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Maybin? Maybe Not.

After an incredible showing in a short stint in September, Cameron Maybin appears poised to take over center field for the Florida Marlins, perhaps as early as opening day 2009. Maybin is an excellent prospect and may be hyped amongst fantasy baseball writers, but I want to offer fair warning: for 2009, Maybin may be disappointing.

(NOTE: I think Cameron Maybin is a fantastic prospect. He’s great for keeper leagues, but for this article I will focus only on what to expect in 2009).

Maybin spent most of 2008 in double-A in 2008, hitting .277/.375/.456 with 13 homers and 21 steals in 390 at bats. However, Maybin is more known for his stint with the Marlins in September, when he hit .500/.543/.563 in 32 at bats, with 4 steals (and somehow managed to be +3 on defense according to Bill James online).

Maybin’s 32-at-bat stint in the majors should basically be ignored: he happened to hit well over a very, very small sample size. When projecting him for 2009, we should look at the larger sample of his 08 minor league numbers. And those numbers are somewhat misleading, for two reasons.

First of all, Maybin’s .277 batting average was driven by a high .380 BABIP. He hit an average number of line drives (17.6%), but a very high number of grounders, perhaps allowing him to beat out a large share of infield hits. Still, a .380 BABIP is probably unsustainable, meaning his .277 batting average was higher than it should have been.

On the flip side, Maybin’s home park depressed his overall line. While Carolina played fairly neutral in 2008, it has historically depressed homers and hits by about 10% each. And sure enough, Maybin hit .314/.401/.508 with nine homers on the road, but only .249/.356/.413 with four homers at home.

So what should we expect in 2009? First of all, Maybin is both fast and a good base stealer. The Marlins are generally an aggressive team, so expect Maybin to steal a good amount of bases. However, I wouldn’t expect much in the power department – Maybin is certainly still young enough to develop power, but he hit twice as many ground balls as fly balls in the minors this year, and is unlikely to hit many homers in 2009.

Furthermore, although Maybin walked a lot in 2008 – a good sign for his long-term development – he also struck out a lot. While this may not hold him back in the long-term – he’s young enough to be able to improve – it doesn’t bode well for his batting average in 2009. Remember, Maybin only hit .277 in double-A this year, and that was despite posting an inordinately-high BABIP. In 2009 he will be facing much more difficult pitching, and may very well have a hard time posting a batting average of even .250, despite see his speed (see Carlos Gomez in 08).

Maybin would almost certainly benefit from some experience in triple-A, given his age and his propensity to strike out and hit ground balls. His speed, defense, and willingness to take a walk should translate well into the majors, making him at least an adequate player for the Marlins in 09. However, fantasy players should expect a low batting average and minimal power, coupled with a lot of stolen bases (assuming he get on base a decent amount of time).

Maybin is an excellent long-term prospect, but may only help in the stolen base category in 2009.

Good Wood

Remember when Brandon Wood was a top prospect? Back in 2005, he had a ridiculous 98 extra base hits in the California League, posting a .672 slugging percentage (along with a .323 average and .383 OBP). He added three more extra base hits that season in triple-A, giving him 101 XBHs for the season. Not bad for a 20-year-old shortstop.

In 2006 he hit .276/.355/.552 with 25 homers and 18 steals (and was only caught three times) as a 21-year-old in double-A. Excellent, right? Yet many people chose to focus on his 149 strikeouts in 118 games, and glossed over his otherwise-fantastic season.

Then in 2007 he was promoted to triple-A, where he hit .272/.338/.497 for Salt Lake, a notorious hitter’s park in a notorious hitter’s league. Sure enough, his OPS was 100 points higher at home than on the road. And he struck out 120 times in 111 games. To further complicate things, he struggled mightily in 33 at bats with the big league team, hitting .152/.152/.273 and striking out 12 times.

