This has been a very active week at the MLB Winter Meetings with several teams making significant trades and free agent signings. We’ll begin with the players acquired by the White Sox and Cubs in the first days of the meetings and break down what the change of scenery might mean for their Fantasy value in 2015.
The South Side Shuffle
The White Sox kicked things off with the announcement that they signed free agent reliever David Robertson to a four-year $46M contract, somewhat close to what Jon Papelbon received from the Phillies in 2012 (four years, $50M, although, it appears that closer values have softened a bit since then, and justifiably so. Still, it’s a considerable investment in a reliever who will turn 30 shortly after Opening Day 2015. However, when you consider how poorly the White Sox bullpen performed in 2014, you can understand why they would look to solidify the closer’s spot. The team had 21 blown saves and the bullpen as a whole posted an AL-worst 32 losses in relief. Only two AL teams (Texas & Minnesota) allowed more runs in relief than the White Sox’ 4.68.
Robertson should have the ninth inning duties all to himself, as long as he can maintain some sort of stability in the ninth inning. Aside from Daniel Webb and perhaps Jake Petricka, there isn’t really a viable alternative for closing duties. If Robertson can continue the dominance he’s shown over the last four years, he should have no trouble running up annual save totals in the 40s. His combination of a 92 MPH fastball, a cutter with exceptional horizontal movement and a nasty knuckle curveball has consistently produced strikeout just below 12 K/9. That’s good enough to put him in the discussion among the top relievers in the game right now. Command can be a problem at times, as he sometimes struggles with walk rates above 3.00 BB/9, but his FIP (2.74) and xFIP (2.85) are consistent with his ERA (2.81) and he’s regularly posted groundball rates right around 44 percent. He is a very consistent pitch with good stuff, and he doesn’t rely on smoke and mirrors to get results. Overall, he has the makings of a Top 10 closer for 2015.
The White Sox also made a trade with the Oakland A’s to acquire SP Jeff Samardzija and P Michael Ynoa for IF Marcus Semien, C Josh Phegley, 1B Rangel Ravelo and P Chris Bassitt. Samardzija had one of his best seasons in 2014 despite making half of his starts for the lowly Chicago Cubs, where he couldn’t buy a win. His 2.83 ERA and corresponding 3.09 FIP were wasted with the Cubs, who offered him next to nothing in terms of run support. Things improved a bit with the move to Oakland; though, his ERA raised a tad (3.14) while his strikeout rate dipped slightly. The main worry with the move to Chicago’s U.S. Cellular Field is that it plays as a very home run friendly park, which is bad news for a pitcher with an above average HR/FB rate throughout most of his career.
The good news is that Samardzija’s groundball rate has been steadily rising over the last three seasons, topping 50 percent in 2014. This is a reflection of his reliance on the cutter a bit more last season but a good trend to watch in the early going in 2015. If home runs become a problem early on, anyone who drafts Samardzija in the spring will want to bail on him quickly, as the home run ball dogged him earlier in his career and could always do so again, especially in such a home run-friendly environment. Overall, Samardzija’s Fantasy value takes a hit with this move, though it may be minimal if his groundball tendencies continue and the long ball problem doesn’t rear its’ ugly head.
Chicago Becomes Lester’s Sweet Home
Jon Lester chose to follow Theo Epstein to Chicago’s North side, where the Cubs have now announced their intention to reinvent their “loser image” beginning in 2015. If you believe that the offensive pieces are already in place, then the addition of Lester as a staff ace effectively begins their pursuit of a post season berth next season. They also reacquired Jason Hammel to rebuild their starting rotation which now shapes up as: Lester, Hammel, Jake Arrieta, Travis Wood and Kyle Kendricks.
The move to the National League’s Central division should be a positive one for Lester, who had an excellent season for the Red Sox and A’s in 2014. He should be able to maintain his strikeout rate somewhere around 8.22 K/9 he’s produced on average over his career in the more strikeout-friendly NL; though, I’d be surprised if he approached the 9.01 K/9 of 2014. Injuries haven’t been a problem since the early days of his career, when cancer threatened to end it before it even began in earnest. He’s started at least 31 games and thrown roughly 200 innings per season in each of the last seven years.
Along those lines, it is worth noting that Lester all but abandoned his changeup in favor of cutters and curveballs in 2014. In fact, Lester threw his cutter nearly 30 percent of the time last year, a pitch that torques the elbow in ways it wasn’t meant to be torqued. Cutters, splitters and sliders are generally thought to be contributors to pitcher injuries. Add to that the fact that Lester has thrown more than 1500 innings of baseball in eight years (without injury) and one has to think that there might be trouble ahead for the lefty. Aside from that, there is no reason to worry about Lester in Chicago or the NL. His Fantasy value gets a positive bump from this move, which could help prolong his effectiveness as a pitcher. I have my doubts about whether seven years or $155M dollars was a good idea, but that seems to be the market now. I’ll bet Max Scherzer is dreaming about the Benjamins these days.