NL Central: Value Picks, Up-and-Coming Players and Red Flags in Fantasy Baseball

Tuesday February 21st, 2012


Peter Stein (Fantasy Baseball Analyst – MLB reports): The NL Central loses a lot of its offensive firepower in 2012 with the departure of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder. Not to mention Ryan Braun’s suspension, which makes him a tough player to value come draft day. I still struggle to put a price on Braun in my league, because if his value falls too low than he can be had at a price that will be very keeper friendly in 2013. However, despite the loss of some top dollar talent, the six-team NL Central division is loaded with prospects and potential sleeper picks. At the same time there are a number of newcomers and other players who I have identified having inflated values.

VALUE PICKS:

Bud Norris flies under the radar because of his 6-11 record that he posted with the Houston Astros in 2011. Don’t expect many wins, but he had demonstrated the ability to strike out close to a bitter per inning. His walk rate and ERA both dropped from 2010 to 2011 and I expect an ERA closer to 3.50 this coming season. He can be had for cheap, and if used correctly can helpful in the ERA and strikeout categories.

Zack Greinke’s stock is lower than it should be after a 16-6 record with a 3.83 ERA. The fact of the matter is that Greinke pitched more like a top-5 pitcher last year. He as the product of a lot of misfortune and suspect defense, as his XFIP of 2.56 indicates. Furthermore, we saw Greinke strikeout batters at a rate that we have never seen from him (10.54K/9), perhaps as a product of the defense behind him. I expect Greinke to outperform Lincecum in 2012, coming at a much cheaper price. He will feast on the weak NL Central lineups and the ERA could end up south of 3.00. Expect the strikeouts to dip closer to 9K/9, but all signs indicate that he will be a top contributor in each of the five pitching categories. Don’t forget that me missed the first month of the season with injury, and his second half stat line (9-3 record, 2.59 ERA, and 102 strikeouts in 97 innings) indicates the level in which his is capable of performing. 

Matt Gamel is a name to keep an eye on as a potential replacement for Prince Fielder in Milwaukee. He has yet to produce in limited big league appearances, but will have third base eligibility and has had a lot of success in the minors. He really broke out in 2011 and most importantly cut down on his strike out percentage and mashed 28 home runs in 128 games. No spring chicken at age 26, but if given a chance to play everyday, expect something in the range of .260/15-20/70. Again, with the third base eligibility, there is some definite value with Gamel.

If you are really desperate at first base or own Anthony Rizzo (see below), take a flier on the Cubs Bryan LaHair. He is 29 years old, but did put up a ridiculous stat line of .331/38/91 in 129 for the Cubs AAA affiliate. He is a stopgap solution for the Cubs until Rizzo is ready (which could be next year), but is so unknown that he will essentially come for free. He impressed scouts in winter ball in Venezuela, mashing 15 home runs in 169 at-bats. Again, the age isn’t encouraging, but don’t be surprised if he clubs close to 20 home runs, if he can manage to produce a batting average that the Cubs can live with. However, he will have a short leash especially if Rizzo applies the pressure. 

In one-third of a season in 2011, speedster Alex Presley demonstrated that he belongs in the big leagues (.298/4/20 and 9 stolen bases). He will be given the opportunity to start in left field for the Pirates, and could be a cheap source of average and steals.

Although Jay Bruce has been a fixture in the Red’s lineup for four years, people often forget that he will only be 25 years during the 2012 season. The reports are that he shed 15 pounds in the offseason. Bruce has shown the ability to steal bases  (8 in 2011) and a jump to just 15 would have tremendous impact on his value. It is hard to figure out what kind of hitter he is for average, but I believe that he will only get better across the board. He is in a great lineup and should be a lock for 30 plus home runs and close to 100 runs batted in. His average will hopefully drive down his value in 2012, but I expect him to produce a much more bearable .270-.280 mark. 

Neil Walker got the opportunity to play a full season in 2011 and made the most of it (.273/12/83 and 9 SB’s). His peripherals do not indicate a fluke in any sense, and these are numbers that you can certainly live with from a second baseman.

I think that Corey Hart is continuously over valued because he doesn’t necessarily excel in one category. However, what he does do is provide good (not great) production in all key categories. His value is a little down after missing 30 games with injury, but with the loss of Fielder and with Braun’s suspension, he will be counted on to carry a lot of the load in Milwaukee. He will hit 25-30 homers, bat around .280, drive in close to 100 runs, and perhaps reach double-digit stolen bases. Great all-around production.  

I put Joey Votto in this section with a huge grain of salt (he will command top dollars), but I do expect him to improve on his 2011 season (.309/29/101). He is a rare average anchor and I expect him to exceed thirty home runs, as well as improve upon his RBI total with the strong Red’s lineup. The 10 or so stolen bases he contributes, rare for a first baseman, make Votto that much more valuable. If you can save 10 or so dollars and draft Votto, opposed to a Pujols or Cabrera, you can use these dollars to your advantage.

 BUYER BEWARE:

After years of decline before his 2011 season, can we trust Lance Berkman to repeat in 2012? His BABIP and ISO indicate that his production was not fluke-ish as it matched his career averages. However, with the loss of Pujols in the lineup and durability concerns at age 36, it is unlikely Berkman can do it for another full season. Just compare his first and second halves from last year: 

Pre All-Star: .290/24/63

Post All-Star .315/7/31

Berkman will certainly be overvalued, and although he can still produce, it is crazy to pay the dollars that he will demand as he is sure to wear down over the course of the season. On the contrary, if he can be had for cheap, he could become great trade bait after a quick start. 

