Could Ethier Injury Make Crawford Relevant Once Again?

It’s been a long day without you, my friend. And I’ll tell you all about it when I own you again.

We’ve come along way from where we began with Carl Crawford as a fantasy baseball asset. Once one of the premiere outfielders in the game thanks to double-digit power, a .300 average, and 50-steal wheels, Crawford’s fallen on harder times since he landed with the Boston Red Sox in 2011. This is further proof that the Red Sox are evil and you should divest all shares of David Price.

Speed and defense don’t always age gracefully into a player’s 30s, and now 34, Crawford’s best days are decidedly behind him. But someone has to eat up the plate appearances that Andre Ethier, out 10-to-14 weeks with a fractured right tibia, is abandoning in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ outfield.

It’s crazy to think, but a guy who once had his fantasy value debated against that of Moises Alou or Gary Sheffield may now be relevant once again.

Prior to Ethier going down, Crawford looked to be penciled in to a fifth-outfielder role. Yes, he was there, and he’d get occasional games in because it’s preferable to lighting $20.8 million on fire, but he was essentially Ethier’s caddy. Yasiel Puig and Joc Pederson are more or less everyday players, leaving Crawford to fight with Scott Van Slyke, Trayce Thompson, and Enrique Hernandez for Ethier’s scraps. That Crawford is a lefty, like Ethier and Pederson, only served to further limit his potential playing time.

Now, so long as he can stay healthy, Ethier’s injury appears to bump Crawford into the favorable side of a platoon with Van Slyke. Eric Stephen of True Blue LA reported Tuesday that Dave Roberts plans to split Ethier’s reps between those two. Whoever grabs the fifth outfield spot (the guess here is Thompson) could force their way into more time, and those inputting Steamer projections aren’t as optimistic Crawford’s role will grow significantly. It should move the needle in the short-term.

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The larger impediment to Crawford’s playing time for the first three months of the season appears to be his own ability to stay healthy rather than a lack of role. Last season, he appeared in 69 games, dealing with ankle, shin, shoulder, hamstring, and oblique issues, and while he still managed to steal 10 bases, he was a spot-start play at best. In the three seasons prior, he hit the disabled list for ankle, thigh, and elbow injuries, plus had an offseason wrist surgery. Age doesn’t just take it’s toll on skills, it makes it tougher to use them.

So no, trusting Crawford over the entirety of the next few months isn’t the safest of ideas, nor is assuming his utility will follow his career trend of being tied closely to his ability to stay on the field.

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But Crawford may have enough speed left in him to matter, or at least be worth a late flier in deeper formats. If he’s going to play – and possibly lead off – against right-handed pitchers most days, then he’s going to have an opportunity to make an impact four or five days a week. Steamer projects him for 11.9 home runs and 19 stolen bases over 600 plate appearances, and ZiPS is slightly more optimistic at 11.7 and 21.4, or about half a home run and one stolen base each week. He also projects for a .270 average by ZiPS, and that’s with a conservative batting average on balls in play estimate that would be his lowest since 2011.

More than a serious speed or BABIP decline, Crawford’s shrinking contact rate is troubling. It’s dropped from 85.2 percent in 2013 to 78.7 percent in 2015, and pitchers have consistently given him less in the zone. Crawford’s shown more willing to hack at those bad offerings, yet he got more selective inside the zone last year. The result was a career-high strikeout rate, negating some of the additional hard contract he produced. A 200-plate appearance sample is small from which to draw, but this is all more concerning than any further perceived decline in base-running – if he can’t get on, whether he’s left with 15-steal speed or 25-steal speed won’t matter as much.

From a risk-reward standpoint, though, he might be worth a late flier now in deeper formats. He’s getting drafted right around the 100-mark in the outfield, surrounded by other lower-upside veterans like Franklin Gutierrez, Chris Coghlan, and Steve Pearce. The difference here is that Crawford now has a clear path to regular playing time for as long as he can stay healthy.

This could also be a boon for Van Slyke, particularly if he can establish himself as even remotely useful against righties. He owns a career weighted runs created-plus of 99 without the platoon advantage, and there’s obvious power when he does have it (a career 142 wRC+). His 2015 was disappointing due largely to injury, but he’s on the radar in daily formats as a platoon bat already – if he can carve out some of Crawford’s share of the starts against right-handers, he could hit double-digit home runs. He’s not being drafted at all – an ADP of 144 in the outfield – but stands to gain a bit of value as a format-play.

Drafted slightly earlier has been Thompson, who may now have a roster spot. The 25-year-old had a ridiculous debut with the White Sox in 2015, posting a 144 wRC+ in 135 plate appearances. He doesn’t have that kind of track record in the minors, but he does have a history of pushing somewhere close to 20-20, or at least 15-15. It’s unlikely he sees enough playing time right away to matter, but keep an eye on the situation early in the year, as Thompson may have the highest fantasy upside of the Dodgers’ options here, even with the likely hit to batting average (ZiPS projects him for 18 home runs and 12 stolen bases with a full slate). I’m always more intrigued by someone we haven’t seen than someone we have tape on, so here’s hoping Thompson gets a chance.

Alex Guerrero has an outside shot at grabbing a roster spot now but it still seems unlikely. He’s got power but can’t get on base. Like, ever. Enrique Hernandez, too, could see the odd appearance in the outfield to go along with his appearances, well, everywhere else, but this news doesn’t shift his fantasy value any.

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Blake Murphy is a freelance sportswriter based out of Toronto. Formerly of the Score, he's the managing editor at Raptors Republic and frequently pops up at Sportsnet, Vice, and around here. Follow him on Twitter @BlakeMurphyODC.

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Cory Settoon
Member

I’m with you Blake.

Steals are extra-valuable this year, which will boost him up.

Another thing is that there are not many great LHP in his division. There is Mad-Bum and…De La Rosa…Ray?