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May 8, 2012

Value Picks

First, Third, and DH for 5/8/12

by Michael Street

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As Jason Collette and Paul Sporer covered in BP’s Towers of Power Fantasy Hour podcast this week, four front-line third-base qualifiers—Evan Longoria, Mat Gamel, Kevin Youkilis, and Pablo Sandoval—hit the DL this past week, leaving fantasy owners scrambling at an already-thin position. While many of the replacement players are marginal, sometimes a warm body is all you need to keep your fantasy squad afloat until more help arrives via an early-season callup. I’ll examine a few of those hot corner replacement options in this week’s column.

Departures
When he wasn’t making history for his efforts on the mound, Chris Davis (Yahoo! 65%, ESPN 94%, CBS 86%) was hitting .389/.421/.611 between last week’s column and Sunday’s 0-8 effort. Reflecting both his hot start and the shallow third base talent pool, Davis’ ownership rates shot through the roof, rising nearly 80 percent in ESPN and more than 40 percent in Yahoo! and CBS. Value Picks is ahead of the curve, as always; we hope you were too.

Brad Eldred (Yahoo! 0%, ESPN 0%, CBS 2%) picked up another punch on his MLB Cup o’ Coffee Card when the Tiger designated him for assignmentafter just 17 plate appearances. Since Eldred passed through waivers, he could return the next time the Tigers need his powerful bat, which produced a.187 ISO in his weak .188/.235/.375 slash line. If and when he returns, he’d still have mere AL-only value.

Juan Francisco (Yahoo! 1%, ESPN 0%, CBS 5%) remains a mandatory Chipper Jones handcuff, but Chipper’s health and production have pushed Francisco to the bench and off the NL-only VP list. Because of Chipper’s brittle nature, NL-only owners should still reserve Francisco, but there are more productive options available for those needing hot-corner help.

Arrivals
Seeing Kevin Youkilis hit the disabled list is as inevitable as this guy’s post-Cinco de Mayo hangover and headache. Keeper league owners have seen Youkilis’ replacement, Will Middlebrooks (Yahoo! 13%, ESPN 5%, CBS 46%), coming for quite some time too. BP prospect guru Kevin Goldstein gave Middlebrooks four stars, ranking him third-best in Boston and 55th overall, noting Middlebrooks’ good glove, good power, and impatient plate approach. Only the latter two are of interest to most fantasy owners, and both improved throughout his minor league career.

Middlebrooks raised his SLG every year in the minors, all the way from .368 in Low-A to .677 this season while steadily shaving his strikeouts each year from 32.3 percent to 18.0 percent. His walk rates have fluctuated erratically from a low of 5.3 percent all the way up to 11.2 percent in Single-A, settling in around 7 percent. That’s a bit below average, while his overall 26.3 percent whiff rate is a bit high for his .178 career ISO. With positive trends in both areas, however, he’s headed in the right direction.

Youkilis is expected to be on the active roster right around the time he’s eligible on May 14, so Middlebrook’s time with the Red Sox should be brief, after which he’ll return to Triple-A for more polish. Even as a short-term fix, however, Middlebrook makes a solid add at a time when third-base talent is at a premium.

Incumbents
The return of Mike Carp (see Playing Pepper, below) means Alex Liddi (Yahoo! 3%, ESPN 2%, CBS 11%) will play less at first base, and he’s running behind the hot-hitting Kyle Seager (Yahoo! 18%, ESPN 7%, CBS 39%) for the third-base job. With Jesus Montero shifting to catcher since Miguel Olivo’s injury, however, Carp will play more DH (plus some outfield), so Liddi could have a while longer to garner time at first. Liddi picked up a hit in each of his three starts this week—all of them singles—to go with two walks and three strikeouts. It’s nice to see him perform when he does play, but he’ll find himself off the VP list if his playing time continues to diminish.

Pittsburgh faced only righties since last week’s column, so Garrett Jones (Yahoo! 4%, ESPN 2%, CBS 12%) started in five of those six games (one in the outfield) while collecting a hit in all but one. Two of those hits were doubles, but of equal importance were the two walks Jones collected—twice as many as he’d picked up all season. A hot streak by Jones or a fantasy first-base injury stack will lead to a sharp rise in Jones’ ownership rates, but for now, he remains merely a good option for owners needing pop and a bit of patience from a platoon player.

Travis Hafner (Yahoo! 15%, ESPN 7%, CBS 31%) hit his third home run this past week, one of only two hits for Pronk in 22 plate appearances. As I said last week, Hafner was due for a correction, so this is nothing to be alarmed about. Pronk also sat out Thursday after getting plunked on the knee Wednesday (the same night he picked up those two hits), but this doesn’t appear to be anything to be concerned about, even if it did drive his ownership rates down. Johnny Damon filled in at DH—something else we’ll continue to see against lefties—but Hafner is still as undervalued as they come at VP.

Lance Berkman won’t be coming back quite as soon as expected, giving Matt Carpenter (Yahoo! 9%, ESPN 6%, CBS 23%) a bit more time to help fantasy owners out. Unless Friday’s discomfort turns out to be something more severe than just tightness, though, Berko should return at some point this week. Carpenter owners should have a backup plan ready. Carpenter had a four-hit, .267/.313/.400 week, but his seven whiffs in 16 plate appearances spell trouble over the long term. Hang onto Carpenter for now, but expect a new VP in his spot next week.

