Welcome to the 2014 installment of “Bret looks back on his preseason endgame targets and conveniently forgets that he recommended Edwin Jackson yet again.” It’s always a fun time of year—even moreso with the craziest start to a post-season I can recall—but with atonement being en vogue this week, it’s time to focus there so that we can all move on. My favorite column to write every year looks at my favorite endgame sleepers just as spring training is coming to a close. As this column has evolved over the years, it’s acquired more quantity, and this year’s crop of 22 was the largest yet.
As you can tell by the list below, it runs the gamut from very strong picks to almost laughable ones (okay, you can remove the almost in one or two choice examples). And as a reminder, any players who were in the top-250 in ADP at the time of the column (March 26) were ineligible here, so we’re not dealing with abstractions—at least using the assumption that ADP data (NFBC) in late March is not an abstraction. Either way, it’s the best we’ve got.
But do not fret. I know what you came here to read and it wasn’t my introduction. Let’s jump in:
12-TEAM MIXED LEAGUES
What I Said: Now, he is not on here because I think he might be the next Matt Harvey/Jose Fernandez—I don’t think Ventura will register the strikeouts required for that next-level breakout, but he could throw 190 innings with a sub-3.50 ERA and around 150-160 strikeouts (which would be a very nice return this late your draft)
What Happened: In addition to being super fun to watch, Ventura threw 183 innings with a 3.20 ERA and 159 strikeouts. Sure, I was off by seven innings, but I think you can forgive me on that one.
What I Said: He’s not nearly as bad of a pitcher as he was in 2013. If you split the difference there, you get essentially what he did in 2012—15 wins, 187 strikeouts and a 101 ERA+, which in San Diego should be much better for fantasy purposes than in Arizona.
What Happened: The 15 wins didn’t quite happen (13), but he eclipsed 200 strikeouts for the first time in his career and finished just outside the top 50 starters. The ERA+ ended up coming in at 92, but fortunately, that’s not a category for many of us.
What I Said: Nova is one of those guys with a sexy spring training K:BB ratio (21-to-2 in 19 2/3 innings), but his rebirth started well before this. Nova has essentially ditched his slider for a curveball, which has been the weapon he’s been searching for. If he can continue to limit the walks, he can become a true no. 3 fantasy starter.
What Happened: He had four terrible starts, and then a doctor cut open his elbow for sport.
What I Said: Ackley’s 2013 season was shaping up as another major disappointment until the calendar flipped to August. Over the last two months, he hit .313/.392/.456 with 13 extra-base hits in 147 at-bats. If he can keep this up, a high average/OBP, 90 runs and a little bit everywhere else is possible. He makes for a great Jurickson Profar replacement if you’ve already drafted in your shallow mixed league.
What Happened: He hit .245/.293/.398, so the hopes of a high average/OBP were unwarranted. However, he hit for a touch more power than he had in the past, put up a 99 OPS+ in a tough park, and combined for 129 R/RBI. He was a top-250 player, but not by much.
What I Said: Here’s the reality: Perez is a 23 year old pitcher with a career 104 ERA+ and better stuff than he’s shown from a strikeout perspective. He won’t be a superstar, but he’s better than this ADP/perceived value.
What Happened: Perez was the only pitcher to allow no earned runs and pitch at least eight innings in three consecutive starts in 2014. Unfortunately, he only made eight total and then became the second player on this list to blow out his elbow. I still love him though.
What I Said: With Didi Gregorius looking more and more like trade bait, Owings looks poised to take the starting job in Arizona and run with it. He’s capable of hitting .270 with double-digits in both power and speed, which would almost immediately make him a near top-10 option at the position.
What Happened: Owings did take the starting job, and hit .261 and paced for double-digits in homers and steals. Unfortunately he was limited to 91 games, mostly due to a shoulder injury. If you let him go at the time of the injury, he was good enough for your roster.
