Matthew Pouliot

Strike Zone

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Mixed Notes: Pining For Pineda

Sunday, April 06, 2014


It was a rather ominous start to the 2014 season when Opening Day brought us three major injuries (Bobby Parnell, Jose Reyes and Wilson Ramos) and two big closer surprises (Brewers and White Sox) right away. Word came down the next day that baseball's best pitcher, Clayton Kershaw, would likely be sidelined into May with his shoulder/back strain, and by the end of the week, another first-round fantasy pick, Ryan Braun, because a big question mark due to another round of thumb problems.

 

So, let's see about sorting out as much of this mess as possible in, say, 3,000 words or so. On to the notes.

 

AL Notes

 

- In Robin Ventura's defense, he said he wouldn't name his closer until Opening Day. Most everyone assumed Nate Jones would be the man -- including those covering the team -- but Ventura said before Monday's opener that he would use Matt Lindstrom in the ninth instead. Jones went on to have two bad outings and land on the DL with a recurrence of the glute strain that limited him at the beginning of the spring and probably prevented him from winning the job outright. Lindstrom, though, hasn't capitalized, struggling in two of his three appearances to date. He gave up two runs to take a blown save and a loss on Thursday. On Sunday, working with a five-run lead, he gave up three straight hits and a run to the Royals before getting a fortunate game-ending double play on a well-hit ball to third. Lindstrom just isn't any good against lefties these days, and it's hard to imagine him truly nailing down the closer's role in Chicago. Ideally, Jones will return in a couple of weeks and secure the job not long afterwards. In the meantime, though, both Maikel Cleto and Daniel Webb are sleepers. I like Webb the better of those two, but Cleto's high-90s heat is the kind of thing teams like from their closers.

 

- After an up-and-down spring in the velocity department, Clay Buchholz struggled to break 90 mph while getting roughed up by the Brewers on Saturday. According to Pitch F/X data, Buchholz averaged 93 mph with his fastball when he was at his best last year. He was down to 91.5 after returning from his shoulder injury in September. On Saturday, he averaged 90.4. He also couldn't find his good changeup, which he'll definitely need if he's going to succeed with the weaker fastball. It's not necessarily panic time yet -- again, he was up and down some in the spring, too -- but it was quite the discouraging outing.

 

- The Red Sox weren't willing to go to top prospect Garin Cecchini after Will Middlebrooks suffered a strained calf on Saturday and was placed on the DL on Sunday. Since the hope is that he'll miss the minimum, they'll get by with Brock Holt and Jonathan Herrera at third base for the next two weeks. Holt is probably the better short-term option of the two in AL-only leagues. Had this happened a month later, Cecchini probably would have gotten the call. He's 6-for-12 with four RBI and three walks in his first four games at Triple-A Pawtucket.

 

- Chris Colabello is threatening to run away with the Twins' DH job with 11 RBI in the Twins' first six games. Manager Ron Gardenhire probably would have kept giving Colabello starts over Jason Kubel anyway, but there was room for both in the lineup the last couple of days due to right fielder Oswaldo Arcia's wrist injury. The current assumption is that Arcia will avoid the DL and return Wednesday, potentially forcing the Twins to choose between Colabello and Kubel. But Colabello should keep playing as long as he's hot.

How long will Colabello stay hot? Well, the 30-year-old did hit .352/.427/.639 with 24 homers in 338 at-bats for Triple-A Rochester last year. Then he came up and hit .194 with seven homers in 160 at-bats in the majors. He struck out 89 times in Triple-A and 58 times in the majors, Likewise, he's fanned six times in his six appearances this year. I have my doubts that he's even a .250 hitter in the majors. The power is legit, but I don't expect that he'll have any lasting value in mixed leagues.

 

- Josh Fields impressed in converting the Astros' first save chance on Wednesday, but it's still a closer-by-committee in Houston for now. Chad Qualls was given the opportunity to clean up Anthony Bass's mess in a four-run game Sunday and got two outs against the Angels for his first save, allowing one hit in the process. Qualls has now given up six hits in 2 2/3 innings on the season, and both Fields and Matt Albers outpitched him this spring. I'm not overly excited about any member of the bunch, but Fields is my preferred flier.

