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August 28, 2012

Value Picks

First, Third, and DH for 8/28/12

by Michael Street

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Departures
A thin bench led Toronto to put David Cooper (Yahoo! 1%, ESPN 0%, CBS 3%) on the disabled list instead of waiting for his back problems to clear up. Depending on how Adam Lind plays (and feels), Cooper could return to the Jays when he’s eligible, but he’s still just an AL-only player if he does.

While his talent is undeniable, Josh Vitters (Yahoo! 1%, ESPN 0%, CBS 8%) has also been slow to develop in the minors, something that appears to be translating to the majors. While Vitters picked up his first career homer last week, a no-doubter at Miller Park, he also recorded his fifth straight multi-strikeout game. In 51 plate appearances this season, he’s whiffed 16 times and walked just once, which is no way to start out your big league career, homer or no homer. Hang onto him in deep keeper leagues but wait for him to stabilize at the plate before counting on him in other leagues.

I’d added Eric Chavez (Yahoo! 11%, ESPN 10%, CBS 27%) to VP largely due to the absence of better options and his own hot streak. He’s cooled off, smacking just two hits to go with six whiffs in his last 21 plate appearances, and there are now other players to consider, so I’ll send Chavez packing, though he’ll still hold value in AL-only and very deep mixed leagues.

Arrival
When he’s healthy, Luke Scott (Yahoo! 9%, ESPN 9%, CBS 18%) can do some damage, but that “healthy” part has been difficult. He’s been on the disabled list each of the last four seasons, and he’s seen the DL twice in 2012. In between those stints, however, he’s been on the VP list twice and has hit .229/.280/.443 with 12 home runs and 46 RBI in 275 plate appearances. That’s not a very impressive line—his .279 TAv exactly matches his 50th percentile PECOTA, but the first two parts of his triple-slash are around his 30th. That dropoff seems to come from a variety of sources, most of them correctable.

While his hit trajectories this season are in line with his rates in the past, the first anomaly to jump out of Scott’s performance this season is his 5.1 percent walk rate, which is roughly half of his career average. Scott had offseason LASIK surgery, so one would expect a player to see the ball better, not worse, after improved vision. In Scott’s case, however, he’s had trouble with breaking pitches and cutters this year, perhaps an indication that he’s still learning to recognize these pitches with improved vision (or maybe it’s merely random). The increased aggressiveness suggested by that reduced walk rate could even mean he’s seeing the ball too well, and every pitch suddenly looks hittable. (Sort of like how I play baseball videogames.)

Just as likely a culprit, however, are the back problems that led to Scott’s first stint on the disabled list. His season triple-slash line stood at .220/.281/.424 in 196 plate appearances when he went on the DL on June 9, but in the 81 plate appearances immediately prior to that, he hit just .194/.259/.292, suggesting that his back had been bothering him for a while. After returning from the DL, he didn’t pick up a hit in his first 25 plate appearances, then went on a 10-game tear, hitting .385/.415/.769 in 41 plate appearances before his latest injury (an oblique) laid him low again. An injury-hampered start, a bit of rust after returning, and the reason behind Scott’s weak season line become a bit clearer.

This time around, he’s hit in all four games since being activated, delivering doubles in the first three of those contests. The usual small-sample caveats apply here, but I’d look for a rebound in his batting average and OBP. It’s much more likely that the first-half of this season was an aberration as far as Scott’s plate approach goes. No matter the cause, some rebound should help offset his typical batting average weakness. Gambling on a player returning to career norms is a much better bet than expecting an aberrant trend to continue. Even if his batting average doesn’t rebound, his power could be a difference-maker down the stretch in your fantasy playoff hunt.

Incumbents
Brett Wallace (Yahoo! 2%, ESPN 1%, CBS 10%) homered for the sixth time this season and his second time in a little over a week, a good indication that his power stroke is will continue. He remains a tad too impatient at the plate, failing to pick up a free pass in 24 plate appearances, though he did whiff only five times, a small-sample 21 percent K% that could mean his contact is improving too. The bad news is that new Astros manager Tony DeFrancesco has pushed Wallace back across the diamond to first base, meaning that ESPN owners may never get that valuable third-base qualification.

While fantasy owners are still largely ignoring Jordan Pacheco (Yahoo! 4%, ESPN 3%, CBS 18%), his manager has seen the value of having one of just four third basemen hitting over .300 in at least 350 plate appearances. Jim Tracy moved Pacheco up in the batting order this week—from sixth or seventh to second or third—and Pacheco responded with a five-game hit streak, including his first double since August 8. He’ll never deliver much power, but a shift to the top of the order should help you in runs scored while he maintains his strong batting average.

Another week, another homer for Chris Carter (Yahoo! 6%, ESPN 5%, CBS 31%), although that was the highlight of a week when he whiffed seven times and walked once in 23 plate appearances. The first-base job is his, however, and he should keep hammering homers, even if his whiff rate continues to rise.

Looky, looky Yonder. Yonder Alonso (Yahoo! 17%, ESPN 11%, CBS 42%) belted his seventh long-ball of the season, part of three straight two-hit games. He’s hitting .316/.357/.443 for the month, raising his batting average above the .270 mark and raising the question why he (or Nick Cave) doesn’t get more love. When you find the answer, bring it to me at O’Malley’s Bar.

