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December 9, 2011

The Keeper Reaper

First, Third, and DH for 12/09/11

by Michael Street

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Now that the Great Wall of Pujols has finally been breached at the Winter Meetings, the barbarian hordes of remaining free agents will surely begin to come pouring through, sending fantasy owners scrambling to make keeper decisions like so many frightened peasants. Until those signings happen, this issue of Keeper Reaper will catch up on some reader requests and look at one other significant transaction that’s already occurred in the corner infield and designated hitter markets.

As always, the names for each keeper category are linked to PFM’s 2011 dollar-value rankings for players in those leagues. And suggestions for other players you’d like to see covered are always welcome in the comments section.

David Wright | New York Mets
Shallow
: NO
Medium
: NO
Deep
: YES
NL-only
: YES
Super Deep
: YES

The latest news indicates that David Wright will remain a Met at least until next year’s trade deadline, and fantasy owners are wondering whether he should remain on their rosters too. Wright had his worst year as a major leaguer in 2010, earning just $2.35 in shallow leagues and a modest $15.11 in NL-only leagues; either figure was well below his cost on draft day.

Wright’s .254/.345/.427 triple-slash line and 14 home runs can be ascribed in part to the stress fracture in his back: he was hitting .226/.337/.404 with six home runs in 172 plate appearances when he hit the disabled list on May 15. After he returned two months later, however, he hit .272/.349/.440 with eight home runs in his final 275 plate appearances—numbers that hovered around his 30th PECOTA percentile. And while it’s easy to blame Citi Field’s dimensions (which will be changing next season) for Wright’s down year, the third baseman only hit .268/.323/.450 away from Flushing Meadows in 2011.

His core ratios last year—21.7 K% and 11.6 BB%—remained consistent with his established rates, but Wright’s .302 BABIP was the worst since his rookie season, and his 42.4 GB% was his highest ever—an increase of more than ten percent over his 38.1 career average. And his early back problems can’t be entirely blamed for the latter, since his worst monthly groundball ratio came at the end of the season. Injury-related fatigue might have contributed to this late-season collapse, but Wright simply looked wrong throughout 2011. He’s always been able to crush a fastball, but he suddenly proved feckless against sliders and cutters while remaining challenged against curves.

Some rebound should be expected in 2012, and the changes to his home park should boost his power, but it’s hard to recommend a player with two sub-par seasons out of the past three. A mid-season change of scenery might help, but the two candidates late last season—the Angels and the Rockies—represent very different hitting environments, making Wright an even greater gamble. In leagues where keepers are determined based on last year’s cost, it should be safe to cut Wright loose in all but the deepest of leagues and pick him up at a discount on draft day. Just don’t expect him to bounce back to the 900+ OPS hitter he was in the mid-2000s.

Brett Lawrie | Toronto Blue Jays
Shallow: NO
Medium
: BORDERLINE
Deep
: YES
AL-only
: YES
Super Deep
: YES

Although his arrival in the bigs was delayed by a broken hand, Lawrie still lit up Triple-A Las Vegas before and after his rehab, hitting .353/.415/.661 and earning an overdue late-season promotion. With the Jays, he further dispelled any concerns about the injury or the inflationary tendencies of the PCL and Vegas by staying hot, picking up three multi-hit games in his first five starts and finishing with a tidy .293/.373/.580 line with nine home runs in 171 plate appearances. His performance made him one of Kevin Goldstein’s Top 10 Favorite Prospects of 2011, in which Kevin also noted how Lawrie had overcome questions about his attitude.

Even better, Lawrie mashed in 2011 without sacrificing the patience and contact skills he’d shown in the minors, where his 18.0 K% and 8.0 BB% translated quite nicely to a big-league 18.1 K% and 9.4 BB%. Though his season ended with a broken middle finger, he should be fine for Spring Training, with the only side effect a possible concern for the fragility of his extremities. Still, some luck is evident in his 2011 performance from his .318 BABIP (.296 minor league BABIP) and 17 percent HR/FB, and pitchers typically catch up to late-season call-ups like Lawrie after they’ve had a chance to study him more. Considering his inflated stat line in a relatively small sample, Lawrie’s price could be similarly inflated in next year’s draft, making him a good keeper in most leagues to avoid that higher price. But a young player—even a highly regarded one—isn’t a sure thing in his sophomore season, so I’d recommend keeping a more established talent in shallower leagues.

Lonnie Chisenhall | Cleveland Indians
Shallow: NO
Medium
: NO
Deep
: YES
AL-only
: YES
Super Deep
: YES

I featured Chisenhall in my Value Picks column for much of last season as a single-league or deep mixed-league option. Never expected to be a top-tier third baseman, Chisenhall nonetheless made Kevin Goldstein’s list as Cleveland’s #2 prospect going into last season thanks to a sweet southpaw swing and modest power that project him as an “above-average third baseman.”

