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September 14, 2010

Fantasy Beat

Hot Spots: Catcher, Second Base, and Shortstop

by Michael Jong

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Last week, Hot Spots reviewed a variety of interesting options in the National League for keeper consideration. This week, colleague Michael Street kicked it off by covering his position's AL keeper options, and today Hot Spots will cover some AL options in the up-the-middle defensive positions. In the AL, the focus in particular is on a set of catchers who could get some increased playing time and be worth a look.

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JP Arencibia spent a week on the Value Picks portfolio after his monstrous 4-for-5 debut, which included two home runs and a lot of promise. However, in another 11 PA that week, Arencibia could not muster another hit, and with the return of John Buck, Arencibia was sent down to the minors. He is back, though in a diminished role for now. Next season, however, could be time for the Blue Jays to see what they have in the power-hitting backstop. Arencibia dominated the PCL playing for Las Vegas this season, batting .301/.359/.626 with 32 homers. Though the PCL is well-known for inflating hitting, Arencibia's minor league equivalent line of .229/.277/.444 is still acceptable for a catcher in the majors. Arencibia has 20+ HR power in the majors, which is quite a valuable asset coming from the catching position. His downside is in his OBP, though he upped his walk rate to 8.1% in Las Vegas this year. With his mediocre batting eye, however, expecting more than a .250 AVG or a .310 OBP would be asking too much, making him less valuable in OBP or OPS leagues.

The only thing in the way of Arencibia is the potential that the Jays will resign Buck in the offseason. Buck came to the Jays via Kansas City on a one-year deal for $2M, and he repaid them in kind with an All-Star season. The Jays could consider resigning Buck, but they could also realize that Arencibia and Buck have similar games (low walk rates, high power), with Buck being six years older. If your team is in need of cheap power at the catching position and has a slot open, Arencibia is a pretty good option.

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Hot Spots regular reader pobothecat gets credit for having brought Rhymes to my attention. The starting second baseman for the Detroit Tigers has had an excellent start to his major league career, batting .303/.349.380 after replacing a mediocre set of veteran benchwarmers who themselves were replacing the struggling Scott Sizemore. While the touted Sizemore struggled with BABIP and contact, Rhymes has had no such problem, striking out in only 8.6% (!) of his PA and has a healthy .336 BABIP in 162 ML PA. Before arriving in Detroit, Rhymes was having a pretty good year in Triple-A Toledo, batting .305/.370/.415 with 22 stolen bases and a similar K% to his major league number. He has hit for a high average at each level since 2007, but he has also been a bit old for each of his levels.

If Rhymes is to bring fantasy value next season, it will be in his AVG and stolen bases. In the minors, he has stolen 125 bases out of 157 attempts, a healthy 79.6% clip. If he can continue to do that over a full season with the Tigers, he could be an interesting speed option for roto leagues. While his puny K% is sure to regress, his minor league numbers suggest he isn't likely to strike out much anyway (career minor league K% of  10.0%). With a decent walk rate and that high AVG, we can expect plenty of opportunities for Rhymes to swipe bags. However, he has not attempted many steals this season; in 162 PA, he has only taken off once, having been caught. To be worth a keeper slot at second base, Rhymes needs to be more aggressive on the bases in 2011.

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Sean Rodriguez has frequented the Value Picks portfolio occasionally due to sparse playing time, but he seems a good bet for a healthier dose of playing time at second base next season for the Rays. Rodriguez proved to be quite the interesting player in 2010; he showed decent power (.155 ISO), an expected poor strikeout rate (24.8%) that was not accompanied by the good walk rate his minor league numbers would suggest, and enough speed on the bases to be worth a look when it was his time to start. His minor league history suggests an uptick in walks that should his OBP and steals next season, and an increase in power. Along with a continued power stroke, Rodriguez may once again be worth the undoubtedly poor AVG he should post. A .324 BABIP this season helped keep the AVG in the .250's, and it matched fairly well with his minor league career .329 BABIP. Given his speed, neither of these numbers should be surprising either.

Competition will be what keeps Rodriguez from being a better option. Reid Brignac is a former VP pick as well and a decent player to boot, though he offers none of the flash of Rodriguez' potentially exciting game and actually performed worse this season than Rodriguez. Going into next season, expect the two players to continue to split time, with Rodriguez getting the most time at second and Brignac spending more time spelling Jason Bartlett at shortstop. With more time to develop, Rodriguez should fill out into a profile more like his minor league numbers; a profile of a .240-.250 AVG, league average OBP/SLG, and 10+ steals and HR would be good, with a chance for more with increased playing time. Consider the positional flexibility (a trait shared by many Rays middle infielders) in the infield and outfield a nice bonus.

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I am excited to see Hank Conger get some playing time in the near future for the Los Angeles Angels. Ranked as the #2 prospect in the organization by BP's own Kevin Goldstein prior to the 2010 season, Conger has always been known as a hitter, and this season was no different. Conger followed up a solid .295/.369/.424 2009 campaign in Double-A, he dropped a .300/.385/.463 slash line in Triple-A this season, albeit in the friendlier confines of the PCL. While the hitting performance showed little progress, it is still encouraging to see him hitting decently after the litany of injuries he has been through. It is also good to see Conger working a second straight season primarily at catcher; he played the field in 81 of his 106 games played this season.

Conger's always been known as an offense-first catcher with below average defensive abilities behind the plate. That may ring a few bells, as current Angels backstop Mike Napoli has the same profile and has not been getting a fair shake from manager Mike Scioscia. Napoli has said that his return to the Angels for 2011 is at around 50-50, as the team may be interested in dealing him. If so, expect Conger to come up to the majors and play a similar role to Napoli, splitting time (perhaps unfairly) with defense-first catcher Jeff Mathis. If so, expect Conger's primary tool to be a decent AVG for a catcher, as he has posted a career .324 BABIP in the minors along with tiny strikeout rates (career 14.3%). His power has declined as he climbed the minor league levels, but a double-digit HR total is well within range with decent playing time. While he isn't at the caliber of top catching prospects like Buster Posey or Carlos Santana, he could be worth a flyer if your AL team is low on options.

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Tyler Flowers did not have an impressive season in Triple-A this year, hitting just .220/.334/.434 for Charlotte. However, there are good signs for the player named the #3 prospect in the White Sox organization before this season by Kevin Goldstein. Flowers still displayed his well-known plate patience (13.1% BB% this season) and power (.214 ISO), though that came along with his typical high strikeouts as well (29.4% K%). His defense behind the plate also seems to have improved to an acceptable level, meaning he'll stick at the position. In the majors, he'll never produce a good AVG, but like Arencibia he should get 15-20 HR with decent playing time to make up for it.

While Flowers' season was uninspiring, his path to the majors may have opened up a bit with the struggles of A.J. Pierzynski. The veteran catcher had a dreadful first few months of the season before recovering well as of late. Due to that recovery and his veteran-ness, there is a decent chance Pierzynski will be resigned by the White Sox, but if he leaves after the 2010 season, Flowers will be in line to take his place as a starter. For power-starved teams with a need at catcher, he is a pretty good AL-only option.

Michael Jong is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Michael's other articles. You can contact Michael by clicking here

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