Cabrera, Ramirez even more valuable
Eligibility at new positions provides greater flexibility
Monday was a great day. So, too, was Sunday before it.
Monday was the day Miguel Cabrera, fantasy baseball's No. 2 player overall from the preseason, according to ESPN Live Draft results, played his 10th game at third base, earning eligibility at that position in ESPN standard leagues. Sunday was the day Hanley Ramirez, the No. 16 overall player, played his 10th game at the hot corner, also giving him third-base eligibility.
The benefits to Cabrera are significant: In addition to increased position flexibility for his owners, he's now eligible at a position that isn't as rich in talent as his previous position, first base. To that end, using overall 2011 Player Rater rankings, five times as many first basemen ranked among the top 25 as third basemen (5-1), five more first basemen ranked among the top 50 (9-4) and nine more ranked among the top 100 (16-7).
The major league averages also show the vast differential in talent between the positions: First basemen combined to bat .271/.345/.452 last season, compared to .252/.317/.390 triple-slash numbers by third basemen.
Ramirez, meanwhile, now qualifies at five separate fantasy positions: third base, shortstop, corner infield, middle infield and utility. Position flexibility is a plus for him as well, and here's another fact you might not know: There were actually more shortstops (10) in the 2011 Player Rater top 100 last season than there were third basemen (7). And again, using major league averages, shortstops managed .263/.317/.380 triple-slash numbers, right in range of the third basemen; shortstops also averaged 12 home runs and 17 stolen bases per 700 plate appearances, compared to 16 homers and eight steals for third basemen.
Think about what Cabrera and Ramirez can accomplish, and the meaning of those statistics considering their newfound eligibility. Cabrera averaged .332-34-111 numbers per year from 2009-11, numbers that no first baseman equaled during that span. Among third basemen, Evan Longoria has been the "gold standard" for those three seasons -- remember that Jose Bautista only broke through in 2010 -- and Longoria's annual average was .275-29-105.
Ramirez has a 30/30 season as well as four 20/20 campaigns to his credit, and he's again on pace to contend for 30/30 numbers in 2012. In the history of baseball, only three third basemen -- judged as having at least 50 percent of their games played at the position in the given season -- have managed 30/30, including three such campaigns by Howard Johnson. Steals are not typically plentiful coming from third basemen; the 2011 categorical leaders at the position were Ryan Roberts (18), David Wright (13) and Chase Headley (13).
Keeper-league owners are the ones most affected by Cabrera's and Ramirez's new positions, especially the latter. With them now manning the hot corner, neither appears likely to qualify at their 2011 positions of first base and shortstop; they might both begin the 2013 season as merely third basemen.
Returning the focus to this season, "Hit Parade" includes a section on position qualification, highlighting players who have added new position eligibility within the past week. In this edition, with two such valuable players having qualified at new spots, let's take a look at other players who have earned new eligibility, as well as others who are either approaching or might earn eligibility soon.
TOP 125 HITTERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 125 hitters are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
3B Mat Gamel, Milwaukee Brewers -- now qualifies at 1B: Gamel was always ticketed to be the Brewers' first baseman, the only drawback for the 26-year-old being that he's unlikely to qualify anywhere but first base in future years. Keep that in mind, keeper-league owners, because the Brewers have Aramis Ramirez at third base, not to mention Gamel's defense at the hot corner is poor.
OF Yonder Alonso, San Diego Padres -- now qualifies at 1B: Alonso was really always a first baseman; the Cincinnati Reds, his drafting organization, simply had some guy named Votto blocking his path. The Padres are using Alonso regularly at his natural position, shuffling him between sixth and seventh in their lineup depending upon whether a left-hander is pitching. For a season at least, his owners have a bit of added flexibility. Expect him to be eligible at first base only come 2013.
2B/3B Mike Aviles, Boston Red Sox -- now qualifies at SS: Aviles has not only emerged as the Red Sox's starting shortstop, he has also been their leadoff hitter for their past four games in the wake of the Jacoby Ellsbury injury. Considering that Aviles now qualifies at five of the six eligible infield positions (second base, third base, shortstop, corner infield, middle infield) plus utility, he's an even more worthwhile back-of-your-roster type to plug holes on an AL-only or deep mixed roster.
3B Chone Figgins, Seattle Mariners -- now qualifies at OF: It's a little difficult to believe that the Mariners are using Figgins regularly in the outfield; he managed a .241 on-base percentage during a miserable 2011 and has a .298 mark thus far this season. Still, he continues to lead off for them and he's capable of stealing a base, so perhaps his dual eligibility will be a plus to AL-only owners. Once Mike Carp is healthy, however, Figgins might be headed back to the bench.
