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April 10, 2012

Value Picks

First, Third, and DH for 4/10/12

by Michael Street

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The principle at Value Picks is simple: find valuable players with less than 20 percent ownership in most (preferably all) of the Big Three fantasy sites (Yahoo!, ESPN, and CBS). It’s not always easy to find players fitting this description, but in past seasons, I’ve called readers’ attention to then-undervalued players like Gaby Sanchez, David Freese, and Lucas Duda, who enjoy much higher ownership rates these days.

In the early part of the season, waiver wires are filled with overlooked players who won’t be around in a few weeks. But for now, as other owners are waiting to see how their draft picks perform, you can still find some well-known names with the most important fantasy commodity: playing time.

Despite hitting a towering two-run homer at Wrigley on Saturday and another on Sunday (part of a four-hit afternoon), Adam LaRoche (Yahoo! 6%, ESPN 1%, CBS 32%) still finds himself on the waiver wire in most leagues. This comes partly because of the bone bruise on LaRoche’s left foot that sidelined him for two weeks of Spring Training and partly because of LaRoche’s reputation for slow starts. For his career, LaRoche hits .212/.306/.391 in March and April, and his OPS rises each month before tailing off in September.

In 2011, LaRoche didn’t get a chance to recover from his customary slow start due to a torn rotator cuff and labrum in his left shoulder that led to season-ending surgery. The gimpy shoulder means we can pretty much ignore LaRoche’s brief 2011 line, but he presented a steady skill set before that. In the three seasons prior to 2011, his 24.3 percent strikeout rate and 9.5 percent walk rate were slightly better than average, respectively, with a .215 ISO to compensate for his elevated strikeout rate. Those stats are supported by steady fly ball and home run rates that led to precisely 25 home runs per season with a .322 BABIP displaying hard contact. LaRoche was the model for a slightly above-average first baseman, which led Baseball Prospectus 2011 to dub him the first-base equivalent of a “safety school.”

As a lefty, LaRoche’s platoon splits are not severe—his OPS is 106 points higher against righties for his career—but they’re pronounced enough for him to sit against  tough southpaws, driving down his counting numbers a bit. Though PECOTA’s 50th percentile batting-average projection of .259 shows the effects of his high whiff rates, the .330 OBP and 20 home runs at that level will bring value in other categories, and he could hit .280 above his 80th percentile. This modest upside and lack of positional pressure makes LaRoche a good player to speculate on in the season’s early weeks.

I covered Garrett Jones (Yahoo! 4%, ESPN 1%, CBS 12%) and his potential platoon-mates Casey McGehee and Matt Hague a few weeks back, noting that Jones is what he is: a decent power-hitter with a constant enough platoon splits that he’ll never see a full-time gig. John Perrotto named McGehee as his impact bench player in a recent Lineup Card, noting Pedro Alvarez’s struggles and Jones’ inconsistency, so Jones’ leash could well be short. Last season, Jones recovered his fly ball rate from the dip that brought down his 2010 performance, and he again hit fastballs at a good clip though struggled against sliders. He’ll never again be the player he was in 2009—a season driven by elite HR/FB rates and a .323 BABIP—but Jones’ one-star ceiling isn’t too shabby either. Many of the high-upside players are off the waiver wires, meaning owners in deep and NL-only leagues can take a flier on Jones, who is even more valuable with his outfield qualification.

When Derek Carty and I drafted our FSIC NL-only team, Derek grabbed Juan Francisco (Yahoo! 1%, ESPN 0%, CBS 5%) in the late rounds, even before Atlanta acquired him to fill in for Chipper Jones. This kind of prescience is why it’s nice to manage a team with BP’s Resident Fantasy Genius—Francisco went from potential backup to the always-fragile Scott Rolen to starter for the even-more fragile Chipper Jones (such fragility clearly makes both players Italian). Francisco brings a volatile mix of big power and big whiffs, putting up a .286/.317/.502 triple-slash in the minors that combined a big-time 23.1 K% with a teeny 3.9 BB% to create an absurd 0.18 BB/K ratio. If he could manage the last of the Three True Outcomes—walks—Francisco could better leverage that 216 ISO. Instead, he’s largely carried those tendencies to his sips of coffee with the Reds, amassing a 28.2 K% and 6.1 BB% in parts of four seasons (totaling just 185 plate appearances) while producing an ISO of only .162.

It’s hard to draw any definitive conclusions based on such small samples, but PECOTA sees a strong season coming: he’s projected for a .271/.299/.483 in his 50th percentile and will push a .500 SLG just above his 60th, with a .300 average possible around his 80th. He’s getting the chance in Atlanta that he never got in Cincy—Francisco’s injuries neatly overlapped with Rolen’s last year—although the short-term window is closing with Jones expected back in the lineup on Friday. Nevertheless, Francisco will still bring thunder off the bench and is a virtual lock to get more playing time when (and not if) Jones hits the DL again, so NL-only and deep-league owners can hang onto him after Chipper returns.

