The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Rockies”

Firing a Major League Manager

Some things never change.

Already, fans and sportswriters for certain teams are suggesting, even demanding, that their favorite under-achieving franchise fire the manager.

But when is it time to fire a major league manager?

Another way of asking the question is, how much actual difference does firing a manager make in turning around a particular team’s fortunes?  Also, if nothing is expected of a team going into a season, as with Kansas City, Cleveland, Baltimore or Pittsburgh, then what exactly is the point of firing one of their respective managers once it is apparent that another unsuccessful season is in the offing?

Lets take these questions one at a time.

Yes, sometimes, although not as often as fans and some sportswriters like to think, a managerial change can make a positive difference.  Last season for example, after getting off to an 18-28 start, the Rockies fired manager Clint Hurdle and replaced him with Jim Tracy.  From that point on, the Rockies went on a 74-42 run, finishing second in the N.L. West.

Notice that the Rockies fired Hurdle after 46 games, about the middle of May.  That’s just about where we are this season, which is why this issue is now relevant.

Taking the second question, is there much point in firing the manager of a team that is universally expected to be bad?

That depends.  How bad is bad?  Is the team at all competitive?  The Pirates, for example, currently have a predictably poor 14-18 win-loss record.  But considering their run differential (runs scored minus runs allowed) of -83 is the worst in baseball, they have actually over-achieved this season.

In other words, their on-field talent is so poor that their record should be something more like 9-23.  So not much point in firing the manager there.

So how about under-performing teams like the Dodgers, Braves, Cubs, White Sox (sorry, Chicago), and Mariners?

Taking the first three of those teams, no one is going to fire Joe Torre, Bobby Cox (in his last season, anyway), or Lou Piniella, at least not this year.  They have accumulated more than enough managerial capital over the course of their careers to make it politically impossible for them to be terminated.

Not so the case, however, of Ozzie Guillen of the White Sox and Don Wakamatsu of Seattle.  Taking the White Sox first, they are 13-19 on the season, already a full eight games out of first place.  Guillen also a tendency to say exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time, and he has had his share of run-ins with G.M. Ken Williams over the years.

Lately, the blame for the White Sox poor start has fallen disproportionately on the shoulders of closer Bobby Jenks.  Admittedly, Jenks, never one to care much about conditioning, hasn’t done his job very well.  But, with the exception of first baseman Paul Konerko and pitcher John Danks, few of the White Sox players have gotten off to a good start.

Finally, Guillen, despite winning one World Championship in 2005, doesn’t exactly have a long track record of success, and his tendency to call out his players in public, rather than in private, will catch up to him eventually in terms of being able to motivate his players.  In fact, it may already have.

Guillen, therefore, is certainly a possible candidate to lose his job this season.

Don Wakamatsu, manager of the Seattle Mariners, is, if anything, on an even hotter seat in his town than is Guillen.  With the splashy additions of Cliff Lee and Chone Figgins, many people, including yours truly, expected the Mariners to have a legitimate chance of winning the mediocre A.L. West division.

The Angels were weakened by off-season losses of key personnel, and neither the A’s or the Rangers were obvious choices to replace the Angels atop this division.

But the Mariners anemic offense, the worst in their league, coupled with the injury to Cliff Lee, may have doomed their chances of stealing the crown.  Although the Mariners are only 5 1/2 games out, a record of 12-19, and a team playing without any apparent spark at all, is a major disappointment.

And Wakamatsu has little in the way of a track record to buttress his reputation.  Already, the Mariners have fired their hitting coach, Don Cockrell.  Firing a coach or two is often a warning to a manager that things better improve sooner than later.

If  Seattle continues to languish in their ineptitude over the next several weeks, don’t be surprised to see this team decide to change its manager.

Other teams whose managers might not survive the season include Baltimore’s Dave Trembley (9-23), Houston’s Brad Mills (10-21), Kansas City’s Trey Hillman (11-21) and Arizona’s A.J. Hinch (14-19.)

Although not much was expected of the first three of those teams, there is bad, and then there is really bad.  Kansas City, for example, made a big show in the off-season of signing a couple of free agents (Rick Ankiel and Jason Kendall), and during spring training their players and manager all said the right things like, “People are going to be surprised this year.  We’re going to make some noise in our division.”

Nonsense, of course.  Ankiel and Kendall were poor signings, and this is a team that could only avoid last place due to its fortuitous geography of being in the same division as the Indians.

But if some of the powers-that-be within the Royals organization really believed, however erroneously, that their Royals should be much more competitive this year, then Manager Hillman might be looking for work before the end of summer.

Hinch, in Arizona, also appears to be vulnerable.  Granted, the Diamondbacks have several young players still in their initial stage of development, but if this season ends up being an organizational step backwards, it is doubtful that this turn of events will be tolerated in Arizona.

Houston manager Brad Mills, is in his first full season as the field commander, will be allowed a significant honeymoon period.  The truth is, Houston is a lousy, and in some quarters, overrated team with a handful of good players surrounded by a cast of replacement level talent.  The inevitable overhaul of this franchise starts at the top.  Mills, therefore, appears to be safe at this point.

The truth is, of course, that none of us know how the 2010 season will progress from here.  Surprising turnarounds happen all the time.  When we look at the standings come the All-Star Break, they could, and probably will be, significantly different from what they look like today.

