Hey there, hardball fans. Welcome to the first Roster Report of March. Spring Training has sprung on us, and players are showing up and getting ready for the 2012 season. With the beginning of Spring Training comes the inevitable swath of injuries throughout the league, and this column focuses on some of the most important injuries that have cropped up over the last few days. Two Central Division squads will be missing big-name (and big-money) players for the start of the season – one due to a freak injury, the other due to an injury that was anything but unexpected.
Cleveland Indians CF Grady Sizemore will miss 8-12 weeks due to back surgery.
It was almost a given that Grady Sizemore would miss time in 2012, but even the Indians probably didn’t expect it to happen so soon. The superstar outfielder had a micro discectomy, and this back surgery will cause him to miss most of Spring Training, as well as the start to the season. With an extensive rehab process needed before Grady can get back on the field, and his existing history of injury, I’d say mid-May is the earliest we’d see Sizemore take the field for Cleveland. This is not the way the Indians wanted to spend the $5MM contract they signed Sizemore to before the season started.
With Grady missing from center field, it is safe to assume that Michael Brantley will take over in the middle of the outfield. Brantley posted respectable, if not stupendous, numbers in 2011. He amassed nearly 500 plate appearances, hit .266/.318/.384, and stole 13 bases. There’s still potential for his power, speed, and OBP numbers to improve a bit, and Brantley’s defense in center is solid enough to play everyday there. Brantley probably would have been the everyday left-fielder with Sizemore healthy, but now he’s more likely to hit near the top of the order, depending on the choices the Indians make with the newly-open left field position.
There’s no absolute clear left fielder in Cleveland with Brantley moving to center. The Indians have a host of guys in camp looking for a spot, including Russ Canzler, Matt LaPorta, Shelley Duncan, Aaron Cunningham, Ezequiel Carrera, Ryan Spilborghs, and Trevor Crowe. Spilborghs looks to have very, very little left in the tank after a terrible 2011, and Thomas Neal was very unimpressive in 2011 as well, except he was bad in Triple-A. Carrera makes a fine pinch-runner, but doesn’t project to have the bat to play every day. And Matt LaPorta may just be out of luck and time to prove himself as something greater than a Triple-A hitter. In fact, Canzler, LaPorta, and Cunningham all have a similar knock. All three have played well in the minors, but haven’t seen their production translate at the ML level yet. All three are also right-handed, which makes them pretty interchangeable as an option in left. I’d actually expect that Cunningham’s versatility will keep him in the mix in Cleveland, but as a fourth-outfielder capable of spelling Brantley, Choo, or whomever gets the LF job. Canzler is able to back up all four corner spots, but LaPorta has more upside if his bat ever starts working in the bigs, but both could wind up in Columbus to begin the year.
That leaves two options for the LF job: Shelley Duncan and Trevor Crowe. Duncan, like the three candidates I just covered, bats right-handed. But unlike those three, Duncan actually put up pretty decent numbers in limited action last season. Duncan hit 11 HR in 247 plate appearances last year, and was good for a 118 wRC+. That will play, especially given how badly he treated right-handed pitchers, torching them for a .390 wOBA. If he could keep up that level of hitting against same-handed pitchers, that would make for a worthwhile everyday left fielder. But that performance was outside of his usual abilities, he typically hits lefties better than righties. If Duncan needed a platoon partner, the Indians might want to leverage one of the only backup outfielders on the roster who can hit left-handed in Trevor Crowe. Crowe’s a switch-hitting outfielder with some speed, and he has a tendency to perform better when hitting left-handed in the majors. If Crowe can put up league-average numbers against opposite-handed pitchers, he might be as good a caddy as anyone if the Indians want to get the platoon advantage.
