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February 22, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Value Picks at Catcher, Second Base, and Shortstop

by Michael Jong

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With players beginning to report to camp, here at the up-the-middle edition of Value Picks we'll be covering interesting names across each division as the weeks go by leading up to Opening Day. This will include your typical position battles and players with big question marks going into 2011. Some NL East names will kick off the coverage of catchers, second basemen, and shortstops

Ian Desmond was a regular in the 2010 Hot Spots feature, as he was consistently hovering around 20 percent ownership in ESPN standard mixed leagues. This seems appropriate given what Desmond brings to the table; while he can get steals and has some decent pop in his bat, his plate approach is so unrefined that it renders much of those benefits moot. Looking at Desmond's strikeout and walk rates is painful, as he is the proud owner of an 18.6 percent strikeout rate and a measly 4.9 percent walk rate. Compared to other shortstops from 2008 through 2010, Desmond's walk rate ranks ahead of illustrious names such as Miguel Tejada, Yuniesky Betancourt, Alex Gonzalez, and Cristian Guzman. In terms of strikeouts, only Jhonny Peralta has whiffed at a more frequent pace during that same time period. None of these names are good company.

Of course, all of these names still surprisingly hold value when looked at in the context of a single-league player pool, and Desmond is better than them all because of his game on the basepaths. While Desmond should be among your last shortstops selected in standard mixed leagues, PECOTA finds some value in his play, which (sadly enough) is around average or above average for a selectable shortstop in all but one traditional roto category. That same game translates to double-digit value in NL-only leagues, in which the talent level falls significantly after the sixth shortstop. The PECOTA-projected line shown in Marc Normandin's recent 2011 shorstop rankings is an almost bullet-proof assessment of Desmond's game, with his plate discipline, batting average, home runs, and steals all remaining mostly static between 2010 and 2011.

Danny Espinosa will be Desmond's partner likely playing second base, and he seems to be the more intriguing of the two players. It is easy to why Espinosa is the more exciting of the two players, as he is essentially an accentuated version of Desmond at each of his strengths and weaknesses. Espinosa has a power hitter stroke at an up-the-middle position, as evidenced by his 40 home runs in 1205 minor league PA. He can also steal a bag or two, with two straight minor league seasons with over 20 steals and a career 70 percent success rate. But with all of that good, the bad is also more extreme, as Espinosa also struck out 21.7 percent of the time in the minors and posted a lower BABIP (.316) in his career than Desmond did in his last three seasons in the minors (.336).

These sorts of extremes lend themselves to interest, especially when considering how valuable a power/speed combination is in fantasy baseball. Espinosa's power projections are pretty strong: after hitting a home run in 18 percent of his fly balls last season, PECOTA projects 16 home runs in just 500 PA to go along with 14 steals at an acceptable 72.2 percent success rate, which is more than worthy of your attention. The question is how far his batting average will fall. If the somewhat comparable Desmond is any indication, Espinosa is in line for a 20-point fall in BABIP; after three seasons of .336 BABIP split between three different levels in the minors, Desmond's BABIP fell to .314 in just over 660 PA so far in the majors. Such a fall would put Espinosa between a .290 and .300 BABIP, significantly better than PECOTA's projection of .279. If that can pull his batting average into the .240 to .250 range, then fantasy owners could be looking at a weaker version of Drew Stubbs at second base, which should put him around the lower tier of acceptable mixed league plays second base.

No one is going to mistake Jose Reyes as a sleeper, but fantasy owners would like to know what is going to happen to him as he enters his contract year in 2011 and why he has fallen as far as he has. Part of Reyes's fantasy baseball problem lies with his teammates and his home park (the move to pitcher-friendly Citi Field and it’s affects on the Mets’ offense).

But of course, as with all things fantasy baseball, a lot of it has to do with Reyes himself. The injury problems are the first obvious point, as they were the cause for 157 missed starts since 2009. The other problem lies in the loss of plate discipline, something Jay Jaffe discussed a bit last week. The reasoning for the 2010 drop in walk rate is puzzling, as the rest of Reyes's plate discipline remained essentially static as they have since 2006. His strikeout rate has been static, and while he did take the most swings in a season since 2006, his whiff rate on swings remained static as well. It is hard to imagine that such a generally static approach could lead to such drastic changes in walk rate, and it seems a safe bet to expect Reyes to draw more walks in 2011 than in 2010. PECOTA projects an 8.3 percent walk rate that seems more in line with his previous three seasons.

It would be easy to chalk Reyes's lack of stolen bases as a direct result of his inability to get on base at a clip similar to his 2006 to 2008 form. However, Reyes lost just 29 stolen base opportunities in 2010 compared to his three-year average. Much of that loss can be attributed directly to playing time; in fact, when prorating his 2006 to 2008 average of stolen base opportunities per plate appearance, Reyes should have received 199 opportunities in his 603 PA in 2010, meaning that despite the lower OBP, he actually gained chances to steal. Reyes simply did not take advantage of those opportunities as he used to, attempting a steal in just 18.5 percent of opportunities after taking off in 34.1 percent of chances in the three years before his injury-plagued 2009. Whether this was a byproduct of the series of hamstrings and oblique strains that have cost Reyes time over the past two seasons and whether these are likely to reoccur are for Corey Dawkins, our new injury expert, to outline, but note that with a depressed offense in New York, the majority of Reyes's fantasy value will come from steals. Any further decline in that could easily drop Reyes into the next tier of middling fantasy shortstops.

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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