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January 24, 2012
The Keeper Reaper
First, Third, and DH for 1/24/12
Shifting from Fridays to Tuesdays doesn’t mean my fantasy perspective has changed, and the ten days since my last column brought a few noteworthy fantasy moves—some more beneficial than others.
The blockbuster trade of the offseason changed things for Jesus Montero, whose skills I covered last month. Derek Carty discussed the drop in fantasy value for the Jesus Who May Save Seattle, Kevin Goldstein discussed Montero’s potential in Transaction Analysis, and Jay Jaffe did a fine job of looking at the Yankees designated-hitter options, including Jorge Vazquez, who is currently slotted as a DH platoon-mate for Andruw Jones (covered recently in this column). Assuming the Yankees don’t choose one of the other options that Jay outlined, there is far too much fantasy risk than reward in Vazquez. Though he’d be the heavier half of the platoon with Jones, Vazquez should lose more playing time to Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez at DH, dragging down his counting numbers and subsequent fantasy value.
Looking at his core skills, what jumps out isn’t Vazquez’s career .248 ISO here in the States (he played for nine seasons in Mexico) so much as the 5.1 percent BB% (4.4 percent UIBB%). His overall 28.6 percent K% is acceptable for a slugger, but it’s increased each year in the minors, suggesting a lack of development. On the positive side, his .347 minor-league BABIP suggests solid contact, though that too has dropped each season.
Despite Vazquez’s power potential, his impatience and high whiff rate point towards a plate approach that major-league pitchers will exploit. He’ll turn 30 shortly before Opening Day, so his window to make his big-league mark is closing quickly. Rather than wasting a keeper spot on a player who might not even have a starting position if the Yanks sign someone else, fantasy owners should decide if they want to take a draft day flyer on Vazquez instead.
When I covered Pena in an earlier edition of the Keeper Reaper, I noted his exotic, idiosyncratic appeal. Much like Mark Reynolds and other Three True Outcomes hitters, Pena will boost two counting categories—RBI and HR—while potentially killing the ratio category of batting average. His career .239 batting average peaked in 2007 at .282 thanks to a healthy helping of BABIP (his .297 that season was nearly twenty points above his career average) and a slight surge against lefties (his OPS was 115 points lower against them, versus 148 points lower for his career). Since then, Pena’s batting average has been just .224, which bottomed out in 2010 at .196.
Pena’s value, however, comes from the other Two Outcomes: power and walks. His career-high 29.1 percent HR/FB ratio (20.2 percent career average) in 2007 boosted his home run total to 46 dingers, a level he approached again in 2009 when his 39 long flies were the result of a 23.8 percent HR/FB (third-best in his career). Though his home runs fluctuate along with these statistical winds, he’s still averaged 32 longballs since that breakout 2007 season. His walk rates have been much steadier, averaging 15.9 percent since 2007, never rising or falling more than .9 percent from that mark. That consistency has allowed Pena to deliver plenty of value in OBP leagues, averaging .354 between 2007 and 2001; even 2010’s miserable batting average was mitigated by a .325 OBP.
Thus, his skills should stay fairly constant, and returning to the Trop may help him more than if he were to remain at Wrigley. One of the contributing factors to Pena’s 2010 batting average with Tampa Bay was a sudden tendency to hit balls into the turf; his 44.9 percent ground-ball rate was a career low, and it rebounded to a much more typical 37.3 percent last season. Given the shift teams employ against him, a return to these ground-pounding ways at the Trop would be devastating for Pena’s average once again.
AL-only owners may not have him on their rosters, but he’s an easy add-and-keep for those with active waivers, as his home run production is definitely worth a spot. Other owners in standard leagues will have to assess if his help in counting numbers is worth the ratio damage, while owners in OBP leagues can ignore such concerns. He’s not a top-notch first baseman, but he’s a strong fantasy asset who should easily outperform his currently low draft position.
Signing Cust seems a year premature for the soon-to-be-DH-needing Astros, who will shift to the American League in 2013. Like Pena, Cust offers a Three True Outcomes (TTO) package, but the Cust TTO Version doesn’t include defense. He has only delivered a positive FRAA once, a 1.2 in 2008 that looks like an anomaly sandwiched between his -2.2 in 2007 and -8.5 in 2009, the last time any team allowed the rotund Cust to patrol the outfield corners for more than a handful of games.
The question with Houston thus becomes where they might play Cust, who faces outfield-corner competition from J.D. Martinez, Fernando Martinez, Brian Bogusevic, Jason Bourgeois, and J.B. Shuck, many of whom are likely more familiar with Cust from their PlayStations than as a fellow major-leaguer. On the other hand, none of those names represent particularly formidable competition, either; “Petit” Bourgeois tops the experience list with 192 games and 431 plate appearances in the majors. (Non-roster invitee Travis Buck is also in the mix, with 220 games and 829 plate appearances, albeit with a .246/.320/.408 slash line). Cust can also play first base, but both Carlos Lee and Brett Wallace stand between him and that position.
