We’re a month through the season, and fantasy owners are already jumping to huge conclusions regarding the 2014 season. These tiered rankings attempt to capture the production from the first month of the season, moving some players up and down where I felt it was necessary, but largely, I attempted to refrain from getting too caught up in the ebbs and flows of single-month performance. There are five months remaining in the 2014 season. Lots will change, and I didn’t want to make the tiered rankings a simple “who is performing well right now,” as that’s not overly useful.
Anyway, here we go.
At first glance, Jason Kipnis doesn’t fit atop the second base tiered rankings. He’s currently rehabbing an abdomen injury and should be out the next few weeks. He’s also hitting .234/.354/.394 and barely a top-20 player at the position thus far in 2014. However, I expect Kipnis to bounce back strongly whenever he returns to the everyday lineup. His BABIP is a career-low .250 (a career low for any level, majors or minors) and his plate discipline doesn’t present any warning signs. In fact, the 27-year-old is has more walks than strikeouts to this point in the season. If I’m worried about anything, I’m worried he may not run much when he returns due to the abdomen injury. That would impact his overall fantasy value, as he’s never going to be an elite source of home runs. Consider this ranking a huge buy on the fact that his batting average will return and he’s still practicing good habits at the plate. The numbers should, hopefully, follow.
As far as Robinson Cano is concerned, I need to see more than a single month of a sub-.100 ISO before I subscribe to the fact that he’ll experience a complete power outage in Seattle. It is beginning to look as if many fantasy owners’ concerns about Cano’s move to Seattle may have been justified, though.
I wanted to demote Dustin Pedroia to the third tier quite badly — and if I’m a fantasy owner, I’m not even considering “buying low” on him at the moment — but there’s too much track record to bump too significantly because of a lesser-than-expected month of April. Last year and even prior to the season, I mentioned Pedroia needed to reverse his ground-ball trends from a season ago. He put the baseball on the ground 50.4% of the time in 2013, but the concerns were somewhat ameliorated because he played through injury. Unfortunately, the ground-ball numbers have gotten worse, which has led to an even more-dramatic power decrease. His ground-ball rate is up to 52.1% and his ISO has plummeted to .107, which is a career low since FanGraphs began collecting such data in 2006.
Pedroia needs to be elite in almost every category to make up for a severe lack of power. Right now, that’s not happening. The stolen base and RBI numbers aren’t there, and his batting average isn’t anything special at .275. He’s currently the 15th-ranked second baseman, and I can envision an uncomfortable scenario in which Pedroia fails to break the top-10 by the end of the season. Again, there’s track record here, so I don’t want to sound the alarms too loudly. I’m just not going anywhere near the 30-year-old veteran.
This is perhaps the most-interesting tier because it includes two second basemen who could be burgeoning fantasy studs this season: Anthony Rendon and Brian Dozier.
I’ve been all over Anthony Rendon throughout the winter and into the first month of the season. He should hit for a high average and threaten for 20 homers, all while benefiting from a pretty good Nationals offense. Rendon currently ranks fifth in runs scored among second basemen, fourth in homers, first in runs batted in, and seventh in batting average. The lack of stolen bases should keep him from being a legitimate contributor across the board in traditional rotisserie categories, but he should be an easy top-10 second baseman throughout the remainder of the year, with a chance to crack the top-five if the old-time studs don’t bounce back in a big way in the coming months.
I wrote about Brian Dozier a couple weeks ago: I noted the increased fly-ball rate, which has helped the unexpected power boost, and explained how batting leadoff for the Twins has allowed him to accumulate impressive stolen base and run totals. At the same time, I don’t think anyone saw Dozier running to this extent. The dude already has 11 stolen bases in 29 games, which puts him on pace for roughly 46 stolen bases over 600 plate appearances! In April, we were talking about Dozier as a potential 20/20 guy with ample runs scored. That may have been selling him lightly. Although I’m not buying the power numbers to continue, his plate discipline has drastically improved (a trend for Twins hitters this year) and he doesn’t appear to be slowing down on the basepaths. I really like Brian Dozier right now, and in OBP leagues, he’s even that much better.
For those worrying about Ben Zobrist and his lack of RBI thus far: he’s hitting .172/.219/.310 with runners in scoring position, including a .174 BABIP. Those numbers will improve, and the RBI numbers should respond accordingly.
Last month, I noted Dee Gordon would begin to shoot up the tiered rankings if he proved he would get the vast majority of playing time for the Dodgers, and he’s already accumulated 124 plate appearances. His value is completely tied into his stolen bases and batting average. Still, he’s rocking a .417 BABIP, and when that comes back down to earth in the coming months, a little voice in the back of my mind wonders if he’ll be able to hold back Alex Guerrero, who is hitting .290/.371/.548 with three homers in very limited time in Triple-A.
Howie Kendrick is currently the 3rd-ranked fantasy second baseman. He’s been impressive across the board, swiping bases, hitting .303 with an improved walk rate, and posting respectable numbers in the counting categories. However, I’ve seen this dance before from Howie Kendrick, and I’m not buying. He did the same thing last season before moving back down the batting order and ultimately finishing as the 15th-ranked second baseman, despite a .297 batting average and double-digit homers. In previous tiers, I talked about being wary of moving guys too dramatically because of track record — unless something significant changed in their game or their position in the batting order — and the same applies to Kendrick. Too much track record of fantasy mediocrity exists for me to get too excited.
The early-season fantasy darling was Emilio Bonifacio. He’s the 6th-ranked second baseman, has positional flexibility, and is owned in 99% of ESPN leagues. However, few people are discussing the fact that his entire value is being bolstered by an incredible first couple weeks. If we exclude his first eight games, he’s hitting .230/.296/.284 with five stolen bases. In other words, he’s exactly who we thought he was. Pass.
Sometimes the injury excuse only masks a statistical decline brought on by aging, and I’m becoming convinced that’s the case with Aaron Hill. His power numbers have dropped for the second-consecutive season, his batting average continues to drop, and there’s almost no chance that he threatens for double-digit stolen bases. Even worse, his contact rate has dropped to a career-low 81.8%, which is a four-percent dropoff from his 2012 season. One can wistfully look back on the 2012 season and convince oneself that the skill still remains somewhere, and perhaps that’s true. As a fantasy owner, though, that’s not something on which I’m going to bet.
The Giants’ middle infielder currently ranks seventh in fly-ball distance through the first month of the season. He’s shown some pop in the past down in the minors, hitting double-digit homers in each of the last three seasons. No one foresaw this, though. Still, he’s striking out 31.4% of the time and won’t have a high average, not to mention he’s a part-time player. If you’re really hurting in the middle infield and need some power numbers, though, there are worse things you can do than grab Hicks off the waiver wire and cross your fingers that he can hit another five-to-ten homers this year.
I mean, to be clear, there aren’t many worse things you can do than pickup Hicks to be a starting fantasy player, but there are a few.
J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).