Rankings shuffle after busy day

Fantasy impact of moves involving Fister, Fowler, Jim Johnson, Nathan, more

Updated: December 10, 2013, 2:03 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

There's Thanksgiving leftovers and then there's simply having a second Thanksgiving, replete with another whole turkey, a fresh slate of mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, green bean casserole and pumpkin pie.

And it sure seemed, at least in terms of baseball news to digest, that kind of Tuesday, a do-Thanksgiving-again type of transactions day, didn't it?

Fantasy owners' heads might be spinning -- or worse, suffering the aftereffects of tryptophan -- today, but to get you caught up, including the impact upon my 2014 rankings, let's take a quick stroll through the most notable recent moves:

The Detroit Tigers, looking to clear a rotation spot for Drew Smyly, trade Doug Fister to the Washington Nationals. Most of the post-Fister-trade chatter has centered upon the Tigers' lackluster return -- an opinion with which I strongly agree -- but for fantasy purposes, the reason this trade should pique our interest is the fallout on three specific 2014 rotation members: Fister, Smyly and Rick Porcello. With this news, all three experience, to varying degrees, an increase in fantasy value.

[+] EnlargeDoug Fister
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesDoug Fister could put up solid numbers as the Nationals' No. 4 starter.

Fister's value benefits the most, not simply because he goes from the American League (and its designated hitter) to the National League (and its "hitting" pitchers), or because of his sparkling career interleague stat line of nine quality starts in 11 tries, a 2.09 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 6.2 strikeout-walk ratio. Such a league switch generally helps a pitcher, but it's the specific divisions that matter here; Fister might be leaving the AL's lightest-hitting division (Central), going by 2013 triple-slash, K-rate and wOBA statistics, but he's also moving to the majors' lightest-hitting division (NL East).

Perhaps more importantly, Fister escapes the Tigers' poor infield defense -- or, at least before the Prince Fielder trade it was -- for a more palatable Nationals infield. To that end, consider that the Tigers' infield was worth minus-26 defensive runs saved in 2013, 16 worse than the Nationals' minus-10, and shortstop (where Ramon Santiago was worth six DRS, while no one else was in the red for the Tigers) was the only position at which the Tigers were even within seven runs. Specifically, Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera was worth minus-18 DRS, second-worst at the position, while Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman was worth minus-1. That difference is especially significant if you consider that, among ERA qualifiers, Fister had the 20th-highest rate of batted balls hit "far left" (that's a measure of 20 percent of the field working from the left-field line to the right). Sure enough, Fister allowed a .452 BABIP on ground balls and line drives in that range, up from .397 from 2010 to 2012 combined.

A ground-ball pitcher with some of the best control in the game -- his 4.8 percent walk rate since his Aug. 8, 2009, big league debut is sixth-best among those with at least 500 innings pitched -- Fister could, with the Nationals, approach his career-year numbers of 2011, when he was the No. 18 starting pitcher on our Player Rater. He won't (and shouldn't) be drafted as that, but with the move he jumps more than 10 spots among starters in my ranks, to 45th.

Smyly, whom Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski proclaimed in mid-November one of his projected 2014 starters, now has a rotation spot for the taking. The majors' eighth-most-valuable reliever by wins above replacement in 2013 (2.6), Smyly has a 3.79 ERA in 18 career starts and 2.69 ERA in 68 career relief appearances. His primary skills difference between those two roles is his reliance on his changeup (thrown 4.8 percent more often as a starter) and slider (thrown 13.5 percent less often as a starter). As a starter, he might be more susceptible to right-handers -- his changeup has been his best pitch against them, but he doesn't throw it much -- and it's possible that he'll have his innings capped after having thrown 76 in 2013 and never more than 126 as a pro. Still, he has improved his command enough that he's an intriguing sleeper, my No. 30 relief pitcher -- his initial eligibility -- or the equivalent of my No. 74 starter.

Meanwhile, Porcello, who had the fourth-highest ground-ball ratio among ERA qualifiers last season, is probably now locked in as the Tigers' No. 4 starter. Though he has fallen short of his prospect expectations through five big league campaigns, he's still 24 years old (25 on Dec. 27) and has improved his strikeout-walk ratio in each year, as well as increased his ground-ball rate in each of the past three seasons. He shouldn't be entirely forgotten.

Gregerson
Gregerson
Johnson
Johnson

The Oakland Athletics acquire both Jim Johnson (from the Baltimore Orioles) and Luke Gregerson (from the San Diego Padres) in separate trades. You read that correctly, the "Moneyball Athletics" are spending on relief pitching. Both Johnson and Gregerson are due raises in arbitration; Johnson made $6.5 million and Gregerson $3.2 million in 2013, and Johnson in particular is expected to receive a huge boost after he became only the second pitcher in baseball history to post consecutive 50-save campaigns (Eric Gagne is the other). At least there's a positive: Johnson's hefty salary practically assures him the first crack at saves, replacing free agent Grant Balfour, in what has traditionally been a wide-open, merit-based-decision-making bullpen.

