Every year, certain players surprise in a good way, and we have already seen picks to click from Jonah Keri and breakout picks from Keith Law. But not everyone can be a pleasant surprise. Young players who we expect to show progress will plateau or take steps back, and veterans who we expect to maintain a certain level of performance will backslide. Let’s take a look at a few players that I am not optimistic on this year.
Jered Weaver, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: Back-to-back three-win seasons established Weaver as one of the best pitchers in the game, but there was an underlying river that threatened to undermine his progress — his strikeout rate. In 2010, Weaver struck out a career-best 25.8% batters, but his swinging-strike rate that season has proven to be an outlier. As his strikeout rate has declined — his 19.2% K% last season was actually below average — so has his velocity. Towards the end of last season, his average velocity was barely above 85 mph. With his 20’s behind him, Weaver is unlikely to see these trends suddenly reverse themselves, and he will become even more reliant on his control and defense. Luckily, both of those are still excellent, so Weaver’s decline may be soft, but his days of being an ace may be behind him. Last season he only registered a 94 FIP-, just six percent better than league average. That’s not the profile of a pitcher who should be the eighth-fastest pitcher in fantasy leagues, as he is at Mock Draft Central.
Hunter Pence, San Francisco Giants: Another player who will say goodbye to his 20’s this season is Pence. The Texas native, who turns 30 on April 13, saw a sharp decline in his performance following his trade to the Giants last season. It might not get any easier this season. Pence has never been a player who relies on his patience, and has instead made his hay as a power-speed player. The speed vanished in 2011, and the power may go the way of the dodo soon as well. Last season, only one National League park depressed home runs from right-handed hitters more than did AT&T Park. It was also the fourth-hardest NL park for right-handed hitters for doubles and triples. This puts Pence’s streak of 20-plus homers in five straight seasons squarely in jeopardy, but it’s more than just that. After starting his career with five consecutive seasons with at least 3.0 WAR, last season Pence fell to just 1.8, and if he doesn’t improve, his days as a full-time starter may be numbered.
Jason Kipnis, Cleveland Indians: When Kipnis homered in four straight games in his introduction to the majors, it seemed like a new star had been foisted upon us. More than a year later, things appear less certain. Yes, Kipnis did sock 14 homers and swipe 31 bases last season, something that no other second baseman could boast. On the other hand, his 3.1 WAR was only the 12th-best mark at the position, and tied for a middling 69th out of 143 qualified players. His offense was league average, but after his ’11 debut, more was expected. His projections don’t look any rosier heading into 2013, as neither ZiPS nor Steamer project his wOBA to be a top 10 figure at second base. Steamer ranks him 12th, and ZiPS ranks him 13th. He’s not close to breaking away from the pack in either projection system, and both rate him as essentially akin to the Mets’ Daniel Murphy.
This runs contrary to his public perception — on MDC for instance, only Robinson Cano, Dustin Pedroia and Ian Kinsler are being drafted ahead of Kipnis at the keystone. Part of the problem may be his home ballpark, Progressive Field. In his brief time in the majors, Kipnis has struggled against left-handed pitching, and that is doubly true at home. In his 128 plate appearances at home against lefties, he has hit just .184, and only 3.8% of the flyballs he has hit have landed in the cheap seats, a number that is well below league average. And while 128 PA is a small sample, it has been shown that HR/FB stabilizes around 100 PA, so that number may not take a turn for the better. This season, Kipnis will be 26, so he isn’t <i>that</i> young. He should be entering his prime, but his recent performance and projections offer little hope for growth. As a point of comparison, Pedroia had seasons with wOBA’s of .364, .377 and .359 by the time he reached his age-26 season. Last year in his first full season, Kipnis hit for a not-at-all comparable .315 wOBA. Kipnis simply may not become the star many expect him to be.
Michael Morse, Seattle Mariners: In his one full season in the majors, Morse hit .303/.360/.550 in 575 PA. In his other 1,115 major league PA, he has hit .291/.341/.462 — not bad in and of itself, but certainly the star quality is lacking. Add in some absolutely horrid defense, and you are left with a player that is only superficially a “beast.” Over the past two seasons, 107 players have played at least 1,000 innings in the outfield. Of them, only Lucas Duda has a worse UZR/150 than does Morse. Now, he will move to a bigger outfield in Seattle than he had been playing in in Washington. That’s not a recipe for success. Not only will his fantasy value take a hit — Safeco Field still kills right-handed hitters — but his WAR may be in danger of delving into negative territory.
Carlos Beltran, St. Louis Cardinals: In the past two seasons, Beltran has not missed significant time due to injury. Unfortunately, he wasn’t the automatic number-generating robot for the entirety of the two seasons. His 2011 campaign was a revelation, as was his first-half performance last season. But then his walk rate dropped, his K rate spiked, and his production dropped. Beltran isn’t going to be as bad as his .236/.302/.440 line that he tallied in the second half last season, but the superstar lines of 2011 and early 2012 will probably be out of reach as well. No longer an asset defensively, Beltran is almost completely reliant on his bat to provide value, and his bat isn’t going to justify superstar status. Neither ZiPS nor Steamer projects Beltran to have a top-20 wOBA among outfielders. Both grade him as above-average offensively, similar to players like Jason Kubel and Nick Markakis. What’s more, if Beltran does get hurt, he may find himself Wally Pipp’d by top prospect Oscar Taveras. It can be dangerous to put too much weight on first-half and second-half splits, but when the player in be pessimistic.
To be sure, these four are not the only players about whom I am pessimistic. Like Morse, Jacoby Ellsbury only has only recent banner season, albeit a borderline-MVP banner season. He probably isn’t going to get near that level again though. Dan Haren, Tommy Hanson and Brian McCann are all broken until proven healthy — all three are too risky for my tastes in fantasy baseball this season. From a fantasy perspective, Mike Moustakas is the embodiment of a player whose real-life value far outstrips his fantasy value.
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