2014 Fantasy Baseball: Week Three Free Agent Fixes
This week’s Free Agent Fixes features a couple of young fireball throwing relievers from Chicago. They’re joined by a 30-year old starting pitcher that has a history of control problems that, quite frankly, I can’t believe I’m writing good things about. On the hitter side of the ledger, a middle infielder in Washington, and outfielder in Chicago, and a corner infielder in Texas all benefit from injuries to players ahead of them on the depth chart. Rounding out the list of fixes is a player that doesn’t benefit from an injury, but instead is actually working his way back from one.
Edinson Volquez, SP, Pittsburgh Pirates
Ownership: ESPN: 4.4%, Yahoo!: 6%, CBS: 15%
I never thought the day would come where I’d actually advise gamers to add Volquez, but here we are. Volquez has a lengthy track record of poor control, and his career walk rate of 4.71 BB/9 supports that. When he has found success, despite the walk problems, it has been by missing bats at a high rate (8.39 K/9 for his career). He’s a little different these days.
The former member of the much hyped “DVD” trio (John Danks, Volquez and Thomas Diamond) of starting pitching prospects as a member of the Rangers organization isn’t the strikeout machine he once was. Last year he posted a strikeout rate of just 7.50 K/9 splitting the season between the Padres, 27 starts, and the Dodgers, five starts and one relief appearance. Volquez did, however, also post his lowest walk rate, 4.07 BB/9, since a six start campaign with the Rangers all the way back in 2007. His strikeout and walk rates were far from great last year, but his brief time with the Dodgers was encouraging. In the month of September he made five starts and posted a walk rate of 2.67 BB/9 and a strikeout rate of 8.67 K/9 with a stellar groundball rate of 47.4 percent according to FanGraphs batted ball data.
The Pirates saw enough to extend him a one-year contract in the offseason, and he won the fifth starter gig in the spring. The right-handed hurler has made three appearances for the Pirates, one relief appearance and two starts. Thus far he has an unfathomable walk rate of 1.93 BB/9 and a groundball rate north of 50 percent (52.5 percent), though, his strikeout rate is low at 6.43 K/9. The result of his component stats is a 1.29 ERA (3.33 FIP, 3.36 tERA, and 3.61 SIERA) and 0.79 WHIP. It’s only 14 innings of work, so let’s not go crazy, but how is he doing it?
He’s continuing a trend of throwing many more sinkers than fourseam fastballs, and another trend that has continued is a preference for his curveball over his changeup as his primary secondary offering. Those changes date back to the summer of 2012 according to the PITCHf/x data available at Brooks Baseball. So his pitch usage isn’t drastically different this year than past seasons, but his ability to locate his pitches is. Thus far, FanGraphs has Volquez starting 61.1 percent of batters off with a strike, a rate that would blow away his career high of 56.8 percent that was set last year, and he’s in the strike zone 58.1 percent of the time, which would also blow away his career best zone percentage of 49.6 percent that he established in 2008.
Volquez isn’t in the same class of pitcher as Francisco Liriano, but he is an erratic pitcher that looks to turn his career around in a similar fashion to the way Liriano did joining the Pirates prior to the 2013 season. I’ve already tooted the horn of one major league pitching coach, Mickey Callaway of the Cleveland Indians, in this column this year, and now I’ll tip my cap to Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage. He took over as the Pirates pitching coach in August of 2010 on an interim basis, and was named the full-time pitching coach following the season. In his three full years with the Pirates in that capacity he’s turned around struggling arms like Liriano and A.J. Burnett, helped relievers Joel Hanrahan, Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli turn into studs, and even helped turn Charlie Morton into a serviceable innings eater. The guy is doing something right. Volquez should be owned in most mixed leagues of 14 teams or larger, and he should be universally owned in NL-only formats.
Daniel Webb, RP, Chicago White Sox
Ownership: ESPN: 0.0%, Yahoo!: 1%, CBS: 5%
As I was constructing today’s entry, Matt Lindstrom was blowing another save. Nate Jones is already on the disabled list, and it shouldn’t be long before manager Robin Ventura goes to a “closer-by-committee.” When that happens, Webb will be the arm to own, with Scott Downs probably picking up the occasional save in left-handed batter heavy ninth innings.
Webb is equipped with the typical late inning reliever power arm, averaging over 96 mph on both his fourseam fastball and sinker, and he also throws a slider and changeup. The 24-year old rookie reliever zoomed from High-A to the Show last year, ala former White Sox closer Addison Reed a few years before him, striking out more than a batter-per-inning at High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A. Across those three minor league levels he pitched 62.2 inning and tallied a tidy 1.87 ERA and 1.15 WHIP thanks in large part to a huge strikeout rate of 11.2 K/9 and a passable walk rate of 3.9 BB/9. Webb also saved 10 games, which helps his cause in the event Ventura is a big believer in “closer mentality” nonsense.
