July 2010

Position Battles – Third Base Edition

Week 2 – Third Base
Youth was being served in early May, when lots of owners scooped up the Cardinals’ David Freese over the Reds’ Scott Rolen to fill their third base slot. That choice turned out to be a season-changer in many cases, as Freese and his four home runs have been stuck on the DL since June 27, while Rolen has mashed his way to an All-Star selection and a .294-17-60 line. Another choice — though probably less critical — currently looms at the hot corner, so lets examine this week’s edition of Position Battles. 
The Champ: Pedro Alvarez, Pirates – .228-7-21 in 136 at-bats
25 percent owned in Yahoo! Leagues
The Skinny 

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We’ve all heard about Alvarez as the elite prospect called up on June 16 to revive the Pirates franchise, so let’s keep this brief. The 23-year-old struggled out of the gate but got hot in July, clubbing seven long balls over a 14-game stretch which culminated in consecutive multi-homer efforts on July 20 and 21. He got a nice boost in ownership after this little power outburst, but in the eight games since the 21st Pedro has struggled to a 3-for-28 clip without an extra-base hit. So while Alvarez’s massive “potential” has been well documented, his 26 whiffs in 90 July at-bats remains a bit too much for comfort.

The Challenger:  Chris Johnson, Astros – .333-4-20 in 126 at-bats 
Four percent owned in Yahoo! leagues
The Skinny

cjohnson.jpg

The name alone will arouse the mind of any fantasy sports fanatic, evoking thoughts of the human blur who single-handedly carried owners to a fantasy football championship in 2009. But this C.J. can do two things that his pigskin namesake cannot — smile without scaring little children and mash the heck out of a baseball. Houston’s 2006 fourth-round pick quietly got the call on June 22 after posting an impressive .329-8-33 line with a .932 OPS at Triple-A, and hasn’t stopped raking in the bigs. Having showed solid power throughout the Minors, Johnson’s muscle took a while to shine through as he went homerless through his first 66 at-bats. But the 25-year-old has found the power stroke of late, going deep four times and plating 10 runs over his last 10 contests while hitting safely in 13 straight games at a .417 (18-for-45) clip.
Root-ability
These two couldn’t possibly be on further ends of the spectrum as far as rookies go. You have one guy who basically had a parade thrown for him in his debut, and another who virtually no one has ever heard of (four percent in Yahoo! Leagues with a .325 average?!?). We know chicks dig the long ball, and so do fantasy owners, therefore a youngster with 40-homer upside is obviously going to be more fun to own. So while telling people you own Johnson will sound impressive once NFL season roles around, the blue-chipper Alvarez reigns supreme here.
Future
On first glance you might think this would be a no-brainer, but a closer look strongly suggests otherwise. While Alvarez’s hot streak this month was impressive, he’s looked overmatched for the majority of his short stint in the Majors. The lefty batsman has been unable to figure out southpaws thus far, managing just a .193 average and a .351 slugging percentage in 57 at-bats.  On the other hand, while Johnson’s .398 BABIP suggests his overall clip is likely to dip, don’t expect too much of a drop-off. He showed solid consistency in the Minors, batting .299 while averaging 19 homers and 83 RBIs per 550 at-bats since 2008. In dynasty leagues, clearly vote for Pedro. But he appears to need a little more seasoning at this point, and the steadier and more refined Johnson is the safer choice for 2010.
So if you’ve given up on Pablo Sandoval, no longer able to stomach Mark Reynolds’ putrid average, or are done with struggling third-base eligible first basemen Jorge Cantu and Troy Glaus, give Chris Johnson a shot. He’s got a real shot to give you a .300-7-30 line the rest of the way, which ain’t too shabby.
Winner: Chris Johnson

Cust-omized for power

Let me preface this by saying that I am fully aware that it is no fun at all to own a position player on the A’s.  Other than a couple months of Rajai and 400 underwhelming at-bats from Matt Holliday last season, Oakland hasn’t had an offensive player of fantasy relevance since Frank Thomas was reborn in 2006 (yea, that happened). Now, Jack Cust isn’t likely to make anyone forget The Big Hurt, but his performance over the last couple weeks certainly qualifies as relevant to the fantasy world, and even mixed-leaguers should begin taking notice.

