December 16, 2011
The Keeper Reaper
First, Third, and DH for 12/16/11
As the post-Pujols dominoes begin falling—with more to come after Prince Fielder finds a home—two corner infielders found a home last week, further shifting the balance of power in the NL Central. And as the speculation-driven hot-stove season kicks into gear, I’ll also look at some standouts from the mock drafts at mockdraftcentral.com.
The biggest post-Pujols signing had been rumored for some time, and Cubs fans already knew they’d have to wave goodbye to their third baseman of the last eight-plus seasons well before Ramirez inked a three-year contract with the Brewers, where he figures to slide into the lineup behind MVP Ryan Braun. Ramirez hit .294/.356/.531 for the Cubbies, but he’s averaged a less robust .287/.355/.499 over the past four seasons. That production hit a nadir in 2010, when Ramirez posted a career low in line drive rate (15.8 percent) and a career high in fly-ball percentage (56.8 percent). Those were most likely attributable to the thumb problems that dogged him all season—an assumption bolstered by his return to more expected trajectory levels in 2011.
On the whole, Ramirez had solid core ratios for much of his time in Chicago, putting up contact rates consistently above 80 percent, with contact rates on strikes hovering around 90 percent and relatively impatient walk rates around his career 7.2 percent mark. While he hasn’t maintained the .260-plus ISOs he had during his first three full seasons as a Cubbie, he’s averaged a very respectable .212 the past four years.
CHIPPER rated him with the dreaded red skull-and-crossbones in all categories for 2011, and this fragility plus inevitable age-related decline have dropped him out of the elite levels of third basemen. Still, he should have a very good lineup around him and a friendly home field. This signing is among the best that Ramirez’s fantasy owners could hope for, and Miller Park’s warmer indoor environment might even prevent the early season slumps Ramirez endured at chilly, breezy Wrigley Field.
Soon after signing Ramirez, the Brewers made room for him by trading their current third baseman, Casey McGehee, to Pittsburgh. Milwaukee had snatched McGehee off the waiver wire in 2008 from the Cubs and then watched as he took over for a flatlining Bill Hall in 2009, recording an impressive .301/.360/.499 triple-slash line. McGehee’s production slipped a bit in 2010, but he still managed a .285/.337/.464 line with 23 home runs and a team-high 104 RBI, beating out teammates Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, and Corey Hart.
This season, however, the wheels fell off McGehee’s little red wagon, and his numbers collapsed across the board despite no discernible change in his plate approach. His 7.5 BB% was identical to 2010, and his strikeouts were right in the ballpark of 15-17. Still, his final .223/.280/.346 line (.221 TAv) was well below his 10th percentile PECOTA.
Though he made contact at established career levels—83.1 percent in 2011—McGehee hit half of his balls in play on the ground in 2011—his worst level since 2008’s 25-plate-appearance cup o’ joe. This continued a trend of rising ground ball rates in the past three seasons, coming largely at the expense of his fly balls. For a speedier runner, this kind of ground-ball rate might be sustainable, but when you’ve got McGehee’s Ruthian build, it goes a long way in explaining his .249 BABIP and .129 ISO this season—both his worst performances since 2008.
A new team and new hitting coach could help McGehee reverse those trends and show that 2011 was an anomaly. Pittsburgh hasn’t had good production from a third baseman since Freddy Sanchez in 2006, and superstud Pedro Alvarez has done everything possible to avoid seizing the reins at the hot corner. McGehee will definitely be behind Alvarez at third base and Garrett Jones at first base headed into Spring Training; those with late keeper deadlines should watch for any hints of a change, as neither player is a lock to start. McGehee’s being given a chance to succeed, which could be enough for desperate owners with late deadlines, but the rest of us should wait to see which McGehee shows up in 2012.
One of the biggest movers in mock drafts, Butler has risen more than 30 percent to a draft position that would place him just outside the “Deep” category, which seems to be selling a solid hitter short. His career-high 95 RBI were 24th in baseball last season, and his .291 average was 59th despite being his worst performance in that category since 2008. His solid secondary skills—BB% rates pushing 10 percent and contact rates around the 83 percent mark—make him highly projectable. PECOTA’s 50th percentile of .294/.358/.447 (.284 TAv) almost nailed his .291/.361/.461 line (.291 TAv) in 2011.
