Wednesday, March 29, 2006

FANTASY BASEBALL; BOLD PREDICTIONS!

Every season sees an A.J Pierzynski (White Sox), Ryan Howard (Phillies), Jorge Cantu (Devil Rays), Jhonny Peralta (Indians), Morgan Ensberg (Astros), and Jeff Francoeur (Atlanta) emerge. What's the common thread between the 6 players? Well, I went around the horn, starting with the Catcher and ended up with Atlanta Outfielder Jeff Francoeur, and each player blew UP last year! Further, most of the above enjoyed seasons that no one could've predicted.

Let's take a quick look around Baseball and see who stands to be this seasons' Jhonny Peralta and Chris Shelton.

Catchers:

Brian McCann (Atlanta): McCann hasn't had a bang-up spring so far, but last year he hit a more than respectable .278/5/23 in 59 games. Thus far, McC's swatting a line of 220/.256/.293 in 41 plate appearances, and has demonstrated an excellent rapport with his staff. Slotted to be the Braves everyday Catcher, he'll hit in the bottom third of the order and that will negatively impact his fantasy production. Still, if he gets off to a solid start Brian McCann stands to be a very hot 'Wire pickup.

Kenji Johjima (Seattle): After paying a king's ransom just to negotiate with Ichiro's agent the Mariner's landed the All Star Outfielder... and he's been far and away the most consistent hitter in the Mariner lineup, not to mention a top-5 MLB talent. Now, Johjima is the latest of Seattle's Asian imports. A 7-time Japanese All Star the 29 year old receiver has a strong arm, is an excellent defensive presence, and could be as good as .275/15/80.

Josh Willingham (Florida): No youngster at 27, Willingham has had a HUGE spring and, according to Marlin manager Joe Girardi, he will see time in LF AND at Catcher.
During last year's 16 game cup of coffee J-Will' hit at a .304 clip, and so far this spring he's hitting in excess of .448 with 4 round-trippers'. Frankly, the Marlins need Willingham's bat and he's an early NL ROY candidate.

Ryan Doumit (Pittsburgh): Doumit played in 75 games last year and while consistency wasn't his strong suit, a .255/6/35/25 campaign was a positive indicator. And after a full off-season and spring with the parent club, Doumit enters the season as the unquestioned everyday backstop and is hitting .300 over the course of the spring. Surrounded by better talent than many realize, Doumit has .280/15/75 capability.

1ST BASEMEN:

Conor Jackson (Arizona): Last season was supposed to be the collegiate 3B rookie campaign at 1st, but aged Tony Clark's rennaissance season precluded the young corner infielder from playing the position and he was subsequently bumped to LF. Although he did little in 85 '05 plate appearances (.200 BA), his torrid spring (.442) led manager Bob Melvin to bump OF'er/1B Shawn Green from the 5-spot... and slide Jackson in his place! Another NL ROY candidate, C-Jack' has .300/20/75 po'.

Dan Johnson (Oakland): Johnson had a fine rookie year; .275/15/58, with 21 Doubles. However, the acquisitions of Frank Thomas and Milton Bradley have left Johnson without a position. Then again, given his defensive aptitude and Thomas' balky foot, Johnson should see plenty of time at 1st... and could even DH once Thomas finds his way to the DL. And as has been his wont, Thomas WILL be shelved due to injury no later than June..
A .285/25/70 talent, the Oakland 1st bagger should be an excellent pickup should he remain available.

Casey Kotchman (Anaheim): A gifted player who's still under 25, Kotchman has been smackin' the white off the ball all spring and will likely hit close to .290 with 20+ HRs and 75+ Ribbies.

Chris Shelton (Detroit): I pushed Shelton as 'Wire pickup HARD last season and he rewarded them with a .299/18/59/61 campaign. Now, surrounded by... dare I say it..dare I? I dare, I dare- an "abundance" of talent, Shelton has .285/25/90 capability.
***Here's the caveat: it looks as if Detroit manager Jimmy Leyland will hit Shelton 8th. Naturally, that will hinder the corner infielder's Rib' and Run opps'. Still, expect this Tiger to roar!

2ND BASEMEN

Josh Barfield (San Diego): Son of former slugger Jesse Barfield, a "big-boned" man to be sure, Josh has a vastly different body type (he's positively svelte at 6'-180 Lbs) and game. Built more on speed and gap power, look for young master Barfield to be a .260/16/60, 35 Double, 5 Triple, 12 SB kinda' player.

Mark Ellis (Oakland):

Esteban German (KC): Talk about a deep "sleeper!" German is a true unknown to most fantasy owners and fans alike, but the dude whalloped his way to a .315/5/68/103, with a ridiculous 43 Swiped Bags Triple-A season. As of today, his chances of winning the starting job are slightly more than 50-50.

Howie Kendrick (Anaheim):

Ian Kinsler (Texas):

Rickie Weeks (Milwaukee):

3RD BASEMEN:

Ryan Zimmerman (Washington):

Joe Crede (Chicago White Sox):

Ian Stewart (Colorado):

SHORTSTOPS:

Clint Barmes (Colorado):

J.J Hardy (Milwaukee):

Stephen Drew (Arizona):


OUTFIELDERS AND PITCHERS TO FOLLOW, AS WELL AS BLURBS!

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

FANTASY BASEBALL WAIVER WIRE HELP!

Knowledgeable owners WILL take full advantage of the 'Wire, using it to bolster thin Infields, flesh-out iffy-Outfields, strengthen suspect rotations, and provide all-around depth.

Let's take a BRIEF look at some other players who may be available in your league and remember, the deeper the league the thinner the available pool of talent!

CATCHERS:


1. Texas Rangers; Rod Barajas: Comfortably settled into the Ranger lineup, the newly-minted starter enjoyed a breakthrough .254/21/60 '05 campaign. Not "elite" Catcher stats', but they they're good enough to insert into an everyday lineup!
Surrounded by Texas' "shock and awe" lineup, Barajas ought to see plenty of hittable pitches this year as opposing starters will be far more likely to take their chances with the 30 year old Catcher as opposed to challenging "crush-alots" such as Mark Teixeira, Hank Blalock, David Dellucci and Michael Young.
Consider Barajas a VERY borderline #1 fantasy backstop and an excellent #2; .249/20/65.

2. Pittsburgh Pirates; Ryan Doumit: Taken in the 2nd round of the '99 draft, Doumit's been stalked by the injury bug but after beginning last season in the Minors he received a June call-up, handled both himself, and the staff with the poise of a vet', and hit .255/6/35, with 13 Doubles and 1 Triple in 75 games behind the plate.
The threat of injury will impact the kid's draft value, at least until he proves himself durable. And, while his power numbers should increase his average will probably hover around the .275-.280 mark. In short, Ryan Doumit should be a very solid #2 fantasy backstop with the potential to be much more.
Look for something close to .260/10/50.

3. Atlanta Braves; Brian McCann: Last season, in just 180 plate appearances, the rookie backstop "Wally Pipped" injured incumbent Johnny Estrada with a .278/5/23 season. His encouraging play allowed Hot-lanta to bid farewell to the one-time .300 hitter.
McCann's already developed a veteran's demeanor behind the dish and has an excellent rapport with his staff, and after spending a full off-season and spring with the parent club he could be as good as .275/16/60 this year.

1ST BASEMEN:

1. Atlanta Braves; Adam LaRoche: LaRoche's .258/20/78/53 rookie campaign was most encouraging, and he has a world of upside. The downside? As of Tuesday 3/28, the kid's swatting a meager .194 in 36 ABs. . However, given the fact that his swing would never be called "compact" it could take a little while to develop his timing. If you do gamble a pick on the Atlanta 1st Bagger it would be wise to keep him "pine-lined" until he heats up at the dish, and that might not happen until May... so be patient.

****Arizona Diamondbacks; 1B Conor Jackson: A big man at 6-2/230 Jackson played 3B in college, was drafted as a corner infielder, and was subsequently bumped to LF last season due to greybeard Tony Clark's unconscious .304/30/87 '05. After pulverizing the ball in 93 Trip'-A games last year (.354/.553/.457, with 38 Doubles and 73 Ribbies' in 93 games), Jackson got the call... and hit a relatively anemic .200/2/8 in 40 games.
So far this spring, and keep in mind that spring numbers hold little water with many league observers, Conor Jackson has hit the ball at a frantic, .450+ pace. The fact of the matter is, Jackson has handled the lumber SO well that the team bumped Shawn Green from the 5-hole and replaced him with the hard-hitting 1st Bagger! Obviously, hitting 5th in the lineup will afford C-Jack' with loads of RBI chances and Fastballs.
Another youngster with NL "Rookie of the Year" potential, knowing full well that Conor Jackson represents the future of the franchise and Tony Clark is waist-deep in the twilight of his career, the D-Backs will stand by their talented prospect and allow him to ride-out the inevitable ups and downs of a season without fear of looking over his shoulder. That being said, if he can carry his white-hot spring over to the regular season... we're looking at a potential .300/25/100 '06.

OTHERS:
Toronto Blue Jays; Eric Hinske: Hinske's currently enjoying a standout spring and looks a lot like the player who hit .279/24/84/99 in '02.

Washington Nationals; Nick Johnson: Brilliant with the lumber and above average with the leather, if only could manage to stay healthy for a full season he could be a .295/25/90 kind of player.

Pittsburgh Pirates; Sean Casey: A better lineup than many realize, Casey will enjoy the protection afforded by OF'er Jason Bay and fellow Cincy' exile, 3B Joe Randa.

Angels of Los Wherever; Casey Kotchman: Drafted in 2001, Kotchman is still just 23. Enjoying a BIG spring, the big Angel is picking up where he left off last season (.302/.526/.369 in just 40 late-season games) and has been penciled in as Anaheim's starting 1st bagger. Finally. Currently obliterating opposing pitching at a .441 pace and leading the team with 14 RBIs, Kotchman is a sneaky-good pickup and should be an excellent "Flex" #2 1st Baseman.
Rest assured, if he continues to hit like this... another owner will snatch him off the 'wire before the regular season enters its 2nd week.

2ND BASEMEN:

1. Chicago Cubs; Todd Walker: A skilled batsman with a .290 career batting average and .441 career Slugging Percentage, in just 110 contests last season Walker set, matched, or approached career numbers; his .305 BA was a career best, his .474 SLG % was second only to 00's .476, and his .355 OBP was bettered only by '98's mark of .372. Although Todd Walker is just 32, frankly he's an "old" 32 given his injury-checkered history and he probably amounts to nothing more than a fantasy backup at this point. Even so, a professional hitter with the ability to pound out a line of .301/12/60, Walker would constitute an excellent fantasy backup.

2. San Diego Padres; Josh Barfield: Son of former big league slugger Jesse Barfield, with the operative term being "big," young Josh Barfield is a svelte and speedy 2nd Baseman. After a .310/.450/.370, 15 HR, 25 Double, 72 Rib', 20 SB 2005 season at Triple-A, Barfield is secret no longer. The 23 year old Pad' has top of the order speed and skills to complement rapidly developing mid-order power.
Although he may still be as raw as Sushi, Barfield's time is now; .270/18/75, with 25 SB.

