The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Yankees”

American League Baseball Predictions – 2013

This is the time of year when many of us baseball bloggers get carried away with what we think we know, and proceed to make fools of ourselves by attempting to predict the future of the impending baseball season.  The great thing about these sorts of predictions, of course, is that no one ever goes back to check them out.  Did you predict, for example, that the Red Sox would win the World Series last season under new manager Bobby Valentine?  See?  No one remembers you made that hideous prediction, so you don’t have to hide your head in shame.

Bryce Harper

Bryce Harper (Photo credit: L. Richard Martin, Jr.)

Having said that, it is cool when you turn out to be right.  For example, around three years ago, I predicted on this site that if anyone was to ever win the Triple-Crown again, it would be Miguel Cabrera (seriously, I did.)  Last spring, I correctly predicted that David Price would win the A.L. Cy Young award, and that the Nationals Bryce Harper would be N.L. Rookie of the Year.  Incidentally, here’s what I said about the Red Sox new manager Bobby Valentine: “Bobby V. is too much of a lightning rod for this to be a smooth year in Boston.”

In fairness, I do have to admit that I thought the Phillies would win the N.L. East (they finished right at .500) and that the Rays would win the A.L. East (they won 90 games, but finished 3rd.)  I also picked the A’ for last in the A.L. West, so of course they won their division.  For N.L. Cy Young, I picked the Brewers Yovani Gallardo.  He did win 16 games and led the league with 33 starts, and he did strike out 204 batters in 204 innings (his 4th straight 200-K season), but his ERA was a rather high 3.66 and his WHIP was 1.304.  In other words, he wasn’t really all that close to winning the Cy Young award.

Now, with little in the way of insightful analysis, here are my predictions for 2013.

American League

East

1)  Tampa Bay – Still the best pitching and most overall talent of the bunch.  Longoria will win MVP award.

2)  Toronto – Made a big splash in the off-season, but that doesn’t always portend a division title.

3)  Baltimore – Could be for real after-all.  Over-achieved last year, but Yanks & BoSox are ripe for the picking.

4)  New York – Older and more obsolete than last month’s Apple product, and more expensive as well.

5)  Boston – Forensic examiners are still trying to piece together last year’s car-wreck.  Lester becomes Steve Avery.

Central 

1)  Detroit – Verlander and Scherzer K nearly 500 guys between them.  V-Mart is back.  Another division title.

2)  Kansas City –  Acquisition James Shields adds credibility, and young hitters step up and rake = 2 game over .500.

3)  White Sox – Konerko & Co. can pound the ball, but team is full of inconsistent players = 2 games under .500.

4)  Cleveland – Went out and got Michael Bourn (The Bourne Futility), but this is still a 76 win team.

5)  Minnesota – Mauer turns 30 in April.  His knees turn 38.  Scott Diamond is the de facto ace of the staff. ‘Nuff said.

West

1)  Anaheim – Trout, Pujols, and Hamilton, oh my!  Trout is great again, and this time, all the pieces fit = 93 wins.

2)  Texas – G.M. Nolan Ryan finally gives up on manager Ron Washington this year as Rangers win fewer than 90.

3)  A’s – Nice year last year.  Solid group of young pitchers, and a sound organization = 85 wins.  Poverty sucks.

4)  Seattle – Like the ugliest kid in the class, Seattle is now thrilled that a new uglier kid, Houston, has just moved in.

5)  Houston – Remember the glory days of Bagwell, Biggio, & Berkman, or Wynn, Richard & Cedeno?  Ancient history.

The Angels go to the World Series, and lose in seven games.

Next up, my National League Predictions for 2013.

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Seven Baseball Stories You May Have Missed in 2012

There were lots of great stories this year.  The unexpectedly strong showings of the Orioles and the A’s, as well as the Nats, probably top the list.  Also, many people thought that no one would ever win another Triple Crown.  In past years, I’ve read articles that sought to “prove” that it could never happen again.  Miguel Cabrera’s remarkable achievement may be the last time many of us ever witness this event in our lifetimes.

Mike Trout’s historic rookie season was one for the ages.  No other rookie in history ever produced a 30 homer, 40 steal season, leading the league with 49 steals.  He also led the A.L. in runs scored (129) and in OPS+ (171).  It’ll be interesting to see how the vote for the A.L. MVP award turns out.

But there were several other “smaller” stories, if you will, that were no less worthy of notice.  Some of you will already be aware of some of these facts, stories, and other tidbits of information.  But, in general, the items that follow were each, in my estimation, a bit under-reported.  Then again, I’m attracted to relatively useless trivia, so please bear with me.

craig kimbrel

craig kimbrel (Photo credit: taylor magnone)

1)  Craig Kimbrel:  Kimbrel accomplished something this season that no pitcher, not Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax, Mariano Rivera, Rob Dibble, Dick Radatz, or any other flamethrower, ever did before.  Kimbrel struck out half the batters he faced (116 out of 231.)  How crazy is that?  He also struck out about four batters for every hit (27) he surrendered in his 62.2 innings pitched.  His ERA of 1.01 and ERA+ of 399 are just cartoonish.  Oh, and did I mention he led the league in saves with 42?  Displaying impeccable control, he walked just 14 batters, and hit just two.  So yes, he’s a pretty good pitcher.

2)  Carlos Beltran:  Beltran became the eighth player in baseball history to join the 300 homer, 300 stolen base club.  He is the only switch-hitter in history to have both 300 homer and steals.  Currently, he has 334 homers (which puts him in the top 100 all time), and 306 stolen bases.  His outstanding 86.7 career stolen base percentage ranks 3rd best of all time.  Finally, Beltran’s career WAR of 62.3 — about the same as Ernie Banks — certainly places Beltran in the conversation about future Hall of Famers.

Joe Blanton

Joe Blanton (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

3)  Joe Blanton:  I love Joe Blanton.  I have a separate post in mind devoted entirely to Joe Blanton.  I might even get around to writing it.  In the meantime, you might not find Blanton’s 10-13 record, 4.71 ERA or ERA+ of 84 to be awe-inspiring.  But did you know his strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.88), ranked 2nd in the entire National League?  Did you know that his 1.6 walks / 9 innings was third best in the league?  How about that he had more shutouts (1) than Cy Young candidate Johnny Cueto?  In fact, Cueto had only four more strikeouts than Blanton (170 to 166) in 2012, and it took Cueto 26 more innings to top Blanton.  Did you know these little bits of trivia?  Well, know you do.  And don’t you feel better knowing them?

