So you got burned last year. You entered the season with high hopes for someone, and he didn't deliver. Now, you can't help but hold a grudge, devising an entire draft strategy with the direct aim of making sure your two paths never cross again.
Then again, he might just redeem himself. He might just bounce back.
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How can you tell? For some players, it's easy. They might have suffered fluke injuries that kept them on the disabled list for half the year, but their final numbers looked normal considering the time they missed. They're fine. You know it. End of story.
But others don't have such open-and-shut cases. They didn't have injuries that sidelined them for weeks at a time, so they can't blame their statistical losses on missing at-bats.
No, they just plain stunk.
For those players, you might need a little help. Granted, you don't want them to burn you again, but you don't want to miss out on this year's version of Carlos Delgado, Aubrey Huff or Jason Bay either. This column examines a few of those potential bounce-back players, assessing the many factors that might have contributed to their demises and the likelihood of them overcoming those factors, before delivering a final verdict on where you should draft them, if at all.
|Why does it seem like Carl Crawford is performing like someone much older than 27? (US Presswire)|
Something went wrong for Crawford last season, and it started before he needed surgery on his hand in mid-August. It started the same place it ended in 2007, in his legs. Unfortunately, the 27-year-old speedster now has history of "leg problems" -- a condition he credits to playing half his games on artificial turf. He made a point to train on grass in the offseason and hasn't shied away from stealing bases this spring, but the fact he has to double last year's stolen-base output (25) just to return to his career norms makes him somewhat of a risky choice as a bounce-back candidate. Fifty stolen bases is a ridiculous number for a healthy player, not to mention one trying to preserve his legs. As for his .273 batting average last year, well, his usual .305 mark always seemed like a bit of an aberration given his low walk rate. A .290 batting average and 35 stolen bases sounds about right for Crawford, and he might disappoint you if you hope for anything more. Frankly, he has a better chance of "bouncing back" -- speaking strictly in terms of Fantasy points, now -- by improving his power.
Verdict: Crawford isn't a bad choice as a No. 2 outfielder considering he used to rate as a No. 1, but you should probably expect the numbers of a No. 2.
David Ortiz, DH, Red Sox
By most measurements, Ortiz still had a "good" season last year. It just wasn't Big Papi good. True, the guy missed most of July with a torn tendon sheath in his left wrist, so you might attribute his relatively low numbers to the fact he played only 109 games, his fewest during his tenure in Boston. But you can't ignore the decline in his percentages, particularly his slugging percentage. He slugged less than .600 for the first time in five years. And he didn't just miss the mark by a few percentage points: He slugged only .507. You can blame the wrist injury if you want, but he actually had a worse slugging percentage before it (.486) than after it (.529). Look, Big Papi is 33 years old -- almost the exact age when other "big" sluggers, such as Cecil Fielder and Mo Vaughn, hit a wall. Their bodies just can't take the abuse a normal athlete's can. Ortiz knows it. He slimmed down in the offseason, which might buy him some time, but it probably won't get him back to a .315 batting average or 45 home runs, not with him battling chronic knee problems. You shouldn't stick a fork in him, of course. He still walks plenty and has above-average power. But you can't expect him to produce at a first-round level anymore.
Verdict: Last season was likely the beginning of the end for Big Papi. He tends to fall to the fourth or fifth round in drafts because you have to expect fourth- or fifth-round production from him, not first-round production at a bargain-basement price.
Justin Verlander, SP, Tigers
Verlander, the second overall pick in the 2004 draft, entered last season as a favorite to win the AL Cy Young, including my own. Coming off a season with 18 wins, a no-hitter and his first All-Star selection, the third-year pitcher with the 98-mph fastball appeared on the verge of turning the corner as one of the game's best pitchers to perhaps the best. Instead, he had the worst season of his career, losing 17 games. His strikeouts decreased. His walks increased. He barely had an ERA below 5.00. He disappointed right out of the gate and only got worse from there, compiling a 6.04 ERA in the second half, so anyone who expects him to rebound is simply putting faith in his raw talent -- something he should have in bunches. But a decrease in strikeouts coupled with an increase in walks is a sure sign of bad pitching, not just bad luck, and some observers claim Verlander has lost some velocity on that 98-mph fastball. He pitched like a No. 5 Fantasy starter at best last year, so by drafting him as a No. 2, which you'd likely have to do to get him, you leave yourself vulnerable to serious disappointment.
Verdict: Though his talent and pedigree suggest he has the potential to rebound, Verlander has exhibited some signs of impending collapse. Plus, you'd have to draft him as a near certainty to rebound and not just a pray-for-rain type, making him one of the riskier choices on this list.
