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MLB Skinny: Point of no return

After collecting five hits in his previous 10 at bats, Derek Jeter(notes) went 0-for-4 on Monday night, dropping his batting average to .244. He has just two extra-base hits in 86 plate appearances – among the 189 players with at least 65 plate appearances, only five have fewer. Jeter has not stolen a base, and has only attempted to steal once. His ground-ball rate is an off-the-charts 73.5%, easily highest in the league. This is all made further damning by the fact that only a handful of players in the league are seeing a higher percentage of fastballs, which he has been producing negative value against for the first time in his career.

April is almost in the books. We're nearly 20 percent into the season. This is not a case of small sample size, especially after what we saw go down with Jeter last season. I stood on the side of a Jeter rebound in the spring, and now I'm willing to say I was wrong. Sure, things might take a turn for the better here soon but given the dire peripherals, how much of a positive swing is realistic? I'm to the point as a Jeter owner that I'd take Jed Lowrie(notes) in a swap without hesitation.

Alright, time to once again jump over the white line and see what else grabbed my attention across the diamond this week:

CORNER INFIELDERS
Buy, sell, hold – which way to go? –> Alex Gordon(notes): Admittedly, I'd lost my taste for Gordon long before this season, so I came into '11 scoffing at the idea that Gordon was a great post-hype breakout candidate. But after nearly a month in the books, that's exactly what he's been – top 25 in the Y! game. A closer look at the numbers reveals that he has the third-highest BABIP in the league (.437), definitely a bi-product of luck, but also a steep rise in his ground-ball rate (nearly 10 percent higher than his career norm). He's also walking less and striking out less. This approach is working for him right now, but the ground ball trend does cast doubts on his power potential – don't point to his 10 doubles as a power indicator, as most have been line drives or grounder-down-the-line types. Gordon's only impact categories in standard mixers are Batting Average and Runs. He's a negative in Home Runs, a push in Steals (2) and a modest plus in RBIs. It would be nice to see, when everything is seemingly going Gordon's way, that he'd be flashing that 25 HR/25 SB potential that he was lauded for as a young prospect. Because, if that's not part of the equation, I don't want to be holding Gordon stock when the gravy boat dries up. Tip of the cap to Gordon, but I'd be looking to sell high here.
Taking out the trash –> Derrek Lee(notes): Even for someone toeing the Mendoza Line, producing just two RBIs out of 76 at bats from the No. 3 spot in the lineup is a hard level of futility to achieve. That Lee is 0-for-13 with RISP is a bit of bad luck randomness. But more concerning is that he has just one home run this season, and just 17 home runs in his past 593 at bats. More than 40 percent of Y! leagues employ Lee, which is really hard to justify given his age, injury history, maiden voyage in the AL and current production. Many fantasy owners are hanging out much too long on Sentimental Street. Time to move on. I'd consider lesser-owned commodities Freddie Freeman(notes), Justin Smoak(notes) and Matt LaPorta(notes) to be worthier options, probably in that order.
Baby needs a new pair of … Padre-colored stirrups –> Anthony Rizzo(notes): San Diego's top hitting prospect leads all of Triple-A in Total Bases, thanks to a .420 BA and a league-high 6 HRs in the hitter-friendly PCL. His ETA in San Diego has become a hot topic of late, especially since the Padres first base platoon has generated a .313 average – that's OPS (.151 OBP + .163 SLG), by the way. Perhaps if the Padres were contending, it would be reasonable to believe Rizzo could get a call in the next week or two. But, with the team sitting in the basement in the NL West, it's no surprise that Pads GM Jed Hoyer is offering us the classic "not ready" excuse that we all know is really code for, "He'll be here as soon as service time is not an issue." Said Hoyer, "We talk to our coaches and scouts every day and they love the way he's playing. But Anthony's not a finished product … We want to bring him up here when he has the absolute best chance to succeed." Rizzo's Tucson manager Terry Kennedy doesn't seem to be quite in step with the company line, saying, "If he's not there in a month, something's wrong." What Kennedy should have said was, "If he's not there in 5-6 weeks, something's wrong." Rizzo is owned in less than one percent of Y! leagues. He's a power-to-all-fields, work-the-count type, but enthusiasm should be tempered given Petco's tough hitting environment and Rizzo's limited experience above Single-A (less than 500 ABs). Think about him (in late May) if the Freeman/Smoak/LaPorta contingent are already spoken for in your league.
