Thursday, February 16, 2006

FANTASY BASEBALL'S 3RD BAGGERS; 2006!

PART 2 IN THE ONGOING SERIES, 3RD BASE

Third Base, the "Hot Corner;" a good 3rd Bagger is fearless, possesses the instincts of a cat, owns a rifle arm, and wields a thunderous bat. Paired with your 1st Baseman and much like a big league lineup, the corner infielders constitute the meat and potatoes of your fantasy team. Naturally, you should receive power, runs, and a solid BA from your corner OF'ers as well... but your 1st and 3rd Sackers should serve as the backbone of a strong fantasy offense.
This season 3rd Base is again awash in talent, offers solid depth, and features several multi-tool prospects. This piece examines the top 10, plus "On the Way Up," "Players in Decline," "Comeback Player of the Year," "Top Sleeper," and "Deeper Sleeper" reviews. And now, without any further ado...

"Fantasy Baseball's 3rd Baggers!"

LAST SEASON'S Top 3rd Baseman

Alex Rodriguez (NY): LAST SEASON I SAID: "Even having had an "off year," A-Rod was an owner's dream last season ('04). And, quite frankly, A-Rod's "off year" would qualify as most ball player's career years. He'll give you power; 40 HRs last season, RBIs, 106 last season, Runs, 112 last season... and rare for a 3rd Baseman; speed. Rodriguez thieved 28 bases in '04. Not only is A-Rod the top 3rd Baseman, A-Rod still ranks as fantasy Baseball's #1 overall pick. Comfortably settled into the Yankees' stocked lineup, look for A-Rod's average to bounce back to a more "Rodriguez-ian" level... I'd look for .290/38/110 ... and oh yes, look for another 20+ Stolen Bases."

IN REALITY: In New York's longball-lineup and finally comfortable encased in pinstripes, A-Rod validated his first OVERALL pick status and pulverized opposing pitching. The one-time Shortstop hit a simply ridiculous .321/48/130, and about the only thing I had right, aside from pushing him as fantasy's top pick, was his "20+ Stolen Bases." The Yankee 3rd Baseman swiped 21 bags.

Scott Rolen (STL): LAST SEASON I SAID: "(In) Another loaded lineup, Rolen (receives excellent) protection... . With Edmonds and Pujols in the Cardinal lineup, not to mention another 4 or so .290+ power hitters... it's not like you can pitch around the guy. Fantasy owners should have concerns about Rolen's balky back, but despite missing 18 games late last season due to injury (a leg injury... wasn't even his back) it should NOT deter you from grabbing him. Rolen remains an elite hitter and a top 4 fantasy 3rd Baseman. Look for .299/35/115 in '05."

IN REALITY: Unfortunately injury DID play a factor in an '05 season that saw Rolen hit .235/5/28, cutting it short by roughly 100 games (106 to be precise). Frankly, the specter of injury is always hanging over Rolen and it's not so much a matter of IF Rolen falls victim to a break, tear, pull, contusion, adhesion or fracture... but when. The 5-time Gold Glover and '97 "NL Rookie of the Year" has NEVER played a full season and recorded a total of 198 games the past 2 seasons combined.

Adrian Beltre (SEA): LAST SEASON I SAID: "For a guy who's had a history (and he's only 26 mind you) of being a 2nd half player, Beltre started off hot and didn't cool off until roughly October. ...Beltre (has) had HUGE expectations heaped upon him since he was 16 years old, but (he's) never really lived up to them. That is, until he blew UP last season to the tune of .334/48/104. Beltre also notched 104 Runs and had a staggering Slugging % of .629. The guy can't help but come back down to Earth a little bit next season, especially seeing as how he'll be adjusting to... Seattle's (huge Safeco Field). ...while he can't be as white hot as he was ALL last season, he (should) still remain a top 4 fantasy 3rd Bagger. Look for a more reasonable .320/41/115... and a Slugging % closer to .550 than .650. And I'll take those "more modest" numbers any day!"

