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Wednesday, August 15, 2012
Potential waiver-wire targets

By Tristan H. Cockcroft
ESPN.com

Digging deep is an entirely different venture on the hitting side.

Hit Parade

Fantasy owners often forget the quantitative difference between a starting pitcher, who typically works every fifth day, and a hitter, who usually plays six or seven games per week. Simply put, a starting pitcher usually logs 200-225 innings, while a hitter comes to the plate more than 600 times.

Do the math: With two ratio categories on the pitching side and one-third the size of the denominator, a starting pitcher can move his ERA/WHIP more dramatically than a hitter can affect his batting average. That's one of the arguments for building around hitting. Smaller samples mean a greater chance for flukier results, which is why, asked to pick, I'd expect a higher rate of success with the lightning-in-a-bottle picks in Tuesday's 60 Feet 6 Inches than in today's Hit Parade.

That doesn't mean I'm not going to try to get all five of today's picks correct.

With the trade deadline in ESPN leagues behind us, the best way to improve your team is via the waiver wire. Today's column examines five players who, with a little luck, might sneak into the top-100 hitter rankings conversation. Only one is even ranked -- at 119th -- but the goal is to make upside calls, giving owners hurting at a particular position a dirt-cheap hitter who might perform as well as many known quantities.

Let's follow the same rules as on Tuesday: These players must be available in a minimum of 70 percent of ESPN leagues. Understand how exclusive that group is; two of the players in the 20-30 percent ownership group combined have a .232 batting average, .305 on-base percentage and .390 slugging percentage in 197 games played. They rank 196th and 223rd among hitters on our Player Rater, respectively, and their names are Jeff Francoeur and Mark Reynolds.

We're therefore scraping the bottom of the barrel, but every one of these players, at the minimum, bears careful watch in the coming days. At maximum, they could make a run at being among the top 60-75 hitters from today forward.

Chris Carter, Oakland Athletics: He has tried and failed before, a "three true outcomes" (home run, strikeout or walk) slugger who struggled in brief auditions in 2010 and 2011. During those years he was more of a one-outcome player, striking out 41 times in 124 plate appearances for a ghastly 33.1 percent strikeout rate. Players like this are often written off quicker than is appropriate, perhaps a result of fantasy owners' experiences owning other all-or-nothing sluggers who went bust, such as Calvin Pickering, Brad Eldred or Sam Horn.

This time, however, Carter appears to be settling in. Though he sports a 27.3 percent K rate in 27 games since the All-Star break, starting 25 of 29 Athletics games during that time, he has seven home runs and 22 walks, the latter representing a 20 percent walk rate. That's three true outcomes if you've ever seen them, and that K rate represents a decent bump in his contact ability, to the point where he is not instantly exploited for the holes in his bat. Batting average is always going to be a problem for Carter, but players like this are as good bets to string together multiple-month hot streaks as some of the most renowned stars, meaning the chances that he continues at this pace through season's end is nonzero -- and probably a lot better than that. Eight homers and 25 walks from today forward aren't unthinkable.

Todd Frazier, Cincinnati Reds: Dusty, if you sit Frazier once Joey Votto is ready to reclaim his first-base job, you're nuts. Perhaps Scott Rolen provides the Reds better defense at the hot corner, but he is not the hitter that Frazier is, nor is he as physically equipped to play the position a full seven days a week. An appropriate arrangement might be Frazier for 7-8 innings a night, 5-6 times a week, with Rolen starting 1-2 times a week and coming on as a late-inning defensive replacement the remainder of the time.

The risk you run by deepening your investment in Frazier is that Dusty Baker will relegate him to "Heisey Hell," making Frazier a 1-2 start per week backup. Considering he has .283/.325/.472 triple-slash rates, five home runs and 19 RBIs in 29 games since the All-Star break, starting 28 of 31 Reds contests, isn't there a realistic chance Frazier has earned Baker's trust enough to remain in the lineup? Fantasy owners should like that Frazier, who isn't necessarily an All-Star caliber player, lacks much in the way of downside. He is capable of batting .280 and hitting 20-25 homers given regular at-bats.

Jean Segura, Milwaukee Brewers: It took the Brewers all of 10 days to decide that Segura had acclimated himself to their organization, promoting him to the big club on Aug. 6 after he had batted .433 with four stolen bases in his first eight games for Double-A Huntsville. Eight games is a precariously tiny sample, no question, but it exhibits what has historically been described Segura's strength: a player who makes reasonably quick adjustments.

