Sunday, August 28, 2011

Who is Cory Luebke?

I recently received an email from a fellow owner in the ottoneu FanGraphs Experts League inquiring about this potential trade: I give up Neftali Feliz ($21), Kyle Farnsworth ($2) and Jason Bourgeois ($1) for Micheal Pineda ($15) and...Cory Luebke ($1). Attached to Luebke's name was this comment: "Arguably my most valuable keeper!!!"

My immediate reaction was, "Wait, who is Cory Luebke?" I know that Luebke is a pitcher on the Padres, but there was nothing that made me think, "Yeah, Pineda is solid, but my goodness, I can get a $1 Cory Luebke?!"

Sure enough, Luebke's raw numbers are fantastic this year - 2.91 ERA (with a 2.98 xFIP to match), over 9.5 K/9, under 2.5 BB/9.  Sure his BABIP (.254) and LOB (71.9%) are a bit low but a K:BB ratio of nearly 4:1 will make you feel much better about that.

But there are a couple concerns I see immediately: 1) Luebke's minor league numbers leave no suggestion that anything like this is possible and 2) those numbers are not purely starter numbers - he made 29 relief appearances this year as well. Is Luebke a a one-year phenomenon, a great reliever but only decent SP, a top-of-the-rotation kind of guy? And is he arguably the other owner's most valuable keeper?

Let's start with the relief vs. starter numbers. Luebke started the year as a reliever before being moved to the rotation back in June, and he was a very effective reliever - 2.96 xFIP, 9.92 K/9, 3.46 BB/9 as a relief pitcher. Moving to the rotation should force him to back off a little - he needed to mix in more pitches, he would have to pace himself, he would face guys 2-4 times a game instead of once. Clearly, his numbers would have to take a fall.

Well, 11 starts later, the opposite has happened. His BB/9 has improved to just 1.90 BB/9. His xFIP has barely faltered, rising to just 2.98. His K-rate has been the biggest drop off, falling all the way to a Lincecumian 9.36 - placing him 8th among qualified starters this year. His 4.93 K/BB ratio as a starter ranks 4th, with only Halladay, Haren and Greinke above him.

Looking closer at his pitches, it isn't surprising that the fall has been so limited (if you can call it a fall at all). As a RP, Luebke relied on a fastball and slider, with the fastball about 25 runs above league average and the slider around 6 above. As a point of comparison, Roy Halladay's best pitch is his cutter, which is about 18 runs above average this year, followed by his curve which clocks in around 13 and his splitter, which is just over 9. Luebke threw the four-seam fastball 56% of the time and the slider 34% of the time out of the pen. He also mixed in the occasional change (6.8%) and two-seamer (2.5%).

When he came to the rotation, you would expect Luebke to mix in his other pitches more, but the opposite happened. The four-seam fastball jumped to almost 70% of his selection, at the expense of his slider, which he dropped to 23%. The change and two-seamer remained just over 7% combined.

Just as importantly, his velocity hasn't taken a hit with the longer outings. As a RP, his fastball sat at 91.1; as a SP, it's at 91.5. His slider went from 82.7 to 83; the change from 83.2 to 84.8, and the two-seamer from 91.6 to 91.1. Basically, he is the same pitcher as a SP as he was in a relief role - same pitches, same velocities. He just uses his best pitch - the four-seamer - more often.

Having only made 11 starts, my next concern was that only really using two pitches as a starter will come back to bite him when a team sees him the second or third time. It certainly isn't definitive data, but on two separate occasions, he has made back-to-back starts against the same team. First, on July 7 and 16 he faced San Franciso, then on August 11 and 16 he faced the Mets. Here are the lines from those four starts:

7/7   6IP 2ER 8K 1BB 5H 1HR
7/16 7IP 2ER 5K 1BB 4H 1HR
8/11 5IP 2ER 8K 4BB 3H 0HR
8/16 6IP 1ER 5K 3BB 3H 0HR

And really...not much to see here. His K's dropped in each of the second starts, and for some reason the Mets draw endless walks against a guy who walks no one, but other than that - pure consistency.