Brandon Belt (Yahoo! 19%, ESPN 16%, CBS 38%) started the week weakly with an 0-for-7 streak, but he redeemed himself heading into the weekend by hitting in three straight games, including two doubles. He still hasn’t gone yard since June 23, but he’s hitting .362/.436/.493 this month, and the power will come eventually. For now, enjoy watching this young hitter continue to develop and bring you batting-average dividends.

AL-only VP
There are at least two reasons why Casey Kotchman has yet to make the VP list despite starting more than 100 games for the Indians. First, I didn’t expect him to repeat a magical 2011 with the Rays, and second, Matt LaPorta (Yahoo! 0%, ESPN 0%, CBS 2%) has been waiting in the wings for the time when Kotch inevitably faltered. Even though Kotchman has faltered most of this season (he’s currently hitting .233/.295/.351, ranking him just behind James Loney in Jay Jaffe’s Midsummer Replacement Killers), LaPorta has stayed down at Triple-A. He had a sniff in June when Johnny Damon went on paternity leave, but the key component of the CC Sabathia deal has continued to disappoint, even in the minors, where LaPorta’s hit only .264/.350/.472 in his fourth year at that level.

I’ve been an advocate of LaPorta before as a VP, but he’s disappointed me too. So why add him again? Sometimes, it takes a player awhile to round into form; I’ve advocated Edwin Encarnacion pick-ups before too, but it wasn’t until this season that he finally broke out. Additionally, LaPorta’s Triple-A season doesn’t look that much different than his much stronger 2009 Triple-A campaign once you peel back the hood and look at secondary stats:

Year

BA

OBP

SLG

K%

BB%

BABIP

2009

.299

.388

.530

14.2

10.7

.313

2012

.264

.350

.472

18.7

10.1

.285

That 35-point difference in batting average and OBP comes largely from the 28-point dropoff in BABIP, with the rest attributed to a slightly elevated strikeout rate. But his walk rate is almost identical, and his 208 ISO this season isn’t too shabby, though it’s lower than the 231 he logged in 2009. So there’s still hope for LaPorta, whom Acta said will “get plenty of at-bats” and “deserves an extended look the rest of the year.” There are certainly better players to speculate on in mixed leagues, but AL-only owners looking to roll the dice on a turnaround from a former top prospect can do far worse than LaPorta, whose 90th percentile PECOTA is .288/.362/.481.

NL-only VP
In last week’s Playing Pepper, I mentioned the strong performance by Kevin Frandsen (Yahoo! 1%, ESPN 1%, CBS 1%) in the absence of Placido Polanco but said that he wasn’t a viable option with the return of Polanco from the disabled list. Since returning, however, Polanco hasn’t started the past four games thanks to further back problems, and Charlie Manuel isn’t sure whether he’ll play Polanco or put him back on the DL.

Meanwhile, Frandsen has picked up a hit in 20 of 26 games since coming to the majors, and he sports a .351/.402/.426 line that blows the roof off PECOTA’s 90th percentile projection of .297/.355/.412. His success has come from the high-contact hitting he’s always done (his 89.7 percent contact rate this season is just a bit above his 88.8 percent career average) as well as a gaudy .381 BABIP. Some fallback should be expected from Frandsen going forward, and the uncertainty of Polanco’s situation undermines his value a bit. Still, ride his bat while it’s hot, since it’s hard to find NL corner infield value right now.

Playing Pepper
Don Mattingly has shifted Hanley Ramirez back to shortstop, leaving Luis Cruz (Yahoo! 14%, ESPN 27%, CBS 16%) to man the hot corner for Los Angeles. Cruz is hitting .301/.337/.474 on the season, including .357/.392/.543 over the past four weeks, making him another hot bat to add until he cools off, especially since he qualifies at shortstop in all three major platforms. 

Since August 19, Josh Donaldson (Yahoo! 4%, ESPN 3%, CBS 5%) has hit five doubles in seven games, giving Bob Melvin a tough choice when Brandon Inge comes off the disabled list, possibly later this week.

The injury to David Cooper forced the early recall of Adam Lind (Yahoo! 20%, ESPN 19%, CBS 28%), whose back wasn’t quite healed, so keep your Lind expectations low for the time being.

A player ignored in all the Boston news this week is Pedro Ciriaco (Yahoo! 18%, ESPN 18%, CBS 25%), who has grabbed hold of the Boston hot corner with his awesome .360/.374/.500 line in 141 plate appearances. Still, I would expect pitchers to catch up to this free swinger (2.1 percent BB%) before he can solidify those gains.

The Boston trade also gives a fresh start to James Loney (Yahoo! 6%, ESPN 4%, CBS 18%), who now hits in a friendlier park for lefties than Chavez Ravine. He’ll be in the heavy half of a platoon and is worth a flier in AL-only leagues for his dependable adequacy, even if he doesn’t step up his game in his new digs.

Former third overall pick Jeff Clement (Yahoo! 0%, ESPN 0%, CBS 0%) is getting yet another shot in the big leagues, but his .276/.340/.486 line in Triple-A only looks good if you ignore the fact that it’s his seventh season at that level.

Since returning to the Mariners, Justin Smoak (Yahoo! 7%, ESPN 3%, CBS 19%) is hitting .257/.357/.400 in 42 plate appearances—not terribly impressive, but his 16.7 percent K% and 14.3 percent BB% point towards continued improvement.

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