March 27, 2012
Preseason Value Picks
First, Third, and DH for 3/26/12
The early stages of a fantasy draft are like shopping in an upscale department store. It’s easy to find what you want and you know all the brands, but it’s pricey too. The late stages, on the other hand, are more like shopping at a thrift store. You never know whether you’ll find something you like and you’re lucky to find a name you recognize, but anything can be had for just a few bucks. And while fantasy seasons can be lost in the early rounds from overpayment and injury, they’re usually won in the middle and late rounds, when scouting and shrewd valuation can help you find the thrift-store jewel that everyone else passed over.
So this week, I’m looking at the thrift-store, bargain-barrel phase of your draft: round twenty and beyond. All of these designated hitters and corner infielders are being drafted then, and they’re all projected by PECOTA to earn $5 or less in standard leagues. This latter group includes other good players like David Freese, Justin Morneau, Mike Moustakas, Chipper Jones, and Todd Helton, but their Average Draft Position is higher than their PECOTA projections. In classic department-store style, owners are overpaying for name-brand merchandise.
While our bargain barrel doesn’t include Brent Morel—I covered him a few weeks ago—he still enjoys an ADP 68 spots lower than his PECOTA ranking. The four players I will cover are all being drafted below their PECOTA-projected overall rankings, marking them as good values for you as the draft winds down. Here’s hoping you find a thrift-store gem here.
Thrift-store bargains come in many forms. Sometimes, it’s something you’ve seen for years—like the stuff you see in a SkyMall catalogue—but you were never convinced you really needed a replica of King Tut’s Egyptian Throne. But now that it’s $5, why not? Like that awesome throne, last year’s Encarnacion wasn’t quite the same as the original. The defense that earned Encarnacion the “E5” nickname finally moved him off the hot corner to the cold corner, (where he’d be the more name-appropriate “E3”) and then off the field entirely, to designated hitter. The shift may have allowed him to focus on his hitting, however, since EEE took some steps forward at the plate in 2011. For the third season in a row, he cut back on his strikeouts and began to recover a bit of the patience he’d displayed during 2009, his final year in Cincinnati:
As Baseball Prospectus 2012 points out, this new approach hurt his power numbers, even though he set career highs in TAv (.279) and BABIP (.292) and crushed the homers he did hit. Other BP writers have written up Encarnacion as a good draft value, too. Derek Carty listed him among his Three-Star first basemen and Three-Star third basemen, then grabbed him for $14 in his CBS Expert League. Jason Collette, of course, has had a man-crush on E5 for quite some time. I also gave Encarnacion some love in last year’s preseason Value Picks, and then wrote him up in a December Keeper Reaper column, noting that his positional uncertainty (and likely loss of 3B qualification) made him less appealing as a keeper.
Owners in redraft leagues can bank on that multi-position eligibility, however, as long as you don’t expect too much power. PECOTA doesn’t see more than 25 homers for Encarnacion in his 90th percentile, but he’d have a robust .293 average with a .370 OBP, both career highs. Even his 50th percentile would bring his third-best home run total and fourth-highest BA and OBP. Since he’s being drafted 55 spots below his PECOTA ranking, it’s clear that other owners haven’t realized his uptick in value, so grab this lovely replica gold throne while you still can.
If that throne doesn’t suit your tastes, you might find Valencia more to your liking. He’s like that beat-up chair that you buy because you can’t afford anything better, but you know that will at least work until you can afford something better. Valencia has been a frequent Value Pick, dating back to his debut in 2010 and into his decent, if unspectacular, 2011. Compared to his 2010 season, last year was a disappointment for Valencia and was cited as a reason for the unfortunate Twinkies’ 2011 season. His sophomore slump could have come from the way that he demolishes poor pitching but struggles against good pitching, or from simple BABIP regression. Though he put up a .343 BABIP in the minors, Valencia’s .345 BABIP in 2010 pointed towards a correction in 2011, which is exactly what happened.
His secondary skills remained steady, giving up some contact but boosting his walk rate a little closer to league average; his ISO remained identical. This seems to indicate some bad luck was involved and that his true talent lies somewhere in between his 2010 and 2011 seasons. PECOTA agrees, though his 50th percentile projection of .268/.314/.402 is closer to 2011 than 2010.
Another reason for Valencia’s struggles could have come from a suddenly unfriendly ballpark. While his road splits were very similar between 2010 (.251/.298/.359) and 2011 (.236/.282/.366), Target Field went from making him look like Babe Ruth in 2010 (.386/.418/.561) to Babe Barna (.257/.307/.400) in 2011. Maybe this happened because they cut the centerfield trees down in the offseason—actually intended to improve the batter’s vision—or because he was distracted by the “Sanford Health” sign beyond the right field bleachers. Most likely, it was some bad luck too, though it might be wise to watch those home-road splits in 2011 to see if it’s becoming a trend.
