Loudoun Independent Archive
Here's a compilation of my LI columns.

The Biggest Surprises of 2007 (9/24/07)
Every year uncovers a couple of fantasy heroes who were many times more productive than their Draft Day salary would have predicted. These dollar bargains often yield fantasy league championships for the teams lucky enough (or knowledgeable enough, depending on who you ask) to have rostered them. The important question now is this: will these guys be as productive next year or was this year’s statistical gift just a fluke?

Carlos Pena wasn’t even guaranteed a roster spot entering spring training. Even once the season began he had to battle for regular playing time. When he did get playing time, he was less that impressive batting .213 in April with almost no strikezone discipline. But a light clicked on in May – he hit .356 with 6 homers that month in 73 at bats – and from that point on
the Devil Rays’ first base job was his. In 2004 with Detroit he had showed some of his power potential, hitting 14 homers over the final two months. But consistency eluded him, reputedly because of a lack of dedication, to the point that he was sent down for extended trips to the minors in each of the last three years. This year he finally put together the power and the plate discipline he had showed as a top prospect. His jump in home run production from last year to this was the third greatest in history, but the company he’s keeping in that category (Mark McGwire and Harmon Killibrew) is reassuring. As long as he doesn’t rest on his laurels this winter, Pena’s outlook for next year and beyond is quite positive.

While CC Sabathia is getting all the Cy Young buzz, and deservedly so, it is actually Fausto Carmona who leads all American League starters in ERA and is tied with Sabathia and three other pitchers for second place in wins. Who expected this from a failed closer with a 5.42 ERA and a 1-10 record in 2006? Anyone? More importantly, can we expect this to continue? The key to Carmona’s success is his extreme tendency to induce groundballs, 3.32 for every flyball. No pitcher in the American League gets groundball results more frequently. Like fellow Cleveland starter Jake Westbrook, his success largely depends on how airtight the infield defense is and this year it was pretty good. But unlike Westbrook, himself a sleeper surprise in 2004, Carmona has a mid-90s fastball that can occasionally make batters miss so even when the defense lets him down he can still work himself out of jams. Unless Cleveland changes their infield personnel this offseason (a possibility if Andy Marte ever figures out how to lay off breaking pitches), expect more of the same in 2008 from Carmona.

Well, that about wraps up the fantasy baseball season for me. If you’re in the hunt for a championship, good luck this weekend. For the rest, enjoy the playoffs. Until next spring, namaste.

The Last Days (9/17/07)

With only a few weeks left in the season, there really isn’t much one can do to affect the outcome. It’s time for the players you have agonized over and cheered for the last 24 weeks to either come up big and win your championship for you, or choke and forever be on your “don’t draft” list. I do have one final piece of advice: if your team happens to suffer an
injury and you are scrambling around the waiver wire for a replacement, pick up the player who has been hottest over the past week.

There is the temptation to consider only the players who have the brightest future, if only to say you were the first to roster them in your league. And if this were any other time of the season I would whole-heartedly endorse that view because superior talent almost always finds an opportunity and if given enough time will eventually produce good numbers.

But in the final two weeks, front offices and managers are scrambling to secure play-off berths. This urgency does not allow for patience with youngsters to get adjusted to the majors; each loss takes them farther from the postseason and closer to the offseason. At this point they don’t really care about which players are the most talented; the future can wait
until next year. They want whoever is swinging a hot bat or shutting down opposing hitters. Those are the guys they will to ride hard over the final dozen games. It doesn’t even matter if they have been lousy to date; it only matters what they are doing now.

In 2003, I was in a very close race in Tout Wars with Jason Grey and I both were scrambling for an outfield replacement in the final month. Jason picked up 25-year old Michael Ryan, an organizational outfielder with the Twins who had not had a particularly good season in Triple-A (he had batted .225). But Ryan was healthy and had showed some pop so he was going to get playing time. Despite his struggles in the minors, he showed no lack of confidence in the majors and started out like a house afire, hitting .393 with 5 home runs and a .754 slugging percentage over the final few weeks. I, on the other hand, had won the bidding on several warmly regarded youngsters who had performed well in Triple-A. Unfortunately, none of them maintained their production after their promotion and as a result, I finished as a runner-up.

So even though under normal circumstances you would (and probably should) hesitate to roster the likes of Tike Redman, Ron Belliard, Mark Reynolds or Jayson Werth, now is the time to roll the dice and take a chance they can stay hot for another two weeks. There’s really nothing to lose and in the long run, no one (including you) will care who was on your final roster if it brings home a championship.

Bringing the Heavy Lumber (9/10/07)

Last week I profiled some young pitchers to not only keep an eye on, but in keeper leagues to open up a roster spot for next season. Each was a prospect learning their craft in the minors for most of this season and had only recently been called up for major league duty. This week I’ll look at some hitters who fit that bill.

In the AL, Jacoby Ellsbury, like his teammate Clay Buchholz, made quite an impression in his first week in Boston. His skills and talent have often drawn comparisons to those of ex-Red Sox Johnny Damon, although his power may take a couple years to fully develop. Another caveat is that the Red Sox don’t run as much as many other teams so Ellsbury’s stolen base totals won’t be as high as they might be elsewhere. Regardless, his dollar value should be in the mid-teens come draft day. The Angels will be looking for a long term solution at third base this offseason and may find it in Brandon Wood. Listed among the top prospects in the game the last two years, next year will be his first extended opportunity to show what he can do at the big league level. He’s a free-swinger so his average could hurt a little, but the potential to hit 30, possibly 40 homers is definitely worth a flyer. The A’s have been searching for an adequate first basemen ever since Jason Giambi left. Ex-catcher Daric Barton may end up being that guy. He doesn’t have the power normally associated with the position, nor does he bring a supple glove but the organization loves his eye for balls and strikes and feels that his doubles power will develop enough to produce a few more longballs eventually.

In the NL, most of the top prospects were called up earlier in the season. If they aren’t already on someone’s roster, they are at least on everyone'’s radar. The big names to know are Justin Upton, Ryan Braun and Rick Ankiel, each of whom have already been profiled here. Next in line would be the Reds’ Jay Bruce, who was recently named Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year. He has terrific power and good plate coverage but needs to improve his pitch recognition to avoid prolonged slumps in batting average. With him, Ken Griffey Jr., Josh Hamilton and Adam Dunn, the Reds will have an outfield that could push 150 home runs next season. The problem for many NL owners is that Bruce probably won’t get called up this season so he might not be eligible in many leagues. However his Triple-A teammate Joey Votto has been called up and is also worth a roster spot. He’s got good power, a solid eye at the plate and a likely spot on the Opening Day roster as the team’s first baseman.

Future Arms Race (9/3/07)

For those who aren’t in the hunt for a title, September can be the longest month of the year.  However in keeper leagues it’s prime time for picking up next year’s best rookies.  With free agent movement, opportunities abound for the prospects who can show in their September trial they’re ready.  This week we’ll do the pitchers

In the AL, no doubt everyone has heard of Clay Buchholz after his no-hitter in his second career major league start.  Featuring a mid-90s fastball and three complimentary pitches all rated above average, he’s the successor to the Roger Clemens legacy.  His Triple-A numbers reveal a weakness for homers, so it will probably take him a year or two to live up to his “ace” label.  The Yankees aging starting staff was given a boost by Ian Kennedy’s solid outing.  He doesn’t possess the electric stuff that Buchholz does so his upside is more as a #2 or #3 starter.  However his command is slightly better, giving him a slight performance edge in the near term.  It’s interesting that he took Mike Mussina’s place in the rotation because he is Kennedy’s closest Yankee comparable.  Kevin Slowey is the ultimate control pitcher who did a fantastic job of keeping the ball in the yard for the Twins’ Triple-A club.  Unlike teammate Matt Garza who projects out to a true ace of the staff with his excellent stuff, Slowey’s peak value at best will be the next Brad Radke but more likely as a very solid #3.

