BP Readers, I’m very happy to introduce you to BP’s newest fantasy writer, Josh Shepardson. Josh is a talented fantasy player who used to write for me when I was with The Hardball Times, and I’m excited to have him join us now at Baseball Prospectus to handle up-the-middle VP duties. Welcome, Josh! —Derek Carty, Fantasy Manager
Anyone that has played in fantasy leagues in recent years is well aware of how quickly the talent level falls off beyond the upper tier at both middle infield positions and catcher. The options dry up even faster in leagues that start a middle infielder and two catchers. With these things in mind, often times any player with a pulse and playing time has value to a certain degree, depending on league size. The options highlighted below should provide value beyond that, though, and are widely available across the three main fantasy baseball host sites (Yahoo!, ESPN, and CBS).
It didn't take long for me to find a player that pushes the limits of the spirit of this column. Jarrod Saltalamacchia (Yahoo! 50%, ESPN 38%, CBS 71%) is long gone in many leagues and is likely universally owned in two-catcher leagues. The fact he isn't nearly universally owned in all leagues, however, is problematic. Salty was once regarded as one of the best catching prospects in all of baseball. Two address changes later and he is finally beginning to live up to his lofty expectations. He's hitting the ball with authority—10 home runs thus far this year—and moving his way up a juggernaut lineup that ranks second in runs scored. He was slotted fifth in the order for his last two starts and sixth in recent starts prior to those. He hasn't hit lower than sixth in the order since May 22, and his RBI total should benefit from hitting behind historically high OBP hitters Adrian Gonzalez, David Ortiz, and Kevin Youkilis. Saltalamacchia is unlikely to be a positive contributor to batting average given his propensity to strike out, but he has made gains in that regard this year, shaving roughly four percent off his strikeout rate from last season. Unsurprisingly, his batting average has benefited from striking out less and from making slightly more contact. He has a chance to push for a top-10 ranking at the catcher position by season's end.
In case you haven't noticed, Coors Field is a friendly offensive environment. For a power hitting catcher like Wilin Rosario (Yahoo! 11%, ESPN 1.5%, 36%), that's a great thing. His all-or-nothing approach has yielded eight home runs in 106 plate appearances. It has also resulted in a .238 batting average, but that's palatable given the offensive shortcomings of the catcher position and Rosario's ability to clear the fences routinely. He began the year in a time share behind the plate with veteran Ramon Hernandez but has seen his name penciled into the lineup more often with Hernandez's trip to the disabled list. As of June 2, Hernandez had not yet begun baseball activities. Rosario will continue to benefit from Hernandez's absence from the lineup and could be earning an increased role even when he is activated.
Since flying through the minors and making a good impression on the fantasy community by hitting well in his major league debut back in 2009, Gordon Beckham (Yahoo! 19%, ESPN 23.8%, CBS 63%) has nosedived into fantasy irrelevance. This season opened up as poorly as his last two have been, but since the end of April, Beckham has taken his play up a few notches. Since May 1, he has received 142 plate appearances and smacked eight home runs with a .275 batting average. While there isn't one thing to point at as being the difference maker for Beckham's resurgence, it is clear that a huge reduction in his pop-up rate has helped. Pop-outs plagued him last season, and his infield flyball rate soared to 30 percent in April. That rate dropped to 11.4 percent in May, and he has yet to hit an infield flyball in June. He is hitting more line drives, a fact that portends well for continued gains to his batting average. He's rarely working free passes, but surprisingly, that doesn't mean he's swinging at everything. He is swinging at more pitches than the average major league hitter this season, but this isn't a Vlad Guerrero situation, and he is actually swinging at fewer pitches in and out of the strike zone this year than he has throughout his career. Something is clearly at work here; perhaps it is as simple as a young player making necessary adjustments, but whatever the case may be, it is working.
A rough May should not dissuade fantasy gamers from owning Zack Cozart (Yahoo! 25%, ESPN 20.8%, CBS 64%). At this point, if it weren't already clear, it is safe to put to bed the notion his 30 stolen bases in 2010 are anything more than an aberration. His power, though, is a plus for the shortstop position. That pop should be accentuated by his home digs. Cozart will hit for a higher batting average than he did in May (.208), but his .271 average in April also feels a bit high. An average in the .255 range, give or take 10 points, seems about right. He's the unquestioned starter at shortstop for the Reds, so playing time will be no problem. Plate appearances equal opportunities to accumulate counting stats, and that's the name of the game here.
The Royals made some noise in the offseason by inking catcher Salvador Perez (Yahoo! 5%, ESPN 1.2%, CBS 15%) to a five-year contract that includes three more club options for 2017-19 (his last year of arbitration eligibility, and his first two years of free agency). Unfortunately, a torn lateral meniscus that required surgery has kept him off the field so far this year. He has recently begun playing in extended spring training games and, according to the Kansas City Star and general manager Dayton Moore, could begin a minor league rehab assignment starting Tuesday. He zoomed from Double-A to the majors last year, hitting for average at every stop. He flashed some pop as well, and while he doesn't walk often, he doesn't strike out much either. Kevin Goldstein ranked him seventh on the Royals Top 10 Talents 25 and Under, and while he pointed out he's not the .331 hitter of 2011, he also noted that he could be an average-to-above-average hitter at a position where the bar is set low offensively. If that proves to be true this year and Perez is healthy enough to play full time upon his activation from the disabled list, he'll be a solid second catcher in mixed leagues and an AL-only league option. Stashing Perez in a disabled list slot is a good way to maximize spots and a savvy move for those that haven't suffered the same injury woes Mr. Carty has.
Perez isn't the only player that AL-only managers can stash in a DL spot; Brian Roberts (Yahoo! 4%, ESPN 0.6%, CBS 15%) also fits the bill. He began a rehab assignment in the middle of May, and after two games in Low-A, he was promoted to Double-A where he played in his first game for Bowie on May 23. He has played in seven games for the Baysox, and according to the Orioles official website, he should take the next step in his rehab by joining Triple-A Norfolk on Tuesday. If he suffers no setbacks, a return to the Orioles on June 11 (the date his maximum allowable 20-day rehab ends), seems probable. If things don't go smoothly, the team could contact the commissioner's office and request an extension on his rehab assignment. Roberts has played in just 98 games for the Orioles between 2010-11, so until he's on the diamond for them, it is reasonable to exercise caution. The nature of the injury (a concussion and post concussion complications) and Roberts' advanced age (34) limit his value to AL-only leagues and extremely large mixed leagues using a middle infielder, for the time being.
It has been a tough year for Wilson Ramos, who was kidnapped while playing in the Venezuelan winter league and suffered a season-ending knee injury earlier this year. His injury has opened the door for extensive playing time to Jesus Flores (Yahoo! 2%, ESPN 1.2%, CBS 15%). It's ironic that an injury is the reason for Flores’ boost in playing time, as he has missed huge chunks of time throughout his career due to a variety of serious injuries himself. Flores' most extensive playing time in the majors came all the way back in 2008, when he totaled 324 plate appearances. From 2009-2011, he received only 197 plate appearances in the bigs and another 229 in the minors. What this means is that it is awfully difficult to gauge exactly what Flores is capable of on the diamond. His play big league play prior to having surgery to repair a SLAP tear suggests that a mid-teens home run total at season's end is attainable. Flores is an extremely free swinger, and that approach will make it difficult to be an asset in the batting average category, but his ability to hit line drives (22.4 percent line drive rate in 2012, 22.5 percent line drive rate in his career), and his only slightly below league average contact rate should prevent him from being a total drag there. The total package isn't exciting, but it's ownable for catcher starved NL-only leaguers.