The perception of age is one of the more interesting facets of player evaluation to me, and I don’t mean that in the Miguel Tejada sense. Highly touted prospects who make their debuts at a particularly young age or who don’t find an extremely high level of success shortly after debuting often lose some of their notoriety, despite being in the part of their career where some failure ought to be expected. Without checking, name the ages of these players: Delmon Young, Justin Upton, Dayan Viciedo, and Dexter Fowler. I’m going to guess that for the people who guessed and got it wrong, overestimating the players’ ages was more uncommon than underestimating. Each of these guys made news a few years ago, but only Upton has made a substantial mark so far, and even he is probably underappreciated relative to his performance.
With the exception of Young, I like these guys for reasons beyond their age, but seeing the 26-year-old Fowler on the cusp of coming into his own is especially gratifying for me. As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, I have a fantasy addiction to Fowler — I think I’ve owned him in at least one league every year since his first full season in 2009 — and while toolsy players are always on my radar, having him play his home games in Coors made Fowler the player I’m almost always willing to take a flier on. Heading into the 2012 season, however, Fowler finally looks less like a bundle of tools and more like a composed baseball player.
The first few months of 2011 were ungood for Fowler. He stole just two bases in the first half of the season and was caught six times. He hit just .238/.340/.348 without a single home run, meaning he contributed next to nothing for most fantasy players. After a six-week stint in the minors, Fowler returned to the Rockies looking like a different player. He stole 10 bases while being caught just three times and hit .288/.381/.498 with 5 HR. Home runs are never going to be a huge part of Fowler’s game, no matter what his slugging percentage might suggest, but he’ll poach a few in the thinner mountain air.
There had been chatter as Fowler rose through the Rockies system that in order to jump-start his development he would need to end his switch-hitting. For the time being at least, it looks as though that won’t be necessary, as he seems to have gotten the hang of hitting right-handed pitching. It’s something to watch, especially right now in spring training, since the Rockies have outfielders to spare. If Fowler shows little deviation between his performance against lefties and against righties, I don’t think the Rockies will keep him out of the order. However, if he regresses and struggles from the left side again, it isn’t unthinkable that they might try to platoon him. I don’t see this as a tremendously likely scenario, but it is something to keep in mind.
At this moment, the biggest knock against Fowler is that he doesn’t thrive in any one traditional category, and that’s true, though in leagues that deviate from the traditional 5X5 or 6X6, Fowler does provide some extra value. 10 steals aren’t particularly great, though in a full season it isn’t hard to imagine him getting 20-25, which is more compelling. Power isn’t his forte, though he’s better in leagues where 2B and 3B are categories of their own or where SLG is a category rather than HR. His batting average isn’t great, but his career 12 percent walk rate makes him a better option in OBP leagues, and does give some hope that he’ll be driven in a fair amount by his teammates. Still, that’s a lot of qualifying statements, and if Fowler ends up being the type of player who is more valuable in real life than he is in fantasy, I can’t say that would be the most shocking outcome.
As much as I love Fowler, it’s important to recognize that his value right now is as a sleeper. His ADP according to Mock Draft Central is 226, which puts him in the back half of the 18th round of a 12-team mixed draft. At that point in the draft, getting ZiPS’ projected production –.264/.360/.418 with 6 HR and 18 SB — is pretty good value as is, if he builds on last year’s second half the way many expect him to, that’s nothing but additional profit. If, because he is one of the more popular sleepers, he starts going closer to the 10th or 11th round, the expected production has to go up as well and it becomes far less likely that he’ll bring a good return on investment.
Harkening back to the opening comments here, Fowler is just heading into his age-26 season. It’s more than possible that he’s just now starting to get a feel for switch hitting in the majors and that 2012 will be a breakout season for him. I wholeheartedly endorse him as a sleeper outfielder. That said, there’s a reason my fellow Rotographers only ranked Fowler as the 62nd best outfielder; pay accordingly.
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