OTHERS:

Colorado Rockies; Luis Gonzalez: Another slap-hitter who's having a big spring, "the other LuGo" could be setting himself up for a breakout season judging by the early returns.

Kansas City Royals; Mark Grudzielanek: An average talent whose gritty style of play and work ethic render him better than average. Willing to surrender his body and "take one for the team," Grudzy' can hit but will provide an owner with depth only.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim; Adam Kennedy: Hit .285/8/52/66 with 21 bags snagged last season, now that 2 years removed from from a torn ACL Adam Kennedy should provide an owner with a bit more pop. That being said, hitting 9th in the lineup will do bupkiss for his RBI and Runs scored stats.

Arizona Diamondbacks; Orlando Hudson: The former Blue Jay seems to be acclimating to his desert digs rapidly, looks to be set for a big season with his new team, and as of Saturday, 3/26, Hud' was hitting 419/.509/.674 in 43 plate appearances. A rock-solid 2nd 2nd Sacker with All-Star defensive skills, a .275/15/75, 15 thieved bag season could be in the works!

SHORTSTOPS:

1. Kansas City Royals; Angel Berroa: Berroa whet fantasy owners appetites with a killer .287/17/73, 27 Double, 6 Triple, 21 SB 2003 campaign. Unfortunately, Angel followed-up his breakthrough season was a hellish, .262/8/43, 14 SB '04, and owners who were hoping that 2004 was merely a sophomore slump drew little comfort from a marginally improved .270/11/55, 7 SB '05.
A high strikeout, albeit spunky slap-hitter, perhaps the 2nd half of last season offers reason for hope. From the start of July through the end of the regular season, Berroa hit at a .300 clip with 6 of his 11 HRs, 37 of 55 RBIs, and a SLG % of almost .410. If Berroa, who's in no danger of losing his starting job, can use that success as a springboard... then it's not inconceivable that '06 could look very .280/15/65, 10 SB-ish.

2. Milwaukee Brewers; J.J Hardy: The new "Brew-Crew" is rife with young talent! Supported by a potentially outstanding not to mention "sneaky-good" lineup, Hardy could emerge as one of the year's top Roto' surprises. The 23 year old middle infielder's hitting a more than respectable .310 as of Tuesday, 3/28, look for him hit something close to .285/16/65, with a fistful of swiped bags this year. Should Hardy prove himself to be... ahh, "hardy," durable, and capable of sustaining a .280-.290, 15-20 Home Run season, he'll vault up the Shortstop standings and be amongst the top-10 at his position in '07.

OTHERS:

Chicago Cubs; Neifi Perez: Enjoying a good spring, Perez is looking a lot like the player he was in '00; .287/10/71, with 39 Doubles and 11 Triples. He'll be a backup but is a near lock for 350 ABs.

San Diego Padres; Khalil Greene: Surrounded by talent, he needs to demonstrate better dish discipline. Still, Greene has yet to approach the kinds of numbers the Pad' brass thought him capable of reaching.

Texas Rangers; Ian Kinsler: Manager Buck Showalter offically named the 24 year old his starting 2nd baseman. With big shoes to fill (he will, of course, be taking over for Alfonso Soriano who was exiled to Washington) Kinsler will rely upon his fellow Texans to handle the heavy offensive lifting... for now. Nevertheless, after hitting .273/23/94/102, with 28 Doubles and 19 SB at Triple-A Oaklahoma (PCL league), Kinsler has demonstrated the ability to "see ball, hit ball."

3RD BASEMEN

1. Cleveland Indians; Aaron Boone: Boonie', perhaps you've heard of him? Hailing from a loooong line of "Diamond Dogs," the dude hurt himself playing pick-up Basketball over the summer of '03, confessed his sin to the Yankees, and was promptly cut by Boss Steinbrenner. Although Boone's candor was awfully refreshing, so much for "honesty being the best policy!" Cleveland proceeded to sign the out-of-work cornerman and, upon return from his knee injury, Boone rewarded the Indians with a .243/.299/.378 (Avg./OBP/SLG), 16/60 '05 "cam-pain." But as bad as Boone's .211/.362/.266 1st half was, the club wisely stuck by him and he responded with a vastly improved .276/.394/.336 2nd half. Whether his confidence had taken a knock or he was simply out of game shape matters not, Aaron Boone showed some spark, passion and life, and seemingly has a couple of productive seasons left. Currently enjoying a BIG spring (.440/4/7), Boonie' managed to fend off a challenge from highly regarded 3B prospect Andy Marte and his experience and calm locker room presence will aid the development of promising young players such as OF'er Grady Sizemore, C Victor Martinez, and SS Jhonny Peralta (who obviously needs to be told that he spells his name incorrectly!).
Without looking for miracles, look for .265/19/65; good enough to be a fantasy backup or injury replacement.

2. Chicago White Sox; Joe Crede: Both player and team have been eagerly awaiting a breakthrough season since... like, 2001, but injuries and streaky play have hampered Crede from achieving his goal. Finally, after exemplary post-season (.289/4/11) play and an extensive off-season rehab' program designed to strengthen a potentially troublesome disc issue, Crede's sitting on the very cusp of his breakout campaign. Surrounded by a World Series winning cast and in the best shape of his career, I have Crede pegged for an All-Star caliber season and will ambitiously project .289/27/85.

OTHERS:

Pittsburgh Pirates; Joe Randa: Ample power and surrounded by better lumber than many fans realize, Randa, who had a rennaissance '05, is an excellent #2 or "Flex" player.

Detroit Tigers; Brandon Inge: After being drafted in '98 and entering the league as a light hitting Catcher in '01, Inge had his breakout campaign last year when he hit .261/16/72/75. Defensive liabilities behind the plate, coupled with Detroit's need for a hot-corner man prompted a move to 3rd. On the surface Inge's '05 season seems excellent, at least for a backup. But if we peel back the covers a bit, we find that before the break Brandon hit .283/.435/.368, but just.236/.400/.282 after it.
However, we're looking to fill-out our rosters here. If you need to rely upon the Tiger 3rd Baseman as an everyday regular... well, then your team will suffer a serious power brown-out. But, if you're looking for an off-day fill-in or backup... Inge should fill the bill adequately.

OUTFIELDERS:

1. Oakland A's; Nick Swisher: Although his average took a header last summer, falling from a "July high" of .278 to a .187 "why remember?" September,, Swisher offers 25-28 Dinger' power and 85 Ribbie po'. Right now, though, Swish' is shaping up to be a valuable Utilityman...

OTHERS:

Tampa Bay Devil Rays; Randy Winn: Speed to burn, he'll have a difficult time replicating last season. Still, he should be a threat on the basepaths.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays; Rocco Baldelli: Once healthy, a SB base machine and an Outfielder with otherworldly range. Until such time as he proves himself healthy, however, Baldelli's a risky draft pick. In fact, he's on a surprising number of Waiver Wires.

Texas Rangers; David Dellucci: People forget that with 29 round-trippers', this guy "crushed alot" last season. .275/27/75 is within reach on a loaded Texas team.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

FANTASY BASEBALL; EARLY WIRE GRABS!

UPDATED ON FRIDAY, 3/24

For most of us fantasy drafts NEVER go off as planned; an early run on starting pitching leaves us short on strikeouts and long on ERA, or in an effort to shore up starts and Saves, Outfielders are put off until the middle rounds... leaving us with David Dejesus, Jeremy Reed, Reggie Sanders and Grady Sizemore (who was a keeper). Can you tell that this happened to me in one of my drafts?
Well, fret not for help is on the way! The Waiver Wire is much more than a measure of last resort, it's an excellent resource and too few owners take advantage of it. The fact of the matter is,savvy owners will pore over the 'Wire immediately after their draft in an effort to identify potential contributors, backups and sleepers.

Let's take a quick look at athletes who may have gone undrafted in YOUR league!

CATCHERS:

1. Texas Rangers; Rod Barajas: Barajas started his pro career as a Diamondback and was acquired by the Rangers in '04 to serve as a backup. But a thumb injury suffered by former starter Gerald Laird allowed Barajas the opportunity to see full-time action, and after posting a .249/15/58, 26 Double, .453 SLG % '04, Barajas was... more or less, awarded the starting job. Comfortably settled into his Ranger duds, the newly-minted starter rewarded his team's confidence with breakthrough .254/21/60 '05 campaign. While those aren't "elite" Catcher stats', they were good enough to garner Barajas a big-money contract (1yr/$3.2 Mill') and the attention of fantasy buffs everywhere.
Surrounded by Texas' "shock and awe" lineup, Barajas ought to see plenty of hittable pitches as opposing starters will be far more likely to take their chances with the 30 year old Catcher as opposed to challenging "crush-alots" such as Mark Teixeira, Hank Blalock, David Dellucci and Michael Young.
An excellent backup or #2 Catcher, iffy Home numbers of .257/.414/.293, with 7 HRs, 20 RBI and 49 Ks as compared to Away production of .250/.520/.318, with 14 HRs, 40 RBI and 29 Ks in 10 fewer ABs render Barajas a VERY borderline #1 fantasy backstop; .249/20/65.

2. Pittsburgh Pirates; Ryan Doumit: You may have noticed that a number of Bucc' players and prospects have been listed in this ongoing series and there's a reason for that. Pittsburgh, the very definition of a "small market franchise," is obligated to find young, dollar-sensible athletes. But, by the time a player becomes an All-Star or top-tier talent his salary exceeds that which the Pirates can pay. As a "for-instance," Outfielder Jason Bay earned just over $350,000 last year and went "Super-freakin'-nova." The Pirate Outfielder raided all opposing pitching by hitting .306/32/101/110 with 21 SB (of 22 attempts) and the club, quite wisely, locked him up to a 4 year, $18.25 Milly' dollar deal. Pitt' will build around "their Bay," using him as a cornerstone and play youngsters such as 24 year old Catcher Ryan Doumit who is, undoubtedly, available in all but the deepest of leagues. Taken in the 2nd round of the '99 draft, Doumit's been stalked by the injury bug but after beginning last season in the Minors he received a June call-up, handled both himself, and the staff with the poise of a vet', and hit .255/6/35, with 13 Doubles and 1 Triple in 75 games behind the plate.
The threat of injury will impact the kid's draft value, at least until he proves himself durable. And, while his power numbers should increase his average will probably hover around the .275-.280 mark. In short, Ryan Doumit should be a very solid #2 fantasy backstop with the potential to be much more.