In a seven-game stint as a 19-year-old in Triple-A ball in 2009, Segura batted .421. In his first 50 games in low Class A ball in 2010, he batted .283. In his first 37 games in high Class A ball in 2011, he batted .275. And in his first 50 games in Double-A ball in 2012, he batted .270. Not once did he suffer any extended slump or adjustment period, batting well within range of the .297 he managed between high Class A and Double-A in his career. That supports Segura as a shouldn't-hurt-you source of batting average and someone who averaged 56 stolen bases per 162 games during his minor league career. He'll get everyday at-bats as the Brewers set him up to start in 2013, and he might manage as much as a .270 batting average with 10-12 of the cheapest steals you'll get from a shortstop.

Yonder Alonso, San Diego Padres: He's a member of the Padres and he's left-handed. As he calls the murder-to-lefties Petco Park his home, Alonso might barely capture the attention of fantasy owners outside of deep National League-only leagues. He is slugging .398, after all.

But Alonso could wind up as one of the more underrated performers in batting average and RBIs the remainder of the year, thanks to some recent improvements. He is a .309/.367/.500 hitter with four home runs and 24 RBIs in 37 games since July 1, during which time he has a .228 well-hit average and 20.7 percent line-drive rate. He also lacks any discernible platoon splits. He is a .274/.342/.408 hitter against righties and a .282/.352/.373 hitter against lefties this season. As he has picked up the pace, the Padres have moved him back up in the lineup, slotting him fifth in seven of his past nine games. Fully adapted to life at the big league level, Alonso might yet offer his owners a .300 batting average and as many as 30 RBIs the remainder of the year.

Brett Wallace, Houston Astros: What an up-and-down professional career he has endured thus far. Traded three times in five pro seasons, Wallace initially looked like a high-average, decent-power prospect … then appeared to become an all-or-nothing slugger … then developed into what seemed like an almost-certain bust. It has been a wild ride for the onetime No. 20 prospect in baseball (per Keith Law's top 100 prospects of 2010).

To think, last season, Wallace struck out in 27.1 percent of his at-bats and hit a ground ball 52 percent of the time he put the ball into play. The K rate helps explain why he batted .259, the ground-ball rate rationalizing his five home runs in 379 at-bats. Wallace's swing was a mess, but this season, he seems to be restoring some of the power that made him such an attractive prospect.

Wallace managed a .297 batting average and 16 home runs in 86 games for Triple-A Oklahoma City, granted in the hitting-friendly Pacific Coast League, and has batted .282 with three homers in 12 games since his recall. More importantly, he has hit a ground ball only 29.6 percent of the time he has put the ball into play (54 times) in the majors this season. Wallace has two weaknesses today that he didn't a few years ago: He no longer hits left-handed pitching, batting .210/.273/.260 against them in his big-league career, and he strikes out a ton, 26.9 percent in his career and 30.9 percent in 2012. Batting average is certain to be a problem, but as he is getting regular at-bats at the corners -- eight starts at first base, four at third base, in the Astros' past 15 games -- he might be one of the sneakier sources of home runs and RBIs going forward. He is worth a pickup.

Three up

Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona Diamondbacks: So much for him being a batting-average risk. Since June 1, Goldschmidt is a .315/.363/.586 hitter with 12 home runs and 42 RBIs, chipping in eight stolen bases to boot. During that time, he has a mere 21.8 percent strikeout rate. (He whiffed 29.9 percent of the time as a rookie in 2011.) Goldschmidt's gains against breaking pitches, specifically curveballs and sliders, have answered the most significant question about his skills. He is a .303 hitter with 20 K's and a 33 percent miss rate on swings in 72 plate appearances that ended with one since June 1. In his first 109 career PAs with them (through May 31), he batted .220 with 40 K's and a 36 percent miss rate.

