February 6, 2013
The Keeper Reaper
Corner Infielders for 2/6/2013
When something’s too good to be true, it probably is. That’s what Berkman’s owners should have been thinking after his bounceback from fantasy irrelevance in 2011. After earning $30.82 in 2008 (according to the PFM’s new feature that allows us to see fantasy earnings in the past five seasons), Fat Elvis ate too many peanut butter, bacon, and banana sandwiches and hit a combined .262/.384/.464 over the next two seasons, never breaking double-digit fantasy earnings.
Big Puma rebounded in a big way in 2011, posting his best OPS+ since 2006, while hitting .301/.412/.547 with his new team, the Cardinals. He earned $20.44 and seemed revived, staying off the disabled list for the first time since 2008 and shrugging off concerns that he couldn’t play the outfield (though his -10.9 FRAA says that running him out there was not a shrewd decision). Reality caught up with Berko in 2012, and he hit the baseball less often than he hit the DL, as knee and calf problems kept him off the field for all but 32 games. As R.J. Anderson pointed out in his Transaction Analysis, Berkman still hit well in his limited playing time, and Rangers general manager Jon Daniels has a way of squeezing every last drop out of aging designated hitters.
The park is friendly, as is the lineup around him, and serving as the DH is the best role for an aging Berkman. On the other hand, he turns 37 this Sunday and has produced just one good season in the past four—not the kind of track record you want from a keeper in all but the deepest leagues. Berkman’s 2012 downturn makes him a draft-day bargain, and his rebound potential makes him a great DH option in AL-only leagues. The rest of us shouldn’t waste a keeper spot on a fragile player nearing the end of his career.
For years, LaRoche was a modest first base talent; his BP writeups are littered with descriptors like “solid,” “decent,” “Meh,” and (my favorite) “If LaRoche was an institution of higher learning, he'd be a safemy school.” Except for 2006, when a 21.2 percent HR/FB rate (6.1 percent higher than his career average) gave him 32 homers, LaRoche could be relied upon for 20-25 long balls—delivering exactly 25 in each season between 2008 and 2010—and an average in the .270 range, hindered by bloated strikeout rates that persistently sat above 20 percent. That’s really nothing to write home about, and both his fantasy earnings—around the $10 mark in every year between 2008-2011—and his resume, which showed five different employers during that span (three in 2009 alone), reflected his relative mediocrity.
LaRoche’s stock tumbled even lower in 2011, when a torn labrum knocked him out for most of the year, and his injury-stifled, .172/.288/.258 triple-slash line cost his owners nearly $20. Of course, this downturn made LaRoche a great target to acquire at the start of 2012, and he became one of my first Value Picks, when nearly 99 percent of ESPN owners and 94 percent of Yahoo! owners left him undrafted. LaRoche went on to have his best season since 2006, setting a new career mark with 33 home runs and driving in 100 RBI for just the second time ever.
Unlike 2006, LaRoche’s power in 2012 wasn’t driven by an absurdly high HR/FB rate, although his 17.0 percent mark was still nearly two points higher than his career average. His career-best 22.3 percent line-drive rate and career low 33.6 percent ground-ball rate both helped to boost his performance, but neither his secondary stats nor his .298 BABIP suggest that 2012 was a fluke. Washington certainly didn’t think it was, either, considering that general manager Mike Rizzo traded away his other first base option, Michael Morse, and re-upped LaRoche for another two years this past January.
Even at his peak, however, LaRoche still isn’t an elite first baseman; he’s gone from safety school to solid secondary or tertiary option, but he’s still no Yale or Harvard. The $14.44 he earned in 2012 mixed leagues ranked him 94th overall, while his $23.02 earnings in NL-only leagues ranked him 40th. The National League’s first-base drought also made him the third-best first baseman in those leagues, so he’s a good keeper for owners whose options are restricted to the senior circuit. Most mixed-league owners, where he ranked sixth among first-base qualifiers who didn’t qualify at more valuable positions, can find better options to keep.
The possible trade destinations for Justin Upton fed many hot stove discussions this off-season, and when the deal was finally consummated, Prado found himself as the key player in the swap, while his fantasy owners watched him land in an improved situation. With Atlanta, Chipper Jones bumped Prado from his most valuable position at the hot corner, and Prado would have faced competition from Juan Francisco in 2013. With Arizona, he joins a team whose other third-base options include the not-so-super-sub Willie Bloomquist and the faded Erics, Hinske and Chavez. The Diamondbacks’ last viable third-base option was the 2009 version of Mark Reynolds, when he hit 44 home runs and whiffed 223 times, so they’ve been starving for hot-corner help.
The question of position eligibility for Prado is crucial. His best-earning seasons since 2008 were 2010 and 2012, when he delivered $14.19 and $14.70, respectively. Those are only middling fantasy returns for an outfielder (where Prado has played most of the last two seasons), but they ranked him eighth and ninth, respectively, among third basemen in those seasons. Even better, Prado played some middle infield in 2012, and will qualify at second base and shortstop in leagues with a 10-game eligibility threshold.
Otherwise, Prado doesn’t deliver a heaping helping of any particular fantasy category, with his best value coming from batting average, thanks to excellent contact skills; his career whiff rate is 11.0 percent. He’s never hit more than 15 home runs, however, and last year’s 17 steals represented four more than his totals in his six previous major-league seasons. Chase Field will boost his offensive stats somewhat, but it’s not a launching pad compared to Turner Field, so don’t expect Prado to suddenly turn into a power hitter. And, even though Kirk Gibson sends his players more often than Fredi Gonzalez, both of them suppressed their players’ steals lines last season, so it’s hard to read Prado’s spike in thefts as a long-term trend.
Last season’s returns ranked Prado 93rd in mixed leagues, putting him just outside the 90-player threshold in deep leagues. Chase Field could give him enough of a boost to cross that threshold in 2013, so owners in leagues with more than 90 keepers should be able to count on Prado. Owners in shallower leagues should release him before draft day.