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Fantasy mailbag

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Each week I'll answer a handful of the most pertinent questions I've received during the week in my attempt, weak as it might be, to bring insightful fantasy analysis to the fore.

I'm already nervous about Nate McLouth given his early-season struggles and the fact that he plays for the Pirates. Should I be scared or is a repeat of last season coming?-- Joey, Bronx, N.Y.

I wouldn't be worried. Sure he is 1-for-14 right now, but if that happened in August you likely wouldn't even notice. The question about the Pirates has some merit, but McLouth was largely successful last season despite little protection in the batting order, especially when Jason Bay was traded to the Red Sox. So the short answer is that you really have nothing to be overly concerned about. More germane to this question is whether or not McLouth can repeat last season's breakout performance that saw him hit 26 home runs with 94 RBI, 113 runs scored and 23 steals (he was one of only nine 20/20 men).

McLouth saw his K-rate drop to a career-low 16 percent last season, and with it his BB/K mark improved for a third straight year (up to 0.70). Given that his BABIP was merely "average" at .291, his batting average of .276 could rise in '09, especially when you consider that his line drive rate last season was merely average as well at 18.5 percent. To be fair, in order to keep that batting average up he might be better off served hitting the ball on the ground a bit more as his 47% fly ball rate last season was pretty high (as a result, he fails to take advantage of his speed by keeping the ball out of the air). However, while his raw HR total jumped dramatically, it was really a result of playing time and nothing else (his HR/F rate was 11 percent, the same as his career mark). Overall, McLouth is a fine bet to repeat last years value in 5x5 leagues, even if the value is derived in a slightly different way (i.e. a few more steals, a slightly better batting average, a few less home runs, etc.).

I was recently offered a deal of Andy Sonnanstine and Grant Balfour for Dan Wheeler and Kevin Slowey. Should I accept?-- Mathew, El Paso, Texas

Sonnanstine hasn't been getting a lot of respect this season despite tossing more innings than Matt Garza (193.1 to 184.2), with a better ERA than Javier Vazquez (4.38 to 4.67) and a better WHIP than Daisuke Matsuzaka (1.29 to 1.32) in '08. The likely reason for the lack of respect is his low K/9 mark of 5.77. However, from a performance perspective, his ability to throw strikes allowed him to post a 3.35 K/BB mark last season, well above the magic 2.0 barrier, and actually the eighth best mark in the AL. Considering that his LOB% was just 66 percent last year, the "average" is about 70 percent, Sonnanstine would seem to have a fair chance of lowering his ERA into the 4.00 range with a bit better luck this season. You'll just have to find your strikeouts elsewhere. As for Balfour, he has those in spades a year after leading the majors (min. 50 IP) with a K/9 mark of 12.65. Batters hit just .143 off his electric stuff as he posted a 1.54 ERA and 0.89 WHIP. Even with his dominating stuff, he is almost certain to take a bit of a step back this season given that his BABIP was so low (.233) and his strand rate so inordinately high (88 percent).

Slowey, like Sonnanstine, doesn't do anything amazingly well, but he did most things slightly better than Andy last season. Slowey produced a decent K/9 mark of 6.90 leading to a superb K/BB mark of 5.13 (the second best amongst AL starters). His performance in the BABIP (.297) and LOB% (72.7%) categories was pretty much league average, so there was little reason to think luck played any part in his 3.99 ERA or 1.15 WHIP. Slowey finished strong last season with a 3.69 ERA, 7.15 K/9 and 5.64 K/BB over his last 13 starts last season and looks like the real deal. Wheeler has been the model of consistency having thrown at least 65 innings in each of the past five seasons. In three of the past four years his ERA has been south of 3.15, while his WHIP has been 1.15 or better in three of those years as well. His K/9 rate did dip to a five year low last season (7.19) as his HR/9 mark climbed to a scary high 1.36, a terrible trait for a fly ball pitcher (his HR/F rate remained stable at 10 percent), though his skill set remains fairly stable otherwise.

Would I take this deal? Yes. Slowey's upside surpasses that of Sonnanstine, and with the Rays' bullpen is a bit unsettled in the ninth inning, either hurler listed here could end up with double-digit saves. Though Baflour's stuff is filthy, I would give the slight nod to Wheeler's consistency and track record over Balfour's rapid ascent to stardom.

I'm in a shallow mixed league and I need speed for my outfield. Should I pick up Nyjer Morgan of the Pirates or Brett Gardner of the Yankees?-- Jason, Pennsylvania

Both players come with the question of playing time looming over their heads, though for now each is a starter for their respective squads. Let's just break down their skills and see who is better equipped to handle a full season of at-bats.