One thing is certain, however.  At some point, perhaps sooner than later, we will be reading about how a particular team has come to the unavoidable conclusion that it is time to change horses.  References to last year’s Rockies will be made, and the expectations laid upon the head of the new manager will be many.

Yet it is also virtually certain that the teams who actually make the playoffs are not going to be the teams who change managers this season.

The teams that make the playoffs will be, as always, the teams that actually have the best players.

Some things never change.

Fantasy Baseball Player Rating Guide: The Hitters

This is the third of four installments of my Fantasy Baseball Preview. I’ve already discussed at length my Rules for a Successful Fantasy Baseball Season, as well as my Fantasy Baseball Strategies and Tips  in my two prior posts.  In this third post on the subject, I will submit my player ratings for position players.

Players in bold print are sleepers that I believe should be aggressively targeted.  Players listed in italics are potential bust candidates.   Where I believe it to be useful, I will explain my reasoning for a particular player’s  rating with some degree of detailed analysis.

For the sake of brevity, and because most leagues appear to use a mixed league approach to Fantasy Baseball, I will list players from each league together, position by position.  If you play in an N.L. only or A.L. only format, obviously you can simply focus on the players in your preferred league as you scan the list.

A final note, my ratings are weighted less on what a player has already accomplished than on what he can, and I believe quite likely will, accomplish in 2010.  Therefore, some of my ratings may seem overly optimistic to some, and unreasonably harsh to others.  So be it.  I’m trying to win this year, not last year.  How about you?

Position Players:

First Base:  Deepest Position in the Major Leagues

1) Albert Pujols – Do we really understand what we are witnessing with this future Hall of Famer?  He is already one of the top dozen players of all time.  He will be the first player drafted in virtually every fantasy league.

2) Miguel Cabrera – According to Baseball-Reference.com, the two players whose career profiles Cabrera’s is most similar to are Ken Griffey, Jr. and Hank Aaron.  Has a .925 career OPS in six full seasons.  Turns 27 in April.  The A.L. player most likely to win a Triple Crown.

3) Ryan Howard – Just can’t ignore those homers and RBI’s.

4) Prince Fielder – Better average, fewer K’s, than Howard.  Turns 26 in May.

5) Mark Teixeira – Yanks line-up is still loaded.  Professional switch-hitter.  Enjoys hitting at the new Yankee Stadium.  First Round caliber pick.

6) Adrian Gonzalez –  Once he gets out of San Diego, his stock will rise.

7)  Mark Reynolds – Big strikeout totals scare people off, but qualifies at two positions, and is still learning his craft at 26 years of age.  Also offers good speed.

8)  Joey Votto – Don’t bother reminding me about his anxiety problems.  This year, the only people who will experience anxiety problems will be the pitchers who have to face him.  26-year old pure hitter in a nice hitter’s park.

9) Pablo Sandoval – Hits any pitch anywhere.  Kung Fu Panda is 23 years old and qualifies at two positions.  Downside:  Terrible supporting cast, pitcher’s park, and no speed.

10)  Kevin Youkilis –  Now at the peak of his value, much more valuable as a third baseman.  Still, gets on base, hits for solid power, and has been consistent.  Home park helps.

11)  Justin Morneau – Coming off of both wrist and back surgeries, and moving into a new park that may be less hitter friendly than the Metrodome.  Most of his value is tied up in his RBI’s.

12)  Adam Dunn – Remarkably consistent hitter.  A poor man’s Ralph Kiner.  Power, walks, runs scored, lots of strikeouts, no speed.  Still qualifies in OF.  In his contract year.

13)  Kendry Morales –  Call me a skeptic, but I want to see him do it again before I jump on this bandwagon.  Late bloomer failed to score 90 runs in breakout season.  Don’t reach too soon.

14)  Billy Butler – This 23-year old may never hit lots of homers, but he’s a pure hitter who finished strong last season.  You could do much worse.

15)  Lance Berkman – A 34-year old trapped in the body of an unhealthy 38-year old marshmallow.  Can still hit and draw some walks, but past his prime.

16)  Derrek Lee –  Seems like very nice guy.  If you’re still looking at him as your potential first baseman halfway through the draft, your strategy left a lot to be desired.

17)  Paul Konerko – Deserves to be listed side-by-side with his north-side compatriot, Derrek Lee.  Konerko doesn’t embarrass himself, plays in a nice hitter’s park, and is ready to take a nose-dive at age 34.  You don’t need him.

18)  Todd Helton –  You get batting average and on-base percentage, that’s it.

19) Carlos Pena – The 31-year old Latin Dave Kingman.  Steer clear.

20)  James Loney – Has somehow managed 90 RBI’s each of the past two seasons, showing how over-rated that stat really is.  Still just 25 years old, may someday reach twenty home runs, but plays in a pitcher’s park.

21)  Adam LaRoche – Now hitting in the middle of the lineup in Arizona, a nice hitter’s park, LaRoche could put up some surprising numbers this season, perhaps 90-100 RBI’s and a solid OPS.  Keep an eye on this situation.

There are other first basemen, of course, but no one that should greatly interest you.  Victor Martinez of the Red Sox, primarily a catcher, also qualifies at first base, but a wise fantasy manager will only use him there in an emergency.

