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February 2, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Value Picks at First Base, Third Base, DH, and Outfield

by Rob McQuown

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Free associating today, I realized that Jason Heyward wasn't even in grade school when I was a colleague of Rob Neyer's, back in the early days of STATS, Inc.  Ah, how time flies.  I am not the first, nor certainly will I be the last, to wish Rob well.  It's been a long time since those days sitting in the next cube over, and playing together on the company softball team, yet in some ways, Rob's still the same: still a fan of the game and still a "fan" of good writing—and still a great guy.  As the most visible “evangelist” for sabermetric writing over the past 15 years, all of us in this field owe Rob Neyer our professional thanks.

But the game moves on, and yesterday's Alex Rodriguez [Did I mention the time Neyer sent me an A-Rod All-Star game ball for a work-related favor I had to do anyway?  Okay, enough about old people like A-Rod and Rob Neyer and myself...] turns into today's Jason Heyward.  Bully to PECOTA, by the way, on projecting .280/.349/.477 for Heyward in 2010, pretty doggone close, considering another well-known projection system had .258/.324/.416.  The explosion in the walk rate (up to almost 15 percent in his rookie year, from just over 10 percent in the minors) made him a force in the two hole.  He managed to avoid grounding into many double plays (just 13) despite a 55 percent groundball percentage and a ground-to-fly ratio of 1.3, compared to the MLB average of 0.8. 

Frankly, much could be written about Heyward, but it would all point back to the same thing: he's a superstar on the rise.  No split really suggests that he was unduly lucky in 2010, and he even improved in the second half, after pitchers–supposedly–had some time to adjust to him.  He was soft against lefty hurlers, but nothing that would be terrible if unaddressed (.249/.356/.399 isn't as hideous as it looks—that's a splits OPS+,  or sOPS+, of 122, where 100 is average), and there's no reason to expect that it won't be addressed in time. Heyward has had fewer than 600 professional plate appearances combined against southpaws as professional, and is already better against them than Geoff Jenkins was, for example.  Given his age and pedigree, he's about as likely as anyone to exceed all modeled projections (whether GP2011 or PECOTA or others) in 2011.

Ike Davis may never hit for a consistently high batting average considering his strikeout rate of over 20 percent in the minors (160 K in 769 PA), but he was tied for 50th in TAv in 2010 (among 149 qualifiers), a fact disguised by his home ballpark. Unfortunately, fantasy owners don't get to park-adjust him, so he'll be battling that disadvantage again in 2011. But, given how quickly he's scaled the pro ranks (he was in college in 2008), there's every reason to expect him to continue to grow as a player, including across-the-board improvements in contact, patience, and power. When his PECOTA percentiles are published, expect the top ones to suggest the possibility of a dramatic improvement, though weighted-means is likely to only show a marginal improvement for 2011.

The good news with Kyle Blanks is that he has Big Time Power, good patience at the plate, and Petco isn't as bad for righty power as for lefties.  The other good news is more of the "silver lining" variety–the team traded Adrian Gonzalez, so Jaff "among the best pure hitters in the minors" Decker won't be threatening to edge Blanks out as a left fielder in the near future.  His Tommy John surgery was performed without a hitch, but he's still expected to miss a big chunk of the season.  Hitters returning from TJ are much less predictable than pitchers, with some picking up without missing a beat while others end up taking much longer,  or never quite recover.  

Assuming the best for Blanks–and a return to his natural position of first base will help with that optimism–the one-year deals to Brad Hawpe and Jorge Cantu won't be enough to keep him out of the lineup.  As an "if I had to guess" prediction, Blanks spends a few weeks in June hammering Triple-A pitching and GM Jed Hoyer makes an unblocking trade if necessary (if Hawpe or Cantu is doing too well to bench).  With Hawpe's ability to play the outfield and Cantu's to “play” other spots in the infield, there are lots of possibilities– involving trades or no trades—to make room for Blanks after the All-Star Game

At the risk of being dismissive, Michael Taylor's translated stats from the PCL were .230/.289/.317.    Back in September in this column, he was mentioned as someone to watch in the Arizona Fall League, where he got on base (.278/.391/.407) and even stole six bases.  But his power remains on the outs, Oakland plays in a very rough park for hitters, his teammates aren't likely to help provide a good offensive environment, and the team paid Conor Jackson over $3 million in addition to bringing in Josh Willingham, David Dejesus, and Hideki Matsui.  At this point, many things need to go right–including a rediscovery of his power–in order for Taylor to have fantasy relevance in 2011.

