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Forecasting the Tribe’s 2014 Fantasy-Baseball Outlook

Forecasting the Tribe’s 2014 Fantasy-Baseball Outlook

| On 19, Mar 2014

As Indians fans dream of another playoff run for the Tribe, they’re also contemplating which players to target in their fantasy baseball drafts.

Unlike last year, pitchers like Danny Salazar, Corey Kluber, and Scott Kazmir won’t last until the final rounds of the draft.  Kazmir capitalized on his surprise comeback season to sign a big contract with Oakland.  And Salazar and Kluber stand ready to bring their mid-90s fastballs back to the mound, where fantasy owners hope they keep pounding the catchers’ mitts for fantasy points.

In what follows, I look at the average drafting position, according to Yahoo Sports, spring-training performance, and season projections to give a prediction on which Indians players are underrated, overrated, or about right going into the upcoming 2014 drafts.

I based my recommendations on expected player performance in major categories including batting average, runs, RBIs, HRs, and stolen bases for everyday players and ERA, SO, WHIP, wins, losses, and saves for pitchers. Again, I’ve based this list on how Yahoo Sports drafters have valued the Indians players compared to how I expect them to perform.

Wins on the field don’t always translate to fantasy-baseball wins, though pitcher wins usually count as a major category and can translate to fantasy points. Regarding pitching, let’s start by forecasting the 2014 season for Tribe hurlers.

Starting Pitching

1. Justin Masterson (average draft position: 175): Despite last year’s breakout season with a 3.45 ERA, 14 wins, and 195 strikeouts, Masterson’s being drafted about 40 spots below Salazar.  Yes, the Tribe’s likely fifth starter, continues receiving more fantasy love than the ace.  I can’t imagine 174 players I’d rather have hurling strikeouts and notching wins on a good team for my fantasy team and think Masterson is being underrated by owners.  I drafted him last year and would draft him again.

2. Danny Salazar (average draft position: 133):  Salazar’s sizzling fastball has translated to a flashier fantasy profile than the steady sinker of Masterson, and I think that’s a mistake. Salazar continues to develops his secondary pitches, which Masterson has, well, mastered.  Granted, Salazar’s 3.12 ERA paired with 65 strikeouts in 52 innings last year appear impressive.  But the Indians expect Salazar to not make a start until a few weeks into the season, and Francona likely won’t hesitate to take the young pitcher out early; thus, Salazar won’t have many chances to pitch complete games and shutouts, categories in some leagues.  I’m calling Salazar overrated, as I don’t think he’ll return the value needed where owners seem to be drafting him.

3. Corey Kluber (average draft position: 225): Kluber’s mid 90s fastball sneaks up on hitters just like Kluber snuck onto the starting-pitching radar last year for the Tribe.  He turned in an impressive 3.85 ERA with 136 strikeouts in 147.1 innings.  Francona already has named Kluber his #2 starter, showing a confidence that should translate to him equaling or topping the pitcher’s 11 wins from last year.  Kluber is being underrated and would be a good late-round target in any draft, no matter how many rounds it lasts. 

4. Zach McAllister (pre-draft ranking: 446): Though McAllister turned in a respectable pitching performance last year, his inconsistency makes me recommend not drafting him, even in deep leagues.  His 3.75 ERA with 101 strikeouts in 134.1 innings last year makes him a candidate to join teams when injuries start.  Owners who like him, though, certainly will have McAllister available to draft, probably with their last pick. 

5. I also wouldn’t draft whoever wins the Indians last rotation spot, though Carlos Carrasco should be monitored through his first few starts if he wins the spot. His stuff offers the possibility of high strikeout totals but also lots of walks and earned runs.

Bullpen

1. John Axford (average draft position: 194):  I’m putting Axford solidly in the underrated category for the simple fact he’s moving into a closer role for a pretty good team.  That should be worth 30-40 saves, a sharp increase from the 0 total he turned in last year with the Cardinals and Brewers. His 65 strikeouts in 65 innings prove Axford still has the stuff, and his film knowledge and fancy facial hair would be a welcome addition to any fantasy team.

2. Cody Allen (average draft position: 245):  I’d also target Allen a few rounds before he’s expected to be taken, as he should be Francona’s top choice to become the closer if Axford faces injury or failure in the role.  He would pad any fantasy team’s strikeout total nicely as he earned 88 k’s in 70.1 innings last year to go with his consistent 2.43 ERA.

3. Axford and Allen both should be considered underrated and targeted. Bryan Shaw, with an overall pre-draft ranking of 362, also should be monitored but not drafted.  He turned in a respectable 3.24 ERA with 73 strikeouts in 75 innings for the Indians last year.  He likely would be Francona’s second choice to replace Axford as closer and is ranked about right for his value.   

Infielders

1. Jason Kipnis (2B, average draft position: 29): Kipnis has climbed into the superstar conversation, especially when considering he plays a position traditionally held down by light-hitting lesser athletes. That gives him extreme fantasy-baseball value, with his solid .284 average last year combining with his 17 HRs, 84 RBIs, 86 runs, and especially his 30 steals. Not many players today bring power and speed. Kipnis has shot up draft charts and is ranked about right. He’s being drafted about 20 positions behind Robinson Cano and two picks in front of Dustin Pedroia at the second-base position.