SS Freddy Galvis, Philadelphia Phillies -- now qualifies at 2B: Chase Utley's loss is Galvis' gain; the Phillies have been true to their word that they'd try out Galvis as their regular second baseman while Utley recovers from a knee injury. The problem is that Galvis hasn't been productive in fantasy, his .250 on-base percentage within range of his lifetime .292 minor league number, and putting a cap on his stolen-base potential. Dual eligibility is a plus for Galvis owners in deep NL-only leagues, but his time as a regular might be short-lived.
Nearing new eligibility
The following notable fantasy players are on track to earn new eligibility in the coming weeks:
SS Marco Scutaro, Colorado Rockies -- 9 games played at 2B: One more game at second base and the Rockies' starter both at the position and in the leadoff spot will qualify at both middle infield spots. Why that's significant: Only 15 active players qualify at both positions, and the only ones who had a higher on-base percentage than Scutaro's .358 last season were Ruben Tejada (.360) and Jamey Carroll (.359), who combined to hit exactly zero home runs.
1B Jesus Guzman, San Diego Padres -- 9 games played at OF: It's nice to see him getting regular at-bats somewhere, and it's worth pointing out that he has been the Padres' primary cleanup hitter thus far. Still, Guzman needs to start hitting if he's to retain that role once Carlos Quentin is healthy. He really has nowhere else to go but back to first base, but that's Yonder Alonso's position.
C Josh Donaldson, Oakland Athletics -- 8 games played at 3B: He's a catcher-eligible player with an opportunity at regular at-bats at another position, generally a plus in fantasy. The problem is that Donaldson isn't hitting, so it hasn't helped owners yet, nor would adding third-base eligibility make much of a difference in his valuation.
3B Casey McGehee, Pittsburgh Pirates -- 8 games played at 1B: Between Garrett Jones' left-handedness and Pedro Alvarez's general badness, there are plenty of at-bats at either corner for McGehee, a sneaky back-of-the-roster type in NL-only leagues.
OF Bryan LaHair, Chicago Cubs -- 7 games played at 1B: First base was his projected position and should remain that, but he's splitting time with Jeff Baker thus far, and not merely in a straight-platoon arrangement.
3B Daniel Descalso, St. Louis Cardinals -- 7 games played at 2B: It's Descalso, not Tyler Greene, who has been getting more of the at-bats at second base for the Cardinals thus far. Now if he could only manage an OPS north of .700 somewhere other than in the Texas or Pacific Coast Leagues.
SS Yuniesky Betancourt, Kansas City Royals -- 6 games played at 2B: Oh boy, AL-only owners rejoice. Yes, I know he's batting .389. Don't care. The Royals really think Betancourt is a better use of second baseman at-bats than Johnny Giavotella?
3B Matt Carpenter, St. Louis Cardinals -- 5 games played at 1B: First-base eligibility grants Carpenter little more than additional flexibility, but the more positions he plays for the Cardinals, the more likely he'll be of service in NL-only leagues. Remember, he was a .300 hitter who had a 14.4 percent walk rate during his minor league career.
1B Mark Trumbo, Los Angeles Angels -- 3 games played at 3B: The tally, in terms of total starts at any position, is Kendrys Morales nine, Trumbo five, and the fact that Trumbo has made only three starts at the hot corner with awful defense at the position might signal his potentially falling short of qualification over the long haul. It'd sure be nice if he could get to 10; his 29 home runs last season would've ranked fourth among third basemen, showing how valuable his power potential would be at the position.
1B Aubrey Huff, San Francisco Giants -- 3 games played at OF: It's Huff, not Brandon Belt, who has been shifting to the outfield on days when the San Francisco Giants want to get both bats in their lineup. Belt owners certainly want to see that happen more often.
C Ryan Doumit, Minnesota Twins -- 3 games played at OF: Why anyone would want to play Doumit as an outfielder rather than a catcher is beyond me, but at least it's additional position flexibility if you're somehow loaded at catcher in an AL-only league.
DH Jesus Montero, Seattle Mariners -- 3 games played at C: All three of Montero's starts behind the plate have come in the Mariners' past six games, a promising sign that he might reach the 10-game requirement by the early part of May. Catcher eligibility, rather than merely designated hitter, would be huge.
