July 29, 2016
Free Agent Watch
12-Team Mixed Leagues
Since his recall from Triple-A Syracuse on July 10th, Turner has (finally) found his way into Dusty Baker’s starting lineup in 10 of Washington’s 12 games. Turner has made eight starts at second base this month, but with Ryan Zimmerman back in the lineup (and OF Michael Taylor back in Syracuse) over the last week, he’s started the team’s last two games in center field, a position he made six starts at while in Syracuse. If Turner is playing every day (or close to it), then he should be rostered in leagues of all sizes. In his 10 starts this month, he’s hit for a .273 AVG with five extra-base hits and has scored six runs while hitting primarily out of the leadoff spot. More importantly for fantasy purposes, he’s also stolen five bases (without being caught). Hitting atop the Washington order, in front of Daniel Murphy and Bryce Harper, should present Turner with plenty of opportunities to provide value in both stolen bases and runs scored over the rest of the season, and with regular playing time, stealing 10 or more bases per month isn’t out of the question.
That Gurriel is only owned in seven percent of ESPN leagues to this point is extremely hard for me to wrap my head around. Although Gurriel has yet to play in a minor league game as he awaits a work visa, he should only need a few weeks of minor league duty before arriving in Houston around the middle of August. The Astros investment in Gurriel (a five-year deal worth $47.5 million) is a pretty strong indication that they think he can help this season, and soon. It’s a strong possibility that Gurriel hits in the middle of the Houston order, and even with Alex Bregman now in the fold, there should be plenty of at-bats to go around between left field, third base, and the designated hitter spot. Gurriel is capable of providing top-10 production (a .280-ish AVG with 18-20 home runs over a full-season is well within reach) at third base once he reaches Houston and should not be available in 93 percent of ESPN leagues. —J.J. Jansons
Jon Gray, SP, Colorado (Available in 60% of ESPN.com leagues)
The fact that Gray, who has delivered five consecutive quality starts, remains available in the vast majority of ESPN.com leagues is a greater mystery than explaining how #CardinalsDevilMagic ended Jeurys Familia’s saves streak. If there were ever a pitching prospect that possessed the raw talent required to tame (or at least neutralize) Coors Field, it’s Gray. The Oklahoma product has posted a stellar 3.43 DRA with 114 strikeouts over 109 2/3 innings (18 starts) this season. Fantasy owners shouldn’t need any further convincing that Gray is worthy of a pickup at this point in the season, but here it is. His 85 cFIP, a predictive pitching metric, ranks 15th out of 93 starters with at least 100 innings of work this year. What more do you want? Seriously.
Michael Pineda, SP, New York (Available in 60% of ESPN.com leagues)
Through his first 10 starts, “Big Mike’s” ERA had ballooned to a staggering 6.92 on June 1st. He’s undoubtedly put the dismal two-month stretch behind him ever since, firing at least six innings and posting at least eight punch-outs in seven of his next 10 starts. Over that stretch, he’s posted a vastly improved 3.30 ERA with 76 strikeouts and 16 walks in 60 innings of work. While his usually pinpoint control since his arrival in New York has lapsed (2.5 BB/9) this season, he’s offset it by racking up K’s at a prodigious pace (10.7 K/9).
If the recent performance weren’t encouraging enough, BP’s advanced metrics provide even more reason for optimism moving forward. While on the surface, Pineda’s 5.00 ERA is rather ugly; his Deserved Run Average is actually just 3.13 this season. Among starters with at least 100 innings in 2016, only Philadelphia’s Aaron Nola (2.10 runs) has experienced a larger (negative) run differential between his DRA and actual ERA than Pineda (1.87 runs) this year. Simply put, if fantasy owners can overlook Pineda’s early season struggles, there’s a quality pitcher lurking underneath that needs to be owned in all leagues right now.
