I thoroughly enjoyed reading Bret’s retrospective last week of his targets and avoids from our pre-season series, and I’d recommend it highly if you missed it. I decided I’d wade into those waters myself, as it’s a solid exercise in accountability and a nostalgic trip down memory lane to the state of things heading into this past season, all rolled into one exercise. This week I’ll take a look at my list of guys to avoid, and next week we’ll look back at the guys I was hot for.
My Argument: You can find my full write-up about the reasons to avoid Cashner here, but the CliffsNotes version starts with the reality that he’d thrown over 300 big=league innings with a 6.8 K/9, largely because he lacked a swing-and-miss secondary to complement his very-good fastball. His swing-and-miss rate was below league average in 2014 as a result, and there was nothing in his profile to suggest he would suddenly whiff enough hitters to justify his draft position, which as of that writing was 37th in NFBC drafts. I noted that in Cashner’s one reasonably healthy year he finished 41st among starters over 175 innings, and given the track record of moderately inconsistent production and extremely inconsistent health, it made no sense to pay full retail value. Too much risk in the profile.
What Happened: Well, Cashner stayed healthy all year. His 31 starts and 184 2/3 innings were both career highs, so that was a nice bonus for those who took the plunge on him. His strikeout rate also climbed substantially on a per-inning basis to an above-average 8.04 mark. However, Cashner’s 16.8 pitches-per-inning placed him among the 20 least-efficient starters in the game, and he achieved the strikeout “bump” without discernible gains in whiff rate for any of his pitches. All remained clustered right around league average on a per-swing basis, and his overall swing-and-miss rate remained well below average.
The stellar receivers he worked with (Norris and Hedges were both top-15 framers) helped buy him some extra strikes, but even with that bonus he still strayed from the zone significantly more and walked a whole bunch of additional hitters. His normally deflated BABIP also regressed well to the other side of league average, though batted-ball distributions roughly in line with prior efforts suggest at least some poor fortune on that front. Nonetheless, the effect was real enough on his topline numbers, as his ERA and WHIP both soared and he ended up registering just six wins.
The Verdict: Cashner was pretty much the same dude he’s been, though admittedly a healthier one. Other than exceeding my innings expectations, not much went right, however, and this season was an unmitigated disaster for anyone who drafted him as a top-40 starter. He finished 148th in standard 5×5 value, and while some of that was the product of the poor win total, he earned a good chunk of that suck by just not pitching particularly effectively on balance. I didn’t nail the exact reasons for his struggle here, but I think I did well in parsing out the risk/reward and explaining the poor draft value.
My Argument: Full write-up is here. While I noted that I didn’t mind Owings as a dynasty-league option, my case against 2015 expectations amounted to a general wariness of young, aggressive hitters in their second big-league seasons and a general aversion to any hitters coming off front-shoulder surgeries. Owings’ career minor-league walk rate was south of four percent, and one of his most appealing features as a shortstop-eligible player was his home run power, which (injury notwithstanding) projected into the 15-20 range. But bi- league pitchers tend to find things to exploit in the approaches of eager hitters when they’ve got a full season of data and a full offseason of study to work off of, so I’d have been hesitant enough just based on that dynamic. The shoulder issue was an even-bigger deal though, as the kind of bat-speed limitations that can go with front shoulder soreness are all kinds of no bueno for a hitter trying to drive the ball with authority, particularly when extending to the pull side.
What Happened: Avert-your-eyes terribleness, the likes of which you wouldn’t wish upon your worst enemy. Owings slid over to become more or less the everyday second baseman in Arizona (more on this below) and produced a horrifying .227/.264/.322 line over 552 brutal plate appearances. When he did make contact, he posted a very strong line-drive rate, oddly enough, but his contact rate plunged, his strikeouts exploded, and he failed to crack a .700 for an OPS in any month. All told, he hit just four home runs, though his 16 stolen bases were… something, at least. He finished as the 37th-ranked shortstop and 44th among second basemen.
