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January 31, 2012

The Keeper Reaper

First, Third, and DH for 1/31/12

by Michael Street

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For fantasy owners, the difference between first- and third-base eligibility is huge—at least in leagues that ignore defense. That defensive liability can still have repercussions in real-world baseball, however, which trickles down to fantasy if a player can’t stick at the hot corner. Last week’s news featured several players going from the right side of the diamond to the left, but not all of those moves may be permanent and not all may be beneficial.

Prince Fielder | Detroit Tigers (ADP 14)
Shallow: YES
Medium: YES
Deep: YES
AL-only: YES
Super Deep: YES

The long-awaited Fielder signing finally happened, and the destination is satisfying in a Father’s Day kind of way (despite the well-publicized estrangement between Prince and Papa). But fantasy owners groaned at the prospect of Fielder moving from Miller Park (where Fielder has a .286/.399/.566 lifetime average) to Comerica (.174/.240/.304 in a microscopic sample of 23 plate appearances). Comerica isn’t as small as Miller Park and lacks the retractable roof with its alleged effect on offenses, but Detroit’s power alley and right field wall are both about fifteen feet closer to home plate. Those dimensions may not matter much to Fielder anyway, though, since he wallops homers like this one or this trio that are deep enough to escape nearly any park. He may lose a few of the shorter ones in Detroit, but he’s still a guy who hammers pitches like John Henry driving steel, with a 21.8 percent HR/FB rate that was fourth-best in baseball last season.

After the park effects, the next question surrounded Fielder’s potential position—a dilemma possibly resolved by moving Cabrera to third base. More on that move below, but it does seem that designated hitter would be more suitable for Fielder, who logged a positive FRAA just once in full-season work (2010) and suffers by virtually any performance metric, including the naked eye. His physique simply (and literally) outweighs the surprising athleticism of a guy sporting a beer belly that would make Milwaukee proud, if not famous.

Any shift to a non-fielding position would demote Prince to the level of a duke or baron, fantasy-wise, and such a demotion seems inevitable. When age begins to diminish his ability to overcome Dunlop’s Disease, Prince will either need to bust out a new brand of Spanx or ride the pine when his team takes the field. So while Prince will likely decline only slightly in the near term, losing a few dingers, long-term decline is inevitable (as Steve Goldman explains), with his value plunging further with any shift off the diamond. Don’t trade Prince now, but don’t consider him your team’s fantasy anchor through 2020—or even through 2015.

Miguel Cabrera | Detroit Tigers (ADP 3)
Shallow: YES
Medium: YES
Deep: YES
AL-only: YES
Super Deep: YES

News of the Fielder signing had as much of an impact on his new teammates as it did on Fielder himself, as it now clouds the future of Victor Martinez when he returns and raises the question of what to do with two overweight first basemen. The easiest answer—to shift one to designated hitter—is not as easy as it appears at first blink, thanks to the egos of Cabrera and Fielder. Thus, the Tigers say they’ll shift Cabrera to third—an experiment that’s at least worth trying, despite its many detractors, ranging from Jay Jaffe’s analysis that the move isn't as bad as it appears to the more pedestrian comments of traditional analysts snickering at the notion of the 240-pound Cabrera fielding bunts and line drives at the hot corner.

Fantasy owners, however, reacted instantly to the news that one of the league’s top hitters would qualify at third base: Miggy’s stock has shot up 43 percent in mock drafts over the past two weeks (which, in the huge percentage shifts of top-ranked players, means he went from an ADP of 4.22 to 2.94). Given the experimental nature of the shift and its chance of failure, Cabrera may not even accrue the 20-game minimum most leagues require to qualify at a new position (although some leagues only require five or ten games for in-season eligibility).

So if you’re suddenly looking to acquire Cabrera on the strength of a third-base qualification, that’s a shaky investment in anything but a redraft league. On the other hand, if another owner wants to sell the farm in order to get Miggy from you, sell him while the market is at its peak. After a few games of seeing him try to get down on a hard-hit ground ball (it might help to cover the ball in chocolate sauce), your fellow owners may not be quite so enthusiastic about the possibility of Cabrera becoming a long-term hot-corner asset.

Mark Trumbo | Los Angeles Angels (ADP 142)
Shallow: NO
Medium: NO
Deep: BORDERLINE
AL-only: YES
Super Deep: YES

Another player whose team may shift him across the diamond is Trumbo, who won’t do more than spell Albert Pujols at first base while facing heavy competition at designated hitter from Torii Hunter, Bobby Abreu, and gosh-we-hope-he’s-really-healthy Kendrys Morales. Recently, manager Mike Scoscia discussed the possible move, saying that Trumbo won’t be more than an occasional player there, and an unnamed “team official” claimed the “best-best case scenario” would be 35-40 games for Trumbo.

Even more so than with Cabrera, Trumbo could take a while to qualify there in many leagues—if he does at all—and with good reason. Unlike Cabrera, Trumbo hasn’t played there as a professional (not since failing a tryout there early in his minor-league career, at least), so his claim on the hot corner is even weaker than Miggy’s. Plus, the Angels have Alberto Callaspo (.288/.366/.375, .273 TAv in 2011) as a regular starter, while Detroit’s alternative to Cabrera is Brandon Inge (.197/.265/.283, .201 TAv in 2011) or Don Kelly (.245/.291/.381, .245 TAv in 2011).