16-TEAM MIXED LEAGUES
What I Said: Santiago may never have a sparkling WHIP, but he should be able to keep a low ERA and maintain his rising strikeout rate from his continued transition from reliever to starter. Gee, that doesn’t sound anything like one of his new rotation mates, does it?
What Happened: Well, on the bright side, he did finish ahead of C.J. Wilson in terms of fantasy value in 2014. On the other side, there’s likely no way he was kept in mixed leagues after he was taken out of the rotation in May and he was terrible before that. If you reaped the benefits of his second half, that’s cool.
What I Said: At this point in the draft, you’re not going to find very many hitters who are 27 years old and have a 30 home run season on their resume within the last two seasons. Of course, there’s also plenty of risk here, which is why he’s available at this point in drafts. But hidden in his terrible 2013 season was the 170 plate appearances between his demotion and his season-ending injury, when he hit .267/.429/.443 with 38 walks and 35 strikeouts.
What Happened: The step forward in plate discipline was largely real (74 strikeouts to 59 walks in 2014), but unfortunately, it continued to come at the expense of his power—which was the reason he was drafted in the first place.
What I Said: It’s always a good sign when a team goes to the vaunted closer-by-committee before they even give one of their own guys a chance to fail in the role. Crain should be ready to roll before the end of April, and his skill level is a huge separator from the bulk in the Houston bullpen.
What Happened: Maybe he’ll be back by next April.
Tyler Skaggs, SP, Los Angeles Angels (ADP: 389)
What I Said: After averaging less than 91 MPH on his fastball in all of the first three seasons of his career, this spring Skaggs has seen a huge jump to 93.6 MPH. And while that type of velocity jump may be dangerous in the long-term, it looks awfully attractive this year. The stats this spring have not been as rosy as the radar guns, but that remains almost entirely unimportant.
What Happened: With a 3.55 FIP and 1.21 WHIP, Skaggs was on the right path, but it never really translated to fantasy value. The velocity increase stuck, but it didn’t matter when his elbow blew out.
What I Said: A 24-year-old with a career .321/.379/.601 line in the minor leagues sitting atop the Rockies’ lineup and nearly outside the top 400 picks in drafts? Yes, please. Dickerson will likely sit against lefties, but the upside here is that of a top-30 outfielder. This is not another #Buttledge, Dickerson can hit.
What Happened: He shoots, he scores. Dickerson certainly made the most of his playing time against right-handers, en route to hitting .311 with 24 homers and top-20 outfielder status (top-50 overall).
TWO-CATCHER MIXED LEAGUES
What I Said: The news coming out of A’s camp this week that Norris will once again platoon at catcher with John Jaso is disappointing in the short term but a good thing for his draft price if you’re drafting this week/weekend. I still don’t believe that the Athletics will either put up with Jaso’s below average defense (both traditional and framing—he showed up a few times here for the wrong reasons) or Stephen Vogt’s offense for an extended period of time.
What Happened: Norris fought through the short-side platoon to get 440 plate appearances, and spent most of the season as a top-10 catcher before going into an Oakland-wide slump at the end of the season (but still finished 13th).
What I Said: Hitting .400 with a pair of homers in 35 at-bats this spring, the Orioles may just give him the job outright out of Spring Training. He could be a potential .260 hitter with 20 homers—especially playing in that park.
What Happened: Schoop did start 126 games for the Orioles this year and hit 16 homers, but unfortunately any positive fantasy value was outweighed by a .209 batting average.
What I Said: The winner of the fourth starter competition in Toronto, Hutchison is trying to reclaim the magic of his former prospect days, despite only being 23 years old. Hutchison has impressed in camp and is capable of adding some strikeouts to your AL-only team without destroying its ratios.
What Happened: Hutchison racked up 184 strikeouts without destroying ratios, though his WHIP was much more helpful at 1.26 than his ERA was at 4.48.
