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The Long Game: Distressed Asset Recovery

Erik Siegrist

Erik Siegrist is an FSWA award-winning columnist who covers all four major North American sports (that means the NHL, not NASCAR) and whose beat extends back to the days when the Nationals were the Expos and the Thunder were the Sonics. He was the inaugural champion of Rotowire's Staff Keeper baseball league. His work has also appeared at Baseball Prospectus.

The Long Game: Distressed Asset Recovery

Last time out, I took a look at players who were earning far more than their salary and discussed whether or not they were worth keeping, or whether you'd be better off selling high. Now it's time to look at the flip side, those players who are severely underperforming their price tags, and discuss whether it might be worth picking them up off the scrap heap in anticipation of a rebound and some 2014 keeper value.

My criteria for determining which distressed fantasy assets to examine were pretty basic: these are players whose projected salary in 12-team 5x5 AL- or NL-only leagues was in double digits according to RotoWire's preseason forecasts, and who are now unowned in at least a third of CBS leagues (meaning there's a decent chance they will be available for you to pick up). They aren't blue chippers by any means, but they certainly have some lingering brand recognition. I also ruled out anyone who's out for the season with an injury, since those players usually aren't eligible to be bid on. Plus it hardly seems fair to kick a guy when he's down.

Dustin Ackley ($19 projected 5x5 salary, 23% owned)

Things have definitely not going according to plan for 2009's second overall pick. After being pushed aggressively through the Mariners' system he now sports a ghastly .236/.306/.343 line in over 1100 major league at-bats. He hasn't hit for power or speed, has lost his spot at second base, and seems destined for a life as a notorious draft bust and nomadic utility player. No way this guy is worth throwing a just-in-case buck at, is there?

There is some reason to retain hope though. Ackley has beat up Triple-A pitching pretty good every time he gets demoted back to Tacoma, and over roughly a full season of at-bats down there he has a nifty .303/.401/.472 line with 16 home runs. It's not just that his production is better at Triple-A either. His numbers look like those of a completely different player between the two levels. His K% is in the 11% range in Triple-A, but that soars above 18% in the majors. His BB% collapses from around 16% to under 8%. On top of that, every year he's been in the majors, his line drive rate has dropped and his ground ball rate increased despite the fact that he's consistently made contact with about 90% of the pitches he swings at in the strike zone and consistently swung at about half of them. Even his defense at second has gone backwards, which is why Seattle is now trying him out in center field.

In short, Ackley looks like a player in desperate need of a change of scenery. Whether you want to blame getting promoted to the majors too quickly, the pressure of being the guy drafted right after Stephen Strasburg (and before Mike Trout, although he's got plenty of company in wearing that particular albatross), or just bad coaching, he's a mess in an M's uniform. Unfortunately, he's probably stuck in an M's uniform for a couple more seasons. He won't be up for arbitration until 2015, and given his blah numbers won't be due to for much of a raise when he gets there without a dramatic turnaround. There's simply no economic incentive for the Mariners to give up on him, and unless he ends up being part of a problem child-for-problem child swap with another team he's probably not going anywhere. While I haven't given up on him completely, there are better risks you can take with that free bench spot on your roster.

Emilio Bonifacio ($15 projected 5x5 salary, 21% owned)

Hey, remember back in March when you bought Bonifacio at the auction table, smiled to yourself and thought, “Steals won't be a problem this year!” Good times. Little Boni started out the season awful and just keeps getting awfuller. His walk rate hasn't just fallen off, it's disappeared (3.9%? Really???), and his BABIP has collapsed to .265, an inexplicable number for a guy with his wheels who should be able to beat out infield hits whenever he wants. Before you start to think that's a total fluke, it's not. He's hitting more fly balls than ever before, and that's eating into both his ground ball and line drive rates. Even when he does miraculously get on base (seriously, he's got a .242 OBP. He makes more trips to the bathroom on game day than he does to first base) he's not the efficient thief he was in 2012, going 11-for-14 in stolen base attempts in 72 games after a 30-for-33 performance in 64 games last year.

