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February 4, 2013

The Keeper Reaper

Second, Short, and Catcher for 2/4/2013

by Josh Shepardson

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Mike Napoli | Red Sox

Shallow (30 Keepers): No
Medium (60 Keepers): No
Deep (90 Keepers): Fringe
AL-Only (60 Keepers): Yes
Super Deep (200 Keepers): Yes

After enjoying a breakout 2011 season, Napoli came back to earth in a big way last year, largely due to a sharp reversal in his batted-ball fortunes and an uptick in his whiffs. Despite a similar batted-ball profile, Napoli’s BABIP dropped from .344 in 2011 to .273 in 2012, a regression that was both predictable given his unsustainable 2011 luck and surprising because of its volume. The more concerning, and puzzling, change was that his strikeout rate rose from a career-low 19.7 percent in 2011 to a career-high 30 percent last season. I'll play the role of Captain Obvious and say that Napoli is neither as good as he was in 2011, nor as poor as he was in 2012, which means that he should once again be a low-batting-average hitter with considerable power. That gives him a lot of value at catcher.

Of course, Napoli will be a catcher in fantasy name only this year, since the Red Sox inked him to be their primary first baseman. That's potentially great news for fantasy owners, because by shedding the catcher's gear, Napoli should be able to play in more games and amass more plate appearances. More plate appearances mean more opportunities to launch home runs and pile up runs and RBIs, and those last two totals could also improve if—after hitting in the lower third of the Rangers’ order—he bats toward the middle of the Boston lineup.

There are some reasons for concern surrounding Napoli, most notably the hip condition (avascular necrosis) that caused him to fail his Red Sox physical and lose a three-year, $39 million contract earlier this winter. Our own Corey Dawkins and Stephani Bee discussed the injury at depth in late January, and I'd recommend reading their article to gain a better understanding of the risks involved. The cliff-notes version is that the injury shouldn't hamper him too much this year, but it does put his future performance into question. Napoli had to settle for a one-year deal after the condition was discovered, and his murky future makes him a risky long-term keeper. For teams that are in position to win this year, Napoli is a keeper in deep leagues; owners who are rebuilding should not retain him. 

Dustin Ackley | Mariners

Shallow (30 Keepers): No
Medium (60 Keepers): No
Deep (90 Keepers): No
AL-Only (60 Keepers): Yes
Super Deep (200 Keepers): Yes

Entering the 2011 season, Kevin Goldstein ranked Ackley as the 25th-best prospect in baseball, and the former North Carolina standout made his MLB debut that June 17. Ackley finished the 2011 season with 376 plate appearances for the Mariners, in which he demonstrated excellent plate discipline and decent hitting skills. Those who drafted him going into the 2012 campaign were hoping that he'd further advance his average and power, and become one of the best offensive players at the keystone. That didn't happen. 

Ackley's batting average tumbled nearly 50 points and his walk rate dropped by about two percentage points. The fantasy impact was partially mitigated by his modest power and speed contributions, and by his 84 runs scored, but the results were disappointing on the whole. Nonetheless, the onetime upper-echelon prospect will be a cheap draft-day investment with significant upside. 

According to Mock Draft Central, Ackley’s ADP is 199 and he's the 14th second baseman being selected. Even in his disappointing 2012 season, Ackley finished 181st according to our Player Forecast Manager, and there are a few sources of optimism regarding his value for 2013. 

For starters, Ackley’s contact rate actually went up from an already-solid 89.4 percent in 2011 to an even-better 90.8 percent in 2012. He did pound more balls into the ground last year, but his line-drive rate remained robust. Finally, all Mariners hitters will be helped by changes to the dimensions of Safeco Field, which are designed to make the park more hitter-friendly. Put those factors together, and Ackley is a fine second-base choice for owners that don't want to spend on the top options at the position. He should be one of the better middle-infield values if he's rostered in that bargain-hunting capacity.       

Alcides Escobar | Royals

Shallow (30 Keepers): No
Medium (60 Keepers): No
Deep (90 Keepers): Yes
AL-Only (60 Keepers): Yes
Super Deep (200 Keepers): Yes

Escobar's defense has always gotten the attention, but his offensive game blossomed last year, when he reached his near-term ceiling. Escobar is an outstanding base stealer, and by being on base more often and hitting higher in the order, he was able to run more frequently. His stolen-base total jumped from 26 in 2011 to 35 last year, and he stole bases more efficiently (74.2 percent stolen-base success rate in 2011, compared to 87.5 percent in 2012). Although Escobar’s 2012 campaign can be labeled a “breakout,” he is not necessarily in store for a significant regression.

Escobar may give some batting average back, but his .344 BABIP wasn't all luck last year. His line-drive rate jumped five percentage points from 2011 to 2012, and he logged the lowest pop-up rate of his career last year. More hard contact is going to result in a higher BABIP, so the results fall in line with his improvement as a hitter. And while the harder contact came at a cost—Escobar's swung and missed more often last year—the quantity-for-quality tradeoff was a productive one. 

Drafters over at Mock Draft Central appear to be skeptical of the legitimacy of Escobar's breakout. His ADP is 181.74, and he's the 10th shortstop flying off the board on average. He ranked as the 64th-most valuable player in 2012, using the PFM, and even if he gives back some of his offensive gains, he'll be a steal at his current cost. If Escobar is able to get more at-bats in the two-hole, where he saw the bulk of his playing time last year, he should score more runs, which would help offset any decrease in batting average. All things considered, Escobar is a good bet to rank among the top-10 shortstops in fantasy at season’s end.            

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<< Previous Article
Premium Article Prospects Will Break Y... (02/01)
<< Previous Column
Fantasy Article The Keeper Reaper: Out... (02/01)
Next Column >>
Fantasy Article The Keeper Reaper: Rel... (02/05)
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The Week in Quotes: Ja... (02/04)

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