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March 13, 2013

Five to Watch

Drawing Blanks

by Josh Shepardson

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Madison Bumgarner

There is a lot to like about Bumgarner, such as his age, strong walk rate, ability to miss bats, home ballpark, and the fact that he's coming off his most successful season in the majors. Not everything is coming up roses for the young left-hander, though: a significant drop in velocity toward the end of 2012 makes the zip on his fastball worth monitoring this spring.

The average velocity on Bumgarner's four-seam fastball peaked in the month of August, averaging 92.23 mph. It bottomed out the following month, averaging 90.69 mph in September. Mechanics were blamed for his late-season struggles, and prior to Game Two of the World Series, Bumgarner reportedly ironed his issues out with Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti. He pitched seven scoreless innings in that start, but his lost velocity was nowhere to be found.

Bumgarner has overcome a velocity drop in the past, and eventually regained some of the missing ticks. He set a new career high in innings pitched last year, and it's possible, if not probable, that he was just worn down at the end of the year. If that was indeed the case, then Bumgarner should continue to pitch at a high level. But if there is an underlying issue sapping his velocity, then he'll most likely disappoint owners that spend the early-round pick necessary to secure his services.

Kyle Blanks

I'm a sucker for power, and Blanks isn't lacking in that department. Unfortunately, he hasn't been on the field enough to really showcase his pop on the biggest stage. Blanks received just six plate appearances in the majors last year before shutting it down due to a torn labrum in his shoulder. He underwent surgery to repair the tear in late April, and it marked his second major procedure since 2010, when he needed Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. Injuries have limited Blanks to 316 plate appearances for the Padres since the start of the 2010 season, and only 403 more plate appearances in the minors during that timeframe.

In his brief time at The Show, Blanks has hit one homer per 24.4 plate appearances. At that pace, he'd be good for approximately 25 homers in a 600-trip season. His big power has come with a big strikeout rate in the majors—31.6 percent, to be exact—and the whiffs will continue to hinder Blanks’ batting average unless he finds a way to fix the holes in his swing.

So far, so good for Blanks this spring—on both fronts: He's healthy, and playing very well. There isn't a clear path to playing time in left field or at first base, but if he hits, he'll eventually earn a spot in manager Bud Black’s lineup. Blanks isn't worth drafting at this point in time, but he's worth keeping an eye on in extremely-large mixed leagues and NL-only formats.

Leonys Martin

When the Rangers signed the Cuban defector to a five-year, $15.5 million major-league contract in May 2011, the expectation was that Martin would help the big-league team in short order. He's accumulated only 60 plate appearances for the Rangers to date, but he'll get a chance to add to that total this year.

Martin has hit the ball well in two minor-league seasons, tallying a .323/.388/.503 triple-slash line in 603 plate appearances. He's not a burner, and he's an inefficient base-stealer (59.2 percent success rate in 49 stolen-base attempts in the minors), but he should be able to reach the teens in stolen bases once he hones his skills. Martin is also not going to hit for significant power, but he packs enough punch to reach double digits in that category, as well. Put those together, and you have a potential across-the-board contributor, even if the individual-category outputs are unsexy.

So far this spring, Martin has been making the most of his opportunity to land the starting center-field job. He's raking at the plate, and as importantly, his defense is getting good reviews from skipper Ron Washington. It certainly looks like he'll break camp with the team, at the least, and he could become the primary center fielder if he outperforms Craig Gentry, who also is enjoying a hot spring The ceiling isn't high enough to jump on him in shallow leagues, but Martin's stock is up in large mixed formats and AL-only leagues.

Chris Carter

I mentioned that I am a sucker for power earlier when discussing Blanks, and the same proclivity applies to Carter, as well. Carter was on his way to earning the dreaded Quad-A label before cashing in on his chance to play for the A's last season. As part of a platoon with Brandon Moss, Carter managed to smack 16 homers in only 260 plate appearances, or put another way, one in every 16.25 trips to the box. Carter did his typical three-true-outcome (TTO) thing, tallying a homer, walk, or strikeout in 53.1 percent of his plate appearances in the majors last year. The strikeouts (31.9 percent strikeout rate in 2012) will hold his average down, but Carter gets a value bump in leagues that use on-base percentage thanks to a stellar walk rate (15 percent).

Carter will leave the home-run-suppressing O.co Coliseum for the homer-amplifying confines of Minute Maid Park. The rebuilding Astros are expected to have Carter in the lineup on a full-time basis, though his lack of defensive mobility clouds his defensive profile. Fantasy owners should keep an eye this spring on Carter’s ability to handle the outfield. It's unlikely to be pretty, but if he can be serviceable in left, adding outfield eligibility will provide a boost to his value in fantasy leagues. As it stands, Carter will be one of the cheapest 30+ homer threats available in drafts and auctions this year.

Josh Fields

For the sake of confusion, I've decided to add yet another player that shares a name with an erstwhile major-leaguer to the column. Not to be confused with the former White Sox first-rounder (2004), this Josh Fields joined the Astros as the first pick in the Rule 5 draft last September. Our own Mark Anderson declared Fields his favorite pick of the draft.

When his control is in check, Fields fastball-curveball combination is strong enough to profile in a late-inning role. Given the lack of an established closer in Houston, it's not out of the question that Fields could net some saves this year. The favorite to break camp as the Astros closer is Jose Veras, but the right-hander is little more than a journeyman, as Houston is his sixth stop in the last five years. Veras has an electric arm with bat-missing stuff, as evidenced by his career 9.39 K/9, but his 4.92 career BB/9 speaks volumes about his control issues. If Veras struggles early, Fields could garner a look from manager Bo Porter.

Of course, Fields will need to find the strike zone consistently if he hopes to be used in high-leverage situations, closing or otherwise. He spent all of last season in the upper minors as part of the Red Sox organization, and finished with a 2.8 BB/9, while still logging and impressive 12.0 K/9. He struggled with his control in the Dominican Winter League, walking seven batters in six innings pitched, but the sample size is tiny. He has issued three walks in 4 1/3 innings thus far in spring training, and it’s worth glancing at on the “BB” column in the box score for the rest of this month. Owners that abide by the “don't pay for saves” adage would do especially well to keep tabs on Fields.

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