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March 13, 2012
Preseason Value Picks
First, Third, and DH for 3/13/12
Two of the main considerations for real-world and fantasy baseball managers during Spring Training are injuries (which I looked at last week) and playing time. This week, I’ll look at a little of both at first base, starting with the Giants’ positional battle and moving onto the futures of two players with mysterious—or at least difficult-to-detect—ailments.
Huff, Pill, and Belt sound like three ways for rednecks to catch a buzz, but it’s actually the first base conundrum facing Giants manager Bruce Bochy. Should he play Aubrey Huff, the aging vet who’s making $10M this year but hit only .246/.306/.370 (.257 TAv) with 12 home runs in 579 plate appearances in 2011? Or Brandon Belt, the up-and-coming slugger who hit .225/.306/.412 (.260 TAv) in 2011 with nine home runs in 209 plate appearances? Or Brett Pill, the career minor-leaguer who hit .300/.321/.560 at the end of last season when the other two were living in the Land of Suck?
Belt seems like the obvious choice, but that’s not the way it shook out last season, as Belt got on and off both the DL and the bus to Fresno while Huff started 119 games at first base. There were other factors in the mix too, like playing Pat Burrell, Cody Ross, Nate Schierholtz, and Aaron Rowand at the outfield corners (the only other place Huff can play) and Huff’s inability to navigate AT&T’s right field without falling flat on his face.
Bochy faces a similar choice this season, although Huff’s not coming off a .290/.385/.506 season the way he was after 2010. Huff’s 2011 SLG was worst among all first basemen last season, and his .125 ISO ranked third from the bottom. Needless to say, his skills have also been slipping. Huff’s strong 2010 line was supplemented by a 12.4 percent BB%, so far above his 8.3 percent career average that many expected his ultimate regression to something like last season’s 8.1 percent. His strikeout rate, on the other hand, reached 15.5 percent last season, the highest it’s been since 2001 and above both his 13.4 percent career average and 2010’s 13.6 percent mark.
Luck might be the largest component of Huff’s recent Bret Saberhagen impression—i.e. what appears to be a decision to only perform well in even-numbered seasons but is actually generated largely by good (and bad) fortune.
If you’re a believer in such trends, you’d assume that Huff will outperform his humdrum 2011, and PECOTA does see a mild improvement to .253/.320/.400 (.270 TAv). But these are weak numbers for a first baseman, and Huff would have to blow past his 90th percentile PECOTA to reach his 2010 numbers.
Huff’s best route to playing time may be through a roster crunch. If Melky Cabrera or Nate Schierholtz gets hurt or regresses after a career season, Huff could find himself stumbling around AT&T’s outfield once again. His value as an outfielder makes him a rosterable player, but his first-base designation will deliver you roster flexibility, not first-base value.
I covered Belt in one of December’s Keeper Reapers, noting that “learning a new position while being shuffled on and off the active roster took its toll. He’s talented enough to merit continued consideration in deeper leagues, and even a crowded Giants outfield shouldn’t hold him back much longer.” Belt’s talent is considered immense—Jason Collette notes that “his long-term potential is huge,” and Geoff Young made Belt his pick to break out in 2012—but we haven’t seen him, well, belt like he’s supposed to.
It’s hard to draw too many statistical conclusions about Belt’s rookie season: he didn’t receive consistent playing time until mid-August, when he was rehabilitating from a broken wrist. Baseball Prospectus 2012 notes that the fractured nature of Belt’s season also made him swing at more pitches, trying harder to impress the Giants brass or rebuild his own confidence; a stint in the Dominican Republic may have helped him recover from this problem.
Seasoning and maturity should help Belt, since it’s easy to forget that he reached the majors in just his second pro season, shooting from High-A to Triple-A in 2010. Along the way, Belt registered an absurd .343/.457/.596 minor-league line on top of a well-balanced plate approach underscored by his 16.9 percent BB% and 17.8 percent K% (he struck out only seven more times than he walked in 825 plate appearances). PFM gives Huff the edge in mixed-league value—largely due to the greater playing time estimate—but Belt’s projected .255/.349/.429 (.288 TAv) in his 50th percentile beats Huff in all three slash categories, and Belt’s 90th percentile tops out at .302/.403/.508, well above Huff’s.
So I’d take Belt over the other options here for the same reason that Derek Carty would: late-round upside. As with Huff, many owners may only look at Belt’s low output last season; unlike Huff, however, Belt’s got a much higher ceiling.
Despite modest talent, Pill clearly looks like the odd man out of the first-base race barring an injury stack at first base or in the outfield. Unlike Belt, Pill has climbed the minor-league ladder slowly and deliberately, improving in some areas while regressing in others.
His power has jumped along with his improved contact rate, but his walk rate has remained stubbornly impatient. Whereas Belt has the patience of a saint, Pill approaches the plate like an overcaffeinated superhero, like a guy who can’t wait for an elevator… or like a player who will start the season at Triple-A, as Pill undoubtedly will.
