Safe to say that with three home runs over the weekend, Manny Machado's outlook for 2012 is looking a bit rosier than it did Wednesday night, when the world first learned he was on his way to the majors.
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Granted, his biggest spike in ownership came at the first mention of his call-up, as should be the case for a prospect as high-profile as he is. But in those earliest hours, his arrival was met with widespread skepticism. Were the Orioles rushing him for the playoff push? Was he really ready for the big leagues at age 20? How would he survive at the highest level of competition if he could only muster a .266 batting average and .789 OPS at Double-A Bowie?
If you've watched or read anything Fantasy Baseball-related over the last four days, you've heard it all before. "Sure, go ahead and pick up Machado. Might as well this time of year. Just don't expect him to do much of anything."
And then ... wham, bam, boom.
OK, so three homers is better than none. We can all agree to that much. But how much can we honestly deduce from 16 at-bats?
Well, if nothing else, we know Machado won't be overmatched, hitting nothing but weak grounders on the rare occasions he makes contact, and wind up back in the minors a week from now. That counts for something. We also know he has the potential to hit a bunch of homers in a short period of time, as the scouts always said he would even though he didn't show it in the minors. Will he be able to maximize that potential with increased exposure, or will it come in spurts, between painful introductions to pitcher's counts and wipeout sliders? No one can say for sure right now, but simply knowing Machado is already capable of big-time power should alter your perception of him.
What little enthusiasm existed over him last week centered on his eligibility at shortstop, which is widely regarded as the weakest position in Fantasy -- and rightfully so. To put it in perspective, the second-ranked shortstop in Head-to-Head leagues, Elvis Andrus, has 338 Fantasy points, which would rank him 11th at first base, eighth at third and 19th in the outfield.
Yeah, it's sad.
But sad enough that gambling on Machado's potential -- on him being more of a finished product than the Fantasy-playing community believed just four days ago -- is your best bet? You might be surprised.
Or you might not. The point of this exercise is to give his arrival some context, to measure the enthusiasm against the skepticism and rank him in a way that safeguards against a possible regression while acknowledging the possibility of him continuing these numbers. Honestly, neither would surprise me.
With that in mind, here's how I view the shortstop position right now:
1. Jose Reyes, Marlins
2. Hanley Ramirez, Dodgers
3. Starlin Castro, Cubs
4. Elvis Andrus, Rangers
5. Asdrubal Cabrera, Indians
6. Jimmy Rollins, Phillies
7. Ian Desmond, Nationals
8. Emilio Bonifacio, Marlins
9. Josh Rutledge, Rockies
10. Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
11. Manny Machado, Orioles
12. Trevor Plouffe, Twins
Surprised? I'll admit I was when I first put together the list. Apparently, what shortstop lacks in high-end options it makes up for in OK options who you wouldn't mind starting -- a group that includes Castro, Andrus, Cabrera, Rollins, Desmond, Bonifacio and Rutledge.
Machado is right outside what I'm calling the "Tulowitzki threshold" -- that point where the potential of Tulowitzki makes him worth owning even at risk of him sitting the rest of the way. As far as boom-or-bust potential goes, Machado is kind of in the same boat. The difference is Tulowitzki will either return and play great or won't return at all. Machado has so many potential outcomes in between that he's not as worthy of the gamble.
Of course, this list has one notable omission: Ben Zobrist, who appears to have become the Rays' favorite to start at shortstop, at least against right-handed pitchers. Granted, it's only three starts so far, but two more and he's as eligible at the position as anyone else.
Here's how I view the shortstop position right now, presuming Zobrist gets the necessary five games to qualify:
1. Jose Reyes, Marlins
2. Hanley Ramirez, Dodgers
3. Ben Zobrist, Rays
4. Starlin Castro, Cubs
5. Elvis Andrus, Rangers
6. Asdrubal Cabrera, Indians
7. Jimmy Rollins, Phillies
8. Ian Desmond, Nationals
9. Emilio Bonifacio, Marlins
10. Josh Rutledge, Rockies
11. Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
12. Manny Machado, Orioles
Please understand that just because Machado ranks 12th here doesn't mean I'm suggesting only one person in a 12-team league has use for him. As hopeful as I am for them the rest of the way, Desmond, Tulowitzki and Bonifacio are all on the DL right now and not making any immediate contributions. Perhaps the Zobrist owner will be forced to keep the versatile player at second base, not having an adequate replacement at the position. Or perhaps the Ramirez owner has been starting the longtime shortstop at third base all this time. Or maybe the Rutledge owner simply beat everyone else to the punch and, not having a need for a shortstop himself, is holding the rookie for ransom.
