Saturday, February 26, 2005

FANTASY BASEBALL'S 2ND BASEMAN

Fantasy Baseball's 2nd Baseman

After reveling in the sheer embarrassment of riches to be had at the 3rd Base and Shortstop positions, things dry up considerably for us this week. The giddiness we felt in splitting some mighty fine rotisserie hairs, comparing, contrasting, and projecting the value of
such proven fantasy commodities as Rolen, Beltre and A-Rod at 3rd, and Jeter, Young and Tejada at Short, gives way to consternation as we attempt to break down a much shallower pool of athletes by comparison. Make no mistake, there are certainly some gifted 2nd Baggers who are eminently capable of providing a fantasy team with a boost. But the hard truth is, the position thins out considerably and rapidly, and we're forced to dig deep, really, REALLY deep, in order to find appreciable value after the top 5 or so athletes.
And yet this is where things become really interesting. This is where as my father would often say, "the rubber hits the road." Finding that one gem of a player amidst so many worthless baubles is what makes Fantasy Baseball so challenging. Pitting your best intuition, your gut instinct, against another owner's "lock player" is just part of what makes Fantasy Baseball, and Fantasy sports in general, so much fun!

And with that... onto:

"Fantasy Baseball's Top Second Baseman"
Alfonso Soriano (TEX): Wow! As talented a player as he is, watching "Sorrie" bat can be an exercise in frustration. While observing the middle infielder's approach during the '03 playoffs (when he was still a Yankee), I couldn't help but think; "If I know what the Pitcher's gonna throw him... why doesn't Soriano doesn't know what the Pitcher's gonna throw him?" Assuredly not the most discriminating of hitters, Soriano frequently displays poor plate discipline, seemingly has no plan, and will fish for pitches that are well out of the strike zone. And with a combined 408 Ks in 1,986 ABs over the past 3 seasons, Soriano strikes out almost once per every 5 ABs (for you stat-fiends, it actually works out to be 1 K/4.86 plate appearances). Nevertheless, due to his prodigious power and speed coupled with his youth and determination to become a dominant player, look for Soriano to improve upon last season's very solid numbers. He is an elite option at his position and enjoying the protection afforded by a lineup imposing enough to make any Pitcher shudder, should notch a season of .290/32/95 with 25 SB.
*NOTE: It's looking more and more likely that Soriano will be permanently moved to the leadoff spot. If that should be the case, look for his Home Run and RBI totals to dip, and his swiped bag total to jump as high as 35.

Marcus Giles (ATL): Giles is a classic example of what and where old fashioned hard work can take you. After years of being told that he was too short, not talented enough, and would amount to no more than a platoon player at best, Marcus Giles recorded a phenomenal .316/21/69 with 14 SB and a Slugging % of .526 in '03. A collision with teammate Andruw Jones that resulted in a broken collarbone significantly abbreviated Giles' '04 season however (he missed 2 months and was limited to 102 games). And even upon his return, Giles was at less than 100% and just couldn't seem to find his stride. Even still, of 118 hits last season- 32 were of the extra base variety. Giles is a rare breed; a 2nd Baseman who offers very good power, will hit for average, possesses excellent speed, will take a Walk, and doesn't K too often. Expected back at full strength, the Brave coaching staff expects Giles to approach the numbers he posted in '03... and you should too; .315/20/70 with 15 SB are certainly attainable numbers for this gritty over-achiever.

Jeff Kent (LA): While he's not going to win anyone's "Mr. Congeniality" award, Kent has walloped more Home Runs than any 2nd Baseman in history while averaging 28 Homers and 102 RBIs over the past 3 seasons, and all that's gotta count for something. There are however, valid concerns in ranking Kent at the 3 spot. Depending upon who you talk to Kent's ranked as high as 2 and as low as 7 at his position. In years past, Kent would have vied with Soriano for the top slot. However, Kent's now 37 and if he were any slower there would be a grave danger of his growing roots. In conjunction with his distinct lack of speed and advanced age, an off-season move to Dodger stadium could negatively impact his numbers. But having demonstrated an ability to hit in pitcher's parks, look for Kent to post one more solid fantasy season. Still, I'd look for Kent's numbers to take a modest dip and be close to .280/24/95 with 4 SB.

"No Second Rate 2nd Baggers"
Mark Loretta (SD): Forming a rock steady, double-play combination with his Padre compadre' SS Khalil Greene, Loretta was San Diego's MVP, participated in the All-Star game, and had an all around fantastic season. Loretta, who at last season's start was undervalued and available through many league's Waiver Wires, was remarkably productive. Having swatted 208 hits (the first Pad' to reach 200 hits since Papa Gwynn hung up the spikes) he was constantly on the basepaths. But with an average of .335 in '04, Loretta was no dink and dunk, "seeing eye-ball hitter." With a modest 16 HRs and an eye-opening 47 Doubles, he also recorded 108 Runs, 76 RBIs, and with a microscopic 45 Strikeouts out of a hefty 620 ABs, the San Diego 2nd Baseman was one of the toughest Ks in Baseball. Loretta's numbers improved dramatically for the second consecutive season last year and it would be hard to imagine him having a better season. At age 33, expect his numbers to level off with perhaps one exception; Loretta's learned to pull the ball, and with his powerful stroke could reach 20 Home Runs this season. Although he doesn't currently rank amongst Baseball's elite 2nd Baseman, another fine season such as he enjoyed last year will put him in their company. Expect a very good '05; .328/20/75 (Loretta's not really a base stealer, thus no projection).

Jose Vidro (WAS): A knee injury saw Vidro's '04 season end in August. However, Vidro is now far away from Montreal's archaic Astro-turf and will be playing on the cushioned comfort of RFK Stadium's natural grass. According to reports, the Washington Nationals' 2nd Baseman is currently working out on a treadmill, taking grounders, and is expected back at full strength. Although he's a lifetime .304 hitter, Vidro will, as all the Nationals will, miss OF'er Vladimir Guerrero's mighty bat. Nevertheless, power hitting LF'er Brad Wilkerson is primed for a career season, SS Chritian Guzman is a capable batsman, and resident nut-case/RF'er Jose Guillen will all provide Vidro with capable protection. Pencil Washington's 2nd Bagger in for a season of .310/16/80 (the guy's had 2 serious knee injuries and with such bum wheels will not be a base stealing factor).

Luis Castillo (FLA): It's difficult to slot the Marlin's 2nd Baseman because he had such a poor '04 (for him anyway). Although he doesn't hit for power and seemingly as an allergy to RBIs, he nonetheless retains value due to his speed. Castillo's numbers might've suffered last season, at least in part, due to a chipped bone in his pinkie. Look for Castillo's numbers to rebound a bit and be close to .305/4/45 with 25 SB.

Ray Durham (SF): Durham used to make his living off of great speed (he thieved 26 bags in '02). Having been hobbled by a litany of injuries in recent years however, Durham's become a much more selective hitter and recorded a career low 60 Strikeouts out of 532 ABs last season. Setting the table for the potent Giant lineup, the aging Durham led all National League leadoff men with 65 RBIs, and his 17 Dingers ranked him 3rd. He's a defensive liability, but that shouldn't affect his fantasy value. Owners can anticipate at least one more productive offensive year out of Durham, he should post a line akin to .285/15/20 with 12 SB.

"On The Way Up"
Kaz Matsui (NYN): New York Yankees did SO well (both on and off the field) with their Matsui (OF'er Hideki), that the Met management went out and acquired their own Matsui. But playing Shortstop for the Mets last season proved to be very stressful for this particular former Japanese All-Star. Being shifted to 2nd Base should benefit both he and his owners, and such a move will provide Kaz with appreciable fantasy flexibility. Batting in the 2 spot, Matsui MUST cut down on his strikeout total (97 strikeouts out of 460 ABs). That being said, at age 29 and having a full season under his belt to acclimate to New York and American Baseball, Matsui offers nice upside. Jot the Met-sui in for an improved season of .280/10/50 with 20 SB.