Point of interest –> Adrian Beltre(notes): Since leaving Seattle, Adrian Beltre is hitting more fly balls. Last season, there was only a subtle difference in his propensity for hitting the ball skyward, as he went from a 37.9 FB% in Seattle in '09 to a 40.5 rate in Boston last season. But since moving to the decidedly hitter-friendly Ballpark in Arlington, Beltre has gone fly ball crazy (55.6%), ranking second only to Brian Roberts(notes) in total fly balls hit. He's also swinging more than ever, while striking out and walking less than ever. He's putting a lot of balls in play, and if he can maintain even a career average rate of HR/FB, he'll easily hit 30-plus home runs for the first time since he hit 48 in '04.
MIDDLE INFIELDERS
He's so money, and he knows it –> Jose Reyes(notes): The Balls in Play leader ranks top 10 in ground balls and third in fly balls produced. Simply put, Reyes is making a lot of contact and he's getting on base at a .356 clip, near his career high, this despite easily a career-low rate in which he's hitting line drives (11.8%). Reyes is looking for a new ($100-plus million) contract, and with the Mets sinking in the NL East, there's a good chance he'll be one of the hottest rentals on the trade market. Reyes is showing that his legs are back, with eight steals in nine attempts and a couple triples already under his belt. Come July/August, months that he has often set on fire in his career, it's conceivable that Reyes could be fronting a lineup like Boston. That's enticing to think about.
Hit the "add" button –> Ryan Raburn(notes): Raburn's the add amongst the sub-50 percent owned 2B crowd – I'm talking to you, Chone Figgins(notes) owners and those affected by Aaron Hill's(notes) DL landing. Raburn has 2 HRs and 8 RBIs in his past four games and has 16 HRs in his past 86 games with the Tigers. His K/BB ratio has never been a pretty sight, but he's managed a respectable .273 BA in more than 1,000 career at bats. With regular playing time and a track record that indicates that 20-25 HRs is very possible, he's not going to last long on the open market.
Sleeper question mark –> Angel Sanchez(notes): I've been waiting for Sanchez to come back to earth so I didn't have to try to explain his April success, but I'm still waiting on the crash landing. That being the case, it's time to look under the hood of the Astros journeyman. First off, we're talking about a power/speed non-factor here. So the best you can hope for, upside-wise, is Omar Infante(notes) sans the outfield and corner eligibility. That's not quite a ringing fantasy endorsement but, like Infante, Sanchez is getting to hit exclusively in the No. 2 spot in the lineup. And with NL stolen base co-leader Michael Bourn(notes) hitting in front of him, there's a strong RBI opportunity every time Bourn gets on base. Sanchez ranks fifth among shortstops in ABs (22) with RISP, and first in hits (9) in those situations. I don't think the problem here is that Sanchez won't be able maintain his .291 BA – he's at .276 for his career. I think the issue is that Bourn is getting on base at an unsustainable rate – his .375 OBP is 42 points higher than his career average. Last season, Michael Young(notes) was the only player to record more than 62 RBI out of the No. 2 slot. Sanchez's high RBI number is going to normalize, and then he becomes a real hollow fantasy commodity.
OUTFIELDERS
Malware warning – virus detected –> Dexter Fowler(notes): Despite a career-best OBP rate (.381), the Rockies leadoff hitter is on pace for just 15 steals. Unfortunately, his K rate has never been higher (league-high 27 Ks) and his BABIP is at .411, so you have to expect his OBP to come down a bit. But even with where it is at now, it sure would be nice to see a few more steals from someone with his speed. Of course, Fowler's steals success rate is below 68 percent for his career, and Colorado is not a place where small ball is a big concern. But Fowler's lack of steals is a problem. If he can't be counted upon in that category, he's no more than a Runs contributor for fantasy purposes.
Still public domain, but he shouldn't be –> Johnny Damon(notes): The No. 62 player in the Y! game, Damon is fourth in the league in RBIs as the No. 2 hitter for the Rays – which, I noted above with Angel Sanchez, is not a place to expect strong RBI production. But even if that is an unsustainable number for Damon, he's still offering value in HRs (4) and SBs (3), while delivering only nominally below average in BA and Runs. And in the case of the batting average, that's still weighted down by a 2-for-20 start to the season. He's a career .287 and he's riding a 13-game hitting streak. All things considered, his ownership percentage (26%) doesn't make much sense. Anyone who owns Austin Jackson(notes) and has Damon sitting on waivers in his/her league should make that move right now. Brett Gardner(notes) owners might want to consider the same.
