Here we go: football season is over, basketball’s past the All-Star Break, Kobe’s still talking to his teammates (most of them, anyway), and spring training is underway! Yes, the 2006 baseball season is right around the corner, so after looking back at last year’s forecast, here’s what I’m sayin’ about this year’s first base class. Enjoy part 1 of our Fantasy Baseball Positional Analysis series!
A couple of new names have hit this list this season, Dan Johnson, and Chris Shelton chief amongst them. Last season, the duo (and especially Shelton) posted surprising numbers … and I pushed them as “waiver wire pick-ups.” Atlanta Brave Adam LaRoche was listed as a “breakout” player last season … and break out he did! Keep an eye on Shelton and Johnson in particular, as both players’ franchises are amid rebuilding projects and each player enjoys modest protection.
The Cream of the Crop
Albert Pujols (StL)
At the ripe ol’ age of 25, and after five incredibly productive seasons during which he averaged .332/40/124, Pujols sits atop the fantasy baseball draft board and has become a household name (at least in those households that have an affinity for baseball). Last season Pujols won the first of what could be several MVP awards, and he has become a model of consistency at the plate. The fact of the matter is, knowledgeable baseball people look upon Pujols’ brief career and are incredulous. It’s not an exaggeration to state that Albert Pujols may become the best player of this generation.
Taking a very workmanlike approach to hitting, the Card star is an eye-popping batsman who rarely swings at bad pitches and has zero regard for two-strike counts. He can hit with power to all fields, and although the Cardinals will likely miss the potent bat of OF Reggie Sanders, the lineup was often missing Sanders’ bat due to his numerous injuries anyway. For a moment, let us assume that 30-year-old third baseman Scott Rolen’s shoulder is finally sound and that he enjoys a bounce-back season, and that oft-injured CF Jim Edmonds also returns with all of his limbs intact (relatively speaking, anyway). Yes, these are quantum leaps of assumption … but just go with it. If gritty, all-out players David Eckstein (SS) and Aaron Miles (2B) are able to get on base and Pujols is afforded some protection, the immeasurably talented first baseman should, at the very least, equal last season’s production.
Let’s be optimistic here, as I believe the Cardinal lineup has about as many holes as a block of imported Swiss, and jot Albert Pujols down for an ‘06 season of .329/42/120.
Mark Teixeira (Tex)
The locked-and-loaded Texas lineup gives the skilled first bagger ample ribbie opportunities. Teixeira does his part by studying each pitcher and learning their tendencies, and at age 25 Tex is already a proven student of the game. His sick fantasy numbers make him a Roto darling, but with 2B Alfonso Soriano having split town for Washington, Teixeira’s RBI opportunities may actually be diminished to some degree. The kid’s batting eye improved demonstrably from the ‘04 season as evidenced by the 20 point jump in his average, and his power numbers skyrocketed: 40 more hits, 30 more RBI, and five more dingers.
There’s absolutely no reason to believe that Tex won’t record another tremendous season; .305/43/135 is within reach.
Derrek Lee (ChN)
Lee was a fantasy weapon of mass destruction last season, posting career highs in every category … but in fewer games (Lee missed four contests) and with fewer ABs (11 fewer than in ‘04). In addition, Lee crushed opposing pitching to the tune of a .662 slugging percentage and a .418 OBP – how ill! Without a doubt, the Chicago first sacker is a first-round fantasy pick in all formats and is a 5×5 fantasy league dream player.
Entering his walk year, Lee and his agent should begin negotiations with the team sometime in the very near future. One can only hope that this contract thing doesn’t become messy, drag on into the regular season, and become a distraction to D-Lee, as this will, in all likliehood, be the Cub star’s last Lotto-type contract. However, at the age of 30 you’ve got to believe that Lee will be a true pro and not let a little thing like $15-18 million bucks a year distract him.
At the very peak of his physical skills, Lee couldn’t possibly improve upon last year’s remarkable numbers, right? Nah, look for a very good season of .315/35/105, with another 15 thieved bags.
