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February 8, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Value Picks at Catcher, Second Base, and Shortstop

by Michael Jong

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 Another week, another set of names for Value Picks as we move closer to pitchers and catchers reporting.

Gordon Beckham wowed prospective fantasy owners with an excellent season in 2009, during which he hit 14 home runs in just 430 plate appearances. News that he would be moved to second base from third base over the offseason had thoughts of 20-plus home run seasons from the middle infield dancing in fantasy players' heads.

What Beckham returned was a disappointing campaign. By the end of May, he was hitting just .198/.286/.239 in 187 PA. He had just four extra-base hits after putting up a .190 ISO in 2009. Manager Ozzie Guillen stuck with him, however, and was rewarded with a strong second half performance: Beckham hit a much more appealing .310/.380/.497 with six homers in his final 197 PA before his season ended prematurely with a hand injury.

So which of these Beckhams is the real one? As with all things in baseball and life, the answer lies somewhere in between. In his terrible first half, he had a .255 BABIP, which is unlikely to be his true talent level. In his scorching hot season's end, he had an equally unlikely .370 mark. The full season total turned out to be a reasonable .297, which is a good level at which to place him in 2011; PECOTA projects a pretty average .299 BABIP from him next year.

What will be interesting to see will be the trend in his strikeout rates. In 2009, Beckham punched out in 15.1 percent of his PA, while in 2010 that number rose to 18.5 percent. He may have swung outside of the zone more often and setup pitcher counts. Based on linear weights batting run values determined by John Walsh, I broke down Beckham's 2009 and 2010 seasons in terms of percentage of PA in which he ran into favorable hitter's counts (defined as 2-0, 3-0, 3-1, and full counts) and favorable pitcher's counts (defined as 0-1, 0-2, and 1-2). While Beckham drew hitter's counts at virtually the same rate in both years, he saw more pitcher's counts in 2010 (36.7 percent) than in 2009 (32.1 percent). This perhaps means that, by swinging at a few more pitches outside the zone, he sacrificed more neutral counts like 1-0 (9.0 percent in 2009, 7.2 percent in 2010) in favor of situations more favorable to the pitcher.

Will this continue in 2011? Beckham's hot streak actually saw him strike out more than he did in the first half of the season, perhaps showing that this style of play is more indicative of his true talent. If so, then a .290 to .300 BABIP would net him a batting average closer to .265, and PECOTA agrees, pegging him for a .263 AVG next season. Whether his power returns will then be more important than ever; fantasy players may live with a .265 hitter at second base (likely below average for a mixed-league fantasy second baseman) if he hits 20 HR and drives in above average RBI. However, select him in mixed leagues with caution as a late-round upside choice. In AL-leagues, he remains a likely solid option despite the down year provided he plays a full season and reaches the double-digit HR mark.

Asdrubal Cabrera hasn't changed all that much since he started his major league career in 2006. His 2009 season looked like a breakout year until you realize that it was heavily built on a .360 BABIP that seems unsustainable. He was never much of a power hitter, as his 18 home runs and 4.9 percent HR/FB career rate suggest. The power surge up to a .130 ISO in 2009 was not built on home runs but rather on an abundance of doubles. Essentially, he has been Freddy Sanchez with steals and a better walk rate.

Unfortunately, Cabrera's baserunning game is not terribly impressive either. I was surprised to find out that, outside of his 2007 season in Double-A, Cabrera never stole more than 12 bases in a season in the minors. In his minor league career, he was only 55 for 85 on steals, a mediocre 64.7 percent success rate. He has been around the breakeven point in his major league career (69.2 percent) but outside of his 2009 year, the basepaths haven't been kind to him.

Despite all of this, PECOTA projects a .273/.330/.378 line and 12 steals in 562 PA, which as I mentioned before is more than worth double-digit dollars in AL-only auction leagues. The only question then is whether Cabrera will reach 562 PA. He has only hit that mark once in his major league career, once again in 2008. Last season, he was limited to just 425 PA after a collision with a teammate put him on the DL for two months. He also missed a month in 2009 with a separated shoulder. It seems that Cabrera attracts his fair amount of injuries, and betting on a 600 PA season from him is quite the risk. He does not have enough upside to consider him over the other AL shortstops who are more likely to put in a full season's workload.

Paul Janish is a strong defensive shortstop, and that information may help you determine whether he will receive playing time or whether he is worth a look in Scoresheet or other sim leagues. However, for traditional fantasy leagues, his bat is paltry, and one look at his career .226/.308/.326 line can attest to that. Neither GP2011 (projection listed above) nor PECOTA (.238/.308/.351) think very highly of him in 2011, and I would tend to agree. Avoid being stuck with Janish as your shortstop in NL-only leagues.

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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