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July 21, 2009

Fantasy Beat

Rookie Review

by Marc Normandin

It has been a strange season for rookies this year, in both leagues. Maybe we're just spoiled by the likes of Ryan Braun and Evan Longoria coming up the past few years and tearing up the league, but there has not been a must-own addition to fantasy lineups from the rookie class of 2009. Despite this, there are some intriguing names that have reached the big leagues for the first time, and we will take a look at their progress (or lack thereof) today.

It seems like Colby Rasmus was always on the cusp of being handed the center-field job in St. Louis, but it didn't happen until this season. Rasmus started off the season hitting poorly, as he slugged just .305 in April and posted a line of .212/.256/.447 in May once he did find some power, but he's improved since then to the point where it looks like he turned a corner, hitting .309/.342/.532 since June 1, with six homers and strikeouts in 15.5 percent of his plate appearances, which is a bit better than the 19 percent rate he was punching out at before. His Isolated Power is the biggest change in his line though, and though it sits at .191 for the season, it could be higher than that by year's end assuming June and July represent what we should expect from him.

Asking for that much from Rasmus might be a little too optimistic, though-PECOTA's 90th-percentile forecast had him down for .277/.363/.490, which is pretty great to begin with given that Rasmus is 22 years old and had exactly zero plate appearances in the big leagues prior to 2009. Even if he just hits at that level for the rest of the year, he'll have plenty of value in center field. I would have no problem with anticipating his continuing his current pace if not for his struggles against lefties: Rasmus has hit .194/.265/.258 against them this year, which gives him an OPS just a few points higher than his slugging percentage against right-handers. That should drag his line down somewhat, but as long as he keeps crushing right-handers (.291/.338/.518 in 220 at-bats) then there shouldn't be any serious problems.

Andrew McCutchen is another 22-year-old in the NL Central performing at a high level during his rookie year. He's posted a line of .298/.351/.450 since his promotion to the majors, and added nine steals (and without being caught once) for good measure. Sure, his BABIP is a little high given his normal-looking liner rates, but he's also a good baserunner that has picked up eight infield hits already. He hasn't shown a ton of power-his five triples are boosting his slugging, as he has just a pair of homers-but he has shown that he's got wheels. He doesn't pick up a lot of free passes, but he isn't an overzealous hitter either, as he's sitting at 3.9 pitches per plate appearance and swings at an average number of pitches outside of the zone.

I worry that if his triples decrease then he won't pick that slugging back up with anything else, but given he's a young burner with a fresh set of legs, maybe that concern is a bit unfounded at this stage. Given McCutchen never crossed the .200 ISO mark in the minors though, it's probably safe to assume this is his upper limit for power output, at least in 2009. He's performing right around his 90th-percentile forecast (.296/.369/.461), and given he hasn't had struggles against either southpaws or right-handers, and seems to have a good sense of the strike zone, I feel it's more likely he maintains that or something near it than it is that he reverts to his weighted mean forecast (.264/.335/.390).

Casey McGehee was supposed to be a defensive replacement and occasional pinch-hitter, but he's worked his way into the Brewers starting lineup. He's thrived there in his 173 plate appearances, hitting .321/.376/.519 with six homers and 18 extra-base hits overall. That line came out of nowhere, as McGehee's career-high OPS in the minors was over 100 points below what he's put up this year; his ISO of .199 would also be a professional high. McGehee isn't a particularly patient hitter, with just 3.6 P/PA, but he doesn't seem to swing at very many bad ones; he's swinging at just 17.4 percent of pitches outside of zone, and he makes contact with 82 percent of all pitches he swings at. As a contact hitter with a line-drive swing, it's no surprise that McGehee could put up a .321 average and .364 BABIP in short spurts.

Right now, we have a hitter that barely touched the bat in April or May, picking up just 38 at-bats combined between the two months. He then hit .368/.429/.671 in June when he played full-time, and has had a pretty good follow-up month in July at .310/.341/.452. Assuming the contact skills are for real-and McGehee has normally had solid to very good batting averages in the minors-then there's no reason to think he can't at least remain productive, especially since he is playing a lot at second base where the offensive expectations are lower. (If you've got him at third and are set at second, you may want to explore trading him to upgrade.) Expecting something more like his July, though maybe with a little less pop, is as optimistic as I can get. His 90th-percentile forecast had him at .266/.328/.404, so picture that but with a little more success on balls in play, and you've got an idea of what McGehee is capable of over more extensive playing time.

When Jake Fox was in the minors, he had one tool, and that was his power. He didn't have a great grasp of the strike zone, posting low walk rates in combination with strikeout rates that grew just a little bit worse with each new year and promotion. He's still not a very patient hitter now that he is in the majors, with 3.6 P/PA and 30 percent of the balls outside of the strike zone swung at (with a below-average contact rate on those to boot). He's got some great numbers in the minors, but that will happen when you're 25 years old in Double-A and then 26 in Triple-A to begin this season and have the kind of power Fox does.

That's why his performance for the Cubs this year is shocking, in a way. He's kept right on hitting after finding himself in Chicago rather than the minors, posting a line of .322/.361/.586, and despite the return of Aramis Ramirez, has found himself in the lineup more often than not this month. PECOTA thinks he's going to keep right on hitting too, as his projected line going forward is .285/.343/.556, though it also has him doing everything on the diamond besides pitching and manning the middle infield in order to pick up plate appearances. Fox has had some trouble with punchouts in the past, but has whiffed in just 11 percent of his plate appearances this year. If you believe the 26-year-old has made some progress on that front, then it's easier to believe he'll keep hitting as long as he gets to play. Personally, I think there might be too many questions surrounding his day-to-day playing time to go out of your way to acquire him, but if he gets dealt to a hitter-friendly park before the deadline, or if the Cubs create a more defined role for him, then he could be worth a look. Before we determine anything, I would like to see more than 100 plate appearances from him, though; it's the league's turn to adjust to Fox now that he's come out swinging.

Related Content:  Rookies Of The Year

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Premium Article Future Shock: Developm... (07/21)
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