 

- As I do tend to make obvious, I'm a big Erasmo Ramirez fan. However, his velocity in his first two starts hasn't been quite up to par. Even after his elbow derailed him in the first half of last season, he averaged 92 mph with his fastball in his second-half starts with the Mariners. This year, he's been right around 90.5 mph with his heater in his first two starts. He can succeed there when he has his good command, as he did in his win over the Angels on Tuesday. On Sunday, he wasn't as precise and it cost him against the A's. I'm sticking with Erasmo in mixed leagues for the foreseeable future, but his ceiling isn't quite as high with his velocity down.

 

- Jim Johnson managed to nail down the save in a three-run game Sunday, though not before letting a couple of Mariners reach. It was still a big improvement over the five runs he allowed in his first two appearances, both of which resulted in losses. Johnson's velocity has been strong in the early going, but his sinker hasn't been sinking as much as he needs it to. The A's need not be very patient with him, what with Sean Doolittle in reserve and Ryan Cook returning from his shoulder strain this week. If Cook returns to 2013 form, he'll probably supplant Doolittle as the fallback to Johnson, partly because he's right-handed and thus less useful than Doolittle in matchup situations. I still think Johnson will pitch well enough to rack up 35-40 saves this year, but it'd help a lot if he could go this next week or two without any additional blowups.

 

- Yu Darvish's stellar return Sunday against the Rays has Rangers fans feeling better about things. Now that the team has ejected Nick Martinez from their five-man rotation, Joe Saunders would seem to be next to go; he could be sent to the bullpen or perhaps dropped entirely once Colby Lewis is called up. Lewis allowed four runs -- two earned -- in five innings in his rehab start Sunday for Triple-A Oklahoma, potentially putting him in line to be added to the rotation on Friday. One more minor league start wouldn't hurt, though. After that, we should see Matt Harrison (back) return during the final week of April, which could result in the demotion of Tanner Scheppers or Robbie Ross to the pen, depending on how things work out. I still like Ross as the better bet of those two, though Scheppers shouldn't simply be written off because of his lousy outing on Opening Day.

 

- After working primarily in the 90-92 mph range with his fastball this spring, the Yankees' Michael Pineda averaged 94.3 mph with his fastball in his regular-season debut, according to Pitch F/X date. That kind of velocity would make him an asset in mixed leagues in short order, if he can maintain it. His slider was his best pitch this spring, and his command seems improved from where it was pre-shoulder injury in 2011. He's worth taking a chance on in formats in which he's still available.

 

- The Yankees appear set to go with Kelly Johnson at first base and Yangervis Solarte at third for however long Mark Teixeira (hamstring) is on the disabled list. Solarte is a long shot to last as an AL-only contributor, but he certainly has some value for now. Mixed leaguers should be able to do better.

 

- Also on the Yankees infield front, don't forget about Scott Sizemore. He needed to start off in Triple-A after essentially missing two full years, but he went 5-for-6 in his first two games for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He could prove to be a capable regular at either second or third later on.

 

- The Indians will activate Michael Bourn (hamstring) at some point within the next couple of days, sending Nyjer Morgan to the bench. Bourn should be activated in AL-only leagues, but mixed leaguers might want to wait until next week.

 

- The Blue Jays appear to have a shot at getting Jose Reyes (hamstring) back as soon as he's eligible on April 16. Jonathan Diaz will continue to fill in at shortstop this week.

 

NL Notes

 

- There was nothing to suggest Ryan Braun's thumb was going to be any kind of problem while he hit .417/.500/.806 with three homers in 36 at-bats this spring -- he even spoke quite excitedly about the season during interviews -- but just three games into April, he acknowledged that it was taking away from his game. While there's nothing Braun can make worse by playing through the nerve damage between his thumb and index finger, his issues gripping the ball when he throws and the bat when he swings can't be taken lightly.