Aaron Harang, SP Reds
Like Verlander, Harang entered last season as a No. 1 Fantasy starting pitcher, and like Verlander, he bombed, losing 17 games, like Verlander, with an ERA barely below 5.00, like Verlander. But unlike Verlander, his strikeouts and walks didn't change significantly. In fact, he began the season as dominant as always, compiling a 2.98 ERA in April. His troubles didn't begin until that one fateful day in May when manager Dusty Baker had him pitch four innings of relief on two days' rest. He did just fine then, allowing two hits and recording nine strikeouts. Not so great thereafter, however, and after eight mostly mediocre starts, he went on the disabled list with a strained forearm. A scapegoat? Hard to say. He looked back to normal in six September starts, though, allowing a .247 batting average compared to a .245 mark in April. All factors considered, his struggles last year don't look as much like a decline as a combination of bad luck, the strained forearm and the lingering effects of that excessive relief appearance. Yet everyone seems more scared of him than Verlander, selecting him as the 40th starting pitcher in Head-to-Head leagues and the 42nd in Rotisserie. Nothing to lose there.
Verdict: Harang has slipped enough in drafts that he has legitimate sleeper potential. The fact he maintained his usual strikeout rate and walk rate throughout his struggles suggests he simply had a bad season, not a loss of talent.
Robinson Cano, 2B, Yankees
Everyone's favorite breakout candidate last year hit 30 points lower than the year before, and it dropped him from a fourth-rounder then to a ninth-rounder now. Fair? Well, let's decide. He didn't turn 26 until the offseason. He had a .333 on-base percentage and a .482 slugging percentage in the second half last year, falling right in line with his career marks of .335 and .468. He doesn't walk much, so you had to expect his batting average to bend more than most players' from year to year. Just because it bent down last year doesn't mean it can't bend back up again. And for as little as he walks, he strikes out even less for a player his age, so based on sheer probability, more of those batted balls will land this year than last year. So his abilities haven't changed. His supporting cast hasn't changed. His potential hasn't changed. The only thing that has changed with Cano from last year to this year is the way people perceive him. Nothing but bad luck and his own poor walk rate stands in the way of him having a bounce-back season.
Verdict: A good player had a bad year. If you don't mind streakiness, Cano will more likely outperform than underperform his draft position in Round 9, and he might even improve his power numbers to boot.
|Troy Tulowitzki is too young to assume that last year's disappointment was anything but bad luck. (US Presswire)|
Nobody can tell the story of Tulowitzki's 2008 season without mentioning the injuries that derailed his first half. By the time he recovered from a torn quadriceps and a cut right hand heading into the All-Star break, his batting average stood at .166, making him the bust of the century for all the Fantasy owners who selected him in the second or third round. Unfortunately, they might have judged him a bit too soon. See, in the second half, when all those down-and-out Tulowitzki owners turned their attention to Fantasy Football, the 2007 runner-up for Rookie of the Year played arguably the best baseball of his major-league career, hitting .327 with an .858 OPS. Even more impressive, he cut down his strikeout rate from one every 4.7 at-bats as a rookie to one every 9.9 at-bats last year. Yes, in between his poor numbers influenced mostly by that dreadful first half, he turned a corner in his development as a hitter. He needs to combine that improved contact rate with home-run ability before he emerges as a Fantasy stud, but he certainly looks ready to continue his upward climb to elite status.
Verdict: Based on his second half, Tulowitzki should pick up where he left off in 2007. You'd still have to draft him before the 10th round, limiting his sleeper appeal, but a bounce-back season seems a virtual certainty.
Brett Myers, SP, Phillies
The Phillies erred by moving Myers to the bullpen early in 2007 not only because they did it right as he had begun to peak as a starting pitcher, but also because he ended up liking it, resisting his return to the rotation in 2008. But he, like the Phillies, eventually had to face the reality that he has too much talent to waste on one-inning spurts. He wouldn't get to show off his full arsenal unless he moved back to the starting rotation, back to where he could pitch six or seven innings at once. The adjustment took some time, especially since Myers didn't exactly approach it with a gung-ho attitude, but he eventually came around, going 7-4 with a 3.06 ERA in the second half. In fact, you could almost say his bounce back already happened, but you wouldn't know it by where people draft him. Even though he has 200-strikeout potential, having already achieved the feat once in 2005, and the ability to win 15-plus games for the defending world champions, he goes off the board after projected minor-leaguer David Price in Rotisserie leagues. Myers can sometimes walk a few too many batters, as all curveball pitchers tend to do, but overall, the pros outweigh the cons for the 28-year-old hurler.
Verdict: Myers already bounced back. It just happened in the middle of the season instead of at the beginning. If people drafted him according to his second-half numbers instead of his overall numbers, he wouldn't deserve a spot on this list.
