Fantasy Baseball: Top 10 Buy-Low Options in Your 2014 Draft

Andrew GouldFeatured ColumnistFebruary 16, 2014

Fantasy Baseball: Top 10 Buy-Low Options in Your 2014 Draft

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    Jason Heyward's forgettable 2013 season makes him a potential bargain in 2014 fantasy baseball drafts.
    Jason Heyward's forgettable 2013 season makes him a potential bargain in 2014 fantasy baseball drafts.Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    Regardless of the product, no consumer wants to purchase anything at full price.

    Some can’t afford to pay the regular amount for luxurious items. Some yearn for the thrill of identifying a discount. Others are just easily fooled by a misleading sale.

    Examining the mind of a shopper seems unnecessary while analyzing fantasy baseball, but we’re all preparing to shop for ballplayers who will capture us a championship. Spending big on brand names won’t achieve that goal.

    The crafty drafter must find players who are improperly valued by his or her peers, and use that difference to secure some bang for their buck. In our case, buying low often entails dumpster diving through last year’s trash.

    Many fantasy players are prisoners of the moment. A player with a steady track record doesn’t receive the spotlight of a one-hit wonder, and a star is tossed to the back of the line after one misstep. Use that to your advantage by finding those guys plummeting down the draft board.

    Since there is not a large sample size of mock drafts, average draft positions (ADPs) are not always too helpful this early in the game. So along with the National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC) ADPs (courtesy of NESN.com), I’ll also provide the overall rankings from two of the biggest fantasy sites, Yahoo! Sports and ESPN.

    After including the rankings, it became abundantly clear that ESPN weighed last year’s offensive stats much more heavily than Yahoo! Sports. Finding hitting bargains will be much easier on the Mothership if other drafters abide by the default ranks.

    When it comes to pitching, however, the opposite can be said. Either way, there are bargains to be had for savvy drafters, but how low will you go to snag a steal in 2014 drafts?

     

    Note: All advanced statistics were obtained from FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

Honorable Mentions

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    Don't spend too much in hope of receiving a breakout season from Brett Lawrie.
    Don't spend too much in hope of receiving a breakout season from Brett Lawrie.Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    These players likely sprung to mind when the term "buy low" appeared. Since so many experts sing their praises despite legitimate concerns existing, these three guys are risky gambles that may not come at any bargain.

     

    Brett Lawrie, 3B, Toronto Blue Jays (Yahoo: 100; ESPN: 108; NFBC ADP: 155)

    His upside is reflected in rankings, and his poor plate discipline and high ground-ball rates cannot be overlooked. Lawrie's power and speed skills keep him in the limelight, but if anything, he’s receiving the benefit of the doubt.

     

    Starlin Castro, SS, Chicago Cubs (Yahoo: 106; ESPN: 72; NFBC ADP: 120)

    In a similar case to Lawrie, Castro is still perceived as a top-10 shortstop despite his abysmal season. You could be getting a top-five shortstop, but the substantial risk prevents him from being considered a true value pick. At ESPN's sticker price, they're pretending his .245/.284/.347 slash line from 2013 never happened.

     

    Yovani Gallardo, SP, Milwaukee Brewers (Yahoo: 211; ESPN: 228; NFBC ADP: 267)

    Starting pitchers are a dime a dozen down in the rankings. Gallardo generated four straight 200-strikeout seasons before last year's hiccup, so taking a late flier on a triumphant rebound is hardly the worst decision a drafter could make. But looking at his decreased velocity and swinging-strike percentage that prompted his 7.17 K/9 rate, I'm not eager to grab him over all the other alluring alternatives.

B.J. Upton, OF, Atlanta Braves

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    B.J. Upton was beyond terrible last year, but he boasts too much power and speed to ignore.
    B.J. Upton was beyond terrible last year, but he boasts too much power and speed to ignore.Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Early Rankings: Yahoo: 178; ESPN: 209; NFBC ADP: 214 

    This is about as low as we can get.

    B.J. Upton was horrible last year. Atrocious. Abysmal. Any other word you want to use that means bad. There’s no manipulations of numbers that can avert that ugly truth.

    After inking a gaudy contract with the Atlanta Braves, Upton hit a catastrophic .184/.268/.289. He struck out in bunches at his peak, but his 33.9 strikeout percentage represents the second-lowest rate among hitters with at least 400 plate appearances behind Chris Carter, who at least compensated with 29 homers.