Carlos Delgado, still unsigned, was last seen hobbling around a first base bag in the Winter League.  Chris Davis of Texas may be, despite an obscene strikeout rate, on the verge of a modest break-out season.

Second Base:  No Reason to Panic

1)  Chase UtleyAside from the fact that he is fabulous hitter in a great hitter’s park, he stole 23 bases in 23 attempts last season.  Solid first round pick.

2)  Ian Kinsler –  Somehow, this guy worries me.  He constantly gets himself injured, and his batting average, considering the nice hitter’s park he finds himself in, is unimpressive, as is his on-base percentage.  Still, this 27-year old enjoyed a 3o-30-30 season last year (Homers, Steals, and Doubles.)  Not as solid as Utley, but offers lots of offensive ability.

3)  Dustin Pedroia  –  This 26-year old has already won an MVP award, and offers a nice power / speed combination.  Scores bushels of runs, and plays in a great hitter’s park.  What’s not to like?  There is no downside here.

4)  Aaron Hill –  Excellent run producer, but at age 28, let’s see him do it again.  Few walks, not much speed, and homer total way above anything he’s done before.  Still, easily a top five second baseman.

5)  Robinson Cano – This 27-year old should finish with the following numbers:  19 homers, 80 RBI’s, 187 hits, 90 runs, 4 steals, and few walks.  An aggressive young hitter who finished strong, but may already be nearing his ceiling.

6)  Brandon Phillips –  Ranks ahead of Brian Roberts primarily because he is four years younger, and offers a stronger power / speed combo.  Drives in runs, too.

7)  Brian Roberts –  Hits huge amounts of doubles, scores runs and steals bases.  He won’t disappoint you, but at age 32, he offers no upside, either.

8)  Ben Zobrist – Came out of nowhere last season.  Although he is a late-bloomer at age 28, his numbers may be for real, as evidenced by his 90+ walks, and has slugged over .500 two seasons in a row.  Qualifies at OF, too.

9)  Dan Uggla – Homers and RBI’s; next to nothing else.  May already be in decline phase at age 30.

10)  Jose Lopez – Kind of a strange, young 26-year old hitter.  Hits far better away from Safeco.  Knows how to drive in runs, but can’t score them.  Doesn’t steal bases, and practically never walks.  Yet may still offer good value.

11)  Asdrubal Cabrera –  This 24-year old qualifies at both second and short.  He can steal a base, score a run, and get a couple of hits.  Some upside, but not spectacular, and very little power.

12)  Martin Prado –  This 26-year finally seems to have won the second base job to himself in Atlanta.  Lots of doubles in a part-time role last season portend respectable power numbers to come, along with a .300 batting average.  Qualifies at three positions: first, second, and third base.

13)  Howie Kendrick – Now 26-years old, has been trying to land a starting job with the Angels for three years.  It appears he now has one.  Not a lot of speed or power, but should score some runs if he hits near the top of the order.

14)  Casey McGehee – Had a nice showing with the Brewers last season, and is now considered a sleeper in lots of Fantasy mags.  Don’t buy the hype.  There’s a reason he didn’t make it to the majors until he was almost 27 years old.

15)  Rickie Weeks –  Seems like we’ve been hearing how he is a can’t miss future star for about half a dozen years now.  Turns 27 this season.  Injured his wrist last year, 4th year in a row curtailed by injury.  Stay away!

There are actually quite a few nice options at second base, especially in the A.L.  If you play in an N.L. only league, Utley is worth his weight in gold.

Shortstop:  Now, it’s Time To Panic

1)  Hanley Ramirez – The second-best player in the major leagues.  Some owners were disappointed with his performance last season despite a .342, .410, .543 line.  Still only 26 years old.  Biggest power numbers are ahead of him.

2)  Troy Tulowitzki – Two of his three seasons have been outstanding, and he’s just 25.  Calls Coors Field home.  Hits for power, average, and has speed.  I’ll take him at the end of the first round, if he’s still available.

3)  Jose Reyes –  Do you feel lucky, punk?  Well, do ya?  Watch his wheels in Spring Training.  Don’t automatically assume a full recovery. But age (26) is on his side.

4)  Jimmy Rollins –  Should have played in the ’70’s, and that’s a compliment.  Still, he sported a shockingly low .296 on-base average last season.  You read that right.  But offers 20 homers and 30 steals at a week position.  Just beginning his decline phase, but isn’t all through yet.

5)  Derek Jeter –  First ballot Hall of Famer will see at least a 20% decline in his overall offensive output from last season, but still has enough to offer at age 35.  Will be drafted too early in most leagues due to rep and weak position.

6)  Jason Bartlett –  A case can be made that he should rate higher on this list, but a break-out season at age 30 should temper one’s enthusiasm.  Although some regression should be expected (he won’t hit .320 again), he is a useful option.

7)  Yunel Escobar – Spends a lot of time in Bobby Cox’s doghouse, but hits quite effectively when he plays.  Walks almost as often as he strikes out, and is entering his age 27 season.  Could see 80 RBI’s and 90 runs scored this year.

8)  Stephen Drew –  Will always be as maddening to own as his brother, J.D.  At times, he will hit like an MVP candidate.  At other times, he will be the ghost of Rey Ordonez.  Basically hits well at home vs. right-handed pitching.  His career is at a cross-roads this, his age 27 season.

