Of all the professional sports, baseball is amongst the most balanced and fair of them ... for the first three weeks of the season. However, a fantasy team is only out of it as much as its owner is. And how much fun is a draft when you hear someone slip in a moment of befuddlement and utter, "Who?" I should know. I was the guy saying that quite often when I first started playing fantasy baseball ... last week. (I'm kidding, as far as you know.) So, in this week's WATB, we will take a final look at preseason play by using five phrases you probably overheard at your draft.
THE BATTER'S BOX -- "Who the heck is that?"
If you were paying attention at all last year, you know who Jed Lowrie (SS, BOS) is. Lowrie saw limited action before the All-Star break, but caught fire in August, driving in 24 runs in just 27 games, and showed some pop with 16 of his 29 hits going for extra bases. Lowrie should be 3B/SS eligible in your league, and he could also see a few games at second base. While he didn't begin 2009 crowned as the starter at short, his spring line of 338/.389/.615, with three homers and 16 RBIs in just 65 ABs, and Julio Lugo's (SS, BOS) arthroscopic knee surgery, made it all but a certainty. Also with Mike Lowell's (3B, BOS) health a question mark, should Lowrie's power continue to spike, he might find himself at the corner eventually -- or more likely, if Lowell simply needs a break. In 45 games last year, Lowrie had a .974 fielding percentage at third base. In 49 games at short, he was perfect.
Much like Lowrie, Emmanuel Burriss (2B, SFG) had to push the anticipated favorite, Eugenio Velez (IF/OF, SFG), from the Opening Day lineup. As the Giants have continued to redefine themselves as a faster small-ball club in the post-Barry Bonds era, Velez was supposed to be their next leadoff hitter with vast stealing potential. However, of his 21 steal attempts last year, he was gunned down six times. His fielding percentage at second (.976), and atrocious defense in the outfield (.944) sent the Giants searching for someone more reliable. Burriss has been just that. He was rushed to the majors, having played a year of Single-A ball for two teams where he posted a combined .277 AVG, .330 OBP, and 66 SB in just 135 games. He's as fast as Velez, but less of a liability in the field. He also strikes out a heck of a lot less. He's not someone you should leap on in mixed leagues, unless your league is extremely deep. But for NL-only leagues, he could be a surprisingly effective speed option.
FIRST BASE -- "I totally forgot about that guy!"
Catcher is always a thin position, and values drop off as fast as my grandfather did at his daily nap time. I have to admit, I tend to treat catchers like kickers in fantasy football: I punt (or in this case, "bunt") on them. The Mariners have done the same with top catching prospect Jeff Clement (C, SEA). Clement might be simply working out the kinks after his knee surgery, or may return as something other than a catcher if he can return to his 2008 minor league line of .335 BA, 14 HR, 35 RBIs in only 173 ABs. However, there's one other issue -- his predecessor, Kenji Johjima (C, SEA). After a year that saw him clobber half as many long balls and RBIs as the previous season, many fantasy owners have simply thrown him on the trash heap. Tsk Tsk, Fantasy-Owner-San, don't you know that Johjima's contact rate held steady in the 90 percent range and his batting eye actually improved? So what happened? Johjima took a fastball off the knee in July, and although it wasn't deemed a serious injury, it may have contributed to his .130 and .200 batting average in July and August, respectively. He also may have been the unluckiest hitter in recent history, as his BABIP for the season was .232, a full 60 points lower than his previous two seasons. Since 2008 saw him total the lowest plate appearances of his career (409), a rebound should be expected, especially with Rob Johnson (C, SEA) now as the backup. Johjima's days of clubbing near 20 home runs may be in the past, but his ADP of 266 makes him a solid play to fill your kicker, uh, catcher void. Certainly, he'll give you comparable numbers to Gerald Laird (C, DET), Brandon Inge (C/3B, DET), and Kurt Suzuki (C, OAK), guys typically going a round earlier in drafts.
SECOND BASE -- "I saw that coming."
Dear Angels' fans:
I have to tell you that I've never been quite sure if your insignia halo was a reference to how you view your behavior on the field (are you the darlings of baseball?) or a religious reference that somehow you're the appointed messengers of the Holy One. However, here's one thing I can tell you:
Start praying now!
You already know the tell-tale omens of future disaster: Black cat crosses your path, break a mirror, walk under a ladder, your top four pitching arms are hurt even before opening day!
