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Too Close To Call: Gordon Beckham and Jose Altuve

In honor of last night’s too-close-to-call Iowa Caucuses, today, it’s time to look at two players who seem to be going close to one another in the early mock draft returns. In the interest of fairness, one comes from the American League, the other from the National League, so no one can accuse me of favoring one party over the other. *

Gordon Beckham, like virtually all of his White Sox teammates, had something of a down year in 2011. Even though his total WAR was higher in 2011 than it was in 2010, his wOBA slipped from .305 to .284 and his wRC+ fell from 83 down to 71, both of which are more indicative of his fantasy value. After a rookie season that looked more than just promising, Beckham has seen his stats trend in the wrong direction: His average, OBP, and slugging have fallen, his strikeout rate it up, his walk rate is down, and while he hit one more home run in 2011 than he did in 2010, he still hasn’t matched the 14 he hit in 2009 despite increased playing time. Suffice to say, things aren’t looking terribly rosy for the former Georgia Bulldog.

The most worrying sign to me is Beckham’s growing penchant for swinging at pitches out of the zone. The rate has gone up in both of the last two seasons and left Beckham swinging at nearly a third of all pitches out of the zone in 2011. Instead of improving his plate discipline as he adjusted to the majors, Beckham is getting hack happy and it’s not exactly doing wonders for his numbers on contact. There isn’t much fantasy value in a 21 percent infield flyball rate.

The last time he looked like a bona fide major leaguer, Beckham wasn’t dominant in any one category, but contributed almost across the board. His .270/.347 avg/obp was backed up with 14 HR, 63 RBI, 58 R, and even 7 SB; it’s not a line that would make you think about passing on Robinson Cano, but it’s a workable line in any league deeper than 8 or 10 teams. I don’t see that as Beckham’s career peak, a point he’s incapable of reaching again, but there is substantial concern over whether he ever will reach that point again.

On the other side is the Astros’ young Venezuelan second baseman, Jose Altuve, who came up at the end of July and hit .359/.366/.436 in his first 11 games, bringing some life to the Astros rather moribund season. He finished the year hitting .276/.297/.357 after a rather dismal month of September. While he stole just 7 bases in his 57 games with Houston, Altuve was a more prolific runner in the minors. He won’t make Astros fans forget the perpetual motion machine that was Michael Bourn, but ZiPS has him down for 33 steals over the course of a full season, which is solid production from second base.

In a keeper or dynasty context, Altuve’s age is a plus, but redraft players may see him less as young and promising and more as underdeveloped. 2012 will be just his age-22 season, and just his sixth season in organized baseball. Prior to being called up, Altuve had played just 35 games above High-A ball, which may help explain his rather lopsided BB/K ratio. Altuve walked in just over 2 percent of his plate appearances while striking out in over 12 percent of them with the Astros. His relatively short minor league track record shows that the strikeouts are just part and parcel of his game, but that he does actually know how to draw a walk. The question is how long it will take him to adjust to major league pitching and get back to a 7 percent walk rate to boost his rather poor on-base percentage.

If he can successfully bring his minor league numbers up two levels to the majors, Altuve could be a good speed option at second base who also hits a few home runs and at least nominally contributes to RBI and R, but I have little to no sense of how he’ll be able to do that initially. I think he’ll get to that point, but he’s still five years from his theoretical peak, he could crater in 2012 and still easily reach his potential a few years down the line. I don’t love his supporting cast with respect to being on base for Altuve to drive in or their ability to drive him in, which lowers his immediate value.

There is substantial risk associated with both of these players. I think it’s more likely that Beckham reaches his peak this season, but I don’t have enough confidence in his ability to actually do it to recommend him over Altuve carte blanche. Beckham is the play if minimizing risk is important. If you’re going to run with Brian Roberts as the starter, Altuve’s volatility isn’t a good pairing, especially since I think Beckham rebounds from a tremendously poor season in Chicago for reasons both statistical and decidedly unquantifiable. If you’ve already grabbed Cano or another top tier second baseman and you’re willing to roll the dice, Altuve should give you a few spare steals without killing your average entirely. If you’re in an OBP league however, especially if it’s redraft, Altuve is a much less enticing option for the time being.

I don’t trust either enough to see them as a starter in most leagues, though deep leagues have a logic of their own. Forced to choose between the two, I’m targeting Beckham and hoping my intuition is right on his potential for a rebound with a new manager, but I favor a relatively low-risk strategy. Altuve has upside to spare, but at 22 and with less than 100 games above Double-A, I have concerns about how he’ll handle his first full season in the majors.

*No actual effort was made to find one National Leaguer and one American Leaguer, it just worked out that way.