We can forgive Bryan LaHair if he’s a little confused as to what his status is as the Cubs prepare for Spring Training.
The expectation was that the Cubs would end up with one of the big three first baseman in free agency, but Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, and Carlos Pena all found their way to the American League rather than to Wrigley Field, so that’s good news for LaHair. The Cubs then turned around and traded for Anthony Rizzo, a younger version of LaHair who clearly has the First Baseman of the Future look about him, so that’s bad. The Cubs gave LaHair some reps in the outfield last year, giving him a wider range of places to play instead of just first base, so that’s good. Unfortunately, the Cubs haven’t traded Alfonso Soriano yet and signed David DeJesus to fill Kosuke Fukudome’s old spot, so that’s bad.
LaHair has made his claim on the Cubs’ vacancy at first base and any other corner where they might be willing to give him time. He hit .331/.405/.664 with 38 home runs in Triple-A last year, then went down to Venezuela and hit well again, posting a .272/.404/.592 line to go with 15 HR in 169 ABs, so he isn’t just a park factor-induced figment of the PCL. It seems exceedingly likely that he’ll produce if he’s given the chance to do so; the question is just where that playing time will come from.
Unfortunately for LaHair, he’s not much of a prospect anymore. He’s heading into his age-29 season having played in Triple-A for the last five years, plus part of a sixth. He’s a Three True Outcomes king, with 111 strikeouts and 60 walks last year, and those skills do tend to age better than guys who rely on their legs, but it still leaves him as something of a ‘tweener: He isn’t young enough to be part of the next wave, but he’s not an established veteran that teams in contention will be targeting around the deadline.
All of this is why I think this year will be key for LaHair. Yes, Rizzo is definitely the heir apparent for the Cubs, but I don’t think they’ll be giving him the keys to the castle just yet. Rizzo looked all kinds of raw during his brief call-up with the Padres, and while PETCO can mess with a hitter’s psyche in a way that Wrigley doesn’t, the Cubs certainly don’t want him to internalize any bad habits at this point in his career. The Cubs also have a strong incentive to keep Rizzo’s service clock from starting. He’s just 22 and the team is more concerned with how competitive they can be in 2014 and 2015 than winning a few extra games in 2012. Keeping Rizzo as inexpensive as possible will serve their future goals, which means in the short-run, they have a hole at first base. LaHair, you’re on in five!
Obviously a player that isn’t really a prospect and has just 200 PAs in the majors isn’t the safest option, but in the vast wasteland that is first base in NL-only leagues, I like LaHair as a middle-tier option. He’s no Joey Votto, but I’d rather grab him than be stuck with Brett Wallace or Adam LaRoche at the end of the draft. LaHair is currently going around 150 in NL-only drafts, falling between Aubrey Huff and James Loney, and he strikes me as a solid value pick in that range. Yes, there’s some risk involved, but I don’t see enough there to dissuade me given that talent pool.
In the deeper pool of mixed, I still like LaHair at his current ADP of 225 — I also love Dexter Fowler, who is going at the same time, but that’s a post for another time — especially in OBP leagues. He’s not quite Carlos Pena-esque in the disparity between his average and his OBP, but walks are definitely part of LaHair’s skill set. ZiPS has him down for 24 HR and while that isn’t earth shattering production, grabbing that extra power down in the mid-200s can help to round out a good team.
Mike Axisa did a great job looking at LaHair’s platoon numbers a few weeks ago and I do share some of his concerns, but given the range he’s currently being taken in, I’m willing to work around those issues. That said, if LaHair ends up being this year’s “hot sleeper that gets taken way too early in drafts such that he isn’t really a sleeper anymore” or HSTGTWYTEINDSTHIRASA I’ll find that power elsewhere. Also worth noting: If your league counts strike outs, LaHair is going to be an anchor in that category and you may want to look elsewhere.
He isn’t without his risks or his warts, but LaHair is one of the sleepers that most interests me. With any luck, he will put together a strong season and won’t have to face the same playing time questions this time next year.
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