4)  New York Yankees:  So the Yankees made the playoffs again.  Did you know the Yankees have now made the playoffs fifty-one times in their history?  All fifty-one times have occurred since 1921.  That means that over the past 92 seasons, the Yankees have made the playoffs 55% of the time.  No other team is particularly close.

Hilltop Park, home of the Highlanders

Hilltop Park, home of the Highlanders (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Dodgers, for example, have made the playoffs 26 times since 1916.  That’s about 27% of the last 97 seasons.  The Cardinals have made the playoffs 25 times since 1926.  That’s about 29% of the best 87 seasons.  Not a bad showing.  The Giants and the A’s have each made the playoffs 24 times since 1905.  The Braves have been there now 22 of the past 99 seasons.  The Red Sox, 20 times since 1903.  Since the beginning of the twentieth century, no other team has ever made the playoffs as many as 20 times.

So the Yankees have made the playoffs about twice as often as the next best set of teams.  Even to someone like me who is not a Yankees fan, that’s an impressive run of success.

5)  Colorado Rockies:  On the other end of the spectrum, the Rockies have now existed for twenty seasons, and 2012 was their worst one yet.  Their .395 win-loss percentage was the lowest in team history.  You know you’ve had a bad year when the highest WAR recorded on the team was accumulated by a relief pitcher (Rafael Betancourt: 2.6.)  Their attendance this year was down to 2.6 million, not a bad total, but this once proud franchise topped well over three million spectators per year every season from their debut in 1993 through 2001.  In fact, in ’93, they drew about 4.5 million fans.

The Rockies are long past the point where it can be said that they’re a young franchise going through growing pains.  Now they are simply painful to watch.

6)  Alex Rios:  A fair amount has been written about the comeback season enjoyed by White Sox D.H., Adam Dunn, and rightly so.  Yet his teammate, outfielder Alex Rios, also managed a remarkable turnaround in 2012.  In 2011, Rios batted just .227, slugged .348, and posted an OPS+ of 63.  He hit 13 homers, stole eleven bases, and drove in 44 runs.  In 2012, he bounced back in a big way, batting .304, slugging .516, and posted an OPS+ of 124.  He also slugged 25 homers, stole 23 bases, and drove in 91 runs.

In other words, Rios was essentially twice the player in 2012 as he was in 2011.  Considering he was playing his age 31 season, that has to rate as one of the more unlikely comeback seasons in baseball history.  Considering the ChiSox are on the hook with Alex Rios for the next three years, they’ll have ample opportunity to find out which one is the “real” Alex Rios.

Omar Vizquel, with the Cleveland Indians

Omar Vizquel, with the Cleveland Indians (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

7)  Omar Vizquel:  At age 45, Omar Vizquel is finally calling it quits.  He has certainly compiled some impressive stats over the course of his career, especially with his glove.  The three-time All Star won eleven Gold Gloves in his career, and his .985 career fielding percentage as a shortstop is the best in baseball history (minimum, 4,000 chances.)

Vizquel’s 28.4 dWAR is also among the top ten players in baseball history whose primary position was shortstop.  He ranks third all-time in assists, with 7,676, and 11th in putouts with 4,102.

As an offensive player, Vizquel accumulated 2,877 hits, good for 40th place in baseball history.  His 2,264 singles are 16th best.  His 456 doubles are more than HOF’ers Joe Morgan, Rod Carew, Barry Larkin and Luke Appling.  He also stole 404 bases, and scored 1,445 runs.

Does Vizquel belong in the Hall of Fame?  On that issue, I abstain.  I’ll leave that decision up to the BBWAA to decide five years from now.

So there you have it,  seven items you may not have known about.  I hope you feel much more enlightened by this trivia I have shared with you.

You’re welcome.

Baseball Summers Long Gone

By the time my brother Mark and I were ten and twelve-years old, respectively, our summers had settled into a comfortably predictable pattern.  Wake up to a sultry, summer morning, have some Hawaiian Punch fruit drink (5% real fruit juice!), King Vitamin cereal, throw on some old clothes, then head out to round up our friends.

Scott, Johnny, Tony, and occasionally the Jelleff brothers comprised our small, stable group.  In later years, my older cousin Jimmy would sometimes come all the way over from Stratford to flesh out our crew.

Charlie Finley’s Oakland A’s had just finished a remarkable three-year run as World Champions.  Now the Big Red Machine, as relentlessly efficient and mechanical as The Terminator, dominated the baseball diamond.

I was a Mets fan.  My brother Mark was a Braves fan because he liked their logo.  Scott was an A’s fan, and Johnny liked the Yankees.  Tony, a quiet, wiry Portuguese kid, kept his loyalties to himself.

Stopping first at Scott’s house just down the street, we might first trade some baseball cards (Tony Perez for Bert Campaneris straight up), then Scott would show us his latest Iron Maiden or Black Sabbath record.  Eventually, we would gather up our uncertain assortment of bats, gloves and balls before sauntering down Maplewood Avenue to collect Johnny and Tony.  They lived side-by-side in identical gray two-family houses with no yards, front or back.

Tony’s black-clad grandmother was always sweeping the sidewalk in front of their house.  Her smile offered us a view of her few remaining teeth, each one a sentry guarding her ironic, foreign laugh.

Johnny was once again in trouble with his dad, as his younger sister would always gleefully announce to us upon opening the back door to their modest home.  Johnny was a tough little nine-year old with a keen sense of humor.  He would back down for no one.  Slow as Ernie Lombardi wearing a ball-and-chain, Johnny could hit and field, but if a ball got by him, you knew you had yourself at least a triple.

For some reason, it never occurred to us to bring any water along as we trekked over to middle-class Fairfield to play ball.  The thirty minute walk wasn’t so bad in the late morning, although the burnt orange sun was already high in the sky.

Playing in Fairfield was always a crapshoot.  Sometimes, you got lucky and would be able to play uninterrupted for most of the day.  But as often as not, a station-wagon full of pampered, interchangeable suburban kids would invade our field like chubby white locusts.  This would usually happen, of course, in the middle of a game.

Someone’s overbearing dad – they always looked vaguely like either Robert Conrad or Lee Majors – would gruffly announce that they had “reserved” the field.

We knew this was bullshit, of course, but in those days young boys generally didn’t argue with adults.  And we never happened to have a handy grown-up of our own tagging along to provide us cover.

Johnny would just mutter, “Aw shit,” to himself, and we’d trudge off back up and across King’s Highway past Caldor and the County Cinema Theater (some movie about a man-eating shark was very popular that summer.)

