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March 9, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Value Picks in the Outfield

by Bill Baer

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I'm pinch-hitting for Rob McQuown today, but feel free to leave him comments about future outfielders to cover.

In a perfect world for the New York Mets, their starting outfield—Jason Bay, Angel Pagan, and Carlos Beltran—make it through the season unharmed. They know, however, that there are no guarantees in life, and it is quite possible that Beltran's balky knee sidelines him at some point—he's missed a few days already this spring, and has tendinitis bothering his left knee (that's the non-surgically repaired one). In the event Beltran does end up spending time on the bench or disabled, which of the Mets' outfielders could become relevant in your fantasy baseball leagues?

From 2007-09, Hairston was a slightly above-average hitter with decent power. In those years with the Arizona Diamondbacks, San Diego Padres, and Oakland Athletics, he posted a TAv of .275 and an ISO between .191 and .230.

However, his 2010 season with the Padres was disappointing. His numbers went down across the board: he finished with a .250 TAv and .136 ISO. Fantasy owners who grabbed him for the cheap power and occasional stolen base were sorely disappointed.

When looking for outliers, one number stands out: his .236 BABIP, 40 points below his career average. While his BABIP on line drives was 24 points lower than his career average, the more interesting figure was his BABIP on ground balls, 41 points below his career average. Was he hitting weaker ground balls?

In looking at data from Baseball Analytics, it seems like pitchers adjusted to Hairston in 2010. In '09, most of the pitches that Hairston hit on the ground were in the middle of the plate; last year, they were about belt-high on the outside-third. Additionally, Hairston rarely got hits on inside pitches that were put on the ground. That may have something to do with the shoulder injury he played through.

The line drive discrepancy is, of course, almost all random and I would expect that to come closer to his career average going forward. If Hairston is beyond his shoulder injury—and his performance thus far in spring training seems to indicate that he is—then he should take a much higher percentage of good cuts at the dish, and his ground ball BABIP should return as well.

In the event Beltran, or Bay for that matter, is sidelined, expect Hairston to be the Mets' first line of defense. Since there is no reason to draft him or buy him at auction in mixed leagues, he should be freely available in all formats. Even if you only get to use him for a couple weeks, he will give you good return on investment since you are investing very little.

Harris is on the mend after a nightmarishly bad 2010 season, when he finished with a .183 batting average. It seems like he became focused on power as he set a career-high ISO at .179, perhaps the culmination of a four-year transformation. From 2002-06, his ISO peaked at .061, but quickly rose to .122 in '07, then .166, .158, and finally .179. With the increased power came many more strikeouts—in fact, Harris struck out in nearly 27 percent of his plate appearances, another career high.

Like Hairston, Harris was also besieged by an unrealistically-low BABIP:

But unlike Hairston, Harris had his BABIP drop across the board, which indicates to me a lot more than just bad luck. Data from Baseball Analytics indicates that Harris' rate of contact stayed about the same on pitches in the upper-third of the strike zone, but dropped precipitously on pitches in the bottom two-thirds. Overall, pitches were thrown in the same location, so it indicates to me an approach and a swing flaw, which is only supported by the extreme jump in strikeouts.

PECOTA is projecting a .228/.329/.365 year for Harris in 2011. As you can tell, most of the on-base percentage is coming from walks, which will not help you in most fantasy baseball leagues. Given the above and that he is lower on the totem pole than Hairston, Harris is irrelevant in almost all formats. The Mets would have to have an outfield injury epidemic to make Harris worth your while.

Duda ranked tenth in Kevin Goldstein's prospect list for the Mets. Quoth Goldstein:

Duda is a potential offensive force who works the count well, waits for pitches he can hit, and then displays plus raw power. He's a good enough hitter to provide some average as well, as he does a good job on focusing on hard contact as opposed to powering balls out.

He also notes that Duda does not profile as an outfielder, citing his lack of range as a huge deterrent. Fortunately, most fantasy baseball leagues do not factor in defense, so if Duda does end up getting a shot at the outfield, it is of no consequence to you. However, Duda's terrible range will make it unlikely that the Mets actually use him in that capacity for any extended period of time.

PECOTA projects a .242/.327/.395 year for Duda. At the corner outfield spots, this is disappointing. Right fielders in the National League last year averaged a 778 OPS; Duda's projection falls under that by a good 50 points. At first base, that is even more disappointing.

Duda could have a breakout season in the majors like he did in Triple-A in 2010, but it is unlikely to be this year.

Evans is out of options, so he is hoping to break camp with the Major League squad as a backup outfielder. He has not shown much in his 225 Major League plate appearances, but consistently put up impressive numbers in the minors, including a 907 OPS last year between Double-A Binghamton and Triple-A Buffalo.

During the off-season, Evans had surgery on his non-throwing shoulder, but has looked great in his 27 spring training at-bats so far, posting a .333/.379/.407 line. Unfortunately for him, Hairston has had an even better spring thus far, so unless Beltran starts the year on the DL, the Mets may have to expose Evans to waivers.

Given the concerns that his abilities will play at the major league level and the roadblocks in front of him, Evans is another player I would avoid until further notice.

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

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Fantasy Article Fantasy Focus: My Beef... (03/09)
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