The odds are long against Cust securing a starting role, and one has to wonder why the Astros inked him this year, not next. His power is a valuable commodity for the offensively-challenged Astros, who led only the Padres in home runs last season, but Cust’s .197 career ISO has declined steadily from its .248 peak in 2007, in lock-step with his AB/HR and HR/FB rates. He crested the 30-home run mark just once (in 2008), and the surrounding years (2007 and 2009) were the only other years he hit over 25 longballs. With a strikeout rate consistently at or above 30 percent and a walk rate generally around his career average of 17.2 percent, Cust isn’t delivering his most valuable Outcome while showing the less-valuable patience and strikeouts.
There’s interesting upside here, but even those in NL-only leagues should shy away from keeping Cust, since he won’t be in that player pool after this season, when he’ll have a clearer path to playing time. “Super Deep”-league owners should watch him in Spring Training to see if he snags a starting role, saving their keeper spots for better gambles.
Those of us who had Kila Ka’aihue on our fantasy rosters to begin 2011 can partly blame Hosmer for watering down the Royals’ flavor of Hawaiian Punch. Kila started the season with a tepid .195/.295/.317 slash line while Hosmer crashed through the wall of PCL pitching to the tune of .439/.525/.582 in his first season at the level. Exit Kila, enter Hosmer, whose .293/.334/.465 season contributed to the Royals’ resurgence of 2011 and ranked him third in Rookie of the Year balloting. Even better, Hosmer didn’t seem to miss a beat all season, except perhaps in June, when his slugging percentage hit a season-low .293, undoubtedly due to his adjustment to big-league pitching. Otherwise, his core rates stayed steady, and he looked more like a seasoned vet than a kid who’d only just earned the right to drink something stronger than Kool-Aid.
The one deficit in Hosmer’s performance was his slugging, weak only by the standards of first basemen and by Hosmer himself, whose power was ranked by many as a perfect 80 on scouting scales. Kevin Goldstein is a big Hosmer fan, too, ranking him third among Royals’ top prospects before the season and as the Royals’ top young talent under 25 after the season. As Kevin points out, Hosmer is the best kind of power hitter: “more of a hitter with power than a pure slugger.” This is supported by Hosmer’s excellent 15.1 strikeout rate and 11.6 walk rate in the minors, which became 14.6 percent and 6.0 percent, respectively, upon his promotion. The decrease in patience would be a warning sign were it not for the uptick in contact skills, and his tepid power seems to be a product of a high groundball rate. Still, there’s little to dislike about Hosmer heading into next season.
I don’t necessarily see him as a shallow-league keeper at this point, as I’d like to see that power emerge, and a sophomore slump is possible; I also don’t think he’s a lock for the top 30 next season. However, Hosmer should be a great asset in any league for years to come, and he’s looking a bit undervalued at his current draft position.
Jim Bowden tweeted last Wednesday that Wigginton would be the Phillies’ primary first baseman in the absence of Ryan Howard, who is expected to miss the season’s first two months to his Achilles injury. This announcement isn’t exactly breaking news, but it does give fantasy owners hope that Wiggy will bring some value their way. After becoming a multi-position fantasy asset between 2005 and 2008, when he averaged .277/.335/.488 with 19 dingers, Wigginton hasn’t slugged more than .415 or hit above .273 (though his 22 home runs in 2010 with Baltimore were more in line with his previous performances). Even worse, in 2011, he lost the second base qualification that had made him such a key asset the season before.
With Philadelphia, he should retain the corner infield qualification that also increased his value, as he’ll also challenge Placido Polanco at third after Howard returns. Still, he may not return to his form in those more productive years, statistically speaking. Since 2008, Wiggy has been patient, with a 7.3 percent walk rate that exactly equals his career average, but his strikeout rate has risen each of the past two seasons. This problem seems to stem from a sudden futility against fastballs, a pitch that hasn’t given him problems in the past—not a good sign from an aging player. He’s also swinging at fewer pitches, a possible nod to this fastball issue or an indication that his pitch recognition skills are diminishing.
Philadelphia will give him a chance to turn this around with a new team and coaching staff. Though it’s hard to imagine a more favorable hitting environment than Coors Field, he will be surrounded by a better team and be assured of playing time, at least for the first two months of the season. His value is likely to decline sharply thereafter, but Howard’s injury could linger, or the increasingly brittle Polanco could find himself on the disabled list again or in manager Charlie Manuel’s doghouse. That’s too much to hope for in shallow leagues, but having a third of the season to prove himself might be enough for owners looking to roll the dice on Wiggy.