    But if you want to buy low, these treacherous results should make him readily available for next to nothing.

    Before this ghastly season, Upton hit 28 home runs and swiped 31 bases in 2012. He averaged 18 homers and 36 steals per season before last year’s disaster. Maybe you’ll get lucky and get a 20/20 year out of him, in which case you’d gladly tolerate a .240 average.

    If it’s clear Upton has not escaped his deep funk, cut him and move on. If you feel bad about moving on, you drafted him too high.

Josh Johnson, SP, San Diego Padres

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    Everything imaginable went wrong for Josh Johnson last year.
    Everything imaginable went wrong for Josh Johnson last year.Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    Early Rankings: Yahoo: 262; ESPN: 300; NFBC ADP: 303 

    After scraping the bottom of the offensive barrel with Upton, let’s target a fallen ace who sunk to his nadir.

    Health is typically the only worry for owners of Josh Johnson, a pitcher who only lasted 81.1 innings last season. What is more alarming, however, is his 6.20 ERA and 1.66 WHIP during that stretch.

    Unlike Upton's case, we can turn to nerdy numbers to rationalize Johnson’s cataclysmic struggles. Although he lost some velocity and allowed too many liners, his 18.5 percent HR/FB rate amplified his misfortune. His 3.58 xFIP—a measure of FIP that normalizes home run rates—shows how much the long ball derailed him.

    Luckily for Johnson, he’s moving from the Toronto Blue Jays to the San Diego Padres. His former locale offered up feasts for fly-ball hitters, but his new home is a pitcher’s haven. Switching from the AL East to the NL West also helps matters.

    He managed to strike out more than a batter per inning during his torturous season, so fantasy owners should consider gambling on a bounce-back season with one of their final picks. This late in the draft, you’re just scratching off a lottery ticket in hopes of winning the jackpot.

Miguel Montero, C, Arizona Diamondbacks

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    Miguel Montero should find some even ground after two drastically different seasons.
    Miguel Montero should find some even ground after two drastically different seasons.Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

    Early Rankings: Yahoo: 230; ESPN: 232; NFBC ADP: 215 

    This time last year, I wasn’t a fan of Miguel Montero. Expecting a dip in his unsustainable .362 BABIP to cause regression, I stayed away. So why am I considering him now after that exact thing happened?

    In 2013, Montero came at a pretty penny. He was routinely drafted as a starting catcher, sometimes vaulting into the top five. This year, he won’t get drafted in some mixed leagues with one starting catcher.

    While a slip in his stats looked inevitable, his regression slid too extremely in the opposite direction. His career-high BABIP turned into a career-low .282 mark, below his .312 mean. His .286 batting average from 2012 was too high, but his .230 mark last year was too low.

    Cut the difference, and a .258 average feels just right. Combine that with 15 homers and better counting numbers after dealing with a back injury last year, and Montero is a great target in two-catcher leagues. 

Dan Haren, SP, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Few pitchers offer a better combination of strikeouts and limited walks than Dan Haren.
    Few pitchers offer a better combination of strikeouts and limited walks than Dan Haren.Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    Early Rankings: Yahoo: 260; ESPN: 174; NFBC ADP: 269 

    Call me stubborn, but I’m not ready to give up on Dan Haren just yet.

    Given the loaded crop of pitching talent flooding the league, an old pitcher with a 4.67 ERA won’t cut it. Despite his masterful control, Haren’s 1.24 WHIP did not exactly help much.

    He gives up too many hits and way too many homers, but his strikeout and walk numbers are too sweet to ignore.

    His dazzling 4.87 K/BB ratio ranked sixth behind Cliff Lee, Adam Wainwright, Matt Harvey, David Price and Chris Sale, all fantasy aces when healthy. Pitchers with pinpoint control and above-average strikeout capabilities tend to perform much better than Haren’s recent production.

    During the end of the season, Haren showed what he can do when everything comes together. He notched a 3.29 ERA over his past 15 starts, providing great value to owners who scooped him off the waiver wire.

    It’s certainly understandable to take one of the many high-upside young hurlers waiting to get drafted, but Haren’s departure to the Los Angeles Dodgers makes him worth monitoring. Moving there worked wonders for Ricky Nolasco, another sabermetrically adored pitcher whose fantasy value never seem to correlate because of fly-ball woe.

