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Burning Questions: AL

by Bill Baer
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:04 pm ET

Toronto Blue Jays: Marcus Stroman returned earlier than expected and made four starts at the end of the regular season to the tune of a 1.67 ERA. What should be expected of him in 2016?

 

Stroman pitching at all this past season was impressive in and of itself. The right-hander suffered a torn ACL during spring training and was expected to miss the entire season. To come back and yield only five runs in 27 innings was icing on the cake for the Blue Jays. Needless to say, however, four starts constitute a small sample size and as such, there isn’t much to be gleaned from it for the purposes of projecting his 2016 performance. Stroman’s 2014 season – 20 starts and six relief outings spanning 130 2/3 innings – is a better guide. That year, he struck out 21 percent of batters and walked five percent while inducing ground balls at a 54 percent rate. He finished with a 3.65 ERA, but one could certainly make a strong argument those rates speak to a better performance than the ERA indicates. Assuming Stroman is able to post rates in the same neighborhood this coming season, fantasy owners should expect him to finish in the 3.50 ERA range with the potential to be much better.

 

New York Yankees: Alex Rodriguez came back from his season-long suspension to hit 33 home runs over the course of the 2015 season at the age of 39. Now 40, can he be counted on for another 30-homer season?

 

Rodriguez and division rival David Ortiz both hit 30-plus homers in their age-39 seasons last year, becoming the first to do so since Barry Bonds and Steve Finley in 2004. Prior to that, only Darrell Evans, Willie Stargell, Hank Aaron and Cy Williams had accomplished the feat at such a relatively old age. Evans is the only one to crank out 30-plus round-trippers as a 40-year-old. To do so requires a confluence of factors: incredible hitting skill (obviously), great physical condition (yes, even Ortiz qualifies) and injury avoidance. Rodriguez will reprise his role as the Yankees’ DH in 2016, so his only real injury risk will come from running the bases and taking hacks at the plate. No one doubts his conditioning and he certainly showed in 2015 that he has gas left in the tank. A realistic projection should still keep him under 30 homers (20-25 is a good target) but 30 is still well within reach. By the way, Rodriguez needs to hit 27 homers to tie Babe Ruth on baseball’s all-time home run leaderboard.

 

Baltimore Orioles: Manny Machado broke out in 2015, hitting .286/.359/.502 with 35 home runs, 86 RBI, 102 runs scored and 20 stolen bases. Where does he rank among the fantasy elite now?

 

Machado’s season was bonkers. Paul Goldschmidt was the only other player to swipe 20 bags while slugging 30-plus homers. Goldschmidt, who was the fifth-best player according to Yahoo’s preseason rankings, was better than Machado in rate stats and in RBI (110), but scored only one more run. Machado was ranked 111 entering the season and 13 at season’s end. If one is hesitant to draft a pitcher in the first round (reasonably so) and one is also skeptical of any of the 2015 breakouts (A.J. Pollock, Dee Gordon, Nolan Arenado), it would be defensible to draft Machado in the first round in 2016. As always, though, it’s good to reel back expectations for players after a career year. A realistic expectation for Machado should be 20-25 home runs with 15 stolen bases, and around 90 runs and RBI each.

 

Tampa Bay Rays: Drew Smyly posted a terrific 3.11 ERA in 12 starts after recovering from a partial labrum tear in his left shoulder. Is it too risky to draft him in standard fantasy leagues?

 

Drafting a pitcher at all is a risk because injuries can pop up at any time without warning. Smyly’s elite ERA was backed up by stellar peripherals, including a 28 percent strikeout rate and a seven percent walk rate. He did this while allowing home runs at a slightly higher than average rate as well, on a per-fly ball basis (14.3 percent). The K and BB rates were near his career averages, so it wasn’t an out-of-body experience for Smyly, and those rates speak to elite stuff. To put this in perspective, he was one of 17 pitchers last season (min. 50 IP) to average at least a strikeout per inning and 3.5 strikeouts for every one walk. This list includes Clayton Kershaw, Jake Arrieta, David Price, Max Scherzer, Madison Bumgarner, Jose Fernandez, Chris Sale and Jacob deGrom, among others. Smyly makes for a great upside play in the latter stages of a draft. There will always be an injury risk with him, but the reward could pay off big time.

 

Boston Red Sox: What does the move to Fenway Park mean for David Price’s numbers?

 

Fenway Park was the fourth-most hitter-friendly park this past season, according to ESPN’s park factors. While it was middle-of-the-pack in terms of home runs, it was the second-most doubles-friendly park for a very obvious reason (the Green Monster). Price’s previous ballparks played close to neutral (Tropicana Field) or were pitcher-friendly (Rogers Centre, Comerica Park) overall in 2015. Despite that, however, one should expect Price’s numbers to remain elite because he doesn’t rely as much on balls in play being converted into outs as other pitchers. The lefty’s 25.3 percent strikeout rate was 13th-best among qualified starters and he averaged 4.79 strikeouts per walk, the 12th-best mark. Missing bats and limiting walks are feats that don’t involve the defense and aren’t as affected by the ballpark, so Fenway Park shouldn’t be much of a concern for fantasy owners considering Price.

