News, Analysis & UpdatesMay 30, 2004

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By Justin McMahon

It is only February, and you find yourself at Borders, buying a fantasy baseball guide. You spend all of March reading the spring training scores and statistics from the back of the sports page. Draft weekend is spent with your nose hidden away in mock drafts, ranking lists, three-year averages, and the like. Soon, all the preparation will pay off. All the studying done in the off-season will soon prove you to be the know-all of baseball and its fantasy counterpart.

Or will it? Is studying past statistics a reliable method of predicting the outcome of the upcoming season? Will an average of performances from the past couple years lead to an accurate idea of players’ values in the future? For the most part, the answer is yes. Face it, Barry Bonds will never hit .210 with eight home runs, and Pedro Martinez will never follow the lead of a Mike Maroth.

I have played many years of fantasy baseball, and without fail, every year there is one guy who is talked about all winter, guaranteed to be a staple of Sports Weekly covers all summer, only to either (a) fall flat on his face in April (and never get up), or (b) enjoy a free ride on the DL after a quick slip in the hotel shower. With this as a known variable, let’s say you slept through your draft this year (oh, what a nightmare), and as your replacement, your trusty computer, with the baseball knowledge equivalent of a pear, went ahead and hopped into your chair at the drafting table. How bad could your team possibly be? Well, you probably won’t get that dream team that you spent hours crafting in the spring, but you most definitely can compete.

The following is a roster that, if presented pre-season, would be sure to put fear in any competitor’s heart.

C – Mike Piazza
1B – Carlos Delgado
2B – Alfonso Soriano
3B – Eric Chavez
SS – Derek Jeter
OF – Vernon Wells
OF – Sammy Sosa
OF – Carlos Beltran
Util – Juan Pierre

SP – Barry Zito
SP – Greg Maddux
SP – Mike Mussina
RP – John Smoltz
RP – Jason Isringhausen

Solid. Perfect balance for a 5X5 roto league. Within this cast of studs, we have last year’s stolen base leader, two of the top ten in RBI, two of the top ten HR hitters, and three of the top ten leaders in runs, not to mention a pitching staff that could lay down a three-hit shutout on the ‘56 Yankees.

Now let’s take a look at the show-stoppers chosen for me by my personal computer as I decided to sleep through the most important three hours of the year.

C – Craig Wilson
1B – Lyle Overbay
2B – Michael Young
3B – Melvin Mora
SS – Jack Wilson
OF – Jeromy Burnitz
OF – Rondell White
OF – Matt Lawton
Util – Alex Sanchez

SP – Cliff Lee
SP – Tom Glavine
SP – Ben Sheets
RP – Jose Mesa
RP – Danny Graves

Thrilled, I was not. Actually, I was very unhappy with these choices. Jack Wilson? Football season cannot come soon enough. Who could my first round pick have been? Burnitz, the promising Met who never could? Rondell White, back from the dead? No, no … it was Jose Mesa. After a stellar 2003 in Philly, how could he drop to the second round?

Well, here we are now, with June right around the corner, and that once thought-to-be-laughable roster has become the talk of all trade rumors, Sports Weeklys, and fantasy chat rooms around the country. How could this be? How could a roster that I can afford to buy twice in the same auction league put up numbers good enough to compete with the likes of Sosa and Beltran? Let’s take a few moments to examine exactly how this could happen.

Catcher – It is not that Piazza is a dead weight planted on the Shea Stadium pine all year like 2003; he does hold a decent catcher average, and I have no complaints with nine HRs. But Craig Wilson (who qualifies at catcher in most leagues) is on fire. Through 172 at bats, he is still hitting .337 next to Piazza’s .315. Wilson has also knocked in 11 more runs, and crossed the plate ten more times than Piazza this year.

First Base – Carlos Delgado, currently registering right up there with the Kevin Elsters of the world with a .230 average, probably will not show the signs of baseball brilliance that he did last year. Eight home runs is not terrible, but many managers drafted him with hopes of six round-trippers a week. Just south of Delgado’s border is Lyle Overbay, who is just crushing NL Central pitching. With nine more RBI, a batting average that is 119 points higher, and almost equal stats elsewhere, Overbay gets the nod here.

