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May 7, 2013

Free Agent Watch

National League, Week Six

by Josh Shepardson

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Dee Gordon, SS, Los Angeles Dodgers
Ownership: ESPN: 17.7% Yahoo!: 24% CBS: 38%
2013 Stats: 2 R, 0 HR, 3 RBI, 3 SB, .429 AVG

The Dodgers, and their fan base, are likely crying uncle at this point. They are hurting. Less than one week after being activated from the disabled list, Hanley Ramirez suffered another injury that required a return to the DL. His injury prompted the team to promote Gordon from Triple-A, where he hit .314 with 14 stolen bases in 16 attempts through 25 games.

Perhaps the most promising thing about Gordon's stint in Triple-A to start the year was a huge jump in his walk rate. His best walk rate in an extended stay at any minor-league level was 7.2 percent in 2009 at Low-A. After 117 plate appearances for Triple-A Albuquerque, Gordon was sporting a 12 percent walk rate. He's always done a good job of avoiding strikeouts, even in his time in the majors (15.6 percent strikeout rate in 572 plate appearances), but the walks are a welcome addition for a player who gets almost all of his fantasy value from swiping bags. Gordon is a career .303 hitter in the minors, but that success hasn't carried over to the Show, where he's hit just .262. If he can boost his on-base percentage in any way, he'll be a stolen-base monster. Even with a paltry .303 OBP in the bigs to date, he has managed to steal 59 bases. Gordon is a category monster that needs to be nearly universally owned. Even if you don't have a need in stolen bases or at shortstop, he's worth adding as a trade chip in all but the shallowest of formats.

Cameron Maybin, OF, San Diego Padres
Ownership: ESPN: 15.8% Yahoo!: 14% CBS: 22%
2013 Stats: 3 R, 0 HR, 1 RBI, 0 SB, .091 AVG

I was higher than many folks on Maybin coming into the season, ranking him 49th in my outfield rankings. Suffice it to say, he's been a disappointment for me so far. Part of my rationale for liking Maybin this year was simply being a sucker for his tools. It wasn't just his tools I fell in love with, though. Maybin has improved his strikeout rate each of the last two years, and for the first time in his career, it was below 20 percent last season. His contact rate rose from 73.33 percent in 2011 to 80.28 percent last year. Through 10 games this year, Maybin had shaved approximately another six percent off his career-best strikeout rate from ast season. However, his contact rate before the injury was actually a little lower, at 78.18 percent.

The next step Maybin needed to take to enjoy a true breakout at the dish was improving the type of contact he was making. From 2010-2012, his line-drive rate fluctuated between 14-16 percent, and he pounded more than half of his batted balls into the ground. His line-drive rate was a little below 14 percent in the early going this year, but it's likely that was due in part to a wrist injury that sent him to the disabled list. There isn't a timetable for Maybin's return to the Padres’ active lineup, but he's no longer wearing a splint on his injured wrist, and according to manager Bud Black, he has motion in the wrist and, "He continues to improve daily." Many fantasy owners have jumped ship, and the lack of a timetable for his return is frustrating, but he's a worthwhile DL stash for owners in need of outfield help in mixed leagues of 12 teams or larger that start five outfielders and deeper formats. If he continues to make weak contact after he returns to the Padres, then it will probably be time to give up on hoping for a breakout from the 26-year-old center fielder. 

Adam Eaton, OF, Arizona Diamondbacks
Ownership: ESPN: 8.6% Yahoo!: 35% CBS: 59%
2013 Stats: 2 R, 0 HR, 3 RBI, 0 SB, .118 AVG (Triple-A)

Maybin isn't the only National League West center fielder on the mend. Eaton was shelved with an ulnar collateral ligament sprain in his throwing elbow. He's playing in rehab games for Triple-A Tucson, but he's served as the team's designated hitter exclusively and has yet to take the field. Eaton is expected to begin playing the field in the middle of this month, and he'll hopefully be ready to rejoin the Diamondbacks by the end of May.