9)  Asdrubal Cabrera –  See Second Base Ratings for details

10)  Alcides Escobar – Played well enough to take job away from J.J. Hardy. Should continue to play well enough to keep it, but has no power.

11)  Rafael Furcal –  At age 32, won’t see 600 at bats again as he did last year.  The player Jose Reyes most fears becoming.

12)  Miguel Tejada –  Astros will be terrible this season, and he might be, too.  Gotta love those 19 walks, five steals, and 14 homers.  36-years OLD.

13)  Alexei Ramirez –  This 28-year old disappointed many of his owners who expected too much out of him last season.  Offers a complete package of mediocrity.

14)  Ryan Theriot –  Brett Butler without the power.  Just kidding, he actually slugged seven last season, one for every fan who enjoyed owning him.

15)  Fill in the blank –  It just gets uglier and uglier from here, folks.  Don’t do this to yourself.

Shortstop is chock full of potential pitfalls including age (Jeter, Furcal, Tejada and perhaps Rollins), injury (Reyes and Furcal, again) , and inconsistency (Drew, A. Ramirez, and maybe Bartlett.)  At least three or four owners will be sorely disappointed with the end results by their choices at this position.  Proceed with extreme caution.

Third Base:  Where We Can All Live Happily Ever After

1)  Evan Longoria –  Has the potential to lead the A.L. in homers and RBI’s.  Potential MVP candidate.  Hit a few rough patches last season, which just might make him available to fall into your lap.  Count your blessings.  This 24-year old is just getting started.  A decent bet to hit 500 homers in his career.

2)  A-Rod – Your were expecting, perhaps, David Wright?  The Human Soap Opera missed April recovering from hip surgery, but looked damn good in his return.  This 34-year old will be a big run producer once again, but his days as a base-stealer are nearing an end.

3)  Mark Reynolds – Is Adam Dunn with fewer walks and more steals.  See First Base Ratings for further comments.

4)  Ryan Zimmerman – May be the best overall third baseman in the N.L.  Nice power surge last season at age 24.  Will hit for power and average, but won’t steal many bases.

5) David Wright –  What a difference a year makes.  Exhibit A that there are no sure things in baseball.  Last season, he was among the first five players taken overall in most drafts.  Now he is just a top-five third baseman.  Has more to prove than perhaps any other player in the majors this year.  Will be interesting to see in which round he is drafted.

6)  Pablo Sandoval –  See First Base ratings.  Has more value at third base.

7)  Kevin Youkilis –  Yet another 1B / 3B qualifier.  See First Base ratings.

8)  Aramis Ramirez –  It’s a deep position that offers a guy who can hit 30 homers and drive in 100 runs as only its 8th best player.

9)  Michael Young –  Power surge last season masks a player who, at age 33, is at the beginning of a slow decline.  But may still offer plenty of value as a mid-round pick.

10)  Gordon Beckham – ChiSox are apparently going to try to convert him into a second-baseman this season, which isn’t as much of a slam-dunk as it may seem.  Has huge potential as a power-hitting run producer, though.  Could be on his way to a string of some very fine seasons.  This 23-year old no longer qualifies at shortstop, as he did last season.

11)  Chone Figgins –  One of Seattle’s aggressive off-season acquisitions.  The Angels will realize how much they miss him this year.  But at age 32, isn’t going to get any better.  Still, he offers, hits, runs scored and steals.  Not your classic third baseman, but after him, this position begins to go downhill fast.

12)  Martin Prado –  See Second Base Ratings

13)  Jorge Cantu –  A definite bust candidate.  A classic example of what to expect from a player who bursts into the majors relatively late (age 27) with a big season.  Last season’s owners were disappointed.  This season’s owners will have only themselves to blame.

14)  Chipper Jones – At this point, listing him at all is as much a sentimental choice as a practical one.  You know he’ll get hurt again (and again.)  What we don’t quite know yet is if he’s about done as a hitter.  Do you really want to find out?

15)  Adrian Beltre –  Leaving an excellent pitcher’s park for an excellent hitter’s park, and having more support around him in the lineup may result in a modest resurgence of his career.  But eight homers, 44 RBI’s and 19 walks last season in over 450 at bats means he is far from a sure thing to produce solid, credible numbers.  Have a back-up plan.

16)  Casey Blake – Dodgers third baseman

17)  Mark DeRosa – Giants big off-season acquisition will ensure that Matt Cain still won’t get much run support from his offense.

There are, of course, other players I could list at this position, but I would take no pleasure away from such a task, so let’s leave it at that.  I do like this group of third basemen more than I have in years.  Most Fantasy owners should do pretty well at this position, providing their pick fits into some kind of coherent, overall plan.

Catcher:  Draft Early, or Draft Late

1)  Joe Mauer – Has already won three batting titles, as many as all other A.L. catchers in history have won combined.  His power finally showed up last season, too.  Given his edge over other catchers, a definite first round pick.

2)  Victor Martinez – You have to love the fact that the Red Sox will let him stay fresh by allowing him to play first base on a semi-regular basis.  A pure hitter who hit extremely well in his limited stint at Fenway last season.  Will be gone by middle of third round, perhaps sooner.

3)  Brian McCann – This 26-year old is already an established veteran of four MLB seasons.  Should continue to hit for power with a decent average, and has been durable.  No downside, except for, of course, the fact that he’s a catcher.