In 2008 Wood seemingly regained his stroke, posting an impressive .295/.375/.595 line with 31 homers (in just 103 games) in triple-A, although he did strike out 104 times. While his OPS was once again almost 100 points higher at home than on the road, he still managed to post a .913 OPS on the road, and he hit 15 road homers as well.

But he once again disappointed in 150 at bats with at the major league level, hitting .200/.254/.327. However, Wood did stroke five homers and steal four bases, although he also struck out in over 28% of his plate appearances.

There are a few things to keep in mind about Wood. First, and most importantly, he’s only 23 years old. That is still quite young, and there is still plenty of time for him to fix the various flaws in his game.

Secondly, Wood actually had two separate stints with the Angels this season. The first time around, he hit .125/.164/.188 with 1 homer, while striking out in 33% of his plate appearances. The second time, he hit .256/.270/.430 with four homers, while striking out in 25% of his plate appearances. While this isn’t great, it’s a marked improvement.

Finally, Wood was extremely good in triple-A this year. Even though he played in a hitter’s park in a hitter’s league, his Major League Equivalent (MLE) was .235/.316/.436 with 22 homers in 408 at bats. He also stole 6 bases. Obviously, that’s not fantastic, but it’s also not bad, especially for a guy who will qualify at shortstop.

Brandon Wood is still very young, and still has tremendous power potential. He will strike out a lot, and therefore probably won’t hit for a very high batting average. However, he’s likely to qualify at shortstop – and perhaps third base – and should hit a lot of homers – and even steal some bases – if given playing time.

Wood could be an excellent late-round flier, as he has a tremendous amount of upside and will likely be given a chance in the fairly near future.

Is Vlad on the Decline?

Is this the beginning of the end for Vladimir Guerrero?

In 2008, he hit a mere .303, with 27 homers and only 91 RBI. Vlad’s .303 average was the third-lowest of his career, and his lowest since 2001. His 27 homers matched last year’s total, and was also the third-lowest of his career. His 91 RBI was the lowest of his career in any season in which he had at least 400 at bats.

Guerrero is not old, but he’s no spring chicken anymore (where does that expression come from?), either, as he will be 33 years old next year. Most sluggers tend to begin their decline around ages 32 or so, and Vlad seems to be no exception. Is Vlad in decline?

Well, yes and no. He’s certainly no longer the same force that he was in his prime – particularly back in 2000-2004. However, he’s no slouch either.

Vlad’s relatively low batting average can be attributed squarely to a fall in his BABIP and a rise in his strikeout rate: Vlad’s BABIP was .314, the lowest since 2005 and the third-lowest of his career, while his strikeout rate was over 14%, after having been 12% or under in every other year with the Angels.

So is this decline, or statistical fluctuation? It seems to be a bit of both. Vlad’s power has been conspicuously down for three years now – he posted ISOs of .248 or higher every year in his career until 2006; since 2006, his ISO has been .222, .223, and .218. So while Vlad’s power is indeed down, it’s not more down than it has been over the last three years.

Vlad’s hack-tastic ways seem to have gotten more pronounced in the last two years: his O-Swing percentage is over 45% for the past two years, whereas it was 40% and 32% in 2006 and 2005, respectively. His strikeout percentage was below his career average in 2007, but above it in 2008. I don’t know if there is much to read into this, besides perhaps the idea that Guerrero getting fewer pitches to hit because of an increasingly-weak lineup around him. His contact rate is down in the last two years as well, albeit marginally (from 83% to 80-81%). His line-drive percentage was also lower in 2007 and 2008 than it was from 2003-2006, although again, the difference was only a few percent.

I don’t often like to talk about RBI, as I believe they are almost entirely out of a player’s control, and therefore can be inferred by a player’s context (how good a hitter he is + his spot in the lineup and his teammates), but I will make note of Guerrero’s RBI total. Namely, in 2008 he drove in less than 100 runs for the first time during a full season in his career. Most of this is because his teammates weren’t particularly adept at getting on base; furthermore, his batting average and slugging percentage were both down. But also, Guerrero’s 2007 RBI total was artificially inflated by an incredibly-clutch performance that year: Guerrero’s clutch rating was a ridiculously-high 2.53 – the next highest rating in 07 was 1.86, from Adrian Gonzalez. In other words, Guerrero’s 125 RBI in 2007 was an abnormally-high total, inflated by an unusually-clutch performance.

