March 8, 2010
Hot Spots: First Base, Third Base, and Designated Hitter
The Diamondbacks have never had a full-time 1B with a .500+ SLG, an offensive hole that widened into a chasm in 2009, when the team hit only .228/.321/.396 at that position. Arizona filled that hole by signing the atypical power-hitting Adam LaRoche, who delivers SLG with doubles, not dingers. He’s averaged 38 doubles since 2006, but has only hit more than 25 HRs once, a 32-HR performance in 2006 driven by a career-high 21.2 percent HR/FB.
A consistently slow starter, LaRoche’s career OPS rises steadily from 660 in March to 933 in August, so manager A.J. Hinch must learn patience with him as future 1B Brandon Allen hones his skills at AAA, trying to corral his hefty K% to leverage the power evident in his Bash (TB/H) rate. Allen did well in his first year in AAA in 2009, shrinking his K% from 26% to 19%—further improvement would make him an excellent late-season callup. But Allen won’t be up sooner unless LaRoche hits the DL, where he’s been just once since 2004.
A more likely short-term fix would be Conor Jackson, who has more playing time at 1B than anywhere else, but the peer comparison shows he’s a poor play at a power position. LaRoche’s southpaw struggles could mean a limited platoon with Jackson, but Arizona lacks a front-line LF replacement, so it’s not a long-term solution. Both LaRoche and Jackson make serviceable NL-only 1B options, but are just CIFs in mixed leagues.
Teams like Pedro Feliz for his leather, not the wood, but that tradeoff has become weaker lately. Last season was his first since 2002 with a sub-.400 SLG, a power outage that comes from his groundball tendency. His FB% fell from a career-best 43.3 percent in 2005 to 34.9 percent, second-worst in his career, and he converted those fly balls to home runs at a 6.7 percent rate in 2009, also his worst rate since 2002. That HR rate should return to career levels around 10 percent, but PECOTA shows this barely helping him reach .400 SLG and double-digit HRs. He’s improved his contact rate from 81 to 88 percent since 2006, nudging up his OBP, but a 29-30 percent hit rate will continue to hold down his BA.
Feliz remains well below his peers offensively, and his Astros backup Geoff Blum offers comparably weak skills. Owners who believed Blum’s 2008 power didn’t note his career-high 11.6 percent in HR/FB, double his rate over the three preceding years. Because he produces HRs at a lower rate than Feliz, this FB trend is bad for Blum in both SLG and BA, and he regressed to an OPS 13 points below Feliz in 2009.
PECOTA’s one of the few projections giving Blum the edge over Feliz in AB/HR—I’d say the reverse is more likely, though they remain very similar players. HEATER’s Brian Joseph expects Blum to spell Feliz occasionally, but not enough to drive up Blum’s value, making Feliz the only one of the Houston pair worth a flier in NL-only or deeper mixed leagues.
Tampa Bay brought in "Pat the Bat" to help at a position where the Rays produced a 751 OPS in 2008, a level Burrell had exceeded 9 of his 10 MLB seasons. Instead, Burrell disappointed, losing a month to herniated discs in his neck that dogged him the whole season and may explain his career-worst 2009. Always patient at the plate, Burrell slipped from averaging 17.4 BB% from ’06-08 to just 12 percent in 2009. His K% had dropped from 24.3 percent in 2004 to 21.1 percent in 2008, but it ricocheted back up to 25 percent in 2009. And he went from clobbering lefties at one of the league’s best rates (.286/.426/.550) to looking lost against them (.202/.336/.252).
Burrell also had a poor second half in 2008, but players don’t suddenly regress across the board like this at age 32. It’s far more likely that he was hampered by his injuries, priming him for a rebound that would surpass that PECOTA projection. In case he doesn’t, the Rays will look to Willy Aybar, a versatile switch-hitter, whose lower K% should help him beat Burrell’s BA, though he hasn’t shown any power since his small-sample 2005 debut.
Aybar could garner playing time if Maddon grants Burrell's request to play in the OF more often. If Burrell’s struggles persist, Aybar could play more, too, but only until they found a longer-term replacement. Aybar's youth gives him a touch of upside, so he could be worth a late flier in deep leagues. The real steal is Burrell, however, whose 2009 struggles may have soured other league owners, giving you the chance to snag him at a substantial discount.