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April 11, 2011

Fantasy Focus

The NL's Rookie Outage

by Marc Normandin

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The 2010 season was an incredible one for National League rookies. Tyler Colvin hit .254/.316/.500 with 43 extra-base hits (20 of them homers) and still finished outside the top 10 in VORP for NL rookies. Logan Morrison (.283/.390/.447) and Jose Tabata (.299/.346/.400 with 19 steals) also missed making the top 10, as the NL produced a ridiculous amount of positional talent in one year. Jason Heyward, Buster Posey, Starlin Castro, Mike Stanton, and Pedro Alvarez lead this group, and all five of them are already capable of making an impact in both real and fantasy baseball.

We won’t see anything like that in 2011, though. The 2010 season diluted the prospect talent pool in the NL somewhat: look no further than Kevin Goldstein’s Top 101 for proof of that, where 44 of the top 101 are with NL teams, but just eight of the top 25. Of those eight, just a handful are expected to play in the majors this year, as Bryce Harper has just begun his professional career, Shelby Miller has started 2011 at High-A, Jameson Taillon was drafted in 2010 and is expected to reach the majors in 2013, and while Julio Teheran has an outside shot at making his debut this year, it is more likely he will arrive in 2012.

A pair of players from that top 25 will have an opportunity to make an impact, though. Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman and San Francisco Giants first baseman Brandon Belt are both well-liked by Goldstein, and should both stick in the majors for the duration of the season. Whether or not they produce is more up for debate.

Freddie Freeman has had a tough time in his first 56 plate appearances in the majors, hitting just .170/.214/.264 with one homer. This is a surprise, given his track record in the minors: in Single-A Freeman hit .316/.378/.521 as an 18-year-old, and last year he crushed Triple-A as a 20-year-old with a .319/.378/.521 showing. His young age may have a lot to do with his current troubles, of course—he struggled in Double-A as a 19-year-old after slowing down somewhat in his High-A debut—so there is reason to hope he will put it together in time to have a productive 2011.

PECOTA isn’t that optimistic, pegging Freeman for a .265/.317/.413 line with just 14 homers in 570 plate appearances. His upper-level projections are solid but unspectacular—at the 90th percentile, Freeman is slated to hit .298/.354/.465 with a .289 TAv that would make him an average first baseman, with basically the same value that the 2010 versions of Ike Davis and Gaby Sanchez had.

On the other end of the spectrum, PECOTA wouldn’t be shocked if Freeman required more seasoning in the minors before he can produce in the bigs—his 10th percentile projection has him at .230/.278/.358, a line that is depressing, but is also an improvement over the start to his career so far. The sample is very small, of course—I’m not getting worked up about his production through 29 career games, especially given his youth and excellent history in the minors—but it does have me worried about how long it will take him to be a viable fantasy option.

I am nowhere near as pessimistic as PECOTA when it comes to Freeman, but I’m not so giddy about him that I am enthusiastically recommending him to you for this year, either. (Freeman was a two-star first baseman back in February when I put together my rankings.) He is a player I expect eventual great things from—in a keeper league, he is worth holding on to even if he doesn’t hit for most of this season.

There is no reason to do anything rash, such as cutting Freeman from your squad, but unless you are in an NL-only league, looking for alternatives to start may be for the best. The Braves will let him try to work things out in the majors, so he will get the chance to improve—after all, we are talking about a team that stuck with Troy Glaus for 483 plate appearances in 2010, and he didn’t have near Freeman's upside.

As for Brandon Belt, in Goldstein’s words, he was an “unheralded” pick at the time of the 2009 draft, then debuted at High-A in 2010 and tore the league’s pitching to pieces before making successful stops at both Double-A and Triple-A as well. For the year, he hit .352/.455/.620 in 595 plate appearances, and worked himself into the conversation for the big league club this spring with a line of .282/.338/.479. That is an impressive run for a fifth-round selection with just the one year of pro ball to his credit.

Even more impressively, his performance caused the Giants to move Aubrey Huff back to the outfield—and to right field, no less—in order to make room for the 23-year-old at first. Have you ever seen Huff play right field? He lines up in the same place right fielders play, sure, but that alone does not make him a right fielder. If Brian Sabean and Bruce Bochy are fine with the idea of watching Huff’s antics in right for a year, they must adore this Belt character.

They have plenty of reason to, if his short time in pro ball is any indication. He has excellent strike zone recognition and discipline—he had 99 strikeouts against 93 walks last year (including 13 free passes and 15 punchouts at Triple-A)—and the ability to hit the ball to all fields. Goldstein states that Belt "has plus-plus pure hitting ability, showing no real weaknesses against lefties or righties, any pitch type, or thrown in any location”—a sentence that basically means, “Belt will be unstoppable at the plate.”

He has found himself stoppable in his first few weeks in the majors, though, putting together a line of .179/.281/.321 over 32 plate appearances. The patience is there—he has drawn four walks and been punched out just six times—but the batting average isn’t. Since he is striking out in just under 19 percent of his plate appearances (I know, I know—strikeout rates haven’t stabilized yet, I’m not reading into it), then we can assume that the batting average is from a combination of bad luck and the fact he has just 32 plate appearances.

PECOTA loves Belt, projecting a .272/.361/.462 weighted mean line for him that would make him an average first baseman. His 90th percentile is a monster .310/.404/.526 campaign, good for a .324 TAv—for reference, that would put Belt on par with the 2010 versions of Kevin Youkilis, Adrian Gonzalez, and Paul Konerko, and ahead of last year's Huff.

Because of his bat speed, the plate discipline, and the serious potential here, Belt is a much safer option for 2011 than Freeman, and the closest reminder we may get of that short golden age of NL rookies we just experienced. As Belt isn’t hitting yet, and is owned in just 19.7 percent of ESPN leagues and 69 percent of CBS leagues, many of you still have time to acquire him. Exploring a trade for him in leagues where people are more aware of upcoming players like Belt could also be a worthwhile venture—dude can mash, and it won’t take long before everyone is aware of that fact.

Related Content:  Kevin Goldstein,  Rookies Of The Year

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