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2012 Draft Prep: Stat geek sleepers

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Sometimes in Fantasy, there is no substitute for good luck. Nothing can give you an edge like drafting a player who provides early-round production for a mid- or late-round price. Jose Bautista provides probably the best recent example of an ultra-bargain, and heading into the 2010 draft season, there were few signs of his impending explosion in value.

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We don't always have to rely on luck to find bargains, though. Many were surprised by Michael Morse's arrival as a top 25 outfielder last season, but he showed glimpses of his power and on-base skills the year before. Better yet, what Morse accomplished in just 293 plate appearances in 2010 was supported by his lengthier minor league track record. In a pair of recent columns, I targeted several players who appear likely to disappoint in 2012 based on the trends in their advanced stats. Just as players like Adam Lind and J.J. Hardy look primed for a downturn in power based on trends for metrics like flyball rate and home run per flyball ratio (HR/FB), we can use those same measures and others to find players who could be bargains this year.

Here we feature 16 players who have a good chance of outperforming their draft position due to some hidden skills that may have gone unrewarded last season or unrecognized by many Fantasy owners. We will look at nine hitters who are likely underrated in at least one of the following areas: home run power, line drive power or ability to avoid pop-ups. With the help of xFIP (an estimate of ERA that controls for the impact of defense and luck), we have also ferreted out seven starting pitchers who may sneak under the radar because of an underappreciated ability to strand runners or avoid hard contact.

Underrated home run sources

Yadier Molina, C, Cardinals: Over the last three seasons, Molina has been gradually upping his HR/FB ratio, but in 2009 and 2010, it was washed out by an increasing tendency to hit ground balls. Last year, the 29-year-old backstop finally got his flyball percentage back into the mid 30s, and the payoff was his first season with double-digit homers. Not only did Molina leave the park 14 times, but he also hit a career-high 32 doubles. Still in the prime of his career, Molina has established his power credential enough for owners to expect a repeat this season.

Andre Ethier, OF, Dodgers: So far, Ethier has been falling deep into the middle rounds as a low-end No. 2 outfielder, as owners may be worried about his declining homer trend. Until last season, though, he had been consistently launching long balls on more than 12 percent of his flyballs, but his knee injury probably contributed to a rate that fell below eight percent in 2011. Ethier is fully recovered from knee surgery that he had last fall, and as long as he can stay healthy, a 20-homer season ought to be a cinch. He profiles to be one of the more productive No. 2 outfield options, not one of the least.

Drew Stubbs, OF, Reds: As a minor leaguer, Stubbs didn't look promising as a power-hitter, but by the middle of last season, his résumé should have silenced all doubters. Through last July, Stubbs had hit 43 homers in 1,118 career at-bats -- basically the equivalent of two full seasons. Late in the year, Stubbs went on a strikeout binge, ringing up a K in more than 37 percent of his at-bats. Even when he did make contact, Stubbs was such a mess at the plate that he mustered little more than singles. He acknowledged to the Dayton Daily News that he lost confidence, but he is too skilled of a power hitter to stay in a rut for too long. Fantasy owners should overlook Stubbs' two bad months and draft him as a low-end No. 2 outfielder for Rotisserie. However, he is still enough of a threat to strike out that he is more of a late-round flier in standard mixed Head-to-Head leagues.

Underrated hitters with line drive power

Martin Prado, 3B/OF, Braves: Line drive rates can vary wildly for hitters from season to season, but prior to last year, Prado posted consistently decent rates. In 2011, only Vernon Wells hit liners at a lower rate than Prado, as both players fell below the 12 percent threshold. Otherwise, all was well with Prado, as he cut his strikeout rate to a career low and maintained his usual home run power. While the parts of Prado's skill set that are less vulnerable to random fluctuation stayed steady or improved, the aspect most likely to vary was the main source of last year's decline. Prado should get back to being the reliable .300 hitter that he has been for most of his career. That makes him nearly as valuable as Aramis Ramirez, yet he is being drafted three rounds later on average.

