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Position/Role Battles: The Indians' C/1B/DH

There are a number of players swirling around the Indians' catching, first base and DH positions, but there is only one constant --- Carlos Santana.  The young slugger is coming off a 27-homer season and is the cornerstone of the Tribe's lineup, so the club's obvious priority is to keep him in the lineup every day.  While his bat plays best at catcher, Santana's defensive shortcomings and the Tribe's desire to keep him fresh and healthy will net Santana a lot of time at both first base and DH this season. 

It goes without saying that of the players listed in this post, Santana is clearly the best fantasy option.  You have the luxury of keeping him as your fantasy catcher all season along, but Santana's position in the real-life Cleveland lineup will have a domino effect on several other members of the Tribe.  I'll rank the rest in order of their fantasy value in 2012 ...

Lou Marson: If you're in a league with one starting catcher, it's very hard to find a backup.  If you're in a league with TWO starting catcher spots, then forget about backups; it's a stretch to find two productive starters at the shallowest position in baseball.  You've got to be on the lookout to fill that second starter or backup-catcher slot with part-time backstops who have good splits and are guaranteed to get regular playing time.

Marson fits this profile to a T.  He has a .285/.367/.395 line in 199 career plate appearances against southpaws; it's a relatively small sample size, but it aligns with the .750 OPS Marson posted in his seven minor league seasons. Marson is also just 25 years old, so his bat could even still improve.

As a right-handed hitter, Marson is a rare commodity on an Indians roster dominated by lefty bats.  His production against southpaws will net him most, if not all, of the starts when the Tribe faces a left-hander, while the switch-hitting Santana (who destroys lefty pitching) will move to DH or first.  Even if Marson just gets 260-270 plate appearances in 2012, a .750 OPS is pretty solid for a second catcher, or even for a backup that you can rotate into the lineup if your full-time starter has a splits problem of his own.

Travis Hafner: "Pronk" turns 35 in June, hasn't played in the field since 2007, and has battled injuries in each of the past three seasons. While the perception is that Hafner has fallen off the map since his huge years in 2004-06, he is still a dangerous (if limited) fantasy threat.  Hafner is strictly a platoon player now, only dangerous against right-handed pitching ... but boy, he's still very dangerous in that limited capacity, posting no worse than an .863 OPS against righties over the past three seasons.  

Personally speaking, I try to avoid DH-only players in fantasy baseball.  I enjoy being able use my utility spot on a bench player who's on a hot streak or having a breakout year, rather than locking it up with one DH for the entire season. If you have a DH-only player like David Ortiz that's worth playing every day, more power to you, but me, I prefer to have a bit of flexibility in my lineup.  That said, if you're going to draft a designated hitter, make it one with killer splits like Hafner so you can start him whenever the Tribe faces a right-hander. 

I'm placing Marson ahead of Hafner simply because Marson only has been ranked against other catchers, whereas Hafner has to compete against literally every other hitter in baseball as a utility player.  A .750 OPS in 270 plate appearances from Marson is more valuable than Hafner's .863 OPS in the same amount of playing time since that production from a catcher is harder to find than Hafner's production in the utility spot.  Marson is still a question mark early in his career, to be sure, but Hafner's injury question gives him a red flag of his own. When in doubt, always take the catcher with upside over the aging DH.

Casey Kotchman: After signing a minor league deal with the Rays last offseason, Kotchman ended up as one of 2011's biggest bargains, posting a .306/.378/.422 line as Tampa Bay's regular first baseman.  That performance may have saved his Major League career, and it resulted in Kotchman signing a one-year, $3MM deal with Cleveland in February. 

If you picked up Kotchman after his hot start last year, congratulations.  If you actually drafted Kotchman last year, then whoa, start playing the lottery. Big season aside, however, it would be almost as surprising if Kotchman were to repeat his 2011 performance in 2012.  Last season was Kotchman's first solid campaign since 2007, he has a wide gap in his splits (.838 OPS vs. RHP, .709 OPS vs. LHP in 2011) and the fact that his OPS dropped by almost 100 points in the second half indicate that he is probably best served as a platoon player.  A left-handed hitter, Kotchman will share time at first with ...

Matt LaPorta: The centerpiece of the package Cleveland received from Milwaukee in the C.C. Sabathia trade, LaPorta has thus far not delivered on the Major League level, hitting .238/.304/.397 in 1,007 plate appearances.  At age 27 and entering his prime years, this could well be a make-or-break season for LaPorta. Kotchman's presence means both that the team can ease LaPorta into a platoon and also give them a veteran fallback should LaPorta struggle again.

Fantasy owners have been picking LaPorta in the later rounds of the last few seasons' worth of drafts, hoping the vaunted prospect will finally break out.  With Kotchman on board this year taking at-bats, I'd guess LaPorta's draft stock could be reduced even further, though if there was ever a season for him to finally break out, on paper this should be the one.  He has demolished minor league pitching so he has nothing left to prove on that level --- either LaPorta produces in 2012 or else he gets tagged with the dreaded "Quadruple-A" label.

Shelley Duncan: The 32-year-old veteran will factor into the first base and DH mix, though his primary contribution to the Indians may come in left field.  Grady Sizemore's health is a question mark, and with the latest news that Sizemore will miss Opening Day due to a back strain, Michael Brantley will now probably start the year as Cleveland's center fielder, putting Duncan and several other outfielders in line for playing time in left. 

Duncan is out of options, but his right-handed bat is probably enough to keep him around anyway on the lefty-heavy Indians (though curiously, Duncan had a .918 OPS in 133 PAs against righties and a .679 OPS in 114 PAs against lefties, a large enough gap that it almost evened out his career splits). Duncan is not a viable fantasy option unless you're in a deep AL-only league or you're the same Nostradamus that saw Kotchman's 2011 season coming.

Fantasy Outlook: To recap, when the Indians face a right-handed starter, their lineup will likely feature Hafner at designated hitter, Santana catching and Kotchman at first.  When a southpaw is on the mound, Santana will DH, Marson will catch and either LaPorta or Duncan will play first.  (Or, one of those two is the DH and Santana plays first.)

While Santana will clearly be the first Indian taken and will be gone by the third round at the latest, Marson and Hafner should both still be around by the 19th or 20th rounds of most drafts.  Some fantasy owners could be swayed by Kotchman's 2011 numbers and select him around this time or even a couple of rounds earlier, but I wouldn't take him with anything but a last-round flier. The same goes for LaPorta, despite all of that potential. I wouldn't draft Duncan at all, but he could provide limited value off the waiver wire depending on how the Tribe's left field or first base situations develop throughout the season.




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