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June 12, 2012

Value Picks

First, Third, and DH for 6/12/12

by Michael Street

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Being a fantasy owner requires balancing three P’s: production, playing time, and the patience to see if a hitter will improve the former after an increase in the latter. This week, I’m losing my patience with two hitters while sticking by another one who’s about to get more playing time. Owners without my patience can find other options in another set of P’s—the Playing Pepper section—but you can find some fantasy value in any of this week’s players, which is our goal here at Value Picks.

Departures
“Torn tendon” is not what a player wants to hear at the doctor, even if it’s prefaced by the word “small.” Placido Polanco (Yahoo! 8%, ESPN 4%, CBS 25%) heard just that about his wrist, and while Charlie Manuel says he won’t hit the DL, Polanco will be out at least into this week and maybe longer. He’s hit .333/.360/.500 as a VP, so he’ll return if and when he’s healthy, but I’ve got healthier options in the meantime.

After being handed the first base reins in Pittsburgh, Matt Hague (Yahoo! 0%, ESPN 0%, CBS 2%) started out strong, getting a hit in each of his first eight games. His recent cold spell of 1-for-15, however, opened the door for Garrett Jones (Yahoo! 4%, ESPN 2%, CBS 10%), who’s hitting .316/.308/.658, to shift to first base after Alex Presley was called up. VP doesn’t overreact to small sample sizes, but a hotter-hitting NL-only option takes Hague’s place until he can put together both playing time and productivity.

The return of Desmond Jennings was supposed to shift Hideki Matsui (Yahoo! 1%, ESPN 1%, CBS 3%) into a designated hitter timeshare, but Godzilla sat against lefty CC Sabathia despite a platoon differential of just 36 OPS points against southpaws, and he collected more splinters this weekend during interleague play. He could eventually take the DH job away from Luke Scott, who has cooled off after a hot start, but too much uncertainty here—plus a better AL-only option—means I’ll take a pass on Matsui until the clouds part a bit more in Tampa Bay.

The return of Allen Craig from the disabled list has meant less playing time for Matt Adams (Yahoo! 13%, ESPN 7%, CBS 44%), who started four times this week only because Matt Holliday needed two days off for back spasms after taking a third day off earlier in the week. Even when he has played, Adams has looked overmatched, whiffing nine times and walking just once this month in 23 plate appearances. One of his three hits over that span was a homer, highlighting the reason keeper league owners should hang onto him, but the rest of us can look for other options with better playing time and production.

Arrivals
I’ve been touting Todd Helton (Yahoo! 13%, ESPN 16%, CBS 41%) on Playing Pepper for the last two weeks, and his ownership rates have fallen despite a .348/.464/.522 line in 28 plate appearances since that first write-up. Owners in most leagues still haven’t clued into the player who holds a dozen of Colorado’s career offensive records, perhaps because they’re comparing him to the Toddfather of old. For a decade (1998-2007), Helton averaged .332/.432/.585 with 30 home runs while never hitting under .300 and only twice (1998-1999) recording an OBP under .400. He’s the major league’s active leader in career on-base percentage with a .419 mark and is among the top five active players in career OPS and batting average.

Helton hasn’t been that kind of hitter since 2008, when he swooned to a .264/.391/.388 line thanks to back problems that have continued to plague him. He rebounded to a .325/.416/.489 line the next season before slipping back to a career-worst .256/.362/.367 line in 2010, leading to an average of .287/.385/.433 line with 10 home runs since 2007.

This season has seen a similar roller-coaster ride for Helton, who hit .254/.333/.552 in the first month of the season despite a .236 BABIP. His power was helped by a 19 percent HR/FB ratio that sunk to 4.2 percent in May, when he hit .213/.312/.275 even as his BABIP rose to .246. Like other older hitters, Helton has warmed to the season to hit .306/.393/.449 in 56 plate appearances since May 22, during which his .333 BABIP has been an exact match for his career average.

