Using Razzball’s early 2014 auction values, the Cleveland infield comes in a tie for tenth for the most valuable fantasy infield. Four of their infielders are easily fantasy relevant, and they have a fifth that makes for an interesting late sleeper option at his position.
Jason Kipnis is responsible for about half of the fantasy dollars projected to be spent on Indian infielders ($26). Kipnis was the second most valuable second baseman last year according to both Zach Sanders’ end of season valuations and ESPN’s player rater. Sanders’ values had him as the 37th most valuable player overall, and he was 20th overall on the player rater. In his second full season, he stole 30+ bases again and had the exact same run total (86). He hit a few more home runs (17 from 14) and upped his RBI total (84 from 76). But the biggest improvement came in his batting average, which jumped from .257 to .284.
The thing that jumps off the page when considering Kipnis’ improved batting average is that it was accompanied by a 50+ point spike in BABIP (.345 from .291). But thanks to a BABIP-friendly batted ball profile led by a top 20 line drive rate (24.7%), Kipnis’ xBABIP was .352 last year. Automatically assuming Kipnis’ batting average will regress because of a high BABIP is a mistake. He has a career line drive rate of 23.5% and a career xBABIP of .341. A little bit of line drive and BABIP regression may be in order, but it should only result in a slightly lower average.
Another reason to potentially fear batting average regression is the rise in Kipnis’ strikeout rate (21.7% from 16.2%). The main culprits were a 6.3% drop in O-Contact% and being a bit too selective with the fourth lowest swing percentage and a 1.6% drop in his Z-Swing%. More strikeouts tend to make you think the batting average should drop, but the batted ball profile seems to be more determinant of batting average. Below is a list I somewhat arbitrarily created of the hitters with a batted ball profile most similar to Kipnis’ last year. As you can see, all but one of the six players listed had a healthy line drive rate, and Kipnis had the lowest batting average of that subset. The one guy on the list with a bad line drive rate had an ugly batting average.
I go through all that to point out that the batting average may not be as likely to drop as it would seem. I think it will stay above .280, and if it fell below .275 I’d be surprised. Assuming of course that his batted ball profile holds, which we have no reason to think it won’t. And there’s really no reason to think the rest of his roto contributions won’t hold where they’ve been the last two years, so there’s no reason to think he won’t finish 2014 in that same 20-37 overall range he finished in last year. He’s a solid pick at the end of the second round or in the early third.
Carlos Santana is the Cleveland infielder with the next highest projected value ($15). He’ll see time behind the plate, at first and at DH, but apparently the Indians are also going to try him at third base. Santana will never be as valuable as your third baseman as he will be as your catcher because catcher is the shallower position. But if he does become eligible at 3B, that flexibility could be helpful.
Like Kipnis, Santana has had very, very similar seasons as far as roto category contributions go with the biggest difference between his 2012 and 2013 seasons being a 16 point gap in batting average. A 21% line drive rate last year helped him get his average up to .268, but his career line drive rate is 19%, which is what it was in 2012 when he hit .252. That’s probably where you should expect his average to land. But the guy knows how to take a walk, so he’s much more valuable in OBP leagues.
His roto numbers landed him sixth in Sanders’ catcher rankings, but two guys ranked ahead of him, Mike Napoli and Victor Martinez, no longer qualify at catcher. That makes him a top five catcher in my book, but I’ll be passing on him because while I agree with his rank within the position, I’m don’t agree with his current ADP in the top 70. Even adjusting for position scarcity, Santana’s production only grades out as a top 100 player as opposed to a top 70 player in my system.
Asdrubal Cabrera is projected to be the next most valuable infielder ($8). Exactly no one expected Asdrubal’s 2011 breakout where he hit 25 home runs and stole 17 bases. His 2012 regression was predictable, but his 16 home runs, nine steals and roughly the same batting average was a settling point fantasy owners could live with. However, 2012 wasn’t the settling point. Last year, Asdrubal basically maintained his produciton in the counting categories, but his average fell off the map, all the way down to .242. The average drop was a result of five percent of his ground balls turning into fly balls and a significant decline in contact. His contact rate fell, his swinging strike rate obviously rose, and his O-Swing% rose. That’s not a good combination.