Aaron Miles (COL): Having spent 9 long years toiling primarily in the Astro and White Sox minor league systems, no one can say that Miles hasn't paid his dues. But when he finally got his chance in May of last year to bat leadoff for the Rockies, Miles took full advantage and recorded some very good stats of .293/6/47 with 12 SB. With an OBP of .329, Miles just isn't your typical leadoff hitter. He IS however, a contact hitter who keeps the ball down and he led all rookies with 153 hits and 75 Runs, and that's good enough for me. The concern here is the number of rookies the team will be trotting out. That much youth will surely result in growing pains; both offensively and defensively. Let's be conservative here, a line of .299/7/55 with 14 SB are certainly attainable numbers for the old/youngster in the rare air of Coor's Field.

Brian Roberts (BAL): Batting atop another AL East Murderer's Row type lineup, Roberts sets the table for some mighty big boppers. A gap hitter who lacks Home Run power, Roberts has excellent speed, led the league with 50 Doubles last season, and should build upon a very good '04. A stat-line of .279/4/60 with 32 SB and 100 Runs would be a reasonable projection.

"Comeback Player of the Year"
Todd Walker (CHN): A somewhat streaky hitter who needs to play every day in order to find his stroke, Walker will again be a full timer and possessing good pop, should be a solid fantasy contributor. Of his 102 hits last season, 38 were for multiple bases and on average, every 2 hits yielded 1 RBI. That's pretty good production in limited time, stretched over the course of a full season of ABs... let's project a season of .293/18/65 for Walker.

"Deep Sleeper"
Chris Burke (HOU): Having proven everything there was to prove at Triple A, Houston promoted the young middle infielder up to the big club. Last season Burke went 1-17 in his limited engagement. Assuming he sticks, Burke's a speedster with gap power. If Burke's your best option at 2nd Base however, frankly, you've got trouble. With no track record to rely upon... my Fantasy Magic 8 Ball shakes out a season of, .239/5/50 with 22 SB.

"On the Way Down"
Brett Boone (SEA): If you listen to Brett Boone, a horrible '04 season is squarely in his rear-view mirror and it's full steam ahead for '05. Boone feels a substantially altered off-season regimen will aid him in re-discovering the form that allowed him to be one of Baseball's top all around performers in '03 when he posted a line of .294/35/117 with 111 Runs and a SLG% of .535. While I applaud the whole positive thinking approach, the guy IS going to be 36. And, while he's just old enough to run for President of these United States (the minimim age for a U.S President is 35), Boone's best days are also probably in his rear-view mirror. Even with the lineup protection afforded by Suzuki, Beltre and Sexson, look for Boone's numbers to at best, be very similar to last year's if not to continue their slide; .255/25/85 with 8 swiped bags.
*Note: There is one sound reason to consider taking Boone; he's in a contract year, eligible for Free Agency in '06, and you simply can't underestimate, or conversely over-estimate, the effect that might have on an athlete's performance.

Tony Womack (NYA): Womack enjoyed a career year last season which coincided nicely with the St. Louis Cardinals 105 win season. Although he could surprise yet again batting 9th in the positively stacked Yankee lineup, smart money say's no. And, so does my Fantasy Magic 8 Ball. A season of .277/3/30 with 20 SB will make Womack a solid, but unremarkable 2nd Bagger.

Next Up... Fantasy Baseball's 1st Baseman!

Friday, February 18, 2005

REVIEWING THE NFC SOUTH

NFC South
“Breaking Down the Keepers”

Last week, our ongoing “Fantasy Football Keeper Quest” took us on a journey through the former “Black and Blue Division.” From Minnesota’s cavernous Metrodome to Green Bay’s legendary and physically demanding Lambeau Field. This week, we’ll flee the numbing cold of the NFC North, head to greener pastures and warmer climes, and break down the NFC South. But first, a few notes.
The NFC South could only be considered a disappointment this season having sent but a single emissary to the playoffs. Unsurprisingly, it was the only team that posted a winning record; Atlanta. In addition, where the NFC North boasted an embarrassment of fantasy riches, with a few notable exceptions the South possessed a much scarcer number of fantasy studs. An interesting distinction between the two divisions and one worthy of mention is the premium placed upon defense. With the exception of the Chicago Bears, no other team in the North could have been accused of fielding an intimidating defense. However, every defense in the South proved to be smothering from time to time. Even the Saints horrid squad showed signs of life over the season’s final quarter. The Falcons fearsome front foursome of Kerney, Coleman, Smith and Jasper were able to bring the rush like few other teams, and skilled Linebackers Draft and Brooking made life miserable for opposing ball carriers. Carolina arguably had the most talented personnel. With disruptive young Ends Mike Rucker and Julius Peppers, savvy Linebackers Dan Morgan and Mark Fields, and a promising, young, ball hawking secondary that includes Ricky Manning Jr., and Chris Gamble (Gamble tied for the NFC lead with 7 INTs), the future looks mighty bright for Panther fans. Lastly, Tampa Bay was able to sustain their long standing reputation for fielding a punishing D. And while Linebacker Derrick Brooks may have lost a step, his Football IQ, instincts, and meticulous preparation allowed him to make several game altering plays while elevating the level of play of his teammates. Correlationally due to their better, more talented defenses, the teams of the South weren’t constantly pressed to out-point their opponents as the Vikings and Packers, for instance, were. Crunching some numbers will more graphically illustrate the differences between the Divvy’s D’s. Allowing foes to score early and often, Minnesota’s D was largely fictitious and surrendered the most points by far, 395. The Pack weren’t too far back, ceding 380 points. The Lions allowed 350, and the Bears gave up the fewest points, 331.
Now, with the exception of the New Orleans Saints who allowed a shameful 405 points, the teams of the NFC South allowed significantly fewer total points. A very distant second to the ‘Aints were the 339 points allowed by the Panthers, followed by the Falcons 337. The Buccaneers proved to be the stingiest unit, allowing a mere 304 points scored... or an average of 19 points per game.
The divisions proved to be polar opposites in many respects. So without further ado, let’s peer inside each franchise and take a look at their skill position players.

