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February 21, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Value Picks at First, Third and DH

by Michael Street

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Position players have reported to spring training, but the biggest news week surrounded a player who had not reported yet—Miguel Cabrera. After his DUI arrest, Detroit opted to hold Cabrera back for a few days to be “evaluated by doctors,” which undoubtedly means assessing the state of his brain more than his liver or batting eye. While no one expects Cabrera to miss any significant time—unless an extended rehab stay is in the works—it’s a good time to look at Detroit’s other first base options.

Cabrera’s primary backup would be Victor Martinez, currently the Tigers’ DH. Moving from cozy Boston to spacious Detroit will diminish Martinez’s power, and the lead in his cleats mean he can’t compensate by picking up any Comerica triples. Given his catcher qualification, using Martinez as a first baseman is a bad call.

V-Mart’s projected .281 TAv ties him with Todd Helton for 20th among first basemen, but it’s good enough for eight among catchers. His .286/.353/.438 slash-line projection is appropriate for a patient hitter (9.7 career BB rate) with excellent contact skills (87 percent career contact rate). But his .191 ISO last season puts him between Lyle Overbay (.189) and Adam LaRoche (.207) among first basemen, not a great neighborhood. PECOTA sees him with an unimpressive .152 ISO this season, and the Graphical Player’s slightly more optimistic .181 ISO isn’t much better. The scarcity of catching talent makes it a mistake to use him as a fantasy first baseman, even if it makes sense to Detroit.

Shifting Martinez would increase DH time for players like Ryan Raburn, Carlos Guillen, or Magglio Ordonez. As with Martinez, however, these players bring more value at their natural positions than at DH. The shift would either increase their overall number of at-bats, or help prevent injury to the aging Guillen and Mags.

Behind V-Mart, Don Kelly brings a much better glove to the position, but not much else. PECOTA’s .260/.311/.360 line for Kelly is very similar to GP’s .258/.317/.380, and neither offers value at the infield corners, where Kelly qualifies. This lack of a strong backup makes Cabrera a dicey pick—on top of the off-field distractions, there’s no good insurance policy to draft as a handcuff.

Arizona has the opposite problem: a glut of first basemen. This week, they added Russell Branyan to fellow lefties Brandon Allen and Juan Miranda, pushing Xavier Nady to left field. Among Arizona’s first-base options, Branyan is the proven commodity, and moving to Chase Field should boost his power, where he brings the most value. You can see this in GP’s .507 SLG forecast, while PECOTA’s .443 outlook is more moderate given it’s based in Seattle. His walk numbers have fallen from a career high of 16.1 percent walk rate in 2005 to a very solid 11 percent average over the past three years.

Like all Three True Outcomes (TTO) hitters, Branyan whiffs a lot: he’s punched out in over 33 percent of his career plate appearances. That, too, has diminished a bit over the past three seasons, but he’s still around 30 percent. So he’ll bring you on-base and slugging, but not batting average. Both of those high points are mitigated by his frequent back and neck problems. Moderate use has led to him playing 100-plus games over the past two seasons, the first time he’s accomplished that since 2001 and 2002.

Although Branyan has been used as a platoon player, he’s actually exhibited some ability against lefties when allowed significant playing time against them. Still, health and perception will mean he starts mostly against righties. This would still bring some fantasy value, if it weren’t for the confounding factors of lefties Brandon Allen and Juan Miranda.

Arizona acquired Allen in midseason 2009 to be the long-term replacement for a fading Chad Tracy and a flailing Josh Whitesell. Adam LaRoche’s one-year deal in 2010 gave Allen a chance to refine his approach in the minors. With the Reno Aces, Allen put up a TTO-like .260/.405/.528 line, thanks to a 17.7 walk rate and 20.2 percent whiff rate. That means nearly 38 percent of his plate appearances resulted in a very-TTO like strikeout, walk or homer.

Arizona clearly doesn’t believe in his nearly identical 2010 minor-league splits: .261/.409/.566 against righties and .262/.396/.443 against lefties. The power differential is rather glaring (21 of his 25 homers came against righties), but he had a good showing otherwise. PECOTA sees him with a .277 TAv and a .248/.340/.463 line, including 24 dingers, similar to Victor Martinez and not bad for a 25-year-old. If anyone deserves a full-time shot, it’s him, but Arizona doesn’t seem ready for that.

Some writers began a “free Brandon Allen” movement after the Branyan signing and Arizona’s trade for Juan Miranda. The 27-year-old Cuban import has acquitted himself well in the minors, hitting .281/.367/.478 over four seasons, including .285/.371/.495 in 2010, his third year at Triple-A, almost a carbon copy of his .290/.369/.498 line in 2009.

This trade made sense for the Yankees, who had Mark Teixiera blocking Miranda, but adding him to Arizona’s first-base picture makes less sense. Miranda has done better against righties in his career, but his splits evened out in 2010, as he hit .297/.371/.457 against righties and .292/.363/.504 against lefties. He displays similar skills to Allen, though without the patience, striking out 20 percent and walking 9.6 percent of the time in his career. PECOTA is more pessimistic about Miranda, projecting a .248/.329/.426 (.260 TAv) that’s very similar to GP, except for the lower slugging.

Miranda doesn’t make as good a speculative bid opportunity as Allen, but the value of both are diminished by Branyan and Xavier Nady, Arizona’s final first-base option.

On any other team, Nady would make a good pinch-hitter and occasional fill-in, but Arizona’s offensive black hole in left field (and crowd at first base) makes him a starter in left. With an OPS 51 points higher against lefties, Nady would make sense as part of a first-base platoon with all those lefties, but Arizona’s only other options in left field are Gerardo Parra and Ryan Roberts, neither of whom is starting-grade material. Like Arizona, you’d be better off playing him in the outfield than first. GP gives him a more favorable slugging than PECOTA, but both put him outside the realm of acceptable first base options, except in the deepest of NL leagues.

Even as a corner outfielder, his .168 career ISO is underwhelming, just as his 34 percent strikeout rate in 2010 (a career high at the tail end of three straight years of increases) points towards batting average instability. Nady won’t bring steals, won’t bring batting average, and offers very little pop; you can use him as an outfielder in NL-only leagues, but he doesn’t belong in your 1B slot any more than Victor Martinez does.

I’ll be keeping tabs on this Spring Training battle, but feel free to leave a comment below to suggest other battles or players you’d like to see covered in Value Picks!

Related Content:  Brandon Allen,  Arizona

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