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January 25, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Hot Spots: Catcher, Second Base, and Shortstop

by Michael Jong

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Last Friday, the Los Angeles Angels and Toronto Blue Jays completed a blockbuster of a move highlighted by the seemingly impossible trade of Vernon Wells and his enormous contract to the Angels with no money coming from the Jays end. In addition, the Jays picked up two useful parts for the 2011 season, and one of those players leaves a fantasy impact on both teams.

That sound that you heard early Friday evening, a sound resembling an uproarious cheer, was the sound of Blue Jays fans around the United States and Canada gleefully cheering the departure of Vernon Wells' contract (while recognizing that Wells was an excellent person and a solid player) from the Jays' payroll. That second, smaller cheering noise may have been fantasy fans and owners of Mike Napoli, who has finally been freed from the debilitating chains of Jeff Mathis and Mike Scioscia. Napoli was always thought of as being held back by his defense and his manager's prejudice towards defensively-challenged backstops, but there is plenty of reason to believe that his playing time should be on the upswing in Toronto.

Presuming he remains with the Jays (there are rumors that he could be moved elsewhere before the season begins), Napoli looks to rotate between catcher, first base, and designated hitter. The Jays have J.P. Arencibia presumably ready to take the reigns at catcher with Jose Molina as the defensive backup, and the team did have something of a hole at first base with Adam Lind and Edwin Encarnacion previously slated to start there. If Napoli gets more time playing first base or DH, that should translate to fewer off days and more time occupying your fantasy lineup's catcher position. While his performance at first base is less impressive, as a fantasy catcher, Napoli's home run power brings good value even in under 500 PA. That power should be amplified moving into the homer-friendly Rogers Center (five-year regressed HR park factor of 1.06) and working under the Jays coaching staff, which preaches a "swing for the fences" approach. AL-only owners would be hard-pressed to find better options not named Joe Mauer for their catcher spot, and normal mixed league owners can even scavenge $10+ value from another 20+ HR season, especially if Napoli plays primarily less demanding positions.

Napoli's arrival does give Arencibia, the presumed starting catcher before the trade, some uncertainty about his future role with the team. Right now, he is listed as the third catcher on the team's MLB.com depth chart, which presumably leaves him out of a job for the 2011 season. However, if the team decides to keep Napoli away from the backstop for defensive purposes, Arencibia would likely be the first player to benefit. A 400 PA projection for Arencibia shows excellent power but a definite problem with contact and OBP, things that Arencibia has displayed in his minor league career as well. That means that in order to get $10+ value out of him, even in AL-only leagues, fantasy owners will need him to receive a starter's share of PA, which currently cannot be guaranteed. AL-only owners should keep an eye on him for his 20-HR potential, but his status will not be certain until either GM Alex Anthopolous or manager John Farrell clear up the catching situation.

Speaking of unclear catching situations, Napoli leaving the Angels has opened up a spot for top catching prospect Hank Conger to potentially get a shot at the starting job in 2011. Standing in his way is Jeff Mathis, one of the worst enemies of fantasy players the past four seasons. Mathis figures to get regular playing time at the start of the season, and Scioscia has already mentioned that Bobby Wilson is slated to be the primary backup catcher, which leaves Conger heading back to Triple-A for a repeat season. Last season, Conger's .300/.385/.463 slash line in the Pacific Coast League translated to a major-league equivalent .236/.305/.345 line (which shows just how badly the PCL inflates offense), so a repeat season would have to impress even more in order for him to gain traction for a midseason callup. If called up, Conger would still likely be a backup to Mathis, but seeing limited playing time may make him an interesting midseason pickup in AL-only leagues. Conger may be treated the same way as Napoli in Los Angeles, but his game brings more of a contact approach (career K% of 14 percent in the minors) with less power (career .168 ISO), so his contributions to your fantasy team will be slightly skewed towards batting average and counting stats with 10+ HR power.

Oh, Matt Wieters, you confusing tease. After all the hype before his 2009 debut, Weiters still did not show the "switch-hitting Joe Mauer with power" performance that scouts were expecting of him when he arrived in the big leagues. Wieters is still around a league average hitter (.266/.328/.393 career slash line, .255 TAv), and while that is more than acceptable for a catcher in any fantasy league, it pales in comparison to what was initially expected of him. Wieters' power production in particular has been disappointing, as his HR/FB% has remained firmly around 8 percent (league average around 10 percent). The Graphical Player 2011 projection expects a bit of a power increase, with a projected ISO of .161 and a 15 home run season being career highs for Wieters. However, given his age (he is just 24 years old), it is not difficult to imagine projecting power into his sturdy build, and Camden Yards's cozy dimensions always help (StatCorner has Camden Yards inflating home runs by over 20% from either side of the plate). Combine that with some regression on his .287 BABIP and 15.4 percent LD% and a league average season at the plate is well within reach. Again, he holds good value in AL-only leagues and just enough upside with his still-shiny prospect status that springing for him in mixed leagues will be worth the investment, but another dull performance like the one he showed in 2010 will leave fantasy owners unwilling to go to the well a third time.

Ruining our catcher-only edition of Hot Spots is one of the biggest rookie names from last season. Starlin Castro came onto the scene as a 20-year old playing the most demanding non-battery position in the game for a high-profile team like the Chicago Cubs and excelled, hitting .300/.347/.408 and swiping 10 bases along the way. While Castro's .346 BABIP seems fairly high, a player with his speed and contact skills (14.0 percent K%, 85 percent contact%) should be expected to muster a higher than average BABIP, which should help to keep his AVG around .280-.290. Castro will never be a home run or power threat, but his 1.36 Bash (total bases per hit) in 2010 almost matches up to the league average for shortstops of 1.42. Expecting an average dose of shortstop power, a high AVG, and 20 steals from Castro in 2011 is reasonable, and such a projection yields very good value over 650-700 PA. One thing to note about Castro's steals, however, is that while he will get them in large quantities because of his attempt rates (8.8 percent attempted steals on stolen base opportunities last season), he will not be highly successful in terms of rate. Castro stole 10 bases last year, but was caught eight times along the way, and his minor league SB% of 64.4 percent does not inspire confidence. If your league detracts from stolen base value via caught stealings, Castro's baserunning value significantly decreases.

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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