Fantasy Baseball 2012: One Boom/Bust Candidate at Every Position

Gerard MartinCorrespondent IFebruary 13, 2012

Fantasy Baseball 2012: One Boom/Bust Candidate at Every Position

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    Players boom and bust in every fantasy baseball season; predicting those outcomes before the draft can give fantasy owners a huge edge. It's certainly not easy, and not every trend is predictable, but a keen reading of the tea leaves can reveal harbingers of future success or failure.

    Whether it's a young player finally coming into his own, a player's new situation boosting his production or a previously lucky player coming up snake eyes, we know that 2012 will be a much different year than 2011.

    So, who has the best chance to boom or bust this season?

1st Base

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    Boom: Eric Hosmer, Kansas City Royals

    Eric Hosmer received plenty of hype when he was recalled early last season, but as the year moved along, he didn't quite get the respect he deserved as one of the game's top first basemen.

    The skill that really separates Hosmer from the rest of the crop at first base is his speed. In 563 plate appearances last season, Hosmer swiped 11 bags. No 1B-eligible player had more steals in 2011.

    With more at-bats this season, Hosmer will absolutely build on that total.

    The speed is great, but Hosmer is far from a novelty act at first base. His power is still developing, but he showed strong signs in his rookie season. His .172 ISO last season isn't particularly impressive, but keep in mind that Hosmer was only 22 years old. As he continues to grow, those numbers will increase.

    Hosmer hit 19 homers last year in less than a full season's worth of opportunity. This season, he'll absolutely crack 20 homers and has the potential to touch 25 or 30.


    Bust: Prince Fielder, Detroit Tigers

    Prince Fielder is an unquestionably elite first baseman, but his move to the American League may portend a downturn in 2012. He won't experience an Adam Dunn-esque faceplant, but Fielder has some serious bust potential this season.

    Comerica Park's stifling effect on offense is generally overstated, but there's no question that the Tigers' yard holds back more than its share of home runs. Fielder possesses prodigious power, but he's going to feel the effects of leaving Milwaukee.

    In his two best seasons, 2009 and 2011, Fielder hit at least 23 homers per year in Miller Park. Production at that level would be unprecedented in Detroit.

    Since joining the Tigers, Miguel Cabrera, whose power is beyond reproach, has never hit more than 19 home runs in a season at Comerica Park.

    Prince Fielder won't exceed that number, and as a result, he won't reach 35 homers this season.

2nd Base

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    Boom: Dan Uggla, Atlanta Braves

    Dan Uggla had an up-and-down season in 2011, but ended up with a career-high 36 home runs in spite of a career-low .233 batting average. Fantasy owners should never count on Uggla for an outstanding average, but .233 is ridiculous.

    Uggla's declining average was the result of a career-low .253 BABIP, as well as the highest infield fly percentage of his MLB career. The career-best home run total was the result of a career-best mark in HR/FB rate.

    Uggla's BABIP woes were mostly a result of bad luck; it's very unlikely that he'll hit as many pop-ups this season. If he can sustain his improvement in HR/FB rate, and there's not much reason to think he can't, Uggla could challenge 40 home runs this season with a .260 average.


    Bust: Danny Espinosa, Washington Nationals

    The league has already begun to figure out Danny Espinosa, and in 2012, it's only going to get worse for the Washington Nationals' young second baseman.

    Espinosa clobbered 21 home runs in 2011, but only six of those bombs came in his 287 at bats after July 1. Pitchers were able to figure out a pattern to diffuse Espinosa, and he was unable to adjust.

    As you'd expect from a young power hitter, Espinosa hammered opposing fastballs in 2011. However, when pitchers switched to soft stuff, notably curveballs and changeups, Espinosa struggled.

    He'll still top 15 steals, but with a sub-.250 batting average and fewer than 15 home runs, Espinosa won't improve on his breakout season.


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    Boom: Hanley Ramirez, Miami Marlins

    Prior to 2011, Hanley Ramirez had never posted a BABIP lower than .327. In 2011, the balls he put in play dropped for a hit only 27.5 percent of the time, 50 points worse than his previous career low.

