2016 Rankings Sneak Preview: Middle Infield

Making rankings should be a long and involved process. If you can spin out a top-25 at every position in a day, you’re not giving it enough thought. For those of you starting your rankings for 2016 early, like us writers have to, the top names may be easy, but the nuances of those middle to late rounders can get complicated. How much difference is there between #18 and #20 on a list? That’s for each person to decide, but there should at least be some analysis behind it. This article series gives you a brief glimpse into some of the decisions I have to make for 2016, as well as some re-evaluation on guys I missed on for 2015.

What Did I Miss in 2015?

I was still high on Robinson Cano despite his power drop-off in 2014. I figured he could recover well and get back to .300 with 20+ HR. Then Cano was horrible the first half of 2015. There was some bad luck in his BABIP for the first half, but his GB% matched 2014’s career high, and his HR/FB (7%) was even lower than 2014. Since July he’s back on track in both BABIP and HR/FB, and his total season numbers look more acceptable. That being said, he’s not a top-3 2B, which is where I had him ranked. If it was just a tale of two halves, I’d rank him in the top-3 for 2016. However, I can’t ignore all of 2014, plus the first half of 2015, and it’s really hard to expect his blistering second half to carry over for a full 2016. He’s still a viable option, especially in redraft leagues, but it’s time for me to put him in the 5-10 range moving forward, not the top-3.

My other 2B miss goes the other way. I thought about putting DJ LeMahieu in my top-20 rankings for 2015, but I decided that a three-year downward trend in BA, lack of power, and a surprising lack of SB despite good speed meant he couldn’t be trusted. In 2016 he has put up a career high in every 5×5 category. He hits a lot of line drives, and his speed helps him beat out some of the grounders he hits, but there is still BABIP luck here. When comparing his metrics between 2014 and 2015, hardly anything has changed greatly aside from BABIP. That means his value is strongly linked to luck. His ceiling for 2016 is a repeat of 2015, if he keeps up the BABIP luck. His floor is 2014, which isn’t awful. However, he will cost a lot more in 2016 due to being near a top-5 2B in 2015, and I won’t pay that price.

I’ve talked plenty about Ian Desmond in recent months, so my major SS miss in this column will be Starlin Castro. He’s probably worth a full article on his own this offseason, but the quick and dirty version is that he’s shown no power or hard contact, horrible defense, and likely mental approach issues. He’s done better since August, but that’s due to being platooned and also a high BABIP. Is it recovery from bad luck or whatever mental blocks he had? Or is it simply facing LHP more? Either way, he doesn’t have the trust of the manager, so playing time for 2016 is a major question mark. Early rankings have to discount him, perhaps fully out of the top-20 or even top-25 at either 2B or SS.

It’s a pretty unspectacular year at SS for 5×5 leagues. CBS ranks only two shortstops in the top-100 right now. What may shock you is that Xander Bogaerts is the #1 guy. I listed him at #16 SS for the start of 2015, simply because he hadn’t shown he was capable of a top-15 slot based on his 2014 numbers. His first two months of 2016 weren’t much better, aside from a decent bump in BA to around .275. Then came June, and he’s hit over .300 every month since then. His contact rate is nearly 10 points higher than last year, and he does have some BABIP luck to help him out. The down side is that the power and speed still isn’t here, but his runs and RBI are good due to his full-time status and ability to get hits. It may be time to temper projections of a super stud at SS who will perform like Tulowitzki. That being said, in an off-year for the position, and given his growth potential due to age, I’ll certainly be ranking Bogaerts higher for 2016. Ten years ago he’d still be a #15 guy given his lack of power (think Omar Infante), but in today’s game even just a (very) high BA can provide value, and I’m hoping he’ll reach 10 HR and 15 SB in the near future.

Questions for 2016

What do I do with Kolten Wong? His double-digit HR was a bit of a surprise to most fantasy managers in 2014, and we weren’t sure he’d repeat. It turns out he has matched that number this season, but it’s primarily due to more AB, because his HR/FB and his FB% are down from 2014. His average has improved now that he has an MLB-average BABIP. He’s showing less speed and is running less than 2014. There’s still a lot in flux when it comes to his game. That being said, he plays for a contender, and he’s still young. There are no horrible red flags, but if you want consistency, he’s not a good pick. I’m going to bet he can improve on his 2015 numbers, and it’s a decent ground floor to build from.

