September 10, 2009

With three Deconstructing pieces left, I thought it would be time to focus on helping owners in keeper leagues to decide which players next year could become this year's Adam Jones or Justin Upton.

Last year Jones and Upton were high-grade prospects making their first impact on the big league. Neither was incredibly successful -- Jones (.270 AVG, 9 HR, 57 RBIs, 10 SB), Upton (.250 AVG, 15 HR, 42 RBIs) -- but they laid the framework for breakout seasons in '09. It's safe to say the keeper leaguers who didn't retain either player last year have gone through this year wide-eyed and open-mouthed now that Jones and Upton are All-Stars.

That's why I want to use your time for the next three weeks to outline a few rookies who can possibly transform their inaugural campaigns into star-level seasons in 2010. After all, a critical component of fantasy ball is to stay one step ahead of the curve. Consider this a head start on your 2010 fantasy baseball season.

*All statistics are through Sept. 7

.279 AVG, .832 OPS, 11 HR, 45 RBIs, 57 R, 16 SB

McCutchen's success in the Majors hasn't gone without a few sighs of relief -- likely from both Pirates fans (if any exist aside from our own Jonathan Phillips) and the Pirates front office.

There had been speculation the last couple years that the organization was pushing McCutchen up the totem pole at a rate faster than his development justified. This was most evident when he hit just .258 with a meager .327 on-base percentage in 118 games at Double-A Altoona in 2007. Yet he answered the doubts by finishing the season at Triple-A Indianapolis with a .313 batting mark in 17 games. Then he took a giant step forward the next year in Indianapolis by upping his walk rate from 8.4 to 11.5 percent. That enabled him to bat .283 yet still maintain a leadoff-worthy .372 on-base figure, and it gave him the opportunity to swipe 34 bags (in 53 attempts).

The superb defender had "future Pirates starting center fielder" written all over him entering this year -- assuming he continued to show progress on the farm. He did just that by producing a .303 batting average with 22 extra-base hits, 41 runs and 10 steals in just 201 at-bats, convincing the Pirates to bring him up. They cleared room for the 22-year-old by trading popular center fielder NateMcLouth.

McCutchen didn't look back upon receiving the starting role upon his promotion, hitting .400 (10-for-25) with two triples and five RBIs in his first five contests. To date, he's maintained a respectable .279 batting average while holding a 10.7 walk rate and posting 11 homers and 16 steals, highlighted by three-homer and three-steal efforts that came within nine games of each other from Aug. 1-11.

His homer/steal combination is what could turn him into a fantasy superstar. He probably has greater stolen base upside than Jones and a slightly lower power ceiling, and his plate discipline so far in the Majors is a great indication that he could be a future .300 hitter.

He drew just 10 free passes in his first 176 plate appearances (38 games) for a 5.6 walk rate, probably a result of a 22-year-old guy in the bigs for the first time. Impatience is a characteristic typically seen in youngsters, so to expect them to display a Barry Bonds-like discipline at the plate is about as unrealistic as expecting Bonds to show humility. After the initial dry period, McCutchen recorded 25 walks in his next 189 plate appearances (49 games) through Aug. 31 -- a 13.2 walk percentage. He's made pitchers work even harder in September, receiving eight walks (including four walks on Sept. 1) in just 29 plate appearances for a 27.6 walk percentage. This growing walk rate shouldn't be underestimated. McCutchen is literally becoming more discerning at the plate as he gains more big league experience.

As he shows his plate patience over a longer period of time, pitchers will gain the understanding that they can't pitch around him. He's seen just 51.8 percent of the pitches thrown to him reach the strike zone, which, if he continues to show a Zen-like level of patience, will make him an ideal leadoff hitter. Make no mistake; the Pirates want him as their future leading man. With Pedro Alvarez and possibly Garrett Jones slated as a likely 3-4 tandem in the future, the Bucs won't do with McCutchen what the Marlins have done with Hanley Ramirez -- parlay his power hitting from the leadoff spot into becoming a No. 3 batter.

While McCutchen has a fair amount of pop in his bat, it'll be better served atop the batting order, as Jimmy Rollins or Jose Reyes provide a decent power threat from the onset of the game's opening pitch.

The center fielder has carried a 39.6 fly ball percentage and a 17.8 line drive percentage that's enabled him to bash 37 extra-base hits -- 11 homers, six triples and 20 doubles. His speed and gap-hitting ability mean he can become an annual threat to reach double-digit triples, the same way Reyes, Rollins, Jacoby Ellsbury or Carl Crawford have channeled their speed and gap power into immediately reaching scoring position for the batters following them.

Aside from the three-tater game on Aug. 1, McCutchen showed another power surge during eight games from Aug. 25-31, when he smashed four homers and two doubles to record a .735 slugging percentage. Again, it's not a coincidence that a greater amount of his offensive production has come later in the season. As has been discussed here in Deconstructing regarding youngsters MattWieters, familiarity breeds success.

A talented baseball player like McCutchen has already been set up to grow into a fantasy star. He has a secure role as the everyday center fielder and leadoff batter. He's proven that he belongs in the Majors, first by consistently producing good numbers in Triple-A and then by posting mixed-league worthy stats as a Major Leaguer.

A power/speed combination with an above-average batting average is often the most ideal mix any owner could expect from one of his players. Well, McCutchen offers just that plethora of offensive ability. He might not become a 20-home run hitter or a 40-steal base-runner, but would you "settle" for 15-18 homers and 25-35 steals with a .280-plus batting average? It might not be elite production, but it's the kind of stat line that leads owners to win league championships.

So if you were the owner last year who released Adam Jones or Justin Upton to your league's free agent waters, then here's a way to buy back some sort of redemption. Andrew McCutchen is a future star whom a great deal of fantasy baseballers might not be looking to keep. If your goal is to stay a step ahead of the competition, then McCutchen represents a chance to redeem yourself for not holding onto Jones or Upton.

Want more fantasy MLB/NFL/NBA advice? Follow RotoExperts on Twitter.

You May Like