by Ryan Butler
Fantasy baseball is the ultimate “What have you done for me lately?” business. To cut bait, or to keep fishing? That, is the question all fantasy team managers must answer where under-performing players are concerned. We are like women in that we are always on the lookout for the bigger, better deal. Even if you already have a productive player manning a position on your team, you, the ever-diligent fantasy skipper, are scanning the horizon for someone better. Casey McGehee is sweet, cute, responsible, and treats you well, but you would breakup with him in a heartbeat if that dreamboat Evan Longoria would only dump his stupid girlfriend.
For the players discussed here, the answer to “What have you done for me lately?” is “Oh, not much, besides let down you and everybody else who owned me last season.” It’s OK. One bad season does not necessarily spell the end of a player’s viability as a good fantasy option. What it does mean is lower expectations and ranking in the proceeding year’s draft. Either because of injury, erosion of skills, or bad luck, these guys all were down last season. I think that this year they’ll be back to their old productive, fantasy-owner-delighting ways.
1. Ian Kinsler, 2B: Supremely talented, yet often-injured, Kinsler has missed a total of 192 games due to various ankle, groin, and thumb ailments over the course of his five-year career. With the pool of legit fantasy second-sackers about high-ankle-sprain deep, replacing a guy like Kinsler when he invariably goes down just isn’t gonna happen. I don’t like to label players, especially non-pitchers, as injury-prone. Even though he’s averaged only 124 games per season in his career, the only 2Bs I would consider taking before him are Cano, Utley, and Uggla. I say he stays healthy this year, and produces like the five-tool player he is: 105/24/84/27/.285.
2. Jonathan Broxton, RP: Roughly the size of a Spanky’s Port-O-San, this guy cuts about as imposing a figure from the bump as any pitcher in the game. After managing a microscopic 0.83 ERA thru June 26 and recording the save in the National League’s All-Star game victory, the big fella imploded. In July and August he posted ERAs of 7.45 and 6.75, respectively. By mid-August, skipper Joe Torre, weary of Broxton’s nouveau-combustive ways, promoted Hong-Chih-Kuo to the closer role. Some say Torre overused Broxton, causing a drop in velocity and command. Who knows? New Dodgers manager Don Mattingly has said that Broxton will resume his job as closer for the 2011 season. In 2010 Broxton’s H/9 (9.2) was a career-high, as was his BB/9 (4.0). Throw in a career-low 10.5 K/9 (still pretty damn good) and you have a recipe for a sub-par season. Expect things to level off for him this season and return to the form he managed to maintain through the entire 2009 campaign. Something like, say: 5-4/98/36/2.71/1.10.
3. Nate McLouth, OF: Nate sure wasn’t very great last year. In fact, he struggled vainly to be just average. In 2010, the season of his discontent, McLouth went 30/6/24/7/.190 in 84 games with the Bravos. It was a nightmare that he just couldn’t wake up from. But he is a much better player than that, and at 29, I find it hard to believe that he is washed-up. 2009 was a pretty typical year for him (86/20/70/19/.256), and when you look at his advanced statistics, not too much changed from ’09 to ’10 except, of course his production, and K% (23.6) up 7.2% from 2009. But check out these other comparisions between ’09 and 2010 respectively: LD% (16.3 in ’09, 15.8 in ’10), GB% (40.2/40.4), FB% (43.5/43.7), IFFB% (10.8/11.3), and GB/FB% (o.93/0.93). Weird, huh? These numbers, which usually go a long way in explaining why a player’s performance differs from one year to the next, are virtually identical accross the board. So what gives? Quite simply, McLouth was unlucky last year, and in a crowded outfield, Atlanta didn’t have to keep running him out there and let him hit his way out of it. They buried him on the bench, and he never recovered. If he starts well this season, he will play, and he will produce at least at a good fourth-fantasy OF clip: 69/17/56/15/.251.
4. Aaron Hill, 2B: I talked about this guy in my last article. After a great 2009, he fell apart last year and left many a disappointed fantasy owner to pick up the pieces. He had a hellish 2010 (70/26/68/2/.205), made curious by the fact that the Jays, as a team, had a banner year in the power department (257 bombs). Aaron must have felt left out. So what must he do to return to the form that won him the Silver Slugger in 2009? The most important thing is to stop trying to go all “Dave Kingman” on every pitch he swings at. It’s a well-known adage amongst the game’s elite power hitters that you can’t go up there “trying” to hit home runs. Put a good swing on it, square it up, and, if you’re physically strong enough, hits will eventually leave the yard. Hill’s FB% last year was 54.2, which is extremely high and helps explain his precipitous decline in BA. Comparing 2009 and 2010, here are some more advanced stats to help explain Hill’s drop-off: GB/FB% (0.96/0.65), LD% (19.6/10.6), and HR/FB% (14.9/10.8). Basically, Hill let his 2009 power surge get into his head, and he got away from the approach that had made him such a great hitter in the past. I fully expect him to rebound in 2011, though he will not approach his 2009 numbers: 80/24/84/3/.271.
