For our nation’s scholars, graduation is just around the corner, but we start things early here at Value Picks, bidding adieu to our first departee. He leaves the list after quickly exceeding ownership thresholds, but I’ve got lots of other players ready to prove themselves to VP readers, including several bubble candidates in Playing Pepper.

In the opening weeks of the season, undervalued players can disappear from waiver wires in the wink of an eye. Our first VP graduate of the year, Adam LaRoche (Yahoo! 38%, ESPN 49%, CBS 67%), zoomed up the ownership charts on the strength of a .341/.426 /.537 line on the season. He’s unlikely to keep producing at this level, which is well past his 90th PECOTA percentile, but he’s still a very solid fantasy first baseman. 

To activate Charlie Morton, Pittsburgh optioned Matt Hague (Yahoo! 0%, ESPN 0%, CBS 1%) to Triple-A. NL-only leaguers can keep Hague on their benches—he’ll be up again this season—but he’s waiver-wire fodder for the rest of us.

Nick Johnson (Yahoo! 0%, ESPN 0%, CBS 1%) has yet to collect a hit this season and has only started four of the Orioles’ first nine games. To add injury to insult, he also took a pitch off his right hand on Sunday—the same hand that’s given him problems before. That he remained in the game could be a sign of increasing durability, but he needs to play—and hit—more to be a VP.

Chicago traded for Ian Stewart (Yahoo! 2%, ESPN 7%, CBS 28%) hoping that a change of scenery would revitalize the former top prospect’s career. I covered some of this a few weeks ago, and Stewart has come out swinging, hitting .242/.324 /.424 through his first 37 plate appearances and welcoming Adam Wainwright back to the major leagues with a three-run jack in Friday’s 9-to-5 beatdown of the defending World Series champs.

This was notable not only becauseit was his Stewart’s longball for his new team but also because it was his first home run since August 23, 2010—he went all of 2011 without going yard in the majors, failing even to homer at Coors Field. As another sign that his power might be returning: Stewart’s first hit this season was a triple, matching his 2011 season total. His career 27.8 percent K% will keep his batting average down, explaining PECOTA’s 50th percentile projection of .238 in that department. Still, Stewart would deliver 20 home runs in that same percentile with a .424 SLG (well above the .390 league average for third sackers in 2011). He should also throw in a half-dozen steals or so, further boosting his value. With the opportunity to succeed and given his hot start, Stewart makes a fine VP addition in the second week of the season.

For years, his fans screamed for his freedom, which Chris Davis (Yahoo! 4%, ESPN 6%, CBS 27%) finally earned when Texas sent him and Tommy Hunter to Baltimore for Koji Uehara and a pile of simoleons. For someone whom Baseball Prospectus 2012 says “has the raw power of Thor,” Davis is relishing this chance to prove himself, even if—like Stewart—he’s moving from one of baseball’s friendliest hitting environments to a much stingier ballpark. I discussed Davis’ excellent opportunity for a rebound in my Valentine’s Day Preseason VP, though that rebound has more to do with a poor 2011 than an outstanding 2012 PECOTA projection. His weighted-mean .265/.314/.471 projection shows his primary value: power. He could launch more than 30 longballs above his 80th percentile. His other triple-slash categories are much weaker, thanks to a career strikeout rate north of 30 percent and a walk rate south of 7 percent.

Thus far this season, Davis’ .346 /.370 /.577 line shows much of this; he finally drew his first walk this season on Sunday, though his strikeout rate is hovering around 18 percent (microscopic sample-size caveats, of course, apply). But if you combine his power potential with a third-base qualification and a clear path to playing time, you have a player who’s way underowned in two of the three major fantasy leagues. Expect ups and downs in batting average and the possibility of injury (he opted against offseason surgery on his torn labrum), but there are few fantasy third basemen with his power ceiling.

