Thursday, February 28, 2008

Baseball Top 50: Why A-Rod is No. 1

TAMPA - I've put together my preseason top 30, and here's a shock: Alex Rodriguez is No. 1.

A-Rod is a lightning rod for criticism and often equally despised in all five boroughs, but here's an often-overlooked fact: The guy is great. Not good, not really good, great.

We all know he won the the third MVP of his already-Hall-of-Fame-worthy career, but do you realize how great he was in 2007? He reached career highs in RBIs (156!) runs (143!) on-base percentage (.422!) and slugging percentage (.645!). He had his second-fewest strikeouts (120) since 1999, his second-most walks (95) since 2000 and his most steals (24) since 2004. And now he returns to the heart of a virtually unchanged lineup at age 32 for what should be another year of his prime. He doesn't really have any weaknesses, and while he believes teammate and best bud Derek Jeter will be this year's MVP, the smart money is on A-Rod to take home that trophy again with another monster season.

It's easy to jump to conclusions just from watching players sleepwalk through spring training, but seeing A-Rod toss the ball around at Legends Field on Tuesday (above), one got the sense he's more comfortable in his pinstripes than he used to be. Of course, if you put together the kind of 2007 campaign he just did, you'd be at ease, too. The pressure will never be lifted until he brings a World Series title to the Bronx, but Rodriguez realizes that from March to October, all he can do is focus on his own game. And with game like this, he's the safest fantasy pick you can make.

Here are the rest of my 2008 rankings:

1. 3B Alex Rodriguez, Yankees
2. 3B Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
3. 3B David Wright, Mets
4. SS Jose Reyes, Mets
5. SS Hanley Ramirez, Marlins
6. SP Johan Santana, Mets
7. 1B Albert Pujols, Cardinals
8. 2B Chase Utley, Phillies
9. OF Matt Holliday, Rockies
10. 1B Ryan Howard, Phillies
11. OF Alfonso Soriano, Cubs
12. SS Jimmy Rollins, Phillies
13. 1B Prince Fielder, Brewers
14. OF Carl Crawford, Rays
15. SP Jake Peavy, Padres
16. 3B Ryan Braun, Brewers
17. OF Grady Sizemore, Indians
18. OF Carlos Beltran, Mets
19. OF Vladimir Guerrero, Angels
20. DH David Ortiz, Red Sox
21. 2B/OF B.J. Upton, Rays
22. OF Ichiro Suzuki, Mariners
23. 2B Brandon Phillips, Reds
24. 1B Justin Morneau, Twins
25. 1B Mark Teixeira, Braves
26. OF Carlos Lee, Astros
27. OF Magglio Ordonez, Tigers
28. 1B/OF Lance Berkman, Astros
29. OF Curtis Granderson, Tigers
30. C Victor Martinez, Indians
31. 3B Aramis Ramirez, Cubs
32. SP Brandon Webb, Diamondbacks
33. SP Erik Bedard, Orioles
34. OF Adam Dunn, Reds
35. 1B Derrek Lee, Cubs
36. SP Josh Beckett, Red Sox
37. 2B Robinson Cano, Yankees
38. OF Alex Rios, Blue Jays
39. SS Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
40. OF Manny Ramirez, Red Sox
41. C Russell Martin, Dodgers
42. 3B/2B/OF Chone Figgins, Angels
43. RP Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox
44. RP Francisco Rodriguez, Angels
45. SS Derek Jeter, Yankees
46. 2B Brian Roberts, Orioles
47. SP Dan Haren, Diamondbacks
48. DH Travis Hafner, Indians
49. OF Eric Byrnes, Diamondbacks
50. 3B Garrett Atkins, Rockies

Monday, February 25, 2008

Offseason moves: Relievers

RP Brad Lidge to Phillies: Lidge's struggles since serving up the famous Albert Pujols homer have been well-documented, but the Phils figured a change of scenery would do him good. The problem is he's moved to a ballpark built for home runs, and he just had surgery on his knee Monday, which could force him to not be ready for Opening Day. Draft cautiously.

RP Francisco Cordero to Reds: Cordero sometimes gets a bad rap as a shaky closer, but here are his numbers from last year with Milwaukee: 44 saves, 2.98 ERA, 86/18 K/BB ratio, .218 batting average against. Now, here are Mariano Rivera's '07 stats: 30 saves, 3.15 ERA, 74/12 K/BB, .248 BAA. Not saying you draft Cordero ahead of Rivera, necessarily, but waiting for a guy like Cordero several rounds later wouldn't be such a bad idea.

RP Jose Valverde to Astros: Valverde is a similar guy. Is he volatile? Sometimes. Is he an upgrade from what Houston had previously? Yup. Is he capable of repeating last year's 47-save season? He'll come close.

