"I must find this one... this diamond in the rough." I imagine Andrew Friedman says that a little less sinister than Jafar, but he definitely uses some kind of sorcery to turn seemingly common "street rats" into princes each season. We've seen it over and over again -- the Rays sign players that other teams have little interest in and find ways to maximize their potential. So, if you played in a fantasy league with Friedman, who are the guys he'd be targeting? Let's take a look at some potential players who could find new life this season.
For each position, I'll list a player whom the Rays signed or traded for and "turned nothin' into somethin'" and a player who could be just that for your team in 2014.
Alex Avila was one of the best catchers in the league in 2011 - a year in which he finished in the top five in almost every offensive category including runs, RBIs, ISO, batting average and OBP and sixth in home runs. Coming into 2012, Avila was a listed in the "near elite" Catcher tier by CBS Sports and was the sixth ranked catcher by ESPN. Since that year, however, Avila has failed to live up to the billing. He hit just one more home run in 2012 and 2013 combined than he hit in 2011 and he's failed to hit .250, let alone flirt with .300 again.
Avila has battled injuries the last two years, playing in only 228 games between the two seasons. Avila hit below the Mendoza line in each of the first three months of the season before hitting .269 in July, getting injured in August and finishing the year strong. He hit .343/.430/.522 in September and October along with posting a 13.9% walk rate and a .179 ISO. When Avila is healthy he has the potential to be a valuable option in deep mixed leagues. I don't know that he ever gets close to twenty home runs again; he just doesn't hit enough fly balls (29.8% FB% in 2012 and 2013). But his batting average should come up from the .227 mark last year and settle in around .250 thanks to his ability to hit line drives. While Avila's strikeout rate has risen over the past three seasons, he continues to post a high percentage of walks. Avila will probably get a few more days off this year which will hopefully keep him healthy. If that happens, Avila has the skills to come back to fantasy relevance.
Having said to be able to rival Giancarlo Stanton's batting practice shows as a prospect, Morrison has plus power and the ability to drive the ball. He employs a gap-to-gap approach in games, however, which limits his actualized power. This approach coupled with excellent plate discipline should lead to Morrison posting decent batting averages, but he is a career .249 hitter at this point. This can be attributed, in part, to injuries but also to the fact that he hits a large percentage of infield fly balls and struggles against lefties. Morrison will be twenty six this coming season and should slot in the lineup just after Stanton. This could lead to RBI opportunities and, if LoMo can stay healthy, he has the potential to tap into some more of his power and be a viable option at first base.
Rutledge was a trendy pick coming into 2013 but disappointed early (and for most of the season) and bounced back and forth between the minors and majors throughout the season. Despite an intriguing combination of power and speed at middle infield, I wasn't a huge fan of Rutledge last year. A .17 BB/K rate and a ground ball rate of almost 50% made me skeptical that he could maintain a .275 average and continue hitting home runs, especially with only a slightly above average HR/FB rate. In 2013, Rutledge doubled his walk rate and went twelve for twelve in stolen base attempts. He refined his approach and swung at fewer balls out of the strike zone and made more contact. His BABIP dipped some but I think it will regress and his average will settle in around .270. At second base, Rutledge has the potential to finish the year at the back end of the top ten.
The third base job has been kept warm for Chisenhall for parts of three years now. He's struggled on and off over that time but also showed reasons as to why Indians fans were looking forward to a Travis Fryman-like line. Chisenhall posted an ISO of .173 last season which isn't great, but it ranked fifteenth among third baseman with at least 150 plate appearances ahead of players including Kyle Seager, Chase Headley, Manny Machado and Pablo Sandoval. An improvement in BABIP and the maintenance of the plate discipline he showed in September should help Chisenhall, who just turned twenty five, take advantage of his sweet stroke and put up close to twenty home runs with a .270 average.
When I think about Alcides Escobar and the 2013 season, my immediate reaction is "Boy, was I wrong." I was looking for forty stolen bases, a .300 average, eighty plus runs. Escobar didn't reach any of those numbers, batting .234 and stealing only twenty two bases. After looking at the numbers, this may have been a blessing in disguise since I didn't own him at all last year. I'm pretty confident that I will own him this year. Escobar is likely to fall in drafts but I believe he was more unlucky than straight out bad this past season. A speedster who posts above-average line drive percentages is a good bet to see some BABIP regression when he posts a .264 mark after a season of .344. Although he only stole twenty two bases last year, he didn't get caught in any attempt and has improved in SB% each of the last four years. The only thing that worries me about Escobar is that he swung at more pitches out of the zone than any other year and his walk rate dipped to 3.0%. He makes a lot of contact but he will need to refine his approach to raise his OBP and increase his opportunities for stolen bases.
Michael Saunders finally played a full year in the majors in 2012 and did pretty well hitting nineteen home runs and stealing twenty one bases. He failed to perform at the same level in 2013 but; as they say; if a player shows something once, it means he has that skill. Saunders struggled against lefties again in 2013 after fairing pretty well against them in 2012 and his ability to hit same side pitching will likely make or break his season in 2014. He also reverted back to issues catching up to good velocity but not as badly as his pre-2013 woes. Having said that, Saunders showed improvement in several areas in 2013. He increased his walk rate significantly while squaring up more pitches and swinging less frequently at balls out of the zone. Plus, his nickname is The Condor, so there's reason to like him.
Rick Porcello has averaged thirty starts per season for the last five seasons. He turns 25-years old in a month. His ERA and his ERA estimations have declined every year since he broke into the big leagues. In 2013, Porcello increased his strikeout rate (and his SwSt%), maintained his above average walk rate, posted the lowest WHIP of his career and had his best year throwing his fastball and changeup. His 55.3% groundball rate ranked third among qualified starters and the Tigers just improved their infield defense by adding Ian Kinsler. Some owners will hear look at Porcello's 13-8 record and 4.32 ERA with less than a strikeout per inning and they will overlook him. I believe Porcello is ready to break out and, if he continues improving as he has, 2013 could be the year.
Pedro Strop has been up-and-down and was traded to Cubs before the 2013 trade deadline. This immediately boosted his value because it made him a potential closer candidate - a position he probably wouldn't have seen in Baltimore. As of now, Strop is my bet to get the first crack at closing in Chicago in 2014 and he will probably fall to the bottom third at the position in drafts. He has a lot of upside after showing a lot of improvement in 2013, especially after being traded. He struck out forty two batters in thirty five innings in Chicago while posting a 2.83 ERA and a 3.82 K:BB ratio. Moving out of Baltimore and the American League is definitely a nice move for Strop although he does induce a large number of ground balls and wasn't hurt by Camden Yards or the AL East offenses as some pitchers may have been. An increase in first pitch strike percentage as well as swinging strike percentage lead me to believe he can sustain the improved walk and strikeout numbers. Strop doesn't have any real platoon concerns and his slider is a knockout pitch. If Strop wins the job out of spring training, I like him to be a guy who will fly under the radar and provide a nice return on investment.
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