 

After DHing on Friday and sitting out Saturday, Braun was back in right field for Sunday's game. At this point, owners are better off taking a wait-and-see approach rather than giving him away. However, if one can still get a top-30 player in return for him, that'd probably be worth doing. There's no easy surgical solution for Braun, and if he does end up opting for a procedure anyway, it will probably wait until the offseason. Until then, he's just going to have to try to find a way to deal with it. Maybe it's gripping the bat a little differently. Maybe it's a position change to first base so that he no longer has to make long throws (though that's strictly speculation and not something the Brewers appear to be considering). My guess right now is that he'll get his 550 at-bats and prove productive, but that it won't come with his old power numbers. My preseason projection called for Braun to come in at .298-31-97. Right now, I'd say something like .285-20-85 is more realistic.

 

- After Francisco Rodriguez surprisingly came out for the save situation on Opening Day, Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said that he had removed Jim Henderson from the closer's role on a temporary basis until he regained his stuff. Henderson was shaky all spring, but it seemed like it was because he was working on a changeup to go along with his fastball and slider. His velocity was down some, though, and it carried over into the first week of the regular season. Roenicke insisted that Henderson would get the job back when he was ready, but K-Rod remains a capable closer and Henderson might not have much margin for error once he is given another shot. It certainly doesn't seem likely to happen this week after Henderson failed to retire either batter he faced before being pulled from Saturday's game.

 

- Ryan Zimmerman's shoulder, long a concern for the Nationals because of his throwing problems from third base, is now looming like a potentially serious issue for fantasy owners, with his soreness potentially sending him to the disabled list. There's little doubt that the Nationals would have moved Zimmerman to first base this year if not for Adam LaRoche's presence. Now they have to be wondering if they can coax Zimmerman and his scattershot arm through another year before making the switch or if they might have to bite the bullet and trade LaRoche. The good news for them is that Danny Espinosa is back looking like a legitimate regular this year, so they'll be OK with him at second and Anthony Rendon at third if Zimmerman lands on the DL. Still, between this and the Ramos injury, it was a rough first week.

 

- Ramos should return from his broken hamate bone in early May, but his power may take far longer to come back. Hamates are tricky like that; some guys are fine once their 4-6 weeks are up, but more often, they find their power sapped for weeks or months afterwards. Given that it's Ramos's power that made him such a popular pick at catcher this year, it'll be tough to count on him right away once he does return. While Ramos is out, Jose Lobaton should prove to be an acceptable second catcher in mixed leagues.

 

- The Mets started Ike Davis on Opening Day and then announced three days later that they were picking Lucas Duda to play over him at first base. Davis's response was to hit a game-winning grand slam as a pinch-hitter his next time up, and he went 2-for-4 with a double and scored the Mets' lone run on Sunday. The Mets, of course, could play Davis and Duda at the same time, as they've done before. However, that would mean sacrificing a whole lot of defense by using Duda in left field. They've said they don't intend to go that route, even though it'd make some sense in the short-term with Chris Young (quad) on the disabled list. My issue with the Mets is less about Duda, who can be a perfectly adequate first baseman, and more about their typical poor use of resources. They had at least one legitimate offer for Davis in the offseason (The Daily News's Andy Martino reported that the Orioles were willing to send them left-hander Zach Britton), but they held out for more. They're just fortunate now that Davis isn't pouting and further reducing his trade value. Ideally, a resolution would come soon; there are still several teams that could upgrade by adding Davis, the Pirates and Brewers being the most obvious. The Teixeira-less Yankees would also be a nice fit.

 

- The thing about Jose Valverde: I trust him far more in the closer's role than I ever would have as a setup man. That said, his splitter -- long his big weapon in his prime -- has been missing in action for about 2 1/2 years and his fastball velocity has continued to decline. It's hard to see how he's getting this many strikeouts with a straight 90-93 mph fastball and not much else, but he has six in 3 1/3 scoreless innings already. The Mets will ride him as long as they can, and fantasy owners should do the same, but I don't imagine it will last for six months or anything close to that. Now that Parnell has officially opted for Tommy John surgery, it seems like the Mets and Joel Hanrahan would be a perfect match if Hanrahan wants to close after returning from Tommy John surgery in late May or June. Gonzalez Germen is the deep sleeper here. He wasn't even going to make the team until Vic Black's control woes got him demoted, but he has a 6/1 K/BB ratio in 4 1/3 innings in the early going. I like his long-term outlook better than Jeurys Familia's, though Familia is interesting, too. As for Black... well, there's certainly no reason to pick him up before he works his way back to the majors. He walked two in an inning in his first Triple-A appearance.

