Welcome to the off-season here at Baseball Prospectus Fantasy! This week, you'll notice our writers transitioning from our in-season Value Picks column to The Keeper Reaper, which will likely run through October and November. While many owners who play in redraft fantasy baseball leagues take a breather over the next couple of months, we know that keeper league owners are active year-round and are always looking for advice. As such, this column should be of great use to keeper league owners who are trying to decide which players are worth keeping for the 2012 season and which should be thrown back. The goal of keeping a player is to reap as much excess value as possible, and The Keeper Reaper will help you to do so.
If you happen to be one of the dedicated redraft leaguers who pays attention year-round, first, congratulations; you're a fantasy player after my own heart, and your team is going to benefit from your hard work. Second, these articles should still have a lot of utility for you since their aim is to discuss a player's potential (primarily for 2012) and where they rank among their peers—things that are important no matter what kind of league you're in.
While there are infinitely many keeper league setups, these articles will attempt to cover a wide range of league depths so that it comes close to approximating your own league. For owners in keeper leagues with auctions where players are kept at salaries, unfortunately it's nearly impossible to provide advice that will apply to your specific situation. If you're in this kind of league, hopefully our advice will still be helpful (it is still evaluating the players, after all), but if you're looking for more personalized advice, my fellow BP Fantasy experts and I are always available and eager to answer your questions in the comments, via e-mail, on Twitter, etc. My job is to help you, and I truly enjoy doing so, so never hesitate to get in touch with me. Additionally, if you ever have any suggestions for players you'd like to see profiled in one of our columns, we aim to please, so let us know. Hopefully you enjoy the new column and the rest of what we have in-store at BP Fantasy this off-season! — Derek Carty, Fantasy Editor
Keepers, you say? Keepers? It's a sensitive topic, cutting players, as any manager, general manager, or owner knows. This is an author that doesn't like the idea of cutting players, thinks that the 40-man roster restriction is too confining, and thinks that the limitation of one minor league team per organization per level should be removed. For the sort of simulation league this predilection leads one to join, some references to a 150-player-roster (30 teams) Strat-O-Matic league were made in the minor-league stats introduction article. Back to fantasy, however…
Derek Carty, Resident Fantasy Genius (and fantasy editor) has suggested these categories for leagues, which should at least come close to matching most formats in use:
Shallow: 10-team mixed leagues with 3 keepers (30 total keepers)
Medium: 12-team mixed leagues with 5 keepers (60 total keepers)
Deep: 15-team mixed leagues with 6 keepers (90 total keepers)
AL/NL-only 12-team with 5 keepers (60 total keepers from one league)
Clearly, near the edges of the keeper thresholds, things won't be so clear-cut, so players will be rated as “YES”, “NO”, or “BORDERLINE”. Hopefully, the analysis herein will be useful for owners in leagues of all sizes in helping start the tiering process of players for 2012 drafts, even if the league doesn't allow for keepers at all.
Hunter Pence is entering his final year of arbitration in 2012. He's apparently getting better every year, with his TAv rising from .263 in 2008 to .266 in 2009 to .282 in 2010 to .299 with the Astros in 2011 and a whopping .333 with the Phillies (236 plate appearances). While Matt Kemp can improve his TAv over 70 points in a few years—and people believe it's legitimate—few outside of Philadelphia think that Pence can continue hitting .324/.394/.560, as he did with the Phils. Pence is a career .292/.343/.485 hitter entering his age-29 season. The change in home park shouldn't impact his stats much, but seeing a few more left-handed pitchers as a member of the lefty-heavy Phillies lineup won't hurt. He has a standard platoon advantage for his career, hitting lefties at a .297/.355/.520 clip. Pence—using the dollar values from lastplayerpicked.com—came out as the 23rd-best position player in 2011 ($21). He leads off this series because many would view him as a no-brainer keeper, even in deep leagues. But even with his spike in OBP, his stolen bases have all but evaporated (just one after coming to Philadelphia). He had a career-high 668 plate appearances and a career-high .361 BABIP… and still wasn't a top-20 batter. There's every reason to expect a good year from him in 2012, just not a top 30 kind of great year.
Some may wonder how a guy who was worth only $18 in 2011 is a clear keeper while Hunter Pence ($21) is not. The key point to remember in drafting, trading, and keeping is not to pay for the past; pay for the future. McCutchen may have posted “only” a .259-23-89 season with 87 runs scored and 23 stolen bases, but he was also playing at age 24. And he had a .291 BABIP, some 18 points below his career mark. So, heading into 2012, there's expectation of age-related growth (likely to power), a rebound in his BABIP to near the .310 mark, and there are good reasons to think his surrounding cast will hit better in 2012; Pedro Alvarez can't possibly be as bad as his 2011, and Jose Tabata and Alex Presley might be healthy all season. Not that anyone would seriously consider cutting McCutchen, but he's included here as a primary trade target. While it's impossible to predict he'll return to the 30-SB level, 20+ seems certain, and a .280 season with 30 home runs and 20 steals seems like a target he could reach as effortlessly as the fly balls he tracks down.
