- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 20, 2005

The phrase often tossed around during spring training goes something like “pitchers are always ahead of the hitters.”

Not in the Fantasy Fool’s world.

With many fantasy baseball drafts approaching, and Opening Day exactly two weeks away, the Fool’s goal is to get your lineup ready to go this week, while taking on the hurlers next Sunday. Perhaps the Fool is still shocked by his keeper league draft from last weekend, when hitters were selected with 10 of the first 13 picks — and if I typed some of the names, you wouldn’t believe me.

Now grab your bat, and try to keep up.

Catcher

It’s the end of an era for the Fool and his pals, as the two gold standards at catcher for the last decade, Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez and Mike Piazza, come into the season with huge questions. Rodriguez showed up for camp much lighter than usual — coming off a guest appearance in a certain former slugger’s new book. Imagine that. Piazza, meanwhile, will return to full-time catching duty for the first time in more than a year — a move that certainly will cut into his already-declining productivity.

Pudge should remain one of the best, but resist the urge and downgrade Piazza a bit; you should be able to get him late. Instead, feast your eyes on a fellow you’ve perhaps never heard of: Indians catcher Victor Martinez. He just turned 26, and in his first full major league season he led all catchers with 23 homers and 108 RBI. Hello! This is a guy to jump on whether you’re playing for this year or next — a young stud at a position where offensive numbers are often hard to come by.

And while your eager pals grab the catchers from the Yankees and Red Sox — as well they should — just sit back and snag Javy Lopez of the Orioles, who is enjoying a late-career surge. He’ll also get some rest while playing first base and DHing, which should help him stay healthy — always a concern with your backstop.

First base

The youth movement has taken over at first base, too, though a few cagey veterans are still worth a high selection. Albert Pujols, strictly a first baseman (eligibility-wise) for the first time in his career, is worth one of the first few picks in any draft. At the ripe old age of 25 (depending on who you believe), Pujols has established himself as the best right-handed hitter in the game. He established career highs in homers (46) and walks (84) last season while batting over .300 for the fourth consecutive year. Pujols also has knocked in more than 120 runs in each of his four seasons in that loaded Cardinals lineup. Add in his consistency and knack for staying healthy, and in Pujols you have a true fantasy gem.

David Ortiz had an incredible season last year for the Red Sox, as did most of his teammates — that’s often what it takes to win a World Series title. But you should be careful not to bid too high on this super slugger, who in 2004 played in more than 130 games for the first time. Let Red Sox Fan take Ortiz in the first round and worry about his eligibility at first later. You can get numbers just as good and much more reliability from Todd Helton of the Rockies and Mark Teixeira of the Rangers.

And if its power you want, and your team can live with his less-than-sterling batting average, give Jim Thome of the Phillies a try. He’s crushed 190 homers over the last four seasons, but his average has dwindled near career lows for his past two seasons in Philadelphia.

Second base

Welcome to fantasy baseball’s weak spot. Once you get past Alfonso Soriano, high atop the list of second basemen, it’s a long drop to your second-best option, new Dodger Jeff Kent. And frankly, the Fool feels like he’s rolling the dice with the 28 other starting two-baggers on the list.

Even with the Rangers’ Soriano, there are questions. Three years ago, he was a homer away from 40-40, and then was summarily exposed as a free-swinging strikeout machine in the playoffs. Soriano’s numbers went down across the board in each of the past two seasons, the last one spent in Texas. But his totals of 28 homers, 91 RBI and 18 stolen bases make him always elite and enviable. And, it’s worth noting his strikeout numbers have gone down in each of the last three seasons.

Kent is the only other “no-brainer” selection. He’s older than most options at this position, but he’s shown no sign of slowing down over the last few years. His new ballpark may do the trick — he signed with the real L.A. in the offseason, quite a cavernous change from the cozy Minute Maid bandbox. And, aside from his motorcycle shenanigans a couple years ago, he’s been relatively injury free. Expect an average around .300, more than 100 RBI and more than 20 home runs.

After that, take your pick from all-around guys like hometown pick Jose Vidro, San Francisco’s Ray Durham or Atlanta’s Marcus Giles. Need speed? Grab Baltimore’s Brian Roberts or Luis Castillo. But all of these guys have deficiencies, be it age, lack of pop, injuries or inconsistency.

Shortstop

News flash: A-Rod is no longer eligible at shortstop, now a year removed from his switch to third base with the Yankees. Fortunately for the fantasy player, Baltimore’s Miguel Tejada has done his darndest to fill those big shoes. After a somewhat down year in his final Oakland campaign, Tejada exploded last year with the Orioles, hitting 34 homers and knocking in 150 runs while batting .311 — all career highs. And, the lineup around him has only gotten better, so expect more of the same, though perhaps with a dip in the RBI total; 150 is near superhuman.

Michael Young did his best A-Rod impersonation for the free-swinging Rangers, crushing career numbers across the board in his fourth full major league season while playing in 160 games for the second consecutive season. He cooled a little after a red-hot start — a trait you’ll often find with Rangers players — but still finished with 22 homers and 99 RBI, numbers you’ll always take at shortstop.

Derek Jeter may have proved just how good he is last season, digging himself out of a .168 batting average hole at the end of April to nearly finish at .300 (he missed by .008). He still ran a little hot and cold for the rest of the year, but never as cold as that first month — and his hots were spicy, to the tune of a .396 average in June and a .379 mark in September. And don’t forget, he’s a career .315 hitter with plenty of pop — expect around 20 home runs and at least 70 RBI, with 20 or so stolen bases as an added treat. Really, you can’t go wrong “settling” for Jeter.

Third Base

Alex Rodriguez still should be the first or second player taken in any league. He’s 29-years-old and missed a 30-30 season by two stolen bases while learning a new position in the NYC limelight, and people kept saying he had an off year. Ha! And he still knocked in 106 runs. If you can, grab him and run, and watch those numbers improve in his second year at Yankee Stadium.

Scott Rolen has gotten healthy at the right time. Once a constant injury worry, Rolen has averaged 150 games over the last three seasons. And he plays in one of baseball’s best lineups, which means as good as he was last season (.314, 34 homers, 124 RBI), he could be even better this season.

Third base has perhaps the best depth in fantasy baseball, with 10 of the projected starters at the position owning a 30-homer or better season in their career. Two to scrutinize: new Mariner Adrian Beltre, who belted 48 homers in 2004, his contract year, and new National Vinny Castilla, who is leaving the thin air of Colorado. Castilla never has topped 25 homers in a season away from Coors Field, but his average as a full-time Rockie is 37 bombs. Oh, and he’ll turn 38 this summer.

Outfield

There are plenty of options here as well, but only a few fantasy studs who do it all. Vladimir Guerrero may never steal 40 bags again, like he did for the Expos in 2002, but he still snagged 15 last year — on top of 39 homers, 126 RBI and a .337 average. Carlos Beltran, who signed with the Mets in the offseason, put up similar power numbers last season with a much lower average (.267) and more stolen bases (42, a career best). And, the Phillies’ Bobby Abreu is another guy who does it all; he hit 30 homers last year with 105 knocked in, 40 stolen bases and a .301 batting average — barely a notch below his career mark of .305.

Ichiro Suzuki, meanwhile, delivers little power but will do wonders for your batting average, runs scored and stolen bases totals. In fact, he should easily score more than the 101 runs he had last season; it was a career low, despite his other milestones, and the Mariners beefed up their lineup in the offseason. Ichiro is worth a low first or high second round pick.

If you have a comment, question or idea for the Fantasy Fool, e-mail him at thefool@rotogods.com.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide