Allow me to state up front that this was easily the most difficult tier to get a handle on. Within this volatile batch lies a smorgasbord of youngsters on the rise and vets on the decline, as well as versatile across-the-board accruers and single category studs.
Before we unveil this tier, I must first extend my appreciation to Dayton Moore for swooping in to my rescue — just in time, no less — so I wouldn’t have to rank my arch nemesis, Melky Cabrera, who for the record would have slotted in at the end of this crop. I think.
Here’s a recap of the names in each tier so far:
Now for TIER FOUR…
Peter Bourjos, Angels
I’m calling Bourjos a breakout, “plant-my-flag” guy for 2012. Which is quite a turnaround after I was having trouble buying into him heading into 2011, when plenty of fantasy folks were seeing him as a sleeper, while I was worried he might get the bat knocked out of his hands and hit .225. In the end, I think it’s fair to say the 24-year-old wasn’t quite a breakout star but was better than I initially thought. He proved he has some sting in his swing* by posting a respectable .167 ISO in his first full season. That’s not exactly a blow-you-away number, but for the sake of comparison between a pair of players who possess what may seem to be a similar profile, consider that Brett Gardner’s best ISO was last year’s .110. Conclusion: Bourjos is not a pure speed guy, and there’s room for growth in his bat. After notching 49 extra-base hits in 2011, a jump closer to 60 wouldn’t be surprising.
*Walt Frazier would be proud.
As for Bourjos’ speed, he probably underperformed expectations there by succeeding on just 22 out of 31 attempts after swiping no fewer than 32 bases in any season from 2008-10 (spent almost entirely in the minors). Still, colleague Mike Podhorzer pointed out that Bourjos could see gains on the bases next year, and similar to the bat, I see room for growth. The downside here is that Bourjos is sort of a “meh” fantasy performer who might hit double-digit homers and could approach 25 steals, which makes him ownable (and startable, if your league is deep-mixed or AL-only). The upside, though, is a 15-18 HR, 30-35 SB season from a player on the come. One who you might even say is “bourjoning.” If you like making awful jokes.
Brett Gardner, Yankees
I’m going to be honest: I’m not a big fan of the steals-only player in fantasy. (And by “steals-only,” I mean a player who derives the vast majority of his fantasy value from that category; I realize such a player often contributes to runs, too.) It’s not that I won’t draft or own them; it’s just that I think they are overvalued. I also think steals are fairly easily acquired, either via free agency or trade. I’ll put it like this: When you need to make up ground in steals, they’re necessary; when you don’t, having even one elite speedster can be an anchor on your roster. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that power is now so much harder to come by, ipso facto, stolen bases aren’t as valuable. So when you see Gardner ranked here, in Tier Four, that’s my reasoning. If your league places more emphasis on the good ol’ SB category, please adjust accordingly.
Now, as for Gardner himself, besides the 40-50 swipes he brings to the table, there’s really one key factor that is going to determine whether he’ll be just another steals guy or something more in 2012: his spot in the lineup. While the 28-year-old dabbled in the leadoff role last year — of all the batting order spots, he actually notched his most ABs there (230) — Gardner also spent most of his time batting in the bottom third of the lineup, with nearly 270 ABs out of the 7th, 8th and 9th holes. He slashed just .230/.322/.330 as leadoff hitter, which doesn’t necessarily bode well, but I see no reason why he wouldn’t perform to his career rates there if given regular leadoff duties. And you better believe that there’s a big difference between hitting 1st in the Yankees lineup, which would almost guarantee 100 runs for Gardner — he does get a bump in OBP formats, with a solid 11% BB rate — and hitting 9th, where it’s impossible to score on a Derek Jeter dribbler to the right side no matter how fast you can pick ’em up and put ’em down. But until the Yankees come out and say that Gardy is taking the leadoff job away from El Capitan — which should have happened in 2011 — it’s going to be frustrating to own a player who will be elite in one category, but could be in two.
Ichiro Suzuki, Mariners
You should know by now I’ve never been a big Ichiro supporter in fantasy. There’s just too much value tied to his batting average, and if he’s not hitting .330+, he’s hurting more than helping. Now 38 and coming off unquestionably his worst season (.272/.310/.335), what exactly are we to make of Ichiro? That’s a bit of a complicated question, with several factors to consider, but in short, you might be surprised to hear I do not think he’s “done” as a fantasy asset. Even in such a down year, he still managed a nice 40 SBs and a helpful 80 runs, and his BABIP was by far his lowest ever at .295, compared to his career .351 mark. Chalk that up to his losing a step? Sure, but again, his SB numbers (40 SB vs. just 7 CS) were on par with his career rates and his infield hit percentage (10%) was only slightly below. All of which is to say, another .300 season isn’t out of the question, but it’s almost certainly going to be closer to .300 than .350. Duh.
The biggest obstacle to owning Ich (can I call him Ich?) will once again be the Mariners’ (lack of) offense. The past three seasons, he’s averaged just 81 runs and 45 RBIs, and I wouldn’t count on anything north of that next year. The bottom line here is that I think Ichiro will actually be undervalued heading into 2012 drafts and auctions — probably for the first time in his career — because everyone will see his awful batting average, general trending downwardness, the putrid surrounding team and think, “He’s old, crappy and his team sucks.” To me, that presents an opportunity to buy low, and if you’re not relying on him to be anything more than an OF4/5, he could prove to be better than that, making him a nice value for 2012. Of course, it goes without saying that his long-term keeperability is much less enticing.
