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March 20, 2012

Preseason Value Picks

First, Third, and DH for 3/20/12

by Michael Street

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Part of the excitement of Spring Training is watching Opening Day rosters take shape—usually, this involves whether a top prospect will start the year in the minors or which utility man grabs the final bench spot. Less often, we get to watch two players compete for the right to start, an especially important choice at the power position of first base. While both Cleveland and Pittsburgh seems to have made their choices at the cold corner, there are still some other options that could rise to the challenge and bring value to their fantasy owners.

Casey Kotchman | 1B | Cleveland Indians
Mixed: -$6 | AL-only: $7 | PECOTA 1B Rank: 19 | 1B ADP: 31

PA

AVG

HR

SB

RBI

R

489

.270

10

1

52

58

The statistical talk of the town last season, Kotch surprised everyone with a career year, rebounding from a two-year average of .242/.309/.358 (and a career line of .259/.326/.392) to hit .306/.378/.422 (.297 TAv). It was his first year hitting over .300, suddenly ranking him among the top hitters in the AL; his OBP was also a career high, and his SLG was his best since 2007. Among first basemen, his batting average ranked sixth and his OBP ninth. Where did this come from?

As Baseball Prospectus 2012 points out, most think offseason eye surgery was the reason behind this resurgence, but the statistical evidence coalesces around a sudden rise in infield hits; little else about Kotch’s plate approach seems to have changed. Jason Collette looked at this phenomenon last season, also noting that Kotchman’s performance with men on base is inconsistent with his performance in the past. The result of this career-high infield-hit percentage (his 7.0 percent rate was well above his 4.3 percent average) was, predictably, a career high in BABIP of .335 (career .280).

PECOTA, always skeptical of sudden spikes like this, expects a much more modest .270/.337/.401 (.270 TAv) from Kotch this year. A repeat of last season could happen above his 80th percentile, though he’d need to crack his 90th percentile to hit over .300 again. On the bright side, he’s not facing any real competition for the position right now and should only sit when Carlos Santana needs a break from catching. However, as we’ll look at below, help is ready and waiting should he morph back into the Kotch-meh we’ve known for years or if his recent back problems linger.

His ADP rates show that most other owners don’t believe in his 2011 season either, but they may be overreacting; there’s still a dramatic difference between his draft rank and his down-tempo PECOTA rank. Savvy owners can exploit this gap in the later rounds, though he’s still better suited for AL-only leagues.

Russ Canzler | 1B/OF/DH | Cleveland Indians
Mixed: -$19 | AL-only: $3 | PECOTA 1B Rank: 21 | 1B ADP: Undrafted

PA

AVG

HR

SB

RBI

R

295

.256

9

2

35

36

The Indians picked up Canzler, the 2011 International League MVP, from Tampa Bay, and for a moment it looked like he might compete for Cleveland’s open first-base job… until Cleveland signed Kotchman mere days later. Since Canzler can play the infield and outfield corners, however, it looked like he could still make the team as a bench bat… until Grady Sizemore hit the disabled list. Now, Canzler is one of the leading candidates in left field for Cleveland, bringing the added ability to also play the infield corners, albeit at a sub-par level.

Canzler’s .314/.401/.530 line for Triple-A Durham last season wasn’t unexpected; he’d hit .287/.372/.566 in Double-A Knoxville the year before. That latter line came in his second year at that level, though, after a .258/.346/.399 half-season in 2009. Canzler’s climb up the minor-league ladder has been slow at every level; he spent parts of four seasons in A-ball following two years in Rookie ball. Despite his slow march, he’s shown improvement, particularly in patience. His walk rate has increased each year since 2007, topping out at 12.2 BB% in 2011, bringing his OBP along with it. And his second season in Knoxville paid off with a .279 ISO, although that has dropped in each of the two years since. Canzler has also flashed a bit of speed with 23 total triples (.03 triples per hit) and 41 steals, though those came in 74 opportunities, and his swipes have declined as he’s risen in the minors.

