Tuesday, June 27, 2006

FANTASY BASEBALL ... SHORTSTOPS, "AMID SEASON REPORT!"

(In March I wrote) The Shortstop...from the mid-90's through approximately '03, the position was Baseball's answer to the Supermodel. Formerly comprised of nimble, speedy, strong-armed slap-hitters, the position became a powerful triad of Jeter (Yankees), A-Rod (Seattle then Texas) and Nomar (BoSox)... but alas, no more.
While Miguel Tejada (his "arrival" turned the "triad" into a "quartet") and Jeter still man the position, Rodriguez is now the Yankee 3B and Nomar's attempting to ressurect an injury-plagued career with the Dodgers as a 1st Baseman.
And yet even without A-Rod and Nomah', the position boasts talent, depth, power, and runs at least 15 athletes deep. From Cleveland's impressive Jhonny Peralta to St. Loos' gritty David Eckstein, and from the Mets' fleet-of-foot Jose Reyes to the Cincinatti Reds' surprising Felipe Lopez, there's value scattered throughout the league and thus, there's no need to panic and pull a Shorty' off the 'board until you are ready to do so. There are even "Deeper Sleepers" such as Milwaukee's J.J Hardy and the Angels' Brandon Wood (assuming he makes the big club), so don't be pressured or fall into the "position run" trap. No doubt Shortstops are gonna' start to fall like dominoes early in the draft, yet if you do your research and set your board wisely you'll be able to snag a VERY competent middle-infielder in the mid-later rounds.

THE GOOD STUFF! 2006 FANTASY BASEBALL'S SHORTSTOPS!

"CREAM OF THE CROP"

1. Texas Rangers; Michael Young: Last season, numerous readers e-slapped me for slotting M-Young as the 3rd ranked Shortstop. And yet, the Ranger's remarkable productivity only served to bolster my case. Certainly the 29 year old middle-infielder benefitted from the All-Star laden lineup that surrounded him; from 1B Mark Teixeira to 3B Hammerin' Hank Blalock to 2B Big Al' Soriano (his big bat and faux birth certificate were sent off to the Nationals... for now) to surprise OF'er David Dellucci, the Rangers were (and remain) loaded 1-9. And yet... even with the gaudy offensive numbers, the atrocious pitching ultimately came back to bite Texas on its collectively muscular rump last season. Kenny Rogers served as the "ace" of the staff, and his 14-8, 3.46 season was by far the team's best. Now, a revamped rotation that brags a brand spankin' new 1-3 in Kevin Millwood, Vincent Padilla and Adam Eaton should ease the scoring burden on the position players. It's got to be awfully demoralizing to hang 10 runs on an opponent... only to lose by a score of 14-10, and scores such as those scrolled across Sports Center with some regularity last season.
This season, the team will trot-out 5 20+ Home Run hitters who hit for power AND average, with SS Michael Young stirring the pot. Surrounded by "Secret Service" type protection, M-Young should again post ill fantasy diggies'.
I'm calling for a 4th straight 200+ hit season, and a line of .320/27/95, with 8 SB.

"Amid Season" ... Michael Young remains an elite Shorty' and one of fantasy Baseball's most productive players. While M-Young isn't a power hitting Shortstop in the mold of... say, Miggy', his gap-to-gap power plays very well in huge Arlington Park. In fact, Young's been so consistent that he's now batting from the 3-hole and with a line of .326/5/49/45 and with a stunning 27 Doubles already banked... it's easy to understand the move.
Look for a season that approaches the lofty expectations I set for Young, though at this point I don't see him hitting anywhere near 27 round-trippers'; 18-20 would probably be about his right.

2. NY Yankees; Derek Jeter: As mentioned above, Jeter, A-Rod, Nomar and a bit later Miggy', became Baseball's "Rat Pack." Attractive, extremely wealthy athletes who were known by their first names and nicknames, they elevated the position from that of "spunky" slap-hitter to that of a leather-flashing power-hitter... and the position, and correlational expectations, may never be the same. But why talk legacy when these guys are still playing top-notch Baseball? Just like the #1-rated Shorty' Michael Young, "Jeets'" is ensconced in the best lineup Boss Steinbrenner's money can buy! A remarkable player who possesses that elusive "It," "It" defies explanation. Is "It" a suite of intangibles? Is "It" the ability to elevate the games of those around you? Is "It" the innate ability to be in the right place at the right time? Or is "It" all of these things... and more? Dunno', don't care. All I DO know is that Jeter DOES have "It," and he's the kind of player who you'll be able to tell your Grandchildren you watched play.
With a new OBP machine in Johnny Damon, a resurgent Jason Giambi, a pulverizingly powerful Alex Rodriguez, an OF'er in Sheffield who seems to have an axe to grind with every pitcher he faces, and an improving Matsui... not to mention Posada and young Robinson Cano, opposing pitchers can ill-afford to dance around Jeter.
Hot off his 1st .300+ season in 5 years, look for yet another highly productive campaign from the Yankee Cappy'; .301/22/75, with 15 thieved bags.