3. Atlanta Braves; Brian McCann: After starting receiver Johnny Estrada and backup Eddie Perez were both felled by injury last season, the organization had the fortuitous opportunity to audition 21 year old prospect Brian McCann. In just 180 plate appearances the rookie backstop "Wally Pipped" Estrada with a .278/5/23 season, allowing the team to bid farewell to the one-time .300 hitter.
An excellent defensive Catcher, McCann's already developed a veteran's demeanor behind the dish and has an excellent rapport with his staff. After spending a full off-season and spring with the parent club, he could be as good as .275/16/60 this year.

1ST BASEMEN:

1. Atlanta Braves; Adam LaRoche: An athlete I listed in last year's "1st Baseman; A Positional Analysis" and who I pushed like a shopping cart during the season as a "sneaky-good Waiver Wire grab," LaRoche's .258/20/78/53 rookie campaign was most encouraging.
During his 1st season with the big club LaRoche demonstrated excellent batting instincts by improving his average each successive month (aside from a .202 August), and by whalloping the ball at a .386 pace with 2-outs and RISP. That was the upside.
The downside? LaRoche's batting average was .310 during the months of September and August, but on the whole his numbers went into a discernible 2nd half slide. After starting the season by hitting .275/.478/.332, with 11 HRs and 52 Ribs', the young Brave hit .240/.426/.305, with 9 HRs and 26 Ribbies (in 43 fewer plate appearances) after the All-Star Break. While not quite night and day, the disparity is notable nonethless. And one other skewed stat' that warrants mention is Adam LaRoche's apparent inability to hit left-handed pitching. He hit Righty's at a respectable .268 clip but hit Lefty's at feeble .188 pace.
LaRoche is swatting a meager .100 this spring. However, given the fact that his swing would never be called "compact," it could take a little while for him to sharpen his timing. If you do gamble a pick on the Hot-Lanta 1st Bagger it would be wise to keep him "pine-lined" until he heats up at the dish, and that might not happen until May... so be patient.

Arizona Diamondbacks; 1B Conor Jackson: A collegiate 3B, Conor Jackson was expected to land in 'Zona last season but veteran 1B Tony Clark's stunning .304/30/87 season kept the youngster at Triple-A Tucson for most of the year and forced him to play LF when he finally DID come up. The "extra coat of paint" certainly didn't hurt Jackson, if anything the additional work bolstered his versatility and will help bear big league fruit.
A big man at 6-2/230, Jackson recorded 1 extra-base hit out of every 3 hits and walked twice as often as he struck-out. That kind of dish discipline is exceedingly rare and bodes awfully well for the future. So far this spring, and keep in mind that spring numbers hold little water with many league observers, Conor Jackson has hit the ball to all fields at a frantic .474 pace.
Yet another youngster with NL "Rook' of the Year" capability, the D-Backs are committed to starting Jackson and will stand by him this season. Look for the player to affirm the club's faith with a .290/15/75 '06.

2ND BASEMEN:

1. Chicago Cubs; Todd Walker: A professional hitter with a .290 career batting average and .441 career Slugging Percentage, "T-Walk" has lost significant chunks of each of the past 2 seasons to injury. In fact, the last time the current Cub played as many as 145 games was 2002.
And still, in just 110 contests last season Walker set, matched, or approached career numbers; his .305 BA was a career best, his .474 SLG % was second only to 00's .476, and his .355 OBP was bettered only by '98's mark of .372. Although Todd Walker is just 32, frankly he's an "old" 32 given his injury-checkered history and he probably amounts to nothing more than a fantasy backup at this point. Even so, a professional hitter with the ability to pound out a line of .301/12/60, Walker would constitute an excellent fantasy backup.
**NOTE: The Baltimore Orioles, perhaps due to concern over current 2B Brian Roberts' balky elbow, are discussing the possibility of a Luis Matos for Todd Walker trade. If that deal goes through, Walker will be slotted as the DH if Roberts is able to surmount his elbow issues, or serve as a backup if the incumbent's able to play at a satisfactory level. Either way, Todd Walker's value certainly takes a hit if the deal is consumated as Catcher Javy Lopez has been relegated to the DH slot by the acquisition of Ramon Hernandez, and the Balty' lineup isn't as good as Chicago's.
If Walker remains in Chicago, his value is excellent as he projects to be the starting 2nd sacker. Assuming such is the case, numbers resembling .293/18/60 would be attainable.

2. San Diego Padres; Josh Barfield: Son of former big league slugger Jesse Barfield, with the operative term being "big," young Josh Barfield is a svelte and speedy 2nd Baseman. After a .310/.450/.370, 15 HR, 25 Double, 72 Rib', 20 SB 2005 season at Triple-A, Barfield is secret no longer. The 23 year old Pad' has top of the order speed and skills to complement rapidly developing mid-order power.
Although he may still be as raw as Sushi, Barfield's time is now; .270/18/75, with 25 SB.

SHORTSTOPS:

1. Kansas City Royals; Angel Berroa: Berroa whetted fantasy owners appetites with a killer .287/17/73, 27 Double, 6 Triple, 21 SB 2003 campaign. Unfortunately, Angel followed-up his breakthrough season was a hellish, .262/8/43, 14 SB '04, and owners who were hoping that 2004 was merely a sophomore slump drew little comfort from a marginally improved .270/11/55, 7 SB '05.
The Kansas City Shorty' is a high strikeout, albeit spunky slap-hitter, but perhaps the 2nd half of last season is reason for hope. From the start of July through the end of the regular season, Berroa hit at a .300 clip with 6 of his 11 HRs, 37 of 55 RBIs, and a SLG % of almost .410. If Berroa, who's in no danger of losing his starting job, can use that success as a springboard... then it's not inconceivable that '06 could look very .280/15/65, 10 SB-ish.

2. Milwaukee Brewers; J.J Hardy: The new "Brew-Crew" is rife with young talent, and 1B Prince Fielder (.291/.569/.388, with 26 HRs, 21 Doubles and 8 "bags snagged" in just 103 Trip'-A games last year), 2B Rickie Weeks (.320/.655/.435, with 12 HRs, 14 Doubs', 9- 3 'baggers, and 10 SB in just 55 Trip'A games, then hit .239/13/42/56 15 SB in 96 games with the big club), and Hardy (.247/9/50/46 with 22 Doubles last season) form the core of this improving club.
Hardy was teetering on the brink of "bustdom" until a .308/.503/.363, 8 HR, 31 Rib' 2nd half salvaged his confidence and propelled him back up the prospect rankings.
Supported by a potentially outstanding, not to mention "sneaky-good," lineup... Hardy could one of the year's top Roto' surprises. Although the 23 year old SS's hitting a respectable .261 this spring, look for him to warm-up a bit and hit something close to .275/16/65, with a fistful of swiped bags this year, and possibly vault up the Shortstop rankings for '07.


3RD BASEMEN

1. Cleveland Indians; Aaron Boone: Boonie', perhaps you've heard of him? Hailing from a loooong line of "Diamond Dogs," the dude hurt himself playing pick-up Basketball over the summer of '03, confessed his sin to the Yankees, and was promptly cut by Boss Steinbrenner. Although Boone's candor was awfully refreshing, so much for "honesty being the best policy!" Cleveland proceeded to sign the out-of-work cornerman and, upon return from his knee injury, Boone rewarded the Indians with a .243/.299/.378 (Avg./OBP/SLG), 16/60 '05 "cam-pain." But as bad as Boone's .211/.362/.266 1st half was, the club wisely stuck by him and he responded with a vastly improved .276/.394/.336 2nd half. Whether his confidence had taken a knock or he was simply out of game shape matters not, Aaron Boone showed some spark, passion and life, and seemingly has a couple of productive seasons left. Currently enjoying a BIG spring (.440/4/7), Boonie' managed to fend off a challenge from highly regarded 3B prospect Andy Marte and his experience and calm locker room presence will aid the development of promising young players such as OF'er Grady Sizemore, C Victor Martinez, and SS Jhonny Peralta (who obviously needs to be told that he spells his name incorrectly!).
Without looking for miracles, look for .265/19/65; good enough to be a fantasy backup or injury replacement.

2. Chicago White Sox; Joe Crede: Both player and team have been eagerly awaiting a breakthrough season since... like, 2001, but injuries and streaky play have hampered Crede from achieving his goal. Finally, after exemplary post-season (.289/4/11) play and an extensive off-season rehab' program designed to strengthen a potentially troublesome disc issue, Crede's sitting on the very cusp of his breakout campaign. Surrounded by a World Series winning cast and in the best shape of his career, I have Crede pegged for an All-Star caliber season and will ambitiously project .289/27/85.

OUTFIELDERS:

1. Oakland A's; Nick Swisher: Although his average took a header last summer, falling from a "July high" of .278 to a .187 "why remember?" September,, Swisher offers 25-28 Dinger' power and 85 Ribbie po'.

Friday, March 17, 2006

FANTASY BASEBALL; YOUNG PITCHERS YOU SHOULD KNOW!

UPDATED ON MONDAY, 3/20!

Every owner will see at least one pitcher fall to injury or slog through an off-season, and often times several pitchers are simultaneously DL'ed or mired in slumps. Experienced owners know that's just the nature of Roto-ball. But, as opposed to throwing up your hands and hurling curses at the cruel fantasy Gods, as satisfying as that may be, be a boy scout! That is, "BE PREPARED!"

What follows is a brief list of young guns who have the potential to make a fantasy splash this season. Some are worth drafting... and others are just worth keeping an eye on. In addition, there will always be the odd Chien-Ming Wang, Aaron Small, Jeff Francis or John Patterson who either explodes onto the scene or emerges during the season. If you feel good about a pitcher or any player for that matter, don't hesitate to go with your gut and grab him!
Follow the "Golden 'Wire Rule;" cut the player whose production won't be missed, or cut the player who can't be used to beat you to a "win, place or show finish."

**Please note that not everyone will agree with all of these selections and, like each installment, this is but a tool. A tool to be used in conjunction with your own careful research and draft cheat-sheets! And, while a guy like Brandon McCarthy may not be on your radar that does NOT mean that he's lacking in potential. Likewise, if I've omitted a youngster who you believe will make an impact on the fantasy landscape... don't hesitate to grab him and play him, or stash him if it's his upside that appeals to you.
Astute owners know when to grab such guys, and accordingly when to "sell high," if need be, and use them to aid in their fantasy cup quests.

1. Seattle Mariners; "King" Felix Hernandez: Anointed "King Felix" by his teammates, all opposing batters bowed before Hernandez's greatness at one point or another last year. The Mariner fireballer started 12 games in '05, and proceeded to post a 4-4 record with an ERA of 2.67, a microscopic WHIP of 1.00, and 77 Ks in 84.1 IP. Hernandez's .500 record is a reflection of the poor run support he received and not a manifestation of his pitching. How great was the King last year? Consider that opposing batters hit just 3 Home Runs and notched a .203 average against him, and just 1 batter reached base per every 9 Innings of work. That's impressive stuff for any pitcher, all the more remarkable given that Hernandez is just 19.
Supported by a marginally improved offense, hopes for a 20 Win season should be curbed. Nevertheless, Felix Hernandez has been compared to "a young Dwight Gooden," called "the best pitcher to enter Baseball in over 20 years," and based upon his own talent alone the boy King looks like a 15 Win, a sub 3 ERA, one Strikeout per inning talent. In short, a fantasy stud.

