Derek Carty

Preseason Position Battles

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Spring Battles: Brewers, Reds

Friday, March 21, 2008

Team: Milwaukee Brewers
Position: 3rd, 4th, and 5th Starters
Combatants: Dave Bush, Claudio Vargas, Carlos Villanueva, Manny Parra

The situation in Milwaukee is perhaps the most interesting one of the spring. Coming into spring training, they had eight pitchers who were all capable of throwing quality major-league innings. Ben Sheets, Jeff Suppan, and Yovani Gallardo were essentially guaranteed a place in the rotation, leaving five guys to fight for two spots.

These five included Chris Capuano, Dave Bush, Claudio Vargas, Carlos Villanueva, and Manny Parra. Then Gallardo got hurt, leaving three spots for five guys. Then Capuano got hurt, leaving three spots for four guys. All the while, Suppan is aging and is probably the least talented of all the starter candidates, and Ben Sheets hasn't thrown more than 157 innings since 2004.

Bush was a sleeper for many in 2007 after his 7.1 K/9 and 1.6 BB/9 in 2006, which combined with an unlucky looking 66% Left on Base Percentage that made his 4.41 ERA look unthreatening. In 2007, though, his strikeouts and walks both worsened. Given that he had just one very good year, Bush shouldn't be expected to bounce back to 2006 levels. Should he win a spot, he'd make a good late-round pick in deep mixed leagues.

Villanueva only started six games in 2007, but his 7.8 strikeout rate was quite good. His 4.2 BB/9 left much to be desired, but it was 1.9 in 2006 (mostly as a starter, no less), so there's room for improvement. He makes an interesting sleeper candidate in deeper mixed leagues, although he's far from a sure thing.

Vargas is possibly the worst of the group. His career ground-ball rate is 35% (and Miller Park inflates homers by 9%), and 2007 marked his best K/9 of his career: 7.2. That came with a rise in his BB/9 to 3.6, though. He would make a decent #5 starter for someone, but he's one of Milwaukee's worst options, and the fact that he's 30 years old makes it somewhat unlikely he'll even repeat his 2007 strikeout rate. His FIP has never been below 4.90, so if he wins a job, he's not much better than a late-round NL-only pick.

Parra is perhaps the most talented of the quartet. In 106.2 innings between Double-A and Triple-A in 2007, he posted a 9.0 K/9, a 2.8 BB/9, and a 47% ground-ball rate. If he wins a spot, he would make a very good late-round draft choice in mixed leagues.

So which three will start the year in the majors? While Vargas is the least talented, he's also out of options. Plus, he's pitched well this spring. Villanueva and Parra have options left, to their disadvantage. It was originally thought that Parra would start in the minors given this glut and his lack of experience, but he could make the Brewers rethink things. Villanueva has pitched well too, though. Bush has not been as good.

My guess would be that Parra starts the year in the minors, but that he gets called up in May or June, similarly to how Gallardo and Ryan Braun were handled last year. The Brewers have plenty of question marks. Gallardo is hurt, Capuano's injury could be more serious than they are letting on, and Sheets is perennially a candidate to get injured.

It's also pretty likely that some pitchers will get traded; Vargas makes the most sense. Suppan, Capuano, Bush, or Villanueva could also go. It doesn't make much sense for the Brewers to carry so many starters when they can't play them all and several have trade value.

Given all of these uncertainties, any of these guys could collect 25 or 30 starts this year. I like to draft talent, though, so I'm taking Parra first in deep mixed leagues, followed by Bush and Villanueva, and then Vargas in deeper NL-only leagues. The Brewers are a team that seems capable of recognizing talent and handling it pretty well, which leads me to believe Parra will have the most value in 2008.

Team: Cincinnati Reds
Position: 5th Starter
Combatants: Josh Fogg, Matt Belisle, Homer Bailey

Aaron Harang and Broson Arroyo are the #1 and #2 starters, and now it appears as though talented youngsters Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez have all but locked up the third and fourth spots. Cueto put up huge peripherals in the minors in 2007: 10.6 K/9 and 1.3 BB/9 in 83 innings between Double-A and Triple-A. Volquez's control wasn't as good, but it was still decent at 3.3 BB/9 and his 10.6 K/9 was equally excellent. Both make good late-round fantasy picks this year.

Assuming both have spots locked up, that leaves Josh Fogg, Matt Belisle, and Homer Bailey battling for the final spot. Jeremy Affeldt was told earlier this week that he will move to the bullpen, removing him from the competition.

