Reassessing change in player values
Should owners be patient with Manny Ramirez, Curtis Granderson and Adam Jones?
So much can change in only seven weeks' time.
One of the more compelling appeals of fantasy baseball is that it's a daily sport, meaning news breaks on an almost-hourly basis; try going six hours without checking the news and you'll see just how hard it is to catch up on the details. But what that also means is that player values change, often rapidly, and the fantasy owner who fails to keep up also usually fails to keep up in the standings.
With a quarter of the season in the books, we're rolling out our updated, in-season top 300 on Wednesday. Keep an eye out for it, as Wednesday you'll see just how much we believe certain player values have changed. For some players, things have swung rapidly; for others, you might hardly notice a change at all.
Today's "Hit Parade," however, provides you a sneak preview. Today, we're focusing on the bad, the players whose values have changed the most for the worst since the preseason. Sure, those whose values have improved the most might be exciting discussion topics -- and certainly everyone wants a red-hot hitter on his or her fantasy team at every given moment -- but that's not the way it works. During the long, 162-game season every player is going to hit a funk at some point, and successful navigation of those cold spells is a key aspect of fantasy success.
Besides, you should read some of the stockpile of questions posed at this time of year. Many go something like this: When is it time to give up on so-and-so slow-starting player? Is so-and-so ice-cold hitter a buy-low candidate?
Dealing with patience in fantasy baseball is a fair question, and it's on the dates of the re-ranks that owners get the firmest answers. Hang on to the wrong slow starter and you might dig a hole that's impossible to escape, and buy low on the wrong slow starter and you might wind up swindled at the trade table. After all, it's important to identify which sluggish starts are a product of injury, diminished skill or lesser role, and which are merely a product of bad luck or random statistical fluctuation.
This column identifies more of the former. Picked out below are 10 players whose values have declined the most since our preseason rankings; some of them are regarded significantly worse by the group, others by just me. As you'll see in Wednesday's rankings, not one makes as strong a buy-low candidate as you might think, and it's possible that it's time to press the panic button with each. But to what degree should we be concerned with each? Let's read on and find out:
The consensus: We're down on them
Nolan Reimold, OF, Baltimore Orioles: A cold spell earned him a ticket back to Triple-A, where he's apparently starting to get some time at first base. It's an interesting idea by the Orioles, whose outfield is fairly deep, but it might be the kind of move that takes months, not weeks, to come to fruition. Reimold still has every bit of the .280-hitting, 25-homer potential we saw in him during the preseason, and many top prospects have endured sophomore slumps like his, been demoted, then turned it around in subsequent years. In a standard ESPN league, Reimold isn't worth keeping around, but he's the kind of youngster potentially worth scooping back up once the Orioles give him another chance. Of course, that might not come until July, September or perhaps not even until next season.
Nate McLouth, OF, Atlanta Braves: He struggled mightily during spring training, with .118/.217/.196 (AVG/OBP/SLG) numbers in 19 games, and hasn't shown much improvement since the games have begun to count. McLouth has entirely regressed versus left-handers, with .172/.250/.207 numbers against them this year, and .230/.309/.379 in 2009, and even having picked up the pace in May he's still only a .200 hitter with one homer and no steals in 14 games. There was once a time he looked like a 25/25 candidate, then 20/20. What if the best-case scenario has him as a 15/10 type? It sure could happen.
Chipper Jones, 3B, Atlanta Braves: I didn't even rank him, but then I don't trust him in the health department. And even when healthy, he has been a mere shell of his former self the past year-plus. In 174 games between 2009 and 2010, Jones is a .258 hitter with 20 home runs and 79 RBIs. Does that sound like Chipper Jones to you? Casey Blake's 2009 numbers were stronger overall, which shows how much Jones is living off past heroics. If you can trick anyone into believing in the name, you should do it while you still can.
Adam Jones, OF, Baltimore Orioles: His regression in the plate-discipline department is rather disconcerting. Jones has walked in only 2.4 percent of his plate appearances, just slightly more than a third of his 2009 rate, and according to Inside Edge, his chase percentage before two strikes has soared to 30 percent, up from 26 percent a year ago. That paints Jones as a streaky type, and talented as he is he'll inevitably have some streaks where you'll want him active in every fantasy format. He's a potential buy-low candidate, but only if you're willing to be patient through his cold spells. They do, after all, seem likely to keep him out of the top 100.
Grady Sizemore, OF, Cleveland Indians: There might not be a more frustrating player to have owned to date, at least not judging by my stockpile of chat and mailbag questions. Regarded by many as a 30/30 candidate entering the season, Sizemore has yet to hit a home run and he's on pace for only 19 stolen bases, while batting only .211. He's no longer working the count as he did during his prime, and Inside Edge reveals that he has a chase percentage of 25 on non-competitive pitches (pitches not near the strike zone). He's also struggling with the fastball, batting .224 against the pitch. So here's the question: Might Sizemore's elbow still be a lingering issue? If it turns out weeks from now that he has been playing at less than 100 percent, you shouldn't be surprised.