    That's not a trend; that's an aberration.

    It's entirely possible that Ramirez' days of challenging 30/30 or 40/40 are behind him. However, 25/25, or even 20/30, is elite production from a fantasy shortstop.

    Hanley will bounce back in 2012, and fantasy owners willing to take a chance on him will be rewarded.

    Ramirez's increasing groundball rate is a concern, but after he excelled in 2010 with a similar rate, I have every reason to believe that Hanley will be back near his old self in 2012.


    Bust: Starlin Castro, Chicago Cubs

    Starlin Castro has one elite skill, but beyond that, his fantasy value depends greatly on the production of his teammates. Castro will post a batting average over .300, but his run and RBI totals will suffer.

    Castro can get on base all he wants, but as they stand right now, the Cubs don't have anybody to drive him in. With Aramis Ramirez gone, Anthony Rizzo (who will probably begin the season in AAA) is the closest thing to a run-producer on the Chicago Cubs roster.

    So, through no fault of his own, Castro has strong potential to bust in 2012.

3rd Base

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    Boom: Aramis Ramirez, Milwaukee Brewers

    Even with Prince Fielder gone, the Milwaukee Brewers can field a formidable lineup. Joining that situation gives Aramis Ramirez a chance to be a fantasy superstar in 2012.

    From a power-hitting perspective, you know what you're going to get from Ramirez. He's hit no fewer than 25 home runs in each of the last eight seasons in which he's played at least 120 games. The upgrade in 2012 will come from his run production.

    Ramirez has great power potential, but he blends that with a solid ability to get on base. He likely won't top last season's .380 OBP, but he's a lock to post at least a .340 clip.

    Hitting in a loaded Brewers lineup, that gives him a great chance to both score and drive in 100 runs.


    Bust: David Freese, St. Louis Cardinals

    Through no fault of his own, David Freese will be overdrafted in just about every fantasy league this season.

    Freese had a strong season and an outstanding playoff run, but he can't be counted on for elite production from a corner infield spot. He'll flirt with a .300 batting average, but doesn't have the power to reach even 15 home runs. Without any speed to speak of, that empty batting average won't play well at a power position.

    On top of that, Freese hasn't proven that he can stay healthy. Shuttling between the majors and minors, Freese has only reached 130 games played once in his six-year career.


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    Boom: Justin Upton, Arizona Diamondbacks

    Prior to last season, the only thing holding Justin Upton back was his inability to consistently make contact. In 2011, he solved that problem, cutting his strikeout rate from nearly 27 percent down to just under 19 percent. With those struggles in his rearview, Upton has the talent to be the best player in fantasy.

    His .319 BABIP last year was solid, but it's actually the lowest that he's ever posted a full big league season. With the strikeouts cut back, Upton will hit better than .300 with just a career-average BABIP in 2012.

    He won't top 25 steals, but with 40-homer power in one of the best hitter's parks in baseball, Upton will challenge Matt Kemp for the title of No. 1 outfielder this season.


    Bust: Jacoby Ellsbury, Boston Red Sox

    Jacoby Ellsbury's 2011 was incredible, but sadly for fantasy owners, it's not repeatable.

    The home runs are the easiest piece to pick on. Ellsbury hit 32 last year after never cracking double digits in a single season at any professional level. In fact, in 349 major league games prior to 2011, Ellsbury had only hit a total of only 20 dingers.

    His improvements were unexpected, but the most concerning part of Ellsbury's season is the fact that he stumbled in areas where he'd previously excelled.

    Ellsbury's strikeout rate, while still strong, jumped nearly three percentage points. It's a casualty of his increased power, but in 2012, it will chip away at his normally strong batting average.

    His new skills are great, but when his old skills decline and his power production fails to match last year's peak, Ellsbury will be a fantasy bust.


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    Boom: Matt Wieters, Baltimore Orioles

    Matt Wieters entered the big leagues in 2009 with unreachable expectations. Initial disappointment dropped him from the fantasy consciousness, but since then, Wieters has been steadily improving.

