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Draft Round Battles: Alex Rios Vs. Hunter Pence

Alex Rios was considered to have one of the best bounce-back seasons of 2012, and Rios' "bounce" actually took him to some of his highest levels yet in terms of 5x5 productivity.  Rios posted career highs in batting average (.304), homers (25) and RBI (91), and scored the second-most runs (93) of his career while also adding a healthy 23 steals.  Keeper league owners who hung onto Rios through gritted teeth after his terrible 2011 season were nicely rewarded for their loyalty.

Hunter Pence owners see Rios' situation as a best-case scenario for their guy.  Pence's 24 homers, 104 RBI and 87 runs in 2012 actually topped his 2007-11 career averages but he hit only .253/.319/.425 for the lowest OPS of his six-year career.  This number was largely fueled by the .671 OPS he posted in 248 PA after being traded to San Francisco, plus a lackluster postseason that saw Pence produce more in clubhouse motivation than he did at the plate.  

It was easy to predict some regression for Pence following his .361 BABIP-fueled 2011 campaign but still, this was a troubling drop for a player who had been a very solid fantasy outfielder over the previous five years.  Pence had just a .743 OPS with the Phillies as well, so you can't blame the move to AT&T Park on his down season...though I am going to use the ballpark as an excuse to avoid Pence in my 2013 fantasy draft.  With Petco Park and Safeco Field both moving their fences in next season, AT&T might cement its place as the most pitcher-friendly stadium in baseball.  Frankly, I'm hesitant to take any Giants hitter besides Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval, and even the Panda is a bit of a risk given how his consistency seems to yo-yo from year to year.

Pence will be a free agent next winter and has more incentive than ever to put up a big season, but I'm not really a big believer in the "contract year" phenomenon, especially when more evidence seems to exist that Pence might be starting his decline just before he hits the open market.  Pence struck out a career-worst 21.2% of the time in 2012 and he stole a career-low five bases.  Not that he was ever a big speed guy to begin with (he averaged only 12 swipes a year from 2007-11) but it's another sign that Pence might be turning into a one-dimensional player who relies on home runs to be successful, and that's not a winning formula for a guy who spends half his year trying to hit in a homer-dampening park.

Rios, in contrast, plays in hitter-friendly U.S. Cellular Field, so he's already got an edge on Pence from the get-go.  I'm admittedly not 100 percent sure on Rios in 2013 since he may be due for another one of his down years.  If Sandoval was kind of a yo-yo in terms of consistency, Rios is basically Harvey Lowe.*  Rios had put together three solid years in Toronto before plummeting to a .691 OPS in 2009, playing so poorly that the Jays just outright let Rios (and his hefty contract) go to the White Sox on waivers that August.  Rios rebounded for a .791 OPS/21 HR/88 RBI/34 SB season in 2010, then hit the skids again in 2011 before coming back in 2012.

* = if this isn't the most obscure link in Roto Authority history, then I give up

You simply don't know which player is going to show up from year to year when you draft Rios.  The outfielder just turned 32 yesterday, so it seems unlikely that he'll get better than he was last year, and all you can hope for is a repeat performance or only a minor dip.  Not only could there be a natural decline at the plate at Rios' age, but the advancing years will eventually take a toll on his speed; that'd be a big loss for a player whose fantasy value is given a nice boost from his stolen bases.

As indicated by Mock Draft Central's latest average draft position reports, Rios (82.12 ADP) is being taken roughly a round ahead of Pence (97.43 ADP) in most drafts, which seems fair given their 2012 numbers.  I tend to agree with the mock drafters.  Rios showed signs of growth as a batter, hitting more line drives (21.8% of all balls hit into play) and making more contact (86.9% of all swings) in 2012 than ever before in his career.  Those numbers allow Rios to take full advantage of his ballpark, whereas Pence will be hard-pressed to regain his stroke in San Francisco.  Since Barry Bonds left after the 2007 campaign, no Giants hitter has hit more than 26 homers in a season and only six Giants overall have reached the 20-homer plateau.  Pence has solid power but isn't a big slugger --- it's easy to imagine him failing to hit even 15 long balls in 2013.

I don't mind Rios as a second outfield choice and I like him a lot as the third outfielder, though most fantasy owners don't have their starting OF set by the eighth or ninth round.  While Rios certainly has his question marks, I wouldn't be worried if he fell on my roster on draft day.  I'd hesitate to take Pence altogether, and if I did end up drafting him through clenched teeth, he's the kind of player I would try to unload for an upgrade before Opening Day.  Unless Pence shows up at my front door and delivers a phenomenal speech to change my mind, Rios is the better option of the two.

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