Fogg is the favorite right now, although he's probably the least talented of the three. Last year for Colorado, he posted a 5.1 K/9 and 3.2 BB/9. The 4.94 ERA might not look too bad, but he was aided by a little luck, and his 5.17 Fielding Independent ERA (FIP) looks much worse with that 5 out in front. Furthermore, his 40% ground-ball rate is below average and Great American Ballpark inflates home runs by 28%.

This spring, he has a 3.38 ERA in 16 innings. In three innings on Tuesday he gave up six runs (three earned), but that might not be enough to dissuade manager Dusty Baker. If he does indeed win the job, he probably should be avoided except in the deepest of NL-only leagues.

Belisle has much better skills. He collected 30 starts for the Reds in 2007, putting up a misleading 5.32 ERA. His 6.3 K/9 was around league average and his 2.2 BB/9 was much better than league average. He was unlucky with his .331 Batting Average on Balls in Play and with his 67% Left on Base Percentage. His 12.3% HR/FB rate as a little unlucky, but most of it can be attributed to the ballpark. His 42% ground-ball rate isn't what you like to see in a park like the Reds have, but his career rate is 45%, so there's some room for optimism.

His 9.00 spring ERA doesn't lend confidence to his immediate chances of contributing. Even if Fogg wins the job, though, it's unlikely he'll keep it for too long. Belisle should see some time in 2008. Still, the Reds' top four are all good pitchers, and a repeat of 30 starts is a long-shot given the presence of the third competitor. Belisle can be drafted in deeper NL-only leagues.

Bailey is the third guy in the mix. Bailey was a top prospect going into 2007, but one I wasn't especially high on. He excited people in 2006 with his 10.2 K/9 at Double-A, but his 3.7 BB/9 hinted that he would struggle unless he learned to harness his control. He threw 67.1 innings at Triple-A in 2007, posting a not-as-impressive 7.9 K/9 and an even worse 4.3 BB/9. No such harnessing. Coming to the bigs, it was no surprise that Bailey faltered.

Now, he's battling just to make the rotation. In 45 big-league innings in 2007, his K/9 and BB/9 were identical at an awful – in both cases – 5.6. He'll get a chance to pitch in 2008, even if it isn't in April, but he just isn't a great fantasy pick. That major league strikeout rate will improve, but he's shown no signs of improving his control. This spring, in 10.2 innings, he's walked 8 batters.

I'm not going to stop you from taking a flier on Bailey in mixed leagues; just know that it really is a poor decision. If you want to take a young pitcher late, there are so many better ones. On Bailey's own team, Cueto and Volquez are better. Take Bailey late in NL-only leagues and hope he can find a cure for his control problems.

Spring Training Stock Report

Stock Rising

Asdrubal Cabrera | CLE | MI – With reports that Josh Barfield could start the year in Triple-A, it looks as though Cabrera has locked down the second base job in Cleveland.

Alexei Ramirez | CHW | 2B – Ramirez could start the year at second base for the White Sox given the recent news surrounding his competition: Danny Richar is out for 4-6 weeks and Juan Uribe has been placed on waivers. Uribe was retracted after a trade failed to develop, but that says something about what Sox brass thinks of him.

George Sherrill | BAL | CL – Baltimore manager Dave Trembley has officially named Sherrill his closer. Sherrill is a lefty and the O's have a couple of talented relievers, such as James Hoey, waiting in the wings, but he should be a decent bet as a closer.

Elijah Dukes | WAS | OF – With Wily Mo Pena now expected to miss at least a month, Dukes will have left field all to himself to start the year. If he plays well, he could keep the job when Pena returns.

Dana Eveland | OAK | SP – Eveland appears to have won the fifth starter job for Oakland. He's shown skills in his minor league career, so he could have value in AL-only leagues.

Stock Falling

John Patterson | FA | SP – Patterson was released by the Nationals yesterday. The fact that they only would have owed him $600,000 had they kept him means that he even when he latches on elsewhere, he might not be in very good shape.

Garrett Olson | BAL | SP – Baltimore optioned Olson to Triple-A, taking him out of the competition for the fifth starter's spot. That leaves Matt Albers and Brian Burres as the final remaining candidates. Olson should be up at some point.

Felix Pie | CHC | OF – Manager Lou Piniella has expressed his desire to try out Kosuke Fukodome in center field. If it sticks, Felix Pie would have to ride the bench or play in Triple-A.

B.J. Ryan | TOR | RP – Word is that Ryan is likely to stay behind when camp breaks. With how deceptive the Blue Jays are when it comes to reporting information like this, we won't know for sure if this is a minor situation or a major one. Take caution when dealing with Ryan.

John Lackey | LAA | SP – More bad news for Lackey. Now it looks like he'll miss at least six weeks of the season, and there's been a little concern that this could be a precursor to a more serious arm injury.

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