Jeremy Hellickson, SP, Philadelphia (Available in 60% of ESPN.com leagues)
While it remains a realistic possibility that the Phillies could trade Hellickson in the coming days leading up to the major-league trade deadline, he’s been exceptional at the back end of their rotation this season. Over his last eight starts, dating back to June 15th, he’s posted a 2.65 ERA with 36 strikeouts and just eight walks over 51 innings. There’s compelling statistical evidence that Hellickson is in the midst of a career year. Excluding a brief 10-appearance September stint with Tampa Bay in 2010, Hellickson’s 3.83 Deserved Run Average this season is the lowest he’s ever recorded and he’s also running the highest strikeout (7.7 K/9) and lowest walk (2.0 BB/9) rates of his seven-year career. The numbers from a run-prevention standpoint are impressive, but it’s the strikeout rate that matters more from a fantasy perspective.
Per BP’s PITCHf/x leaderboards, Hellickson’s changeup, which he’s thrown nearly a quarter of the time this year, has generated a higher rate of whiff-per-swing (53.60 percent) than any other major-league starter in 2016. It’s a legitimate weapon. If he can sustain the increased strikeout rate and begin to neutralize left-handed batters (a problem he’s somehow still been unable to solve, as evidenced by a .787 OPS this year and career .746 OPS versus southpaws, despite an excellent changeup and curveball) he could be on the verge of something big.
From a fantasy standpoint, Hellickson is a fascinating case of a pitcher showing legitimate improvements with his arsenal and rate statistics that have yet to translate into a huge shift in his overall value. Especially in deeper fantasy formats, it’s critical to identify these types of pitchers, ones seemingly on the precipice of a skills-backed breakthrough, if you’re going to build a solid rotation. Further strengthening his case, Hellickson faces the lowly Atlanta offense, which has scored the fewest runs (346) in baseball, on Saturday. –George Bissell
15-Team Mixed Leagues
Jedd Gyorko, 1B/2B/SS/3B, St. Louis Cardinals (Ownership: 33 percent CBS, 31 percent ESPN, 37 percent Yahoo!)
Milwaukee’s trade of starting third baseman Aaron Hill to the Red Sox on July 7th was thought to pave the way for regular playing time over the rest of the season for one of two players that will forever be in Ben Carsley’s heart—Will Middlebrooks or Garin Cecchini—both of whom were at the team’s Triple-A affiliate in Colorado Springs. There was also some chatter that without Hill in the picture, the team could move Jonathan Villar to third and promote its top prospect, shortstop Orlando Arcia, who was also in Colorado Springs. None of those things has really happened as of yet, and Middlebrooks hasn’t done much in his eight starts at third this month since his recall, hitting for a .165 Tav in 31 plate appearances overall. It has been 25-year old Hernan Perez who has been the recipient of eight starts at third base in Milwaukee since Hill has left town, and the versatile Perez has also received seven starts in right field this month. Perez, a .264 career hitter in 3172 minor league plate appearances, didn’t hit for much power in the minors, hitting just 31 home runs overall (eight of which came repeating the Low-A level in 2011), but what he did do is run, swiping 20 or more bases in each of his last four full-seasons in the minors. After stealing only five bases in 112 games at the major league level last season, Perez has picked up the pace with both his legs and his bat this season; stealing 14 bases in 63 games (including five in 20 games this month) and smacking five home runs in 189 plate appearances.
Those in deeper leagues looking for stolen base help should give Perez a long look, particularly if he’s playing regularly somewhere on the diamond over the season’s final two months. In 40 games as a starter this season, Perez has hit for a .292 AVG with four home runs and 21 runs knocked in addition to a tasty 12 stolen base output. —J.J. Jansons
Tyler Skaggs, SP, Los Angeles (Available in 77% of ESPN.com leagues)
The 25-year-old has been a mainstay near the top of my esteemed colleague J.J. Jansons “The Stash List” weekly series all year and finally graduated from the list when he was promoted by Los Angeles earlier this week. The southpaw held Kansas City scoreless on three hits over seven innings while racking up five punch-outs and issuing just one free pass. His numbers across nine minor-league starts this season (1.60 ERA, 0.86 WHIP with 53 strikeouts and eight walks in 39 1/3 innings) look like something out of MLB The Show. It’s easy to forget that Skaggs has missed nearly all of the previous two seasons due to a torn UCL. Provided he stays healthy, the innings will be there for the Angels over the final two months of the season and his performance will have value in deeper leagues.
