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February 22, 2013

Five to Watch

National League Hitters

by Bret Sayre

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While it’s true that spring training statistics are barely worth the internet parchment on which they are printed, spring training performances are another story. Racking up impressive statistics has little to no value to you, the fantasy player, but overall performances beget changes in player roles and confidence (or lack thereof) in player health. And it’s the contextual nature of the performance that is a net positive or negative for a player’s fantasy value in the upcoming season. To paraphrase a modern-day proverb, Rick Porcello doesn’t have to be faster than the bear—he just has to be faster than Drew Smyly to get a fantasy bump for the 2013 season.

This mini-series will focus on players who have a chance to increase or decrease their fantasy values based on their performances during spring training. And we’ll continue today by looking at some National League hitters.

Devin Mesoraco

It’s not easy being a rookie trying to catch Dusty Baker’s eye. Just ask Todd Frazier, who hit .305/.349/.508 with eight homers and 32 RBI in 46 games while Joey Votto was sidelined because of knee surgery, and then found himself right back behind Scott Rolen on the depth chart upon Votto’s return. And that’s the Scott Rolen who had a 716 OPS in 2012.

Of course, the Dusty Baker effect would be less important if Mesoraco was making an impact on the field in 2012. In 54 games, Mesoraco hit .212 with five homers and 14 RBI. In fact, his performance was so disappointing to the organization that he was demoted to Triple-A for a spell in late August and was eventually left off the Reds’ post-season roster. However, despite the struggles, there were some small, positive signs at the plate. Mesoraco’s 17.9 percent strikeout rate and 9.2 percent walk rate were both better than his career minor-league marks (18.2% and 9.1%, respectively).

Mesoraco enters spring training not only as the backup to Ryan Hanigan, but also facing a competition with Miguel Olivo for a roster spot. Yes, that Miguel Olivo. As things stand, he’s not worth drafting in any one-catcher leagues, outside of deep NL-only formats. Even in two-catcher leagues, he’s nothing more than a flier. However, if Mesoraco can show enough offensively and defensively during the spring, he could work himself into at least an even timeshare with Hanigan—which would make owning him a much more attractive proposition.

Chase Utley

It’s that time of year again—time for optimism about Utley’s knees. Last year, the optimism ended up being extremely misguided, as it took Utley until the end of June to appear in a major-league game. But this year, while Utley enters spring training saying some of same things, there are a few noticeable differences. First of all, there was a change in process. Instead of resting during the offseason, Utley spent this past winter continuously doing baseball activities in order to build strength for the upcoming season. Secondly, this is Utley’s walk year. Maybe this makes no difference whatsoever, but at 34 years old, he may be viewing this coming offseason as the final one for him to cash in. That is, if he can stay healthy.

We know the facts. Utley has played in fewer games than the prior season for each of the last three years, capping it off with an 83-game campaign in 2012. However, he’s also been extremely impressive when he’s been on the field. In just 301 games since the start of the 2010 season, he’s been worth nearly 11 wins—more than either Dustin Pedroia or Ian Kinsler over that same time period. From a fantasy perspective, he’s still hitting for some power and stealing bases (11 of each in 301 at-bats in 2012). And while his batting average has trended down every year since hitting .332 in 2007, he’s still fully capable of hitting .275-.280. His .256 average last season would be tough to replicate given his batted-ball profile—which showed an xBABIP of .311 versus his actual mark of .261.

With Utley, it’s all about getting into game action in the spring. If he starts getting into games and finishing without incident, his current ADP of 202 according to Mock Draft Central should not only move much closer to his ADP of 120 in NFBC leagues, but ultimately surpass it. And we should at least start gathering some data very quickly—he’s scheduled to play in the Phillies’ first spring training game on Saturday. For now.

Juan Francisco

The two-headed monster of Francisco and Chris Johnson will likely be manning the hot corner for the Braves in Year 1 A.C. (After Chipper). Johnson is not a very good baseball player. He’s decidedly average offensively, as evidenced by his career 102 OPS+, but gives all that and more back on defense. None of this is news, or is even interesting. What’s interesting is the prospect of Francisco getting the chance to sink or swim as the strong side of a platoon.

Francisco is 25 years old and made his major-league debut with the Reds back in 2009, but he still has fewer than 400 plate appearances to his name. What he has going for him from a fantasy perspective is power, power, and more power. In just 192 at bats last season, Francisco hit nine homers and drove in 32 runs. He also struck out 70 times, which came out to a whopping 34.1 percent strikeout rate. For proper perspective, Adam Dunn’s strikeout rate in 2012 was 34.2 percent.

The fate of the Braves’ third base job will rest in the high-beta hands of Juan Francisco. If he impresses in camp both offensively and defensively, the job is his for the taking.

Wilson Ramos

Things haven’t gone particularly smoothly for Ramos since the end of his 2011 season, which earned him fourth place in National League Rookie of the Year voting. First, in November of 2011, Ramos was kidnapped at gunpoint in his native Venezuela. Fortunately, he was found alive and safe shortly thereafter. Then, only 25 games into his sophomore campaign, Ramos tore the ACL and meniscus in his right knee, requiring surgery that caused him to miss the remainder of the season.

So far this spring, the news surrounding the rehabilitation of his knee has been positive. Last week, Ramos caught his first bullpen session of the year and felt great afterward. Right now, Davey Johnson is still standing by his statement that Kurt Suzuki will be his starting catcher on Opening Day; however, Ramos is likely the better option of the two if he is fully healthy.

It’s easy to forget about Ramos with all of the depth at the catcher position, but he has the talent to break back into fantasy consciousness with improved health. In 2011, Ramos hit .267 with 15 homers in only 113 games played—and he improved as the season went on. From July through September, Ramos hit .296/.352/.500 with nine homers and 30 RBI in 196 at-bats. So, while his progress was derailed by injury, the upside is still there for him to hit .270 with 20 home runs over the course of a full season. And, even if Suzuki does start the season at the top of the depth chart, it will only knock Ramos’ price down—remember, he entered 2011 as the backup to Ivan Rodriguez.

Brett Jackson

Jackson may seem like a strange name to show up on this list, given that he’s extremely unlikely to make the Cubs out of spring training and was awful in his first taste of the big leagues. However, in the wake of his disappointing 2012 season, Jackson worked with the Cubs’ coaching staff on completely reworking his swing in the fall. That staff included current manager Dale Sveum, hitting coach James Rowson and assistant hitting coach Rob Deer. Yes, the same Rob Deer who hit .220 over his 13-year major-league career and led the American League in strikeouts on four separate occasions.

Contact issues have followed Jackson wherever he’s been in the minor leagues, but never to the extent that he experienced last season. In Double-A, Jackson struck out 24 percent of the time. That number jumped to 30 percent in his first stint in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, and ballooned to 34 percent in his repeat stint last year. By the time he reached the majors, he was striking out 42 percent of the time. That is both a disturbing trend and a recipe for disaster.

From a fantasy perspective, Jackson has all of the secondary skills you’d look for in a valuable outfielder. He can hit for power, runs well, and even knows how to draw a walk. If he starts having success with his revitalized swing, there is still plenty of playing time available and fantasy value to be had. It will all come down to making more contact, and NL-only and deep mixed-league owners should be paying attention to his progress.

Bret Sayre is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bret's other articles. You can contact Bret by clicking here

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Premium Article Skewed Left: Arizona's... (02/21)
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Fantasy Article Five to Watch: Impact ... (02/20)
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