2. Pittsburgh Pirates; Zach Duke: When "one" thinks of the Pittsburgh sports scene, "one" tends to think of QB Ben Roethlisberger and his fellow SuperBowl winning Steelers, or perhaps "one" might conjure images of Penguins of yore Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr patrolling the ice. But alas "one," who's apparently quite the sports fan, will NOT draw images of excellent Baseball and top tier Pitching... until, perhaps, the young Buccs' get to make their respective marks! Zach Duke certainly made an impression as a rookie last year, blowing through opposing lineups like Barry Bonds does interviews; with all the patience and grace of a bull in a China shop. Duke was un-freakin'-conscious over the span of his 14 starts, mixing a "restaurant quality" Fastball and knee-buckling Curve to compile an 8-2 record, with an ERA of 1.81 and 58 punchouts in 84.2 IP. Arguably one of the 3 best young hurlers in all of Baseball, Duke is currently Pitts' #2 starter. But, should '04 phenom Ollie Perez flounder again, Duke will claim the top of the rotation for himself.
With more offensive talent than many people realize providing him with run support, a 15 Win, 3.10 ERA, 140 K season is not a preposterous projection.

3. Detroit Tigers; Justin Verlander: The #2 overall pick from the 2004 draft, Verlander absolutely minced Minor League competition last season. At Double-A Erie, "JV" accrued a teeny-tiny, nearly impossible to see ERA of 0.28 (NOT a misprint!), an equally miniscule WHIP of 0.58, awarded just 7 free passes and struck-out 32 batters in precisely 32 innings.
Verlander offers impeccable control, a mid-90's Heater, and a plus Curve. Although he has the 5th spot in the Tiger rotation locked, the early spring returns have been iffy at best. Verlander's control has wavered and he served-up some fat pitches to the Phillies. In fact, young Phil' 1st Bagger Ryan Howard apparently put one Justin Verlander offering into a low-Earth orbit.
A solid Sleeper, keep an eye on how the rest of the spring shakes out. Assuming he sticks, and it looks like he will, Verlander will contribute Strikeouts and innings pitched, but his Wins and ERA should be low and high respectively.

4. San Francisco Giants; Matt Cain: Cain came up and started a lucky-7 games for the boys by the Bay last year, going 2-1, with 30 Ks, 19 BBs, and a 2.33 ERA in 46.1 innings pitched. And yet even after that rather lengthy audition, Cain's... uhm, able to qualify as a rookie. Awfully mature for a 22 year old, the young Giant has command of 3 pitches including a mid-90's Fastball.
One of a very few rookie hurlers with the potential to make an appreciable fantasy impact, Matt Cain could be 15 Wins, 3.30 ERA good!

5. Chicago White Sox: Bobby Jenks: Jenks is no secret to anyone who followed Baseball last season. The Angels tried to sneak him through Waivers over the '04 off-season and you've gotta' wonder if the Los Angeles of Anaheim (worst name in pro sports) brass experienced some sort of collective brain injury. Bobby Jenks has certainly suffered his share of injuries and stints on the DL (primarily stress injuries), but 6-3/240 Closers who can touch triple-digits on the radar gun are rare commodities indeed.
A late-season fantasy grab last year, Jenks rewarded those owners who snatched him off of the 'Wire in handsome fashion by saving 6 contests, posting an ERA of 2.75, and blowing away 50 batters in just 39.1 IP. This year Jenks is looking to turn the corner, cross into the blue, and become an elite Closer. Although the dude possesses 45+/100+ (Save/Strikeouts) ability, I don't think he'll be quite that good this year. Assuming he stays healthy, a 40 Save, 85 K, 3.15 ERA campaign is certainly within reach, however.

6. Baltimore Orioles; Chris Ray: After B.J Ryan defected to the rival Blue Jays and Rodrigo Lopez headed to NY, the Oriole management thoroughly and completely misjudged the Closer market. And, after failing to land a proven arm, new pitching coach and some would say "magician," Leo Mazzone will try and mold 24 year old Chris Ray into a viable, go-to 9th inning guy.

7. Minnesota Twins; Francisco Liriano: Duking it out with fellow prospect Scott Baker for the 5th and final spot in the Minny' rotation, Francisco Liriano made a strong case for himself by pitching lights-out ball (ERA of 1.69 and 8 Ks in 5.1 IP) in the World Baseball Classic. A global event, mind you, that has been watched by "tens upon tens of Americans."
The game's 6th ranked prospect as determined by "Baseball America," although Liriano's history of shoulder troubles has given the Twins pause for thought a Fastball that explodes through the zone, a Slider that brushes 88 MPH, a rapidly improving change-up, and a Minor League leading 112 Strike-outs lead manager Ron Gardenhire to believe that the young-gun has top of the rotation stuff. The Twins, concerned that Liriano didn't receive enough work during the WBC and is thus lacking in arm strength, will probably err on the side of caution and send him down to Triple-A to begin the season. Do not expect the Twins' top-ranked pitching prospect to remain on the farm for long, though. Francisco Liriano will likely be called up by June and serve as a long reliever and spot starter, and should Baker struggle or one of the other Twin starters fall to injury, Liriano will immediately be installed in the rotation.

8. St. Louis Cardinals; Anthony Reyes: With a virtual flock of Cardinals blocking his flight to the Majors, starter Anthony Reyes bided his time in the Minors... and blew away opposing batters at an eye-popping pace. At Triple-A Memphis last season, Reyes started 12 games (including 2 complete games), and went 7-6 with a 3.64 ERA and a WHIP of 1.08. What should catch your attention is the following; 136 punchouts and a mere 34 free passes in 128.2 IP. This cat was as hot as Texas asphalt in August!
So far this spring, though, Reyes hasn't looked particularly sharp, and newcomer Sidney Ponson is eager to lock-up the 5th and final spot in the rotation. Rest assured that Reyes, who is just 24 and has bright promise as a commanding strikeout pitcher, will find his way to the bigs by mid-season at the latest and is yet another top-tier sleeper starter.

9. Minnesota Twins; Scott Baker: The second of the twin Twin pitching prospects, Baker may be a bit further ahead in terms of conditioning but Liriano's the more talented of the two. Alas, Scott Baker's development will secure him the final spot in Minnesota's rotation... for now.
The 24 year old Baker was like a human ricochet last season, bouncing between the Minors, starting rotation, and bullpen with head-spinning frequency. But, after becoming a permanent pitching fixture by summer's end, Baker found his groove and went 3-3, with an ERA of 3.35, a WHIP of 1.16, and gave up just 5 Home Runs in 53.2 IP.
So far this spring the kids' been on fire, yielding 1 run on 4 hits, 2 BBs and 1K in 3 IP, with an ERA of 1.59. He throws 4 pitches, including a filthy Slider that serves as an "out pitch," and is much tougher on Lefty's (1.90 ERA) than Right-handers (4.50 ERA). Expect him to cling to his starting job by his fingernails...

10. Pittsburgh Pirates; Paul Maholm: Maholm had his '04 season ruined when a seeing-eye line drive found its way to his eye and broke his orbital bone. But the 7th overall pick in the 2003 draft showed great moxie when he got back on the mound last season and worked his way up the Minor League chain, reclaiming his place with the big club by August. Accordingly, Maholm went 3-1 in his 6 starts and notched an outstanding ERA of 2.18, a terrific WHIP of 1.16, and surrendered just 10 ERs and 2 long balls in 41+innings of work.
So far this spring the 23 year old Pirate prodigy, who has 4 pitches at his beck and call, has induced an awful lot of groundball outs and became the first Pitt' arm to go at least 5 innings deep. Considered a notch below talents such as Seattle's Felix Hernandez and Giant Matt Cain by certain internet fantasy analysts, Maholm is an excellent sleeper candidate nonetheless, and a 12 win, 3.75-4.00 ERA season is not out of the realm of possibility.

11. Chicago White Sox; Brandon McCarthy: A red-hot prospect at this time last year, the 22 year old Sock started 10 games in '05, going 3-2 with a 4.03 ERA and WHIP of 1.18. After several poor outings, the Chicago coaching staff stopped comparing McCarthy to a "young Black Jack McDowell."
After having his delivery thoroughly re-tooled over the off-season, McCarthy feels better than ever and is excited about his prospects for the coming year. He's going to start working out of the 'Pen as the Series winning Sox have no need for another starter, but McCarthy is a kid to keep an eye on.
For the immediate future he looks like a "beast or famine" pitcher; top of the rotation stuff with Bullpen fantasy numbers. Unless... or until, one of the White Sox starters is felled by misfortune, McCarthy's value will be marginal. But, if he's inserted into the starting ro' and receives a dozen or more starts you could be looking at an 8 W', 3.75 ERA kinda' pitcher.

12. NY Yankees; Philip Hughes: The Yankees' top prospect according to "Baseball America" (and they DO know their stuff) Hughes, who went 9-1 with a 2.19 ERA and 93 Ks in 86.1 IP at Class A last year, has already been sent down to Double-A Trenton. But, manager Joe Torre and Pitching Coach Ron Guidry are positively giddy with excitement over his future. Hughes is an imposing mound presence at 6-5 and with a big time curve, above average Fastball, and poise that belies his age (19), Hughes' future will soon be upon us.
Of course, it would take a remarkable confluence of misfortune to force the club to promote him to the Majors, but a late summer or early-September call-up is not out of the question. Those of you who belong to deep, DEEP, Keeper Leagues might consider expending a late, LATE round flyer on Phil Hughes and stashing him away for next season. Those owners who did the same with Seattle ace Felix Hernandez last season are looking at a possible 18 game winner this year.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

FANTASY BASEBALL; ROOKIES YOU SHOULD KNOW!

When competing against knowledgeable opponents, winning your fantasy league is no small feat. It's challenging, rewarding, and time consuming. Savvy owners are aware that winning a fantasy Baseball season requires a deft hand when managing a roster; knowing when to start a given pitcher and when to sit him, and knowing which position players enjoy more favorable matchups. Naturally, before you even get to that point having a solid draft is an imperative. I had a crazy uncle who used to say, "Jamey, you can't make Champagne from a tub of tomatoes." (Told you he was off his rocker) Likewise, a squad of backups and fringe starters won't win you a Rotisserie Championship.
However, injuries, slumps and "off" seasons are a part of the game... and so is the Waiver Wire!

With the aforementioned injuries and slumps come spring surprises as well, and grabbing a young prospect... even one, can help propel a team upwards in the standings.

Let's take a look at some of the brightest prospects in the game; athletes who are expected to make a difference this season.

