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The Z Files: Opportunity, Opportunity, Opportunity

Todd Zola

Todd has been writing about fantasy baseball since 1997. He's the defending champion in NL Tout Wars and Mixed LABR as well as a multi-time league winner in the National Fantasy Baseball Championship. Todd is now setting his sights even higher: The Rotowire Staff League. Lord Zola, as he's known in the industry, won the 2013 FSWA Fantasy Baseball Article of the Year award and was nominated for the 2015 Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year.

Opportunity is to late-season fantasy baseball as location is to real estate, that is, it's everything. Now that weíre a week past the three-quarter pole opportunity takes precedence, trumping talent.

The mantra coined by Ron Shandler to draft skills not roles is the proper approach with 162 games left. At the beginning of the season, superior skills lead to opportunity. Weíre at the point now that other factors influence pathways to playing time. Today weíll discuss what to look at when deciding whoíll play and whoíll be on the pine. The best part is you donít need BABIP, wOBA, exit velocity or launch angle. All it takes is a little legwork, aided by the best player database and news feed in the industry here at Rotowire.

Handedness

A switch-hitter obviously has the advantage, holding the platoon edge regardless of which arm the pitcher uses to throw the ball. Next comes a lefty swinger followed by a right-handed hitter. Keep in mind a lefty is likely to be lifted for a pinch hitter if a left-handed specialist is summoned. Obviously, not every playing time scenario is a platoon scenario. However, when youíre looking at a weekís worth of stats to identify a possible free agent to pick up, check to see how many left-handed and right-handed pitchers the team faced (also available on site). Sometimes a lefty in a platoon has what appears to be a full complement of at-bats because their club was opposed by seven righties and you expect that to continue, only to them to accrue ten or twelve fewer the week you pick them up because they sat against a couple of southpaws. The converse is a platoon lefty may have missed more games than usual as a scheduling quirk of three lefty starters in a row left him on the bench for half the week. The reaction may be to not put in a bid on a guy getting just 13 at-bats a week, when in fact heíll usually get 21 or 22.

Ability to play multiple positions

We usually think of position flexibility for infielders or perhaps corner infield and corner outfield. The ability to play center field along with the corner spots is huge with respect to keeping your bat in the lineup. Thereís much less of a chance you'll be lifted for a pinch hitter since not many teams have reserves with defense worthy of taking a starting bat out of the lineup. A nice example of this is Arizona Diamondbacks fly chaser Mitch Haniger. Haniger hits right-handed, which could result in less playing time. However, a glance at his player page reveals heís played six games in left, two in center and a pair more in right. The Snakes appear to want to keep Hanigerís bat in the lineup, moving him around. That bodes well for ongoing playing time.

Competition

Letís stick with Haniger as an example of the thought process involved. Until A.J. Pollock returns, which could be very soon, the only left-handed outfielder is Michael Bourn. Righty Yasmany Tomas is essentially the regular right-fielder but has been sitting a day or two a week. As the games played above suggest, Haniger is the primary left fielder. However, he shifts to center with a lefty on the hill along with playing right when Tomas sits. The other outfielders are converted infielders like Brandon Drury and Chris Owings along with Rickie Weeks, who plays exclusively against southpaws. So while Pollock is out, Haniger is assured of regular playing time. But what happens when Pollock returns? Heís left-handed which likely eats into Hanigerís playing time a bit, unless the club thanks Bourn for his services and wishes him well in his future endeavors, in which case Haniger will likely play center against lefties with Pollock on the bench. Itís hard to imagine Pollock playing every day when he returns. You also need to keep the possibility Peter O'Brien gets called up in the back of your mind. This is what makes this so fun. I make my living doing this but hereís a perfect example of a situation where your guess is as good as mine. My take is Haniger will go from playing six or seven games a week to five or so. If Bourn is released, heís back to six or seven. The take-home lesson isnít how I feel about Haniger but all the factors to consider when making this decision on your own.

