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February 14, 2012

Preseason Value Picks

First, Third, and DH for 2/14/12

by Michael Street

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For those who have just fallen in love with fantasy baseball, draft day can seem like a box of chocolates: you never know what you might get. Will you get the coveted chocolate caramel, the dreaded orange cream, or the boring plain milk chocolate? Of course, savvy fantasy owners know to come armed with projections and predictions, and the wisest fantasy owners look to Baseball Prospectus for guidance. What better way to distinguish coconut from cherry-filled chocolate—or next year’s Matt Kemp from Carl Crawford?

Like any fantasy lover, I tore into last week’s PECOTA release with reckless abandon to come up with some sweet finds for next season—aka the players predicted for the biggest turnaround (or, if you like, the ones you can catch on the rebound.) Using the Player Forecast Manager, I found the corner infielders and designated hitters with the heftiest projected increase in dollar value, excluding those who are projected to remain below the $5 threshold or who missed most of last season. Rankings are based on a 12-team mixed league, and Average Draft Position (ADP) comes from mockdraftcentral.com.

Chris Davis | 1B/3B | Baltimore Orioles
Mixed: $10 | AL-only: $15 | PECOTA Rank: 130 | ADP: 390
PECOTA Projections:

PA

AVG

HR

SB

RBI

R

584

.262

25

3

82

72

Long a fantasy stathead darling, Davis has been a frequent topic of discussion in my column, and I covered his keeper prospects in one of my first offseason Keeper Reapers. There, too, I noted his oft-cited potential, and PECOTA seems to agree, at least as far as the power goes. Davis tops this list because of his awful performance last season, at least as measured in fantasy dollars. Hitting a combined .266/.305/.402 (.272 TAv) in 201 plate appearances for Texas and Baltimore, Davis lost his mixed-league owners $12.25 while earning a measly $1.50 for those who took a shot at him in AL-only leagues. That equates to a swing of more than $22 and $13, respectively, between his 2011 value and his 2012 projected value—the biggest differential among corner infielders and designated hitters, though expectations remain modest.

Davis’s PECOTA-projected .262/.301/.466 triple-slash line (.272 TAv) portends gains in the power department, adding 20 longballs to the mere five that he launched in 2011. That more of those 2011 homers came proportionally in Texas (three in 89 plate appearances, vs. two in 129 plate appearances for Baltimore) should give potential owners pause. Davis’s gimpy shoulder undoubtedly contributed to his power outage, and his 10 percent HR/FB rate was only matched in weakness by the 3.4 percent HR/FB he put up in 2010—a year of sporadic playing time that created much inconsistency.

Davis decided against offseason surgery on both his shoulder and sports hernia, adding fragility to the question marks surrounding a guy who hasn’t kept his strikeout rate below 29 percent in the past three seasons and whose swing percentage on pitches out of the strike zone peaked at 45.6 percent last season. This will be Davis’s last chance to fulfill his potential, and he has much to prove in a tough division and in a ballpark that hasn’t been friendly to him. This uncertainty has pushed his Average Draft Position well below his projected rank, however, making him a good selection as a late-round, low-dollar flier. Davis is more like the Jordan Almonds you pluck out of the box of chocolates when only the boring Messenger Boy is left—not a bad choice, but not anything you’d want when better options are still available.

Adam Dunn | 1B/DH | Chicago White Sox
Mixed: $8 | AL-only: $13 |
PECOTA Rank: 152 | ADP: 265
PECOTA Projections:

PA

AVG

HR

SB

RBI

R

601

.232

30

1

77

79

Unsurprisingly, Dunn was the poster child for Colin Wyers’s rollout of this season’s PECOTA, explaining the difference in how PECOTA weights past seasons. Most of your fellow owners won’t even touch Dunn until the late rounds, much in the way you avoid the generic-looking chocolates, unsure if they contain a shocking surprise. Jay Jaffe plumbed the depths of Dunn’s sucky 2012 season yesterday, with a warning to hide the kiddies at Dunn’s putrid production.

Like Davis, Dunn sits high on this list for dead-cat-bounce reasons: earning just $8 in mixed leagues would be nearly $19 more than the $10.55 Dunn lost owners in 2011. Because he actually earned positive value (a whopping $3.28) in AL-only leagues, his value only rises about $9 for those owners.

Also like Davis, Dunn was a frequent topic of offseason discussion. I looked at Dunn’s 2012 prospects a week after writing about Davis, pointing out Dunn’s decent chance for a rebound. Whatever the reason for Dunn’s White Sox misery, it’s rare for a player to go from this consistent to this awful so quickly and at such a (relatively) young age. PECOTA sees him returning to his 30-plus home run days (though getting back to his string of 40-homer years looks unlikely) with a slash line of .232/.357/.460 (.289 TAv) that’s quite Dunn-like, even if it too is below his peak years.