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It hasn’t been an easy ride for Cust this season. He went unclaimed after Oakland designated him for assignment on April 4, then spent the next month-and-a-half in Triple-A before getting recalled on May 15. He batted a solid .286 through sporadic playing time in May and June, swallowing his pride and waiting for a shot behind a washed-up Eric Chavez and a series of equally inept designated hitters. 
After the team’s DHs embarrassingly struggled to a combined .231-2-29 line over the season’s first three months, the offensively starved A’s finally figured it wouldn’t be a terrible idea to slot a guy who averaged 28 homers and a .840 OPS  from 2007-2009 in the lineup on the regular. Brilliant! So while it must have been tough for manager Bob Geren not to write names like Chavez, Jake Fox and Gabe Gross on the scorecard every day, his pain was eased as Cust produced like a champ and embarked on a beastly tear beginning on July 9. 
In 10 games since that day, the powerful 31-year-old has gone 11-for-32 with six homers, 14 ribbies and 11 runs scored. That includes a two-homer game this past Saturday where he reached base five times. Reaching base has become a specialty for Cust, whose .327 average and 15 walks have culminated in an eye-popping .465 OBP for the month. Throw in a .782 slugging percentage and you get a 1.247 OPS which leads all Major League outfielders with at least 60 plate appearances in July. 
To get all Sabermetrical on you, only two American Leaguers with 50 plate appearances this month — Miguel Cabrera and Mark Teixeira — have created more runs per 27 outs than Cust. In other words, a lineup made up of nine Jack Custs would overcome being the slowest and most entertaining group of baserunners in history to average a robust 12.31 runs per game. **RC/27 is definitely the coolest Sabermetric stat that hasn’t gotten much love yet.
Having mentioned Sabermetrics, it feels necessary to include that Cust’s .388 Batting Average on Balls in Play this season signals that his current .300 overall average has virtually no chance to last. That being said, the guy has somehow managed an impressive .332 career BABIP, so don’t expect too much of a drop-off. 

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Cust’s power isn’t likely to let up much either down the stretch. He has a history of heating up as the season winds down, going deep every 14.2 at-bats in the August and September months from 08-09. To offer a frame of reference, Cabrera has averaged a homer every 14.8 at-bats this season and Josh Hamilton sits at 16.7.  
Again, Cust probably won’t be anything near the force that the aforementioned sluggers will be going forward. But if you’ve learned anything from this barrage of statistics — and here’s another — he’s definitely better than a guy owned in just 11 percent of Yahoo! leagues.
Coming up next:  Position Battles – Week 2


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Position Battles Premier Week – First Base

With the start to the second half feeling a little stagnant in Fantasyland, I decided to a add a little wrinkle to this blogging situation. Some of the most pivotal, make-or-break situations during a season come when deciding between two players at a certain position of need to pickup off the waiver wire. Case in point: When Curtis Granderson went down with an injury back in early May, I was looking for an outfield replacement with a little speed and pop. Cameron Maybin and Chris Young were both sitting out there, and I foolishly grabbed Maybin based on his “upside” and Young’s disappointing last couple seasons. Well Maybin’s enjoying life at Triple-A right now I could sure use C.Y.’s 17 homers and 19 steals.

Although I may have just destroyed my credibility, I figured I’d install a weekly feature examining the top contenders widely available at whichever position(s) are making waves that week. To help prevent you from making the same mistake I made with Maybin, I’ll try to determine which guy is best to own going forward.  So here goes nothing….

Edition 1 – First Base

The Champ:  Justin Smoak, Mariners – .212-10-38, 11 percent owned in Yahoo! Leagues

118405.jpgThe Skinny
It’s kind of shocking how available Smoak is right now, considering all the media love he’s gotten this year after a much anticipated call-up in April and his inclusion in the Cliff Lee trade on July 9. A lot of that has to do with The 23-year-old’s 5-for-49 skid over his last 11 games with the Rangers and first three with the M’s. But the talented switch-hitter got a jolt of life during the break and has emerged with two homers and three multi-hit games since, renewing his buzz as a hot pickup.

Challenger:  Luke Scott, Orioles – .285-14-34, 14 percent owned in Yahoo! Leagues

medium_scott29.jpgThe Skinny
Primarily a designated hitter but eligible at first, Scott was on the DL for the first half of July with a hamstring pull, causing his ownership to take a huge hit. The 32-year-old lefty batsman returned on July 19 and has gone 6-for-12 with a two-homer game and four ribbies.  Averaging 24 homers and 71 RBIs over the last two seasons, Scott is one of the streakiest hitters in the game. This is possibly the best and worst thing about him. A 15-for-33, six-homer, 10-RBI stretch over nine games in May can carry a fantasy team, but a .194 average like he had in April can seriously hamper one.