Garrett Jones (Yahoo! 3%, ESPN 1%, CBS 9%) sat twice last week against lefties Chris Capuano and Barry Zito—an entirely predictable move by Clint Hurdle, who will continue to sit Jones against southpaws. Casey McGehee (covered in Playing Pepper, below) has been hitting well, earning him a start at first base against Matt Cain on Friday. Even then, Hurdle gave Jones the start in right field despite Jones’ .143 batting average at the time. It’s too soon to draw too many conclusions about Jones’ overall .222/.222 /.444 line, but he’s not yet in Hurdle’s doghouse, and I’ll give him a week or two before exiling him to mine (which I guarantee is much less comfortable than this).

Like Jones, Travis Hafner (Yahoo! 9%, ESPN 1%, CBS 14%) should be in a platoon, although he did start against lefty John Danks last Wednesday—and picked up his first double and first homer of the year. Highlighting his other asset, patience, Pronk collected three of the six walks handed out by Toronto’s pitching staff in his previous start. New Indian Johnny Damon shouldn’t affect Pronk’s playing time much, except to give him a breather now and again, since both hit from the left side. Expect to see Hafner continue to walk and mash a bit… and hit the DL at least once.

Fantasy owners can be forgiven for leaving Luke Scott (Yahoo! 5%, ESPN 1%, CBS 18%) on the waiver wire for now, since he missed much of last week with a tight left hammy. That’s the same hamstring that Scott injured in 2010 while rounding first base during his home-run trot, barely a month after Kendrys Morales’s infamous home-run celebration. Scott’s dinger wasn’t of the walkoff variety like Morales’, but his injury wasn’t as severe either, only keeping him on the DL for a few days over the 15-day minimum. This latest tweak turned out to be relatively mild too, and Scott was pinch-hitting five days later before homering in two straight games Saturday and Sunday. Pretty soon, everyone else is going to figure out that Scott, who has a .231 career ISO, is starting every day. When they do, his ownership is going to go through the roof, so get him before they figure it out.

AL-only VP
Oakland made Daric Barton (Yahoo! 0%, ESPN 1%, CBS 2%) their starting first baseman once he came off the DL, cutting loose Brandon Allen in the process. Barton’s been a Value Pick before—he was a success as one of my first but a failure in his reprise appearance. He’s so often undervalued because his skill set is limited to OBP and whatever counting numbers he can pick up from a weak Oakland offense.

PECOTA’s .251/.358/.375 weighted-mean projection almost completely matches Barton’s career .252/.362/.377 line; both come from his sabermetrician-saliva-inducing 14.1 percent BB% and 16.0 percent K%. This combination also produced a 15.5 percent swing rate on pitches outside the zone between 2008 and 2010—a rate that’s second only to Luis Castillo over the same span and is about half the annual league average. What keeps Barton from being a top-flight first baseman is his miserable .124 career ISO, more than fifty points below the 2011 first-base average and less than half the ISO of the best first basemen. This led Jay Jaffe to say, “First basemen who can't hit their way out of a wet paper bag are the new market inefficiency,”  when he named Barton as the 2011 Vortex of Suck at first base.

Barton won’t kill you in batting average (though his 90th percentile PECOTA is only .287), and he offers some value in his counting stats. Unless he moves up higher in the order, though, he won’t collect counting numbers the way he did in 2010, when he scored a career-best, team-leading 79 runs hitting second in front of Kurt Suzuki and Ryan Sweeney. If that doesn’t sound like an impressive pair, you’re right: Oakland’s three-hole hit only .249/.315/.337 that year. Josh Reddick, Oakland’s current number-three hitter, does better than that in his .246/.298/.409 50th PECOTA percentile, so if Barton could ascend to the two-hole again, his stock might rise to mixed-league levels. For now, however, his appeal is limited to AL-only owners and anyone in OBP leagues.

NL-only VP
I bumped Juan Francisco (Yahoo! 0%, ESPN 0%, CBS 3%) from mixed-league to NL-only status after Chipper Jones returned from the DL and looked plenty healthy. I didn’t want to cut Francisco entirely, however, since Chipper had to miss two games soon after that return, and his health will continue to be a question mark for the remainder of the season. Francisco started just one of the two games Chipper missed, finally picking up his first extra-base hit of the season—a ringing double off Shaun Marcum—on Saturday.