His overall BABIP is at .252, suggesting more improvement is coming, which agrees with PECOTA; Helton’s overall line of .240/.330/.407 sits below his 10th percentile in all areas but power, where he’s just above his 40th percentile. Given that his 34 percent fly ball rate this season is heading towards a career low, I’d agree with PECOTA that his power may not rise much. His plate discipline is within career averages, except for a 24.3 percent swing rate on balls and a similarly diminished swing rate on strikes; both are on pace for career lows. Yet, his 24.3 percent contact rate on pitches outside the zone is his best ever, and his 89.3 percent contact rate on strikes is just below his 90.8 percent career average.

This all indicates a rosier batting average future for Helton, whose only barrier to fantasy production will be diminished power (PECOTA only sees 13 homers in his 90th percentile) and his potential for injury. Even a healthy Helton will sit now and again to stay fresh, especially against lefties, against whom his splits have widened in each of the last two seasons. But his batting-average and OBP will be an excellent addition to any fantasy lineup.

Across the diamond from Helton, Jordan Pacheco (Yahoo! 5%, ESPN 7%, CBS 27%) seems to have finally nailed down the third base job for a team that saw a .222/.281/.348 line from its third basemen in 2011; only its pitchers hit worse. This season, after unloading Ian Stewart, the Rockies gave chances to Chris Nelson (.230/.323/.356 this year) and Jonathan Herrera (.239/.282/.373) before Pacheco finally asserted himself. Since taking over as the primary third baseman on May 15, Pacheco has hit in 21 of 24 games for a .313/.309/.448 line that also includes seven multi-hit games. As I pointed out last week, Pacheco’s overall performance sits well above his 90th PECOTA percentile in batting average and slugging, due in part to his .318 BABIP.

It’s not unusual for younger players to exceed PECOTA projections, and Pacheco maintained a .308 average in the minors with a .329 BABIP, so he could keep hitting around his current level. Certainly his excellent 9.8 percent K% and solid 8.7 percent BB% in the minors would indicate a high average; his 11.3 percent K% and 1.6 percent BB% this season show that he’s seeing the ball very well, although that impatient approach is likely to catch up to him. He’s walked just twice this season, neither free pass occurring during his current starting stint.

The real puzzle for Pacheco comes from his power. As BP 2012 points out, he could only muster a .377 SLG in Colorado Springs, which is every bit the launching pad Coors is. His overall .433 SLG in the minors is still good, though, driven by doubles (107 in 2052 plate appearances) more than homers (29). This season, he’s slugged 81 points higher at home (and clubbed a .433/.479/.627 in 74 Triple-A plate appearances), so he seems to have finally adjusted to the altitude. Neither his home run rate (2.9 percent) nor fly ball rate (32.7 percent) this season suggest extreme luck or small-sample distortion, so he could even sustain his elevated levels in power too.

Certainly, if you’re going to gamble on young talent, do so when he’s in a Colorado uniform and has a clear path to playing time. Nolan Arenado is the heir apparent at the Rockies’ hot corner, but he’s hitting .291/.343/.426 at Double-A and is unlikely to push Pacheco until later in the season. While Pacheco could slip back into mediocrity, he seems to have figured things out, and it’s worth a flier in deeper mixed leagues to see if the improvement sticks.

Incumbents
With Scott Van Slyke safely in the minors, James Loney (Yahoo! 8%, ESPN 7%, CBS 28%) is starting more than ever at first base, hitting .292/.370/.375 this month with three two-hit games. Maintaining a .256/.330/.361 overall line isn’t that impressive—undoubtedly the reason he’s still available in so many leagues, but his 10.0 percent BB% and 11.9 percent K% are a notch above his respective career rates of 8.2 and 12.3, while his .286 BABIP means he’s just been a bit unlucky. His 3.7 HR/FB rate also points towards some bad luck behind his .106 ISO, which is weak even for Loney, so you may see some improvement in power too.

Brandon Belt (Yahoo! 16%, ESPN 12%, CBS 32%) also saw his primary competition disappear when Brett Pill was sent to Triple-A, a move that will give both players consistent at-bats. Belt, who had his first multi-hit game of the month last Thursday, will now get a chance to prove himself and should reward your patience.

