First Pitch – September 17th, 2008 – NL Keepers for 2009:
As Joe mentioned yesterday, the First Pitch editions these next two weeks will focus on potential keeper options heading into 2009. I will cover the NL Hitters this morning, after Joe walked you through the AL yesterday. For those of you not in keeper leagues have no fear as this article will have plenty of useful information to consider when going into the fantasy off-season and preparing for 2009. Before we dig into some keeper highlights for next year, let’s talk a little bit about keeper leagues in general and what in particular we’re looking for when evaluating a keeper. There are so many different keeper formats out there that it’s impossible to address everyone’s individual format so all of these rankings will be given “in a vacuum”, assuming no cost differences between keeping the players.
What are we looking for in a Keeper?
For the most part the same things that make a great fantasy player in general, make for a great keeper. We’re looking for players who give the highest chance of the greatest level of production. The only caveat in keeper formats is we’re looking for the highest probability of great production for the longest period of time. Because that last part of the sentence is the only major discrepancy between keeper leagues and yearly leagues, it tends to get even more emphasis than it deserves. While younger players with high upside do make for good keeper options in the right situation, a team filled with them will often lead to a season of “rebuilding”. The reason for this is many younger players often come with more variance in their projections. We see this often with young super prospects: some figure things out immediately like Evan Longoria and others take some time to figure things out like Carlos Quentin. Because of the higher variance with projecting younger players, an emphasis on veteran players is necessary in keeper leagues as well. This is why ideally a well-built keeper roster will have a combination of both high upside young players and consistent strong-producing veterans. The concept of consistency and predictability in projections is one of the more unheralded ideas that keeper league owners need to take into account. This concept will be apparent in my rankings as you’ll see a slight bias towards players entering their “prime” (usually considered ages 26-31).
With that explanation out of the way, let’s dig into some of the players who have intriguing value in keeper formats. We’ll keep away from the “obvious names” as we’re only going to touch on players who have seen large changes in their value this year or we anticipate seeing big jumps in value next year.
Ryan Doumit – Doumit’s made the jump this year into the top echelon of catchers, as he’s finally been able to stay healthy for the majority of a full season. The health concerns are the lone reason I’d keep Doumit just a notch behind the established Big 3 in the NL (McCann, Soto, Martin). As long as Doumit stays healthy his current 2008 production is completely repeatable even with the drop-off in his supporting cast heading into 2009.
Chris Iannetta – Iannetta’s got the talent and the opportunity to be next year’s Ryan Doumit. It’s been a long wait, but Colorado has finally committed to Iannetta as the starting catcher and in that lineup and that park, Iannetta’s combination of power and plate patience should result in strong production across the board. With a full season of playing time under his belt I’m anticipating a .275-70-25-85 type season for Iannetta which would easily rank him amongst the Top 5-7 catchers in all of fantasy.
Chris Snyder – Snyder’s BB Rates and Power Rates have both improved this year, but his high strikeout rate continues to limit his batting average and mask what has been a pretty productive fantasy catcher. Snyder ranks 6th in all of baseball in HR’s and RBI’s for Catchers and should continue to produce strong numbers in both power categories as he plays half his games in a favorable hitters park and plays in a young DBacks lineup that should continue to improve.
Pablo Sandoval – Sandoval’s quietly burst onto the scene over the last month, showing impressive power and contact rates. At first glance it doesn’t appear he’ll have an everyday catching role with Bengie Molina likely still around, but this may actually benefit Sandoval’s fantasy value heading into next season as he’s able to play more games at 1B and 3B and stay fresh. Sandoval’s moved really quickly this year massacring pitching in both High A and AA, posting OPS above .900 at both levels. My only concern regarding Sandoval is how quickly he’s moved this year and the lack of true experience above even High A. His situation reminds me slightly of JR Towles in Houston last year, so don’t go nuts if the cost is high to keep Sandoval, but be assured this kid has some serious talent and his high contact rates at the big league level so far support the idea that he isn’t overmatched at this level.
JR Towles – Don’t forget the aforementioned Towles when it comes keeper time next season. Towles came into this draft season being mentioned in the same sentence as Geovany Soto, which at the time I said was a mistake, but it goes to show the type of talent this youngster has. He was coming off a breakthrough 2007 in which he looked terrific in 40 AB’s, but had only 200 AB’s at or above the AA level. In 2008, that inexperience showed as Towles looked overmatched early on and was eventually demoted. However, upon his demotion he hit .304/.370/.500 at AAA showing the type of talent and dominance at the AAA level that would suggest he may be ready to make that big jump in ’09.
Joey Votto – Votto’s the one guy at First Base next year in the NL that I think is going to make a big leap forward. Votto’s already making progress in the 2nd half of this year improving both his Power Rates (EXBH Rate of 10.1% vs. 10.0%) and his EYE (.66 vs. .52), and it’s made a significant difference in his production. After posting a pedestrian .279/.350/.464 1st half, Votto has upped those numbers to .310/.388/.500. He’s moved into a more predominant run production role in the lineup and with Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey out of the way next year, Votto will become one of the more relied upon young hitters. I feel confident that Votto will emerge as a Top 7 1B in the NL next year and will be among one of the biggest breakout candidates in the NL as he makes his way towards a .300-85-30-100-10 type season.
