April 28, 2010

Those who have spent any amount of time playing fantasy baseball know that you can't win a championship during the season's first three weeks. Three weeks is very little time at all. In Europe, that's scarcely enough time to take the family on holiday.

Among fantasy owners, there seems to be an imperative that drives the player evaluation process from the very beginning of league play. Constantly taking stock in their resources, there's a persistent urge to weigh bear versus bull market assets. Still, it seldom pays dividends to give up on a star player during the early stages of the season. Slumps happen. Slow starts ... happen. However, over the course of a career, players will attempt to play through pain, often to the detriment of their statistical production. At the same time, all players will eventually reach a point where the inevitability of time reaches a tipping point and production wanes.

What follows is an evaluation of a few examples of slumping players -- some (for better) who are simply mired in slumps with brighter prospects likely on the horizon and others (for worse) who have exhibited some worrisome traits should give fantasy owners pause for concern.

Hanley Ramirez, SS, Florida Marlins. Last year was a productive one for Ramirez; he won his first National League batting title (.342) and reached a career high in RBIs (106). If it weren't for the unstoppable statistical force named Albert Pujols, Han-Ram likely would have captured the National League Most Valuable Player Award, too. Alas, he had to settle for second. Needless to say, expectations were high entering 2010. Through the Marlins' first 20 games, however, Ramirez has disappointed to a certain degree. A .286 AVG and .811 OPS aren't bad numbers, but they're not perennial MVP-candidate numbers either. Fret not. As recently as April of '09, Ramirez hit an eerily familiar .289 with an .810 OPS, and that seemed to work itself out just fine.

Mark Teixeira, 1B, New York Yankees. Painfully slow starts are simply a part of owning Teixeira. His career slash stats for the season's first month tell a gruesome tale, at least by Big Tex standards: .238/.344/.417. His 24 career-April home runs are less than half of his career totals for the month of September (50 HR). As clear as he is a slow starter, it's equally clear that he's a strong finisher -- a fact that is of little solace to H2H owners suffering through yet another sluggish start. Still, at the completion of each season since '04, Teixeira has finished the year with at least 30 home runs and 105 RBIs and a .281 batting average. With less than a week remaining in April, the calendar tells us that brighter days are just ahead.

Victor Martinez, C/1B, Boston Red Sox. Top-flight fantasy catchers aren't easy to come by, and acquiring one typically comes at a premium. Martinez is hardly an exception. With an ADP of 23.14, hopeful fantasy owners were looking at '09's resurgence as a sign of things to come. So far, things have been slow to materialize. Some bad luck (.266 BABIP) and an abridged Boston lineup (sans Jacoby Ellsbury) have undoubtedly played a role in Martinez's stalled production. While they drafted an RBI machine, fantasy owners have thus far received minimal support from the Red Sox backstop: .261, 1 HR, 5 RBI. This is a far cry from Martinez' .312 career batting average in the month of April. With a turn of luck and some offensive help his teammates, Martinez should start reassuring those that invested in him on draft day.

Prince Fielder, 1B, Milwaukee Brewers. After mashing 46 home runs and setting career-highs in AVG (.299), RBIs (141), and walks (110), Prince Fielder muscled his way into many a first round on draft day, '10. To date, he's failed to live up to the promise he showed last season. With just one home run in his first 71 at-bats, Prince has been something of a fantasy pauper. While the threat level is probably "blue" at worst, Fielder owners should be aware that he's nursing a sore hand that seems to be affecting his swing. It's definitely not time panic just yet, but a combination of awareness and preparedness can go a long way in helping to avoid disappointment. While Fielder should be just fine, always plan for even minor injuries.

Grady Sizemore, CF, Cleveland Indians. Preseason optimists pointed to Sizemore's 30/30 potential and waxed on about a possible return to first-round-level production. These optimists failed to look at the numbers behind the name. Masked by and impressive combination of power and speed were warning signs that made Sizemore a risky proposition. Since reaching a career-high of .290 in '06, Sizemore's batting average has fallen to .277 then .268, and finally .248 during an injury-riddled '09. While batting average is certainly only one measure of a player's performance, it was a clear indication that things were trending downward, a problem that seems to have carried over into '10. Through 17 games, Sizemore is hitting just .203 with only six extra-base hits. Sadly, a return to All-Star form is looking less likely with each flailing at bat.

Carlos Lee, OF, Houston Astros. Although he'd never be confused for a first-round pick, Lee has been the model of fantasy consistency for the better part of a decade, as steady a source of home runs and RBIs as the game knew. However, Lee didn't drive in his first run of '10 until his 14th game, and so far has just five on the year without the benefit of even a single home run. It's almost inconceivable to think that Lee will finish the season with his current level of production (.162/.186/.221), but after posting two consecutive seasons of fewer than 70 runs scored, and with Father Time sneaking up behind him, it's not impossible to picture the onset of a career decline.

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