Today we begin a four-part series, taking a look back at the 2011 season. Part One is going to be a presentation of the second half of the top-50 players from this past season. Part Two will focus upon the top-25. Part Three will focus on the top infielders by position and Part Four will put a bow on the 2011 campaign with a look at the top catchers, outfield and pitchers.
The basis for the rankings will be value earned in 12-team mixed leagues, using the standard 5x5 categories. The rankings will differ from format to format but I had to choose something, so I opted for the most common setup. But let’s be real – you guys love lists and lists give me a great vehicle to write about. The ranking itself is not all that important, what’s done is done. As such, in the associated comment, I will try to offer a little nugget that may help in your preparation for next season.
50. Craig Kimbrel (RP) – Kimbrel is the only reliever to make the cut and just barely at that. The primary reason is closers are devalued in the more shallow leagues, which is something to consider next season. What distinguishes Kimbrel from the rest is not the 46 saves, but rather the 127 strikeouts in 77 frames. A good rule of thumb is to expect 35-40 saves from a good closer so Kimbrel is not likely to repeat that lofty total. However, the fact he fans about 50 more batters than most closers is incredibly important. This allows you to adjust the way you build an offense, perhaps delaying on drafting your second or third starting pitcher since you will make up for the lost strikeouts with the Braves’ stopper. The trick is going to be when you opt to pull the trigger as Kimbrel will no doubt be the first closer off the board. Ideally, taking him will initiate the closer run and maximize your return on investment. But, there is a good chance others view the rest of the closer field as tightly compacted and opt to wait until others jump in so you end up taking Kimbrel two or three rounds before the next save-master is picked. Ultimately, it is not going to matter where you take Kimbrel, what will matter is how well you leverage the excess strikeouts with the rest of your staff and how that impacts where you selected sticks.
49. Ryan Howard (1B) – OUCH! As I am sure you know by now, Howard’s 2012 debut is going to be delayed, if it happens at all. Some reports have Howard possibly returning before the All-Star break, some cite the break as the target while still more suggest that he will not return at all. Chances are we will know more by next spring, but still, even though their injuries are completely different, think Kendry Morales and let someone else incur the risk. The reward is just not sufficient enough, especially since first base is plush with talent and Howard is not as good as perceived even when healthy.
48. Jay Bruce (OF) – Bruce is going to be an interesting player next spring. His skills the last two seasons have been nearly identical. This is not to say he is not capable of improvement just that paying for it is a bit of a risk. Personally, his contact rate is too low for me to take that leap of faith.
47. Cole Hamels (SP) – Perceived as being a little inconsistent from year to year, this is actually an unfair label as Hamels’ skills have been quite stable but his the surface stats have not always reflected this. Lady Luck was on his side the season as his HR/FB rate dropped, helping him to a career low HR/9. That said, it should be noted that Hamels also induced more grounders which also reduces those pesky homers. It remains to be seen if Hamels maintains the lower fly ball rate, but if he does, he goes from a guy with an expected ERA in the mid threes to one in the low threes.
46. Ian Kennedy (SP) – If someone tells you that Kennedy’s 2011 was a fluke, just nod and hope you are in a league with them next season. Granted, Kennedy enjoyed some good fortune with respect to homers allowed, but there is nothing fluky about fanning eight hitters while walking only a little more than two per nine innings. Even if his walk rate goes up a little, his peripherals will still be quite good. Ultimately, it is going to come down to his aforementioned home run rate and in today’s offensively challenged landscape, I am less worried about pitchers of Kennedy’s ilk. Yes, he is going to regress, but not as much as many will suggest.
45. Andrew McCutchen (OF) – Everyone loves the shiny new toys and while McCutchen is not so new anymore, he is still shiny. The good news is he improved his walk rate while the bad news is this came at the expense of a higher strikeout rate. If the walk rate sustains with a return to fewer whiffs, we may have the to-20 player many envision McCutchen to be. However, if the walks drop but the strikeouts remain, he is more Mike Cameron in his prime than a five category stud. My guess is more the latter than the former, but I also believe many will be willing to pay more for that potential than I will be. Maybe the best way to put it is I am willing to be wrong on McCutchen and let someone else pay for the hope the strikeouts fall.
44. Josh Hamilton (OF) – Not much to say here, so long as his batting practice jersey is not broken and he remains healthy, Hamilton is top-10 caliber player. But will he stay healthy? I will let you take that chance in the first three rounds, but I will jump on him in round four. I know it is only a commercial, but goodness, is that a violent yet gorgeous swing.