IN REALITY: Alright, alright. Without doubt, Baseball insiders and fantasy buffs alike expected Beltre's move (from L.A) to Seattle's spacious "Safeco Field" to have an impact on his offensive production. They did not, however, expect to see Beltre's numbers go careening off of a cliff. I stated that "...Beltre also notched 104 Runs and had a ridiculous Slugging % of .629. The guy can't help but come back down to Earth a little bit next season, especially seeing as how he'll be adjusting to... Seattle's (huge Safeco Field). ...Look for a more reasonable .320/41/115... and a Slugging % closer to .550 than .650.
Ahh, if only! Last year it seemed as if Beltre couldn't swat a fly en route to a .255/18/87 line, with a SLG % of .413. While Seattle's gigantic stadium must take the rap for some of Beltre's depleted numbers... it can't be used as a blanket excuse. Due to his meager production, the fact that he may not yet be comfortable in Safeco, the Mariners marginal talent (outside of Ichiro, Sexson, maybe a couple of others), and seeing as how there are a number of 3rd Sackers I'd take before Beltre... the dude just doesn't make this list. HOWEVER, Adrian Beltre should be available as a mid-round pick, and a season of .270/25/95 should be within his reach.

Eric Chavez (OAK): LAST SEASON I SAID: "Must be wondering why the hell he re-signed with a team that held a Pitching fire sale. Having dealt aces ...Hudson and Mulder for prospects, essentially, Chavez is rightfully angry. (after missing) over a month due to a broken hand, it took Chavez a while to get back on track in '04. He still had an enviable season however, and fell 1 HR short of a 3rd consecutive 30 HR season. Incidentally, those 29 Homers were the most of any Athletic last season ('04). The A' infielder matured as a hitter last year and started spraying the ball to all fields. A top 10 3rd Baseman, look for .279/35/105."

IN REALITY: Okay, this is MUCH more in line with what I had in mind when I made these projections prior to Spring Training '05! Last season, "Chavie" whacked his way to a .269/27/101 campaign; I missed his BA by a mere 10 points, his HR total by 8, and came within 4 of his "Ribbie" total. All in all, not too shabby.
Reflecting upon 2005's projection for a moment, those "joker" pitchers Billy Beane acquired (after sending Mulder and Hudson off) each turned in solid seasons. And, while neither looks to be another Tim Hudson (Atlanta) or Mark Mulder (St. Louis), they were effective nevertheless. Surprisingly and much to Eric Chavez's delight (not to mention the... umm, tens upon tens of A' fans living in and around the Tri-State area!), Oakland finished 2nd in the AL West with an 88-74 record.

Melvin Mora (BAL): LAST SEASON I SAID: "I don't know if I'm entirely sold on Mora. He's a guy coming off a career year with a history of injuries. He was UN-conscious last season though, hitting .340/27/104 and recording 11 swiped bags. I'm still concerned about the threat of injury, but will look for .325/25/99, and 15 SBs. Mora remains a top 10 3rd Baseman, but I'd draft a guy who offers flexibility at 3rd... just in case."

IN REALITY: Mora saw a startling decrease in virtually every offensive category, swatting a line of .283/27/88, with 7 Thieved Bags. That, my fantasy friends, lies in stark contrast to an '04 that saw Mel' hit .340/27/104 with 11 SB. Hence, my advice to "draft a guy who offers flexibility at 3rd... just in case." Although I missed on his batting average by oh, 40 points or so, I was off on his HR and RBI totals by a mere 2 and 11 respectively. Hey, when I miss by a mile I 'fess up and when I'm close to dead-on I point it out!
Mora's another "Hot Corner" player who gets no fantasy love from me this season. While he should be a solid fantasy player, I remain wary of his unpredictable nature and predeliction for injury (Mora played in 149 of 162 games in '05). Those of you who remain high on the Balty' baller should keep in mind that much like the previously reviewed Adrian Beltre, Mora should be available to you in the 4th-5th rounds of most "Mixed" League" drafts. And, predicated upon the number of teams in your league, Beltre could even last a round or 2 longer. Making fantasy projections for Big Mel' Mora's about as easy as playing Pool with a rope, but I'm inclined to project a season similar to .288/26/90, with 8 SB.

Chipper Jones (ATL): LAST SEASON I SAID: "A bum Hammy' hobbled Chipper all season long and he was never able to get himself right. Even still, the one-time OF'er bashed 30 Homers and notched 96 RBIs. Admirable numbers for any player, let alone an injured one. I fully expect Jones to bounce back and record a great year, look for .290/30/100."

