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Friday, December 21, 2012
Hot Stove notebook

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

Sometimes, it's the beneath-the-radar offseason moves that result in intriguing fantasy baseball draft day values.

Such was the case with Wednesday's Los Angeles Angels-Seattle Mariners trade, which was widely reported a "needs" swap for both teams, overshadowed by Monday's far-larger, seven-player R.A. Dickey trade.

The truth, however, is that perhaps no player who changed uniforms this week increased in fantasy value more than Jason Vargas, whom the Mariners sent to the Angels in exchange for Kendrys Morales.

Jason Vargas
Jason Vargas went 14-11 with a 3.85 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in 2012.

Think about the "need" Vargas filled: The Angels, who lost three-fifths of their 2012 rotation this winter due to the trade of Ervin Santana and departures of Zack Greinke and Dan Haren to free agency, moved quickly to acquire Tommy Hanson and sign Joe Blanton, and in adding Vargas they might have gotten their best offseason acquisition of the three. Claim if you wish that he was a product of Seattle's pitcher-friendly ballpark; the truth is that Vargas is a brilliant fit for the Angels because of his own and his new team's strengths.

A career late bloomer -- his first full season in a big-league rotation came as a 27-year-old in his third professional organization -- Vargas is a soft-tossing, fly ball pitcher who tends to be the product of his surroundings. In the past three seasons combined he didn't throw a single pitch faster than 91 mph. His changeup is by far his most valuable pitch, limiting opposing hitters to .188/.234/.270 rates during that span. In addition, his 44.6 percent fly ball rate during that span ranked 12th-highest among 170 qualified starting pitchers and was substantially higher than the major league average of 36.3 percent.

Now think about Vargas' new team: By trading Morales, the Angels have opened the designated hitter role for all-power, no-glove Mark Trumbo and therefore a full-time outfield spot for Peter Bourjos. With Bourjos and fellow glove man Mike Trout manning two-thirds of the Angels' outfield, Vargas has about the best defense behind him that a fly ball pitcher could ask for.

As for the ballpark, be aware that Angel Stadium of Anaheim isn't that much less a pitchers' park than Safeco Field, especially going forward now that the Mariners have shrunken Safeco's outfield dimensions. From 2010-12, Angel Stadium didn't place higher than 23rd in either runs scored or home runs in any individual year; Safeco Field ranked 13th in home runs in 2011, though in its defense as a pitcher's heaven, it ranked 29th or 30th in either category in both 2009 and 2010.

A couple more Vargas notes that might have you boosting him in your rankings as I have by 10 spots in mine: He's one of only nine pitchers -- ERA qualifiers only -- to have improved both his strikeout rate (calculated as a percentage of total batters faced) and strikeout-to-walk rates in each of the past two seasons; his well-hit average allowed -- that's the percentage of at-bats against that resulted in hard contact -- has declined in each of the past two years; and his ground ball rate has risen in each of the past two years, helping slightly diminish concerns of extreme fly-ball leanings that could cause untimely home runs.

Picking Vargas means being selective with matchups, but as a back-of-your staff option, even in shallow mixed leagues, he's worth consideration.

Speaking of Bourjos and Trumbo, their fantasy values experience an uptick thanks to the deal, as both will occupy more appropriate roles for their defensive skills. In Bourjos' case, he's ticketed for everyday duty, especially with Vernon Wells on the trade block himself, and that might mean as many as 500-plus plate appearances to help pad his stolen bases and runs scored numbers. Remember, Bourjos was a 22-steal, 72-run performer as recently as 2011, ranking 47th among outfielders on our Player Rater. Thanks to the Morales deal, he now cracks my top 75 outfielders at No. 72, and the only reason I haven't ranked him higher is that it's not a guarantee that he'll indeed top 500 PAs.

As for Trumbo, while it's a small sample size, that he managed .310/.376/.571 rates in his 22 games as a DH last season hints that he's not at all uncomfortable with such an arrangement. Moving all over the diamond last season -- he made multiple starts at first base, third base, left field, right field and DH -- might have been an unnecessary distraction, and his power is indeed legitimate. If there's any drawback to the move, it's that he may no longer earn first base or outfield eligibility come 2014, which is a negative for his owners in deeper dynasty leagues.

Kendrys Morales
Kendrys Morales, who hit 22 homers in 2012, should have plenty of chances for at-bats in Seattle.

As with Vargas, don't assume Morales' fantasy value is destined to decline as a result of the trade, despite his move to Safeco. As noted above, the probable park factors of Angel Stadium and Safeco might be more similar than you think in 2013, and one advantage for Morales is that he'll no longer have to fight for at-bats at first base or DH in Seattle, whereas he did in Los Angeles. He's clearly a better hitter than incumbent Mariners first baseman Justin Smoak, and fellow DH candidate Jesus Montero has the capability to catch, so the Mariners will make every effort to play Morales every day at either of those positions.

In Morales' defense, he's a lifetime .292/.346/.558 hitter in 34 games at Safeco Field, and while again the small-sample caveat applies, he's a powerful-enough hitter to clear any fence. To that point, his average home run traveled 405 feet in distance; that's Jack Cust (414 average between 2010-12) and Russell Branyan (408)-caliber power, except that Morales is a far more complete hitter than either. The primary knock on Morales will be that a weaker supporting cast will mean fewer runs and RBIs, but as he'll probably come to the plate 600-plus times rather than the 522 he did in 2012, that'll more than make up for it. He was my No. 24 first baseman before the trade and remains 24th after it.