4)  Jorge Posada –  At 38-years old, I was tempted to affix a “bust” designation on him, but his skills haven’t shown any obvious signs of erosion.  Still a very productive hitter at a weak position.  Just keep his age in mind, and don’t draft too early; someone will.

5)  Miguel Montero –  Kurt Suzuki put up similar numbers last season, but Montero plays in a better hitter’s park, and his OPS was nearly a hundred points higher than Suzuki’s.  Montero will move up a notch or two in these rankings by season’s end.

6)  Kurt Suzuki –  He is just 26-year’s old, and has already had an 80 RBI season as a catcher.  But a surprisingly low OPS indicates there is some cause for concern here.  Plays on a team with no offense in a good pitcher’s park.  You will have to draft him a little too high for mediocre production.  Let someone else take a chance on him.

7)  Matt Wieters – I have him rated a little higher than most others because I would rather take a chance on his excellent upside, at a lower position in the Fantasy draft, than take an inferior talent higher simply based on last year’s numbers.  An obvious future All-Star.

8)  Russell Martin –  Some of that power has to come back, right?  He is still just 27-years old, and may experience a bit of a Renaissance this season.  Still a top-ten catcher, overall, with possibility of moving up a couple of notches.

9)  Ryan Doumit – Now you are entering dangerous territory.  If you haven’t drafted a catcher in a mixed league by now, you might as well wait until the mid-to-late rounds.  Doumit had a lost season, but deserves to start for someone.

10)  Mike Napoli – With departure of Figgins and Vladdy, more may be expected of players like Napoli to step up their game a notch.  At age 28, he may be ready to do so.  Playing time is all that prevents him from being rated higher on this list.

11)  Geovany Soto –  Could he really be as bad as he showed last season?  Could he really be as good as he showed in ’08?  We’ll see.

12)  Yadier Molina –  Lots of people seem to prefer his older brother, Benjie, because of those gaudy 20 homers.  Big deal.  Yadier is, by far, the better hitter, recording more walks than strikeouts, hitting for a solid average, and even stealing more bases.  Also, Yadier is only 27-years old with room to improve his numbers; Benjie is 35 and has clearly seen his best days.

12)  Benjie Molina –  The overrated of the Molina brothers.  See above.

13)  Chris Iannetta – Still just 26-years old, but how do you hit .228 for the season when you play half your games in Colorado?

14)  A.J. Pierzynski – .300 batting average masks little run-producing ability.  Now 33-years old, holds no interest for me.

This is where I get off the bus.  Take a look, if you desire, at all the kids on the Rangers.  One of them might eventually pan out.  And I guess there are worse catchers than John Baker, too.  But the rule of thumb here is, either use an early pick and draft a quality catcher, or just let the position slide to the mid-to-late rounds.  Guys will be available much later than you think.

Outfield – Where Hall-of-Famers Used to Play

1)  Ryan Braun – Should be the obvious choice.  If not, you’re not really paying attention.

2)  Justin Upton – No, not Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford, etc.  Upton is the next great super-star at this position, as early as this season.

3)  Matt Holiday – A full season hitting 3-4 with Albert Pujols?  Every hitter’s dream.  Conservatively, 30-100-100-.300.

4)  Matt Kemp – Fantastic combo of power and speed, but hampered a bit playing half his games in Chavez Ravine.  Also has to hit regularly in PetCo and San Fran.  Still, easily worth a second round pick.

5)  Carl Crawford –  His first half last season was fantastic; his second half was below average.  Playing on the turf definitely takes its toll.  But at age 28, and in his contract year, he will be extra-motivated for that big pay-day.

6) Jacoby Ellsbury –  Entering his fourth season at age 26, look for him to turn his whole game up a notch.  He might not steal 70 again, but we haven’t seen his best total season yet.

7)  Grady Sizemore –  Rated this highly because of what he is capable of doing, if healthy.  At age 27, he is capable of enjoying his finest all-around season, even hitting in a weak line-up.

8)  Jason Bay – Mets overpaid, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be productive enough to serve as your #2 OF.  Just don’t go drafting him as your #1.

9)  Adam Jones –  Played extremely well the first couple of months of last season, then tailed off badly at the end.  But he is very talented, very young (24) and is part of a reviving franchise in Baltimore.  Stay-tuned.

10)  Nick Markakis –  Some of the luster may have worn off after a mediocre season last year.  But, still just 26-years old with three years experience under his belt, the best is yet to come.

11)  Andre Ethier –  Solid young power hitter.

12)  Adam Lind –  Broke out in a big way last season.  Look for a small overall decline in his numbers, but at age 26, he was not a complete fluke.

13)  Jayson Werth –  At age 30, we witnessed the best he has to offer last season, which is plenty good.  As with Lind, a slight decline is in order, but doesn’t project to be a bust.

14)  Manny Ramirez – Even at age 37, plenty capable of hitting 30+ homers and driving in 100+ runs, along with the usual sulking, goofing, and other immature, irresponsible behaviors.  Your circus, if you want it.

15)  Curtis Granderson – Inconsistent as hell last season, but multi-talented and still (29) young enough to have one of his best seasons.  Has power and speed, and will benefit from hitting in Yankee lineup in better hitter’s park.

