Monday, November 30, 2009

2009 Fantasy Baseball Season – A Recap

Whether the images are new or all-too-familiar, the 2009 fantasy baseball season was a memorable year with many surprises, disappointments, and milestones.
When I look back at the 2009 baseball season, I will remember the Yankees’ return to prominence in their new stadium, a spike in strikeouts, a robust crop of young talent, and the growing disparity of talent of between the American League and the National League. Before we get into all that, let us first recap five of the more heartwarming stories of the fantasy baseball season.

Chris Carpenter – Considering he made two unsuccessful comeback attempts from Tommy John Surgery just last year, Carpenter was hardly the favorite to win Comeback Player of the Year headed into 2009. Although he missed a month after his first two starts of the season, Carpenter provided yet another example of how this revered surgical procedure has saved yet another elite pitching arm, as he put up a minuscule 1.01 WHIP to go along with a 2.25 ERA and 17 wins in only 28 starts! The Cardinals may have disappointed in the postseason, but Carpenter and Adam Wainwright formed arguably the most unstoppable 1-2 punch in the National League for most of the regular season.

Zack Greinke – Rare is the year when a pitcher on a last-place team gets such widespread support for the Cy Young Award, but 2009 was Grienke’s, if not the Royals’ year to shine. In spite of the fact that he won less than half (16) of his 33 starts, he was absolutely dominant with 242 strikeouts, a 2.16 ERA, and a 1.07 WHIP. The award means a great deal to Greinke given that he has had to overcome social anxiety disorder, which at one point, put his career in jeopardy back in 2006. Imagine what Greinke’s totals would look like if Kansas City were a .500 team, much less competing for a playoff spot.

Todd Helton – When Helton was sidelined to undergo back surgery in 2008 at age 35, his career was feared to be circling the drain. As one of only a handful of true hitters in the majors, Helton came back in 2009 to hit .325, good for fourth in the National League in an impressive 544 at-bats. As he helped lead Colorado to an improbable postseason run, Helton was one of the feel-good stories of this season with his return to form. Based on a level of production similar to his pre-injury years, Helton’s 2009 performance showed that he is “back” on track.

Raul Ibanez – When the Phillies addressed the departure of Pat Burrell by signing the 36 year-old Ibanez to a three-year deal, fans grew worried that Ibanez’ best years may have been behind him. Through the first four months of 2009, Ibanez made GM Ruben Amaro Jr. look like a genius, as he turned out to be the best free agent hitter signing in the National League. Ibanez’ production fell off in the second half due to a sports hernia he just underwent surgery for after the World Series, but Ibanez made himself a fan favorite (not always an easy task in Philadelphia) with 34 home runs, 96 RBI and solid defense in left field.

Mark Reynolds – After looking at Reynolds’ prodigious strikeout rate, one might have thought he was the lovechild of Dave Kingman and Rob Deer. In spite of the fact that this milestone shattered the major league record, Reynolds’ 223 strikeouts is hardly the most surprising stat of his season. As Reynolds was a premiere prospect with high upside, his lofty totals of 44 home runs and 24 stolen bases weren’t completely unexpected either. Until a September swoon where he hit .187, Reynolds had been keeping his average in the .270-.280 range in spite of his exorbitant strikeout rate. His season total fell to .260, but had already won the hearts of many a fantasy owner that used a mid-to-late round pick on Reynolds.


The Biggest Disappointments

Stephen Drew – Headed into 2009, the younger Drew’s name was mentioned as a legitimate breakout candidate with his multi-faceted offensive game and his star-crossed pedigree. His 2009 owners were instead treated to a season of regression, as Drew batted .261 with 12 HR and 65 RBI in 533 at-bats. Thanks in large part to the underachieving team he played for, his opportunities for production were limited. Although the Diamondbacks were one of the worst teams in the National League in ’09, their front office closed out the season entertaining trade offers for the enigmatic Drew in an effort to bolster their pitching staff. Should Drew be dealt, a change of scenery could benefit him. Only 26 years old, the first-round pick is still young enough to develop into a star.

Cole Hamels – Hamels’ spectacular 2008 postseason caused his name to climb up 2009 draft boards. In hindsight, we should have known that his extended workload would result in eventual fatigue on the young hurler’s arm, and prove to be a detriment the following year. Drafted as a SP2 in many leagues, Hamels’ 10 wins, 4.33 ERA and 1.29 WHIP were more befitting of a back-of the rotation starter instead of the Phillies’ ace entering 2009. Although his trade value was in the toilet all season, he started 32 games. Alas, his fantasy owners had little choice but to ride out the mediocre campaign, and hope for a late-season turnaround. In all likelihood, there are a few Hamels owners out there from last season who will see his name on 2010 cheat sheets and remind themselves, “Never again…NEVER again.”