Second Base – So I did not get Alfonso Soriano or Jeff Kent. At such a weak position, what do I do? I play Michael Young. Hitting .340 through 206 at bats, with eight home runs and 35 runs (not to mention the bonus of three SB), he is without question the most valuable second baseman in the fantasy world today.

Third Base – You studied for two months, got a break in the draft as you saw him slip to the third round, and then you breathed an enormous sigh of relief as you snagged Eric Chavez, the second-best 3B in league (behind that Yankee guy). I slept in for two more hours than you, and have currently received one more RBI, 12 more runs, and about 140 batting average points more than you. Thank you, Melvin Mora.

Shortstop – After leaving fantasy owners out to dry through May last year with a dislocated shoulder, he might as well have simply broken it again this year. Derek Jeter was near invisible in the Yankee lineup until that lucky pop over Yankee Stadium’s left field wall a few weeks ago. He still is having problems racing Dontrelle Willis to the Mendoza line. Thanks, Jeter, but I commend my computer for choosing Jack Wilson this year. Wilson is batting .357 with four home runs and 26 runs scored, not a bad fill-in at a shallow position.

Outfield – When they were Marlins, neither one of them could hit a curveball. They move to Colorado and, last year, Preston Wilson almost won the triple crown. Now, Charles Johnson is on pace to hit 35 home runs while adding over 40 points to his Florida batting average. Is Jeromy Burnitz feeling the Coors mile-high-love too? To be honest, I don’t care. He’s batting .287 with 14 homers and closing in on 40 RBI�s, and that is much more than I would have gotten out of Vernon Wells with 66% fewer homeruns and half as many RBI. What about Sammy Sosa, an early pick in most drafts, being out-played by a guy who has played for four teams in the last three years, and currently calls Comercia Park his home? Rondell White is more valuable than Sweet Sammy in four of five categories. Wait, let me repeat myself … Rondell White is more valuable than Sammy Sosa in four of the five traditional fantasy categories! And he sneezes without injury, too. Lastly, on my wish list, I wanted the superstar from KC, Mr. Carlos Beltran. Unfortunately, my computer passed on this five-category all-star, and decided that Matt Lawton would be a more solid pick. Lawton, a career .270 hitter, has turned out to be the Rod Carew of 2004. This guy has put up numbers that rival Beltran, with 11 stolen bases, eight home runs, 35 runs scored, and a powerful .326 average that crushes Beltran’s current mark of .261.

As for the pitchers, Tom Glavine is not the washed-up loser that we thought he turned into last year. Six wins with the Mets? Well done. How about Ben Sheets? A Brewer? Who would have believed in February that a Brewer would strike out 18 in a game? Better yet, that the same guy would have five wins with a WHIP under 1.00 through May? And how about Cliff Lee? An Indian with a 5-0 record and a solid 2.87 ERA. Who needs Zito and his dramatically decreasing strikeout rate? Giving up nine home runs and holding a 4.86 ERA is not exactly Cy Young quality. Maddux and Moose? Neither is performing up to their potential. Maddux has given up as many round-trippers as league leader Vinny Castilla has hit to date, and boasts a 4+ ERA to go with it. At least Mussina is above .500 at 5-4, but that 5.00 ERA and 1.50 WHIP will kill you. And one more thing: Jose Mesa and Danny Graves? Is this a joke? I want to see one draft board where Mesa was chosen before John Smoltz. Anyone?

It happens every year, and you cannot escape it. A stud at each position will under-perform, and some guy who you thought retired two years ago will emerge to put up MVP-like stats. But what’s a fantasy owner to do? We cannot complain, as this uncertainty is what keeps us on the edges of our seats all summer. It gives those who ruined their draft a ray of hope, a dream that maybe Jack Wilson will outperform Derek Jeter this year. Unlikely? Yes. Possible?

Absolutely. Never take your eye off that waiver list, and don’t be afraid to start Matt Lawton over Sweet Sammy Sosa.

Justin McMahon grew up in Miami in the 80s, as a fan of Mike Greenwell and the Red Sox. He cried when Bill Buckner didn’t stay down, and cried again the first time he saw Fenway. You’ll find more of his insights in the Forums, where he posts as mcmahojl.

Which other breakout performers have you picked up this season? Add your own over- and underachievers to the discussion!

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