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January 13, 2012
The Keeper Reaper
First, Third, and DH for 1/13/12
Since last week’s column, Chicago hedged its first base bets by acquiring another Triple-A masher, while Luke Scott and Tampa Bay have reportedly come to terms on a one-year deal. But other teams (and fantasy owners) continue to await the fates of bigger names like Prince Fielder, Carlos Pena, Derrek Lee and Vladimir Guererro. Until those long-delayed deals come to fruition, I’ll look at two other fantasy options at the infield corners, one a personal favorite of mine. If you’ve got any faves that haven’t been covered, leave your suggestions in the comments section.
Rizzo’s midseason callup in 2011 caused quite a stir, and he became an immediate add on my Value Picks list—hardly surprising for one of the pieces of the Adrian Gonzalez swap. BP2010 speculated that Rizzo would recover batting average while maintaining power in 2011, which he definitely did in the minors, rising from a .260/.334/.480 line in 2010 (combined across High-A and Double-A) to .331/.404/.652 in Triple-A. But his secondary rates remained remarkably consistent across the two levels:
So the performance difference probably came more from the friendly hitting environment of Tucson and the PCL than a major step forward in Rizzo’s development, a judgment confirmed when Rizzo didn’t live up to those high expectations after his promotion. Instead of mashing (his Triple-A .320 ISO fell to .102 with San Diego), Rizzo flailed, as his once-tolerable whiff rate skyrocketed to 30.1 percent—only acceptable when matched with elite power levels, which he didn’t show. The good news about Rizzo’s promotion is that his walk rate sat at a very patient 13.7 percent, and PETCO’s well-known power-dampening effects no doubt muffled his ISO.
With Chicago, Rizzo should start 2012 in the minors, where he will get some more seasoning, and he’ll be up as soon as Bryan LaHair stumbles. Rizzo could end up being a Quad-A hitter, but he’s hardly been given the chance to prove himself yet; 2011’s awful .141/.281/.242 line came from just 153 plate appearances, and a fresh start with a new coaching staff and new ballpark could be just the ticket to allow him to realize his potential. He’s too unproven to warrant a keeper spot in all but the deepest leagues, and even that’s a gamble—the rest of us can monitor the 2012 waiver wire for his inevitable call-up.
Ahead of Rizzo on the Cubs’ depth chart is LaHair, another hitter who bears the Quad-A label, but in LaHair’s case, there’s much more reason for doing so. In six seasons at Triple-A, he’s hit .297/.368/.528 with 123 home runs and 453 RBI—both impressive in a Crash Davis kind of way.
In his previous big-league stint, LaHair hit .250/.315/.346 (.228 TAv) in 150 plate appearances with the 2008 Mariners, succeeding Richie Sexson (.218/.315/.381, .268 TAv) and sharing time with Miguel Cairo (.249/.316/.330, .263 TAv). Unable to outhit either the fading slugger he replaced or the fading utility infielder he split time with, LaHair didn’t sniff his next cup of joe until 2011. Now with Chicago, he hit .288/.377/.508 in 69 plate appearances of late-season garbage time.
LaHair will be Chicago’s starting first baseman to begin 2012, but hopes that he’ll keep hitting like this (like so many hopes in Cubbietown) are likely in vain. In all the time he spent in the minors, LaHair remained remarkably consistent—or, to look at it another way, he failed to develop. His strikeout rate stayed between 18.8 and 24.0 percent, averaging 21.5, while his walk rate rose in his early career, peaking at 12.4 percent in 2008 and thereafter generally hovering around his 9.3 percent career average. Those are both solid marks, but until he demonstrates his ability to do the same in the majors, he remains suspect.
Right now, any LaHair stumbles in Spring Training or the early season will make his seat awfully hot, and new GM Jed Hoyer may want to turn to Rizzo, the guy he’s now traded for twice. If LaHair’s skills do manifest themselves, he’d be very valuable, but there’s generally a reason that a guy hasn’t sat in a big-league dugout for three full seasons. Crash Davis fans and believers in late bloomers can keep LaHair rostered, but most owners can find surer bets elsewhere.
