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February 15, 2013

Five to Watch

American League Hitters

by Bret Sayre

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While it’s true that spring training statistics are barely worth the internet parchment on which they are printed, spring training performances are another story. Racking up impressive statistics has little to no value to you, the fantasy player, but overall performances beget changes in player roles and confidence (or lack thereof) in player health. And it’s the contextual nature of the performance that is a net positive or negative for a player’s fantasy value in the upcoming season. To paraphrase a modern-day proverb, Rick Porcello doesn’t have to be faster than the bear, he just has to be faster than Drew Smyly to get a fantasy bump for the 2013 season.

This mini-series will focus on players who have a chance to increase or decrease their fantasy values based on their performances during spring training. And we’ll start by looking at some American League hitters.

Leonys Martin

The 24-year old Cuban import hasn’t had much success at the major-league level so far (he’s hit .204 with no homers and three steals in 54 at-bats), though some of those struggles can be attributed to his usage. After all, he’s accumulated a total of 60 plate appearances, despite being on the Rangers’ roster for 111 days between 2011 and 2012.

It’s been a very different story in the minor leagues, however. In 260 plate appearances at Triple-A in 2012, Martin hit .359/.422/.610 with 12 home runs and 10 stolen bases. While those numbers are certainly enhanced by the high-octane offensive environment of the Pacific Coast Leaguethey didn’t come out of thin air. Martin has enough pop and speed to be solidly in the double-digits in both categories, with the ability to hit for average on top of that. It all adds up to a very attractive package for fantasy owners, if he can make the adjustments necessary at the major-league level.

Fortunately for Martin, barring a surprising position change by either Ian Kinsler or Jurickson Profar, the biggest hurdle to every-day playing time in April is 29-year-old career reserve, and fan favorite, Craig Gentry. Gentry did perform admirably in 269 plate appearances in 2012, hitting .304/.367/.392, but his career 650 OPS against right-handed pitching doesn’t bode well for success in a full-time role.

Even if the Rangers decide to play them in a straight platoon (Martin bats left-handed), there’s enough fantasy value to make him an under-the-radar target in deeper mixed leagues, along with AL-only formats.

Josh Donaldson

The third time really was the charm for Donaldson in 2012. He began the season as the A’s starting third baseman, and performed so poorly that he got demoted less than three weeks later. After all, a 188 OPS will put you on the fast track to Sacramento. His second stint was significantly better than the first, but because the bar was set so low, it was still terrible. On a positive note, he hit a home run and drew a walk. But in the end, a 494 OPS was still not going to keep him from taking another lonely trip back up I-80.

Meanwhile, in Sacramento, Donaldson was flourishing. He was not only hitting .335/.402/.598 with 13 home runs in 234 plate appearances, but he had knocked his Triple-A strikeout rate down from 22.7 percent in 2010 to 19.9 percent in 2011 to 14.5 percent in 2012. He was becoming a better hitter, but the improvements were not yet translating in the majors. Fortunately, his success in Sacramento earned him another shot in mid August, because of the dearth of third-base options in the organization. After all, who else can you really call on once Brandon Inge goes down?

From August 14 through the end of the season, Donaldson hit .290/.356/.489 with eight homers, 26 RBI, 29 runs and three steals in 194 plate appearances. And this wasn’t a BABIP-fueled, Justin Ruggiano type of performance either; Donaldson was able to carry the improvements to his contact rate back to Oakland, striking out only 18 percent of the time. His career strikeout rate in 134 plate appearances prior to August 14 was 28.4 percent.

The newfound glut of third-base options in Oakland makes Donaldson a risky pickup, especially after the Jed Lowrie acquisition, but there are more difficult tasks in the world than looking good next to Scott Sizemore and Jemile Weeks. If he’s the A’s starting third baseman again this April, he could be a real boon for deep leaguers.

Derek Jeter

We’ve all seen the pictures of the walking boot and read the reports of him running on a treadmill, but what we don’t know is when Jeter will be back in game action. When he underwent his ankle surgery, back on October 20, 2012, the recovery time was supposed to be 4-5 months—which means that any setbacks would put him in danger of missing the beginning of the season.

Well, it’s been so far, so good for Jeter this spring, but this isn’t the part that prospective owners are worried about. And worried they are, as Jeter has a current ADP of 183 according to Mock Draft Central and 145 according to the latest NFBC data. This is pretty surprising for a player who was a top-three shortstop last year and a top-30 hitter, as far as fantasy value goes. Yes, it was Jeter’s best season since his huge 2009 campaign, but it’s the type of season he’s perfectly capable of repeating (less a couple of homers). In fact, Jeter put up the best strikeout rate of his entire career (12.2 percent) last season.

If he can get through the spring without having any setbacks with his ankle, this current draft position will prove to be either a thing of the past or a great buying opportunity.

Drew Stubbs

The biggest loser from a fantasy perspective when Michael Bourn signed with the Indians earlier this week was Stubbs, who previously sat atop the depth chart in center field. And it’s not particularly difficult to see why the Indians saw this as an opportunity to improve their ballclub—Stubbs finished dead last in the majors in True Average during the 2012 season with a .221 mark. He was significantly more valuable for fantasy owners than he was for the Reds, bringing 30 steals, 75 runs and 14 homers (though all of that came at the cost of a .213 average).

There’s reason to think that a rebound may be in the cards for Stubbs in 2013. His strikeout rate may be on a four-year incline, but his .290 BABIP was the lowest of his career by a healthy margin (.325, .330, .343 in his three previous seasons). Even if you put his batting-average ceiling at .240, there’s a lot of value in all of the secondary skills. And, while it still falls under the curiosity category at this point, the stories of Stubbs working on adding a toe tap instead of his high leg kick this winter, in order to reduce strikeouts, are encouraging. Of course, if I had a dollar for every one of those stories that actually led to on-field success, I’d want to cash them in for hundreds.

So why is Stubbs on this list? Because manager Terry Francona said in the wake of the Bourn addition that Nick Swisher will move over to first base, bumping Mark Reynolds to the designated-hitter spot and leaving right field for Stubbs. The Indians also have Jason Giambi—yes, former Rockies managerial candidate Jason Giambi— in camp, but he is unlikely to threaten much of Stubbs’ playing time. Keep an eye on possible changes to this situation over the next month and a half, but if the Bourn addition drops Stubbs’ ADP, he could become a nice value pick on draft day.

Nolan Reimold

Right now, Reimold heads into the 2013 season on the outside looking in for a starting position on the Orioles. However, with the two-headed monster of Nate McLouth and Wilson Betemit currently occupying the left-field and designated-hitter spots, it’s not difficult to envision a scenario where Reimold receives regular playing time. Even with the current depth chart, PECOTA projects Reimold to hit 17 homers in 434 plate appearances.

Last season was a disappointing one for the former second-round draft pick. He came out strong, hitting .313 with five homers in his first 16 game, but then suffered a herniated disk in his neck that required season-ending surgery. Despite the seriousness of the procedure, there is precedent for a return to full strength—less than a year earlier, Peyton Manning had a similar surgery and returned with few ill effects the following season (and at a more advanced age, no less).

Right now, Reimold is being drafted 85th among outfielders, according to the latest NFBC mock data, neatly sandwiched between two guys named Darin (Ruf and Mastroianni). With a strong spring showing in both performance and health, Reimold could force his way into a full-time job. That could make him a sleeper candidate for 25 home runs.

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

Related Content:  Nolan Reimold,  The Who,  Drew Stubbs

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