Yesterday, I sung the praises of the Indians, who I think will be one of the big stories of 2005. Let’s not forget that they were a pretty good story in ’04; they pushed the Twins deep into the summer, and were an extra-innings home run by Corey Koskie from moving into a tie for first place as late as July.
Two of the biggest reasons for their dance with contention were Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez, both of whom destroyed the ball in the first half before slipping slightly in the second. Both players were in their second full season in the majors, each having been something of a disappointment in their rookie campaigns. Hafner hit .254/.327/.485 for the Tribe in 2003, struggling to command the strike zone (22 walks, 81 strikeouts in 291 at-bats) after coming over from the Rangers in an offseason trade. Martinez, a Rookie of the Year candidate coming into ’03, hit a very empty .289 (.345 OBP, .333 SLG) while spending part of the year at Buffalo and another part on the DL with a bum right ankle.
Neither player entered ’04 with the kind of profile that they’d had coming into ’03, and from the shadows, they emerged into stardom. It happens more than you think; other players who had big “post-hype” seasons in 2004 included Lyle Overbay and Hideki Matsui. A GM could go a long way just by finding guys whose prospect sheen has worn off and picking them up for a song. Fantasy owners find lots of bargains in this bin, as the crowd moves on to the next crop of rookies and leaves the players who disappointed them the previous year behind.
Looking ahead to this season, we see a number of players who rode into last season on a wave of hype, only to be forgotten by the time temperatures hit 90. At the top of this list for me is Kazuo Matsui. Like Hideki the year before, “Little Matsui” came over from Japan and wasn’t nearly the player he’d been on the other side of the Pacific. While the Yankees’ outfielder still managed a decent season, however, the Mets’ shortstop was a replacement-level player, batting .272/.331/.396, playing below average defense and missing a third of the season with a back problem.
I’m optimistic that this Matsui, like the first, will bounce back with a big sophomore year. For one, Kazuo was playing better in the summer before a lower back strain essentially ended his year in early August. He hit .336/.384/.500 in July, with his best contact rate of the year, and he’d stolen eight consecutive bases. He should also be completely healthy, and the controversy he walked into–over the decision to move Jose Reyes to second base to accommodate him–has been ended by the decision to convert Matsui to second. New manager Willie Randolph, a slick-fielding keystoner in his day, seems the perfect person to ease the transition.
Expecting Matsui to match “Godzilla”‘s second-year line is silly, but a bounceback to .290/.360/.460 with average defense and good basestealing is well within his reach. In a league with a dearth of good second basemen, that would make him one of the best.
Half-to-half splits are often just the result of random variation. Very few players have an actual tendency to do better in one part of the season. However, guys who have poor first halves early in their career tend to fall off the radar screen. That’s what happened to Adam LaRoche last year. Gifted the Braves’ first-base job, he tried to re-gift it to Julio Franco by hitting .242/.271/.383 before separating his left shoulder in late May. The month on the DL agreed with him: after his return, he hit .301/.392/.556, then slapped around the Astros in the NL Division Series. The key indicator is his walk rate: five in 128 at-bats before the injury, 22 in 196 after. Even in a platoon role with Franco, he could put up some very good numbers this year.
Another player who disappeared after a slow start was the Nationals’ Terrmel Sledge. Like virtually every then-Expo, Sledge opened ’04 in a terrible slump, starting the year 0-for-22 and batting .122/.163/.146 in April. To Frank Robinson’s credit, he didn’t bury Sledge, who rebounded to hit .286/.347/.499 from May 1 onward. Sledge’s horrid April kept his overall numbers down for much of the season, so how well he played after the first month was lost a bit. There’s no reason to think he can’t have a few Matt Stairs seasons.
Today’s “Fantasy Focus” analyzes the Reds’ closer situation. By now, that was supposed to be the domain of Ryan Wagner, the team’s #1 pick in 2003. Wagner was the first member of that draft class to reach the majors, putting up a 1.66 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 21 2/3 innings at the end of ’03. He opened ’04 as the closer-in-waiting, only to allow 12 runs in eight April innings and find himself relegated first to mop-up work, then Louisville. Upon his return to the majors, he didn’t exactly right himself: 28 strikeouts, 16 walks and 18 runs allowed in 37 innings.
The raw skill set is still there: Wagner throws very hard and has a nasty slider. Even the best relievers are prone to some statistical fluctuations, and while Wagner’s ’04 was more than that, his numbers were inflated by one or two nightmare outings. He’ll spend the entire year in Cincinnati, will likely be the closer by the end of the season, and is an excellent bet to post an ERA in the 2.00s with 90 strikeouts.
After the successes of Hafner and Martinez last year, I have to mention one Indian. I’ll go with Cliff Lee. Like LaRoche and Sledge, Lee was responsible for very few runs in the season’s first month, then went on to light up the scoreboard from June on. This would be more impressive were Lee not a pitcher. His early-season success was entirely a function of a low home-run rate and a low batting average on balls in play. Even with a low ERA, he was walking far too many batters, and once balls started falling in, he got pounded. Nevertheless, I’m including him here because he strikes batters out, has a very live arm that hasn’t been abused, and could see his ERA drop two runs this year. I’ll admit that Lee’s argument for inclusion here is a bit more flimsy than that of the others, or even some of the guys in the next paragraph. Call it a discretionary pick, and feel free to laugh at me in six months.