Atlanta Falcons: Simply put, the Falcons boast the most exciting player in Football if not all of sports, QB Michael Vick. And due to Vick’s unconventional style and jaw dropping athleticism, the Falcons are very difficult to scheme for and keep opposing Defensive Coordinators sleepless and swigging from bottles of Peptol Bismol. In addition, the Falcons have a very effective “thunder and lightning” running back combination in Dunn and Duckett, and a prototypical tight end in Alge Crumpler. The team made it to the NFC Championship game primarily due to Vick’s legs and a vastly improved defense, but lost, thanks to an essentially one dimensional offense. The team traded up to get WR Michael Jenkins with their first round pick in last April’s draft, but with a grand total of 7 receptions Jenkins has thus far been a pricey disappointment and must make some big strides next season. Far more impressive was fellow rookie, Cornerback DeAngelo Hall. With good speed, fluid hips, and improving technique, “D-Hall” could well be a factor and top 5 corner for years to come. But even with their talented defense and deep run game, if the Falcons hope to ever win the NFC Title game they MUST improve their below average receiving corps. While TE Alge Crumpler has the speed to get downfield, can make the tough catch and is a nightmare to cover, the wide receivers the Falcons currently field each week are a collection of average, possession types who don’t really scare anyone.
QB Michael Vick; 3 STARS: 2,313 Yards (902 rushing yards), 17 TDs (3 Rushing), 12 INTs: Watching Vick play Football is reminiscent of the scene from the classic film “Rocky,” where the plodding pugilist attempts to improve his speed and reaction time by catching a chicken with his bare hands. Every time Rocky thinks his prey is bottled up, the pesky poultry darts away and leaves the fighter grasping at air and gasping for breath. The Falcon’s QB is no less elusive a quarry, and much like Rocky’s chicken Vick can make defenders look downright silly, often forcing them to the sidelines in search of an available oxygen mask. But the debate continues to rage; is Vick a QB, a RB, or simply a gifted athlete playing the QB position? There are no easy answers and awarding a fantasy value to Vick is almost as challenging as getting a hand on him. But as Vick’s owners can attest, at this stage of his career, he’s a better NFL QB than fantasy QB. And for our purposes, that’s a crucial distinction. “MV7’s” value as a fantasy/real QB is an entire article in and of itself, so let’s try to simplify things a bit. In NO game did Vick throw for more than 2 TDs, though he did have 3, 3 TD games (1 rushing TD in each). Vick threw for a season high of 258 yards in week 8, his next highest passing total was 218 yards. There were three contests in which Vick threw for a paltry 115 yards, and the week 17 game against Seattle saw Vick total an awe-inspiring 35 passing yards. So for those of you who belong to yardage leagues, note that Vick averaged just 136 passing yards per game. On the flip side of the coin, Vick did rush for 902 yards and had 3 100 yard games. That’s the 3rd highest rushing total for a QB in league history, and Vick was the league’s 11th ranked rusher. The truth is, Vick’s still maturing as a passer and learning the nuances of his position. And much like a great chef who’s been asked to whip up a 4 star meal with canned vegetables and Spam (apologies to all Spam aficionados), Vick can do only so much with the “ingredients” at his disposal. Keep an eye on Atlanta’s draft and free agent moves. While Vick’s “Three Star” ranking for the upcoming ‘05 season is based more on potential than performance, he possesses uncanny vision, can throw a Football through a brick wall, and the addition of a pass catching play maker will... ok, should, appreciably bolster his fantasy numbers.
RB Warrick Dunn; 2 1/2 STARS: 1,106 Yards, 9 TDs, 293 Yards Rec.: It’s interesting how misleading Dunn’s numbers are. For the most part, his best performances came against the league’s softest Ds. Dunn started off well, notching 4 TDs over the course of weeks 1 and 2. But he also had a 5 game drought without a single TD, recorded a mere 3 TDs over an 11 game span, and enjoyed only 4 100+ yard rushing games. However, without a substantial passing game supporting him and with defenders keying upon the run, such numbers shouldn’t be surprising. I’m starting to sound like a broken record here but Dunn’s ‘05 value, as all of the Falcon skill position players will, rests upon the moves the front office makes during the off-season. If the Falcs’ can force defenders to at least consider the notion of the forward pass, then the running game will receive a bit more breathing room.
RB T.J Duckett; 2 STARS: 509 Yards, 8 TDs: Playing “thunder” to Dunn’s “lightning,” Duckett’s numbers are no less misleading as half of his total TDs came in Week 14’s tilt against Oakland. Duckett racked up... zero 100 yard rushing performances, and his highest single game total was an unimpressive 65 yards. With Dunn currently entrenched as the team’s feature back, Duckett just won’t receive 20 totes per game. Nevertheless, Duckett is a load, demonstrated that he gets stronger with each successive carry, showed toughness and promise towards the end of the season, and is a solid goal-line option. Unless you’re in a very deep league Duckett’s not worthy of assigning a Keeper slot to. He IS worthy of drafting however (he’s a late round pick), and his value might even rise if the team bolsters it’s receiving corps... something they’re bound to do.

Given enough time, the bright minds of the NFL can find a way to solve virtually any problem. While the “Vick dilemma” took a bit more time, it too was also solved... to some degree anyway. Defensive Coordinators have discovered that if you can keep Vick inside the Tackles his iffy ball security often leads to fumbles, and if he’s unable to get outside and turn the corner he can be brought down and Sacked more easily. Vick needs to demonstrate a bit more patience and let his receivers run their routes. In turn, Atlanta desperately needs to add an experienced free agent wideout, or for young WR Michael Jenkins to step up and prove himself worthy of his high draft status. Or more preferably, both. Former Buffalo Bill standout WR Peerless Price was signed to be “The Man,” but a pair of unspectacular seasons have proven Price to be nothing more than an ordinary pass catcher, if that. To further complicate matters, the 53 receptions, 628 yards, and 4 TDs that fellow receivers Brian Finneran (struggled with injuries all season) and Dez White combined for won’t exactly have opponents agonizing over game film. The lone receiving bright spot this past season was the aforementioned TE, Alge Crumpler. And while I rarely endorse using Keeper slots on TEs, Crumpler’s 6 TDs and 774 receiving yards were the envy of many team’s #2 wide receivers. Predicated upon the depth of your league and talent on your roster, Crumpler again projects to be a top 3-4 tight end.

New Orleans Saints: You know a franchise is floundering when finishing with a .500 record is reason to cheer. The team, which demonstrated poor discipline and set a franchise record for penalty yards assessed, reverted back to their “Aints” counterparts for the first 3/4 of the season. The team’s confluence of offensive talent flat-out underachieved, and to say that the offense started each game slowly would be gracious as the team scored 2 1st quarter TDs all season. QB Aaron Brooks, who continues to frustrate coaches and fans alike, must become more consistent and stop trying to get by on physical ability alone. And if the confounding QB play wasn’t enough to cause head coach Jim Haslett profound gastric distress, then the play of feature back Deuce McAllister was. To be perfectly fair however, Deuce couldn’t shake loose from the high ankle sprain he suffered during week 2. There were some questions about McAllister’s conditioning however, and in an effort to assist the talented back in reaching his considerable potential the team brought Johnny Roland in to serve as the new running backs coach. Questions about McAllister’s commitment to the game date back to the day he was drafted and were the reason he fell 20 or so picks. Roland, who has coached such legends as Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton, would appear to have the proper credentials. And while the Offense clearly had it’s problems there’s also the perfectly ghastly Saint defense to consider. Having surrendered over 400 points, the Saint D ranked dead last overall in 2004. The team did show some intestinal fortitude when, after starting 4-8, they reeled off 4 straight wins (including drubbings of Dallas and Atlanta) against solid competition. Not coincidentally, the defense tightened up significantly at that point, far too late to make a difference of course, and held opponents to 15.3 points per game as opposed to the far more generous 28.7 points they surrendered during the first 12 games. The Saints must improve their Secondary play and secure a play making linebacker. If the team can do that, a talented offense should right itself and the franchise will again return to the playoff promised land; a place they haven’t seen for 4 consecutive years.
QB Aaron Brooks; 3 STARS: 3,810 Yards, 25 TDs (4 rushing), 16 INTs.: This could be a pivotal season for the mercurial QB as his Offensive Coordinator and chief cheerleader/apologist Mike McCarthy has departed. Along with McCarthy went most of the leeway afforded Brooks for his numerous mental errors and boneheaded plays. Brooks has an irritating penchant for handing the ball back to the opposition; he recorded turnovers in 11 of 16 games and multiple turnovers in 6 of those contests. Nonetheless, Brooks has very respectable fantasy value. Unafraid to leave the pocket, he tossed TD passes in all but 1 game and had multiple TDs in 9 games last season. Accordingly, Brooks rates a Keeper slot. Nevertheless, I’d be inclined to take a “wait and see” approach with the Saint signal caller. If the new Offensive Coordinator opts to completely overhaul the team’s West Coast philosophy, and Brooks is forced to adjust to an entirely new system (which could well be the case), it could well put a damper on his ultimate fantasy value.
RB Deuce McAllister; 3 STARS: 1,074 Yards (228 Rec.), 9 TDs: As stated above, Deuce’s ‘04 issues were twofold; an inability to surmount a high ankle sprain coupled with an inability to surmount his apparent contentment with mediocrity. Just to be clear, mediocrity for McAllister would constitute excellence for another, lesser back, and therein lies the source of the team’s frustration with the talented runner. For an athlete possessing ideal size, terrific speed, and more moves than a “Soul Train” audition, Deuce hasn’t lived up to his considerable potential. Enter 26 year coaching veteran Johnny Roland. Having worked with a literal “who’s who” of running backs, the team is comfortable in allowing Roland to put Deuce’s feet to the fire. Assuming the Saints commit themselves to the run, and play a more ball control oriented offensive style, the impact of Aaron Brooks’ inevitable turnovers will be diminished and McAllister could even approach 1,600 yards, with a shot at 12-15 TDs.
WR Joe Horn; 3 STARS: 94 Rec., 1,399 Yards, 11 TDs: Horn is Brooks’ “go to” receiver, and with receiving days that included a 5 catch, 167 yard outing against the Chiefs (I know, KC’s D made EVERYONE look good) and an 8 catch, 160 yard, 2 TD explosion against the Panthers, it’s easy to understand such coziness. While Horn isn’t afraid to blow his own... well, horn, he IS an excellent receiver, fantasy weapon, and rates a Keeper slot. The emergence (at long last) of fellow receiver Donte’ Stallworth could benefit Horn by making it more difficult to double-team him, but Stallworth could pinch some receptions and TD opportunities as well. The team went vertical with regularity this past season, but much of that was due to the fact that they were frequently forced to play catch-up Football. Hence, Horn was able to pad his numbers with lots of underneath stuff. Again, keep an eye on the team’s off-season moves. If they indeed elect to move away from the West Coast Offense and decide to make McAllister the offensive focal point, Horn’s value could drop considerably and his numbers by as much as 1/4.

