January 19, 2011
Hot Spots: First Base, Third Base, Designated Hitter, and Outfield
Mitch Moreland was ranked seventh by Kevin Goldstein and eighth by Baseball America on the preseason prospect lists. KG summarized his season through September as “Mitch Moreland (seventh) continued to prove himself all the way to the big leagues, but few see him as the long-term answer at first base. He's more of a nice bench bat on a good team.” Considering that manager Ron Washington platooned him with Jorge Cantu, with Moreland getting just four starts against lefties (against whom he hit an empty .200), his regular season was leading to every indication that he wasn't being sold short. But Cantu's struggles as a Ranger led to him only getting two postseason starts – the first games against David Price and CC Sabathia. Meanwhile, Moreland got a chance to start all the other postseason games at first base, and rewarded Washington's decision with a key three-run bomb against Jonathan Sanchez in the World Series. Further, his approach against some of the game's best lefties looked outstanding, and though the sample size was clearly far too small to make any sort of conclusion, that's more encouraging than the alternative.
A 2-way player at Mississippi State, Moreland has hit .317 and slugged .519 in the minors, starting with his first season of full-season ball in 2008. In AAA in 2010, he hit .272/.344/.457 against Southpaws, striking out just 14 times in 91 plate appearances. No longer bouncing from outfield to first base, Moreland is the frontrunner to get starter's playing time this season, having clearly passed power/strikeout threat Chris Davis. Obviously, if he can perform at a level of a league-average first baseman, the park and team context will make him a good fantasy option, and though the downside is awful, with Davis being a viable option if Moreland struggles, there's a very good likelihood of him being a great low-dollar/late-round option in fantasy.
When mentioning the players smart readers requested this week, one knowledgeable fan's snark was: “Chris Johnson's easy, he's not too good.” Last February, Johnson didn't make Kevin Goldstein's list of top 10 “25 and Under” talent, and the Astros brought in Pedro Feliz to play third base before the season. Johnson can't play defense (the BP 2011 commentary is priceless and on point), and won't have a .387 BABIP again. Since he doesn't walk, he really does have to hit over .300 to be a big asset, but between minors and majors, he had 19 homers in 2010, and slugged over .450 each of the past two years in the high minors. Even against minor-league pitching, he's struck out about 20% of the time, rising to over 25% in the majors in 2010. He's very likely to see his batting average crater in 2011, making him a liability on both OBP and defense – hence little use to the Astros. But he could launch 20 homers, and on-base doesn't matter in most fantasy formats.
Strange stat of the day: Ian Stewart has hit .253/.347/.468 in the 58 games he's started in his career against lefty starting pitchers. That's better than his overall career line of .245/.332/.451. Some of that is likely selection bias, as he's regarded as the better option in Coors Field, even against lefties. The Rockies bringing in Jose Lopez and Ty Wigginton doesn't bode well for Ian's chances to start against lefty pitchers, and he's still the same flyball-happy free swinger he's always been, but he's gained experience, and a rebound to nearly 500 PA and 25 homers could still happen. With his ilk of player, a slight improvement – or slightly better luck – could lead to some spectacular home run totals, but they're far from bankable.
Jay Bruce is pretty easy to review, too. He's a great young player, with fantastic power potential. He plays in a good ballpark for power, with reasonably good teammates (notably on-base machine Joey Votto). His career trajectory is great, and the only questions are on how big the steps forward will be, and how fast they will come. He's not quite the fantasy help he is for the Reds, as his batting average won't ever be great with his propensity to whiff, he doesn't steal bases, and his defense doesn't help his fantasy value. So, while he's an elite sim-game commodity (Strat-O-Matic, DMB, Scoresheet, etc), he's merely a very good fantasy asset.
Jose Tabata was likened to Lonnie Smith offensively in this space back in June, having just shown a huge uptick in stolen base rate at AAA before his promotion (25 in 252 PA). While the great speed skills may not ever translate to the majors, his age-21 performance makes a run of .300+ TAv seasons (as Smith had from ages 24-27) entirely plausible. His skill set is almost ideal for a righty in Pittsburgh, as his power is more of the line-drive variety, and the deep left-center power alley won't reduce his home run output much; and his defensive range is probably enough to be a good center fielder.
A brief blurb from BP 2011, after noting that Markakis has stopped pulling the ball: “He remains a valuable hitter and fielder, but unless he stops trying to hit ‘em where they have acres of grass, his run production won't return to its levels of 2007-2008.” His speed has declined, and the 18 steals in 2007 are just a distant memory now. For some reason, he has a great defensive reputation, though his metrics have been bad for several years now (-5, -17, and -2 FRAA the past three seasons, per BP 2011). Still, his age 22-24 seasons (2006-2008) are part of his history, and there remains the outside chance that he'll rebound to the tremendous career path he had begun to traverse prior to 2009.
Adam Jones keeps flashing the great leather, though with as many injuries as he sustains, that could degrade quickly. He also keeps hitting righty pitchers better than Southpaws. Entering his age-25 season, his comparable players are Ellis Burks, Carlos Gonzalez, and Duke Snider. Despite his down year in 2010, he has the potential to be a top-notch player... if his health ever cooperates with him.
Logan Morrison: Was reviewed in this column about keepers in September. Bottom line is that he's much more likely to be a good MLB asset, ala Kevin Youkilis, than a high-level asset in most fantasy leagues, where on-base percentage and non-homer extra-base hits aren't all that valuable. And he won't have Boston's park or teammates to help his counting stats.
That's all for this week. Next article's reviews will include Nolan Reimold and Nyjer Morgan and the other reader suggestions (including those on Monday's comments). Feel free to keep the suggestions coming.