With the Tomahawk Chop alive and well in Turner Field, a few readers have ridiculed my ominous forecast for the Atlanta outfield in our annual fantasy baseball predictions piece. Certainly Justin Upton’s impersonation of Roy Hobbs (.333 average, eight homers, 12 RBI) isn’t helping the cause. As I wrote in the preview, why was Arizona so keen on giving up a 25-year-old who was just a season removed from finishing fourth in MVP voting? And make no mistake, the Diamondbacks were beseeching teams to take Upton off their hands, evidenced by Arizona’s modest haul in return from the Braves. There where whispers in the desert about Upton’s commitment and dedication, but a questionable work ethic seemed like a trite, frivolous response, possibly concealing a more incessant matter.
Turns out I overlooked an essential piece to this puzzle: Arizona GM Kevin Towers. This is the same guy who traded pitching studs Jarrod Parker and Ryan Cook for Trevor Cahill and Craig Breslow. Oh, and gave away All-Star Chris Young for Heath Bell’s terrible contract and the banal labors of Cliff Pennington. And did we mention parlaying 2011 third overall pick Trevor Bauer into the, ahem, “light” hitting Didi Gregorius? In short: Kevin Towers is a cuckoo bird.
Yet Upton’s conquests, as impressive as they may be, cannot serve as the sole indictment. If anything, it seems to be the aberration.
For the other Upton, B.J., and Jason Heyward have trended toward the opposite side of the hitting continuum in the season’s opening weeks. After Wednesday’s outing against the Royals, the duo was stuck on the interstate, with the older Upton brandishing a .140 average and Heyward lagging behind at .128. Not exactly the start envisioned for two-thirds of an outfield alleged to be the best in baseball.
Even more disconcerting is that, historically, the 28-year-old Upton has excelled in spring, as his career .266 batting mark and .352 OBP in April are tops among his monthly splits. Though his sample size is comparatively smaller, the opening weeks have traditionally been kind to Heyward as well, with 16 long balls in 72 games in April before this season. That .22 homer-per-contest ratio nearly doubles his output (.12) during the rest of the calendar.
In a sense, the elder Upton’s struggles should not come as a surprise. Although he emerged as five-tool star in his first two full-time seasons in Tampa (.286/384/.452, 33 homers, 149 RBI, 171 runs and 66 steals in 274 games), the former first-round selection failed to sustain prosperity after the 2008 World Series, owning a prosaic .240/.322/.408 line from 2009 to 2011. He was still a force on the base paths, averaging 40 steals per year, and did possess decent pop. Alas, it seemed that Upton was held in a higher regard than the back of his baseball card conveyed.
This disposition carried over to the 2012 campaign, as Upton’s figures were more pedestrian than prolific. That is, until August. At that juncture, it appears Upton’s agent gave him the heads-up, “Hey, you’re about to be a free agent, perhaps you should step it up a notch.” Judging by the splits, it appears Upton abided:
B.J. Upton 2012 Breakdown
Before August 3
After August 3
Which is why we cautioned against selecting Upton: his late-summer surge, pitted against his past yield, reeked of contract-year production. Admittedly, I didn’t think this would render in Upton having twice as many strikeouts (15) as hits (seven) through the Braves’ first 14 games, yet regression was expected. Though he should eventually cross the Mendoza Line, there’s little light at the end of the tunnel for Upton.
The prognosis for Heyward is a different animal. Already in his fourth season in the Bigs, 2013 was viewed as the year Heyward would ascend into the upper echelon of fledgling stars, joining the likes of Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and Giancarlo Stanton. In truth, with an attainment of 27 homers, 82 RBI, 93 runs and 21 steals in 2012, the argument could be made that Heyward already merits such distinction.
However, unlike the aforementioned trio of luminaries, Heyward’s arrow seems to point in the direction of “potential” rather than “polished,” as certain facets of his game remain raw. His home-run tally rose last season, but so did his strikeout rate, a byproduct of a longer, loopier swing. Not only is his sweeping plane conducive to punch-outs, but his hacks produce a startling lack of frozen ropes, evidenced by his career 17.0 line-drive percentage. Heyward also sputtered with runners in scoring position, hitting a meager .239 in these situations last year, and had similar futility against left-handed pitching, with a .224 mark versus southpaws.