Josh Hamilton – Anyone who watched Hamilton’s prodigious power display during the 2008 Home Run Derby in the old Yankee Stadium would have loved to acquire him for 2009, and pencil in 40+ homers and 130 RBIs. However, a pinched nerve in his back derailed Hamilton’s 2009 campaign, as the injury lingered almost all year. Often times, we would prefer if one of our premiere players would just get hurt, get put on the 60-day DL, thereby enabling us to drop him so we could make better use of the roster spot. There was a prospect of Hamilton coming back in the final months of the season, causing his owners to keep him on their rosters as they held out hope he would return to his mashing ways, if only for a third of the season. Hamilton’s injury can be chalked up to bad luck, and he should be back to full health in time for spring training 2010. Given the wealth of young talent protecting Hamilton in a dangerous Texas Rangers lineup, I sense a great value pick if Hamilton falls to the third round of your draft.

Manny Ramirez – What a difference a year makes. In the second half of 2008, Ramirez whined his way out of Boston, got traded to the Dodgers, and became an instant deity to Doyer Nation as he carried Los Angeles on his back to the playoffs. Early in the 2009 season, Manny tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug and received a 50-game suspension. Upon his return, he played like he was, you guessed it, off the juice. He hit only one more homer in 110 more at bats after his suspension than before it. He hit .255 upon his return, as opposed to .355 before his extended break. If not for the fact that Ramirez signed a one-year contract with a rare player option for the second season that would pay a cool $20 million, Dodger brass and fans could wash their hands of a Manny who now looks to be in rapid decline at age 37. To nobody’s surprise, Ramirez picked up his option, and the Dodgers once again head into 2010 with an outfield logjam featuring Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, the selfless Juan Pierre, and Man-Ram.

New York Mets – Before the 2009 season started, the New York Mets were widely viewed as a hotbed of fantasy talent. Upon its conclusion, the season turned into a nightmare for the Metropolitans, their fans, and especially their fantasy owners. The Mets resembled a MASH unit with serious injuries to almost every one of their stars. Johan Santana (bone chips in pitching elbow), Carlos Beltran (knee), Carlos Delgado (hip), Jose Reyes (calf), David Wright (concussion) and JJ Putz (elbow) all missed significant time with injuries. Wright’s season was especially frustrating for those who used a top-5 pick on him. He played almost every game until he got hit in the head by a pitch in August, and missed time with concussion-related symptoms. Upon Wright’s return the following month, his average dropped 17 points since the beaning, proving he wasn’t quite 100%. His 27 steals and .307 BA were nice, but owners who viewed Wright as a five-category can’t-miss stud were surely bummed that Wright could only muster 10 home runs along with a pedestrian 72 RBI.

Carlos Quentin – Quentin’s 2008 season was off to a hot start when he launched 8 homers in April. Unfortunately for Quentin and his fantasy owners who did not sell high on the early production, he missed a good chunk of the summer due to plantar fasciitis. When Quentin returned to action in August, his power remained intact, but his average suffered, as he finished the season hitting a disappointing .236. In spite of his lackluster 2008, Quentin is expected to make a full recovery in time for spring training, and big things could be in store for 2010 as he enters his age-27 season.

11 Fresh Faces to Remember For Your 2010 Fantasy Draft:

Elvis Andrus – Andrus made news before the season started when the Rangers coaching staff asked Michael Young to switch from shortstop to third base so that the athletic Andrus could eventually take that position over. While the move seemed premature at the time considering Andrus’ age and lack of experience, he started the season with Texas, and quickly became their everyday shortstop at only 20 years old. His excellent defense will keep him on the field, but 30 steals at the shortstop position certainly helped fantasy owners, and if Andrus, who finished second in rookie of the year voting, works on his hitting and develops a little pop in the coming years, we could be looking at a stud in the making.

Andrew Bailey – Considering he pitched for last-place Oakland, Bailey had an extremely impressive season with 26 saves, a .88 WHIP, and 91 strikeouts in just over 83 innings pitched. While the A’s got D’s on their collective report card this year, the back of their bullpen was stellar when given the rare opportunity to close out a victory. Originally drafted as a starting pitcher, Bailey was converted to a relief pitcher in his last year in the minors. Unless the 24 year-old gets traded (which wouldn’t be a shock), Bailey should hold down the closer role in 2010 even when 2009 would-be-closer Joey Devine returns from Tommy John surgery.

