I paid very close attention earlier this season when Colorado Rockies manager Jim Tracy gave enticing speedster Eric Young Jr. the chance to lead off. In general, I think the switch-hitter, who turns 25 today, has shown that his bat will play at the major league level. We certainly believe his legs will.
The issue is which position will the kid play. That the organization signed former second baseman Kazuo Matsui to a minor league deal Monday is another sign Young does not significantly figure into the plans this season, and that obviously affects fantasy owners waiting for the infusion of Young's speed. Frankly, I wouldn't wait any longer unless it's a deep league in which you can afford an active roster spot on a pinch-runner type. And it doesn't help that he's on the disabled list with a stress fracture in his shin.
Fantasy owners don't often speak about fielding prowess, or the lack thereof, but in the case of Young, that's why it's going to be 2011 -- at least -- before we see him earn regular, consistent playing time. I can tell you Young is owned in my NL-only leagues and deep mixed formats, not so much for his second base eligibility, but because of his terrific speed. Young averaged 66 stolen bases the past four seasons in the minors. Speed translates to the big leagues, and Young could be the next Brian Roberts, an annual 40-steal guy with some pop at a scarce position.
Then again, he could be a utility player. The Rockies have not been pleased with what incumbent second baseman Clint Barmes has done at the plate this season, as he's hitting .220 with little power or plate discipline. At least last season Barmes hit 23 home runs. He's a good second baseman, though, and that's the reason he's still in the lineup. Of course, the Matsui signing doesn't only impugn Young's chances of playing second base this season, but it's a direct reflection on how Barmes has played.
While it's easy to read into what the Matsui signing means, it's more difficult to get excited about it from a fantasy sense. It's true that Matsui looked terrible for the Houston Astros this season, hitting .141 with neither power nor speed in 27 games, forcing his release. Then again, last season Matsui hit nine home runs and stole 19 bases in 22 attempts. Fantasy owners like that from a second baseman, and with a decent batting average, that would have made Matsui close to a top-20 second baseman on our Player
Matsui hit .293 with 20 stolen bases in only 96 games in 2008, and he played a key role in the Rockies' World Series run in 2007, when he batted .288 with 32 stolen bases and 84 runs scored in a mere 104 games. Matsui mattered in fantasy not too long ago, despite a history of injuries and inconsistent batting averages. While I wouldn't call him mixed-league attractive yet, those in NL-only leagues should preemptively act. He could certainly matter again. Barmes certainly isn't helping fantasy owners this season. Because of the potential for speed, Matsui could end up more valuable than Barmes in fantasy this season.
As for Young, even when he comes off the disabled list, I doubt the Rockies give him a chance to play, and if they do, it appears they've pigeonholed him as a fourth outfielder. There isn't room for consistent duty in the current outfield plans, as Carlos Gonzalez and Brad Hawpe are regulars, and Dexter Fowler is showing signs with his walk rate. Seth Smith hits right-handed pitching and Ryan Spilborghs has traditionally raked lefties. And when it comes to infielders, let's face it, 38-year-old Melvin Mora can still hit a bit and brings more defensive value, which is telling.
The Rockies don't appear to trust Young as a second baseman; he hasn't shown great instincts for the position. I watched one of his starts at second base this season and he butchered a ground ball for an error on one play and failed to execute a clear double play on another. According to Baseball America, Young "lacks soft hands and has fringy arm strength ... he's just adequate at second base." They noted Young's future could be in center field. So far this season, Young has started five games in left field and two at second base. He might not even be second-base eligible for 2011 fantasy owners.
Fantasy owners always seem to overreact when a big-time stolen base contributor gets a chance, and I think Eric Young Jr. does have an interesting future for the Rockies and in our game. I'm just no longer optimistic it's going to happen in 2010, or in the future at second base.