Back in Bridgeport, we would inevitably stop off at the family owned and operated A&G Market where I bought my first pack of baseball cards in 1974.  We would purchase a lunch of RC Cola (look under the cap to see if you’re a winner!), and a bag of funyuns.

Fortified with this food pyramid-busting meal, we would climb a chain-link fence and spend the next several hours running, shouting, hitting and throwing on the hot black-tar pavement.

We took the game deadly seriously.  Every pitch, swing, and tag was grounds for an argument.  Scott, hot-tempered as a drunk Red Sox fan at a Yankee game, would throw his glove to the ground, yelling in his nasally, pre-pubescent voice about what total crap the final call was.  Johnny would just laugh at Scott’s antics, which pissed Scott off even more.  Eventually Tony or I would have to step between them to get the game going again.

If not interrupted in late afternoon by someone’s mother or young sister coming by to collect one of us for some unsavory, real-world task (Johnny needs to take out the garbage; Scott needs to come home to watch his two brothers; Mark and I need to go to church:  “Christ mom, on a Wednesday afternoon?  You’ve got to be kidding”), we would play all the way up to suppertime.  As if triggered by some ancient primordial reflex, mothers all over the neighborhood would start shouting out the door for their children to come in and get washed up for supper.

Exactly when all of this ended, I can’t really say.  It must have been around 1978 or ‘79, but I can’t be sure.  One day I was just a kid playing ball with my friends.  Then, without warning or regret, it just stopped.  Someone may have moved away.  New friendships were forged at new schools.  Girls suddenly popped up like dandelions on a spring lawn.

I’m quite sure, though, that I had no idea then that the most important time of my life — the period that essentially shaped the man I have become – had disappeared for good, and would one day, many years later, try desperately to avoid being pinned down and recaptured by mere words.

 

If Babe Ruth Were Alive Today

If Babe Ruth were alive today…

…he’d appear on billboards advertising the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

… he’d be the wealthiest, most famous athlete in the world.

… his wife would throw him out of his house for having numerous affairs with other women.

… there would be at least two paternity suits pending against him, which would eventually be settled out of court.

…. he would hold a press conference apologizing to “Baseball fans all over the world, especially you kids out there,” for letting them down with his irresponsible behaviors.

… he’d make the All-Star team every season, whether he deserved it or not.

… he would have a cameo in an ABC after-school drama about the importance of staying in school.

… we can’t say for sure that he wouldn’t have used Performance Enhancing Drugs.

… he would be the unanimous, first overall pick in every fantasy baseball draft around the country, ahead of Albert Pujols.

… his name would be attached to a summer camp for at-risk youth.

… he would break both Barry Bonds’ career and single-season home run records.

… both political parties would court him to speak at their party fundraisers around the country, though Ruth himself wouldn’t have any idea who these candidates actually were.

… he would star in his own T.V. reality show in which we would learn that Mrs. Ruth would often get annoyed that The Babe would drink orange juice right out of the carton while standing in his boxer shorts in front of an open refrigerator.

… he would NOT review his at-bats on videotape.

… he would require a rub-down before and after every game with a professional Swiss masseuse as part of his contract.

… his favorite movies would be “Raiders of the Lost Ark,”  “Ghostbusters,” and, of course, “The Natural.”

… he would be available to pitch out of the bullpen.

… he would have greeted President Obama with a slap on the back and a “How ya doin’, kidd0?”  VP Joe Biden couldn’t help but laugh.

… Roger Clemens would buzz him with a high & tight fastball.  Ruth would hit Clemens’ next pitch into the upper deck for a game-winning home run.  After the game, Ruth would tell the press that Clemens fastball “was nothing special.”

… he would still, at some point in his career, play for the Yankees.

… he’d wonder why “all the dames wear pants.”

… he’d fart loudly during manager Joe Girardi’s initial club-house meeting, thereby undermining Girardi’s authority for the rest of the season.

…he’d play regular season baseball games against, and with, African-Americans for the first time.

… he’d go to a Denny’s Restaurant every Saturday morning for the Grand Slam Breakfast.

…he would own a Hummer.

… he would play his first night baseball game.

…he’d max out a dozen credit cards.

… 21st Century America wouldn’t have any more idea how to contain him than did 20th Century America.

… we’d realize how small and inconsequential our modern celebrities have become.

… America would once again realize what it is like to have a Hero.

A Delicate Imbalancing Act

It is the conventional wisdom among many fans and sports-writers these days that baseball suffers from a serious case of competitive imbalance.

The rich teams like the Yankees (always the Yankees) enjoy an unfair competitive edge over their disadvantaged competitors  due to the monstrously large size of their media-market.

A few other teams, notably the Mets, Red Sox, Dodgers, Angels and perhaps the Cubbies also get to bid on the high-profile free agents, leaving the small-market teams gazing woefully in the window like so many Dickensian street-urchins.

Things have gotten so bad, so the logic goes, that only a salary-cap can save baseball from itself.

The on-line blogosphere, Twitter, and all of the other domains frequented by the chattering masses, constantly sling arrow after arrow at this paper tiger, trying, ostensibly out of a sense of fairness, to slay this ravenous beast before it ruthlessly devours yet another season.

And yet, the reality is that the competitive balance between baseball’s thirty teams is as strong as it’s ever been, and is much stronger than it has often been.

Since the year 2001, eight different teams have won the World Series in nine seasons of competition.  Only the decade from 1978-87, when ten different teams won the World Series, featured a greater diversity of championship teams.

Moreover, although free agent signings have played a part in the overall formula of putting together a championship baseball team, a significant proportion of the star players on these teams have either come up through the team’s farm systems, or they were acquired in astute trades.

Let’s use the 2006 champion St. Louis Cardinals as an example.  Only two significant players on that team, Chris Carpenter and Jason Isringhausen, were obtained via free agency.  The combined cost of these two players, however, was a nominal three million dollars.  One would think that even teams like the Royals and the Pirates could have afforded one or both of those players.

The total team payroll for the Cardinals that championship season was a relatively modest 88 million dollars.

The 2005 Chicago White Sox are another example of how a franchise can build a championship baseball team without leading the league in spending.  The entire payroll for this team was about 75 million dollars, and the only significant free-agent the White Sox added that season was Jose Contreras, who ended up with a reasonably productive fifteen victories.

And although last season’s Yankees won the World Series after purchasing both Mark Teixeira and C.C. Sabathia, they also had farm system products Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Robinson Cano, and Phil Hughes to thank as well for their 27th World Series Championship.

That’s far more talent than the Royals and Pirates have produced from their farm systems combined over the past decade.

