OpinionMay 23, 2007

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Covering The Bag

By Aaron West

First basemen, and to a lesser extent, designated hitters, have been the source of endless frustration during this early season. Seven of the top eleven average draft picks are either under-performing or have spent time on the disabled list. Given that the corner infielders tend to provide the most valuable fantasy commodity, power, this has had a drastic effect on many teams this year.

It would be easy to panic. Many owners have in fact, as evident by looking at add/drops and percentage owned in other leagues. Would anyone believe early in the season that Adam Laroche would be owned in a scant 28% of all leagues? Even Paul Konerko, one of the top first basemen over the past three years and a relatively steady fantasy producer for over eight years, is starting to hit the waiver wire.

Surely some will have a bad year, but most should bounce back. A lot of these problems can be attributed to the unusual cold weather spell, as the bulky power hitters usually have more trouble than their lanky and flexible infield counterparts. Some of the slumps can be blamed by the poor performance of their teams (just ask anyone in the Cardinals lineup). Others are just waiting for that big game to finally break them out of it.

We’re rolling into the warm summer months when these hitters will start mashing balls out of the ballpark. Now is the time for the patient and opportunistic owner to thrive. Watch the wire for the next Konerko or Laroche; dangle an enticing trade to the discouraged Albert Pujols or Ryan Howard owner. Get yours when the getting is good.

Now here are my rankings/projections for the remainder of the season. Note that this list combines first basemen and designated hitters. I am going by depth charts, not position eligibility, since that can vary throughout leagues.

1. Albert Pujols: Albert is the most notable struggling first basemen this year, but trust me, he will be the same guy we have come to know over the last several years. Due to his early slump, the overall numbers may not reach the heights of his MVP campaign years, but he should have a great summer and will be the #1 draft pick again next year. Now is the time to package that hot-hitting prospect (J.J. Hardy and B.J. Upton anyone?) with a couple other players and steal the best player in the league.

2. David Ortiz: I was surprised to see how far Ortiz dropped in average draft position this year. In some leagues, he even fell out of the first round. Potential 45-50 HR, 130 RBI, .300 AVG, and 1.000 OPS players are not exactly easy to come by. His lack of position eligibility can hurt, but based on performance, he should be a top five pick.

3. Mark Teixeira: I guarantee you that most people who owned Mark during the first half of last year didn’t draft him this year. He had a similar sluggish start again this season, but is already starting to break out of it. He was barely hitting his weight on May first, but is now making his way to .300. Not to mention the power stroke is finally coming into play. He has already hit twice as many home runs than he did at this point last year.

4. Derrek Lee: The Derrek of 2007 is starting to look like the MVP candidate Derrek of 2005. The power numbers haven’t been there yet, but they will come. As I write this, he is a shade under .400 and is batting in one of the best offensive lineups in the league. Only injury will stop him this year. Congrats to those who snatched him up in the third round of drafts this season.

5. Ryan Howard: Howard, not Pujols, has been the hard luck first rounder this year. Last year he was the MVP and flirted with history, but now he sits on the DL with a .200 average. I would not expect a repeat of last year, but he should have fantasy value the rest of the way. Small injuries have taken their toll, plus pitchers are starting to figure out his weaknesses. He has been playing hurt and still has shown some power. Like Pujols, he would be a good guy to buy low, and you might find owners more eager to part with him.

6. Travis Hafner: “Pronk” is still early in his career, yet he is already becoming a consistent fantasy performer. He might not put up the best numbers in the league, but a dependable, steady hitter can sometimes be more valuable than a streaky hitter with superior numbers. The only thing holding “Pronk” back is his lack of a position.

7. Justin Morneau: I have to admit, I didn’t buy into the Morneau hype last year. I kept waiting for him to peak and come down, but it never happened. It hasn’t happened this year either, and I have accordingly changed my tune. Justin can flat out hit.

8. Lance Berkman: Lance’s slump has given a little more cause for concern than some of the other hitters. The few home runs he has hit have barely cleared the fence, and what’s more, he has already started to get aggressive on the basepaths. Sure, steals are a nice bonus, but not what you draft your first baseman for. Although I’m nervous about Berkman, he should bounce back. The short fence in Minute Maid Park doesn’t hurt.

9. Todd Helton: Forget about last year. The Todd Helton of old is back. You may have also noticed that he bulked up this year and should have some extra power. If there was a “Comeback Fantasy Player of the Year” award, he would be the easy choice. Congrats if you got him in the middle rounds this year.

10. Prince Fielder: Little Cecil is showing he is here to stay and should be one of the best power hitters for years to come.

Worth Mentioning:

Adrian Gonzalez: He is already cooling off from his hot start, but he showed with his early power streak that he can hit with the best of them.

Paul Konerko: Don’t give up on him yet. He should return to form in the second half.

Adam Laroche: The aforementioned Laroche already has the reputation of being a slow starter. He couldn’t start much slower this year if he tried, but he is showing signs of heating up. If he is on your waiver wire, I would take a chance with him.

Jim Thome: The future hall of famer is a scare this year. We just have to look at his last year at Philly to know that he doesn’t play well with injury. He is just coming off the DL again, so close your eyes and hope he keeps hitting.

Kevin Youkilis: We know he can get on base and will score his fair share of runs hitting in front of David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez, but this year that plate discipline is showing up in his hitting stats.

Potential Sleepers:

Dan Johnson: Billy Bean sure can pick ‘em. Johnson has been raking since he hit the majors this year. All signs point toward him staying in the lineup and putting up monster numbers.

Jack Cust: See above. Cust is tearing the cover off the ball. He has only been up since early May and is already among the home run leaders. He is a liability in the field, so the question is where to put him once Piazza comes back. At this rate, Piazza might be cheering from the dugout.

Mike Jacobs: If Jacobs can stay healthy, he should put up some decent power numbers.

On The Decline: Nomar Garciaparra, Jason Giambi, Richie Sexson and Carlos Delgado might all put up some numbers, but here’s hoping you have better options at first. If not, look for one of the guys above to buy low.

Aaron is a man of many addictions. When he's not perusing box scores, player stats, and fantasy lineups, he's usually obsessing about upcoming movies and the recent CD releases - the more obscure, the better. You can catch up with Aaron in the Cafe Forums where he posts as dissent.
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