The problem with Butler is two-fold, however. He lacks punch—his .169 ISO tied him with Travis Hafner for 117th overall in 2011—and he’s been shifted to the designated-hitter role since Eric Hosmer’s arrival. Playing just 11 games at first base last season will lose him that qualification in many leagues, consigning him to the fantasy gulag of designated hitter, which can only be played in the Utility spot in standard leagues. Your league’s roster composition may vary—I play in a few leagues with two Utility spots, and some AL-only leagues feature a DH spot—but DH-only players like Butler amount to roster cholesterol for most of us. Depending on league roster composition, Butler could be a keeper in your medium league, but he’s best kept in deeper leagues, just as his current mock draft position suggests.
Once a top-tier fantasy option, Howard is currently being drafted behind first-base mediocrities like Gaby Sanchez, the past-his-prime Carlos Lee, and the not-yet-ready-for-his-prime Brandon Belt. Offseason Achilles surgery for the injury that added insult to the Phillies’ playoff departure explains some of this deflation, as Howard is likely to be out until at least May.
Howard’s been a very dependable power commodity for the last six seasons, leading the league in RBI for three of those years, in homers for two of them, and consistently cresting the 30 home run, 100-RBI mark. He’s even managed to trim the fat off his strikeout numbers: his K% has fallen from a 30.7 percent peak in 2007 to a 26.2 percent average the past three seasons. His walk rates, consistently around 10 percent, help his OBP even as they diminish his at-bats and subject his average even more to the whims of BABIP.
Howard’s power, however, has dropped significantly of late. After four straight seasons of 40-plus home runs (including his 58-bomb 2006 campaign), Howard has hit only 31 and 33 homers in the past two seasons, while his HR/FB levels have fallen from elite levels over 30 percent from 2006 to 2008 to three straight seasons only over 20 percent.
Those are still good levels, but their decline plus Howard’s age and uncertain health status for next season have pushed his draft position this low. That devaluation could make him a prime candidate for a draft day discount—as discussed in last week’s comments section—so owners in shallower leagues might consider cutting him loose. But he’s too valuable a commodity to give up on entirely, even with this level of uncertainty, making him someone to hang onto in the deepest of formats.
Howard’s owners might be frightened by looking at Morales, whose return last season was delayed more often than the arrival of personal jet packs. Despite optimism from Morales and manager Mike Scoscia, Morales never returned from the infamous 2009 celebration-induced broken ankle, and his rehab from a second surgery continues even now.
Even after signing this season’s top free agent, the Angels tendered a contract to Morales instead of cutting him loose (as had been rumored), adding to their logjam at first base and designated hitter. They could be protecting themselves against an injury stack, a Mark Trumbo sophomore slump, or merely to have as trade bait once he’s healthy, but Los Angeles is clearly not ready to give up on Morales just yet. Should fantasy owners follow suit?
As with Howard, Morales has an uncertain outlook; unlike Howard, however, Morales has just one stellar year to his credit: his .306/.355/.569, 34-HR, 108-RBI 2009 season. Little about that year suggested a fluke, as his secondary ratios of 18.8 percent K% and 7.4 percent BB% were both consistent with his minor-league levels, and he began 2010 by shaving his whiffs to 14.7 percent (though his walks slipped to 5.7 percent). Still, there’s no reason that the Cuban import shouldn’t deliver on his promise, assuming good health and a position to play.
Morales owners in the deepest of leagues who kept him all last season could keep him and risk throwing good money after bad, but his uncertain status for 2011 should make AL-only owners especially wary, as Morales could be swapped to a team in the senior circuit. He’s not the longshot at fantasy relevance that McGehee represents, and Morales has a much better chance to return to near-elite levels, but keeping Morales in any league is the sign of a gambling—or desperate—disposition.