February 24, 2012
Preseason Value Picks
Second, Short, and Catcher for 2/24/11
Soto is one puzzling player. A year removed from a disastrous 2009 campaign, he posts a strong bounce-back season in 2010 by hitting .280 with 17 home runs. Then in 2011, he posts another disastrous line led by a .228 batting average. At this point, fantasy owners might as well be flipping coins to try and figure out whether this year will be a good or bad Soto season, right?
Well, there are some positives to be discussed even amid an awful 2011 year. Yes, it took Soto 100 more plate appearances, but he still managed to hit 17 home runs with an almost identical number of runs and RBI. His 2011 HR/FB rate of 14.2 percent exactly matches his career rate, so it is likely that, even if he struggles with balls in play, a similar number of balls will continue to leave the yard for Soto. A home run total close to the 19 PECOTA projects is completely within reason.
Soto's value will ultimately come down to his batting average, which is as fickle as they come. PECOTA is taking a neutral stance by projecting what is essentially his career average, and with that average, fantasy owners would be looking at a good commodity heading into 2012. The scary thing about Soto's bad batting average in 2011 was that it was more fueled by a career-high 26 percent strikeout rate than it was by bad BABIP luck. Much of this was due to Soto swinging at more pitches out of the zone than he did in his strong 2010:
Both of those skills are a lot more repeatable than batting average overall, so the numbers do point to a performance that could wind up being worse than PECOTA's .259 projection (though nowhere near his 2011 mark). Fantasy players are currently viewing Soto among the last viable primary catchers in mixed leagues, behind names like Wilson Ramos and ahead of second catcher options like Nick Hundley. Among the players being drafted ahead of him, PECOTA likes him more than J.P. Arencibia and Matt Wieters, and though you could make an argument either way here, it is undeniable that Soto's history and strong basic skill set make him a more appealing option than many of the lower-tier, first-catcher options. Instead of banking on a player like Arencibia with well-known strikeout issues, betting on a Soto regression campaign seems like a wiser choice, and winning on that bet would pay huge dividends.
Johnson has had a similar roller coaster ride as Soto over the last three seasons, alternating good and bad years. He is also similar in that he struggled with strikeouts in 2011. The difference, however, is that his approach has not changed all that significantly:
It turns out that much of Johnson’s seasonal difference comes from contact inside the zone rather than outside. Johnson made contact on 81 percent of pitches in the zone in 2011, but that mark had been 86 percent in 2010 and for much of his career prior. It seems likely that he will regress a good deal to his old contact rates, which should again help to bring his average back up.
As for the rest of Johnson's game, we mentioned it earlier this offseason that a full season of hitting in Toronto may be a huge boon to Johnson's power, and expecting another 20-plus home runs is highly plausible. Toronto's offense should be good enough to feed Johnson plenty of runs and RBI opportunities, ultimately leading to a relatively successful campaign that is currently being underrated by ADP; by the end of 2012, Johnson should outperform players like Aaron Hill and Jose Altuve.
Cozart was mentioned earlier this offseason, and here is what was said:
His decent strikeout rate (16.5 percent in the minors) and BABIP (.305) indicate a player who can at least push a .260 batting average, and a package of double-digit steals and homers at the shortstop position should be worth selecting in deeper leagues in the same way that Cliff Pennington and Ian Desmond are good choices in those leagues.
Sure enough, come PECOTA's release, we see almost exactly what was predicted for him earlier this year. Cozart's surprising power over the last two seasons seems like it well in the majors, especially when playing in Great American Ball Park. With no one standing in the way of a starting job, there is a decent chance that Cozart logs even more plate appearances than he’s projected for, upping his counting stats and giving fantasy owners a little more upside than options like Jed Lowrie and Rafael Furcal present. Cozart should be a solid NL-only selection and a fringe final shortstop choice in mixed leagues.
Quietly, over the last three seasons in part-time play, Ryan Raburn has hit a solid .274/.329/.473 with only a .327 BABIP sticking out as slightly aberrant. His power is real; he hits enough fly balls (44 percent career rate) to lift his share of homers out of the park, and his 12.2 percent career HR/FB rate appears reasonable. With Detroit's offense getting better this offseason with the addition of Prince Fielder, it may provide a higher run environment in which Raburn's 19 projected home runs can flourish.
As an outfielder, Raburn was a decent player but was not on the radar of many fantasy players. As a second baseman, however, he should catch the interest of players looking to fill gaps in their lineup late in mixed league drafts. Right now, his ADP has him next to Brian Roberts and Gordon Beckham, and with a decent chance to start at second for the Tigers, there is no reason for Raburn to be drafted alongside players who have struggled or been injured over the last two years. His projected power output trumps all but the best second basemen in fantasy this year, and that alone should get him some late-round recognition. The only question for owners is whether manager Jim Leyland will have the patience to accept his defensive misgivings in the infield, since Raburn is generally rated by defensive statistics as a butcher at the keystone. If he does last through the season getting close-to-regular at-bats, fantasy owners should have a quality second baseman on their hands.