While it’s true that the Yankees broke the bank last season with a payroll in excess of 200 million dollars, it is also true that their example has been an anomaly over the past decade.  Most teams, like the Mets, for example, who have relied primarily on free agent signings (Johan Santana, Carlos Beltran, K-Rod) to bring a world championship home, have failed miserably.

Conversely, most teams that have won, or have simply played in the World Series over the past decade, have been in the middle or upper-middle tier of spenders.  A couple have even been near the bottom of the payroll list.

Now the argument at this point becomes, of course, that small market teams  just can’t generate enough revenue to compete with even the medium market teams.  Well, there are three basic flaws with that argument:

Flaw #1:  Each franchise is owned by a millionaire, or a group of millionaires, who have to decide how important it is for them to field a championship ball-club.  The truth is (as we have just witnessed with the penny-pinching Marlins signing of Josh Johnson to a long-term contract) that the money IS ALWAYS there, if ownership decides to open their collective checkbook.  Meanwhile, what is the excuse for poor scouting, player development, and lack of sound judgment when making trades?

Flaw #2:  The second argument that advocates of competitive reform make is that baseball is a business, and you can’t expect the owners of small market teams to throw good money after bad in a vain attempt at catching the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Mets, etc.

Yet in what other realm of the American business world do owners of small franchises EXPECT and, stunningly, RECEIVE, gifts of cash from their bigger competitors to “level” the playing field.  The owners of these small baseball franchises then generally pocket the cash, fail to improve their product-line, then expect that baseball will come up with even more creative ways to allow them to enjoy a profit without being held to even a minimum standard of improvement.

Flaw 3:  Teams like the Royals, Brewers, Pirates, Reds, A’s, etc, are NOT directly competing with the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, or Angels.  These small market teams are more accurately competing directly with the other teams in their own division for a shot at the playoffs.

The Brewers, for example, simply have to play just slightly better than the Reds, Pirates, Astros and Cubs for a shot at the playoffs.  And once in the playoffs, as several Cinderella teams have showed over the years, anything can happen.  The team with the best record during the regular season does not always win.

This is why when I read respectable sports-writers make arguments that, for example, the Brewers should trade 26-year old Prince Fielder now for maximum value so they can obtain blue-chip prospects, the lack of logic in that argument leaves me dumbfounded.

Here’s why.

The Brewers, with Fielder and Braun in the middle of their lineup, and several other at least league-average players, have a legitimate chance of competing for the top spot in their division.  Isn’t that the reason franchises field teams in the first place?  Isn’t that why fans come out to the park to see their team?  Isn’t that why (perhaps ironically) the Brewers signed free-agent Randy Wolf?

Moreover, if the Brewers did put Fielder on the open-market and obtained a couple of blue-chip prospects in return (who might be only a couple of years younger than Fielder), wouldn’t they just end up with the same dilemma a couple of years from now regarding whether or not to keep these new young players?

Would you then turn around and trade them as well for prospects?  What’s the point of making trades for young talent in the first place if you don’t plan on keeping them around long enough to help your team make a run at the playoffs?

This is called a prospect-fetish; its danger is that it masquerades as a sensible solution to the apparent dilemmas posed by direct competition.

Let’s stop for a minute and ask another question.  Why do some people assume that what is in the best interests of small market teams is naturally in the best interests of Major League Baseball?

Those who advocate for a salary cap, for example, base their arguments on the presumption that because this salary cap would, in effect, “hurt” the Yankees chances of future success, then small market teams can only benefit.  And if this new system allows small market teams greater access to top-tier talent, they can only be more competitive as a result.

But I ask once again,  how is this zero-sum game philosophy (your loss is automatically my win) in the best interests of BASEBALL?

This is not a rhetorical question.  Here’s why.

Guess which teams benefit the most when the World Champion Yankees or Red Sox come to town?  It is the small market teams (who refuse, or, out of sheer incompetency, are unable, to field a quality team) that benefit the most.

Attendance is always higher in Kansas City, or in any of the smaller markets, when the Yankees or Red Sox come to town.  In other words, EVERYONE WINS when these high quality teams come for a visit.   Revenues go up for both the Royals AND the Yankees.

Does baseball really want to consider putting a system in place that could, in effect, kill the goose that lays the golden eggs?

There is one solution to this so-called competitive imbalance that was once used extensively as a means by which a team would seek to enhance its bottom line.

Move the franchise.

Take a look at how many teams moved from one city to another in search of greener pastures throughout the 20th century.  The Dodgers, Giants, Braves (twice), A’s (twice), and the Senators, are just some of the teams that moved primarily for financial reasons.  Some cities gained teams; others lost them, and some of those who lost teams later gained new franchises.

There are thirty major league franchises, yet several teams play in American cities that don’t rank anywhere near the top thirty in terms of population.  Kansas City, Oakland, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh rank, respectively, 35th, 44th, 56th and 60th in population.

Meanwhile, Charlotte, NC ranks 18th, Las Vegas ranks 28th, and Tucson, AZ ranks 32nd.  Raleigh, NC, Mesa, AZ and several other cities are moving up fast.  These cities also have the advantage of being in the sun-belt, a more natural setting in which to play baseball.

Change is difficult, but baseball is a business. And if it is in the best interests of both the teams themselves and of Major League Baseball for a franchise to move, then sentimental posturing, aided and abetted by inefficient and ultimately pointless systems like revenue-sharing, shouldn’t stand in the way.

Ultimately, then, the Pirates,  assuming they commit themselves to top-notch scouting and player-development, might someday be able to afford to sign that free-agent who could turn out to be the last piece in their franchises’ championship puzzle.

Only it may happen in Charlotte instead of Pittsburgh.

But, hey, Pittsburgh, you would still have the Steelers.

Fantasy Baseball Player Ratings: The Pitchers

This is the final installment of my four-part Fantasy Baseball Preview.  In my previous post, I rated over 120 major league hitters by position, with accompanying commentary.  In this post, I will sort starting pitchers into four primary categories:  The Studs, The Near Studs, The Average Javiers, and The Cannon Fodder.  Pitchers in bold print are sleepers that I believe should be aggressively targeted.  Pitchers listed in italics are potential bust candidates.  At the end of this post, I will briefly discuss Relief Pitchers / Closers. 

I define Studs as pitchers who have already proven themselves to be true #1 staff aces that are Cy Young worthy contenders, pitchers you should consider drafting very early.  None of them are likely to be busts, unless the injury bug catches up to them.  Obviously, there aren’t that many of them.  Here they are:

1)  Tim Lincecum – Can he win a 3rd consecutive Cy Young?  Regardless, he is young and dominant.  His win total will actually go up this year.

