Dave Duncan's teachings have spawned more than a handful of unexpectedly good seasons from his pitching pupils. Now we'll see whether one of his most impressive students can carry those lessons to the other league.
Joel Pineiro, rescued off the scrap heap in July 2007 and restored to 15-win, 3.49-ERA form this past season, signed a two-year, $16 million contact with the Los Angeles Angels on Friday. He joins a lengthy list of former Duncan reclamation projects who later bolted for bigger contracts elsewhere: Kent Bottenfield, Braden Looper, Jeff Suppan, Jeff Weaver (2006 postseason!), Woody Williams ...
Here's the problem: Each one of those five pitchers, in his first season with his new team, saw both his ERA and WHIP increase, some by a substantial amount. Pineiro might soon join them, and if John Smoltz signs elsewhere, he, too, might fall prey to the proverbial "curse of leaving Dave Duncan." But assuming Pineiro can retain some of the knowledge he gained in his two-plus years in St. Louis, his decline in performance might not be nearly as precipitous.
The advantage Pineiro has over those five is he's much more of a ground-baller -- he led all qualified major leaguers with a 60.5 percent ground-ball rate -- and his command is sharper -- his 1.14 walks-per-nine ratio again led the majors -- than any of that group. One of the primary reasons for that performance was perfecting his two-seam fastball (or sinker, to those more familiar with that term), something he might yet be able to fully carry over to L.A. Today's Pineiro is a strike-throwing, ground ball-inducing machine, and so long as he remembers to stick to that plan, he'll continue to go far -- at least as far as his defense will carry him.
What of that defense? That might actually be more critical to determining Pineiro's success in 2010 than the switch to the American League, where the composite ERA was more than a quarter-run higher than in the National League in 2009. The Angels actually had better defensive metrics in terms of fielding percentage, UZR (ultimate zone rating, per FanGraphs) and UZR/150 at all four infield positions this past season, though the Angels' loss of Chone Figgins at third base might drop their numbers there somewhat. This remains a skilled infield, however, so of all the destinations Pineiro might have chosen, he appears to have chosen wisely.
Expect Pineiro's numbers to regress somewhat, as is often the case with a pitcher who relies so much on putting the ball in play and trusting his defense. In the AL West he might struggle to keep his ERA under four, but AL-only owners seeking matchups candidates might find a lot of value in the right-hander.
Pittsburgh Pirates sign Octavio Dotel: The Pirates finally appear to have their closer, signing Dotel to a one-year, $3.25 million contact that includes incentives as well as a $4.5 million club option for 2011. You might remember him as the pitcher who couldn't cut it as a closer in brief stints for the Houston Astros, Oakland Athletics and Kansas City Royals several years back; in fact he was the closer whom Joakim Soria eventually supplanted in Kansas City in 2007. Still, the primary reason Dotel "couldn't cut it" was that he's a fly-ball pitcher (49.6 percent rate since 2002) with shaky command (4.05 walks-per-nine innings ratio for his career), making him apt to put up a stinker every now and then, not that he lacked the stuff (10.98 career K-per-9 ratio) that the closer role demands.
In Pittsburgh he won't be pressed by a youngster as talented as someone like Soria, Brad Lidge (Houston in 2004) or Huston Street (Oakland in 2005), so the Pirates might yet give him every save opportunity and get him past the 30 mark. It'll come with a WHIP north of 1.25 and ERA likely in the threes, and Dotel owners in NL-only formats might want to handcuff him with whichever spring darling between Joel Hanrahan or Evan Meek steps up as the primary set-up man, but that's not a bad thing to nab in the late-to-final rounds even in mixed formats. Hey, cheap saves.