Chase Headley, San Diego Padres: Who said he needed to be traded to blossom into a fantasy star? Despite the limitations of Petco Park, Headley has emerged as the No. 4 third baseman on our Player Rater for the season, thanks to a scorching August during which he has batted .327/.365/.776 with seven home runs and 21 RBIs in 13 games. Most importantly, three of his 11 homers since the All-Star break have come in the 13 games he has played at Petco, which puts him into start-worthy territory in home games. Headley is a lifetime .236/.324/.347 hitter at Petco and .265/.347/.393 there this season, so the case could made that he was a fantasy stud during his road games but a league-average player at Petco. Now he is in the start-worthy class regardless of where he plays, though understand that he would be even better if he played only elsewhere. After all, he is a .299/.369/.456 hitter in his career on the road, .284/.389/.527 with 14 homers this season.

Manny Machado, Baltimore Orioles: Relax, people, relax. Machado's four-game, 6-for-16 (.375 AVG), three-homer weekend outburst justified every one of those pickups in the 73.3 percent of ESPN leagues in which he is now owned. It did not, however, make him a fantasy superstar or greatly undervalued as Hit Parade's No. 101 hitter. That ranking seems about right. Remember that he just terrorized a bad Kansas City Royals pitching staff. The four Royals starters Machado faced, after all, have allowed combined .282/.342/.453 triple-slash rates this season. It did, however, demonstrate Machado's power, which is substantial for a 20-year-old. He is five games away from dual eligibility -- shortstop initially, third base shortly -- and capable of providing underrated power and a handful of stolen bases.

Three down

Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals: Since the All-Star break, Harper is a .178/.267/.254 hitter in 31 games, meaning I'm hoping that you took Hit Parade's advice a week ago and traded him. Left-handed pitchers have given him particular trouble during that time, limiting him to a .109 batting average and 11 K's in 51 plate appearances, running the risk that the Nationals, a contending team, might soon drop him into a straight platoon. Harper has a brilliant career ahead of him, but as he might either be in the midst of an adjustment period or tiring from the pressure of being a 19-year-old rookie under intense media scrutiny, he is a drop consideration in standard mixed leagues based on his recent struggles.

Eric Hosmer, Kansas City Royals: Enough is enough! Hosmer's 2012 represents a sophomore-jinx season for the ages, having failed to bat higher than .270 in a single month after batting .293 in 128 games as a rookie in 2011. Besides obvious struggles against left-handed pitching -- he has .223/.278/.288 career rates against them -- there isn't much that easily explains what is behind his problems. He isn't seeing a lot of strikes, his 44 percent rate of pitches seen in the strike zone is 15th lowest of 145 qualified hitters and well beneath the 49 percent major league average. Hosmer also isn't being as patient as he could, with a 32 percent chase rate (swings at pitches outside the zone) in his career. (The major league average in the category since his May 6, 2011, debut is 29 percent.) The bottom line is that he is not performing and not showing signs of performing soon. As a result, it's time for fantasy owners to expect a turnaround in 2013 rather than September.

Hunter Pence, San Francisco Giants: His tenure with the Giants hasn't gone especially smoothly. Pence is a .186 hitter with 17 K's in 62 plate appearances in 14 games for his new team, giving him .204/.250/.275 triple-slash rates and a 26.3 percent K rate in 36 games since July 1. What's worse: Pence has a .176 well-hit average, 30 percent miss rate on swings and 52.4 percent ground-ball rate since July 1, which compares poorly to his .233 well-hit average, 23 percent miss rate and 51.1 percent ground-ball rate of 2011. He is also 3-for-31 on pitches clocked at 93 mph or faster since July 1. Clearly something is amiss with Pence's swing, meaning there probably isn't an overnight fix.

New position eligibility

The following players have become eligible at new positions -- 10 games to qualify at a new spot -- in ESPN standard leagues during the past week: Dustin Ackley (1B) and Brent Lillibridge (3B).

Nearing new position eligibility

The following players almost have new position eligibility: Jeff Baker (8 games at 2B), Yuniesky Betancourt (8 games at 3B), Steve Clevenger (9 games at 1B), Jason Donald (8 games at SS), Yan Gomes (8 games at 3B), Marwin Gonzalez (9 games at 3B), Elliot Johnson (9 games at 2B), Munenori Kawasaki (8 games at 2B), Donnie Murphy (8 games at 3B), Jean Segura (8 games at SS), Drew Sutton (8 games at 2B), Chad Tracy (9 games at 1B), Mark Trumbo (8 games at 3B), Justin Turner (8 games at SS), Omar Vizquel (9 games at SS).