In the NL, the Giants have two intriguing youngsters in Jonathan Sanchez and Brian Wilson.  Wilson overcame a horrible spring training to post decent numbers in Triple-A Fresno but control is still an issue.  Stuff isn’t, as most observers view him as a potential dominant closer.  Sanchez shuttled between the Giants bullpen and the Fresno rotation performing reasonably well regardless of his role.  However, his greatest value will be as a starter.  He has good velocity for a lefty and can rack up impressive strikeout totals when he works up in the zone.   Ubaldo Jimenez’ improvement this year has been remarkable.  His ERA in Triple-A to begin the season was over 10, yet he’s been practically unstoppable after his July call-up, posting a respectable 4.03 ERA and a better than respectable 1.13 WHIP.  His stuff is as good as any young pitcher in the majors, including heralded Felix Hernandez’.  It’s only a matter of time before he establishes himself not only as the ace of the Rockies staff but the best pitcher in franchise history. 
The Marlins have given Rick VandenHurk an extended look because they’ve suffered so many injuries to their rotation.  He’s the youngest of this list - just 21 - and the least polished but he’s shown tremendous improvement in August and September.  He’s also struck out at least 5 batters in 11 of his 16 starts.  With a mid-90s fastball and one of the best curves in the game, he has ace potential.

The Final Trades

Chances are that today, August 31, is your last day to make trades in your fantasy baseball league.  While there might be plenty of viable options on the waiver wire in mixed leagues, in single universe leagues the most effective way to acquire a player who might have a significant impact on the standings at this point is through trade.  Sure, every decade or so an older prospect will come up from the minors and light up September but hoping for the next Shane Spencer is more like buying a lottery ticket than a viable strategy. 

I wrote last week that hitting categories are generally the easiest to move up in, with home runs and steals being where the greatest gains can be made.  Here are some guys you should be able to get for less than what they’ll be worth in September in those categories.

Carlos Delgado’s streak of 10 consecutive 30-home run seasons - the third longest in major league history - will likely come to an end this season.  After a feeble April in which he hit .188 with one home run, he showed some signs of life in May, June and July hitting a respectable .272 with 16 home runs, a pace that over the course of a full season would have topped 30 homers.  A leg injury in August reduced him to feeble again but his batting eye remained strong which indicates that if he can stay healthy a big September will be the result.  A tight playoff race will provide ample incentive to tune it up and he is certainly capable of a monster finish having hit 10 homers and/or 30 RBI in a month twice in the last five years.

In the AL there are a couple guys I’d target for offense.  Jose Guillen, who after a slow start to the season has been on fire for the last two months, hitting over .340 with 10 homers and 38 RBI.  Likewise, Frank Thomas has underachieved but appears to be getting into a serious groove hitting .329 in August with an uncharacterisitcally high number of doubles.  Those doubles will turn into homers in September.  Both guys are capable of 8-10 homer months with 25-30 RBI.

You won’t find Chone Figgins among the stolen base leaders because he missed April with a hand injury and spent most of May getting back into baseball shape.  But in the last three months he’s hit over .350 and stolen 30 bases.  He’s another guy that can be counted on to come up big ove rthe final month in a tight division race.  Six times in the last three years he’s stolen at least 10 bases in a month including twice reaching 14 swipes.  His NL counterpart is Kaz Matsui who swiped 11 bags in August while establishing himself as the Rockies’ regular second baseman.  Both guys have a high rate of success, meaning they will have the green light whenver the mood strikes them.

Last Minute Adjustments (8/20/07)

With roughly six weeks left in the season, many fantasy owners are scrambling to gain a last boost before the league trading deadlines.  But how much can a last minute trade really help?  While luck certainly plays a role, there are some things you can calculate to see if the gamble is worthwhile. 

It’s tough to move in the average categories at this point.  The average number of at bats per team to this point is between 4500 and 5000.  For every .001 of batting average you want to increase, your team will have to bat .005 higher for the rest of the season.  For example, to move from .280 to .282, your team will have to hit .290 for the rest of the season.  If you're trading for help, for one guy to make up that kind of difference, he'd have to hit .420 the rest of the way.  Of course, if he's replacing a guy who hit .225 all year, the story is a bit different - he'd only have to hit .355.  The reason being is that the rest of the team no longer has the low batting average drag on them and their true performance will be affected.  But as you can see, any move greater than two or three points in the standings is pretty remote unless your whole team gets hot.  ERA and WHIP are likewise difficult to improve.

The counting categories are the easiest to improve.  For example, if a guy hits is expected to hit around 36 homers a year, he would have around 28 homers to this point and should hit about 8 more.  If he's replacing a guy expected to hit 18 homers a year, you are likely gaining an additional homers.  Steals function the same way, although because so few players get them in significant amounts it’s harder to move in this category.  However, it is in these two categories that the greatest gains can be made.

Runs and RBI standings are also malleable at this point but because the range of the totals can be so drastic – the top teams may have as many as 150 more runs or RBI than the bottom teams - large point gains are unusual.  A single star player can usually generate only about 10 more RBI per month than a replacement level regular. 

Wins are generally difficult to predict but much easier than the other categories to figure at this time of the year.  Starters on contending generally get enough run and bullpen support to nab the wins you seek.  However, even a hot pitcher only gets a few more wins than the average so large gains are unusual here as well. 

Saves is probably the best pitching category to target because the guys who get them are fairly well identified and they accumulate enough in a month to make an impact even if you are adding just one guy. 

The Real Roy Hobbs  (8/13/07)
In 1998, the baseball world was set abuzz by a 19-year old left-handed flamethrower with amazing control. He skipped rookie league and dominated the Midwest and Carolina Leagues in his first exposure to professional baseball. The next year he was even more unhittable in Double- and Triple-A resulting in a September call-up in which he simply blew away major league hitters. In his follow-up rookie season he was no less impressive, winning 11 games and striking out 194 batters in 175 innings. He was all of 21-year old when he started Game 1 of the NLDS in 2000. He was destined to join Steve Carlton, Lefty Grove and Sandy Koufax as one of the greatest lefties ever.

But something terrible happened in that Game 1: he couldn’t throw strikes. Six walks and five wild pitches in less than three innings work and his career as a major league pitcher was over for all intents and purposes. He bumped around the minors for the next three years with two cups of coffee and a lost season to arm surgery but in 2004 he decided his baseball future would be as an outfielder.

Last week, Rick Ankiel’s comeback from what was viewed by many as a career ending set-back became complete when he was called-up from Triple-A. At the time, only one other minor league player had hit more home runs this season than his 31 bombs. In his first week back in the bigs, Ankiel whacked three more home runs and as of this writing is hitting .375 after facing two of the best pitching staffs in the NL, LA and San Diego. This story is not quite as far fetched as Roy Hobbs’ return as a hitter 16 years after a gun shot wound ended his potential career as a pitcher, but it comes pretty close. The difference is that Ankiel’s story is not a work of fiction although some might suggest it borders on fantasy.

Speaking of fantasy, what should people expect from here on out? Well, baseball could certainly use a Babe Ruth type pitcher-turns-hitter story to take the fans’ minds off the game’s off the field controversies. But Ankiel’s minor league numbers suggest a guy who, while he has great power, might struggle to make contact consistently. If you need help in the power
categories and can afford a hit in batting average, Ankiel is definitely worth a flyer.

Long term, I’m optimistic that he can learn to lay off the pitches he can'’t handle and become a solid major league outfielder, perhaps even a star. The reason is that the guy knows exactly what the pitcher is thinking; he was one once and a very good one at that. Once the novelty of his return to the majors wears off, he’ll be able to relax, enjoy the game and begin harnessing his incredible talent. Get him for the power this year, but keep him for the potential Randy Newman music next season and beyond.

