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NL Outfield Fallers: Bay, Lee, Ibanez

While most fantasy owners fall in love with players who broke into the elite a year ago (like Carlos Gonzalez and Andrew McCutchen) or get carried away with unearthing the next didn’t-see-that-coming talent, the best way to find cheap value on draft day is to keep tabs on vets whose fantasy reps took a hit following a down year. Like these three NL leftfielders with power-hitting track records.

Jason Bay, Mets
Collated ADP: 146 (Mock Draft Central: 137; ESPN: 164; Yahoo!: 136)
Bay’s first season in Flushing was a flat out disaster. And that was before the 32-year-old suffered a concussion from banging into the left field wall in Dodger Stadium on July 23, which for all intents and purposes ended his season (though he would actually play in two more games before shutting it down). Big things were expected of Bay after inking a four-year, $66 million contract coming off an MVP-caliber 2009 with the Red Sox, but he finished the year with just—gasp—6 home runs (career-worst ISO: .144). This from a guy whose previous career-low was 21.

The underlying numbers, though, suggest not that he experienced a sudden loss of talent, but rather that he endured some bad luck and tried too hard to impress his new team. While Bay’s walk and strikeout rates stayed within his norm, he did expand his zone (career-worst 27.1% O-Swing) but still made contact when he did so (58.0% O-Contact), which suggests that he was trying to do too much and too often hit pitchers’ pitches rather than ones he could drive. That dovetails with his 5.1% HR/FB rate, a ridiculous departure from his career rate of 15.8%. For what it’s worth, Bay split his 6 homers evenly between home and road, so while everyone wants to make a big deal about Citi Field sapping his power, it seems more likely that 2010 was just a fluke power outage (a la David Wright in 2009).

The fact that Bay is working with new hitting coach Dave Hudgens this spring to shorten his swing path shows that he’s addressing the issue. All things considered, Bay has recovered from the concussion and is still young enough to bounce back with a strong season. While you shouldn’t count on a 30-homer season, it wouldn’t be a total shock if it happened, and there’s no reason Bay can’t hit 20-25, while still stealing double-digit bases (11 per since 2008). He’s going in the 12-15 round range, as a third or fourth outfielder. At a time when much is going wrong for the Mets—don’t underestimate the residual effect this can have on fantasy—Bay actually makes for a good value pick.

Carlos Lee, Astros
Collated ADP: 149 (131; 134; 181)
Lee got off to one of the slowest starts in the majors last year, and that tends to stick with a player the ensuing year. In this case, that’s part of the reason for his plummeting ADP. How bad did things get for El Caballo? Well, on June 1, he was hitting all of .206 with just 5 home runs and 21 RBIs. When you draft a guy to play to the back of his baseball card, in this case a .300 average, 30 homers and 100 RBIs—he’d managed 100 RBIs seven of the previous eight seasons—you tend not to forget something like that. Couple that with the fact that some had already been awaiting Lee’s dropoff as he reached his mid-30s (he was 34 last season), and it makes for a pretty compelling case of a player to avoid. But consider: From June on, Lee picked up the pace big-time, hitting a respectable .264 with 19 jacks and 68 RBIs. Granted, the average was still lower than what you paid for heading into 2010, but if anything seeing a .246 in that column for the season will make owners even more hesitant to buy in.

Is he in decline? His career-worst ISO (.170) suggests so. Is his team a bit of a mess around him? For sure. Will he lose a few at-bats to late-game defensive replacements? Probably. But here’s one more number: .238. That was his batting average on balls in play, which was almost 50 points off his career average. Even for a slow, plodding runner whose last infield his may or may not have been in 2005, that number should be expected to improve, and with it, so will his overall line. At a time when power is in high demand, it doesn’t hurt to gamble on a guy like Lee as a fourth outfielder in the middle rounds.

Raul Ibanez, Phillies
Collated ADP: 224 (215; 217; 240)
Unlike the first two mentioned above, Ibanez is facing a longer climb back to fantasy relevance based on his current ADP. In fact, the RotoGraphs crew feels similarly, considering Bay and Lee were ranked 20th and 23rd overall among National League outfielders, while Ibanez was a few clicks below at No. 37. The reason Ibanez qualifies for this post has more to do with fantasy owners’ perception of him than his own shortcomings. If Lee has to overcome last year’s slow start that won’t soon be forgotten, then Ibanez’s draft position in 2010 was superficially inflated for the exact opposite: his crazy start to the 2009 season.

It’s coming back to you now, right? In his first two months as a Phillie, the then-36-year-old was a one-man wrecking crew, crushing NL pitchers to the tune of .330, 17 homers and 46 RBIs. It got so much attention (some for the wrong reasons), that it carried over to last year’s drafts, making Ibanez a higher pick than he realistically should have been—never mind that he actually wound up slumping to .236 for the remainder of the season. That’s what happens when a player posts a career-high 34 homers on the strength of a too-good-to-be-true 21.1% HR/FB rate. If not for that, his 2009 would have been perceived as merely very good instead of great, and it would have fallen in line with what he did in 2010, preventing the drastic drop in ADP. So while Ibanez, currently being drafted between rounds 18 and 22, is a victim of season-over-season backlash, owners should still be careful not to recall his 2009 through rose-colored glasses. Instead, such a late pick would be better spent on a younger player with upside rather than a 38-year-old trending south.