Given his impatient approach and low-powered results (last season was his first with an ISO over .200), PECOTA gives him a .253/.286/.394 (.252 TAv) line in his 50th percentile, though he’d hit .320/.332/.499 in his 90th percentile—well above Huff in every department. It’s doubtful that he’ll find his way into a long-term starting job, making him more a guy to watch during the season in case of an opening at the big-league level, but he’s otherwise safe to ignore on Draft Day.
Already a question mark after an ankle injury shelved him for most of 2011, Davis looked ready to return in 2012, a possibility I discussed in Keeper Reaper while noting that he was unlikely to repeat his .302/.383/.543 performance in 2011. PECOTA agrees, projecting a decent .269/.348/.453 (.287 TAv) in his 50th percentile; he’d have to crack his 80th percentile to reach his 2011 levels in batting average and OBP and would have to go above his 90th to get to that 2011 SLG.
And all that was before he reportedly contracted Valley Fever, a debilitating lung infection also called coccidioidomycosis (a word sure to win your next game of Words With Friends). Fancy names aside, Valley Fever can lead to symptoms ranging from flu-like symptoms to general aches and pains—something akin to what players feel towards the end of the regular season, except in Davis’s case, he’s feeling this before Opening Day. As for its long-term effects, Davis can always ask Conor Jackson, who went from breakout to major-league bust after Valley Fever wiped out his 2009 season and snuffed his burgeoning career.
Worse, Valley Fever isn’t really treatable. Jackson took antifungals, about the only treatment used for severe cases like his, and they didn’t help him. Typically, most doctors prescribe plenty of rest, something antithetical to Spring Training philosophy, though it’s advice the Mets have already taken. Davis appears to have a milder form of it than Jackson did, but it will still hold him back in spring training—an important step for a player who hasn’t seen live pitching in almost a year—while possibly sapping his power and playing time throughout the year.
This adds one more question mark to Davis, already a marginal talent when fully healthy. I’m not ready to disregard him entirely based on a disease with such an uncertain prognosis, but it should knock him down a few spots or a few bucks, and his average draft position already shows too many Davis fanboys out there already. Steer clear of him for now, and keep your expectations modest regardless.
Valley Fever is a rarity in any sport, but every sport seems to deal with concussions these days. Pro hockey is losing more and more days to concussions, and a recent study shows that youth football players get hit on the head as hard as college players. But baseball is becoming increasingly affected too; just ask David Wright, Jason Bay, or Miguel Olivo. Or Justin Morneau.
From 2010 to 2011, Morneau missed 107 games that were directly attributable to a concussion that occurred on July 7, 2010, when his head collided with John McDonald’s knee while he breaking up a double play at second base. Morneau missed the rest of the 2010 season and never seemed himself last year, sputtering to a .225/.281/.338 start through 55 games before hitting the DL for neck surgery. After returning, the .235/.298/.314 line he put up at the end of the season was equally miserable, and both performances were likely affected by his concussion problems too.
Concussions are a black box and thus throw a considerable amount of mystery into Morneau’s projections. Based on his undeniable talent and strong core skills, PECOTA projects a .279/.356/.476 (.294 TAv) in Morneau’s 50th percentile, and that seems as fair as any for a guy who has missed this much time, even if fantasy owners might forget how good Morneau was before that concussion. By 2010, he’d increased his walk rate for four straight years (to a peak of 14.4 percent) and his SLG for three straight (topping out at a career-high .618). His strikeout rate hadn’t been quite as steady, bouncing from 11.9 percent in 2008 to 17.8 in 2010, but he generally hovered within shouting distance of his 15.1 percent career average.
In the 288 plate appearances he managed in 2011, Morneau’s 15.3 strikeout rate was right on the mark, but his walk rate sat at a career-low 6.6 percent. A look at his swing rate points to impatience—not an inability to see the ball well (a potential effect of concussions)—as the reason for this. Morneau set a career high in swinging at pitches outside the zone in 2011 and reached numbers not seen since 2006 on aggressiveness inside the strike zone; his contact rate on those pitches, however, was outstanding. His 70.9 percent contact rate on balls and 89.1 percent contact on strikes were his best marks since 2008 and among his best rates ever.
What he did with those pitches upon contact, however, became a problem, as his .109 ISO, 3.5 percent HR/FB, and 1.4 percent HR/PA were his worst ever, and his .257 BABIP (taken here as an indicator of hard contact) was his worst since 2005. That explains some of PECOTA’s pessimism about his power; its .476 SLG would be his worst since 2005, while the .545 in his 90th percentile would put him somewhere between his 2009 and 2010 performances. The best we can expect for Morneau, then, is a step backwards from his climb to the top of the first base rankings, while the worst is reduced performance, if not another complete tanking of the season. His ADP ranking shows that most owners lean towards the rebound side of the equation, making him overvalued, especially for a guy with such a mysterious malady. Unless you can get him at a discount, I’d keep away from Morneau until he shows he’s healthy again.