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February 1, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Value Picks at Catcher, Second Base, and Shortstop

by Michael Jong

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The last week of the offseason included very few moves worth discussing in this space, so instead the newly re-branded Value Picks will refocus on reader suggestions from two weeks ago. With the offseason only going to get slower until pitchers and catchers report, keep those requests coming in the comments.

Drew has quietly been very good for a few seasons now, and that does not figure to change in 2011.  The soon-to-be 28-year old will once again enter the season as one of the better shortstop options in fantasy baseball following a .278/.352/.458 season which brought $11 in mixed-league value. Drew's skill set has been generally set: he likely is not a 20-plus HR hitter despite what his 2008 season or the assistance of Chase Field (five-year regressed home run park factor of 1.05 from Patriot), but neither is he just a .261/.320/.428 hitter like he showed in 2009. PECOTA had his true talent last season pegged at .271/.336/.444 in Chase Field, and it was not that far off from what Drew delivered. He should be good for 15-plus homers and respectable numbers in runs and RBI for a leadoff man, though it must be noted that, with the departures of Mark Reynolds and Adam LaRoche, the pop of the Arizona lineup has been cut into. A slight drop in counting stats should not discount Drew from your draft-day plans, especially given the lack of quality shortstops.

Escobar had one heck of a strange 2010 season. He was predictable in terms of average and BABIP (hitting .288 then .299 with BABIP of .311 and .317 in 2008 and 2009 respectively), but his power that appeared to be on the rise fell flat. After hitting home runs on 9.6 percent of his fly balls between 2008 and 2009, Escobar had a HR/FB rate of just 3.3 percent in 2010. He somehow avoiding knocking any balls out of the park for Atlanta before the Braves traded him to the Toronto Blue Jays in desperation, which is something you expect to read about in regards to Juan Pierre, not an up-and-coming shortstop.

Once Escobar arrived in Toronto, his power stroke returned to a certain degree, and this success can be expected to continue in 2011. His 7.5 percent HR/FB rate with Toronto is more reminiscent of his previous career marks, and Toronto's Rogers Center should help in that department as well (five-year HR PF of 1.06). In addition, with Toronto's well-known coaching approach at the plate, we may even see an additional increase in homers for Escobar, assuming John Farrell and his staff keep previous manager Cito Gaston's emphasis on the long ball a priority. He isn't likely to ever hit 20 in a season due to his ground ball tendencies (career 54.3 percent GB rate), but with a more prototypical .300-plus BABIP, a .280-.290 AVG with double-digit homers and strong run support from a power-laden Toronto offense is easily within reach for the 28-year old shortstop.

Figgins is slotted to start at third base for Seattle once the season begins, but his one-year excursion to second base gives fantasy owners looking for speed from the middle infield an option as well. Figgins has always been good at one thing fantasy-wise, and that is swiping bags: in 2010, that was no different even with everything else amiss, as he still stole 42 bases in 57 attempts. His overall fantasy utility has always been dependent on a few other factors, namely his BABIP and his team's offense. Even in a down BABIP year (.314 down from a career .337 mark), Figgins still managed a .340 OBP because of his high walk rates, so opportunities for steals and runs should be available even in  Mariners' lineup. Well, maybe.

Those times on base he manages with a strong walk rate and decent average could very well go to waste in front of an offense as bad as Seattle's in 2011. While the Mariners aren't likely to be as historically awful as last season, they still do not project as a solid offensive team. Figgins once scored 93 runs while batting .267/.336/.376 in 2006 as part of an Angels' lineup that batted .274/.334/.425. In comparison, the 2011 Mariners lineup, with only the addition of Jack Cust (with the loss of half a season of Russell Branyan), will look to improve on a pathetic 2010 hitting line of .236/.298/.329. The team isn't likely to bring Figgins home at nearly the 40 percent rate at which he scored while playing in Los Angeles, and as a result one of his most important categories will remain relatively diminished despite the regression to normal hitting levels.

Ian Kinsler is a fantasy enigma. In the last two seasons, fantasy owners have only known that, when he is on the field, he is one of the better second basemen in baseball. Outside of that however, it is uncertain how exactly Kinsler will build his value. In 2008, Kinsler swiped 26 bases and scored 101 runs, but he also hit .319 on the back of a .334 BABIP, In 2009, he stole 31 bases and scored 102 runs, but lost his average and gained power in return, knocking out 31 home runs and recording a .235 ISO.

Provided Kinsler is healthy in 2011, his decent walk rates (9.5 percent since 2008), willingness to take off (13.7 percent attempted steals rate on stolen base opportunities since 2008), and success rate when he does run (85.7 percent success rate since 2008) will guarantee 25-30 steals over a full season. His park supports a strong showing in power (five-year HR PF of 1.04), and a return to his fly-ball tendencies and career 9.8 percent HR/FB rate should give him more than 20 HR. His average should remain in the .280 vicinity with his consistent strikeout and a natural return to an 18-19 percent liner rate.

Eric Young Jr. is a speed demon on the bases and an intriguing player in fantasy for that reason alone. He stole 17 bases in 23 attempts last season (a 74 percent success rate) and he took off in a staggering 31.5 percent of potential stolen base opportunities. Despite solid peripherals in terms of walks and strikeouts, Young hit just .244/.312/.285 in his 189 PA in 2010 and displayed no ability to utilize the power boost of Coors Field (.041 ISO, 29.3 percent FB rate). In addition, Young's defense, wherever he was put, was questionable and the Rockies attempted to fill in their second base gaps this season with free agents Jose Lopez and Ty Wigginton.

Young will be competing with Lopez, Jonathan Herrera, and Chris Nelson for time at second base, and NL owners should keep an eye out for which player comes out on top. If Young succeeds, even a repeat of his awful 2010 batting line would bring 35-plus base thefts in starter's playing time. He could be a mid-season waiver wire pickup (the sort of player you might see here on Value Picks in the future) for those in NL-only leagues in need of a boost in steals.

Michael Jong is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Michael's other articles. You can contact Michael by clicking here

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Fantasy Article Fantasy Beat: The Chea... (02/01)
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Fantasy Article Fantasy Beat: The Chea... (02/01)
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