"Amid Season" ... If any season has proved to be a challenge for the popular Yankee... this is the one. With Randy Johnson continuing to wallow in misery and mediocrity, A-Rod pressing for much of the season, and both Sheff' and Matsui lost to injury for all intents and purposes for the entire season, it's been on Jeter to keep the Yankee ship afloat. And it's not as if this season has been a cake-walk for Cappy', indeed not. Jeter has taken quite a beating himself, getting hit on the hand, wrist, and shoulder, and he's been forced to run more than he has in years past in order to create runs. All of these things have conspired to tire the "it" man, and we've yet to reach the All-Star Break! And yet, Jeter, like the Ever-Ready Bunny, just keeps going... and going... and going.
Crushing the ball at a pace he hasn't since 2000's average of .339, Jeets' is also on pace to tie his career high for Stolen Bases and is driving in runs at a clip unseen since he plated 102 Bombers' in '99.
For all those of you who knocked Jeter's #2 ranking, thinking that I had suffered some type of small stroke for placing him ahead of Balty's Miguel Tejada... consider that Derek's hitting .373 with RISP and .400 with RISP and 2 outs, and is maintaining a line of .336/5/46/49, with 11 SB all without benefit of either Sheffield or Matsui. Yeah, huh? That #2 ranking makes a scoche' more sense doesn't it!

3. NY Mets; Jose Reyes: Slotting him at #3? Is he crazy? I can hear the criticisms already. But if one takes into account that Reyes is just 22 and is trying to discover his game, the ranking will make more sense. Hey, I took flak for slotting Texas's Michael Young 3rd last season, he acquitted himself remarkably well, and is this season's top ranked shorty'. Ergo, my #3 rankings seem to pan out well.
For a leadoff hitter, Reyes's '05 .300 OBP was laughable. However, Reyes was put under much duress to become the "2nd coming of Rickey Henderson," arguably the best leadoff hitter to ever trod the basepaths. While the young Met has nice pop, lightning speed, and was able to stand up to the excruciating pressure mentally, his numbers wilted a bit. Furthermore, Reyes had an irritating habit of swinging at, and making an out on, the 1st pitch. Nevertheless, 17 3-Baggers and an eye-opening 60 swiped bags bode awfully well for the future. Better yet, Henderson himself will be working with Reyes during Spring Training. Better plate discipline, pitch selection, and the improved talent around him should elevate Jose Reyes's game. That being said, I must include this pair of caveats; his batting average probably won't leap 30 points over the course of a single off-season, and when mulling the wisdom of drafting Reyes the specter of injury must always be considered.
I will cautiously project a .285/10/70, 55 SB, 115 run season. Those of you who have ice coursing through your veins won't hesitate to gamble an early pick on Reyes.

"Amid Season" ... Daaaammmnn! Each review sees at least 1 "Daaaammmnn" type player; my 1st Base recipient was Phillie slugger Ryan Howard, my 3rd Base awardee was Joe Crede (for his breakout season), and Jose Reyes's .302/8/36/67, 19 Double, 10 Triple, 34 Swiped Bag season definitely warrants... yup', a 2nd DDDDAAAAAAMMMNNN!
Alongside Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran, and David Wright... Reyes enjoys awe inspiring protection, gets driven home more often than a 21 year old virgin, and with a much more respectable OBP of .361 is probably the Mets' most improved player. He is also one of the most feared leadoff hitters in Baseball. Further, the kid is red-hot... 17/27 over his last 6 games kinda' hot! Without so much as a doubt, Reyes will surpass each of my projections and should find himself ranked as high as #2 (amongst Shortstops... a top 12 overall draft pick) by next April!

4. Baltimore Orioles; Miguel Tejada: Miggy's season ended on both a down-note and under former fellow Balty' bird Rafael Palmeiro's accusations (steroid). While few believe the stud Shorty' took "enhanced" B-12 injections, his poor 2nd half numbers are incontrovertible. The difference being that while the numbers themselves are incontrovertible, they do not offer incontrovertible proof of anything.
Let us assume that the big hitter uses only approved supplements and plays straight pool. He'll be eager to shake-off his poor finish and continue to try and lead the O's towards a Wild-Card berth; no mean feat in an AL East dominated by the Yankees and Red Sox. If the position players can stay healthy, Tejada should be amongst the top 3-4 in each of the "Triple Crown" categories. And yet... the team could STILL be shopping the 29 year-old middle infielder. Rampant 'Roid rumors and depleted production aside, Baltimore's starters had a collective ERA that brushed 4.30, and the Closer projects to be 24 year-old unproven Chris Ray (1-3, 2.66 ERA, 43 K's in 40.2 Inns.). Rook' manager Sam Perlozzo sought, but failed to land a proven stopper during the off-season, and it's eminently possible that Miggy's moved for either an established Closer or top of the rotation starter before... or during the season.
Forgetting the "what if" game for now, on THIS team and with THIS lineup, Tejada'a numbers should remain a solid .305/33/115.

"Amid Season" ... Again, much as I did for slotting Jeter 2nd, I received heat from several readers for placing Miggy' 4th on the list. Alas, my arguement that Miggy' has fallen off demonstrably and receives little protection from a flagging Oriole lineup fell upon deaf ears.
Now, allow me to vindicate myself. While Tejada is by no means having a bad season, his .312/16/54 is right smack in line with the .305/33/115 campaign I forecast.

5. Philadelphia Phillies; Jimmy Rollins: At 28 and with 6 seasons of big-league experience under his belt, Rollins is peaking. Sure, experience and better dish discipline will help him notch more Walks and record a higher OBP in so doing, but it's hard to find fault with a guy who swatted 38 Doubles, 11 Triples, and stole 41 bases (Rollins was thrown-out just 6 times). When many Major Leaguers were draggin' butts and bats by September, Rollins was a house a'fire, hitting an improbable .402 in September (and 2 games into October), with a SLG % of .648 and an OBP of .455. And, alongside young 1B Ryan Howard (10 HRs and an ill .691 SLG % in Sept.), Rollins kept the team in the Playoff hunt. Despite the late-season heroics, Philly' finished 1 heartbreaking game behind the NL West Astros for the Wild Card and 2 games behind the Braves for the AL East crown.
Getting back to Rollins, though, the speedy SS enters the season to much fanfare; with 36 consecutive games with at least 1 hit already in his hip pocket, another 20 "1-fer'" (at least) games will see Jimmy Rollins tie the legendary Joe Dimaggio's equally legendary 56 game hit streak... and 21 games with at least 1 hit will establish a new record, and possibly a new legend. The Phills' early season slate may work against the happy-go-lucky Rollins, however. The team opens the season with a 6 game Home stand... and Pennsylvania can be awfully cold in early April. They then travel cross-country for 3 games in the rare-air of Colorado where it IS awfully cold in April; the Rockies have played through several early season snow-squalls. The cold weather makes hitting that much more difficult and Rollins has his work cut-out for him.
While interesting, all of this has bupkiss to do with his fantasy value... and that's all we're really interested in, isn't it? Playing in a great hitter's park and with a sneaky-strong lineup behind him, Rollins is a top "NL Only" pick, a mid-rounder in "Mixed League" formats due to his base stealing ability, and is a candidate for a .290/15/70, 33 SB campaign.
**NOTE: For whatever it's worth, my hunch is that the interruption in his streak wrought by the end of the '05 season combined with April's cold weather will bring little Jimmy's pursuit of Joe D's record to an end.

"Amid Season" ... Did you really wanna' see Rollins relegate Joe D's 56 game hit streak to the dustbin of history? Rollins is certainly a likeable enough cat, but there's something about DiMaggio's record... something that compels you talk about it in hushed tones and makes you want to see it stand. As many anticipated, Rollins was unable to mount a serious charge once the 2005 season came to an end.
Coming off of his tremendous '05 season, the Phill' leadoff hitter just isn't hitting (as of Tuesday, .263/9/29/56, with 17 SB) the way the club expected him to. And with "slight to moderate" corrections in batting average (down to .263 from his '05 mark of .290), OBP (down almost 20 points from last season), and SLG % (down just 5 points from last year but almost 30 points off of his breakout '04 campaign)... Rollins' owners aren't overwhelmed either.
The Shortstop's saving grace has been a "slight to moderate up-tick" in his power numbers. After notching just a dozen Dingers' last year, Rollins has already put 9 into the cheap-seats, with 21 Doubles already in the books (he hit 38 in '05) "little" Jimmy's looking good for 45+, and he's on pace to drive home 70-75 runs after recording 54 RBI in 2005.
While my #5 ranked Shortstop probably won't maintain such a torrid power hitting pace, if you put stock into my March eval'... indeed, Jimmy Rollins is a "candidate for a .290/15/70, 33 SB campaign." The only diggie' I don't see Rollins recording is a .290 BA.

