Ottoneu: Jake’s Keep or Cut Decisions at CI

A few weeks ago, the Ottoneu+RotoGraphs team — Chad Young, Lucas Kelly, and myself — ran through some tough keep or cut decisions at middle infield for our Ottoneu teams. This week, we’ve moved on to corner infielders. I’ll run through three players on my bubble and where I think the keep line could be for each of them. All P/G projections are from the 2024 Steamer projections.

Ryan Mountcastle 1B
Salary: $9
Average Salary: $11.3
2023 P/G: 4.99
Projected 2024 P/G: 5.09

Ryan Mountcastle had a really weird year in 2023. He started off producing one of the most unlucky batting lines in the league; through May 13, his wOBA-xwOBA was -.067, the fifth lowest in the majors among qualified batters. On that date, he was placed on the IL with a wrist injury and had another stint on the shelf with a bout of vertigo a month later. Upon his return, his results finally caught up with his expected stats and he wound up posting an overall line right in line with his .335 wOBA from his first full season in the majors in 2021.

Under the hood, his plate discipline improved ever so slightly; his strikeout rate dropped by 2.5 points and his walk rate was up slightly to 7.9%. With a selectively aggressive approach that produces plenty of hard contact, he won’t have the solid floor of a player with better on-base skills, but his approach moved in the right direction last year. And despite the weird batted ball luck that plagued him early in the season, his contact peripherals all fell within his established career norms.

So what’s the problem? It’s his home park. Mountcastle struggled last year when the Orioles expanded the depth of the wall in left field to its current cavernous dimensions. During his first full season and the last season Camden Yards had its old dimensions in 2021, Mountcastle pulled a little under 40% of his batted balls. That pull rate has dropped significantly the past two seasons and it’s a big reason why his actual results lag behind his expected stats.

Ryan Mountcastle, Pulled Batted Balls
Year Pull% Hard Hit% Barrel% wOBA xwOBA
2021 38.70% 40.10% 9.50% 0.549 0.425
2022 32.10% 48.90% 14.50% 0.483 0.505
2023 31.30% 46.50% 10.90% 0.409 0.435

In 2023, Mountcastle’s wOBA on pulled batted balls dropped dramatically despite producing similar contact quality. Some of that is related to his elevated groundball rate — that metric jumped up five points over where it was in 2021 and 2022 — but those deep dimensions in left field certainly affected his results. Rather than trying to pull the ball in the air like he did so successfully a few years ago, he adjusted his approach to try and hit up-the-middle more often. Of course, a batter like Mountcastle is going to do the most damage on pulled and elevated contact so seeing him diverge from that type of contact is a little worrying.

Keep or Cut?
The good news is that Mountcastle was able to post a wOBA within a couple of points of his .335 mark from 2021 this season. He has the raw power to overcome the deep dimensions of his home park but they’re certainly a hindrance to him reaching his full potential. Without a high ceiling to reach for, his value is capped around $7–10 I think. That kind of production could be an option to use at UTIL, but it’s not good enough to be your full-time 1B. And because he doesn’t have any positional flexibility whatsoever, he’s actually not that great an option at UTIL anyway. I’m probably cutting.

Andrew Vaughn 1B
Salary: $9
Average Salary: $13.1
2023 P/G: 4.53
Projected 2024 P/G: 5.38

With José Abreu out of the picture, Andrew Vaughn finally had a full-time role at his natural position at first base in 2023. Getting him off the outfield grass helped his defensive value tremendously, but it didn’t have any positive benefit for his production at the plate. His wOBA dropped six points though he was able to post the best power output of his young career. All of his batted ball peripherals look good and he was even able to put the ball into the air more often this year.

Vaughn’s Steamer projection is particularly rosy. The computer sees another pretty significant step forward in power output for him next year plus a slightly higher walk rate which results in a projected wOBA higher than what he’s produced in any of his three seasons in the big leagues. If he hits that projection, he’ll easily be worth his average salary. The projection plus the batted ball quality point to a player who will likely be on a number of “breakout” lists this offseason.

I’m not totally convinced, however. The White Sox really screwed with Vaughn’s development, first by calling him up before he had even accumulated 250 minor league plate appearances and then by sticking him in the outfield for two years. He’s had solid batted ball peripherals all three seasons in the majors but his results have been rather lackluster nonetheless. And now that he’s lost outfield eligibility, the onus to produce at the plate will be even higher.

Keep or Cut?
That Steamer projection is really enticing; the Auction Calculator believes that projection will be worth somewhere between $13 and $15. It’s probably worth the risk to keep him at $9 to see if he can really take that big step forward, but I’d want to have a backup plan in place just in case he sticks around the production level he’s already established.

Wilmer Flores 1B/3B
Salary: $7
Average Salary: $4.5
2023 P/G: 5.21
Projected 2024 P/G: 5.33

There are a bunch of competing factors that make Wilmer Flores somewhat overlooked by fantasy players. He’s old-ish and has been around forever — he’s entering his age-32 season and his 12th season in the big leagues — he’s more of a part-time player than someone you can count on everyday, and he’s a right-handed batter who mashes left-handed pitching. All of that contributes to glossing over the fact that he produced a career-best .368 wOBA this year.

Those factors also make this keep or cut decision a little tricky. Flores only played in 126 games in 2023 and only missed 10 days to an IL stint for a foot contusion in June. When you isolate the games he started and ignore the games he entered as a pinch hitter or defensive replacement, his points per game jumps from 5.21 up to 6.19. That’s a tremendous improvement in production, even if it’s a little intermittent. Rostering him means you absolutely need to have a second option to rotate into your lineup when Flores is on the bench which makes roster and lineup management a little more intensive.

The other complicating factor is that Flores lost 2B eligibility which really hurts his flexibility and potential value as an option at MI. He certainly can have some value as a part-time 3B in your lineup since that position is a lot shallower these days. And if you’re only using him when he starts, there’s a possibility that he’d even be an option at 1B provided you have another option to pair with him there.

Keep or Cut?
I don’t mind the headache of keeping tabs on when Flores is starting and the deep rosters in Ottoneu make platooning a viable fantasy strategy. $7 is probably the upper limit I’d want to invest in a part-time player, but Flores’s production definitely makes it worth it.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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