So what can you expect in 2009? Well, Guerrero is unlikely to improve, but his batting average could rise if his strikeouts come down – which is a distinct possibility, given the fluctuation of his career strikeout rate (his high total in 2008 doesn’t necessarily seem to be a sign of his decline). His power is clearly no longer at the level it was in his prime, and may indeed come down even further, especially if back issues continue to plague him as they have in the past. While “lineup protection” is a myth, Guerrero’s RBI and runs scored totals could change dramatically depending on whether or not the Angels re-sign Teixeira, who would either be on base often for Vlad to drive in, or drive Vlad in often himself.

From 2006-2008, Vlad hit .319 with one homer every 20 at bats. It seems reasonable that this is approximately what to expect from Vlad in 2009, with the caveat that his power may be down a tick. If Vlad manages to get 550 plate appearances (he’ll likely miss some games due to injury), that would lead to 27-28 homers. I’d say that a .310-25-90 line seems reasonable – with the caveat that with every passing year, Vlad is an increasing injury risk.

The days of Vlad hitting 35 homers are gone, and it’s not too likely that he’ll hit .330 anymore. But he still remains an excellent fantasy outfielder.

Baek-up plan

Cha Seung Baek may not win you any fantasy championships. But he could be an important part of a championship team.

Some people play in shallow leagues – I mean 10-team leagues, with players from both leagues and relatively few roster spots. However, many of you probably play in much deeper leagues – either you have many roster spots, or more than 10 teams, or you play in NL- or AL-only leagues (or all of the above). Therefore, I think it is important to talk about lesser-known players who may not be great, but may still be helpful. And Baek is the perfect example of such a player.

Baek’s primary selling point is that he pitches for the San Diego Padres. By default, most Padres pitchers are pretty good bets for fantasy purposes, simply because of their situation: they play half of their games in the best pitcher’s park in baseball, and they get to face weak NL West offenses in many of their starts. As long as you’re vigilant about benching a Padre starter anytime they’re pitching in Coors Field, chances are you can find some good deals in their rotation.

Baek was dealt to the Padres from the Seattle Mariners and posted a 4.62 ERA in 110 innings with his new team. Baek also had a K/BB ratio of 77/30 and allowed 12 homers.

On the surface, those are less-than-inspiring numbers, to be sure. However, Baek’s 4.06 FIP suggests that he may be on the verge of improving. Baek stranded only 67% of the runners who reached base – below league average. He also allowed homers on 9.9% of his fly balls– while this is approximately league average, it’s unlikely that this will rise, and may actually fall, thanks to spacious PETCO park.

Furthermore, Baek managed to get swinging strikes on 9% of his pitches this year – league average is just under 8% for starters. He threw balls 34.8% of the time – league average is 36.5%.

So we’re talking about a pitcher who throws fewer balls than average, gets more swinging strikes than average, and plays half of his game in a fantastic pitcher’s park (not to mention the fact that he plays in the weaker league and gets to face many weak offenses). While Cha Seung Baek probably won’t be a fantasy ace or a top-20 pitcher, he’s likely to be undervalued and an asset to your pitching staff, especially in deeper leagues.

Zach Duke and Ian Snell: Buried Treasure

The Pirates defense was terrible in 2008.

Nate McLouth had no range in center. Jason Bay and Xavier Nady weren’t much better in the corners. Freddy Sanchez was terrible at second base. The list goes on.

Why do you, the astute fantasy baseball player, care about the Pirates defense? Because it contributed to poor pitching performances. And if the defense improves – which it should – you may be able to find some sleepers on the Pirates pitching staff.

