Apparently, I now like Dee Gordon.
At least that's what the rough draft of our updated top 250 -- the final list is due out Thursday -- suggests. Gordon checked in at 205th overall and as the 124th hitter; Eric Karabell was the only other person to even rank Gordon. Eric, in fact, was especially optimistic, placing Gordon within his top 125 players overall.
To think, one year, one month and 25 days ago I panned Gordon, saying that his free-swinging ways combined with a complete inability to drive the ball threatened to relegate him to career bench/pinch-running duty. I'm evidently the construction workers from "Major League" warming to Gordon in time; to complete this analogy, I suppose the rest of our rankers are the eternally pessimistic Cleveland Indians' grounds crew, and Eric is optimistic manager Lou Brown.
That's the challenging question. Eric's case for Gordon, which you can read here (Insider), is founded upon Gordon's rising walk rate. It's that skills improvement -- Gordon has walked in 11.9 percent of his 160 plate appearances between Triple-A Albuquerque and the Los Angeles Dodgers this season -- that has me warming, but at the same time, the sample remains small and I'm unconvinced his rate will remain that high. After all, we've seen hints of this before: Gordon walked in 9.2 percent of his 131 PAs between spring training and the first two regular-season weeks for the Dodgers in 2012 only to see that rate drop to 4.4 percent in his next 270 PAs (a 65-game span).
But what if Gordon can maintain, say, an 8 percent walk rate or better? It would mean the difference between a .300 and .320 on-base percentage -- keeping in mind that his career OBP is a so-so .301 -- and maybe 15 additional chances to steal. Here's why that matters: Baseball-Reference.com notes that Gordon has 226 career stolen-base opportunities in his big league career and that he has successfully swiped 61 bags, a 27 percent rate. To illustrate how remarkable that percentage is, Michael Bourn, the major league leader in steals since 2011 (Gordon's debut year), has swiped 106 bags in 646 opportunities, a 16 percent rate.
As walks don't matter in traditional rotisserie leagues, beyond their influence on steals opportunities, runs scored and playing time, let's be clear that Gordon is the poster boy for one-category performer. That said, he's probably up with the Dodgers for good, and if that's true and he maintains a better-than-.300 on-base percentage, he's a virtual lock for 35-plus steals from today forward. That would likely pace all major leaguers -- and would make him a clear top-250 player.
Going from players on the lower tiers to one who belongs in the top -- not that the group ranked him as such -- the lack of love for fresh-off-the-DL Curtis Granderson is puzzling. He was one of this week's biggest gainers in my rankings, soaring 26 spots (from 59th to 33rd), and his No. 46 ranking overall in our upcoming top 250 represented the group's most generous placement.
Being that rankings represent a projection period of today through season's end, shouldn't Granderson's original, pre-injury ranking, be restored? His fractured forearm has fully healed and should no longer be an issue, as colleague Stephania Bell noted here and here, and Granderson's 8-for-20, one-homer performance during his five-game rehabilitation stint for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, while irrelevant from a sample-size angle, represented necessary encouragement that he lacks fear of being hit by another pitch.
Granderson might never be a reliable source of batting average, possessing a .246 number during his New York Yankees career (2010-13), but he has averaged 33 home runs and 14 stolen bases per 123 games played for them, that number of games significant because it matches those the Yankees have remaining on the 2013 schedule. He also has a swing brilliantly suited to Yankee Stadium, with its short porch in right field, as his 176 pulled fly balls since 2010 are the most by any left-handed hitter during that span.
There's no reason Granderson can't hit 30 homers from this point forward, and if he sticks as the cleanup hitter following the healthy return of Mark Teixeira, he stands an excellent chance at 75 RBIs to go with them.
Continuing this week's sneak preview theme of our upcoming top 250 rankings, let's examine three more players I prefer to the group:
Nolan Arenado: I was the only one to rank Arenado among my top 250, at least in our initial draft, which makes me wonder whether fantasy owners as a whole have too much fear of failed Colorado Rockies prospects, a group that historically has included such names as Ben Petrick, Ian Stewart and Chris Iannetta. A decade ago, it seemed that everyone instantly hopped the bandwagon of Rockies rookies, assuming that Coors Field would inflate their numbers into the stratosphere, but nowadays we've apparently taken things too far in the opposite direction. Arenado has an advantage none of those other three did: He makes substantially greater contact, his strikeout rate at the Triple-A level just 12 percent and the minors overall 10.2 percent.
