Ah, spring training. That glorious time of year when we do things like get excited about Lonnie Chisenhall’s on-base percentage (he’s going to break out this year, I thought last year). But while paying attention to storylines related to health and position battles is important, it’s also important to use this time to start looking toward April.
The first couple of months of the regular season are an important time for building your second-half strategy. By now, most fantasy teams are being drafted, and once you’ve had a chance to evaluate how your draft went and determine what you expect the strengths and weaknesses of your squad will be, the next step in the dance is figuring out ways you might be able to leverage those strengths to address your weaknesses during the season. I like to use April and May as an open audition to figure out which players will make the most sense to try to acquire come summertime, and to that end, spring training can be a good time to start building a list of players to monitor. Here are five hitters that I’d just as soon hold off on drafting for the time being, but who may be worth a closer look out of the gate for targeted help as the season rolls on.
Omar Infante, 2B, Kansas City Royals
Starting off with a bang! I recently drafted Infante to be my second baseman in a deep league, and words cannot express how soul-crushingly bored I felt when I put his name into my queue. Yet it is exactly that kind of boring rap that makes Infante a potentially attractive under-the-radar target for batting average help. As a MI option he’s easy to overlook, as he’s averaged eight homers and seven and a half steals every 500 plate appearances for his career. Not exactly fire starter numbers. But PECOTA projects him for the eight highest average in the American League for a reason. He has done well throughout his career to consistently pair a decent contact rate with a decent line-drive rate, and as he’s aged he has made impressive strides to cut down his strikeouts—largely by chasing fewer balls out of the zone. The change in approach has helped offset a swinging strike rate that has been creeping north over the past couple seasons. Hitting out of the number two slot in the Kansas City lineup should give Infante a nice boost in at-bat volume to allow his solid average skills to potentially create a whole lot of value for a fantasy team. He’s worth checking in on periodically over the first couple months to make sure he’s still laying off bad balls and the swing-and-miss isn’t getting out of hand. If both indicators are looking okay, he makes for a nice, cheap option to bolster a sagging batting average.
Mike Napoli, 1B, Boston Red Sox
Napoli partied HARD after the World Series, then got himself guaranteed $32 million over the next two seasons. With an age to match that salary, he’s entering the stretch when big-bodied corner infielders (especially ones with arthritis) tend to start seeing a drop in bat speed and diminishing returns. In addition to the variable of a World Series Championship winter, Napoli will be coming off a weird season statistically, and the combination makes him a bit too risky for me on draft day. After posting six straight seasons of a remarkably consistent line drive rate in the high teens, Napoli ripped off a 24.4 percent mark last year to fuel his .259 average. He turned in that respectable-enough number despite the worst strikeout rate in baseball (non-Chris Carter Division), and his 32.4 percent rate was six points above his career average. Now, Napoli’s always been a high ISO, three-true-outcomes kind of hitter. But he really took it to the next level last year. It’ll be interesting to see if the strikeout and line-drive rate jumps were a sustainable product of the Red Sox organizational philosophy, or merely a one-year set of severe outliers in performance. For any owners who are likely to be interested in bulking up their power numbers, Napoli’s a guy to keep an eye on in April and May to see where his contact percentage is coming in. He’s got a .913 career OPS in the second half, and if his ISO is staying over .200 and he’s still running into enough hard contact to keep the obscene strikeout rate at bay, owners may want to bump him up their target lists. If he’s struggling to match last year’s diminished 68.2 percent contract rate, it’s probably best to look elsewhere for home run help.
Josh Willingham, OF, Minnesota Twins
Willingham had a tough 2013, as he was hampered early in the year by a sore wrist before sustaining cartilage damage to his knee that cost him over a month in the middle of the season. As a result, he stumbled his way to a 12.5 VORP season, and at age 35 he’s seen his ADP plummet all the way to the 300 range. But that seems a little extreme for a guy who hit 35 homers as recently as 2012. Yes, that season’s surge was fueled by a HR/FB rate six points above his career 15.2 percent mark, but last year’s flop was just as much the product of an outlying career-worst 11.8 percent mark. PECOTA projects Willingham to bounce back with a 24-homer, 84-RBI season. Two things will be worth watching as early indicators of whether that projection for his runs batted in can come to pass. One is Willingham’s ISO output early in the season. Last year’s .159 mark was over 50 points below his career .215 mark. If he’s able to get back up above .200 it means he’s driving the ball with authority again, and the knee issue that held him back last year may just be behind him. The other is the OBP performance of Brian Dozier and whoever the Twins ultimately stick in the leadoff spot. Dozier’s .312 mark last year is not an ideal opening act, but he got on base at a much more robust .370 clip in his minor league career. If he can show some improvement towards that minor league mark he and Mauer could quickly turn into a potent one-two punch to get on base and give Willingham plentiful RBI opportunities. The potential is certainly here for a very cheap source of RBI.
Nick Swisher, 1B/OF, Cleveland Indians
Another old guy! You might sense a theme here, and your diagnosis is correct. Veteran reinforcements from second- and even third-tier options can go a long way toward fixing what ails your team, mostly on account of their generally lower acquisition costs and higher degree of cost-certainty. Outside of OBP leagues Swisher is not the kind of hitter than induces door-buster rushes on draft day, and his current ADP of 211 can certainly attest to that. That doesn’t mean he can’t be an extremely valuable help in certain categories of need, however, and he should be of particular interest to owners looking to boost their runs this spring. Swisher’s a remarkably consistent offensive player, producing TAvs like clockwork between .283 and .292 in each of the past five seasons. Still, his most important asset—his on-base skills—took a notable step back last season at age 32. His .341 OBP was his poorest showing since his BABIP-addled 2008 campaign with the White Sox. He chased a few more balls outside the zone than usual, and made contact much less frequently with those offerings. Both are warning signs for an aging hitter, but it is worth noting that Swisher saw an abnormally high percentage of first pitch strikes last year, and that change in approach could have been more of a reaction to finding himself consistently down in the count than diminishing skills. It’s certainly something worth monitoring once the season starts. If his patience profile looks to be holding up and the OBP skills don’t continue sliding further in the wrong direction Swisher should be poised to score a ton of runs this year hitting in front of Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana, and he can be a stealthy acquisition target.
Jonathan Villar, SS, Houston Astros
Finally, a young guy to talk about. Villar put himself on the map last year with 18 stolen bases in just 241 plate appearances following a mid-July debut, and he’s in line to become Houston’s unchallenged (for now) everyday shortstop this season. PECOTA likes him to steal 39 bases this season, though he’s projected to do so despite a well below average .233/.289/.353 line. All three of these triple-slash components are interesting, however. Batting average-wise his .233 projection assumes a modest one percent gain in his abhorrent strikeout rate, but sees a significant regression in his BABIP from last year’s .362 mark – all the way down to a league-average .304 mark, in fact. But is an upper echelon BABIP mark really out of the question for Villar? He posted a .330 mark over more than 1,300 plate appearances in the high minors. And he hit groundballs more frequently than any other hitter in the majors last year who went to bat as much as he did. If he’s able to keep his line-drive rate in the 20 percent range he produced last year a .250 average is not out of the question. His career nine percent minor league walk rate translated well last year to the tune of an even-better 10 percent rate in the majors. He’s never going to be a guy that helps you with batting average, but if he can keep it respectable and sustain that walk rate his base-stealing potential can play with the best in baseball. Keep an eye on his strikeout, line drive, and walk rates over the first couple months of the season this side of Billy Hamilton. If he’s able to hold his own in his sophomore season, he’ll make for a strong June target for owners with a need for speed.