Biggest potential NL fantasy busts
Newly-signed or traded players often struggle in first season with new team
Return from injury, inning limit will restrict Stephen Strasburg's production
Extra work from last season could jeopardize Ian Kennedy's prospects in 2012
If there was one piece of information readers at SI.com reacted unfavorably to last season it was calling sophomore Buster Posey a bust candidate. Well, Posey, did, albeit because of a freak injury.
This isn't a "told you so" as much as an anecdote for how you have to approach a preseason list of bust candidates. You have to look right (pun unintentional) when everyone is looking left. It is how you can separate your team from the pack.
There is no surefire way to anticipate how a highly-regarded player is going to go bust; anyone that tells you otherwise is best equipped to sell used cars. But there are some criteria that can come in handy. Here are a few Emackxioms (Emack-axioms) on how to read through some of the B.S. that can overhype a fantasy pick:
1. Age: Prime for a baseball player is roughly 26-32, so anyone past that is in danger of dropping precipitously. Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Chase Utley, Ichiro Suzuki, Johan Santana, Carlos Lee, Chipper Jones and Alfonso Soriano are far from their former selves. Those seem obvious given how they have all shown significant declines, but here is a warning for Ryan Howard and even Sir Albert Pujols, who are now both 32. This future sets up poorly for them.
2. Postseason hangovers: Players coming off great postseasons tend to be overrated on draft day. After all, the lasting image of them this winter was of pure awesomeness. Fantasy owners tend to get excited when those names come up the following year, but that hype unnecessarily inflates player values -- particularly when it relates to pitchers who added that extra month of pitching on their tired arms. Be wary of players who had big postseasons, like the Rangers' Nelson Cruz.
3. Newly signed free agents or offseason acquisitions: Big moves are exciting. They increase the hype for a player's new team and for the prospects of the player himself. It is too often forgotten, though, that one team just decided that player wasn't good enough for them, or worth the freight. We should take heed, too. Carl Crawford went bust a year ago. We should be wary of Pujols, Prince Fielder and Jose Reyes -- the three highest-rated offseason movers. Year 2 in a new home tends to bear more fruit after that Year 1 disappointment.
4. Catchers hit like pitchers: In every draft some fantasy owner puts too much weight on having a premium catcher, or two. Every year those fantasy owners come away disappointed. Elite catchers tend to offer the lowest level of production of any position and require even earlier selections relative to it because of position scarcity. Joe Mauer hasn't been the same since his career year. Posey was an injury-related bust last year. Everyone is jacking up Carlos Santana now before his career year, so be careful on him and perhaps even Mike Napoli. There is a reason the equipment catchers wear is called the tools of ignorance.
5. Overwork: This relates mostly to young pitchers, but position players who haven't proven capable of playing 150-plus games in successive years are at risk, too. There is the Verducci Effect, which suggests a pitcher who increases his innings total more than a reasonable 30-40 innings from the previous year is at risk for an arm injury. Also, there is the one-year wonder effect: A player who broke out in his first full season can be subject to disappoint, too. Be wary of buying anyone coming off a career year, unless they're on the right side of the 26-32 prime years.
This is just a handful of the criteria used to pick the busts and dishonorable mentions in the American and National leagues as we conclude SI.com's comprehensive fantasy baseball preview. We already broke down the cautionary tales in the AL, so here are some potential 2012 busts in the NL, highlighted team-by-team around the league:
He has been a solid fantasy player who has been under-drafted for years, but he is now 31. Age and injury risk should worry you for someone who is going to be drafted as high as he ever has, but the reality is he is on the back end of his prime. After a great first half a year ago, Victorino hit almost .050 points less after the All-Star break (.303-.254). A second-half decline can signal a tired player, or someone heading for a down year.
Dishonorable mention: Ryan Howard (Achilles) was initially going to be out half of the season, then it appeared he might come back in May. Now, it looks like June again. Regardless, he is not healthy and, at age 32, is a further injury risk even when he does get healthy. It is amazing teams still give huge long-term contracts to players in their 30s.
He is coming off a career year before a huge free-agent contract. We have seen this movie before. Reyes is great player, when healthy, but he really isn't a batting champ and might not even hit .300 again. He will be the most over-drafted Marlin, even if he is still going to be a very productive fantasy player.
Dishonorable mention: Emilio Bonifacio enjoyed a breakthrough at age 26 last season. Now he has fantasy eligibility at shortstop, third base and outfield and everyone is seeing a potential .300-5-50-100-50 (.370-.395) rotisserie beast. We caution that last season might have been a flash in the pan, considering his career numbers suggest he is more of a .269-1-25-75-25 (. 328-. 348) part-timer who is best served as a big-league utility man.
Hudson is coming off a great year, but he is going to turn 37 this season and is recovering from back surgery. That sort of procedure is as dangerous to pitchers as shoulder surgery. Hudson, who is targeting a May return, still has value, but he is a dangerous bet at his age and coming off surgery.