Prior to his injury, Eaton was a popular rookie in fantasy drafts. He's hit at every minor-league stop, tallying a .353 average and .453 on-base percentage over four minor league seasons. Jason Parks put a 6 on his speed tool and a 5+ on his hit tool in Eaton's prospect write-up as part of the Prospects That Will Break Your Heart: Arizona Diamondbacks Top 10 Prospects. Eaton received 103 plate appearances last year and walked at a very high rate (13.6 percent), which helped him record a .382 OBP. He's highly unlikely to even sniff his minor-league batting average, but he should be capable of hitting .275 or better with outstanding on-base skills. His greatest fantasy asset is his ability to steal bags, and Eaton's command of the strike zone will help him maximize that. He should be rostered in 12-plus-team mixed leagues that use five outfielders as well as deeper formats.   

Francisco Peguero, OF, San Francisco Giants
Ownership: ESPN: 0.1% Yahoo!: 0% CBS: 1%
2013 Stats: 1 R, 0 HR, 0 RBI, 1 SB, .167 AVG

The Giants recently added some versatility to their bench by sending catcher Hector Sanchez down to Triple-A Fresno and promoting Peguero. Starting center fielder Angel Pagan has been dealing with a mild hamstring strain, and is considered day-to-day. Peguero's fellow reserve outfielder, Andres Torres, has done little to merit fantasy attention, and Peguero could pass him in the playing-time pecking order.

Monday night marked Peguero's third game played for the Giants since his promotion. He was scalding the ball in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, slashing .415/.433/.585 with seven extra-base hits, two of which were homers, in 67 plate appearances. However, he isn't as exciting a prospect as that small sample may suggest. He cracked the end of the Giants top 10 prospect list, ranking 10th. He has a very aggressive approach that will cause him problems against big-league pitching. He's a non-contributor in power categories, and while he's an above-average runner, he isn't a great base-stealer. Forget his 40 stolen base season in 2010; he's not going to approach that number even with everyday playing time. He's best suited in the fourth outfielder role right now, but it wouldn't be shocking to see him carve out playing time in a left-field platoon with Gregor Blanco. He can chip in some stolen bases and a hollow average if his free-swinging approach isn't his undoing and he sees time. That’s reason enough for NL-only owners desperate for outfield help to give him a look.

Drew Pomeranz, SP, Colorado Rockies
Ownership: ESPN: 0.0% Yahoo!: 0% CBS: 5%
2013 Stats: 33.1 IP, 4 W, 40 K, 3.51 ERA, 1.23 WHIP (Triple-A)

Pitching at Coors Field is less than ideal, but Pomeranz is knocking on the door of getting another shot at making the most of a bad pitching environment. He's off to an excellent start, and it should be noted that he's pitching in a high-octane offensive environment at Colorado Springs. Nick Faleris ranked Pomeranz third on the Rockies top 10 talents 25 years of age and under last December. Zach Mortimer noted in his Minor League Update for Games of Thursday, April 18 that Pomeranz was sent to the minors to work on his control and command, and the results have been promising. After six starts Pomeranz’ walk rate is 3.24 BB/9, and he's missing a ton of bats, racking up a 10.80 K/9.

The Rockies are in need of pitching reinforcements, and they seem to recognize that, having signed Roy Oswalt to a minor-league contract on May, 2. Ignore Oswalt, and turn your attention to the 24-year-old southpaw with the gaudy strikeout totals and a 50 percent ground-ball rate. Pomeranz has the pedigree to combat Coors Field. NL-only league owners in need of pitching help with a bench spot to work with should add Pomeranz and hope he gets the call soon. It's hard to imagine the rag-tag collection of starters in the Rockies’ rotation holding him off much longer.

Brandon Beachy, SP, Atlanta Braves
Ownership: ESPN: 3.8% Yahoo!: 24% CBS: 44%
2013 Stats: Injured

Beachy is throwing bullpen sessions, and is nearing a lengthy rehab assignment. He appears to be on pace to rejoin the Braves in late June if he doesn't suffer any setbacks. Every pitcher recovers differently from Tommy John surgery, so it remains to be seen exactly how Beachy will perform. That said, Beachy was rightfully a fantasy darling prior to his elbow injury, and as I wrote in the spring, a player worth stashing on the DL in leagues of all sizes. Beachy is now close enough to returning that he's become worth a bench spot in many leagues that don't use DL spots. It would be unwise to put too many eggs in Beachy's basket, but he's a high-upside play for rounding out fantasy rotations in need of help.