That's not to say that Johnson will be able to hold off Gregerson or Ryan Cook or Sean Doolittle among pre-existing candidates, all year. Johnson is an extreme ground-baller, his 61.1 percent rate the past three seasons second-highest among 83 relievers with at least 150 innings pitched, and one who needs consistent command of his two-seam fastball/sinker. It's that which is more relevant to his 2014 prospects than the change in ballparks; keep in mind that the Orioles had one of the best infield defenses in baseball last year (41 DRS), while the Athletics had one of the worst (minus-38 DRS). With the move, Johnson drops to 16th in my relief pitcher rankings, his value tied mostly to save opportunities, and he's one of the few closers who might warrant a handcuff once the best candidate emerges in the spring. An early guess: The pecking order runs Gregerson, Doolittle, Cook.

Hanigan
Hanigan
Bell
Bell

The Tampa Bay Rays acquire Heath Bell and Ryan Hanigan in a three-team trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks and Cincinnati Reds. It's another case of a team you might not expect "spending on saves," though in the Rays' defense, $4 million of the $9 million due Bell will be paid by the Diamondbacks and Miami Marlins (who originally signed him to this contract). Bell instantly becomes the "proven closer" in a Tampa Bay bullpen that could have seen a spring battle for the role among Jake McGee, Joel Peralta and Alex Torres. A spring battle might still be in order, but keeping in mind the Rays' track record of success with closer reclamation projects (Rafael Soriano, Kyle Farnsworth and Fernando Rodney, to name three), Bell could be the next fantasy success to pop out of the team's magic saves box. I'll stress that that's about the only viable case to make for Bell as things stand today, but it's enough to earn him a spot in my relief-pitching rankings (much as I'm hesitant to do so), at No. 41.

Hanigan, meanwhile, gives the Rays quite a 1-2 defensive punch at catcher with Jose Molina, who was recently re-signed, which is a plus for the team's pitching staff. Neither catcher should play or hit enough to be more than a No. 2 option in an AL-only league (Hanigan having stronger odds of such value). However, the real story is that the Reds are paving the way for Devin Mesoraco to take over behind the plate full-time. The No. 8 prospect overall in Keith Law's 2012 top 100 rankings, Mesoraco finished only 32nd at the position on the 2013 Player Rater. However, he provided a hint of his potential during the times Hanigan was on the disabled list last season: Mesoraco started 29 and caught 36 of the Reds' 42 games specifically during Hanigan's DL time, batting .261/.301/.435 with five home runs and 17 RBIs. Those might not be eye-popping numbers, but they make him a compelling candidate for No. 2-catcher status in mixed leagues, as his No. 17 spot in my catcher rankings shows.

Fowler
Fowler

The Colorado Rockies trade Dexter Fowler to the Houston Astros. Expect most fantasy owners to shy from Fowler between now and draft day, considering the masses' tendency to overrate home/road splits, especially those of departing Rockies. Fowler's are steep and I won't hide them: He has a career batting average 57 points higher at Coors (.298) than on the road (.241), an OPS 187 points higher (.880 to .694) and has hit 27 of his 40 career homers at Coors. Flat-out panic, at least initially, would be understandable.

That said, most hitters tend to experience a degree of home-field advantage -- some of them extreme regardless of the nature of their home park -- and Minute Maid Park isn't necessarily a steep downgrade from Coors, at least not directly down the lines. Still, most of his power is as a left-handed hitter to right and right-center -- the move would've suited him better if it was the reverse -- and Fowler's speed has always fallen short of expectations. On a team sure to depress his runs/RBI potential, he might be a .270 hitting, .360 on-base, 10- to 15-homer hitter who struggles to score even 85 runs. Fowler tumbles more than 50 spots in my rankings as a result, and he's now my No. 39 outfielder.

As for Jordan Lyles, one of the two players the Rockies acquired for Fowler, a curveball pitcher moving to Colorado's high altitude, which directly impacts the break of such a pitch? Hmmm, let's move along ...

Nathan
Nathan

The Detroit Tigers sign Joe Nathan. The Tigers finally have their "proven closer," something they appeared to lack for all of 2013 yet actually did sport once they turned the job over to Joaquin Benoit midseason. Nathan's move is actually one of the least impactful moves from a fantasy-value angle; I regard his potential as no different whether he had wound up in Detroit or back in Texas. Frankly, if he's earning at least the $9 million he would've earned on an option with the Texas Rangers, the plus is that it'll lock him into the closer role for his age 39 campaign, meaning he's one of the most stable saves investments you could make. The only concerns are that, again, he's 39, and at this stage of his career he's a traditional one-inning closer; he had 46 save opportunities of one inning or fewer in 2013, sixth-most in the majors. This is not a workhorse, and he's destined for a good 60 innings or so.

