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February 14, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Value Picks at First, Third and DH

by Michael Street

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Pitchers and catchers report this week, as do I, returning from a crazy offseason where Rob McQuown covered my 1B-3B-DH beat, while writing his own column, pitching in with PECOTA, and probably feeding the homeless—dude’s a Superman, let’s face it. In addition to my gratitude, Rob was rewarded with the chance to cover the more interesting signings of the offseason, while I pick up with the kind of fill-in-the-gap marginal signings typical of the weeks before Spring Training, two of which I’ll discuss here.

There was one significant signing to note: Baltimore’s one-year deal for Vladimir Guerrero to be their designated hitter, the last of several moves that might allow them to tread water in baseball’s toughest division. Christina Kahrl discusses the economics of the deal, while R.J. Anderson analyzes its impact on the Orioles lineup, and both discuss the Impaler’s skills and 2011 outlook, but I’ll dig a bit deeper.

The GP11 mini-browser shows the ten-year trends of a declining slugger, with a slugging uptick assisted by a move to Arlington. Camden Yards will continue to help Vlad, since the left-center power alley is almost thirty feet closer than Arlington’s, while the left field lines are virtually the same. Arlington’s reputation as a hitters’ park also comes from the way the ball flies in the summertime, while Baltimore’s breezes can knock down a few long balls, even in the summer heat. These differences should balance out, however, sustaining Vlad’s long balling ways, even if neither PECOTA (24) nor GP (28) sees him cracking the 30-HR mark.

Of greater concern is Guerrero’s legendary hacktastic ways, reflected by diminishing on base percentages and walk rates. His walk rate remained flat in 2010 after 2009’s career low; both years were well below his 8.5 BB rate career average and about half of the relatively robust 10.1 percent he maintained between 2002 and 2007. Just 40.2 percent of opposing pitchers’ offerings were strikes—another career low for a guy who never sees many strikes. That was with Nelson Cruz and Josh Hamilton hitting behind him, more fearsome hitters than any lineup protection Baltimore can offer. About the only good sign for Guerrero is his BABIP, which fell to a career-low .292 last season. Since it was his third straight year under his .320 career average, however, this points less to luck than to a guy who’s just not hitting the ball as hard as he used to.

So while he shouldn’t collapse to 2009 levels, Vlad’s value will come increasingly from batting average and not from his dissipating power. Sliding skills, increasing injury risk, and losing his outfield qualification further push him outside the top-tier designated hitters. Under these circumstances, GP’s $23 projection seems a bit of a stretch, but if other owners let him slip to later rounds or bargain prices, he can still offer value to your fantasy team.

The same can’t be said for Pedro Feliz, whom Kansas City signed to a minor-league deal to compete for their third-base job. General Manager Dayton Moore said that Feliz was a defensive specialist who would provide injury insurance; Feliz’s fantasy value lies along similar lines. Scoresheet owners may like his 2.73 Range in 2010, as will those who play Box Baseball or other sim games that count defense. The rest of us, however, need look no further than the grim picture painted by his mini-browser and PECOTA’s projections.

Despite the optimistic expectation of a rebound in GP’s Ten-Year Trends, none of his slash line numbers represent starting third-base material. PECOTA projects even lower slash numbers, and his .231 TAv is near the bottom of the third-base barrel. Kansas City’s competition at third may be thin, but all of their other options have projected TAvs more than 20 points higher than Feliz. You have to respect his glove and his World Series experience, but that’s pretty much all you have to do on draft day.

I have similar sentiments for Mark Kotsay, whom the Brewers signed to a one-year contract on the same day Feliz got his deal. Once again, R.J. and Christina scratched their heads over the usefulness of such a common, redundant commodity. Kotsay can hit righties, but Milwaukee has lefties Mat Gamel and Craig Counsell on the bench, and Prince Fielder (whom Kotsay is backing up) hits from the south side of the plate, too.

Like Feliz, Kotsay brings postseason experience and clubhouse demeanor, but unless your league has an Intangibles category, these don’t matter much. Whether it’s GP’s dismal projection of $-1 or PECOTA’s .249/.310/.364, Kotsay wouldn’t belong in your fantasy lineup if he were a middle infielder. Milwaukee fans might like his veteran mojo in a young clubhouse, but they’re more likely peeved at yet another impediment to Mat Gamel. Whatever their feelings, yours should be to avoid Kotsay, plain and simple; even deep NL leagues have better corner infield options than this.

So that my return column doesn’t seem like I’m portending gloom and doom for everyone, I’ll finish with a look at Kila Ka’aihue, a Royal with a great outlook. Thanks to his sweet minor league ratios and comps like Joey Votto and Adrian Gonzalez, PECOTA projects a .302 TAv and .387 OBP for Ka’aihue, good enough for 10th and seventh among first-base qualifiers, respectively. Those excellent minor-league credentials include an amazing 21.2 walk rate in Triple-A last season, though that may have been because it was his third year at that level. He also fanned 21.4 percent of the time, a trend that continued in the bigs (21.7 K percent). But this strikeout rate shows an interesting pattern when broken down by months.

In August, Ka’aihue hit just .167/.239/.274 in 92 PAs, despite a 14.3 percent strikeout rate. He seemed to figure it out in September, however, hitting .261/.367/.511 in 110 PAs, though his K% leapt to 28.3 percent. Small-sample caveats apply, as does the luck reflected by a BABIP that grew from .171 to .295, but it’s worthwhile to note that his walk rate also rose sharply from 8.7 percent to 14.5, indicating a more selective approach. In short, Ka’aihue seemed to see the ball better and swing at strikes more aggressively, a good indication of adjustment and confidence. Further adjustments will no doubt be necessary in 2011, but he looks like an excellent bet for OBP leagues and could provide some very strong numbers if he matures quickly.

Kansas City has supposedly kept Ka’aihue down in the minors because neither he nor Billy Butler is possessed of a great glove, and the Royals aren’t giving him the first-base job just yet. We’ll be watching this situation throughout Spring Training, but Ka’aihue should be the Royals’ starter, since their current alternative is Wilson Betemit. This makes Ka’aihue an excellent opportunity for speculation in earlier drafts—his value will surely rise once the position becomes his.

Value Picks will begin focusing on Spring Training matchups like this in the coming weeks, but we’ll continue to take reader requests in the comments section. Feel free to add yours!

17 comments have been left for this article.

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