The Hot Seat

Throughout the season, I will be examining struggling players and the value of their prospective replacements. Even this early in the 2013 season, there are already plenty of situations worth monitoring. It is important not to overreact to small samples, but they should not be completely ignored, either, especially if a club has a viable replacement option. After all, it appears that Cliff Pennington has lost his starting shortstop job to Didi Gregorius, and we’re just 15 games into the season.

Jesus Montero

To begin, let’s take a look at Seattle’s catching quandary. Everyone knew Montero would struggle defensively this season, but few expected him be a liability with a bat in his hands. His first full major league season (.260/.298/.386) was nothing to write home about, but it was enough to make fantasy owners excited about his prospects for 2013, especially with the walls moving in at Safeco and the Mariners’ improved lineup.

Unfortunately, the 23-year-old former top prospect is off to a putrid start (.209/.227/.233), and he’s already losing playing time to career journeyman Kelly Shoppach.

Why would a club like Seattle put Montero, a former consensus Top-10 prospect, in a timeshare with Shoppach less than a month into his second full major league season? After all, they’ve put up with almost three seasons of Justin Smoak being completely terrible at baseball. Why are they so impatient with Montero?

There are two crucial differences between Smoak and Montero’s situations. For starters, Smoak, while not a plus defender by any stretch, is a league-average defensive first baseman. It’s much easier to keep that on the field than a poor defensive catcher. Secondly, and much more importantly, is that Seattle really hasn’t had any options to replace Smoak.

The Mariners just don’t have any highly touted corner infielders in their system, and they appear to be sticking to their plan to use Kendrys Morales exclusively as a designated hitter (he’s played in the field once this year), which leaves them stuck with Smoak yet again. Sure, they could move Michael Morse to first, but the result of that would be increased playing time for Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay, which is about as appetizing a proposition as eating moldy bread.

In Montero’s case, however, the future nearly has arrived in the form of Mike Zunino, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2012 draft who tore his way through Low-A and Double-A last season to the tune of .360/.447/.689 in 44 games. So far this season at Triple-A Tacoma, Zunino has eight extra-base hits, including four homers, in 51 plate appearances.

Montero has one extra-base hit, a double, in 44 plate appearances. These are miniscule samples, but one thing is clear: Zunino is hot, Montero is not. One other thing that is clear: Zunino already is a better defensive catcher than Montero. He still needs work on his receiving skills, but he has a good arm, throwing out 39 percent of would-be base-stealers in the minors, and is more mobile and athletic than Montero.

Seattle likely will roll out the combo of Montero and Shoppach for a while longer, but Zunino’s going to be in the majors sooner rather than later. From a fantasy perspective, there’s plenty to like here. The 22-year-old could probably hit .260 with 15 homers, which just so happens to be the exact same thing Montero did last year in his age-22 season.

Zunino, however, won’t be nearly as much of a defensive liability and has better on-base skills. Any fantasy owner in a keeper league or with a deep bench absolutely is advised to go ahead and stash Zunino right now.

It should be noted that this isn’t to say that the Mariners should (or will) by any means give up on Montero, but I wouldn’t blame fantasy owners for jumping ship. It’s hard to envision him getting close to the 553 plate appearances he had last year.

Zunino likely will be Seattle’s starting catcher by year’s end, and they already have Morales as the everyday designated hitter. Maybe they should have Montero start taking some grounders at first base to see if he could solve the aforementioned Smoak problem.

Yunel Escobar

Escobar has spent his brief tenure with the Rays looking like a man terrified of reaching base, resulting in a .115/.207/.154 line and twice as many strikeouts (12) as hits (6). There’s not much reason for Tampa to put up with his complete lack of production for long, especially with Hak-Ju Lee looking like he’s ready for the majors. Lee is considered one of the top defensive shortstop prospects in the game, and he’s showing signs of development at the plate, as well.

After scuffling to a .190/.272/.310 line in a 24-game stint in Double-A in 2011, Lee improved to .261/.336/.360 in 2012. This year, he is hitting everything in sight; through 55 plate appearances with Triple-A Durham, he’s hitting .419/.537/.605, with six steals and more walks (11) than strikeouts (9).

Lee probably would struggle to hit .250 in the majors right now, and he has almost zero home run power, but his ability to draw walks should give him plenty of opportunities to steal bases. The 22-year-old has stolen at least 32 bases in each of his three full minor-league seasons and has hit at least ten triples each year, as well. His combination of speed and on-base ability make him an intriguing AL-only option if, or when, he arrives in Tampa.

Rick Ankiel

What the heck is Rick Ankiel doing here? Isn’t this a fantasy column? Yes, it is, and judging by the fact that Ankiel’s ownership percentage is three percent or lower on Yahoo, ESPN and CBS, it is entirely possible that no one reading this article actually owns Ankiel.

He is likely to lose his starting job at some point because there’s really no reason for a team like the Astros to trot out to right field every night a 33-year-old who’s hitting under the Mendoza Line, but nobody’s scrambling to the waiver wire to blow their FAAB budget on Brandon Barnes or Brandon Laird, and the next-best Brandon the Astros have in their system is some guy in High-A. (Yes, I checked.)

The reason Ankiel found his way into this article is because he has the goofiest collection of early-season statistics in baseball. The following are all actual facts about Ankiel’s 2013 season:
{exp:list_maker}He has six hits in 31 plate appearances. Of those six hits, four were home runs.
His Isolated Power is .419
He has recorded 25 outs; 21 of those were strikeouts.
His strikeout rate is 67.7 percent. {/exp:list_maker}That’s right, kids. Ankiel is striking out in more than two-thirds of his at-bats and has a slash line of .194/.194/.613. Sometimes small samples are really fun.

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  1. Eric said...

    As of 4/22 Zunino has 12 hits in 51 AB, 18 K/6 BB, 5 HR and 21 RBI, but he’s hitting .235.

    He started out hot, but to call him hot right now is a bit of a stretch.

  2. Scott Strandberg said...

    Very good point, Eric. I should have explained that a bit better. Partially a case of writing a Monday piece on a Friday, which I hopefully won’t need to do again; his 4 K and 0 BB since I wrote this definitely make his K/BB ratio scarier-looking than the 14/6 I was looking at when I was researching for the piece. However, I definitely still should have worded that differently. Even hitting .235, he’s slugging .627 and his wOBA is .401. I expect the K/BB ratio to normalize as well; last year he had a 33/23 K/BB ratio across Low-A and Double-A. These are all things I should have included in the piece instead of the comments hahaha. Keep the feedback coming, it’s always a bit challenging when starting a new series and I appreciate you guys helping me out!

  3. Scott Strandberg said...

    That is a real shame. The door was wide open for him. Hopefully he can return next year without any serious lingering effects, but for a player whose strengths are defense and speed it could be tough.

  4. Keith said...

    Great article and I enjoy the perspective of looking for value in guys about to take other peoples jobs. A nice angle that you don’t frequently see taken.

    All that said, it is worth noting that Hak-Ju Lee tore some ligaments in a knee on Saturday and is likely done for the year. Yunel owners can breath ever so slightly easier (I guess to do still own Yunel).

  5. Brad Johnson said...

    ^I hate when that happens.

    I’m not sure it’s fair to say that Pennington lost his job to Gregorius. I think it’s more accurate to say that Pennington temporarily had a starting job because Gregorius was hurt. It was always the plan to start Didi.

  6. Scott Strandberg said...

    Yeah, I wrote this Friday night. I do believe I literally facepalmed when I heard about the Lee injury. Timing is not always my friend.

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