There is reason to believe that the Pirates defense will be better in 09 than it was in 08. First of all, Bay and Nady have since departed. At some point in 09, it’s likely that McLouth will be moved to a corner, and Andrew McCutchen – who is reported to be an above-average defender – will replace him in center field. Furthermore, Andy LaRoche is entrenched at third base, where he should be at least average. While Sanchez remains at second and shortstop is a question mark, the Pirates defense should be much better than it was last year, even if they’re not leading the league in DER.

This has ramifications for all Pirates pitchers, but two in particular:

Ian Snell had the second-highest BABIP of any starting pitcher in baseball, at .358. Even allowing for the fact that Snell may be more hittable than your average pitcher, a .358 BABIP is ridiculously high, and will likely regress to the mean next year. Even though Snell had a 5.42 ERA this season, he coupled that with a 4.57 FIP, suggesting a fair amount of bad luck. With some regression to the mean – and an improved defense behind him – Snell should see a lot more balls in play become outs next year. Snell may not be an ace, but he could be a decent fantasy pitcher, especially in deeper leagues.

Along similar lines, Zach Duke posted a .327 BABIP this year – ninth highest of all pitchers. Duke is also rather hittable, but it’s no coincidence that the two of the Pirates starting pitchers were in the top-10 in BABIP: their defense really was that bad. Even if Duke regresses, he’s still nothing more than a waiver-wire pickup or a late pick in an NL-only league; even so, Duke is likely to be undervalued, and should be watched in deep leagues.

Will Jensen Lewis Be A Closer?

Finding undervalued closers is one of the most potent weapons any fantasy baseball player can have at his or her disposal. Closers can be extremely volatile – relievers themselves can fluctuate wildly from year to year, and closers need save situations in order to get a save. Furthermore, closers depend on a manager’s usage more than any other player.

However, the astute fantasy player need not pay top dollar for guys like Jonathan Papelbon and Joe Nathan (who, although they are awesome, tend to be overvalued). Rather, if you know where to look, you can get tremendous value on your closers.

With that in mind, I will periodically take a look at various closer situations around the league in an effort to find undervalued closers (or potential closers). Today, I want to look at my favorite team growing up: the Cleveland Indians.

The Indians are an extremely smart, progressive organization, that seemingly understands how to properly deploy its relievers – namely, that the closer need not be the best reliever in the pen. This is why Bob Wickman held down the job for several years, and why Joe Borowski was the closer until recently. Although both men caused Indians fan to have more than a few heart attacks along the way, they generally got the job done, and allowed better relievers like Rafael Betancourt to be used in more important, higher leverage situations.

That being said, the Indians are currently looking for a closer for 2009. They may very well obtain a reliever via trade or on the free agent market, but keep a close eye on home-grown Jensen Lewis.

Lewis held down the job at the end of 2008 and pitched admirably in the closer’s role, notching 13 saves. Of course, saves are much more about opportunity and usage, rather than a pitcher’s actual ability. And I think that Lewis fits the mold of what the Indians are looking for in a closer: namely, he’s not that good.

Bear with me here – Jensen Lewis is a pretty good pitcher. But he’s not an amazing pitcher; rather, he’s a solid guy who can go out there and get three outs rather consistently. He pounds the strike zone but isn’t as stingy with the free pass as Rafael Betancourt (a healthy Betancourt, not the 2008-version that was plagued with back issues). He gets his share of strikeouts, but isn’t a strikeout-machine. He doesn’t have extreme platoon splits, and he doesn’t get a ton of ground balls.

In other words, Lewis is perfectly suited to be brought into a game when there is no one on base. He’s not a guy you want to bring in when you need a double play, or when you absolutely can’t issue a walk, or when a strikeout is more valuable than any other out. And the Indians have shown in the past that this is the type of pitcher that they look to use in the closer’s role, while saving “better” pitchers – like Betancourt or Rafael Perez – for more important situations.