Letís look at another outfielder, Patrick Kivlehan, recently brought up by the San Diego Padres. The Friars seem set on giving Alex Dickerson and Travis Jankowski regular playing time. Theyíre both lefties but that were also both in the lineup recently with Jon Lester on the hill. Sure, theyíll sit against some southpaws, but neither appear to be in a platoon. When Kivlehan was summoned, it was because Jabari Blash hurt his hand and couldnít grip the bat. At the time it was expected Kivlehan was a placeholder, with the Padres wanting to see if Blash had a role in the future. Then a couple of things happened. Kivlehan had hits in his first two games and Blash was put on the disabled list. On paper, this clears a path for Kivlehan. What happens when Blash is back? Part of the problem is we donít know how long Blash will be out. But thereís another possible issue: will either Hunter Renfroe or Manuel Margot get a September audition?

Last Sunday, I had to decide which outfielder I wanted to list first in FAAB: Haniger or Kivlehan? Blash had yet to be put on the DL so that was still part of the equation. In part due to the chance Blash would play this week, I went with Haniger. Even had I known Blash would remain sidelined, the D-back would still have been my choice. It didnít hurt that in a vacuum, Haniger is the better hitter in a better park. However, had I decided Kivlehan had a better chance to play, opportunity trumps talent and I would have listed the Padre first.

Letís do one more. The Oakland Athletics called up shortstop Chad Pinder knowing Marcus Semien would be away on paternity leave with their backup, Tyler Ladendorf, on the disabled list. How much will Pinder play once Semien returns? You would have won some bar bets knowing before his recent time away Semien hadnít missed a single game, so chances are heís playing upon his return. Pinder is a decent prospect but the club has a couple of infielders that grade higher. This tells me at best, Pinder is a placeholder until Franklin Barreto is ready. Or maybe he becomes an all-purpose guy, something the club really favors. Ryon Healy is being given a look at the hot corner but, like Pinder, slots behind a higher pedigree prospect in Renato Nunez. Still, Healy looks to be in line for regular run down the stretch. What about second base? Itís been a season of musical chairs at the keystone. The chances Eric Sogard makes it back are slim while Jed Lowrie has already been ruled out for the season. Presently, lefty Max Muncy is handling the duties against righties with Pinder as his platoon partner. Nothing against Muncy but if Iím Billy Beane, Iíd rather get an extended look at Pinder. This isnít to say it will happen, but thereís an avenue for playing time even after Semien returns. This isnít actionable in mixed leagues but in AL-only I can see replacing a guy getting a game or two a week with Pinder, in the hopes he gets more.

Call-ups

Rosters expand September 1 and everyone immediately calls up the prospects they want to look at, right? Not so fast there, Skippy. Teams with minor league affiliates in the playoffs often leave their top prospects on the farm to garner some valuable postseason experience. It doesnít matter what level, pressure is pressure. So not only do clubs like to reward their prospects via experiencing a playoff run, the experience the player gains could pay dividends down the road. MLB teams in a playoff chase themselves are the exception. Their agenda is the World Series. The New York Yankees recent promotion of Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge and Tyler Austin occurred despite their Triple-A affiliate running away with their division in the International League. They obviously feel the experience playing in Yankee Stadium supersedes challenging for the Governorís Cup.

Letís wrap up this episode of the Z Files by listing the parent club of the Double and Triple-A squads most likely to be involved in the playoffs, perhaps thus delaying the September look at some future parts. For those wanting to continue tracking this, hereís the link to the minor league standings.

Triple-A

Likely playoff-bound: Yankees, Indians, Dodgers, Athletics, Mariners, Padres
Up for grabs: White Sox, Braves, Rays, Orioles, Phillies (wild card)
So youíre telling me thereís a chance: Twins (WC), Brewers, Diamondbacks, Rockies

Circling back to some of the prospects above, thereís a good chance San Diego leaves Renfroe and Margot with El Paso until the Chihuahuas are eliminated from the Pacific Coast League playoffs. And maybe the Aís send Pinder back down for the Nashville Sounds' playoff run.

Double-A

Likely playoff-bound: Phillies, Yankees, Mariners, Reds, Braves, Cardinals, Astros, Athletics
Up for grabs: Pirates, Indians, Nationals, Rays, Twins, Royals, Angels, Dodgers
So youíre telling me thereís a chance: Rockies, Diamondbacks, Marlins