Buy or Sell: Bautista, Jackson, Gardner

Every season players pop out of seemingly nowhere to make major impacts on fantasy teams. Some of these players hold their value while some fade into second half obscurity. Today we’ll take a look three players in particular that, while not much was expected, are currently making a mixed league slash.
 

Jose Bautista .242/.352/.556, 12 HR, 33 RBI

Back in the day, Bautista was a decent prospect coming through the Pirates organization. Drafted in the 20th round of the 2000 draft, Bautista has always been seen as a player with potential and tools, but lacking somewhat in results. As a matter of fact, in 2004, Bautista bounced between four teams that wanted to take a shot and see if his tools would show up in their systems.
 
While it has been a long road for the now 29-year-old, the improvements he has made over the past couple of seasons are starting to pay off.
 
Bautista has never been an overly aggressive hitter, but he improved his walk rate last season by almost five percent over his previous career high. That caused his OBP to shoot up into respectable heights and, essentially, gave him the upper-hand to win the Blue Jays vacant leadoff spot to begin this season. While Bautista didn’t last their long, he has stuck around as an everyday player partly because of the OBP, but also because of his raw power.
 
Bautista may only have a career high of 16 home runs, but take into consideration the context of those home runs; they came in only 400 at-bats. Over the past two seasons, Bautista has hit 15 and 13 home runs respectively in 424 and 404 at-bats. He wasn’t playing everyday, but if he had received a full 550 at-bats his home run totals would have likely passed the 20 mark.
 
While Bautista’s current 13 AB/HR pace of is not likely to hold all season, it continues to show what is a continuing progression in that category. If Bautista hits one home run every 20 at-bats for the rest of the season and ends up with 550 at-bats on the year, he would actually end up with 30 home runs at season’s end. If he regresses even further to his 2009 AB/HR rate of 26, he would hit 14 more this season, giving him a total of 26 on the year.
 
Assuming the 20-plus home run power is legit as his progression in that category suggests it is, there is still the issue of AVG to worry about. So far this season, Bautista has not thrived in that category.
 
Some might point to a very low .234 BABIP as the culprit here, but consider how Bautista is hitting the ball. Only 14.3 percent of his balls in play have been classified as line drives and over 50 percent as fly balls. That is an equation for a low BABIP.
 
The problem going forward with Bautista is two-sided. If he continues to hit for such power as he has shown so far, that means that he will be hitting way too many fly balls to maintain a respectable AVG. If he hits more line drives and lowers his fly ball rate, his home run rate will fall sharply.
 
There is a lot of buzz surrounding Bautista right now, so you might actually be able to get something of value in return on the trade market (though I might hold in OBP leagues). His fantasy value is gaining steam, yes, but he it is also filled with risk due to a consistently low line drive rate.
Austin Jackson .329/.384/.441, 6 SB
it took one of the Yankees top prospects to pry Curtis Granderson away from the Tigers this offseason. While Granderson has done very little for the Yankees so far in 2010, Austin Jackson has been a revelation in Detroit.
 
To this point, everything Jackson has accomplished has been fairly legit.
 
Wait a minute! What about his insanely high .455 BABIP!!! Well, yes, that is insanely high, but so too is Jackson’s line drive rate. When a player hits line drives at over a 35 percent clip such results are, to an extent, legit (See: Mauer, Joe). That being said, while Jackson has been a line drive machine, no player, even Joe Mauer, can hold that pace over 500 at-bats.
 
The problem isn’t Jackson’s performance so far, or how supposedly lucky he has been, but rather what his expectations should be going forward.
 
Jackson’s minor league track record shows a hitter with the ability to draw a decent amount of walks, but also a hitter that strikes out too often given his skill set. In 2007, at high-A, Jackson hit 10 home runs in 284 at-bats. He hasn’t flashed that type of power potential since.
 
Another issue is Jackson’s swing. That may sound crazy, given his high line drive rate, but what happens when that rate comes back down to earth?
 
Project Prospect gave a scouting report on Jackson this past December. While the conclusions of that report haven’t panned out so far, we should not judge ultimate results on 185 Major League at-bats. The observations about Jackson’s swing are quite accurate when broken down. If you put Jackson’s and B.J. Upton’s swing side by side, you’d see some interesting similarities. Both have a “two-part” swing in which they load, land on their front foot early and almost pause before they begin the bat through the zone. There is also a lot of movement in the hands during the loading of the swing.
 
These mechanics have a lot of moving parts and can easily cause prolonged slumps when one part of the swing gets out of sync. 
 
Even without looking at mechanics, Jackson has some red flags in his numbers. 
 
Despite hitting for a high AVG, Jackson has struck out in over 28 percent of his at-bats and he has a whiff rate of over 20 percent, not something you want to see from a hitter with a .112 ISO.
 
While I am very impressed by what this rookie has done so far in 2010, I have a hard time believing that his current rate of success will can be sustained much longer. But not only that, when he does fall into his first big slump, there is a chance that a glitch in his complicated mechanics could combine with a below average contact rate and high strikeout rate and cause a big-time fall off. 
 
If you haven’t sold high already, It might be wise to start sending out emails to league-mates asap.
Brett Gardner .321/.399/.407, 17 SB, 33 R
While the cases for Jose Bautista and Austin Jackson are a bit complicated to decipher, things are a bit more clear cut with Brett Gardner.
 
We all knew that Gardner had top-notch speed, but his .321 AVG has been a tremendous surprise. When it comes down to it, Gardner has been a big lucky with the results of his balls in play. His line drive rate (17.8) is exactly his career average (515 at-bats), yet his BABIP is at .361. That being said, players with Gardner’s speed can maintain unusually high BABIP’s if they keep from hitting too many fly balls. So far, Gardner has done that. However, to maintain a high BABIP, there also needs to be more line drives involved, something that Gardner is lacking.
 
While selling high might seem like the obvious suggestion here, I’m not so sure that needs to be the case.
 
Gardner’s biggest asset is his speed. His 17 steals put him only one behind Juan Pierre for the Major League lead. If Gardner can stay healthy, there is a very good chance that he steals over 50 bags this season, which makes him a monster one category player. That in itself holds value, but then consider the lineup he is hitting in and where he is hitting in it.  Since Nick Johnson went down, Gardner has taken most of the plate appearances in the two-hole and his .399 OBP leaves little reason that he should hit elsewhere for the time being.
 
That lineup spot could translate into a ton of extra runs scored. As it stands, Gardner is only two runs scored away from the league leader (Matt Kemp with 35).
 
There is a realistic chance that Gardner ends the season with 50-plus steals and 100-plus runs scored. No matter what happens to his AVG going forward, that would equal tremendous fantasy value and it gives current owners no reason to sell him for anything less than top dollar.