6. Cincinatti Reds; Felipe Lopez: It took four seasons, two teams (Lopez started his Major League career in Toronto), and an injury to incumbent Rich Aurilia, but Felipe Lopez finally found his way into an everyday lineup!
And let there be no question. Once given the opportunity, the 26 year-old Cin' City Shortstop was... ahh, "Reddy," and took full advantage by hitting .291/23/85 with 97 Runs and 15 SB.
But when you consider the fact that that Lopez posted these numbers hitting primarily out of the leadoff slot, they really leap off the page... or screen, or whatever. Further, Lopez led ALL NL Shortstops in Home Runs with 23, RBIs with 85, and OPS with a mark of .838 (.920 against righthanders). A late-bloomer sure, but Lopez is in a great hitters park and has a ball-crushing cast of characters around him. The knock on Lopez is really more of a "tap," he hit .243 against lefties (with a .644 OPS) as opposed to .312 against righthanders.
Although a position move could be in the cards (there's been talk of moving him to 2nd or sliding him over to 3rd), Lopez can hit to all fields with power (34 Doubles, 5 Triples), maintains a high average, is unafraid to steal, and I see him maintaining his place amongst the elite at the position for the next few years. In other words, don't let this multi-category contributor slide past the 5th-6th round in "Mixed League" formats!
My "Fantasy Magic-8 Ball" say's "It's a bit murky, but look for .285/25/95, with 20 SB."

"Amid Season" ... As my grandmother used to say in Yiddish (if you're unfamiliar, think of Yiddish as an "old school" blend of German and Russian), "So, nu?" That means... "so, what's up?" Here's what's up... for the most part and with few exceptions, the entire Red team is simultaneously underwhelming and under-performing!
Need me to spell it out for ya'? 'Kay, watch me go! No one believes that man-child Adam Dunn will EVER hit for average, but .221? C'mon. Even 24 HRs can't make-up for (roughly) 1 whiff per every 3 plate appearances. Legend and Hall of Famer to be Griff' Jr... he's remained healthy but is posting an unimpressive .259/13/41. The streaky Austin Kearns... after getting re-called from Trip'-A, a so-so .269/13/43. And the Catchers? Forget about "hitting his weight," at an utterly anemic .165 veteran Jason LaRue isn't even hitting Mary-Kate Olson's weight for cryin' out loud!
Look, Lopez's current line (.265/7/27/48 with 22 SB) isn't awful, but coming off of his breakout .291/.486/.352 (BA/SLG/OBP) year... .265/.387/.351 is a serious disappointment.
The .285/25/95 20 SB season I projected for Felipe Lopez is out the window.
Instead, he looks more like a .271/18/70, 42 SB kind of player. Terrible? No. But, is it what we expected? The answer remains the same. No.

7. St. Louis Cardinals; David Eckstein: A gritty player who's unafraid to give up his body diving for a ball or breaking up a Double-Play, David Eckstein was a VERY tough out (he fanned just 44 times in 630 plate appearances) and he did an outstanding job replacing his predecessor, Edgar Renteria. "Eck" set or met career highs in games played (15, ABs (630), hits (185), HRs (, Walks (5, BA (.294), OBP (.363), and SLG (.395). In addition, owners were pleased to see their Shortstop deliver 26 Doubles and 7 Triples. All of the above is the good news. The bad news? I'd be hard-pressed to believe that David Eckstein is capable of significantly better play... and although he's been relatively durable thus far, his "all or nuthin'" style makes him something of an injury risk. If you can snatch Eck' up in your draft's later rounds... and he's sure to be a late-mid to late round selection (unless an owner makes a panic move), you'll secure yourself a Shortstop who may not be able to carry a fantasy team as some of the other SSs can, but you'll snare a certain stats' contributor.
Amid a lineup that WILL reduce most opposing Pitchers' bowels to water, look for a very solid season from the Card' middle infielder; .295/10/65, with 90+ runs and 12 SB.