Root-ability
These two guys couldn’t be more polar-opposites. You have the toolsy mega-prospect oozing with “potential” vs. the uninspiring veteran with a limited upside. While there’s something sickly endearing about a guy who chops down trees in the offseason to keep his swing in gear, Scott has been a boring name dating back to his days in Houston, and no one really loves owning a guy on the Orioles. There’s nothing more gratifying than watching a youngster like Smoak emerge as a fantasy force on your own squad. Plus he’s got that name with endless possibilities for puns, and it appears some people on this very site have gone so gitty with it that they’ve replaced  all usage of the actual word with the OAK version. Justin wins here.

Future
Scott is a noticeably better hitter after the All-Star break, batting .275 with an .868 OPS compared to .260 and .839 in the first half. Smoak’s value took a nice little hit after being traded from a beastly offense at the Hitter’s Haven in Arlington to a lineup with Franklin Gutierrez as their three-hitter at spacious Safeco Field. As streaky as Scott can be, he’s actually hit .321 since the calendar turned May with a plus-nine OPS in each month. Smoak’s 16/2 K/BB rate in nine games with the Mariners isn’t incredibly promising, and he might need some more seasoning before reaching that immense potential everyone seems to agree he possesses. Smoak is definitely the more tempting option here, but it seems like the wiser move is to go for Scott — you kinda know what you’re gonna get.

So if you have Justin Morneau sitting on your DL, or if you’re fed up with an ice-cold Troy Glaus who’s magic has worn off, Luke Scott has emerged as the guy you want to scoop up at first base for now.

Winner: Luke Scott

Youth slow to be served in Chi-Town

Something perplexing has been going on in the Windy City of late. Neither
the White Sox nor the Cubs have what you would call a glut of youthful
offensive talent, and neither lineup is much of an offensive juggernaut. This
makes it all the more maddening when the teams’ respective managers choose to bench young, emerging prospects in favor of zero-upside, unproductive
veterans. But that’s exactly what Lou Piniella and Ozzie Guillen have done this season, standing in the way of powerful talents Tyler Colvin and Dayan Viciedo
from becoming truly valuable fantasy commodities.

 

Dayan Viciedo vs. Omar Vizquel

The White Sox threw $10 million at Viciedo as a
19-year-old Cuban defector in 2008, so you’d think they’d be eager to see their
investment pay off. 
 After
putting up a .290-14-34 line in 62 games at Triple-A this year, Viciedo has
hit .295 in 44 at-bats since getting called up on June 18. 
 An
impressive beginning for a 21-year-old, but apparently not impressive enough to
net him consistent at-bats.

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Omar Vizquel, yes, 43-year-old Omar Vizquel with a career .692 OPS
has been stealing away regulars ABs from Viciedo. Vizquel, who has
started just 34 career games at the hot corner, got the nod over Viciedo in three out of four games since the All-Star break. This
comes in the midst of the youngster’s first career hot streak, which has him
batting
.364 with a pair of homers and doubles and seven runs scored over
his last six games. 
 

Maybe manager Ozzie Guillen, a light-hitting middle-infielder in
his day, is trying to live vicariously on the field through his old friend Vizquel.
And yes, Viciedo isn’t Mike Schmidt over at third, evidenced by his costly error on July 16. But once Guillen finally commits to Viciedo, he should have something pretty solid.
At 5-foot-11, 240 pounds, Viciedo generates a lot of power from his extremely stocky
frame, and is literally a well-rounded hitter. Think Juan Uribe with a much better
average.
There’s also something to be said about the production potential
of a guy who always
 puts
the ball in play, as he’s struck out just four times and walked none in his
short big-league stint.
Sitting on the bench must be twice as frustrating for a guy who loves to swing as much as Viciedo does, so hopefully for his sake he’ll get more run in the second half.

 

Tyler Colvin vs. Kosuke Fukudome and Xavier Nady

This one has been even more confounding, as the offensively-starved Cubs have
nothing to lose at this point from giving at-bats to a rookie.  Cubs fans feel the same way, as they’ve gone
nuts all season begging Lou Piniella to play their 2006 No. 1 Draft pick over the
33-year-old Fukudome’s career .257 average, and journeyman Nady’s .223 season
clip.

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Piniella vowed to do so about a month ago, but was slow to come through on his promise,
as Colvin started just two of the team’s last five games before the break. It’s not like
Colvin, a lefty batsmen, is better suited for a platoon, as he’s actually fared
better against southpaws this season with a .300 average.

