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Keeper League Would You Rather: Yoenis Cespedes or Justin Upton?

After Jeff Zimmerman busted out with the Bill James projections yesterday, I was inspired to bring back the Keeper League Would You Rather series from last offseason. Sure it’s not even Thanksgiving yet and sure, we’re still more than two and a half months away from pitchers and catchers reporting, but it’s never too late to start thinking about your keeper league protects for next season. Obviously, there are a number of factors that go into determining who you keep and who you release — cost, position scarcity, the type of players your league seems to always covet most, just to name a few — so we’re going to stick to comparison within the positions and while we can’t really neglect potential costs, we’re going to focus more on the players’ statistics and expectations. So without further ado, let’s get to our first comparison — Would you rather keep Yoenis Cespedes or Justin Upton?

There’s a lot to like about each of these guys and based on their projections from James, as well as Zimmerman’s adjusted rankings, the two players appear to be quite similar. We’re expecting similar power, similar speed, similar average, and going on past history, more recently for Cespedes, we’re also looking at similar health risks. If we’re going straight off off the projections, Cespedes seems like the clear choice. However, it is Upton who, at 25 years of age, already has the five-year major league track record with which to compare, while Cespedes, now 27, has just one year of service state-side and a number of years in the Cuban league.

Upton has always had tremendous upside and over the last few seasons has even been considered a potential first round pick. His rookie year saw him bat just .250 with 15 home runs over 417 plate appearances but since then, he’s had one 20-20 season, one 30-20 season and a pair of 17-18 seasons mixed in with a batting average that ranges from .273 to .300. His walk rates have been solid and his strikeout rates have improved (under 20.0% the last two seasons), although his K-rate and double digit SwStr% keep his contact rates at slightly below league average. But when he does connect, it’s solid contact as evidenced by his strong line drive rate and his consistent double-digit HR/FB rate. He dealt with shoulder problems and a few other little dings and dents through his first three seasons, but has seemingly beaten the issue as he’s played in 150 games or more these last two years.

For Cespedes, the track record is much different. We’ve all seen his stats from the Cuban League and we all remember the highlight video that had baseball GMs and fantasy owners salivating, but really, we only have the one year to look at in the majors. The year was impressive though as he finished the season with 23 home runs, 16 stolen bases and a .292 average. There were some early concerns about how he would handle some of the big league breaking stuff, but as we saw in a recent piece from, again, Mr. Zimmerman, one of Cespedes’ strongest attributes has been his ability to adjust to to major league pitching on the fly. While maintaining a decent walk rate all year, Cespedes managed to steadily trim down the strikeouts (both K-rate and SwStr%) while seeing a corresponding increase in contact rates. If there was a knock on him this year, it was his health as he played in just 128 games due to a variety of ailments from the hamstring to the wrist/hand.

So which way do you lean now? With Upton, we’re looking at youth and an upswing in power this year if you believe in the every-other year theory that his numbers dictate. With Cespedes it’s a player in his physical prime who has an uncanny ability to adapt at the plate. It’s proven talent who has flashed a higher ceiling versus potential and upside for consistent production. Based on raw talent and age, I lean towards Upton, however, if you factor in potential cost to protect from year to year, the scales tip towards Cespedes.

Personally, I lean towards Cespedes on the overall. I see similar production from both with a stronger potential for Cespedes to improve on last season’s numbers. Upton’s fluctuating power concerns me as he took a significant dip in both ISO and slugging percentage this past year and there’s definitely the possibility that his chronic shoulder issues could be an underlying cause. Cespedes has had a full offseason to digest what he’s been given in his first year and should adjust accordingly. If he can avoid the freak accident/HBP, he should continue to ascend.