July 19, 2010
Hot Spots: First Base, Third Base, and Designated Hitter
The Value Picks list looks solid as the second half begins, needing just one change to help your counting numbers at third base. Although fantasy owners have found few serviceable hot-corner options, Minnesota has a glut: the light-hitting Nick Punto, the defensively challenged Michael Cuddyer, and the prospect Danny Valencia. Among this trio, Ron Gardenhire has leaned heavily on Punto and Cuddyer, giving Valencia about two starts a week. Even after Justin Morneau’s concussion shifted Cuddyer to first, Gardy has relied mostly on Punto, who’s hit .148/.179/.148 this month.
This choice is even more puzzling because Valencia needs more development than two games a week provides. Given a chance, the rookie could even step up in the heat of a pennant race to give the Twins their first solid third baseman since Corey Koskie. This situation bears watching, as Gardy could lose patience with the punchless Punto, or Morneau’s concussion could linger. But for now, his playing time doesn’t merit a VP slot, so we “see ya later to Valencia until his circumstances change.
Replacing him on the list is Dayan Viciedo, also a promising rookie, albeit one who’s being given the chance denied Valencia. With Mark Teahen out, Ozzie Guillen has split time between Viciedo and Omar Vizquel. Veteran Vizzy might be a wizard with the mitt, but he’s hitting just .260/.323/.336 on the year, and Guillen recognizes the need for offense.
That’s why Guillen could lean towards Viciedo, the $10M Cuban whose 2010 BP writeup notes his power and batspeed, plus his fondness for fattening American foods. These factors combined to produce Viciedo’s lackluster 2009 Double-A debut when he hit .279/.317/.390, with an impatient 4 BB% but an impressive 82% contact rate.
That trend continued in Triple-A this season, as he hit .288/.329/.533, with a 3.5 BB% while making contact 79% of the time. After a shaky start, he’s collected 8 hits in 27 July ABs for a .296/.296/.593 line. As you can see from his BA and OBP, he has yet to take a free pass in the majors, but he’s struck out just four times in 44 ABs, none of them coming in his recent six-game hit streak.
Small-sample-space warnings obviously apply, but Viciedo seems to be handling major-league pitching, despite his impatience. PECOTA’s line on him is awfully low, giving him little value unless he crests his .267/.320/.454 90th percentile. But Cuban defectors are hard to predict because they have so few major-league comps, and Viciedo has only that weak 2009 line. So that lowball outlook is hardly surprising, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see him beat those projections. Opposing pitchers will catch up to his free-swinging ways eventually, but his good contact rate is a great antidote to his aggressive approach.
A healthy Mark Teahen wasn’t all that amazing, as shown in his .255/.340/.387 line, so Viciedo could stick even when Teahen returns in a few weeks. Owners shouldn’t expect too much from Viciedo, and he’ll hurt you in OBP leagues, but the power potential makes him a good gamble for AL-only owners and deeper mixed leagues, if you can weather the inevitable rough spots.
To find young players succeeding after making adjustments, Viciedo need look no further than fellow VPs Pedro Alvarez and Matt Joyce. Both have weak overall lines, but each one has been steadily improving. Since shifting to the five-hole, Alvarez is hitting .308/.357/.615 in 42 PAs. His strikeouts are still elevated—12 whiffs over that span—but he’s also collected three walks, a good sign he’s kept what little patience he has. For an example of great patience, check out the 200-point BA/OBP differential on Joyce. He’s an OF/DH part-timer, with a .200/.407/.300 line over his last six starts. As long as he doesn't morph into the next Jeremy Giambi, his whopping 26% walk rate and solid 20% strikeout rate mean he'll keep getting better.
Walks have highlighted Daric Barton’s season, too. He continues to lead the AL in that department and seems to have shaken off a pre-Break slump with a three-hit game on Saturday. Those walks mean his approach remains consistent, so he’ll stick as a VP unless he takes a real turn for the worse.
Russell Branyan hasn’t played since the Break after dropping a table on his toe, but he’s expected to return soon. When he does, he’ll join Justin Smoak, who’s heating up, and with whom he’s played just one game; the two should be a productive combination.
Branyan’s former teammate Matt LaPorta has seen his ownership rise to 19% in belated recognition of his pre-Break hot streak, when he picked up a hit in nine of his last ten games, for a .412/.474/.824 line. Even though he’s just 2-11 since then, LaPorta should rebound and crest the VP ownership threshold. Get him while you still can.