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March 7, 2012

Preseason Value Picks

Second, Short, and Third for 3/7/12

by Michael Jong

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As we keep rolling along in the 2012 Preseason Value Picks season, the authors of VP will have their eye on injuries, position battles, and all the goings ons of spring training. Unfortunately, not much movement has happened up the middle, as many players are well established both with their real teams and in fantasy. Still, there are some names of interest to discuss. 

Danny Espinosa | Washington Nationals
Mixed: $12 | NL-only: $18 | PECOTA 2B Rank: 8 | 2B ADP: 12

PA

AVG

HR

SB

RBI

R

640

.235

22

18

74

73

 Last season, Espinosa was a consistent member of the Value Picks portfolio, and it seems he may be opening the season in that same boat this year. At the end of the season, we discussed Espinosa in The Keeper Reaper feature, and here is some of what we said

The good news is that his power numbers are legitimate and his steals picked up steam as the season progressed; eventually, Espinosa put up home run and stolen base numbers that met and exceeded PECOTA's expectations while matching the scouting profile he had coming into this season. He should benefit from improvement from players like Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth, both of whom had disappointing offensive seasons and are in line for bounce back campaigns. The problem of his batting average remains very prevalent, however, as he struck out a lot (25.2 percent) and hit .232 despite a roughly league average BABIP of .297.

Much of this analysis remains relevant as we enter the 2012 season. Espinosa's primary problem remains strikeouts, as his strikeout rate in the minors (21.6 percent) translated very strongly to his biggest struggle in the majors. The problem Espinosa had in 2011 was that he could not make contact, connecting on only 75 percent of his pitches with the league average closer to 80 percent. As a result, he ended up eighth in the league in swinging strike rate, behind only perennial swing-and-missers like Ryan Howard, Dan Uggla, and Justin Upton. These seven hitters who swung and missed at more pitches in 2011 have struck out 25.5 percent of the time since 2009. Only three of those eight players (Howard, Matt Kemp, and Upton) have hit over .260 since that time period, and each of those hitters benefited from enormous BABIP numbers or elite power, neither of which Espinosa has. 

For fantasy purposes, however, these problems only affect one of five categories. Espinosa's decent walk rates allow him to maintain a league average OBP and keep him available for steals. He is not the most aggressive baserunner (10.7 percent stolen base attempt rate), but even with just a .323 OBP, he managed 217 stolen base opportunities and should be able to repeat that kind of performance again. PECOTA projects similar counting stats to last season, but it is not out of line to expect an increase in counting stats with a healthy top of the lineup returning for the Nationals. Espinosa is not a world-beater at second base, but he is a solid, predictable option worth a look in the $10-to-$15 range. 

Jose Altuve | Houston Astros
Mixed: $9 | NL-only: $20 | PECOTA 2B Rank: 14 | 2B ADP: 17

PA

AVG

HR

SB

RBI

R

612

.269

8

25

63

66

Altuve made a late-season appearance last year and shocked the world with some exciting play, though his final line (.276/.297/.357) was rather unimpressive. This season, however, PECOTA is projecting decent things for the things that matter in fantasy baseball. In the minors, Altuve has flashed double-digit home run power despite his tiny frame, and it seems PECOTA would be unsurprised if such an event happened in 2012. Remember, he averaged 11 home runs per 600 PA in the minors, with an increase as he reached the higher levels in 2010 and 2011.

Altuve's primary offensive contributions will be in steals and batting average. His strikeout rate was only 10.6 percent in the minors, and it did not get much worse with Houston at the end of the year (12.4 percent). This helps to keep his batting average high, and there may be an outside chance of improvement given his speedy tendencies and minor league numbers (career minor league .354 BABIP); PECOTA is projecting only a .302 BABIP in comparison. Unfortunately, he has never had a knack for taking walks, and that does cut into his chances at swiping bases; even with a .269 batting average, PECOTA sees only a 4.4 percent walk rate and .300 OBP. These forces may balance themselves out to yield the 25 projected stolen bags, but again, if his BABIP improves due to development and natural speed on the bases, he could force himself up to 30 steals on the year. 

Altuve is not a high-end choice at second base, but he is a good late-round middle infield option in mixed leagues and is a worthy NL-only option at second base. Do not let the mediocre start and the small frame fool you, because Altuve may be one of the few decent offensive fantasy options in Houston. 

Jason Kipnis | Cleveland Indians
Mixed: $6 | AL-only: $12 | PECOTA 2B Rank: 17 | 2B ADP: 14

PA

AVG

HR

SB

RBI

R

595

.254

16

8

69

69

Kipnis was on fire before an injury knocked out the rest of his 2011 campaign. Before that injury, he was hitting .272/.333/.507, and while the home run power was clearly over the top and headed for regression, the rest of that batting line did not seem unreasonable. Even with regression from that 20.2 percent HR/FB rate, PECOTA is still projecting a 16 home run season that would leave him among the top half of second basemen in round-trippers. 

PECOTA is knocking him down to a near-average .301 BABIP, but given his prospect pedigree (he was ranked 28th by Kevin Goldstein prior to the 2011 season) and his minor league BABIP of .344, it is not unreasonable to expect a repeat of his .313 mark from 2010. The increase in strikeouts and decrease in walks from his career minor league numbers in the jump to the majors also seemed perfectly within reason, making a .270 batting average more than within reach as well. In other words, so much of Kipnis's non-power numbers in 2011 appeared so believable that a repeat would come as a surprise to no one in fantasy baseball. 

Mock Draft Central users have been taking Kipnis as the 14th best second baseman, and despite PECOTA's ranking, this may be a good place to put him. In fact, it is not a stretch to see him putting up numbers projected by PECOTA for players like Neil Walker (PECOTA 2B rank of 12th) or Kelly Johnson (11th), making him more of an $11 player in 2012. 

Alcides Escobar | Kansas City Royals
Mixed: $1 | AL-only: $11 | PECOTA SS Rank: 19 | SS ADP: 23

PA

AVG

HR

SB

RBI

R

537

.269

3

22

50

59

Escobar hit an unexciting .254/.290/.343 last year that looked eerily similar to his career .252/.294/.339 line. So why does PECOTA expect a jump up to a .269 batting average and a .303 OBP? PECOTA is projecting a .300 OBP from a hitter who could not manage anything better than a .285 mark in two seasons of full-time play in Kansas City. Pedigree and regression could reign supreme, however, in regularizing Escobar's stats; in the minors, he was considered a premier contact hitter with a career .338 BABIP, and his contact skills have not deteriorated in the majors, as evidenced by his 85 percent contact rate. His strikeout rate remains low at a career 12.6 percent, meaning only a slight uptick in BABIP for a player who was previously well-known for this would give Escobar some much-needed hits and forays to first base for steals opportunities. 

To his credit, once Escobar reaches base, he has been aggressive in stealing; he took off in 14 percent of his stolen base opportunities in his career and 18 percent of those situations in 2011. Manager Ned Yost figures to remain aggressive on the bases, so there should not be a managerial brake on Escobar. He will never be a great hitter, but with some development at age 25, he can become a one-category specialist who will not hurt you too badly and can fill your middle infield spot in the later rounds.

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:  PECOTA,  Jose Altuve

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