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February 3, 2012
The Keeper Reaper
Outfielders for 2/3/12
ADP could stand for “Arlington's Drinking Problem” this week, as rumors surface about megastar Josh Hamilton being seen imbibing Monday. Also, reader requests for Craig and Campana, and a look at someone who won't be kept in any leagues but may be worth an earlier pick than is assumed.
Josh Hamilton | Texas Rangers (ADP 30)
When asked in which formats he'd keep Josh Hamilton this offseason, an anonymous friend who is a very successful fantasy player replied with, “I'd probably keep him in all of them, but in the first one or two I'd try to deal him,” which seems like practical logic, if you had to make the call today, with the story of his drinking not completely unfolded yet. It goes without saying that Hamilton has almost as much upside as any player in the game (at least among players who won't log double-digit stolen bases), with the pedigree of being a first overall pick, having won an MVP in 2010, and playing in a great hitter's park with a very good lineup surrounding him.
So why not keep him in a “Shallow” format? In the context that it's already stipulated that he's a great player, here are the concerns. He has missed 142 games over the past three years combined. He won't steal enough bases to be noteworthy. In four seasons in Texas, he's averaged .311-25-94 (with 79 runs and eight steals)—not exactly a monstrous home run output. He'll be 31, an age where his power may stay intact, but he's likely to start seeing batting average slippage. His MVP season was fueled by a .390 BABIP—a once-in-a-career occurrence. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, he's just an outfielder. Mike Morse put up similar numbers to Hamilton's four-year averages in 2011, and his ADP is 79... and he's eligible at two positions. That's not to say that Morse is in any way comparable to Hamilton, just that finding 25-HR production from an outfielder doesn't require a top-30 pick.
Weighing all the factors, the “expected value” of a Josh Hamilton season puts him right at the fringe of a top-30 player, which is where he's going in mock drafts. But the closing argument in the case against keeping him is that it's not often that a league is won with an early pick, but it can be lost if such a pick falls apart. Many fantasy experts recommend taking “low-risk” players in early rounds (or for big dollars at auction) for good reason, and while the story about Hamilton's drinking may unfold as nothing to worry about, his risk factor is enormous until it does. And even without the unwelcome news this week, his injury history already provides a reason for caution.
I believe the first time I read any hyperbole about Allen Craig was when John Sickels tabbed him as an “Unsung Prospect” before the 2008 season, noting that “PECOTA comps include guys like Kevin Kouzmanoff, Steve Pearce, and Mark Reynolds, but also Mark Quinn, Cole Liniak, and Russ Davis.” Now, regardless of how poorly that group of comparables turned out, Craig did sort of emerge in 2008, hitting a fine .304/.373/.494 at Double-A and following it up with a massive .322/.373/.547 at Triple-A in 2009, as he more-or-less permanently left the third base position behind him.
Being old for his leagues, he wasn't regarded as much of a prospect even with these gaudy rate stats, and essentially xeroxing his 2009 line from Memphis in 2010 didn't help his cause, as he struggled en route to a .246/.298/.412 line in St. Louis. By 2010, he seemed to be well on his way to becoming a Quad-A hitter/corner utility guy. But what utility he showed in 2011! Overshadowed by another unexpected hero, David Freese, Craig delivered a pair of go-ahead pinch hits in the World Series and finished up a season where he hit well enough (.315/.362/.555) to warrant playing time regardless of which position he may be able or unable to play.
Alas, a knee injury he played through forced him to have off-season surgery, and he's not expected to be fully healthy until May. Plus, he turned 27 in July, so he's not exactly a spring chicken. The Cardinals filled their outfield “hole” with a Carlos Beltran signing, leaving Craig with no clear opportunity when he returns. Of course, Beltran and Berkman are both older players, and David Freese—postseason heroics notwithstanding—is still far from proven, and though Craig looked like a converted third baseman (who wasn't good at defense) during his five games in center field, he may still end up on the depth chart as an option there against some left-handed pitchers. Most likely, he'll settle into a semi-regular platoon arrangement at first base with Lance Berkman, who is notably vulnerable to lefty pitching, and pick up another 70-100 plate appearances elsewhere, bringing his season total to the 220-250 range.
There's nothing like being as different as possible from Alfonso Soriano to engender the love of the fans in Wrigleyville these days, and Campana is a spark plug of a ballplayer whose PECOTA is .270/.313/.335 (a higher batting average than the Cubs' albatross in left field) and whose annual salary probably wouldn't cover Soriano's daily tax burden. Further, Campana is a natural centerfielder whose speed makes him look like he could attain fantastic defensive range, though his projected FRAA is -5 runs in 250 PA for 2012. Conjuring up comparables such as Mickey Rivers (who hit .280/.330/.365 through age 26) and in possession of a similar amount of foot speed as the fleet Rivers, a local Chicago sports radio station even had a jingle for “Tony, Tony Campana, The Fastest Cub North of Havana.”
Much like Sam “The Legend” Fuld, Campana's base skills aren't enough to deserve a starting outfield role unless he is able to truly turn his plus-plus speed into some impact defensive range in center field. Even then, he'd still probably serve the Cubs best in a reserve capacity, considering the ages and injury histories of the starting trio. If Marlon Byrd is traded or one of the outfielders is out with an injury, Campana could suddenly become a valuable fantasy commodity as the left side (batting against the 73 percent of pitchers who throw right-handed) of a centerfield platoon situation until Brett Jackson is ready. And while the Cubs don't scream “team speed,” those hoping for Campana to “Jarrod Dyson” his way into a few extra stolen bases will probably be out of luck, as there really aren't any obvious pinch-running situations.
One outgrowth of working on PECOTA this year was the chance to do some research into the proper values to use for “back-weighting” of stats—as in, how much weight to place on each year in the past. Sort of without explanation, a 5/4/3 or 6/5/4 weighting system has been adopted by many people industry-wide, sometimes with a 1 or 2 weight for “league average” (with a full season of plate appearances assumed) as a means of regressing the weights toward this league average. But all indicators show that past years are actually more important to future projection than this indicates (consider this a teaser for an upcoming Colin Wyers piece on the topic). Even so, without an offhanded comment by Ben Lindbergh about how high Vernon Wells's TAv was in 2011, it's not clear he would have been on this author's radar for fantasy purposes in 2012 at all.
By “high”, it should be noted that Wells had a TAv of .247 (that's against an average of .260), and his RPA+ was 89. TAv (and RPA+) take more complicated factors into account than other systems, and he came out better than if we used the OPS+ system at Baseball Reference (83) or the wRC+ system at FanGraphs (77). Part of that was due to him having a low BPF (batter park factor—his individualized park factor for 2011) of 95. But he'd been good in the past and has posted TAvs of .308, .293, and .289 in the last three even-numbered seasons (2006, 2008, 2010).
Having laid all that groundwork, how about a curve? Vernon Wells is still a terrible fantasy keeper. Yep, he may have hit .258/.308/.443 over the past five seasons combined, and PECOTA may look at those past seasons with more significance than any other system, but those nice 2008 and 2010 stats still can't help him enough to get into the picture. Four of those seasons were in hitter-friendly Toronto, and he's doomed to play in Angel Stadium of Anaheim, at least until they rename it again. With the inevitable theft by Father Time taking stats away from him, his PECOTA comes out to a miserable .245/.293/.411 batting line. That's still league-average (.260 TAv) given the ballpark considerations, but that doesn't help a fantasy owner. He'll hit his 17 home runs and steal his eight bases, and owners can rest assured that his salary will be in the lineup (the same lineup with Albert Pujols). But that doesn't make him worth $126M over seven years, so stop bidding well before that in your auction.