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November 26, 2008

Fantasy Beat

Do All Sleepers Awaken?

by Marc Normandin

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One of the best parts about getting to construct your fantasy baseball team is figuring out which players are likely to have breakout seasons, and which will become the future stars. However, you also need to devote attention to players who are not as much of a sure thing and who have recently put up disappointing numbers. This week, we'll take a look at some of those underwhelming performances from 2008, in order to see if there is anything worth taking a chance on for your 2009 team.

Paul Konerko saw his performance drop in 2007, hitting just .259/.351/.490 with an ISO of .231, but even that decline could not prepare fantasy owners for his even steeper lack of production in 2008. Konerko hit .240/.344/.438 on the season, which was actually an improvement on the grim numbers he was putting up before August rolled around. The former slugger was dreadful up to that point, delivering a .214/.314/.349 line from April through July, but thankfully-for the White Sox and their playoff hopes, and for Konerko-he was able to salvage things by hitting .294/.405/.622 the rest of the way.

Konerko's .247 BABIP was roughly 50 points below the league average, and a surprise given that he hit liners 21.5 percent of the time. He should have had a BABIP of roughly .335, which would give him an adjusted line of .288/.410/.499; that looks like 2007, though with a higher batting average and a bit less power. This is a positive in his favor for 2009, but there are still some problems that may come with drafting him. Konerko hit .285/.403/.575 at home, and .204/.295/.331 outside of the Cell; 15 of his 22 homers came at home, and he did that in 42 fewer PA. In 2006 and 2007 this split was less pronounced, with Konerko hitting .284/.360/.540 at home and .288/.372/.502 away. His road performance also lagged behind during his fantastic final two months (.230/.326/.459), though taking place in just over 74 at-bats.

Since his actual season line matches up nicely with his 25th-percentile PECOTA forecast for 2008, we should be a little leery about Konerko's ability to regain much his former glory. Adjusting his line (.288/.410/.499) gives him a season much like 2007, which was solid, but it's also nothing that you need to go out of your way to acquire early. With his having struggled over two-thirds of the season, his draft stock should be down enough that you can pick him up either late or cheaply.

Mark Ellis' PECOTA forecast of .264/.332/.412 for 2008 was not all that, but with some of the higher-end projections matching some of his recent, better performances, there seemed to be reason to go out and pick him up to play second base for you. He nevertheless ended up as a disappointment for those who selected him, as he managed just .233/.321/.373 on the season. Still, there are some things to like from his performance: a .140 ISO isn't bad for a second baseman, and he did go 14-for-16 in stolen-base attempts, a career high in his age-31 season.

Things could have been better, however, as Ellis' BABIP was in the pits, just .249. With a liner rate of 20.1 percent, he should have been closer to .321; adjusting for that puts him at .279/.375/.433, near his 75th-percentile forecast and 2007 performance, though with more free passes than expected thanks to a walk rate above his career mark. Ellis comes with a few caveats: hitting in Oakland's pitcher-friendly McAfee Coliseum lowers everyone's BABIP, and he is not known for his health, having missed stretches of action in past seasons. Combined with his poor output from 2008, this should make him available in later rounds of your draft, when you can snag him in the hope that he's able to bounce back from a disappointing campaign.

Ellis was not nearly as disappointing as his teammate on the right side of the infield. Daric Barton cobbled together a pitiful .226/.327/.348 line over 523 plate appearances. Expectations were higher than that, perhaps unrealistically so, because Barton hit .347/.429/.639 in 84 plate appearances during his major league debut at the tail end of 2007, boosted in part with the help of a small-sample .368 BABIP. His liner rate and BABIP were both predictably lower this season, but his BABIP dropped to .272, much further than expected; with his liner rate of 19.3, it should have been .313, though the McAfee caveat applies to Barton's performance as well as Ellis'.

Adjusting his line improves it to .253/.359/.382, better, but still unacceptably weak hitting for a first baseman. Barton should be hitting for more power-he hits fly balls 45.7 percent of the time, with a G/F ratio of 0.8, well below the league average. For whatever reason though, his HR/FB ratio was a paltry 5.7 percent. He was never a significant power hitter in the minors-his 90th-percentile forecast had him down for a .491 slugging and a .192 ISO-and his weighted mean forecast reflects that, with just a .274/.360/.426 line that is much more realistic than his 2007 performance.

There are still things to like about Barton; he has a good eye for the strike zone, and, if his minor league numbers are any indication, he should drop his strikeout rate with more experience against major league pitchers. Whether or not those things happen for in his age-23 season are another matter, especially given both the severity of his struggles, and that he "improved" to only .231/.325/.410 after the All-Star break. I would love to see the PECOTA numbers for Barton a bit early, as he's an intriguing case of what he could become versus what he currently is. For now, leave him as a strategic pick for late in the draft-use his struggles to your advantage.

Another disappointing youngster can be found in Milwaukee, as Rickie Weeks failed to build on a successful second half in 2007, hitting just .234/.342/.398 on the season. He had the same number of extra-base hits as the previous year, despite accumulating 54 more PA, and his ISO reflected this by dropping from a promising .198 down to .164, low for someone with his weak batting-average tendencies. When you see his below-average .280 BABIP, you might think that Weeks has been shortchanged and should see an adjustment to rectify things, but that is not the case, as he hits so few line drives that his low BABIP marks are a given.

Last year, Weeks had his liner rate drop from 20.5 to 17.1 percent, and this year it fell even further, to 15.1 percent. That would be acceptable if he was hitting more fly balls and injecting some much-needed power into his game, but that's not what happened. While he hit more fly balls than normal in '07, he dipped back down some this season, and saw his ground-ball rate rise again. Weeks posted an average G/F ratio, after leaning heavily towards being fly ball-oriented in 2007. The drop in his ISO reflects this, but there's more to it than simply hitting fewer fly balls, as his HR/FB ratio dipped from 13.2 percent back to 2006 levels (9.9 percent).

Weeks hit .263/.378/.451 in the second half after managing just a .367 slugging percentage before the break. This might give you hope for next year, but don't be fooled: most of that came from a torrid September that saw him taking a seat against right-handers thanks to the team's acquisition of Ray Durham, and as late as August he was still struggling to do much more than post average numbers. This inability to hit right-handers well-he hit just .227/.319/.391 against them, with 82 punchouts in 335 at-bats-has hampered his development, keeping him from becoming more than an average second baseman. Until he figures out how to make better and more consistent contact against right-handers, he's going to continue to disappoint-the Brewers, of course, but also the fantasy owners who make the mistake of drafting him early.

Related Content:  Paul Konerko

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