IN REALITY: After suffering a tendon injury to his left foot, the "straw that stirs Atlanta's drink" missed over a month and saw action in a mere 109 games last year. Over the course of those games Jones hit a very respectable .296/21/72. Was it in line with what I'd projected? Yes, but was it a "bounce-back" season? Unfortunately for all concerned, no.

Hank Blalock (TEX): LAST SEASON I SAID: "A young player with a bright future, the knock on Hammerin' Hank is his rather irritating habit of falling off after the All-Star break. His split season stats are seriously stupefying. In just his 3rd season, expect Blalock to put in the necessary batting cage work and improve his numbers. He broke the 30/100 mark last season... and that should be the first of many such seasons. Look for a VERY productive year out of Blalock... I'd gamble an even higher pick upon him this season, and project him for .293/35/112."

IN REALITY: In reality, the dude kinda' sorta disappointed his owners by hitting .263/25/93 with 132 strikeouts. "...the knock on Hammerin' Hank is his rather irritating habit of falling off after the All-Star break." Do I lie? Blalock oozes talent, but the guy's splits remain a staggering study in statistics. As has been his habit, prior to the '05 "All Star Break" Hank "crushed alot," producing a line of .285/16/57 with a SLG % of .479 and an OBP of .346. If only Blalock had been able to maintain that torrid pace! True to form, the 4th year Texan hit .236/9/35 with a SLG % of .375 and an OBP of .283 after the brief break. Certainly a solid season, but Hank's tendency to slide into a second-half sag and penchant for striking out need to be addressed.

Mike Lowell (FLA): LAST SEASON I SAID: "A doubles machine, Lowell starts each season like a ball of fire... and finishes like a ball of cotton. Having developed a history for (poor second halves), here's the plan; trade Lowell for a position of need just before the All-Star Break. At age 31, a ball player's a known quantity and won't be surprising anyone... Look for a very respectable, .297/31/104 from Lowell this season... and I'm as serious as a heart attack about that whole trade thing."

IN REALITY: A big-time real and fantasy flop for sure, Lowell was yet ANOTHER 3rd sacker who turned in a ghastly-bad season. After a 2004 that saw Lowell reach career highs in batting average (.293), hits (175), OBP (.365) and SLG % (.505), his 2005 campaign was an abrupt and unpleasant fantasy about-face. The now former Marlin pressed at the plate and was seemingly unable to do anything about an average that fell by almost 60 points, an OBP that fell by almost 70 points, a SLG % that pulled a fantasy vanishing act dropping by 145 points, and a Home Run total that fell by a whopping 20! When the dust of the '05 MLB season settled, and the 9th inning of Florida's 162nd game saw its 3rd out recorded, Lowell's line was a feeble .236/8/58.
But with a little luck, a move to Boston could prove to be just the tonic! Wunderkind GM Theo Epstein shipped Bill Mueller out of town and has moved prospect Kevin Youkilis over to the opposite corner where he will platoon with aging veteran J.T Snow. While Youkilis stands to see most of the time at the position, Snow provides the team with a veteran bench bat and will be a positive locker-room presence.
There are at least a dozen, and possibly 3-4 additional 3rd Baseman I'd draft before pulling Lowell off the board. These players include Colorado's promising Garrett Atkins and maybe even L.A Angel Dallas McPherson. Nonetheless, the BoSox play in a "hitter's park," their new 3rd Baseman averaged .288/28/94 over the 3 seasons PRIOR to his horrendous '05, and coming over from the National League just might afford Lowell a slight edge over the AL pitchers. A season approximating .265/18/65 is within reach, but ya' never know.

Aramis Ramirez (CHI N.): LAST SEASON I SAID: "In his first full season with the Cubbies, Ramirez went *BOOM* and recorded a career high HR total. He was hampered by a groin pull for much of the year, but still turned in a VERY productive fantasy (and real) season. The defection of Sosa to the Orioles shouldn't hurt Ramirez's numbers (as) Sosa has been in decline for the past 3 years and was a non-factor for much of last season. The last of the top 10 3rd Baseman, look for Ramirez, who doesn't strike out very often, to turn in an even better '05 than '04; .312/38/108."