What I Said: Herrera was not only dominant, but was one of the best relievers in the game during his 2012 season—but with some poor home run luck, he struggled to maintain that level of success last season. He’s not likely to rack up saves with Greg Holland in front of him, but he doesn’t need them to return $8-10 in AL-only formats this season.
What Happened: Herrera lost some of his dominance in the strikeout department, but a 1.41 ERA is pretty good no matter what accompanies it.
What I Said: We can only hope the vision problems are behind him at this point, but with a good chance at the starting third-base gig out of spring training, Olt can take the first step in proving that his days of disappointment are over. After all, is Luis Valbuena really going to get in his way?
What Happened: Both Luis Valbuena and Mike Olt got in Olt’s way during a rough 2014 season. Things won’t get any easier as he feebly attempts to hold off Kris Bryant.
Edwin Jackson, SP, Chicago Cubs (ADP: 489)
What I Said: E-Jax gets the short end of the stick because he’s constantly moving organizations and can be somewhat painful to watch, but he’s so much more consistent than you think. His FIPs over the last four seasons have been 3.86, 3.55, 3.85, and 3.79. He’s also coming off his second best year in ground-ball rate at 51.3 percent. You can do it. You can believe in E-Jax, too.
What Happened: Nope. Jackson was the second-worst fantasy starter in baseball this year, just barely edging out fantasy heartthrob Joe Saunders.
What I Said: Espinosa has really done nothing to prove that he should be a starter for the Nationals, but playing behind a rather injury-prone infield should find him plenty of playing time this season. Whether it’s Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, Anthony Rendon or potentially even Adam LaRoche going to the DL, Espinosa would play regularly should injury strike.
What Happened: He did get 333 at-bats, which I got right. Unfortunately, after a hot start, he fizzled out to the tune of a .219 average, eight homers and eight steals.
AL-ONLY FORMAT, RESERVE PICKS
What I Said: With a rotation spot in hand for the Twins, Gibson will look to bounce back to the mid-rotation sinkerballer he projected to be both coming out of the University of Missouri and off his strong AFL campaign in 2012. If he’s right, he can put up a sub-4.00 ERA with 140-150 strikeouts—just don’t expect many wins.
What Happened: Gibson made 31 starts, and strangely had the most categorical success in wins. Despite an ERA that spiked over 4.00 during August and September, Gibson was a top-125 starter, and after the first 650 picks, that’s a good result.
Brian Matusz, RP, Baltimore Orioles (ADP: 732)
What I Said: There are few players I have less confidence in this season than Tommy Hunter. Matusz could find his way into 8-10 saves even if he’s just part of a committee. Plus, with Zach Britton (another one of my favorites and good AL-only reserve pick in his own right) showing his best side this spring, he could give Showalter the flexibility to carry a lefty closer.
What Happened: I had the plot right, but the wrong protagonist—which is even more frustrating considering how long I’ve loved Zach Britton. Matusz was lights out in the second half, with a 1.23 ERA, 0.82 WHIP, and 29 strikeouts in 22 innings, but it was too little, too late at that point.
NL-ONLY FORMAT, RESERVE PICKS
What I Said: I wrote extensively about Heaney here last week, so I’ll keep it brief. I think he’s just about major league ready and the Marlins have shown a strong willingness to bring players up early. I would not be surprised if Heaney threw 140 innings at the major-league level this year.
What Happened: Well, it’s like 29 1/3 is that different than 140. I still believe in Heaney long-term, and he may end up with a spot on the 2015 version of this article.
Taylor Jordan, SP, Washington Nationals (ADP: 568)
What I Said: What the Nationals are doing with Tanner Roark, I have no idea. Honestly, he’s probably the third-best option for the fifth spot in Washington, but with Ross Detwiler already languishing in the bullpen, it looks like Jordan may be the guy to supplant him. I really like Jordan if he gets this job, and here’s hoping that happens.
What Happened: I’ll show myself out.
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