It’s worth noting that Heyward doesn’t turn 24 until August, and possesses a sound plate discipline for a hitter with a mighty hammer (13.2 walk percentage). Nevertheless, with almost a tenth of the season in the books, Heyward has failed to exhibit development in his perceived shortcomings. In his current state, Heyward can be a fantasy commodity, but unless he amends some noticeable fallacies, he’ll never reach elite status.
Still, don’t misconstrue this as reprimand on Heyward. Unlike Bossman Junior, the ceiling remains high for Heyward. Maybe more importantly, most fantasy owners believe that Heyward can achieve lofty heights. Even with his rough start, his rotisserie worth has not been compromised. I would advise against pulling the trigger at this point, but rest assured that, if you’re having second thoughts on your selection, equal value can be obtained.
Although, being the astute reader that you are, I’m sure you took my counsel and avoided the situation entirely, right?
Players to Watch
Ross Detwiler, Nationals
I thought Detwiler would build off a commendable 2012 foray (164 1/3 innings, 3.40 ERA, 1.22 WHIP) to be a dependable No. 4 fantasy starter this year, though I’d be lying to say I anticipated this type of harvest (20 innings, 0.90 ERA, 1.00 WHIP). Numbers can be deceiving this early, and you want to avoid becoming smitten from a diminutive cross section of the season. Conversely, there’s nothing misleading on shutting down two of the top offenses on the Senior Circuit in the Braves and Reds. Aided by a potent lineup of his own, Detwiler, available in 72 percent of FOXSports.com leagues, could finish as a top-25 arm.
Chris Young, A’s
Young was somewhat of a fantasy albatross this offseason, as a crowded Oakland outfield muddled his projection. However, with Yoenis Cespedes on the sidelines with a muscle strain in his hand, Young has been getting regular action with the A’s, and is quietly regaining his mojo following an injury-plagued 2012. A low batting average persists as a concern, as well as his propensity for strikeouts, yet these woes are negated by solid production in every other fantasy category (two homers, nine RBI, nine runs, four stolen bases, 11.7 walk rate).
Travis Hafner, Yankees
PRONK! He lives!
Initially visualized as a part-time player, Hafner has already logged 44 plate appearances for the Pinstripes and has not disappointed, smacking four bleacher shots with a .342 average and .432 OBP. In theory, this power show isn’t totally out of nowhere, as Hafner did hit 12 home runs in just 66 games last season. More importantly, for the first time in nearly five years, Hafner is healthy. Given his past, odds are this bill of good health will not last, so ride the lightening while you can.
Yonder Alonso, Padres
Alonso’s inaugural season in San Diego was met with mixed reviews, as the highly-touted prospect toiled in the first half (.263/.344/.362) and failed to deliver much muscle (nine homers, 62 ribbies). Turning 27 in August, it was starting to become “put up or shut up” time for the Miami product. Thus far, Alonso has taken the former route, hitting .419 in a recent eight-game tear before going hitless versus the Dodgers on April 17. Better yet, Alonso has shown improved thump with the lumber, racking up two taters and eight RBI.
Alonso’s PETCO Park abode, even in its new altered state, is not known for facilitating rewards at the plate, and there’s no shortage of viable first basemen. On the other hand, owned in a mere 6.4 percent of FOXSports.com formats, there’s little risk in giving the Padres first baseman a whirl.
Jose Quintana, White Sox
Despite posting an effective rookie season in 2012, including a terrific run out of the gate (2.76 ERA in his first 17 outings), owners have their guards up on Quintana due to a precipitous drop in the fall (7.03 ERA, .414 OBP in final eight games). Add in an inflated FIP and xFIP from last year’s figures and Quintana was mostly ignored during drafts.
So why should managers buy into Quintana’s April success? Unlike 2012, the Windy City lefty is accumulating strikeouts, with 17 Ks in 17 2/3 innings of work (compared to 81 punch-outs in 136 1/3 innings last year). Displaying better control on the mound, this added quality vaults Quintana into consideration in AL-only formats, and another good start should parallel to acquirement in all leagues.
Players to Avoid
Pedro Alvarez, Pirates
I’m not necessarily concerned with Alvarez’s shortage of homers, or that he’s been colder than Cruella de Vil. Those will come, and come in bunches. The qualm with the Pittsburgh hot corner is the belief the discrepancies between his streaks would pacify in severity this summer. With over 330 major-league games under his belt, it appears Alvarez is what he is: an erratic power hitter. While the returns are affluent when the gettin’s good, the irregularity and variation in these spots are too maddening for owners to entertain.
