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Underrated First Baseman: Vargas and Moreland

First base is a top-heavy position with studs like Joey Votto, Anthony Rizzo, Paul Goldschmidt, and Miguel Cabrera atop all sets of rankings. However, it does thin pretty quickly after the elites are gone, so owners who miss out will be hunting for value. Here are two players to consider taking ahead of their current ADP.

 Kennys Vargas

Kennys Vargas has never had a full season of at-bats in the major leagues, and for much of the winter, it appeared that would continue. However, with Byung-Ho Park being designated for assignment, Vargas will get the chance to prove himself with full-time major-league at-bats for the first time in his career. He remains a lottery ticket, but his price reflects that as he is currently the 31st first baseman off the board in NFBC drafts. While there is no need to reach drastically for him in drafts, players like Jefry Marte, Marwin Gonzalez, and teammate Joe Mauer currently have an earlier ADP. This was arguably justifiable when Vargas didn’t have a clear path to full-time plate appearances, but with Park no longer a major part of the Twins’ lineup, Vargas presents himself as a bargain on draft day.

There is little debate that Vargas’ carrying tool and major contribution as a fantasy option comes from his power. He has exhibited that frequently when given the opportunity, illustrated by his 18.9% HR/FB rate in 595 career plate appearances. Last year, Vargas exhibited new skills that helped him reach a new level of efficiency with his batted balls leaving the park. First, he changed his batted ball profile to provide more loft in his swing, and his flyball rate jumped from 23% and 34% in 2014 and 2015 respectively to 48% last year. Additionally, his 21.7% HR/FB rate, was backed by a 13.8% barrel rate and 41.7% hard contact rate. While he likely can’t sustain those rates over a full season’s worth of at-bats, Vargas has shown his power will play at the big-league level.

Like many other power hitters, Vargas has a problem with swing and miss in his game. He has a career swinging strike rate of 13.2%, which has led to a massive 29.2% career strikeout rate. Though this aspect of his game will likely always be present, he did show some signs of improvement last season as he swung at fewer pitches out of the zone and whiffed on 11.7% of pitches. These improvements weren’t necessarily due to better plate discipline, however, as Vargas’ overall swing rate dipped from 46.8% to 41% with his in-zone rate dropping more than his out of zone swing rate. He will have to improve his plate discipline for any chance to bump his average up to a place where it won’t be a burden for fantasy owners.

As for team context, both Rotochamp and Roster Resource have him slated as the Twins sixth hitter. The cleanup spot should belong to Miguel Sano unless he stumbles mightily. However, it is quite realistic that Vargas surpasses Max Kepler to take over the fifth spot in the lineup.

There is plenty of risk involved with Kennys Vargas, but his price tag is nearly nonexistent. In 542 career at-bats, Vargas has compiled 24 home runs, 75 RBI, 70 runs scored, and a .251 average. If he can replicate that over a full season of at bats in 2017, he will far outpace his current ADP.

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Mitch Moreland

 Mitch Moreland switched from one top-tier American league club to another in the offseason as the former Ranger is now a member of the Boston Red Sox. Although it is unclear exactly where he will bat in the order, he should have an everyday role as the team’s starting first baseman and become a part of one of the league’s most potent lineups.

Texas has been one of the best lineups in baseball the last few seasons, but the Red Sox are one of the few teams who can compare comparably or even outdo the Rangers scoring output. That is unlikely to change this year, even with the retirement of David Ortiz. Additionally, even though Fenway Park suppresses left-handed home run output, it greatly enhances extra base hits and hitter’s overall average. Having the chance to play in a left-handed hitting havens such as Yankee Stadium, Camden Yards, and Rogers Centre should all also benefit Moreland.

As for his own skills, the 2016 campaign is one that Moreland would like to put behind him. His average plummeted from .278 in 2015 to .233 in 2016. This can be attributed in part to Moreland’s struggle to hit against the shift. On the other hand, there was no major shift in his skills from 2015 and 2016 meaning that some positive regression and friendly park factors should help his average bounce back.

In this regard, it is worth noting the similarity in peripherals between Hanley Ramirez and Moreland last season.

Player K% LD% FB% HR/FB Hard% AFBD* HR RBI R Avg.
Ramirez 19.4 18.8 32.9 21.1 37.2 298.49 30 111 81 .286
Moreland 23.5 21.1 37.4 17.2 36.6 302.86 22 60 49 .233

It would be ill-advised to expect Moreland’s raw numbers to match those of Ramirez just because of the relative similarity in most of their peripherals. The context of the two players, where they will bat in the Red Sox lineup, and Moreland’s relative inability to hit left-handed pitching, still makes Ramirez a more valuable player. This comparison does, however, illustrate that there is upside for Moreland. He isn’t being drafted with that in mind currently, with the likes of part-time players such as Greg Bird, Chris Carter, Lucas Duda, and Justin Bour going ahead of him. His peripheral skills and team context should make Moreland an intriguing option at first base and corner infield in 2017.

 

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Dan Marcus
Dan recently moved to Columbus, Ohio but is a lifelong Pittsburgh sports fan. Fantasy baseball was and always will be his favorite fantasy sport, but he also enjoys football and basketball as well.

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