Lastings Milledge, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates: Maybe it's time to finally let go of the hope he'll ever become a five-category fantasy stud. Milledge is 25 years old, meaning he has time to get his career on track, but unless you're in a deep keeper league there's no reason to lock up a roster spot waiting for it to happen. He's a .265 career hitter who has averaged 13 homers and 17 steals per 162 games played. What's so special about that?
I'm the most down on them
Manny Ramirez, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers: I'm probably underrating him, but I see no reasonable explanation -- other than name value -- why he should still be regarded a top-100 player. Ramirez's .375 batting average for balls put in play (BABIP) is high for a player who isn't speedy yet has hit grounders more than 40 percent of the time; per Baseball-Reference.com he has a .269 BABIP on ground balls. And if his batting average drops from its current .358 -- as it inevitably will -- what's so exciting, then, about his 14-homer pace? I look at Manny Ramirez and see a player who has yet to recapture his power stroke since his return from a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs.
Alexei Ramirez, SS, Chicago White Sox: It's remarkable how many people still like Alexei Ramirez, despite the fact he seems to get worse as a hitter with every passing season. He's on pace for nine home runs, 64 RBIs, nine stolen bases and 41 runs scored, and his .275 BABIP hints that his .242 batting average isn't all that unrealistic, either. Even Orlando Cabrera matched or exceeded those numbers in every category in 2009, and no one believes he's a top-200 player.
Curtis Granderson, OF, New York Yankees: His return from a strained left groin isn't imminent, and when I hear comments like "I haven't done anything athletic at all," which is what he told the New York Daily News during the past weekend, I'm skeptical that even the 15 to 18 day timetable manager Joe Girardi laid out is realistic. Granderson might need a rehabilitation stint before returning, and considering he's a .252 hitter who has struck out once every 4.55 at-bats since the 2008 All-Star break, is it unthinkable he might need time to regain his stroke even after activation? He wasn't off to the most exciting start before getting hurt, so I've got my doubts whether he's a lock for top-100 status looking forward.
Dexter Fowler, OF, Colorado Rockies: Talk about sophomore slumps; Fowler has not only batted .235 in his second big league season, he has also whiffed 29 times in 119 at-bats (once every 4.10). Patience by big league teams with their youngsters might be nice, but in the Rockies' case, they can't afford it due to their playoff aspirations, not to mention they have a loaded outfield full of strong alternatives. To that point, Carlos Gonzalez, Brad Hawpe and Seth Smith each have an OPS greater than .800, which helps explain why Fowler has only two starts in six games since Hawpe's activation. It might be tough for Fowler to get enough playing time at this point to reach his lofty preseason expectations.
Jose Bautista, 3B/OF, Toronto Blue Jays: What a power output; Bautista already has 10 home runs in 39 games, or only six short of his personal best, which was accomplished in 117 contests in 2006. A home run/fly ball percentage of 20.4 -- 12th best in baseball -- is partly responsible, but even if that's due for some correction, isn't this still a hitter capable of 25-plus bombs? Power has always been a strength of Bautista's, so enjoy the ride while it lasts.
Troy Glaus, 1B/3B, Atlanta Braves: Following a rocky April, Glaus' bat seems to have woken up in May, as he's hitting .400 (22-for-55) with three home runs and 16 RBIs in 14 games. Maybe he just needed some time to get comfortable after missing so much time due to shoulder surgery in 2009. Don't expect a continuation of the batting average, as, like Bautista, Glaus' strength is power. But Glaus is capable of hitting 30 homers when healthy, even if the best-case scenario has him finishing with a batting average closer to .270.
TOP 100 HITTERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 100 hitters are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued.
Juan Pierre, OF, Chicago White Sox: Another player who got off to a terrible start, Pierre has been on a tear in May, particularly on the base paths. In 14 games in the month he's a .328 hitter (19-for-58) with nine stolen bases in 10 chances, giving him a major league-best 18 for the season. Pierre has done it by attempting steals on 30.6 percent of his opportunities. Those opportunities are per Baseball-Reference.com, and may be a somewhat inflated number. But is it too inflated? Somewhat, but keep in mind his number was 26.4 in 2009 and it's 24.3 for his career. If Pierre continues to get on base as effectively as he has this month, there's no reason he can't contend for the big league lead in stolen bases.