Gordon Beckham – Anyone (including myself) who grabbed MLB’s version of “Becks”, and plugged him in as their new SS in June patted themselves on the back for the duration of 2009. Beckham’s stats may not jump off the page, but he clutched up when the White Sox needed him most. Becks’ overall batting average was a decent .270, but he hit .323 with runners in scoring position, and .400 with the bases loaded. Headed into 2010, Beckham will not be quite as valuable as last year given that he’ll no longer be shortstop-eligible. But he has a very bright future in the league with a steady all-around game, and a consistent approach at the plate. Many pundits feel Gordo, not Andrew Bailey, should have won AL Rookie of the Year, and given the fact that Beckham matched the hype he came into the league with, these sentiments are not unwarranted.

Chris Coghlan – Wade Boggs seems to have been reincarnated as a young outfielder for the Marlins in Coghlan. If you picked up Coghlan for the stretch run in August, you may feel compelled to name your first-born after the NL Rookie of the Year. Not only did Coghlan become a run-scoring machine hitting at the top of the Marlin lineup, but he also galvanized many a fantasy lineup by hitting .372 after the All-Star Break! Not unlike the above-mentioned Beckham, Coghlan loses position eligibility this year, as he played outfield almost exclusively. As an OF who lacks game-changing power or speed, Coghlan shouldn’t be drafted until the middle-to-late rounds, but he proved in 2009 that he can be a significant contributor to a team’s batting average and can also help in the runs department.

Tommy Hanson – The Atlanta Braves had questions about the back of their rotation when the 2009 season began. While Derek Lowe, Javier Vasquez, and Jair Jurrjens served as formidable 1-3 starters (Tim Hudson was still recovering from surgery), the Braves’ front office was reluctant to promote Hanson in spite of a great start to his 2009 in the minor leagues. When Hanson finally got the call in June, his consistency was but one of his many positive attributes. July was the only month when his ERA was above 3.00, and his 11-4 record demonstrates that Hanson is a winner. He received two first-place votes in the National League Rookie of the year voting, and finished third overall. Factor in a stellar 2.89 ERA, a 1.18 WHIP, and 116 K’s in 127.6 innings pitched, and Hanson could be the future ace of the Atlanta pitching staff.

J.A. Happ – Owners who picked up Happ early in the 2009 season were tempted to sell high on the rookie after he jumped off to a 5-0 start by late June. Those who sold high on Happ wish they had held onto this horse. Not only is the lefty a fiery competitor who keeps the Phillies in most games regardless of the pitch count, but he has also accumulated valuable experience pitching in two consecutive postseasons. Given that the 27 year-old Happ has had the opportunity to hone his craft starting in the same rotation as fellow southpaw ace Cliff Lee and future Hall-of-Famer Pedro Martinez, he could get even better this year. The Phillies’ bats will surely supply the run support. If Happ can provide the same level of production on the hill in 2010, 15-20 wins is not out of the question if the Philadelphia bullpen doesn’t collapse.

Garrett Jones – With ten seasons in the minor leagues already under his belt, Jones made the most of his call to The Show on June 30. With 21 home runs and a .293 batting average in only 314 at-bats, Garrett looks like a legitimate source of pop for the Pirates. He has shown that he can play both first base and right field, but doesn’t hit left-handed pitching particularly well (.208 BA vs. lefties). Pittsburgh isn’t exactly loaded with thumpers throughout their lineup, so Jones will get every shot to continue his success as a Pirate in 2010.

Andrew McCutchen – In a deep rookie class of 2009, McCutchen stands out as a unique five-tool player with tons of upside. The Pirates (of all teams) boast a wealth of young talent that stands to improve in 2010, and McCutchen could be the centerpiece of this offense for years to come. One hurdle stands between McCutcheon and stardom: consistency. Of his 12 home runs, eight were hit in August alone! If he maintains feast-or-famine production, McCutchen would be better recommended for head-to-head leagues than standard Roto-style leagues.

Nyjer Morgan – After two lackluster seasons in Pittsburgh as a platoon outfielder, Nyjer Morgan needed a change of scenery for his star to shine. A trade to Washington finally gave Morgan an opportunity to play every day. He paid immediate dividends for the Nats by hitting .388 in July with 14 steals! Anyone who took a flyer on Nyjer proceeded to build a shrine to honor him and the shot in the arm he provided fantasy teams. As most fantasy baseball owners will attest, steals are one of the most difficult categories to flourish in given the relative paucity of stolen bases compared to more common stats like homers, RBI’s and runs. That said, when a player appears on fantasy radars halfway through the season and swipes 42 bases, he tends to makes a splash. Expect more from Nyjer in 2010 as the leadoff hitter starting a full season in center field for the Nationals.

