Life below Mendoza Line

Mario Mendoza first caught the eye of a Pittsburgh Pirates scout while playing for the Mexico City Red Devils (Diablos Rojos) of the Mexican League in 1970. His defensive prowess, not his bat, prompted the Pirates to offer him a contract. Mendoza, who played for three franchises during his Major League career, batted less than .200 in three of his first four seasons.

As Mondoza’s struggles continued, his teammates began to make fun of him indirectly by warning anyone on the team hitting below .200 that he had strayed below the Mendoza Line. Later, the Mendoza Line terminology caught on in the MLB and became the gold standard for the absolute minimum threshold for competence at the Major League level.

Flash forward to the present and consider the strange case of Marcus Semien. He signed a 7-year, $175 million contract with the Texas Rangers before the lockout last December. No one was overly concerned when Semien went 7 for 34 (.206) in spring training. He was coming off his best season, having swatted 45 home runs, scoring 115 runs and driving in 102. What could go wrong?

Plenty, as evidenced by his struggles in April. As of this writing, Semien is hitting .184, with a slugging percentage of .243. Those kind of numbers make Mendoza look like an All-Star infielder in comparison.   Semien, who has the fifth-worst OPS of any qualified player, is still looking for his first home run. He is the only player with a bottom-10 average who was a top-50 fantasy pick.

Semien had an ADP of 36 in all of the National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC) drafts before the season started. Remember that these are the best fantasy players in the world who are competing with their own money on the line in high-stakes events. An ADP of 36 was just too rich for my blood, so I don’t have Semien on any of my teams, but that’s about to change. 

I traded for the 31-year-old Rangers infielder last week in one of my public leagues. While I wasn’t about to pay full price for Semien in March, I’m glad to get him at a discount because I’m a believer in regression – both positive and negative. In simple terms regression means going back to what was done in the past. In other words, I think Semien is going to improve.

But you might wonder who I traded for the struggling slugger. None other than Jesus Luzardo, the Miami pitcher who’s created quite a buzz in fantasy and reality circles. The buzz started back in spring training when Luzardo’s fastball was clocked at 98-99 mph. It’s carried over into the regular season, as is now 2-2, with a 3.08 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 35 strikeouts across 20.1 innings.

I had offered the Semien manager another player when I made an attempt to buy low. But the rival manager countered with Luzardo and I accepted the counter offer. It would be rare for me to turn down an offer where I’m trading a waiver wire pickup early in the season for a proven a top-50 player. The trade could backfire on me if Luzardo has a Cy Young season, but I’ll take my chances.

The 24-year-old Luzardo has already had his share of injuries. He underwent Tommy John surgery before he was drafted, and his 2019 was limited to 12.0 innings. He’s never reached 100 innings in any major league season, and he was 6-9, with a 6.61 ERA and 1.62 WHIP across 25 starts last year. Perhaps, Luzardo really has found lightning in a bottle down in Florida, but I doubt it.

On the other side of the ledger, Semien has hade a slugging percentage above .500 in his last two full seasons. I am fully aware that those were the only two seasons that the infielder slugged above .500 and that he has batted over .265 only once his career. That’s why I felt so strongly that Semien was overvalued in 2022 drafts coming off a career season, but the upside is undeniable.    

Fantasy managers should actively look for someone in their league who is willing to sell low on Semien.  But don’t offer the farm. For those who have Semien rostered, be open to accepting an offer if you can get reasonable value. If someone offers you Teoscar Hernandez, take that offer. The Blue Jays outfielder is on the IL but should return soon. If you can get an ace like Sandy Alcantara, go for it.

In the meantime, Semien managers should consider benching him until he shows signs of life. Don’t drop him in any leagues. Even in the shallowest formats, his upside is simply too great – especially in a year when many hitters are off to disappointing starts. There are eight other players drafted in the top 100 at NFBC that are hiding below the Mendoza Line. There are two other top 50 players.

One of the top 50 players, Whit Merrifield, was dropped in one of the leagues I’m playing in, and I scooped him up off of waivers a couple of weeks ago. Merrifield, who’s only hitting two points above Semien, had an ADP of 30 at NFBC. I would have been willing to pay that price for him but wound up finding better values in my three leagues. I was amazed to get him off of waivers.

I have another claim in for the other top-50 NFBC player who’s hitting below .200. It’s Tyler O’Neill, who was a 5-star stud in 2021. The 27-year-old Cardinals outfielder had 34 home runs, 89 runs scored, 80 RBI and 15 stolen bases last season but is hitting only .171 this year. He only has one home run, but his other counting stats are still decent, with 11 runs, 13 RBI and three stolen bases.

The other six players that were in the NFBC top 100 but are languishing below the Mendoza Line are Jose Altuve, Ketel Marte, Jorge Polanco, Brandon Lowe, Yasmani Grandal and Adalberto Mondesi. The only one of those players I wouldn’t recommend buying low on is Mondesi. He was hitting only .140 when he hit the IL, and he is simply too much of an injury risk to buy at any price.        

Follow Thomas L. Seltzer, AKA Doubting Thomas, on Twitter @ThomasLSeltzer1.

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