I have apparently underrated Jose Abreu.
No, this is not a complete mea culpa; judging by my revised rank of the Chicago White Sox slugger this week, I've bought my ticket for his bandwagon at a discount on the secondary market. But it's a revised stance nevertheless, and it pertains to one particular area of Abreu's game that I have misjudged.
Abreu is seemingly not the feast-or-famine slugger I feared he might be.
Through his first 14 games in the U.S., Abreu has struck out 18.5 percent of the time he has come to the plate; 110 other qualified hitters have struck out at a higher rate. The major league average for K's thus far, incidentally, is 21.2 percent. Abreu has also hit four home runs -- thanks to a pair of two-homer games (April 8 at Colorado's Coors Field and April 10 at home versus the Cleveland Indians) -- driven by a not-totally-fluky 25 percent homer/fly ball rate, and generated .315 isolated power, that number 11th-best among qualified hitters.
It is therefore time to adjust my going-forward projections for Abreu, and in doing so, the result was his vaulting more spots within my top 250 than any other player besides the fresh-off-the-DL Michael Bourn. Such a change might seem odd at this early stage, but let's not forget that Abreu's was a challenging situation to scout pre-fantasy draft season, his Cuban numbers certain to mislead. Talk up his three spring homers, .286 batting average or .482 slugging percentage in 17 games if you wish, but I'd have reminded you his 10-to-1 K-to-walk ratio in those same contests. There was simply no way to garner a deadly accurate handle on him.
And -- despite Abreu's Week 3 jump -- I'm not entirely sure there is even now.
Calling Abreu a "walker" is somewhat misleading: He has seven walks and a 10.8 percent walk rate to date, but three of those were of the intentional variety. Strip his intentional walks (and the plate appearances in which they occurred) and he'd have a 6.5 percent walk rate. Abreu's walk rate ranks 56th in the majors; that 6.5 percent non-intentional walk rate would rank 114th, not to mention would fall considerably beneath the overall major league rate of 8.0 percent.
Abreu has also made good on one prediction of mine: He's currently tied for the league lead in times hit by pitch (three, alongside Jason Castro and Rajai Davis), and as a player highly likely to "take his base" at least 20 times in 2014, he might be more susceptible to injury as a result. It's actually Abreu's hit-by-pitch potential, rather than his walks, that fuel him as a potential value in leagues that reward for on-base percentage rather than batting average.
This is Abreu's substantial gain, however, and it's the primary reason for my projections (and resulting rankings) adjustment: He hasn't had anywhere near the trouble with breaking pitches -- curveballs and sliders, specifically -- that I anticipated, hitting three of his four homers off those types of pitches and generating hard contact five times against them (only Starling Marte has more, with six). Granted, he has missed on 47 percent of his swings against breaking balls, but 12 hitters have a greater rate than that (50-plus such pitches seen) and Abreu was always expected to struggle at times making contact with them. It's that he's making quality contact off them that's a huge plus.
All that in mind, I'd revise my going-forward Abreu projection as thus: 143 G, .265 AVG, 27 HR, 78 RBI, 1 SB, 68 R.
Welcome, George Springer ...
If you thought Abreu was a difficult one to project, how about the tantalizing story of George Springer, the fantasy mega-prospect recalled by the Houston Astros to presumably make his major league debut on Wednesday?
Springer's lifetime minor league numbers are eye-popping: .302/.397/.562 triple-slash, and averages of 37 home runs and 48 stolen bases per 162 games played. He also finished 2013 just three homers shy of becoming the first 40/40 player in the minor leagues in more than 50 years, significant if you remember that a typical minor league season ranges between 140-145, rather than 162, games.
But here's the caution flag with Springer: For all his power, speed and patience, he swings and misses a fair amount; his career minor league strikeout rate is 26.4 percent. And to use the history of baseball as reason to temper your expectations in one regard of his game -- batting average, and tied to that a potential penchant for streakiness -- of the 11 rookies to strike out 25 percent or more of the time (batting title eligibles only), none batted higher than Austin Jackson's .293 in 2010 (and that was driven by an absurd .396 BABIP). The collective group of 11, meanwhile, batted .257.
It's for that reason that a smart going-forward projection for Springer would constitute a .250 batting average, but 21 home runs and 23 stolen bases if he can sneak in even 135 of the Astros' final 148 games. That power-speed combo drives his ranking below, but it also accounts for the risk that an untimely cold spell could earn him additional seasoning in the minors, or that his batting average is so poor that he has a difficult time meeting the homer or steals projections.
Nevertheless, Springer is well worth the instant pickup in any format.
The struggling closer market
While it has been said many times in the 18 days -- well, the 18 played on U.S. soil -- of the 2014 season that closers as a whole have gotten off to a struggling start, it is hardly a development unique to this year. For some quick evidence of that, I point you to a May 11, 2012, "Relief Efforts" of mine; read that first line.
Bringing that thought to 2014, and accounting the 30 men projected to close for their teams at the onset of spring training, 11 closer jobs have changed hands thus far. But it's not the volume of changes that's the story; it's the magnitude of these changes that has had an impact on the going-forward rankings.
As you can see below, only six relievers -- excluding relief-eligible starters, that is -- rank among my top 100 players, which might seem an oddly low total if you weren't aware that, thus far, only six pure relievers rank among that class on our Player Rater. This is a substantial decline from 2013; at season's end there were 12 pure relievers who finished among the top 100 players, and five of them finished among the top 50. This season, only Craig Kimbrel (31st) and Francisco Rodriguez (37) rank among the latter group, and Kimbrel is currently day-to-day with a shoulder injury.
What this sluggish across-the-board closer performance has done is lower the replacement level for the position and increase the number of available saves on the waiver wire. As of Wednesday afternoon's count, five teams didn't have a single healthy (on the active roster) relief pitcher owned in at least 50 percent of ESPN leagues: Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Houston Astros and New York Yankees. As these rankings tend to evaluate such candidates based upon skill as much as opportunity, here are two with whom I'm particularly bullish:
Hector Rondon: Though before the season I was more on board with Pedro Strop as the Cubs' saves sleeper, Rondon's performance since the middle of 2013 can't go unmentioned. In 26 appearances, he has a 2.51 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 23.1 percent strikeout rate, including six consecutive scoreless outings to begin 2014. Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio specifically named Rondon a candidate to close for the team before they signed Jose Veras, so the fact that he picked up the team's first save following Veras' demotion from the job isn't entirely out of left field.
Sean Doolittle: As a left-hander, Doolittle must live with that silly idea that managers prefer right-handers as closers, but I'd argue he's as qualified for the role as anyone the Athletics have on the roster. He's currently working in tandem with Luke Gregerson to close, while Jim Johnson works through things in middle relief, but Doolittle has some apparent advantages in the race for opportunities: He has no lefty-righty platoon split (righties actually have a wOBA 14 points lower against him than lefties in his career), and he has impeccable command (his 5.38 career K-to-walk ratio is sixth-best among pitchers since his rookie year of 2012).
Both enjoyed sizable jumps in the rankings this week, and with a little luck in terms of securing more opportunities, either might find himself among the top 250 overall as early as next week.
Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 250 "going-forward" rankings
For a detailed rankings breakdown by position, click here.