2. Carlos Santana (C-1B-3B, average draft position: 79): The Indians second-rated infielder presents the most intriguing possibility because he comes with the promise of being available for three positions and a fourth if designated hitter counts. Santana’s 2013 stats of .268 with 20 HRs, 74 RBIs, 75 runs, and 3 steals, could slide a bit if his expected experiment playing third base doesn’t go smoothly.  It’s reasonable to expect Santana putting in extra time in fielding. Santana should be considered a bit overrated at this draft position, though he would be a great value if played in the traditionally light-hitting catcher spot. 

3. Yan Gomes (C, average draft position: 232): Absolutely, barring a drastic statistical setback from last year’s breakout year (.294 average, 11 HRs, 38 RBIs, 45 runs, and 2 steals) should be considered underrated at this drafting position. Gomes should play more this year, and that means more at bats and power numbers. Gomes is being drafted 10 spots after Russell Martin of Pittsburgh and about 7 spots behind Ryan Doumit, who might not even start regularly for Atlanta. 

4. Nick Swisher (1B-OF, average draft position: 225): Though Swisher’s being drafted a bit ahead of Gomes in fantasy drafts, I’d pick Gomes first based on his relative numbers compared with others available at his position.  However, Swisher could be considered underrated here, though just not as much as Gomes.  The Indians team leader struggle with injury and adjustment but should play most days at first base this year.  I’d expect his average to improve from his 2013 total of .246 and for his power to continue at about 22 HRs and 63 RBIs. Swisher’s availability at multiple positions also adds to his value. 

5. Asdrubal Cabrera (SS, average draft position: 142): While Cabrera’s being drafted well ahead of both Gomes and Swisher, I’m ranking him fifth among Indians infielders for his continued inconsistency.  I don’t think he should be drafted 12 spots ahead of J.J. Hardy of Baltimore or 21 spots ahead of the speedy and slick-fielding Andrelton Simmons of Atlanta, for instance.  True, Cabrera should be motivated to improve his 2013 offensive output of .242 with 14 HRs, 64 RBIs, 66 runs, and 9 steals because he’ll be a free agent at the end of the season and needs to earn a new contract. But the Indians’ front office has been expecting Cabrera to return to All-Star form for a while now, and he continues to disappoint and, thus, should be considered overrated in the fantasy world. 

6. Yes, I left off Lonnie Chisenhall, 3B, for a reason. Everyone’s pick to breakout offensively last year again proved himself to be a 4-A player.  With Santana starting to look smoother at the hot corner based on reports, Chisenhall shouldn’t be counted on to contribute to any fantasy team.

Outfielders

1. Michael Bourn (CF, average draft position: 190): Comparatively, the Indians outfielders offer the weakest potential fantasy output compared to the other parts of the team. This group provides strength in fielding, which generally doesn’t translate to fantasy points. However, Bourn presents an interesting possibility here. If, as expected, he improves on his low 2013 steal total of 23 and also increases his runs from 75, he could be a good pick a bit before this spot. With his adjustment to the American League hopefully complete, Bourn stands to again lead off for a good offensive team and should receive plenty of opportunities to increase his RBI total from 50 if he hits more consistently than his .263 average last year.

2. Michael Brantley (LF-CF, average draft position: 213): More than any Tribe player, Brantley makes the case for great all-around play not always translating to the best fantasy value.  Brantley’s clutch hitting, consistent field, and leadership still make him an about-right value at this pick at best and maybe even a bit overrated. Unless he improves on his 2013 power numbers of 10 HRs and 73 RBIs and shows the potential 15 to 20 HRs the Tribe officials always say he can hit, Brantley would be a reserve fantasy player at best. His 17 steals and .284 average from last year, though, do provide point-earning possibilities in multiple categories.  He could be a good late-round pick.

3. David Murphy (RF-IB, average pre-draft ranking: 547): Murphy isn’t being drafted in many fantasy leagues based on his .220 average with 13 HRs and 45 RBIs last season. I wasn’t a fan of his signing, and it’s unclear how much playing time Murphy will receive. However, he will be worth picking up a few weeks into the season if, as Francona expects, Murphy just had an unexpected down year last year. As Tribe fans learned last year, in Francona we should trust. I don’t trust Murphy yet, though. For this reason, a reserve mentioned below could provide some unexpected fantasy value for owners closely monitoring the right-field situation.

Dark Horses 

When the unexpected happens, new players emerge in the fantasy world. Injuries or unexpected poor performances could lead to prospects or reserve players emerging. If the Indians drop out of contention and decide to trade Cabrera or he gets injured, the farm system stands stocked with prospects such as Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor primed to take a shot at the position. They could garner steals and runs.

In addition, reserves such as Ryan Raburn, Mike Aviles, or even Elliot Johnson could step into a more consistent role, with offensive possibilities, should a Tribe regular go down with injuries or give an unexpectedly poor performance. The best fantasy owners pounce on dark-horse possibilities; owners who find this year’s Scott Kazmir or Yan Gomes will receive the chance to shoot up in the standings.