Howie Kendrick, Angels
Some people look at Kendrick and see a guy entering his peak at age 28 and coming off career-highs in HRs (18), SBs (14) and runs (86). I see someone who somehow posted an uncharacteristically high HR/FB rate (16.5% compared to 8.8% career) while hitting 12 of his homers across two months (6 each) in which his HR/FB numbers were a ridiculous 24% (April) and a ludicrous 38% (August). Don’t get me wrong, I think Kendrick is a useful player to own, but I attribute most of his value to his eligibility at 2B, OF and 1B (17 games), making him a nice patchwork player in mixed leagues, but only a borderline starter, even at the keystone.
Fellow RotoGrapher Jeff Zimmerman more or less agrees with me on this point, ranking Kendrick as his No. 11 2B keeper for 2012. To be fair, Kendrick has quite a bit more value in deep leagues and AL-only play because of his eligibility, so he’s a savvy keeper in those realms, especially if you can carry over up to 8-10 players. But don’t hang onto him if you’re banking on anything more than .280-15-15 production.
Michael Cuddyer, Free Agent
I wanted to rank him higher, but three factors contributed to this placement: his advancing age, his free agency and your league’s eligibility standards. Let’s take that last point first. Cuddyer finagled his way into 17 games at second base in 2011, and if that number makes him 2B-eligible in your format, then he’s a sneaky keeper. But if you play in, say, an ESPN league where the minimum number of games played to qualify at a position the following season is 20, well, then Cuddyer just got a heck of a lot less interesting, didn’t he? His .284/.346/.459 line, 20 HRs, 70 RBIs and 70 runs plays up at 2B; but at OF or 1B, the other two positions at which he qualifies? Not so much.
As for the other factors, he’ll be three years on the wrong side of 30 by the time the 2012 season starts, and if he lands with a team that doesn’t enhance his offensive value (i.e. hitter’s park, surrounding lineup) or — unlikely but possible — doesn’t give him a regular starting job, then he risks losing even more value. Depending on how things shake out for Cuddyer, he’s either going to be a very useful keeper that can be deployed at various positions…or a disappointing and easily replaceable option with limited versatility. Until we know where he lands, I’d hold off on writing him into your keeper list with pen.
Torii Hunter, Angels
Thanks to being a highlight regular for his defense, Hunter used to be an overrated fantasy performer — did you know he’s hit 30+ HRs just once and driven in 100+ only twice? — but these days, at 36, he’s actually an underrated oldie-but-still-pretty-goodie. Since coming to the Angels in 2008, he’s been extremely consistent, averaging 22 HRs, 85 RBIs and 79 runs with a BA right around .280. It’s only right that I warn you his average dipped to .262, his lowest since 2003’s .250, and after six straight seasons of double-digit steals, those have dropped to 9 and 5 the past two years, so there’s no denying he’s on the decline.
But what he’s lost in all-around output, he’s made up for in durability since shifting full-time to right field in 2010, playing 152 and 156 games in 2010 and 2011. Granted, durability doesn’t count as a fantasy category, but playing almost every game helps Hunter compile worthy counting stats in three categories that do count. Because of his age and career arc, I wouldn’t keep him outside of very deep AL-only leagues where he doesn’t cost much in price or opportunity (i.e. at the expense of another player), and one of these years is likely to be his “cliff season,” but nothing indicates that will come in 2012, which looks like another 20-homer, 80-RBI, 80-run campaign with a passable average.
Josh Willingham, Free Agent
As I wrote last month, Willingham was probably better than you realized last year, thanks primarily to career-highs in homers (29) and RBIs (98) despite missing time with an Achilles injury, being surrounded by an inept A’s offense and playing half his games in a terrible hitter’s park.
So why isn’t he ranked higher? It’s difficult to get on board with a guy who is currently without a home and consistently misses 30 or more games with nagging nicks and bothersome bruises. Not to mention, he did hit just .246 in 2011, and his .287 BABIP wasn’t far off from his career .298. Then there’s the fact that his walk rate, while still solid (10%), dropped after improving every season of his six-year career, which accompanied a hike in his whiff rate to a career-worst 27%. At 32, he should have another solid power season or two left, but the underlying numbers and injury history aren’t going to be solved by a potential move to a better team or ballpark.
Mark Trumbo, Angels
Given that he’s just 25 and coming off a 29-homer rookie season, Trumbo should rank higher than this, potentially in the top three of this tier, but I can’t shake what is fast becoming an overpopulation problem on the Angels roster. One would think that Trumbo has earned the right to either the first base or DH job after his 2011 production, but with Kendrys Morales due back (right?) and the spillover from the already-crowded outfield, I don’t feel 100% comfortable relying on Trumbo. Sure, he’ll probably play enough at some combination of 1B and DH to help owners, but we’re also talking about a guy who was the proud owner of a .254 BA and a .291 OBP, the latter of which was the 12th-worst in baseball.
That in mind, it’s not exactly a stretch to concoct a scenario in which Trumbo starts out slowly and frustrates Mike Scioscia into giving away some of his at-bats to Vernon Wells and Bobby Abreu, which won’t help anyone much. If you feel like you’ve got a handle on this situation and like Trumbo’s upside for 2012 and beyond, then go for it. Me? I’d rather not place a portion of my fantasy roster in the hands of a manager who likes to give way too much PT to this guy.
Jason Catania is an MLB Lead Writer for Bleacher Report who also contributes to ESPN The Magazine, ESPN Insider and MLB Rumor Central, focusing on baseball and fantasy content. When he was first introduced to fantasy baseball, Derek Jeter had 195 career hits, Jamie Moyer had 72 wins and Matt Stairs was on team No. 3. You can follow him on Twitter: @JayCat11