So the transition to starter has gone a-ok, it seems. And there is nothing to suggest that it's a fluke, although there might be evidence for a drop in K-rate moving forward, as teams adjust. What about his minor league numbers?

Nothing in his track record suggests he had a top-of-the-rotation future. Kevin Goldstein ranked him #10 in the Padres system this year and said he's a "Fourth of fifth starter, but he's already there." Marc Hulet on FanGraphs was a bit more optimistic, ranking him #3 (although this was before the influx of Boston prospects in exchange for Adrian Gonzalez) and saying, "Luebke has the potential to be a solid No. 3 starter." Clearly neither saw this kind of a breakout.

And why should they? Luebke hasn't struck out over 9 per 9 IP since 2007 in A-ball (not counting 17.2 MLB innings in 2010). Since then his strike out rates have been mostly in the 6-7 range. Facing more advanced hitting in AA and AAA, Luebke posted solid FIPs (3.83 in AA in 2009, 2.84 in AA in 2010, and 3.91 in AAA in 2010), but nothing spectacular. His k-rates were very consistent - from 6.87 to 7.03 during those three stints in the high minors), but nothing like his MLB numbers. His walk rates were even better than they have been in the bigs, often under 2 per 9 and almost always under 3 per 9 throughout his minor league career.

Looking back, we see a decent prospect - an almost sure-thing ML starter but with a ceiling at #3 or lower and certainly no ace. Looking at 2011, we see an ace. But what about September and beyond?

As you would guess from his track record (and as hinted at by the second starts vs. NYM and SFG), ZiPS rest-of-season projection sees Luebke dropping his k-rate by a lot - all the way to 7.43, which is still pretty darn good. ZiPS also expects some normalization in his BABIP (up to .304), but even with these adjustments, the projected ROS FIP is 3.53 - not his sub-3.00 numbers so far, but still nothing to sneeze at.

My best guess is that, moving forward, that ZiPS projection is just about right on. He'll strike some guys out (although probably not at a top-ten rate moving forward), he'll keep his walks down (I actually think the 3.13 projected by ZiPS for the rest of the year may be high) and he will probably post ERA's above 3 but below 4 - and my guess is that with a little help from PETCO, it will be closer to 3 than 4.

So who is Cory Luebke? Well, he isn't the Cy Young candidate he has pitched like in these 11 starts, but he also isn't the back-of-the-rotation guy that most people projected. The Padres seem to have a #2 on their hands, and if you are considering him for fantasy, he is well-worth owning and keeping. His value will be hurt by a lack of wins with San Diego, but at $1 - I probably should grab him in this trade while I have the chance.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Beating the Deadline: Prepping for Vote Offs

One of the unique rules in the ottoneu universe is the arbitration process. At the end of each season, every owner in each league has the right to vote for one player on each other team, and the player from each team with the most votes is booted from the team and enters the free agent pool. When the annual auction occurs, the team that previously owned that player gets a $5 discount on him. 

For example, last year, in the original ottoneu league, I picked up Jose Bautista early in the season for $1 hoping to ride his hot streak and then cut him or use him as a useful backup at 3B and OF. Instead, weak-hitting Jose Bautista became MVP-candidate Jose Bautista, and by the time the season ended, Bautista was widely considered a top 5-10 OF. 

Whether he was a one-hit-wonder a la Brady Anderson or a Raul Ibanez-style late bloomer was up for debate, but what was not up for debate was my fellow owners allowing me to keep Bautista for $3. His value was clearly far greater than that and, sure enough, Joey Bats was voted off my team. When the pre-season auction came around, bidding on Bautista went up past the $30 mark, another owner bid $35, I bid $36...and that was it. But, because Bautista was the guy voted off my team, I got a "hometown discount" and have him on my roster at $31, instead of $35. 