Dishonorable mention: Craig Kimbrel is coming off the greatest rookie season for a closer ever. Closers are notoriously fickle from year to year, and unless you're Mariano Rivera, you don't tend to have great years successively. Kimbrel is arguably the best closer in fantasy right now, but it is dangerous trusting a sophomore off such a dominant rookie year at the position. With all this said, Kimbrel is this writer's No. 1 closer, but he is a riskier option than almost any other relative to their draft position.
This, by no means, is to say Strasburg is going to go bust, but he has a lot of bust-like traits: 1. He is highly hyped; 2. He is coming off injury; 3. He could be held to an innings limit; 4. And he will get picked before hundreds of players who are long proven over full seasons. He is about as high risk and high reward as it gets.
Dishonorable mention: Drew Storen is coming off a first season as a closer that rivals that of Kimbrel above. He also is at much risk of disappointing us in fantasy as Kimbrel. Many are picking Storen as one of the elite closers in fantasy. Those lofty spots are usually reserved for veteran arms that have proved it over more than one season. Yes, like Kimbrel, Storen has the potential to perform at this level for years -- particularly with the rotation he has getting him leads -- but the premium ranks him before a lot of veterans who have proved steady over a number of years.
You actually have to have value to be a bust. The Mets don't have value anywhere. You could consider David Wright (abdominal tear) a potential bust, but he has been multiple years in a row now. He is more likely to fall to a reasonable draft position finally. So let's go with Gee, who went 13-6 as a starter last season. He shouldn't be drafted in most fantasy leagues, but his record might get him picked. He is more likely to be out of the Mets rotation in midseason than still on a good fantasy roster.
Dishonorable mention: Wright will be the first Met off the board (Round 3 or 4), albeit amid a declining status with his abdominal tear this spring. He is an injury-risk sleeper, but the injury woes and the stigma of playing for the Mutts make him an obvious pick to remain the bust he has been for years. He needs a trade away from that cursed team.
He is coming off a renaissance season but Berkman has been a bit of a fantasy enigma in his later years. You can never be sure which one will show up. He is probably somewhere between his 2011 and '10 versions, but he is going to be drafted off last season's numbers. Replacing Pujols could be a psychological challenge, and Berkman is an injury risk with his chronic knee issues. He held up well in the outfield last year, and first base should be less wear on him, but you never know when the body, particularly the legs, will give out after the age of 32. Berkman is well past it at age 36.
Dishonorable mention: Chris Carpenter (neck) is showing his age this spring, which might be a blessing in disguise. One, it will cool off the load on his arm in the spring after his 237 1/3 regular-season innings and full month of a postseason work. Two, it will reduce his draft position to a reasonable level. What it won't do is remove the doubt that he can go bust at age 36 coming off all that work.
Most of the Reds have yet to reach their projected ceilings. Phillips is one of the few veterans (well, one who still has strong fantasy value vs. Scott Rolen). We don't expect Phillips to slip much from his '11 numbers, but we had to pick someone who might go bust here and Phillips is entering his 30s, which are the twilight years for second basemen.
Dishonorable mention: Again, it's not easy to ID someone here, so let's go with Mat Latos, who has immense potential and a tremendous amount of expectations with this contender but might struggle in his new home. Petco Park was one of the best pitcher parks in baseball; Cincy's Great American Ballpark is one of the worst. Not surprisingly, Latos has an ERA almost a half run higher away from Petco, even if we have yet to see the true best of him. (This is the weakest argument of all of our potential busts.)
We tried this last year, suggesting Axford was a potential bust. It didn't work out. Instead, Axford was a breakout elite closer. His meteoric rise to the elite from being a relative unknown should be a caution sign, though. Francisco Rodriguez is still around to stalk the job if Axford falters, too. Just don't draft the Brewers closer tops at the position, because you stand to be disappointed.
Dishonorable mention: This is said with a lot of hesitation, but now that Ryan Braun has dodged his 50-game suspension, he is going to be picked in the first few picks in all leagues. The issue with that is not whether he can duplicate his numbers -- he can even better them. The question you have to ask yourself if there is fire where there was smoke. What caused Braun's positive test? Whatever caused that test, can it come back and lead to another failed test? Or is it gone and might it lead to a decline? This writer might not believe it will, but these are questions that need to be asked when accepting the risk on an early first-rounder.
You have to be valuable to be a bust candidate, because otherwise no one would care that a player didn't come through. Andrew McCutchen still hasn't reached his ceiling, but the next most valuable commodity on this team is the closer. Hanrahan is not a long-term option for a team that is perpetually rebuilding, so he could be dealt to set-up for a contender, which would ruin the fantasy value he has going in. There are some good young arms that have closer-of-the-future labels, too.