2)  Roy Halladay – Future Hall-of-Famer could (will) absolutely dominate N.L. this season.

3)  Zach Greinke –  All that potential finally came together.  Not a fluke.

4)  Felix Hernandez – See Above, Greinke.

5)  C.C. Sabathia –  New York City pressure?  What pressure? The only sure thing in the Yanks rotation.

6)  Justin Verlander – As long as he keeps those walks under control, he’s fine.

7)  Dan Haren – I know, I know, he collapses in the 2nd half year after year.  But if finishing a season with a WHIP of 1.00 represents a collapse, I’ll take it.  And 223 K’s to 38 walks is simply amazing.

8)  Adam Wainwright – Even better in the second half last season, and still just 28-years old.  No reason to doubt he’s for real.  Only question is, will last year’s huge jump in innings pitched catch up to him?

9)  Chris Carpenter – When healthy, virtually no one is better.  But health will always remain an issue, especially for a 34-year old with a long injury history.

10)  Johan Santana –  Still has to be considered an ace until he proves otherwise.

11)  Cliff Lee – Ranking him #11 doesn’t mean he won’t win a Cy Young in Seattle this season.  In fact, he’s my choice to do just that.  Great park for him.  I’m estimating he’ll win 20 games in his contract season.

The Near Studs are pitchers who I think have a good chance to pitch well enough to garner at least some, perhaps a lot, of attention when voting for the Cy Young Award rolls around after this season ends.  These are, quite simply, the pitchers who will make or break your chances to win a Fantasy League Championship this season. All have exhibited some degree of excellence to this point, and all are young enough and (apparently) healthy enough to take a jump into the Stud category going into next season.

1)  Josh Johnson –  Has gone 22-6 since returning from Tommy John surgery a couple of years ago, averaging around 8 K’s per 9 innings.  Hasn’t turned 27 yet.  Could be in-line for a very big year.

2) Jon Lester –  A young, left-handed strikeout pitcher who hasn’t peaked yet.  Go get him, or you’ll kick yourself every time he tosses a dominant start.

3)  Josh Beckett –  The reason why I like Boston to win the A.L. East this season is their pitching depth which, despite the Vazquez signing in New York, is still better than the Yankees rotation.  Beckett has shown flashes of brilliance, has been used relatively conservatively over the years (he’s now almost 30), and is in his contract year.  Good year to grab him.

4)  Jake Peavy –  Pitched extremely well in a limited stint in Chicago at the end of last year, but he has an injury history, will now be pitching in a good hitter’s park, and will now have to cope with a DH every outing.  But even with those qualifiers, he will be a high quality pitcher.

5)  Matt Cain –  May become the best pitcher who never wins more than fifteen games, at least as long as he pitches in San Francisco.  Excellent young talent, but probably destined to always be a really good #2 pitcher.

6)  Cole Hamels –  2009 was a lost season for Hamels.  He simply threw too many hittable pitches for a guy with his stuff.  If his head is on straight this season, he will provide a nice counterpoint to his new staff-mate, Roy Halladay.  Still just 26-years old,too talented to be just an average pitcher.

7)  Tommy Hanson – Posted a 2.89 ERA in his first go-round in the N.L.  Strikes out nearly a batter per inning.  Composed, but not over-c0nfident.  Enjoy watching him grow into a true ace in the next couple of seasons.

8)  Clayton Kershaw –  Still very young (22) but has dominant stuff.  Very nice pitcher’s park, too.  Only downside, throws too many pitches to ever get to 7th or 8th inning.  If he learns to be more efficient, look out.

9)  Ricky Nolasco –  People will look at his 5.06 ERA from a year ago, and walk away.  That’s good news for the rest of us.  Cut about a run and a half from that ERA this season (which he will) and you have a 27-year old pitcher who K’s a batter an inning, has a good WHIP, and is about to bust out.

10)  Yovani Gallardo –  This 24-year old was used carefully by the Brewers last season, but still K’d 204 batters in just 185 innings.  Walks a few too many, but the league hit just .219 against him.  Could become a Stud as early as this season.

11)  Matt Garza –  Similar to Ricky Nolasco in that people will look at his won-lost record from a year ago and think he is a back-0f-the-rotation starter.  He’s much better than that.  League hit only .233 against him in ’09.  Could finish in top ten in Cy Young voting this season.

12)  Ubaldo Jimenez –  Although he calls Coors Field home, his fastball is so dominant, it really doesn’t matter where he pitches.  At age 26 posted a 1.23 WHIP, a .229 batting average against, and 198 K’s.  He’s a good one.

The Average Javiers are quite a mixed bag, and, of course, there are a lot of them.  Being an Average Javier doesn’t necessarily mean that this is a pitcher of relatively  low value.  In fact, a few pitchers in this category, like Javier Vazquez himself (for whom this category is named) will provide a reasonable amount of value per draft position.

In general, these are pitchers you will need to draft to round out your rotation who are either improving or are declining, but who either aren’t a complete waste of roster space, or haven’t yet proven themselves to be rated consistently higher than this category allows.  A few may improve over the course of the season to be rated as Near Studs, or perhaps even as Studs, going into next season.  But they still have a lot to prove.

1) Javier Vazquez  –  So let’s start with Javier himself.  I wrote an entire blog post about Javier entitled “A Tale of Two Pitchers.”  Javier enjoyed his finest season last year, at age 33, pitching for the Braves.  In another season, with a bit less competition, he might have won himself a Cy Young award.  So why rate him as an Average Himself?  Because although he has always had excellent control and a nice strikeout rate, his win totals and even, in several years, his ERA, seldom quite seem to match his peripheral numbers.  In other words, outside of a couple of seasons, he has never been much more, when all is said and done, than an average pitcher.  This has been especially true when he has pitched in the A.L., as he will again this season.  So draft him as a #3, and you will probably be content with his final numbers.

2)  Aroldis Chapman –  The Reds signed this Cuban defector to a six-year deal in January.  His birth-date is either 2/28/88, or 9/11/87, depending on which web-site you choose to believe.  But for all we know, he was born on 5/29/81, so he is either very young, or already over-the-hill.  He allegedly hit 102 MPH on the Radar Gun.  And he can perform open-heart surgery with nothing but a spoon.  Or something.  Anyway, know one has any idea what the Reds are going to get for their money, least of all, the Reds.  But it should be fun watching.  He may be an Ace, a Near Ace, Just Another Javier, or Cannon Fodder.  So I will allow him to settle into category #3, for now.