Pretty simple, right? But this actually creates an interesting strategic opportunity for ottoneu owners. With the season winding down (and the trade-season REALLY winding down), what is the best way to take advantage of this rule? I've basically seen three strategies:

1) Collect as many arbitration-worthy guys as possible. This is by far the most common move for owners falling out of contention. You are collecting guys who are under-priced and worth keeping - guys who are likely to get voted off are the cream of this crop. Since each team only loses one player to arbitration, not only does having, say, 5 of these guys mean that you get to keep 4, but it also increases the variability in the voting and makes it more likely that something odd happens. Last season, ottoneu founder Niv Shah had a number of guys worth voting off, which spread the votes thin and allowed Jhoulys Chacin to sneak away as his arbitration player. A number of other highly underpaid players slipped through and, while Niv is still in a rebuilding mode, having Chacin voted off was barely a blip for him (he re-signed Chacin for $8).

2) Trade away vote-off candidates to stock up for the current year. Less common, but quite effective when it works. Last year, I did just this, moving Shin-soo Choo and Nelson Cruz, both of whom were signed for under $10. Interestingly, I probably could have kept both of them with no risk, since Bautista eventually became an obvious arbitration candidate, but I needed help in other areas and at the time those guys a) had high value to other teams and b) were likely to be voted off anyway. The reinforcements I received helped me win the league.

3) Hold onto (or trade for) one obvious arbitration candidate in order to protect other guys on your team. This is maybe a version of #1 above, but a bit different. Rather than spreading your risk over a number of guys, this is about getting one guy who you are 100% sure will be voted off, and using him as a sacrificial lamb, protecting your other players. If you have Justin Verlander for $5 (and I am sure you do), he WILL get voted off. There may be some temptation to trade him since he is gone anyway, but holding him guarantees that your $15 Curtis Granderson is safe. 

I bring this up in part because I find myself in a strange position in the original ottoneu league right now. I am in 4th place, just outside the top three and within spitting distance of a second place finish. There seems to be consensus that my two most valuable trade chips are the aforementioned $31 Bautista and a $12 Jered Weaver. If I were willing to part with one of these two, the return would be huge.

Bautista, while easier to trade (he is a good deal at $31 but not an incredible deal), is also almost guaranteed to not be my arbitration player for a second straight year. Yes, he would go for more like $45 in auction next year (just a guess), but even if I paid him $45 (meaning the auction ends at $50), this would only represent a $12 increase in price vs. what I would otherwise have paid. If Weaver goes for $45, this is a $31 increase over the raise he would naturally receive.

Weaver, however, is not the guy I think should be voted off my team (for competitive reasons, I am going to keep my opinion quiet, although you can feel free to guess in the comments). As a matter of fact, I think he is, in some ways, the sacrificial lamb I mentioned in strategy three above. He will get voted off and protect at least one and maybe two players I think are more worthy of that particular honor.

So what strategy do I take? With about 3 days left before the trade deadline, do I move Weaver for the biggest haul I can get, possibly add a guy like Verlander, plus another piece or two that would put me over the top in 2011? Or do I hold him, let him get voted off and keep my more valuable players in place?

As of right now, I am leaning towards the latter. I think my team can get over the hump and into the money without reinforcements and I would rather protect my team a bit for 2012 if I can. 

Friday, August 5, 2011

Trade Recap: original ottoneu

A quick recap of a trade I made about a week ago in the original ottoneu league:

I moved Wilin Rosario (Catcher in AA with Colorado, .284 OBP, .437 SLG, 16 HR, 41 R this year) and Brett Jackson (OF in AAA with the Cubs, .384, .521, 4, 13 in just 20 games) for Nick Swisher.

Here was my thinking on the deal - I am currently in third place and in very tight races in all four offensive categories (OBP, SLG, HR, R) and was starting some weak OF lately (BJ Upton, Martin Prado, among others) while waiting on Allen Craig and Luke Scott to return. Scott is now done for the season and Craig keeps getting pushed back (not to mention there is no guarantee he gets playing time in St. Louis anyway). I put out feelers for outfielders and one of the opportunities that came up was to grab Swish.

Without a doubt, this makes me better this year, and I don't think the price was too high. I like Rosario more than I probably should based on his numbers, but he is still only 22 and has tremendous power for a catching prospect. His walk rate is way down this year and he clearly needs to work on his approach, but just a year ago he had an OPS of .894 in AA. However, I am feeling pretty good about my current starting catcher (Miguel Montero) who only costs me $2 more than Rosario ($4 for Rosario, $6 for Montero). Assuming Rosario develops, he won't have a real impact until 2013 at the earliest, at which point he will likely cost $7 while Montero will cost $10. No reason to sweat losing Rosario.