During the ‘03 season, tight end Boo Williams posted some very good games and seemed poised to break into the top tier at his position. But, along with the team’s defense, Boo proved to be a bitter disappointment. The sole other Saint skill position player worthy of a second glance (say THAT 5 times fast!) would be the aforementioned WR, Donte’ Stallworth. Along with good speed and great bloodlines (he’s related to legendary Steeler pass catcher John Stallworth) came big expectations. Stallworth however, has had a litany of injuries (chronic hamstring issues for one) and had been unable to stay healthy until this past season. A 58 catch, 5 TD ‘04 makes him draft worthy. If the guy can stay between the hash marks and out of Physical Therapy, look for him to build on his solid season.

Carolina Panthers: This team was positively besieged by injury last season (14 athletes simultaneously on the IL). At one point, wide receivers and running backs were dropping like flies and the team was forced to trot out it’s fifth string running back... and my oh my, did that ever turn out to be a good decision! The team started out 1-7, then turned it on and won 6 of their next 8 and made an admirable playoff push. There were several inspiring story lines for the Panthers this past season, but the most significant might have been a continued emergence of defensive talent. Young and relentless, the D often kept the team competitive. Teams who’ve relied upon their aggressive Ds such as the mid-80’s Bears, ‘90 Giants, and recent Raven squads, have demonstrated that a franchise need not field a Manning, Moss and Tomlinson in order to secure a post-season berth. Defending “by land,” the Panthers averaged more than 2 Sacks per game. Defending “by air,” 11 different players recorded at least 1 pick, 6 players recorded multiple picks, and the team as a whole had a very impressive 26 picks. But as smothering as the D proved to be there’s hope yet for that offense! During the week 2 game against Kansas City (there they are again!), 3rd year running back DeShaun Foster flashed game breaking ability with a 32 carry, 174 yard performance. Unfortunately, Foster was subsequently lost for the season after week 5. And as much as the team missed WR Steve Smith, veteran WR Muhsin Muhammed reemerged to record a simply awesome 16 TD season. Due to his staggering cap number however, Muhammed will have to agree to restructure his contract if he hopes to return. But even with uncertainty revolving around Muhammed, Smith and Davis’ return, fiery QB Jake Delhomme, RBs Nick Goings and DeShaun Foster, WR Keary Colbert, and a bright young defense should key another playoff run.
QB Jake Delhomme; 3 STARS: 3,886 Yards, 30 TDs (1 Rushing), 15 Ints: A “steady-Eddie” QB can be a fantasy team owner’s best friend, and few passers were more consistent than Delhomme was. Recording TD passes in 15 of 17 games and with 11 multiple TD games to his credit, Delhomme was as reliable as any fantasy QB in ‘04. While his control was admittedly a bit rocky through week 6, given the team’s spate of injuries and the Panther’s need to almost completely reprise their offensive philosophy, Delhomme should be accorded a little slack. A tough, reliable, and gritty athlete who inspires confidence in his teammates, assuming the Panthers’ top skill position players return to health Delhomme’s numbers could even creep up a bit next season.
RB DeShaun Foster; 2 1/2 STARS: 255 Yards, 2 TDs: Foster is another athlete who’s ranking is based more upon Po’ than po’formance. Although fellow RB Stephen Davis is expected back, due to the serious nature of Davis’ surgery coupled with his age, the plan, it seems, is to give Foster a heavy preseason load and see what shakes out. The team likes Foster’s burst and top-end speed, running style, and ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. While Foster isn’t a true Keeper, he’s certainly draft worthy. And if Foster can endure the rigors of the NFL, something he has yet to do, he offers an owner 1,000 yard/6-8 TD potential.
Muhsin Muhammed; 3 STARS: 93 Rec.,1,405 Yards, 16 TDs: Muhammed is at a career crossroads. Although he’s at an age when WRs generally start to lose a step, Muhammed posted career best numbers, had some rather gaudy fantasy games, and finished the season in strong style. “Moose” had at least 90 yards receiving in 10 games, recorded over 100 yards receiving in 7 games (including an inspiring 10 catch, 179 yard week 13 performance against the Saints), and scored in 8 of the team’s final 10 games. That whole crossroads thing? Muhammed, who didn’t really distinguish himself in either ‘02 or ‘03, is due a $10 million roster bonus on March 1 and will count $12.5 million against the Panther’s ‘05 salary cap. Then, there’s the distinct possibility that his ridiculous numbers were part of a free agent contract drive. The best guess is that Muhammed, who claims to enjoy playing for the Panthers, will allow his deal to be reworked. And while he can’t possibly be expected to post the numbers he did last season, with a strong core of skill position players returning and a quality pass catcher opposite him in young Keary Colbert, look for “Moose” to be a quality #2 fantasy receiver, notch another 1,000 yards receiving, and be much closer to 10 TDs than 20.

