(Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire)
For the first time in roughly five years, the Seattle Mariners are starting an actual outfielder in center field. Converted infielders’ Brad Miller, Dustin Ackley, Nick Franklin and of course Dee Gordon are no longer patrolling the Safeco field grass anymore. (Ironically, one of the only infielders they didn’t try out there is Chris Taylor, who became an excellent outfielder for the Dodgers in 2017).
Thanks to Robinson Cano’s 80-game suspension for PED use, the Mariners have moved offseason acquisition Dee Gordon back to his natural second base. That has allowed Guillermo Heredia to step into the starting centerfield spot in Seattle, and he doesn’t look to be relinquishing it anytime soon. Yes, the team did go out and acquire Denard Span from the Rays. But thus far Span has only started in left field and does not appear to be an immediate threat to Heredia’s playing time.
So Heredia is going to play. A lot. Does that make him worthy of a look in fantasy leagues? After all, Heredia came to the plate 426 times in 2017 and he was considerably below league average, posting a .249/.315/.337 line with an 80 wRC+ and only six home runs. He was never on the fantasy radar last year, and even began this season in Triple-A Tacoma.
However, this season has been a different story. He’s slashing .284/.403/.412 with a 133 wRC+ through 43 games played. His 133 wRC+ would tie him with Eddie Rosario for 15th among outfielders, if he had enough at-bats to qualify. His performance is a big part of the reason Seattle gracefully removed Ichiro from their active roster, as Heredia’s performance merited more playing time. At 27 years old, it’s looking like Heredia has finally made some of the adjustments necessary to take him up to the next level, and to at least make him worthy of consideration in deep OBP leagues.
The Cuban God of Walks
Heredia’s biggest adjustment has been his plate discipline. While he’s always posted strong strikeout and walk numbers, they are at an all-time high this year. His 14.1% walk rate is nearly identical to his 14.8% strikeout rate, and both are improvements over last season. His walk rate in particular has doubled from the 6.3% rate he posted in 2017. That has to do with with his ridiculously good 20.4% o-swing rate. Again, if Heredia had enough at-bats to qualify he would rank ninth in the entire league in o-Swing rate.
Since he’s almost exclusively swinging at strikes, it’s no surprise that his contact numbers are high as well. His 6.8% swinging strike rate would be the 21st lowest among qualified hitters.
Heredia’s plate discipline and contact numbers are great Andy, but what actually happens when he hits the ball? Well I’m glad you asked, voice inside my head. Heredia’s 28.4% hard hit rate and 25.9% line drive rate are both career highs. While neither number is elite, they have been trending upward and are enough for him to spray plenty of singles. He uses all fields as well, with a 38.6% pull rate and a 31.8% opposite field rate.
Finally, he’s barreled almost as many balls this year as he did all of last season, with his barreled rate (4.5%) tripling last year’s output.
It’s hard to ignore an outfielder who has regular playing time, is walking over 14% of the time and has a wRC+ of 133. However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the reason that 98.6% of ESPN leagues aren’t touching Heredia. He’s simply not a big enough home run or stolen base threat to be worthy of a roster spot outside of most fantasy formats. He has two home runs and one stolen base on the year. He’s played in 191 big league games and only has nine home runs and three stolen bases. While his exit velocity and launch angle are both up from last season, they are only slight increases and still fall below the league averages.
Effectively, Heredia is a singles spray-hitter with good plate discipline but limited power. While his sprint speed of 28.4 ft/sec is in the 85th percentile of the league, he rarely attempts to run, which really kills his fantasy value.
For Heredia to hold any fantasy value, he will need to continue to hit above .280 with that OBP in the .400 range. His .329 BABIP certainly supports a .284 batting average, so it’s not a crazy proposition. His xSlash line of .262/.385/.398 seems like a reasonable expectation for the young outfielder. While that’s not bad, if it comes with little power and speed it renders him fantasy irrelevant outside of deep (14+ team) OBP leagues.