POSITION PLAYERS:

1. Florida Marlins; OF'er Jeremy Hermida: Last August, the '02 1st round draft pick became the first player in over a century to uncork a Grand Slam in his 1st big league AB. And, while he may never be accused of being a speed merchant, Hermida's an instinctual base runner who went 23 for 25 in SB attempts in Double-A ball last season.
A well-disciplined hitter, it seems that Hermida has already cemented a spot for himself in the Marlin Outfield. That being said, the Marlins are an iffy offensive team and while he's a more than capable batsman... Hermida's numbers may be marginal due to the lack of talent surrounding him.
Nevertheless, the 22 year old LF'er should be in the thick of the hunt for NL Rookie of the Year award, and should be a worthy fantasy OF'er; .280/18/70, with 18 SB.
**NOTE: Hermida has struggled at the plate all spring and is currently hitting just .219. Although the Marlins expect his bat to heat-up keep an eye on his numbers if you intend to draft him... and don't hesitate to drop him a round or 2 if his frustrations continue.

2. Atlanta Braves; OF'er Jeff Francouer: The young Brave made quite a splash when he received an early July call-up, obliterating opposing pitching at a ridiculous .413/.913/.413 pace, with a 1326 OPS and 6 Homers', 5 Doubles, and 16 Ribbies' in just 15 games. July was quite a month for those owners who were astute enough to snatch Francouer offa' the 'Wire, and the Atlanta phenom concluded his rookie campaign with 13 Outfield Assists, 2nd only to Cliff Floyd, and a line of .300/14/45. While some sites and mags' believe Francouer will see a correction in his numbers, I'm more of a "glass 1/2 full kinda' guy" and I believe that, with a full off-season and spring with the big club under his belt, Jeff Francouer will again approach last season's production.
A sophomore campaign of .290/26/90 is not beyond his reach.

3. Tampa Bay Devil Rays; OF'er Delmon Young: Detroit Tiger Dmitri Young's "little bro," Delmon has Dmitri's size but possesses much greater talent. Inked straight out of High School "D-Train" was placed on the fast-track and he D-molished and D-railed opposing pitching at Double-A Montgomery last season, whalloping a .336/.582/.386 line, with 20 Homers, 13 Doubles, 4 Triples, and 71 RBIs. Strong enough to knock the white off of the ball, Delmon's looked good at the plate thus far this spring and has locked-up a starting gig. A 3-category contributor at the least, .280/18/60 should be about right... and that's barely tapping into Young's rare ability!
**NOTE: 'Train is the kind of player who comes along perhaps once every 25 years or so, and he has the potential to make a HUGE fantasy impact this season.

4. Arizona Diamondbacks; 1B Conor Jackson: A collegiate 3B, Conor Jackson was expected to land in 'Zona last season but veteran 1B Tony Clark's stunning .304/30/87 season kept Jackson at Triple-A Tucson for most of the year and forced him to play LF when he finally DID come up. The "extra coat of paint" certainly didn't hurt Jackson, if anything the additional work bolstered his versatility and will help bear big league fruit.
A big man at 6-2/230, Jackson recorded 1 extra-base hit out of every 3 hits and walked twice as often as he struck-out. That kind of dish discipline is exceedingly rare and bodes awfully well for the future. So far this spring, and keep in mind that spring numbers hold little water with many league observers, Conor Jackson has hit the ball to all fields at a frantic .474 pace.
Yet another youngster with NL "Rook' of the Year" capability, the D-Backs are committed to starting Jackson and will stand by him this season. Look for the player to affirm the club's faith with a .290/15/75 '06.

5. Florida Marlins; C/OF'er Josh Willingham: A solid fantasy sleeper, Willingham's path to the plate was paved when former starting Catcher Paul Lo Duca fled to NY. Although veteran Miguel Olivo is making a run at the starting job, Willingham is a much stronger hitter as evidenced by his '05 Triple-A production. In 66 games and 219 ABs Willingham recorded 71 hits; 19 balls left the park, 14 went for Doubles, 3 were Triples, and he went on to etch a .324/.676/.455 line. The knock on the 27 year old Catcher is his suspect defense, but that's a significant criticism. Manager Joe Girardi, a former Catcher himself, is quite understandably a stickler for "behind the plate excellence." Still, Willingham isn't getting any younger, he could see time at 1st Base, and frankly the Marlins' iffy O could use his bat.
While I don't think he'll make quite the same impact on his team that some of the other young players will have upon theirs, Josh Willingham could still be an excellent #2 catcher and turn in a .255/17/50 season.

6. Milwaukee Brewers; 1B Prince Fielder: Former Major Leaguer Cecil Fielder's "little boy," ain't nothin' little about Prince. At 6-0/260 Fielder cuts quite a figure, and woe is the Shortstop attempting to turn the DP or the Catcher looking to block the plate once Cecil's baby-boy has a full head of steam going! Just 21, Fielder has always been a punishing hitter however his defense has been problematic. But, after honing his D and working to turn baby fat into mature muscle while in the Minors, Fielder looks to be the Brewers' '06 starting 1st Baseman. Another year of Minor League work wouldn't have hurt young master Fielder, but after watching their prize prospect "go medieval" on Trip'-A pitching; .291/28/86 with 8 swiped bags and a Slugging % .569 in just 103 games, the team dealt former 1B Lyle Overbay and cleared the way for their young Prince.
Fielder does need to sharpen his batting eye as he fanned approximately once per every 4 ABs, but the potential Home Run champ' is a key cog in Milwaukee's rebuilding plan... and that future begins this year!
An excellent #2 fantasy 1st Baseman or "Utility Player," Prince Fielder projects for a .275/26/75 season... and perhaps even better.

7. LA Angels of Sub-Saharan California and Anaheim; SS Brandon Wood: Wood was reassigned to the minors on Wednesday, 3/15, but do not expect him to remain there for very long. One of Baseball's top 15 prospects, Wood turned 21 earlier this month and looks to be just an injury or extended slump away from being called up. A sneaky bench stash, Wood whacked 43 Dingers' and a downright silly 51 Doubles while at High-A Rancho Cucamonga last season, and has All-Star ability. It's difficult to forecast anything for Wood right now so I won't. Just keep an eye on the Minor League reports and if Brandon Wood IS promoted... don't hesitate to grab him if you have need of a Shortstop.

8. Milwaukee Brewers; 2B Rickie Weeks: Weeks, the 2nd Milwaukee player to make this list, is just one of several sub-25 year olds expected take the new "Brew-crew" to the next level. And, much like his teammate Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks made short work of Minor League pitching last year. A blossoming power hitter with 30 HR/30 SB po', the 2nd overall pick in the '03 draft hit a scorching .320/.655/.435 last year, and out of 65 totalbase hits a ridiculous 35 went for extra-bases. But while challenging, Triple-A pitching remains a far cry from big league pitching and Weeks had his troubles at the Major League level last season, hitting .239/13/42, with 96 strikeouts in 360 ABs.
Last season aside, Rickie Weeks' average WILL improve and, at an awfully thin position this season, he looks to be a top 10 fantasy 2nd Baseman. Surrounded by an intriguing mix of promising youngsters (1B Fielder and SS J.J Hardy) and veteran bats (OF'ers Geoff Jenkins and Carlos Lee, and 3B Corey Koskie), .270/19/65 with 30 thieved bags could be on the conservative side.

9. Arizona Diamondbacks; SS Stephen Drew: On a list that already boasts one child and one "little" brother, I'm tossing another sib' out there; J.D Drew's 23 year old brother, Stephen. While injuries have prevented J.D, who was the recipient of a great deal of hype when he broke into the league, from developing into the kind of player scouts and baseball "people" thought he'd be Stephen's ceiling is even higher!
Initially it was thought that the younger Drew would be moved to the Outfield, but it's looking increasingly likely that he'll remain a Shortstop. In turn, it was also believed that Stephen would play Triple-A ball and receive a mid-late summer call-up, but Craig Counsell's bum shoulder has afforded him the chance to stay with the big 'Backs. Although Stephen Drew probably won't make as big a fantasy splash this season as some of the previously mentioned players, if he sticks with the big club and plays in as many as 120... pencil the gamer in for .275/22/75. And with his talent, if Stephen Drew is afforded the opportunity those figures could even be on the shy side..

10. NY Mets; OF'er Lastings Milledge: GM Omar Minaya has spent a LOT of money and assembled a talented cast of mashers for manager Willie Randolph to play with, but the starting rotation... eh', they could go either way. One thing Minaya did not do was draft the "toolsy" OF'er Lastings Milledge. Pre-dating the Minaya era, Milledge's game is based on speed and contact, and the '03 12th overall draft pick hit .318/8/46 with a SLG % of .452, an OBP of .389, and 29 steals between Doub'-A Binghamton and High-A St. Lucie last season.
While he'll likely start '06 in the Minors due to the Mets' embarrassment of Outfield riches, contingent upon how he fares a late-season cup of coffee or injury call-up is not out of the question. Not yet 22, Milledge has ample time to gain some High-A seasoning... and maturity. Adventurous owners belonging to "Dynasty" or deep, DEEP ongoing Keeper leagues might be inclined to gamble a late/last round flyer on Milly' and stash him away. Possessing great speed and the ability to make contact, the future leadoff hitter will be surrounded by a po-tent Met lineup and could eventually become a .300/15/40/95 40 SB player.

11. Washington Nationals; 3B Ryan Zimmerman: A big (6-3/220), nimble, defensively gifted 3rd Bagger, the Nats' took Zimm' with the 4th overall pick in last year's draft and his value varies dramatically predicated upon who you talk to. Considered an early favorite for the NL Rookie of the Year award by some... and that's high praise given that the National League is positively overflowing with gifted young arms and position players, Zimmerman's also been called "nothing more than a .260-.270/15-20 Home Run Hitter" by others. The fact is, the 22 year old corner infielder began the '05 season by systematically dismantling AA pitching (.326./.528/.371), and finished the year by playing 20 games with his big league brethren. In those 20 games Zimmerman really caught manager Frank Robinson's attention by hitting .397/.569/.416, with 10 of his 58 hits going for Doubles. Robinson recently stated that he feels Zimmerman could develop into a 30-40 Homer hitter, but there's nothing in the young player's history that indicates he'll develop that kind of power, and cavernous RFK Stadium will undoubtedly work against him.
So far this spring, though, Ryan Zimmerman's acquitted himself quite well at both the plate and in the field, and should be considered an excellent fantasy sleeper.
While I don't see the Nat' 3rd Sacker crushing 30 Homers' this season, a .280/20/75 campaign would not be an unreasonable projection. And if Robinson's correct, Ryan Zimmerman could be as good as .289/26/85 this season.

Monday, March 13, 2006

FANTASY BASEBALL'S CLOSERS!

As draft day nears for many leagues, and has even passed us by in others, I have elected to write much smaller blurbs for "Fantasy Baseball's Closers!"
Nonetheless, I have provided you with all you'll need to make an informed Closer choice!