Lonnie Chisenhall (Yahoo! 13%, ESPN 16%, CBS 41%) hit just .200/.200/.320 this month, but he’s also whiffed only once, giving him a .174 BABIP, so I’m chalking this up to bad luck and not poor performance. He’s also failed to pick up a free pass in those 25 plate appearances, however, something that will have to improve to avoid last season’s .255/.284/.415 final line driven by a 3.9 percent BB%. Jack Hannahan begins his rehab assignment this week, adding pressure to Chisenhall to pick up the pace. I’m keeping Chisenhall until we know for sure how the cards will fall—Cleveland could keep Chisenhall at DH—but his owners will want a backup plan.

AL-only VP
I mentioned the call-up of David Cooper (Yahoo! 2%, ESPN 1%, CBS 10%) in Playing Pepper two weeks ago, noting that his patience distinguished him more than his power. He’s done just the reverse since his promotion, hitting .333/.373/.521 in 51 plate appearances with five extra-base hits but just two walks. That’s been hot enough to push him ahead of Yan Gomes on the depth chart, and Cooper has shared time with Edwin Encarnacion during interleague play. With Adam Lind and Vladimir Guererro in the minors (hitting .405/.465/.583 and .214/.233/.286, respectively), Cooper may not be in the majors long, but PECOTA’s .261/.325/.404 weighted mean projection for him could bring some short-term dividends for AL-only owners.

NL-only VP
Regular readers of mine will recall Brett Wallace (Yahoo! 1%, ESPN 0%, CBS 6%), who has been on the VP list before, but he hasn’t delivered on the prospect status that made him part of deals for Roy Halladay, Matt Holliday, and Roy Oswalt. When Carlos Lee went down with a strained hamstring, Wallace got his third shot in the majors and has made the most of it so far, hitting .400/.500/.760 with two home runs in 30 plate appearances. That’s as many homers as he hit in 159 plate appearances in 2010 and almost half as many as he hit in 379 plate appearances last season.

Wallace is still striking out too often, tallying eight whiffs with only one game in which he failed to strike out, and his otherworldly .533 BABIP suggests some luck, though his 35 percent line drive rate shows solid contact. With such small samples, it’s hard to draw any definitive conclusions other than the fact that Wallace is hot and may be inspired to do better by finally facing some real competition at the position. With Lee a week away from returning, that window is likely closing, but NL-only owners can ride his hot bat until Lee comes back.

Playing Pepper
No matter how well the Mets seem to be doing, Ike Davis (Yahoo! 35%, ESPN 23%, CBS 44%) is wallowing in a miserable season, hitting only .167/.248/.285. Given the effect that Valley Fever had on Conor Jackson, I wouldn’t let Davis anywhere near my fantasy team until he or the team doctors figure out what’s wrong.

Fantasy owners soured on Yonder Alonso (Yahoo! 21%, ESPN 18%, CBS 49%) after a recent cold streak (3-for-40 between May 28 and June 8), but his overall numbers look good, especially his 18.5 percent K% and 10.1 percent BB%. Keep him on your roster and ride out the rough spots.

In the continuing first base carousel, Oakland now turns to Brandon Moss (Yahoo! 0%, ESPN 0%, CBS 1%), who is intent on proving that he’s not a Quad-A hitter after hitting .283/.355/.474 in the minors and .236/.300/.382 in the majors for four different organizations. PECOTA isn’t optimistic, giving him a .244/.314/.403 weighted-mean, but desperate AL-only owners can roll the dice on Moss; everyone else can keep their distance.

Elian Herrera (Yahoo! 2%, ESPN 2%, CBS 4%) has taken control of the Dodgers’ third base spot, but he’s more valuable as a middle infielder. PECOTA’s .224/.293/.280 50th percentile projection becomes just .273/.348/.341 in his 90th percentile, but he’s a great source of steals, having swiped three bags already, and is projected for around 20 if he sticks for the rest of the season.

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