Other than the money the Cubs are giving to Kosuke and Xavier,
there’s really no explanation for slotting either of them in the lineup over a budding
power bat who put up a .300-14-50 line in 84 games at Double-A last season. The
24-year-old Colvin has been a legit producer when given the chance to play in Chicago, going deep 12 times with 32 RBIs and 33 runs scored in just 196
at bats in 2010. Spread that out over a full season, and you get  a 35-100-100 fantasy force . It’s a crime to hold back youthful pop of this nature, especially
on a team that’s going nowhere.

Luckily, Piniella seems to have gotten a clue during the
vacation and has started Colvin in the Cubs’ first four games of the second half, during which he’s gone 6-for-17 with a pair of doubles and runs scored. He was even slotted in the leadoff spot to face Roy Halladay on Sunday night, and responded with a 3-for-5 effort. If this is going to be the norm you won’t want to hesitate on Colvin like his own team did, so scoop the youngster up while he’s available in 93 percent of Yahoo! leagues.

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Second-half Speedsters

With guys like Grady Sizemore, Rajai Davis, Julio Borbon and
Jacoby Ellsbury not exactly having the dynamic first three months everyone
expected, many fantasy owners have been left searching for some cheap sources
of speed.  With that in mind, here’s some guys who could be available that should help you out on the basepaths, provide a solid average and score a bunch of
runs over the season’s second half:


Angel Pagan:  .315, 19 steals, 46 runs, six homers, 40 RBIs in first half

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There cannot possibly be a more productive fantasy player
thus far who has gotten less respect than Pagan.  In 154 games since taking over as the Mets everyday
center fielder on July 10 of 2009, the 29-year-old has hit .309 with 12 homers,
29 steals, and 93 runs scored.  And even though he’s batting .419 with 14 RBIs and seven
swipes over his last 18 starts, he’s still owned in just 46 percent of Yahoo! leagues.  This could be because of the uncertainty
about Pagan’s playing time in a soon-to-be crowded outfield when Carlos Beltran
returns, but get one thing straight: 
Jeff Francoeur might be the coolest guy around, inspiring everyone to hold hands and sing in the clubhouse, but that won’t be enough to keep his weak
.253 average in a struggling lineup over a
proven .300 hitter with legit speed and power. 
Pick up Pagan.


Corey Patterson: .289, 16 steals, 28 runs, five homers, 21 RBIs in first half

Come on, people — please stop ignoring Corey Patterson.  The retread veteran
widely considered as a busted prospect has been playing every day in the Orioles
outfield and quietly doing his own Carl Crawford impression over the last
month.  In 111 at-bats since June 11, the
30-year-old (not lying, he’s only 30) is batting .333 with 10 steals, two
homers, nine doubles, 15 runs scored and 15 RBIs.  He’s always had the talent, so who knows,
maybe he’s a guy who just needed 10 years to develop it.   One thing’s for sure is that even if
Patterson’s bat cools off the speed will be there, as he’s averaged 50 steals
per 162 games in roughly 2 seasons with the O’s.

Erick Aybar:  .283, 14 steals, 52 runs, three homers, 16 RBIs in first half

After being touted as a solid fantasy shortstop option heading
into 2010, Erick Aybar batted just .238 over the first 54 games and became an
afterthought in most formats.  Then
something clicked, and in 28 contests since June 3 Aybar is batting .365 with seven
steals and 22 runs scored.  Don’t let that
extra ‘K’ in his name give you the wrong impression, as the quick-swinging switch-hitter
has impressively struck out just once in 45 July at-bats.  This 26-year-old is available in 46 percent of
Yahoo! leagues, and looks primed for a productive second half.

Cliff Pennington:  .264, 13 steals, 38 runs, three homers, 27 RBIs in first half

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As far as sexy fantasy pickups go, the A’s Cliff Pennington might
as well be your sister.  But since
batting an even .200 after the team’s first 61 games, the 26-year-old shortstop
has done wonders to his attractiveness over the last month.  In 88 at-bats since June 10, Pennington is
batting an incredible .409 with six steals and 19 runs scored.  Putting up a 1.047 OPS in July, he’s bound to
move up from ninth in the order real soon, which should enable him to score enough
runs to offset his lack of power.  With
the shortstop position looking pretty thin so far in 2010, Pennington is definitely a guy to
consider grabbing in AL-only leagues at the very least.   