After Delhomme, Foster, and Muhammed, my fantasy “Magic 8 Ball” gets a bit murky. Using Keeper slots on athletes such as RBs Stephen Davis and Nick Goings, and WRs Steve Smith and Keary Colbert offer high risk to modest reward. Davis had a very good 2003 campaign in which he ran for 1,444 yards, but is returning from serious Microfracture knee surgery, is far from a safe bet to return in top form, and there’s a definite possibility that his best days are behind him. As for surprise 5th string RB Nick Goings who came from nowhere and saved Carolina’s bacon by recording 821 yards rushing, 394 yards receiving, and 7 TDs, he’ll most likely split carries with Foster. Ultimately, Goings’ fantasy value will be contingent upon Davis’ return and Foster’s durability. From a fantasy standpoint, should they all be healthy, the 3 backs will most likely diminish one another’s value. Regarding smurf-esque WR Steve Smith who’s also returning from a season ending injury (broken leg), he’s not a Keeper but keep an eye on his mini-camp and preseason performance as he retains modest fantasy value. And complementary WR Keary Colbert? Although his ability and contributions (754 yards, 5 TDs) were eclipsed by Muhammed, Colbert possesses upside and is worth expending a mid round pick upon if Muhammed should depart, and a late round pick if Muhammed returns.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: A pair of back to back losing seasons has served to further deepen Jon “Chucky” Gruden’s perpetual scowl. Meanwhile, that scowl could be morphing into a grimace because the seat Gruden’s on is rapidly heating. The bottom line is that the team has a lot of work to do before they can even consider a serious playoff run. It’s been rather daunting, trying to assess the fantasy value of the Buc’s skill position players, for this is a team that makes it’s living, primarily, off of it’s aggressive defense. Furthermore, with a pair of notable exceptions, the skill players who aren’t passed their primes are a relatively unremarkable bunch and won’t do a whole lot to push a fantasy franchise over the top. While many owners wouldn’t consider the following athletes to be Keepers, they are worthy of mention.
QB Brian Griese; 2 STARS: 2,632 Yards, 20 TDs, 12 INTs: While Griese was certainly serviceable from a fantasy perspective this past season, a prohibitive cap number in conjunction with the coaching staff’s comfort level with young Chris Simms would indicate that Griese’s no lock to return. The interesting thing is that Griese, who having been to the Pro Bowl a few seasons back, went from the highest of possible highs in Denver to being bench-meat. The move to Tampa was just the tonic for Griese who has seemingly rediscovered both his touch and passion for the game. Nevertheless, keep an eye on Tampa’s sure to be busy off-season. Griese could well be released and the bright, promising Simms installed.
RB Michael Pittman; 2 1/2 STARS: 926 Yards, 10 TDs (3 Rec.), 391 Yards Rec.: Meet aforementioned “exception #1.” Pittman is built like the proverbial brick house and possesses nice wiggle for a big man. With good speed and soft hands, Pittman’s a versatile weapon and threat to score from virtually anywhere on the field. Case in point; the week 12 game against Carolina saw Pittman record a mere 29 yards on 18 carries, and 8 receptions for 134 yards and 2 TDs. Such flexibility is rare but here’s the rub; Pittman carries more baggage than the “QE 2,” and the Buccaneers are seriously contemplating taking a running back in April’s back rich draft. If, on the other hand, the Buc’s elect to bolster the O-line and defense and do NOT use a high round pick on a runner, Pittman will be worthy of using a Keeper slot upon. Do a little research before you draft the brutish Buc’ back.

WR Michael Clayton; 2 1/2 STARS: 80 Rec., 1,193 Yards, 7 TDs: Meet “exception #2,” rookie pass catcher Michael Clayton. In an ‘04 draft that included more prolific receivers such as Larry Fitzgerald (Arizona) and Roy Williams (Detroit), Clayton’s wonderful season eclipsed them all. Still, Clayton doesn’t have game breaking speed and while he’s sure to be an impact player with hands soft enough to catch sunbeams, it’s very possible that he benefitted from Tampa’s dearth of pass catching talent. Carefully examine your roster before allotting a Keeper slot to Clayton.

Next Up... the AFC North

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

FANTASY BASEBALL'S SHORTSOPS

With apologies for the lag between articles, here ARE Fantasy Baseball's best Shortstops and a take on the position as an entity-

A review of 2nd Baseman will be posted by mid-week.

FANTASY'S TOP 'STOPS
By Jamey Feuer

Supermodels, Rock Stars and Shortstops. Shortstops? Yup', Shortstops. Although our society has always been drawn to it's athletes, rarely has a position so captured the collective imaginations of sports fans and non-sports fans alike. With the exception of star NFL Quarterbacks such as Broadway Joe Namath, Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana, and most recently Tom Brady, no other position can boast the glamour of today's Shortstop. Why that's so is a matter for debate, though it's most likely due to the fact that the athletes playing the position; Alex Rodriguez (although he's now a 3rd Baseman), Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra, are the modern day equivalents of Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. Extremely well paid, talented, and good looking athlete/playboys who transcend the sport, capable of making the extraordinary seem routine and the routine seem extraordinary.
That being said, there's nothing routine in drafting a Shortstop for your fantasy team and the fantasy landscape has changed a bit since the mid to late 90's; the era that saw today's Shortstops rise to such public prominence. So, let's take a look!

AT THE TOP OF THE GAME:

MIGUEL TEJADA (BAL): For a notoriously slow starter, Tejada started off as hot as Texas asphalt and never cooled off last season. The move to Baltimore apparently agreed with "Miggy" as he posted a career high 150 RBIs. Tejada is a textbook fantasy stud; he hits for power, average, offers a sharp eye at the plate, and while he doesn't walk much... he won't hurt you with strikeouts either. Last season's numbers were simply eye-popping, .311/34/150 with a 107 Runs scored. While the Orioles didn't make any earth-shaking off-season moves (though the acquisition of OF'er Sammy Sosa should provide the lineup with even more punch and power), the Orioles still have a loaded lineup and there's no reason to believe that Tejada won't have another splendid season. Look for Tejada to again be Baseball and fantasy's top Shortstop, and put up numbers akin to, .313/33/138.

DEREK JETER (NYA): To say that Jeter started last season off at a glacial pace would be a marked understatement. Fantasy owners thought that perhaps, after a miserable April, Jeter would light it up in May. But when the last week in May rolled around and Jeter was still well below the Mendoza Line, more than one fantasy owner panicked and moved the All-Star Shortstop. But alas, those who refused to give up on... and those who traded for the Yankee captain were well rewarded. Jeter was a house afire over the season's final four months and he ended the '04 campaign with a very good line of .292/23/78, with 111 Runs scored and 23 swiped bags. While there are many who’ll say that Jeter is the second best Yankee Shortstop (those people are generally Red Sox
supporters), he nevertheless possesses remarkable intangibles and is a run waiting to happen. Batting in the best lineup money can buy, Jeter remains an elite option at Short and should post another outstanding season as he continues his relentless march to Cooperstown. Look for .297/22/80 with 23 SB.

MICHAEL YOUNG (TEX): While listing Young as the #3 fantasy Shortstop is sure to provoke criticism, the dude DID have almost 220 hits and put up .313/22/99 while hitting primarily out of the leadoff slot. Add his 114 Runs scored, 12 SB, 44 Walks, and 89 Ks out of 690 AB's, and perhaps the ranking will make a little more sense. The Texas lineup's got a cast of mashers, remains imposing, and Young is just entering his prime. Let's pencil this gamer in for .315/25/97 with 16 SB.

NOMAR GARCIAPARRA (CHN): Nomah' is also going to be jotted in as my "Comeback Player of the Year." While he battled through an injury plagued '04, he was also forced to contend with the legion of distractions that surrounded his trade from Boston to Chicago. The confluence of issues no doubt contributed to Nomar's down season and arguably poor attitude. Nonetheless, assuming he stay's healthy, Garciaparra's got the potential to bounce back into the top 3 at his position. However, such an assumption is a bit of a risk due to Nomar's age, 31. Anticipating that Garciaparra, a very talented athlete, has recovered from his Achilles injury, look for a line of .310/20/95. (This could be a very generous line)

JIMMY ROLLINS (PHI): No longer just a "good" fantasy Shortstop, Rollins has "crossed into the blue" and become an elite Shortstop. Offering power, speed and excellent production, if Rollins hits the basepaths running he's got a shot at having a career best season. Pencil the still developing Rollins in for .299/17/77 with 35 SB.

"YOU WON'T GET "SHORT-CHANGED" WITH THESE GUYS"

RAFAEL FURCAL (ATL): There's admittedly a bit of a drop-off after Miggy', "DJ," Young and Nomah." Still, Furcal offers his owners rare speed and decent pop. If Furcal can tear himself away from his local Pub (The guy’s got a real substance issue), pencil him in for .285/17/65 with 30 SB.