This makes for a decent, if unimpressive, skills package, reflected by PECOTA’s  .260/.328/.437 50th percentile projection.  His TAv would approach .300 in his 80th percentile, when he’d have a very nice .286/.357/.480 line with 17 home runs. It would take an injury stack for him to exceed 450 plate appearances, but he could end up approaching that line if he starts the season in left and then slides over to platoon with Kotchman or Travis Hafner. Those are two big ifs, and he’s more valuable as a fantasy outfielder than as a first baseman, but he’s someone to keep an eye on in Spring Training for those in AL-only and deeper leagues.

Matt LaPorta | 1B/OF | Cleveland Indians
Mixed: -$41 | AL-only: -$3 | PECOTA 1B Rank: 32 | 1B ADP: 28

PA

AVG

HR

SB

RBI

R

68

.250

2

0

8

8

I’ve tried to get behind LaPorta the past two seasons, but he’s failed to deliver, making me feel like the last stockbroker in the boiler room to figure out that Bernie Madoff was a crook. LaPorta did rebound from 2010’s awful .221/.306/.362 to post a .247/.299/.412 line in 2011, but that’s not good enough for the key player in the CC Sabathia trade. Some have wondered if he’s a Quad-A player, since he’s shown an inability to translate his minor-league success (.298/.390/.566 career) to the majors (.238/.304/.397 career), especially in power.

LaPorta’s strikeout rate has risen each year, culminating in last season’s 22.6 K%, a level that would be more acceptable if his ISO had risen above .165. Despite lofting fly balls at a career-best 48.5 percent clip, LaPorta could only persuade 8.4 percent of them to leave the ballpark—a below-average rate for any player, let alone an alleged power hitter. Heck, almost twice as many of his fly balls (16 percent) refused to leave the infield. In another disturbing trend, LaPorta swung at more strikes in each of the past three seasons while simultaneously lowering his contact rate against them. This all leads to a rather moribund projection of .256/.320/.419 in his 50th PECOTA percentile and just .288/.362/.481 in his 90th.

Because he has a minor-league option remaining and the Tribe has too many other first-base options, LaPorta will undoubtedly begin 2012 in Triple-A waiting for a return bus ticket to Cleveland. He could also leave via trade, but it’s unlikely that anyone else will want to pay anywhere near full value for this high-level disappointment. Either way, LaPorta’s talent is worth watching, but not even deep league owners should waste a draft dollar on him and his uncertain future.

Garrett Jones | 1B/OF | Pittsburgh Pirates
Mixed: -$2 | NL-only: $11 | PECOTA 1B Rank: 16 | 1B ADP: 25

PA

AVG

HR

SB

RBI

R

469

.255

16

8

59

56

After surprising everyone with a breakout 2009 in which he hit .293/.372/.567, Jones has never reached those levels again—unsurprising, given his career-high.323 BABIP and 21.1 percent HR/FB rate that season. Still, Jones has become what Baseball Prospectus 2012 calls a “thoroughbred platoon player” with a career OPS 238 points higher against righties. Since southpaws have held him to a miserable .199/.237/.364 line, there’s little hope of him ever assuming full-time duties, but he’ll bring some fantasy value as the heavy half of a first-base platoon.

Jones’s elevated strikeout rates (20.5 K% career) and lack of footspeed will hold down his batting average—PECOTA only gives him a .287 batting average in his 90th percentile—and his 9.3 career BB% isn’t enough to drive his OBP high enough for those in sabermetric leagues. For now, he has the first-base job mostly to himself, but McGehee and Matt Hague both await should he falter. Jones’s value is derived mainly from power (with a few swipes thrown in) and from his outfield qualification (something he’s unlikely to retain after this season). Consistent platoon usage and a low ceiling will hold his value down for mixed-league owners, though owners in deeper leagues should note the spread between his PECOTA and ADP rankings and bid accordingly.

