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March 15, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Value Picks at Catcher, Second Base, and Shortstop

by Michael Jong

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The question regarding Marco Scutaro and Jed Lowrie is one between a conservative approach and an aggressive, forward-looking plan for the 2011 season. If owners are interested in taking a safe approach at shortstop or second base, it does not get much safer in terms of production than Scutaro. Last season, while battling a pinched nerve and shoulder problems, he shouldered 695 plate appearances, hit double-digit home runs for the second time in his career, and scored 92 runs. According to GP2011, that sort of performance was worth just about $8 in standard mixed auction leagues. Going into 2011, it would be hard to forecast anything different in terms of rate stats for Scutaro, as his skill set has not wavered since 2005. He will get on base because his patient, swing-light approach leads to a strong walk rate and, because he does not strike out often, he should hit .260 to .270 along the way. Being bumped from first to eighth in the batting order will certainly cut into his counting stats, but PECOTA still has him scoring 67 runs in 600 PA, which would be worth a low-dollar pickup in AL-only leagues.

The issue with that supposedly safe choice is that it is riddled with playing time questions because of Scutaro's backup, Jed Lowrie. Lowrie was outstanding in his 197 PA stint in 2010, batting .287/.381/.526 and impressing people enough in his return from injury that BP's Depth Charts have him taking up a significant amount of time around the diamond. While Lowrie's numbers last season are likely inflated, the underlying peripherals show a player who could maintain this type of performance. In the minors, he always maintained a strong walk (13.3 percent minor league career) and strikeout rate (15.2 percent career), signifying both a strong plate approach and the contact capability to maintain a high batting average. In addition, Lowrie is the rare breed of middle infielder that actually gets the ball in the air: in his brief major league career, his fly ball rate is a staggering 50.1 percent. Such rates in a cozy ballpark like Fenway Park should lead to a plethora of doubles off the Green Monster or into the deep center field gaps. Even though he never displayed strong home run power (29 career homers in 1659 minor league PA—his lingering wrist injury may have had some impact), his gap power should be good enough to earn him more than the average number of RBI from middle infielders, even from the back end of a strong Boston lineup.

Lowrie's main problems are also a matter of playing time, so Boston's indecision on who will be a primary starter at shortstop will serve to keep both players limited to lower half of AL-only drafts. Lowrie has the large power upside and should be the preferred selection; he is projected for around the same playing time as Scutaro and PECOTA expects double-digit home runs for his limited field time. I share Marc Normandin's sentiments in his shortstop rankings; Lowrie should be money in a park built for his fly ball ways provided he gets his playing time, so keep an eye out for him and snag him late in your AL-only drafts.

I covered Jaso plenty when he broke into the Tampa Bay Rays' rotation at catcher in the middle of 2010. Jaso is of the same breed as Lowrie in terms of plate approach, loaded with good patience (11.7 percent career minor league walk rate) and contact skills (12.1 percent career minor league strikeout rate). What he lacks is any semblance of power, as his .147 ISO and 13.5 home runs per 600 PA in the minors shows. What Jaso brings to the table is the ability to avoid killing your batting average due to his low strikeout rates and passable (for a catcher) BABIP and rack up playing time in a good, if not depleted, Tampa Bay lineup. He fits very nicely in the Yadier Molina/Kurt Suzuki range of catcher selections: he does not excel in any particular category, but he will gladly eat up your necessary catcher requirement for a minimal dollar or draft pick investment. He will not play enough to warrant significant mixed-league interest, but he should provide value in single league play.

It should be noted that Jaso is a much better hitter in real life than he is in traditional 5x5 roto formats, so OBP and baseball sim leaguers should bump his name up in their rankings. In 2010, only seven catchers with more than 300 PA had a better TAv than Jaso's .288 mark, and PECOTA is projecting a solid .260 campaign that may underestimate the stability of his plate approach skill set. If your sim league needs a starting catcher and you missed out on the strong early options, Jaso could be an unassuming name that slips under the radar.

Sean Rodriguez, like so many other names on the Tampa Bay roster, is an intriguing talent without a guaranteed spot or amount of playing time. Rodriguez took 378 PA and turned it into 13 steals, 53 runs, and nine homers, rates that would all exceed league averages for second basemen in 2010. Unfortunately, he had no defined playing time role last season, being fit into second base whenever it was convenient and making starts at six other positions when necessary.

Rodriguez's versatility is perfect for the Rays’ plans, but the inconsistent playing time it provides him drives fantasy owners through the roof. He looks to be a part of a rotation and platoon that involves first base, right field, and second base and prominently features Ben Zobrist, Matt Joyce, and Dan Johnson among others. At the moment, BP's Depth Charts have Rodriguez earning the short end of the stick with only 254 PA, and that number was vetted by someone who knows the Rays pretty well. However, should any of those players go down to injury for a significant amount of time, Rodriguez should be first in line for playing time, and he should provide strong production for all of your non-batting average categories. In addition, there is simply no reason to expect Rodriguez to walk at the rate he did in 2010 given his minor league pedigree (11.0 percent career minor league walk rate) and similarities in swing and whiff rate between the majors and minors, so any regression in that category should at least help boost his opportunities for stealing bases. Keep an eye on the Rays' injury situations and a trigger finger on Rodriguez's name if he is available in your league, as he could provide some valuable production in the middle of a season potentially mired in unhealthy middle infield options.

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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Premium Article Prospect Profile: Yasm... (03/15)
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