Van Lee tells you which struggling players to cut or keep in Fantasy Baseball leagues each week exclusively at BGFS. Follow him on Twitter @ManlyVanLee.
Welcome once again to your weekly edition of Hold or Fold, America’s premiere guessing game where affable blabbermouth Van Lee discusses players that are either raking or shoveling (I guess in this case, shoveling is bad), and determines whether or not you should hold ‘em or fold ‘em, much like everyone’s favorite actor/singer/chicken connoisseur. This week’s edition features a former top prospect, another former top prospect, and you guessed it, a former top prospect. As always remember to consider these players in your league. If it’s a player you’re on the fence about keeping and I say it’s a tentative yes, then if you’re in a really shallow league you can go ahead and drop. Let’s get at it kids.
Aaron Hicks was once a vaunted prospect coming out of the Minnesota Twins organization. The Twins, if you aren’t aware, are capable of destroying any prospects promising career without remorse. Drafted at #14 overall in the 2008 amateur draft, the Twins thought they had an athletically gifted high school outfielder who hit for crazy power as a youth and had plenty of speed to boot. After signing Hicks went on to hit 4 homers, steal 12 bases, and put up a phenomenal .318/.409/.491 line in his first taste of professional baseball. His minor league career continued that trend for the most part, right up until he hit the major leagues.
In 2013 Hicks played 22 games at Triple A and then 81 with the parent club. His year was not pretty. He hit .192/.259/.338 in his first go-round with the Major League Club, but it was attributed in the most part to being young and raw. He continued to struggle in the majors until 2015, when he was deployed in a more platoon role getting the starts against left handers, and put up a modest .256/.323/.398 line with 11 homers and 13 steals. I was all on board and then 2016 happened. Traded to the Yankees in the 2016/17 offseason for baseball’s premiere serial killer John Ryan Murphy, I expected Hicks to take another step forward and become the young athletic phenom he could be. At worst, he could destroy left-handed pitching and provide some nice counting stats. He didn’t do much of either of those. His line fell to a paltry .217/.281/.336, and I had pronounced my call as D.O.A..
Through 57 games this year however, Aaron Hicks has finally delivered on the promise he was drafted on. He has hit .300/.411/.537 with 10 homers and 7 steals. He’s walking, he’s homering, he’s base stealing, and he’s doing it against all pitching. In the past struggling mighty against right-handers really limited his value, but this year he’s thrown out a .291 average and has hit for power against both handed pitching at a rate not terribly off one another.
So is he for real, or are we seeing some fluky stuff going on?
I’m inclined to believe that this performance change is rooted in truth. I really don’t know if he’s a top 10 outfielder like he appears to be performing, but he does have the raw athleticism and the pedigree to back it up. We’re looking at his highest career BABIP which is still only .326 and not an absurd number. He’s walking more, coming in at a 15.9% clip, and he’s hitting the ball at a slightly harder rate with his Hard% sitting at over 30%. He’s also pulling the ball a bit, but not quite as much as he used to, and spraying the ball to all fields means less shifts and an easier chance to hit.
The sample size is awfully small, but I’m looking at a talented kid who is finally making good on his vast potential. It’s hard not to compare him to Carlos Gomez, another uber-athletic outfielder who didn’t come into his own until later in life. Or even Lorenzo Cain, who falls under that same umbrella.
You likely didn’t spend much to acquire Hicks (he was a waiver pickup in my main deep dynasty league for me), so to be honest, I’m hanging onto him just in case this Aaron Hicks is the real deal. If he is, you just struck gold. If he isn’t, then well, you didn’t waste too much to get him. Obviously if you’re overwhelmed with an offer, take it. If the Hicks owner out there doesn’t believe in him at all, then try and pounce right now. Even now his price is tempered so you could get a nice deal on him.
The book on Mariner’s backstop Mike Zunino was and always will be the following: He can take a walk, he strikes out a ton, and he can hit a baseball a long way. The question for him has always been “can he hit enough to balance out the rest of the negatives?” The truth is, last year he did just enough to not be cast aside entirely. He put up 12 homers in under 200 plate appearances, and slashed .207/.318/.470. As a catcher who isn’t that well regarded on defense, he’s going to have to hit enough to be able to carry a job.
This year he’s made some major changes, some for the better and some for the worst. The good news is that the power is as good as ever, since he currently sits on 9 homers through 179 plate appearances. He’s also upped the batting average to a respectable .247 level. The bad is that his walk rate has fallen from a really nice 10.9% in 2016 to a less nice 6.7% this season. That means that despite a .040 jump in batting average this year, he’s actually getting on base at a lower rate.
So is he an ok average hitter with an ok OBP? Or is he a poor average hitter with great OBP?
The truth is that I’m not sure, and I honestly don’t think it matters. We’re seeing Zunino strike out at a nearly 40% rate, which is far too high for any hitter (hell, that’s too high for a hitting pitcher). His average is also inflated by an insanely high BABIP, with it sitting .100 over his career level at .373 this year. He’s going to come crashing down with that BABIP, and if he’s not walking at an elite rate a .210/.260/.399 line is entirely possible.
Ultimately I think that for Zunino to hold a job he’s going to have to hit homers at a 30-35 pace and provide good defense. He’s kind of doing that this year, and so I think his job is safe for the time being. I just don’t think there’s another level to his game and I think the Zunino experiment will end in failure. If you own him and want to sell high, now is the time to do it as since June 11th he has hit .342/.390/.763 with 5 homers. So throw those stats out there and see if an owner will bite before he comes back down to earth.
“Medium Game James” as I have so often (just now) dubbed him has put together one heck of a solid season this year out of the Brewers’ rotation. He’s sitting on a very respectable 3.28 ERA (with FIP and xFIP game for the improvement as well at 3.13 and 3.54 respectively), rocking a flawlessly even 9.00 K/9, and walking a very nice 2.22 batter per 9 innings. He’s always been good about limiting the long-ball, and this year has taken another step forward with a HR/9 of 0.74.
What we’re seeing here is a young player finally coming into his own on the mound at the age of 28. He was never a highly touted prospect, but he was a solid one so it was a bit disappointing to see him struggle so much the last 3 years. But along came the new hitting mentality of “I MUST HIT HOME RUNS OR DISHONOR MY FAMILY,” and Nelson’s numbers trend in the right way. He’s simply striking out more, walking less, and limiting homers. And that’s basically the book on pitching.
In leagues I still wouldn’t pay an absurd price for him, but if you need a good pitcher who gives you solid innings with a chance to be great every now and then, then Jimmy is your man. I think of him a bit like a great #4, solid#3 type of pitcher going forward, and if the price is nice, go for it!