Conor Jackson – My love for CoJack has been well documented throughout the season, highlighted by a rather bold, and clearly too optimistic, projection of 25 HR’s to go with the .310 average and 100+ RBI’s. Despite that being a bit too optimistic, it goes to show how highly I think of CoJack. He’s shown an Elite EYE, posting rates above 1.00 each of the last two years, and he hits enough balls in the air (40% GB Rate) to see a big up-tick in his power next season. He’ll hit the magical age of 27 next year and while he hasn’t picked up from his improved power in 2007, he has shown improvements over his 2006 rates. If he can step back up into the 2007 range with his power rates, the type of projection I put on CoJack earlier in the year is possible. I’m not sure he’ll ever be a truly elite 1B option, but I think he’ll be a consistent Top 10 1B in the NL for the next 4-5 years.
Daniel Murphy – Second Base in the NL is a position in transition in the NL. You have the upper tier in Utley, Uggla, Phillips who aren’t going to have much change in value and then you have the solid veterans in DeRosa, Hudson, and Kaz Matsui that are pretty established as stable veterans who have had peaks in their performance in recent years, and then you have a group of young 2B who are completely inexperienced at the big league level like Emilio Bonifacio, Chin Lung Hu, Matt Antonelli, and one of my personal favorites Daniel Murphy. It’s unclear if Murphy can handle 2B at the major league level, but the Mets are going to try him at 2B in the Arizona Fall League this off-season. He’s got a good enough bat to make a nice impact for fantasy players and has shown he’s major league ready, posting a .93 EYE and 11.9% EXBH Rate in 84 AB’s. He’s not quite “this” good, but he can certainly hit and the Mets aren’t exactly committed to Luis Castillo despite his horrible contract. If Murphy’s given the everyday 2B role next year he could make for a really nice sleeper option in that loaded Mets lineup and someone that would be worth a late-round of $1 keeper option in NL Only leagues.
Ian Stewart – We’re going to throw Stewart into the 2B area as it’s where he has the most fantasy value and his position heading into next year is unclear. It’s most likely that he’s the everyday 3B and Garrett Atkins is either shipped out of town or Todd Helton’s big contract sits on the bench, but for fantasy purposes Stewart may still qualify at 2B next year. I’ve written at length about Stewart’s immense power potential, but a 30 HR 2B is rare and Stewart profiles as such for fantasy purposes. He’s a lot like a younger version of Dan Uggla engrossed in a bit more favorable lineup and a much more favorable home park. Stewart does come with some risk, largely because of the struggles with the high K Rate and a batting average that’s been inflated by a .398 BABIP, but he’s one of the few un-established 2B in the NL that could break into the Top 5 next season.
JJ Hardy – Hardy’s very quietly not only backed up his breakout 2007 season, but he’s improved upon it. Hardy’s BB Rate has stepped up about 3% and his EXBH Rate a full 1% from 9.6% to 10.6%. He’s quietly become a consistent power option at the SS position, having knocked out 50 HR’s over the last two years. He’s another guy who is early in his prime years and will turn 27 during next season. He’s settled in at the top of the Brewers lineup in a position hitting in front of Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder and has settled in as a consistent 25-30 HR, 80-85 Run/RBI, threat which out of the SS position is a valuable commodity. He’s not likely to show vast improvements any further in his production, but he earns a place on this list because I think he’s an unheralded SS who makes for a good keeper at a pretty thin position.
Stephen Drew – Drew is kind of like JJ Hardy-lite. He’s a 20 HR threat at the SS position who hits at the head of a less potent lineup and offers a bit less run production as a result. He’s had a bit of a weird season as his power has blossomed at Age 25, but his plate discipline has regressed considerably. I’m more of the belief that the plate discipline issues are an aberration and that will get back in line next year as Drew’s EYE has improved in the 2nd half and his minor league track record suggests 2007’s (.60 EYE) was more the norm. As I mentioned with CoJack, I expect the DBacks lineup to continue to improve as many of the younger players continue to develop and I think Drew can make a run at 100 Runs, 25 HR’s, and 65-70 RBI’s with a .280 average, making him a borderline Top 10 fantasy SS.
Troy Tulowitzki – I stood by Tulo through his early season slumps and then injury took over not once but twice, and suddenly it looks like a lost season for Tulo. Don’t forget he was a 5th-6th round pick heading into this season and while the power has been sapped (likely by the hand and quad injuries), his plate approach has actually improved quite a bit as his EYE has risen from .44 to .70. Don’t be fooled by the poor batting average this year as that’s been driven downward by an unsustainably low .210 BHIP%. He’ll be a 24 year old in a loaded lineup and tremendous home park, looking for redemption after a miserable season, and boy do I think he gets it. I think the 2007 performance is repeatable and I think the improved EYE brings upside for more as well. He’s got the chance to be like a Miguel Tejada type fantasy SS in his prime, hitting around .300, knocking out 30 HR’s and scoring and driving in 100. I absolutely love him next year and think he’ll be one of the more undervalued SS options heading into ’09.