Flower of Youth (8/6/07)

Superman has finally arrived in the majors. At least that’s what some would have you believe with the promotion of Justin Upton. The 19-year old wunderkind demolished Double-A pitching and when the D-backs needed a replacement for disabled Carlos Quentin, Upton got the call. So what can we expect?

Long term, making the majors before the age of 20 is generally a good omen. Alex Rodriguez, Andruw Jones, Ken Griffey Jr, Gary Sheffield and Ivan Rodriguez plus Hall of Famers Mel Ott, Ty Cobb, Jimmie Foxx, Al Kaline, Joe Morgan, Robin Yount, Johnny Bench and Mickey Mantle all began their major league careers by that age. Star-crossed slugger Tony Conigliaro and managing legend John McGraw also were in the majors as teens. In fact in the expansion era (1961-present) only Jose Oquendo, Ed Kirpatrick and Justin’s older brother BJ accumulated at least 150 at bats (what Justin projects to get the rest of this year) before the age of 20 and failed to be named to at least one All-Star team. Given that BJ is finally realizing his potential this year, he won’t be on that short list very much longer.

But what about this year? It’s difficult to predict how minor league talent will adjust to the majors but Justin’s performance has given some telling clues as to what to expect. His composure at the plate is that of a 10-year veteran. Watch him when he’s waiting for the pitch; you can see the immense confidence he has with a bat in his hands. He’s not at all intimidated by the crowds or the big name pitchers he’s facing in the heat of a very tight division race.

And if fear isn’t a factor, then it’s possible to get a pretty good guesstimate of his production the rest of the way from his major league equivalencies. Converting his minor league numbers to date yields roughly a .260 average with 14 homers, 15 steals, 60 runs and 56 RBI. Over the balance of the final two months, he should generate about half of those home run and steal totals. Batting seventh in the D-back line-up won'’t yeild as many RBI or run scoring opportunities, but he’ll still be reasonably productive.

However, if you are in a mixed league and miss out on Upton, there is another player who also debuted at age 19 yet is flying under the radar and who will probably be as productive if not more so the rest of this season: Wilson Betemit. Freed from Grady Little’s inability to recognize talent (in 2002 it took him three full months to decide between Kevin Millar, Jeremy Giambi and David Ortiz for the Red Sox DH job) and placed in a line-up replete with hitters who are always on base, Betemit has a real chance to be a impact fantasy player down the stretch. Regardless, it’s hard to go wrong with either player.

The Deadline Aftermath

This year was unusual in the number of players switching teams at the non-waiver trade deadline. But in fantasy it’s not just the players who switch leagues that might add value to your team’s fortunes; it’s also the players who replace them on their former teams.

For example, Kenny Lofton’s departure from Texas opens up playing time for both Marlon Byrd, who’s having a surprisingly good season, but also for potential hit machine Nelson Cruz. Cruz was hitting .352 with 15 homers in hitter-friendly Triple-A Oklahoma and should find close to 200 at bats in Texas over the final two months.

Octavio Dotel’s move to Atlanta devastates his value as he will not get many save opportunites setting up Braves’ closer Bob Wickman. Either Joaquin Soria or Zack Greinke will soak up plenty of save opportunities in Kansas City as the Royals have been surprisingly good over the last two months. Soria was Dotel’s primary set-up man as well as the Royal’s closer while Dotel recovered from his DL stint early in the season so he will be the most likely winner of that sweepstakes.

Mark Teixeira will have more baserunners to drive home in Atlanta than he did in Texas but his actual batting stats might take a bit of a hit moving to the NL. First, he won’t have as much familiarity with NL pitchers. Second, Atlanta has become somewhat of a neutral park as opposed to the hitters heaven that he enjoyed in Texas. New Ranger Jarrod Saltalamacchia might be the best bet for Teixeira’s first base position, but the Rangers might try Triple-A sluggers Nate Gold or Jason Botts there, too. Early returns suggest that “Salty” will be the guy at first.

Luis Castillo will probably get to run more in New York than he did in Minnesota which should boost his value. The Twins have several utility men they can play at second in the short term but Alexi Casilla will be the long term solution there. He was up earlier this year and stole four bases in under 50 at bats and swiped another 24 in Triple-A. He doesn’t have any power to speak of but his speed will always be a valuable fantasy commodity.

The Reds dealt Kyle Lohse to the Phillies, which should help his value slightly as he’ll get a little more consistent run support. Matt Belisle will also benefit as he will get another chance to prove he belongs in the Reds’ starting picture but it is Mike Gosling who should be on your radar if he gets an extended look in the rotation. He’s a bit of a longshot to evolve into the kind of studly workhorse the Reds so desperately need and the Reds have several decent pitching prospects in Triple-A, including highly-regarded Homer Bailey. However Gosling is the most intriguing with his excellent groundball rate, a characteristic that will prove useful in homer-crazy Great America Ballpark.

Deadline Speculation (7/23/07)

There’s no shortage of speculation as to which players will be playing in new uniforms by the middle of next week as the non-waiver trade deadline approaches.  They say everyone needs pitching so speculating where a guy like Dontrelle Willis might go is a little like throwing darts blinfolded.  But several contending teams have fairly obvious areas of need on offense so making a good guess as to who they will be shopping for is a little less hypothetical.

The Twins, for instance, are getting the second lowest production in baseball from their third basemen (.628 OPS).  Their farm system is fairly deep so trading a couple of second tier prospects for Wilson Betemit - whose .866 OPS is inexplicably languishing on the Dodgers bench while Grady Little plays Tony Abreu (.743) and Nomar Garciaparra (.675) - makes a lot of sense.  The Yankees are also rumored to be interested in Betemit, who could fill in as a super-utility man this year (he plays short, third and second competently) and provide insurance at third base for next season should Alex Rodriguez opt out of his contract for a free agent bonanza.

Minnesota could also use some help in left field where they are getting the 6th worst production in the majors, as well as DH (3rd worst in the AL).  Getting re-acquainted with long-time Twin Jacque Jones makes sense as Jones has struggled and fallen out of favor in Chicago.  Regular playing time that would come  from a change of scenery might be all he needs to rediscover his stroke.

Both the Braves and Yankees could use better production at first base.  The Yankees may get a boost offensively when Jason Giambi returns but his poor glovework will assure that he spends almost all of his time as the DH.  The Braves’ Scott Thorman’s production has gone steadily downward each month this season to the point where John Schuerholz has gone scrounging off the waiver wire for help.  But as much as we like to see 50-year old men playing major league baseball, Julio Franco is not the answer to their problems.  Both teams might be players for Adam Dunn, whom the Reds are anxious to move and whose best position is probably first base. 

The Marlins, Cubs and Dodgers could use some help in center field but only the Marlins are without other potential solutions.  With the recent emergence of Rick Vanden Hurk, they could part with the aforementioned Willis for Kansas City’s Joey Gathright as part of a package. 

The Giants are quickly fading from playoff view so they will be aggressively shopping Omar Vizquel, Ray Durham, Rich Aurilia, Ryan Klesko, Dave Roberts and just about anyone else on their roster over age 25.  Likewise the Rangers (Brad Wilkerson, Eric Gagne, Kenny Lofton, Marlon Byrd and Sammy Sosa) will be dealing for the future.  In the right situation, a change of scenery could increase these players’ fantasy value significantly.

Return of Harvey’s Wallbangers (7/16/07)

Back in 1982, the Milwaukee Brewers earned the nickname “Harvey’s Wallbangers”, slugging their way to the World Series.  That team lead the league in scoring and home runs, featuring five players that hit 20 or more homers – plus a sixth who had 19 - and four guys who finished with more than 100 RBI.  They had two future Hall of Famers – Paul Molitor and league MVP shortstop Robin Yount – as well as a borderline candidate in catcher Ted Simmons.  This year’s Brewers are doing their best imitation of the Wallbangers, with five guys on pace to top 20 homers led by NL home run leader Prince Fielder.  The biggest difference is the 1982 team was largely a collection of middle-aged players (at least in baseball terms) while this year’s Brewers are just the opposite: a collection of young players who have yet to reach their peak.

Fielder is currently on pace to finish with 53 home runs.  If he finishes with 50, he will be the first player 23 years old or younger to hit that many in a season.  The current major league record for someone that age is 49 by Mark McGwire and the National League record is held by another Milwaukee player, Eddie Matthews with 47. 

No one in major league baseball has more home runs or total bases over the last 30 days than Ryan Braun.  He’s on a 34 home run pace which would put him in the top 10 all time for a third baseman so young.  The whipped cream bonus is that he’s also stolen 8 bases.

JJ Hardy is on pace to finish with 33 homers.  If he tops 30, he will be one of four shortstops to ever top 30 homers before the age of 25.  The others were Ernie Banks, Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra.

After a slow start to the season, Corey Hart finds himself on pace to hit 25 homers and steal more than 30 bases.  While that accomplishment is not as rarified as those of his team mates, it is notable that only 18 other guys in history have accomplished that feat before turning 26. 

Perhaps if he could stay healthy for a full season we’d see that same kind of historic potential from second baseman Rickie Weeks.  Even with his injuries, normalize his career numbers to a full season of 550 at bats and the result is a 15 homer, 30 steal season.

What does this have to do with fantasy baseball?  Well, if you are in a keeper league and are looking to trade for long term help, the Brewers roster is an excellent place to look for the kind of talent that will help challenge for league titles next year and beyond.  These guys are young, each with an impressive minor league resume that suggests that the best is yet to come.

Home Run Derby Curse (7/9/06)

Vlad Guerrero edged out Alex Rios for the Home Run Derby title at this year’s All Star festivities and already there’s been fantasy ink urging his owners to sell high.  This is largely because in 2005 Bobby Abreu completely collapsed after putting on the most impressive display in the history of that contest.  But is there reason to be concerned?  Do hitters really change their swing for the contest and ended up hurting themselves after the Break?

Last year Ryan Howard won the contest and finished with 58 homers, 30 of them coming after the Break.  No slump there.  In 2004, Miguel Tejada outlasted Lance Berkman for the home run derby title and hit for the same .311 average with 4 more homers in 35 fewer at bats after the Midsummer Classic.  In 2003, Garrett Anderson won and then turned in almost identical year-end numbers as he had the previous year.  The runner-up, Albert Pujols went on to establish career highs in homers and came fairly close to winning the triple crown.   In 2002, Jason Giambi won and ended up hitting 41 homers for the season, which was pretty much what he had done in Oakland the previous two seasons. 

Luis Gonzales was one of the hottest hitters in baseball in the first half of 2001 when he won and went on to establish a career high in homers with 57 that season.  Sammy Sosa won the contest in 2000 and went on to finish with 50 dingers and the first of two career home run titles.  He didn't wear the overall crown again until 2002 when he finished with 49 for the season and second to Giambi in the derby.  In 2001, he finished second in the derby to Gonzo and second overall to Bonds.

Ken Griffey Jr won in 1999, 1998 and 1994.  His 1998 win occurred during the second of his career best 56-homer seasons and the 1999 win was the last time he topped 40.  Tino Martinez won it in 1997 and that was the year he hit 44 homers.  In no other year did he top 34.  Barry Bonds won in 1996, the same year he became the second player in history to hit 40 homers and steal 40 bases in a single season.  In second place that season was Brady Anderson.  That just happened to be his 50-homer season.  Albert Belle edged out Frank Thomas in 1995, which also happened to be his 50-homer season.

Juan Gonzales, Mark McGwire, Cal Ripken and Ryne Sandberg each won Home Run Derby crowns and went on to finish the season with either a regular season crown or a league MVP.   

The fact of the matter is that there really is no evidence for a derby curse.  Guys who get into the derby are pretty good hitters regardless and barring injury can be expected to perform at a very high level throughout the course of the season.  Bobby Abreu’s struggles in 2005 are the exception, not the rule.

BABIP (7/2/07)

Fantasy owners everywhere will use the All-Star Break to pore over what has transpired so far to try to figure out what was real and what was mirage.  One of my favorite stats to use when evaluating pitchers this time of year is batting average on balls in play or BABIP.  Essentially it measures how efficiently the defense has performed behind each pitcher.  The league average hovers around .300 with some pitchers consistently performing above and some below the mean.  Each team’s overall defense will also affect their pitchers’ BABIP.  So within the context of his team, the league and his own history, each pitcher has a baseline of expectation.  Those whose performance has surpassed that projection can be expected to fall back and those who have fallen short should be poised for a better second half.  It’s not a perfect measure because other factors such as injuries and player movement can affect performance, but it does a nice job of highlighting good candidates to target for trades.

So who will likely be better after the Break?  The list includes stars like John Smoltz, Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Roy Halladay, Kevin Millwood and Bartolo Colon as well as a number of preseason sleeper favorites like David Bush, Claudio Vargas, Adam Wainwright, Randy Wolf, Ervin Santana, Erik Bedard and Felix Hernandez.  As good as Jake Peavy has been in the first half, his BABIP indicates he could get even better if his defense gives him the same support the other Padre starters get.  Joe Nathan’s BABIP has been so bad that it wouldn’t surprise me if he pitches a scoreless month or two to even things out.  Jeff Weaver’s last outing might be the beginning of a nice run of good starts; he’s certainly due.

Guys who might be for real?  Surprisingly, the ageless Jamie Moyer along with Jorge Sosa, Braden Lopper, Chris Young, Rich Hill and Oliver Perez.  As good as John Maine has been (how much do the Orioles miss this guy?), his BABIP has been better than expected but not so much that you’d expect a collpase.

OK, so who’s in for a fall?  It should be no surprise to find Chris Sampson, Jason Marquis, Derek Lowe, Orlando Hernandez, Justin Germano, Joe Blanton, Shaun Marcum, Jamie Shields and Jon Garland on this list.  Big name starter Mark Buerhle, whose name is often bandied about in trade rumors, is also here.  Early AL Cy Young favorite Dan Haren is way out of his depth with his BABIP.  Also closers Jason Isringhausen, David Weathers, Kevin Gregg, Matt Capps and Al Reyes all look primed for significant drops. 

One other caveat: watch for guys being traded from poor fielding teams like the Reds, Pirates, Devil Rays and Royals to good fielding teams like the Mets, Cubs, A’s and Red Sox and visa versa.  The change in scenery can have a profound impact on their performance.  Good luck!

Five Tool Bargains  (06/25/07)

Last week I looked at a couple of NL teammates that will probably be headed in opposite directions over the next few months. It’s hard to imagine Mike Lamb keeping up his current pace over the rest of the season. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine that Morgan Ensberg’s bat will continue to be so feeble. This week, the subject is a couple of AL teammates who are headed in different directions, but not the same way as those Astros.

The Oakland A’s designated Milton Bradley for assignment this past weekend, meaning he will be on some other team soon. True, he has quite a history of both injuries and off-the-field issues so there might not be a long waiting line for his services. But as long as contending teams are interested in five-tool talent, Bradley will find someone who will take a chance on him. Last year he spent the first half of the season shuttling back and forth from the disabled list, but after the All Star Break he was a force, batting .300 with 11 homers, 44 RBI, 8 steals and an on base of .386. Some team in need of outfield (or DH) help like the Astros, Cardinals, Pirates, Mets, Twins, Royals, Nationals, Orioles, Marlins, Giants or Rangers will certainly give him a shot. When they do, you can be sure that he will be quite motivated to prove the A’s wrong for letting him go.

With Bradley gone, Jack Cust will certainly see his stay in the majors extended although the A’s will limit his exposure to the outfield as much as possible. Shannon Stewart might be the biggest beneficiary of Bradley’s departure. Originally signed this winter as a 4th outfielder, Stewart had been limited the last couple of years by foot injuries. Free of the hard turf in Minnesota, Stewart has been healthy and growing stronger as this season has progressed. With Mark Kotsay’s return and Travis Buck proving his worth, there was a chance that Stewart might lose out on playiing time. A career .298 hitter, he has shown surprising bursts of power with seven home runs in May of 2005 and five each in August of 2004 and 2003. And although the A’s are not a base stealing team, remember that he has four seasons in which he has stolen at least 20 bases with a career high 51 in 1998. The talent and now the opportunity is here for a potential .300, 20 homer, 20 steal finish for Stewart. Fifteen and fifteen with a high average is certainly within reach.

While it may on the surface appear to be a zero sum game in Oakland with one guy benefitting from another being pushed to the curb, this may actually be a case where both players benefit. This is a rare opportunity for fantasy owners to pick up two second half difference makers for well below what their end of season value will be.

Astro Nots (06/18/07)

Who is this Mike Lamb character and why does he seem to be making the highlight shows every night? A career .310 hitter in the minors with good plate discipline, Lamb has been used throughout his major league career as a utility cornerman. The primary reason he hasn’t become an every day player is his glove, or to be more precise, his lack of one. But when a guy is hitting as well as he is this year, sometimes a manager simply has to overlook the defense a little to keep him in the line-up. So why has he become one of the hottest hitters in the NL this year? Historically he’s hit lefties about 30 points worse than righties but this year he’s absolutely crushed them, hitting .400 with a slugging percentage of .800. In 2004 he had similar success against lefties and not surprisingly that was his best year as a major leaguer. He was also limited to only 43 at bats against southpaws that year, the fewest of any year since. If one replaces his lefty production from this season with what he has done in an average year, his season-to-date looks almost exactly like it has in any other year. Thirty-one year old journymen rarely reverse a career trend this late so Lamb is likely to fall back a bit as he gets more at bats, particularly as he faces more left-handed pitching. With regression toward his career norms likely in his future, he makes a great sell-high candidate.

The primary player he’s been taking at bats away from with his hot hitting, Morgan Ensberg, is healthy but his numbers resemble those from last year when he battled a shoulder injury. So what’s wrong with Ensberg? He’s always had a good eye for balls and strikes but this year perhaps he’s thinking too much at the plate and being too patient. Another reason is that his mechanics are notoriously tempermental so when they are off, as they have been to date, he can be downright terrible. However, when he gets them right he can scorch the earth with his bat, as he did last April when he hit 9 home runs, drove in 19 and batted .329. These hot streaks he goes on can last quite a while, too. In 2005, he had three consecutive months in which he slugged at least .600, peaking with a 10 homer, 28 RBI June. He doesn’t have a clear seasonal trend with regard to batting average or home runs but in each of the last three years he’s posted better on base after the All-Star Break than before. With the Astros battling a number of injuries, Ensberg should see enough action to hit his way out of his season-long slump. Look for a huge turn around to begin soon.

Next week I’ll look at some sell high/buy low candidates in the AL.

A Season of Change

The reigning World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals slide has continued to be one of this season’s biggest surprises. Centerfielder Jim Edmonds, as much as anyone on the team, has been responsible for the team’s success over the last four or five years and is likewise partially responsible for their terrible showing this year.  Hitting in the .240s with an OPS barely above .700 Edmonds, who turns 37 later this month, is really starting to show his age. Even against right-handers whom he has usually killed, his OPS is hovering around .750. It might be time for Tony LaRussa to start looking for other answers.  If he doesn’t, the Cardinals’ 28th ranked offense will have no chance of challenging the younger teams in the NL Central.

Fortunately, they do have solutions in center. Juan Encarnacion’s bat has been aflame in June with four home runs and a batting average over .300.  Historically he’s a streaky hitter but does enough on the field to have LaRussa’s confidence even when his bat isn’t going as well.  So Taguchi is a LaRussa favorite for his defensive prowess and workman-like hitting.  Either one of those guys can play center competently with Taguchi possibly having a better glove at this point than Edmonds.

The problem is that other than Taguchi and Encarnacion, none of the Cardinal outfielders historically have hit lefties particularly well.  Edmonds never has been effective against them. Chris Duncan, likewise has made his reputation hitting right-handers.  Ryan Ludwick is having a breakout month of June hitting .417 and for the year has crushed right-handers for nearly a 1.000 OPS. But against lefties he is also powerless which is quite unusual for a guy who bats right-handed.  Perhaps GM Walt Jocketty should showcase him while Edmonds struggles in hopes of making a deal for an outfielder he can platoon with Duncan.  Or maybe let him play regularly to see if he can break the spell southpaws have had over him.

Given how bad the Cardinal offense has performed to date and the fact that Edmonds isn’t getting any younger and isn’t likely to get any better, there’s really nothing to lose by playing Ludwick.  The primary benefit of giving Ludwick regular play is that he brings considerable power to the table.  Three times in his minor league career he’s topped 25 homers in a season including last year when he turned the trick for Triple-A Toledo.  That kind of bat can only help a team that ranks 12th in the NL in home runs.  LaRussa would have to get over his unswerving loyalty to his veterans and bench Edmonds for that to happen, but that might the Cardinals' only chance to successfully defend their title.

Voices from the Past

Part of the fun in playing fantasy baseball, and indeed in enjoying baseball itself, is speculating whether players having surprisingly good years are for real?Will they stay this good, perhaps even beyond this year and solve a long-term problem for my team? Or are they just a one month flash-in-the-pan? Cubs fans asked this about their third baseman for nearly 30 years after Ron Santo retired until they finally dealt for Aramis Ramirez. But sometimes teams find the answers with once forgotten players who just took a little longer to develop.

The Devil Rays appear to have found a solution at first base, at least in the short-term, with Carlos Pena. Long ago regarded as a top hitting prospect, Pena had fallen out of favor with five different organizations until landing a spot with Tampa. With a pretty good eye for balls and strikes as well as considerable power, he had GMs salivating whenever he was available but once they had him pulling their hair out with his maddening inconsistency. His .356 batting average and .671 slugging in June will at the very least give him another month to prove that this isn’t just another hot streak. At age 29, time is running out for him to establish himself as an everyday player so maybe that will be enough motivation for him to make the adjustments he needs as the season wears on. He is still befuddled by lefties, but as long as he keeps torching right-handers he’s a must play.

Willie Harris is another forgotten soul on the comeback trail. Last year, he was little more than an occasional pinch runner for the Red Sox. This year, he’s been exceptional as an almost regular left fielder for the Braves. Hitting nearly .400 for the year with surprising doubles power and his signature speed, he’s becoming a must play for Bobby Cox. What makes this year different and why this might finally be the year he makes good on his promise is the significant improvement in his walk rate and decrease in strikeouts. His defense is still a work in progress but it’s not bad enough to cost him playing time and as long as he continues to get on base (better than .400 against both left- and right-handers), he won’t see any decreases in playing time. That should result in a pretty nice year in the stolen base department.

Like Josh Hamilton, these guys are showing that sometimes it just takes a little extra time for the talent to shine through. Whether or not they can sustain this level is something that no one knows for sure. But their current level of play is a risk worth taking especially if the only cost is a roster spot.

Geaux Tigers

Skip Bertman built one of the most successful college baseball programs in NCAA history winning five national championships in 10 years during the 90s and 00s.  The program turned out more than a couple quality major leaguers, the most notables being Albert Belle, Todd Walker and Paul Byrd.  Even though Bertman has since been promoted to Athletic Director, the program is still producing good major league players.

His current home run total doesn’t prove it but this is a break-out year for Brad Hawpe.  For three consecutive years, both his walk rate and strikeout rate have improved to the point where he’s drawing almost as many walks as striking out.  Hitters who are doing that are targeting only the pitches they can drive.  For some, that eventually reveals itself in a high batting average; for others it’s an increase in power.  And for a select few like Hawpe, it will be both.  He was a career .306 hitter in the minors and in 2004 he hit 34 homers over 450 at bats split between Triple-A and the majors.  He may only have 6 homers right now but he’s hit as many as 7 in a single month.  Don’t be surprised if goes on a mid-summer rampage and finishes with close to 30.

Cubs’ manager Lou Pinella is finding ways of getting Ryan Theriot into the line-up.  With one more game played he will add third base eligibility to second base, shortstop and outfield.  He doesn’t have any fantasy power to speak of but he does have enough speed to be quite valuable, a poor man’s Chone Figgins if you will.  The numbers bear this comparison out: in the season in which they got their first extended looks in the majors, both Figgins and Theriot produced nearly identical stats in batting average, doubles, homers, steals, strikeouts and walks.  Triples were the only stat where there was any significant difference.  Theriot could reach 500 at bats this season which should be enough opportunity to produce at least 25 steals.

Aaron Hill has snuck up on everyone this year with his power.  Like Hawpe, he has a very discerning eye at the plate and slugged .550 or better in each of his seasons as a starter at LSU.  However, unlike Hawpe that power had been largely absent during his ascent through the minors, with just a brief glimpse of pop in 2004 at Double-A.  But last September it re-appeared when he hit 4 homers along with a .316 average.  After a torrid April he’s slowed down a bit but there really isn’t any compelling reason why he can’t finish with 15-20 homers this season along with an average near .300.

One dark horse is Todd Linden, whose turnaround in Florida could eventually get him regular playing time in center field.  The other candidates posses better defensive skills but none have his potential at the plate.  If he wins the job has enough power and speed to be a nice second half pick-up.

The Rocket’s Return (5/21/07)

Much fanfare was given to the return of Roger Clemens to the Yankees.  Given the state of the Yankees rotation – they’ve already used 11 different starters this season, five of whom have been rookies – they could use some good news.  Only a few teams have used as many as 10 different starters in the first 40 games of the season and no team has ever started five different rookies in the same season.  But what will the Yankees get when he makes his 2007 debut: the seven time Cy Young award winner or the shell of a once great pitcher the way Steve Carlton (16.76 ERA his final season) and Jim Palmer (9.17 ERA) finished their storied careers.

Probably the singular most impressive aspect of his career has been how well Clemens has maintained his excellence even into his 40s.  Last year in Houston he finished with a 2.30 ERA and probably could have won 15 games in his 19 starts had he received better run and bullpen support.  In only three starts did he allow more than 2 earned runs.  He also struck out 8.1 batters per nine innings, which would have been 15th best in the majors had he pitched enough innings to qualify.  So despite the fact that he’s lost 4 or 5 mph off his fastball from his peak years, he’s still been remarkably effective. 

However, there are several factors that will have an adverse effect on his performance this year.  The first is perhaps the most obvious: he’ll be facing the DH.  The last three years he’s enjoyed the benefit of facing the opposing pitcher, which not only allows him to face a terrible hitter each time through the order but also to risk walking the batter before him nibbling the edges of the strikezone.  The second factor will be his moving from one of the weakest offensive divisions in baseball to arguably the strongest.  Last year the AL East had three teams in the top 12 in run scoring; the NL Central had five in the bottom 10 in that category.  Even though he developed into more of a groundball pitcher in Houston, that might not work in his favor either.  Adam Everett is generally acknowledged as one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball, both in terms of range and efficiency.  While Derek Jeter is efficient, his range is notoriously limited.   The last factor is Clemens’ fading endurance.  Even facing the pitcher, he averaged under 6 innings per start in 2006. 

So what should we expect?  His combined ERA over his last two years with the Yankees was 4.11 and his WHIP was 1.256.  Looking at his batting average allowed on balls in play, he was fairly lucky his last two years in Houston compared to his career rate so there probably will be some regression there as well.  The Yankees should consider themselves lucky if they get a Clemens who can keep his ERA under 4.25 and WHIP under 1.30.

Who are these guys? (5/14/07)

Last week two relatively unknown hitters made a considerable splash, sending fantasy owners scrambling for info.  San Francisco’s Fred Lewis hit for the cycle just a few games into his major league career.  Oakland’s Jack Cust slammed his sixth homer - a game-ender - in a little more than a week after being called up to replace Mike Piazza while he’s rehabbing an injury.  So who are these guys?  More importantly, can they be counted on to produce for the rest of this season? 

Lewis is not young for a prospect (26) but he’s not too old to become a solid major league regular.  He has enough power to pop 20 homers in a good year if he gets a full-time gig, but his calling card is speed.  With a minor league career on base percentage of .382 he gets plenty of opportunities to run and hasn’t been shy about taking advantage of it: in three of the last four years he’s swiped at least 30 bases.  Strikeouts have been a struggle for him so there’s a ceiling on how high his batting average will be (probably somewhere in the .270-.280 range) but he has been improving.  With Todd Linden’s struggles and subsequent demotion, Lewis will be the Giant’s 4th outfielder for the foreseeable future.  Manager Bruce Bochy has been so impressed with his play that he’s made him the primary centerfielder versus right-handers, meaning he should finish with around 400 at bats by season’s end.   That might be worth 20 steals.

Jack Cust has always had power and the patience to get good pitches to hit.  Last year in Triple-A Portland, he smacked 30 homers and drew 143 free passes.  He has topped 20 homers five times and 100 walks four times in his travels that have included five different organizations.  So why have so many teams passed on him?  Perhaps the biggest reason is that with his glove he defines the position of designated hitter.  There’s no place on the diamond that is safe from his lack of defense.  The second reason is that he has some big holes in his strikezone so once pitchers figure out where they are his production will see a significant drop unless he has learned to lay off pitches he can’t handle.  From a fantasy standpoint, he will probably lose most of his value once Mike Piazza returns as there won’t be any place for him to play.  There’s a chance he could stick as a pinch-hitter but that won’t provide much solace to owners in mixed or shallow leagues.   If you have him active enjoy the ride but it won’t last much longer.

May is a particularly fruitful month when it comes to prospecting.  It’s when most teams decide what hasn’t worked out of spring training and call up players from the farm to address those needs.  Pay close attention to fast starts from the minor league help as many of those guys often stick around long enough to be worthwhile. 

The Cavalry has Arrived

There are two valuable fantasy commodities that can be found every year on the waiver wire.  The first are relievers who will eventually be given opportunities for saves.  The second is starting pitchers from Triple-A who’ll help in the other categories.  For example, Jered Weaver and Francisco Liriano made many fantasy fortunes last year.  The year before that, Aaron Small went 10-0 with an improbably good ERA in half a season. 

Here are my picks to be this year’s saviors and one who has been hyped that I think it would be good to avoid.

Last week, the Mets called up journeyman Jorge Sosa to bridge the gap until they get El Duque back, but I like him to be a part of their rotation all season.  With the exception of one solid year in Atlanta, Sosa’s numbers in the majors have never been that impressive.  The reason is that he’s never been afforded much minor league instruction with barely 100 innings pitched outside of major league action.  He’s had to learn his craft facing major league hitters. This year his statistics have finally caught up to his impressive stuff and under Rick Peterson’s guidance, he should be a solid addition to any fantasy staff.

The Devil Rays are in full building mode.  Their farm system has already produced a bumper crop of offensive players and now it’s the pitching side’s turn.  Ace Scott Kazmir and surprising Jamie Shields should be getting reinforcements from Triple-A fairly soon, with Andy Sonnanstine leading the way.  He has excellent control and does a fine job of keeping the ball in the yard.
Like Tampa, Milwaukee is being led by an impressive youth movement, with a cadre of potential All-Star hitters already making their presence felt and a few pitchers on the way led by Yovani Gallardo.  His heavy sinker/curveball combination produces fantasy gold: lots of strikeouts with very few homers allowed.

In Minnesota, Sidney Ponson has gamely tried to show that he still has some years left but control artist Kevin Slowey won’t wait much longer in Triple-A.  He’s not overpowering, but keeps hitters off-balance enough to rack up plenty of quality innings.

Tim Lincecum has been compared to a right-handed Sandy Koufax but that comparison if it ever comes to fruition is still years away.  The Giant’s hurler has posted some very impressive numbers in Triple-A but it was at the expense of inexperienced hitters.  His first major league start revealed that he has trouble throwing strikes with his breaking pitches and that he has a tendency to overthrow, costing his fastball velocity and movement.  There are few things major league hitters enjoy more than straight fastballs; they tend to become souvenirs.  Control issues punctuated by more than the occasional home run is not a good recipe for success.  Lincecum will eventually get there, but it’s probably best to avoid him this year. 

The Turtle is a Hare (4/30/07)

When I came away from my NL Tout Wars draft, I was pretty happy that I had rostered Carlos Delgado for just $25.  Here was a slugger who had topped 30 home runs the last ten consecutive years, the third longest such streak in history.  Yet, as the calendar changes to May, he’s hitting under .200 with just one homer in his ledger.  There aren’t many signs that he’s going to snap out of his slump soon, but his history suggests he’ll be fine.  However, not all slow starters have his lengthy career to comfort their worried owners.  Here are some hitters that are showing some positive signs after slow starts:

New Atlanta second baseman Kelly Johnson has caught fire over the last two weeks, hitting .467 with three home runs.  Just as importantly he’s walked 12 times over that span, suggesting that he will be quite productive in both power and average over the balance of the season.

Willy Taveras has hit .378 since the middle of April.  To some extent he followed a similar pattern last year, starting out very slowly and then catching fire for the final five months.  His primary fantasy value stems from his stolen bases.  He finished last April with just one; this year he has three.  Not exactly the stuff of fantasy dreams, but if his improved success is any indication of what is in store, he could rival the best base thieves in the bigs the rest of the way.  He finished 2006 with 33 steals.

Likewise, Gary Matthews got off to a slow start, but has not only picked up the pace with his bat - hitting .370 the last two weeks - but also with his legs swiping 4 bags.  With a career high of 28 in the minors, he’s always had the wheels to steal 20 bases a season but was rarely given the green light to run under Buck Showalter in Texas.  The Angels have no such aversion to the running game, having led the majors in steals and attempts last year.

Magglio Ordonez again resembles the perennial All-Star from 1999-2003, looking far less like then injury-plagued shell of a hitter he was from 2004-2005.  Last year he got off to a strong start but slumped in the heat of summer.  The difference this year appears to be his much improved discipline at the plate that has resulted in more power: 13 doubles as compared to 5 last year, and 100 points more in slugging percentage.  Don’t be surprised if he returns to the 30-35 home run output that was so common for him a few years ago.

The key in April and May is to be patient, particularly with players who have a history of strong performance or who are displaying other skills like drawing a high number of walks in the early going.  These indicators often point to much better days ahead.  May your season exceed your expectation.

Don’t Give It Away

A lot of fantasy experts would have you believe that if you have a player who’s off to a surprisingly good start, now is the time to trade him.  “Alex Rodriguez is on pace for more than 100 homers; time to trade him for Travis Hafner.”  But following that advice is little more than a path toward regret.

First of all, you probably won’t get fair value for their current level of production and your potential trading partners will likely be wary of paying full price.  This is especially true when trying to deal pitchers.

Secondly, just because a player has never done what he’s doing now doesn’t mean he can’t do it all season.  For example, Alfonso Soriano had never hit 40 homers and stolen 40 bases before last season.  How many people sold JJ Putz early last year thinking he was going to falter, only to watch him finish the season as one of the best closers in baseball?

If you were smart enough to pay for Alex Rodriguez, then enjoy the ride.  There might be are only one or two guys in baseball with as much talent so the fact that he’s off to a monster start shouldn’t be a huge surprise.  This is one of four players who have ever had a 40/40 season and the all-time leader in home runs before the age of 30.  Just because he was viewed by many “experts” as a disappointment the last couple years doesn’t mean he can’t continue this pace all season.  Sure he’s on pace to hit more than 100 home runs, but it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to imagine him hitting 60 this year.  He’s already had a season with 57 dingers.  So who else can you trade for that can safely be expected to hit 50 more homers this year?  Unless you can make a trade to fill a number of holes, there’s no reason to deal him.

Josh Hamilton has been a revelation in the early going.  He hasn’t played in several years due to off the field troubles.  But many people who saw him play in high school and in the low minors attested they had never seen a guy with more raw talent.  So if Hamilton ends up with 25 homers and 20 steals in his first season back, I doubt any of them will be surprised.  Neither should you.

Rich Hill posted remarkable numbers throughout the minors.  Once he gained confidence late last year, he enjoyed similar success against major league competition.  Chad Gaudin didn’t get much of a chance to show what he could do in Tampa or in Toronto.  Oakland is giving him that opportunity and he’s running with it.  There’s really nothing in either of these guys’ minor league records that indicates they can’t continue to be very good.

Trade these guys if someone offers you the moon.  Otherwise, enjoy the ride.  And may your season exceed your expectations.

Closing Days (4/16/07)

If you didn’t come away from your draft with a closer, or you grabbed BJ Ryan and are now wondering, “now what am I gonna do?”, don’t sweat it.  Saves are the easiest commodity in fantasy baseball to find off the waiver wire.  For the last decade, an average of ten teams per season experience some form of turnover at the end of their bullpen.  Injuries, bad luck or loss of effectiveness plague all but the very best closers, creating opportunities for fantasy glory for numerous otherwise unknown relievers.  And even seemingly invincible stoppers like Brad Lidge and Eric Gagne sometimes drop-off suddenly. 

Last year, Akinori Otsuka (Texas), Jonathan Papelbon (Boston) and JJ Putz (Seattle) were three of the best closers in baseball.  They shared something else in common: none of them finished spring training as the favorite to close for their team.  But once each got his chance, it was clear he was the man for the ninth inning.
The big save sleepers so far this year are Joakim Soria in Kansas City and Dan Wheeler in Houston.  After a very impressive spring, Soria has been nothing short of dominant filling in for the injured Octavio Dotel.  There shouldn’t be any concern that he’s just a Rule 5 rookie.  Papelbon proved last year a first year pitcher can do just fine in the 9th inning, and Scott Williamson, Todd Worrell and Butch Metzger each won Rookie of the Year honors as their team’s closers.  Dan Wheeler stepped in as the Astros’ top gun when Brad Lidge struggled.  Wheeler himself didn’t have an auspicious effort his first time out but he got the job done and it will be his as long as he preserves leads. 

Other situations that merit attention are in Philadelphia, San Francisco, Toronto, Florida and Cleveland, where the Indians’ Joe Borowski is off to a somewhat shaky start.  His eventual successor might come from any of Fernando Cabrera, Tom Mastny or Rafael Betancourt. Cabrera is probably the favorite due to his superior raw stuff, but Mastny was quietly effective in the role last year and should not be disregarded. 

