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One of our annual traditions I most look forward to here at BP is the Target/Avoid series we run as part of our pre-season positional coverage, as it allows us to get a little more in-depth with player recommendations and strategic examples that we feel particularly passionate about. The way the cards were dealt this year I ended up mildly unbalanced in my assignments, so we’ll start today with a look back at my “target” selections and then work our way through the “avoid” guys next week.

Shortstop to Target: Brad Miller, Tampa Bay Rays

My Argument: I made a two-pronged argument for Miller, noting on the value front that below the top tier of shortstops in 2015 there was a rather large swarm of middle-class options, so if you missed out on an elite option, waiting for a while to snag a shortstop later on was probably the play, particularly if you could identify a guy with breakout potential. And I hung that potential on Miller on account of numerous instances of demonstrated growth (approach, exist velocity, lowered whiff rate) in his third season. There was room for more power and additional counting stat production with the at-bat increase he was likely to receive with the move to Tampa from Seattle, as well.

What Happened: Miller became a dramatically different hitter over the course of the season, rapidly morphing into a power-hitting corner-infield bat right before our very eyes. He was one of just two shortstops to hit 30 homeruns, doubling his career total in the process. His production this year came amid ongoing and significant changes to his swing that served to trade all-fields contact for pull-side power (and the swing-and-miss that tends to accompany it). He further boosted his exit velocity into the top 20th percentile, which is all the more impressive when we note that he traded in a bunch of hard, opposite-field grounders and all-fields line drives for more fly balls. The whiffs that he had worked to curtail in 2015 came back (and then some), while the approach in general took a step in the direction of aggressiveness that cut into his walk rate.

The Verdict: Miller certainly went in an unforeseen developmental direction, but ultimately it was one that largely accomplished generating the kind of value I’d pegged him to generate. Resident valuation guru Mike Gianella hasn’t run the final numbers just yet, but as of September’s dawn Miller sat 12th in dollars generated ($19 in AL-onlies) for shortstop-eligible players. He hit poorly in September, however, so we can estimate that he probably ended up somewhere around 13th or 14th. That’s right around fair-market return on his ultimate ADP; when I penned my piece he was going off the board 16th among shortstops, before a late draft surge settled him into the 13th slot for average shortstop ADP. He indeed logged almost exactly 100 more plate appearances, as I’d projected, and the counting stats did elevate in turn – through Tampa’s poor offense (16th in TAv, 24th in runs, 27th in OBP) kept more of a lid on his numbers than his .256/.319/.544 line with runners in scoring position would portend.

I’m going to go ahead and claim this one as a win, albeit a narrow victory. He didn’t quite meet the top-10 threshold that I’d optimistically posited as a possibility, but as a down-ballot guy who emerged to produce strong mixed-league value in just about any format, he was a good call to highlight.

Catcher to Target: Buster Posey, San Francisco Giants

My Argument: Batting average is a very tricky thing to invest in, and if you can actually find a stable profile to bank precious production in the category it’s a worthwhile target. If you can do it at a position where the average top-15 player hit .256 across 407 total at-bats the previous season, all the better. Posey, I noted, had hit between .294 and .318 with a remarkably stable BABIP profile over the past three seasons, while averaging more than 130 additional at-bats above that positional average to add in counting-stat accumulation. Sure the acquisition price would be extreme, but who better to invest in than a clear-cut stud who was highly likely to pace the position once again (and potentially do so by a significant margin)?

What Happened: The King…is probably dead? Long live The King? Maybe? Posey entered September trailing Wilson Ramos in accumulated value, and he promptly swooned down the stretch to very likely guarantee the end to his two-year run of positional dominance. He had a really weird season, particularly from a power standpoint, where you could have successfully voted in Florida in the time between his 12th and 13th homers. He also seemed to suffer a bit from dreaded poor luck, as his batted ball profile remained largely consistent, save for some additional ground balls at the expense of fly balls (not generally a bad thing for batting average). He even bumped his overall exit velocity up enough to where we might’ve expected some additional hits to fall in, given an all-fields approach that remained largely unchanged. The BABIP snuck down into the .300 range instead, however, and while that’s not by any means a catastrophic number, when combined with a marginal uptick in whiffs it was enough to explain his merely-good .288 mark.

The Verdict: He was still a top-three option at the position and a top-75 overall hitter. But given the second-round price tag (and the lost raw production suffered elsewhere by drafters who took Posey that high) this one just didn’t work out too well if you listened to me. It’s a cautionary tale about valuing positional scarcity too highly and trying to out-think yourself, though I’ll note that if Posey’s among a small handful of guys where I’m not sure that lesson is as applicable. It didn’t work out this year, but if any good comes out of it, perhaps he enters 2017 with a more reasonable late-third or, better still, fourth-round ADP to get my juices a-flowing once again.

Third Baseman to Target: Manny Machado, Baltimore Orioles

My Argument: Again here I eschewed the whispers in my ear yearning for me to anoint the next great sleeper in favor of some practical, top-of-the-draft advice. I noted the top-heavy nature of third base heading into the draft, with four elite options going within a handful of picks of each other inside the top 10, followed by a significant lull down into the next couple of tiers. It would pay to grab one of those elite options, I posited, as the position is a central one for generating bulk production in the power categories (and a sneaky opportunity to boost your stolen base numbers as well). Machado made for the best investment of the four top-tier guys (with Donaldson, Arenado, and Bryant the others), I argued, because not only were the trajectories of his approach and batted ball profile headed in the right direction, but in coming off a 20-steal season at just 24-years-old he offered the most well-rounded fantasy skill set of the bunch.

What Happened: Machado raked, as did all three other guys in that elite tier. His approach slipped a little tiny bit, and he got more pull-happy at the expense of some solid opposite-field contact he’d flashed the year prior. His exit velocity slipped a bit, and the contact quality at large took a couple steps back. Still, a .294/.343/.533 line with 37 homers and more than 200 R+RBI is well worth the price of admission for a top-10 overall pick.

Unfortunately, that monstrous production was only the fourth-best among that four-man elite tier at the hot corner. And it’s not like we’re just splitting hairs, either: where Bryant and Arenado cracked the top 10 for hitters, and Donaldson settled into the teens somewhere, Machado ended up “just” 27th per the Player Rater. And do you know the incredibly frustrating reason he finished 27th instead of pushing Bryant and Arenado inside the top 10? He stole zero bases all year. Let me repeat: he stole zero bases all year. The Orioles as a team stole 19 – 19! – all year, which was far and away the fewest in baseball. Somewhere Earl Weaver may be smiling, but I guarantee you he didn’t follow my advice and draft his boy Machado on any teams if he is.

The Verdict: A frustrating thumbs down for me, if only because the four-category production I’d expected materialized pretty much in full. It was the one separating category – Machado’s ability to steal a bunch of bases his fellow cohorts would not – that never materialized, and absent that expected advantage his raw numbers, as impressive as they were, just couldn’t quite stack up against the rest of his tier. Given the high levels of production we’re dealing in here, I doubt many people lost a league on account of grabbing Manny over any of the other guys in the first round. But this result is an annoying reminder that unforeseen changes in (or at least amplifications of) organizational philosophy can have a big impact on certain fantasy outcomes.

Thank you for reading

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