Shane Victorino, OF, Philadelphia Phillies: Most noteworthy was that in Jimmy Rollins' first game fresh off the DL on Monday, Victorino remained the Phillies' leadoff hitter with Rollins hitting third. That was more a product of Chase Utley suffering flu-like symptoms than a clear choice by the team, so it'll be interesting to see whether Victorino will slide back to the No. 7 hole, where he resided before Rollins hit the DL, once Utley is healthy. The way Victorino is hitting -- .296 with seven home runs and 27 RBIs in 28 games since moving to the leadoff spot -- he doesn't deserve to slip that far down the batting order.
Kyle Blanks, OF, San Diego Padres: His slump has now reached epic levels. Blanks has struck out in a major league-high 45.1 percent of his at-bats, which leads by far over second-place David Wright (38.0). He also isn't hitting for much power. His isolated power -- slugging percentage minus batting average -- dropping from .264 in his rookie season to .167 this year, and his fly ball rate dropping from 50.5 percent to 44.6. If he's not mashing homers out of the park, what value is he providing the Padres, let alone his fantasy owners?
Jeff Francoeur, OF, New York Mets: Remember when he was off to a torrid start, yet his Mets seemed to lose every night? Well, beginning with their 2-1, 20-inning win on April 17 at St. Louis, the Mets have won 15 of 28 games, yet Francoeur has batted just .125 (12-for-96) with one home run, 12 RBIs and 23 strikeouts in 96 at-bats. He has only five hits this entire month, but 16 whiffs in his past 12 contests. The Mets have few reliable alternatives to Francoeur, so he should keep getting chances, but that doesn't mean fantasy owners should keep giving them.
Adam Lind, OF, Toronto Blue Jays: Among the more frustrating points of Lind's sluggish start to the season is his strikeout rate, which has soared to a career-high 29.1 percent. His walk rate is also a personal best (10.1), which is largely a product of opposing pitchers working around him frequently; per FanGraphs, only 44.9 percent of pitches he has seen have been within the strike zone. Don't place the blame on the mythical "lineup protection" angle, either, because hot-starting Vernon Wells hits behind Lind in the order. It seems pitchers have learned not to test Lind and he has yet to make the necessary adjustment. A hitter as talented as Lind should make it with time, but for now, he's a frustrating slugger to own.
Carlos Pena, 1B, Tampa Bay Rays: Speaking of strikeout artists, Pena always seems to find himself ranked among the league's leaders, which helps explain why he's routinely a sub-.250 hitter. Since the beginning of the 2008 season, he's a .231 hitter who has averaged one whiff per 2.93 at-bats. The Rays might be patient enough to accept all those strikeouts in exchange for his typical 30-plus bombs and near-100 walks, but right now Pena is dragging fantasy teams down significantly in the batting-average category. Incredibly, he's batting .064 (3-for-47) with no home runs and 20 K's in his past 15 games.
Pickups of the week
Mixed: Brennan Boesch, OF, Detroit Tigers. He remains available in more than 50 percent of ESPN leagues, despite the fact he's batting .380 with three homers and 19 RBIs in his first 19 big league contests. Perhaps few fantasy owners believe he can keep up that pace, and no, he probably won't, but why can't he remain a productive enough mixed-league outfielder, even on a short-term basis? He did, after all, bat .275 with 28 homers and 93 RBIs in 131 games in Double-A ball a year ago, and .379 with three homers and 17 RBIs in 15 games in Triple-A to begin this season. The Tigers remain committed to Boesch as a regular; their plans to shift Carlos Guillen to second base is as good a sign of that as any.
AL-only: Hank Blalock, 1B, Tampa Bay Rays. Fed up with Pat Burrell's lackluster production since he signed a two-year, $16 million contract before last season, the Rays designated the veteran for assignment and handed over his roster spot to Blalock, a productive albeit injury-prone slugger the past eight years with the Texas Rangers. It's a worthwhile risk for the Rays, who have enough pieces to mix and match on any given night even in the event Blalock proves no more productive than Burrell. Fantasy owners, especially those in AL-only formats, should take a chance. After all, Blalock has had his hot streaks before, many lasting a couple of months. In fact, if there's any concern with him, it's that he's a .245/.300/.413 career hitter away from Rangers Ballpark.
NL-only: Jonny Gomes, OF, Reds. A valuable pickup for the Reds before last season, Gomes seemed to have settled in nicely as a part-timer for the team, one especially strong versus left-handed pitching. But lately, Gomes has been earning starts most every day, including in nine of the team's past 10 games due to a lack of quality alternatives in left field. Strikeout-prone as he is, Gomes is probably not going to maintain his current .294 batting average, but he's got a lot of pop, having in three previous seasons hit 20-plus homers despite never logging more than 385 at-bats in any. Great American Ball Park is a favorable venue for a slugger like Gomes, so scoop him up if he's still out there.
New position qualifiers
One game: Ben Zobrist (1B).
Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy baseball analyst for ESPN.com and a two-time champion of the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) experts league. You can e-mail him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.
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