EDGAR RENTERIA (BOS): Owners hoping that Renteria would duplicate his remarkable '03 season were sorely disappointed. Renteria's hits dropped from 194 to 168, Runs from 96 to 84, HRs from 13 to 10, RBIs from 100 to 72, SB from 34 to 17, Walks from 65 to 39, and his average plummeted to .287 from .330. If you include the near 100 point drop in OBP (.406 to .314), the difference was almost night and day. And yet the brighter side is, that even with the diminished productivity, Renteria remains a top 10 Shortstop. Let's operate under the assumption that Renteria's true numbers lie somewhere between his '03 and '04 seasons, and look for .291/8/85, with 80 Runs scored and 25 SB.

CARLOS GUILLEN (DET): Having torn up his knee (ACL tear), Guillen is anything but a sure thing. However, a trade that sent Guillen to Detroit from Seattle seemed to be the spark that ignited a career season. At his physical peak, if healthy, Guillen could even build upon last season's numbers and again be a very good fantasy weapon. Monitor his rehab progress closely and if he’s 95% or so, look for .293/16/95 with 8 SB.

ORLANDO CABRERA (ANA): Another Shortstop who benefited from a change in scenery, a move to Boston from Montreal's comparatively barren lineup spurred Cabrera to finish the season with confidence. Now part of Anaheim’s excellent lineup, a full season with his Angel teammates could even result in a slight up tick in Cabrera's numbers, look for .280/12/73 with 22 SB.

JACK WILSON (PIT): This dude broke OUT last season. Available through most league's Waiver Wires, Wilson (only 27) surprised fantasy owners and teammates alike with a .308/11/59 season. Given that he hit at a mere .256 clip in '03 with a Slugging Percentage over 100 points lower than his '04 figure of .459, everyone's surprise was understandable. While Wilson's not much of a base stealer and doesn't draw many walks, he won't kill you with strikeouts either. However, if you should elect to draft Wilson, I'd make certain to have another athlete who offers flexibility at the Shortstop position... just in case. Was Wilson's '04 campaign an aberration and career year? Quite possibly, but let's think positively and assume his '05 numbers will lie somewhere between his previous 2 seasons; look for something like .285/10/62.

"SHORTSTOPS ON THE RISE"

BOBBY CROSBY (OAK): Asked to fill some mighty big shoes at Short' in Oakland, Crosby responded with a solid season that earned him A.L Rookie of the Year honors. A flawless season it was not however, and Crosby MUST become more discerning at the dish as another 141 strikeout season would be unacceptable. Another off-season of work and spring training should have helped Crosby develop a better eye however, and his developing power bodes well for the future. Look for Crosby to build upon last year and avoid the sophomore slump (hopefully) that afflicted fellow shortstop Angel Berroa. Pencil the A young'un in for .250/25/75 with 8 swiped bags.

KHALIL GREENE (SD): With a high Baseball IQ and ample power potential, Greene's got a bright future. While playing in San Diego's spacious Petco Park doesn't help his Home Run numbers, Greene still mashed 15 Dingers. Although he's no speed merchant, the 25 year old Padre has decent range, 20 Homer potential, and should have improved with another Spring Training under his belt. Look for Greene to post .285/18/75 with 5 SB.

JOSE REYES (NYN): The Mets have moved this tremendously gifted and quick as a blink athlete from his natural position of Shortstop to 2nd Base, and now back to Short again. An assortment of injuries (predominantly leg) have significantly abbreviated Reyes' tenure in New York however, and valid questions about his durability remain. If Reyes can stay healthy and off the Trainer's Table, he possesses immeasurable real and fantasy ability. With a quick bat and absurd speed, Reyes has top 15 Fantasy player potential. If he stays healthy, and again that's a mighty big if, but if Reyes can stay on the field look for .291/8/35 with 31 SB. Note: Although Met officials are positively titillated with the numbers he posted playing winter ball, I am NOT a big Reyes fan and question his ability to remain healthy playing at this level. Make certain you have another player capable of filling in for him if need be.


"ON THE WAY DOWN"

OMAR VIZQUEL (SF): To say that Vizquel is in "decline" might be a bit of a misnomer as he hit .291/7/59 and recorded 19 swiped bags for Cleveland last season. Nevertheless, Vizquel (37) is in the twilight of a wonderful career and at his age, an athlete's stats can plummet from one season to the next. While Vizquel's probably won't fall off a cliff, I still anticipate a modest correction in his numbers. Look for a very reasonable, .275/5/55 with 12 SB.

JOSE VALENTIN (LA): Even with 30 Home Runs Valentin's second half numbers were abysmal, his batting average declined for a 5th consecutive year, and his OBP (.287) was lower than many player's Batting Averages. At age 35, and with young Cesar Itzuris (24) demonstrably better, Valentin is no starter.

"COMEBACK PLAYER"

NOMAR GARCIAPARRA (CHN): Please see above.

"TOP SLEEPERS"

JOSE REYES (NYN): Please see above.

B.J UPTON (TB): The kid's got a big time bat, but the knock on him remains his iffy work with the leather. Although he's got great Po', potential is often akin to a 4 letter word. Upton, who may well be slotted at 2nd Base this year, should even be available through your league's Waiver Wire. Keep an eye on his Spring Training numbers before you do anything drastic.

NEXT UP… 2ND BASEMAN!

Monday, February 07, 2005

NEW ENGLAND 'NABB'S SUPERBOWL VICTORY!

"Patriots "Nabb" their 3rd Superbowl"
By Jamey Feuer

With 2 full weeks of preparation, and 2 full weeks of being forced to listen to Eagle WR Freddie Mitchell's mouth write checks that his body and ability proved incapable of cashing, the Philadelphia Eagles were about as ready to take on the New England Patriots in Superbowl XXXIX as any team possibly could have been. To the untrained eye the teams’ matched up pretty well. And of the game's numerous storylines, one of the most intriguing was the battle between the 2 Quarterbacks. Brady, unassuming and cool under fire, vs. McNabb, a fiery and gifted athlete determined to be the first QB to best Brady in the big game. And while the final score was far closer than most expected, the game itself really wasn't.

At first blush it would seem that McNabb posted very good passing numbers, going 30/51 for 357 yards and 3 TDs. But, he also threw 3 very costly INTs. Brady on the other hand threw for a far less gaudy 23/33 for 236 yards and 2 TDs, but significantly 0 INTs. Now, that's not to say that Brady conducted a flawless game because he didn't. But watching Brady you got the sense that he really was as under control as he appeared. That when push came to shove he would complete the pass that mattered, confident in his receivers’ ability to make the play. Watching McNabb, you just didn't have that same sense. And, McNabb received a heroic effort and far greater production from WR Terrell Owens (9/133) than anyone not named Terrell Owens could have anticipated. In short, the Eagle's just couldn't match the confident rhythm set by the Patriots.

But the Patriots' 3rd Superbowl victory in 4 years was attributable to far more than just "Tom Terrific’s" efficient passing day. Nope’, New England’s win truly was a team effort. Jitterbug receiver Deion Branch (11/133) made every catch and kept the chains moving with a record tying day, RB Corey Dillon (18/75 1 TD) kept Eagle defenders back on their heels and ran with great determination and power, and Pat' scat back Kevin Faulk (8/38 and 2 rec. for 27 yards) proved to be Westbrook's equal on this day, spelling Dillon and frustrating Eagle defenders on a pair of screen passes. Both Patriot backs helped keep their QB upright and relatively free of grass stains.

Meanwhile, the Patriot defensive game plan was relatively straightforward; stop Brian Westbrook and contain Donovan McNabb. And while they certainly succeeded in bottling up the versatile Westbrook who rushed for a very pedestrian 44 yards (60 yards receiving), as for containing McNabb? Well, as effective as the Pat’ defenders proved to be, McNabb might have been more hamstrung by his team’s offensive game plan. McNabb, who possesses outstanding athleticism and very good speed, scrambled once for zero yards. Again that figure; 1 rush, 0 yards. No designed Quarterback Draws, no Bootlegs, no nothing. This is Donovan McNabb we’re talking about here, not Chief QB Trent Green who’s about as elusive as a garden gnome. It almost seemed as if the Eagles were determined to prove a point in keeping McNabb in the pocket. Which I might add, collapsed with regularity under the weight of the Pat’s impressive pass rush yesterday.