3) Scott Baker –  Here’s a guy we know much more about.  Baker is 28-years old, made 33 starts last year, and tossed 200 innings for the Twins.  His ERA was 4.37, which may not seem all that impressive until you remember that it was well over 7.00 at the end of May.  Which means, of course, he pitched excellent baseball over most of the final four months of last season.  Oh, yeah, and his WHIP was a very nice 1.19.  And now he will pitch his home games in what will probably be a park friendlier to pitchers.  There’s a lot to like here, but I couldn’t pull the trigger on calling him a Near Ace just yet.

4)  Roy Oswalt –  It saddens me to rate Oswalt in this category, because I think he had a chance to be a Hall-of-Famer.  But a declining strikeout rate, pitching for a bad team, and last year’s poor performance lead me to believe that, at age 32, his best days are behind him.

5)  A.J. Burnett –  Guess which three pitchers have the most second-half strikeouts over the past four years:  Sabathia, Javier Vazquez, and A.J. Burnett, all now pitching for the Yanks.  This was a very astute move by Brian Cashman to stack his rotation with guys who can get K’s during crunch time.  It also reflects his understanding that his Yanks team is usually below average defensively, something strike0ut pitchers don’t have to worry about.

But enough of Brian Cashman.  How about A.J. Burnett?  Well, Burnett, like Vazquez, will once again put up some nice strike0ut numbers, but unlike Vazquez, he will walk too many batters (97 last season) have a higher WHIP, and quite possibly get injured, to boot.  Burnett has occasional flashes of brilliance, but there is generally less than meets the eye here.  At age 33, he is good, but not great, and we have already seen his best.

6)  John Lackey –  If healthy (he has started each of the past two seasons on the D.L.), Lackey is a very solid #3 starter.  Now 31-years old, he has a significant amount of wear-and-tear on his right arm, but pitching for the Red Sox should continue to allow him to be a successful pitcher.  Expect 14-15 wins, about 190-200 innings pitched, and an ERA around 3.75.

7)  Ted Lilly –  Has been underrated for a few years now.  But at age 34, and coming off of shoulder surgery a few months ago, he is far from a sure thing.  Still, last season he demonstrated the best control of his career and recorded a very nice WHIP of 1.06.  Watch him carefully in Spring Training, and stay on top of the medical reports.

8)  Brett Anderson –  Unlike Lilly and Lackey, Anderson in very young (22).  His second half last season, during his rookie campaign, was very impressive.  But he is bound to go through some growing pains, still has a lot to learn, and pitches on a team that will give him little run support.  Also, he is not a huge strikeout pitcher.  Temper your enthusiasm with caution here.

9) Edwin Jackson –  I don’t enjoy writing this because I like this young pitcher, but I think he will be a bust this season.  He was over-worked in Detroit, and his second half numbers declined significantly compared to the first-half.  Now he will pitch in Arizona, one of the best hitter’s parks in the N.L.  Let someone else take the chance.

10)  Max Scherzer –  The pitcher Detroit received from Arizona in a swap of two young arms.  Scherzer, unlike Jackson, could enjoy his best season yet.  Even though he now has to face a DH instead of a pitcher, his high strikeout rate and relatively weak competition in the A.L. Central should allow him to enjoy a pretty successful season, if he improves his command of the strike zone.

11)  Chad Billingsley – By now, I should have been able to rate Billingsley as a Near Ace, but Manager Torre decided to conduct an experiment in human anatomy by allowing Billingsley to throw more pitches than anyone else in the known universe in the first half of last season.  After that, this young man’s arm was toast; you could see him physically laboring with every pitch through the late summer.  Maybe he’ll bounce back.  If he does, he’ll move up a notch on this rating scale.

12)  Wandy Rodriguez –  Guess how old he is?  Did you say somewhere in the 27-29 range.  Nope, he’s already 31-years old.  One fantasy baseball magazine claims the best is yet to come.  Nope, he’s as good as he’s ever going to get, and, on a bad Astros team, he might not be quite as good this coming season, considering he enjoyed almost all of his success at home last year.  A good pitcher, but not a blossoming Near Ace.

13)  Ben Sheets –  If truly healthy, which is what the A’s are banking on (at least until the All-Star break) he is actually a Near Ace, perhaps even an Ace.  But he didn’t throw a single pitch in anger (I love that phrase) last season, and, pitching for the A’s, he has his work cut out for him if he is to enjoy a successful season.  Take a late-round flier on him, and it could pay off.

14)  Kevin Millwood –  If nothing else, extremely durable.  Now in Baltimore, he enjoyed a fairly successful season last year with a 3.67 ERA in just under 200 innings while pitching his home games in a great hitter’s park.  But Millwood is now 35 and will be pitching in the toughest division in baseball, the A.L. East.  His K rate dipped to a career low last year.  Next year, he will rate as Cannon Fodder.  Steer clear.

15)  Francisco Liriano –  Last years numbers, 5-13 with a 5.80 ERA and a WHIP of 1.55 will scare away most fantasy managers.  But there are four reasons for optimism going into this season: 1. He is still just 26-years old, and will be another year removed from his elbow operation.  2. His strikeout rate last year remained pretty high despite his problems 3. The new ballpark in Minnesota should play to his strengths 4. He dominated in the Winter League.  Could pay big dividends this season.

16)  Scott Kazmir –  I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt here, because he may already be washed up at the age of 26 (!)  In a curious way, Rick Peterson, the Mets pitching coach who allegedly convinced the Mets to trade Kazmir for Victor Zambrano, may have been right about Kazmir.  He didn’t think this guy’s arm would hold up for long, and it hasn’t.  That’s not to say that the Mets received any value in return, but at least Kazmir hasn’t won a Cy Young.

17)  The White Sox Pitching Staff (minus Peavey) – Mark Buehrle, John Danks, and Gavin Floyd are the Wonder Bread of the American League.  They all pitch to contact, they all keep their walk totals under control, they are not big-time strikeout pitchers, and none of them will ever win a Cy Young award.  Buehrle is the de facto ace, despite his 105 strikeouts last season, but Danks may have the most upward potential, a relative term, given his staff competition.

20)  Jorge De La Rosa –  Not a kid at 28-years old, but I want him on my team.  He averaged over a strike0ut per inning, and he has pitched very well in the second half each of the past two seasons.  If he starts out well this season, he could have a very nice year, and may end up as a Near Ace.

21)  Carlos Zambrano –  Although he is still just 28-years old, he has logged a huge workload on his right arm over the past several seasons.  Durability is now his primary issue.  If he can make 32 starts, he is still a quality pitcher, although he still walks too many batters.