Jeff Niemann – Although Niemann was the fourth overall pick in the 2004 amateur draft, he wasn’t figured to be more than a back-of-the rotation option for the Rays. That said, Niemann exceeded all early season expectations with a 13-6 record, a 3.95 ERA, a strikeout-to-walk ratio of better than 2 to 1 (125 to 59), and two shutouts. While the AL East is arguably the toughest division for pitchers to succeed, Niemann has a superb defense behind him, and a young offense loaded with potential providing him with run support. Niemann has proven that he can pitch deep into games time and again as he completed 7 IP or more in 10 of his 30 starts. If he stays injury-free and the Rays’ bullpen improves, Niemann can serve as a nice option in the middle of your rotation.

Rick Porcello – When Porcello went 5-0 in May, not only was he mentioned as a front-runner for the American League Rookie of the Year, but he was also viewed as a long-term solution to a young Detroit Tiger pitching staff that was considered top-heavy. After Cy-Young candidate Justin Verlander and All-Star Edwin Jackson, the Tigers don’t have a lot of talent after these two given the persistent blood clot-issues with Jeremy Bonderman, and the various maladies afflicting Dontrelle Willis. Porcello came in relatively unheralded, went 14-9 with a 3.96 ERA in 31 starts, and finished third in AL ROY voting. Although Porcello struggled with inconsistency at times, he pitched well down the stretch, and helped the Tigers finish the regular season with a share of first place (even though Detroit lost a one-game playoff to the Twins). He won’t spearhead your rotation, but he pitches for a team with a good offense and a steady bullpen.


Breakout stars of 2009

Felix Hernandez – It may have taken four years for King Felix to finally reach his throne, but 2009 was an amazing campaign for Hernandez and the owners who stuck with him after three years of decent-but-not-great-production. After logging an impressive 238.3 innings pitched, 217 strikeouts, a 2.49 ERA, a 1.14 WHIP, and a league-leading 19 wins, Hernandez has turned the corner and matured into a top-5 pitcher in the American League. When the 2010 season gets underway, Felix will just be entering his prime at 24 years young, and could be downright scary to face as he continues his development.

Aaron Hill – In 2007, Hill put in a very respectable season that seemed to measure up with his projections. After an injury-plagued 2008, he was a forgotten man in many fantasy circles, and was viewed as a late-round flyer-type in 2009 drafts. Speculative types who took a chance on Hill were paid back in spades as the Blue Jay hit more homers (36) than he had in his first four seasons (28) combined! Add 108 RBI and 103 runs to the equation, and Hill was one of the best value draft picks of the year. Second base is a position where power is scarce outside of the usual suspects (Utley, Kinsler, Uggla), but Hill out-homered all of the aforementioned players who were selected as many as twenty rounds earlier in most drafts! Perhaps Hill may not reach as lofty totals in 2010, but as a thumper entrenched in the middle of an upstart Toronto lineup, Hill will be viewed as a legitimate commodity in 2010 drafts and beyond.

Adam Jones – His numbers may not jump off the page like some of the previous entries in this section of ’09 breakout stars, but the 24-year old formerly known as “Ms. Pac Man” shed his pejorative nickname with a fabulous all-around performance last season. In spite of his two extended stints on the disabled list, Jones gained significant job security by winning a Gold Glove for his sterling defense in center field, hitting 19 home runs, stealing 10 bases, 70 RBIs, and 81 runs scored in 473 at bats. Jones figured to be a centerpiece of the Orioles offense for years to come after Baltimore appears for now to have fleeced the Mariners in the Erik Bedard trade.

Adam Lind – Projected to be a .300 hitter with 20-ish homer power, Lind exceeded all expectations as he put up a monster season that will surely launch him into the top 20 outfielders drafted in 2010. Not only did he anchor a Blue Jays lineup with 35 home runs, 114 RBI, a .305 average and an absurd .562 slugging percentage, but he could get even better as he is just hitting his prime at age 26. Owners of Lind in redraft leagues who gained ground in their standings in late September/early October thanks to five homers he hit in the last week of the season will be keen on owning Lind for another season.

Kendry Morales – When the Angels let Marx Teixeira walk via free agency after they rented his services for the second half of 2008, Angel fans were irate that the front office didn’t try to sign Teixeira to long-term deal. Little did they know that the Angels have a more-than capable first baseman ready to take over first base in 2009. Morales astounded baseball with an electric campaign that helped keep the Halos in first place even when Vladmir Guerrero spent extended time on the disabled list. Although the Angels were viewed to be a team with one big bat, this can no longer be considered the case given Kendry’s arrival. Most of his production came in the second half as he hit .330 with 19 home runs after the All-Star break. If Morales can improve his walk total (only 46 in 566 at bats), his stats could get even better in years to come.