Casey McGehee | 1B/3B | Pittsburgh Pirates
Mixed: -$8 | NL-only: $7 | PECOTA 3B Rank: 29 | 3B ADP: 16

PA

AVG

HR

SB

RBI

R

463

.261

11

1

51

52

One of the few things that didn’t go well for the Brew Crew last year was McGehee, who didn’t just continue to slide from his breakout .301/.360/.499 2009 season; he fell off a cliff (like this dude does), finishing with a .223/.280/.346 line that represented a dropoff of 175 points from his 2010 OPS. Though his strikeout and walk rates remained in line with expectations, McGehee’s power vaporized; he posted career lows in fly-ball rate (33.8 percent) and HR/FB rate (8.6 percent). Those fly balls turned into ground balls, something that doesn’t benefit the lumbering McGehee, explaining his falloff in batting average. Since power represents his core value to a team, this across-the-board cliff dive led to the signing of Aramis Ramirez and the subsequent trade of McGehee to Ramirez’s old stomping grounds.

As I pointed out in the Keeper Reaper following the Ramirez signing, McGehee could benefit from his new environment, and neither Jones nor Pedro Alvarez (ahead of him at his two potential positions) has been stunning enough to hold McGehee back should he find his power stroke again. Because of McGehee’s reverse platoon splits, however, he’s not likely to become a platoon partner for either, and if he doesn’t make the starting lineup on Opening Day, his value is sure to fall from even PECOTA’s modest projections. As might be expected for a player declining from a brief peak, PECOTA gives McGehee just a .261/.311/.396 (.254 TAv) line in his 50th percentile, topping out at .293/.345/.444 (.282 TAv) in his 90th.

Even these numbers are good enough to bring a bit of value as a first baseman, where his PECOTA ranks him 20th next to an ADP of 25. Since this depends so much on playing time, making McGehee is someone to keep watching during Spring Training, where he’s currently hitting .286/.286/.429. In comparison, Alvarez is hitting .174/.200/.435 and Jones is hitting .333/.385/.667 (not that we should read too much into spring stats). Since Alvarez has one minor-league option left, it’s possible that he begins the year in Triple-A until he finds his stroke again (if he ever does), leaving McGehee to man third. Wherever he plays, PECOTA’s dollar projection shows that McGehee is best suited for single-league usage, though any return to 2010 form would deliver value in deeper mixed leagues too.

Matt Hague | 1B | Pittsburgh Pirates
Mixed: -$37 | NL-only: -$3 | PECOTA 1B Rank: 31 | 1B ADP: Undrafted

PA

AVG

HR

SB

RBI

R

93

.267

2

0

10

11

A longshot for a roster spot out of Spring Training, Hague nonetheless remains Pittsburgh’s insurance policy if either Jones or McGehee collapses completely, and he’s likely to see playing time later in 2012 even if neither one does. Hague has played at both infield corners—though far more at the cold corner than the hot one—and was once projected as a corner outfielder. In this way, he’s like Canzler—valuable for his versatility, only without the MVP pedigree.

In the minors, Hague has averaged .302/.371/.442 in four seasons, including last season’s .309/.372/.457 line in his first season at Triple-A Indianapolis. As a contact hitter (11.9 career K%) with decent patience (8.7 BB%), Hague still lacks the power expected from a corner spot, which will hold his value down in most leagues. As evidence of this, PECOTA only sees him topping out at .318/.374/.461 with 52.7 PA/HR.

Though he’s been mentioned as a platoon mate for Jones, Hague has shown a reverse platoon split at every level of the minors, making such a move unlikely. As a cheap, young option for a small-market team, however, he will make an acceptable backup for now and a decent first-base option for Pittsburgh down the road. Fantasy owners need only pay attention to him in deeper NL-only leagues since his talent isn’t keeper-worthy, and his best-case fantasy scenario for 2012 is as a waiver wire pickup, probably later this season.

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