I noted that Francisco offers two of the Three True Outcomes when I added him to the list last week, but the best part about his plate approach this year is that he looks like he’s not swinging out of his shoes anymore. If he’s trying to make better contact, that could lead to a healthier batting average with diminished power, but that’s a swap I’d be willing to make in an NL-only league. Even if he reverts to a more power-centric approach, he’ll bring value in that department instead.

Playing Pepper
Anthony Rizzo (Yahoo! 0%, ESPN 2%, CBS 23%) is hitting a scorching-hot .391/.417 /.739 in his first 46 Triple-A plate appearances, but Bryan LaHair (Yahoo! 5%, ESPN 27%, CBS 37%) is hitting like his LaHair is on fire, too, at a .348 /.423 /.696 clip that will hold off Rizzo for now.

Leading off for my Value Picks column last season was Todd Helton (Yahoo! 7%, ESPN 13%, CBS 28%), and he’d be back if not for that high CBS ownership and the fact that the Toddfather is another year closer to the Home for Old and Beloved Ballplayers; his weighted-mean projection from PECOTA is .282/.383/.419. Still, Derek Carty liked him enough to pick him for three of his teams, so he’s probably good enough for your fantasy lineup too, especially if you’re counting OBP.

Colorado sent Jordan Pacheco to the minors, making Chris Nelson (Yahoo! 1%, ESPN 0%, CBS 2%) the team’s full-time seat-warmer for Nolan Arenado, though Nelson’s better used as a second baseman.

As I talked about when I last covered Casey McGehee (Yahoo! 2%, ESPN 4%, CBS 10%), good performance could lead to increased playing time for the Pittsburgh corner infielder; McGehee’s .318/.318/.500 start has meant he’s started three of the last four games (while coming off the bench in the fourth).

Chris Johnson (Yahoo! 1%, ESPN 3%, CBS 11%) is hitting .308/.308/.385, including an active eight-game hit streak, but he won’t keep producing at this level; he’s got an active six-game whiff streak too.

Thank you for reading

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I believe the Mark that Barton hit in front of was Ellis, not Sweeney.
Ryan Sweeney, actually. It's been corrected. Though Ellis got the third most at-bats from the three-hole (but trailed the other two but a lot).
Thanks to both for the catch and the fix. Like me, klipzlskim was on the right track but just stopped at the wrong station :)

The Sweeneys Mark and Ryan--low-power, good OBP OF/DH types, with career SLG within 6 points of each other--get mixed up in my brain sometimes. Need to send Mike Sweeney and his great clubhouse presence in there to sort 'em out (or send Sweeney Todd around to sort me out) :D
Juan Francisco is a butcher in the field. He already cost the Braves at least one game with his glove (a 3 error performance). I have to think that will eat into his PT.
That's a great consideration, even in fantasy, and Fredi Gonzalez has already chosen to play Diaz in left and Prado at 3B against lefties. It could erode some of Francisco's PAs if he can't improve, or if Gonzalez loses patience/confidence in him.

Thanks for the comment!
Barton hit 1st and 2nd for my AL-only Strat team in 2011 (using 2010 stats, of course) and was among the league leaders in runs. It's a deep league with generous keeper rules, so I can afford to stash him in the minors or play him only vs. LHP (2011 card has a big reverse split) and see if he rebounds this year.
That's a great point, outdoor. He's also valuable in Scoresheet leagues, where his OBP and defense (ranked third in the AL among 1B behind Gonzalez and Pujols and tied for fourth overall with Ike Davis) offer a nice boost.

Thanks for the comment!
why is this called 'preseason' value picks? hasn't the season started?
Corrected :)
Love the link re: simoleons ... above & beyond ... thanks!
My pleasure, LM :)
Seconded! That plus your first comment reply up above made my day.
Would Matt Carpenter qualify as a 3B Value Pick?
He's someone I have my eye on, and his value is dependent on Berkman's calf injury. Since the latest news indicates that Berkman will hit the DL, Carpenter could very well make an appearance on the VP list next week. He won't keep hitting .375, of course, but he's got good on-base skills (BP compared him to Bill Mueller) and that 3B qualifier is mighty tasty.

Good call!