An owner will look for 40+ Saves from a #1 fantasy Closer. In addition, look for an athlete with a low WHP and ERA, playing for a club that can afford him with ample run support. Owners will be able to draw from a fairly deep crop of fantasy Closers this season, and assuming you draft wisely... there's no reason you shouldn't walk away from your fantasy draft with 2 solid, shut-the-door type Closers.
For those of you who belong to leagues that tally "holds," the pool is even deeper!

FANTASY BASEBALL'S TOP CLOSERS!

1. Los Angeles Angels of Northern and Sub-Saharan California; Francisco Rodriguez: K-Rod benefits from both strong run support and Anaheim's fair-sized stadium. Nonetheless, the Angel Closer has a knee-buckling breaking ball and after serving as a set-up man for 2 seasons, knows his oppositions strengths and weaknesses.
An elite Closer, K-Rod is just 24 and bolstered by the Angel O he could even improve upon his 4-5, 45 Save, 91 K, 2.67 ERA, 67.1 IP '05 campaign. While he might notch another Save or two, 47 is probably K-Rod's "Save ceiling." Look for those improvements to be in his ERA and WHP.

2. NY Yankees; Mariano Rivera: After exploding onto the Baseball scene as the set-up man for John Wetteland, Mo' became the full-fledged Yankee Closer in '97... and hasn't looked back. The Cooperstown-bound hurler should garner his 400th "S" this season, has mowed-down 728 batters over the span of his 11 season career, and has a lifetime ERA of 2.33. To put it succinctly, NY wouldn't be nearly so dominant without Rivera. Trotting to the mound in hallowed Yankee Stadium to the delicate strains of Metallica, "Sandman" has been putting foes "to sleep" as the exclusive Yankee Closer for 9 seasons now. Last year Mo' saved 43 games and allowed a total of 2 Homers' in 78.1 innings, and this year, with this reinvigorated offense at his back, another 45 Saves (give or take 3) should be added to his exhaustive resume by season's end.

3. Houston Astros; Brad Lidge: With a salary of just $500,000, Astro Closer Brad Lidge may be the best bargain in Baseball! Lidge can throw an array of pitches and rumor has it he added a nasty split-finger to the arsenal over the off-season. In terms of fantasy value? Dude blew just 4 Saves in 46 chances, notched an ERA of just 2.29, whiffed a ridiculous 103 batters in 70.2 IP, and recorded a microscopic WHIP of 1.15. In sum, Lidge is a multi-category "close-the-door" stud. Although he admittedly floundered in the playoffs by losing 3 games in 4 Post-C' appearances, that has no impact upon his fantasy value... and that's really all we're concerned with, isn't it.
A remarkably durable pitcher and strikeout machine, look for another 42 Save, 100+ K season.

4. NY Mets; Billy Wagner: To be fair, $43 Mill' would tempt virtually anyone. For Wagner, it was a no-brainer. Met manager Willie Randolph may have a creaky, aging, iffy starting rotation, but in former Phillie Billy... he has a no-doubt about it game-ender!
In his 2 seasons as a Phill', Wagner converted 59 of 66 chances with a sub-2.00 ERA (1.96 for you stat' geeks), including last year's ill 1.51 ERA over a whopping 77+ IP. Even more impressive? Over the past 3 seasons, Wagner has notched a remarkable ERA of 1.83 and recorded 103 Saves in 113 chances.
All of that aside, Billy Wagner isn't as sturdy as some of your other Closer options and it wouldn't be a stunner if Flushing's most significant off-season sign spends some of '06 on the DL. Also, the suspect Met rotation must be taken into consideration when mulling Wagner's po'. Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine and Steve Trachsel may all be eligible for AARP cards and "Senior Blue-Plate Specials" next year, and after that aging troika come incomparables Aaron Heilman and "Big" Vic' Zambrano. The Mets WILL rue their decision to deal promising Scott Kazmir.
Anyway, assuming Wags' can stay healthy 38-42 Saves and an ERA of 2.30 should be about right.

5. Los Angeles Dodgers of Los Angeles!; Eric Gagne: Although slotting Gagne here is certainly a bit of a risk, talk of his demise proved to be premature. A balky knee caused Gagne to alter his mechanics during spring training last season and that led to... well, a fantasy-tragedy.
On the morning of surgery, Gagne was under the impression that he was undergoing the Tommy John procedure. Fortunately, however, when the surgeon opened Gagne's elbow he found the extensive surgery, and its even lengthier recovery period, to be unnecessary. Instead, Gagne had a "simple" ligament reattachment. Now, the Dodger Closer who set a Major League record by banking 84 consecutive Saves is expected to be ready by Opening Day. He certainly looked good against the Orioles last Wednesday, retiring the side in the 5th on 5 pitches.
Coming off of a still-serious elbow surgery and at age 30 Gagne offers high risk and high reward. Nevertheless, the Dodgers should be good enough to put the ball in Gagne's mitt 50 or so times this season.
Again, the risk is high... but the reward might be as sweet as a 40 Save, 95 strikeout campaign.

6. Washington Nationals; Chad Cordero: Sports is rife with irony; "can't-miss" studs turn to "can't hit" duds, journeyman players find homes and become perennial All-Stars, and lousy teams develop an "us against them" mentality and become Post-Season darlings. Last spring, manager Frank Robinson was single-minded in his intent to go "Closer by committee." That is, until a virtual "who dat?" hurler broke-out and locked-up the Closer's job. Chad Cordero made Robinson look like a genius, posting an utterly brilliant 47 Save, 1.82 ERA, .97 WHP season. The only criticism one may have of Cordero's freshman Closer campaign was 7 Blown Saves. Even still, the Nationals have an elite level Closer earning a meager $346,000. Rest-assured, should "CC" enjoy another season such as he did last year it will result in a new contract that pays him a multiple of his current wage.
And that brings us to our next point, Cordero's season. In one of last season's positional reviews I stated that "the Nats' have far more talent than many realize..." Indeed they do, and although the starting rotation could go either way this season the 8th and 9th innings are in excellent hands. Look for another top-notch year; 41 Saves and an ERA of 2.29.

7. Minnesota Twins; Joe Nathan: Last year, Nathan's Save total fell by 1 (from '04) and his ERA rose by almost a full point. However, he also racked-up a 7-4 record, 94 Ks in just 70 innings pitched, blew a mere 5 Save opps', and his ERA of 2.70 wasn't exactly garish, ya' know?
This coming year Nathan's value should remain precisely where it is; top-10 material. A "steady-Eddy" fantasy Closer, look for another 2.85, 40 Save, 90 K year.

8. Chicago White Sox; Bobby Jenks What were the Angels thinking when they tried to sneak Jenks through waivers in December of '04? Sure, there were some in the organization who questioned his ability to remain healthy (Jenks was forced to shut it down 3 times during '03 and '04), but 6-3/240 Closers possessing the ability to throw a 3-digit Fastball are rare commodities indeed! The Sox promptly snatched him up and Jenks responded with an eye-opening late-season audition in which he locked-up the Closer job and blew-away all comers... and batters.
Owner of a mitt-popping fastball, when Jenks has his 12-6 curve working he's downright unhittable. Last year, the hulking Closer spun White Sock manager Ozzie Guillen's head clear around when, in just 39.1 innings pitched, he went 1-1 with 6 Saves, posted an ERA of 2.75, and "sat" 50 batters. Jenks was absolutely luminous during the post-season as well, earning 4 Saves in 5 chances with an ERA of 2.25, allowing just 4 hits and striking out 8 in 8 IP.
Although Bobby Jenks has an injury-checkered past he remains a rare talent, he's supported by a World Series winning club, and has 40+ Save, 100+ K potential. This coming season, though, look for a more humble 38 Saves, an ERA of around 3.10, and 80 or so Ks.

9. Oakland A's; Huston Street: The A's thought they had a legit' Closer in hard-throwing Octavio Dotel who, in '04, recorded 36 Saves and 122 Ks in just 85 IP. But after a poor outing against the mighty Red Sock bats in May of last season, Dotel began to complain of elbow pain and subsequently went on the DL.
Contrary to the opinions of no less than 4 surgeons, not to mention the wishes of his team, Dotel elected to undergo Tommy John surgery. The A's, understandably irked by the jerk, parted ways with Octavio (Dotel has expressed zero desire to return to a Closer's role and, now in the Yankee bullpen, looks to be a very solid middle reliever/7th-8th inning guy) and that uhm, "paved the way" for Huston Street! Street rolled with the opportunity, going on to a 5-1, 23 Save, 1.72 ERA, 1.01 WHP, 72 K, 78.1 IP campaign. A campaign, mind you, that won him "AL Rookie of the Year" honors. Perhaps more impressive is the fact that opposing teams hit just .194 off of him, with a scant 3 Home Runs.
Already one of the game's dominant Closers, Street doesn't blow-away batters. Rather, he relies upon location, guile, and a filthy Slider. Although the current A' rotation may not be as good as the Zito, Hudson, Mulder, and Harden staff of '04, the current cast of Harden, Zito, Haren, Loaiza, and Blanton, coupled with a solid core of position players, should put Street in position for a 40 Save, 2.25 ERA, 75 K '06.

10. Toronto Blue Jays; B.J Ryan: This past off-season saw several aging (see "veteran" according to they and their agents!) Closers (namely, Todd Jones and Billy Wagner) secure "mega-buck" contracts. Of that group, former Oriole B.J Ryan pocketed a cool $47 million for 5 seasons. Ryan is already 30, and I'd be stunned if the guy actually goes the distance of his deal. Nonetheless, Ryan has accrued only light mileage and went 1-4 with 36 Saves and an ERA of 2.43 in 70.1 IP last season. A multi-category Closer, Toronto's 9th inning man should record a low WHP, modest ERA, and should shake-out to be a solid #1-ish Closer. Pencil B.J in for a 38 Save, 95 K, 2.80 ERA season.


"On the Way Up!"

1. Bobby Jenks: One of the game's brightest lights, Jenks can really "bring it" and when his ill curve is working... the best batters haven't a chance against him. The sole concern is, of course, the Sox Closer's history of injury.
Owners must hope that Jenks' penchant for stress injuries is squarely in the rear-view mirror.

2. Baltimore Orioles; Chris Ray: Balty' was using 24 year old Chris Ray as a starter, but had him ear-marked for the Closer's job... one day. Alas, with B.J Ryan's defection to the land of "Baseball, Ay?" (Canada) comes unproven Chris Ray's ascension.
The O's had no intentions of giving the youngster so much responsibility so quickly, but when they were unable to land a proven arm during the off-season... well, ready or not here Chris comes! The hard truth is, the Orioles thoroughly mishandled their pursuit of a Closer and Chris Ray is almost a measure of last resort. Still, the former starter has command of 3 pitches; a high 90's fastball, a Splitter and a slider. An outstanding "sleeper" candidate, the erstwhile Oriole Closer has excelled in limited spring opportunities.
Although there is some chance that Baltimore acquires a more experienced hurler, Ray, who averages roughly 1K per inning, could turn into a super-sneaky fantasy Closer. Tentatively, as there's little to go on, I'm projecting 31 Saves, 80 Ks, and an ERA of 3.25.


