that end. Reyes chose to stay with his current representatives.

Reyes was limited in his suitors before the injury. The two biggest financial juggernauts—the Yankees and Red Sox—are not going to be pursuing him. The Giants aren’t going to have the money to throw $140 million+ at Reyes; the Angels, Nationals and Tigers have the money; and if things break strangely perhaps the Cardinals and Dodgers could jump in.

Where else?

And how does Crawford fit into this equation?

Inadvertently, Carl Crawford and the Red Sox set the market for Jose Reyes when the somewhat surprising (post-Werth) deal came down. The Angels thought they had a competitive offer for Crawford of over $100 million, but were blown away by the Red Sox decisive maneuver to get him.

Crawford and Reyes are basically the same players. Crawford has been remarkably durable in his career and his disabled list stays haven’t been because of his legs. Crawford has more power; Reyes plays a more demanding and difficult-to-fill position, but they’re eerily close in what they do—stolen bases; some pop; lots of triples; wreaking havoc on the basepaths.

Crawford’s been a borderline disaster with the Red Sox in 2011.

Reyes was well on the way to surpassing “Crawford money” in his foray into free agency—someone was going to pay him. Now will there be that one dumb owner who ignores the warning signs and throws that $142 million+ at Reyes hoping that he’ll stay on the field?

What will the Mets do?

Reyes, like Crawford, is not a “speed only” player like Vince Coleman was; a player who, once that speed is gone, doesn’t do much of anything. He’ll always have that arm; he switch hits; has that pop to hit 10-15 homers a year; and will produce without the stolen bases. But produce to the tune of $142 million+?

It’s a tough question.

GM Sandy Alderson is not the type to overpay for a player when his club has numerous other holes to fill and is still in financial limbo. Things have settled down with the Mets after forecasts of bankruptcy, an MLB takeover and imminent collapse; but they’re still unclear. They’ve extricated themselves from the circling vulture of Francisco Rodriguez‘s $17.5 million contract option and have played well enough on the field and been respectable enough off the field so they’re no longer a last resort for prospective free agents.

Will Alderson want to allocate a vast chunk of club payroll on Reyes when that money could be used to find 4-5 players who would be less of a gamble and would fill in pieces of the puzzle while not being the superstar individual? When they’re going to get two draft picks as compensation for Reyes?

Reyes’s injuries have provided a sense of freedom for the front office to do what they think is right sans the pressure of fan/media reaction and the fallout for letting Reyes leave. They can frame this any way they choose and get away with it with a negligible response in the news cycle. The firestorm will be brief and lamenting that he’s gone, but understood.

Believe me when I tell you that Alderson and his deputies have a contingency plan in place without Reyes. It may not be as exciting, but it could be as good or better.

To justify Reyes’s departure, all they have to do is point to his history, the hamstring tweaks and subtly explain why they chose this course of action. They’ll make him a lucrative offer to remain a Met. But if someone trumps it, the Mets can shrug and move on. It might even be better in the long term. No one will blame them anymore.

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Batting Orderlies

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Neil Paine of Baseball-Reference.com writes a piece on batting orders in today’s NY Times—link.

It brings up an interesting set of questions as to whom should be batting leadoff and why.

Rickey Henderson was probably the best all-around leadoff hitter in history—a fulfillment of perfection for which all leadoff hitters and clubs should aspire; as such, it’s naturally unrealistic to think that you’ll be able to find someone with the combination of keen batting eye, patience, speed and power that was Rickey.

There has to be a balance and factoring of what the rest of the lineup can and can’t do—how they’re most comfortable and best-utlized.

Carl Crawford, for example, doesn’t like hitting leadoff. In some circles, there’s the thought of, “Yeah? So?” when confronted with a player disliking or whining about a position in the batting order or on the field.

In some cases, I’m a huge advocate not of, “Yeah? So?”, but of, “What’re they gonna do about it?”

In others, it would influence me as to whether a player—specifically a struggling veteran like Crawford—is happy and comfortable in his spot.

If you look at the clubs that were mentioned as not using their leadoff position optimally, the other players matter greatly.

Is there anyone who’s better-suited to bat first? And if they are, would they help the team more in that spot rather than their other spot?

The Mariners batted Ichiro Suzuki leadoff last season and he had the third highest on base percentage for leadoff hitters at .358. I’m not getting into another debate about Ichiro batting down in the lineup; that he could and should hit for more power; but Ichiro’s OBP and speed did the Mariners absolutely no good because they literally had no one to drive him in last season. He scored 74 runs because the Mariners offense was historically horrible.

Marco Scutaro and Jacoby Ellsbury combined for a .301 OBP from the leadoff position for the Red Sox last season, but this is taken out of context. Scutaro’s OBP batting leadoff was .336 and he scored 86 runs; Ellsbury had a .211 OBP in an injury-ravaged 2010 season and this dragged the club’s overall percentages down drastically.

Scutaro is nowhere near the hitter Ichiro is, but he scored 86 runs batting leadoff with an OBP .17 lower than Ichiro because there were hitters behind him able to drive him in. I’ve long said that Ichiro’s lust for singles and stat compiling would be far more palatable were he playing for the Yankees or Red Sox and had people capable of knocking him in.

Henderson’s value wasn’t solely dictated by his on base ability in and of itself; he scored plenty of runs because he got on base, stole second and sometimes third and was suddenly able to score without benefit of the subsequent batters doing anything aside from hitting a fly ball.

Look at the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals. Vince Coleman burst onto the scene as a terror on the basepaths, stole 110 bases and scored 107 runs with an OBP of .320. Once manager Whitey Herzog realized what he had on his hands, the top of the Cardinals lineup went as follows: 1) Coleman; 2) Willie McGee; 3) Tommy Herr; 4) Jack Clark.

McGee was no on base machine; he batted .353 and won the MVP that year, but had an OBP of .384; Herr was no masher, but he benefited from Coleman and McGee when they were on base because Coleman would get on, steal second and third and be served up on a plate for Herr to drive in. In fact, based on the preferred argument as to whom should be batting first, Herr should’ve batted leadoff in that Cardinals batting order; but it’s hard to imagine the team scoring more runs that way than they did with the construction as it was.

It was confluence of events and the emergence of Coleman that led to the big RBI year from Herr and the Cardinals pennant. Nor did it hurt that Clark was behind the top three hitters and pitchers didn’t want to walk Herr and run the risk of a big inning with the powerful Clark coming to the plate.

The 1985 Cardinals won the pennant, led the league in runs scored and were 11th (out of 12 teams) in homers.

A batting order isn’t unimportant, but you can’t pigeonhole anything into the category of “s’posdas” based on individual achievement and ability; you have to look at the whole picture before coming to an ironclad conclusion and crediting or criticizing.

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