Todd Helton (Col)
Helton underwent arthroscopic surgery this January following a minor elbow injury. The good news is that the perennial stud is slated to be ready for spring training, and the five-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glover remains a fantasy powerhouse. After struggling through a ghastly first half, Helton blew up after the break to record a line of .367/10/40, with 48 runs scored. Clearly, the man was on a mission and on his way to yet another fab fantasy season. However, at age 32, Helton ain’t upping the ante any. As good as he is now is as good as he’ll be, and with career numbers that include a .337 BA, a .607 SLG %, 1,500+ hits and 915 RBI, Helton is walking the thin Hall of Fame line. It’ll probably take another two or three seasons of typical Helton-esque ball to grease the Cooperstown skids.
Look for a healthy Helton to whack his way to a .315/25/95 season, with 95-105 runs scored.
David Ortiz (Bos)
There ain’t no question in my mind that last season, Ortiz benefitted from the presence of LF Manny Ramirez, CF Johnny Damon (now a Yankee, and Boston’s lineup will miss his speed and OBP), 3B Bill Mueller, and C Jason Varitek. Still, you can’t knock his crazy fantasy (and real) numbers. This year, due to lineup changes and the simple fact that his ‘05 output was so ridiculous, I would definitely look for Ortiz to come back to Earth.
I will carefully forecast .299/37/130. There will be slightly less protection in the BoSox lineup, and perhaps fewer men on base for Papi to drive in, thus the more modest numbers. Should OF Manny Ramirez actually be traded, Ortiz’s numbers could take a more dramatic hit. Nevertheless, the Red Sox leviathan could again surprise and approach last season’s outrageous production.
Travis Hafner (Cle)
The truth of the matter is that Ben Broussard and Eduardo Perez (30 HR and 90 RBI between the two) are already manning first in platoon fashion. Furthermore, talented young Ryan Garko is also in the fold; thus Hafner and his bat will be relegated to DH duty. That is not, however, an insult, nor is it necessarily a bad thing. Without the need to practice scooping poorly thrown balls from the dirt (the Indians will have a young third Bagger in either Andy Marte or Jake Gautreau), Hafner can hone his hitting craft. And in his strong hands, that lumber’s lethal! With young and talented hitters littering the Cleveland lineup, Hafner’s numbers could even see a slight up-tick. Look for a terrific all-around fantasy season from a must-start player: .310/35/115.
Lance Berkman (Hou)
With veteran Jeff Bagwell falling apart at the seams, the team plans to silde Berkman from the outfield over to first base. This should prove to be a boon to Berkman, and the move may even prolong his career. After his ‘05 season was cut short by 30 games and undergoing knee surgery, Berkman won’t need to cover the ground of right field if he’s at the right corner of the infield. In fact, if Berkman moves 15-20 feet on any given play … that’ll be a lot! Although Berks’ batting average fell by 20+ points, his SLG % by 40+ points, and his OBP by 39 points, with Houston awash in young talent and with his knee approaching 100%, look for an all-around improvement in his numbers and game.
The ‘Stros’ new first baseman has the ability to produce a .295/30/95 campaign.
Carlos Delgado (NYN)
Delgado has again changed unis, swapping his Marlin duds for a Met jersey. New York GM Omar Minaya has coveted the first bagger for a couple of years now, and finally secured his quarry during this past off-season. The ‘06 Mets, at least the position players, will bear slight resemblance to their ‘05 counterparts. Minaya sent an aging and increasingly uncooperative Mike Piazza packing and brought in a solid backstop and able bat in C Paul LoDuca, OF Mike Cameron was also given his walking papers, sent to San Diego for fellow OF Xavier Nady (though Nady probably won’t be an everyday player), and I could certainly go on but don’t care to bore you with Met-minutiae. With David Wright manning the hot corner and wielding a hot bat, CF Carlos Beltran likely to be a mite more comfy in the Big Apple after another full off-season and training camp, and SS Jose Reyes looking like a healthy, All-Star caliber player, Delgado should enjoy impressive protection and should have men on base in front of him with frequency, affording him consistent RBI opps.
A regular .300/30 man assuming he remains healthy (back and knee trouble have haunted him in seasons past), look for a very solid fantasy season; .295/32/115 are utterly attainable numbers for the 33-year-old Delgado.