Tom Gordon in Philadelphia has also looked shaky.  Ryan Madson was the preseason favorite to step in but his struggles have opened the door for newly acquired Francisco Rosario.  The Giants’ Armando Benitez has been quite hittable meaning that either Vinnie Chulk or Kevin Correia could end up with saves.  Correia was terrific in the second half last year and is probably the man to get.  In Toronto, Jason Frasor has been tabbed to fill in while BJ Ryan is out, but as we saw on Sunday night Shawn Marcum can close if Frasor struggles.  No one has distinguished himself in Florida yet, so picking up any one of the three or four top candidates to succeed Jorge Julio – Henry Owens, Matt Lindstrom, Taylor Tankersley and perhaps Randy Messenger – could yield between 5 and 10 saves this season.

Good luck and may your season exceed your expectations.

Finding Cheap Pitching

Perhaps the most frequent questions I get are about pitching - “Is there an easy way to finding good cheap pitchers?  What is the secret?” 

The answer is there really is no one easy answer.  Many have tried to find a formula that would universally identify the best pitchers and some have had varying degrees of success, but inevitably there are too many exceptions to trust any one rule. 

Most experts swear by strikeout to walk ratio as the end-all, be-all of pitching metrics.  However, because most experts talk about it all the time everyone already knows about it and is looking for the same thing.  Anyone who already has a good ratio is going to come at a premium price, thus undermining the whole enterprise of finding cheap pitching.  The second problem is that about a third of the guys with good K/BB ratio aren’t worth nearly what their price will be.  For example, Yusmiero Petit had a great K/BB rate in the minors but one only has to watch him get hammered by major league hitters to know that one needs more than an 85 mph fastball and a good change-up to be successful, no matter how often one throws strikes.  Bobby Jones, Gil Heredia, Carlos Silva, Josh Towers, Steve Woodard, Stan Spencer and Jose Lima have all posted K/BB ratios better than 4/1 over a full season in the last 10 years and I don’t think any of those guys were ever at the top of anyone’s draft list.  Obviously there are a lot of other guys who display great control, but there are many other reasons why everyone likes the Johan Santanas and Pedro Martinez’ of the world. 

So how does one find Johan Santana before he becomes Johan Santana?  I look at strikeout rates first.  A guy who strikes out lots of batters out generally has above average ability.  Then I find out who his pitching coach is.  A good pitching coach will fine tune that talent.  Johan Santana has tremendous talent but he became a great pitcher in large part because of Bobby Cuellar, who helped refine his signature change-up, and Rick Anderson, who is one of the best at teaching the mental aspects of the game.  Because of Anderson, I’d keep an eye on Ramon Ortiz this season in Minnesota.    

The Mets’ Rick Petersen is probably the best in the business when it comes to analyzing mechanics and getting his pitchers to perfect their release points.  Oliver Perez has terrific stuff but has had trouble repeating his delivery so joining forces with Petersen looks like a great buying opportunity.  I’m also a buyer for new guys under Dave Duncan (Kip Wells) and Mike Maddux (Claudio Vargas), both of whom have an impressive track record for getting the most out of their charges.  And of course Daniel Cabrera in a great play in Baltimore now that he’s had a full spring training with Leo Mazzone. 

Good luck and may your season exceed your expectations

Opening Week (4/2/07)

So you had your draft and the team you walked out with has you smiling from ear to ear.  You picked up all the sleepers you wanted as well as a few superstar studs.  You can’t wait for Opening Day and the victory parade to begin.  But when it finally arrives, you watch every single one of your pitchers get shelled and all of your hitters take an 0-for the week while your rivals enjoy banner days, leaving your squad in the dust.  After the first week you are securely ensconced in last place, 50 points out of first.  Time to start looking ahead to fantasy football, right?

Um, no.  One of the hardest things to remember is that fantasy baseball, like real baseball, is a marathon, not a sprint.  An NFL regular season lasts only 18 weeks.  A fantasy baseball season is 26 weeks long, a full two months more.  That’s almost 50% more season. 

Tuffy Rhodes opened 1994 with three homers on Opening Day.  Waiver wires across the country were buzzing the next day.  He finished that season with a total of 8 homers, 19 RBI and a .234 average.  I don’t need to tell you that very few people won their leagues because they had Tuffy Rhodes on their team. 

In fact, it’s no big deal to be lagging as late as June.  A perfect example of this is illustrated in Fantasyland: A Season on Baseball’s Lunatic Fringe.  In late May that year, Wall Street Journal reporter Sam Walker’s team was in second place in AL Tout Wars, a league that he described as the toughest on the planet, populated by all the top fantasy baseball writers and analysts.  My team was in 10th, 32 points out of first place at that point but had been plagued by injuries and players underperforming their expectations while his had been overachieving.  When he asked me if I was giving up, I told him that I still had a good shot to win.  He laughed at my optimism and bet me that he would finish ahead of me; the loser would have to eat a stick of butter.  I knew better days were ahead for my team so I accepted.  When the season concluded, my squad was in first place having set a league record for most points totaled while Sam’s team languished in 8th.  And yes, he did make good on the bet. 

The point is that it doesn’t matter if you’re in last place after the first week or even the first month.  The standings don’t matter until after the final game of the season is played.  The only time to worry is when all your guys are meeting or surpassing your expectations yet you’re still near the bottom of the standings.  Otherwise remain calm; there’s still plenty of time for the guys you liked before the season began to prove their worth.  

Good luck and may your teams exceed your expectations

Last Minute Draft Tips (3/26/07)

This is the final weekend before Opening Day.  Not coincidentally, it is also the weekend when most fantasy baseball leagues hold their drafts.  The time for compiling stats and reviewing player profiles is nearing an end, and with that I’d like to share a few last minute pointers that have helped me:

Many of the best bargains in the draft are players who had limited playing time last year either due to injuries, a crowded roster or youth.  These players don’t look productive because their stat totals are meager but understand that it’s the rate of production that matters most.  Furthermore, guys who were hurt last year will often exceed those rates when healthy because they tried to play through their injuries and weren’t as effective as they otherwise would have been.  Morgan Ensberg and Alexis Rios are examples for this season.

Understand the composition of the major league rosters and take advantage.  For example, aging and/or injury-prone regular outfielders Moises Alou and Shawn Green in New York, and Barry Bonds and Dave Roberts in San Francisco can not be counted on for more than 450 at bats.  This means that guys like Ben Johnson, Lastings Milledge or Todd Linden should see more than the customary 350-400 at bats that a fourth outfielder normally gets. 

Some spring stats do matter.  High spring strikeout totals are often a clue to breakout seasons for starting pitchers which means that Ian Snell and Adam Loewen are good bets to turn a nice profit.  Even a guy like Erik Bedard, who is already on everybody’s radar could be worth more than his Draft Day his price tag.

During breaks, everyone relaxes and disengages their brains from “draft mode”.  They talk about last night’s game or what’s going on at work or their last vacation or anything else other than what is next in this draft.  Even once they sit down to resume they are not always focused.  It takes one or two nominations for most people to get their brains back in draft mode.  Take that opportunity to grab a player you covet.  More often than not, you will catch a bargain.
Drafts can get pretty crazy so remember to stay clear headed.  When the adrenaline starts pumping, keeping a clear view of the player landscape can be difficult.  It may sound silly but even little things like drinking water instead of high caffeine sodas or taking a deep breath after each pick can have a profound impact on how well you think over the course of a long draft. 

There are going to be players you want but won’t get because someone else is willing to overpay.  Let them overspend; this just means you have more money on the table for other buying opportunities.  It’s ok to spend an extra buck to get a player you really want, but spending more than $5 extra is a sure path to a frustrating end game.

Good luck and may your season exceed your expectation.