Nick Swisher, 1B/OF, Cleveland Indians

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    Nick Swisher offers a solid source of power late in drafts.
    Nick Swisher offers a solid source of power late in drafts.Jason Miller/Getty Images

    Early Rankings: Yahoo: 202; ESPN: 219; NFBC ADP: 211 

    Everyone is bored of Nick Swisher, but a steady power supply is nothing to scoff at during the later rounds.

    Since his inaugural professional season in 2005, he has produced more than 20 homers every year. Before rolling your eyes at an easy 20 homers, consider that only 60 hitters reached that mark last season, and only 40 offered more than Swisher’s 22 round-trippers.

    The real problem from his 2013 campaign lies with his .246 batting average. A career .255 hitter, Swisher is not known for his contact savvy. But before viewing him as a huge liability in that department, consider his .274 frame over the previous three seasons.

    His swinging strike percentage reached its worst point (9.8 percent) since 2006, but it only surpassed his 2012 mark by 0.2 percent. Some luck guided him to a .272 average that season, but there aren’t many drastic changes in his batted-ball rates to accept .246 as the new norm.

    If Swisher can hit a cool .260, his power consistency makes him worth the price of admission in leagues with deeper roster alignments.

Rick Porcello, SP, Detroit Tigers

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    All signs are pointing up for Rick Porcello this year.
    All signs are pointing up for Rick Porcello this year.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Early Rankings: Yahoo: 465; ESPN: 224; NFBC ADP: 298 

    In Yahoo’s eyes, Bruce Chen, Carlos Torres and Brandon Cumpton make better selections that Rick Porcello. Let’s break down why that is insane.

    The 25-year-old righty possesses all the signs you look for in a breakout candidate. He significantly improved his strikeout rate, bringing his K/9 ratio to a career-high 7.22. That also came with a pretty 2.14 BB/9 rate.

    His 4.32 ERA is high, but his 3.53 FIP looks much better. A 14.1 HR/FB percentage caused an even bigger discrepancy between his ERA and 3.19 xFIP.

    Another sabermetric measure that attempts to bring a pitcher’s abilities to the forefront, SIERA, gives him an impressive 3.39 mark. Along with a few more fly balls than normal leaving the park, his defense did him no favors. Now Prince Fielder is gone and Miguel Cabrera can move away from third base, where he was a major defensive liability.

    A horrible April—which featured a nine-run shellacking before he could escape the first inning against the Los Angeles Angels—bloated Porcello's numbers. After the season’s first month, he posted a 3.77 ERA and 1.23 WHIP.

    When he was rushed to the majors as a 20-year-old in 2009, many scouts envisioned him as a future ace. It has taken a while, but Porcello could still reach that level.

Aaron Hill, 2B, Arizona Diamondbacks

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    When healthy, Aaron Hill is easily a top-10 fantasy second baseman.
    When healthy, Aaron Hill is easily a top-10 fantasy second baseman.Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

    Early Rankings: Yahoo: 119; ESPN: 104; NFBC ADP: 109 

    Aaron Hill is one of the most maddening fantasy baseball players out there.

    At his best, Hill slugged 36 homers in a breakout 2009 and batted .302 with 26 blasts and 14 steals in 2012. That production easily makes him an elite option at second base.

    Unfortunately, his other tallies block that path to stardom. He batted .205 in 2010, saw his power wane with eight homers in 2011 and lasted just 87 games last year.

    On the bright side, Hill wielded a potent bat while healthy last year. In his age-31 season, he hit .291/.356/.462 with 11 homers, 45 runs and 41 RBI. He only stole one base after swiping a combined 35 bags during the previous two seasons, but the power is more than enough to make him a starting second baseman.

    He showed no rust after returning from his hand injury last July—he hit .295 with seven homers upon his return—so drafters should not fret his missed time. Instead, exploit it to steal him at a discount.

R.A. Dickey, SP, Toronto Blue Jays

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    R.A. Dickey struggled to keep the ball in the park during 2013.
    R.A. Dickey struggled to keep the ball in the park during 2013.Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    Early Rankings: Yahoo: 186; ESPN: 135; NFBC ADP: 219 

    Look on the bright side: At least you didn’t relinquish the long-term rights to Noah Syndergaard and Travis d’Arnaud to roster R.A. Dickey on your fantasy squad.