RP Eric Gagne to Brewers: Gagne apologized for being implicated in the Mitchell Report this offseason. He should apologize to the Red Sox for completely tanking after they acquired him at last year's trade deadline. I don't know if it was the pressure he faced in Boston, his role as a set-up man, or just that he got tired after not pitching a full season since 2004, but none of that should be a problem as he gets a fresh start as Milwaukee's closer. Yes, he's an injury risk, but remember, Gagne was having a great comeback year with Texas before getting traded to the Sox. He might be undervalued at your draft.

RP Troy Percival to Rays: Percival's another veteran closer who was sidelined for a while with injuries and actually retired for a year before making a successful comeback as a middle reliever last year with the Cardinals (1.80 ERA, 36 Ks in 24 innings). He parlayed that into a two-year deal as the closer in Tampa Bay, where he supplants Al Reyes. There's always a chance Percival could blow out his arm, which is a concern, but don't automatically get scared off just because he's the closer of the Rays - Reyes (26 saves in '07) and Danys Baez (41 saves in '05) have been useful fantasy players in that role before.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Carolina Panthers did us a favor

If there's one aspect of fantasy football that really bugs me, it's the running back-by-committee.

Nothing drives me crazier on draft day or when it's time to set my lineup than having to figure out which one of a team's two or three or four RBs is going to be most productive. One of the biggest offenders the past two years has been the Carolina Panthers, with their timeshare duo of DeShaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams. As if it weren't already hard enough to tell the two apart, the Panthers were constantly dividing up the carries in haphazard fashion, which ultimately meant it wasn't worth the hassle owning either one of them.

Well, that all changed Thursday when the Panthers released Foster. The team opted to keep the younger, more explosive Williams (5.0 yards a carry last year to Foster's 3.5), who automatically becomes a No. 2 fantasy back - assuming he's the Panthers' unquestioned starter. This makes things a heck of a lot easier for fantasy purposes. No more flipping a coin when thinking about drafting one of them or watching in horror as one of them gets 20 carries and the other eight.

Of course, Carolina could throw us all for a loop and go draft or sign another RB who will share time with Williams, which leaves us back at square one. Maybe there's a nondescript guy out there named DeJuan Jones or something who they can pick up and give half the carries to - that'd be just our luck.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Reds loaded with fantasy prospects

SARASOTA - Fantasy players on the prowl for young talent might want to drop by Ed Smith Stadium some time in the next month or so.

There's a whole host of prospects on display at the Cincinnati Reds' spring training complex, and you'd be wise to familiarize yourself with the names of some players who could make a big fantasy impact this year.

Start with outfielder Jay Bruce (above), Baseball America's 2007 Minor League Player of the Year. Bruce's skills at the plate have been favorably compared to Larry Walker, and he's a strong candidate to win the Reds' starting CF job at just 20 years of age.

New Reds manager Dusty Baker got his first live glimpse of Bruce's swing Wednesday during the team's first full-squad workout and came away impressed.

"He has a very good stroke," Baker told the Reds' team Web site. "He comes through the zone with good balance, keeps his head still and down. Talking to him, he's very confident he can hit without being arrogant. That's the first thing you like to see in a young hitter."

Bruce doesn't have the speed of a prototypical leadoff hitter, which is a slot the team is looking to fill at the same time as its open CF spot. Kenny Lofton's name has popped up as a possible acquisition, which would probably keep Bruce in Triple-A to start the year. Still, you'll want to keep track of how he progresses this spring and if he can win over Baker and Reds management. It won't be long before Bruce breaks through at the big-league level, so I advise you to get in on the ground floor.

Another young infielder to keep tabs on is Joey Votto, who appears to be in line to take over the majority of playing time at 1B from Scott Hatteberg this season. Votto flashed his skills in a brief big-league stint last year - .321, four HRs, 17 RBIs in 84 at-bats - and could be an overlooked source of power in deep leagues in 2008.

The Reds aren't without pitching prospects, either. You've probably heard the name Homer Bailey, a much-heralded, 21-year-old righty who made his debut last season. Things didn't go quite as expected in Bailey's rookie year (4-2, 5.76 ERA, 1.57 WHIP in 45.1 innings), but that's no reason to give up on the kid so soon. Bailey is a lock for the Reds' starting rotation, probably as the No. 3, and will be given every opportunity to show off the repertoire that led some scouts to place him on par with the Yankees' Phil Hughes.

Two other young pitchers to watch: 24-year-old Edinson Volquez, acquired in the Josh Hamilton deal and once the Texas Rangers' top minor league pitcher, and Johnny Cueto, a 22-year-old rookie with an outside shot at making the big-league roster out of spring training.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Offseason moves: Infielders

Some notable infielders who changed teams this winter:

3B Miguel Cabrera to Tigers: And you thought he couldn't possibly be any more valuable than he already was ... The move to Detroit's monster lineup can only help Cabrera improve on numbers we've not seen from a player his age since Mel Ott and Jimmie Foxx. The only knock on Cabrera thus far has been his conditioning/motivation, but I don't see that being a problem in a locker room surrounded by seasoned vets who expect to contend for a World Series. Make Cabrera a cornerstone of your fantasy lineup and sleep well at night.

