MLB Baseball Column: Closer By Committee
Hot Plays at the Hot Corner
The hot corner has long been a position where Fantasy owners have been able to get top-tier production. The notion holds true this preseason as five of the top eighteen hitters in Fantasy points last season came from the third base position. Despite losing Edwin Encarnacion to first base eligibility, it added the first Triple Crown winner since 1967 to what is a very deep Fantasy position. Several blue chippers come with inexpensive salaries and could provide value to Fantasy owners that have elected to go top-heavy elsewhere.
Getting What You Pay For
Miguel Cabrera 3330
Cabrera boasts the title as the most expensive Fantasy player this preseason after being tied with Ryan Braun for the most Fantasy points last season with 699. The reigning Triple Crown winner has amassed at least 660 points in each of the past three seasons and is as steady a Fantasy producer as money can buy. Dating back to 2005, Cabrera has hit .320 in all but one season and has launched 30 home runs in all but one.
If there’s any concern with Cabrera, it is that his walk rate dropped from 15.7 percent in 2011 to 9.5 percent last year, which is a minor tax on his Fantasy production. The 44 home runs he hit last year also eclipsed his previous career high by six, so there’s a possibility Cabrera could experience some minor power regression. Even if Cabrera’s point total “drops” back down into the 660-670 range, it would still warrant top dollar.
Adrian Beltre 2790
Since moving out of the pitcher’s haven that is Safeco Field in 2010, Beltre has been a consistent top tier Fantasy option at the hot corner. A hamstring injury cost him over a month of playing time in 2011, but Beltre has averaged at least 3.6 PPG in each of the past three seasons, leading to 556 points in 2010 and 574 points last season.
Beltre’s low walk rate somewhat limits his Fantasy potential, but he has shown that he’s a premier option at the position. It’s also worth noting that like most Rangers, Beltre has notable home/road splits, as he has averaged 4.3 PPG in Texas during the past two seasons compared to a 3.3 PPG mark on the road.
David Wright 2630
A real case can be made that Wright has been anything but consistent over the past four years. He has posted home run totals of 10, 29, 14, and 21 while seeing his batting average fluctuate from .254 to .307. The Mets third sacker has been a frustrating player to build a rotisserie team around in recent seasons because owners have been unsure whether they are going to get a player posting traditional power numbers or an OBP beast with 20-30 steals.
For the purpose of Fantrax’s Fantasy points challenge, it doesn’t matter how Wright accumulates his points. Despite varying stat lines, Wright has been remarkably consistent in terms of points production, averaging 3.7, 3.8, 3.6, and 3.7 PPG since 2009. It may not be a pretty sight, but if you roster Wright and close your eyes, you’ll get the production you paid for at the end of the season.
Aramis Ramirez 2380
Ramirez was slowed by injuries in 2009 and 2010, but has been an above-average Fantasy scorer even at the age of 34. Ramirez really benefited from joining Milwaukee’s lineup last season, which quietly led all National League teams in runs scored. His 2012 slash line (.300/.360/.540) was very similar to his 2011 numbers (.306/.361/.510), but Ramirez was able to increase his runs scored from 80 to 92 and his RBI total from 93 to 105 in part by hitting in the heart of a much better lineup than he had in Chicago. Ramirez did drive the ball for a little more power last season (he increased his doubles from 35 in 2011 to a league-leading 50 last year), but for the most part did what he does every year. Ramirez scored 567 points last season and if he can retain even some of the small improvements that he made driving the ball into the gap, there is a good chance he can post another 550-point season.
Chase Headley 2620
Headley is one of the more perplexing Fantasy players to evaluate going into the 2013 season. His monster breakout performance in 2012 was completely unseen as he smashed 31 home runs and led all third-basemen in Fantasy points (Miguel Cabrera was a 1st baseman). This came after being a light-hitting third sacker who had averaged just nine home runs per season during his first four seasons in San Diego.
The most frequently presented stat when analyzing whether Headley’s 2012 performance is sustainable is last season’s 21.4 percent HR/FB rate. The rate at which Headley’s flyballs left the yard was more than triple what his career rate was coming into the season!
While it’s unlikely that Headley will be able to repeat last year’s performance, chances are also slim that he will regress all the way back to his career norm. The fences at PETCO Park are being brought in nearly 10 feet and the height of the right field wall is being lowered from 10 feet to just less than eight. Headley’s success last season can be partially attributed to his elite performance against the heater. Headley absolutely crushed opposing pitcher’s fastballs last season, as only Andrew McCutchen and Ryan Braun had a higher wFB (total runs against fastballs) than the San Diego third baseman.
