October 29, 2013
Matt Adams: First Base Fix
We’re not quite to the offseason yet, though we will be by the time my next article rolls around, which is why I wanted to continue my theme of touching on the fantasy value of players who are either in the news (Brandon Phillips) or in the World Series (Matt Carpenter). While each team certainly has their fair share of interesting candidates and question marks heading into 2014, one of the most interesting is what St. Louis will do at first base. Not because they’re losing anyone though. Quite the opposite. With Matt Adams establishing himself over the course of the season, the Cardinals once again find themselves in a situation where they have too much of a good thing, a problem most teams are unfamiliar with.
While he’s struggled in the NLCS and World Series, Adams was a valuable contributor in the early rounds of the playoffs and even more so, over the course of the regular season. While he did appear in 108 games (exactly two-thirds of the MLB season) he accrued only 319 plate appearances which is about half (or less) than one would expect a player to gather over the course of a full season. It’s easy enough to do, right? Let’s say we double his plate appearances to 638, which is just about a full season depending on where one hits in a lineup. It’s easy enough to double his counting stats in that situation, which would put him right at 34 home runs, 92 runs, 102 RBI, and well, stolen bases aren’t his game. Combine that with his .284 average and we’re talking about elite numbers from the first base position.
For perspective, that would compare favorably to 2012’s fantasy darling Edwin Encarnacion and his .272, 36 HR, 90 runs, and 104 runs. Where he falls short is Encarnacion’s 11 stolen bases, but that is offset a bit by the 12-point advantage in average. Of course, this brings us to the main issue with the whole aspect of doubling Adams’ counting stats. While he did play in 108 games this season, many came as a pinch hitter, hence the reduced plate appearances. In this way, he was not only protected against tough lefties, but almost all southpaws with only 52 plate appearances coming against left-handed pitching. His line against them was a mild .231/.231/.423, with the lack of walks an extreme concern. The sheltering of Adams versus lefties actually cuts him twice if he receives full playing time as well. Not only has he avoided his struggles against southpaws but he’s been set up specifically to face right-handed pitchers who he mashes against. Even with this delightful setup, Adams’ struck out over 25 percent of the time (36 percent versus LHP) and walked a solid 7%. It seems fair to expect each of those numbers to move in the wrong direction(s) with a transition to full playing time, as much as it seems reasonable to expect that Adams’ .284 average wasn’t sustainable given the swing and miss in his game. The last question is whether Adams will even receive a full slate of at-bats in 2014. While St. Louis has done a good job of retaining the players it wants, it’s not hard to imagine Carlos Beltran taking one last big payday and taking some extra years from an AL-team that can transition him to DH as he ages. That opens up right field for Allen Craig or Oscar Taveras, and with Craig’s lengthy injury history it wouldn’t shock anyone if all three players received ample playing time.
Even with some expected letdown in performance, it seems reasonable to project Adams as a top ten first baseman thanks to his impressive power stroke. The league average first baseman finished with a .254/.332/.430 slash line and it’s fair to expect Adams to surpass two of those (average/slugging) if not all three. While some breakout players are likely to go ahead of him (Hosmer, Belt), and the position gets a boost from a bunch of multi-position players (Trumbo, Swisher, Murphy), it can be difficult, especially in deeper leagues to find a first baseman that satisfies. Adams should more than fill that order even with something closer to 500 at-bats, offering the ever elusive power bat that we’re all looking for. Six first base eligible players hit 30 or more home runs in 2013, and only three of them hit over .260. That combination of skills makes Adams something of a rarity in the fantasy world, and if you can strike while his situation is unclear, you should be able to turn a nice profit.