TDGX Hits: Kluber, Escobar, Span, Morton, Mesoraco
As the fantasy season winds down so too does the inaugural season of our Dynasty Guru Experts League. We’ve written pretty extensively about the comings and goings on in the league on these pages. It has certainly been a fun exercise for us as managers to be able to so openly discuss strategy among competitors, and hopefully it’s been an illuminating source of public disclosure for you as readers. So as a final act of transparency for the season I’m going to use this space for the next two weeks to talk about some of the players I nailed correctly as targets as well as the ones I whiffed on, as well as the future dynasty league value for all. This week we’ll start with the hits, because hey, good news first, right?
1) Corey Kluber, SP CLE (9th Round, 45th SP, 169th overall – Current Player Rater value is 5th among SP, 16th overall)
Easily my biggest win of the year, and I’m happy to bathe in credit for being all over this guy from the moment he dominated the Red Sox last May for his first career double-digit strikeout game. I can’t say he predicted he’d break out to be this good, but I watched him pitch a bunch of games in July and August last season and his nasty arsenal made him one of my primary “sleeper” targets heading into the draft. One of the more important things to do well heading into a draft is value players correctly relative to your league context, and while I failed – sometimes miserably – to do that correctly in a number of instances that will be covered next week, credit where it’s due I did an excellent job at it with Kluber. I’d obviously taken part in our off-season rankings discussions that ultimately resulted in Kluber being slotted in as the 122nd ranked SP and 338th overall. I had Kluber 52nd on my own list, so I knew going in that I was likely the highest of the TDG writers on Kluber. I initially had him at the top of my board for the 11th or 12th round (somewhere in the 220-240 range overall), but after missing out on a couple other guys I wanted (Cobb, Fister, and Shields) I decided to not take any chances and pounce a little earlier.
The return on investment here has obviously been astronomical, as I’ve gotten late first round value from my ninth round pick in a 20-team league, and that doesn’t happen very often. The kind of value surplus on picks like Kluber is the primary reason my squad has performed as well as it has this year despite a whole lot of other stuff not going right.
Going forward I see absolutely no reason to believe Kluber can’t be a consistent top 20 starter for the next several years. At 28 and with a relatively moderate workload history he shouldn’t be in danger of losing too much oomph on his fastball – currently the second-best of its kind in all of baseball – to warrant concern over the pitch’s effectiveness, and as a guy with easy plus command and a killer, complimentary arsenal of secondary pitches he should be able to retain value even as his physical skills erode. Kluber should be valued accordingly as one of the best fantasy pitchers around for at least the next two-to-three year window that should be the primary focus for any dynasty league manager.
2) Alcides Escobar, SS KCR (12th Round, 24th SS, 252nd overall – Current Player Rater value is 7th among SS, 91st overall)
Escobar was a guy who I’d owned in multiple leagues for his breakout 2012 season and then promptly sold off prior to his BABIP-fueled disaster of a 2013 season. So he’d built up some goodwill with me as a fantasy asset, and I liked him as a guy who I saw as a potentially undervalued speed target on account of a largely luck-related down year. He’s always been something of an enigma, in that given his skillset as a strong contact, good speed guy and his batted ball distribution (above league-average LD rate, very high groundball rate, marginally above-average IFFB%) his career BABIP has nevertheless skewed low. Still, the .264 rate he put up in ’13 seemed out of whack to me, and given his terrible career walk rates that much more of his offensive value is tied to his luck on balls he puts in play. But as I wrote in the wake of the pick his elite stolen base efficiency is such that even a return to career BABIP norms should be enough to produce 25-30 steals and a won’t-kill-you average, and that’s highly valuable from a MI position in a league this deep. Sure enough Escobar’s rebounded to a .316 BABIP this season despite a slightly worse batted ball profile, and his ensuing .277 AVG and 31-for-36 SB effort has fueled his ascent into the top 10 among fantasy shortstops.
I don’t see what Escobar is doing now to be wildly out of line with what he’s capable of for the next two or three seasons. He’s 27 currently, so he should be able to squeeze another couple years out of his legs before we start to see notable depreciation in his speed scores. And he’s managed to post his 71 runs (8th among SS) despite hitting eighth or ninth in the Kansas City lineup about 80% of the time. As an AVG-dependent player he’ll always be a riskier, more volatile profile player, but I like him as borderline-top 10 SS for the next few years.