"Amid Season" ... Seriously, how can you not like Eck's style? Dude plays every game as if it will be his last and he tosses his body around in much the same way 76'er Point Guard Allen Iverson does. And, just like "AI," Eck's a true team player, capable of elevating the games of those around him. But with Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen and Jimmy Edmonds (though still dangerous with a bat in his hands, Edmonds' litany of past injuries have finally impacted his level of play) suiting up in the same locker-room... it's easy to get lost in the shuffle once the opening pitch is thrown. Opposing pitchers are far more focused upon the aforementioned sluggers than they are scrappy David Eckstein... and David Eckstein has made them pay for that disregard.
Currently sitting atop a .318/1/17/45, 5 thieved bag line, Eck' will meet, greet, and surpass ".295/10/65, with 90+ runs and 12 SB" ... my March projection. The only stat' that seems "untouchable" at this point would be 2005's total of 10 Home Runs, Eck' will probably finish the '06 season with 5... give or take 2.

8. Tampa Bay Devil Rays; Julio Lugo: Coming off of a .295/6/57, 89 run, 39 SB season... Lugo should again rank amongst the top 10 at his position. A curious player to say the least, Lugo's RBI production took a nosedive and fell from 75 in '04 to 57 in '05, but last year he notched 22 more hits (182) and nearly doubled his Stolen Base total with 39 (up from 21 in '04). Lugo's split-season stats are rather interesting as the Shortstop hit .287, with 15 Doubles and a SLG % of .365 before the Break. Over the season's second half, he hit .306, with 21 Doubles and a SLG % of .451. If the Ray infielder can pick-up where he left off... '06 could be scary!
However, whether or not Lugo remains a Devil Ray remains a question mark as the team would like to promote promising B.J Upton. Assuming he remains a part of Tampa's powerful AND speedy lineup, Julio Lugo should again put up numbers resembling .301/7/65, with 28 SB.

"Amid Season" ... With B.J. Upton's glove a work in progress, the Devil Rays opted to leave him in the Minors. Instead, the club decided to keep on rolling with their steady-Eddie Shortstop, the under-appreciated Julio Lugo. Lugo, who missed 20+ games at the start of the season with a leg injury, made good on the promise he showed last season (and in '04, when he drove in 75 runs and recorded 41 Doubles and 4 Triples) and is acquitting himself well. Those owners who resisted the temptation to dump him in mid-April are wearing ear-to-ear grins now! The "Spee-D-Ray" is hitting .284/7/17/33, and has hit 13 2-Baggers' and swiped 10 bags over a 49 game span.
It would seem, my fantasy friends, as if Julio Lugo will blow right through the ".301/7/65, 28 SB" projection I made! Here again, I couldn't be more pleased to be more incorrect.
**NOTE: As an aside, the Tampa Bay Devil Ray fans have much more to cheer about than many realize. CF'er Rocco Baldelli has hit the ground running and boasts a .371 BA, a .694 SLG %, and a .443 OBP, RF'er Carl Crawford may take a game off here and there, but his .305 BA and 26 SBs are hard to argue with, 2B Jorge Cantu is again healthy after missing almost 1/2 the season, and hurler Scott Kazmir looks a helluva' lot like an ace!

9. Atlanta Braves; Edgar Renteria: Renteria is with his 3rd club in as many seasons and will be setting the table (maybe the 2-hole) for an impressive and powerful Brave lineup. While he'll never replicate his highly productive '03 season he's also not as bad as last season's numbers would suggest. Ergo, I would look for something that lies between his '04 and '05 numbers.
Something like... oh, maybe .280/9/68, with 15 SB.

"Amid Season" ... Renteria is a "Baseball lycanthrope." What the HELL is a lycanthrope? For those of you who did NOT have a childhood fasciation with the paranormal as... uhmm, I obviously did, a lycanthrope is a "shape-shifter." You know, like a Were-Wolf?
But Renteria, instead of assuming the body of another creature, takes on the personality and adopts the style of the team that signs his checks.
Now donning a Brave Uni', Renteria is demonstrating a seat-reaching stroke the likes of which we've not seen since he whalloped a career high 16 Home Runs waaaay back in '00, and Edgar's .305 BA and .446 SLG %, each represent career marks. At age 31, he's somehow managed to stave-off the ravages of time and remains a top-10 fantasy Shorty'.
NOTE: The Braves themselves seem to be falling prey to the ravages of time. With a ghastly-bad 32-45 record, for the first time in 14 years it appears as if another club will take home the NL East crown! The apocalypse is truly upon us.