IN REALITY: A-Ram's season, much to his owners' dismay, ended 40 games early due to a severe muscle pull... likely costing "said" owners their Championship dreams. Even with the 40+ game deficit, however, Ramirez hung a line of .302/31/92, and would've been awfully close to my .312/38/108 projection. Opposite 1B Derrek Lee who made many pitchers appear to be tossing batting practice, Aramis Ramirez flourished and ranked 2nd amongst all 3rd Baseman with a SLG % of .568, and 4th in Home Runs with 31 last season. The Cub 3rd Bagger should be a 3rd round selection in "Mixed Leagues" this season, a 2nd rounder' in "NL Only" leagues.

LAST SEASON'S "TOP SLEEPER THIRD BASEMAN"

B.J Upton (TB): LAST SEASON I SAID: "Very young and still trying to find a home defensively... the knock on Upton has been his glovework. Nevertheless, Upton's got a nice upside and is worth taking a flyer on... he (should be available through) the Waiver Wire."

IN REALITY: Upton never got the opportunity to take the field in '05, and has made the move to Shortstop.

David Wright (NYM): LAST SEASON I SAID: "An impressive '04 campaign bodes for an even better '05. This kid has all the tools, especially power. It's quite possible that he could be the Mets' best pure hitter since Daryl Strawberry."

IN REALITY: There was nothing wrong with Mr. Wright last season as the Met position player picked up right where he left off in '04, proving his 69 game rookie audition was no fluke. The young Metropolitan ripped his way to a .306/27/102 '05, with a whopping 42 Doubles and 17 swiped bags serving as the cherry on top of his fantasy cake. Those of you who took a mid-round gamble upon the young 3rd Baseman reaped nice rewards!

"LAST SEASON'S 3RD BASEMAN COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR"

Aaron Boone (CLE): LAST SEASON I SAID: "Let's assume that Boone has learned his lesson about playing pick-up Basketball. However, having heard fairy tales from athletes that range from the ridiculous, "I tripped over my dog" to the inane, "I fell washing my truck," Boone's honesty was refreshing, should be applauded, and he got a raw deal from the Yankees who should never have cut him."

IN REALITY: "Oy Vey" as my people say, Aaron certainly put the "Boo" into Boone" last year! An interesting juxtaposition of productivity saw the 33 year old corner man hit an anemic .211 before the All-Star Break (including a horrifying .123 April Avg. and .188 May Avg.),.276 after the star-fueled hiatus, and finish up the '05 campaign with a reasonable .243/16/60, with 6 SB.
While there are at least 15 3rd Baseman I would consider before even rolling my eyes Boone's way, his .272 June, .311 July, and .322 August would indicate that there's some life left in "Boonie's" bat. How much I can't say, but with hot prospect Andy Marte breathing down Boone's neck... the veteran player's leash will be short and there will be no in between. With his 3rd club in as many seasons (Cincy', NY, Cleveland), the veteran Infielder will either rise to the challenge... or go the way of the Wooly Mammoth. I think Boone retains .275/17/70 ability and could prove to be a sneaky-good back-up.

"LAST SEASON'S PLAYER TO WATCH"

Chone Figgins (ANA): LAST SEASON I SAID: "I flat-out like this kid. And, with his base stealing prowess (34 in '04) and ability to qualify at 3rd, 2nd, SS, and in the OF, you could learn to like him too! His numbers were worthy of his being named the Angels' MVP, look for a very solid season from Figgins. .297/6/62."

IN REALITY: Although my projections for Alex Rodriguez, Mike Lowell, and Hank Blalock were... erroneous? On the ambitious side? (what can I tell you? Blalock's production took an unexpected dip and Lowell fell into a season-long funk) I really nailed some of the others, and with Figgens I was M-O-N-E-Y. The Los Angeles Angel of Anaheim (is that not dumb-I ask you?) is a penultimate base stealer, could very well stretch an Infield Single into a stand-up Double, and hit .290/8/57 with a remarkable 62 Stolen Bases! Ergo... and I don't get to write ergo alot, I missed his BA by a measly 7 points, his Home Runs by a scant 2, and underestimated his Ribbie' total by only 5! Simply put, there may be no more versatile player in the league.

AND NOW THE GOOD STUFF; 2006 FANTASY BASEBALL'S TOP 3RD BASEMAN!

"CREAM OF THE CROP!

