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Everyone loves their rookies. Ok, maybe not Ray Flowers, but most fantasy owners out there love them. Every year, fantasy owners flock to the prospect pages of fantasy baseball magazines and web sites with stars in their eyes and hope in their hearts, looking to grab the “next big thing.” Sometimes we strike gold, sometimes we end up empty-handed, bit everyone likes to give it a go and take that chance. Obviously there are plenty of circumstances that surround a rookie’s success. Talent is always the biggest. But then there’s a little something called opportunity and sometimes that can be even more important that talent.
When scouting rookies, it’s always important to check on their path to the majors. Is it a clear path or do they have a lot to overcome? How many youngsters are they competing with? Which major leaguers are standing in their way? Is the team’s manager rookie-friendly or does he tend to lean on his veterans, day in and day out? If your answers to these questions are simple and there’s nothing that appears to be standing in the kid’s way, then you can probably move forward and have him be worth a shot. If not, then you might want to re-think your strategy and look in another direction.
Sometimes though, the path might appear to be clear, but the team has opted to bring in a little veteran insurance. You know…just in case. Sometimes the insurance policy is harmless and you as a fantasy owner have nothing to worry about. On the other hand, a hot-hitting or slick-fielding veteran looking to carve himself out another season in the bigs can be a huge issue, especially if the rookie doesn’t get off to the best of starts. Suddenly that veteran insurance is now veteran interference and your hopes and dreams of hitting it big with the rookies come to a crashing halt.
Take the St. Louis Cardinals second base situation, for example. Kolten Wong has been a prospect within the system for a couple of years and with the team’s offseason trade of third baseman David Freese and their willingness to move Matt Carpenter, his time is now. Or at least that’s what the Cardinals are saying. Wong’s late-season call-up last year was way too small a sample size to give us a clear understanding of his capabilities, so we have to look to his minor league totals which indicate light power, moderate speed and decent plate discipline. He is capable of drawing walks and his low strikeout rate coupled with a strong BABIP says that he relies heavily on contact. If that contact results in a solid line drive rate, then he has the ability to be a solid bat at the big league level.
But while the Cardinals seem content to make the job “his to lose,” they brought in a little veteran insurance in Mark Ellis. The 36-year-old Ellis has obviously lost more than just a step here in the latter years of his career, but he was solid enough for the Dodgers to go with him whenever he was healthy enough to play. He is currently listed behind Wong on the depth chart, but if the rookie hopeful gets off to a slow start, whether it’s hitting or fielding (but most likely hitting), then the door could open for Ellis to work his way into a little extra playing time. Maybe it won’t be a whole lot, but if it disrupts Wong enough to cause him to press at the plate or think too much in the field, it could shake the rookie’s confidence and before you know it, Ellis has either found his way into a platoon, or worse…he could take the job and the club sends Wong down to get his game back. Given the fantasy blandness that is Ellis, none of us would be happy to see that occur.
If the Seattle Mariners are in more of a win-now mode what with their big spending for Robinson Cano, then we could be looking at a “veteran interference” situation behind the plate. Mike Zunino was fast-tracked to the majors last season and while he struggled at the plate with strikeouts and consistent contact, the Mariners seem content to walk into the 2014 season with him behind the plate. Of course, they’d be remiss if they didn’t have themselves a contingency plan, right? Enter John Buck.
Don’t worry, I cringe and the hair stands up on the back of my neck too when I think about Buck on my fantasy team. Last year was crazy when he busted out of the gate and walloped nine home runs with 25 RBI in the month of April; so much so that no one seemed to care about his .241 average. The power he was providing was awesome and the boost in the counting stats for his fantasy owners was huge. Now obviously he cooled down tremendously and no one could even remember his April once the All Star break was reached, but he carved himself out a place in the lineup early on and it took a while for him to let it go. Now obviously there’s no guarantee of a repeat performance, but should Zunino go back to hitting .214 and Buck starts slugging home runs early, who are the Mariners going to play?
Sometimes it doesn’t even have to be a rookie who loses his footing because management brought in some veteran to compete for the job. Look at the Milwaukee Brewers and their first base situation. With the departure of Corey Hart and the waiving of Mat Gamel, the Brewers seemed resigned to entering the 2014 season with Juan Francisco as their primary first baseman. Sure, Jonathan Lucroy would see a few starts there, as would back-up catcher Martin Maldonado, but Francisco was to be their guy.
However, in mid-January, the Brewers opted to sign veteran slugger Mark Reynolds to a minor league deal and hand him an invite to spring training. Now Reynolds batting average is atrocious thanks to a strikeout rate that sits somewhere in the stratosphere, but he still has plenty of pop left in that bat of his. In fact, he had 21 home runs last season including six for the Yankees at the tail-end the season that also included a .755 OPS. Should Reynolds find his power stroke here in March, there’s a very good chance that he works his way into a straight-up lefty/righty platoon at first base.
So remember to be careful when making those late-round decisions. It’s always nice to draft a rookie or other youngster with upside, but if the path to a full-time job is blocked even just a little, then he might not be the best choice for you. Sure, the veterans could/should fizzle out rather quickly, but you’re not exactly getting your fantasy team off to the best start, are you?
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