Despite all that, I still think he's worth picking up. For one thing, there's simply no way he can continue being this bad. Bonifacio averaged an infield hit percentage (hits per grounder, essentially) of between 10.1% and 14.9% every year from 2008 through 2012. This year, that number is 3.8%. He should be able to do better than 3.8% on one leg, and even if you're worried that he might have lost a step he had about four steps he could afford to lose. That BABIP will rebound back up to its usual .300-plus level at some point, whether in the second half of this year or in 2014. For another thing, the Jays still don't have a regular second baseman, and keep trotting out a motley crew that includes Maicir Izturis, Mark DeRosa and everyone's favorite mascot, Munenori Kawasaki, to man the keystone. If Bonifacio shows the least sign of life at the plate, he'll get another shot to win the job. Most importantly though, steals are steals. Anybody capable of swiping 40 bags in a season needs to be rostered, and if Boni is floating around in your free agent pool it's long past time you scooped him up on the cheap.

Ike Davis ($24 projected 5x5 salary, 32% owned)

Last year Davis had a fairly miserable first half, hitting .201/..271/.388 with just 12 home runs, but at least he had an obscure disease he could blame. This year he was completely healthy and hit .161/.242/.258 with five home runs. The Mets elected to blame his batting mechanics rather than a fungus, and sent him down to Triple-A to get to tinkering.

Aside from trying to wrest the 'Mr. Cold Start' crown away from Adam LaRoche, Davis wouldn't seem to have a lot going for him at the moment. He wasn't an elite prospect, and while last year's 32 long balls were nice they came at the expense of your batting average. His flyball percentage and his HR/FB both were down this year, which suggests a power rebound is coming, but the lack of sparkle in his other numbers certainly don't indicate that he'll be anything other than a low-average slugger. In fact, not that I want to scare the bejeezus out of Mets fans, but his numbers in last year's 32-homer campaign look disturbingly similar to another 32-homer campaign by a first baseman who spent a little time in a Mets uniform:

Ike Davis '12: 10.4 BB%, 24.1 K%, 11.8 IFFB%, 21.1 HR/FB%, Contact 74.7%, SwingStrike 11.2%
Mike Jacobs '08: 6.9 BB%, 22.9 K%, 10.5 IFFB%, 18.6 HR/FB%, Contact 73.9%, SwingStrike 13.8%

Now, I'll grant that Davis walked a bit more, and that Jacobs was more of a free swinger (that's actually the biggest difference between their lines: Jacobs swung at 54% of the pitches he saw, while Davis swung at 44.9%), but given Jacobs' career trajectory after his 2008 season those similarities are an ill omen. Plus, Ike... Mike... they're practically twins.

Davis has been called back up, and he'll launch some balls in the second half. If you can get him for a buck or two, he'll probably be worth hanging onto next year or using as trade bait in the offseason. His production's not likely to evaporate as quickly as Jacobs' did. But don't bank on any kind of big resurgence, and if I were a betting man I'd be comfortable laying money down that Davis never tops 30 home runs in a big league season again.

(Note: in researching Mike Jacobs I discovered he's hitting the crap out of the ball in the D-backs' system at Triple-A Reno. It's a PCL desert park, and plenty of guys have hit the crap out of the ball in the desert and never done it anywhere else, but if anything were to happen to Paul Goldschmidt and Jacobs got the call... well, it's baseball. Yanevahknow.)

Dan Haren ($17 projected 5x5 salary, 46% owned)

You'll notice that despite Haren having the worst ERA in the majors at 6.15 and now being on the DL, he's still owned at a higher percentage than the hitters I've looked at so far. That's either a testament to people's patience with pitchers, the draw of a big name reputation, or sheer stubbornness. Take your pick.