Bobby Jenks, RP, White Sox
Jenks had at least 40 saves each of his first two seasons as the White Sox closer only to take a step back with 30 last year, when the team actually made the playoffs. Even more discouraging, he recorded only 5.5 strikeouts per nine innings -- a rate you'd normally reserve for mop-up men. So what makes him a candidate to rebound? Really, everything else. He again had an ERA below 3.00 and a WHIP below 1.20, and those shrinking strikeouts you can credit to the continuation of a trend. He went from 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings in 2006 to 7.8 in 2007 to 5.5 last year. Considering how much his control has improved over that stretch, the declining whiff rate looks like a tradeoff designed to decrease his walks, which decreases his WHIP and makes him a better closer overall. As for those 30 saves during a winning season, Jenks just goes down as one of last year's examples why saves remain the most unpredictable, overvalued stat in Fantasy Baseball. He could actually get better this year even if the White Sox get worse. Hey, it worked for Mariano Rivera with the Yankees last year.
Verdict: Jenks certainly doesn't rank among the elite closers, but he still rates as a No. 1 Fantasy option as a reliable strike-thrower on a probable contender. Expect him to save somewhere in the neighborhood of 35-40 games with a solid ERA and WHIP even if his strikeout rate doesn't improve.
Jeff Francoeur, OF, Braves
After watching his home runs decrease from 29 to 19 in 2007, Francoeur committed to improving his power going into last season, gaining 17 pounds of muscle. Unfortunately, he forgot the most crucial aspect of power hitting: bat speed. The muscles simply got in the way, causing him to overswing instead of just flipping his bat through the zone. He ended up hitting .239 with 11 home runs. So now, it's back to the basics for a slimmed-down Francoeur, meaning an altered batting stance that helps him stay balanced and hit the ball to the opposite field. So far, the adjustments have improved his contact rate this spring, but with the decreased emphasis on power, you have to wonder when he'll ever break out with 30 home runs. Coming off such a miserable season, a .280 batting average, 20 home runs, and 90 RBI sounds like improvement enough.
Verdict: Francoeur needs to get back to a starting point before he can begin moving forward. The chance of him regaining his form makes him well worth a late-round pick, but in shallower Head-to-Head leagues, he was never worth more than that anyway.
Paul Konerko, 1B, White Sox
Last year, Konerko didn't look like the same player who hit at least 30 home runs each of the previous four seasons. He finished with only 22, his lowest total since a curiously poor 2003 season when he hit .234 with 18 home runs. His batting average also declined for the second straight year, finishing at .240 to give him a cumulative mark of .250 over the last two seasons. Some Fantasy owners might assume Konerko's skills have simply begun to diminish at age 33, which might have some basis if he didn't recover to hit .270 with 13 home runs and a .910 OPS in the second half last year. He looked like himself all over again, making his first-half numbers one of the season's biggest mysteries and his overall numbers dangerously misleading. As a player who often goes undrafted in mixed leagues, he comes with zero risk, and anyone who overlooks him simply puts too much stock in the wrong numbers. Food for thought: Konerko also rebounded in the second half of that awful 2003 season, hitting .275 with 13 home runs and an .853 OPS.
Verdict: His poor season likely had more to do with a prolonged slump than declining skills, and his average draft position gives you the luxury of assuming so.
Here's some quick verdicts on a few other bounce-back candidates:
Chris B. Young, OF, Diamondbacks: Young went from a near 30-30 man as a rookie to not even a 20-20 man as a sophomore, but you have to think of him as more potential than anything else at his age. He showed signs of development with a .278 batting average in the second half. Expect him to continue this two-steps-forward, one-step-back approach.
Micah Owings, SP, Reds: After pitching like an emerging ace during the first month of the season, Owings fell apart, finishing with 5.93 ERA. He maintained a relatively low WHIP despite his struggles, though, and improved his strikeout rate. Now dominating for the Reds this spring, he looks like an early-season waiver claim in mixed leagues. Expect not just a bounce back, but an improvement.
Fausto Carmona, SP, Indians: Control problems came back to haunt this former 19-game winner with a sick sinkerball, making him worthless last year. Another sinkerballer, Brandon Webb, had off-and-on control problems earlier in his career, but he also had far more strikeouts than Carmona. The Indians right-hander has to rebound some, and for a late-round pick, you can expect more than some. Just don't expect 19 wins.
Miguel Tejada, SS, Astros: When Tejada moved to Houston and its short fence in left field, some people expected him to return to his slugging ways. Instead, he continued to regress. The regression will continue for the 34-year-old, and he compares better to Edgar Renteria than J.J. Hardy.
Chone Figgins, 3B, Angels: Figgins' steals didn't really decrease last year, but his batting average sure did, and his .318 slugging percentage looks like a misprint. Most likely, he's more a .276 hitter than a .330 hitter, but people seem to understand that now and wait until the middle rounds, drafting him for steals and steals alone.
Jeremy Hermida, OF, Marlins: After hitting .340 with 10 home runs in the second half of 2007, Hermida regressed in every way possible last year. As a still-developing 24-year-old and a no-risk pick in the late rounds, he has the potential to become a regular starter for your Fantasy team, and he looks like he might have turned a corner this spring. Just don't make the mistake of reaching for him, like you might have done last year.
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