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Youth is a captivating force in Fantasy Baseball. Everyone loves the up-and-coming kid and the top minor-league prospect. Judging by reader feedback, there's a high level of keeper-league interest these days, and many owners have already begun tinkering with their rosters for the future.
For those Fantasy owners working to build a long-term title contender, the following "All-2007 Team" should help give you insight on the best investments for the future. Players have been selected taking into account age, upside potential, injury risk and projected career status in 2007.
Keep in mind I'm most fond of power/speed combinations on the hitting side, based on their value in Rotisserie formats and the likelihood that many speedsters display an increase in power during their prime. On the pitching side, power pitchers with ace-of-the-staff potential make the best investments, and injury risk is often a necessary evil.
Catcher: Joe Mauer. His power is developing, and he can flat-out hit. If I had to pick a lesser-known current player as a serious contender for the 2007 batting title, Mauer would be a prime choice. I see a .330-20-100 season in his future. Honorable mention: Victor Martinez. I've always liked his bat, and he has clearly adjusted to the majors. Martinez's power spike helps push him into this spot over prospects like Jeff Mathis.
First base: Albert Pujols. Whether he's 24, 27 or 30, Pujols is simply one of the most lethal sluggers in baseball. I don't see that changing in three years. A .320-35-125 stat line should be considered your minimum expectation for the remainder of the decade. Honorable mention: Mark Teixeira. He was one of the best hitters to come out of college in years, and his power upside rivals that of anyone in the professional ranks. Even at a deep position, Teixeira is too good to resist based on a possible 50-homer ceiling.
Second base: Marcus Giles. This is easily the weakest position in terms of depth, but Giles is a standout in a thin talent class. He's just as good a hitter as his brother Brian and should max out at .330-30-100-15 numbers. Honorable mention: Rickie Weeks. Even though he's streaky in Double-A ball, Weeks' hitting talent is most evident in his NCAA record .473 batting average. He should be a five-category Fantasy star by the end of next season.
Third base: Alex Rodriguez. The best slugger in Fantasy Baseball the past six seasons is still just 28. He has at least another five years of .300-40-125-15 totals in him, numbers virtually unheard of from a third baseman. Honorable mention: David Wright. He was a difficult choice in a position chock full of talented prospects (Andy Marte, Dallas McPherson), but what makes Wright stand out is his power/speed combination. Players with 30/30 potential make ideal long-term keeper investments.
Shortstop: B.J. Upton. Everyone points to the Derek Jeter comparisons, but Upton seems likely to hit for more power and be slightly less accurate on defense in his prime. Boost Jeter's numbers to .310-30-100-30 and you're looking at A-Rod lite. Honorable mention: Miguel Tejada. A-Rod's move to third has diverted some of the attention from those slugging American League shortstops, but remember, Tejada is just 28 years old. Give me .280-30-110 totals from my shortstop any day.
Outfield: Carlos Beltran. How many legitimate 40/40 candidates remain in the majors? Beltran has topped 25 homers and 35 stolen bases each of the past two seasons, and he's just entering his prime. Don't panic about his getting the red light due to his power surge; players with Beltran's pure speed don't get restrained on the basepaths. Honorable mention: Carl Crawford. Speaking of speed, there's no better long-term stolen-base investment. If any current major-leaguer has a prayer at cracking the all-time top 10 in steals, it's Crawford.
Outfield: Rocco Baldelli. Slowly but surely, Baldelli is learning the art of hitting at the major-league level. Most expect he will be an annual 30/30 candidate in his prime, and remember, he has a lot of years to reach that at age 22. The best-case scenario has Baldelli reaching .300-40-120-30 totals by 2007; even if he falls short, he's one of the few current major-leaguers who should be expected to challenge the 30/30 club by then. Honorable mention: Delmon Young. This kid has serious power and should be a major-leaguer by early 2006. I see a 50-homer season in his future, even if it's likely to come later than 2007.
Outfield: Miguel Cabrera. I love the way this guy plays the game. Few rookies could handle the stress of moving to a new position in their major-league debut, as well as two additional position switches within four months. Oh yeah, Cabrera's bat is pretty good too. By 2007, he won't be the "next Pujols" anymore -- he'll be right there with the Cardinals slugger. Honorable mention: Corey Patterson. As stated earlier, 30/30 candidates are golden on this list, and Patterson seems like a strong bet for those totals as soon as next year, when his surgically repaired knee should be back to 100 percent.
