Between unforeseen injuries and under-performances, the Blue Jays slogged through a season below expectations. The team won only 74 games after being a popular postseason selection in most preseason projections. Jose Reyes only played a half-season due to injury, while guys like R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle were unable to post ERAs under 4.00. In many ways, it was a season-long nightmare that wasn’t supposed to happen.
Heading into the 2014 season, Toronto could be flying under the radar due to their disappointing performance a year ago. The top half of the everyday lineup appears to be plenty potent, and if the organization can land either Ubaldo Jimenez or Ervin Santana, their starting rotation has a shot to be roughly league-average (assuming some bounce-back for Dickey and Buehrle). Such a combination could allow them to threaten for one of the two Wild Card slots if their bullpen performs well.
The fantasy outlook for the infield, on the other hand, is a bit of a mixed bag. Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Reyes should be high on fantasy owners’ draft boards, while players such as Ryan Goins and Dioner Navarro probably aren’t ownable in standard leagues.
Drafting near the end of the first round can be uncomfortable. Obvious selections such as Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera are long off the board, and there’s a legitimate chance one could select a bona fide bust with the first pick, missing a prime opportunity to acquire elite fantasy production. For example, I drafted Matt Kemp at #12 last season in one league. No matter which way you slice it, that was a putting myself at the bottom of a steep hill to climb.
Working through some mock drafts this month, Edwin Encarnacion has become one of my favorite late-first-round picks. I wrote about the 31-year-old slugger in November and noted he could be a legitimate MVP candidate in 2014.
(1) Since the beginning of the 2012 season, only two players have hit more home runs than Encarnacion’s 78 homers. Those players are Miguel Cabrera and Chris Davis, both of whom are consistently being drafted before Encarnacion.
(2) His plate discipline has improved to the point that he was one of four qualified players who had more walks than strikeouts, and he was the only “power hitter” who could boast such a feat.
He’s developed into an elite offensive force, and the fact that he could threaten double-digit stolen bases is just icing on the cake. At the end of the first round Edwin Encarnacion is precisely the kind of talent I want to target this year.
The other top-end talent in the Blue Jays’ infield is Jose Reyes, a guy with whom fantasy owners are very much familiar at this point. He was the second-best fantasy shortstop in 2012 and was still a top-15 option this past season, despite only 419 plate appearances. Coming back fully healthy, he should be considered one of the three best shortstops with Hanley Ramirez and Troy Tulowitzki.
Reyes displayed double-digit power once again last year, something which he’s done in six of his last eight seasons — and one of those two powerless seasons featured only 166 plate appearances. Thus, it’s reasonable to expect 10-to-15 homers from the speedy shortstop. The real question is whether he’ll be able to steal 30+ bases. Both Steamer and Oliver project Reyes to come just short of that mark. I like “the over” for stolen bases because the Blue Jays have shown they’re willing to run on the base paths and the 30-year-old shortstop still stole 15 bases in roughly a half season after coming back from a severe ankle sprain. After an entire winter of rehab, I expect him to return to his freewheeling ways on the bases.
Moving to the hot corner, Brett Lawrie has been a popular sleeper pick this offseason. He’s a former top prospect who dazzled in his brief big-league debut in 2011, but the expected success has not followed. In his first 275 games, he’s a .269/.328/.427 hitter with 31 homers and 29 stolen bases. Nothing to get overly excited about.
Still, the appeal is understandable. He has historically shown power and possesses enough speed to be a 20-stolen-base guy. That’s attractive at any position, but certainly at third base where nobody stole more than 10 bases last year.
The most significant problem for Lawrie is his batted-ball profile. Many have pointed to his aggressive nature at the plate, which is fair, but many hitters who swing at far more pitches out of the zone have found success. For me, Lawrie is concerning because he has the combination of death for fantasy owners: a high ground-ball rate with a high infield-fly rate. His ground-ball rate has hovered around 50.0% the past two years, which is well above the league average. That makes it very difficult to hit for power. Additionally, his 11.4% infield-fly rate last year was also above the league average.