Any scenario in which two of these top 11 end up on the same team makes Machado that much more valuable in Fantasy. No doubt, enough J.J. Hardy and Alcides Escobar owners exist that Machado should be a hot commodity in Fantasy right now, no matter where he shows up on this list.
Still don't like to see him 12th? Hey, I ranked him over Derek Jeter and Rafael Furcal -- two players who've actually been top-12 options to date -- so it's not like I don't give any credit to his potential.
To demonstrate, here's how I view the shortstop position for next season:
1. Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
2. Hanley Ramirez, Dodgers
3. Jose Reyes, Marlins
4. Starlin Castro, Cubs
5. Manny Machado, Orioles
6. Ian Desmond, Nationals
7. Elvis Andrus, Rangers
8. Asdrubal Cabrera, Indians
9. Josh Rutledge, Rockies
10. Jimmy Rollins, Phillies
11. Danny Espinosa, Nationals
12. Alcides Escobar, Royals
See there? I'm not discounting the possibility of a Mike Trout effect, where Machado takes the league by storm after taking his lumps as a rookie. And yes, he has the potential to move up from here. This ranking is based on my belief he'll be the 12th-best shortstop between now and season's end. If that list changes, so does this one.
But there's one problem. This list also assumes Machado will have shortstop eligibility entering next season. The way things stand now, he won't. Ramirez probably will, considering he's played more games at shortstop than third base since joining the Dodgers. Zobrist at least has a chance if the Rays can resist shuffling their infield any more than they already have. Machado, though, like Bonifacio and Plouffe, doesn't have a clear path to gaining eligibility at shortstop. It would take an injury to J.J. Hardy, whose defense keeps him starting at the position despite his suspect bat. And considering Hardy is signed through 2014, you can't even assume Machado will gain shortstop eligibility at some point next April.
It's a blow to his keeper appeal for sure, but one saving grace is that some of the big-name third basemen who've made that position so deep this season, such as Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Mark Trumbo, will lose eligibility there heading into next season.
That being said, here's how I view the third base position for next season:
1. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
2. Evan Longoria, Rays
3. David Wright, Mets
4. Hanley Ramirez, Dodgers
5. Adrian Beltre, Rangers
6. Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals
7. Manny Machado, Orioles
8. Brett Lawrie, Blue Jays
9. Aramis Ramirez, Brewers
10. Chase Headley, Padres
11. Pablo Sandoval, Giants
12. Mike Moustakas, Royals
As far as Machado is concerned, that's still pretty good, right?
Of course, we're getting ahead of ourselves. The lists for this year give a more conservative estimate of what Machado could deliver to your Fantasy team -- one that acknowledges the upside without getting swept away by the hype. As long as you remember that upside is what sets Machado apart and don't mistake it for assured production, you'll have a pretty good grasp on what he means to the shortstop position.
Now just wait until Jurickson Profar gets the call.
In the now ... A look at how recent events have impacted certain players' Fantasy value
Justin Morneau, 1B, Twins: By now, we can all see Morneau is a changed player from last year when he hit .227 with a .618 OPS while dealing with not only the aftereffects of a severe concussion, but also wrist, knee, foot and neck surgeries. So is he back to being the elite player he once was? To this point, no, but the trends seem to suggest he's headed that way. His biggest issues earlier this year were his inability to hit lefties and his inability to hit at home. But in his last 34 at-bats against lefties, he's batting .471, and in his last 84 at-bats at home, he's batting .333. Is it so crazy to believe that the longer he has to heal from those injuries, the closer to full capacity he'll be? Morneau isn't quite back to being a must-start option in mixed leagues, but he could still make a big impact in the second half.
Hunter Pence, OF, Giants: We knew Pence was less than elite even before his trade to the Giants. Though his .314 batting average last year had some Fantasy owners salivating over his potential, it was built on an unsustainable .361 BABIP. Once his BABIP returned to its normal .290-.310 range this year, his batting average returned to its normal .260-.280 range, and his Fantasy value returned to its normal range of quality to above-average. Now that he's in San Francisco, you should probably eliminate the above-average end of the spectrum. He's still quality, but after spending the first five years of his career in hitter's parks, the move to a pitcher's park will limit his potential for home runs. Combined with the diminished batting average, he'll be less than exceptional at a relatively deep position. Already he's enduring a difficult adjustment period, batting .154 in his first 12 games as a Giant, so you might even consider benching him for now in standard mixed leagues.