16)  Bobby Abreu –  Just doesn’t seem to age, yet it has to happen some year.  Look for his steals to finally decline this year, but OBP should remain strong.  Draft as a borderline #2-#3 OF in mixed leagues.

17)  Hunter Pence –  The learning curve for Pence has been long, and a little slower than anticipated, but at age 27, he could be in line for his best all around season.  Too bad it’ll happen on one of the worst teams in the league.

18)  Andrew McCutchen –  This youngster is the real deal.  Future all-star may hit a few rough patches here and there, but stick with him and watch him finish as a top 20, perhaps a top 15, OF.

19)  Adam Dunn –  As unlikely as it seems, still qualifies at OF.  Given the depth at first base, it would make sense to draft him and stick him in your OF and consider him your backup first baseman in injury situation.  What you see is what you get from this 30-year old.

20)  Carlos Gonzalez –  May be the most exciting young outfielder in the game, and that’s saying a lot, considering the competition.   Has power and speed, can hit for average, and plays half his games at Coors.  Gotta love it.

21) Ichiro –  What do you call a player who hits .352, with yet another 200 hit season?  A Hall-of-Famer, but a mediocre fantasy baseball asset.  Now 36 years old, Ichiro’s stolen base totals are in decline, he doesn’t walk, and all those hits produced a surprisingly low 88 runs last season.  At best, he will hold his own.

22)  Torii Hunter –  Pretty reliable 34-year old who may begin to show some decline in his skills this season.  Draft as a #3, and you should be fine.

23)  Nate McLouth – Had an off-year, but age 28, should provide solid value as a #3 OF.  May score 100 runs, and go 20 – 20 (homers / steals.)

24)  Josh Hamilton –  Demonstrated too much ability in ’08 to rate lower than this, but I wouldn’t look for a return to his  ’08 numbers.  Too much can go wrong here.

25)  Raul Ibanez –  This 37-year old should, perhaps, rate higher on this list, considering he set a career high in slugging percentage last season.  But I don’t believe in “new” careers beginning at age 37.  If  I’m wrong, so be it.

26)  Shane Victorino – An important part of a well-balanced Phillie offense.  Provides runs, steals, and a decent average.  Draft as a #3.

27)  Carlos Lee –  Clearly in decline.  Drops in slugging, on-base, and runs scored should scare you off those Home Run / RBI totals.  Less here than meets the eye.

28)  Johnny Damon –  Still unsigned as I type this blog post.  Apparently super-agent Scott Boras blew this one.  But Johnny still has some life in the old tank, and will probably get signed in a week or two.

29)  Shin-Soo Choo – Was perhaps the most consistent hitter on the Indians for much of last season.  May be underrated.  Solid #3, at least.

30)  Michael Bourn – 60 steals are hard to ignore.  But needs to draw more walks to take his game to the next level.

31)  Brad Hawpe – Started off well last season, but declined badly in second half.  Still, finished with an OPS over .900.  Could provide solid late-round value.

32) Alfonso Soriano –  Has the been the most overrated player in baseball for several years now.

33)  Mike Cuddyer –  Probably won’t match last season’s career year numbers of 32-94-.520 slugging.  At age 31, in a new ball-park, play it very conservative.

34)  Jay Bruce –  Has the power to hit 40 homers, but might also hit .235.  Odds are, this 23-year old will provide some quality weeks for some lucky owner, but there is a lot of risk here.

35)  Jeff Francoeur –  Barely deserves a job as an everyday major league OF.  Do not draft!

Remember when the Outfield was where you would routinely go to find your biggest bats?  Not all that long ago there was Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Juan Gonzalez, Jim Edmonds, Tim Salmon, a young Manny Ramirez, Ken Griffey, Jr., etc.  Maybe we are simply in a transition year or two here, and Upton, Kemp, Sizemore, etc. will one day also be household (or at least Fantasy Baseball household) names.

I could add a small sub-category regarding DH’s.  But since you can use any hitter you choose as your DH, I don’t see why you need to thumb through a separate category here.  I will conclude by saying that I think that David Ortiz is nearing the end of the line in terms of Fantasy usefulness, but I know some loyal Red Sox fan will shout otherwise.  So be it.  It’s your team.  Do what you want with it.  But when big guys decline, they tend to go down faster than the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Next Blog Post:  Fantasy Baseball Player Rating Guide:  The Pitchers

Fantasy Baseball Part II: Strategies and Tips

So let’s get right to the point.  There are a number of ways to win a fantasy baseball championship. But there are infinitely more ways to lose.  In fantasy baseball, as in war, the side that makes the fewest mistakes usually wins.

Thus, putting together a successful fantasy baseball season is less about who makes the most creative, clever decisions.  It is primarily about minimizing risks, and seizing obvious opportunities when they present themselves.

As I stated in my last post, I’ve been involved in a fantasy baseball league since the early ’90’s.  No, this doesn’t make me an expert, and I certainly don’t pretend to have a monopoly on fantasy baseball wisdom.  I can only share my own experiences that have allowed me to enjoy my fair share of success, but also, an impressive record of futility.

The strategies and tactics I’m going to share with you occur to me from time-to-time, but I don’t follow each and every one of them religiously.  There have been, however,  some self-imposed rules that I once considered inviolable that I have since discarded.