Brian McCann, C, Braves: McCann put up his fifth 20-plus homer season in six years, but his doubles output sagged to 19, his lowest total ever for a full season. Not coincidentally, McCann's 15 percent line drive rate was also a career-worst, and it belied a previously consistent pattern. After five straight years of finishing in the top four among catchers, McCann fell to seventh in Head-to-Head scoring last year. While the emergence of several young catchers played a role, McCann can regain his top four status as long as he re-establishes his line drive power. At 28, he is too young to peg for age-related decline, so look for McCann to increase his doubles total and his overall Fantasy value this year.

Austin Jackson, OF, Tigers: Jackson turned heads as a rookie, keeping his batting average above .300 through the middle of September, even though he was prone to striking out. He relied on a 27 percent line drive rate and .399 BABIP to pull off that feat. While Jackson had been a good line drive hitter in Triple-A, he wasn't that good, so he was due for a fall. Still, his 16 percent line drive rate from last year looks like a serious overcorrection. The real Jackson is somewhere in the middle, and that means that dramatic improvement is likely on the way. Better yet, Jackson increased his walk and home run rates, so he could benefit from both skill improvement and better luck in 2012. That makes him one of this season's biggest sleepers, worthy of drafting as a No. 3 outfielder in most mixed league formats.

Hitters averse to easy outs

Alex Avila, C, Tigers: Avila ranked third among all catchers in Rotisserie value last season, yet he is currently being drafted sixth on average. He hasn't given owners a reason to mistrust his home run clout, but after hitting .228 as a rookie, Avila's .295 avearge from last year could look like a fluke. He should regress somewhat after posting a .376 BABIP, but as a hitter who routinely eschews popups, Avila profiles as a high-BABIP hitter. Avila himself is at a loss to explain how he has managed to be very good at minimizing his infield flies. He told CBSSports.com Baseball Insider Jon Heyman, "There's really no strategy to it. I'm just trying to hit the ball hard. Honestly, it feels like I pop out a lot. It feels like I get jammed and pop out to shortstop quite a bit." While Avila -- and many Fantasy owners -- may not realize it, he is one of the game's best hitters at avoiding these easy outs, making him a good bet to hit .275 or higher. Factor in his power and high walk rate, and he projects to be a top four catcher in all formats.

Kelly Johnson, 2B, Blue Jays: Johnson has proven himself to be a reliable power source with back-to-back 20-plus homer seasons. Unfortunately, his batting average has been all over the place. The bad news is that his strikeout and swinging strike rates have grown dramatically over the last two years as his power has developed. That doesn't mean, however, that his Fantasy owners will have to settle for another season in the .220s. At times, Johnson has been on the recipient of some apparent bad luck on ground balls, but he hasn't hurt his own cause by popping out frequently. In fact, he has posted rates of five percent or lower each of the last two years, and that provides something of a buttress against his copious whiffs. With better luck, Johnson should be able to crack .250, and that gives him a leg up on other late-round options like Danny Espinosa and Aaron Hill.

Brett Gardner, OF, Yankees: Gardner's biggest challenge this season is to extend his playing time by proving he can hit lefties. Even if he remains in a platoon, Gardner should be able to hit righties better and improve his overall batting average. Normally decent at avoiding popups, Gardner's rate shot up from five percent in 2010 to nine percent last year. Popup rates, like line drive rates, are subject to variance, but Gardner's longer-term history in the majors and minors suggests that he should hit the ball squarely more often this year. Of course, the more often Gardner gets on with a base hit, the more stolen base opportunities he will have, so he has a chance to break the 50-steal barrier. He clearly has much less to offer owners in Head-to-Head formats, but Gardner is a strong enough bounce-back candidate that he can be drafted as a No. 2 outfielder in Rotisserie leagues.

Low-xFIP pitchers

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Jonathon Niese, SP, Mets (4.40 ERA, 3.39 xFIP): Niese's strikeout (7.9), walk (2.5) and home run (0.8) rates per nine innings last season were very close to Jered Weaver's, yet his results were distinctly un-Weaver-like. Niese has historically been plagued by high BABIP rates, but with a dramatically lower line drive rate, he should have allowed fewer hits last year. Instead, the lefty was scorched for a .276 batting average on flyballs in play, which is freakishly high. With that rate almost certain to plunge this year, Niese should greatly lower his ERA and WHIP, even if he does not make further improvements in his strikeout, walk and ground ball rates. Because Niese doesn't profile as a reliable low-BABIP (i.e., flyball) pitcher like Weaver, he won't be mistaken for a Fantasy ace, but Niese would be a solid choice as a No. 4 or 5 starter in mixed leagues.

