Time again to join us as we shop for bargains where others see only discards and dreck. Our specialty—or shtick, if you prefer—is finding $1 and reserve round bargains who figure to do better than the market says they will. You wouldn’t want to assemble a team full of these guys, except as an entertaining academic exercise. But there’s no denying that the 2017-model Scott Schebler, Delino DeShields, Jimmy Nelson, or Aaron Altherr, all of whom we touted in last year’s installment, would have toned up your roster right nice. So let’s pretend it’s an early-Spring Saturday morning in the ‘burbs, hop in the SUV, drop the kids off at lacrosse practice, tour the local yard sales, and see if we can unearth some rare 78s buried among the old Jethro Tull albums. As before, we offer you ten players that everyone’s ignoring, plus one pricier guy who still looks undervalued to us. In no particular order:
Sal Romano will do about what those of you who liked him last spring thought he would do last season. Romano’s 2017 Spring Training was exceptional, and nearly won him a spot in the Reds’ rotation. When he finally joined the rotation, he was awful for a while, then pulled it together for his last eight starts. Toss out a poor start against the Red Sox, and his numbers were 45 1/3 IP, 41 H, 13 BB, 36 K, 12 ER. And this spring was even better than last. In 15 innings of work, he’s struck out 18 and walked only two—a ratio exceeded by only five guys who’ve pitched as much, and three of those guys are named Hendricks, Scherzer, and Verlander. (The other two are named Leake and Blach.) He’s also been keeping the ball on the ground at a rate even higher than what he was already doing. If you think those seven decent-to-good starts are what he can produce over a full season, then he’ll give you in 2018 about what you got from Lance Lynn, Dylan Bundy, or Alex Cobb in 2017.
The Chase Utley of 2018 will be the Chase Utley of 2016, albeit in about half the plate appearances. As we’ve already noted, Utley hasn’t reached the end of the line. His stats last season were largely a matter of bad luck rather than precipitous decline. It looked like playing time would be an issue this season, but Justin Turner’s injury puts Utley on the strong side of a platoon for (we’re guessing) two months, and the Dodgers seem to find ways to get him at-bats even when there’s no obvious opportunity. Figure about 300 plate appearances, with a .250 BA, six or eight HRs, a few SBs, and 70 or 80 runs plus RBIs. Not bad production from your $1 middle infielder. We figure Utley would be more popular, but even since Turner’s injury he’s only being drafted in the 45th round. He deserves to go earlier, we say.
Joey Lucchesi will be the NL Rookie Pitcher of the Year. If you’re tempted to think, as we sometimes are, that for knowledgeable baseball fans there’s no small market/large market distinction, consider Lucchesi. If he were pitching for the Yankees, say, instead of the Padres, the world would already know of him. A guy with a colorful Italian name and a colorful pitching motion who was arguably the best pitcher in two different minor leagues last season? He’d already be able to retire on his endorsement deals. But since he’s with a weak team (though mark our words—the Padres will play at least .500 ball this season) in a small market, no one’s heard of him, as we discovered when we nominated him at our NL-only auction. He’s been taken in only a third or so of the 50-round NFBC drafts this months. If Lucchesi weren’t a Super-Two player, he’d have made the Padres’ rotation, and he’ll be there before April is out. (Late note: unless Dinelson Lamet’s injury forces the Padres’ hand sooner.)
Ryan Cordell will be one of the top 5 rookies in the American League. We understand that Adam Engel is a Buxtonesque center fielder, and that “Adam E.” was the name of the White Sox’ last good center fielder, but nonetheless thought that 336 plate appearances worth of .166/.235/.282 would be enough to make the White Sox look elsewhere. And indeed, for most of the spring it appeared that Cordell had won the job. We think he’ll get it, and in relatively short order, because there’s absolutely nothing in Eaton’s dossier to make us think he can hit more than .200, draw walks, or hit with power. Cordell won’t hit a lot more than .200–.240 seems about right to us, and most forecasters think it will be lower—but he gets on base, and in 400 plate appearances should hit 10 to 15 home runs and steal 10 to 15 bases.
Boog Powell will give the A’s a full season of what he gave them for 30 games in 2017. Which was, to refresh your memory, 92 PAs of .321/.380/.494 from, usually, the leadoff spot. All right, Powell’s not that good. But .282/.358/.402, which were his full-season numbers with the A’s and Mariners, is right in line with his minor-league numbers. He won’t hit many home runs—10 would be a surprise—and he’s apparently not fast enough to steal bases in the majors. Moreover, as you’ve no doubt been muttering since you saw Powell’s name three sentences ago, Dustin Fowler is the A’s center fielder of the future. But Spring Training has demonstrated that Fowler isn’t ready for major league pitching yet. He should be ready at some point this season, but before he is, figure Powell for 300 to 400 plate appearances during which he hits .280 and scores 60 or 70 runs leading off for what is actually a pretty formidable lineup. (It’s still possible that the A’s keep Fowler and demote Powell to start the season, but if so, we think Powell will be up and Fowler down before long.)