Point of interest –> Vladimir Guerrero(notes): Vlad has 83 ABs (and counting) without a walk. He's long been known for his free-swinging ways, but he's taking things to new heights in '11. He's swinging at nearly seven (68.1%) of every 10 pitches he sees, and more than half (53.2%) of his hacks are at pitches outside the strike zone. Amazingly, his contact rate seems to be no worse for the wear, although his line drive rate is down. But after a 2-for-16 start to his Baltimore career, Vlad is hitting .299 in his past 16 games.
PITCHERS
Do not enter –> Kyle Lohse(notes): Despite ranking as the fourth-best pitcher in the Y! game, Lohse can be had for free in the Yahoo! Friends and Family League, and more than 40 percent all Y! leagues. As Scott Pianowski noted on Friday in Closing Time, this is a pitch-to-contact story despite a sterling K/BB ratio. And luckily for Lohse, he's pitched against three of the worst offenses in the NL. But one thing my colleague failed to mention was the increased usage of Lohse's changeup and it's success, which has been the ninth-most valuable changeup among starters, according to FanGraphs. It's interesting to note that Card starters Kyle McClellan(notes) and Jaime Garcia(notes) also sit among the top 10. Lohse's changeup has easily been the most successful pitch in his arsenal for his career and I don't doubt that pitching guru Dave Duncan made sure Lohse upped the dosage on that offering. In Lohse's best season (2008), he went 15-6 with a 3.78 ERA, 1.30 WHIP and 119 Ks. Given his slight uptick in K rate and sizeable downturn in BB rate, he might be able to match that success with a few more Ks (still less than ideal) and lower WHIP. But he doesn't throw hard enough (88.8 mph average fastball) to get by without something close to his best stuff each time he takes the mound. And he'll have to eventually face some offenses that have some teeth. And that's why many are so hesitant to buy-in on Lohse.
My pitcher has the ultimate set of tools … –> Anibal Sanchez(notes): I did opt to pickup Sanchez in the F&F – he's still available in nearly 70 percent of Y! leagues despite his near no-no in his last turn. Frankly, I think there's a lot to like about Sanchez's peripherals. He's throwing all his pitches harder than he ever has, he's inducing grounders more than 50 percent of the time, his K rate is 9.24 and he owns a respectable 3.55 ERA despite the sixth-highest BABIP among starters. It also looks like he'll face the .226-hitting Washington Nationals in two of his next four starts. This may not be a long-term commitment, but Sanchez is in his prime and trending the right way – he's worth a shot.
A calming influence –> Brian Sanches(notes): The Marlins reliever has pitched 13.2 innings without allowing a run and a Michael Bourn double is the only hit he's allowed. Sanches has pushed a K per inning his entire career and currently ranks fourth in the league in relief innings pitched. Since '09, he held hitters below the Mendoza Line thanks to the development of his split-fingered fastball, which he throws 27.5 percent of the time, by far the highest usage rate for that pitch in the league. Only 6 percent owned in Y! leagues, Sanches is not a bad middle reliever to turn to if you need to iron out some ratios given that he's on pace for close to 100 IP.
Got next? –> Mike Adams(notes): Kudos to Adams, who recently ended a streak of 28 consecutive batters retired, one more than a perfect game. Ownership numbers indicate that fellow Padres middleman Luke Gregerson(notes) is the presumed closer in waiting should Heath Bell(notes) get injured or traded. But I'm firmly in the camp that believes Adams would be next in line.
CATCHERS
Fishing in the bottom of the catcher pool –> Jonathan Lucroy(notes): Lucroy was mostly forgotten about after a finger injury landed him on the DL to start the season. But he's a former third-round pick that has shown excellent plate discipline in the minors and at least the hint of developing serviceable power for the position. He's picked up a hit in his first nine games since his return. He's unowned in 98 percent of Y! leagues. There's probably a dozen backstops owned in a higher percentage of leagues that I'd dump for Lucroy.
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