The July 27 Value Picks review of Desmond Jennings included:
Jennings was allowed to accrue 992 plate appearances at the Triple-A level between 2009 and 2011. And while he's done well and stolen bases at an Uptonian (B.J., that is) clip (69-for-76 in those 992 PA), a .283/.375/.431 Triple-A hitter doesn't usually set the major leagues on fire. Jennings' rest-of-season PECOTA projection indicates a .257 batting average, two home runs, and 13 steals in 210 plate appearances. Given his torrid start, recency bias is going to make that almost impossible to believe, but even giving it a “bump”, that sounds a lot more like what one would expect from Nyjer Morgan or Rajai Davis than from Matt Kemp. Additionally, consider that while 69 steals in 992 PA is a lot of stolen bases, Jennings had swiped only 17 in 398 PA in 2011. So expecting RoS PECOTA's 13 steal projection to be fulfilled may even be optimistic. All-in-all, Jennings is a fine ballplayer and a definite keeper-league asset, but expecting a mixed-league impact player for 2011 is setting the sights a bit too high.
Whatever the cause, Jennings certainly showed that his gaudy minor-league stolen base totals were no fluke and that a momentary ebb in 2011 didn't mean he'd lost any speed, racking up 20 steals in just 287 plate appearances.
Coincidentally, entering 2012, the profile Jennings seems to most closely match is that of the player he's expected to soon replace: B.J. Upton. He has the 40 SB speed and 20 HR power already, and there's no reason to expect his batting average to languish around Upton's .257 career mark (or worse, his .240 mark from the past three seasons). He's likely to be among the worst of the 30 players kept in deep leagues in 2012, but entering his age-25 season with the potential to be a five-category player (when he's not leading off), there's a good chance he'll again be keepable for the next 5-7 years.
The good: 20 home runs, 22 stolen bases, great defensive reputation, and his general manager's preference keeps him in the lineup.
The bad: Frenchy never walks. His BABIP was a four-year high of .323 in 2011 and can be expected to decline. His stolen bases are completely unprecedented, and many players have one high-SB “blip” in an otherwise low-SB career. Frenchy never walks. He’s a career .270/.313/.433 hitter. Oh, and Frenchy never walks.
Jeff Francoeur's per-162 game average is 20 home runs and 90 RBI (and seven stolen bases), and he led the American League in doubles until Miguel Cabrera beat him out on the season's final day. That he's arrived at these career rates in a maddeningly inconsistent manner makes him difficult to categorize (.256/.301/.389 from 2008-2010, for example). Other than blind optimism, there's no reason to expect that his outburst in 2011 will continue, though—as noted—his career norms are very playable in a deep league, and it's difficult to predict a full drop in stolen bases from 22 down to his average of seven. With his typical mid-150's in terms of games played, expect something like .272-18-85 with 12 steals—but with a much higher variance than most 4000-PA players would have. At least the walks will remain consistent.
Angel Pagan has posted positive FRAA each of his two seasons with the Mets, and the Mets don't have many other options in center field (for now). These are important to fantasy owners, as he had a rough .262/.322/.372 season with the bat. On the basepaths, he continued to be a force, stealing 32 bags in just 532 plate appearances (despite the low OBP). If he gets full-time play again, he's almost certainly a top-40 batter in NL-only leagues and could crack the top 30 on the strength of a full-season of steals. But with NL-only leagues, a lot of the 60 players who are retained won't be top-60 players in 2012, as owners who aren't likely to contend in 2012 are more apt to use keeper slots on long-term payoffs. Pagan doesn't have a lot of long-term payoff, and that moves him a lot closer to BORDERLINE than it might first appear. Worse, the Mets have been grumbling about him, so his 2012 role appears uncertain—he could end up as a fourth outfielder or even on another team.
A brief note on one other player, Will Venable, since he racked up $13 in value in 12-team NL-only leagues. Venable has upside in the sense that he is probably better than his 2011 stat line indicates, but his stolen bases aren't likely to scale with any increased playing time, and he's never done well against left-handed pitchers (.212/.289/.261 career batting line). He gets almost no publicity, either, so he's always a threat to drop deep in drafts.