I could wax poetic on the return of our national pastime to our sporting consciousness, but considering “hope springs eternal + spring training” renders 250,000 results on Google, no need to stroll down that path. How about a list of 10 predictions for the fantasy baseball season instead?
A-Rod comeback season
Let’s get the apparent out of the way: Alex Rodriguez will be 37 in July, his injuries are mounting, and he has averaged only 120 games per season since his admission of steroid use. Against escalating evidence to the contrary, one circumstance serves as a catalyst for this conviction of rebirth. NBA star Kobe Bryant, who suffered from similar health afflictions as A-Rod, underwent an experimental surgery referred to as platelet-rich plasma therapy last July to rejuvenate his deteriorating right knee. Since the operation, Bryant has been playing at a high level this season despite a rigorous, condensed schedule and an ongoing wrist problem. The rejuvenation of his knee has resulted in endurance seen from a 25-year-old baller, not a player nearing age 34.
Well, guess what? Rodriguez traveled to Germany in December to obtain the same remedy. If A-Rod receives anywhere near the restoration Bryant is enjoying, the much-maligned masher’s production will exceed his current preseason projection. Even in his abbreviated appearance last season (99 games, 373 at-bats), Rodriguez posted respectable figures of 16 home runs, 62 RBI, 67 runs and a line of .276/.362/.461. Just a slight improvement in those numbers, in addition to logging 125-plus games, will vault the 14-time All-Star back into the upper echelon at the position. The pick does come with a fair amount of risk, but selecting Rodriguez after the fourth round has the potential to be one of this season’s steals.
Hanley Ramirez is more likely to replicate 2011 than 2009
El Nino has been a fantasy disappointment for two straight seasons, and if the hot stove stories from Miami are any indication, 2012 has the makings of a third successive slump. Han-Ram’s camp has made it known that emotional issues have been at the heart of the slugger’s decline the past two seasons. A dubious declaration, yes, but for now let’s say the excuse has validity. If Ramirez’s mood swings are at the core of his regression, the reports of Ramirez unhappy at moving to third base to accommodate newly acquired Jose Reyes foretell further failings for the 2009 batting champ. Oh, and if Ramirez couldn’t get along with respected, cool-mannered manager Fredi Gonzalez, good luck surviving the Ozzie Guillen emotional roller coaster.
For a supposed fantasy first-rounder, there’s too much uncertainty surrounding Ramirez to endorse his election at such an elevated rank. Throw in his waning accumulation of stolen bases, and it’s a no-brainer. There’s a shortage of elite contributors at the shortstop/third base positions, but don’t let this compel you to reach for Ramirez.
Kansas City will have one of the more dangerous lineups in the AL
For the first time since the days of George Brett, Bo Jackson and Danny Tartabull, the Royals will be relevant in fantasy.
Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, the Royals’ two highly touted homegrown talents, are the bats that have fantasy aficionados lighting up like Christmas trees. Hosmer made the most noise in the majors in 2011 (523 at-bats, 19 homers, 78 RBI, .293/.334/.465), yet Moustakas was the more accomplished prospect in the duo’s development through the Kansas City system and ended last season on a strong note (.379/.412/.564 in his last 36 games). Hosmer is the safer of the twosome in terms of expected fantasy execution, but Moustakas’ promise at a spot with a deficiency of depth (third base) makes him the more attractive selection.
Designated hitter Billy Butler’s lack of style is offset by his stability. In the past three seasons, Butler has averaged 674 plate appearances with 18 bombs, 89 RBI, 76 runs and a stat line of .303/.370/.474. Although the numbers are not sexy, many an owner, especially those in AL-only formats, would find them beneficial to their squads. And with more talent around Butler, those numbers can only rise.
Alex Gordon’s long-awaited fruition finally came to pass, as the former first-round pick produced 23 home runs, 87 RBI, 101 runs and 17 steals with a .303 batting average and .376 on-base percentage. Gordon’s value is slightly diminished without eligibility at third base, but similar harvest will warrant a starting outfield spot in most formats. Also offering outfield output is Jeff Francoeur, presenting the rare combo of power (20 homers, 87 RBI) and speed (22 stolen bases). Both are bargains at their preseason rank, especially Francoeur (listed at 137th overall).
Two other notable names are second baseman Johnny Giavotella and catcher Salvador Perez. For now, both are options only in AL-centric leagues. Nevertheless, they could transform into valuable components by the end of April.