SS Miguel Tejada to Astros: The steroid rumors became a reality when his name popped up in the Mitchell Report, so we have yet to see if there will be any after-effects on his performance in 2008 from that or a possible perjury case. It's enough to make you worry, especially when you add in his diminished numbers in '07, the first time he didn't play a full 162 games in seven years. But given a thin shortstop pool, Tejada's still a fantasy No. 1, even if he doesn't want to talk about the past.

3B Troy Glaus to Cardinals and Scott Rolen to Blue Jays: A healthy Glaus is an offensive upgrade over a healthy Rolen, whom the Cards dealt to Toronto in a hot-corner swap. But health is the key word here for both guys: Glaus appeared in just 115 games last year, Rolen 112. Glaus is capable of 35-40 homers when he's at 100 percent, and Rolen's numbers should also pick up now that he's no longer in Tony La Russa's doghouse.

SS Edgar Renteria to Tigers: Renteria is a solid contributor in a number of categories, especially batting average (.336 last year), and the move to Detroit's lineup should help in all those areas. It's also a notable move because it shifts Carlos Guillen over to first base, meaning he'll lose SS eligibility in some leagues, hurting his value.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Offseason moves: Outfielders

If you've spent the past few months immersed in football like I have, you may have missed a baseball transaction or two. Now, as your baseball radar just begins to heat up after a long period of dormancy, you start prepping for your draft and start coming to little realizations like "hey, the White Sox got Scott Linebrink!" or "When did Mark Prior become a Padre?"

That's why it's always a good idea to start familiarizing yourself now with all of this offseason's major moves and their fantasy impacts. I've even done you a favor and put together this handy little guide. Today, we'll start with outfielders:

OF Andruw Jones to Dodgers: He went through a painful 2007, batting a paltry .222 and hitting his fewest homers (26) since 1999 while playing with a sore elbow. The pressure of a contract year is off him, however, after he signed a two-year, $36 million deal. Plus, he's still in his prime (30 years old), and I expect him a big bounce back in '08.

OF Aaron Rowand to Giants: The 30-year-old gamer reached career highs in homers, RBIs and runs last year in the Phillies' bandbox in a very good lineup. Now he's in a pitchers' park in a not-so-good lineup. You do the math.

OF Torii Hunter to Angels: He's on the wrong side of 30 now (32 to be exact), but his running and batting skills haven't diminished yet (.287, 28 HRs, 107 RBIs, 18 steals last year). Hunter's still worth a starting OF spot.

OF Mike Cameron to Brewers: Cameron's days as a major fantasy contributor are well behind him, right? Maybe not. He'll never win a batting title (career .252 hitter), but he was a 20-20 guy two years ago in pitcher-friendly PETCO Park and came two steals shy of repeating that feat last year with the Padres. His 25-game suspension for performance-enhacement will be a tough pill to swallow to start the season, but if you can survive that, he could end up paying dividends.

OF Josh Hamilton to Rangers: The former first-round draft pick's comeback from drugs and alcohol was impressive - and even moreso when you consider he's a recovering Devil Ray. Various ailments limited him to just 298 at-bats in his rookie season with the Reds, but it was still an impressive one: .292, 19 HRs, 47 RBIs. The 26-year-old now moves to a home ballpark that once made Kevin Mench a viable fantasy player. I have high hopes for Hamilton if he can stay healthy this year.

OF Nick Swisher to White Sox: This move puts the blossoming slugger in the middle of a potent lineup and in a much better hitter's park. Expect a spike in Swisher's HR and RBI totals.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Bedard's value gets a boost

It wasn't exactly a surprise after two weeks of rumors, gossip and hearsay, but Erik Bedard has finally been traded.

The Orioles, realizing they are a small fish in a big pond of Yankees and Red Sox, dealt their burgeoning ace to the Mariners for a package of five players highlighted by young outfielder Adam Jones, pitching prospect Chris Tillman and reliever George Sherrill.

Bedard enjoyed a breakout 2007, his third year in the majors: 13-5, 221 strikeouts, 3.17 ERA, .212 batting average against in 182 innings. Not bad, eh? Now he moves to Safeco Field, a better pitchers' park, and gets an upgraded lineup and bullpen behind him. The only dirt I could find on this guy is a strained oblique that ended his season a few weeks early last year, but all indications are he's fine. Bedard was already a top-five AL starter before this deal finally went down, and the move to Seattle coupled with Johan Santana's relocation to the NL may even make Bedard the AL's No. 1 fantasy pitcher.

As for the other side of the deal, Jones should step right in as the O's starting center fielder but he's still learning to hit at the big league level; Sherrill, a 30-year-old lefty, might rise to the top of an unsettled bullpen situation and should be on your watch list as a source of saves; and the rest of the young guys are probably a few years away from the bigs.