Dan Haren, Nationals
Haren’s been a casualty of misfortune, illustrated in his .420 BABIP, and those who mention the three-time All-Star is losing a step are talking out of their butts, as Haren’s velocity is on par with his past performances. Simply, Haren is a dude trying to assimilate into new digs, not the easiest of endeavors (as we saw last season with Mat Latos and currently with R.A. Dickey). Keep the faith that Haren will turn his woes around.
However, you don’t have to insert Haren into your starting lineup while he becomes acclimated. For now, the bench is his best location.
Jesus Montero, Mariners
Like Alonso, Montero’s home confines do him no favors, hitting .227 in Safeco Field last year versus a .295 mark on the road. And only 23, Montero’s still an entity with a high ceiling. Alas, Montero has failed to develop patience with the stick, recording a lone walk this season after owning a 5.2 walk percentage in 2012. As 22-year-old Mike Zunino, the third overall pick from the 2012 Draft, is breathing down his neck, Montero needs to get in gear or else face relegation and split-time duty in Seattle’s DH spot. Speaking of those struggling in the Emerald City…
Dustin Ackley, Mariners
At this time last year, Ackley was believed to be one of the game’s rising stars at the position. If he continues this output, he may be out of a job.
Ackley was the second pick of the 2009 Draft behind Stephen Strasburg, though that’s where their similarities end. Striking in his rookie season in 2011 (.273 average, .348 OBP in 90 games), Ackley fell off the grid in 2012, finishing with a .226/.294/.328 line in 153 contests. In 14 games in 2013, this tale has continued, with just seven hits in 49 at bats. Until he compacts his swing, Ackley’s simply a bench player in AL-only formats or deeper leagues.
Jason Vargas, Angels
In 14 games in Seattle last season, Vargas owned a 2.74 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and surrendered nine homers. In 19 outings on the road, his numbers jumped to a 4.78 ERA, 1.31 WHIP and 26 jacks allowed. I guess what I’m trying to say is: no, I’m not surprised Vargas flaunts a 6.75 ERA and 2.32 WHIP in three games this year.
Joaquin Benoit appears to have tied down the job in Motown, and despite what Milwaukee’s signing of Francisco Rodriguez may express, Jim Henderson faces little competition for the Brewers’ fireman role. Additionally, Greg Holland remains the ninth-inning call in Kansas City in the face of fireballer Kevin Herrera. The Cubbies’ bullpen endures as a cluster with Kyuji Fujikawa on the mend, and Andrew Bailey is earning some saves while Joel Hanrahan sits on the DL, but overall, the winds were quiet on the closer front. Almost too quiet…
Waivers Watch: Daniel Murphy, Mets
Mentioned in the preseason as a late-round grab, Murphy is making the most of his elevated spot in the lineup, hitting .340 with two homers, 11 RBI and 13 runs. Murphy offers little speed, and with just 24 long balls in his previous three seasons, hard to imagine the power barrage continuing. Yet in leagues that account for batting average, Murphy is a contributor whose bat and run production are definitely worth the roster spot.
Rookie Review: Matt Adams, Cardinals
Operating in abbreviated appearances, Adams has shined for the Redbirds, registering three homers and eight RBI in just 21 at bats. A 23rd-round selection in 2009, Adams has hit at every stop in the Cardinals farm system, proven by a .318 average, 82 homers and 291 RBI in 366 minor-league games. Because of his portly shell, most scouts deemed Adams incapable of handling the rigors of the Bigs. Though he’s working in pinch-hit duties and the occasional off-day starts, Adams is quickly refuting that opinion.
Big League Chew Player of the Week: Joe Mauer, Twins
I overheard one MLB analyst refer to Mauer last week as the most overrated player in the game, bizarre given the Twins backstop drove in 85 runs last year with a .319 average and AL-best .416 OBP. The message must have been relayed to Mauer, who’s hitting .516 with two homers and seven RBI in his last seven games. The lesson, as always: don’t mess with Joe Mauer.
Spit Your Tobacco at: Owners complaining about Joey Votto
A vocal contingent is none too pleased their first-round pick has one homer and three RBI to begin the season. If that’s the case, please, feel free to send Votto and his .521 OBP in my direction. I’m sure I can find a spot for him on the roster.