"Sleepers"

1. Chris Ray: With Balty' unwisely ignoring the Closer spot until it was too late, Chris Ray gets the ball by default. Really, "de" GM's fault!

2. Kansas City Royals; Ambiorix Burgos: Should incumbent Mike MacDougal struggle, Burgos, who blew-away 65 batters in 63.1 innings will get the first look.

3. Florida Marlins; Travis Bowyer: The Marlins acquired the hard-throwing right-hander as part of the Luis Castillo deal. Bowyer, 24, does throw gas (he can touch 99 on the gun), but at this point that's about all he throws. In conjunction, he struggles with his location and needs to develop a complementary pitch.
As of today, Travis Bowyer is worth stashing away if you belong to a deep, DEEP league. Veteran Closer Joe Borowski will get the ball in the 9th, however, Bowyer should start the year as the primary set-up man, he'll get some "holds," and could even move into the Closer's role if his command and repetoire improve.

"On the Way Down!"

1. Boston Red Sox; Keith Foulke: A pair of knee injuries and a duo of surgeries later, Foulke has trouble standing let alone pitching. Unless he starts to unleash hell... an owner would be wise to stay away from Keith 'cause I think his career's "Foulked!"

2. Detroit Tigers; Todd Jones: the dude rediscovered his youth last season, but at 38... Jones could break down at virtually any moment. While he certainly rates a bench spot as he's the current starter, I'd look for another #1 and even #2 Closer elsewhere first.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

FANTASY BASEBALL'S TOP CATCHERS!

Continuing our journey around the fantasy diamond, the Catcher... the backstop. Oftentimes given little credit, a top-notch receiver can make even the most average pitcher look good. Catching a ball that cuts through the air at 93 miles per hour or breaks 3 feet in the span of 3/10's of a second takes remarkable eye-hand coordination, and blocking the plate when a 6-3/225 1st Baseman rounds third with a full-head of steam, hoping to seperate you from the ball... and possibly your head from your shoulders, requires nerves of steel. In addition, the Catcher must keep a sharp eye on the men on base, for any ball player will take advantage of even a momentary lapse in catcher concentration. And, on top of all the above defensive assignments, a Catcher must also be able to hit! Naturally, the game's developed a special breed of "defensive catchers," but only teams with brutish lineups such as Houston, who plays Brad Ausmus, can afford to swap offense for almost exclusive defense.

Unlike 3rd and Short', there's no bumper-crop of fantasy backstops this season. Likewise, there's a substantial drop-off in talent after the top 5 or so. However, there is value to be had throughout the league. Keep in mind, though, that many formats require 2 starting Catchers. Unless you opt to sacrifice a pitcher or backup position player, the odds of landing a pair of above-average Catchers is slim. Pairing a 1st or 2nd tier player with a "super-prospect" or "sleeper" would be an excellent draft-day strategy.


"Cream of the Crop"

1. Cleveland Indians; Victor Martinez: Arguably the best receiver in the game, Martinez is a key catalyst for a very promising young Cleveland club. V-Mar' showed impressive maturity by pulling himself up and out of a substantial first-half, sophomore slump; his average was just .210 through the end of May. Prior to the break, the Indian Catcher hit .236/.380/.312 (avg/slg/obp), with 9 HR, 35 RBI, and 67 hits.
The 2nd half was an entirely different story and the dude looked like an entirely different player. Martinez pulverized the ball, hitting .380/.578/.449, with 11 HR, 45 RBI and 100 hits, and concluded the '05 season with an excellent fantasy line of .305/20/80.
At 27, V-Mar's just reaching his prime and tapping into his vast potential. Surrounded by a crew of bashers that include OF'er Grady Sizemore, SS Jhonny Peralta, 2B Ronnie Belliard, and DH Travis Hafner, the "crush-alot" Catcher should give you numbers more befitting of a Corner-Infielder or Outfielder.
Look for every one of Martinez's offensive values to increase in '06, and .310/25/98, with 95 Runs scored.

2. Minnesota Twins; Joe Mauer: Martinez may be the game's best young Catcher, but Minny' Twin Joe Mauer isn't far behind. Mauer's '04 rookie campaign ended disastrously; a torn-up knee cost the 22 year old Twin almost 130 games. But in 107 ABs prior to the injury, the former High School All-Star and first overall '01 draft pick pounded-out a line of .308/6/17 and teased the Minnesota faithful with his rare skills. Last season, "MI-Joe" fell a bit short of expectations in the power and production departments, but the somewhat iffy cast of characters surrounding him in the lineup did nothing to help him.
This season, Joe Mauer's knee should be 100% and teammates such as Shannon Stewart, Torri Hunter, and Luis Castillo can't help but to be better and will afford him solid protection. Jot Joe down for .310/16/80 with 12 SB.

3. NY Yankees; Jorge Posada: A strong 2004 campaign saw Posada post elite numbers (for a Catcher) of .272/.481/.400 (avg/slg/obp) with 21 Homers', 81 RBIs, and 31 Doubles. Last season, however, was a disappointing encore. The veteran Yankee's offensive production took a decided dip; .262/.430/.252, with 19 Home Runs, 71 RBIs, and 23 Doubles. Jorge's best season came in '03, when he put up numbers many 3rd Baseman would envy; .281/30/101, with a SLG % of .518. Since then, however, Posada's offensive output has been heading steadily downhill, and last season's RBI total was his worst since '99. In addition, Posada hit an utterly anemic .111 with the bases loaded and an even feebler .100 with 2-outs and RISP.
Never known for calling a good game, Posada's received criticisism from several Yankee arms over the years for throwing down a single finger; that is, having his pitchers lean heavily upon the fastball. Last year the Yanks' key off-season acquisition, Randy Johnson, refused to allow Posada to catch him and relied almost exclusively upon backup John Flaherty. Even so, Posada caught 133 games in '05 and served as a DH in 3 others. Posada is now 34 and while he won't catch "Big Unit," that job will fall to newcomer Kelly Stinnett who offers a much better bat than the departed Flaherty, he will still be expected to squat for another 130 games or so. Given the knee-weakening presences of A-Rod, Sheffield, Matsui, Johnny Damon and the other Yankee All-Stars, Posada amounts to the least of an opposing hurler's worries. While his body will be able to withstand only so much more abuse, Posada should remain a top op' at the position for another year or 2. With Damon batting leadoff, Jason Giambi having re-discovered his seat-reaching stroke, and New York overflowing with talent, Posada will again bat towards the end of the lineup. Nevertheless, the loaded Yankees lineup should afford Posada more RBI chances than he had last season, and .273/22/86 could even be on the conservative side.

4. Baltimore Orioles; Javy Lopez: The Atlanta Braves have a feel for talent that borders on the spooky. Sensing that the longtime Brave backstop was on the brink of a slide, Atlanta allowed him to bolt for Balty' as a free agent. As if on cue, "J-Lo's" numbers dropped faster than leaves in Fall. In 2003, his last year in a Brave Uni', Lopez swatted a herculean .328/43/109, with 150 hits and a SLG % of .687 In '04, his first year as an Oriole, Lopez hit .316/23/86, with a SLG % of .503. While Javy's average remained excellent, his HR production was nearly halved, his RBI total fell by more than 20, and his Slugging % fell by a precipitous 180+ points. Had Javy's production levelled off even there, the Orioles would've left him as the starting Catcher. But, alas, the diggies' continued their downward spiral, and last year Lopez hit .278/15/49, with 110 hits and a SLG % of .458. I should be noted that a tipped ball caused Lopez to miss 2 months with a broken hand.
Within the brief span of 2 seasons the aging Catcher's average took a 50 point cliff dive, his Home Run total fell by 2/3, his RBI output was cut by more than 50%, and his SLG % careened downward by 230 points. Unwilling to endure additional carnage, Baltimore brought Catcher Ramon Hernandez over from San Diego, and has plans to slot Javy Lopez as the semi-permanent DH.
Naturally, the 35 year old receiver is ...umm, "agitated" by Balty's stance, but stated that he'd be willing to play 1st Base if the team would simply grant him a contract extension. Should the Oriole management accede to such a demand then it will become apparent that they're ill-fit to run even a Sandbox.com fantasy ball club.
Operating under the assumption that a disgruntled Javy Lopez doesn't force a trade and remains in Baltimore, he'll actually retain nice value as he won't be subjected to 140-odd games behind the plate, he'll most likely have the meat of the order batting in front of him, and there aren't many Catchers who possess his power potential.
So what does this mean from a fantasy perspective? I'd say something resembling .278/24/88.

5. Boston Red Sox; Jason Varitek: Although the BoSox lineup remains awfully imposing, a 33 year old Varitek is starting to look like a... a... a Catcher on the wrong side of 30, frankly. His .281/22/70, 30 Double, .856 OPS line neatly camouflaged a few flaws. For instance; 'Tek hit 50+ points better against lefty's (.320 Vs. .267), Fenway Park and the "Green Monster" exacted a mighty toll on his average (Home was .247/.417/.337 and Away was .312/.555/.393), and his average dropped almost 50 points while his SLG % took an 80 point dive over the season's 2nd half.
But again, like Jorge Posada, we have a fantasy Catcher who will benefit from the beef around him, and 'Tek should still be an above-average fantasy Catcher. Look for a dip in average and power, but most owners would be delighted with a season approaching .275/21/80.

6. Detroit Tigers; Ivan Rodriguez: Pudge suffered through the single-worst season of his Major League career last year, batting .276/.290/.444, with 14 HR and 50 RBI. Making matters worse for a player who is looked upon as a prime run producer, I-Rod whiffed a career-high 93 times, walked just 11 times (and 3 of those were intentional), and in 122 ABS with RISP, he hit a mere .213. That goes a long, long way to explaining a meager 50 Ribs'. With 15 years of big league service, Pudge set the bar for the modern day "power hitting" backstop and is zeroing in on 300 Home Runs, 2,200 hits and 1,100 RBI. However, he's also going on 35, he's taken a great deal of punishment over the course of his career, and should he again struggle at the plate and post anything approaching last year's ghastly .290 OBP, manager Jim Leyland won't hesitate to move him to the bottom 1/3 of the order.
The Detroit Tigers DO have some talent such as Magglio Ordonez, Dmitri Young, and Carlos Guillen. While many mags' and Baseball insiders are calling for a rebound season, I'm more inclined to believe that I-Rod's off-season is indicative of diminished bat speed and advancing age. Due in part to the improved talent in front of him. I'm calling for .278/15/70.