Dan Straily, SP, Cincinnati (Available in 89% of ESPN.com leagues)
If we’re going to discuss starters whose DRA suggests that their run prevention numbers have been inflated due to factors beyond their control, then we need to pay just as much attention to the opposite end of the spectrum. Among the pitchers who’s ERA’s have considerably outperformed their expected DRA, Straily, who was traded to San Diego in late March and then claimed off waivers by Cincinnati days later, stands out because his recent performance has been extremely consistent. Since June 2nd, the 27-year-old has gone at least six innings in five consecutive starts, while recording a 2.41 ERA in 33 2/3 innings. While those numbers may warrant a pickup in deeper leagues, the gap between Straily’s ERA (3.84) and his DRA (4.73) is one of the largest of any starter in the game. It’s something to keep an eye on.
Robbie Ray, SP, Arizona (Available in 84% of ESPN.com leagues)
If you’re a fantasy owner who fancies strikeouts, Ray is a perfect fit for your roster. The southpaw has fanned 132 batters in just 109 1/3 innings and his colossal strikeout rate (10.9 K/9) ranks eighth out of 126 major-league starters with at least 75 innings this year. The only drawbacks for Ray are his lackluster command (3.5 BB/9) and propensity for serving up extra-base hits (14 home runs already this season) which has led to a grossly inflated 4.53 ERA.
The advanced metrics at BP tell a different story regarding Ray’s 2016 campaign, which on the surface appears rather pedestrian. The gap between Ray’s actual ERA and his Deserved Run Average (3.68 DRA) is nearly a full run (0.83) this season. Among starters with at least 100 innings, only 10 (David Price, Sonny Gray, Chris Archer and Marcus Stroman just to name a few) have experienced a larger negative run differential between their DRA and actual ERA this year. To put that data into simple context, it’s not unreasonable for fantasy owners to expect Ray’s actual ERA to regress more in line with his DRA moving forward. If he does that while maintaining an elite strikeout rate (even with the command problems) the 24-year-old is a potential frontline fantasy starter. –George Bissell
The 39-year-old right-hander has successfully locked down the eighth inning in Toronto (something Drew Storen failed to accomplish) since being acquired on May 31. In 17 2/3 innings, the veteran has posted a 2.91 ERA while striking out 27 batters. While higher-profile middle relievers like Edwin Diaz, Brad Brach, and Ryan Dull have generated more hype (deservedly so) they’ve long since been scooped up in AL-only formats. There is still a chance that Grilli is floating out there on the waiver wire and his performance, as strange as it may be, warrants an addition. –George Bissell
Peraza could be the main beneficiary in Cincinnati when the seemingly inevitable Jay Bruce trade happens over the next few days and clears a spot in the Reds outfield. Peraza hasn’t done much with the bat this season at the major league level, hitting .253/.295/.253 in just 88 plate appearances, but he’s been active on the basepaths, stealing 10 bases in 11 attempts. Peraza stole nine bags (albeit in 16 attempts) in 55 games at Triple-A Louisville and while his OBP will likely hover around .300 at the major league level this season, he should hit for an average in the .250-.260 range and provide plenty of value with his legs. After stealing 60 or more bases in 2013 and 2014 while in the Braves system, Peraza stole 33 bases in 118 Triple-A contests last season and has swiped 13 bases in 38 major-league games, despite only receiving 113 big-league plate appearances. Peraza’s speed can make him a difference maker in mono formats if he receives any type of regular playing time down the stretch. —J.J. Jansons
George Bissell is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @GeorgeBissell