10. Oakland A's; Bobby Crosby: Checking in at #10 on the Shortstop countdown Oakland's 26 year-old "boy-blunder," Bobby Crosby. The SS's season ('05) was hampered by injury from start to finish, and some of the rap must fall on Crosby's broad shoulders. A late September return from an ankle that was broken merely a month earlier was a flat-out bad decision... and that decision cost him. From August to September, Crosby's average plummeted by 148 points, his SLG % by 245 points, and his OBP fell to .222 from .333. Looking at things over a more substantial time frame: before the All-Star break Croz' clubbed a line of .324/5/21, or in even greater detail; .324/.545/.380 (BA/SLG/OBP). After the Week-long hiatus, Crosby was a different player; .239/4/17... .239/.388/.321 different. Incidentally and irregardless of the All-Star break, the guy struggled in big situations. With runners in scoring position, Croz' hit a feeble .223 and notched an equally anemic .287 SLG %.
Looking forward, as of today, February 24th, team observers note that Bobby Crosby is nursing a sore throwing shoulder and may have injured himself while lifting weights over the off-season. Starting a new year with a creaky joint is NOT a recipe for Roto success, and frankly I'd let someone else draft and fret over Crosby's health and suspect durability.
A "boom or bust" fantasy commodity, IF Bobby can stay both on the field and in the 3-hole, I would think .280/24/85 to be reachable.

"Amid Season" ... .246/8/32 ... nuff' said? He's very streaky, no doubt 'bout that. Crosby, who is prone to 3,4 and 5 game hitless streaks, hung an April average of .215 and thoroughly and completely disappointed owners everywhere. But when Apil's showers gave way to May flowers, Crosby raised his BA by almost 60 points, to .276, and jerked 6 out of the yard. On to bigger and better, right? Uh-uh, not so fast. Unfortunately, the A' young'un hit just .224 over this month... and has zip, zilch and zero Home Runs to show for his hard work. In addition, Croz's SLG % went into a 200+ point free-fall, tumbling from a high of .483 in May to a .269 low over the month of June.
Unable to hit, Crosby was also unable to cling to the 3-hole and manager Ken Macha has bounced Crosby up and down the lineup in an effort to kick-start his season. 3 for his last 9, Croz' could... could be heating up a bit.
If we operate under the assumption that Bobby Crosby manages to get his rear in gear sometime before mid-July, a .270/25/80 season is still within reach. We would also be assuming a lot, though, given the way he's performed to date.

11. L.A Dodgers; Rafael Furcal: Last on this list, Atlanta Brave Raffy' Furcal. Sure, the Dodger Shortstop could've been slotted a bit higher due to his speed and the potential of the lineup that surrounds him, but as I stated in the previous positional analyses- use this list as a guide!
Furcal's another lead-off hitter possessing a less than desirable OBP (in his case, .34, but 62 Walks and 46 swiped bags successfully assuage the pain of his poor OBP. Helped by his cat-quicks', Furcal rapped out 31 2-baggers', a career-best 11 3-baggers', and his 175 hits were the 2nd best of his career.
While the 28 year-old switch hitter underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee early last month, he's expected to report to camp at full base stealing strength. A mid-round pick in "5 X 5" leagues and a 2nd-3rd rounder in "NL Only" leagues, Furcal would be a guy I'd wait on in "Mixed Leagues." Now that's NOT to say I wouldn't draft him because I certainly would. However, given the depth at the position and Furcal's need to adjust to his new team and ball park, another owner is bound to jump on Furcal several rounds before he/she needs to.
Hitting within the pitching friendly confines of Dodger Stadium and possessing great speed and gap power, Furcal should thrive. He does not, however, have the likes of "the Jones boys," Marcus Giles, or Adam LaRoche around to protect him.
Jot Raffy' down for something akin to .280/9/50, with 30 SB.

"Amid Season" ... The artful Dodger is yet another Shortstop whose fallen into a June swoon (.250/.359/.330, ) after enjoying a red-hot hot May (.311/.429/.366, with 2 Homers' and 14 Ribbies').
The fact of the matter is that amongst other things, such as an injury that he played through but went unreported, Furcal's Dodger teammates have under-achieved. Excluding, of course, Nomar Garciaparra (enjoying a "Comeback Player of the Year" type season) and youngsters such as C Russ Martin, and OF'ers Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp. A young team that is starting to show some signs of life, Furcal's offensive game may be doing the same.
Swatting .412 over his last 5 games, Furcal is now healthy and with 17 SB... is not without fantasy value. Furcal's owner may have grown weary of his act, thus I would see if I could "Buy Low" before the middle infielder heats up any further. Furcal's the kind of player capable of a month-long tear... wouldn't you like to be the recipient of such a hitting jag?

