A dynasty ranking follow-up

I’m a bit late to the party in terms of following up the dynasty rankings article from a few weeks back, which can be found here. That said, Jeff’s excellent supplementary piece has spurred me to follow up with one of my own. As is abundantly clear, there are wildly varying opinions on where these youngsters should be ranked. Hopefully this follow-up piece will shed some light on the thinking that went into my ranking.

1. Justin Upton, OF, Arizona Diamondbacks

Upton is oozing with talent, and is an across-the-board performer. The decision was easy for me to rank him at the top. Playing most of the 2011 season at 23 years old, Upton boasts in game power that few of his peers can match. In previous years, that power came with the expected eye-popping strikeout totals of a young slugger. This past season, however, Upton made massive strides in that department, shaving nearly eight percentage points off of his 26.6 percent strikeout rate of 2010, reducing it to 18.7 percent. The result was a 16-point jump in batting average, in spite of a 35-point drop in his BABIP.

He is a prototypical heart-of-the-order batter who offers power, average and solid on-base skills. For gravy, Upton has stolen around 20 bases a season. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been efficient doing so. If he fills out any further and loses a step, the brakes may be pumped, and 20 stolen base seasons turned into a thing of the past. Of course, if that’s the case, a further bump in power production could also result, making the net result a wash of sorts.

2. Stephen Strasburg, SP, Washington Nationals

It pained me to rank a starting pitcher this high (let alone follow it up with two more at spots three and four). Strasburg is a special talent, though, and has toyed with hitters in his 92 innings of major league experience. In his brief return in 2011, Strasburg showed he’d reclaimed most of his explosive pre-Tommy John velocity, and exhibited pristine control (often the last thing to return).

Reports such as that of Tom Verducci, which Jeff quoted in his own dynasty rankings article, are worth noting. But how much weight should be placed on them? Before suffering a series of injuries, Mark Prior was lauded as having picture-perfect mechanics. Post-injury, everyone and his brother wanted to claim “they knew” his mechanics would lead to injury. Many questioned how a starter like Tim Lincecum would hold up with such a high torque, awkward delivery.

All of this leaves me questioning the validity and worth of most mechanical arguments. Sure, an easy, clean delivery is much preferred to a high effort one. Ultimately, though, I believe some pitchers’ bodies are built for the unorthodox motion of throwing a baseball overhand and some aren’t. Strasburg has yet to prove whether he fits into the former or the latter group. He’ll have to build up his innings again, and is no sure thing to maintain his mind-blowing performance over a 200-plus-inning grind. Even with that in mind, he has room for regression with his level of play being so high.

3- Clayton Kershaw, SP, Los Angeles Dodgers

Much of the commentary in the initial rankings article revolved around Kershaw ranking behind Strasburg. A very valid argument could be made for him ranking higher. That argument could start with him winning the National League’s pitcher triple crown (he led the league in ERA, WHIP and strikeouts). That alone makes him an incredibly desirable young pitcher, something that is reflected in his ranking on this list.

One reason he ranked behind Strasburg for me was his record of passable to poor control. Last season was his first with a walk rate below 3.50 per nine innings, and only his second below four per nine. How much of his control gains will he be able to sustain? He doesn’t need all of the gains to flirt with the top fantasy pitcher ranking year-to-year, but one season isn’t enough for me to completely ignore nearly 500 innings of previous work in the majors.

What I found most promising about his electric 2011 campaign was that he didn’t need to sacrifice strikeouts for control gains. Kershaw is a special talent, make no bones about it, but if I’m going to gamble on a starter as the face of my dynasty franchise, I’m going to shoot the moon with Strasburg.

4. Felix Hernandez, SP, Seattle Mariners

It is hard to believe Hernandez, at just 25, is already a veteran of nearly 1,400 innings in the majors. This vet is a model of consistency. In all but his 2008 season, and his 2005 rookie debut, Hernandez has posted xFIPs that are a near carbon copy of his career 3.31 mark. He has two seasons under his belt in which he has compiled an ERA under 2.50 as well. He doesn’t strike out as many batters as the two pitchers ranking ahead of him, but his 8.18 K/9 career rate is plenty good enough, especially when it is coupled with excellent control, 2.75 BB/9, and a truck load of ground balls—a 55.2 percent groundball rate.

As far as controllable components go, Hernandez has shown himself to be a model performer in all three. Perhaps the most overlooked element of his value is his ability to be counted on for a high volume of innings. Not only can owners comfort themselves in knowing they’ll get star level stats from Hernandez, they can count on them coming over the course of 230-plus innings (he’s bested that total each of the last three years). If you’re a King Felix owner, just kick back, relax, and enjoy.

5. Mike Stanton, OF, Florida Marlins

Retroactive Review: Ace
Looking back at some of Justin Verlander's most interesting moments.

I was very tempted to rank Stanton directly behind Upton, as Jeff did. His power is prodigious, and even though he strikes out frequently, he made gains in that regard from his rookie season to year two. How much further improvement to his strikeout rate can be expected? Tough to say. He’s a power hitter, and strikeouts are often times an unwanted side effect. Upton has illustrated that it is possible to hit for power without selling out completely and whiffing at a clip that rivals the league leaders. If Stanton hopes to hit for more average, he’ll need to make the same strides.

Unlike Upton, Stanton hasn’t shown much base-stealing acumen. In 250 games, Stanton has stolen five bases and been caught stealing seven times, so don’t expect him to suddenly get the green light. He’s not some sort of Adam Dunn-like lurching creature, so a handful of stolen bases annually is within reason. Stanton is just about as desirable a fantasy asset as one could own starting a dynasty franchise, but his questionable batting average and modest stolen base contributions hold him back just a bit for me… for now. If given a redo, I very well might put him above the pitchers, especially considering the sheer depth of quality arms.