Carlos Beltran stayed healthy enough and produced in 2011 to earn a two-year contract with the Cardinals to try to fill the void left by Pujols. This was the first time he was able to stay healthy in three years, and it is clear that he will never steal 29 bases again, let alone even reach double digits. Beltran’s value decreases tremendously without his ability to steal bases. He hit .300 in 2011, but is only a career .280 hitter. I expect something a .280/20/80 type of season from Beltran. However, due to his 2011 season and name recognition, he will likely be overvalued. Even if he can be had at a modest price, given his injury history and age (35), he is simply not worth the risk.

Jaime Garcia has slowly been regressing to the pitcher that he actually is in each of the last three seasons. Given his young age (25), most people just assume he will continue to get better, especially after his 13-8 and 2.70 ERA performance in 2010. This is simply not the case as he is trending in the wrong direction, striking out last batters and pitching to more contact. Although he does a good job of keeping the ball inside the park, his sub-3.00 ERA days are behind him. He is extremely overvalued, especially if he does not produce a 2-something ERA because of his 7K/9 strikeout rate. Expect the ERA to hover in the mid-3’s, and he might also take a hit in the wins department with the loss of Pujols. 

Maybe I am just picking on the Cardinals, but I expect David Freese to be overvalued after his postseason heroics. He will be 29 years old in 2012, so it’s a little presumptuous to expect him to jump to the 20-25 home run and 80 RBI range. It will be interesting to see if he can maintain a .356 BABIP, but I do expect .290/15/70 if he can play a full season. However people do not realize how much difficulty he has had staying healthy and his postseason play will be fresh on the mind owners during draft day.

Despite his spike in batting average in 2011 (.300), we are seeing a steady regression for Brandon Phillips. He is now 30 years old, and with the stolen bases down to 14 in 2011, his value is a lot lower than when he was swiping 25-30 bases. The power continues to deteriorate, and I expect his average to dip back down closer to his career mark of .272. Phillips can still be great asset at second base, but his price is driven up due to the success owners are accustomed to seeing. 

I am a little skeptical of Joel Hanrahan’s ability to repeat his 2011 season. The strikeout rate dropped tremendously from 2010 (12.92 K/(to 8.00K/9) and his 2011 XFIP of 2.98 was a full run higher than his actual 1.83 ERA. He definitely overachieved, and as a result his value might be inflated. Remember that he is thirty years of age so it’s not like we can expect more physical improvement. Lastly, his 1.9% HR/FB rate (compared to 8.2% for career) explains his sub-2.00 ERA.

Slated to be the Red’s 2012 opening day starter, Johnny Cueto scares me in 2012. At first glance, his 9-5 record and 2.31 ERA in 2011 were impressive. A lot HR/FB rate (5.8%) and an XFIP of 3.90 indicate that Cueto benefited from much good fortune. The strikeout rate of 6.00 K/9 leaves a whole lot to be desired, and if the BABIP regresses back to career norms, his ERA could be closer to 4.00 than 3.00. 

UP-AND-COMING:

Starlin Castro is my favorite player in the NL Central, but after his 2011 campaign, the secret is out. It is doubtful that you will be able to get Castro for a bargain value, but that does not mean you should be afraid to target him. He is the real deal and will only get better. He is a legitimate .300 hitter and average anchor, and I see 20/20 and possibly 30/30 down the grad. Pencil in the 22-year-old for .310/12/70 and 24 stolen bases. 

Fellow Cub Anthony Rizzo will likely not begin the season with the big league club, but he has already demonstrated the ability to completely dominate minor league pitching. He struggled in his 2011 call up, but he is still only 22 years old and is an a much better environment and ballpark to succeed than in San Diego. Expect him to be called at some point during 2012 (depending on LaHair’s success) and he will eventually emerge as a fantasy force.

Rizzo’s minor league teammate Brett Jackson will have to wait for his shot as well. With these two young hitters, the future looks bright for the Cubs. At the moment the outfield is too crowded for Jackson, but he will certainly see action at some point in 2012. At 23 years of age he has already demonstrated the ability to handle AAA pitching and he has intriguing power/speed combo. 

Catcher Devin Mesoraco is in a similar situation in the Red’s organization, but his AAA production in 120 games in 2011 (.289/15/60) means that he could play his way into a share of the catcher duty in 2012. He has great power and has done a good job of dropping his K% in the minor leagues. Expect Devin Mesoraco to eventually emerge as a top-10 catcher, most likely beginning in 2013.

Super-prospect Shelby Miller might have to wait to get his chance in 2012, but he has dominated at the A and AA levels in the Cardinals system. He will perhaps be first in line if injuries present themselves, and although only 21 years of age, he had the natural “stuff” to succeed in major leagues already. Expect big things in the future and will certainly be a popular waiver add at some point during the 2012 season. 

Andrew McCutchen, as we all well know, is the real deal. He continues to improve and could approach 30/30 in 2012.

Not much flukey about John Axford’s 2011 season, especially with his ability to miss bats at such an alarming rate (10.51 K/9). He is no youngster, but still only 29, and despite the presence of K-Rod will continue to rack up the saves in Milwaukee. Most important about his 2011 season was the drop in his walk rate from 4.19 BB/9 in 2010 to 3.05 BB/9.

  

***Today’s feature was prepared by our Fantasy Baseball Analyst, Peter Stein.  We highly encourage you to leave your comments and feedback at the bottom of the page and share in the discussion with our readers.  You can also follow Peter on Twitter (@peterWstein).***

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Posted on February 21, 2012, in Players: Fantasy Baseball Articles and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Bookmarking this for draft day for sure. love the value picks.

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