With such a batted-ball profile, Lawrie could get some BABIP-love and hit .280-to-.300, but the power will struggle to be anything more than 10-to-15 homers. And 19 qualified third basemen logged at least 10 homers last year. That’s not a unique skill set. Thus, unless something changes with his swing that alters his batted-ball profile, fantasy owners are (best case) looking at a guy who will hit 10-to-15 homers with 15-to-20 stolen bases — and that last part is particularly wishful, considering he only stole 13 in 536 plate appearances back in the 2012 season.
I understand the appeal of someone like Brett Lawrie, but I get nervous banking on someone with such an undesirable batted-ball profile. Something will fundamentally have to change. And really, at that point, you’re just drafting on hope.
The Blue Jays offer another option at first base, though not nearly as exciting as Edwin Encarnacion. Adam Lind resurfaced as fantasy option last year, hitting .288/.357/.497 with 23 home runs and 67 RBI. But because he only accumulated 521 plate appearances and his counting statistics remained rather muted, his overall fantasy impact wasn’t as significant as one would assume with 20+ homers and a solid batting average.
Lind enjoyed success because he displayed an uncharacteristic amount of patience at the plate, dialing back his swing frequency this year. As we can see, the more patient he’s been throughout his career, the more success he’s enjoyed.
Keep in mind: his 2012 season was marred by a 48.3% ground-ball rate, the highest of any of the five years listed. He showed more patience, but he wasn’t able to take advantage of it because he beat the baseball into the ground for most of the year. Overall, though, we can reasonably conclude Lind will find similar success at the plate if he continues to display better patience and not swing quite as often as he did in 2010 and 2011.
Of course, Lind will always suffer from rather significant platoon splits, so he’s only a viable option when facing right-handed pitching. That hamstrings any fantasy owner. Though, as I’ve said in previous articles, if you’re going to settle for a platoon first baseman — which is always difficult to stomach — Brandon Moss is a much more attractive option.
I don’t have much to say about Ryan Goins, who appears to have the inside track on the second base job. He hit .257/.311/.369 in Triple-A last year, showing no power and few stolen bases. That didn’t improve when he made his brief big-league debut. He managed a .267 wOBA with two home runs and no stolen bases. As of right now, it doesn’t take much analysis to determine Goins isn’t rosterable — and even if he somehow reverts to his Double-A slash line, where he hit .289/.342/.403 with seven homers and 15 stolen bases, that’s only borderline rosterable in the deepest of leagues.
Maicer Izturis should see some time at second base, as well, but he hasn’t rocked a wOBA north of .300 since he played for the Angels in 2011. Pass.
Behind the dish, Dioner Navarro finally gets another shot at being the everyday guy, but it’s unclear what that brings. He impressed in limited action last year with the Cubs, compiling a .374 wOBA with 13 home runs. That power, however, is well-ahead of his career norms. In fact, his previous career high was nine homers in 2007. It feels wrong to assume such an increase in power will sustain itself — and while it’s notable that Oliver projects Navarro to hit .269/.336/.444 with 22 home runs, that comes with 600 plate appearances, which will surely not happen. The Steamer projections seem reasonable: .253/.321/.398 with 10 homers. That’s essentially a mix between Ryan Doumit and A.J. Ellis from last year, which puts him in the lower-teens in terms of rankings.
Certainly not something to get excited about on draft day. I’d much rather take a shot at Yan Gomes, Jarrod Saltalamacchia or even Josmil Pinto before settling for Dioner Navarro. Granted, two catcher leagues will have to reckon with Navarro much more than standard leagues, so take such an evaluation with a grain of salt.
When looking at the Blue Jays’ infield overall, there’s a little to place in each category of fantasy usefulness. Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Reyes are top two-or-three options at their respective positions. Brett Lawrie and Adam Lind have value, but it’s much more in the mid-teens range. Finally, guys like Ryan Goins and Dioner Navarro are probably not fantasy options in standard leagues at this point. Draft (or don’t draft) accordingly.
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