While there’s a decent chance that Headley retains some of his newfound power, especially in a less cavernous PETCO Park, there is some definite regression in order and the chances of another 631 point season are unlikely. A 550-point season would feel like a successful follow up season for Headley, but why pay 2630 when Beltre and Wright put that up every year for practically the same price?
On a strict per-game basis, both Longoria and Zimmerman appear to be bargains. Longoria has averaged no less than 3.7 PPG in each of the last five seasons, while Zimmerman’s only season in the last four seasons of less than 3.6 PPG was a 2011 season where he dealt with an abdominal strain that required surgery and caused him to miss two months of action. The reason that both players are priced so moderately is their recent propensity to injury.
Longoria has averaged just fewer than 104 games over the past two seasons and was hampered by recurringhamstring injuries last season. This prompted Longoria to undergo minor surgery to repair his hamstring during the offseason. While Longoria should be good to go come opening day, he has earned the tag of “injury prone.”
Following offseason surgery to repair his throwing shoulder, Zimmerman has come into spring training less than 100 percent. Reports are that Zimm is progressing well and that the shoulder should not be a problem come the regular season, but the Nationals are proceeding with caution and have announced that their star third basemen will only DH in early preseason games.
Zimmerman was bothered by the same shoulder throughout last season and jokes were been made about Zimmerman’s “magical” cortisone shots after he proceeded to mash the ball after receiving a shot for his shoulder on June 23rd. Prior to the injection, Zimmerman was hitting just .222 with three home runs, but he launched a pair of long balls in his first game post-injection and raked to the tune of .316 with 22 home runs in the remaining 87 games of the season. The stark differences in Zimmerman’s performances highlight how important it is for his shoulder to be 100 percent, making his progress this spring one that Fantasy owners shoulder monitor closely.
Pablo Sandoval 1920
As I highlighted a couple of weeks ago with Marco Scutaro, a player’s playoff heroics are the lasting image throughout the offseason and are often weighted too heavily when assessing Fantasy value the following season. Last preseason, David Freese and Matt Moore were slightly overvalued after Freese led the Cardinals to a World Series victory and Moore spun seven innings of shutout baseball against Texas in the Divisional Series. Sandoval will forever be a part of San Francisco Giants baseball lore after launching three home runs in Game 1 of last year’s World Series, but he also came into camp overweight once again and has failed to top 420 Fantasy points since his breakout performance in 2009. Clear your mind of 2012 playoff highlight reels and carry on.
David Freese 1810 and Mike Moustakas 1690
These Show Me State third basemen were trendy sleepers coming into last season and were solid, but unspectacular in their first full seasons. The second overall pick of the 2007 draft, Moustakas jacked 20 long balls last season and shows considerable power potential, as his 49.8 percent flyball rate was the highest in all of baseball. The flip side of a high flyball rate is a low BABIP and consequentially a low batting average. Moustakas may have the potential to approach 30 home runs if he can raise his below average 9 percent HR/FB rate, but his .242 batting average last season may not have too much room to grow, especially if he fails to improve his 20.2 percent strikeout rate from last year.
On the other hand, Freese was able to crack the 20 home run mark while hitting .293 and sporting a .372 OBP that ranked him 22nd among all hitters. Considering Freese hit 5th in a strong Cardinal lineup and sported a slash line similar to that of Alex Gordon and Austin Jackson, it’s a bit peculiar that he was only able to manage 70 runs and 79 RBIs last season. There’s reason to believe that Freese can improve on his 3.1 PPG average from last year.
Brett Lawrie 1710
Lawrie was heavily hyped during last year’s preseason and proceeded to disappoint Fantasy owners, hitting just 11 home runs, swiping 13 bags, and averaging 3.0 PPG while being limited to just 125 games due to injury. The most startling development during Lawrie’s first full season in the big leagues was his sudden propensity to kill worms, as his groundball rate rose from 38.1 percent during his 2011 cup of coffee to 50.2 percent in 2012. Lawrie’s raw power was also sapped last season, as his average flyball distance barely eclipsed 265 feet, putting him in territory akin to Alcides Escobar, Erick Aybar, and Brandon Crawford. This was following a 43-game sample in 2011 where Lawrie averaged a distance of 296 feet per flyball.