Chris Carter, 1B, Athletics: As much as Carter seemed like he was going to fade into oblivion (as so many Oakland farmhands seem to do) when he went 1 for 14 during a recent five-game stretch, he's come roaring back over his last five, batting .400 (8 for 20) with a homer and a 1.155 OPS. Such a performance should convince you once and for all that he has arrived. He weathered the storm, which is something all major-leaguers have to do from time to time, and emerged from it the same big bopper he was his first four weeks on the job. I realize his first couple stints in the majors didn't go so well. I realize he got stuck in the minors until age 25. But his 10 home runs and 22 walks in 103 at-bats are Adam Dunn-like and exactly what the scouts projected for him when he was a top prospect oh so many years ago. With an ownership percentage of 33, Carter is available to just about everyone, and you might not find 20 players capable of delivering more home runs than him over the final seven weeks.
Wandy Rodriguez, SP, Pirates: Rodriguez has allowed at least three earned runs in six straight starts. In fact, he's allowed at least that many in 13 of his last 16, compiling a 5.00 ERA during that stretch. Yes, he's well-established, having provided quality Fantasy production for the last four years, and for most pitchers with such a track record, you might ignore a streak like this one. But one little detail that has gone overlooked in Rodriguez's case is that he's changed as a pitcher this year. In his reliable days, you could count on him for strikeouts -- about eight per nine innings, to be specific -- which is what attracted Fantasy owners to him in the first place. This year, he's averaging 6.0 per nine innings, which ranks 79th among the 99 pitchers with enough innings to qualify. So what's the redeeming quality? His overall numbers don't look so bad, yeah, but that's because he had a 1.99 ERA over his first eight starts. Because his last 16 starts have exposed him for what he is, his 86 ownership percentage deserves to drop significantly.
Eric Chavez, 1B/3B, Yankees: In case you haven't noticed, Chavez is relevant in Fantasy again. With Alex Rodriguez sidelined by a broken hand, he's getting near-everyday at-bats and producing old-school numbers with them. How old-school? Well, with four home runs in his last 10 games, he's up to 12 in 194 at-bats this season. Project those home runs over 625 at-bats -- which is how many he had the last time he finished in the top 25 in MVP voting (2005), and he'd have 38.7 home runs. You know how many he actually hit that season? Try 27. Granted, you have to take into account the smallish sample size, but if nothing else, this stretch has shown Chavez isn't washed up at age 34. The back and shoulder injuries that set him back years ago have healed to the point that he's now more or less where he'd be if he followed a normal progression to age 34. As long as Rodriguez remains sidelined, Chavez will be a worthy corner infielder in mixed leagues -- another Garrett Jones, at worst.
Down the line ... A brief update on some of the minor-leaguers or prospects who have caught the attention of Fantasy owners
Julio Teheran, SP, Braves: The five earned runs Teheran allowed over four innings in his last start marked the sixth time in his last 10 that he's allowed at least four, which reveals a staggering lack of progress for an elite prospect who has already spent parts of the last two seasons in the majors. Something is amiss here. Either Teheran isn't as good as the scouts thought, he isn't as developed as scout thought, or he's injured. Because the scouts continue to stand by his ability, we can pretty much eliminate the first of those possibilities. In either of the other two, you wouldn't expect the Braves to call on him again this season even if their starting rotation was decimated by injuries. Teheran's upside is high enough that he's still worth stashing in long-term keeper leagues, but he's probably a couple years from making a significant contribution.
Shelby Miller, SP, Cardinals: Speaking of elite pitching prospects who've disappointed at Triple-A, Miller has made a complete 180 in recent weeks. After beginning the year with a 6.17 ERA and 1.72 WHIP in 17 starts at Triple-A Memphis, he has a 3.12 ERA and 0.98 WHIP in his last six. By his own admission, he relied too much on his fastball early in the season. The improvement came when he gave into the front office's demands to stop shaking off the catcher.
"I just thought, 'Ah, all right, I guess,'" Miller told MLB.com. "But then I was thinking if I make the majors, Yadier Molina's going to be my catcher, and that's someone you're definitely not going to shake off."
Miller might get a start or two in September if the Cardinals choose to reward him for his obedience, but in the heat of a playoff race, they might prefer to shelve the 21-year-old until spring training. The way things are looking now, though, you can bet he'll play a big role in 2013.
Mike Zunino, C, Mariners: Zunino was the third overall pick in the 2012 amateur draft, but at this rate, he might be the first of his class to reach the majors. If nothing else, the 21-year-old has proven he's too good for lower Class A, batting .373 with 10 home runs and a 1.210 OPS in 29 games there. He's also currently riding a nine-game RBI streak. Heading into the draft, some scouts were comparing his bat to Mike Piazza's, which is of course the best of all best-case scenarios, but at a position where high-end Fantasy production is usually in short supply, it's worth nothing that he's living up to the hype so far.
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