22)  Brandon Webb – Up until Spring Training of last season, he was the most durable pitcher in baseball.  So, naturally, his arm breaks down.  Now, only time will tell what he is still capable of doing on the pitcher’s mound.

23)  Matt Latos –  I like this kid.  He can strike batters out, and he will pitch his home games in the best pitcher’s park in baseball.  Should produce nice value in about 20 starts this season.  Just don’t expect many wins.

24)  Joe Blanton –  Just signed a nice (for him) contract with the Phillies.  A dependable #3 starter with no upside.

25)  Randy Wolf – Ended up being the Dodgers ace last season, and now calls Milwaukee home.  At age 33, could be a bust for the Brew-Crew this year.  Miller Park will not be nearly as forgiving as Chavez Ravine was to his fly-balls.  No chance of matching last year’s 1.10 WHIP, or his .227 Batting Average Against.

26)  Ervin Santana – Was a Near Ace going into last season, but now is a borderline Average Javier.  Unimpressive strikeout rate following elbow surgery does not bode well for his future.  Still just 27, however, and pitched pretty well in 2nd half of last season.  Watch him in Spring Training.

27)  James Shields –  A once promising young pitcher, he is now nearly in Cannon Fodder territory due to a declining strikeout rate.  Look, you just aren’t going to finesse the A.L. East.  Three straight seasons of 215+ innings may have taken its toll.

28)  Jair Jurrjens –  Where do the Braves find these guys?  This 24-year old had an outstanding 2.60 ERA last season in only his second full year.  Not much of a strikeout pitcher, Jurrjens will have to continue having some luck with balls-in-play, and will need to continue to limit his walks to be successful.  Look for a little regression, but he won’t be a bust.

29)  Scott Feldman –  Although he is only 27-years old, he has already had his career season.  His 17 wins last year, despite just 113 K’s in 190 innings, were a fluke.  Yes, he did have a nice WHIP, but look for that .250 batting average against to go up around 20-30 percentage points this year.  And, as we all know, wins are primarily a reflection of the quality of the team for whom you pitch.

30)  Dice-K – Pitched only 59 innings last season, and looked terrible while doing so.  But, at age 29, he has enjoyed significant success in his brief Major League career, and pitching for the Sox, if he is fully healthy, he should be at least a league-average pitcher, capable of winning 14-15 games.

31)  Rick Porcello – So young (21) should really still be pitching in Triple A, not because he isn’t talented but because the Tigers may do to him what they did to an also very young Jeremy Bonderman.  Porcello achieved surprising success last year, but a very low strikeout rate doesn’t bode well for him a second time around the league.  If you draft him based on last year’s 14-9 record, you will probably end up disappointed.

32)  Andy Pettitte – Is now a league-average pitcher, except in the play-offs, of course.  Now 38-years old, this (say it with me) crafty lefty should still win 12-14 games.

33)  Bronson Arroyo –  Has somehow managed to win 15 games each of the past two years, despite perfectly ordinary stuff.  His ERA after the All-Star break last year was 2.24, which is, of course, very strange.  His low K totals should be a red flag for prospective owners.

Cannon Fodder: Here they are folks.  Draft at your own extreme risk, or better yet, don’t draft them at all.

1)  Joel Pineiro –  No, it won’t happen again this season.  Just forget it.

2)  Jon Garland – Innings eater, nothing else.

3)  Derek Lowe – Just another aging veteran

4)  Mike Pelfrey –  Hey Mets fans.  No, he doesn’t have potential, unless you mean potential to get shelled.

5)  Gil Meche – Had a bit of a decent run back in April.

6)  Kevin Correia –  Who?

7)  Kyle Lohse – Nothing to see; keep moving.

8)  Brad Penny – Should be good for about eight wins.

9)  Glen Perkins – Gave up 120 hits in just 96 innings.

10)  Clayton Richard – Terrible Walks / Strikeouts ratio.  Home park may mask how bad he is.

11)  Ian Snell – Looked promising a couple of years ago, but has been dreadful past two seasons.

12)  Andy Sonnanstine –  Batters hit .311 against him.

13)  Chien-Ming Wang –  Lucky to have won 19 games in ’07.  At age 30, he is probably all but finished.  All peripheral numbers are poor.

14)  Jeff Suppan –  Yup, he’s still around.  League hit .309 against him in ’09.

15)  Brian Moehler –  Has a chance to lose 18 games if he gets enough starts.

16)  Jeff Niemann – Maybe not quite cannon fodder, but a low strikeout pitcher toiling in the A.L. East just isn’t going to find much long-term success.

17)  Brett Myers –  Year after year, he is a “dark-horse” or a sleeper.  Don’t bite.

18)  The Mets Pitching Staff (Other than Santana) –  They should collectively be known as the Wrecking Balls because of what they will do to the staff ERA.

19)  The Blue Jays Pitching Staff (With the possible exception of Ricky Romero) –  But even Romero posted a 1.52 WHIP.  See Above:  Mets.

20)  Ross Ohlendorf –  Has slight potential to climb up to Average Javier status, but not much.

21)  Carl Pavano – His comeback last year featured 235 hits surrendered in 199 innings (how did he last that many innings?)  ERA: 5.10.

22)  Justin Masterson –  Lots of people like him and hope he does well in Cleveland, but he is much better suited for bull-pen work.

23)  Manny Parra – 6.36 ERA last year.

24)  Micah Owings – Not a good one.

25)  John Lannan –  Has the occasional good outing, but 89 strikeouts in over 200 innings pitched is horrible (and he walked 68.)

26)  Kenshin Kawakami –  Undeserving of a place in the Braves rotation.

27)  Johnny Cueto – Has perhaps the greatest ability to move up a notch out of Cannon Fodder due to his youth (24) and his decent talent.  But has had two seasons in a row of ERA’s north of 4.00, and some arm problems.

28)  Doug Davis – A control, finesse lefty who walked 103 batters, and added 203 hits, in 203 innings.  Wow.

29)  Fausto Carmona –  The Indians may have the worst pitching in the A.L., and that’s saying a lot.

30)  Jose Contreras –  Approaching 40-years old, finished 6-13 last year.

31)  Aaron Cook – Somehow hasn’t been shelled all that often over the past few years.  Even managed 16 wins in ’08.  But hasn’t reached 100 strikeouts over the past three seasons, and that WHIP is steadily climbing.

32)  Zach Duke – The Pirates somehow end up with young pitchers who can’t strike anyone out.  Why is that?  Anyway, Duke has shown us his best stuff over the past few years, and his best stuff has resulted in 230 safe hits given up each of the past two seasons.

33)  Aaron Harang – Used to be underrated.  Not any longer.

