Tuesday, March 21, 2006

FANTASY BASEBALL; EARLY WIRE GRABS!

UPDATED ON FRIDAY, 3/24

For most of us fantasy drafts NEVER go off as planned; an early run on starting pitching leaves us short on strikeouts and long on ERA, or in an effort to shore up starts and Saves, Outfielders are put off until the middle rounds... leaving us with David Dejesus, Jeremy Reed, Reggie Sanders and Grady Sizemore (who was a keeper). Can you tell that this happened to me in one of my drafts?
Well, fret not for help is on the way! The Waiver Wire is much more than a measure of last resort, it's an excellent resource and too few owners take advantage of it. The fact of the matter is,savvy owners will pore over the 'Wire immediately after their draft in an effort to identify potential contributors, backups and sleepers.

Let's take a quick look at athletes who may have gone undrafted in YOUR league!

CATCHERS:

1. Texas Rangers; Rod Barajas: Barajas started his pro career as a Diamondback and was acquired by the Rangers in '04 to serve as a backup. But a thumb injury suffered by former starter Gerald Laird allowed Barajas the opportunity to see full-time action, and after posting a .249/15/58, 26 Double, .453 SLG % '04, Barajas was... more or less, awarded the starting job. Comfortably settled into his Ranger duds, the newly-minted starter rewarded his team's confidence with breakthrough .254/21/60 '05 campaign. While those aren't "elite" Catcher stats', they were good enough to garner Barajas a big-money contract (1yr/$3.2 Mill') and the attention of fantasy buffs everywhere.
Surrounded by Texas' "shock and awe" lineup, Barajas ought to see plenty of hittable pitches as opposing starters will be far more likely to take their chances with the 30 year old Catcher as opposed to challenging "crush-alots" such as Mark Teixeira, Hank Blalock, David Dellucci and Michael Young.
An excellent backup or #2 Catcher, iffy Home numbers of .257/.414/.293, with 7 HRs, 20 RBI and 49 Ks as compared to Away production of .250/.520/.318, with 14 HRs, 40 RBI and 29 Ks in 10 fewer ABs render Barajas a VERY borderline #1 fantasy backstop; .249/20/65.

2. Pittsburgh Pirates; Ryan Doumit: You may have noticed that a number of Bucc' players and prospects have been listed in this ongoing series and there's a reason for that. Pittsburgh, the very definition of a "small market franchise," is obligated to find young, dollar-sensible athletes. But, by the time a player becomes an All-Star or top-tier talent his salary exceeds that which the Pirates can pay. As a "for-instance," Outfielder Jason Bay earned just over $350,000 last year and went "Super-freakin'-nova." The Pirate Outfielder raided all opposing pitching by hitting .306/32/101/110 with 21 SB (of 22 attempts) and the club, quite wisely, locked him up to a 4 year, $18.25 Milly' dollar deal. Pitt' will build around "their Bay," using him as a cornerstone and play youngsters such as 24 year old Catcher Ryan Doumit who is, undoubtedly, available in all but the deepest of leagues. Taken in the 2nd round of the '99 draft, Doumit's been stalked by the injury bug but after beginning last season in the Minors he received a June call-up, handled both himself, and the staff with the poise of a vet', and hit .255/6/35, with 13 Doubles and 1 Triple in 75 games behind the plate.
The threat of injury will impact the kid's draft value, at least until he proves himself durable. And, while his power numbers should increase his average will probably hover around the .275-.280 mark. In short, Ryan Doumit should be a very solid #2 fantasy backstop with the potential to be much more.

3. Atlanta Braves; Brian McCann: After starting receiver Johnny Estrada and backup Eddie Perez were both felled by injury last season, the organization had the fortuitous opportunity to audition 21 year old prospect Brian McCann. In just 180 plate appearances the rookie backstop "Wally Pipped" Estrada with a .278/5/23 season, allowing the team to bid farewell to the one-time .300 hitter.
An excellent defensive Catcher, McCann's already developed a veteran's demeanor behind the dish and has an excellent rapport with his staff. After spending a full off-season and spring with the parent club, he could be as good as .275/16/60 this year.