Morgan has struggled to make his mark at the big league level despite hitting .297 with 17 steals in 286 AB. The reason? His control of the strike zone is poor largely because of an unhealthy strikeout rate for a slap hitter (he strikes out in one/fifth of his at-bats). As a result, his OBP is merely average for a top of the order hitter at .348. Still, when he gets on base he runs as his stolen base opportunity number, basically the number of times he attempts a steal when he reaches base, of 0.30 is almost four times the league average. When he reaches base, he is off. As for Gardner, he has only 138 AB in the majors, an even smaller sample size than Morgan, that he has used rather unimpressively so far (.232/.282/.304). Still, the man owns a .290 batting average with a .389 OBP in his minor league career, and he stole 50 bases last season between Triple-A (37) and the majors (13). Gardner also owns a solid minor league BB/K mark of 0.81, compared to Morgan's sub par 0.47 mark, while his major league SBO number is 0.47 compared to his minor league mark of 0.32.

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Each player has to be worried about losing at-bats, so if we go solely on the skill set, and with these guys there only real "skill" at this point are their wheels, Gardner seems like the slightly better bet to make his mark in 2009.

Just how good can Jayson Werth be? I'm thinking 30/30 if he gets 500 AB.-- Rick, Baton Rouge, La.

While some pundits are floating 30/30 out there, I think that is far out of reach for Werth for two main reasons: (1) health, and (2) he just doesn't run that much.

Last season was the first time in his career that Werth accrued more than 350 AB in a season with 418. The reason is primarily due to a laundry list of injuries that have held him back, though it also shouldn't be overlooked that he has hit just .248 against right-handed pitching in his career. Could he suddenly "get healthy" in '09? Certainly. But his track record suggests less than smooth sailing ahead. Secondly, even though he stole 20 bases last season, he entered the year with a mere 24 career steals in 326 games. He has been caught only five times against 44 career steals, but the last time he stole 20 bases prior to last year was 2002 at Triple-A.

As for his offensive game, 24 home runs in 418 AB certainly projects to 30 dongs in a full season, but it may not be that simple. Werth owns a strong 15 percent HR/F rate in his career, but his fly ball rate has been below 41 percent in each of the past four years meaning the only shot he has at 30 home runs in that 550+ AB season he has yet to attain. Also, there are holes in his offensive game like a pitiful career strikeout mark of 30.2 percent leading to a below average BB/K mark of 0.45 (the major league average is about 0.50). As a result, it will be a chore for him to raise his batting average substantially from last year's .273 mark, so even if he continues to walk a lot, his OBP doesn't figure to improve much over his .354 career mark.

There are certainly a host of reasons to like Werth this season, not the least of which being that the Phillies are fully committed to him playing everyday, but that doesn't mean we should go setting up a ticker tape parade for Werth on the assumption that he will join the 30/30 club this season.

I need help at the middle infield spot in a 12-team points league. The three options I see are Freddy Sanchez, Aaron Hill and Emmanuel Burriss. Any of these three seem like a winner?-- Sean, New Hampshire

All three players bring a little something different to the table.

Sanchez hit just .271-9-52 last season as he slowly worked his way back from a bum shoulder. Once his wing was finally up to snuff he took off in the second half hitting a robust .346 in 211 AB. It may not be common knowledge, but Sanchez owns a .301 career batting average, and per 600 AB in his career he has averaged 40 doubles a season even is his home run prowess is poor (32 career home runs).

Hill was limited to just 205 AB last season because of post-concussion syndrome. He is reported to be fully healthy and already has two home runs and six RBI on the year. People forget that in 2007 he was one of the top power bats at the position hitting .291-17-78-87, numbers that only two other second baseman could match (Chase Utley and Robinson Cano). The question is, was the 9 percent HR/F mark that year an outlier, or a sign that his power is on the upswing (5 percent for his career)?

Burriss is nothing like the other two on this list in that his game is all about his wheels. After beating out Kevin Frandsen for the starting second base job with the Giants, Burress is primed for a 500-AB season a year after he hit .283 while stealing 13 bases over 240 AB. Burriss, who stole 68 bags in 2007 in A-ball, knows how to get on base with at a decent rate (.347 OBP in his professional career), though his utter lack of pop-up until this point is almost comical (31 doubles and two home runs in 1,070 professional AB).

Since this is a "points" league, which I assume means players are awarded one point for singles, two for doubles, four for home runs etc., Burriss' lack of pop, even with an everyday job and speed to burn, likely will result in a less than favorably showing compared to the others. Hill and his extra base pop likely represents the highest ceiling of this group, but given his entirely lost 2008 campaign I would list him second here. Sanchez might be slightly boring with little in the way of breakout upside, but sometimes it's the tortoise that wins the race and not the hare.