Thus, while many moves may still be made before now and the beginning of next season, my money is on Jensen Lewis being the Indians closer in 2009. If so, he has the potential to be a big steal on draft day: he’s not the biggest name, he won’t get the most strikeouts, but if he is named the closer he will rack up the saves for a good Indians team that will likely give him many opportunities.

Is Edwin Jackson Clutch?

14 wins, a 4.42 ERA and 108 strikeouts. Not bad for a late-round flier, right?

Indeed, Edwin Jackson may have been the best fifth starter in baseball this year, and was a big reason why the Tampa Bay Rays won 97 games. However, much of Jackson’s success this year is unsustainable, and you should be very wary of him in 2009.

Let’s start simply: in 183 innings, Jackson posted a K/BB ratio of 108/77. If you’re going to strike out 5.3 batters per nine innings, you’d better do something else well – namely, you’d better limit your walks and/or get a lot of ground balls.

Unfortunately, Jackson doesn’t limit his walks, and doesn’t get a tremendous amount of grounders, either (he actually allowed slightly more fly balls than grounders this year). So what does he do well? Jackson was exceptional in “clutch” situations this year.

In fact, according to our handy “clutch” stat here at Fangraphs, Edwin Jackson was the third-most “clutch” pitcher in baseball. Of course, the better a pitcher is, the more likely is to be clutch – a good pitcher is more likely to retire a hitter in any situation than a bad pitcher.

Therefore, it’s of little surprise to see John Lackey, Cliff Lee, Tim Lincecum, and Jon Lester among the top 11 “clutchiest” pitchers in baseball this year. However, Edwin Jackson’s clutchiness is a big surprise: Jackson was far better in important situations than he was overall.

In fact, Jackson allowed an .830 OPS against him with no one on base, but a .752 OPS with runners on. With runners in scoring position and two outs, he allowed a .682 OPS. With men on first and second, opposing batters got a hit only five times in 40 at bats. They were 4-for-17 with runner at third, and hit only .262 with runners in scoring position, as opposed to .281 overall.

Perhaps it’s possible that Jackson simply focuses better in important situations, allowing him to pitch better with runners on base. I am skeptical of this proposition in general, but I allow that it’s possible. If this were the case, we’d expect Edwin to exhibit similar splits in 2007 (when, incidentally, his K/BB ratio was a very-similar 128/88).

In 2007, his OPS against with none on was .847; whereas his OPS with runners on was 821. However, with runners in scoring position, his OPS against was .857. Batters hit .305 with runners in scoring position, as compared to .299 overall.

In short, Edwin Jackson displayed no ability to pitch well in the clutch in 2007. And he showed very little, if any, actual improvement in his overall game from 2007 to 2008. Rather, his “improvement” is tied directly to his splits with runners on base, leading him to give up far fewer runs than he “should” have. Unless you think that this is actual improvement in his “clutch” pitching – which is extremely rare and not backed up by the numbers – look for Jackson’s ERA to rise, perhaps significantly, in 2009.

You Can’t Spell Burriss Without SB

Stolen bases are annoying.

Most offensive stats in fantasy baseball are interrelated – if you hit a home run, you also score a run and drive (at least) a run in on at the same time. But stolen bases are almost entirely unrelated to the other offensive categories, and are therefore the most inefficient and difficult offensive stat to obtain.

Players who offer power as well as steals – such as Grady Sizemore – tend to be extremely valuable, and rightly so. Therefore, it behooves the smart fantasy player to find late-round picks who can rack up a lot of steals. While they may not contribute too much in other categories, the idea is that you are able to stock up on power hitters earlier, and then steal some steals (get it?) late.

With that in mind, meet Emmanuel Burriss.