Miguel Tejada rejoins Baltimore Orioles: Though only two seasons have passed since the Orioles and Tejada first parted ways, it sure seems like longer, doesn't it? A lot has changed during that span; Tejada's power has mostly deserted him, he's no longer an every-single-game player and he's now ticketed to shift from shortstop to third base after signing a one-year, $6 million contract with the Orioles, according to ESPNDeportes.com's Enrique Rojas. It's the right move for Tejada, whose range had diminished in recent seasons, and fantasy owners at least can be happy that he'll add third-base eligibility to shortstop within the season's opening weeks. They might not, however, admire his production, as his walk rate has dropped in two years straight (to a career-low one per 33.42 plate appearances in 2009), his home run/fly ball percentage fell to 7.7 and he has averaged one home run per 46.93 at-bats the past two seasons combined.
Tejada might yet have another .300-hitting, double digit-homer campaign left in his bat, but one of his best assets was that he offered a healthy batting average over a good number of at-bats hitting in the top third of the order. He might be more of a middle- or bottom-of-the-order type in Baltimore, costing him some at-bats and thereby keeping him outside the top 10 at his position at either spot, even in AL-only formats.
San Francisco Giants re-sign Bengie Molina: Buster Posey's keeper-league (or prospective redraft) owners let out a collective groan following news of Molina's inking a one-year, $4.25 million contract; it means Posey very likely will begin the 2010 season in the minor leagues. Nevertheless, this might be quite like the situation in Baltimore a year ago, when Gregg Zaun was inked to a one-year deal to allow top prospect Matt Wieters to take his time developing in Triple-A ball, not to mention attempt to avoid having him become eligible for arbitration sooner. Posey should be ready to take over the starting catching chores in San Francisco before the season ends, so the concern for fantasy owners is that Molina might be the opening day catcher, but a backup for another team by season's end.
Molina's fantasy value is also closely tied to his lineup spot; his 175 RBIs the past two seasons combined were largely a product of his batting cleanup on 249 occasions during that span. The Giants might choose to bat him lower in the order this time around, or worse, reduce his playing time once Posey is ready (perhaps as early as Wieters was last May 29). Molina has the skills to be a top-10 catcher in NL-only leagues, and might be on the fringe of that status in mixed formats, but be prepared for the possibility he might not retain that status for all 162 games.
San Diego Padres, Oakland Athletics swap Kevin Kouzmanoff, Scott Hairston (among others): Prospects Aaron Cunningham (to San Diego) and Eric Sogard (to Oakland) were also involved in this swap, but it's Kouzmanoff and Hairston who mainly matter to fantasy owners. Kouzmanoff's addition is a clear sign that brittle Eric Chavez is no longer capable of being an everyday player in Oakland, and there's already talk that Chavez might try to adapt to a utility role this season. Getting out of Petco Park should be good for Kouzmanoff; he had .239/.290/.394 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) career numbers there, compared with .280/.324/.470 everyplace else. He's also a good fastball hitter, batting .290 against them in 2008-09 according to Inside Edge, and the Athletics' three AL West rivals did rank in the upper half in the majors in terms of percentage of fastballs thrown in 2009. AL-only owners might see value in Kouzmanoff as a starting third baseman or corner infielder, though he's perhaps just beneath the cutoff for those roles in mixed formats.
Hairston, meanwhile, should take over the starting left-field duties, with Chase Headley shifting to Kouzmanoff's vacated third-base spot, in San Diego. The shift to Petco apparently shouldn't bother Hairston; he's a .285/.346/.535 career hitter in 110 games there. That might be a product of his power coming largely from his pulling the ball and, sure enough, Petco plays better for power to left and left-center than it does to the right-center power alley. Hairston seemed comfortable in a starting role the latter half of 2008 and first half of 2009 in San Diego, so don't forget about him late in NL-only formats. Keep in mind, though, that his best asset is as a daily-leagues matchup play versus lefties (.287/.338/.528 career numbers).