1. Alex Rodriguez; NY Yankees: Just as he did last season, A-Rod tops this list and warrants first pick consideration. The Yankee 3rd Baseman exceeded not just my humble projections of .290/38/110, A-Rod exceeded virtually EVERYONE'S expectations. Without doubt, Rodriguez posted impressive stats', led the Yankees in multiple offensive categories, and played in 162 of 162 regular season games. However, about A-Rod's Home Runs... and about his hitting in general. There's a misperception out there and the guy's received criticism from many sources for having "an empty average;" for hitting his round trippers', all 48 of 'em, when nobody was on base.
Allow me the luxury of a brief tutorial. Overall, A-Rod hit .290 with Runners in Scoring Position (RISP), recorded a SLG % of .484 with RISP, and his numbers only improved with 2 outs. With 2 men down and RISP, A-Rod hit at a hefty .330 clip, put up a .429 OBP, and posted a SLG % of .512. Clearly, those are anything BUT "empty numbers." In addition, Rodriguez has become a Gold Glove caliber 3rd Baseman, clubbed his way to the "AL Home Run" title, and won another small accolade- A-Rod beat out Boston's behemothic David Ortiz for "American League MVP" honors!
This season, with the Yankee lineup still loaded with beef AND boasting a legit' lead-off hitter in CF'er Johnny Damon, there's no reason to believe that Rodriguez won't replicate his incredible '05 diggies'. Look for the Yankee 3rd Bagger to again "represent" with something like .333/46/135, and 18 SB.

2. David Wright; NY Mets: The incomparable "Flava' Flav'," formerly of the band "Public Enemy" but now known as MTV's answer to "The Bachelor," had a song; "Don't Believe the Hype." If you elected to NOT believe "the hype" you missed out on a player who, at the tender age of 25, looks a helluva' lot like a young Scott Rolen... but may even be better! With a compact swing that belies his 30+ HR power and above-average speed for his position, Wright has also been known to flash some fine leather.
And yet as good as David Wright has been over the span of his brief big league career (all 2 season's worth), Met insiders believe that he's only just begun to scratch the surface of his enormous potential. Wright does, however, need to continue honing his glove-work (while good, he needs to learn to both charge balls and "go with the tricky hop"), improve upon his plate discipline, and cut down upon his strikeouts. Wright committed 24 errors and his "Strikeout to At Bat ratio" was 1:5 in '05. But that's just Nickle and Dime criticism. Couple the 3rd Baseman's near limitless ceiling with the vastly improved talent that surrounds him in the NY lineup, and you may well be looking at an '07 1st round fantasy pick. As things stand today, Wright just can't supplant A-Rod as the top player at the position. With Rodriguez's brutish power, RBI numbers and teammates, that's just not gonna' happen. However, the Mets' "C & C Factory" (Carlos Delgado and Carlos Beltran), Jose Reyes, Cliff Floyd, Paul LoDuca, and other, lesser known lights (top prospect Lastings Milledge, newcomer RF'er Xavier Nady, incumbent RF'er Victor Diaz) should provide the burgeoning ball player with solid protection and frequent RBI chances. Coming off of his 1st full big league season, Wright's a certain "Keeper" in "Keeper Leagues," projects to be a 2nd round pick in "Mixed League" formats and rates a 1st round ranking in "NL Only Leagues." Think your 2nd pick is too high a price to pay for a potential 30+/100+ talent? Fine, "don't believe the hype," but we'll see what place your team's in come the All-Star Break!
With all the new blood, speed and power in and around Wright, pencil him in for .315/33/118, with 18 SB.

3. Aramis Ramirez; Chicago Cubs: Ramirez still possesses a world of fantasy upside, even at this stage of his career. At age 27, he's peaking physically and finally grasping the game's numerous intangibles. A top "5 X 5 league" option, although a strained muscle effectively ended Ramirez's season a month and change early (123 games played) he still managed to round-out his owners' stat' sheets. A statistical wonder, if not for his injury A-Ram' would've been slotted 2nd on this cheat-sheet. Along with top-tier 1st Baseman Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez is at the core of the re-made Chi-town lineup. Amongst others, new Centerfielder Juan Pierre brings eye-blink speed, new Rightfielder Jacques Jones will help to bolster the middle of the lineup, and Manager Dusty Baker will be auditioning some top prospects. Amid all the excitement, look for Ramirez to again be a fantasy weapon par excellence; .310/35/110.

