March 11, 2009

Baseball is feeling the pinch from the recession. Owners are worried about ticket sales and consequently curtailed spending this past winter ? just ask Manny Ramirez. The Dodgers signed him on their terms, thanks to a tepid interest from the market.

Things are so bad that there's even some discussion of major league contraction. The theory is that baseball would be sounder economically without a couple of the less profitable teams. Oakland's stadium deal just fell through, so the Athletics would be on the short list. The Marlins' financing deal is also in trouble, which could scuttle their stadium aspirations. Winning is no protection against downsizing -- while both Oakland and Florida have been competitive lately, neither one draws fans. The age and charm of the ballpark has a lot to do with a franchise's viability. If you don't build it, they won't come.

Fantasy participants are familiar with contraction. It happens in dynasty leagues all the time. If a league has been around a while, an owner or two will eventually quit. The league can recruit new owners or look at contraction. In the event of contraction, the better players on those teams become available. The same thing would happen with MLB, and they would probably have a worst-to-first draft.

If we look at the two teams in the contraction crosshairs, we see one of them (the Marlins) is loaded with fantasy talent. Moreover, their fantasy stars still have plenty of upside (for better). Last year Oakland restocked their farm system at the expense of the major league roster. Dan Haren, Rich Harden and Joe Blanton are gone in exchange for prospects, mostly still in the minors. The major league roster has few fantasy notables and the ones there carry more risk and less potential (for worse).

1. Hanley Ramirez, SS, Marlins: The consensus top draft pick is only 25 and already is a five-category monster at a thin position. His weakest category, RBI, will improve now the he is hitting third instead of leadoff.

2. Dan Uggla, 2B, Marlins: Uggla, 29, got off to a fast start last year and then faded in the second half. He hit only nine of his 32 homers after the All-Star break. Despite the streakiness, Uggla is a rare source of power at second base.

3. Jeremy Hermida, OF, Marlins: Hermida regressed last season, hitting only .249 with 17 HRs. However, Hermida is only 25 and is swinging a hot bat in spring training. He is worth a late-round flier for his power potential. Though similar, Hermida has more upside than teammate Cody Ross, 28.

4. Ricky Nolasco, SP, Marlins: The ace of the young Florida pitching staff took a big step forward in 2008 with a 15-8 record, a 3.52 ERA, 186 strikeouts and a superb 1.10 WHIP. If the 26-year-old righty pitched for Boston or New York, he would be a household name.

5. Josh Johnson, SP, Marlins: Johnson's return from Tommy John surgery was a resounding success in '08. He came back in the second half of the season and posted a 7-1 record with a 3.61 ERA. Given a full year in '09, Johnson might be an even better bargain than Nolasco in your draft.

6. Chris Volstad, SP, Marlins: A rookie in '08, Volstad debuted in July and like Johnson was very impressive in half a season's work: 6-4, 2.88 ERA, 1.33 WHIP. Volstad is only 22, so he is less seasoned than Nolasco and Johnson and therefore deserves to go much later in drafts.

1. Matt Lindstrom, RP, Marlins: A hard-throwing righty, Lindstrom took over the closer's job in Florida late in the '08 season. With five career saves, Lindstrom is anything but an established closer. If Lindstrom falters, the Marlins have plenty of arms in reserve, including Leo Nunez. Drafting Lindstrom entails the risk that he will lose the job.

2. Jorge Cantu, 3B/1B, Marlins: Cantu, 27, had a big year for the Marlins in '08. He reproduced the power numbers he displayed as a 23-year-old Devil Ray in '05. Cantu won't catch anyone by surprise this season, so a modest decline would be in order.

3. John Baker, C, Marlins: When is a Marlin a fluke? A long-time minor leaguer, Baker hit an impressive.299 in 197 at-bats last season. Baker spent parts of five seasons playing AAA ball, which makes his surprising '08 numbers all the more fluky.

4. Matt Holliday, OF, Athletics: Holliday, 29, is an elite five-category star in fantasy. However, he takes a big hit with the move to Oakland. Holliday will play in a notorious pitcher's park, which will drag down his average and power. Don't count on an in-season trade to fix everything. He will still play at least half the season in Oakland and there is no guarantee that the new park won't also be a pitcher's park. I'm expecting Holliday to lose about 30 points off his average, from a .321 hitter to a .291 hitter -- still good, but not what he was at Coors Field.

5. Justin Duchscherer, SP, Athletics: The Oakland ace started 22 games in '08 after spending the prior four years in the bullpen. Duchscherer is injury prone and is currently nursing a sore elbow in the Cactus League. Given his history, expect Duchscherer to go on the Disabled List at least once in '09.

6. Brad Ziegler, RP, Athletics: Ziegler is the favorite to be the Opening Day closer over Joey Devine. Ziegler has the edge right now partly because of a Devine elbow injury. Devine has the better stuff and could eventually earn a share of the closer job, costing Ziegler saves.

7. Eric Chavez, 3B, Athletics: Another season, another shoulder surgery for Chavez. Draft Chavez in only the deepest AL-only leagues.

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