Ryan Zimmerman – 2008 was a lost season for Ryan Zimmerman mainly due to injury as a shoulder injury kept him out for much of the 1st half and then upon his return he struggled with a hand/wrist injury. But lost in the slow grind to the end of the season in Washington has been Zimmerman’s strong finish. Upon returning from the hand/wrist injuries, Zimmerman hit .320/.367/.420 in August while scoring 12 times and driving in 9. The power numbers were lacking but that was understandable given the myriad of hand/wrist/shoulder injuries he’s dealt with this season. But the lack of power didn’t last long as Zimmerman’s started putting the package together we envisioned coming into the year, hitting .300/.364/.533 here in September with 5 2B’s, 3 HR’s and a solid .75 EYE in 60 AB’s. That type of production is in line with a slight increase from his monster rookie season in 2006 and represent the kind of step forward we thought was going to happen for Zimmerman here in 2008. His overall numbers are going to look like two straight years of decline and some are going to mistaken that for a trend, which means Zimmerman’s going to be a true bargain in 2009 and someone in keeper leagues I’d be targeting in trades right now.
Edwin Encarnacion – We’ve got an increasing EYE, increasing FB Rate, and increasing Slugging % over the last 3 years for a player turning 26 next season, and one who happens to hit in a tremendous hitters park. All signs point to potential breakout, and when you’re talking about a breakout from a guy who already has 25 HR’s this year, you’re talking about some serious upside. This is the case with Edwin Encarnacion and while I may look a little like the “Boy who cried Wolf” here, I still LOVE Encarnacion as a cheap keeper option heading into ’09. He’s been at the majors for 4 years now so many will consider him a lost prospect or a disappointing young player not living up to his potential, but he’s only 25 right now and while the improvements have been slight in some cases, they’ve been consistent from year to year. At some point soon everything’s going to align and you’re going to get monster production for Encarnacion on the cheap. I’ve compared the beginning of his career to Aramis Ramirez and I still think that’s a good comparison for the type of talent and upside we can expect with Edwin.
Jay Bruce - The hype with Bruce was so enormous that it seems as if he hasn’t lived up to the expectations, but here is with 18 HR’s, 59 Runs, and 48 RBI’s in 98 games. Sure he’s had some problems with the strikeout and is hitting just .260 with a .770 OPS, but a look closer and you can see the light blurb starting to turn on for Bruce. In September he’s hitting .310/.431/.667 with a .89 EYE and an incredible 16.7% Extra Base Hit Rate. He’s quietly turned the corner and looks set to take the next step to stardom come 2009. He’s a good bet for 30+ HR’s next year and his good BB Rate and likely middle of the order lineup slot (please Dusty!) will result in plenty of RBI and Run production in a hitter friendly park.
Elijah Dukes – We’ve seen the talent here in the 2nd half as Dukes has quietly become a dominant offensive player for the Nationals, hitting .271/.379/.498 for an .877 OPS in just under 250 AB’s. Quietly is the key word here because talent has never been the question for Dukes, staying out of trouble on the other hand… has been. This year we’ve barely heard a peep in terms of on the field or off the field incidents for Dukes and with the quiet season he’s established himself as an everyday starter in Washington going forward. I think next year is his “Milton Bradley” year in which he stays healthy and stays out of trouble and REALLY shows fantasy owners and baseball fans just how good he can be when he’s in the lineup everyday.
Justin Upton – It’s important to show some patience even with uber-prospects, but its hard not to get excited about what Justin Upton has done in his first full season. While Upton hasn’t taken the leap forward from a fantasy perspective, he’s posted an .813 OPS as a 20 year old in the big leagues. That’s mighty impressive and his advanced walk rates and power rates as a 20 year old are just a hint of the talent that lies beneath for the prospect that’s been compared to Ken Griffey Jr. Upton still strikes out far too much to hit for average but since his return from the DL he’s been on fire hitting .394/.474/.697 here in September. I said at the beginning of the year I thought the big breakout was coming in ’09 and I stand by that. Batting average will still be a weakness because of Upton’s high K Rates, but he’ll make small strides there while making big strides in the continued power growth. I think he moves into the high 20’s for HR’s next year with a shot at 30+ and if he can improve his spots on the base-paths could add 10 SB’s to it as well.
Jayson Werth – There is a good chance based on production/AB this is the career year for Jayson Werth, but he deserves mention in this column as he’s quietly made a push for 20-20 in under 400 AB’s. Pat Burrell’s contract is up at the end of the year and even if the Phillies work out something with him Werth has to have played himself into an everyday OF position. Even if his production slows some, and I imagine it will, Werth should make another run at 20-20 just because of the increased opportunity and I don’t think enough people think of him as a keeper option since he’s been a platoon player much of his career. If you can take advantage of that discrepancy between Werth’s perceived value and his actual value heading into the off-season he’s a nice potential cheap OF option for Rotisserie players.