Denard Span:  .273, 16 steals, 54 runs, three homers, 37 RBIs in first half

Denard Span had it in for fantasy players early on.  Not only did he drive his owners nuts in the first half after
getting a ton of preseason hype, he managed to take down this season’s second-most formidable
Beat the Streak challenger at 41 games.   The fleet-footed center fielder has been given up on in
a surprising number of leagues after batting just .247 with three steals since
June 1. But before you cut bait keep in mind that Span is a second-half performer by nature, as he turned it on last season by batting .331 with a .402 on-base percentage after
the All-Star break, which included a .375 clip in August while swiping
four bags.  A similar post-break hot streak
seems likely as he gets that .273 average up to his .296 career clip, and
continues the march towards 30 stolen bases. 
You can probably get him for a bag of balls right now from a frustrated
owner.

Coming soon:  Post-break Power

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Matchup Man

The term “matchup play” gets thrown around a lot in fantasy
circles.  It’s not exactly a flattering
term to bestow on a player, denoting that they’re only capable enough to use in
specific situations.  Nobody really wants
to own a matchup-play player, resigning to the fact that their lineup isn’t good
enough to completely consist of players who are full-time contributors.  Yet, if you can swallow your pride, there are certain
matchup players who are strong enough under certain conditions to genuinely be
worth a spot on your roster.

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This brings us to Blue Jays starter Brandon Morrow, the
ultimate matchup play this season, who owns a 5-6 record with a 4.69 ERA, a 1.42 WHIP and a 10.03 K/9 rate.  The 25-year-old
right-hander, who was acquired from the Mariners in the offseason, has the
talent to be a full-time fantasy stud.  Morrow
has a mid-90s fastball with late movement that can be dialed up to 98 if he’s
so inclined, complemented by a nasty breaking ball which fluctuates between
85-90 mph and drops out of the strike zone in a flash.  However, currently in his first full season
as a starter after the M’s shuffled him back and forth between the rotation and
the pen last year, the young flamethrower has struggled to find consistency.

Or actually, it might be more accurate to say that Morrow
has been very consistent, as it’s become easy to predict when and when not he
will be effective — the personification of a good matchup play.  In eight home starts this season Morrow has
been as dominant as his stuff suggests, going 5-1 with a stellar 2.82 ERA and
1.10 WHIP while opponents are batting just .234 off him.  On the road, however, he’s been a disaster, sitting
at 0-5 with a 6.80 ERA and a 1.78 WHIP over nine starts, while opponents have hit .281.  The biggest disparity has
been in his control, walking just 13 batters in 51 innings at The Rogers Centre
compared to issuing 32 free passes over 45 frames in U.S. ballparks. 

Morrow recently reeled off a masterful five-start stretch during
which he pitched to a 1.80 ERA with a 35/12 K/BB ratio.  Four of those outings were in Toronto.  He followed this up by yielding five runs in
Cleveland, then surrendering five runs at Yankee Stadium during his most recent
outing on July 4.

Morrow may simply be a guy who needs the warm and fuzzy feeling
of getting cheered to relax and locate the ball where he wants.  Or he might just be easily rattled by
trash-talking fans.  The again, maybe it’s
an artificial turf thing. 

The most notable matchup play from 2009 was a starter who
pitched in the only other artificial turf ballpark currently in the Majors,
Tropicana Field.  Also in his first full
year in the rotation, Tampa Bay’s David Price pitched to an 8-3 record with a 2.93
ERA at home last season, compared to 2-4 with a 6.24 ERA on the road.  But Price’s tale is one that offers hope for
Morrow, who is not as highly-touted as the former No. 1 overall draft pick and post-season
hero yet has stuff equally electric.

david-price-tampa-bay-rays.jpg

Price was virtually unplayable in fantasy lineups during
his first seven road starts in ’09, racking up a 8.07 ERA.  Then something clicked towards the end of the year, as he went 2-0 with a respectable 3.90 ERA in his last four outings  away from St. Petersburg.  Fast forward to 2010 when Price has been one of
the best pitchers in the American League over the first half, while going 6-3 with a 2.79 ERA on the road. 

So as Morrow gears up for road start No. 10 this season,
he should look to Price for encouragement that he can right the ship outside the friendly confines of the country to our north.  If this happens, owners will be extremely thrilled
with their investment, as anyone who can ring up 107 Ks in just 96 innings has the
capability to be an elite fantasy starter. 
  But even if he doesn’t figure it
out on the road, Morrow is one matchup play proven dominant enough under the
right circumstances to keep anyone from feeling ashamed to own him.


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