Citi Field dimension changes will do little to boost David Wright’s value
An approximation has the new measurements conceding an extra 25 blasts in Flushing this summer, but don’t correlate the conversion to a career year for the 29-year-old. Granted, Wright’s yearly slugging stats have eroded since the Mets left Shea Stadium (see below). But the All-Star’s sketchy health, coupled with the Mets’ lackluster lineup — Andres Torres, Daniel Murphy and Lucas Duda don’t exactly cause opposing pitchers to lose sleep at night — will offset whatever advantage is to be gained from the field adjustments. I do think Wright will bounce back from a disastrous 2011 if he can avoid the disabled list. I just don’t see the park alterations as the stimulus for this renewal.
Adam Dunn: sleeper status
The White Sox should commemorate (is that the word I’m looking for?) Dunn’s infamous 2011 campaign by erecting a monument with a reflecting pool where fans and fantasy owners convene to contemplate the sadness of his affairs, with a bronzed plaque placed near the entrance stating “NEVER AGAIN.” In case you need a refresher on the Waterloo: .159/.292/.277, 177 strikeouts in only 122 games and a meager 11 long balls. Probably not what the South Siders had in mind when they gave him a four-year, $56 million contract.
As a corollary to this epic collapse, Dunn is off the boards in most preseason rankings. This lack of optimism can be capitalized on by an astute owner, as few late-round selections possess the upside that Dunn, even after his catastrophic season, retains. While switching to the more competitive American League did little to help his cause, Dunn did average 40 home runs and 101 RBI with a strong .381 OBP the previous seven years before setting up shop in the Windy City. Perhaps bashing 40 bombs is wishful thinking, yet output in the 25-30 range would justify the gamble and likely surpass production from others in this draft tier.
Troy Tulowitzki: No. 1 overall pick
Or at least, he should be. (Tulowitzki stands at No. 5 in the cumulative FOXSports.com fantasy experts’ Top 300). Despite missing 19 games in 2011, Tulowitzki still managed to hit 30 homers with a line of .302/.372/.544. Solid numbers for any position, but particularly so at shortstop. This shortage should continue to rear its ugly head in 2012, as each of Tulowitzki’s counterparts come with caveats: Reyes hasn’t logged more than 133 games in any of the past three seasons. Elvis Andrus’ progression at the plate has been minimal since his rookie campaign in 2009. Asdrubal Cabrera’s 2011, while sensational, is an aberration versus his previous three years. Jimmy Rollins has been on the decline since 2007. Han-Ram is, as covered above, Han-Ram.
Feasibly, the proviso of health could be placed on Tulo, as well, given that he has missed 70 games since 2009. But Tulo’s three-year averages of 30 jacks, 97 RBI, 90 runs, 13 stolen bases and a .304/.376/.554 line have certified a sentiment of trust.
Further corroboration to Tulowitzki’s pre-eminent placement is Colorado’s improved lineup. Normally, adding two players with a combined age of 69 would not convey a sense of improvement, but Michael Cuddyer and Marco Scutaro provide pop to a batting order that lacked formidable protection for Tulo outside of Carlos Gonzalez.
Speaking of Cargo, many believed the 2010 Silver Slugger regressed in 2011. In reality, the Rockies outfielder’s supposed slump was more a by-product of missed time (35 games on the sidelines last season) rather than waning aptitude. Gonzalez’s presence will prevent opposing pitchers from circumventing Tulowitzki at bat.
Thirst for additional testimony? Tulowitzki’s strikeout rate declined for the second straight season, he developed a better eye against the curve ball and his batting average on balls in play suggests a slight improvement in average. Envision big things for Tulowitzki in 2012.
Philadelphia suffers from damaged and decrepit defense
A quick rundown of the beat-up bunch for Charlie Manuel this season:
• 1B: Ryan Howard/Jim Thome. Howard will be sidelined until (at least) mid-May after Achilles surgery, forcing the 41-year-old Thome, who has been confined to DH duty the past six seasons, into the starter’s role.
• 2B: Chase Utley. One of the better defenders up the middle when healthy; alas, Utley has missed 106 games the past two seasons. At 33, he is expected to miss Opening Day because of knee problems.
• SS: Rollins. Has missed at least 20 games in three of the past four seasons.
• 3B: Placido Polanco. Injury has kept Polanco away for 70 contests since 2010. He’s 36.
• OF: Shane Victorino. The center fielder started only 128 games in 2011.