Jackson is a different story. As I said, I have been struggling to field a strong OF this year and while I have one stud bat locked up for next year (Bautista at $31 this year, $33 next), there are a lot of question marks behind him. Pence at $19 this year has been good, and I probably keep him at $21 in 2012. Matt Joyce and Marlon Byrd are cheap, but one has been fading and the other I am not sure I REALLY believe in. Martin Prado is struggling this year, Luke Scott is probably done, BJ Upton is terrible. It isn't pretty.

Jackson, meanwhile, is 23 and is killing AAA. And there is not a ton blocking him in the bigs - depending on how much you think of Tyler Colvin, I guess. Jackson is very interesting in traditional 5x5 leagues (31 steals, 12 HR across three levels last year, 17 and 14 in 87 games across two levels this year). But in ottoneu 4x4, steals have no value, so he takes a hit immediately thanks to that. And there are a couple other worrisome signs. The .521 SLG in AAA is impressive, but over nearly 130 AA games, he was more like a .450 SLG guy. Keep translating that up to the majors and you have an awfully good OF (particularly with 30 steal potential) but not a star in ottoneu by any means. Next year, I think the owner who took Jackson (West Coast Wellness) will be very happy with him - and will probably remain so for the next few years - but I think holding onto third (and taking a shot at second) was worth losing Jackson.

And there is one other piece - Swisher only costs $22 this year. He looks expendable in part due to his .438 SLG this year, which is hardly impressive, but look back at him the past five years. He had the brutal .332/.410 2008 season, but ignoring that for a moment, his OBPs are .372, .381, .371, .359 (plus a .377 clip this year). His SLGs are .493, .455, .498, .511.

Is it possible his power has fallen off for good (his ISO is the lowest it has been since he played 20 games in his first season in Oakland)? Sure, it is possible. He is about to turn 31 and that is a perfectly reasonable age for a guy to start to fall off. But I think there is more to it than that.

His HR/FB is the second lowest it has been since that 20 game stint and it seems that is driving most of the difference. Looking at ZiPS rest of season projections, the system sees him with singles and doubles in a similar range to past seasons (90 singles would be his second most ever, 29 doubles would be in the middle of the pack for his career), but only 22 HR, after 29 the past two years. A slight uptick in his HR/FB to career levels could mean all the difference.

And if you look at his plate discipline, he is more selective than he was last year - which one would expect to lead to better results. His Swing% is down a bit, partially due to seeing fewer strikes, and partially due to swinging less often. His numbers, in fact, are right in line with his career numbers.

So, you have a guy who, except for a bad 2008 (which was highly BABIP driven, which is why I felt okay ignoring it), has proven to be about a .375/.490 hitter with 25-30 HR power, and hitting in a lineup that should allow him to score plenty of runs. Even if we knock down those stats a bit - partially due to the decline in offense across the league, partially due to aging - you have a guy who seems likely to put up 20-25 HR, 80+ runs, .365 OBP and .470 SLG. And that is an outfielder I am likely willing to pay $24 for in 2012.

In total, this makes the deal the potential of Rosario and Jackson for 1.333 years of Swisher - and that feels like a win.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Original Ottoneu Team Update

As I did late last week with the Experts' League, today I am going to provide an update on where my team stands in the original ottoneu league.  Again, a screen grab of our standings over the past month will help:

Looking back to the start of July, right around when I was preparing for my month of craziness, I was sitting in fourth place, a nice cushion over fifth and only a couple points from the top. Very quickly I popped up to second and then spent most of the month fighting for second, before fading late in July and finding myself where I am now - solidly in the money, but with a serious uphill battle to claim a bigger share.

Right now, I think my team is in pretty solid shape and I am not sure there is a ton I can do to improve my chances for this year. I need my pitching to improve, and I could move some youngsters for an arm, but as long as my current guys stop imploding (see CJ Wilson, yesterday), I should be okay on that front. My Weaver, Wilson, Zimmermann, Beckett, Garza, Zambrano rotation seems to be okay, especially with a solid seven-man bullpen. And while my offense is my weak spot right now, I don't see any positions that need clear improvement.

