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March 6, 2012
Preseason Value Picks
First, Third, and DH for 3/6/12
Spring Training games began this past weekend, and roster attrition has already begun, shooting down the goal of most managers to get to Opening Day with a healthy starting lineup. AJ Burnett showed why bunting isn’t as easy as David Letterman would have you believe, while Corey Hart will miss his second consecutive Spring Training with torn knee cartilage.
On my positional beat, injuries came in several flavors: devastating, longer-than-expected, and shorter-than-expected. In the devastating category, Scott Sizemore had barely taken the field when he blew out the ACL in his left knee, and the A’s are now looking for internal replacements for the remainder of the season. Ryan Howard had a setback that wasn’t a setback after his sutures developed an infection, leaving the Phillies with a gaping hole at first base until his indefinite return. And in Braves’ camp, Freddie Freeman showed why it’s better to be 22 than 32 as he is healing faster than expected from his dislocated knee.
If the Lethal Weapon series taught us anything, it’s that dislocated limbs are no big deal, and Freddie Freeman seems to be learning Martin Riggs’s lesson by recovering faster than expected from his own dislocated kneecap. This is hardly unexpected from someone who shares a secret identity with Captain Marvel, Jr. (who once recovered from a broken back himself, albeit with help from the wizard Shazam). As Collateral Damage points out, it’s not a very serious injury, but it has happened to him before, so the potential exists that (like Riggs) it will continue to pop in and out—something that would only be helpful if Freeman is trying to escape from some sort of straitjacket for his legs.
Freeman should return to the field this week with a knee brace and, barring any further dislocations, resume Spring Training. Either because of his injury or his relatively light hitting, he’s been undervalued in mock drafts, coming in two spots below his PECOTA-projected ranking—surprising for someone with his steady secondary skill set. In the minors, Freeman remained within one percent of his average 7.6 percent BB% and within two percent of his 14.8 percent K% at every level beyond Rookie ball. As expected from a rookie in the majors, his strikeouts rose to 22.4 percent last season, but he remained patient, actually increasing his walk rate to 8.4 percent. And when he made contact, the results were solid; his 23.0 percent line drive rate helped create his .339 BABIP—also very consistent with his minor-league average BABIP of .331.
PECOTA, typically more conservative with younger players, projects him for a .270/.329/.429 (.272 TAv) this season, improving his strikeout rate to 20.1 percent while giving back some of those walks (7.2 BB%). One reason for this relatively low mark is that Freeman’s power has yet to really show itself; his 20 homers last season were more than he’d hit at any minor-league level. Also dragging him down is his struggle against fellow portsiders, against whom he hit .247/.304/.403 last year thanks to a 26.9 percent K% and 6.4 percent BB% (he hit.299/.367/.470 against righties, with a 20.2 K% and 9.3 BB%).
Freeman is young and did show platoon-split improvement as he progressed up the minor-league ladder, so he could make some gains in this area next season. Even if he doesn’t, his batting average will help your team, and his expected dollar return compares favorably to the $11 he earned in mixed leagues ($19 in NL-only leagues) last year. That 20 home-run threshold is where most commentators expect him to settle, making him a good option for either mixed or NL-only leagues and a solid keeper, at least until he gets too old.
In the absence of Ryan Howard, Charlie Manuel will first turn to Mayberry, who played a handful of minor-league games at first base along with 18 games last season. This potential move would have less of an effect on Mayberry, who was already expected to be the team’s starting right fielder, than it would on Domonic Brown, who was going to start the season in the minors. Moving Mayberry to first would open up left field for either Brown, Laynce Nix, or NRI Juan Pierre, though most fantasy owners would still play Mayberry in their outfield.
Still, as a comparison of his PECOTA to his average mock draft position shows, Mayberry could be a Value Pick at first base too. That value comes largely from his home runs and steals, since PECOTA doesn’t see him repeating his .273/.341/.513 line from 2011. PECOTA undervalues massive breakouts like his, which was miles above his .245/.304/.408 projection for 2011; as Baseball Prospectus 2012 points out, this improvement came from an altered batting stance that shortened his swing—a mechanical adjustment that PECOTA has no way of “seeing.”
That change dropped his strikeout rate from over 30 percent in his previous major-league work to just 18.6 percent, while a better batting eye led to an 8.8 percent BB% and improvements in virtually all areas of plate discipline, from fewer swings outside the zone to fewer swinging strikes and better contact against all pitches. His .293 BABIP last season doesn’t suggest luck (he posted a .298 BABIP in the minors), but his 17.4 percent home run rate seems a bit high, even from a player with a .199 minor-league ISO. So his .250/.308/.432 (.270 TAv) triple-slash from PECOTA does feel low, and I’d expect him to slot somewhere in between the extremes of 2011 and PECOTA’s projection. That, plus the increased playing time he’ll get while shuttling between first base and the outfield, will make him a nice pickup in NL-only leagues, but mixed league owners should be more cautious in their bidding.
