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Don't fall for another hot April for Ethier

4/24/2012

Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp is off to a blazing start, hitting .460 and on pace for 86 home runs, 210 RBIs and 172 runs scored. Kemp and his powerful numbers easily lead the ESPN Player Rater and those who selected him early in the first round are quite pleased. Dodgers fans are similarly overjoyed with a 13-4 start. Ask me who the best player in real life and fantasy is for today and the rest of the year, and I choose Kemp.

Of course, Kemp isn't the only Dodgers outfielder ranking well on the Player Rater, as the seemingly rejuvenated Andre Ethier is tied with Kemp for the big league lead in RBIs with 22. Ethier is also hitting .308 and ... and ... well, that's about it. Yes, Ethier is knocking in runs, a misguided statistic that we know is influenced by opportunity, and Kemp sports a .514 on-base percentage. That can't continue. Neither can Ethier's crazy RBI pace, which is why you're running out of time to sell high. Ethier really isn't doing much else. For his three weeks of health and 22 RBIs, the Dodgers are apparently engaging in talks with Ethier's team for a long-term contract extension.

I don't want to say definitively that that's a mistake, but let's look closer at Ethier, shall we? He's 30 years old. He's a career .291 hitter who only once has hit more than 23 home runs in a season. He takes his fair share of walks and doesn't steal bases. Frankly, it sounds like I'm describing Baltimore Orioles outfielder Nick Markakis. Fantasy owners moved on from Markakis as a star years ago, tired of subpar power seasons. Ethier hit 11 home runs last season, fewer than Markakis. Not only did Ethier have no months with as many as 22 RBIs -- and Ethier has another week to add to this total -- but he knocked in 22 runs the entire second half.

The Dodgers' offense is brutal, save for Kemp and a reasonable Ethier, and please don't quote where the team ranks in runs scored, home runs, anything. Remove Kemp and this is the Pirates. Speedy shortstop Dee Gordon can't get on base. James Loney should have been replaced years ago. Mark Ellis and Juan Rivera aren't good hitters (where are Alex Castellanos and Jerry Sands?). Ethier's off to a great start and he's scored a mere nine runs, and it's not like he's hitting .400. Ethier was tremendous last April -- better than this -- when he hit .380 with 13 walks, 10 doubles and 16 RBIs. Fantasy owners loved him. And then they didn't.

From May 1 on Ethier wasn't worth owning in a 10-team standard league, and yes, I'm aware he had right knee problems that shut him down early. He hit .266 and averaged 10 RBIs per month over the next four months. He barely played in September. Injury truncated Ethier's season -- just like 2010 with the broken pinkie -- and likely affected him at the plate in the prior months, but do you want to rely on him staying healthy in 2012, especially when his top-15 spot on the Player Rater is fueled by literally one category, and runs batted in is an overrated stat to start with?

Ethier's contract expires at the end of the season, and the messy Dodgers ownership situation has been solved, which is why talk of an extension is running rampant. As Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said, "I've always been inclined to keep him," Colletti said. "His start certainly hasn't hurt." Well, perhaps Colletti should look closer at Ethier's start. Yes, a .300 batting average is always nice, and Ethier is a good hitter in that regard. He managed to hit .292 each of the past two seasons, so I'd argue that batting average isn't really a question. The power is, though. Ethier is likely overrated by his 2009 campaign when he hit 31 home runs and batted in 106. Oddly enough, his batting average was a career-low .272. Ethier got off to a fast start that year as well, producing a .976 OPS in April. He finished at .869.

The Dodgers needed a good start. Kemp is a statistical monster, and while his astronomical paces will come down to earth, I wouldn't call him a sell-high option in fantasy. With Ethier, however, you might not like what happens to his numbers when he stops knocking in a run per game, and it is coming. Yes, he's playing well; Albert Pujols famously hasn't homered yet, sending his fantasy owners into a panic. Ethier was a 14th-round pick in ESPN average live drafts, 30th among the outfielders, and through three weeks, or 10 percent of a long season, he's been fine. Ethier is getting many chances to knock in runs, and he's doing his job. I think he will hit around .300 this season, though it's hard to project more than 140 games or 20 home runs.

But that's about it for Ethier. We've seen him start out fast in April before, and contract talk aside, durability and production remain issues. Frankly, the Dodgers should be rebuilding, trying to move him to a contender desperate for offense, but I don't see that happening. Often fantasy owners make better sense of situations like this: See if you can move him for a more versatile outfielder who runs, has enough power to matter and can stay on the field, because this nice start isn't as nice as it appears.