2014 Draft Prep: Busts, 1.0
Whether it's with Zack Greinke or Jose Bautista, our Al Melchior sees warning signs ahead. He shares 12 names he'll likely be avoiding on Draft Day in 2014.
Not long after the annual unveiling of our bust lists, we are usually bombarded with questions about why we "hate" this player or that player. Speaking for myself, I can say with certainty that I don't hate every player on this list (and, of course, we're discussing "hate" here in a strictly Fantasy Baseball-related sense).
In fact, I don't expect any of the 12 players who made it into this column to stink up the joint. Only one of them -- Mike Zunino -- is someone whom I would avoid entirely in a standard mixed league, and several who made the list have considerable upside. What each of the dozen has in common is a strong likelihood of not returning sufficient value on the draft pick or bid it would take to acquire him. In short, I view each of these players as overrated, whether it's because of prospect hype run amuck, signs of impending age-related decline, general erosion of skills or the likely regression to come after an unusually good season.
So, yes, you are about to enter the Negativity Zone, where I will lay out all the reasons why a player may not be as good as he appears to be. That doesn't mean these players should be avoided at all costs, but rather that they require an extra measure of patience before you add them to your draft queue. There may be a temptation to go after them; after all, that's why I've bothered to include them. Otherwise, this would just be a column about players no one really wants to draft.
With this group, the uncertainty or downside just happens to outweigh the upside potential.
Mike Zunino , C, Mariners (Roto: Rd. 24, H2H: Rd. N/A)
Frankly, my inclusion of Zunino here might reflect an overestimation of the interest in the 23-year-old catcher. He is basically going undrafted in standard mixed leagues, and given the slim pickings that are available towards the end of two-catcher league drafts, I figured there would be some interest in a young catcher with a strong minor league track record.
Even in deeper mixed leagues, though, Zunino could be a disappointment. Much of the hype that built up around Zunino during his brief time as a prospect occurred when he was in short season A-ball in the Northwest League. After a brief 15-game stopover at Double-A Jackson, Zunino struggled upon promotion to Triple-A Tacoma. Both at Tacoma and Seattle, Zunino struck out frequently, and with the Mariners, he mustered only five doubles and five homers in 173 at-bats. There is a long history of catchers who have mashed in the minors but never caught fire in the majors.
It's too early to know if we can add Zunino to that list, but it's also premature to assume that, just because he hit well in limited exposure to minor league pitching, he will be able to produce as anything more than an AL-only option.
Albert Pujols , 1B, Angels (Roto: Rd. 5, H2H: Rd. 5)
Pujols has been slowed in recent seasons by plantar fasciitis, and reports indicate that his left foot is now fully healed. So far, owners aren't taking that as a signal to draft him in the first round once again, but he could still fall short of his new, more modest expectations.
Pujols is now 34, and it could take him time to literally regain his footing. Even a 30-homer, 100-RBI season like he had in 2012 might not be enough to leapfrog him over Eric Hosmer in the first base rankings, unless he enjoys a massive increase in his batting average on grounders or contact rate. Neither of those things are easy for a mid-30s hitter to achieve, even with healthier feet.
Pujols should have a much better season this year, but not necessarily one good enough to keep him in the top seven or eight first basemen.
Brandon Phillips , 2B, Reds (Roto: Rd. 11, H2H: Rd. 13)
From a skills perspective, Phillips has been pretty steady as he heads into his mid-30s, though we started to see some slippage last year. That got papered over by his first-ever 100-RBI season, which was a function of him batting cleanup behind Joey Votto and hitting .338 with runners in scoring position.
Now Phillips is slated to bat second, and he's probably not going to hit even .300 in those run-producing situations again. Worse yet, Phillips struck out more often and lost some doubles power last season. While it's clear that Phillips' RBI bonanza is over, the news could be worse than him just going back to being regular old Brandon Phillips. The decline could be underway.
