Barnes in New Pastures

A couple days ago, the Houston Astros and Colorado Rockies swapped players. Brandon Barnes will now head to Colorado to help fill Dexter Fowler‘s shoes. If he’s used predictably, then he could be useful to fantasy owners.

First, Barnes will need to earn playing time in an already crowded outfield. Carlos Gonzalez and Michael Cuddyer will play everyday when healthy. Cuddyer could potentially join a platoon with Justin Morneau at first base, but that strikes me as unlikely. So that leaves one spot for three fringe starters – Barnes, Charlie Blackmon, and Corey Dickerson. Both Barnes and Blackmon are entering their age 28 seasons, while Dickerson will enter his age 25 season.

All three players can play center field, although Barnes is the best suited to the position defensively. Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) credits Barnes with nearly 10 runs saved over 1,124 innings (a little under 1 full season). Blackmon and Dickerson have not played enough center field at the major league level to draw firm conclusions, but they are probably at least a step down from Barnes defensively.

While this doesn’t directly affect fantasy owners, it could affect playing time. Gonzalez hasn’t manned center field since 2011. Even though the Rockies are stating they will move him to center field, fantasy owners will have to wait until spring training to see if that actually happens. If Gonzalez remains in left field, then Barnes is clearly the best man to play center field – at least from a defensive perspective. That could be doubly important due to the vast size of the Rockies outfield.

Handedness could be a factor in playing time too. Blackmon and Dickerson both bat left-handed while Barnes is a righty. Barnes should be viewed as the favorite to start against left-handed pitchers and may steal a few reps against righties due to his superior defense. If the other two outhit him, he may move into a defensive replacement type role.

According to FanGraphs’ Guts!, Coors Field has an overall park factor of 115, or 15 percent above neutral. Every type of hit occurs at a higher than average rate, ranging from seven percent more singles to 25 percent more triples. Elevation forced the Rockies to build a ball park with huge dimensions, which forces them to hire outfielders who can patrol such dimensions. This is a point in Barnes’ favor.

Park factors are an obvious reason why Barnes may be worth a peek in certain leagues, especially those that include a dedicated spot for center fielders. In addition to playing time concerns, he comes with a low floor for production, so the new home turf may not be enough to make him useful in an average sized league.

We don’t have enough information to comment reliably on a possible platoon split. Barnes has shown substantially better numbers against left-handed pitchers than right-handed ones. However, these appear to be random variation rather than predictive. He has walked and struck out more frequently against lefties, which is inconsistent with a normal platoon split (usually we would see fewer strikeouts). His .392 BABIP against lefties compared to a .278 BABIP against righties looks like a clear fluke. Small sample size comes into play too.

Strikeouts are a problem with Barnes. Over 550 plate appearances, he’s struck out 156 times – a 28.4 percent rate. That leads to expectations of a low batting average. This isn’t helped by a low walk rate and minimal power, although the latter has been better throughout his minor league career and could improve in the rarefied Colorado air. Colorado can also hurt pitch movement, which could help his strikeout rate.

We can expect about 25 home runs plus stolen bases over a full 600 plate appearance season from Barnes, although we can also be reasonably certain that he won’t come anywhere near that much playing time. He should be at his best when playing at home and against left-handed pitchers.

With that information in hand, we’re left with a very specific use case for fantasy owners. Barnes should be of interest when facing left-handed pitching at Coors Field. In other words, he’s palatable for about 27 games next season. Only owners in very deep or NL only formats should consider drafting him. But owners in leagues that allow streaming should keep an eye on him for a few spot starts.

Zach Sanders found him to be worth negative $3 last season. I expect about zero dollars of value next season. If you use him selectively for a handful of starts, you may managed to squeeze a couple dollars out of him.

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John Elway

Even though he’s joining us in the Mile High City, I’ll have to join the neigh-sayers about Barnes.