1B/3B Michael Young, Texas Rangers -- 2 games played at 2B: Here's another case of a player's value skyrocketing if he can reach the 10-game threshold. Young is a top-10 fantasy option at both first and third base, but he'd be a bona fide lock for a top-five ranking on the Player Rater as a second baseman.
3B/OF Jose Bautista, Toronto Blue Jays -- 2 games played at 1B: His first appearance at first base could've been explained by it being a 16-inning game and the Blue Jays running out of alternatives. His second appearance, however, was a product of Adam Lind being lifted for pinch runner Rajai Davis, an outfielder. It could signal Bautista's potential as a late-season qualifier at first base, not that adding the position would significantly increase his fantasy appeal.
OF John Mayberry Jr., OF Laynce Nix and DH Jim Thome, Philadelphia Phillies -- 2 games apiece played at 1B: All three Phillies have a chance to qualify at first base, but it's Thome who would benefit most from the additional qualification. Designated hitters can fill one position on your lineup card; first basemen can fill three (first base, corner infield, utility).
Jason Heyward, Atlanta Braves: Though his final spring numbers weren't eye-popping, he finished up the exhibition season on a high note, as noted here, and has extended the performance into the regular season's early weeks. Heyward is hitting .361, is on pace for 29 home runs and 59 stolen bases, has walked in 11.9 percent and struck out in 19.0 percent of his plate appearances. But perhaps most importantly, he has cut what was a 54.4 percent ground-ball rate from 2010-11 to 32.1 percent thus far in 2012, "curing" what was a significant problem area. He's also hitting .273/.333/.545 on pitches on the inside third of the plate, granted in only 12 PAs, but it's improvement nevertheless upon his .180/.327/.247 rates of 2011. Heyward might yet be primed for a breakout.
Matt Wieters, Baltimore Orioles: Sometimes it takes a catcher a few seasons to realize his full potential; you know, those "tools of ignorance" taking a physical toll. Wieters, in year No. 4, has picked up exactly where he left off; he managed .259/.336/.504 triple-slash rates and 14 home runs in the second half of last season, and is batting .333/.442/.694 with four homers so far this year. He has also made one major improvement to what was a 2011 problem area: He's a .346/.433/.846 hitter from the left side of the plate, after managing just .237/.293/.372 rates from that side last season, and he has done it without giving back any of the gains he made as a right-handed hitter in 2011.
Chris Young, Arizona Diamondbacks: You couldn't ask for a more unexpectedly hot start than Young's, and perhaps most surprising about his performance to date is the noticeable reduction in his strikeout rate. A player who whiffed in more than 20 percent of his plate appearances in every year of his big league career previously, Young has cut that number to 11.4 percent, continuing what is now a three-year trend of improvement in that department. He's also hitting right-handers effectively for the first time, with .321/.424/.821 rates against them. Young might give back some of those gains given time, but if he even splits the difference between his 2011-12 numbers, he might yet manage a batting average in the .290, rather than .250, range. And considering that he's an annual 20/20 candidate, he'd be a borderline contender for top-10 outfielder status in that event.
Freddie Freeman, Atlanta Braves: Remember those gains Freeman made making contact for the second half of last season? Unfortunately, he has given them all back, his strikeout rate soaring to 32.6 percent, up from 21.6 the second half of 2011, and his miss rate on swings is 29.2 percent, up from 25.4. Freeman needs to return to the at least somewhat patient hitter he was late in his rookie year to dodge the dreaded sophomore slump. Until he shows signs of that, he should probably be on your bench in shallow mixed leagues.
Mark Reynolds, Baltimore Orioles: Speaking of free swingers, Reynolds is off to an ice-cold start that includes both a 35.3 percent strikeout and 44.8 percent swing-and-miss rate, numbers that rival the highest he has previously put forth in any single season. Reynolds has been a disaster against off-speed stuff, going hitless in 13 at-bats, and while his recent struggles could just as likely be a cold spell that will soon come to an end, it's a long-term concern in fantasy nevertheless.
Drew Stubbs, Cincinnati Reds: His miserable performance on pitches deemed "down" and "outside" -- meaning the outer third, and bottom third, of the plate -- continues, as Stubbs has now gone 46 consecutive plate appearances on pitches in that part of the zone without getting a hit. You read that right: He is hitless in 46 PAs with 30 strikeouts on pitches thrown down and outside since the 2011 All-Star break. Stubbs continues to be exploited for the many holes in his swing, and he's sure to ruin your team's batting average with extended cold spells.