April 14, 2010
Hot Spots: Outfield
Probably as an offshoot of so many teams being drafted and run in absentia, the ownership percentages of outfielders at ESPN.com have a sort of “cliff”, going from 84.4% ownership on Brett Gardner immediately to 68.4% ownership of Nick Swisher. The top 4 guys after this “cliff” are all must-own in any league larger than 10 teams: Swisher, Chris Young, Corey Hart, and J.D. Drew. They are good situational players, even in 10-team leagues with daily moves (and daily tips for good match-ups can be found at baseballdailydigest.com, though the site is currently being moved so there may be hiccups for a day or two). That makes the next batch of players good candidates for “Value Picks”, and many of them indeed are, especially in daily-move leagues where the park and pitcher matchups can be exploited.
Kyle Blanks can mash. If he didn't play his home games in Petco, he'd be a coveted young star, taken in the mid rounds by shrewd owners. But he does, and while the left field line looks inviting (and has even been shown to have a positive home run park factor in previous years by Greg Rybarczyk of hittrackeronline.com), other right-handed power hitters have seen their batting stats destroyed by the expanses in the alleys and center field. Khalil Greene has a career .477 slugging percentage in road games, while Kevin Kouzmanoff's mark in such situations is .480. Blanks, however, is a towering physical presence (for perspective, an announcer described an Everth Cabrera/Kyle Blanks collision as a “bug hitting a windshield”), and when he connects, the distance he generates is indicative of this fact. All but two of his homers in 2009 went over 400'. The bad news with Blanks is that he struck out about 130 times per full season in the minors, doesn't walk like Adam Dunn to make up for it, and while he's fast for his size, trains don't accelerate like sports cars and any steals he gets will be incidental. For teams that didn't draft enough power, Blanks could be an answer – just don't expect much more than the homers.
In the “bug” category, Carlos Gomez is available in a surprisingly large number of leagues. In the post-hype fallout which seems to attach itself to every player who doesn't stick and prosper immediately, he's been written off by almost everyone. Watching him play, he evokes images of “Willie Mays Hayes” from the movie Major League. Without Whitey Herzog and old-school Astroturf(tm) around, it's unlikely he'll become a household name, but he moved to the easier league this off-season, he's just 24, and has a career speed score of 7.5. While spring training stats are generally meaningless, he went 11-0 on steal attempts during the spring. It's not clear yet what usage pattern Ken Macha sees for Gomez and Edmonds because sitting the speedster against the cannon-armed Yadier Molina would have made more sense than against the Cubs, but two consecutive starts by Edmonds can only serve to depress the value of this key stolen base source in fantasy leagues. He comes with risk, his career .81 G/F ratio indicates that he has never been forced to do pushups when he hits a ball in the air (ala Willie Mays Hayes), but also has the promise of being a big contributor to steals (as in 40 SB potential) .
There isn't much to say about Mike Cameron being available except this: Get him if he is. Fantasy baseball is about homers and steals, and even when “Cammy” played in San Diego, he was able to amass both of these stats. Getting to bat in a productive lineup in a friendly home ballpark is just gravy. He still won't help batting average, even with Fenway aiding him, but a 4-category contributor can't be ignored.
Sometimes players slip through the cracks due to the fact that they haven't ever played a full 650 PA in a season, though they've posted excellent stats when they have played. Josh Willingham is one such player. He's never been on the DL, nor missed any significant time with day-to-day injuries. Assuming Zimmerman's hammy is nothing serious, Willingham comprises part of an offense which should be fairly potent, if not quite Philadelphian. The thing about projections, however, is that based on previous years' playing time totals, Willingham comes out with a rather “meh” line of .257-22-73, with 68 runs scored and 5 steals. He's terribly streaky, and it's possible that he could get benched when “cold”. There's no reason, however, to believe that his totals won't increase proportionally from the above line if he gets a full season of playing time, and Jim Riggleman has given no indication that he won't get it. He's a very safe, if unspectacular, fantasy pick, and a surprising find on the “available list”. Expect to see him “graduate” off of this list soon, as he should get taken in most leagues soon.
The remaining two names are anything but “safe”, but are equally surprising in their own ways: Conor Jackson and Delmon Young. Marc Normandin quipped to this author, “I hate Delmon Young," when he found his way to “Team McQuown” in the FantasyPros911.com Expert League auction. But, first of all, that league is AL-only, so $13 for a full-time outfielder didn't seem so steep, even though the reply from the McQuown camp was, “so do I." Hate him or not, he's currently undervalued. The ball is supposed to travel better in Target Field, his lack of walks help a high-average hitter in fantasy ball, and Minnesota has a stacked lineup (the Twins were 4th in runs/game last year in the AL, and replaced their voids in the middle infield with good ballplayers and will likely be replacing Gomez's awful plate appearances with ones from guys like Span, Thome, and Kubel). Again, in typical post-hype disillusionment, it's easy to forget that he's just 24 years old. Chase Utley began his age-25 season in AAA, for perspective on how young 24 is.
Conor Jackson is the one player on this list who doesn't deserve much “leash”. He's a career .280/.360/.428 hitter, compiled exclusively with the friendly Arizona ballpark as his home. He provides no defensive benefit to his team, so the bat will have to carry him. But because nobody else on the D-backs has his combination of pitch selectivity and patience (and relative lack of power), he's the leadoff hitter for now (though he's still below MLB average of 3.78 pitches/PA at 3.68 for his career), and the extra plate appearances should make up for the lack of RBI... if he turns it around. For now, he's the top candidate to fall off the “bottom” of this list of “Value Picks."