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December 13, 2010

Fantasy Beat

Hot Spots: First Base, Third Base, and Designated Hitter

by Rob McQuown

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Derek Jeter wasn't the only classy team captain veteran to re-sign this past week, as Jerry Reinsdorf (and fan) favorite Paul Konerko re-upped with the White Sox for three more seasons. His somewhat reasonable contract suggests that MLB teams are being more cautious about twilight-years contracts given out based on a single MVP-ish season. The hometown “spin” on Konerko is that he's a guy who gives 100% all the time, and that any weaknesses in his stat lines across the season is based solely on his willingness to play while hurt. So the (fan) expectation is that when he's 100%, he's as good as his best stats suggest. A more cynical view of things would note that his career-best season in 2006 (.313/.381/.551) was in a contract season, as was his again-career-best 2010 season (.312/.393/.584).

In a 2010 preview, Joe Sheehan snarked that he didn't have any use for Konerko in anything smaller than a 6-team AL-Central-only league. Obviously, that was selling “Paulie” short, especially for fantasy purposes, where the boost he gets from his friendly home park isn't held against him (as it is when discussing actual – real life - baseball contributions). But it's difficult to imagine a scenario where Konkerko will be reasonably priced in an auction, coming off a .312-39-111 season as he is. He's not a particularly great baseball player, and while slightly better from a fantasy perspective – where his defense doesn't hurt a team and his park helps him – he's still not a top-tier option by any stretch of the imagination.

Normally, when a ballplayer is entering his age-33 season, everyone from the most casual fan to the most advanced researcher will expect similar stats from him, but not so with Carlos Pena. With Pena, however, there are too many variables. The most straightforward projection would look at his career stats - .241/.351/.490 – and assume a slight age deterioration and a slight benefit from moving to Wrigley Field that probably would balance each other out. The next step would be to look at park home run factors for lefty batters, and see that Tampa Bay's home field suppressed lefty homers by 11%, while Chicago's aided them by 19% (both 2010 figures). That's more of a boost than the generic “park factors” would suggest, and would result in another 2-3 homers on top of the standard adjustement. Finally, many would expect a boost from changing leagues, as Pena will no longer have to face tough lefties such as Jon Lester, CC Sabathia, Andy Pettitte and the like in the AL East.

The truth of the matter is that another factor will come into play – Pena's career platoon splits. His rate stats will be somewhat dependent upon how Cubs manager Mike Quade uses him. In 2010, he started almost every game he was able, with his fielding skills somewhat compensating for his .179/.316/.359 batting line against Southpaws (.218/.314/.436 in his career). The Cubs may have more platoon options than the Rays did, so he could get a rest against some of the tougher lefties – who should be more scarce in his new division anyway. This compounds the risk for fantasy owners, since Pena's biggest negative will be his batting average, and playing against lefties will not only decrease that average, but also increase the impact (as he'll get more at-bats).

Taken in whole, there's good reason to expect better stats from Pena in 2011 than his 3-year averages of .224/.353/.479 or than his career batting line. But assuming that he'll lead the league in homers (as he did in 2009 with 39 HR) or post a .627 slugging percentage (as he did in 2008) is unrealistic. But it's also unrealistic to assume that 2010's .222 BABIP is going to happen again. Depending on the outlook of other league members, he could be over- or under-priced at auction. In general, he should be viewed as a high-risk, but high-upside player.

At “press” time last week, Mark Reynolds was still contemplating another season in the desert and the stifling pitching of NL West opponents (Arizona batters – including Reynolds – comprised the 3 lowest “average OPS pitchers faced” in baseball in 2010. Though that doesn't really prove that they faced the best pitching due to the NL bias of that statistic and its inexact nature, it is suggestive). Leaving Arizona and the notionally easier NL for the tough AL East won't do any favors for the power-hitting Reynolds, and his 24 steals of 2009 are a total he may struggle to match in all his remaining career. But while the AL East has some great pitchers, Reynolds has always handled left-handed pitching well (.252/.380/.528 for his career), and should be very helpful to the Orioles (who have lefties Markakis, Scott, and Pie, and Adam Jones has never hit lefty pitching well). Whether he'll stay at third base or move to first base is an open question, and probably depends on how Josh Bell looks in camp. Obviously, for 2011 fantasy teams, it matters little, other than it's nice to have the option of playing a third baseman at first base in an emergency, if he qualifies there. As ex-Oriole Brady Anderson noted recently, Reynolds is rangy on defense, but makes a lot of errors (this is supported by 2010 fielding metrics).

Not to be taken seriously by any means, but the Baseball Reference list of similar players (based on Jamesian methodologies) lists Mike Schmidt as the most comparable player to Reynolds through age 26 (also most-comparable at ages 24 and 25). While that does indicate how much power Reynolds has shown, for realistic fantasy expectations, a lot will depend on how much tinkering the Orioles try to do with Reynolds' swing. If they're okay with his record-setting strikeouts, and just let him “do his thing”, it seems unlikely that much will change from his career stat line of .242/.334/.483, averaging 35 home runs per 162 games. That would make him a nice contributor at a position which thins out quickly after the big names at the top.

The Diamondbacks got rid of 75% of their “problem” at third base, exchanging Reynolds' 211 strikeouts for Mora's 53. Mora has aged amazingly well for a guy who hit a combined .241/.334/.386 between his age-29 and age-30 seasons (back in 2001-2002), but expectations of adequacy for a 39-year-old non-star player have to be very limited. The Rockies spotted him well in 2010, with almost half his plate appearances coming against lefty pitching. If the Diamondbacks are seriously expecting to use him full-time at third base, things could get ugly.

Jack Cust is who he is. The park change won't impact him much, as Oakland wasn't any picnic and Safeco suppresses lefty homers by only 9% (Oakland 8%, for comparison). Depending on Milton Bradley's mood, Cust may not play against lefties, but has a career OBP of .350 against them, so he won't kill the M's if he gets the nod on one of Bradley's “bad days”. The .272 batting average Cust posted in 2010 may turn out to be a career high, but his homers will help teams in deeper leagues, and he's a 2-category player in leagues which use OBP. The Mariners' offense will be better in 2011 (talk about a backhanded compliment), but Cust still won't be much of an asset in terms of runs or RBI.

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

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