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September 10, 2008

Fantasy Beat

A Few to Watch for 2009

by Marc Normandin

At this stage of the season, there are more fantasy baseball owners out there worried about who they are going to keep around for their 2009 team than there are those worried about how the next few weeks of the season are going to unfold. Looking towards that end, this week we will cover a few young players who saw their stock rise again in the second half of the season, after a less appealing first half. Figuring out whether these players adjusted and improved their games or simply had a stretch of luck can be key to your team's future as you wait till next year.

Lastings Milledge's first year with the Washington Nationals has been a disappointing one overall, as the former Mets prospect struggled, hitting just .260/.327/.406 so far. Within that gloom, though, there are a few glimmers of hope: he dropped his strikeout rate to 16.5 percent of his PA, and he did swipe 20 bases at a 77 percent success rate. Also, Milledge hit just .248/.315/.372 in his 298 at-bats prior to the All-Star break, and has been much more successful in the time since then, hitting .288/.356/.481 with seven homers-that's the same number of bombs as he had before, but in 142 fewer plate appearances.

Since the sample is small, it may be too early to draw any concrete conclusions from it, but there are a few things to consider when evaluating Milledge for 2009. First of all, those second-half numbers aren't unrealistic, as they match up rather eerily with his weighted mean PECOTA forecast of .290/.359/.480. Secondly, he's in his age-23 season, and has performed better than his first half in the past with the Mets, such as when he posted a .174 ISO over 206 plate appearances in 2007. The chances of a 23-year-old figuring out the opposition to improve his game-especially a player with the amount of talent that Milledge has-are high, and it's possible that whatever was keeping Milledge from succeeding during the first half has passed as he has adjusted. PECOTA did not expect much of a difference in production in 2009, with a line of .285/.359/.483 projected.

If Milledge hits that for the year instead of just during the second half, and steals bases as successfully as he has this season, you're looking at a 20/20 outfielder with potential for 25/25. The lesson-one we should keep in mind more often-is that when they are learning on the job, and you shouldn't give up on young players just because of a stretch of poor plate appearances. It's fine to cut bait in a one-year league with a struggling player like Milledge, but don't forget to check up on him next time.

Alex Rios is not as young as the other players on this list, but he did struggle in the first half relative to expectations. Coming into the season, Rios had 24 homers and his second straight .200+ ISO season last year, but this year he was slugging all of .401 (.116 ISO) at the All-Star break. He had hit just four home runs, and though he had 24 doubles and three triples, he was not succeeding at the level we were accustomed to. His problem against left-handers was the most glaring issue, as the right-handed Rios was hitting just .242/.276/.341 against them. Considering he hit .322/.385/.569 against southpaws in 267 at-bats (2006-2007) before that, chances were good his that struggles would not last. Though he has just 40 at-bats against lefties since that time, the trend did reverse itself, and he's hit .400/.415/.600 against them since.

Rios has hit .312/.343/.589 in his 202 at-bats since the All-Star break, with nine homers, or one every 22.4 at-bats as opposed to one every 90.5 before. His season line is up to a respectable .294/.339/.468, and he's even managed to swipe 30 bases in order to boost his fantasy value. Part of the reason for the return of his production was putting the loft back into his swing; early in the year, Rios saw his G/F ratio and ground-ball rates approaching those of his first few seasons in the majors, when he was a punchless outfielder showing little of his power potential. He's seen things level out somewhat since then-his current 1.1 G/F rate is around the league average and trending downward towards fly ball-heavy, while his ground-ball rate has dipped to 40.8 percent, closer to his recent performances. If he can keep his swing in order through all of 2009 without the first half missteps of this year, you may have yourself a 25/25 player that some owners aren't looking at as greedily as they had in the past.

Chris B. Young drove fantasy owners insane in the first half: he hit just .228/.296/.401, thanks to an inability to hit right-handed pitching (.196/.260/.340 in 265 at-bats) while striking out 22.7 percent of the time overall (26.1 percent of the time against right-handers). His numbers against southpaws were much better, with a .304/.378/.545 line and 18 extra-base hits in 112 at-bats. Part of the reason for his struggles was poor luck on balls in play; Young had a .269 BABIP thanks to a low number of liners, and that put him around his 10th-percentile PECOTA forecast. We have since seen his line-drive numbers rise-he's now at 18.2 percent on the season-and with it has come a rise in BABIP to .299 and improvement in his overall numbers.

Young is now hitting .244/.307/.437 on the year, which isn't pretty, but it is an improvement thanks to a second half that has seen the 24-year-old hit .277/.332/.511. He hasn't cut his strikeouts down-in fact, he's punching out more often at 26.1 percent during the stretch-but he has put the ball in the air more often, as shown by his increasing liner rates and the fact that he's grounded into just one double play since the All-Star break after hitting into eight beforehand. Young's far from a finished product at his age, but his second-half surge resembles his weighted mean forecast of .274/.353/.524; if he is able to keep things up, and is able to live up to the potential that PECOTA sees in him for more than just short stretches, there aren't going to be many options better than Chris Young in your outfield. The one negative this season has been his lack of steals; whereas he looked like a candidate to hit 30 homers and swipe 30 bags prior to the season-he had 32 homers and 27 steals a year ago, after all-he's snagged just 11 bases in 16 attempts this year. He's a quality player even without the steals (though 15 a year would be helpful), but he's obviously a much more valuable fantasy contributor with them in tow. Adjust his value in your head accordingly.

Jose Lopez, like Alex Rios, was not struggling at the same level as the other players included today, but he was continuing to show a lack of both power and patience at the plate by hitting .298/.312/.412 in the first half. PECOTA wasn't shocked by this turn of events, as Lopez's weighted mean forecast had him down for .262/.299/.379. The only real difference between his actual performance from the first half and that projection is a modest amount of batting average, but Mariners fans (and PECOTA, within the upper levels of his forecasts) felt that Lopez was capable of much more in the power department. While his production in the two months since the All-Star break will not be the final word on his power output, he has at least come through for those who felt he had the potential, hitting .285/.325/.478 with nine home runs (or one every 20.7 at-bats).

Here is where things get weird though, as Lopez shows an odd split. Despite Safeco's tendencies to favor pitchers, Lopez has been far more productive there, slugging .475 (.164 ISO) this year. Drilling down further still, that's despite his slugging barely .400 there in the first half of the season; he has hit a ridiculous .343/.362/.598 there in the second half. Lopez has hit just .264/.301/.346 on the road fin '08, continuing a stretch of futility where he hit .275/.294/.370 outside Seattle last season. For 2006, the split is the opposite, with Lopez hitting well outside the expanses of Safeco and struggling at home. The second baseman has 11 of his 14 homers at Safeco, and all of them to left field. According to Hit Tracker, just three of Lopez's homers have been lucky to make it over the fence, meaning that he may have finally figured out how to flash some pull power to the shorter porch in left. Lopez hits a ton of balls to that side of the field, though a large majority are grounders, but it seems as if he finally, at the age of 24, has added some pull power to his game. That makes him worthy of selection in next year's drafts, though it should be noted that PECOTA feels this level of production is at the top of Lopez' range of outcomes.

Related Content:  The Who,  First Half,  All-star Break,  Jose Lopez,  Hit Tracker

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