I also looked at Travis Hafner (Yahoo! 10%, ESPN 1%, CBS 14%) two weeks ago as someone who was undervalued because owners compare him to his former self. Once upon a time, between 2004 and 2006, Hafner helped owners in all three triple-slash categories and four of the five traditional roto categories. These days, he’s lost some of his power, his strikeout rate has crept up over the 20 percent mark, and he’s never going to see 500 plate appearances again thanks to injury concerns and widening platoon splits. But the power that remains—PECOTA gives him a .161 ISO in his 50th percentile, rising to .185 in his 90th—along with his patience still spells fantasy value for Pronk. Activate Project Donkey for deep and AL-only leagues, particularly those that count OBP.

It’s rare to see a talented player with a full-time gig being ignored, but fantasy owners apparently haven’t figured out that Luke Scott (Yahoo! 3%, ESPN 0%, CBS 16%) is Tampa’s full-time designated hitter, a position that Baseball Prospectus 2012 says he’s “perfectly suited” for. Most likely, those owners are focused on Scott’s injury-hampered .220/.301/.402 line in 2011 or PECOTA’s 50th percentile projection of .238/.321/.432. That batting average pessimism is understandable given his career 20.2 K%, but Scott has averaged an 11.0 BB% over the past three seasons, and his .229 ISO is very strong. We should also remember that PECOTA can’t “see” injuries, nor (ironically) can it “see” Scott’s offseason LASIK surgery, both of which point towards a return to more productive ways.

Even if we accept PECOTA at face value, Scott’s OBP upside (.365 in his 90th percentile) and his 50th percentile 18 home runs are very tasty. Unlike other designated hitters, who can often be lineup cholesterol, Scott should qualify at first base and in the outfield, with the latter providing the most value. Wherever you can find room for Scott, you should do so, since you’re unlikely to find this potent power-patience cocktail combined with assured playing time on the waiver wire after the season’s opening weeks.

AL-only VP
Once the first baseman of the future in New York, Nick Johnson (Yahoo! 0%, ESPN 0%, CBS 1%) has instead succumbed to injuries ranging from two separate wrist surgeries to fractures in his cheek, hand, and femur. It’s like he wanted to replace Sam Jackson as Elijah Price in Unbreakable. As Price said himself, “You know what the scariest thing is? To not know your place in this world.” Johnson has tried to find his place in the baseball world, playing for four different franchises in his intermittent ten-year career, finding his greatest productivity with Montreal/Washington where he amassed over 2000 plate appearances with a .280/.408/.460 triple-slash that shows his modest power (173 career ISO) and excellent batting eye (15.9 percent career walk rate).

With Baltimore, Johnson can slide into the less-demanding designated hitter spot, where his only competition is Wilson Betemit (who’s no David Dunn) and deliver some fantasy value. Though he’s a lefty, Johnson displays a slight reverse platoon split (839 OPS vs. righties, 854 OPS vs. lefties) that means he’s capable of handling a full-time role if his body can hold up. Proven skills and lack of competition makes him a fine AL-only addition, though it may take a pre-med student to name the bone he’ll break next.

NL-only VP
It may seem strange to advocate both a starter and his backup, but Matt Hague (Yahoo! 0%, ESPN 0%, CBS 1%) provides insurance for not only Garrett Jones but also the Pirates’ infield and outfield corners. His seven-home-run Spring Training allowed him to slide into a roster spot despite the crowd of Jones, McGehee, Alvarez, and Josh Harrison at the infield corners and Nate McLouth as the team’s fourth outfielder. But Hague has already started against lefty Cliff Lee on Saturday, and he delivered a game-tying pinch-hit RBI in Pittsburgh’s comeback win against the Phillies on Sunday. It would be a poor decision to keep Hague on the major-league roster rather than give him more minor-league seasoning, so Hurdle should use him often. Hague’s high-contact, medium-power skills—covered here—don’t make him a great mixed-league option even if he gets more playing time, but he’s a good NL-only gamble this early in the season.

Playing Pepper
Though he cranked a dramatic three-run homer on Opening Day, I’m not yet believing in Jack Hannahan (Yahoo! 3%,ESPN 1%,CBS 4%), though he does have the starting job in Cleveland for now.

Josh Donaldson (Yahoo! 1%, ESPN 0%, CBS 9%) was declared as Oakland’s third-base starter, but Bob Melvin started Eric Sogard against the last two righties, even while insisting it’s not a platoon. Donaldson won’t bring much value, but a platoon would obviously diminish that value even more.

The early shoulder injury to Mike Carp helped Kyle Seager (Yahoo! 2%, ESPN 0%, CBS 10%) make the Opening Day roster, though he has a low ceiling for the hot corner.

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Fantasy Article Fantasy Beat: 9 Small ... (04/10)
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