    After winning the NL Cy Young in 2012, the veteran knuckleballer became one of baseball’s biggest mysteries entering the 2013 season. Was his success a flash in the pan, or did he truly master the art of throwing a knuckleball?

    Right now, the former looks to hold more credence. He lost an average 1.5 miles per hour on his baffling pitch, causing his strikeout rate to dip from 8.86 to 7.09 K/9. Moving to Toronto did not suit him well, either; Dickey allowed 35 home runs and a 4.21 ERA throughout the season.

    Most of that damage came in the Rogers Centre, where he yielded a 4.80 ERA and 23 deep flies through 116.1 innings.

    But there is reason for hope. Following the All-Star break, Dickey registered a 3.56 ERA. After betraying his past success by recording a 1.96 K/BB ratio before the break, he improved the mark considerably to 3.54 during the latter portion of 2013.

    His unhelpful scenery could produce another undesirable ERA, but it should fade into a more reasonable 3.50-3.75 terrain. He held a 1.15 WHIP in three years with the New York Mets, so his 1.24 WHIP from 2013 should decline and become an asset.

    Only Clayton Kershaw has logged more innings than Dickey over the past two seasons, so don’t be shocked if the 39-year-old pushes for 200 strikeouts in 2014.

Jason Heyward, OF, Atlanta Braves

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    Heyward is still more than capable of producing monster numbers.
    Heyward is still more than capable of producing monster numbers.Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    Early Rankings: Yahoo: 66; ESPN: 82; NFBC ADP: 77 

    Jason Heyward belongs in an exclusive group of “Future superstars who have become buy-low targets twice before turning 25.” Congratulations?

    The gifted outfielder followed up a tremendous rookie campaign by hitting .227 the ensuing year. Those who stuck by his side were rewarded with 27 homers and 21 steals in 2012, and those who banked on him again received just 14 long balls, two steals and a .254 average in 2013.

    Someone will mistakenly determine that Heyward only performs during even years. The worst part? That foolish owner will stumble upon a bargain who can break out all over again in 2014.

    Despite the dip in average, he addressed his ledger’s red mark by slashing his strikeout rate. After ending 23.3 percent of his plate appearances in strikeouts during an otherwise successful 2012 season, Heyward dropped the mark to 16.6 percent last year.

    He did so by making better contact. His 80.1 percent contact rate registered as a career high, and it was more meaningful with an improved 21.4 percent line-drive rate. Those are promising signs for a 24-year-old whose one fantasy flaw has typically been his batting average.

    If he can stay healthy and attempt more steals, Heyward can accompany a sterling stat line with a .270-.275 average, making him a premier offensive option.

Josh Hamilton, OF, Los Angeles Angels

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    When he's in a groove, Josh Hamilton is the most dangerous hitter alive.
    When he's in a groove, Josh Hamilton is the most dangerous hitter alive.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Early Rankings: Yahoo: 83; ESPN: 109; NFBC ADP: 80 

    Last year, many squeamish owners pointed to Josh Hamilton’s frustrating streakiness, rising strikeout rate and move from Texas as reasons to avoid him early in the draft despite his 43-homer campaign.

    Smart move. The whiffs caught up to him, as he hit a paltry .250. Away from Arlington, he offered an unimpressive 21 long balls. Of course, he'll now reside significantly south of the first and second round, switching him from overrated to underrated.

    It made sense for his power to lose a tick, but the new stadium shouldn’t have caused this drastic of a decline. He generated power away from Texas throughout his stint with the Rangers, slugging .512 on the road in 2010, .510 in 2011 and .574 in 2012.

    His average reached a career low despite earning a career-high 22.2 percent line-drive rate, and a .303 BABIP below his .330 norm can help explain that. Despite his big swing, Hamilton is still a career .295 hitter, with his 2013 misfortunes standing as an outlier.

    Playing half his games in a pitcher’s park hampers his upside, but batting .280 with 25-30 homers is certainly in reach.

    Neither Yahoo! nor ESPN rank him outrageously low. In fact, Yahoo! Sports’ slotting could be considered a tad aggressive. Still, Hamilton’s past accolades proves that he is more than capable of shattering those placements and delivering like a first-round talent.