AL-only VP
With Justin Morneau hitting the disabled list due to a sore wrist, Chris Parmelee (Yahoo! 1%, ESPN 0%, CBS 10%) will be the Twinkies’ starting first baseman until Morneau returns. Parmelee had been playing three or four days a week anyway, though, so this is only a minor increase in playing time, and Parmelee has been fairly unimpressive thus far, toting a .203/.267/.304 triple-slash into Monday’s games. That’s around his 10th PECOTA percentile of .210/.270/.313, a poor performance that comes from several trends. His .298 BABIP might seem normal, but that might be a tad low for a player with a .318 BABIP in the minors, where he only finished with a sub-.300 BABIP once (in 2008 at Single-A). Parmelee is also striking out at a 26.8 percent clip and walking 4.2 percent of the time, both off from his minor league 21.4 percent K% and 11.8 percent BB%.

Parmelee had been hitting better (.260/.315/.380) before getting plunked on the head on April 25, after which he sat on the bench for a while, collecting almost a third of his 19 season strikeouts in the four games since his return. There was no evidence of a concussion, so he may simply be shaking off a bit of rust, which could help explain that underperformance.

Why nominate a guy working through so many different issues? Times are tough in AL-only leagues: Derek Carty said that Erik Komatsu was the only hitter on a 25-man roster available in his CBS AL-only expert league’s waiver wire (and that was only because he came over from the NL; he was scooped up immediately). Any uptick in value can drive up the value of even a marginal talent like Parmelee, who would have to reach to his 90th percentile to hit .300 or his 60th percentile to reach double-digit home runs. I’ve got even deeper options in Playing Pepper, but Parmelee looks like the best AL-only VP for now, at least until Morneau returns. 

NL-only VP
After Kung Fu Panda again injured his karate-chopping hand, the Giants called up Conor Gillaspie (Yahoo! 1%, ESPN 0%, CBS 3%) to replace him. Like Parmelee, Gillaspie is picking up at-bats at a time when owners are scraping for talent; unlike Parmelee, Gillaspie has pretty good upside. Though not a top prospect—Kevin Goldstein ranked him 20th among Giants’ minor leaguers—Gillaspie has distinguished himself down on the farm with his excellent (and improving) plate approach.

His strikeout rate never rose above 15.7 percent at any level, averaging 13.7 percent overall, while his 10.0 percent BB% never dipped below 6.9 percent. That drop, which occurred in Double-A, was initially troubling, but he recovered the following season to 13.1 percent, as BP 2011 pointed out. Although his .128 ISO leaves something to be desired, it rose at each level, peaking at .160 in Fresno. All of this added up to a .293/.364/.420 line in the minors, though he’d have to bust through his 90th PECOTA projection to reach that level in the majors this year.

As it often is with young talent with little major-league time (he had just 28 plate appearances in the majors prior to this season), PECOTA is bearish on Gillaspie throughout his percentiles, projecting a paltry .246/.305/.333. Gillaspie’s batting average climbs above .260 in his 70th percentile and reaches .270 in his 80th, so there’s some upside there; his OBP would reach .334 at that latter level. That’s where his value will be found in fantasy, which will likely keep him at single-league levels. But with so little hot-corner talent out there in NL-only leagues, simply getting playing time is enough for a modest talent like Gillaspie to bring value. 

Playing Pepper
Just as with Chris Davis, all it took was a hot week (.389/.500 /.782 since last week’s column) to drive ownership rates for Pedro Alvarez (Yahoo! 46%, ESPN 68%, CBS 65%) into the stratosphere—those rates sat at just 5, 1, and 22 percent, respectively, last week. He nearly tripled his season walk total while whiffing just three times in 24 plate appearances, all good signs, but I expect further volatility from Alvarez going forward.

Another beneficiary of a hot week and hot corner injuries, Chris Johnson (Yahoo! 17%, ESPN 14%, CBS 35%) has seen more attention after a four-hit night on Tuesday (including two long-balls) and a two-hit night (with another homer) on Saturday. His overall line sits at .304/.330/.471, but a guy who has whiffed 28 times while walking thrice in 106 plate appearances won’t sustain this level of production.

Back from the DL, Mike Carp (Yahoo! 10%, ESPN 10%, CBS 17%) would make a good deeper-league option, though you’re more likely to play him in the outfield (one of the reasons he’s not a VP yet). If Justin Smoak (.180/.241/.280 on the season) can’t turn it around, Carp (along with Alex Liddi) might pick up playing time at first base too.

Between Friday and Sunday, Yonder Alonso (Yahoo! 15%, ESPN 2%, CBS 44%) picked up six hits in 15 plate appearances, so he could be turning it around; expect those ownership rates to rise sharply soon.

Manager Bob Melvin called Oakland’s ongoing first base battle a “day-to-day thing right now,” but Kila Ka’aihue (Yahoo! 1%, ESPN 0%, CBS 3%) is winning the battle most days, pushing his way into AL-only viability.

If you’re looking for a good turnaround candidate to fill your third base slot, consider former VP Danny Valencia (Yahoo! 8%, ESPN 2%, CBS 26%), who is hitting below his 10th PECOTA percentile and has been productive in the past.

Although Travis Ishikawa (Yahoo! 0%, ESPN 0%, CBS 2%) is Milwaukee’s first baseman now that Mat Gamel’s down for the count, he doesn’t offer much in the way of offense, so the Crew is reportedly considering Derrek Lee (Yahoo! 1%, ESPN 0%, CBS 1%) as well as trade options. You should look elsewhere for offense too.

While Evan Longoria heals his hammy, Tampa will look to a combination of Sean Rodriguez (Yahoo! 7%, ESPN 11%, CBS 18%), Elliot Johnson (Yahoo! 0%, ESPN 0%, CBS 0%), and Will Rhymes (Yahoo! 0%, ESPN 0%, CBS 1%). Each is more valuable at the middle infield positions where they also qualify, but if you need to play one at the hot corner, Rhymes looks like the early favorite and could be a nice short-term AL-only addition.

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