On the morning of Superbowl Sunday, the difference between the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots wasn’t enormous for the Patriots were assuredly NOT head and shoulders above the Eagles at the skill positions. There have certainly been far greater talent disparities in recent years. But despite Freddie Mitchell’s irritating protestations to the contrary, New England’s victory came as no great surprise to most fans and analysts. Invisible to the naked eye, the difference was the confidence, big game savvy, and workmanlike approach taken by the Patriots. And by 10:45 PM Eastern Standard Time, the difference between the Superbowl foes was enormous; New England had secured a dynastic 3rd victory in 4 years... and Philadelphia was left to ponder what could have been, hopeful that they might get another shot next year.

FANTASY BASEBALL'S SHORTSOPS

Please check back this evening when Jamey will have posted...

Fantasy Baseball's most productive Shortstops! (Batteries and Alex Rodriguez not included).

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

FANTASY BASEBALL'S 3RD BASEMAN

Manning Baseball's Hot Corner isn't easy. However, finding a 3rd Bagger capable of contributing to your fantasy team IS. The position should be extraordinarily deep this year, with bright youngsters coming up and veterans returning to health. Generally speaking, you're looking for power numbers out of your 3rd Baseman, Homers, RBIs and Runs. Even more importantly however, there are a few 3rd Baseman who'll give you real flexability. Guys like Baltimore's Melvin Mora and the Angels (where ARE they from anyway) Chone Figgins, qualify at several positions... Figgins qualifies at most of the IF slots, OF and I believe, may even qualify as a Gastroenterologist this spring... assuming he gets enough time with an Endoscope.
Anyway, let's break down the Hot Corner. ... 60 Days til' Baseball commences!

Baseball's Top 10 3rd Baseman:

Alex Rodriguez (NY): Even having had an "off year," A-Rod was an owner's dream last season. And quite frankly, A-Rod's "off year" would qualify as most ball player's career years. He'll give you power; 40 HRs last season, RBIs, 106 last season, Runs, 112 last season... and rare for a 3rd Baseman, speed. Rodriguez thiefed 28 bases in '04. Not only is A-Rod the top 3rd Baseman, A-Rod still ranks as fantasy Baseball's #1 pick overall. Comfortably settled into the Yankees stocked lineup, look for A-Rod's average to bounce back to more "Rodriguez-ian" numbers... I'd look for .290./38/110 ... and oh yes, look for another 20+ Stolen Bases.

Scott Rolen (STL): Another loaded lineup, Rolen gets the kind of protection a big brother offers his hot sister. With Edmonds and Pujols in the Cardinal lineup, not to mention another 4 or so .290+ power hitters... it's not like you can pitch around the guy. Fantasy owners should have concerns about Rolen's balky back, but despite missing 18 games late last season due to injury (a leg injury... wasn't even his back) it should NOT deter you from grabbing him. Rolen remains an elite hitter and a top 4 fantasy 3rd Baseman. Look for .299/35/115 in '05.

Adrian Beltre (SEA): For a guy who's had a history (and he's only 26 mind you) of being a 2nd half player, Beltre started off hot and didn't cool off until roughly, October. The interesting thing 'bout Beltre is that he's had HUGE expectations heaped upon him since he was 16 years old, but had never really lived up to them. That is, until he blew UP last season to the tune of .334/48/104. Beltre also notched 104 Runs and had a ridiculous Slugging % of .629. The guy can't help but come back down to Earth a little bit next season, especially seeing as how he'll be adjusting to his new Seattle digs. Nevertheless, I like Beltre and don't think last year was an aberration. And, while he can't be as white hot as he was ALL last season, he'll still remain a top 4 fantasy 3rd Bagger. Look for a more reasonable, .320/41/115... and a Slugging % closer to .550 than .650. And I'll take those "more modest" numbers any day!

Eric Chavez (OAK):... Must be wondering why the hell he resigned with a team that held a Pitching fire sale. Having dealt aces (for possible jokers) Hudson and Mulder for prospects, essentially, Chavez is rightfully angry. For a team that was thisclose to competing for a World Series... they've taken 1 biiiig step backwards. Having missed over a month due to a broken hand, it took Chavez a while to get back on track in '04. He still had an enviable season however, and fell 1 HR short of a 3rd consecutive 30 HR season. And, those 29 Homers were the most any Athletic hit last season. Chavez matured as a hitter last year and started spraying the ball to all fields. A top 10 3rd Baseman, look for .279/35/105.

Melvin Mora (BAL): I don't know if I'm entirely sold on Mora, he's a guy coming off a career year who's had a history of injuries. He was UN-conscious last season though, hitting .340/27/104 and recording 11 swiped bags. I'm still concerned about injuries, but will look for .325/25/99, and 15 SBs. Mora remains a top 10 3rd Baseman, but I'd draft a guy who offers flexability at 3rd... just in case.

Chipper Jones (ATL): A bum Hammy' hobbled Jones all season long and he was never able to get himself right. Even still, Chipper bashed 30 Homers and notched 96 RBIs. Admirable numbers for any player, let alone an injured one. I fully expect Jones to bounce back and record a great year, look for .290/30/100.

Aubrey Huff (TB): Arguably Tampa's best player, Huff is also versatile, qualifying at 3rd, 1st, and depending upon your league's requirements, OF as well. He started last season rather slooowly. If he hits the basepaths running, look for him to improve upon last season's figures of .297/29/104. Let's assume he will, and pencil him in for .305/33/105.

Hank Blalock (TEX): A young player with a bright future, the knock on Hammerin' Hank is his rather irritating habit of falling off after the All-Star break. His split season stats are seriously stupefying. In just his 3rd season, expect Blalock to put in the necessary batting cage work and improve his numbers. He broke the 30/100 mark last season... and that should be the first of many such seasons. Look for a VERY productive year out of Blalock... I'd gamble an even higher pick upon him this season, and project him for .293/35/112.

Mike Lowell (FLA): A doubles machine, Lowell's starts each season like a ball of fire... and finishes like a ball of cotton. Having developed a history for falling off significantly during the season's second half, here's the plan; trade Lowell for a position of need just before the All-Star Break. At age 31, a ball player's a known quantity and won't be surprising anyone... unless of course your Barry Bonds, and then you're just getting started. Look for a very respectable, .297/31/104 from Lowell this season... and I'm as serious as a heart attack about that whole trade thing.

Aramis Ramirez (CHI N.): In his first full season with the Cubbies, Ramirez positively blew up and recorded a career high in HRs. He was hobbled with a pulled groin for much of last season, but was still a very productive fantasy player. The defection of Sosa to the Orioles shouldn't hurt Ramirez's numbers, Sosa has been in decline for the past 3 years and was a non-factor for much of last season. The last of the top 10 3rd Baseman, look for Ramirez, who doesn't strike out very often, to turn in an even better '05 than '04; .312/38/108.

"TOP SLEEPER THIRD BASEMAN":
B.J Upton (TB): Very young and still trying to find a home defensively... the knock on Upton has been his glovework. Nevertheless, Upton's got a nice upside and is worth taking a flier on... he might even be able to be acquired via the Waiver Wire.

David Wright (NYM): An impressive '04 campaign bodes for an even better '05. This kid has all the tools, especially power. It's quite possible that he could be the Met's best pure hitter since Strawberry.

"3RD BASEMAN COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR"
Aaron Boone (CLE): Let's assume that Boone has learned his lesson about playing pick-up Basketball. However, having heard fairy tales from athletes that range from the ridiculous, "I tripped over my dog" to the inane, "I fell washing my truck," Boone's honesty was refreshing, should be applauded, and he got a raw deal from the Yankees who should never have cut him.