Granted, Arenado hasn't been as patient with the Rockies as he should -- his 40 percent chase rate (swing rate at pitches outside the strike zone) is 10th highest among the 332 hitters with at least 50 PAs -- but a return to his disciplined minor league ways should restore his batting average to the .280-.290 range, potentially driving his homer total into the teens. It would help if the Rockies locked him into a firm lineup spot; I'd suggest seventh, at least until he shows he can walk enough to move into the No. 2 spot.
Brandon Moss: One of the best parts of the rankings process is that in addition to provoking conversation about player valuation among readers, it also does so among ourselves; sometimes another ranker can open our eyes to a player's improving skills that we might not have initially seen. Like the Gordon example, Moss was a player whom I warmed to thanks to a debate with Eric Karabell (though this one occurred during spring training). Eric's contention was that, with Chris Carter now in Houston, Moss would no longer be subject to a straight platoon at first base. Sure enough, Moss has started seven of the Oakland Athletics' 13 games against a left-handed starter. While Moss hasn't thrived against lefties (.212/.257/.333), at least the added at-bats have provided him a mild counting-numbers boost.
Moss' power is legitimate, as he has a 49.4 percent fly ball rate and 15.4 home run/fly ball percentage, resulting in a 24-homer pace; he had 47.5, 24.4 and 21 numbers in those categories in 2012. I think he has room to improve, specifically his homer/fly ball rate, meaning 30 homers isn't out of the question.
Chris Carter: Speaking of Moss' former platoon-mate candidate, Carter's trade to Houston also freed him of the threat of a bench seat against right-handers. He has started 25 of 29 Houston Astros games against righty starters and backed up his new team's faith by hitting six of his nine homers against right-handers thus far. As a player destined to strike out greater than 30 percent of the time -- 40 percent isn't out of the question -- Carter will be a massive risk in terms of batting average all year, but there's little doubt he's capable of 30 homers.
Now, let's take a look at three players I like less than the group:
Paul Konerko: I've been consistent on this all year. I think Konerko's second wind has waned and that this decline represents the concluding phase of his productive career. Using mere triple-slash rates isn't exactly fair, because Konerko's .235 BABIP is bound to correct and boost his batting average somewhat, but check his trends in some key peripheral categories:
2012 first half: .195 isolated power, .223 well-hit average, 10.3 BB%
2012 second half: .174 isolated power, .205 well-hit average, 8.3 BB%
2013 to date: .135 isolated power, .164 well-hit average, 6.5 BB%
Whether any of this is the result of the wrist issues that have dogged him for the better part of two years is unclear, but Konerko succumbed to surgery on his wrist in October and hasn't looked like nearly the power source he was during his prime -- or his "second prime" of 2010-11. If he played any other position than the uber-deep first base, I might be more patient with him, but a slew of first basemen -- like the aforementioned Moss and Carter -- could produce just as valuable overall numbers the rest of the year.
Aramis Ramirez: He's another player I shied from this preseason, and I detailed many of my concerns in my "Bleagh!" players list of mid-March. Knee problems dogged Ramirez for much of spring training and resulted in a DL stint of 27 days early in the regular season. He's 9-for-27 with one home run in his first eight games since activation, causing fantasy owners to warm to him once more, but have we forgotten that the Milwaukee Brewers planned to lighten his load somewhat as he works back to full strength? Ramirez has a higher ground-ball rate (45.2 percent, up from 33.6 percent from 2010-12), lower well-hit average (.200, compared to .266 from 2010-12) and higher strikeout rate (20.0 percent, up from 13.7 percent from 2010-12) than he did in the three preceding years, and while the usual small-sample-size caveat applies, he's a 34-year-old more likely to be on the downward curve of his career. Be careful not to race him high into the top 10 players at his position.
Ike Davis: Wow, was I really the least optimistic about Davis, at least from a rankings perspective? Believe it. I've been the one championing the "Ike Davis also had awful numbers a year ago today" case for weeks, but there are still enough hints behind those stats that warrant at least a little long-term concern.
Through May 14, 2012: .168/.227/.311, 28.1 K%, .134 WHAV, 25 Miss%
Through May 14, 2013: .169/.261/.288, 29.9 K%, .109 WHAV, 29 Miss%
Davis' inability to adapt to breaking balls is an adjustment issue. He's now a .185 hitter with a 38.7 percent strikeout rate and 39 percent miss rate on swings against curveballs and sliders during his major league career (2010-12); the major league averages in those categories since 2010 are .217, 29.6 and 31 percent. Granted, he hit 11 home runs off them in 2012, but thus far he has only one.
I still believe Davis can improve in this regard and that he has top-20 first baseman value (21st at the position this week), but some hesitation is warranted.
TOP 150 HITTERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 150 hitters are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued. For position-specific rankings, see the "Pos Rk" column; these rankings can also be seen split up by position.