2014 Fantasy BaseballFantasy Baseball

2014 Fantasy Baseball: Week 11 Free Agent Fixes

morales

There is a breakout player that I was shocked to learn is owned in under 50 percent of both ESPN and Yahoo! leagues, and his low ownership is inexcusable. This quiet source of top shelf power is joined by a a pair of young right-handed starting pitchers, a recent surprise free agent signing, a minor leaguer that is an on-base machine, and an outfielder in line for full-time work.

Kyle Gibson, SP, Minnesota Twins

Ownership: ESPN: 3.8%, Yahoo!: 5%, CBS: 17%

I don’t often like to look at in-season performance in too small of a chunk since it is essentially setting arbitrary start and end dates, but sometimes it yields interesting info. That was the case with a look at swinging strike percentage over the last 30 days found at FanGraphs. Gibson has an 11.3 percent swinging strike rate and ranks 17th among qualified starters in that time frame, sandwiched between Adam Wainwright and Dallas Keuchel. That’s quite the company to keep. The empty swings haven’t resulted in strikeouts, though, and Gibson has the 16th lowest strikeout percentage among qualified starters in that time frame. Something has to give here.

First of all, seeing his gaudy swing strike percentage led me to Brooks Baseball and the Brooks Baseball PITCHf/x leaderboard found at Baseball Prospectus. His PITCHf/x data paints the picture of a pitcher with a bat missing slider (it ranks 32nd out of 75 sliders thrown 100 times in whiff/swing percentage) and a sinker that can get by hitters at a decent rate, too. Gibson’s changeup doesn’t miss many bats, but it does result in a high percentage of worm burners. While Gibson’s arsenal doesn’t scream strikeout star, it should result in more strike threes going forward, especially if he continues to up his slider usage (as he has this month).

Gibson already does a great job of coaxing groundballs (his 54.1 percent groundball rate ranks 13th highest among qualified starters this year). The 26-year old pitcher’s first pitch strike percentage and zone rate leave something to be desired, but they haven’t resulted in walk problems. If Gibson adds some strikeouts to his profile, as I expect him to, he’ll be a viable back end starter in 14-team mixed leagues and AL-only formats.

Kendrys Morales, 1B, Minnesota Twins

Ownership: ESPN: 19.8%, Yahoo!: 30%, CBS: 56%

News of Morales signing shortly after the MLB Amateur Draft was in the books wasn’t all that shocking, but the fact it was the Twins that made the plunge resulted in some raised eyebrows. The Twins are in the playoff hunt, and without options left, Morales immediately joined the Twins active roster after passing his physical. Just because the Twins can’t send him to the minors to shake off the rust of his lengthy layoff doesn’t mean his fantasy owners should feel obligated to thrust him into their starting lineups.

When he gets up to speed, the switch-hitter will provide the Twins and his fantasy teams with above average home run and batting average contributions. Last season as a member of the Mariners he hit 23 homers with a .277 average. He goes from one home run suppressing home ballpark (Safeco Field) to an even more devastating for homers home ballpark (Target Field). That said, I expect him to post a pro-rated home run total and batting average commensurate with his 2013 output, but better run production stats in a better offensive lineup this year. Morales should be owned in all but shallow mixed leagues (think 10 team mixers).

Juan Francisco, 1B/3B, Toronto Blue Jays

Ownership: ESPN: 49.8 percent, Yahoo!: 35%, CBS: 60%

I assumed Francisco was owned in far too many leagues to consider him for this column, but a Twitter conversation with a reader that had dropped the slugging third baseman sparked my curiosity. The guy manning the hot corner against right-handed pitchers for the Blue Jays has mammoth power, as in ranks fourth in home run plus flyball average distance thump according to Baseball Heatmaps. That kind of power doesn’t make much of a difference if a hitter doesn’t have an approach that allows it to play in games. That has been Francisco’s biggest problem in the past, but he might just be the latest success story north of the border thanks to big gains in his patience.

Francisco has an O-swing percentage (swing rate on pitches out of the strike zone) of 38.0 percent in his career, but that’s down to an acceptable rate of 29.3 percent this year. He’s also not just hacking away at pitches in the zone, as he’s reduced his swing rate on those pitches too. The 26-year old still struggles mightily with making contact, but judging by his huge jump in flyball rate (46.3 percent this year compared to 35.5 percent for his career), he’s seeking out pitches he can lift and drive. The power hitter remains worthless against lefties, but he’s hitting .290/.372/.636 in 121 plate appearances against right-handed pitchers. That sounds like a guy that’s worth platooning to me, and that’s even before factoring in that he plays his home games at the homer friendly Rogers Centre. I have a full blown man crush on Francisco, and he should be owned in all but shallow mixed leagues.