For example, for many years, Rule #1 was Never Draft Rockies Pitchers.  The thin mountain air of Coors Field meant high ERA’s and generally low strikeout totals for pitchers unlucky enough to call Coors home.

This season, for the first time, there are at least two or three pitchers on the Rockies that I would be happy to own.  Perhaps at the end of this season, if none of those pitchers live up to expectations, I’ll reinstate my old rule number #1.

So here, without further preamble, are some of my guidelines for the 2010 fantasy baseball season:

1)  Never draft a pitcher in the first round. This doesn’t mean that I don’t think any starting pitchers are worth drafting with your #1 pick.  In fact, if I have the 9th overall pick in our ten team league, and Tim Lincecum is still on the board, he would be very difficult to pass up.  But the reality is, pitchers are seldom as reliable and predictable as hitters, and you cannot afford to make a mistake with your first choice.

2)  Beware of career years outside the norm. Do you really believe Marco Scutaro will score 100 runs again?  Do you really believe Raul Ibanez will set yet another career high in slugging percentage at age 37?  How much are you willing to bet that Mike Cuddyer will match the 32 homers and 94 RBI’s he tallied last year?  All of these players are past 30 years old.  Buyer, beware.

3)  Ignore win totals. There is no strategy that will get you into more trouble than looking at a pitcher’s win total from one season and using this total to project the following season’s numbers.  For example, in 1976, Jerry Koosman finished the season with a record of 21-10, and he was runner-up to Randy Jones for the N.L. Cy Young award.

Now, if anyone other than Bill James had been playing fantasy baseball in the Spring of ’77, they would have drafted Koosman, largely based on his win-loss record, in perhaps the second round.  So what happened in 1977?  Did Koosman pitch poorly and finish with a losing record?

Well, no, and yes.  He actually pitched quite well, leading the league with 7.6 K’s per nine innings.  But the Mets as a team were terrible in ’77, offering Koosman no support at all, and he finished with a remarkably terrible record of 8-20.

That’s right, he lost 20 games the year after he won 20 games while pitching only slightly less effectively himself.  Pitchers are simply never a sure thing (see Rule #1.)

So how does one go about choosing pitchers to draft?  It’s not that hard, actually, and I have found year after year that I can begin the season with a mediocre looking staff only to have other owners in my league jealously eye-balling my rotation by the All-Star break. This brings us to item #4.

4)  Draft pitchers with high strike-out rates and low WHIPs. Dominance in the form of high K rates eventually reveals itself on the ball-field in the form of wins.  This does not contradict what I stated about how win totals aren’t important.  But if you start with wins as your base-line to project success, as opposed to high K rates and low WHIPs, you are far more likely to end up disappointed with the end results.

Let me illustrate this strategy using two examples of starting pitchers who will be drafted this spring:  Matt Garza and Scott Feldman.  Feldman, a 27 year old pitcher for the Rangers, finished last season with a promising record of 17-8 with a reasonably good WHIP of 1.28.

Garza, on the other hand, a 26 year old hurler with the Twins, finished the season with an 8-12 record despite an even slightly better WHIP of 1.26.  Who would you rather have, the 17 game winner, or the 8 game winner?

If you chose Feldman, the bigger winner, good luck to you.

Here’s why.  Feldman managed to strike out only 113 batters in just under 190 innings last season.  Garza K’d 189 in 203 innings.  That’s 76 more K’s for Garza in only about 13 more innings.  Fewer K’s mean more balls in play.  More balls in play lead eventually to many more hits, opportunities for errors by the defense, and bigger innings by the opposing offense.

Strikeout pitchers with reasonably low walk totals get themselves out of many more jams, with less damage done, than contact pitchers.  There are just far more opportunities for dominance by a strikeout pitcher than for a contact pitcher, and far more opportunities to fail for a contact pitcher, who, in Feldman’s case, also happens to pitch in one of the best hitter’s parks in baseball.  Which leads me directly to item #5

5)  Draft the Ball-Park: Look, obviously, when you are talking about great players such as Albert Pujols or a pitcher like Roy Halladay, ball-park factors are largely incidental.  Put them on any of the planets in our Solar System, and they’ll find ways to succeed.  But for many of the mere mortals out there, the ballpark they call home for 81 games during the season can make a big difference in the level of success they achieve.

In general, I like to find talented young hitters who have shown ability but still haven’t had the right opportunity, put them in a hitter’s park like Philadelphia or Texas, and you have a recipe for success.  Two players who, going into last season, fit that description exactly were Nelson Cruz of Texas and the Phillies Jayson Werth.

Neither player had previously enjoyed a full-time job with their clubs, but both men had shown solid slugging abilities in part-time or platoon stints.  Each of them blossomed into extremely valuable commodities last season as they took advantage of playing regularly in hitter-friendly parks to amass impressive numbers.  (You can look up their numbers on your own; no need to reprint them here.)

For pitchers, this strategy works just as well, but in reverse, of course.  Find young arms that have shown some talent, check to see if they pitch in pitcher-friendly ball-parks, and you will probably find a diamond in the rough (the still very young Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers comes to mind.)

TIP Alert! About a half dozen of the best pitcher’s parks in the country are in both league’s Western Divisions.