Ryan Zimmerman , 3B, Nationals (Roto: Rd. 7, H2H: Rd. 8)
For all the concerns that owners have had about Zimmerman due to inconsistency and injury, he has been a steady producer of 25-plus homers (2011 aside). However, his batting average has slowly eroded over the last three seasons, and his doubles power dropped sharply, falling from 36 in 578 at-bats in 2012 to 26 in 568 at-bats in 2013.
Batting averages can be volatile, and the doubles decline could be waved off as a one-year aberration ... or both could be reflections of Zimmerman's deteriorating plate discipline. His chase rate has increased in each of the last three years, and his strikeout rate has climbed in back-to-back years. If that trend continues, not only will Zimmerman lose more points off his batting average, but he will start hitting fewer homers as well as doubles.
Zimmerman has been hanging around among the top seven third baseman the last couple of seasons, but without a reversal in his plate discipline trends, he could fall back to the pack.
Pablo Sandoval , 3B, Giants (Roto: Rd. 15, H2H: Rd. 14)
As mentioned above, being on the bust list doesn't mean you have no chance at delivering value. Here Sandoval is, yet in two of his five-plus seasons, he has hit above .310 with 20-plus homers.
Depending on how you view him, you could look at the Panda as a sleeper. What I see instead is a player whose best batting averages have been built on high rates of hits on ground balls -- not something that I expect regularly from the not-so-speedy Sandoval. His potential for power is legitimate, but we haven't actually seen it since 2011, and since Sandoval hasn't played more than 141 games in any of the last three seasons, it's hard to rely on him to pile up on counting stats.
Jean Segura , SS, Brewers (Roto: Rd. 4, H2H: Rd. 7)
Segura won over Fantasy owners with a red-hot first half in which he batted .325 with 11 home runs and 27 stolen bases. Even after enduring a brutal second half slump (.241/1/17), Segura finished as the top ranking shortstop in Rotisserie and with the fourth-highest point total at his position in Head-to-Head leagues.
Can Segura turn in another 40-plus steal season? Absolutely. Can he hit over .290 again? If everything breaks right, sure. And what about those 12 home runs? Unless he can improve upon on last season's 19 percent flyball rate, it's highly unlikely, and he could lose some doubles and triples, too.
Segura did show moderate power at times as a prospect, but that was when he was putting up higher flyball rates. Since Segura is just 24, he looks like he is at the right age to take a step forward into Jose Reyes territory. More likely, though, he will produce closer to Everth Cabrera level. There's nothing wrong with that, but that's not where he is being drafted.
Jed Lowrie , SS, Athletics (Roto: Rd. 19, H2H: Rd. 16)
In his sixth major league season, Lowrie finally put together a full season's worth of games, and he broke through as a top five shortstop in Head-to-Head leagues and top 10 in Roto.
Lowrie's overall value was enhanced by a .290 batting average and in Head-to-Head, his value was bolstered by his 45 doubles. As a hitter, Lowrie does a lot of things well, but hitting line drives wasn't one of them -- until last year. From 2010 to 2012, Lowrie never posted a line drive rate as high as 18 percent, but in 2013, his rate rocketed up to 28 percent. It's possible that the increase was at least partly due to a change in approach, but it's even more plausible that Lowrie experienced some random fluctuation in his line drive rate.
Aside from his four years worth of games at Fenway Park with the Red Sox, Lowrie has been merely a decent doubles hitter, and with a regressed liner rate, he would go back to being just that. Look for Lowrie to fall out of the top 10 shortstops this year.
Jose Bautista , OF, Blue Jays (Roto: Rd. 4, H2H: Rd. 4)
Bautista's 54-homer campaign in 2010 shocked the Fantasy world, and he's been an early-round pick ever since.
The perception of his value has been dampened by the wrist and hip injuries that caused him to miss time over the last two seasons, but he could still fail to meet diminished expectations. Over the last three seasons, Bautista has been increasing his ground ball rate and hitting fewer home runs on the ever-decreasing portion of flyballs he's lofted. These developments have produced the following Isolated Power trend from 2010 to 2013: .357, .306, .286, .239.