Smoak's owners -- those who aim to fill first base late in AL-only leagues, presumably -- have the most to worry about with Morales in town. A former top prospect, Smoak hasn't developed anywhere near as quickly as the Mariners had hoped, his .660 OPS the past three seasons combined second-worst among first basemen with at least 500 PAs at the position. He might have to settle for a backup role, making him scarcely worth attention even in AL-only formats.

Montero's prospects at catching the requisite number of games to qualify at the position for 2014, however, increase.

A.J. Pierzynski joins Texas Rangers

Anytime the American League's reigning home run champion at an individual defensive position signs with a team that calls a hitter's heaven its home, fantasy owners are sure to get excited.

A.J. Pierzynski
A.J. Pierzynski finished 2012 with 27 homers and 77 RBIs.

So let's preface the discussion of A.J. Pierzynski's one-year contract with the Texas Rangers with a prediction: He will not hit as many as 27 home runs -- an AL-best 26 of which came as a catcher -- in 2013.

He will, however, again probably fly beneath the radar in mixed-league fantasy drafts, a perhaps-outside-the-top-10 selection with an excellent chance at maintaining top-10 value. Whether he is worthy of your consideration depends entirely on your opinion of the above home run prediction.

No statistic exemplifies the fluky nature of Pierzynski's power outburst in 2012 than his home run/fly ball percentage which, regardless of source, was the highest it had been in any season in his 15-year career. Our pitch-tracking tool had it at 16.7 percent, or more than 10 percent higher than he managed from 2009-11 combined (6.2 percent), while FanGraphs had it at 18.6 percent, or double his career rate of 9.3 percent and well higher than his previous career high of 14.2 percent, set back in 2005 in his first year with the White Sox. Those came in spite of no substantial shift in his approach at the plate, his propensity to make hard contact nor a sizable increase to his fly-ball rate. A whopping 18 of his 27 home runs came at U.S. Cellular Field, arguably the most homer-friendly venue in the AL.

Thanks to his signing with the Rangers, however, Pierzynski improves slightly in terms of runs scored and RBIs, as the Rangers averaged 0.37 runs per game more than did the White Sox in 2012. It's that -- not his power output -- which presents him his greatest chance at a repeat of his No. 5 standing among catchers on our 2012 Player Rater. That said, remember that he'll play the 2013 season at 36 years old with declining defensive skills.

Initially ranked 16th among catchers, which assumed his chances of signing with a team in a hitter-friendly venue weren't this good, Pierzynski improves four spots to 12th, right outside my top 250 overall.

Chicago Cubs add Edwin Jackson, Carlos Villanueva

Just as the Angels have been forced to do this winter, the Chicago Cubs have done a near-full makeover of their starting five, first signing free agent right-handers Scott Baker and Scott Feldman, now adding fellow right-handed free agents Edwin Jackson and Carlos Villanueva. The grand cost total for these four free agent additions: eight total years for $73.5 million.

Yet despite their price tags, not one of these pitchers is especially likely to make a noticeable fantasy impact.

Edwin Jackson
Edwin Jackson went 10-11 with a 4.03 ERA and 168 strikeouts in 31 starts for the Nats this year.

Jackson is the "marquee" name, in that he was the No. 51 starting pitcher on the 2012 Player Rater, he had the game's 30th-best qualified WHIP (1.22) and he has a no-hitter on his career resume. He's also the only one of the four who, health willing, is guaranteed a spot in the Cubs' starting five all year, thanks to both the team's hefty, four-year, $52-million investment in him, as well as his consistent track record of filling innings -- he has made at least 31 starts for six straight seasons despite having pitched for six different teams during that time.

Jackson did improve in two key areas last season, setting new personal bests in terms of his strikeout (21.3 percent of total batters faced, 7.97 per nine innings) and walk rates (2.75 per nine innings). Still, besides the label "innings eater," his reputation in fantasy is clear: Completely unpredictable. No statistic tells it better than this: He has a 4.49 ERA against losing teams in his career, but a 4.33 ERA against .500 or winning teams. And now he's moving to Chicago and Wrigley Field, where park factors can be similarly unpredictable from year to year.

As a result of the move, Jackson drops nine spots in my starting pitching rankings, from 38th to 47th, and 34 spots overall, from 160th to 194th. That's partly due to the ballpark but also what will be clearly less run support.

Villanueva might have been a sleeper in NL-only leagues -- or AL-only had he landed there -- if not for his signing with a team that can't promise him a rotation spot. With Jackson, Matt Garza, Jeff Samardzija, Baker and Feldman also in the mix, Villanueva most obviously fits as the same swingman type he was with the Toronto Blue Jays, though considering the injury and performance histories of those five, he'll almost assuredly make double-digit starts.

Keep in mind that Villanueva has a career 3.52 ERA and 1.26 WHIP against losing teams, compared to 4.97 and 1.32 against .500 or winning squads. He has all the makings of a matchups type, meaning he shouldn't be forgotten in the final rounds in NL-only formats, and certainly he should be scooped up for streaming purposes in the event when he moves into the Cubs' rotation.