Ervin Santana (SP, LAA) and Kelvim Escobar (SP, LAA) will start the season at Eric Chavez's favorite local hangout: the DL. John Lackey (SP, LAA) is on hold with a forearm strain. And now, Joe Saunders (SP, LAA) reports he's experiencing "dead arm." You've seen dead arm in Los Angeles before, and you taunted the Dodgers for having Jason Schmidt (SP, LAD) suck up $48 million of their payroll. Well, it appears the gods have appointed Gary Matthews, Jr. (OF, LAA) to the fifth outfielder spot and he is pissed. I know Bobby Abreu's (OF, LAA) mashing has him appearing like a spring chicken. Question is, will that chicken be cooked by July? His fielding cost the Yankees 12 runs last year (or just over 1 win) according to the hip baseball defensive book du jour, John Dewan's Fielding Bible, Volume II. Yes, you've outscored every team in the Retiree Introduction to Baseball League (aka Spring Training), but even with Nick Adenhart's (SP, LAA) eye-opening spring, an early season rotation of Adenhart, Dustin Moseley (SP, LAA) and Shane Loux (SP, LAA) is making even Billy Beane feel secure about his starters. So take it easy on Mike Scioscia for a while ... he's truly experiencing hell.
THIRD BASE -- "That's a rare talent right there."
There may be hope for the Angels in their bullpen, where the loss of Francisco Rodriguez (RP, NYM) necessitated the acquisition of veteran southpaw Brian Fuentes (RP, LAA). But the object in Fuentes' rear view mirror that is larger than he appears is setup man, Jose Arredondo. As a 24-year-old rookie, he delivered a 1.52 ERA, striking out 55 batters in 61 innings and posting a 10-2 record. Fuentes has been known to pair some really bad outings (see last year's back-to-back blown saves on Apr. 20 and Apr. 21, or the week of June 25 through June 30, when his ERA nearly doubled, as he yielded seven earned runs on seven hits in just under three innings). At age 33, Fuentes' bad back isn't great news, and neither is his blossoming 8.10 ERA in just six innings this spring. With the already tenuous starting pitching situation, Scioscia is likely to have about as much patience for blown saves early on as I do waiting at the DMV.
HOME -- "I thought I'd take a later-round flier."
The drop-off between tiers at the corners is pretty great this year. While Paul Konerko (1B, CHW) and Josh Fields (3B, CHW) aren't Carlos Delgado (1B, NYM) and David Wright (3B, NYM), they have had scorching springs, and could easily hand you second-tier numbers at approximately an eighth of the cost (leaving you much needed extra cash to buy your wife a manicure so you can finish your draft in peace).
Two years ago, when Joe Crede's (3B, CHW) back gave out, a little-known 24-year-old prospect named Josh Fields came out of nowhere to crush 23 home runs in 373 ABs, ranking him fourth on the White Sox in HRs behind stalwart names like Jim Thome (DH, CHW), Jermaine Dye (OF, CHW) and Konerko. Yet, his Uggla-like average (.244 that same year), paltry contact rate (under 70 percent) and patellar tendonitis put him back in the minors in 2008. His biggest problem is still contact, but this spring he's hit .403, with three homers in 67 AB. More importantly, in 74 plate appearances, he's struck out only 17 times, an eight-percent drop-off from his abysmal 2007 (125 Ks in 408 PAs). Not only that, but he's tallied 17 walks, nearly half the number he totaled for all of 2007. While his contact rate of 75 percent isn't mind-boggling, it's clear that he's improving. If his eye is improving, his 2007 home run rate of one per 22 at-bats may get even better. He's likely sitting on your waiver wire.
Age hit Paul Konerko last year like a Nuke LaLoosh fastball (relevant Bull Durham quote here) -- hard and he never saw it coming. Strained oblique, sprained MCL, jammed wrist, toe and thumb problems all impeded his 2008 campaign. It probably didn't help that there were rumors he was on the trading block either. And while many saw 2008 as a decline in his skill set, considering the bevy of injuries he played with and his unlucky BABIP of .244, (career .281), Konerko's final two months (143 AB, 13 HR, 27 RBI, .293 AVE) seem to indicate his health had returned. I've got the fever for the flavor of Konerko. Put that FAAB bid in now, as he's most likely undrafted in 10-team leagues.