Particularly if Bautista can remain healthy this year, he could reverse or at least stabilize that trend. Or he could present the scary prospect of continuing it. If his ISO dips below .200, he risks falling further from the elite outfielders, especially if he misses a chunk of games again.
Alex Gordon , OF, Royals (Roto: Rd. 9, H2H: Rd. 10)
Gordon's high doubles and walk counts have made him a sneaky favorite in Head-to-Head leagues in recent years, but both of those strengths became weaknesses in 2013.
According to PitchFX data from BrooksBaseball.net, Gordon's plate discipline on breaking pitches has been declining over the last two seasons. Much of his decline in doubles came on sliders, as he hit none on the pitch in 2013, as opposed to 10 the year before. Gordon has been chasing pitches out of the zone at a higher rate for three years running, but last year was the first time that pitchers made him pay for it, as they threw pitches in the zone at a lower rate than in 2011 or 2012.
Maybe it's a coincidence. Maybe Gordon can adjust. But given that there's a plausible explanation for last year's dropoff in value, I'm not planning on drafting Gordon anywhere close to the top 12 Head-to-Head outfielder he was in '11 and '12.
Michael Cuddyer , OF, Rockies (Roto: Rd. 11, H2H: Rd. 16)
Judging by early ADP, no one is expecting Cuddyer to repeat as a batting champion, but there still could be further disappointments ahead for his owners.
Cuddyer's .331 batting average was largely built on him hitting .330 on grounders, which doesn't square up at all with his career .256 mark, so he looks due for a huge correction in that category. With what could be a dramatic reduction in his visits to the basepaths, he should see sizable drops in his run and RBI totals, too.
For owners hoping that Cuddyer will make up the difference with an increase from last season's 130 games played, bear in mind that he hasn't played as many as 140 games in a season since 2010. With only moderate power and run production and an average in the .270s, Cuddyer could easily sit outside the top 40 outfielders after finishing in the top 20 last year.
Zack Greinke , SP, Dodgers (Roto: Rd. 7, H2H: Rd. 3)
Even though Greinke's K/9 ratio took another tumble in 2013 (dropping from 8.5 to 7.5), he regained some of his luster as a potential Fantasy ace by posting a 2.63 ERA.
That mark could have been about a full run higher if not for a 79 percent strand rate and 7.6 percent home run-to-flyball ratio (HR/FB), both of which were unusually favorable. If Greinke repeats what he did last year, but with fewer stranded runners and a more typical home run rate, owners will find themselves with a pitcher who owns a mediocre K-rate and a mid-3.00s ERA. That could actually be a best-case scenario.
In 2013, Greinke held opponents to lower batting averages on his curveball (.185) and changeup (.234) than in previous years, even though hitters were swinging at those pitches more often and whiffing less frequently (according to BrooksBaseball.net). He may not be so lucky this year. Greinke looks due for increases in BABIP, HR/FB and strand rate, so he could be in for some truly pedestrian Fantasy numbers.
Joe Nathan , RP, Tigers (Roto: Rd. 9, H2H: Rd. 9)
Nathan's warning signs aren't nearly as dire as Greinke's, but given that he turned 39 this offseason, even mild downturns can be a cause for some caution.
Nathan lost nearly 2 mph on his fastball last season, and nearly-imperceptible dips in his K/9 ratio (from 10.9 to 10.2) and swinging strike rate (from 13.5 to 12.8 percent) could foreshadow worse things ahead. It's really just as simple as that. Maybe Nathan will pitch like an elite closer for yet another year, but with so many other steady options available, why risk it?
Honorable mention: Allen Craig , 1B, Cardinals; Chase Utley , 2B, Phillies; Brett Gardner , OF, Yankees, Matt Moore , SP, Rays; Justin Masterson , SP, Indians.