There are some things to like in Haren's numbers on the season. A 5.15 K/BB ratio is nothing to sneeze at, and in fact ranks sixth in the majors among mere mortals just ahead of teammate Jordan Zimmermann. (I'm not counting runaway leader Adam Wainwright's unfathomable 9.50 K/BB ratio, since he has clearly ascended to a higher plane of pitching existence.) But in Haren's case, his intriguing K/BB ratio is the product of a miniscule BB rate rather than an electric K rate, and the result of that many balls in the zone has been 19 home runs in just 82 innings, a 2.09 HR/9 rate that kills his fantasy value stone dead.

Can he rebound? His fastball average remains below 90 mph, and he's never again going to be the semi-ace he was in his Diamondbacks days. But he also had a strand rate of 65.4%, well below league average, so he hasn't been getting any help from the Nats' bullpen. As you'd expect from someone with such extreme numbers, looking at his 'true' level of production doesn't help much. His FIP is 5.10, but his xFIP (which normalizes his HR rate) drops to 4.15.

Long-term I still have some faith in Haren. He's a smart pitcher, and once he figures out he can't live in the zone as much as he used to and starts trying to get hitters to chase a bit more, he should be able to stop the bleeding. But the ceiling is gone, and probably about the best he can manage these days is to become a league-average innings-muncher. If he's available and you think that's worth a buck or two, take the plunge, but the potential downside while he tries to make that transition is pretty nasty.

Phil Hughes ($12 projected 5x5 value, 56% owned)

Unlike Haren, Hughes has never had a sustained run of success to justify his continued status as a pitcher worth owning. He's had 119 major league starts now, and 726 big league innings, and has put together a thoroughly underwhelming 4.41 ERA, 1.298 WHIP and 7.6 K/9 rate. Take out his relief appearances, and those numbers sag to 4.66, 1.331 and 7.3. The biggest selling point left to him from a fantasy perspective is that he's still a Yankee, which gives him a better than average chance at some wins.

On the other hand he just turned 27, and he wouldn't be the first pitching prospect to take a while for things to click. He's also swapped out his ineffective curveball for a more useful slider, which could pay dividends. But the biggest drag on his numbers is, ironically, the thing that probably has people hanging onto him. Hughes is a right-handed flyball pitching, which means he gets killed by Yankee Stadium's short porch in right field. From 2011-2013 his ISOs at home have been 243, 217 and 218, while on the road they were 112, 189 and 158. His HR/FB rates display a similar pattern (12.5%, 14.1% and 11.8% vs 4.7%, 10.3% and 8.1%). For now, that means Hughes is a great streaming candidate who you should sit at home and start on the road. Should he ever, finally, get dealt to another club though, especially one with a more forgiving home park, he might at long last get a chance to blossom. That upside alone makes him worth rostering for a low salary.

Cody Ross ($14 projected 5x5 salary, 11% owned)

Hey, look, Ross is streaky. I know it, you know it, and presumably the Diamondbacks knew it when they signed him. Last year he followed up a .318/.362/.486 August with a .229/.271/.376 finish. But so far this season he hasn't been able to heat up at all after starting the season on the DL, and the only thing keeping him in steady at-bats in the lack of other right field options in Arizona.

In this case it's pretty obvious what the problem is. Ross simply isn't hitting the ball in the air as much as he usually does. His 22.8% LD rate is right in line with his career numbers, but his 43.4% GB rate and 33.9% FB rate are both near career worsts. Looking deeper, the issue appears to be pitch recognition. He's swinging at more pitches out of the strike zone (31.2%, when he's usually around 28%) and making weak contact when he does. Weirdly he's making a lot more contact in general too, with his 82.7% rate being a career high and the resulting 15.6% K rate being a career low, but if he just keeps hitting balls on the ground that's not going to help anybody.

Ross did recently complain about issues with his contact lenses, and after experimenting with new lenses he has bopped two home runs in his last three games. A vision problem would certainly help explain those swing and contact numbers, and if he's got the issue solved he could be primed for his first Rossian hot streak with Arizona. If you're going to jump on board and try to get him at a keepable salary, now would be the time.

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