Travis Snider received a lot of “ink” last season in the Outfield Value Picks column, as he was available in most mixed leagues.  On August 18, he was listed as a “borderline” player – i.e. not one with a full recommendation–with:

…it's hard to stomach picking up a guy who is coming off a .095/.095/.095 week, continuing a disappointing season. But he's so powerful that there's always the chance that he'll break out of his slump with something crazy, such as a five-homer week. Certainly not for the faint of heart – or the team in need of batting average.

Snider sort of turned things around from that point onward, clubbing six homers in 137 plate appearances while hitting .278.  But his on-base percentage during that stretch was just .299, and he amassed only 11 RBI.  While damning with faint praise, it's safe to say that he has about as much upside as is possible for a poor-fielding outfielder with a career batting line of .255/.318/.446 and 180 strikeouts in 675 career plate appearances.  The best news for him is that his competition for outfield time consists of mediocrities such as Rajai Davis, Corey Patterson, Juan Rivera, and Edwin Encarnacion's third base glove. 

Will Venable play, or won't he?  That probably depends on the handedness of the pitcher in question.  Neyer's departure from ESPN, via Deadspin, reminds us that some players can be a "special sort of creature with a crazy-big platoon". Venable might just be that creature.  Empirically, he's hit only .223/.303/.280 against lefty hurlers so far in his career, though–as with the Karros discussion in the cited article–that's a rather limited sample size (just 177 PA).  Resisting the urge to re-execute some of the studies on platoon splits, it's fair to at least say that a weakness against lefty pitching can become self-propagating, as there's no substitute for experience, and if a player hits righties well enough to be in the majors, he may never get the needed exposure to lefties to realize his potential. 

The good news is that Venable does contribute enough against righties to deserve playing time.  He's hit them at a .259/.331/.451 clip, and has hit .273/.345/.455 on the road in his career.  In fact, Venable shares many similarities with a much more highly-paid outfielder currently playing center field for the Bronx Bombers.  Curtis Granderson's career TAv is .281, while Venable's is .280, with both players being good fielders who bat lefty, have large platoon splits, strike out a lot, yet make up for it with very good power.  Alas, that's rather a tragedy for Mr. Venable, as he's already 28 years old, and a career batting line of .252/.325/.418 is unlikely to inspire anyone to open the vaults to pay him anytime soon.  For fantasy teams, don't expect redemption from his sentence to Petco, as San Diego needs to win road games, too.  2010 was the first time he translated his world-class wheels into fantasy-impact steals, and there is every indication that the team will keep running in 2011, and that he's actually gained a new skill level in that department.  Just keep in mind that expecting 600 PA from him is probably unreasonable.

In using the BP Search feature, this gem popped up from Kevin Goldstein. From April of 2006: "Last week, in a Cubs game I attended with some of my BP brethren, Chicago's starting outfield consisted of Matt Murton in left, Juan Pierre in center, and Angel Pagan in right. That's not a trio that'll get a team anywhere close to playoff contention, not even if you replace Pagan with regular right fielder Jacque Jones."  It seems sort of odd at this juncture, with Pagan coming off a 5.2-WARP season, and Matt Murton breaking the all-time single-season hit record in Japan.  That's not to say that Goldstein didn't know of what he spoke, it's more a testament to how far Pagan has come since.  Earlier that same year, he was "purchased" by the Cubs (from the Mets), and was traded back to New York two years later for, well, two guys who only Kevin Goldstein has ever heard of (both were done with baseball after 2008). 

By preseason, 2010, yours truly had upgraded Pagan's outlook to: "Pagan is a league-average hitter and a league-average defensive center fielder, and he has enough speed to help in a fantasy SB category too. That's a valuable player in any system, though he'd be nothing better than 'replacement level' in shallow mixed leagues."  According to FRAA, Pagan raised his defensive game a lot in 2010, and has solidified his claim to above-average offense, as well, with his .279 career TAv.  He's hit better at Citi Field than on the road, so perhaps he wouldn't realize such a nifty TAv (which is park-adjusted) elsewhere, but that makes for steady fantasy production.  Terry Collins has had his players attempt steals from all portions of the lineup, but not nearly as frequently as some managers, so expect a bit of a reduction in Pagan's stolen base attempts per opportunity, and a dip in SB totals to as low as 25 should be considered a possibility.

That's it for the queue–feel free to submit more names, or call your favorite GM and get him to make a trade or sign a free agent to make our lives easier.

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

Related Content:  A's,  Kyle Blanks,  Rob Neyer,  Managers Of The Year,  A-rod

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