Designated hitter: Prince Fielder. Picture Cecil Fielder circa 1990-91. Now picture Big Daddy Cecil as a left-hander with a batting eye and a better batting average. Prince, Cecil's son, is just that, and he would be an ideal fit as a DH, particularly in a ballpark like Yankee Stadium or Ameriquest Field. Even if Fielder doesn't make the move to the AL, he could still be an annual 40-homer threat in a few years. Honorable mention: Justin Morneau. He should be the Twins DH right now, but let's play it safe and count on him raking it by 2007.
Zach Greinke is already displaying ace potential, with a 2.73 ERA in his first five starts.(AP)
Starting pitcher: Mark Prior. He's the toast of the Fantasy Baseball world right now, so at age 23, Prior should still be just that in three years. His keeper-league owners should keep their fingers crossed about only one thing: That the Cubs learned their lesson about abusing his arm after his recent elbow and Achilles' injuries. Honorable mention: Roy Halladay. Last year's Cy Young winner would be a first-team pick if it wasn't for the fact that he logged more than 500 innings pitched from 2002-03.
Starting pitcher: Josh Beckett. Blisters might be a concern now, but Al Leiter got over those early in his career and became a pretty good pitcher. Assuming his blisters subside, the Beckett we saw during last year's postseason should be the one we see every day in 2007. Even if they don't, the Marlins could always try to develop Beckett into a closer, à la Jeremy Affeldt. Honorable mention: Javier Vazquez. Now that he's a Yankee, Vazquez's run support seems much more stable long-term. He's just 27 and projects as a 20-win contender for the life of his four-year contract.
Starting pitcher: Jake Peavy. There remains concern about the stress Peavy puts on his elbow, but what we saw from him before he went on the disabled list merely scrapes the surface of his awesome potential. He's the riskiest arm on the list, but he's also one of the best. Honorable mention: Carlos Zambrano. The Cubs ride his arm pretty hard, but until Zambrano begins to show signs of wear, you can't bet against him. His command just continues to improve, and he's still just 23.
Starting pitcher: Zack Greinke. It's nice to see the Royals protect Greinke's arm, as it makes him a much safer bet down the road. He's still just 20, is tabbed by many as a future ace and still has room to grow. The Bret Saberhagen comparisons have real weight -- incidentally, Sabes notched his first 20-win campaign at age 21. Honorable mention: Gavin Floyd. Everyone talks about Cole Hamels, but Floyd's really no less a prospect, and he hasn't had the elbow troubles Hamels has exhibited this year. Floyd should reach the majors by mid-2005 and has the tools to make an immediate impact.
Closer: Francisco Rodriguez. Only one thing stands in K-Rod's way to becoming an elite Fantasy closer: Troy Percival's contract. Thankfully -- for Fantasy owners, mind you -- Percival's deal is set to expire this winter. Even if K-Rod returns to his setup role when Percival returns, we're looking at the AL's Gagne by as early as next year. Honorable mention: Octavio Dotel. His live arm was designed for closing. Dotel's still getting his feet wet, and I see a Mariano Rivera-like performance from him by 2007.
Closer: Eric Gagne. If we're talking about the AL's future Gagne, why not mention Gagne himself? His 2002-03 numbers rate among the best all-time seasons posted by a closer, and he's still just 28. If I have to pick the pitcher with the best chance at 40 saves each of the next five years, Gagne's my choice. Honorable mention: Ryan Wagner. His early-season struggles probably put his value at next to nothing, but Wagner is still this team's future. He's the one relief prospect who looks like he has the skills to make it in the majors.
Matthew Sadofsky: Among the closer situations you discussed last week, who should I list first for my free-agent pickups this week: Chad Cordero, Bob Wickman, either of the White Sox guys or that kid from Oakland?
T.C.: I'd rank those closers (or potential closers) Cordero, Shingo Takatsu, Damaso Marte, Justin Duchscherer and Wickman, in that order. Cordero's skill set is far better suited to closing than either Luis Ayala or Rocky Biddle, so bet on him to hold the job in Montreal and register 15 saves the rest of the way. Takatsu is the hottest hand of the quintet, and while he seems like a fair bet for 15, he does have some competition, namely Marte, who succeeded as a part-timer in the role the past two years. Duchscherer and Wickman are merely sleeper candidates in case instability continues in either team's bullpen.
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