Dishonorable mention: McCutchen just earned a $51.5 million extension, so there could be some drop-ff without the financial incentives. Yes, he still has .300-30-100-100-30 talent and will be drafted nearly where these numbers are expected. There is the potential he goes .270-20-80-80-25 and disappoints you a bit.
The Cubs don't have many highly-sought fantasy options, so if any of their mediocre picks don't pan out, it really is hard to consider them a bust. Dempster is one who tends to get a bit more credit than he probably deserves in fantasy circles. He went bust a year ago, but if anyone is picking him in a standard mixed league, they are probably wasting a pick on a pitcher they are going to rotate back to the waiver wire periodically.
Dishonorable mention: Like so many teams with underperforming players, the Cubs are more likely to render surprises than busts. We will take the easy way out here and suggest they don't have a second candidate to disappoint -- unless you have high expectations for organization favorite Bryan LaHair. He is having a bad spring and could lose his job to top prospect Anthony Rizzo sooner than later.
Lee's numbers have been in decline for a few years and now he is stuck in a bad situation in Houston, where there just isn't much around him. Lee has the look of a fantasy pick that can go bust to the point of no longer being a viable member of a fantasy roster, particularly at the famously deep positions he is eligible at. At 35 with declining numbers and supporting cast, Lee is a player best avoided now.
Dishonorable mention: Wandy Rodriguez has already had the tools to be a productive starter for fantasy owners, but he has never quite been a big winner. His supporting cast is suspect now and he is 33, which is past his prime. Consider him more of a late-round pick and the middle-rounder.
No one could have seen Kennedy's dominance coming last season, particularly his remarkable 12-1 record with a 2.11 ERA after the All-Star break. He was roughly in the third-year starting pitcher category, though, and was built up to toss over 200 innings. Now the draft value lists him as an ace. The reality is he is probably more of a very good starter than an elite fantasy one. He also is coming off a career-high innings, so he might be a Verducci Effect breakdown candidate, having such a dramatic increase in innings and added work in October.
Dishonorable mention: J.J. Putz enjoyed a renaissance as closer, staying healthy for a full season. Putz has a history of elbow woes, though, so they could crop back up and make him a severe injury risk. Don't draft him among the elite closers, even if last season might slot him there.
A decade ago, Vogelsong was a highly-sought pitching prospect. It took him years to finally break out at age 33. His numbers in the second half, though, are much more indicative of what he is: a back-end starter. If you draft him as anything more than such, you are easily setting yourself up for disappointment.
Dishonorable mention: Melky Cabrera looked like a worldbeater last season in a low-pressure situation in Kansas City. Now he finds himself in a much tougher situation in San Francisco with elevated expectations. Yes, he is 27-years old -- he turned that last August -- this looks like you might be drafting him a year late.
Clayton Kershaw and Matt Kemp are coming off career years and are candidates to disappoint based on their career-high draft positions. Still, they are just too good to predict that. Lilly is one Dodger that had a better-than-expected year and might be a bit over-drafted. Lilly's WHIP portends a 15-plus game winner. Instead, he is a .500 pitcher and you should wait until the late rounds or your last dollar.
Dishonorable mention: Javy Guerra was on our overlooked sophomores list, but he is also going to get competition from the knockout sophomore arm of Kenley Jansen as the Dodgers' closer. Guerra has the role now, but if it gets taken from him, he'll be a mere middle reliever with token save chances.
This is an obvious pick, almost a cop-out, but Helton has hovered around the fantasy periphery at first base for years. He will be turning 39 this season and might completely fall off the map. Helton is best off avoided altogether at first base this draft season. He will wind up being available off waivers in mixed leagues anyway. Go with a younger slugger with upside, like the Giants' Brandon Belt over him.
Dishonorable mention: Rafael Betancourt has a huge opportunity before him to be the Rockies' closer, but if he sputters and gives the job to prospect Rex Brothers sooner than anticipated, Betancourt will have been a wasted pick this spring.
He is a dangerous pitcher for fantasy owners this spring, because so many will remember his great first half (2.97 ERA) and forget his second-half return to reality (5.05 ERA). Stauffer is a back-end starter who is aided greatly by his home pitcher's park. He was a 6-5, 2.57 ERA pitcher at home compared to 3-7, 4.95 on the road. His home-road and pre-post-break splits are worrisome. Consider him nothing more than a late-round flier, not a potential ace.
Dishonorable mention: Cory Luebke showed some staff ace-like stuff last season, particularly when it relates to strikeouts (which fantasy owners love to see). The problem is he is getting picked among steady fantasy veterans for this reason. He should be considered a late-round sleeper, but he just won't fall that far, if he slips past the middle rounds at all.
Eric Mack writes fantasy for SI.com. You can also find him on Twitter, where you can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice @EricMackFantasy. He reads all the messages there (guaranteed) and takes them very, very personally (not really).