With the exception of shallow leagues, Webb should be owned across the board now in anticipation of the change in the ninth inning duties. Even if he’s just sharing the closer gig soon, he’ll be able to help ratios and post strikeouts between saves, and he may even snag the occasional reliever win. Regardless, Webb is the most exciting healthy arm in the White Sox bullpen, and he’s already working in high leverage situations so making the leap to closing games isn’t hard to fathom.
Devin Mesoraco, C, Cincinnati Reds
Ownership: ESPN: 5.2%, Yahoo!: 11%, CBS: 38%
I’ve already written about Mesoraco once this year, selecting him as my post-hype sleeper at the catcher position. I won’t rehash all of my reasons for liking him, but suffice to say, he has the talent and variables working in his favor that make him worth owning even in single catcher formats. I expect the 25-year old catcher to flirt with a top-10 ranking at the position, and think he’ll settle in somewhere between 12-15 ultimately.
The Reds backstop had his path to starting cleared when the team dealt Ryan Hanigan to the Rays, but he had to wait a bit beyond Opening Day to lay claim to the job due to starting on the disabled list. He’s fully asserted himself as the top catcher on the squad since his activation, though. He played in his first big league game this year on April 8, and has started four of five Reds’ games including that game on the eighth. In those four starts he’s received 17 plate appearances and ripped the cover off the ball, smacking three doubles and two homers, and added a pair of singles while walking twice to bring his slash line to .500/.529/.1.143. One of those homers, and four of his six RBIs, came on Sunday. The fantasy community will take notice and his ownership is going to sky rocket in the coming days. Jump on him now. Mesoraco should be owned universally.
Danny Espinosa, 2B, Washington Nationals
Ownership: ESPN: 0.2%, Yahoo!: 1%, CBS: 5%
Shoulder woes for Ryan Zimmerman has prompted talk of him shifting across the diamond to first base, and thus, already thrust Espinosa onto deep leaguers’ watch lists and rosters. Zimmerman’s move to first base is on hold now, though, and Espinosa’s ownership percentage will be going up due to Zimmerman landing on the disabled list with a broken thumb that’s expected to sideline him for four-to-six weeks. The injury will result in an infield shuffle that includes Anthony Rendon moving from second base to third base, and Espinosa manning the keystone position where he’ll look to rebound from a nightmare 2013 campaign.
Espinosa fumbled the starting second base job last year by hitting a pathetic .158/.193/.272 in 167 plate appearances while striking out 28.1 percent of the time. Things didn’t get much better in Triple-A where he hit .216/.280/.286 in 313 plate appearances for Triple-A Syracuse while striking out a staggering 32.3 percent of the time. The club recognized his strikeout rate was a huge problem, and he was tasked with working on a more controlled swing designed to generate more contact. I don’t expect that even with a new approach Espinosa will find himself among the league leaders in contact rate, but he has struck out in just 16.7 percent of his 24 plate appearances in the regular season, and he struck out in just 15.3 percent of his 59 spring training plate appearances, too. Even if hitting for average is never a part of his game, an uptick in contact should help him improve from his career mark of a .232 batting average.
In previous seasons, when things were going well for Espinosa, his fantasy value was tied to a useful combination of power and speed. The 26-year old middle infielder swatted 21 homers in 2011 and followed that up with 17 taters in 2012. During those two seasons he stole 17 bases and 20 bases, respectively. Even if a revamped swing results in sacrificing some power, Espinosa’s total package warrants ownership in large mixed leagues that use a middle infielder and NL-only leagues.
Dayan Viciedo, OF, Chicago White Sox
Ownership: ESPN: 0.3%, Yahoo!: 2%, CBS: 20%
Viciedo entered this season as the White Sox fourth outfielder, and he was expected to see plenty of action against southpaws. A labrum tear in Avisail Garcia‘s shoulder will end his season prematurely, and Viciedo now moves into what presumably will be an everyday job with Jordan Danks taking over as the fourth outfielder. The Cuban outfielder has yet to make the splash many envisioned when the White Sox signed him, but he has hit for power throughout his young career.
The 25-year old outfielder drilled 25 homers in 2012, and has hit 45 in 1,266 career plate appearances. His raw power is well above average, but his impatience has prevented him from fully tapping into it in games. It’s a little early to label him a free swinger for the rest of his days, but he has a lot of work to do to shed that label. For now, view Viciedo as a cheap source of 20-plus homers and a batting average in the neighborhood of his career mark of .264. That type of realistic projection is a nice fallback for gambling on a player that has potential to exceed those totals with adjustments to his approach. I wouldn’t hold my breath on him making those adjustments, but his plate discipline warrants monitoring at the very least. Viciedo should be rostered in large mixed leagues using five outfielders and AL-only leagues. Those playing in shallow leagues can leave him available for now.