Does that Anthony Rendon guy bounce back in 2016? I say yes, but you can’t expect the speed to result in 10+ SB when he dealt with leg issues this season. I’m willing to excuse the bit of rust or decline in his game to the injuries, but the declines aren’t even that awful. He lost some HR/FB and FB%, but lower body issues can sometimes affect the swing and the loft you get on the ball. He’s needed a higher BABIP to equal last year’s average, but with health and consistent playing time, I don’t see why he can’t maintain a .280 BA. I’m ready to roll the dice again with him, and a .285, 90 R, 20 HR, 80 RBI season should be a reasonable expectation.

Can Brandon Crawford repeat a top-5 value at SS? His power came out of nowhere, with a career high 16% HR/FB. which is more than double his previous best. He’s missed time yet again due to ailments, but there’s no question he dropped off in the second half. Overall I can’t rationalize paying top-10, let alone top-5, for him in 2016. This is one instance where I’m going to have to insist he repeat (and stay healthy) before I start paying the likely high price he’ll command.

Is Carlos Correa the undisputed #1 SS for 2016? I’m used to rookies struggling, or even if they make ROY consideration, slumping in their sophomore campaign. Correa has been amazing, and essentially a half-season of playing time has him ranked #7 this year. If you do the ill-advised “double his stats,” he’s clearly #1 with gaudy steroid-era 5×5 totals. What are his red flags? No major one that I can see. He boosted his poor early BB% after pitchers started respecting his ability. He’s hitting more grounders in the second half, but he’s maintaining a very high HR/FB, so it shouldn’t affect his homer production very much. Anything can happen, and maybe teams will really study the tapes and find a super weakness this offseason, but right now I’d have to agree he’s the top target and even deserves first-round consideration.

Early Sleeper Picks

He’s not going to be a superstar, but Wilmer Flores should continue putting up solid power numbers along with a decent BA. He has a high contact rate, and his drop-off in HR in the second half isn’t due to HR/FB (steady in each half at 11%), but simply fewer fly balls. With full-time AB next year, he could easily reach 20 HR and hit .270.

Another one to keep an eye on is Logan Forsythe. He won’t be a stud, but he’s capable of helping some in every 5×5 category. He improved his contact rate, and he’s above average in hard hit rate. League average power and speed will keep him within range of 15-20 HR and 8-12 SB. Despite currently ranking #10 at 2B, I don’t think 2016 ranks will put him that high. I think he can repeat, so if you can get him outside of the top-10, you should have a safe value with the potential for profit.

If you are in a deep league and/or have an MI slot, then someone to target could be Eduardo Escobar. In truth, his numbers don’t look amazing for a full season, and without the increase in power in 2015, he’d not be worth a roster spot. So can he hold on to the HR/FB gain? I think so. Take a look at his last four half seasons: his HR/FB has risen every time. Even if he can’t hold a 15% HR/FB (like he’s had in the second half of 2015) for a full year, it seems reasonable he’s developed into a league average power source. He’s also improved his contact rate and K/BB in the second half.

I could be wrong, but I don’t believe that Jung Ho Kang is going to get the respect he deserves in 2016. Currently he’s the #4 SS according to CBS. Yes, it’s been a bad year for shortstops, but often players in less well-known cities, or players who aren’t big names on the team, get overlooked. Kang fits in both categories, and unless he is a playoff MVP, I feel fantasy managers will drop him out of the top-10, and that’s a mistake. His GB% is a bit high, his HR/FB may or may not be repeatable, and he seems to have some BABIP luck. He may come down a bit in 2016 (to, say, .270, 12 HR), but that still provides value at SS where the star options are injury or inconsistency risks.

Update: And of course, the day this post goes live, Kang goes down with a serious knee injury and is out for 6-8 months. That will certainly drop his price for next year! Given that he’s now a risk to start the season, and the knee may affect his early production, it’s much harder to call him a sleeper value — unless now he drops to the very end of the draft.

Previous Positional Previews
Corner InfieldOutfieldStarting Pitcher

 

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Kevin Jebens
Fantasy baseball player since 2000; winning leagues ranging from 12-team H2H to 18-team experts 5x5. Has written for various baseball blogs, including the 2013 Bleed Cubbie Blue Annual.
Kevin Jebens

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