Mookie Betts, SS, Boston Red Sox

Ownership: ESPN: Not Available, Yahoo!: 2%, CBS: 13%

Betts’ position listed above isn’t a typo, it is the position he’s eligible at in both Yahoo! and CBS leagues. The second baseman-turned-outfielder is hitting .292/.414/.417 with a homer, and more walks, five, than strikeouts, three, in his first six games at the Triple-A level. He raked in Double-A, and now he’s knocking on the door of a big league promotion as he bides his time with Pawtucket.

Betts is an on-base machine, and he nearly set the minor league record for consecutive games reaching base, but came up just short of the 71 game streaks that Kevin Millar and Kevin Youkilis put together when his streak ended at 66 games. He can sting the ball some and has hit seven homers in 277 plate appearances in the upper minors. It’s his base stealing acumen and ability to hit for average and get on-base at a high clip that will really make him a fantasy asset and help him in making a quick transition to life in the majors when he gets the call. Betts has stolen 81 bases in 93 chances in 258 games played in his minor league career, and his .311/.405/.462 triple slash line is quite nifty, too.

The Red Sox are in need of a shot in the arm since they are six games below .500 and nine games out of first in the American League East, and when Betts’ outfield defense is ready for the Show (his bat looks like it already is), there is little that stands in his way. The Red Sox outfield has been awful this season, and according to FanGraphs they have been responsible for a collective -0.8 WAR. Could Betts stumble in Triple-A? Yes, he could. However, most prospect evaluators cite the jump from High-A to Double-A to be the true test before the majors, and Betts already passed that with flying colors, so I think it’s far more likely we see Betts playing at Fenway before the calendar flips to July than he suddenly hits the skids at the highest rung of the minor league ladder. Gamers in large mixed leagues (14 team or larger) and AL-only leagues with a bench spot they can sacrifice for stashing would be wise to beat the masses to Betts.

AL-Only Pick

Michael Choice, OF, Texas Rangers

Ownership: ESPN: 0.2%, Yahoo!: 1%, CBS: 9%

The Rangers roster has been crippled by injuries, and the hits kept on coming when it was announced that Mitch Moreland would undergo ankle surgery on Wednesday that will likely sideline him for three months. I can honestly say I have no idea how the club will fill their gaping hole at first base, but it looks like Choice will get everyday playing time between playing in the outfield and serving as the designated hitter. In 152 plate appearances this season he has an ugly .215 batting average, but he’s reached the seats five times and his 23 RBIs are a useful total.

His batted ball distribution doesn’t inspire much confidence in a sudden surge in BABIP (his current BABIP is .238, but his line drive rate is a lowly 15.1 percent), but the one time regular victim to strike three is only striking out in 20.4 percent of his plate appearances. Choice is a patient hitter that has walked in 9.9 percent of his plate appearances, which is good news for those in leagues that use on-base percentage, and the Baseball Prospectus prospect team through a 6+ on his power tool in their preseason scouting report. If Choice can improve his batted ball profile he has the skill-set to play his way onto mixed league rosters, and as it stands, he’s already good enough to be owned in AL-only leagues.

NL-Only Pick

Jacob Turner, SP, Miami Marlins

Ownership: ESPN: 0.0%, Yahoo!: 1%, CBS: 7%

The research that unearthed Gibson as a suggested addition also resulted in me finding some interesting statistical nuggets for Turner. The thing that really caught my eye was how hard Turner’s slider is to hit. The PITCHf/x leaderboard at Baseball Prospectus reveals that among starters that have thrown a minimum of 100 sliders (there are 80 of them), Turner ranks 18th in whiff/swing percentage with a mark of 41.77 percent. With such a solid swing-and-miss pitch, it boggles the mind to learn that Turner has just a 13.2 percent strikeout rate (20.3 percent is the league average according to FanGraphs). His overall swinging strike percentage of 8.8 percent is just a wee bit below the league average of 9.2 percent, and there is little reason to believe Turner’s strikeout rate won’t move much closer to the league average of 20.3 percent.

When his strikeouts catch up to the rest of his pitching profile, Turner will see his ownership rise substantially. He’s already doing a great job of keeping the ball on the ground (52.6 percent groundball rate) and limiting free passes (6.6 percent walk rate compared to the league average of 8.1 percent). Beyond Turner’s low strikeout rate, his ERA has been hurt by a low left-on-base percentage that is 10 percent worse than the mark he posted with the Marlins last year, an unsustainable .351 BABIP that is 60 points higher than his major league career mark, and a HR/9 that is higher than both the league average and his career rate. When Turner’s luck swings, his ERA will catch up to his peripheral numbers. The one time highly thought of Tigers prospect that was included in the Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante deal of 2012 is on his way to justifying his past top-100 prospect ranking.

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