My daily lineup:

C - Miguel Montero/David Ross
1B - Prince Fielder
2B - Chase Utley
SS - JJ Hardy
MI - Martin Prado
3B - Ryan Zimmerman
OF - Jose Bautista, Hunter Pence, Nick Swisher, Marlon Byrd, Matt Joyce
Util - Paul Konerko
Bench Guys Who Get Some Run - Garrett Jones (against righties, on occasion), Jason Kipnis (when Byrd or Joyce has a bad matchup and Prado moves to the OF), Scott Sizemore (same), Mark Ellis (only in Colorado and only on occasion), BJ Upton (to fill games in OF when other guys are not playing).

I could improve the OF (and just did actually - Swish was a recent add, and a trade recap post is coming soon), but really, my biggest issue is that I dug a hole for myself while Utley, Prado, Zimmerman, and others were hurt, and while playing Morneau before I added Prince. I should get a little boost when Allen Craig and (maybe) Luke Scott return from injuries - at the very least I get some valuable depth.

But all in all, I think I basically stand pat. I don't have a ton of tradable assets (four minor leaguers - Jaff Decker, Michael Choice, Travis Wood, Andy Oliver - and a few young MLB guys - Sizemore, Kipnis, Chris Nelson - but nothing crazy). I could move Prado, since I have such MI depth among my young guys - would be a bit risky, but nothing out of the question. But really, I think I am going to have to stick with the team I have. If anyone thinks I should be making a move, let me know what I should target.

Far more interesting than my team, though, is that of Overpaid Scrubs. The Scrubs, currently sitting in 5th and having lost ground the last week or so, started the season with little hope of placing, but with one hell of a farm system. Moustakas, Hosmer, Montero, Trout, and more.

Then, starting in Mid-May, this owner went on a buying binge, moving most of his prospects in an effort to fight his way back into contention. Here is a complete list of the trades he made:

-Jaime Garcia for Nelson Cruz
-Matt Moore, Justin Smoak, Brian Matusz, Jameson Taillon for Lincecum, Mike Morse, Joaquin Benoit, Miguel Cabrera
-Randall Delgado, Alexander Torres, Mike Trout, Carlos Martinez for David Price, Brian Wilson, Drew Stubbs
-Juan Nicasio for Brandon Philips
-Drew Stubbs, Nelson Cruz, Jeurys Familia for Verlander and Hamels
-Brent Lillibridge, Jesus Montero, Brandon Morrow, Mike Moustakas, Josh Collmenter for Carlos Beltran, Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez, Mariano Rivera
-Fernando Salas, Zach Stewart, Eric Hosmer, Dee Gordon for Ethier, Dunn, Ubaldo and Shin-Soo Choo

An awful lot of trades, and an awful lot of lost prospects. He went from being a team that was poised to be quite good in 2012 or 2013 to a team that is in a pure win-now mode. The aggressive trading has helped him climb from the cellar to the first division, but, as you can see from the graph above, he seems to have stagnated, and has not stagnated in first or second or even third, but in fifth.

So the question is, what does Overpaid Scrubs do? He still has a few prospects (Michael Montgomery, Jorge Vazquez, Nick Castellanos) and some cheap talent ($2 Laynce Nix, $2 Tyler Clippard, $3 Asdrubal Cabrera, among others) who he could move for overpriced rentals. On the other hand, he is way over the cap and has an awful lot of talent he could trade away to rebuild his farm system before the off-season (Lincecum, Miggy, Verlander, Latos, CarGo, Cano, Hamels, Ubaldo, Price, Choo and Ethier are all over $25, and considering his $722 in salary, he will be forced to cut most of these guys in the off-season anyway).

So what do you do? Is another arm or bat going to push him forward? Or should he cut his losses now? I am a bit biased in this - I would love to add one of his pitchers, maybe one of his OF, so seeing him sell seems ideal to me - but is that really the right move for him?