1ST BASEMEN:

1. Atlanta Braves; Adam LaRoche: An athlete I listed in last year's "1st Baseman; A Positional Analysis" and who I pushed like a shopping cart during the season as a "sneaky-good Waiver Wire grab," LaRoche's .258/20/78/53 rookie campaign was most encouraging.
During his 1st season with the big club LaRoche demonstrated excellent batting instincts by improving his average each successive month (aside from a .202 August), and by whalloping the ball at a .386 pace with 2-outs and RISP. That was the upside.
The downside? LaRoche's batting average was .310 during the months of September and August, but on the whole his numbers went into a discernible 2nd half slide. After starting the season by hitting .275/.478/.332, with 11 HRs and 52 Ribs', the young Brave hit .240/.426/.305, with 9 HRs and 26 Ribbies (in 43 fewer plate appearances) after the All-Star Break. While not quite night and day, the disparity is notable nonethless. And one other skewed stat' that warrants mention is Adam LaRoche's apparent inability to hit left-handed pitching. He hit Righty's at a respectable .268 clip but hit Lefty's at feeble .188 pace.
LaRoche is swatting a meager .100 this spring. However, given the fact that his swing would never be called "compact," it could take a little while for him to sharpen his timing. If you do gamble a pick on the Hot-Lanta 1st Bagger it would be wise to keep him "pine-lined" until he heats up at the dish, and that might not happen until May... so be patient.

Arizona Diamondbacks; 1B Conor Jackson: A collegiate 3B, Conor Jackson was expected to land in 'Zona last season but veteran 1B Tony Clark's stunning .304/30/87 season kept the youngster at Triple-A Tucson for most of the year and forced him to play LF when he finally DID come up. The "extra coat of paint" certainly didn't hurt Jackson, if anything the additional work bolstered his versatility and will help bear big league fruit.
A big man at 6-2/230, Jackson recorded 1 extra-base hit out of every 3 hits and walked twice as often as he struck-out. That kind of dish discipline is exceedingly rare and bodes awfully well for the future. So far this spring, and keep in mind that spring numbers hold little water with many league observers, Conor Jackson has hit the ball to all fields at a frantic .474 pace.
Yet another youngster with NL "Rook' of the Year" capability, the D-Backs are committed to starting Jackson and will stand by him this season. Look for the player to affirm the club's faith with a .290/15/75 '06.

2ND BASEMEN:

1. Chicago Cubs; Todd Walker: A professional hitter with a .290 career batting average and .441 career Slugging Percentage, "T-Walk" has lost significant chunks of each of the past 2 seasons to injury. In fact, the last time the current Cub played as many as 145 games was 2002.
And still, in just 110 contests last season Walker set, matched, or approached career numbers; his .305 BA was a career best, his .474 SLG % was second only to 00's .476, and his .355 OBP was bettered only by '98's mark of .372. Although Todd Walker is just 32, frankly he's an "old" 32 given his injury-checkered history and he probably amounts to nothing more than a fantasy backup at this point. Even so, a professional hitter with the ability to pound out a line of .301/12/60, Walker would constitute an excellent fantasy backup.
**NOTE: The Baltimore Orioles, perhaps due to concern over current 2B Brian Roberts' balky elbow, are discussing the possibility of a Luis Matos for Todd Walker trade. If that deal goes through, Walker will be slotted as the DH if Roberts is able to surmount his elbow issues, or serve as a backup if the incumbent's able to play at a satisfactory level. Either way, Todd Walker's value certainly takes a hit if the deal is consumated as Catcher Javy Lopez has been relegated to the DH slot by the acquisition of Ramon Hernandez, and the Balty' lineup isn't as good as Chicago's.
If Walker remains in Chicago, his value is excellent as he projects to be the starting 2nd sacker. Assuming such is the case, numbers resembling .293/18/60 would be attainable.

2. San Diego Padres; Josh Barfield: Son of former big league slugger Jesse Barfield, with the operative term being "big," young Josh Barfield is a svelte and speedy 2nd Baseman. After a .310/.450/.370, 15 HR, 25 Double, 72 Rib', 20 SB 2005 season at Triple-A, Barfield is secret no longer. The 23 year old Pad' has top of the order speed and skills to complement rapidly developing mid-order power.
Although he may still be as raw as Sushi, Barfield's time is now; .270/18/75, with 25 SB.

