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April 9, 2008

Fantasy Beat

To Sign, or Not to Sign?

by Marc Normandin

Part of fielding a successful fantasy team is watching the waiver wire in order to give the team you initially drafted a bit of a boost. Some owners are loathe to mess with a roster that they feel they did just fine drafting in March, and it takes them time to get moving on issues that pop up on their rosters, waiting for things to kick into gear the way they envisioned. I tend to be a bit more active early on, tweaking my roster here and there, benching or dropping those draft picks I don't like as much the morning after, and finding players with a hot bat or arm to give me a boost during the early part of the season in their stead.

This strategy has benefits: almost every roster is going to have some dead weight on it, even to start the year, so you can maximize your roster's utility by finding more useful parts. There is always going to be someone in the free agent pool who is hitting better than he should, or maybe a young player who turned a corner and is now potentially for real. You're going to want to be the first owner to grab those guys; if they are just on a hot streak, you can always dump them for the next player of their kind, but if they're for real, then no one else in your league will be able to benefit. This strategy works for Roto leagues where your big bats may be starting slow, but I think its best place is in head-to-head leagues, where a player on fire can swing a week's categories in your favor. Here's a look at a few players who are en fuego during the opening weeks of April.

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1. Jeff Keppinger, SS, Reds : Keppinger isn't a name you might think of all that often in fantasy baseball, but it's possible he has some use for you this year. As of now, the right-handed shortstop has hit .423/.483/.769 (isn't April grand?) with a pair of homers, six runs, five RBI, and a stolen base. This goes without saying, but since Keppinger isn't Barry Bonds, we can't expect him to keep that up.

The good news about Keppinger, though, is that he plays half of his games at the Great American Ballpark, where hitters see their power numbers get goosed up a bit. He also hit .332/.400/.477 in the 2007 season, and according to his batted-ball data that wasn't just a fluke. His .335 BABIP was in line with his 21.3 percent liner rate, as was his expected BABIP of .333. PECOTA recognized this, and forecasted his weighted mean average at .305, with a .319 mark at the 75th percentile. It's not guaranteed that he will hit for that high of an average, but try to remember that PECOTA does regress high-average hitters (think Ichiro and Howie Kendrick), so it's impressive that Keppinger's forecast is as positive as it is.

Besides average, Keppinger should collect plenty of runs as the Reds #2 hitter; he's got Ken Griffey Jr., Brandon Phillips, Adam Dunn, and Edwin Encarnacion behind him, so even if Keppinger hits .285 he should have an OBP around .350, giving him plenty of opportunities to rack up runs. I would be wary of Keppinger in point-based leagues, since he won't contribute many extra-base hits outside of doubles and he doesn't steal much, but he's a useful piece to stash on your bench for his better moments.

2. Nate McLouth, OF, Pirates: McLouth is off to a start like Keppinger's, already racking up 7.3 runs of VORP with a .441/.472/.735 line, scoring six runs, driving in nine, with two steals and a homer. McLouth was a sleeper pick in many leagues, since he generally hits for a low average and plays for the Pirates. Even with those two fantasy strikes against him, he's a leadoff hitter who plays all three outfield positions-that's huge in a league with daily changes, especially if the outfield positions are split up-and he's going to hit for some power and swipe plenty of bags.

PECOTA had McLouth down for a .269/.342/.448 weighted mean forecast with 18 steals over 410 PA, pretty close to last season's .258/.351/.459 with 22 thefts in 382 PA. I'm a bit more optimistic than that about McLouth, since his line-drive rate was a below-average 16.4 percent last season. This year, he's at 20 percent for liners, right around the league average. It's early yet, but if he keeps it there-and that's plausible, since his career rate even with '07 included is 20.3 percent-we'll see McLouth hit for a higher batting average now that he's connecting with more authority.

If his liner rate stays around where it is now, his 75th percentile forecast of .284/.357/.478 looks feasible, and it's possible that he'll put up 20/30 marks for homers and steals if he plays the full season as the Pirates' leadoff hitter. That's pretty good for a guy who can slot into the top-heavy right field position, or in center if you missed out on one of the big gunst there on draft day.

3. Mark Reynolds, 3B, Diamondbacks: For a few reasons I'm not as psyched about Reynolds as I am with these first two players. First, Reynolds is hitting .333/.400/.815 to start the year, with four homers, seven runs, and nine RBI. I've mentioned in the past at various times that Reynolds' strikeouts bother me-strikeouts usually aren't that big a deal, but Reynolds punches out in one-third of his plate appearances, and only hit as well as he did last year thanks to a ridiculously high .386 BABIP-so until he solves that problem, I don't think he's a premier player at his position.

PECOTA forecasted a .271/.344/.504 line for Reynolds, which Nate Silver picked the under on, saying, "I don't entirely trust PECOTA's ability to distinguish relatively high-strikeout guys who take their share of 'healthy' Ks from the other extremely high-strikeout guys. Reynolds is an extremely high-strikeout guy…," and that's a view I agree with. With his reliance on BABIP, a drop in the rate at which his hits fall in could cause Reynolds to post a line like his 25th percentile, .243/.313/.438; plenty of power, but with a batting average too low to have any real value to you.

For now, though, this is a player who may be prone to streakiness due to the nature of his abilities, and he's on one of the good streaks. If you have a third baseman or utility player who is starting slow, plug Reynolds in for a week or two until the bats you initially drafted heat up. I wouldn't trade for him until his strikeout rate improves, increasing his contact rate and the chance his batting average will stay up, but stashing him on your bench and waiting to see if he turns a corner in that regard is a solid plan. You just want to make sure he isn't your only option.

4. Aaron Hill, 2B, Blue Jays: Despite hitting .291/.333/.459 in 2007, PECOTA forecasted Hill for just .272/.326/.407 this season, essentially useless for fantasy purposes and basically replacement level with the bat in real life. What strikes me as odd about this is that Hill's numbers last year were in line with his batted-ball data, as his .327 BABIP was right with his .328 eBABIP, based in part on his 20.8 percent liner rate. This doesn't explain the drop in power, of course, but it does let us know that Hill is capable of being a .290-.300 hitter, which is a help to you as a fantasy owner.

The regression for slugging is expected by PECOTA, as Hill slugged under .400 from 2005-2006 with Isolated Power figures of .111 and .095. Last year's .168 ISO seemingly came out of nowhere, so you might want to keep an eye on that figure this year to see if Hill has some pop, or if it really was just a blip. One thing we do know is that Hill, like many Blue Jays hitters, is much more effective at home than he is on the road. Hill hit .310/.346/.490 in Toronto and .274/.322/.431 on the road last year. His three-year splits show the same disparity, with a .303/.353/.452 line in Canada and .271/.329/.377 showing in the States.

These splits aren't the only reason to skip out on Hill despite his hot streak, as he's also batting low in the Jays order, after the heavy hitters like Alex Rios and Frank Thomas. This cuts down on his opportunities for runs, and on the road--when the Jays as a team don't hit as well--his RBI totals as well. Hill also isn't going to steal many bases for you, which at second base is a problem if he isn't going to hit for power. Overall, Hill is a player who probably isn't worth the trouble if you're looking to add him for his hot streaks, not unless you can somehow create a home/road platoon for him at your second-base slot. If you can, kudos to you, but it's not a workable plan for most.

Related Content:  The Who,  Jeff Keppinger,  Nate McLouth,  Aaron Hill

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