As Colin explained, other systems weight recent seasons more heavily than PECOTA does, and your fellow owners are likely to do the same. Though Dunn should be productive in 2012, and though he could be fueled by frustration at his 2011 enough to exceed PECOTA’s forecast, not many of your owners will want to take that chance. Name recognition has kept his ADP high, but not nearly as high as his projected value, making him another good late-round gamble. Take Dunn the way you might grab the coconut chocolate—not everyone likes it, and maybe it’s not exactly what you wanted, but it’s often times better than you remembered.

David Wright | 3B | New York Mets
Mixed: $20 | NL-only: $26 | PECOTA Rank: 34 | ADP: 33

PECOTA Projections:

PA

AVG

HR

SB

RBI

R

536

.290

20

19

80

84

David Wright—another 2011 disappointment that should find redemption in 2012—looked all wrong last season, losing about a third of the season to a stress fracture in his lower back. And he never looked the same after returning, hitting balls into the turf at an unprecedented 42.4 percent rate. The disappointing Wright earned just $5.17 in mixed leagues and roughly $15 in NL-only leagues, setting him up for a bounce-back year.

The 20 home runs PECOTA projects would be far from his standards, though; excluding 2011 and his horrible Cain-to-the-brain 2009, Wright’s never hit fewer than 26 dingers, and he generally approaches 30. PECOTA can’t take Citi Field’s new fences into account, so he could beat that projection in 2012, and with a consistent track record of batting averages above .300, Wright could top that PECOTA forecast too. Despite last season’s physical problems and increasing struggles against breaking pitches, Wright maintained his plate approach, posting a 21.7 percent strikeout rate—his best since 2008—and an 11.6 percent walk rate that’s a tad higher than his 11.2 percent career average.

The rest of Wright’s projected triple-slash is similarly modest (as PECOTA tends to be), and his .373 OBP and .475 SLG would be below his own pre-injury standards. But that still puts him very high on the list, both in overall rankings and ADP, meaning that other owners expect him to rebound, too. When I wrote up Wright earlier in the offseason, I mentioned the disillusionment (and consequent devaluation) that other owners might feel, sparking a lively discussion about keeper valuation. He’s definitely someone to take if you can get a discount on him, but I wouldn’t overbid on a player who has scuffled so much in the past three seasons. Consider him a caramel nut cluster—satisfying, well-balanced, and among the favorites every year.

Albert Pujols | 1B | Los Angeles Angels
Mixed: $44 | AL-only: $31 |
PECOTA Rank: 1 | ADP: 3
PECOTA Projections:

PA

AVG

HR

SB

RBI

R

697

.305

37

11

111

107

Whatever your favorite chocolate is, that’s what Pujols is, too, although he didn’t seem like it last season. After a slow first two months (he hit .265/.335/.412 with just nine home runs through June 2), everyone wondered if the Machine had thrown a rod (which is serious), but Pujols busted out of his slump by cranking five home runs over his next four games, returning to superhuman form for the rest of the season. That awful start still dragged him down to the level of mere mortals for the season, though, as his .299/.366/.541 triple-slash line (.315 TAv) with 37 home runs and 99 RBI earned his mixed-league owners only $30.26 (with NL-only owners netting a similar figure at $31.52). Even those numbers would be fine for most players, but this is Albert Pujols we’re talking about. Except for home runs, all of those stats were career worsts for him, and his 2011 draft day price was surely higher than $30.

PECOTA sees significant rebounds from Phat Albert in all areas but home runs, and why not? His .277 BABIP in 2012 was also a career low, while his HR/FB rates were consistent with his recent performance. About the only areas where he declined were in his walk rate and batted ball profile. His 9.4 percent walk rate was a career low, well below his 13.1 percent career average or the 15.8 percent level he’d maintained over the previous three seasons. His 44.7 ground ball rate was also his worst ever (read: his highest ever, which is not favorable for a power hitter), something that partly explains his slow start, as it returned to more normal levels as the season progressed. He did look vulnerable to fastballs and sliders—not a good sign from a guy who usually feasts on them.

Still, his projected 305/.402/.556 line (.340 TAv) puts him right back where he used to be, and only the uncertainty of a new league, team, and park could diminish it any. I take 2011 as a reminder that even the Machine is actually human inside and that sometimes even a river of pure chocolate can be spoiled by a fat, greedy kid. I’d still take Pujols at the top of my draft list for sheer consistency. Matt Kemp—currently drafted at number one—has yet to show it, while Cabrera—the second player off the board—may have his glove more than his bat on his mind. After all, sticking by the one you love is what Valentine’s Day is all about.

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