Paul Konerko (ChA)
Konerko, a power hitter in the truest sense of the term, is in an interesting situation and on an interesting team. The Sox, under manager Ozzie Guillen, won the Series by playing small ball. And yet throughout his career, Konerko seemed an ill fit for an offense that demands a gaudy OBP and high BA. Aha! That’s where things have changed for the 29-year-old first baseman. Although the guy still finds himself striking out 100 or so times a season, he’s also posted back-to-back 40/100 seasons, with 300+ total bases, and SLG of .535 in ‘04 and .534 in ‘05. With 1B Jim Thome now on the team and possibly (we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt) healthy, Konerko may enjoy even better protection then he had last season … though that would be asking a lot. I think Thome’s a husk of the ballplayer he once was, but only time will tell.
Nevertheless, “Crush” Konerko should be good for yet another fine fantasy season, and a line close to .285/40/105 could be on the back of his baseball cards by April of ‘07.
Richie Sexson (Sea)
The last player in this section of the list, Sexson might get more love if he played for another franchise. Although Seattle trots out capable veterans in RF Ichiro Suzuki, 3B Adrian Beltre, and DH Carl Everett, amongst others, the team is also festooned with young and marginal talents.
If the squad comes together and youngsters such as CF Jeremy Reed hit, Sexson could post some very respectable numbers. While ambitious, cross your fingers and look for .261/37/118 from Safeco Field’s first bagger.
Players on the Rise
Ryan Howard (Phi)
With a healthy and productive Jim Thome blocking Ryan Howard’s ascension to the bigs for a couple of seasons, the youngster could do nothing but bide his time and crush Triple A pitching. With patience being a virtue and all that tripe (please see “animal innards” in the dictionary), Howard finally got his chance when Thome was felled by injury. And “man oh Manischevitz,” did Ryan Howard make good on his opportunity! In 322 plate appearances, the “not-so-young” (26-year-old) rook deposited 22 balls in the cheap seats, drove in 63 ribs, hit for a .288 average, and went on to win the NL Rookie of the Year award.
Now, as an everyday player in a hitter’s park and with more protection than a big brother gives his hot sister, the big fella is certainly capable of blasting his way to a .290/35/118 campaign.
Chris Shelton (Det)
When fantasy buffs think of top-tier players they tend to think of those athletes who play for powerhouse franchises such as the Yankees, Red Sox, and Cardinals. And while the Detroit Tigers generally don’t leap to mind, players such as Shelton, I-Rod (though he’s aging rapidly), and Magglio Ordonez are working to change that perception. The knock on Shelton is his iffy work with the leather, and with a snazzy glove in Carlos Pena playing the same position, the offensive-minded Shelton could lose precious ABs. However, at age 25 and knowing that his defense needed work, Shelton put his nose to the grindstone and honed his D over the winter. Is he a Gold Glove talent? At this juncture, certainly not. But will he be an Achilles heel defensively? The answer to that is also an emphatic no.
Although he’ll probably always be known for wielding the wood, the fact that he’s known is a wonder at all and serves as a testament to his work ethic. Shelton started his career by toiling away at Low A Williamsport in ‘01, and crushed the ball as he worked his way up through Motown’s minor league system. Never hitting below .305 (aside from a brief, 122 AB AA stint) during his minor league career, Shelton struggled when he arrived in ‘04 by hitting a feeble .196 in 46 appearances. Last season was an entirely different story, however, and Shelton mashed a .299/18/59 line, with a slugging percentage of .510 in 107 games. Playing in a Tiger offense that does have some bite, look for Chris Shelton to improve upon a very impressive 2005.
Something akin to .301/26/85 might be on the ambitious side … but heck, I’m a “glass half full” kinda guy!
Dan Johnson (Oak)
The A’s seem to go through infielders the way most people go through socks. Come to think of it, Billy Beane may go through socks the way some other GMs go through players. I wonder… Well, anyway, Dan Johnson is one heck of a reach, and someone out there is doubtlessly laughing at this pick. Then again, someone laughed at my selections of both Adam LaRoche and Ryan Howard last season, too. Johnson’s another guy who paid some heavy minor league dues, but here again, those dues paid off big time at the major league level. Last season Johnson provided the A’s with some pop and a shot in the arm by swatting .275/15/58 in 109 games, and demonstrated a keen batting eye by striking out only 52 times in 375 ABs.