    His strikeout rate has dropped, while his ISO has increased in each of his last three seasons. Wieters' BABIP fell to a career low in 2011, but when it bounces back in 2012, his average will rebound above .275.

    Add that up with his 20-plus home run power and potential for 70-plus runs and RBI, and Wieters can be a top-five fantasy catcher.


    Bust: Alex Avila, Detroit Tigers

    Alex Avila was great in 2011, and at only 25 years old, he'll undoubtedly be great again in his career. Still, fantasy owners would be foolish to expect a repeat of last year's numbers in 2012.

    Avila hits in a great offense and has the ability to match his power numbers from last season, but his .295 batting average, fueled by a fluky .366 BABIP, isn't coming back.

    Only five players had a better batting average on balls in play last year. Three of them have 40-steal speed, the other two tied for second in the league in hitting. Among catchers, only one player came within 50 points of Avila's BABIP.

    When that number evaporates, his fantasy value will take a significant hit.

Starting Pitcher

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    Boom: Zack Greinke, Milwaukee Brewers

    In his first season in Milwaukee, Zack Greinke set career highs in strikeouts per nine innings, swinging strike rate and ground-ball rate. Generally, those three things together would lead to a fantastic year across the board, but somehow, Greinke's ERA checked in at a healthy 3.83.

    There's not much reason to think that those positive trends won't continue; the question for 2012 is whether or not they'll add up to a better result in terms of run prevention.

    Oddly enough, Greinke wasn't particularly unlucky in 2011 on balls in play; his .318 BABIP wasn't far out of line with his career norms. The killer factor for Greinke was his sub-70 percent strand rate.

    In his best years in Kansas City, Greinke kept opposing runners from scoring nearly 80 percent of the time. When that rate bounces back, Greinke will produce like a top-five fantasy starter.


    Bust: Michael Pineda, New York Yankees

    Michael Pineda will eventually be a star for the New York Yankees, but his first year in New York is going to be a rough one.

    Pineda was spectacular as a rookie in Seattle, where he was in a perfect situation for his style of pitching. Pineda is able to miss bats with regularity, but when the ball is put in play, it tends to be in the air.

    In Seattle, this didn't cause much of a problem. Pineda was backed up by a cavernous home ballpark and excellent outfield defense. Unfortunately, those factors won't follow him to New York.

    A move to Yankee Stadium will not only boost Pineda's HR/9, which sat at .95 last season, it will also lead to a jump in his BABIP, with more balls in the outfield dropping for extra base hits. Switching out Ichiro for Nick Swisher in right field will do that to a pitcher.

Relief Pitcher

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    Boom: Andrew Bailey, Boston Red Sox

    Andrew Bailey has developed into one of the best young closers in baseball, but as a member of the Oakland Athletics, he was never able to crack 25 saves in a single season. He benefited from pitching in one of the best pitcher's parks in baseball, but was held back by weak offensive support.

    Bailey has the potential to continue developing into an even better pitcher, but even if his production stays at the same level as last year, his saves will increase.

    Jonathan Papelbon, the previous closer in Boston, converted at least 35 saves in five of his six years on the job. Expect Bailey to settle in with similar numbers and to settle in as one of the best closers in fantasy.


    Bust: Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves

    Craig Kimbrel's bust potential comes not from a deficiency of talent or opportunity, but rather from overuse. Kimbrel was the best relief pitcher in baseball last season, converting 46 saves and striking out nearly 15 batters per nine innings.

    He's produced those gaudy strikeout rates at every level during his career, but he'd never racked up quite as many as he did in 2011.

    In his first full season in the major leagues, Kimbrel threw 1,314 pitches, nearly 1,000 more than he tossed after his call-up in 2010. For a pitcher who lives in the upper 90s, that kind of stress takes a toll.

    There's no way to know at this point whether Kimbrel will or won't make it through a full season, but his ridiculous jump in workload doesn't bode well. He'll be the first reliever off the board in just about every fantasy draft, but with that level of risk, owners should look elsewhere to find predictable production.