"PLAYER TO WATCH"
Chone Figgins (ANA): I flat-out like this kid. And, with his base stealing ability (34 in '04) and ability to qualify at 3rd, 2nd, SS, and in the OF, you could learn to like him too! His numbers were worthy of his being named the Angels MVP, look for a very solid season from Figgins. .297/6/62.

NEXT UP... TOP 10 SHORT STOPS!

BACK TO CENTER...

Due the HUGE workload I've had, my BLOG has missed me... and I it. This first piece is a review of the Association's Centers. It's amazing how young players blosson, old players begin to look... well, old, and former role players assume larger roles. Following the Center-piece is my first Fantasy Baseball piece. I will break down Major League Baseball's 3rd Baseman.
But 1st... Basketball's behemoths!


At the Top of the Game:
Tim Duncan (SA): Simply put, the most fundamentally sound big man in the league. Possessing an arsenal of low post moves, Duncan averages a very impressive double/double consisting of 21 points and 12 boards per game. In addition, Duncan dishes 2.6 assists per game and leads all Centers in blocks at nearly 3 per contest.

Dirk Nowitzki (DAL): Eye-poppingly nimble for a seven-footer, Dirk’s able to put the ball on the floor and drive to the hoop, owns a very reliable mid-range jumper, and is “money” from beyond the arc with a three-point shooting percentage of 40%. The giant German’s arguably the most valuable Center in the league and the “sole” concern with Dirk is what it’s always been: a pair of balky ankles.

Shaquille O’Neal (MIA): Although statistically he might not be the top big man in the league, Shaq remains the most dominant Center in the game and that’s an important distinction. Shaq’s arrival in Florida has helped transform the Miami Heat into a dominant team while elevating the play of SG Dwyane Wade and PF Udonis Haslem. Averaging over 23 points and 11+ boards per game, Shaq-Daddy leads all Centers with a shooting percentage of 61%.

Yao Ming (HOU): Although he’s in his third season we’ve yet to bear witness to the highly anticipated, “Ming Dynasty.” Make no mistake, Yao’s level of play is quite high, but he isn’t the defensive force one might expect. At his height, Yao should be pulling down double digit boards while averaging a double/double, yet he’s doing neither. Some were expecting the arrival of SG Tracy McGrady to boost Yao’s production, but the gentle giant’s stat-line hasn’t changed significantly since Steve Francis’ days in Houston. From a fantasy perspective, Yao is a serviceable yet unspectacular Center.

Other Top Centers:
Zydrunas Ilgauskas (CLE): One of the most offensively skilled Centers in the league, “Big Z” is lethal from three-point land, notches almost 17 points per game, and is working well with talented youngsters, SG LeBron James and PF Drew Gooden. Ilgauskas is however, a defensive liability. That flaw should not however, have any effect upon his fantasy value.

Jamaal Magloire (CHA): The Kentucky product was starting to come on when he went down with a dislocated finger in late November. Fantasy owners left with a glaring hole in the middle of their lineups eagerly await his return from the IL, but that probably won’t happen before February... so don’t hold your breath!

Rasheed Wallace (DET): Although he’s getting up there in years, ‘Sheed’s pouring in almost 14 points and pulling down 7+ boards per game, and is still capable of providing a fantasy team with “big help.”

Brad Miller (SAC”: As reliable as they come, Miller’s developed into a top tier player over the past two seasons. Draining almost 15 points per contest on an eye-opening 54%, Miller leads all Centers with 3+ dimes per game and cleans the glass like Windex, averaging 9+ rebounds per game. At this point, Miller remains an undervalued fantasy player

Kurt Thomas (NY): The Knick’s recent history includes a considerable number of overpriced, under-talented players who received maximum dollar contracts. Unlike many others who’ve come and gone during his tenure in New York, however, Thomas still retains value. While the veteran’s hard work and effort might not always show up in the box score, it does manifest itself in the team’s record. BUT, keep an eye on young Center Nazr Mohammed who’s really stepped up his level of play and surprised Knick observers. This was not an easy decision for a number of reasons. It is but a small step for Thomas to go from this category to “Centers in Decline.”

Sleepers and Centers on the Rise:
Chris Bosh (TOR): Former high flyer and heir to the Jordan throne Vince Carter was moved so as to allow Bosh the playing time he so desperately needed. Bosh’s value should only increase as the season wears on, and a recent string of 20+ point, 10+ rebound performances are a harbinger of good things to come. Currently, Bosh is averaging 15+ points on 47% from the field, and is hauling in 8+ boards per game. Bosh is a star in the making, as is the next Center on the list...

Emeka Okafor (CHA): This former UConn star is the NBA’s hands-down “Rookie of the Year.” A powerful paint presence, Okafor’s averaging 15+ points, 11+ rebounds, and shows no signs of hitting the rookie wall. A humble kid, the early success Okafor has enjoyed isn’t going to his head and more importantly, indicates that he possesses a greater upside than many NBA observers had originally projected.

Nazr Mohammed (NY): A throw-in in the Tim Thomas trade, Mohammed has actually turned out to be a real find. He’s also the Knick’s Center of the future. If you picked Mohammed up off the waiver wire as I did, you scored yourself a top ten fantasy Center.

Eddy Curry (CHI): Finally, Curry is beginning to live up to his considerable potential. The former fourth overall pick is also developing a nice chemistry with the team’s talented young core. Averaging 15+ points on 53% from the field, few Centers can match such accuracy. Previously considered a defensive liability, Curry’s improving defensive statistics seem to indicate that he’s determined to shed his “underachiever” label and become a complete player.

Chris Kaman (LAC): Chris Kaman, “Shaggy” to friends, was the ‘03 draft’s 6th overall pick and has really begun to pay dividends this season. Instructed by Clipper skipper, Mike Dunleavy to “up the offensive tempo,” Kaman responded in consecutive games against the Lakers and Mavericks, posting a combined 27 points, 28 boards, and 7 blocks. If he’s still available, Kaman is worth picking up off your league’s waiver wire right now!

Dan Gadzuric (MLW): The former Gonzaga star has begun to post some impressive numbers, including a recent 19 point, 14 rebound eruption against the Denver Nuggets. Averaging less than 1 turnover per game, Gadzuric is shooting an impressive 60% from the field and could prove to be a second half sleeper.

Samuel Dalembert (PHI): If you're in a deep... ok, a VERY DEEP league, and need rebounds or lack a Center, there might be some merit in picking Sammy up off of the 'Wire. Having finished last season in impressive fashion, owners rightfully expected to see big things from Dalembert this season. Thus far however, he's been maddeningly inconsistent. Still young, possessing tremendous upside, and having demonstrated that he can compete at the pro level, Dalembert qualifies as yet another deep sleeper capable of paying great dividends once he puts it all together.



The Bigger They Are: Centers Whose Value is Dropping:
Marcus Camby (DEN): Over the course of his career, Camby’s visited the DL more often than some folks visit the bathroom. On the lean side (here's a guy who'd fare poorly in prison!), Camby lacks bulk and muscle. And, while Camby remains capable of posting big numbers playing alongside talented youngsters such as PF Kenyon Martin, SF Carmelo Anthony and PG Andre Miller, just keep in mind that the guy’s always one misstep away from the IR list.

Vlade Divac (LAK): Age and injuries have exacted a heavy toll upon Divac. At this stage of his career and injured, he’s not worthy of even so much as a bench spot. Retirement is more than likely in Vlade’s imminent future.


Dikembe Mutombo (HOU): This former star player still takes great delight in wagging his finger after swatting a shot into the 10th row, and his true age? Well, that’s anyone’s guess!

Michael Olowokandi (MIN): The “Kandi Man” played well enough to secure himself a “Lotto-style” contract... and hasn’t been heard from since.