34)  Nick Blackburn –  Gave up an astonishing 240 hits in ‘o9.

35)  Chad Gaudin –  Three straight seasons of ERA’s over 4.40.

I’m sure you will be able to think of other names I missed, but they aren’t going to make much difference one way or the other, are they?

Here’s a final list of pitchers that I didn’t list in any of the above categories because they just haven’t pitched enough for me the really get a handle on what they are capable of this year and on into the future.  A few of them may become Studs, or Near Studs, and the rest will be mid or back of the rotation kind of guys.  It might be another 3-5 years before we know for sure.  I’ll just list their names without comment:

1)  Clay Buchholz

2)  Chris Tillman

3)  Brian Matusz

4)  Trevor Cahill

5)  Wade Davis

6)  David Price

7)  Ryan Rowland-Smith

8)  Stephen Strasburg

9)  Madison Bumgarner

10)  Ricky Romero

As for Brandon Webb, we’ll just have to wait and see what he has on display this spring.  Obviously, he should be approached with extreme caution.

Finally, a word about Relief Pitchers / Closers. There are only three or four you can count on:  Mariano Rivera, Joe Nathan, Jon Papelbon, and Jon Broxton.  If you pay attention, you can get a good closer in the middle or even the later rounds.  I never draft a closer before the 8th round in my A.L. / N.L. mixed head-to-head, ten team points league.

This marks the end of my four-part series on Fantasy Baseball – 2010.  If you have any comments about my player rankings, or any of my other posts on this topic, please let me know. 

Future Posts: Under the Radar:  Part 3.

Then a commentary on Bud Selig’s new statue to himself.

After that, we shall see.  Thanks again for reading.

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


Under the Radar: Part 2

This is the second installment of  a series of blog posts called “Under the Radar.”   This series is a periodic examination of the careers of currently active players who have achieved success in their major league careers, but who are certainly not household names.

In the first part of this series, I took a look at the careers of Roy Oswalt and Carlos Beltran.  Both have the numbers to be considered Hall of Fame candidates, depending on how they perform over the next half a dozen years or so.  But as I write this, news has just come in that Beltran is expected to miss the first month or two of the 2010 season due to on-going knee problems.

In this blog post, we will take a look at two highly productive players who have been overshadowed at their respective positions by higher profile players such as Chipper Jones and Mariano Rivera.  Specifically, we will take a look today at the careers of Joe Nathan, relief pitcher for the Twins, and Aramis Ramirez, the Chicago Cubs third baseman.

Let’s begin with Joe Nathan.  If you have played Fantasy Baseball over the past several years, you are part of a sub-culture that has come to greatly appreciate Joe Nathan’s contributions to baseball.  Outside of Fantasy Baseball and Minnesota, however, not a lot of people have any idea who Joe Nathan is.

This is unfortunate, because for the past half dozen years or so, Joe Nathan has been one of the most dominant PITCHERS (not just closers) in baseball history.  How can I make such a bold statement?  Let’s take a look at the statistics:

Since taking over as the Twins closer in 2004, Nathan has saved 246 games, an average of 41 per season, the most over that time span.  His career save percentage is just a bit under 90%, the same as Mariano Rivera who is universally considered the best closer of all-time.

Nathan has averaged well over a strikeout per inning in his career (9.4 K’s per nine innings.)  His career ERA is 2.75, and he has logged four seasons with an ERA under 2.00 over the past six seasons.

Nathan has been named to four All-Star teams, and he has finished in the top five in Cy Young voting twice.

But perhaps the most amazing statistic about Joe Nathan is that he has allowed an average of only 6.5 hits per nine innings throughout his nine year career during which he has logged 685 innings pitched.  How phenomenal is that statistic?

It ties Nathan with Nolan Ryan for the fewest hits per nine innings in major league baseball history.  That’s pretty amazing.

So why is it that Mariano Rivera garners all of the accolades, while Joe Nathan just pitches outstanding baseball?  Well, for one reason, Rivera pitches in the media capital of the world.  Nathan pitches in a place that usually leads the nation in lowest temperatures recorded in the continental United States.

Actually, the biggest difference between these two great pitchers is post-season performance.  Rivera is simply the greatest post-season closer of all-time, having logged 39 saves while posting an 8-1 record, an ERA of 0.74, and a ridiculous WHIP of .0773.

Joe Nathan has pitched eight innings in the post-season, giving up seven earned runs for an ERA of 7.88.

Still, over the past several seasons, if you had picked Joe Nathan over Mariano Rivera for your Fantasy Baseball team, you would not have noticed any significant difference between the two.

And since Joe Nathan appears to be a healthy 35 years old, he should have a few more dominating years ahead of him.

The other player that I think is a good addition to my squadron of under-appreciated players is Cubs third-sacker Aramis Ramirez.

Ramirez will be 32 years old this June, and has been in the majors for twelve seasons.  Few third basemen have ever been more consistent, especially with the bat.

Ramirez has hit 264 homers, and he has driven in 946 runs.  That means that this season, at age 32, he has a chance to surpass one thousand RBI’s, and perhaps hit his 300th home run.  He has also scored 732 runs, has hit 317 doubles, and has over 1,500 hits to his credit.

He is also capable of hitting for a respectable batting average, as his .286 career mark reveals.  His career slugging percentage of .503 is better than Hall-of-Fame third basemen Wade Boggs, George Brett, Pie Traynor, Brooks Robinson and Ken Boyer.

Aramis Ramirez has played in two All-Star games, and he has finished in the top ten in MVP voting twice in his career.

His most impressive statistic, however, is his six 100+ RBI seasons over the past nine years.  He already has more 100 RBI seasons than Eddie Matthews, and as many as Ron Santo and Brooks Robinson combined.  Also, Ramirez’s .847 career OPS is higher than HOF’er Pie Traynor, and nearly as high as HOF’ers George Brett and Wade Boggs.

In fact, there are only about four or five third basemen in history who clearly have better numbers:  Mike Schmidt, Chipper Jones, Eddie Matthews (many more homers) George Brett and Wade Boggs.  Ramirez is closing in on the next tier of third basemen that includes Ken Boyer, Stan Hack, Ron Santo and Darrell Evans.

The third base position has always been historically weaker than most people imagine.  One would think that, just like first base and outfield, there would be numerous players who accumulated impressive statistics over the years.  But, in reality, it has been one of the weakest hitting positions on the diamond, more comparable to shortstop than to first base.

For this reason alone, we might find ourselves one day taking a second look at his career totals to decide whether or not a serious argument can be made that Aramis Ramirez belongs in the Hall of Fame.

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