Last season was just one year, so it’s hard to believe that Lawrie will suddenly continue to beat the ball into the ground given his impressive minor league power track record. On the other hand, until Lawrie can prove that he can sustain the power that he showed in his 2011 debut, I’m going to have to hedge my bets against a full rebound in 2013. Expect better than last season, but it may be another year or two until we see the huge breakout that was predicted last season.
Will Middlebrooks 1480
Middlebrooks was impressive in just under a half-season worth of at-bats last year for Boston, so much so that the Saux deemed Kevin Youkilis expendable and shipped him off to the South Side of Chicago mid-season. Middlebrooks came up a decent, but not top-tier prospect as he just missed Keith Law’s Top 100 Prospect list at the beginning of last season, so it was surprising to his see him rake to the tune of .288 with 15 home runs, 54 RBIs, and 3.3 PPG in just 286 plate appearances.
Some power regression is likely in order, considering Middlebrooks’ 21.4 percent HR/FB rate ranked him among the game’s elite power hitters while his 277 feet fly ball average positioned him among the likes of Starlin Castro, Lorenzo Cain, and Elvis Andrus.
At first glance, you might be inclined to dismiss his .288 batting average as a fluke due to his .335 BABIP, a rate that seems high for a corner infielder with average speed. However, Middlebrooks boasted a strong 21.5 percent line drive rate, which has a strong correlation to BABIP. In fact, Middlebrooks posted an xBABIP (expected BABIP, which is based on batted ball data) of .336 last season, indicating that his BABIP was basically what it should have been considering his batted ball rates. Middlebrooks also posted a 351 BABIP in 1607 career minor league at-bats, so it’s fair to assume that the level of BABIP he produced last year is sustainable.
The biggest concern for Middlebrooks going forward is his horrendous plate discipline. He struck out in just under a quarter of his plate appearances and had a walk rate of 4.5 percent. By comparison, his BB/K rate of 0.18 ranked him below the likes of Chris Davis, Mark Trumbo, and Danny Espinosa. Yikes!
Not only does Middlebrooks’ lack of walks limit his Fantasy points ceiling, but it also makes him prone to slumps. Another concern with Middlebrooks is that he’s currently slated to bat sixth for Boston, behind David Ortiz and Mike Napoli. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that neither of them will be scoring from first on too many of Middlebrooks’ doubles this season.
Middlebrooks may not have the pedigree of the aforementioned Brett Lawrie, but he is 230 cheaper. Expecting his 2012 production on a per-game basis would be setting yourself up for disappointment, but for 1480, Middlebrooks doesn’t need to be averaging much more than 3.0 PPG, which is certainly plausible in 2013.
Manny Machado 1260
There’s no doubt that Machado has a bright future in Baltimore. After being called up in August, the third overall pick of the 2010 draft shined defensively and came up with clutch hits down the stretch during what turned out to be a magical season for the Orioles. Machado was a decent Fantasy play during his short time with Baltimore, averaging 2.9 PPG in 51 games. Machado even showed improvements in his plate discipline, producing a 6:13 BB:K rate in his final 19 contests after posting a horrendous 2:24 rate through his first 32 games.
While Machado is a hot prospect and a sexy name, let’s keep in mind that he is just 20 years old and that not every 20-year-old is going to be what Mike Trout was last season. Remember all the hype Brett Lawrie got prior to his age-22 season last year? How did that turn out for Fantasy owners? All that being said, Machado doesn’t need to be Mike Trout or a Fantasy superstar to warrant his inexpensive price tag. If you keep your expectations in check, chances are you’ll be happy with the production you get out of Machado.
There are several third basemen that are cost-efficient, solid Fantasy options and choosing what combination of third sackers to roster should be based on the makeup of the rest of your roster. Is Miguel Cabrera a stud? Of course. But if you also plan on rostering Ryan Braun Robinson Cano, Joey Votto, and Justin Verlander, you might want to consider going elsewhere at third base. Unlike Cano’s situation at second base, the plethora of good values among alternative third basemen make a top-tier option like Cabrera less of a must-have for your team.
On the other hand, if you plan on rostering multiple high-risk high reward options like Evan Longoria and Ryan Zimmerman, or are banking on Brett Lawrie and Manny Machado breakouts, a strong case can be made for having Cabrera on your team. Miggy is as close to a “sure thing” as you can get, so if you can structure your team such that you have him in your lineup week in and week out, you only have one third base position left to worry about. This makes the prospect of rostering (for example) the injury-prone Longoria and a 20 year old with upside, a la Machado, much less risky since you only need one of them to pan out.
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