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April 11, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Value Picks at First, Third and DH

by Michael Street

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide’s sage advice applies equally in the opening weeks of the fantasy season. Not all of last week’s Value Picks have performed well, but one week is too small a sample space to cause panic. This week’s changes aren’t an overreaction to cold (or hot) starts, but an opportunity for you to plug lineup holes or satisfy early-season speculative urges. In the spirit of marginal production, this week’s column pays tribute to the new-wave band The Cars.

“Bye, Bye Love”

Jack Cust, Seattle Mariners

Always a slow starter—his career .209/.380/.301 March/April line is his worst monthly split—Cust started 2011 weakly, hitting .172/.294/.207. His value is further diminished by his spacious home park and the limp lineup around him. Cust will be Seattle’s starting designated hitter unless he keeps stinking up the joint, so you should keep him in mind (or on your roster) since he’ll round into form eventually: his career .258/.378/.500 May line is his best monthly split. But, feel free to bench him until he figures things out.

Donnie Murphy, Florida Marlins

Last Tuesday, Murphy scored the game-tying run in the seventh, and then drove in the game-winning run in the tenth. That represents nearly all of Murphy’s offensive contributions, as he has collected two hits and one RBI in his other 20 plate appearances. Murphy could continue to lose at-bats to Wes Helms and Emilio Bonifacio until Matt Dominguez returns, or he could break out and realize his power potential. Until he decides, however, you should sit him or cut him and watch for a rebound.

“Just What I Needed”

Brent Morel, Chicago White Sox

Despite PECOTA’s tepid .273/.307/.415 projection for Morel, Craig Brown and Rob McQuown both chose Morel as a solid third base option, and R.J. Anderson listed Morel third in his Rookie of the Year predictions. This season, Morel has hit in six of his first seven starts, though all but two have been singles, giving him an equally tepid .290/.313/.355 line.

Morel has no walks but four whiffs in 32 plate appearances—an impatient, contact-oriented plate approach that is consistent with his weak 6.6 percent walk rate and very strong 14.2 percent strikeout rate in the minors. That approach will keep his batting average up while diluting his OBP, but fantasy owners are most interested in power at the corners, something Morel hasn’t yet delivered. Morel’s line-drive swing produced only one homer every 41 PA in the minors but an average of 35 doubles from 2009-2010.

He could improve his yardwork in the comfy Cell, though PECOTA doesn’t see him hitting double-digit dingers until his 70th percentile. But his 60th percentile sees a .280/.315/.426 triple-slash that makes him look more like a corner than a middle infielder. With a very low ownership (1.2 percent on ESPN, 25 percent on CBS), Morel belongs on AL-only leagues and deeper mixed league rosters. Expect a good batting average with power that could approach adequacy and steals that could also approach double digits. With a moderately high ceiling, Morel’s a good add in keeper leagues, where third-base talent is as scarce as it is in redraft leagues.

Matt LaPorta, Cleveland Indians

I’ve written about LaPorta already, but so have most fantasy analysts, since the lynchpin of the Sabathia swap hasn’t delivered on his promise. Baseball Prospectus 2011 notes that this is LaPorta’s make-or-break year, and he is poised to make it, since last season’s full-time debut came after foot and hip surgery.

A healthy LaPorta began 2011 with six hits in 28 plate appearances, including two for extra bases. He has got four walks and four strikeouts, for a tidy .273/.393/.455 line that is not too far from where he should finish the season. PECOTA’s .247/.330/.430 projection for LaPorta doesn’t get a lot better in his 90th percentile in batting average and slugging, with marks of .279 and .487, respectively, but he should approach 30 home runs there.

None of those are amazing marks for a first baseman, but they’re far better than owners in ESPN (0.8 percent ownership) and CBS (29 percent) seem to think. If anyone will exceed expectations, it is a former top prospect like LaPorta, who is a worthwhile addition in AL-only and deeper mixed leagues or those that count OBP.

Brett Wallace, Houston Astros

Another fading prospect I’ve written about before, The Walrus has been judged harshly by his disappointing 2010 debut, when he hit .222/.296/.319 in 159 plate appearances. Showing up in 2011 in the “best shape of his life,” the Walrus now looks more like Lewis Carroll’s Carpenter, right down to his horse-face, bobblehead-proportioned noodle.

Children’s-book allusions aside, Wallace started 2011 weakly, going 2 for his first 20 plate appearances. But he has heated up over the past three games, collecting 5 hits in his next 12, including a 3-for-4 Minute Maid debut that fell just a triple short of the cycle. He is not so svelte that he’ll start racking up triples—not even if the ball rolls up Tal’s Hill, climbs the flagpole and wraps itself in the flag like a crooked politician. But if Wallace can squeeze enough out of the Juicebox to blow past his miserable .249/.310/.401 PECOTA projection, he’ll be far more valuable than owners think. Available in more than 99 percent of ESPN leagues and nearly 70 percent of CBS leagues, Wallace is worth a roster spot in deeper mixed and NL-only leagues.

“Hello Again”

Todd Helton, Colorado Rockies

Still largely ignored by fantasy owners—his ownership ticked up to 3.1 on ESPN and 16 in CBS leagues—Helton did two things this week that could typify his 2011 performance. On April 6, Helton hit his first homer of the season, something he didn’t do until May 18 last season. Two games later, Helton rode the pine due to lower-back tightness caused by a slip during warmup drills. Expect this from Helton throughout the year: good production limited by frequent off-days. Fantasy owners run in packs, and when they finally scent Helton’s return to productivity, you don’t want to arrive last to the hunt.

Danny Valencia, Minnesota Twins

Valencia’s started out slowly but somewhat consistently, hitting in four of his first eight games, including three in his last four games and a home run as his first hit of the year. He has got the skills and has no pressure to his playing time, so stick with Valencia, as better times are coming.

Dan Johnson, Tampa Bay Rays

Manny Being Retired Manny” means Johnson shifts to designated hitter, where he has hit .275/.393/.565 in 168 plate appearances, as opposed to .240/.336/.404 in 1239 plate appearances as a first baseman. As the team’s DH, Johnson faces more challenges to his playing time; Johnny Damon spent three games in the non-fielding role (though some might argue he filled the same role when starting in left field). Regardless, Johnson remains a VP unless and until he ceases to be a starter. Despite going 1 for his first 23, Johnson broke out with a two-hit night on Friday that included a three-run homer that handed Tampa Bay a victory. Remain patient with him, and you will be rewarded.

Mark Trumbo, Los Angeles Angels

With Kendrys Morales still not running at full speed, Trumbo will remain at first base at least through the end of this month—he is making the most of it, hitting in six of his first eight starts, with three of his eight hits going for doubles. He hasn’t gone yard, but that indicates that Trumbo’s not overswinging. He is still a tad impatient, with no walks and seven whiffs in those 29 plate appearances, but that is to be expected after a 7.4 percent walk rate in the minors. Ride him while you can, which could be a while, as there is no timeline for Morales’ return.

Related Content:  Matt LaPorta

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