3) Denard Span, OF WAS (17th Rd, 48th OF, 329th overall – Current Player Rater value is 14th among OF, 31st overall)
This pick definitely rates as a best-case scenario, and at 30 years old it’s entirely possible that I’m reaping the benefits of the last best year of Span’s career this season. Allow me a moment in the sun: I made Span logging a top-15 OF season one of my 11 Bold Predictions for the season, musing at the time that Span would “reverse a terrible walk rate decline and kick his recent pop-up habits. [It will all add up] to a .312 average, 31 stolen bases, and 96 runs.” Well, here we sit nine games shy of season’s end and Span has hit .299 with five homeruns. But the 31 bags and 93 runs he’s scored are right on the money! What wasn’t on the money is how he’s gotten here. He hasn’t kicked his IFFB problem at all, and while his walk rate has rebounded slightly from last year’s nadir at seven and a half percent it’s still on track to be the second lowest of his seven season career and a far cry from the double-digit rate he posted through his first 1,300 career Major League at-bats back in the day. Instead he’s gotten to where he is by chasing fewer balls out of the zone, further reducing an already-stellar whiff rate into the single digits, and adding slightly more value on the bases to fully take advantage of his 25 point OBP gain and an improved lineup behind him.
Span is one of those veteran players that I really wouldn’t go out of my way to try and acquire, and certainly not this off-season. He’s a solid player coming off what may contextually end up being his career fantasy year, and he’ll be on the wrong side of 30. Still, in a format this deep I like his AVG, R, and to a lesser extent SB potential going forward for a solid if unspectacular OF3 role over the next couple seasons.
4) Charlie Morton, SP PIT Charlie Morton (30th Rd, 186th SP, 612th overall – Current Player Rater value is 105th among SP, 341st overall)
Until trying and ultimately failing to fight through a sports hernia, Morton had been on pace for a top-75 SP season through the beginning of July. A cursory look at his velocity and movement data over at Brooks Baseball reveals the impact the injury had on his performance in July, and it ultimately cost him about three quarters of a run on his ERA over six starts before he shut it down in August. But let’s focus on the positives. I wrote a piece extolling Morton’s virtues over at Baseball Prospectus right before the injury tides turned and torpedoed his season, and the takeaways offer reasons for tempered optimism for Morton heading into next season: basically, prior to the injury Morton had made a specific mechanical adjustment to move his release point to a taller angle. It had worked in creating new deception to his fastball, which was resulting in more called strikes early in counts. It also resulted in better depth on his curveball, which he in turn started throwing more often and with better swing-and-miss results.
It’s probably worth noting that whether or not Russell Martin comes back next year will likely have a significant impact on how we should value a guy like Morton, as Martin has been one of the best defensive catchers in baseball this season, particularly at stealing strikes. And it certainly remains to be seen if Morton’s new approach can translate through a full healthy season. But as a back-end option in deeper leagues, particularly one as deep as this one, Morton was one of the better steals of the last ten rounds of the draft. And had he not succumbed to the injury bug he was on pace to be one of the best steals in the entire draft. I’d keep expectations in check heading into 2015, but as long as you’re not counting on him to be more than a #4 or #5 starter in a deep league he makes for a nice keeper play to fill out your rotation.
5) Devin Mesoraco, C CIN ($8 FAAB claim on 4/7, originally drafted in the 18th round, 16th C, 376th overall – Current Player Rater value is 3rd among C, 137th overall)
Mesoraco was my top C target heading into the draft, as I’d been a believer in the bat going back to his minor league days and thought that now, finally, with Dusty out of the way he’d make for a nice breakout candidate that wouldn’t cost too much on draft day. Well, he ended up costing more than I’d anticipated at the time, as my 20th round valuation of him proved conservative by a couple and I missed out. Much to my delight he hit the waiver wire shortly thereafter as somebody traded him in for Tyler Flowers. Well, he proved to be about as good of an eight dollar FAAB investment as you’re likely to run across. I don’t feel comfortable envisioning a 20.8% HR/FB rate as his baseline going forward, although his 294.71 average batted ball distance checks in fourth among catchers and 36th overall, so he certainly hasn’t been cheaping his way into 20 homerun power. And at 26 years old he’s just entering his catching prime, meaning that modest investment has conservatively netted me one of the, say, six or seven best dynasty league catchers around. I’ll gladly take it.