Fantasy: The Thinking Chair

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Fantasy baseball is here! So say we all. SO SAY WE ALL!

(Yes, I'm clutching to the remnants of Battlestar Galactica, which wraps up this weekend. Those of you who have resisted it thus far will be spared any more Cylon or other references after this, which should help ease the gaping hole in your life that exists since you haven't tuned into this great series.)

With only a few weeks left before Opening Day, it's crunch time for fantasy baseball. Most drafts are happening right about now, and the punditry heat is in full swing. (Yes, that was a bad pun. But it was an intentionally bad pun, so it's better. Or worse.)

There are first-round picks picks not worth discussing because they're obviously great -- from Albert Pujols and Hanley Ramirez to Jose Reyes and David Wright, and there are the subsequent first two rounds of draft picks -- players one might like more or less than another owner, but who everyone largely expects to be worthy of such high draft status.

Where it gets a bit more fun is watching the collective hive mentality decide on whether a given player is a pundit darling, or someone who consensus opinion believes is a fluke. What's amusing is that most folks making these claims seem to ignore the fact that so many others are doing the exact same thing. Take Phillies outfielder Raul Ibanez. If I had an extra fantasy dollar to spend for every time I've heard him described as a sleeper, I'd essentially get Wright or Pujols for free. While I think Ibanez is an underrated investment who'll return more for your fantasy buck, I don't expect him to be a steal, unless my entire league decides to ignore all requisite fantasy preparation. If everyone pimps Ibanez, he won't exactly fly under the radar.

The hive minds are buzzing, my friends -- and it's important to know what they are saying -- and who they are saying it about -- as it will impact you in your drafts.

On the flip side, everyone seems to have decided that Ryan Ludwick is a fluke, that he'll never approach the 37-HR, 113-RBI season he charted last year. Per Mock Draft Central, he's going as the 28th outfielder in the ninth or 10th round. And there's reason to give pause -- Ludwick will turn 31 this season, and his previous history attracted little attention to him in the fantasy world. I'm actually glad that so many folks are down on him, since it will undoubtedly drive down the price. Ludwick spread those stats around pretty consistently throughout the year, with only one month where he batted less than .291. If you take his HR rate from the last two years and factor in a full slate of at-bats in 2009, it projects to about 34 HR. Even if he recedes from that as pitchers learn to work him, he'll be a fairly cheap lock for 25-28 HR. I'm glad the hive minds disagree.

In fact, fantasy drafts seem to have a fairly serious anti-Cardinals bias. Ludwick's teammate, Rick Ankiel, is simply getting snubbed in many formats. Due largely to his injury risk, he's lasting until the 213th pick, an 18th round selection in a 12-team league. Per MDC, that's the 52nd outfielder -- so in most leagues he's only being considered as a bench player. Again, I'm fine with this. In the last two seasons, he's had the equivalent of a complete season of hitting stats -- and notched 36 HR and 110 RBI. Of course, spreading that over two years is a testament to his injury concerns -- and Ankiel is already aching this spring. But for what's essentially coming down to a free pick, I'm all over Ankiel. The dude can rake, and I'll definitely take him over Eric Byrnes -- who's going five rounds earlier. Byrnes' value is all in his legs, and the two torn hamstrings he suffered last year haven't entirely healed. Thanks, but I'll pass.

I know I just shamelessly plugged two Cardinals players, but I still have no love for that team. As a Giants fan, I've been obligated to root against them ever since the days of Jose Oquendo and Ozzie Smith. Tony LaRussa's hair also makes it easy, though I did gain appreciation for him after he said he wanted to open a bookstore after he retires. But just because I don't like a team doesn't mean I won't take their players. (Heck, I've even had Dodgers on my teams.)

Taking a macro view, it used to be fairly well accepted that the American League had more fantasy studs than the National League. That isn't the case anymore -- one could even make the case that more top players reside in the Senior Circuit. But one place that's still very much true is the outfield. According to Mock Draft Central, 15 of the top 25 outfielders drafted reside in the American League. But when you look at the names involved, it isn't a particularly inspiring position. Only Grady Sizemore, Josh Hamilton, Ryan Braun (if he's healthy) and possibly Matt Holliday are guys I'd consider bona fide studs in the outfield. I'll take guys like Manny Ramirez or Carlos Beltran, but I'm not nearly as excited about them as I would've been a few years ago.

The stud positions are now clearly 1B (with seven going in the top 25 picks) and shortstop. Even though only three shortstops go in that same top 25, it's clear that Ramirez, Reyes and Jimmy Rollins are expected to help carry their fantasy squads. And yet -- I'm stuck on outfielders.

For instance, who do you like out of this list of players: Corey Hart, Jacoby Ellsbury, Bobby Abreu, Nate McLouth and Adam Dunn? That's the order they are going in average drafts per Mock Draft Central -- and all right around the end of the fifth or beginning of the sixth round. I'm happy to see Hart is lasting so long as I like his chances to improve (especially on his .300 OBP -- gulp). I especially like Ellsbury down here and would easily take him over Abreu and McLouth. I have a hard time with Abreu in particular, as I can't see a 35-year old improving on his 22 stolen bases from last year, and without those bags he's an extremely pedestrian hitter. Yes, he's notched 100-107 RBI in the last six seasons, but fewer Angels will be getting on base for him as he hits out of the second spot with a less-talented lineup around him. And do I need to talk more about Dunn? You shouldn't be able to get 40 HR in the sixth round, but "facts is facts." I'm buying.

Speaking of bargains, did you know you can get a 17-game winner in the 17th round? Meet Ted Lilly of (cue best Harry Caray voice) "your Chicago Cubs!" How about 180 strikeouts in the 25th round? What? That's where Oliver Perez is currently going. This is another way for fantasy owners to say, "I'm not particularly inclined to spend a lot on pitching this year." While it's almost cliché now to say "don't pay for saves," at this point I'm not sure you should pay for starters either. Sure, I'd love to have me some Tim Lincecum or Brandon Webb, but if anything, I'll only spend one early pick one either of them and backfill the rest with folks like Lilly and Perez, not to mention a bevy of young starters like Josh Johnson and Max Scherzer. While the top level of talent isn't quite as high as it used to be, it seems like a much deeper league these days -- which makes drafting all that much more fun.

Fantasy baseball is here. So say we all.