Brandon McCarthy, SP, Athletics (3.32 ERA, 3.38 xFIP): Not only did McCarthy start a career-high 25 games last season, but he also posted his best-ever ERA and WHIP due to notable improvements in his walk and ground ball rates. Maybe it's his injury history or just plain skepticism of last year's results, but McCarthy is still sitting outside of the top 60 starting pitchers in terms of avearge draft position. However, there are no signs of a fluke for McCarthy, as his strand and BABIP rates were on the slightly unfavorable side. McCarthy should be able to equal his 2011 performance this year, and if he can bump up his innings total, he would produce no worse than like a No. 4 starting pitcher.

Gavin Floyd, SP, White Sox (4.37 ERA, 3.70 xFIP): Floyd is yet another starter who is not making the cut for the top 60 in early drafts, but he deserves to be included. He provides consistent innings, a decent strikeout rate and a better-than-average walk rate. Floyd's sharp control was reflected in his 1.16 WHIP last year, but his ERA was inflated due to a 65 percent strand rate. While Floyd has never been especially adept at stranding baserunners, last season's rate represents the rock bottom of the range you should expect from him. Given how consistent Floyd has been in nearly every aspect of his game, he emerges as one of this season's stronger bounce-back candidates.

Anibal Sanchez, SP, Marlins (3.67 ERA, 3.28 xFIP): Last season represented a huge step forward for Sanchez. For the first time, he made it through entire back-to-back seasons in good health, racking up at least 195 innings in consecutive campaigns. Even better, he continued to improve his swinging strike rate and struck out more than a batter per inning. For all of his progress, Sanchez is being drafted as a low-end No. 3 starter. His peripherals sugggest that not much separates him from Michael Pineda, but Sanchez is being taken roughly five rounds later on average. Owners may be put off by the mediocre 1.28 WHIP that Sanchez owned in 2011, but his .317 BABIP was awfully high for a pitcher who is good at inducing popups. As a good bet to improve both his WHIP and ERA, Sanchez could be one of the biggest pitching value picks after the first eight rounds.

Ryan Dempster, SP, Cubs (4.80 ERA, 3.74 xFIP): Since becoming a starter again in 2008, Dempster has been a beacon of consistency, and the range of his xFIPs -- from 3.67 to 3.76 -- underscores his reliability. Normally adept at avoiding line drives, Dempster did suffer through a sizeable increase in his liner rate (from 14 to 21 percent), but that still doesn't account for his poor ERA. If you exclude three consecutive April starts in which Dempster had uncharacteristically bad command, his season ERA drops to 4.19. That is still worse than what we have come to expect from Dempster, but if you consider the benefit of his high K-rate, he remains viable as a low-end starter in standard mixed leagues.

Bartolo Colon, SP, Athletics (4.00 ERA, 3.58 xFIP): Colon got off to a surprisingly good start last season, and it's probably not a coincidence that he made 10 of his first 17 starts away from Yankee Stadium. He faltered over his final 12 starts (4.95 ERA), half of which were at home (5.35 ERA). While Colon became more homer-prone as the season wore on, the problem was exacerbated in his home starts. That won't be a problem in Oakland, and not only should his homers decrease there, but as a flyball pitcher, he should get a lot of mileage out of O.co Coliseum's ample foul territory. Colon has moved to the ideal ballpark for him, and the impact on his Fantasy stats should make him viable for deeper mixed leagues.

Bronson Arroyo, SP, Reds (5.07 ERA, 4.43 xFIP): For a finesse pitcher, Arroyo had been surprisingly successful in 2009 and 2010, becoming a master at painting the corners, and either getting called strikes or fooling opponents into hitting bad pitches. Last year, Arroyo's velocity fell and hitters swung and connected far more often. He spent much of the season recovering from mononucleosis, and the drain on his energy probably had much to do with his poor performance, which included a major league-worst 46 home runs allowed. Already in the early going this spring, Arroyo's velocity has been back in the upper 80s, as he told the Cincinnati Enquirer. That provides reason to hope that his HR/FB will return to its norm. Because Arroyo is a contact pitcher, he is a risky play in standard mixed leagues, but his improved velocity is a positive sign that makes him worth a gamble in NL-only leagues.