Hunter Pence has displayed his durability the past four years, yet is a below-average fielder. The last outfielder spot, unless Domonic Brown comes to culmination, will be a revolving door, but I think you get the drift: It’s not exactly a solid and sound defensive seven behind the Phillies’ pitchers. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels maintain their prestigious rank, and the defensive brilliance of catcher Carlos Ruiz will aid their cause. Still, keep this susceptible security in mind when employing an early round selection on a Philly pitcher.
Yu Darvish: solid fantasy starter
Some pundits of our national pastime have dismissed Darvish’s 1.44 ERA in the Japanese Pacific League last season, as the league’s mean ERA stood at 2.95. (By contrast, the American League’s average ERA came in at 4.08 in 2011.) However, the primary reason the JPPL’s collective ERA was so low stemmed from time restrictions on games due to energy concerns originating from the Tohoku earthquake. In 2010, when Darvish posted a mark of 1.78, the league’s average ERA rested at 3.96. Not sayin’, just sayin’.
Yet photocopying this pitching perfection is not imperative for the import from Osaka. Undeniably, working in Arlington, which led all ballparks in runs and homers surrendered in 2011, will have a negative connotation on Darvish’s ERA, long balls allowed and possibly WHIP. But with a loaded lineup providing more than ample run support, Darvish merely needs to last into later innings to offer owners the scarce commodity of wins. A simple premise, but it’s a principle that has eluded Derek Holland, Matt Harrison and others in the Rangers rotation the past two seasons. And if Darvish can sustain his penchant for punch-outs (276 Ks in 232 innings in 2011), it will be icing on the cake.
Justifiably, there’s an aura of caution and insecurity in drafting Darvish, corresponding to sunken average draft position. Utilize this lukewarm reception to your advantage, even if it necessitates grabbing him a round or two early. The track record for elongated accomplishment from Japanese pitchers is disconcerting, but Darvish’s 2012 campaign will end this line of disappointment.
Emergence of Madison Bumgarner
In his first full season with the Giants, Bumgarner put forth an estimable effort, racking up 204-2/3 innings of work with a 3.21 ERA and 1.21 WHIP. Moreover, Bumgarner was stellar in the second half of the season, with a 2.52 ERA in 15 starts. These numbers have linked to an elevated, although not exalted, preseason ranking (95th overall player).
However, subtract a late-June abomination against the Twins (eight runs, nine hits in one-third of an inning), and suddenly the young gun dons season stats of a 2.82 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. These figures are fit for an early round draftee, not one projected to be selected in the 10th round or higher. Other reasons for endorsement include improved ratios in strikeouts per nine innings and walks yielded per game, and his .322 BABIP implies further improvement for 2012.
Arguably, the attention paid to fellow arms Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain (as well as Ryan Vogelsong’s Cinderella story) equated into this under-the-radar approach to Bumgarner, and his 13-13 record from 2011 does him no favors. His splits indicate the San Fran starter benefits from AT&T Park, although his road performance isn’t inadequate by any means (100-2/3 innings, 1.25 WHIP, 3.31 ERA). It’s slightly misleading to label Bumgarner with the terms “sleeper” or “dark horse” He is, after all, tiered in the top 20 at the position. But at his current projection, Bumgarner is an undervalued asset.
Joe Mauer comeback
A sense of ambiguity surrounds Mauer after 2011’s shortened season (78 defensive starts), although Mauer’s second-half line of .314/.393/.416 facilitates enough optimism that . . .
Alright, I’ll confess: This Mauer prophecy is straight from the gut. Admittedly, there are a few factors at odds with this forecast, most notably his home-field advantage, or lack thereof. While exponentially more aesthetically pleasing than the Metrodome, Target Field is no haven for hitters, with the park resting in the bottom third in the league in homers and runs relinquished. These effects were evidenced in Mauer’s numbers immediately in 2010, with the former MVP smashing only one long ball at home compared with 16 bombs in Minnesota’s old stomping grounds in 2009.
Not helping this conjecture is Mauer’s ascending strikeout propensity (11.4 whiff rate was highest since 2005) and plunging regularity of walks (9.6 percent lowest since 2004). And don’t count on reinforcement from Justin Morneau, who has struggled with concussion symptoms and neck surgery in the past 18 months.
But part of the fun in fantasy is taking fliers or gambles, barometers be damned. There’s a shortage of capable catchers, anyway, and Mauer is one of the chosen few with a lofty ceiling. Throw in the fact that he seems like an affable dude and employs an entertaining arsenal of commercials (who doesn’t love the back-and-forth between Mauer and the PlayStation guy) and it takes little cajoling to talk yourself into the Minnesota backstop.