San Diego Padres sign Jerry Hairston Jr.: The Hairston brothers are finally teammates this season, but if there's a Hairston you want, it's Scott, not Jerry. Expect Jerry to occupy a utility role with the Padres, and considering he's more speedster than power bat, the best NL-only owners can expect from him is perhaps double-digit steals from either your third base, shortstop or outfield positions. He's also another player who can be regarded as a daily-league spot-start candidate, having registered .283/.360/.472 numbers versus left-handers the past two seasons.
Los Angeles Dodgers re-sign Vicente Padilla: Looking to bolster their thin rotation while tightening their purse strings, the Dodgers brought back Padilla on a one-year, $5.025 million contract, and passed on alternatives like Pineiro or Ben Sheets. Here's the danger for fantasy owners: Though Padilla is a good fit for the Dodgers, one cannot simply extrapolate his 4-0 record and 3.20 ERA in his seven-start late-season stint with the team over a full season. He has had a hard time staying healthy for a full 162-game schedule in recent years, making four trips to the disabled list the past four seasons and averaging 9.7 starts after the All-Star break during that span. Padilla also has a 4.34 ERA and 1.38 WHIP in his eight seasons as a starter, and even escaping hitter-friendly Rangers Ballpark and the more offensive-oriented AL he can't be expected to lower those ratios substantially. That he has a 3.52 ERA and 1.29 WHIP in his career versus the Dodgers' four division foes does demonstrate his level of matchups potential, but don't expect Padilla to be a trustworthy mixed-league option on a consistent basis.
New York Mets acquire Gary Matthews Jr.: Yes, ladies and gentlemen, here might be your opening day center fielder for the New York Mets. Matthews, traded along with the cash to pay all but $2 million of his remaining contract, is expected to battle Angel Pagan for the honor of being Carlos Beltran's April injury stand-in, but don't let that convince you he's a viable fantasy choice even if he's the victor. Matthews has had an OPS greater than .800 precisely twice -- in 2004 and 2006 with the Texas Rangers -- and in his three years with the Angels he managed .248/.325/.383 numbers. His defense has also regressed considerably -- you might remember him as the center fielder who made that acrobatic catch to rob Mike Lamb of a home run on July 1, 2006 -- so he might not be of any benefit to the Mets in that regard, either. This is a fifth-outfielder type, no surprise being that he's now 35 years old, and one who might serve more to hurt than help NL-only teams.
Milwaukee Brewers sign Doug Davis: There must be some sort of left-hander's discount on flights from Milwaukee to Phoenix, judging by the way the Brewers and Arizona Diamondbacks seem to frequently exchange southpaws (see also: Chris Capuano, Jorge de la Rosa). Davis will serve as yet another innings-eater for the Brewers, just like the incumbent Jeff Suppan, and at best fantasy owners should consider him when he's set to face one of the game's weaker lineups. Davis' ERA might annually rest in the low fours, but his WHIP can be a team-killer, routinely over 1.50. He's also coming off a season in which he posted his highest walks-per-nine ratio (4.56) since 2000 and most homers-per-nine (1.11) since 2003, so Davis might wind up only marginally more useful than Suppan himself.
Kansas City Royals sign Rick Ankiel: More hype than results throughout his career, Ankiel gets a fresh start with a new team after 12 years in the St. Louis Cardinals' organization. He's certainly powerful, averaging one homer per 20.4 at-bats the past three seasons with the Cardinals' big club, but has also regressed in terms of plate discipline during that time. As Katie Sharp of ESPN Stats & Information points out, Ankiel ranked fifth in terms of highest chase percentage in the NL in 2009 (34.4), and fourth in terms of highest missed swing percentage in the NL (29.3). He also averaged one strikeout per 3.76 at-bats, and walked once per 15.54 plate appearances, numbers that make him more likely to bat beneath .250 than above it. The Royals apparently want Ankiel for his defense, however, meaning he might vie for time in center field with Scott Podsednik. Expect at least the 372 at-bats Ankiel logged in 2009, but not much greater production.
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here.