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April 27, 2012

Value Picks

Outfielders for 4/27/12

by Rob McQuown

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This just in: Matt Kemp and Josh Hamilton are good. While this column was one of the few sources to advise taking Kemp number one overall this season, it would be too easy—and misleading—to claim complete success in this piece of advice. After all, he's not going to hit .450 with 100 homers this season, and he hasn't been running nearly as much as he did last year. Such is the way of early-season predictions. A nameless author (ahem) picked the Nationals to finish last in the NL East, and while that prediction looks ridiculous in the early going, the Nats' success has had some measure of flukiness to it as well: playing weaker teams so far, out-performing their Pythagenport win projection, good health (the prediction was made after Storen was known to be injured), etc. The meta advice now is to capitalize on people who read too much into these hot (or cold) starts, to trade high or buy low.

Sometimes, good waiver wire targets aren't really “buy low” candidates, just temporary blips on the ownership percentage grid. Denard Span (Yahoo! 20%, ESPN 42%, CBS 45%) has been off the radar in most Yahoo! leagues, likely due to his low placement on their preseason rankings (and thus default draft picks). He's a career .287 hitter with roughly 25 stolen bases per 700 plate appearances, and he seems primed to get back to the 700 PA level after various health concerns last season. Entering the season, it seemed appropriate for downgrade his value; he'd had a concussion in 2011, and recovery from those is always far from certain. Still, Derek Carty game him Three Stars, though he was at the bottom of the three-star list.

A couple observations (and concerns) about Span are that his walk rate seems to be evaporating with time, and while his BABIP has allowed his batting average to support the lower walk rate, a nearly .400 BABIP is not sustainable. He ranked second in Tav among active centerfielders for their age 23-25 seasons, due in large part to his fantastic .390 on-base percentage during that, um, span. But his walk rate has declined from over 12 percent in 2008 to 10 percent in 2009, nine percent in 2010 and 2011, and just six percent so far in 2012 (measured as a percentage of plate appearances). Obviously, for most fantasy leagues, replacing walks with base hits is not only “not bad” but quite beneficial. Owners who decide to acquire him in their shallow league need to monitor the walk rate carefully, though. His more aggressive approach may revert to his previously more-patient outlook, but until it does, keep an eye on him.

It would be easy to wonder why Gerardo Parra (Yahoo! 10%, ESPN 10%, CBS 14%) would be of much interest;. After all, he's an outfielder with a career .405 slugging percentage, no starting job as soon as Chris Young returns from the disabled list, fewer than 13 stolen bases per 700 career plate appearances, and—to make matters worse—a schedule that pits him against some of the National League's better pitching teams into the middle of May (Marlins, Nationals, Mets, Cards, Giants, and Dodgers).

Almost all the positives which were noted about him when he was first recommended last September remain true. He has always been fast (a glimpse of some of his fielding highlights makes that obvious), and he has been much more aggressive on the bases so far in 2012 (five steals in just 56 plate appearances). It's somewhat easy to forget just how young he is when criticizing his lack of power, but he won't be 25 for another few days and, well, he does have a .281 career batting average, plays in a hitter's park, and has some good offensive contributors surrounding him.  He's still a better option in daily-transaction leagues where he can be hidden against lefties (.154/.143/.154 so far against southpaws in 14 plate appearances in 2012), but he represents a fairly safe waiver wire contributor until Young returns. And so far, indications are that Young could be out longer than initially anticipated, as Corey Dawkins notes in Collateral Damage:

Young's shoulder is likely going to keep him out more than the initially estimated two or three weeks. The pain can last for a while with any overhead or cross-chest motions, so playing baseball is obviously difficult. (Apr 23)

Fantasy baseball can be so odd. As noted last time, Michael Bourn had an ADP of 51 this preseason, yet Juan Pierre (Yahoo! 9%, ESPN 6%, CBS 17%) is still unowned in roughly 90 percent of leagues. Of course, Mr. Bourn's fantastic defense in the middle assures him of a full slate of playing time, but Pierre's career on-base percentage and slugging are very comparable to Bourn's, and his batting average is much higher. Both have three stolen base titles to their name. At least until Chase Utley returns (which may have a ripple effect that causes Laynce Nix to take LF playing time away from Pierre), Pierre is the Phillies’ left fielder. He has started all but one game since April 15, and he even went 2-for-2 in the game he didn't start.

Pierre is a fairly well-known commodity when he plays. Though his average is unlikely to reach his career mark of .296 (much less maintain his current .339 mark), but he will run. The times he gets caught stealing won't hurt owners in most fantasy formats, and Pierre has led the league in steals as recently as 2010. Despite the fact that humans slow down as they age, the great base thieves have usually maintained a very good level of steals-per-opportunity right up until they retire (basestealing speed usually decreases gradually for the very fast). Anecdotally, Willie Wilson's last five seasons (aged 34-38) saw him get 1360 plate appearances and steal 80 bases despite a .320 on-base percentage. Pierre keeps himself in fantastic physical shape, so there's every reason to expect him to steal a lot of bases if he plays, even if “a lot” is fewer than he stole in his prime.

AL-only VP
Michael Saunders
 (Yahoo! 2%, ESPN 1%, CBS 5%) was pointed out by a smart reader in a comment last time, and he's still available in many leagues.  He's a guy who could be a moderate contributor in both power and speed, but he plays in a bad offensive environment. If he gets hot while waiting for Franklin Gutierrez to return, he could continue to see significant playing time after Gutierrez returns...

But it may be safer to just pick up Casper Wells (Yahoo! 0%, ESPN 0%, CBS 1%) who, despite a career OPS of 801, has only started five games for the offensively-lacking Mariners so far. In comments last year, he was described as a fourth outfielder, but when Chone Figgins (and his .234/.308/.287 batting line in 2010-12) is the starting left fielder, “fourth outfielder” seems like a big step up. For AL-only players, Wells is more likely than Saunders to remain on the roster when everyone's healthy.

NL-only VP
A.J.
Pollock (Yahoo! 0%, ESPN 0%, CBS 2%) is playing his way back to the minors with his slow start, but he's a fairly exciting fantasy prospect (in the context of his limited prospect hype) with 40 stolen bases in 145 minor-league games between 2011 and 2012. Obviously, with Parra already entrenched as the fourth outfielder and Chris Young’s replacement, there's not much room for Pollock, but he does bat right-handed, which gives manager Kirk Gibson a three-righty outfield look if he wants. He's here more as a “keep your eye on him” name; he has stolen base potential, but he'll have to do something special very soon if he wants to stay on the roster.

Rob McQuown is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Rob's other articles. You can contact Rob by clicking here

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Fantasy Article Weekly Planner: Week F... (04/27)
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