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March 28, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Value Picks at First, Third and DH

by Michael Street

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With Opening Day on Thursday, teams are trimming their rosters and making adjustments as players fall prey to new injuries and recover slowly from old ones. Either scenario can uncover undervalued fantasy players, or players who are best left alone. For example, take Cleveland third baseman Jason Donald, whose cracked finger will keep him out until at least early April, opening the door to Jack Hannahan.

While fantasy owners are likely to groan at the fate of top prospect Lonnie Chisenhall, who will remain in the minors, it’s best for Chisenhall, who needs regular at-bats and would only get sent back down when Donald returns. Fantasy owners should instead direct their groans towards the idea of Hannahan occupying Cleveland’s hot corner.

Not to be confused with animal wrangler and frequent Letterman guest Jack Hanna, Jack Hannahan has stuck around the majors due to his glove, not his bat, and won’t deliver much value in a full-time role. His career 10.9 percent walk rate shows his one virtue of patience, but his .123 ISO and 24.7 percent strikeout rate reveal his vices. PECOTA’s .217/.309/.329 50th percentile projection for Hannahan doesn’t get any prettier, and even his 90th percentile, a .249/.347/.376 line, becomes a just a hair above league average .262 TAv. Though Hannahan doesn’t play with parrots or panthers, Cleveland fans would likely derive more pleasure if he did, while fantasy owners should wait for Chisenhall’s callup later this season.

While not precipitated by injury, another team’s move at third base could produce happier fantasy results. Everyone from the Marlins to BP expected the third-base job to go to defensive whiz Matt Dominguez, but the top prospect could only muster a .209/.306/.395 line in Spring Training. The club chose to send him down to the minors to start the season, a good move for a player who has yet to play at Triple-A. Dominguez’s .257/.330/.422 line in the minors isn’t exactly awe-inspiring, leading to his .239/.297/.381 PECOTA projection, so even when he does return to the majors, he’s not likely to make much of a splash.

In his stead, Florida manager Edwin Rodriguez said that Donnie Murphy and Emilio Bonifacio are the remaining contenders for the starting gig. Neither are great options, though either offers better fantasy value than Dominguez. Bonifacio brings loads of versatility to fantasy managers, qualifying in the outfield and at every infield position but first base in leagues with five game minimums. Bonifacio’s a better bench option for Rodriguez because of that versatility—and because of his performance at the plate. Bonifacio’s middling skills have produced a lukewarm career .251/.306/.317 slash line, though he also picked up 37 steals in 710 plate appearances the past two seasons. He could swipe 30 bags in a full-time role, making him a decent middle-infield option for fantasy owners if he starts, but he lacks the power for a corner spot.

That power could come from Donnie Murphy, the journeyman middle infielder who has been with four different organizations since being drafted by Kansas City in 2002. His big-league experience has been limited to various cups of coffee, ranging from the short pull (27 and 88 PA in 2004-2005) to the grande (117 and 132 PAs in 2007-2008), with another of the former in 2010, when he bopped three home runs and six doubles in 47 plate appearances between July and September.

With a starting role, Murphy could finally leverage his .172 minor-league ISO to bring the kind of pop fantasy owners want at third base. His power rose at each level of the minors, reaching .539 in Triple-A, while his minor-league 17.4 percent whiff rate and 7.9 percent walk rate helped him maintain a .281 batting average overall. PECOTA likes his chances, too—although his .251 batting average isn’t great in his 50th percentile, his .456 SLG is much better, rising to .470 in just his 60th percentile. That would bring owners good value in NL-only leagues and deeper mixed leagues, making Murphy the one to watch here.

Across the diamond, and across the state (or at least up I-75 a bit), Tampa Bay picked its starting first baseman, Dan Johnson, whom fantasy owners can get a little excited about. Johnson has always enticed with his .236 ISO in the minors, but that power has never emerged in the bigs. His slugging peaked in his .275/.355/.451 rookie season (.281 TAv), while only his small-sample 2008 (29 PA) approached that ISO with a .231. After spending 2009 in Japan, he returned last season to muster a .198/.343/.414 triple-slash line in 140 PA that at least delivered a .216 ISO.

Little of this major-league power outage can be written up to bad luck on fly balls, as Johnson has remained in the 10-12 percent range of HR/FB during much of his career, until last season’s 17.9 percent. But he has shifted his swing plane, pushing his fly ball rate from 38.2 percent his rookie year to 47.1 percent last season. Maintaining that fly-ball rate is a good thing for his power, and it helps explain Johnson’s batting average dip last year.

A .188 BABIP didn’t help his average, either, so owners should expect a readjustment in 2011 to a more valuable batting average. PECOTA agrees, as Johnson’s .244/.366/.462 represents an excellent .295 TAv, 10th among starting first basemen. His slugging should exceed .500 above his 80th percentile, though his batting average would only reach .275 in his 90th percentile, where he’d also crack 30 dingers. His excellent 13.3 percent career walk rate gives him value in OBP leagues, too, making Dan Johnson a very good pickup in both mixed and AL-only leagues.  

Pepper – quick hits on other news items

Texas sent Chad Tracy (the prospect) down to the minors, though he could return to the roster if Chris Davis gets his wish and is traded.

Kendrys Morales’s ankle problems will land him on the disabled list to start the season, making Mark Trumbo a good short-term pickup and a possible long-term option if Morales’ problems linger.

The Dodgers have been using Marcus Thames at first base, with Mattingly hinting he might be considering a platoon for him with James Loney. Owners could use both in a fantasy platoon, or find increased value from the boost to Thames’ playing time.

St. Louis demoted Matt Carpenter, leaving the door wide open for David Freese to seize the job, though Nick Punto isn’t far from returning. Maybe Freese’s .293/.310/.561 line in 42 spring training plate appearances has LaRussa believing in a comeback. Consider Freese as another good late-round gamble

Related Content:  Jack Hannahan

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