4. Scott Rolen; ST. Cardinals: Do NOT overlook Scott Rolen this season. After a collision with Hee-Seop Choi re-injured his already damaged shoulder, Rolen went on the DL in early May and was forced to undergo reconstructive surgery. Expected back at 100% or close to it, the Card' corner infielder should be in position to post rock solid RBI and Run totals. Hitting within a lineup that includes gritty, proven, productive players such as CF'er Jim Edmonds (another health risk), 1st Baseman Albert Pujols, SS David Eckstein and 2B Aaron Miles, IF Rolen can keep all of his joints intact... and that'd be no small feat, the guy will benefit from tremendous protection and should put up some impressive totals. As it did last season, though, the threat of injury remains looms large. Thus, make a solid 3rd Base back-up or a guy who offers flexibility at the position a draft day priority... just in case.
Keep all "crossables" crossed, but if Scott can get rollin' the prolific batsman could be good for something resembling .287/32/118. Those could be a tad high... or if Rolen remains upright they could even be a scoche' low. My "Fantasy Magic-8 Ball" states that Rolen's season appears to be "Murky at Best! Try Again Later"

5. Chone Figgins; LA Angels of Wherever: Figgins is Baseball's answer to the Swiss Army knife. In 2005, the speedy Figgins played 2B (42 games), 3B (56 games), SS (4 games), LF (15 games), RF (8 games), CF (50 games), and even served as a DH (7 games). One of the best bargains in all of Baseball, Figgins' '05 salary was just $390,000.
The only positions Figgy' did NOT play were P, C and 1B, he hit leadoff, 2nd, 6th and 9th, and in short that's phenomenal "bang for buck" value.
In conjunction to his multi-positional value, the fleet-footed Angel was admirably consistent with his Louisville Slugger; Figgins hit .281 before the All-Star Break and .300 after it.
An attractive first-rounder in "AL-Only" formats, the dude's speed and value render him a low mid-rounder in "Mixed League" formats, and at 28 Figgy's got at least 5 more highly productive seasons ahead of him. All we're concerned with, though, is 2006; .295/10/63, with 55 Thieved Bags.
**NOTE: 3B Prospect Dallas McPherson remains in the Angel fold. Recovering from hip surgery, it'd take a near miracle for McP' to bump Figgy' to another position.

6. Eric Chavez; Oakland A's: Eric Chavez should probably be moved up a couple of slots on this list, and no doubt there's a reader... or 3, ranting and raving about my 7-seed rating. Use these lists as guides- they're NOT gospel! Some mags' and Baseball sites have Chavez ranked as high as #2 after A-Rod... and as low as 9 after an 8th ranked Chipper Jones.
That being said, I despise hyperbole and exaggeration but in sports and athletics the two go hand in hand. This player is "the next Mickey Mantle or Nolan Ryan," this guy "may be the closest thing we've seen to Walter Payton or Gayle Sayers." You get the point. And yet, in sum, Billy Beane's body may host one of THE sharpest Baseball minds... ever. Beane has an uncanny eye for tools and talent, has a remarkable knack for trading over-priced players for dollar-friendly contributors, and is just a terrific all-around Baseball man. After letting guys such as 1B Jason Giambi and SS Miguel Tejada go, Beane refused to part with his 3rd Baseman, Eric Chavez, and now we know why. A blossoming talent, Chavez can hit for power, has above-average speed, and can spray the ball to all fields.
There IS a concern, though. In '04, Chavez played in 125 games (others missed to a hand injury, amongst other nicks) and saw 475 Plate Appearances. In those ABs, he hit .276 with a SLG % of .501 and an OBP of .397, and deposited 29 balls into the stands. In 2005, Chavez played in 35 more games and enjoyed a 150 more At Bats. And yet in those ABs, Chavie' hit 7 points lower... no big deal there, but he also posted a SLG % that at .466 was almost 40 points lower, an OBP that at .329 was almost 70 points lower, and in all those ABs... he hit 2 fewer Dingers'. The Oakland A' "mentality;" blue-collar players possessing a balls-to-the-wall style, is embodied within Eric Chavez.
With a nice mix of young, hungry players (PF'er Nick Swisher, SS Bobby Crosby, 1B Dan Johnson) and veteran hitters (DH Frank Thomas, OF'er Milton Bradley) supporting him, look for Chavies' numbers to creep up this season; .280/31/115, with 8 SB.