Carlos Martinez, SP/RP, St. Louis Cardinals
Ownership: ESPN: 0.2% Yahoo!: 0% CBS: 14%
2013 Stats: 2.0 IP, 0 W, 0 SV, 1 K, 0.00 ERA, 0.50 WHIP

The Cardinals’ bullpen has been atrocious to start the season, and as the organization did with Trevor Rosenthal, they are introducing Martinez to the Show in a bullpen gig. Edward Mujica has been stellar since claiming the closer role, and Rosenthal is probably next in line should Mujica falter, but Martinez has the power arsenal to thrive in high-leverage, late-inning situations. Mark Anderson and Bret Sayre covered the need-to-know info on Martinez after his call-up, including his prospect profile and potential fantasy impact. Even in just a setup role, Martinez has the goods to be a ratio-booster while fanning hitters at a high rate. He's immediately worth rostering in NL-only leagues, and Martinez should also be scooped up if he’s available in large mixed leagues where non-closing relievers have value.

Kyuji Fujikawa, RP, Chicago Cubs
Ownership: ESPN: 31.6% Yahoo!: 39% CBS: 42%
2013 Stats: 4.1 IP, 1 W, 2 SV, 4 K, 12.46 ERA, 2.08 WHIP

The bullpen plot thickens in the Windy City, and with Kevin Gregg having nailed down four saves in four chances while allowing zero runs in seven appearances, it's not a foregone conclusion that Fujikawa will be given closer duties when he's activated from the DL. Manager Dale Sveum has indicated he intends to use a closer-by-committee approach even when Fujikawa is healthy, but my money is still on the Japanese import eventually wrestling the role away for himself. Fujikawa made his first rehab appearance on Sunday, striking out two batters and walking one in a scoreless inning of work for Triple-A Iowa. He will make one more relief appearance in the minors for Double-A Tennessee this week before rejoining the Cubs. He's already owned in many leagues, but owners in need of saves should add him in leagues where he's available. 

Rex Brothers, RP, Colorado Rockies
Ownership: ESPN: 0.2% Yahoo!: 2% CBS: 7%
2013 Stats: 14.1 IP, 1 W, 0 SV, 17 K, 0.63 ERA, 1.26 WHIP

Rafael Betancourt is a perfect eight-for-eight in save opportunities this year, but not all is quite right for the glacially slow-working reliever. Betancourt's velocity has been on a steady decline, from an average four-seam fastball velocity of 93.52 mph in 2010 to just 90.63 mph this year. Plenty of pitchers can survive as they lose some ticks on the heater, but Betancourt's velocity drop has coincided with a strikeout-rate slide over that same time frame. Last season was the first in which Betancourt failed to strike out at least a batter per inning since 2008, although he barely fell short at 8.90 K/9. This year, he's down to 5.84 K/9. More alarming still is that he's walking batters at a significantly higher rate this season. He has been very stingy with the free passes throughout his career, and hasn't posted a BB/9 above 2.0 since 2009. Betancourt walked just 12 batters in 57 2/3 innings last year, and he's already halfway to that total this season in 12 1/3 innings. It could be nothing more than a slow start, but add it all up, and it's reason to pause and survey the bullpen situation in Colorado.

Should Betancourt cough up closer job, Matt Belisle and Brothers look like the two most likely candidates to take the job. Brothers is the classic high-strikeout pitcher with shaky control. He's a southpaw with a power arsenal that is just about unhittable when he's in the strike zone, but he can also be his own worst enemy fighting to throw strikes (4.70 BB/9 in his big-league career). His ability to miss bats means his control doesn't need to be pristine, but he does walk a fine line between an acceptable walk rate and an alarming one. Manager Walt Weiss may wish to refrain from limiting the southpaw to ninth-inning duties in the event the closer role opens up, but the Rockies bullpen also includes another lefty, Josh Outman, so Weiss's hands aren't completely tied. I've combed through Rockies box scores, and having looked at reliever usage, it is my belief that Brothers would get the first crack at closing games for the Rockies if the opportunity arises, with Belisle the next best handcuff. Save speculators with an open roster spot in larger leagues shouldn't wait for Betancourt to misstep; grab Brothers now and hope the incumbent closer stumbles.

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Premium Article Monday Morning Ten Pac... (05/06)
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Fantasy Article Free Agent Watch: Nati... (05/01)
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