The sophomore slump has long been a thorn in the side of fantasy owners. Chris Coghlan, the 2009 NL Rookie of the Year, went from a .321 AVG with 84 R and 47 RBI as a freshman to just a .268 AVG with 60 R and 28 RBI as a sophomore, thanks in part to a knee injury. His AL counterpart, Andrew Bailey, saved almost the exact same number of games in 2010 (25) as he did in 2009 (26), but threw 34.1 fewer innings because of elbow and trunk issues. Geovany Soto went from a .285 AVG and 23 homers as a rookie to just .218 and 11 the next year. The list goes on and on.
So which 2010 rookies can we count on for fantasy production in 2010? The best place to start is with NL RoY Buster Posey, who is expected to jump right into the mix as one of fantasy’s top catchers. Last year he hit .305 with 18 HR and 58 RBI despite not being called up until the end of May. Posey’s home/road splits were rather drastic (.306/.425 wOBA’s), unsurprising given his home park, but that shouldn’t be enough to scare you away. Quality catchers are so scarce that even if Posey slips to .285 with 15-18 homers while battling the nagging injuries typically associated with the position, he’s still tremendously valuable to your club.
The runner-up to Posey’s award was Jason Heyward, the consensus top prospect in the game heading into the 2010 season. He was with the Braves from day one, hitting a three-run homer in his first career plate appearance. He and the great Brian McCann were the only players in the lineup on both Opening Day and in Game One of the NLDS, though Heyward battled thumb and knee issues throughout the season. The 21-year-old right fielder had a five win season in 2010 with no major red flags in his underlying performance, so similar production is expected going forward. He’s a must-have in OBP leagues given his tremendous walk rate (14.6% last year), and chances are he’ll rip a few more extra base hits once he starts putting more balls in the air (55.1% GB last year).
Posey and Heyward are unique considering the hype surrounding them and how quickly they lived up to it, but some other 2010 rookies don’t exactly project to do great things in 2011. AL RoY runner-up Austin Jackson hit .293 with 27 SB and 103 R, but his .396 BABIP was the highest by a non-Ichiro batter with at 500 PA since Jose Hernandez‘s .404 mark in 2002. xBABIP says A-Jax should have had a BABIP right around .352, which would have pushed his AVG down to .246 when we remove all those extra hits. Jackson’s scorching hot start (.341/.387/.463 in his first 230 PA) also masked his stumble to the finish line (.267/.324/.366 in 445 PA thereafter). The Tigers’ center fielder could be an Ichiro-like freak, but it’s hard to see someone maintaining that level of good fortune when he strikes out in more than 27% of his at-bats. Jackson still has value because he’ll threaten 25-30 steals, but don’t expect him to flirt with .300 going forward.
Perhaps the most interesting sophomore case is Mike Stanton, who whacked 22 homers in 396 PAs for the Marlins last year. The projections love his crazy raw power, predicting 35+ homers, but Stanton’s a Grade-A hacker that has struck out in more than 30% of his at-bats over the last two years (34.3% in the bigs last summer). He’s a great fit for those of you down with taking risks, especially since he’s projected to go somewhere in the 8th-9th round range. Stanton could meet the projections and hit close to 40 homers, or he could turn into a whiff factory and find himself back in Triple-A, the range of possibilities are seemingly endless. He’ll definitely get an opportunity to play, possibly starting the year as the cleanup hitter, which is comforting.
Stanton’s teammate Logan Morrison is a fantastic sleeper that should have both 1B and OF eligibility in most leagues. An AVG in the .280’s with a sky-high OBP are in the cards, and the power should develop as he gets further away from 2009 wrist surgery. His late season cameo (.283/.390/.447 with 43 R in 62 games) was spectacular. Pedro Alvarez has the third base job in Pittsburgh on lock-down for the foreseeable future, though his primary value comes from his lefty power (.205 ISO, 16 HR in 386 PA) and not so much from his AVG or OBP. Starlin Castro (.300 AVG, 3 HR, 10 SB), Ike Davis (.264 AVG, 19 HR), John Jaso (.263 AVG, .372 OBP), and Gaby Sanchez (.273 AVG, 19 HR, 85 RBI) are safe bets to at least approximate their 2010 performance in 2011, but we can’t say the same for Neal Walker (.296 AVG, 12 HR) and Danny Valencia (.311 AVG).
On the mound, the most logical place to start is with AL RoY Neftali Feliz. The Rangers say they will at least give him a shot to start in Spring Training, but the smart money is on him returning to the closer’s role, especially with Frank Francisco since traded. An ERA at or below 3.00 with over a strikeout per inning and a boatload of saves seems likely, assuming he stays healthy. Braves’ lefty Jonny Venters (1.95 ERA, 73.2% LOB, 10.08 K/9 in 2010) could see some save opportunities if rookie closer Craig Kimbrel falters at any point and is a solid option in deep mixed or NL-only leagues. Drew Storen of the Nationals figures to open the season as Washington’s ninth inning guy, and Sergio Santos could fall into some save opportunities if things break right (or wrong, depending on your perspective) on Chicago’s south side.
A pair of southpaws are the most noteworthy sophomore starters: Jaime Garcia of the Cardinals and Brian Matusz of the Orioles. Garcia rebounded from Tommy John surgery to post a 2.70 ERA (3.41 FIP) in 2010, though he’s likely to see him ERA climb over 3.00 and perhaps hug the 4.00 line with a correction to his strand rate (75.0%). The 163 IP he threw are his most in four years, so his health and workload are worth monitoring. Matusz’s overall performance (4.30 ERA, 4.05 FIP, 7.33 K/9) is nothing to get excited over, but he finished exceptionally strong (2.18 ERA, ~3.35 FIP, 7.55 K/9) in his final eleven starts and is poised to carry over that breakout into 2011. I wouldn’t expect a sub-3.00 given his division, but something close to or even below 4.00 is worth a late-round gamble. Another AL East starter, Wade Davis, will have to improve either his strikeout (just 6.05 K/9) or his ground ball (39.2%) rates (preferably both) if he intends to keep his ERA closer to 4.00 (4.07 in 2010) than to his FIP (4.79). A 78.1% strand rate isn’t something you should count on being sustainable. I like Davis, but there’s some major blowup potential without a few more whiffs and/or grounders in that division.
The competition is stiff for Mike Leake, who jumped straight from college to the majors last season (4.23 ERA, 4.68 FIP, just 5.92 K/9) and was eventually shut down for workload (and shoulder) related reasons. It’s not a given that he’ll start the season in Cincinnati’s rotation considering their depth. Same deal with Barry Enright of the Diamondbacks, though his 3.91 ERA was propped up by a ridiculous 84.9% strand rate. Expect his 2011 ERA to be closer to his 2010 FIP (5.62) than ERA. Andrew Cashner of the Cubs is a nice play in holds leagues (8.28 K/9, but 4.97 BB/9), but he’s stuck behind Carlos Marmol and Kerry Wood on the save opportunity front.
When you’re looking at sophomore players for your 2011 fantasy team, start with the best: Posey, Heyward and Feliz. Everything after those three is a bit of a crapshoot, though Morrison, Matusz, Garcia, Castro (because of his position), and Stanton are certainly intriguing. Jackson and the Tampa version of Davis are two players I’d steer clear of in standard 12-team leagues. The rookie crop as a whole was underwhelming last season, but it did give us three studs and a handful of solid players we can use to to fill out our rosters in the upcoming season.
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