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March 21, 2011

Fantasy Beat

Value Picks at First, Third and DH

by Michael Street

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Spring training position battles are wrapping up, so I’m shifting my attention towards underdrafted players (according to mockdraftcentral.com). Some of these will be familiar to my readers from last season, but all of them are far more valuable than fantasy owners are acknowledging.

Tops on the list is the lowest draftee, Brett Wallace, drafted 394th overall, dead last among first basemen—behind even cold commodity Justin Smoak. While the Walrus didn’t tear things up last year, this is weak for a player drafted in the first round (and thirteenth overall) just three years ago.

Some of that comes from his 2011 performance, when The Walrus hit more like The Eggman, putting up goose eggs in 19 of 46 games, whiffing 31.5 percent of the time. That led to his moribund .222/.296/.391 line (.229 TAv), for a WARP of -0.5. With a performance that poor, a Dead Cat Bounce rebound is safe to predict, and PECOTA agrees, projecting him to hit .249/.311/.403 (.257 TAv), last place among first base starters.

Seems like you’d have to squint pretty hard to see any value in Wallace, but he’s been part of trades for Matt Holliday, Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt. Other than sounding like a doo-wop-group, Holliday, Halladay, and the Two Roys represent a heap of talent, and that’s not the only way that Wallace has been treated like a valuable chip.

St. Louis rushed him to Double-A in his first season, then pushed him to Triple-A midway through the next. He’s played for four Triple-A teams the past two seasons, amassing a cumulative .299/.357/.484 line despite the change in leagues. His 18.9 percent strikeout rate at that level was a bit high, while his 6.4 percent walk rate is pretty pedestrian, but it’s not as if he’s collapsed.

Owners only see Wallace’s 159-PA major-league debut last season, after a fast and tumultuous rise and a sudden change in teams, but this season, he’s lighter, has a new hitting coach, and doesn’t have any competition at his position. This job security and potential upside make him a great player to chuck a buck or two at in your draft.

Another highly touted player who’s been rushed to the bigs, dealt for a big name, but has disappointed thus far is Matt LaPorta. He hasn’t been moved as much or as fast as Wallace, but he’s had a lot more big-league exposure, and his Graphical Player 2011 mini-browser shows how much he’s regressed. In 623 plate appearances, LaPorta lost 82 points of OPS, 11 of OPS+, and 47 of ISO. He’s had problems with sliders, curves and changeups, making contact with them about 64 percent of the time. It can take some time to adjust to big-league off-speed stuff, but his 89.6 percent contact rate against four-seamers shows his bat speed isn’t the problem.

There are good signs evident in his peripherals, as his strikeout rate stayed fairly steady, while his walk rate nearly doubled. His BABIP fell to .250 after his surgically repaired hip bothered him late in the year, leading to a .200 BABIP in August and .154 in September. LaPorta is completely healthy in 2011, and he’s got one more year to prove himself, with no one of note pushing him in the high minors. His production will be muted by his lackluster Cleveland teammates, but hitting behind Shin-Soo Choo and Carlos Santana isn’t the worst place to be, either.

LaPorta’s currently been drafted 385th overall, 26th among starting first basemen, so you can wait on him, but he makes a far better choice than tepid commodities like James Loney or lower ceiling players like Ike Davis, both of whom are being drafted ahead of LaPorta. Even a moderate bounce back makes LaPorta a solid CIF or UT slot pickup, particularly if he beats PECOTA’s .247/.330/.430 50th percentile projection, as I expect he’ll do.

Valencia is being drafted even lower than LaPorta, 393rd overall, and 24th among third basemen, behind guys like Chris Johnson—the BP writers’ consensus choice for a poor 2011—and David Freese. I added Valencia to my Value Picks list last season after he seized the starting gig, but owners never seemed to notice him, even after he hit .311/.344/.478 down the stretch. His .340 BABIP as a starter isn’t sustainable, and PECOTA projects a more modest .274/.319/.397 line, with a .255 TAv that’s tied for 16th among third-sackers.

I’m betting he’ll exceed that, thanks to the strong contact rate in his mini browser, one that’s above his 80.3 percent minor-league rate, and a modest 6.2 percent walk rate that could rise to the 7.8 percent rate he registered down on the farm. His .137 ISO last season might also improve to his .171 minor-league levels, another reason to think that PECOTA’s .123 ISO is on the low side.

He’s not a home-run hitter, hitting one every 37 PAs before reaching the majors, but as BP 2011 points out, his gap power will help keep his slugging rates acceptable. Unlike Wallace and LaPorta, Valencia’s a solid choice in earlier rounds, and will certainly deliver more value than Chris Johnson and other players being drafted ahead of him. If you want a good bet for solid batting average with moderate power, Valencia should be on your Value Picks draft sheet.

Jason Collette’s explanation of why Edwin “E5” Encarnacion is undervalued offers an excellent assessment of EE’s up- and downsides in 2011. Marc Normandin isn’t nearly as enthusiastic in his third base rankings, giving the peripatetic and streaky hitter just two stars, but Marc acknowledges E5’s value could be higher. Most significantly, fantasy owners are virtually ignoring Encarnacion, drafting him 363rd overall and 21st among third basemen, where the designated hitter still qualifies. He, too, sits behind Chris Johnson, as well as Chase Headley and Casey Blake, players he should out produce.

In addition to Jason’s caveats, I’ll add the injury history you can see on BP’s awesome new player cards, which explain some of his problems last season and offer some caution for the future—wrist problems are not a good sign for a power hitter. CHIPPER rates him as highly likely to miss 30-plus days, so be sure you have a backup plan. Brett Lawrie should also reach the bigs in 2011, adding another piece of lumber to Toronto’s 1B/3B/DH/OF logjam.

For leagues that use designated hitters, Encarnacion’s TAv ranks fourth at that position, and he’ll bring the kind of pop that owners like from their corner infielders, too. His free-swinging ways will sandbag his average, but his solid walk rates should hold his OBP in tolerable territory—both trends are evident in his mini-browser. Look for him to provide good value in the mid- to late rounds and feel confident in bidding his price up a bit; just remember to have some insurance and be patient with his streaks.

Daric Barton was a Value Picks regular much of last season, before a late-season skid led to his demotion. I covered some of his merits two weeks ago, so I won’t recount them all here, but he continues to slip in fantasy drafts, down to 381st overall, 25th among first basemen. His value is specialized, delivering OBP and the counting stats from batting second in Oakland’s order, so he’s not the best fit for every league. But unless and until Carter pushes him out of the way, Barton will be a durable and reliable first baseman that merits a late-round, low-dollar bid in deeper leagues, at the very least. 

Related Content:  Matt LaPorta,  Brett Wallace

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