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Player News
Cardinals' Carpenter seeks to balance aggressiveness, patience
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(7:04 pm ET) Cardinals third baseman Matt Carpenter hopes to combine the aggressiveness he displayed in 2013 with the patience he showed in 2014, MLB.com reports.

"I've had both extremes of it," Carpenter said. "I've had it where I've led the leagues in walks [2014], and I've had where I've led the league in hits [2013]. I'm trying to search for that perfect balance where you're aggressive, but you're still patient.

"In the postseason, I felt that I was more aggressive than I had been at any point in my career, but at the same time, I wasn't flailing at balls. I didn't lose anything. Now, it's finding the perfect balance to where I'm swinging the bat, I'm being aggressive, I'm trying to do damage, but at the same time, I'm a guy who can walk a lot, get on base and set the tone as a leadoff hitter. I think that's part of growing up as a baseball player. You learn and you adapt and you continue to try to figure out who you are as a hitter."

Carpenter homered four times during last year's postseason after hitting just eight home runs during the regular season, with his first two postseason blasts coming on the first pitch of his at-bats. He's looking to capture that approach more often this season.

"I think he's a smart enough guy to do it because he knows what he does really well," hitting coach John Mabry said. "That's what you take pride in -- those guys who put in all the work to get to where they are and then say, 'I'm not happy.' They want to put in the extra work to get to that next step, the next level."

Carpenter is looking to build off a 2014 season in which he hit .272/.375/.375 with eight home runs and 59 RBI in 595 at-bats.


Mariners' Dustin Ackley to get a lot of playing time this spring
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(7:01 pm ET) Mariners outfielder Dustin Ackley will get a ton of playing time this spring, according to MLB.com.

Manager Lloyd McClendon said he wants Ackley to get off to a strong start, and will give the outfielder a lot of at-bats in March. Ackley seemed happy with the arrangement. "I think that's good," Ackley said. "The more at-bats you get, the better your timing gets and the more comfortable you feel. I think everybody wants to get at-bats and get ready."

Ackley had a tough first half of the season in 2014, but seemed to come on strong late. He stressed that being strong mentally should help in 2015. "I just need to stay consistent and don't start pressing if I don't get a hit for a couple games or don't do this or that," he said. "It's not being result-oriented and just going out there and playing and trusting in my swing and my mental standpoint."

The 27-year-old hit .245/.293/.398 over 502 at-bats last year. He's expected to open the season in a platoon role with Rickie Weeks. 


Nationals' Williams on Zimmerman: 'His athleticism is key for us'
(6:54 pm ET) After playing most of his career at third base, Nationals infielder Ryan Zimmerman is set to serve as the team's regular first baseman in 2015, and the team has continued to be impressed with how quickly he's learning the position, Comcast SportsNet reports.

"His athleticism is key for us," manager Matt Williams said. "He catches everything. He doesn’t miss a ball."

Zimmerman's Monday workouts had a new twist, as the team timed him to see how long he takes to get to first base after the point of contact with the ball. He also continued his work on throwing to second base, specifically gauging the positioning of shortstop Ian Desmond.

"It’s just comfort level for him," Williams said. "I’m always impressed by his athleticism and what he can do with his glove. The challenge is going to be him being comfortable over there, and the throws to second base, because it’s just backwards."

Zimmerman hit .280/.342/.449 with five home runs and 38 RBI in 214 at-bats last season.


Brewers' Taylor Jungmann taking new approach into this season
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(6:44 pm ET) Brewers pitcher Taylor Jungmann is taking a new approach into this season, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

Jungmann got off to a slow start last season, but a change in approach prompted him to reverse his fortunes. Triple-A pitching coach Fred Danby suggested Jungmann shift from the left side of the pitching rubber to the right side. Jungmann said he had always been told his stuff played better from the left side, but felt a change instantly after switching spots.

"I can’t explain it but I started throwing more strikes," he said. "My mechanics were a little more fluid. I didn’t change a whole lot; I just moved to the other side of the rubber. It felt natural. It made it a little easier to be consistent with my (pitching) motion. The biggest thing was getting my breaking ball back."

Jungmann comes into camp fighting for a spot in the team's rotation. He's already been listed as sixth on the starting pitching depth chart.


