Where does Rajai Davis figure among the speed outfielders?
You may have noticed that often, we fantasy "experts" (at least here at ESPN) possess a sometimes-unexplained disdain for Chone Figgins.
Briefly, let me try to explain it.
In a vacuum, Figgy Baby is a valuable commodity. I mean, 40-plus steals, 90-plus runs and a .290-plus batting average help fantasy teams. But of course, Figgins does nothing for you in the power categories: He averages around four homers and 49 RBIs per season. Why do some of us continue to claim that the third-base position suffers a huge drop-off this season after Aramis Ramirez, and before Figgins? In my mind, it's because drafting Figgins to be your starter at third necessarily narrows your draft-day options. You may have a leg up on the speed categories, but now you have to go find some extra power, because most of your league mates will be getting 30/100 seasons out of third base. Doing the opposite -- making sure you get power at third instead of speed -- opens up a variety of different drafting options, not least of which is finding Figgins' equivalent in the outfield. And there are a lot of them.
(Before I move on, it should be noted that this spring, the Seattle Mariners have apparently made a switch, and may use Figgins at second base this season and Jose Lopez at third. If this switch sticks and Figgins earns second-base eligibility, he will most certainly not be a whipping boy any longer. As a fantasy second baseman, he's enticing, indeed.)
Indeed, steals are relatively cheap in the outfield. Not only do you pick up ancillary steals from the Ryan Brauns and Matt Hollidays of the world when you draft them very high, but you can find F.E.'s (Figgins Equivalents) galore. Baseball has many all-speed, no-power outfielders who can fill in the gaps if you're lacking in stolen bases, but of course, they often do little else with the bat. And I submit that the way those players are drafted makes them easier to acquire later in your draft than a power-hitting outfielder with whom you might make up for Figgins' (the third-base-only version of Figgins) gaps.
Since this is the 30 Questions article devoted to the Oakland Athletics, let me start with Rajai Davis, who makes for, I think, a particularly undervalued case. Davis didn't start getting full-time at-bats in 2009 until the A's traded Holliday to the St. Louis Cardinals in late June. In the season's second half last year, Davis stole a whopping 30 bases, plus hit .325 with 46 runs scored and 42 RBIs in 277 at-bats. Project those numbers over a full season, and you'd be talking about a no-questions-asked All-Star, so immediately the question bears asking: Are we doing right by including Davis in the all-speed, no-pop category?
Well, despite those impressive second-half numbers (which included an .823 OPS after the break), I'm going to argue "yes." It's true that Davis got nearly double the plate appearances last season than he'd ever gotten in any of his four big league seasons. But he posted a .361 batting average on balls in play last year, whereas his previous career-best single-season BABIP before last season had been .321. Yes, he's fast, and yes, maybe he's ready to post BABIPs in the .360 range regularly. But I'm concerned that his hit rate was lucky, and that in a less lucky year, a .280 average might be a best-case scenario. Remember, he hit .243 splitting time between the San Francisco Giants and A's in '08.
In addition, there are plate-discipline problems here: Davis walked just 29 times in his 432 plate appearances last season. Because he's not going to take many walks, Davis' on-base percentage is likely to languish around .320 rather than the .372 he posted in the second half of '09, and unfortunately that OBP may also cap his stolen bases and runs a bit. For me, Davis' final line is likely to be a .270 average with a couple of homers, 50 RBIs, 40 steals and 70 runs scored. Pretty good. Not quite Figgins, but pretty good (and, as we'll see, much cheaper than Figgins in your draft).
Now, where does that put Davis among the Figgins Equivalents available throughout baseball? Are there particular no-power, good-speed guys you should target above all others when you get to that point in your draft?
It pains me to write this, because I've never been a fan of this guy, but I think Juan Pierre might be the best of this type of outfielder in '10. He's maxed out at 425 plate appearances in each of the past two seasons after eclipsing the 700 mark in the previous five, and he's only 32 years old. Back in his heyday (when he was stealing 50-plus bases with regularity), I usually thought Pierre was overvalued. Now I think he's undervalued, going in the 14th round of mixed drafts (the 40th outfielder selected). He's always had elite contact skills and is thus probably the most legitimate threat to hit .300 (with 100 runs and between 40 and 50 steals) of guys on this list.
Next up before Davis, I'll take Michael Bourn, who went crazy last year, stealing 61 bases and hitting .285 one season after posting a .229 average in 514 soul-sucking plate appearances. Bourn has as much speed upside as any player in baseball, even Jacoby Ellsbury, but he whiffed 140 times in 606 at-bats last year, and posted a .366 BABIP (he was .330 and .290 the two previous seasons), another combo that requires me to warn you that this guy's batting average could take a serious tumble.
And here's where I place Davis. I have him ranked ahead of Nyjer Morgan, ahead of Julio Borbon, ahead of Brett Gardner and certainly way ahead of Willy Taveras, who may be the prototype for this type of player but who may not even make the Washington Nationals (and who certainly won't play instead of Morgan). To increasing degrees as you head down this list, batting average comes more and more into question. If a no-pop outfielder is going to balance his lack of homers and RBIs with steals and runs, he can't saddle you with 500-plus at-bats of .240 hitting. Well, he can. You just won't be happy.
And so I guess what I'm saying here is that I'm a Rajai Davis supporter. He's being drafted nearly four rounds after Bourn, and more than two rounds after Pierre, Morgan and Borbon. While I think I do prefer Pierre as the best value of all among this group because of his contact abilities, it's hard not to argue that Davis is at least as good a value, going 46th among outfielders at the very end of the 16th round on average in our mixed-league drafts. Put it this way: If you draft Figgins in the eighth round (which is his average draft position), you're going to have a mighty hard time finding enough of a power guy at the end of the 16th to offset Figgy's lack of power production. But if you draft a power-hitting third baseman in the sixth or seventh, Davis (or Pierre) will be a fine Figgins Equivalent, thank you very much.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy.