The Rite of Spring

Although for some of us baseball season never really ends - the playoffs in October, Arizona Fall League in October and November, Caribbean winter leagues through January and writing about all of it through February and then spring training - for most people, baseball season begins in mid-March when teams have winnowed through much of the chaff and begin taking shape for the regular season. 

For fantasy baseball fans, however, baseball season begins when the first fantasy magazines are published the week after the Superbowl.   And by mid-March, it's Draft Time.  Looking for any edge or insight into their own drafts, many watch what goes on in the expert leagues like Tout Wars (I'll be participating their AL draft again this year) and LABR to see if there are any clues to sleepers that might be had in their own league.  Mixed Nuts is another such league and that draft was just held this past week.

I believe I had a stronger draft last year in Mixed Nuts than this year, but that doesn't mean much really.  The reason: very few leagues are won on Draft Day and there are several reasons why.  First of all, injuries change the landscape of the league as the season wears on.  Second, trades can swing a race dramatically and the more unbalanced the level of skill is in the league, the more often this will happen.  Third, players evolve during a season; those that look benign in the spring can become potent in the second half and those that look unstoppable early can be stopped.  So in order to win a league on Draft Day, one has to not only pick a team that doesn't experience injuries, but also is built with the foresight to get better in the second half and be strong enough to weather the outrageous misfortune of lop-sided trades being made all around them.  So my one bit of fantasy advice?  Ignore anyone who tells you you can win on Draft Day, either through gamesmanship or trickery or some sneaky strategy.  They are selling you a lemon.  The only way to win is to get value on Draft Day and then continue to get value throughout the season in both your trades and free agent acquisitions.

Another reason I don't put much credence in the "win on Draft Day" philosophy is that I provided evidence last year in AL Tout that it doesn't hold much water.  At best, my draft last year in Tout was mediocre: I had way too much money in the end game and even left money on the table.  Even so, I was in first place for a good portion of the second half of last season and finished only 2 points out of first due in large part to some bad luck with injuries that occured after the trading deadline when little could be done to remedy the situation. 

Anyway, I'm not going to explain my draft in Mixed Nuts pick-by-pick.  What I will do is comment on some of the picks, and make some observations on the draft in general.

Like any draft, I entered with far more players that I wanted on my roster than I had roster spots available.  So, while I'm disappointed I wasn't able to roster guys like Kerry Wood, Vlad Guerrero, Johan Santana, Jake Peavy, Jason Bay, Akinori Ohtsuka... Akinori Ohtsuka?  Oh yeah.  Ohtsuka is largely unknown because this will be his first season outside of Japan, but he is my early choice for NL Rookie of the Year.  I realize there was some backlash from the writers last year with Hideki Matsui because there's a growing sentiment that Japanese players aren't really rookies, but the real reason Matsui didn't win was not because he was Japanese, but that he was the third best rookie in the American League.  Both Jody Gerut and Angel Berroa were better, plain and simple.  I don't think that will be the case with Ohtsuka.

He is the second best pitcher to come out of Japan, right behind Hideo Nomo.  In 305 career games, he saved 137, posting a career ERA of 2.39 and WHIP of 1.009 while striking out 474 hitters in only 350.2 innings.  I double checked those numbers and they are correct.  In his final season in Japan, he struck out 56 in 43 innings while walking only five.  And his ERA?  2.09.  There are two guys ahead of him in the Padre's bullpen hierarchy - Trevor Hoffman and Rod Beck.  Beck will miss some time to open the season due to personal reasons and there's no real timetable when he'll be back.  Hoffman had shoulder surgery last season and although he appears to be healthy, Ohtsuka looks like the primary beneficiary if something should break down.  Regardless, he should be a dominant set-up man along the lines of an Octavio Dotel.  He's guaranteed a spot on the team from the start of the season, especially with the way he's pitched this spring, and unlike other rookies he's used to the long season.  Six months of sustained excellent performance... sounds like a Rookie of the Year candidate to me.

That said, I did get some of the guys I wanted.  For example, I have no doubt that as long as he's free to play, Ramon Castro will hit and hit as well as any catcher in the National League.  He's hit for average and power in the minors and is finally getting a chance to prove he can do it in the majors.

Likewise, I think this is the year that the Pirates realize that Craig Wilson is a better hitter than just about anyone they have on the team and they stop taking at bats away from him to give to Randall Simon, who's much better suited to come off the bench anyway. 

I was also pleased to get fellow LSU alum Brandon Larson.  He's had a rough go the last several years with injuries and eye problems, but looks healthy this spring and has only moderate competition for a starting job in Cincy.  If his minor league numbers are any indication of what he can do, 30 homers is not an unreasonable expectation. 

I also like Marlon Anderson's chances of securing a full-time job in St. Louis.  He isn't a very good fielder, but that team has so many that it's hard to see why they would sacrifice the potential gains he brings them in offense for what little they might miss on defense. 

Brian Roberts probably won't have the starting job in Baltimore after the end of April, but that doesn't mean he won't be a starter somewhere.  Unless the Orioles suddenly get leary of Jerry Hairston's troubles with injuries, he will be their second baseman.  Hairston is an amazing defensive player and he has the talent to become a good offensive player.  Roberts will never match Hairston's defense - the O's starting ERAs rose by more than a run with Hairston out last year - and is only slightly better with the bat.  The bet here is that Hairston comes back to full strength by the beginning of May and that the O's trade Roberts for some starting pitching to either LA or Pittsburgh, or to the Yankees for a big wad of cash and a box of balls, or to Minnesota if the Twins again sour on Luis Rivas.  He may not be a starter for the entire season, but it's very likely he will be for much of it.

Yes, I got Ken Griffey Jr again.  The guy has been snakebit with freakish injuries the last several years and is due for a relatively healthy year, in Cincy or elsewhere if the rumors are to be believed.  Keep this in mind: even with all his injuries last year, his rates prorated to 500 at bats would yield 39 homers, 102 runs and 78 RBI. 

Although I don't agree with the move, the Rockies should be pleased with results of moving Shawn Chacon from the rotation to the closer's role.  Well, at least they'll be pleased with Chacon's results.  Not sure that they won't desperately miss his innings in the rotation.  He won't be Eric Gagne, but he will be good.  

I was more curious than anything to see if Josh Beckett could stay healthy a full season.  After the Break last year he posted a 2.55 ERA, 1.188 WHIP and struck out 93 batters in 88 innings.  Those numbers are very much in line with his minor league numbers, so even with the World Series hype, he's probably worth the risk of an early round pick.   

Freddie Garcia has been such a wild card that it's hard to get a read on how he will do.  The fact that he's been somewhat of a bon vivant off the field has gotten far too much play in the media.  More of a concern should have been the busted ear drums he was playing with last year.  Surgery has corrected that, and from the reports I've read, he seems focused on proving that he's not as flaky as he's been portrayed.  It'd be nice if he had a little better defense behind him with Mike Cameron gone, but Garcia gets enough strikeouts to minimize the damage.

The guy I was most pleased to get, though, was Oliver Perez.  Concerns about his workload are legitimate, but he might just be that rare animal that was born to throw.  And when he throws it over the plate, he is impressive.  If you total all his work last year - majors, AAA and winter ball - it comes to 204.2 innings pitched, 4.44 ERA, 235 strikeouts against 99 walks.  Although the innings total is alarming for a 22-year old, he threw almost 170 innings as a 21-year old and over 150 innings as a 20-year old, so it's not like this is news.  I don't expect the Pirates to give him enough run support to win a lot of games, but he'll be good enough, especially in strikeout and keeper leagues, to be well worth owning. 

Overall, the draft yeilded few surprises.  That's not to say there weren't any.  The first was that Gary Sheffield fell all the way to the 4th round.  Normally a lock to be taken in the first round in an 18-team mixed league like this, concern about his thumb injury, his age (he's 35) and his history of injuries dropped his stock considerably.  Randy Johnson was another victim of injury/ageism, dropping to the 3rd round after several years of being one of the top 3 picks in any mixed league.  But Bernie Williams was the biggest victim of this discrimination, dropping all the way to the 14th round.  Granted, he's not one of the elite performers in the game and probably never really has been.  But between his apendectomy, losing his centerfield job to Kenny Lofton and being moved to DH where Jason Giambi really should be, concerns about his playing time have cost him in the eyes of the roto world.

Even after spring training ends, the evaluation process for many major league clubs will continue for the first month or two of the season.  So don't be alarmed if you come away from your draft feeling like your season is over; just be alert to the opportunities that the trade and free agent market avail to you during the season.  Both last year's Marlins and the 2002 Angels came out of spring training with "no chance" to win it all.  Use them as your model because the season rarely ends on Draft Day.