1st half hints at full picture

ON FANTASY SPORTS

July 13, 2008|By CHILDS WALKER

Now that we've passed the real midpoint of the baseball season, it's time for reflection as fantasy owners try to decide whether they're contenders or rebuilders.

I'll get to some second-half strategy soon, but for now, here's a look back at the best, worst and strangest of the first 81 or so games.

* National League best player: You pretty much can't have a better first half than Lance Berkman has in 2008. His .365 average makes him a contender for the batting title, and his 22 homers and 68 RBIs put him in play for the Triple Crown. Top that off with 12 steals, already a career best, and you have an easy choice for best in show. If he keeps it up, this will be one of the best fantasy seasons in memory.

* American League best player: Well, Alex Rodriguez is showing that he's still the top dog, but he missed enough time that I'm giving the nod to a far less-heralded player. I hardly ever hear Ian Kinsler's name mentioned on national broadcasts. I guess it's hard when you play with Josh Hamilton. But the Texas second baseman is hitting a career-best .321 and is on-pace for 25 homers, 100 RBIs, 140 runs scored and 40 steals. That would be an all-time-great season for a second baseman.

*NL best pitcher: Yes, a guy who was the third-most heralded young pitcher on his team this spring has outpitched Johan Santana, Brandon Webb, Dan Haren and about a dozen other established aces. Edinson Volquez might not end up leading the league in ERA, but 110 strikeouts against 72 hits in 99 1/3 innings says he's for real.

*AL best pitcher: Though Cliff Lee has pitched well in the majors before, he's just as improbable a Cy Young Award contender as Volquez. He always had pretty good stuff, but with his control suddenly in the Greg Maddux class, he's 11-1 with the second-best ERA in the league. This from a guy who had to fight for his rotation spot in spring training. Crazy.

*Biggest surprise: Volquez, Lee and Kinsler are all candidates here, but they all had been or were projected to be standouts. Conversely, few had ever thought of Ryan Ludwick as anything more than a fourth outfielder. The Cardinals gave him a job because they had no real choice. He's on pace for more than 30 homers and 100 RBIs. I suspect it's a fluke, but it's a fun one.

*Best rebound: Jason Giambi walks among the living again. Jason Bay has returned to some semblance of stardom. Ervin Santana is back to being a terrific young starter. But I'll go with former Orioles ace Mike Mussina. I heard that Mussina was done from more than one "expert" this spring. Ten wins and a 3.87 ERA suggest otherwise. He has to do it with control and guile at this stage, but he has plenty of both.

*Worst collapse: Derek Jeter suddenly looks very average. Ryan Howard can't pull out of his batting-average woes (one of my good calls for this year). But give me Carlos Pena, who had many convinced he was an elite power source after last season and is now back to being a terrible first baseman.

*Biggest tease: With his perfectly compact stroke, discerning eye and fragile makeup, he's a regular in this category. Don't look now, but J.D. Drew has perhaps been the best hitter on the defending champion Boston Red Sox. He's perfectly capable of keeping it up. Just don't be surprised if a "nagging" injury wipes out his second half or if you pay $20 for him next spring and he hits .262 with 10 homers. That's the J.D. experience.

*Still so tantalizing: Ahhhh, Rich Harden. You've already spent a month on the disabled list like we knew you would. But in the 67 innings you have pitched, you've struck out 83 and posted a 2.15 ERA. You do know how to keep us interested, you wily minx.

*Best rookie, non-Volquez: Evan Longoria and Jay Bruce have mostly lived up to their hype as super call-ups. But catcher Geovany Soto has been an under-recognized part of the Cubs' surge to the top of the NL. He could have a Javy Lopez-type career, which is plenty good.

*Biggest disappointment: I thought Miguel Cabrera would be the best hitter in the AL, so that has disappointed me. Jeff Francoeur seemed poised to bust out, but he has instead played the worst ball of his career. Neither can match Robinson Cano. From batting crown contender to .242 hitter when he's supposed to be entering his prime? Yikes.

*Luckiest pitcher: Aaron Cook gives up too many hits, can't strike anybody out and pitches half his games at Coors Field. How is he 10-5 with a 3.64 ERA?

*Unluckiest pitcher: Roy Oswalt has improved his strikeout and walk rates. But too many balls are falling between defenders or flying out of the park, so he's 7-8 with a 4.60 ERA. Bet on a rebound.

*Reports of his demise were exaggerated: People have tried to bury Mariano Rivera for several years. But at 38, the best closer ever is quietly having his best year.

*Huge second half coming: David Wright has hardly been awful. But he has hit .297 on balls in play compared with .356 last year. His luck will improve, his average will soar, and he will look like a strong Most Valuable Player candidate by year's end.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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