"ON THE WAY UP"

1. Cleveland Indians; Jhonny Peralta: Platooning with Alex Cora at the beginning of last season, Peralta started the year ('05) like a snowball rolling downhill. Initially, hitting 9th and at an unimpressive .222 clip, few noticed the young Indian. However, after swatting .295 with a SLG % of .520+ over May and June, Peralta's .333/6/19, 7 Double, .578 SLG % July forced manager Eric Wedge to stand-up and take notice! It also, for the record, caused owners everywhere to trip over one another in their haste to get to the Waiver Wire. Wedge made little Jhonny (is it me... or does he spell his name incorrectly?) an everyday player, moved him to 3rd in the batting order (rock solid decision there), and reaped the rewards over the course of the remainder of Peralta's .292/24/78, 35 Double, 4 Triple, 82 run season. While I would be surprised to see Peralta rack another .887 OPS, stranger things have happened. Many Baseball insiders thought Albert Pujols' .329, 37 Dinger' 2001 was an aberration... until he followed it up with a .314, 34 Homer' '02, and then of course came his showstopping .359, 43 HR '03 campaign!
While comparing Peralta to Pujols is a ligament tearing stretch... you get the point. Peralta has arrived! He benefits from a VERY strong and talented core of young position players, and I would antipate a solid season; .289/28/90, with 100 runs scored.

"Amid Season" Although Peralta's scalding '05 led writers everywhere to believe that the Indian Shortstop was a fast-rising fantasy commodity, his follow-up campaign has been more of a cam-pain.
The 24 year old star-in-the-raw still has some work to do before he reaches the land of the fantasy "Elite," as his .253/7/34 line graphically illustrates, but not so fast! Much as he did last season, little Jhonny found his way to a hot-streak and is stinging the ball to all fields. Hitting .459 over his last 10 tilts, Peralta may not be out of the woods yet... but the trees are certainly thinning! A "must-start" candidate in all formats, the Indian Shorty' could be in for a HUGE 2nd half.

2. Milwaukee Brewers; Bill Hall: Hall enjoyed a wonderful breakout season of .291/17/62, with 18 SB and 39 Doubs' in 146 games played. Notching statistical highs in virtually every offensive category was nice, but he was also a D-Dazzler at 3 positions!

"Amid Season" ... .273/15/36/45 with 20 Doubs' and 4 Triples. While the average could be better, Hall is holding his own and the new Brew' Crew (Rickie Weeks, Prince Fielder and Carlos Lee) look like a VERY formidable bunch!

"TOP SLEEPERS"

Colorado Rockies; Clint Barmes: I was lovin' this kid and pushing him like Turkey on Thanksgiving... and then a season that had "Rookie of the Year" written all over it came to a collarbone breaking end, "Deer me." Barmes played precisely half the season, recording 350 ABs before he slipped and fell down his steps while carrying an armload of Venison. In those plate appearances the promising youngster whalloped his way to a .289/10/46 line, with 19 Doubles, 55 runs scored, and 6 SB.
But here again, more lies beneath the surface. While the Rockie Shorty' clubbed the ball at Home, he endured substantial troubles on the road; the Home-Road splits are; Home: .332/.369/.508 to Road: .239/.286/.350. Nonetheless, Colorado remains convinced that Clint Barmes is the goods and WILL be their leadoff or #2 hitter.
Too talented NOT to succeed, look for Barmes to emerge as a top op' at the position by season's end, and hang a line close to .300/22/95, with 15 SB.

"Amid Season" ... Barmes simply hasn't been the player he was prior to his Thanksgiving Day disaster. Hitting a lighter than air .207/3/38, Barmes' splits are still a study in frustration as he continues to play better Baseball in Colorado. Although he might be worth a roster spot due to his upside... Barmes is no starter.

L.A Dodgers; Nomar Garciaparra: ***BRIEFLY REVIEWED IN THE 1ST BASE PIECE:
Nomah' a Shortstop no mo', the former Red Sock and Cub is now attempting to make the transition to 1st Base for his new team, the Dodgers. Garciaparra's struggle to stay healthy and on the field of play is well documented, but so too are his offensive skills. A career .320 hitter with a career SLG % of .520, the one-time stud SS whiffed a mere 24 times out of 230 total ABs last season, and over the span of his decade-long career that's been about his average; 1 strikeout for every 10 ABs.
A career .968 fielder, the move to 1st should not prove overly challenging for a ball player with Nomar's Baseball IQ and still-sharp reflexes, and as a corner-infielder he won't be expected to cover nearly as much ground. Strong 2nd half numbers ('05) indicate that IF Nomar can stay healthy, and that's a mighty big if, the skilled batsman could again produce .290/25/95 type numbers.