43. Aramis Ramirez (3B) – Perhaps the ultimate tease at the worst position at which to tease, Ramirez again showed what he is capable of when on the field and managed to stay in the field a goodly amount this season. If Ramirez ends up with a team in a favorable park, my guess is his injury risk is downplayed. However, if he signs with a team in a neutral or pitcher’s park, the injury risk could be amplified resulting in a value play.
42. Starlin Castro (SS) – Ten homers and twenty something steals from a shortstop is quite valuable but what propels Castro to this lofty rank is an exceptional batting average. And while his contact rate supports an average north of .300, he is a risk to maintain that since his much higher than average BABIP is more likely to fall than rise. In addition, keep in mind that homers are hits too and Castro knocked a handful more than expected out of the yard, adding 10 points to his average. The take home lesson is while Castro will remain a valuable player, do not pay the scarcity tax because he is a shortstop as he will likely incur some regression next season. Let others pay for the 2011 stats.
41. Ben Zobrist (2B/OF) – Zobrist reminds me a little of David Wright and Hanley Ramirez in that you know he is going to be fantasy valuable, you just are not sure if that value is going to come from homers, steals or average. The plus is if he ever hits on all three the same season, you have a stud but of course the flip side is if he misses on all three. That said, his contact rate is good enough that a complete disaster is not likely. If my top players are risky, I would avoid Zobrist, but if they were relatively stable, Zobrist is a good choice to get some profit from a relatively high pick.
40. BJ Upton (OF) – I have a sneaky suspicion I am going to own the elder Upton is a few leagues next season. There is a quirky phenomenon that occurs in this hobby of ours. Hyped players that fail to live up to expectations often are penalized by fantasy enthusiasts. For years, many bought into the Upton hype and have been disappointed. My guess is we are at a point where this has a negative effect on his value, to a point where he is a value play. The best part is he is going to be a value play with upside, yeah I know, now I am falling for the hype. The point is, Upton is going to steal a bunch of bases but also hit a decent number of homers. His average will be low, but average in general has dropped so it is not as bad as it may seem. If I have someone like Miguel Cabrera, Upton is the perfect complement later in the draft.
39. Jeff Francoeur (OF) – SURPRISE!! Or was it? Basically, what Francoeur did was combine skills demonstrated in previous seasons into this season. That is, he has displayed all of these skills before, just never all in the same campaign. Can he do it again? Probably not.
38. Michael Morse (1B/OF) – Some may view Morse’s 2011 stats and ask “where did that come from?” Truth be told, his 2011 was almost an exact repeat of the previous season, with twice as many at bats. That said, there is a whole lot more that can go wrong than can go right so Morse is a bit of a risk to even repeat his numbers again. While not horrendous, his contact rate is not that good and when combined with his poor walk rate, he is a risk for a slump. Since he does not have the track record and pedigree of someone you just leave in there no matter what, Morse is a risk to lose playing time if he struggles and since he hits righty, he could fall into the bad side of a platoon. Perhaps the best utilization of Morse is as your utility. This way, if he in fact continues to thrive, you have a great backup at first, corner and outfield but can replace him with the best available hitter if he struggles early, while occupying your utility spot.
37. Brandon Phillips (2B) – We all have our crutched and Phillips is one of mine. For years, I was able to acquire him “at value” with the hopes he exceeds expectations and earns me profit. Sometime he did, sometimes he did not. Well, we are at the point where I feel what you see is what you get and that is a good but no longer potentially great second baseman. In fact, his 2011 ranking was buoyed by an average likely to regress next season while his power and speed are in decline. It actually saddens me that Phillips will likely be taken at a point even I am unwilling to invest. Sniff, can I borrow a tissue?
36. Asdrubal Cabrera (SS) – I will preface this by saying I have always liked Cabrera as a player and thought he has some breakout potential. That said, I figured his upside was with latent speed and batting average if he could make better contact. The power spike came out of nowhere. Because Cabrera has been a favorite of mine, it pains me to state that there is no way I am investing in him next season. I love him in the middle rounds, but he is going to go much higher and will probably lose 10 homers along with the resulting boost in average and associated production. Keep in mind that also is a bit of an injury risk.