7. Chipper Jones; Atlanta Braves: Checking in at #8 this year, Chipper Jones. A Hot-lanta mainstay, the former OF'er turned 3rd Baseman is now 34 and has entered a slow, but noticeable decline. The last time Chipper played as many as 140 games was in '03, but last season's 109 games were by far the fewest of his career. The bright side of things? After returning from that whole tendon thing, Jones took some time to fully recover but really found his groove following the All-Star Break as he banged his way to a .307/14/46 2nd half. As every professional athlete must, the veteran Brave has stepped into the twilight of a notable career; .303 career BA, .538 career SLG %, 331 career HRs, 1,111 career RBIs, and 1,101 career Runs scored.
Although his mind is willing... Chipper's body is increasingly unable. Look for 2 (maybe 3) more seasons in the bright Georgia sun for Chipper, but to expect him to play in 150+ games would be ambitious at best. Nevertheless, so long as he remains healthy, Chipper Jones is a near lock for something resembling .291/27/105.

8. Morgan Ensberg; Houston Astros: Although he's no youngster, Ensberg had his break-out season last year at age 29. Available to most owners via the Waiver Wire, Ensberg will be pulled off of most "Mixed League" draft boards by the 6th round this year and probably sooner in 12 team leagues. Houston's slammin' 3rd Sacker enjoyed a career .283/36/101 (6 SB) year last year, and was a BIG reason why the team made it to the World Series. Although his Home Run stroke faltered after the All-Star Break (24 HRs before the break and 12 after), Ensberg was a consistent force and should remain an exemplary fantasy player for at least 3-4 more years. With capable bats sprinkled throughout the 'Stro lineup, pitchers can ill afford to target Ensberg. Should you draft or expend a "Keeper" slot on the Houston power hitter, look for a steady .285/33/100.

9. Hank Blalock; Texas Rangers: An awfully attractive 3rd Base option, the 4th year Ranger's numbers... every one of 'em, saw a slight decrease from his tremendous '04 campaign. Blalock didn't exactly slump last year, let's call it an "adjustment season." Just 25, "Hammerin' Hank" Blalock has recorded 25/90 (or more) in 3 consecutive seasons and is poised to make the leap to "elite" status.
Paired with bookend 1st Bagger' Mark Teixeira and in a virtual "Murderer's Row" lineup, Blalock should even-out his game this season (20 of his 25 Homers' were at Home last year, and he hit .231 on the road as compared to .297 at Home) and stands to post career-best diggies'. Texas's starting pitching remains a BIG question mark but there's no doubt 'bout the lineup, so I'm lookin' for a substantial leap in Hank's numbers. Pen the Ranger powerhouse in for a VERY productive fantasy season of .280/35/115 (give or take a HR or 4 and a Ribbie' or 10).

10. Troy Glaus; Toronto Blue Jays: Glaus has NEVER played 162 games in a season. He DID, however, play 91 in '03, 58 in '04, and a vastly improved 149 in '05. Not yet 30, Troy Glaus has rare talent, teeth-rattling power, and is a prototypical 3rd Baseman. Unranked last season due to his inability to remain healthy and off the Trainer's Table, Glaus is now with his 3rd team in as many seasons. The long-time Angel was sent to Arizona for '05 where he hit .258/37/97, 'Zona then exiled him to Toronto this past off-season. At the height of his physical powers, assuming Glaus can remain relatively healthy the guy has elite potential and COULD be a top 5 run producer at his position. Although the Blue Jays don't boast an embarrassment of offensive riches, guys like Reed Johnson, Vernon Wells, Aaron Hill, Alexis Rios and Lyle Overbay should provide Glaus with a modicum of protection and ample Ribbie' opps'. Should he remain intact for consecutive seasons... eh', .255/35/90 sounds about right.

"On The Way Up!"

