The Cubs have had just six regular first baseman since 1989, but they’ll make it seven in 2012. The new Theo Epstein-led regime hopes that the recently acquired Anthony Rizzo will stake a claim to the job for the foreseeable future, but he’s unlikely to be manning the position come Opening Day. That honor figures to go to Bryan LaHair, a 29-year-old journeyman-type with big minor league numbers and 219 big league plate appearances to his credit.
“I don’t believe in four-A players,” said Epstein in December. “Guys who can hit will hit when they’re given a chance. [LaHair] continued to rake in winter ball.”
Epstein wasn’t kidding. LaHair posted a .443 wOBA with 38 homers in Triple-A this year, then put together a .381 wOBA in 28 MLB games late in the season, and then went on to hit .272/.404/.592 with 15 homers in 47 winter ball games after the season. All told, the former 39th round pick of the Mariners hit .313/.403/.633 with 52 doubles and 55 homers in 196 total games in 2011, which is obviously huge production. That’s all well and good, but what does it mean for his fantasy value in 2012?
First things first, we have to put LaHair’s Triple-A performance in perspective since that’s really all we have to reference. Since signing with the Cubs as a minor league free agent prior to the 2010 season, he’s hit .320/.397/.613 in 254 Triple-A games. The Pacific Coast League is a big time hitter’s league, with an average batting line of .281/.345/.440 over the last two seasons. Principal Park in Iowa is relatively neutral towards left-handed hitters according to StatCorner, so LaHair has produced a 158 OPS+ since the start of 2010. Luckily for him, Wrigley Field is much more conducive to lefty power, both into the gaps and (particularly) over the fence…
LaHair’s biggest concern going forward is his platoon split. He did tag lefties for a .286/.340/.550 batting line in 153 plate appearances in 2011, but his lengthy Triple-A career (parts of six seasons at the level) features a .228/.289/.376 batting line against southpaws with a 28.3% strikeout rate (19.1% vs. RHP). Now his 2011 effort against same-side pitchers could be an indication of real improvement, but it could also be a total fluke. LaHair did have a .333 BABIP against southpaws in Triple-A last year compared to .293 for his Triple-A career and .282 prior to 2011. Without reliable minor league data, we can’t say if there was a change in his batted ball profile that would indicate an expected BABIP shift.
The Cubs don’t have an obvious platoon partner other than Jeff Baker on their roster, but a right-handed hitter first baseman should be an easy find on the free agent market if they’re so inclined. Conor Jackson is still out available and he’d make some sense, but I digress. The fans project a .272/.351/.449 batting line with 15 homers from LaHair next year, which sounds reasonable to me if he’s platooned properly. If not, I would expect something less unless we see some real improvement in his approach against southpaws. A lesser version of LaHair would be something in the .250/.330/.440 range, putting him in the Carlos Lee, Mike Carp category. There is 20-homer upside here, since LaHair hasn’t hit fewer than 25 dingers in a single season since an injury sidelined him in 2008.
In ottoneu leagues, you should be able to grab LaHair for under five bucks and count on 700 points or so in a full year’s worth of playing time against mostly righties. Rizzo is lurking however, and if the kid has another big year down in Triple-A, he’ll force his way to the bigs by midseason and take the job right away from under LaHair. At that point he’d become a bat off the bench and DH-type during interleague play, though left field could be an option if the baseball gods find a taker for Alfonso Soriano. LaHair does have a 2009 Garrett Jones feel to him, but he’s not someone you should target for a regular lineup spot on draft/auction day.
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