7. Baltimore Orioles; Ramon Hernandez: With Javy Lopez playing a total of 103 games last year, coupled with his rapidly declining offensive numbers, the Orioles decided to pursue a starting caliber Catcher.
On the opposite coast, the San Diego Padres were not impressed with Ramon Hernandez's agents' demands for a contract extension last spring, and were furious when the Catcher opted to undergo wrist surgery during the season as opposed to after it. In actuality, Hernandez felt that there was no way he would be back in San-D' in '06, so he underwent surgery in late July and returned in September to hit .359/5/20, with a SLG % of .615 and an OBP of .398. The in-season surgery had a very noticeable impact on the former Pads' numbers; prior to the break and operation he was hitting .277/.419/.307, after the break .319/.517/.355. Although the smack outta' Balty' is that the 2 backstops will platoon, it's far more likely that Ramon Hernandez will bear the lion's share of the Catching duties while Javy Lopez will serve as the semi-permanent DH.
A mid-rounder in "AL-Only" formats, Ramon Hernandez is an attractive "mixed-leaguer" as well. With Hernandez acclimated to hitting in "State Park-esque" Petco, Camden Yards will seem a hitter's park by comparison.
Look for .280/21/80.

8. NY Mets; Paul Lo Duca: Born in Brooklyn, NY, much like another former ball player who hails from Brooklyn, Lee Mazzilli, Paul Lo Duca carries himself with a confidence and self-assurance that fellow Brooklynites know so well. As a matter of fact, denizens of the "fuhgetaboutit" borough will have ample opportunity to see Lo Duca play as he will now be suiting up for "Willie and the Mets!"
Lo Duca, an excellent offensive Catcher over the course of his 8 big league seasons, struggled to get it going last year, his second season as a Marlin. All of Lo Duca's offensive numbers took a hit last year, but things are looking up now that "Paully," as he's now known to certain New York Baseball fans, will play at Shea. The Mets will quite arguably field the fastest team in club history, and in Carlos Beltran, Cliff Floyd, David Wright Carlos Delgado, and Lo Duca, there should also be no shortage of power. Manager Willie intends to slot his new receiver in the 2-hole, but given the team speed and talent Lo Duca might eventually be moved lower in the lineup. But no matter where he bats Lo Duca should be productive, and surrounded by "Flushing's finest" he should be considered a solid "Mixed-League" and excellent "NL-Only" backstop option.
Look for a .283/11/65 campaign, with the prospect of even more RBIs if Randolph opts out of batting him 2nd.

9. San Diego Padres; Mike Piazza: Having had his eye on NY Met Catcher Mike Piazza since last season's Winter meetings, Padre GM Kevin Towers kept his interest quiet, sat tight, and waited for his chance to pounce. Prior to the Pad' deal, there'd been a great deal of speculation that the former Met would remain in NY; he'd just... slide 'cross town. Although the 37 year old Catcher would've filled a number of glaring holes for the NY Yankees, GM Brian Cashman and deep-pocketed owner George Steinbrenner opted to pass on the Cooperstown-bound back-stop. Why... therein lies a good question. Last season in 113 games, Piazza hung some very respectable numbers; .251/19/62. For the Bronx Bombers, Piazza could've spelled an aging and defensively deficient Jorge Posada behind the dish 15 or so times over the course of the season, and would've given the Yanks' a VERY competent DH... something former Centerfielder Bernie Williams is not. All this is, however, just a pipe-dream. It's also something that could come back to bite the Bomber brass on their arrogant ass.
For a mere (and I DO use the term loosely) 2 Mill' (and possibly another 750K if certain incentives are met), the Pads' get themselves a very credible stick, a 70-80 game Catcher, a 1st Bagger against some tuff' as leather Lefty's, and a DH for the 9 Inter-League games the team has scheduled. And should Mikey P' enjoy a renaissance season- San D' inked him to an $8 Milly' '07 option. The aging Catcher will split the backstop duties with incumbent Doug Mirabelli. All in all, for the money being paid, I'd say the Padres pulled-off a tremendous deal... a deal that as of today, makes them a much stronger ball club.
Assuming he gets his cuts in 125 or so games, Piazza could well surprise and a season of .285/22/85 is not beyond his reach.

10. Chicago White Sox; A.J Pierzynski: An excellent defensive Catcher A.J "Pier-hate-to-spell-his-name" was also expected to help boost the Chicag-O', yet he posted the lowest batting average of his 8 year career last year (.257), his first as a White Sock, and also struck-out a career worst 68 times. In conjunction, he hit an anemic .236 with RISP, hung equally feeble OBP and OPS percentages of .308 and .728 respectively, and continued to flounder against Lefty's. Pierzynski hit .230 against left-handers and .263 against right-handers. That, my fantasy friends, would be the downside. The upside? Pierzynski clubbed a career-high 18 Homers, recorded a second-best Run total of 61, and this season should be better for one of GQ Magazines' "10 Most Hated Athletes." Still under 30 (29), the former .300 hitter reportedly applied himself over the off-season, working to strengthen his core muscles and improve his "muscle memory," and enjoys a home park (U.S Cellular Field) that's a "hitter's park." While I wouldn't look for any significant jump in his Home Run production, Pierzynski's batting average should buoy a bit as should his RBI total.
According to my "Fantasy Magic-8," Pier-hate-his-name could be as good as .285/16/75.


"On the Way Up!"

1. Minnesota Twins; Joe Mauer: Mauer is one of baseball's brightest young Catchers, possessing ample power and a sharp eye at the plate. Barely old enough to buy a lottery ticket, Mauer has completely recovered from the devastating knee injury suffered early in his rookie year and projects to be the linchpin of a young Twin offense. In a position that lacks great depth, Joe Mauer could go as low as the 3rd round in deep mixed leagues.

2. Florida Marlins; Josh Willingham: After bidding Paul Lo Duca a fond Bon Voyage as he sailed away to the NY Metropolitans, the Marlins had a void to fill. Enter minor league masher Josh Willingham. In '05 dude "crushed alot" in just 219 Triple A Alburquerque ABs, absolutely punishing the ball to the tune of .324/.676/.455, with 19 round-trippers', 54 RBI, and 36 extra-base hits out of 71 total hits. Willingham recorded OPS totals of 1.000 or greater at every minor league stop, and while he may yet end up an Outfielder Florida's gonna' want, and needs, his bat in the everyday lineup. At 27, Willingham's days as a top prospect are evaporating like a puddle on a hot afternoon. Look for him to beat-out incumbent Miguel Olivo for the starting Catching job and hang numbers worthy of a top fantasy back-up; .275/18/60.

"Top Sleepers"

1. Pittsburgh Pirates; Ryan Doumit: Doumit, a '99 2nd round draft pick, has struggled with injuries but was finally able to stay healthy last season. A 25 AB spring in which he deposited 5 pitches into the stands forced the Pitt' brass to take notice of the 24 year old prospect, however he was still sent down to the minors to begin the '05 season. Called up in early June Doumit was made the regular Catcher by July, and things really started to click after the All-Star break when he hit .281/6/25. Yo-Yo'ed through the lineup, he seems best suited to the 6 spot and hit impressively with RISP, .333/.470/.423, and the bases juiced, .375/.375/.444.
The Pirates may have more talent in the lineup than some believe, as young LF'er Jason Bay is a stud-in-the-making, 25 year old CF'er Chris Duffy hit a scorching .341 in 126 plate appearances, and veterans Jeremy Burnitz (30 HR power), 3B Joe Randa (43 Doubles and a .452 SLG % last season) and 1B Sean Casey (hit .312 and whiffed just 48 times in almost 530 ABs) are each capable batsmen.
A candidate for a breakthrough campaign, Doumit's a sneaky-good gamble and should be available through most leagues' 'Wires as he's still an unknown quantity. Jot the young Bucc' down for a solid .263/12/50. If Doumit does that much, he'll be an excellent backup or #2 Catcher in leagues that require 2 starting C's.

2. LA Angels; Jeff Mathis: The favorite to replace Bengie Molina behind the dish for Anaheim, some Baseball observers believe Mathis would benefit from another year of Trip' A seasoning. Irregardless, it seems as if manager Mike Scioscia has his hands clapped over his ears and will go with the 22 year old prospect. Look, if anyone has an eye for Catchers it's Scioscia, and thus far the early spring returns on Mathis have been favorable.
With a mentor in Molina and a strong contingent of Angel position players supporting him, Mathis looks to be a bright prospect. That does not mean, though, that he's a bright fantasy prospect. Yet. Those of you who are Catcher-poor still might wish to wait before jumping on the Jeff Mathis bandwagon as his bat was lukewarm .276/.340/.499 at Triple A Salt Lake last season.
Assuming Mathis sticks as a starter he's still going to need at least one full season of big league pitching to adjust; .255/8/45 would be a successful year for the up and comer.


"Deeper Sleeper"

Seattle Mariners; Kenji Johjima A 30 year old Japanese import, Johjima was awarded a virtual king's ransom (3 years, 16.5 Mill') to leave Japan and come to Seattle. An excellent defensive Catcher, Johjima seems to be hitting this spring... but spring means little. The big dogs come out to play in April.
A middle of the road fantasy prospect, Johjima could stick on a fantasy roster as a suitable #2 man. I will carefully forecast .273/16/70. And again, should the Mariner backstop be that good- owners can pat themselves on the back for a savvy grab.

2. Atlanta Braves; Brian McCann: McCann wasn't expected to be promoted to the show until... oh, 2007 or so. But, when both Johnny Estrada AND Eddie Perez landed on the DL the 22 year old was forced into a starter's role. And, 180 ABs and .278/5/23 "later," Estrada was awarded his walking papers and the Braves have high hopes for the 6-3/210 "kid." That, my friends, is a VERY big kid!
A top power prospect, with all the lumber Atlanta can bring to bear... McCann could turn in a very good, .279/15/75 kinda' season.


"On the Way Down!"

1. Detroit Tigers; Ivan Rodriguez: Pudge hung a horrifying .290 OBP with 14 HRs last year, his smallest Homer' total in 11 seasons, his 11 Walks were 1/4 of last season's total, and 50 RBI... the last season that saw him drive in fewer men was '92. Last season's dramatic decrease in offensive productivity would indicate diminished skills. An "old" 34, Pudge could really see his diggies' take a dive.

2. NY Yankees Jorge Posada: In a recent interview with the NY Post, Posada conceded that last season was a "bad season offensively" but continued to say that he didn't feel as if it was a "trend." All of his numbers over the last 2 seasons would indicate otherwise. His average, SLG %, OBP, Home Run totals, Ribbies' and Runs scored have all fallen since his .281/30/101 '03. While Jorge's average may buoy a bit, overall his numbers will likely continue their downward trend.

3. San Diego Padres: Mike Piazza: Had Mikey-P founds himself on an AL roster as the full-time DH, his fortunes might've been even brighter. However, the guy's been a defensive liability for years, and playing in the heat of San Diego will surely sap his strength over the dog days of mid-July through late August. Although I have him listed amongst the top 10, some owner will overpay for his services... don't be that owner! Piazza retains enough pop to help a fantasy team and should be productive enough to rank be a #1 fantasy receiver. That being said, Piazza's no longer playing in Shea, and Petco Park WILL impact his power numbers.