Cameron Maybin, OF, San Diego Padres
Ownership: ESPN: 0.0%, Yahoo!: 1%, 6%
Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment, but I’m willing to give Maybin another look. Last year only eight players reached or exceeded the 40 stolen base threshold, and only eight more reached or exceeded the 30 stolen base plateau. A lot is made of power being down in fantasy baseball, but speed is at a premium as well, and Maybin stole 40 bases in his first year with the Padres back in 2011. In his last healthy full season, 2012, the Padres center fielder swiped 26 bases in 33 attempts.
Speed is the main reason for rostering Maybin, but he has a dash of punch in his bat as well, hitting 17 homers from 2011-2012. Last season I was bullish on the toolsy outfielder because of big gains made in reducing his strikeout rate. Unfortunately, injuries derailed his 2013 season and additions to the Padres roster this offseason created a log jam in the outfield. Carlos Quentin is currently on the disabled list with Maybin, shocking I know, and Quentin has yet to play in a rehab game. Maybin has played in two games for Triple-A El Paso and is nearing a return to the big league team. When the 27-year old outfielder rejoins the Padres, and while Quentin is out, I expect the club to use him in center field on a near everyday basis with Will Venable serving as the everyday right fielder, and Seth Smith and Chris Denorfia platooning in left field.
Speed starved owners in large mixed leagues starting five outfielders and those in NL-only formats should check in on Maybin’s availability. Now is a great time to add him if your league utilizes DL spots so that he can be stashed and his playing time, usage, and effectiveness can be monitored.
Kevin Kouzmanoff, 3B, Texas Rangers
Ownership: ESPN: 0%, Yahoo!: 0%, CBS: 1%
Kouzmanoff spent the entire 2012 and 2013 seasons in the upper minors as a member of the Royals and Marlins organizations. A quad injury sending Adrian Beltre to the 15-day disabled list (retroactive to April 9) forced the Rangers to dip into the minors and summon Kouz. The 32-year old third baseman was invited to Rangers camp as a non-roster invitee and made the most of it, hitting .370/.443/.593 in 61 plate appearances in spring training. His stellar play wasn’t enough to land him on the big league squad when the team broke camp, but it was good enough to keep him in the system at Triple-A Round Rock.
Now he has a chance to resurrect his big league career filling in for the injured Beltre. The most exciting thing about Kouzmanoff isn’t any skill he possesses, but is instead his spot in a talented Rangers lineup (he’s hit fifth in three starts). The Rangers faced two right-handed starting pitchers and one left-handed starter in those three games, so it would appear that will be Kouzmanoff’s lineup spot for the time being. Hitting directly behind Prince Fielder, and his .388 career OBP, should lead to some RBI chances for Kouzmanoff. The journeyman third baseman also has a bit of power in his stick. He hit 75 homers playing in pitcher friendly parks in San Diego and Oakland from 2007-2010. Kouzmanoff’s value is limited to AL-only leagues, and his relevance isn’t likely to last long given the back dated DL stint for Beltre, but having a pulse goes a long way in only leagues.
Arodys Vizcaino, RP, Chicago Cubs
Ownership: ESPN: 0.0%, Yahoo!: 0%, CBS: 3%
Vizcaino is in the reverse situation of the AL-only pick this week, sort of. He isn’t helping fantasy teams currently while he pitches in the minors, but if things break right he’ll have more staying power. Cubs manager Rick Renteria officially removed Jose Veras from the Cubs closer role on Saturday. Hector Rondon saved Friday’s game after Veras blew the save chance, and the team didn’t have a save opportunity over the weekend losing two to the Cardinals. Pedro Strop earned a save in the team’s second game of the year, and he’s the favorite to emerge as the top save option in the short-term.
Strop joined the Cubs last summer via trade from the Orioles, and he shined in 35 relief appearances. The 28-year old reliever throws hard and induces groundballs at a high rate, which is good, but throughout most of his career he has struggled mightily with his control (4.90 BB/9 in his career). He’s already uncorked one wild pitch and walked four batters in 5.2 innings pitched this year. A re-emergence of control problems would be a quick way for Strop to lose his spot in the closer-by-committee rotation.
It’s often dangerous to chase a team’s “closer of the future” since things don’t always pan out as expected (see Heath Hembree in San Francisco for instance), but Vizcaino isn’t far removed from making his future role his present one. The former Braves prospect has lost the last two years to Tommy John surgery and recovering from the surgery. The former starter is now relegated to bullpen duty, but his ceiling is that of a top notch closer. His pre-surgery heater is back, and he’s reportedly been throwing in the 95-98 mph range for High-A Daytona.
If you subscribe to the theory that an arm only has so many bullets in it, it would be foolish for the Cubs to waste many more of Vizcaino’s in the minors given his injury history. Even if you don’t believe in that theory, the Cubs aren’t a small market team that needs to manipulate the service time of a relief pitcher to pinch pennies. Vizcaino has made four appearances for High-A Daytona, throwing one inning in each, and has allowed three hits, one earned run, with one walk and three strikeouts. I would be surprised if he’s in the minors past May 1, and NL-only owners or large mixed league owners with a bench spot to work with should add him in anticipation of a volatile closer situation in the Windy City.