The Verdict: I wrote this piece in February, when it was still a given that Owings was the shortstop of the future in Arizona and before all of the Nick Ahmed shenanigans began in earnest in spring training. At the time Owings was sitting on an ADP of 242 in early drafts and going off the board 14th among shortstops, so he was certainly an appropriate player to highlight at the time even though he became a more questionable investment as the spring wore on. Still, he did end up as a high-ceiling MI play in plenty of leagues far and wide last year, so hopefully some people out there thought of this piece as they clicked the Add/Drop button and jettisoned him early enough to remain competitive.
My Argument: Calling it a “master of the obvious” choice, I wrote at length about Gordon’s volatility as a player who generated all of his fantasy value from stolen bases and runs but relied on an extremely AVG-dependent on-base profile. I noted how his overall AVG and OBP in 2014 were propped up by a hot start, and that as the season wore on he started swinging through more fastballs and slipping into previous bad habits. I still saw helpful production in my crystal ball for Gordon’s 2015, but given the volatility of the profile I thought his ADP as a top-40 player made him far too risky at the investment level his services required.
What Happened: Oh, nothing, he just led the National League in hits, batting average, and stolen bases en route to finishing as the fourth-most-valuable player overall in standard 5×5 leagues. Now, to be fair, there was at least a little bit of good fortune involved here: He gained nearly 40 points of BABIP despite posting basically the exact same batted-ball profile he’d thrown up in 2014, and he walked less than ever. If his BABIP is normalized based on the batted-ball distribution… well, he still hits .300 and returns at worst even-money value on his draft position. The fact is, when you’re as fast as Gordon is and you hit as many groundballs as he does, the odds of running into a few more base hits in a given year just aren’t that long. And he made commendable strides in continuing to slash his whiff rate, mostly by just swinging at everything instead of almost everything.
The Verdict: Uh… sorry? I guess? Yeah, this one looks extremely dumb in hindsight, though I’ll say that as a reflection on process I stand by the premise. The top rounds of a draft are—prepare for a #hottake—extremely, extremely important in establishing your team’s floor in a given year. And the play to make in the top rounds, in almost every case, is the less volatile play. The relative upside is limited: if you draft a guy 20th, and he produces the 15th-best season, bully for you. But the marginal value of relative return there is limited by the fact that he can only produce so much more value than you drafted him to produce. There’s a lot more downside, in other words, in picking guys who have to perform to their 75th or 80th percentile projections in order to justify the pick. Riskier profiles just aren’t as smart an investment as players with broader skill bases, and that was—and will continue to be—my case against taking a guy like Gordon in the first couple of rounds.
My Argument: The full analysis is here. Pitchers began attacking Rosario differently in 2014, throwing him a much steadier diet of two-seamers and crooked pitches, and watching him pound the ball into the ground. His groundball rate, particularly against same-handed pitchers, exploded in 2014, and his contact overall became much softer. And while defense doesn’t ostensibly matter for our purposes in fantasy baseball, it does when it affects playing time and organizational decision-making. Rosario’s defense behind the plate has never been his strong suit, and the team had just acquired a third catcher at the time I wrote this as well. It was unclear just how committed Colorado really was at the time to running Rosario out there shrouded with the tools of ignorance every day, and yet despite those question marks, Rosario’s ADP of 168th overall still put him as the 10th catcher off the board at the time of the original column’s publication.
What Happened: Those fears about commitment came to pass, as he was out of the catching mix entirely by the season opener, and while he made the team out of spring training, he garnered just two starts and a whopping 14 plate appearances in all of April before being optioned to Triple-A. He returned following Justin Morneau’s injury in May and hit okay through June before falling out of favor again and crash landing at Albuquerque for a second time in late July. Pitchers exploited his aggressiveness at will with more soft stuff out of the zone than ever, generating even more grounders and off-center contact when he was with the big club.
The Verdict: In retrospect this one looks like an unhelpful slam dunk, but it’s worth noting the lingering enthusiasm there was for Rosario to post a bounce-back season at this stage of early drafting. As I noted in my original piece, I’m always skeptical of assuming returns to form when a young-ish player stops producing in the face of a discernable change in approach against him, and that turned out to be exactly the case with Rosario. His poor offensive profile and a defensive one now relegated only to first base leaves him pretty well useless going forward, which is a remarkably precipitous decline for a 26-year-old drafted comfortably inside the top-200 overall just last spring.
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