December 30, 2011
The Keeper Reaper
First, Third, and DH for 12/30/12
Keeper debates are some of the best discussions in fantasy, livening up the offseason and revealing the strategies—and possibly the personalities—of owners and analysts and the leagues we play in. For example, I tend to stick with more established players rather than hot young rookies, but my keeper leagues have shallow keeper rosters to improve year-to-year parity.
But I know other owners who love to take long shots and deep cuts, just so they can brag about the depth of their baseball knowledge. Other owners use keepers to anchor in-season strategy, locking up certain categories before Draft Day even begins. This week I’ll look at a few players that appeal to various keeper strategies, starting with the one signing of note since my last column. If you’ve got a keeper you’d like to hear about, leave your suggestion in the comments section.
Current average draft positions (ADP) from mockdraftcentral.com are indicated, and each category links to a list of each format’s 2011 dollar values.
As Ben Lindbergh points out in Transaction Analysis, Blake is the most vanilla player you can imagine, though that’s not a bad thing—most BP readers would be happy with a career as an average MLB third baseman, as would I. That consistency can be appealing to fantasy owners, too: knowing that you have a solid third baseman can ease a lot of worries.
The problem is that Blake has combined his average-ness with increasing fragility. His injury history looks like a game of Operation, though Blake’s wish bone currently looks safe from the tweezers of adolescent surgeons. Offseason surgery should help the neck problems that kept him off the diamond in 2011, and in-season surgery fixed his elbow issues, but it’s only a matter of time before something else goes kerflooey on Blake. If healthy, he’ll probably drop 20-plus bombs on Blake Street, but that will be combined with a batting average around .260 and almost no steals. Having a starting position makes Blake playable in most leagues, and Nolan Arenado won’t push him out of that starting spot this season, but only the most extreme risk-embracing, average-loving NL-only owners will keep him on their rosters.
Another signing this week affected the fantasy corners, as the arrival of Carlos Beltran combined with the departure of Albert Pujols cements Berkman as the Cardinals’ 2012 first baseman. This comes as a relief to glove-lovers everywhere, as only Ichiro Suzuki, Melky Cabrera, and Curtis Granderson had a lower FRAA than Berkman’s -10.9 among outfielders in 2011. Watching Berkman play right field is only slightly less cringe-worthy than watching Nancy Grace on Dancing with the Stars—probably because the two share similar physiques.
Defensive metrics aside, Fat Elvis trimmed that physique and had a rebound year after escaping from New York and Houston to Busch Stadium, confounding park-effect prognosticators everywhere. Those prognosticators can find solace in his .307/.418/.610 line away from St. Louis, however, which definitely helped his .301/.412/.547, 31-home run final slash line—his best year since 2008 and well above PECOTA’s 90th percentile projection of .294/.413/.504 and 24 homers. Berkman lost that juice in the second half, when he hit only 7 of his 31 longballs, losing 123 points of SLG along the way.
Overall, he reversed three seasons of rising groundball and line drive rates without adding to his fly ball rates, all while keeping his core ratios consistent with career levels. Other owners could end up overpaying for Berkman’s first half, and he’s more likely to take a step backwards than he is to repeat 2011’s performance. Additionally, injury is always a concern, no matter how small the Big Puma has become. His ADP sits right where it should be for this kind of risk, making him worth cutting loose in shallower leagues, but he’ll retain his outfield qualification in most leagues, balancing any statistical erosion with positional flexibility.
Montero is precisely the sort of player beloved by owners with a longer horizon, although as a Yankee who was Kevin Goldstein’s third overall prospect heading into 2011, he’s hardly a sleeper pick. In his small-sample 69 plate appearances last season, Montero hit .328/.406/.590 (.342 TAv), beating PECOTA’s .323/.368/.531 (.308 TAv) 90th percentile projection. Beneath those numbers lie a solidly patient 10.1 percent walk rate and an elevated 24.6 percent strikeout rate that, while fine for a power hitter, should come down (he whiffed only 16.5 percent of the time in the minors). Montero looks like the real deal, and he only turned 22 last month.
