When it was reported that Ryan Braun tested positive for a banned substance, the news threw a wrench into the early draft plans of Fantasy owners. Of course, given that the news was reported in December, and not in March, we have plenty of time to figure out a strategy for targeting Braun in our upcoming drafts.
This week's Projections Snapshot puts Braun and his Fantasy draft prospects under the microscope, making this week's installment a little different than usual. Instead of picking a cluster of similar players at a position and flushing out their differences, this week's analysis asks the question of when to draft a player who is almost certain to miss a large chunk of the season. Not only will we look at and dissect the projections for Braun and three other outfielders, but we will also devise a way to determine how comparable they will be on draft day given Braun's unusual circumstances.
If 2012 were going to be a normal year for Braun, we would expect him to be one of the three most productive outfielders in Fantasy. With the strong likelihood that he will serve a 50-game suspension, he will no longer be drafted among the elite, but how far should he drop?
Answering that question starts with projecting Braun's overall value, but it doesn't end there. Owners will need a fill-in for the roughly eight weeks that Braun will likely be out, and that replacement will come from the late rounds of the draft or from waivers. Of course, your actual No. 1 OF won't come from those ranks, but ultimately, you'll be filling a roster spot that would have belonged to Braun with a replacement-level player. So if you're going to pass on Braun altogether, you will need a player who will equal the production of Braun plus his eight-week stand-in.
In terms of Fantasy points, the magic number for potential Braun owners is 521. That is the sum of the 409 Fantasy points that I have projected for the NL MVP plus an additional 112 points that a substitute could pile up over eight weeks. Why 112? The typical replacement-level outfielder -- one easily acquired via waivers or as a trade throw-in -- is likely to produce about 14 Fantasy points per week in a standard format. Call him Vernon Wells, Austin Jackson or Colby Rasmus, but by any name, that's roughly how much weekly production you can expect from a cheap replacement. Over eight weeks, that adds up to 112 points.
So at what point of the draft should you consider picking up Braun and his 409 projected Fantasy points? Let's bring in Braun and three other outfield options -- Andrew McCutchen, Shane Victorino and Jay Bruce -- and see how they stack up. The Fantasy point projections for each of the four hitters are displayed in the graph below, along with a line representing Braun's projected point total plus the 112 projected points for his replacement-level fill-in. In the lower view, you can see how each of the outfielders has trended in terms of their 5x5 category stats. Finally, you can see each player's stat trends in isolation, along with some supporting peripheral stats, in the second tab.
The graph would suggest that McCutchen is a more valuable pick than Braun, but is that really the case? And is there an argument for taking either Victorino or Bruce over Braun? Just below, we will break each player's projections down, one by one, and tackle these questions in the process.
Ryan Braun, Brewers: Aside from a drop in home run power in 2010, Braun has been a remarkably steady player over the last three seasons. He has become a perennial .300-plus hitter thanks to decent contact rates and an aversion to flyballs, yet he has managed to maintain his power stats in spite of the latter trend. Fantasy owners got a bonus last season, as Braun more than doubled his stolen base attempts, and first-year manager Ron Roenicke had a little bit to do with that. In the event that Braun plays a full season, there would be no reason to expect any serious dropoff from his MVP levels of 2011. Of course, it is highly likely that he will miss nearly one-third of the season, so his projections have been prorated accordingly. That leaves Braun's projected Fantasy points (409) on a level similar to that of Brett Gardner (416) or Jose Tabata (415).
As argued above, Braun has a lot more draft value than someone like Gardner or Tabata, but how much more? Let's size him up against the other selected outfielders.
Andrew McCutchen, Pirates: McCutchen started to look like a slugger this year, hitting more flyballs, striking out more often, and producing his first 20-plus home run season. McCutchen's Fantasy value crept upwards as a result, but he did pay a price in the form of a lower batting average and fewer stolen bases. Even without a reverse of his increasing strikeout rate, McCutchen is likely to raise his .259 batting average with some better luck on balls in play, and he should make some modest gains in the other statistical categories, too, as he is still on the upswing of his development curve.
McCutchen's projected total of 535 Fantasy points makes him a superior option to Braun on draft day. Even factoring in the points that Braun's replacement-level substitute would provide, McCutchen appears to be on target to exceed the production that the Braun/fill-in combo would deliver. Since McCutchen projects to be a third-round pick, owners would do well to wait until later rounds to start targeting Braun.
Shane Victorino, Phillies: Like McCutchen, Victorino took to hitting flyballs at a higher rate in 2011, but it's harder to take seriously as a continuing trend in the Flyin' Hawaiian's case. Both McCutchen and Victorino experienced increases in their flyball rates of more than five percentage points, but for the 31-year-old Phillie, it looks like more of an aberration. That's why I have Victorino forecasted for a slight downturn in his home run rate, though that is washed out by a predicted increase in at-bats. With Victorino set to hit fewer homers and drive in fewer runs than McCutchen, his Fantasy value falls a notch below that of the Pirates' budding star.
With a projected value of 511 Fantasy points, Victorino comes in only slightly below the Braun/fill-in pairing. Victorino is likely to be a target during the fourth or fifth round of mixed league drafts, so this is a reasonable spot in which to consider Braun. However, if other owners in your leagues perceive that there is a risk in taking Braun here, it may be a reach to grab him this early. Given the similarity between Braun's and Victorino's projected value, there is certainly little risk in going for Victorino in this spot.
Jay Bruce, Reds: After four seasons, it looks clear as to what kind of hitter Bruce is. He is a flyball hitter who strikes out at a high clip, so it's entirely possible that his .281 batting average from 2010 could be a career best. At age 24, Bruce will likely add even more power, though he is not necessarily on the cusp of being a 100-RBI threat. His .291 batting average with runners in scoring position helped him to knock in 97 runs in 2011, and I don't see him matching either number next year. Bruce's projected .268 batting average may be a tad optimistic, so there is a decent chance that Bruce might fail to meet his predicted Fantasy point total of 467.
Assuming, though, that Bruce does meet his projection, he would still fall more than 50 points short of the Braun/fill-in projection. If Braun is still around by the seventh or eighth round, when owners are likely to start considering Bruce, you would be passing on him at the risk of losing a substantial amount of Fantasy value. Given that drafting Braun would mean losing the use of a reserve slot for eight weeks, it would be understandable if owners waited until this point in the draft to take the plunge. However, it's probably not worth the risk of waiting much past the eighth round.