Fantasy baseball season is nearly here, so to kick-start your 2016 draft prep, SI.com’s fantasy baseball expert Michael Beller will give a snapshot of certain players who may not necessarily be a breakout, a sleeper or a bust (all of which we’ll preview in the upcoming weeks), but could still prove influential this season.
The player: Ian Kinsler, 2B, Detroit Tigers
• The 2015 stats: 675 plate appearances, .296/.342/.428, 11 homers, 94 runs, 35 doubles 11.9% K%, 6.4% BB%, 111 wRC+
• The three-year sample (162-game average): .283/.330/.420, 15 homers, 15 steals, 101 runs
• The SI rank: No. 71 overall, No. 6 2B
• The consensus rank (FantasyPros): No. 85 overall, No. 8 2B
• The skinny: The Ian Kinsler of 2014 and ’15 was a victim of the success of ’09 and ’11 Ian Kinsler, brought on by the downturn represented by ’13 Ian Kinsler, his age-31 season. If you polled the 10 smartest baseball fans you know, I’d be willing to bet too many of them would say that Kinsler hasn’t been a valuable fantasy asset the last two seasons. That’s only because they’re remembering an in-his-physical-prime Kinsler, who was a 30–30 threat, and indeed posted a pair of 30–30 seasons. That Kinsler is gone, but this one is still pretty darn good, and one of the few sure bets at the always tricky second base position.
Kinsler got off to a slow start last year, especially in the power department. He didn’t hit his first home run of the season until May 30, and entered the All-Star Break with just three round trippers. Even as he was suffering through the worst power season of his career, though, he hit .274, got on base at a .339 clip, scored 50 runs, and played excellent defense. The veteran turned it on after the All-Star Break, hitting eight homers and slashing .325/.347/.495 over the final 10 weeks of the season. Few second basemen are safe bets to reach double-digits in homers and steals, score 90-plus runs, and be lift up your rates. Kinsler is one of those guys.
There is, in fact, reason to believe that Kinsler will have his best season as a Tiger in 2016. His batted-ball profile from last year tells us that he isn’t losing anything, other than a bit of power. He had a 25.4% line-drive rate and a groundball/flyball ratio that was more or less in line with his career average. He never has struck out much, and his 11.9% strikeout rate from last year was the third best of his career. Minus the power, Kinsler is largely the same hitter he has been since he broke into the majors with the Rangers in ’06. Since missing 59 games in ’10, he has played at least 136 games in the five seasons since, and a minimum of 155 games in four of them. Durability questions shouldn’t be an issue, even though he turns 34 in June.
Kinsler has spent most of his career as a leadoff man, but he has never had a lineup quite like this behind him. The Tigers two through five hitters project to be Justin Upton, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez. PECOTA projects that quartet to combine for 89 homers and 318 RBI. That feels a little modest, given that Upton, Cabrera and J.D. Martinez alone went for 82 bombs and 259 RBI last year, and Cabrera played just 119 games, while Upton was stuck in the middle of a punchless San Diego lineup.
With those four bats lining up behind Kinsler, he’s a real threat to lead the league in runs scored. It’s hard to project any player to score 100-plus runs, but we know anecdotally and empirically that a handful of players will do it. Kinsler is one of the best bets to be among that group. That’s something worth noting, because too often fantasy owners believe they can compete in the runs scored category organically. The thinking goes that if you get good players, naturally they’ll be on base a lot—not to mention driving themselves in 20 or 30 or 40 times—and will have plenty of opportunity to score runs. It’s an understandable line of thinking, but it is flawed.
Yes, players who hit a lot of home runs and have high OBPs—also known as the best players in baseball—will score a ton of runs. Last year, Josh Donaldson led the league in runs, and Bryce Harper was second. Players of that ilk, however, aren’t the only ones toward the top of the runs scored leaderboard. Dexter Fowler had 102 runs last season. Lorenzo Cain had 101. So did Matt Carpenter. Curtis Granderson and Adam Eaton both crossed the plate 98 times. It takes more than star power to compete in runs. It’s another stat you need to draft for, and Kinsler is one of the cheapest sources of elite run-scoring ability.
Kinsler is going to be atop one of the best orders in baseball. In this second phase of his career, he has turned into a high-average, solid on-base player, slashing .283/.330/.420 over the last three seasons. If he hits those thresholds this year, he’ll blow past 100 runs given the firepower behind him in Detroit’s lineup.
The fact of the matter is Kinsler is now one of the most underappreciated fantasy players in the game. He doesn’t provide nearly the overall value of Jose Altuve or Dee Gordon. He doesn’t have the power of Brian Dozier or the ceiling of Anthony Rendon or Rougned Odor. He may, however, be the only true five-category player at the position in 2016 and, just as importantly, he is eminently reliable. That’s a currency too frequently overlooked by fantasy owners. Kinsler isn’t going to send you scurrying to the waiver wire looking for a few droplets of water in the shallow pool of second basemen.
• The best-case scenario: Kinsler matches last year’s rates, but the power doesn’t hibernate until the end of May. Not only does he score 120 runs, he gets back to 15 homers and 15 steals, keeping his perch as one of the best all-around second basemen in the game.
• The worst-case scenario: The power completely disappears, and Kinsler fails to reach double-digit homers for the first time in his career. What’s more, at 34, his skills start to deteriorate a bit, and the rates that carried him last season just aren’t there. He hits .275/.320/.400, and scores just 85 runs.