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May 3, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Value Picks at Catcher, Second Base, and Shortstop

by Michael Jong

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 After last week's tumultuous Value Picks turnover, one week of baseball has passed and the VP portfolio has mostly remained steady, with a few changes. This week, a couple of middle infielders leave VP in favor of a plethora of catching options.

Departures
Mike Aviles, Kansas City Royals (52 percent ESPN / 65 percent CBS)

Aviles's ownership jumps like his batting average does; when it spikes, fantasy owners want a piece of his action, but when it falls, they avoid him like the plague. This week, Aviles was mighty hot, hitting .286/.304/.571 with two homers, four runs, and seven RBI. He swiped two bases in three attempts as well. Aviles is a solid option for mixed league play, but his streaky nature will likely infuriate owners who catch him at the wrong time.

Chris Getz, Kansas City Royals (1 percent ESPN / 11 percent CBS)
Getz gets the boot despite a solid week at the plate, batting .273/.385/.455 in his three starts during the week. The problem at the moment is that despite Getz's defensive contributions and surprisingly good plate discipline, Mike Aviles and Wilson Betemit have jumped ahead of him on the depth chart and are currently taking up the majority of starts at second and third base respectively. If Getz continues to start three games a week, he could remain an AL-only option for his steals, but for now we will send him off awaiting a cooldown of either player in front of him.

Arrivals

John Buck, Florida Marlins (6 percent ESPN / 46 percent CBS)
Buck broke out of a slump with a two-homer series over the weekend against the Cincinnati Reds, finishing a .222/.300/.556 week. Buck has been a forgotten man in fantasy baseball, due in part to an awful start and a reputation for power-only performance. However, Buck's position within a decent Marlins lineup has earned him 12 runs and 14 RBI to start the season, and many of his peripherals to start the year are actually on par with or better than seasons past.

John Buck

K%

BB%

XB / H

BABIP

2011

18.7

8.3

0.800

0.254

2008-2010

24.8

6.3

0.774

0.306

The improved strikeout and walk rates may even be attributable to a repeatable skillset; Buck has reduced his swing rate from its peak in the mid 50 percent range down to 50.4 percent so far this season, and more importantly his contact rate has actually increased to a career high 78 percent of swings. These sorts of numbers require a smaller sample size to reach significant levels (r-squared of 0.5), meaning that this change in Buck's approach and ability to make contact could be more representative of his true talent going forward than other early season statistics.

The only major difference here is in BABIP, and the difference between his three-year mark (achieved in 1057 PA) and his current season mark is significant enough to damage his worst fantasy category, batting average. However, a return to even his career .288 BABIP should push his batting average closer to .240, and a .300 mark akin to his previous three-year average would move that batting average up to .250 and well into the acceptable range of a back-end starting fantasy catcher in mixed league play. Essentially, nothing has changed with Buck to warrant a change in opinion from the beginning of the season.

Wilson Ramos, Washington Nationals (3 percent ESPN / 26 percent CBS)
While nothing has changed since the beginning of the season with Buck, a lot has changed so far this season for Ramos. Currently the Nationals catcher is hitting a BABIP-fueled .358/.426/.547 line, complete with two home runs in 61 PA. The obvious regression in his .447 BABIP will come very soon, but this is does not necessarily signal the end of Ramos's usefulness. Ramos has always had a high BABIP for a catcher, dating back to his days in the minors; he holds a career .322 average on balls in play, and even in his worst professional season in 2010, he had a minor league BABIP of .292. His early success on balls in play in the majors bodes well.

The surprise improvement for Ramos is in his plate discipline. Well known as a player who refused to draw walks in the minors (minor league career 5.6 percent walk rate), he has somehow drawn seven walks so far this season, a rate of 11.5 percent. The secret lies in his decreased swing rate.

