Are You For Real? NL East Edition
Last week "Are You For Real" examined the standings in one of baseball's most perplexing divisions. But the NL Central isn't the only oddity so far this season. Over in the NL East, the favored Mets are in the lead, and the Nationals are occupying the basement -- as expected. But the Braves, with the senior circuit's second-best record, are much better than anticipated. Meanwhile the Phillies, who were expected to provide the Mets' biggest challenge, are struggling mightily.
Tim Hudson and Bob Wickman are having great seasons. Brett Myers is having a nightmare. It's well known that Hudson's fast start and improved late-inning relief have keyed the Braves' early-season success. Myers' demotion to the bullpen is a highly publicized symptom of the Phillies' disappointing record. Both teams, however, are getting some unusual performances from other critical team members. This week, Will and Adam take a look at two more of the Braves' April heroes and another of the culprits of the Phillies' woes.
Chipper Jones, 3B, ATL - After nine straight seasons of at least 524 at-bats, Jones has suffered through three straight campaigns plagued with nagging injuries. Entering this season at age 35, he was on a lot of "bust" lists as a risky pick, but so far he's defying critics and is tied for fourth in the majors in home runs. Can he keep it up, or should you sell high?
Will: For Real. Yes, Jones has struggled through some ailments the last few years, but a look at his peripherals reveals no decline in skills yet. Even closer to age 40 than 30, Jones is still a premier talent. His combination of power and batting average isn't easy to replace, and while he's a little more of an injury risk than he was in his younger days, it's an overreaction to label him injury-prone. So far in 2007, Jones is playing like he's got something to prove. Expect him to be excellent as long as he's healthy, and while his at-bat totals of 472, 358 and 411 the last three years may have scared off some owners, there's no real reason to think that he's more likely to hit the disabled list than any other player his age.
Adam: For Real. Jones represents what may be my favorite type of fantasy player: the highly productive injury risk. Jones' value has depreciated since it is almost assumed he will get injured, but you also know he will definitely hit well while he is healthy. And therein lies the upside. If he happens to stay healthy for longer than was anticipated, you get one of the best bargains of the year. If not, well, he likely garnered enough high-quality at-bats to at least get you your draft value back. It also helps that Kelly Johnson is the leadoff hitter, and is almost certain to have a better season than last year's leadoff hitter, Marcus Giles. Chipper will cool down, but he's not at risk for ruin.
Jeff Francoeur, OF, ATL - Despite 29 home runs and 103 RBIs, Francoeur posted an OPS of only .742 last year. His poor contact rate and low batting average have labeled him a two-category performer. This year, he's hitting .284 and is second only to Alex Rodriguez in RBIs. Is he making real gains, or will he regress to his former status as a power hitter who offers nothing else?
Will: For Real. Francoeur is still striking out at a pretty good clip, but he's walking roughly once every 10 at-bats, compared with once every 30 last season. This newfound plate discipline bodes well for Francoeur's development as a hitter. He's unlikely to finish at .284, but the improvement seems legitimate, and the power is still increasing. Francoeur could soon be a star rather than merely a valuable player. Don't sell high on this budding talent.
Adam: For Real. I have never been a fan of Francoeur and can't say I suddenly am, but he represents the major difference between real baseball and the fantasy kind. Even if he only moderately improves over last year, he's hitting behind a lot of productive hitters, and he's getting a ton of at-bats to pile up counting stats. He doesn't have to improve his plate discipline significantly to put himself in a better position to hit for a higher average, so you don't necessarily need a lot of real-life gain to equate to a lot of fantasy value. Add in the fact that he could improve his discipline more than expected -- he is only 23 -- and it is unwise to trade him unless you are getting back a player that you hope Francoeur to be.
Adam Eaton, SP, PHI - The Phillies were counting on Adam Eaton to be a key part of their rotation, but so far he's turned in a 6.46 ERA. Is it too early to consider him a 2007 bust?
Will: For Real. It's way too early to label Eaton a bust. He doesn't have the greatest control, but his history says he'll bring down his current rate of over four walks per nine innings. Eaton hasn't posted an earned run average below 4.00 yet in his career due to his proclivity for surrendering home runs. His career home run rate is 1.17, and his new home park isn't helping him, so he'll continue to have issues with the longball. However, he's currently serving up 1.55 taters per nine, and that's too much of an increase to attribute solely to Citizens Bank Park. Eaton's strikeout and hit rates are fine this year, so he's not having dominance issues. Don't expect miracles, but look for him to bring his walk and home run rates down to figures more in line with his career averages, which means that over the rest of the season you can still expect what you expected when you drafted him.
Adam: Unreal. Put an average to below-average fly ball pitcher in a home run launching pad, and you get Eric Milton in Cincinnati. Okay, not quite that bad, but come on, what could you expect? At the very least, Adam Eaton is not going to be usable in his home games. He was horrible in Texas last year, though he does have an injury excuse, and when he was in San Diego back in 2005, he was much better at home than on the road. The only value Eaton can provide this year is on the road, since the NL East has a lot of pitchers' parks. That's a little bit of value in NL-only leagues, but at that point we are grasping for straws.
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