35. Paul Konerko (1B) – I love players like Konerko as he keeps numbers guys like me honest and reminds us all that these are still humans playing the game and sometimes are spreadsheets are wrong. While 2010 was a bit fluky based on the exaggerated home run rate, Konerko’s skills are very real and are showing no signs of decline. To wit, his 2011 campaign was a mirror image of 2009. Here is the problem, though. Standard three year averages are going to incorporate the stellar 2010, leaving an expectation better than 2009 and 2011. This is the objective projection. Subjectively, I expect a repeat of 2009 and 2011 with some hedging for a skills decline, after all, Konerko will be 36 next spring. Konerko is going to be a very polar player. Some will look at his three year average and pay top dollar. Others will look at the birth date and avoid. If I am in that league, and can get him at a slight discount, I will roll the dice the decline is slight.
34. Mark Teixeira (1B) – I talked a bit about Teixeira a couple of weeks ago when reviewing the players I felt were not quite first-rounders. To reiterate, I love the consistent power but am concerned about the drop in BABIP and batting average and since he does not steal, Teixeira needs to hit near .300 to warrant elite status and I no longer feel his potential to do so is better than 50/50.
33. Adrian Beltre (3B) – I think it is safe to say that the move to Arlington agreed with Beltre, not to mention, his season quieted those still contending he only hits in contract years. Beltre is going to be a very tough call for me because I feel his numbers are real, but yet there is still something tugging at me, hindering my proclaiming Beltre a top-25 player next season. I think it is the same thing that kept him out this year – injury risk. Beltre will be 32 next spring and has only attained the 150 game plateau once on the past five season, though he was close in 2007. My initial thinking is if I have snagged a pair of highly reliable players with my first two picks, I would be more apt to jump Beltre in the third, but I am reticent to take him as a foundation player.
32. David Ortiz (DH) – Okay, honestly now, how many of you expected Big Papi hit .309 this season? That’s what I thought. Oddly, the impetus for the average spike was not an increase in BABIP, which is the intuitive explanation. The reason is that Ortiz cut down drastically on his strikeouts. The obvious question is can he sustain this? Smart money says no, thus drop in average should be expected. Add in that it is not definite Ortiz will return to Boston and he is a wild card, embellished by DH only status.
31. Lance Berkman (OF) – Since Berkman is still playing, this joke loses much of its luster, but I think many of us are still waiting for inevitable injury. The return to previous skill levels, while mildly surprising, was not completely out of the realm of possibilities. However, no one believed Berkman would turn in his first baseman’s mitt and successfully patrol right field for 100 games, let alone the 145 he played this season. While I try extremely hard not to stick with the wisdom of the crowd when I see an opportunity to be contrarian, there is no way I can keep Berkman of my 2012 bust list, both in terms of declining skills and health.
30. James Shields (SP) – I first made the comparison more tongue-in-cheek than anything, but now that I believe it to have legs, I am going to repeat it as much as I possibly can. Shields’ career arc is eerily similar to that of Roy Halladay in that both were very good pitchers that enjoyed a somewhat unexpected rise in strikeout rate simultaneous with a drop in walks. Of course, I am the pundit that suggested the Minor League career of Garrett Jones resembled that of Nelson Cruz and I could not understand why Cruz got so much love while Jones was ignored.
29. Victor Martinez (C) – Martinez power has been rather inconsistent and was down this season. His average, however, was even higher than usual. With the injuries to Joe Mauer and Buster Posey, Martinez is likely to get even more of a scarcity bump than normal, putting him in an area I will not even consider taking him.
28. Mike Napoli (C) - The smart money was not at all surprised at Napoli’s power surge, but the average spike could not have been anticipated, at least not to the extent it increased. An extremely high BABIP buoyed Napoli’s average and is not likely to repeat. Muddying the waters further is there is no guarantee Napoli plays full time next season, which is going to be necessary to warrant where he will undoubtedly be drafted. The power is real, no doubt but I loved Napoli as a mid rounder with upside, not so much as an early round cornerstone.
27. Hunter Pence (OF) – Am I the only one that thinks Hunter Pence looks like an actor playing a ballplayer in a movie to which we would say “at least they could have found an actor that has played the game.” Yet, Pence continues to get the job done, awkward manner and all. That said, his 2011 success was driven by a high BABIP so expect some regression and don’t pay for a .300 average.
26. Michael Young (3B) – Young cut down on his strikeouts resulting in a career high batting average. This came at the expense of some power, though his power has always been a bit of a roller coaster. My guess is the weakness of the third base pool is going to drive up Young’s value to a point I will avoid him. As always, I will be glad to grab him in the middle rounds, but I sense his ranking is going to jump up a few rounds.