Justin Upton – Upton was a can’t-miss prospect whose breakout season came earlier than most people projected. At only 22 years old, Upton became the fifth Diamondback in team history to hit 20 (actually 26) home runs and steal 20 bases. He also hit .300 with an OPS of almost .900. The only factors keeping the younger Upton from putting up a downright gaudy stat line were three weeks spent on the disabled list with a strained oblique, as well as relatively poor protection from an underachieving Arizona lineup. Dynasty leaguers should hold onto Justin with a kung-fu grip, and not trade him unless Even Longoria is offered in return.

Ben Zobrist – From the “straight out of nowhere” department comes Zobrist, who hadn’t logged more than 198 at bats in any of his three previous seasons in the major leagues. Mostly viewed as a utilityman, Zobrist fulfilled his duty to the Rays by logging time at every position besides catcher and pitcher. However, Zobrist went above and beyond all expectations by busting out for 27 HR, 91 RBI & runs, as well as 17 steals in 501 at bats. These totals shattered his previous season-highs, and set the bar for Zobrist to appear on everyone’s fantasy radar in 2010 as a solid second-tier 2B.


What to Look for in 2010

Juice Effect? – While one would expect home runs to decrease given MLB’s ramped-up testing on performance enhancement drugs, the players from around the league actually hit over 5000 homers for the first time since 2006, which translates to an almost 4% increase of home runs-per-at-bat. Curiously, only two more hitters (30) slugged 30 or more dingers in 2009 than 2008. However, five fewer players hit 20 or more homers, which makes middle-tier power a little more scarce headed into 2010. Given the astronomical jump in strikeouts in 2009 from the year before, it stands to reason that you will have trouble finding a so-called “thumper” who doesn’t hurt your team batting average.

K’s up to all-time high of 33,591! – Pitchers like Tim Lincecum and Justin Verlander serve as the most dominant hurlers in their respective leagues, but based on the 2009 strikeout totals, one might think that they pitched every night! Not to get too scientific on crunching the numbers, but based on this stat coupled with the fact that batting averages have dropped for a third straight year, one would infer that strikeout pitchers shouldn’t be targeted as highly heading into 2010 as 2009. Conversely, .300 hitters are more valuable than they were a year before. Upgrade batting average as more of a premium statistic in your pre-draft rankings, and downgrade power pitchers a bit.

AL vs NL – We all know that the American League has owned the National League in the All-star game since the mid-1990’s. For years, analysts have wanted to chalk this disparity up to mere coincidence, but based on the talent that has flourished in recent years since moving from the AL to the NL, there seem to be a certain talent shift that has come to light. If you don’t believe me, ask John Smoltz, Brad Penny, Matt Holliday, Cliff Lee, or Adam LaRoche. Each of the aforementioned players struggled mightily in the AL, but when they were involved in a mid-season trade that landed them in the “Senior Circuit”, each of them dramatically turned their seasons around. This, of course, raises the question of whether the AL should still be called the “Junior Circuit.” Also, the AL went 138-114 in Interleague play, which is the sixth consecutive season that they have beaten the NL more than vice versa. Based on this information, I will target players who are switching from an AL to a NL team, and will avoid players headed in the opposite direction.

New York, New York – With two new stadiums opening in The Big Apple in 2009, baseball fans had a lot to be excited about, but weren’t sure how the new ballparks would affect their respective teams’ performance. The new Yankee Stadium, featuring shorter power alleys to left-center and right-center field, fueled an outcry from baseball purists, pundits, and opposing pitchers when a record-number of homers were launched. By the Bronx Bombers’ 73rd home game, the record for homers hit in a season (215) at Yankee Stadium had already been broken. This provided Yankee veterans who may have been perceived to be on the downside of their careers (Damon, Matsui, Posada, Jeter) with robust production in the power department. This new ballpark creates a reason for power-starved fantasy owners to target Yankees come draft day, and to start any hitters scheduled to play in Yankee Stadium that week.

In contrast, Citi Field, the new home of the New York Mets, turned out to be more of a pitcher’s park with a huge outfield, especially in right-center field (415 feet to the wall). While the Mets’ season was nothing short of disastrous, it is too early to tell if the stadium deserves part of the blame. Those who are eyeing various Mets to rebound from an awful 2008 should take Citi Field’s dimensions into account before drafting Met sluggers (especially the lefties) too early. On the other hand, Met pitchers, as well as pitchers who will play in Citi that week, could be expected to perform a little bit better in the spacious confines of Citi as opposed to Shea Stadium of yesteryear.