This represents some risk, and Valencia was never projected to be a top-level talent, but he’s still a good bargain. Because his ADP is so much lower than his PECOTA projection, you can wait until the bitter end of the draft to grab him, where he makes a very nice rebound candidate for 2011. This is especially true in AL-only leagues where he’s projected to earn just $1 less than E3. All told, he’ll do until you can afford that really expensive recliner. You know the one I’m talking about.
A lot of people make some extra cash buying broken thrift-store products and fixing them back up, like Chicago hopes to do with Ian Stewart. Once a top prospect, Stewart never seemed to put it together in Coors Field—and unlike New York City, people figure if you can’t make it there, you can’t make it anywhere. Stewart showed an odd home-road split in his Colorado career, slugging just three points better there while actually hitting more home runs on the road. He capped this performance with the homerless drought in 2011 discussed in his Baseball Prospectus 2012 write-up.
It could be that every day is Opposite Day for Stewart, or it could be that he’s affected by the alleged Coors Field effect on breaking pitches. In his career, Stewart has performed best against fastballs and cutters and worst against curves and sliders. Many hitters have this profile coming up from the minors, but the successful ones adjust; if Stewart has never made this adjustment, his home park could be partially to blame. Alternately, since his line-drive rate is much better at home (21.7 percent versus 15.8 percent on the road), he might be making more solid contact in a different swing plane at Coors, something that could also be affected by the movement of breaking pitches at that altitude.
Either way, Stewart is going to a new environment in Chicago, where his lifetime, small-sample slash line in his new Wrigley digs (.261/.346/.435 in 26 PA) isn’t all that great, but it’s better than his lifetime performance at Coors (.243/.337/.430 in 691 plate appearances). Unlike last year’s third-base Colorado carousel, he faces little internal pressure at third base from either Jeff Baker or the not-ready-for-prime-time Josh Vitters. With new hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, Stewart might be able to continue shaving off strikeouts (he rebounded last season from four straight years of declines to post a 27.2 K%) and adding walks (his 10.3 BB% in 2011 was his second-best mark ever, nearly tied with his 10.2 percent mark in 2010). If he can reach his 70th PECOTA percentile, he’d put up a triple-slash line of .254/.338/.454 with 23 home runs, which would make him an excellent late-round draft pick-up. As with Valencia, you can wait to see how low Stewart falls (his 150-place differential between ADP and PECOTA is the largest on this list), but just like that old blender you swear you can fix, it’s not a bad gamble for a buck.
If you’re lucky, you sometimes stumble on a classic toy you once really liked, and even though you know it won’t be the same as you remembered, you buy it anyway. Think of Hafner as one of those toys. At one time, he was an offensive force, registering back-to-back seasons with a 1.000-plus OPS in 2005-6 and averaging a .299/.404/.590 line between 2003 and 2006. Then a shoulder injury sapped his prodigious power, leading to a 2007-8 triple-slash line of .248/.364/.417 (including .197/.305/.323 in 2008) that made Baseball Prospectus 2009 call him the new “Mistake By the Lake.”
Since 2008, however, Hafner has put up a .277/.364/.456 line that averages 14 homers and 52 RBI per season—not up to his pre-surgery levels, but still respectable for a DH—and he’s seen only slight skills erosion along the way. His strikeouts have risen a bit, from 2009’s 17.5 K% (just shy of a career best) to last season’s 21.2 percent mark. His walks have been around his 10.6 BB% three-year average, though 2011 saw him drop to a 9.8 BB%, his worst since 2003. His batting average has exceeded the expectations of these statistics in both of the past two seasons, however, thanks to the identical .332 BABIP he put up both years.
In Hafner’s case, however, BABIP shouldn’t be taken as a measure of good luck, as suggested by his ability to repeat that mark precisely. While his BABIP fell to .286 in the lean years between 2007 and 2009, Pronk’s BABIP before then was .333—right in line with his 2010-2011 marks. What has changed, clearly, are his power numbers, as his fly ball rates have fallen in both 2010 and 2011 to last season’s 36.3 percent mark. His line-drive rate has remained slightly above league average during that time, though, again underlining the point that his BABIP reflects solid contact, not fortunate hit placement.
His skills are likely to slip more as the years go by, but Hafner is well worth an end-of-game gamble. Like that Mattel Football game, you can still get some value out of Pronk—just not as much as you once did. You won’t get a full season out of him, and active owners should try to sit him versus fellow lefties (against whom his platoon splits have widened in the past two years), but otherwise, he’s a fine late-round pick-up—one whom owners are drafting 55 spots lower than his production deserves.