Sometimes, springing forward unwise

ON FANTASY SPORTS

February 14, 2006|By CHILDS WALKER

Fantasy baseball players, I give you a simple task: Ignore most of what you see and hear from baseball writers over the next six weeks.

OK, so I'm overstating to get at a more general point.

Come November, passionate baseball fans begin counting the days to that glorious February morning when pitchers and catchers report. By the time we reach that day, which arrives later this week, we're incredibly thirsty for new baseball content. Baseball writers are equally eager to shovel new material our way.

So every little happening in spring training is magnified. How did prospective closer Chris Ray look in his first spring appearance? How are Daniel Cabrera and Erik Bedard adjusting to the teachings of Leo Mazzone? Is Corey Patterson hitting his weight?

You'll probably read stories about all of these topics in this very newspaper. I'll probably write some of them. And that's great. These are questions that should be answered for Orioles fans.

But - and here, I'm putting my fantasy shoes back on - don't let the events of a few spring games change your entire opinion of a player.

Guys who hit .250 season after season routinely have 10-game stretches in which they hit .400. That's the kind of sample size you're dealing with in spring training, and it's no more telling (probably less, actually) than a similar stretch in July.

Any player you're thinking about drafting has played full seasons in the majors or the minors. So look at those statistical lines to divine his true nature.

Now, all of that being said, here are a few things you do want to watch for over the next six weeks.

Position battles

These are the meat of exhibition importance for fantasy players. Many major league teams use spring training to decide who will fill the last few spots in the daily lineup, who will be the fifth starter and who will close games. You need to know the answers (or the best approximations) when you sit down for your draft or auction.

This is especially important for deep leagues in which every starting player (and many reserves) will probably be drafted.

In early March, I review the depth charts for every major league team and mark off the spots where the starter is uncertain. I then follow those battles through the exhibition season (Rotowire.com is a godsend on this front).

I don't care so much whether the players in these situations perform well or poorly. I just want to know who will be getting the at-bats, innings and save opportunities come April.

Prospects

Hot minor leaguers often make the biggest stories of March. That doesn't mean they're ready to dominate.

But you will want to know if these future stars are going back to the minors. If a guy is going to stick, you have a decision to make. Has the hype shot his perceived value past a reasonable price for this season? Or will this be your best shot to lock up a star at a cheap price?

In 2001, Albert Pujols went from a modestly touted Double-A prospect to St. Louis Cardinals regular in six weeks. He played like an All-Star that season and never looked back. In the process, he fueled many a fantasy championship.

An owner in my National League-only league snagged Pujols for $1 that year. A great player acquired at that kind of discount can become the dominant factor in a league for years.

Conversely, Carlos Delgado tore up spring training in 1994 and came out of the box equally hot in April. Delgado was a great prospect and the talk of the league, but he wasn't ready to sustain his performance. He cooled rapidly and didn't establish himself as a regular until 1996 or as a star until 1998.

Just remember that when you're weighing a bid on the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' Delmon Young this spring.

Injuries

I just traded for closer Eric Gagne in one league. Gagne pitched only 13 1/3 innings last year and is trying to return from elbow surgery. So I know I'll be watching carefully for reports from Dodgers camp.

I'll look at what Gagne and his coaches say, but I'll also look to see if he's pitching and if he's striking batters out when he appears. If he is, my mind will be eased. If he isn't, I'll probably keep him anyway, but I may have to make a contingency plan to cover myself in the saves category.

You'll hear all sorts of conflicting reports on guys such as Gagne, Ben Sheets and Brian Roberts. Chances are, you won't know exactly what to expect. Barry Bonds presented the big health question last year, and his return date never did become clear. But you'll want to have the most-up-to-date information when you sit down to draft or bid.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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