The 23-year-old shortstop debuted for the San Francisco Giants this year, posting a line of .283/.357/.323. More importantly for you, he stole 13 bases (in 18 attempts) in a mere 240 at bats. With the departure of Omar Vizquel and the dearth of other shortstops in the Giants system, Burris has the inside track on the shortstop gig in San Francisco next year. Of course, he’s not likely to be particularly good – in fact, his minor league track record suggests that Burris may be one of the worst hitters in baseball next year.

However, that doesn’t really matter to you. What matters is that Burris is fast. Very fast. In 2007, he stole 68 bases in 125 games. The year before he stole 34 bases in 65 games. That kind of speed is rare to find – and it’s even rarer that a guy with that kind of speed is going to be playing every day.

Furthermore, Burriss has demonstrated an excellent ability to put the ball in play during his short professional career. Of course, he rarely walks and has virtually no power, but he also doesn’t strike out too often. This means that he should be able to keep his batting average respectable – even if his OBP is poor and his SLG is downright abysmal. While the Giants may be concerned about his lack of patience and power, fantasy players only care about his batting average and stolen bases – both of which should be respectable, at least.

Emmanuel Burriss isn’t very good, at least not yet. He won’t hit many homers or drive in many runs, but he’s extremely fast and is line to play every day. If he can manage 600 plate appearances this year, Burris could steal in the neighborhood of 40-50 bases. While the risk is rather high, there are few players out there who could give you that many steals…especially players who are likely to be available very late in your draft.

Ricky Nolasco, Fantasy Ace

I’ll admit it: I have a mancrush on Ricky Nolasco.

How many people realize just how good he was this year? Or, more importantly, how good he’s likely to be next year? Chances are, most of the people in your fantasy league are either unaware of Nolasco, or don’t fully appreciate how good he is.

This year, Nolasco finished with a 3.52 ERA and 186 strikeouts in 212 innings pitched. That’s a very good season, but his overall numbers don’t reflect just how well Nolasco pitched for most of the season.

Going in to his start on June 15 against the Rays, Nolasco sported a 4.63 ERA, and had a 43/26 strikeout/walk ratio in 72 innings. However, on that fateful night in Tropicana Field, something changed. Perhaps it was a minor adjustment that paid major dividends, or the result of something Nolasco had been working on for years; either way, Nolasco was never the same after.

On June 15, Nolasco allowed two earned runs allowed in eight and two thirds innings, with one walk and 12 strikeouts. It was only the third time he had walked less than two batters (the second time was his previous start), and the first time he had struck out more than seven in a start.

After his start against the Rays, Nolasco had 19 more starts. He walked one or fewer batters in all but one of those starts. And he struck out seven or more batters in 10 of those starts. In fact, including his June 15 start, Nolasco finished the season by pitching 140 innings with a 2.95 ERA, striking out 143 and walking 16.

Think about that: 143 strikeouts and 16 walks.

For comparison, CC Sabathia pitched 130 innings with the Milwaukee Brewers this year, and had a K/BB ratio of 128/25. From June 15 on, Nolasco had a higher strikeout rate and a lower walk rate than Sabathia did in his time with the Brewers.

Of course, Nolasco may not be in the same class as CC Sabathia. Nolasco’s one weakness is that he is somewhat homer prone: he gave up 28 long balls this season, including 15 in his amazing 140-inning stretch to end the season. However, that is not an absurdly high total, and it is artificially enhanced by a rather high amount of balls in the air that became homers.

Nolasco allowed a homer on 10.6% of the fly balls hit against him. League average for a starter is somewhere around 11%. Furthermore, Nolasco plays in a spacious ballpark, suggesting that he should allow even fewer homers than average. Therefore, we can reasonably expect his homer rate to regress next year.

Nolasco had a 2.95 over his 140-inning stretch of dominance despite having a homer rate higher than it should have been.

Even if we assume that Nolasco can’t possibly be as dominant as he was from June 15 until the end of this season, we have every reason to expect that Ricky Nolasco is going to be one of the best pitchers in fantasy baseball next season. And he has the potential to be one of the biggest steals of draft day.