1. Jorge Cantu; Tampa Bay Devil Rays: **CANTU WILL PLAY 2nd WITH SEAN BURROUGHS NOW A DEVIL RAY. He may still see some action at the corner, however.
Just after the start of last season, the versatile Jorge Cantu proved that 2004's 50 game, .301/2/17 "cup of coffee" was no fluke. Cantu Can-do!" and I pushed him like a kid pushes for candy last year. Those of you who read my articles in either this Blog or in the "Fantasy Baseball Cafe" are aware that I listed the Tampa infielder as a "Hot 'Wire Grab" at the start of last season, and visionary that I am- a blind man could've identified Cantu's HUGE upside. Not diminishing Cantu's value any is his ability to qualify as a 2nd Baseman with 80 games played as a middle Infielder. Accordingly, the valuable Devil Ray responded to all the attention with a .286/28/117 season.
The Tampa team promises to be a virtual Track Team with LF'er Carl Crawford (46 SB), CF'er Rocco Baldelli (who missed all of '05, but thieved 44 bags between '03 and '04), rookie RF'er Delmon Young (32 SB between Double and Triple A last season), and SS Julio Lugo (often overlooked at the position, 39 SB) taking the field in '06. Therefore, Cantu's potential for a big RBI season increases substantially. If there IS a knock on the Ray 3B... it's that he MUST learn to stop chasing balls that are off the plate. Although he's sharpened his batting eye and can turn on the inside pitch in a hurry, Jorge Cantu remains a free swinger.
Let us assume that the Spee-D-Ray practices a bit more discretion at the dish, and project for .295/31/125, with 5 SB.

2. Joe Crede; Chicago White Sox: The long-time White Sock prospect has always been on the "cusp" of stardom and success, he's just never quite made the leap. Now, in the prime of his career and backed by an aggressive, "Ata' Boy" coach in Ozzie Guillen, Crede could be on the verge of the break-out season the Chicago ownership has been waiting for since... like, '01. Well worth a late round flyer, Crede's got a nice crowd surrounding him in Chicago's lineup. Without looking for miracles, look for .270/27/80.

"Comeback Player of the Year"

Nomar Garciaparra; LA Dodgers: Eligible at 3rd and Short', look for Nomah' to play 1st Base in an effort to keep him healthy and his potentially potent bat in a potentially soft L.A lineup. Assuming Nomar's groin and other muscles remain where they're supposed to (that is attached to the bone) he could return to the land of .295/25/100.

"Top Sleeper"

Garrett Atkins; Colorado Rockies: Last season's rookie success story could become this season's 3rd Base fantasy staple. Hitting in the rare air of Colorado's Coors Field and behind both Todd Helton and emerging Matt Holiday, pitchers will be inclined to go right after Atkins. A well disciplined hitter who should improve upon last season's excellent numbers (.287/13/89), Garrett Atkins has .300 potential and rates a 6th (or so) round pick in "Mixed League Formats." Look for "Axe" to hack his way to something akin to .298/20/110.

"Deeper Sleeper"

Ryan Zimmerman; Washington Nationals: After visiting "The Show" for 30 games last season, Zimm' may not be such a "sleeper." Undrafted out of High School, the youngster starred at the University of Virginia, blew-UP for Team USA (while using a wood bat), and subsequently rocketed through the National system. Putting his 58 ABs to excellent use, Washington's future 3rd Baseman hit at an impressive .397 clip, with 10 Doubles and a SLG % of .569. An early favorite for NL "Rookie of the Year" honors, owners belonging to "Mixed Leagues" who wish to snatch him should do so in the later rounds . The 11th, give or take, should be about right and anticipate something like .300/15/75.

"Player In Decline"

Joe Randa; Pittsburgh Pirates: If you belong to a "Mixed League" format... then Randa rates as nothing more than bench-meat. If you participate in an NL only league... then he's actually got some late-round value. A child of the 60's, literally, Randa's old enough (in Baseball terms) to fart dust but still retains some pop, and therefore might be an adequate injury fill-in, #2-3 3rd Bagger', or part-time "Flex" player.
He hit a reasonable .276/17/68 last season, but that was for a far more powerful and talented Red (traded to San Diego during the season) team. There are a few players of consequence on Pittsburgh, such as stud-in-the-raw OF'er Jason Bay , fellow OF'er Jeremy Burnitz, and aging 1st Baseman Sean Casey (also late of the Reds). I would expect Randa's power numbers (a very nice 43 Doubles and 2 Triples in '05) to take a hit as he has light protection and opposing pitchers will have NO compunction about going right at him. If he can stay healthy and not lose too many at bats to fellow 3rd Baseman Freddy Sanchez, Randa could be as good as .270/15/55.

NEXT UP... FANTASY BASEBALL'S SHORTSTOPS!

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