SHORTSTOPS:

1. Kansas City Royals; Angel Berroa: Berroa whetted fantasy owners appetites with a killer .287/17/73, 27 Double, 6 Triple, 21 SB 2003 campaign. Unfortunately, Angel followed-up his breakthrough season was a hellish, .262/8/43, 14 SB '04, and owners who were hoping that 2004 was merely a sophomore slump drew little comfort from a marginally improved .270/11/55, 7 SB '05.
The Kansas City Shorty' is a high strikeout, albeit spunky slap-hitter, but perhaps the 2nd half of last season is reason for hope. From the start of July through the end of the regular season, Berroa hit at a .300 clip with 6 of his 11 HRs, 37 of 55 RBIs, and a SLG % of almost .410. If Berroa, who's in no danger of losing his starting job, can use that success as a springboard... then it's not inconceivable that '06 could look very .280/15/65, 10 SB-ish.

2. Milwaukee Brewers; J.J Hardy: The new "Brew-Crew" is rife with young talent, and 1B Prince Fielder (.291/.569/.388, with 26 HRs, 21 Doubles and 8 "bags snagged" in just 103 Trip'-A games last year), 2B Rickie Weeks (.320/.655/.435, with 12 HRs, 14 Doubs', 9- 3 'baggers, and 10 SB in just 55 Trip'A games, then hit .239/13/42/56 15 SB in 96 games with the big club), and Hardy (.247/9/50/46 with 22 Doubles last season) form the core of this improving club.
Hardy was teetering on the brink of "bustdom" until a .308/.503/.363, 8 HR, 31 Rib' 2nd half salvaged his confidence and propelled him back up the prospect rankings.
Supported by a potentially outstanding, not to mention "sneaky-good," lineup... Hardy could one of the year's top Roto' surprises. Although the 23 year old SS's hitting a respectable .261 this spring, look for him to warm-up a bit and hit something close to .275/16/65, with a fistful of swiped bags this year, and possibly vault up the Shortstop rankings for '07.


3RD BASEMEN

1. Cleveland Indians; Aaron Boone: Boonie', perhaps you've heard of him? Hailing from a loooong line of "Diamond Dogs," the dude hurt himself playing pick-up Basketball over the summer of '03, confessed his sin to the Yankees, and was promptly cut by Boss Steinbrenner. Although Boone's candor was awfully refreshing, so much for "honesty being the best policy!" Cleveland proceeded to sign the out-of-work cornerman and, upon return from his knee injury, Boone rewarded the Indians with a .243/.299/.378 (Avg./OBP/SLG), 16/60 '05 "cam-pain." But as bad as Boone's .211/.362/.266 1st half was, the club wisely stuck by him and he responded with a vastly improved .276/.394/.336 2nd half. Whether his confidence had taken a knock or he was simply out of game shape matters not, Aaron Boone showed some spark, passion and life, and seemingly has a couple of productive seasons left. Currently enjoying a BIG spring (.440/4/7), Boonie' managed to fend off a challenge from highly regarded 3B prospect Andy Marte and his experience and calm locker room presence will aid the development of promising young players such as OF'er Grady Sizemore, C Victor Martinez, and SS Jhonny Peralta (who obviously needs to be told that he spells his name incorrectly!).
Without looking for miracles, look for .265/19/65; good enough to be a fantasy backup or injury replacement.

2. Chicago White Sox; Joe Crede: Both player and team have been eagerly awaiting a breakthrough season since... like, 2001, but injuries and streaky play have hampered Crede from achieving his goal. Finally, after exemplary post-season (.289/4/11) play and an extensive off-season rehab' program designed to strengthen a potentially troublesome disc issue, Crede's sitting on the very cusp of his breakout campaign. Surrounded by a World Series winning cast and in the best shape of his career, I have Crede pegged for an All-Star caliber season and will ambitiously project .289/27/85.

OUTFIELDERS:

1. Oakland A's; Nick Swisher: Although his average took a header last summer, falling from a "July high" of .278 to a .187 "why remember?" September,, Swisher offers 25-28 Dinger' power and 85 Ribbie po'.

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