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A Look At Jorge Cantu

Today's guest article comes courtesy of Jason Collette of RotoJunkie.com.

Every year there seems to be two or three players that come out of nowhere to surprise fantasy owners to the delight of the owners who took that ever-popular late-round flier or dollar days gamble back in March. Most of the time, this strategy involves staring at the supporting skills from the previous season recalling the player’s former hyped status. A great example of this is Carlos Quentin. He was given up for dead in a lot of leagues after disappointing owners with his play in Arizona after the hype surrounding him during his collegiate days as well as during his time in the Arizona farm system. In fact, in my local A.L. league, Quentin indeed went in dollar days this year. An old adage out there says once you display a skill, you own it. Players can slump for long periods, even entire seasons, but if that player once showed a high walk rate, good speed, or solid power indicators for a decent sample size, they could do it again. You will recall Quentin was a disciplined hitter during his prospect days with developing power. For those owners that focused on those past skills and plucked Quentin at the end of drafts this year, they have been richly rewarded this year with his performance.

While that strategy is a somewhat safe play, the more frequently used strategy by owners is to try to find a name of a player that once did something half-way decent when positional scarcity is at its ugliest in drafts. Skills be damned, just finding a player that has a modicum of talent is a blessing in the 22nd round of a standard single league draft. This is how a team ends up with a Miguel Olivo this year or J.P. Howell – two guys that most owners had way down their draft lists after awful 2007 performances. It turns out Howell just needed to work out of the pen to shine (hat tip to Baseball HQ’s Ron Shandler who actually called for him to be the Rays closer this past offseason and predicted the 2008 success) while Olivo has apparently made a deal with the devil. While those two players have been strong dollar days value, the true gem of the 2008 season has to be Jorge Cantu.

Cantu had an interesting career up until this year. Signed as a 16 year old by the Rays, he spent most of his early years as a middling shortstop with bad range and a bad arm. I can remember seeing him play in the Southern League many nights in Orlando as he struggled to hit anything with authority. That all came to an end after the 2003 off-season as Cantu exploded in Triple A with a huge power season that earned him a late season promotion to Tampa where he slugged .462 in 173 at bats mainly thanks to twenty doubles that made up nearly all of his twenty-three extra base hits. Cantu attributed his newfound power to spending the winter working on his father’s farm along the Mexican border eating Mongolian beef. Whatever the reason, the Devil Rays and their fans were not complaining and 2005 was a breakout season for Cantu as he hit .286 with a .497 SLG% mainly as a second baseman. His numbers were good despite some rather awful plate discipline. His patience at the plate was never strong during his prospect years, but it was particularly awful in 2005 as Cantu put up a 3% walk rate on the season. On the plus side, he displayed the best contact of his career as he only struck out in 14% of his plate appearances compared to the 25% rate he had put up in 2004.

The expectations for Cantu the following season were high and he failed miserably. Cantu is a terrible defender, but when he hits, all is forgiven. In 2006, he did not hit or field well as he hit .249 with a .698 OPS in 413 at bats. He doubled his walk rate, but returned to his strikeout problems and saw his power numbers drop across the board. 2007 was more of the same and after the dramatic drop-off, many began to speculate that the Mongolian beef must have been injected with Winstrol or something out of the BALCO labs. After juggling Cantu between Durham and Tampa, the Rays jettisoned him to the Reds where he did very little and was released this past offseason.

Cantu signed with Florida as they were desperate to fill a roster after trading away Miguel Cabrera and not having a homegrown solution for the problem. Cantu went on to have a productive March and earned a spot on the 25 man roster. All he has done since then is put up the best production of his career. At press time, Cantu owns a .296 batting average with an .878 OPS. In looking at the supporting stats, Cantu owns a solid 7% walk rate, has reduced his strikeout rate to 18%, and has taken the Dan Uggla approach to hitting in Miami by going fly-ball heavy. Pundits say the park is pitcher friendly and flyballs go to die there, but Uggla has made it work and Cantu is doing the same. In the previous four seasons, Cantu owned flyball rates of 34%, 37%, 38%, and 33%; this year he owns a 45% rate. That has helped him hit 42% of his balls in play for extra base hits which include seventeen doubles and fourteen homers.

While those numbers are nice, there are a couple of causes for concern. Cantu’s current BABIP sits at .316 but his xBABIP is 31 points lower at .285. He will have a tough time maintaining that .296 batting average going forward as his LD% is a low 16%. Cantu will have to continue to hit balls off or over the wall to maintain a high batting average.

I am a big proponent of maximizing value and avoiding holding onto a player too long. I own Johnny Cueto in two leagues and wonder what I could have traded him for last month after watching him wreck my ERA and WHIP over these last few weeks. Although I do not own Cantu since I am a bitter Rays fan, if I did, I would be maximizing his value in my league. Odds are, 99% of you picked Cantu up somewhere after the 20th round if at all, or spent one or two dollars in an auction. He has already far exceeded your expectations and given you terrific production at this point in the season. The power numbers could continue as his HR/FB rate is at his career average, but the combination of high fly-balls and low line drives and the fact the humid Miami summer is just getting started make me very skeptical of Cantu’s first half success continuing in the second-half.


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