For a player with a name just one letter away from a desperate hottie, Longoria didn’t have such a hot year in 2012. An oblique strain in April—part of a rash of such injuries in the early season—kept Longoria off the field for a month and quashed his power throughout the first half, when he hit just .239/.321/.459. Longo rebounded in the second half, recovering both power and patience to hit .249/.382/.525, but his overall .244 batting average was the worst in his professional career (leaving out his 30-PA .200 in 2008). He made up for that batting average slide in other ways, posting his best AB/HR and AB/RBI ratios of his career, and his .320 TAv nailed his 90th PECOTA projection.
As ever, his batting average slipped thanks to the vagaries of BABIP—also a career low at .239 and far below his .301 career average. But things balanced out for Longoria here too, as his 14.6 HR/FB ratio was a skosh above his 12.4 percent average and second only to his 15.2 percent rookie-year mark. Even better, Longo continued his trend of improving secondary ratios since reaching the majors.
Longoria has therefore done little to diminish his ranking among the third-base elite of both fantasy and real-world baseball. Nothing about last season’s performance should keep him off your keeper roster, something even a desperate fantasy owner—or housewife—should recognize.
I named Sandoval as the “Player I Won't Give Up On At Any Point During the Season, No Matter How Irrational It May Be” during our BP Fantasy preseason predictions, and that’s a good thing. As if on a karate-chop bet gone wrong, the Kung Fu Panda fractured his hamate bone, leading to questions about his ability to recover completely this season. While his return wasn’t as rapid as another player with a broken wrist, Sandoval’s return was just as dramatic as Albert Pujols’s, if not more so.
Sandoval went hitless in only two of his thirty-two games after coming back to the lineup, hitting .316/.354/.511 and continuing his hot start. His .315/.357/.552 final line wasn’t as good as his 2009 breakthrough of .330/.387/.556, but his .310 TAv pushed his 90th PECOTA percentile, and his 18.5 AB/HR was a career best. Some of this rebound was helped by a BABIP that recovered from .291 to a more Panda-like .320, and Sandoval maintained career norms in plate discipline.
Kung Fu Panda gave ground in other areas, setting career worsts in contact rates inside the zone, first pitch-strike, and swinging-strike percentages, although only the first represented an extreme drop-off. He’s been volatile enough over the past three seasons for this to add another note of keeper caution, though I like him enough to keep him in medium leagues. Other owners with less of a man-crush on the Round Mound of Pound might exercise more caution with him, but his statistical recovery in 2011 is likely to inflate his draft day value if you cut him loose.
Playing several positions for Baltimore and Houston, Scott tantalized fantasy owners with bursts of excellence often undercut by injury or inconsistency. Dogged by problems with the left side of his body—thigh, foot, and especially his shoulder—Scott also struggled against pitchers throwing from their left side. For his career, he’s hit 30 points lower and slugged 52 points lower against southpaws—a difference dramatic enough to make him more of a platooner of late. His defensive limitations also pushed him more towards a designated hitter role, further diminishing his fantasy impact.
With the Rays, he should slide in as their everyday DH, giving him a chance to erase the platoon label (as he did in 2007 and 2009). And with his bum shoulder now fixed by the surgery that ended his 2011, Scott could also remove the “Fragile: Handle With Care” label. What he won’t be able to change, however, is his dismal performance at Tropicana Field. At the Trop—the “only professional sports facility that features live cownose rays”—Scott holds a career line of .202/.291/.365 in 117 plate appearances, his worst performance in any park where he’s had more than 100 PAs. Of course, that’s an incredibly small sample, but hitting in Camden Yards (.291/.377/.566 career) and the Juicebox (.254/.346/.524 career) boosted his overall line of .264/.349/.494, leading to a 159-point OPS career home-road split.
Further dampening his owners’ spirits is Scott’s strikeout tendencies. A career 20.3 percent K% isn’t terrible, and it’s tastier matched with his .230 ISO, but it will depress his batting average, even as his equally stable 11.1 percent BB% helps owners in OBP leagues. Health, home field disadvantage, and future positional limitation diminish Scott’s value in most leagues, but a starting gig at the position where he fits best makes him a keeper for owners in the deepest leagues.