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Draft Round Battles: Jason Heyward Vs. Adam Jones

Taking a page from the Columbo book of storytelling, I'm going to remove the suspense early: I favor Jason Heyward ahead of Adam Jones in 2013 fantasy drafts.  My usual strategy is to take a more established player over a promising but semi-unproven one but in Heyward and Jones, I feel better taking Heyward's upside ahead of Jones' solid but not quite elite game.

It's a bit of a bold statement on my part since Jones projects as a stable bottom-of-the-second-round choice in most fantasy drafts.  The Orioles center fielder was an all-around fine fantasy performer in 2012, delivering career highs in homers (32), runs (103), batting average (.287), slugging (.505), steals (16) and he even threw in 82 RBIs to boot.

A lot of nice numbers, indeed, but there was one career-best that Jones couldn't top.  His .334 OBP in 2012 fell short of the .335 OBP he posted in 2009.  I don't care that he fell short of the mark; I care that in five seasons as a Major League regular, Jones hasn't been able to do better than a .335 OBP.  Walks have always been an issue for Jones and his career 0.25 BB/K rate may be the only thing holding him back from being a truly elite outfielder. 

It's almost a Moneyball cliche at this point but I always hesitate before drafting a hitter who doesn't have a solid OBP.  Heyward, to be fair, also had a .335 OBP in 2012 and only a .319 OBP during his 2011 season, a year marred by nagging injuries and perhaps just an old-fashioned sophomore slump.   What did catch my eye, however, was Heyward's .393 OBP over 623 PA in his 2010 rookie season, which was part of an .849 OPS that happened to top any of Jones' seasons.  Heyward only did it once, but a .393 OBP at any age is very impressive, and doing it in your age-20 season was off the charts. 

Fans and pundits had high expectations of Heyward in his rookie year and he delivered, though his mediocre 2011 and a Jones-esque 2012 have served to lower expectations slightly...if you call being the 32nd player taken overall in Mock Draft Central's latest average draft position rankings as "lowered expectations."  Still, there's just a bit of post-hype malaise surrounding Heyward, as is the fickle nature of fantasy owners towards any heavily-touted rookie that doesn't immediately start rattling off the Cooperstown-caliber seasons.

I referred to Heyward's 2012 year as Jones-esque because...

Jones: 697 PA, 32 HR, 82 RBI, 103 runs, .287/.334/.505, 16 steals,, 125 OPS+, .361 wOBA, 126 wRC+

Heyward: 651 PA, 27 HR, 82 RBI, 93 runs, .269/.335/.479, 21 steals, 117 OPS+, .351 wOBA, 120 wRC+

Jones had the better season but the gap was closer than you might have thought.  Heyward's rebound from his tough 2011 campaign somewhat flew under the radar, while Jones leading the Cinderella Orioles back to relevance understandably drew a lot more attention.

Now, I will freely admit that the "post-hype malaise" I mentioned earlier could also easily apply to Jones as well.  He was a former first-round sandwich pick in the 2003 draft and ranked 28th on Baseball America's list of the game's 100 best prospects heading into the 2007 season.  Jones, though, is only breaking out now, at age 27.  It's possible this is his ceiling, or it's also possible that he's already hit his ceiling and he'll perform closer to his pre-2012 norm (a 101 OPS+) in 2013.

What it all boils down to is that I just think we've yet to see the best of Heyward, whereas I think Jones may have already peaked.  If the two players produce the same offensive numbers in 2013, I really believe that would represent a worst-case scenario for Heyward.  It's easy to see him exploding for a .900 OPS or better, whereas I'm not sure what more Jones can do to improve unless he suddenly gains a lot more plate discipline.  They may have a 10+ point gap in ADP now, but I see Jones and Heyward both still sitting on a lot of draft boards by many a third round, and if you're faced with a choice between the two, go with the younger option in this case. 

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