 

Kansas City Royals: How real was the Mike Moustakas breakout?

 

While Moustakas set a career high in home runs (22), RBI (82) and runs scored (73) while tying a career high in doubles (34), it was his rate stats that really sky rocketed. His previous career-high in OPS was .708 in 2012, but he hit .284/.348/.470 in 2015, good for an .817 OPS. It seems obvious to point out that Moustakas enjoyed a lot more success on balls put into play, but it is difficult to pinpoint exactly why that happened. According to batted ball data found at FanGraphs, Moustakas wasn’t hitting the ball any harder. His percentage of hard-hit balls was 31.3 percent, oddly enough about half a percent lower than in 2014. He wasn’t hitting more line drives; in fact, his line drive rate fell by about 1.5 percent while his ground ball rate increased by the same amount. The biggest difference was that he pulled the ball less often, about 11 percent down compared to the previous year. He went to the center of the field approximately five percent more often and to the opposite field six percent more often. Given the prevalence of data used by front offices now, this is something which teams are aware of and can react towards by changing the way they pitch him and the way they position the defense. For Moustakas to achieve the same level of success in 2016, he’ll need to counteract those adjustments other teams will be making.

 

Minnesota Twins: Miguel Sano is projected to hit .255. Can he still be an elite performer with a mediocre average?

 

The Steamer projections, found at FanGraphs, have him at .255 but with 34 home runs and 96 RBI and 85 runs scored, which would certainly make him valuable. There were 15 players who hit 35-plus homers last season and .255 was the 13th-worst average on that list, owned by Todd Frazier, who was by all accounts an elite fantasy bat despite his second-half disappearance. Owning a player like Sano, however, requires being mindful of roster construction. A roster full of Sanos will result in punting on average but thriving in home runs and likely RBI. If one prefers a more balanced approach, Sano will need to be buoyed by an average/speed type like Dee Gordon.

 

Cleveland Indians: After winning the AL Cy Young Award in 2014, Corey Kluber was inconsistent in 2015, leading the league in losses at 16 with a 3.49 ERA. What is to be expected of him going forward?

 

There weren’t many noticeable differences between 2014 and ‘15 in terms of Kluber’s peripherals. His K-rate declined ever so slightly from 28.3 percent to 27.7 percent and his walk rate also declined from 5.4 to 5.1 percent. Hitters even batted about 20 points worse on balls put in play compared to his Cy Young-winning season. There were two big changes, though. Kluber allowed 22 home runs, eight more than the previous season. This came about in part because he induced fewer ground balls, about six percent fewer. The second big change was found in Kluber’s performance with men on base. In 2014, he limited opponents to a .636 OPS when runners were aboard, but this past season, they racked up a .782 OPS. The OPS gap was wider with runners in scoring position specifically, jumping up from .561 to .794. Without having talked to Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway, it’s tough to discern whether this was a mechanical flaw or if it was simply a sequencing issue. Kluber’s peripherals indicate an elite pitcher. If his home run and RISP issues are correctable mechanically, there’s no reason why he couldn’t reprise his 2014 performance. That being said, fantasy owners would be wise to err on the conservative side, pegging Kluber at around a 3.25 ERA for the 2016 season.

 

Chicago White Sox: Adam Eaton had six career home runs entering the 2015 season, then proceeded to set a new career-high with 14. What do we make of his power surge?

 

Eaton’s power surge was one of the more underrated storylines of the 2015 season. Eaton had been a useful fantasy performer in 2014, his first year with the White Sox, as he doubled 26 times, led the league with 10 triples, scored 76 runs and stole 15 bases. In 2015, he doubled 28 times, tripled nine times, scored 98 runs and stole 18 bases, so the total of 14 homers was simply icing on the cake. Eaton told David Laurila of FanGraphs during the season that the White Sox had a different approach than the Diamondbacks, his previous team. The D-Backs preferred him to take a leadoff hitter approach and weren’t keen on weight-lifting, so Eaton lost muscle mass in the organization. The White Sox let him build muscle back up and also allowed him to swing for the fences, so the power surge didn’t come out of nowhere. Is 15 home runs a realistic target? Probably not after pitchers adjust to his new approach, but 10 is certainly doable. That, along with his usual numbers in the other categories, makes him a jack-of-all-trades in fantasy.

 

Detroit Tigers: Justin Verlander missed the first two and a half months with a triceps injury, but put up a 3.38 ERA over 20 starts through the end of the season. Does he have enough left in the tank to do that over a full season?