Angels' Scioscia: Kole Calhoun's 'intensity' a key strength
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(6:39 pm ET) Angels manager Mike Scioscia praised the intensity and enthusiasm of outfielder Kole Calhoun Monday as part of what makes him such a valuable part of the team's lineup, MLB.com reports.

"I think part of what makes Kole a good player is his intensity," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "You need that focus, that intensity to know this is real and it's how you compete. With Kole, it's in him and it bubbles out. He pumps his teammates up and he does a great job setting the tone for us."

"It's how I was raised," Calhoun said. "I'm a pretty passionate person in most everything that I do. I think at this level, you've got to be. You've got to compete on every pitch because that's your livelihood. Everyone's fighting for the same thing and you want to come out on top."

Calhoun excelled as the team's leadoff batter in 2014, hitting .281/.336/.471 with 17 home runs and 58 RBI in 448 at-bats while slotted first.


Rangers' Lewis, Gallardo to throw on Wednesday
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(6:36 pm ET) The Rangers will throw both Colby Lewis and Yovani Gallardo on Wednesday, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

The Rangers will take on the Royals during the contest. It's unclear how long either player will throw during the outing. Both players are expected to open the year in the team's rotation. 


Padres' Black on Morrow: 'We like what we've seen'
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(6:26 pm ET) Padres manager Bud Black has been impressed by how pitcher Brandon Morrow has handled his various ailments as well as his overall approach to the mound, MLB.com reports.

"I like his delivery, I like his arm action, I like his stuff," Black said. "First of all, I think he's got a good head. We're still getting to know him. We've only known him less than two weeks. But we like what we've seen."

Morrow has made just 16 starts across the last two season while dealing with forearm and hand injuries. As a result, he says he's begun doing a "pre-hab" program, which is "basically doing what you're doing in rehab, but doing it before you get hurt."

Morrow is competing for a rotation spot, but he doesn't look at the early portion of camp as a competion.

"The last three starts are when it will be more competition mode, I guess," Morrow said. "Right now, I'm still trying to get my arm and body in shape and easing into that. I'm not going to try and go out and blow it out in live batting practice ... Rather than just trying to strike everybody out, I'm going out there and doing some pitching. It's still the same repertoire and still mostly the same approach. But it's taking some speed off here, adding it here."

Morrow posted ERAs of 5.63 and 5.67 in his last two seasons in Toronto while battling through injuries.


Cardinals' Carlos Martinez to pitch on Thursday
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(6:22 pm ET) Cardinals pitcher Carlos Martinez will get the start on Thursday against the Marlins, according to MLB.com.

Martinez is expected to throw around 40 pitches during the start. The club is hoping Martinez goes two innings. Martinez prepared for the start by throwing two simulated innings against the Cardinals on Monday. Martinez, who is competing for the fifth spot in the rotation, said he just needs to go out and perform. 

"I need to go out and perform," he said. "I'm going to keep focused and have the same mentality to do my best even though it's the first [start]. Every time I take the mound, I'm going to feel like it's the last one."

Martinez, 23, posted a 4.03 ERA over 89 1/3 innings last year. 


White Sox prospect Courtney Hawkins taking it slow this spring
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(6:19 pm ET) White Sox prospect Courtney Hawkins is hoping to make an impact for the club at some point, but he knows it won't happen overnight, according MLB.com.

"My only job is to go out every day and play to the best of my ability. That's what they got me here to do."

Hawkins feels like he has the patience to wait until his number gets called to the big leagues.

"When I first got drafted, I definitely thought that I had to get there fast. I had to do something more," Hawkins said. "I feel like right now, as long as I do what I'm supposed to do and play the game I know I'm able to play and they know I'm able to play, I feel like it's going to come on its own, and that's what they wanted out of me.


Yankees' Rothschild impressed with Jacob Lindgren
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(6:17 pm ET) Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild said Monday that he's been impressed with pitching prospect Jacob Lindgren so far and that he has the ability to get outs at the major-league level right now, NJ.com reports.

Rothschild said that Lindgren has to try not to be "too fine" with his location. Dubbed "The Strikeout Factory" by Yankees officials, the pitcher struck out 48 batters in 24 2/3 innings across four levels after being selected in the second round of the 2014 MLB Draft.


 
 
 
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