That’s hardly keeper material, although Chisenhall’s good-but-not-great 2011 line of .255/.284/.415 most likely came from his rapid advancement to the majors. He spent parts of two seasons at Double-A, but the third baseman saw just 292 plate appearances in Triple-A before getting the call, and he wasn’t overwhelming at either level. His .262/.333/.439 Double-A and .267/.353/.431 Triple-A averages were both bolstered by a high-contact (15.2 percent K%) and slightly impatient (8.5 percent BB%) plate approach that only became more extreme in the majors. Chisenhall drew just two free passes (one intentional) after July 30, for a 3.6 percent walk rate overall, though his 22.3 percent strikeout rate improved the longer he was in the league—he whiffed 29.4 percent of the time in July, as compared to 18.6 percent and 19.3 percent in August and September/October, respectively.

Both of these trends suggest that Chisenhall had been making adjustments, and 2012 should see more of the same. He is expected to remain a line-drive hitter with modest power, but he has job security—barring a Cord Phelps revolution—and should be a good, if not great, option at the hot corner as he continues developing. Even at a thin position like third base, though, this only makes him a keeper in deep or single-league formats.

Brandon Belt | San Francisco Giants
Shallow: NO
Medium
: NO
Deep
: BORDERLINE
NL-only
: YES
Super Deep
: YES

Few players had their roster chains yanked more than Belt in 2011. After new acquisition Aubrey Huff raked in 2010, Belt’s path to the Giants’ first baseman of the future was suddenly—if temporarily—blocked. Initially kept on the Opening Day roster in 2011, Belt was demoted after early struggles and then recalled a few weeks later to assume a bench role before breaking his wrist just days later on a pitch from Trever Miller. Belt returned after a month on the DL, struggled for several weeks, then went back down to the minors, returning yet again n September after Arizona had the division all but sewn up.

It’s little wonder, then, why Belt ended the season with a .225/.306/.412 line and a .257 TAv that was just above his 10th PECOTA percentile. Injury, inconsistent playing time, and learning a new position all contributed to this weak line, as did a tendency to swing for the fences. His 14.3 percent HR/FB is impressive, but (among batters with at least 200 plate appearances) his 43.8 percent flyball rate puts him 57th overall, and his miserable 13.8 percent line drive rate was 11th worst. Belt twice put up flyball rates above 40 percent in the minors, but those were always coupled with line drive rates of at least 22 percent.

Belt is clearly still figuring out the majors, and learning a new position while being shuffled on and off the active roster took its toll. He’s talented enough to merit continued consideration in deeper leagues, and even a crowded Giants outfield shouldn’t hold him back much longer. His weak season makes him a nice discount pickup on draft day if you want to take a chance on cutting him loose in deep leagues, while uncertain production and playing time make him a bad call in shallower formats.

David Ortiz | Boston Red Sox
Shallow: NO
Medium
: NO
Deep
: YES
AL-only
: YES
Super Deep
: YES

With the news that Big Papi has accepted arbitration and will thus remain in Boston, fantasy owners want to know if he’ll remain the productive hitter he was in 2011. In the final season of his contract, Ortiz had his best season since 2007—the first year of his expiring deal—hitting .309/.398/.554 with 29 homers and 96 RBI, representing a .322 TAv that blows past his 90th PECOTA projection. His time with the Sox since inking that four-year deal has been solid overall; he’s averaged 29 home runs and 101 RBI to go with a cumulative .284/.384/.536 triple-slash line.

The anomaly this past season can be attributed in part to his core ratios, particularly his strikeout rate. Heading into this season, Papi had a career 18.8 percent K%—quite respectable for any hitter, especially a slugger—although it had crept north of 20 percent in the past two seasons. This year, he whiffed at a 13.7 percent rate—a career best for Ortiz. Closer scrutiny reveals that much of that contact growth occurred on pitches outside the zone, even though he doesn’t seem to be swinging at those pitches more often than usual. This is supported by the fact that his 12.9 percent walk rate is right in line with his career average of 13.1 percent. He did hit more ground balls (41.1 percent) than ever before, while also cranking line drives at a 21.4 percent rate—his best clip since 2005’s 22.5 percent. This suggests that Ortiz altered his plate approach somewhat, even if his 12.2 percent HR/FB doesn’t reflect any corresponding drop in power.

In the absence of solid evidence like Lasik surgery or a crash course in high-contact hitting from Adrian Gonzalez, it’s hard to know whether this improvement in strikeouts is an anomaly or a trend. If Big Papi has shifted his swing plane or made other changes to decrease strikeouts, he could add batting average at the expense of home runs, which would change his impact on your fantasy roster. On the other hand, if this is just a blip, Ortiz could continue the slide some predicted for the rotund, aging designated hitter after subpar seasons in 2008 and 2009. Ortiz is “only” 36 this season—perhaps a tad early to expect him to crater completely, but there’s enough doubt in my mind that I’d only hang on to him in deeper leagues. If you do keep him, remember his slow start each of the past three seasons and remain patient—if he’s shown anything in his later career, it’s that it takes a while to get Big Papi going.

9 comments have been left for this article.

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