 

It’s been quite a while since we’ve seen elite Justin Verlander and it’s likely we never will again. The right-hander has lost a lot of life on his fastball over the years, declining from 95 MPH on his fastball on average in 2011 to below 93 MPH this past season. He still has a devastating curve and change-up though, which can sustain him through the waning years of his career. This past season, Verlander still managed to strikeout 21 percent of batters while walking only six percent. Those rates put him in the same neighborhood as Jake Odorizzi, A.J. Burnett and teammate Anibal Sanchez. If Verlander were a ground ball pitcher, it would be a little easier to be confident in his ability to succeed going forward. That being said, strikeout and walk rates are king when it comes to predicting future success, and Verlander’s are still good enough to give him a vote of confidence in 2016.

 

Texas Rangers: The Rangers gave up an arm and a leg to acquire Cole Hamels from the Phillies, but he was simply good, not great in 12 starts with his new team. Can Hamels still be considered elite or is the American League that much harder than the National League?

 

There’s no doubt that facing a DH rather than the opposing pitcher three times a game makes things tougher. Indeed, Hamels allowed a .716 OPS to non-pitcher hitters batting in the 7-9 slots, higher than the .676 OPS of 1-2 batters and the .684 OPS of 3-6 batters he faced. Still, a 30-40 point spread in OPS is not that much in totality. Hamels has, every so often, had a comparatively subpar season and he has always rebounded. In 2009, he posted a 4.32 ERA and came back the next year to finish at 3.06. He put up a 3.60 ERA in 2013 and lowered that to 2.46 the next season. Considering that Hamels’ peripherals were steady and even slightly better in some areas, it seems reasonable to project him at an ERA in the low 3’s in 2016.

 

Houston Astros: Carlos Correa won the American League Rookie of the Year Award after hitting .279/.345/.512 with 22 home runs, 14 stolen bases and 68 RBI. Where does he rank among shortstops now?

 

Correa led all shortstops (min. 400 PA) in home runs and was the only one to slug above .500, so he is clearly the best power threat at the position. He also swiped 14 bases, which prorates to 21 over 650 plate appearances, a full season. Only three shortstops – Elvis Andrus, Jean Segura and Jose Reyes – stole 20-plus bases and none of them hit more than seven home runs. Thus, Correa is the best power/speed option at the position as well. His biggest competition, in terms of fantasy value, may come from AL ROY runner-up Francisco Lindor, who hit .313 with 12 home runs and stole 12 bases in 438 plate appearances. Correa is #1 at the position but Lindor could certainly jump ahead in 2016 with a strong showing.

 

Los Angeles Angels: Mike Trout has, in recent seasons, been losing speed and gaining power. How does this affect his fantasy value, if at all?

 

Trout, in his first full season, led the majors with 49 stolen bases while being caught only five times. His stolen base total has declined every season since, from 33 to 16 to 11. He was rather inefficient in 2015, swiping 11 bases in 18 attempts for a measly 61 percent success rate (league average is around 70 percent). However, Trout set a new career-high with 41 home runs, up from 30, 27 and 36 in the previous three seasons. Among players who have hit 40-plus home runs in the last four seasons, only four – including Trout in 2015 – stole double-digit bases, so elite power and speed is not a common combination. It hasn’t been done since 2012. Trout stealing bases at all puts him a little bit ahead of his power-hitting peers, in fact. Make no mistake, Trout is still an early first-round pick in all formats. Depending on taste, one could go for Paul Goldschmidt or Bryce Harper as well.

 

Seattle Mariners: Felix Hernandez was shut down at the end of the season due to elbow stiffness, a disappointing end to a subpar season. How does this impact expectations heading into 2016?

 

There hasn’t been any news on Hernandez since the end of the season, so in his case, no news is good news. He finished with an awful-by-his-standards 3.53 ERA and was a bit more home run prone, but his strikeout and walk rates – while worse than the previous season – were almost right at his career average. Hernandez also remained a ground ball machine. While the right-hander should be expected to drop a bit in preseason rankings, Hernandez is one of the most obvious bounce-back candidates heading into 2016.

 

Oakland Athletics: Rich Hill put himself back on the map with four very impressive September starts with the Red Sox, resulting in a one-year, $6 million deal with the Athletics. Should fantasy owners buy into the small sample success?

 

Hill said he turned down a higher offer to sign with the Athletics because they guaranteed him a spot in the starting rotation. That means as long as he stays healthy, he’ll be making 32 starts. That security makes him a more appealing target in fantasy leagues. Add to that his performance in those four starts and he makes for a decent flyer. Hill struck out 10 in each of his first three starts following his promotion to the majors, and finished with a 1.55 ERA and a 36/5 K/BB ratio in 29 innings. Though he hasn’t had many opportunities due to injuries, Hill has flashed this potential before, particularly in 2007 when he had a 3.92 ERA with a 183/63 K/BB ratio in 195 innings. Hill will be pitching half his games in the very spacious and pitcher-friendly confines of O.co Coliseum, which will help his numbers. Considering the amount of turnover most fantasy owners have in their pitching staffs, taking a late-round lottery ticket in Hill doesn’t come with much risk and has some real upside.

Bill Baer
Bill Baer writes for HardballTalk and Rotoworld and covers the Phillies at his site Crashburn Alley. You can follow him on Twitter @Baer_Bill.