A fabulous mid-season fantasy pick-up in most leagues last year, Johnson has the 1B position locked up this time around and should be an even better player after a full off-season and training camp with his Oakland teammates. Jot down .289/27/75, and if guys such as Bobby Crosby, Nick Swisher, Eric Chavez, and Mark Ellis can replicate their ‘05 numbers, “DJ” could be even better!.
Adam LaRoche (Atl)
LaRoche … you think that translates to “the roach” in French? I really gotta look that up. Anyway, the Brave first sacker certainly bugged the heck out of opposing pitchers, that’s for sure! It seems as if the Braves are constantly reloading and never have need to rebuild, and LaRoche is part of that process. The fact that there’s been no noticeable drop-off in talent over the course of 14 consecutive NL East titles is a testament to the team’s scouting acuity and drafting acumen. After batting a respectable .259/20/78 with 28 doubles and 53 runs in 141 games, “Roach” need not worry about platooning with anyone at the corner. The position belongs to him, and I think he’ll become a 30/90 kind of batter with a little more seasoning.
For ‘06, though, look for some improvement over last year; .275/25/85 is my prediction.
Note: His brother, Andy, is a hot 3B commodity and plays for the Dodgers. If you’re a baseball card collector, see if you can get your hands on a rook.
Players In Decline
Jim Thome (ChA)
Thome’s rehabbing a balky back and creaky elbow. If the dude can return to even 75% of what he was during his .274/42/105 season of ‘04, his owners – and his new team, the Chicago White Sox – will be de-freakin’-lighted! I do, however, look askance at Thome. The 35-year-old ballplayer is good for a strikeout or three each game; Thome fanned 144 times in ‘04, and 182 times in ‘03, and every important statistical value is plummeting.
Making a huge leap of faith that Jim Thome will be in playing shape by April/May, look for a line of .269/30/95, and at this point, those are very zealous projections.
Phil Nevin (Tex)
Nevin, aging, was never happy as a Padre in gargantuan Petco Park and made no secret of his distaste for the digs. An 11-year veteran, Phil was sent to Texas last year, and will have no shot at getting his ABs as a position player with a young and much better Mark Teixeira entrenched at first.
Look for Nevin to start the year as the regular DH, but should he struggle. The Rangers have no shortage of replacements. I’d keep well away from Nevin, who is deep into the twilight of his career.
Jeff Bagwell (Hou)
Much to his team’s dismay, “Bags’” is determined to return even with an arthritic, surgically repaired… yet still weak shoulder. I had the aging ‘Stro pegged as my top “Player in Decline” last season, and fortunately (or unfortunately), he didn’t (or did) disappoint; it all depends upon how you look at it. He didn’t disappoint me as:
A. I didn’t draft him.
B. I made the call that he was deteriorating physically and would be an albatross around a fantasy owner’s fantasy neck.
During Jeff Bagwell’s truncated ‘05 season, he took a grand total of 100 ABs in 39 games, hitting a meager .250/3/19.
Sean Casey (Pit)
Things got awfully ugly for Casey last season and a lack of pop in the Cincinnati lineup can’t be blamed. After watching his average and power numbers drop like a rock, the Reds saw fit to drop Casey like a rock, too. Now suiting up for Pittsburgh, Casey’s only real protection will be provided by fast-rising LF Jason Bay … or it could be the other way around, with Bay serving as Casey’s wing-man. Keep an eye on this batting order. Still, such protection is tantamount to guarding the crown jewels with a Master Combination Lock and an $8-per-hour Rent-a-Cop. (No offense intended to any Rent-a-Cops who may be reading this column.)
A quick perusal of Casey’s digits: BA in ‘04 was .324, BA in ‘05, .312 (Not so bad, right? Wait…) SLG% in ‘04 was .534, SLG % in ‘05: .423. His home runs fell from 24 in ‘04 to nine in ‘05, and his RBI total dropped like a lead balloon: 41 RBI fewer in ‘05 then ‘04. Again, I could go on but the numbers get tedious.
Even if Casey should rediscover his seat-reaching stroke, and that’d be no easy feat, mind you, the cast of characters around him in Pittsburgh is substantially diminished from his days in Cincy. I’d look for numbers approximating .300/12/55.
Next up … fantasy baseball’s third basemen, the corner infield complement to your first baggers!
A native of Brooklyn, Jamey Feuer now roots for the Yankees from his new home in Northern New Jersey.
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