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March 8, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Value Picks at Catcher, Second Base, and Shortstop

by Michael Jong

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Let us consider the best case scenario for Luis Castillo. In 2009, he hit .302/.387/.346 in 580 PA with 20 stolen bases. He also scored just 77 runs at the top of a Mets lineup that was struggling to score at the time. The lineup is better now, but Castillo has sandwiched that season with two injury-plagued and ineffective campaigns that have had Mets fans calling for his head. Given Castillo's fragile nature (he has spent 118 days out with injury since 2008) and his red-flag status for missing 15 or more games in 2011, he is a safe bet not to make a full season, which means he is very likely to miss significant time even if he hits at his best.

Of the two other competitors for the job, Daniel Murphy is the recognizable name because of his strong 2008 season. He hit .313/.397/.473 in 151 PA that year, then followed that up with a full season playing first base and a line of just .266/.313/.427. Murphy can avoid the strikeout, as his 11.6 percent career strikeout rate in the minors shows, but his power both in the majors (.161 career ISO) and minors (.157 career) has been merely average and Citi Park certainly is not going to do him favors. It also does not help that Murphy is coming off a right ACL sprain and still cannot find a position in the majors; he will try again at second base this season after having failed in left field. It would not surprise anyone to see him shifted away from the position early in the year, leaving your second base situation high and dry.

Brad Emaus is an interesting name as a Rule 5 draft pick, but he appears to be more valuable in real life than in fantasy. Emaus has a good eye at the plate, having drawn 212 walks in 1810 minor league PA and struck out only 220 times. However, outside of 395 PA in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, he has not shown much power and, like Murphy, he simply does not excel at any one thing. A package like that is a fantasy death knell for hitters with below average power, even at second base. I'd sooner just avoid everyone involved with second base with the Mets.

I am not one to play the anonymous player comparison game often, but allow me to paint a rosy picture about Jose Lopez before we delve into the specifics. The following are the career numbers for Lopez and two other players prior to arriving in Coors Field: 

Name

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

BB/K*

ISO

Jose Lopez

3599

0.266

0.297

0.400

0.33

0.134

Player 1

1453

0.254

0.286

0.397

0.21

0.143

Player 2

316

0.242

0.273

0.361

0.16

0.119

Player 1 is Dante Bichette through his age 28 season; he went on to hit .316/.352/.540 in 4351 PA after arriving in Colorado, while Player 2 is Carlos Gonzalez through age 22, of whom most fantasy players of 2010 are well aware. The key point here is that these three players share similar skill sets, and two of those players went on to flourish in the light air of Colorado. Lopez, like the other two, has an ugly walk rate (3.7 percent career) and middling power, though his 2008 and 2009 seasons show some upside to that aspect of his game. He does have a bit of an age advantage over Bichette (he will be 27 in 2011) and has a major edge in contact (career 11. percent strikeout rate) over both of them. Still, in order to get on base, he depends on good BABIP fortune to assist his batting average and below average power.

Luckily for him, those are the two exact things Coors Field is best known for boosting. Everyone is aware of the effect Coors Field has on home runs; Patriot measured a five-year regressed home run park factor of 1.10, meaning Coors is expected to inflate home runs by 20 percent. The effect on hits on balls in play is also significant. Since 2008, major league hitters have hit .299 on balls in play, while hitters in Coors Field have hit .319, a 6.7 percent increase over the league average. Even if we expect a more modest increase of three percent increase on hits on balls in play (given some regression and accounting for Lopez playing half of his games at home), that sort of effect would push his .266 lifetime batting average into the .270 range. Consider then the fact that he will be moving from a park that suppresses right-handed home run power by an estimated 16 percent to a park that boosts righty power by 17 percent, and you can see why expecting a repeat of Lopez's 2009 home run production is more than reasonable. If he wins the second base job, look for him to fill your middle infield or third base spots late in mixed or NL-only drafts.

The other two options fighting for the second base position in Colorado are simply unappealing. Of the two players, Chris Nelson likely the better hitter, as he is a former first-round draft pick and has a minor league line of .275/.342/.434 spread across five different levels in 2474 PA. Nelson has good speed (72 stolen bases in 96 attempts in the minors), though he has yet to get a chance to show much of it in the majors. Eric Young Jr. is the more intriguing steals candidate, but as I noted here before, he will hurt you everywhere else. Nelson has shown in the minors that he can hit enough fly balls to take advantage of Coors Field's home run boost, but Young's career ground ball rate in the minors is greater than 50 percent and his pop-less bat is not going to improve power-wise in the majors.

Iannetta suffered from a season-long curse in 2010, and that curse was named “Jim Tracy.” Tracy offered him little in terms of plate appearances throughout the season, favoring Miguel Olivo instead. While Olivo performed admirably as a whole, hitting .269/.315/.449 (.261 TAv) and putting up a 4.0 WARP season, his final two months were simply brutal. From the start of August until the end of the season, Olivo hit .190/.215/.286, yet still made 34 of the 57 available starts.

Of course, Iannetta didn't fare much better at the time, hitting .169/.286/.265. However, Iannetta's overall line of .197/.318/.383 was actually good for a .250 Tav, better than 17 catchers who received at least 200 PA, including four who received over 500 PA. Given that Iannetta was coming off a season in which he hit .228/.344/.460 (.274 TAv), one would have suspected more patience from the Rockies management with regards to his status as starter.

This season, Iannetta comes in as the clear starter, and his fantasy situation has not changed. He hit 17 and 16 home runs in 2008 and 2009 despite receiving between 350 and 410 PA in both seasons, and he should receive another 400 or more PA this season. Iannetta will always hurt you with his batting average due to his very high strikeout rates, but PECOTA projects a .255 batting average which would be more than acceptable among your bottom tier of catchers, especially with Iannetta's power. Colorado's offense looks as potent as last year's model, so there should be no significant drop off in runs or RBI for the catcher spot in Colorado. Olivo drove in 58 runs and scored 55 in 2010 with a similar power output and a worse overall batting line than the one PECOTA is expecting from Iannetta, so it would not surprise me to see over 120 runs and RBI combined in over 400 PA.

Iannetta is currently being selected as the 21st catcher in Mock Draft Central's ADP report, behind guys like Jonathan Lucroy, Russell Martin, and Ryan Doumit. If your draft day plan is to wait for the latter rounds or the last few dollars to snag your catcher, Iannetta should be available and you should reap the benefits, as no other catcher close to the 260th draft pick is projected for a .271 TAv in 2011.

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

Related Content:  Daniel Murphy,  Jose Lopez

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