A frequent member of my Value Picks column for the last two seasons, Thome has defied the age odds to post some excellent numbers for a guy in his fifth decade on this earth, averaging .269/.387/.552 with 20 homers over the past two seasons. Some owners might think of Thome, whom the Phillies signed in the offseason, before Mayberry as a first-base replacement. But Thome is now 42 and posted those outstanding old-player seasons as a designated hitter. He’ll now be required to play the field, and he hasn’t played more than one game at first base since 2006, when he was a spry lad of 35.
Last season’s .256/.361/.477 line came close to PECOTA’s expectation of .244/.368/.501, missing in SLG and playing time. Injuries to Thome’s back and oblique landed him on the DL twice, sapping him of his power, while a .327 BABIP (his best since 2001) explains the batting average overperformance. He managed only 324 plate appearances, his lowest output since 2005, and that fragility makes any value–even that putrid mixed-league projection—suspect. Playing more often at first base could end up dropping, not increasing, his plate appearances if he lands on the shelf again. Manuel surely knows this, and I don’t think we’ll see Thome out on the field more than once a week.
Thome’s decent season in 2011 only earned positive dollars in AL-only leagues, where he brought $5; he lost his owners $3 in mixed leagues. And so Thome is a waiver-wire pickup at best, unlikely to do more than clog up a roster spot for all but active owners in super-deep daily leagues who can spot start him.
It’s not often that a player goes to Colorado and sees his offensive production plummet, but that’s what happened to Wiggy in 2011. Once a super-sub for Houston, Tampa Bay, Baltimore, and the Mets, Wigginton sported a career .267/.326/.446 line when the Rockies brought him aboard. With a wide-open door to the third base job, however, Wigginton could only muster a tepid .242/.315/.416 line, actually hitting more home runs (eight) away from Coors Field than at home (seven).
This dropoff came from several places; his .271 BABIP was second only to 2010’s .270 as the worst of his career, and his strikeouts rose for the second straight season, to 18.8 percent—his worst showing since 2006. His lowest fly ball rate since 2003 accounts for some of his dropoff in power, and he suddenly struggled with sliders, posting one of his worst seasons ever against them. He did improve his walk rate to 8.5 percent, his best mark since 2004, and continued to hit lefties better than righties, which was at least part of the reason that Philadelphia signed him to be a potential platoon mate and a versatile bench bat. But since Mayberry’s a righty too, Wiggy could only pair with Thome, who’s not going to handle the heavy half of a platoon any time soon.
Plus, Wigginton is likely to be exposed in full-time play, whether filling in at first or across the diamond for the increasingly brittle Placido Polanco, and the PFM dollar forecast reflects that pessimism. PECOTA expects him to give back even more power now that he’s not in Colorado, with a SLG of just .388, while further slippage in his strikeout rates and a return to normal walk levels explain both the low batting average and the .302 SLG. That marks him as only a roster candidate for NL-only leagues, where his value is likely to fall whenever Howard returns to action.
Scott Sizemore wasn’t a top-flight option for Oakland, but he was a fungible glove and bat at their hot corner. As a small-market team, however, the Athletics didn’t have much insurance for him when he turned his knee into collateral-tendon salad. With weak options ranging from utilitymen Eric Sogard and Adam Rosales to NRI Wes Timmons, Oakland will give Donaldson first crack at the hot corner instead, hoping he will finally show his power upside. Originally a third baseman at Auburn, Donaldson was shifted to catcher in the minors, though he has returned to his original position occasionally, including this past season in winter ball.
In the minors, Donaldson teased scouts with some fine performances, slugging .605 in Low-A and .564 in High-A before following them up by slugging .415 in Double-A and .454 in two seasons at Triple-A. But even those showed promise, since his ISO in Triple-A was .202. Though the knock on him has been his plate discipline, Donaldson improved his strikeout rate each of the past two seasons, averaging an 18.3 percent K% overall, and his 12.0 percent BB% has remained fairly steady.
Despite these tools, PECOTA doesn’t expect Donaldson to do much, especially in batting average, due in part to last season’s cup of coffee (.156/.206/.281 in 34 plate appearances), Donaldson’s lack of big-league experience, and the homer-unfriendly confines of the Coliseum. Still, I think his skills offer some upside, and moving him out from behind the plate could benefit his hitting. I wouldn’t bid more than a buck for him in mixed leagues (and even then, only in deeper leagues), but if he sticks at the hot corner, he could have a nice season for you in AL-only leagues, particularly if he still qualifies at catcher.