March 16, 2011

It's hard to believe we're still writing draft prep articles, since it seems we've attacked drafts and auctions from every angle. When you think you've looked at something in every way conceivable, it never hurts to go back to the beginning and make sure nothing has changed since you started. The nice thing is we know plenty has changed. This has been a more active spring than years past, with injuries to star players and a few high-profile recoveries joining the usual position battles indicative of this time of year.

Before entering the draft room, it's necessary to re-evaluate those players whose statuses have changed fundamentally since the start of Spring Training. And remember, it isn't just them. How will Chase Utley's injury affect Ryan Howard, as well as the rest of the second base market? What happens to Neftali Feliz's value if the Rangers put him in the rotation, and who takes over as the closer? Now that we've seen Adrian Gonzalez in spring action, how good do we feel about him and his surgically repaired shoulder? All these questions must be answered before we can be fully confident in our draft prep.

So put down those brackets for a few minutes and join me as we take a look at the most important developments this spring from a fantasy perspective.

Chase Utley's knee -- Utley's knee, and the uncertainty about its strength, is the biggest story this spring that doesn't include the words "Adam Wainwright" and "Tommy John." Utley has yet to play the field this spring and still can't run. He looks like a lock to start the year on the 15-day disabled list, and could miss a large chunk of the season. His injury sent him plummeting down draft boards, as you can't justifiably take him ahead of Robinson Cano, Dustin Pedroia, Ian Kinsler, Dan Uggla, Rickie Weeks or Brandon Phillips. And while he's a second-round pick when healthy, Utley is now in the 70-to-80 range on my overall board.

Of course, Utley isn't the only one adversely affected. The greatest impact is on Ryan Howard, who will lose a ton of RBI opportunities without Utley. In addition, with fewer men on base, Howard could see more pitch-arounds this season. I'm not downgrading Howard significantly, but the loss of Utley and the depth of first base knock him down a few spots.

Philadelphia pitchers also lose one of the game's best defensive second basemen. Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt are ground-ball pitchers, so they could see their rates tick up just a bit if Utley misses a significant amount of time. I wouldn't let it affect where I take Halladay, Cliff Lee or Cole Hamels, but it does bump Oswalt down. He's a lot more reliant on his defense making plays for him, and needs a strong infield especially.

As for players who benefit, the two names at the top of the list are Dustin Pedroia and Ian Kinsler, while Dan Uggla, Rickie Weeks and Brandon Phillips all receive a bump in their respective values, as well. Pedroia was considered the other top-notch second basemen along with Utley and Cano coming into the spring, so he jumps up the draft board a few spots, especially with the apparent return to health for Adrian Gonzalez (who we'll get to in a moment). Kinsler has been on a tear this spring (we'll get to him a moment or two after Gonzalez), so he was already creeping up the rankings. With an elite option at the position indisposed, Kinsler is a top 30 or 35 guy in my estimation.

Uggla, Weeks and Phillips get ancillary bumps, only because the second-base pool is one man shallower, but Utley was in a different stratosphere than those three. His absence doesn't vault them into the next tier.

Adrian Gonzalez's shoulder -- Gonzalez starting sliding down draft boards when there were questions about how long his offseason shoulder surgery would keep him out of action. He returned last week, and all reports on his shoulder were positive. That should send him rocketing back up the rankings, as there's no reason Gonzalez won't have the best year of his career, if healthy.

Most important, check out his career home/road splits. Never mind, I'll do it for you. Gonzalez has hit .263/.360/.440 with 61 homers at home in his career. Those numbers shoot to .303/.376/.568 with 107 jacks on the road. Next, take a look at the names surrounding him in the order: Jacoby Ellsbury, Pedroia, Carl Crawford, Kevin Youkilis, David Ortiz. He rarely, if ever, had one teammate as talented as any of those guys in San Diego. Not only will his counting stats benefit, but pitchers won't be able to pitch around him as easily as they could when he was a Padre. And just for good measure, Fenway Park is one of the best stadiums in the majors for a left-handed power hitter, and Gonzalez's ability to use all fields will play well in Boston.

First base may be deep, but a fully healthy Gonzalez is a top five player in my opinion.

Ian Kinsler's resurgence -- When are Spring Training stats important? Well, there are a few instances, but one is when a budding star is coming off an injury-riddled season, especially when that injury-riddled season was looking like a rebound from an underachieving campaign. That describes Kinsler heading into the spring, and Kinsler is absolutely raking. Through March 14, he leads the Cactus League with five homers and is hitting .382 in 34 at-bats. Hitting atop the Rangers' lineup, his RBI chances may be slim, but he should score a ton of runs, and he's a good bet to approach or surpass 30 steals.

As we discussed earlier, with Utley out, Kinsler is the third second baseman on the board behind Cano and Pedroia, and he probably shouldn't slide past the low 30s overall in any draft.

Neftali Feliz's constant changes of heart -- First he wanted to move to the rotation. Then he was happy sticking as the closer. Now, he again wants to be a starter. While it would be nice if Feliz made up his mind, it would be even better if Ron Washington could make an official pronouncement on whether he'll be handing the ball to his talented second-year pitcher to start games or finish them. In real life, there's no doubt that a pitcher as talented as Feliz would be more valuable to the Rangers as a starter rather than a closer. You'd rather get 200 innings out of that right arm than 70. From a fantasy perspective, Feliz may go from being an elite closer to an above-average starter, but that still makes him far more valuable, relative to the rest of his position.

As we've chronicled here before, spending a high pick on a closer simply is not cost effective. But if Washington puts Feliz in the rotation, he could end up being a bargain. There would be question marks about how much of a workload he could withstand, and he wouldn't be able to be as high-impact as he was in every outing as a closer, but he always projected as a starter, and he could settle right into the role, similar to the way Adam Wainwright did when the Cardinals moved him to the rotation after the 2006 season. There's no reason he couldn't carry that same 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings he posted last year over to the rotation. Keep an eye on this as it develops, and if Washington names him a starter, bump him up your draft board.

Zack Greinke's love of basketball -- We can debate all day whether or not Greinke should have been playing basketball during Spring Training. I don't think it's a big deal, but that's not the point. The point is that I wouldn't let Greinke's rib injury affect where I draft him too much. Yes, a core injury could be troubling, but I wouldn't worry about it with a pitcher as much as a hitter, who gets a great deal of power from being able to rotate his hips properly. I'd much rather a pitcher suffers an injury to his core than to his legs, which could hamper his ability to get the same push he needs to generate velocity. A cracked rib is also better than a strained oblique, which could linger.

Greinke is expected to miss about three starts, and as of right now, there's no reason to believe he'll miss anything beyond the month of April, at the absolute most. He's still a top 10-12 pitcher this season.

Hit me on the Tweet Machine, @MBeller.

You May Like