Wilson Ramos

Swing%

Whiff%

Called Strike%

2011

44.8

22.2

34.6

2010 (Majors)

55.4

25.8

26.2

The decreased swing rate has brought upon more called strikes but likely more called balls as well, upping both his strikeout and walk rates. This is critical to maintain a more consistent, less BABIP-dependent line for Ramos. It should lead to an increase in OBP from his previously PECOTA-projected  .283 mark, though the increased strikeout rate would also decrease his batting average even with a good  BABIP.

PECOTA calls for a .257 batting average with almost double-digit home run power in 350 PA, but the changes in his approach should make his possible performance more consistent and thus less likely to get sidetracked by extended slumps. This would be good for a player who is attempting to gain a foothold on a position currently manned by a future Hall of Famer, even if that future HoF member is a washed up Ivan Rodriguez. Pudge is slowly giving way to Ramos, which is a good sign for fantasy fans looking for a halfway viable fantasy catching option from Washington. Ramos remains more of a bench option in mixed league play and a cautious starting choice in NL-only leagues.

Incumbents

Jamey Carroll, Los Angeles Dodgers (4 percent ESPN / 10 percent CBS)
Carroll had a bad week at the plate, batting just .217/.280/.304 and scoring only two runs, though he did snag his third base of the season. The most important aspect of Carroll's performance, however, is his playing time, and that remains as healthy as ever, as he received 25 PA this past week. Rafael Furcal is getting impatient to return to the starting lineup, but at this point his return will not impact Carroll's playing time because Casey Blake is out for six weeks recovering from surgery due to a staph infection.

Orlando Hudson, San Diego Padres (13 percent ESPN / 36 percent CBS)
Hudson's ownership dropped since last week even as his game continued in Hudson-esque fashion. He spent the week hitting .263/.391/.368, continuing his on-base prowess with four more walks and stealing two more bases along the way. As long as Hudson continues swiping bags and hitting in the .260 – .270 range, he will be of some value at the bottom of mixed leagues and in NL-only formats. If you are in need of help in the middle infield, take advantage of Hudson's consistent play and newfound steals and hope for something resembling a resurgence in San Diego's dreadful offense.

Jonathan Lucroy, Milwaukee Brewers (6 percent ESPN / 19 percent CBS)
Lucroy continued his hot hitting this week, batting .313/.421/.375 in 19 PA. One thing that Lucroy always displayed in the minors was a strong walk rate (minor league career 11.3 percent walk rate) , and that is likely to continue as a starter in the majors this season. However, he has not flashed much in the way of power since his breakout 2008 campaign in the low minors. At this point, a good comparison for what to expect going forward is Tampa Bay's John Jaso, who hit .263/.372/.378 in his 2010 rookie season following a career .291/.379/.438 minor league slash line that is very reminiscent of Lucroy's .298/.379/.459 minor league line. Lucroy's playing time puts him on the fringes of mixed-league ownership.

NL VP

Chris Snyder, Pittsburgh Pirates (<1 percent ESPN / 9 percent CBS)
Snyder is equally likely to regress from his .400 BABIP as Ramos and Lucroy are from their .400+ BABIP marks, but he still has the potential double-digit home run power in his resume. His strikeouts should keep his batting average low, but if he keeps playing like this, he should get the lion's share of playing time over Ryan Doumit and at least garner counting stats for NL-only owners.

AL VP

Hank Conger, Los Angeles Angels (<1 percent ESPN / 19 percent CBS)
Conger continues to receive playing time in the place of the ever-struggling Jeff Mathis, and this is a good thing for fantasy owners. Conger picked up 16 of the available 24 PA and four of the six starts for the week. He did something with that time as well, hitting .250/.250/.500 with his third home run of the season and to go with a double and three RBI. He is still in a timeshare with Mathis, but if he continues to impress at the plate and does not embarrass himself behind the dish as Mike Napoli apparently once did, Mike Scioscia appears willing to give him plate appearances. That and Conger's minor league acumen is enough to keep him in AL-only fantasy radars.

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

Related Content:  Wilson Ramos,  Mike Aviles,  Espn,  John Buck

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