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February 28, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Value Picks at First, Third and DH

by Michael Street

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As Spring Training games begin, Value Picks shifts its attention towards position battles—like Cleveland’s hot-corner tussle—along with fantasy implications of this week’s news, which saw a major injury hit a minor player and a minor injury strike a major player.

Adrian Beltre was the victim of the minor injury, as his calf strain should keep him out for 10-14 days, although Jon Heyman tweeted yesterday that it’s more like a month (the Rangers have since denied this). If Beltre does end up missing a big chunk of time, Michael Young’s keeper owners should be pleased.

Assuming the Rangers stick to their plan of playing Young at designated hitter, he’ll lose his last valuable positional eligibility next season, the final step down for a player who fell from an elite middle infielder to a well-regarded third baseman to a substandard designated hitter. Among starting designated hitters, Young’s .266 TAv ranks him dead last, while his 16 home runs and.419 SLG rank tenth; among starting third basemen, his TAv ranks 17th, his SLG, 18th and his home runs, 14th.

But Young brings value in batting average: his PECOTA-projected .283 is fourth among designated hitters and second among third basemen. His Graphical Player 2011 mini-browser shows his consistent contact rate, which means he should meet or beat that PECOTA projection. A visit from the BABIP Fairy like he had in 2009 (.351 BABIP) would help him even further, and last season’s .311 was his lowest since 2002, so he could be undervalued in your draft. However, unless Beltre’s out for even longer, or Young gets traded, taking Young early in a keeper draft would be a mistake.

Mike Napoli would slide into Young’s designated hitter role if Beltre lingers on the bench. Napoli’s .280 TAv is seventh, and his .475 SLG third, among designated hitters, but he’s a much better play in your catcher slot. Giving him another 200 or so PAs, about half in Arlington, could push his home run total over 30 and his RBI over 90, making him a top-notch fantasy catcher.

Andres Blanco could receive some extra time at third, too, but he won’t bring much more than hollow batting average. An excellent contact hitter (12.1 percent strikeout rate in the minors, 11 percent in the majors), he garnered a mere .070 ISO in the minors and .072 in the majors. Though he collected 61 swipes in the minors, he’s one-for-nine in stolen-base opportunities in the bigs. Some of that could be lack of practice—he’s only been on base 170 times in the past five seasons—but I doubt he’ll get the green light anytime soon. The slight bump in PAs he might receive in Beltre’s absence won’t leverage his one-category help much, so you can continue to ignore Blanco.

Last week’s major injury to a minor player was Nick Punto’s sports hernia, which will keep him out through May. That allows another utility player to make the Cardinals’ roster, but most fantasy owners are more interested in the impact on David Freese. Punto was signed partly in case Freese remains less than Tastee this year, as he did in 2010, when his skills and playing time put him on my Value Picks list, but he soon underproduced his way off again. Still, those skills haven’t changed: his 19 percent strikeout rate in the minors edged upwards to 21 percent last year, while a minor-league walk rate of nearly 10 percent became a still-respectable 7.8 percent in 2010.

What didn’t appear was his power. Slugging .533 in the minors, Freese froze at .404 SLG in 2010. Some of this came from a the ugly ground ball rate and slightly unlucky HR ratio in his mini-browser, and some from the bone spurs that Freese recently revealed he’d had all season long. After offseason surgery on both ankles, Freese looks healthy going into 2011, though he’s expected to be held out of the Cards’ Spring Training opener, pointing to a slow start, so don’t judge him by his Spring Training numbers. A small power surge is possible, but don’t expect him to turn into a basepath burner—he hit 12 triples and swiped 13 bags in 1661 minor-league PAs.

Punto’s pain gives Freese one final chance to show fantasy owners the skills they’ve been banking on, and he could come cheap in your draft. He’s a solid NL-only option expected to return $13 ($1 in mixed leagues) in Marc Normandin’s Third Base Rankings, making him a worth a late-round or low-dollar gamble.

Last, we look at the battle for the Indians’ hot corner, a fight so tepid that it’s more of a minor skirmish. Jayson Nix’s PECOTA-projected .239 TAv and .238/.304/.406 only looks good next to Jason Donald’s .236 TAv and .235/.302/.349 slash line.

Nix does two things well: defense and lefty mashing (.228/.295/.421 career, though that 75-point OPS split flattened to just 7 points in 2010). That gives him a touch of value in a fantasy platoon, but the splits are so meager that this strategy only makes sense in deep leagues. His career strikeout rate of 23.4 percent will suppress his batting average, and his patience slipped last year to career lows, further diminishing his returns. With only one category to help you in, he’s worth just $6 in AL-only leagues but is nearly worthless in standard roto, even as a starter.

Some see the punch-less Donald as having an edge on Nix. Donald came up as a shortstop, but is now seen mostly as a utility infielder, with skills to match. He turned heads after slugging .497 in Double-A, but his best SLG since then was last season’s .423 in Triple-A. Donald’s speed could bring 5-10 swipes, depending on how much he plays, and there’s reason for slight batting average optimism, thanks to minor-league ratios of 10.3 percent walk rate and 20 percent strikeout rate, though both slipped to the major-league levels in his mini-browser. With a chance to renew his semi-prospect luster, Donald could offer AL-only owners steals with a shred of upside, but he’s just as likely to drag down your batting average.

Neither Nix nor Donald may be starting at the hot corner by the end of the season, since five-star prospect Lonnie Chisenhall is coming sooner rather than later. Cleveland has already said that Chisenhall will start the season in Triple-A (hardly a surprise, since he has yet to play at that level), but he should be in the bigs later this season. Keeper owners should take note, but that call-up is too far in the uncertain future to make Chisenhall a good draft pick in standard leagues.

Leave suggestions below for other players or position battles you’d like to see Value Picks cover.

Related Content:  Designated Hitter

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