It’s easy to get excited about Machado, who was chosen third overall in 2010 and immediately rose to the top of Kevin Goldstein’s rankings of the Orioles farm system. Days before he was promoted last August, Jason Parks ranked him sixth overall among all minor league prospects.
Machado proved that confidence was well-placed by hitting three home runs and a triple in his first four games and finishing the season with a .262/.294/.445 line in 202 plate appearances. He hit four more long-balls for a total of lucky seven plus two steals and 26 RBI. Even better, he qualified as a fantasy shortstop, though he played in the majors at third base. All this, and he was still just a teenager.
Although those last two items are great reasons for Machado owners to be over the moon about him down the road, they’re also good reasons to be cautious about him in the near term. First, he’ll lose that shortstop qualification next season, since Buck Showalter says he’ll be playing the hot corner exclusively during spring training. Next, Machado is still young, with only 459 plate appearances at Double-A (and none at Triple-A) before his promotion. While this youth shows that he’s more valuable in the long term, one need only see how Bryce Harper (drafted two slots above Machado) fizzled in the second half of 2012 to remind us of the volatility of young players in the short term. Pitchers will adjust to Machado next season, exploiting the impatience reflected by his weak 4.5 percent walk rate, and his middling 18.8 percent strikeout rate is likely to rise.
In the long term, Machado is expected to be a stud at a thin position, and his 40 percent fly ball rate and 12 percent HR/FB rate say that his power output in 2013 wasn’t a fluke. He should be an All-Star for years to come, making him an easy keep in nearly all leagues, but his likely short-term instability should push him back into the player pool in the shallowest of leagues.
If Machado is a good young player expected to be great, Jones is a good old player who was never expected to be all that good. Jones was viewed as a Quad-A hitter before his age-28 breakout in 2009, leading to speculation (mostly negative) about whether he could repeat that performance in 2010. A .247/.306/.414 line seemed to support the pessimists’ case, but that line was dragged down by 230 plate appearances (out of 654) against lefties, against whom Jones hit .220/.261/.360 that season. As weak as that split was, it’s still better than his career.198/.237/.353 line against lefties, especially as compared to .279/.348/.504 against righties.
Unsurprisingly, that was the last season Jones wasn’t in a platoon, and sitting him against same-side pitching has helped him hit a combined .254/.313/.452 over the past three seasons while averaging more than 20 home runs and 70 RBI per season. In 2012, he had his best season since that 2009 breakout, but his .242 ISO was helped by a 17 percent home run rate (also the second-best in his career), though it’s not much better than his 14 percent career average.
So you can expect some power slippage from Jones, and his career strikeout rate of just over 20 percent will continue to keep his batting average low. Being in a platoon diminishes his value, though that’s somewhat mitigated by his outfield qualification. And even his strong 2012 ranked Jones just 65th in NL-only leagues and 148th in mixed leagues. All this makes Jones a player best suited as a keeper in the deepest of leagues; even NL-only owners can let someone else overpay for his overproduction in 2012.
I (along with other BP writers) have been a fan of EEE for a while, something I discussed in my preseason write-up of Encarnacion last season. As I also noted in my postseason wrapup, Encarnacion did better than any of us (including PECOTA) projected, setting a career high in homers and slugging. His slugging has been one of the reasons for all the pre-breakout hype, but what was more surprising for E3 in 2012 was his on-base percentage. After averaging a .336 OBP for seven seasons, he suddenly exploded with a .384 OBP, beating his career high by 25 points.
Some of those walks may have come from pitchers throwing to him more carefully—his batting order “protection” consisted mostly of Yuniel Escobar, Kelly Johnson, and Adam Lind, who led the trio in offensive stats with a truly terrifying .255/.314/.414 triple-slash line. That’s not exactly the Wild Bunch there. Sure enough, the 45 percent of pitches EEE saw in the zone was a career low, as was his 55 percent first-strike rate. Pitchers weren’t challenging him much, but Encarnacion responded appropriately, with the lowest swing rate of his career (42 percent), more than ten percent lower than his career average.
That patience, combined with Encarnacion’s still-strong contact skills, helped him reach his second-highest batting average ever. And this came with no help from the magical BABIP fairy, who bestowed upon him a .266 average—not his weakest ever but well below his .280 career mark. On the other hand, his 19 percent HR/FB rate suggests that luck broke his way on those 41 home runs, and HitTracker rates 10 of those homers as “Just Enough.” All told, it’s unlikely that he’ll shatter his 90th PECOTA percentile again in 2013.
As a further drag on his value, Encarnacion played just one game at third base last year, so he’ll lose that valuable hot-corner qualification in most leagues. He’s likely to be overvalued on draft day, but he should finish as a top 30 fantasy player next year. He’s a keeper across the board despite the diminished value, especially if you’re in a league that ties his keeper price to his 2012 acquisition price; it’s doubtful that anyone paid anything close to the $27.30 he earned in mixed leagues last season.