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Draft Round Battles: Cespedes Vs. Ellsbury

Admit it, Yoenis Cespedes kind of seemed like a modern Sidd Finch hoax, didn't he?  It was hard to watch Cespedes' legendary workout video with a straight face; sure, he's an impressive athlete but really, who uses "Sailing" as their background music without being ironic?

As luck would have it for the A's, however, Cespedes wasn't a viral marketing creation but an actual legitimate talent.  The Cuban outfielder hit .292/.356/.505 with 23 homers to help lead Oakland to the AL West title and Cespedes would've been a slam dunk Rookie of the Year in any normal, non-Mike Trout season.  To very weirdly paraphrase Teri Hatcher here, Cespedes was real and he was spectacular.

While Cespedes emerged from a fog of uncertainty and rose to Major League stardom, the question now is whether or not he can sustain his performance.  This was a question the Red Sox faced on a lower level about a year ago, when Jacoby Ellsbury was about to follow up his monster 2011 campaign.  Ellsbury had already been a good average/OBP and especially steals kind of player before exploding with a monster 32-homer, 39-steal, .321/.376/.552 season in 2011 that earned him a second-place finish in the AL MVP vote.  The power came completely out of nowhere for Ellsbury so the question was whether 2011 was an outlier or whether he could be counted on as a legit 30-30 threat for the future.

The Red Sox are still asking that question.  Ellsbury missed more than half of the 2012 season with a shoulder injury, finishing with a .271/.313/.370 line and four homers over 323 PA.  Given that he missed virtually all of the 2010 season, Ellsbury presents a real conundrum for both the Sox and his fantasy owners --- how much should you rely on a guy who has sandwiched an elite season in between two total washout campaigns?

Every team (both real and fantasy) obviously loves the five-tool player, but such a player perhaps has even more value in fantasy baseball.  Stolen bases are a unique category in that being able to swipe bags doesn't have any bearing on the rest of your hitting stats; as such, fantasy managers often have to grin and bear it by keeping a terrible hitter in their lineup simply because they can provide some much-needed steals.  When you can find a player that can slug and steal with equal aplomb, it's like striking gold, which is why Trout was unquestionably the player who swung the most fantasy leagues in 2012 and Ellsbury's surprise breakout in 2011 probably decided almost as many fantasy championships.

Of the 48 players who stole 20 or more bases in 2012, only eight (Carlos Gonzalez, Andrew McCutchen, Jason Heyward, Ian Desmond, Shin-Soo Choo, Alex Rios, Ryan Braun and Trout) had an OPS of .800 or better.  Cespedes chipped in 16 steals to go with his .861 OPS last season, and of players with an .861 OPS or better, only five (Braun, Trout, McCutchen, Gonzalez and Chase Headley) topped the 16-steal mark.  While 16 steals won't decide the SB category, if you can get that kind of production from a big bat, you're laughing.

I would argue that Cespedes isn't likely to suffer much of a dropoff in his sophomore season.  Though he's still something of an unknown quantity, the fact that he improved his numbers as the season went on and the fact that Cespedes hit so well in the pitcher-friendly Coliseum (he actually had a .937 OPS in home games, as opposed to a .791 OPS on the road) both stand out as positives.  Also, don't forget that he had his own injury problems early in the year and only played in 128 games, so had Cespedes been healthy all the way, he might've given Trout a run for his money.

So if Cespedes will be roughly the same player in 2013 that he was in 2012, can Ellsbury top that impressive plateau?  My guess is no.  Presuming he's healthy the whole year, Ellsbury will hit around .300, score 95-105 runs, and steal at least 40 bases (manager John Farrell loved to give runners the green light in Toronto so 40 steals for Ellsbury may be a conservative estimate).  Those are valuable fantasy numbers in themselves but where Ellsbury will suffer is in the power department.  I don't see him getting anywhere near his 105 RBIs from 2011 given that he'll be hitting leadoff and that Boston's lineup isn't as deep as it was two years ago. 

As for the homers, I'm tempted to suggest that Ellsbury's 32-HR outburst in 2011 was indeed an anomaly.  Consider that his .552 SLG in 2011 dwarfed his previous career totals and even the .426 SLG he posted in his minor league career (1223 PA).  My favorite "Ellsbury pulled this season out of thing air" stat is that he had 32 homers in 2011 and only 35 homers over the rest of his pro career, including the minors.  There's nothing in the advanced metrics that explains why Ellsbury suddenly dug the long ball that year --- the closest hint of evidence could be a career-best 22.9% line drive rate but Ellsbury had posted other line-drive rates close to that (20.3% both last year and in 2008) without showing nearly the same rise in power numbers.

Ellsbury currently holds the edge over Cespedes on Mock Draft Central's latest average draft position report, as Ellsbury's 46.00 ADP makes him the 15th outfielder taken and the 45th player taken overall, on average.  Cespedes is right behind as the 16th OF, the 50th player overall and he owns a 50.15 ADP. 

Other fantasy owners may think Ellsbury's speed and power potential merits a higher selection but if I'm looking for outfield help come the end of the fourth/start of the fifth round, I'm going with Cespedes.  He's going to help in all five categories, whereas Ellsbury is likely only going to help in three.  Put it this way --- 16 steals may be the bare minimum of what Cespedes can do on the basepaths, whereas based on all the evidence I've seen in Ellsbury's career, I'd be pleasantly surprised if he manages even 16 homers this year.  Drafting Cespedes over Ellsbury will better help you, ahem, "sail" your way to fantasy success.

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