Advance scouting

ON FANTASY SPORTS

It's never too soon to look ahead to baseball season

Offseason observations

January 04, 2008|By CHILDS WALKER

The icy air biting at the tips of my fingers suggests that we're pretty far from spring.

That said, one of the joys of fantasy sports is its ability to carry you to a different time and place. And today, I'm thinking about baseball - the smell of fresh-cut grass and leather, the sheen of new uniforms under a Florida sun, the tightness in my chest as I debate whether to go another dollar on Miguel Cabrera. You know, the essence of life.

As soon as fantasy football wraps in Week 16, my mind turns to baseball. That might seem crazy to a casual fantasy player, but by the time draft season rolls around in March, I want to be familiar with every significant player (and plenty of insignificant ones) in the sport.

By familiar, I don't mean I need to know that Cabrera hit .320 with 34 homers last season and will bat in the heart of a better lineup in Detroit. That's the obvious stuff. I want to know the patterns in each guy's set of skills. Was a pitcher whose ERA soared in 2007 still striking batters out? Did a once-reliable slugger suddenly start hitting too many ground balls?

Where I see oddities, I try to discern whether they were flukes or manifestations of slowly building trends.

You probably won't hear too much about baseball on ESPN over the next month. But if you're a serious fantasy player, this is the time to build your core of knowledge for the 2008 championship run.

Here are some things I've noticed in my early preparations.

Many view Texas Rangers third baseman Hank Blalock as a disappointment, and that's true, if you thought he was going to become George Brett. That said, there were promising signs in his injury-shortened 2007. Blalock got more balls in the air, and his power was back to 2005 levels. He's still only 27, and though he'll never be a superstar, he might hit .280 with 30 homers at a modest price in 2008.

Jason Bay's reputation never caught up to his star-level performances of 2005 and 2006. So there was no widespread shock at the Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder's awful 2007, which featured a .247 average and only 21 homers. Bay is a tough one to read for this season. He made contact at the same rate last season and still got plenty of balls in the air, but his batting eye went south and the flies stopped leaving the park. The season was so anomalous for a well-rounded player in his late 20s that I wonder whether he was playing through an injury. I'd take a chance on a modest rebound.

Jermaine Dye was a terrible play coming off a career year in 2006. He's just the opposite this season. Given reasonable luck and his traditional level of power, the Chicago White Sox outfielder is a guy who can hit .275 with 30 homers and 100 RBIs. That's what he was in 2005 and in the second half of last season. If owners are scared away by the .254 average and 78 RBIs from 2007, be glad to land this solid asset.

There was nothing lucky about Prince Fielder's breakout 2007. The Milwaukee Brewers first baseman is a younger Ryan Howard with a better shot to hit .300 consistently.

Don't go nuts for this year's top Japanese import, Kosuke Fukudome of the Chicago Cubs. His best skill is probably his batting eye, and that's of modest use in fantasy.

Cleveland Indians designated hitter Travis Hafner was my biggest disappointment of 2007, and unfortunately, I can't predict a full rebound. His batting eye and ability to make contact didn't change, but he hit too many ground balls, and the ones he hit in the air didn't go as far. Maybe 2006 will turn out to be his anomalous power year.

I love Corey Hart. The Milwaukee outfielder makes good enough contact to hit .300, his power is growing and he steals 25 bases a year. He might be the most unsung young fantasy star out there.

Another underhyped guy is Atlanta Braves second baseman Kelly Johnson. He doesn't do anything great, but a peaking second baseman who could hit .280 with 20 homers and 10 steals is a heck of a fantasy grab.

Magglio Ordonez maintained a ridiculous level of performance throughout last season. But really folks, he was incredibly lucky on balls in play. The Tigers outfielder's ability to make contact, his percentage of fly balls and his power were all unchanged. So smart money says he'll revert to the solid .300 average, 25 homers and 100 RBIs of 2006.

The Tampa Bay Rays' Carlos Pena, I have no explanation for. He simply hit the ball a lot harder than he ever has as a major leaguer. My guess is he'll drop to the 30-35 homer range.

Like many owners, I bought Tampa Bay's B.J. Upton at a bargain rate last spring and fell in love with him as he finally busted out. But I'm having doubts about him, at least as a short-term play. He swung and missed a lot last year, and his .300 average was built on incredible luck with balls in play. That's the profile of a probable short-term disappointment, though you still have to love a 23-year-old with speed and power for keeper formats.

Look at that. I got all excited and used up my space without mentioning a single pitcher. We can talk about them next week.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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