6. Bryce Harper, OF, Washington Nationals

This was as high as I could reasonably rank Harper. Unreasonably, I was tempted to move him and Stanton above the pitchers. Unlike many young power-hitting prospects, Harper’s power is an 80 grade tool now on the 20-to-80 scale. He played the entire minor league season as an 18-year-old, and reached the Double-A level. He’ll likely debut in the majors as a 19-year-old, meaning sometime this season. His most arduous backers give him an outside chance at breaking camp with the team. While I think that’s unlikely, he’s not that far off.

He crushed the ball in the Arizona Fall League, and shows patience at the plate that exceeds what should reasonably be expected of someone so young. Then again, Harper has done nothing but exceed expectations on the diamond, so this should come as little surprise. As a commenter alluded to in the initial article, Harper has six more years that he’ll qualify for this list! His age, present tools, ceiling, professional performance to date, and near major league readiness are staggering. He could easily top this list next year, and the year after, and the year after, and… you get the idea.

7. Mike Trout, OF, Los Angeles Angels

Most prospect talk revolving around Harper eventually turns to Trout, and this shall be no different. Unlike Harper, Trout already has major league experience. He received his time as both a 19- and 20-year-old. Trout didn’t light the world on fire, but wasn’t completely overwhelmed either. He flashed some power—five home runs and a .171 ISO in 135 plate appearances—and speed—five stolen bases—but his average was lackluster. The biggest culprit for his ugly batting average was an unlucky .247 BABIP. With a 20.7 percent line drive rate, a low pop-up rate, and the wheels Trout possesses, his BABIP, and consequently his average, should have been considerably higher.

The Angels have a crowded outfield, and may opt to unclog it temporarily by sending Trout to Triple-A to start the year. Injury or ineffectiveness from one of the players ahead of him could open the door for him to become a full-time regular, of course, there is always also a chance he kicks the door open himself by slaughtering the Pacific Coast League. His power isn’t as great as Harper’s, but it is above average, and his speed is elite. He also projects to hit for an excellent average. So much to like here.

8. Brett Lawrie, 3B, Toronto Blue Jays

Lawrie has the position-eligibility argument working in his favor for ranking ahead of at least Trout and Harper. He also has an explosive rookie year under his belt in which he showed power, speed, and the ability to hit for average against major league pitching. Even with that in mind, the power output is significantly greater than he’d ever produced in prior years. Part of that is undoubtedly that he’s more physically mature now, but how big a part? I suspect he can hit 20-25 home runs regularly, which is good, but not a total out of the reach of Trout, who I believe will steal more bases and hit for a smidge more average. Harper should also blow away Lawrie’s power output, and chip in stolen bases in his early years (though not to the extent Lawrie will). Positional scarcity does matter, which is why this is a tough call, but ultimately I decided the difference in ceiling was great enough to slot him behind the others.

9. Carlos Santana, C/1B, Cleveland Indians

Santana is already in the discussion for the best fantasy option at his position. He’s coming off a year in which he hit 27 home runs, scored 84 runs, had 79 RBIs, showed extreme discipline (14.7 percent walk rate), and even added five stolen bases. The lone fantasy-relevant category I neglected to mention was his ugly .239 batting average. His low BABIP in 2010, low line drive rate, and high pop-out rate make it debatable as to how unlucky his .263 BABIP in 2011 really was. Should he iron out some of his pop-out issues, and turn some of his ground balls from 2011 back into the line drives he hit in 2010, his average could spike a great deal.

Since he had the best bat in the Indians’ lineup, they found time for him routinely at first base. Anytime a catcher is able to get playing out of the crouch, it should be considered a plus. However, what is a blessing now could be a curse down the line. The Indians have continued to give Matt LaPorta opportunities to prove he’s the long-term option at first base, and he has disappointed. The farm system lacks an impact bat at the position, and the team could decide it is in its best interest to move Santana to the less grueling defensive position. For now, the scare isn’t great enough for me to punish him too much for it, but it does warrant monitoring.

He turns 26 in early April, so he won’t be eligible for this list next year. For now, as my ranking suggests, he’s a desirable dynasty league option.

10. Eric Hosmer, 1B, Kansas City Royals

I’m crazy about Hosmer’s swing. I’m not a scout, but when I hear about short swing paths, I picture Hosmer’s cut. His walk rate is below league average, but he offsets that with a low strikeout rate. Ideally, he’ll learn the old man skill of walking as he gets more major league experience.

Hosmer showed ample power, cranking out 19 home runs in 563 plate appearances. That total doesn’t stand up well against his first base counterparts, but it should go up some as he physically matures. It would also be aided greatly by hitting left-handed pitching better. Hosmer hit 18 of his home runs against right-handed pitching, and slashed .315/.355/.531. He hit only one home run and .237/.282/.303 against southpaws. One notable difference in the batted ball data is that his 56.8 percent groundball rate against lefties is almost 10 percent higher than against righties. If I were to guess, I’d say it’s the result of him rolling over pitches against southpaws. Hosmer’s a talented batter, and should be capable of making the necessary adjustments to close the gap on his big platoon split.

The bar is set high offensively at first base, but the names Pujols, Votto, Fielder, Gonzalez, Howard and Teixeira have shown in recent years that even with that the case, a first-round or second-round draft slot isn’t out of the question.

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