Morneau
Morneau

The Colorado Rockies sign Justin Morneau. Though he has seemingly escaped the "injury-prone" phase of his career, Morneau's hitting skills are no longer what they were, and at age 32 he's unlikely to ever get himself back into MVP discussion. Moving to Coors Field, however, at least masks his aging process, and a quick look at his statistics between the two pitching-friendly parks he has recently called home and all the others supports it:

2010-13 at Target Field: .279 AVG, .436 SLG, .157 ISO, 7.8 HR/FB%
2013 at PNC Park: .229 AVG, .257 SLG, .029 ISO, 0.0 HR/FB%
2010-13 everywhere else: .267 AVG, .461 SLG, .194 ISO, 12.8 HR/FB%

With continued luck in the injury department, Morneau might have a chance at another .270 hitting, 20-homer season, and that might earn him a place among the top 20 first basemen come year's end. He moved up four spots in my rankings, to 28th at the position, though his arrival might adversely impact the Rockies' defense because it'll mean Michael Cuddyer returns to right field.

Saltalamacchia
Saltalamacchia
Pierzynski
Pierzynski

The Boston Red Sox sign A.J. Pierzynski, then the Miami Marlins sign Jarrod Saltalamacchia. These deals were a matter of the catcher dominoes falling, and oddly, I'd prefer the older catcher of these two if I'm forced to pick. Pierzynski, now 37, has tallied the 13th-most innings behind the plate of anyone since World War II, and while he lacks Saltalamacchia's power upside and is at greater risk of a career decline, could gain enough in terms of runs/RBIs to be a useful No. 2 mixed catcher for one more year. The Red Sox will platoon him smartly with David Ross, and he earns the No. 15 spot in my catcher rankings.

Saltalamacchia, unfortunately, moves to a Marlins team that might not maximize his platoon limitation; he has a career OPS 196 points higher against right-handers (.795) than left-handers (.599). The other problem is that so much of his fantasy value is tied up in his power potential, and as a pull-power hitter, he'll probably suffer somewhat in that department in a Marlins Park that has the fourth-deepest measurements down the lines to both left and right field. With the move, Saltalamacchia drops three spots to 17th among catchers, and yes, this means that I'd rather pick the aforementioned Mesoraco (16th) in drafts.

Navarro
Navarro

The Toronto Blue Jays sign Dioner Navarro, then non-tender J.P. Arencibia. It's more news in the bargain-bin category, as Navarro replaces Arencibia as the Blue Jays' starting catcher, and fantasy owners should be aware of just how good Navarro's 2013 season was: He was the No. 20 catcher on our Player Rater. He's now moving to Toronto and another hitting-friendly environment in Rogers Centre, and to a team that should grant him more regular at-bats surrounded by a stronger cast. A viable No. 2 catcher in deeper mixed leagues, Navarro checks in 21st in my updated rankings.

As for Arencibia, he might not have much trouble finding at least a share of a starting role elsewhere, but he has poor on-base skills and will lose the power advantages of Rogers Centre. Even 100 lost plate appearances could drop him to low-end No. 2 status in singular (AL- or NL-only) leagues, and he's mostly only still in my top 30 because of the chance he latches on in a good role.

Hughes
Hughes
Nolasco
Nolasco

The Minnesota Twins sign Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes. I've mentioned Hughes as a potential bargain candidate should he escape Yankee Stadium, where he has allowed 71 of his 101 home runs since the venue opened, and Nolasco might also be a bargain candidate in what was one of the safer ballparks in which to land in the American League. Amazingly, Nolasco afforded pitchers .231/.272/.329 triple-slash rates the past three years combined, which are remarkably high numbers considering the relative weakness of the position as hitters, so any league-related adjustment to his numbers shouldn't be extreme. Nolasco is now my No. 59 starting pitcher, and Hughes jumps into my top 100 at the position, at No. 92.

Kazmir
Kazmir

The Oakland Athletics sign Scott Kazmir. While Francisco Liriano got most of the attention among 2013 reclamation projects, Kazmir's rebirth shouldn't go unnoticed. A big reason for it was his recapturing some velocity: His average fastball clocked 92.3 mph in 2013, up quite a ways from the 90.9 and 90.5 he averaged in 2009 and 2010, and that's important because he limited opponents to a .236 batting average with 68 K's on fastballs clocked 93 mph or faster last season. Kazmir, though, has been wildly unpredictable throughout his career and was again in 2013 -- his 5.90 first-inning ERA shows how frustrating it can be to not know whether it's "his night" until the game gets underway -- and that shouldn't change in Oakland. But if there's one defense of him, it's this: He afforded the fourth-highest foul-ball rate among pitchers with 150-plus innings in 2013 (42.4 percent), and he's moving to the ballpark with the most spacious foul territory in baseball. It won't amount to any substantial gain in ERA/WHIP, but every tiny bit counts with this 73rd-ranked starter.

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