5. Kurt Suzuki, C: Ah, Suzuki-san. I had pretty high hopes for this guy after a very solid ’09 season, figuring to see at least a repeat performance across the board, with RBI (88 in 2009) being the possible exception. In fact, I distinctly remember being upset when he was taken in one of the later rounds of last year’s draft right before I was set to take him. When you look inside the numbers, one stat sticks out above the rest: FB/IFFB% (40.8/20.2). That means nearly half of his fly balls never left the infield, which helps explain his disturbingly low batting average (.242). In 2009 he went 74/15/88/.274/8. That’s great production from a catcher. I expect this year he will return to his normal IFFB% of around 8.5-10.5, which will make for a higher BA and better production and power than we saw in 2010. Figure 67/16/77/4/.269.
6. Gordon Beckham, 2B: To say that Beckham’s trip through the minors to the Big Leagues was a fast one would be like saying Cuban defector/human-flamethrower Aroldis Chapman has “pretty good giddyup” on his fastball. It was, in fact, a downright meteoric ascent. Know how many games he played in the minor leagues? 59. Total. He was such an advanced hitting prospect when he was drafted out of the University of Georgia (8th overall) in 2008, the ChiSox felt that 7 games and 30 ABs at AAA Charlotte in 2009 were more than young Mr. Beckham needed. Indeed, he was equal to the task, going 58/14/63/7/.270 in 103 games with the big club, good for 5th in the Rookie of the Year balloting. It appeared the Southsiders had a hitting savant on their hands. In 2010, a hand injury, coupled with a classic case of the sophomore blues brought him back to earth with a thud (58/9/49/4/.252 in 131 games). But the kid will be alright. Beckham reminds me of Stephen Drew, but without the insane pre-draft hype, and minus the remarkable ability to somehow strut while at the same time sitting perfectly motionless. Eventually, Beckham will be better than Drew. This season, he will perform like his equal: 82/16/76/6/.268.
7. Justin Morneau, 1B: One of the most consistent and productive players in the game. In any given year you can pencil this guy in for 90/29/110/.290/1 and just let it ride. And, despite all his (understandable) carping about the “spacious” new Target Field, he was having a monster 2010 (53/18/56/0/.345, 81 games) until it ended unceremoniously just before the All-Star break. Morneau is still on the mend from a concussion that he suffered when he was kneed in the head by Toronto’s John McDonald on July 7,2010. I have not been able to confirm the rumor that he also ruptured his cervix in said collision. He has yet to resume baseball activities, but the Twins expect him to be ready by Opening Day. I’m not saying Morneau isn’t tough, or that seven months is an inordinate amount of time to mend from such an injury, but Aaron Rodgers had two concussions this season and he just won the Super Bowl MVP. But I digress. Assuming Morneau is feeling up to it by April 1, the aforementioned stat line should be expected: 90/29/110/1/.290.
8. Edinson Volquez, SP: “Gimme back my son!!” Or should I say, “give me a son!!” At least the latter is the defense that Volquez is using to explain the dirty test he popped for a testosterone-enhancing male fertility drug last April. Ultimately, the suspension didn’t cost him any playing time, as he was still in the midst of rehabbing his elbow from the Tommy John surgery which had prematurely ended his 2009 season, when the suspension was imposed. It did however, cost him nearly one-third of his yearly salary, not to mention the incalculable toll that being the butt of countless lead-in-the-pencil and blank-shooting jokes can take on a young man. All kidding aside, Volquez, prior to his injury, was one of the up-and-coming starting pitchers in the National League. In 2008, he went 196/17/206/3.21/1.33). After completing his rehab, he returned to the Reds to make 12 starts last season, with decent, if not spectacular results. He even made a start in the NLDS; and the Phillies lit him up like a Christmas Tree! But do not fret. Ed is back to full-strength, and the fact that the Reds are one of the best young teams in the NL bodes well for him. He should be a good source of Ks and wins: 190/15/180/3.80/1.33.
When drafting a player coming off a bad year or an injury, always remember to take his age into account. Younger players are usually more likely to rebound than are older players. I also tend to have more faith in a player with a proven track-record getting back to his productive ways after a rough year than I do in a heretofore average player repeating the surprising success he had the year before. Also, remember that the team you draft is not the team you’re going to end up with. Drafting a player like Hill will provide your team with good depth and potential trade-bait should you need to address a shortcoming that will inevitably arise. Players like Morneau and Kinsler are going to be drafted high, no matter what. These other guys should be available at a bargain rate, and with a highly favorable risk/reward ratio.