6)  Beware of catchers: Look, there’s a reason why Bill James in his book, “The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract” ranks Darrell Porter as the 18th best catcher of all time.  There just haven’t been all that many great catchers, folks.  Currently, Mike Napoli (yes, Mike Napoli) of the Angels is a top five A.L. catcher.  And Chris Iannetta of Colorado, along with his .228 batting average (in Colorado, or God’s sake?) is top ten in the N.L.

This past season, one participant in our league decided to try to corner the market on catchers, thus garnering for himself a clear competitive edge at one position.  He drafted Jorge Posada, Russell Martin, and Geovani Soto.  Soto had been named N.L. Rookie of the Year the season before with the Cubs, and Martin (Dodgers), seemed to be among the leaders of a class of solid young N.L. catchers

For those of you who followed baseball at all last season, you know Soto was a disaster, and Martin appears to be following along the career track of Jason Kendall, and empty singles hitter with a little speed.

So, needless to say, that strategy backfired.  And why shouldn’t it?  Again,  there have been fewer than fifteen great catchers in the entire history of major league baseball.

Therefore, if you don’t end up with a once-in-a-lifetime talent like Joe Mauer (a sure first-rounder) don’t panic.  There are worse fates in fantasy baseball than to end up with Yadier Molina as your starting catcher.

7)  Avoid aging players in their decline: This is especially true at deep positions like first base.  Someone will certainly draft either Lance Berkman, age 34, or Derrek Lee, age 35, over Joey Votto, age 26 due to reputation and resume.  But neither of the two veterans offer anything like the potential upside offered by Votto.

At best, Berkman and Lee will accomplish something close to what they usually offer in their average seasons.  Votto hasn’t had anything like his best season yet.

It is not a foolish gamble to bet on a player like Votto whose OPS is already extremely impressive, who plays in a good hitters park and who can only get better.

TIP AlertAvoid with extreme prejudice!

Other players / positions who fit the aging, yet still productive bill are:  Miguel Tejada at shortstop, Chipper Jones and Michael Young at third base, Benjie Molina (catcher), Raul Ibanez, Carlos Lee, Vernon Wells and Vlad Guerrerro (OF) and the following pitchers:  Carlos Zambrano, Roy Oswalt, Joe Blanton, Andy Pettitte, Mark Buehrle and closers, Francisco Cordero, Bobby Jenks, and Fernando Rodney.

8)  Beware of Over-Hyped Rookies: (Especially Pitchers) Anyone out there remember all the hype surrounding young PHEENOM David Price last season?  The next Dwight Gooden, and all that?  To be fair, most people probably drafted Price rather conservatively last season, but even those people were almost certainly extremely disappointed with his final season totals:  10-7, 4.42 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, only 128 innings pitched.

Generally speaking, it takes most young talents a couple of years or so before they really begin demonstrating their can’t-miss talent on a regular basis.  King Felix Hernandez had been hyped to the extreme for about three years before it all came together for him last season.

Sure, there are some rookies who jump right into the Big Leagues hitting line drives all over the place (Ryan Braun), or fanning ten batters in a game (Tim Lincecum)  and never look back.  But they are few and far between, and if you build a fantasy strategy based in part on acquiring as much rookie talent as you can, you are taking an unnecessary gamble.

TIP Alert! Neither Stephen Strasburg nor Madison Bumgarner will win the Cy Young Award this season.

And finally,

Strategy #9) Draft Power at the corners: Whenever I’ve had a successful fantasy baseball season, it’s often been in part because I’ve had legitimate sluggers at first and third base.  It’s not difficult at all to draft power at first base, and if you don’t, you’re sunk.  Third base can be a little more tricky sometimes because this position isn’t always as deep as it appears to be this season.

There are lots of good hitters at third base, but not necessarily a lot of big sluggers at this position.  One player I know everyone will be watching closely is the Mets star David Wright.  Last season he hit an unbelievably low ten home runs.  That’s Mark Teahen terrritory, folks.

Everyone expects Wright to rebound in 2010, perhaps doubling his homer total to twenty, or even twenty-five.  And, if he does hit 20-25 homers, lots of people will think they’ve landed a bargain if they draft Wright in the fourth or fifth round.

But think of it this way.  Evan Longoria, A-Rod, and Mark Reynolds are almost certain to hit about twice as many homers as Wright, even if Wright doubles last season’s total.  Are you willing to concede that much run production at such an important offensive position if you don’t have to?

Moreover, several other third basemen will hit about the same amount of homers as Wright, but will be drafted much lower.  Sure, Wright also brings stolen bases to the table, but I’ve never found in my league that stolen bases win championships.  Power does.  A three-run homer trumps a double-steal any day.

Now What?

Once Draft Day finally arrives, I’m quite sure that I will do what everyone else does, adjust to the circumstances of the draft.  And every draft is different.  Like a general on a battlefield, once the shooting starts, you might as well roll the battle-plans around a half dozen cigars and drop them on the battlefield, for all the good they’ll do you.

Still, a general without a plan is more likely to freeze up in a key moment, a potentially decisive situation, precisely because he wasn’t as prepared as he should have been beforehand.  I hope the tips and strategies I’ve shared with you will offer you some tactical advantage over your adversaries in your 2010 fantasy baseball season.

If you have questions or comments about the strategies and tips I’ve shared, or would like to share some of your own, by all means, please let me know.

Next blog post:  A.L. / N.L. Fantasy Baseball Player Rating Guide


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