Pool of major leaguers worth lengthy extensions is shallow

ON FANTASY SPORTS

The Kickoff

January 25, 2007|By CHILDS WALKER

This is the time of year when many fantasy baseball owners begin weighing keeper decisions.

These choices generally require a mere one-year commitment, which isn't hard to make to a star player. But some leagues allow owners to sign extensions that give them control of the same player for five or six years. This is trickier ground because when you look at baseball history, it's amazing to see how much the game can turn over in five years.

I know we tend to think that a 31-year-old who's in his prime now will still be a heck of a player in 2012. But the odds are actually against it. And pitchers are so injury-prone that few statistical models will project long-term success for even the best of them. So at least we can count on the hot prospects, right? Well, no actually. A lot of them won't get much better.

But there are some guys who seem like solid bets to be stars in 2012. So, I thought it would be fun and beneficial to guess which ones.

The no-brainers

Albert Pujols has to top the list because he's already the best player in baseball and just turned 27. It would be almost unprecedented for a hitter of his quality to lose his skills by age 32. And even if Pujols slips a bit, he'd still be great.

Miguel Cabrera is the player second most likely to remain a fabulous hitter in 2012. Last year, he added a better batting eye to his formidable blend of contact and power hitting. He'll be 28 at the beginning of that season - still in the middle of his prime - in five years, and I expect his greatness to be well-understood by then (aided by a possible $200 million contract).

If I had to buy stock in any American Leaguer over the next five years, Grady Sizemore would be the guy. He's only 24, and he does everything well. Guys like him age the best, and I think Sizemore's power is a bit overlooked. He hit 53 doubles and 11 triples last year.

David Wright also does it all. You just don't find many players who do what he did at ages 22 and 23 and don't go on to have great careers. I'd guess that Wright's power numbers will grow and his steals will decrease over the next five years, but I expect him to be a Most Valuable Player candidate in 2012.

Joe Mauer made a run at the MVP at age 23, and he has the broad-based offensive and defensive skills to become an all-time great catcher. Catchers usually add power over time, so we probably haven't seen the limits of Mauer's excellence. He'll probably move to a less challenging position at some point, but I'd guess not until his 30s. Brian McCann was overshadowed by Mauer last year, but he was nearly as good a young catcher. He'll be 28 in 2012, and by then I think he'll have a string of .300 averages and 25-homer seasons under his belt.

Don't worry, I'm not forgetting Ryan Howard. He's actually older than Pujols, so his next five years will probably constitute the red meat of his career. But no one is a better bet to hit 200 homers over that stretch. Mark Teixeira suffered some bad luck in the first half last year, but he joins Howard and Pujols as the most likely sources of major power over the next five years.

I've conjoined Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez in my mind because I see them both hitting around .300 with 15 to 20 homers and scads of steals and runs for each of the next five years. I'd like to see Reyes take a few more walks and for Ramirez to prove last year wasn't a fluke, but the speed and position advantage make these guys huge fantasy commodities.

The next tier

Prince Fielder could be a younger version of Howard in a year or two. Robinson Cano might never get much better than he was last year and is overly dependent on average for his value, but .342 at age 23 is darned good. He may actually be eclipsed at second base by Howie Kendrick, who could contend for batting titles and average 20 homers a year. At third base, Ryan Zimmerman isn't quite on Wright's level, but .300 with 25 homers a year and great defense ain't bad. His 2005 draft mate, Alex Gordon, might be an even better hitter and is the only minor leaguer who seems like a certain star for 2012. And I'll toss in Jason Bay, who's in his prime now and has the nicely rounded skills we seek.

Just misses

Alex Rodriguez could fall a long way and still be good, but he's already on the back end of his peak. Carl Crawford will probably shift his game from speed to power over the next five years, reducing his fantasy value. Garret Atkins and Matt Holliday have the age and numbers, but their skills aren't so solid that they'd definitely thrive away from Coors Field.

Jeff Francoeur has shown rare power for a guy in his early 20s, but his lack of plate patience could inhibit him. Aramis Ramirez should still be a power hitter in 2012 but might lose just enough in all areas that he won't be a star at that point. And Delmon Young is a great talent, but I would like to have seen more power from him in the high minors.

And that's it. Every other player either has a potentially fatal flaw in his skills or is old enough that he faces the probability of a steep downward curve.

You'll note the lack of pitchers on this list. Because of injury risks, there's not a single one I would list as a sure thing for 2012. Johan Santana might be the closest because power pitchers age well and he's shown he can endure the innings. But would I lock him up to a long-term fantasy deal at a high price? Nope.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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