Ultimately, I see this as Shelley Duncan’s position to lose, unless LaPorta, Canzler, or one of the other candidates has a ridiculous Spring Training. Duncan has enough power to be a worthwhile (if very, very late round) fantasy pickup, as his power is legit. In a full season, he’s the type of player who could put up 20+ HR. But we’ll certainly have to see how Spring Training plays out before we know anything definite. And even once Sizemore comes back from this particular injury, don’t expect the position shuffle to end. Given injury histories for fellow Indians Shin-Soo Choo and Travis Hafner, there could be a lot of moving a shaking before the season is over in Cleveland.
Pittsburgh Pirates SP A.J. Burnett will miss 8-12 weeks due to facial surgery.
Freak injuries like the one to A.J. Burnett’s face during bunting practice are never a good thing. And as someone projected to be the Opening Day starter for an improving Pittsburgh team, this one has to particularly sting. Now that A.J. will be having surgery on his face due to a fractured orbital bone around his eye, the Pirates are back to where they were a month ago: a rotation filled with young guys who don’t have a whole lot to offer. While Burnett isn’t an elite starter, he would have provided heft to a rotation full of end-of-the-bench starters.
With A.J. out, both Jeff Karstens and Charlie Morton should be guaranteed their spots in the rotation to start. Neither player is particularly noteworthy, but hey, it’s a slow week so we’ll break them down anyways! Charlie Morton got a little bit of press by admitting he tried to copy Roy Halladay‘s delivery and style note-for-note before the 2011 season, and then started off having quite a bit of success with the copycat style. Pretty soon, though, things came back to normal. By the end of the season, the Pirates might have been better served by running the other baseball-playing Charlie Morton out there every fifth day. You know, the one who’s been dead for nearly a century. The current Morton is great at not giving up home runs (0.31 HR/9 in 2011), but his Roy Halladay impersonation doesn’t include the requisite strikeouts to make him a top-level starter. He’s a replacement-level guy, or maybe a little better if he can continue to keep the ball in the yard at such a low rate.
Jeff Karstens, like Burnett, is another former Yankee who’s been exiled to Pittsburgh. Karstens had a good season if you use ERA as measure (3.38 ERA in 2011), but the advanced metrics tell a different story. His FIP was a full run higher at 4.29, which isn’t awful, but belied a very low BABIP of .275. Karsten relies on his command, reducing walks, and getting guys out on balls in play, so luck plays a big part in his success. The Pirates won’t get killed running him out there every fifth day, but chances are that they’ll wish they had Burnett back sooner rather than later.
Before the injury, A.J. Burnett was a pretty solid fantasy option in the later rounds of a draft or in deep leagues. Now, he’s more of a wait-and-see guy. The only reason this injury should affect his game is the missed Spring Training time to get ready; remember that this isn’t an arm injury that could mess with his velocity or control. Hopefully, Burnett will have a speedy recovery and be back soon, but until he does, you might be better off drafting someone else and waiting for A.J. on the waiver wire.
- The Cleveland Indians already have another injury issue worth watching. Closer Chris Perez is dealing with an oblique strain and will probably miss the first few weeks of the season. Yeah, Perez is the closer, but he was pretty bad in 2011. A live arm in previous seasons, Perez saw his strikeout rate (2010: 8.71 K/9, 2011: 5.88 K/9) crater all of a sudden, with no change to his walk rate (3.92 BB/9) at all. He managed a 3.32 ERA and 36 saves, but that masked a SIERA of 4.65 and xFIP of 5.01. That’s hardly closer quality. Picking up the slack in the meantime will be Vinnie Pestano, who emerged in his rookie season as the best reliever in the Cleveland ‘pen. Pestano struck out a mountain of guys (84, to be exact) and could well be more effective in a ninth-inning role than Perez ever was. Since we don’t know if Pestano will snatch the job away on a permanent basis, don’t go crazy drafting Pestano in fantasy yet. But I trust that Manny Acta and punk-rock pitching coach Scott Radinsky will eventually turn the ninth over to Pestano. And don’t be too surprised in Tony Sipp sees a few holds chances with Pestano closing.