Marcus Semien: Dark Horse for Top-5 SS

Oakland A's LogoIt’s been true for a few years, and 2016 is no different: shortstop is the most shallow position. Second base has had a rather strong core for years, with new names rising and falling with that core. Shortstop has often had Troy Tulowitzki at the top, but he can’t stay on the field. Neither can Jose Reyes. Hanley Ramirez isn’t playing there anymore. Ian Desmond had a rather large hiccup in 2015. Jimmy Rollins is in the final stages of his career. (Former) Chicago staples like Alexei Ramirez and Starlin Castro aren’t reliable either. The SS core from the last five to ten years is dead.

There certainly is a batch of youngsters who could establish a new core as soon as 2016. Correa, Lindor, Russell, Bogaerts, Seager — that’s not a bad group from which to select your SS of the future. But in terms of redraft leagues, they may have a bit of risk due to their touted names and higher ADP. Only Bogaerts has any experience beyond 2015. For that reason, I’m looking elsewhere for sneaky shortstop value. It’s not that I expect the new core to be bad, but the price you’ll pay in redraft is much higher than it should be. For keeper leagues, by all means, go crazy. But for just 2016, I’m more likely to seek out profit, and that leads me to Marcus Semien.

History

Semien’s major league equivalents in 2013 boded well for his ability to produce speed and power. His 2013 MLE for a 5×5 league was .259/89/18/54/19, and we fantasy managers certainly love 20/20 potential. Despite this, he didn’t make many top-100 prospect lists for 2014, though he managed to find his way onto “2014 impact” lists. After struggling at the start of 2014, he ended up hitting .273 in his final month, greatly cutting down on his K% from the first half (32% to 18%).

Moving from Chicago to Oakland before 2015 may have hurt his projected production if only because power doesn’t play as well in Oakland, but more important, he had a clear shot at full playing time, with the ability to cover three positions. Oakland settled on him at SS full-time, and he netted 556 AB for them. He mostly held onto his K% improvement, with a 22% mark in 2015. He also maintained his September 2014 hard hit rate, with a 28% mark, which keeps him at least at league average. What’s more, he has a soft hit rate that ranks above average. A lot of medium contact bodes well for him, because he was known as a line drive hitter in the minors. His 23% line drive rate in 2015 was a little above average, and his career level should stay at least that high.

The one thing that hasn’t fully translated to the majors is his walk rate: his 2013 MLE of 15% became just 7% in his first full MLB season. Semien still sports good plate discipline regarding swinging out of the zone, contact rate, and swinging strike rate. Although 7% isn’t amazing, it was his first season, and I am optimistic that given his previous ability, he can improve that walk rate to 9%, if not higher.

2016 Potential

Why am I optimistic about Semien? As I already said, someone who sports 20/20 potential is always worth targeting. Although he only reached 15/11 in 2015, his speed scores hint at more potential. He was caught 5 times, which isn’t great, but he can likely learn and improve on that success rate. As early as 2016, I’m willing to project 15 stolen bases, and I can see him reaching 20 in a season. If he also manages to improve his walk rate, as I hope he can, then it’ll give him more chances to steal. What may keep him capped at 15 SB instead of 20 is the fact that Billy Bean’s strategy keeps Oakland in the bottom half of stolen bases as a team. That said, if he has the speed and shows an improved ability to pick his spots to run, anything could happen.

When it comes to Semien’s power, a few fantasy managers may have been surprised at his 15 HR, but I expect that he could reach 20 with some luck. His FB% and GB% are balanced enough that I can hope for more pop. His HR/FB is league average, but when you add his ability to square up on the ball and hit hard line drives, it bodes well for further growth in his power. Perhaps it won’t be as soon as 2016, but then again, he had a slump in June with no homers. Had he managed even 2-3 HR that month, the leap to 20 HR for a season isn’t unreasonable.

Batting average is going to be a wild card, and I find it harder to project. He can be a line drive hitter, and his BABIP was a bit above average in 2015, though not by much. If he keeps developing that approach, then I could see .270+ in his future. He certainly sports enough speed to beat out grounders and go for extra bases (7 triples in 2015). Some projections for 2016 are going below his 2015 BA, but I’m willing to bet on .260, and anything more is gravy.

My final selling point is a comparison to Brian Dozier. Let’s take a look at both players’ first full season.

2015 – Marcus Semien, Age 24: .257/65/15/45/11
39% FB 9% HR/FB 0.32 BB/K 76% Contact
2013 – Brian Dozier, Age 26: .244/72/18/66/14
41% FB 10% HR/FB 0.43 BB/K 78% Contact

Dozier also profiled as having above-average plate discipline before he made the majors, and he managed to crack some top-100 prospect lists. He had more opportunities to run than Semien, and he did a bit better in walk rate (8%). Dozier’s 2011 MLE in walk rate wasn’t as good as Semien’s, but he had a better contact rate. In Dozier’s second full season, he did reach 20/20, with a spike in walk rate and further improvement in the power metrics. His walk rate didn’t stick in 2015, but his power development continued, and he’s a clear top-5 second baseman despite the low BA.

I’m not ready to assign Semien the title of Dozier Jr., but the growth potential is there. I don’t think he’ll be a full Dozier or Desmond type who can reach 20/20 every season, but he has the potential in both categories to reach it in any given year. A safe baseline projection for Semien is .250 with 15 HR and 10 SB — basically a repeat of 2015. With a bit of luck and any personal growth in his game, I’m hopeful that he could reach 20 HR and 15 SB in 2016, with a .265 BA.

Is that good enough for a top-5 finish? Well, in 2015 it would have been darn close. By CBS’s 5×5 standards, Elvis Andrus was the fifth best SS, and his line was .258/69/7/62/25. There’s a bit of difference in the HR/SB categories, but not much when combining the two numbers. Andrus also racked up more R and RBI, which is something Semien might be able to do if he hits near the top of the lineup more often than 2015.

But even if he falls short of the top-5 status, there’s still a lot of profit potential for Semien. Given that his ADP for 2016 (#256) has him below all the big-name youngsters, if he can even return top-10 or top-8 value, you’re going to be happy. He was the 13th SS last season, yet his ADP has him at 16th off the board this year. Perhaps fantasy managers are taking extra caution due to his high error total at shortstop, but even if Oakland moves him to another position in 2016, he’ll qualify at SS for redrafts anyway. I don’t expect Semien to do worse than last year, I don’t expect the touted veterans to be healthy and produce top value, and I don’t expect all the youngsters to exceed their draft prices. When you put those three aspects together, Marcus Semien screams value at a discounted price.

 

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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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