By midseason, the Phillies’ closer will not be Hector Neris. It will not be Pat Neshek. It will be either Tommy Hunter or Adam Morgan. Four years ago, Hunter got the gig as the Orioles’ closer, but couldn’t keep it because of abdominal issues that he needed surgery to correct two years later. He started pitching effectively again in 2016, then fractured his back in a freak accident, which finished off that season. 2017 was the first time since 2013 that he was healthy, and he was absolutely superb for Tampa Bay—one of the ten best relievers in the AL in the second half last year. His Quadrinity stats suggest he was even better than that. And Morgan’s Quadrinity stats suggest he was better still. Moreover, Morgan, unlike Neris and more than Hunter, keeps the ball on the ground—a necessity in Citizens Bank Park, which is the most home-run friendly ballpark in the NL, and Neris’s potential undoing.
Matt Davidson will have a breakout season to follow last year’s breakout season. Hesitant as we are to attach too much importance to Spring Training stats, one aspect of Davidson’s performance this spring is so remarkable that it may be significant. Davidson, Spring 2017: 66 PA, 3 HR, 25 K, 6 BB. Regular Season 2018: 443 PA, 26 HR, 165 K, 19 BB. Spring 2018: 73 PA, 4 HR, 19 K, 9 BB. That’s way fewer strikeouts, way more walks, and just as much power. Davidson seems like he’s been around forever, but he’s only 27, and maybe he’s finally copped some plate discipline to go with his power. If so—if his Spring slash line of .328/.411/.594 is anything like the hitter he is over a full season—then he will be the season’s best Reserve Round pick.
Trevor Cahill will be a top-40 starting pitcher. We mentioned last month that Cahill was perhaps the unluckiest starting pitcher in the majors in 2017, and that, despite terrible fantasy-relevant stats, still gets hitters to strike out and hit ground balls in great profusion. At the time, Cahill was an unsigned free agent, and our enthusiasm was tempered by the fact that we didn’t know where he’d be pitching or whether he’d be starting. He has since signed with the A’s, and will be part of their starting rotation. (Indeed, if they keep losing starters at the current rate, he will be their entire starting rotation.) Cahill started his career in Oakland, had his best seasons there, and has always pitched effectively there, and we think he might surprise everyone.
The Victor Martinez of 2018 will be closer to the Victor Martinez of 2016 than to the Victor Martinez of 2017. There are many obvious reasons not to like Martinez. He’s 39; he’s slow; his power is dwindling (a five-foot decline in average flyball distance); he will probably go through the entire season without wearing a baseball glove; he hits in the middle of a punchless lineup. We doubt that last season’s performance can be attributed entirely to the undoubtedly serious health issues he faced. Nevertheless, a lot of the difference between 2016 and 2017 looks to us as if it’s due to misfortune rather than declining skills. He still hits the ball hard—harder, if anything, than before. He’s not striking out more or walking less. He’s apparently healthy, he’s having a great spring, and professional hitters (Edgar Martinez, David Ortiz, and no, we don’t think Victor Martinez is in that class, but he’s close), when not asked to do anything but hit, do sometimes have good seasons at 39.
Yonder Alonso is for real. The market thinks it has Alonso—the Paul Revere of the Liftoff Revolution—pegged. Or maybe the right word is nailed, or even impaled: presumably noting that Alonso had a disappointing second half and that he’s never been able to hit lefthanded pitching, the market makes him the 30th first baseman off the board (Average Draft Position 279), despite a move from Oakland (neutral home park for left-handed batters) to Cleveland (good home park for LHB), and even though he will be batting 5th in one of baseball’s best lineups. But just as Alonso’s performance last spring was a harbinger of his power breakout, so, we posit, his performance against left-handed pitching this spring suggests that he’s figured lefties out. Here are some numbers: Alonso against LHP, Career: .234/.303/.349. Alonso against LHP, 2017: .181/.263/.417. Alonso against LHP, Spring 2018: .500/.545/.950. Alonso against RHP, Spring 2017: .386/.500/.682. Alonso against RHP, 2017: .283/.384/.519.
You can see where we’re going with this. Suppose that Alonso can now hit lefties and righties with equal authority. Adjust for the fact that he’s playing in a more congenial lineup and ballpark. You will come up with something like .280 or .290 with 30 home runs and 100 RBIs—that is, a typical season for Jose Abreu (ADP 43). We will (and did) cheerfully split the difference between ADPs.
The Birchwood Brothers are two guys with the improbable surname of Smirlock. Michael, the younger brother, brings his skills as a former Professor of Economics to bear on baseball statistics. Dan, the older brother, brings his skills as a former college English professor and recently-retired lawyer to bear on his brother's delphic mutterings. They seek to delight and instruct. They tweet when the spirit moves them @birchwoodbroth2.