Over the next few weeks, Baseballbabble.com writers will be going through each position and identifying two players we predict will take a step forward and improve in the 2014 season; and, three players we anticipate will take a step back and regress.
The path to a fantasy championship is typically a combination of two essential factors: your studs need to stay healthy and live up to pre-season projections; and, you need to hit on some late round players that vastly exceed expectations. Last year, many owners of players like Jean Segura, Matt Carpenter, and Carlos Gomez can testify that titles can be won in the latter rounds of a draft. The 2014 second base pool has an abundance of high upside sleeper candidates that can be scooped up in the last few rounds of your draft. I believe second base is the deepest position for possible breakouts this year including plenty of youth for dynasty/keeper formats. I’m looking at 2B this year on a scale of three tiers:
Tier 1- Cano, Kipnis, Pedroia
Tier 2- Carpenter, Kinsler, Phillips, Zobrist, Hill, Utley, D. Murphy,
Tier 3- (my breakout candidates) Profar, Lawrie, Rendon, K. Johnson, B. Miller, Wong, B. Roberts, Schoop, A. Guerrero, Uggla
Tier one is noticeably thin. I will go hard after these three players. I believe the drop off to tier 2 is very significant. If I am unable to get a tier 1 player, I will wait. The second baseman in tier 2 all assume significant risks. You have players like Utley, Kinsler, Phillips, and Zobrist, whom have all shown signs of decline as they age at a position that is not very forgiving when it comes to father time. Players like Murphy and Carpenter are coming off peak value, and many will include Carpenter in tier 1. I, however, am not that optimistic (more on that later…). Tier 3 has a bundle of young players like Profar, Wong, Rendon, and Lawrie whose recent struggles have shaved a great deal off their value. These former top prospects have the minor league track records to prove why we were so high on them, and I’m not about to let a half season (or less) of struggle cloud my judgment. Then there are reclamation projects like Uggla and Roberts that have once shown how important they can be; but, they are coming into the year at the lowest values of their careers. Tier 3 players will go so low in the draft that as an insurance policies, I suggest taking two. Why not balance Uggla’s power with Rendon’s ability to hit for a high average? Pair Robert’s injury risk with Miller’s youth. When tier 1 falls off the draft board, owners will be pillaging tier 2 as if they were in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. You can use this opportunity to fill up your outfield, which is a position that lacks the depth of past seasons, and hope to uncover this year’s Matt Carpenter.
Two Steps Forward:
The recency bias of a dominant postseason can inflate the value of a player like David Ortiz or Michael Wacha after a commanding October in the national spotlight. For a player like Uggla, recency bias has the opposite effect. Uggla’s omission from the Brave’s playoff roster grabbed headlines and has put the Atlanta second baseman’s value at an all-time low. Don’t forget though, the Braves have two years and 26 million left on Uggla’s contract and they really can’t afford not to play him (at the very least to heighten his trade value). Things fell apart late for Uggla, but were still talking about a player that has averaged 28 home runs a year over the past five seasons. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA has Uggla projected for 22 this year as well as a significant rise in batting average. The only other second baseman PECOTA projects to hit over 20 home runs is Robinson Cano (which has him at 21). Power is at an incredible premium this year, which is why it’s surprising to consider Uggla may go un-drafted in many 10-12 team leagues.
The report from Red Sox spring training camp is that Pedroia’s torn thumb ligament has fully healed. Pedroia put up numbers consistent with his career norms in 2013 with the exception of a drop in power. Now that Pedroia’s thumb has healed, we should see his home runs increase back to the 15-20 range. Pedroia proved that he can play through injuries and still produce, which is a valuable asset in fantasy. In 2013 when word got out that Pedroia was hurt, pitchers began busting him inside; they will now have to adjust their approaches with Pedroia back to full capacity. The long term deal Pedroia signed with Boston is of great value for dynasty/keeper owners. Pedroia’s career splits at Fenway Park (.318/.384/.497) are far better than on the road (.286/.356/.411), so owners can rest assured Pedroia will be pulling balls off the monster for years to come.
Three Steps Backwards:
Carpenter’s 2013 value was largely based of his 126 runs scored. Extreme Runs/RBI totals are often hard to repeat, and I certainly wouldn’t be counting on any more than 95-110 in 2014. It’s no secret I shy away from players at peak value with small sample sizes of data, which is why I left Carpenter out of my first tier. I’ll take the established consistency of Pedroia, Cano, or Kipnis before I take an early round gamble on Carpenter. I still project Carpenter as a .300 hitter because he showed those skills in the minors, but take away the 126 runs and Carpenter comps to more of an Omar Infante/Martin Prado type going forward. When you can’t get power or steals from second base, you may have to over-reach to find it elsewhere.
The Reds tried unsuccessfully to trade Brandon Phillips to the Yankees for Brett Gardner this off-season. The Yankees were wise to not let their desperation for a second baseman get the best of them. You have to commend the Reds for attempting to sell high on Phillips after an all-star, 103 RBI season. The Yankees saw through the glitzy counting numbers, and exposed the true Brandon Phillips; a player in steady decline who posted a .261/.310/.396 slash line with 5 stolen bases (down from 15 the previous year). Gardner would have been the perfect fit in the Cincy 2-hole, and Yankee fans should rejoice that the front office wasn’t drinking the Kool-Aid.
Fantasy players that owned Utley in his prime carry fond memories of an elite, first round second baseman that could single-handedly carry a team during a hot month. Utley has yet to lose his effective hitting skills; it’s his ability to stay on the field that has hindered his value the last four seasons. Since his knee injury, Utley has become a popular sleeper/bounce back contender every year. The important thing to remember is that Utley’s knee condition is degenerative. He’s not going to wake up some morning in late-March and be cured. His condition will only worsen as his career continues. The determining factor will be Utley’s ability to play through it. I’d be more optimistic if the Phillies were to move Utley off second base to a less physically demanding position. Until then in the words of Walter White “tread lightly”.