While Montero is a keeper lock for owners with a longer horizon, his short-term value is more in doubt. Position eligibility is part of the problem with Montero, since Joe Girardi played him at catcher in just three of Montero’s 24 games, the rest coming at designated hitter. Early indications are that he won’t be the regular backstop in 2012, either, making it hard to see him qualifying as a fantasy catcher until May at the very earliest. The Yankees want to play him at catcher eventually, but it will take patience from both them and fantasy owners to cash in on that value, and defense has never been his strong suit. Even as a designated hitter, he’ll bring fantasy value, but that value is diminished by position inflexibility—as a catcher, he’s gold, but as a DH, he’s merely sterling silver.
This is all assuming that he develops behind the plate under the bright lights and microscopic scrutiny of New York City—I can’t help thinking of how horribly the Joba Rules turned out—and the Yankees haven’t developed a top-flight major-league hitter not named Robinson Cano from their farm system since Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada. Additionally, a sophomore slump is likely even from a talented hitter, since teams will have a better scouting report against Montero in 2012. Owners in deep formats and plenty of patience should hang onto Montero, but those in the shallowest leagues can find surer shots to finish among the league’s top 30 players in 2011.
Toronto played musical chairs at the infield and outfield corners, as well as at designated hitter, this past season, and when the music stopped at the end of the season, E5 was still looking for a chair. Though that sounds like versatility, such a term is an insult to truly versatile defenders like Ben Zobrist and Michael Young (or truly versatile musicians like this guy). In the case of Encarnacion, this alleged versatility was a matter of playing him where he hurt Toronto’s defense the least. In Jason Collette’s earlier piece on Encarnacion, he noted that Toronto would now try E5 at the outfield to broaden his abuse of the defensive spectrum, even as it adds to his fantasy value with position flexibility.
But defense isn’t the one note that Encarnacion plays—it’s his power, and that note fell a little flat in 2011. He gave up pop for batting average, continuing an annual trend of increasing his contact rate—he’s gone from a woeful 75.7 percent in his rookie season to last year’s wholly respectable 84.5 percent—and his walk rate has increased (albeit incrementally) each season since coming to the AL in 2009. Last season, that led to E5’s best OBP since 2008, a decent .334 mark, and a batting average of .272, his second-best ever. In the process, though, he produced his worst AB/HR rate since 2007 and a .453 SLG that nailed his career average exactly.
If you assume that this is a trend and not an anomaly, E5 loses value by taking away his one powerful note, even as it makes him less of a drag in the other categories. And if he shifts to the outfield, he eventually loses the third base designation that makes his skillset appealing. With this apparent shift in skills and continuing positional uncertainty, Encarnacion makes (as Jason suggested) a better late-round flyer than a keeper, but gamblers in the deepest mixed and AL-only leagues can give him a whirl if they see a power rebound coming.
I could just as easily have listed each of Reynolds’s recommendations as “BORDERLINE,” since he’s a two-category stud in 5x5 leagues who has the potential to kill you in one category and offer no help in the fourth. For the past three seasons, Reynolds has been in the top six in baseball in home runs, but his career .238 batting average undercuts that boost significantly. Still, he earned double-digit fantasy dollars in all formats last season, peaking at $23 in AL-only leagues, and having a player who has averaged 35 home runs, 92 RBI, and 87 runs over the past four seasons is nothing to sneeze at.
Unlike Encarnacion, little about Reynolds’s recent makeup seems to be changing. He did post his best K% last season since his 2007 rookie campaign, but a drop of just 1.6 percent from his 33.2 percent career average isn’t much of an improvement. His walk rate continues to hover around 10 percent, but a Three True Outcomes player like Reynolds is more vulnerable than your average bear to the blessings of the BABIP Fairy. That fairy has stayed away from him the past two seasons, giving him a BABIP of .261 after averaging .343 over the last three seasons. The Fairy could return in 2012, or his recent run might just reflect improved defensive positioning against Reynolds’s all-or-nothing approach.
Depending on your strategy, you might love to have a guy who will bring you 30-90-90 in home runs, RBI, and runs, or you might flee in terror from someone sure to weigh down your batting average with a number around the Mendoza Line. And if he moves across the diamond to accommodate Chris Davis, Reynolds will lose the position eligibility that makes those numbers much tastier. This all makes him less of a lock in shallower leagues than his consistent power might suggest, and any decision about keeping him will be affected by his owner’s fantasy strategy.