 

- Even before J.J. Hoover gave up a walkoff grand slam to Davis on Saturday, the Reds announced that Jonathan Broxton (shoulder) would take over the closer's role upon returning from the disabled list this week. Hoover simply doesn't look like the same pitcher he was last year, a trend that dates back to the spring. It's probably fine to write him off for now. Broxton, though, figures to be just as iffy in the ninth. He should be picked up in fantasy leagues anyway, but, really, the sooner Aroldis Chapman (head) returns, the better. In the meantime, Sam LeCure is the Reds' best reliever.

 

- The plan is for Mat Latos (knee) to make his second rehab start Tuesday and come off the DL on Sunday. There's a chance he'll be pushed back a little bit, so mixed leaguers can hold off on activating him. NL-only leaguers will likely want him going this week.

 

- The Rockies' Charlie Blackmon didn't have many backers in fantasy leagues this year because his bat wasn't as good as Corey Dickerson's and his glove wasn't as good as Drew Stubbs's. Yet there he was starting on Opening Day, and after a 6-for-6 game Friday, he's hitting .542 in 24 at-bats to start the season. I probably was rather short-sighted to dismiss Blackmon as a $1 outfielder, given that we knew the Rockies didn't want to use Dickerson in center field. It's not like Blackmon was all that bad of a bet offensively; he hit .309/.336/.467 in 246 at-bats last season and I had him down for a .750 OPS in limited action this year. The Rockies might well go with a Blackmon-Stubbs platoon in center all year, making Blackmon at least a decent spot starter in mixed leagues.

 

- The Dodgers seem to be giving Kershaw the same kind of treatment David Price received from the Rays last season, and being overcautious isn't a bad idea given the $200 million investment. Since it sounds like Kershaw won't resume pitching off a mound until April 15-22, he's not going to be major league-ready again until mid-May. Complicating things for the Dodgers is Josh Beckett's leg problem, which could delay his return to the rotation. Stephen Fife might need to be called up to make a start or two in his place. Lefty Paul Maholm will stick in the rotation for the duration of Kershaw's absence, and though he struggled his first time out, he's worth playing in NL-only leagues.

 

- Having already suffered a blown save in an extra-inning game, Jose Veras took it up a notch Sunday, walking four of the six batters he faced after entering with a 8-1 lead against the Phillies. The Cubs have no desire to turn to Pedro Strop as their closer anytime soon, but Veras is one or two more bad outings away from leaving them no choice. I still think he'll settle down and get his 20 saves or so before being traded away at midseason, but we'll see. His margin for error was pretty large a week ago, but not so much any longer.

 

- Emilio Bonifacio might not have even started on Opening Day for the Cubs if not for Justin Ruggiano's minor ankle injury. Now he's a fixture atop the Cubs lineup after hitting .500 through six games. I thought he was the team's best leadoff option going in, so I'm OK with it, and the potential for continued mixed-league value is there because of his steal ability, at least for the next month or two. He'll likely be a .260-.270 hitter the rest of the way, and he'll gradually lose some playing time to the Cubs' younger options.

                                                                                                                                           

- Based on the way he looked this spring, I've been predicting that Ryan Vogelsong isn't long for the Giants rotation. However, he showed some of his best velocity since 2012 in his season debut, averaging 91 mph with his fastball. It didn't do him a whole lot of good -- he gave up two homers and four runs in four innings against the Dodgers anyway -- but it qualifies as a reason for optimism. I still suggest staying away from him in NL-only leagues for now.

 

- That B.J. Upton is still hitting second for the Braves would seem to be a measure of Fredi Gonzalez's stubbornness. Andrelton Simmons might be the next to get a turn there, which would give his fantasy value a major boost. Upton still has some value in mixed leagues, but he needs to prove something before hitting in the top half of Atlanta's order again.



Matthew Pouliot is the Executive Editor of RotoWorld.com and has been doing the site's baseball projections for the last 10 years. Follow him on Twitter at matthewpouliot.
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