"Amid Season" ... REVIEWED IN MY 1st BAGGERS' PIECE!

"DEEPER SLEEPERS:

Milwaukee Brewers; J.J Hardy: An awful first half of .187/1/19 with a SLG % of .267 gave way to a new player who comfortably sprayed the ball to all fields and notched .308/8/31, with a SLG % of .503. While Hardy's probably not prepared to sustain such a white-hot pace over the span of 150+ games, a .275/14/60+ season should be in the cards. Worthy of a late round flyer, look upon Hardy as a diamond in the rough.

"Amid Season" ... OUT WITH INJURY

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim; Brandon Wood: Dude lit it UP at Rancho Cucamonga last year! Wood simply demolished opposing pitching as he mashed his way to a .321/43/115 season, with an astounding 51 Doubles, 109 Runs, and .672 SLG %.
Just 20, Wood's power potential is through the roof and his ceiling is not yet within sight. While he'll likely start the season in the minors... at some point in the not-too distant future, Wood WILL be on the big club roster. Deeper "Keeper" leaguers may wish to take a long look at "Baseball America's" #3 prospect.

"Amid Season" ... STILL IN THE MINORS

"COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR"

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim; Orlando Cabrera: In an effort to jump-start the flagging Cabrera, Angel manager Mike Scioscia yo-yo'ed the SS through the batting order. Opening the season as the 6-hitter, Cabrera drove in an unacceptable 11 RBIs in 41 games (of the '05 season) and he ultimately landed in the 2-hole with the speedy Chone Figgins batting lead-off.
Scioscia feels that Figgy' and "O-C" get the job done and set a nice table... but his optimism for the Shortstop has little statistical support. Figgy's fine as a lead-off hitter, but Cabrera's average as the "2" was .262, with a .317 OBP and a .375 SLG. It would seem that the 2nd year Angel is better suited to hit 7th or 8th; slots that appear to afford little fantasy value. Further, with 2 years left on his hefty $32 million dollar contract (hefty for HIS underwhelming production, anyway) and with elite prospects waiting in the wings (Erick Aybar and a scorching-hot Brandon Wood), it wouldn't be a shocker to see the Angels absorb a big chunk of contractual change in order to move Cabrera and promote Wood.
Nevertheless, Sciosia likes and believes in Orlando Cabrera... and my money's on Cabrera rewarding that confidence. IF... if his power numbers DO rebound a bit, Cabrera will offer solid fantasy value batting amid the still potent Angel order.
Due to his iffy production, Cabrera will likely turn into a late round (7th-8th) "Mixed Leaguer" and a mid-round "AL-Only" player, but I think he'll surprise and I am carefully projecting a .280/12/85, 25 SB season.

"Amid Season" ... I'm pleased to report that I nailed this one on the head! At the time of this writing, Cabrera is again a top-5 fantasy Shortstop, hitting an impressive .302/5/44/52, with 22 Doubles (he had 28 all of last season) and 11 Stolen Bases. Even more impressive then Cabrera resurrecting his Home Run stroke? Dude is reaching tha bags! Cabrera's safely touched 1st in 53 straight, the longest such streak since A-Rod reached base in the same number back in 2004.
As for my .280/12/85, 25 SB prediction? Looks to me like O-C will hit around .298... and match the other projections.


"PLAYERS IN DECLINE"

Detroit Tigers; Carlos Guillen: Perhaps slotting Guillen as a "Player in Decline" is too harsh a judgement. How do you assess a player whose never played a full complement of games? And yet... I see no upside here. After breaking into the league as a Mariner in '98 (and that was after a 6 years of Minor League ball), Guillen's never played more than 140 games in a season. Now 31, the injury-prone Shortstop has the potential to be a nice player with a bit more pop than he offered last season... but we'll never know just how good the multi-tooled Guillen could've been. Potential can be both compliment and curse.
The only real consistency the Tiger infielder has shown is his inability to stay healthy.
Even so, savvy owners might be willing to gamble a late mid-round pick on a 140 game, .315/15/80 guy.

"Amid Season" ... Carlos Guillen is enjoying a rock-solid .297/9/44/40, 8 SB season, and has fallen into no appreciable decline!

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