Don’t draft Trumbo for his third-base qualifications, but you may want to for his offensive qualifications. He finished second in Rookie of the Year balloting in 2011 thanks to a .254/.291/.477 season (.278 TAv), becoming the first Angel rookie to ever lead the team in homers and RBI and the first major-leaguer to do it since Jody Gerut did it with the 2003 Indians. Trumbo’s .223 ISO put him right behind Carlos Beltran and Alfonso Soriano, even as his batting average chafed fantasy owners. Of course, that .254 average wasn’t wholly unexpected from a guy who cracked .300 just once in the minors (.301 in his final season, at Salt Lake City). Some of the dropoff came from a .274 BABIP that was well below his .306 average in the minors, plus he displayed a good deal less patience than he did down on the farm (4.4 percent BB% with the Angels, versus 7.1 percent BB% in the minors). Trumbo also proved vulnerable to major-league offspeed and breaking pitches—also not unexpected from a rookie.

Along with his strong ISO came a good, repeatable, 17.9 percent HR/FB and a 20.9 percent strikeout rate that was right in line with his 19.1 percent K% in the minor leagues. I’d expect a bounceback from Trumbo in the batting average department and further growth in his power, but the question will be less how well he plays than how often. To compound the crowding issue at first base, designated hitter, and the outfield (where Trumbo played 33 games at Double-A and Triple-A), Trumbo is recovering from a stress fracture to his foot that stopped his season with five games left to play. The latter seems less of a concern, particularly since Scoscia has enough confidence in Trumbo’s foot to try him at a more physically demanding position, but owners should watch Spring Training to see how the depth chart shapes up. Trumbo’s talent and youth make him suitable for deeper leagues, but the playing-time risk means shallower leagues should look for safer bets to keep.

Hanley Ramirez | Miami Marlins (ADP 20)
Shallow: YES
Medium: YES
Deep: YES
NL-only: YES
Super Deep: YES

HanRam never got it going in 2011, sputtering out of the gates to a .242/.337/.370 start and never even reaching his 10th PECOTA percentile before ending his season for open surgery on his shoulder, something that likely contributed heavily to his offensive woes. Since then, Ramirez has roiled the placid Miami waters by whining about moving from shortstop to accommodate Jose Reyes, making things tough enough that the team wouldn’t commit to whether they’d keep one of their best players around in the future.

Fantasy owners are likely just as ticked off at Ramirez’s move from a premium position to a far less valuable one. Though the third base talent pool is forever shallow, having a player who averaged .313/.385/.521 with 25 homers and 39 steals between 2006-2010 is a league-changer at shortstop but merely elite at third base. Much as with Cabrera and Trumbo, however, Ramirez is not a lock for the hot corner. Unlike A-Rod—who shifted to the hot corner to accommodate the Yankees and team captain Derek Jeter—Ramirez is entering the prime of his career and could still be dealt to a team that would move him back to his favorite position.

Even if he remains at third base, Ramirez should keep racking up around 30 steals and 20 home runs each year; hitting behind Reyes and in front of Mike Stanton and Logan Morrison will surely boost his counting stats. Consistent strikeout rates around 15 percent and walk rates near or over 10 percent, in combination with his speed, will keep his batting average in the .300 range, solidifying his five-category status for years to come. So while it’s easy to wring your hands over the positional shift—though it certainly does degrade his value—that’s a bit like throwing yourself in front of a bus because your Mickey Mantle rookie card is worth $10,000 instead of $12,000 because it’s slightly creased. Hey, it’s still worth ten grand, and that ain’t peanuts.

Kyle Seager | Seattle Mariners (ADP 391)
Shallow: NO
Medium: NO
Deep: NO
AL-only: NO
Super Deep: NO

After spending most of his minor-league career at second base or shortstop, Seager moved to third base to replace Chone Figgins late last season after Chone hit like Figgy Pudding (.188/.241/.243, .199 TAv). Such awful production from their $36 million third baseman meant the Mariners were happy enough with Seager’s .258/.312/.379 final line at the hot corner. That underwhelming line looks better when you realize that Seager cruised through both Double-A Jackson (hitting .312/.381/.459) and Triple-A Tacoma (.387/.444/.585) in 2011—his first season at each level. Simply holding his own against big-league pitching after a year filled with adjustments at the plate and in the field is impressive.

Seager showed very strong secondary rates down on the farm, like his 10.4 percent walk rate and 13.3 percent strikeout rate; he whiffed only 35 times more than he walked in 1245 plate appearances. Those eye-popping numbers dropped precipitously against major-league competition, however—down to a more pedestrian 17.9 percent K% and 6.5 percent BB%. His minor-league .367 BABIP speaks more to solid contact than good luck, since he kept it over .300 throughout his minor-league travels and logged a .303 BABIP in 201 big-league plate appearances. His .154 ISO, however, is weak from a power position, and he only swiped 28 bags in the minors despite 48 attempts.

Even if we could expect a rebound in his ratios and primary stats, Seager doesn’t really belong at third base, which in the near future should belong to Alex Liddi (the rare Italian-born player, making new BP writer Max Marchi do a spit-take with his espresso). Seager is a much better fit at second, but he won’t move Dustin Ackley from the keystone, and he’s not likely to establish himself at short, either. Though Kevin Goldstein named Seager as Seattle’s #8 prospect before last season, it was in a “shallow system where the talent drops off quickly”—a dropoff that definitely occurs before the list reaches Seager. Kevin sees Seager’s ceiling as a utility player, which seems to be his future in Seattle, making him little more than waiver-wire fodder in most leagues. Nobody should be holding a keeper spot open for him.

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