The Washington Times - February 23, 2009, 12:02AM

Those who play fantasy baseball generally fall into two categories. The first group consists of people who like baseball just enough that when they get asked to participate in a free Yahoo league by a friend or co-worker they shrug, nod and give it a shot. They then proceed to check on their teams from time to time, and frequently forget to set their lineups. While they hope for the best, the outcomes of their matchups don’t matter all that much to them. If they win, great. If they lose, oh well. Many lose interest by the All-Star break.

On the other hand, you have the fantasy fanatics. Some have been battling the same group of buddies for years, developing friendly but intense rivalries; others juggle teams in several leagues with different scoring systems to maximize each season’s experience. They start crunching numbers and reviewing injury reports in January in hopes of getting a leg up on draft day. They spend countless hours during the season scouring the waiver wire and keeping tabs on promising minor leaguers in search of any advantage that might net them the bragging rights - and cash prize - they’re after. Every conversation with a fellow league member is liable to end up in trade negotiations. Weekly lineup decisions are often agonizing. Each victory brings great satisfaction, and they need their space after a tough loss.

SEE RELATED:


Fanatics, this fantasy preview is for you. And although it has taken forever to put the rankings you’ll peruse over the next three weeks together, it has been a pleasure. Why? Because I’m a fantasy fanatic myself, and all this research I’ve done will definitely come in handy on draft night.

Any smart fantasy player knows to consider their sources, so let me give you a little background about myself. I’m a baseball nut. I post most of the content that appears on National Pastime. I’ve collected cards, autographs and memorabilia since I was a kid. I’m constantly reading baseball books and have more useless knowledge stuffed in my cranium than I could possibly express in words. I go to an average of two major and/or minor league games a week from April through September, so I’ve probably seen more of these guys play in person than anyone you know. And, most importantly for the purposes of this series, I’m the commissioner of a very competitive 16-team league, which I have won three straight years. Has there been some good fortune involved? You bet. But you don’t three-peat by accident.

Before you move on to the catcher rankings, there are a few things you should consider. First, I can’t help but be influenced by the rules of the league I play in, so here they are, in general terms: It’s a points-based head-to-head CBS Sportsline league in which basically any positive offensive or pitching statistic accrued will net you points (like most leagues, defense unfortunately doesn’t factor in). We start nine hitters (the standard positions plus a utility player) and six pitchers (either four starters and two relievers or five and one), and the scoring system is set up so that, in theory anyway, your six pitchers should score about the same number of points as your nine hitters.

If you see a plus sign (+) next to a player’s name, it does not mean his value is increasing; rather, it’s a takeoff on how CBS Sportsline puts little red crosses next to the names of injured players on their fantasy sites. For the top players - the ones with the blurbs - the injury will be addressed in the text if it’s considered a major concern. If you see a plus sign next to somebody’s name and it’s not mentioned in the blurb, it means I don’t consider it a big deal. For the “Best of the rest” guys, you’re on your own (sorry), but I’ve given you the heads up and if a player has a plus sign next to his name and is ranked below a bunch of guys he’s clearly better than, it’s a safe assumption that the injury is at least relatively serious.

The other thing you’ll see next to some players’ names is a position - for example, (3B) - in parentheses. That means the player is eligible at that position in addition to the one they’re being ranked at, at least in my league. My league’s eligibility rules are as follows: “Players are eligible at their primary position, plus positions they’ve played 20 games last year or 10 games this year. Pitchers gain eligibility at Starting Pitcher with five starts last year or five starts this year. Pitchers gain eligibility at Relief Pitcher with 10 relief appearances last year or 10 relief appearances this year.”

Lastly, any player who has ever appeared in a single major league game will be included in the rankings rather than the “Prospects to keep an eye on” section at the bottom. Some players with no major league experience that are particularly likely to make a fantasy impact this year are included in the rankings. As for the prospects section at the bottom, keep in mind that since this is a fantasy preview, estimated time of arrival in the majors is a strong consideration. To use an example from the catcher rankings, Giants prospect Buster Posey’s ceiling is much higher than A’s prospect Landon Powell’s, but Powell played fairly well in triple-A last year while Posey’s pro career is just getting started, and therefore Powell is ranked higher. Talent can still trump proximity to the majors, however, as evidenced by the fact that Blue Jays prospect J.P. Arencibia - who reached double-A last season - is ranked higher than Powell.

The full fantasy preview schedule can be found below, and you can move on to the catcher rankings by clicking on the link. Thanks for reading, and make sure to tell your friends to check out National Pastime’s fantasy preview - unless they’re in your league, of course. I hope these rankings and the nuggets of knowledge that accompany them prove useful. Good luck this season.

FANTASY PREVIEW SCHEDULE

Monday, Feb. 23 - Intro & Catchers
Wednesday, Feb. 25 - First Basemen
Friday, Feb. 27 - Second Basemen
Monday, March 2 - Third Basemen
Wednesday, March 4 - Shortstops
Friday, March 6 - Outfielders
Monday, March 9 - DH-only
Wednesday, March 11 - Starting Pitchers
Friday, March 13 - Relief Pitchers

Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times. He can be reached at jleblanc@washingtontimes.com.