If you’re looking for an encouraging sign, Cabrera cut down on the whiffs significantly in the second half. His strikeout rate in the first half of the season was 23% compared to 17.2% in the second half. The improvement was a result of him cutting down his swing and miss rate against off speed pitches. His swing and miss rate against hard and breaking pitches ended the year a bit above where it was at the start of the year. But he was much better against off speed pitches really after the first month of the season. And, according to BrooksBaseball.com, he did not swing and miss at one of the 50 off speed pitches thrown to him in September.
That’s really about it as far as good signs go. The groundball-to-flyball ratio problem didn’t improve as the year wore on. So Asdrubal might see a little bounce back in batting average if he keeps up the improved strikeout rate, something in the .250-.260 range. That batting average paired with a low double digit home run total, something around ten steals and roughly 130 R+RBI makes for a borderline top 15 short stop. But the Razzball projected value of $8 is more in line with a borderline top 12 short stop. I have Asdubal pegged more in the $4-5 range in 12-team mixed leagues.
Nick Swisher is the fourth and final player with a positive projected value according to Razzball ($3). In his first season with Cleveland, he hit his usual 20+ home runs, and his run total was similar to where it was in his last couple of years as a Yankee. But his RBI total and batting average dropped significantly. The RBI total fell for a few reasons. First, the 2012 Yankees scored 59 more runs as a team than did the 2013 Indians. Second, the batting average drop means fewer hits which means fewer RBI. And finally, Swisher spent the final two months of 2013 hitting out of the two hole. The last of those three reasons is probably the most crucial. Rotochamp has Swisher projected to remain in the two hole, and if he does, the RBI aren’t coming back.
As for the batting average, his contact skills have lessened with age, but they haven’t fallen off a cliff. That wasn’t the cause of the 26 point drop in average. The more obvious explanation was his lowest BABIP in four years. The question is whether the BABIP drop was bad luck or deserved. To determine that you could look at xBABIP or his career BABIP. I’m inclined to ignore his career BABIP because his batted ball profile has been much more BABIP friendly in the last three years of his career, and his career BABIP and batted ball profile aren’t indicative of what kind hitter he is now. That said, his xBABIP was .331 last year. Expect the batting average to bounce back.
Yan Gomes isn’t projected to have positive value by Razzball, but I think he may be the biggest bargain of the bunch. In 332 PA last year, he hit .294 with 11 home runs. When a relatively unknown guy does that in his first significant stint of major league work, you have to wonder if it’s fluky. Of the power and the average, the average is more likely to regress. In 433 career PA, he only has a 17.2% line drive rate, and his xBABIP is just .303, which is much lower than .342 BABIP he posted last year. And he’s got a bit of a contact problem. It’s not bad, but his strikeout rate is likely to stay above 20%. Don’t be surprised if the average falls to the .260-.265 range.
As for the power, his fly ball rate and average home run and fly ball distance are not super high, but they’re both above average. And his HR/FB rate of 12.4% from last year is above average but not near high enough to think he can’t continue at that rate. If he can maintain his fly ball rate and HR/FB rate over 475 PA, he’d hit about 16 home runs. If we add 16 home runs and a .265 average to the roughly 110 R+RBI that Steamer projects, that gives us a line a lot like that of the catchers who finished 10-12 at the position last year according to ESPN’s player rater. In 12-team leagues, I won’t hesitate to wait until after pick 200 to take Gomes as my catcher.
The only other Indian that may see significant playing time is Lonnie Chisenhall if Santana doesn’t work out at third base. And that means that Chisenhall has a pretty good chance of seeing significant playing time. Steamer and the Fan projections agree as both have him reaching 400 PA. With that much work, he’ll probably crack double digit home runs, but that will be about all he contributes. He may have value as a corner infielder in AL-only leagues, but that’s about it.